“What the hell is this all about?” Deputy Bockner asked, finally unable to repress his curiosity.
“Believe me,” Lem said, “you don't want to know.”
“What was in this cave?” Bockner asked.
Lem only shook his head. If two more people had to die, it was a stroke of good fortune that they had been murdered in a national forest. This was federal land, which meant much simpler procedures by which the NSA could assume authority in the investigation.
Cliff Soames was still turning the fragment of mirror over and over in his hand, staring at it thoughtfully.
Looking around the eerie chamber one last time, Lem Johnson made a promise to himself and to his dangerous quarry: When I find you, I won't consider trying to take you alive; no net or tranquilizer guns, as the scientists and the military types would prefer; instead, I'll shoot you quick and clean, take you down fast.
That was not only the safest plan. It would also be an act of compassion and mercy.
By the first of August, Nora sold all of Aunt Violet's furniture and other possessions. She had phoned a man who dealt in antiques and secondhand furniture, and he had given her one price for everything, and she had accepted it happily. Now-except for dishes, silverware, and the furniture in the bedroom that she had made her own-the rooms were empty from wall to wall. The house seemed cleansed, purified, exorcised. All evil spirits had been driven out, and she knew she now had the will to redecorate entirely. But she no longer wanted the place, so she telephoned a real-estate agent and put it on the market.
Her old clothes were gone, too, all of them, and she had an entirely new wardrobe with slacks and skirts and blouses and jeans and dresses like any woman might have. Occasionally, she felt too conspicuous in bright colors, but she always resisted the urge to change into something dark and drab.
She still had not found the courage to put her artistic talent on the market and see if her work was worth anything. Travis nudged her about it now and then, in ways he thought were subtle, but she was not ready to lay her fragile ego on the anvil and give just anyone a chance to swing a hammer at it. Soon, but not yet.
Sometimes, when she looked at herself in a mirror or noticed her reflection in a sun-silvered store window, she realized that, indeed, she was pretty. Not beautiful, perhaps, not gorgeous like some movie star, but moderately pretty. However, she did not seem to be able to hold on to this breakthrough perception of her appearance, at least not for long, because every few days she would be surprised anew by the comeliness of the face looking back at her from the mirror.
On the fifth of August, late in the afternoon, she and Travis were sitting at the table in his kitchen, playing Scrabble, and she was feeling pretty. A few minutes ago, in the bathroom, she'd had another of those revelations when she had looked in the mirror, and in fact she had liked her looks more than ever before. Now, back at the Scrabble board, she felt buoyant, happier than she would have once believed possible-and mischievous. She started using her tiles to spell nonsense words and then vociferously defended them when Travis questioned their legitimacy.
'Dofnup'?“ he said, frowning at the board. ”There's no such word as 'dofnup.'"
“It's a triangular cap that loggers wear,” she said.
“Like Paul Bunyan.”
“Loggers wear knit caps, what you call toboggan caps, or round leather caps with earflaps.”
“I'm not talking about what they wear to work in the woods,” she explained patiently. “ 'Dofnup.' That's the name of the cap they wear to bed.”
He laughed and shook his head. “Are you putting me on?”
She kept a straight face. “No. It's true.”
“Loggers wear a special cap to bed?”
“Yes. The dofnup.”
He was unaccustomed to the very idea that Nora would play a joke on him, so he fell for it. “Dofnup? Why do they call it that?”
“Beats me,” she said.
Einstein was on the floor, on his belly, reading a novel. Since graduating with startling swiftness from picture books to children's literature like The Wind in the Willows, he had been reading eight and ten hours a day, every day. He couldn't get enough books. He'd become a prose junkie. Ten days ago, when the dog's obsession with reading had finally outstripped Nora's patience for holding books and turning pages, they had tried to puzzle out an arrangement that would make it possible for Einstein to keep a volume open in front of him and turn the pages himself. At a hospital-supply company, they had found a device designed for patients who had the use of neither arms nor legs. It was a metal stand onto which the boards of the book were clamped; electrically powered mechanical arms, controlled by three push buttons, turned the pages and held them in place. A quadriplegic could operate it with a stylus held in his teeth; Einstein used his nose. The dog seemed immensely pleased by the arrangement. Now, he whimpered softly about something he had just read, pushed one of the buttons, and turned another page.
Travis spelled “wicked” and picked up a lot of points by using a doublescore square, so Nora used her tiles to spell “hurkey,” which was worth even more points.
“'Hurkey'?” Travis said doubtfully.
“It's a favorite Yugoslavian meal,” she said.
“Yes. The recipe includes both ham and turkey, which is why they call it-” She couldn't finish. She broke into laughter.
He gaped at her in astonishment. “You are putting me on. You are putting me on! Nora Devon, what's become of you? When I first met you, I said to myself, 'Now, there's the grimmest-damn-most-serious young woman I've ever seen.'”
“Well, not squirrelly.”
“Yes, squirrelly,” she insisted. “You thought I was squirrelly.”
“All right, yeah, I thought you were so squirrelly you probably had the attic of that house packed full of walnuts.”
Grinning, she said, “If Violet and I had lived in the south, we'd have been straight out of Faulkner, wouldn't we?”
“Too weird even for Faulkner. But now just look at you! Making up dumb words and dumber jokes, conning me into believing them 'cause I'd never expect Nora Devon, of all people, to do any such thing. You've sure changed in these few months.”
“Thanks to you,” she said.
“Maybe thanks to Einstein more than me.”
“No. You most of all,” she said, and abruptly she was stricken by that old shyness that had once all but paralyzed her. She looked away from him, down at her tray of Scrabble tiles, and in a low voice she said, “You most of all. I'd never have met Einstein if I hadn't met you. And you .. . cared about me . . . worried about me . . . saw something in me that I couldn't see. You remade me.”
“No,” he said. “You give me too much credit. You didn't have to be remade. This Nora was always there, inside the old one. Like a flower all cramped up and hidden inside a drab little seed. You just had to be encouraged to. . . well, to grow and bloom.”
She could not look at him. She felt as if a tremendous stone had been placed on the back of her neck, forcing her to bow her head, and she was blushing. But she found the courage to say, “It's so damn hard to bloom. . . to change. Even when you want to change, want it more than anything in the world, it's hard. Desire to change isn't enough. Or desperation. Couldn't be done without . . . love.” Her voice had dropped to a whisper, and she was unable to lift it. “Love is like the water and the sun that make the seed grow.”
He said, “Nora, look at me.”
That stone on her neck must have weighed a hundred pounds, a thousand.
It weighed a ton.
“Nora, I love you too.”
Somehow with great effort, she lifted her head. She looked at him. His brown eyes, so dark as to be almost black, were warm and kind and beautiful.
She loved those eyes. She loved the high bridge and narrow line of his nose. She loved every aspect of his lean and ascetic face.
“I should have told you first,” he said, “because it's easier for me to say it than it is for you. I should have said it days ago, weeks ago: Nora, by God, I love you. But I didn't say it because I was afraid. Every time I let myself love someone, I lose them, but this time I think maybe it'll be different. Maybe you'll change things for me the way I helped change them for you, and maybe this time luck's with me.”
Her heart raced. She could barely get her breath, but she said, “I love you.”
“Will you marry me?”
She was stunned. She did not know what she'd expected to happen, but certainly not this. Just hearing him say he loved her, just being able to express the same sentiments to him-that was enough to keep her happy for weeks, months. She expected to have time to walk around their love, as if it were a great and mysterious edifice that, like some newly discovered pyramid, must be studied and pondered from every angle before she dared to undertake an exploration of the interior.
“Will you marry me?” be repeated.
This was too fast, recklessly fast, and just sitting there on a kitchen chair she got as dizzy as if she had been spinning around on a carnival ride, and she was afraid, too, so she tried to tell him to slow down, tried to tell him they had plenty of time to consider the next step before taking it, but to her surprise she heard herself say, “Yes. Oh, yes.”
He reached out and took both her hands.
She cried, then, but they were good tears.
Lost in his book, Einstein had nevertheless been aware of what was transpiring. He came to the table, sniffing at both of them, rubbing against their legs, and whining happily.
Travis said, “Next week?”
“Married? But it takes time to get a license and everything.”
“Not in Las Vegas. I can call ahead, make arrangements with a wedding chapel in Vegas. We can go next week and be married.”
Crying and laughing at the same time, she said, “All right.”
“Terrific,” Travis said, grinning.
Einstein wagged his tail furiously: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.
On Wednesday, the fourth of August, working on contract for the Tetragna Family of San Francisco, Vince Nasco hit a little cockroach named Lou Pantangela. The cockroach had turned state's evidence and was scheduled, in September, to testify in court against members of the Tetragna organization.
Johnny The Wire Santini, computer hacker for the mob, had used his high-
tech expertise to invade federal computer files and locate Pantangela. The cockroach was living under the protection of two federal marshals in a safe house in, of all places, Redondo Beach, south of L.A. After testifying this autumn, he was scheduled to be given a new identity and a new life in Connecticut, but of course he was not going to live that long.
Because Vince would probably have to waste one or both of the marshals to get at Pantangela, the rubout was going to bring a lot of heat, so the Tetragnas offered him a very high price-$60,000. They had no way of knowing that the need to kill more than one man was a bonus to Vince; it made the job more-not less-attractive.
He ran surveillance on Pantangela for almost a week, using a different vehicle every day to avoid being spotted by the cockroach's bodyguards. They did not often let Pantangela outside, but they were still more confident of their hiding place than they should have been because three or four times a week they allowed him to have a late lunch in public, accompanying him to a little trattoria four blocks from the safe house.
They had changed Pantangela's appearance as much as possible. He had once had thick black hair that he had worn longish, over his collar, Now his hair was cut short and dyed light brown. He'd had a mustache, but they'd made him shave it off. He had been sixty pounds overweight, but after two months in the care of the marshals, he had lost about forty pounds. Nevertheless, Vince recognized him.
On Wednesday, August 4, they took Pantangela to the trattoria at one o'clock, as usual. At ten minutes past one, Vince strolled in to have his own lunch.
The restaurant had only eight tables in the middle and six booths along each side wall. It looked clean but had too much Italian kitsch for Vince's taste: red- and white-checkered tablecloths; garish murals of roman ruins; empty wine bottles used as candleholders; a thousand bunches of plastic grapes, for God's sake, hanging from lattice fixed to the ceiling and meant to convey the atmosphere of an arbor. Because Californians tend to eat an early dinner, at least by Eastern standards, they also eat an early lunch, and by ten past one, the number of diners had already peaked and was declining. By two o'clock, it was likely that the only customers remaining would be Pantangela, his two bodyguards, and Vince, which was what made it such a good place for the hit.
The trattoria was too small to bother with a hostess at lunch, and a sign told guests to seat themselves. Vince walked back through the room, past the Pantangela party, to an empty booth behind them.
Vince had given a lot of thought to his clothes. He was wearing rope sandals, red cotton shorts, and a white T-shirt on which were blue waves, a yellow sun, and the words ANOTHER CALIFORNIA BODY. His aviator sunglasses were mirrored. He carried an open-topped canvas beach bag that was boldly lettered MY STUFF. If you glanced in the bag when he walked past, you'd see a tightly rolled towel, bottles of tanning lotion, a small radio, and a hairbrush,
but you wouldn't see the fully automatic, silencer-equipped Uzi pistol with a forty-round magazine hidden in the bottom. With his deep tan to complement the outfit, he achieved the look he wanted: a very fit but aging surfer; a leisure-sotted, shiftless, and probably harebrained jerk who would be beaching it every day, pretending to be young, and still self-intoxicated when he was sixty.
He only glanced uninterestedly at Pantangela and the marshals, but he was aware of them giving him the once-over, then dismissing him as harmless. Perfect.
The booths had high padded backs, so from where he sat he could not see Pantangela. But he could hear the cockroach and the marshals talking now and then, mostly about baseball and women.
After a week of surveillance, Vince knew that Pantangela never left the trattoria sooner than two-thirty, usually three o'clock, evidently because he insisted on an appetizer, a salad, a main course, and dessert, the whole works. That gave Vince time for a salad and an order of linguini with clam sauce.
His waitress was about twenty, white-blond, pretty, and as deeply tanned as Vince. She had the hip look and sound of a beach girl, and she started coming on to him right away, while taking his order. He figured she was one of those sand nymphs whose brain was as sun-fried as her body. She probably spent every summer evening on the beach, doing dope of every description, spreading her legs for any stud who vaguely interested her-and most of them would interest her-which meant that, no matter how healthy she looked, she was disease-ridden. Just the idea of humping her made him want to puke, but he had to play out the role he'd chosen for himself, so he flirted with her and tried to look as if he could barely keep from drooling at the thought of her naked, writhing body pinned under him.
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