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     ROBERT CRAIS: EXCERPT - THE LAST DETECTIVE

The Church of Pike 
Angoon, Alaska 

     The cold Alaskan water pulled at the fishing boats that lined the dock, the boats straining against their moorings to run free with the tide. The water here in the small harbor at Angoon, a fishing village on the eastern shore of Admiralty Island off southeast Alaska, was steel-black beneath the clouds and dimpled by rain, but was clear even with that, a window beneath the weathered pilings to a world of sunburst starfish as wide as garbage cans, jellyfish the size of basketballs, and barnacles as heavy as a longshoreman's fist. Alaska was like that; so vigorous with life that it could fill a man and lift him and maybe even bring him back from the dead.
     A Tlinglit Indian named Elliot MacArthur watched as Joe Pike stowed his duffel in a fourteen-foot fiberglass skiff. Pike had rented the skiff from MacArthur, who now nervously toed Pike's rifle case.
     "You didn't tell me you were goin' after those bears up there. It ain't so smart goin' in those woods by yourself. I don't wanna lose my boat."
     Pike secured his duffel between the skiff's bench seats, then took hold of the gun case. Pike's weapon of choice that day was a stainless steel Remington Model 700 chambered in .375 Holland & Holland Magnum. It was a powerful gun, built heavy to dampen the .375's hard recoil. Pike lifted the case with his bad arm, but the arm failed with a sharp pain that left his shoulder burning. He shifted its weight to his good arm.
     MacArthur didn't like this business with the arm.
     "Now you listen. Goin' after that bear with a bad arm ain't the brightest idea, either. You're gonna have my boat, and you're gonna be alone, and that's a big bear up there. Has to be big, what he did to those people."
     Pike strapped the rifle case across the duffel, then checked the fuel. It was going to be a long trip, getting from Angoon up to Chaik Bay where the killings had taken place.
     "You better be thinkin' about this. Don't matter what kinda bounty the families put up, it ain't worth gettin' killed for."
     "Or losing your boat."
     MacArthur wasn't sure if Pike had insulted him or not.
     Pike finished with his gear, then stepped back onto the dock. He took ten one-hundred-dollar bills from his wallet and held out the money.
     "I'll buy the boat. Then you won't have to worry about it."
     MacArthur looked embarrassed and put his hands in his pocket.
     "Let's just forget it. You rented it, it's yours. You're making me feel like a miser and I don't appreciate that."
     Pike put the money away and stepped down into the skiff, keeping his weight low. He cast off the lines.
     "You bank the boat when you get up Chaik, use that orange tape to flag a tree so I can find ya if I have to come looking."
     Pike nodded.
     "Anyone you want me to call, you know, if you need me to call someone?"
     "No."
     "You sure?"
     Pike nosed away from the dock without answering and set off for deeper water, holding his bad arm close.
     The light rain became fat drops, then a low foggy mist. Pike zipped his parka. A family of seals watched him pass from their perch on a promontory of rocks. Humpback whales spouted further out in the channel, one great fluke tipping into the sky as a whale sounded, Pike's only thought to wonder at the perfect quiet that waited in the waters below.
     Pike rubbed his bad shoulder. He had been shot twice high in the back almost eight months ago. The bullets shattered his shoulder blade, spraying bone fragments like shrapnel through his left lung and the surrounding muscles and nerves. Pike had almost died, but didn't, and had come north to heal. He worked king crab boats out of Dutch Harbor and fishing boats out of Petersburg. He seined for black cod and long-lined for halibut, and if the crews on the boats he worked saw the scars that laced his chest and back, no one asked of their nature. That was Alaska, too.
     Pike steered north for four hours at a steady six knots until he reached a circular bay with two small islands at its mouth. Pike checked his chart, then double-checked his position on a handheld GPS. This was the place, all right. Chaik Bay.
     The pounding chop of the channel gave way to water as flat as glass, undisturbed except for the head of a single white seal. The bottom rose as Pike eased toward shore, and soon the first of the carcasses appeared; dead salmon as long as a man's arm drifted with the current as they washed out of the creek, their bodies mottled and broken with the effort to spawn. Hundreds of seagulls picked through the fish that had washed onto shore; scores of bald eagles perched in the treetops, a single eagle at the peak of each tree, watching the gulls with envious eyes. The smell of rotten fish grew sharp.
     Pike shut the engine, let the skiff glide into the rocky beach, then stepped out into ankle-deep water. He pulled the boat high above the tide line, then tied it to a hemlock limb. He flagged the limb with orange tape as Elliot MacArthur had asked.
     Alder, spruce, and hemlock trees lined the shore like an impenetrable green wall. Pike made camp beneath the soft boughs, then ate a supper of peanut butter and carrot sticks. Later, he smoothed a place on the beach where he stretched until his muscles were warm, then did push-ups and sit-ups on pebbles that clawed at his flesh. He worked hard. His spine arched and his legs lifted in the most strenuous asanas of hatha yoga. He spun through the strict choreography of a tae kwon do kata, kicking and windmilling his arms as he blended the Korean form into the Chinese forms of kung fu and wing chun in a regimen he had practiced every day since he was a child. Sweat leaked from his short brown hair. His hands and feet snapped with a violence that frightened the eagles. Pike pushed himself faster, spinning and twisting through the air, falling within himself in a frenzy of effort as he tried to outrace his pain.
     It was not good enough. His shoulder was slow. His movements were awkward. He was less than he had been.
     Pike sat at the water's edge with a sense of emptiness. He told himself that he would work harder, that he would heal the damage that had been done, and recreate himself as he had recreated himself when he was a child. Effort was prayer; commitment was faith; trust in himself his only creed. Pike had learned these catechisms when he was a child. He had nothing else.
     That night he slept beneath a plastic sheet, listened to rain leak through the trees as he considered the bear.
     The next morning, Pike began. 

*

     The Alaskan brown bear is the largest predator living on land. It is larger than the African lion or Bengal tiger. It is not named Smokey or Pooh, nor does it live a happy-go-lucky life at Disneyland playing the banjo. The male bear, called a boar, can weigh a thousand pounds, yet slip through the wilderness in absolute silence. The bear appears fat with its barrel-shaped body, but it can accelerate faster than a thoroughbred racehorse to chase down a running deer. Its claws reach a length of six inches and are as sharp as plank spikes; its jaws can crush a moose's spine or rip a car door from its hinges. When the brown bear charges, it does not lumber forward on its hind legs as portrayed in movies; it crouches low to the ground with its head down, lips pulled high in a snarl as it scuttles forward with the speed of an attacking lion. It kills by crushing the neck or biting through the braincase. If you protect your neck and head, the bear will strip the flesh from your back and legs even as you scream, swallowing whole chunks without chewing until it reaches your entrails. The ancient Romans staged fights in their blood pits between Ural Mountain grizzly bears and African lions. The Romans would set two lions against a single bear. The bear usually won. Like the great white shark that glides without fear through the depths, the brown bear has no peer on land.
     Pike heard what happened up Chaik Creek from a boat captain he met in Petersburg: Three Department of Fish & Game biologists had ventured up Chaik Creek to conduct a population count of spawning salmon. On their first day, the biologists reported a high number of brown bears, which was typical for the spawning season and not unexpected. The biologists were not heard from again until a garbled plea was received by a passing boat four days later. Officials from F&G working with local Tlginlit trappers determined that a mature boar stalked the three biologists for some distance along the creek, then attacked when the trio stopped to build a fish trap. Though armed with high-power rifles, the ferocity of the attack prevented the team from using their weapons. Two of the team members--Dr. Abigail Martin, the senior biologist, and Clark Aimes, a wildlife supervisor--were killed immediately. The third biologist, a graduate student from Seattle named Jacob Gottman, fled. The boar--estimated by the depth and breadth of its track at weighing better than eleven hundred pounds--pursued Gottman to a gravel bar downstream where it disemboweled the young man, tore off his right arm at the elbow, and pushed his body beneath the uprooted base of a fallen alder tree. Gottman was still alive. When the bear returned to the original attack site to devour Martin and Aimes, Gottman made his way downstream to Chaik Bay where he called for help on a small walkie-talkie. One of his last pleas was heard by the fifty-foot salmon boat, Emydon. Gottman bled to death before he was reached.
     "It had to be a mercy." The captain stared into his beer. "Jesus, it had to be a mercy. They said his guts trailed behind him like a garden hose."
     Pike nodded without comment. He had seen worse done to men by other men, but he did not say that.
     The captain explained that tests on their remains indicated that the bear was rabid. Fish & Game sent two teams of trackers to hunt it down, but neither team was successful. Jacob Gottman's parents put up a bounty. A Tlinglit trapper from Angoon went in to find the bear, but didn't come back. The Gottmans doubled their bounty. The trapper's brother and father-in-law spent two weeks along the creek, but had found only one sign: the single largest print that either had ever seen, with claw marks the size of hunting knives. They had felt him in there, they said; felt the dark deadly weight of him like a shadow in the trees, but they never saw the bear. It was as if he were hanging back. Waiting.
     Pike said, "Waiting."
     "That's what they said, yeah."
     That evening Pike phoned a man in Los Angeles. Two days later Pike's rifle arrived. He set out for Angoon.

*

     Wilderness swallowed him. Trees as old as the land pushed from the earth to vanish into a canopy of green. Rain leaked through their leaves in an unwavering drizzle that left Pike wet to the bone. The steep sides of the creek were so tangled with ferns, saplings, and the clawed stalks of devilthorn that he slipped into the water and waded. Pike loved this wild place.
     The others had come earlier in the spawning cycle when the creek was filled with fish. Now, dead salmon littered the gravel bars and hung from roots like rotten drapes. Easy meals weren't so easy. Pike reasoned that the mad boar would have driven away the cubs, sows, and smaller boars to keep the remaining fish for himself.
     Pike hiked for the rest of the day but found nothing. That night he returned to his camp. Pike hunted like that for five days, each day working farther upstream. He paused often to rest. The scars in his lungs made breathing painful.
     On the sixth day, he found the blood.
     Pike slipped around the uprooted base of a fallen alder and saw streamers of crimson like spilled paint splashed on a gravel bar. A dozen dog salmon had been scooped from the water, their torn flesh bright with fresh blood. Some were bitten in half, others were absent their braincase. Pike froze, absolutely still. He searched the devilthorn for eyes that stared into his own, but found nothing. He took a butane lighter from his pocket and watched the flame. The wind blew downstream. Anything upstream could not smell him coming.
     Pike crept to the gravel bar. Tracks as wide as dinner plates were pressed into the mud showing claw marks as long as daggers.
     Pike hefted his rifle to settle his grip. If the boar charged, Pike would have to bring up the rifle fast or eleven hundred pounds of furious insanity would be on him. A year ago he would have had no doubts about his ability to do it. Pike released the safety. The world was not certain; the only certainty was within you.
     Pike waded upstream.
     The creek turned sharply. Pike's view ahead was blocked by a fallen hemlock, its great ball of roots spread like a towering lace fan. Pike heard a heavy splash beyond the deadfall. The splash came again; not the quick slap of a jumping fish, but something large pushing through water.
     Pike strained to see through breaks in the deadfall, but the tangle of roots and leaves and limbs was too thick.
     More splashes came from only a few feet away. Red flesh swirled around him and bounced off his legs.
     Pike edged around the deadfall with glacial silence, careful of every step, soundless in the wild water. A dying salmon flopped on a knobby bank, its entrails exposed, but the boar was gone. Eleven hundred pounds, and it had slipped from the water into a thicket of alder and devilthorn without making a sound. A single huge paw print showed large at the edge of a trail.
     Pike stood motionless in the swirling water for a very long time. The boar could be lying in wait only ten feet away or it could be long gone. Pike climbed onto the bank. The boar's trail was littered with bones and the slime of rotting fish. Pike looked at the dying salmon again, but now it was dead.
     Pike eased into the thicket. A shroud of ferns, devilthorn, and saplings closed around him. Something large but unseeable moved ahead and to his right.
     Huff!
     Pike raised the gun, but the devilthorn clawed at the barrel and was stronger than his bad arm.
     Huff!
     The boar blew air through its mouth to taste Pike's smell. It knew that something else was in the thicket, but it didn't know what. Pike wrestled the gun to his shoulder, but could not see where to aim.
     SNAP!
     The boar snapped its jaws in warning. It was setting itself to charge.
     SNAPSNAP!
     It could split this brush like tissue; its attack might come from anywhere. Pike braced himself. He would not retreat; he would not turn away. That was the single immutable law of Joe Pike's faith--he would always meet the charge.
     SNAPSNAPSNAP!
     Pike's strength failed. His shoulder quivered, then lost feeling. His arm trembled. He willed himself to hold firm, but the rifle grew heavy and the brush pulled it down.
     SNAP!
     Pike crept backwards out of the thicket and into the water. The snapping of steel jaws faded into the patter of rain.
     Pike did not stop until he reached the bay. He pressed his back to a towering spruce and worked to bury his feelings, but he could not hide from his shame or his pain, or the certainty that he was lost.
     Two days later he returned to Los Angeles.

 

The Boy

     The headstone anchors me in the dream with a weight I cannot escape. It is a small black rectangle let into the earth, kissed red by the setting sun. I stare down at the hard marble, burning with a hunger to know who lies within the earth, but the headstone is blank. No name marks this resting place. My only clue is this: The grave is small. I am standing over a child.
     I have the dream often now, almost every night, some nights more than once. I sleep little on those nights; instead, I rise to sit in the darkness of my empty home. Even then, I am a prisoner of the dream.
     Here is what happens: The sky darkens as a mist settles across the cemetery. The twisted limbs of an ancient oak drip with moss, swaying in the night breeze. I do not know where this place is, or how I got there. I am alone, and I am scared. Shadows flicker at the edge of light; voices whisper, but I cannot understand. One shade might be my mother, another the father I never knew. I want to ask them who lies in this grave, but when I turn for their help I find only darkness. No one remains to ask, no one to help. I am on my own.
     The nameless headstone waits for me.
     What lies here?
     Who has left this child alone?
     I am desperate to escape this place. I want to beat feet, boogie, truck, book, haul ass, motor, shred, jet, jam, split, cut out, blow, roll, abandon, get away, get gone, scram, RUN . . . but in the strange way of dreams a shovel appears in my hands. My feet will not move, my body will not obey. A voice in my head tells me to throw the blade aside, but a power I cannot resist forces my hand: If I dig, I will find; if I find, I will know. The voice pleads with me to stop, but I am possessed. The voice warns that I will not want to see the secrets that lie below, but I dig deep and true to expose the grave.
     The black earth opens.
     The casket is revealed.
     The voice shrieks for me to stop, to look away, to save myself, and so I clench my eyes. I have recognized the voice. It is my own.
     I fear what lies at my feet, but I have no choice. I must see the truth.
     My eyes open.
     I look.

#

1.

A silence filled the canyon below my house that fall; no hawks floated overhead, the coyotes did not sing, the owl that lived in the tall pine outside my door no longer asked my name. A smarter person would have taken these things as a warning, but the air was chill and clear in that magnified way it can be in the winter, letting me see beyond the houses sprinkled on the hillsides below and out into the great basin city of Los Angeles. On days like those when you can see so far, you often forget to look at what is right in front of you, what is next to you, what is so close that it is part of you. I should have seen the silence as a warning, but I did not.
     "How many people has she killed?"
     Grunts, curses, and the snap of punches came from the next room.
     Ben Chenier shouted, "What?"
     "How many people has she killed?"
     We were twenty feet apart, me in the kitchen and Ben in the living room, shouting at the tops of our lungs; Ben Chenier, also known as my girlfriend's ten-year-old son, and me, also known as Elvis Cole, the World's Greatest Detective and Ben's caretaker while his mother, Lucy Chenier, was away on business. This was our fifth and final day together.
     I went to the door.
     "Is there a volume control on that thing?"
     Ben was so involved with something called a Game Freak that he did not look up. You held the Game Freak like a pistol with one hand and worked the controls with the other while the action unfolded on a built-in computer screen. The salesman told me that it was a hot seller with boys ages ten to fourteen. He hadn't told me that it was louder than a shootout at rush hour.
     Ben had been playing the game since I had given it to him the day before, but I knew he wasn't enjoying himself, and that bothered me. He had hiked with me in the hills and let me teach him some of the things I knew about martial arts and had come with me to my office because he thought private investigators did more than phone deadbeat clients and clean pigeon crap off balcony rails. I had brought him to school in the mornings and home in the afternoons, and between those times we had cooked Thai food, watched Bruce Willis movies, and laughed a lot together. But now he used the game to hide from me with an absolute lack of joy. I knew why, and seeing him like that left me feeling badly, not only for him, but for my part in it. Fighting it out with Yakuza spree killers was easier than talking to boys.
     I went over and dropped onto the couch next to him.
     "We could go for a hike up on Mulholland."
     He ignored me.
     "You want to work out? I could show you another tae kwon do kata before your mom gets home."
     "Uh-uh."
     I said, "You want to talk about me and your mom?"
     I am a private investigator. My work brings me into contact with dangerous people, and early last summer that danger rolled over my shores when a murderer named Laurence Sobek threatened Lucy and Ben. Lucy was having a tough time with that, and Ben had heard our words. Lucy and Ben's father had divorced when Ben was six, and now he worried that it was happening again. We had tried to talk to him, Lucy and me, but boys--like men--find it hard to open their hearts.
     Instead of answering me, Ben thumbed the game harder and nodded toward the action on the screen.
     "Check it out. This is the Queen of Blame."
     Perfect.
     A young Asian woman with spiky hair, breasts the size of casaba melons, and an angry snarl jumped over a dumpster to face three musclebound steroid-juicers in what appeared to be a devastated urban landscape. A tiny halter barely covered her breasts, sprayed-on shorts showed her butt cheeks, and her voice growled electronically from the Game Freak's little speaker.
     "You're my toilet!"
     She let loose with a martial arts sidekick that spun the first attacker into the air.
     I said, "Some woman."
     "Uh-huh. A bad guy named Modus sold her sister into slavery, and now the Queen is going to make him pay the ultimate price."
     The Queen of Blame punched a man three times her size with left and rights so fast that her hands blurred. Blood and teeth flew everywhere.
     "Eat fist, scum!"
     I spotted a pause button on the controls, and stopped the game. Adults always wonder what to say and how to say it when they're talking with a child. You want to be wise, but all you are is a child yourself in a larger body. Nothing is ever what it seems. The things you think you know are never certain. I know that, now. I wish I didn't, but I do.
     I said, "I know that what's going on between me and your mom is scary. I just want you to know that we're going to get through this. Your mom and I love each other. We're going to be fine."
     "I know."
     "She loves you. I love you, too."
      Ben stared at the frozen screen for a little while longer, and then he looked up at me. His little-boy face was smooth and thoughtful. He wasn't stupid; his mom and dad loved him, too, but that hadn't stopped them from getting divorced.
     "Elvis?"
     "What?"
     "I had a really good time staying with you. I wish I didn't have to leave."
     "Me, too, pal. I'm glad you were here."
     Ben smiled, and I smiled back. Funny, how a moment like that could fill a man with hope. I patted his leg.
     "Here's the plan: Mom's going to get back soon. We should clean the place so she doesn't think we're pigs, then we should get the grill ready so we're good to go with dinner when she gets home. Burgers okay?"
     "Can I finish the game first? The Queen of Blame is about to find Modus."
     "Sure. How about you take her out onto the deck? She's pretty loud."
     "Okay."
     I went back into the kitchen, and Ben took the Queen and her breasts outside. Even that far away, I heard her clearly. "Your face is pizza!" Then her victim shrieked in pain.
     I should have heard more. I should have listened even harder.
     Less than three minutes later, Lucy called from her car. It was twenty-two minutes after four. I had just taken the hamburger meat from my refrigerator.
     I said, "Hey. Where are you?"
     "Long Beach. Traffic's good, so I'm making great time. How are you guys holding up?"
     Lucy Chenier was a legal commentator for a local television station. Before that, she had practiced civil law in Baton Rouge, which is what she was doing when we met. Her voice still held the hint of a French-Louisiana accent, but you had to listen closely to hear it. She had been in San Diego covering a trial.
     "We're good. I'm getting hamburgers together for dinner."
     "How's Ben?"
     "He was feeling low today, but we talked. He's better now. He misses you."
     We fell into a silence that lasted too long. Lucy had phoned every night, and we laughed well enough, but our exchanges felt incomplete though we tried to pretend they weren't. It wasn't easy being hooked up with the World's Greatest Detective.
     Finally, I said, "I missed you."
     "I missed you, too. It's been a long week. Hamburgers sound really good. Cheeseburgers. With lots of pickles."
     She sounded tired. But she also sounded as if she were smiling.
     "I think we can manage that. I got your pickle for ya right here."
     Lucy laughed. I'm the World's Funniest Detective, too.
     She said, "How can I pass up an offer like that?"
     "You want to speak with Ben? He just went outside."
     "That's all right. Tell him that I'm on my way and I love him, then tell yourself that I love you, too."
     We hung up and I went out onto the deck to pass along the good word, but the deck was empty. I went to the rail. Ben liked to play on the slope below my house and climb in the black walnut trees that grow further down the hill. More houses were nestled beyond the trees on the streets that web along the hillsides. The deepest cuts in the canyon were just beginning to purple, but the light was still good. I didn't see him.
     "Ben?"
     He didn't answer.
     "Hey, buddy! Mom called!"
     He still didn't answer.
     I checked the side of the house, then went back inside and called him again, thinking maybe he had gone to the guest room where he sleeps or the bathroom.
     "Yo, Ben! Where are you?"
     Nothing.
     I looked in the guest room and the downstairs bathroom, then went out the front door into the street. I live on a narrow private road that winds along the top of the canyon. Cars rarely pass except when my neighbors go to and from work, so it's a safe street, and great for skateboarding.
     "Ben?"
     I didn't see him. I went back inside the house.
     "Ben! That was Mom on the phone!"
     I thought that might get an answer. The Mom Threat.
     "If you're hiding, this is a problem. It's not funny."
     I went upstairs to my loft, but didn't find him. I went downstairs again to the deck.
     "BEN!"
     My nearest neighbor had two little boys, but Ben never went over without first telling me. He never went down the slope or out into the street or even into the carport without first letting me know, either. It wasn't his way. It also wasn't his way to pull a David Copperfield and disappear.
     I went back inside and phoned next door. I could see Grace Gonzales's house from my kitchen window.
     "Grace? It's Elvis next door."
     Like there might be another Elvis further up the block.
     "Hey, bud. How's it going?"
     Grace calls me bud. She used to be a stuntwoman until she married a stuntman she met falling off a twelve-story building and retired to have two boys.
     "Is Ben over there?"
     "Nope. Was he supposed to be?"
     "He was here a few minutes ago, but now he's not. I thought he might have gone to see the boys."
     Grace hesitated, and her voice lost its easygoing familiarity for something more concerned.
     "Let me ask Andrew. They could have gone downstairs without me seeing."
     Andrew was her oldest, who was eight. His younger brother, Clark, was six. Ben told me that Clark liked to eat his own snot.
     I checked the time again. Lucy had called at four twenty-two; it was now four thirty-eight. I brought the phone out onto my deck, hoping to see Ben trudging up the hill, but the hill was empty.
     Grace came back on the line.
     "Elvis?"
     "I'm here."
     "My guys haven't seen him. Let me look out front. Maybe he's in the street."
     "Thanks, Grace."
     Her voice carried clearly across the bend in the canyon that separated our homes when she called him, and then she came back on the line.
     "I can see pretty far both ways, but I don't see him. You want me to come over there and help you look?"
     "You've got your hands full with Andrew and Clark. If he shows up, will you keep him there and call me?"
     "Right away."
     I turned off the phone, and stared down into the canyon. The slope was not steep, but he could have taken a tumble or fallen from a tree. I left the phone on the deck and worked my way down the slope. My feet sank into the loose soil, and footing was poor.
     "Ben! Where in hell are you?"
     Walnut trees twisted from the hillside like gnarled fingers, their trunks gray and rough. A lone yucca tree grew in a corkscrew among the walnuts with spiky leaves like green-black starbursts. The rusted remains of a chain-link fence was partially buried by years of soil movement. The largest walnut tree pushed out of the ground beyond the fence with five heavy trunks that spread like an opening hand. I had twice climbed in the tree with Ben, and we had talked about building a tree house between the spreading trunks.
     "Ben!"
     I listened hard. I took a deep breath, exhaled, then held my breath. I heard a faraway voice.
     "BEN!"
     I imagined him further down the slope with a broken leg. Or worse.
     "I'm coming."
     I hurried.
     I followed the voice through the trees and around a bulge in the finger, certain that I would find him, but as I went over the hump I heard the voice more clearly and knew that it wasn't his. The Game Freak was waiting for me in a nest of stringy autumn grass. Ben was gone.
     I called as loudly as I could.
     "BEN!!!"
     No answer came except for the sound of my own thundering heart and the Queen's tinny voice. She had finally found Modus, a great fat giant of a man with a bullet head and pencil-point eyes. She launched kick after kick, punch after punch, screaming her vow of vengeance as the two of them fought in an endless loop through a blood-drenched room.
     "Now you die! Now you die! Now you die!"
     I held the Queen of Blame close, and hurried back up the hill.

 

time missing: 00 hours, 21 minutes  

     The sun was dropping. Shadows pooled in the deep cuts between the ridges as if the canyon was filling with ink. I left a note in the middle of the kitchen floor: STAY HERE--I'M LOOKING FOR U, then drove down through the canyon, trying to find him. 
     If Ben had sprained an ankle or twisted a knee, he might have hobbled downhill instead of making the steep climb back to my house; he might have knocked on someone's door for help; he might be limping home on his own. I told myself, sure, that had to be it. Ten year old boys don't simply vanish.
      When I reached the street that follows the drainage below my house, I parked and got out. The light was fading faster and the murk made it difficult to see. I called for him.
      "Ben?"
      If Ben had come downhill, he would have passed beside one of three houses. No one was home at the first two, but a housekeeper answered at the third. She let me look in their backyard, but watched me from the windows as if I might steal the pool toys. Nothing. I boosted myself to see over a cinder-block wall into the neighboring yards, but he wasn't there, either. I called him again.
     "Ben!"
     I went back to my car. It was all too easy and way too likely that we would miss each other; as I drove along one street, Ben might turn down another. By the time I was on that street, he could reappear behind me, but I didn't know what else to do.
     Twice I waved down passing security patrols to ask if they had seen a boy matching Ben's description. Neither had, but they took my name and number, and offered to call if they found him.
     I drove faster, trying to cover as much ground as possible before the sun set. I crossed and recrossed the same streets, winding through the canyon as if it was me who was lost and not Ben. The streets were brighter the higher I climbed, but a chill haunted the shadows. Ben was wearing a sweatshirt over jeans. It didn't seem enough.
     When I reached home, I called out again as I let myself in, but still got no answer. The note that I left was untouched, and the message counter read zero.
     I phoned the dispatch offices of the private security firms that service the canyon, including the company that owned the two cars I had already spoken to. Their cars prowled the canyons every day around the clock, and the companies' signs were posted as a warning to burglars in front of almost every house. Welcome to life in the city. I explained that a child was missing in the area and gave them Ben's description. Even though I wasn't a subscriber, they were happy to help.
      When I put down the phone, I heard the front door open and felt a spike of relief so sharp that it was painful.
     "Ben!"
     "It's me."
     Lucy came into the living room. She was wearing a black business suit over a cream top, but she was carrying the suit jacket; her pants were wrinkled from so long in the car. She was clearly tired, but she made a weak smile.
     "Hey. I don't smell hamburgers."
     It was two minutes after six. Ben had been missing for exactly one hundred minutes. It had taken Lucy exactly one hundred minutes to get home after we last spoke. It had taken me one hundred minutes to lose her son.
     Lucy saw the fear in my face. Her smile dropped.
     "What's wrong?"
     "Ben's missing."
     She glanced around as if Ben might be hiding behind the couch, giggling at the joke. She knew it wasn't a joke. She could see that I was serious.
     "What do you mean, missing?"
     Explaining felt lame, as if I was making excuses.
     "He went outside around the time you called, and now I can't find him. I called, but he didn't answer. I drove all over the canyon, looking for him, but I didn't see him. He isn't next door. I don't know where he is."
     She shook her head as if I had made a frustrating mistake, and was getting the story wrong.
     "He just left?"
     I showed her the Game Freak as if it was evidence.
     "I don't know. He was playing with this when he went out. I found it on the slope."
     Lucy stalked past me and went outside onto the deck.
     "Ben! Benjamin, you answer me! Ben!"
     "Luce, I've been calling him."
     She stalked back into the house and disappeared down the hall.
     "Ben!"
     "He's not here. I called the security patrols. I was just going to call the police."
     She came back and went right back onto the deck.
     "Damnit, Ben, you'd better answer me!"
     I stepped out behind her and took her arms. She was shaking. She turned into me, and we held each other. Her voice was small and guilty against my chest.
     "Do you think he ran away?"
     "No. No, he was fine, Luce. He was okay after we talked. He was laughing at this stupid game."
     I told her that I thought he had probably hurt himself when he was playing on the slope, then gotten lost trying to find his way back.
     "Those streets are confusing down there, the way they snake and twist. He probably just got turned around, and now he's too scared to ask someone for help; he's been warned about strangers enough. If he got on the wrong street and kept walking, he probably got farther away, and more lost. He's probably so scared right now that he hides whenever a car passes, but we'll find him. We should call the police."
     Lucy nodded against me, wanting to believe, and then she looked at the canyon. Lights from the houses were beginning to sparkle.
She said, "It's getting dark."
     That single word: Dark. It summoned every parent's greatest dread.
     I said, "Let's call. The cops will light up every house in the canyon until we find him."
     As Lucy and I stepped back into the house, the phone rang. Lucy jumped even more than me.
     "That's Ben."
     I answered the phone, but the voice on the other end didn't belong to Ben or Grace Gonzalez or the security patrols.
     A man said, "Is this Elvis Cole?"
     "Yes. Who's this?"
     The voice was cold and low.
     He said, "Five-two."
     "Who is this?"
     "You remember five-two?"
     Lucy plucked my arm, hoping that it was about Ben. I shook my head, telling her I didn't understand, but the sharp fear of bad memories was already cutting deep.
     I gripped the phone with both hands. I needed both to hang on.
     "Who is this? What are you talking about?"
     "This is payback, you bastard. This is for what you did."
     I held the phone even tighter, and heard myself shout.
     "What did I do? What are you talking about?"
     "You know what you did. I have the boy."
     The line went dead.
     Lucy plucked harder.
     "Who was it? What did they say?"
     I didn't feel her. I barely heard her. I was caught in a yellowed photo album from my own past, flipping through bright green pictures of another me, a much different me, and of young men with painted faces, hollow eyes, and the damp sour smell of fear.
     Lucy pulled harder.
     "Stop it! You're scaring me."
     "It was a man, I don't know who. He has Ben. He says he took Ben."
     Lucy grabbed my arm with both hands.
     "Ben was stolen? He was kidnapped? What did the man say? What does he want?"
     My mouth was dry. My neck cramped with painful knots.
     "He wants to punish me. For something that happened a long time ago."


   
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