His thin lips were slightly parted in what seemed to me an insouciant, arrogant smile. I instantly disliked the man and was certain that his presence in the house meant trouble. He was obviously in no hurry to introduce himself, and Mary was too distracted, or fearful, to do the honors.

Garth walked to the center of the room, stopped. 'Who are you?' he asked in a soft, even tone.

Now Mary rose to her feet in a quick, jerky motion. Her hands remained clasped together. 'Garth,' she said nervously, 'this is Sacra Silver, an old. . acquaintance. Sacra was in town, and he stopped by to say hello. Sacra, this is my husband, Garth, and his brother, Robert.'

The man Mary had introduced as Sacra Silver pointed a long index finger at me. 'Brother Robert is the famous one, isn't he?' he said in a raspy, nasal voice. 'Former circus star, unlikely martial arts expert, Ph.D. in criminology, ace private investigator, and darling of the media. Mongo the Magnificent.'

Having delivered this pronouncement in his gravelly voice, the man ran both hands through his long, bottle- black hair and smirked. Sacra Silver was a man who could insult you without half trying, and was obviously willing to go out of his way to do so. 'You've got quite a stage name there yourself, Sacra Silver,' I replied. 'I can't say I've heard of you. What's your act?'

'You don't want to know.'

'Actually, you're right,' I said. The dislike I had instinctively felt for this sour man was rapidly turning to anger, and I didn't like that. I felt I was somehow being emotionally manipulated, although I couldn't, for the life of me, understand what would motivate somebody, a guest in a couple's home, to go over-the-top obnoxious immediately. Most obnoxious people take at least a minute or two to get properly warmed up, but Sacra Silver had seemed full- bore intent on offending Garth and me from the moment we'd walked into the room. I wondered why, and I wondered where Mary knew him from. I shrugged, continued, 'Just trying to be polite. It's always a pleasure to meet one of Mary's friends.'

His response was to laugh; it was an unpleasant, grating sound. I glanced at Mary, waiting for her to say something, anything, that might short-circuit the tension that was rapidly building in the room, but she seemed almost paralyzed with fear or anxiety. She remained mute, lips tightly compressed, looking at the far end of the room.

'So you're Mary's latest old man,' the man who called himself Sacra Silver said to Garth. 'Looking at you, I wouldn't think you're her type.'

Finally Mary spoke. 'Sacra,' she said quickly in a tight, anxious voice, 'Garth is my husband.'

'It's true, babe,' Silver said with a dismissive wave of his hand. 'He certainly does not look like your type, and you know exactly what I mean.'

'Sacra, please. .'

Garth walked the rest of the way across the room, to his wife, pointedly turning his back on the tall man sitting in the leather recliner. My brother's movements were slow, lazy, almost to the point of exaggeration. If I'd been Sacra Silver, I'd have begun giving quick and serious thought to abandoning my present position. He obviously had no idea at all of what type Garth really was. I did. I knew the warning signals when I saw them, and when Garth spoke, it only confirmed my suspicions that Mr. Sacra Silver was shortly about to encounter more trouble than he was likely to know how to handle. I wasn't inclined to warn him. Silver remained serenely stretched out in the chair, his fingertips pressed together and forming a tent under his chin as he stared at my brother's broad back.

'What is it, Mary?' Garth asked in a soft, perfectly calm voice.

'Talk to me. Who is this man, and what does he want? Tell me what's going on.'

'Sacra and I have known each other a long time, Garth,' Mary said in a voice that trembled. 'He and I-'

Suddenly the man in the recliner snapped his fingers, producing a loud, popping sound. Mary immediately fell silent, turned away from Garth, and covered her face with her hands. Her reaction startled me.

Garth didn't appear to react at all. His movement as he turned to face Sacra Silver was even more exaggeratedly slow. 'Tell me why you're here,' he said to the man in a voice that was only a half decibel above a whisper.

'I'm going to cut through all this bullshit,' Silver announced to my brother, not even bothering to look at him. 'It will save us all a lot of trouble and aggravation. Mary and I go back a long time. You may be her husband now, but believe me when I tell you that doesn't mean jack shit-not to her, and certainly not to me. We've shared more than she and you ever could. She may be married to you, hiding out here in Cairn, but all the time she's really been waiting for me to come back around. Well, I have. I'm here. If I know Mary, she's never even mentioned my name. But I can tell you that there hasn't been a moment of your life together that she hasn't been thinking of me. She belongs to me, Frederickson. That's it. Nobody's going to sneak around doing anything behind your back. I've given it to you straight and up front; she's mine, and I'm here to reclaim her. It's very simple, so don't make the mistake of trying to make anything complicated about it. You're out of the picture, out of this house. She doesn't want you here any longer. Now, let me hear you say you understand what I've just said.'

Well. Let it be said for Sacra Silver that he had chutzpah, if not a keen sensitivity to the danger inherent in irritating my brother. For a moment, it occurred to me that this might all be an elaborate practical joke: Sacra Silver, an old friend of Mary's, perhaps a character actor specializing in playing outrageous, creepy types, had dropped by, and they had decided it might be fun to play a little trick on Garth. But, of course, it wasn't that at all. Mary was clearly terrified of the man. Sacra Silver was a wild card.

'Now I understand the stage name,' I said cheerfully to the man in the chair. 'You're a comedian.'

'Shut up,' Silver said in a perfunctory tone, continuing to stare at the opposite wall. 'This is between Mary, her old man, and me. Butt out.'

'Mary,' Garth said in the same soft tone, 'I'm asking you to tell me what's going on here. Who is this man?'

'Garth,' Mary stammered, 'it isn't… I don't. . I'm so sorry. I'm just. .'

'He's your guest, Mary, so it's up to you to tell him it's time to leave. I think you should do it now. Then we can talk.'

Garth waited perhaps five seconds, just long enough to watch his wife helplessly glance back and forth between him and the man in the chair. Mary seemed incapable of speaking or moving. Then Garth abruptly turned, walked over to Silver, grabbed the front of the man's shirt, and pulled him to his feet. The T-shirt ripped, baring Silver's chest, revealing an enormous, grotesque tattoo of a black, spiderlike creature with large emerald eyes in a tortured human face.

'You're in my chair,' Garth said in the same mild tone he had used with his wife. 'I want you out of it, and I want you out of-'

Sacra Silver reached back with his right hand to his hip pocket, drew something out. There was a sharp, ominous click. I started to shout a warning, but there was no need. Mary screamed when the multi-bladed butterfly knife glinted in the bright lights of the room, but Garth was ready. He released his grip on the man's tattered shirt just in time, and the blades sliced through the empty air where his wrist had been a moment before. Garth popped him with a left jab to the nose, then hit him hard with a right hand to the stomach, doubling Silver over. He grabbed the wrist of the hand holding the knife, twisted. The weapon clattered to the floor. Then Garth stepped around behind the man, grabbed the nape of his neck with one hand and his belt with the other. Garth turned him around, marched him unceremoniously to the open window at the front of the room, and tossed him out headfirst, just beyond the edge of the outside deck. I nodded appreciatively. There hadn't been a wasted motion.

I had heard no sound behind me, but perhaps that was understandable considering all the commotion in front of me. I started when I felt a small hand touch my back. I turned, and was startled and alarmed to see Vicky, barefoot and sleepy-eyed, staring up at me. I did not think we had been making that much noise, but it had obviously carried to the bedrooms in the west wing of the house.

'Mr. Mongo?' the child said.

Garth was Garth to the child, and Mary simply Mary. But I was still 'Mr. Mongo,' a tide I had bestowed upon myself when I had first met her, under rather perilous circumstances, and had made a desperate bid for her trust- and all-important silence-by telling her I was Santa's chief helper. 'Hello, sweetie,' I said, quickly stepping in front of her and stroking her cheek. 'What are you doing up?'

'What's wrong, Mr. Mongo?'

What was wrong was the spectacle of violence. In the two years since we had taken responsibility for her, Garth, April, and I had gone to great pains to insulate Vicky from all kinds of violent images; the girl had seen

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