Breathless, p.4
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       Breathless, p.4
 

          
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  A windowless potato cellar made it possible not only to have the services of a housekeeper without the expense, but also to enjoy sex without the tedious process of seduction and without the tiresome pillow talk women expected afterward. Thus far he could see no other advantage that, in normal times, this crude residence had over his city digs; but normal times or not, a potato cellar might eventually prove to be a more desirable amenity than a home theater and a sauna combined.

  Normal times. In spite of having risen before dawn, having driven for hours, having killed for the first time and the second time in his life, and even in spite of having prepared his own dinner, Henry Rouvroy was not sleepy, not even weary. Being aware of the chaos that would sweep the nation in the months ahead, he was motivated to begin at once to prepare this house to meet his needs in these abnormal times.

  After a brief hesitation, Grady opened the kitchen door and followed Merlin onto the porch. Scatters of dry birch leaves crunched underfoot.

  No further sounds came from the roof, and the moonglow revealed no visitors on the porch or on the immediate lawn.

  The taller dry grass beyond the mown yard appeared to curl like a line of phosphorescent surf breaking on a dark shore.

  Screened by trees and swallowed by distance, the lights of the nearest neighbors could not be seen.

  The workshop in which he crafted furniture, an add-on to the garage, stood forty feet south of the house. Those windows were as luminous as the panes of a lantern.

  Grady had concluded his day’s work before going on the hike with Merlin. He remained certain that he had left the workshop dark.

  Something drew the wolfhound toward that building.

  Few crimes occurred in this remote land, and those were mostly crimes of passion, seldom theft or vandalism. Consequently, Grady occasionally forgot to lock the workshop door.

  He might have forgotten this time, but he hadn’t left the door open, as it now stood. With the faintest click of claws, Merlin preceded his master across the threshold.

  Because fluorescent light created little or no shadow, making it difficult to judge depth and to assess surface textures of materials being worked, pendant fixtures with shallow hoods brightened the room. The fixed machinery was lit from every angle to avoid harsh shadows, so that moving parts clearly could be seen to be moving.

  At the moment, the machinery stood silent: circular-saw bench, surface planer, band saw, drill press, hollow-chisel mortiser. …

  Four large reclining chairs, from a Gustav Stickley design, were in production for a client in Los Angeles. With broad canted arms, square-baluster sides, through-tenon construction, and exposed pegs, the handsome chairs would be comfortable, too, once a leather-covered pillow and spring-supported seat were installed.

  The air smelled of freshly sawn oak.

  At the back of the large room, a short but double-wide hallway separated the lavatory from the simple kiln in which air-dried lumber was further seasoned to carefully reduce its moisture content.

  The lavatory door stood open, and the only reflection in the above-sink mirror was Grady’s.

  Neither he nor Merlin was startled when a hiss issued from behind the door of the walk-in kiln. To slow the drying process and avoid warping and buckling the lumber, from time to time live steam was injected into the kiln by a tightly calibrated humidifier.

  The hook latch on the door hung loose. Either someone lurked in the kiln—or glanced in earlier and then failed to secure the latch.

  The latter proved to be the case. The incandescent lamps, under which the wood dried, revealed no one in the kiln.

  At the end of the short hallway, Grady opened a heavy door with soft rubber weather-stripping around all four edges. Beyond lay the finishing room, which he kept as free of dust as possible.

  He stained and finished his furniture by hand. A dining table, mahogany with ebony inlays, in the style of Greene and Greene, was in the final month of curing after receiving a meticulous French polish with garnet shellac dissolved in industrial alcohol.

  To Grady, the aromas of shellac, beeswax, turpentine, and pure copal varnish were no less pleasing than the fragrance of wild roses or the pine-scented crystalline air of a high-altitude forest.

  In his best dreams, he drifted through vast houses without residents, through room after deserted room of ever more beautiful furniture, rooms in which no human being would ever betray another or raise a hand in violence, or speak a lie, or out of envy scheme to destroy his neighbor. These were the only dreams of his that featured scent, and waking from them, he was always happy, savoring the lingering memory of the fragrances of the finishing room.

  Like the front door, the back stood open, unlocked from inside. Neither he nor the wolfhound detected anyone in the night beyond.

  Grady locked the door, and as they returned to the front of the workshop, he opened a few cabinets and drawers, conducting a cursory inventory. No tools or supplies were missing.

  After switching off the lights and closing the front door, as he turned his key, he said, “Which is it, big guy—just curious and well-meaning elves or nasty gremlins?”

  The dog’s answering chuff seemed noncommittal.

  The escort moon guided them across ground that would have been black without the pale celestial light.

  When Grady thought he heard the thrum of wings, he looked up but saw only stars.

  As they approached the back porch, Merlin quickened from an amble to a trot. He leaped up the steps, bounded across the porch, and disappeared through the kitchen door, which Grady had not closed when they left the house.

  While they were out, an intruder had taken advantage of the unguarded entrance. Although Grady had been interrupted halfway through his dinner, his plate on the kitchen table was now empty.

  He had baked three extra chicken breasts, one for his lunch the next day and two for the dog. They had been cooling in a pan atop the stove. The covering aluminum foil had been torn aside and thrown on the floor. The pan and the chicken were missing.

  Eleven

  Half an hour after dinner, too excited to sleep, eager to make the house his own, Henry Rouvroy found himself in the bedroom, where Nora Carlyle’s garments occupied half the drawers in the dresser and in the highboy, as well as half the closet space. Her clothes weren’t likely to fit whatever girl he chose for the potato cellar, and he had other uses for the drawers and the closet.

  Henry possessed numerous firearms and a supply of ammunition that he intended to distribute throughout the house and the barn. The highboy drawers were wide enough to take a shotgun or a rifle.

  Stuffing Nora’s clothes into plastic garbage bags took longer than he expected. No matter what dire days might lie ahead for the nation, regardless of the necessity for him to prepare this retreat in a timely fashion, Henry repeatedly found himself distracted by the silky feel of his sister-in-law’s underwear.

  When at last he filled four bulging trash bags with her wardrobe, he carried them two at a time to the front porch. Initially intending to take the bags to the barn in the morning, he remained so energetic that he decided to finish the task before bed.

  At the corner of the house, near the tree-stump chopping block, stood a deep wheelbarrow that Jim had meant to fill with the split cordwood that now lay scattered on the grass. Henry pushed the barrow to the porch steps, where he loaded it with the bags of clothing.

  Under the swollen moon, he didn’t need a flashlight to follow the driveway to the barn. The traffic associated with the September harvest had worn the dirt lane, leaving a half-inch of soft dust that wind had not yet scoured away. His feet and the wheel of the barrow made little noise.

  Henry had expected this countryside and the surrounding woods to be noisier than they were, not as drenched in sound as the city, of course, but full of buzz and hum, tick and click, rustle, murmur, sibilation. Instead, the night was quiet, almost eerily so, as if all that slithered and crawled and walked and flew had suffered a sudden extinction
, leaving him as the only living thing that wasn’t rooted to the earth.

  At the barn, he parked the wheelbarrow near the man-size door, stepped inside, felt for the switch, turned on the lights. He carried two bags of clothes inside before he realized that the bodies of Jim and Nora were not where he had left them.

  Dropping the sacks, he stepped to the spot where he had shot his brother and to which he had dragged Nora’s corpse. Some blood on the carpet of straw was still moist, sticky.

  Bewildered, Henry crossed to the tractor, circled it, and made his way around the backhoe, as well, seeking the deceased. He was certain they had been dead, both of them, not merely wounded and unconscious.

  Bewilderment thickened into confusion when he looked up and saw the horses, Samson and Beauty, watching him over the half-doors of their stalls. Both were chewing mouthfuls of hay and appeared not to have been in the least disturbed by whatever had happened here after he had returned to the house to dress in his brother’s clothes and to have dinner.

  Henry checked the first horse stall, then the second, expecting to find the dead lying beside the steeds they had once ridden, though he could not imagine how they would have gotten there. Each horse stood alone in its enclosure, no fallen rider with either of them.

  Confusion sharpened into perplexity as Henry turned in a circle, surveying the barn. Worry drew his stare up the rungs of the ladder to the dark loft. But that made no sense: If the dead couldn’t crawl, they certainly couldn’t climb.

  Half a minute passed from the discovery that the bodies were missing to the belated realization that he must not be alone on the farm, that someone must have found the murdered pair and moved them.

  Henry had left the pistol and the shoulder holster on the bed. Suddenly he was a sheep, shorn and shaking, tender flesh exposed, suspecting every shadow of harboring a wolf.

  He hurried to the tool rack and took down the axe. The implement was heavier than he expected, unwieldy. In Jim’s hands, it had looked deadly; in Henry’s grip, it had little of the quality of a weapon and felt more like an anchor. Nevertheless, the axe was the best defense available until he could get to a firearm once more.

  The situation seemed to call for stealth and caution. But Henry was trembling uncontrollably, breathing rapidly and shallowly, unable to calm himself. The telltale heart he heard was not that of either Jim or Nora, not a dead pump drumming out an accusation of his guilt, but his living heart knocking against his breastbone, announcing not his homicides but instead his rapidly escalating fear. At the moment, he was no more capable of stealth and caution than he was capable of juggling the axe with no risk to his fingers.

  Desperate rather than brave, reckless rather than bold, axe held in both hands as he’d seen his brother carry it, Henry rushed through the open door, into the night. He plunged along the lane toward his Land Rover, which was parked near the house.

  Whoever had taken the bodies could not be an agent of legitimate authority. No cops would move and hide the cadavers, and then torment their prime suspect but never question him. His nameless adversary mocked Henry, and when no more fun could be wrung from mockery, murder would follow.

  He stumbled, dropped the axe, tripped over it, and as he flailed to keep his balance and avoid a fall, something passed over his head with a whoosh. He thought it must be a blade, perhaps the terrible scythe that had hung in the barn next to the axe.

  When he cried out and turned, anticipating decapitation, no one loomed behind him. He was alone in the lane, in the moonlight, in his thrall of terror.

  Rather than retrieve the axe, he hurried to the Land Rover. As he raised the tailgate, he expected to find the vehicle empty, but it was packed wall to wall, nothing missing except the suitcases full of cash that he earlier had transferred to the highest shelf in the potato cellar.

  He pawed through the cargo, found the large rigid-wall suitcase that he wanted, and pulled it out. He closed the tailgate and pressed the lock icon on the electronic key. Nervously surveying the night, he carried the bag to the house.

  Jim and Nora were childless. They lived alone.

  Their farm help was seasonal. With the completion of the final harvest, the two hired hands would be gone until spring. Even in season, no laborers lived on the property.

  Henry had inferred that much from Jim’s poetry, in which the hired hands were sometimes featured. He had confirmed his inferences soon after his arrival, as he chatted with Jim and Nora over cinnamon rolls and coffee.

  Immediately inside the front door, he put the suitcase flat on the living-room floor and opened it. Inside, in molded-foam niches, were a pair of short-barreled, pump-action, pistol-grip, 20-gauge shotguns and boxes of low-recoil ammo.

  He fumbled with the shells, dropped more than one, but managed to insert a round in the breech of one of the shotguns and four more in the magazine. He stuffed spare shells in the pockets of his jeans.

  First, the house. Make sure no intruder lurked anywhere within these walls. Room by room, lock the windows and doors. Pull shut the drapes, lower the pleated shades.

  His tremors had diminished but had not subsided altogether. Dry mouth. Moist palms. Eyes hot and grainy.

  Although he had practiced with the shotgun both on shooting ranges and in lonely landscapes on the long drive west, he had no experience sweeping a house to find an intruder. Fortunately, the place was small and was arranged in such a fashion that his quarry could not circle quietly behind him as he searched.

  The living room harbored no one. Neither did the kitchen nor the dining area.

  The door to the cellar, which earlier he had closed, stood open. Wooden stairs with rubber treads led down into darkness.

  Beside the door, the wall was marred by a bloody handprint, as if a wounded man had leaned here for a moment before descending into the dark. The blood glistened, wet.

  Holding the shotgun with one hand, Henry pressed the back of his left hand against the wall, next to the print. The length of his pale fingers and the size of his palm seemed to match the hand of whoever had ventured into the cellar.

  Twelve

  Another blackjack table. Another casino. This time, Dr. Lamar Woolsey was calling himself Mitch Feigenbaum.

  This seemed to be an unlikely name for a sixty-year-old African-American. But his resemblance to the beloved star of a long-ago TV sitcom gave him such instant credibility that no one ever seemed to suspect he was someone other than whom he pretended to be.

  He was winning bigger than previously, because he enjoyed the double advantage of being a card counter and a man with an intuitive ability to recognize patterns in apparently chaotic systems.

  His intuition had been refined and enhanced by a life’s work in physics and mathematics, in each of which he held a doctorate. His specialty was chaos theory.

  For most of its history, science had been reductionist, seeking to learn how things worked by analyzing their constituent parts. But as successful as the sciences had been, discoveries in the last half of the twentieth century revealed that the sum of human knowledge amounted to a few grains of sand, while what waited to be discovered was an infinite—and very strange—beach.

  In every complex system—from solar-system dynamics to Earth’s climate, to crystal formation, to cardiological processes—just under the facade of order, which science had discovered and long thought it fully understood, lurked an eerie and disturbing chaos. But also, deep inside every chaos, an eerier kind of hidden order waited to be found.

  Even a simple system, like a card game dealt from a six-deck blackjack shoe, was fundamentally chaotic, likely to produce complex and unpredictable results. As a card counter, Lamar Woolsey hoped to impose a profitable order on the random flow of cards.

  After thirty minutes of play, the composition of the six-deck shoe tipped slightly in Lamar’s favor: somewhat rich in aces and face cards, a bit low on fives and sixes, but still ruled by randomness. He couldn’t yet justify aggressive betting.

  Then somethi
ng strange happened. A series of Hail Mary draws gave Lamar a glimpse of the eerie nature of reality, of hidden and mysterious order.

  The dealer showed a queen above his hole card. Lamar had a ten and a six, to which he drew a five, beating the dealer by a point.

  In the next hand, he drew a three and a seven while the dealer showed a six. He doubled down, but drew only a deuce. The dealer revealed a sixteen count—and drew a six, busting.

  Now the dealer had an ace up, and Lamar had a four and a three. He drew another four. Then a deuce. Another deuce. Then a six. His final twenty-one beat the dealer, who had a nine under his ace.

  None of those three wins involved card counting, and even the most paranoid pit boss would see them as nothing but luck.

  Not a believer in luck, Lamar read them instead as one of those curious patterns that expressed a hidden order under the randomness—under the chaos—of any game of chance. This phase of the pattern, which benefited him, was a wave that offered effortless surfing. Until it lost its benign character, he ought to ride it.

  He won nine more hands in a row, lost two, then won another eight with such unlikely combinations of cards that counting tens and aces could have had no effect on his fortunes.

  Sometimes the power of hidden order can have, with its patterns, such an obvious presence in a system that its precise mechanisms seem within the theorist’s grasp—until chaos reappears. Even when Lamar played irrationally, splitting a pair of fours when the dealer showed a face card, he won. When the dealer showed an ace, Lamar doubled down on eight—and won.

  After losing three hands in a row, he suspected that the patterns under the apparent chaos of the cards no longer favored him, and he asked to have his winnings converted into high-value chips to make them easier to carry. His thousand-dollar buy-in had grown to nineteen thousand.

  At the cashier’s window, he converted two chips into folding money. After the two casinos, this left him ahead four hundred for the night. He intended to give away the other seventeen thousand in chips before leaving the building.

  Thirteen

  Exploring the house bottom to top with Grady, Merlin was as stealthy as an excited pony. They found no intruder.

  Whatever had finished Grady’s dinner for him, whatever had taken the three baked chicken breasts and the pan on the stove, left no sign that it had ventured farther than the kitchen.

  Before returning to the ground floor, Grady turned off the lights room by room. In the darkness, he drew aside any draperies that were closed, raised any shades that were lowered.

  On the ground floor again, he made sure that the views from all the windows were likewise unobstructed.

  In the kitchen, he washed his dinner dishes. He brewed a pot of coffee, poured it into a thermos bottle, and stood the thermos on the dinette table. He set a mug on the table, too.

  Merlin watched as if witnessing a ritual with solemn meaning.

  Only two chairs served the table. They were at opposite ends of the window that looked out onto the back porch.

  Grady moved one of the chairs to face the window from across the table. He switched off the lights and sat in the chair, in the dark, in the lingering aroma of strong coffee, his mug empty.

  Merlin stood very still, as if pondering the situation. He was a contemplative dog, always ruminating on some aspect of his world.

  Out of sight above the house, the mirror moon reflected the sun of a day not yet dawned, shining the pale light of tomorrow on the yard and on the paper birches.

  The porch lay in shadow.

  Merlin padded to the kitchen door, a French door with panes all the way to the bottom, installed specifically to allow the wolfhound to see outside. Alert, he stood there, barely visible in the gloom.

  Grady’s window had three rows of panes, three panes per row. In another house, miles from here, this was the identical configuration of the window through which Grady’s mother had foreseen her future.

  A year before Grady was born, his father gave his mother a puppy—half German shepherd, half everything else. She named him Sneakers because he had a dark coat
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