Jeff T. Jefferson Parker

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Where Serpents Lie

I am the champion of the little people.

Their shield.

Their sword.

I live in the world of men and women, because I have to. But my eyes see what the little people see; I hear what they hear. They are my constituents, all the children who are ignored or abandoned, damaged, hurt, exploited, hated, used. They are a secret society and I am their ambassador to the world. Their friends are my friends and their enemies are my enemies. Their dreams are mine, too. We are one.

Crimes Against Youth. CAY for short. It is my unit, within the Orange County Sheriff Department, and I am credited with starting it. There were just three of us, in the beginning. Then four, due to some of the things I accomplished. Now there are only three again, due to one thing at which I failed.

My name is Terry Naughton. I am forty years old, divorced and childless. Once, I had a son. And it was he, Matthew, who first invited me into the world of the small ones. He was five when he left here, and I was very close to him when he went away. That was two years ago. He is the not-so-secret reason for everything that I have done since that day. He is closer to me now than he ever was when he was here. Then, Matthew was living in a body of his own—a perfect, brown, strong little body that delighted me more than anything on earth. Now, he has only mine to live through, because I am the jealous protector of his soul. My old man's body is a far cry from his beautiful new one, I know. But heaven won't dare try to claim him until I have met The Horridus. I need Matthew inside me for that. I need his strength, his innocence, his laughter, his love.

* * *


Where Serpents Lie
"She'll like you."

Fathers, always proud of their girls.

Chet Alton was proud, with good reason. I'd seen Lauren's picture—a skinny ten-year-old with innocent eyes and a smile that looked just a little reluctant. Fair student. Well behaved. Quiet, observant, gentle.

"Makes up her own mind," Chet was saying, "on who she likes and who she doesn't. And she makes it up fast. But sometimes I have a talk with her, you know, because friends are friends."

Chet turned onto Tustin Avenue. I saw the white sedan in a parking lot, Johnny Escobedo and Frances White watching us go by before falling in. It was a clear, breezy April day, and inland Orange County passed across the windshield of Chet Alton's car with a hard specificity: blue sky, black asphalt, a white Transit Authority bus with an orange band around it, a row of tan palms with their heads bent.

Not far from here is where The Horridus abducted his first victim. She was found later out in a wilderness park—wearing a black velvet hood without eyeholes; a tunic of gauzy white netting that suggested the angelic; hands taped behind her back; wearing clothes not her own; bruised and dazed—but alive. She was five. I can't get within a few miles of a place where The Horridus has taken a girl without feeling the hairs on my neck bristle and a cool tightening of my scalp. He had taken his second by the time I was sitting in Chet Alton's car, and we didn't have a suspect. Few leads. Little evidence. And no suspect. Yet. Agent Mike Strickley at the FBI was due in with a profile for me the next day. And here I was, riding around with a small-time shitwrap like Chet, doing what I could to get him off the street. It's hard to keep from getting furious.

"You okay, Art?" he asked me. "Seem kind of quiet."


"Second thoughts kind of stuff?"

"Not that."

"May as well get the money part over with, then."

I was hoping to do this at the house. But I took the envelope out of my sport coat and set it on the gray plastic console between us. He let it sit there a minute, then picked it up and gave it a confirming squeeze.

"No reason to count it," he said. "This is about money, sure, because money makes things happen, but it's more about friends. Friends are all that matter. People like us."

Chet looked at me and gave me his fungoid grin, the Chet-likes-Chet grin he uses when pleased by himself. He's dark haired, pale and soft, has those fingernails that are manicured into hard little flips at the ends. A very clean man, physically. Well groomed. Suits, white shirts, bright ties. Dimples, and a smile that's morally bankrupt. He sells phone systems to businesses and made a little over sixty-five grand at it last year. Thirty-six, married twelve years, father of one. His real name is Alton Allen Sharpe. Priors for exposing a minor to harmful matter—his own obscene phone calls—pandering and lewd conduct, but nothing in his jacket for the last ten years. That was about to change.

"I'm glad we met, Chet."

The meet was accomplished months ago through "Danny," one of Chet's old friends, who ratted out Chet and his daughter in exchange for the DA's leniency in charging him. We got to Danny through an eavesdropping bartender, some long surveillance and a hard-earned phone tap. I'll lobby hard to have Danny's leniency deal revoked, once I've stripped him of every useful thing I can strip him of. I intensely dislike these people. And that's nothing, compared to what we'll throw at Chet. My mouth was dry and I had to keep from looking for Johnny and Frances in the side view.

"Me too, Art," he said.

For right now I am Art Means, an unemployed trust-funder with appetites not sanctioned by society, a man more curious than evil. It was a good cover, one I'd used before. I have the CDL, the credit cards, the initials engraved on an old pen I carry for Chet. He has not connected Art Means with Terry Naughton, and there's little way he could. He doesn't trust me, as a matter of course. There is, in fact, hardly a shred of honor among thieves.

Chet made a left on Collins. We were headed for a rented house with a pool that he and his wife, Caryn, maintain for people like me—the friends of Chet. Caryn furnished it. She will be there, with Lauren, when we arrive. So will Danny and one other man. Chet's program is, Caryn will barbecue and Lauren will maybe help a little, but mostly stay in her room. That's how she likes it. The men will eat, drink themselves ready and talk. After that, Caryn and Lauren will take over. Chet says we'll end it by ten, because Lauren's got school in the morning. He told me it was $1,500 for my first time, a "taster." After that, $2,000.

My program was different. We had the whole house wired for sound. The backyard patio and garage, too. The outside team had earphones and radios. Johnny, Frances and Louis would make their move as late as they could—we wanted Chet and Caryn and their friends as deeply committed as we could get them. We'd have four uniforms out front for backup, two more on the street behind the house. The helicopter patrols were on orders to stay out of the sky around us unless we called them in, but if we did, they'd streak down like hawks. I also had my contact at County News Bureau—CNB—on standby, because I like to get my unit all the credit it deserves. The CNB cameras have been kind to us so far. There were also two state Youth Services officers, females, to take custody of Lauren. Lauren's real name is Linda Elizabeth, by the way. I was somewhat concerned about Chet's other friend—Marlon—who Chet says has a gun and an attitude. Usually, these child rapers aren't the type to carry. Usually, they're a friend of the family. Usually, they are precisely the kind of giggling pukes you would expect to find involved in something like this. Guys like Chet.

"This is a good time of year," said Chet. "All this sex in the air—the birds and the bees and the people. We got these sparrows at home, building a nest up in the eaves. Every spring they come back and do it. And every year, the birds grow and get feathers and look just like the adults—you can hardly tell them apart. Then they leave the nest. It takes them about four hours. One at a time. And while one is out at the edge of the sticks, checking out the world, getting ready to go, the other ones watch to see how he does it. I swear. And every year, the dog sits there and waits for the first bird to take off and fall into the bushes on his maiden voyage, and eats him. That first try at flying, you know, they hardly ever get it right. Then, when the next one tries, the dog eats him, too. Ate three out of four, last year. I set up a screen, but the dog pushed it down. Then I figured I'd go with the program—let nature do things her own way. You interfere with the natural world and all you do is make things worse. You interfere with natural desires and you get somebody like The Horridus."

His logic escaped me, but I agreed. "Yeah. Seems like you could put the dog in the garage or something."

"It's full of junk."

"Or the house."

"She's got fleas."

That's one thing you learn fast about creeps in general, and kiddy-sex creeps in particular: they've got an excuse for everything, a reasonable explanation why they can't do this, or have to do that. They're great rationalizers, and at some level they're convinced by their own arguments. On a deeper level, most of them are aware that their actions are shameful and repugnant. But their actions, of course, are never their fault, because they build these little reason-structures to justify and explain what they do, and the shame they should feel runs off the roofs of those structures, just like rain. Inside, the creep stays dry. They've always got an angle.

Chet turned off the radio. I looked at his soft, pale fingers and the manicured little flip of his nails. They looked aerodynamic. We headed right on Lilac and left on Daffodil. Daffodil was a cul-de-sac and Chet's house was on the right, the first of three that made up the curve at the end of the street. The upside of a cul-de-sac is you know the exit route and it's easy to cover. The downside is it's hard to work without being obvious. Johnny and Frances were going to park on the other side of the wall that ran behind the houses, and listen in from there. They'd have to jump the wall when the time came. Louis was already parked near the entrance of the street, inside a van with a two-foot-long black plastic ant and the words "Countywide Pest Control" on each side. The ant is magnetized and removable. We have another set of signs for carpet cleaning, but I like to use the ant for busts because it's been lucky for us. Chet looked at the van as we drove by.

"Could get them to spray for fleas, maybe," he said.

"It really stinks up the house," I said. The less attention Chet paid the exterminators the better. "Probably not worth it for a couple of sparrows. I guess Lauren must be an animal lover."

"Yeah. Wanted a horse once. Looking forward to seeing her?"

"Got to be honest, Chet—I am."

"That's what it's all about, friend."

Chet hit the opener on his visor and up went the garage door. We parked inside, next to a Chevy, and the door closed behind us. Coming in from the sharp optics of springtime, it was a little hard to see. In the corner stood a set of golf clubs in a red and white bag with red-knit head covers. Chet had met Danny in the country club bar. There were five large cardboard boxes, neatly stacked beside the clubs. A few garden tools on wall hangers. This garage was not full of junk at all, I thought: the privacy of pulling his car in and out is much too important.

We went into the house. The living room was newly carpeted in light blue and had plump, oak-accented furniture that was heavy and graceless. The couch was beige. There was a tin vase on the coffee table with silk or paper daisies inside. There were brass-framed prints of flowers on the wall. The wall was papered in wide vertical bands of white with little flowers in it, separated by narrower stripes of dark blue. Homey and trite, cheaply cheerful.

* * *

A sliding glass door opened to a backyard charged with sunlight. A woman with yellow hair and two men reclined on chaise lounges with drinks in their hands. A low table beside the woman had bottles and an ice bucket on it. The pool glittered light blue and silver. A woman's laugh, uncannily piercing, bounced off the water and through the screen door to us. The men chuckled. When Chet slid open the door, all three heads were already turned our way.

Chet introduced us. Danny, an associate professor of mathematics at a local private college, was fifty and distinguished looking, slender from a diet of cigarettes and gin. He gave no sign of knowing me. Marlon was sad faced, big shouldered and slow. A bright green and yellow Hawaiian shirt with parrots on it hung over him. Late twenties. Beneath his lugubrious eyebrows, his blue eyes were fast and anxious. We didn't shake hands: sex criminals generally don't like to touch or be touched by strangers. Neither do I. Caryn was mid-thirties. Her yellow hair was cut big—blown and sprayed back from her face like the Cosmo models of some years ago. She had smooth skin and a receding chin made worse by big teeth. After she smiled she closed her mouth down pretty quick, like her teeth might getaway. She was short legged and full in the chest, and all the hair made her look top-heavy. Her voice was a rasp, vaguely southern.

"Well, nice to finally meet you, Art. Chet here's been telling me all about you." Her voice was friendly and open while her dark brown eyes narrowed to study me hard. "Whatcha drinkin'?"

"Scotch and soda, if you have it."

"We can handle that." She started making the drink. "Chet tells me you're an investor?"

"I do have a few investments. Conservative stuff, mostly just mutual funds. Some munis, so long as the Fed rates stay down. Some company stock."

"Like it strong?"


"She's going to like you."

"I'm still a little—"

She handed me a clear highball glass with a silhouette of the Manhattan skyline on it.

"—Drink up, Art. It's a good way to get yourself comfortable. Drink all you want, just so's it doesn't make you mean."

"Thanks, Caryn."

Her dark little eyes bore into me suddenly. "No rough stuff, Art. I mean none."

"Chet told me."

"Now I'm telling you again."

"That's not me."

Her eyes stayed hard but her teeth escaped into a smile. "I'm not gonna win any mom-of-the-year award, but I keep a close eye on my girl."

"That's the way it should be."

"That's the way it is here."

Caryn's hard gaze dissolved as she looked over at Danny. He nodded and lifted his drink.

"You know, Art," she said, "you're going to have to give me some tips on investing. I want to make some good money. I got to thinking about starting an emu ranch. They're worth a lot of money. You know, those big birds they got out now?"

"Steer clear of that, Caryn. It's more like a pyramid scheme. Plus, who the hell's going to buy an emu from you?"

"One egg feeds a family of five."

"Where you going to find a family that eats emu eggs?"

"Internet, maybe? Beats me."

She crunched some ice from her drink. "I've been wanting to get into stocks my whole life. Something safe, but something with a good payback. My bank CDs are getting like, well I'm not sure, but those stocks I hear are going up 20 percent and all."

"Well, some of them are, Caryn. The thing to remember is a lot of those stocks weren't up at all last year. Stocks should be long term. If you want to play them short for a big return, well, that's where you get burned. Still beat emus, though."

She seemed somehow burdened by this idea. "The little guys, like Chet and me, we ought to have someway of getting profits like the big boys. He works hard. I work hard. Get to the end of the year and what do you have? Same as you started the year off with. Lauren's chippin' about college already. I don't even know if she's smart enough. But it costs real bread."

"There's a couple of education trusts that are—"

"—Want to see her?"


Caryn led me back into the living room and down a short hallway. We stood outside the door on our right. Caryn raised her fist and knocked as she pushed open the door. "Sweetie? Lauren? This here's Art, one of our new friends?"

Chet had said she was ten, and he wasn't lying. Pedophiles usually round the age down. Lauren was cute in a plain, wholesome way, slender and rather tall. She stood there beside the bed at loose attention, her hands folded behind her back and her feet turned in, looking not quite at me and not quite away. She had her mother's dark eyes and nice skin. Dad's dark hair. Caryn had dressed her in a simple blue smock dress, white socks turned down and red canvas tennies with cartoon characters on them. Her hair was parted in the middle and tied off in two opposing pigtails that fell to her shoulders. The pigtails are a well-known deviant's delight, and I was instantly furious at Lauren being turned out by this woman next to me, her mother. Lauren was the picture of innocence, and I wanted to run out of the house with her and take her someplace where her childhood could be removed like a bad part and replaced with a new, better one. One of my faults is that I feel children are precious. There was a TV going in the corner—music videos—and an open textbook on the bed. Dangling from the closet door were a couple of clothes hangers with a skirt and blouse on them, still packaged in clear plastic from the cleaners. In another corner stood a full-length mirror framed by those makeup lights you see backstage.

"Oh. Hi."

Chet had told me he "started her" when she was two, taking pictures of her naked, getting her "used to things." He gradually escalated the touching to include himself. He turned her to friends for profit when she was six—more pictures, more touching. She really took to it. Anything you wanted. Chet had ruined an entire life. In that moment, if he had been there with us, I would have had to restrain myself from pushing him into the hallway out of his daughter's sight and killing him bare-handed. I knew there was no way that Lauren would ever have her childhood replaced with a better one. It would be her foundation forever, a nightmare from which she could never quite awaken, a painful haze through which she sleepwalked the daily thing called her life. Lauren had the resigned eyes and the aura of passive invincibility found in nearly all children who have escaped to the last place they can go—to the private, silent cave of their own selves.

She looked at me very briefly, and I looked very briefly back, trying to tell her with my eyes that I was not what she thought I was. But I could tell by the way she looked away that she already knew who I was, and why I was here. There are few more heartbreaking expressions in the world than that of a child who has given up hope on you.

"Your dad tells me you're a good student," I said.

She shrugged, her gaze fell to the carpet and she mumbled, "Pretty good."

"What's your favorite subject?"


"His name is Art, honey. Isn't that nice?"

"I know," Lauren answered, with a slow glance at her mother and just a hint of impatience.

"You like that," I asked, "the drawing and painting?"

"It's all on computer. I made a picture."

"Show him," said Caryn.

Lauren stepped over to her dresser and took a piece of paper off the top. It was kind of a montage, like kids used to make with construction paper and clips from magazines. There was an image of desert sand dunes at night, blue in the light of a full moon, one of those mood shots used to advertise perfume, or maybe a utility vehicle. I guess she'd scanned it in first. Then there were small smiling faces within the dunes—models and movie stars. At the bottom was a candle in a shiny gold candleholder, and the flame seemed to be reaching up into the desert and lighting the faces looking out of the sand.

"That's really something," I said. I didn't have to fake my admiration at all—I was truly befuddled that a ten-year-old could make such a sophisticated piece of work on a computer. I held the piece out and studied it. I told her I had a computer at home, but it was always giving me problems and flashing up options I didn't call for and didn't know what to do with.

She looked at me with her calm, subdued eyes. "Click help."


"On the toolbar. Help. Then do what it says."

"Well, thanks. I'll remember that."

She took back the sheet and set it on top of the dresser. Then she hiked herself onto the bed and looked at me, then at her mother. "I've got the stomachache," she said.

"Ah, honey, I'll get you something for it. Don'tcha worry about a thing. Come on, Art, let's go make up something good for Lauren's tummy. See you in a while, sweetie. Say good-bye to Art for now."

"'Bye, Art."

"Good-bye, Lauren."

In the kitchen, Caryn mixed up Lauren's medicine: a big mug of whole milk, with a shot of chocolate liqueur, a shot of cheap bourbon and some cinnamon sprinkled on top. She put it in the microwave to warm it up.

"Settles her stomach," said Caryn. "She really likes it."

Not even Caryn could look at me as she said this. I watched her quick little smile come and go, and she opened the microwave and handed me the cup. "Take it to her, and don't touch."

I knocked on her door and waited for her to say something. I heard the book shut, then the rustling of fabric on fabric. She opened the door and looked up at me. I held out the mug to her and tried again, with my eyes, to tell her I was not who she thought I was. She took the cup in both hands and sipped some, her eyes focused down at the liquid like a kid will do. Then she looked up at me again and smiled just a little. A smile of invitation. She cocked her head and closed her eyes slowly, then opened them again about halfway in a sleepy, bedroom look—a gesture so startling I wanted, again, to just grab her and make a run for it. Daylight. Freedom.

"Hang in there," I said.


"Because I'm asking you to."

I had to wonder what my team, picking up every word that was said in here, made of this statement.

"You have to talk to Mom."

"I will. Believe me."

"I do what she says. And Dad says."

"It's going to be all right."

She looked at me with her dark dead eyes and shut the door.

* * *

An hour later the men were drunk and eating hamburgers and store-bought potato salad. I drank right along with them, but I can hold a lot of booze and not show it. The evening had turned cool so everyone had on light coats or sweaters. The sun was still a half an hour from setting and I pictured Johnny and Frances sitting in their car, just beyond the cinder-block wall that ended the backyard. I pictured Louis in the black antmobile, dressed in his exterminator's costume with his automatic in the big radio holster. I pictured Lauren sitting on her bed, watching videos, drinking milk and bourbon to dull her nerves against the things to come.

Marlon drained his fifth or sixth highball. He finished grilling me about stock market ideas and asked if the Brandywine Fund is really all it's cracked up to be. He paused, then laughed overloud when I told him it was a good fund, but too much of it could impair his ability to drive or operate machinery. His face was covered in a light brown beard that matched his hair, and the whole thing kind of crinkled in on itself when he laughed. His eyes were nervous again when he stopped.

"What do you do, Marlon?"

"Caryn, can I build another one of these?"

She looked at him and told him to build away, and another one for her, too—rum and Coke, mostly rum. I watched him lumber to the drink table. When he reached out for a bottle I saw his shirt catch on something at his hip.

"I'm a supervisor at the school district," he said. "Got about thirty janitors under me."

"Sounds like good work."

"Pays the bills."

This talk is nearly all lies, and we all know it, but that is how things are done. The names are false, the occupations invented, the interests faked. It's partly for security—in case anyone of them is popped or propositioned by law enforcement; it's partly the logical stance from men who, on one level, are deeply ashamed of what they do. Occasionally, you'll find a deviant who feels no shame at all, no remorse for his acts. Danny, whom we flipped quite easily, is not one of those. My guess is that Marlon is not, either, and that the handgun under his shirt is just another compensation for his profound and thorough inadequacies. I didn't make him for the kind of guy who would have the nuts to use it, but I've been wrong before. Chet is the real catch here, the sociopath, the only one cold enough inside to turn a profit on perversion, with his daughter as the product. Caryn is driven by greed, low intelligence and by hatred of the girl her husband prefers over her. Like most people who do this kind of thing, both Chet and Caryn were probably used sexually as youngsters themselves, came from measurably terrible childhoods that they will never outgrow. They're passing down the legacy to Lauren now, and, in the spirit of free enterprise, making it pay.

Danny kept to himself and no one said much to him. He seemed to feel superior to us all, but from the nonreaction of the others I gathered it was his usual way. My little Judas, counting down the minutes, guzzling down the gin. I had assured him that if he failed me even in some small way, his leniency deal would be shot and I'd personally see to it that they threw the book at him and plastered his picture all over the newspapers and TV. This guy's got a wife and two grown kids, and a tenured position. I'd never dealt with a more agreeable subject. All he had to do now was wait. He looked distressed, though. Maybe he just wanted to be in Lauren's room one more time in his life.

Chet reclined, gulped his drink and watched us. He smiled slyly at me a couple of times, a can-you-believe-this smile, trying to welcome me to the club. Caryn waited on him, bringing him his dinner on a real plate—the rest of us had paper and plastic. She moved mechanically, like her responsibilities could quickly overwhelm her if she didn't stay in control. I tried to guess how many times they'd done this. And I sensed it was time to make my move.

I rose and slid my chaise next to Chet's. He gave me a not-in-the-program look. I wanted to get the heart of this transaction for the tape for the DA. I sat on the edge and leaned toward him confidentially.

"I'm afraid Lauren won't like me," I said.

Chet's eyes narrowed as he vetted my intentions. "She likes who I tell her to like."

"But, well, are you sure she'll like me?"

"What's wrong with you, Art?"

"I just told you."

"Look, if it's you you're worried about, just let her do her thing. She knows what to do."

"I'm thinking that fifteen hundred is going to seem pretty expensive if she's scared or not turned on."

"Art, we covered this already. If you're scared then I'll take you home right now. But this is a professional operation here, so I'm going to keep that money of yours either way. You need to have this kinda shit settled before you come over."

I nodded and looked down at the patio. "I'm all right."

"You're all right, Art."

"Just you know first-time jitters."

"Make yourself another drink, man. Relax. We're adults doing adult things. Nobody's doing anything they don't want to. Fuckin' relax, man, you're making me nervous."

"Got it."

I stood up and dragged the chaise lounge back where it was, regarded the pool for a moment, then started making another drink. Chet was looking at me and I didn't like the silence around it.

Caryn was eyeing me, too.

And then Marlon.

Danny was trying hard not to.

"Hey, babe," Chet said to Caryn.

"Yeah, babe?"

She had just sat down with her paper plate of food. He nodded his head toward the house and she got back up, setting her plate on the drink table.

He grinned at me. I grinned back.

Caryn walked toward the house with an air of self-conscious drama. It was her gait, I think, that suggested the importance of what she was doing—deliberate and measured but not slow, like she was walking between walls of flames, like this was a mission only she could accomplish, like the world really needed her now.

She went inside for about twenty minutes, and when she came back, Lauren was with her.

They'd dressed her in a short black skirt and red heels. Her face was made up and her lips painted, and perhaps most revolting of all, they'd left her little pigtails alone and they stuck out from her whore's paint job as a monument to her childishness. No, what was most revolting was the change in her personality now, the way she changed like any girl trying on her mother's clothes, playacting her vision of womanhood, performing her concept of how a woman acted and how a woman walked and how she looked at you. And I could see that Linda Elizabeth Sharpe, age ten, had been trained to believe that a woman was an object to arouse men. A painted, alluring item. A fuck in red heels.

She walked past me. I could smell perfume and a trace of booze on her. She stopped at the drink table, sloshed a little bourbon into a plastic cup, twirled and drank it.

"Wooh!" Marlon yelped quietly. "Hot stuff!"

Lauren smiled and set down the cup. She walked over to Chet and pecked him on the cheek.

Danny stood up then. He swayed a little, but he had a matter-of-fact expression on his face. I should have seen it coming, but I hadn't.

Suddenly it was over, and it was too late.

"Chet," he said loudly. "Art's a cop."

* * *

My heart was slamming in my eardrums.

"Not funny, my man," I said.

Chet froze a look at me.

Marlon shifted his big body around and his hand came out with a revolver. "I thought he was a cop the second I saw him. Chet?"

"Boys," said Caryn, her rasp brittle with nerves. "Boys? Put up that thing, Marlon, for godsakes—"

"—Shut up!" said Danny, stepping to Marlon. "Give me the gun, fatso. I'll prove what he is."

Chet stood up. "One—Marlon, put that thing away. Two—Caryn, get Lauren in the house. Three—Art, you stay exactly where you are, friend."

"Lighten up, Chet," I said. "You too, Marlon. If I was a cop, the last thing you'd want to do is bring out a gun."

But Marlon, red faced now and sweating hard, pointed the big revolver at me, right at my chest. "Cop!"

"Come on," I said. "What is this, something you guys pull on the first-timers? Marlon, don't point that thing at me. Chet what's going on here? I didn't pay good money to—"

"He's a cop!" hissed Danny. "Tapped my phone. Made me set you guys up. Said he'd get me on the news if I didn't, wreck my whole family. His name's Naughton."

Chet looked at me, then at Danny. His gears were meshing.

It all happened at once. Johnny grunted to the top of the cinder-block wall on the far side of the pool. Marlon turned his head to the sound and Danny smashed his fist down onto the big man's wrist. Caryn whispered shit and ran. Danny picked up Marlon's revolver and looked at me, slurred I'm gone and blew a hole in his temple. His head jerked one way and a spout of dark blood wobbled out the other. He slumped over on the pool deck. Chet had already jumped the drink table and disappeared inside the house. Marlon held his wrist and lumbered toward the screen door, his eyes big and his mouth open in a silent O. I grabbed Lauren on her way by and fell on her. She screamed, then sunk her teeth into my face. I got my hand over her mouth. When I looked up Chet was hauling back out of the house with a little automatic in his hand. Marlon trailed him, blubbering. Louis the exterminator screamed from behind them—Sheriffs, freeze! Chet stopped at the pool and looked at Johnny and Frances, drawn down across the water from him. Then he reeled back for a look at the house. Marlon had already proned himself out, his arms over his head. Chet looked at me. Don't shoot, he said. He dropped the gun and put up his hands. I want my lawyer. Caryn's vulgar rasp grated from inside the house and then I could see her—all hair and flailing fists—thrashing in the grip of Louis, who pushed her through the open screen door, down to the patio deck, and cuffed her.

Underneath me, Lauren was crying. I could smell the bourbon on her breath and feel her wet face against my neck. I cradled her head in my hand, but I was careful not to hold her too tight. I knew that I had done something good. I couldn't keep from thinking of Matthew.

© T. Jefferson Parker