Dean Koontz

Blood risk

(Mike Tucker — 1)

Brian Coffey is the pen name for a young American writer whose fiction has sold throughout the world to the tune of over two million copies.

'Blood Risk' should add considerably to those figures.

They had decided that only four men were required to stop the big car on the narrow mountain road, hold the occupants at bay and remove the cash that was stuffed into the suitcases on the floor behind the front seat. At first Merle Bachman-who would be driving away, alone, in the blue Chevrolet with the money locked safely in the trunk- had insisted on a fifth man. Number five would have been stationed at the bottom of the private lane to work an intercept routine in the event that someone turned off from the main highway while the robbery was in progress. The others argued against Bachman, because the private road to the Baglio estate supported very little traffic, especially on the morning of a biweekly cash transfer. Also, no one wanted his share knocked to hell by a fifth cut. Bachman clearly saw the economic sense of using a spare crew, though he insisted there was no other wisdom behind this detail of the plan, and he reluctantly agreed to go ahead with the job as a foursome. Now, the darkly dressed men waited in their prearranged positions as the time for action drew near.

Upslope, the macadam roadway on which the robbery would transpire made an abrupt appearance around a limestone outcropping, ran a hundred yards past a lay-by on the outside where two cars could pass if they should meet coming in opposite directions, went down for another four hundred yards before turning a second limestone corner and continuing out of sight to the main highway. The two sharp twists beyond which nothing was visible, and the still morning air, generated the feeling that all the rest of the world had vanished in some unexplained catastrophe.

If you faced upslope, the left side of the roadway was edged by a sheer stone wall slightly higher than a man and, above that, by a thick pine forest and underbrush as green as new money. Though the long grass at the brink of the woods stirred gently in the morning breeze, it made no sound at all, bending down and unfolding back up again in a graceful, mute ballet. Lying at the high corner above the first turn in the road, stretched out in the carbon-paper shadows of the big trees, oblivious of the dew-dampened grass and the quiet way it seemed to be reaching for him, Jimmy Shirillo watched the Baglio mansion through a pair of high-power field glasses. The long blades of grass had brushed Shirillo's face, leaving bright droplets of dew suspended on his fair skin, his only blemishes, giving him a vulnerable look that pointed up his youth. On the other hand, his own professional stillness, his economy of movement and the intensity with which he watched the mansion indicated the experienced professional beneath the tender exterior.

The binocular lenses were all that might have given Shirillo away to someone looking down from the great house, but they had been tinted to eliminate any telltale glare. Michael Tucker had thought of that, for he thought of everything.

A hundred yards below Shirillo, on the left, sitting in the brush along the top of the stone wall, Pete Harris cradled an old Thompson submachine gun, a souvenir from World War II. Harris had broken it down, oiled it, packed it in cloth and mailed it from Paris in five packages to his home address in the States. Back then, at the end of the war, that sort of thing was still quite possible. He had not contemplated putting the gun to any illegal use, or indeed to any use at all, for he thought he was finished with war. A civilian again, he had to face his inability to hold a nine-to-five job, and in desperation he launched his own war against the system, against boredom and respectability and enduring poverty. His inability to fit that system did not arise out of any great sensitivity or intelligence. Harris was only averagely perceptive. However, he was also stubborn, very much his own man, with expensive tastes. This would have led him into crime eventually, because he was only fit to be a clerk in any other field. He was the oldest of the four men here. At forty-eight he had ten years on Bachman, twenty on Mike Tucker, twenty-five on the Shirillo boy, though he didn't use his age and experience to usurp power within the group as others might have done. All he cared about was making the hit and getting the money, and he knew Tucker was a damn fine operator.

Thinking about the money, he grew uncomfortable and shifted in the brush, stretching his long legs and working a cramp out of his thick, muscular thighs. When the vigil first began, he occupied himself by pulling burrs out of his clothes, his heavily callused fingers uninjured by the sharp points. Now, though his calluses remained inviolate, he was too nervous to fool with such minutiae, and he longed to be on the move.

On the right-hand side of the roadway, across from Harris, the gravel berm dropped abruptly into a rock- strewn ravine that bottomed out more than three hundred feet below. The only safe place on that side was the fifty-yard-long lay-by where the Dodge and Chevrolet, both stolen, were now parked facing slightly downhill. Tucker and Bachman waited there, the older man behind the wheel of the Chevy, Tucker shielded from the lane by the bulk of the Dodge.

Bachman carried a.32-caliber pistol in a chamois shoulder holster, as did Tucker. Unlike Tucker, however, he kept touching it, like a savage with his talisman. With damp fingertips he traced the Crosshatch pattern on the solid butt, lifting the whole weapon slightly out of the holster, testing the way it fit, looking for potential snags-though he had worn this same piece for years and knew that it wouldn't snag, ever.

Though Bachman had only the one gun, Tucker held an additional shotgun with only seven inches of barrel; both chambers were loaded, and six spare cartridges were distributed in his jacket pockets. If Bachman had been carrying the shotgun, he would have been constantly patting his pockets to be sure the cartridges were there. Tucker, however, stood quietly, moving as little as he had to, waiting.

'They should be here by now,' Bachman called through the open window of the Chevy. He wiped a slender hand across his face, more than covering his small, compressed features, pulled off something invisible-maybe his own impatience-and shook that off his fingertips. Right now he was jumpy, and he was talking too much, but when the time came for the job he would be all grease and oil, as Tucker had discovered on the other three jobs they'd worked on together.

Tucker said, 'Patience, Merle.' He was known for his serenity, for maintaining a cool facade that never cracked under pressure. Inside, though, he was all knotted up and bleeding. His stomach twisted this way and that, as if it were an animal trapped inside of him; perspiration gathered over his whole body, a symbolic film of his repressed terror.

He had not been born and raised to make his living this way, had never understood the criminal social stratum. That he was now a success at what he did was a testament to an almost fanatical determination to achieve what he set out to achieve, and he was usually the undisputed leader of any group simply because others saw and admired his single-mindedness.

At the top of the slope, Jimmy Shirillo dropped the field glasses and rolled onto his back, cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, 'Here they come!' His voice cracked on the last word, but everyone understood what he had said.

'Go!' Tucker shouted, slamming a flat palm down on the hood of the stolen Dodge.

Bachman stopped fiddling with the pistol cradled under his armpit and switched on the Chevrolet's engine, revved it a few times and drove forward, blocking the road diagonally. Without wasting a second, smooth and fluid, he put the car in park, pulled on the handbrake, opened his door and jumped out. He took cover at the very end of the rear fender, where, if he saw there was going to be a collision, he could leap to safety easily enough. As an afterthought he grasped the grotesque Halloween mask that dangled from an elastic band around his neck and slipped it over his head.

Halloween in June, he thought. It was the wrong time to wear a rubber mask, in this heat and humidity.

On the hilltop Jimmy had crept to the edge of the limestone outcropping, ready to jump into the lane behind the Cadillac the moment the big car had gone by. He fumbled with his goblin's face a moment, felt the dew on it and thought-inexplicably-that the water was blood. Fear. Green fear, pure and simple. Angry with himself, he got the mask in place.

Down at the lay-by, behind the Dodge, Tucker became a scarred old witch with one quick movement of his hand, grimaced at the odor of latex that he now drew with every breath, then looked across the road at the brush

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