In the silence, in the stillness, he sensed deception. Felt watched. Felt mocked.
Nearby, web-hung spiders must be patiently dreaming of ripe twitching morsels. A fat spring fly or two must be droning toward silken snares.
More than flies, worse than spiders, something loomed. Mitch turned, but seemed to be alone.
An important truth hid from him, hid not in shadows, hid not behind the boxed holidays, but hid from him in plain sight. He saw but was blind. He heard but was deaf.
This extraordinary perception grew more intense, swelled until it became oppressive, until it had such a physical dimension that his lungs would not expand. Then it rapidly subsided, was gone.
He took the lug wrench downstairs and hung it on the tool rack where it belonged.
From the wheelbarrow, he retrieved the phone, the wallet, the keys, the two guns, and the ankle holster. He put everything on the front passenger's seat of the Honda.
He drove out of the garage, parked beside the house, and went quickly inside to get a jacket. He was wearing a flannel shirt, and though the night ahead would not be cool enough to require a jacket, he needed one.
When he came out of the house, he expected to find Taggart waiting by the Honda for him. The detective didn't show.
In the car once more, he placed the lightweight sports jacket on the passenger's seat, concealing the items that he had taken from the corpse.
The dashboard clock agreed with his wristwatch—5:11.
He drove out to the street and turned right, with a thrice-dead man in the trunk of the car and worse horrors loose in his mind.
Two blocks from his house, Mitch parked at the curb. He left the engine running, kept the windows closed and the doors locked.
He could not recall ever previously locking the doors while he was in the car.
He glanced at the rearview mirror, suddenly certain that the trunk lock had not engaged, that the lid had popped open, presenting the swaddled cadaver for viewing. The trunk remained closed.
In the dead man's wallet were credit cards and a California driver's license in the name of John Knox. For the license photo, the youthful gunman had flashed a smile as winsome as that of a boy-band teen idol.
Knox had been carrying $585, including five one-hundred-dollar bills. Mitch counted the money without taking it out of the currency compartment.
Nothing in the wallet revealed a single fact about the man's profession, personal interests, or associations. No business card, no library card, no health-insurance card. No photos of loved ones. No reminder notes or Social Security card, or receipts.
According to the license, Knox lived in Laguna Beach. Something useful might be learned by a search of his residence.
Mitch needed time to consider the risks of going to Knox's place. Besides, there was someone else he needed to visit before the scheduled six-o'clock call.
He put the wallet, the dead man's cell phone, and the set of keys in the glove box. He tucked the revolver and the ankle holster under the driver's seat.
The pistol remained on the adjacent seat, under his sports coat.
Through a zigzaggery of low-traffic residential streets, ignoring the speed limits and even a couple of stop signs, Mitch arrived at his parents' place in east Orange at 5:35. He parked in the driveway and locked the Honda.
The handsome house stood on a second tier of hills, with hills above it. The two-lane street, sloping toward flatter land, revealed no suspicious vehicle following in his wake.
A languid breeze had uncoiled from the east. With a thousand times a thousand silvery-green tongues, the tall eucalyptus trees whispered to one another.
He looked up to the single window of the learning room. When he was eight years old, he had spent twenty consecutive days there, with an interior shutter locked across that window.
Sensory deprivation focuses thought, clears the mind. That is the theory behind the dark, silent, empty learning room.
Mitch's father, Daniel, answered the doorbell. At sixty-one, he remained a strikingly good-looking man, still in possession of all his hair, though it had turned white.
Perhaps because his features were so pleasingly bold—perfect features if he had wished to be a stage actor—his teeth seemed too small. They were his natural teeth, everyone. He was a stickler for dental hygiene. Laser-whitened, they dazzled, but they looked small, like rows of white-corn kernels in a cob.
Blinking with surprise that was a degree too theatrical, he said, "Mitch. Katherine never told me you called."
Katherine was Mitch's mother.
"I didn't," Mitch admitted. "I hoped it would be all right if I just stopped by."
"More often than not, I'd be occupied with one damn obligation or another, and you'd be out of luck. But tonight I'm free."
"Though I did expect to do a few hours of reading."
"I can't stay long," Mitch assured him.
The children of Daniel and Katherine Rafferty, all now adults, understood that, in respect for their parents' privacy, they were to schedule their visits and avoid impromptu drop-ins.
Stepping back from the door, his father said, "Come in, then."
In the foyer, with its white-marble floor, Mitch looked left and right at an infinity of Mitches, echo reflections in two large facing mirrors with stainless-steel frames.
He asked, "Is Kathy here?"
"Girls' night out," his father said. "She and Donna Watson and that Robinson woman are off to a show or something."
"I'd hoped to see her."
"They'll be late," his father said, closing the door. "They're always late. They chatter at each other all evening, and when they pull into the driveway, they're still chattering. Do you know the Robinson woman?"
"No. This is the first I've heard of her."
"She's annoying," his father said. "I don't understand why Katherine enjoys her company. She's a mathematician."
"I didn't know mathematicians annoyed you."
"This one does."
Mitch's parents were both doctors of behavioral psychology, tenured professors at UCI. Those in their social circle were mostly from what academic types recently had begun to call the human sciences, largely to avoid the term soft sciences. Among that crowd, a mathematician might annoy like a stone in a shoe.
"I just fixed a Scotch and soda," his father said. "Would you like something?"
"No thank you, sir."
"Did you just sir me?"
"I'm sorry, Daniel."
"Mere biological relationship—"
"—should not confer social status," Mitch finished.
The five Rafferty children, on their thirteenth birthdays, had been expected to stop calling their parents Mom and Dad, and to begin using first names. Mitch's mother, Katherine, preferred to be called Kathy, but his father would not abide Danny instead of Daniel.
As a young man, Dr. Daniel Rafferty had held strong views about proper child-rearing. Kathy had no firm opinions on the subject, but she had been intrigued by Daniel's unconventional theories and curious to see if they would prove successful.
For a moment, Mitch and Daniel stood in the foyer, and Daniel seemed unsure how to proceed, but then he said, "Come see what I just bought."
They crossed a large living room furnished with stainless-steel-and-glass tables, gray leather sofas, and black chairs. The art works were black-and-white, some with a single line or block of color: here a rectangle of blue, here a square of teal, here two chevrons of mustard yellow.
Daniel Rafferty's shoes struck hard sounds from the Santos-mahogany floor. Mitch followed as quietly as a haunting spirit.
In the study, pointing to an object on the desk, Daniel said, "This is the nicest piece of shit in my collection."
The study decor matched the living room, with lighted display shelves that presented a collection of polished stone spheres.
Alone on the desk, cupped in an ornamental bronze stand, the newest sphere had a diameter greater than a baseball. Scarlet veins speckled with yellow swirled through a rich coppery brown.
To the uninformed it might have appeared to be a piece of exotic granite, ground and polished to bring out its beauty. In fact it was dinosaur dung, which time and pressure had petrified into stone.
"Mineral analysis confirms that it came from a carnivore," said Mitch's father.
"The size of the entire stool deposit suggests something smaller than a T. rex."
"If it had been found in Canada, dating to the Upper Cretaceous, then perhaps a gorgosaurus. But the deposit was found in Colorado."
"Upper Jurassic?" Mitch asked.
"Yes. So it's probably a ceratosaurus dropping."
As his father picked up a glass of Scotch and soda from the desk, Mitch went to the display shelves.
He said, "I gave Connie a call a few nights ago."
Connie was his oldest sister, thirty-one. She lived in Chicago.
"Is she still drudging away in that bakery?" his father asked.
"Yes, but she owns it now."
"Are you serious? Yes, of course. It's typical. If she puts one foot in a tar pit, she'll never back up, just flail forward."
"She says she's having a good time."
"That's what she would say, no matter what."
Connie had earned a master's degree in political science before she had jumped off the plank into an ocean of entrepreneurship. Some were mystified by this sea change in her, but Mitch understood it.
The collection of polished dinosaur-dung spheres had grown since he had last seen it. "How many do you have now, Daniel?"
"Seventy-three. I've got leads on four brilliant specimens."
Some spheres were only two inches in diameter. The largest were as big as bowling balls.
The colors tended toward browns, golds, and coppers, for the obvious reason; however, every hue, even blue, lustered under the display lights. Most exhibited speckled patterns; actual veining was rare.
"I talked to Megan the same evening," Mitch said.
Megan, twenty-nine, had the highest IQ in a family of high IQs. Each of the Rafferty kids had been tested three times: the week of their ninth, thirteenth, and seventeenth birthdays.
After her sophomore year, Megan had dropped out of college. She lived in Atlanta and operated a thriving dog-grooming business, both a shop and a mobile service.
"She called at Easter, asked how many eggs we dyed," Mitch's father said. "I assume she thought that was funny. Katherine and I were just relieved that she didn't announce she was pregnant."
Megan had married Carmine Maffuci, a mason with hands the size of dinner plates. Daniel and Kathy felt that she had settled for a husband beneath her station, intellectually. They expected that she would realize her error and divorce him—if children didn't arrive first to complicate the situation.
Mitch liked Carmine. The guy had a sweet nature, an infectious laugh, and a tattoo of Tweety Bird on his right biceps.
"This one looks like porphyry," he said, pointing to a dung specimen with a purple-red groundmass and flecks of something that resembled feldspar.
He had also recently spoken to his youngest sister, Portia, but he did not mention her because he didn't want to start an argument.
Freshening his Scotch and soda at the corner wet bar, Daniel said, "Anson had us to dinner two nights ago."
Anson, Mitch's only brother, at thirty-three the oldest of the siblings, was the most dutiful to Daniel and Kathy.
In fairness to Mitch and his sisters, Anson had long been his parents' favorite, and he had never been rebuffed. It was easier to be a dutiful child when your enthusiasms were not analyzed for signs of psychological maladjustment and whenyour invitations were not met with either gimlet-eyed suspicion or impatience.
In fairness to Anson, he had earned his status by fulfilling his parents' expectations. He had proved, as had none of the others, that Daniel's child-rearing theories could bear fruit.
Top of his class in high school, star quarterback, he declined football scholarships. Instead he accepted those offered only in respect of the excellence of his mind.
The academic world was a chicken yard and Anson a fox. He did not merely absorb learning but devoured it with the appetite of an insatiable carnivore. He earned his bachelor's degree in two years, a master's in one, and had a Ph.D. at the age of twenty-three.
Anson was neither resented by his siblings nor in any slightest way alienated from them. On the contrary, if Mitch and his sisters had taken a secret vote for their favorite in the family, all four of their ballots would have been marked for their older brother.
His good heart and natural grace had allowed Anson to please his parents without becoming like them. This achievement seemed no less impressive than if nineteenth-century scientists, with nothing but steam power and primitive voltaic cells, had sent astronauts to the moon.
"Anson just signed a major consulting contract with China," Daniel said.
Brontosaurus, diplodocus, brachiosaurus, iguanodon, moschops, stegosaurus, triceratops, and other droppings were labeled by engraving on the bronze stands that held the spheres.
"He'll be working with the minister of trade," said Daniel.
Mitch didn't know whether petrified stool could be analyzed so precisely as to identify the particular dinosaur species or genus. Perhaps his father had arrived at these labels by the application of theories with little or no hard science supporting them.
In certain areas of intellectual inquiry where absolute answers could not be defended, Daniel embraced them anyway.
"And directly with the minister of education," Daniel said.
Anson's success had long been used to goad Mitch to consider a career more ambitious than his current work, but the jabs never broke the skin of his psyche. He admired Anson but didn't envy him.
As Daniel prodded with another of Anson's achievements, Mitch checked his wristwatch, certain that he would shortly have to leave to take the kidnapper's call in privacy. But the time was only 5:42.
He felt as if he had been in the house at least twenty minutes, but the truth was seven.
"Do you have an engagement?" Daniel asked.
Mitch detected a hopeful note in his father's voice, but he did not resent it. Long ago he had realized that an emotion as bitter and powerful as resentment was inappropriate in this relationship.
Author of thirteen ponderous books, Daniel believed himself to be a giant of psychology, a man of such iron principles and steely convictions that he was a rock in the river of contemporary American intellectualism, around which lesser minds washed to obscurity.
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