Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Players -15

Denise and Summer drove down a road that switchbacked between trees and outcrops of rock, a sharp bend suddenly revealing a narrow valley blocked by a tall wedge of white concrete, stark in the floodlights burning along its top. Straight ahead, halfway up the side of the valley, was a broad shelf where three towers stood, also floodlit.

Denise said, ‘That’s the dam, and that’s Merrit’s house -- if you can call it a house.’

It was like a fairy-tale castle, Summer thought, or a trio of old-fashioned rocket ships. The tallest tower was easily a hundred and fifty feet high, with a little glass dome glinting at the top -- yeah, just like a spaceship. The other two towers were shorter; one looked half finished, ending in an uneven crown of rebar. Arrow-slits and round windows shone at different heights in their smooth, tan walls.

Denise parked her Jeep Cherokee behind a black Mercedes SUV at the foot of the tallest tower. She and Summer got out and buckled their bracelets to their wrists. It was very quiet. A steep wooded slope rose on their left towards the black sky. The other two towers were spotlit beyond rocks and stands of bamboo. Although Summer was amused by the obvious theatricality of this spooky setting, she felt a tickle of apprehension as she followed Denise to the smooth flank of the tower, where a castle door swung open silently, a touch straight out of some dumb horror movie. The foyer, pinched between a pair of curving staircases and lit by the lurid flicker of a cluster of TV sets that hung overhead like a chandelier, narrowed to a big steel door that, like the castle door, swung open when Denise and Summer walked towards it, revealing a large room with leather couches and armchairs grouped around an open fireplace in the centre. There were all kinds of objects in niches and behind glass in the adobe walls, clusters of animal heads hung above them, and a tall man stood on the far side, his back to Summer and Denise as he studied or pretended to study a flat-screen TV that was showing some kind of cartoon, a Mad Max-style warrior jogging along a ruined street towards a cluster of broken skyscrapers.

The man’s hands were clasped behind him, dead white against the green silk of his robe -- no, it was a kimono, Summer realized, that big red target on the back was a chrysanthemum. The tall collar of the kimono was turned up, so that she couldn’t see his head; its hem ended just above his knees. His shanks were as pale as his hands, and as hairless as a mannequin’s.

He kept his back to Summer and Denise as they approached. ‘Detective Childers, so nice to see
you again,’ he said. ‘Congratulations on the arrest, by the way. It’s good to know that our police are so efficient. Or should I say so lucky?’

His voice was a light baritone, as engaging as a chat-show host’s.

‘It was a little of both,’ Denise said. ‘This is -- ’

‘Detective Summer Ziegler of the Portland Police Bureau,’ Dirk Merrit said, and turned in a sudden flare of green silk.

Summer’s first thought was that it was a cheesy move that he must have practised a lot. Her second was that he was wearing a mask. Then he smiled at her, and it was as if a red wound had opened in his stiff white face.


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