His neighbors were all young and rich. They drove Land Rover SUVs, kept shih tzus, wore North Face hiking clothes but never went hiking. Every morning they said hello to Samuel with polite, nervous smiles, wondering how the hell he had managed to buy his way into their company.
Soon, he could tell them all to fuck off. On his way out of town maybe he'd swipe one of their nasty-faced little dogs, take it to West Oakland, find a pit bull for it to play with. Mail what was left back to the owner. Sign it like he'd signed the letters to Zedman for the last nine years. Love, Samuel.
He was thinking about that possibility, smiling to himself, when he pulled into his carport space and saw the mud-splattered mountain bike next to his back gate.
He felt in his pocket, fingering the new blade he'd bought to replace the one that was now at the bottom of the Lafayette Reservoir.
He entered the backyard, found the sliding glass door open. Inside, the television was playing, sitcom angst mixing with the AM talk show from the bathroom radio, the top 40 station on the bedroom boom box—all the voices Samuel left on, twenty-four hours a day, to drown the noise in his head.
The bedroom windows were open, looking out on the view that was half Samuel's rent price—Highway 24 directly below, a ribbon of lights slicing its way through the hills, down into the Berkeley flats, toward the blanket of fog that covered the Bay.
Race was kneeling by the bed, his back to the door. He was going through Talia's leather satchel, pulling out money, a gun next to him on the sheets.
“You need allowance?” Samuel asked.
Race lurched around, his eyes swimming. His fingers curled around the gun.
Samuel wasn't worried about that. The gun wasn't any different than the pillow Race used to carry around when he was two, or the toy car he'd had when he was five—just something to hold tight.
“What happened to your nose?” Samuel asked. It looked like somebody had grafted his left nostril with a strawberry, then smashed it.
“I need money,” Race said.
“You can try asking. I never said no to you, have I?”
Race pressed his lips together, trying to keep from sobbing. He rubbed his nose with the back of his wrist.
“Momma's dead,” he said, like he hadn't already known that for a week.
“Yeah,” Samuel agreed. “And you know damn well who's going to take the blame, you don't get your girlfriend over here, let us talk things out.”
“I need to get to—Texas, somewhere. I need a plane ticket. Mallory—”
“What you talking about? Where is she?”
“What you mean, gone?”
Race told him. He described the man at the café who'd busted his nose, Mallory running off. Then afterward, watching from a distance, how he'd seen Mallory in handcuffs, forced into the man's car, a couple of BART cops watching. Race knew the man—the one who used to work at Laurel Heights, who now worked at a school for fucked-up kids in Texas.
But Race didn't have to tell Samuel that.
Samuel knew the man, too. And he knew what this meant for his plans, losing hold of Zedman's child.
Katherine's father, who'd moved away, who Samuel had tried so fucking hard to let go, to believe he'd been punished enough.
He got a warm feeling, like a ski mask rolling over his face.
He remembered the whimpering sounds Talia had made, the magnolia smell in her hair. He looked at Race and saw that same guilt, same amber eyes as Talia's, and Samuel knew he had to swallow back the rage. Swallow it quickly before it killed him.
The stereo was playing a song he didn't like—some Britney Spears shit. He slammed his fist against the speaker. He picked up the whole unit and threw it—smashed it into the wall with the cord flying behind like a rat's tail.
That felt good.
He stared at Race, thinking how handsome the boy would look, so much like his oldest brother, if he would only clean himself up. Race didn't need to smell like sour milk, wear that ratty jacket, go around town like a transient from Talia's to Nana's to God-knows-where. He should be living here. He should make something of himself. Samuel had sacrificed so much for him. So much.
He swallowed again, but there was only so much he could do to counter the rage when he saw the pathetic way Race was holding that gun, like he could ever shoot anything.
“What you looking at?” Samuel demanded.
“You killed Momma,” Race whimpered. “This money—it's hers. Ain't it?”
“What you going to do with that gun? You going to fly down to Texas and shoot somebody? You going to kill people for that girl, huh?”
“I got to help her.”
“You got to do shit.”
Samuel slapped the gun out of his hand. He picked it up, and for a dangerous second the gun seemed to be working against him—seeking flesh like a dowsing rod.
Samuel hated that moment, hated Race seeing the loss of control in his eyes.
He pressed the muzzle of the gun into the mattress and fired, over and over, screaming obscenities that were drowned out by the noise, until the magazine was empty.
His hand burned. The sheets smelled like ozone. There was a black ragged hole in the mattress, all the way down into the box spring.
Stupid, he told himself. The neighbors will call the cops.
But he knew the neighbors weren't home yet. They all worked late in the city. Nobody in the condos this time of evening but a couple dozen shih tzus.
When the ringing in his ears died down, he heard the television sitcom still going in the next room, the AM radio bitching in the bathroom.
Race was curled up in the corner by the nightstand, his hands grabbing at his hair. He was shivering, a line of mucus glistening on his upper lip. When he cried, he made wet, drowning sounds.
Samuel felt his mind tearing in half.
His rage drained away, replaced by a deep protectiveness—a benevolence toward Race so strong it made him want to cut himself to prove his love.
He had tried so hard to protect his family. He had sent Race to Laurel Heights for the opportunities, not for revenge. And yet when the girl had gotten too close to Race, Samuel hadn't stopped them. He had expected them to become friends—he wanted it.
Then at Talia's house . . . he'd been heartbroken to learn that Race had discovered the body, that the police wanted to talk to him. Samuel didn't wish any of that on Race. Nobody should make that kind of discovery.
But at the same time, Samuel had anticipated it. He had left Talia there to be found. He had wanted Race to see her—the whore stripped of her ability to run away, to fail them, to lie. And he had spilled the girl's necklace into the blood, too, imagining that a police technician would pick it up with tweezers, watch it glimmer in the light, read the inscription.
For the first time, Samuel understood why he'd done that. He understood the pattern his subconscious had been weaving—the dark net taking shape under the tightrope.
Chadwick. Everything else had just been practice.
Funny, how you could build up to something all your life and not even realize you were doing it.
He knelt beside Race, stroked his hair. The boy looked five years old, shivering, his eyes glowing with fear.
Samuel imagined one of those nights long ago, after Ali did his business. He imagined Talia—or was it Talia?—stumbling out and holding Race, and saying, It's all right, honey. I'm okay. We going to get you out of here. You going to a good school. Samuel's going to help you. Ali's not going to touch us no more.
And Samuel had taken care of Ali.
Samuel always protected his siblings—because if he didn't, who would?
Years before, he'd tried to send his sister away to protect her from Elbridge, and when that didn't work, he'd taken Johnny Jay's gun out of the welder's box in the garage, waited in the bushes down the street for Elbridge to come home—Elbridge, who always walked home the same way from the pool hall, who had plenty of enemies and wouldn't be missed.
Samuel couldn't leave his sisters and brothers alone. He couldn't bear to see them hurt, any more than he could bear for Katherine to die, his only friend—the only one who ever understood the darkness inside him.
He touched the side of Race's face. “Where you think you were going?”
“No. I got a better idea.”
“You'll kill her.”
“Now, you listen to me, Race. I'll take care of you, but you got to listen. Nobody else going to get hurt. Not your girl. Not you. Not anybody who matters.”
And Samuel painted a picture for him—simple and pretty. Lots of money, a new home in a faraway country, he and his girlfriend together, Samuel watching out for them, taking care of them. Samuel told him how it would work. He wanted Race to understand, to appreciate how beautiful it was. Race was a bright boy. He could figure the math.
“You can't,” Race said. “They'll catch you.”
“You crash here for a few days, all right? Nobody think to look for you here—last place in the world they look for Race Montrose. You wait for me. Your girlfriend going to be okay.”
Samuel could see in his eyes—Race desperate to buy into the dream. Samuel knew he was terrified, knew he wanted to run. But Samuel wasn't worried about that.
In the end, Race would come to him the same way the schoolkids did—crowding onto his lap to hear a story. Samuel could make him believe whatever he wanted. He would make the girl believe, too. And when it was time to change the story—to write the girl out of it, Samuel would make that go down easy. Race would get over it.
Because kids have survival instincts. They're like animals. They know who cares for them, who to trust. They won't climb onto just anybody's lap.
“Stay here,” Samuel told him. “And Race, I know your hiding places. Don't skip. Understand?”
“Now go wash your face. And while you're in the bathroom, turn up the radio. It's too quiet in here.”
Race stood, still shaky, and wiped the blood and mucus off his lip. He went to do as he was told, leaving Samuel staring out the window, down across the valley where the highway cut through like a bleeding artery, spilling bloody brake lights into the Bay.
Chadwick had disrespected him again.
If Samuel ever doubted God had a plan for him, he didn't doubt it anymore.
He had been given a sign. He must not leave without settling every score. He must not leave one brick on top of another in the rubble.
And, praise God, Samuel would obey.
Mallory wanted to yell something back. She chewed on all the bad names she could call this bastard, but she was thinking about what had happened to that last kid who used the F-word.
The instructor yelled her name again.
Mallory didn't look up. Boots crunched on the gravel.
“Simple instructions, Zedman.” The guy bellowed like he was talking to somebody across the river, like he wanted all the buzzards circling this fucking place to hear him. “I say your name. You say, ‘Here, sir.' ”
Mallory's nausea was getting worse—the cold shakes, razors in her gut. She told herself she was sitting down on purpose, to protest, but the truth was she wasn't sure she could stand. The pain had never been this bad before. Her whole body was turning to ice and melting from the inside. She needed a fix. She had fantasies about Race finding her, busting in with a semiautomatic and taking her away. But Race wouldn't be coming. He was in worse trouble than she was.