Breathless Page 13


Because his bedroll was worn and greasy, he left it in the cave, but he packed his tin of sinsemilla joints and the pistol.


With no destination yet in mind, he took his direction from the traffic on the sea. At the moment, two clusters of ship lights were visible. Both vessels were sailing south, so Tom Bigger walked south toward the town.


He didn’t believe the town would be his ultimate destination. On arrival, perhaps he would receive a sign by which he would know where to go from there.


Sometimes he made decisions based on dreams that seemed to be predictive, as when he followed a dream to a cave by the sea, hoping for an obliterating tidal wave. The dreams in which he believed and from which he took direction were always death dreams, foreboding but at the same time alluring.


He never previously expected to see signs and portents in the waking world. Perhaps he would see none now. But the incident in the deserted rest area had upended him. He would not be surprised if at least he sensed being guided by mundane things—like blue herons and distant ships—that suddenly seemed to have greater significance and require interpretation.


The damp, compacted sand underfoot. The vast night-shrouded sea to his right. The sky hard and cold but stippled with stars. To his left, the land, the highways and the cities, the people and their pain, the infinite possibilities, the unspeakable horrors, the world long lost to him, everything that might have been for him but never was, perhaps now his future.


Thirty


Cammy on the footstool, holding Puzzle on her lap, started with the furry ears, the shape of which reminded her of calla lilies, and proceeded down the neck to the shoulders, working her fingers all the way into the undercoat, massaging the creature’s sleek muscles. She was surprised by what she found—or, rather, by what she didn’t find.


“I’m not feeling a tick anywhere. Not one. And she doesn’t seem to have any fleas, either.”


Grimacing, Grady said, “I didn’t think about ticks and fleas when I let them in the house.”


“No ticks, no fleas—she can’t have been roaming around fields and woods more than a day or so, probably a lot less than that.”


“When Merlin and I saw them in the meadow this afternoon, they were romping as if they’d just been set free. Maybe they were.”


“No papillomas or cysts,” Cammy reported.


She raised her hand to her face and found that no offensive odor had been transferred from the white fur to her skin. Leaning forward, she put her nose to Puzzle’s ventral coat.


“She smells fresh, as if she was just groomed.”


Feeling ignored, Merlin dropped the toy duck and thrust his big head into the moment, resting his chin on Puzzle’s chest, rolling his eyes at Cammy.


Before Cammy could pet the dog, Puzzle took Merlin’s muzzle in both hands and began to massage his face with her small fingers, which was his favorite form of attention.


“Look,” Cammy whispered, as if a loud word would break the spell.


“I see.”


“Shouldn’t she be at least a little afraid of such a big dog?”


“I don’t think she’s afraid of anything,” Grady said. “I don’t think … well, I don’t think she even knows she should be afraid of some things.”


“What an odd idea.”


He frowned. “Yeah. Isn’t it? But there’s something about these two … something makes me think maybe they’ve never known real fear.”


Watching Puzzle stroke the wolfhound’s face, Cammy said, “If true, that would be the biggest difference about them. Everything alive knows fear.”


Leaving the cushions in disarray, Riddle sprang down from the sofa and, as if having noticed it only now, scurried to a Stickley desk that Grady had made during the first few months after his return to the mountains. It was a lovely walnut piece with hammered-copper hardware, ornamented with inlaid pewter.


Riddle sat on his hindquarters and with one finger repeatedly flicked the dangling copper pull on the right-hand door, which rang musically against the escutcheon plate.


In Cammy’s lap, Puzzle pushed Merlin aside and raised her head far enough to see what her companion might be doing.


Riddle turned his head to look at her.


For a moment, Puzzle held his stare.


Riddle moved to the left-hand door and flicked the dangling pull as he had flicked the first. Again, he turned his head toward Puzzle.


As before, she met his stare, and after a hesitation, he turned away from the desk.


By some subtle expression or even more subtle gesture that Cammy failed to register, they seemed to have communicated with each other regarding the desk.


Grady appeared to have the same impression. “What was that about?”


Riddle scampered to the purple bunny, snatched it with his teeth, raced out of the living room, into the vestibule, and up the stairs, squeaking the toy as he went.


Game for a chase, Merlin pursued him.


Thirty-one


In the bedroom closet, Henry Rouvroy listened for movement in the house and tried not to think about the body lying on its side in the bed. It was not a real body, only a dummy constructed of pillows and blankets, a deception that he had created himself, that and only that, that and nothing more.


No one could have entered the house, jammed the components of the faux body under the bed, and slipped beneath the covers, taking the place of the fake sleeper. Henry would have heard. He would have encountered the intruder in the act.


Of course, after arranging the bed, he spent as much as half an hour in the bathroom, scrubbing grime from under his fingernails. Standing at the sink, he had his back to the door and could not see the bedroom.


Thereafter, during his final search of the house, he stood for a long time at the cellar door, studying the light that leaked beneath it, listening for any sound from below. In that position, he would have known if someone tried to come in by the back door, but he would not have been aware of an intruder entering by the front.


“Ridiculous,” Henry hissed in the dark closet where once Nora’s clothes had hung.


His faceless tormentor was bold but not reckless. No adversary this clever would make himself vulnerable by taking the place of the dummy.


Only a lunatic would pull such a stunt, a lunatic or someone who had no fear of death because …


“Don’t go there,” he muttered.


Because he had already thought faceless tormentor, his line of thinking progressed as inevitably as an avalanche. His brother, Jim, was faceless because he’d been shot in the face, and Jim had no fear of death because he was already dead.


Logic like that would have gotten Henry hooted out of the Harvard debating society.


To get his mind off this absurd line of speculation, he tried to picture his favorite female TV chef spread-eagled on the bed, tied to the four posts, prominent features of her na*ed body pinched by wickedly designed clamps, a choke chain around her neck.


He thought of himself as a highly imaginative person. Therefore, he was dismayed to discover that he couldn’t conjure in his mind satisfying scenes of sadistic sex without an image of the desired woman in front of him.


He couldn’t very well sit sentinel in the closet with a TV tuned to the Food Network and expect that an intruder wouldn’t notice him. Besides, the house had no television.


If his primary entertainment in the years to come was to be a woman in the potato cellar, he had better keep more than one chained down there. To ensure against boredom, he ought to construct a couple of additional cells and keep a variety of women at the ready.


Once he sold all the noxious chickens or otherwise disposed of the gabbling creatures, he might insulate the chicken coop and turn that into a series of cells, as well. And the barn. The horse stalls could be easily retrofitted as cells, and the big building offered plenty of room for additional penitentiary units, as many as he had the energy and time to build.


Henry thought how cozy he would feel on a winter night, going to bed here in the house with the knowledge that in the barn were penned and shackled a herd of beautiful women, with perhaps a barn cat to keep them company, each of them snug in a sleeping bag, in the straw, and dreaming about her turn with the master. On wintry mornings, he would lead his choice through the snow to the house, where she would cook breakfast, something that a cow could never do, and while he ate, she would sit na*ed at the table and tell him all of the latest gossip among the girls. After breakfast, he would use her, savage her, and kill her or not, depending on his mood.


Although he was a young and virile man at thirty-seven, he was not inexhaustible. In addition to food and drink, he had better lay in a couple of thousand tablets of Viagra. The drug would probably remain potent if he vacuum-packed the pills in groups of ten and kept them in the freezer. That would work unless civilization entirely collapsed and power companies were unable to function. Fortunately, Jim had a propane-powered backup generator with half a dozen tanks of fuel already on hand. If Henry added to the propane supply and if he used the generator only for essential maintenance like keeping the Viagra freezer operating in warm weather, he would be happy here on the farm for a long, long time.


Unless, even now, dead Jim was out there in the generator shed, sabotaging the machinery.


“What the hell is the matter with me?” Henry asked the darkness, and at once wished that he hadn’t spoken, for fear he would receive a response in a familiar if slurred voice.


No dead man replied, of course, and Henry had no answer to the question he asked. His regressive superstition was as inexplicable as it was dismaying.


No dead man had ever come back to life, neither Count Dracula nor Jesus Christ, neither Lazarus nor the insatiable cannibalistic legions in George Romero’s movies. The dead stayed dead and the living were only the dead of the future, and the future would have its end, too, in the heat death of the universe and the collapse of time into nothing. Men were meat and nothing more, no soul survived the body, nothing came back from the dead because there was no spirit to return and nowhere to return from, and that was the sum of it, men were nothing from nothing on a journey to nothing, nada, zip, zero, nil, naught, cipher.


To avoid thinking about Jim, Henry decided, as an intellectual, to busy his mind with the lessons of the intellectual giants whose work had shaped him. He brooded on James Joyce and Finnegans Wake, in which there was such brilliant mockery of Jews and of the Jewish faith, a parody of Psalms in which God was reduced to Lord and Lord was jokingly renamed Loud. “‘Loud, hear us!’” Henry quoted from the Joyce novel, “‘Loud, graciously hear us!’” and he laughed. He focused on the most poignant remembered wisdom of, one by one, James Joyce, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Marcel Duchamp, Ralph Waldo Emerson, that Madonna who is Ciccone, Bertolt Brecht, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Peter Singer, Friedrich Nietzsche, and so many others, all so wise, so brilliant, so courageous that his memory of their works easily distracted him from thinking about Jim, not merely distracted him but by virtue of their magnificent one note, their truth drone, their heroic reductionism of all of creation to a single machine hum, they also put him to sleep.


He dreamed of Jim.


Thirty-two


The excitement of the evening, culminating in the chase upstairs and down, inspired in Merlin a need to pee. He informed them of his condition by the intense and insistent look that Grady called his “flood warning.”


No doubt Puzzle and Riddle also needed to toilet, but in the kitchen, as Grady was about to open the door for the trio, Cammy said, “Wait, we need to take pictures of them, in case they don’t come back.”


“I thought you said they were moving in.”


“They are. I’m pretty sure of it. But just in case.”


Pointing to a digital camera on the kitchen table, Grady said, “I took a slew of pictures before you got here.”


“You’re sure they’re clear?”


“Yeah. I’ve reviewed them. They’re great. But you haven’t seen their eyes in the dark. I want you to slip through the door first, go out on the lawn, watch them come toward you.”


When told to sit and stay, the wolfhound obeyed, although he grumbled.


As if they understood what was wanted, but more likely following the dog’s example, Puzzle and Riddle sat flanking their new playmate.


Grady let Cammy out and closed the French door, watching as she descended the porch steps. She went into the yard, turned toward the house, and knelt on the grass.


“All right, gang. Last chance till morning.”


When Grady opened the door and released Merlin from the sit-stay, the wolfhound and his posse raced out of the house.


Grady stepped onto the porch in time to see the dog bound past Cammy as she let out a wordless cry of astonishment at the spectacle of the other animals’ color-changing, lantern eyes.


Puzzle and Riddle gamboled around her for a moment, giving her an opportunity to admire them, and then they sprinted after Merlin, toward the place where yard met meadow.


Remaining on her knees, Cammy said, “Oh, my God. Grady. Oh, my God. Their eyes!”


She laughed so merrily, she sounded like a young girl. Grady sat on the porch steps, grinning at her.


When the animals returned from their toilet, Merlin sat beside his master. But in a playful mood, Puzzle and Riddle rejoined Cammy, swarming around her and over each other. They appeared to understand that they enchanted her, and they were in turn pleased by her admiration.


Their eyes lustered, as though reflecting the memory of the most spectacular aurora borealis ever to grace the northern sky.


Grady had never before seen Cammy laugh with such joy. She had always seemed too cautious to delight unreservedly in anything.


Each man or woman was a mansion in a condition between grandness and disrepair, and even in a grand palace, sometimes a room existed in which no one but the resident would ever be welcome. Cammy’s heart contained more than one forbidden room, contained an entire wing of doors locked with bolts of guilt or grief, or both. Grady sensed that she denied even herself the power to open them, to let in the light.


Nevertheless, she was his best friend. He had never known her to lie or to deceive by omission, or even to finesse a matter to her advantage. Parts of her life were off limits not because she wished to deceive but because, right or wrong, she judged the architecture of those rooms to be so inconsistent with the design of the rest of the structure that they added nothing to an understanding of it.


Grady valued her judgment, admired her commitment to animals, respected her standards as a veterinarian, cherished her kindness, which he sensed came from an experience of cruelty, and loved her because in this world of whiners and self-declared martyrs, Cammy Rivers never complained and never portrayed herself as a victim, though Grady suspected that she had more reason than most to claim that status.

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