Spotting prey, the circling red-tail plunged into the canyon, leaving the sky hawkless.
Staring at her folded hands, Lily said, “She choked to death on quarters.”
Not sure that he had heard correctly, Tim said, “Quarters?”
As if unable to meet their eyes when recounting this atrocity, Lily continued staring at her hands. “He tied Jenny’s hands behind her back, bound her ankles, held her down on the bed, and forced a roll of quarters down her throat.”
“Oh, God,” Linda said.
Tim felt certain that the last thing Jenny Nakamoto had seen, as her vision blurred with tears, had been the fierce dilated eyes, greedy for light, all light, her light.
“A heart attack, one vehicular manslaughter, one rape-murder,” Tim said. “The police might not see connections, but I think you’re right, Lily.”
She met his eyes. “Not just three. Two more. Nice Mr. Shotsky, the lawyer, and his wife, they came to Cream and Sugar together.”
“I didn’t know them,” Linda said, “but I know the story from the news. He shot her, then committed suicide with the same gun.”
“I don’t believe it,” said Lily Wen-ching. “Mr. Shotsky left a note saying he caught her na*ed in bed with a man. There was…I’m sorry, but I must say…there was se**n in her, the police say didn’t come from her husband. But if Mr. Shotsky could shoot his own wife, why not the man? Why let the man go? Where is the man?”
Tim said, “You ought to be a detective, Lily.”
“I ought to be a wife and mother, but I’m not anymore.”
Although a tremor of emotion marked those words, her porcelain-smooth face and dark eyes remained serene.
Grief might be a thickening agent of the profound silence that pooled in this house, but a stoic acceptance of the adamantine rule of fate gave substance to it, as well.
The stone chimeras had pricked ears, as if listening for the footfalls of the man with gargoyle eyes.
In a field of golden grass, among clusters of black bamboo, stood cranes with black-stick legs and black necks and black beaks.
Shades of gold defined this six-panel screen in Lily Wen-ching’s living room, the black elements almost calligraphic. Otherwise there were the white feathered bodies of the cranes and their white heads, and a sense of peace.
“To the police,” Lily said, “these five deaths are less than coincidence. One of them told me, ‘There’s no conspiracy, Lily. It’s just life.’ How do they come to think this way—that death is life? That unnatural death and murder are somehow a natural part of life?”
Tim asked, “Have they made any progress in the investigation of your family’s murders?”
“You can’t make progress in a bear hunt if you only follow the tracks of deer. They’re looking for a thief, but there was no thief.”
“No money taken?” Linda asked.
“The fire took it. There wasn’t anything worth stealing. We began each day with just enough in the cash-register drawer to make change. Who kills four people for forty dollars in coins and small bills?”
“Some kill for less. For hate. For envy. For nothing. Just to kill,” Tim said.
“And then they prepare a fire with great care? And lock the door behind them, having timed the fire to start after they’re well gone?”
“The police found a timer…an incendiary device?” Linda asked.
“Such intense heat. Nothing left but a suggestion of a device. So they argue among themselves—there was, there wasn’t.”
In the vastness of sky beyond the window, a last fragile skiff of cloud was coming apart and sinking in the high blue.
Lily said, “How do you know someone wants to kill you?”
After glancing at Tim, Linda said, “A man tried to run me down in an alleyway. Later, he took shots at us.”
“Have you gone to the police?”
Tim said, “We have reason to think he may be in law-enforcement somehow, somewhere. We want to know more before we make a move.”
Leaning forward on the sofa, she said, “You have a name?”
“We have a name, but it’s phony. We don’t have his real name.”
“How did you know to come to me, that I have such suspicions?”
“Under this false name, the man was briefly a person of interest in the murders of your family.”
“But he was real. Roy Kutter. They cleared him.”
“Yes,” Linda said, “but that turns out to be a fake identity.”
“Do the police here know that?”
“No,” Tim said. “And I beg you not to go to them with anything we’ve told you. Our lives may depend on your discretion.”
“They wouldn’t listen anyway,” she said. “They think I’m crazy with grief.”
“We know,” Tim said. “We heard you’d gone to them about these other five deaths. And so we came.”
“Grief has not made me crazy,” she assured them. “Grief has made me angry and impatient and determined. I want justice. I want truth.”
“If we’re lucky, we may turn up at least the truth for you,” Tim said. “But justice is even harder to find in this world, these days.”
Rising from the sofa, Lily said, “I pray each night and morning for my lost sweetheart, for my lost boys, and my niece. I’ll pray for the two of you now, as well.”
As he followed the women out of the living room, Tim looked once more at the six-panel screen of graceful cranes and black bamboo. He saw something in it that he had not noticed previously: hidden in the golden grass—a golden, crouching tiger.
Although not sure that it was appropriate, at the front door, he bent to Lily Wen-ching and embraced her.
She must have thought it appropriate, for she stood on her toes to kiss his cheek. “Earlier, I saw you admire the screen.”
“Yes. And again just now. I like it very much.”
“What do you like—the beauty of the cranes?”
“At first, yes. But now I more like the calm of the cranes in the presence of the tiger.”
“Not everyone sees the tiger,” she said. “But he is there. He is always there.”
In the Honda again, Linda said, “Five more murdered since the fire. For something they didn’t know they knew?”
“Something happened while you were all there one day at the same time. Having coffee at the same time on the patio, at your separate tables.”
“But nothing ever happened on the patio,” she protested. “Nothing remarkable. We had our coffee. A pastry, a sandwich. Had our coffee and read a newspaper and enjoyed the sun—and went home.”
Driving away from the Wen-ching house, Tim said, “The tiger was there, but no one saw.”
When they descended through hills to the coast, she wondered, “What now?”
“I’m not sure yet.”
“We only slept two hours. We could find a motel where they don’t raise their eyebrows when you pay in cash.”
“I don’t think I could sleep.”
“Me neither. So…why don’t we go to a coffeehouse with a patio? Let’s sit in the sun on the patio. Maybe enough sun and espresso can melt a memory out of me.”
At 10:44 A.M., having slept little more than two hours, Krait was roused from dreamless sleep by the vibrating cell phone that he still cupped in his hand.
Instantly awake, he threw back the covers and sat on the edge of Teresa Mendez’s bed to read what proved to be an annoying coded text message from his support group.
They had two questions. First, they wished to know why the three people at Bethany and Jim’s house had been killed.
Never previously had he been asked to explain collateral damage. He took offense at this query, which seemed to suggest that he might have unnecessarily terminated someone.
His first impulse was to reply that the three were better off dead, that everyone now alive would be better off dead, for the sake of the world they burdened, and that if the support group was arrogant enough to question him, then they should ask not why he had killed Cynthia and Malcolm and Nora, but instead why he had not yet killed everyone.
They also wanted to know how his pursuit of the Paquette woman had led him to the house where three now lay dead.
He would not answer that question because it was an impertinent violation of his privacy. They petitioned him to grant them a certain grace. They didn’t own him. He had a life, a good life in the art of death.
As long as ultimately they received the grace they sought—the death of Paquette—they had no right to make him account for his actions or his time. Outrageous.
Besides, Krait couldn’t tell them why he had gone into that house, because they didn’t know that he was homeless. They thought that he kept the whereabouts of his home a secret, which made sense for a man of his bloody calling.
If he explained his unconventional living arrangements, they would not understand. They would sever relations with him. They were mere men, after all; none of them was a prince of the earth like he was.
Instead of a home of his own, he had millions of homes. Usually, he lived in the residences of others with such circumspection that they never knew he had been there.
Once in a while, he found himself in a situation out of which he could not talk his way. Then he killed through the problem.
In the past, the Gentlemen’s Club had shown no curiosity about such matters. The difference this time might be quantity: three collateral casualties in one incident.
He decided to ignore both questions and to reply with only a line from Wallace Stevens, a poet he liked but did not understand: THE ONLY EMPEROR IS THE EMPEROR OF ICE-CREAM.
Sometimes, reading Wallace Stevens, Krait not only wanted to kill everyone in the world but wanted also to kill himself. This seemed to him to be the ultimate proof of great poetry. THE ONLY EMPEROR IS THE EMPEROR OF ICE-CREAM.
Let them reflect on that and, if they were bright enough, reach the conclusion that they had trespassed with their questions.
Krait was now alert to the likelihood that the Paquette woman was in fact a target specified by the Gentlemen’s Club and not by one of his other petitioners. Their irritation over these recent three deaths might be merely a reflection of their concern that his quarry had repeatedly escaped him, which had never happened before.
If he moved quickly to locate and destroy the woman, he would allay the Club’s concern. With Paquette dead, the murders of Cynthia and Malcolm and Nora would be accepted as unavoidable collateral damage, and soon forgotten.
He returned Teresa’s undergarments to the laundry basket in the closet, and made the bed. He took the mug, thermos, and biscuit plate to the kitchen, washed them, and put them away.
In the bedroom once more, he dressed. The reproduction art from Paquette’s bedroom had been soaked with rain, and he had earlier unfolded it on the carpet. He found it dry now; once more he folded the print and returned it to an inside coat pocket.
With the Glock machine pistol, he returned to Teresa’s small den. He switched on her computer and went on-line.
The don’t-ask rule had served Krait well. The less he knew about the targets of the Club, the better. If he ever understood why these people were wanted dead, he would know too much. He had considerable experience regarding what happened to men—perhaps even to princes—who knew too much.
Although he had been petitioned to kill Paquette, not Carrier, he’d thought it wise to apply the don’t-ask rule to the man, as well. Having been outfoxed more than once, however, and in consideration of the sudden restiveness of the Gentlemen’s Club, Krait decided to amend his strategy.
He composed a simple search string to seek whatever information about Carrier might exist. He didn’t expect to find a great deal more than what he already knew. Wrong.
The wide-spreading branches of a New Zealand Christmas tree sheltered that half of the coffeehouse patio closer to the street. Its majestic limbs were not cloaked in crimson flowers at this time of year.
Tim and Linda sat in the sun, at the table farthest from the street, next to a whitewashed wall of sand-mold bricks on which climbing vines were adorned with Mexican blood flowers.
As they nursed cups of espresso, the sun warmed an increasing aroma from a plate of small chocolate-pistachio cookies.
They were talking about the blood flowers when, after a pause, Linda said, “My father’s name was Benedict. Everyone called him Benny.”
Tim heard the was and waited.
“He had a master’s degree in child development.”
“He did all right with you.”
A thin smile came and went. “My mother’s name was Renee.”
On a hunch, he said, “Do you carry pictures of them?”
From her purse, she took her wallet, and from the wallet an insert of plastic photo windows.
He said, “I like their faces.”
“They were gentle and sweet and funny.”
“You resemble her.”
“She had a degree in education,” Linda said.
“They worked in day-care, founded a preschool.”
“Sounds like they should have succeeded at it.”
“Eventually they owned three.”
She turned her face up to the sun and closed her eyes.
A hovering hummingbird sought the nectar of a blood flower.
She said, “There was this five-year-old named Chloe.”
In one photo, Benny in a funny hat was mugging for Linda.
“Chloe’s mother already had her on Ritalin.”
In the same photo, Linda laughed with delight.
“My folks were counseling her to stop the Ritalin.”
The spring sun made her face seem luminous from within.
“Chloe was a handful. The mother wanted her on the drug.”
He said, “They say half the kids are on it now.”
“Maybe my folks made the mother feel guilty.”
“Maybe they didn’t try. Maybe she already felt guilty.”
“Whatever. Anyway, she resented them for raising the issue.”
The hummingbird was an iridescent green, its wings a blur.
“One day on the playground, Chloe fell and scraped a knee.”
The photos had begun to look sad to him. Souvenirs of loss.
“Mom and Dad cleaned the abrasion.”
Tim returned the photos to her wallet.
“They used iodine. Chloe cried and fussed about the sting.”