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'I know what you're thinking,' Clarise said. 'If she was going to kill herself, why bother with breakfast? It's even weirder than that, Joe. She'd made an omelette with Cheddar and chopped scallions and ham. Toast on the side. A glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice. She was halfway through eating it when she got up and went outside with the camcorder.

Charles and Georgine Delmann lived in an enormous Georgian house on a half-acre lot in Hancock Park. A pair of magnolia trees framed the entrance to the front walk, which was flanked by knee-high box hedges so neatly groomed that they appeared to have been trimmed by legions of gardeners with cuticle scissors. The extremely rigid geometry of the house and grounds revealed a need for order, a faith in the superiority of human arrangement over the riot of nature.

Georgine Delmann herself answered the door. Joe recognized her from her photo in one of the Post articles about the crash. She was in her late forties, tall and slim, with richly glowing dusky skin, masses of curly dark hair, and lively eyes as purple-black as plums. Hers was a wild beauty, and she assiduously tamed it with steel-frame eyeglasses instead of contacts, no makeup, and grey slacks and white blouse that were manly in style.

For a moment they were silent, pondering the imponderable.

'I know what you're thinking,' Clarise said. 'If she was going to kill herself, why bother with breakfast? It's even weirder than that, Joe. She'd made an omelette with Cheddar and chopped scallions and ham. Toast on the side. A glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice. She was halfway through eating it when she got up and went outside with the camcorder.

Grabbing his hand, pulling him across the threshold into the marble-floored foyer, pushing the door shut with her hip, she didn't take her astonished gaze from him. 'Lisa was telling us about your wife and daughters, about how you just dropped out, went away. But now here you are, here you are.'

The metropolis glowed, a luminous fungus festering along the coast. Like spore clouds, the sour-yellow radiance rose and smeared the sky. Nevertheless, a few stars were visible: icy, distant light.

Moved, he returned her embrace. 'Thanks, Clarise.'

The Delmanns were physicians. He was an internist specializing in cardiology, and she was both internist and ophthalmologist. They were prominent in the community, because in addition to their regular medical practices, they had founded and continued to oversee a free clinic for children in East Los Angeles and another in South Central.

The metropolis glowed, a luminous fungus festering along the coast. Like spore clouds, the sour-yellow radiance rose and smeared the sky. Nevertheless, a few stars were visible: icy, distant light.

'Something's wrong, Joe. Something's wrong big time.'

He checked the luminous dial of his watch. 'It's only a few minutes past nine. I'm going to try to see another of the families tonight.'

Then Bob said, 'You see what I meant earlier when I said we have a thousand questions of our own.'

For a moment they were silent, pondering the imponderable.

Although he'd finished more than half of his second drink, Joe felt no effect from the 7-and-7. He had never seen a picture of Nora Vadance; nevertheless, the mental image he held of a faceless woman in a patio chair with a butcher knife was sufficiently sobering to counter twice the amount of whiskey that he had drunk.

Bob said, 'No. It was on the kitchen table. At the very end, she didn't carry it with her.'

He checked the luminous dial of his watch. 'It's only a few minutes past nine. I'm going to try to see another of the families tonight.'

A minute ago, the night had seemed gracious, and he had seen nothing to fear in it. Now it loomed, and he repeatedly checked his rear-view mirror.

When Joe told her his name, before he could say that his family had been on Flight 353, she exclaimed, to his surprise, 'My God, we were just talking about you!'

When Joe told her his name, before he could say that his family had been on Flight 353, she exclaimed, to his surprise, 'My God, we were just talking about you!'

The Delmanns were physicians. He was an internist specializing in cardiology, and she was both internist and ophthalmologist. They were prominent in the community, because in addition to their regular medical practices, they had founded and continued to oversee a free clinic for children in East Los Angeles and another in South Central.

Bob and Clarise were still standing on the porch, side by side, watching Joe as he drove away.

'I know what you're thinking,' Clarise said. 'If she was going to kill herself, why bother with breakfast? It's even weirder than that, Joe. She'd made an omelette with Cheddar and chopped scallions and ham. Toast on the side. A glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice. She was halfway through eating it when she got up and went outside with the camcorder.

Although he'd finished more than half of his second drink, Joe felt no effect from the 7-and-7. He had never seen a picture of Nora Vadance; nevertheless, the mental image he held of a faceless woman in a patio chair with a butcher knife was sufficiently sobering to counter twice the amount of whiskey that he had drunk.

He checked the luminous dial of his watch. 'It's only a few minutes past nine. I'm going to try to see another of the families tonight.'

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