Krait stripped na*ed and deposited his ruined clothes in a trash bag that he found in a master-bath cabinet. He took a shower as hot as he could tolerate, and though he did not consider the bar soap to be satisfactory, he felt refreshed.
He did not need to shave. He’d had his beard permanently removed by electrolysis. Nothing made a man look as disheveled and unclean as did beard stubble.
From the master closet, he selected a man’s cashmere bathrobe. It was a good fit.
The house smelled of plug-in lemon-scented air fresheners, but they weren’t covering up any underlying malodor that he could detect. Everything appeared orderly, even neat, and clean enough.
Barefoot and decent, he carried the plastic bag of clothes, the Glock machine pistol, the LockAid, and other personal items to the kitchen. Except for his cell phone and the Glock, he put everything on the corner secretary.
He placed the machine pistol on one of the dining chairs, to have it close at hand.
Sitting at the breakfast table, he sent a coded text message requesting a complete change of clothes, including shoes. They knew all his sizes and preferences.
He did not ask for a fresh sedan with a new electronic map. Savvy to the risk of satellite tracking, Carrier would not again allow himself to be pursued by that means.
Krait asked to be informed of the location of the Explorer when it had been at a full stop for longer than five minutes.
After gathering a pile of unopened mail from the secretary, he returned to the table, where he pored through the contents of every envelope, seeking information about his hosts.
They were Bethany and James Valdorado. Apparently, they worked for an investment-banking firm named Leeward Capital. They leased their Lexus, had solid bank balances, and subscribed to O magazine.
They had gotten a postcard from friends—Judi and Frankie—who were currently visiting France. Krait didn’t approve of a culturally insensitive remark in the postcard, but Judi and Frankie were, for the time being, beyond his reach.
While he finished with the mail, a craving for hot chocolate came over him. He found all the makings, including a can of high-quality dark cocoa.
This was going to be lovely. He felt quite calm now. He needed this respite, a little time for reflection.
Bethany and Jim had a four-slice toaster with wide slots that would accept English muffins and waffles. But the fresh loaf of cinnamon-raisin bread was irresistible.
He took the butter out of the refrigerator and set it on the counter to soften.
As the delicious aroma of cinnamon-raisin toast began to fill the room, he put a pan on the cooktop and poured fresh milk into it. He set the gas flame just so.
Home. In a world offering limitless adventure and sensation, there was still no place like home.
With his heart gladdened by this domesticity, he began to hum a happy tune when, behind him, a woman said, “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t know the kids had a houseguest.”
Smiling but no longer humming, Krait turned from the stove.
The intruder, an attractive woman in her sixties, had hair as soft and white as the wings of doves. Her eyes were gentian-blue.
She wore black slacks and a blue silk blouse that complemented her eyes. The tailored slacks were lint-free with a meticulously pressed crease. The blouse was tucked into the slacks.
She must have left her umbrella and raincoat on the front porch before letting herself in with a key.
Her smile was less certain than Krait’s but no less appealing. “I’m Cynthia Norwood.”
“Bethany’s mother!” Krait declared, and saw that his guess had been correct. “What a pleasure this is. I’ve heard so much about you. I’m Romulus Kudlow, and I’m embarrassed. There you are, looking as if you just stepped out of a fashion magazine, and here I am completely”—he indicated the cashmere robe—“dishabille! You must be thinking What kind of beast have Bethany and Jim let sleep under their roof!”
“Oh, no, not at all,” she hastened to assure him. “I’m the one who should apologize, barging in like this.”
“You’re incapable of barging, Mrs. Norwood. You came in here as light-footed as a dancer.”
“I knew the kids had run off to work, thought they forgot to turn out the lights.”
“I’ll bet it wouldn’t be the first time.”
“Or the hundredth,” she said. “I wonder what their electric bill would be if I didn’t live across the street.”
“They’re in a high-pressure profession,” he said. “They have so much on their minds. I don’t know how they do it.”
She said, “I worry about them. All work and no play.”
“But they love it, you know. They love the challenge.”
“Well, they seem to,” she agreed.
“And it’s a blessing to be doing work you love. So many people spend their lives in jobs they hate, and that’s worse.”
The toast popped up.
“I didn’t mean to interrupt your breakfast,” she said.
“Dear,” he said, “I’m not sure buttered cinnamon-raisin toast and hot chocolate qualifies as breakfast. A nutritionist would rap my knuckles and call it a wicked indulgence. Will you join me?”
“Oh, I couldn’t.”
“It’s not yet dawn,” he said. “You can’t have eaten yet.”
“No, not yet, but—”
“I am not going to miss this opportunity to hear all the very bad things that Bethany did as a little girl. She and Jim have so many stories about my foolish behavior, I absolutely must have some ammunition to return fire.”
“Well, hot cocoa sounds good on a rainy day, but—”
“Keep me company, dear. Please.” He indicated a chair. “Sit there. We’ll schmooze.”
Relenting, she said, “While you make the cocoa, I’ll butter the toast.”
If she came around the table, she would see the machine pistol on the chair.
“Sit, sit,” he insisted. “I showed up last night with precious little notice, but they were so gracious. They are always gracious. Now I couldn’t stand myself if, on top of everything else, I allowed Bethany’s mother to make my breakfast. Sit, sit. I insist.”
Settling into the chair he had indicated, she said, “I love that you call her Bethany. She won’t let anyone use her full name.”
“And it’s a beautiful name,” he said, plucking plastic placemats and paper napkins from a drawer.
“It is beautiful. Malcolm and I spent so much time considering names. We must have rejected a thousand.”
“I tell her that Beth rhymes with death,” Krait said, as he went in search of plates and mugs.
“She thinks Beth sounds more like a serious business-woman.”
“And I tell her Beth rhymes with bad breath.”
Cynthia laughed. “You’re fun, Mr. Kudlow.”
“Call me Romulus or Rommy. Only my mother calls me Mr. Kudlow.”
Laughing again, she said, “I’m so glad you’re here. The kids need to have some fun once in a while.”
“Jim used to be a lot of fun.”
“And I love that you call him Jim.”
“He can save the pretentious James for the investment-banking crowd,” said Krait. “I knew him when he was just plain Jim, and he will always be Jim to me.”
“We do best in life,” she said, “when we remember our roots and keep things simple.”
“I have no idea what my roots are,” Krait said, “but you are so right about simplicity. I love simplicity. And you know what? I love this place. I feel entirely at home here.”
“That’s very sweet,” she said.
“Home is so important to me, Mrs. Norwood.”
“Where is your home, Rommy?”
“Home,” Krait said, “is the place that, when you go there, they have to take you in.”
Through the rain-streaked bus windows, the world seemed to be melting, as if all the works of humankind and of Nature would drain through a hole at the bottom of the universe, leaving only an eternal void and the bus traveling through it until the bus also deliquesced around them, taking its light with it, setting them adrift in perfect blackness.
Holding Tim’s hand, Linda felt tethered to something that would not melt away.
She had not needed to hold on to anyone in a long time. She had not dared.
Nor had there been, in an even longer time, anyone who offered her a hand with such conviction, with such commitment. In less than ten hours, she had come to trust him as she had trusted no one since childhood.
She knew little about him, yet she felt that she knew him better than anyone in her life, understood the essentials of him, the shape of the spirit that lived in his heart, the strength of the heart that was the compass of his mind.
At the same time, he remained a mystery to her. And though she wanted to know everything about him, a part of her hoped that no matter what relationship might develop between them, he would always retain some element of mystery.
To do for her what he was doing, surely at the core of him must lie something magical, transcendent. To discover that his Merlin was not a sorcerer but instead a seventh-grade teacher who had mentored him, to discover that his courage came not from having been raised by a pride of lions but from reading superhero comics as a boy would be to render goodness as banal as evil.
Her desire for enduring mystery surprised her. She had thought that the romantic in her had been burned at the stake at least sixteen years ago.
As the bus approached the outskirts of Dana Point, Tim said, “Who is Molly?”
His question inspired in her a frisson of wonder, and she regarded him with astonishment.
“At the hotel,” he said. “You talked in your sleep.”
“I never talk in my sleep.”
“Do you never sleep alone?”
“I always sleep alone.”
“Then how would you know?”
“What did I say?”
“Just the name. Molly. And no. You said No, no.”
“She was a dog. My dog. Beautiful. So sweet.”
“And something happened.”
“When was this?”
“We got her when I was six. She was sent away when I was eleven. Eighteen years ago, and it still hurts.”
“Why was she sent away?”
“We couldn’t keep her anymore. Angelina didn’t like dogs, said there wasn’t money for dog food and vet bills.”
Linda gazed out at the dissolving world.
“In some ways, it was the worst part of it all. Molly was a dog. She didn’t understand. She loved me, and I was sending her away, and I couldn’t explain because she was just a dog.”
Tim waited. In addition to all the things he knew, he also knew when to wait, which was a rare grace.
“We couldn’t find anyone to take Molly. She was beautiful, but no one would take her because she was not just any dog, she was our dog.”
Sorrow is not a raven perched persistently above a chamber door. Sorrow is a thing with teeth, and while in time it retreats, it comes back at the whisper of its name.
“I can still see Molly’s eyes the way they were when I sent her away. Confused. Afraid. Entreating me. No one would take her, and so she had to go to the pound.”
“Someone adopted her from there,” he said.
“I don’t know. I never knew.”
“So often I thought of her lying in a cage, in a kennel full of sad and anxious dogs, wondering why I’d sent her away, wondering what she’d ever done to lose my love.”
Linda looked from the window to her hand in his hand.
This seemed as if it was a weakness, this need to hold on to him, and she had never been weak. She would rather be dead than be faint-hearted in a world where the weak were preyed on often just for sport.
Strangely, however, it did not feel like weakness. For some reason, it felt like defiance.
“How lonely Molly must have been,” she said. “And if they couldn’t adopt her…did she think of me when the needle went in?”
“No, Linda. No. It didn’t happen.”
“It probably did.”
“And if it did,” he said, “she didn’t know what the needle meant, didn’t know what was coming.”
“She would know. Dogs know. I won’t lie to myself about it. That would only make it worse.”
The air brakes exhaled, and the bus began to slow.
“Of all the things that happened back then—in a funny way, that’s the worst. Because nobody else expected me to save them. I was just a child. But I wasn’t just a child to poor Molly. We were best pals. I was the world to her. And I failed her.”
“You didn’t fail Molly,” he assured her. “Sounds to me like the world failed both of you.”
For the first time in more than ten years, she felt able to talk about it. She had used up all her anger in her bitter books and might now speak of it with dispassion. She could have told him everything right then.
From the flooded gutter, a wing of water flew up as the bus arrived at their stop in Dana Point. The folding doors clattered open. They got out into the rain.
The wind had followed the thunder and the lightning into the east. Torrents fell straight down, silver in the air and dirty on the pavement. Soon dawn would break behind the clouds, the dawn that she had thought she might never see.
Do you like the hot chocolate, Cynthia?” “I think it’s the best I’ve ever had.”
“That tiny drop of vanilla makes all the difference.”
“How very clever.”
“May I quarter your toast for you?”
“Thank you, Rommy.”
“I like to dunk,” he said.
“James might not approve.”
She said, “We won’t tell him.”
They sat catercorner at the kitchen table. They stirred their hot chocolate with spoons, and a delicious aroma rose from their steaming mugs.
“What an unusual name—Romulus.”
“Yes, it even sounds unusual to me. In Roman legend, Romulus was the founder of Rome.”
“You’ve got quite a lot to live up to with a name like that.”
“Romulus and his twin brother, Remus, were abandoned at birth, suckled by a she-wolf, raised by a shepherd, and when Romulus founded Rome, he killed Remus.”
“What an awful story.”