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Tanya stood in front of the full-length mirror on the bedroom wall and brushed her hair. She watched the other girl, in another room, wearing the same new blue skirt and tank top, using her left hand instead of her right to brush the long blond hair to a shine. Tanya had always secretly relished the existence of the other pretty girl who lived in the other room beyond the glass, like a fish in an aquarium. She loved the whole idea of a second girl who lived a second life.
In Wheatfield when she was little she had sometimes turned her mother’s dresser so the mirror would be directly across from the full-length one on the closet door. She could make a whole long line of other girls, then kick her legs and look like the Rockettes, the nearest ones as big as she was, and the others smaller and smaller as their line stretched off into infinity.
She had dressed up in her mother’s clothes sometimes, so she could change the girl in the mirror. She would be someone who had a good life, someone who was loved and cared for, someone who was beautiful and had everything she wanted.
She could invent things that the girl in the mirror could say, and practice them, whispering so the girl in the mirror would not be overheard. She would assume faces that were distant and just a little disapproving, and know that seeing them would make people frantic, trying to find ways to please her. She tried expressions designed to reward too, opening her eyes and mouth wide in a grateful smile that admitted no possibility of darker thoughts, nothing held back or hidden. Sometimes when she did that she would add a laugh at the end—not a small, forced sound, but a delighted laugh that made her eyes glisten and her white teeth show to their best advantage.
The alarm system’s cool male electronic voice announced, “Kitchen . . . door”: Dennis was finally home. This was it. Tanya stopped brushing her hair, slipped the brush into her purse, felt for the other handle and gripped it once, then released it.
She could hear Dennis’s hard leather soles on the slate floor of the kitchen. There was no sound of his dropping his briefcase on the kitchen floor, so he had set it down gently: he had brought his laptop home again. He was planning to spend the evening working. “Tanya?” He was in the living room now.
She put her purse on the floor beside the dresser. “Up here.”
She spent the next fifteen seconds considering him—turning him around and around in her mind and evaluating him. Women always said men had a hard outer shell but were soft and sweet and vulnerable inside, but she had found the opposite. They had a layer outside that was yielding and squeezable, but when you squeezed you began to feel the hardness beneath, like bone. She had squeezed him a lot in a short time, and she was already beginning to reach the hardness. He was getting ready to say no to her, to deny her things. Maybe he would even criticize her when the bills came and he could see everything added up. It was time.
Dennis’s heavy shoes thumped on the carpeted stairway, coming closer. She already saw each step of the stairway in her mind, even though she had only been with Dennis Poole for a month, and all but a week of that had been spent in hotels. As he climbed step by step, she began to enumerate his unpleasant qualities. She didn’t like his laugh. It was a quick staccato that made his voice go one octave higher, like a jackass’s bray. A few times she had gotten up from her chaise next to him and gone into the hotel pool to cool her sun-warmed skin, come up from underwater, and seen him looking at other women in their bathing suits. He tipped waiters exactly fifteen percent and never a penny more, and was proud of it because it showed he could do the arithmetic in his head. He was not a sincerely appreciative lover. He pretended to care and be solicitous of her, but there was a practical quality about it. His concern was to please her, but it wasn’t the right kind of concern. He wasn’t a man unable to stop himself because he was enthralled. He was merely thinking about whether he was pleasing her enough to keep her.
Dennis had reached the top of the stairs. As she turned to look at him, her detachment was complete. He was a forty-two-year-old man with a soft belly and thinning hair who spent his days selling computer equipment to other men like himself. He was nothing. She smiled beautifully, stepped into his embrace, and kissed him slowly, languorously. “Hello, cowboy,” she whispered.
He laughed as she had expected. “I could get used to coming home like this and finding you waiting for me.” He looked more serious. “You know, I’m glad you were here for another reason. I think we need to talk about some things.”
“Sure. We can talk, but first, don’t you want to get comfortable? I should think you’d be tired after sitting in that office all day.” She knew that tone of voice. Anyone could tell he was getting ready to be cheap with her, to start complaining about money. She pulled back and said, “I’ll bet you’re sick of wearing that suit. Why don’t you get out of it, relax, and soak in the tub?” She looked down at his tie as she loosened it, not into his eyes. “Maybe I’ll join you.”
“Good idea.” He took his suit coat off and his tie, while Tanya went into the bathroom and turned on the water. The oversized Jacuzzi tub had jets that bubbled, so she turned them on too.
Dennis Poole was naked now, and he put his arms around her. She tolerated his embrace for a few seconds, then wriggled away and whispered seductively, “Wait.”
She went back out to the bedroom and walked to the dresser, where she had left her purse. She waited until she heard him turn off the water faucet, so the only sound was the steady burble of the jets. She quietly walked into the bathroom.
He was lying in the tub with his head cushioned by a folded towel, looking self-absorbed and distant as the bubbles massaged his skin. Tanya reached into her purse, took out the pistol, held it about a foot from his head, and squeezed. The report was a bright, sharp bang that echoed against the tile walls and made her ears ring. She turned away from the sight of his corpse, the red blood draining into the bath, and stopped being Tanya Starling.
Hugo Poole’s rubber-soled shoes made almost no sound as he walked along the sidewalk outside the CBS Studio Center’s iron railings, past the soundstages on his way up Radford Street from Ventura Boulevard. He never would have set up a night meeting in the Valley, so far from the old downtown movie theater he used for an office, but he had often found that it was worth making small concessions just to learn what the other side wanted to do. There was no single precaution that would always work, and the least effective was never taking a risk. As soon as caution turned predictable, it became the biggest risk of all.
Still, he wished he could stay right here. He liked being near a television studio, because these complexes were usually on the itineraries of the people who heard voices telling them that God wanted them to punish a few actors. That ensured that there would always be plenty of jumpy security guards. He would have preferred to meet Steve Rao right here outside the gate, under the tall security lights.
Hugo Poole walked on beside the railing, now moving into the dimly lighted eucalyptus-lined blocks beside the big parking structure, and then he stopped at Valleyheart Street. He crossed the street to the city’s chain-link fence and looked through it to the place where the concrete bed of the Tujunga Wash met the concrete bed of the Los Angeles River. On this hot midsummer night, the only water was the runoff from automatic lawn sprinklers, a steady trickle confined to a foot-deep groove a man could step across that ran down the center of each bed. In the rainy season this place became the confluence of two turbulent brown floods crashing together at thirty miles an hour and rushing south toward the Pacific.
Hugo Poole looked to his left, up the scenic walkway above the river toward the iron gate at Laurel Canyon that was designed to look like a big toad. At this hour nobody wanted to go for a walk above a concrete riverbed. He waited for the minute hand of his watch to reach the hour. Then he took out the key he had received in the mail. He unlocked the padlock on the gate above the wash, and slipped inside. Steve Rao’s people had knocked off the city padlock and put on their own, then sent him the key to open it. Hugo Poole took a moment to close the gate. He reached into his pocket, took out his own lock, and placed it on the gate. He stuck Rao’s key into Rao’s lock, tossed them both down the hill into the bushes, and walked on.
He descended the sloping gravel driveway that the city had cut so its maintenance people could come down once a year to remove the tangle of dried brush and shopping carts from the concrete waterway before the rains. He reached the bottom, took a few steps onto the pavement of the river, and stopped to look around him. He could hear the distant whisper of cars flashing along the Ventura Freeway a few blocks away, and a constant dribble of water dripping out of a storm drain and running down the wall a few feet from him.
Hugo Poole’s eyes adjusted to the darkness and picked out four silhouettes in the deeper shadow across the wash. They floated toward him, and Poole tried to pick out Steve Rao’s short, strutting body, but couldn’t.
The one who separated from the others was too tall to be Steve Rao. “What are you doing here?” the voice said. It was young, with a trace of Spanglish inflection.
It was the wrong question. Somebody Steve Rao had sent would know why Hugo was here.
Hugo Poole said, “I’m not here to hurt you. That’s all you need to know about me.”
The heads of the four shapes turned to one another in quiet consultation, and Hugo Poole prepared himself, waiting for them to spread out. There was a sudden, sharp blow to his skull that made a red flare explode in his vision and knocked his head to the side. He spun
to see the two new shapes just as they threw their shoulders into him. His head snapped back and his spine was strained as they dug in and brought him down on the concrete.
They seemed to have expected him to give up, but he began to bring his knees into play as he grappled with them. They tried to hold him down on the pavement, but Hugo Poole fought silently and patiently, first separating them, then twisting his torso to jab a heavy elbow into a face. He heard a crack, a howl of pain, and felt his opponent fall away. He rolled to the other side to clutch the second assailant, and delivered a palm strike that bounced the back of the man’s head off the pavement. The man lay still.
Hugo Poole was up on his feet again, sidestepping away from the two motionless bodies. The other four had made it only halfway across the riverbed toward him, and now they stopped with the shallow trench full of water separating them from Hugo Poole.
Poole put his head down and charged at the one who had spoken earlier. The young man hesitated, then looked at his companions, who showed no inclination to help him. They backed away, not from Hugo Poole but from their companion, as though if they could dissociate themselves from his fate, they would not share it. As Hugo Poole leapt the trench, the young man spun on his heel and ran about a hundred feet before he turned to see if he was safe.
The other three interpreted his flight as permission to run too. They dashed to the far wall where the shadows were deepest, and then moved off into the darkness down the riverbed. Hugo Poole turned to see that the two who had been on the ground were rapidly recovering. One was helping the other to his feet, and then they hobbled off together up the inclined driveway toward the street.
Hugo Poole stood in the dim concrete riverbed and caught his breath. The right knee of his pants had a small tear in it; the elbow of his suit coat felt damp, so he looked at that too. It had a dark splash of blood on it from the first man’s nose. He sighed: this was turning into an irritating evening, and it was still early.
Then Hugo Poole saw a new light. It began as a vague impression in his mind that there must be clouds moving away from the moon. Then the light brightened and the impression changed. The light was coming from somewhere down the channel. The wall opposite him began to glow, and then the light separated into two smaller, more focused circles.
A set of headlights appeared around an elbow bend in the channel and came toward him. He was aware that it might be a police patrol car, or the animal control people checking on the coyotes that used the concrete riverbeds to travel across the city at night. Either way, it would be best to stay still. It was especially important not to move if it was Steve Rao.
Hugo Poole stood and watched as the ghostly vehicle drew nearer, its headlights brightening until it pulled up beside him and stopped. Now that the headlights were shining past him, he saw that it was a black Hummer with tinted windows. Someone in the passenger seat used a powerful flashlight to sweep the walls of the channel and the bushes and hiding places up above at street level.
The flashlight went out, the passenger door opened, and a large man with wavy dark hair got out. He wore a lightweight black sport coat and pants of a color that looked gray in the near darkness. The driver got out, and Hugo Poole could see that he was wearing a sport coat too. Almost certainly the coats were intended to hide the bulges of firearms. The driver stood with his back against the door of the Hummer and kept guard while the other man approached Hugo Poole.
The man said, “Sir, are you Mr. Poole?”
“Can you put your arms out from your sides for me, please?”
Hugo Poole complied, and stood with his feet apart so his legs could be checked next. He waited, staring into the distance as the man patted him down expertly, then stepped back. “Thank you very much, sir.”
Hugo Poole said, “You’re an off-duty cop, aren’t you?”
He didn’t deny it. “I’m a friend of Steve’s.”
From the Hardcover edition.