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Johnny slapped her so hard that he nearly knocked her off the chaise longue. “You watch your mouth, bitch.”

She put a hand to her face, and tears shimmered in her eyes, and in a little-girl voice, she said, “I'm sorry, Johnny.”

“Stupid bitch,” he muttered.

“I don't know what gets into me,” she said. “You're good to me, Johnny, and I hate myself when I act like that.”

To Vince, it appeared to be a rehearsed scene, but he supposed that was just because they'd been through it so many times before, both privately and publicly. From the shine in Samantha's eyes, Vince could tell she enjoyed being slapped around; she smart-mouthed Johnny just so he'd hit her. Johnny clearly liked slapping her, too.

Vince was disgusted.

Johnny The Wire called her a “bitch” again, then led Vince out of the living room and into the big study, closing the door behind them. He winked and said, “She's a little uppity, that one, but she can just about suck your brains out through your cock.”

Half-sickened by Johnny Santini's sleaziness, Vince refused to be drawn into such a conversation. Instead, he withdrew an envelope from his jacket pocket. “I need information.”

Johnny took the envelope, looked inside, thumbed casually through the wad of hundred-dollar bills, and said, “What you want, you got.”

The study was the only room in the house untouched by Art Deco. It was strictly high-tech. Sturdy metal tables were lined up along three walls, and eight computers stood on them, different makes and models. Every computer had its own phone line and modem, and every display screen was aglow. On some screens, programs were running; data flickered across them or scrolled from top to bottom. Drapes were drawn over the windows, and the two flexible-neck work lamps were hooded to prevent glare on the monitors, so the predominant light was electronic-green, which gave Vince a peculiar feeling of being under the surface of the sea. Three laser printers were producing hard copies with only vague whispering sounds that for some reason brought to mind images of fish swimming through ocean-floor vegetation.

Johnny The Wire had killed half a dozen men, had managed bookie and numbers operations, had planned and executed bank robberies and jewelry heists. He had been involved in the Fustino Family's drug operations, extortion rackets, kidnapping, labor-union corruption, record and videotape counterfeiting, interstate truck hijacking, political bribery, and child pornography. He had done it all, seen it all, and although he had never exactly been bored by any criminal undertaking, no matter how long or often he had been involved in it, he had grown somewhat jaded. During the past decade, as the Computer opened exciting new areas of criminal activity, Johnny had seized the opportunity to move where no mafia wiseguy had gone before, into challenging frontiers of electronic thievery and mayhem. He had a gift for it, and he soon became the mob's premier hacker.

Given time and motivation, he could break any computer security system and pry through a corporation's or a government agency's most sensitive information. If you wanted to run a major credit-card scam, charging a million bucks worth of purchases to other people's American Express accounts, Johnny The Wire could suck some suitable names and credit histories out of TRW's files and matching card numbers from American Express's data banks, and you were in business. If you were a don under indictment and about to go to trial on heavy charges, and if you were afraid of the testimony to be given by one of your cronies who had turned state's evidence, Johnny could invade the Department of Justice's most well-guarded data banks, discover the new identity that had been given the stool pigeon through the Federal Witness Relocation Program, and tell you where to send the hit men. Johnny rather grandly called himself the 'Silicon Sorcerer," though everyone else still called him The Wire.

As the mob's hacker, he was more valuable than ever to all the Families nationwide, so valuable that they didn't even mind if he moved to a comparative backwater like San Clemente, where he could live the good beach life while he worked for them. In the age of the microchip, Johnny said, the world was one small town, and you could sit in San Clemente-or Oshkosh- and pick someone's pocket in New York City.

Johnny dropped into a high-backed black leather chair equipped with rubber wheels, in which he could roll swiftly from one computer to the next. He said, “So! What can the Silicon Sorcerer do for you, Vince?”

“Can you tap into police computers?”

“It's a snap.”

“I need to know if, since last Tuesday, any police agency in the county has opened a file on any particularly strange murders.”

“Who're the victims?”

“I don't know. I'm just looking for strange murders.”

“Strange in what way?”

“I'm not exactly sure. Maybe . . . somebody with his throat torn out. Somebody ripped to pieces. Somebody all chewed up and gouged by an animal.”

Johnny gave him a peculiar look. “That's strange, all right. Something like that would be in the newspapers.”

“Maybe not,” Vince said, thinking of the army of government security agents that would be working diligently to keep the press in the dark about the Francis Project and to conceal the dangerous developments on Tuesday at the Banodyne labs. “The murders might be in the news, but the police will probably be suppressing the gory details, making them look like ordinary homicides. So from what the papers print, I won't be able to tell which victims are the ones I'm interested in.”

“All right. Can do.”

“You'd also better prowl around at the County Animal Control Authority to see if they're getting any reports of unusual attacks by coyotes or cougars or other predators. And not just attacks on people, but on livestock-cows, sheep. There might even be some neighborhood, probably on the eastern edge of the county, where a lot of family pets are disappearing or being chewed up real bad by something wild. If you run across that, I want to know.”

Johnny grinned and said, “You tracking down a werewolf?”

It was a joke; he did not expect or want an answer. He had not asked why this information was needed, and he would never ask, because people in their line of work did not poke into each other's business. Johnny might be curious, but Vince knew that The Wire would never indulge his curiosity.

Vince was unnerved not by the question but by the grin. The green light from the computer screens was reflected by Johnny's eyes and by the saliva on his teeth and, to a lesser extent, by his wiry copper-colored hair. As ugly as he was to begin with, the eerie luminescence made him look like a revived corpse in a Romero film.

Vince said, “Another thing. I need to know if any police agency in the county is running a quiet search for a golden retriever.”

“A dog?”


“Cops don't usually look for lost dogs.”

“I know,” Vince said.

“This dog got a name?”

“No name.”

“I'll check it out. Anything else?”

“That's it. When can you put it together?”

“I'll call you in the morning. Early.”

Vince nodded. “And depending on what you turn up, I might need you to keep tracking these things on a daily basis.”

“Child's play,” Johnny said, spinning around once in his black leather chair, then jumping to his feet with a grin. “Now, I'm gonna f*ck Samantha. Hey! You want to join in? Two studs like us, going at her at the same time, we could reduce that bitch to a little pile of jelly, have her begging for mercy. How about it?”

Vince was glad for the weird green lighting because it covered the fact that he had gone ghost-pale. The idea of messing around with that infected slut, that diseased whore, that rotting and festering round-heeled pump, was enough to make him sick. He said, “Got an appointment I can't break.”

“Too bad,” Johnny said.

Vince forced himself to say, “Would've been fun.”

“Maybe next time.”

The very idea of the three of them going at it . . . well, it made Vince feel unclean. He was overcome by a desire for a steaming-hot shower.


Sunday night, pleasantly tired from a long day in Solvang, Travis thought he would fall asleep the moment he put his head on his pillow, but he did not. He couldn't stop thinking about Nora Devon. Her gray eyes flecked with green. Glossy black hair. The graceful, slender line of her throat. The musical sound of her laughter, the curve of her smile.

Einstein was lying on the floor in the pale-silver light that came through the window and vaguely illuminated one small section of the dark room. But after Travis tossed and turned for an hour, the dog finally joined him on the bed and put his burly head and forepaws on Travis's chest.

“She's so sweet, Einstein. One of the gentlest, sweetest people I've ever known.”

The dog was silent.

“And she's very bright. She's got a sharp mind, sharper than she realizes. She sees things I don't see. She has a way of describing things that make them fresh and new. The whole world seems fresh and new when I see it with her.”

Though still and quiet, Einstein had not fallen asleep. He was very attentive. “When I think about all that vitality, intelligence, and love of life being suppressed for thirty years, I want to cry. Thirty years in that old dark house. Jesus. And when I think of how she endured those years without letting it make her bitter, I want to hug her and tell her what an incredible woman she is, what a strong and courageous and incredible woman.”

Einstein was silent, unmoving.

A vivid memory flashed back to Travis: the clean shampoo smell of Nora's hair when he had leaned close to her in front of a gallery window in Solvang. He breathed deep and could actually smell it again, and the scent accelerated his heartbeat.

“Damn,” he said. “I've only known her a few days, but damn if I don't think I'm falling in love.”

Einstein lifted his head and woofed once, as if to say it was about time that Travis realized what was happening, and as if to say that he had brought them together and was pleased to take credit for their future happiness, and as if to say that it was all part of some grand design and that Travis was to stop fretting about it and just go with the flow.

For another hour, Travis talked about Nora, about the way she looked and moved, about the melodic quality of her soft voice, about her unique perspective on life and her way of thinking, and Einstein listened with the attentiveness and genuine interest that was the mark of a true, concerned friend. It was an exhilarating hour. Travis had never thought he would love anyone again. Not anyone, not at all, and certainly not this intensely. Less than a week ago, his abiding loneliness had seemed unconquerable.

Later, thoroughly exhausted both physically and emotionally, Travis slept.

Later still, in the hollow heart of night, he came half awake and was dimly aware that Einstein was at the window. The retriever's forepaws were on the windowsill, his snout against the glass. He was staring out at the darkness, alert.

Travis sensed that the dog was troubled.

But in his dream, he had been holding Nora's hand under a harvest moon, and he did not want to come fully awake for fear he would not be able to regain that pleasant fantasy.


On Monday morning, May 24, Lemuel Johnson and Cliff Soames were at the small zoo-mostly a petting zoo for children-in sprawling Irvine Park, on the eastern edge of Orange County. The sky was cloudless, the sun bright and hot. The immense oaks did not stir a leaf in the motionless air, but birds swooped from branch to branch, peeping and trilling.

Twelve animals were dead. They lay in bloody heaps.

During the night, someone or something had climbed the fences into the pens and had slaughtered three young goats, a white-tailed deer and her recently born fawn, two peacocks, a lop-eared rabbit, a ewe and two lambs.

A pony was dead, though it had not been savaged. Apparently, it had died of fright while throwing itself repeatedly against the fence in an attempt to escape whatever had attacked the other animals. It lay on its side, neck twisted in an improbable angle.

The wild boars had been left unharmed. They snorted and sniffed continuously at the dusty earth around the feeding trough in their separate enclosure, looking for bits of food that might have spilled yesterday and been missed until now.

Other surviving animals, unlike the boars, were skittish.

Park employees-also skittish-were gathered near an orange truck that belonged to the county, talking with two Animal Control officers and with a young, bearded biologist from the California Department of Wildlife.

Crouching beside the delicate and pathetic fawn, Lem studied the wounds in its neck until he could no longer tolerate the stench. Not all of the foul odors were caused by the dead animals. There was evidence that the killer had deposited feces and sprayed urine on its victims, just as it had done at Dalberg's place.

Pressing a handkerchief against his nose to filter the reeking air, he moved to a dead peacock. Its head had been torn off, as had one leg. Both of its clipped wings were broken, and its iridescent feathers were dulled and pasted together with blood.

“Sir,” Cliff Soames called from the adjoining pen.

Lem left the peacock, found a service gate that opened into the next enclosure, and joined Cliff at the carcass of the ewe.

Flies swarmed around them, buzzing hungrily, settling upon the ewe, then darting off as the men fanned them away.

Cliff's face was bloodless, but he did not look as shocked or as nauseated as he had been last Friday, at Dalberg's cabin. Perhaps this slaughter didn't affect him as strongly because the victims were animals instead of human beings. Or perhaps he was consciously hardening himself against the extreme violence of their adversary.

“You'll have to come to this side,” Cliff said from where he crouched beside the ewe.

Lem stepped around the sheep and squatted beside Cliff. Though the ewe's head was in the shadow of an oak bough overhanging the pen, Lem saw that her right eye had been torn out.

Without comment, Cliff used a stick to lever the left side of the ewe's head off the ground, revealing that the other socket was also vacant.

The cloud of flies thickened around them.

“Looks like it was our runaway, all right,” Lem said.

Lowering his own handkerchief from his face, Cliff said, “There's more.” He led Lem to three additional carcasses-both lambs and one of the goats- that were eyeless. "I'd say it's beyond argument. The damn thing that killed Dalberg last Tuesday night, then roamed the foothills and canyons for five days, doing . .


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