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"I never thought about them being stolen at all."


"It happens. They aren't taken as frequently as cars." His smile was not infectious. "You can't break a dog down for parts like you can a Porsche. But they do get snatched now and then."


"If you say so."


"Purebred dogs can be worth thousands. As often as not, the thief doesn't intend to sell the animal. He just wants a fancy dog for himself, without paying for it."


Though Taggart paused, Mitch didn't say anything. He wanted to speed up the conversation. He was anxious to know the point. All this dog talk had a bite in it somewhere.


"Certain breeds are stolen more than others because they're known to be friendly, unlikely to resist the thief. Golden


retrievers are one of the most sociable, least aggressive of all the popular breeds."


The detective lowered his head, lowered his eyes, sat pensively for a moment, as if considering what he wished to say next.


Mitch didn't believe that Taggart needed to gather his thoughts. This man's thoughts were as precisely ordered as the clothes in an obsessive-compulsive's closet.


"Dogs are mostly stolen out of parked cars," Taggart continued. "People leave the dog alone, the doors unlocked. When they come back, Fido's gone, and someone's renamed him Duke."


Realizing that he was gripping the arms of the wicker chair as if strapped in the hot seat and waiting for the executioner to throw the big switch, Mitch made an effort to appear relaxed.


"Or the owner ties the dog to a parking meter outside a shop. The thief slips the knot and walks off with a new best friend."


Another pause. Mitch endured it.


With his head still bowed, Lieutenant Taggart said, "It's rare, Mr. Rafferty, for a dog to be stolen out of its owner's backyard on a bright spring morning. Anything rare, anything unusual makes me curious. Any outright weirdness really gets under my skin."


Mitch raised one hand to the back of his neck and massaged the muscles because that seemed like something a relaxed man, a relaxed and unconcerned man, might do.


"It's strange for a thief to enter a neighborhood like that on foot and walk away with a stolen pet. It's strange that he carries


no ID. It's more than strange, it's remarkable, that he gets shot to death three blocks later. And it's weird, Mr. Rafferty, that you, the primary witness, knew him."


"But I didn't know him."


"At one time," Taggart insisted, "you knew him quite well."


Chapter 10


White ceiling, white railings, white floorboards, white wicker chairs, punctuated by the gray-and-black moth: Everything about the porch was familiar, open and airy, yet it seemed dark now to Mitch, and strange.


His gaze still downcast, Taggart said, "One of the jakes on the scene eventually got a closer look at the victim and recognized him."


"Jakes?"


"One of the uniformed officers. Said he arrested the guy on a drug-possession charge after stopping him for a traffic violation about two years ago. The guy never served any time, but his prints were in our system, so we were able to make a quick match. Mr. Barnes says you and he went to high school with the vie."


Mitch wished that the cop would meet his eyes. As intuitive and perceptive as he was, Taggart would recognize genuine surprise when he saw it.


"His name was Jason Osteen."


"I didn't just go to school with him," Mitch said. "Jason and I were roommates for a year."


At last reestablishing eye contact, Taggart said, "I know."


"Iggy would have told you."


"Yes."


Eager to be forthcoming, Mitch said, "After high school, I lived with my folks for a year, while I took some classes—"


"Horticulture."


"That's right. Then I got a job with a landscaping company, and I moved out. Wanted an apartment of my own. Couldn't fully afford one, so Jason and I split rent for a year."


The detective bowed his head again, in that contemplative pose, as if part of his strategy was to force eye contact when it made Mitch uncomfortable and to deny eye contact when Mitch wanted it.


"That wasn't Jason dead on the sidewalk," Mitch said.


Opening the white envelope that had been on his lap, Taggart said, "In addition to the identification by an officer and the print match, I have Mr. Barnes's positive ID based on this."


He withdrew an eight-by-ten color photo from the envelope and handed it to Mitch.


A police photographer had repositioned the cadaver to get better than a three-quarter image of the face. The head was turned to the left only far enough to conceal the worst of the wound.


The features had been subtly deformed by the temple entrance, transit, and post-temple exit of the high-velocity shot. The left eye was shut, the right open wide in a startled cyclo-pean stare.


"It could be Jason," Mitch said.


"It is."


"At the scene, I only saw one side of his face. The right profile, the worst side, with the exit wound."


"And you probably didn't look too close."


"No. I didn't. Once I saw he had to be dead, I didn't want to look too close."


"And there was blood on the face," Taggart said. "We swabbed it off before this photo was taken."


"The blood, the brains, that's why I didn't look too close." Mitch couldn't take his eyes from the photo. He sensed that it was prophetic. One day there would be a photograph like this of his face. They would show it to his parents: Is this your son, Mr. and Mrs. Rafferty?


"This is Jason. I haven't seen him in eight years, maybe nine."


"You roomed with him when you were—what?—eighteen?"


"Eighteen, nineteen. Just for a year."


"About ten years ago."


"Not quite ten."


Jason had always affected a cool demeanor, so mellow he seemed to have surfwaxed his brain, but at the same time he seemed to know the secrets of the universe. Other boardheads called him Breezer, and admired him, even envied him. Nothing had rattled Jason or surprised him.


He appeared to be surprised now. One eye wide, mouth open. He appeared to be shocked.


"You went to school together, you roomed together. Why didn't you stay in touch?"


While Mitch had been riveted by the photo, Taggart had been watching him intently. The detective's stare had the sharp promise of a nail gun.


"We had .. . different ideas about things," Mitch said.


"It wasn't a marriage. You were just roommates. You didn't have to want the same things."


"We wanted some of the same things, but we had different ideas about how to get them."


"Jason wanted to get everything the easy way," Taggart guessed.


"I thought he was headed for big trouble, and I didn't want any part of it."


"You're a straight shooter, you walk the line," Taggart said.


"I'm no better than anyone else, worse than some, but I don't steal."


"We haven't learned much about him yet, but we know he rented a house in Huntington Harbor for seven thousand a month."


"A month?"


"Nice house, on the water. And so far it looks like he didn't have a job."


"Jason thought work was strictly for inlanders, smog monsters." Mitch saw that an explanation was required. "Surfer lingo for those who don't live for the beach."


"Was there a time when you lived for the beach, Mitch?"


"Toward the end of high school, for a while after. But it wasn't enough."


"What was it lacking?"


"The satisfaction of work. Stability. Family."


"You've got all that now. Life is perfect, huh?"


"It's good. Very good. So good it makes me nervous sometimes."


"But not perfect? What's it lacking now, Mitch?"


Mitch didn't know. He'd thought about that from time to time, but he had no answer. So he said, "Nothing. We'd like to have kids. Maybe that's all."


"I have two daughters," the detective said. "One's nine and one's twelve. Kids change your life."


"I'm looking forward to it."


Mitch realized that he was responding to Taggart less guardedly than he had previously. He reminded himself that he was no match for this guy.


"Aside from the drug-possession charge," Taggart said, "Jason stayed clean all these years."


"He always was lucky."


Indicating the photo, Taggart said, "Not always."


Mitch didn't want to look at it anymore. He returned the photo to the detective.


"Your hands are shaking," Taggart said.


"I guess they are. Jason was a friend once. We had a lot of laughs. All that comes back to me now."


"So you haven't seen or spoken to him in ten years."


"Almost ten."


Returning the photo to the envelope, Taggart said, "But you do recognize him now."


"Without the blood, seeing more of the face."


"When you saw him walking the dog, before he was killed, you didn't think—Hey, don't I know that guy?"


"He was across the street. I only glanced at him, then the shot."


"And you were on the phone, distracted. Mr. Barnes says you were on the phone when the shot was fired."


"That's right. I wasn't focused on the guy with the dog. I just glanced at him."


"Mr. Barnes strikes me as being incapable of guile. If he lied, I expect his nose might light up."


Mitch wasn't sure if he was meant to infer, by contrast to Iggy, that he himself was enigmatic and unreliable. He smiled and said, "Iggy's a good man."


Looking down at the envelope as he fixed the flap shut with the clasp, Taggart said, "Who were you on the phone with?"


"Holly. My wife."


"Calling to let you know she had a migraine?"


"Yeah. To let me know she was going home early with a migraine."


Glancing at the house behind them, Taggart said, "I hope she's feeling better."


"Sometimes they can last all day."


"So the guy who's shot turns out to be your old roommate. You see why it's weird to me?"


"It is weird," Mitch agreed. "It freaks me out a little."


"You hadn't seen him in nine years. Hadn't spoken on the phone or anything."


"He was hanging with new friends, a different crowd. I didn't care for any of them, and I didn't run into him anymore at any of the old places."


"Sometimes coincidences are just coincidences." Taggart rose from his chair and moved toward the porch steps.


Relieved, blotting his palms on his jeans, Mitch got up from his chair, too.


Pausing beside the steps, head lowered, Taggart said, "There's not yet been a thorough search of Jason's house. We've only begun. But we found one odd thing already."


As Earth rolled away from the slowly sinking sun, afternoon light penetrated a gap in the branches of the pepper tree. A dappled orange glare found Mitch and made him squint.


Beyond the sudden light, in shadow, Taggart said, "In his kitchen there was a catchall drawer where he kept loose change, receipts, an assortment of pens, spare keys.... We found only one business card in the drawer. It was yours."


"Mine?"


"'Big Green,'" Taggart quoted. "'Landscape design, installation, and maintenance. Mitchell Rafferty.'"


This was what had brought the detective north from the coast. He had gone to Iggy, guileless Iggy, from whom he'd learned that indeed a connection existed between Mitch and Jason.


"You didn't give him the card?" Taggart asked. "No, not that I remember. What color was the card stock?"


"White."


"I've only used white for the past four years. Before that, the stock was pale green."


"And you haven't seen him in like nine years."


"Maybe nine years."


"So although you lost track of Jason, it seems like Jason kept track of you. Any idea why?"


"No. None."


After a silence, Taggart said, "You've got trouble here."


"There must be a thousand ways he could've gotten my business card, Lieutenant. It doesn't mean he was keeping track of me."


Eyes still downcast, the detective pointed to the porch railing. "I'm talking about this."


On the white handrail, in the warm stillness, a pair of winged insects squirmed together, as if trysting.


"Termites," Taggart said.


"They might just be winged ants."


"Isn't this the time of year when termites swarm? You better have the place inspected. A house can appear to be fine, solid and safe, even while it's being hollowed out right under your feet."


At last the detective looked up and met Mitch's eyes.


"They're winged ants," Mitch said.


"Is there anything else you want to tell me, Mitch?"


"Not that I can think of."


"Take a moment. Be sure."


Had Taggart been allied with the kidnappers, he would have played this differently. He wouldn't have been so persistent or so thorough. There would have been a sense that it was a game to him, a charade.


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


Their previous conversation could have been recorded from a distance. These days, high-tech directional microphones, what they called shotgun microphones, could pick up voices clearly from hundreds of feet away. He'd seen it in a movie. Little of what he saw in movies was based on any truth, but he thought shotgun microphones were. Taggart might have been as oblivious of the taping as Mitch had been.


Of course, what had been done once could be done twice. A van that Mitch had never seen before stood at the curb across the street. A surveillance specialist might be stationed in the back of it.


Taggart surveyed the street, evidently seeking the object of Mitch's interest.


The houses were suspect, too. Mitch didn't know all of the neighbors. One of the houses was empty and listed for sale.


"I'm not your enemy, Mitch."


"I never thought you were," he lied.


"Everyone thinks I am."


"I'd like to think I don't have any enemies."


"Everyone has enemies. Even a saint has enemies."


"Why would a saint have enemies?"


"The wicked hate the good just because they are good."

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