Allen Carmichael balanced on the precariously slim branch of the vine maple, pawing aside the soft new greenery and cursing the incompatibility of most trees with the human body. Particularly a six-foot-one-inch human body with a stiff leg, working its way through a sixth decade. Too old for this kind of stunt, he grumbled to himself. No doubt about it: It really was time to turn this side of things over to some younger maniac.
The house over which he was keeping watchor rather, which his machines had been watching for himlay slightly lower than his current treetop perch and at the other end of half a mile of well-maintained driveway. It was a solid house, big, with double-glazed windows and a lot of fake stone wrapped around a confusing number of rooms and a three-car garage. The sort of house Allen disliked, even without the things that went on inside it. Showy, unsuited to the climate, Tudoresque (whatever the hell that meant), and with no personality to show for its vast expense. It was also irritatingly well situated for defense. With good reason, Allen knew, but it made life no easier for a man trying to pry it open.
He downloaded the information stored in the treetop receiver, gave it a new battery, and paused to check the area around the tree for onlookers. He was grateful, always, when his targets were not dog owners. Remarkably few of them werefor the simple reason, he'd always supposed, that dogs demanded a kind of affection they had no time for. Their interests lay elsewhere.
He clambered down through the unfurling April leaves, reaching the ground without breaking any of his middle-aged bones, and set off for the motorcycle buried in some bushes half a mile away. The surveillance on AmberLyn's stepfather was nearly finished; time to break up the party.
Late that night, back in his barely furnished residential-hotel apartment, Allen Carmichael dropped his pack on the kitchen table and got himself a beer. Half of it went down his throat before he bothered to shut the door on the fridge.
He set the bottle down next to the pack and shrugged off the leather biker's jacket he wore, taking it to the apartment's single closet, where he winced at the smell of cat piss that wafted out. He worked one of the flimsy hangers into the coat's shoulders, hung the heavy garment up gingerly on the chipped paint of the metal bar, and closed the door, then remembered the smell and left the door ajar a few inches so his clothes wouldn't be quite so pungent in the morning. Sitting on the end of the wobbly mattress, he picked open the laces of his scuffed steel-toed boots, placing them precisely under the corner of the bed, then unbuttoned the grubby, paper-thin flannel shirt he wore and tugged it free from his jeans. He pushed the garment into the dresser drawer that he used in lieu of a dirty-clothes hamper (unconsciously adjusting the ill-fitting drawer so it lay precisely flush to the frame), then scratched his grease-rimed fingernails through his scalp, loosing hair matted by the day's headgear of knit cap and helmet, before stretching hard in an attempt to rid his body of the day's tiredness. The attempt was not a success.
He walked out of the bedroom, limping slightly, dressed in stocking feet, jeans, and the spotless army-green T-shirt he had worn beneath the plaid flannel. In the apartment's tiny bathroom (which was still pretty grim even though he'd got down on his hands and knees the day he moved in and scoured every surface) Allen ran the rust-stained basin full of cold water, splashed and dried his face. He used the toilet, then went back to the basin, using hot water and soap this time to scrub his hands, his bearded face, and the back of his neck. He'd rather have taken a shower, to rid himself of the indescribably oily feeling of his day, but he knew he'd really need one later and he couldn't permit himself to have two showers in one eveninga little compulsiveness was okay, but let's not let it get out of hand. So he washed his face and hands, and when every inch of exposed skin was clean and glowing, he arranged the thin, damp towel foursquare on the peeling chrome of the bar and switched off the light.
Excerpted from Keeping Watch by Laurie R. King Copyright© 2003 by Laurie R. King. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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