A man begins dying at the moment of his birth. Most
people live in denial of Death's patient courtship until, late in
life and deep in sickness, they become aware of him sitting
Eventually, Mitchell Rafferty would be able to cite the minute that
he began to recognize the inevitability of his death: Monday, May
14, 11:43 in the morning --- three weeks short of his twenty-eighth
Until then, he had rarely thought of dying. A born optimist,
charmed by nature's beauty and amused by humanity, he had no cause
or inclination to wonder when and how his mortality would be
When the call came, he was on his knees.
Thirty flats of red and purple impatiens remained to be planted.
The flowers produced no fragrance, but the fertile smell of the
soil pleased him.
His clients, these particular homeowners, liked saturated colors:
red, purple, deep yellow, hot pink. They would not accept white
blooms or pastels.
Mitch understood them. Raised poor, they had built a
successful business by working hard and taking risks. To them, life
was intense, and saturated colors reflected the truth of nature's
This apparently ordinary but in fact momentous morning, the
California sun was a buttery ball. The sky had a basted
Pleasantly warm, not searing, the day nevertheless left a greasy
sweat on Ignatius Barnes. His brow glistened. His chin
At work in the same bed of flowers, ten feet from Mitch, Iggy
looked boiled. From May until July, his skin responded to the sun
not with melanin but with a fierce blush. For one-sixth of the
year, before he finally tanned, he appeared to be perpetually
Iggy did not possess an understanding of symmetry and harmony in
landscape design, and he couldn't be trusted to trim roses
properly. He was a hard worker, however, and good if not
intellectually bracing company.
"You hear what happened to Ralph Gandhi?" Iggy asked.
"Who's Ralph Gandhi?"
"Mickey Gandhi? I don't know him, either."
"Sure you do," Iggy said. "Mickey, he hangs out sometimes at
Rolling Thunder was a surfers' bar.
"I haven't been there in years," Mitch said.
"Years? Are you serious?"
"I thought you still dropped in sometimes."
"So I've really been missed, huh?"
"I'll admit, nobody's named a bar stool after you. What --- did you
find someplace better than Rolling Thunder?"
"Remember coming to my wedding three years ago?" Mitch asked.
"Sure. You had great seafood tacos, but the band was woofy."
"They weren't woofy."
"Man, they had tambourines."
"We were on a budget. At least they didn't have an
"Because playing an accordion exceeded their skill level."
Mitch troweled a cavity in the loose soil. "They didn't have finger
Wiping his brow with one forearm, Iggy complained: "I must have
Eskimo genes. I break a sweat at fifty degrees."
Mitch said, "I don't do bars anymore. I do marriage."
"Yeah, but can't you do marriage and Rolling Thunder?"
"I'd just rather be home than anywhere else."
"Oh, boss, that's sad," said Iggy.
"It's not sad. It's the best."
"If you put a lion in a zoo three years, six years, he never
forgets what freedom was like."
Planting purple impatiens, Mitch said, "How would you know? You
ever asked a lion?"
"I don't have to ask one. I am a lion."
"You're a hopeless boardhead."
"And proud of it. I'm glad you found Holly. She's a great lady. But
I've got my freedom."
"Good for you, Iggy. And what do you do with it?"
"Do with what?"
"Your freedom. What do you do with your freedom?"
"Anything I want."
"Like, for example?"
"Anything. Like, if I want sausage pizza for dinner, I don't have
to ask anyone what she wants."
"If I want to go to Rolling Thunder for a few beers, there's nobody
to bitch at me."
"Holly doesn't bitch."
"I can get beer-slammed every night if I want, and nobody's gonna
be calling to ask when am I coming home."
Mitch began to whistle "Born Free."
"Some wahine comes on to me," Iggy said, "I'm free to rock and
"They're coming on to you all the time --- are they? --- those sexy
"Women are bold these days, boss. They see what they want, they
just take it."
Mitch said, "Iggy, the last time you got laid, John Kerry thought
he was going to be president."
"That's not so long ago."
"So what happened to Ralph?"
"Mickey Gandhi's brother."
"Oh, yeah. An iguana bit off his nose."
"Some fully macking ten-footers were breaking, so Ralph and some
guys went night-riding at the Wedge."
The Wedge was a famous surfing spot at the end of the Balboa
Peninsula, in Newport Beach.
Iggy said, "They packed coolers full of submarine sandwiches and
beer, and one of them brought Ming."
"That's the iguana."
"So it was a pet?"
"Ming, he'd always been sweet before."
"I'd expect iguanas to be moody."
"No, they're affectionate. What happened was some wanker, not even
a surfer, just a wannabe tag-along, slipped Ming a quarter-dose of
meth in a piece of salami."
"Reptiles on speed," Mitch said, "is a bad idea."
"Meth Ming was a whole different animal from clean-and-sober Ming,"
Putting down his trowel, sitting back on the heels of his work
shoes, Mitch said, "So now Ralph Gandhi is noseless?"
"Ming didn't eat the nose. He just bit it off and spit it
"Maybe he didn't like Indian food."
"They had a big cooler full of ice water and beer. They put the
nose in the cooler and rushed it to the hospital."
"Did they take Ralph, too?"
"They had to take Ralph. It was his nose."
"Well," Mitch said, "we are talking about boardheads."
"They said it was kinda blue when they fished it out of the ice
water, but a plastic surgeon sewed it back on, and now it's not
"What happened to Ming?"
"He crashed. He was totally amped-out for a day. Now he's his old
"That's good. It's probably hard to find a clinic that'll do iguana
Mitch got to his feet and retrieved three dozen empty plastic plant
pots. He carried them to his extended-bed pickup.
The truck stood at the curb, in the shade of an Indian laurel.
Although the neighborhood had been built-out only five years
earlier, the big tree had already lifted the sidewalk. Eventually
the insistent roots would block lawn drains and invade the sewer
The developer's decision to save one hundred dollars by
not installing a root barrier would produce tens of thousands
in repair work for plumbers, landscapers, and concrete
When Mitch planted an Indian laurel, he always used a root barrier.
He didn't need to make future work for himself. Green growing
Nature would keep him busy.
The street lay silent, without traffic. Not the barest breath of a
breeze stirred the trees.
From a block away, on the farther side of the street, a man and a
dog approached. The dog, a retriever, spent less time walking than
it did sniffing messages left by others of its kind.
The stillness pooled so deep that Mitch almost believed he could
hear the panting of the distant canine.
Golden: the sun and the dog, the air and the promise of the day,
the beautiful houses behind deep lawns.
Mitch Rafferty could not afford a home in this neighborhood. He was
satisfied just to be able to work here.
You could love great art but have no desire to live in a
He noticed a damaged sprinkler head where lawn met sidewalk. He got
his tools from the truck and knelt on the grass, taking a break
from the impatiens.
His cell phone rang. He unclipped it from his belt, flipped it
open. The time was displayed --- 11:43 --- but no caller's number
showed on the screen. He took the call anyway.
"Big Green," he said, which was the name he'd given his
two-man business nine years ago, though he no longer remembered
"Mitch, I love you," Holly said.
"Whatever happens, I love you."
She cried out in pain. A clatter and crash suggested a
Alarmed, Mitch rose to his feet. "Holly?"
Some guy said something, some guy who now had the phone. Mitch
didn't hear the words because he was focused on the background
Holly squealed. He'd never heard such a sound from her, such
"Sonofabitch," she said, and was silenced by a sharp crack, as
though she'd been slapped.
The stranger on the phone said, "You hear me, Rafferty?"
"Holly? Where's Holly?"
Now the guy was talking away from the phone, not to Mitch: "Don't
be stupid. Stay on the floor."
Another man spoke in the background, his words unclear.
The one with the phone said, "She gets up, punch her. You want to
lose some teeth, honey?"
She was with two men. One of them had hit her. Hit her.
Mitch couldn't get his mind around the situation. Reality suddenly
seemed as slippery as the narrative of a nightmare.
A meth-crazed iguana was more real than this.
Near the house, Iggy planted impatiens. Sweating, red from the sun,
as solid as ever.
"That's better, honey. That's a good girl."
Mitch couldn't draw breath. A great weight pressed on his lungs. He
tried to speak but couldn't find his voice, didn't know what to
say. Here in bright sun, he felt casketed, buried alive.
"We have your wife," said the guy on the phone.
Mitch heard himself ask, "Why?"
"Why do you think, asshole?"
Mitch didn't know why. He didn't want to know. He didn't want to
reason through to an answer because every possible answer would be
"I'm planting flowers."
"What's wrong with you, Rafferty?"
"That's what I do. Plant flowers. Repair sprinklers."
"Are you buzzed or something?"
"I'm just a gardener."
"So we have your wife. You get her back for two million
Mitch knew it wasn't a joke. If it were a joke, Holly would have to
be in on it, but her sense of humor was not cruel.
"You've made a mistake."
"You hear what I said? Two million."
"Man, you aren't listening. I'm a gardener."
"I have like eleven thousand bucks in the bank."
Brimming with fear and confusion, Mitch had no room for anger.
Compelled to clarify, perhaps more for himself than for the caller,
he said, "I just run a little two-man operation."
"You've got until midnight Wednesday. Sixty hours. We'll be in
touch about the details."
Mitch was sweating. "This is nuts. Where would I get two million
"You'll find a way."
The stranger's voice was hard, implacable. In a movie, Death might
sound like this.
"It isn't possible," Mitch said.
"You want to hear her scream again?"
"Do you love her?"
"Really love her?"
"She's everything to me."
How peculiar, that he should be sweating yet feel so cold.
"If she's everything to you," said the stranger, "then you'll find
"There isn't a way."
"If you go to the cops, we'll cut her fingers off one by one, and
cauterize them as we go. We'll cut her tongue out. And her eyes.
Then we'll leave her alone to die as fast or slow as she
The stranger spoke without menace, in a matter-of-fact tone, as if
he were not making a threat but were instead merely explaining the
details of his business model.
Mitchell Rafferty had no experience of such men. He might as well
have been talking to a visitor from the far end of the
He could not speak because suddenly it seemed that he might so
easily, unwittingly say the wrong thing and ensure Holly's death
sooner rather than later.
The kidnapper said, "Just so you'll know we're serious . . ."
After a silence, Mitch asked, "What?"
"See that guy across the street?"
Mitch turned and saw a single pedestrian, the man walking the slow
dog. They had progressed half a block.
The sunny day had a porcelain glaze. Rifle fire shattered the
stillness, and the dogwalker went down, shot in the head.
"Midnight Wednesday," said the man on the phone. "We're damn
Excerpted from THE HUSBAND © Copyright 2011 by Dean
Koontz. Reprinted with permission by Bantam, a division of Random
House, Inc. All rights reserved.