Breathless Page 26

Except for the shakes, Tom Bigger couldn’t move. He trembled so violently that his teeth chattered and each exhalation stuttered from him, but he could not uproot either of his feet.

He must have been in a brief fugue when he twisted the cap off the bottle, for he had no memory of cracking the seal. Suddenly the cap lay on the floor between his feet, and with the mouth of the bottle to his nose, he inhaled the fumes of death in life.

Another fugue—how long?—and somehow the familiar taste was in his mouth, and the fragrant toxin dripped from his chin. Held in both hands, the bottle revealed the weakness of his will, for the level of the tequila was an inch lower than before.

Inch by inch, he would lose the future, the world, the hope that he had so recently allowed himself, and he knew what he must do. He must slam the bottle against his face, slam it and slam it until it shattered, puncturing and slashing his face, perhaps this time bleeding so much, so fast, he would be done with life at last.

But he was a coward, gutless, not energized by self-hatred but paralyzed by it.

The motel-room door opened, and with the flood of daylight came screaming. Screaming and sobbing simultaneously, the most wretched and despairing cries that Tom had ever heard.

In the sunlight, on the threshold, stood the seventy-something man in the cardigan, the front-desk clerk who had told him to enjoy his stay. Beyond the man stood an old woman with a cell phone in her hand.

Neither of them was screaming or sobbing, and then Tom realized that he was the source of these terrible lamentations, a howling siren of anguish and grief and self-loathing.

Tom tried to warn off the desk clerk, for fear his rage would at last turn outward. In another fugue he might smash the bottle against that kindly face and slash the old man’s jugular with a shard of glass.

Indeed, another fugue took him. But the next thing he knew, he was sitting on the edge of the bed, no longer clutching the pint of tequila.

The old man held the bottle, twisting shut the cap. He set it on the dresser.

No screaming anymore. Just the sobbing.

The old man returned to Tom and put a hand on his shoulder. “I’ve never been in your place, son. But maybe if we talk about it, I can help you find a way back from where you are.”


Paul Jardine wanted two hours for the debriefing, but after five minutes, Grady said, “This is bogus. I’ll give you half an hour. Keep it tight, get it done. If half an hour isn’t enough, bring charges against me, and I’ll fight for full disclosure in an open court.”

When Jardine began reciting the statutes under which a citizen could be prosecuted for failure to cooperate in a national-security matter after being granted immunity, Grady closed his left eye and slightly squinted his right, as if sighting a target. He whispered, “CheyTac M200,” the name of the favored sniper rifle in the services.

Jardine understood. For a moment he considered Grady’s skills and reputation. The deputy director proceeded with less arrogance, in a more succinct style of interrogation.

When they were done, Grady took two bottles of beer from the refrigerator and joined Cammy—and a subdued Merlin—on the front porch. She sat in one of the rockers, watching four more scientists disembarking from yet another executive helicopter at the end of Cracker’s Drive.

“Thanks,” she said, taking a beer. “Done already?”

He sat in another rocker. “People think power makes them big, but it brings out their inner bratty child and makes them small.”

“You ever been to Michigan?” she asked.

“Yes. And that sure did interest him.”

“What do you think’s happening in Michigan?”

“Something. We knew this was bigger than Puzzle and Riddle.”

After a silence, she said, “You told me you were in the army. You’ve never said much more.”

“Joined up when I was eighteen, after my mom died of cancer. I thought there must be something better than these mountains.”

“Some reason you don’t want to talk about it?”

“No. Except it makes me bitter. I don’t like being bitter.”

“Can you really target someone at a thousand yards, like Jardine said?”

“Much farther. All the way out to twenty-five hundred yards. The rifle comes with various sighting aids. With the CheyTac, you use a .408-caliber, 419- or 305-grain round. One of those tends to do the job.”

“Where was this?”

“Mostly Afghanistan. Some Iraq. Terrorists, mass murderers. They don’t even know they’re spotted. Scope them out, take them down. As far as war goes, it’s about as humane as it gets. Snipers don’t cause collateral damage among civilians.”

“It’s a long way from that to making furniture,” she said.

“It’s a long way from that to anything.”

“Where’s the bitterness come in?”

“My best friend. Marcus Pipp. He was on my sniper team. The other side has snipers, too. They look for us looking for them. Marcus took one in the neck. It didn’t need to happen.”

“Then why did it?”

“This grandstanding senator back home holds up a photo of dead women and children in an Afghan village. Marcus—he’s in the picture with his rifle. Senator is so sure we kill for the thrill of it, he doesn’t even try to get his facts straight. He names Marcus for the press, demands a court-martial. The Taliban killed those people, and all we did was find the bodies.”

“Surely Marcus wasn’t court-martialed.”

“No. Army set the senator straight, though he never apologized. Marcus saw his photo on the Internet, newspaper stories with captions all but calling him a baby-killer. It upset him.”

“But it wasn’t true.”

“You had to know Marcus. Sounds funny—he was like my mom in some ways. It wasn’t he never lied—he couldn’t lie. And the army mattered to him. He believed in the use of righteous force. He knew what the world would be like without it. The lie wasn’t just about him, it was about the army, about this country and its people. The injustice ate at him, distracted him. You can’t be distracted on a sniper team. Your focus is your fate. I saw how he was. I thought he’d get over it. I should have done a lot more to get him centered again. I didn’t, he was careless, and he died two feet from me.”

“You can’t blame yourself.”

“If we aren’t here for one another, why are we here?”

Beyond the porch, the bureaucrats and the armed agents of the Department of High Anxiety bustled this way and that through their inflated settlement, saving the nation from the threat of wonder and joy.

Lying beside Grady’s chair, the wolfhound raised his noble head occasionally to watch one passing individual or another. None of them inspired him to wag his tail.

After a while, Cammy said, “What’re we going to do about Puzzle and Riddle?”

“Stay focused. Be ready to act when the opportunity arises.”

“What if the opportunity doesn’t arise?”

“It always does, if you stay focused.”


Having changed from shoes to slippers but still in cardigan and red bow tie, Josef Yurashalmi shuffled around the table, finishing the place settings with white linen napkins precisely folded to display the single, small embroidered bouquet of colorful flowers on each.

Hannah, Josef’s wife, was busy testing the tenderness of the vegetables in a soup pot on the stove. Tom had first seen her outside his motel room, holding a cell phone, on which she had been ready to call an ambulance or the police.

The couple owned the motel and lived in a tidy apartment that constituted the small second floor above the office. There was a dining room, but Josef said, “The older I get—and nobody’s getting older faster than me—the more I prefer cozy. The kitchen table is cozier.”

Moving through their quarters and then sitting at the table as the elderly couple prepared dinner, Tom felt clumsy in build, awkward in motion, gauche, and out of place. He was bewildered to be there, unable to explain to himself why he had not taken up his backpack and fled. Josef and Hannah were together a force of nature, a wind both gentle yet powerful enough to sweep him to the place they wished him to be.

Although he had washed his face and hands in their guest bath, Tom felt grimy compared to their meticulously clean apartment. He had combed his unruly hair as best he could with his fingers, and buttoned the collar of his denim shirt.

Hannah filled bowls with beef noodle soup, and Josef put them on the table. Potatoes, carrots, and lima beans enriched the soup. Tom had eaten nothing as tasty as this in many years.

The second course was a slice of a molded gelatin salad full of finely chopped carrots and celery. Tom expected not to like it, but he did.

Fried fish patties followed, made from flaked halibut, mashed potatoes, eggs, and minced onions. On the side were succotash and sweet-and-sour beets.

Tom Bigger had not eaten home cooking like this in longer than thirty years. Considering that he drank more calories than he ate every day, he was surprised that his shrunken stomach suddenly had the capacity for everything that was put before him.

Josef and Hannah did most of the talking, or so it seemed to Tom, yet more surprising than the capacity of his stomach was the fact that he told them where he was going and what he hoped to do when he got there. He never revealed himself to people—until now.

He didn’t tell them about the incident on the bluff above the sea or about the coyotes. Those things were his to keep until he proved that he could make the journey and complete the task.

Over dessert—lemon-cream pie—Josef offered to drive Tom to his destination after dinner. Tom gratefully declined six different ways. In spite of his failure to accept the favor of a ride, his hosts began to talk about the best route and estimated driving time—two hours—as though Josef and Tom would be leaving shortly.

When Tom expressed concern about Hannah being alone, the couple explained that the evening-shift clerk, Francisco, now manned the front desk downstairs. And in an emergency, Rebecca, their daughter, and her family lived only fifteen minutes away.

Tom found a seventh reason why he must politely decline, and he insisted that their offer was too generous, but at the conclusion of dessert, Hannah encouraged Josef to “say bentshen and hit the road.” Bentshen proved to be a benediction, a grace said following dinner, after which Josef went to the master bathroom to “say hello to Mother Nature,” and Tom used the guest bath. Hannah waited at the apartment door and hugged each of them, and Tom followed Josef down the stairs, through the motel office, outside to a thirty-year-old Mercedes sedan idling in front, where it had been brought by Francisco. The evening clerk also fetched Tom’s backpack from his room, put it in the trunk, provided four bottles of cold water in an insulated carrier in case they got thirsty during the trip, and stood waving at them as they drove out of the motel parking lot and north on the highway.

Tom had long been afraid of crossing the threshold of a new place for the first time, lest he have an encounter with the wrong person, one who profoundly affected him and forced in him a change. In his gray cardigan and bow tie, still wearing slippers because “they’re comfier than shoes to drive, and when you get to be my age, which is a number Methuselah would envy, comfy matters more than style,” Josef Yurashalmi was that wrong person, the embodiment of Tom Bigger’s fear.

Although Tom had long been all but humorless, the realization that the dreaded agent of Apocalypse turned out to be this sweet old man might have inspired a laugh under other circumstances. But he was no longer a ten-day walk from the task that he must perform; only two hours would bring him to it. He lived for decades as a coward, and now with an onerous confrontation rapidly approaching, he had no well of courage to tap.


In the room, all day the people come and go, excitement high but voices often low.

The light is bright but not as bright as the light of their becoming. Still, the night would be nicer, the big full moon and all the shining stars.

Men and women come and go, and some return, and later yet return again, and always they appear and disappear through the same drapery, which falls shut behind them.

Directly opposite that entrance in the western wall is another entrance in the east. There the drapery is fixed, zippered shut, and no one comes and no one goes by that portal.

Some people stand close and stare, and accept an offered hand, while others sit in chairs to watch, record their notes or take them down by hand.

Sometimes they confer with one another, usually in murmurs and hushed voices. Now and then, they speak louder and with passionate intent, but it is always an angerless argument.

In their cage, Puzzle and Riddle listen with interest to the voices of their visitors, to the music of the voices, to the rhythm of the voices, voices, voices.

They have water, and food is given twice. All is well, and all will be well, as it has been well since their becoming.

This is a time of waiting, and the two wait well, for waiting is only an acceptance of the ways of time. Occasionally slow and on other occasions faster, yet in truth always at the same pace, time flows forward toward one shining moment or another, toward the place where they will fully belong then, as they fully belong in this place now.

In the room, the people come and go, and in time they only go, until dust motes float in the bright light, in the stilled air.

In the night beyond the drapery waits the one who admits all the others. His scent is a scent of weariness, loneliness, and yearning.

Quietly in the quietness, Puzzle works the zipper on the cover of the mattress, and the divider softly clicks as it makes the teeth unclench.

Inside the cover, under the mattress, her probing hand locates what earlier she had hidden. The blade is short, not sharp, rounded without a point.

When she saw it while standing on a chair and searching kitchen drawers for new treasures, her eyes were drawn not to the plain blade but to the pretty handle. It was shiny, full of color, and its contours pleasing.

She plucked it from among other items of interest at the moment that she was lifted from the chair and pressed into the dog crate.

When a thing is provided, the provision is for a reason. This she knows.

After their transferal to the large cage here in the room, as they explore their new quarters, the reason for the thing with the pretty handle becomes clear. The reason is not the handle, but the blade.

The ceiling and the floor of the cage are large pans. The bars of the cage are in framed panels. The panels are bolted to the walls of the floor pan and the ceiling pan. Each panel is held by two bolts at the top, two at the bottom.

Prev Next
Romance | Vampires | Fantasy | Billionaire | Werewolves | Zombies