Page 19

He returned to the bodies and relieved them of their wallets to make identification more difficult. He was becoming less squeamish about handling them—and his new attitude disturbed him.

After dragging the dead men farther from the road, he interred them in a tight grove of waist-high manzanita. Shrouds of leathery leaves concealed them from easy discovery.

Although the desert seems hostile to life, many species thrive in it, and a number are carrion eaters. Within an hour, the first of these would be drawn to the double treat in the manzanita.

Some were beetles like the one that the gunmen had taken care not to crush underfoot as they had led him along the car-pavilion loggia.

In the morning, the desert heat would begin to do its work as well, significantly hastening the process of decomposition.

If they were ever found, their names might never be known. And which of them suffered terrible acne scars and which had a smooth face would matter to no one, and count for nothing.

In the car pavilion, as they had been closing him into the trunk of the Chrysler, he had said / wish we didn't have to do this.

Well, said the one with the smooth skin, that's how it is.

Another shooting star drew his attention to the deep clear sky. A brief bright scar, and then the heavens healed.

He returned to the car and closed the trunk lid.

Having gotten the best of two experienced killers, perhaps he should have felt empowered, proud, and fierce. Instead, he had been further humbled.

To spare himself the stench of blood, he rolled down the windows in all four doors of the Chrysler Windsor.

The engine started at once: a full-throated song of power. He switched on the headlights.

He was relieved to see that the fuel gauge indicated the tank was nearly three-quarters full. He didn't want to stop at any public place, not even at a self-service station.

He had turned the car around and driven four miles on the dirt road when, topping a rise, he came upon a sight that caused him to brake to a stop.

To the south, in a shallow bowl of land, lay a lake of mercury with concentric rings of sparkling diamonds floating on it, moving slowly to the currents of a lazy whirlpool, as majestic as a spiral galaxy.

For a moment the scene was so unreal that he thought it must be a hallucination or a vision. Then he understood that it was a field of grass, perhaps squirreltail with its plumelike flower spikes and silky awns.

The moonlight silvered the spikes and struck sparkles from the high sheen of the awns. A wind eddy, the laziest of spiral breezes, pulsed around the bowl of land with such grace and consistent timing that, were there music for this dance of grass, it would be a waltz.

In mere grass was hidden meaning, but the stink of blood brought him back from the mystic to the mundane.

He continued to the end of the dirt road and turned right because he recalled that they had turned left on the way here. The paved roads were well marked, and he returned not to the Campbell estate—which he hoped he would not see again—but to the interstate.

Post-midnight traffic was light. He drove north, never faster than five miles per hour above the speed limit, an excess that the law rarely punished.

The Chrysler Windsor was a beautiful machine. Seldom do dead men return to haunt the living in such style.

Chapter 36

Mitch arrived in the city of Orange at 2:20 a.m., and parked on a street that was a block away from the one on which his house stood.

He rolled up the four windows and locked the Chrysler.

With his shirttail pulled out to conceal it, he carried a pistol under his belt. The weapon had belonged to the smooth-faced gunman who, having said Die, failed to find the strength to flex his trigger finger one last time. It contained eight cartridges; Mitch hoped that he would not need any of them.

He was parked under an old jacaranda in full flower, and when he moved into the light from the street lamp, he saw that he walked on a carpet of purple petals.

Warily, he approached his property along the alleyway behind it.

A rattling induced him to switch on his flashlight. From between two trash cans that had been set out for morning collection, a city-adapted possum, like a large pale-faced rat, twitched its pink nose.

Mitch clicked off the light and proceeded to his garage. The gate at the corner of the building was never locked. He passed through it into the backyard.

His house keys, with his wallet and other personal items, had been confiscated in Campbell's library.

He kept a spare key in a small key safe that was padlocked to a ringbolt low on the garage wall, concealed behind a row of azaleas.

Risking the flashlight but hooding it with his fingers, Mitch parted the azaleas. He dialed in the combination, disengaged the lock, plucked the key from the safe, and switched off the light.

Making not a sound, he let himself into the garage, which was keyed to match the house.

The moon had traveled westward; and trees let little of that light through the windows. He stood in the dark, listening.

Either the silence convinced him that he was alone or the darkness reminded him too much of the car trunk that he had twice escaped, and he switched on the garage lights.

His truck was where he had left it. The Honda's space was empty.

He climbed the stairs to the loft. The boxes were still stacked to disguise the gap in the railing.

At the front of the loft, he discovered that the recorder and electronic surveillance gear were gone. One of the kidnappers must have come to collect the equipment.

He wondered what they thought had happened to John Knox. He worried that Knox's disappearance had already had consequences for Holly.

When a fit of tremors shook him, he forced his mind away from that dark speculation.

He was not a machine, and neither was she. Their lives had meaning, they had been brought together by destiny for a purpose, and they would fulfill their purpose.

He had to believe that was true. Without it, he had nothing.

Leaving the garage dark, he entered the house through the back door, confident that the place was no longer watched.

The staged murder scene in the kitchen remained as he had last seen it. The spattered blood, dry now. Hand prints on the cabinetry.

In the adjacent laundry room, he took off his shoes and examined them in the fluorescent light. He was surprised to find no blood.

His socks were not stained, either. He stripped them off anyway and threw them in the washing machine.

He found small smears on his shirt and jeans. In the shirt pocket, he found Detective Taggart's card. He saved the card, tossed the clothes in the machine, added soap, and started the wash cycle.

Standing at the laundry sink, he scrubbed his hands and forearms with soap and a soft-bristle brush. He wasn't washing away evidence. Perhaps certain memories were what he hoped to flush down the drain.

With a wet rag, he wiped his face, his neck.

His weariness was profound. He needed rest, but he had no time for sleep. Anyway, if he tried to sleep, his mind would be ridden by dreads both known and nameless, would be ridden hard in circles, howling, to wide-eyed exhaustion.

In shoes and underwear, carrying the pistol, he returned to the kitchen. From the refrigerator, he got a can of Red Bull, a high-caffeine drink, and chugged it.

Finishing the Red Bull, he saw Holly's purse open on a nearby counter. It had been there earlier in the day.

Earlier, however, he had not taken time to notice the debris scattered on the counter beside the purse. A wadded cellophane wrapper. A small box, the top torn open. A pamphlet of instructions.

Holly had bought a home pregnancy-test kit. She had opened it and evidently had used it, sometime between when he had left for work and when the kidnappers had taken her.

Sometimes as a child in the learning room, when you have spoken to no one for a long time, nor heard a voice other than your muffled own, and when you have been denied food—though never water—for as much as three days, when for a week or two you have seen no light except for the brief daily interruption when your urine bottles and waste bucket are traded for fresh containers, you reach a point where the silence and the darkness seem not like conditions any longer but like objects with real mass, objects that share the room with you and, growing by the hour, demand more space, until they press on you from all sides, the silence and the darkness, and weigh on you from above, squeezing you into a cubic minim that your body can occupy only if it is condensed like an automobile compressed by a junkyard ram. In the horror of that extreme claustrophobia, you tell yourself that you cannot endure another minute, but you do, you endure another minute, another, another, an hour, a day, you endure, and then the door opens,

the banishment ends, and there is light, there is always eventually light.

Holly had not revealed that her period was overdue. False hopes had been raised twice before. She had wanted to be sure this time before telling him.

Mitch had not believed in destiny; now he did. And if a man believes in destiny, after all, he must believe in one that is golden, one that shines. He will not wait to see what he is served, damn if he will. He'll butter his bread thick with fate and eat the whole loaf.

Carrying the pistol, he hurried to the bedroom. The switch by the door turned on one of two bedside lamps.

With single-minded purpose, he went to the closet. The door stood open.

His clothes were disarranged. Two pair of jeans had slipped from their hangers and lay on the closet floor.

He didn't remember having left the closet in this condition, but he snatched a pair of jeans from the floor and pulled them on.

Shrugging into a dark-blue long-sleeved cotton shirt, he turned from the closet and for the first time saw the clothes strewn on the bed. A pair of khakis, a yellow shirt, white athletic socks, white briefs and T-shirt.

They were his clothes. He recognized them.

They were mottled with dark blood.

By now he knew the look of planted evidence. Some new outrage was to be hung around his neck.

He retrieved the pistol from the closet shelf where he had put it while dressing.

The door stood open to the dark bathroom.

Like a dowser's divining rod, the pistol guided him to that darkness. Crossing the threshold, he flipped the light switch and with bated breath stepped into the bathroom brightness.

He expected to find something grotesque in the shower or a severed something in the sink. But all was normal.

His face in the mirror was clenched with dread, as tight as a fist, but his eyes were as wide as they had ever been and were no longer blind to anything.

Returning to the bedroom, he noticed something out of place on the nightstand with the extinguished lamp. He clicked the switch.

Two colorful polished spheres of dinosaur dung stood there on small bronze stands.

Although they were opaque, they made him think of crystal balls and sinister fortunetellers in old movies, predicting dire fates.

"Anson," Mitch whispered, and then a word uncommon to him, "My God. Oh, God."

Chapter 37

The hard winds that came out of the eastern mountains were usually born with the rising or setting of the sun. Now, many hours after sunset, and hours before sunrise, a strong spring wind suddenly blew down upon the lowlands as if it had burst through a great door.

Along the alleyway where wind whistled, to the Chrysler, Mitch hurried but with the hesitant heart of a man making the short journey from his cell on death row to the execution chamber.

He didn't take time to roll down the windows. As he drove, he opened only the one in the driver's door.

A gruff wind huffed at him, pawed his hair, its breath warm and insistent.

Insane men lack self-control. They see conspiracies all around them and reveal their lunacy in irrational anger, in ludicrous fears. Genuinely insane men don't know they are deranged, and therefore they see no need to wear a mask.

Mitch wanted to believe that his brother was insane. If Anson was instead acting with cold-blooded calculation, he was a monster. If you had admired and loved a monster, your gullibility should shame you. Worse, it seemed that by your willingness to be deceived, you empowered the monster. You shared at least some small portion of the responsibility for his crimes.

Anson did not lack self-control. He never spoke of conspiracies. He feared nothing. As for masks, he had an aptitude for misdirection, a talent for disguise, a genius for deception. He was not insane.

Along the night streets, queen palms thrashed, like madwomen in frenzies tossing their hair, and bottle-brush trees shed millions of scarlet needles that were the petals of their exotic flowers.

The land rose, and low hills rolled into higher hills, and in the wind were scraps of paper, leaves, kiting pages from newspapers, a large transparent plastic bag billowing along like a jellyfish.

His parents' house was the only one on the block with lights in the windows.

Perhaps he should have been discreet, but he parked in the driveway. He put up the window, left the pistol in the car, brought the flashlight.

Filled with voices of chaos, rich with the smell of eucalyptus, the wind lashed the walkway with tree shadows.

He did not ring the doorbell. He had no false hope, only an awful need to know.

As he had thought it might be, the house was unlocked. He stepped into the foyer and closed the door behind him.

To his left, to his right, an uncountable number of Mitches receded from him in a mirror world, all of them with a ghastly expression, all of them lost.

The house was not silent, for the wind gibbered at windows, groaned in the eaves, and eucalyptus trailers scourged the walls.

In Daniel's study, a spectacle of shattered glass display shelves glittered on the floor, and scattered everywhere were the colorful polished spheres, as if a poltergeist had played billiards with them.

Room by room, Mitch searched the first floor, turning on lights where they were off. In truth, he expected to find nothing more on this level of the big house, and he did not. He told himself that he was just being thorough. But he knew that he was delaying his ascent to the second floor.

At the stairs, he gazed up, and heard himself say, "Daniel," but not loud, and "Kathy," no louder.

For what awaited Mitch, he should have had to descend. Climbing to it seemed all wrong. Sepulchers are not constructed at the tops of towers.

As he climbed, nature's long exhale grew more fierce. Windows thrummed. Roof beams creaked.

In the upstairs hall, a black object lay on the polished wood floor: the shape of an electric razor but a bit larger. The business end featured a four-inch-wide gap between two gleaming metal pegs.

He hesitated, then picked it up. On the side of the thing was a seesaw switch. When he pressed it, a jagged white arc of electricity snapped between the metal pegs, the poles.

This was a Taser, a self-defense weapon. Chances were that Daniel and Kathy had not used it to defend themselves.

More likely, Anson had brought it with him and had assaulted them with it. A jolt from a Taser can disable a man for minutes, leave him helpless, muscles spasming as his nerves misfire.

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