In the sea spray but beyond the reach of the waves, two men and a woman navigated the rocks below, plucking up crabs and putting them in bright-yellow plastic buckets.
“And anyway, things have a way of happening that force you to be what you are.”
The disposable cell phone rang.
“Don’t answer it,” she said. “Just finish.”
“It’ll be Pete,” he said, and it was.
“Got my own disposable cell,” Pete said. “You have something to take down the number?”
“Pen and paper?” Tim asked, and Linda produced them from her purse, and Tim said to Pete, “Go ahead.”
After giving the number and repeating it, Pete said, “Have you seen Lily Wen-ching yet?”
“We did. And it was something.”
“I’ve got to hear it. But let’s get face to face.”
“Have to break your legs to keep you out of this, wouldn’t I?”
“That wouldn’t do it. I was a high-school gymnast. I can walk on my hands.”
“So where you want to meet?”
Pete asked where they were. “I’ll meet you there. Half an hour.”
“We’ll be at a picnic table.”
He pocketed the disposable phone and began walking again along the bluff path.
At his side, Linda said, “Hey, big head, you owe me some talk.”
“Yeah, but I can’t get my tongue around the words.”
“I tore down my wall,” she reminded him.
“And I know how hard it was. But my wall has a lot of rebar in it. Let’s just go a ways up here while I brood a little.”
She walked with him.
He said, “I don’t want to change what you think of me.”
She walked with him. The sun passed its zenith, and the trees began to grow east-leaning shadows, and she walked with him.
That’s quite some boy you’ve got,” said Krait.
Mary did not reply. Her mouth appeared less full than it had been previously. Her lips were set tight.
“I’m sure Zachary, he’s quite some boy, too,” Krait said. “But I mean Tim.”
Those people who were charmed by Krait’s smile and by his easy manner, when he chose to pour on the honey, seldom met his stare, as if subconsciously they knew that they were deluding themselves about him and wished to avoid his eyes in order to remain deluded.
When someone did engage his eyes, they tended not to meet his stare for long.
Mary had the probing gaze of an ophthalmologist. Each time she blinked, she seemed to be turning another page in Krait’s mind.
“Dear, just because I disabled you in a painless fashion does not mean that I won’t hurt you if I must.”
“If you’re stubborn, then I’ll get cooperation by subjecting you to pain beyond your imagination.”
She continued to read his eyes.
“Only fools aren’t afraid,” he said, “and fools die.”
“I’m afraid,” she acknowledged.
“Good. I’m pleased to hear that.”
“But afraid isn’t the only thing I am.”
“Let’s see if we can work with that.”
She still didn’t ask who he was or what he wanted. She declined to waste time on questions that would not be answered or on those that he would answer without being asked.
“My name is Robert Kessler. You can call me Bob. Now, Mary dear, your boy Tim has something I want, and he won’t give it to me.”
“Then you probably shouldn’t have it.”
He smiled. “I’ll bet when he was a boy, you defended him to every teacher who ever gave him a bad report.”
“Actually, I never did.”
“What if I told you that he hijacked a substantial amount of coc**ne that belongs to me?”
“If you were stupid enough to tell me that, I’d know you were lying.”
“Mary, Mary, you don’t strike me as a naive woman.”
“Then don’t treat me as if I am.”
Krait persisted: “No one can know another person’s deepest secrets. Even a mother can’t know her son’s true heart.”
“This mother does.”
“So it didn’t surprise you that he could murder people?”
Regarding Krait with contempt, she said, “That’s pathetic. Murder? That’s less than sophistry.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Sophistry? That’s quite a word for a mason’s wife and a mason’s mother.”
“We try to be just dumb working stiffs, but our brains get in the way.”
“Mary, I’ve gotta say, under other circumstances, I might get to like you.”
“I can’t imagine any circumstances where I’d like you.”
He studied her in silence for a while.
She said, “You can’t make me doubt my son. The more you try, the more I’ll doubt your seriousness.”
Krait said, “This is going to be interesting.”
He went into the kitchen and got the bowl of sliced apples from the cutting board and returned to his chair.
After munching a slice, he said, “What are the apples for?”
“You didn’t come here to talk about apples.”
“But they’re what interest me now, dear. Were you going to make a pie?”
Munching another slice, he asked, “Do you make your own crusts from scratch or buy them ready-made at the supermarket?”
“I make my own.”
“As much as possible,” Krait said, “I try to eat homemade food. It’s healthier and more flavorful than restaurant food or frozen entrees, and when you have as many homes as I do, there’s infinite variety.”
He took a third crescent of apple from the bowl and threw it at her face.
She flinched. The apple stuck for a moment on her forehead, then slipped off and fell onto her blouse.
He threw another slice, which struck her cheek and dropped onto her right arm. She flicked it to the floor.
“Try to catch this one in your mouth,” Krait said.
The piece of apple bounced off her tightly pressed lips.
“Come on, be a sport. Go for it.”
Because she kept her mouth shut and raised her head, the slice of apple hit her chin.
“Whatever you want,” she said, “humiliating me won’t help you get it.”
“Maybe not, dear. But I’m enjoying myself.”
He ate another slice of apple, and then he threw two more.
“What time does Walter get home from work?”
She didn’t answer.
“Mary, Mary, so contrary. Maybe you don’t care if I go find a razor blade and start carving your face to make you cooperate.”
He withdrew the Glock 18 machine pistol from the shoulder rig under his coat and put it on the table.
“But,” he continued, “if Walter walks in here unexpected, I’ll shoot him dead when he comes through the door, and that’ll be your fault.”
She stared at the weapon.
“It’s fitted with a silencer,” Krait explained. “And it’s a machine pistol. From point-blank, I could put four, five, six rounds in his neck and face with one squeeze of the trigger.”
Reluctantly, she said, “Usually between four and four-thirty.”
The quickest way at her was through those she loved.
Krait said, “Sometimes he comes home earlier?”
“Not unless the weather turns bad.”
“Are you expecting anyone else?”
“All right. Fine. I’ll have you out of here long before four o’clock.”
He saw her react to the news that he would be taking her away from home, but she said nothing.
“I’m going to place a call to Tim,” he said. “Timmy. Do you call him Timmy?”
“Did you call him Timmy when he was a little boy?”
“It’s always been Tim.”
“All right. But certainly never Tiny Tim. I’m going to place a call to Tim and offer him a trade. I need you to speak to him.”
“Ah, curiosity at last.”
“Tell me the truth. Not the coc**ne nonsense.”
“I’ve been hired to kill this bitch, this writer, rape her if I have the time, and he’s hiding her from me.”
The mason’s mother searched Krait’s eyes, then lowered her attention to the weapon on the table.
“It was supposed to look like an intruder in her house, but that probably can’t be made to work now. But if I can, I’m still going to rape her because she’s made me wait so long for it.”
Mary closed her eyes.
“Does that sound like more nonsense to you, Mary?”
“No. It’s crazy, but it sounds true.”
“When you’re reunited, Tim can tell you all the details. They’re fascinating. He’s led me on quite a chase.”
He threw a slice of apple at her to make her open her eyes.
Scooting his chair closer to her, he said, “Stay with me, Mary. You need to understand a couple things.”
“Later, I’m going to tie you up, carry you out to the Expedition in the garage. We’ll leave in the Expedition. I’m going to put you in the cargo space, on your back. Are you afraid of needles, Mary?”
“Good. Because I’m going to hook you up to a clever little intravenous-infusion pump. Do you know what that is?”
“It’s like an IV drip in the hospital but more compact, and it’s battery-powered instead of gravity-fed. It’ll administer a continuous measured dose of sedative. Are you allergic to any drugs, dear?”
“Then it’ll be perfectly safe. You’ll sleep until this is done with. That’ll make things easier for both of us. I’ll cover you with a blanket, arrange some other things in the cargo space, and anyone who happens to glance in won’t even know you’re there. But I’ve got one problem. Look at me, dear.”
She had lost interest in reading his eyes because she knew now what he was. She knew that he would not be in the least vulnerable to a mother’s wiles.
“After the air-gun dart, I administered a counter-sedative so we could have this little tête-à-tête. It’s still in your system. It’ll interfere with the effect of the next sedative I give you for”—he consulted his wristwatch—“about another hour and a half, hour and fifteen minutes. So we’ve got to wait. You follow me?”
“So when we call Tim, I’ll tell him I’ve spirited you away. And I’ll have instructions for him. You’ll play that game. You’re long gone, and you want to come home, and please will he do what the bad Mr. Kessler tells him to do.”
Earlier her cheeks had flushed with anger and humiliation. At last she had paled.
“I can’t do it,” she said.
“Of course you can, dear.”
“You’re a trouper.”
“I can’t put him in that position.”
“Choosing who’s going to die.”
“Are you serious?”
“What a horrible thing for him.”
“I can’t do it.”
“Mary, she’s a skank he met just yesterday.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Just yesterday. You’re his mother. It’s an easy decision for the boy.”
“But he’ll have to live with it. Why should he have to live with a decision like that?”
“What the hell? Are you afraid he’ll choose the skank over you?” Krait asked, and warned himself against the anger that he heard in his voice.
“I know Tim. I know he’ll do what he thinks is right and best. But there’s no right here that doesn’t have a wrong attached to it.”
Krait took a deep breath. He took another. Calm. He needed to remain calm. He stood up. He stretched. He smiled down at Mary.
“And if he chooses me,” she said, “I’ll have to live with that girl on my conscience, won’t I?”
“Well, life sucks, Mary, but most people feel it’s better than death. I don’t feel that way personally. I think all of you would be better off dead, but that’s just me.”
She met his eyes. She looked bewildered.
He picked up the Glock and walked slowly around the table. “Let me explain something, dear. If you can’t do this for me, I’ll kill you and leave you for Walter to find. Do you believe me?”
“And next I’ll go after your boy Zachary. I’ll give Tim that choice—his brother or the skank. Do you believe me?”
She said nothing.
“Do you believe me?”
“If Zachary is stupid enough to have moral reservations, I’ll kill him. Is that what you have, Mary—moral reservations?”
“I just care about my son.”
“After I kill Zachary, I’ll go for his wife. Her name’s Laura, isn’t it?”
Mary finally asked, “Who are you?” by which she meant What are you?
“Robert Kessler. Remember? You can call me Bob. Or Bobby if you want. Just don’t call me Rob. I don’t like the name Rob.”
The woman did not appear any less self-possessed, but the seed of fear in her had bloomed nicely.
“And if Laura has some crazy-assed righteous attitude, if she’s been infected, then I’ll rape her and kill her and move on to Naomi. How old is Naomi?”
Mary did not answer.
“Dear, I know this is difficult, you were just making apple pies and singing old songs and having a nice day, and then this. But tell me how old Naomi is, or I’ll blow your brains out right now.”
“Seven. She’s seven.”
“If I ask a seven-year-old girl to plead with her uncle Tim to save her life, do you think she will? I think she will, Mary. I think she’ll cry and sob and beg, and she’ll break her uncle’s heart. He’ll give up the skank or maybe even kill her himself to get his little niece back safe.”
“All right,” she said.