They had been maintaining surveillance of the house. Its rooms and phones were probably bugged.
Confident in his stealth, having seen no one in the loft, Mitch assumed, upon sight of the equipment, that it was not at the moment being monitored, that it must be set to automatic operation. Perhaps they could even access it and download it from a distance.
Simultaneously with that thought, the array of indicator lights changed patterns, and at least one of the LED displays began to keep a running count.
He heard a hissing distinct from the idling Honda in the garage below, and then the voice of Detective Taggart.
"I love these old neighborhoods. This was how southern California looked in its great years..."
Not just the rooms of the house but the front porch, too, had been bugged.
He knew that he had been outmaneuvered only an instant before he felt the muzzle of the handgun against the back of his neck.
Although he flinched, Mitch did not attempt to turn toward .. the gunman or to swing the lug wrench. He would not be able to move fast enough to succeed.
During the past five hours, he had become acutely aware of his limitations, which counted as an achievement, considering that he had been raised to believe he had no limitations.
He might be the architect of his life, but he could no longer believe that he was the master of his fate.
"...before they cut down all the orange groves and built a wasteland of stucco tract houses."
Behind him, the gunman said, "Drop the lug wrench. Don't stoop to put it down. Just drop it."
The voice was not that of the man on the phone. This one sounded younger than the other, not as cold, but with a disturbing deadpan delivery that flattened every word and gave them all the same weight.
Mitch dropped the club.
"...more convenient. But I happened to be in your neighborhood."
Apparently using a remote control, the gunman switched off the recorder.
He said to Mitch, "You must want her cut to pieces and left to die, the way he promised."
"Maybe we made a mistake, choosing you. Maybe you'd be happy to be rid of her."
"Don't say that."
Every word matter-of-fact, all with the same emotional value, which was no value at all: "A large life-insurance policy. Another woman. You could have reasons."
"There's nothing like that."
"Perhaps you'd do a better job for us if, as compensation, we promised to kill her for you."
"No. I love her. I do."
"You pull another stunt like this one, she's dead."
"Let's go back the way you came."
Mitch turned, and the gunman also turned, staying behind him.
As he began to retrace his steps along the final aisle, past the first of the southern windows, Mitch heard the lug wrench scrape against the boards as the gunman scooped it off the floor.
He could have pivoted, kicked, and hoped to catch the man as he rose from a quick stoop. He feared the maneuver would be anticipated.
Thus far, he had thought of these nameless men as professional criminals. They probably were that, but they were
something else, too. He did not know what else they might be, but something worse.
Criminals, kidnappers, murderers. He could not imagine what might be worse than what he already knew them to be.
Following him along the aisle, the gunman said, "Get in the Honda. Go for a ride."
"Wait for the call at six o'clock."
"All right. I will."
As they neared the end of the aisle, at the back of the loft, where they needed to turn left and cross the width of the garage to the steps in the northeast corner, something like luck intervened by way of a cord, a knot in the cord, a loop in the knot.
At the moment it happened, Mitch didn't perceive the cause, only the effect. A tower of cardboard boxes collapsed. Some tumbled into the aisle, and one or two fell on the gunman.
According to stenciled legends on the cartons, they contained Halloween ceramics. Packed with more bubble wrap and shredded tissue paper than with decorative objects, the boxes were not heavy, but an avalanche of them almost knocked the gunman off his feet and sent him stumbling.
Mitch dodged one box and raised an arm to deflect another.
The falling first stack destabilized a second.
Mitch almost reached toward the gunman to steady him. But then he realized that any offer of support might be misinterpreted as an attack. To avoid being misunderstood—and shot—he stepped out of his enemy's way.
The old dry wood of the railing at the back of the loft could safely accommodate anyone who leaned casually on it, but it proved too weak to endure the impact of the stumbling gunman. Balusters cracked, nails shrieked loose of their holes, and two butted lengths of the handrail separated at the joint.
The gunman cursed at the storm of boxes. He cried out in alarm as the railing sagged away from him.
He fell to the floor of the garage. The distance was not great, approximately eight feet, yet he landed with a terrible sound, and in a clatter of broken railing, and the gun went off.
From the toppling of the first box to the concluding punctuation of the gunshot, only a few seconds had passed. Mitch stood in stunned disbelief longer than the event itself had taken to unfold.
Silence shocked him from paralysis. The silence below.
He hurried to the stairs, and under his feet the boards released a great thunder, as though they had stored it up from the storms that long ago had lashed the trees from which they had been milled.
As Mitch crossed the garage on the ground level, past the front of the truck, past the idling Honda, elation contested with despair for control of him. He did not know what he would find and therefore did not know what to feel.
The gunman lay facedown, head and shoulders under an overturned wheelbarrow. He must have slammed into one edge of the wheelbarrow, flipping it over and on top of himself.
An eight-foot fall should not have left him in such a profound stillness.
Breathing hard but not from physical exertion, Mitch righted the wheelbarrow, shoved it aside. Each breath brought him the scent of motor oil, of fresh grass clippings, and as he crouched beside the gunman, he detected the bitter pungency of gunfire, too, and then the sweetness of blood.
He turned the body over and saw the face clearly for the first time. The stranger was in his middle twenties, but he had the clear complexion of a preadolescent boy, jade-green eyes, thick lashes. He did not look like a man who could talk deadpan about mutilating and murdering a woman.
He had landed with his throat across the rolled metal edge of the wheelbarrow tray. The impact appeared to have crushed his larynx and collapsed his trachea.
His right forearm had broken, and his right hand, trapped under him, had reflexively fired the pistol. The index finger remained hooked through the trigger guard.
The bullet had penetrated just below the sternum, angled up and to the left. Minimal bleeding suggested a heart wound, instant death.
If the shot hadn't killed him instantly, the collapsed airway would have killed him quickly.
This was too much luck to be just luck.
Whatever it was—luck or something better, luck or something worse—Mitch didn't at first know whether it was a helpful or an unwelcome development.
The number of his enemies had been reduced by one. A tattered glee, frayed by the rough edge of vengeance, fluttered in him and might have teased out a torn and threadbare laugh if he had not also been at once aware that this death complicated his situation.
When this man did not report back to his associates, they would call him. When they could not raise him on the phone, they might come looking for him. If they found him dead, they would assume that Mitch had killed him, and soon thereafter Holly's fingers would be taken off one by one, each stump flame-cauterized without benefit of an anesthetic.
Mitch hurried to the Honda and switched off the engine. He used the remote control to shut the garage door.
As shadows closed in, he switched on the lights.
The single shot might not have been heard. If it had been heard, he felt sure that it had not been recognized for what it was.
At this hour, neighbors would not be home from work. Some kids might have returned from school, but they would be listening to CDs or would be deep in an Xbox world, and the muffled shot would be perceived as another bit of music or game percussion.
Mitch returned to the body and stood looking down at it.
For a moment, he was not able to proceed. He knew what needed to be done, but he could not act.
He had lived for almost twenty-eight years without witnessing a death. Now he'd seen two men shot in the same day.
Thoughts of his own death pecked at him, and when he tried to repress them, they could not be caged. The susurration in his ears was only the sound of his rushing blood, driven by the oars of a sculling heart, but his imagination provided dark wings beating at the periphery of his mind's eye.
Although he was squeamish about searching the corpse, necessity brought him to his knees beside it.
From a hand so warm that it seemed death might be a pretense, he removed the pistol. He put it in the nearby wheelbarrow.
If the right leg of the dead man's khakis had not been pulled up in the fall, Mitch wouldn't have seen the second weapon. The gunman carried the snub-nosed revolver in an ankle holster.
After putting the revolver with the pistol, Mitch considered the holster. He undid the Velcro closures, put the holster with the guns.
He dug through the pockets of the sports coat, turned out the pockets of the pants.
He discovered a set of keys—one for a car, three others—which he considered but then returned to the pocket where he'd found them. After a brief hesitation, he retrieved them and added them to the wheelbarrow.
He found nothing more of interest other than a wallet and a cell phone. The former would contain identification, and the latter might be programmed to speed-dial, among other numbers, each of the dead man's collaborators.
If the phone rang, Mitch didn't dare answer it. Even if he spoke in monosyllables and the man at the other end briefly mistook his voice for that of the dead man, he would give himself away by one slip or another.
He switched off the phone. They would be suspicious when they got voice mail, but they would not act precipitously on mere suspicion.
Restraining his curiosity, Mitch set the wallet and phone aside in the wheelbarrow. Other, more urgent tasks awaited him.
From the back of the truck, Mitch fetched a canvas tarp that was used for bundling rosebush clippings. The thorns could not easily penetrate it, as they did burlap.
In case one of the other kidnappers came looking for the dead man, Mitch couldn't leave the body here.
The thought of driving around with the corpse in the trunk of his car turned his stomach sour. He would have to buy some antacids.
The tarp had softened with use and was as fissured as the glaze on an antique vase. Although not waterproof, it remained fairly water-resistant.
Because the gunman's heart had stopped instantly, little blood had escaped the wound. Mitch wasn't worried about bloodstains.
He didn't know how long he would have to keep the body in the trunk. A few hours, a day, two days? Sooner or later, fluids other than blood would leak from it.
He spread the tarp on the floor and rolled the cadaver onto it. A wave of revulsion washed through him, inspired by the way the dead man's arms flopped, by the way the head lolled.
Considering Holly's peril, which required him not to recoil from even the most disturbing tasks, he closed his eyes and took several slow, deep breaths. He choked down his revulsion.
The lolling head suggested that the gunman's neck was broken. In that case, he was three ways dead: broken neck, crushed trachea, bullet-torn heart.
This could not be luck. Such layered grisliness could not be a stroke of good fortune. To view it as such would be repellant.
Extraordinary, yes. An extraordinary incident. And strange. But not auspicious.
Besides, he could not yet say that this accident had been to his advantage. It might easily prove to be his undoing.
After rolling the body in the tarp, he did not take time to weave twine through the eyelets and tie the package shut. Worry was a clock ticking, an hourglass draining, and he feared an interruption of one kind or another before this cleanup could be completed.
He dragged the tarp-wrapped corpse to the back of the Honda. As he opened the trunk of the car, a thrill of dread went through him, the absurd thought that he would find another dead man already occupying the space, but of course the trunk was empty.
His imagination had never been a fever swamp, and it had not heretofore been morbid. He wondered if this expectation of a second corpse might be not a flash of fantasy but in fact a presentiment that other dead men lay in his immediate future.
Loading the body into the trunk proved to be an arduous job.
The gunman weighed less than Mitch, but he was after all a dead weight.
If Mitch had not been strong and if his business had not been one that kept him in good physical condition, the corpse might have defeated him. Sweat glazed him by the time he slammed shut the trunk lid and locked it.
A careful inspection revealed no blood on the wheelbarrow. None on the floor, either.
He gathered the broken balusters and the fallen section of the handrail, and he took them out of the garage and concealed them in a half-depleted stack of cordwood that had supplied the living-room fireplace during the previous winter.
Inside once more, he climbed the stairs to the loft and returned to the fateful spot at the end of the southernmost aisle. The cause of the accident soon revealed itself.
Many of the stacked boxes were sealed with tape, but others were tied shut with cord. The neck of the lug wrench was still caught in the loop of a knot.
Carrying the wrench down at his side, somewhat away from his body, the gunman must have snared the dangling loop of cord. He had pulled Halloween down on himself.
Mitch stacked most of the fallen boxes as they had been. He created a new row of short stacks in front of the breach in the railing to conceal the damage.
If the gunman's pals came searching for him, the splintered balusters and the missing section of handrail would suggest to them that a struggle had occurred.
The ragged gap in the railing would still be visible to them from the southeast corner of the lower level. The stairs were at the northeast corner, however, and the gunman's friends might never be in a position to see the damage.
Although Mitch would have liked to vent some anger by smashing the electronic eavesdropping equipment arrayed in the aisle along the west wall, he left it untouched.
When he picked up the long lug wrench, it felt heavier than he remembered.
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