THE SMALL NEON LIGHT outside that said BANQUE was turned off. Wendy Harper armed the alarm system, flipped the light switch to throw the dining room into darkness, slipped outside, tugged the big front door shut, and locked it. David the bartender and the last three kitchen men loitered, leaning against the pillars beside the entrance of the old bank building, talking quietly while they waited for her. “Thanks, everybody,” she said. “Eric and I really appreciated all of your work tonight.”
Victor, Juan, and Billy, the three kitchen men, gave Wendy shy, murmured answers and began to walk toward their cars, but David stayed at her side as she walked to the far end of the parking lot where she had left her car. She was surprised at how hot the night was, even though it was after three o’clock. The dark fronds of the tall, thin coconut palms beside the Banque parking lot were absolutely motionless in the still night air, and it felt as though the asphalt was exhaling the heat it had stored during the day.
She got in her car, started the engine, and locked the doors. She backed out of her space and waited until David was in his car, then waved to him, pulled out of the lot to La Cienega, and turned to head toward Sunset. Wendy checked her rearview mirror frequently, and sometimes abruptly. Whenever she passed a car idling on a side street or pulling out onto La Cienega, she kept track of it until it turned and disappeared.
She felt gratitude for the patience of the restaurant crew. They seemed to be watching over her late at night. Eric and I thank you, she thought. Eric and I. That was a big part of what had changed. For all of the time since Banque had openedin fact, for all of her years in the restaurant businessshe and Eric had gone home together. It had not mattered to her if it was three in the afternoon or three at night because he had been there. But tonight she had seen Eric leave at midnight.
The kitchen had already shut down, but the bar was still noisy and active when she had crossed the dining room to oversee the end of food service. One of the busboys opened the kitchen door and held it open for someone to pass with a bin of heavy dishes. Beyond the door she could see the white-suited helpers and Victor, the kitchen-floor man, beginning to scrub the tables and scrape the grill. She saw Eric. He had already taken off his white coat and changed into a short-sleeved blue shirt.
When she looked at him, even from a distance, she felt a physical sensation, as if he’d touched her. She could almost feel his short blond hair, nearly a crew cut but soft as cat fur, a little wet after a night in the heat and steam and exertion. He was athletic and strong, a head taller than any of the cleanup crew working around him. He was moving away from her. As he passed Victor and Juan, he smiled and gave each of them a pat on the arm that turned into an affectionate shoulder squeeze, and said something to each of them. She could not read his lips, but she knew roughly what he was saying. Even though Eric was becoming a famous chef, he had started as a busboy not so many years ago, and it was too soon for him to forget. The door swung shut.
As she drove toward their house she began to feel her anxiety grow with each block. She went up above Sunset onto the narrow, dark and winding roads in the hills, and she began to look for danger without knowing what form it would take. Could a car follow her on these streets with its headlights off? For the past two weeks she had been going home by different routes, and leaving the restaurant at different times every night. It was probably Olivia’s fault. She had been with Wendy since the opening of the restaurant and been her friend through everything, but she had lost her nerve. She had kept reminding Wendy of what could happen, how easy it would be to do, and how hard it would be to prevent. She had left town two weeks ago.
As Wendy drove past the houses in her neighborhood, she studied each one separately, looking for tiny changes. This was an area where every house was different, some of them three stories high and dug into the hillside, and others almost invisible beyond tall hedges. When she turned the last curve, she could already see the house that she and Eric had bought less than a year ago. One of the things she had liked about the house was that it had seemed so substantial, but now it didn’t feel to her like a place of safety. Tonight the house would be big and empty, and most of it dark. But she had nowhere else to go.
She slowed and turned into the driveway. Recently she’d had automatic lights installed along the front and side of the house that went on when the night came, but they had not had the right effect. The bright beams under the floodlights left big spaces between them and beyond them that seemed much darker than before. She would have to remember to do something about that tomorrow. Maybe there should be more lights, or bulbs that were dimmer and more diffuse. She reminded herself that she was being foolish to keep changing things. She and Eric had once planned to stay in this house forever, but that was not going to happen.
She parked her car in the garage and walked toward the side door. She liked the Japanese-style natural wood timbers that jutted out from the eaves. She had patterned that look after the enclosed garden behind the restaurant. The garden was her little surprise for customers who had come in the front door between the Corinthian columns and walked across the marble floor of the bank lobby.
As she walked toward the door under the jasmine vine, she crossed the boundary of its perfume, and the air was thick with it. She looked down to separate the key from the others on her ring, and looked up to see the man.
She could see he was holding something as he took a step out from the dark pocket under the arbor, and then his swing began and the motion made her recognize that the something was a baseball bat. Wendy threw up her arms and jerked back in a reflex to protect her face, but the man had not been swinging at her face.
There was an explosion of pain in her left thigh above the knee, and the bat swept her legs out from under her. She hit the pavement on her left hip, but she tried to scramble, to crawl away from him. The second blow hit her forearm. When it collapsed, she knew the small bones had been broken. She could see him now, the broad shoulders, the dark sport coat, the face like the face of a statue in the dim light. “What?” she asked. “What do you want?” The bat swung again, and it hit her just below the hip. The pain splashed a red haze over her vision for an instant, then faded. The blow obliterated her disbelief, her sense that this could not be happening. She knew he was crippling her, and in another swing, she would be beyond hope. She would be immobile, and then he would kill her. He raised his bat again. She exerted a huge effort, pulled herself to her feet and tried to run, but all she could manage was a painful, limping hobble. In three steps, his strong hand grasped her arm and dragged her backward.
She tried to jerk her arm away, but his hand closed its grip on her blouse at the shoulder. He still had the bat in his other hand, but he swung her in a quick circle. The blouse tore, much of it came away in his hand, and her momentum flung her to the pavement of the driveway. This time she was in the center of a pool of light from a floodlight mounted under the eaves of the house.
The man knelt, held her down with the bat, and hit her with his free hand, delivering four quick punches to her face and shoulders. She was groggy. She tasted blood, and couldn’t seem to spit it all out, and there was more in her eyes. She was in hot, throbbing pain. Both her arms felt weak and useless.
With the glare above and behind him, she could only see him in silhouette, raising the bat again. When he brought it downward, she flinched and half-rolled away from it. The bat hit the concrete beside her head with a hollow sound, bounced up and skinned the back of her head. This time he stood with one foot on either side of her, raised the bat above his head. She could see this swing was going to crush her skull.
The world ignited and burned with new light. The man, the bat, the house behind him, the concrete beside her face were all lit as though it were daylight. The man’s face lifted to squint up the street, and he stepped out of her vision. She heard his footsteps, fast-running, going away from her. She heard the bang of a car door, and then another, and then voices.
Copyright © 2007 by Thomas Perry
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