Breathless, p.16
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       Breathless, p.16

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  calling it science and start calling it religion. And of course we already have quite a lot of proofs we’ve built upon.”

  Northcott knew to what the century and a half referred, and he was about to skewer Lamar with pointed words when Agent Palumbo came along the aisle, holding on to the seats on both sides, and went down on one knee in front of them.

  “ETA is fifty minutes. The pilot had a sealed directive for me. The site is in an unincorporated rural area in the higher foothills, a private residence belonging to someone named Grady Adams, and with him will be a veterinarian, Dr. Camillia Rivers. Both are witnesses, not suspects at this time. It’s a biological issue, but the decision has been made that decontamination and isolation protocols will not be necessary. The field lab needs only to approximate the sterility of a hospital operating room. Neither airtight nor positive-pressure antimicrobial suits will be required.”

  “Then what the hell kind of biological threat would it be?” asked Simon Northcott.

  Palumbo corrected him: “Sir, the directive calls it a biological issue.”

  Northcott’s face clenched, the high points of his cheekbones and his nose as white as tensed knuckles, the rest of it red. “I’ve been yanked from the conference to be flown off at high speed to consider an issue?”

  “Sir,” Palumbo said, “all I can say is, based on my experience, this might not be either a ticking-clock or a doomsday case, but it’s big somehow. Something different and way big. It came up quick, and D.C. calls it a Priority One Incident, which until now has meant only one thing—nuclear detonation imminent. Paul Jardine is on his way to the site now.”

  Lamar had met Jardine a few times in the past six years. After the recent reorganization, he had been appointed deputy director of the Department of Homeland Security for the western half of the country, from the Mississippi to the Pacific.

  Northcott said nothing more, but he looked neither mollified nor impressed.

  Lamar said, “Agent Palumbo, I’m sorry. The engine noise, the rotors … I didn’t get the owner of the residence, the site. What did you say his name was?”

  “Adams, sir. Grady Adams. The veterinarian is Dr. Camillia Rivers.”

  “Within every chaos,” Lamar said, “is an eerie order waiting to be revealed.”


  Lamar said, “Just talking to myself, son.”

  “Sir, we’re now in a communications blackout until the end of this. I have to impound your cell phone and laptop.”

  The laptop was at Lamar’s feet, and he presented his cell phone to the agent.

  “Sir, I also need any text-messaging devices you’re carrying.”

  “Oh, son, I have too few years of life remaining to spend one minute text-messaging.”

  Northcott, on the other hand, proved to be a walking telecom store. Grumping, he shed two cell phones and an array of devices that filled Vincent Palumbo’s available sport-coat pockets.

  As the agent went forward again, carrying their laptops, Simon Northcott said, “They’re all idiots at Homeland Security. This does it. I’m going to take my name off the volunteer specialists roster.”

  The more enlightened officials in the federal government were aware that the scientists directly in their employ were not generally speaking the most brilliant in their fields—with the exception of some people at NASA and a number in institutes completely funded by the Department of Defense. Consequently, specialists in numerous sciences were solicited to volunteer to be available to Homeland Security in crises, if called.

  As one of many on the roster who had his skills, Lamar had been tapped only six times in seven years, and he imagined there had been as many as a hundred crisis responses during that period. He doubted that Simon Northcott was drafted as often, because only a fraction of terrorist plots involved biological weapons, whereas a specialist in probability analysis and chaos would be a valuable team member regardless of the threat scenario.

  “Priority One Incident,” Northcott said with a sarcastic note, “yet it’s not a threat, it’s an issue. A Priority One Issue—now there’s an oxymoron if I ever heard one.”

  Lamar put his forehead against his window, looking down at the shadow of the helicopter racing over the landscape below them.

  Grady Adams of Colorado. Marcus had no closer friend than Grady Adams, who had been with him when he died.

  Carl Jung, the psychologist and philosopher, had believed that coincidence—most of all that most extreme kind of coincidence called a synchronism—was an organizing principle of the universe as real as any of the laws of thermodynamics and of gravity. On issues such as culture and human exceptionalism, Lamar Woolsey had little in common with Jung, but there was certainly a place for the man in chaos theory, where hidden order could be found in even the most seemingly disordered and formless systems like the actions of wildly tossing storm waves and the furies of tornado winds.

  Grady Adams. Lamar figured, drawing this card at this time was like being dealt the most meaningful card from a thousand-deck shoe.


  Driving to Grady’s place, Cammy’s attention repeatedly strayed from the highway to her hands on the steering wheel.

  Having resisted embracing victim status for so long and having lived with the scars for most of her life, she thought about this disfigurement hardly more often than she stopped to think that each of her hands had five fingers and fourteen knuckles. The scars were a fact of her hands that embarrassed her no more than the fact that she had fingernails. A survivor could not be embarrassed by proof of her resolute spirit and endurance.

  She kept glancing at the scars now because she felt trapped for the first time since her fifteenth birthday, for the first time in more than twenty years.

  The trap from which she escaped on that long-ago birthday had been one that she endured from the age of five. It began when her mother and her mother’s boyfriend, Jake Horner, took Cammy across state lines to avoid abiding by a child-custody decision handed down by the divorce court in Texas.

  The court gave both parents joint—and equal—custody. Cammy’s mother, Zena, didn’t like anyone telling her what to do.

  Jake Horner had inherited some money. He used part of it to buy a boat, a fifty-six-foot coastal cruiser, which he named Therapy.

  Jake, Zena, and Cammy cruised ceaselessly, from Vancouver south to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and back again. They were never in port more than two weeks at a time.

  Mike Rivers, Cammy’s dad, tracked them down at a marina in Northern California, eight months later. Because differences in the laws between California and Texas hampered him, he took matters into his own hands.

  When Mike Rivers appeared on the dock, he was talked aboard Therapy by Zena, who expressed remorse and fear of the authorities, and by Jake, who said he was unaware that Mike either wanted custody of his daughter or was granted any such arrangement by a judge. Jake was angry with Zena and assured Mike that they could settle the issue quickly and to everyone’s satisfaction.

  The spacious main cabin included a galley with teak cabinets and a matching teak floor, a dining area, and a salon. There, Jake and Zena stabbed Mike Rivers to death.

  In the aft stateroom, beyond a closed door, five-year-old Cammy heard the brutal assault. She didn’t see the murder—except in her imagination.

  Her father took a while to die. But he did not beg for his life. She never forgot that he refused to beg.

  Jake and Zena wrapped the body in a tarp, then in chains. Later that day, more than two miles offshore, they added a spare anchor to the package and dropped it overboard.

  Cammy was on deck when the bundled body went over the side. Near twilight, the green and purple sea opened as if it were a great dark maw, hungrily swallowed her father in an instant, and licked the hull of the boat, wanting more.

  At the marina again, Jake found Mike’s car, drove it elsewhere, and abandoned it. That night, he was in high spirits.

  In the morning, they cruised south
toward Mexico. As if nothing had changed, nothing at all, the sea rolled vast and bright, the air smelled fresh, the sky was blue, and white gulls soared with a grace they did not possess when on the land.

  Jake Horner loved books. He read fiction and nonfiction, but he especially liked volumes about therapeutic psychologies. He called himself a “journeyer,” as if it were a vocation, an avocation, and a faith. He said life was about one thing and one thing only: the next possibility.

  Because Cammy never went to school, Jake taught her to read. After that, being a dedicated autodidact, she taught herself what else she needed to know.

  Zena appreciated the mood-altering power of drugs, particularly ecstasy, and Jake liked to torment children. And burn them. Their arrangement was beneficial for them; it was a living hell for Cammy.

  Her patient reading tutor, who cheered her on when she caught fish and who personally baked her birthday cake each year, was also her torturer.

  For ten years they plied the sea, and Jake himself was a sea of contradictions. When Cammy sustained a cut or an abrasion, Jake dressed it tenderly and monitored her healing with concern. In less compassionate moods, he burned her with cigarettes, with objects like spoons and cast-metal religious medallions that he first heated with a butane lighter, and with melted candle wax.

  Her mother, having dissolved moral conscience with the chemical bliss of ecstasy, told her to be grateful for the generosity with which Jake shared his wealth and for his restraint. He hurt Cammy like that only twice a month, after all, always on the first and third Sundays, so she did not, Zena counseled, have to be afraid every day. Besides, he didn’t mar her face or body, restricting his attention to her hands, her feet. And although the threat of sexual assault was present, he never touched her that way. Her obsequious obedience, her abject capitulation even to torture, gave him a sense of power that he needed. Her pain was his ecstasy.

  “The poor thing’s had a hard life,” Zena told young Cammy. “His father was a psychiatrist. His mother was his father’s patient. She suffered spells of ennui and psychosomatic rashes. Neither could heal the other. They conceived Jake as their cause, but he fulfilled them no more than did fund-raising for the symphony and donating to the opera. At night, he sometimes cries in my arms, he’s so sweet.”

  Cammy never knew the significance of first and third Sundays or why burning mattered to him. He treated every burn with ointment, and when the wound healed, he kissed the scar and wept.

  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.


  Henry Rouvroy braced the back door with a dinette chair once more, left the cha
ir 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.


  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
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