Breathless Page 18

Three knives lay there. Two were missing.


The fragrance of fir, the wry significance of hemlock, and the irony of dogwood comforted Liddon Wallace as he followed the footpath through the forest after arranging for the murders of his wife and child.

The law was a magnificent thing. His legal career had brought him wealth, a measure of fame, powerful friends in high office, a young and stunningly beautiful wife, the means to resolve problems that would daunt or destroy other men, and the freedom to make even radical changes in his life to increase his happiness and to ensure that he was always as fulfilled as he had every right to be.

His parents and most of his teachers over the years, from preschool through law school, had stressed that nothing was more important than self-esteem, that self-esteem was the ticket to a satisfying life journey. In Liddon’s case, they were wasting their time preaching to a true believer who from a tender age was well aware of his many superior qualities, not the least of which was decisiveness.

When he saw what needed to be done, he did it. Or hired someone like Rudy Neems to do it. Liddon never dithered, and once he acted, he never had remorse.

Sometimes, if he possessed the right information, he neither had to do the job himself nor pay to have it done. A lot of people lived with secrets that could destroy them, and if you knew their secrets, you could manipulate them to do things for you that reduced them to the condition of puppets. Because Liddon had friends in high office with unlimited public funds to investigate any member of the public, he never had difficulty getting the dirt on those he targeted, assuming that they had secrets worth learning.

As much as he loved the law and money and himself, he loved nothing more than pulling people’s strings. He was born to be the master of his universe. Power was better than sex. Power was better than wealth. Power was better than anything.

All of these thoughts and a great many more of a diverse nature were bursting through Liddon Wallace’s ever-busy mind as he walked through the woods toward the service road along which he had parked his rental car. Preoccupied with details of universe management and with thoughts related to the oncoming changes in his life, he was all but oblivious of the beauty of the forest.

He was not enthralled by nature as so many people seemed to be these days. He liked grass that was mown, trees artfully shaped by a talented arborist, flowers in orderly rows in well-designed beds, water contained within pools and fountains. He didn’t appreciate the riotous quality of the natural world, everything thrown together in a wild sprawling mess, the fertility, the variety, the chaos.

Perhaps because he was unimpressed by nature, Nature decided to give him a slap upside the head. One second he was hurrying through the fog in a fog of his own, and the next second, wham!

The thing happened so abruptly, he reeled from it with a cry of terror, but there was nowhere to reel to, because the thing happened all around him, so that he either had to surrender to it or resist and endure. Liddon Wallace had never surrendered to anything in his life, never; and he refused to start capitulating now. If any strings were going to be pulled, he would do the pulling, he would not be pulled, he would never yield, never.

The energy of the event, the absolute power of the thing, took his breath away. Literally, he could not breathe. The air became as thick as water, compressed by an irresistible force of inconceivable might. And it seemed to him that the sunlight was being condensed, as well, concentrated not into greater brightness but into a rich golden densification, into a substance that he could feel and smell, into a shimmering coagulum that swelled, bent, buckled, and brought forth impossibilities.

He sensed also that something had gone wrong with time. Wrong wasn’t the correct word; something about time had changed—the flow, the rules, the purpose of it. The past, the present, and the future were as one, twisted together like spaghetti on a fork, then twisted tighter, tighter, until countless millennia were wound into a single instant. He became aware of every moment of his past and of all the possibilities of his future, saw himself as a fetus, an infant, a growing child, an adolescent, an adult, a feeble octogenarian, all simultaneously.

As deeply strange and terrifying as the event was, although it overwhelmed all the senses and oppressed the mind nearly to the point of mental implosion, Liddon knew instantly what was happening, the cause and the intention. He knew also that the hideous stress upon him, the crushing power, the choking awe that arose from the sheer immensity of the thing, would be at once relieved if only he didn’t resist, but he resisted.

Subjectively, the event seemed to go on for hours. But as he opened his mouth in a soundless scream of denial and self-assertion, as he fisted his hands so tightly that his fingernails cut his palms and his knuckle bones felt as if they might split through his skin, Liddon knew that in fact only a few seconds were passing, a sixth of a minute at most.

As abruptly as the thing began, it ended. Just as he had tried to reel back at the start of it, Liddon reeled forward when it was over, and this time no power impeded him. Neither the lifting fog nor the perpetual shadows offered adequate concealment, neither the trees nor the ferns, and the one path was the one way, not back to Rudy Neems but forward. Liddon lurched and staggered along the last hundred yards of the footpath, to the oiled-dirt road that was used mostly by forest-service personnel and primarily in times of fire.

In the rental car, he locked the doors, threw the manila envelope on the passenger seat, and sat gasping, shuddering.

He flipped down the sun visor to consult the mirror on the back. He expected his face to be scorched or in some other way branded by the encounter, but he bore no mark of his experience. When he peered into the reflection of his eyes, he immediately looked away.

Only when his heart slowed a bit and his fear abated did he realize that he had lost one loafer and the rubber overshoe with it. No expensive Italian footwear could be expensive enough to motivate him to return to the woods.

His gray wool slacks by Ermenegildo Zegna were shapeless, as if processed by an incompetent dry cleaner. Half of the top stitching in his Mark Cross belt was unraveled, and the tongue of the buckle was bent.

The Geoffrey Beene shirt, soaked with sour sweat, had shrunk in curious ways, binding at the underarms and pulling tight across the yoke.

From the badly snagged Armani sweater dangled scores of yarn loops, and the black jacket by Andrew Marc stank as if the leather had begun to rot.

When he consulted his Patek Philippe, the hour and the minute hands seemed to present the correct time, and the second hand swept smoothly around the face. But the watch indicated that the day of the week was Thursday when in fact it was Monday, and that the month was December instead of September.

Eventually Liddon started the rental car and switched on the heater, for he felt cold to the bone.

He was not yet ready to drive.

He didn’t look toward the forest. Nothing there interested him. Nothing ever would. He wouldn’t be returning to those woods. Never again would he go into any forest, anywhere.

Neither did he turn his eyes to anything else beyond the windows, nor even to the windows themselves.

The thing happened, Liddon would never forget that it happened, but in the end it didn’t matter. He would never mention the event to anyone. What would it profit him to do so?

He opened the envelope that Rudy Neems had returned to him, and he took out the photographs. Pictures of the house and grounds were of no interest to him. He found photos of Kirsten and Benny. Wife and son. Woman and boy. Other and other. Unknown and unknowable.

He returned the photos to the envelope.

Later, when his tremors subsided, he made a U-turn on the narrow road and headed out of the forest.


At 6:35 A.M. mountain time, Dr. Eleanor Fortney phoned from Massachusetts, waking Cammy Rivers, who sat up in bed to take the call.

Eleanor had a gift for small talk, but she didn’t make use of it this time. “Knowing you, how responsible you are, this can’t be a prank. Those aren’t altered images.”

“No. They’re real, Eleanor. They—”

Interrupting, the zoologist said, “You’ve secured them?”

“Secured them?”

“The animals. In a cage. A dog crate. A padlocked crate. With those hands, they’ll be clever about simple latches.”

“No, they’re not in a crate. They’re with Grady at his place.”

“Please call him now. Tell him to lock them in a closet or a room without windows. Windows have latches.”

“I don’t think he’d do that.”

“Why? Why on earth wouldn’t he?”

“They’re very appealing. They seem attracted to people the way dogs are, they’re affectionate.”

“That can’t be a fully informed opinion. Not in the little time you’ve had. That’s just a first impression.”

“All right, sure,” Cammy acknowledged, “a first impression. But it feels right. Eleanor, you’d understand if you were here and could see them firsthand.”

“Maybe I would, but you can’t let these creatures get away.”

“They don’t want to get away. They want a home. They’re cozy with Grady.”

“You’re ascribing human motivations to them. You can’t know what they want. Cammy, I know you must understand what they are.”

Unable easily to put into words the ineffable quality of Puzzle and Riddle, which suggested that they were something different from any of the easy explanations that came to mind, Cammy merely said, “We’ve been avoiding theories.”

“They’re engineered,” Eleanor declared. “Multiple-species DNA.”

“It crossed my mind.” Cammy tossed back the covers and sat on the edge of the bed. “But creatures this complex? Nobody’s that far along yet.”

“These days, it’s not just engineering new bacteria to make them into little factories producing insulin and interferon. It’s not just modifying Thiobacillus ferrooxidans so it’ll be a better uranium-mining bacterium. We’re way beyond that.”

“Sure, I know. Some Chinese scientist imported a gene into pigs that makes them glow green in the dark. All kinds of crazy things are happening out there. But if Puzzle and Riddle were engineered, the science that made them would be magnitudes beyond the glowing-green-pig stunt.”

“Let me bring you up to date,” Eleanor said. “Let’s stay on pigs for a minute. Did you know pigs are being radically engineered to have organs suitable for transplantation into people?”

“I’ve heard something about it.”

“Pig organs that will be structurally, chemically, genetically so human that the recipient’s body won’t reject them. It’s coming fast.”

Getting to her feet, Cammy said, “But still—”

Eleanor interrupted once more: “Pigs again. At universities here and in other countries, there’s a race on to be the first to engineer a pig with a human brain.”

The cordless phone allowed Cammy to move to the nearest window. “For God’s sake, why?”

“Arrogance. Because it negates the idea of a soul. There’s no practical application. The creature will be tortured by loneliness, by the incongruous nature of its body-brain relationship. It’ll have no refuge but insanity. It’s Frankenstein to the tenth power.”

Hard flat morning light. The sky a pale, pale blue.

Cammy said, “You’re talking about monsters. These animals aren’t like that. They’re … quite wonderful.”

“They might be as peachy keen as Mickey Mouse, but if they were engineered, there’s no way of knowing what havoc they might wreak on the environment. Like … if they give birth to large litters and they make good use of those incredible hands, they could displace one or more indigenous species.”

The window glass felt cold. The air temperature had fallen at least fifteen degrees after midnight.

“If they were born in a lab,” Cammy said, “how did they get here? There’s no university in this county, no companies in the bio-engineering business.”

“They probably wouldn’t have gotten out of the lab on their own. Maybe some animal activists did it. That bunch is causing havoc these days. Vandalizing scientists’ homes, raiding laboratories in the night. Some of them—they’re fanatical enough and ignorant enough to turn an experimental species loose in the wild. They could’ve brought them from anywhere.”

“An experimental species,” Cammy said dubiously. “This is just gut instinct, Eleanor, but that isn’t what they are.”

“Then what are they, Dr. Rivers? They’re not in the encyclopedia of known species. Their eyes alone qualify them as an astonishing singularity.”

“I don’t know. I don’t know what they are.”

“Previously undiscovered species of insects, various aquatic forms, even mice are turned up from time to time. But we haven’t overlooked any large mammals, not in an area as fully explored as the Colorado Rockies, not anywhere. The moment I hang up, call this Grady and tell him to secure those animals. Insist on it. Then wait by your phone.”

“Wait for what?”

“You’ll be getting a call. I had to report this.”

Misgiving honed an edge on Cammy’s voice: “Report? To whom?”

“To a man I know at the National Science Foundation. He gave me the name of someone at the Environmental Protection Agency, and it’s snowballed from there.”

“But I contacted you as a friend. I expected discretion.”

“Cammy, even as much as I like you, I can’t possibly conspire with you regarding something like this. I have professional and legal obligations to report it.”

“Yeah. Okay. I guess I understand. I just didn’t realize …”

Eleanor said, “Sidney Shinseki called me from Texas this morning, as soon as he read your e-mail. We reported this together. Anyone in our positions would have done the same.”

“I see. Of course.”

“Now call Grady and make sure those animals are secured. Then wait by your phone. I think the name of the man calling you will be Paul Jardine. He works out of Denver, I believe.”

“What’re they going to do?” Cammy asked.

“The authorities? They’ll take custody of the animals.”

“And then what?”

“Then you’re out of it. You didn’t steal the animals. You’re cooperating, doing the right thing.”

“No, I mean then what happens to Puzzle and Riddle?”

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