He was having trouble reading this one, maybe because this was not an ordinary search-and-clear, his mother was in there, his mother and the guy with the hungry eyes, so he had even less room for error than usual.
Heart rapping a little now, still breathing low and slow, hands dry, nice and dry, he was at that cusp where you did or you didn’t, further delay was bad tactics, so he pushed the door open.
He went in low and fast, pistol in a two-hand grip, wishing the gun were bigger, better sized for his hands, and nobody waited for him in the kitchen.
Sweeping with the muzzle left to right, kitchen to family room, he glimpsed syringes on the island and what looked like a hypodermic-dart pistol, and then he saw his mother over the gun sight, sitting at the table, just sitting there at the table, in the coppery light of the chandelier with the circling birds, and she raised her head, only now aware that someone had entered, and what a look she gave him.
Considering that he most likely had come out of a mirror into this world, Krait wondered if he might one day return to his native realm by way of another such portal.
In the master bedroom, he stood before a full-length mirror that was mounted on the inside of the open closet door. He put his right hand upon his reflection, half expecting the silvered surface to quiver and then to relent, offering no more resistance than the surface tension of pooled water.
The glass was cool but firm beneath his hand.
He raised his left hand, as well, and pressed it to the reaching hand of the other Krait who gazed out at him.
Perhaps in the reversed mirror world, time ran backward. Instead of aging, he might grow younger, until he became eighteen, the age at which his memories began. Thereafter, descending into his youth, he might learn where he had come from and of what he had been born.
Eye to eye, he peered down into the darkness of himself, and he liked what he saw.
He thought that he was exerting only a light pressure, but the mirror cracked before him, split top to bottom, though it remained secure within its frame.
The halves of his reflection were now slightly offset from each other, one eye a fraction higher than the other, the nose deformed. One side of the mouth hung askew, as though he had suffered a stroke.
This other Krait, this fractured Krait, disturbed him. This broken, imperfect Krait. This unfamiliar Krait whose smile was not a smile anymore.
He took his hands off the mirror and quickly closed the other Krait in the closet.
Unnerved and not sure why, he calmed himself by opening dresser drawers and examining the contents, learning what he could about the lives of his hosts, seeking secrets that would illuminate.
The door between the kitchen and the downstairs hall stood open, and Pete covered it.
Putting a finger to his lips to signal silence, Tim knelt by his mother and whispered, “Where is he?”
She shook her head. She didn’t know.
When she put her right hand to his face, he kissed it.
A leg of the chair was shackled to a leg of the table. On the chair, a stretcher bar prevented him from slipping off the handcuff. On the table, a large ball-and-claw foot would not allow him to lift the leg out of the other half of the cuffs.
Her left arm was cuffed to the arm of the chair.
These were double-lock cuffs. He might be able to bend a paper clip or something into a pick with which to spring the locks, but he couldn’t do it quickly.
Between the arm and the seat of the pine chair were supporting spindles. The spindle nearest the end of the arm was thicker than the others, but it alone prevented the cuff from being slipped free of the chair.
Although he did not want to leave the hallway unguarded, Tim hissed for Pete’s attention, and gestured for assistance.
Both of them had to put down their guns.
Tim wanted to avoid dragging the chair, the loud stutter of its legs barking against the wood floor.
Pete put one hand on the right arm of the chair, one on the rounded back rail, and bore down with all his weight.
Holding the left arm of the chair with one hand, Tim gripped the forward support spindle. He pushed on the arm and pulled hard on the support, then harder, with all the strength that he could muster.
The spindle was in fact a dowel rod, glued into bores in the seat and in the underside of the arm. In theory, the joints were points of weakness, and the vertical dowel might crack loose from the holes in which it had been fitted.
Tim’s right arm seemed to swell with the effort, and he felt the cords rising and pulling taut in his neck, his pulse throbbing in his temples.
His folks had bought this pine suite at least thirty years ago, in what might as well have been another world from this one, when furniture was made in places like North Carolina and made to last a lifetime.
The threat of the unguarded hallway at his back insisted on his attention, but he had to block it from his mind and focus on the chair, the chair, the too-well-made damn chair.
Sweat popped at his hairline, and the support spindle cracked away from the chair arm with an unavoidable splintering sound that might have carried to the next room but not much farther.
Snatching his pistol off the table, Pete returned to the hallway door.
Tim retrieved the 9-mm, put an arm around his mother, glanced at Pete for an all-clear, and Pete nodded, and Tim guided her across the kitchen to the back door.
Outside, he hurried with her through the bright sun to the walkway that led along the north side of the house.
He whispered, “To the street, turn right—”
“—Pete’s SUV, near the corner—”
“—a woman, a dog, wait with them.”
“But the police—”
“Go,” he insisted.
Another mother might have argued or clutched, but she was his mother. She shot him a fierce look of love and hurried toward the front of the house.
Tim returned to the kitchen, where Pete watched the hallway. He shook his head. The splintering spindle had not betrayed them.
Tim left the back door standing open behind him. If things went wrong more ways than you could ever figure, you wanted to have an easy exit.
Forward from the kitchen, on the left side of the hall, were the dining room, a closet, and then the stairs. On the right were a half bath, a small study, and the living room.
Pete had been here many times since they had grown up fast together in their eighteenth year, since they had come home in their twenty-third. He knew the layout almost as well as Tim knew it.
They stood listening, and the house was full of silence and threat and blind fate, and then together they did what they had done often before, although not recently, went forward quietly into the silence, door by door and room by room, with blood racing and hackles up and their minds as clear as distilled spirits.
Having found nothing enlightening in the dresser drawers, Krait moved toward a promising highboy. Passing a window, he saw Mary on the front lawn.
She ran to the sidewalk, turned right, and fled out of sight, shielded by the street trees. From her left wrist dangled the set of handcuffs.
However she might have gotten free of the chair, she had not engineered her own escape. The fact that no one ran at her side confirmed for Krait the identity of her rescuer. Tim had come home.
Why and how could wait for later. This was not a time for questions but for a final answer to the problem of the mason.
Drawing the Glock from his shoulder rig, Krait quickly crossed the bedroom, hesitated at the open door, and sidled into the upstairs hall.
If Tim had come to the second floor, he would already have found Krait, perhaps would have shot him as he turned away from the window after glimpsing Mary.
Krait could see down the upper flight of stairs to the landing. The lower flight turned out of sight.
Aiming at the landing, he waited for a head to appear, a face to look up and receive a splash of bullets.
Thunders of silence rose from below, the kind of silence that quakes through you and breaks your sweat and promises lightning.
Krait decided that Tim would not come up the stairs without a strategy and proven tactics. He would know the danger of stairwells.
Standing here at the head of the stairs, from what seemed to be an unassailably superior position, Krait sensed that he was also vulnerable. He eased back until he could neither see down the stairs nor be seen from the landing.
He looked along the hall toward the back of the house. Besides the master-bedroom door, five doors waited. One would be a bathroom. Perhaps one was a closet. At most, there were three other bedrooms.
Although Krait had always been a decisive man, he stood for a moment in uncharacteristic indecision.
The silence rose like a drowning flood, though this was only silence, not stillness, for through it moved a predator unique in Krait’s experience.
Tim and Pete, on opposite sides of the downstairs hall, staying out of each other’s forward line of fire, toed open doors that were ajar, cleared the spaces beyond, scanned the dining room from the archway, the living room, and came to the stairs.
If the killer believed he had the house to himself, it seemed that he would not be this quiet. Even if he were playing both sides of a game of chess, a pawn would once in a while clatter as it was set off the board; in a game of solitaire, some cards were laid down with a snap.
They had several sets of tactics for taking a stairwell, though they might have been better armed for this job. No matter how often they had ascended guarded stairs in the past, Tim was not keen to make an assault on these. Here were stairs that felt like a series of dangerous doors.
With gestures, he indicated to Pete a simple plan of action, and a nod confirmed that the message had been understood. Leaving Pete at the stairs, Tim moved toward the back of the house, from which they had just come.
In the master bedroom, Krait unlocked the double-hung window through which he had seen Mary on the run. He raised the lower sash, which squeaked faintly on waxed tracks.
Over the sill, onto the front-porch roof, he expected a hail of bullets in the back. He stepped immediately sideways, out of the window.
Two cars passed in the street, but the drivers didn’t notice a man with a gun on the Carriers’ porch roof.
Krait went to the edge, looked down, and jumped to clear a row of shrubs, and landed in the grass.
In the living room, Pete snared a decorative pillow from the sofa and a larger seat cushion from an armchair. He returned with them to the foot of the stairs.
Glancing back down the hall, he saw that Tim had already gone out the open back door.
The staircase featured an inlaid carpet runner. He wondered how much the treads creaked.
Still no sound came from the second floor. Maybe the guy felt so sure of himself that he was taking a nap. Maybe he had died of the most conveniently timed heart attack in history.
With the pistol in his right hand, the seat cushion under his left arm, and the throw pillow in his left hand, Pete tried the first step. It didn’t squeak, and neither did the second.
The south end of the back porch was enclosed with a trellis that Tim had long ago built with horizontal two-by-fours and vertical two-by-twos. His mother would not have tolerated quaint lattice.
Joseph’s Coat climbing roses were far from their peak growth this early in the season, but they offered enough thorns to make him glad that his hands were well callused.
The horizontals easily took his weight, and the vertical two-by-twos held even though they protested more than he would have liked.
On the roof, he drew the pistol from under his belt and went to the nearest window. Beyond lay his former bedroom, which he still used when he stayed overnight on holidays or when house-sitting.
The room appeared to be deserted.
As a kid, he had spent countless evenings on this porch roof, lying on his back to study the stars. A fiend for fresh air, he had never locked his bedroom window, and maybe fifteen years ago, the latch had corroded in the open position.
On his most recent overnight visit, his father had still not replaced the latch, so of course he expected now, in the crunch, to find that it had been repaired. But Dad respected tradition, and the unlocked sash slid up with ease.
Like a cat burglar, he entered his bedroom. A couple of creaks lived in the floor, but he knew where they lurked, and he avoided them as he circled the room to the hall door, which was ajar.
He listened for movement, and when he heard none, he pulled the door inward and cautiously looked out. He expected to see the killer toward the front of the house, near the stairs, but the hallway was deserted, too.
Pete stopped halfway up the first flight of stairs and waited. When he felt sure that he’d given Tim enough time to reach the second floor, he tossed the decorative pillow onto the landing.
A nervous gunman might fire at any movement, but no one blew the crap out of the pillow.
He counted to five and threw the much larger cushion, because a nervous gunman, not on edge enough to have fired at the small pillow, might expect a subsequent and larger target to be the charge behind the fake-out. Silence. Maybe this guy wasn’t nervous.
Bedroom to bedroom to closet to bedroom to bath, Tim traveled the upstairs hall, clearing rooms, finding no one.
As he approached the master bedroom, he heard the heavy chair cushion flump on the landing. He snatched a decorative pillow from a hallway chair and threw it into the nearby stairwell.
Having worked with Tim enough to be able to interpret the return pillow as an all-clear, Pete came up fast, but quiet and alert, with his pistol at arm’s length, backlit by golden afternoon sunlight streaming through the high round window in the stairwell.
Tim indicated the master bedroom, and they flanked the half-open door, Tim on the side away from the hinges. This was it now, the guy had to be here, so they were in the dead zone.
Push the door wide, through fast, sweep the room with the gun. Move right, Pete to the left, no one on the far side of the bed.
The window open, the draperies limp in the motionless air, not good, the window open, not good, if the guy had been at the window at the wrong moment, when she had crossed the front lawn.
Or it was a ruse. If they went to the window, their backs would be to the master-bathroom door, now ajar, and to the closet door, now closed.
He wanted the window, knew it was the window, but you go by the book for a reason, and the reason is it keeps you alive more often than it gets you killed.
If the guy was gone from the house, hunting her, every second counted, but there were two doors, so the doors first.
Pete took the closet, standing aside, reaching for the knob, throwing it wide, but no fusillade responded. In the closet ceiling, a trap to the attic. Closed as it should be. Anyway, he wouldn’t have gone to the attic.
Tim slammed back the bathroom door, went in fast, small space, just enough light from the curtained window to see there was no one.