DARK RIVERS OF THE HEART excerpt
With the woman on his mind and a deep uneasiness in his heart, Spencer Grant drove through the glistening night, searching for the red door. The vigilant dog sat silently beside him. Rain ticked on the roof of the truck.
Without thunder or lightning, without wind, the storm had come in from the Pacific at the end of a somber February twilight. More than a drizzle but less than a downpour, it sluiced all the energy out of the city. Los Angeles and environs became a metropolis without sharp edges, urgency, or spirit. Buildings blurred into one another, traffic flowed sluggishly, and streets deliquesced into gray mists.
In Santa Monica, with the beaches and the black ocean to his right, Spencer stopped at a traffic light.
Rocky, a mixed breed not quite as large as a Labrador, studied the road ahead with interest. When they were in the truck—a Ford Explorer—Rocky sometimes peered out the side windows at the passing scene, though he was more interested in what lay before them.
Even when he was riding in the cargo area behind the front seats, the mutt rarely glanced out the rear window. He was skittish about watching the scenery recede. Maybe the motion made him dizzy in a way that oncoming scenery did not.
Or perhaps Rocky associated the dwindling highway behind them with the past. He had good reason not to dwell on the past.
So did Spencer.
Waiting for the traffic signal, he raised one hand to his face. He had a habit of meditatively stroking his scar when troubled, as another man might finger a strand of worry beads. The feel of it soothed him, perhaps because it was a reminder that he’d survived the worst terror he would ever know, that life could have no more surprises dark enough to destroy him.
The scar defined Spencer. He was a damaged man.
Pale, slightly glossy, extending from his right ear to his chin, the mark varied between one quarter and one half an inch in width. Extremes of cold and heat bleached it whiter than usual. In wintry air, though the thin ribbon of connective tissue contained no nerve endings, it felt like a hot wire laid on his face. In summer sun, the scar was cold.
The traffic signal changed from red to green.
The dog stretched his furry head forward in anticipation.
Spencer drove slowly southward along the dark coast, both hands on the wheel again. He nervously searched for the red door on the eastern side of the street, among the many shops and restaurants.
Though no longer touched the fault line in his face, he remained conscious of it. He was never unaware that he was branded. If he smiled or frowned, he would feel the scar cinching one half of his countenance. If he laughed, his amusement would be tempered by the tension in that inelastic tissue.
The metronomic windshield wipers timed the rhythm of the rain.
Spencer’s mouth was dry, but the palms of his hands were camp. The tightness in his chest arose as much from anxiety as from the pleasant anticipation of seeing Valerie again.
He was of half a mind to go home. The new hope he harbored was surely the emotional equivalent of fool’s gold. He was alone, and he was always going to be alone, except for Rocky. He was ashamed of this fresh glimmer of optimism, of the naivete it revealed, the secret need, the quiet desperation. But he kept driving.
Ricky couldn’t know what they were searching for, but he chuffed softly when the red landmark appeared. No doubt he was responding to a subtle change in Spencer’s mood at the sight of the door.
The cocktail lounge was between a Thai restaurant with steam-streaked windows and an empty storefront that had once been an art gallery. The windows of the gallery were boarded over, and squares of travertine were missing from the once elegant facade, as if the enterprise had not merely failed but been bombed out of business. Through the silver rain, a downfall of light at the lounge entrance revealed the red door that he remembered from the previous night.
Spencer hadn’t been able to recall the name of the place. That lapse of memory now seemed willful, considering the scarlet neon above the entrance: THE RED DOOR. A humorless laugh escaped him.
After haunting so many barrooms over the years, he had ceased to notice enough differences, one from another, to be able to attach names to them. In scores of towns, those countless taverns were, in their essence, the same church confessional; sitting on a barstool instead of kneeling on a prie-dieu, he murmured the same admissions to strangers who were not priests and could not give him absolution.
His confessors were drunkards, spiritual guides as lost as he was. They could never tell him the appropriate penance he must do to find peace. Discussing the meaning of life, they were incoherent.
Unlike those strangers to whom he often quietly revealed his soul, Spencer had never been drunk. Inebriation was as dreadful for him to contemplate as was suicide. To be drunk was to relinquish control. Intolerable. Control was the only thing he had.
At the end of the block, Spencer turned left and parked on the secondary street.
He went to bars not to drink but to avoid being alone—and to tell his story to someone who would not remember it in the morning. He often nursed a beer or two through a long evening. Later, in his bedroom, after staring toward the hidden heavens, he would finally close his eyes only when the patterns of shadows on the ceiling inevitably reminded him of things he preferred to forget.
When he switched off the engine, the rain drummed louder than before—a cold sound, as chilling as the voices of dead children that sometimes called him with wordless urgency in his worst dreams.
The yellowish glow of a nearby streetlamp bathed the interior of the truck, so Rocky was clearly visible. His large and expressive eyes solemnly regarded Spencer.
“Maybe this is a bad idea,” Spencer said.
The dog craned his head forward to lick his master’s right hand, which was still clenched around the wheel. He seemed to be saying that Spencer should relax and just do what he had come there to do.
As Spencer moved his hand to pet the mutt, Rocky bowed his head, not to make the backs of his ears or his neck more accessible to stroking fingers, but to indicate that he was subservient and harmless.
“How long have we been together?” Spencer asked the dog.
Rocky kept his head down, huddling warily but not actually trembling under his master’s gentle hand.
“Almost two years,” Spencer said, answering his own question. “Two years of kindness, long walks, chasing Frisbees on the beach, regular meals . . . and still sometimes you think I’m going to hit you.”
Ricky remained in a humble posture on the passenger seat.
Spencer slipped one hand under the dog’s chin, forced his head up. After briefly trying to pull away, Rocky ceased all resistance.
When they were eye-to-eye, Spencer said, “Do you trust me?”
The dog self-consciously looked away, down and to the left.
Spencer shook the mutt gently by the muzzle, commanding his attention again. “We keep our heads up, okay? Always proud, okay? Confident. Keep our heads up, look people in the eye. You got that?”
Rocky slipped his tongue between his half-clenched teeth and licked the fingers with which Spender was gripping his muzzle.
“I’ll interpret that as ‘yes.'” He let go of the dog. “This cocktail lounge isn’t a place I can take you. No offense.”
In certain taverns, though Rocky was not a guide dog, he could lie at Spencer’s feet, even sit on a stool, and no one would object to the violation of health laws. Usually a dog was the least of the infractions for which the joint would be cited if a city inspector happened to visit. The Red Door, however, still had pretensions to class, and Rocky wouldn’t be welcome.
Spencer got out of the truck, slammed the door. He engaged the locks and security system with the remote control on his key chain.
He could not count on Rocky to protect the Explorer. This was one dog who would never scare off a determined car thief—unless the would-be thief suffered an extreme phobic aversion to having his hand licked.
After sprinting through the cold rain to the shelter of an awning that skirted the corner building, Spencer paused to look back.
Having moved onto the driver’s seat, the dog stared out, nose pressed to the side window, one ear pricked, one ear dropping. His breath was fogging the glass, but he wasn’t barking. Rocky never barked. He just stared, waited. He was seventy pounds of pure love and patience.
Spencer turned away from the truck and the side street, rounded the corner, and hunched his shoulders against the chilly air.
Judging by the liquid sounds of the night, the coast and all the works of civilization that stood upon it might have been merely ramparts of ice melting into the black Pacific maw. Rain drizzled off the awning, gurgled in gutters, and splashed beneath the tires of passing cars. At the threshold of audibility, more sensed than heard, the ceaseless rumble of surf announced the steady erosion of beaches and bluffs.
As Spencer was passing the boarded-up art gallery, someone spoke from the shadows in the deeply recessed entrance. The voice was as dry as the night was damp, hoarse and grating: “I know what you are.”
Halting, Spencer squinted into the gloom. A man sat in the entryway, legs splayed, back against the gallery door. Unwashed and unbarbered, he seemed less a man than a heap of black rags saturated with so much organic filth that malignant life had arisen in it by spontaneous generation.
“I know what you are,” the vagrant repeated softly but clearly.
A miasma of body odor and urine and the fumes of cheap wine rose out of the doorway.
The number of shambling, drug-addicted, psychotic denizens of the streets had increased steadily since the late seventies, when most of the mentally ill had been freed from sanitariums in the name of civil liberties and compassion. They roamed America’s cities, championed by politicians but untended, an army of the living dead.
The penetrating whisper was as desiccated and eerie as the voice of a reanimated mummy. “I know what you are.”
The prudent response was to keep moving.
The paleness of the vagrant’s face, above the beard and below the tangled hair, became dimly visible in the gloom. His sunken eyes were as bottomless as abandoned wells. “I know what you are.”
“Nobody knows,” Spencer said.
Sliding the fingertips of his right hand along his scar, he walked past the shuttered gallery and the ruined man.
“Nobody knows,” whispered the vagrant. Perhaps his commentary on passersby, which at first had seemed eerily perceptive, even portentous, was nothing more than mindless repetition of the last thing he had heard from the most recent scornful citizen to reply to him. “Nobody knows.”
Spencer stopped in front of the cocktail lounge. Was he making a dreadful mistake? He hesitated with his hand on the red door.
Once more the hobo spoke from the shadows. Through the sizzle of the rain, his admonition now had the haunting quality of a static-shredded voice on the radio, speaking from a distant station in some far corner of the world. “Nobody knows . . .”
Spencer opened the red door and went inside.
On a Wednesday night, no host was at the reservations podium in the vestibule. Maybe there wasn’t a front man on Fridays and Saturdays, either. The joint wasn’t exactly jumping.
The warm air was stale and filigreed with blue cigarette smoke. In the far left corner of the rectangular main room, a piano player under a spotlight worked through a spiritless rendition of “Tangerine.”
Decorated in black and gray and polished steel, with mirrored walls, with Art Deco fixtures that cast overlapping rings of moody sapphire-blue light on the ceiling, the lounge once had recaptured a lost age with style. Now the upholstery was scuffed, the mirrors streaked. The steel was dull under a residue of old smoke.
Most tables were empty. A few older couples sat near the piano.
Spencer went to the bar, which was to the right, and settled on the stool at the end, as far from the musician as he could get.
The bartender had thinning hair, a sallow complexion, and watery gray eyes. His practiced politeness and pale smile couldn’t conceal his boredom. He functioned with robotic efficiency and detachment, discouraging conversation by never making eye contact.
Two fiftyish men in suits sat farther along the bar, each alone, each frowning at his drink. Their shirt collars were unbuttoned, ties askew. They looked dazed, glum, as if they were advertising-agency executives who had been pink-slipped ten years ago but still got up every morning and dressed for success because they didn’t know what else to do; maybe they came to The Red Door because it had been where they’d unwound after work, in the days when they’d still had hope.
The only waitress serving the tables was strikingly beautiful, half Vietnamese and half black. She wore the costume that she—and Valerie—had worn the previous evening: black heels, short black skirt, short-sleeved black sweater. Valerie had called her Rosie.
After fifteen minutes, Spencer stopped Rosie when she passed nearby with a tray of drinks. “Is Valerie working tonight?”
“Supposed to be,” she said.
He was relieved. Valerie hadn’t lied. He had thought perhaps she’d misled him, as a gentle way of brushing him off.
“I’m kinda worried about her,” Rosie said.
“Well, the shift started an hour ago.” Her gaze kept straying to his scar. “She hasn’t called in.”
“She’s not often late?”
“Val? Not her. She’s organized.”
“How long has she worked here?”
“About two months. She . . .” The woman shifted her gaze from the scar to his eyes. “Are you a friend of hers or something?”
“I was here last night. This same stool. Things were slow, so Valerie and I talked awhile.”
“Yeah, I remember you,” Rosie said, and it was obvious that she couldn’t understand why Valerie had spent time with him.
He didn’t look like any woman’s dream man. He wore running shoes, jeans, a work shirt, and a denim jacket purchased at Kmart—essentially the same outfit that he’d worn on his first visit. No jewelry. His watch was a Timex. And the scar, of course. Always the scar.
“Called her place,” Rosie said. “No answer. I’m worried.”
“An hour late, that’s not so much. Could’ve had a flat tire.”
“In this city,” Rosie said, her face hardening with anger that aged her ten years in an instant, “she could’ve been gang-raped, stabbed by some twelve-year-old punk wrecked on crack, maybe even shot dead by a carjacker in her own driveway.”
“You’re a real optimist, huh?”
“I watch the news.”
She carried the drinks to a table at which sat two older couples whose expressions were more sour than celebratory. Having missed the new Puritanism that had captured many Californians, they were puffing furiously on cigarettes. They appeared to be afraid that the recent total ban on smoking in restaurants might be extended tonight to barrooms and homes, and that each cigarette might be their last.
While the piano player clinked through “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” Spencer took two small sips of beer.
Judging by the palpable melancholy of the patrons in the bar, it might actually have been June 1940, with German tanks rolling down the Champs-Éysées, and with omens of doom blazing in the night sky.
A few minutes later, the waitress approached Spencer again. “I guess I sounded a little paranoid,” she said.
“Not at all. I watch the news too.”
“It’s just that Valerie is so . . .”
“Special,” Spencer said, finishing her thought so accurately that she stared at him with a mixture of surprise and vague alarm, as if she suspected that he had actually read her mind.
“Yeah. Special. You can know her only a week, and . . . well, you want her to be happy. You want good things to happen to her.”
It doesn’t take a week, Spencer thought. One evening.
Rosie said, “Maybe because there’s this hurt in her. She’s been hurt a lot.”
“How?” he asked. “Who?”
She shrugged. “It’s nothing I know, nothing she ever said. You just feel it about her.”
He also had sensed a vulnerability in Valerie.
“But she’s tough too,” Rosie said. “Gee, I don’t know why I’m so jumpy about this. It’s not like I’m her big sister. Anyway, everyone’s got a right to be late now and then.”
The waitress turned away, and Spencer sipped his warm beer.
The piano player launched into “It Was a Very Good Year,” which Spencer disliked even when Sinatra sang it, though he was a Sinatra fan. He knew the song was intended to be reflective in tone, even mildly pensive; however, it seemed terribly sad to him, not the sweet wistfulness of an older man reminiscing about the women he had loved, but the grim ballad of someone at the bitter end of his days, looking back on a barren life devoid of deep relationships.
He supposed that his interpretation of the lyrics was an expression of his fear that decades hence, when his own life burned out, he would fade away in loneliness and remorse.
He checked his watch. Valerie was now an hour and a half late.
The waitress’s uneasiness had infected him. An insistent image rose in his mind’s eye: Valerie’s face, half concealed by a spill of dark hair and a delicate scrollwork of blood, one cheek pressed against the floor, eyes wide and unblinking. He knew his concern was irrational. She was merely late for work. There was nothing ominous about that. Yet, minute by minute, his apprehension deepened.
He put his unfinished beer on the bar, got off the stool, and walked through the blue light to the red door and into the chilly night, where the sound of marching armies was only the rain beating on the canvas awnings.
As he passed the art gallery doorway, he heard the shadow-wrapped vagrant weeping softly. He paused, affected.
Between strangled sounds of grief, the half-seen stranger whispered the last thing Spencer had said to him earlier: “Nobody knows . . . nobody knows. . . .” That short declaration evidently had acquired a personal and profound meaning for him, because he spoke the two words not in the tone in which Spencer had spoken but with quiet, intense anguish. “Nobody knows.”
Though Spencer knew that he was a fool for funding the wretch’s further self-destruction, he fished a crisp ten-dollar bill from his wallet. He leaned into the gloomy entryway, into the fetid stink that the hobo exuded, and held out the money. “Here, take this.”
The hand that rose to the offering was either clad in a dark glove or exceedingly filthy; it was barely discernible in the shadows. As the bill was plucked out of Spencer’s fingers, the vagrant keened thinly: “Nobody . . . nobody. . . .”
“You’ll be all right,” Spencer said sympathetically. “It’s only life. We all get through it.”
“It’s only life, we all get through it,” the vagrant whispered.
Plagued once more by the mental image of Valerie’s dead face, Spencer hurried to the corner, into the rain, to the Explorer.
Through the side window, Rocky watched him approaching. As Spencer opened the door, the dog retreated to the passenger seat.
Spencer got in the truck and pulled the door shut, bringing with him the smell of damp denim and the ozone odor of the storm. “You miss me, killer?”
Rocky shifted his weight from side to side a couple of times, and he tried to wag his tail even while sitting on it.
As he started the engine, Spencer said, “You’ll be pleased to hear that I didn’t make an ass of myself in there.”
The dog sneezed.
“But only because she didn’t show up.”
The dog cocked his head curiously.
Putting the car in gear, popping the hand brake, Spencer said, “So instead of quitting and going home while I’m ahead of the game, what do you think I’m going to do no? Hmmm?”
Apparently the dog didn’t have a clue.
“I’m going to poke in where it’s none of my business, give myself a second chance to screw up. Tell me straight, pal, do you think I’ve lost my mind?”
Rocky merely panted.
Pulling the truck away from the curb, Spencer said, “Yeah, you’re right. I’m a basket case.”
He headed directly for Valerie’s house. She lived ten minutes from the bar.
The previous night, he had waited with Rocky in the Explorer, outside The Red Door, until two o’clock in the morning, and had followed Valerie when she drove home shortly after closing time. Because of his surveillance training, he knew how to tail a subject discreetly. He was confident that she hadn’t spotted him.
He was not equally confident, however, about his ability to explain to her—or to himself—why he had followed her. After one evening of conversation with her, periodically interrupted by her attention to the few customers in the nearly deserted lounge, Spencer was overcome by the desire to know everything about her. Everything.
In fact, it was more than a desire. It was a need, and he was compelled to satisfy it.
Although his intentions were innocent, he was mildly ashamed of his budding obsession. The night before, he had sat in the Explorer, across the street from her house, staring at her lighted windows; all were covered with translucent drapes, and on one occasion her shadow played briefly across the folds of cloth, like a spirit glimpsed in candlelight at a séance. Shortly before three-thirty in the morning, the last light went out. While Rocky lay curled in sleep on the backseat, Spencer had remained on watch another hour, gazing at the dark house, wondering what books Valerie read, what she enjoyed doing on her days off, what her parents were like, where she had lived as a child, what she dreamed about when she was contented, and what shape her nightmares took when she was disturbed.
Now, less than twenty-four hours later, he headed to her place again, with a fine-grain anxiety abrading his nerves. She was late for work. Just late. His excessive concern told him more than he cared to know about the inappropriate intensity of his interest in this woman.
Traffic thinned as he drove farther from Ocean Avenue into residential neighborhoods. The languorous, liquid glimmer of wet blacktop fostered a false impression of movement, as if every street might be a lazy river easing toward its own far delta.
Valerie Keene lived in a quiet neighborhood of stucco and clapboard bungalows built in the late forties. Those two- and three-bedroom homes offered more charm than space: trellised front porches, from which hung great capes of bougainvillea; decorative shutters flanking windows; interestingly scalloped or molded or carved fascia boards under the eaves; fanciful rooflines; deeply recessed dormers.
Because Spencer didn’t want to draw attention to himself, he drove past the woman’s place without slowing. He glanced casually to the right, toward her dark bungalow on the south side of the block. Rocky mimicked him, but the dog seemed to find nothing more alarming about the house than did his master.
At the end of the block, Spencer turned right and drove south. The next few streets to the right were cul-de-sacs. He passed them by. He didn’t want to park on a dead-end street. That was a trap. At the next main avenue, he hung a right again and parked at the curb in a neighborhood similar to the one in which Valerie lived. He turned off the thumping windshield wipers but not the engine.
He still hoped that he might regain his senses, put the truck in gear, and go home.
Rocky looked at him expectantly. One ear up. One ear down.
“I’m not in control,” Spencer said, as much to himself as to the curious dog. “And I don’t know why.”
Rain sluiced down the windshield. Through the film of rippling water, the streetlights shimmered.
He sighed and switched off the engine.
When he’d left home, he’d forgotten an umbrella. The short dash to and from The Red Door had left him slightly damp, but the longer walk back to Valerie’s house would leave him soaked.
He was not sure why he hadn’t parked in front of her place. Training, perhaps. Instinct. Paranoia. Maybe all three.
Leaning past Rocky and enduring a warm, affectionate tongue in his ear, Spencer retrieved a flashlight from the glove compartment and tucked it in a pocket of his jacket.
“Anybody messes with the truck,” he said to the dog, “you rip the bastard’s guts out.”
As Rocky yawned, Spencer got out of the Explorer. He locked it with the remote control as he walked away and turned north at the corner. He didn’t bother running. Regardless of his pace, he would be soaked before he reached the bungalow.
The north-south street was lined with jacarandas. They would have provided little cover even when fully dressed with leaves and cascades of purple blossoms. Now, in winter, the branches were bare.
Spencer was sodden by the time he reached Valerie’s street, where the jacarandas gave way to huge Indian laurels. The aggressive roots of the trees had cracked and canted the sidewalk; however, the canopy of branches and generous foliage held back the cold rain.
The big trees also prevented most of the yellowish light of the sodium-vapor streetlamps from reaching even the front lawns of the properties along that cloistered avenue. The trees and shrubs around the houses also were mature; some were overgrown. If any residents were looking out windows, they would most likely be unable to see him through the screen of greenery, on the deeply shadowed sidewalk.
As he walked, he scanned the vehicles parked along the street. As far as he could tell, no one was sitting in any of them.
A Mayflower moving van was parked across the street from Valerie’s bungalow. That was convenient for Spencer, because the large truck blocked those neighbors’ view. No men were working at the van; the move-in or move-out must be scheduled for the morning.
Spencer followed the front walkway and climbed three steps to the porch. The trellises at both ends supported not bougainvillea but night-blooming jasmine. Though it wasn’t at its seasonal peak, the jasmine sweetened the air with its singular fragrance.
The shadows on the porch were deep. He doubted that he could even be seen from the street.
In the gloom, he had to feel along the door frame to find the button. He could hear the doorbell ringing softly inside the house.
He waited. No lights came on.
The flesh creped on the back of his neck, and he sensed that he was being watched.
Two windows flanked the front door and looked onto the porch. As far as he could discern, the dimly visible folds of the draperies on the other side of the glass were without any gaps through which an observer could have been studying him.
He looked back at the street. Sodium-yellow light transformed the downpour into glittering skeins of molten gold. At the far curb, the moving van stood half in shadows, half in the glow of the streetlamps. A late-model Honda and an older Pontiac were parked at the nearer curb. No pedestrians. No passing traffic. The night was silent except for the incessant rataplan of the rain.
He rang the bell once more.
The crawling feeling on the nape of his neck didn’t subside. He put a hand back there, half convinced that he would find a spider negotiating his rain-slick skin. No spider.
As he turned to the street again, he thought that he saw furtive movement from the corner of his eye, near the back of the Mayflower van. He stared for half a minute, but nothing moved in the windless night except torrents of golden rain falling to the pavement as straight as if they were, in fact, heavy droplets of precious metal.
He knew why he was jumpy. He didn’t belong here. Guilt was twisting his nerves.
Facing the door again, he slipped his wallet out of his right hip pocket and removed his MasterCard.
Though he could not have admitted it to himself until now, he would have been disappointed if he had found lights on and Valerie at home. He was concerned about her, but he doubted that she was lying, either injured or dead, in her darkened house. He was not psychic: The image of her bloodstained face, which he’d conjured in his mind’s eye, was only an excuse to make the trip here from The Red Door.
His need to know everything about Valerie was perilously close to an adolescent longing. At the moment, his judgment was not sound.
He frightened himself. But he couldn’t turn back.
By inserting the MasterCard between the door and jamb, he could pop the spring latch. He assumed there would be a deadbolt as well, because Santa Monica was as crime-ridden as any town in or around Los Angeles, but maybe he would get lucky.
He was luckier than he hoped: The front door was unlocked. Even the spring latch wasn’t fully engaged. When he twisted the knob, the door clicked open.
Surprised, stricken by another tremor of guilt, he glanced back at the street again. The Indian laurels. The moving van. The cars. The rain, rain, rain.
He went inside. He closed the door and stood with his back against it, dripping on the carpet, shivering.
At first the room in front of him was unrelievedly black. After a while, his vision adjusted enough for him to make out a drapery-covered window—and then a second and a third—illuminated only by the faint gray ambient light of the night beyond.
For all that he could see, the blackness before him might have harbored a crowd, but he knew that he was alone. The house felt not merely unoccupied but deserted, abandoned.
Spencer took the flashlight from his jacket pocket. He hooded the beam with his left hand to ensure, as much as possible, that it would not be noticed by anyone outside.
The beam revealed an unfurnished living room, barren from wall to wall. The carpet was milk-chocolate brown. The unlined draperies were beige. The two-bulb light fixture in the ceiling could probably be operated by one of the three switches beside the front door, but he didn’t try them.
His soaked athletic shoes and socks squished as he crossed the living room. He stepped through an archway into a small and equally empty dining room.
Spencer thought of the Mayflower van across the street, but he didn’t believe that Valerie’s belongings were in it or that she had moved out of the bungalow since four-thirty the previous morning, when he’d left his watch post in front of her house and returned to his own bed. Instead, he suspected that she had never actually moved in. The carpet was not marked by the pressure lines and foot indentations of furniture; no tables, chairs, cabinets, credenzas, or floor lamps had stood on it recently. If Valerie had lived in the bungalow during the two months that she had worked at The Red Door, she evidently hadn’t furnished it and hadn’t intended to call it home for any great length of time.
To the left of the dining room, through an archway half the size of the first, he found a small kitchen with knotty pine cabinets and red Formica countertops. Unavoidably, he left wet shoe prints on the gray tile floor.
Stacked beside the two-basin sink were a single dinner plate, a bread plate, a soup bowl, a saucer, and a cup—all clean and ready for use. One drinking glass stood with the dinnerware. Next to the glass lay a dinner fork, a knife, and a spoon, which were also clean.
He shifted the flashlight in his right hand, splaying a couple of fingers across the lens to partly suppress the beam, thus freeing his left hand to touch the drinking glass. He traced the rim with his fingertips. Even if the glass had been washed since Valerie had taken a drink from it, her lips had once touched the rim.
He had never kissed her. Perhaps he never would.
That thought embarrassed him, made him feel foolish, and forced him to consider, yet again, the impropriety of his obsession with this woman. He didn’t belong here. He was trespassing not merely in her home but in her life. Until now, he had lived an honest life, if not always with undeviating respect for the law. Upon entering her house, however, he had crossed a sharp line that had scaled away his innocence, and what he had lost couldnÕt be regained.
Nevertheless, he did not leave the bungalow.
When he opened kitchen drawers and cabinets, he found them empty except for a combination bottle-and-can opener. The woman owned no plates or utensils other than those stacked beside the sink.
Most of the shelves in the narrow pantry were bare. Her stock of food was limited to three cans of peaches, two cans of pears, two cans of pineapple rings, one box of a sugar substitute in small blue packets, two boxes of cereal, and a jar of instant coffee.
The refrigerator was nearly empty, but the freezer compartment was well stocked with gourmet microwave dinners.
By the refrigerator was a door with a mullioned window. The four panes were covered by a yellow curtain, which he pushed aside far enough to see a porch and a dark yard hammered by rain.
He allowed the curtain to fall back into place. He wasn’t interested in the outside world, only in the interior spaces where Valerie had breathed the air, taken her meals, and slept.
As Spencer left the kitchen, the rubber soles of his shoes squeaked on the wet tiles. Shadows retreated before him and huddled in the corners while darkness crowded his back again.
He could not stop shivering. The damp chill in the house was as penetrating as that of the February air outside. The heat must have been off all day, which meant that Valerie had left early.
On his cold face, the scar burned.
A closed door was centered in the back wall of the dining room. He opened it and discovered a narrow hallway that led about fifteen feet to the left and fifteen to the right. Directly across the hall, another door stood half open; beyond, he glimpsed a white tile floor and a bathroom sink.
As he was about to enter the hall, he heard sounds other than the monotonous and hollow drumming of the rain on the roof. A thump and a soft scrape.
He immediately switched off the flashlight. The darkness was as perfect as that in any carnival fun house just before flickering strobe lights revealed a leering, mechanical corpse.
At first the sounds had seemed stealthy, as if a prowler outside had slipped on the wet grass and bumped against the house. However, the longer Spencer listened, the more he became convinced that the source of noise might have been distant rather than nearby, and that he might have heard nothing more than a car door slamming shut, out on the street or in a neighbor’s driveway.
He switched on the flashlight and continued his search in the bathroom. A bath towel, a hand towel, and a washcloth hung on the rack. A half-used bar of Ivory lay in the plastic soap dish, but the medicine cabinet was empty.
To the right of the bathroom was a small bedroom, as unfurnished as the rest of the house. The closet was empty.
The second bedroom, to the left of the bath, was larger than the first, and it was obviously where she had slept. An inflated air mattress lay on the floor. Atop the mattress were a tangle of sheets, a single wool blanket, and a pillow. The bifold closet doors stood open, revealing wire hangers dangling from an unpainted wooden pole.
Although the rest of the bungalow was unadorned by artwork or decoration, something was fixed to the center of the longest wall in that bedroom. Spencer approached it, directed the light at it, and saw a full-color, closeup photograph of a cockroach. It seemed to be a page from a book, perhaps an entomology text, because the caption under the photograph was in dry academic English. In closeup, the roach was about six inches long. It had been fixed to the wall with a single large nail that had been driven through the center of the beetle’s carapace. On the floor, directly below the photograph, lay the hammer with which the spike had been pounded into the plaster.
The photograph had not been decoration. Surely, no one would hang a picture of a cockroach with the intention of beautifying a bedroom. Furthermore, the use of a nail—rather than pushpins or staples or Scotch tape—implied that the person wielding the hammer had done so in considerable anger.
Clearly, the roach was meant to be a symbol for something else.
Spencer wondered uneasily if Valerie had nailed it there. That seemed unlikely. The woman with whom he’d talked the previous evening at The Red Door had seemed uncommonly gentle, kind, and all but incapable of serious anger.
If not Valerie—who?
As Spencer moved the flashlight beam across the glossy paper, the roach’s carapace glistened as if wet. The shadows of his fingers, which half blocked the lens, created the illusion that the beetle’s spindly legs and antennae jittered briefly.
Sometimes, serial killers left behind signatures at the scenes of their crimes to identify their work. In Spencer’s experience, that could be anything from a specific playing card, to a Satanic symbol carved in some part of the victim’s anatomy, to a single word or a line of poetry scrawled in blood upon a wall. The nailed photo had the feeling of such a signature, although it was stranger than anything he had seen or about which he had read in the hundreds of case studies with which he was familiar.
A faint nausea rippled through him. He had encountered no signs of violence in the house, but he had not yet looked in the attached single-car garage. Perhaps he would find Valerie on that cold slab of concrete, as he had seen her earlier in his mind’s eye: lying with one side of her face pressed to the floor, unblinking eyes open wide, a scrollwork of blood obscuring some of her features.
He knew that he was jumping to conclusions. These days, the average American routinely lived in anticipation of sudden, mindless violence, but Spencer was more sensitized to the dark possibilities of modern life than were most people. He had endured pain and terror that had marked him in many ways, and his tendency now was to expect savagery as surely as sunrises and sunsets.
As he turned away from the photograph of the roach, wondering if he dared to investigate the garage, the bedroom window shattered inward, and a small black object hurtled through the draperies. At a glimpse, tumbling and airborne, it resembled a grenade.
Reflexively, he switched off the flashlight even as broken glass was still falling. In the gloom, the grenade thumped softly against the carpet.
Before Spencer could turn away, he was hit by the explosion. No flash of light accompanied it, only ear-shattering sound—and hard shrapnel snapping into him from his shins to his forehead. He cried out. Fell. Twisted. Writhed. Pain in his legs, hands, face. His torso was protected by his denim jacket. But his hands, God, his hands. He wring his burning hands. Hot pain. Pure torment. How many fingers lost, bones shattered? Jesus, Jesus, his hands were spastic with pain yet half numb, so he couldn’t assess the damage.
The worst of it was the fiery agony in his forehead, cheeks, the left corner of his mouth. Excruciating. Desperate to quell the pain, he pressed his hands to his face. He was afraid of what he would find, of the damage he would feel, but his hands throbbed so fiercely that his sense of touch wasn’t trustworthy.
How many new scars if he survived—how many pale and puckered cicatricial welts or red keloid monstrosities from hairline to chin?
Get out, get away, find help.
He kicked-crawled-clawed-twitched like a wounded crab through the darkness. Disoriented and terrified, he nevertheless scrambled in the right direction, across a floor now littered with what seemed to be small marbles, into the bedroom doorway. He clambered to his feet.
He figured he was caught in a gang war over disputed turf. Los Angeles in the nineties was more violent than Chicago during Prohibition. Modern youth gangs were more savage and better armed than the Mafia, pumped up with drugs and their own brand of racism, as cold-blooded and merciless as snakes.
Gasping for breath, feeling blindly with aching hands, he stumbled into the hall. Pain coruscated through his legs, weakening him and testing his balance. Staying on his feet was as difficult as it would have been in a revolving funhouse barrel.
Windows shattered in other rooms, followed by a few muffled explosions. The hallway was windowless, so he wasn’t hit again.
In spite of his confusion and fear, Spencer realized he didn’t smell blood. Didn’t taste it. In fact, he wasn’t bleeding.
Suddenly, he understood what was happening. Not a gang war. The shrapnel hadn’t cut him, so it wasn’t actually shrapnel. Not marbles, either, littering the floor. Hard rubber pellets. From a sting grenade. Only law-enforcement agencies had sting grenades. He had used them himself. Seconds ago a SWAT team of some kind must have initiated an assault on the bungalow, launching the grenades to disable any occupants.
The moving van had no doubt been covert transport for the assault force. The movement he had seen at the back of it, out of the corner of his eye, hadn’t been imaginary after all.
He should have been relieved. The assault was an action of the local police, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI, or another law-enforcement organization. Apparently he had stumbled into one of their operations. He knew the drill. If he dropped to the floor, facedown, arms extended over his head, hands spread to prove they were empty, he would be fine; he wouldn’t be shot; they would handcuff him, question him, but they wouldn’t harm him further.
Except that he had a big problem: He didn’t belong in that bungalow. He was a trespasser. From their point of view, he might even be a burglar. To them, his explanation for being there would seem lame at best. Hell, they would think it was crazy. He didn’t really understand it himself—why he was so stricken with Valerie, why he had needed to know about her, why he had been bold enough and stupid enough to enter her house.
He didn’t drop to the floor. On wobbly legs, he staggered through the tunnel-black hall, sliding one hand along the wall.
The woman was mixed up in something illegal, and at first the authorities would think that he was involved as well. He would be taken into custody, detained for questioning, maybe even booked on suspicion of aiding and abetting Valerie in whatever she had done.
They would find out who he was.
The news media would dredge up his past. His face would be on television, in newspapers and magazines. He had lived many years in blessed anonymity, his new name unknown, his appearance altered by time, no longer recognizable. But his privacy was about to be stolen. He would be center ring at the circus again, harassed by reporters, whispered about every time he went out in public.
No. Intolerable. He couldn’t go through that again. He would rather die.
They were cops of some kind, and he was innocent of any serious offense; but they were not on his side right now. Without meaning to destroy him, they would do so simply by exposing him to the press.
More shattering glass. Two explosions.
The officers on the SWAT team were taking no chances, as if they thought they were up against people crazed on PCP or something worse.
Spencer had reached the midpoint of the hall, where he stood between two doorways. A dim grayness beyond the right-hand door: the dining room. On his left: the bathroom.
He stepped into the bathroom, closed the door, hoping to buy time to think.
The stinging in his face, hands, and legs was slowly subsiding. Rapidly, repeatedly, he clenched his hands, then relaxed them, trying to improve the circulation and work off the numbness.
From the far end of the house came a wood-splintering crash, hard enough to make the walls shudder. It was probably the front door slamming open or going down.
Another crash. The kitchen door.
They were in the house.
They were coming.
No time to think. He had to move, relying on instinct and on military training that was, he hoped, at least as extensive as that of the men who were hunting him.
In the back wall of the cramped room, above the bathtub, the blackness was broken by a rectangle of faint gray light. He stepped into the tub and, with both hands, quickly explored the frame of that small window. He wasn’t convinced that it was big enough to provide a way out, but it was the only possible route of escape.
If it had been fixed or jalousied, he would have been trapped. Fortunately, it was a single pane that opened inward from the top on a heavy-duty piano hinge. Collapsible elbow braces on both sides clicked softly when fully extended, locking the window open.
He expected the faint squeak of the hinge and the click of the braces to elicit a shout from someone outside. But the unrelenting drone of the rain screened what sounds he made. No alarm was raised.
Spencer gripped the window ledge and levered himself into the opening. Cold rain spattered his face. The humid air was heavy with the fecund smells of saturated earth, jasmine, and grass.
The backyard was a tapestry of gloom, woven exclusively from shade of black and graveyard grays, washed by rain that blurred its details. At least one man—more likely two—from the SWAT team had to be covering the rear of the house. However, though Spencer’s vision was keen, he could not force any of the interwoven shadows to resolve into a human form.
For a moment his upper body seemed wider than the frame, but he hunched his shoulders, twisted, wiggled, and scraped through the opening. The ground was a short drop from the window. He rolled once on the wet grass and then lay flat on his stomach, head raised, surveying the night, still unable to spot any adversaries.
In the planting beds and along the property line, the shrubbery was overgrown. Several old fig trees, long untrimmed, were mighty towers of foliage.
Glimpsed between the branches of those mammoth ficuses, the heavens were not black. The lights of the sprawling metropolis reflected off the bellies of the eastbound storm clouds, painting the vault of the night with deep and sour yellows that, toward the oceanic west, faded into charcoal gray.
Though familiar to Spencer, the unnatural color of the city sky filled him with a surprising and superstitious dread, for it seemed to be a malevolent firmament under which men were meant to die—and to the sight of which they might wake in Hell. It was a mystery how the yard could remain unlit under that sulfurous glow, yet he could have sworn that it grew blacker the longer he squinted at it.
The stinging in his legs subsided. His hands still ached but not disablingly, and the burning in his face was less intense than it had been.
Inside the dark house, an automatic weapon stuttered briefly, spitting out several rounds. One of the cops must be trigger-happy, shooting at shadows or ghosts. Curious. Hair-trigger nerves were uncommon among special-forces officers.
Spencer scuttled across the sodden grass to the shelter of a nearby triple-trunk ficus. Rising to his feet, with his back against the bark, he surveyed the lawn, the shrubs, and the line of trees along the rear property wall, half convinced he should make a break for it, but also half convinced that he would be spotted and brought down if he stepped into the open.
Flexing his hands to work off the pain, he considered climbing into the web of wood above him and hiding in the higher bowers. Useless, of course. They would find him in the tree, because they would not admit to his escape until they had searched every shadow and cloak of greenery, both high and low.
In the bungalow: voices, a door slamming, not even a pretense of stealth and caution any longer, not after the precipitous gunfire. Still no lights.
Time was running out.
Arrest, revelation, the glare of videocam lights, reporters shouting questions. Intolerable.
He silently cursed himself for being so indecisive.
Rain rattled the leaves above.
Newspaper stories, magazine spreads, the hateful past alive again, the gaping stares of thoughtless strangers to whom he would be the walking, breathing equivalent of a spectacular train wreck.
His booming heart counted cadence for the ever quickening march of his fear.
He could not move. Paralyzed.
Paralysis served him well, however, when a man dressed in black crept past the tree, holding a weapon that resembled an Uzi. Though he was no more than two strides from Spencer, the guy was focused on the house, ready if his quarry crashed through a window into the night, unaware that the very fugitive he sought was within reach. Then the man saw the open window at the bathroom, and he froze.
Spencer was moving before his target began to turn. Anyone with SWAT-team training—whether local cop or federal agent—would not go down easily. The only chance of taking the guy quickly and quietly was to hit him hard while he was in the grip of surprise.
Spencer rammed his right knee into the cop’s crotch, putting everything he had behind it, trying to lift the guy off the ground.
Some special-forces officers wore jockstraps with aluminum cups on every enter-and-subdue operation, as surely as they wore bullet-resistant Kevlar body jackets or vests. This one was unprotected. He exhaled explosively, a sound that wouldn’t have carried ten feet in the rainy night.
Even as Spencer was driving his knee upward, he seized the automatic weapon with both hands, wrenching it violently clockwise. It twisted out of the other man’s grasp before he could convulsively squeeze off a burst of warning fire.
The gunman fell backward on the wet grass. Spencer dropped atop him, carried forward by momentum.
Though the cop tried to cry out, the agony of that intimate blow had robbed him of his voice. He couldn’t even inhale.
Spencer could have slammed the weapon—a compact submachine gun, judging by the feel of it—into his adversary’s throat, crushing his windpipe, asphyxiating him on his own blood. A blow to the face would have shattered the nose and driven splinters of bone into the brain.
But he didn’t want to kill or seriously injure anyone. He just needed time to get the hell out of there. He hammered the gun against the cop’s temple, half checking the blow but knocking the poor bastard unconscious.
The guy was wearing night-vision goggles. The SWAT team was conducting a night stalk with full technological assistance, which was why no lights had come on in the house. The had the vision of cats, and Spencer was the mouse.
He rolled onto the grass, rose into a crouch, clutching the submachine gun in both hands. It was an Uzi: He recognized the shape and heft of it. He swept the muzzle left and right, anticipating the charge of another adversary. No one came at him.
Perhaps five seconds had passed since the man in black had crept past the ficus tree.
Spencer sprinted across the lawn, away from the bungalow, into flowers and shrubs. Greenery lashed his legs. Woody azaleas poked his calves, snagged his jeans.
He dropped the Uzi. He wasn’t going to shoot at anyone. Even if it meant being taken into custody and exposed to the news media, he would surrender rather than use the gun.
He waded through the shrubs, between two trees, past a eugenia with phosphorescent white blossoms, and reached the property wall.
He was as good as gone. If they spotted him now, they wouldn’t shoot him in the back. They’d shout a warning, identify themselves, order him to freeze, and come after him, but they wouldn’t shoot.
The stucco-sheathed, concrete-block wall was six feet high, capped with bull-nose bricks that were slippery with rain. He got a grip, pulled himself up, scrabbling at the stucco with the toes of his athletic shoes.
As he slid onto the top of the wall, belly against the cold bricks, and drew up his legs, gunfire erupted behind him. Bullets smacked into the concrete blocks, so close that chips of stucco sprayed his face.
Nobody shouted a goddamned warning.
He rolled off the wall into the neighboring property, and automatic weapons chattered again—a longer burst than before.
Submachine guns in a residential neighborhood. Craziness. What the hell kinds of cops were these?
He fell into a tangle of rosebushes. It was winter; the roses had been pruned; even in the colder months, however, the California climate was sufficiently mild to encourage some growth, and thorny trailers snared his clothes, pricked his skin.
Voices, flat and strange, muffled by the static of the rain, came from beyond the wall: “This way, back here, come on!”
Spencer sprang to his feet and flailed through the rose brambles. A spiny trailer scraped the unscarred side of his face and curled around his head as if intent on fitting him with a crown, and he broke free only at the cost of punctured hands.
He was in the backyard of another house. Lights in some of the ground-floor rooms. A face at a rain-jeweled window. A young girl. Spencer had the terrible feeling that he’d be putting her in mortal jeopardy if he didn’t get out of there before his pursuers arrived.
After negotiating a maze of yards, block walls, wrought iron fences, cul-de-sacs, and service alleys, never sure if he had lost his pursuers or if they were, in fact, at his heels, Spencer found the street on which he had parked the Explorer. He ran to it and jerked the door.
Locked, of course.
He fumbled in his pockets for the keys. Couldn’t find them. He hoped to God he hadn’t lost them along the way.
Rocky was watching him through the driver’s window. Apparently he found Spencer’s frantic search amusing. He was grinning.
Spencer glanced back along the rain-swept street. Deserted.
One more pocket. Yes. He pressed the deactivating button on the key chain. The security system issued an electronic bleat, the locks popped open, and he clambered into the truck.
As he tried to start the engine, the keys slipped through his wet fingers and fell to the floor.
Reacting to his master’s fear, no longer amused, Rocky huddled timidly in the corner formed by the passenger seat and the door. He made a thin, interrogatory sound of concern.
Though Spencer’s hands tingled from the rubber pellets that had stung them, they were no longer numb. Yet he fumbled after the keys for what seemed an age.
Maybe it was best to lie on the seats, out of sight, and keep Rocky below window level. Wait for the cops to come . . . and go. If they arrived just as he was pulling away from the curb, they would suspect he was the one who had been in Valerie’s house, and they would stop him one way or another.
On the other hand, he had stumbled into a major operation with a lot of manpower. They weren’t going to give up easily. While he was hiding in the truck, they might cordon off the area and initiate a house-to-house search. They would also inspect parked cars as best they could, peering in windows; he would be pinned by a flashlight beam, trapped in his own vehicle.
The engine started with a roar.
He popped the hand brake, shifted gears, and pulled away from the curb, switching on windshield wipers and headlights as he went. He had parked near the corner, so he hung a U-turn.
He glanced at the rearview mirror, the side mirror. No armed men in black uniforms.
A couple of cars sped through the intersection, heading south on the other avenue. Plumes of spray fanned behind them.
Without even pausing at the stop sign, Spencer turned right and entered the southbound flow of traffic, away from Valerie’s neighborhood. He resisted the urge to tramp the accelerator into the floorboards. He couldn’t risk being stopped for speeding.
“What the hell?” he asked shakily.
The dog replied with a soft whine.
“What’s she done, why’re they after her?”
Water trickled down his brown into his eyes. He was soaked. He shook his head, and a spray of cold water flew from his hair, spattering the dashboard, the upholstery, and the dog.
Spencer turned up the heater.
He drove five blocks and made two changes of direction before he began to feel safe.
“Who is she? What the hell has she done?”
Rocky had adopted his master’s change of mood. He no longer huddled in the corner. Having resumed his vigilant posture in the center of his seat, he was wary but not fearful. He divided his attention between the storm-drenched city ahead and Spencer, favoring the former with guarded anticipation and the latter with a cocked-head expression of puzzlement.
“Jesus, what was I doing there anyway?” Spencer wondered aloud.
Though bathed in hot air from the dashboard vents, he continued to shiver. Part of his chill had nothing to do with being rain-soaked, and no quantity of heat could dispel it.
“Didn’t belong there, shouldn’t have gone. Do you have a clue what I was doing in that place, pal? Hmmmm? Because I sure as hell don’t. That was stupid.”
He reduced speed to negotiate a flooded intersection, where an armada of trash was adrift on the dirty water.
His face felt hot. He glanced at Rocky.
He had just lied to the dog.
Long ago he had sworn never to lie to himself. He kept that oath only somewhat more faithfully than the average drunkard kept his New Year’s Eve resolution never to allow demon rum to touch his lips again. In fact, he probably indulged in less self-delusion and self-deception than most people did, but he could not claim, with a straight face, that he invariably told himself the truth. Or even that he invariably wanted to hear it. What it came down to was that he tried always to be truthful with himself, but he often accepted a half-truth, and a wink instead of the real thing—and he could live comfortably with whatever omission the wink implied.
But he never lied to the dog.
Theirs was the only entirely honest relationship that Spencer had ever known; therefore, it was special to him. No. More than merely special. Sacred.
Rocky, with his hugely expressive eyes and guileless heart, with his body language and his soul-revealing tail, was incapable of deceit. If he’d been able to talk, he would have been perfectly ingenuous because he was a perfect innocent. Lying to the dog was worse than lying to a small child. Hell, he wouldn’t have felt as bad if he had lied to God, because God unquestionably expected less of him than did poor Rocky.
Never lie to the dog.
“Okay,” he said, braking for a red traffic light, “so I know why I went to her house. I know what I was looking for.”
Rocky regarded him with interest.
“You wanted me to say it, huh?”
The dog waited.
“That’s important to you, is it—for me to say it?”
The dog chuffed, licked his chops, cocked his head.
“All right. I went to her house because—”
The dog stared.
“—because she’s a very nice-looking woman.”
The rain drummed. The windshield wipers thumped.
“Okay, she’s pretty but she’s not gorgeous. It isn’t her looks. There’s just . . . something about her. She’s special.”
The idling engine rumbled.
Spencer sighed and said, “Okay, I’ll be straight this time. Right to the heart of it, huh? No more dancing around the edges. I went to her house because—”
“—because I wanted to find a life.”
The dog looked away from him, toward the street ahead, evidently satisfied with that final explanation.
Spencer thought about what he had revealed to himself by being honest with Rocky. I wanted to find a life.
He didn’t know whether to laugh at himself or weep. In the end, he did neither. He just moved on, which was what he’d been doing for at least the past sixteen years.
The traffic light turned green.
With Rocky looking ahead, only ahead, Spencer drove home through the streaming night, through the loneliness of the vast city, under a strangely mottled sky that was as yellow as a rancid egg yolk, as gray as crematorium ashes, and fearfully black along one far horizon.
Copyright ©2000 Dean Koontz