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Nine

NINE

Prologue

His boss wanted to kill him.

Julio Santos let that thought run through his mind over and over again as he watched Bernardo Adrianos finish his meal. These last few days had been challenging for Julio, trying to behave naturally, to pretend to that he was unaware that Adrianos wanted two of his bodyguards dead—Julio and Julio's partner, Ricky Calaban. Ricky was even worse at hiding his feelings. Julio had sent him outside a little while ago, afraid that he'd blow everything.

Adrianos leaned back from the table and belched. He was built like a bull. He wore his shoulder-length black hair in a ponytail. Ricky had once said that both of Adrianos's grandfathers were bald, and that Adrianos was just trying to grow out enough hair to make wigs for himself. Julio didn't know if that was true.

Adrianos was covered in tattoos, and you could see a big difference in the ones he got on the streets when he was a kid and the elaborate ones acquired after he had become wealthy—thanks to trading in drugs, whores, and similar business ventures. None of that bothered Julio. That was just giving the people what they wanted. But Adrianos had broken faith with Julio, and that was unforgivable.

Adrianos eyed Julio for a moment, and reading the look, Julio felt more certain than ever that Adrianos was wishing him dead. Maybe Adrianos had decided to kill him tonight. The irony of it made Julio smile. Adrianos narrowed his eyes, then reached into the pocket of his big, loose pants. Julio tensed, then saw that Adrianos was sticking to routine—the boss was holding a little pearl-handled knife. Adrianos opened the knife and used the tip of the blade to clean his fingernails.

Julio thought Adrianos's after-dinner manicure was a disgusting habit, but took some pleasure in knowing he would not have to witness it again. He forced himself to hide that pleasure.

Adrianos sighed. "It's not really all that great, with no one around."

No one here to kiss your ass, Julio thought, but he said, "At least you were able to get out for an evening, Mr. Adrianos."

"Fucking cops. I need to get out of L.A."

Julio made no reply.

Three days ago, when the two strangers had played the tape for him, Julio had seriously considered killing Adrianos—just blowing him away without worrying about what Adrianos's friends and business associates would do about it. The tape had been made from an illegal wiretap, the strangers told him. On it, Adrianos's voice was clearly identifiable. He bad-mouthed Julio and Ricky and said that he was unhappy about the number of close calls he had experienced lately.

Julio's pride had been wounded. Adrianos had a temper that led him to behave recklessly, and he tended to get involved in matters that should have been left to others to handle—that sort of thing was exactly the kind of trouble that had put Adrianos on the FBI's most wanted list. If there had been close calls, the close calls were his own damned fault. Typically, though, Adrianos was shifting the blame.

The caller, whose voice Julio hadn't recognized, had asked Adrianos if he wanted the bodyguards to work for him in some other capacity, but Adrianos turned that idea down flat. "They'd be unhappy," Adrianos said. "And they know too much. You know what will happen if the FBI gets one of those two to testify against me? They have to disappear."

The more he had heard, the angrier Julio had become. Here he had risked his damned life twenty times over for the son of a bitch, and Adrianos was talking about putting a fucking contract out on him. Ricky felt the same.

But the strangers—who spoke fluent Spanish and had cautiously approached Ricky and Julio through their families—convinced them to calm down and listen to a proposition.

An extremely generous one.

The strangers would take care of Adrianos, and privately. Julio and Ricky weren't required to do much of anything—supply a small amount of information, such as the name of this restaurant, Adrianos's favorite. Tell them the name of the wine the boss usually drank. Subtly convince Adrianos that he could enjoy a meal at the restaurant on a night when it was usually closed. It had been easy.

They didn't let him in on all their plans for Adrianos or tell him why they were going to all this trouble. They were rich—Julio knew that much. And there were more than just the two involved in it. Maybe one of them had lost a kid brother or sister to drugs, or something like that. He didn't think they were connected to the Colombians or the Russians or any part of the mob. They called themselves some stupid-ass thing—Project Nine. Yeah. Whatever the hell that meant. Some vengeance deal, he was sure.

Julio didn't care about any of it, because they were helping him to get a step ahead of Adrianos. They had already shown their good faith by buying his mother a beautiful home in Mexico, in a place where she would be safe from retribution if things went wrong. But nothing had gone wrong yet. Julio thought there was something about these guys that said they were used to getting their way, and he had confidence in them.

Julio figured they were giving Adrianos some poison in the wine tonight or something in the food. As Adrianos cleaned his nails, Julio thought he saw the first signs that the poison might be kicking in. Adrianos's movements seemed slower than usual. He wondered if it really did take his boss longer than usual to work over all ten fingers, or if his own eagerness for the poison to take effect only made it seem so.

"I gotta drain the dragon," Adrianos said, lumbering to his feet. He swayed. "Had too much to drink." He slowly looked around the empty restaurant and said, "Where is everybody?"

"You have the place to yourself tonight, Mr. Adrianos, remember?"

"Oh... yeah. That's right." Slightly slurred. He frowned, then said, "I mean, where's Ricky and—"

"Ricky's watching the alley. Everybody else is in the kitchen, having a little dinner. You told them to, remember?"

"Oh, yeah." He faltered as he took a step forward. He gave Julio a hard look. "You didn't slip something into my wine, now, did you, Julio?"

"No, sir," Julio answered truthfully. "I've been sitting here, right across from you all evening, Mr. Adrianos. And you saw the waiter open the bottle. Your other team has been in the kitchen, keeping an eye on things there."

Adrianos seemed satisfied. He walked back to the bathroom, let Julio look around in it first, and then went in. Adrianos, the fucking weirdo, always wanted someone in the bathroom with him when he was taking a leak. "Wouldn't want to be caught with my pants down, now would I?" he was fond of saying. "Any public place, one of my bodyguards comes in with me. Always."

Julio hated this duty, but he never let Adrianos see any hint of that. Adrianos wasn't as stupid as he acted, and Julio had never met anyone who was as cruel as Adrianos could be when angered. The list of things that could make Julio feel queasy was short. There hadn't been anything on that list before he met Adrianos.

"Who was that waiter?" Adrianos asked as he opened his fly.

Julio prepared to out-and-out lie to his boss for the first time in the ten years he had worked for him. "The regular staff knows you, sir. We didn't want anyone to say they had seen you here. So—"

But he didn't have to finish the lie after all. Adrianos staggered, then fell face forward into the urinal, his jaw and forehead striking the chrome and porcelain with a loud crack. He didn't move.

Julio didn't either. Even though Adrianos had betrayed his trust, Julio didn't feel good about betraying Adrianos's in return. Julio considered himself to be a man of honor. He kind of thought of himself as a knight who had taken an oath to protect Adrianos, and here was his liege lord—lying facedown in the piss pan. Julio was surprised to find that his stomach was a little upset.

He heard a sound and whirled, his .45 out and aimed as the restroom door opened. A young man stepped in, his black boots loud on the tiled floor. He seemed oblivious of the weapon. Julio had seen him before, although he didn't know his name. Part of their agreement was that Julio would not learn his name. Julio reholstered the gun, one of two he wore during almost any waking hour. He had other means of attacking or defending as need be. This was no time to start being careless.

The young man had changed out of the clothes he had worn when pretending to be Adrianos's waiter this evening. The athletic shoes had been replaced by the boots, which made him seem even taller—Julio thought he might be six five or so in his stocking feet. The apron and white dress shirt had given way to a finely tailored black sports coat, long-sleeved silk turtleneck, and a pair of jeans. Easier now to see how muscular he was—playing the role of waiter, he had slouched and behaved subserviently, while now there was nothing of the servant in him, either in looks or posture.

Julio believed that under other circumstances, he would have been able to spot this man as a threat. How had Adrianos failed to notice that the hands of his waiter were so large and powerful? He was probably about five years younger than Julio, so somewhere in his mid-twenties. Julio assessed him with a certain professional detachment, wondering if he could take him. He told himself he could but acknowledged that it would be experience that made the difference.

The kid had dark hair and a handsome, almost angelic face—until you looked into his eyes. How had Adrianos failed to noticed those eyes? Unless Julio missed his guess, this guy enjoyed his work.

He started thinking of the man as "the mechanic." It didn't help his stomach to settle.

The mechanic studied Adrianos. He said, "Thank you," without looking up at Julio.

"No problem," Julio said.

The mechanic pulled Adrianos away from the urinal and rolled him over on to his back. Adrianos was a big man, weighing about two-hundred-and-fifty pounds, but the mechanic didn't seem to have any trouble moving him. He didn't ask for help and Julio didn't offer it.

"We've taken care of Mr. Adrianos's other friends," he said. "Except Ricky, of course. He left half an hour ago. One of my team members is waiting in the van in the alley outside. He'll drive you to your next job."

"Ricky's gone?"

The mechanic looked up at him. "Is that a problem?"

"No, sir." There really wasn't any problem. Julio didn't care what happened to the other bodyguard. Adrianos was dead, and Julio was rich. That was all that mattered. He let out a long breath. "Okay if wash my hands?"

"Of course."

As he washed up, Julio kept an eye on the other man, who seemed faintly amused by something. A phrase kept going through Julio's head: Better the devil you know...

But that was bullshit. Adrianos wasn't a better devil. Even if this was a double-cross, Julio now had a chance to survive. He was good at survival. There was no future with Adrianos. That was for damned sure. Julio looked at his former boss again, and thought about how easily this had all gone down. These new guys were planners. What were their real plans for him? A thought struck him. "The owner of the restaurant—"

"He's fine, but he's no longer the owner. You ask a lot of questions."

"Sorry." Julio dried his hands and adjusted his coat, making sure he'd be able to reach his weapons, and started to leave. He heard Adrianos groan and turned in surprise.

"No, he's not dead yet," said the mechanic. He was taking something out of his jacket.

Julio moved his hand back to the .45, then relaxed as he saw that the mechanic had removed a little leather pouch with a syringe and a small vial in it.

The mechanic filled the syringe, then stabbed it into Adrianos's neck. He removed the needle without putting pressure on the plunger, and stabbed it in again.

When he did this a third time, Julio said, "Trouble finding a vein?"

He looked up at Julio and smiled. "You're right, of course. Better to wait until he can feel it."

Chapter One

Sunday, May 18, 1:17 pm
The Rocky Mountains, Colorado

A black-winged bird swooped past Kit's left shoulder, and he shied away from it, crouching down low, half losing his balance. The heavy bundle he carried fell from his arms, landing on the leaf-strewn path with a soft thud. This seemed to him another ill omen, and he quickly and silently apologized to the canvas-wrapped form. He cowered there for a moment, cringing as the raven circled back—but the bird flew higher this time and soon was gone from sight. He waited in vain for his fear to follow it.

What did it mean, a raven coming so close to him?

Make sense, he warned himself. Don't think crazy thoughts about birds.

But fear proved tenacious, and his mind caromed though a maze of remembered terrors. He began shaking.

He made a determined effort to steer his thoughts toward the logical. The raven was a bird, not a supernatural creature. The raven had been attracted to the burden Kit carried into the woods.

You are not a boy, he told himself. You are a twenty-six-year-old man. Don't act like a child.

He told himself it was the chill of the autumn air that made him feel cold—not his dread, not his superstition. Not that he had dreamed the digging dream just last night.

A beetle moved over the canvas, and he brushed it away, then gently lifted the bundle again. "I'm sorry," he said once more and continued into the woods.

When he was first deciding on a place for the burial, Kit had thought of one with a view. But no one knew better than he did that killers often buried their victims in such places, and so he had searched for a location only he could find again, where the markers would not be so obvious to anyone else.

When he came to the chosen site, he carefully set the bundle aside and steeled himself for the next chore.

The digging.

The ground was not as hard here as in other places in the woods, but he found this task so difficult to begin, he nearly decided to choose some other way. A glance at the canvas bundle brought back his resolve—the other choices were not fitting.

Inside his leather gloves, his hands were slick with perspiration. He took hold of the small spade. The grating ring of its first stab into the earth made him dizzy, but again he took himself to task. He looked at the hard muscles of his arms, his large hands, his booted feet. He fitted his strength into a harness of remembered movement—thrust and step and lift and swing, thrust and step and lift and swing—settling into a rhythm divorced from thought, a familiar cadence that lulled him into the mindless completion of his work.

Still, he was weeping by the time he settled the small body into its resting place, and wept as he covered it. He placed a layer of stones within the grave when it was half-filled, to discourage scavengers. This he covered with soil. When he finished, he gathered leaves and spread them over the surface, so that it blended in with its surroundings. He stood back and looked at the grave from several different angles. When he felt confident that it was unlikely to be found, even by someone who was looking for it, he packed the spade away.

He had a kind of expertise in burial.

As he reached the ridge, he saw smoke coming from the cabin's chimney. He began running.

Spooky had found the matches.

Chapter Two

Lakewood, California
Sunday, May 18, 9:45 pm

Homicide Detective Ciara Morton grinned at the nude male body hanging upside down over the bathtub. "I love it when somebody else does my work for me," she said.

Alex Brandon took his gaze from the dangling carcass and glanced at his partner. Here was Morton, standing in this hot, fetid, crowded bathroom, smiling over the dead man, while the sheriff's department rookie who had found the corpse was getting sick on the front lawn. He shook his head. "Wrong, Ciara. Somebody else just made more work for us."

"Taking Bernardo Adrianos out of commission?" she said. "You're right. Should have called the pound for a dead animal pickup, not us."

He ignored the laugh that brought from the coroner's assistant who was standing in the hallway and went back to contemplating the scene before him, wishing he could hold his breath longer. The acrid, sour smell of aging blood thickened the air.

The vacant house, on a street lined with similar small 1950s-era homes, was located in Lakewood, one of several area cities policed by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Neighbors had called the LASD to complain about the stench.

Alex rubbed a hand along the back of his neck, trying to loosen the tension there. Unlike Ciara, he found nothing to celebrate in the scene before them. Alex had spent weeks hungering for the chance to bring Adrianos to justice, but he felt no satisfaction in discovering that Adrianos's other enemies had caught up with the drug trafficker first. In fact, it was a letdown.

For a brief moment, he allowed himself to imagine what it might have been like to be working this case not with brusque Ciara Morton, but with his previous partner, J.D. Dodson. After more than a decade of working together, J.D. and Alex would have gone about this work totally attuned to one another, without stepping on each other's toes—or those of anyone else working on the case. He knew nothing good would come of such thoughts, though, and he focused again on the scene before him.

Alex looked up at the small sliding glass window above the tub. Didn't seem as if much air was coming in through it. At least it was open now. Those who had arrived earlier at the scene had been forced to wait until the crime lab and coroner got information they needed on the temperature of the body and room—and for the window latch to be dusted for prints—before opening it. The heat and stench must have been nearly unbearable.

He heard the rumble of the gasoline generator the crime lab had brought with them—the only source of power. The hot, bright portable lights reflected off the white tiles of the bathroom, casting harsh shadows over the macabre stage before him.

The average human body holds just over a gallon of blood, and Alex figured most of Bernardo Adrianos's gallon lay in the cloudy, putrefying layer in the bottom of the tub. Adrianos's long ponytail rose from it like a wick to his head. His face was battered and nearly unrecognizable. All along his heavily tattooed body, dried rivulets of blood from a multitude of small cuts overlay the artwork on Adrianos's skin. Some of the black lines on his skin were moving. Ants, Alex realized. The flies weren't dining alone.

Enrique Marquez, one of the homicide detectives who had originally caught the call, stood on the other side of Alex. Marquez had noticed that the tattoos on the victim's arms matched ones he had seen in a department bulletin. "He's the one who murdered your witness, about three months ago, right?" he said.

"Yes, he's the one," Alex said, trying not to think of that other scene, trying to concentrate on this one.

Ciara wasn't going to let it go, though. "Our witness? No, Marquez, he killed our witness, the witness's wife, the witness's two-year-old son, and the witness's four-year-old daughter. Adrianos didn't go easy on any of them. I mean, he could have beaten the murder rap and kept the heroin coming in over the border without touching those kids, right? Two and four. That was the first case Alex and I worked together. You're lucky you didn't walk in on that one, Marquez. Alex here hasn't been sleeping well since."

Marquez shifted uncomfortably and glanced at Alex.

"That's true," Alex said calmly, hiding his irritation. His anger at the loss of the witness, his sense of defeat, were nothing compared to what he had felt when he found the children. Alex had followed a trail of blood outside the witness's house to a metal garbage can. Adrianos had crammed the small bodies of the children into it.

"You saw the mirror?" Marquez asked.

Alex turned to look again at the mirror over the sink. Mixed with his own reflection, he saw the large numeral painted in blood:

9

The single curving stroke was neat and even.

"Any idea what that's about?" Marquez asked.

"Not offhand. You find what it was painted with?" Alex asked. "A brush? A cloth? A glove?"

"No, not yet. Looks like a brush, though. The lab's going to take a sample to see if it's the victim's blood."

"Don't call him a victim, Marquez," Ciara said.

"The owners of the house moved out of here over a year ago?" Alex asked quickly, hoping to head off an argument. He turned back toward the body.

"Yes," Marquez said, "but the coroner doesn't think the vic—uh, the body's been here more than a couple of days. Not enough insect progress, and after a while, the body would have pulled apart. It's already stretched out a little."

"Blood in the tub is still liquid, though," Alex said. "After two hot days, wouldn't it be more congealed?"

"Coroner wondered about that, too. He found a puncture wound here." Marquez carefully leaned over and pointed with gloved finger to a bruised place on Adrianos's left arm. "He the thinks the killer used an IV anticoagulant."

Alex grimaced. "Injected something into Adrianos so that he'd bleed to death faster?"

"All guesswork right now, but the coroner says these wounds don't seem to be all that deep or in vital places. No spray from arterial wounds, for example. But none of these little wounds ever clotted, like they normally would have."

"So if this drug was used on him, it made him into something like a hemophiliac?" Ciara asked.

"I think so," Marquez said. "No definite answers until toxicology does some tests."

"Great," she said. "Judging by their current backlog, we won't have a report in my lifetime."

"It might take weeks," Alex agreed. "But I think we'll be able to move this one to the front of the line."

"Dream on—they'll know this one is an AVA and no one will be in a rush."

AVA—asshole versus asshole. Alex didn't think she had that right, though. That type of killing wouldn't have been staged so elaborately—and there could be no doubt that this was a dramatic production. But who was the intended audience?

"You find his clothes anywhere around here?" he asked Marquez.

"No sign of them."

"You checked the whole house?" Ciara said.

Seeing Marquez bristle at the insult, Alex said, "Don't jump to conclusions, Ciara—Adrianos could have arrived here in his birthday suit. Maybe we couldn't find him because he's been hiding out at a nudist colony."

"Talk about nothing to hide," she said, staring pointedly at the dead man's genitals.

Adrianos had been stripped and bound. The thick rag stuffed in his mouth further distorted his face. His arms were securely tied behind him, and a taut line of black rope extended from there to his ankles, which were also tied together. From there the rope looped from between his ankles into two cleanly cut holes in the ceiling above the tub.

"It's a rappelling rope," Alex said, as he briefly studied the uppermost knot, a figure-eight.

"You think a rock climber did this?" Ciara asked.

Alex hesitated. "Could be."

"Maybe a sailor," Marquez said.

"Alex is a climber," Ciara said. "He knows a rappelling rope when he sees one."

Marquez looked to Alex, but Alex was looking up at the place where the rope disappeared into the ceiling. "Rope goes up over a beam," Marquez said. "Wraps around it a few times. The access to the attic is just outside this room, in the hall. I took a look, thinking there might be prints in the dust, but the attic has been vacuumed between here and the access."

"Vacuumed?" Ciara said in disbelief.

"Yes, vacuumed," Marquez said. "This wasn't a spur-of-the-moment killing."

"No shit," she said. "Brilliant observation."

Marquez sighed in exasperation, then turned to Brandon and said, "I'll be out front if you need me, Alex."

"Nice going, Ciara," Alex said when Marquez was out of earshot.

"Fuck him if he can't take a joke."

"Let's go outside," he said. "I could use some air."

Chapter Three

Lakewood, California
Sunday, May 18, 10:08 pm

He walked toward the back of the house, wondering if she would follow him. He figured he had a fifty-fifty chance of being ignored. But he heard her footsteps behind him. The back door was open, and he went out without touching it, even though the lab had already dusted for prints. This had been the point of entry, they had been told. A piece of cake for anyone with even the most basic burglary skills.

He saw that no one was in the yard, stepped out into the center of it, and took a deep breath. It would take a while to stop smelling the sour blood smell, but he was glad to be out of the close quarters of the bathroom. And although the evening was warm, it felt twenty degrees cooler outside.

He thought for a moment about killers who tortured their victims, who swept up—no, vacuumed—and generally left crime scenes too clean. He didn't like any of it, hated what his experience told him—this wasn't a one-time foray into murder. This was the work of a planner. What else had been planned? Already completed?

The climbing rope. That especially disturbed him. He wondered if it disturbed him because he had a climber's regard for such rope, or if he was not paying enough attention to his gut instinct. This scene had immediately reminded him of another, long-ago series of murders.

He cut off that line of thinking. Impossible that it was the same killer.

He turned to look at Ciara. She held her chin up, and in the wash of moonlight on her face, he could see the defiant set of her mouth. Her arms were crossed over her chest. She was tall and dark-haired, in her mid-forties—six or seven years older than he, but with less time in the department.

He thought again of J.D., who had been dead for almost a year now. What a contrast this new partner made to that old man.

Then again, he supposed, by appearance Alex and J.D. themselves could hardly have been more different. When they had first teamed up twelve years ago, Alex—with only seven years in the department—had been the youngest of the one hundred ten detectives in the LASD Homicide Bureau. J.D. was one of the oldest.

J.D. was an overweight, chain-smoking, hard-drinking black man who had grown up in Compton. His nose had been broken at least twice, and a thick scar gave an odd bend to the end of his left eyebrow. He had been the first person in his family to go to college. He hated heights.

Alex was muscular and athletic, blue-eyed and white. He worked out almost daily, had never smoked, and drank little. He was the first person in the Brandon family to attend what his brother called "a mere state university"—rather than an Ivy League school, or USC, or Stanford. He had spent most of his childhood in Malibu and Bel Air, and loved rock climbing. For a brief time, some of the other detectives had referred to the team as "J.D. and G.Q." Somehow J.D. had put a stop to that. Probably, Alex thought, with a single look.

Whatever their apparent differences, they were a solid team. Alex's uncle, a longtime member of the department—his inspiration for joining it—had taught him a great deal about law enforcement, but J.D. took that education to another level.

J.D.'s coolheaded, deceptively easygoing approach appealed to Alex. Walking into the midst of a horrific crime scene, J.D. would light up a cigarette and say, "Let's not get excited." Calmly, he'd put the pieces together as only he could. He would sit down in an interrogation room with the most hardened killer, look him straight in the eye, and say, with seeming sincerity, "I understand completely why you did it. Let's talk." He had obtained more confessions than anyone else in the department, and never by using anything but his presence, his mind—and something he called "the knack."

He was brilliant in almost every way except in his care of himself. He had died of a massive coronary. Alex had wept more at J.D.'s funeral than he had at his own father's. And gone to back to work with a vengeance.

Ciara was the only detective in Homicide who had a clearance rate anywhere near Alex's own. About sixty-eight percent of her cases had been cleared to the point of highly probable suspects named or in custody. For someone as new to detectives as she was, that was incredible.

He had to admit being impressed by that—he had been in the homicide bureau much longer than Ciara, but she obviously had the knack, too.

Three months ago, his captain had asked him to take her on as a partner, and he had agreed. Every now and then, he saw how much it bothered her to answer to someone younger, but even though they had their ups and downs, for the most part, they got along fine. He just wished she'd learn the proverb about catching more flies with honey than vinegar. He was her last chance, after all—Alex was the only person in Homicide who was willing to be her partner. Behind her back, most of the others referred to her as B.B. Queen. The B.B. stood for Ball Buster.

The few other women in the homicide bureau liked her less than the men did.

Watching her now, he thought dispassionately that she was the kind of woman more likely to be described as handsome than pretty. She worked hard to keep in shape, and even her worst enemies among the males in the homicide bureau eyed her with appreciation when she walked down the halls. Thinking of them, he said, "You tired of working with me?"

"How can you even ask such a stupid question?"

"Marquez goes back and tells the captain what you said in there within earshot of a coroner's assistant and a lab tech, what do you think is going to happen?"

"The captain's not going to transfer me out of Homicide. My clearance rate is too high," she said, but her voice betrayed her lack of certainty.

He stayed silent. She knew as well as he did that success in closing cases might not be enough to keep her from being transferred.

"Aw, come on, Alex. I'll go out and apologize to Marquez on the front lawn at the top of my lungs if you want me to."

"No, let him cool off. And aim for something less dramatic and more sincere."

"You could be right. Maybe after he hangs out there with that puking kid for a while, I won't look so bad."

"I feel sorry for that rookie. Lab tech really chewed him out."

"Serves him right. Maybe next time he'll go outside to hurl. The stupid bastard used the crapper and flushed it. God knows what evidence is out in the sewer lines now."

"I don't think these guys were careless enough to leave evidence in the toilet."

"No . . ." She unfolded her arms, and he watched her expression change from annoyance to concentration. "You said 'guys'—plural. More than one killer?"

"Probably. Wouldn't be easy for one man to get past Adrianos's bodyguards and subdue a guy like him. Adrianos never had fewer than two men guarding him. And it's unlikely one man could hoist someone of Adrianos's size up over the tub. If there had been a pulley or other device—"

"We should ask Marquez if there was one in the attic."

Alex didn't say anything.

She sighed. "I'll go out there and apologize to him."

He shrugged. "Like I said, give him a minute to cool off. You've been riding his ass since we got here."

"He'll live," she said absently. Her brows were drawn together. "So, which of Bernardo Adrianos competitors took care of him before we could?"

"Maybe it wasn't his competition."

"Come on, Alex. Guys like Adrianos are never safe. I'm betting someone wanted a piece of his lucrative import business."

"Another drug dealer? I don't know. Dealers at his level have hit men at their beck and call. A pro probably would have downed him with one shot and left him where we never would have found him. Whoever killed Adrianos wanted him to be found."

Alex saw the beam of a flashlight at the backdoor, and a slender young woman stepped onto the porch. She was wearing a crime lab jacket. She nodded toward them, then crouched down to take photographs of the door frame.

"What are you doing?" Ciara called to her.

The tech explained that there were tool marks on it that might be useful. "Unless this place has been robbed before," she said.

Ciara turned back to Alex. "So if this isn't drug lord warfare, what other possibilities are there?"

"I don't know." He hesitated, then said, "It reminds me a little of the way Jerome Naughton used to work."

"Who?"

"About a dozen years ago. One of my first cases in detectives. I was looking for him because J.D. and I were fairly sure he'd murdered his wife. Later, we learned we were right, although we never found her body."

"Before my time, I guess," she said, a little stiffly.

"Before you were in detectives, anyway. Thing that makes me think about Naughton is that he'd hang his victims upside down like this—kind of like a hunter hangs a deer—over a hook above a bathtub. He usually chose abandoned properties or ones that had been vacant for a while."

"You said his name was Naughton?"

"Yes—but this is not as much like his work as it sounds. For one thing, his victims were always women, and he wasn't so neat about the blood. In fact, his scenes always had blood all over the place. Supposedly, that was part of the thrill for him. So that doesn't fit. And I don't think he used that trick of drilling holes and tying the rope over the beam."

"Starting to sound like there's not so much in common after all. But we should check this Naughton guy out. Any idea where he is now?"

"Dead. His fourteen-year-old stepson killed him. Long story, but some people thought the kid might have been Naughton's accomplice. I'm not sure I agree with them, but no one ever had a chance to really question him at length." An image of the boy came into his mind—a handsome face beneath old bruises; thin, but strong, with jet-black hair and large, haunted gray eyes. He didn't think he'd ever forget that kid's eyes.

"Why not?" Ciara was saying. "No—let me guess—he's dead, too?"

"No, not as far as I know. He wasn't questioned, because his grandmother was Elizabeth Logan. She had been looking for him for years."

Ciara gave him a blank look.

"Logan Cosmetics?" he said.

"Oh. Big money."

"That's an understatement. Elizabeth Logan made money and married money. Probably aren't fifty people in Los Angeles that have as much money as the Logans—if there are that many."

"You'd know more about that than I do, Mr. Silver Spoon."

Alex had long ago learned that there were those who would never forgive him for growing up among the wealthy—no matter what had changed since then or how little he regretted the loss of that world. It was a prejudice that wasn't worth complaining about—but one he'd prefer not to find in a partner.

"Ah, shit, Alex, don't take offense."

He stayed silent.

"I'm sorry, all right?" she said.

"Sure." He watched as the lab tech began to remove the strike plate from the door.

"So Elizabeth Logan took care of her grandson?" Ciara asked, drawing his attention back to her.

"Yes—listen, there really isn't much in common with the Naughton cases. His victims were always women, and there was never any evidence that the kid participated in the killings."

"But he murdered his stepfather," Ciara said.

"Self-defense, or damned close to it. In all likelihood, it was exactly the way the D. A. decided it was—Naughton terrorized the boy, made his life a living hell—even killed the boy's mother right in front of him. The kid killed Naughton because he believed that was the only way he'd ever get away from him. The sad thing is, he was probably right. Nothing more to it. Otherwise, he would have been brought to trial—money or no money. And as far as I know, the boy has never been in any trouble since."

"But you're going to try to find out what he's been up to lately."

He smiled. "I might."

"Personally, I think it's way too big a stretch. You haven't heard anything about this kid for a decade, and if this was his sort of gig, he'd have been in trouble before now, right?"

"Most likely."

"Face it, Alex, this is probably a job done by a pro, a guy who picked his killing spot carefully and was not impulsive. Adrianos pissed off the wrong people, and that's all there is to it. As for the method—maybe his enemies hired someone new to the trade who enjoys his work."

"Christ, I hope not."

"What do you think that nine on the mirror is all about?" she asked.

"Hell if I know. But that's another thing that doesn't seem to fit if this is just drug dealer versus drug dealer. What kind of message is the number nine? And who's supposed to get the message?"

"His business associates. Someone is using this to say they're all working for new management. Which reminds me, Alex—I wonder where his bodyguards are?"

"Probably welcoming Bernardo to hell."

"Shit. I guess that means we'll get called out to some other spoiled meat scene one of these days. Probably closer to Adrianos's home ground than Lakewood. With any luck, maybe the LAPD will catch it instead of Sheriff's."

"Might be on television then," Alex said, and she laughed.

The sheriff's department seldom got the media attention given to the Los Angeles Police Department. Alex didn't think that was necessarily a bad thing.

"Well," she said, "even if the bodyguards do drop dead inside L.A. city limits instead of somewhere within our jurisdiction, we've got the big news here."

"Something tells me I'll soon wish he had been found in L.A., too."

He watched as the tech began to put away her camera and tools.

"I don't suppose we can hope for latent prints?" Alex asked.

The tech shook her head. "Nothing that will be of use. Because this place has been on the real estate market, we've got all kinds of prints everywhere in the house except the bathroom, the back doorknob, and the attic. Those are wiped clean. Same with footprints." She glanced at Ciara, then added, "Detective Marquez was good about preserving the scene—he let us check the hallway and bathroom floor before anyone other than the first officer on the scene stepped in there. Looks as if his are the only shoe prints on the bathroom floor. There are some others in the hall. They're odd—I think the killer wore plastic booties or something else that left an indistinct, uniform flat sole mark. Big enough to be a man's, but don't try to take that to court—that's just a S.W.A.G.—a scientific wild-assed guess."

"Any S.W.A.G. about the rope?" Ciara asked, and Alex wondered if she was setting the tech up.

"That may be our best lead yet. Sailing supply. Again, a guess. Maybe even for some other special outdoor use—rock climbing? But I don't think it's something from a hardware store."

"Unless I miss my guess," Alex said, "it's a common brand of static rope—a rope that's designed not to stretch. That type of rope is used for rappelling. You can buy them at outdoor equipment and sporting goods stores."

"You're a climber?" the tech asked, looking at him with new interest.

"Yes," Ciara said, "he's crazy. But he knows rock climbing equipment."

They were interrupted by Marquez, who came rushing out, nearly knocking the tech down. "Man, when it rains it pours. You've got a lieutenant, the FBI, and the L.A. Times on the front lawn."

"God damn it all to hell," Ciara said, hurrying past him. "I'm going to close the blinds on the bathroom window. The Times will make it a photo op."

"Did you say the FBI?" the lab tech asked. "Why would they be here?"

"Bernardo Adrianos was on their Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list," Alex said.

He was distracted by the sound of an approaching helicopter and looked up. "Shit. Not one of ours, Enrique. Television. You suppose the neighbors called them, or that knucklehead with the Feds?"

Marquez had other things on his mind. "You'd better not let B.B. Queen get anywhere near a reporter, Alex, or all our asses will be in a sling."

Chapter Four

Malibu, California
Sunday, May 18, 10:53 pm

Everett Corey finished working out in his private gymnasium at the back of his property. He poured Fiji water into a Baccarat crystal glass and eased his thirst. He was alone in his large hillside home this evening, as he most often chose to be. Solitude allowed him to be free of the inadequacies of others. No need to make the effort to ignore their failings, large and small.

He was a handsome man, the product of good-looking parents. He had no memories of his mother. When he was not quite two, she had agreed—as a condition of an otherwise generous divorce settlement—never to make contact with her only child by the marriage. His father had no photos of her and never mentioned her. When he was fifteen he learned that she had been dead for some years. He felt nothing in the way of grief and no desire to locate any of his maternal relations. Relations, he had learned from those on his father's side, were a damned nuisance to any person of substance.

Everett Corey was unmistakably his father's child. He had his father's green eyes, and his build, height, and athletic grace. His hair was golden blond, rather than the paler shade of his father's, but in other respects he closely resembled him.

Other men, Everett knew, were easily persuaded by his father. Women were charmed by him. And because of the power he held over them, his father generally held other people in contempt. Everett understood that perfectly.

Everett and his father had never been affectionate with each other, but until he reached the age of fourteen, Everett had faith that his father could and would use his charisma and wealth to shield his son from any unpleasant consequences. Everett often got into trouble as a child. He knew his father found this irritating, but to those outside their home, he never failed to present anything but the staunchest support for his boy.

Then the world changed. During the ninth grade, Everett had been expelled from school and arrested for viciously assaulting a younger boy—a boy who, in Everett's opinion, totally deserved to be beaten nearly to death—and things had not gone as smoothly as they usually did. To Everett's shock, his father had failed to get the better of Alex Brandon, the sheriff's department detective who had taken Everett into custody. His father had immediately posted bail and Everett had not served time in a common juvenile detention facility, but in retrospect, he often thought that might have been preferable to the punishment he did receive.

The compromise his father's lawyers had arranged instead was that Everett was sent away from home to live at Sedgewick, an exclusive private school in Malibu. The wealthiest families in the Los Angeles area—families in Brentwood, Malibu, Bel Air, Beverly Hills, the Pacific Palisades, and other exclusive enclaves—sent their sons there. But only—as Everett knew—if they were misfits. If you were kicked out of other schools, if you had behavior problems, if you abused drugs or were violent, you went to Sedgewick. If your parents believed you were out of control, they sent you to Sedgewick. If your family no longer wanted you under its roof, you went to Sedgewick.

He disliked the faculty and staff. He disliked the dormitory and food. He disliked the discipline.

He wrote letters home, pleading with his father to make some other arrangement. His letters went unanswered.

He was an intelligent boy who wasn't challenged by the curriculum at Sedgewick. With little else to occupy him, he began to test his own power to influence others and learned that he could exercise a remarkable amount of control over certain of the other boys. He began to be less homesick.

By the time he came home on a summer break, the rift between Everett and his father was complete. If his father was pleased, at first, to find his son's manners and behavior impeccable, he was also made aware of an unmistakable coolness beneath the civility. Invitations to play tennis or chess were courteously refused; gifts politely accepted and immediately ignored; conversational gambits deftly turned aside. If his father insisted that Everett join him, Everett complied, but his father found him a distant and distracted companion. Dinners at home became tense, silent affairs. After that first summer, Everett did not return to his father's Malibu mansion until after graduation.

His father was dying of what the world was told was cancer, but which Everett knew to be AIDS. A few weeks after graduation, the same man who had arrested Everett when he was fourteen—Alex Brandon—questioned Everett and his friend Cameron Burgess, wanting to know their whereabouts on the night Cameron's father met with violent death.

To Everett's surprise, his own father shielded him, just as he had in earlier years. His father had sworn to Detective Brandon that the young men had been with him, constantly keeping him company at his bedside.

That autumn, while playing tennis on the estate's private court, Everett was informed that his father had died. He continued to play out the set with Cameron.

The inheritance was held in trust for three years, during which its value increased steadily. On his twenty-first birthday, a little more than four years ago, Everett became a man of enormous personal wealth.

He was not as stupid as his father, he thought now, admiring the way his body looked after his evening workout. He took care of his body. He might have multiple sexual partners, but he chose them carefully and never had unprotected sex. He wondered if he might call someone for sex tonight.

He had no sooner thought this than the phone rang. He checked the caller ID display. Reluctantly, he answered.

"For your sake, Frederick, I hope this is important," he said.

"Are you watching television?"

"No. I have better things to do with my time."

"Not tonight! It's on—finally! Turn on CNN or MSNBC. Or both of them! And it's on the local news, too!"

"Do try to stay calm," Everett said lazily, and had nearly hung up when he heard the other voice say—

"Are you still leaving tonight?"

He brought the receiver back to his ear. "Is there any reason why I shouldn't?"

"No, I guess not. I just thought you'd like to see how things develop, you know—how they're covered by the media."

"I already know that they will be covered inaccurately."

"But still—you're famous now!"

"No, I'm not. And I have no desire to be. I doubt I'll ever desire something so crass," he said.

"Yes, well—bon voyage then," Frederick murmured.

"Thank you." In a more tender voice, he added, "You know I don't begrudge you your enjoyment of this, don't you?"

"Oh, no, I know you don't. But you're right—it's—it's so bourgeois, isn't it? I'm going to turn it off right now."

Everett smiled to himself and said, "No, please. Watch it. No harm in that, really. I may watch it for a moment or two myself."

They said their good-byes and hung up. He decided he couldn't fault Frederick, who was an excellent gatherer of information, for being aware of news reports.

He turned on the nearest set and stood motionless as the screen flashed the helicopter camera shots from above the house in Lakewood.

"Repeating our top story this hour, a fugitive on the FBI's most wanted list was found dead in this Lakewood home earlier this evening. The L.A. County Sheriff's Department and the FBI report that Bernardo Adrianos, a suspected drug trafficker who reputedly murdered a family of four . . ."

He hit the mute button on the remote control. "Suspected. Reputedly. Bullshit."

He pressed the record button and videotaped the segment, smiling to himself as a petite redheaded reporter approached a tall, lean, dark-haired detective. Alex Brandon. The television cameras showed that his eyes were light blue, but Corey knew they failed to capture the startling color. Until he had observed other members of the detective's family, Corey had thought the color of Alex Brandon's eyes might have been achieved with tinted contact lenses.

He wondered why Detective Ciara Morton wasn't with Brandon. Corey watched his movements with interest. A shame, really, that he was in law enforcement. The man had an air of self-possession, a presence that was wasted in this line of work.

Brandon stayed calm as the reporter shouted a question and thrust a microphone at him, but it didn't require lipreading skills to see the answer was a firm "no comment." Corey watched until Brandon was out of the frame, then switched among the channels, glad he did not have to listen to the inane comments of the newscasters.

Finally, all of the stations had moved on to other stories or were merely showing the same footage they had shown earlier. He turned the television off. He glanced at his Omega watch, placed the videotape in a hidden safe, and walked across the darkened lawn to the mansion.

Upstairs, he showered and changed into a set of clothes he had bought in Berlin last year. He changed his shoes as well, and put on a pair of dark-rimmed glasses with lenses that did nothing to change his excellent vision. He opened a drawer that contained Tag Heuer, Rolex, Raymond Weil, and other fine timepieces, including a few vintage Hamilton railroad pocket watches. He took off the Omega and replaced it with an inexpensive watch with a plastic band, which he had purchased at a shop near a German university.

He practiced a few key German phrases, not because he doubted his ability to speak the language fluently, but because it helped him to get into the role he would be playing, that of a young German student traveling before starting college. It was the identity he had created with the phony passport that was now tucked into a backpack. The backpack contained nothing that would alarm airport security personnel. The weapons he needed would be awaiting him at his destination.

He was ahead of schedule, so he went down the hallway to his favorite room in the house and unlocked the specially constructed door. Even before he was through the second door of this room-within-a-room, he felt anticipation as he heard familiar sounds from the other side of the door.

Clicking and whirring. Snapping and chiming. Buzzing and ticking. Mechanical sounds.

A motion detector turned on the lights as he entered his kingdom of mechanical devices. Many were playthings collected by his father and grandfather. The most valuable of these was an eighteenth-century automaton. The life-like mechanical boy's intricate design included a mechanism in his chest which made him appear to breathe, and gears that moved his hand, arm, and eyes as he wrote his school lessons. Everett ignored him, as he ignored clockwork tin figures, jack-in-the boxes, an antique electric train. He barely glanced at the mechanical banks —a girl skipping rope, a lion chasing a monkey up a tree, a dentist pulling a tooth. He walked past the clocks with elaborate mechanisms that marked the hours with waltzing couples, marching soldiers, and hounds chasing foxes. These objects had been built by others, long ago.

He moved to a workbench at the far end of the room. Here were projects that revealed his own ability to create mechanical things. Until recently, the most prized among these had been a large clock that worked by feeding steel balls through a series of chutes and levers and balances. There were others, devices that completed sophisticated movements at the flip of a switch.

Everett considered his mood, then pressed a series of buttons. From a pair of overhead speakers, he heard the energetic Turkish March from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. He pressed a lever, then watched the workings of the initial model of an invention of his. The full-scale version of the invention was now in place at another location, awaiting its single, glorious use.

It was not an especially complex mechanism, but he enjoyed watching it work all the same. In appearance, it seemed to be a clock attached to a closed tube containing shiny steel balls. Like a clock, it marked time. But as predetermined increments passed, it released the heavy balls one at a time. Each then rolled along a wooden pathway, toward nine wooden channels. Eight of the nine had gates across them. When the ball rolled into the open channel, copper tabs at the channel's end came into contact with it, and the metal ball acted as a bridge for an electrical current. The current would close a gate at the top of the channel, and open the gate for the next. When all nine balls were in place, they lit a small bulb.

Of course, electrical timers could do more than light bulbs.

He switched off the current on the timer, turned off the music, and smiled.

He finished locking the room and made his way toward the curving marble staircase that led to the mansion's entry hall. As he passed a small Louis XVI parquetry table, the phone on it rang. Again he checked the caller ID display. He recognized the cell phone number. He picked up the receiver and said, "I sincerely hope you aren't going to tell me anything that will displease me."

There was a pause before the voice on the other end said, "Kit has a young boy living with him."

"A child, Cameron? Living with that lunatic? Be serious."

"It's true. Not his own. Ten years old or so, I think. I didn't get close enough to see."

"You didn't harm the child?"

There was another silence. "I did only what you asked me to do. Molly's dead. He's already found her."

"And he caught a glimpse of you?"

"I made sure he did."

Everett smiled in satisfaction. "Perfect, then. As always, you are perfect. The rest will unfold as it should, boy or no boy. I'll see you at Kennedy. You'll be able to get to Denver International in time?"

"I'm almost there now."

"Excellent. In a few hours, then. And remember, we're strangers."

"Yes."

He carefully replaced the lighter and made his way to the curving marble staircase which led to the mansion's entry hall.

He checked his airline tickets. All in order, of course.

He heard the Maserati coming up the drive.

He looked at his cheap watch. Morgan was right on time.

Project Nine was in motion again.

As he set the alarm system, he thought of the clockwork boy, alone in the dark.

Nothing, he decided, could take the place of reliable friends.

© Jan Burke