happen?” He listened for a few more seconds, then said, “Thank you. No doubt you’ll be hearing from me in the future. The body? I’m not sure. Let me talk to the family. I’ll have to get back to you. Good night.”

He sat back, stared at the wall, and thought about this evening. He supposed he might have to anticipate some sort of retaliation from the two cops who’d had to shoot Steve Rao. They were certainly smart enough to know why Rao had turned on them. Hugo would have to postpone a few of the schemes he had been prospering on—removing small numbers of items from cargo containers at the harbor and replacing them with stones to keep the weights constant, having women pose as hookers so Otto and Mike could be the vice squad who burst in to confiscate wallets—and substitute a few that seemed a bit less flagrant.

He searched his memory for ideas that were safer. He had recently seen a television program in which a crowd of middle-class people stood in line carrying old possessions so that a team of antique dealers could appraise them. He had noticed that some not particularly prepossessing articles were assigned very high prices.

He had also noticed that in almost every case, the more scarred and damaged an item was, the more likely the experts were to revere it. He had become fascinated by the way the antique dealers talked. No matter what obsolete and arcane castoff the expert was appraising, he could always talk about “the collectors” of that very item.

There was no doubt in Hugo Poole’s mind that there were ways to make money from his discovery. How could he not make money off people who were willing to haul a five-hundred-pound sideboard to a television studio and then stand in line for hours to have some guy with a fake accent look at it?

There was a rap on the door. Hugo Poole automatically crouched low and moved to the left, where the steel filing cabinets full of books and papers would stop a bullet. He eyed the Colt Commander .45 that he kept duct- taped to the back of the cabinet against his day of doom. It was just possible that Steve Rao’s untimely death was not being taken well by somebody. Hugo Poole waited a moment, but nobody kicked in the door.

“Who is it?” he called.

“Just me. Otto.”

“Come in.”

Otto said, “There’s a call for you on the house phone down there, Hugo. It’s a woman who says she’s your aunt.”

Hugo squinted at Otto for a second, then stood up and hurried past him to the stairwell. It was unusual for anyone to call in on the Empire Theater’s telephone number, and during the daytime there was usually nobody here to answer it. When Hugo, Otto, and Mike were here, they were usually asleep.

He went to the small office off the lobby near the candy counter and picked up the telephone. “Hugo Poole here.” He listened. “Hi, Aunt Ellen. How are you? What? Dennis? Oh, my God.” He closed his eyes and listened for a few seconds. Then he rubbed his forehead. “I’m so sorry, Aunt Ellen. I never imagined that anything like this could happen to Dennis.”


Joe Pitt looked up at the chandelier. There were a few hundred tear-shaped crystal pieces like diamond earrings hanging above him, the light that came off them bright white with glints of rainbows. It was like heaven up there.

He looked down again at the green felt surface of the table, gathered his cards, and glanced at them. It was not heaven down here. Three of clubs, six of diamonds, four of spades, ten of diamonds, nine of hearts.

Joe Pitt watched his four opponents pick up their cards. Jerry Whang’s tell was that he always blinked once when he picked up a really good hand. It was as though he were closing the shutters of his mind, because when he opened his eyes again, he revealed nothing more. There was the blink.

Stella Korb picked up her cards and looked sick. She’d had a Botox injection today to deaden the muscles under her facial skin, but it didn’t change her eyes. The new guy that Pitt thought of as the Kid, who had the repulsive habit of wearing a baseball cap indoors, retained the same dumb look after seeing his cards.

Delores Harkness squeezed her cards open with her thumb, closed them again to look around, then thumbed them open once more to be sure she had seen what she had seen.

She opened with a single twenty-five-dollar chip, patiently trying to keep all of the others in as long as she could before she started murdering the last optimists. She succeeded, each of them tossing in a chip until it came to Joe Pitt. He set his cards down. “Have a good evening, everyone. I’m out.”

Billy the dealer swept Pitt’s cards away. “See you, Joe.” Pitt stepped off, heading past the crowds of gamblers toward the front door of the card club. He walked outside, sniffed the night air, looked around himself, and listened. Just beyond the far side of the parking lot he could see headlights flashing past on the freeway and he could hear the constant swish of tires on the pavement. For once he had managed to lose all of the money he had allowed himself for the evening and not go to the cashier’s window with a credit card. He supposed that was a kind of half victory, like getting into a crash and having the car still run well enough to get him home. Then why didn’t he feel better?

He stared at the aisle of the big parking lot where he had left his car and sensed that something was not right. His right hand moved reflexively to pat his left side once, a gesture that was so habitual that most observers would have missed it. He was still permitted to carry his pistol in a shoulder rig under his sport coat: for the rest of his life there would be the chance that someone who had gotten to know him during his twenty years as an investigator for the D.A.’s office would finally get around to killing him.

He opened his coat and stepped forward, away from the lighted front of the casino. Joe Pitt had a willingness to pay attention to vague sensations, and when he sensed that something was threatening he went toward it.

He had built his reputation by solving murders, and he had done it by moving toward whatever didn’t feel right. Offices closed on weekends, but every day on the calendar the killer was a killer, and Joe Pitt was working his way toward him. Any suspect who had not understood it that way had found himself at a severe disadvantage. It wasn’t some theoretical entity called the State of California that was after him; it was Joe Pitt.

He selected a row of cars three spaces to the left of his car, and began to walk up the aisle. It took a moment before he saw the heads in the car parked beside his. As he walked his angle changed, and he could see more: there was a male driver in front, and a second man sitting in the back seat. Maybe it was a rich guy with a chauffeur, and maybe it was an easy way of putting two shooters into position to fire at him.

Joe Pitt stopped beside a car, pretended to unlock it, then went low, as though he had gotten into the driver’s seat. He stayed low and scurried along the spaces between parked cars until he was beside the car where the two men waited. He stood up slightly behind the passenger, with his gun in his hand close to the open window.

The passenger looked at him. “Hello, Joe.”

Joe Pitt’s hand tightened on the gun. “Hello, Hugo.”

“You know my friend Otto?”

“Of course. How are you, Otto? Congratulations on your early release.”

“Thanks,” said Otto. “It’s nice to be out. And yourself?”

“I’m fine, thanks. What’s up, Hugo?”

Hugo Poole looked up at him. “I need to talk to you. If you feel safer doing it inside the casino, I’ll send Otto in to arrange for a private space.”

“I’m not afraid of you. I’m just not interested.” He put his gun away.

“It’s worth money to you.”

“I have money, thanks,” said Joe Pitt.

“You have a weakness for women and a gambling problem, and nobody’s got enough money for those. Three different guys have come to me in the past year or so to sell me that information. I only paid the first one, but I remembered it. We don’t have time to bullshit each other. Tonight when I found out I needed you I knew where you would be.”

“The gambling isn’t a problem. It’s the losing. What do you think you need me for?”

“Will you get in so we can talk? You’re safe with us.” Hugo Poole pushed open the door and then slid to the other side. Joe Pitt hesitated, then got in beside him. Otto Collins drove the car up the aisle and out to the street.

Pitt said, “I know that a few times when I needed information, you arranged for somebody to miraculously turn up to give it to me. I got the solution to something that was puzzling me, and you got—whatever it was that

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