Prologue, Part One
Four a.m., May 23, 1992
Long legged and nearly naked, the reclining woman stared into the
night, her huge eyes blank and soulless, her long hair barely
covering her voluptuous breasts.
She saw everything, and nothing.
The deserted street was dark.
Her expression never changed as the sleek car on the street below
turned left into a Dumpster-lined alley and crept to a halt. The
driver killed the lights. He and another man in dark clothes
emerged and quietly approached a steel-plated door. The passenger
carried a small suitcase.
In this silent hour before dawn, they could hear the sea pounding
the sandy shore four hundred yards away and smell the salt in the
air. The driver punched the buzzer beside the door as his passenger
nervously scanned the street outside. He looked up at the reclining
woman, who smiled seductively.
"Yeah?" The static-distorted voice was almost a bark.
"It's me," the driver said.
"Sorry about that. You know how it is."
"Who the hell's that with you?"
"My cousin, from out of town. I want you to meet him."
The buzzer sounded, locks disengaged. The driver swung the door
open and gestured for his companion to follow.
On the stairs, the driver appeared preternaturally calm, his steps
light as his companion stumbled hesitantly along behind him.
The nervous man reacted at the sound of a second buzzer that
unlocked a heavy door at the top of the stairs.
A handsome, muscular man in his late thirties sprang up to greet
them with such enthusiasm that his thick, padded leather chair
continued to rock behind his massive mahogany desk.
His face was pink-cheeked, his eyes and hair dark and shiny. His
watch was Rolex, his suit expensive, his winking pinky ring a
diamond. He clenched a fine, unlit cigar between his teeth.
"Hey, hey, Buddy." He playfully punched his visitor's shoulder,
caught him in a hearty bear hug, then stepped back to scrutinize
"Who's this, your cousin? He could be your fucking brother. I see
the family resemblance."
"Meet my cousin Michael."
"So," Chris said, "didn't know you had a cousin." He turned to the
stranger, "Me and your cousin Buddy, we go way back, all the way to
Chris shook Michael's hand. "So which side a the family you
The stranger hesitated.
"My father's," Buddy said quickly. "His father was my father's
"So where you from?"
Michael licked his lips and glanced at Buddy before replying.
"Milwaukee," he said.
Chris's hooded eyes became thoughtful and he returned to sit behind
his desk. A top drawer was slightly open, just a few inches. "Did
you bring what I asked for?"
"Don't I always?" Buddy jerked his head toward the suitcase on the
floor beside Michael. "How's about I fix you two a drink
Chris nodded. "Sure."
"I'll get it, don't get up." With the familiarity of a man who had
been there many times, Buddy moved smoothly behind the desk to the
custom, built-in bar. "The usual, Chris?"
"What about you, Michael?"
"Scotch, if you have it."
"Siddown," Chris told him.
Michael sat tentatively on the edge of a red plush sofa.
Ice rattled into a heavy crystal glass.
Buddy left the glass on the marble-topped bar, stepped two feet to
Chris's desk, and slid a 9mm silencer-equipped Luger out of a
shoulder holster. As Chris turned to take the glass, Buddy shot him
in the face at close range.
Chris jerked back in his chair, his head at an awkward angle, mouth
open in surprise at the geyser of blood spurting onto the front of
his white shirt.
It showered onto the desk blotter as he slumped sideways in his
chair. Stepping back so he would not be spattered, Buddy stretched
his arm full length and pumped another slug into the back of the
convulsing man's head.
The spasms stopped.
"Hated to do that, but it's the way it's gotta be," Buddy said
regretfully. He turned to Michael, who sat frozen on the red plush
couch, eyes wide.
"Come on, come on! It's right over here." Buddy opened the
concealed bookcase safe, which was not locked.
His shaken companion, still staring at the corpse, looked up and
swallowed. Hands shaking, he opened the suitcase and removed a
folded supersize duffel bag.
"Fill 'em up! Fill 'em up!" Buddy demanded.
Galvanized into action by the still-smoking gun in Buddy's hand,
Michael began to stuff cash into the suitcase.
"How much you think is in here?" He looked in awe at the big bills
stacked tightly on floor-to-ceiling shelves.
"Maybe two million," Buddy said calmly. "Make sure you pack it ---
" Both men's eyes widened at a small explosion of sound, a toilet
flushing in the next room.
"You said nobody else would be here!" Michael's whisper was
The door to the private bathroom opened.
"Honey? Chris, honey?"
Smile tentative, she stepped into the room. A stripper from the
club downstairs, the new girl.
She looked young, still wearing her scanty work clothes, glittery
pasties and a G-string. Sparkly angel dust accented her eyelids and
She approached them, shaky on strappy stiletto heels. One more step
and she would see Chris, his blood spilling down the side of the
chair, soaking into the thick carpet.
Buddy cursed. Who knew Chris would be indulging in his own private
after-hours lap dance?
"Bring her over here," he told Michael.
"Ma'am," Michael said apologetically, and reached for her elbow.
She took the fatal step, her painted face puzzled. She screamed, a
high, shrill shriek.
"Over here!" Buddy demanded, face flushed.
Once she was dead, they filled the bags. When they were unable to
cram another greenback into the duffel bag or the suitcase, Buddy
yanked out a deep desk drawer, dumped the contents, and filled it
with bills. He also removed the dead man's gun from the slightly
open top drawer.
"What about the camera hooked up to that intercom?" Michael
"Doesn't record," Buddy said confidently. "Nothing to worry
They took the night's receipts, still stacked on the desk, put them
in the safe, locked it, wiped down all they had touched, and left
the way they came.
Michael was hyperventilating, breathing hard and trembling. "You
didn't tell me --- "
"Be cool," Buddy warned him, as they carried the bags down the
The street was still deserted.
Buddy dumped the cash out of the desk drawer into the trunk of
their car. A block away he had Michael toss the wiped-down drawer
and Chris's gun into the backseat of an unlocked, beat-up Chevy
convertible. As Michael darted back to the car, heart pounding, he
looked up for a moment at the distant figure of the reclining
woman, long yellow hair aglow in the warmth of neon. She stared
back, her wet, red smile seductive.
Prologue, Part Two
Later That day
High-pitched screams and ear-splitting shrieks shattered the air.
What must the neighbors think? Joan wondered.
Grinning, she closed one eye and peered through the video camera's
viewfinder, slowly panning the front yard.
A bouquet of bright balloons bobbed above the mailbox, marking the
party's location. Two picnic tables adorned with festive paper
tablecloths stood in the shade of a huge black olive tree. The
paper plates, napkins, and party favors were all in red, white, and
blue rocket ship patterns. A sweating galvanized copper tub held
soda cans and juice cartons nestled in an icy slush. Puffy white
clouds sailed across a serene blue sky above while happy chaos
HoHo the Clown twisted squeaky balloons into animal shapes as a
rent-a-pony, led by a handler wearing a Stetson and cowboy boots,
plodded docilely around the circular old Chicago brick driveway.
"Giddeup! Giddeup!" bawled the rider, an impatient third
The loudest shrieks came from children rebounding wildly off the
bright, inflatable walls of the rented Bounce House. They sprang
and ricocheted off the floors and even the ceiling in daredevil
imitations of superheroes, Olympic gymnasts, and human flies.
Joan focused on her husband. Red-faced and perspiring, he manned
the grill, an unruly shock of curly dark hair plastered across his
forehead. Stan wore sunglasses, oven mitts, a bib apron over his
T-shirt and khaki Bermuda shorts as he flipped burgers and plump
hot dogs that sputtered juice into the fire.
Stan winked at her and the camera, then addressed the crush of
partyers around him. "How many want burgers? Two, three, that's
four. How many want cheese on their burgers? Okay. How many hot
"Both. I want both," Lionel demanded. The husky eight-year-old was
built like a gap-toothed pit bull with freckles.
"Coming right up!" Stan adjusted his chef's hat to a jaunty
Lionel screwed up his face in disdain. "My dad doesn't do it that
"Who invited Lionel?" Stan muttered to his wife. "You know he's a
troublemaker. His own mother calls him Lying Hell."
"Sssshhh. Honey." Joan rolled her eyes and lowered her voice. "He
might hear you. Sally's my best friend."
"But she doesn't call her son Lying Hell for nothing. Look." He cut
his eyes at Lionel, who was up to his dimpled elbows in a huge bowl
of Cheez Doodles.
"Just keep an eye on him," Joan urged. "I already briefed Consuela,
if she ever gets here." She checked her watch. "Where'd you put the
"On the pantry counter, still in the box from the Cuban bakery. You
sure it's safe to feed them more sugar?"
As though on cue, Ryan, the birthday boy, scrambled around the side
of the house. In hot pursuit were Sookie, the golden retriever, and
half a dozen guests. Half of Ryan's face was painted blue, his legs
churned, his cardboard crown was askew.
Joan focused on her firstborn on the occasion of his eighth
birthday. It seemed only yesterday that she was being rushed into
surgery for an emergency C-section. Could it really be eight years?
Given his exuberance, no one would ever guess that last night Ryan
had fretted, pouted, even threatened to boycott his own party. He
wanted fireworks. For days he had nagged, pleaded, and cajoled. His
third-grade buddies expected fireworks, he'd argued. He intended to
be an astronaut, speeding in swaths of fire across the galaxy. His
party theme was rockets. He wanted fireworks.
His five-year-old sister's birthday theme had been The Little
Mermaid. Her party favors, he pointed out, included real live
goldfish in clear water-filled plastic bags. "She always gets
everything she wants," he'd howled.
Joan and Stan had nearly caved. A boy is only eight once. But with
memories of the barbecue debacle involving Lionel last Fourth of
July, it was not going to happen.
Ryan would be king for a day, with a crown, a clown, a
rocket-shaped cake --- but fireworks? No. Not even a
Consuela materialized and helped Joan refill bowls of chips and
Cheez Doodles. Half-empty sodas and half-eaten food were
Stan served up Lionel's hot dog and burger with a flourish.
"Eewwuuh. What's that?" The child poked a grubby finger at the
"Cheese. You wanted cheese," Stan said pleasantly.
"You don't have bleu cheese?"
"Nope, only American."
His freckled nose wrinkled.
"Right." Stan tossed another burger on the grill. "I'll fix you one
Before he could reach for the boy's plate, Lionel was feeding his
cheeseburger and hot dog to the golden retriever.
"Sookie likes it." Lionel beamed a cherubic smile, then frowned at
the fresh burger Stan offered.
"My father doesn't do it that way." Sookie's plumed tail began to
"Oh?" Stan's eyebrows arched.
"No. He puts the catsup on both sides of the bun first, then the
hamburger." Lionel folded his arms and scowled.
"Here, Lionel, you can do the honors."
Lionel reached for the catsup bottle and scrutinized the label, his
expression sour. "You don't have Heinz?"
Stan bared his teeth and made an evil monster face.
• • •
Blue-green horseflies dive-bombed the baked beans. Joan waved them
away, eager to finish feeding the kids before the semitropical sun
fried their little brains. Some of the smaller ones already glowed
pink despite slathers of sunscreen. She hurried inside for the
pièce de résistance.
In the cool quiet of the pantry, she savored the moment away from
the clamor. Comforting rows of canned goods and food cartons stood
like soldiers at attention, arranged precisely by date on
plastic-lined shelves. Humming "Happy Birthday," she opened the
pristine white box from the Cuban bakery --- and gasped.
Screams had elevated to an even higher pitch at party central.
Lionel had discovered the box of matches intended to light the
candles. Striking them one by one, he was throwing the flaring
matches at little girls who fled shrieking.
"Stop that, Lionel!" Joan snatched away the box and confronted her
husband. "I thought you were watching him!"
"I'm just trying to get them to sit down for HoHo's magic tricks
--- and watch the grill at the same time." Stan's long-suffering
expression was that of an overburdened and misunderstood man.
"What's wrong, honey?" He removed his chef's hat and mopped his
"The cake." She studied him. The moment was tense. "Did you happen
to check it when you picked it up?" The words were ominous.
"No," he said cautiously. "I still had to pick up the balloons and
the hot dogs. The box was tied up and ready. Our name was on it. I
have the receipt."
"Follow me." She sounded close to tears. "Why can't anything ever
be just right?" She steered him into the pantry. "I described it
twice. They said they understood. A rocket, I told them, with
'Happy Birthday to Ryan, Future Astronaut.' "
"Right." Stan nodded.
She lifted the lid, wrists curled as though unveiling a
The words spun out in sugary blue frosting were correct: "Happy
Birthday to Ryan, Future Astronaut."
But the cake was not rocket-shaped.
"A racquet," Stan finally said. "It's a tennis racquet."
"Thank you," Joan said. "I guess I'm not losing my mind."
They laughed and clung to each other until their eyes
"We should get out there," she said, wiping her face on his sleeve.
"Before Lionel kills the dog or burns the house to the
"You don't think he'd really hurt Sookie, do you?"
"One never knows, though nothing can top this."
Most of the children were seated on the lawn watching HoHo's
repertoire of tricks. Lionel was tying a dachshund-shaped balloon
to Sookie's collar as though expecting it to lift the big, affable
dog into the air à la Mary Poppins.
Consuela, short and compact in her white uniform, gently placed the
birthday cake center front on the picnic table, then stepped back
to scrutinize it. She cocked her head, puzzled, then shrugged. Long
ago she'd stopped trying to understand the people who employed her.
She tucked the matchbox in her pocket and turned to see what Lionel
was up to now.
The boy had actually paused to watch HoHo. The clown displayed an
empty glass. With a flourish, he filled it with water from a
plastic pitcher. Suddenly he upended the glass. Not a drop
"That's not magic!" Lionel screeched, above squeals and applause.
"I know how he did it! He had powdery stuff in the bottom of the
glass. It makes the water hard, like Jell-O!"
HoHo ignored his heckler. He waved a red silk scarf above his head
like a banner, faster and faster. The scarf was redder than his
spiky hair and painted cheeks, as red as his shiny, oversized
Suddenly he balled the scarf in his fist. Then threw his hands
open, palms outstretched. It had vanished.
HoHo's triumphant bows were interrupted by a hacking cough. He
coughed again and again, then opened his mouth wide and reached
down his throat. With a grand, theatrical gesture he slowly
withdrew the long red scarf from way down below his tonsils.
A loud whoosh! punctuated the cheers and applause.
Joan glanced up from the camera's viewfinder, startled, her anxious
eyes instinctively seeking out her son.
Ryan stood at HoHo's elbow, face shining.
"Fireworks!" He threw his arms in the air, victorious. "Yes! I got
Across the street, the garage erupted. Smoke spiraled. Flames
leaped. The children cheered. The garage door exploded outward. The
pony bolted. It gave a terrified whinny, then galloped down
Mariposa Lane toward the golf course, empty stirrups swinging. His
handler chased him, losing his Stetson in the middle of the block.
Chunks of burning wreckage catapulted high into the air and began
to fall in slow motion onto
the Walkers' lawn between the balloon bouquet and the circular
drive. Sookie fled, tail tucked between her legs.
Car and house alarms wailed. Towering tongues of red and orange
flame danced high into a brilliant blue sky. Sparks showered and
sizzled amid black smoke.
"I didn't do it! I didn't do it!" Lionel's pudgy legs churned,
pounding the pavement toward home.
The cheers had stopped. The children stood silent and wide-eyed,
"Mom?" Ryan's voice sounded high-pitched and querulous.
"¡Dios mío!" Consuela fell to her knees and crossed
herself, eyes to heaven.
"Mommeee!" "Mommeee!" children began screaming.
"Vanessa wet her pants!" a tattler bawled.
"Joanie, get all the kids inside! Call nine-one-one." Stan sprinted
toward the burning garage. The heat forced him back. He peeled off
his apron as he dashed to the side of the house for his garden
"No, Stan! No!" Joan and Consuela were herding frightened children
inside. "Don't go there! I'm calling the fire department!"
The first fire company arrived in six minutes. To Joan and Stanley
Walker it seemed forever. Adrenaline-charged children shrieked at
the sirens and cheered the rescue truck, the engine, the pumper,
and the first squad card.
Firefighters dragged a blitz line off the pumper. They ran a second
line from a hydrant. The garage was fully involved. Flames roared
through a wall, engulfing the kitchen. Tendrils of orange danced
along the roof line.
Firemen in self-contained breathing apparatus knocked down flames,
battling to save the house. At the end of the street, police
officers shouted but were unable to stop a midnight blue Jaguar
that hurtled crazily around their barricades. Brakes squealing, it
swerved to a stop on the next-door lawn. Leaving her baby strapped
in a car seat, the young woman driver, her black hair flowing long
and loose, stumbled out into the dense smoke that roiled down the
"My husband! My husband!" she screamed. "Where is he? He was
working on his car! Where is he?"
Firefighters held her back. Suddenly she stopped struggling and
sagged in their arms as the smell of something terrible wafted
across the street. Something burned.
HoHo the Clown threw up on the lawn.