Authors: Eric van Lustbader
Eric van Lustbader
In darkness there is death.
It was the first thing they had taught him and he never forgot it. He could move unobserved in daylight, too; in other ways. But the night was his special friend.
Now the high piercing sound of the alarm cut through all other nocturnal sounds: the dree dree dree of the cicadas, the thunderous crashing of the surf against the grey sand and the black rocks sixty feet below, the wild cry of a disturbed crow far off over the massed treetops.
Abruptly, colour gilded the leaves of the ancient spreading sycamore as lights went on inside the house, but he was already away from the car, deep within the concealing shadows of the carefully sculptured hedge. There was little need of this protection now for he was dressed all in matt black: low boots, cotton trousers, long-sleeved shirt, lacquered reed waistcoat, gloves and a hooded mask that covered all his face save a strip across his eyes that had been smeared with lampblack mixed with a fine charcoal powder to eliminate the possibility of reflection; but his arduous training had been too well ingrained for him to take any target for granted. This precluded the possibility of an error in judgement that could lead to a lapse in security.
The porch light came on, insects fluttering around it. The noise of the car’s alarm was too loud for him to be able to hear the door opening but he counted off the seconds in his mind and got it dead on …
Barry Braughm stepped into the lemon light of the open doorway. He was in jeans and a white T-shirt. His open fly attested to the haste in which he had dressed. He carried a flashlight in his right hand.
From this vantage point on the slight elevation of the doorstep he played the narrow beam around the area of the car. Reflected light from the chrome lanced out into the night and, squinting, he swung the beam away. At this moment he was in no mood to go and fool around with his car - or anything else for that matter.
Not more than half an hour ago he had had a screaming row with Andy, ending up, quite naturally, with him speeding off into the night. Back to the city, Barry supposed. Well, it damn well served him right, cutting off his nose to spite his face. But that was Andy, through and through.
Honest to God, Barry thought angrily, I don’t know why I put up with him. And then he shook his head. Yes, you do, he told himself. Well.
He went down the short flight of flagstone steps, careful to give the first one a miss. It was cracked; just one of the things around here Andy had promised to fix this week.
He padded across the wet grass of the lawn to where the car stood, dark and hulking. The wind whistled through the young maple to his left and, farther on, he could just make out the low barrier of the thick hedge. What the hell am I doing with a Mercedes? he asked himself rhetorically. If it had not been for Andy - but Andy loved the creature comforts, wouldn’t go anywhere unless it was via first class. That, of course, includes me, Barry thought grumpily. He looked off down the road for a moment as if he might catch a glimpse of Andy’s night-black Audi swinging its headlights around the long curve to flood his front lawn. Barry turned abruptly away. Not tonight, he thought. He never recovers this quickly.
He threw the beam of the flash across the top of the hedge as he moved, along the gravel drive to send a quick dazzle of liquid light off the car’s bonnet. It grew in intensity as he came up beside the Mercedes.
Goddamned heat, he thought. Always setting off the alarm. And I do not want to sleep alone tonight. Should have thought of that before you called Andy a shit.
He paused for a last look around, then bent and freed the latch, lifting the bonnet. He gazed into the interior, playing the beam over the engine parts, lingering for just a moment on the battery.
Satisfied, he slammed the bonnet and went around the car checking the doors, one by one. The seams of glass and chrome were illuminated as he sought to find any sign of a forced entry. Finding none, he came back to the left side and, bending again, inserted a small metal key into a fixture in the car’s side. He turned the key with a quick jerk and silence descended once again. The sound of the cicadas returned and the hiss of the surf gave renewed evidence of its tireless attack upon the slowly eroding shore.
Barry had already turned away on his way back to the house when he thought he heard a brief clatter against the rocks near the edge of the low cliff fronting his property. It sounded to him like the soft noise of running bare feet. He spun around, lifting the flash to scan the area. He saw nothing.
Curious, he went across the lawn and into the high grass which he had never bothered to mow because it was so close to the cliff, emerging seconds later on the slightly elevated portion of land studded with grey slate rocks. He peered along the ridge to both left and right. Directly below him he saw the palely iridescent curl of the tops of the breakers as they rolled noisily in. It’s high tide, he thought.
The pain in his chest came totally without warning. He was thrown backwards just as if a hand had come out and pushed him and he stumbled along the dew-slick rocks. His arms flew out to the sides to give him balance and the flash spun end over end like a miniature falling star in the night. He heard quite clearly the sharp pang as it bounced off the rocks below and arced into the churning sea like some suicidal firefly. His mouth worked spasmodically. He tried to scream but all he could manage was a kind of gasp, insignificant and irrelevant, and he thought he knew what it must be like for a fish on a line.
His arms and legs felt as if they were full of lead and the air seemed to have run out of oxygen just as if he were lost on an alien planet without the protection of a spacesuit. He was incapable of coordinating movement, balanced precariously on the faceted rocks, on the verge of the long drop to the white and black sea. Dimly, he thought he might be having a heart attack and, desperately now, he tried to remember what to do, how to help himself. He died trying to recall…
With the absence of all movement, a shadow detached itself from the wall of the hedge, coming swiftly and silently across to the rocks. Even the cicadas, the night birds, were left undisturbed by the passage.
The shadow knelt over the corpse and black fingers worked at something dark and metallic, embedded in the chest just under and to the right of the heart. With a last wrench, the thing was free.
He checked the carotid first, then the eyes, peering intently at the whites for what seemed a long time, then the pads of the fingers.
Softly, to himself, the shadow recited the Hannya-Shin-Kyo.
He stood up. The corpse seemed as light as air in his arms. With barely any discernible motion or effort, he launched the corpse out into the night, over the edge, far enough out so that it fell squarely into deep water. Immediately the strong current took it.
Within seconds the shadow had disappeared, having become one with the darkness and having left no trace of its ever having existed.
THE GROUND BOOK
West Bay Bridge, Summer Present
When Nicholas Linnear saw them fish the bloated blue-white thing out of the water, he turned right around, walking away, and was far down the beach by the time the real crowd had begun to form.
Flies buzzed furrily along the snaking hillock of sand above the high-tide mark. The spindrift, drying, was like a lock of a child’s fine white hair. Beyond, the combers rolled in, purple-blue, then white as their tops turned to foam, spending themselves upon the wet sand at his bare feet.
He dug his toes in, very much as he had done when he was younger, but, of course, it did no good. The sea leached away the footing from under him and he grew shorter by inches as the land was eroded by the tide’s inexorable progress.
Until then it had been a quiet afternoon, Dune Road lazy in midweek, even though this was the week after the Fourth of July. He reached unconsciously for the pack of thin black-tobaccoed cigarettes which he no longer carried. He had given up smoking six months ago. He remembered the date well enough because it was the day he had quit his job.
He had arrived at the agency one chill sullen winter’s day and had stayed in his office only long enough to place the ostrich-hide briefcase that Vincent had presented him with for no apparent reason - it was some months past his birthday and longer than that since he had been promoted - on his rosewood and smoked-glass desk that was much too modern to hold anything remotely resembling drawers. Then he went out, turning left, past the curious, upturned face of Lil, his secretary, down the beige-carpeted, rose-neon indirectly lit hall. When had he actually made the decision? He had no idea, really. On the way in, in the cab, his mind had been empty, his thoughts like ashes swirled in the dregs of last night’s coffee. Nothing else seemed to remain.
He went past the pair of female guardians who, like perfectly carved sphinxes before a great pharaoh’s tomb, flanked the enormous carved mahogany door. The thing of it was, they were damned efficient, too. He gave a brief knock and went in.
Goldman was on the phone - the dark blue one, which meant a conversation with a high-level client, rather than the beige one, which would indicate inter-office brainstorming - so Nicholas stared out of the window. They’re all high-level these days, he thought. There were days when being on the thirty-sixth floor had its advantages, but this was not one of them. The sky was so dense with leaden clouds that it seemed as if a lid had been clamped down on the city. Perhaps, near nightfall, it would snow again. He couldn’t think whether that would be good or bad.
‘Nick, my boy 1’ Goldman cried as he cradled the receiver. ‘It must’ve been ESP, you walking in now! Guess who that was on the phone? No.’ He waved one hand. It looked like a duck, eager to take off. ‘Better yet, don’t guess. I’ll tell you. It was Kingsley.’ His eyes got big. They always got big when he was excited. ‘Know what he said? He was talking my ear off about you and the campaign. The first results are already in. They’re “a dramatic improvement”, he says. Those are his words, the schmendric. “A dramatic improvement”.’
Nearing sixty, Sam Goldman did not look a day over fifty. He was fit and trim and always tanned. This, Nicholas had always supposed, he maintained to set off his shock of brilliant white hair which he wore long and combed straight back. Goldman was enamored of contrasts. His face was somewhat long, lined, pitted slightly on the crown of each cheek. It was a proud face, dominated by large brown eyes, despite the long nose and generous mouth. He wore a blue pinstripe shirt with solid white collar and a navy and maroon Italian silk tie. He knew how to dress, Goldman did. Despite this, his sleeves were rolled half way up his forearms.
Looking at him now, Nicholas abruptly knew why this was going to be so hard for him to do.
‘I’m glad, Sam,’ he said.
‘Well, sit down, sit down then.’ Goldman waved him to a beige suede and chrome chair in front of his enormous desk.
It was not, perhaps, what he would have chosen himself but all his clients were happy with it.
‘No, I’m fine where I am, thanks.’ Now that he was down to it, he realized that there was just no easy way. ‘I’m leaving, Sam.’
‘Leaving? What, you want a vacation already? You’ve only been creative director for six months -‘ ‘Seven.’
‘So who’s counting? Anyway, you want a vacation? Okay, you got a vacation. Where’re you going?’
‘I don’t think you understand, Sam. I want to leave the company. Resign.’
Goldman swivelled around in his chair, stared out of the window. ‘You know, it’s going to snow today. On the radio they said no. But I knew better. An old campaigner can always tell. My feet tell me. Every time I play tennis. I said to Edna this morning -‘
‘Sam, did you hear me?’ Nicholas said gently. “That Kingsley. What a schmuck! He may know publishing but he doesn’t know shit from advertising. It took him long enough to come here.’ He swivelled back, abruptly. ‘You, Nick, you know advertising.’ ‘Sam-‘
‘Resign, Nicky? Resign? What’s this resign? I don’t believe it. You have everything here. Everything. You know how much we’re gonna net - not gross, mind you, but net - from this one goddamn campaign of yours?’ ‘I don’t care, Sam.’
‘Two hundred fucking thousand, Nick. Now why would you leave?’
‘I’m tired, Sam. Honestly. I feel like I’ve been in advertising so long that lately - lately, I’ve been waking up feeling like Count Dracula.”
Goldman cocked his head, a non-verbal sign of query. ‘You know, like I’ve been in a coffin.’ ‘You’re going back to Japan.’
‘I hadn’t really thought about it.’ He was far more pleased than surprised; Goldman was unusually perceptive about these things. ‘I don’t know that it matters.’
‘Of course it matters I’ Goldman exploded. ‘I think about going back to Israel all the time!’
‘You didn’t grow up in Israel,’ Nicholas countered.
‘I would have if it’d’ve been in existence then.’ He snorted. ‘But that’s irrelevant.’ He waved a hand again. ‘History. History is all that matters.’ A call came through for him and he barked at one of the sphinxes outside to jot it down as a callback. ‘Listen, I don’t give a good goddamn what we make outa Kingsley, Nicky, you know that. But it’s a sign. Can’t you see that? You’re hot now. I felt it was gonna happen a year ago and now I know I was right. You really want to walk away from that now?’