She stared out at the balcony, remembering the rain, Race Montrose appearing in the doorway, drenched and frightened. A peace offering. Another message only partially delivered. She ain't going to be satisfied until they're both dead.
Where was the boy now? Where did he live, now that his home had been sold? She remembered the only time she'd ever given him a hug—in fourth grade, after chasing that car, how she'd hugged him and reassured him and told him to forget the shithead bigots in this world. He was better than them. The same words her father had told her, when she was small.
She traced her fingers along the Los Lobos CD, thinking of burning raisin bread in a Wedgwood oven, bougainvillea petals falling in the backyard as Carnaval music surged over the rooftops from Mission Street, Mallory jumping up to touch the arc of morning glories that had grown even taller than her father.
She grabbed her car keys and put on her coat.
On San Angelo Street, she found a parking spot a block up from the old middle school, deserted now for Christmas break. The air was cool and damp, the sidewalk slick with fog, but it was nothing like the hard freeze of nine years before.
She had just slipped the key into the lock of the townhouse when a man's voice called, “Hey!”
He stood in the middle of the street—a withered old Latino with a bent back and microscope lenses for glasses. He was wheeling groceries behind him in a little red wagon. Norma vaguely recognized him—a neighbor from ten years before, though she couldn't remember which floor of which building he rented. He'd complained about Katherine's music once, back in another lifetime.
“You still own that place?” he demanded.
She was tempted to say no, but having just put the key in the lock, she said instead, “Yeah.”
“Well, what did you drop in there—dog shit?”
“Saturday night! Dog shit!” the man repeated.
Norma was too mystified to respond.
He persisted. “Look, were you here on Saturday night or not? I could smell sewage right through the walls for two days. Ain't so bad now, but damn. Happens again I'm gonna call the cops, get them down here with some Lysol.”
The old man kept going, grumbling as he wheeled his wagon of groceries along the middle of the street.
She'd been here that afternoon, as had Chadwick, but they'd both left before dark. She wondered if the man's bad eyesight might have caused him some confusion about the time, or the woman he'd seen, or maybe even which building smelled bad.
Transients might have found their way into the house. That had happened before. Each time they'd been pretty indiscriminate about where they'd gone to the bathroom.
Norma tried the door without turning the key. It was unlocked. She stomped loudly up the stairs, into the empty living room.
There was a bad smell, all right—but worse than dog shit. A dead rat. Rotten garbage. Something sweet masking it—almost like perfume.
She remembered one time, the Mexican restaurant across the fence had dumped their garbage in the alley for two months to avoid paying for pickup. By the time the police came, the smell in the neighborhood had been something like this.
She went in the kitchen and opened the window, but nothing wafted in except taquería smoke—cabrito and flank steak grilled with cilantro.
She peeked in the kitchen closet. Nothing but a decade-old roach trap. The oven was empty. The master bedroom and closet—nothing.
She walked into Katherine's room and a point of fear pressed like an ice cube between her shoulder blades. The only piece of furniture, Chadwick's old wooden chair, had been busted into kindling. The portable stereo was smashed, too—D batteries scattered across the floor, a cracked Brahms CD glinting in a square of sunlight near the window.
Vandals. But why wouldn't they have taken the CD player?
Norma swallowed back her desire to run. This was her house. There was no one here except her.
The smell wasn't coming from Katherine's room. She forced herself to move—back to the living room again.
The smell was strongest here. It seemed to be coming from the fireplace, but there was nothing there.
She stared around the empty room, remembering where the television had been, Chadwick's black leather chair.
Chadwick's father had sat in that chair during the last years of his life, watching out the window. He had shrunk to a frail, senseless old man, much smaller than his son, hardly moving except when his clocks went off on the mantel, every hour, driving Norma crazy.
Norma ran her eyes over the wainscoting, then moved her fingers along the wall until she found the crack. Hide-and-seek. Katherine's favorite hiding place.
Norma pressed the corner of the closet. The old door sprang open, and with it, the smell—excrement and cologne, rotten meat and baby powder and sour fear. Her eyes didn't understand what they were seeing at first—folds of crinkled plastic expanding, as if breathing, blue fabric and dark brown smears on pale skin, a crust of stubble and saliva on a cheek, a straight part in graying brown hair. She backed away and the thing twisted, tumbling out of its shower curtain as if to follow her—inanimate flesh that used to be a human face.
Norma stumbled backwards, fell, kicked at a dead hand. She was in Katherine's bedroom, then, pressing against the window, trying to claw it open, trying to breathe.
She had to get out.
But part of her refused to go into shock—the part that was inured to death, that dreamed of death all the time.
Stop, she said. Stop.
She turned, stepped back into the living room and stared at the thing.
It must've been there for several days, encased in plastic and doused in its own cologne, rotting, stiffening, in a place no one would ever look, in a house no one ever visited—no one except her.
Since Saturday, the day Chadwick was in town, the day Ann's embezzlement problem had been made public.
No. Chadwick would never do this. To kill in cold blood, to wrap the body and take it elsewhere. This house, of all places. That was the work of a monster.
But then, Norma believed in monsters. She had believed in them for nine years, had gotten close enough to see hers in the bathroom mirror, gripping a handful of blue and yellow pills.
John was dead. There was no longer room for doubt. No room for Ann's fucking optimism.
Norma heard Ann's voice in her head, pleading for more time. Don't call the police, not yet. But Norma had had enough of that. She wouldn't let anyone soften her. Never again.
Pérez's feet were bleeding.
He had walked for maybe an hour, but had only just hit the road, if you could call it a road—a two-rut path, sprouting weeds in the middle like a hairy spine. The gravel and mud were no kinder on his feet than the fields had been.
He tried to concentrate on the morning, which was really very fine—cold, but sunny. It made Pérez think of a winter day in Monterrey, back at his family's ranch. This place was greener, but otherwise much like home. Better than the fog of Mill Valley, that damn hilltop house of Mr. Z's.
Pérez stumbled along, cursing his luck.
He should've taken the clean shot at Chadwick when he had the chance, last night in the woods, but something had failed him—some unwanted twinge of conscience.
It bothered him that Chadwick had read him so well. Pérez wished he were the type who could track down a man who'd just released him—put a bullet in his head. But he couldn't do that. He couldn't even muster anger at Mallory.
He consoled himself with the thought of a payoff. Now that he understood the truth, the knowledge would be worth something. He could turn the tables. He could become Samuel. The idea made him smile.
It was God's will he had spared Chadwick's life. In return, Chadwick—the deluded bastard—had unwittingly given him knowledge, a way to make money. Chadwick was in enough danger—he didn't need Pérez's help to die.
Pérez would kill no more. He would demand his cut of the millions, and he would get it. He would return to Monterrey a hero, live out the rest of his days on the ranch, free of debt.
His wife, Rosa, would take him back. He would be with his children again, two boys he had not seen since they were babies. They would be scared of him at first, maybe even angry, but eventually they would understand why he had left for so long, to provide for them.
He would spend the rest of his life making amends. He was still young. He would enjoy many winter mornings like this, in his own fields, teaching his children to ride and to shoot.
He was so focused on the horizon, wondering where the muddy path would lead him, that he did not hear the vehicle behind him until it was almost on top of him.
It was a new blue minivan—out of place on the country road. When Pérez saw the driver, he frowned. He had not counted on this—but he could handle it. Cool and dumb. He had not yet played his hand.
The van stopped. The driver's window purred down.
“What the hell you want?” Pérez demanded.
“You were not easy to find.”
Pérez spat into the dust. “You got something to tell me?”
“You've walked far enough. You want a ride?”
Pérez thought about that, knowing he should refuse, but that would look bad. And his feet hurt. There was no danger here—just some bullshitting, some posturing, a test he knew he could pass.
He nodded, stepped around the front, and the van started moving forward, bumped gently into his legs.
Pérez glared through the windshield. He stepped back, not amused by the joke.
The van lurched forward again, and again bumped Pérez's legs. But Pérez didn't move out of the way. It was not in his nature to back down. He tapped his chest with his fingers. “What the fuck?”
And then he read the situation—a heartbeat too late—just as the driver punched the gas.
Pérez clawed at metal, felt himself being spun around like a child in a blindfold game, and then he was looking at the cold blue sky, his arm held up by a barbed wire fence, several barbs sticking in the skin of his forearm. His legs were numb. He couldn't move.
He heard the van's door open and close. He imagined the porch of his ranch in Monterrey. He imagined that the steps coming toward him were his wife's.
The driver stood over him—an outline rimmed in the sunset. A voice from high above said, “I could've been gone by now, Emilio. But I wanted to see you kill Chadwick. You disappointed me.”
Pérez imagined the sounds of the children he had not seen in so long. He saw the sunlight catching the edges of Rosa's cotton dress, triangles of red fluttering around her legs.
“And now you've figured it,” the voice told him. “You and the girl both. I can tell in your eyes.”
Pérez tried to speak, tried to tell Rosa he loved her, but no sound came.
“Let me help you out here, Emilio,” the voice told him. “Let me give you a lift.”
Pérez heard thunder. As his eyes went dark, he felt a small warm spot on his forehead, as if someone—perhaps a child—had planted a kiss there.
“You have two choices,” Hunter said. “Your teammates left an hour ago. You can still log your solo trip, make the pickup area by noon tomorrow. Or you can sit it out, restart Black Level with the group below you. Do you understand?”