PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC
Heap had followed the girl for days.
The watch was an important part of it, the most delicious part:
sinking into the background while that wonderful brain of his roared in
high gear, eyes, ears, everything finely tuned.
People tended to underestimate him. They always had. At Eton: two
nights locked in a broom closet. At Oxford, they laughed, they did, the
horsefaced girls and the cooing boys. And dear Papa, Lord of the Manor,
Chancellor of the Purse Strings. All that school and you a bloody office boy.
But underestimated is close to unnoticed.
Heap capitalized on that.
She could be any girl who struck his fancy.
Eye the herd.
The bright-eyed brunette in Brussels.
Her virtual twin in Barcelona.
The early work, glorious countryside afternoons, honing his technique.
The unmistakable tingle came on him like a fit of sick. Though Heap
wasn’t fool enough to deny that he preferred a certain species: dark hair,
sharp features. Lower class, not too bright, not bad-looking but well shy
Smallish body, except he demanded a big chest. The soft, yielding
pressure never failed to excite.
This one was perfect.
He had first spotted her walking east along the Charles Bridge.
He’d been skulking round for two weeks by then, taking in the sights,
waiting for an opportunity to present itself. He liked Prague. He’d visited
before and never left disappointed.
Among the jean-clad magpies, the wattled American tourists, the
leather-voiced buskers, and the minimally talented portrait artists, she had
stood out for her modesty. Limp skirt, tight hair, focused and grim, she
hurried along, cheeks carved out by the midmorning glare off the Vltava.
He tried to follow her but she melted into the crowd. The next day, he
returned, hopeful, prepared, attentive. Opening his guidebook, he pretended
to reread a gray box headed Did you know? The bridge had eggs
mixed into its concrete for added strength. Good King Charles IV had
commandeered every last egg in the kingdom, and they had obeyed, the
stupid, slobbering masses, showing up to place them obsequiously at his
Did Heap know?
Yes, he did. He knew everything worth knowing and much besides.
Even the guidebook underestimated him.
She passed again at the same time. And the day after that. Three days
running he watched her. A girl of fixed habits. Lovely.
Her first stop was a café near the bridge. She donned a red apron,
cleared tables for change. At dusk, she left Old Town for New Town,
exchanged the red apron for a black one, bussing trays and refilling steins
at a beer hall that, by the smell of it, catered to the locals. Photos of the
entrées in the window showed sausages smothered in that vile, muddy
sauce they put on everything.
From beneath the trolley stand, Heap watched her flit here and there.
Twice passersby paused to ask him a question in Czech, which Heap
took to mean that he appeared, as ever, unremarkable. He replied, in
French, that he spoke no Czech.
At midnight, the girl finished mopping up. She doused the restaurant’s
lights, and a few minutes later, a window two floors up blinked
yellow, and her pale arm drew the blind.
It would be a squalid rented room, then. A sad and hopeless life.
He considered finding a way into her flat. Blitzing her in her own
Appealing notion. But Heap despised senseless risk. It came of watching
Papa burn thousands on football, cricket, anything involving imbeciles
and a ball, pouring the fortune of centuries down the grimy throats
of bookmakers. Never the most discriminating chap, Papa. How he
loved to remind Heap that it would all be gone before Heap saw a penny.
Heap was nothing like him and therefore deserved nothing.
Someday Heap would let him know what he thought of that.
To the task at hand: no sense changing the pattern. The pattern
worked. He’d take her on the street like the others.
Leaving an empty-eyed shell propped against a dustbin or a wall,
waiting to be discovered by some privileged citizen of the free world.
Heap examined an unmarked door to the right of the restaurant, six
anonymous buzzer pushes. Never mind her name. He preferred to think
of them numerically. Easier to catalog. He had the librarian’s spirit in
him, he did. She would be number nine.
On the seventh night, a Thursday, Number Nine went up to her
room as usual but reemerged soon after, a feather duster in one hand, a
folded square of white cloth in the other.
He gave her slack, then followed north as she crossed into Old Town
Square, uncomfortably alive with pedestrians. He clung to shadows on
Maiselova as they entered Josefov, the former Jewish quarter.
He had come this way days before, while reacquainting himself with
the city. It was the thing to do, see the old Jewish places. Dutifully he
had elbowed through the revolting gawking swarms, tour guides prattling
about Slavic tolerance while their charges snap snap snapped away.
Heap didn’t care enough about Jews as a group to summon genuine
loathing. He regarded them with the same contempt he had for all lesser
humanity, which included everyone except himself and a select few.
Those Jews he’d known at school were self-satisfied twits laboring to be
more Christian than the Christians.
The girl turned right at a shambling yellow wreck of a building. The
Old-New Synagogue. Curious name to go along with a curious design.
Part Gothic, part Renaissance, the result a rather clumsy porridge, homely
crenellated roof and skimpy windows. Far more old than new. But then
Prague had no end of old buildings. They were common as streetwalkers.
He’d drunk his fill.
An alleyway unfurled along the synagogue’s south side, ending at a
wide set of ten steps that in turn ran up to the shuttered shops of Paríská
Street. Heap wondered if Nine was headed there, to tidy up at one of
Instead she went left at the foot of the steps, disappearing behind the
synagogue. Heap crept along the alley in crepe-soled shoes, reaching the
steps and stealing a glance.
She stood on a small cobbled terrace, facing the rear of the synagogue,
into which was set an arched iron door, rudely studded. A trio of rubbish
bins constituted the exterior decor. She had flapped open the white cloth
and was tying it around her waist: yet another apron. Heap smiled to
imagine her closet, nothing but aprons in every color. So many secret
identities she had, each more wretched than the last.
She picked up the feather duster from where she’d laid it, against the
wall. She shook it out. Shook her head, as well, as if banishing drowsiness.
Industrious little charwoman. Two full-time jobs and now this.
Who said the work ethic was dead?
He might have taken her right then, but a duet of drunken laughter
came bounding along Paríská, and Heap continued slowly up the steps,
watching the girl peripherally.
She withdrew a key from her jeans and let herself into the synagogue
through the iron door. The lock clanked.
He took up a vigil beneath a lamppost, opposite the synagogue’s dark
visage. A series of metal rungs in the brick ran up to a second arched
door, a shabby wooden echo of the iron one, thirty-five feet off the
ground and opening illogically onto thin air.
The garret. Did you know? There, the world-famous (according
to whom, Heap wondered) Rabbi Loew had conjured the golem, a
mythical mud-creature who roamed the ghetto, protecting its inhabitants.
The selfsame rabbi had a statue of himself in a grand square, he
did. While following the girl, Heap had pretended to stop and take its
Hideously undignified, really. Mud was one step above shit.
The legend had become the wellspring of a gaudy commercialism, the
monster’s lumpy form cropping up on signs and menus, mugs and pennants.
In one particularly rank bistro near Heap’s hotel you could buy a
brown-sauce-soaked Golem Burger and wash it down with Golemtinis
enough to rot your liver.
People would pay for anything.
People were disgusting.
The laughter of the couple had faded in the warm wind.
Heap decided to give it one more night. More foreplay made for a
Friday evening, the Old-New was a busy place, worshippers filing in,
some stopping to talk to a blond man stationed out front with a
walkie-talkie. With smiles all around, and everyone afforded entry, the
attempt at security struck Heap as a bit of a sham.
Nevertheless he’d come prepared, his better suit (his only decent suit
since Papa had screwed tight the tap), a mild white shirt, and his old
school tie, plus inoffensive flat-lensed specs. Approaching the entrance,
he hunched to take off some height, blousing his jacket, eliminating the
bulge of his inside pocket.
The blond guard was more of a boy, hardly out of nappies. He shifted
his body to block Heap’s progress, addressing him in a throaty, vulgar
accent. “Can I help you?”
“I’m here to pray,” Heap said.
“Pray,” the guard said, as if that were the strangest reason to visit a
house of worship.
“You know. Give thanks. Praise God.” Heap smiled. “Perhaps it’ll
“World a mess and all that.”
The guard studied him. “You want to come into the shul ?”
Dense little turd. “Indeed.”
“To pray for the world.”
Heap lowered the level a few notches. “That and personal good fortune,
“You are Jewish?”
“I’m here, am I not?”
The guard smiled. “Please, you can tell me: what is the last holiday?”
“The most recent Jewish holiday.”
A furious moment while Heap ransacked the files. A light sweat broke
out on his forehead. He resisted the urge to wipe it away. Aware that he
was taking an awfully long time, he coughed up what he had. “Well,
then, that would be Passover, would it not?”
The guard said, “Passover.”
“Reckon so, yes.”
The guard said, “You are British.”
There’s a clever lad. Heap nodded.
“I can see your passport, please?”
“One wouldn’t think one would need it to pray.”
The guard made a show of taking out his keys and locking the synagogue
door. He gave Heap a condescending pat on the shoulder. “Wait
He sauntered off down the street, murmuring into his walkie-talkie
while Heap swam in the red tide of his mind. The sheer nerve: to touch
him. He puffed his chest against the bulge. Stag bone handle. Six-inch
blade. Ought to give thanks of your own, mate.
Twenty yards hence, the guard stopped at a doorway. A second man
materialized and the two of them conferred, appraising him openly. The
sweat kept oozing. Sometimes the sweat was a problem. A drop ran in
Heap’s eye and stung and he blinked it away. He knew when he wasn’t
wanted. He could be patient. He left the guards talking and went on
Every man has his limits, though. After six more days without a
fair chance, he was aroused to the brink of madness, and he decided that
tonight would be the night, come what may, and how lovely it would be.
By three a.m., she’d been inside the synagogue for over two hours.
Heap slouched in darkness near the steps, listening to distant bleats from
somewhere well beyond the Jewish quarter, rolling the knife handle between
his fingers. He began to wonder if she’d snuck in a brief nap. Busy
girl, she must be falling off her feet.
The iron door screamed on its hinges.
Number Nine stepped out toting a sizable plastic tub. She turned her
back to him, headed for the rubbish bins, hoisted the tub and dumped it
out noisily, clanking cans and rushing paper, and he unfolded the blade
(oiled and silent, a welcome release it was, like his lungs filling with fresh
air) and moved on her.
Halfway to her, a muffled clap froze him in panic.
He glanced back.
The alley was empty.
As for the girl, she hadn’t noticed the noise; she continued about her
business, raking out the last of the rubbish with her fingers.
She set the tub down.
She untied her hair and began to regather it, and her raised arms
formed a wide-hipped lyre, oh lovely lovely shape, and his blood boiled
afresh and he started forward again. Too eager: his shoe caught the cobblestone
and sent a pebble clicking toward her and she went rigid and
turned, her mouth already poised to scream.
She didn’t have time enough before his hand mashed against her lips
and he twirled her, her back to his belly and his stiffening prick. Practical
hardworking girl, she kept her nails cut short; hard rounded calluses
clawed ineffectually at his arms and face before a deeper prey instinct
took hold of her and she sought his instep to stomp it.
He was ready. Number Four, Edinburgh, had done the same. A sharp
little heel; a broken metatarsal; a good pair of loafers, ruined. Heap had
learned his lesson. He had his feet splayed as he braced against her. He
twined his fingers in her hair and yanked her head back to form a graceful
convexity of her gullet.
He reached up to stroke the blade.
But she was a resourceful lass, and it seemed she must have fingernails
after all, because she made a spittly hiss and he felt a hideous stab in his
eye, like an awl driving through the lens and the jelly to scrape his optic
nerve. False colors gushed. The pain made him gag and loosen his grip
on her hair and his hand went up to protect his face. He had prey instincts,
Her distorted form broke away from him and ran for the steps.
Groaning, he lurched forth, grabbing at her.
Another hiss; another stab of pain, his other eye, driving him stumbling
into the rubbish bins, both eyes streaming, the knife flung from
his hands. He could not understand. Had she shot him? Thrown something
at him? He blinked forcefully to clear the blurriness and he saw the
girl reaching the top of the steps, disappearing round the corner onto
Paríská, and her waning form brought the awareness of a dawning
She had seen his face.
He struggled to his feet and started after her, and from behind he
heard a hiss and pain knocked him flat, as if someone had buried a claw
hammer in the base of his skull, and as he pitched against the hard
ground, his fine roaring brain grasped that something was happening to
him, something wrong, because the girl was long gone.
Sprawled on his stomach in scattered rubbish, he opened his tearing
eyes and saw it, half a foot away, a coin-sized spot, glittering blackly on
A hard-domed insect, shimmering antennae, long black thorn sprouting
from its head.
It charged him, driving itself into the center of Heap’s forehead.
He screamed and swatted at it and tried to stand up, but the thing
kept coming at him, fast and vicious, the growl of its wings audible in
every direction, like a cattle prod touched to Heap’s neck, his spine, the
backs of his knees, herding him away from the steps and backing him
into the wall of the synagogue, where he balled up with his arms thrown
over his head.
Abruptly, the assault broke off, and the night went still save a faint
wooden clapping noise. Heap waited, shaking. Puncture wounds seeped
along his hairline, blood trickling along the side of his nose and into his
He uncovered his head.
Down on the cobblestones, the bug squatted, peering up at him.
Full of hate, Heap rose to his full height.
Raised his foot to crush it to pulp.
Brought his foot down.
It had dodged and was waiting, several inches to the right.
He tried again, and again it moved, and again, and they engaged in
an absurd little wrathful dance, Heap stamping and jerking while the
foul creature darted in mocking circles.
At last he came to his senses. He was chasing an insect, and meanwhile
the girl who had seen his face was God knows where, saying God
knows what to God knows whom.
He had to leave. Now. Never mind his things. Catch a taxi straight to
the airport and depart posthaste for jolly old, never to return to this
He turned and ran and crashed into a wall.
A wall that hadn’t been there before.
A wall of mud.
Broad as an avenue, taller than the synagogue, soaring upward like
some manic cancer, climbing, expanding, ballooning, reeking of stagnant
waters, rotting fish, mold, oily reeds.
He slipped and fled in the opposite direction, hitting another wall.
And then it surrounded him, the mud, mud walls, a city of mud, a
megalopolis, vast and dense and formless. He raised his gaze to an indifferent
sky, the stars blotted out by mud. Weeping, he cast his eyes down
to the earth, where mud black as dried blood began to creep across his
shoes, starting at the toes and inching upward. He screamed. He tried to
lift his feet and found his shoes cemented to the stones; tried to kick
them off but the mud had reached his ankles and grasped his shins and
begun to climb. It was the source of the smell, viscous and putrid. It was
an absence of color and an absence of space, an aggressive burning emptiness
swallowing him alive.
He screamed and screamed and his voice came back close and wet and
The blackness rose to his knees, grinding his bones in their joints; it
moved up his thighs like too-tight stockings rolled incrementally up,
and Heap’s bowels opened of their own accord, and he felt his genitals
pressed, slowly, back up into his body cavity; he felt his abdomen cinched
and his ribs snapped and his windpipe collapsing and his innards forced
up into his neck, and he ceased to scream because he could no longer
In the wall of mud, two slits yawned, a pair of cherry-red holes at eye
Studying him. As he had once studied his own prey.
Heap could not speak, but he could move his lips.
He mouthed, “No.”
The answer came: a weary sigh.
Muddy fingers closed around him and squeezed.
As Heap’s skull popped free of its spinal moorings, millions of neurons
made their final salvo, and he experienced several sensations at
There was, of course, pain, and beyond that, the agony of insight. His
was a death without benefit of ignorance, for he understood that he understood
nothing, that his sins had not gone unnoticed, and that something
unspeakable waited for him on the other side.
Finally there were the fugitive images that imprinted themselves on
his fizzling, fading brain as his gape-mouthed head spun in the air: a
night sky flocked with gentle clouds; the saffron glow of the lamps along
the riverbank; the door to the synagogue garret, flapping open in the
The brunette puzzled Jacob.
First off, his memory of last night—a stunted memory,
admittedly—featured a blonde. Now, in the light of morning, sitting at
his kitchenette table, she was clearly dark-haired.
Second, while he could recall some frantic groping in a sticky vinyl
booth, he was pretty sure he had gone home alone. And if he hadn’t, he
couldn’t remember it, and that was a bad sign, a sign that the time had
come to cut back.
Third, she was museum-quality gorgeous. As a rule he gravitated
more toward average. It went beyond low standards: all that need and
vulnerability and mutual comfort could turn the act more than physical.
Two people agreeing to make the world a kinder place.
Looking at her, so far above his pay grade, he decided he could make
The fourth thing was that she was wearing his tallis.
The fifth thing was that she wasn’t wearing anything else.
He smelled fresh coffee.
He said, “I’m sorry I don’t know your name.”
She placed a hand on her throat. “I’m wounded.”
“Please try to be forgiving. I can’t remember much.”
“There isn’t much to remember. You were absolutely coherent and
then you put your head down and it was lights-out.”
“Sounds about right,” he said.
He slid past her to fetch down a pair of handmade mugs, along with
a lidded jar.
“Those’re pretty,” she said.
“Thanks. Milk? Sugar?”
“Nothing for me, thanks. You go on ahead.”
He put the jar and one mug back, pouring himself a half cup, sipping
it black. “Let’s try this again. I’m Jacob.”
“I know,” she said. The tallis slipped a few inches, exposing smooth
shoulder, delicate collarbone, a side swell of breast. She didn’t put it
back. “You can call me Mai. With an i.”
“Top of the morning to you, Mai.”
“Likewise, Jacob Lev.”
Jacob eyed the prayer shawl. He hadn’t taken it out in years, let alone
put it on. At one point in his life, the idea of covering a nude body with
it would have smacked of sacrilege. Now it was just a sheet of wool.
All the same, he found her choice of covering profoundly weird. He
kept the tallis in the bottom drawer of his bureau, along with his disused
tefillin and a retired corps of sweaters, acquired in Boston and never
shown the light of an L.A. day. If she’d wanted to borrow clothes, she
would’ve had to dig through a host of better options first.
He said, “Remind me how we got here?”
“In your car.” She pointed to his wallet and keys on the counter. “I
“Wise,” he said. He finished his coffee, poured another half cup. “Are
you a cop?”
“Me? No. Why?”
“Two types of people at 187. Cops and cop groupies.”
“Jacob Lev, your manners.” Her eyes brightened: an iridescent brown,
shot through with green. “I’m just a nice young lady who came down for
“Up,” she said. “That’s where you come down from.”
He sat opposite her, careful not to get too close. No telling what this
one was about.
“How’d you get me into the car?” he asked.
“Interestingly, you were able to walk on your own and follow my in
structions. It was strange. Like having my own personal robot, or an
automaton. Is that how you always are?”
“Not the word that springs to mind.”
“I thought not. I enjoyed it while it lasted, though. A nice change for
me. Actually, I had a selfish motivation. I was stranded. My friend—she
is a cop groupie—she left with some meathead. In her car. So now I’ve
spent three hours chatting you up, I’ve got no ride, the place is closing,
and I don’t want to give anyone any ideas. Nor do I relish forking over
money for a cab.” Her smile brought her into brilliant focus. “Abracadabra,
here I am.”
She’d chatted him up? “Here we are.”
Long languid fingers stroked the soft white wool of the tallis. “I’m
sorry,” she said. “I got cold in the middle of the night.”
“You could’ve put on some clothes,” he said, and then he thought:
moron, because that was the last thing he wanted her to do.
She rubbed the braided fringes against her cheek. “It feels old,” she
“It belonged to my grandfather. His grandfather, if you believe family
“I do,” she said. “Of course I do. What else do we have, besides our
She stood up and removed the tallis, exposing her body, a masterwork,
shining and limber as satin.
Jacob instinctively averted his eyes. He wished like hell he could remember
what had happened—any part of it. It would provide fuel for
fantasies for months on end. The ease with which she stripped bare felt
somehow less seductive than childlike. She sure enough didn’t appear
ashamed to show herself; why should he be ashamed to look? He might
as well take her in while he had the chance.
He watched her reduce the tallis to the size of a placemat with three
precise folds. She squared it over a chairback, kissing her fingertips when
she was done—a Hebrew school habit.
“Jewish,” he said.
Her eyes took on more green. “Just another shiksa.”
“Shiksas don’t call themselves shiksas,” he said.
She regarded his straining boxer shorts with amusement. “Have you
brushed your teeth?”
“First thing I do when I wake up.”
“What’s the second?”
“What’s the third?”
“I guess that’s up to you,” he said.
“Did you wash?”
The question threw him. “I will if you want.”
She stretched lazily, elongating her form, unbridled perfection.
“You’re a nice-looking man, Jacob Lev. Go take a shower.”
He was under the spray before it had warmed, vigorously scrubbing
pebbled skin, emerging rosy and alert and ready.
She wasn’t in the bedroom.
Not in the kitchen, either.
Two-room apartment, you don’t need a search party.
His tallis was gone, too.
A klepto with a fetish for religious paraphernalia?
He should have known. Girl like that, something had to be off. The
laws of the universe, the balance of justice, demanded it.
His head throbbed. He poured more coffee and was reaching into the
cabinet for bourbon when he decided that it was, no question, time to
cut back. He uncapped the bottle and let it glug into the sink, then returned
to the bedroom to check the sweater drawer.
She’d replaced the tallis, snugging it neatly between a blue cableknit
and the thread-worn velvet tefillin bag. As a gesture, it seemed either an
act of kindness or a kind of rebuke.
He thought about it for a while, settled on the latter. After all, she’d
voted with her feet.
Welcome to the club.
He was still crouching there, naked and perplexed, when his doorbell
She’d had a change of heart?
Not about to argue.
He hurried over to answer the door, preoccupied with cooking up a
witty opening line and hence unprepared for the sight of two huge men
in equally huge dark suits.
One golden brown, with a wiry, well-trimmed black mustache.
His companion, squarer and ruddy, with sad cow eyes and long, feminine lashes.
They looked like linebackers gone to seed. Their coats could have
doubled as car covers.
They were smiling.
Two huge, friendly dudes, smiling at Jacob while his cock shriveled.
The dark one said, “How’s it hanging, Detective Lev.”
Jacob said, “One second.”
He shut the door. Put on a towel. Came back.
The men hadn’t moved. Jacob didn’t blame them. Guys their size, it
probably took a lot of energy to move. They’d really have to want to go
somewhere. Otherwise don’t bother. Stay put. Grow moss.
“Paul Schott,” the dark one said.
“Mel Subach,” the ruddy one said. “We’re from Special Projects.”
“I’m not familiar,” Jacob said.
“You want to see some ID?” Subach asked.
Subach said, “This will entail opening our jackets. And offering you
a glimpse of our sidearms. You okay with that?”
“One at a time,” Jacob said.
First Subach, then Schott showed a gold badge clipped to an inside
pocket. Holsters held standard-issue Glock 17s.
“Good?” Subach said.
Good, as in, did he believe they were cops? He did. The badges were
But good? He thought of Samuel Beckett’s response when a friend
commented that it was the kind of day that made one glad to be alive: I
wouldn’t go that far.
Jacob said, “What can I do for you?”
“If you wouldn’t mind coming with us,” Schott said.
“It’s my day off.”
“It’s important,” Schott said.
“Can you be more specific?”
“Unfortunately not,” Subach said. “Have you eaten anything? You
want maybe grab a muffin or something?”
“Not hungry,” Jacob said.
“We’re parked down by the corner,” Schott said.
“Black Crown Vic,” Subach said. “Get your car, follow us.”
“Wear pants,” Schott said.
The Crown Vic kept a moderate pace and signaled without fail,
allowing Jacob to stay close behind in his Honda. His best guess for their
destination was Hollywood Division, until recently his home base. A
northward turn on Vine scuttled that theory, though, and as they headed
toward Los Feliz, he fiddled with rising unease.
Seven years on the job, he was green for Robbery-Homicide, the beneficiary
first of a departmental memo prioritizing four-year college grads,
and second of a plum spot vacated by a veteran D keeling over after three
decades of three packs a day.
That he had performed admirably—his clearance rate was consistently
near the top of the department—could not erase those two facts
from his captain’s mind. For reasons not entirely clear to Jacob, Teddy
Mendoza had a king-sized hard-on for him, and a few months prior, he’d
called Jacob into his office and waved a manila file at him.
“I read your Follow-Up, Lev. ‘Frangible’? The fuck are you talking
“It means ‘fragile,’ sir.”
“I know what it means. I have a master’s degree. Which I believe is
more than you can claim.”
“You know what my master’s is in? Don’t look at the wall.”
“That would be communications, sir.”
“Very good. You know what you learn to do in communications?”
“Bull’s-fucking-eye. You mean ‘fragile,’ write ‘fragile.’”
“They didn’t teach you that at Harvard?”
“I must’ve missed that class, sir.”
“I guess they don’t get to that till sophomore year.”
“I wouldn’t know, sir.”
“Refresh my memory: how come you didn’t finish Harvard, Harvard?”
“I lacked willpower, sir.”
“That’s the kind of smart-ass answer you give someone when you
want to shut them up. Is that what you want? To shut me up?”
“Sure you do. I ever tell you I had a cousin who got into Harvard?”
“You’ve mentioned that in the past, sir.”
“Once or twice.”
“Then I must’ve told you he didn’t go.”
“Did I say why?”
“It was cost-prohibitive, sir.”
“Expensive place, Harvard.”
“You had a scholarship, if I recall.”
“Lessee . . . An athletic scholarship. You lettered in Ping-Pong.”
“Varsity nut juggling . . . ? No? What kind of scholarship was it,
“Merit-based . . . Hunh. I guess my cousin didn’t have as much merit
“I wouldn’t assume that, sir.”
“How come you got it, and he didn’t?”
“You’d have to ask the financial aid office, sir.”
“Merit-based. See, in my mind, that’s a lot worse than not getting
a scholarship. In my mind, that’s the worst thing, when you have
something and you piss it away. No excuse for that. Not even a lack of
Jacob did not reply.
“Maybe you could finish up online. Like a GED. They got a GED for
Harvard? You should look into that.”
“I will, sir. Thank you for the suggestion.”
“Till that day comes, though, you and I, our diplomas say the same
thing. Cal State Northridge.”
“That’s true, sir.”
“No. It isn’t. Mine says master.” Mendoza kicked back in his chair.
“So. Feeling burnt out, are we?”
Jacob stiffened. “I don’t know why you’d think that, sir.”
“I think it cause that’s what I heard.”
“Can I ask who you heard it from?”
“No, you may not. I also heard you’re thinking about putting in for
some time off.”
Jacob did not reply.
“I’m giving you the opportunity to share your feelings,” Mendoza
“I’d rather not, sir.”
“Work’s got you down.”
Jacob shrugged. “It’s a stressful job.”
“Indeed it is, Detective. I got a whole bunch of cops out there who feel
the same way. I don’t hear any of them asking for time off. It’s almost
like you think you’re special.”
“I don’t think that, sir.”
“Sure you do.”
“See? That’s it. Right there. That’s exactly the kind of tone I’m talking
“I’m not sure I understand, sir.”
“And again. ‘Not sure I gah gah gah gah gah.’ How old are you, Lev?”
“You know what you sound like? You sound like my son. My son is
sixteen. You know what a sixteen-year-old boy is? Basically, he’s an asshole.
An arrogant, entitled, snotty little asshole.”
“I appreciate that, sir.”
Mendoza reached for his phone. “You want time off, you got it. You’re
“I haven’t decided. Someplace with cubicles. Fight it if you want.”
He didn’t fight. A cubicle sounded fine to him.
Strictly speaking, burnout wasn’t the correct term. The correct term
was major depression. He’d lost weight. He prowled his apartment, exhausted
but unable to sleep. His attention drifted, words dribbling from
his mouth, syrupy and foreign.
These were the outward signs. He knew them well, and he knew how
to hide them. He drew up a curtain of aloofness. He spoke to no one,
because he couldn’t be sure how short his fuse was on any given day. He
ceased to nourish his few friendships. And in the process he made himself
out to be exactly what Mendoza thought he was: a snob.
Not as obvious, and harder to conceal, was the dull sorrow that shook
him awake before dawn; that sat beside him at lunch, turning his ramen
into an inedible repugnant wormy mass; that chuckled as it tucked him
in at night: Good luck with that. It revealed the raw injustice of the world
and made a mockery of policework. How could he hope to correct a
worldly imbalance when he could not get his own mind right? His sadness
made him loathsome to himself and to others. It was a sick badge of
honor, a family inheritance to be taken out every few years, dusted off,
and worn in private, a tattered black ribbon, the needle stuck through
Up ahead, in the Crown Vic, he could see the outlines of the two men.
Apes. Heavies, in case things got heavy.
It was all he could do not to wheel right around and go home. Special
Projects had to be a euphemism for fates best avoided.
It sounded like what you got when you thought you were special.
Maybe he hadn’t vetted them thoroughly enough.
He could send a text, let someone know where he was going. Just in
A jittery message to the ex-wives would make their respective days.
Renee’s title for him, imbued with nuclear scorn. Stacy had adopted
it, too, after he’d made the mistake of telling Wife Number Two about
Wife Number One’s nagging and Wife Two came to empathize with
“the crap you put her through.”
Everything turned to shit in the end.
So he was bound for someplace unpleasant. What else was new.
Determined beyond all reason to enjoy the ride, he eased back in his
seat, nudged his mind toward Mai. He put her in street clothes, then
removed them, piece by piece. That body, injection-molded, freakishly
proportional. He was about to rip the tallis off when the Crown Vic
made a sharp turn and Jacob swerved after it, hitting a pothole.
The sign said odyssey ave, an ambitious name for a grimy, two-block
afterthought. Wholesale toy dealers, import-exports with Chinese sign-
age, a shuttered “Dance Studio” that looked as if no feet, agile or otherwise,
had crossed its threshold in ages.
The Crown Vic pulled over outside a set of rolling steel doors. A
smaller glass door was inscribed 3636. A man in the dress of LAPD brass
stood on the sidewalk, shading his eyes. Like Subach and Schott, he cut
an imposing figure—towering, gaunt, pallid, with two frothy white
tufts over his ears, suggestive of wings. He wore ash-gray pants, a luminous
white shirt, a service firearm in a lightweight mesh holster. As he
approached the Honda and bent to open Jacob’s door, the gold badge
around his neck swung forward, clicking against the window, commander
in blue enamel.
“Detective Lev,” the man said. “Mike Mallick.”
Jacob got out and shook his hand, feeling like a different species. He
was six feet tall, but Mallick was six-six, easy.
Maybe Special Projects was where they put the freak shows.
In which case, he’d fit right in.
The Crown Vic honked once and drove off.
“Come on in, out of the sun,” Mallick said, and he glided into number