“Do I have to go all the way to Naomi?”
Having circled the table, he went to the sink and pulled a few paper towels from a dispenser and lightly dampened one of them and returned to his chair.
He smiled at her. When he used the damp paper towel to wipe the apple juice from her face and used the dry towels to pluck the slices from her clothes, she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of a flinch.
He cleaned up the chunks of apple that had fallen on the floor and put everything in the trash can.
At the table again, he said, “I like your home, Mary. I’d be happy to live here a few days, except for the painting in the living room, the brats running on the beach. I’d have to cut that in pieces and burn it in the fireplace, or otherwise I’d probably wake up in the night, screaming, just knowing it was there.”
Some argued that the youth of today were poorly educated and insufficiently industrious, but one of them had sought to validate his generation by spending considerable time and effort chiseling an obscene word in the concrete picnic table, and he had spelled it correctly.
Tim and Linda sat on a bench, backs to the table, watching in-line skaters, dogs and their owners, couples hand in hand, a priest reading from a breviary as he walked, and a stoned fifty-something guy who wandered through the park trying to strike up whispered conversations with the palm trees.
Still brooding about how to tell her what she waited patiently to hear, Tim finally said, “Here’s the thing. I’ll go through it once and not with a lot of detail. You’ll have some questions, and that’s all right. But when we’re done with it, we don’t talk about it again. It’s not something, years from now, we meet new people, and you say, Tim, tell them what you did back then. Because I won’t.”
“‘Years from now.’ I like the sound of that. All right. Once and once only. You sure know how to tease the moment. Maybe you should write books, I’ll do the bricklaying.”
“I’m serious, Linda.”
“So am I.”
He took a deep breath, blew it out, took another—and his cell phone rang.
This was his personal cell, not the disposable. The screen did not reveal a caller number.
“It’s gotta be him,” Tim said, and took the call.
“How’s my girl?” the killer asked.
Watching the tree whisperer, Tim said nothing.
“Did you do her yet, Tim?”
“I’m going to hang up before you can trace my location,” Tim said. “So say what you have to say.”
“I don’t have much to say, Tim. Are you on speakerphone there?”
“Good. You’ll want to keep the skank out of this. But we’re on speakerphone here, and Mary wants to talk to you.”
His mother said, “Tim?”
“Oh, my God.”
In the suddenly too-bright sun, in air too thick to breathe with ease, he rose from the bench.
“You be yourself, honey.”
“Mom. Oh, God.”
“You be yourself. You hear me?”
He couldn’t speak. Linda had risen to her feet beside him. He could not look at her.
“Be yourself,” his mother said, “and you’ll do fine.”
“If he’s hurt you—”
“I’m all right. I’m not scared. You know why I’m not scared?”
“I love you,” he said.
“You know why I’m not scared, honey?”
She was focusing him. “Why?”
“Because I’m sitting here thinking of you and Michelle.”
Tim became very still.
“I want to be there for your wedding, honey.”
“You will,” he said. “You’ll be there.”
“She’s so sweet. She’s perfect for you.”
“She reminds me of you,” he said.
“I love the ring she made for me.”
The killer said impatiently, “Tell him, Mary.”
“I’m looking at the ring right now, honey, it gives me hope.”
“Mary,” the killer warned.
“Tim, oh please, Tim, I want to come home.”
“What has he done, where has he taken you?”
“He wants to make a trade.”
“Yeah, I know what he wants.”
“Honey, I don’t know who this woman is he wants.”
“It’s a mistake I made, Mom. A big mistake.”
“Think of me and Michelle. I love you.”
“It’s going to be all right, Mom.”
“You be yourself. Do what you think is right.”
“I’ll get you home. I swear.”
The killer said, “We’re off speakerphone, Tim.”
“Don’t touch my mother.”
“I’ll do anything I want to your mother. We’re shacked up in a lonely place, nobody to hear her scream.”
Tim bit back everything that he could think to say, for none of it was productive.
The killer said, “So you’re going to be married.”
“Tell me what I have to do.”
“What’s Michelle’s last name, Tim?”
“That’s none of your business.”
“I could torture it out of your mother.”
“Jefferson,” Tim said, giving Michelle Rooney’s maiden name. “Michelle Jefferson.”
“What’s Michelle going to think about you risking everything for the skank?”
“You leave Michelle out of this.”
“That’s up to you, Tim.”
Across the park came Pete Santo, smiling, waving. He had Zoey on a leash.
Tim sensed that he could not pretend to cave easily to the killer’s demand. He would not be believed, and his quick fold would generate suspicion. He needed to resist. He needed to offer an alternative. He needed to think.
“How could I trade? How could I do that?”
“You’ve got a weakness, Tim.”
“It would be like killing one of them myself.”
“You’re one of the good guys, Tim. That’s your weakness.”
“I’m not a good guy. I just get along.”
“Good guys finish last, Tim.”
“Maybe not if they stay in the game. Listen, let’s find another way here. I can’t do this.”
“You can do it.”
“No. Not this.”
“You’ve done harder things.”
“Not ever. Nothing like this. Good God. I can’t.”
“Then your mother’s dead.”
“I can’t do this! Give me a minute to think.”
“Your family belongs in a carnival freak show.”
“I can’t. Just let me think.”
“Under glass in a museum,” said the killer.
As Pete drew near, Linda moved forward to intercept him and to prevent him from saying anything that might carry on the phone.
“Tim, get real. I need to kill her, you know.”
“You could just walk away.”
“No, Tim. I’ve got an image to protect.”
“And I’ve soiled that image, haven’t I?”
“Don’t flatter yourself.”
“How much do you hate me?”
“Oh, Tim, beyond measure.”
“Then kill me instead.”
Linda heard, and she turned back to Tim, eyes as bright and sharp as beveled emeralds.
“Kill me instead,” he repeated.
“Exactly how does that work?”
“You pick a place to meet. I’ll come unarmed.”
“I’ve already chosen a place for the swap.”
“As my mother walks away from you, toward a waiting car, I’ll walk toward you. It has to be timed so just as she’s driven away, I come within shooting range.”
“You’re setting up a shootout.”
“You’ll be armed, all right.”
“No. I’ll come in a pair of briefs. Nothing else. Nowhere to hide a weapon. I have a friend I’ll want to drive the car. But he won’t be anywhere near you.”
“Aren’t you afraid of death, Tim?”
“Hell, yes. But it’s not at the top of my list.”
“You’re a crazy sonofabitch, Tim. You’re an original.”
“My mother gets to live. Linda gets a head start on you, she can run, and that’s as much as I can do for her. If I’m lucky, if Linda’s lucky, I’ve bought both their lives.”
“She won’t get far without you,” the killer said.
“Maybe she will. She’s tough. Do we have a deal?”
Out beyond the trees, a boy and his dad were flying a tubular kite. The kite was a raging dragon. The dragon undulated in the sky, its roar as silent as the silence on the phone line.
Finally the killer said, “I’ve read about you now, Tim.”
“Don’t believe everything you read.”
“I do believe it. That’s why I think you’re serious about this.”
“It’s what I can do. Please. It’s what I can do.”
“You must have read too many boys’ adventure books, Tim. Your head is screwed up. You’re a crazy sonofabitch.”
“Whatever. Do we have a deal? Kill me instead.”
“All right, that works for me.”
“Now what?” Tim asked.
“Do you know Fashion Island in Newport Beach?”
“The shopping plaza. Everyone knows it. That’s too public.”
“It’s not for the swap. It’s just a first step. You be at the big koi pond in Fashion Island in forty-five minutes.”
“Okay. I can make that.”
“I’ll have someone watching. He better see you at the koi pond in forty-five minutes. Then you wait there. I’ll call you about what comes next.”
“Better be there, Tim.”
“Be there or I’ll slit your mother’s throat.”
The killer terminated the call, and Tim pocketed his phone.
The tree whisperer raised his arms toward the dragon in the sky, as if the bright beast had come for him. And the thing that had been coming for Tim all these years had now also fully arrived.
An engagement ring and a wedding band graced Mary’s left hand, which remained cuffed to the dining chair.
“The diamonds aren’t that impressive, dear.”
“Walter didn’t have much when I married him.”
Her right hand displayed a ring with a large clear purple stone surrounded by smaller stones of the same kind.
“What gem is this?” he asked.
“Opalite,” she said. “It’s rare.”
“Never heard of it. So Tim’s fiancée made this?”
“Yes. She makes jewelry. She’s very talented.”
“What’s Michelle’s last name?”
“Tim didn’t want to tell you.”
“But he did. I’m just confirming.”
“I could take that ring,” Krait said, “and the finger with it.”
“Jefferson,” said Mary.
“When is the wedding?”
“I thought women want to be June brides.”
“Most do. That’s why every place you could have a reception is booked in June. So it had to be August.”
“You like Michelle very much, do you?”
“I love Michelle. Please don’t bring her into this.”
“I won’t, dear. There’s no need for Michelle. Perhaps I’ve made a deal with your Tim. I’m still thinking about it. Would you like to know what it is?”
“No,” she said. Then: “Yes. All right.”
Krait’s cell phone vibrated. “Give me a moment, Mary.”
Sitting at the table, he discovered that he had received a text message from his support group. ARE YOU AT CARRIER RESIDENCE? CONFIRM. WHY IS CARRIER FAMILY INVOLVED THIS MISSION? EXPLANATION REQUESTED.
Such an intrusion into his operations so astonished Krait that he read the message again from the top. This was unprecedented.
The don’t-ask rule by which he abided was supposed to apply also to the support group. If he had any lingering doubts, this proved that the Paquette woman was indeed a target of the Gentlemen’s Club.
Worse than their attempt to question his strategy and tactics: They were monitoring him. They knew where he was. They were looking over his shoulder. Intolerable.
Evidently, the blue sedan had been delivered with a satellite-readable transponder attached. When he had stopped in front of the Carrier house to use the directional microphone, the support group had identified the address, and then had taken note of him parking two blocks away.
Krait could think of only one explanation for this outrageous development. The Gentlemen’s Club must have recently assigned some ambitious young snot to the support group, and he had taken it upon himself to exert an authority his bosses had not given him.
With a self-possession that he himself could not help but admire, Krait granted the snot a reply: MISSION NEARLY ACCOMPLISHED. WILL REPORT WITHIN HOURS.
Then, to remind them that they were dealing with an intellectual superior who did not need to consult with a gaggle of bureaucrats, he added four lines from Wallace Stevens: THEY SAID, “YOU HAVE A BLUE GUITAR/ YOU DO NOT PLAY THINGS AS THEY ARE.”/ THE MAN REPLIED, “THINGS AS THEY ARE/ ARE CHANGED UPON THE BLUE GUITAR.”
After sending the message and putting the cell phone away, he realized that Mary was staring at him. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Nothing you should worry your pretty head about.”
“The deal,” she reminded him. “You made a deal with Tim.”
Getting up from his chair, he said, “He’ll come to a meeting stripped down to prove he’s unarmed. When he arrives, you walk away from me to a waiting car.”
She stared, perplexed. “I don’t understand.”
“As you reach the car, he’s walking toward me, into shooting range. And as you’re being driven to safety, I kill him.”
Dread contested with despair for possession of her face.
Krait said, “He buys your life with his, and he buys the skank a chance to run. Does that sound like your son?”