This was not one of those moments.
When the car came to a stop, he twisted the key in the ignition, but the engine did not shut off. Freakishly, the damage had disrupted this one function of the electrical system.
From under the car rose the astringent odor of spilled gasoline. No doubt the idling engine or a shorting wire would conspire in some fashion to set the Chevrolet afire.
He sighed, annoyed that the universe had been organized in such a way that his will was sometimes thwarted. Well, no one had promised him a rose garden; in fact, quite the opposite.
Because of the Dumpster hung up on the car, Krait could not get out through the driver’s side. When he slid across the seat and tried the passenger’s door, he discovered that it was firmly jammed, maybe because the frame had torqued.
He could have clambered into the backseat and tried that door; however, he had sufficient experience to know when the cosmos was dealing him a bum hand. That door, too, would be inoperable, and by then he would be afire, which would be ironic, and amusing to some, but a distinct impediment to the completion of his mission.
Drawing his SIG P245, he fanned three shots at the windshield, which fractured and dissolved like a sheet of ice. The gun was loaded with .45 ACPs, so a round might travel the length of the alley and take the throat out of a passing pimp, young mother, or priest, depending on his luck.
Holstering the weapon, careful of his hands, which were vital to his work, he squirmed across the dashboard, out of the Chevy, and onto the hood with as much dignity as he could muster.
The woman had reached the end of the alleyway and had turned left or right, out of sight.
Taking swift strides, Krait went after her, but he did not run. A pursuit that required running was probably a pursuit already lost.
Besides, a running man did not appear to be a man in control. He might even give the impression of being panicked.
Appearances are not reality, but they often can be a convincing alternative to it. You can control appearances most of the time, but facts are what they are. When the facts are too sharp, you can craft a cheerful version of the situation and cover the facts the way that you can cover a battered old four-slice toaster with a knitted cozy featuring images of kittens.
Appearances were the currency of Krait’s profession.
Striding swiftly but not running, with his cultured smile in place, he reached the end of the alley and stepped onto the sidewalk along the main street. He glanced right, looked left, and saw the Explorer angled to the curb, the woman boarding it.
At fifteen yards, with the SIG P245, he could at least shoot the numbers on a range target and usually place a ragged cluster.
The Explorer was maybe thirty yards away, thirty-five, so he strode east along the sidewalk, closing on the target.
The P245 featured a six-round magazine. He had three rounds left, no spare ammo.
Because originally he had been supposed to make the woman’s murder look like the aftermath of a violent sexual assault, he had not intended to shoot her. He had seen no reason to pack a lot of fire power.
The situation had changed.
He had closed to within twenty yards when evidently they saw him. The SUV shifted into reverse, arced into the street, and backed eastward at high speed.
If any westbound traffic had been behind Carrier, he would have collided with it or would have been at least fatefully delayed. But on this night, the infinite wheel of the cosmos revolved in harmony with him, and he reversed all the way to the intersection, where he executed a slick fishtail turn and sped south on the cross street, out of sight.
Even this development did not elicit a snarl of rage or a curse from Krait. Frustrated but smiling, he holstered the pistol once more and continued to stride along the sidewalk, though not as swiftly as before.
If he stood apart from humanity and ranked superior to it, as on other days the evidence suggested that he did, he nevertheless had a rightful place in this sorry world. In fact, he occupied an exalted position. He sometimes thought of himself as secret royalty.
As a high prince of the earth, he had an obligation to conduct himself in a fashion suitable to his station, in a manner always decorous and becoming, with style and grace and quiet confidence, radiating at all times an aura of power and unrelenting purpose.
He changed course, heading south, and crossed the intersection. His intention was not to follow the Explorer on foot, but merely to put distance between himself and the alleyway in which the sedan burned like pitch in perdition.
When the police found the car, they might cruise the surrounding blocks, looking for suspicious pedestrians. Although he was immune to their authority, Krait preferred not to complicate his situation by tangling with them.
Sirens rose in the east.
Not running, never running, Krait increased his pace, striding with quiet confidence. Chin raised, shoulders back, chest out, he proceeded in the posture of a prince on an evening constitutional, lacking nothing more than a silver-headed walking stick and a retinue of retainers to complete the image.
He progressed almost a block as the sirens swelled louder and closer, and then another block as they receded into silence.
Eventually he found himself in a neighborhood of respectable two-story homes. In this pleasant southern California night, the Victorian gingerbread, basketweave brick chimneys, and steep gabled roofs made the houses appear to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Krait halted under the flowered limbs of a jacaranda, at a driveway in which four issues of the local newspaper were scattered in clear weather-resistant delivery bags.
Usually, if someone went away on vacation without remembering to arrange a hiatus in newspaper deliveries, a neighbor would pick up the accumulating issues to prevent potential burglars from recognizing an easy target. That no one had done so suggested that the people at this residence had not lived here long enough to establish mutually supportive relationships with their neighbors or were not well liked.
In either case, this house offered a sanctuary in which Krait could refresh himself and arrange to be re-equipped. He would need these accommodations only a couple of hours, and the odds were low that the owners would return during that brief window of time.
If they did return, he could deal with them.
He gathered up the newspapers and carried them to the front porch.
Lattice panels twined with night-blooming jasmine shielded the porch from the neighbors. The perfume of these flowers was too rich for a man of his simple tastes, but the screen of greenery served him well.
With a penlight, he examined one of the panels of glass flanking the front door. He found no indication of alarm-system magnetic tape.
From a holster smaller than the one in which he carried the pistol, he withdrew a LockAid lock-release gun, a device restricted for sale to law-enforcement agencies.
If he were forced to choose between going without a pistol or without a LockAid, he would have surrendered his firearm with no hesitation. In less than a minute, often much less, a LockAid could spring all the pins to the shear line in the finest deadbolt ever manufactured.
A gun was not the only tool with which he could fulfill a job assignment. He could kill with a wide array of weapons, with a host of everyday objects that most people would not view as weapons, not least of all with the steel spring inside the roll bar of a toilet-paper dispenser, and of course with his bare hands.
The LockAid, however, not only facilitated Krait’s work but also granted him entrée everywhere, a right and a power no less complete than that of any ancient king, before the advent of parliaments, when no door in the kingdom could be barred to His Majesty.
He was as sentimental about his LockAid as a lesser man might have been about his dear old mother or his children.
Krait had no memory of a mother. If he’d ever had one, she must be dead, but he was willing to entertain the notion that, in addition to all the ways he was apart from humanity and superior to it, he might also have come into this world by a route different from the one everybody else had taken.
He did not know what his special route might have been, if not a mother. He had not spent any time thinking about it, for he was not, after all, either a biologist or a theologian.
As for children: He found them incoherent, incomprehensible, boring, and fundamentally inexplicable. A lot of adults’ time went to the care of children, and a horrendous amount in social services was spent on them, in spite of the fact that they were small and weak and ignorant and had nothing to give back to society.
Krait had no memories of his childhood. His sincere hope was that he’d never had one, because he was revolted by the thought of a little Krait with head lice and whooping cough, playing in a sandbox with plastic trucks, three teeth missing and snot hanging out of his nose.
After disengaging both the regular lockset and the deadbolt, he stepped into the house, listened to the emptiness for a moment, and then called out, “Yoo-hoo, anybody home?”
He waited for a response, received none, closed the door behind him, and turned on a couple of lamps in the living room.
The decor was too ornate for his taste, and too feminine. His preference for simplicity was so strong that he might have been happy as a monk, in a particularly spartan monastery, except that monks were not permitted to murder people.
Before fully committing himself to this residence, Krait toured the living room, wiping his fingers along the tops of door frames and over the higher surfaces of tall furniture, pleased to discover that these surfaces were as clean as those that could easily be seen.
When he examined the sofa cushions and the armchair upholstery for evidence of discolorations from hair oil and sweat, he found none. He didn’t discover a single food or beverage stain.
With his penlight, he looked under a sofa and under a sideboard. No dust bunnies.
Satisfied that the homeowner met his standards of cleanliness, Krait relaxed on the sofa. He propped his feet on the coffee table.
After sending a coded text message that succinctly explained his situation, he requested new transportation, significant new weaponry, and a modest number of high-tech devices that might be useful now that this assignment had become more complex.
He provided the address at which he was currently taking refuge and asked to be given an estimated delivery time when one could be calculated.
Then he stripped down to his underwear and carried his clothes into the kitchen.
Into a night with a lowering sky and a slowly rising wind, Tim drove with no ultimate destination in mind, though as he wove from street to street, avoiding freeways, he gradually proceeded south and toward the coast.
With no trace of anxiety, Linda told him about Dennis Jolly and his big ear lobes, the self-destructing Chevy, and her need to use a bathroom.
They stopped at a service station, filled the tank with gasoline, and visited the lavatories. In the adjacent convenience store, he bought a package of vanilla-flavored Rolaids Softchews.
Tim needed the antacids, but Linda declined an offer of one. Her unflappable calm continued to intrigue him.
On the move once more, he told her about the Chevy, the fire hydrant, the picket fence, and the untimely appearance of the bearded man with the beer belly.
She said, “You shot out the tires?”
“One of the tires, maybe two.”
“Right there on a public street?”
“The way it went down, I didn’t have time to put up sawhorses and close the block.”
“Not really. Lots of places on the planet, there’s more shooting in the streets than driving.”
“Where does an ordinary bricklayer suddenly get the grit to walk into the path of a car driven by a hit man, and shoot out the tires?”
“I’m not an ordinary bricklayer. I’m an excellent bricklayer.”
“You’re something, I don’t know what,” she said, and ejected the magazine from the pistol that he had borrowed.
“So we’re in the same club,” he said. “Gimme the title of one of the novels you wrote.”
“That’s one of your titles?”
“Gimme another one.”
“The Hopeless and the Dead.”
“I’m going to guess—they weren’t on the best-seller list.”
“No, but they’ve sold okay. I’ve got an audience.”
“What’s their suicide rate? I don’t get it. You said you write painful, stupid, gut-wrenching books. But when I look at you, I don’t see a chronic depressive.”
Replenishing the depleted magazine with spare 9-mm rounds from her purse, she said, “I’m not depressed. I just used to think I ought to be.”
“Why did you think you ought to be?”
“Because I was hanging out with university types, they love doom. And because of all the stuff that happened.”
Instead of answering, she said, “For a long time I was so angry, so bitter, I didn’t have room for depression.”
“Then it seems like you’d be writing angry books.”
“There was some anger in them, but mostly anguish, torment, wretchedness, and a festering kind of sorrow.”
“I’m glad we weren’t dating in those days. Sorrow about what?”
“Just drive,” she said.
He drove, but he said, “Now that you won’t be writing anguished, wretched, festering books anymore, what will you be writing?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t figured it out yet. Maybe a story about a bricklayer who goes insane at a Peter, Paul and Mary concert.”
Tim’s cell phone rang. He hesitated, thinking the caller might be Kravet.
Instead, it was Pete Santo. “Hey, Doorman, you’ve got yourself into something mondo weird.”
“Don’t call me Doorman. What weird?”
“You know how guys who use a lot of fake ID often keep the same initials for first and last name?”
Pulling to the curb and stopping in a residential neighborhood, Tim said, “All right.”
“So I put together a search profile for anyone in DMV records with an R first name, K surname. Other parameters were from Kravet’s license—male, brown hair, brown eyes, six feet, birth date.”
“You got some hits?”
“I got twenty-some hits. Nine are what we’re looking for. The photo is the same guy, your guy with that creepy little smile. Robert Krane, Reginald Konrad, Russell Kerrington—”
“You think one of them might be his real name?”
“I’m gonna run them all through local, state, and national law-enforcement databases, see if one turns up with some kind of badge. This guy has to be connected somewhere.”