“I don’t want to get in a shoot-out with him. That maybe looked like a machine pistol he was using.”
“Machine pistol doesn’t sound good.”
“Could be thirty-some rounds in the magazine. He could empty it in a fraction of a minute if he wanted, pump a wide spray of lead.”
“Definitely no shoot-out.”
“Except it might come to that.”
She said, “Here’s an ugly thought.”
“Might as well hear it.”
“Are we sure he’s freelance?”
“In the bar, he seemed freelance. Guys with a license to kill get a paycheck like anybody else, not envelopes of cash.”
“But if he’s got all those hacker nerds and God knows who else giving him tech support, why is he the only guy on the street?”
“Somebody hired him to keep distance between them and your murder. They give him support, but they don’t put their own gunmen on the ground. They’re just puppeteers.”
“That’s when they thought I’d die easy, it would look like your dime-a-dozen homicidal rapist, but it won’t look that way now.”
“It’s gotten noisy,” he agreed.
“So if they think it’s out of control, maybe Kravet gets some backup. What then?”
“Then we’re screwed.”
“Maybe you should lie to me after all.”
The ascending street ended at a T intersection. The new street led north and south along the highest ridge line in town.
Tim turned south, right, and accelerated past houses bigger and more ornate than those on lower hills. Two blocks later, he came to a cul-de-sac.
“This blows,” he said, circling the coral tree in the island at the center of the turnaround. He raced back the way they had come, acutely aware of the time they were losing.
Three blocks past the intersection, the north portion of the street also ended in a cul-de-sac.
If they left the ridge and went down the street that had brought them up, they would encounter Kravet. And he would see them coming on his map display.
Tim circled another coral tree, drove out of the turnaround, pulled to the curb, doused the headlights, cut the engine, and said, “Give me the gun.”
“What’re we doing?”
“The spare bullets in your purse. I need those, too. Quick.”
She rummaged for the ammo, found five rounds.
Dropping the cartridges in his shirt pocket, he said, “We’ve got, I don’t know, two minutes. Bring the carryall, your purse, the flashlight.”
“Why not blow the horn? Wake up the neighborhood.”
“No. Come on.”
“There’d be too many witnesses. He wouldn’t shoot.”
“He would,” Tim insisted. “And we don’t want to get any of these people killed.”
He opened the door and got out into the wind-driven rain and walked back into the turnaround that they had just traveled in the Explorer. By the time he had taken half a dozen steps, his clothes were soaked.
In southern California, a major storm in May was rare. The rain wasn’t warm, but it didn’t chill him, either.
The five houses on the turnaround shared an architectural theme, from sleekly modern with a hint of Tuscany to classic Tuscan style.
Six-foot walls marked the property lines, providing privacy to each backyard. The houses were connected to those walls by gates. Some of the gates might be locked.
No dogs would have been left out in this weather, to bark and betray them. Besides, in a neighborhood of three-million-dollar homes like these, the dogs lived inside; they were part of the family; they weren’t penned or chained.
Five backyards. Kravet would go gate to gate. He would search each yard. This was prime ocean-view property, valuable, so the yards were small. He wouldn’t need five minutes to search them all.
The cul-de-sac lay at the head of a canyon. Beyond the backyards would be steep slopes difficult to negotiate, wild vines, brush.
These urban canyons were home to rattlesnakes, coyotes, and bobcats. Mountain lions seldom ventured this far out of the true brushland, but the killer cats weren’t total strangers to the area, either.
At first, making their way into the canyon, Tim would not want to use the flashlight for fear Kravet would see it. He refused to contemplate let alone undertake a blind descent.
The backyards offered only the illusion of safety, and the canyon was its own kind of dead end.
Linda caught up with him. Drenched. Beautiful.
With a hard crack, the sky broke. Sharp light fell from it. Bright shards danced in the puddles.
Through the back of his wristwatch, against the skin of his wrist, he could have sworn that he felt the motion of the second hand as it swept time away.
In the front yard of a contemporary structure stood a Realtor’s FOR SALE sign. Shades were drawn shut over all the windows on both floors, suggesting that the residence might be vacant.
Atop the mailbox, a rectangular frame offered a place to insert a street number and name. The number remained in place. The name had been removed.
No multiple-listing combination lockbox hung on the front door. That didn’t prove someone lived here. It might only mean that, even if the house was vacant, the owners preferred that it be shown only to qualified buyers, discreetly, by appointment.
Tim handed the pistol to Linda. She accepted it without comment.
He wrenched loose the Realtor’s sign. The two long legs of it were steel staves that had been driven six or eight inches into the ground.
Next door, a curving flagstone walkway—laid in an irregular-fitted pattern with a poured-concrete border—led to a traditional Tuscan home.
Tim worked the pointed staves of the FOR SALE sign into the yard, and the wet soil received them readily enough. It was a little cockeyed, but that was all right.
Two doors from the home that was actually for sale, a kid had left a bicycle on the front lawn. Tim snatched it up and carried it back to where he had removed the sign from the first house, and he put it down there.
Linda watched him without asking a question or making a comment, watched not with a puzzled expression but with the analytical frown of a good student studying equations on a blackboard.
Tim figured that he could easily end up in love with her. Maybe he already was.
Even before he asked for the gun, she held it out to him.
“Come on,” he said, and she hurried with him to the house that he believed to be vacant.
The sky, a well-stocked armory, cast down bright spears, and the air smelled seared, and concussions rocked the night.
They went to a gate at the side of the house. It was held shut by only a gravity latch.
A serviceway led between the house and the property wall, and they followed it. At the back, a covered patio gave relief from the rain.
At what might have been the kitchen and breakfast-room windows, pleated shades were lowered to the sills. Other windows were draped.
Farther along, a pair of French doors lacked coverings of any kind. Linda directed the flashlight inside, revealing an unfurnished family room.
Tim gripped the pistol by the barrel, waited for the storm to bare its white teeth again, and timed the breaking of the glass to the subsequent roar of thunder. He reached inside, found the thumb-turn deadbolt, and opened the door.
She followed him into the house and closed the door, and they stood listening, but the lack of furnishings told the true story. No one lived here.
“A place like this,” he said, “there’s an alarm system. But because there’s nothing in the house and because the alarm would be an annoyance for the real-estate agents, they’ve left it off.”
Looking through the French doors, past the patio, past the dark swimming pool, past the property fence, past the black hole of the canyon, toward the regimented streetlamps on the lower hills and toward the up-coast view of city lights shimmering in the rain, Linda said, “How can this be happening to us here, all these multimillion-dollar houses, that glittering riviera spread out below….”
“Didn’t you say civilization is as fragile as glass?”
“Maybe it’s worse than that,” she said. “Maybe it’s a mirage.”
“There are always those who’d like to turn out the lights. So far we’ve been lucky. They’ve always just been shy of a majority.”
She turned from the view as if it pained her. “Are we safe here?”
“I mean for just a little while?”
“No. Not even for a little while.”
Krait drove past the abandoned Explorer. Instead of parking at the curb, he stopped beside the landscaped island in the center of the turnaround, where parking was not permitted.
The rain annoyed him. His clothes would be a mess.
Well, he could do nothing about the storm. Some time ago, he had reluctantly concluded that he had no control over the weather.
For a while, he had suspected that he might be able to influence the elements. His suspicions had been aroused because so frequently he received precisely the weather that he needed in order to set up and commit a murder.
He read several books about psychokinesis, the power of mind over matter. Some people could bend spoons without touching them. Experts in the paranormal said you could move objects from one place to another merely by thinking about transferring them.
Once, Krait had bent a spoon, but not with the power of his mind, just in frustration. He had tied the damn thing in a knot.
He had considered paying a visit to the author who had written the book about how to develop your psychokinetic talent. He wanted to make the guy swallow the knotted spoon.
Krait liked to make people swallow things that no one would want to swallow. He didn’t know why this delighted him, but for as long as he could remember, nothing had given him greater pleasure.
Because of the unlikely shapes and sizes of some of the objects, the people to whom he force-fed them often perished while swallowing. Therefore, he found it best not to begin an evening together with this best bit of fun, but instead to save it for later.
Once people were dead, there wasn’t anything more you could do with them.
The author who wrote about psychokinesis had also written books about foretelling the future. Maybe they were more helpful than the spoon-bending text, but Krait had no interest in them.
Already he knew the future. He was making it.
Most people were not going to like the future, but Krait was impatient to get there. He knew that he would love the way things were going to be.
He got out of the car and stood in the rain. He thought about clear skies, about stars, and the rain kept falling, as he had known it would, but a little hopeful effort now and then didn’t cost him anything.
Human beings, not spoons and the weather, were his subjects. He could do anything to human beings that he wanted, and right now he wanted to kill two of them.
On his electronic-map display, the Explorer had come to a stop about a minute and forty seconds before Krait had turned left at the T intersection, onto this street. They couldn’t have gotten far in a minute and forty seconds.
They wouldn’t have gone past the houses, into the canyon, not in the rain and the dark.
If they had run south toward the intersection, he would have seen them as he came up the last of the hill.
Krait stood on the turnaround island, under the limbs of the big coral tree, and he surveyed the five houses. Not a single window was brightened by lamplight.
No sane person these days would answer a doorbell and take in two strangers at 4:10 in the morning.
At each house were gates leading to the backyard. He hoped that he wouldn’t have to scout all five residences.
With the silencer-fitted Glock machine pistol held at his side, muzzle toward the pavement, he stepped off the island. Walking in the street, he followed the turnaround, studying each property, looking for any telltale irregularity.
Imprisoned light escaped the sky and fled along the glistening blacktop.
Krait had long wanted to see someone struck by lightning, well struck and hard. If he were able to control the weather, he would arrange a number of spectacular incinerations.
He had once electrocuted a businessman bathing in a tub, but that was not the same thing at all. The man’s eyeballs had not melted, and his hair had not caught on fire, or anything.
The flickering light brought Krait’s attention to a FOR SALE sign in the front yard of a Tuscan house that wasn’t simple enough for his taste. The sign had not been properly placed. It didn’t directly face the street, and it was cocked, one side higher than the other.
The second-floor windows were shielded by draperies, but some of the ground-floor windows were uncovered. In those absolute-black rooms, he saw no pale faces peering out at him.
Next door stood a contemporary house that he liked. He might even spend a weekend there when the owners were out of town, getting to know them, to know their dreams and their hopes and their secrets. Assuming they were clean people.
On the lawn lay a bicycle. This did not bode well for the condition of the interior. If the child had not been taught to pick up after himself, the parents were most likely slobs.
Yet Krait felt strongly that people who appreciated architecture with lines as clean as those of this house could not be disordered in their private lives.
All the windows on both floors were covered by shades.
Beside the front door stood an elegant limestone planter that should have contained perhaps a specimen dwarf tree of some species, with seasonal flowers at the base. The planter stood empty.
Krait regarded the windows, the planter. He lowered his gaze to the bicycle. He looked from the bicycle to the FOR SALE sign in the yard of the neighboring house.
The rain had ruined his wardrobe; but it calmed him and washed the cobwebs from his mind. He felt remarkably clear-headed.
With his left hand, he seized the bicycle by the handlebars and dragged it aside.
On the lawn where the bicycle had rested were two pale spots. When he crouched for a closer look, he saw circles of dead grass three or four inches in diameter.
At the center of each circle lay a darker spot. Probing with his fingers, he discovered holes in the earth. They were approximately as far apart as were the staves on the FOR SALE sign in the neighboring yard.
Timothy Carrier had known that if this house had been obviously vacant, Krait would have gone to it at once. For a bricklayer, he had unusually sharp instincts.
As Krait retreated from the lawn, back to the sidewalk, he stepped on something that tried to roll under his shoe.
The jagged light in the heavens rippled lambently through the film of running water on the sidewalk, caressing a brass object that it briefly turned silver.
When he bent to pick it up, the lightning showed him a second identical item near the first. Two 9-mm cartridges.