Tim pulled to the curb behind a two-year-old silver Cadillac. From Linda’s carryall, he withdrew his zippered vinyl kit of tools.
She remained in the Honda to monitor whether the touted “instant activation” would be minutes or hours later than promised.
Openly rather than furtively, quickly but not with an air of haste, Tim removed the front and back plates from Teresa’s Honda. He put them in the trunk.
No passing motorists would think twice about a man with tools attending to a car in the middle of an auto center.
The showrooms were set so far back behind the sales lots that the vehicles parked along the communal roadway were out of sight of the dealership employees.
He walked forward to the silver Cadillac. The doors were locked. Peering through the windows, he saw no personal effects inside. The glove box hung open, looked empty.
Evidence suggested this was a recent trade-in, not yet sent for service prior to resale, so it might sit here undisturbed for a few days. In California, license plates remained on a trade-in, and the buyer drove with no plates on the new vehicle until he received them in the mail.
If the Cadillac had seemed to be an employee’s car, Tim would have moved up the line until he found a possible trade-in, because the sooner someone drove the car, the sooner the missing plates might be noticed.
He removed the tags from the Cadillac and put them on the Honda Accord.
When Tim got behind the wheel again, Linda said, “No service yet. If I were still a writer, I’d write about a psychopath who tracks down someone who failed to keep a guarantee of instant activation.”
“What’s the psycho do when he finds the guy?”
“You’re still a writer,” he said.
She shook her head. “I don’t know anymore. And if I don’t know, how would you know?”
Starting the Honda, he said, “Because we are what we are.”
“That’s very deep. If I ever write another book, I’ll use that for sure.”
“I thought I could be just a mason. I’m a mason, all right, but I’m still what I was, too.”
As he pulled away from the curb, he could feel that green gaze all over his face.
“And what is it that you were?” she asked.
“My dad is a mason, too, and a damn good one. Being a mason defines him like it doesn’t seem to totally define me, though I wish it did.”
“Your dad is a mason,” she said almost with wonder, as if he had revealed something magical.
“Why’s that surprising? Tradesmen tend to pass the trade on to their kids, or try to.”
“This is going to sound stupid. But since you showed up at my place, everything’s been going so fast…it never occurred to me to think did you have a father. Do you like him?”
“Do I like him? Why wouldn’t I like him?”
“Fathers and sons, it’s not always a sure thing.”
“He’s a great guy. He’s the best.”
“My God, you have a mother, too, don’t you?”
“Well, my dad’s not an amoeba, he didn’t just divide in two and there I was.”
“Oh, my God,” she said softly, with a kind of awe, “what’s your mother’s name?”
“Oh, my God, her name is Mary.”
“Mary,” she said, as though she had never heard the name before, as though it were musical and sweet upon the tongue. “Is she really wonderful?”
“She’s about as wonderful as you could stand.”
“What’s your dad’s name?”
“It would be, wouldn’t it?”
“Does he have a huge head like you?”
“I don’t remember it any smaller.”
“Walter and Mary,” she said. “Oh, my God.”
Perplexed, he glanced at her. “What’re you grinning about?”
“I thought you were this foreign country.”
“What foreign country?”
“Your own country, an exotic land, so much to learn about it, so much to explore. But you’re not a foreign country.”
“You’re a world.”
“Is that another crack about my big head?”
“Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
Departing the auto center, Tim said, “No sisters. One brother. Zach. He’s five years older than me, and he’s got a normal head.”
“Walter, Mary, Zach, and Tim,” she said, and seemed delighted. “Walter, Mary, Zach, and Tim.”
“I’m not sure why it should matter, but suddenly everything seems to matter, so I should say Zach is married to Laura, and they have a little girl named Naomi.”
Linda’s eyes shone as if with restrained tears, but she didn’t look like a woman on the verge of weeping. Quite the contrary.
He sensed that he might be walking a ragged edge with this question, but he said, “What about your mom and dad?”
The disposable cell phone rang. She took the call and said, “Yes,” in answer to a question, and then “Yes,” and then “Thank you.”
Service had been activated.
From the contents of the desk in Teresa Mendez’s den, off her living room, Krait learned a great deal that he did not like about her. She had all the wrong values.
The most important fact concerning this thirty-two-year-old widowed medical assistant, which Krait discovered from the simple day-planner she had left behind, was that currently she could be found vacationing in New York City with women named Gloria Nguyen and Joan Applewhite.
She had left the previous Sunday. This was Tuesday. She would return home on the coming Sunday.
On the back of the cabinet door under the kitchen sink hung a dishtowel. He found the towel damp.
The shower floors in both bathrooms, upstairs and down, were beaded with water, and the tile grout was dark with moisture.
In the living room, the gas-log fireplace had been ablaze early in the day. The bricks lining the firebox were still slightly warm to the touch.
The two-car garage contained no vehicles. The widow Mendez might have driven to the airport to catch a flight to New York. But if she owned a second car, Carrier and the woman possessed it now.
He sent a text message to his support group, seeking information on motor vehicles registered to Mendez.
A short while later, as he satisfied his curiosity by inspecting the contents of the widow’s freezer, he received a coded-text reply to the effect that Mendez owned only a Honda Accord.
They had the license number, but that was of little use to a man who worked without full legal sanction. Krait could not issue an all-points bulletin.
For the moment, he’d lost track of his quarry. He wasn’t unduly concerned. They could find only temporary sanctuary. This was Krait’s world. He was secret royalty, and they were commoners; and he would find them sooner rather than later.
Having gone sixteen active hours without sleep, he realized this might in fact be fate working on his behalf, giving him a chance to refresh before the final showdown.
He brewed a pot of green tea.
In the narrow pantry, he found a package of simple biscuits. He arranged half a dozen of them on a plate.
In a high cupboard, he discovered a lovely little decorative thermos, blue with black-and-white harlequin bands at top and bottom. When the tea was ready, he filled the thermos.
The well-earned respite he had hoped to enjoy at Bethany and Jim’s house waited for him here, in the humbler residence of the widow Mendez.
He carried the thermos of tea, a mug, the plate of biscuits, and two paper napkins upstairs to the master bedroom. He put them on the nightstand.
After undressing and carefully laying out his clothes to prevent wrinkling, he found two robes in the widow’s closet. Neither could have belonged to her deceased husband.
The first was quilted, pink, floral, and without style. He found a disgusting wad of used tissues and half a roll of throat lozenges in one pocket.
Fortunately, the second choice, a blue silk number, while small for him, fit well enough and felt delicious.
After turning down the bed and making a backrest of four plump pillows, Krait discovered unwashed laundry in a basket in her closet. She had not been able to catch up with chores before leaving for New York.
In the dirty laundry, he turned up one stretch bra without hard couplings, two T-shirts, and three pair of panties. He draped these over the top pillow on his stack, against which he would lean while enjoying his tea, and on which he would eventually rest his face when the time came to sleep.
The sole reading material in the widow’s bedroom consisted of magazines that Krait found unappealing. He remembered seeing a few shelves of books in her den, and in a thrilling silken shimmer, he went downstairs to review them.
Evidently, Teresa was not a reader. Most of the volumes in her den fell into the genres of pop psychology, self-help, spiritual search, and medical advice. Krait found them all jejune.
The only books of interest were what, judging by the spines, appeared to be six novels. The titles intrigued him: Despair, The Hopeless and the Dead, Heartworm, Rotten…
The title Relentless Cancer particularly appealed to Krait. He slipped the book off the shelf.
The author’s name, Toni Zero, had a nice nihilistic flair to it. Clearly, it was a pseudonym, and it seemed to say to the reader You are a fool if you pay for this, but I’m sure you will.
The cover illustration struck him as sophisticated, brutal, and bleak. It promised a blistering portrayal of humanity as worthless, duplicitous ruck.
When he turned the book over to look at the back jacket, the author’s photo rocked him. Toni Zero was Linda Paquette.
As Tim braked to a stop in an empty shopping-mall parking lot, more than an hour before stores opened, Linda called 411 for the number to Santiago Jalisco, the restaurant owned by Pete Santo’s cousin, alias Shrek.
When she used Tim’s name, the receptionist at once sent her through to Santiago Santo in his kitchen office, but in fact Pete took the call. He was surprised to hear her voice instead of Tim’s.
“I’ll put you on speakerphone,” she said.
“Hey, wait, I gotta know.”
“What do you think?”
“Of him. What do you think of him?”
“Why’s that your business?”
“It’s not, you’re right, but I’m dyin’ to know.”
Tim caught her attention, raised his eyebrows quizzically.
“I think,” she told Pete, “he’s got a lovely head.”
“Lovely? We can’t be talking about the same sand dog.”
“Sand dog. What’s that mean, anyway?”
“Speakerphone,” Tim said impatiently. “Speakerphone.”
She obliged, and told Pete, “You’re public now.”
Tim said, “Maybe I see why there’s nothing left of your marriage except a stuffed marlin.”
“Maybe what I’ve got is a dead fish and a shy dog, but neither one of them ever nags me.”
“So that’s what you’ve got, you poor schlump, but what do you have for us?”
“You remember the Cream and Sugar Coffeehouse in Laguna?”
“Drawing a blank,” Tim said.
“I know it. Knew it,” Linda said. “I used to go there. It was like three blocks from my house. They had a nice patio.”
“Terrific apple cake,” Pete said.
“With the almonds.”
“My mouth’s watering. Anyway, early one morning a year and a half ago,” Pete said, “just before Cream and Sugar would have been opening for business, the place burned to the ground.”
“An inferno,” Linda recalled.
“Fire marshal thinks accelerants were used, but they weren’t the usual crap, mondo sophisticated, hard to get a chemical profile on them.”
Tim said, “Yeah, I got it now. Never went there. Half remember driving past it.”
“When they put out the fire,” Pete said, “they found four badly burned bodies.”
“Charlie Wen-ching, he was the owner,” Linda said. “He was the sweetest man, never forgot a name, treated all his regular customers like family.”
“Real name, Chou Wen-ching,” Pete said, “but he used Charlie for more than thirty years. Immigrated from Taiwan. Smart businessman, good man.”
“Two of the other bodies were his sons,” Linda said.
“Michael and Joseph. Family business. The fourth victim was a niece, Valerie.”
Although they were surrounded by acres of empty blacktop, Tim continuously surveyed the parking lot, checked the mirrors.
Barely a breeze stirred at ground level, but a high-altitude wind drove a ragged fleet of clouds eastward, and the shadows of ghost galleons sailed across the pavement.
Pete said, “They all died in the walk-in cooler where the milk and pastries were stored. Coroner later determined they’d been shot to death before being set afire.”
“This is why I don’t follow the news,” Tim said. “This is why I just want to build some wall each day.”
“It’s a business district, a populated area, but no one heard any gunfire.”
“He’s a pro,” Tim said. “He has the right equipment.”
“Two people did, however, see someone leave the Cream and Sugar about ten minutes before it went up in flames. He crossed the highway to a motel directly opposite the coffeehouse, turned in his room key, and drove away. He had stayed there overnight, in Room 14. His name was Roy Kutter.”
“Those initials,” Linda said. “One of Kravet’s aliases.”
“I’ve got a printout of his driver’s license. San Francisco address. The same smiley-faced prick.”
Tim said, “But if someone saw him—”
“Forty-eight hours, he was a person of interest. Police wanted to talk to him. So they find him, and he says the witnesses have it wrong. Says he didn’t leave the Cream and Sugar, didn’t come out of it, because he never got into it. Says he went over there to get some take-out coffee, but they weren’t open yet, the door was locked. He couldn’t wait another twenty minutes till they started serving, he had to get to an important appointment.”
“What appointment? What’s his business?” Tim asked.