Breathless Page 29

In his mind, he rehearsed all the things he intended to do to Kirsten. The afternoon and early evening passed so quickly that he was surprised when the authoritative digital voice of the security system announced, “Alarmed to night mode,” so loud that he could hear it clearly through the closed door, from the speaker in the hallway.

Just before the second housekeeper left at nine, she brought dinner to the table. At that point the boy, Benny, was in bed and asleep, and Kirsten could enjoy her meal uninterrupted.

Except that Rudy Neems would interrupt her tonight as she had never in her life been interrupted.

He waited five minutes before easing open the hallway door, just to be sure she would be sitting at dinner in the dining room. Even dining alone, she preferred to eat there, where she could spread out her newspaper on the big table.

Rudy Neems intended to spread out her newspaper as she had never had it spread out in her life.

Between the butler’s pantry and the dining room, one of the two swinging doors stood open. Kirsten sat at the table, her back to him.

She wore her blond hair short. So elegant was her neck that it entranced him.

When he had done her as much as he wanted, then part of the way he would kill her would be by strangulation. That neck.

He watched her turn a page of the newspaper. Her hands were slender, long-fingered, beautifully shaped.

Before strangling her, he could break her fingers one by one.

As he crossed the threshold of the butler’s pantry, a floorboard creaked underfoot.

She turned her head, more gorgeous than her photos suggested, and she screamed.

Rudy rushed her as she came up from her chair. She had a fork in her hand, raising it like a dagger, but he didn’t care about that. She was fast, but Rudy was immeasurably faster. He seized her wrist and almost broke it, she cried out in pain, the fork fell, he pushed the chair out of the way, he shoved her back onto the table, onto her dinner, and—

He heard the window shattering an instant before the alarm went off. Startled, Rudy relented from his assault just enough to allow Kirsten to get her breath.

She screamed again, she threw a wineglass at his face, Rudy dodged it. As the glass shattered on the floor, this guy appeared in an archway on the right, this big strange guy coming in from the hall, his face a ruin, a guy so bizarre that Rudy was for a fatal moment paralyzed.

When he subdued a woman, Rudy liked to force her into submission with nothing more than his hands, his body. He didn’t use a gun, a knife, a sap. He was a solid block, and he liked to start their time together with a fun demonstration of his great strength and his delight in using it.

The sight of this charging fury, this Frankenstein thing, shocked Kirsten’s scream out of her. Gasping, she backed away from both of them.

Rudy snared her knife off the table, but it was not a steak knife, just a regular dinner knife, and he didn’t get to slash with it anyway, because this giant hand closed around his wrist the way his hand had closed around Kirsten’s wrist, the biggest damn hand in the universe. In the broken face were the most terrifying eyes Rudy had ever seen either in a horror movie or in a mirror, eyes full of wrath. Now the broken-faced man had Rudy in a two-hand grip, twisting Rudy’s wrist, bending his hand backward. Everything had happened so fast that maybe six seconds after this thing burst into the room, Rudy was screaming instead of Kirsten, and when his wrist snapped like the wrist of a little girl, the pain was a white flash, as sharp and bright as lightning behind his eyes, and the monster threw him down out of the blinding white light into blackness and silence.

Rudy Neems was unconscious only a couple of minutes. When he came around, his assailant loomed over him, stared down at him, and he didn’t want to meet those eyes. He looked away from those eyes for the same reason he would have looked away from the challenging stare of a rabid wolf.

He did not see Kirsten, but a white-haired old man in slippers was shuffling around, gathering up the debris from the struggle: the fork, the dinner knife, pieces of the broken wineglass. He returned the silverware to the table and dropped the shards of glass in a plastic trash bag.

“Good thing she hadn’t poured wine yet,” the old man said to the monster. “What a mess that would’ve been. Oh, no, look at that—some fava beans smashed in the carpet.” He clucked his tongue. “Now, Tom, I’m not sure an act that violent qualifies as a gemilut chesed, even if I think it was loving kindness that motivated you. But who am I to say, one way or the other, I’m just an old fart trying to run a business and do what’s right in a time when neither of those things pays.”

The pain in the shattered wrist was so bad and the old man was so blurred through his tears that Rudy wondered if he might be hallucinating.

Sirens rose in the distance.


Henry Rouvroy could do nothing to keep Jim out of the house, because the poet would come in through the attic if he wasn’t able to enter through a door, because next he would walk through a wall, with no regard for the opinions of the enlightened professors and elite power brokers who would dismiss the idea of ghosts with a sneer or a laugh. He was in control now, the dead brother, and there was nothing to be done about it.

Consequently, because a grenade would be useless against a man who was already dead, Henry put it in the refrigerator. The choice of the refrigerator puzzled him for a moment, but then he decided he must be reacting to a subconscious awareness that the hand grenade resembled a pineapple.

In a despairing mood of resignation, he removed all the bracing chairs from the doors and returned them to the dinette table. When he opened the cellar door, he stood at the head of the stairs, peering down into the lower room, where the lights had been on for more than twenty-four hours. He heard nothing down there, but he said, “Jim?” When he received no reply, he said, “I shouldn’t have killed you myself, not my own brother. I should have hired someone to kill you and then killed him.”

He went from window to window, opening the draperies and raising the blinds. He was finished hiding. He couldn’t endure another night of waiting for retribution.

At one of the front windows, he saw a woman on the porch. At first he assumed that she must be Nora, joining Jim for the next phase of the haunting, but when she became aware of him and turned, she proved to be a stranger. And an attractive one.

If an attractive woman came to him, rather than Henry having to go stalk and capture her, perhaps his fate wasn’t sealed, after all. Perhaps this was a sign that the Hour of Dead Jim was over, that the worst of the haunting lay behind him, that he had passed this initiation rite into the pagan reality of rural life, had won the approval of the earth spirits and fertility gods that ruled this world of farms and logging operations. If so, he could now establish his retreat and dig in to ride out the chaos that the senator and his friends were engineering.

He opened the door to her and smiled.

She frowned and said, “Jim?”

“I’ve tried to be,” he said.

“What did you say?”

“A little joke. It’s been a long day.” Evidently she knew the Carlyles, which encouraged him to step back from the threshold and say, “Nora and I were just going to start dinner. Can you join us?”

After a hesitation, she stepped inside. “I can’t, Jim. The most incredible wonderful thing has happened.”

Closing the door, he said, “I sure could use a wonderful thing. A day like this, I need a lift. Come tell me and Nora about it.”

“It’s going to be better to show than tell,” she said, following him toward the kitchen.

“Nora’s in the potato cellar. I’m supposed to go down and help her carry up some spuds.”

The door stood open. The light glowed below. He was pleased at how plausible the story sounded.

“The thing is, Jim, I really need to borrow your Mountaineer.”

“Sure. No problem. How about helping Nora bring up some baskets of potatoes, and I’ll get my car-insurance card for you just in case there might be an accident or something.”

“I don’t need the card,” she said.

“Oh, I know, I know. But the law does say you have to carry proof of insurance, and you know how I am, living by the law.”

In fact, Jim had written a poem titled “Living by the Law,” about the beauty of law, though it was about natural law, not the laws written by men.

The reference to the poem worked. The woman bought it and smiled. “All right, sure, get the insurance card. Straight-arrow Jim. I’ll help Nora.”

He watched her descend the stairs, and when she reached the bottom, he called out, “I just had a senior moment way before my time.” He hurried down after her, adding, “Forgot the insurance card is right here in my wallet.”

As Henry reached the lower room, the woman arrived at the potato-cellar door, which stood ajar. The light was on in there.

A pang of terror pierced Henry, and for a moment, he did not know why—and then he knew.

The woman opened the door and stepped inside, and on the floor lay Nora, the first woman in his planned harem.

“I was being Jim, after all,” Henry said.

In his mind’s eye, he saw himself wearing Jim’s gloves, moving Nora from the barn in the wheelbarrow. After dinner the previous night. Being Jim. Really into the role. Well, he had taken some drama classes at Harvard.

His visitor, the nameless woman, turned to stare at him from the trap of the potato cellar, her eyes wide.

As he moved to the doorway, Henry said, “And Jim. Jim’s in the chicken house. Stripped and thrown in the chicken house. I didn’t have time to feed them. Let them peck the meat off his bones. A smaller grave to dig.”

“Jim, what’s the matter with you?”

He looked at his hands, at his clean nails, remembering the grime, the filth, the gummy blood under his fingernails from wearing the gloves and being Jim.

“Henry,” came the dreaded whisper, “Henry … Henry,” and he dared not look to see what stood behind him.

The woman, who could see what stood behind him, only said, “Who is Henry?”

“Henry,” Henry said, and knew chicken-pecked Jim did not stand behind him, after all.

“Jim,” the woman said, “back away from the door, I’m coming out of here, Jim.”

He had worn the gloves to copy the poem from the book, and then had to wash his hands again.

“I’m not quite sure of my exact condition,” he told the woman in the potato cellar. “I never had the time to take as many psychology courses as I wanted to.”

She came to the doorway, but he did not back off.

He said, “Do you hear that? Do you hear iambic pentameter? The rapping, rapping, rap-rap-rapping.”

“No,” she said.

“Oh, I do. I hear it all the time. This is so sad. You would have been such an exciting woman to keep in the potato cellar. Then I could have had it all. But look what this rustic world has made of me in just one day. This isn’t who I am or want to be, and clearly there can be no going back for me in any sense.”

“Move, Jim,” she said, and tried to push him backward.

“I’ve got to go upstairs now,” he said, “and get the hand grenade from the refrigerator.”

He went to the stairs. After ascending three, he glanced back at her. “Do you want to come with me to get the hand grenade?”

“No, Jim. I’ll wait here.”

“Okay. Thank you for waiting. I’ll bring a grenade for you, and we’ll pull the pins in the potato cellar.”

He continued up the stairs. He was sorry to hear the outside cellar door open, and the rain doors over the stairs. He really didn’t want to go out alone in the potato cellar. Oh, right. Not alone. There was Nora.


The Mountaineer coasted through the moonlight. Not daring to look back, Cammy ran around the front of it as Grady pulled to a stop. She yanked open the passenger door, clambered into the SUV, and couldn’t find her voice.

Lamar was in the backseat. In the cargo area with Merlin, Puzzle and Riddle were giggling.

Cammy had never heard them giggle before. Under the circumstances, their sweet childlike voices sounded sinister.

Her cry at last broke free of her throat: “Move, move, move!”

Grady accelerated away from the house before he asked, “What? What’s wrong?”

“Hell if I know. Jim … he … I don’t know, I think he killed Nora, she’s dead in the potato cellar.”

This announcement put the damper on whatever fun the three pals were having, and left Grady gaping.

After a moment, she turned to Lamar and said, “You predicted chaos, and you were right. Was that it? What’s ahead of us?”

“Just the future,” Puzzle said from behind Lamar. “Just where we’re meant to be.”

Henry Rouvroy, alias Jim Carlyle, descended the cellar stairs, a grenade in each hand.

Nora remained on the floor, eyes open, in the potato cellar.

He sat on the floor beside his sister-in-law, his wife.

He pulled the ring from the first grenade but kept the safety lever depressed.

For reasons he could not imagine, in his mind’s eye he saw not Jim’s na*ed corpse in the chicken house, among the cackling hens, but instead the senator at a press conference, waving the photo of Marcus Pipp and demanding a court-martial. Henry had advised him on that strategy, but he’d done so based on misinformation, and it had not gone well.

The senator didn’t fire him because the senator thought the episode achieved exactly what he wanted it to achieve. The senator was an idiot.

Henry couldn’t get Marcus Pipp’s face out of his mind. He didn’t want to die while thinking about Marcus Pipp. That’s how he died, anyway.

Grady drove as fast as the winding road would allow, heading south out of the county, into a somewhat more settled area, where the dark hills were speckled with house lights. They were a long way still from a small city with its own TV station, but if their escape had not yet been noticed, the odds were in their favor.

They passed a roadhouse where the parking lot was packed with pickups and the marquee advertised a country band.

A quarter of a mile later, when they topped a hill and saw the roadblock at the intersection below, Grady braked and slid into a turn, and Cammy said, “The roadhouse. All those people. It’s some kind of chance.”

As he crested the hill he had topped from the other direction a moment earlier, Grady glanced at the rearview mirror and saw that the pursuit was already under way.

Bailing from the Mountaineer in the roadhouse parking lot, Cammy sprinted to the back, opened the tailgate. “Out, out, hurry!”

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