When you skate across the days, leaving a wake as thin as spider silk, you’re not accustomed to shouting or to chasing after strangers with murder on their minds.
By the time Tim realized pursuit was obligatory and got up from his stool, a successful chase could not have been mounted. The quarry had covered too much ground.
He sat again and finished his beer in one long swallow.
Foam clung to the sides of the glass. Those ephemeral patterns had never before seemed mysterious to him. Now he studied them as if they embodied great meaning.
Feeling disoriented, he glanced at the manila envelope, which looked as portentous as a pipe bomb.
Carrying two plates of cheeseburgers and fries, Liam Rooney served a young couple in one of the booths. No waitress worked on a slow Monday.
Tim raised a hand to signal Rooney. The tavern keeper didn’t notice; he returned to the bar gate at the farther end of the room.
The envelope still had an ominous significance, but already Tim had begun to doubt that he had correctly understood what had happened between him and the stranger. A guy with a sky-diving dog named Larry wouldn’t pay to have someone killed. All this was a misunderstanding.
The rest when she’s gone. That could mean a lot of things. It didn’t necessarily mean when she was dead.
Determined that the world would quickly be put right, Tim pried up the prongs of the brass clasp, opened the flap of the envelope, and reached inside. He withdrew a thick wad of hundred-dollar bills bound together with a rubber band.
Maybe the money wasn’t greasy, but that was how it felt. He returned it at once to the envelope.
In addition to the cash, he found a five-by-seven photograph that might have been taken for a driver’s license or passport. She appeared to be in her late twenties. Attractive.
A name had been typed on the back of the photo: LINDA PAQUETTE. Under the name was an address in Laguna Beach.
Although he had just finished a beer, Tim’s mouth was salt-dry and lemon-sour. His heart beat slowly but unusually hard, booming in his ears.
Irrationally, he felt guilty looking at the photo, as though he had somehow participated in the planning of this woman’s death. He put away the picture. He slid the envelope aside.
Another man entered the bar. He was nearly Tim’s size, with brown hair cropped short like Tim’s.
Rooney arrived with a fresh beer and said to Tim, “You keep chugging them at that pace, you won’t qualify as furniture anymore. You’ll be a real customer.”
A persistent feeling of being caught in a dream slowed Tim’s thinking. He meant to tell Rooney what had just happened, but his tongue felt thick.
The newcomer approached, sat where the skydiver had sat, with an empty stool between him and Tim. He said to Rooney, “Budweiser.”
As Rooney went to draw the beer, the stranger stared at the manila envelope, and then met Tim’s gaze. He had brown eyes, just as Tim did.
“You’re early,” said the killer.
A man’s life can pivot on the smallest hinge of time. No minute is without potential for momentous change, and each tick of the clock might be the voice of Fate whispering a promise or a warning.
When the killer said, “You’re early,” Tim Carrier noticed that the Budweiser clock showed five minutes shy of the hour, and he made an educated guess: “So are you.”
The hinge had turned. The door stood open, and it could never be closed again.
“I’m no longer sure I want to hire you,” Tim said.
Rooney brought the killer’s beer, and then answered a call to the farther end of the bar.
A trick of light, reflecting off the mahogany, gave the contents of the glass a rubescent cast.
The stranger licked his chapped lips, and drank. He had a deep thirst.
When he put down the glass, he said amicably, “You can’t hire me. I’m no one’s employee.”
Tim considered excusing himself to the men’s room. He could call the police on his cell phone.
He worried that the stranger would interpret his departure as an invitation to take the manila envelope and leave.
Carrying the envelope to the lavatory would be a bad idea. Under the assumption that Tim wanted privacy for the transaction, the guy might follow him.
“I can’t be hired, and I’m not peddling anything, either,” said the killer. “You sell to me, not the other way around.”
“Yeah? What am I selling?”
“A concept. The concept of your world profoundly changed by one…alteration.”
In Tim’s mind rose the face of the woman in the photo.
His options weren’t clear. He needed time to think, so he said, “The seller sets the price. You set the price—twenty thousand.”
“That’s not the price. It’s a contribution.”
This conversation made no less sense than typical bar talk, and Tim found its rhythm. “But for my contribution I get your…service.”
“No. I have no service to sell. You receive my grace.”
“Yes. Once I accept the concept you’re selling, your world will be profoundly changed by my grace.”
Considering their ordinary color, the killer’s brown eyes were more compelling than they should have been.
When he had sat down at the bar, his face had appeared hard, but that had been a mistaken first impression. A dimple adorned his round chin. Smooth pink cheeks. No laugh lines. No furrows in the brow.
The whimsical quality of his half-smile suggested that he might be remembering a favorite childhood story about fairies. It appeared to be his default expression, as if he were not entirely connected to the moment, perpetually bemused.
“This is not a business transaction,” said the smiling man. “You petitioned me, and I’m the answer to your prayers.”
The vocabulary with which he discussed his work might have been an indication of caution, a technique to avoid incriminating himself. When delivered with a persistent smile, however, his genteel euphemisms were disquieting if not in fact creepy.
As Tim opened the manila envelope, the killer warned, “Not here.”
“Just chill.” Tim removed the photo from the envelope, folded it, and put it in his shirt pocket. “I’ve had a change of heart.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. I was counting on you.”
Sliding the envelope in front of the empty stool that stood between them, Tim said, “Half of what we agreed. For doing nothing. Call it a no-kill fee.”
“You’d never be tied to it,” the killer said.
“I know. You’re good. I’m sure you’re good at this. The best. I just don’t want it anymore.”
Smiling, shaking his head, the killer said, “You want it, all right.”
“You wanted it once. You don’t go as far as wanting it and then not want it anymore. A man’s mind doesn’t work that way.”
“Second thoughts,” said Tim.
“In a thing like this, the second thoughts always come after a man gets what he wants. He allows himself some remorse, so he feels better about himself. He got what he wanted and he feels good about himself, and a year from now it’s just a sad thing that happened.”
The brown-eyed stare disturbed, but Tim dared not look away. A lack of directness might inspire in the killer a sudden suspicion.
One reason those eyes were compelling became clear. The pupils were radically dilated. The black pool at the center of each iris appeared to equal the area of surrounding color.
The light at this end of the bar was reduced but not dim. The pupils were as dilated as they might have been in perfect darkness.
The hunger in his eyes, the greed for light, had the gravity of a black hole in space, of a collapsed star.
A blind man’s eyes might be perpetually dilated like this. But the killer was not blind, not blind to light, although perhaps to something else.
“Take the money,” Tim said.
That smile. “It’s half the money.”
“For doing nothing.”
“Oh, I’ve done some work.”
Tim frowned. “What have you done?”
“I’ve shown you what you are.”
“Yeah? What am I?”
“A man with the soul of a murderer but with the heart of a coward.”
The killer picked up the envelope, rose from the stool, and walked away.
Having successfully passed himself off as the man with a dog named Larry, having for the moment spared the life of the woman in the photograph, having avoided the violent confrontation that could have ensued if the killer had realized what had gone wrong, Tim ought to have been relieved. Instead, his throat tightened, and his heart swelled until it seemed to crowd his lungs and crimp his breath.
A brief dizziness made him feel as if he were spinning slowly on the bar stool. Vertigo threatened to revolve into nausea.
He realized that relief eluded him because this incident was not at an end. He didn’t need tea leaves to read his future. He clearly foresaw the prospects for tragedy.
With only a glance at any stone courtyard or driveway, he could name the pattern of the pavement: running bond, offset bond, coursed ashlar, basket weave, Flemish bond…. The pattern of the road before him was chaos. He could not know where it would lead.
The killer walked with a light step that could be achieved only by someone not weighed down with a conscience, and went out into the night’s embrace.
Tim hurried across the tavern, cautiously cracked the door, and peered outside.
Behind the steering wheel of a white sedan parked at an angle to the curb, half veiled by a windshield that reflected the tavern’s blue-neon sign, sat the smiling man. He riffled the packet of hundred-dollar bills.
Tim withdrew his slim cell phone from his shirt pocket.
In the car, the killer rolled down a window. He hung an object on the glass and cranked up the window to hold it in place.
Blindly feeling his way across the cell-phone keypad without looking at it, Tim began to dial 911.
The object pinched between the window frame and the glass was a detachable emergency beacon, which began to flash as the car reversed away from the curb.
“Cop,” Tim whispered, and hesitated to dial the second 1.
He risked stepping outside as the sedan pulled away from the tavern, and he read the license-plate number on the back of the dwindling vehicle.
The concrete underfoot seemed to have no more surface tension than the skin of water on a pond. Sometimes a skating mayfly, eluding birds and bats, is taken by a hungry bass rising from below.
In the downfall of golden light from the dragon lamp, a simple iron railing guarded the rising concrete steps. The concrete had been worked with a screed when it was bleeding, and as a consequence, some edges had scaled badly; some treads were as crazed as crackle-glazed pottery.
Like a lot of things in life, concrete is unforgiving.
Through four framed panels, the copper dragon, still bright but greening at the edges, serpentined against a luminous backdrop of lacquered mica lenses.
In the wash of ruddy light, the aluminum screen door appeared to be copper, too. Behind it, the inner door stood open to a kitchen rich with the aromas of cinnamon and strong coffee.
Sitting at the table, Michelle Rooney looked up as Tim arrived. “You’re so quiet that I felt you coming.”
He eased the screen door shut behind him. “I almost know what that means.”
“The night outside quieted around you, the way a jungle does when a man passes through.”
“Didn’t see any crocodiles,” he said, but then thought of the man to whom he had given the ten thousand dollars.
He sat across from her at the pale-blue Formica-topped table and studied the drawing on which she worked. It was upside-down from his point of view.
Out of the jukebox in the tavern downstairs rose the muffled but lovely voice of Martina McBride.
When Tim recognized the drawing as a panorama of silhouetted trees, he said, “What’s it going to be?”
“A table lamp. Bronze and stained glass.”
“You’ll be famous someday, Michelle.”
“I’d stop right now if I thought so.”
He looked at her left hand, which lay palm-up on the counter near the refrigerator.
“Want a cup?” she asked, indicating the coffeemaker near the cooktop. “It’s fresh.”
“Looks like something you wrung out of a squid.”
“Who in his right mind wants to sleep?”
He poured a mugful and returned with it to the table.
As was true of many other chairs, this one seemed like toy furniture to him. Michelle was petite, and the same kind of chair appeared large under her, yet Tim was the one who felt as if he were a child playing at coffee klatch.
This perception had less to do with chairs than with Michelle. Sometimes, all unaware, she made him feel like an awkward boy.
She finessed the pencil with her right hand, holding the drawing tablet steady with the stump of her left forearm.
“ETA on the coffeecake,” she said, nodding toward the oven, “is ten minutes.”
“Smells good, but I can’t stay.”
“Don’t pretend you’ve gotten a life.”
A shadow danced across the table. Tim looked up. A yellow butterfly fluttered at the silvered hooves of the leaping bronze gazelles in a small chandelier by Michelle.
“It slipped in this afternoon,” she said. “For a while I left the door open, tried to chase it out, but it seems at home here.”
“Why wouldn’t it be?”
A tree branch whispered into existence between the pencil point and the paper.
“How did you make it up the stairs, carrying all that?” Michelle asked.
“Whatever it is that has you so weighed down.”
The table was the blue of a pale sky, and the shadow seemed to glide behind it, a graceful mystery.
“I won’t be coming around for a while,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“A few weeks, maybe a month.”
“I don’t understand.”
“There’s this thing I have to take care of.”
The butterfly found a perch and closed its wings. As though the shadow were the quivering dark reflection of a burning candle, it vanished as suddenly as a flame from a pinched wick.
“‘This thing,’” she echoed. Her pencil fell silent on the paper.
When his attention rose from the table to Michelle, he found her staring at him. Her eyes were a matched blue and equally convincing.
“If a man comes around with a description of me, looking for a name, just say the description doesn’t ring a bell with you.”