Page 4


The bungalow—pale-yellow clapboard, white trim, a cedar-shingle roof—stood behind a picket fence on which roses twined. Some larger and some nicer houses occupied the block, but none boasted better landscaping.


He parked in the driveway beside the house, under a massive old California pepper tree, and stepped out into a breathless afternoon.


Sidewalks and yards were deserted. In this neighborhood, most families relied on two incomes; everyone was at work. At 3:04, no latchkey kids were yet home from school.


No maids, no window washers, no gardening services busy with leaf blowers. These homeowners swept their own carpets, mowed their own yards.


The pepper tree braided the sunshine in its cascading tresses, and littered the shadowed pavement with elliptical slivers of light.


Mitch opened a side gate in the picket fence. He crossed the lawn to the front steps.


The porch was deep and cool. White wicker chairs with green cushions stood beside small wicker tables with glass tops.


On Sunday afternoons, he and Holly often sat here, talking, reading the newspaper, watching hummingbirds flit from one crimson bloom to another on the trumpet vines that flourished on the porch posts.


Sometimes they unfolded a card table between the wicker chairs. She crushed him at Scrabble. He dominated the trivia games.


They didn't spend much on entertainment. No skiing vacations, no weekends in Baja. They seldom went out to a movie. Being together on the front porch offered as much pleasure as being together in Paris.


They were saving money for things that mattered. To allow her to risk a career change from secretary to real-estate agent. To enable him to do some advertising, buy a second truck, and expand the business.


Kids, too. They were going to have kids. Two or three. On certain holidays, when they were most sentimental, even four did not seem like too many.


They didn't want the world, and didn't want to change it. They wanted their little corner of the world, and the chance to fill it with family and laughter.


He tried the front door. Unlocked. He pushed it inward and hesitated on the threshold.


He glanced back at the street, half expecting to see the black SUV. It wasn't there.


After he stepped inside, he stood for a moment, letting his eyes adjust. The living room was illuminated only by what tree-filtered sunlight pierced the windows.


Everything appeared to be in order. He could not detect any signs of struggle.


Mitch closed the door behind him. For a moment he needed to lean against it.


If Holly had been at home, there would have been music. She liked big-band stuff. Miller, Goodman, Ellington, Shaw. She said the music of the '40s was suitable to the house. It suited her, too. Classic.


An archway connected the living room to the small dining room. Nothing in this second room was out of place.


On the table lay a large dead moth. It was a night-flyer, gray with black details along its scalloped wings.


The moth must have gotten in the previous evening. They had spent some time on the porch, and the door had been open.


Maybe it was alive, sleeping. If he cupped it in his hands and took it outside, it might fly into a corner of the porch ceiling and wait there for moonrise.


He hesitated, reluctant to touch the moth, for fear that no flutter was left in it. At his touch, it might dissolve into a greasy kind of dust, which moths sometimes did.


Mitch left the night-flyer untouched because he wanted to believe that it was alive.


The connecting door between the dining room and the kitchen stood ajar. Light glowed beyond.


The smell of burnt toast lingered on the air. It grew stronger when he pushed through the door into the kitchen.


Here he found signs of a struggle. One of the dinette chairs had been overturned. Broken dishes littered the floor.


Two slices of blackened bread stood in the toaster. Someone had pulled the plug. The butter had been left out on the counter, and had softened as the day grew warmer.


The intruders must have come in from the front of the house, surprising her as she was making toast.


The cabinets were painted glossy white. Blood spattered a door and two drawer fronts.


For a moment, Mitch closed his eyes. In his mind, he saw the moth flutter and fly up from the table. Something fluttered in his chest, too, and he wanted to believe that it was hope.


On the white refrigerator, a woman's bloody hand print cried havoc as loud as any voice could have shouted. Another full hand print and a smeared partial darkened two upper cabinets.


Blood spotted the terra-cotta tiles on the floor. It seemed to be a lot of blood. It seemed to be an ocean.


The scene so terrified Mitch that he wanted to shut his eyes again. But he had the crazy idea that if he closed his eyes twice to this grim reality, he would go blind forever.


The phone rang.


Chapter 7


He did not have to tread in blood to reach the telephone. He picked up the handset on the third ring, and heard his haunted voice say, "Yeah?"


"It's me, baby. They're listening."


"Holly. What've they done to you?"


"I'm all right," she said, and she sounded strong, but she did not sound all right.


"I'm in the kitchen," he said.


"I know."


"The blood-"


"I know. Don't think about that now. Mitch, they said we have one minute to talk, just one minute."


He grasped her implication: One minute, and maybe never again.


His legs would not support him. Turning a chair away from the dinette table, collapsing into it, he said, "I'm so damn sorry."


"It's not your fault. Don't beat yourself up."


"Who are these freaks, are they deranged, what?"


"They're vicious creeps, but they're not crazy. They seem...professional. I don't know. But I want you to make me a promise—"


"I'm dyin' here."


"Listen, baby. I want your promise. If anything happens to me—"


"Nothing's going to happen to you."


"If anything happens to me," she insisted, "promise you'll keep it together."


"I don't want to think about that."


"You keep it together, damn it. You keep it together and have a life."


"You're my life."


"You keep it together, mower jockey, or I'm going to be way pissed."


"I'll do what they want. I'll get you back."


"If you don't keep it together, I'll haunt your ass, Rafferty. It'll be like that Poltergeist movie cubed."


"God, I love you," he said.


"I know. I love you. I want to hold you."


"I love you so much."


She didn't reply.


"Holly?"


The silence electrified him, brought him up from the chair.


"Holly? You hear me?"


"I hear you, mower jockey," said the kidnapper to whom he had spoken previously.


"You sonofabitch."


"I understand your anger—"


"You piece of garbage."


"—but I don't have much patience for it."


"If you hurt her-"


"I already have hurt her. And if you don't pull this off, I'll butcher the bitch like a side of beef."


An acute awareness of his helplessness brought Mitch crashing down from anger to humility.


"Please. Don't hurt her again. Don't."


"Chill, Rafferty. You just chill while I explain a few things."


"Okay. All right. I need things explained. I'm lost here."


Again his legs felt weak. Instead of sitting in the chair, he brushed a broken dish aside with one foot and knelt on the floor. For some reason, he felt more comfortable on his knees than in the chair.


"About the blood," the kidnapper said. "I slapped her down when she tried to fight back, but I didn't cut her."


"All the blood..."


"That's what I'm telling you. We put a tourniquet on her arm until a vein popped up, stuck a needle in it, and drew four vials just like your doctor does when you get a physical."


Mitch leaned his forehead against the oven door. He closed his eyes and tried to concentrate.


"We smeared blood on her hands and made those prints. Spattered some on the counters, cabinets. Dripped it on the floor. It's stage setting, Rafferty. So it looks like she was murdered there."


Mitch was the turtle, just leaving the start line, and this


guy on the phone was the rabbit, already halfway through the marathon. Mitch couldn't get up to speed. "Staged? Why?"


"If you lose your nerve and go to the cops, they'll never buy the kidnapping story. They'll see that kitchen and think you croaked her."


"I didn't tell them anything."


"I know."


"What you did to the dogwalker—I knew you had nothing to lose. I knew I couldn't mess with you."


"This is just a little extra insurance," the kidnapper said. "We like insurance. There's a butcher knife missing from the rack there in your kitchen."


Mitch didn't bother to confirm the claim.


"We wrapped it with one of your T-shirts and a pair of your blue jeans. The clothes are stained with Holly's blood."


They were professional, all right, just like she had said.


"That package is hidden on your property," the kidnapper continued. "You couldn't easily find it, but police dogs will."


"I get the picture."


"I knew you would. You aren't stupid. That's why we've bought ourselves so much insurance."


"What now? Make sense of this whole thing for me."


"Not yet. Right now you're very emotional, Mitch. That's not good. When you're not in control of your emotions, you're likely to make a mistake."


"I'm solid," Mitch assured him, although his heart still stormed and his blood thundered in his ears.


"You don't have any room for a mistake, Mitch. Not one. So I want you to chill, like I said. When you've got your head straight, then we'll discuss the situation. I'll call you at six o'clock."


Though remaining on his knees, Mitch opened his eyes, checked his watch. "That's over two and a half hours."


"You're still in your work clothes. You're dirty. Take a nice hot shower. You'll feel better."


"You've gotta be kidding me."


"Anyway, you'll need to be more presentable. Shower, change, and then leave the house, go somewhere, anywhere. Just be sure your cell phone is fully charged."


"I'd rather wait here."


"That's no good, Mitch. The house is filled with memories of Holly, everywhere you look. Your nerves will be rubbed raw. I need you to be less emotional."


"Yeah. All right."


"One more thing. I want you to listen to this...."


Mitch thought they were going to twist a scream of pain from Holly again, to emphasize how powerless he was to protect her. He said, "Don't."


Instead of Holly, he heard two taped voices, clear against a faint background hiss. The first voice was his own:


"I've never seen a man murdered before."


"You don't get used to it."


"I guess not."


"It's worse when it's a woman...a woman or a child."


The second voice belonged to Detective Taggart.


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


In the dark smoky glass of the oven door, he saw the reflection of a face that seemed to be looking out at him from a window in Hell.


"Taggart's one of you."


"Maybe he is. Maybe not. You should just assume that everybody is one of us, Mitch. That'll be safer for you, and a lot safer for Holly. Everybody is one of us."


They had built a box around him. Now they were putting on the lid.


"Mitch, I don't want to leave you on such a dark note. I want to put you at ease about something. I want you to know that we won't touch her."


"You hit her."


"I'll hit her again if she doesn't do what she's told. But we won't touch her. We aren't rapists, Mitch."


"Why would I believe you?"


"Obviously, I'm handling you, Mitch. Manipulating, finessing. And obviously there is a lot of stuff I won't tell you—"


"You're killers, but not rapists?"


"The point is that everything I have told you has been true. You think back over our relationship, and you'll see I've been truthful and I've kept my word."


Mitch wanted to kill him. Never before had he felt an urge to do serious violence to another human being, but he wanted to destroy this man.


He was clutching the phone so fiercely that his hand ached. He was not able to relax his grip.


"I've had a lot of experience working through surrogates, Mitch. You're an instrument to me, a valuable tool, a sensitive machine."


"Machine."


"Hang with me a minute, okay? It makes no sense to abuse a valuable and sensitive machine. I wouldn't buy a Ferrari and then never change the oil, never lubricate it."


"At least I'm a Ferrari."


"When I'm your handler, Mitch, you won't be pressed beyond your limits. I would expect very high performance from a Ferrari, but I wouldn't expect to be able to drive it through a brick wall."


"I feel like I've already been through a brick wall."


"You're tougher than you think. But in the interest of getting the best performance out of you, I want you to know we'll treat Holly with respect. If you do everything we want, then she'll come back to you alive...and untouched."


Holly was not weak. She would not easily be mentally broken by physical abuse. But rape was more than a violation of the body. Rape rended the mind, the heart, the spirit.


Her captor might have raised the issue with the sincere intent of putting some of Mitch's fears to rest. But the sonofabitch had also raised it as a warning.


Mitch said, "I still don't think you've answered the question. Why should I believe you?"


"Because you have to."


That was an inescapable truth.


"You have to, Mitch. Otherwise, you might as well consider her dead right now."


The kidnapper terminated the call.


For a while, Mitch's sense of powerlessness kept him on his knees.


Eventually a recording, a woman with the vaguely patronizing tone of a nursery-school teacher not fully comfortable with children, requested that he hang up the phone. He put the handset on the floor instead, and a continuous beeping urged him to comply with the operator's suggestion.

P/S: Copyright -->www_Novel12_Com

***