In his thirty-four years, he had no slightest experience of the supernatural, nor any interest in it. As an architect, he believed in line and light, in form and function, in the beauty of things built to last.
As he tore the most recent drawing from the tablet and put it aside, however, he could not dismiss the uncanny feeling that the talent on display here was not his own.
Perhaps this was what psychologists called a flow state, what professional athletes referred to as being in the zone, a moment of transcendence when the mind raises no barriers of self-doubt and therefore allows a talent to be expressed more fully than has ever been possible previously.
The problem with that explanation was, he didn’t feel in full control, whereas in a flow state, you were supposed to experience absolute mastery of your gifts.
In front of him, the blank page in the tablet insisted on his attention.
Go even closer on the eyes this time, he thought. Go all the way into the eyes.
First, he needed a break. He put down the pencil-but at once picked it up, without even pausing to stretch and flex his fingers, as if his hand had a will of its own.
Almost as though observing from a distance, he watched himself use the X-acto knife to carve away the wood and point the pencil.
After he sharpened a variety of leads, to give them typical points, blunt points, and chisel points, and after he finished each on a block of sandpaper, he put the last pencil and the knife aside.
He pushed his chair back from the table, got up, and went to the kitchen sink to splash cold water in his face.
As he reached for the faucet handle, he realized that he had a pencil in his right hand.
He glanced at the table. The pencil that he thought he had left beside the art tablet was not there.
Before Amy had called him to assist on the rescue mission, he’d had only an hour’s sleep. Weariness explained his current state of mind, these small confusions.
He put the pencil on the cutting board beside the sink and stared at it for a moment, as if expecting it to rise on point and doodle its way back to him.
After repeatedly immersing his face in double handfuls of cold water, he dried off with paper towels, yawned, rubbed his beard stubble with one hand, and then stretched luxuriously.
He needed caffeine. In the refrigerator were cans of Red Bull, which he kept on hand for those design deadlines that sometimes required him to pull an all-nighter.
The pencil was not clutched in his right hand when he opened the refrigerator door. It was in his left.
“Weariness, my ass.”
He put the pencil on a glass shelf in the refrigerator, in front of a Tupperware container full of leftover pesto pasta.
After popping the tab on a Red Bull and taking a long swallow, he closed the fridge without retrieving the pencil. He clearly saw it on the shelf in front of the pesto pasta as the door swung shut.
When he returned to the table and put down the Red Bull, he realized that the pocket of his Hawaiian shirt contained a pencil.
This had to be a different pencil from the one in the fridge. It must have been in the pocket since he’d risen from the table to wash his face.
He counted the pencils on the table. Two should be missing: the one in his pocket, the one in the fridge. But he was short only one.
Disbelieving, he returned to the refrigerator. The pencil that he had left on the shelf in front of the Tupperware container was no longer there.
Now you see it. Now you don’t.
Sitting at the table again, Brian took the pencil from his shirt pocket. With flourishes and a nimbleness akin to prestidigitation, his fingers manipulated the instrument into the proper drawing grip.
He had not consciously intended to play with the pencil in that fashion. His fingers appeared to be expressing a memory of diligent practice from a previous life when he had been a magician.
The point touched the paper, and graphite seemed to flow almost as swiftly as a liquid, pouring forth the enigmas of luminous flux and translucent veils in the dog’s far-seeing eye.
He gave less thought to what he would draw, then less, then none at all. Independent of him, his inspired hand swiftly shaped shadows and suggested light.
On the nape of his neck, the fine hairs rose, but he was neither frightened nor even apprehensive. A quiet amazement had overtaken him.
As he had half suspected-and now knew beyond doubt-he could not claim to be the artist here. He was as much an instrument as was the pencil that he held. The artist remained unknown.
After a few hours of sleep, Amy woke at 7:30, showered, dressed, served three bowls of kibble, and took the kids for a morning walk.
Three big dogs could have been a test of Amy’s control and balance. Fortunately, Nickie seemed to have received good training. Each time Amy dropped the leashes to blue-bag the poop, Nickie respected a sit-and-stay command as reliably as did Fred and Ethel.
The pleasantly warm morning was freshened by a breeze as light as a caress, and the feathery fronds of queen palms cast shadows that resembled the plumed tails of the goldens.
Having overslept, Amy brushed all three dogs in just one hour. They lay as limp as citizens of leisure being pampered at a spa. She spent more time on Nickie than on the other two, but found no ticks.
By 9:40, the four of them were aboard the Expedition, outbound from Laguna Beach on an adventure.
They stopped first to see Dr. Sarkissian, one of a network of veterinarians who treated rescue dogs at a discount until they were placed in forever homes.
After an examination, Harry Sarkissian gave Nickie a full array of inoculations. He put her on medication to control fleas, ticks, and heartworm. Results of a blood workup would come back in two days.
“But there’s nothing wrong with this girl,” he predicted. “She’s a beauty.”
With Nickie, Amy returned to the Expedition, where Fred and Ethel sulked briefly. They knew a visit to the vet always included a cookie. Besides, they could smell it on their sister’s breath.
Renata Hammersmith lived inland, where pockets of horse country still survived the relentless march of southern California suburbs.
She dressed so reliably in boots, jeans, and checkered shirts that it was easy for Amy to believe that the woman slept in a similar outfit, impossible to imagine her in pajamas or peignoir.
Surrounded by white ranch fencing, her three-acre property once featured horses grazing in a meadow that served as the front yard.
The horses became a luxury when Jerry, Renata’s husband, was disabled. His beloved 1967 Ford Mustang was hit head-on by a pickup.
Paralyzed from the waist down, Jerry had also lost his spleen, a kidney, and a significant portion of his colon.
“But I’m still full of shit,” he assured friends.
He had not lost his sense of humor.
Drunk, unemployed, and uninsured, the driver of the pickup had walked away from the collision with two broken teeth, an abrasion, and no remorse.
Six years ago, the Hammersmiths sold Jerry’s construction business, banked the capital gains, cut expenses, and hoped to make the money stretch the rest of their lives. They were now fifty-two.
Because Renata could not look after Jerry and hold a job, she feared having to sell their land one day. She had lived always with elbow room. The thought of having neighbors a wall away chilled her.
Amy drove past the ranch house, where thriving red clematis festooned the veranda roof and the posts that supported it. With a cell-phone call en route, she had learned that Renata was working with the ghost dogs in the exercise yard.
The kennel, converted from a stable, adjoined a fenced green lawn. An immense California live oak shaded half the grass.
Six golden retrievers were sitting or lying at separate points in the big exercise yard, most of them in the shade. Renata sat on a blanket in the center of the space, a seventh golden at her side.
As Amy opened the tailgate and let her kids out of the SUV, she looked back the way she had come, past the house, to the county road.
On the farther side of the two-lane blacktop, opposite the entrance to the Hammersmith property, parked in the purple shadows cast by a small grove of jacarandas, stood the Land Rover that had been following her all morning.
When she opened the gate to the exercise yard, Fred and Ethel led Nickie directly to Renata, to receive the affection they knew she would bestow, and to greet Hugo, the golden at her side.
As Amy arrived amidst the slow swarm of four socializing dogs, Renata held up to her the binoculars that she had asked for on the phone.
With them, Amy looked back toward the distant jacarandas and adjusted the focus, pulling the Land Rover toward her.
The trees spilled a currency of shadows and a few coins of light across the windshield, conspiring to obscure the face of the man-if it was a man-who sat behind the wheel.
“Is it the wife-beater?” Renata asked.
“Can’t tell. Probably not. I don’t think he could have been sprung from jail this quick.”
Amy sat on the blanket and put the binoculars aside.
The six ghost dogs watched with interest from their separate positions around the yard. None of them came forward to meet and greet.
“How’re they doing?” Amy asked.
“Better. Slow but sure. If not the wife-beater, who?”
“Maybe I’ve got a secret admirer.”
“Has someone been sending candy and flowers anonymously?”
“Secret admirers don’t do that anymore, Renata. These days, they kidnap you, rape you, and kill you with power tools.”
“What joys the revolution has brought.”
Vernon Lesley parked his rustbucket Chevy two blocks from Amy Redwing’s bungalow.
The sedan was old and in need of body work. He had repaired the upholstery with duct tape. Because the car didn’t clean up well, he never bothered to wash it.
For a long time, he had been embarrassed by the Chevy, but not once during the past year; because in his other life, he now owned a $150,000 sports car that made a Ferrari look like junkyard scrap.
He didn’t bother locking the sedan. No one would want to steal it or anything in it.
Confident that he would attract no attention, he walked directly to Redwing’s place and boldly around to the back porch.
He was thirty-nine years old, five feet eight, round-shouldered, and paunchy. Thinning beige hair. Brown eyes the shade of weak tea. His most distinctive facial feature was his receding chin.
People didn’t merely look over him or past him; they looked through him.
In his line of work, invisibility gave him an advantage. He was a private detective.
Redwing had a respectable lock on her back door, not the crappy hardware so many people depended upon, but Vern finessed through it in less than a minute.
Her kitchen was a cheerful white-and-yellow space. Only a year ago, Vern would have envied her this cozy little home.
Now, in his other life, he owned a sleek modern house on a bluff overlooking the sea. He no longer envied anyone.
The Department of Motor Vehicles and the Internal Revenue Service believed that Vernon Lesley lived only in a one-bedroom apartment in a depressed neighborhood in Santa Ana. They had no clue that, under the name Von Longwood, he enjoyed a much larger life.
Von Longwood had never applied to the DMV for a driver’s license and had never paid a dime in taxes. He left no footprints for the authorities to follow.
After pulling down all the blinds in the kitchen, Vern stood on a dinette chair to search the upper cabinets. Gradually he worked down to the lowest doors and drawers.
He took care to put everything back as he had found it. His client did not want Amy Redwing to know that her home had been searched.
Usually, when he conducted an illegal search, Vern liked to use a toilet, use it thoroughly, and leave it unflushed. He thought of it as his signature, the way Zorro slashed a Z in things with his sword.
With no other indication that the house had been violated, the owner would have to assume that he himself had left a full bowl.
In this instance, Vern intended to leave no calling card. Even if Redwing were disposed to think that she had forgotten to flush, the reaction of at least one of the dogs would probably make her suspicious.
Vern didn’t like dogs, largely because he had never met one that liked him. People stared right through Vern, but dogs gave him long hard looks and invited him to examine their teeth.
In high school, he had been blessed with a rat named Cheesy. A good rat made an excellent pet, affectionate and cute. He and Cheesy had shared many good times, uncountable confidences. Such memories.
Off the kitchen lay a half bath. Vern resisted the temptation of the toilet.
He found nothing of interest in the bath except his reflection in the mirror. He paused to smile at himself.
For most of his life, he had not been charmed by mirrors. In fact he had avoided them.
These days, however, facing a mirror, he didn’t see Vernon Lesley. He saw that lovable rogue Von Longwood, who had a thick head of hair and blue eyes.
In the kitchen again, he sorted through the pizzas, the packages of vegetables, and the containers of ice cream in the freezer. In the pantry, he checked the contents of every box that Redwing had opened, to be sure that it held what the exterior advertised.
When someone wished to hide mementos of another life, they often secreted the evidence in places that, to an inexperienced searcher, would seem to be unlikely repositories. Consequently, he made sure that the box of crackers actually contained crackers and that no tub of chocolate-caramel or strawberry-swirl ice cream contained instead a trove of old love letters.
He wasn’t literally searching for love letters. In Amy Redwing’s other life, she evidently had not been lucky in love or happy.
By contrast, as Von Longwood, Vern had enjoyed sex as often as four times in one day, and his fabulous sports car could fly, as could Von himself.
Renata referred to them as ghost dogs because they were as yet mere shades of the dogs they should have been.
They had been breeder dogs in a puppy mill, housed inhumanely, fed inadequately, and treated cruelly.
The females had been bred at their first heat-usually at six months-and then twice a year. After two or three years, if the stress of their situation prevented them from going into heat again, they would have been shot or abandoned at a county animal shelter.
In this case, the puppy mill had been raided and closed. Eleven female and four male breeder dogs were confiscated. Too sickly and fearful to be fit for adoption, these dogs faced imminent euthanasia.
Golden Heart had taken all fifteen and had brought them to the Hammersmith place, known in the organization as Last Chance Ranch.
Two males and three females had been in such grievous physical condition that they had died within the week, in spite of receiving the first veterinary care of their lives. Some of them had been so terrified of human beings that even a comforting touch would cause them to urinate or vomit in fear.