Breathless Page 16

As one of the very few CSU students who ever achieved a perfect grade-point average in every semester of her studies, both as an undergraduate and a graduate student, Cammy had been able to receive a guaranteed seat in every one of Eleanor’s small-class lectures but had been invited also to participate in three one-on-one conferences that proved to be some of the most intense educational experiences of her life.

By the time Eleanor completed her month in Fort Collins, she had made a persuasive case that, upon graduation, Cammy should come east to Tufts. Eleanor offered a three-year contract to work in a canine-cancer research project of which she was the director, a program with deep funding provided by an alumnus.

Cammy was tempted by the opportunity to advance her career and contribute to research that might save the lives of countless dogs. But ultimately, she declined. She had dreamed for so long of serving animals not in the research lab, but in the course of their day-to-day suffering; she wanted the satisfaction of healing animals whose names she knew and into whose eyes she had looked.

She and Eleanor had remained in touch, however, and were friends who regarded their work not solely as a profession and primarily as a mission. If Puzzle and Riddle were extreme teratogenic individuals, Eleanor’s broad, deep zoological background might enable her to see through the mutations to underlying characteristics that identified their species.

As for Sidney Shinseki: After receiving her veterinary degree, Cammy had done a year of postdoctoral work with him to refine her surgical techniques. He was a sweet old gruff bear of a guy who had a keen diagnostic sense and a talent for making intuitive leaps from a few perplexing facts to the truth toward which they pointed.

After sending the e-mails, Cammy trolled a few institutional zoological archives that could be accessed with ease, searching for photographs of nocturnal creatures with unusually large eyes.

The aye-aye, inhabiting the rain forests of Madagascar, appeared to have larger eyes than it really did. In the photos, they were such a bright orange that the stunning color contributed to an illusion of immensity. Anyway, with its big batlike ears and pointed muzzle, it wouldn’t qualify for a show about mammalian beauty on Animal Planet.

Bush babies’ eyes were markedly larger than those of an aye-aye, especially in proportion to their small heads, but they were ocular nobodies compared to Merlin’s new playmates.

The loris, native to south and southeastern Asia, had large eyes in proportion to its head but not in comparison to Puzzle and Riddle. A tree-creeper feeding largely on lizards and insects, the largest loris weighed only four pounds.

After the excitement of the night, she thought she would not be able to sleep, but she soon began hitting too many wrong keys and too often misclicking the mouse, and she logged off. When she dropped into bed at 1:50 A.M., the room seemed to turn slowly like a carousel … a carousel, and all the beautiful horses were facing in the same direction, toward the mountains and the twilight sky, and something momentous was passing through the day, something so gigantic that she could feel its presence looming, yet it remained invisible, or if it was not invisible, then it must be visible only by indirection, only from the corner of the eye. …


Cool and dry, the California night provided perfect weather for walking with a backpack.

To the west of the highway, the dark land sloped to the ocean, which Tom Bigger could see only because the moon trailed a satin train across the water and the breaking surf threw white spray like flung rice to rattle on the shingled shore.

In the east lay hills, visible because they were silhouetted against the star-speckled sky and because, following a rainless summer, they were dressed in pale parched grass. Widely separated hursts of live oaks made Halloween shapes against the pallid meadows.

To every quarter of the compass, the lonely land revealed no signs of habitation.

He knew where he must go and what he must do. But it was a long walk to the city and a hard thing that needed to be done.

Well past midnight, little traffic cruised the highway. These were the hours when long-haul truckers reigned, and they traveled the interstate farther inland.

Even in the darkness, Tom received signs. The headlights of a southbound car revealed a dead rattlesnake on the pavement, its eyes glittering as if sequined, and he knew that it was there only for him to see.

He passed a deer crossing sign that vandals had riddled with bullet holes. And a short distance farther along the shoulder of the highway, his trudging feet scattered small objects that clinked off one another with a brassy sound. When he switched on his flashlight, perhaps twenty expended shell casings gleamed in the dirt and gravel.

Snakes and bullets. Evil and violence.

A low smooth rock formation rose like a bench made by Nature for a weary hiker. He stopped and unburdened himself of the backpack.

He unzipped the storm flap on the lower compartment and withdrew a stuffsack that contained his unloaded pistol. He returned the empty stuffsack to the lower compartment, and zipped shut the storm flap.

Bearing the backpack once more, carrying the gun in his left hand, at his side, out of sight of any motorists who might pass, he continued north.

Since leaving the town, he felt that he was not alone. Mile by mile, the impression of an unseen companion intensified.

From time to time, he stopped and turned slowly in a circle to study the night. He never glimpsed movement other than the swaying of grass and the trembling of leaves in the languid breeze that came off the sea. He never saw a ghostly form, or moonglint in an eye.

He walked about half a mile before he heard the engine of a northbound vehicle. Judging by the sound, it must be a light truck or an SUV, but he did not look back.

Motorists disposed to pick up hitchhikers were less charitable to him because of his size and face. He seldom attempted to thumb a ride. Consequently, he walked facing oncoming traffic, which was safer anyway.

Engine noise grew, headlights washed the pavement, and a Chevy Suburban swept past in the farther lane. Brake lights brightened.

A hundred yards ahead, the vehicle made a U-turn and came south, coasting to a stop beside the highway, about fifty feet from Tom. Doors opened.

The headlights half blinded him, but he saw the silhouettes of two men at the front of the Suburban. A third stood just forward of the driver’s door.

Tom didn’t try to sprint off the highway and into the dark land because even gentle terrain could be treacherous to a blind runner.

Besides, he didn’t run from anything, neither from violence junkies cruising in search of kicks nor from a tsunami. If someone or something killed him, he would only be getting the death that he wanted but that he had no courage to embrace by suicide.

He walked toward them, keeping his head high.

When they got a good look at his face, with the grisly details no doubt exaggerated by the extreme light and shadows, one of them said, “Holy hell, Jackie, look at this,” and the one named Jackie said to Tom, “Hey, where you goin’, Frankenstein?”

“Leave me alone,” he warned, and kept moving toward them as he raised the pistol from his side and transferred it to his right hand.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” shouted the guy by the driver’s door. “Stop right there, Karloff. I got you covered.”

To prove his claim, he fired a round over Tom’s head. The report sounded like a rifle.

Through the years, each time that he committed an armed robbery with an unloaded gun, Tom expected his victim to be carrying heat and to do him the favor of shooting him dead.

Here seemed to be the men who would set him free at last. He was surprised, therefore, when he didn’t continue toward them.

“Drop the gun,” the shooter commanded.

Jackie’s pal said, “Blow his brains out, George, do it.”

George warned Tom, “I’ll do it. Drop the gun or I’ll do it.”

Instead of casting the pistol aside, Tom tucked it under his belt, against his abdomen.

Less than twenty feet separated him from the two men in front of the Suburban. Wary, they moved toward him, careful to remain out of their armed companion’s line of fire.

“I’m not alone,” Tom said.

Jackie laughed, and the guy beside him said, “Problem is—that’s an imaginary friend you been talking to, rummy. What’ve you got in the backpack? Take it off and give us a look.”

Out of the night to Tom’s left, from the long slope that led down to the sea, came a low and sinister form, its eyes radiant with the reflected beams of the headlights. A lean coyote with its sharp teeth bared.

The beast didn’t even glance at Tom Bigger. With boldness not characteristic of the species, it moved menacingly toward those who were threatening him.

“Is that a dog?” Jackie asked, and his pal said, “Shit, no.”

As if conjured with invocations and pentagrams, another coyote slunk out of the darkness, close behind the first. And then a third.

Backing away, Jackie said, “Scare them off, George.”

The shooter fired a round in the air, but the animals weren’t frightened.

From the deep dark and the tall grass, a fourth coyote, a fifth, a sixth, a seventh materialized.

The rifleman, who was the driver, got behind the wheel of the Suburban, and the slam of his door triggered the retreat of the other men to the safety of the vehicle.

Now that he was the only prey remaining, Tom Bigger expected the pack to turn on him, but their attention remained fixed on the three occupants of the SUV.

For a minute or two, the driver waited, surely expecting the coyotes to roam away into the night. But the seven maintained their vigil, eerily still.

Through the windshield, Tom could see the two men in the front seat, the third leaning forward from behind them. They appeared to be arguing.

The driver released the emergency brake, put the Suburban in gear, and pulled onto the highway. He drove south, back the way he had come.

Tom watched until the taillights dwindled from view.

He took the unloaded pistol from under his waistband, held it at his side, and walked north.

The coyotes accompanied him through the moonlight, three ahead of him, one on each side, and two behind.

So high that the sound of its engines didn’t reach the earth, a jet transited the sky from west to east, and for Tom its lights signified that his journey, too, would continue, must continue.

After a quarter of a mile, the coyotes moved away from him in single file, diagonally across the blacktop.

He stopped to watch them leave.

One by one, the seven leaped across a drainage swale beyond the farther shoulder of the highway, eastbound as silently as the jet, and vanished into a moonlit meadow.

He did not know what to think of them.

After they were gone, he walked north again for about a mile, until he came to a small stone bridge over a currently dry creek. He took off his backpack and placed it on the waist-high wall of the bridge.

He put away the pistol. From the upper compartment of the pack, he took one of the six bottles of tequila, each of which was wrapped in its own stuffsack.

Two cars appeared in the south, but the thugs were not returning with reinforcements. A sedan and a pickup swept past without slowing.

Tom twisted the cap, broke the tax stamp, opened the pint. He brought it to his nose and inhaled.

The aroma made his mouth water and his stomach flutter with anticipation. The shakes took him, so he held the tequila with both hands.

After he stood there for a while, perhaps for five minutes, he screwed the cap back on the bottle. He took no satisfaction in his self-control. He knew his willpower would not long endure.

Cursing himself for his sudden temperance, he threw the bottle off the bridge. He heard it shatter on the stones in the waterless waterway.

He zipped shut the storm flap, shouldered the backpack once more, and adjusted the hip belt.

Soon twelve hours would have passed since the sobering incident in the bluff-top rest area, above his cave home. He’d been awake for twenty hours, and he’d walked a long way in the past four. He should have been asleep on his feet, but he was awake, alert, and grimly focused.

He knew where he must go. A long, long walk remained ahead of him.

He knew what he must do. The task would not be easy. He might not have the courage to complete it.

As Tom Bigger walked north into the last few hours of the night, he was overcome again by the feeling that he was not alone, that he was followed step by step, and not merely by coyotes. And he was afraid.


For a walk in the suburban Seattle woods, Liddon Wallace wore Brioni loafers protected by rubber overshoes, gray wool slacks by Ermenegildo Zegna, a Mark Cross belt, a Geoffrey Beene shirt, an Armani sweater, a black leather jacket by Andrew Marc, and a Patek Philippe wristwatch.

The hard-packed dirt footpath proved easy to follow in spite of the mottling shadows and the mist. Dawn had come nearly an hour earlier. But fog veiled the face of the sun and allowed only this indirect light.

In the morning murk, the towering Douglas firs and hemlocks appeared to be black, and the ferns were more blue than green. Even the clusters of Pacific dogwoods, with their flurries of scarlet and gold leaves, blazed less than smoldered in the dripping gloom, and their enormous white flowers, which usually resembled clematis, now looked like dead birds in their branches.

After little more than three hundred yards, the footpath led out of the forest. Beyond lay the putting green at the eighteenth hole of the golf course.

An electric cart, used by groundskeepers, stood on the green. Even as Liddon Wallace came out of the trees, Rudy Neems, chief of the landscape-maintenance crew, took the eighteenth-hole flag from the cart and stood it in the cup.

Half surrounding the green and beyond it were three sand traps and then a fairway that sloped down to a water hazard. The first half of the fairway, beyond the water, faded into the mist, and the tee was far beyond sight. A narrow rough lay along each flank of the fairway, and behind both roughs the forest continued.

Rudy Neems stood by the grounds cart, watching Liddon approach. The landscaper was thirty-eight, stocky, with a blond mustache and thick hair that grew naturally in ringlets. Ironically, as a boy, he was often picked to play an angel in Christmas pageants.

“This weather sucks,” Liddon said.

Neems was soft-spoken to such a degree that even in the morning stillness, his voice didn’t carry far: “Good for the skin.”

Indeed, the groundskeeper had a superb complexion.

Liddon said, “So you reviewed the package.”


“Do you have any questions?”


“You see how it can be done?”


“Then you’ll do it?”

“The money?”

Liddon handed him a manila envelope containing forty thousand in hundred-dollar bills. “Forty thousand more when it’s done.”

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