Page 14

Memory flushed Mitch's face. "'Shame has no social usefulness. It's a signature of the superstitious mind.'"

"When did they first make you play the shame game, Mickey?"

"I think I was maybe five."

"How often did you have to play it?"

"I guess half a dozen times over the years."

"They put me through it eleven times that I remember, the last when I was thirteen."

Mitch grimaced. "Man, I remember that one. You were given a full week of it."

"Living na*ed twenty-four/seven while everyone else in the house remains clothed. Being required to answer in front of everyone the most embarrassing, the most intimate questions about your private thoughts and habits and desires. Being watched by two other family members at every toilet, at least one of them a sister, allowed no smallest private moment...Did that curt you of shame, Mickey?"

"Look at my face," Mitch said.

"I could light a candle off that blush." Anson laughed softly, a warm and bearish laugh. "Damn if we're getting him anything for Father's Day."

"Not even cologne?" Mitch asked.

This was a jokey routine from childhood.

"Not even a pot to piss in," Anson said.

"What about the piss without the pot?"

"How would I wrap it?"

"With love," Mitch said, and they grinned at each other.

"I'm proud of you, Mickey. You beat 'em. It didn't work with you the way it worked with me."

"The way what worked?"

"They broke me, Mitch. I have no shame, no capacity for guilt." From under his sports coat, Anson withdrew a pistol.

Chapter 25

Mitch held his smile in anticipation of the punch line, as if the pistol would prove to be not a weapon but instead a cigarette lighter or a novelty-store item that shot bubbles.

If the salty sea could freeze and keep its color, it would have been the shade of Anson's eyes. They were as clear as ever, as direct as always, but they were further colored by a quality that Mitch had never seen before, that he could not identify, or would not.

"Two million. Truth is," Anson said almost sadly, without bite or rancor, "I wouldn't pay two million to ransom you, so Holly was dead the moment she was snatched."

Mitch's face set marble-hard, and his throat seemed to be full of broken stones that weighed down speech.

"Some people I've done consulting work for—sometimes they come across an opportunity that is crumbs to them but meat to me. Not my usual work, but things that are more directly criminal."

Mitch had to struggle to focus his attention, to hear what was said, for his head was filled with a roar of lifelong perceptions collapsing like a construct of termite-eaten timbers.

"The people who kidnapped Holly are the team I put together for one of those jobs. They made a bundle from it, but they found out my take was bigger than I told them, and now they're greedy."

So Holly had been kidnapped not solely because Anson had enough money to ransom her, but also because—primarily because—Anson had cheated her abductors.

"They're afraid to come directly after me. I'm a valuable resource to some serious people who'd pop anyone who popped me."

Mitch assumed he would soon meet some of those "serious people," but whatever threat they might pose to him, it could not equal the devastation of this betrayal.

"On the phone," Anson revealed, "they said if I don't ransom Holly, they'll kill her and then shoot you down in the street one day, like they shot Jason Osteen. The poor dumb babies. They think they know me, but they don't know what I really am. Nobody does."

Mitch shivered, for his mental landscape had turned wintry, his thoughts a storm of sleet, an icy and unrelenting barrage.

"Jason was one of them, by the way. Sweet brainless Breezer. He thought his pals were going to shoot the dog to make their point with you. By shooting him instead, they made a sharper point and improved the split of the remaining partners."

Of course, Anson had known Jason as long as Mitch had known him. But Anson evidently had remained in touch with Jason long after Mitch had lost track of his former roommate.

"Is there something you want to say to me, Mitch?"

Perhaps another man in his position would have had a thousand angry questions, bitter denunciations, but Mitch sat frozen, having just experienced an emotional and intellectual polar shift, his previous equatorial view of life having flipped arctic in an instant. The landscape of this new reality was unknown to him, and this man who so resembled his brother was not the brother he had known, but a stranger. They were foreigners to each other, with no common language, here on a desolate plain.

Anson seemed to take Mitch's silence as a challenge or even an affront. Leaning forward in his chair, he sought a reaction, though he spoke in the brotherly voice that he had always used before, as if his tongue was so accustomed to the soft tones of deceit that it could not sharpen itself to the occasion.

"Just so you won't feel that you mean less to me than Megan, Connie, and Portia, I should clarify something. I didn't give them money to start businesses. That was bullshit, bro. I handled you."

Because a response was clearly wanted, Mitch did not give one.

A man with a fever can suffer chills, and Anson's stare remained icy though its intensity revealed a feverishly agitated mind. "Two million wouldn't wipe me out, bro. The truth is...I've got closer to eight."

From behind the burly bearish charm, a goatish other watched, and Mitch sensed, without fully understanding what he meant, that he and his brother, alone in the room, were in fact not alone.

"I bought the yacht in March," Anson said. "Come September,

I'll run my consulting service at sea, with a satellite uplink. Freedom. I've earned it, and no one's gonna bleed me for two cents of it."

The library door closed. Someone had arrived—and wanted privacy for what came next.

Rising from his chair, pistol ready, Anson tried once more to sting a reaction from Mitch. "You can take some comfort from the fact that this will be over for Holly quicker now than midnight Wednesday."

Defined by a confidence and grace that suggested miscegenation with a panther somewhere in his heritage, a tall man arrived, his iron-gray eyes bright with curiosity, his nose raised as if seeking an elusive scent.

To Mitch, Anson said, "When I'm not home to take their call at noon, and when they can't get you on your cell phone, they'll know my buttons can't be pushed. They'll whack her, dump her, and run."

The confident man wore tasseled loafers, black silk slacks, and a gray silk shirt the shade of his eyes. A gold Rolex brightened his left wrist, and his manicured fingernails were buffed to a shine.

"They won't torture her," Anson continued. "That was bluff. They probably won't even screw her before they kill her, though I would if I were them."

Two solid men stepped from behind Mitch's chair, flanking him. Both had pistols fitted with silencers, and their eyes were like those you usually saw only from the free side of a cage.

"He's carrying a piece in the small of his back," Anson told them. To Mitch, he said, "I felt it when I hugged you, bro."

In retrospect, Mitch wondered why he hadn't mentioned the pistol to Anson once they were in the Expedition, in motion, and not likely to be monitored. Perhaps in the deepest catacombs of his mind had been interred a distrust of his brother that he had not been able to acknowledge.

One of the gunmen had a bad complexion. Like aphids at a leaf, acne had pitted his face. He told Mitch to stand, and Mitch got up from the chair.

The other gunman lifted the back of his sports coat and took the pistol from him.

When told to sit down, Mitch obeyed.

At last he spoke to Anson, but only to say, "I pity you," which was true, though it was a wretched kind of pity, with some compassion but no tenderness, leeched of mercy but transfused with revulsion.

However this pity might be qualified, Anson wanted none of it. He had said that he was proud of Mickey for not being molded in their parents' forge, that he himself felt broken. Those were lies, the lubricating oil of a manipulator.

His pride was reserved for his own cunning and ruthlessness. At Mitch's declaration of pity, disdain narrowed Anson's eyes, and his clear contempt brought a harder edge of brutality to his features.

As if he sensed that Anson was sufficiently offended to do something rash, the man in silk raised one hand, Rolex glittering, to stay a gunshot. "Not here."

After a hesitation, Anson returned his pistol to the shoulder holster under his sports coat.

Unsought, into Mitch's mind came the seven words that Detective Taggart had spoken to him eight hours before, and though he did not know their source and did not fully see their appropriateness to the moment, he felt compelled to speak them. "'Blood crieth unto me from the ground.'"

For an instant, Anson and his associates were as motionless as figures in a painting, the library hushed, the air still, the night crouched at the French doors, and then Anson walked out of the room, and the two gunmen retreated a few steps, remaining alert, and the man in silk perched on the arm of the chair in which Anson had sat.

"Mitch," he said, "you've been quite a disappointment to your brother."

Chapter 26

Julian Campbell had the golden glow that could have been achieved only with a tanning machine of his own, a sculpted physique that was proof of a home gym and a personal trainer, and a smooth face that, for a man in his fifties, suggested a plastic surgeon on retainer.

The wound that had ended his FBI career was not evident, nor any sign of disability. His triumph over his physical injuries evidently equaled his economic success.

"Mitch, I'm curious."

"About what?"

Instead of answering, Campbell said, "I'm a practical man. In my business I do what I need to do, and I don't get acid indigestion over it."

Mitch translated those words to mean that Campbell did not allow himself to be troubled by guilt.

"I know a lot of men who do what needs done. Practical men."

In thirteen and a half hours, the kidnappers would call Anson's house. If Mitch wasn't there to take the call, Holly would be killed.

"But this is the first time I've seen a man drop the dime on his own brother just to prove he's the hardest hardcase around."

"For money," Mitch corrected.

Campbell shook his head. "No. Anson could have asked me to teach these pussies a lesson. They aren't as tough as they think."

Below this darkest level of the day's descent lay something darker.

"In twelve hours, we could have them begging to pay us to take your wife back unharmed."

Mitch waited. For now there was nothing to do but wait.

"These guys have mothers. We burn down one mom's house, maybe smash another old lady's face, she needs a year of reconstructive surgery."

Campbell was as matter-of-fact as if he had been explaining the terms of a real-estate deal.

"One of them has a daughter by an ex-wife. She means something to him. We stop the kid on her way home from school, strip her naked, set her clothes on fire. We tell her dad—next time we burn little Suzie with her clothes."

Earlier, in his naivete, Mitch had been willing to have Iggy dragged into this mess to spare Anson.

Now he wondered if he would have been willing for other innocent people to be beaten, burned, and savaged in order to save Holly. Perhaps he should be thankful that the choice had not been offered to him.

"If we tweaked twelve of theirs in twelve hours, those pussies

would send your wife home with apologies and a Nordstrom gift certificate for a new wardrobe."

The two gunmen never took their eyes off Mitch.

"But Anson," Campbell continued, "he wants to make a statement so nobody ever underestimates him again. Indirectly, the statement's also for my benefit. And I gotta say...I'm impressed."

Mitch could not let them see the true intensity of his terror. They would assume that extreme fear would make him reckless, and they would watch him even more diligently than they watched him now.

He must appear to be fearful but, more than fearful, despairing. A man in the grip of despair, who has utterly abandoned hope, is not a man with the will to fight.

"I'm curious," Campbell repeated, coming around at last to where he had started. "For your brother to be able to do this to you .. . what did you do?"

"Loved him," Mitch said.

Campbell regarded Mitch as a wading heron regards a swimming fish, and then smiled. "Yes, that would do it. What if one day he found himself reciprocating?"

"He's always wanted to go far, and to get there fast."

"Sentiment is an encumbrance," Campbell said.

In a voice weighed low with despair, Mitch said, "Oh, it's a chain and an anchor."

From the coffee table where one of the gunmen had put it, Campbell picked up the pistol that had been taken from Mitch. "Have you ever fired this?"

Mitch almost said that he had not, but then realized that the magazine lacked one bullet, the round with which Knox accidentally shot himself. "Once. I fired it once. To see what it felt like."

Amused, Campbell said, "And did it feel scary?"

"Scary enough."

"Your brother says you're not a man for guns."

"He knows me better than I know him."

"So where did you get this?"

"My wife thought we should keep one in the house."

"How right she was."

"It's been in a nightstand drawer since the day we bought it," Mitch lied.

Campbell rose to his feet. With his right arm extended full length, he pointed the pistol at Mitch's face. "Stand up."

Chapter 27

Meeting the blind stare of the pistol, Mitch rose from the armchair.

The two nameless gunmen moved to new positions, as though their intent was to cut down Mitch in triangulated fire.

"Take off your coat and put it on the table," Campbell said.

Mitch did as he was told, and then followed another instruction to turn out the pockets of his jeans. He put his ring of keys, his wallet, and a couple of wadded Kleenex on the coffee table.

He recalled being a boy in darkness and silence. Instead of concentrating for days on the simple lesson his incarceration was meant to teach him, he had conducted imaginary conversations with a spider named Charlotte, a pig named Wilbur, a rat named Templeton. That had been the closest he had come to defiance—then or since.