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The girl was moody getting out of the car, making a sour face to let him know she hated the shabby house and sun-scorched street smelling of chili and episote. To him, this anonymous house would serve. He searched the surrounding houses for threats as he waited for her, clearing the area the way another man might clear his throat. He felt obvious wearing the long-sleeved shirt. The Los Angeles sun was too hot for the sleeves, but he had little choice. He moved carefully to hide what was under the shirt.
She said, "People who live in houses like this have deformed children. I can't stay here."
"Lower your voice."
"I haven't eaten all day. I didn't eat yesterday and now this smell is making me feel strange."
"We'll eat when we're safe."
The house opened as the girl joined him, and the woman Bud told him to expect appeared: a squat woman with large white teeth and friendly eyes named Imelda Arcano. Mrs. Arcano managed several apartment houses and single-family rentals in Eagle Rock, and Bud's office had dealt with her before. He hoped she wouldn't notice the four neat holes that had been punched into their fender the night before.
He turned his back to the house to speak with the girl.
"The attitude makes you memorable. Lose it. You want to be invisible."
"Why don't I wait in the car?"
Leaving her was unthinkable.
"Let me handle her."
The girl laughed.
"That would be you all over it. I want to see that, you handling her. I want to see you charm her."
He took the girl's arm and headed toward the house. To her credit, the girl fell in beside him without making a scene, slouching to change her posture the way he had shown her. Even with her wearing the oversize sunglasses and Dodgers cap, he wanted her inside and out of sight as quickly as possible.
Mrs. Arcano smiled wider as they reached the front door, welcoming them.
"It's so hot today, isn't it? It's cool inside. The air conditioner works very well. I'm Imelda Arcano."
After the nightmare in Malibu, Bud's office had arranged the new house on the fly -- dropped the cash and told Mrs. Arcano whatever she needed to hear, which probably wasn't much. This would be easy money, no questions part of the deal, low-profile tenants who would be gone in a week. Mrs. Arcano probably wouldn't even report the rental to the absentee owner; just pocket Bud's cash and call it a day. They were to meet Mrs. Arcano only so she could give them the keys.
Imelda Arcano beckoned them inside. The man hesitated long enough to glance back at the street. It was narrow and treeless, which was good. He could see well in both directions, though the small homes were set close together, which was bad. The narrow alleys would fill with shadows at dusk.
He wanted Mrs. Arcano out of the way as quickly as possible, but Mrs. Arcano latched onto the girl -- one of those female-to-female things -- and gave them the tour, leading them through the two tiny bedrooms and bath, the microscopic living room and kitchen, the grassless backyard. He glanced at the neighboring houses from each window, and out the back door at the rusty chain-link fence that separated this house from the one behind it. A beige and white pit bull was chained to an iron post in the neighboring yard. It lay with its chin on its paws, but it was not sleeping. He was pleased when he saw the pit bull.
The girl said, "Does the TV work?"
"Oh, yes, you have cable. You have lights, water, and gas -- everything you need, but there is no telephone. You understand that? There really is no point in having the phone company create a line for such a short stay."
He had told the girl not to say anything, but now they were having a conversation. He cut it off.
"We have cell phones. You can hand over the keys and be on your way."
Mrs. Arcano stiffened, indicating she was offended.
"When will you be moving in?"
"Now. We'll take the keys."
Mrs. Arcano peeled two keys from her key ring, then left. For the first and only time that day he left the girl alone. He walked Mrs. Arcano to her car because he wanted to bring their gear into the house as quickly as possible. He wanted to call Bud. He wanted to find out what in hell happened the night before, but mostly he wanted to make sure the girl was safe.
He lingered at his car until Mrs. Arcano drove away, then looked up and down the street again -- both ways, the houses, between the houses -- and everything seemed fine. He brought his and the girl's duffels into the house, along with the bag they had grabbed at the Rite Aid.
The television was on, the girl hopping through the local stations for news. When he walked in, she laughed, then mimicked him, lowering and flattening her voice.
"'Hand over the keys and be on your way.' Oh, that charmed her. That certainly made you forgettable."
He turned off the television and held out the Rite Aid bag. She didn't take it, pissed about him turning off the set, so he let it drop to the floor.
"Do your hair. We'll get something to eat when you're finished."
"I wanted to see if we're on the news."
"Can't hear with the TV. We want to hear. Maybe later."
"I can turn off the sound."
"Do the hair."
He peeled off his shirt and tossed it onto the floor by the front door. If he went out again or someone came to the door he would pull it on. He was wearing a Kimber .45 semiautomatic pushed into the waist of his pants. He opened his duffel and took out a clip holster for the Kimber and a second gun, this one already holstered, a Colt Python .357 Magnum with the four-inch barrel. He clipped the Kimber onto the front of his pants in the cross-draw position and the Python on his right side. He hadn't chanced the holsters with Mrs. Arcano, but he hadn't wanted to take the chance of being without a gun, either.
He took a roll of duct tape from his bag and went to the kitchen.
Behind him, the girl said, "Asshole."
He made sure the back door was locked, then moved to the tiny back bedroom, locked the windows, and pulled the shades. This done, he tore off strips of duct tape and sealed the shades over the windows. He taped the bottoms and sides to the sills and jambs, all the way around each shade. If anyone managed to raise a window they would make noise tearing the shade from the wall and he would hear. When the shades were taped, he took out his Randall knife and made a three-inch vertical slit in each shade, just enough for him to finger open so he could cover the approaches to the house. He was cutting the shades when he heard her go into the bathroom. Finally cooperating. He knew she was scared, both of him and of what was happening, so he was surprised she had been trying as hard as she had. And pleased, thinking maybe they would stay alive a little while longer.
On his way to the front bedroom he passed the bath. She was in front of the mirror, cutting away her rich copper hair. She held the hair between her fingers, pulling it straight from her head to hack it away with the cheap Rite Aid scissors, leaving two inches of jagged spikes. Boxes of Clairol hair color, also fresh from the Rite Aid, lined the sink. She saw him in the mirror and glared.
"I hate this. I'm going to look so Melrose."
She had peeled down to her bra but left the door open. He guessed she wanted him to see. The five-hundred-dollar jeans rode low on her hips below a smiling dolphin jumping between the dimples on the small of her back. Her bra was light blue and sheer, and the perfect color against her olive skin. Looking at him, she played with her hair, which now stuck out in uneven spikes. She fluffed the spikes, shaped them, then considered them. The sink and floor were covered with the hair she had cut away.
She said, "What about white? I could go white. Would that make you happy?"
"I could go blue. Blue might be fun."
She turned to pose her body.
"Would you love it? Retropunk? So totally Melrose? Tell me you love it."
He continued on to the front bedroom without answering. She hadn't bought blue. She probably thought he hadn't been paying attention, but he paid attention to everything. She had bought blond, brown, and black. He locked and taped the front bedroom windows as he had done in the rest of the house, then returned to the bathroom. Now the water was running and she was leaning over the sink, wearing clear plastic gloves, massaging color into her hair. Black. He wondered how long it would take for the red to be hidden. He took out his cell phone, calling Bud Flynn as he watched.
He said, "We're in place. What happened last night?"
"I'm still trying to find out. I got no idea. Is the new house okay?"
"They had our location, Bud. I want to know how."
"I'm working on it. Is she okay?"
"I want to know how."
"Jesus, I'm working on it. Do you need anything?"
"I need to know how."
He closed the phone as she stood, water running down the trough of her spine to the dolphin until she wrapped her hair in a towel. Only then did she find him in the mirror again and smile.
"You're looking at my ass."
The pit bull barked.
He did not hesitate. He drew the Python and ran to the back bedroom.
She said, "Joe! Damnit."
In the back bedroom, he fingered open a slit in the shade as the girl hurried up behind him. The dog was on its feet, squinting at something he could not see.
She said, "What is it?"
The pit was trying to see something to their left, the flat top of its head furrowed and its nubby ears perked, no longer barking as it tested the air.
Pike watched through the slit, listening hard as the pit was listening.
The girl whispered, "What?"
The pit exploded with frenzied barking as it jumped against its chain.
Pike spoke fast over his shoulder even as the first man came around the end of the garage. It was happening again.
"Front of the house, but don't open the door. Go. Fast."
The towel fell from her head as he pushed her forward. He hooked their duffels over his shoulder, guiding her to the door. He checked the slit in the front window shade. A single man was walking up the drive as another moved across the yard toward the house. Pike didn't know how many more were outside or where they were, but he and the girl would not survive if he fought from within the house.
He cupped her face and forced her to see him. She had to see past her fear. Her eyes met his and he knew they were together.
"Watch me. Don't look at them or anything else. Watch me until I motion for you, then run for the car as fast as you can."
Once more, he did not hesitate.
He jerked open the door, set up fast on the man in the drive, and fired the Colt twice. He reset on the man coming across the yard. Pike doubled on each man's center of mass so quickly the four shots sounded like two -- baboombaboom -- then he ran to the center of the front yard. He saw no more men, so he waved out the girl.
She ran as hard as she could, he had to hand it to her. Pike fell in behind her, running backwards the way cornerbacks fade to cover a receiver, staying close to shield her body with his because the pit bull was still barking. More men were coming.
When Pike reached the bodies, he dropped to a knee and checked their pockets by touch. He was hoping for a wallet or some form of ID, but their pockets were empty.
A third man came around the corner of the house into the drive, saw Pike, then dove backwards. Pike fired his last two shots. Wood and stucco exploded from the edge of the house, but the man had made cover and the Python was dry. The third man popped back almost at once and fired three shots -- bapbapbap -- missing Pike, but hitting his Jeep like a ball-peen hammer. Pike didn't have time to holster the Python. He dropped it to jerk free the Kimber, pounded out two more shots and dropped the man at the edge of the house. Pike ran for the car. The girl had the driver's door open, but was just standing there.
Pike shouted, "Get in. In."
Another man appeared at the edge of the house, snapping out shots as fast as he could. Pike fired, but the man had already taken cover.
Pike pushed the girl across the console, jammed the key into the ignition and gunned his Jeep to the corner. He four-wheeled the turn, buried the accelerator, then glanced at the girl.
"You good? Are you hurt?"
She stared straight ahead, her eyes red and wet. She was crying again.
She said, "Those men are dead."
Pike placed his hand on her thigh.
"Larkin, look at me."
She clenched her eyes and kneaded her hands.
"Three men just died. Three more men."
He made his deep voice soft.
"I won't let anything happen to you. Do you hear me?"
She still didn't look.
"Do you believe me?"
Pike swerved through an intersection. He slowed only enough to avoid a collision, then accelerated onto the freeway.
They had been at the house in Eagle Rock for twenty-eight minutes. He had killed three more men, and now they were running. Again.
He was sorry he lost the Colt. It was a good gun. It had saved them last night in Malibu, but now it might get them killed.
Copyright © 2007 by Robert Crais