Page 20


Although Mitch knew where he must go, he delayed the terrible moment and went instead to the master bedroom.


The lights were on except for a nightstand lamp that had been knocked to the floor in a struggle, the bulb broken. The sheets were tangled. Pillows had slid off the bed.


The sleepers had been literally shocked awake.


Daniel owned a large collection of neckties, and perhaps a score were scattered across the carpet. Bright serpents of silk.


Glancing through other doors but not taking the time to inspect fully the spaces beyond, Mitch moved more purposefully to the room at the end of the shorter of the two upstairs halls.


Here the door was like all the others, but when he opened it, another door faced him. This one was heavily padded and covered with a black fabric.


Shaking badly, he hesitated. He had expected never to return here, never to cross this threshold again.


The inner door could be opened only from the hall, not from the chamber beyond. He turned the latch release. The well-fitted channels of an interlocking rubber seal parted with a sucking sound as he pushed the door inward.


Inside, there were no lamps, no ceiling fixture. He switched on the flashlight.


After Daniel himself had layered floor, walls, and ceiling with eighteen inches of various soundproofing materials, the room had been reduced to a windowless nine-foot square. The ceiling was six feet.


The black material that upholstered every surface, densely woven and without sheen, soaked up the beam of the flashlight.


Modified sensory deprivation. They had said it was a tool for discipline, not a punishment, a method to focus the mind inward toward self-discovery—a technique, not a torture. Numerous studies had been published about the wonders of one degree or another of sensory deprivation.


Daniel and Kathy lay side by side: she in her pajamas, he in his underwear. Their hands and ankles had been bound with neckties. The knots were cruelly tight, biting the flesh.


The bindings between the wrists and those between the ankles had been connected with another necktie, drawn taut, to further limit each victim's movement.


They had not been gagged. Perhaps Anson had wanted to have a conversation with them.


And screams could not escape the learning room.


Although Mitch stooped just inside the door, the aggressive silence pulled at him, as quicksand pulls what it snares, as gravity the falling object. His rapid, ragged breathing was muffled to a whispery wheeze.


He could not hear the windstorm anymore, but he was sure that the wind abided.


Looking at Kathy was harder than looking at Daniel, though not as difficult as Mitch had expected. If he could have prevented this, he would have stood between them and his brother. But now that it was done...it was done. And the heart sank rather than recoiled, and the mind fell into despondency but not into despair.


Daniel's face, eyes open, was wrenched by terror, but there was clearly puzzlement in it as well. At the penultimate moment, he must have wondered how this could be—how Anson, his one success, could be the death of him.


Systems of child-rearing and education were numberless, and no one ever died because of them, or at least not the men and women who dedicated themselves to conceiving and refining the theories.


Tasered, tied, and perhaps following a conversation, Daniel and Kathy had been stabbed. Mitch did not dwell upon the wounds.


The weapons were a pair of gardening shears and a hand trowel.


Mitch recognized them as having come from the rack of tools in his garage.


Chapter 38


Mitch closed the bodies in the learning room, and he sat at the top of the stairs to think. Fear and shock and one Red Bull weren't sufficient to clear his thoughts as fully as four hours of sleep would have done.


Battalions of wind threw themselves against the house, and the walls shuddered but withstood the siege.


Mitch could have wept if he had dared to allow himself tears, but he would not have known for whom he was crying.


He had never seen Daniel or Kathy cry. They believed in applied reason and "mutual supportive analysis" in place of easy emotion.


How could you cry for those who never cried for themselves, who talked and talked themselves through their disappointments, their misadventures, and even their bereavements?


No one who knew the truth of this family would fault him if he cried for himself, but he had not cried for himself since he was five because he had not wanted them to have the satisfaction of his tears.


He would not cry for his brother.


The wretched kind of pity that he had felt for Anson earlier was vapor now. It had not boiled away here in the learning room, but in the trunk of the vintage Chrysler.


During his drive north from Rancho Santa Fe, with four windows open to ventilate the car, he let the draft blow from him all delusion and self-deception. The brother whom he had thought he knew, had thought he loved, in fact had never existed. Mitch had loved not a real person but instead a sociopath's performance, a phantom.


Now Anson had seized the moment to take vengeance on Daniel and Kathy, pinning the crimes on his brother, whom he thought would never be found.


If Holly was not ransomed, her kidnappers would kill her and perhaps dispose of her body at sea. Mitch would take the fall for her murder—and, somehow, for the shooting of Jason Osteen.


Such a killing spree would thrill the cable-channel true-crime shows. If he was missing—in fact dead in a desert grave—the search for him would be their leading story for weeks if not for months.


In time he might become a legend like D. B. Cooper, the airline hijacker who, decades earlier, had parachuted out of a plane with a fortune in cash, never to be heard from again.


Mitch considered returning to the learning room to collect the gardening shears and the hand trowel. The thought of wrenching the blades from the bodies repulsed him. He had done worse in recent hours; but he could not do this.


Besides, clever Anson had probably salted other evidence in addition to the gardening tools. Finding it would take time, and Mitch had no time to spare.


His wristwatch read six minutes past three in the morning. In less than nine hours, the kidnappers would call Anson with further instructions.


Forty-five of the original sixty hours remained until the midnight-Wednesday deadline.


This would be over long before then. New developments required new rules, and Mitch was going to set them.


With an imitation of wolves, the wind called him into the night.


After turning off the upstairs lights, he went down to the kitchen. In the past, Daniel had always kept a box of Hershey's bars in the refrigerator. Daniel liked his chocolate cold.


The box waited on the bottom shelf, only one bar missing. These had always been Daniel's treats, off limits to everyone else.


Mitch took the entire box. He was too exhausted and too tightly knotted with anxiety to be hungry, but he hoped that sugar might substitute for sleep.


He turned out the first-floor lights and left the house by the front door.


Brooms of fallen palm fronds swept the street, and in their wake came a rolling trash can spewing its contents. Impatiens withered and shredded themselves, shrubs shook as if trying to pull themselves up by their roots, a ripped window awning—actually green, but black in this light—flapped madly like the flag of some demonic nation, the eucalyptuses gave the wind a thousand hissing voices, and it seemed as if the moon would be blown down and the stars snuffed out like candles.


In the haunted Chrysler, Mitch set out in search of Anson.


Chapter 39


Holly works at the nail even though she makes no progress with it, because if she doesn't work at the nail, she will have nothing to do, and with nothing to do, she will go mad.


For some reason, she remembers Glenn Close playing a madwoman in Fatal Attraction. Even if she were to go crazy, Holly is not capable of boiling anyone's pet bunny in a soup pot, unless of course her family is starving and has nothing to eat or the bunny is possessed by a demon. Then all bets are off.


Suddenly the nail begins to wiggle, and that's exciting. She is so excited that she almost needs the bedpan that her kidnappers left with her.


Her excitement wanes as, during the next half-hour, she manages to extract only about a quarter of an inch of the nail from the floor plank. Then it binds and won't budge farther.


Nevertheless, a quarter of an inch is better than nothing. The spike might be—what?—three inches long. Cumulatively—discounting the breaks she took for the pizza they allowed her to have, and to rest her fingers—she has spent perhaps seven hours on the nail. If she can tease it out just a little faster, at the rate of an inch a day, by the Wednesday-midnight deadline, she will have only an inch to go.


In the event that Mitch has raised the ransom by that time, they will all just have to wait another day until she extracts the damn nail.


She has always been an optimist. People have called her sunny and cheerful and buoyant and ebullient; and annoyed by her unflagging positive outlook, a sourpuss once asked her if she was the love child of Mickey Mouse and Tinkerbell.


She could have been mean and told him the truth, that her father died in a traffic accident and her mother in childbirth, that she had been raised by a grandmother rich in love and mirth.


Instead she told him Yes, but because Tink doesn't have the h*ps for childbirth, I was carried to term by Daisy Duck.


At the moment, uncharacteristically, she finds it difficult to keep her spirits up. Being kidnapped fractures your funny bone.


She has two broken fingernails, and the pads of her fingers are sore. If she hadn't wrapped them in the tail of her blouse, to pad them, while she worked on the nail, they would probably be bleeding.


In the scheme of things, these injuries are insignificant. If her captors start cutting off her fingers like they promised Mitch, that would be something to bitch about.


She takes a break from her work with the nail. She lies back on the air mattress in the dark.


Although she is exhausted, she does not expect to sleep. Then she is dreaming about being in a lightless place different from the room in which the kidnappers have imprisoned her.


In the dream, she is not tethered to a ringbolt in the floor. She is walking in darkness, carrying a bundle in her arms.


She is not in a room but in a series of passageways. A maze of tunnels. A labyrinth.


The bundle grows heavy. Her arms ache. She doesn't know what she carries, but something terrible will happen if she puts it down.


A dim glow draws her. She arrives in a chamber brightened by a single candle.


Mitch is here. She's so happy to see him. Her father and mother, whom she has never known except from photographs, are here, too.


The bundle in her arms is a sleeping baby. Her sleeping baby.


Smiling, her mother comes forward to take the baby. Holly's arms ache, but she holds fast to the precious bundle.


Mitch says Give us the baby, sweetheart. He should be with us. You don't belong here.


Her parents are dead, and so is Mitch, and when she lets go of the infant, it will not just be sleeping anymore.


She refuses to give her son to them—and then somehow it is in her mother's arms. Her father blows out the candle.


Holly wakes to a howling beast that is only the wind, but beast enough, hammering the walls, shaking dust down from the roof beams.


A soft glow, not a candle but a small flashlight, brings minimal relief from the darkness in which she has been imprisoned. It reveals the knitted black ski mask, the chapped lips, and the beryl-blue eyes of one of her keepers kneeling before her—the one who worries her.


"I've brought you candy," he says.


He holds out to her a Mr. Goodbar.


His fingers are long and white. His nails are bitten.


Holly dislikes touching anything that he has touched. Hiding her distaste, she accepts the candy bar.


"They're asleep. This is my shift." He puts on the floor in front of her a can of cola beaded with icy sweat. "You like Pepsi?"


"Yes. Thank you."


"Do you know Chamisal, New Mexico?" he asks.


He has a soft, musical voice. It could almost be a woman's voice, but not quite.


"Chamisal?" she says. "No. I've never been there."


"I've had experiences there," he says. "My life was changed."


Wind booms and something rattles on the roof, and she uses the noise as an excuse to look up, hoping to see a memorable detail of her prison for later testimony.


She was brought here in a blindfold. At the end, they came up narrow steps. She thinks she might be in an attic.


Half the lens of the small flashlight has been taped over. The ceiling remains unrevealed in gloom. The light reaches only to the nearest bare-board wall, and all else around her is lost in shadow.


They are careful.


"Have you been to Rio Lucio, New Mexico?" he asks.


"No. Not there, either."


"In Rio Lucio, there is a small stucco house painted blue with yellow trim. Why don't you eat your chocolate?"


"I'm saving it for later."


"Who knows how much time any of us has?" he asks. "Enjoy it now I like to watch you eat."


Reluctantly, she peels the wrapper off the candy bar.


"A saintly woman named Ermina Lavato lives in the blue-and-yellow stucco house in Rio Lucio. She is seventy-two."


He believes that statements like this constitute conversation. His pauses suggest that obvious rejoinders are available to Holly.


After swallowing chocolate, she says, "Is Ermina a relative?"


"No. She's of Hispanic origin. She makes exquisite chicken fajitas in a kitchen that looks like it came from the 1920s."


"I'm not much of a cook," Holly says inanely.


His gaze is riveted on her mouth, and she takes a bite from the Mr. Goodbar with the feeling that she's engaged in an obscene act.


"Ermina is very poor. The house is small but very beautiful. Each room is painted a different soothing color."


As he stares at her mouth, she returns the scrutiny, to the extent his mask allows. His teeth are yellow. The incisors are sharp, the canines unusually pointed.


"Her bedroom walls hold forty-two images of the Holy Mother."


His lips look as if they are perpetually chapped. Sometimes he chews at the loose shreds of skin when he isn't talking.


"In the living room are thirty-nine images of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, pierced by thorns."


The cracks in his lips glisten as if they might start seeping.


"In Ermina Lavato's backyard, I buried a treasure."


"As a gift for her?" Holly asks.


"No. She would not approve of what I buried. Drink your Pepsi."


She does not want to drink from a can he handled. She opens it anyway, and takes a sip.


"Do you know Penasco, New Mexico?"


"I haven't traveled much in New Mexico."

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