But why go through all that? All along- and he must have known this, albeit unconsciously- all along he has been preparing this banquet not for Peter but for himself. It is he who will win the maiden, he who will own the castle.

How could he ever have thought otherwise?

He puts on all clean clothes, choosing a deep-toned blue shirt, a red tie. The tie is knotted and he's reaching for his jacket when he remembers the amulet, the talisman, the disc of rhodochrosite that so sharpens his perceptions and boosts his mental clarity.

Shall he be angry with himself for having forgotten it at first, or shall he congratulate himself on having remembered? The choice is his- the ocean does not care.

Congratulating himself, he puts down his jacket, loosens his tie, unbuttons his shirt collar, and fastens the gold chain around his neck.

He looks up a phone number, dials it. The voice of his destiny: "No one can take your call right now. Please leave a message at the tone."

And what a tone, hers, not the machine's- cool, regal, but promising so much.

He dials another number. A man answers, and he recognizes the voice as Lucian's. "It's Doc," he says. "Is Ruth Ann handy?" And, learning she's gone to the hardware store, "That's all right, you can give her a message for me. Tell her I'm canceling my appointments for the rest of the day. She's down for two o'clock, so just tell her to call me and we'll shoehorn her in some other time."

On the way out the door he strokes his cheek, holds his hand to his nose, breathes in the smell of his cologne.

What a splendid house it is!

He has come on foot this time, and stands on the opposite side of the street, looking at his future home. And it's nothing new for him to think of it in those terms. Within its walls, watching the barbarian Ivanko spilling drawers, tipping over tables, he'd wanted to caution him against doing any damage to the house and its furnishings.

Advertisement..

And, when he cut the woman's throat, didn't it bother him to think of her blood spoiling the carpet?

Well, no, he admits. At the time he never gave it a thought, he was too utterly involved in the act itself to give a thought to its consequences. Afterward, though, he had time to regret that blood, spoiling that carpet.

His carpet.

How circuitous his original plans seem now! A reunion of Peter and Kristin, and a wedding, and Peter moves in, and then, after a suitable interval, something unfortunate happens to Kristin. And Peter, wanting only to get back to his beloved friends on Meserole Street, makes the house over as a gift of love to him, for the foundation he will establish.

Or, if that won't fly, then Peter, despondent over the tragic death of the love of his life, takes his own life- after having willed everything he owns to the man who has always been there for him.

Well, the hell with all that. He'll marry the girl himself. He'll have to do some artful management of Peter's emotions, but by then he'll see to it that Peter is so mad for the Wythe Avenue sculptor as to banish any particle of potential resentment. The five of them could be wedding guests- six, if you included the sculptor, and why should she be left out?

And then there will be no rush to close the account, either. Kristin will be an ornament, her mind an interesting one to play with. Only when he tires of her will anything need to happen to her, and death, when it comes, will clearly be the result of natural causes. Nature, in her bounty, has provided no end of natural substances that can bring on wonderfully natural death.

He crosses the street, a smile on his lips. He mounts the steps, faces the door. His fingers touch the knot of his tie, checking its shape, and one slips inside his shirt for the quickest touch of the mottled pink disc. He extends a finger, rings the bell.

Stands there, waiting.

Waiting…

He slips a hand into his pocket, draws out a ring of keys. He finds the right one and slips it into the lock, and it goes right in, a perfect fit, but it won't turn.

Well, that's understandable. There's been a burglary, after all, and the brutal murder of both her parents. She's had the good sense to change the locks.

The bitch. The fucking cunt.

His eyes widen at his reaction. He feels the rage and steps off to one side, weighing it, assessing it. It's completely disproportionate to the fact of the changed lock, a fact he had already accepted intellectually as logical and to be expected. Ergo it has nothing to do with the lock, or the fact that no one has come to answer the doorbell.

Pressure. He's under pressure, and needs release.

Fortunately, that's easily arranged.

The massage parlor is on Amsterdam Avenue, one flight up over a nail parlor. Both establishments are owned and staffed by Koreans. He climbs the stairs, and a balding Korean behind the desk takes a pair of twenty-dollar bills from him and points at a door.

The girl is short, slender, flat-faced, with a mole on either side of her little mouth. One would be a beauty mark; two, so symmetrically arranged, cry out for a plastic surgeon. If she were a patient of his…

But it is in fact he who is her client, and as he undresses she takes his clothes and hangs them in the metal wardrobe. She's wearing a red-orange shift, easy-on easy-off, and she doesn't seem to understand when he asks her to take it off. He mimes the request, and now she understands, and, smiling, shakes her head, and points toward the table.

He gets on the table on his back and she leans over him, kneading the muscles of his shoulders and upper arms. Her hands are small, her arms spindly, and he doubts there's much strength in them. The girl couldn't give a genuine massage if her life depended on it.

Interesting turn of phrase, that…

Her touch turns light, lingering, and she strokes his chest and stomach. He's engorged, and her fingers flutter ever so lightly over his erection.

"So big," she says, and sighs. She touches him again, feather-light, and says, "You wan' spesho massa'?"

"Special massage," he translates. "Yes, that's what I want."

"Fi'ty dollah."

"All right."

"Fi'ty dollah now."

He gets up from the table, goes to the wardrobe, takes his billfold from his pants. He gives her the crisp hundred he just received from the dominatrix- what goes around comes around- and stops her when she starts looking for change. Through a combination of words and pantomime he indicates that she is to keep the whole hundred dollars, and that he wants her to take off her dress.

And, in a single motion, it's off. She's got a young girl's body, hairless but for the tiniest tuft between her legs. Little baby-doll titties.

She reaches out, touches his amulet. "You still wearing," she said.

"Yes."

"Pity."

That confuses him for a moment, until he realizes she's saying that it's pretty. He lifts it over his head, settles it around her neck. The rhodochrosite disc floats just above and between her breasts.

She giggles, delighted.

And now he gets back on the table, and, with skill beyond her years, she performs as required. She uses her hands, and, at the end, a Kleenex tissue. His orgasm is powerful, his ejaculation abundant, but for all of that he is curiously detached from it all. He is, in a sense, off to the side watching, and without a great deal of interest.

He gets up from the table and she hands him his clothes, watches him dress. Before he buttons his shirt he holds out a hand, pointing to his amulet.

She giggles, clasps both hands over the pink stone circle, hugs it to her heart. She says, "Keep?"

He shakes his head, and she giggles again. She never really expected him to give it to her, and she's not surprised when he reaches to take it from her. She's still smiling and giggling, in fact, as his hands position themselves on her throat.

THIRTY-FOUR

I had a dream that night, an awful one. I dreamed I was asleep and Michael called, waking me out of a sound sleep to tell me that his brother Andy was dead. That woke me, and I sat up in bed with the same awful uncertainty that characterizes an awakening from a drunk dream: Yes, I know it was a dream, but did I really drink? Is my son really dead?

I'd only slept an hour or so at that point, and I was tired, so I went back to sleep, and kept drifting into one variation after another of the same fucking dream. What I guess I wanted to do was go back into the dream and fix it, so that it resolved itself in some way I could be comfortable with, but that's not what happened.

I wound up sleeping late, and when I finally did wake up I knew it was a dream. I knew, too, that it indicated nothing more than that I was anxious about my younger son, and perhaps that my second piece of pizza had not been a good idea. But I couldn't shake the feeling of foreboding that was the nightmare's legacy. It stayed with me, through breakfast, through a second cup of coffee. I set it aside while I watched the news and then when I read the paper, but it hung around. It never left the room.

I picked up the phone, called Kristin. The line was busy. A busy signal's irritating, and I guess they must intend it to be or they wouldn't make it sound the way it does. This one irritated me more than usual, because her line wasn't supposed to be busy. She wasn't supposed to be on it.

But of course the busy signal didn't necessarily indicate she was talking to someone, as I realized after my irritation subsided. It could mean that someone was leaving a message on her answering machine- Peter Meredith, for example, telling her fifty reasons why he needed to talk to her. Or it could be that she'd tired of media types calling all the time, and had taken the receiver off the hook. I didn't really want her doing that, I wanted to be able to reach her if I had to, but I hadn't said anything to her about it. If I'd given her any more orders, you'd have thought she was working for me…

I tried the number again, got a busy signal again. I went into the bathroom, checked myself in the mirror. I didn't really need a shave, but it was something to do.

The next time I tried Kristin's number it rang through, and the machine picked it up on cue. I listened to her announcement and said, "Kristin, this is Matt Scudder. Please pick up the phone. I need to talk to you." I waited and nothing happened, and I said essentially the same thing a second time, and went on repeating myself for a while. Then I gave up, told her to call me, gave her my number, repeated it, and cradled the receiver.

I went into the kitchen to make myself another cup of coffee, and decided that was the last thing I needed, and thought about having it anyway. I said the hell with it and walked back into the living room, and when I got there the phone rang.

I picked it up, and it was Michael. I had a very bad moment, but only a moment, and then he was saying he just wanted to let me know that everything had gone according to plan, that Andy's boss had accepted his check and even returned the quitclaim Michael had thought to enclose, and that Andy had packed up and moved out of Tucson, not as a fugitive from justice, thank God, but as a young man looking to better himself in a more propitious location.

"I just hope he doesn't run out of locations," Michael said.

"Does he know where the money came from?"

"I didn't tell him."

That didn't quite answer the question, but I let it go. I asked about June and Melanie, and he asked about Elaine, and we were left with nothing to say to each other. I wished I could have talked to him about my work, and for all I know he wished he could have talked to me about his. Instead we told each other to take care, and be well, and give my love to so-and-so, and said goodbye and rang off.