Authors: Steve Martini
Tags: #Fiction, #General
I am indebted to all at G. P. Putnam’s Sons for their patience in waiting for this book and in particular to David Highfill for his kindness, the keen insights of his editor’s eye, and his encouragement. To Esther Newberg, my agent at ICM, and my New York lawyer, Mike Rudell, I owe thanks for their encouragement, for being my eyes and ears in a distant city, and for their sage advice in times of difficulty. To my wife, Leah, and my daughter, Meg, I owe everything, for without them I would never have put pen to paper. I apologize to them for the endless hours I spent huddled over the keyboard when they deserved more. To their love and loyalty, their endless hours of listening, I owe this story of family devotion. To Marianne Dargitz, who read the early drafts of this manuscript and lent me her encouragement, I am indebted. To David Calof, who helped me navigate the troubled waters that made writing this story so difficult and who revealed hope when all looked bleak, I am thankful. And finally, last but never least, to a God whose presence was palpable during long, dark days of doubt, when seemingly all that was left was the promise of prayer, I owe my existence, the creative energy that is in me, and every word that has ever flowed through me.
In memory of Evo
This is the generation of that great leviathan . . . to which we owe . . . our peace and defence. For by this authority, given him by every particular man in the commonwealth, he hath the use of so much power and strength conferred on him, that by terror thereof, he is enabled to form the wills of them all, to peace at home, and mutual aid against their enemies abroad.
thomas hobbes, leviathan (1651)
ist off the ocean was already beginning to drift over the pavement as he cruised along the beach in the rented Chevy. The house stood out like a gem, the last piece of private real estate before the public steps leading down to the beach. With chocolate-brown siding and white trim, the house sported rustic gables going in every direction beneath a river rock chimney.
He kept driving as he looked back in the mirror and caught a glimpse of the sandstone shelf behind the houses and the narrow beach now partially covered by the tide. White-frothed waves rolled up on the sand. In a few hours the incoming tide would devour what was left of the beach and waves would crash on the sandstone, sending spray onto the seawall that protected the estate’s rear patio.
The neighborhood was dominated by modern, upscale apartment buildings and small, stylish condos overlooking the Pacific. Oceanfront property was becoming far too valuable for private homes. The only single-family dwellings with ocean access appeared to be the two large homes at the end of the street just adjacent to the small public beach.
He was already familiar with the neighborhood, the daily routine, people walking their dogs, and surfers on the beach.
The house itself was larger than it looked. Set back from the street behind a set of double iron gates, the scale was made to appear diminutive by the use of small shingle siding and undersized dormered gables on the street façade. What looked like a story and a half in front became a full two stories on the ocean side. There, large windows on the second story maximized the ocean views. Beneath these, about thirty to forty feet back, was the stone-and-concrete seawall with two arched wooden doors leading up to an elevated patio overlooking the blue Pacific.
The house had a security system, but it was never used unless the occupant was leaving town for an extended period.
He rounded the block for the second time and checked for signs that might restrict parking. He saw none. The last thing he needed was a parking ticket that would document his presence in the neighborhood. Cops would check for this: an indication of any strange cars parked in the neighborhood. Once they had the license number, they would trace the vehicle to the rental agency and from there they would find his name. It was why he didn’t use his own car. The plates made it too recognizable.
He parked two blocks to the north, grabbed a light canvas jacket off the backseat, locked the car, and walked back toward the house on the beach. He stopped on the sidewalk near the steps as if to admire the ocean view while he slipped the jacket on and rolled the high collar up to cover his neck and the side of his face.
Below he could see the cove and the small public beach. From this angle he had a clear view to the south along the sandstone shelf behind the houses. It was deserted for as far as he could see. He had checked for security cameras. It was a risk. Some of the new models were the size of a thimble, hard to see unless you knew where to look, and wireless, so that there was little or no installation. A security company could show up and stuff one in a crevice between two boards in the side of the house and you’d never know it. There was one over the front porch, but nothing at the back of the house that he knew about. His eyes scanned for telephone poles one last time. The utilities along the waterfront appeared to be buried underground. There were occasional light standards every few hundred feet, but these contained only the ubiquitous vapor lamps for street lighting. If La Jolla had installed police security cameras, he was confident they had confined it to the downtown area and had skipped this neighborhood.
He walked partway down the stairs toward the beach, then stepped over the low concrete curb that separated them from the sandstone shelf. He strolled out onto the rocks. The breeze off the ocean buffeted his light jacket. But the collar wasn’t turned up for the wind. He used it to shield his profile from the wandering gaze of neighbors who might pass by a window at the wrong moment, or the prying eyes of some self-appointed general of the neighborhood watch, some old fart with nothing better to do than bend his venetian blinds every time a car door slammed in the street.
As he stood there surveying the back of the house, he heard the click of hard heels on concrete coming toward him. Out of the corner of one eye he glimpsed an old gent in white boating slacks and a blue blazer. He thought he saw a straw hat and a walking cane, but he couldn’t be sure. Whoever it was was ambling at a good clip along the sidewalk slightly above him.
The man in the canvas jacket didn’t turn or look up. Years of experience told him to avoid eye contact. Human sensory perception is less likely to register anything in the brain’s memory cells if what a person sees is inanimate. People who stay still become just another motionless object, like a rock or a bush out of bloom, something the untrained mind fails to record. He’d done enough recon and surveillance and walked into enough dangerous places to know this. Only another professional would notice anything about him, and remember it.
A lone motionless figure, he stood facing the ocean with his back to the sidewalk until the sound of the footsteps was well past. Then he took a quick glimpse to his left and watched as the old man continued on up the street and finally disappeared from view around a curve.
He took a deep breath, then let it out. If the man had stopped and asked for the time, or even if he had only come down the steps and stopped for a moment to glance at him on his way to the beach, it would have been over. He couldn’t take the chance. He would have had to leave, back to square one, two weeks of careful planning down the drain. He couldn’t be sure how much time he had before she would act. She was busy, a million projects at the office. She might get distracted. Then again, she might pull it from a pile on her desk tomorrow and go to work on it. He had set certain parameters of safety before he even started. It was why so many people got nailed. They were careless.
His heart pounded as he watched the ocean. A half dozen surfers sat astride their boards two hundred yards out, riding over the crests of approaching waves and into the trailing troughs. He was confident that they were too far away to make out human features or to identify a lone figure walking on the rocks behind the houses. The beach was not popular with swimmers. The water was too rough. The waves on an incoming tide would grind a swimmer against the solid sandstone that formed sharp ledges along the shore.
The late-afternoon light had reached that visual netherworld between shadows and vapor. Soon the streetlights would flicker on. He strolled over the rocks, at one point leaping across a craggy divide where foaming surf washed seaweed into a swale on the beach below. He strolled along the uneven surface, hands in his pants pockets, until he reached a point over the water where the rocks became slick with moisture from the fractured waves. Then slowly he turned until his back was to the ocean. He glanced up at the stone seawall topped by its white picket fence and the looming brown walls and large windows behind it.
The house looked deserted. There was no longer any live-in security—that he knew. It was made-to-order.
The only thing left was to figure some way to get rid of the maid, and so he did. Early one afternoon he called the house, knowing that the owner would be at the office. Only the maid would be there. He identified himself, using a false name, and said he was calling from the Isotenics security department. He explained that since security was no longer providing protection at the residence, they had been ordered to obtain information regarding any employees who worked there or who had keys to the house. He then proceeded to ask a number of questions regarding references, where the maid had worked previously, where she had been born, a list of residences where she had lived or worked for the five years immediately preceding her employment in the house. The poor woman tripped over a number of these, hemming and hawing, making it clear by her vague responses that she couldn’t answer many of them, at least not truthfully.
He finally administered the coup de grâce. He asked for her Social Security number and date of birth and told her it was just for their records so they could run a background check for security. He couldn’t be sure from the silence on the other end of the phone but he figured she must have shit a brick, knowing that if they ran this information through a government computer they would discover that she was in the country illegally. Knock on any dozen doors in posh areas of Southern California and chances are that if a maid answers she will be speaking English, if at all, with a southern accent, and it won’t be from Georgia.
Two days later, in the middle of the night, Madelyn Chapman’s Mexican maid grabbed her few belongings, stuffed them into a small suitcase, and disappeared. She didn’t even bother to ask for her final paycheck. The new replacement worked for a large domestic-services firm and worked a normal shift, eight hours. She always left the house by four-thirty. He had watched her today as she went out the front door, turning her key in the dead bolt to lock it from the outside.
He turned and looked out toward the ocean again. The surfers had taken no notice. Their attention was riveted on the burgeoning set of cresting combers rolling in behind them.
He reached into his jacket pocket, plucked out the brown leather driving gloves, and slipped them on his hands as he walked. He glanced quickly up at the windows of the two adjacent buildings. The house on the left was dark. The larger apartment building to the right was angled back from the beach and followed the natural curve of shore so that once he’d gone ten paces, no one looking from the apartment’s upper windows could see him.
Within seconds he reached the cover of the seawall and one of the arched doors leading up to the patio above. The door itself was made with heavy planks of wood with a garden latch on the inside for a lock. He slipped the thin blade of a Swiss army knife into the crack between the door and its frame and lifted the latch. In three seconds he was inside with the garden door closed behind him.
He had a set of picks for the lock on the back door but preferred not to use them because they would leave scratch marks, tool impressions, one more piece of evidence that he didn’t need to leave behind. It took less than a minute to find what he was looking for: a ground-floor window that wasn’t latched. It was not a high-crime neighborhood, as the lackadaisical habits of many of the residents showed.
Within seconds he popped the screen, slid the lower half of the window up, and nimbly slipped inside the house. He closed the window but left the screen propped against a small bush outside. There was still enough light from outside so that he didn’t need to use the penlight in his pocket. He found himself in one of the lower level guest bedrooms. In the corner on one wall, near the ceiling, was a small white sphere of plastic. It looked like an oversized egg with a flat side against the wall. On the side facing out was a recessed area, curved and white, perhaps an inch in length, aimed out at the room. It was a motion detector. His eyes were riveted on the tiny light under the recessed area as he froze stone still and counted silently in his head. When he reached thirty, the light still hadn’t flashed. The system was off.
He took a deep breath and started looking around the room. It had three doors, one leading to the closet, another to a bathroom. This was open. He could see the claw-foot tub inside.
He moved to the third door, which was closed, pressed his ear against the wood, and listened for a moment. Then he turned the knob and let it open just a crack as he peered into the hallway. He listened for sounds of movement upstairs, the creaking of floorboards, footfalls, the sounds of a television. He heard nothing except the hiss of conditioned air flowing from the register high on the wall behind him.
He slipped his shoes off and held them in one hand, then stepped silently into the hallway. Walking on the tile floor in stocking feet, he made no sound as he moved past two closed doors and entered the kitchen.
The place looked like the inside of a spaceship: curving stainless-steel appliances, a refrigerator, a freezer, and a sleek square commercial cooker with a gleaming copper hood. He allowed the gloved finger of one hand to brush over the maker’s name on the front of the stove as he passed by: the label read
A short hallway led past the pantry to the three-car garage. There was only one car inside, a late-model Mercedes.
He went back into the house. In the other direction were the living room and a large formal dining area. An equally spacious elliptical entry was graced by an intricately carved oval table of dark hardwood, something from the primordial rain forests of Africa or South America. It was laid over with a thick piece of glass, smooth and clear, not a single fingerprint or smudge on it. A staircase curved around the walls of the entry leading up to the second story. Under the stairs was a curving arc of display cases, each framed by a glass door and a cylinder lock, the kind you would find in a public museum housing rare artifacts. He assumed that just such pricey items were inside: shelves filled with art glass reached from floor to ceiling, ending as the stairs dropped down below head height. The shelves, though built-in, had the look of something that was added—not part of the architect’s original vision but functional for the owner.
He set his shoes down on the carpeted floor by the foot of the stairs. He couldn’t be sure if there were sections of hardwood or tile upstairs, and until he was certain the house was empty, it was best not to make a sound.
As he passed through the entry, he took care not to allow himself to be captured by the lens of the security camera outside. It was mounted on the ceiling of the porch and aimed back at the double front doors, each of which had a fan-shaped window at the top.
He hugged the doors, stooping slightly to stay under the windows, and slipped through the entry. He found himself in another large entertaining area with a conversation pit and fireplace. There were more items of glass art here, on tables and adorning shelves. Beyond this was a still larger room, this one with mirrors on two walls. It was filled with exercise equipment: two stationary bikes, a treadmill, a weight machine, two different types of ellipticals, a StairMaster and one of those multistations for working every muscle group in the body. These were devices that until now he’d seen only in commercial fitness clubs. Taped to the mirror on the wall was a business card with the phone number and name of a professional trainer. He began to worry. This was something new, unexpected. What other changes might have been made? What if the owner or some later hired help had gone through the drawers upstairs and cleaned them out?