The water gushed skyward under great pressure and crashed back to the pavement in such noisy cascades that a police siren might not be audible until the squad car had closed to within half a block of the scene.
Splashing through torrents of foaming water, Tim hurried to the Explorer.
He put the pistol on the passenger’s seat. According to Linda, it held an eight-round magazine. He had fired five.
Not only boldness is required for the successful implementation of any strategy, but also calculated and economical action.
As Tim drove to the nearby intersection, he saw the Chevy trying to reverse off the lawn. The rear wheels spit out a spray of sod and mud and white rose petals, and the car seemed to have trouble gaining traction.
With at least one blown tire and untold other damage, the Chevy was in no condition to mount an effective pursuit.
In addition to calculated and economical action, however, a wise man expects the unexpected.
Instead of crossing the intersection in full sight of Kravet and heading south, where Linda waited, Tim swung left. He switched on the headlights and sped east two blocks, rounded a gradual curve that put him beyond Kravet’s view, and only then turned right on a cross street.
He kept glancing at the rearview mirror, and he was alert, but his mind repeatedly went back to the gunfire, to the five crisp shots.
The pistol had a slick double-action trigger pull that felt like it broke at just about seven pounds.
The recoil-spring weight seemed to be about sixteen pounds, good enough for standard-pressure ammo.
The piece had felt remarkably comfortable in his grip.
He didn’t know what to think about that.
He told himself that not just any gun would have served him so agreeably, that the credit belonged entirely to this fine compact weapon, but he knew that he was lying to himself.
Walking to the rear of the coffee shop, Linda glanced back just once and saw the front door closing behind Tim after he had stepped out into the night.
Although she had known him only a few hours, the thought of never seeing him again pinched off her breath.
He had chosen to help her when he could have left her to the wolves. She had no reason to expect that he would choose to leave her life as unexpectedly as he had entered.
No reason except experience. Sooner or later, everyone walked out. Or they fell through a crack in the floor. Or they were pulled screaming down into the crack, unable to hold fast, gone.
Given enough time, you could convince yourself that loneliness was something better, that it was solitude, the ideal condition for reflection, even a kind of freedom.
Once you were thus convinced, you were foolish to open the door and let anyone in, not all the way in. You risked the hard-won equilibrium, the tranquility that you called peace.
She didn’t think he would get himself shot, not here tonight, not when his guard was up. He had a way about him that suggested he knew things, that he was not a man who would be killed easily.
Nevertheless, she was prepared to walk to the end of the alley and wait, and wait, and never see him again.
As she reached the door to the kitchen, it opened toward her. A waitress came out, balancing on one arm a tray of food-laden dishes.
“Kitchen, honey,” she advised Linda. “Employees only.”
“Sorry. I was looking for the restroom.”
“There you go,” said the waitress, indicating a door to the right.
Linda stepped into a lavatory that smelled of pine disinfectant and wet paper towels. She waited a moment, left the room, and went into the kitchen, where the smells were markedly better.
Past ovens, past a long cooktop, past deep fryers full of hot oil, smiling at a short-order cook, nodding at another, she traversed two-thirds of the kitchen before a man with large ear lobes rounded a tall storage rack and almost collided with her.
She would not have noticed the size of his lobes if he had not worn studs: a tiny silver rose in the left, a ruby in the right.
Otherwise, he looked like a bodybuilder with a soap obsession and exhaustive knowledge of every detail of every Quentin Tarantino movie: pumped, scrubbed, and nerdy. Pinned to his white shirt, a name tag declared DENNIS JOLLY/NIGHT MANAGER.
“What’re you doing here?” he asked.
Because he blocked the narrow aisle and she could not slip past him, she said, “I’m looking for the back door.”
“Only employees are allowed here.”
“Yes, I understand. Sorry for the intrusion. I’ll just use the back door and be gone.”
“I can’t allow you to do that, ma’am. You’ll have to leave the kitchen.”
In spite of the earrings and his red necktie, he managed to appear solemn and mantled in authority.
She said, “That’s what I want to do. I want to leave the kitchen by the back door.”
“Ma’am, you’ll have to leave the way you came in.”
“But the back door is closer. If I go out the way I came in, I’ll be in the kitchen longer than if I just use the back door.”
By now, Tim might have driven out of the parking lot. If Kravet didn’t follow the Explorer, if he came into the coffee shop looking for Linda, she needed to be gone.
The manager said, “If you don’t have money to pay your check, we won’t make an issue of it.”
“My date is paying the check. He thinks I’m in the ladies’ room. I don’t want to leave with him. I want to leave on my own.”
Dennis Jolly’s scrubbed-pink face paled, and his dishwater eyes widened with alarm. “Is he violent? I don’t want him back here, angry and looking for you.”
“Look at you. You’re way pumped. You could handle anyone.”
“Count me out. What do I need to handle anyone for?”
She changed tack. “Anyway, he’s not violent. He’s just a creep. He’s all hands. I don’t want to get in his car again. Just let me out the back door.”
“If he comes back here and you’re not here, then he’s going to be pissed at us. You have to leave the way you came in.”
“What is wrong with you?” she demanded.
“So he’s all hands,” said Dennis Jolly. “If he’s not violent, he’s just all hands, you let him drive you home, he cops a few feels, gets some boob, it’s nothing.”
“It’s not nothing.”
She glanced back through the kitchen. No sign of Kravet.
If she didn’t get out of here soon, she would not be waiting for Tim when he drove up at the end of the alley.
“It’s not nothing,” she repeated.
“When he gets you home, you can cut him off at the knees there, then he’s not pissed at us.”
She closed the one step between them, shoved her face close to his, seized him by the belt, and in maybe one second flat, slipped the tip out of the keeper loop—
—yanked the prong out of the punch hole, and freed the belt from the buckle.
Slapping ineffectively at her hands, he said, “Stop, what the hell you doing, hey!”
He backed off, but she stepped aggressively into him, found the tab on his zipper and yanked his fly open.
“No, hey, hey.”
Linda stayed in his face as he stumbled backward, pressing him along the narrow aisle, clawing at his hand as he tried to close his zipper.
“So what’s the problem?” she demanded, spraying spittle with the p in problem. “All I want to do is cop a little feel. You shy, Denny? It’s just a little feel. It’s nothing. I’m sure it’s nothing. I’m sure it’ll be a very little feel. Are you afraid I won’t even be able to find it, Denny?”
The night manager knocked against a prep table, and a stack of dishes slid to the floor, shattering with the hard clatter of thick cheap china.
Prying at his protecting hand, trying to get in his pants, she said, “Has anyone ever tied it in a knot for you, Denny? You’ll like that. Let me tie it in a knot for you.”
Red-faced, sputtering, frantically back-pedaling, his super-buffed physique working against him—too much bull wedged in the confines of a rodeo corral—he tripped himself and fell.
Resisting the urge to give Mr. Jolly a cheerful kick, Linda stepped between his splayed legs, then over him, and hurried toward the end of the kitchen.
“You crazy bitch!” he shouted in the breaking voice of a squeaky adolescent.
Three doors faced a vestibule, and logic suggested the one in the back wall would be the exit. Instead, beyond lay a refrigerated food locker.
The door to the left revealed a small, cluttered office. The one to the right opened onto a janitorial closet with sink.
Realizing her mistake, she returned to the first door, yanked it open, and entered the food locker, which proved to be a refrigerated receiving room. A door at the farther end gave access to the alley.
A pair of big Dumpsters flanked the back entrance. They didn’t smell as good as the bacon, burgers, and buttered muffins.
Here and there, a caged security light above a door poured a puddle of light on the pavement, but for most of its length, the alleyway funneled through deep shadows and seemed to be a gauntlet of threats.
Rattled by the encounter in the kitchen, she hurried half a dozen steps before she realized that she had gone left instead of right. She turned toward the farther end of the alley.
As she was passing the door to the coffee-shop kitchen, she heard a car pull in from the nearer street, behind her.
Cluttered with Dumpsters, the service passage could accommodate only one vehicle. She stepped out of the way, figuring to let the car pass.
The engine didn’t sound right, riddled with knocks and pings, and the engine wasn’t the worst of it.
She looked back and saw a car with a single headlight, canted to port because one or both of the driver’s-side tires were blown. Shredded rubber flapped, a steel wheel rim rasped on blacktop, the chassis bounced on shot springs, and something—maybe a muffler—dragged on the pavement, spawning flurries of sparks that flew like fireflies from under the vehicle.
In the fall of light from a security lamp, she recognized the white Chevrolet sedan.
How Tim had done this, she didn’t know, but she knew that he had done it. He thought that he had left the Chevy totally disabled, but lame and spavined life remained in the old plug.
Kravet had tumbled to the trick. He knew she had gone out the back of the coffee shop. He had come for her.
As she turned toward the kitchen entrance, Dennis Jolly flung the door open, his thick neck swollen thicker with indignation, tiny jewelry gleaming in his big ear lobes.
If she tried to return to the restaurant, he would block her, and he might even hamper her here with the intention of giving her a piece of his mind.
“If he sees you,” she warned, “he’ll blow your brains out.”
Her tone of voice, Jolly’s high regard for his own skin, and the hellish clatter of the Chevrolet convinced the night manager to retreat an instant after he appeared.
Like the pale horse of the Apocalypse, the sedan roared and lunged, spitting sparks, and Linda ran.
Shoulder-slung purse pinned to her side with her right arm, left arm pumping rhythmically as if to pull her forward, Linda ran.
Couldn’t have outrun a car in good repair. Might have a chance against the crippled Chevy. Anyway, no option.
Try the back door at one of the businesses along the alleyway? Most were shops. Offices. Here a dry cleaner. There a nail salon. Closed at this hour. But a restaurant and a couple of bars were still open at ten till eleven.
If she dodged into a place where people were gathered, Kravet wouldn’t come in after her, wouldn’t kill everyone in a barroom just to get her. Too risky. Bartender might have a gun. A customer might be armed. Security video might record the whole thing. Kravet would back off, wait.
Should she stop, however, and find a door locked, she’d be dead. The sedan so close behind. No margin for error. She’d be run down, smeared along a building wall.
Judging by the sound of it, the Chevy was gaining on her. She’d had a thirty-foot lead, now twenty at most.
The south end of the alley remained a perilous sprint away, and her legs felt heavy, clumsy. She regretted the bacon cheeseburger.
Crushed underfoot, an empty soda can clamped to her shoe for one step, two, three, breaking her gait, then scraped loose and clattered away.
A cacophony of self-dismantling Chevrolet swelled behind her, and she expected to feel the twisted front bumper nudge the backs of her legs. When the noise seemed as loud as it could possibly get, the tumult abruptly cranked tremendously louder with a ripping shriek of metal clawing metal. Maybe the car sideswiped one of the Dumpsters.
As if the blast of sound blew her forward, her pumping legs felt lighter, and her feet seemed to be winged.
Even as the noise soared in volume, its proximity declined, and she realized that she had smelled the overheated engine for a moment, smoking oil like dragon’s breath at her back, but smelled it no longer.
Daring to glance over her shoulder as she ran, she saw the sedan had sideswiped a Dumpster, had become locked to it. Kravet tried to accelerate out of the hang-up, but the metal wheels of the big trash bin gouged the blacktop. Dragged along a building, hinged lid banging up and down like a crocodile’s mouth, the Dumpster cast out a jetsam of half-digested trash, shaved off showers of stucco, ripped loose a door frame.
Racing ahead, leaving the car behind, she was safer with every step, or so she told herself. Out of the alley, into a new street, she almost blundered in front of a hurtling car in the nearest of the two westbound lanes.
She looked east, desperate to spot the Explorer, but it didn’t appear in the sparse flow of oncoming traffic.
Behind her, in the alley, the boom-bang-shriek of destruction fell suddenly silent. Kravet had given up on the sedan.
He would be coming now on foot. He would have a weapon. He would shoot her in the back.
Staying close to the curb, Linda ran east in the street, hoping to see the Explorer appear ahead of her.
Krait almost drove her down, but then the Dumpster.
A lesser man, whose emotions were not exquisitely balanced by his intellect, might have succumbed to rage. In fury, he might have shot at the woman through the windshield, although angle of fire and distance allowed little hope of a mortal hit.
If Krait had not been made for this work, he had nonetheless fallen to it as naturally as an acorn falls from branch to forest floor. No lesser man could have been as successful at the job as Krait had long proved to be, and he did not believe that any man existed who was his equal at it.
Indeed, moments arose when he wondered if he was a man at all, for he could honestly say, based strictly on rational analysis and logic, applying fair and sincere standards of judgment, that he was apart from humanity and superior to it.