CHAPTER TEN

As I climbed the stairs behind the four people from the living room, staying so far behind them I was out of sight, I was adjusting the gain and contrast knobs on the goggles. I was smack up against the limitations of the technology: I could see the four people in front of me, and I could count two more images of what should be people, faint images, merely blobs of color. In infrared, the lights in the. hallways looked like stars.

When the four people in front of me went into bedrooms — at least they looked like bedrooms, with hot water radiators for heat and attached bathrooms with hot water pipes — I looked for an empty bedroom beside them to hole up in. The building reminded me of an old hotel that had been renovated. How this architectural monstrosity survived World War II was a mystery. Maybe it was damaged and restored. I found an empty bedroom and went in.

With the door closed, I tried to find the other people who were in the house. Located three, this time. I was still diddling with the knobs when the goggles died. One second they worked, then the various heat sources faded away to nothing. Didn’t take me long to figure out that the battery was as dead as Adolf Hitler.

I sat there in the darkness cursing my luck. That didn’t do a lot of good, so I installed three stethoscope microphones so I could at least listen to the goings-on in the rooms around me and in the hallway. What I heard was two women in the bathroom.

Zetsche and his girlfriend were in the bedroom beyond the Petrous. All I could hear was murmurs, which might have been conversation or something else, such as television audio. Difficult to say. Of course, even if I did hear them, they would probably be talking in German, which wasn’t one of my languages.

I used the facilities myself, then settled down on a chair with the earphones in my ears. Without the goggles, this was the best I could do.

Before long the Petrou women fell silent. Conversation continued, still inaudible, for about an hour from the room beyond that; then it, too, faded away, leaving the big house in silence.

The night crawled along. Occasionally I heard measured footsteps— one of the bodyguards, I concluded, walking the hallways. Between footsteps there was no sound except the gentle patter of raindrops on the windowpanes. Amazing that the microphones picked that up so well.

One o’clock came and went. I tried to keep my eyes open by debating the issues. Was Marisa an assassin, was this really the line of work for me, and should I punch Jake Grafton in the nose the next chance I got? Unfortunately there were no clear answers; my eyelids got heavier and heavier and I slept.

For Marisa, nights were the worst. When the house was dark and silent her memories came flooding back, and her fears and anxieties and private hurts.

“Why won’t you tell me about my mother?” she demanded of her father during a rare visit. She had been a teenager then, thirteen or fourteen, sure that she knew the difference between right and wrong, sure of her ability to heal a broken world.

“There is nothing you need to know,” he said, in that condescending, self-righteous manner that she had grown to despise.

“I am not a child,” she retorted hotly. “Tell me the truth and I will live with it, as you do.”

“I am your father and you are still a child, a young woman. You must learn to trust my wisdom. I have made the right choice.”

“You ask for trust and yet you have none. Where is the justice and wisdom in that?” She had been tart in those days, argumentative. Her teachers even wrote notes to her putative parents, Georges and Grisella.

“I am a man and you are a woman. And I am your father.”

“What you are is a misogynist.” If he expected her to surrender, he didn’t know his daughter.

“What I am is a Muslim,” he retorted firmly. “I believe in Allah. I believe that the Prophet set forth the relationship between men and women in the holy Koran, and the relationship between father and daughter. I demand your respect and obedience to my will.”

“You may demand it, but you would be wiser to earn it.”

That was the first time she had seen him angry, out of control. “You would be wise to hold your tongue, child,” he said firmly.

For the first time in her life, she was frightened of him. The beast within had been revealed. He was like a prophet from the Old Testament, a visionary who saw only good and evil, and if you were not among the good, the obedient, then you were evil. It was in his eyes.

She saw it and remained silent.

She had seen the inner man. At that moment she knew the truth, knew him for the righteous, bigoted fanatic that he was.

Oh, her poor mother! To marry such a man! To sleep with him and have his child! And to gradually learn the truth, as she must have. It was like a nightmare from Shakespeare.

Tonight, in Wolfgang Zetsche’s house, she thought of those moments, relived them as she had many times in the years since.

“You are my daughter and will obey me,” he had said with cold steel in his voice. Yet it had been his eyes that held her mesmerized. Eyes are wonderous things: Most people use them to look out at the world, yet the eyes of her father allowed the world to look at the man within. At least, they did on those rare moments when he lost control and his face no longer obeyed his will. Then one could see the raging passions and illogical fanaticism on full display.

It had been a sobering moment for her, a glimpse of the truth at the core of her life. She didn’t know anything of her mother, except that she must have been a woman, and her father was insane. She felt as if she were an alien who had just landed on planet Earth and upon meeting the natives asked aloud, Who are these creatures?

It wasn’t long after that, Marisa reflected tonight, when her father began to discuss Islam, the holy Koran, Allah and the infidels and Paradise and all of that. Her first reaction was amazement. That a man she had known all her life and seen as a pillar of the community should believe this garbage, as he obviously did, was nothing short of astounding. It was as if her roommate had announced she believed the Grimm fairy tales were all true, every word.

Tonight as she stood at the window looking out into a black, wet universe, Marisa wondered yet again, for the ten thousandth time, about her mother. What had her mother thought when her father first told her of Islam and the jihad against the infidels?

Indeed, what had she thought?

Perhaps he killed her, Marisa mused, and not for the first time. Perhaps Mama said something, something that revealed that she didn’t share any of his beliefs or any of his passions. Perhaps the rage was more than he could handle.

I awoke with a start. The house was deathly quiet. Even the rain had stopped. I glanced at my watch, which had hands that glowed in the dark. A few minutes after three in the morning.

What had awakened me?

I listened on each earpiece — there were three.

All silent.

I removed the penlight from my pocket, made sure it was on red light, then clicked it on and shined it around the room.

I came out of the chair slowly and carefully, trying to make no noise. Went to the bathroom, eased the door closed and flipped the light switch on. The room stayed dark. No power.

Back to the door to the room. I eased the lock to the open position and opened the door as slowly and quietly as I could. The hallway was dark as a pharaoh’s tomb and just as quiet.

Standing there, listening, I let the darkness and silence creep over me as I tried to make sense of it.

The power should be on. There should be night-lights. And guards. Those two studly hunks with guns — where were they?

I stepped into the hallway and eased the door closed behind me. Pulled it until the latch began to engage, but didn’t let it click home. Taking my time, staying to the side of the hallway, I worked my way to the Petrous’ door and pressed my ear against it. Someone in there was snoring gently.

On to the next door, Zetsche’s. Couldn’t hear a thing.

Where were the guards?

I went to the head of the stairs and looked downward. It was like looking into the eternal pit. Not even a candle glowed in that vast darkness.

I went down the stairs as slowly and smoothly as I could, alert and listening and looking. And nervous. Something was really wrong… and it gave me goose bumps.

Maybe I have an overactive imagination. I can’t sit through a horror movie because it scares me too much. I’m easily overstimulated, as one former girlfriend acidly pointed out.

If the circuit breakers had popped, the emergency generator should have kicked in. If Wolfgang owned one. I was betting he did and it was in the basement. Fortunately I knew how to get there since I had come in that way. I didn’t dare show a light. If the guards were prowling around and saw a light, they might get twitchy and start shooting once they concluded that I wasn’t their employer or one of his guests. At the very least they would try to subdue me one way or another and call the local police.

Working strictly by dead reckoning and feel, I found the door to the stairway to the basement where I’d entered… and it was open.

I certainly didn’t leave it that way.

Perhaps one of the guards …

I stood there with my eyes closed, every other sense alert. A minute passed, then another.

Reached for the railing and started down.

Right then I would have given a month’s pay to have the agency-issue night vision goggles working properly and riding on my pointy little head. The problem with technology is that when you need it most, it fails you. There must be a deep philosophical lesson lurking in that truth, but I wasn’t smart enough to figure it out just then.

At the foot of the stairs I paused again to listen and feel the darkness. I had a decision to make. Unless I used the penlight, I was going to have to find the power box by feel, which might take all night and would certainly be noisy as I careened around like the proverbial bull in the china shop. It really was no decision at all — I had to use the penlight. Just in case, I pulled the little 9 mm from my waistband and checked that the safety was on. Yep. Cocked and locked.

I scanned the light quickly around the room, which I had seen on my entrance, then scanned every inch of the walls. No box. There were doorways, however, yawning blackly because the doors that would have closed them were blocked open.

Before I went exploring, I looked at the outside door that I had come through. The locks were open. I pulled the door open and saw pry marks on the jamb. The jimmy was lying right there, a tool about eight inches long with a flat end.

Whoever did this was no artist. Now I realized why the house was so quiet: The rain had turned to snow — a skiff lay on the lawn. Snowflakes sifted down even as I scanned the penlight around… and saw no footprints. My spine turned to ice; perhaps the person who jimmied the door was still inside.

After pushing the door shut, I crossed the entryway and shined the little light into the first room, trying to shield my body behind the door-jamb as I did so. Washing machines and dryers… tables for folding sheets and towels and whatnot.

The second door led to a room full of shelves bearing what appeared to be bulk food supplies, bags of flour, boxes of cans… and another door yawned in the far wall.

I moved that way, holding the flashlight away from my body, just in case someone was in there with a gun and he — or she — got twitchy. I looked into the room and saw the body.

A man … on his stomach. He was lying completely relaxed. The walls were lined with stacks of cardboard boxes; his body lay against the left stack.

The far wall had no door, merely an opening. I walked forward, the pistol in my fist leveled in front of me, my heart thudding like a triphammer. A glance at the body was enough. I rolled him over. He had been shot in the forehead.

I paused at the edge of the opening, my body as plastered against the wall as possible, and swept the little pool of light from the penlight around. No living persons were there, but there was a body lying under the gray power box mounted on the wall. This man looked dead, too. These men were, I assumed, the guards.

I didn’t enter the room, merely ensured it was empty of living people, then turned and retraced my steps back through the basement.

I didn’t dawdle, nor did I hurry. The two people Grafton sent me here to keep alive, Marisa Petrou and Wolfgang Zetsche, were upstairs and, presumably, so was the killer.

Back up the stairs I went, adrenaline pumping, my heart pounding.

Nothing in the lower hallway, but I could not afford the time to search every room. There was a small stand in the hallway. I grabbed the glass vase on it and placed it on the second stair going down into the basement. Then I headed for the stairs that led to the second floor and went up two at a time, the penlight slashing the darkness.

Outside the door to Zetsche’s bedroom, I paused. Listened at the door. Put my ear against it. Nothing. Not even a snore. Oh, man.

As silently as I could, I applied pressure to the doorknob. It rotated in my hand.

I dropped to the floor, then pushed the door open.

Something screamed and rushed me, smacked into me and ran down the hall. I almost lost it right there. In the glow of the penlight I caught a glimpse of a yellow tail disappearing down the stairs. A cat!

Looked into the room. Saw the bed, the covers, mounds in the middle. Shined the light around to see if there were any other humans there. Dressers and chairs and drapes on the windows.

There was a door standing open. Bathroom.

I looked at the covers. One person was face up … the wide, open eyes of Wolfgang Zetsche stared at me. The knife was jammed dead center in his chest. His mouth was open. His eyes weren’t tracking the light. Dead.

Beside him in the bed the woman lay facedown.

Blood everywhere. She hadn’t died instantly.

I stepped toward the bathroom, illuminating the interior with the light.

Standing there wide-eyed, white as a ghost, was Marisa Petrou. She had a gun in her hand, and it was pointing at me.

Blinded by my flashlight, she demanded harshly, “Who are you?” “Tommy Carmellini.” She wrapped both arms around her chest, the pistol apparently forgotten. The gun looked like a little Walther, not a cannon but deadly enough to do the job at close range. I grabbed it from her unresisting hand and tossed it into the bedroom.

I ran the penlight over her hands and arms, trying to see if she had blood on them, then inspected her robe, a white cotton thing that went from her neck to her ankles. I jerked her arms down and pulled the front of the robe open. She started to resist and stopped. I saw no blood, which only meant that she had no big stains. If she knifed those folks, there might be tiny droplets that a lab could find.

I turned away and went back to the bed. Touched the blood. Fresh as a flower. Still oozing around the knife.

“They’re dead,” she said without inflection. If there were ever a superfluous comment, that was it.

I grabbed a corner of the sheet and used it to keep my fingers from touching the handle. Pulled at the knife. It was really jammed in there, and apparently stuck. I headed for the hallway. Whoever had jimmied that door was probably still in the building, and I was in the mood to do some shooting.

“Wait,” she called. “Don’t leave me here.”

I ignored her. Checked the hallway, then stepped out into it and went directly to the door of the room Marisa was sharing with Isolde.

I tried the knob. Locked. Spun around and found she had followed me. Barefooted, she was quieter than the damned cat.

“Unlock it, quickly now,” I demanded. I grabbed her arm and pulled her up in front of the door.

She had the key in her pocket. She put it in the lock. I shoved her aside and opened the door.

Isolde Petrou was very much alive and sitting up in bed. “Marisa?” she asked.

I backed out. Paused to think.

If the knifeman was still in the house, he was probably downstairs. I walked along the hallway to the head of the grand staircase. Stood there in the darkness listening and looking. Couldn’t see anything … or hear anything.

I m not sure how long I stood there, trying to become one with the night and the old building.. trying to feel the presence of other human beings.

Finally I could stand inactivity no longer. I began easing my way down the staircase, one slow step at a time, pausing after every step to look and listen.

Four bodies — and Marisa standing near two of them holding a pistol. I thought it unlikely she scared off a killer with that popper she had in her hand. Did she lead the killer to Zetsche, or was she holding Zetsche at gunpoint until the killer arrived with his sticker? Or was she trying to find the knifeman to shoot at him?

I heard the cat running along the hallway below me. Then silence again.

Something scared it.

It sounded as if the cat came from behind the staircase, from the kitchen and dining room area. The Dead Zoo and parlor were in the other direction.

I gained the lower floor and stayed low, hunkered down, looking and listening. Unfortunately all the outside windows were in rooms one entered from this interior hallway, which was as black as Hitler’s heart.

Time was passing, and if the killer was out of the house and making a getaway, my sneaking around inside hunting him was going to prove unproductive, to say the least. On the other hand, acting as if he were gone when he wasn’t seemed like an excellent way to become victim number five.

I decided to give him a few more minutes. Time was riding him the hardest. For all he knew, Marisa or I had called the cops. I wondered if she had.

Something was out there in that hallway. I could feel it.

Something that moved, then stopped for a while, then moved again. Something that was as alert as I was. I could feel him…

The sound of glass breaking shattered the silence. The vase! Then another sound, a tumbling. A heavy weight, thump thump thump.

I sprinted for the door to the basement staircase. Got there with my penlight just in time to see a formless shape moving at the bottom of the stairs. The bastard had tripped over the vase and tumbled all the way to the bottom.

I rushed the first shot. The little pistol kicked viciously. The muzzle flash blinded me and the report nearly blew my eardrums out. Unable to see a damn thing, I pulled the trigger three more times as the small automatic tried to tear itself from my hand. Blind and deaf, I stopped shooting and used the light again, trying to see if there was anything still down there at the bottom of the stairs to shoot at.

I was peering into the darkness, the gunpowder smell heavy in my nostrils, when I heard a noise behind me. Started to turn, and something slammed into my head.

Stunned, I went to the floor. Dropped the penlight. In the glare I could see a white shape above me, drawing something back to whack me again. I kicked. Got her in the knee. She fell heavily. It was Marisa.

I rose, retrieved the penlight and staggered down the stairs. Glass crunched under my feet. A splash of blood in the entryway.

The door was standing open. Lying ten feet out into the snow was a man. I walked out, held the pistol ready to drill the bastard again and turned him over with my foot.

He had been hit twice. Once in the back and once in the arm. Scanned the light around… and saw a set of tracks leading away from the house. A man’s tracks, it looked like, running. So this clown I shot was number two.

I killed the light and moved to one side. Squatted, trying to make myself a small, invisible target. Nothing seemed to be moving. I looked, letting my eyes adjust, as I held the pistol in both hands, ready to shoot.

The only sound was my breathing.

Whoever he was, he was over the wall and gone, or he was out there behind a tree, waiting for a fool — me, for instance — to come looking for him. Then he would drill the searcher and leave at his convenience.

Like most folks, I have done my share of foolish things and will probably do some more dumb stuff in the future. Not this night, though. I didn’t like the odds.

I slipped over to the man lying on the white, wet ground, bent down, put the pistol against his ear and felt for a pulse in his neck. There wasn’t one.

I shined,the penlight full in his face. His mouth was half open. Lifeless eyes stared into infinity.

He might be an Arab, I thought, and young. Not over twenty-five, I would say. I took another quick look, trying to decide. Ethnic identifications are not my thing, and after all, this guy was dead. Perhaps he was an Arab. Or perhaps not.

I went back inside, leaving the door open, and mounted the stairs. Marisa was standing in the hallway. If she still had a gun, it was in her pocket. I hit her with the back of my hand and she slammed into the wall. Didn’t go down.

“You’re in this to your eyes, you fucking bitch.”

“You don’t know anything,” she hissed, then turned and ran.

I was standing there with my cell phone in my hand, holding the penlight in one hand and trying to focus on the little keypad, trying to get my breathing under control, when a man came running down the hallway. I put the light on his face.

The butler, I thought.

“What—” he began, but I cut him off.

“Herr Zetsche and his girlfriend are dead. Murdered in their bed. One of the killers is lying in the snow. Call the police.”

His mouth made a big O. I gave him a little shove in the chest. “Go, find a phone and call the police. Now!”

He went.

Jake Grafton answered on the third ring. I gave it to him as quickly and succinctly as I could.

He took a second or two to process it — no more.

“Come back to London,” he said. “Get out of Germany as quickly as you can.”

“I’ve left fingerprints all over. The local fuzz will alert every cop and county mountie between here and California.”

“I’ll call them. Leave before they arrive.” Then he hung up.

I stood there with the dead phone pressed against my ear, trying to think. He didn’t give a good goddamn if the assassin came back after Marisa. He must know she did it, or was in on it.

Well, I had a few minutes. One or two, anyway.

I put the phone in my pocket and went storming back upstairs. The door to the Petrous’ bedroom was closed and locked. After I retrieved my gear from the bedroom next door, I used my foot on Marisa’s chamber. Two kicks and the doorjamb shattered. The door flew open.

Marisa had lit a candle. The old woman was sitting in a chair, wearing a robe. Marisa was on the bed.

“Why’d you do it?” I demanded.

“I thought you were shooting at one of the guards.”

“You lying bitch! Why’d you open the basement door to let the knifemen in?”

She stared at me. “You don’t know that.”

“I make my living opening locked doors. That door was opened from the inside. The jimmy marks were made so it would look like the door was forced. It wasn’t.”

She lowered her head and remained silent.

I grabbed a handful of hair and lifted her head so I could see directly into her face and she could see into mine.

“Four people murdered, and you helped kill them. One woman and three men. Let me tell you how it is. If another person dies with you in attendance, I’m coming after you. There isn’t a hole on this planet you can hide in. And when I find you, I’ll kill you sure as God made little green apples. And you can tell that to your pop.”

Then I left. There was nothing else I could do.

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