Max Archer needed to recharge his cell phone. It was dead and he didn’t give a shit. Kara was dead too and that was all that mattered. The cold and gruesome photos of her crime scene were scattered in front of him on the kitchen table.
On top was a close up of her face. She looked like she’d cried herself to sleep. According to the ME she hadn’t died instantly, so there was a good possibility that she’d lain there with her life draining away for as much as half an hour.
The killer had shot her down and just walked away. At first, looking at that photo had twisted his guts. Now, two months later, he felt like he was with her, comforting her as she died. A jogger had found her while he was cutting through the Temple parking lot and called 911. The ME said she’d been there pretty much all night.
He’d been over all this evidence dozens of times. Nothing new popped out at him. He’d pretty much given up on that. Kara had been murdered by person or persons unknown. That was it. The police thought it was a mugging. Max disagreed.
Eventually he shook himself and shoved all the pictures into a neat pile. The one he left on top was the least bad of all of them. It was just a close up of Kara’s face. You could fool yourself into believing she was just asleep.
Max touched a corner of the photograph. All night alone in the dark.
Max lit a cigarette and put a smoke screen between himself and that pile of photos.
Then he reluctantly plugged in his cell phone and saw he had a voice mail from about an hour ago. Caller id was blocked.
He thumbed the voice mail code and listened. A chill went through him and he played the message again to make sure he heard what he thought he heard.
A robot voice told him someone was going to die.
“We need to hurry, the light is going ...”
Yes, it is, thought Gregory. Yes, Indeed. In Gregory’s plump and middle aged form, death was reaching out his hand for Mr. Matthews. Gregory couldn’t exactly say he enjoyed his work as a killer for hire, but he was good at it and he enjoyed that.
Mellow September sunlight slanted through the trees as Mr. Matthews led Gregory through the garden to his favorite koi pond.
“So have you been in the rare book business for very long?” asked Mr. Matthews. He seemed a little nervous. Gregory had that effect on people, even if they didn’t know how he made his living. Some part of Mr. Matthews’s subconscious may have guessed.
“About ten years,” said Gregory. “It started out as a little hobby and has become a passion.” That was almost true. The IRS had never asked why about half his books sold for exactly $10,000. Mr. Matthews’s niece, Daphne, had bought one of those special books.
“I can understand that. I hired a landscaping company to do something with my big empty lawn and ended up doing a lot of the work myself. Something in the smell of the soil woke me up. Like you, my hobby turned into a passion.” Mr. Matthews smiled briefly to himself as he touched a delicate crape myrtle tree loaded with heavy purple blossoms like a grandfather patting the head of a child. He was a tall and still athletic sixty-ish years old. His tan and his rough hands bespoke how much time he spent working in this garden, the largest private garden in the city.
“I must say you’ve done a beautiful job,” said Gregory. “This is one of the loveliest gardens I’ve ever seen.”
“Thank you!” Mr. Matthews said with a bit of a nervous laugh. “It’s not all my work. I have a very dear friend who helps me.”
Also a nicely secluded garden, Gregory added to himself. A busy street thrummed not fifty yards to the west but here only the sound of the breeze drifted through the rose bushes and rustled the leaves of the Japanese maples.
The path wound through the garden flanked here and there by frothy pink azaleas and the fragrant white stars of nicotiana. The koi pond was worth the walk. It looked like something out of a Japanese woodcut with arching little trees and moss-covered rocks washed with the slanting beams of the setting sun. The water rippled when touched gently from below by silver flashes of feathery fins. The fish watched them curiously, hoping for a handout. Mr. Matthews gestured to the small bench across the path, perfectly positioned to view the scene.
Gregory slapped his wrist. Mr. Matthews jumped slightly and raised an eyebrow.
“Mosquito,” said Gregory.
“Ah,” said Mr. Matthews. He picked a spent bloom from the lantana that sheltered the bench. Gregory slapped Mr. Matthews on the neck, plunging the needle into his flesh.
“Another mosquito,” said Gregory.
Mr. Matthews grinned ruefully. “Feels like it nailed me,” he said.
“Looks like it did,” Gregory said softly.
Mr. Matthews fingered the tiny puncture on his neck. “Yes,” he said “We’ll have to—”
Mr. Matthews collapsed like a discarded puppet.
Gregory caught him and eased him to the ground. The recontin would only last about fifteen minutes, but that would be more than enough time. He dragged Mr. Matthews the few steps across the path and lay him down carefully in position. Then he picked up Mr. Mathews’ head and brought it down hard on the stones. He carefully rolled Mr. Matthews face down in the water. The fish had vanished.
Gregory extracted a button from his pocket and holding it carefully by the edges, he set it on top of a smooth black rock where it glowed like a tiny reflection of the rising moon. Gregory sat back on his heels and inhaled the fragrance of the nicotiana, heavy and sweet on the twilight breeze. He wished he’d brought something to drink. He was suddenly very thirsty. He eyed the pond water but rejected the idea and stood up. It was such a nice evening. Mr. Matthews was lying there so peacefully with his face in his favorite koi pond. A few brave little fish had swum out to examine the new addition to their world. One of them nibbled experimentally on a strand of hair.
Gregory sat down on the bench. No one should die alone.
“It is good to live forever,” said Hart Freeman. “It’s better to live well forever.” He pulled on a white silk shirt from one of the best couture houses in Paris. It had a simple peasant look which is why he bought it. His Rolex was a Cellini Quartz which meant from even a short distance it looked like a Timex from Walmart. The dark garnet prayer beads around his neck were a gift from Steven Segal.
“Are you working on your next book?”
“No, I’m just sayin’,” said Hart. “Mind if I take the last cup of coffee?”
“Go for it.” Chou Seoul sat in front of the dressing table surrounded by bright lights. He plucked a gray hair and applied a little mascara to his black eyebrows and his sparse Fu Manchu mustache. The mustache was as far as he was willing to go with the Chinese stereotype. Hart had wanted him to wear his hair in a long cue but Chou resisted. He knew he had to play the part, but he didn’t want to be mistaken for something out of a Charlie Chan movie.
“Thanks.” The coffee was Kopi Luwak. Considering how it was seasoned, Hart had a lot of trouble drinking his first cup, but that was years ago. Now it was no trouble at all.
“Attendance is down about twenty-five percent,” said Chou. “We need to put on a good show today.”
“I’m not worried,” said Hart.
“Are you nuts? Two murders on the premises in a month? One of them dumped in front of your personal altar? People are whispering shit about ‘negative energy.’”
Hart held the coffee cup in one hand and rubbed a little tightening cream on his crow’s feet. His makeup mirror was next to Chou’s and identical except for being more cluttered. “Get serious. The first one was a random mugging and the law of attraction seems to be taking care of Carolyn.”
“Law of attraction,” snorted Chou. “Blaming the victim. Carolyn didn’t want to die and was willing to shell out big time to prevent it. Now we’re supposed to get people to believe that she willed someone to bash her head in.”
Hart grimaced but covered his expression by draining his cup. He carefully inspected the roots of his beard in the mirror. No hint of gray. “Has anybody argued?” he asked.
“No. Who the hell is going to argue with an ascended master?
“I rest my case.”
“And of course, there are the cops. I don’t like mixing it up with the cops.” Chou studied his forehead in the mirror and considered a little Botox. “And they don’t believe that reporter was killed by a random mugger. They are looking hard at both of us.”
“The cops are an interesting problem.” Hart checked his watch. Almost show time. “Obviously we’re suspects, but neither of us has a motive to want Carolyn dead and every reason to keep her alive and healthy as long as possible.”
“And the reporter?”
Hart shrugged at Chou in the mirror. “Okay, her death was convenient. But there’s nothing to tie us to that one.”
“So far. They haven’t found her files and Emma knows they exist. I’ve gotten a phone call from her almost every day since that reporter’s body turned up in our parking lot.”
“So have I. She’s a pain in the ass just like her dear departed sister.”
“Did you give the police the surveillance tape they subpoenaed?”
“I gave them a surveillance tape.” It was a digital file, of course, but video goes on tape, dammit. “We’ll hear about it if they aren’t satisfied.”
“They’ll put one or both of us in lockup if they aren’t satisfied,” said Chou grimly.
“We have nothing to hide!” said Hart.
Chou regarded his friend. Big, bluff and good looking, Hart had always been the front man, the smooth talker, the distraction. Chou pulled back his sleeve exposing the spring-loaded wires.
“We have everything to hide,” he said.
Moonlight lay gently on the garden where Mr. Matthews had wanted to die.
Gregory enjoyed sitting there on the bench, but he shouldn’t have lingered so long. He had only meant to wait for the shadow of death to come for Mr. Matthews and though he was pretty sure Mr. Matthews had expired a while ago. It was such a nice evening...
Then someone coughed. A little sound. A smoker’s hacking cough. Quickly smothered, it barely rippled the surface of the breathing night.
The garden wasn’t walled or fenced and anyone could walk in. Mr. Matthews had mentioned that he sometimes surprised lovers either strolling along holding hands or more intensely engaged. But it was well after dark and there was no good reason for someone to be here.
No good reason at all. Gregory rose slowly, timing his movements to the gusts of the night breeze. He drifted slowly toward the tree behind the bench, setting each foot down carefully so as to disturb the invisible plants as little as possible. To leave the garden he would have to travel down one of the white gravel paths, bright in the moonlight, or he could stumble through the black underbrush like a blind moose.
Or he could stand behind the bench and wait to be discovered. None of the options appealed to him. He could take the path and run, but he had all the athletic abilities of most short, plump and middle-aged men—none. A child with the flu could catch him or even a man with a smoker’s cough.
Now he could hear the quiet crunch of footsteps on the path and a thin beam probed the garden. It looked like one of those tiny keychain flashlights. Gregory faded deeper into the shadows. A large tree stood behind the bench but not much else. It hadn’t mattered in the daylight. All that had mattered was that this spot was secluded enough to bring a quiet death to someone. Getting caught with the body wasn’t part of the plan, but then when was it ever?
Gregory couldn’t see much of the man as he approached. His light, obscenely bright in the gentle moonlight, was really just a spark unable to push back the night. When the stranger found Mr. Matthews’s body it distracted him enough for Gregory to step behind the tree.
The intruder knelt by the body. “Shit.”
The one bitter word spoke volumes. Gregory peered around the tree, straining to catch a glimpse of the man’s face. It was hopeless. The moonlight revealed a husky man wearing a baseball cap with a 49ers logo on the crown. The tip of his nose was visible and a slice of his chin. Otherwise, he might as well have been wearing a black mask.
The man stood and pulled a gun from what must have been a shoulder holster hidden under his jacket.
“I know you’re still here,” he announced to the open air. “Come on out or I start throwing lead.”
Throwing lead? Gregory tried to think of it as amusing in spite of a sudden chill. The last gun he’d owned was now rotting at the bottom of the San Francisco Bay. He wished he could have it back for just a few minutes. He stooped and groped for something to throw. Naturally, the ground was manicured and all he could find was well-rotted pine needle mulch. He felt around frantically while trying to slowly melt into the bushes. Then his hand landed on a ring of half-bricks around some kind of prickly bush. As quickly as he could, he worked one of them loose.
The man in the baseball cap probed the trees with his flashlight, his gun still in his other hand. Gregory froze and held his breath as the light passed over him. If he hadn’t been stooping he’d have a bullet in him or be on his way to jail, possibly both.
As soon as the light passed on, Gregory stood and threw the brick with all his strength up along the path, hoping desperately that Mr. Gunman would think he was running in that direction. Something cracked in the distance. Had he hit a branch?
The gun blast shattered the still night. The koi pond shivered as a dozen little fish dove for the bottom. Gregory was suddenly so thirsty that he could have drunk the pond down. It sounded like the shot had been aimed about thirty feet to Gregory’s left. The man with the gun ran in that direction.
Gregory imagined a faint police siren in the distance. Then he heard three tiny beeps of a cell phone and the sound of a gruff voice speaking. Though he didn’t catch any of the conversation, he could certainly imagine it. 9-1-1, what’s your emergency, Sir? A dead body.
He quelled a spasm of panic and worked his way as quietly as possible through the bushes. He fought an overwhelming urge to run, but there was no way in all this thicket. And then the siren wasn’t imaginary.
To his credit, he still didn’t run. He lost precious seconds when he smacked into a rose bush and had to disentangle himself from the thorns. By the time he’d freed himself, the police sirens were loud and some of them were cutting off as they arrived. Fortunately, they seemed to be clustered at the front of the house and Gregory was headed for the back of the garden.
He hadn’t wanted to risk his car being seen in Mr. Matthews’s driveway so he’d parked nearby ad told Mr. Matthews he’d taken the bus. He hadn’t expected to need a fast getaway. Now those four blocks seemed like a mile. Ten miles. His heart hammered in his chest and his hands shook. How had this all gone so wrong? Who was that damn man with the gun?
He stumbled onto a path. It lay bright and clear in the moonlight like a river of silver. He never ran. He seldom felt like running. He hadn’t run seriously since he left college. Tonight was a grand exception. He ran and it felt good.
He rounded a bend and the street was visible in the distance. Streetlights, passing cars, lots and lots of places to disappear into. The burst of adrenaline-fueled speed was not going to last long. Already his breath burned in his throat. In a few seconds, it wasn’t going to matter.
What? Was it a cop or the mystery gunman? Gregory resisted the temptation to glance behind him. It didn’t really matter who was back there. “Hey” was bad. His heart thundered in his chest. He stumbled. Sidewalk. Instinctively he turned in the direction of his car, not that he expected to make it that far. He remembered the big church on this side of the street and had a brief irrational thought about sanctuary. A large unlit sign stood out front. That would do. He ran around behind it, tripped over something sticking out of the ground and fell onto the cold damp grass. He lay there sucking air while the dim steeple swam darkly above him. He heard a volley of footsteps and tried to hold his breath. He couldn’t stop panting, but whoever it was, ran on by.
Slowly his heart stopped beating in the scampering rabbit range and slowed to something closer to normal. He pushed himself up onto one elbow and looked around.
A black Crown Victoria cruised by at much less than the traffic speed. Gregory didn’t like that so he eased back down. He was glad he did. Acrid cigarette smoke blew his way and he could hear someone coming along the sidewalk. The mystery gunman had given up and was walking back.
As soon as the footsteps receded, Gregory sat up again. He really didn’t feel like walking yet, but the grass was cold and he needed to get to his car and get the hell out of here. He leaned against the church sign for a couple of minutes. His legs were still shaky. “Hilltop Presbyterian” the sign read. “He died for your sins.”
No, thought Gregory. He died for the insurance money. As he trudged down the sidewalk he thought there was definitely a Starbucks in his future. Their biggest decaf latte. With a shot of chocolate. He was always thirsty after a kill. If he hadn’t lingered with Mr. Matthews he would have been at the Starbucks an hour ago and his late night athletics would have been unnecessary.
He’d barely left the churchyard when the Crown Vic pulled up to the curb. It was the same one he’d seen earlier. He was sure of it. The door opened and a broad-shouldered man stepped out of the car with a gun in his hand.
“Get in,” he said and gestured with the gun barrel. His face was all flat planes and menace. Gregory had never seen him before.
Gregory wondered if he could survive a bullet because he wasn’t sure he would survive a ride in that car.
“What do you want with me?” he said, stalling.
“You’ll find out. Get in.”
“And if I don’t? The police are all over this place. A gunshot would interest them.”
The man’s thin smile sent a cold shiver down Gregory’s spine.
“You’re right,” he said. He parked the gun in a shoulder holster as he walked toward Gregory who edged back. He couldn’t run. He wasn’t sure he could make his legs do it and that gun wasn’t out of reach.
Gregory slipped a couple of fingers into his pants pocket. The big man came instantly alert and put his hand inside his jacket where the gun was holstered. Gregory held up his free hand palm out and pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket. The man relaxed and Gregory mopped his face and neck as he walked toward the car. When he was close, he tripped and fell against the man who caught him with iron-hard hands.
“Watch what the hell you’re doing,” the man snarled and pushed Gregory away.
“Sorry, I’ve had a rough night. Oh my, you’re bleeding.”
The man looked surprised at the scratch on the back of his hand. “Get in the car now or you’ll be riding in the trunk.”
Gregory decided the passenger seat would be more comfortable.