Read an Excerpt
Three Months Later
Out of the corner of his eye, Thorpe saw Kimberly heading toward the escalator. He ignored her. It took everything he had, but he managed it, jaw tightening as he concentrated on the revolving luggage carousel at LAX. He had been standing there for the last ten minutes, matching up travelers with the bags sliding down the chute. He had nailed a computer jock and his yellow plastic Hello Kitty knapsack, even paired the dreadlocked skateboarder with an incongruous brushed-chrome footlocker—the peeling Reggae rainbow sticker on the case had been the tell. Nice catch, but it didn’t mean anything now.
Vacation was a bitch, and permanent vacation was even worse. He didn’t expect much from this trip to Miami; he was just tired of sitting around his apartment. Miami was as frantic as L.A., overcrowded with tourists and drunks and geezers doing fifty-five in the fast lane, but there was Cuban food and Cuban music, airboating through the Glades by moonlight, and conch chowder at Shirttail Charlie’s. There were still parts of the Keys where you could slip through the mangrove trees, stand knee-deep in the warm Atlantic, and it was so quiet that you could hear mermaids singing sad songs under the sea. “A lapse in judgment,” that’s how the shop described the Lazurus fiasco—they might as well be accusing him of forgetting to take his vitamins or failing to rotate his tires.
Near the exit, a thin Hispanic kid was selling confections, holding out a wooden tray filled with candy and nuts, small oranges, and chunks of fresh coconut. A sweet-faced kid no older than nine or ten, standing there in hemmed cutoffs and a Mickey Mouse T-shirt. Most people hurried past, not making eye contact, but the kid’s smile never faltered. Thorpe liked the kid’s hustle, the way he positioned himself to get maximum foot traffic, head high. No matter what the need that brought him here on a school day, he was no beggar. Thorpe had seen him refuse money from an old woman who wasn’t interested in his goods, accepting her handful of loose change only when she took a pack of Chiclets and a single chocolate Kiss.
A chunky teenage girl with chopped black hair stood by the carousel, the four gold rings through her lower lip making her look like a hooked tuna. Thorpe pegged her for the gray rubberized suitcase, but she grabbed a Louis Vuitton overnighter instead. Daddy’s girl, and he had missed it. Thorpe turned, saw Kimberly riding the up escalator to the main concourse, a pale green sundress clinging to her. He was sweating now, but he stayed where he was.
The sign over the carousel blinked. Luggage from American Airlines flight 223 would be unloaded next. About time. Thorpe’s 7:00 a.m. flight to Miami had turned back barely a half hour out of L.A. with engine trouble—if the luggage didn’t arrive soon, he was going to miss the alternate flight. At least a dozen nervous passengers had decided not to reschedule. Flames shooting out of the port engine could do that to you, particularly with the pilot’s calling for calm over the intercom, his voice crackling. Thorpe was as superstitious as anyone, seeing portents in soap slivers and broken shoelaces, but he never let that stop him. If God really wanted to communicate with him, he could fire off a certified letter.
Thorpe glanced again toward the escalator, glimpsed Kimberly’s bare legs, the green dress swirling around her knees as she disappeared from view. Unable to stop himself, Thorpe gave chase, taking the escalator three steps at a time.
Halfway down the concourse, he spotted her, deep in a crowd of travelers. He lost sight of her for a few moments; then the crowd parted and there she was, wearing the same green dress she had worn the first time she made contact with Lazurus, a demure dress of some silky synthetic, which only hinted at her lithe figure. Frantic now, Thorpe bumped his way through the swarm of people separating them, lightly touched her shoulder.
“Yes?” The woman stared at him. Lovely woman . . . but she wasn’t Kimberly.
“Sorry.” Thorpe backed off, embarrassed, beelined over to a coffee stand, and ordered a Mexican-style espresso.
The heavyset woman behind the counter levered out the inky brew from a stainless-steel manual machine, using two hands. She added a dash of cocoa and three sugar cubes to the cardboard cup, then took his three singles for the coffee. She rang up the sale, tore off the register receipt, showed it to him. “You got a red star. Coffee’s on the house. You’re a lucky man.”
“You’re a lucky man,” said the plastic surgeon for the fifth or sixth time.
“If I was lucky, I wouldn’t have been shot,” gasped Thorpe.
“You’re lucky that someone of my skill is working on you,” said the surgeon as he examined Thorpe’s gunshot wound. “Working solo, too, no anesthesiologist or surgical nurse in attendance. . . . Let those ER butchers try doing that.” He shook his head. “You tell Billy we’re even now.”
Thorpe closed his eyes. Stretched out on the table, an IV in his arm, he wasn’t about to tell the surgeon that Billy was retired. He could feel the man’s fingers probing his flesh.
“That hurt?” asked the surgeon. “I had to be cautious with the anesthetic; it’s not my area of expertise.” He chuckled. “I can promise you a beautiful scar, however.”
“I’m a lucky man.”
The lights were bright, even through his closed eyelids, but something nagged at Thorpe. It had been bothering him the whole drive over, but he just couldn’t remember what it was. The surgeon chattered away, but Thorpe was drifting, hearing bullets whizzing past him in the parking lot, and car doors slamming. He remembered racing through traffic, and the Engineer turning around to see if they were being followed. He must have groaned out loud with the memory.
“Hang on,” said the surgeon.
Thorpe could still see Kimberly leaning against the Jeep, and lying there in the operating room, he got a whiff of her perfume. He fought to stay awake. Her fragrance was fainter now, and he tried to hang on to her, but she was walking away, walking back to the safe house with the Engineer. Thorpe sat up. The surgeon tried to push him down, but Thorpe shook him off, grabbed his cell phone from the counter.
“Are you trying to kill yourself?” asked the surgeon.
Thorpe listened to the phone ring. The Engineer’s gait had changed slightly as he and Kimberly approached the house, become almost jaunty, and at the top of the steps, he had looked back at Thorpe. It had lasted only a moment, and Thorpe was bleeding and desperate to leave, but there was something wrong with his expression.
The surgeon fiddled with the anesthetic drip that ran into Thorpe’s arm.
The phone clicked. “Kimberly!” Thorpe’s tongue felt thick. “The Engineer. He’s not . . . he’s not right.”
“None of us are,” said the Engineer. He had lost all trace of his Italian accent. “Look at Kimberly. A little liar, that’s all she was. And you, Frank, so cocky before, all that razzle-dazzle. You don’t sound so fearless now.”
“Let me . . . speak to Kimberly.”
“Say ‘Please.’ ”
“Please, don’t hurt her.” Thorpe dragged the surgeon closer. “The safe house . . . nine one one.”
“Where are you, Frank?” asked the Engineer.
Thorpe licked his lips. “The Fuck You Hilton.”
“That’s the spirit.”
Thorpe floated on a vast black lake. He felt the surgeon take the phone from him. Someone was sobbing, the sound sending ripples across the water.
“Mister?” The woman at the coffee stand was holding out his three dollars. “I told you—your coffee is free.”
Thorpe shoved the money into his pocket, walked away without a word, still hearing the Engineer’s last words. He sat down at one of the nearby tables, more convinced than ever that this vacation was a mistake, a retreat, not a respite. Kimberly was dead and the Engineer was alive, and no vacation was going to change that. Not that staying home presented much hope. He had laid out the bait for the Engineer, offered himself up without success, and Thorpe had grown tired of waiting.
Thorpe sipped the thick sweetened coffee and watched the people streaming past. Commuters double-timing it, laptops swinging with every step. Grandmothers with too many carry-on plastic bags, tissues tucked into their sleeves. College girls in Stanford sweatshirts, sorority tattoos discreetly stitched onto their ankles, easily hidden when they joined the PTA in a few years. A woman caught his attention, a middle-aged woman sitting at a nearby table, her cup of frozen yogurt melting while she tracked the line waiting at the security checkpoint. An earpiece was almost hidden by her hair. Ten demerits for the almost. She looked over, but he didn’t react, his expression of practiced boredom deflecting any further interest in him.
Practiced boredom was a specialty of the shop. They had even used it on him, sending some weary desk jockey with fine gray hair to sit on his bed in the plastic surgeon’s recovery room, the man plucking at the bedsheet while he told Thorpe that his services were no longer required. All that surveillance, and you didn’t ID the main player, Frank. How do you think that makes us look? The desk jockey yawned. I won’t even mention the mess at the safe house. Thorpe had beckoned the man closer, said he couldn’t hear him, but the desk jockey kept his distance, tossed Thorpe an envelope stuffed with cash.
The woman whom Thorpe had mistaken for Kimberly walked slowly past, checking her flight ticket, looking lost. It wasn’t the first time Thorpe had seen Kimberly since she had been killed. He saw her running along the beach, he saw her waiting in line at the new John Woo movie, and once, in the produce department at Ralph’s, he had seen her trying to select a ripe cantaloupe. He knew it wasn’t really her. The photos taken at the safe house were proof enough. He knew it wasn’t her, but he always made sure anyway.
Thorpe still didn’t know how the Engineer had pulled it off. He had observed Lazurus and his crew for months. Lazurus was a thug, violent and obscene and heavily guarded; the few phone intercepts had caught him raging, giving orders to subordinates who were desperate to please, fearful of his wrath. Lazurus might have thought he was the boss, but the man running the operation was the Engineer; that soft, pink technocrat, the faintly ridiculous Engineer with his puppy love and awkward manners. Lazurus was just an unwitting stand-in, another patsy who never knew what hit him. If it hadn’t been for the carnage at the safe house, Thorpe would have applauded the charade.
Some poor bastard pushed a baby stroller down the concourse, one kid in the stroller crying, another one slung against his chest, sleeping. Dear old Dad was sweating in droopy jeans and a stained polo shirt, thinning hair plastered across his scalp, and looking happier than he had any right to. It always amazed Thorpe. Where did that happiness come from?
No kids for Thorpe. No friends or family, either. He didn’t even have an ex-wife to bitch about, to call in the middle of the night, drunk and lonely, talking about the good times that neither of them remembered. He didn’t have anyone. Kimberly was the closest he had come, and she was dead. Fourteen years in uniform, the last ten in Delta Force, sent on missions he couldn’t talk about, and then came the shop, with its secret mental compartments. Thorpe was the neighbor you called at 4:00 a.m. when your car broke down in the middle of nowhere, the one who would come and get you, and not tell you to check your oil once in awhile. Then one day his apartment would be empty and he would be gone, with no forwarding address. Sudden departures and no emotional entanglements were part of the appeal of the job, an essential part of the pay package. The shop gave him an excuse to be who he really was. It was a lousy trade-off.
Angry at himself, angry at the Engineer, angry at the sun and moon and stars, Thorpe finished the coffee in a quick swallow, then headed toward the escalator. Maybe the kid by the luggage carousel had mango slices for sale. Thorpe jiggled the empty cardboard cup as he walked, listening to the sugar cubes rattle around like blind dice. A businessman in a blue suit walked rapidly down the escalator, elbowed Thorpe aside without a word, and kept moving. Thorpe forced himself to stay put. In his present mood, once he started, he might not be able to stop. He watched the businessman’s crocodile briefcase swinging as the man plowed down the escalator, a real hard charger.
The kid was still by the door, at his post. He held out the tray, called to the businessman. Without breaking stride, the businessman smacked away the kid’s tray with his briefcase, a solid roundhouse blow, scattering gum and candy, the kid stumbling backward onto the floor, blood streaming down his face. The businessman stalked out through the sliding glass doors.
Thorpe chased after the businessman, double-timing it, but a skycap cut him off with a line of carts, the skycap oblivious, talking on a cell phone. By the time Thorpe got outside, the hard charger had stepped into a waiting red Porsche convertible, a beautiful blonde behind the wheel. Thorpe watched them roar off, the blonde’s hair floating behind her in the sunshine. She kissed the man as she accelerated into traffic, kissed him hard and deep, horns blaring around them, the blonde not caring. The hard charger didn’t kiss her back, just lolled against the headrest and let her do all the work.
Inside, the kid was on his knees, picking up his goods. “You okay?” asked Thorpe, bending down beside him, helping gather the breath mints and scattered sticks of gum, piling them into the tray. “¿Está bien, niño?”
The kid didn’t answer; he was busy organizing the gum and candy in his tray, stacking them up, his hands shaking. The edge of the tray, or maybe the briefcase, had split his upper lip, and blood was leak- ing from his nose, too. His T-shirt was spattered, Mickey Mouse’s innocent grin stained with red. The kid kept blinking, cheeks flushed, as humiliated as he was hurt, and Thorpe knew that look. The kid didn’t cry, though. Not one tear. Thorpe had a few medals in a safety-deposit box. He would have given them all to the kid if it could have done any good.
Thorpe dabbed at the blood with a tissue. “¿Está bien, vato?”
The kid still didn’t answer, and Thorpe could see anger in his eyes now, recognized it, too, seeing not a sudden fury that faded as rapidly as it came, but something colder and more dangerous. All those so-called experts, Ph.D. numbnuts who thought personality changes were the result of a slow accretion of experience, were wrong. It just took one false move to fuck you forever.
“¿Qué es su nombre?” Thorpe said gently. “Mi nombre es Frank.” He kept himself at eye level with the kid, nodded to the door the hard charger had gone through. “Este hombre es un stupido. Un porque.” The kid got to his feet, holding on to the tray, his gaze unwavering now. Tiger, tiger, burning bright, thought Thorpe. He and Thorpe were two of a kind now, and it was the saddest thing Thorpe had ever seen in a child. “Mi nombre es Paulo Rodriguez,” the kid said, edging away.
Thorpe watched Paulo go, watched him until he disappeared deeper into the airport. The hard charger had stolen something from the boy, something only the hard charger could give back. Thorpe turned toward the luggage carousel, saw his bag going round and round, and knew he wasn’t going on vacation. Not today. He had only glimpsed the license plate of the red Porsche as it sped off, just caught a flash of numbers, but it had been enough. Old habits, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Thorpe grabbed his bag, then went outside and hailed a cab. Time to go home and give the hard charger a wake-up.