Authors: Steve Martini
Tags: #Fiction, #General
He checked his watch, then moved quickly back toward the entry. Something caught his attention: a noise from the garage. He stood still and listened. It was the hum of an electric motor. His heart skipped a beat. Could it be the garage door going up? He listened, his eyes quickly scanning the room for the nearest register. It was hissing air again. The noise continued. He counted silently in his head. It didn’t stop. The noise was the motor from the forced-air system, the air conditioner.
He took a deep breath, then quickly headed up the curving staircase two steps at a time to the second floor. At the top was a sizable landing maybe thirty feet square. It was enclosed on two sides by large lighted display cases showcasing art glass that, by their shapes and colors, made it clear they were not functional objects.
He thought he heard something and glanced over the balcony to the formal entry and the big black table downstairs. He listened for a second. He was getting jumpy. His ears were playing tricks. The landing was carpeted in a sea of deep wool pile that continued down the wide hallway in both directions off the landing.
He headed toward the guest suite at the end of the hall on his left. When he got there he listened at the closed door for a moment, then quietly opened it. A large fireplace with a decorative convex mirror over the mantel gave him a fish-eye view of the entire room, the king-size bed with its neatly made-up comforter, bed skirt, and sham of heavy tapestry. The room had its own bath. Through its open door, light streamed in through an outside window.
He stepped into the room and closed the door. It was spacious, decorated with a masculine touch, all clean lines and dark colors.
He proceeded to the tall dresser at the far side of the room, opened the second drawer, and swept his gloved right hand under a heavy quilt blanket until he felt something hard and heavy. Grasping the handle, he pulled it from under the bulkier cloth: it was a sand-camouflage canvas bag about twenty inches square, zippered on three sides.
Closing the drawer, he put the bag on top of the dresser, unzipped it, and flipped back the top before feeling its weight. A flash of blue metal clattered across the polished wooden surface, hit the wall behind the dresser, and caromed onto the carpeted floor with a muffled thud.
He stood motionless, sucking air, looking idly at the long scratch in the dark mahogany surface of the dresser and the nicked wall behind it.
He listened for any sound of movement in the house, waiting for what seemed an eternity. Sweat ran down his forehead and along the bridge of his nose. It burned in his right eye as he tuned every auditory nerve in his head to troll the distant reaches of the house, sending out waves of anxiety like sonar, listening for any sound that might bounce back.
Nothing! Even the air conditioner with its telltale hiss from the room’s louvered registers seemed to have cycled off.
Finally he moved, stooped, and picked up the pistol’s loaded metal clip from the floor, one of two fitted into pockets in the flipped-open top of the gun case. The loaded clip weighed nearly a pound.
He slapped the metal against the open palm of his other hand, seating the loaded rounds properly against the magazine’s rear wall. Then he turned his attention back to the bag on top of the dresser. Held in place in the bottom by a thick Velcro strap was a heavy-framed blue metal semiautomatic pistol.
The letters on the side of the slide read:
. The gun was made in Germany by Heckler & Koch and came in only one caliber, .45 auto.
He had brought his own rounds, just six loose ones in the pocket of his jacket, in case he needed them. Store-bought, a common manufacture, so that they would be virtually impossible to trace. As it turned out, he wouldn’t need them, not with the two fully loaded clips included in the bag.
Inside he also found the dark metal tube.
He pulled the Velcro tab open and carefully picked up the pistol. It was accurized, a threaded muzzle on the barrel—special bushings, adjustable trigger, precision springs, a rail slide for the special sight also in the bag, and a chromed barrel—the whole enchilada in a package you could slip into a small backpack.
He slid the gun’s sight along the rail until it was seated in the proper position, then locked it in place using the small Allen wrench included in the bag to tighten the set screw. He threaded the silencer over the exposed tip of the barrel, then checked the loaded clip that had fallen on the floor one more time.
It was then that he noticed the strange shape and tint of the bullet tip of the top round. It wasn’t lead or copper but something else. He tried to scratch it first with his fingernail, then with the sharp edge of the Allen wrench, but neither made an impression. A highly sophisticated handgun with a railed sight and a silencer. He thought for a moment. Then instinctively he knew what the space-age bullet was and what it was designed to do. Smiling to himself at the brainteaser he would be delivering to the cops, he ejected the top round from the clip and replaced it with one of his own soft lead-tipped bullets from the loose rounds he’d brought with him in his pocket.
He was about to slide the loaded clip into the handle when he looked down and suddenly realized he’d forgotten something. The disquieting thought didn’t have time to even settle in his brain when he heard the noise, a kind of metal clang followed by the hum of an electric motor, this time not in the house but outside. The mechanized iron gates at the driveway out in front were opening.
t was a little after five on a Friday afternoon and the traffic on Prospect was already bumpered up like a train wreck: the start of your average fall weekend in La Jolla.
The pathfinders—those who left the office early—and a few day-trippers were already out in strength, reconnoitering the boutiques’ so that by Saturday morning the Village would be under full siege.
Male heads turned like an orchard of radar dishes homing in on the growl of the Enzo’s V-12 overhead cam engine as Madelyn Chapman cruised by. The sleek red Ferrari was an item of curiosity even here in this parish of plenty. At slow speeds it purred like a panther on the prowl.
Usually chained to her desk until late into the evening, this afternoon she left the office before five to run an errand. She was anxious to complete it and get home before the out-of-towners froze the roads in gridlock.
Madelyn’s eyes scanned for a parking space. She wasn’t about to start circling the block. Nor was she going to leave the new car in a public garage where some bozo could carve obscenities into the paint job as a manifesto against affluence.
Instead she steered the racy red sports car into a vacant white-curbed space in front of La Valencia, one of the trendy boutique hotels on the main drag. The sign out front read:
. Behind it stood the hotel’s pink-flamingo walls and the Spanish-tile-covered portico leading to the garden entrance.
Two young men in white dress shirts and dark slacks stood near the entrance looking at the Ferrari. They were probably wondering which of them would get to play Mario Andretti in the tight garage under the hotel. One of them grabbed the initiative and sprinted to the driver’s door, opening it before Chapman had a chance to unbuckle her seat belt.
“Welcome to the La Valenc—Oh, Ms. Chapman. Didn’t recognize you.”
Madelyn made a practice of pouncing on the valet spaces whenever the Village was busy. Never one for walking half a mile in heels, she treated the hotel as if she had a lifetime lease on valet space out front.
“Nice wheels!” The kid was taking it all in. He noticed the paper license plate taped to the rear window. “I take it you just picked it up from the dealer.”
“Actually they delivered it yesterday.”
He glanced at the silver stallion, Ferrari’s trademark, on the hood. “What do they call it? The model, I mean.”
“It’s called the Enzo,” said Madelyn. “After the company’s founder. The salesman’s pitch was that the car has the spirit of Enzo Ferrari.”
The car was one of a limited edition with the pedigree of a formula racer, the toy of oil sheiks and a few Hollywood stars who could balance California’s state budget with one of their movies. Its price hovered in the range of the national debt.
Stepping out of the low-slung racer in a tight skirt and heels was like doing the limbo. Still, Madelyn managed it with agility and grace. At forty-three she looked ten years younger, with a body that didn’t destroy the illusion, something she worked hard to keep. Young men still looked at her with a gleam in their eyes.
She fished some green from her purse as the kid watched and then took one of his hands in both of hers.
“Now, Jimmy, I want you to keep the car here at the curb. Understand?”
“Well, I don’t know. My manager . . .” He felt the tickle of the papers’ edges as she moved the crisp folded currency against his open palm.
When she let go of his hand, the valet looked down and spotted Franklin’s portrait, not once, but twice. He smiled and came to commercial attention. “Thank
, Ms. Chapman.”
“And my car?”
“Stays at the curb,” said the kid.
“Good.” She offered a confident smile. It had become a common expression for Madelyn, who over the last decade had grown accustomed to getting her way.
“Do you have any idea how long you’ll be?” he asked.
She looked at the money still in his hand.
“Not that it matters,” he added.
“I don’t know. Twenty minutes, maybe half an hour.”
He gently closed the driver’s-side door. She started moving toward the sidewalk, her arm on his shoulder. “And if your manager comes out and tells you to move it, what are you going to say?”
“I’m going to tell him a hot car in front of the hotel on a Friday night is good advertising. I’ll tell him it’s one of a kind.”
The kid looked at her, fresh out of ideas.
“You tell him the car belongs to me, that I kept the keys”—she dropped them in her purse—“and that if he even thinks of having it towed, I’ll buy the hotel before morning and fire his ass.”
The kid smiled at the thought. “Yes, ma’am!”
She wasn’t about to turn over a $700,000 sports car so that two valets could flip a coin to see which of them got to do wheelies around concrete pilings in the basement.
She started to turn to go, then turned back. “And, Jimmy, I don’t want any dings or dents or dimples in the doors or anywhere else when I get back.”
He was already shaking his head.
She smiled. “The only dimples allowed here are yours.” The kid blushed again, then looked up at his colleague, who was already beginning to show signs of a sneering smile.
Jimmy pushed the money into his pocket.
She mouthed the words
watch the car
as she blew him a kiss and walked away, passing under the Whaling Bar and Grill sign on the pink awning overhead.
The other valet broke into a full smile and started laughing under his breath until finally she was out of earshot. “Hey, Jimmy, come over here. Lemme do your dimples.”
“Yeah, right. Kiss my ass.”
The other kid puckered up his lips and puffed a few kisses at him, blowing them off the palm of one hand before offering up a donkey laugh.
“You know what you can do with that,” said Jimmy.
“Maybe if you got dimples back there, she’ll do those for you, too,” said his friend.
Jimmy didn’t say anything. He just smiled, reached into his pocket, and pulled out the two crisp bills she’d just given him. He held them up high, stretched between the fingers of both hands, shifting them back and forth so that the other kid’s smile faded.
“She gave you two hundred bucks?”
“No shit,” said Jimmy. And it wasn’t even dark yet. Friday night in La Jolla.
Madelyn walked under brightly colored awnings past shimmering display windows with their exotic wares. She couldn’t help but smile to herself. Two hundred dollars for a few minutes of parking. Twenty years ago that would have been half a week’s salary. She had come a long way, so far and so fast that at times she couldn’t remember all of the critical way-points in her career or, for that matter, some of the people who had offered directions. Looking back was not something Madelyn was good at. It took all of her vision, energy, and focus just to keep moving forward.
Several of the shop owners looked up and took notice as she passed. Chapman’s face had become high-profile, a celebrity of sorts among the regulars in the Village, especially those in the commercial community. Her name and picture had been in the business and society sections of the local papers and magazines on a regular basis for at least four years now. Her company, Isotenics, Inc., of which Chapman was CEO and chairman of the board, had gone public less than a year after she moved it from Virginia to California. Madelyn held a block of shares that gave her the controlling interest. This was the cornerstone of her empire, though she had diversified into real estate and other investments.
She owned a total of six houses in different states, including a horse property in Virginia, a condo in Alexandria near the Pentagon, and a town house in New York. But La Jolla was home.
Eight years ago she had decided that her company would lease land out by the university, near one of the technology parks that sprouted during the euphoric days of the dot-com binge. It was a time when the words
were all you needed on a business card for banks to lavish loans and investors to queue up and buy your stock.
When the storm came, most of her competitors went down like paper boats in a typhoon, but not Chapman. Madelyn had taken her company into the safe harbor of government contracts. As with her taste in clothing and cars, Madelyn’s sense of timing was flawless. In a time of terrorism, her computer programs had been tailored to the needs of national security.
Her company was now one of the largest employers in the state, with its stock still on an upward arc. The value had tripled in the last year alone. It is said that timing is nature’s way of telling us we are in rhythm with the seasons. If so, Madelyn Chapman was in sync not only with the moon but with the planets, the stars, and even the black holes in the dark and distant vacuum of space.
In an age when information was everything, Chapman’s company possessed the keys to the defense-software kingdom. She controlled Primis.
Two blocks down, Madelyn reached her destination. She stopped in front of the gallery’s main window to study a few of the new pieces on display. Like liquid crystal, the glass flowed in every form imaginable. Translucent colors fused with brilliance in all the hues in the visible light spectrum. There were large, cavernous oyster shells of glimmering violet and swirling amber, and tubular tulip blossoms in shades of purple running to blue and green, free-form glass in shapes that could only be matched by the rich variations of nature. Some of the labels carried names of artists now familiar to her, while others were still earning their spurs.
It had been several weeks since her last visit to the gallery. The owner, a man named Ibram Asani, had been making inquiries on her behalf. He had become her agent of sorts in Madelyn’s latest addiction, the acquisition of fine art glass. She had developed a collector’s eye, and Asani was helping her to refine it.
Iranian by birth, having immigrated with his family to the United States when the Shah fell in the seventies, he had arrived in this country with nothing. He now owned his own gallery in one of the most exclusive shopping locations in Southern California.
As Madelyn walked through the door, a mellow electronic tone announced her entrance, and Ibram turned to look.
Asani’s eyes lit up. He put his hands together as if in prayer to the deity whose authority was over all things mercantile. “Ah, my good friend, Ms. Chapman. So good to see you. I assume you received my message.”
“Indeed I did.”
“One moment. I will be right with you.” Asani turned toward two women who were examining a smaller object under glass in one of the cases.
A shop owner who missed his calling in diplomacy, he excused himself and left the women to peruse on their own as he walked briskly toward Madelyn and the scent of money.
“Ms. Chapman, how are you?”
“Fine, Ibram. And you?”
He wrinkled up his face, an expression somewhere between the Middle East and Europe. “No complaints. Business has been good.”
“My secretary told me that you called. Something about a new piece by Yadl Heulich?”
“Shh.” He held his finger to his lips, and looked toward the two women, neither of whom paid any attention. “Yes, it came in yesterday. A truly unique piece. It is one of his early private commissions.” Asani cupped one hand to his lips and leaned in to her ear. “It is from an estate.” The way he said it—in a whisper—made it sound as if he had stolen the item in question. “I don’t think they knew the value.” He smiled and shrugged. “At least, the executor did not.” Something that Asani would no doubt quickly rectify. “A friend alerted me and I was able to purchase it. I want you to understand, there is no obligation. I did not intend to purchase it on commission.”
“I would have bought it for the gallery even if I did not think you would be interested.”
“Can I see it?”
“Of course. It is incredible.”
He went to the phone on the counter and used the intercom to call to the storage area at the back of the gallery. A few moments later Asani’s son pushed a small cart through the doorway and into the gallery’s main room as his father stepped around a display case and quickly walked over to provide direction. The cart was specially designed, its top recessed like a deep bowl with deep foam rubber lining the sides so that the object on it was cradled and cushioned like an embryo in a womb.
As they reached the counter, Asani, with a quick, efficient motion, whipped a rubber pad from a shelf under the cart and laid it out on the counter. He shooed the boy away and alone he lifted the shimmering blue sphere from its foam cradle and placed it carefully on the rubber pad.
Madelyn looked at it, moving closer. She had never seen anything like it in her life. Her gaze was fixed on the glass as it glittered in the light. As she moved, the glass took on subtle changes of texture and color. Its form was a near-perfect sphere, its gossamer swirls of blue and white suffusing with light, turning to brilliant indigo just inside the surface of the orb as you looked at it straight on. In their purest form the colors reminded Madelyn of photos taken by astronauts that captured the curvature of the earth from space at dawn.
Asani looked at Madelyn, who appeared to be in a trance as she studied the object. The shop owner smiled, wondering whether his calculator possessed enough digits to cipher the sale and its consequent tax.
Madelyn came to, just long enough to ask a question: “Does it have a name?”
“Ahh, yes. The original owner, the man who commissioned it—he and the artist agreed that it would be called
Orb at the Edge
He escorted her to the inner sanctum at the rear of the gallery, a small office where he opened negotiations for the purchase. After haggling over the price for several minutes, Asani tried to excuse himself from the room for a moment. A call of nature, he told her. Madelyn looked at her watch and told him she was late for an appointment and would have to leave. While she had a dinner engagement at eight, there was nothing pressing, neither was she left behind the door when the brains were dispensed. If Asani left the room at that point, her offer would be withdrawn and she would walk. Madelyn had no intention of getting into a bidding war via long distance with some acquisitions director for a museum her company was probably sustaining through its program of corporate contribution to the arts.