Page 16

The sound is tantalizingly familiar. A mundane noise—and yet her instinct tells her that her fate hangs on that ca-chunk.

She is able to replay the sound in her memory, but she is not at first able to connect it to a cause.

After a while, Holly begins to suspect that the sound was imagined rather than real. More accurately, that it occurred in her head, not beyond the walls of this room. This is a peculiar notion, but it persists.

Then she recognizes the source, something she has heard perhaps hundreds of times, and although it has no ominous associations for her, she is chilled. The ca-chunk is the sound of a lid slamming shut on a car trunk.

Just the lid slamming shut on a car trunk, whether imagined or actually heard, should not cause crystals of creeping frost to form in the hollows of her bones. She sits very erect, the nail forgotten for the moment, breathing not at all, then shallowly, quietly.

Part 2

Would You Die for Love?

Would You Kill?

Chapter 29

In the late 1940s, if you owned a car like a Chrysler Windsor, you knew the engine was big because it made a big sound. It had the throb of a bull's heart, low fierce snort and heavy stamp of hooves.

The war was over, you were a survivor, large swaths of Europe lay in ruin, but the homeland was untouched, and you wanted to feel alive. You didn't want a sound-proofed engine compartment. You didn't want noise-control technology. You wanted power, balanced weight, and speed.

The car's dark trunk reverberated with engine knock and rumble transferred along the drive shaft, through the body and the frame. The thrum and stutter of road noise rose and fell in direct relation to the tempo of the turning wheels.

Mitch smelled faint traces of exhaust gases, perhaps from a leak in the muffler, but he was in no danger of being overcome by carbon monoxide. Stronger were the rubbery scent of the mat on which he lay and the acidity of his own fear sweat.

Although as dark as the chamber in his parents' house, this mobile learning room otherwise failed to impose sensory deprivation. Yet one of the greatest lessons of his life was being driven home to him mile by mile.

His father says there is no tao, no natural law we are born to understand. In his materialist view, we should conduct ourselves not according to any code, only according to self-interest.

Rationality is always in a man's self-interest, Daniel says. Therefore, any act that is rational is right and good and


Evil does not exist in Daniel's philosophy. Stealing, rape, murder of the innocent—these and other crimes are merely irrational because they put he who commits them in jeopardy of his freedom.

Daniel does acknowledge that the degree of irrationality depends on the criminal's chances of escaping punishment. Therefore, those irrational acts that succeed and have only positive consequences for the perpetrator may be right and admirable, if not good for society.

Thieves, rapists, murderers, and their ilk might benefit from therapy and rehabilitation, or they might not. In either case, Daniel says, they are not evil; they are recovering—or irredeemable—irrationalists, only that and nothing more.

Mitch had thought that these teachings had not penetrated him, that he'd not been singed by the fire of a Daniel Rafferty education. But fire produced fumes; he'd been smoked in his father's fanaticism so long that some of what steeped into him had stayed.

He could see, but he had been blind. He could hear, but he had been deaf.

This day, this night, Mitch had come face-to-face with evil. It was as real as stone.

Although an irrational man should be met with compassion and therapy, an evil man was owed nothing more or less than resistance and retribution, the fury of a righteous justice.

In Julian Campbell's library, when the gunman had produced the handcuffs, Mitch had at once held out his hands. He had not waited for instructions.

If he had not appeared worn down, had not seemed meek and resigned to his fate, they might have cuffed his hands behind him. Reaching the revolver in his ankle holster would have been more difficult; using it with accuracy would have been impossible.

Campbell had even commented on Mitch's weariness, by which he had meant primarily the weariness of mind and heart.

They thought they knew the kind of man he was, and maybe they did. But they didn't know the kind of man he could become when the life of his wife was in the balance.

Amused by his lack of familiarity with the pistol that they had confiscated, they had not imagined he would have a second weapon. Not only good men are disadvantaged by their expectations.

Mitch pulled up the leg of his jeans and retrieved the revolver. He unstrapped the holster and discarded it.

Earlier, he had examined the weapon and had not found a safety. In movies, only some pistols had safeties, never revolvers.

If he lived through the next two days and got Holly back alive, he would never again allow himself to be put in a position where he had to rely on Tinseltown's grasp of reality for his or his family's survival.

When he had first swung open the cylinder, he had discovered five rounds in five chambers, where he expected six.

He would have to score two hits out of five rounds. Direct hits, not just wing shots.

Perhaps one of the gunmen would open the trunk. It would be better if the two were there, giving him the advantage of surprise with both.

Both would have their weapons drawn—or only one. If one, Mitch must be quick enough to target his armed adversary first.

A peaceable man, planning violence, was plagued by thoughts that were not helpful: As a teenager, cursed by the explosions of acne that had left his face a moonscape, the scarred gunman must have suffered much humiliation.

Sympathy for the devil was a kind of masochism at best, a death wish at worst.

For a while, rocking to the rhythms of road and rubber, and of internal combustion, Mitch tried to imagine all the ways that the violence might go down when the trunk lid went up. Then he tried not to imagine.

According to his radiant watch, they traveled more than half an hour and then, slowing, changed from blacktop to an unpaved road. Small stones rattled through the undercarriage, rapped hard against the floor pan.

He smelled dust and licked the alkaline taste of it from his lips, but the air never became foul enough to choke him.

After twelve minutes at an easy speed, on the dirt road, the car came slowly to a stop. The engine idled for half a minute, and then the driver switched it off.

After forty-five minutes of drone and drum, the silence was like a sudden deafness.

One door opened, then the other. They were coming.

Facing the back of the car, Mitch splayed his legs, bracing his feet in opposite corners of the space. He could not sit erect until the lid raised, but he waited with his back partly off the floor of the trunk, as if in the middle of doing a series of stomach crunches at the gym.

The cuffs all but required that he hold the revolver in a two-hand grip, which was probably better anyway.

He didn't hear footsteps, just the gallop of his heart, but then he heard the key in the trunk lock.

Through his mind's eye blinked an image of Jason Osteen being shot in the head, blinked and blinked, repeating like a film loop, Jason slammed by the bullet, skull exploding, slammed by the bullet, skull exploding....

As the lid lifted, Mitch realized that the trunk did not have a convenience light, and he began to sit up, thrusting the revolver forward.

The full-pitcher moon spilled its milk, backlighting the two gunmen.

Mitch's eyes were adapted to absolute blackness, and theirs were not. He sat in darkness, and they stood in moonlight. They thought he was a meek and broken and helpless man, and he was not.

He didn't consciously squeeze off the first shot, but felt the hard recoil and saw the muzzle flash and heard the crash, and then he was aware of squeezing the trigger the second time.

Two point-blank rounds knocked one silhouette down out of the moon-soaked night.

The second silhouette backed away from the car, and Mitch sat all the way up, squeezing off one, two, three more rounds.

The hammer clicked, and there was just the quiet of the moon, and the hammer clicked, and he reminded himself Only five, only five!

He had to get out of the trunk. With no ammunition, he was a fish in a barrel. Out. Out of the trunk.

Chapter 30

Rising too fast, Mitch knocked his head against the lid, . almost fell back, but maintained forward momentum. He scrambled out of the trunk.

His left foot came down on solid ground, but he planted his right on the twice-shot man. He staggered, stepped on the body again, and it shifted under him, and he fell.

He rolled away from the gunman, to the verge of the road. He was stopped by a wild hedge of mesquite, which he identified by its oily smell.

He had lost the revolver. It didn't matter. No ammunition.

Around him lay a parched moon-silvered landscape: the narrow dirt road, desert scrub, barren soil, boulders.

Sleek, its ample chrome features lustrous with lunar polish, the Chrysler Windsor seemed strangely futuristic in this primitive land, like a ship meant to sail the stars. The driver had switched off the headlights when he killed the engine.

The gunman on whom Mitch had twice stepped, when exiting the trunk, had not cried out. He had not reared up or clutched at Mitch. He was probably dead.

Maybe the second man had been killed, too. Coming out of the trunk, Mitch had lost track of him.

If one of the last three rounds had found its target, the second man should have been a buffet for vultures on the dirt road behind the car.

The sandy soil of the roadbed was rich in silica. Glass is made from silica, mirrors from glass. The single-lane track offered much higher reflectivity than any surface in the night.

Lying facedown and flat, head cautiously raised, Mitch could see a significant distance along the pale ribbon as it dwindled through the gnarled and bristling scrub, in the direction from which they had come. No second body lay on the road.

If the guy hadn't been at least winged, surely he would have charged, firing, as Mitch clambered out of the Chrysler.

Hit, he might have hobbled or crawled into the scrub or behind a formation of stone. He could be anywhere out there, assessing his wound, reviewing his options.

The gunman would be angry but not scared. He lived for action like this. He was a sociopath. He wouldn't scare easily.

Definitely, unequivocally, Mitch was afraid of the man hiding in the night. He also feared the one who was lying on the road at the back of the Chrysler.

The guy near the car might be dead, but even if he was crow-bait, Mitch was afraid of him anyway. He didn't want to go near him.

He had to do what he didn't want to do, because whether the sonofabitch was a carcass or unconscious, he possessed a weapon. Mitch needed a weapon. And quick.

He had discovered that he was capable of violence, at least in self-defense, but he hadn't been prepared for the rapidity with which events unfolded following the first shot, for the speed with which decisions must be made, for the suddenness with which new challenges could arise.

On the farther side of the road, several blinds of scraggly vegetation offered concealment, as did low batters of weathered rock.

If the light breeze that had been active toward the coast had made its way this far inland, the desert had swallowed it to the last draught. Any movement of the brush would reveal not the hand of Nature but instead his enemy.

As far as he could tell in this murk, all was still.

Acutely aware that his own movement made a mark of him, hampered by the handcuffs, Mitch wriggled on his belly to the man behind the car.

In the gunman's open and unblinking eyes, the mortician moon had laid coins.

Beside the body rested a familiar shape of steel made sterling in this light. Mitch seized it gratefully, almost squirmed away, but realized that he had found the useless revolver.

Wincing at the faint jingle produced by the short chain between his handcuffs, he patted down the corpse—and pressed his fingers in a wetness. Sickened, shuddering, he wiped his hand on the dead man's clothes.

As he was about to conclude that this guy had gotten out of the Chrysler without a weapon, he discovered the checked grip of the pistol protruding from under the corpse. He pulled the gun free.

A shot cracked. The dead man twitched, having taken the round meant for Mitch.

He flung himself toward the Chrysler and heard a second shot and heard the whispery whine of passing death and heard a bullet ricochet off the car. He also heard a closer whisper, although he might have imagined two near misses with one round and might in fact have heard nothing after the insectile shriek of the ricochet.

With the car between himself and the shooter, he felt safer, but then almost at once not safe at all.

The gunman could come around the Chrysler at either the front end or the back. He had the advantage of choosing his approach and initiating the action.

Meanwhile, Mitch would be forced to keep an alert watch in both directions. An impossible task.

Already the other might be on the move.

Mitch thrust up from the ground and away from the car. He ran in a crouch, off the road, through the natural hedge of mesquite, which crackled revealingly and at the same time shushed as if warning him to be quiet.

The land sloped down from the road, which was good. If it had sloped up, he would have been visible, his broad back an easy target, the moment the gunman rounded the Chrysler.

He had lucked into firm but sandy soil, instead of shale or loose stones, so he didn't make a clatter as he ran. The moon mapped his route, and he weaved among clumps of brush instead of thrashing through them, mindful that keeping his balance was more difficult with his hands cuffed in front of him.

At the bottom of the thirty-foot slope, he turned right. Based on the position of the moon, he believed that he was heading almost due west.

Something like a cricket sang. Something stranger clicked and shrilled.

A colony of pampas-grass clumps drew his attention with scores of tall feathery panicles. They glowed white in the moonlight, and reminded him of the plumed tails of proud horses.

From the round clumps sprayed very narrow, sharp-edged, pointed, recurved blades of grass three to five feet in length. They were waist-high on Mitch. When dry, these blades could scratch, prickle like needles, even cut.

Each clump respected the territorial integrity of the other. He was able to pass among them.

In the heart of the colony, he felt safely screened by the white feathery panicles that rose higher than his head. He remained on his feet and, through gaps between the plumes, he peered back the way that he had come.

The ghostly light did not reveal a pursuer. Mitch shifted his position, gently pushed aside a panicle, and another, surveying the edge of the roadway at the top of the slope. He didn't see anyone up there.

He did not intend to hide in the pampas for long. He had fled his vulnerable position at the car only to gain a couple of minutes to think.