“Reg,” she said softly against the palms of her own hands, “you are the biggest as**ole in the world.” (One more item on the list for the next confession, besides lying and deceiving and taking God's name in vain: the repeated use of a vulgarity.) “Shit, shit, shit!” (Going to be a long confession.)
When Redlow regained consciousness, his assorted pains were so bad, they took one hundred percent of his attention. He had a violent headache to which he could have testified with such feeling in a television commercial that they would have been forced to open new aspirin factories to meet the consumer response. One eye was puffed half shut. His lips were split and swollen; they were numb and felt huge. His neck hurt, and his stomach was sore, and his testicles throbbed so fiercely from the knee he had taken in the crotch that the idea of getting up and walking sent a paroxysm of nausea through him.
Gradually he remembered what had happened to him, that the bastard had taken him by surprise. Then he realized he was not lying on the motel parking lot but sitting in a chair, and for the first time he was afraid.
He was not merely sitting in the chair. He was tied in it. Ropes bound him at chest and waist, and more ropes wound across his thighs, securing him to the seat. His arms were fixed to the arms of the chair just below his elbows and again at the wrists.
Pain had muddied his thought processes. Now fear clarified them.
Simultaneously squinting his good right eye and trying to widen his swollen left eye, he studied the darkness. For a moment he assumed he was in a room at the Blue Skies Motel, outside of which he had been running a surveillance in hope of spotting the kid. Then he recognized his own living room. He couldn't see much. No lights were on. But having lived in that house for eighteen years, he could identify the patterns of ambient night-glow at the windows, the dim shapes of the furniture, shadows among shadows of differing intensity, and the subtle but singular smell of home, which was as special and instantly identifiable to him as the odor of any particular lair to any particular wolf in the wild.
He did not feel much like a wolf tonight. He felt like a rabbit, shivering in recognition of its status as prey.
For a few seconds he thought he was alone, and he began to strain at the ropes. Then a shadow rose from other shadows and approached him.
He could see nothing more of his adversary than a silhouette. Even that seemed to melt into the silhouettes of inanimate objects, or to change as if the kid were a polymorphous creature that could assume a variety of forms. But he knew it was the kid because he sensed that difference, that alienness he had perceived the first time he had laid eyes on the bastard on Sunday, just four nights ago, at the Blue Skies.
“Comfortable, Mr. Redlow?”
Over the past three months, as he had searched for the creep, Redlow had developed a deep curiosity about him, trying to puzzle out what he wanted, what he needed, how he thought. After showing countless people the various photographs of the kid, and after spending more than a little of his own time in contemplation of them, he had been especially curious about what the voice would be like that went with that remarkably handsome yet forbidding face. It sounded nothing like he had imagined it would be, neither cold and steely like the voice of a machine designed to pass for human nor the guttural and savage snarling of a beast. Rather, it was soothing, honey-toned, with an appealing reverberant timbre.
“Mr. Redlow, sir, can you hear me?”
More than anything else, the kid's politeness and the natural formality of his speech disconcerted Redlow.
“I apologize for having been so rough with you, sir, but you really didn't give me much choice.”
Nothing in the voice indicated that the kid was being snide or mocking. He was just a boy who had been raised to address his elders with consideration and respect, a habit he could not cast off even under circumstances such as these. The detective was gripped by a primitive, superstitious feeling that he was in the presence of am entity that could imitate humanity but had nothing whatsoever in common with the human species.
Speaking through split lips, his words somewhat slurred, Morton Redlow said, “Who are you, what the hell do you want?”
“You know who I am.”
“I haven't a fu**ing clue. You blindsided me. I haven't seen your face. What—are you a bat or something? Why don't you turn on a light?”
Still only a black form, the kid moved closer, to within a few feet of the chair. “You were hired to find me.”
“I was hired to run surveillance on a guy named Kirkaby. Leonard Kirkaby. Wife thinks he's cheating on her. And he is. Brings his secretary to the Blue Skies every Thursday for some in-and-out.”
“Well, sir, that's a little hard for me to believe, you know? The Blue Skies is for low-life guys and cheap whores, not business executives and their secretaries.”
“Maybe he gets off on the sleaziness of it, treating the girl like a whore. Who the hell knows, huh? Anyway, you sure aren't Kirkaby. I know his voice. He doesn't sound anything like you. Not as young as you, either. Besides, he's a piece of puff pastry. He couldn't have handled me the way you did,”
The kid was quiet for a while. Just staring down at Redlow. Then he began to pace. In the dark. Unhesitating, never bumping into furniture. Like a restless cat, except his eyes didn't glow.
Finally he said, “So what're you saying, sir? That this is all just a big mistake?”
Redlow knew his only chance of staying alive was to convince the kid of the lie—that a guy named Kirkaby had a letch for his secretary, and a bitter wife seeking evidence for a divorce. He just didn't know what tone to take to sell the story. With most people, Redlow had an unerring sense of which approach would beguile them and make them accept even the wildest proposition as the truth. But the kid was different; he didn't think or react like ordinary people.
Redlow decided to play it tough. “Listen, as**ole, I wish I did know who you are or at least what the hell you look like, 'cause once this was finished, I'd come after you and bash your fuckin' head in.”
The kid was silent for a while, mulling it over.
Then he said, “All right, I believe you.”
Redlow sagged with relief, but sagging made all of his pains worse, so he tensed his muscles and sat up straight again.
“Too bad, but you just aren't right for my collection,” the kid said.
“Not enough life in you.”
“What're you talking about?” Redlow asked.
The conversation was taking a turn Redlow didn't understand, which made him uneasy.
“Excuse me, sir, no offense meant, but you're getting too old for this kind of work.”
Don't I know it, Redlow thought. He realized that, aside from one initial tug, he had not again tested the ropes that bound him. Only a few years ago, he would have quietly but steadily strained against them, trying to stretch the knots. Now he was passive.
“You're a muscular man, but you've gone a little soft, you've got a gut on you, and you're slow. From your driver's license, I see you're fifty-four, you're getting up there. Why do you still do it, keep hanging in there?”
“It's all I've got,” Redlow said, and he was alert enough to be surprised by his own answer. He had meant to say, It's all I know.
“Well, yessir, I can see that,” the kid said, looming over him in the darkness. “You've been divorced twice, no kids, and no woman lives with you right now. Probably hasn't been one living with you for years. Sorry, but I was snooping around the house while you were out cold, even though I knew it wasn't really right of me. Sorry. But I just wanted to get a handle on you, try to understand what you get out of this.”
Redlow said nothing because he couldn't understand where all of this was leading. He was afraid of saying the wrong thing, and setting the kid off like a bottle rocket. The son of a bitch was insane. You never knew what might light the fuse on a nutcase like him. The kid had been through some analysis of his own over the years, and now he seemed to want to analyze Redlow, for reasons even he probably could not have explained. Maybe it was best to just let him rattle on, get it out of his system.
“Is it money, Mr. Redlow?”
“You mean, do I make any?”
“That's what I mean, sir.”
“I do okay.”
“You don't drive a great car or wear expensive clothes.”
“I'm not into flash,” Redlow said.
“No offense, sir, but this house isn't much.”
“Maybe not, but there's no mortgage on it.”
The kid was right over him, slowly leaning farther in with each question, as if he could see Redlow in the lightless room and was intently studying facial tics and twitches as he questioned him. Weird. Even in the dark, Redlow could sense the kid bending closer, closer, closer.
“No mortgage on it,” the kid said thoughtfully. “Is that your reason for working, for living? To be able to say you paid off a mortgage on a dump like this?”
Redlow wanted to tell him to go f*ck himself, but suddenly he was not so sure that playing tough was a good idea, after all.
“Is that what life's all about, sir? Is that all it's about? Is that why you find it so precious, why you're so eager to hold on to it? Is that why you life-lovers struggle to go on living—just to acquire a pitiful pile of belongings, so you can go out of the game a winner? I'm sorry, sir, but I just don't understand that. I don't understand at all.”
The detective's heart was pounding too hard. It slammed painfully against his bruised ribs. He hadn't treated his heart well over the years, too many hamburgers, too many cigarettes, too much beer and bourbon. What was the crazy kid trying to do—talk him to death, scare him to death?
“I'd imagine you have some clients who don't want it on record that they ever hired you, they pay in cash. Would that be a valid assumption, sir?”
Redlow cleared his throat and tried not to sound frightened. “Yeah. Sure. Some of them.”
“And part of winning the game would be to keep as much of that money as you could, avoiding taxes on it, which would mean never putting it in a bank.”
The kid was so close now that the detective could smell his breath. For some reason he had expected it to be sour, vile. But it smelled sweet, like chocolate, as if the kid had been eating candy in the dark.
“So I'd imagine you have a nice little stash here in the house somewhere. Is that right, sir?”
A warm quiver of hope caused a diminishment of the cold chills that had been chattering through Redlow for the past few minutes. If it was about money, he could deal with that. It made sense. He could understand the kid's motivation, and could see a way to get through the evening alive.
“Yeah,” the detective said. “There's money. Take it. Take it and go. In the kitchen, there's a waste can with a plastic bag for a liner. Lift out the bag of trash, there's a brown paper bag full of cash under it, in the bottom of the can.”
Something cold and rough touched the detective's right cheek, and he flinched from it.
“Pliers,” the kid said, and the detective felt the jaws take a grip on his flesh.
“What're you doing?”
The kid twisted the pliers.
Redlow cried out in pain. “Wait, wait, stop it, shit, please, stop it, no!”
The kid stopped. He took the pliers away. He said, “I'm sorry, sir, but I just want you to understand that if there isn't any cash in the trash can, I won't be happy. I'll figure if you lied to me about this, you lied to me about everything.”
“It's there,” Redlow assured him hastily.
“It's not nice to lie, sir. It's not good. Good people don't lie. That's what they teach you, isn't it, sir?”
“Go, look, you'll see it's there,” Redlow said desperately.
The kid went out of the living room, through the dining room archway. Soft footsteps echoed through the house from the tile floor of the kitchen. A clatter and rustle arose as the garbage bag was pulled out of the waste can.
Already damp with perspiration, Redlow began to gush sweat as he listened to the kid return through the pitch-black house. He appeared in the living room again, partly silhouetted against the pale-gray rectangle of a window.
“How can you see?” the detective asked, dismayed to hear a faint note of hysteria in his voice when he was struggling so hard to maintain control of himself. He was getting old. “What—are you wearing night-vision glasses or something, some military hardware? How in the hell would you get your hands on anything like that?”
Ignoring him, the kid said, “There isn't much I want or need, just food and changes of clothes. The only money I get is when I make an addition to my collection, whatever she happens to be carrying. Sometimes it's not much, only a few dollars. This is really a help. It really is. This much should last me as long as it takes for me to get back to where I belong. Do you know where I belong, Mr. Redlow?”
The detective did not answer. The kid had dropped down below the windows, out of sight. Redlow was squinting into the gloom, trying to detect movement and figure where he had gone.
“You know where I belong, Mr. Redlow?” the kid repeated.
Redlow heard a piece of furniture being shoved aside. Maybe an end table beside the sofa.
“I belong in Hell,” the kid said. “I was there for a while. I want to go back. What kind of life have you led, Mr. Redlow? Do you think, when I go back to Hell, that maybe I'll see you over there?”
“What're you doing?” Redlow asked.
“Looking for an electrical outlet,” the kid said as he shoved aside another piece of furniture. “Ah, here we go.”
“Electrical outlet?” Redlow asked agitatedly. “Why?”
A frightening noise cut through the darkness: zzzzrrrrrrrrrr.
“What was that?” Redlow demanded.
“Just testing, sir.”
“You've got all sorts of pots and pans and gourmet utensils out there in the kitchen, sir. I guess you're really into cooking, are you?” The kid rose up again, appearing against the backdrop of the dim ash-gray glow in the window glass. “The cooking—was that an interest before the second divorce, or more recent?”
“What were you testing?” Redlow asked again.
The kid approached the chair.
“There's more money,” Redlow said frantically. He was soaked in sweat now. It was running down him in rivulets. “In the master bedroom.” The kid loomed over him again, a mysterious and inhuman form. He seemed to be darker than anything around him, a black hole in the shape of a man, blacker than black. “In the c-closet. There's a w-w-wooden floor.” The detective's bladder was suddenly full. It had blown up like a balloon all in an instant. Bursting. “Take out the shoes and crap. Lift up the back f-f-floorboards.” He was going to piss himself. “There's a cash box. Thirty thousand dollars. Take it. Please. Take it and go.”