Page 11

Throughout their beleaguered childhood, Anson had been the reliable rope that kept Mitch tethered to a mooring. Always it was Anson who raised the sails of hope when there seemed to be no wind to fill them.

To his brother, he owed the peace of mind and the happiness that eventually he had found when at last free of his parents, the lightness of spirit that had made it possible for him to win Holly as a wife.

"You've set me up," Mitch said. "If whatever you want me to do goes wrong, you've set me up to make it look as if I killed my wife."

"The noose is even tighter than you realize, Mitch."

They might be wondering about John Knox, but they didn't know that he was dead in the trunk of the Honda. A dead conspirator was some proof of the story Mitch could tell the authorities.

Or was it? He had not considered all the ways that the police might interpret Knox's death, perhaps most of them more incriminating than exculpatory.

"My point," Mitch said, "is that you'll do the same to Anson. You'll wrap him in chains of circumstantial evidence to keep him cooperative. It's how you work."

"None of that will matter if the two of you do what we want, and you get her back."

"But it isn't fair," Mitch protested, and realized that he must in fact sound as ingenuous and credulous as an altar boy.

The kidnapper laughed. "And by contrast, you feel we've dealt fairly with you? Is that it?"

Clenched around the pistol, his hand had grown cold and moist.

"Would you rather we spared your brother and partnered you with Iggy Barnes?"

"Yes," Mitch said, and was at once embarrassed to have been so quick to sacrifice an innocent friend to save a loved one.

"And that would be fair to Mr. Barnes?"

Mitch's father believed that shame had no social usefulness, that it was a signature of the superstitious mind, and that a person of reason, living a rational life, must be free of it. He believed, as well, that the capacity for shame could be expunged by education.

In Mitch's case, the old man had failed miserably, at least on this score. Although the thug on the phone was the only witness to this willingness to save a brother at the expense of a friend, Mitch felt his face turn warm with shame.

"Mr. Barnes," the kidnapper said, "is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. If for no other reason, your friend would not be an acceptable substitute for your brother. Now go to Anson's house and wait for our call."

Resigned to this development but sick with despair that his brother must be imperiled, Mitch said, "What should I tell him?"

"Absolutely nothing. I'm requiring yon to tell him nothing. I am the experienced handler, not you. When I call, I'll let him hear Holly scream, and then explain the facts."

Alarmed, he said, "That's not necessary, making her scream. t promised not to hurt her."

"I promised not to rape her, Mitch. Nothing you say to your brother will be as convincing as her scream. I know better than you how to do this."

His cold, sweaty grip on the pistol was problematic. When his hand began to shake, he put the weapon on the passenger's seat once more.

"What if Anson isn't home?"

"He's home. Get moving, Mitch. It's rush hour. You don't want to be late getting to Newport Beach."

The kidnapper terminated the call.

When Mitch pressed the end button on his phone, the act felt grimly predictive.

He shut his eyes for a moment, trying to gather his unraveled nerves, but then opened them because he felt vulnerable with them closed.

When he started the engine, a flock of crows flew up from the pavement, from the shadow of the steeple to the steeple itself.

Chapter 19

Famous for its yacht harbor, its mansions, and its wonderland of upscale shopping, Newport Beach was not home exclusively to the fabulously wealthy. Anson lived in the Corona del Mar district, in the front half of a two-unit condo.

Shaded by a massive magnolia, approached by a used-brick path, with New England architecture as interpreted by a swooning romantic, the house did not impress, but it charmed.

The door chimes played a few bars of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy."

Anson arrived before Mitch pressed the bell push a second time.

Although as fit as an athlete, Anson was a different physical type from Mitch: bearish, barrel-chested, bull-necked. That he had been a star quarterback in high school testified to his quickness and agility, for he looked more like a middle linebacker.

His handsome, broad, open face seemed always to be anticipating a reason to smile. At the sight of Mitch, he grinned.

"Fratello mio!" Anson exclaimed, embracing his brother and drawing him into the house. "Entrino! Entrino!"

The air was redolent of garlic, onions, bacon.

"Cooking Italian?" Mitch asked.

"Bravissimo, fratello piccolo! From a mere aroma and my bad Italian, you make a brilliant deduction. Let me hang up your coat."

Mitch had not wanted to leave the pistol in the car. The gun was tucked under his belt, in the small of his back.

"No," he said. "I'm fine. I'll keep it."

"Come to the kitchen. I was in a funk at the prospect of another dinner alone."

"If you're immune to funk," Mitch said.

"There is no such thing as funk antibodies, little brother."

The house featured a masculine but stylish decor, emphasizing nautical decorative items. Paintings of sailing ships portrayed proud vessels tossed in storms and others making way under radiant skies.

From childhood, Anson had believed that perfect freedom could never be found on land, only at sea, under sail.

He'd been a fan of pirate yarns, stories of naval battles, and tales of adventure on the bounty. He'd read many of them aloud to Mitch, who had sat enthralled for hours.

Daniel and Kathy suffered motion sickness in a rowboat on a pond. Their aversion to the sea had been the first thing to inspire Anson's interest in the nautical life.

In the cozy, fragrant kitchen, he pointed to a pot steaming on the stove. "Zuppa massaia."

"What kind of soup is massaia?"

"Classic housewife's soup. Lacking a wife, I have to get in touch with my feminine side when I want to make it."

Sometimes Mitch found it hard to believe that a pair as leaden as their parents could have produced a son as buoyant as Anson.

The kitchen clock read 7:24. A traffic backup from an accident had delayed him.

On the table stood a bottle of Chianti Classico and a half-full glass. Anson opened a cabinet, plucked another glass from a shelf.

Mitch almost declined the wine. But one round would not dull his wits and might restore some elasticity to his brittle nerves.

As Anson poured the Chianti, he did a fair imitation of their father's voice. "Yes, I'm pleased to see you, Mitch, though I didn't notice your name on the visiting-progeny schedule, and I had planned to spend this evening tormenting guinea pigs in an electrified maze."

Accepting the Chianti, Mitch said, "I just came from there."

"That explains your subdued manner and your gray complexion." Anson raised his glass in a toast. "La dolce vita."

"To your new deal with China," Mitch said.

"Was I used as a needle again?"

"Always. But he can't push hard enough to puncture me anymore. Sounds like a big opportunity."

"The China thing? He must've hyped what I told him. They aren't dissolving the Communist Party and giving me the emperor's throne."

Anson's consulting work was so arcane that Mitch had never been able to understand it. He had earned a doctorate in linguistics, the science of language, but he also had a deep background in computer languages and in digitalization theory, whatever that might be.

"Every time I leave their place," Mitch said, "I feel the need to dig in the dirt, work with my hands, something."

"They make you want to flee to something real."

"That's it exactly. This wine's good."

"After the soup, we're having lombo dimaiale con castagne."

"I can't digest what I can't pronounce."

"Roast loin of pork with chestnuts," Anson said.

"Sounds good, but I don't want dinner."

"There's plenty. The recipe serves six. I don't know how to cut it down, so I always make it for six."

Mitch glanced at the windows. Good—the blinds were shut.

From the counter near the kitchen phone, he picked up a pen and a notepad. "Have you gotten any sailing in lately?"

Anson dreamed of one day owning a sailing yacht. It should be large enough not to seem claustrophobic on a long coastal run or perhaps even on a voyage to Hawaii, but small enough to be managed with one mate and an array of sail motors.

He used the word mate to mean his fellow sailor but also his companion in bed. Regardless of his bearish appearance and sometimes acerbic sense of humor, Anson was a romantic not just about the sea but also about the opposite sex.

The attraction women felt for him could not be called merely magnetic. He drew them as the gravity of the moon pulls the tides.

Yet he was no Don Juan. With great charm, he turned away most of his pursuers. And each one that he hoped might be his ideal woman always seemed to break his heart, though he would not have put it that melodramatically.

The small boat—an eighteen-foot American Sail—that he currently moored at a buoy in the harbor was by no measure a yacht. But given his luck at love, he might one day own the vessel of his dreams long before he found someone with whom to sail it.

In answer to Mitch's question, he said, "I haven't had time to do more than bob the harbor like a duck, tacking the channels."

Sitting at the kitchen table, printing in block letters on the notepad, Mitch said, "I should have a hobby. If you've got sailing, and the old man has dinosaur crap."

He tore off the top sheet of the pad and pushed it across the table so that Anson, still standing, could read it: YOUR HOUSE IS PROBABLY BUGGED.

His brother's look of astonishment had a quality of wonder that Mitch recognized as similar to the expression that had overtaken him when he had read aloud the pirate yarns and the tales of heroic naval battles that thrilled him as a boy. His initial reaction seemed to be that some strange adventure had begun, and he appeared not to grasp the implied danger.

To cover Anson's stunned silence, Mitch said, "He just bought a new specimen. He says it's a ceratosaurus dropping. From Colorado, the Upper Jurassic."

He presented another sheet of paper on which he had printed THEY'RE SERIOUS. I SAW THEM KILL A MAN.

While Anson read, Mitch withdrew his cell phone from an inside coat pocket and placed it on the table. "Given our family history, it'll be so appropriate—inheriting a collection of polished shit."

As Anson pulled out a chair and sat at the table, his boyish expression of expectation clouded with worry. He assisted in the pretense of an ordinary conversation: "How many does he have now?"

"He told me. I don't remember. You could say the den's become a sewer."

"Some of the spheres are pretty things."

"Very pretty," Mitch agreed as he printed THEY'LL CALL AT 7:30.

Mystified, Anson mouthed the questions Who? What?

Mitch shook his head. He indicated the wall clock—7:27.

They conducted a self-conscious and inane conversation until the phone rang promptly on the half-hour. The ring came not from Mitch's cell but from the kitchen phone.

Anson looked to him for guidance.

In the event, which seemed likely, that the timing of this call was coincidental and that the expected contact would come on the cell phone, Mitch indicated that his brother should answer it.

Anson caught it on the third ring and brightened when he heard the caller's voice. "Holly!"

Mitch closed his eyes, bent his head, covered his face with his hands, and from Anson's reaction, knew when Holly screamed.

Chapter 20

Mitch expected to be brought into the call, but the kidnapper spoke only to Anson, and for longer than three minutes.

The substance of the first part of the conversation was obvious, and could be deduced from hearing his brother's half of it. The last couple of minutes proved not easy to follow, in part because Anson's responses grew shorter even as his tone of voice became more grim.

When Anson hung up, Mitch said, "What do they want us to do?"

Instead of answering, Anson came to the table and picked up the bottle of Chianti. He topped off his glass.

Mitch was surprised to see that his own glass was empty. He could recall having taken only a sip or two. He declined a refill.

Pouring in spite of Mitch's protest, Anson said, "If your heart's in the same gear as mine, you'll burn off two glasses of this stuff even as you're swallowing it."

Mitch's hands were trembling, though not from the effect of Chianti, and in fact the wine might steady them.

"And Mickey?" Anson said.

Mickey had been an affectionate nickname that Anson had called his younger brother during a particularly difficult period of their childhood.

When Mitch looked up from his unsteady hands, Anson said, "Nothing will happen to her. I promise you, Mickey. I swear nothing will happen to Holly. Nothing."

Through the formative years of Mitch's life, his brother had been a trustworthy pilot, bringing them through storms, or a wingman flying defense as it was needed. He seemed overreaching now, however, when he promised a safe landing, for surely Holly's kidnappers controlled this flight.

"What do they want us to do?" he asked again. "Is it even possible, is it something that can be done, or is it as crazy as it seemed to me the moment I first heard him demand two million?"

Instead of replying, Anson sat down. Leaning forward, shoulders hunched, beefy arms on the table, the wineglass all but concealed by his large hands, he was an imposing presence.

He still looked bearish but no longer cuddly. The women usually drawn to him as the tides to the moon, upon seeing him in this mood, would take a wide orbit around him.

This particular set to Anson's jaw, the flare of his nostrils, a perceived change in his eyes from a soft seawater green to an emerald hardness heartened Mitch. He knew this look. This was Anson rising to meet injustice, which always brought out in him a stubborn, effective resistance.

Although relieved to have his brother's assistance, Mitch felt guilty, too. "I'm sorry about this. Man, I never anticipated you'd be dragged into it. I was blindsided by that. I'm sorry."

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