Page 28

At the back door, Mitch's hands were shaking so much that he had trouble fitting the key in the lock.

He killed Holly, Detective Taggart. He made up a story about her being kidnapped, and he came to me for money, but then he admitted killing her.

Taggart knew that Jason Osteen hadn't earned an honest living. He knew from Leelee Morheim that Jason had done a job with Anson and had been cheated. So he knew Anson was bent.

Nevertheless, when Anson told a story conflicting with Mitch's, Taggart would consider it. Cops were always presented with competing stories. Surely the truth most often lay somewhere between them.

Finding the truth will take time, and time is a rat gnawing at Mitch's nerves. Time is a trapdoor under Holly, and time is a noose tightening around her neck.

The key found the keyway. The deadbolt clacked open.

Standing on the threshold, Mitch switched on the lights. At once he saw on the floor a long blood smear that hadn't concerned him before, but which alarmed him now.

When Anson had been clubbed alongside the head, his ear had torn. As he'd been dragged to the laundry room, he'd left a trail.

The wound had been minor. The smears on the floor suggested something worse than a bleeding ear.

By such misleading evidence were doubts raised and suspicions sharpened.

Trapdoor, noose, and gnawing rat, time sprung a coiled spring in Mitch, and as he entered the kitchen, he slipped open a button on his shirt, reached inside, and withdrew the Taser that was tucked under his belt, against his abdomen. As he'd delayed getting out of the Honda, he had retrieved the weapon from the storage pocket in the driver's door.

"The laundry room is this way," Mitch said, leading Taggart a few steps forward before turning suddenly with the Taser.

The detective wasn't following as close as Mitch had thought. He was a prudent two steps back.

Some Tasers fire darts trailing wires, which deliver a disabling shock from a moderate distance. Others require that the business end be thrust against the target, resulting in an intimacy equal to that of an assault with a knife.

This was the second Taser model, and Mitch had to get in close, get in fast.

As Mitch thrust with his right arm, Taggart blocked with his left. The Taser was almost knocked out of Mitch's hand.

Retreating, the detective reached cross-body, under his sports jacket, with his right hand, surely going for a weapon in a shoulder holster.

Taggart backed into a counter, Mitch feinted left, thrust right, and here came the gun hand from under the jacket. Mitch wanted bare skin, didn't want to risk fabric providing partial insulation against the shock, and he got the detective in the throat.

Eyes rolling back in his head, jaw sagging, Taggart fired one round, his knees folded, and he dropped.

The shot seemed unusually loud. The shot shook the room.

Chapter 56

Mitch was not wounded, but he thought about John Knox self-shot in the fall from the garage loft, and he knelt worriedly beside the detective.

On the floor at Taggart's side lay his pistol. Mitch shoved it out of reach.

Taggart shuddered as if chilled to the marrow, his hands clawed at the floor tiles, and bubbles of spit sputtered on his lips.

Faint, thin, pungent, a ribbon of smoke unraveled from Taggart's sports jacket. The bullet had burned a hole through it.

Mitch pulled back the jacket, looking for a wound. He didn't find one.

The relief he felt did not much buoy him. He was still guilty of assaulting a police officer.

This was the first time he had hurt an innocent person. Remorse, he found, actually had a taste: a bitterness rising at the back of the throat.

Pawing at Mitch's arm, the detective could not close his hand into a grip. He tried to say something, but his throat must be tight, his tongue thick, his lips numb.

Mitch wanted to avoid having to Taser him a second time. He said, "I'm sorry," and set to work.

The car key had vanished into Taggart's jacket. Mitch found it in the second pocket he searched.

In the laundry room, having digested the gunshot and having come to a conclusion about what it might mean, Anson began shouting. Mitch ignored him.

Taking Taggart by the feet, Mitch dragged him out of the house, onto the brick patio. He left the detective's pistol in the kitchen.

As he pulled the back door shut, he heard the doorbell ring inside. The police were at the front of the house.

As Mitch took time to lock the door to delay their exposure to Anson and his lies, he said to Taggart, "I love her too much to trust anyone else with this. I'm sorry."

He sprinted across the courtyard, along the side of the garage, and through the open back gate into the windswept alleyway.

When no one answered the doorbell, the cops would come around the side of the house, into the courtyard, and find Taggart on the bricks. They would be in the alley seconds later.

He threw the Taser on the passenger's seat as he got behind the wheel. Key, switch, the roar of the engine.

In the storage pocket of the door was the pistol that belonged to one of Campbell's hired killers. Seven rounds remained in the magazine.

He wasn't going to pull a gun on the police. His only option was to get the hell out of there.

He drove east, fully expecting that a squad car would suddenly hove across the end of the alleyway, thwarting him.

Panic is fear expressed by numbers of people simultaneously, by an audience or a mob. But Mitch had enough fear for a crowd, and panic seized him.

At the end of the alleyway, he turned right into the street. At the next intersection, he turned left, heading east again.

This area of Corona del Mar, itself a part of Newport Beach, was called the Village. A grid of streets, it could be sealed off with perhaps as few as three roadblocks.

He needed to get beyond those choke points. Fast.

In Julian Campbell's library, in the trunk of the Chrysler, and in that trunk a second time, he'd known fear, but nothing as intense as this. Then he had been afraid for himself; now he was afraid for Holly.

The worst that could happen to him was that he would be captured or shot by the police. He had weighed the costs of his options and had chosen the best game. Now he didn't care what happened to him except to the extent that if anything happened to him, Holly would stand alone.

In the Village, some of the streets were narrow. Mitch was on one of them. Vehicles were parked on both sides. With too much speed, he risked sheering a door off if somebody opened one.

Taggart could describe the Honda. In minutes, they would have the license-plate number from the Department of Motor Vehicles. He could not afford to rack up body damage that would make the car even more identifiable.

He arrived at a traffic signal at Pacific Coast Highway. Red.

Heavy traffic surged north and south on the divided highway.

He couldn't jump the light and weave into the flow without precipitating a chain reaction of collisions, with himself at the center of the ultimate snarl.

He glanced at the rearview mirror. Some kind of paneled truck or muscle van approached, still a block away. The roof appeared to be outfitted with an array of emergency beacons, like those on a police vehicle.

This was a street lined with mature trees. The dappling shadows and piercework of light rippled in veils across the moving vehicle, making it difficult to identify.

Out on northbound lanes of the Pacific Coast Highway, a police car passed, parting the traffic before it with emergency beacons but not with a siren.

Behind the Honda, the worrisome vehicle cruised within half a block, at which point Mitch could read the word ambulance on the brow above the windshield. They were in no hurry. They must be off duty or carrying the dead.

He exhaled a pent-up breath. The ambulance braked to a stop behind him, and his relief was short-lived when he wondered whether paramedics usually listened to a police scanner.

The traffic light changed to green. He crossed the southbound lanes and turned left, north on Coast Highway.

One bead of sweat chased another down the nape of his neck, under his collar, along the spillway of his spine.

He had traveled only a block on Coast Highway when a siren shrilled behind him: this time, in the rearview mirror, a police car.

Only fools led cops on a chase. They had air resources as well as a lot of iron on the ground.

Defeated, Mitch steered toward the curb. As he vacated the lane, the squad car shot past him and away.

From the curb, Mitch watched until the cruiser left the highway two blocks ahead. It turned left into the north end of the Village.

Evidently Taggart hadn't yet sufficiently recovered his wits to give them a description of the Honda.

Mitch took a very deep breath. He took another. He wiped the back of his neck with one hand. He blotted his hands on his jeans.

He had assaulted a police officer.

Easing the Honda back into the northbound traffic, he wondered if he had lost his mind. He felt resolved, and perhaps reckless in a venturous sense, but not shortsighted. Of course, a lunatic could not recognize madness from the inside of his bubble.

Chapter 57

After Holly extracts the nail from the plank, she turns it . over and over in her stiff sore fingers, assessing whether or not it is as lethal as she imagined when it was sheathed in wood.

Straight, more than three but less than four inches long, with a thick shank, it qualifies as a spike, all right. The point is not as sharp as, say, the wicked point of a poultry skewer, but plenty sharp enough.

While the wind sings of violence, she spends time imagining the ways the spike might be employed against the creep. Her imagination is fertile enough to disturb her.

After quickly grossing herself out, she changes the subject from the uses of the spike to the places where it might be hidden. What value it has is the value of surprise.

Although the spike probably won't show if tucked in a pocket of her jeans, she worries that she'll not be able to extract it quickly in a crisis. When they had transported her from her

house to this place, they had bound her wrists tightly with a scarf. If he does the same when he takes her away from here, she will not be able to pull her hands apart and, therefore, might not be able to get her fingers easily into a particular pocket.

Her belt offers no possibilities, but in the dark, by touch, she considers her sneakers. She can't carry the nail inside the shoe; it will rub and blister her foot, at the least. Maybe she can conceal it on the outside of the shoe.

She loosens the laces on her left sneaker, carefully tucks the nail between the tongue and one of the flaps, and reties the shoe.

When she gets to her feet and walks a circle around the ringbolt to which she is tethered, she quickly discovers that the rigid nail is an impediment to a smoothly flexed step. She can't avoid limping.

Finally she pulls up her sweater and secrets the nail in her bra. She isn't as extravagantly endowed as the average female mud wrestler, but Nature has been more than fair. To prevent the nail from slipping out between the cups, she presses the point through the elastic facing, thus pinning it in place.

She has armed herself.

With the task complete, her preparations seem pathetic.

Restless, she turns to the ringbolt, wondering if she can set herself free or at least augment her meager weaponry.

With her questing hands, she had earlier determined that the ringbolt is welded to a half-inch-thick steel plate that measures about eight inches on a side. The plate is held to the floor by what must be four countersunk screws.

She is unable to say with certainty that they are screws, for some liquid has been poured into the sink around each one and has formed a hard puddle. This denies her access to the slot in the head of each screw, if indeed they are screws.

Discouraged, she lies on her back on the air mattress, her head raised on the pillow portion.

Earlier, she had slept fitfully. Her emotional exhaustion breeds physical fatigue, and she knows that she could sleep again. But she does not want to doze off.

She is afraid that she will wake only as he falls upon her.

She lies with her eyes open, though this darkness is deeper than the one behind her eyelids, and she listens to the wind, though there is no comfort in it.

A timeless time later, when she wakes, she is still in darkness absolute, but she knows she isn't alone. Some subtle scent alerts her or perhaps an intuitive sense of being encroached upon.

She sits up with a start, the air mattress squeaking under her, the chain rattling against the floor between manacle and ringbolt.

"It's only me," he assures her.

Holly's eyes strain at the blackness because it seems that the gravity of his madness ought to condense the darkness around him into something yet darker, but he remains invisible.

"I was watching you sleep," he says, "then after a while, I was concerned that my flashlight would wake you."

Judging his position by his voice is not as easy as she might have expected.

"This is nice," he says, "being with you in the numinous dark."

To her right. No more than three feet away. Perhaps on his knees, perhaps standing.

"Are you afraid?" he asks.

"No," she lies without hesitation.

"You would disappoint me if you were afraid. I believe you are arising into your full spirit, and one who is arising must be beyond fear."

As he speaks, he seems to move behind her. She turns her head, listening intently.

"In El Valle, New Mexico, one night the snow came down as thick as ever it has anywhere."

If she is correct, he has moved to her right side and stands over her, having made no sound that the wind failed to mask.

"The valley floor received six inches in four hours, and the land was eerie in the snowlight..."

Hairs quiver, flesh prickles on the back of her neck at the thought of him moving confidently in pitch-black conditions. He does not reveal himself even by eyeshine, as might a cat.

"...eerie in a way it is nowhere else in the world, the flats receding and the low hills rising as if they are just fields of mist and walls of fog, illusions of shapes and dimensions, reflections of reflections, and those reflections only reflections of a dream."

The gentle voice is in front of her now, and Holly chooses to believe that it has not moved, that it has always been in front of her.

Startled from sleep, she should expect her senses to be at first unreliable. Such perfect darkness displaces sound, disorients.

He says, "The storm was windless at ground level, but hard wind blew at higher elevations, because when the snow abated, most of the clouds were quickly torn into rags and were flung away. Between the remaining clouds, the sky was black, festooned with ornate necklaces of stars."

She can feel the nail between her breasts, warmed by her body heat, and tries to take comfort from it.

"The glassmaker had fireworks left over from the past July, and the woman who dreamed of dead horses offered to help him set them up and set them off."