As if following the spoor of the now vanished coyote, Tim drove north. He turned left at the stop sign and headed downhill toward the Pacific Coast Highway.
He repeatedly checked the rearview mirror. No one followed them.
“Where do you want to stay?” he asked.
“I’ll figure that out later.”
Still in blue jeans and a midnight-blue sweater, she had added a camel-colored corduroy jacket. She held her purse on her lap, and her carryall was in the backseat.
“After we’ve seen the guy you can trust, the one who can trace that license-plate number.”
“I figured to go to him alone.”
“Aren’t I presentable?”
She was not as pretty as she had been in the photo, yet she struck him as somehow better looking. Her hair, such a dark brown that it seemed black, had been shorter than this, and calculatedly shaggy, when she had stood before the DMV camera.
“Totally presentable,” he assured her. “But with you there, he’ll be uneasy. He’ll want to know more of what it’s about.”
“So we tell him whatever sounds good.”
“This isn’t a guy that I lie to.”
“Is there one?”
“Never mind. Leave it to me. I’ll shine him up something he’ll like.”
“Not you, either,” Tim said. “We walk the line with this guy.”
“Who is he—your dad or something?”
“I owe him a lot. He’s solid. Pedro Santo. Pete. He’s a robbery-homicide detective.”
“So we’re going to the cops, after all?”
They headed north along the coast. Southbound traffic was light. A few cars rocketed past them in excess of the speed limit, but none featured an emergency beacon.
To the west, the house-crowded bluffs descended to unpopulated lowlands. Beyond coastal scrub and wide beaches, the Pacific folded the sky down to itself at a black horizon.
Under the night-light of the sentinel moon, ruffled hems of surf and a decorative stitching that fringed the incoming waves suggested billows of fancy bedding under which the sea turned restlessly in sleep.
After a silence, Linda said, “The thing is, I don’t much like cops.”
She stared forward at the highway, but in the wash of headlights from approaching traffic, her unblinking eyes seemed to be focused on some other scene.
He waited for her to continue, but when she lapsed into silence again, he said, “Is there something I should know? Have you been in trouble sometime?”
She blinked. “Not me. I’m as straight as a new nail that never met a hammer.”
“Why does that sound to me like there was a hammer, maybe a lot of hammers, but you didn’t bend?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know why it sounds that way to you. Maybe you’re always inferring hidden meaning when none is implied.”
“I’m just a bricklayer.”
“Most car mechanics I know—they think deeper than any college professor I’ve ever met. They have to. They live in the real world. A lot of masons must be the same.”
“There’s a reason we call ourselves stoneheads.”
She smiled. “Nice try.”
At Newport Coast Road, he turned right and headed inland. The land rose ahead, and behind them the sea was pressed down under a growing weight of night.
“I know this carpenter,” she said, “who loves metaphors because he thinks life itself is a metaphor, with mystery and hidden meaning in every moment. You know what a metaphor is?”
He said, “‘My heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on a lonely hill.’”
“Not bad for a stonehead.”
“It’s not mine. I heard it somewhere.”
“You remember where. The way you said it, you remember. Anyway, if this Santo is sharp, he’ll know I don’t like cops.”
“He’s sharp. But there’s nothing not to like about him.”
“I’m sure he’s a great guy. It’s not his fault if sometimes the law has no humility.”
Tim sifted those words a few times but was left with no meaning in his net.
“Maybe your friend is a boy scout with a badge,” she said, “but cops spook me. And not just cops.”
“Want to tell me what this is about?”
“It’s not about anything. It’s just the way I am.”
“We need help, and Pete Santo can give it.”
“I know. I’m just saying.”
When they topped the last of a series of hills, inland Orange County shimmered below them, a great panoply of millions of lights, a challenge to the stars, which were dimmed by this dazzle.
She said, “It seems so formidable, so solid, so enduring.”
“Civilization. But it’s as fragile as glass.” She glanced at him. “I better shut up. You’re starting to think I’m a nut case.”
“No,” Tim said. “Glass makes sense to me. Glass makes perfect sense.”
They traveled miles without speaking, and after a while he realized that theirs had become a comfortable silence. The night beyond the windows was an oblivion machine waiting to be triggered, but here in the Explorer, a kind of peace took temporary residence in his heart, and he felt that something good could happen, even something fine.
After walking through the entire bungalow, boldly turning on lights as he went, Krait returned to the bedroom.
The inexpensive white chenille bedspread was as smooth as the bedding of a military man. Not one tangle spoiled the fringed hem.
Krait had been in houses where the beds were unmade and the sheets were too seldom changed. Sloppiness offended him.
If a gun were allowed, an untidy person could be killed from a distance of at least a few feet. Then it mattered less that the target didn’t change underwear every day.
Often, however, the contract specified strangulation, stabbing, bludgeoning, or another more intimate method of execution. If the victim turned out to be a slob, a potentially enjoyable task could become a distasteful chore.
When a person was being garroted from behind, for instance, he would in desperation attempt to reach back and blind his assailant. You could easily keep your eyes safe, but the victim might pull at your cheek, grip your chin, brush fingers across your lips, and if you suspected he was the type who didn’t always wash his hands after using the men’s room, you sometimes wondered if the good pay and the many benefits of your job really outweighed the negatives.
Linda Paquette’s closet was small and orderly. She didn’t have a lot of clothes.
Krait liked the simplicity of her wardrobe. He himself had always been a person of simple tastes.
From the shelf above the hanging garments, he took down a few boxes. None of them contained anything enlightening.
Curiosity about his target was forbidden. He wasn’t supposed to know any more about her than her name, address, and appearance.
Usually he would respect such a criterion in an assignment. The events at the tavern, however, required new rules for this project.
He hoped to find snapshots of family and friends, high-school yearbooks, mementos of holiday travels and of faded romances. No photographs stood on the dust-free dresser or on the nicely polished nightstands, either.
She seemed to have cut herself loose from her past. Krait did not know why she had done so, but he approved. He could deal more easily with people who were adrift, and alone.
He had been expected to stage the incident to look like a break-in, rape her, then kill her in some fashion that would encourage the police to believe he had been nothing more than a sexual psychopath and that she had been a randomly chosen victim.
The details of such a killing were invariably left to him. He had a genius for creating tableaus that convinced the best police profilers.
At the dresser, he opened drawers, searching for the photos and the revealing personal items that he had not discovered in the closet.
In spite of being forbidden, curiosity had infected Krait. He wanted to know why the big guy in the bar had played spoiler. What about the woman had encouraged the barfly to take such risks?
Krait’s work was usually cut-and-dried. A lesser man, incapable of enjoying the subtle nuances of this profession, would have been bored after a few years. Krait found his work satisfying, in part because of the comforting sameness of his assignments.
After cleanliness, familiarity was the quality that Krait valued most highly in any experience. When he found a film that he enjoyed, he would watch it once or twice a month, sometimes twice in an evening. Often he ate the same dinner every night for a week or two.
For all their variety of appearance, people were as predictable as the plot turns in a film that he had committed to heart. A man whom Krait admired had once said that human beings were sheep, and in most matters, that was true.
In Krait’s experience, however, as regarded his most intimate work with the species, human beings were inferior to sheep. Sheep were docile, yes, but vigilant. Unlike many people, sheep were always aware that predators existed and were alert for the scent and the schemes of wolves.
Contemporary Americans were so prosperous, so happily distracted by such a richness of vivid entertainments, they were reluctant to have their fun diminished by acknowledging that anything existed with fangs and fierce appetites. If now and then they recognized a wolf, they threw a bone to it and convinced themselves that it was a dog.
They denied real threats by focusing their fear on the least likely of armageddons: a massive asteroid striking the earth, superhurricanes twice as big as Texas, the Y2K implosion of civilization, nuclear power plants melting holes all the way through the planet, a new Hitler suddenly rising from the ranks of hapless televangelists with bad hair.
Krait found people to be less like sheep than like cattle. He moved among them as if invisible. They grazed dreamily, confident in the security of the herd, even as he butchered them one by one.
His work was his pleasure, and he would have both in abundance until such a day as some more flamboyant murderer hurled fire at the herd, stampeding them by the tens of thousands over a cliff. Then the cattle might be wary, and for a while Krait would find his job more difficult.
He wanted to know more about the woman, Linda Paquette, because he hoped that through her he might learn about the man who had intervened to spare her from execution. Soon he would receive a name for that interloper, but he didn’t have one yet.
In her dresser drawers he found only clothes, but they told him things about her. She had many socks in various colors but only two pairs of nylons. Her underwear were simple cotton, much like men’s briefs, without lace or other frills.
The simplicity of these garments charmed him.
And they smelled so fresh. He wondered what detergent she used, and hoped it was a brand friendly to the environment.
After closing the last of the drawers, he regarded his face in the mirror above the dresser, and he liked what he saw. No flush had risen to his cheeks. His mouth was neither tight with tension nor loose with desire.
The reflection of a framed painting drew his attention from his face before he finished admiring himself. Smile faltering, he turned away from the mirror and toward the true image.
He should have noticed the painting immediately on entering the room. No other art adorned the walls, and the only decorative items on the pair of nightstands were a luminous clock and an old Motorola radio, both from the 1930s and made out of Bakelite.
He took no offense at the clock or the radio, but the painting—a cheap print—vexed him. He took it off the wall, smashed the glass on the footboard of the bed, and peeled the artwork from the frame.
After folding the print three times, he slipped it into an inner pocket of his sports coat. He would save it until he found the woman.
When he had stripped away her clothes and her defenses, he would shove the wadded poster down her throat, clamp her mouth shut, and insist that she swallow it, and when it proved too much to swallow, he would let her gag it up, only so that he could shove it somewhere else, and then somewhere else again, and shove other things, too, shove in anything he wanted, until she pleaded with him to kill her.
Unfortunately, he lived in an age when such measures were sometimes necessary.
Returning to the mirror, he liked what he saw, as before. Judging by his reflection, he possessed a blameless heart, and his thoughts were full of charity.
Appearances were important. Appearances were all that really mattered. And his work.
In her well-ordered bathroom vanity, he didn’t find anything of interest except a brand of lip balm that he had never used.
Lately, humidity had been low, and his lips had been constantly chapped. The product that he usually relied upon had not helped much.
He smelled the balm and detected no offensive perfume, licked it and tasted an acceptably bland orange-cream flavor. He greased his lips, which at once felt cooler, and pocketed the tube.
In the living room, Krait pulled from the shelves some of the old hardcover books in the woman’s collection. They had quaint but colorful jackets, and were all fiction by popular novelists of the 1920s and ’30s: Earl Derr Biggers, Mary Roberts Rinehart, E. Phillips Oppenheim, J. B. Priestley, Frank Swinnerton…. With the exceptions of Somerset Maugham and P. G. Wodehouse, most were forgotten.
Krait might have taken a book that looked interesting, except that these authors were all dead. When he read a book that expressed inappropriate views, Krait sometimes felt obliged to search out the author and correct him. He never read books by dead authors because the satisfaction of a face-to-face discussion with a living wordsmith could not be equaled by exhumation and desecration of an author’s corpse.
In the kitchen, he found two dirty coffee mugs in the sink. He stood for a while, considering them.
As neat as she was, Linda would not have left this mess unless she had an urgent reason to get out of the house. A companion had joined her for coffee. Perhaps the companion had convinced her that she dared not delay long enough to wash the mugs.
In addition to what the mugs suggested, Krait was interested in the one with the parrot handle. He found it charming. He washed it, dried it, and wrapped it in a dishtowel to take it with him.
A knife was missing from the rack of fine cutlery, and that was interesting, too.
From the refrigerator, he withdrew the remaining half of a cinnamon-dusted homemade egg-custard pie. He cut a generous slice for himself and put it on a plate. He put the plate on the kitchen table, with a fork.
He poured a cup of coffee from the pot that stood on the warming plate. The brew had not yet turned bitter. He laced it with milk.