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Such elements as interior-exterior waterfalls, an underground shooting range, and an indoor ice-skating rink required heroic work of the structural, systems, and soil engineers. Two years were required for plans. During the first two years of construction, the builder worked solely on the foundation and subterranean spaces.


No budget. Turnbridge spent whatever was required.


Exquisite marbles and granites were purchased in matched lots. The exterior of the house would be clad in French limestone; sixty seamless limestone columns, from plinth to abacus, were fabricated at a cost of seventy thousand dollars each.


Turnbridge had been as passionately committed to the company he had created as to the house he was building. He believed it would become one of the ten largest corporations in the world.


He believed this even after a rapidly evolving Internet exposed flaws in his business model. From the start, he sold his shares only to finance lifestyle, not to broaden investments. When his company's stock price fell, he borrowed to buy more shares at market. The price fell further, and he leveraged more purchases.


When the share price never recovered and the company imploded, Turnbridge was ruined. Construction of the house came to a halt.


Pursued by creditors, investors, and an angry ex-wife, Thomas Turnbridge came home to his unfinished house, sat in a folding chair on the master-bedroom balcony, and with a 240-degree ocean-and-city-lights view to enchant him, washed down an overdose of barbiturates with an icy bottle of Dom Perignon. Carrion birds found him a day before his ex-wife did. Although the three-acre coastal property is a plum, it has not sold after Turnbridge's death. A snarl of lawsuits entangle it. The actual value of the land now appraises at the sixty million dollars that Turnbridge overpaid for it, which allows only a small pool of potential buyers.


To complete this project as specified in the plans, a buyer will need to spend fifty million on the finish work, so he better like the style. If he demos existing construction and starts again, he needs to be prepared to spend five million on top of the sixty million for the land, because he will be dealing with steel-and-concrete construction meant to ride out an 8.2 quake with no damage.


As a hope-to-be real-estate agent, Holly doesn't dream of getting the commission for the Turnbridge house. She will be content selling properties in middle-class neighborhoods to people who are thrilled to have their own homes.


In fact, if she could trade her modest real-estate dream for a guarantee that she and Mitch would survive the ransom exchange, she would be content to remain a secretary. She is a good secretary and a good wife; she will try hard to be a good mom, too, and she will be happy with that, with life, with love.


But no such deal can be made; her fate remains in her own hands, literally and figuratively. She will have to act when the time comes for action. She has a plan. She is ready for the risk, the pain, the blood.


The creep returns. He has put on a gray windbreaker and a pair of thin, supple gloves.


She is sitting on the floor when he enters, but she gets to her feet as he approaches her.


Violating the concept of personal space, he stands as close to Holly as a man would stand just before taking her in his arms to dance.


"In Duvijio and Eloisa Pacheco's house in Rio Lucio, there are two red wooden chairs in the living room, railback chairs with carved cape tops."


He places his right hand on her left shoulder, and she is glad that it is gloved.


"On one red chair," he continues, "stands a cheap ceramic figurine of Saint Anthony. On the companion chair stands a ceramic of a boy dressed for church."


"Who is the boy?"


"The figurine represents their son, also named Anthony, who was run down and killed by a drunk driver when he was six. That was fifty years ago, when Duvijio and Eloisa were in their twenties."


Not yet a mother but hopeful of being one, she cannot imagine the pain of such a loss, the horror of its suddenness. She says, "A shrine."


"Yes, a shrine of red chairs. No one has sat in those chairs in fifty years. The chairs are for the two figurines."


"The two Anthonys," she corrects.


He may not recognize it as a correction.


"Imagine," he says, "the grief and the hope and the love and the despair that have been focused on those figurines. Haifa century of intense yearning has imbued those objects with tremendous power."


She remembers the girl in the lace-trimmed dress, buried with the Saint Christopher medal and the Cinderella figurine.


"I will visit Duvijio and Eloisa one day when they are not home, and take the ceramic of the boy."


This man is many things, including a cruel strip-miner of other people's faith and hope and treasured memories.


"I have no interest in the other Anthony, the saint, but the boy is a totem of magical potential. I will take the boy to Espanola—"


"Where your life will change again."


"Profoundly," he says. "And perhaps not only my life."


She closes her eyes and whispers, "Red chairs," as if she is picturing the scene.


This seems to be encouragement enough for him right now, because after a silence, he says, "Mitch will be here in a little more than twenty minutes."


Her heart races at this news, but her hope is tempered by her fear, and she does not open her eyes.


"I'll go now to watch for him. He'll bring the money into this room—and then it will be time to decide."


"In Espanola, is there a woman with two white dogs?"


"Is that what you see?"


"Dogs that seem to vanish in the snow."


"I don't know. But if you see them, then I'm sure they must be in Espanola."


"I see myself laughing with her, and the dogs so white." She opens her eyes and meets his. "You better go watch for him."


"Twenty minutes," he promises, and leaves the kitchen.


Holly stands quite still for a moment, amazed by herself.


White dogs, indeed. Where had that come from? White dogs and a laughing woman.


She almost laughs now at his gullibility, but there is no humor in the fact that she has gotten inside his head deep enough to know what imagery will work with him. That she could travel in his mad world at all does not seem entirely admirable.


The shakes seize her, and she sits down. Her hands are cold, and a chill traces every turn of her bowels.


She reaches under her sweater, between her breasts, and extracts the nail from her bra.


Although the nail is sharp, she wishes it were sharper. She has no means to file it to a keener point.


Using the head of the nail, she scratches industriously at the drywall until she has produced a small pile of powdered plaster.


The time has come.


When Holly was a little girl, for a while she feared an array of night monsters born of a good imagination: in closet, under bed, at the windows.


Her grandmother, good Dorothy, had taught her a poem that, she claimed, would repel every monster: vaporize those in the closet, turn to dust those under the bed, and send those at the windows away to swamps and caves where they belonged.


Years later, Holly learned that this poem, which cured her fear of monsters, was titled "A Soldier—His Prayer." It had been written by an unknown British soldier and had been found on a slip of paper in a trench in Tunisia during the battle of El Agheila. Quietly but aloud, she recites it now:


"Stay with me, God. The night is dark, The night is cold: My little spark Of courage dies. The night is long; Be with me, God, and make me strong."


She hesitates then, but only for a moment. The time has come.


Chapter 64


Shoes caked with mud and wet leaves, clothes rumpled and dirty, a white trash bag cradled in his arms and pressed against his chest as if it were a precious baby, eyes so bright with desperation that they might have been lamps to light his way if this had been night, Mitch hurried along the shoulder of the highway.


No officer of the law, happening to drive past, would fail to give him special scrutiny. He had the look of a fugitive or a madman, or both.


Fifty yards ahead stood a combination service station and minimart. Advertising a tire sale, scores of bright pennants snapped in the wind.


He wondered if ten thousand dollars cash would buy him a ride to the Turnbridge house. Probably not. The way he looked, most people would expect him to kill them en route.


A guy looking like a hobo, waving around ten thousand bucks, wanting to buy a ride, would make the station manager nervous. He might call the cops.


Yet buying a ride seemed to be his only option other than carjacking someone at gunpoint, which he would not do. The owner of the car might foolishly grab for the gun and be accidentally shot.


As he drew near the service station, a Cadillac Escalade angled off the highway and stopped at the outermost pumps. A tall blonde got out, clutching her purse, and strode into the mini-mart, leaving the driver's door open.


The two rows of pumps were both self-service. No attendants were in sight.


Another customer was fueling a Ford Explorer. He focused on his windows, working with a squeegee.


Mitch shambled up to the Escalade and peered through the open door. The keys were in the ignition.


Leaning inside, he checked the backseat. No grandpapa, no child in a safety seat, no pit bull.


He climbed in behind the wheel, pulled the door shut, started the engine, and drove onto the highway.


Although he half expected people to run after him, waving their arms and shouting, the rearview mirror revealed no one.


The highway was divided. He considered driving over the median planter strip. The Escalade could handle it. Fate being what fate is, a patrol car would happen by at just that moment.


He sped north a few hundred yards to a turning lane, and then headed south.


When he passed the service station, no tall angry blonde had yet put in an appearance. He raced past, but with respect for the posted speed limit.


Ordinarily, he was not an impatient driver who ranted at slow or clueless motorists. During this trip, he wished upon them all kinds of plagues and hideous misfortunes.


By 1:56, he arrived in the neighborhood where Turnbridge's folly stood incomplete. Out of sight of the mansion, he pulled to the curb.


Cursing the stubborn buttons, he stripped out of his shirt. Jimmy Null would most likely make him take it off anyway, to prove that he was not concealing a weapon.


He had been told to come unarmed. He wanted to appear to be in compliance with that demand.


From the trash bag, he retrieved the box of .45 ammunition, and from a pocket of his jeans, he withdrew the original magazine for the Springfield Champion. He added three cartridges to the seven already in the magazine.


A movie memory served him well. He pulled back the slide and inserted an eleventh round in the chamber.


The cartridges slipped in his sweaty trembling fingers, so he had time to load only two of the three spare magazines. He stashed the box of ammo and the extra magazine under the driver's seat.


One minute till two o'clock.


He shoved the two loaded magazines in the pockets of his jeans, put the loaded pistol in the bag with the money, twisted the top of the bag but didn't knot it, and drove to the Turnbridge place.


A long chain-link construction fence fitted with privacy panels of green plastic fabric separated the street from the big Turnbridge property. The nearby residents who had put up with this ugliness for years must wish the entrepreneur hadn't killed himself if only so they could now torment him with lawyers and neighborly invective.


The gate was closed, draped with chain. As Jimmy Null promised, it wasn't locked.


Mitch drove onto the property and parked with the back of the SUV facing the house. He got out and opened all five doors, hoping by this gesture to express his desire to fulfill the terms of the agreement to the best of his ability.


He closed the construction gate and draped the chain in place once more.


Carrying the trash bag, he walked to a spot between the Escalade and the house, stopped and waited.


The day was warm, not hot, but the sun was hard. The light cut at his eyes, and the wind.


Anson's cell phone rang.


He took the call. "This is Mitch."


Jimmy Null said, "It's a minute past two. Oh, now it's two past. You're late."


Chapter 65


The unfinished house appeared as large as a hotel. Jimmy Null could have been watching Mitch from any of scores of windows.


"You were supposed to come in your Honda," he said.


"It broke down."


"Where'd you get the Escalade?"


"Stole it."


"No shit."


"None."


"Park it parallel to the house, so I can see straight through the front and back seats."


Mitch did as told, leaving the doors open as he repositioned the vehicle. He stepped away from the SUV and waited with the trash bag, the phone to his ear.


He wondered if Null would shoot him dead from a distance and come take the money. He wondered why he wouldn't do that.


"I'm disturbed you didn't come in the Honda."


"I told you, it broke down."


"What happened?"


"Flat tire. You brought the swap forward an hour, so I didn't have time to change it."


"A stolen car—the cops could have chased your ass here."


"No one saw me take it."


"Where'd you learn to hot-wire a car?"


"The keys were in the ignition."


Null considered in silence. Then: "Enter the house by the front door. Stay on the phone."


Mitch saw that the door had been shot open. He went inside.


The entry hall was immense. Although no finish work had been done, even Julian Campbell would have been impressed.


After leaving Mitch to stew for a minute, Jimmy Null said, "Pass through the colonnade into the living room directly ahead of you."


Mitch went into the living room, where the west windows extended floor to ceiling. Even through dusty glass, the view was so stunning that he could understand why Turnbridge had wanted to die with it.


"All right. I'm here."


"Turn left and cross the room," Null directed. "A wide doorway leads into a secondary drawing room."


None of the doors were hung. Those separating these two rooms would have to be nine feet tall to fill the opening.


When Mitch reached the drawing room, which offered an equally spectacular view, Null said, "You'll see another wide doorway across from the one you're standing in, and a single door to your left."


"Yes."


"The single leads to a hallway. The hall passes other rooms and leads to the kitchen. She's in the kitchen. But don't go near her."


Moving across the drawing room toward the specified doorway, Mitch said, "Why not?"

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