EIGHT YEARS AGO
NEVADO HUASCARÁN YUNGAY PROVINCE, PERU
I watched Murphy as he crawled forward to the edge of the overhang and raised the binoculars to his eyes, training them on the spot a couple miles ahead, where the road emerged from the narrow mountain pass. He lay there motionless for a good five minutes. Long enough to allow a fine dusting of snow to cover his back.
“They’re not coming.”
“What do you want to do?” I asked. “Call it a day? Go home for hot chocolate?”
He twisted his neck to look back at me. “I don’t get you, man. You seem like you’re all about the hunt, and then when it comes to the finish, you get all . . . I don’t know. Detached. What’s the matter? I know you’re not afraid.”
“The hard work’s done,” I said. “You guys don’t really need me for this part.”
“And yet I notice you never turn down the opportunity to work downstream.”
“I like the fresh air.”
Murphy shuffled back and sat back down beside me, banging his gloved hands off his thighs to shake the powder off them.
“Murphy shuffled back and sat back down beside me, banging his gloved hands off his thighs to shake the powder off them.”
“Too fresh for me. Hot chocolate sounds pretty good, in fact. What the hell is up with the weather?” “This is normal,” I said.
“It was warm yesterday.”
“That was El Niño. Yesterday was the aberration, not today. This is how it’s supposed to be.”
“I thought El Niño was Mexico.”
“It happens all over South America.”
“How do you know this s**t, anyway?”
I shrugged, my eyes staying on the road a mile distant. “No, seriously,” he continued. “How do you know everything? Like, how do you know they’re coming this way?”
“I don’t know.”
He stared at me for a few seconds and then shook his head. He looked to the road again and then down the slope to where it passed by us, fifty feet below.
“You think Crozier set the wires up right?” “He knows what he’s doing.”
A pause. “I don’t like him. Crozier.”
My interest was piqued. For some reason, people didn’t like to talk about Crozier. It was almost as though they were scared to address the subject. I’d had one or two brief verbal exchanges with the man, enough to decide I wanted to keep my distance. “He’s quiet,” I said noncommittally.
“He’s not just quiet; he’s a goddamn psychopath.”
“He’s on the right team.”
“No, man, you don’t understand. You hear about Baqubah, a few months back?”
“Sure. He took out five or six bad guys. It wasn’t his fault about the hostages.”
“It was six. You didn’t see it. You didn’t see what he did to them.”
I turned my head and looked at him, waiting for him to continue. Compared to the others, Murphy was practically a blabbermouth.
“I mean it. It was like they’d let Ted Bundy loose in there, man.”
“He’s a shooter. That’s what he’s here for.”
Murphy paused, as though carefully considering what he was going to say next. “You’ve heard the story.”
I had heard the story. I’d heard it from a couple of sources and wasn’t sure whether to believe it or write it off as the equivalent of unfounded workplace gossip. That was the funny thing, though: with Crozier, you got the feeling anything was possible.
“I heard a rumor.”
Murphy grabbed my shoulder and made me look at him. All of a sudden, he seemed to need me to listen to him. “It’s the truth.”
I paused, unsure of how to reply. And then I saw a glint of sunlight reflecting off glass or metal a mile distant.
“I paused, unsure of how to reply. And then I saw a glint of sunlight reflecting off glass or metal a mile distant.”
People go crazy when it rains in LA.
It’s a truism, just another of the unique quirks of character that grow up around any big city. But as is often the case, there’s a lot of truth to the truism. Although Los Angeles is hardly devoid of rainfall, it is rare enough to qualify as an event when it does come. And for that reason, Angelenos just aren’t accustomed to driving in the rain. That makes some of them lose their cool: driving too fast, or way too slow. Maybe taking tight corners at speed as though the conditions are dry. The fact that the city is built for desert conditions doesn’t help, either. The drainage system is immediately overwhelmed, causing flooding and standing water. The rain grooves in the road surface fill up quickly and create a surface primed for hydroplaning. The statistics bear out the legend: traffic accidents spike by 50 percent when it rains. Crazy.
Kelly thought about this as she guided the Porsche 911 Carrera along the twisting strip of two-lane asphalt that was Mulholland Drive. The downpour flooded over the wind- shield as though she were in a carwash, the effect broken every second or so by the wiper blades sweeping back and forth on the fastest setting. At that moment, it seemed crazy to be driving, period. It seemed crazy no matter how careful you tried to be.
Kelly kept a tight grip on the wheel and hunched forward, as though the extra six inches of proximity to the glass would make a shred of difference. She’d lived in LA for most of her life, and she could never remember it raining like this. The speedometer needle danced just above twenty, which was as fast as she felt comfortable going with the steep drop to her right-hand side. Still, she’d been wondering if she should risk a little more pressure on the gas pedal, bringing it up to thirty, perhaps. She was worried about another car coming up behind her and not having time to stop. Somebody less cautious. Somebody going way too fast.
You’d have to be nuts to be speeding on a road like this one on a night like this, but that was the thing: people go crazy. She compromised and allowed the needle to climb to twenty-five. She breathed rapidly through her nose and tried not to blink.
Mulholland was a strange road, built a long time ago for a lot less traffic. It wound past the homes of the stars but also into darker, rural patches that felt like the precise middle of nowhere. Lots of sudden twists next to steep drops. Kelly wasn’t overly familiar with the road under the best of cir- cumstances, but tonight she might as well have been on the other side of the planet. It already seemed like hours since she’d left Sloan’s. She risked a glance at the clock on the dash and realized that it had been only twenty-five minutes.
This had seemed like a good idea twenty-five minutes ago, when getting behind the wheel of Sarah’s new toy had been an attractive proposition. Ten minutes later, when the heavens had opened, Kelly had immediately regretted her decision.
Ten or eleven miles from the bar to Sarah’s place, give or take. She’d made good time in the first, blessedly dry, ten minutes—traffic was light on the 405 at this time of night, even in the automobile capital of planet Earth. How far to go, then? Five miles? Six? In these conditions, that could take her all night.
Kelly held her breath and feathered the brake as she took another corner that was a little tighter than it had appeared. It was difficult to judge, with the rain and the darkness. There were no streetlights up here, and the headlights illumin- ated a pathetically small patch of road in front of her before dissolving into the darkness. This was stupid, she thought again. This was . . . crazy. She ought to pull off of the road at the next opportunity—one of the overlooks perhaps—and wait out the rain.
Only, there was no way to know how long the rain would last, and Sarah was counting on her. Sarah’s dad would be home at one a.m., and if the Porsche wasn’t in the garage, he’d check her room for sure.
Incredibly, the rain seemed to build in intensity, as though mocking her. The respite between swipes of the wipers was becoming less and less effective.
Kelly suddenly became aware that the radio was still on, tuned to a local classic rock station. “Black Hole Sun” by Soundgarden. The corner of her mouth curled upward for a second as she imagined what her own dad would have to say about that, about a record from the mid-nineties being labeled as “classic” anything.
And then she was jerked back into the moment. In the heartbeat between the pass of the wipers and the fresh sheet of water, the Porsche’s headlights picked out a dark shape of something in the road, obstructing her lane. The wipers delivered another strobe-like snapshot of the road ahead, and she realized the shape was earth and rubble—a landslide from the slope on her left-hand side, leaving a dangerously tight gap in the road. Holding her breath, Kelly braked and aimed for the slender space between the pile of debris and the drop at the edge of the road.
Sarah is gonna kill me, she thought, as the driver-side front wheel crunched over a brick-sized rock while the drop loomed on her right-hand side.
And then the Porsche squeezed through the gap, missing the bulk of the obstruction and narrowly, wonderfully, keeping all four wheels on the road.
She exhaled in a short cough, grateful and guilty all at once, like she’d dodged a bullet.
She skirted the remainder of the landslide, eyes peeled for oncoming headlights. Without taking her eyes from the road, she moved one hand gingerly from the steering wheel for the first time in ten minutes, reaching over to snap the radio off. Chris Cornell’s voice winked out, leaving only the staccato beat of rain on glass.
One less distraction, she thought as she moved her hand back to the wheel. One less— A loud bang pierced the rhythm of the rain like a gunshot, and she felt the rear of the car slide out from under her. A blowout?
The car was sliding to the right, toward the drop. Kelly yanked the wheel hard left. The vehicle ignored her, con- tinuing its inexorable swerve toward a steep two-hundred- foot slope and oblivion. There was no barrier, because the road was relatively straight here. But that assumed your car was under control.
Oh s**t. Steer into the skid? Steer away from the skid? What are you meant to— As abruptly as the swerve had begun, it stopped. The steering wheel locked and the car righted itself, and Kelly leaned into the brake, hearing a nails-on-the-blackboard screech of metal as the Porsche hugged the very lip of the road and came to a full stop at the edge of the drop.
A brief moment of euphoria—she’d been certain she was about to die, and somehow she was still alive—and then a snatch of worry. Had she totaled Sarah’s new Porsche? In the bar, Sarah had claimed not to know how much it had cost, but Matt had said something under his breath—with his usual mild disapproval—about a hundred thousand bucks or so. The rain battered down, unabated, as though trying to prevent her from thinking, from organizing her brain to the point where she might begin to piece together what had happened and what she might do next. But before she could start to think about the thousands of dollars of damage she might have done, those worries—and every other thought— were banished by the realization of a new danger.
She was sitting in an immobile vehicle, in the dark, in a rainstorm, on a narrow highway, next to a steep drop.
Frantically, she grasped for the door handle, finding it after an eternity and pushing the door open. She clambered out of the car and into the deluge. It was like diving fully clothed into a lake. She put a hand on her forehead to keep the rain out of her eyes and squinted at the road, looking one way and then the other. Seeing no lights, she reached back into the car and snagged the keys from the ignition, then scurried around the back to open the trunk, before remembering that this was a Porsche: engine in back, trunk in front. She made her way around to the front of the car again, hoping to find a coat, an umbrella, a tarpaulin . . . anything. Nothing. The trunk was utterly empty. Damn it.
She glanced again at the road, then circled back around the Porsche, inspecting it for damage as best she could. Miraculously, the bodywork looked to be unscathed, the silver paint job gleaming through the curtain of water. When she reached the rear driver’s side wheel, she saw the real damage. The tire was shredded, to the extent that the rims of the wheel had partially cut into the road surface. The source of the unholy screeching as she’d lurched to a halt, she guessed. She cursed out loud this time and wiped rain out of her eyes again.
A flash of light made her jerk her head up again. Another car, a hundred yards away, though she couldn’t yet hear the engine over the elements. He was headed straight for her. Kelly ran across the road and toward the direction of the oncoming vehicle, waving her arms and yelling.
Dressed in a black halter top and jeans, she now wished she’d picked something more visible to wear. The car, a Ford, flashed by her, swerved when it saw the grounded Porsche, and narrowly missed clipping the rear driver’s side fender where it stuck out into the wrong lane. The asshole had the temerity to lean on his horn as he continued on his merry way. Kelly prayed for him to hit whatever obstruction had eviscerated her tire, but the Ford continued past that point and cleared the landslide on the opposite lane before its taillights dis- appeared.
Kelly was soaked to the skin now. She ran back to the car and flung the door open once again. Her bag was on the passenger seat, looking somehow tawdry on the expensive leather upholstery. She grabbed it and sat down again behind the wheel, deciding to risk the danger of another car in exchange for a few moments’ respite from the rain. They tell you to leave the car and stand by the road in a situation like this, but they weren’t the ones getting soaked. She’d see the headlights in time anyway . . . wouldn’t she? She angled around in her seat and kept her eyes trained on the road behind her as she dug around in her bag, lifting and sifting the detritus that had accumulated in there and locating her phone by touch. Her hands closed around the familiar slim rectangle and she brought it out. There was no point in calling Sarah to tell her what had happened. Assuming she even picked up, it would only ruin her evening with Josh. AAA wasn’t an option, either. Kelly didn’t own her own car, and unless her manager spontaneously decided to double her paycheck, she doubted she would be buying one anytime soon. That left one option—her dad.
But when Kelly hit the button to activate the screen, it remained stubbornly dark. Goddamn Apple. Four hundred bucks for a phone and it couldn’t give you more than eight hours of battery life, if you didn’t use it too much. And she’d used it a lot in the bar—taking pictures, checking Facebook, calling Matt when he was late, Googling a cocktail recipe to settle an argument . . .
Great. Dead car, dead phone. Could the night possibly get any worse?
Kelly got back out and entered the monsoon once more, looking both ways down the road. Nothing. She considered her options. She doubted she’d be physically capable of pushing the car over to the side of the road even on four good tires. With one of them blown out, there was no chance. She was stuck in the middle of nowhere with no coat, no phone, and pretty damn near no hope.
And then, a glimmer of light.
From up ahead, she saw headlights wink out and appear again as they cleared a bend in the road. She crossed to the opposite side again and this time stood as far out in the middle of the road as she dared. She waved her arms and yelled, much louder this time. The knowledge of the dead phone gave her hollering renewed urgency.
Fifty yards from her position, the vehicle began to slow as the driver spotted her. As it grew nearer, Kelly saw that it was some kind of pickup truck. That was good; he might have a winch or something to drag the Porsche off the road.
But she was getting ahead of herself—he needed to stop first. Kelly waved again, actually jumping up and down this time, worrying that this driver might pick up speed again and blow right by her like the last one. But he didn’t. The dark pickup—it was impossible to discern even a vague color—pulled smoothly to a stop beside her, engine running. The driver’s window rolled slowly down. Kelly peered into the darkness within. Between the rain and the absence of streetlights, she couldn’t make out the driver.
“Hello?” she said unsurely.
Finally, the darkness shifted a little and a head appeared at the window. A man, she thought, although she couldn’t be sure. A deep but quiet voice spoke out, almost lost beneath the sound of the rain.
“You need some help?”
The guy wore a dark blue or green baseball cap with no logo, the brim pulled down so that three-quarters of his face was in blackness, with only a clean-shaven chin visible.
Kelly swallowed and felt a chill that had nothing to do with her soaked clothing. She wasn’t sure if it was the voice or the instinctive primal sense of unease that came from not being able to see his face properly, but all of a sudden she felt a strange urge to tell the driver that it was okay; she’d wait for the next car.
But that wasn’t an option. On a night like this, she’d be stupid . . . no, crazy—to pass up the offer.
“Yeah.” She nodded. “Yeah, I really do need help.”