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The destruction of Tom Holder was carefully planned. Joel took months producing a suitable scheme.
He began with the principle that a man should be attacked at his weakest point. Studying Holder, his life, and his activities as best he could from a careful distance, Joel soon decided that Holder's weakest point must surely be Mrs. Holder. Louise.
The woman dressed like a bag lady. Mismatched articles of clothing hung off her dispiritedly, as if they knew they had no business being together. The hems of her skirts were amazingly uneven. Her blouses were so many decades out of date that they could not have been obtained anywhere but thrift shops. Sweaters and jackets were dragged inefficiently over these blouses so that sometimes the arms were fully into the sleeves and sometimes not. Frequently these ensembles were tied together with dreadful knitted scarves that seemed to be of the lady's own making.
It was obvious that her husband earned enough money as Harton's police chief to keep her in proper clothes; for one thing, they lived in a perfectly respectable house. Small, and nothing fancy, but a good, middle-class house, not a slum. And of course the man dressed decently himself. Joel concluded that Mrs. Holder must actually choose to dress the way she did, and therefore she must be seriously touched in the head.
It was necessary, therefore, to observe the wife, even strike acquaintance with the wife, without the husband knowing these overtures were being made, and since the husband was a policeman, some subtlety was called for. One of the first things that occurred to Joel was that he could not possibly stalk Mrs. Holder in his own car.
He had not yet decided whether he would, in the end, reveal himself to Holder as his tormentor or whether he would prefer to remain forever tantalizingly anonymous. If he wanted to leave the latter option open, it was important that Louise not be able to furnish any information that might lead to him. Therefore he could not follow her around, learning her schedule and habits, perhaps ultimately park in front of her house and pay a call, or strike acquaintance in order to work some scam on her, unless he abandoned his own conspicuous car for some more forgettable vehicle.
So it was that early on a crisp autumn morning Joel drove to Newark Airport, parked his red LeBaron convertible in long-term parking, and caught a shuttle bus to the car rental cluster. Guarding against the possibility that at some future point an attempt might be made to trace his movements all the way back to this relatively innocuous beginning, he timed his arrival well. He wanted to go unnoticed, lost in the early morning rush hour, and he hit it exactly on time. Every line at the Avis counter was three deep in drowsy travelers who had arrived on the various red-eye flights from the West Coast.
None of the lines appeared shorter than the others; wanting another criterion for choice, Joel glanced at the clerks behind the counter. He would choose the one least likely to pay any attention to him, the one most likely to be doing the job on autopilot.
Joel had been reared in reasonable affluence. As in most places in America, that meant he had been reared in mostly white neighborhoods, gone to mostly white schools and a mostly white college, and worked in mostly white workplaces. He was afflicted, therefore, with that almost universal American racism, that faint, unacknowledged, embarrassing, never-to-be-admitted assumption that black people are, on average, just a bit less bright than white people are. So he got in the line where the clerk behind the counter was a young black woman. In fairness to him, it should be said that his racism was exacerbated by his conservative taste in hair fashion; the front half of the girl's head was covered in golden cornrows and the back half was an explosion of orange frizz. And she was wearing purple dangling earrings that were at least five inches long, for heaven's sake, and shiny.
What Joel did not realize was that the earrings were shiny because they were made of titanium, which cost a pretty penny indeed, and Loreen Sanchez could afford them because she was not just one of the clerks at the Avis office at Newark Airport, she was the manager, and therefore drew a hefty salary. In fact, at twenty-two, Loreen was the youngest manager of a major airport Avis office in the country, and she had earned that position because she was as sharp as eight barrels of tacks. Joel had picked the wrong line.
"Good morning, sir! How can I help you?" Loreen beamed at Joel with her "red-eye smile," a nice combination of bracing friendliness and sympathy; she'd been working on it for years and it was very good. It made customers feel she understood how miserable they felt.
They went through the routine: he wanted a midsized sedan, no, he didn't have a reservation; he needed it for two weeks, yes, he'd be bringing it back to Newark, no, he didn't need insurance, he'd be insuring it with his regular insurers in Harton.
All the while these uninspiring transactions were going on, Loreen Sanchez's mind was ticking fast. It was perfectly clear to her that this customer had not been on a plane all night. He had none of the signs, and if anybody knew the signs, Loreen did. People didn't get off the red-eye with trembling hands and eyes ever so slightly wide with excitement. This guy was wired, and it wasn't because he'd been drinking coffee all night. This wasn't caffeine; she knew caffeine. This was something else. And it was something wrong.
He lived in Harton; that was about an hour and a half drive from the airport; obviously he owned a car, because he had a car insurer in Harton. If he needed a spare because his own was in the shop, it would have been a hell of a lot easier to rent one in Harton. He'd driven, or taken a taxi, all the way to Newark to rent a car other than his own. That seemed to indicate some need for secrecy. It could be something as relatively innocent as an affair, which would have been none of Avis's business. But if the guy was going to rent an Avis car and do something illegal with it, it could turn out to be very much their business. Not that they could be held accountable, strictly speaking, but still . . .
Risking the customer's impatience, Loreen gave him a huge smile, begged his pardon, gathered up his papers, and said she'd be back in a moment. Retreating to the office where she couldn't be seen, she made a photocopy of his driver's license and insurance card and then wrote a few terse sentences on the photocopied sheet, a practice she invariably followed when a customer made the hair move on the back of her neck. She then put the piece of paper in a special file.
She returned to the counter with yet another smile, the customer's license and insurance card, Avis's rental papers, and a set of car keys, and handed them over.
The customer took these items from her with an urgent haste that only served to exacerbate her misgivings. He managed, barely, to throw her a breathless "thanks" over his shoulder as he stalked hastily away.
Out in the parking lot, Joel felt as though he'd escaped from something, but he wasn't sure what. The way that black girl had looked at him! As if she suspected him of something! But that was stupid, she couldn't have known anything, he was just renting a car. He gulped in huge lungfuls of the cold, welcome air, and strode along the rows of identical trunks until a number painted on the asphalt told him he had arrived at the beginning of his vengeance.
It was one of those magic nights that October frequently produces in New Jersey. The leaves made speckled golden haloes around the streetlights, and the air was sharp and restless. Mason Blaine marched briskly down the sidewalk that ran along the shadowy street where he lived. He congratulated himself on his habit of walking to and from the campus as long as the weather was good. Some of those lazy young fools on the faculty drove everywhere. Stupid of them. They'd only get fat and unfit. And they missed the pleasure of being alone on a night like this, walking along, crunching the first fallen leaves underfoot, enjoying the rustling dark. It was nights like this that Halloweens were made of. A witchy night. That little breeze, stirring the leaves. Nights like this, you could see why people used to believe in elves. All those movements in the shadows, if you were the fanciful type– Out of the corner of his eye Blaine caught a movement that did not seem to fit into that kind of fancy. He turned to see what it was, but too late.
An annihilating blow struck the back of his head; he actually heard the crunch as his skull buckled like a broken egg, but thanks to the effect of shock, and the fact that he was unconscious if not dead by the time he hit the ground, he felt no pain.
The figure holding the crowbar stood for a moment hoping a wild heartbeat would subside. Deep breathing was supposed to help. Everybody said deep breathing helped. But it was taking too much time, and there was no time to waste. Quick: to the car parked at the curb. Open the trunk. Put the crowbar back in. Close the trunk. Drag the body onto the floor of the backseat. Close the door gently. Get in the car. Drive away discreetly. It was a quiet neighborhood. Keep it quiet.
An intermittent breeze bestirred the leaves to confidential whispers among themselves, and beyond the reach of the streetlights the shadows were alive with the movements that had reminded Mason Blaine of elves.
It was lost on Tracy. She was walking home from her session with Father Edwards, and her brain was too heavy with trouble to notice the mischievous air. Everything was awful. It was so bad, she could hardly believe it. She wondered how long she could endure it. And when she couldn't endure it any longer, what then? Divorce was no more a viable option than murder. You couldn't break a promise you made to God. Or before God. But wasn't every promise made before God? Was marriage that particular? Wasn't– No. Never mind. No good speculating. Divorce was out. There could be no escape that way.
Escape. Wouldn't it be lovely. Just to vanish. Just to slip out on a night like this, and not come back. A night like this, Tracy thought, noticing it for the first time. Yes, if one wanted to vanish, this would be a perfect night for it. There was something fresh and wicked about the air. The trees were doing subtle little dances in the breeze, uttering soft susurrations to one another.
She was walking along Stocker Street from Augustine Institute, and turned to take her usual shortcut on the single-lane driveway that cut through the grounds of her parish church, St. Margaret's. As she got farther from the streetlight behind her on Stocker Street, the night darkened around her. Her impression of the supernatural quality of her surroundings intensified. Yes, this was a night for vanishing. Plenty of shadows to disappear into. No, that wasn't a shadow; that was somebody disappearing into one. No. Yes? Hard to say. Her imagination, probably. And that lump in the driveway ahead was not a lump, it was just another shadow.
The leaves rustled, and all the shadows moved, and things that his grandmother would have called leprechauns played just outside the circles of the streetlights. But Sergeant Flannery was deep inside the building, and ample amounts of brick and glass shielded him from the sort of weather that could provoke such fantasies. Not that it mattered. Sergeant Flannery would not be brought to contemplate the existence of leprechauns were an army of them to stomp across his desk. No, Sergeant Flannery's fantasies did not run in that direction. They ran straight home to his wife.
She'd have a fire going, now, and would bring him a hot toddy. And she'd be wearing that new robe, that pink thing. He liked that pink robe. Damn night duty anyway. Especially night duty at the desk. Talk about dull. Not that days were that exciting. In a town this size, a traffic fatality was a major event. Oh, God, that last one. No, better to be dull than that. Not the thing to think about. Think about Nancy.
His gaze wandered over the deserted lobby of City Hall. The Police Department was separated from the lobby only by a thick glass wall, and from the desk Sergeant Flannery had an excellent view of lots of modern sofas and potted plants. It was a scene he knew by heart. But suppose Nancy were to come in. Just to say hi. Just to bring him some cookies. Just to give him a kiss. Suppose she came to one of the front doors over there, and pushed it open. She'd walk across the lobby toward him, smiling. She wouldn't say anything, because the glass wall would be between them. But she'd walk across, smiling . . .
She was running.
He shook off his drowsiness and sat up straight, frowning. A girl–no, a young woman–was running across the lobby toward him, and she was plainly terrified. She wrenched open the glass door, stumbled into the room, and clutched at the front edge of the desk for support.
"There's a body," she gasped. "At least I think it's a body. I mean, I think he's dead. He must be dead. In the driveway–the St. Margaret's Church driveway–"
"Now, now," said the sergeant, coming out from behind the desk to pat her on the shoulder. "Calm down. You want a drink of water? It's probably just a drunk, you know, passed out on the ground. We get 'em sometimes like that."
Tracy shook her head emphatically. "No," she said.
The Sergeant smiled tolerantly. "You got a lot of experience with dead bodies?"
"No," Tracy admitted.
"Then what makes you so sure this guy isn't a passed-out wino?"
"There's a knife in his back."
"No shit," said Sergeant Flannery, who never said things like that in front of ladies.
It was only about forty yards from the front door of City Hall back to the church driveway, but Tracy found her legs unsteady, and it seemed like a long walk. She was leading a couple of highly interested policemen back to where she'd seen it. Good Lord, suppose it wasn't there? Could she have imagined it? Anything was possible, with this night full of whispering leaves and restless shadows.