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Author Biography: Bill Pronzini is the author of more than forty novels, including three in collaboration with his wife, the novelist Marcia Muller, and is the creator of the popular Nameless Detective series. A six-time nominee for the Edgar Allan Poe Award (most recently for A Wasteland of Strangers), Pronzini is also the recipient of two Shamus Awards. He lives in northern California.
HE sat in the dark Lexus, on the dark street, waiting dry-mouthed for the man he was going to kill.
It was twenty of eleven by the radium dial of his watch; he'd been here an hour and still no sign of Rakubian. Habitual, every minute of the bastard's time jealously budgeted, his weeknight regimen as strict as an army recruit's ... he should have been home long ago.
Hollis shifted position to ease cramped muscles, the pressure in his bladder. In the cold darkness he could hear the beat of his heart, or imagined he could. Steady. Accelerated but steady. One hand lay quiet in his lap, the other resting on the Colt Woodsman on the seat beside him. Palms and underarms sweat-free. Yet the dryness threatened to close his throat, and he could feel his nerves squirming inside him like a nest of night crawlers.
Across the curving, mist-choked street Rakubian's house loomed black and fuzzy-edged behind its front tangle of yew trees and shrubbery. Small place by St. Francis Wood standards, Spanish style, set well back from the street and well apart from its neighbors. A line of eucalyptus ran along the west side, their elongated shadows thick as unstirred ink. One advantage there. The fog was another. It was dense enough to blur lights and distort shapes, hide him when he crossed to the house and back almost as effectively as it hid him now behind the opaque film of wetness it had laid over the windshield.
The house and property were familiar enough; he and Cassie had visited Angela a few times in theearlymonths, when her marriage had still been tolerable and she'd hidden the truth about Rakubian out of loyalty instead of fear. But at the same time it was an alien place. It had never been hers, was never allowed to be hers, in any way. Furnishings, decor, landscaping, everything Rakubian's, all carefully selected and rigidly governed. As he'd selected and was still trying to govern her even though her divorce had been granted. Rakubian, the control freak. Rakubian, the psychotic abuser.
Once more Hollis let himself remember the night six weeks ago, when she'd finally had enough and the whole ugly truth came out. The details were etched as if with acid on the walls of his mind: Angela standing on the dark porch, Kenny beside her crying and clutching her hand, her face pale and her body hunched, saying in a hurt little girl's voice, "Daddy, can we come home, can we please come home?" Her shamed unveiling of the bruises, welts, scabbed cuts and scratches, old marks as well as new ones. Her confession about the beatings, most of them done with Rakubian's fists but that night with an antique walking stick, and his threats to do worse to her if she didn't obey him. "Discipline," he'd called it—punishment for imagined flirtations, for violating one of his other strict rules of wifely conduct. And the abject, hammered-down misery in her voice when she begged their forgiveness for letting it go on so long, saying, "I would've left him sooner if he'd hurt Kenny, but he didn't ... terrorized him but never hit him. Kenny doesn't really exist for David because he's another man's son. It's me he's obsessed with, me he wants to hurt."
Hollis held on to the memory, using it like a bellows to stoke the fire of his hate and resolve. It was what would let him get out of the car when Rakubian finally came home, and walk over there and ring the bell, and put a bullet point-blank into his brain when he opened the door.
No words, no hesitation.
Look him in the eye and kill him.
Take a human life, even one as sick and worthless as David Rakubian's. Him, Jack Hollis, law-abiding citizen, staunch believer in the Judeo-Christian ethic and the sanctity of life. Commit cold-blooded, premeditated murder.
But there was simply no other option. He'd been through the alternatives so many times and none of them were any good. If there was one thing the experts agreed on, it was that nothing short of a death—not a divorce decree, not the antistalking laws, not restraining orders, not support groups or round-the-clock bodyguards or the victims moving away and changing their names or even hiring a couple of thugs to break bones—would stop the committed stalker. And that was exactly what Rakubian was, committed and lethal. All the letters and phone calls, the thinly veiled and escalating threats, said so. So did the incident last week: showing up when Angela was at Long's Drugs, trying to force her and Kenny into his car in front of witnesses, punching her when she resisted. They'd had him arrested, and a few hours later he was out on bail. A judge had finally granted a temporary restraining order, and already he'd found ways, sly lawyer's tricks, to circumvent it.
Hollis conjured up another memory—the conversation in Rakubian's office the day he'd made the mistake of going there to confront him, not long after her return home.
"You have no right to interfere in my personal affairs, Hollis. Angela isn't yours any longer, she's mine."
"The hell she is. She's filed for divorce, she wants nothing more to do with you."
"I don't believe in divorce. I won't accept it. Angela will never be free of me, why can't you and she understand that? She'll always be my wife. I'll always love her more than life itself."
"You beat her like a dog!"
"I disciplined her. A wife needs discipline to learn to cleave unto her husband."
"You're a goddamn sadist, Rakubian."
"Hardly. What I am is an old-fashioned realist. The world would be better off if there were more men like me. I take my marriage vows and duties seriously and I believe in them to the letter. For better or for worse, till death do us part."
"I won't let you hurt her any more than you already have."
"You have no say in the matter. What I do or don't do is between my wife and me."
"Stay away from her! Stay away from my grandson!"
"I suggest you remember what I've told you, that you tell Angela to remember it. For better or for worse, till death do us part."
The implication, the promise had been crystal clear: If I can't have her, no one else will. Oh, yes, no mistake—Rakubian was the classic profile of a homicidal stalker. Inflexible as stone, egotistical, delusional, sociopathic. A ticking time bomb. Allow him to live, and before too much longer he would explode in the deadliest way imaginable.
Taking his life first wasn't murder; it was self-defense, an act of survival. Either David Rakubian died or Angela would die. Kenny, too, most likely. Cassie, Eric, himself ... anyone Rakubian perceived as standing in his way was at risk. Hollis would not let that happen. His family meant more to him than anything else, including his own life.
Yet the enormity of the act still frightened and sickened him. Determination on the one hand, revulsion on the other. As if he were existing on two overlapping planes, half on one and half on the second, a schizoid state that would end only when he squeezed the Woodsman's trigger.
If he squeezed it.
If he could go through with it.
He kept telling himself he would, but how could any man with his background, his moral code, be absolutely sure until the moment came? Decide to take a life, be convinced it was morally justified, even crave the relief it would bring ... conceptual abstracts, like one of the buildings he designed in its embryonic stage. An edifice of the mind. Drawings, blueprints didn't make a building a reality; steel, stone, wood, brick, physical labor created the actual structure. Same principle here. Rakubian's death and his family's safety could not become a reality until the trigger was squeezed, a bullet tore through flesh, bone, brain tissue.
An image came into his mind: Rakubian sprawled on the terra-cotta floor of his foyer. Blackened hole in his face, blood, twitching limbs, eyes glazed and sightless. Another image: himself standing on the porch, smoking gun in hand, the knowledge of his responsibility swelling and distorting his features until they were no longer recognizable.
Another image: the buck, thirty-five years ago.
His child self inside the bright red hunting jacket, the hiking boots pinching his toes, the rifle cold-hot in his hands, his eyes staring down at the bloody spasming body of the deer and watching it die. Pop's arm tight around his shoulders, the stillness of the woods and the lingering after-echoes of the shot and the animal's last gurgling, dying breaths. And Pop saying, "Good clean lung shot, son, I'm proud of you," Pop saying, "Just take it easy, the first kill is always the hardest," Pop saying, "Be a man, now, wipe the puke off your mouth and get hold of yourself," Pop saying, "It's your buck, Jack, you killed it and by God you're going to gut and dress it."
Eleven years old. First kill. Only kill. Went hunting twice more with the old man, froze up and couldn't fire at the only other deer that came his way, Pop saying disgustedly that time, "Buck fever, after you already lost your cherry. I'm ashamed of you, boy." And Pop red-faced and angry the second year, when he learned his son had left camp with an unloaded rifle; stomping around in the chill mountain air and shouting, "This is the last time you come out with me, the goddamn last time. You haven't got the guts for a man's sport."
Wrong, Pop. It wasn't a matter of courage at all. An outdoorsman, the old man, all rough edges and surface feelings and lack of imagination. He'd mistaken sensitivity, empathy for cowardice. His son had guts, all right; a man knows if he does or doesn't, proves it to himself in a hundred different ways as he matures, and Jack Hollis refusing to shoot another deer—or to hook a fish in Tomales Bay, or to play contact sports, or to do any of the other things Bud Hollis considered manly—had nothing to do with the stuff he was made of. Neither was being able or unable to kill a hated enemy a test of his courage. Of his humanity, yes. Of the essence of him, yes. But not of his manhood.
Come on, Rakubian, he thought.
Damn you, come on!
Growing edgier by the minute, and nothing to he done about it. Normally he was a patient man, but an hour of sitting like this in the cold car had frayed him raw inside. The longer the wait went on, the harder it would be to use the .22. No denying that. He could call it off, go home, return tomorrow night, but it would be twice as hard to nerve himself to it a second time. Stick it out another twenty or thirty minutes, at least. He could stand that much more.
Maybe, he thought then, he ought to do this a little differently. Go over there right now, hide in the shadows near the attached garage where he could empty his bladder. When Rakubian drove in, drift inside behind the car and use the gun in there. The garage walls were thick and would muffle the shot, even with the door open. Another factor: It would be too dark in the garage for anyone happening by to see in from the street. On the porch, he'd be in clear view because Rakubian would almost certainly put on the outside light before opening the door....
No. Bad idea. Suppose it was another hour or more before Rakubian showed? With the blowing fog, the night was bitter cold; waiting outside, even bundled in his overcoat, he would numb and cramp before long. He didn't have his gloves and he couldn't fire the .22 with stiffened fingers. Nor was there any guarantee he'd be able to enter the garage without Rakubian seeing him and taking some kind of counteraction. Or that he'd be able to get close enough, or see clearly enough, to put him down with a single shot.
The original plan was still the best. Stay put, wait it out here. Wait five minutes after Rakubian got home, then walk over, ring the bell, shoot him as soon as he opened up. A quick glance to make sure he was dead, then walk, not run, to the car and drive away.
Chances were no one would hear the shot; a .22 Woodsman makes a pop not much louder than a released champagne cork. And with any luck no one would see him, notice or be able to identify the car's make or color. He would be suspected, of course, because of that stupid outburst in Rakubian's office, but Gabe Mannix would alibi him for tonight if necessary—all he'd have to do was ask. Two other things in his favor: a man like Rakubian, a ruthless personal-injury attorney, must have plenty of other enemies. And the Woodsman had been Pop's, an old target pistol he'd never bothered to register.
He might just get away with it, at least in this life. If he didn't, well, it might not matter much in the long run. Even if a good criminal attorney pled extenuating circumstances, got a murder charge reduced to manslaughter, he still had the goddamn cancer to contend with. Maybe he'd get lucky and beat the odds there, too ... and maybe he wouldn't. No point in worrying about it now. The important thing, the only important thing, was to keep his family safe.
Hollis ran a hand over his face, felt and heard the heel of his palm scrape on patchy beard stubble. Poor job of shaving this morning. Too keyed up, his hand not quite steady. Missed a few spots, nicked himself in three or four places. Cassie had noticed the bad shave and the edginess both, commented on them. After twenty-six years of marriage they were sensitive to each other's moods. The look on her face when he'd told her he would be home late, he had an important meeting with a prospective client. Her afternoon call to the office, the questions, the unease in her voice. If he hadn't cut her off short, she might have tried to bring it out into the open. He hated lying to her, but it was better than an open confrontation. Nothing she could say would have changed his mind anyway.
Headlights appeared at the intersection two blocks down, threw a wash of diffused yellow-white against the fog as the car turned upstreet toward him. He slid lower beneath the wheel, as he had the other times headlights approached, his hand closing around the hard rubber handle of the .22. The beams speared closer, moving slowly, making a blinding oblong of the mist-streaked windshield. And flicked past, the car's tires hissing on the pavement. Not Rakubian. The car kept on going and vanished around the curve behind him.
The pound of his heart seemed drum-loud. He willed himself to relax, working his shoulder muscles as he sat up. The side window was lowered enough so that he could look over the top of the glass; he put it down the rest of the way to clear off condensation, took deep drafts of the chill night air. The wind, moist and salt-flavored, made his skin tingle clammily. He rolled the window partway up again, held his watch close to his eyes.
What if Rakubian stayed out all night? He'd been alone six weeks now ... another woman? No. Not the way he felt about Angela. His appetites, sexual and otherwise, were too obsessively centered on her.
Long business meeting or dinner? Some kind of social function? Where the hell was he?
Hollis's saliva glands seemed to have dried up; swallowing had become painful. His breathing was off, the pressure in his bladder acute, and now his lower back and hips ached. One of the symptoms that prostate cancer is spreading: nagging pain in the back, hips, or pelvis. Symptom of stress, too, he told himself. Don't start imagining things.
Another set of headlights appeared, smeared by fog and the wet window glass into one long misshapen fan, approaching from the direction of West Portal. The lights swept past the little hillside park where St. Francis ended, and when they turned into Monterey and came uphill toward him, he sank low on the seat again so his eye level was just above the window frame. The windshield once more became a dazzling oblong—and a moment later the beams swung sharply away, into the driveway across the street.
He let out a ragged breath, caught up the Woodsman and held it on his lap. With his left hand he rubbed moisture off the side glass. Taillights burned crimson through the fog; the automatic garage door began to glide up, revealing the lighted interior in slow segments. He could hear the throaty idle of the car—a silver BMW, less than a year old, hallmark of the bugger's success. He watched it roll inside, the driver's door swing open as the overhead door started to come down. He had a brief glimpse of Rakubian in a dark overcoat, then the door was all the way down and he was looking at darkness again.
He sat waiting, staring at the house. He felt ... okay. A little queasy, the crawling sensation more pronounced and close under the skin, but otherwise calm. His hands? Steady enough, the palms still dry.
Light bloomed behind one of the shaded front windows.
All right. No point in waiting any longer.
Get out, walk over there.
Ring the bell.
Raise the gun, and when Rakubian opens the door, shoot him. Don't hesitate, don't think, just shoot him.
Rid the world of a monster.
For Angela. Kenny. Cassie. Eric. Himself.
He sat there.
Do it. What's the matter with you? Do it!
He sat there. He couldn't move.
Could not will himself to move.
Buck fever, after you already lost your cherry. I'm ashamed of you, boy.
Now the sweat came. And the shakes, and a shortness of breath, and an awareness that he was dribbling droplets of piss like a scared old man. He cursed himself, bitterly and savagely; and when the reaction ended after a minute, two minutes, it left him feeling weak and ill. He knew he could move then. He might even be able to make it across the street and up to Rakubian's door. But beyond that ... no.
Couldn't go through with it after all.
Not tonight. Not this way.
But it wasn't finished; he wasn't finished. Something had to be done about Rakubian and it was still up to him to do it. All that had changed was the time, the place, perhaps the method. Whatever steps he eventually took to protect his family, they would not be as simple or as cowardly as ringing a doorbell and squeezing a trigger.
Copyright © 2001 John Gates. All rights reserved.
Posted December 9, 2008
Angela married attorney David Rakubian on the rebound from her divorce. She tried to make her second marriage work but failed because David is a sociopath control freak who verbally and physically abused her. When Angela worries about the safety of her son sired by a different person she divorces David to return to the home of her parents where she knows her loving parents, especially her father Jack Hollis, would do anything to ease her troubles. <P>David begins to stalk Angela and threatens her and her loved ones, but in sly ways so that the police have no proof of his acts. Jack concludes that this animal of a former son-in-law must die before he kills one of them. Jack sets up a full-proof plan, but David fails to arrive at the dead zone. Jack goes to David¿s home to find that someone already murdered his adversary. He believes a family member killed David so Jack buries the corpse and cleaned the house. Not long afterward letters arrive informing David and Angela that someone knows what happened to David. The miserable cycle begins anew. <P>Bill Pronzini is a brilliant storyteller who uses his characters to propel forward a taut plot. When Mr. Pronzini provides only a last name of a cast member, he insures that the audience never becomes too close to that player. However, Jack is unique as the audience roots for his success even when he steps over the line. IN AN EVIL TIME is a chilling tale of horror with human monsters that could be living next door. <P>Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.