This book is for some special people who live too far away—
Ed and Carol Gorman
—with the wish that our modern world really had shrunk to one small town, as the media philosophers insist it has. Then we could meet at the little cafe down on Main Street at Maple Avenue to have lunch, talk, and laugh.
You know a dream is like a river
Ever changing as it flows.
And a dreamer’s just a vessel
That must follow where it goes.
Trying to learn from what’s behind you
And never knowing what’s in store
Makes each day a constant battle
Just to stay between the shores.
Garth Brooks, Victoria Shaw
Rush headlong and hard at life
Or just sit at home and wait.
All things good and all the wrong
Will come right to you: it’s fate.
Hear the music, dance if you can.
Dress in rags or wear your jewels.
Drink your choice, nurse your fear
In this old honkytonk of fools.
—The Book of Counted Sorrows
Tuesday was a fine California day, full of sunshine and promise, until Harry Lyon had to shoot someone at lunch.
For breakfast, sitting at his kitchen table, he ate toasted English muffins with lemon marmalade and drank strong black Jamaican coffee. A pinch of cinnamon gave the brew a pleasantly spicy taste.
The kitchen window provided a view of the greenbelt that wound through Los Cabos, a sprawling condominium development in Irvine. As president of the homeowners’ association, Harry drove the gardeners hard and rigorously monitored their work, ensuring that the trees, shrubs, and grass were as neatly trimmed as a landscape in a fairy tale, as if maintained by platoons of gardening elves with hundreds of tiny shears.
As a child, he had enjoyed fairy tales even more than children usually did. In the worlds of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, springtime hills were always flawlessly green, velvet-smooth. Order prevailed. Villains invariably met with justice, and the virtuous were rewarded—though sometimes only after hideous suffering. Hansel and Gretel didn’t die in the witch’s oven; the crone herself was roasted alive therein. Instead of stealing the queen’s newborn daughter, Rumpelstiltskin was foiled and, in his rage, tore himself apart.
In real life during the last decade of the twentieth century, Rumpelstiltskin would probably get the queen’s daughter. He would no doubt addict her to heroin, turn her out as a prostitute, confiscate her earnings, beat her for pleasure, hack her to pieces, and escape justice by claiming that society’s intolerance for bad-tempered, evil-minded trolls had driven him temporarily insane.
Before going to work, he washed the dishes and utensils, dried them, and put them away. He loathed coming home to mess and clutter.
At the foyer mirror by the front door, he paused to adjust the knot in his tie. He slipped into a navy-blue blazer and checked to be sure the weapon in his shoulder holster made no telltale bulge.
As on every workday for the past six months, he avoided traffic-packed freeways, following the same surface streets to the Multi-Agency Law Enforcement Special Projects Center in Laguna Niguel, a route that he had mapped out to minimize travel time. He had arrived at the office as early as 8:15 and as late as 8:28, but he had never been tardy.
That Tuesday when he parked his Honda in the shadowed lot on the west side of the two-story building, the car clock showed 8:21. His wristwatch confirmed the time. Indeed, all of the clocks in Harry’s condominium and the one on the desk in his office would be displaying 8:21. He synchronized all of his clocks twice a week.
Standing beside the car, he drew deep, relaxing breaths. Rain had fallen overnight, scrubbing the air clean. The March sunshine gave the morning a glow as golden as the flesh of a ripe peach.
To meet Laguna Niguel architectural standards, the Special Projects Center was a two-story Mediterranean-style building with a columned promenade. Surrounded by lush azaleas and tall melaleucas with lacy branches, it bore no resemblance to most police facilities. Some of the cops who worked out of Special Projects thought it looked too effete, but Harry liked it.
The institutional decor of the interior had little in common with the picturesque exterior. Blue vinyl-tile floors. Pale-gray walls. Acoustic ceilings. However, its air of orderliness and efficiency was comforting.
Even at that early hour, people were on the move through the lobby and hallways, mostly men with the solid physique and self-confident attitude that marked career cops. Only a few were in uniform. Special Projects drew on plainclothes homicide detectives and undercover operatives from federal, state, county, and city agencies to facilitate criminal investigations spread over numerous jurisdictions. Special Projects teams—sometimes whole task forces—dealt with youth-gang killings, serial murders, pattern rapists, and large-scale narcotics activities.
Harry shared a second-floor office with Connie Gulliver. His half of the room was softened by a small palm, Chinese evergreens, and the leafy trailers of a pothos. Her half had no plants. On his desk were only a blotter, pen set, and small brass clock. Heaps of files, loose papers, and photographs were stacked on hers.
Surprisingly, Connie had gotten to the office first. She was standing at the window, her back to him.
“Good morning,” he said.
“Is it?” she asked sourly.
She turned to him. She was wearing badly scuffed Reeboks, blue jeans, a red-and-brown-checkered blouse, and a brown corduroy jacket. The jacket was one of her favorites, worn so often that the cords were threadbare in places, the cuffs were frayed, and the inner-arm creases in the sleeves appeared to be as permanent as river valleys carved in bedrock by eons of flowing water.
In her hand was an empty paper cup from which she had been drinking coffee. She wadded it almost angrily and threw it on the floor. It bounced and came to rest in Harry’s half of the room.
“Let’s hit the streets,” she said, heading toward the hall door.
Staring at the cup on the floor, he said, “What’s the rush?”
“We’re cops, aren’t we? So let’s don’t stand around with our thumbs up our asses, let’s go do cop stuff.”
As she moved out of sight into the hall, he stared at the cup on his side of the room. With his foot, he nudged it across the imaginary line that divided the office.
He followed Connie to the door but halted at the threshold. He glanced back at the paper cup.
By now Connie would be at the end of the corridor, maybe even descending the stairs.
Harry hesitated, returned to the crumpled cup, and tossed it in the waste can. He disposed of the other two cups as well.
He caught up with Connie in the parking lot, where she yanked open the driver’s door of their unmarked Project sedan. As he got in the other side, she started the car, twisting the key so savagely that it should have snapped off in the ignition.
“Have a bad night?” he inquired.
She slammed the car into gear.
He said, “Headache?”
She reversed too fast out of the parking slot.
He said, “Thorn in the paw?”
The car shot toward the street.
Harry braced himself, but he was not worried about her driving. She could handle a car far better than she handled people. “Want to talk about whatever’s wrong?”
For someone who lived on the edge, who seemed fearless in moments of danger, who went skydiving and breakneck dirt-biking on weekends, Connie Gulliver was frustrating
ly, primly reticent when it came to making personal revelations. They had been working together for six months, and although Harry knew a great many things about her, sometimes it seemed he knew nothing important about her.
“It might help to talk about it,” Harry said.
“It wouldn’t help.”
Harry watched her surreptitiously as she drove, wondering if her anger arose from man problems. He had been a cop for fifteen years and had seen enough of human treachery and misery to know that men were the source of most women’s troubles. He knew nothing whatsoever of Connie’s love life, however, not even whether she had one.
“Does it have to do with this case?”
He believed her. She tried, with apparent success, never to be stained by the filth in which her life as a cop required her to wade.
She said, “But I sure do want to nail this sonofabitch Durner. I think we’re close.”
Doyle Durner, a drifter who moved in the surfer subculture, was wanted for questioning in a series of rapes that had grown more violent incident by incident until the most recent victim had been beaten to death. A sixteen-year-old schoolgirl.
Durner was their primary suspect because he was known to have undergone a circumferential autologous penile engorgement. A plastic surgeon in Newport Beach liposuctioned fat out of Durner’s waist and injected it into his penis to increase its thickness. The procedure was definitely not recommended by the American Medical Association, but if the surgeon had a big mortgage to pay and the patient was obsessed with his circumference, the forces of the marketplace prevailed over concerns about post-operative complications. The circumference of Durner’s manhood had been increased fifty percent, such a dramatic enlargement that it must have’ caused him occasional discomfort. By all reports, he was happy with the results, not because he was likely to impress women but because he was likely to hurt them, which was the whole point. The victims’ description of their attacker’s freakish difference had helped authorities zero in on Durner—and three of them had noted the tattoo of a snake on his groin, which had been recorded in his police file upon his conviction for two rapes in Santa Barbara eight years ago.
By noon that Tuesday, Harry and Connie had spoken with workers and customers at three hangouts popular among surfers and other beach habitués in Laguna: a shop that sold surfboards and related gear, a yogurt and health food store, and a dimly lighted bar in which a dozen customers were drinking Mexican beers at eleven o’clock in the morning. If you could believe what they said, which you couldn’t, they had never heard of Doyle Durner and did not recognize him in the photo they were shown.
In the car between stops, Connie regaled Harry with the latest items in her collection of outrages. “You hear about the woman in Philadelphia, they found two infants dead of malnutrition in her apartment and dozens of crack-cocaine vials scattered all over the place? She’s so doped up her babies starve to death, and you know all they could charge her with? Reckless endangerment.”
Harry only sighed. When Connie was in the mood to talk about what she sometimes called “the continuing crisis”—or when she was more sarcastic, “the pre-millennium cotillion”; or in her bleaker moments, “these new Dark Ages”—no response was expected from him. She was quite satisfied to make a monologue of it.
She said, “A guy in New York killed his girlfriend’s two-year-old daughter, pounded her with his fists and kicked her because she was dancing in front of the TV, interfering with his view. Probably watching ‘Wheel of Fortune,’ didn’t want to miss a shot of Vanna White’s fabulous legs.”
Like most cops, Connie had an acute sense of black humor. It was a defense mechanism. Without it you’d be driven crazy or become terminally depressed by the endless encounters with human evil and perversity that were central to the job. To those whose knowledge of police life came from half-baked television programs, real-life cop humor could seem crude and insensitive at times—though no good cop gave a rat’s ass for what anybody but another cop thought of him.
“There’s this Suicide Prevention Center up in Sacramento,” Connie said, braking for a red traffic light. “One of the counselors got sick of getting calls from this depressive senior citizen, so he and a friend went to the old guy’s apartment, held him down, slashed his wrists and throat.”
Sometimes, beneath Connie’s darkest humor, Harry perceived a bitterness that was not common to cops. Perhaps it was worse than mere bitterness. Maybe even despair. She was so self-contained that it was usually difficult to determine exactly what she was feeling.
Unlike Connie, Harry was an optimist. To remain an optimist, however, he found it necessary not to dwell on human folly and malevolence the way she did.
Trying to change the subject, he said, “How about lunch? I know this great little Italian trattoria with oilcloth on the tables, wine bottles for candleholders, good gnocchi, fabulous manicotti.”
She grimaced. “Nah. Let’s just grab tacos at a drive-through and eat on the fly.”
They compromised on a burger joint half a block north of Pacific Coast Highway. It had about a dozen customers and a Southwest decor. The tops of the whitewashed wood tables were sealed beneath an inch of acrylic. Pastel flame-pattern upholstery on the chairs. Potted cacti. Gorman and Parkison lithographs. They ought to have been selling black-bean soup and mesquite-grilled beef instead of burgers and fries.
Harry and Connie were eating at a small table along one wall—a dry, grilled-chicken sandwich for him; shoestring fries and sloppy, aromatic cheeseburger for her—when the tall man entered in a flash of sunlight that flared off the glass door. He stopped at the hostess station and looked around.
Although the guy was neatly groomed and well dressed in light-gray cords, white shirt, and dark-gray Ultrasuede jacket, something about him instantly made Harry uneasy. His vague smile and mildly distracted air gave him a curiously professorial look. His face was round and soft, with a weak chin and pale lips. He looked timid, not threatening. Nevertheless, Harry’s gut tightened. Cop instinct.
Sammy Shamroe had been known as “Sam the Sham” back when he was a Los Angeles advertising agency executive blessed with a singular creative talent—and cursed with a taste for cocaine. That had been three years ago. An eternity.
Now he crawled out of the packing crate in which he lived, trailing the rags and crumpled newspapers that served as his bedding. He stopped crawling as soon as he moved beyond the drooping boughs of the oleander bush which grew at the edge of the vacant lot and concealed most of the crate. For a while he stayed on his hands and knees, his head hanging down, staring at the alley pavement.
Long ago he had ceased to be able to afford the high-end drugs that had so thoroughly ruined him. Now he suffered from a cheap-wine headache. He felt as if his skull had fallen open while he slept, allowing the wind to plant a handful of prickly burrs in the surface of his exposed brain.
He was not in the least disoriented. Because the sunlight fell straight down into the alley, leaving shadows only close along the back walls of the buildings on the north side, Sammy knew it was nearly noon. Although he hadn’t worn a watch, seen a calendar, held a job, or had an appointment to keep in three years, he was always aware of the season, the month, the day. Tuesday. He was acutely cognizant of where he was (Laguna Beach), of how he had gotten there (every mistake, every self-indulgence, every stupid self-destructive act retained in vivid detail), and of what he could expect for the rest of his life (shame, deprivation, struggle, regret).
The worst aspect of his fall from grace was the stubborn clarity of his mind, which even massive quantities of alcohol could pollute only briefly. The prickly burrs of his hangover headache were a mild inconvenience when compared to the sharp thorns of memory and self-awareness that bristled deeper in his brain.
He heard someone approaching. Heavy footsteps. A faint limp: one foot scraping lightly against the pavement. He knew that tread. He began to tremble. He kept his head down and
closed his eyes, willing the footsteps to grow fainter and recede into silence. But they grew louder, nearer… then stopped directly in front of him.
“You figured it out yet?”
It was the deep, gravelly voice that had recently begun to haunt Sammy’s nightmares. But he was not asleep now. This was not the monster of his turbulent dreams. This was the real creature that inspired the nightmares.
Reluctantly Sammy opened his grainy eyes, and looked up.
The ratman stood over him, grinning.
“You figured it out yet?”
Tall, burly, his mane of hair disordered, his tangled beard flecked with unidentifiable bits and chunks of matter too disgusting to contemplate, the ratman was a terrifying figure. Where his beard did not conceal it, his face was gnarled by scars, as if he had been poked and slashed with a white-hot soldering iron. His large nose was hooked and crooked, his lips spotted with weeping sores. Upon his dark and diseased gums, his teeth perched like broken, age-yellowed marble tombstones.
The gravelly voice grew louder. “Maybe you’re already dead.”
The only ordinary thing about the ratman was his clothes: tennis shoes, charity-shop khakis, cotton shirt, and a badly weathered black raincoat, all stained and heavily wrinkled. It was the uniform of a lot of street people who, some by their own fault and some not, had fallen through the cracks in the floorboards of modern society into the shadowy crawlspace beneath.
The voice softened dramatically as the ratman bent forward, leaned closer. “Already dead and in Hell? Could it be?”
Of all the extraordinary things about the ratman, his eyes were the most disturbing. They were intensely green, unusually green, but the queerest thing was that the black pupils were elliptical like the pupils of a cat or reptile. The eyes made the ratman’s body seem like merely a disguise, a rubber suit, as if something unspeakable peered out of a costume at a world on which it had not been born but which it coveted.
The ratman lowered his voice even further to a raspy whisper: “Dead, in Hell, and me the demon assigned to torture you?”
Knowing what was coming, having endured it before, Sammy tried to scramble to his feet. But the ratman, quick as wind, kicked him before he could get out of the way. The kick caught him in the left shoulder, just missing his face, and it didn’t feel like a sneaker but like a jackboot, as if the foot inside was entirely of bone or horn or the stuff of which a beetle’s carapace was formed. Sammy curled into the fetal position, protecting his head with his folded arms as best he could. The ratman kicked him again, again, left foot, right loot, left foot, almost as if doing a little dance, a sort of jig, one-kick-anduh-two-kick-anduh-one-kick-anduh-two, not making a sound, neither snarling in rage nor laughing scornfully, not breathing hard in spite of the exertion.
The kicking stopped.
Sammy drew into an even tighter ball, like a pill bug, curling around his pains.
The alleyway was unnaturally silent except for Sammy’s soft weeping, for which he loathed himself. The traffic noise from the nearby streets had completely faded. The oleander bush behind him no longer rustled in the breeze. When Sammy angrily told himself to be a man, when he swallowed his sobs, the quietude was death-perfect.
He dared to open his eyes and peek between his arms, looking toward the far end of the alley. Blinking to clear his tear-veiled vision, he was able to see two cars halted in the street beyond. The drivers, visible only as shadowy shapes, waited motionlessly.
Closer, directly in front of his face, an inch-long wingless earwig, strangely out of its environment of rotting wood and dark places, was frozen in the process of crossing the alley. The twin prongs on the insect’s back end appeared wicked, dangerous, and were curled up like the stinging tail of a scorpion, though in reality it was harmless. Some of its six legs touched the pavement, and others were lifted in mid-stride. It didn’t move even one of its segmented antennae, as if frozen by fear or poised to attack.
Sammy shifted his gaze to the end of the alley. Out in the street, the same cars were stalled in the same spots as before. The people in them sat like mannequins.
The insect again. Unmoving. As still as if dead and pinned to an entomologist’s specimen board.
Warily Sammy lowered his crossed arms from his head. Groaning, he rolled onto his back and looked up reluctantly at his assailant.
Looming, the ratman seemed a hundred feet tall. He studied Sammy with solemn interest. “Do you want to live?” he asked.