Page 7

"The word wicked sounds so..."

"Quaint," Taggart suggested.

"I guess in your work, everything looks black-and-white."

"Under all the shades of gray, everything is black-and-white, Mitch."

"I wasn't raised to think that way."

"Oh, even though I see proof every day, I have some trouble staying focused on the truth. Shades of gray, less contrast, less certainty—that's so much more comfortable."

Taggart took his sunglasses from his shirt pocket and put them on. From the same pocket, he withdrew one of his business cards.

"You already gave me a card," Mitch said. "It's in my wallet."

"That one just has the homicide-division number. I've written my cell phone on the back of this one. I seldom give it out. You can reach me twenty-four/seven."

Accepting the card, Mitch said, "I've told you everything I know, Lieutenant. Jason being caught up in this just...mystifies me."

Taggart stared at him from behind twin mirrors that portrayed his face in shades of gray.

Mitch read the cell number. He put the card in his shirt pocket.

Apparently quoting again, the detective said, "'Memory is a net. One finds it full of fish when he takes it from the brook, but a dozen miles of water have run through it without sticking.'"

Taggart descended the porch steps. He followed the front walkway toward the street.

Mitch knew that everything he had told Taggart was caught in the detective's net, every word and every inflection, every emphasis and hesitation, every facial expression and twitch of body language, not just what the words said but also what they implied. In that haul of fish, which the cop would read with the vision of a true Gypsy poring over tea leaves, he would find an omen or an indicant that would bring him back with warnings and new questions.

Taggart stepped through the front gate and closed it behind him.

The sun lost its view through the gap in the boughs of the pepper tree, and Mitch was left in shade, but he did not feel a chill because the light had not warmed him in the first place.

Chapter 11

In the den, the big TV was a blind eye. Even if Mitch used the remote to fill the screen with bright idiot visions, this eye could not see him; yet he felt watched by a presence that regarded him with cold amusement.

The answering machine stood on a corner desk. The only message was from Iggy:

"Sorry, bro. I should've called as soon as he left here. But Taggart...he's like fully macking triple overhead corduroy to the horizon. He scares you off the board and makes you want to sit quiet on the beach and just watch the monsters break."

Mitch sat at the desk and opened the drawer in which Holly kept their checkbook and bank statements.

In his conversation with the kidnapper, he had overestimated their checking-account balance, which was $10,346.54.

The most recent monthly statement showed an additional savings-account balance of $27,311.40.

They had bills due. Those were in a different drawer of the same desk. He didn't look at them. He was counting only assets.

Their monthly mortgage payment was automatically deducted from their checking account. The bank statement listed the remaining loan balance as $286,770.

Recently, Holly had estimated that the house was worth $425,000. That was a crazy amount for a small bungalow in an old neighborhood, but it was accurate. Though old, the neighborhood was desirable, and the greater part of the value lay in the large lot.

Added to their cash on hand, the equity in the house made a total of approximately $175,000. That was far short of two million; and the kidnapper had not sounded like a guy whose intention was to negotiate in good faith.

Anyway, the equity in the house couldn't be converted to cash unless they took a new loan or sold the place. Because the house was jointly owned, he needed Holly's signature in either scenario.

They wouldn't have had the house if Holly hadn't inherited it from her grandmother, Dorothy, who had raised her. The mortgage had been smaller upon Dorothy's death, but to pay inheritance taxes and save the house, they'd had to work out a bigger loan.

So the amount available for ransom was approximately thirty-seven thousand dollars.

Until now, Mitch had not thought of himself as a failure. His self-image had been that of a young man responsibly building a life.

He was twenty-seven. No one could be a failure at twenty-seven.

this fact was indisputable: Although Holly was the center of his life, and priceless, when forced to put a price on her, he could pay only thirty-seven thousand.

A bitterness overcame him for which he had no target except himself. This was not good. Bitterness could turn to self-pity, and if he surrendered to self-pity, he would make a failure of himself. And Holly would die.

Even if the house had been without a mortgage, even if they had half a million in cash and were wildly successful for people their age, he would not have had the funds to ransom her.

That truth brought him to the realization that money would not be what saved Holly. He would be what saved her if she could be saved: his perseverance, his wits, his courage, his love.

As he returned the bank statement to the drawer, he saw an envelope bearing his name in Holly's handwriting. It contained a birthday card that she had bought weeks before the day.

On the front of the card was the photograph of an ancient man festooned with wrinkles and wattles. The caption declared When you're old, I'll still need you, dear.

Mitch opened the card and read By then, the only thing I'll have left to enjoy is gardening, and you'll make excellent compost.

He laughed. He could imagine Holly's laugh in the store when she had opened the card and read that punch line.

Then his laugh became something different from a laugh. In the past five terrible hours, he had more than once come close to tears but had repressed them. The card ruined him.

Below the printed text, she had written Happy birthday! Love, Holly. Her writing was graceful but not flamboyant, neat.

In his mind's eye, he saw her hand as she held the pen. Her hands looked delicate, but they were surprisingly strong.

Eventually he recovered his composure by remembering the strength of her fine hands.

He went to the kitchen and found Holly's car keys on the pegboard by the back door. She drove a four-year-old Honda.

After retrieving his cell phone from the charger beside the toaster oven, he went outside and moved his truck to the garage at the back of the property.

The white Honda stood in the second bay, sparkling because Holly had washed it Sunday afternoon. He parked beside the car.

He got out of the truck and shut the driver's door, and stood between the vehicles, sweeping the room with his gaze. If anyone had been here, they would have heard and seen the truck approaching, would have had ample warning and would have fled.

The garage smelled vaguely of motor oil and grease, and strongly of the grass clippings that were bundled in burlap tarps and mounded in the bed of the pickup.

He stared at the low ceiling, which was the floor of the loft that overhung two-thirds of the garage. Windows in the higher space faced the house, providing an excellent vantage point.

Someone had known when Mitch had come home earlier, had known precisely when he had entered the kitchen. The phone had rung, with Holly on the line, moments after he had found the broken dishes and the blood.

Although an observer might have been in the garage, might still be here, Holly would not be with him. He might know where she was being held, but he might not know.

If the observer, whose existence remained theoretical, knew where Holly could be found, it would nevertheless be reckless for Mitch to go after him. These people clearly had much experience of violence, and they were ruthless. A gardener would not be a match for any of them.

A board creaked overhead. In a building of this vintage, the creak might have been an ordinary settling noise, old joints paying obeisance to gravity.

Mitch walked around to the driver's door of the Honda, opened it. He hesitated, but got in behind the steering wheel, leaving the door open.

For the purpose of distraction, he started the engine. The garage door stood open, eliminating any danger of carbon-monoxide poisoning.

He got out of the car and slammed the door. Anyone listening would assume he had pulled it shut from inside.

Why he was not at once backing out of the garage might puzzle the listener. One assumption might be that he was making a phone call.

On a side wall were racked the many gardening tools that he used when working on his own property. The various clippers and pruning shears all seemed too unwieldy.

He quickly selected a well-made garden trowel formed from a single piece of machined steel. The handle featured a rubber grip.

The blade was wide and scooped and not as sharp as the blade of a knife. It was sharp enough.

Brief consideration convinced him that, although he might be able to stab a man, he should select a weapon more likely to disable than to kill.

On the wall opposite from the gardening implements, other racks held other tools. He chose a combination lug wrench and pry bar.

Chapter 12

Mitch was aware that a kind of madness, bred of desperation, had come over him. He could bear no more inaction.

With the long-handled lug wrench clutched in his right hand, he moved to the back of the garage where steep open stairs in the north corner led in a single straight flight to the loft.

By continuing to react instead of acting, by waiting docilely for the six-o'clock call—one hour and seven minutes away—he would be performing as the machine that the kidnappers wished him to be. But even Ferraris sometimes ended in junkyards.

Why Jason Osteen had stolen the dog and why he, of all people, had been shot dead as an example to Mitch were mysteries to which no solutions were at hand.

Intuition told him, however, that the kidnappers had known Jason would be linked with him and that this link would make the police suspicious of him. They were weaving a web of circumstantial evidence that, were they to kill Holly, would force Mitch to trial for her murder and would elicit the death penalty from any jury.

Perhaps they were doing this only to make it impossible for him to turn to the authorities for help. Thus isolated, he would be more easily controlled.

Or, once he acquired the two million dollars by whatever scheme they presented to him, perhaps they had no intention of releasing his wife in return for the ransom. If they could use him to knock over a bank or some other institution by proxy, if they killed Holly after they got the money, and if they were clever enough to leave no traces of themselves, Mitch—and perhaps another fall guy that he had not yet met—might take the rap for every crime.

Alone, grieving, despised, imprisoned, he would never know who his enemies had been. He would be left to wonder why they had chosen him rather than another gardener or a mechanic, or a mason.

Although the desperation that drove him up the loft stairs had stripped away inhibiting fear, it had not robbed him of his reason. He didn't race to the top, but climbed warily, the steel bar held by the pry end, the socket end ready as a club.

The wooden treads must have creaked or even groaned underfoot, but the chug of the Honda's idling engine, echoing off the walls, masked the sounds of his ascent.

Walled on three sides, the loft lay open at the back. A railing extended left from the top of the stairs and across the width of the garage.

In the three walls of the loft, windows admitted afternoon light into that higher space. Visible beyond the balusters—and looming above them—were stacks of cardboard boxes and other items for which the bungalow provided no storage.

The stored goods were arranged in rows, as low as four feet in some places, as high as seven in others. The aisles between were shadowy, and every end offered a blind turn.

At the top of the stairs, Mitch stood at the head of the first aisle. A pair of windows in the north wall directly admitted adequate light to assure him that no one crouched in any shallow niche among the boxes.

The second aisle proved darker than the first, although the intersecting passage at the end was brightened by unseen windows in the west wall, which faced the house. The light at the end would have silhouetted anyone standing boldly in the intervening space.

Because the boxes were not all the same size and were not in every instance stacked neatly, and because gaps existed here and there in the rows, nooks along each aisle offered places large enough for a man to hide.

Mitch had quietly ascended the stairs. The Honda below probably had not been running long enough to raise significant suspicion. Therefore, any sentinel stationed in the loft would be alert and listening, but most likely would not yet have realized the immediate need to be elusive.

The third aisle was brighter for having a window directly at the end of it. He checked out the fourth aisle, then the fifth and final, which lay along the south wall in the light of two dusty windows. He found no one.

The intersecting passage that paralleled the west wall, into which all the east-west aisles terminated, was the only length of the loft that he had not seen in its entirety. Every row of boxes hid a portion of that space.

Raising the lug wrench higher, he eased along the southernmost aisle, toward the front of the loft. He found that the entire length of the last passage was as deserted as the portions he had seen from the farther end of the building.

On the floor, however, against the end of a row of boxes, stood some equipment that should not be here.

More than half the stuff in the loft had belonged to Dorothy, Holly's grandmother. She had collected ornaments and other decorative items for every major holiday.

At Christmas, she'd unpacked fifty or sixty ceramic snowmen of various kinds and sizes. She'd had more than a hundred ceramic Santa Clauses. Ceramic reindeer, Christmas trees, wreaths, ceramic bells and sleighs, groups of ceramic carolers, miniature ceramic houses that could be arranged to form a village.

The bungalow couldn't accommodate Dorothy's full collection for any holiday. She'd unpacked and set out as much as would fit.

Holly hadn't wanted to sell any of the ceramics. She continued the tradition. Someday, she said, they would have a bigger house, and the full glory of each collection could be revealed.

Sleeping in hundreds of cardboard boxes were Valentine's Day lovers, Easter bunnies and lambs and religious figures, July Fourth patriots, Halloween ghosts and black cats, Thanksgiving Pilgrims, and the legions of Christmas.

The gear on the floor in the final aisle was neither ceramic nor ornamental, nor festive. The electronic equipment included a receiver and a recorder, but he couldn't identify the other three items.

They were plugged into a board of expansion receptacles, which was itself plugged into a nearby wall outlet. Indicator lights and LED readouts revealed the equipment to be engaged.

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