Read an Excerpt
Ricardo Arias’s face filled with fear and disbelief.
“If you’re going to kill yourself,” the intruder repeated softly, “you must leave a note.”
Richie’s eyes would not move from the gun. Pulled from damp and darkness, it had not been fired for years; the intruder wondered if it would fire now. But Richie Arias did not know this.
Sitting at his desk, Richie began groping for a pen.
His movements were sluggish, like those of a man struggling under water. Fixated on the gun, he seemed blind to the darkened living room: the worn couch and armchair, the cheap coffee table, the computer on the desk, the answering machine he used to screen creditors, the faded posters. A chrome standing lamp cast a pall on his skin.
His face was thin, with black eyes that shifted from softness to anger, as suited his needs, and yet never quite lost the alert, almost fevered expression of a bright graduate student running on too much coffee and too little sleep. Blood had begun to trickle from one nostril.
“I never write.” His head twitched toward the computer. “Everyone knows I use that.”
“Suicide is different.” The intruder’s voice was strained now. “The handwriting must be yours.”
Richie’s face looked drawn. Slowly, he picked up the pen, holding it gingerly.
“‘I am ending my life’”—the intruder spoke for him—“‘because I have faced what I am.’”
An instant’s pause, the instinct to resist. Then Richie’s pen began to inch across the paper. The effort was awkward and hesitant, that of a child learning to write, pausing in the middle of letters. Heavier on some than others, spidery at the end.
“‘What I am,’” the voice instructed him, “‘is selfish and pathetic.’”
Richie stopped writing. His eyes filled with resentment. “Do it,” the intruder ordered.
Wiping the blood from his nose, Richie stared at the paper. It was a moment before his hand moved, and when it did, there was a red smear on the back of his fingers. The word “pathetic” took too long to write.
“‘My only business is extortion. I have used my wife and child, out of greed and shamelessness, because I myself am nothing.’”
Richie flushed with anger. He stopped, staring at the words he had already written. His hand would not move.
The intruder hesitated, irresolute. Then saw, on the bookshelf next to Richie, a photograph.
Gun aimed at Richie, the intruder retrieved the picture and placed it carefully on the desk. A dark-haired girl, her solemn brown eyes gazing at Richie Arias.
It was far better than a note, the intruder realized: a last expression of cheap sentiment would seem so very like him. A shrine to his own suicide.
Turning from the picture, Richie’s face showed that he understood the rest.
“You see,” the intruder said softly, “I know who you are.”
As if by instinct, Richie stood, backing from the chair. “Wait,” he cried out. “No one commits suicide from across a room.”
Their eyes met. The intruder did not speak.
“You can just leave.” Richie’s tone became a shrill wheedle. “I won’t tell anyone. We just let it go, okay?”
All at once, staging a suicide did not matter. “Only you,” the intruder said quietly, “would think that I could ‘let it go.’ Only you.”
Richie’s gaze darted to the gun. Slowly, the intruder started toward him.
Five feet, then four.
Richie’s face was taut with fear and calculation. Backing toward the coffee table, he seemed to have forgotten it was there: his eyes flickered toward the bedroom hallway, searching for a way out. His throat worked. “Shoot me now, and it’s murder.”
The intruder stopped, raising the gun.
Richie’s eyes changed. In that moment, he seemed to accept—despite his deepest instincts—that one person could truly love another.
“I’ll give her up,” he whispered.
In silent answer, the intruder’s head moved from side to side.
Richie turned to run.
The gun jerked up at his first panicky step. As he stretched forward, straining for the hallway, Richie’s leg slammed into the coffee table.
There was a sharp sudden scream of pain.
The next few seconds were like freeze-frames. Richie snapping at the waist, arms flailing. Sprawling forward in a face-first dive, head bobbing like a rag doll. Temple hitting the corner of the table. Another sound: a sickening crack. And then Ricardo Arias rolled sideways, flopping onto the carpet, and was still. He lay on his back, staring at the ceiling. The lamp bathed him in a circle of light.
Gun hand trembling, the intruder knelt beside him.
There was a red gash on his temple. Blood dribbled from his nose. The luminous wristwatch on his arm read 10:36.
Tentatively, almost gently, the intruder pushed open Richie’s lips with the barrel of the gun.
It did not require much room. As the barrel slipped into his throat, Richie’s mouth clamped down, the reflex of choking. The only sounds were Richie’s shallow breathing, the whir of air-conditioning.
Eyes shut, the intruder took one breath and pulled the trigger.
A metallic snap. It was only an instant later that the intruder, forced to look at Richie’s face, knew the ancient gun had not discharged.
Richie blinked, the first tremor of consciousness. Watching him taste the black metal, then discover it in some state of half awakening, the intruder prayed that the gun would fire.
Four more bullets.
Richie’s eyes widened in terrible comprehension. His head rose, twisting feebly. His mouth opened around the barrel to form a single word.
The child shuddered.
It was dark. She was damp from the struggle to escape: her legs could not move, and her voice could not cry out. Knees drawn up tight against her stomach, she lay there, waiting.
The banging on her door grew louder.
As the door burst open, the little girl awakened with a soundless scream, torn from her nightmare.
She did not know where she was. But in her dream, she had imagined what would break down the door: a savage dog, with bright teeth and black curly hair, eyes searching the room for her.
A shadow moved toward her.
The girl shivered, stifling her scream, hugging herself so tightly that her fingers dug into her skin. And then her grandmother spoke softly, in Spanish, and Elena Arias stopped trembling.
“It was only your dream,” her grandmother repeated, and swept Elena into her arms. “You’re safe now.”
Elena held her tight, tears of relief springing to her eyes, face buried in her grandmother’s neck. She would know the smell of Grandma Rosa anywhere, sweet skin and perfume, the scent of cut flowers. As her grandmother gently lowered her head onto the pillow, Elena shut her eyes.
Elena felt Rosa’s fingertips gently touch her forehead: in her mind, she saw her grandmother’s jet-black hair, the slender face still almost as pretty as that of Elena’s own mother, Teresa, whose room this once had been. The sounds of Dolores Street came to her then: Latin voices on the sidewalk; the squeal of cars at a stop sign. Outside, the streets were not safe, and Dolores Park, where Elena could not play, was filled with men who sold drugs at night. The window that her mother once could open wide was nailed to the frame. But here, with her grandmother, there was no black dog.
“Where is Mommy?” Elena asked.
To night, before bedtime, her grandmother had taken her mother’s old world globe and traced a line with her finger from San Francisco, showing the route that her mother would fly tomorrow. But now Rosa repeated the words like a favorite story.
“Your mother is still here, at her house. Tomorrow she’s flying to a place called Italy. But she’ll be back in ten more days. And in the morning, when you get up, we’ll find Italy on the map again.”
Elena was silent for a moment. “But Daddy’s not with her, is he? Mommy’s going with Chris.”
“Yes.” Her grandmother’s voice was quieter still. “Mommy’s going with Chris.”
Elena opened her eyes. In the faint glow of the night-light, her grandmother’s gaze looked tired and sad.
Turning to the window, Elena listened for the sounds of the world outside. “Will I see Daddy tomorrow?” she asked in a tentative voice. “After Chris and Mommy leave?”
Her grandmother watched her, fingers still resting on her forehead. “No, Elena. Not tomorrow.”
Tomorrow was as far ahead as Elena wished to think. She turned back to Rosa. “Please, Grandma, sleep with me. I’m afraid of being alone.”
In the dim light, her grandmother started to shake her head and then stopped at the look in Elena’s eyes.
“Remember what I told you, Grandma? About being scared?”
Her grandmother looked into her eyes. “Yes,” she said gently. “I remember.”
Neither spoke again. Her grandmother rose slowly from the bed and then, pulling her dress over her head, slid into the bed next to Elena, wearing only her slip.
Nestled in her grandmother’s arms, Elena felt the rise and fall of Rosa’s wakeful breathing as the caress of love and safety, until she fell asleep.
EYES OF A CHILD Copyright © 1998 by Richard North Patterson.