Page 26


"One-half of one percent of men are pedophiles," Anson said. "In the U.S.—one and a half million. And millions of others worldwide."


In this bright white room, Mitch felt on the threshold of a darkness, a terrible gate opening before him, and no turning back.


"Pedophiles are eager consumers of child pornography,"


Anson continued. "Though they might be buying it through a police sting operation that will destroy them, they risk everything to get it."


Who did Hitler's work, Stalin's, Mao Tse-tung's? Neighbors did the work, friends, mothers and fathers did the work, and brothers.


"If the stuff comes in the form of dull text about the history of British theater and converts into exciting pictures and even video, if they can get their need filled safely, their appetite becomes insatiable."


Mitch had left the pistol on the kitchen table. Perhaps he had unconsciously suspected some outrage like this and had not trusted himself with the weapon.


"Campbell has two hundred thousand customers. In two years, he expects a million worldwide, and revenues of five billion dollars."


Mitch remembered the scrambled eggs and toast he had made in this creature's kitchen, and his stomach curdled at the thought of having eaten off plates, with utensils, that those hands had touched.


"Profit on gross sales is sixty percent. The adult performers do it for the fun. The young stars aren't paid. What do they need with money at their age? And I've got a little piece of Julian's business. I told you I have eight million, but it's three times that much."


The laundry room was intolerably crowded. Mitch sensed that in addition to him and his brother, unseen legions were attendant.


"Bro, I just wanted you to understand how filthy the money is that's going to buy Holly. The rest of your life, when you kiss her, touch her, you're going to think about the source of all that dirty, dirty money."


Chained helpless to the chair, sitting in urine, soaked in the fear sweat that earlier the darkness had wrung from him, Anson raised his head defiantly and thrust out his chest, and his eyes shone with triumph, as though having done what he had done, having facilitated Campbell's vile enterprise, was payment enough, that having had the opportunity to serve the appetite of the depraved at the expense of the innocent was all the reward he would need to sustain him through his current humiliation and through the personal ruination to come.


Some might call this madness, but Mitch knew its real name.


"I'm leaving," he announced, for there was nothing else to be said that would matter.


"Taser me," Anson demanded, as if to assert that Mitch did not have the power to hurt him in any lasting way.


"The deal we made?" Mitch said. "Screw it."


He switched out the lights and pulled shut the door. Because there are forces against which it is wise to take extra—and even irrational—precautions, he wedged the door shut with a chair. He might have nailed it shut, as well, if he'd had time.


He wondered if he would ever feel clean again.


A fit of the shakes took him. He felt as if he would be sick.


At the sink, he splashed cold water in his face.


The doorbell rang.


Chapter 52


The chimes played a few bars of "Ode to Joy." Only minutes had passed since Julian Campbell terminated their phone call. Five billion a year in revenues was a treasure that he would do anything to protect, but he couldn't have gotten a fresh pair of gunmen to Anson's place this quickly.


Mitch cranked off the water at the sink and, face dripping, tried to think if there was any reason he should risk checking on the identity of the visitor through a living-room window. His imagination failed him.


Time to get out of here.


He grabbed the trash bag that held the ransom and plucked the pistol off the table. He headed for the back door.


The Taser. He had left it on a counter by the ovens. He returned for it.


Again the unknown visitor rang the bell.


"Who's that?" Anson asked from the laundry room.


"The postman. Now shut up."


Nearing the back door once more, Mitch remembered his brother's cell phone. It had been on the table beside the ransom, yet he had grabbed the bag and left the phone.


Julian Campbell's call, Anson's hideous revelations, and the doorbell, coming one on the heels of the other, had rocked him off balance.


After retrieving the cell phone, Mitch turned in a circle, surveying the kitchen. As far as he could tell, he had forgotten nothing else.


He turned off the lights, stepped out of the house, and locked the door behind him.


The inexhaustible wind played chase-and-hide with itself among the ferns and bamboo. Leathery, wind-seared banyan leaves, blown in from another property, scrabbled this way and that across the patio, scratching at the bricks.


Mitch went to the first of the two garages, entering by the courtyard door. Here his Honda waited, and John Knox ripened in the back of the Buick Super Woody Wagon.


He'd had a vague plan for hanging Knox's death around Anson's neck at the same time that he extricated himself from the setup for Daniel's and Kathy's murders. But Campbell's looming reentry into the situation left him feeling that he was roller-skating on ice, and the vague plan was now no plan at all.


None of that mattered at the moment anyway. When Holly was safe, John Knox and the bodies in the learning room and Anson handcuffed to the chair would matter again, and matter big-time, but now they were incidental to the main problem.


More than two and a half hours remained before he could swap the money for Holly. He opened the trunk of the Honda and tucked the bag into the wheel well.


In the front seat of the Woody, he found a garage-door remote. He clipped it to the Honda's sun visor, so he could close the roll-up door from the alleyway.


He put the pistol and the Taser in the storage pocket in the driver's door. Sitting behind the steering wheel, he could look down and see the weapons, and they were easier to reach than they would have been under the seat.


Triggering the remote control, he watched in the rearview mirror as the big door rolled up.


Backing out of the garage, he glanced to his right, saw the alleyway was clear—and stamped on the brakes in surprise as someone rapped on the driver's-door window. Snapping his head to the left, he discovered that he was face-to-face with Detective Taggart.


Chapter 53


Muffled by glass: "Hello there, Mr. Rafferty." Mitch stared at the detective too long before putting down the car window. His surprise would have been expected; however, he must have looked shocked, fearful.


Warm wind tossed Taggart's sports coat and flapped the collar of his yellow-and-tan Hawaiian shirt as he leaned close to the window. "Do you have time for me?"


"Well, I do have a doctor's appointment," Mitch said.


"Good. I won't keep you too long. Should we talk in the garage, out of this wind?"


John Knox's body lay exposed in the back of the station wagon. The homicide detective might be drawn to it by a keen nose for the earliest odors of decomposition, or by admiration for the beautiful old Buick.


"Sit with me in the car," Mitch said, and he put up the window as he finished backing out of the garage.


He remoted the big door and parked parallel to it, out of the center of the alley, as it rolled down.


Getting into the passenger's seat, Taggart said, "Have you called an exterminator about those termites?"


"Not yet."


"Don't put it off too long."


"I won't."


Mitch sat facing forward, staring at the alley, determined to glance at Taggart only from time to time, because he remembered the penetrating power of the cop's stare.


"If it's pesticides you're worried about, they don't have to use them anymore."


"I know. They can freeze the creepers in the walls."


"Better yet, they've got this highly condensed orange extract that kills them on contact. All natural, and the house smells great."


"Oranges. I'll have to look into that."


"I guess you've been too busy to think about termites."


An innocent man might wonder what this was about and might be impatient to get on with his day, so Mitch risked asking, "Why are you here, Lieutenant?"


"I came to see your brother, but he didn't answer the door."


"He's away until tomorrow."


"Where's he gone?"


"Vegas."


"Do you know his hotel?"


"He didn't say."


"Didn't you hear the doorbell?" Taggart asked.


"I must have left before it rang. I had a few things to do in the garage."


"Looking after the place for your brother while he's away?"


"That's right. Why do you want to talk to him?"


The detective drew up one leg and turned sideways in his seat, facing Mitch directly, as though to compel more eye contact. "Your brother's phone numbers were in Jason Osteen's address book."


Glad to have something truthful to say, Mitch reported: "They met when Jason and I were roommates."


"You didn't stay in touch with Jason, but your brother did?"


"I don't know Maybe. They got along well."


During the night and the morning, all the loose leaves and the litter and the dust had been blown to the sea. Now the wind carried no debris to suggest its form. As invisible as shock waves, massive slabs of crystalline air slammed along the alleyway, rocking the Honda.


Taggart said, "Jason was hooked up with this girl named Leelee Morheim. You know her?"


"No."


"Leelee says Jason hated your brother. Says your brother cheated Jason in some deal."


"What deal?"


"Leelee doesn't know. But one thing's pretty clear about Jason—he didn't do honest work."


That statement required Mitch to meet the detective's eyes and to frown with convincing puzzlement. "Are you saying Anson was involved in something illegal?"


"Do you think that's possible?"


"He's got a Ph.D. in linguistics, and he's a computer geek."


"I knew a professor of physics who murdered his wife, and a minister who murdered a child."


Considering recent events, Mitch no longer believed that the detective might be one of the kidnappers.


If you had spilled your guts to him, Mitch, Holly would be dead now.


Neither did he any longer worry that the kidnappers were keeping him under surveillance or were monitoring his conversations. The Honda might be fitted out with a transponder that allowed it to be tracked easily, but that was of no concern anymore, either.


If Anson was right, Jimmy Null—he of the gentle voice, with concern that Mitch should remain hopeful—had killed his partners. He was the whole show now. Here in the final hours of the operation, Null would be focused not on Mitch but on preparations to trade his hostage for the ransom.


This did not mean that Mitch could turn to Taggart for help. John Knox, laid out in the Woody Wagon as if it were a hearse, thrice dead of a broken neck and a crushed esophagus and a gunshot wound, would require some explaining. No homicide detective would be quickly convinced that Knox had perished in an accidental fall.


Daniel and Kathy would be no more easily explained than Knox.


When Anson was discovered in such miserable condition in the laundry room, he would appear to be a victim, not a victimizer. Given his talent for deception, he would play innocent with conviction, to the confusion of the authorities.


Only two and a half hours remained before the hostage swap.


Mitch had little confidence that the police, as bureaucratic as any arm of the government, would be able to process what had happened thus far and do the right thing for Holly.


Besides, John Knox had died in one local jurisdiction, Daniel and Kathy in another, and Jason Osteen in a third. Those were three separate sets of bureaucracies.


Because this was a kidnapping, the FBI would most likely also have to be involved.


The moment Mitch revealed what had happened and asked for help, his freedom of movement would be curtailed. The responsibility for Holly's survival would devolve from him to strangers.


Dread filled him at the thought of having to sit helplessly as the minutes ticked away and the authorities, even if well meaning, tried to get their minds around the current situation and the events that had led to it.


Taggart said, "How is Mrs. Rafferty?"


Mitch felt known to the bone, as if the detective had already untied many of the knots in the case and used that rope to snare him.


Reacting to Mitch's nonplussed expression, Taggart said, "Did she get some relief from her migraine?"


"Oh. "Yeah." Mitch almost could not conceal his relief that the source of Taggart's interest in Holly was the mythical migraine. "She's feeling better."


"Not entirely well, though? Aspirin really isn't the ideal treatment for a migraine."


Mitch sensed that a trap had been laid before him, but he could not tell its nature—bear, snare, or deadfall—and he didn't know how to avoid it. "Well, aspirin is what she's comfortable with."


"But now she's missed a second day of work," Taggart said.


The detective could have learned Holly's place of employment from Iggy Barnes. His knowledge didn't surprise Mitch, but that he had followed up on the migraine-headache story was alarming.


"Nancy Farasand says it's unusual for Mrs. Rafferty to take a sick day."


Nancy Farasand was another secretary at the Realtor's office where Holly was employed. Mitch himself had spoken to her the previous afternoon.


"Do you know Ms. Farasand, Mitch?"


"Yes."


"She strikes me as a very efficient person. She likes your wife very much, thinks very highly of her."


"Holly likes Nancy, too."


"And Ms. Farasand says it's not at all like your wife to fail to report in when she's going to miss work."


This morning Mitch should have called in sick for Holly. He had forgotten.


He'd also forgotten to phone Iggy to cancel the day's schedule.


Having triumphed over two professional killers, he had been tripped up by inattention to a mundane task or two.


"Yesterday," Detective Taggart said, "you told me that when you saw Jason Osteen shot, you were on the phone with your wife."


The car had gotten stuffy. Mitch wanted to open the window to the wind.


Lieutenant Taggart was approximately Mitch's size, but now he seemed to be larger than Anson. Mitch felt crowded, in a corner.

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