On that Tuesday in January, when her life changed forever, Martine Rhodes woke with a headache, developed a sour stomach after washing down two aspirin with grapefruit juice, guaranteed herself an epic bad-hair day by mistakenly using Dustin’s shampoo instead of her own, broke a fingernail, burnt her toast, discovered ants swarming through the cabinet under the kitchen sink, eradicated the pests by firing a spray can of insecticide as ferociously as Sigourney Weaver wielded a flamethrower in one of those old extraterrestrial-bug movies, cleaned up the resultant carnage with paper towels, hummed Bach’s Requiem as she solemnly consigned the tiny bodies to the trash can, and took a telephone call from her mother, Sabrina, who still prayed for the collapse of Martie’s marriage three years after the wedding. Throughout, she remained upbeat—even enthusiastic— about the day ahead, because from her late father, Robert “Smilin’ Bob” Woodhouse, she had inherited an optimistic nature, formidable coping skills, and a deep love of life in addition to blue eyes, ink-black hair, and ugly toes.
After convincing her ever hopeful mother that the Rhodes marriage remained happy, Martie slipped into a leather jacket and took her golden retriever, Valet, on his morning walk. Step by step, her headache faded.
Along the whetstone of clear eastern sky, the sun sharpened
scalpels of light. Out of the west, however, a cool onshore breeze pushed malignant masses of dark clouds.
The dog regarded the heavens with concern, sniffed the air warily, and pricked his pendant ears at the hiss-clatter of palm fronds stirred by the wind. Clearly, Valet knew a storm was coming.
He was a gentle, playful dog. Loud noises frightened him, however, as though he had been a soldier in a former life and was haunted by memories of battlefields blasted by cannon fire.
Fortunately for him, rotten weather in southern California was seldom accompanied by thunder. Usually, rain fell unannounced, hissing on the streets, whispering through the foliage, and these were sounds that even Valet found soothing.
Most mornings, Martie walked the dog for an hour, along the narrow tree-lined streets of Corona Del Mar, but she had a special obligation every Tuesday and Thursday that limited their excursion to fifteen minutes on those days. Valet seemed to have a calendar in his furry head, because on their Tuesday and Thursday expeditions, he never dawdled, finishing his toilet close to home.
This morning, only one block from their house, on the grassy sward between the sidewalk and the curb, the pooch looked around shyly, discreetly lifted his right leg, and as usual made water as though embarrassed by the lack of privacy.
Less than a block farther, he was preparing to conclude the second half of his morning business when a passing garbage truck backfired, startling him. He huddled behind a queen palm, peering cautiously around one side of the tree bole and then around the other, convinced that the terrifying vehicle would reappear.
“No problem,” Martie assured him. “The big bad truck is gone. Everything’s fine. This is now a safe-to-poop zone.”
Valet was unconvinced. He remained wary.
Martie was blessed with Smilin’ Bob’s patience, too, especially when dealing with Valet, whom she loved almost as much as she might have loved a child if she’d had one. He was sweet-tempered and beautiful: light gold, with gold-and-white feathering on his legs, soft snow-white flags on his butt, and a lush tail.
Of course, when the dog was in a doing-business squat, like now, Martie never looked at him, because he was as self-conscious as a nun in a topless bar. While waiting, she softly sang Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle,” which always relaxed him.
As she began the second verse, a sudden chill climbed the ladder of her spine, causing her to fall silent. She was not a woman given to premonitions, but as the icy quiver ascended to the back of her neck, she was overcome by a sense of impending danger.
Turning, she half expected to see an approaching assailant or a hurtling car. Instead, she was alone on this quiet residential street.
Nothing rushed toward her with lethal purpose. The only moving things were those harried by the wind. Trees and shrubs shivered. A few crisp brown leaves skittered along the pavement. Garlands of tinsel and Christmas lights, from the recent holiday, rustled and rattled under the eaves of a nearby house.
Still uneasy, but feeling foolish, Martie let out the breath that she’d been holding. When the exhalation whistled between her teeth, she realized that her jaws were clenched.
She was probably still spooked from the dream that awakened her after midnight, the same one she’d had on a few other recent nights. The man made of dead, rotting leaves, a nightmare figure. Whirling, raging.
Then her gaze dropped to her elongated shadow, which stretched across the close-cropped grass, draped the curb, and folded onto the cracked concrete pavement. Inexplicably, her uneasiness swelled into alarm.
She took one step backward, then a second, and of course her shadow moved with her. Only as she retreated a third step did she realize that this very silhouette was what frightened her.
Ridiculous. More absurd than her dream. Yet something in her shadow was not right: a jagged distortion, a menacing quality.
Her heart knocked as hard as a fist on a door.
In the severe angle of the morning sun, the houses and trees cast distorted images, too, but she saw nothing fearsome in their stretched and buckled shadows—only in her own.
She recognized the absurdity of her fear, but this awareness did not diminish her anxiety. Terror courted her, and she stood hand in hand with panic.
The shadow seemed to throb with the thick slow beat of its own heart. Staring at it, she was overcome with dread.
Martie closed her eyes and tried to get control of herself.
For a moment, she felt so light that the wind seemed strong enough to sweep her up and carry her inland with the relentlessly advancing clouds, toward the steadily shrinking band of cold blue sky. As she drew a series of deep breaths, however, weight gradually returned to her.
When she dared to look again at her shadow, she no longer sensed anything unusual about it. She let out a sigh of relief.
Her heart continued to pound, powered not by irrational terror anymore, but by an understandable concern as to the cause of this peculiar episode. She’d never previously experienced such a thing.
Head cocked quizzically, Valet was staring at her.
She had dropped his leash.
Her hands were damp with sweat. She blotted her palms on her blue jeans.
When she realized that the dog had finished his toilet, Martie slipped her right hand into a plastic pet-cleanup bag, using it as a glove. Being a good neighbor, she neatly collected Valet’s gift, turned the bright blue bag inside out, twisted it shut, and tied a double knot in the neck.
The retriever watched her sheepishly.
“If you ever doubt my love, baby boy,” Martie said, “remember I do this every day.”
Valet looked grateful. Or perhaps only relieved.
Performance of this familiar, humble task restored her mental balance. The little blue bag and its warm contents anchored her to reality. The weird incident remained troubling, intriguing, but it no longer frightened her.
Skeet sat high on the roof, silhouetted against the somber sky, hallucinating and suicidal. Three fat crows circled twenty feet over his head, as if they sensed carrion in the making.
Down here at ground level, Motherwell stood in the driveway, big hands fisted on his hips. Though he faced away from the street, his fury was evident in his posture. He was in a head-cracking mood.
Dusty parked his van at the curb, behind a patrol car emblazoned with the name of the private-security company that served this pricey, gated residential community. A tall guy in a uniform was standing beside the car, managing to appear simultaneously authoritative and superfluous.
The three-story house, atop which Skeet Caulfield contemplated his fragile mortality, was a ten-thousand-square-foot, four-million-dollar atrocity. Several Mediterranean styles—Spanish modern, classic Tuscan, Greek Revival, and early Taco Bell—had been slammed together by an architect who had either a lousy education or a great sense of humor. What appeared to be acres of steeply pitched, barrel-tile roofs hipped into one another with chaotic exuberance, punctuated by too many chimneys badly disguised as bell towers with cupolas, and poor Skeet was perched on the highest ridge line, next to the most imposingly ugly of these belfries.
Perhaps because he was unsure of his role in this situation and needed something to do, the security guard said, “Can I help you, sir?”
“I’m the painting contractor,” Dusty replied.
The sun-weathered guard was either suspicious of Dusty or squint-eyed by nature, with so many lines folded into his face that he looked like a piece of origami. “The painting contractor, huh?” he said skeptically.
Dusty was wearing white cotton pants, a white pullover, a white denim jacket, and a white cap with RHODES’ PAINTING printed in blue script above the visor, which should have lent some credibility to his claim. He considered asking the leery guard if the neighborhood was besieged by professional burglars disguised as housepainters, plumbers, and chimney sweeps, but instead he simply said, “I’m Dustin Rhodes,” and pointed to the lettering on his cap. “That man up there is one of my crew.”
“Crew?” The security man scowled. “Is that what you call it?”
Maybe he was being sarcastic or maybe he was just not good at conversation.
“Most painting contractors call it a crew, yeah,” Dusty said, staring up at Skeet, who waved. “We used to call ours a strike force, but that scared off some homeowners, sounded too aggressive, so now we just call it a crew, like everyone else.”
“Huh,” the guard said. His squint tightened. He might have been trying to figure out what Dusty was talking about, or he might have been deciding whether or not to punch him in the mouth.
“Don’t worry, we’ll get Skeet down,” Dusty assured him.
“The jumper,” Dusty elucidated, heading along the driveway toward Motherwell.
“You think I should maybe call the fire department?” the guard asked, following him.
“Nah. He won’t torch himself before he jumps.”
“This is a nice neighborhood.”
“Nice? Hell, it’s perfect.”
“A suicide is going to upset our residents.”
“We’ll scoop up the guts, bag the remains, hose away the blood, and they’ll never know it happened.”
Dusty was relieved and surprised that no neighbors had gathered to watch the drama. At this early hour, maybe they were still eating caviar muffins and drinking champagne and orange juice out of gold goblets. Fortunately, Dusty’s clients—the Sorensons—on whose roof Skeet was schmoozing with Death, were vacationing in London.
Dusty said, “Morning, Ned.”
“Bastard,” Motherwell replied. “Me?”
“Him,” Motherwell said, pointing to Skeet on the roof.
At six feet five and 260 pounds, Ned Motherwell was half a foot taller and nearly one hundred pounds heavier than Dusty. His arms could not have been more muscular if they had been the transplanted legs of Clydesdale horses. He was wearing a short-sleeve T-shirt but no jacket, in spite of the cool wind; weather never seemed to bother Motherwell any more than it might trouble a granite statue of Paul Bunyan.
Tapping the phone clipped to his belt, Motherwell said, “Damn, boss, I called you like yesterday. Where you been?”
“You called me ten minutes ago, and where I’ve been is running traffic lights and mowing down school kids in crosswalks.”
“There’s a twenty-five-mile-an-hour speed limit inside this community,” the security guard advised solemnly.
Glowering up at Skeet Caulfield, Motherwell shook his fist. “Man, I’d like to hammer that punk.”
“He’s a confused kid,” Dusty said.
“He’s a drug-sucking jerk,” Motherwell disagreed.
“He’s been clean lately.”
“He’s a sewer.”
“You’ve got such a big heart, Ned.”
“What’s important is I’ve got a brain, and I’m not going to screw it up with drugs, and I don’t want to be around people who self-destruct, like him.”
Ned, the crew foreman, was a Straight Edger. This unlikely but still-growing movement among people in their teens and twenties— more men than women—required adherents to forgo drugs, excess alcohol, and casual sex. They were into head-banging rock—’n’-roll, slam-dancing, self-restraint, and self-respect. One element or another of the establishment might have embraced them as an inspiring cultural trend—if Straight Edgers had not loathed the system and despised both major political parties. Occasionally, at a club or concert, when they discovered a doper among them, they beat the crap out of him and didn’t bother to call it tough love, which was also a practice likely to keep them out of the political mainstream.
Dusty liked both Motherwell and Skeet, although for different reasons. Motherwell was smart, funny, and reliable—if judgmental. Skeet was gentle and sweet—although probably doomed to a life of joyless self-indulgence, days without purpose, and nights filled with loneliness.
Motherwell was by far the better employee of the two. If Dusty had operated strictly by the textbook rules of intelligent business management, he would have cut Skeet from the crew a long time ago.
Life would be easy if common sense ruled; but sometimes the easy way doesn’t feel like the right way.
“We’re probably going to get rained out,” Dusty said. “So why’d you send him up on the roof in the first place?”
“I didn’t. I told ‘im to sand the window casings and the trim on the ground floor. Next thing I know, he’s up there, saying he’s going to take a header into the driveway.”
“I’ll get him.”
“I tried. Closer I came to him, the more hysterical he got.”
“He’s probably scared of you,” Dusty said.
“He damn well better be. If I kill him, it’ll be more painful than if he splits his skull on the concrete.”
The guard flipped open his cell phone. “Maybe I’d better call the police.”
“No!” Realizing that his voice had been too sharp, Dusty took a deep breath and more calmly said, “Neighborhood like this, people don’t want a fuss made when it can be avoided.”
If the cops came, they might get Skeet down safely, but then they would commit him to a psychiatric ward, where he’d be held for at least three days. Probably longer. The last thing Skeet needed was to fall into the hands of one of those head doctors who were unreservedly enthusiastic about dipping into the psychoactive pharmacopoeia to ladle up a fruit punch of behavior-modification drugs that, while imposing a short-term placidity, would ultimately leave him with more short-circuiting synapses than he had now.