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...6:02 P.M., PST...

"Mr. Leland."

It was a black man, elderly, with a graying moustache. He was in livery, including billed cap and black tie. "I was sent to pick you up, sir."

"Today tonight? It wasn't necessary. You should be home with your family."

"Oh, I'm getting paid, sir," the man said with a smile. "Ms. Gennaro wants me to take you to her office."

That was a change. "I have to pick up my luggage."

"I'll take care of that, sir. Just let me have the tickets."

Leland wondered why Steffie had bothered with this. There was no pleasure in it, especially when it led to a seventy-year-old hefting his suitcases. "Come on," he said. "Maybe you'll be home early enough for Christmas Eve."

"That's all right, sir."

It took another twenty minutes to pick up the two bags, and another ten to get the big black Cadillac out of the parking area into the flow of traffic eastward. The driver flooded the car with conditioned air and burbling stereophonic sound. Leland asked him to kill both. The motels on Century Boulevard extended season's greetings or so the marquees announced. Leland closed his eyes and hoped that Steffie hadn't cooked up anything too strenuous tonight. She had told him more than once that he was becoming cranky, but the simple truth was that he was not completely in accord with the way his daughter lived these days.

She was assistant to the vice president for international sales, Klaxon Oil. It was a jawful of title, but the job was just as big, and paid plenty. Leland estimated that his daughter was making well over forty thousand, plus bonuses. The problem was that she lived all the way up to it, with the big BMW, three vacations a year, and more restaurant accounts, club memberships, and credit cards than he thought it possible to keep track of. It was her life, of course, and he kept his mouth shut, but he was sure she was overdoing it. The kids were well cared for, and given what they had been through, they were doing better than Leland might have reasonably expected. He loved them and sent them gifts all around the year, but he understood that he knew them hardly at all, that their everyday lives were completely beyond him.

The distance had a lot to do with it, and the times in which they lived.

Not to mention times past, and what he and Karen had brought on their own family. Steffie was away for her first year of college when he and Karen went into their final torment. He had never really understood the long-term dynamics between them. Early in their lives Karen had let herself get in serious trouble instead of coming to him. He thought she had been afraid. They had been separated for years during the war; they were never able to grow back together again the way they had been when they had been young together. They had changed and had gone on changing, never acknowledging their separate frustrations and resentments. He had consciously kept them to himself, and she had believed that she had to do the same. Of the thousands of mistakes he had made, the worst had been in not paying attention to the person she really was.

"I can't go on like this," she said one night, glass in her hand, for it was a time she was drinking with him. "I'm sorry, Joe, but I've been over and over this in my mind, but there is absolutely no way I can tolerate another minute of it. You're not the person I thought you'd be when I met you. It's not that I don't know who you are anymore. I know who you are, a businessman out of town half the time whose work is so secret or esoteric that he won't or can't discuss it with me, if I cared. But can I care about whether unauthorized personnel have access to the computer? Or if the police-force in Prefrontal, Nebraska, is up on the latest in crowd control? Joe, I know it's not shit, but as far as I'm concerned,it isshit, and I'm sick of it. I'm sick of you unable to function at night because of it, and I'm sick of waiting for the future that never comes. I want you out. The sooner, the better. It's not just that I don't approve of you, it's that I don't even like you anymore. There it is. The sex, when it comes, only makes me want to kill you. Get out, Joe. Get out now."

He was drunk before dawn, and he was never sober more than eight hours at a stretch for the next two years. At times, he was genuinely ugly. He called Karen when he was drunk, believing he wanted to plead, but really waiting for the chance to resume old arguments. He had a lot to account for. A marriage as old and bad as theirs was no better than a haunted house, and the two of them found rooms upstairs that had not been visited in twenty years. They fought about them, about who caused what, and when.

Stephanie heard all of it, from one or the other. She flunked out of school, called them from Puerto Rico. It wound up with Karen putting her in therapy and Leland throwing up blood for two weeks in the effort to convince himself that he was doing something that was killing all of them. The next time Karen saw him, he was sober but in the knowledge that the marriage was over, and that he had to figure out his life anew. He never touched Karen again.

Who could have known she would be dead in less than another eight years?

He had been to the Klaxon building before, a forty-story vertical column on Wilshire Boulevard, and he was familiar enough with the city to know that the old driver was taking the glamour route, north on the San Diego Freeway to Wilshire, then east through Beverly Hills, past the shops and hotels.

As well as the rest: the motionless palms, the glaring billboards. Ninety percent of the buildings in L.A. were low-lying two-story residences and businesses. There was real civic pride in Los Angeles, resulting in some of the most beautiful residential neighborhoods in the world, but there was also another factor contributing to the look of the city, the gaudy, screaming money madness that had hold of Stephanie, and it led to such gross public insults as pizza shacks with signs that leered: "Had a piece lately?" At its worst, you came away with the conclusion that, if the billboards were removed, the power lines buried, and the business signs restricted to a modest size, the city would look like a shaved cat.

The problem was the newness of the place. As recently as the nineteen fifties, most of Los Angeles and its suburbs lay undeveloped. A dozen years ago, when Leland first started coming here, critical stretches of the Freeway remained to be built, and the city was still in fragments. Now Los Angeles was the first postindustrial megalopolis, the giant city of the future, lying in an infant's sleep under a churning, poisoned sky. "Do you live in Los Angeles?" "No, sir, I live in Compton, California." Californians like to say the word. If he had been in New York or Chicago, the answer would not have been "Valley Stream, New York"or "Cicero, Illinois."It was as if people here wanted to assure themselves that everything was where it was supposed to be, as if someone could tear it up overnight.

As a police problem, the place was a nightmare. If the size and sprawl of the city were not enough, Los Angeles was the only city Leland knew that was bisected by a mountain chain, the Santa Monicas, running from east to west and encompassing such communities as Bel Air, Sherman Oaks, and Studio City, as well as the separate, surrounded city of Beverly Hills among others. In many areas, ground patrol had proved ineffective, and so the police had taken to the air, in helicopters. It worked. You could run from someone hammering above you, but you couldn't hide.

The limo was off the Freeway now, heading east on Wilshire through the fashionable neighborhood of Westwood. Bel Air rose to the left, hidden in its money. For the next five miles, million-dollar homes were not unusual. In this town people who had never had money before were suddenly truly rich, and they didn't care what they paid for the things they wanted. Rolls-Royce did better here than in India in the days of the Raj. And money was pouring in from all over the world, as old regimes collapsed. In a few years Los Angeles was going to be the most expensive and corrupt and dangerous city on the face of the earth.

"What are you going to do for Christmas?"

"I think I'm going to watch a whole lot of TV. My boy built me one of those big-screen sets you know, with the projector."

"Is he in electronics?"

"No. This is my youngest boy, he's just twenty-one. He's an actor, but he's real good with his hands. He got an ordinary TV, a lens, and a screen, and there I am. Four feet across, just like a movie. The Rams will look big in defeat this year. I'll tell you, this old world is turning into something else."

Leland said he agreed and let the conversation die. He had had enough glimpses of strangers' lives today. It was a comfort to know that the younger generation was no more in awe of the new technology than his had been of Model A's or biplanes, but Leland thought he saw important differences. The old technology got people out into the world and into contact with others. This stuff was for consumerslocked in subdivided little warrens, people who lived like cattle being raised for slaughter.

People themselves were different out here, eccentric like the English, exuberant in exploring new permutations of themselves. Hula Hoops came from this part of the world. The skateboard. Drive-ins. There were people here so in love with what they had invented for themselves that they spent Christmas every year sunning themselves on the beach. Never mind that the water was too cold for swimming.

Wilshire was all but deserted. A car crossing here and there. A woman yanking the leash of an ugly, forlorn dog. Christmas decorations. Block after block of lush store displays, through Beverly Hills and back into the darkness of Los Angeles again. He was beginning to feel as if he belonged here. A truck was parked alone at the curb two blocks from the Klaxon building, the only vehicle on the block. The lights changed and the limo came to rest across the street from the front entrance.

"Mr. Leland, you go in the front and I'll take your luggage down to the garage to Ms. Gennaro's car. Tell her the keys will be tucked under the front seat she knows. And you have yourself a Merry Christmas, all right?"

"Sure. You, too but don't ruin your eyes."

"Right." He grinned, happy with a loving son. "Right."

Leland noticed something on the far corner, nosed in at the curb. It was a big Jaguar sedan of the kind he had owned, to his regret, in the late sixties. The car had been nothing but trouble for Leland, and as much as he'd wanted to enjoy the car, he'd had to get rid of it. This one was in perfect condition. Someone was sitting inside. CB antenna on the trunk. The limo moved forward, into the light of the entrance of the Klaxon building.

Leland said good-bye to the driver and went up the flight of small steps when he thought of the car again and looked back. The man behind the wheel had the CB microphone up to his face and as far away as he was, he saw Leland looking back at him and tried to get the microphone down. Leland had seen something he shouldn't have, but the trouble was that the other fellow thought that, too. Leland kept going across the small, raised plaza to the glass doors where an old white guy in a gray uniform sat at a desk reading a paper. Perhaps coincidentally, but certainly interestingly, he was out of the line of sight of the Jaguar. The old man saw Leland coming and got up and unlocked the door.

"My name is Joe Leland. I'm expected. Are you an ex-cop?"

"Yes, sir."

"So am I. I'm going for my wallet."

The old man read Leland's identification carefully. "New one on me, but I've been out of uniform fifteen years. Looks good, though, with a nice, raised seal. I know you're expected. What can I do for you?"

Leland told him about the Jaguar. The old man blinked and looked out toward Wilshire, although there was nothing to see from this position.

"There's a jewelry store across the street, and a kind of mom-and-pop combination liquor store and deli. Everything's closed tonight. I'm going to call it in. You take the elevator at the end, thirty-second floor. I don't know what the hell's the matter with people these days. Remember when Christmas Eve was a night off, and all you got was a stabbing or two?"

"Sure, and when you got there, the murderer was sitting in a chair, still telling the victim how wrong she was."

"An old-fashioned Christmas."

"They're running light tonight, aren't they?" Leland asked.

"If people knew how few cops were actually working some nights of the year, there'd be hell to pay. If you were armed, we could roust him ourselves."

"Lay off," Leland said. "How many kids out there working the holiday, all of them needing a good collar? I think I'll watch it from upstairs. I'll be able to see it, won't I?"

"No, the party's around the other side of the building."

"Party?"

"Something special. They put something over on the Arabs or somebody. The place is full of young cunt, kids, everything. I gotta make that call before that turkey out there goes gobble, gobble, gobble."

The old man did the gobbles in falsetto, and Leland was finally figuring out that he had been doing Gary Cooper in Sergeant Yorkwhen the elevator doors closed and Leland snapped his fingers and said, "Damn!" out loud.

Who had been on the other end of that conversation with the son of a bitch in the Jaguar? Where was he? You don't need a radio to knock over a deli or a jewelry store, either, for that matter. What were they up to?


...5:10 P.M., MST... | Nothing Lasts Forever | ...7:14 P.M., PST...