excerpt one


     Frank Meyer closed his computer as the early winter darkness fell over his home in Westwood, California, not far from the UCLA campus. Westwood was an affluent area on the west side of Los Angeles, resting between Beverly Hills and Brentwood in a twine of gracious residential streets and comfortable, well-to-do homes. Frank Meyer—more surprised about it than anyone else, considering his background—lived in such a home.
     Work finished, Frank settled back in his home office, listening to his sons crash through the far side of the house like baby rhinos. They made him happy, and so did the rich scent of braising beef that promised stew or boeuf bourguignon, which he never pronounced correctly but loved to eat. Voices came from the family room, too far away to make out the program, but almost certainly the sound of a game show on television. Cindy hated the nightly news.
     Frank smiled because Cindy didn’t much care for game shows, either, but she liked the background sound of the TV when she cooked. Cindy had her ways, that was for sure, and her ways had changed his life. Here he was with a lovely home, a growing business, and a wonderful family—all of it owed to his wife.
     Frank teared up, thinking how much he owed that woman. Frank was like that, sentimental and emotional, and had always been that way. As Cindy liked to say, Frank Meyer was just a big softy, which is why she fell in love with him.
     Frank worked hard to live up to her expectations, and considered it a privilege—beginning eleven years ago when he realized he loved her and committed to re-inventing himself. He was now a successful importer of garments from Asia and Africa, which he resold to wholesale chains throughout the United States. He was forty-three years old, still fit and strong, though not so much as in the old days. Okay, well—he was getting fat, but between his business and the kids, Frank hadn’t touched the weights in years, and rarely used the treadmill. When he did, his efforts lacked the zeal that had burned fever-hot in his earlier life.
     Frank didn’t miss that life, never once, and if he sometimes missed the men with whom he had shared his earlier life, he kept those feelings to himself and did not begrudge his wife. He had re-created himself, and, by a miracle, his efforts had paid off. Cindy. The kids. The home they had made. Frank was still thinking about these changes when Cindy appeared at the door, giving him that lopsided, sexy grin.
     “Hey, bud. You hungry?”
     “Just finishing up. What am I smelling? It’s fabulous.”
     Pounding footsteps, then Little Frank, ten years old and showing the square, chunky build of his father, caught the door jam beside his mother to stop himself, stopping so fast his younger brother, Joey, six and just as square, crashed into Little Frank’s back.
     Little Frank shouted, “Meat!”
     Joey screamed, “Ketchup!”
     Cindy said, “Meat and ketchup. What could be better?”
     Frank pushed back his chair, and stood.
     “Nothing. I’m dying for meat and ketchup.”
     She rolled her eyes and turned back toward the kitchen.
     “You’ve got five, big guy. I’ll hose off these monsters. Wash up and join us.”
     The boys made exaggerated screams as they raced away, passing Ana, who appeared behind Cindy. Ana was their nanny, a nice girl who had been with them almost six months. She had bright blue eyes, high cheekbones, and was a fantastic help with the kids. Another perk of Frank’s increasing success.
     Ana said, “I’m going to feed the baby now, Cindy. You need anything?”
     “We’ve got it under control. You go ahead.”
     Ana looked in at Frank.
     “Frank? Anything I can do?”
     “I’m good, hon. Thanks. I’ll be along in a minute.”
     Frank finished putting away his paperwork, then pulled the shades before joining his family for dinner. His office, with its window facing the night time street, was now closed against the darkness. Frank Meyer had no reason to suspect that something unspeakable was about to happen.

     As Frank enjoyed dinner with his family, a black-on-black Cadillac Escalade slow-rolled onto his street from Wilshire Boulevard, the Escalade boosted earlier that day from a shopping center in Long Beach, Moon Williams swapping the plates with an identical black Escalade they found outside a gentlemen’s club in Torrance. This was their third time around the block, clocking the street for pedestrians, witnesses, and civilians in parked cars.
     This time around, the rear windows drooped like sleepy eyes, and street lights died one by one, Jamal shooting them out with a .22-caliber pellet pistol.
     Darkness followed the Escalade like a rising tide.
     Four men in the vehicle, black cut-outs in the shadowed interior, Moon driving, Moon’s boy Lil Tai riding shotgun, Jamal in back with the Russian. Moon, eyes flicking between the houses and the white boy, wasn’t sure if the foreigner was a Russian or not. What with all the Eastern Bloc assholes runnin’ around, boy coulda been Armenian, Lithuanian, or a muthuhfuckin’ Transylvanian vampire, and Moon couldn’t tell’m apart. All Moon knew, he was makin’ more cash since hookin’ up with the foreign muthuhfucka chillin’ behind him than any time in his life.
     Still, Moon didn’t like him back there, money or not. Didn’t want that creepy, glassy-eyed muthuhfucka behind him. All these months, this was the first time the fucka had come with them. Moon didn’t like that, either.
     Moon said, “You sure now, home boy? That house right there?”
     “Same as last time we passed, the one like a church.”
     Moon clocked a nice house with a steep roof and these gargoyle-lookin’ things up on the eaves. The street was wide, and lined with houses all set back on big sloping lawns. These homes, you’d find lawyers, business-people, the occasional dilettante drug dealer.
     Lil Tai twisted around to grin at the white boy.
     “How much money we gettin’ this time?”
     “Much money. Much.”
     Jamal licked his lips, makin’ a smile wide as a piano.
     “Taste the money. Feel it right on my skin, all dirty and nasty.”
     Moon said, “We getting’ that shit.”
     Moon killed the headlights and pulled into the drive, the four doors opening as soon as he cut the engine, the four of them stepping out. The Escalade’s interior lights had been removed, so nothing lit up. Only sound was Lil Tai’s eighteen pound sledge, clunking the rocker panel as he got out.
     They went directly to the front door, Jamal first, Moon going last, walking backwards to make sure no one was watching. Jamal popped the entry lights, just reached up and broke’m with his fingers, pop, pop, pop. Moon pressed a folded towel over the deadbolt to dull the sound, and Lil Tai hit that shit with the hammer as hard as he could.

     Frank and Cindy were clearing the table when a crash jolted their home as if a car had slammed through the front door. Joey was watching the Lakers in the family room and Ana was in back bathing the baby, but Little Frank had just gone up to his room. When Frank heard the crash, he believed his older son had knocked over the grandfather clock in the front entry. Little Frank had been known to climb the clock to reach the second floor landing, and, even though it was anchored for earthquake safety, Frank had warned the boys it could fall.
     Cindy startled at the noise, and Joey ran to his mother. Frank put down the plates, and was already hurrying toward the sound.
     “Frankie! Son, are you all right--?”
     They had only taken a step when four armed men rushed in, moving with the loose organization of men who had done this before.
     Frank Meyer had faced high-speed, violent entries before, and had known how to react, but those situations had been in his former life. Now, eleven years and too many long days at a desk later, Frank was behind the play.
     Four-man team. Gloves. Nine-millimeter pistols.
     First man through had average height, espresso skin, and heavy braids to his shoulders. Frank knew he was the team leader because he acted like the leader, his eyes directing the play. A shorter man followed, angry and nervous, with a black bandanna capping his head, shoulder to shoulder with a bruiser showing tight cornrows and gold in his teeth, moving like he enjoyed being big. The fourth man was a step behind, moving more like an observer than part of the action. White, and big, almost as big as the bruiser, with a bowling ball head, wide-set eyes, and thin sideburns that ran down his jaw like needles.
     Two seconds, they fanned through the rooms. A second behind, Frank realized they were a home invasion crew. He felt the buzz-rush of excitement that had always sparked through him during an engagement, then remembered he was an out-of-shape businessman with a family to protect. Frank raised his hands, shuffling sideways to place himself between the men and his wife.
     “Take what you want. Take it and leave. We won’t give you any trouble.”
     The leader came directly to Frank, holding his pistol high and sideways like an idiot in a movie, bugging his eyes to show Frank he was fierce.
     “Goddamn right, muthuhfucka. Where is it?”
     Without waiting for an answer, he slapped Frank with the pistol. Cindy shouted in panic, but Frank had been hit harder plenty of times. He waved toward his wife, trying to calm her.
     “I’m okay. It’s okay, Cin, we’re gonna be fine.”
     “Gonna be dead, you don’t do what I say!”
     He dug the pistol hard into Frank’s cheek, but Frank was watching the others. The bruiser and the smaller man split apart, the bruiser charging to the French doors to check out the back, the little guy throwing open cabinets and doors, both of them shouting and cursing. Their movements were fast. Fast into the house. Fast into Frank’s face. Fast through the house. Fast to drive the play, and loud to increase the confusion. Only the man with the strange sideburns moved slowly, floating outside the perimeter as if with a private agenda.
     Frank knew from experience it wasn’t enough to follow the play; you had to be ahead of the action to survive. Frank tried to buy himself time to catch up.
     “My wallet’s in my office. I’ve got three or four hundred dollars—“
     The leader hit Frank again.
     “You take me a fool, muthuhfuckin’ wallet?”
     “We use credit cards—“
     Hit him again. Harder.
     The man with the sideburns finally stepped out of the background, appearing at the table.
     “See the plates? More people are here. We must look for the others.”
     Frank was surprised by the accent. He thought it was Polish, but couldn’t be sure.
     The man with the accent disappeared into the kitchen just as the bruiser charged out of the family room to Cindy and Joey. He held his pistol to Cindy’s temple, shouting at Frank in his rage.
     “You want this bitch dead? You want me to put this pipe right in her mouth? You want her to suck on this?”
     The leader slapped Frank again.
     “You think he don’t mean it?”
     The bruiser suddenly backhanded Cindy with his pistol, splashing a red streamer from her cheek. Joey screamed, and Frank Meyer suddenly knew what to do.
     The man with Frank was watching the action when Frank grabbed his gun hand, rolled his wrist to lock the man’s arm, and jointed his elbow. Frank had been out of the life for years, but the moves were burned into his muscle memory from a thousand hours of training. He had to neutralize his captor, strip the weapon as he levered the man down, recover with the pistol in a combat grip, put two into the big man who had Cindy, then turn, acquire, and double-tap whoever was in his field of fire. Frank Meyer had gone automatic. The moves flowed out ahead of the play exactly as he had trained for them, and, back in the day, he could have completed the sequence in less than a second. But Frank was still fumbling with the pistol when three bullets slammed into him, the last shot hitting the heavy vertebra in Frank’s lower back, putting him down.
     Frank opened his mouth, but only a hiss escaped. Cindy and Joey screamed, and Frank fought to rise with the fierce will of the warrior he had been, but will was not enough.
     The man with the accent said, “I hear someone. In the back.”
     A shadow moved past, but Frank couldn’t see.
     The leader appeared overhead, cradling his broken arm. Huge shimmering tears dripped from his eyes and fell in slow motion like rain from his braids.
     He said, “I’m gonna get me that money.”
     He turned away toward Cindy.
     Frank’s world grew dark, and all he had left were feelings of failure and shame. He knew he was dying, exactly the way he had always thought he would die, only not here, and not now. All of that should have been behind him.
     He tried to reach for his wife, but could not.
     He wanted to touch her, but could not.
     He wanted to protect her, but had not.
     His index finger was the only part of him that moved.
     Twitching as if with a life of its own.
     His trigger finger.
     Pulling at empty air.

     Outside, with its shades drawn, the Meyer house appeared peaceful. Heavy walls muffled most of the sounds within, and traffic noise from nearby Wilshire Boulevard was loud enough to mask the rest. Those screams which could be heard might have been from a home theater, a nice Surround Sound system.
     Cars passed, some leaving home to go out for the evening, others returning home after a long day at the office.
     The dull thump of a gunshot within the house was muted and unnatural. A Lexus sedan passed, but with its windows up and an iPod playlist rocking the exquisitely engineered vehicle, the driver heard nothing. She did not slow.
     Another thump pounded within the house a few moments later, accompanied by a flash like distant lighting behind the shades.
     More flashes followed.
     Then more.

© 2010 by Robert Crais 

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