Game of Cages
“Oh, shit,” Catherine said as she backed away. I moved toward the dead men, more out of a sense of duty than common sense. Apparently, searching the dead wasn’t part of an investigator’s job.
The three men whose faces I could see—one was face-down in the
mud—were Asian, and they were all dressed very well. They wore wool three-quarter-length coats and dark suits. One suit had pinstripes, which was a stylish touch. Their hair was neatly cut, and they were all closely shaved.
The nearest man had been shot in the side of the head from very close range. Two others farther down the slope had been shot in the chest; they lay on their backs, Glocks in their hands. The fourth man, the one lying facedown, had at least eleven exit wounds in his back and one in his neck. He also held a gun, but the slide was back. His gun was empty.
There was a little white mark on the side of his face. I crouched down to look at it more closely. It actually looked like the end of a mark, as though someone had rubbed bleach on his face with the pad of a thumb. It ran from his temple down toward his cheek; the rest, however much there was, was covered by mud. I could have seen more if I’d wanted to move the body, but I didn’t.
He had a wallet bulging in his back pocket. It ruined the line of his suit, so I pulled it out for him and opened it up. It contained American greenbacks along with a number of foreign bills. There was an identity card, but it was written in some kind of kanji and I couldn’t read it. The picture showed a very serious Asian man with a crooked nose but no white mark.
Damn. Seeing him with his eyes open, even if it was only on a driver’s license or what ever, gave me a chill. Images swirled in my mind—food, laughter, booze pukes, fucking, boredom in line at the bank—all the memories I imagined would make up his life, all reduced to this lump of dead meat on a muddy hillside.
Catherine was watching me. I held the wallet open to her. “Can you read Japanese, or Thai, or whatever?”
She shook her head and folded her arms across her chest. I closed the wallet and slid it back into the man’s pocket. I didn’t take the money, not even the U.S. bills. I wasn’t going to pick a dead man’s pocket in front of Catherine.
“Who shot them?” she asked.
“I think they shot each other,” I answered. “I’m no TV detective, but this dude was shot at close range, and…” I opened the first man’s coat. His weapon was still in the holster. “Yeah, he didn’t even get a chance to draw his gun. Those two were shot from farther away, and they have their guns in their hands.
“And this bastard is lying here with an empty weapon and a good dozen bullet holes in him. Are there more footprints going down the hill?”
Catherine went around the bodies. The starlight was pretty dim, but our eyes had adjusted. “Yes,” she said. “But there are fewer of them.”
“I think Mr. White Smudge here shot the others. The ones who killed him probably stood around what-the-hell-ing for a while, then took off after the predator.”
“Wouldn’t they want to carry their friends back to the car? Or call the cops?”
I shook my head. These guys had expensive suits and identical weapons. I figured them for somebody’s hired muscle—a crew. I’d been part of a crew once. We’d done everything together, but we hadn’t been friends. Not really.
I looked at Catherine. “Do you want to turn around?”
“Let’s keep going,” she said. “We decided to chase the predator, and this doesn’t really change things, does it?” Her arms were still crossed. I didn’t suggest she take one of the dead men’s guns. Her body language made it clear what she thought of the idea. Besides, it hadn’t done them much good. She glanced at White Smudge as though trying to figure out what had turned him on his buddies. Then she looked away.
We followed the footprints down the hill, through a stand of trees into a meadow. Some of the bark was scorched black as though from a fire. The damage looked months old, though, and the forest was rebounding.
The weird soup-can footprints didn’t pass through any of the trees. At least, there were no dark circles on the trunks. I wondered why the predator didn’t take shortcuts through them. Were they too thick? Too alive? Something else? I had no idea.
“Look at this,” Catherine said.
The soup-can footprints headed straight across open ground, then clustered together as though the creature had turned to face its pursuers. Then the trail split apart.
One set of prints continued ahead down to the meadow. Another went to the right. A third led off to the left. The shoe prints also split up to follow the three separate trails.
“It’s not cloning itself, is it?” I asked. Catherine shrugged.
I followed the trail of prints to the right. After about five feet, they vanished.
Catherine waved to me. “The prints stop here,” she said. She was standing about ten feet away on the trail that led to the left. A quick check showed the same thing on the center trail. After about five feet, it vanished.
The shoe prints milled around, then split up and led away in those three different directions. What the hell was going on?
“Maybe it cloned itself and flew away,” Catherine said.
I felt goose bumps run down my neck. The night sky above me was empty, as far as I could see. It gave me the willies to think that the predator might have been above us all along.
“What do you think?” she asked.
“I think I don’t want this thing to swoop down on me.”
“I meant what do you think we should do next.”
Was this another test? I looked around. By the starlight, I could see trees, underbrush, uneven ground, and far, far down the slope ahead I saw a single burning bluish streetlight. I reminded myself that I was here with an investigator. A peer would have hunted the predator to kill it—a single predator on the loose could, in the long run, lead to the extinction of life on this planet. Investigators, though, collected information for the peers.
Who would be getting here soon. I hoped.
“Well,” I said, shrugging, “there’s nothing to be learned wandering around out here. And I definitely don’t want to come up on those gunmen by accident. I say we should check out the house.”
She half-smiled, then led the way back up the slope. For a brief moment I thought the four dead men were gone, having been carried off into the night sky by whatever we were following, or even worse, having gotten up and shambled off. Then I saw that they were just a little farther away than I’d thought.
No one had come to check on the cars. Catherine didn’t want to drive her Acura any closer to the house, and I agreed. A strange car pulling up at this time of night would attract the worst sort of attention.
Catherine insisted we hike along the driveway rather than take the direct route across the estate, and after a half mile I was glad of it. The slope was not as smooth as it had appeared. We kept to the shoulder, watching ahead and behind for headlights. We were ready to dive into the trees at the first sign of a car, but none came.
We rounded a curve in the road and saw the house up close.
I’d certainly seen bigger. In L.A., all you have to do is drive along a freeway and look up; huge houses are scattered on the hillsides. But this house was huge and isolated and completely out of place. It was three stories tall, with a high, slanted roof and tall, narrow, arched windows like a church. It had chimneys like a porcupine had quills, and I couldn’t imagine the kind of person who would look around at this isolated patch of rain forest and decide it was the place to build a mansion.
There was a garland in the front windows and nets of tiny multicolored lights draped over the bushes along the front. Someone had made the effort.
We ducked off the road into the trees, pushing our way through scattered blackberry bushes and scraggly ferns.
The grounds around the front had been cleared, and the road had been widened into a little parking lot with a wide section at the end, probably to give delivery trucks room to turn around. At the moment, the lot was filled with cars, all pointed toward the gate. I saw another BMW to match the one by the truck, a pair of black Yukons, a black Mercedes, and finally a Passat, of all things. At the far end of the lot the asphalt narrowed again into a path leading to a multicar garage.
I stared at the cars, searching for movement or a human shape inside. The X6 had to- go coffee lids on the dash, and the Yukons had bright red-and-white cards in the front windows, but otherwise they were empty.
I moved close to Catherine. “Do we circle around?”
“To where?” She pointed toward the near side of the house, where there were twenty-five yards of lawn separating the tree line from the building. There appeared to be even more space around back. “Do you see any people?”
“Yeah.” I pointed toward the door, where a man in a heavy wool coat and a furry Russian hat stood just out of the porch light. I thought he was dressed too warmly for the weather, but I’d been jogging up a long hill and he’d been standing around. Still, bulky coats made me nervous.
“Crap.” Catherine pulled me back from the edge of the hill to a stand of trees. When we were out of sight, she let go of me quickly, as if she was afraid I’d take it as a gesture of friendship. “We need photos of the license plates.”
“What if they’re all rentals, like the one down the hill?”
“I still want them,” she said. “But what’s more, I don’t want to kill anyone. Not everyone we meet is going to be part of some plot to bring predators here to eat our spleens, and I would like to kill as few of them as possible. Can we agree on that?”
I stared at her. Had the society told her what I’d done? I felt a sudden flush of shame, but not for the people I’d killed. I hadn’t killed any innocent bystanders. At least, I didn’t think I had. Annalise may not have cared about collateral damage, but I had been more careful.
But I still felt ashamed, because I knew the society was, at the core, vigilantes. I believed they had good reason for doing what they did, but their day-to-day work was finding people and killing them.
And not only had I taken part, I’d been eager to drop everything to come on this job, eager for the adrenaline rush, and I couldn’t honestly say I didn’t know what we’d be doing.
And I liked Catherine. Her heart and her head were in the right place, and if she was a little weird and distant with me, well, she was right to be.
“Agreed,” I said. Standing still in this wind was giving me chills. “Around the side?”
“Not this side,” she said. “I’d rather enter from the garage, in case there are more plates to photograph there.”
We circled around the property. The ground near the garage was thick with trees and brambles, which gave us more cover but also slowed us down. And we made more noise than I would have liked. There didn’t seem to be anyone to notice.
We moved toward the side of the garage. There were no footprints in the mud. There was a single window in the wall, but it was dark. I hoped no one was inside, watching us approach.
The backyard was even larger and more open than the front. The ground still sloped upward, but it was mostly a gentle rise. A bungalow sat well away from the house, in the middle of the meadow. Heavy black power lines ran out to it from the main building.
A guesthouse for a home this large? Maybe there was no such thing as “big enough” for some people.
I led the way toward the back door of the garage. More than one trail of footprints went back and forth from the house, so I couldn’t tell if someone was inside. Fair enough. I turned the knob and pulled the door open.
Very little light shone through the dirty windows, leaving the inside nearly pitch-black. Catherine handed me her flashlight, and I flicked it on. There were four cars parked here, all packed close. Right beside me was a fifteen- year- old Civic hatchback. Next to that was a white Audi SUV, a Q7, with tinted windows, then a long black Fleetwood— maybe a ’54, but I’m not an expert on vintage cars. Beyond that was a modern sedan, but all I could see was the line of the roof and back windshield. Huh. Maybe the Civic belonged to a servant.
Catherine took a camera from her bag. She focused on the license plate of the Civic. A little orange light illuminated the back bumper, and she snapped a photo. The flash lit up the room.
I moved away from her, wishing she had waited—maybe the windows had curtains I could draw or something. I understood her urgency, though. The predator, whatever it was, was on the loose.
She went around the car to snap a photo of the front plate, too. I walked to the far end of the room. The sedan was a BMW 745i. All of the cars were empty, thank God. There were garden tools along the walls and ladders, canoes, and ski equipment up in the rafters.
Meanwhile, Catherine snapped the front and back plates of the Audi. I crouched beside the BMW to cut the fuel lines. If we had to run, it would be a huge help if the cars were disabled.
The back door clicked open. I dropped to the floor.
“Um, excuse me?” a man said. His voice was high-pitched and gentle. “Who is in here?”
“Nothing’s getting stolen!” Catherine said, taking an angry tone. The change in her personality was startling. “I just have a job to do, so you go ahead and go back where you came from.” She sounded so offended that I half expected him to apologize, but he didn’t.
“Ma’am, I have to ask you to look at my hands.”
Catherine’s voice became low. “You put that gun away.”
“Ma’am,” he said, his voice just as gentle, “I purchased this weapon not knowing whether I would have the chance to use it. Frankly, I find the prospect thrilling.”
“Now, you just wait a minute…” Catherine sounded less sure of herself.
I lifted myself off the floor and shifted position, peering under the fender. All I could see of him was a pair of khaki pant legs tucked into rubber boots. This guy wasn’t with the Asian men we’d found out on the hillside, not in that footwear.
“I will not wait,” he said. His voice was still high and soft, but there was a breath of excitement in it. “If you don’t do exactly as I say, I will shoot you right now. Then I will drag your body into the woods. No one on the premises will care except me, and I will only feel the secret satisfaction of knowing exactly what I am capable of.”
“Whoa, now,” Catherine said. “I’m unarmed! The Times sent me.”
“Put the camera down,” the man said. I heard something being set gently on the trunk of the car. “Turn around.”
It wasn’t doing any good to look at this guy’s shoes. I kept my feet in place to avoid scuffling against the concrete floor and walked my hands backward until I was in a crouch. I peeked through the windows of the BMW and the Cadillac. Catherine was moving very slowly. Behind her, I saw a man in an orange parka so thick it looked like it had been inflated.
I took out my ghost knife and held it across my body like a Frisbee. “I’m a journalist,” Catherine said. “That’s all. No need to freak out. I’m just a woman doing a job.”
The man leaned her against the back of the SUV the way a cop would, but he didn’t make her spread her stance. He stepped forward and patted her down, moving behind the blind spot by the Cadillac’s back window.
Then I heard the unmistakable sound of a pair of handcuffs.
“You’re not putting those on me,” Catherine said, her voice rising in panic.
“Stay calm,” the man whispered.
“You’re not putting those on me!”
I had to step in whether I was ready or not. I stood. The man in the orange coat started to turn toward me as I threw my ghost knife. He raised his pistol. At the last moment, the ghost knife swerved into it, cutting through the metal and the gunman’s hand.
He gasped and staggered against the wall. Tools rattled as he bumped into them. The pieces of the gun fell to the floor. I reached for the ghost knife again, calling it back to me. It flew into my hand as I came around the back of the BMW. Before I could get there, Catherine spun and hit him with an elbow just below his ear.
The man staggered but didn’t fall. I hissed at Catherine to make her stop. She did. A moment later I was beside the man, examining his hand. As usual, there were no cuts or blood—the ghost knife hadn’t cut him physically.
“I’m sorry,” he said. His high, soft voice was full of re-gret. “Holding that weapon—I should never have let that power go to my head. How awful for you, ma’am.”
Good. The ghost knife had done its job. All his hostility and willpower had been cut out of him. The effect was only temporary, but there was a lot I didn’t know about it—such as whether a beating would bring him back to himself.
“I’m tremendously sorry,” he said again.
Catherine looked at me in disbelief. She shifted her stance, bumping something metal with her foot. I shined the flashlight on it, confirming that it was half of the gun. It looked like an old .45. She stared at it, then back at me. Guess she had never seen a ghost knife at work before.
“You can make it right,” I told the man. “Start by lying down and spreading your arms. And tell me your name.”
“Okay,” he said as he did it. He didn’t even sound afraid. Only contrite. “My name is Mr. Alex.”
I searched him. His wallet gave his full name as Horace Alex and listed an address in New York State. He was a long way from home. He had keys to a rental car, house keys, a small backup gun, a fat Swiss Army knife, a cellphone, a little paperback book written by somebody named Zola, a spare clip for his .45, and a pack of gum. I dropped all of it into a plastic bucket.
He wasn’t local, and he certainly wasn’t working for the man with the Maybach. Now it was time to find out who he was.
“What are you doing here, Horace?” Damn if I was going to call this guy Mr. anything.
“I saw the camera flash and came to investigate.”
“Why are you here, though, so far from home?”
“Several of the Fellows put together a kitty for the auction, but it wasn’t enough.” The way he said Fellows made it sound like a title, not a group of friends. “The bidding topped forty-two million very quickly, and we were left behind.”
Catherine leaned down toward him. “What were you bidding on?” Her manner had changed again. Her voice was low and friendly, and her body language mirrored Horace’s. She had become a different person.
“Some sort of creature from the Deeps. Only Professor Solorov was allowed to go up the hill to see it.”
“The professor’s full name?”
“What about the other bidders?” Her voice was soft; it invited answers.
“I’m sorry, but there were no introductions, formal or otherwise. There was a Chinese fellow who spoke Cantonese. He won the auction and left a short while ago. There was also a fat, scruffy-looking Silicon Valley man who looked completely out of place. Finally, there was an extremely unpleasant old man who spoke German. That’s all I know about them.”
“Why didn’t you leave when the auction winner left?” I asked.
“The rules state he gets a two-hour head start, then the rest of us can go.”
“Does anyone know you’ve come in here?”
Catherine wasn’t finished with him. “Did you hear anything about the creature? Was it big, small, furry, scaly?”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Professor Solorov will certainly tell us about it privately, but we haven’t had a private moment yet.”
“Fair enough. How many people are inside?”
Horace turned thoughtful. “Each bidder was supposed to come with no more than five people, but our party consisted of seven. Several Fellows refused to contribute to the kitty if they couldn’t come along. I thought it was bad form to bring so many, but the gentleman from Hong Kong brought twelve. The German brought only two employees, and the fat Californian brought a single bodyguard. The hostess has only one servant that I saw and, of course, the handler. Plus the hired security men in those brown uniforms.”
Catherine and I looked at each other. We hadn’t seen any security. If we didn’t count uniformed guards or the winning bidder, there were fourteen people, with the possibility of more servants. Great. I didn’t care how big the house was, that was too many people for us to go wandering around the grounds. Someone was bound to look out a window and spot us.
I picked up the handcuffs. Catherine put her hand near my elbow but didn’t touch me. “How did you find out about this auction?”
“Professor Solorov met with a man while she was in Los Angeles. Not the fat Silicon Valley person. He told her about the auction, and she brought the news to us. We were very excited. Forty-two million dollars is a lot of money for our group. Too bad it wasn’t enough.”
“What group?” Catherine asked.
“We call each other ‘Fellows’ but don’t have a name,” Horace answered. “We don’t even have a charter. We’re a social group with a common interest.”
“Interest in what?” Catherine asked before I could jump in with the most likely guess.
That would have been my guess. Before I could respond, Catherine asked another question. “Do you have spell books? Artifacts?”
She was deliberately blocking my questions. What the hell. She was the investigator. I backed off to let her do her thing.
“No,” Horace answered. “None. All we ever do is read magic theory and case reports. None of us have seen a creature of the Deeps, and we certainly haven’t done any magic.”
“Theory? What books?”
Horace began to recite a long list of titles. I couldn’t follow them, but Catherine seemed intensely interested. She had her cellphone in hand. She was probably recording him. “There are some others I’m forgetting,” he finally said.
Catherine asked where the books were kept, and he gave an address in a town I hadn’t heard of. Then, at her request, he listed the other Fellows. They were just names to me, and I couldn’t remember them.
When that was over, I looked at Catherine to see if she was finished. She only shrugged. “Okay, Horace,” I said. “On your feet.” I lifted him and handcuffed him behind his back.
The rear door of the Caddy was unlocked, and the seat was spacious. I loaded Horace inside, then emptied his backup revolver and tossed it into the nose of a canoe in the rafters. I slid the tip of the ghost knife through his ankle and told him to get some sleep. He thanked me and closed his eyes.
When I turned away from him, Catherine was standing very close. “What do you have there?”
I slipped the ghost knife into my pocket. “A spell.”
“It made him answer all our questions. He didn’t hesitate at all.”
“Yeah,” I said. “He also didn’t want to kill us anymore.”
She laughed a little. “That’s a good thing, too. Okay. I think you should give that to me.” She held out her hand.
“That spell. You should give it to me and show me how it works. I’m the investigator here, and that thing could really help me with my job.”
“This is my spell,” I said. “I cast it.”
“I understand.” She didn’t pull back her open palm. “But you can see that this would be for the best.”
I was surprised that she would even ask this of me. “It’s my spell,” I said again with more emphasis. “I cast it myself. It’s pretty much a part of me. You might as well ask for my thumb.”
“Oh.” She let her hand fall to her side. “Is that how it is?”
“Yeah. You didn’t know?”
“I’m just an investigator. People with spells don’t usually explain anything to me.”
“Let me explain this much, then: I can feel this spell like it’s a part of my body. I don’t know how to explain it better, but it feels like it’s alive. And it’s mine.”
I could see that she had more questions, but all she said was “Thank you.”
“Did you get all that,” I asked, “with the list of books and people?”
When she answered, her voice was low. “Yes, but we don’t need it. The society has a mole in their group. That’s how we knew about the auction. I was just testing him to see how compliant your little spell made him.”
Sure, now that she knew she couldn’t have it, it was a little spell. “How do we find this mole? Maybe he can give us better information.”
“He’s not here, unfortunately. Not only did he give us this information at the last possible minute, he’s gone into hiding. Probably ice fishing in Canada or something.”
“So, this group without a name—”
“Okay. This Fellowship: What do we do about them?” I wasn’t sure whether the society wanted to dig into their secrets or if they wanted us to keep our hands off in case we flushed out their rat.
“Just don’t kill them all,” she said, her voice tight. Apparently, that was all she had to say.
She finished photographing the license plates, then we followed the path Horace had made in the mud to the house.
Catherine pulled herself up and peeped into a window. “Empty,” she said. “Let’s go.”
She hurried to the back door. I saw a keypad on the wall and a sign announcing which security company would send a car if the alarm went off. Luckily, Horace had propped the door open with a hand truck.
She went inside and I followed. I didn’t like it, but I followed. The oppressive warmth and bright lights made me feel like I’d been captured already.
“This way,” Catherine said. She moved the hand truck
quietly against the wall.
She led me through a mudroom into the kitchen. We passed a gas grill, a fridge that had a door larger than my bed, and a long stainless steel counter.
“There.” Catherine hurried into the pantry and began inspecting aprons hanging from hooks. When she reached a white, double-breasted jacket, she yanked it down and held it against my chest. “Put this on. It’ll let you get close enough to these guys to do your mind-control thing.”
I stripped off my jacket and gave it to her. “It’s not mind control, you know. All it does is make them sorta docile. They get all apologetic if they’ve been trying to kill me, but that’s it.”
“What if they’re not trying to kill you?” She grabbed a tray off a metal rack and placed a plate on it. “What if you just need information from them?”
“I tried that,” I answered. “But only once. I didn’t like the results.”
I pulled on the white jacket. It was too small; my wrists and shirttails stuck out. She picked up a silver tray, and then we heard footsteps. I slapped the light switch off, and Catherine swung the pantry door until it was just open a crack. She peeked through the opening, and I joined her.
At first we could only see an empty kitchen. We heard a rattling doorknob and a woman cursing under her breath, then she hurried into view. She was at least seventy, hollow-looking, with long, stringy hair. Her nightgown was dingy and speckled with food. It looked like she hadn’t bathed in a long time.
Heavier footsteps followed her. She grabbed a ladle and held it in both hands. I didn’t think she had the strength to hurt a squirrel, but she looked enthusiastic. “Keep away!” she said. Her voice had an air of lost authority.
Then the man she was warning off stepped into view. He was about thirty-five, with the pouchy face of a hard drinker. He wore sloppy nurse whites and had just enough muscle to push around old women.
“Regina,” he said with warning in his voice, “you know better than this.”
“You keep away,” Regina said, her voice high. “You’re fired!”
“Regina, if you come peacefully—”
She swung the ladle, hitting him on the fat part of his shoulder. The blow didn’t have enough force to dent a stick of cold butter, but the nurse bared his teeth. “How many times do I have to teach you this lesson?” He snatched the ladle out of her hand and tossed it clattering into the sink. Regina cowered, but he wasn’t in a merciful mood. He grabbed her wrist and pinched the skin of her upper arm viciously. Regina’s face contorted with pain, her mouth making a silent oh oh oh as she tried to slump away from him toward the floor.
Cold revulsion flooded through me and rekindled a fire that I’d been lacking for months.
Catherine must have sensed something because she held her hand in front of me, trying to keep me in hiding. Unfortunately, I wasn’t made for investigating.
I pulled a skillet off a hook, not caring how much sound it made, and stepped forward. Catherine backed away from the door and let me pull it wide. She knew there was nothing to be gained by scuffling with me.
When the nurse noticed me, his smugness turned into astonishment. I charged at him. He shouted “Hey!” An instant later I was on him. He threw his hands up and inched, but it was all instinct. Instead of swinging the skillet in a wide arc, which probably would have killed him, I jabbed with it, angling it between his elbows. It struck the side of his jaw.
He tumbled backward onto the floor. He was out like a light, and I felt no satisfaction in it.
Regina was still crouched beside the sink. I offered her my hand, and she looked at it as if it might burn her. She stood without my help.
I offered her the skillet, and her eyes lit up. She took it gratefully. I put my finger to my lips and slipped back into the pantry.
Catherine had taken up a position behind the door. I left the door open just enough to peek out at Regina.
I heard people rush into the room. Regina raised the skillet over her head. “Don’t come any closer!”
“It is all right, ma’am,” I heard a woman say. “There is no need to be violent.” I liked the careful way she pronounced every word.
Regina glared. “What have you done with Armand?”
“Not a thing, ma’am, I assure you,” Well-Spoken Woman answered.
“Madam,” a man’s voice said. “May I approach this man? I fear he might be dead.” He had a Russian accent.
“I hope he is dead.” Regina still held the skillet high, but she was getting tired. A hiking boot and a gray pant leg entered my field of vision, but I didn’t widen the opening to get a better look. “I hope he’s as dead as a… as a…” She sighed and let the skillet fall against her shoulder. It was late and she was tired. “He always did things to hurt me.”
“I’m sorry for that, ma’am,” Well-Spoken said. “And who are you, if I may ask?”
Regina straightened up. “This is my house.”
Someone else rushed in with the clicking footsteps of high heels. “Aunt Reggie, what have you done?” another woman asked. She had a high, harried voice and a slight southern drawl.
“I stood up for myself,” the old woman said harshly.
“Oh, God, is he dead?”
“No,” the man said. “He is unconscious and possibly has a broken jaw. He should be taken to a hospital.”
“The two- hour grace period has not yet ended,” Well-Spoken said.
A woman stepped into view and took the skillet from Regina without kindness or cruelty. She was nearly thirty, with an orange tanning-booth tan. She wore a green suit with touches of gold at the lapels and cuffs. Something about her put me off. “She’s right,” she said. She was the one with the drawl. “It’ll be another half hour before anyone can leave. We have to give Mr. Yin’s truck the head start we promised.”
They don’t know. They don’t know that, just a mile away, the truck was on its side and the predator was on the loose.
The gray pant leg and shoe moved out of my field of vision. “And if he dies?” Mr. Accent asked.
“Then his family will sue us.” The niece turned to Regina. “Aunt Reggie, let’s get back to your room. Please. I don’t have time for this right now.”
“What about Armand?” Regina asked as she let herself be led away. “What do all these people have to do with Armand? I want to see him! Why won’t you let me see him?”
Her voice receded, and a man I hadn’t heard before said something in a language I couldn’t identify. His voice was harsh and low.
“There’s no need to be rude,” Well-Spoken said. “But I agree. The old woman can also identify us to the police.”
The harsh voice spoke again. Was it German? The woman answered in the same language.
The Russian man cleared his throat. “I do not like the idea of killing a sick old woman. If it is necessary, of course I will do it, but she is very like my own grandmother. Why would we need to kill anyone? There is nothing illegal here.”
The harsh voice answered with a short remark.
“I agree.” Well-Spoken was still cool and relaxed. “It is one thing for us to know what was sold here, but the woman could raise an outcry, especially if she regained part of her fortune. I would hate to attract the wrong kind of attention.”
The harsh voice again. Well-Spoken answered him: “Perhaps not, but they could harm us.”
“We would also prefer not to attract the wrong kind of attention,” the Russian said. “But I still do not like the idea of murder.”
“Security has been inadequate from the moment we arrived,” she said, ignoring the man’s comment. “For instance, there is also the problem of Mr. Kripke.”
“Yes,” the Russian said. “He and the group he represents are not discreet.”
The German man spoke. The woman sighed and answered: “I’m afraid I must say the same. Unfortunately, I must leave soon to meet Mr. Yin. Neither of us can linger long enough to take care of him.” I wished one of them would step into my line of sight, narrow as it was. I wanted a good look at anyone who talked that casually about murder.
The Russian sighed. “We will do it. No one will find the body. But in exchange, we spare the old woman. This is America—no one will listen to her.”
“Acceptable,” Well-Spoken said. A pale man in a long scarlet ski jacket arrived. He was as tall and crook-necked as a stork. I figured him for one of Horace’s Fellows. He lifted the nurse’s legs. Unseen hands helped him carry the man away.
Then a man stepped into my view. He wore heavy canvas pants with a leather jacket. His hair was blond and wispy and his skin pale. He had the face of a man who’d taken a lot of beatings and the expression of one who’d given out even more.
But that wasn’t what made me catch my breath. He had tattoos just like mine on his hands, neck, and even his face. I could see that they went up his sleeve, down his collar, and under his hairline. He didn’t look like part of—what had Well-Spoken called him?—Yin’s crew of pin-striped gunmen. But who was he with? Was he the German voice, working for the “extremely unpleasant old man”? Kripke’s bodyguard turned traitor to his boss? Or was he one of the Fellows? I hoped he was part of the Twenty Palace Society. Or even—what had Catherine said?—an ally. I didn’t like the look of him and didn’t want him as an enemy.
He stared at the pantry door, his expression alert and calm. I knew he wouldn’t be able to see me—the room was too dark and the gap too small—but then it occurred to me that I was assuming he had everyday human eyes. If one of those marks gave him X-ray vision or something, I was in for a fight.
Someone’s cell began playing Mozart. I heard Well-Spoken answer it in a language I didn’t recognize. Some kind of Chinese, maybe? Horace had said Mr. Yin spoke Cantonese, so maybe that was it. After a delay, she said: “My employer wants me to speak with our hostess. If you’ll excuse me.”
I heard her walk away. The tattooed man walked away too. I waited, listening to the silence. Tattoo hadn’t acted as though he’d seen me, but maybe he had a great poker face. Maybe he was going to another room to get a shotgun.
Catherine came toward me, her eyes widened as if to ask Are they gone?
“I guess so,” I said. No one heard me. No one shouted Hey again. I opened the pantry door on the empty kitchen.
Catherine slapped my shoulder. It wasn’t a playful tap, but it wasn’t meant to hurt, either. “Dumbass,” she said. She kept her voice low. “You nearly got us killed for that old woman.”
“Definitely so. I understand the impulse, boy, but bigger things are at stake here.”
I didn’t like being called boy, and I didn’t need to be reminded of the stakes, but there was no edge to be gained squabbling over it.
Catherine wanted me to eavesdrop on Well-Spoken Woman’s conversation with the host while she got into position to take photos of the bidders as they left. We agreed to meet in an hour at her car. If one of us didn’t make the meeting, we would meet at nine a.m. in the parking lot of the post office in the town below. My flannel jacket didn’t go with the white servant’s coat, so Catherine promised to bring it to the car.
“Don’t get killed” was the last thing she said before she left.
END of CHAPTER TWO
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