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Authors: Linwood Barclay

bad guys

 

Synopsis

Zack Walker is back and on the job as a features writer for the city paper. While researching his first assignment Zack stumbles upon a homicide that may be linked to a gang that's been terrorizing the city’s high-end shopping district. Suddenly, he finds himself at the center of a violent crime wave and destined for a confrontation with Barbie Bullock — a ruthless criminal with a disturbing obsession. As worlds begin to collide and boundaries between family and foes blur, Zack must be ever vigilant to outwit the evil at large, whether in the suburbs, the city, or in his own imagination. Heaven help the bad guys when this resourceful father comes to make good on a deal gone bad.

 

 

Bad Guys
Linwood Barclay

 

Book two in the Zack Walker series
Copyright © 2005 by Linwood Barclay

 

For my family: Neetha, Spencer, and Paige

 

 

 

1

“SO, WHAT ARE YOU ASKING ME?” Harley said. “Are you asking me for drugs? If you want drugs, there are drugs. There’s alprazolam—that’s your Xanax generic—or lorazepam; you’ve got your diazepam and—”

“Diaza-what?”

“Diazepam. It’s not a cooking spray. It’s Valium. There’s a huge list of antianxiety prescriptions out there, some better than others, some downright dangerous. We don’t use barbiturates anymore, too addictive, sometimes fatal. There’s various herbal remedies, if you’re into that sort of thing. Or, I don’t know whether you’ve considered something like this before, but you could just lighten the fuck up.”

Harley’s not your average doctor. He’s more of a friend, with a medical degree, and a successful practice, and an examining room, which I happened to be sitting in at this moment, somewhat under duress. Harley and I were buddies back in high school, then lost touch a bit while I went to college for an English degree and he went off to medical school. “Hey,” I would say to him when we occasionally ran into one another, “just what kind of job do you expect to get with a medical degree?”

Years later, he became my doctor.

This appointment hadn’t been my idea. It had been my wife Sarah’s. And “idea” is probably the wrong word. “Ultimatum” would probably be a better one. “Go see Harley,” she said, “or I’m going to call a divorce lawyer. Or smother you in your sleep.”

The threat about the divorce lawyer didn’t worry me that much. Sarah has a low opinion of the legal profession, and would probably choose sticking with me over engaging the services of one of its members. But the smothering-me-in-my-sleep thing, that seemed within her range of capabilities.

“The thing is,” Harley continued, leaning up against the paper-covered examining bed, “there’s a lot of shit to deal with in life, and sometimes that’s just what you have to do. Deal with it. You’re not the only one with a teenage daughter, you know. Mine’s twenty-two now, seems to finally have her head on straight, but two years ago she was too busy boffing some out-there art student to study for her midterms. The guy did a show of sculptures made from raw meat. You had to go early.”

“I can’t seem to help it,” I said. “I worry. I worry all the time. It’s the way I’m hardwired. Sometimes I’ve let it get the better of me.”

“I know,” Harley said. “I watch the news.”

“And I’ve been trying to do better, honest to God, but this thing with Angie . . .”

“How old is she now?”

“Eighteen.”

Harley’s eyes rolled, remembering. “And what did you do, exactly?”

“She’d promised to be home by one in the morning. She was going out with some guy from where she worked for the summer, at the pool store. She sold chlorine and algaecide and tested water samples, and there was this guy who worked there, young kid, who went around the neighborhood maintaining people’s pools for them.”

“Yeah.”

“So she started going out with Pool Boy.”

“This is what you called him. Pool Boy.”

“Not to his face, or to Angie. It was just a name I had for him, is all. Anyway, she was out with him one night, and I was already awake around midnight, and sometimes if I’m up that late, I’ll stay up to make sure she gets home okay. I’ll read. But if I read in bed, it keeps Sarah up, with the light on, so I went down to the living room, stretched out on the front couch right by the front door, so I’d be right there when Angie got home. Even if I nodded off, I’d hear her when she got in.”

“Go on.”

“Well, I guess I did doze off, and when I woke up, it was two-thirty in the morning, which meant Angie was way past curfew, way past when she said she’d be home. So I got up, went into the kitchen and called her cell, but couldn’t get an answer.”

“So, knowing you, you did what you do best,” Harley said. “You panicked.”

“I did not panic,” I said. “I went out looking for her. I knew where Pool Boy lived—he lives with his parents—and what kind of car he drove, so I drove over there, and the whole house is dark, except for one light in the basement.”

“Not a good sign,” Harley said, nodding slightly.

“Yeah, well, I got out of my car, looked around his, then went up to the house.”

“You knocked on the door at, what, nearly three in the morning?”

“No, I kind of didn’t want to do that unless I knew for sure Angie was there, since I was probably going to be waking up Pool Boy’s mom and dad, so I thought I’d just have a look in the basement window. I had to get down on my knees—they’re these shallow windows, only come up about a foot from ground level.”

Harley sighed, closed his eyes.

“There was a bit of a gap in the curtains, and I could see it was your basic rec room, wood paneling on the walls, old couch.”

“And who was on the couch, I’m afraid to ask,” Harley said.

“No one,” I said. “Look, you need to understand, I don’t want to violate Angie’s privacy, I know what kids are up to today, but it’s a safety thing, okay? I just needed to know that she was okay.”

“So you didn’t see her in the window,” Harley said. “Was Pool Boy there?”

“Not inside,” I said. “But when I got up from looking in the window, I noticed that he was standing next to me.”

“Awkward,” said Harley.

“And his dad was next to him. I guess the dad heard the car, his son was still up, they came out to investigate.”

“Was this before or after they called the cops?”

“After. But by the time they arrived, we’d sorted it out. I mean, they realized who I was. Pool Boy said he’d dropped off Angie around twelve-thirty, and asked if I’d checked her bedroom before I’d come to his place.”

“Which you hadn’t.”

“I was sure I’d hear her when she came in. But she says she tiptoed, didn’t want to wake me.”

“How long ago was this?”

“About a month. Before school started up again. Angie’s still hardly speaking to me. And the thing is, now I think she’s got some sort of stalker.”

Harley dropped into the other chair in the small examining room. He was looking pretty exhausted. I seem to have that effect on people at times. “A stalker.”

“Not the Pool Boy. I think they’ve broken up.”

“There’s a surprise,” Harley said.

“Is this part of the new medicine?” I asked. “Crack wise while your patients open up to you?”

“Of course not. Go ahead. I shall remain nonjudgmental.”

“She calls him a stalker, but you know how kids talk. Anyone who’s interested in them they don’t like is categorized a stalker. But he calls her a lot, shows up unexpectedly wherever she is. I’m just worried this guy may be some kind of a nutcase. But I’m kind of in a bad spot now, what with the Pool Boy incident being so fresh in everyone’s mind, that anything I say or do looks like some kind of hysterical overreaction.”

“Just because a guy calls her a few times and shows up where your daughter hangs out doesn’t make him a serial killer.”

“I know that. But I get, jeez, I get this knot in my chest, worrying about my family. It’s not like we haven’t had some problems in the past.”

“That was then. That was an isolated incident.” Harley leaned forward a bit in his chair, like he wanted our conversation to be more intimate. “Zack,” he said slowly, “I don’t want to put you on anything unless you feel it’s absolutely necessary. It’s better to work out your problems without medications.”

“I totally agree,” I said. “I’m not asking for a prescription. It’s not like I’m a hypochondriac or something, although, if you did diagnose something, I’d have to conclude it was fatal.”

“Maybe you need to focus your attention on work, get your mind off what’s happening at home. What you’re going through isn’t any different than what every other parent goes through. We all worry about our kids, but we have to let them live their own lives, you know.”

“Sure.”

“So, when you’re writing, doing your work, doesn’t that help get your mind off other things? Isn’t that a good way to reduce your anxiety level?”

I nodded. “For the most part.”

“So, what are you working on now? Another book?”

“Well, I’m back with a paper now,
The Metropolitan
, doing features. You can’t exactly make a living writing books.”

“I liked that one you did, about the guy goes back in time to kill the inventor of those hot-air hand dryers in men’s rooms before he’s born. That wasn’t a bestseller?”

“No,” I said.

Harley looked surprised. I continued, “I’m doing a feature right now on this private eye, and the last few nights, I’ve been with him on this, like, well, a stakeout I guess you’d call it, hoping to catch some gang that’s been smashing into high-end men’s shops, making off with hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of stuff.”

“Sounds interesting,” Harley said. “But I trust it’s not the sort of thing where you’re exposing yourself to any real risk. You’ve had enough of that.”

I smiled tiredly. “Don’t worry. From now on, I just write about stuff, I don’t get personally involved.”

“That’s good,” he said. “And what about the pharmaceutical option? You want a scrip for anything?”

I shook my head. “Naw, unless there’s anything else you can recommend.”

Harley got up, opened one of the stainless steel cabinets that held cotton balls and gauze and tongue depressors and bandages, rooted around in there and came out with a bottle of what appeared to be very expensive Scotch. He set it on the table next to him, found two small paper cups, and poured a couple of fingers’ worth into each.

“I find this works well,” he said.

 

2

 

“I’M BORED,” I said.

Lawrence Jones ignored me. We’d been sitting curbside in his rusting ten-year-old Buick for nearly three hours now, on Garvin Avenue, half a block down from Brentwood’s, the expensive men’s shop owned by Arnett Brentwood, who had pooled his resources with some other proprietors to hire Lawrence and some other detectives to find out who was busting into their places of business at night and making off with their inventory. This was not some “lame-ass security gig,” Lawrence had assured me. Arnett Brentwood and his fellow clothiers not only wanted to stop these guys, but find out who they were and get their merchandise back.

Lawrence sat behind the wheel, rarely taking his eyes off the storefront. It was probably the third or fourth time I’d suggested I was not being sufficiently entertained, and he was learning quickly that the best way to deal with me was to pretend I wasn’t there.

He was an ex-cop in his late thirties, black, fit and trim, slightly over six feet, and gay, which I thought explained why he was a much better dresser than I. After a couple of minutes of dead silence, he said, “Sorry.”

“Hmm?”

“Sorry this isn’t more exciting for you. If I could have, I’d have called these guys, told them to rob this place sooner, that you had to go to bed early.”

“I appreciate the thought.”

We’d been watching the traffic, paying close attention to any vehicles that slowed down as they went past Brentwood’s. We were still in the city proper, but beyond the downtown. Few of the buildings around here got above two or three stories. Brentwood’s took up two floors, with an apartment on the third. Brentwood didn’t live there. He was doing too well to live above his shop and had a nice house in the Heights.

“So, are we looking for any particular kind of car?” I asked.

Lawrence did half a shrug. “Not sure. Probably a truck, something big like that. Middle of the night, they drive up, ram through the front window and into the store. You can’t do that in a Civic. Guys run in and grab armloads of suits off the rack, run back into the truck, and they’re gone. Usually do the whole thing in under a minute.”

“Neat. Maybe it’s a pit crew, those guys who can gas up a car and change the tires in ten seconds.”

“Well, there’s a driver, at least two more guys running in and out, that would be my guess. Brentwood got hit once before, about three months ago, and his security cameras picked up some blurry images of guys all dressed in black with black ski masks, looked like a bunch of commandos. Some of the other places around the city, didn’t even have any cameras, but sounds like the same bunch. Cops promise drive-bys, but they’re not going to solve this unless they stumble onto some warehouse and find the suits by accident.”

Lawrence’s cell rang inside his jacket. “Yeah?” he said. “Nothing happening here either. Yeah, right, at least I got company.” He cast a sideways glance my way. “I’ll check in with you in half an hour.”

He slipped the phone back into his jacket. “That was Miles.”

“Miles?”

“Miles Diamond. I work with him a lot, pass stuff his way. He’s watching Maxwell’s. They haven’t been hit yet, but they’re just the kind of place these guys like. High-end stuff, Italian suits, right on the street, big window that goes right down to the sidewalk. Perfect.”

“Miles Diamond,” I said. “Now, there’s a name for a detective.”

“It helps make up for the fact he’s this little bald white dude. He’s good on surveillance, ’cause you can hardly see him behind the steering wheel.”

“You meet him when you were on the force?”

“Miles is too little to ever make it as a cop. He’s always been private. And he’s got this gorgeous wife, she must be five-ten, spectacularly engineered. Saw them out dancing one time, he’s got his head nestled in between them there, looking very contented. Not my kind of thing, but hey, he’s happy.”

“So, if it’s quiet at Maxwell’s, maybe our guys are going to hit here tonight?” I suggested, ever hopeful. This wasn’t going to be much of a feature on the life of a private detective if all we ever did was shoot the breeze in a rusted-out Buick.

“I should’ve got a coffee,” I added. “Tomorrow night, we get coffee.”

“Just makes you piss,” Lawrence said.

I made a few notes in my reporter’s notebook, some color, how the street looked so late at night. Hardly any cars passing by—

“Hold on,” said Lawrence. “Big black pickup ahead.”

I looked up from my notes. It was one of those Dodge Durangos, with that front grill as big as a barn door. But it didn’t slow as it passed Brentwood’s, and there was no one inside but the driver.

“Stand down,” Lawrence said.

We were quiet for a while. When I felt it was time to attempt a bit of conversation, I said, “What do you do for anxiety?”

“Anxiety?”

“Yeah. You’ve got a stressful job, things to worry about, you make a living tracking down not-very-nice people. So how do you deal with that?”

Lawrence thought for a moment. “Jazz,” he said.

“Jazz?”

“I go home, I put some Oscar Peterson, some Nina Simone, maybe some Billie Holiday or Erroll Garner on the stereo. Sit and listen to it.”

“Jazz,” I said. “So you don’t actually take anything. You listen to music.”

“You’re not paying attention. Not just music.
Jazz
. And no, I don’t take anything. What the fuck would I take?”

I felt on the defensive. “I don’t know. Xanax? Herbal remedies?”

Lawrence smiled. “Yeah, herbal remedies. That’s me.” He glanced at his watch. “Time to check in.”

Lawrence got out his cell again and punched in what I presumed was Miles Diamond’s number. He put the phone to his ear and waited. “Come on, Miles, pick up.” There must have been time for a good eight rings. Lawrence gave up, held the phone in his hand, which he rested on the bottom of the steering wheel.

“What’s going on?” I said.

“I don’t know.” His cheek bulged out as he moved his tongue around. “Sometimes you just can’t answer your phone. I’ll give him another minute.”

We didn’t say anything for the next sixty seconds. Lawrence entered Miles Diamond’s number again, put the phone to his ear.

The phone probably rang only twice. “Hey,” said Lawrence, and then something happened to his face. His eyes narrowed, grew sharper.

“Who is this?” Lawrence said. “No, why don’t you tell me who you are, and then maybe I’ll tell you who I am.”

I could hear, faintly, someone at the other end.

“Fuck,” said Lawrence. “It’s me, Steve. It’s Lawrence. What the hell’s happened to Miles?”

He listened quietly, then said, “I’ll be there in ten.”

He put the phone away, turned the ignition, and the Buick rattled to life. I just looked at him, waiting.

“Nothing’s going to happen here tonight,” he said to me. “But Miles got a little action.”

Lawrence put the car into drive, swung the car across Garvin so we were headed in the other direction, and drove a lot faster than that car had any business going.

 

 

We rounded the corner onto Emmett, a short but trendy street with several ritzy stores, including a jeweler’s, a shoe store, a place that sold rare art books, a couple of high-end ladies’-wear places, and one storefront that was nothing but shattered glass and splintered wood. Above what used to be the window was the name Maxwell’s.

There were three black-and-white police cars, and a couple more unmarked cruisers with their trademark tiny hubcaps, plus an ambulance, but the attendants weren’t doing any rushing around. Most of the attention seemed to be focused on something in the middle of the street.

Lawrence pulled the Buick up onto the sidewalk about a hundred feet back, and we both got out. A uniformed officer approached Lawrence, raising his hand up flat to press against his chest and keep him away from the scene, but before he could touch him Lawrence said, with some authority, “Where’s Steve Trimble?”

“Over there,” the cop said, lowering his hand and using it to point.

A tall white guy with short dark hair, glasses, and a pencil-thin mustache, who was kneeling over the facedown body of a man a few steps away from the curb, glanced our way and got to his feet. He and Lawrence approached each other with an uncomfortable familiarity, like they knew each other but weren’t friends. Still, I thought maybe Lawrence would extend a hand, but he didn’t, and this Trimble guy didn’t either.

“When he got hit,” Trimble said, “at least it didn’t break his cell phone. When we heard it ringing inside his jacket, I grabbed it. What was he doing here?”

Lawrence looked over at the dead body of Miles Diamond. “He and I were watching different stores, thinking they might get hit. I guess his did.”

Trimble pursed his lips, nodded. “You friends?”

“We each threw each other a bit of work. He was a good guy. He’s got a wife.”

“I’ve seen her,” Trimble said, grinning. “He was a lucky guy till now. Who’s this?” he asked, tilting his head toward me.

“Zack Walker. He writes for
The Metropolitan
.”

“Hi,” I said. Trimble glared at me briefly, then said to Lawrence, “What’s he doing, a piece on guys who couldn’t hack it on the force?”

Lawrence ran his hand over his mouth, like he was going to have to physically keep his comments to himself. He slipped his hand into his pocket and said, “Do you know what happened here, Steve?”

“Mr. Diamond appears to be the victim of a hit-and-run. We got a witness, guy walking his dog, about a block away, said this black SUV was backing out of Maxwell’s here after taking out the front of the store, and squashed our guy here. He must have got out of his car—that’s it parked over there—I don’t know, but he woulda been better off staying put.”

“So they ran him down,” Lawrence said. A vein I’d not noticed before was pulsing at the side of his head.

Trimble shook his head slowly. “Not sure. The dog walker, he said Miles was behind the SUV, one of those big tall ones, you know, and he was so short, they just might not have seen him when they were backing up. These SUVs, they should all go beep-beep when they back up, like trucks, you know?”

 

3

 

MY DAUGHTER ANGIE was at the kitchen table, ignoring the buttered toast I’d put in front of her and fiddling with one of her nails instead, when her cell phone started chirping. She dug it out of her purse, looked at the display, and said, “Shit, my stalker.”

I made some coffee. I really needed some coffee. It had been nearly five o’clock when I’d fallen into bed, and even then I’d had a hard time sleeping. I’d nodded off around six, and now it was eight, and I’d been up half an hour, so do the math. I was hoping coffee would help, but was not particularly hopeful.

All I wanted to do was crawl back into bed, but it had been my plan originally to head into the paper with Sarah when she went in, and this particular week that happened to be around eight-thirty.

“I can’t believe he’s calling me this early,” Angie said. “Bad enough having a stalker. I have to get an early-bird stalker.” The phone had rung six, seven times now, but I’d lost track, since I was counting out eight spoonfuls of fine-grind Colombian into the coffeemaker. Finally, the ringing stopped. “Now he’ll leave me a message,” she sighed, brushing back some of the blond locks that had fallen across her face.

Her brother Paul, who at sixteen is two years younger than Angie, had his back to her as he looked into the fridge, but he’d been listening. “Five bucks says he phones the house next,” he said as he struggled to get a yogurt from the back of the fridge without moving the milk and pickles and orange juice that blocked the way.

Angie took one bite of her cold toast. “Last night he phoned me five times. I never did answer it. So then I have to listen to all his creepy messages. ‘How are you? I was just thinking about you. Why don’t you give me a call? Do you want to get together?’ Uh, I don’t think so.”

Paul, his head still in the fridge, said, “You’re so hard on everybody.”

I spilled the last spoonful of coffee before I could get it into the filter, and scooped it to the edge of the counter and into my other hand. I went to toss it into the wastebasket we keep under the sink, when I noticed a glass bottle sitting on top. It was an empty Snapple bottle that earlier, according to the label, had had apple juice in it. “Hey,” I said. “Who’s tossing Snapple bottles in the regular garbage?”

Angie was still shaking her head over her unwanted phone call and Paul was peeling off the top of the yogurt container. I glared at him. He was the one who liked apple juice.

“We have a recycling box,” I reminded everyone, taking out the Snapple bottle, which had its metal cap screwed back on it. “Glass bottles, tin cans, plastic—that all goes into the box, not into the garbage. Are we interested in saving the planet or not?”

“I could go either way,” Angie said.

“Is there, like, some Most Irritated Dad contest going on we don’t know about?” Paul asked.

“I didn’t get home till five,” I said.

Paul, putting on his concerned face and adopting his mock-parent voice, said, “Maybe if you got to bed in good time, you wouldn’t be so grumpy in the morning.”

I ignored that and walked through the kitchen to the small alcove by the back door, where we keep the blue plastic baskets that hold glass and cans and newspapers for the recycling pickup. I dropped the Snapple container into the one reserved for bottles and cans, making it the only item there.

Sarah was coming into the kitchen as I returned, and Paul was bringing her up to speed. “Angie has a stalker.”

Sarah said, “Huh?”

“The thing is,” Paul said, “I think Angie actually likes him. He’s mysterious.”

“Fuck you,” Angie said to her brother.

“Hey,” I said. “Come on.”

Sarah let out a breath. “You got coffee going?” she asked me. I pointed.

Paul said, “And Dad’s in training for the Irritable Olympics. Those are our main headlines this morning.”

“Two days ago,” Angie said, “I run into him at Starbucks. I’m there with my friends, we’re getting ready to go, and he walks in, like he’s my best friend, and he’s Mr. Oh-So-Perfect Gentleman, helping me on with my coat, handing me my purse.”

“Who are we talking about?” Sarah asked. Good question, I thought. I might have gotten around to it eventually. A trained journalist, that’s me.

“Trevor Wylie,” she said. The name didn’t register with me immediately. Switching gears, Angie said, “Am I going to be able to get a car tonight?”

After waiting in line behind Sarah, I poured myself a cup of coffee, added some cream, spooned in two sugars. Sarah already had that morning’s
Metropolitan
in her hand and was scanning the front-page headlines, looking to see whether any of the stories she’d promoted at the newsroom’s budget meeting the night before had made it to the front page.

“I don’t believe it,” she said. “They didn’t put the dead skateboarder on front. How many sixty-year-old skateboarders are there? He was
sixty
. That’s what makes it news. Assholes.”

“Hello?” Angie said. “I need a car tonight? Is anyone there?”

Sarah looked over her paper at me, and I looked at her. Without actually saying anything, we had entered consultation mode. We were asking each other,
Do you need a car? And are we going to let her have a car
?

“Why do you need a car?” Sarah asked.

Angie sighed, the I-told-you-this-before sigh, and said, “Remember, I’ve got all these evening lectures, and it’s a lot easier, and safer, coming home if I’ve got the car instead of taking the subway.”

“Oh yeah,” said Sarah.

“I mean, you’re the ones who freak out about me taking the subway at night, so if you don’t want me to get raped, you should let me have the car.”

No pressure there.

Our kitchen phone rang. “That’ll be him,” Paul said. “Betcha anything. He figures your cell is off or something.”

“Don’t answer it!” Angie said.

Paul looked over at our wall-mounted phone so he could read the call display. How he could see it from where he stood, without binoculars, was beyond me. “Shit, nope. I was wrong.”

Now that Paul was satisfied this call was not Angie’s stalker, he made no moves to actually answer the phone.

“So who is it?” Sarah snapped.

“Paper,” Paul said.

“Could you
get
it?” Sarah said, considering that Paul was two steps away while his mother was on the other side of the kitchen.

I took a long sip of coffee, let the warmth run down my throat. Caffeine, do your thing.

Paul grabbed the receiver. “Yeah? Sec.” He handed the phone to his mother—“I told you it was for you,” he said—as she strode across the hardwood kitchen floor, the newspaper scrunched into one hand.

“I was sure it was going to be him,” Angie said, her body relaxing as though she’d dodged a bullet.

“Who is this guy again?” I asked her. “Who’s phoning you?”

“I just told you.”

“Tell me again. I wasn’t taking notes earlier.”

“Trevor Wylie.”

“Isn’t that Paul’s old friend? The one with the zits?”

“You gotta be kidding me,” Sarah said into the receiver. “I filled in for him last night. He’s still sick?”

“You’re thinking of Trey Wilson,” Paul said defensively. “He’s the one with a face looked like a pizza. Trevor Wylie’s got a very pretty face, doesn’t he, Angie?”

“Shut up. He wouldn’t even know me if he wasn’t running errands for you.”

“What errands?” I asked.

“He showed up at our high school end of last year,” Paul said, ignoring the question. “He’s this total loner kid, with the long trenchcoat, thinks he’s Keanu Reeves from
The Matrix
. Even wears the shades. Speaks in two-word sentences. Must have flunked a couple of times, like, he must be twenty. Moved from out west or something, don’t even think he has any parents. Like, out here. And he’s a total computer nut, and he’s helped me totally reformat my computer.”

“He’s twenty and still at high school?”

“Last year. If he goes to college next year, maybe he’ll pick Mackenzie, and he and Angie can commute together.”

Angie gave him her best death stare.

“And why didn’t they use the skateboarder on page one? Who’s idiotic call was that?” Sarah wanted to know.

“So, is he dangerous, this guy?” I said, sipping some more coffee. I was trying to be casual about it, working to keep the panic out of my voice.

“He’s fine,” Angie said.

“I mean, I don’t think he’s going to shoot up the school or anything,” Paul said, thinking that I’d find that reassuring. “But he really is a computer genius. I think he spends his spare time inventing viruses. You know when the Hong Kong stock market or something crashed? I think he did that. And the MyDoom virus? I’m betting that was him. His dad’s some software king, makes bazillions of dollars, but now that Trevor’s living on his own, I’m guessing this is his way to get back at his old man, to cripple the Internet or something.”

“Where do you get this information?” I asked.

Paul shrugged. “I don’t know.”

Sarah hung up. “I have to stay late again tonight. I’ve got to run the meeting again. Bailey’s still gone.” Bailey was her boss, the city editor. “I was hoping to get tonight off, since they’ve got me going to this retreat later in the week.”

“Retreat?” I said.

“Maybe I should write everything down for you,” Sarah said. “You know, department heads, other management types from circulation and advertising, we all get together off-site and brainstorm about how to make the paper better and how we can all work as a team, improve employee relations, make everyone feel part of the process, and we draft some list of goals, then come back to the paper and forget it ever happened.”

“Does that mean I can’t get the car?” Angie said. “I have to have a car.”

We only had the one, an aging Toyota Camry. Before we moved back into the city, from Oakwood, we had a second car. Out in the suburbs, where there were no subways or decent bus lines, you couldn’t survive with just one vehicle. But our Honda Civic came to a grisly end one night (Sarah and I very nearly did as well, but that’s a long story, and I’ve already told it), and we opted not to replace it once we’d sold our house and returned to our old neighborhood.

We bought a house a few doors down from our former one, on Crandall, a couple of blocks from the subway and connecting streetcars, and we’d been managing with one car for some time now. Paul’s high school was within walking distance, but in the last few weeks Angie had started college, in town, and, as she’d just reminded us, a few of her classes were in the evening. That meant a walk of several blocks in the dark to catch the subway home, and Sarah was almost as paranoid as I on this issue. We wanted Angie walking alone at night as little as possible.

“What time do you finish?” Sarah asked.

Angie thought. “Eight? Eight-thirty?”

Sarah said, “You take the car, swing by the paper on the way home and pick me up.”

“Then I can’t hang out with anyone after,” Angie said. “I was thinking of getting a coffee with someone after the lecture.”

“Who?”

“Someone. I don’t know.” She got all sullen. “Anybody.”

Which of course meant someone in particular. Sarah said, “You want a car, you pick me up.”

“Jeez, fine, I’ll pick you up. I just won’t make any friends at college at all. I’ll go to school, come home, leave it to the people who live on campus to have lives.”

I wanted to steer the conversation in another direction, not only because I hated family arguments, but because my head was pounding. “What’s the class tonight?” I asked.

“Some psych-sociology male/female studies thing,” she said. “I have to do some research paper for, like, ten days from now. About why men are so weird.”

“Interview your father,” Sarah offered.

“And I need five dollars for parking,” Angie said.

Sarah sidled up to me as she put in some toast. I said to her, quietly, “Maybe it’s time to think about getting another car.”

“I can’t have this discussion now,” she said.

“We’re having these kinds of problems every day,” I said.

I squeezed out of the way as she got some strawberry jam out of the fridge. This kitchen was about half the size of the one in our house out in the suburbs, and quarters were close. “We can’t afford another car now,” Sarah said. “We’ve got Angie’s tuition, a mortgage—”

The phone rang again. I grabbed it instinctively, not thinking to look at who the caller was, and already had the receiver in my hand when Angie started to shout “Don’t answer it!”

But she cut herself off as I brought the phone to my ear, the mouthpiece exposed. Angie mouthed to me, “I’m not here!”

“Hello?” I said. At this point, I looked at the call display and saw “Unknown name/Unknown number.”

“Hi. Is Angie there?” Very cool. You could almost tell, over the phone, that he had to be wearing sunglasses.

“Can I take a message?” I said.

“Is she there?”

“Can I take a message?” I repeated.

A pause at the other end. “Who’s this?”

Now I paused. “This is her father.”

Angie raised her hands up, rolled her eyes, mouthed, “Jeez!”

“Oh,” he said. “You wrote that book.”

That caught me off guard. “Yeah, I did. I wrote a few.”

“SF stuff.”

“That’s right.”

“About the missionaries.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“I like that kind of shit. You see
The Matrix
movies?”

“Yes,” I said.

“First one was great, the other two sucked ass.”

I said, “Do you want to leave a message for Angie?”

Angie, in a loud, angry whisper: “I. Am. Not. Here!”

“Tell her Trevor called.” And he hung up.

“God,” I said, taken aback by the abrupt end to our conversation. “What an asshole.”

“What did he want?” Angie said. “What were you talking about?”

“He was asking if I’d seen
The Matrix
, and if I was the guy who wrote that book, about missionaries.”

“Did he say anything about me?”

“Just wanted me to tell you he called. You think he read my book?”

Paul, finishing his yogurt, said to Angie, “I think he wants to enter your matrix.”

Angie gave him the finger. On her way out of the kitchen she said again that she needed five dollars to pay for parking at Mackenzie that evening. Sarah dug a bill out of her purse and handed it over.

The kitchen emptied out. Paul left for high school, Sarah went up to our room to finish getting ready for work. Angie, who didn’t have a class until midmorning, was in her room, probably fuming about what it was like to live with Third World parents who only had one car.

Sarah and I got into the car. I rode shotgun. We worked out a quick plan, that I’d drive the car home later in the day so that Angie, who was going to return home by way of public transit after her midday class, would have a car for going back to school in the evening. Every day, it was like planning the raid on Entebbe.

As was usually the case when Sarah was behind the wheel, we were attracting the finger from a cross section of motorists as she moved from lane to lane, tailgated, failed to signal. Sarah was what you might call an aggressive driver. The people in the other cars might be more likely to call her a maniac.

“They call it
rush
hour for a reason,” Sarah said, shaking her head as she got past those slowpokes and got some more in her sights. “How’d it go last night?”

I told her.

Her jaw dropped and she looked over at me. “This other detective, he’s
dead
? These guys, the ones you and this Lawrence Jones character were waiting for, they killed him?”

“It may just have been because he was short. They might not have seen him when they were backing up.”

“Fuck. Did you call the desk?”

The city desk. “Yes,” I said. “They said they’d call Cheese Dick and send a photog.” Dick Colby,
The Metropolitan
’s police reporter, who smelled like old havarti. The paper’s editors might trust me to write a profile of Lawrence Jones, but a breaking news story, you couldn’t leave that to some writer from the features team. The desk would want the story covered by someone who could turn it in in under a week.

“So this thing, it really will turn into a decent feature,” Sarah said. The editor in her had taken over. Sooner or later, it might occur to her that if these guys could kill one detective, they could just as easily kill another, particularly one I was hanging out with.

“Wait a minute,” she said. “What if they’d shown up at the store you guys were staking out?”

“I’m sure we’d have been fine,” I said. “Lawrence seems to know what he’s doing.”

“So they killed this Miles Diamond,” Sarah said. “Did they also rob the store?”

“Pretty much cleaned it out of Hugo Boss and Versace and—”

“It’s a
ch
sound. It doesn’t rhyme with ‘face.’ ”

“Okay, so I’m not familiar. It’s not the Gap.”

Sarah, in the middle of cutting off a Mustang, said, “Yeah, well, you haven’t even seen the inside of a Gap in years. You could use some sprucing up, some new clothes.”

“I sure won’t be buying them at Brentwood’s. It’s very expensive Italian suits, designer stuff, silk ties, you get the picture.”

“You’re right. That doesn’t sound like your kind of place.”

“It’s Lawrence’s, though. Nice dresser. Why do gay guys always dress better?”

Sarah scowled. “You might be surprised to learn that there are heterosexual men who know how to look good in clothes. Does he never go by Larry?”

“No. It’s Lawrence Jones, Private Eye.” I used my TV announcer voice.

“So, you got enough to write this piece? You’ve got color, there was the incident last night.”

“You promised me a week. I’m going back out with him tonight, this’ll be night three.”

Now Sarah looked apprehensive. “You’ve probably got enough already.”

“Look, don’t worry, I’m perfectly safe.”

At which point Sarah swerved from the middle to the inside lane to avoid a green Cutlass. “Jesus,” she said. “Was he going slow or what?”

Now Sarah was taking the off-ramp that would lead us down to the
Metropolitan
building. The ramp was designed as a single lane, but Sarah was trying to squeeze along the inside, so close to a Mazda that if she put her window down she could hand the guy a coffee. I kept jamming my right foot into the floorboards, figuring if I shoved hard enough I could stop the car. There were a lot of things that made me feel anxious.

I said, “Do we have any jazz CDs?”

“I hate jazz,” Sarah said. There wasn’t a CD player in the Toyota; it was too old to have come equipped with one. But at home, she often slipped a disc into the stereo. Rock, lots of seventies stuff, Neil Young, Creedence Clearwater Revival. “Why you asking about jazz?”

“No reason.”

This was a new wrinkle to our relationship, this business of having Sarah as my boss. Well, one of my bosses. At a newspaper, you had so many, it was hard to keep track. This was my first experience working for the same person with whom I slept. I had been back working at a newspaper for almost a year now, after spending a few years writing commercially unsuccessful science fiction novels. Okay, the first one did reasonably well, which had given me the confidence to quit a salaried job and write fiction full-time. But as most people who write fiction understand, unless they happen to be Tom Clancy, or a former president penning his memoirs, you can’t support a family and pay a mortgage without a regular job. And I was back at one.

The Metropolitan
offered me a feature-writing position. Given my experience, coupled with the fact I’d written four novels, the editors in charge seemed to feel I had graduated beyond the level of general assignment. To my surprise, and Sarah’s, they put me among the stable of city feature writers who reported to her. Although she wouldn’t admit this to me, I’d heard through the newsroom grapevine that she’d fired off a memo to the managing editor, Bertrand Magnuson, expressing some concern, something along the lines of “I can’t get him to do anything I say at home, so what makes you think I can do it here?”

The problem was, the newsroom has a long history of people who sleep together—spouses, and non-spouses, and a few spouses with non-spouses—being thrown into the mix together, and Sarah’s superior probably wrote her back with a note consisting of three letters—“DWI”—which in the
Metropolitan
newsroom meant “deal with it.”

Moving on, I said, “You know about this Trevor Wylie kid?”

Sarah thought a moment. “The one calling Angie? Not much. He the one had a face like a pizza?”

“No.”

“Then I don’t know anything.”

“I just don’t like the sounds of this guy.”

“Has he done anything?”

“He’s calling Angie all the time, shows up where she is, like maybe he’s following her.”

“You mean, like when you were interested in me?”

“I just don’t like him. You should talk to Angie, find out more about this guy, tell her to be careful.”