The Silent Corner
JANE HAWK WOKE in the cool dark and for a moment could not remember where she had gone to sleep, only that as always she was in a queen- or king-size bed and that her pistol lay under the pillow on which the head of a companion would have rested had she not been traveling alone. Diesel growl and friction drone of eighteen tires on asphalt reminded her that she was in a motel, near the interstate, and it was . . . Monday.
With a soft-green numerical glow, the bedside clock reported the bad but not uncommon news that it was 4:15 in the morning, too early for her to have gotten eight hours of sack time, too late to imagine that she might fall back to sleep.
She lay for a while, thinking about what had been lost. She had promised herself to stop dwelling on the bitter past. She spent less time on it now than before, which would have counted as progress if recently she hadn’t turned to thoughts of what was yet to be lost.
She took a change of clothes and the pistol into the bathroom. She shut the door and braced it with a straight-backed chair that she had moved from the bedroom upon checking in the previous night.
Such was the maid service that in the corner above the sink, the radials and spirals of a spider’s architecture extended across an area larger than her hand. When she had gone to bed at eleven o’clock, the only provision hanging in the web had been a struggling moth. During the night, the moth had become but the husk of a moth, the hollow body translucent, the wings shorn of their velvet dust, brittle and fractured. The plump spider now watched over a pair of captured silverfish, leaner fare, though another morsel would soon find its way into the gossamer abattoir.
Outside, the light from a security lamp gilded the frosted glass in the small crank-out bathroom window, which was not large enough to allow even a child to gain entrance. Its dimensions would also preclude her from escaping through it in a crisis.
Jane put the pistol on the closed lid of the toilet and left the vinyl curtain open while she took a shower. The water was hotter than she expected from a two-star operation, melting accumulated soreness out of muscle and bone, but she didn’t linger in the spray as long as she would have liked.
HER SHOULDER RIG featured a holster with swivel connectors, a spare-magazine carrier, and a suede harness. The weapon hung just behind her left arm, a deep position that al- lowed unparalleled concealment beneath her specially tailored sport coats.
In addition to the spare magazine clipped to the rig, she kept two others in the pockets of the jacket, a total of forty rounds, counting those in the pistol.
The day might come when forty was not enough. She had no backup anymore, no team in a van around the corner if everything went to shit. Those days were over for the time being, if not forever. She couldn’t arm herself for infinite combat. In any situation, if forty rounds proved not enough, neither would eighty or eight hundred. She did not delude herself regarding her skills or endurance.
She carried her two suitcases out to the Ford Escape, raised the tailgate, loaded the bags, and locked the vehicle.
The sun that had not yet risen must have been producing a solar flare or two. The bright silver moon declining in the west reflected so much light that the shadows of its craters had blurred away. It looked not like a solid object but instead like a hole in the night sky, pure and dangerous light shining through from another universe.
In the motel office, she returned the room key. Behind the front desk, a guy with a shaved head and a chin beard asked if everything had been to her satisfaction, almost as if he genuinely cared. She nearly said, With all the bugs, I imagine a lot of your guests are entomologists.
But she didn’t want to leave him with a more memorable image of her than the one he got from picturing her naked. She said, “Yeah, fine,” and walked out of there.
At check-in, she had paid cash in advance and used one of her counterfeit driver’s licenses to provide the required ID, according to which Lucy Aimes of Sacramento had just left the building.
Early-spring flying beetles of some kind clicked in the metal cones of the lamps mounted to the ceiling of the covered walkway, and their exaggerated spriggy-legged shadows jigged on the spotlit con- crete underfoot.
As she walked to the diner next door, which was part of the motel operation, she was aware of the security cameras but didn’t look directly at any of them. Surveillance had become inescapable.
The only cameras that could undo her, however, were those in air- ports, train stations, and other key facilities that were linked to computers running real-time state-of-the-art facial-recognition software. Her flying days were over. She went everywhere by car.
When all this started, she’d been a natural blonde with long hair. Now she was a brunette with a shorter cut. Changes of that kind could not foil facial recognition if you were being hunted. Short of spackling herself with an obvious disguise that would also draw un- wanted attention, she could not have done much to change the shape of her face or the many unique details of her features to escape this mechanized detection.
A THREE-EGG CHEESE OMELET, a double rasher of bacon, sausage, extra butter for the toast, hold the home fries, coffee instead of orange juice: She thrived on protein, but too many carbs made her feel sluggish and slow-witted. She didn’t worry about fat, because she’d have to live another two decades to develop arteriosclerosis.
The waitress brought refill coffee. She was thirtyish, pretty in a faded-flower way, too pale and too thin, as if life whittled and bleached her day by day. “You hear about Philadelphia?”
“Some crazies crashed this private jet plane straight into four lanes of bumper-to-bumper morning traffic. TV says there must’ve been a full load of fuel. Almost a mile of highway on fire, this bridge col- lapsed totally, cars and trucks blowing up, those poor people trapped in it. Horrible. We got a TV in the kitchen. It’s too awful to look. Makes you sick to watch it. They say they do it for God, but it’s the devil in them. What are we ever gonna do?”
“I don’t know,” Jane said.
“I don’t think anybody knows.” “I don’t think so, either.”
The waitress returned to the kitchen, and Jane finished eating breakfast. If you let the news spoil your appetite, there wouldn’t be a day you could eat.
THE BLACK FORD ESCAPE appeared to be Detroit- lite, but this one had secrets under the hood and the power to outrun anything with the words to serve and protect on its front doors.
Two weeks earlier, Jane had paid cash for the Ford in Nogales, Arizona, which was directly across the international border from No- gales, Mexico. The car had been stolen in the United States, given new engine-block numbers and more horsepower in Mexico, and re- turned to the States for sale. The dealer’s showrooms were a series of barns on a former horse ranch; he never advertised his inventory, never issued a receipt or paid taxes. Upon request, he provided Canadian license plates and a guaranteed-legitimate registration card from the Department of Motor Vehicles for the province of British Columbia.
When dawn came, she was still in Arizona, racing westward on Interstate 8. The night paled. As the sun slowly cleared the horizon in her wake, the high feathery cirrus clouds ahead of her pinked before darkening to coralline, and the sky waxed through shades of increasingly intense blue.
Sometimes on long drives, she wanted music. Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Chopin, Liszt. This morning she preferred silence. In her current mood, even the best of music would sound discordant. Forty miles past sunrise, she crossed the state line into southern- most California. During the following hour, the high white fleecy clouds lowered and congested and grayed into woolpack. After another hour, the sky had grown darker, swollen, malign.
Near the western periphery of the Cleveland National Forest, she exited the interstate at the town of Alpine, where General Gordon Lambert had lived with his wife. The previous evening, Jane had consulted one of her old but useful Thomas Guides, a spiral-bound book of maps. She was sure she knew how to find the house.
In addition to other modifications made to the Ford Escape in Mexico, the entire GPS had been removed, including the transponder that allowed its position to be tracked continuously by satellite and other means. There was no point in being off the grid if the vehicle you drove was Wi-Fied to it with every turn of the wheels.
Although rain was as natural as sunshine, although Nature functioned without intentions, Jane saw malice in the coming storm. Lately, her love of the natural world had at times been tested by a perception, perhaps irrational but deeply felt, that Nature was colluding with humanity in enterprises wicked and destructive.
FOURTEEN THOUSAND SOULS lived in Alpine, a percentage of them sure to believe in fate. Fewer than three hundred were from the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, who operated the Viejas Casino. Jane had no interest in games of chance. Minute by minute, life was a continuous rolling of the dice, and that was as much gambling as she could handle.
Graced with pines and live oaks, the central business district was frontier-town quaint. Certain buildings actually dated to the Old West, but others of more recent construction aped that style with varying degrees of success. The number of antiques stores, galleries, gift shops, and restaurants suggested year-round tourism that pre- dated the casino.
San Diego, the eighth largest city in the country, was less than thirty miles and eighteen hundred feet of elevation away. Wherever at least a million people lived in close proximity to one another, a significant portion needed, on any given day, to flee the hive for a place of less busy buzzing.
The white-clapboard black-shuttered Lambert residence stood on the farther outskirts of Alpine, on approximately half an acre of land, the front yard picket-fenced, the porch furnished with wicker chairs. The flag was at full mast on a pole at the northeast corner of the house, the red-and-white fly billowing gently in the breeze, the fifty- star canton pulled taut in full display against the curdled, brooding sky.
The twenty-five-mile-per-hour speed limit allowed Jane to cruise past slowly without appearing to be canvassing the place. She saw nothing out of the ordinary. But if they suspected that she might come here because of the bond she shared with Gwyneth Lambert, they would be circumspect almost to the point of invisibility.
She passed four other houses before the street came to a dead end. There, she turned and parked the Escape on the shoulder of the lane, facing back the way she had come.
These homes stood on the brow of a hill with a view of El Capitan Lake. Jane followed a dirt path down through an open woods and then along a treeless slope green with maiden grass that would be as gold as wheat by midsummer. At the shore, she walked south, surveying the lake, which looked both placid and disarranged because the rumpled-laundry clouds were reflected in the serene mirrored surface. She gave equal attention to the houses on her left, gazing up as if admiring each.
Fences indicated that the properties occupied only the scalped-flat lots at the top of the hill. The white pickets at the front of the Lambert house were repeated all the way around.
She walked behind two more residences before returning to the Lambert place and climbing the slope. The back gate featured a simple gravity latch.
Closing the gate behind her, she considered the windows, from which the draperies had been drawn aside and the blinds raised to admit as much of the day’s dreary light as possible. She could see no one gazing out at the lake—or on the watch for her.
Committed now, she followed the pickets around the side of the house. As the clouds lowered and the flag rustled in a breeze that smelled faintly of either the rain to come or the waters of the lake, she climbed the porch steps and rang the bell.
A moment later, a slim, attractive, fiftyish woman opened the door. She wore jeans, a sweater, and a knee-length apron decorated with needlepoint strawberries.
“Mrs. Lambert?” Jane asked. “Yes?”
“We have a bond that I hope I can call upon.”
Gwyneth Lambert raised a half smile and her eyebrows. Jane said, “We both married Marines.”
“That’s a bond, all right. How can I help you?”
“We’re also both widows. And I believe we have the same people to blame for that.”