THE STREETS WERE DESERTED. ANTANANARIVO SLEPT. In a week's time, the dry season would begin and cold, mountain winds would once again grip the town. Tonight, though, the air was as thick as soup, heavy with threatened thunder. Grace moved like a wraith through the empty city, as silent and deadly as a virus.
Yesterday, she'd panicked. What if he isn't there? What if it's not him, this mystery buyer? What if it isn't John?
But now, as she climbed up the hill toward Le Cocon and the first rays of dawn pierced the stormy April sky, her doubts evaporated. He was here. John Merrivale was here. Her whole body was alive to his presence, like a shaman sensing an evil spirit.
She reached inside her jacket and touched the gun.
The time had come.
"I'M SORRY, SIR. THE EARLY FLIGHT to Antananarivo has been canceled."
The girl at the check-in desk gave a careless little shrug of the shoulders, as if to say, What can you do? Mitch fought back the urge to vault over the desk and throttle her. Through gritted teeth, he asked, "When will the next flight be?"
She looked at her computer screen.
"Nine o'clock. But everything will depend on the weather. If these storms continue, they might close the airport."
You don't have to look so damn happy about it.
Why had John Merrivale come to Madagascar? Mitch and Harry had assumed it was because the island had no extradition treaty with the United States, that he'd be safe from the long arm of federal law. But what if that wasn't the only reason? He'd told the manager at his hotel that he was meeting "a friend." Perhaps John had a personal connection with the island? And who was this friend? Mitch's first thought was that it might be Grace herself. Had she contacted him somehow and persuaded him to meet? Perhaps, as two criminals on the run from the U.S. justice system, she'd convinced John that she was prepared to let bygones be bygones. If so, Mitch was certain, she was luring him into a death trap.
Mitch had called Caroline Merrivale. Woken her up.
"Has John ever been to Madagascar? Does he have any acquaintances there?"
Caroline's answer had hardened Mitch's hunch into a certainty. He knew where John was. He knew where Grace was headed. But could he get there in time to prevent the inevitable?
"I'd like a ticket for that flight, please. The nine o'clock."
She looked at her screen again. "Oh, dear. I'm afraid it's fully booked. Shall I put you on standby?"
Breathe deeply. Count to five.
Mitch tried Harry Bain again.
ON THE FLOOR NEXT TO HARRY Bain's sleeping bag, his cell phone vibrated quietly. It was five A.M. at the Isalo National Park campsite. Outside, hikers were already warming cups of coffee over the breakfast campfire and checking the settings of their cameras. The big thing at Isalo was the birdlife. You could never get up too early to watch birds.
Unlike his fellow campers, Harry Bain had no interest in snapping a crested coua or catching a rainbow-plumed coraciidae feeding its young. He'd come to Toliara in search of the lesser-spotted Merrivale, but the whole thing had been another wild-goose chase. Whoever left him that note was either deliberately playing games with him or had gotten his signals crossed. The rangers at Isalo had the combined IQ of a dung beetle. None of them had seen John.
Harry Bain wanted to get back to Antananarivo last night, but he'd left too late. Reluctantly, he'd settled in for a night's sleep in the park.
His phone buzzed five or six times, like a dying wasp, then fell silent. Thanks to his trusty foam earplugs, Harry Bain slept on, oblivious.
GRACE SLIPPED OFF HER BACKPACK. INSIDE were a length of rope, pliers, a stick of chalk, a square black piece of cloth and a Dictaphone tape recorder.
Tying a simple slipknot at one end of the rope, she threw it over the lowest part of Le Cocon's fortresslike outer wall, aiming for a metal rod that jutted out below one of the bathroom windows. Lassoing was harder than it looked. It took Grace more than ten minutes to snag the rod, minutes in which she looked anxiously over her shoulder for early-morning pedestrians. The dawn had broken slowly at first, but now daylight seemed to flood the alley, shining on Grace as aggressively as any police flashlight. Rubbing chalk onto her hands, she gripped the rope and began pulling herself up. The wall was as smooth as newly shaven skin and slick with moisture from the air. Even with her climbing shoes, it was tricky to get a firm grip. With every slip, every lost footing, the strain on Grace's triceps increased fivefold till her arms started to shake. Halfway up she thought desperately, I'm not going to make it! I can't hold on! She could feel the rope chafing against her palms, the sweat of her efforts washing away the chalk. She started to slide, imperceptibly at first, but then faster and more surely, back down toward the street.
Voices. Girls' voices, or young women. They were giggling, gossiping to one another in French. Grace couldn't make out what they were saying, but it didn't matter. Their conversation grew louder. They'll be here any second! They'll see me!
Grace looked up. There was another fifteen feet to the top of the wall. Her hands were still slipping, her feet scrabbling for purchase. The voices were even louder now. Gripping the rope, Grace forced herself to move upward. She had no energy left, yet somehow she kept going, powered by determination. It wasn't about saving herself. It was about destroying John Merrivale.
On the other side of that wall is the man who killed Lenny. The man who took everything from you. He's living in YOUR house, hiding in YOUR sanctuary, spending YOUR money.
Rage was like a turbocharger in Grace's chest, pulling her up, propelling her on. Her hands were bleeding now, blood mingling with the sweat on her palms as the rope lacerated her skin, but Grace felt nothing. She could see the top. She could touch it! Swinging her legs over to the other side of the wall, she pulled the rope up behind her. The girls were directly below her now, three of them. Dressed in supermarket uniforms, they were on their way to work. Grace waited for them to stop and point. The bottom of the rope was less than two feet from where they were walking. But they continued on their way, laughing and joking with one another. Happy. Grace felt a pang of envy mingled with her relief as she watched their backs disappear from sight.
Then she pulled up the rope, turned around and lowered herself down into Le Cocon's courtyard garden.
MITCH LOOKED OUT OF THE PLANE WINDOW. There was nothing to see but clouds, thick and gray and impenetrable. Next to him a young woman whimpered with fear as the aircraft bucked like a wild bull, juddering its way through the turbulent sky.
Mitch tried not to think about Grace, or John Merrivale, or what might already have happened back in Antananarivo. If this were New York, he'd radio the local police for backup, get them to deal with it. But the last thing he wanted was a bunch of trigger-happy Madagascans storming Le Cocon.
Where the hell was Harry Bain when you needed him?
GRACE EDGED HER WAY AROUND THE courtyard with her back to the wall. Le Cocon was a vast house, a maze of corridors and bedrooms and little hidden gardens and terraces. She would begin the search inside the house, but first she had to disable the security alarm, cameras and phone line.
Lenny used to complain about the archaic systems at Le Cocon. "Have you seen the wires out there? It looks like something from a bad seventies sci-fi movie." But he never got around to replacing them. Grace was banking on the fact that Jan Beerens wouldn't have gotten around to it either.
Edging toward the back kitchen door, she saw to her relief that he hadn't. One arthritic closed-circuit camera pointed toward the same old fuse box that had been there in her and Lenny's day. Approaching the camera from behind, Grace covered it with the black cloth she'd brought with her. Then, pulling out her pliers, she advanced toward the fuse box.
MITCH'S PLANE HIT THE TARMAC WITH a violent bump. The woman next to him made the sign of the cross and offered up a little prayer of thanks.
Mitch was not a religious man, but he, too, started to pray.
Don't let me be too late.
HARRY BAIN RUBBED HIS EYES. FOR a moment he forgot where he was. He'd been in the middle of a wonderful dream. He was in New York at Sweetiepie, one of his favorite restaurants on Greenwich Avenue, salivating over a hot fudge sundae, when some A-hole started shaking him by the shoulders.
"Camp's packing up. If you want a ride to the airport, you better get up now."
Madagascar. Isalo. John Bastard Merrivale.
Gloomily, he reached for his phone. The red message light flashed at him reproachfully. Harry flipped it open and hit the key for voice mail.
"You have...seven new messages."
He sat up and listened.
GRACE LEANED ON THE KITCHEN DOOR. It opened immediately.
John must feel safe here. Like we did.
There were only two places in the world where she and Lenny had routinely left their doors unlocked: Madagascar and Nantucket. John had ruined the memory of both those places, poisoned them, like he poisoned everything he touched.
Hugging her hatred to her like a security blanket, Grace crossed the dark room. It was eerie. Above her head hung copper pots and pans, shadowy and immobile like a set of unloved puppets. In front of her the enormous triple-fronted cook's stove gleamed, pristine and untouched. Next to it, on the countertop, Grace noticed that someone had recently bought, unwrapped and plugged in a basic microwave oven. Its box could still be seen in the corner, propped on top of the trash can.
Typical. A single man moves into a house with a fully equipped gourmet kitchen and the first thing he does is buy himself a microwave.
Grace found herself wondering if John had used it yet, and if so, what he had prepared. She hoped it was delicious, whatever it was. It didn't seem right to eat a horrible last meal.
The inner kitchen door opened into a small flagstone pantry, which in turn led to stairs. These were originally the servants' stairs and they ran all the way from the cellar to the attic on the west side of the house. Grace drew her gun - it was Gavin Williams's gun but she thought of it as hers now - and started to climb.
The house was not just quiet. It was silent. Grace could hear her own breath, the soft rustle of her clothes as she moved, the creak of a water pipe. It was only a few days since she'd last been here, sitting in the library with the kindly Jan Beerens, but something seismic seemed to have happened to the place in the interim. It was more than just the absence of furniture and people. Beerens's staff had gone, and John had clearly moved in alone. It was as if the house itself had died. As if John's presence had forced all the life and the joy out of it, like albumen from a straw-blown egg. All that was left was the shell.
Suddenly a door slammed. The noise was so loud and so unexpected, Grace opened her mouth to scream, but stopped herself, stifling the sound with her hands. She'd almost reached the second floor, but the noise had come from below, at ground level. As quietly as she could, Grace turned around.
On this floor, the door from the servants' stairs opened into a large, marble-floored atrium. It was shaped like a pentagon, with five floor-to-ceiling archways giving onto various reception rooms. The library and the study faced inward, toward Le Cocon's small central courtyard, but the dining and living rooms opened onto the main garden, each with a set of French doors. Grace stepped cautiously into the atrium, looking around her, listening for a second sound, some sign to guide her. She felt a soft breath of wind on her face. The drawing-room doors were open to the garden. Grace took a step toward them, then stopped.
There he was.
She saw him from behind, walking out into the garden, still in his pajamas and bathrobe. He had a coffee mug in one hand and a book in the other, and he looked like any tourist on vacation. His red hair was unkempt, sticking up at strange angles from where he'd slept on it. Grace was struck by how small he looked. How slight. How normal. If one were to form a mental picture of a brutal murderer, it would not be this harmless, shambling, middle-aged man.
She had not seen John in the flesh since her trial. Her last memory of him was his pained face as she was led from the dock. Don't worry, he mouthed to her. Grace thought back to the terror of those first days in custody, the van ride to Bedford, being beaten to near death by Cora Budds. Back then, she'd still believed John Merrivale would rescue her. He was her friend, her only friend.
She released the safety catch on the gun.
He didn't hear her. Grace moved closer, walking at first, then running.
He turned around. At the sight of the gun, his face drained of color. The coffee mug fell from his hand, shattering into a thousand pieces on the paved stone of the terrace. Instinctively he moved to one side, covering his head with his hands. As he did so, Grace saw for the first time that he was not alone.
Behind him, sprawled out in a lawn chair, was another man. The second man was turned three-quarters away from Grace, facing the garden rather than back toward the house. At first she could see only the top of his head and his slippered feet stretched out in front of him, but still a shiver of familiarity shot through her. Something about his posture, his body language...I know you.
She stood transfixed as the man slowly turned. Even before she saw his face, she knew. The languid, unconcerned way he moved, as if the commotion behind him, and John Merrivale's cowering terror, didn't bother him in the least. Grace had met only one man with that confidence. That total, unshakable sangfroid.
"Hello, Gracie." Lenny Brookstein smiled. "I've been waiting for you."