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His stories always lead somewhere, although Holly has learned to dread their destinations.


"There were star shells, Catherine wheels, fizgigs, girandoles, twice-changing chrysanthemums, and golden palm trees...."


His voice grows softer, and he is close now. He may be leaning toward her, his face but a foot from her face.


"Red and green and sapphire-blue and gold bursts brightened the black sky, but they were also colorful and diffusely reflected on the fields of snow, soft swaths of pulsing color on the fields of snow."


As the killer talks, Holly has the feeling that he will kiss her here in the darkness. What will his reaction be when inevitably she recoils in revulsion?


"Some last snow was falling, a few late flakes as big as silver dollars, descending in wide lazy gyres. They caught the color, too."


She leans back and turns her head aside in fearful anticipation of the kiss. Then she thinks it might come not on her lips but on the nape of her neck.


"Shimmering with red and blue and gold fire, the flakes slowly glimmered to the ground, as if something magical were aflame high in the night, some glorious palace burning on the other side of Heaven, shedding jewel-bright embers."


He pauses, clearly expecting a response.


As long as he is kept talking, he will not kiss.


Holly says, "It sounds so magnificent, so beautiful. I wish I'd been there."


"/wish you'd been there," he agrees.


Realizing that what she's said might be taken as an invitation, she hurries to entreat him: "There must be more. What else happened in El Valle that night? Tell me more."


"The woman who dreamed of dead horses had a friend who claimed to be a countess from some eastern European country. Have you ever known a countess?"


"No."


"The countess had a problem with depression. She balanced it by taking ecstasy. She took too much ecstasy and walked into that field of snow transfigured by fireworks. Happier than she had ever been in her life, she killed herself."


Another pause requires a response, and Holly can think of nothing she dares to say except, "How sad."


"I knew you would see. Yes, sad. Sad and stupid. El Valle is a portal that makes possible a journey to great change. On that night, and in that special moment, transcendence was offered to everyone present. Yet there are always some who cannot see."


"The countess."


"Yes. The countess."


The pressurized darkness seems to brew itself into an ever blacker reduction.


She feels his warm breath upon her brow, upon her eyes. It has no scent. And then it is gone.


Maybe she didn't feel his breath, after all, only a draft.


She wishes to believe it was a draft, and she thinks of clean things like her husband and the baby, and the bright sun.


He says, "Do you believe in signs, Holly Rafferty?"


"Yes."


"Omens. Portents. Harbingers, oracle owls, storm petrels, black cats and broken mirrors, mysterious lights in the sky. Have you ever seen a sign, Holly Rafferty?"


"I don't think so."


"Do you hope to see a sign?"


She knows what he wants her to say, and she is quick to say it. "Yes. I hope to see one."


Upon her left cheek, she feels warm breath, and then upon her lips.


If this is him—and in her heart she knows there is no if—he remains undifferentiated from the gloom although only inches separate them.


The darkness of the room calls forth a darkness in her mind. She imagines him kneeling na*ed before her, his pale body decorated by arcane symbols painted with the blood of those he killed.


Struggling to keep her quickening fear from her voice, she says, "You've seen many signs, haven't you?"


The breath, the breath, the breath upon her lips, but not the kiss, and then not the breath, either, as he withdraws and says, "I've seen scores. I have the eye for them."


"Please tell me about one."


He is silent. His silence is a sharp and looming weight, a sword above her head.


Perhaps he has begun to wonder if she is talking to forestall the kiss.


If at all possible, she must avoid offending him. As important as it is to leave this place without being violated, it is likewise important to leave this place without disabusing him of the strange dark romantic fantasy that appears to have him in its grip-He seems to believe that she will eventually decide that she must go to Guadalupita, New Mexico, with him and that in Guadalupita she will "be amazed." As long as he continues in this belief, which she has so subtly tried to reinforce without raising suspicion, she might be able to find some advantage over him when it matters most, in the moment of her greatest crisis.


When his silence begins to seem ominously long, he says, "This was just as summer became autumn that year, and everyone said the birds had left early for the south, and wolves were seen where they had not been in a decade."


Wary in the dark, Holly sits very erect, with her arms crossed over her breasts.


"The sky had a hollow look. You felt like you could shatter it with a stone. Have you ever been to Eagle Nest, New Mexico?"


"No."


"I was driving south from Eagle Nest, on a two-lane blacktop, at least twenty miles east of Taos. These two girls were across the highway, hitchhiking north."


Along the roof, the wind finds a new niche or protrusion from which to strike another voice for itself, and now it imitates the ululant cry of hunting coyotes.


"They were college age but not college girls. They were serious seekers, you could see, and confident in their good hiking boots and backpacks, with their walking sticks, and all their experience."


He pauses, perhaps for drama, perhaps savoring the memory.


"I saw the sign and knew at once that it was a sign. Hovering above their heads, a blackbird, its wings spread wide, not flapping, the bird riding so effortlessly on a thermal, but moving precisely no faster or slower than the girls were walking."


She regrets having elicited this story. She closes her eyes against the images that she fears he might describe.


"Only six feet above their heads and a foot or two behind them, the bird hovered, but the girls were unaware of it. They were unaware of it, and I knew what that meant."


Holly fears the darkness around her too much to close her eyes to it. She opens them even though she can see nothing.


"Do you know what the sign of the bird meant, Holly Rafferty?"


"Death," she says.


"Yes, exactly right. You are arising into full spirit. I saw the bird and believed that death was settling on the girls, that they were not long for this world."


"And...were they?"


"Winter came early that year. Many snows followed one another, and the cold was very hard. The spring thaw extended into summer, and when the snow melted, their bodies were found in late June, dumped in a field near Arroyo Hondo, all the way around Wheeler Peak from where I'd seen them on the road. I recognized their pictures in the paper."


Holly says a silent prayer for the families of the unknown girls.


"Who knows what happened to them?" he continues. "They were found naked, so we can imagine some of what they endured. But though it seems to us a horrible death, and tragic because of their youth, there is always a possibility of enlightenment even in the worst of situations. If we're seekers, we learn from everything, and grow. Perhaps any death involves moments of illuminating beauty and the potential for transcendence."


He switches on his flashlight and is sitting immediately before her, cross-legged on the floor.


Had the light surprised her earlier in their conversation, she might have flinched. Now she is not as easily surprised, nor is she likely to flinch from any light, so welcome is it.


He wears the ski mask in which are visible only his chewed-sore lips and his beryl-blue eyes. He is neither na*ed nor painted with the blood of those he killed.


"It's time to go," he says. "You will be ransomed for a million four hundred thousand, and when I have the money, then the time will have come for decision."


The dollar figure stuns her. It might be a lie.


Holly has lost all track of time, but she is confused and amazed by what his words imply. "Is it already...midnight Wednesday?"


Within his knitted mask, he smiles. "Only a few minutes before one o'clock Tuesday afternoon," he says. "Your persuasive husband has encouraged his brother to come through with


the money quicker than ever seemed possible. This whole thing has moved so smoothly that it's obviously coasting on the wheels of destiny."


Rising to his feet, he gestures for her to rise, as well, and she obeys.


Behind her back, he binds her wrists together with a blue silk scarf, as before.


Stepping in front of her again, he tenderly smoothes her hair back from her forehead, for some of it has fallen over her face. As he performs this grooming, with hands as cold as they are pale, he stares continuously into her eyes in a spirit of romantic challenge.


She dares not look away from him, and she closes her eyes only when he presses to them thick gauze pads that have been moistened to make them stick. He binds the pads in place with a longer length of silk, which he loops three times around her head and ties firmly at the back of her skull.


His hands brush her right ankle, and he unlocks the manacle, freeing her from the chain and the ringbolt.


He plays the flashlight over her blindfold, and she sees dim light penetrate the gauze and silk. Evidently satisfied by the job he's done, he lowers the light.


"When we've reached the ransom drop," he promises, "the scarves will come off. They're only to incapacitate you during transport."


Because he is not the one who hit her and pulled her hair to make her scream, she can sound credible when she says, "You've never been cruel to me."


He studies her in silence. She assumes that he studies her, for she feels naked, undressed by his stare.


The wind, the dark again, the hideous expectation all make her heart jump like a rabbit battering itself against the wire walls of a trap cage.


Holly feels his breath brush lightly across her lips, and she endures it.


After he exhales four times upon her, he whispers, "At night in Guadalupita, the sky is so vast that the moon seems shrunken, small, and the stars you can see, horizon to horizon, number more than all the human deaths in history. Now we must go."


He takes Holly by one arm, and she does not shrink from his repulsive touch, but moves with him across the room and through an open doorway.


Here are the steps again, up which they led her the previous day. He patiently guides her descent, but she cannot hold a railing and therefore places each foot tentatively.


From attic to second floor, to first floor, and then into the garage, he encourages her: "A landing now. Very good. Duck your head. And now to the left. Be careful here. And now a threshold."


In the garage, she hears him open the door of a vehicle.


"This is the van that brought you here," he says, and helps her through the rear entrance, into the cargo space. The carpeted floor smells as foul as she remembered it. "Lie on your side."


He exits, closes the door behind him. The signature metallic sound of a key in a lock eliminates any consideration that she might be able to let herself out somewhere en route.


The driver's door opens, and he gets in behind the wheel. "This is a two-seat van. The seats are open to the cargo area, which is why you hear me so clearly. You do hear me clearly?"


"Yes."


He closes his door. "I can turn in my seat and see you. On our trip here, there were men to sit with you, to make sure that you behaved. I'm alone now. So...somewhere along the way, if we stop at a red light and you think a scream will be heard, I'll have to deal with you more harshly than I would like."


"I won't scream."


"Good. But please let me explain. On the passenger's seat beside me is a pistol fitted with a silencer. The instant that you begin to scream, I'll pick up the pistol, turn around in my seat, and shoot you dead. Whether you're dead or alive, I'll collect the ransom. You see the way it is?"


"Yes."


"That sounded cold, didn't it?" he asks.


"I understand...your position."


"Be honest now. It did sound cold."


"Yes."


"Consider this. I could have gagged you, but I didn't. I could have shoved a rubber ball in your pretty mouth and sealed your lips with duct tape. Couldn't I have done that easily?"


"Yes."


"Why didn't I?"


"Because you know you can trust me," she says.


"I hope that I can trust you. And because I'm a man of hope, who lives his life with hope in every hour, I did not gag you, Holly. A gag of the type I described is effective but extremely unpleasant. I didn't want an unpleasantness like that between us in case...in hope of Gaudalupita."


Her mind works to deceive more smoothly than she would have thought possible one day ago.


In a voice not at all seductive but solemn with respect, she recites for him details that suggest he has indeed cast a spell over her: "Guadalupita, Rodarte, Rio Lucio, Penasco, where your life was changed, and Chamisal, where it was also changed, Vallecito, Las Trampas, and Espanola, where your life will be changed again."


He is silent for a moment. Then: "I'm sorry for the discomfort, Holly. It will be over soon, and then transcendence...if you want it."


Chapter 58


The architecture of the gun shop had been inspired by dry-goods stores in countless Western movies. A flat railed roof, vertical-clapboard walls, a covered boardwalk the length of the long building, and a hitching post raised the expectation that at any moment John Wayne would walk out of the front door, dressed as he had been in The Searchers.


Feeling less like John Wayne than like any supporting character who gets shot in the second act, Mitch sat in the Honda, in the gun-shop parking lot, examining the pistol that he had brought back from Rancho Santa Fe.


Several things were engraved in the steel, if it was steel. Some were numbers and letters that meant nothing to him. Others provided useful information for a guy who knew squat about handguns.


Near the muzzle, in script, were the words Super Tuned. Farther back on the slide the word champion looked as if it had been laser-incised in block letters, and cal .45 was directly under it.


Mitch preferred not to deliver the ransom with only seven rounds in the magazine. Now he knew that he needed to purchase .45-caliber ammunition.


Seven rounds were probably more than enough. Gunfights most likely dragged on only in movies. In real life, somebody fired the first shot, somebody responded, and within a total of four rounds, one of the somebodies was wounded or dead.

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