Superior Court Judge Patrick William O’Neill jogged down Painted Cave Road with his beloved German Shepherd Kim Philby trotting along beside. The narrow road serpentined, challenging drivers and terrifying their hapless passengers with its quick, tight turns and steep drop-offs. Great granite slabs thrust up its edges and hung down slopes toward Santa Barbara. Manzanita, Sagebrush, Sage, Chamise, Bay Laurel, and the occasional Yucca and Prickly Pear cactus dotted the arid landscape.
O’Neill stopped a mile down at his usual turnaround spot, jogged in place, and sat on a boulder. Kim Philby was panting but eager as always, his eyes alert, prick ears up. O’Neill reached down, scratched his head, and a fingertip sensed the irregularity of a fresh hard tick in his coarse brown coat. He grasped it between index finger and thumb, twisted it out, set it on a rock, and crushed it with his foot, leaving behind a dime sized red splotch.
Kim Philby gazed worshipfully at O’Neill, a lean and fit man of sixty, clean-shaven with silvery white hair and clear blue eyes.
The view was fine, O’Neill thought. Friends, co-workers, and relatives had all told him it was nuts to live up here, what with wild fires, mountain lions, rattlesnakes, and coyotes, but they were wrong. All of Santa Barbara lay below, as far south as Ventura and, beyond the curving coastline, the pellucid blue Pacific Ocean and upstart Channel Islands. It was an awesome place to live despite the hazards.
He checked his watch. They would be along soon now, and it was time to head back up the hill.
He stood and stretched.
Kim Philby’s ears perked and his eyes blazed.
O’Neill took a few deep breaths and then continued his jog, slowly at first, and then quickening his rhythmic pace, heading toward the house on the summit where he lived with his wife and Kim Philby. A house with, among other things, a tripod-mounted Celestron 1000-millimeter telescope good for observing wildlife and surveying the neighborhood. From his hilltop aerie, he had spotted incipient fires, burglaries in progress, and, most recently, a possible clandestine drug laboratory; the next hour would reveal the species of his latest prey.
Sun rising above his right shoulder, O’Neill jogged steadily uphill, retracing his earlier downhill course. Kim Philby floated effortlessly beside him, perfectly in tune, breathing with clocklike cadence. The road pitch leveled out as they approached O’Neill’s midpoint landmark, a row of four rural mailboxes atop a stone wall at roadside surrounded by a patch of white-flowering Toyon.
Powerful diesels whined in the distance as they climbed their way up the curlicue road, steadily getting closer. That would be them, O’Neill thought. Right on time.
He jogged past the mailboxes, stopped a hundred feet beyond, turned for a look back, and waited.
And waited. It was like marking time before the first pitch in a championship baseball game. He felt a tinge of pleasure, as if placing a bet, for he had something riding on the outcome of this particular game. His bet was that the sheriff’s party would find some incriminating prize inside that little house beside the road. If they did, he’d win; if not, he’d lose face.
Flashing lights appeared a quarter mile away as they rounded a bend and came out onto the straights. The lights grew brighter and their conveyances larger, and soon he could make out raiding party elements.
Two sheriff’s cruisers led the way, followed by two white vans and two trailing cruisers. They caravan grew louder and larger, sunlight glinting off windshields and polished chrome, and then gradually slowed until all its vehicles came to a stop on the road alongside the little house. Loud idling diesels and crackling sheriff’s radios pestered the otherwise sweet and silent mountaintop air.
A few seconds passed, and then a mass of sheriff’s deputies rushed from the cruisers and fanned out along the road. Six helmeted men in black uniforms carrying M4 carbines disembarked from the front van. A second group left the rear van. Four men in the assault team slung a steel battering ram between them, double-timed to the porch, and swung the ram into the front door, which collapsed inward in two strokes.