Michael Prescott: Stealing Faces

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Michael Prescott Stealing Faces
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    Stealing Faces
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It was a long drive, one he enjoyed, especially when the sun was westering, its light golden on the hills and desert flats. He headed south on Route 191 toward Interstate 10. The highway was uncrowded. A few pickup trucks shot past in the northbound lane, and far behind him sparkled a glimmer of sun on a chrome fender, but otherwise he was alone.

Solitude suited him. Cray was hemmed in by people throughout the day, even on weekends. The work never stopped, it was frustrating and demoralizing, and there was so rarely any relief.

But he would find relief tonight.

The road passed lightly under him. Ruts and potholes were smoothed away by a precision suspension system, and the engine’s soft hum disappeared behind the controlled violence of Mahler’s Eighth on the CD player. Cray settled deeper into the leather seat and felt care leave him.

He had paid more than $50,000 for these niceties, without regret. The salesman at the Lexus dealership had assured him that the LX 470 was the finest sport-utility vehicle on the market, exceeding even the rival Mercedes model. It was, he’d said, the perfect choice for the driver who would not sacrifice comfort, yet required the capability to travel off-road.

Cray required that capability. He had not told the salesman why.

As he approached the interstate, he noticed that the car with the chrome fender was still behind him, a mile in the distance, maintaining a steady rate of speed.

The freeway took him southwest, then curved north into Tucson. Downtown’s modest skyline passed on his right, a few medium-high office towers, tiers of windows glazed red with the sunset. Around the city lay the mountains, range upon range, pasted against the deepening cobalt of the sky.

Just north of the city limits, Cray turned off the interstate and traveled through the Catalina foothills on Ina Road. The sun was in his rearview mirror now, and only night lay ahead.

Resort hotels were scattered among the steep canyons and high ridges of the foothills. He chose an older one, recently renovated, a place unlikely to be too crowded in September. The tourist season did not start until the heat abated, and in the desert, summer lingered an extra month or two.

The parking lot near the lobby was largely empty. Cray parked the Lexus in a corner spot, away from the light poles. He did not want the vehicle to be noticed and perhaps remembered.

He was careful. Experience had made him wise. In twelve years of nocturnal adventures, he had slipped up only once.

Still, his one mistake had been recent enough to make him doubly cautious now.

From his studies of criminal psychopathology, he understood that self-control was critical to his continued success. The ones who got caught, the ones whose names the public knew, almost invariably were betrayed by their own spiraling appetites. They went faster, abandoned caution, pushed the envelope of risk, and lost everything.

Whenever one of them was apprehended, the fool was always stupidly surprised to discover he had covered his tracks less carefully than he’d imagined. It was apparent in the suspect’s face, captured in shaky close-up by a handheld news camera: the dull astonishment at having been arrested, the incredulity at finding himself no better or no smarter than those who’d come before.

Cray knew he could fall victim to the same hubris. Still, he was better.

He was more intelligent than most others who enjoyed similar pastimes, and his needs, though intense, had not ossified into obsessions. He could avoid the obvious, costly mistakes that recklessness would breed.

But even he could not hold out indefinitely against the urgings of his deepest nature. Months might pass, or even a year or two, and then one day he would feel it again, too strong to resist: the itch in his fingers, the insomnia, the sexual arousal that kept him hot and agitated.

He had felt it for the past three weeks, stronger with every passing day. So here he was, a wolf in a sheep’s mask, stalking the witless flock.

Before leaving home, he’d shed his business suit in favor of his standard nighttime ensemble. He was dressed entirely in black. Black boots, black denim slacks, black long-sleeve shirt.

His shirt collar was buttoned, though he wore no tie, and his dark hair was slicked back. Lately his hair was sparser than it had been, and his hairline had begun to recede. His forehead was pale and smooth, like a skull.

The black ensemble gave him a mildly dangerous edge, but his face was that of any other man in middle age who worked hard and bore up patiently under life’s load. A nice face, people would say: a kind and thoughtful face. And they would wonder why he had never married, what private heartache kept him solitary at the age of forty-six.

Sometimes, gazing in a mirror, he glimpsed the reality behind the persona, his living soul behind the public mask. It glimmered in his eyes, gray-green eyes, amber-flecked, which had looked deeply into the essence of things, eyes that did not flinch from horror.

His eyes were not nice or kind or thoughtful. Anyone who had seen those eyes, really seen them, would no longer wonder why he was unmarried.

As he crossed the parking lot in the sunset’s afterglow, the air, desert-dry, brushed the nape of his neck like a caress of velvet.

Adjacent to the lobby was a bar and grill, a place of soft music and glimmering candles, uncrowded at this hour. Cray took a window table and ordered a margarita, then watched the fading sunset and the growing dark.

The mountains vanished into the night. But the city remained, a spread of twinkling color, large and misty.

Cray looked at the lights for a long time, lifting his glass now and then to taste the tequila’s soothing burn. It was not the lights that fascinated him. It was his awareness of the people represented by those lights, a half million people or more, with different names and different backgrounds, strangers to one another, living, struggling, dying, each one an individual.

Yet how easily their individuality could be discarded. And if it could be stripped away, then was it even real?

Or was it only a disguise, a persona — complex and subtle, yes, rich with nuance, elaborately refined, but nonetheless a mere facade?

Cray looked toward the long mahogany bar at the front of the room. A man in tapered jeans and a big-buckled Western belt had just mounted a bar stool beside an unescorted woman in an invitingly short skirt.

The man would say something, and the woman would respond. Perhaps he would offer to buy her a drink; perhaps she would agree. He would compliment her dress or her hair or her eyes, and she would ask what he did for a living.

The two of them operated purely on instinct and reflex. Every move, every word, every detail of their grooming had been prompted by the unconscious emulation of others or the irresistible pull of instinctual drives.

The man wore those jeans and that belt because he had seen other men wearing them; imitative as a monkey, he had bought them for himself.

He had come to a bar because it was where other people would come. He had taken the empty seat beside the woman because this too was the action that was expected of him.

His conversational gambits had been picked up from movies or TV shows or from dialogue he’d overheard in other bars — nothing original, lines spoken by strangers, who in turn copied behavior they had witnessed elsewhere.

The ritual of offering to buy a drink, of making some cheap and obvious toast, of clinking glasses, all of it was a show played out countless times by countless others.

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