“Maybe coincidence,” Tim said.
“Like Santa Claus showing up on Christmas Eve. And talk about showing up—not half an hour later, around five o’clock, three guys pay a visit.”
“Not the three wise men.”
“More like wiseguys.”
“What did they want?” Linda asked.
“I was out when they came. Watched them from up the street. I’m not going back anytime soon.”
“You didn’t leave Zoey there?” Linda asked.
“Zoey’s with me.”
Tim said, “So what was the pay dirt?”
Instead of answering, Pete said, “Listen, Hitch Lombard knows my cell number, so these guys have it, too. Maybe they know yours.”
“They know it,” Tim confirmed. “But you don’t mean they can grab our conversation out of thin air?”
“Not your local cops, but maybe these guys. Who knows. They get better at this stuff every week.”
Linda said, “And though tracing a cell’s location isn’t as easy as locating a fixed phone, it’s totally doable.”
Tim threw a look at her.
She threw it back and said, “Book research.”
“You need to go buy a disposable cell phone,” Pete said, “so you have a number they don’t know. Then call me at another phone they don’t know.”
“You gonna send me the number by psychic waves?” Tim asked.
“How’s this. Remember the guy who lost his virginity while he was dressed up as Shrek?”
“The guy who now has five kids.”
“That’s the guy who.”
“I don’t have his number.”
“Call him at work. It’s in the directory. Ask for him, give your name, they’ll put you through. I’ll be there in an hour.”
Tim terminated the call. Then he switched off the cell phone.
“Who’s the guy who?” Linda asked.
“Pete’s cousin Santiago.”
“Dressed up as Shrek?”
“It was a costume party. I think everybody had to come as a cartoon character. I wasn’t there.”
“What was she dressed as?”
“Jessica Rabbit from Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Her name’s Mina. He married her. The kids are really cute and green.”
Pushing her chair back from the table, she said, “We better be out of here soon.”
Tim took his clothes from the dryer and ironed them while Linda cleaned up the breakfast dishes. Their rain-sodden shoes hadn’t fully dried, but they were wearable.
In the two-car garage stood Teresa’s four-year-old Honda Accord. One of her traveling companions had driven them to the airport.
Linda had found the keys in a kitchen drawer; but she handed them to Tim.
“If there’s got to be any stunt driving like last night,” she said, “you better be the one behind the wheel.”
Although he didn’t have adequate legroom, he liked the Honda. It was nondescript, and it didn’t have any satellite uplink by which they might be tracked.
As the garage door rolled up, Tim half expected that the hungry-eyed killer would be standing in the driveway, holding a machine pistol.
Blades of sunlight thrust through the torn fabric of the cloud-disheveled sky and liberated the land from the lingering gloom of the recent storm.
“Where do we get a disposable cell phone at this hour?” she asked.
Driving east, heading toward a freeway, he said, “The warehouse clubs open early. I have a membership in one through the union. But I’m not carrying much money.”
Withdrawing a fat envelope from her purse, she said, “I’ve got five thousand in hundreds.”
“I missed the moment when you knocked over a bank.”
“I’ve got gold coins hidden at home, too. Last night, when I had to grab something, cash money seemed more practical.”
“Don’t trust banks?”
“I’ve got money in the bank. But you can’t always get bank money as fast as you might need it. This is my falls-apart money.”
“For when what falls apart?”
“You think it’s the End Times or something?”
“Things fell apart last night, didn’t they?”
“I guess they did,” he acknowledged.
She looked grim when she said, “I’m never going to be helpless again.”
“We’re in a tight place, but we aren’t helpless,” he assured her.
“I don’t mean now,” she said, returning the money to her purse.
“You mean like you were helpless back then…with Molly and the other stuff.”
“You want to talk about the other stuff?”
“You told me about Molly.”
“Telling that much hurt enough,” she said.
Tim followed a rising freeway entrance. Heavy but unobstructed morning traffic raced at reckless speed through what the real-estate agents would call “another day in paradise.”
“In the end,” he said, “we’re all helpless, if you want to get to the hard truth of things.”
“I like hard truth. But damn if I’m near the end yet.”
Thereafter, they rode in silence all the way to the exit that would take them to the warehouse club.
The silence was comfortable. Tim suspected that no matter how far and long they might yet go together, they were already past any kind of silence that would feel strained.
The awkwardness would come when they were at last ready to make their separate revelations.
Sitting behind the wheel of his car in front of Bethany and Jim’s place, Krait sent a coded text message informing his support group of the three dead people in the house.
He did not suggest a course of action that should be taken. Decisions of that nature were not in his province. This was only a heads-up call.
He typed REGRET THE MESS BUT UNAVOIDABLE. Then he concluded the message by quoting T. S. Eliot: LIFE YOU MAY EVADE, BUT DEATH YOU SHALL NOT.
Although he had never met any of the men and women in the support group, he imagined that he must be a legendary figure among them, larger than life and as large as Death. From time to time he liked to send them such quotes as the Eliot bit, so they would know that his erudition equaled his skill at execution and would be even more motivated to serve him as required.
If he had ever gone to school, he had done so in childhood and adolescence, but he had no more memory of receiving an education than he had of being younger than eighteen. He was, however, an excellent autodidact, and had taught himself much.
T. S. Eliot was not a writer of whom Krait approved, but even an insistently incorrect man could occasionally pen a pleasing line. If Eliot had been still alive, Krait would have killed him.
The support group most likely would prefer to let Bethany and Jim discover Mom, Dad, and neighbor Nora. As the police investigation proceeded, the support group would destroy or compromise any forensic evidence incriminating to Krait. They also would seed DNA, hairs, and fibers that would confuse the police and ultimately bring them to a blind alley.
Krait knew no name for the organization of which the support group was a department, but he thought of it as the Gentlemen’s Club or just the Club. He didn’t know what the Gentlemen’s Club was or what its members’ ultimate purpose might be, or why they wanted certain people dead, and he didn’t need to know.
For more than a decade, Krait had done freelance hits for the mob and for petitioners who had been referred to him by grateful people for whom he had killed quarrelsome spouses and rich parents and other impediments to the good life. Then seven years ago, a member of the Club had approached him with the sincere hope that he would kill for them on a regular basis.
Their conversation had taken place in the back of a moving superstretch limousine at night, in Chicago. The interior lights had never been turned on, and to Krait the representative of the Club had been only a shadow in a cashmere topcoat, sitting at the farther end of the luxuriously upholstered passenger cabin.
The man had spoken with what Krait took to be the accent of a Boston Brahmin. He was articulate, and his manner suggested that he had been born to wealth and social position. Although the Brahmin referred to his mysterious associates only as “our people,” Krait thought of him as a gentleman and of his group as the Gentlemen’s Club.
When the gentleman described the level of support that would be provided, Krait had been impressed. And he knew this counted as further evidence that if he was not a species different from human beings, he was at least superior to and separate from them.
The best thing about the support group was that they served Krait not only when he was engaged in a kill for the Gentlemen’s Club, but also when he undertook a mission on behalf of the mob or any other petitioner. They did not want exclusivity, yet they were always there for him.
They had two reasons for this generosity, the first being that they recognized Krait’s singular talent. They wished to ensure that he would never be unavailable to them by reason of imprisonment.
Second, they did not want Krait to be able to detect a pattern in the kinds of people whom he was asked to kill, or to deduce from that pattern the possible goals and the ultimate purpose of the Gentlemen’s Club. Therefore the Club paid him in cash, delivered by guys whom he could not distinguish either from the bagmen of various mobs or from treacherous husbands and sons and businessmen.
They paid him in cash also to keep a financial firewall between themselves and their assassin, just in case one day, in spite of all their heroic efforts on his behalf, he took a fall.
After that limousine ride in Chicago, Krait had never again met face to face with anyone who he could be certain was a Club member.
In fact it didn’t matter to him who was and who wasn’t a courier for the Club. He loved to kill, he was well-rewarded for it, and he felt that forgetfulness was a grace that he owed to every one of his petitioners. He wiped from his mind forever the faces of those who had passed the cash to him.
Krait had a remarkable ability to cast off beyond recovery any memory that he wished to set adrift. The faces of men who petitioned him or who served as couriers on the behalf of petitioners were as irretrievable to him as any astronaut, severed from a tether to his spacecraft, is lost forever to the eternal depths of space.
Life was so much simpler when you could send out beyond the stars, with no risk of recovery, not only things like couriers’ faces but also dreary episodes and even whole great swaths of time that had been occupied by unsatisfactory experience.
He never spoke to any member of the Club by phone. Communication remained strictly by coded electronic messaging. Voice analysis could be submitted as evidence in a court of law, but no one could prove beyond doubt whose fingers had typed a message.
In the Lamplighter Tavern, when he had mistaken Timothy Carrier for the correct petitioner, he had assumed that this mission was not on behalf of the Gentlemen’s Club. The Brahmin and his people would never tell Krait to keep half the money as a no-kill fee. They didn’t change their minds. When they wanted someone dead, they wanted him or her dead the hard way and without hope of resurrection.
Krait still doubted that the Paquette woman might be a target of the Club. She seemed to be a nobody. Gentlemen of wealth and power did not turn their heads for a woman like her, let alone pull a trigger on her by proxy.
After sending his message, he drove to the Pacific Coast Highway and then south to the restaurant at which Carrier had abandoned the Explorer. He went through the vehicle end to end but found nothing helpful.
As he finished that task, his cell phone vibrated. The support group reported that a bus driver remembered dropping off in Dana Point a couple that matched the description of Carrier and Paquette.
Krait drove to Dana Point while the support group reviewed the woman’s phone records in the hope of identifying anyone she might know in that seaside town.
The clouds relented, blue sky insisted, and the sun gilded the coastal hills and the beaches and the squamous sea.
Krait felt brilliantly alive, full of a gratifying fire, as a forge is filled with fire but not consumed by it. Dealing death did that for him.
The warehouse club offered an irresistible price on one-gallon jars of mayonnaise, six to a carton, and for a modest sum, you could buy enough bricks of tofu to build a two-bedroom house.
On their quest for a disposable cell phone, Tim and Linda did not bother with the shopping carts that were, in a pinch, large enough to transport a lame horse. Other customers had piled their carts with multiple twelve-packs of toilet paper, panty hose by the half gross, and barrels of cocktail onions.
A young couple piloted two pushcarts with adorable identical three-year-old girls facing backward in the kiddie seats, as if they had taken advantage of a two-for-one child sale in Aisle 9.
Sometimes Tim worried that Americans were so accustomed to abundance that they thought this level of affluence and choice had always been the norm and was even now the norm in all but the most insistently backward corners of the world. Sudden falls can come to societies that know too little history or that have furnished their minds with easy one-note propaganda in place of the true complexity and terrible beauty of the storied past.
They purchased a cell phone suitable to their needs and an electric razor for Tim. The cashier, clearly puzzled by a mere two-item sale, did no more than raise an eyebrow in disapproval of their un-American restraint.
Tim drove the Honda to a nearby auto center as Linda used his phone to make a call to activate the disposable cell they had just bought. Because the telephone came with prepaid minutes, she was not required to give a credit card or a name to trigger service.
This system, not yet prohibited by law, was a great convenience to terrorists whether they bought one disposable phone to facilitate untraceable conversation or acquired them in bulk to be employed as bomb timers.
Fortunately, even honest citizens were permitted to make use of this user-friendly technology.
The auto center was comprised of numerous dealerships, hawking almost every make of wheeled transport, situated side by side along a large figure-eight roadway. Pennants fluttered in the faint breeze, banners proclaimed bargains, and thousands of vehicles stood on blacktop sales lots like gems on jewelers’ velvet display boards.
Every dealership needed all of its on-lot parking spaces for inventory, for vehicles awaiting repair, and for potential customers. Consequently, employees’ cars, repaired vehicles awaiting pickup, and trade-ins not yet refurbished for resale were parked along the auto center’s communal roadway.