Breathless Page 10


He imagined groping warily through lightless rooms and hearing, close at his side, a low, rough voice whisper Henry.


Anxiety spiking, he searched kitchen cabinets and drawers until he found a flashlight and spare batteries. All right. He would be all right.


Now, at a few minutes past ten o’clock, dawn lay at least eight hours away. If he spent the night alert for sounds of an attempted break-in, he would be exhausted by daybreak. Already weary, he needed sleep to regain the necessary edge to stay alive.


He wanted to leave all the lights on. But he had always needed darkness to sleep. If he switched off the lights in only one room, anyone outside would know where he must be sleeping.


After consideration, he switched off the kitchen fluorescents. In the dark, he saw a bright line at the bottom of the cellar door, which might mean either that his tormentor was down there or wanted him to think as much.


He left the lights on in the hallway but turned them off in the study where Nora had intended to prepare the sofa bed for him.


In the living room, he clicked off one lamp but left another aglow near a window.


He would sleep in the bedroom, but not where anyone would expect to find him. The situation required precautions, deception.


He propped the shotgun against the bedroom armchair. He put the flashlight and the package of batteries on a footstool.


In the closet with the riddled door, from a high shelf, Henry took down two extra pillows and two spare blankets. With these, he could create the illusion of a sleeper, under the covers.


Approaching the bed, he saw the gloves.


The pillows and blankets fell from his arms.


On the chenille spread lay the pair of leather work gloves that Jim had worn to chop wood. They hadn’t been there before. They were saturated with blood. The blood had leached into the chenille.


Twenty-four


Cammy Rivers in her kitchen, in the ceaseless throbbing shadow of the light-drunk moth, eliminated protozoan diseases as possible causes of the behavior of the animals at High Meadows Farm.


She seemed to be left with only the possibility that a toxic substance or a drug had been administered to the Thoroughbreds and their pets. The method of delivery would most likely have been through accidentally or intentionally contaminated food.


The different species—horses, goats, dogs—would not have been fed the same things. Even some of the horses might have been on diets different from the others. Consequently, the contamination surely would have been intentional.


This explanation struck her as melodramatic and implausible. But she had no other avenue to explore.


Although she was old-fashioned in her approach to research, preferring books to Internet sources that more often contained misinformation, the time had come to go downstairs to the computer. The large number of drugs with their lengthy lists of side effects and the even larger number of natural and man-made toxins could be considered and eliminated only with the use of carefully composed search strings.


As she pushed her chair away from the table and got to her feet, the wall phone rang. She plucked the handset from the cradle: “Cammy Rivers.”


“Hey, Doc,” Grady Adams said, “hope I didn’t wake you.”


“It’s not even ten-thirty yet, Grady.”


“Well, I know you get up early. Listen, could you maybe come out here?”


“What—now?”


“That’s what I’m hoping.”


“Tell me nothing’s wrong with Merlin.”


She had given Grady the wolfhound as a puppy almost three years earlier.


“No, no, he’s fit enough, you could saddle him up and ride him. There’s this other thing.”


“What thing?”


“This thing—I want you to take a look at it. At them. Bring your bag, whatever you need, ’cause you might want to examine them.”


“They have a name?”


“That’s just it—I don’t think they do. I’ve never seen anything like them. Right now, they’re chasing Merlin around the room, and he loves it.”


“I have to ask you, furniture guy—you been breathing too many shellac fumes?”


“Maybe I have. Maybe I’ve been drinking the stuff.”


Twenty-five


After finding the blood-soaked gloves, shotgun at the ready, Henry Rouvroy searched the house, found no one, then searched it again, with the same result.


The chair still braced the cellar door. The front door remained locked, as did the back door between the kitchen and the rear porch.


The explanation became obvious. The enemy possessed a key. No doubt he took it off either Jim’s corpse or Nora’s.


While Henry had sat at the dinette table, listening for sounds in the basement, drinking dismal wine that might as easily have been pressed from plastic grapes as from real ones, his tormentor used a key to come in quietly through the front door. He left the bloody gloves on the bed, gloves he had worn while moving the bodies, and he left by the way he entered, locking up after himself.


Henry could see how it was done, but he couldn’t understand why.


Earlier, this kind of prankish behavior seemed to indicate that his tormentor must have an adolescent sense of humor. With so much at stake, however, and with every prank performed at a mortal risk, such behavior was unreasonable if not irrational.


If someone in Washington had become aware of Henry’s theft even as he had been industriously embezzling, if that person monitored him to discover the extent of his larceny and to determine his ultimate intentions, and if that person had either followed him to Jim’s farm or been waiting here for his arrival, common sense argued that Henry should have been killed, shot in the back of the head, before he even realized anyone had become aware of his thievery and his plans to make the farm his redoubt.


Evidently, his tormentor wanted more from him than his money and the farm. He tried to imagine what that might be, but his imagination failed him.


To ensure that his enemy could not get in with a key, Henry braced the kitchen door with a dinette chair. He used another chair to prevent the front door from being opened.


Henry thought of himself as a monster of limitless cruelty and perfect self-interest, whose absolute amorality ensured that he would reliably do the best thing for himself without hesitation. Now he reluctantly recognized that he could nevertheless make mistakes.


For one thing, he had equipped his Land Rover with a roadside-assistance and anti-theft service. Via satellite, it allowed real-time conversations in the event of breakdowns, accidents, and other emergencies. His primary purpose when having the service installed was to receive reliable advice about the best restaurants and the finest hotels wherever he happened to be at mealtime during his leisurely drive west.


In his Washington circles were people who could secretly hack into the satellite-service computers and follow him by the signal from the transponder that had been installed in the Land Rover as part of the package.


He purchased the Rover using fake ID and paid for it with a wire transfer from a bank in Bermuda, which itself received the funds from the account of a fabric-design firm in France, which was only a shell corporation acting on behalf of a nonexistent textile mill in the Philippines, which was owned by a wealthy Hong Kong man who could never be questioned or subpoenaed to testify in court because he was a figment of Henry’s imagination.


Evidently, using a homeless bum as proxy, he should have instead bought a used and spavined SUV for cash and should have driven west in rattletrap style, dressed in the tacky garb of a typical middle-class tourist, subsisting on Twinkies and Big Macs and mystery-meat tacos, sleeping in cheap motels where he was at risk of death either from swarms of mutant bedbugs or from exposure to such tasteless decor that it could inspire a weak cerebral artery to pop.


Never in a millennium would anyone in his Washington circles have thought to look for him—or for anyone of their acquaintance—in such a vehicle or in such déclassé establishments. They had all benefited from the same quality education, and they shared a set of standards by which they lived, and they expected of one another adherence to those standards.


Being one of the anointed elite meant belonging, meant freedom from self-doubt, meant always knowing what you thought and what you should think, meant comfort. But now Henry realized that it also meant being so intellectually cozy that you could not easily think out of the box. He thought he had risen above the past by freeing his inner beast from all restraint, yet he had planned his flight from D.C. in these dangerous times much as he might have planned a motor trip to the Hamptons in the old days when the world had not yet begun to slide into an abyss.


The tormentor clearly retained the ability to think outside the box. This sonofabitch wanted something more than the money and the farm, and he sought what he wanted with a strategy and tactics that left Henry confused and off balance.


Henry needed to be more mentally nimble. He must strive to expect the unexpected. To think the unthinkable.


After taking a trash bag from a box of them in a kitchen drawer, Henry returned to the bedroom. He put the blood-soaked leather gloves in the bag and placed the bag on the armchair.


As he removed the bloody chenille spread from the bed and set it aside to be laundered, he reminded himself that survival required mental nimbleness. Expect the unexpected. Think the unthinkable. He tried to think of something unthinkable so that he could consider it.


But as a monster in the making, he found nothing unthinkable, no motive or action shocking or even alien. Limits and transgressions had no meaning for him.


Then into his mind’s eye came the image of his twin brother taking a bullet in the face. He saw the event as it had been. Then he saw his brother on the barn floor, face broken as it had been.


None of that was unthinkable.


But then he saw something that had not occurred: the hemorrhaged eyes clearing, the occluding blood draining away, the eyes alive once more and capable of sight.


No. That was not merely unthinkable; it was impossible. There could be no return from death because there was no place after death from which to return.


The poet Emerson, grandfather of the modern intellectual, said to trust your will, trust in the power of will, and all things would be possible. He said, “What a man does, that he has.” He said men didn’t need hope and fear, meaning the hope of anything beyond themselves, meaning the fear of eternal consequences.


Henry Rouvroy had nothing to fear from his murdered brother, only from an unknown tormentor who, when the truth was at last known, would be a man like him, not his dead identical come back to life, but a man like him, shaped by the same influences, with a mind clear of all superstition.


He used spare pillows and blankets to shape a body on the bed. He drew the bedclothes over the faux sleeper.


In the kitchen, he removed the chair from under the doorknob and returned it to the dinette table. Likewise, he returned the chair with which he had braced the front door. For the time being, he left the chair bracing the cellar door.


Let the tormentor use his house key again. This time, Henry would be prepared for him.


Twenty-six


These rural roads were deserted at an hour when no logging trucks were en route to the mill and when no loads of lumber were outbound.


The Explorer’s headlights worked across various combinations of geometrical white ranch fencing and caused tree shadows to swing open like dark doors across moon-frosted meadows.


The forested mountains were blacker than the sky, and the moon rode high across a sea of stars.


At the end of the county road, Cammy followed Grady’s driveway past the house and parked behind.


On those occasions when she came to dinner, they always ate at the table in the kitchen, so she usually knocked at the back door instead of the front.


She and Grady were nothing more than friends. No man—or woman—in her life was more than that, but she counted Grady Adams as an especially good friend.


He possessed the grace of knowing what to ask about and what to leave unasked. He understood that caring didn’t require that every curiosity be satisfied.


Perhaps they got along so well because she, too, knew the limits of therapy talk in a society that counted nothing higher than the therapeutic. She didn’t expect to heal a friend or to be healed by him.


Sharing didn’t have to involve complete revelation. In fact, the more you shared of the past, the less people saw you for who you were in the now, the more they saw you as who you had been and who you had struggled so long not to be.


Neither words nor time healed anyone. Only living healed, if it healed at all, living as you were meant to live, as best you could with your learned habits and confused intentions, living through time and finally beyond time, where neither therapists nor surgeons were any longer needed to smooth away the pain or cut it out.


Cammy carried her medical bag to the house. As she climbed the back-porch steps, Grady opened the kitchen door.


As always, she liked the look of him: big, a little rough, an impression of determination in the set of his jaw and in the line of his mouth, but then the kindness in his eyes, the kindness that was as apparent as the blue of his irises.


Some might argue that kindness could not be seen in a kind man’s eyes any more than evil could be seen in the eyes of an evil man. But she could see them both when they were present: evil because she had much experience of it, kindness because she’d had no experience of it for such a long time that the absence of it had made her acutely sensitive to its eventual presence.


She had read about a man named Homer who, as a six-year-old child, suffered a mysterious neurological disorder that left him unable to smell anything for the next thirty years. One day, when he was thirty-six, as he picked a rose to savor the sight of it and the texture of its petals, his sense of smell returned to him full power, so overwhelming him that he fell to the ground in shock. In the years thereafter, while he enjoyed every bewitching scent of a world rich in them, he was so sensitive to the fragrance of a rose that he could smell a bush of blooms two blocks away and knew before he opened the door of a flower shop if it had a generous supply of roses or was temporarily out of stock.


Kindness in a man’s eyes was as apparent to Cammy as the promise of roses was manifest to Homer at a distance and beyond closed doors.


This time, as Grady greeted her, she saw something additional and less familiar in him: a childlike exuberance and wonder.


He said, “I should’ve prepared you better.”


“Prepared me?”


“On the phone. For this.”


As he ushered her into the kitchen, she said, “I brought my medical bag.”


“I don’t mean prepared that way. I mean, you know, prepared.” He closed the door. “But there’s no way you could be. Prepared, I mean. For this.”

Prev Next