“Well, Cynthia, it’s the way of the world, isn’t it? Not the she-wolf part, but the rest of it. People can be so horrid to one another. I’m so grateful for my friends.”
“How did you meet Bethany and James?”
“Jim,” he admonished with a wag of his finger.
She smiled and shook her head. “He’s got me quite brainwashed on the issue.”
“We met through mutual friends. Do you know Judi and Frankie?”
“Oh,” she said, “I adore Judi and Frankie.”
“They are such a wonderful couple.”
He sighed wistfully. “If I could find love like that, Cynthia, I’d kill for it.”
“You’ll find someone, Rommy. There’s someone for everyone.”
“I guess someday lightning could strike. I would very much like to see lightning strike, I’ll tell you.”
They dunked and ate.
A drab gray morning rose at the windows, and the kitchen seemed even cozier by comparison to the rainy day.
He said, “Did you know they’re in Paris now?”
“Judi and Frankie love Paris.”
“Everybody does. I was supposed to go with them this time, but I was hit by an avalanche of work.”
“I’ll bet they’d be fun to travel with,” she said.
“They’re an absolute delight. We were in Spain together. We ran with the bulls.”
Cynthia’s gentian eyes widened. “Judi and Frankie ran with the bulls—like in Hemingway?”
“Well, Judi didn’t, but Frankie insisted. And you know, there’s no resisting Frankie.”
“I’m astonished. But I guess…they’re both quite athletic.”
“Oh, they wear me out sometimes,” he said.
“Isn’t that dangerous, running with the bulls?”
“Well, it’s better to run with them than to be run over by them. My legs were rubber by the end of it.”
“The closest I want to get to a bull,” she said, “is filet mignon.”
“You’re marvelous.” He patted her arm. “I’m having such fun. This is so nice. Isn’t this nice?”
“It is, yes. But I never thought Judi and Frankie would be drawn to dangerous sports. They don’t seem the type.”
“It’s not Judi, really. Frankie’s the one who gets a thrill from walking on the edge. I worry about him sometimes.”
He dunked and ate, but she sat with a wedge of toast halfway to her mouth, as though she had just remembered that she was on a diet, as though she were clamped between the jaws of appetite and self-denial.
“Have you been to Paris, Cynthia?”
Slowly, she returned the unbitten wedge of toast to her plate.
He said, “Is something wrong, dear?”
“I’ve got…a thing to do. I forgot. An appointment.”
When she started to push back from the table, he put a hand over hers. “You can’t rush off, Cynthia.”
“I have such a sieve for a memory. I forgot—”
Tightening his grip on her hand, Krait said, “I’m curious. What was my mistake?”
“You’re trembling, dear. You’re no good at pretending. What was my mistake?”
“It’s a dentist appointment.”
“For when—six-thirty in the morning?”
Nonplussed, she looked at the wall clock.
“Cynthia? Cindy? I’d really love to know what my mistake was.”
With her eyes still fixed on the clock, she said, “F-Frankie isn’t a man.”
“Surely Judi isn’t a man. Ah. I see. A wonderful lesbian couple. Well, that’s all right. I have no problem with that. In fact, I’m all for it.”
He patted her hand and picked up the wedge of toast from which she had been incapable of taking a bite. He dunked it.
Unable to look at him, regarding her plate, she said, “Did you hurt them?”
“Bethany and Jim? Of course not, dear. They’re off to work just like you thought, clawing for bonuses and stock options. I didn’t let myself in until they were gone.”
He took a bite of toast. Another bite. He finished the wedge.
“May I go?” she asked.
“Dear, let me explain. My outfit was ruined by the rain. I’m waiting here for a delivery of fresh clothes. I have no time in my schedule for the police.”
“I would just go home,” she said.
“I’ve never learned to trust people, Cynthia.”
“I won’t call the police. Not for a few hours.”
“How long do you think you could wait?”
She raised her head, met his eyes. “As long as you tell me to. I’ll just go home and sit.”
“You’re a very gentle person, Cynthia.”
“I’ve always just…”
“What have you always just, dear?”
“I’ve always just wanted things to be nice for everyone.”
“Of course you have. That’s you, dear. That’s so you. And you know what? I believe you really might do what you say.”
“I believe you might go home and sit quietly for hours.”
“I give you my word. I do.”
Reaching around the end of the table, he retrieved the Glock machine pistol from the chair.
“Oh, please,” she said.
“Now don’t jump to conclusions, Cynthia.”
She looked at the wall clock. He didn’t know what hope she saw in the clock. Time was no one’s friend.
“Come with me, dear.”
“Just a few steps. Come with me.”
She tried to get up. She had no strength.
At her chair, he held out his left hand. “Let me help.”
Cynthia did not recoil from his touch, but took his hand and held tight to it. “Thank you.”
“We’re just going to walk across the kitchen to the half bath. That’s not so far.”
“You don’t what, dear?”
“I don’t understand this.”
Pulling her to her feet, he said, “No. You wouldn’t. So many things are beyond understanding, aren’t they?”
The library, a squat brick structure with narrow barred windows, brought to mind a fortress, as if far-thinking librarians realized that a day was fast approaching when books would have to be defended to the death against barbarian hordes.
Near dawn, Pete Santo parked near the entrance.
Back in February, a troubled youth—as the media tagged him—had hidden in the library overnight. A recent benefit to raise funds for book purchases had taken in forty thousand dollars, and he figured to heist the loot and live high.
An honest media would have referred to him as an ignorant drug-addled youth, but that might have humiliated the child and started him down a path of antisocial behavior.
Although eighteen, the “youth” didn’t understand that the money had been contributed in the form of checks and had been deposited in a bank. He didn’t trust banks. They were “run by money vampires who want to suck you dry.” He preferred a cash stash, and he assumed that anyone as smart as he was—or smarter—would feel the same.
After a search, when he found only a metal box containing petty cash, he decided to wait for the librarian to open in the morning. He would put a gun to her head and demand the forty thousand.
To his surprise, three men from a maintenance company let themselves into the library at 5:00 A.M. to perform a nightly four-hour cleaning. Holding them at gunpoint, he demanded their wallets.
He might have pulled off this robbery if the maintenance men hadn’t seen the ruined books. They became incensed.
In the lonely hours after the troubled youth had given up trying to find the forty thousand, he collected books that he felt—based on titles and jacket art—were full of “wrong ideas.” He destroyed them.
The maintenance crew was not composed of three ardent book lovers. They were furious with the youth because instead of tearing the volumes apart or setting them on fire, he had chosen to urinate on them, and it was their job to clean up the mess.
They distracted him, rushed him, took the gun from him, and beat the crap out of him. Then they called the cops.
Pete had given them a stern but not entirely sincere lecture on the inadvisability of taking the law into their own hands.
Now, leaving Zoey in the Mountaineer with the doors locked, he hurried to the shelter of the front overhang. Through the panes in the doors, he saw light, and he knocked loudly.
A maintenance man appeared. Pete held his badge to the glass, but the janitor let him in without examining the ID.
“Hey, Detective Santo. What you doin’ here? Nobody pissed on no books tonight.”
“You hear he’s suing the library?” Pete asked.
“He’ll probably score a couple million.”
“If he does, maybe I’ll piss on some books.”
“You’ll need to get in line.”
“Listen, I know the library doesn’t open for a few hours, but I’ve got to use one of the computers here.”
“Don’t the cops have no computers?”
“This is personal business. I can’t do it at the office, and my computer at home crashed.”
“You sure don’t need my permission. Cops—can’t they go anywhere they want, anytime?”
“That’s not quite how the Constitution puts it, but close.”
“You know where they are, the computers?”
“Yes. I remember.”
The devil of illiteracy had been given a staging post in the temple of the word. Two aisles of books had been displaced to allow the installation of six work stations.
Pete sat down, powered up, and got back on the Web. Soon he was immersed once more in the Cream Sugar murders.
Cynthia Norwood had been a vital sixty-something until their conversation about the running of the bulls. Thereafter, she had seemed to age twenty years in a minute.
Her previous lively eyes were dull. All the charm had gone out of her face, replaced by a slackness that made her look as if she were drugged.
Her legs were weak. She could not lift her feet. Even with Krait’s assistance, she shuffled more than walked.
In a meek bewildered voice, she said, “Why are we going to the half bath?”
“Because it doesn’t have a window.”
“I don’t know why, dear. I would have put a window there if it were up to me.”
“I mean what for? Why can’t we stay here?”
“You didn’t want any more breakfast, remember?”
“All I want is to go home.”
“Yes, I know. You love home as much as I do.”
“You don’t need to do this.”
“Somebody has to do it, Cynthia.”
“I never did anything to anyone.”
“Oh, I know. It’s not right. Really, it’s not.”
As he pressed her through the bathroom doorway ahead of him, he felt her shaking violently under his hand.
“I was going to go shopping later.”
“Where do you like to shop?”
“I’m not much of a shopper myself.”
She said, “I need a nice summer suit.”
“You have taste and flair.”
“I’ve always liked clothes.”
“Step over there to the corner, dear.”
“This isn’t like you, Rommy.”
“Actually it is very like me.”
“I know you’re a good man.”
“Well, I’m good at what I do.”
“I know you’re good at heart. Everyone is, at heart.” She stood facing the corner, her back to him. “Please.”
“Turn around and face me, dear.”
Her voice broke: “I’m afraid.”
“What’re you going to do?”
She faced him. Tears streamed. “I was against the war.”
“What war, dear?”
“Malcolm was for it, but I was always against.”
“Why, Cynthia—you’re transformed.”
“And I give to things, you know. I give to things.”
“For a moment there, you looked so old, so sad and old.”
“To save the eagles and the whales, hunger in Africa.”
“But you’re not old at all now. I swear, there’s not a line in your face now. You look like a child.”
“I’m surprised you got to that so late.”
“Oh, God. Oh, God.”
“Very late for that, dear.”
He thumbed the selector on the slide, converting the pistol to semi-automatic because he needed only one round. From across the small room, he shot her in the forehead.
Truly, she had appeared to be a child at the end, although not any longer.
Krait left the half bath and pulled the door shut.
After heating more hot chocolate and making two slices of fresh toast, he sat at the table. Everything was delicious, but he didn’t feel as cozy as before. He could not recapture the mood.
According to the wall clock, his clothes would not be delivered for another hour and twenty minutes.
He had only done a quick tour of the house. While he waited for the clothes, he could conduct a more intimate inspection.
Incredibly, a man called, “Cynthia,” from the front room, and then again, “Cynthia?” Footsteps approached.
Currently vacationing in New York with two girlfriends, Teresa Mendez lived in one half of a duplex in Dana Point. She kept a spare key in a combination key safe secured to the bottom of a redwood chair on the back patio.
Linda led the way into the house by the back door. She took the pistol out of her purse and set it on the breakfast table. She put her carryall and purse in the kitchen sink to let the rain drain off.
Looking down in dismay at the puddle forming around his feet, Tim said, “Got a Creature from the Black Lagoon thing going on here.”
“I’ll get some towels.” She stripped off her jacket, hung it on a chrome-and-vinyl chair, pulled off her shoes, and left the room.