“What’re you going to write?”
“Something that isn’t full of anger. Something in which the sentences don’t drip with bitterness.”
“Put that quote on the cover. ‘The sentences don’t drip with bitterness.’ I’d buy a book like that in a minute. Do you write under the name Linda Paquette, or do you use a pen name?”
“I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”
“What do you want to talk about?”
“I didn’t clam up on you.”
She glanced sideways at him, cocking one eyebrow.
For a while they rode in silence through an area where the prostitutes dressed only slightly less brazenly than Britney Spears, where the winos sat with their backs against the building walls instead of sprawling full-length on the pavement. Then they came into a less-nice precinct, where even the young gangsters didn’t venture in their low-rider street rods and glitterized Cadillac Escalades.
They passed grungy one-story buildings and fenced storage yards, scrap-metal dealers that were probably chop-shop operators, a sports bar with windows painted black and the air of a place that included cockfights in its definition of sports, before Linda pulled to the curb in front of a vacant lot.
“According to the numbers on the flanking buildings,” she said, “this is the address on the registration for that Chevy.”
A chain-link fence surrounded a weed-filled empty lot.
“Now what?” she asked.
“Let’s get something to eat.”
“He said he’d find us sooner than you think,” she reminded Tim.
“Hired killers,” he said, “are so full of big talk.”
“You know about hired killers, do you?”
“They act so tough, so big-bad-wolf-here-I-come. You said you hadn’t eaten. Neither have I. Let’s have dinner.”
She drove to a middle-class area of Tustin. Here, the winos sucked down their poison in barrooms, where they belonged, and the prostitutes were not encouraged to strut half-naked in public as if they were pop-music divas.
The coffee shop was open all night. The air smelled of bacon and French fries, and good coffee.
They sat in a window booth with a view of the Explorer in the parking lot, the traffic passing in the street beyond, and the moon silently drowning in a sudden sea of clouds.
She ordered a bacon cheeseburger and fries—plus a buttered muffin to eat while she was waiting for the rest of it.
After Tim ordered his bacon cheeseburger with mayonnaise and requested that the fries be well done, he said to Linda, “Trim as you are, I was sure you’d order a salad.”
“Right. I’m going to graze on arugula so I’ll feel good about myself when some terrorist vaporizes me tomorrow with a nuke.”
“Does a coffee shop like this have arugula?”
“These days, arugula is everywhere. It’s even easier to get than a venereal disease.”
The waitress returned with a root beer for Linda and a cherry Coke for Tim.
Outside, a car pulled off the street, drove past the Explorer, and parked in the farther end of the lot.
“You must exercise,” Tim said. “What do you do for exercise?”
“That burns up calories, does it?”
“If you think about how the world’s coming apart, you can easily get the ticker above a hundred thirty and keep it there for hours.”
The headlights of the recently arrived car switched off. Nobody got out of the vehicle.
The buttered muffin was served, and Tim watched her eat it while he sipped his cherry Coke. He wished he were a buttered muffin.
He said, “This sort of feels like a date, doesn’t it?”
“If this feels like a date to you,” she said, “your social life is even more pathetic than mine.”
“I’m not proud. This feels nice, having dinner with a girl.”
“Don’t tell me this is how you get dates. The old a-hit-man-is-after-you-come-with-me-at-once gambit.”
Even by the time the burgers and fries arrived, no one had gotten out of the car at the farther end of the parking lot.
“Dating isn’t easy anymore,” Tim said. “Finding someone, I mean. Everybody wants to talk about American Idol and Pilates.”
She said, “And I don’t want to listen to a guy talk about his designer socks and what he’s thinking of doing with his hair.”
“Guys talk about that?” he asked dubiously.
“And about where he gets his chest waxed. When they finally make a move on you, it’s like fighting off your girlfriend.”
The distance and the shadows prevented Tim from seeing who was in the car. Maybe it was just some unhappy couple having an argument before a late dinner.
After an enjoyable conversation and a satisfying meal, Tim said, “I’m going to need your gun.”
“If you don’t have money, I’ll pay. There’s no reason to shoot our way out of here.”
“Well, there might be,” he said.
“You mean the white Chevy sedan in the parking lot.”
Surprised, he said, “I guess writers are pretty observant.”
“Not in my experience. How did he find us? Was the sonofabitch there somewhere when we stopped at that vacant lot? He must have followed us from there.”
“I can’t see the license plate. Maybe this isn’t him. Just a similar car.”
“Yeah, right. Maybe it’s Peter, Paul and Mary.”
Tim said, “I’d like you to leave ahead of me, but by the back door, through the kitchen.”
“That’s what I usually say to a date.”
“There’s an alley behind this place. Turn right, run to the end of the block. I’ll pick you up there.”
“Why don’t we both go out the back way, leave your SUV?”
“We’re dead on foot. And stealing a car doubles our trouble.”
“So you’re just going to go shoot it out with him?”
“He doesn’t know I’ve seen his car. He thinks he’s anonymous. When you don’t come out with me, he’ll think you’re in the restroom, you’ll be along any moment.”
“What’s he going to do when you drive off without me?”
“Maybe he’ll come in here looking for you. Maybe he’ll follow me. I don’t know. What I do know is if we go out the front door together, he’ll shoot us both.”
As she considered the situation, she chewed her lower lip.
Tim realized that he was staring too intently at her lip. When he raised his eyes, he saw that she had been watching him stare, so he said, “If you want, I could chew that for you.”
“If you’re not going to shoot him,” she said, “why can’t I take the pistol with me?”
“I’m not going to start the shooting. But if he opens fire on me, I’d like to have some option besides throwing my shoes at him.”
“I really like this little gun.”
“I promise I won’t break it.”
“Do you know how to use a pistol?”
“I’m not one of those guys who waxes his chest.”
Reluctantly, she passed her purse across the table.
Tim put the purse on the booth beside him, glanced around to be certain that he wasn’t watched by one of the few other customers or a waitress, fished out the pistol, and slipped it under his Hawaiian shirt, under his belt.
Her stare was not sharp any longer, but as solemn and knowing as the sea, and it seemed to him that right then she took down into her depths a new understanding of him.
“They’re open twenty-four hours,” she said. “We could just sit here until he goes away.”
“We could tell ourselves he isn’t really out there, it’s someone else, nothing to do with us. We could tell ourselves all the way out the door, just walk into it and get it over with. A lot of people would.”
She said, “Not a lot would have in 1939.”
“Too bad your Ford isn’t a real time machine.”
“I’d go back there. I’d go back all the way. Jack Benny on the radio, Benny Goodman from the Empire Room of the Waldorf-Astoria…”
He reminded her: “Hitler in Czechoslovakia, in Poland…”
“I’d go back to it all.”
The waitress asked if they wanted anything more. Tim requested the check.
Still no one had gotten out of the white Chevy. Traffic on the street had diminished. The incoming tide of clouds had extinguished the moon.
When the waitress brought the check, Tim had the money ready to pay it and to tip her.
“Turn right in the alley,” he reminded Linda. “Run to the end of the block. Look for me coming west on the main street.”
They slid out of the booth. She put a hand on his arm, and for a moment he thought she was going to kiss him on the cheek, but then she turned away.
Under his belt, the gun felt cold against his abdomen.
When Tim Carrier pushed through the glass door and exited the coffee shop, all the air seemed to have escaped the night, leaving a vacuum that could not sustain him.
Along the street, with swish and clatter, queen palms shuddered in a freshening breeze that belied the impression of airlessness.
After a shallow breath gave way to a deeper one, he was all right, and he was ready.
His paralysis had not been caused by fear of Kravet, but by dread of what would come after he dealt with Kravet. Over the years, he had successfully sought anonymity. This time it might elude him.
Pretending to be at ease, showing no interest in the distant Chevy, he walked directly to the Explorer. Behind the wheel, when the interior lights went off, he glanced once toward the suspect vehicle.
From this better vantage point, he could see a man in the car, the gray smear of a face. He was not close enough to discern any details, and couldn’t tell if this might be the man to whom he had given ten thousand dollars in the tavern.
Tim withdrew the pistol from under his belt and put it on the passenger’s seat.
He started the engine but didn’t switch on the headlights. At little more than an idle, he coasted toward the restaurant, as though intending to pick up Linda near the entrance.
In the rearview mirror, he saw the driver’s door of the Chevy open. A tall man got out.
As the Explorer neared the restaurant and began to pull parallel to it, the man from the Chevy approached. He kept his head down, as if in thought.
When the guy came out of the shadows and into the parking-lot lights, he proved to be of a size and a physical type that matched the killer.
Tim braked to a stop, apparently waiting for Linda, but in fact luring his adversary as far from the Chevrolet as he dared. If he delayed too long, the gunman might suddenly sprint to the Explorer and shoot him dead in the driver’s seat.
About forty yards directly ahead was an exit from the parking lot. Tim waited perhaps a beat longer than he should have, then switched on the headlights, tramped the accelerator, and raced toward the street.
Fate plays with loaded dice, so of course the light traffic abruptly became heavier. An eastbound trio of vehicles brightened toward him in excess of the speed limit.
Expecting a gunshot, glittering glass, and a bullet to the brain, Tim remained committed to flight. As the Explorer shot into the street, however, he realized that the momentum lost in a right turn would ensure that one or all of the approaching vehicles would tail-end him.
Brakes shrieked, horns blared, headlights seemed to sear him. Instead of turning right, he highballed straight across the two eastbound lanes.
Without a further scream of brakes, although with a vigorous condemnation of horns, two cars and a panel truck sailed past behind him. Not one vehicle so much as kissed the Explorer’s bumper, but their turbulent breath buffeted it.
When he barreled into the westbound lanes, oncoming traffic was at a safe distance but closing fast. Turning west, he glanced south, and saw that Kravet had sprinted back to the Chevrolet. The killer was in the driver’s seat, pulling the door shut.
Tim continued turning, out of the westbound lanes, crossing the yellow median lines. He drove east, into the wake of the traffic with which he had almost collided.
As he drew near the next major intersection, he checked the rearview mirror, then a side mirror, and saw the Chevy exiting the coffee-shop parking lot.
With no respect for the stop sign, Tim hung a hard left turn, drove only fifteen yards north on a quiet cross street of older two-story homes, executed a U-turn, and pulled to the curb. He came to a stop facing the broader avenue that he had just departed, left the engine running, and killed the headlights.
He snatched up the pistol, threw open the door, got out of the SUV, stepped into the street, and assumed a shooting stance, both hands on the weapon.
The Chevy, out of sight but on its way, sounded like it had a much bigger engine than an ordinary sedan, confirming that it had been upgraded for pursuits and, regardless of what the DMV claimed, might be a supercharged police bucket.
The glow of headlights bloomed, and a moment later the Chevy cut the corner.
Point-blank, at risk of being run down, Tim squeezed off three shots, aiming not at the windshield, not at the driver’s-side window, but at the front tire as the car swept past him, fired two more rounds at the rear tire. He saw the front rubber deflate and peel, and maybe he got the back tire, too.
Surprised, no doubt expecting to be shot himself, the driver lost control. The sedan jumped the curb, sheered off a fire hydrant, and slammed through a wooden fence in a shower of splintered pickets and a flailing mass of climbing-rose vines.
A geyser erupted from the stump of the standpipe where the hydrant had been, a thick column of water that surged thirty feet into the night.
As the Chevy rocked to a stop on the lawn, Tim considered going to it and pulling open the driver’s door. Kravet might be stunned, briefly disoriented. Perhaps he could be dragged out of the car and relieved of whatever weapons he might have before he was able to use one of them.
Tim didn’t want to kill Kravet. He needed to know who had hired him. Linda would never be safe until they knew the identity of the man who had put the money on the bar.
A bent cop who carried out contract killings on the side would be too tough to be cracked by a threat alone. But if the hot muzzle of a pistol was stretching one of his nostrils to the tearing point, and if, eye to eye, he had sufficient instinct to read correctly his adversary’s capacity for violence, he might spill the name. He was not, after all, a man of honor.
Even as the Chevy sagged to a halt, porch lights came on at the house in front of which the car had landed, and a bearded man with a beer belly stepped out of the front door.