The notion is shocking in the intensity of its appeal. The only element he doesn't contemplate with delight, he realizes, is the massage part. He doesn't want anybody touching him, doesn't want to be aroused sexually. He just wants to see the look in her eyes as the knife slides home.

He's not thinking clearly.

That, at least, is clear to him. He has been walking around, turning left, turning right, walking into shops, looking around, walking out. He's looking for something and doesn't know what he's looking for, and he's not thinking clearly, that's it in a nutshell, and in the process he's placing himself at risk.

He reaches into his shirt, touches his amulet.

And knows what he has to do. He has to go home and lie down, he has to take a Valium, he has to get some rest. He has had a very busy day, and his energy levels are depleted, and he's got to allow them to replenish themselves. A hot bath, a glass of Harold Fischer's excellent single-malt Scotch, a Valium, and eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. That's what he needs, and what he's going to get.

He steps to the curb, holds up his hand, and two taxis dart across several lanes of traffic, eager to take him wherever he wants to go.

He rewards the one who gets there first, gives his address, sinks back into the cushions. He touches the handle of his knife, touches the rhodochrosite circle.

Power and clarity. He's feeling better already.

On Central Park West, a block and a half short of his destination, the taxi stops for a red light. Without planning it, without any forethought whatsoever, he says, "I'll get out here," and takes money from his billfold. They're not at the curb, there's a lane of traffic to the right of his taxi, but no matter. He stuffs money into the pass-through compartment of the partition, ignores the driver's protest, and gets out. There's a red light, no one's going anywhere, and it's easy enough to walk between a couple of cars and reach the sidewalk.

Why, though?

There's a reason, he's certain of it, and so he keeps his eyes open and his wits about him as he proceeds north for a block on the side of the avenue bordering the park. And, when he's covered half the distance, he knows why he didn't let the taxi take him to his door. He doesn't know what warned him, what subtle observation inspired that inner prompting, but he can hardly question it.

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Because his building is swarming with policemen.

There are police cars parked all over the place- at a hydrant, in a bus stop, in a no-parking zone around the corner. Is there a fire truck on the scene? An ambulance? No, nothing but police cars. And there's a uniformed patrolman standing in the entrance, talking with the doorman. And there's a man who's not wearing a uniform, but might as well be.

Can he spot a film truck? Are there any barriers set up to hold back the crowd? They are forever filming things in this city, movies, television episodes, along with New York exteriors for shows ostensibly set here but actually filmed in Los Angeles, and much of what they film involves crime and the police. Walk into an apparent hostage situation and you're likely to spot Jerry Orbach, looking more like a cop than the cops do.

But Jerry Orbach's not here. No one's filming this.

It's all over, he realizes. He knows without the slightest doubt that he's the reason for the presence of all these policemen. And it's not one cop, come to ask him a few questions. It's a whole slew of them, several vehicles' worth, and that means they've been in the apartment, and yes, of course, they've read what's on his computer, they could hardly have failed to do so, and they'll have long since discovered the wretched little masseuse tucked in her wretched little cupboard, and, well, what is there to say? It's over.

And they're waiting for him, standing there waiting for him, and if he hadn't somehow known to get out of the cab when he did, he'd have waltzed right into their arms.

But he's been given a second chance.

He heads for the parking garage to collect his car.

You get what you get, he thinks.

And it's up to you what you make of it.

He thinks of alt.crime.serialkillers. He'll have his own thread, won't he? Have whole Web sites devoted to him and his exploits.

And how many cops will spend how many hours searching for him? There are no photos of him, he's seen to that. Family photos, high school yearbook photos, but he had another name then, and no one searching for Adam Breit will know that name, or have access to those photos. They can run all the sketches they please on America's Most Wanted. It won't do them any good. He'll watch the program with new friends in Spokane or St. Paul and shake his head and sigh with the rest of them. "What a sick son of a bitch," he'll say. "I wouldn't mind seeing him hang. I'd pull on the rope myself."

Waiting for a light to change, he drops his hand to his side and feels the knife, then reaches up to touch his amulet.

And thinks of the people who love him.

Christ, they're going to hear about this, and it's going to shatter them. Peter and Ruth Ann and Lucian and Marsha and Kieran, his whole little family, and what are they going to think? How are they going to feel?

He can't leave them like this.

He pulls out of line, wrenches the wheel all the way around, hears brakes squeal behind him as he makes a U-turn in front of oncoming traffic. Horns sound in reproach, but he scarcely hears them. He heads for Delancey Street, and the Williamsburg Bridge.

Is he in time? Will they welcome him with the love that is their greatest gift to him? Or will he walk through the door only to see fear and horror on their faces?

He brakes at the curb, leaps out from behind the wheel, dashes across to the front entrance. The door's unlocked and he flings it open, and there's Kieran and Ruth Ann, looking up from their work, and there's big Peter over to the side, chipping away at plaster. And what is it on their faces? Shock?

No, no, it's surprise, and of course they're surprised, because they were not expecting a visit from him. But it's a good surprise, he sees. They're delighted, their faces glow with love. "Doc!" they cry. "Doc, what are you doing here? Doc, it's so good to see you!"

He makes the rounds, embraces them in turn, and when he and Peter have finished their hug he hears footsteps on the stairs, and turns to see Marsha and Lucian, beaming, radiant, coming to join the party. Everybody's here, his whole family, and how could he have possibly driven off and left them, these five dear people who love him so? How could he even have considered it?

What was he thinking of?

THIRTY-NINE

When Wentworth called I was back home watching a ball game. Elaine was getting dinner ready and T J was at her computer, doing something that would enable her to perform more efficiently some task she'd lived all her life without doing at all.

I'd called the Hollander house earlier and told Kristin's machine I wanted to speak to Ballou. When he picked up I told him the police guard was in place, and he could probably leave if he wanted to. He said he'd long since spotted them through the window, and you could very likely march an army past them without getting their attention. He'd stay where he was, if it was all the same to me. The wee girl was a good cook, and she'd found a cribbage board, and he'd taught her to play.

I said, "Cribbage? I didn't know you played."

"There's much you don't know," he said.

I couldn't argue the point. I went back to the baseball game, where a Met pitcher was struggling. He was earning five million dollars this year, and so far he'd won two more games than he'd lost. I found myself wondering what kind of money Bob Gibson would get in today's market, or Carl Hubbell, or-

The phone rang, and it was Ira Wentworth, wanting to know if I was busy. I told him my wife was fixing dinner and I was watching a ball game. Why?

"You've been in on all of this," he said, "and I figure you earned the right to see the rest of it. But I have to say you're better off staying where you are."

"I don't follow you."

"I don't follow myself," he said. "You want to come, be out in front of your building in five minutes. I'll swing by and pick you up."

Elaine was planning to make pasta, and I caught her before the water boiled and told her she was cooking for one. "Then I'll just have a salad," she said, "and we can eat when you get home, if you're still hungry. Where are you going?"

I told her I didn't know. I got T J away from the computer and we went downstairs. A minute or two after we hit the pavement, a Ford about three years old made an illegal U-turn in the middle of the block and pulled up right in front of us. I opened the door and was about to compliment Wentworth on his driving, but the expression on his face stopped me. I got in next to him and T J got in back and the car took off before we had the doors shut.

He said, "I don't know why I'm in such a rush. Nobody's going anywhere."

"What is he, holed up somewhere?"

"In a manner of speaking."

"Does he have hostages?"

He laughed, but there was no humor in it. "Same answer," he said.

I didn't say anything, and he turned at Broadway, slowed down long enough at a red light to make sure there was no oncoming traffic, then coasted through the intersection. He drove like a cop, trying not to hit anybody, but otherwise unconcerned about the traffic laws.

At Times Square he switched to Broadway. As we approached Thirty-fourth Street he said, "You're not going to ask where we're going?"

"I figured you'd tell me sooner or later."

"Brooklyn," he said.

"Coney Island Avenue? He went back there after all?"

He didn't say anything. At Thirty-first Street two cars stood side by side at a red light, waiting patiently for it to change. Wentworth swung around them, shot across the intersection, cut back in. Somebody leaned on his horn.

"I don't know why the hell they do that," he said. "Hit their horns. Time they do that, I'm already out of their lives."

"If they had guns," I said, "they wouldn't have to honk."

"An armed driver is a quiet driver," he said. "What I'm doing, I'll cut over Houston to Forsyth or Eldridge. Whichever one's southbound. Take that to Delancey and shoot over the bridge."

"Wrong bridge," I said. "If you take the Manhattan Bridge it's a straight shot down Flatbush Avenue."

"Thanks for the geography lesson," he said, "but that's not where we're going."

I don't know how much of it I knew then. Enough, at least, to keep my mouth shut.

Heading east on Houston Street he said, "Somebody mentioned the boyfriend. I forget his name, if I ever heard it in the first place."

"Peter Meredith."

"Somebody mentioned him back at Breit's apartment, and I was going to call somebody in Brooklyn, see about getting a car and a couple of uniforms out there. But then I thought somebody else was gonna take care of it, and it was way down on the list, you know? They were patients of his, but he's a doctor, a therapist, whatever the hell he is, you figure he's got a whole file cabinet full of patients, right? What are you gonna do, go sit on each and every one of them on the chance he might show up?"

"What happened?"

"Fire," he said. "Place went up like a fucking film warehouse. Meserole Street? Couple of blocks from Bushwick Terminal? Isn't that where you said it was?"

"That's right."

"You don't recall the street number, by any chance?"