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“Thank you, sir, but I really don't need it. I've got enough, more than enough.”


“Oh, Jesus, help me,” Redlow said, and he was despairingly aware that this was the first time he had spoken to God—or even thought of Him—in decades.


“Let's talk about who you're really working for, sir.”


“I told you—”


“But I lied when I said I believed you.”


Zzzzrrrrrrrrrrrr.


“What is that?” Redlow asked.


“Testing.”


“Testing what, damn it?”


“It works real nice.”


“What, what is it, what've you got?”


“An electric carving knife,” the kid said.


6


Hatch and Lindsey drove home from dinner without getting on a freeway, taking their time, using the coast road from Newport Beach south, listening to K-Earth 101.1 FM, and singing along with golden oldies like “New Orleans,” “Whispering Bells,” and “California Dreamin'.” She couldn't remember when they had last harmonized with the radio, though in the old days they had done it all the time. When he'd been three, Jimmy had known all the words to “Pretty Woman.” When he was four he could sing “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover” without missing a line. For the first time in five years, she could think of Jimmy and still feel like singing.


They lived in Laguna Niguel, south of Laguna Beach, on the eastern side of the coastal hills, without an ocean view but with the benefit of sea breezes that moderated summer heat and winter chill. Their neighborhood, like most south-county developments, was so meticulously laid out that at times it seemed as if the planners had come to community design with a military background. But the gracefully curving streets, iron streetlamps with an artificial green patina, just-so arrangements of palms and jacarandas and ficus benjaminas, and well-maintained greenbelts with beds of colorful flowers were so soothing to the eye and soul that the subliminal sense of regimentation was not stifling.


As an artist, Lindsey believed that the hands of men and women were as capable of creating great beauty as nature was, and that discipline was fundamental to the creation of real art because art was meant to reveal meaning in the chaos of life. Therefore, she understood the impulse of the planners who had labored countless hours to coordinate the design of the community all the way down to the configuration of the steel grilles in the street drains that were set in the gutters.


Their two-story house, where they had lived only since Jimmy's death, was an Italian-Mediterranean model—the whole community was Italian Mediterranean—with four bedrooms and den, in cream-colored stucco with a Mexican tile roof. Two large ficus trees flanked the front walk. Malibu lights revealed beds of impatiens and petunias in front of red-flowering azalea bushes. As they pulled into the garage, they finished the last bars of “You Send Me.”


Between taking turns in the bathroom, Hatch started a gas-log fire in the family-room fireplace, and Lindsey poured Baileys Irish Cream on the rocks for both of them. They sat on the sofa in front of the fire, their feet on a large, matching ottoman.


All the upholstered furniture in the house was modern with soft lines and in light natural tones. It made a pleasing contrast with—and good backdrop for—the many antique pieces and Lindsey's paintings.


The sofa was also hugely comfortable, good for conversation and, as she discovered for the first time, a great spot to snuggle. To her surprise, snuggling turned into necking, and their necking escalated into petting, as if they were a couple of teenagers, for God's sake. Passion overwhelmed her as it had not done in years.


Their clothes came off slowly, as in a series of dissolves in a motion picture, until they were na*ed without quite knowing how they had gotten that way. Then they were just as mysteriously coupled, moving together in a silken rhythm, bathed in flickering firelight. The joyful naturalness of it, escalating from a dreamy motion to breathless urgency, was a radical departure from the stilted and dutiful lovemaking they had known during the past five years, and Lindsey could almost believe it really was a dream patterned on some remembered scrap of Hollywood eroticism. But as she slid her hands over the muscles of his arms and shoulders and back, as she rose to meet each of his thrusts, as she cl**axed, then again, and as she felt him loose himself within her and dissolve from iron to molten flow, she was wonderfully, acutely aware that it was not a dream. In fact, she had opened her eyes at last from a long twilight sleep and was, with this release, only now fully awake for the first time in years. The true dream was real life during the past half-decade, a nightmare that had finally drawn to an end.


Leaving their clothes scattered on the floor and hearth behind them, they went upstairs to make love again, this time in the huge Chinese sleigh bed, with less urgency than before, more tenderness, to the accompaniment of murmured endearments that seemed almost to comprise the lyrics and melody of a quiet song. The less insistent rhythm allowed a keener awareness of the exquisite textures of skin, the marvelous flexibility of muscle, the firmness of bone, the pliancy of lips, and the syncopated beating of their hearts. When the tide of ecstasy crested and ebbed, in the stillness that followed, the words “I love you” were superfluous but nonetheless musical to the ear, and cherished.


That April day, from first awareness of the morning light until surrender to sleep, had been one of the best of their lives. Ironically, the night that followed was one of Hatch's worst, so frightening and so strange.


By eleven o'clock Vassago had finished with Redlow and disposed of the body in a most satisfying fashion. He returned to the Blue Skies Motel in the detective's Pontiac, took the long hot shower that he had intended to take earlier in the night, changed into clean clothes, and left with the intention of never going there again. If Redlow had made the place, it was not safe any longer.


He drove the Camaro a few blocks and abandoned it on a street of decrepit industrial buildings where it might sit undisturbed for weeks before it was either stolen or hauled off by the police. He had been using it for a month, after taking it from one of the women whom he had added to his collection. He had changed license plates on it a few times, always stealing the replacements from parked cars in the early hours before dawn.


After walking back to the motel, he drove away in Redlow's Pontiac. It was not as sexy as the silver Camaro, but he figured it would serve him well enough for a couple of weeks.


He went to a neo-punk nightclub named Rip It, in Huntington Beach, where he parked at the darkest end of the lot. He found a pouch of tools in the trunk and used a screwdriver and pliers to remove the plates, which he swapped with those on a battered gray Ford parked beside him. Then he drove to the other end of the lot and reparked.


Fog, with the clammy feel of something dead, moved in from the sea. Palm trees and telephone poles disappeared as if dissolved by the acidity of the mist, and the streetlamps became ghost lights adrift in the murk.


Inside, the club was everything he liked. Loud, dirty, and dark.


Reeking of smoke, spilled liquor, and sweat. The band hit the chords harder than any musicians he'd ever heard, rammed pure rage into each tune, twisting the melody into a squealing mutant voice, banging the numbingly repetitious rhythms home with savage fury, playing each number so loud that, with the help of huge amplifiers, they rattled the filthy windows and almost made his eyes bleed.


The crowd was energetic, high on drugs of every variety, some of them drunk, many of them dangerous. In clothing, the preferred color was black, so Vassago fit right in. And he was not the only one wearing sunglasses. Some of them, both men and women, were skinheads, and some wore their hair in short spikes, but none of them favored the frivolous flamboyancy of huge spikes and cock's combs and colorful dye jobs that had been a part of early punk. On the jammed dance floor, people seemed to be shoving each other and roughing each other up, maybe feeling each other up in some cases, but no one there had ever taken lessons at an Arthur Murray studio or watched “Soul Train.”


At the scarred, stained, greasy bar, Vassago pointed to the Corona, one of six brands of beer lined up on a shelf. He paid and took the bottle from the bartender without the need to exchange a word. He stood there, drinking and scanning the crowd.


Only a few of the customers at the bar and tables, or those standing along the walls, were talking to one another. Most were sullen and silent, not because the pounding music made conversation difficult but because they were the new wave of alienated youth, estranged not only from society but from one another. They were convinced that nothing mattered except self-gratification, that nothing was worth talking about, that they were the last generation on a world headed for destruction, with no future.


He knew of other neo-punk bars, but this was one of only two in Orange and Los Angeles counties—the area that so many chamber of commerce types liked to call the Southland—that were the real thing. Many of the others catered to people who wanted to play at the lifestyle the same way some dentists and accountants liked to put on hand-tooled boots, faded jeans, checkered shirts, and ten-gallon hats to go to a country-and-western bar and pretend they were cowboys. At Rip It, there was no pretense in anyone's eyes, and everyone you encountered met you with a challenging stare, trying to decide whether they wanted sex or violence from you and whether you were likely to give them either. If it was an either-or situation, many of them would have chosen violence over sex.


A few were looking for something that transcended violence and sex, without a clear idea of what it might be. Vassago could have shown them precisely that for which they were searching.


The problem was, he did not at first see anyone who appealed to him sufficiently to consider an addition to his collection. He was not a crude killer, piling up bodies for the sake of piling them up. Quantity had no appeal to him; he was more interested in quality. A connoisseur of death. If he could earn his way back into Hell, he would have to do so with an exceptional offering, a collection that was superior in both its overall composition and in the character of each of its components.


He had made a previous acquisition at Rip It three months ago, a girl who insisted her name was Neon. In his car, when he tried to knock her unconscious, one blow didn't do the job, and she fought back with a ferocity that was exhilarating. Even later, in the bottom floor of the funhouse, when she regained consciousness, she resisted fiercely, though bound at wrists and ankles. She squirmed and thrashed, biting him until he repeatedly bashed her skull against the concrete floor.


Now, just as he finished his beer, he saw another woman who reminded him of Neon. Physically they were far different, but spiritually they were the same: hard cases, angry for reasons they didn't always understand themselves, worldly beyond their years, with all the potential violence of tigresses. Neon had been five-four, brunette, with a dusky complexion. This one was a blonde in her early twenties, about five-seven. Lean and rangy. Riveting eyes the same shade of blue as a pure gas flame, yet icy. She was wearing a ragged black denim jacket over a tight black sweater, a short black skirt, and boots.


In an age when attitude was admired more than intelligence, she knew how to carry herself for the maximum impact. She moved with her shoulders back and her head lifted almost haughtily. Her self-possession was as intimidating as spiked armor. Although every man in the room looked at her in a way that said he wanted her, none of them dared to come on to her, for she appeared to be able to emasculate with a single word or look.


Her powerful sexuality, however, was what made her of interest to Vassago. Men would always be drawn to her—he noticed that those flanking him at the bar were watching her even now—and some would not be intimidated. She possessed a savage vitality that made even Neon seem timid. When her defenses were penetrated, she would be lubricious and disgustingly fertile, soon fat with new life, a wild but fruitful brood mare.


He decided that she had two great weaknesses. The first was her clear conviction that she was superior to everyone she met and was, therefore, untouchable and safe, the same conviction that had made it possible for royalty, in more innocent times, to walk among commoners in complete confidence that everyone they passed would draw back respectfully or drop to their knees in awe. The second weakness was her extreme anger, which she stored in such quantity that Vassago seemed to be able to see it crackling off her smooth pale skin, like an overcharge of electricity.


He wondered how he might arrange her death to best symbolize her flaws. Soon he had a couple of good ideas.


She was with a group of about six men and four women, though she did not seem to be attached to any one of them. Vassago was trying to decide on an approach to her when, not entirely to his surprise, she approached him. He supposed their encounter was inevitable. They were, after all, the two most dangerous people at the dance.


Just as the band took a break and the decibel level fell to a point at which the interior of the club would no longer have been lethal to cats, the blonde came to the bar. She pushed between Vassago and another man, ordered and paid for a beer. She took the bottle from the bartender, turned sideways to face Vassago, and looked at him across the top of the open bottle, from which wisps of cold vapor rose like smoke.


She said, “You blind?”


“To some things, Miss.”


She looked incredulous. “Miss?”


He shrugged.


“Why the sunglasses?” she asked.


“I've been to Hell.”


“What's that supposed to mean?”


“Hell is cold, dark.”


“That so? I still don't get the sunglasses.”


“Over there, you learn to see in total darkness.”


“This is an interesting line of bullshit.”


“So now I'm sensitive to light.”


“A real different line of bullshit.”


He said nothing.


She drank some beer, but her eyes never left him.


He liked the way her throat muscles worked when she swallowed.


After a moment she said, “This your usual line of crap, or do you just make it up as you go?”


He shrugged again.


“You were watching me,” she said.


“So?”


“You're right. Every as**ole in here is watching me most of the time.”


He was studying her intensely blue eyes. What he thought he might do was cut them out, then reinsert them backward, so she was looking into her own skull. A comment on her self-absorbtion.


In the dream Hatch was talking to a beautiful but incredibly cold-looking blonde. Her flawless skin was as white as porcelain, and her eyes were like polished ice reflecting a clear winter sky. They were standing at a bar in a strange establishment he had never seen before. She was looking at him across the top of a beer bottle that she held—and brought to her mouth—as she might have held a phallus. But the taunting way she drank from it and licked the glass rim seemed to be as much a threat as it was an erotic invitation. He could not hear a thing she said, and he could hear only a few words that he spoke himself: “… been to Hell … cold, dark … sensitive to light…” The blonde was looking at him, and it was surely he who was speaking to her, yet the words were not in his own voice. Suddenly he found himself focusing more intently on her arctic eyes, and before he knew what he was doing, he produced a switchblade knife and flicked it open. As if she felt no pain, as if in fact she was dead already, the blonde did not react when, with a swift whip of the knife, he took her left eye from its socket. He rolled it over on his fingertips, and replaced it with the blind end outward and the blue lens gazing inward—

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