“Maybe somewhere there’s a building full of guys who once were nerdy nephews, used to hack into TV-network computers just to leave obscene messages for Nikki Cox. So they’re fifteen years older, and they’ve gone all the way over to the dark side.”
“A building full of them?” she asked. “Who’re you saying we’re up against?”
“I’m not saying. I don’t know.”
Hill folded into hill, and he ascended not directly but in a serpentine course, weaving through streets of houses that, in spite of their architectural variety, all seemed to be characterized by a quiet dread.
She said, “Listen, I already have you figured as a guy who knows things.”
“Not things like this. I’m out of my league.”
“Not that I’ve noticed.”
“So far I’ve been a little lucky.”
“Is that what you call it?”
Wind-harried pepper trees overhung the lampposts, and on the pavement, branch patterns twitched like flayed nerves.
She said, “Who is Nikki Cox?”
“She was in this TV show, Unhappily Ever After.”
“Mean-spirited, mostly mediocre, with a talking, floppy-eared, stuffed-toy rabbit.”
“Another one of those.”
“I was a teenager, hormones squirting out my ears. I watched every episode with my tongue hanging out.”
“That must have been one sexy toy rabbit.”
In every block, in two or three houses, lights glowed softly behind curtains. Back in the days when Nikki Cox had been on the air with the smartass talking toy rabbit, at this late hour you might have seen fewer than a third as many lamplit windows as there were now. This was the decade of insomnia—or perhaps the century.
“Where are we going?” Linda asked.
“I haven’t worked it out yet.”
“Wherever we go, let’s agree to one thing.”
“Not one more word about this damn Nikki Cox.”
“I just remembered the rabbit’s name. Mr. Floppy.”
“Him you can talk about.”
“I think for now we’re safer staying on the move. No more hotels.”
“I’m glad you didn’t fall to your death from a balcony.”
“Me, too. We’ll keep rolling for a while, try to think this through.”
“I thought you were going to fall. If you’d fallen, it would have been my fault.”
“How’s that figure?”
“You wouldn’t be here if somebody didn’t want me dead.”
“So just stop doing stuff that makes people want you dead.”
“I’ll work on that.”
Block after block, street after street, the conviction grew in Tim that their current safety was a brittle wire over an abyss, strung between rusting eyehooks, unraveling at one end or the other.
Repeatedly he checked the rearview mirror, the side mirrors, expecting sudden pursuit.
Linda said, “I have this friend, Teresa, she lives in Dana Point, but she’s out of town for a week. I know where she hides her spare key.”
Like agitated rats, fat wind-tumbled magnolia leaves traveled the gutter.
“Tim? Why couldn’t we hole up at Teresa’s place?”
Although the speedometer showed only thirty miles per hour, intuition told him that he was going too fast, that he would drive into trouble before he recognized it. He let their speed fall to twenty, to fifteen.
“What is it?” she asked, surveying the night.
“Don’t you feel it?”
“I feel you feeling it, but I don’t know what it is.”
“Stone,” he said.
“Think of a very high cliff.”
These north-south streets were arranged like the teeth of a comb, all ending in an east-west spine. Once more he turned left, onto the spine—and found that it ended at its intersection with the last north-south street.
“Cliff?” she reminded him.
“A cliff so high you can’t see the top, it’s lost in mist up there. And not just high, but it overhangs like a wave. We live at the bottom, in its shadow.”
He turned left, onto the last street in the neighborhood. Houses on both sides. The headlights swept over a few cars parked at the curb.
“Sometimes big stones come loose from way up in the overhang of the cliff,” he said, “come loose without making a sound.”
He reduced their speed to ten miles per hour.
“You can’t hear it coming, one of these sudden silent stones, but the falling weight…maybe it compresses the air under it as it comes, and that’s what you feel.”
Each of these streets had been three blocks long, with houses on both sides. In the second and third blocks of this final street, however, houses stood only to the left.
On the right lay a public park with athletic fields, all dark at this hour, and deep.
A silent falling stone, a soundless tsunami outracing the noise that it made, the faulted earth underfoot secretly straining toward a sudden breach…
His once-acute sensitivity to threat had returned in recent hours. Now it sharpened to a needle point.
The woolen sky and steadily rising wind should have raised an expectation of a storm. But when blades of lightning sheared the clouds, they startled Tim, and he almost tramped the brake pedal.
The houses and trees and parked cars seemed to flinch from the stabbing light, and flinched again, as brightness insistently cleaved the sky, cutting down a massive weight of thunder.
Although a greater confusion of shadows shuddered across the night than what the wind alone had stirred, the lightning revealed one thing that the widely spaced streetlamps had not touched upon. A man in dark clothes stood in the shelter of an enormous Indian laurel, his back against the trunk.
As he leaned out slightly from concealment to look toward the Explorer, the lightning silvered his face, so that it seemed to be the painted mask of a mime. He was Kravet and Krane and Kerrington and Konrad and unknown others, as ubiquitous as if he were not merely a man with a hundred names but were in fact a hundred men who shared a single mind and mission.
Riveted by the ghostly face as it vanished and reappeared in sympathy with the fulminations of the sky, Linda whispered, “Impossible.”
The mystery of this apparition could be puzzled to a resolution later. Before speculation came survival.
Tim pulled the steering wheel to the right and accelerated.
From the cover of the tree, the killer stepped forward, raising a weapon as he moved, like a malevolent spirit long dormant in the earth but now resurrected by a lightning strike.
The briefest hesitation would have resulted in a different and bloodier outcome, but the Explorer jumped the curb just as Kravet stepped from cover. Before he could fully raise the gun and open fire, he was forced to leap backward to avoid being run down.
Driving past the killer or reversing away from him would have ensured a barrage through the windshield, another through the passenger’s-side windows. Going straight at him was the best hope.
When Kravet scrambled backward, he fell.
Tim swerved, hoping to run over him, break his ankles, knees, break something. The gunman eluded the wheels, and Tim accelerated into the park.
Concrete picnic tables, concrete benches. Seesaw, jungle-gym. The wind pushing ghost children in a swing set.
The tailgate window shattered, and Tim felt a bullet punch into the back of the driver’s seat.
Before he could warn Linda to get down, she slid low.
Another round rang off metal, and maybe the SUV took a third hit, too, but a cannonade of thunder drowned out the impact of the smaller caliber.
They were out of the pistol’s range, vulnerable now only to a lucky shot. The weapon had an extended barrel, probably a silencer that would further reduce its reach.
Kravet wouldn’t stand there, trying for a lucky shot. He was a guy who kept moving.
Pushing the SUV as hard as he dared on unpredictable terrain, Tim raced in search of the farther end of the park, a way out.
Throbbing storm light revealed empty bleachers, a chain-link backstop, a baseball diamond.
Although the latest explosion of thunder seemed powerful enough to crack the breast of any dam, no rain yet fell.
Linda sat up straight and raised her voice above the wind that quarreled at the broken rear window. “We’re out of the hotel ten minutes, he finds us?”
“He’s gonna keep finding us.”
“How could he be waiting there?”
“He’s got a dashboard display. And it’s not an ordinary one, either.”
“Dashboard display? What? My brain’s fried. I’m thinking one of those little dogs that its head keeps bobbing.”
“An electronic map?”
“Yeah. He saw the pattern of the streets, figured we might end up on that one, and we did.”
As they rocked across a broad grassy drainage swale, she said, “He’s tracking us?”
“I just realized. There’s a transponder on this bucket. It was an option—a stolen-car tracking service. The cops can follow the thief by satellite.”
“They’re allowed to do that if the car hasn’t been stolen?”
“No more than they’re allowed to do murders for hire to maybe get ahead on their mortgage payments.”
The swale ended at the base of a long low slope, and Tim drove toward the brow as spasms of storm light bleached the green from the wind-shivered grass.
She said, “The company, the tracking service, they wouldn’t just cooperate with some rogue cop. You yourself would have to report it stolen before they’d activate the transponder or whatever they do.”
“He probably didn’t go through the company.”
“Who’d he go through?”
“The building full of grown-up nerdy nephews again. They hacked into the company, they’re feeding the satellite tracking to Kravet’s car.”
“I hate those guys,” she said.
At the top of the slope, the land leveled off into a soccer field. Tim saw lampposts on a distant street and sped toward them, and the speedometer needle pricked past sixty.
She said, “So there’s no way to shake him off our tail.”
The first fat raindrops snapped against the windshield, as loud as hard-shelled insects.
“If we stop, he’ll know exactly where we are. He’ll know and he’ll come.”
“Or,” Tim said, “he’ll see something on the map, a way we’re likely to go.”
“And he’ll be waiting ahead again somewhere.”
“That worries me more.”
“Where’s the transponder? Can we stop, tear it out?”
“I don’t know where it is.”
“Where would they be likely to put it?” she wondered.
“I think they put it all kinds of places, lots of different places, so a thief wouldn’t have one easy place to look.”
They passed through another area of concrete picnic tables, concrete benches, concrete trash receptacles.
“All the concrete furniture,” he said, “it’s like a picnic in a gulag.”
“When I was a little girl, I remember wood benches in parks.”
“People started stealing them.”
“Nobody wants concrete.”
“They want it,” he said. “They just can’t carry it.”
They reached the end of the park, crossed the sidewalk, jolted off the curb, into the street.
The raindrops were no longer few or fat. He switched on the windshield wipers.
“We’ve gained some time,” Tim said. “If he’s in a car like he was before, not an SUV, then he won’t risk taking a shortcut through the park. He’ll have to come around.”
“I want to gain more time.”
“Me, too. Like fifty years.”
“And I don’t want to go downhill to him. We turn a corner, he’s got it blocked with his car, he cuts us down. So we go up.”
“You know this area well?”
“Wish I did. You?”
“Not well,” she said.
At the intersection, he turned right. The wet, rising street glistered when the sky flared.
“I want to go to the top,” Tim said, “past the residential streets, over the crest. Maybe there’s an old county road we could take fast south.”
“It’s probably brushland past the crest.”
“Then there might be fire roads.”
“Why south?” she asked.
“It’s the fast that’s more important to me than the direction. I want to believe we’re five minutes ahead of him before we give up our wheels.”
“Abandon the Explorer?”
“Have to. If we just drive until somebody runs out of gas, we’d likely go dry first. Then he’s still coming behind us, and we don’t get to choose the place where we start on foot.”
She said, “When we checked into the hotel, I thought we’d have peace to make some kind of plan.”
“Won’t be any peace till this is over. I see that now. Should’ve seen it sooner. It’s all a razor’s edge now until it’s finished.”
“I don’t feel good about this.”
“No reason you should.”
“Everything’s falling away.”
“We’ll be all right,” he said.
“That doesn’t smell like bullshit, but it is.”
He didn’t want to lie to her. “Well, I don’t think you’d want me to say we’re dead.”
“Unless you think we are. Then say it.”
“I don’t think we are.”
“Good. That’s something.”
In the headlights, the silvery rain resembled skeins of tinsel, but this didn’t feel like Christmas.
On pavement almost slick enough for sledding, Tim ran the stop signs.
Kravet would expect them to have thought of the transponder, the satellite tracking. Because they were desperate to gain a sufficient lead before abandoning the Explorer, he would stay close on their heels to avoid losing them when they went on foot.
“You reloaded your pistol,” Tim said.
“More ammo in your purse?”
“Not much. Four rounds. Maybe six.”