Breathless Page 21


When she was eleven and a half, she learned that he had a gun. He kept it always loaded in a locked metal box, in a locked cabinet, in the galley. The day after her twelfth birthday, she discovered where he kept the keys to the cabinet and the box.


Cammy didn’t act for three years. Later, she was shamed by this failure to free herself when the means to do so existed. She could not reason her way to an explanation or intuit one that satisfied and exculpated her.


After seven years of slavery, after being abused and humiliated and terrorized for so long, she had known no other way to live. All memories of her father had been washed away by time and by the tides of chaos on which Therapy cruised.


Despair was an emotion too intense to sustain for long. Somehow, she had allowed her despair to mutate into despondency instead of into desperation. Desperation was energized despair; it would have much sooner led to action, heedless of consequences. Despondency was the dismal incapacity to hope, and hopelessness fostered apathy.


The cake he made for Cammy’s fifteenth birthday, however, was one cake too many. Although she could not explain why despondence abruptly became desperation, she got the keys, opened the cabinet, opened the metal box, went topside, and shot Jake Horner to death as he stood at the stern railing, watching dolphins frolic in Therapy’s wake.


She had learned how to drive the boat and navigate by watching Jake over the years. She needed three hours to make port.


Throughout the journey, Zena lay on the deck, cradling Horner’s body, alternately singing to him and laughing. She had no ability to weep because she was so high on ecstasy that neither grief nor fear could touch her.


So confused had Cammy become by that decade of journeying from one possibility to the next, port to port, outrage to outrage, that she expected to be arrested and imprisoned for murder. For three years, she lived instead with her father’s sister, Janice, who kept three dogs, two cats, and a horse, and thereafter she attended the university.


Eventually Zena went to prison. So many years of taking ecstasy gravely and permanently diminished her body’s ability to produce endorphins, those peptides that stimulated feelings of happiness and that raised the pain threshold in times of injury and illness. In fact, after ten years of continuous chemical bliss, she could not feel unassisted happiness at all. And she was acutely sensitive to every smallest injury, so that to her a minor scratch felt like a saber slash and every headache was a splitting migraine. She served four years of her sentence before finding a way to hang herself in her cell.


The hands on the steering wheel could steer well, and the scars did not affect their function, and the things they had done to heal the innocent had redeemed Cammy from the dishonor of her servile submission to intimidation and disfigurement.


As she approached Grady’s house, Cammy felt trapped as she had not been in twenty years. She feared that she might have no choice but to do something more terrible than she had ever done or had ever allowed to be done to her while aboard Jake Horner’s Therapy.


If she cooperated with Paul Jardine and surrendered Puzzle and Riddle to him, she would have taken their freedom and consigned them to imprisonment, inevitably to anguish, and possibly to torments that she couldn’t know. She would have betrayed the innocent that she was sworn to serve.


On the other hand, the laws that compelled her to cooperate with the authorities in a matter like this were reasonable laws. They were enacted to protect public health and ensure civil order. Thwarting those who enforced the statutes might land her in prison, might at least result in the revocation of her license to practice veterinary medicine.


But insofar as these laws related to animals, they concerned laboratory subjects on which experiments had been performed: animals that might have been intentionally infected with disease and needed to be contained for that reason, or animals whose release would put in jeopardy thousands of hours of important research that would have come to nothing without further analysis of the subjects.


Yes, and the nub of it was there: Puzzle and Riddle were not lab animals. They weren’t engineered. She couldn’t prove that contention, but she knew in her mind and heart that it was true.


Regardless of glow-in-the-dark pigs, pigs with organs suitable for human transplant, and pigs with human brains, scientists’ ability to manipulate genes and create whole new life forms was not so far advanced that wondrous creatures like these could be conjured out of test tubes and petri dishes.


Paul Jardine and Homeland Security were hot about this, but not for the stated reasons. They knew something they were not revealing. An additional factor drove their crisis response. As astonishing as Puzzle and Riddle were, they were but a part of something bigger.


When Cammy stopped in Grady’s driveway, Merlin and his new friends were chasing one another around the yard with great energy and with a joy that, in less somber circumstances, she would have found contagious.


She got out of the Explorer, and the three raced to her. She dropped to her knees, and they swarmed her, three tails lashing, panting happily.


As she stroked all three, scratched them, and told them they were beautiful, Cammy Rivers knew that whatever integrity she might claim depended on continued commitment to animals, that what honor she had regained would be lost forever if she did the wrong thing this morning. She could have no virtue without duty, and her hard-won self-respect hung now by a filament as thin as spider silk.


Forty-six


Henry Rouvroy braced the back door with a dinette chair once more, left the chair under the knob of the cellar door, and threw the bloody leather gloves in the trash can under the sink. Overcoming his aversion to touching the notepad, using a carrot-shaped magnet, he fixed the sheet of notepaper with the haiku to the refrigerator door for later study.


After he braced the living-room door with another chair, there was no entrance where the tormentor could gain easy access to the house with just a key.


In the bedroom, Henry went to the window facing out on a side lawn. At the end of the mown grass, the forest rose, but the trees weren’t as closely grown as elsewhere, and they provided few points of concealment for someone conducting surveillance. Anyway, Henry suspected that if an enemy was watching the house, the observation post of choice would be the barn.


He unlatched the window, raised the lower sash, and exited with his shotgun. As he pulled the window shut, he slipped a tiny piece of notepaper between the sash and the sill. If the scrap was gone when he returned or was in a different position from the way that he left it, he would know someone found the unlocked window and perhaps waited inside.


As he walked around the house to his car, he moved cautiously when approaching corners or when passing any shrubs or structures from the cover of which a man with two thrust-and-cut weapons might overwhelm him before he could use the shotgun. A sane adversary would shoot him down from a distance when he revealed himself, but judging by the evidence, his tormentor might well have seen the inside of a psychiatric ward more than once in his life. The haiku and the pair of missing knives argued strongly that, for some reason, this enemy wanted the pleasure of doing the deed up close, regardless of the risk.


The Land Rover stood in the driveway near the stump that Jim used as a chopping block, where Henry had parked the day before. It remained locked, and the contents of the cargo hold appeared undisturbed. Henry backed the Rover to the foot of the front-porch steps.


When he got out of the vehicle, he glanced toward the barn and noticed that high in the gable wall, one of the two loft doors hung open several inches. He didn’t believe—but couldn’t be certain—that it had been open when he arrived the previous day. Intuition told him that some prone observer watched him from the darkness of the hayloft.


At the back of the Rover, he put down the shotgun on the porch, equidistant from the vehicle and the front door of the house. He couldn’t complete the task at hand and hold the 20-gauge at the same time.


Henry opened the tailgate and began to transfer the weapons, ammunition, and other materials to the porch, beside the front door. From time to time, he glanced surreptitiously at the partially open hay door, and on one occasion he was certain he glimpsed movement in the loft, a paler shadow in the gloom.


By the time he finished this heavy work and locked the Rover, he was sweating both from the labor and from an increasing sense of vulnerability. Even when he had a two-hand grip on the shotgun again, he felt no safer.


When he returned to the bedroom window, he found the telltale scrap of paper precisely as he had left it. He entered the house through the window and locked it behind him.


In the living room, he removed the tilted chair from under the doorknob, opened the door, and transferred the former contents of the Land Rover to the house. After locking the door and bracing it with the chair once more, he opened a rectangular metal case lined with sculpted-foam niches. In each niche nestled a hand grenade.


Forty-seven


When Cammy started toward the house, Merlin and his buddies romped ahead of her, across the back porch, and inside, as if to announce her arrival.


Barefoot, in a T-shirt and pajama bottoms, Grady sat at the kitchen table, drinking coffee. “Have a cup?”


“Better get more presentable,” Cammy said. “We’re going to have a lot of company soon.” As she poured coffee into a mug for herself and settled at the table, she gave him a condensed version of events and said, “I’m so sorry, Grady. I didn’t think either Eleanor or Sidney would do anything like this, certainly not without discussing the situation first.”


The coffee tasted fine, but her news appeared to sour him on it. He pushed his mug aside. “It’s obvious in retrospect. But you can’t have seen it coming.”


“We could turn them loose in the woods,” she said, and knew it was a lame solution.


“They’d come right back,” he said, as a noise caused him to look toward the pantry.


“Oh, my,” Cammy said as she saw Riddle standing on his hind legs and turning the doorknob with both hands.


“Just watch,” Grady said.


Merlin and Puzzle were standing behind Riddle, waiting for him to finish the task.


When the door came open, Riddle dropped to all fours, entered the pantry, rose on his hind legs again, and switched on the lights.


Cammy eased her chair away from the table, rose quietly, and moved into the kitchen for a better view through the doorway.


Merlin remained an observer, but Puzzle went into the pantry with Riddle. The two climbed different walls of shelves, peering at the boxes, cans, and jars.


“I only saw the aftermath of their foraging this morning,” Grady murmured as he joined Cammy. “I want to see how they do it.”


Puzzle descended to the floor with a box of Cheez-Its. She sat, turning the box this way and that, apparently intrigued by the bright colors and the picture of the tasty little crackers.


When Riddle returned to the pantry floor, he had a small jar, the contents of which Grady couldn’t identify. The creature studied the lid only a moment, then twisted it off.


Cammy said, “Grady, he shouldn’t have that!”


She started toward the pantry, but before she’d taken two steps, Riddle had put the jar aside and thrust a jalapeño into his mouth. He issued an “Eeee” of shock and spat out the pepper.


Apparently, the remaining juice was nonetheless offensive, for he spat on the floor, spat on Puzzle, spat on himself, and made a repetitive sound of disgust: “Eck, eck, eck, eck.”


“I’ll get a slice of bread,” Grady said, hurrying to a loaf on the counter by the ovens. “It’ll cool his tongue.”


Perhaps because the heat of the pepper lingered, Riddle became more alarmed. He raced out of the pantry and into the kitchen, wove past Merlin and circled Cammy twice before dashing into the hallway.


Grady started after him with the bread, but Riddle returned at top speed, dropped to his drinking bowl, and splashed his entire face in the water.


“Bread is better, short stuff,” Grady said—and then looked at Cammy in shock. “What did I just see?”


For a moment, she couldn’t answer him. What they had both seen was Riddle running upright like a man, as no animal that sprinted as fast as a cat on all fours should be able to run erect. When he had wanted to run tall, something had happened to his hips, to his knees and hocks and stifles, as if the joints had the capacity to shift from one configuration to another as required.


Riddle raised his dripping face out of the water dish, plopped backward onto his butt, and suffered a sneezing fit.


Forty-eight


As in the night, Tom Bigger felt accompanied in the light. No one shadowed him on either the golden hills to the east or in the seaside fields to the west. No coyotes slunk, no great blue herons stalked. Yet he sensed that he was not alone.


Traffic increased with sunrise, and some southbound cars slowed as the approaching drivers glimpsed his hulking form, his ravaged face. He was an also-ran Elephant Man, a walking third-rate sideshow worth a few minutes of dinner conversation, a self-made monster who hadn’t needed Nature’s assistance to discover his inner horror and manifest it in his flesh.


Having walked throughout the night, Tom could not walk all day. At ten o’clock, he came to a motel where the vacancy sign, lit even in daylight to give it punch, was made a laughable understatement by the empty parking lot. This establishment was not a unit in a lodging chain, but a mom-and-pop operation, a little too cute in its details but perfectly maintained.


In times not too far in the past, he would have been turned away with minimal courtesy or none, not primarily because he was a fright to see, perhaps not even because his beard stubble and tequila eyes and backpack made him a hobo variant, but certainly because he had no credit card, no ID, and wanted to pay cash up front. Suppose that in a drunken fit he trashed the room—how would they track him down to make him pay? He had been turned away from places worse than this one.


But these were harder times than people had known in a while. Cash ruled, and even more so in a downturn when few people were spending either greenbacks or plastic. He figured they would take his money, because if they were too picky about their clientele these days, they might as well burn the business down and collect the insurance.


At the door to the motel office, he hesitated. He turned away, retreated a few steps, but halted and then faced the entrance again.


For as long as he could remember, Tom disliked going inside places where he had never been before. Whether it was this place or any other, crossing a threshold for the first time made him nervous.


In fact, at all times he preferred the outdoors, because if he crossed the path of the wrong person, he could simply walk away in any direction. Without walls and with sky above instead of ceiling, he had choices. Inside, obstacles to flight and limited exits were always a concern.

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