His bloodhound blood called him to the hunt, and happily he set to work, considering each news story as a series of snapshots, slowly developing a broader picture of the case.
At 4:38, the cable service failed, and he lost his Internet connection.
His cable company was reliable. Often a service interruption proved to be brief.
While he waited to get back on-line, he went to the bathroom and took a whiz.
In the kitchen, he refreshed his coffee.
Turning away from the brewing machine with a full mug, he discovered that Zoey had followed him.
Her intense gaze, raised head, and anxious expression suggested that she might need to visit the backyard. Her tail wasn’t wagging, however, and a certain easy wag had always been a component of her I-need-to-pee code.
He put down his mug and got a beach towel from the laundry room. When the dog came in from the rain, Pete would need to rub her dry.
Opening the back door, he said, “Okay. Want to kill some grass, girl?”
She approached the door and stood at the threshold, staring across the porch, into the yard.
Her ears lifted. Her black nostrils flared and quivered, testing the air.
The thunder and lightning had stopped. Anyway, storms had never frightened her. Like most retrievers, she loved rain—though not on this occasion.
“Coyote out there?” he asked.
She backed away from the open door.
“Raccoon?” he suggested.
Zoey padded out of the kitchen.
He switched on the outside light and stepped onto the porch. He saw nothing unusual and heard only the rain.
When he went looking for Zoey, he found her in the living room. She stood at the front door.
He opened the door, and again she stared out at the night. She would not cross the threshold.
She made a low sound in her throat. It almost might be mistaken for a growl. Zoey never growled.
The telephone rang. At 4:46 in the morning.
Ears up, head up, tail tucked, Zoey scampered into the study, and he followed her.
The telephone rang again.
He stood looking at it. The caller’s ID was blocked.
On the fourth ring, he went into the bedroom. His Galco Jackass rig and service pistol lay on a shelf in the closet. It included an ammo pouch with two spare magazines.
As he rigged up, the phone stopped ringing.
In his study once more, he sat at the desk.
Zoey did not want to return to the knee space, where previously she had been so cozy. She stood by the desk, alert, staring at him. She appeared to be anticipating a nightmare.
The cable service had not been restored.
Pete switched off the computer. He sat for a moment, thinking about the Cream Sugar case.
The telephone rang.
His wallet and badge case lay on the desk. He put them in his back pockets.
From the study closet, he got a lined and hooded wind-breaker, slipped into it.
Zoey followed him into the kitchen, where he snared keys from a pegboard.
The phone stopped ringing.
In the garage, he said, “Dress,” and at once the dog came to him to receive her collar. He attached a leash.
When he opened the tailgate of the Mercury Mountaineer, she sprang into the cargo space.
He locked the door between the garage and the house, as he had locked the front and back doors. He intentionally had not turned out the lights.
Action by action, he moved faster, with more economy. He was in gear now. Maybe he would be quick enough.
Lumbering south on the coast highway, the aging Transportation Authority bus perfumed the rainy night with an agri-fuel flatulence. This month it might be running on an ethanol blend, on peanut oil, on reprocessed grease from fast-food restaurants, or on some extract of biologically engineered giant mutant soybeans.
Tim drove around the behemoth, raced five blocks, parked at a restaurant, and abandoned the Explorer, this time perhaps forever.
He had driven past three bus stops. He and Linda ran two long blocks north, returning to the nearest stop, where they waited for their fragrant new transport.
The wind blew rain under the roof of the shelter, dashed it in their faces.
Traffic had increased in the hour before dawn. The siss of tires on the storm-sluiced pavement was an icy sound, reminiscent of sled runners slicing across crusted snow.
They boarded the bus, ascertained that it went at least as far as Dana Point, and dripped along the aisle as the driver pulled onto the highway.
This was one of the first buses of the day, and it carried few passengers. Most were women on their way to hard jobs that started early.
Everyone aboard was dry. They had umbrellas. Some regarded Tim and Linda with sympathy. Others couldn’t repress smug little smiles.
She led him to seats in the back, at a distance from the nearest other passenger, where they could not be overheard.
“So what was that?”
“What was what?”
“We couldn’t park closer to a bus stop?”
“Because you don’t want him to know we got on a bus?”
“I don’t want him leaping to the idea right away. He’ll get there soon enough.”
Her friend Teresa, currently spending a week in New York with a couple of girlfriends, lived in Dana Point. They were going to use her house briefly.
“You actually think they would track down the bus, interview the driver?”
“I actually do.”
“He wouldn’t remember us,” she said.
“Look at us. Two drowned cats.”
“Well, it’s raining.”
“When he leaves us off, we’ll be walking several blocks to her house. They won’t have any idea where we went, just somewhere in Dana Point.”
“Maybe the nerdy nephews have instant access to phone-company computers. When did you last call Teresa?”
She frowned. “Oh. They could get any numbers I regularly call in Dana Point.”
“And from the numbers they could trace addresses.”
“Right. And the next time he gets close to us, we won’t be able to hoodwink him so easy.”
“None of that seemed easy to me.”
“It wasn’t. So we better not let him get close to us till we’re ready.”
“We’re going to be ready?”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t see how you get ready for someone like him.”
Tim did not reply.
For a while they rode in silence.
She said, “I keep thinking and thinking—what did I do? I didn’t do anything.”
“This isn’t about something you did.”
“It can’t be.”
“It’s about something you know,” he said.
Those green eyes started working again, trying to open him like a vacuum-packed can.
He said, “You know something that could do serious damage to someone important.”
“I’ve been doing nothing for years but writing navel-gazing novels. I don’t know anything about anyone.”
“It’s something—you don’t know that you know it.”
“That’s for sure.”
“Something you heard, something you saw. It didn’t seem to be anything at the time.”
He shrugged. “Last month. A year ago. Anytime.”
“That’s a lot of territory to walk back through.”
“Wouldn’t do you any good to walk it. It didn’t seem like anything big to you then, it won’t seem like anything big now.”
“They want to kill me for something so insignificant I can’t remember it?”
“Not insignificant. It’s something big. Important to them, unremarkable to you. I’m pretty sure that’s the way it’s got to be. I’ve been thinking hard about it since he showed up at the hotel.”
“You’ve been thinking hard since I opened the door and first saw you,” she replied.
“You said a head as big as mine has to have some brains in it. Are you cold?”
“I’ve got the chills. But not because I’m wet. The knot’s getting tighter, isn’t it?”
“Well,” he said, “no matter how tight a knot gets, you can always cut the rope.”
“If it’s something big enough, there might be no way out.”
“There’s always a way out,” he said. “There’s just a bunch of ways you don’t want to think about.”
A small quiet laugh escaped her.
Again, they chose silence for a while.
Tim sat with his fists on his thighs, and after a mile or two, she put her left hand on his right fist.
He opened his hand and turned it palm-up, enfolding her hand.
The bus stopped from time to time, and more people got on than got off. None of the new passengers appeared to be intent on murder.
Pete Santo slumped behind the wheel of the Mercury Mountaineer, a block from his house.
When he killed the headlights and the engine, Zoey used the console as a bridge to pass from the cargo space to the passenger’s seat.
Together, they watched the street and waited. Now and then he rubbed the crest of her neck or behind her ears.
The nearest streetlamp was not close enough to shed any light into the SUV. The spreading boughs of a stone pine, under which he had parked, would cloak them in shadows even for a while after the sun rose.
Only an hour ago, he could not have imagined that he might one day conduct a surveillance of his own home. This was a fine time to be alive if your meat was paranoia and your bread was violence.
Pete expected company to come calling well before sunrise. In fact, they arrived ten minutes after he took up watch from under the pine tree.
The Suburban stopped in front of his house, beside a streetlamp, facing the opposite direction from other parked vehicles on this side of the street. Evidently the visitors saw no need for discretion.
Three men got out of the Suburban. Even seen from a distance and in rain gear, they looked the type.
Pete lost sight of them as they approached his house. From this distance and angle, he could not see his place, only the street in front of it.
He assumed that one of the three would detour to the backyard.
Whatever law-enforcement ID they were carrying, it would trump his PD badge. Maybe FBI or National Security Agency. Maybe the Secret Service or Homeland Security.
In his mind’s ear, he could hear his doorbell ring.
Most likely their badges and photo IDs would prove to be no more legitimate than Kravet’s many driver’s licenses.
If Pete had not fled with Zoey, he would have had to engage these men as though they were who they claimed to be. Because maybe they were.
Whether they were the real deal or not, they came with a message: Lay off the smiley guy with all the identities; lay off the Cream Sugar murders.
They would claim he was interfering in a major ongoing federal criminal investigation of great delicacy. Or that this was a matter of national security. In either case, the investigation would not be in the jurisdiction of a local cop.
Had Pete remained at home, this delegation would have seriously compromised his ability to assist Tim and Linda.
Now they must be ringing the bell again and discussing their next move.
Zoey began a mild anxiety panting.
“Good girl,” he said. “Sweet baby girl.”
He doubted that they would ring the bell a third time.
A minute passed. Two. Three.
These were not the kind of guys who would sit in rocking chairs on the porch to jaw about baseball and the weather while they waited for Pete to return.
They had gone into the house. Whoever they claimed to be, that wasn’t who they were. They were renegades.
Maybe they would confiscate the hard drive of his computer to see what else he’d been doing before they had tagged him for chasing the Kravet identities.
They might plant drugs where he wouldn’t find them. Then if they needed to control him at a later date, they would conduct a raid and confiscate quantities of coc**ne that qualified him as a dealer.
“Sweet baby girl. Sweet, sweet baby girl.”
He started the Mountaineer, executed a U-turn, and clicked on the headlights as he drove away.
As if it were oil in a deep fryer, rain sizzled on the pavement.
Two blocks later, his cell phone rang.
Prudence argued that he should ignore it. He flipped it open because Tim might be trying to reach him.
According to the ID line, the caller was Hitch Lombard. This time the chief of detectives would make no pretense of concern about Pete’s health.
He closed the phone without taking the call.
Zoey stopped the anxiety panting. She gazed out the passenger-door window. She enjoyed going for rides.
For her, the night had suddenly taken a turn for the better.
In addition to his computer, maybe the intruders would take his mom’s brownies with them, without tasting one first. Even in this age, Pete believed that justice found the guilty one way or another.
Krait cruised in search of a home. He did not require luxury or the benefit of a view. A humble domicile would satisfy him.
Some people held jobs in Los Angeles but preferred to live in more benign Orange County. In certain professions, the work day began early, and those with a long commute set out at five o’clock in the morning.
Traveling a charming street of character-rich homes, he spotted a smartly dressed younger couple under sturdy umbrellas. They were making their way from a small but handsome Craftsman-style house to a Lexus parked in the driveway.
Both the man and the woman carried briefcases. They appeared to be determined not to allow the inclement weather to water down their enthusiasm for their business-day adventures.
He imagined them to be aggressive corporate climbers with dreams of corner offices and stock options. Although he did not approve of their materialism and assbackwards priorities, he would grant them the grace of visiting their home.
He followed them for a few blocks. When he determined that they were driving directly to a freeway, he returned to their house and parked in front of it.
In this last darkness of the waning night, they had left no lights on. They were too young to have teenagers, and even greedy beavers of their ilk would probably not have left younger children home alone at this hour. They looked childless to Krait, and of that he approved.
He walked directly to the front door and let himself inside. After standing for a minute in the lightless foyer, listening to a stillness relieved only by the white noise of the rain on the roof, he knew that he was alone in the house.
Nevertheless, turning on lights, he investigated every room. Indeed, they had no children. And the bed in the guest room had not been furnished with sheets; no one was staying with them.