Page 13

Mitch drove in silence, and Anson rode in silence, the eastern hills speckled with the lights of expensive houses, the black sea to the west, and the sky black, with no horizon line visible anymore, sea and sky merging into one great black void.

Then Mitch said, "It doesn't feel real to me. The shotguns."

"It feels movie," Anson agreed.

"I'm a gardener. You're a linguistics expert."

"Anyway," Anson said, "I don't see kidnappers letting us set conditions. Whoever has the power makes the rules."

They worried southward. The graceful highway curved, rose, and descended into downtown Laguna Beach.

In mid-May the tourist season had begun. People strolled the sidewalks, going to and from dinner, peering in the windows of the closed shops and galleries.

When his brother suggested that they grab something to eat, Mitch said he wasn't hungry. ""&u have to eat," Anson pressed.

Resisting, Mitch said, "What're we going to talk about over dinner? Sports? We don't want to be overheard talking about this."

"So we'll eat in the car."

Mitch parked in front of a Chinese restaurant. Painted on the windows, a dragon rampant tossed its mane of scaly flagella.

While Anson waited in the SUV, Mitch went inside. The girl at the takeout counter promised to have his order in ten minutes.

The animated conversation of the diners at the tables grated on him. He resented their carefree laughter.

Aromas of coconut rice, sweet-chili rice, deep-fried corn balls, cilantro, garlic, sizzling cashews raised an appetite. But soon the fragrant air grew oppressive, oily; his mouth turned dry and sour.

Holly remained in the hands of murderers.

They had hit her.

They had made her scream for him, and for Anson.

Ordering Chinese takeout, eating dinner, attending to any tasks of ordinary life seemed like betrayals of Holly, seemed to diminish the desperation of her situation.

If she had heard the threats made to Mitch on the phone—that her fingers would be sawn off, her tongue cut out—then her fear must be unbearable, desolating.

When he imagined her unrelenting fear, thought of her bound in darkness, the humility arising from his helplessness began at last to make way for greater anger, for rage. His face was hot, his eyes stinging, his throat so swollen with fury he could not swallow.

Irrationally, he envied the happy diners with an intensity that made him want to knock them out of their chairs, smash their faces.

The orderly decor offended him. His life had fallen into chaos, and he burned with the desire to spend his misery in a violent spree.

Some secret savage splinter of his nature, long festering, now flamed to full infection, filling him with the urge to tear down the colorful paper lanterns, shred the rice-paper screens, rip from the walls the red-enameled wooden letters of the Chinese language and spin them, as if they were martial-arts throwing stars, to slash and gouge everything in their path, to shatter windows.

Presenting two white bags containing his order, the counter girl sensed the pending storm in him. Her eyes widened, and she tensed.

Only a week ago, a deranged customer in a pizzeria had shot and killed a cashier and two waiters before another customer, an off-duty cop, had brought him down with two shots. This girl probably replayed in her mind the TV reports of that slaughter.

The realization that he might be frightening her was a lifeline that reeled Mitch back from fury to anger, then to a passive misery that dropped his blood pressure and quieted his thundering heart.

Leaving the restaurant, stepping into the mild spring night, he saw that his brother, in the Expedition, was on his cell phone.

As Mitch got behind the steering wheel, Anson concluded the call, and Mitch said, "Was it them?"

"No. There's this guy I think we should talk to."

Giving Anson the larger bag of takeout, Mitch said, "What guy?"

"We're in deep water with sharks. We're no match for them. We need advice from someone who can keep us from being eaten like chum."

Although earlier he had given his brother the option of going to the authorities, Mitch said, "They'll kill her if we tell anyone."

"They said no cops. We aren't going to the police."

"It still makes me nervous."

"Mickey, I see the risks. We're playing a trip wire with a violin bow. But if we don't try to make some music, we're screwed anyway."

Tired of feeling powerless, convinced that docile obedience to the kidnappers would be repaid with contempt and cruelty, Mitch said, "Okay. But what if they're listening to us right now?"

"They're not. To bug a car and listen in real time, wouldn't they have to plant more than a microphone? Wouldn't they have to package it with a microwave transmitter and a power source?"

"Would they? I don't know. How would I know?"

"I think so. It would be too much equipment, too bulky, too complicated to conceal easily or to set up quickly."

With chopsticks, which he had requested, Anson ate Szechuan beef from one container, rice with mushrooms from another.

"What about directional microphones?"

"I've seen the same movies you have," Anson said. "Directional

mikes work best when the air is still. Look at the trees. We have a breeze tonight."

Mitch ate moo goo gai pan with a plastic fork. He resented the deliciousness of the food, as though he would be more faithful to Holly if he gagged down a flavorless meal.

"Besides," Anson said, "directional mikes don't work between one moving vehicle and another."

"Then let's not talk about it till we're moving."

"Mickey, there's a very thin line between sensible caution and paranoia."

"I passed that line hours ago," Mitch said, "and for me there's no going back."

Chapter 23

The moo goo gai pan left an unsavory aftertaste that Mitch tried unsuccessfully to wash away with Diet Pepsi as he drove.

He headed south on Coast Highway. Buildings and trees screened the sea from sight except for glimpses of an abyssal blackness.

Sipping from a tall paper cup of lemon tea, Anson said, "His name is Campbell. He's ex-FBI."

Alarmed, Mitch said, "This is exactly who we can't turn to."

"Emphasis on the ex, Mickey. £#-FBI. He was shot, and shot bad, when he was twenty-eight. Other guys would have lived on disability, but he built his own little business empire."

"What if they've got a tracking device on the Expedition, and they figure out we're powwowing with an ex-FBI agent?"

"They won't know that he was. If they know anything at all about him, they might know I did a large piece of business with him a few years ago. That'll just look like I'm putting together the ransom."

The tires droned on the blacktop, but Mitch felt as though the highway under them were no more substantial than the skin of surface tension on a pond, across which a mosquito might skate confidently until a feeding fish rose and took it.

"I know what soil bougainvillea needs, what sunlight loropetalum requires," he said. "But this stuff is another universe to me."

"Me too, Mickey. Which is why we need help. No one has more real-world knowledge, more street smarts than Julian Campbell."

Mitch had begun to feel that every yes-no decision was a switch on a bomb detonator, that one wrong choice would atomize his wife.

If this continued, he would soon worry himself into paralysis. Inaction would not save Holly. Indecision would be the death of her.

"All right," he relented. "Where does this Campbell live?"

"Get to the interstate. We're going south to Rancho Santa Fe."

East-northeast of San Diego, Rancho Santa Fe was a community of four-star resorts, golf courses, and multimillion-dollar estates.

"Jam it," Anson said, "and we'll be there in ninety minutes."

When together, they were comfortable with silences, perhaps because each of them, as a kid, had separately and alone spent much time in the learning room. That chamber was better soundproofed than a radio-station studio. No noise penetrated from the outside world.

During the drive, Mitch's silence and his brother's were different from each other. His was the silence of futile thrashing in a vacuum, of a mute astronaut tumbling in zero gravity.

Anson's was the silence of feverish but ordered thought. His mind raced along chains of deductive and inductive reasoning faster than any computer, without the hum of electronic calculation.

They had been on I-5 for twenty minutes when Anson said, "Do you sometimes feel we were held for ransom our entire childhood?"

"If not for you," Mitch said, "I'd hate them."

"I do hate them sometimes," Anson said. "Intensely but briefly They're too pathetic to hate for more than a moment. It would be like wasting your life hating Santa Claus because he doesn't exist."

"Remember when I got caught with the copy of Charlotte's Web?"

"You were almost nine. You spent twenty days in the learning room." Anson quoted Daniel: " 'Fantasy is a doorway to superstition.' "

"Talking animals, a humble pig, a clever spider—"

"A corrupting influence,'" Anson quoted. " 'The first step in a life of unreason and irrational beliefs.' "

Their father saw no mystery in nature, just a green machine.

Mitch said, "It would have been better if they hit us."

"Much better. Bruises, broken bones—that's the kind of thing that gets the attention of Child Protective Services."

After another silence, Mitch said, "Connie in Chicago, Megan in Atlanta, Portia in Birmingham. Why are you and I still here?"

"Maybe we like the climate," Anson said. "Maybe we don't think distance heals. Maybe we feel we have unfinished business."

The last explanation resonated with Mitch. He had often thought about what he would say to his parents if the opportunity arose to question the disparity between their intentions and methods, or the cruelty of trying to strip from children their sense of wonder.

When he left the interstate and drove inland on state highways, desert moths swirled as white as snowflakes in the headlights and burst against the windshield.

Julian Campbell lived behind stone walls, behind an imposing iron gate framed by a massive limestone chambranle. The ascendants of the chambranle featured rich carvings of leafy vines that rose to the capping transverse, joining to form a giant wreath at the center.

"This gate," Mitch said, "must've cost as much as my house."

Anson assured him: "Twice as much."

Chapter 24

To the left of the main gate, the stacked-stone estate wall incorporated a guardhouse. As the Expedition drifted to a stop, the door opened, and a tall young man in a black suit appeared.

His clear dark eyes read Mitch as instantly as a cashier's scanner reads the bar code on a product. "Good evening, sir." He at once looked past Mitch to Anson. "Pleased to see you, Mr. Rafferty."

With no sound that Mitch could detect, the ornate iron gates swung inward. Beyond lay a two-lane driveway paved with quartzite cobblestones, flanked by majestic phoenix palms, each tree lighted from the base, the great crowns forming a canopy over the pavement.

He drove onto the estate with the feeling that, all forgiven, Eden had been restored.

The driveway was a quarter of a mile long. Vast, magically illuminated lawns and gardens receded into mystery on both sides.

Anson said, "Sixteen manicured acres."

"There must be a dozen on the landscape staff alone."

"I'm sure there are."

From red tile roofs, limestone walls, mullioned windows radiant with golden light, columns, balustrades, and terraces, the architect had conjured as much grace as grandeur. So large that it should have been intimidating, the Italianate house instead looked welcoming.

The driveway ended by encircling a reflecting pond with a center fountain from which crisscrossing jets, like sprays of silver coins, arced and sparkled in the night. Mitch parked beside it.

"Does this guy have a license to print money?"

"He's in entertainment. Movies, casinos, you name it."

This splendor overawed Mitch but also raised his hopes that Julian Campbell would be able to help them. Having built such wealth after being critically wounded and released from the FBI on permanent disability, having been dealt such a bad hand yet having played it to win, Campbell must be as street-smart as Anson promised.

A silver-haired man, with the demeanor of a butler, greeted them on the terrace, said his name was Winslow, and escorted them inside.

They followed Winslow across an immense white-marble receiving foyer capped by a coffered plaster ceiling with gold-leaf details. After passing through a living room measuring at least sixty by eighty feet, they came finally into a mahogany-paneled library.

In response to Mitch's question, Winslow revealed that the book collection numbered over sixty thousand volumes. "Mr. Campbell will be with you momentarily," he said, and departed. The library, which incorporated more square footage than Mitch's bungalow, offered half a dozen seating areas with sofas and chairs.

They settled into armchairs, facing each other across a coffee table, and Anson sighed. "This is the right thing."

"If he's half as impressive as the house—"

"Julian is the best, Mickey. He's the real deal."

"He must think a lot of you to meet on such short notice, past ten o'clock at night."

Anson smiled ruefully. "What would Daniel and Kathy say if I turned away your compliment with a few words of modesty?"

" 'Modesty is related to diffidence,' " Mitch quoted. " 'Diffidence is related to shyness. Shyness is a synonym for timidity. Timidity is a characteristic of the meek. The meek do not inherit the earth, they serve those who are self-confident and self-assertive.' "

"I love you, little brother. You're amazing."

"I'm sure you could quote it word for word, too."

"That's not what I mean. You were raised in that Skinner box, that rat maze, and yet you're maybe the most modest guy I know."

"I've got issues," Mitch assured him. "Plenty of them."

"See? Your response to being called modest is self-criticism." Mitch smiled. "Guess I didn't learn much in the learning room."

"For me, the learning room wasn't the worst," Anson said. "What I'll never scrape out of my mind is the shame game."