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‘Whatever you say. Just brace yourself, ‘cause we’re going to crash, and you don’t want to be thrown over¬board.’


Tommy looked toward Balboa Island, which was clearly defined by the streetlamps along the seawall and the dark shapes of houses beyond. ‘Dear God.’


‘As soon as we run aground,’ she said, ‘get up, get off the boat, and follow me.’


She crossed to the starboard flank of the bow deck, sat with her legs splayed in front of her, and grabbed hold of the railing with her right hand. Scootie clam¬bered into her lap, and she put her left arm around him.


Following Del’s example, Tommy sat on the deck, facing forward. He didn’t have a dog to hug, so he gripped the port railing with both hands.


Sleek and swift, the yacht cruised through the rainy darkness toward doom.


If Del had set the fuel tanks on fire, the engines wouldn’t be running. Would they?


Don’t think, just hold on.


Maybe the fire had come from the same place as the seething flock of birds. Which was — where?


Just hold on.


He expected the boat to explode under him.


He expected the flaming Samaritan-thing to shake off its rapture and, still ablaze, leap upon him.


He closed his eyes.


Just hold on.


If he had just gone home to his mother’s for corn tay cam and stir-fried vegetables with Nuoc Mam sauce, he might not have been home when the doorbell rang, might never have found the doll, might now be in bed, sleeping peacefully, dreaming about the Land of Bliss at the peak of fabled Mount Phi Lai, where everyone was immortal and beautiful and deliriously happy twenty-four hours every day, where everyone lived in perfect harmony and never said one cross word to anyone else and never suffered an identity crisis. But, nooooo, that wasn’t good enough for him. Nooooo, he had to offend his mother and make a statement about his independence by going instead to a diner for cheeseburgers, cheeseburgers and French fries, cheeseburgers and French fries and onion rings and a chocolate milkshake, Mr. Big Shot with his own car phone and his new Corvette, intrigued by the blond waitress, flirting with her, when the world was filled with beautiful and intelligent and charming Vietnamese girls — who were perhaps the most lovely women in the world — who never called you ‘tofu boy,’ never hot-wired cars, didn’t think they had been abducted by aliens, didn’t threaten to blow your head off when you wanted to look at their paintings, never stole yachts and set them on fire, gorgeous Vietnamese women who never talked in riddles, never said things like ‘reality is what you think it is,’ didn’t have any exper¬tise with throwing knives, hadn’t been taught by their fathers to use high explosives, didn’t wear father-killing


bullets as necklace pendants, didn’t run around with big black smart assed hounds from hell with farting rubber hotdogs. He couldn’t go home and eat corn tay cam, had to write stupid detective novels instead of becoming a doctor or a baker, and now as payment for his selfishness and his arrogance and his bull-headed determination to be what he could never be, he was going to die.


Just hold on.


He was going to die.


Just hold.


Here came the big sleep, the long goodbye.


Hold.


He opened his eyes.


Shouldn’t have done that.


Balboa Island, where no structure was taller than three stories, where half of the houses were bungalows and cottages, seemed as large as Manhattan, towering.


Screws turning furiously, the fifty-six-foot, merrily blazing Bluewater yacht came into the island at extreme high tide, drawing less than two feet, virtually skimming like a cigarette racing boat, for God’s sake, in spite of its size, came in between two docks (one of which was already decorated for Christmas), and struck the massive steel-reinforced concrete sea wall with a colossal shattering-ripping-screeching-booming noise that made Tommy cry out in fear and that would have awakened the dead if perhaps any of the islanders had perished in their sleep this night. At the water line, the hull, although as strong as any, was crushed and torn open at the bow. The impact dramatically slowed the yacht, but the diesel engines were so powerful and the screws provided such enormous thrust that the vessel surged forward, striving to climb the sea wall, heaving across the top of it, angling up at the bow, up, over the wide public promenade that ringed the island, up, as though it might churn all the way out of the harbour and sail through the front of one of


the large houses that lined the island’s waterfront. Then at last it shuddered to a halt, securely hung up on the sea wall and badly weighed down by the tons of seawater pouring through the broken hull into the lower holds.


Tommy had been bounced against the deck and slammed sideways against the low port sill, but he had held fast to the railing, even though at one point he thought that his left arm was going to be dislocated at the shoulder. He came through the wreck without serious injury, however, and when the yacht was fully at rest, he let go of the railing, rose into a crouch, and crabbed sideways across the bow to Del.


She was on her feet by the time he reached her. ‘Let’s get the hell out of here.’


The stern of the yacht burned brighter than ever. The fire was spreading forward, and there were flames behind the windows of the lower-deck staterooms.


An eerie and chilling ululation arose from deep within the crackling blaze. It might have been steam venting or hydraulic fluid singing through a pierced steel line — or the crooning of the enraptured demon.


The bow deck was canted three or four degrees because the boat was ramped up on the sea wall. They walked uphill to the pulpit, which thrust out of the water and was suspended over the deserted pedestrian promenade.


All along the recently slumbering waterfront, lights began to blink on in the closely spaced houses.


Scootie hesitated at the gap in the pulpit railing, but only briefly, then leaped down onto the concrete sward on the island side of the sea wall.


Del and Tommy followed him. From the pulpit to the sidewalk was about a ten-foot drop.


The dog sprinted west along the promenade, as if he knew where he was going.


Del followed the Labrador, and Tommy followed Del. He glanced back once and, in spite of all the outrageous


incidents of the night, which should have inured him to spectacle, he was awestruck at the sight of the enormous boat balanced on the sea wall, overhanging the public walkway, as if it were the Ark washed ashore after the Great Flood.


As worried faces began to appear at upstairs windows but before any front doors flew open, before frightened voices rose in the night, Tommy and Del and the dog found the nearest street leading away from the promen¬ade. They headed toward the centre of the island.


Although Tommy looked over his shoulder from time to time, expecting a serpent-eyed fat man or worse, no creature swaddled in fire pursued them.


SEVEN


Hundreds of houses crowded the small lots on Balboa Island, and because of inadequate garage space, both sides of the narrow streets were lined with the parked cars of residents and visitors. Shopping for a set of wheels to steal, Del had a daunting variety of choices. Rather than settle for a Buick or Toyota, however, she was attracted to a fire-engine-red Ferrari Testerosa.


They stood under the cloaking boughs of an old podocarpus, while she admired the sports car.


‘Why not that Geo?’ Tommy asked, pointing to the vehicle parked in front of the Ferrari.


‘The Geo’s okay, but it’s not cool. The Ferrari is cool.’


‘It costs as much as a house,’ Tommy objected.


‘We’re not buying it.’


‘I’m acutely aware of what we’re doing.’


‘We’re just borrowing it.’


‘We’re stealing it,’ he corrected.


‘No. Bad guys steal stuff. We’re not bad guys. We’re the good guys. Ergo, we can’t be stealing it.’


‘Actually, that’s a defence that might work with a California jury,’ he said sourly.


‘You keep a lookout while I see if it’s unlocked.’


‘Why not destroy a cheaper car?’ he argued.


‘Who said anything about destroying it?’


‘You’re hard on machinery,’ he reminded her.


From the far end of the island came the sirens of fire


engines. Above the silhouettes of the tightly packed houses, the night sky to the south was brightened by the glow of the burning yacht.


‘Keep a lookout,’ she repeated. The street was deserted.


With Scootie, she stepped off the sidewalk and went boldly to the driver’s side of the Ferrari. She tried the door, and it was unlocked.


‘Surprise, surprise,’ Tommy muttered. Scootie entered the car ahead of her.


The Ferrari started even as Del settled behind the wheel and pulled the driver’s door shut. The engine sounded powerful enough to ensure that the car would be airborne if Del decided that she wanted it to fly.


‘Two seconds flat. A true master criminal,’ Tommy murmured to himself as he went to the car and opened the other door.


‘Scootie is willing to share the passenger seat.’


‘He’s a sweetheart,’ Tommy said.


After the dog leaped out into the rain, Tommy climbed into the low-slung car. He resisted the temptation to close the door before the mutt could re-enter.


Scootie sat with his rump in Tommy’s lap, his hind legs on the seat, and his forepaws on the dashboard.


‘Put your arms around him,’ Del said as she switched on the headlights.


‘What?’


‘So he doesn’t go through the windshield if we stop suddenly.’


‘I thought you weren’t going to destroy the car?’ ‘You never know when you might have to stop sud¬denly.’


Tommy put his arms around the Labrador. ‘Where are we going?’


‘Mom’s house,’ Del said.


‘How far is that?’


‘Fifteen minutes tops. Maybe ten in this baby.’ Scootie turned his head, made eye contact, licked


Tommy from chin to forehead, and then faced for¬ward again.


‘It’s going to be a long drive,’ Tommy said.


‘He’s decided he likes you.’


‘I’m flattered.’


‘You should be. He doesn’t lick just anyone.’ Scootie chuffed as if to confirm that statement. As Del pulled the Ferrari away from the curb and into


the street, she said, ‘We’ll leave this crate at Mom’s place, and she can have it brought back here. We’ll borrow one of her cars for the rest of the night.’


‘You’ve got an understanding mother.’


‘She’s a peach.’


‘How’d you get the car started so quickly?’ he asked.


‘The keys were in it.’


With the big dog in his lap, Tommy couldn’t see much of the street ahead of them, but he certainly could see the ignition, in which no key was inserted.


‘Where are they now?’ he asked.


‘Where are what?’


‘The keys?’


‘What keys?’


‘The ones you started the car with.’


‘I hot-wired it,’ she said, grinning.


‘It started while you were pulling your door shut.’


‘I can hot-wire one-handed.’


‘In two seconds flat?’


‘Cool, huh?’


She turned left onto a divided street that led to Marine Avenue, the island’s main drag.


‘We’re so soaked, we’re ruining the upholstery,’ he worried.


‘I’ll send the owner a cheque.’


‘I’m serious. This is expensive upholstery.’


‘I’m serious too. I’ll send him a cheque. You’re such a nice man, Tommy. Such a straight arrow. I like that about you.’


Emergency beacons flashing, a police car turned the corner ahead and passed them, no doubt heading toward the burning boat.


‘What do you think it cost?’ Tommy asked.


‘A thousand bucks ought to cover it.’


‘For an entire yacht?’


‘I thought you meant the upholstery damage. The Bluewater cost about seven hundred and fifty thou¬sand.’


‘Those poor people.’


‘What people?’


‘The poor people whose boat you trashed. Are you going to write them a check too?’


‘Don’t have to. It’s my boat.’


He gaped at her. Since encountering Deliverance Payne, staring agape had become his most-used expression.


As she stopped at the Marine Avenue intersection, she smiled at him and said, ‘Only owned it since July.’


He managed to re-hinge his jaw to ask, ‘If it’s your boat, why wasn’t it docked at your house?’


‘It’s so big it blocks my view. So I rent that slip where it was tied up.’


Scootie thumped one paw repeatedly against the dash¬board, as though expressing his impatience to get mov¬ing.


Tommy said, ‘So you blew up your own boat.’ Turning left on Marine Avenue, which was the com¬mercial centre of the island, Del said, ‘Didn’t blow it up. You have a tendency to exaggeration, Tommy. I hope your detective novels aren’t full of hyperbole.’


‘Okay, you set it on fire.’


‘Big difference, I think. Blow up, set on fire — there’s a big difference.’


‘At this rate, even your inheritance won’t last long.’


‘Oh, you’re such a goof, Tommy. I don’t set yachts on fire every day, you know.’


‘I wonder.’


‘Besides, I’ll never have money worries.’


‘You’re a counterfeiter too?’


‘No, silly. Daddy taught me to play poker, and I’m even better than he was.’


‘Do you cheat?’


‘Never! Cards are sacred.’


‘I’m glad to hear you think something’s sacred.’


‘I think a lot of things are sacred,’ she said.


‘Like the truth?’


With a coy look, she said, ‘Sometimes.’


They were reaching the end of Marine Avenue. The bridge across the back channel to the mainland lay less than a block ahead.


He said, ‘Truth — how did you start this car?’


‘Didn’t I say? The keys were in the ignition.’


‘That’s one of the things you said. How did you start the fire on the boat?’


‘Wasn’t me. Was Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, kicked over a lantern.’


Scootie made a weird chuffing, wheezing sound. Tommy could have sworn it was doggy laughter.


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