The Good Guy Page 4

“No, no. My garage is in my kitchen.”

“What’s the difference?”

“Huge. I’m having coffee. You want some? Cream? Sugar?”

“Black, please. Why is your car in your kitchen?”

“I like to look at it while I’m eating. Isn’t it beautiful? The 1939 Ford coupe is the most beautiful car ever made.”

“I’m not going to argue for the Pinto.”

Pouring coffee into a mug, she said, “It’s not a classic. It’s a hot rod. Chopped, channeled, fully sparkled out with cool details.”

“You worked on it yourself?”

“Some. Mostly a guy up in Sacramento, he’s a genius at this.”

“Had to cost a bunch.”

She served the coffee. “Should I be saving for the future?”

“What future did you have in mind?”

“If I could answer that, maybe I’d open a savings account.”

His mug had a ceramic parrot for a handle, and bore the words BALBOA ISLAND. It looked old, like a souvenir from the 1930s.

Her mug was doubly a mug, in that it was also a ceramic head of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt biting on his famous cigarette holder.

She moved to the ’39 Ford. “This is what I live for.”

“You live for a car?”

“It’s a hope machine. Or a time machine that takes you back to an age when people found it easier to hope.”

On the floor, on a drip pan, stood a bottle of chrome polish and a few rags. The bumpers, grill, and trim glimmered like quicksilver.

She opened the driver’s door and, with her coffee, got behind the steering wheel. “Let’s go for a ride.”

“I really need to talk to you about something.”

“A virtual ride. Just a mind trip.”

When she pulled the door shut, Tim went around the coupe and got in through the passenger’s door.

Because of the chopped roof, headroom was inadequate for a tall man. Tim slid down in his seat, holding the parrot mug in both hands.

In that cramped interior, he still loomed over the woman as though she were an elf and he a troll.

Instead of mohair upholstery, common to the 1930s, he sat on black leather. Gauges gleamed in a checked-steel dashboard billet.

Beyond the windshield lay the kitchen. Surreal.

The keys were in the ignition, but Linda didn’t switch on the engine for this virtual ride. Maybe when her mug was empty, she would fire up the Ford and drive over to the coffee brewer near the oven.

She smiled at him. “Isn’t this nice?”

“It’s like being at a drive-in theater, watching a movie about a kitchen.”

“The drive-in theaters have been gone for years. Don’t you think that’s like tearing down the Colosseum in Rome to build a mall?”

“Maybe not entirely like.”

“Yeah, you’re right. There never was a drive-in theater where they fed Christians to lions. So what did you want to see me about?”

The coffee was excellent. He sipped it, blew on it, and sipped some more, wondering how best to explain his mission.

Crunching through dry eucalyptus leaves on the front walk, he had known how he would tell her. When he met her, however, she was different from anyone he expected. His planned approach seemed wrong.

He knew little about Linda Paquette, but he sensed that she did not need to have her hand held while receiving bad news, that in fact too much concern might strike her as condescension.

Opting for directness, he said, “Somebody wants you dead.”

She smiled again. “What’s the gag?”

“He’s paying twenty thousand to get it done.”

She remained puzzled. “Dead in what sense?”

“Dead in the sense of shot in the head, dead forever.”

Succinctly, he told her about the events at the tavern: first being mistaken for the killer, then being mistaken for the man hiring the killer, then discovering that the killer was a cop.

She listened open-mouthed at first, but her astonishment faded rapidly. Her green eyes clouded, as if his words stirred long-settled sediment in those previously limpid pools.

When Tim finished, the woman sat in silence, sipping coffee, staring through the windshield.

He waited, but finally grew uneasy. “You do believe me?”

“I’ve known a lot of liars. You don’t sound like any of them.”

The pin spots, in which the car gleamed but also darkled, did not much brighten the interior. Though her face was softly shadowed, her eyes found light and gave it back.

He said, “You don’t seem surprised by what I’ve told you.”


“So…then you know who he is, the one who wants you dead?”

“Not a clue.”

“An ex-husband? A boyfriend?”

“I’ve never been married. No boyfriend at the moment, and I never did have a crazy one.”

“A dispute with someone at work?”

“I’m self-employed. I work at home.”

“What do you do?”

“I’ve been asking myself that a lot lately,” she said. “What did this guy look like, the one who gave you the money?”

The description didn’t electrify her. She shook her head.

Tim said, “He has a dog named Larry. He once went sky-diving with the dog. He had a brother named Larry, died at sixteen.”

“A guy capable of naming his dog after his dead brother—I’d know who he was even if he’d never told me about Larry or Larry.”

This was not playing out in any way that Tim had imagined it might. “But the skydiver can’t be a stranger.”

“Why not?”

“Because he wants you dead.”

“People are killed by strangers all the time.”

“But nobody hires someone to kill a perfect stranger.” He fished the folded photograph from his shirt pocket. “Where did he get this?”

“It’s my driver’s-license picture.”

“So he’s someone with access to the DMV digital-photo files.”

She returned the photograph. Tim put it in his shirt pocket again before he realized that it belonged to her more than to him.

He said, “You don’t know anyone who’d want you dead—yet you aren’t surprised.”

“There are people who want everybody dead. When you get over being surprised about that, you have a high amazement threshold.”

Direct, intense, her green gaze seemed to fillet his serried thoughts and to fold them aside like layers of dissected tissue, yet somehow it was an inviting rather than a cold stare.

“I’m curious,” she said, “about the way you’ve handled this.”

Taking her comment as disapproval or suspicion, he said, “I’m not aware of any other options.”

“You could have kept the ten thousand for yourself.”

“Somebody would have come looking for me.”

“Maybe not. Now…for sure someone will. You could have just passed my photo to the killer, with the money, and done a fade, got out of the way and let things unfold as they would have done if you’d never been there.”

“And then…where would I go?”

“To dinner. To a movie. Home to bed.”

“Is that what you’d have done?” he asked.

“I don’t interest me. You interest me.”

“I’m not an interesting guy.”

“Not the way you present yourself, no. What you’re hiding is what makes you interesting.”

“I’ve told you everything.”

“About what happened in the bar. But…about you?”

The rearview mirror was angled toward him. He had avoided his eyes by meeting hers. Now he looked at his narrow reflection, and at once away, down at the ceramic parrot choked in his right hand.

“My coffee’s cold,” he said.

“Mine, too. When the killer left the tavern, you could have called the police.”

“Not after I saw he was a cop.”

“The tavern’s in Huntington Beach. I’m in Laguna Beach. He’s a cop in a different jurisdiction.”

“I don’t know his jurisdiction. The car was an unmarked sedan. He could be a Laguna Beach cop for all I know.”

“So. Now what, Tim?”

He needed to look at her and he dreaded looking at her, and he didn’t know why or how, within minutes of their meeting, she should have become the focus of either need or dread. He had never felt like this before, and although a thousand songs and movies had programmed him to call it love, he knew it wasn’t love. He wasn’t a man who fell in love at first sight. Besides, love didn’t have such an element of mortal terror as was a part of this feeling.

He said, “The only evidence I have to give the cops is the photo of you, but that’s no evidence at all.”

“The license number of the unmarked sedan,” she reminded him.

“That’s not evidence. It’s just a lead. I know someone who might be able to trace it for me and get me the driver’s name. Someone I can trust.”

“Then what?”

“I don’t know yet. I’ll figure something.”

Her gaze, which had not turned from him, had the gravitational force of twin moons, and inevitably the tide of his attention was pulled toward her.

Eye to eye again with her, he told himself to remember this moment, this tightening knot of terror that was also a loosening knot of wild exaltation, for when he realized the name for it, he would understand why he was suddenly walking out of the life he had known—and had sought—into a new life that he could not know and that he might come desperately to regret.

“You should leave this house tonight,” he said. “Stay somewhere you’ve never been before. Not with a friend or relative.”

“You think the killer’s coming?”

“Tomorrow, the next day, sooner or later, when he and the guy who hired him realize what happened.”

She didn’t appear to be afraid. “All right,” she said.

Her equanimity perplexed him.

His cell phone rang.

After Linda took his coffee mug, he answered the call.

Liam Rooney said, “He was just here, asking who was the big guy on the last stool.”

“Already. Damn. I figured a day or two. Was it the first or second guy?”

“The second. I took a closer look at him this time. Tim, he’s a freak. He’s a shark in shoes.”

Tim remembered the killer’s persistent dreamy smile, the dilated eyes hungry for light.

“What’s going on?” Liam asked.

“It’s about a woman,” Tim said, as he had said before. “I’ll take care of it.”

In retrospect, the killer had realized that something about the encounter in the tavern had not been right. He had probably called a contact number for the skydiver.

Through the windshield, the kitchen looked warm and cozy. On a wall hung a rack of cutlery.

“You can’t freeze me out like this,” said Rooney.

“I’m not thinking about you,” Tim said, opening the door and getting out of the coupe. “I’m thinking about Michelle. Keep your neck out of this—for her.”

Carrying both coffee mugs, Linda exited the Ford from the driver’s door.

“Exactly how long ago did the guy leave?” Tim asked Rooney.

“I waited maybe five minutes before calling you—in case he might come back and see me on the phone, and wonder. He looks like a guy who always puts two and two together.”

“Gotta go,” Tim said, pressed END, and pocketed the phone.

As Linda took the mugs to the sink, Tim selected a knife from the wall rack. He passed over the butcher knife for a shorter and pointier blade.

The Pacific Coast Highway offered the most direct route from the Lamplighter Tavern to this street in Laguna Beach. Even on a Monday evening, traffic could be unpredictable. Door to door, the trip might take forty minutes.

In addition to a detachable emergency beacon, maybe the unmarked sedan had a siren. In the last few miles of approach, the siren would not be used; they would never hear the killer coming.

Turning away from the sink, Linda saw the knife in Tim’s fist. She did not misinterpret the moment or need an explanation.

She said, “How long do we have?”

“Can you pack a suitcase in five minutes?”


“Do it.”

She glanced at the ’39 Ford.

“It’s too attention-getting,” Tim said. “You should leave it.”

“It’s my only car.”

“I’ll take you wherever you want to go.”

Her green gaze was as sharp as a shard of bottle glass. “What’s in this for you? Now you’ve told me, you could split.”

“This guy—he’ll want to waste me, too. If he gets my name.”

“And you think I’ll spill it, when he finds me.”

“Whether you spill it or not, he’ll get it. I need to know who he is, but more important, I need to know who hired him. Maybe when you’ve had more time to think about it, you’ll figure it out.”

She shook her head. “There’s nobody. If the only thing in this for you is the chance I’ll figure who wants me dead, then there’s nothing in this for you.”

“There’s something,” he disagreed. “Come on, pack what you need.”

She glanced at the ’39 Ford again. “I’ll be back for it.”

“When this is done.”

“I’m going to drive it all over, to wherever there’s something left from those days, something you can still see that they haven’t torn down yet or desecrated.”

Tim said, “The good old days.”

“They were good and they were bad. But they were different.” She hurried away to pack.

Tim turned off the kitchen lights. He went down the hall to the living room, and he switched off those lights, too.

At a window, he pulled back a sheer curtain and stood watching a scene that had gone as still as a miniature village in a glass paperweight.

He, too, had been glassed-in for a long time, by choice. Now and then he had lifted a hammer to shatter through to something, but he had never struck the blow because he didn’t know what he wanted on the other side of the glass.

Having strayed from a nearby canyon, perhaps emboldened by the round risen moon, a coyote climbed the gently sloping street. When it passed through lamplight, its eyes shone silver as if cataracted, but in shadows its gaze was luminous and red, and blind to nothing.

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