“What’s that mean?”
“Who knows. He supposedly worked for some federal agency.”
“It’s always vague in the news stories.”
“But he looked credible?” Linda asked. “They set him loose, clean?”
“Here’s where I started reading between the lines of the news stories,” Pete said. “You can tell that the detective on it, also the chief, they wanted to lean on this Kutter some, even find a way to hold him.”
“So why didn’t they?”
“This is maybe reading too deep between the lines, but I get the feeling someone heavy leaned hard on them when they tried to lean on Kutter.”
“Like someone leaned on Hitch Lombard,” Tim said.
“Just like. Pretty soon, Roy Kutter wasn’t a person of interest anymore.”
A scattering of cars entered the vast lot, parked in different rows. The people who got out of them and walked to the mall might have been store employees, perhaps managers, coming in an hour ahead of the public. None of them seemed to have any interest in the Honda.
“So,” Linda said, “why does it matter that I went there for coffee? I didn’t go there the day of the fire. I don’t think I’d been there during the week before the fire, either. Why does somebody want me dead because I used to go to the Cream and Sugar?”
From the humble kitchen of Santiago Jalisco, where surely the world seemed more ordered and sane than it did out here where Kravet was probably even now seeking Teresa’s Honda by some sorcerous means, Pete said, “Are you trying to gut-kick me for fun, girl, or do you mean that, for real, someone wants you dead?”
“Feels like maybe it’s time I tell you what this is about,” Tim suggested.
“Yeah. Like maybe.”
Succinctly, Tim recounted the events at the tavern, the two instances of mistaken identity.
“Sweet Jesus, Doorman.”
“So here we are,” Tim said, “nothing to prove it happened, and now it seems even if we had video of him shooting at us, we might not get anyone to so much as wag a naughty-boy finger at him.”
“Something’s happened since,” Pete guessed.
“Yeah. A bunch of something.”
“I’m too tired for a blow-by-blow. Let’s just say Linda and me—we earned the right to still be breathing. Truth is, I’m surprised we are.”
“I know this can’t be news. But say you get lucky and punch his ticket, it’s still not over till you also punch whoever’s ticket he’s working for.”
“I have a hunch they’ve got a steel ticket.”
“And where do we go from here?” Linda asked. “We’re two mice, and a hawk is coming, and there’s no tall grass anywhere.”
No fear strained her voice, and she appeared calm.
Tim wondered about the source and the depth of her strength.
“I got one thing more,” Pete said. “It might be something. This friend on the Laguna PD, Paco, he’s as reliable as sunrise. I talked to him half an hour ago, on the QT, felt him out about the Cream and Sugar case. I know it’s an open file, but is it active? He says no, not active. Then Paco tells me Lily Wen-ching, she’s still so crazy with grief, she thinks it’s not done yet. She thinks whoever whacked her family is still taking care of whatever business those killings were part of.”
“Lily is Charlie’s wife,” Linda told Tim. “His widow.”
“What do you mean—still taking care of business?” Tim asked.
“She’s got it in her head that some regular customers of Cream and Sugar have died suspiciously over the past year and a half, since the fire.”
Linda hugged herself and shivered, as if a quirk in time had folded January into May.
“Died suspiciously?” Tim asked. “Who?”
“Paco didn’t say, and I didn’t want to push so hard his antenna popped up. What’s totally clear is, they don’t take Lily seriously. After everything the poor woman has lost, it’s easy to believe the crazy-with-grief angle. But what you might want to do is talk to her.”
“Soon,” Linda agreed. “I know where the family lived. If she’s still in the same house.”
“Paco says she is. She can’t let go of anything. Like if she holds on stubborn enough, she can bring them back.”
Tim saw in those expressive green eyes the fullest understanding of the obstinate sorrow that Pete had just described.
“Give me your new cell number,” Pete said. “I’m going right out and buy a disposable of my own. I’ll get back to you. Don’t call here again. I shouldn’t have involved Santiago, not even this much.”
Tim said, “I don’t see what more you can do for us.”
“If I can’t do a lot more than what I’ve done so far, then I’m a sorry-ass sonofabitch. Let me have your new number.”
Linda gave it to him.
“And one more thing you need to know, though you probably know it already.”
“What?” Tim asked.
“I’m not talking to you, Doorman. I’m talking to the pretty one. Are you listening, pretty one?”
“With both ears, holy one.”
“You probably know this already, but you couldn’t ever be in better hands than the hands you’re in right now.”
Meeting Tim’s eyes, Linda said to Pete, “I’ve known that since he walked into my house last night and said he didn’t understand modern art.”
“I guess you had to be there,” Pete said.
“The thing is,” she explained, “he could have said something else or nothing at all, and I’d still have known I was safe.”
Sitting up in bed, reading Toni Zero’s Relentless Cancer, Krait soon forgot his green tea and biscuits.
Her narrative drive was strong, her prose luminous and assured. She understood the necessity of understatement but also the value of hyperbole.
Most of all, he liked the seductive despair, the deeply settled hopelessness, the corrupting bitterness that gave no quarter to any optimist who might wish to debate this dark worldview.
From Zero’s book, the apprentice demon Wormwood could have learned much about turning innocent souls away from the light. And even old Screwtape himself might have picked up a trick or two.
Krait also approved of her anger. The anger remained always subordinate to despair, but she served it up in small doses that were enthrallingly vicious and vindictive.
For a while, he thought she might be the writer of the century, or at least that she would become his favorite above all others.
Gradually, however, she revealed a frustration with the willful ignorance that is an abiding human trait, an indignation at the cruelty that people visit upon one another. She might see the world as hopeless, but she believed it did not have to remain that way.
Worse, she yearned for a world in which promises were kept, in which trust was not betrayed, in which honor mattered, and in which courage inspired courage. Because of this, she finally forfeited Krait’s adoration.
Clearly, the despair on the page was not what she sincerely felt, but was what rough experience or a good professor had convinced her that she ought to feel. By contrast, the moments of anger burning in the book were real, but they were neither intense enough nor numerous enough for Krait’s taste.
Touring Paquette’s house the previous evening, he had reviewed the shelves of books in her living room, but he had not seen her Toni Zero novels. The fact that she had consigned them to a closet or had boxed them in the attic suggested that she might have recognized her own lack of conviction in the writing.
Indeed, the ’39 Ford coupe, her collection of novels by other writers, and her decor suggested an annoyingly hopeful heart.
He took her book into the bathroom and dropped it in the toilet. He emptied his bladder. He did not flush, but closed the lid to let the novel marinate.
This act did not harmonize with his penchant for cleanliness, but it was necessary.
In bed again, he found that the thermos had kept the tea warm. The biscuits were tasty.
When he settled down for a two-or three-hour nap, he kept the Glock under the covers with him, and he held the cell phone loosely in his hand.
He would wake in the precise position in which he had gone to sleep, and the phone would remain in his hand. He never dreamed and he was never restless in his slumber. He truly did sleep like the dead.
While Linda drove the Honda, Tim plugged his new electric razor in the cigarette lighter, and shaved without benefit of a mirror.
When he finished, he said, “I just can’t stand that feeling.”
“Stubble, the way it itches. Clothes so full of sweat and stink you feel you’re in a pot of boiling cabbage—that doesn’t bother me.”
“Maybe it should.”
“Lice, lips so cracked they bleed, prickly heat, that dry gray fungus, the fancy cockroaches they have—give me all that and more if you can spare me stubble itch.”
“Most guys don’t reveal their affection for dry gray fungus on the first date.”
Returning the razor to its travel case, he said, “Most first dates aren’t this long.”
“You don’t want to know. What is Mrs. Wen-ching like?”
“A petite dynamo. She worked at Cream and Sugar like the rest of the family. She was usually there lunch to early evening. She wasn’t scheduled to work the morning it happened.”
The Wen-ching residence was a sleek Moderne-style home in the hills of Laguna, cantilevered over a canyon.
Queen palms flanked the diamond-cut slate walkway and cast wings of raven-feather shadows on the variegated stone.
Lily Wen-ching answered the doorbell. Fiftyish, with porcelain-smooth skin the color of aged ivory, slender, wearing black silk pants and a matching blouse with a high collar, she stood perhaps five feet tall but had a presence bigger than her weight and height explained.
Speaking before they had a chance to introduce themselves, Lily said, “Is it…Linda? Double espresso, lemon peel on the side?”
“Exactly,” Linda said. “How do you do that, especially after all this time?”
“It was our lives, and such a satisfaction to see people happy with what we provided to them.”
Her voice was mellifluous. She made even common words sound like spoken music.
“You weren’t a regular,” she said to Tim, “and even if you came once in a while, I wouldn’t forget what a giant drank. How do you like your coffee?”
“Black or espresso, or intravenously.”
Smiling at Linda, Lily Wen-ching said, “I would remember him if he had come even a few times.”
Linda said, “He leaves an impression like a sudden silent falling stone.”
“How perfectly put,” Lily said.
Linda made introductions, and then said, “Mrs. Wen-ching—”
“Thank you. Lily, when I tell you why we’re here, I hope you won’t think I’m crazy. Most people would. I suspect someone is trying to kill me…because I had coffee at the Cream and Sugar.”
The widow’s eyes, as dark and clear as a fresh-brewed Jamaican blend, neither widened nor narrowed. “Yes. The possibility exists.”
Lily Wen-ching led them into a living room with a stepped ceiling one shade lighter than the glazed apricot walls.
Lustrous bronze-colored drapes were gathered at each end of a wall of windows with a view of the purple morning sea and Catalina Island and a sky wrung dry of all but a few tangled scraps of scrim.
Linda and Tim sat facing the view in dark zitan-wood armchairs with red seat cushions and peony medallions in the wide back splats.
Their hostess excused herself without explanation. Her slippered feet made no sound either on the area rugs or on the wood floor.
A red-tailed hawk rose out of the canyon over which the house was suspended, and glided in a widening gyre.
In the living room, a pair of carved-stone chimeras displayed on tall incense stands seemed to watch Tim as he watched the hawk.
Silence of the kind with weight pooled in the house, and Tim felt it would be impolite, even coarse, to disturb the quiet.
So quick that she must have had an espresso machine standing by for service, Lily returned with three double servings in white cups on a red-lacquered tray. She set the tray on a zitan-wood table with recessed legs, elongated brindle joints, and decorative struts.
With her back to the view, she sat on a Luohan bed used as a sofa. Hornless dragons were carved on the back and arms, and a red cushion matched those on the chairs.
After a sip of espresso, she said, “Dear Dr. Avarkian was a regular customer.”
“We chatted a few times on your patio, when we sat at adjacent tables,” Linda remembered.
“Professor at UCI,” Lily told Tim. “He was a regular customer, died young of a heart attack.”
“How young?” Tim asked.
“Forty-six. Three months after the fire.”
“That’s young, all right, but men that young do sometimes have fatal heart attacks.”
“Lovely Evelyn Nakamoto.”
“I knew her, too,” Linda said, leaning forward on her chair. “She had that art gallery on Forest Avenue.”
“Five months after the fire,” Lily said, “visiting Seattle, Evelyn was killed in a crosswalk by a hit-and-run driver.”
“But Seattle,” Tim said, playing devil’s advocate, suggesting that if these deaths were related, they might be expected to have occurred in Laguna Beach or nearby.
“Somebody dies far from home,” Linda said, “it seems less connected to other deaths here. That’s exactly why they might have gone after her in Seattle.”
“Sweet Jenny Nakamoto,” said Lily Wen-ching.
“Evelyn had a daughter, they often had coffee together,” Linda said. “A pretty girl.”
“Yes. Jenny. So sweet, so bright. She was a student at UCLA. Had a little apartment above someone’s garage in Westwood. Someone waited in her apartment, raped her when she came home. Then murdered her.”
“Horrible. I hadn’t heard,” Linda said. “When did it happen?”
“Eight months ago, five months after her mother in Seattle.”
The rich espresso, beautifully brewed, had begun to taste bitter to Tim.
After returning her cup to the lacquered tray, sitting forward on the Luohan bed, hands clasped in her lap, Lily said, “An ugly thing about Jenny’s murder.”