THE man was young, still in his twenties. His skin was pale and his hair so blond as to look almost white in a certain light. His eyes were the palest blue. And cold. As cold and unforgiving as this winter night he was driving through. But for those expressionless blue eyes and the cruel way they looked out at the world, he would have been handsome.
His body was tall and lean but well-muscled, and many women had noticed the way he filled out a pair of jeans. Men, too, if the truth were known. But the pale man ignored them all. His body, his seed, had never been shared, except by one. And even then, only once. And that had happened almost a decade ago.
He drove down a rutted gravel road with graded snow piled high on either side. The snow looked dirty and stained as it reflected off the headlights of his car. The night was bitter cold, and he had the car heater cranked up as high as it would go. The hot air blowing through the heater vents made the blood on his hands feel sticky against the steering wheel.
Minutes before, he had left the farmhouse that sat at the end of this road. The farmhouse he had known all his life. The man he had grown to become was a direct result of events that had occurred inside that farmhouse. The memories that had flooded over him when he stepped back inside that house tonight after years of absence had shamed him and made him angry. And excited him. His cock was hard even now. It had been an exhilarating night. At long last, after only a few minutes of work, he had severed all links to that house. All links but one. And that final link would be severed soon enough.
After several miles, the gravel road came to an end, and the man pulled onto a highway that would eventually lead him to his home. But it would not be his home much longer. Tonight he would sever that link as well, and his mission would truly begin. The mission God had set for him. The mission that would reconcile him with the weakness of his past and give him absolution for his sin. His one sin. The one flaw in a perfectly lived life. A life he had devoted to God even in his childhood. Upon completion of this mission, his one sin would be, at long last, forgiven.
He would know redemption.
But he had to be smart. And he had to be strong. The mission was not an easy one. God did not set easy tasks. And the man was not ready to be welcomed into heaven just yet. He had enjoyed the things he did inside that farmhouse tonight. It had been a new experience for him, but it did not seem new. It seemed like something he had been waiting for his entire life. It had unleashed a power inside him that he had always known was there but had never dared to express. Not until God told him to let that power go, to set it free, did he understand. It was like a light going on in a shuttered room. Suddenly, he could see everything.
He had known, long before entering that farmhouse tonight and beginning his mission to set things right with God, that he was indeed flawed. He was human, with human frailties and human desires. And he had come to know that it was those desires that flawed him. They made him less than perfect in God’s eyes, and he would not settle for less than perfect. His faith was too precious to him to be brought down by sins of the flesh. Even now, he longed for a release from the torment of those desires. They lived in him at this very moment, even after all he had accomplished this night. The farmhouse, and the memories it stirred inside him, had brought those longings rushing back to him, angering him, feeding the hatred that gave him the strength to do what he had just done.
Tonight was only the beginning of the cleansing process. There was much more for him to do. More blood would be shed for his salvation. It had to be that way. Especially the blood of one. The one who had brought him down in the beginning, the one whose death would resurrect him from this imperfect life he found himself mired in.
His one desire. The desire that never left his body, like an ache that could not be healed.
His one sin.
He spotted the hitchhiker two miles from his home. The boy looked to be no more than seventeen. What he was doing here on this empty highway on such a bitterly cold night was anybody’s guess. Perhaps his car had broken down somewhere, or perhaps he was just wandering.
If it was a future the boy sought, the pale man knew he would soon find it. With him. This night would be the only future the boy would ever know.
The boy was tall and lanky and built very much like him. When the man realized this, he knew that God had sent the boy to him. To find this young man here, on this icy, wind-swept highway, was nothing short of a miracle. A gift.
As he pulled the car over to the side of the highway and watched the young man jog toward him in his rearview mirror, he thought, Thank you, my Savior.
With a smile that felt alien upon his face, he pushed open the passenger door, patted the seat beside him with a bloodied hand, and beckoned the boy to his death.
OUTSIDE the west terminal of Lindbergh Field, a man stood clutching a new Samsonite travel bag. The bulky trench coat draped across his other arm told the skycap on duty that this man was an arrival and not a departure; therefore, his services would not be required.
The skycap, a black man named Charles Warren MacCauley, or Mac to his friends, studied the arrival with the eye of one who had seen a lot of humanity come and go over the years as he stood at his station outside the airport’s main entrance. Consequently, he considered himself a pretty fair judge of human character. Since he had nothing better to do at the moment, Mac studied the arrival more closely. This was a ritual of his—a hobby, almost—which he had developed over the years to help him pass the slow times, what few slow times there were in this business.
Mac figured the man with the trench coat was on his first visit to San Diego because he looked kind of lost. Well, not lost exactly. Just… indecisive. And unhurried. The man was eyeing the sky and the palm trees that skirted the parking lot across the street like he had seen neither sky nor palm tree before in his life. And Mac also guessed the man was an infrequent traveler. The pristine Samsonite suitcase told him that much. Very few luggage items, Samsonite or otherwise, survived many trips on the airways unscathed. Mac knew that for a truism if he knew nothing else.
Luggage got chewed up around here on a regular basis.
Mac also came to the conclusion that the man was traveling for pleasure, not business. He was too unhurried for business. Business travelers didn’t just stand around looking at palm trees; they whistled for cabs and checked itineraries and griped about the service. This guy didn’t look as if he had ever griped about anything in his life. A very mellow fellow, Mac thought, chuckling inwardly at his own poetic phrasing.
He figured the man to be about thirty years old, if that. Clean profile. Light colored hair, so blond as to be almost white, thinning on top. By the time the guy hit forty Mac figured the ladies would be calling him Baldy behind his back. And the guy had a baby’s complexion. Smooth skin. Not just smooth, but smooth. Unlined. Fragile looking. A real baby face, as if a safety razor would just peel the skin right off with the whiskers. December was a good month for this man to be visiting San Diego, Mac decided, because a summer California sun would not be kind to that pale skin.
Despite the baby-soft skin, Mac had to admit the guy looked like he could take care of himself. Solidly built, broad shoulders. Well over six feet tall. And big hands. Curled into fists, they would probably look like hams. But there was nothing menacing about the man. Or so he thought at first.
Mac thought he might have been staring a bit too long because suddenly the man turned. They made eye contact.
Mac responded with his standard noncommittal humble-nigger smile, the one that usually sat so well with most nonblack travelers. But this time his smile was not returned. The man’s pale blue eyes, almost as pale as the skin around them, gave Mac nothing back in return, as if Mac were just another palm tree the guy had spotted.
Embarrassed, Mac flipped through a stack of luggage labels, trying to look busy. Trying, in fact, to look as if he had not been staring at this guy with the ice-blue eyes. For to tell the truth, the cold eyes that were now aimed in his direction made him more than embarrassed. More than uncomfortable, even. What they did, really, was scare the crap out of him.
How could he have ever thought this guy was mellow?
Those ice-blue eyes continued to burrow into Mac until Mac couldn’t take it any longer. He made a pretense of checking his watch, as if it were time for his break or something, and then he got the hell out of there. He hurried into the terminal while trying not to look like he was hurrying. And for one second, as he waited for the automatic doors to whisk open, he turned to see if the pale traveler was still staring at him.
What he saw sent a shiver of fear shooting up his spine.
The man was grinning. And with the finger and thumb of his right hand, he formed the semblance of a gun, aiming the imaginary barrel straight at Mac’s startled face.
Softly, but loudly enough for Mac to hear, the man said, “Bang.”
THE man with the pale blue eyes blew invisible smoke from the barrel of his imaginary gun and turned away from the retreating skycap. The smile died from his lips, but inside his mind, deep inside, he still laughed at the comic figure of that frightened black man. They were such animals, really, he thought. So primitive. Perhaps he would seek a remedy for that particular abomination on his next crusade. But for now, he had more important fish to fry.
He retrieved his suitcase from the curb, stepped into the crosswalk, and headed for a string of Yellow Cabs parked along the opposite side of the street.
The man tossed his suitcase into the backseat of the first cab in line and climbed in after it.
“Downtown,” he said to the back of the driver’s head.
The driver checked him out in the rearview mirror.
“Downtown where, please?”
The man bristled at the cabbie’s accent. Iranian bastard. Should be out in the desert somewhere watering his camel instead of trying to communicate with an honest-to-God American. But he held his tongue. No sense getting worked up. Things tended to get complicated and messy when he did.
“Just downtown,” he repeated. “Drive around. Show me the sights. When I see a hotel I like, I’ll let you know.”
“Yes, sir,” the cabbie said, squeezing out into traffic, happy to have lucked into a better than average fare. “I show you everything.”
The pale man settled back and relaxed. He could afford to waste some time. It would be good to get a general picture of the city in his mind. And though such things rarely affected him, he had to admit that San Diego appeared to be an uncommonly attractive place. Ignoring the cabbie’s broken-English tourist spiel, he looked over at the bay. Far across the water, an aircraft carrier was berthed; on this side, sailboats gently swayed at their moorings. The air smelled of fish and salt water. Towering palm trees lined the roadway. Joggers were a rare commodity in the middle of December where this man came from, but here they were everywhere, futilely trying to outrun their own mortality. The man in the backseat of the cab had seen people trying to outrun death before and knew it to be a hopeless undertaking. People were such amusing fools.
Harbor Drive, clogged with traffic at this evening hour, followed the graceful curve of the bay. Soon, the man saw before him the San Diego skyline. Not as grandiose as some, perhaps, but commanding, the lines of it clean and precise in the smog-free air. Farther south, the Coronado Bridge, a graceful blue ribbon of concrete and steel, arched its tall back across the water, connecting the city to Coronado Island. A Navy destroyer with the number “13” stamped across its bow passed slowly beneath the bridge. Sailors in winter blues flanked the rail of the ship, they, too, watching the city skyline as they made their way out to sea.
A dark band of clouds on the horizon promised them a stormy reception. As yet, the rain had not drifted inland, but the smell of it threatened the air. It would arrive before morning if it did not veer south toward the Mexican coast.
The cabbie turned left, leaving the bay behind to cruise up Broadway. This was the heart of San Diego. Bustling. Crowded. It was rush hour and cars were everywhere. Roaring city buses cleaved their way through traffic. A red trolley clanged a warning to pedestrians standing too close to the tracks. Fountains sparkled pink in the setting sun. As he watched, someone somewhere in the bowels of the city flipped a switch and yellow streetlights came on. Their poles were decorated for Christmas, angels and stars on stiff red banners that did not move in the wind whipping inland from the ocean.
And people. People everywhere. Most well dressed, many lugging their Christmas shopping in colorful bags from Nordstrom’s, F.A.O. Schwartz, and smaller specialty shops. A young man awkwardly pushed a new bicycle with training wheels along the sidewalk. A bag lady with scabby legs reached for a handout with one hand while the other clutched a shopping bag from Neiman-Marcus filled to overflowing with what looked to be rags. San Diego, the man knew, was a haven for the homeless. Here the rats and vermin clustered. It wasn’t only tourists who came for the balmy weather. Here the homeless could sleep, unmolested, on street corners and under freeway overpasses, without fear of freezing to death even in the midst of winter. This city cared for them. Fed them. Clothed them. Tolerated them. Treated the scum of the earth like royalty. This was another crusade the man might launch one day. Even now, his fingers tingled with the anticipation of it.
But first things first.
He tapped the cabbie on the shoulder, interrupting the man’s endless prattle, and handed him a slip of paper.
“Find this address for me,” he said. “Just drive by it. Don’t stop. After that, you can bring me back to that hotel there.” He pointed to an imposing gray structure straight ahead, one with flags flying from its front edifice and a top-hatted doorman looking ridiculously out of place on the sidewalk outside. Across the street from the hotel a gazebo-shaped fountain spewed water under a blue light. Holiday music could be heard coming from speakers hidden somewhere at the base of it.
The driver nodded. “U.S. Grant. Very fine hotel.”
“Good,” the man said. “Now find that address for me before it gets dark.”
The cabbie nodded again. “Yes, sir. It’s not far. Just up the hill.”
Five minutes later, the cabbie slowed in front of an aging apartment building on Walnut Street. Untrimmed palms stood like fat sentinels in the yard outside. With a coat of paint and a half hour of labor with chainsaw and axe to get rid of those ugly trees, the place wouldn’t look so bad, the man thought. Still, it would be nothing more than he had expected. A hovel. A fitting home for the person he had come these many miles to administer his particular brand of justice to.
The sky was almost fully dark now. A light switched on in one of the upstairs apartments. The man’s heart quickened as he leaned closer to the taxi window, peering out. He wondered if his quarry was there, puttering around the kitchen, perhaps, or feeding his fucking cat, if he had one.
The pale man’s fingers commenced to tingle again. He felt a tightness in the crotch of his slacks as his cock stirred. God’s work was beginning.
He could hardly wait.
Fat raindrops began to pepper the cabbie’s windshield. And just like that, the man thought, the storm begins. A cleansing was about to take place in this city. He wondered just how many souls would be swept away in the rain of God’s wrath.
And his own.