Breathless Page 3

Grady’s property ended where mown lawn gave way to tall grass. The forest loomed, the land rose under the forest, the foothills broke in green waves against the mountains, and the mountains soared.

From time to time, Merlin marked his territory. For the more substantive half of his toilet, he waded into the tall grass, where there would be no need to pick up after him. Even then he remained within sight, for the grass didn’t rise above his brisket.

When he returned to the yard, he raced in great circles and figure eights, chasing nothing, running for the delight of running. His long legs were made for galloping, his heart for joy.

The dog’s beauty was not just that of a well-bred breed, but also the more profound beauty that confirms its source and inspires hope. Two things that most comforted Grady were making Craftsman-style furniture—which was his trade—and watching Merlin.

When the wolfhound returned to the porch, drank from his water bowl, and lay in happy exhaustion beside the rocking chair, Grady picked up the first of the books on the table. Like the other two, this one was a reference guide to the wildlife in these mountains.

He had traded bustle for rustic, power for peace, and glamor for the honesty of this artless landscape. Artless it was, because nature stood above mere art, with none of art’s pretensions.

Having made this trade, he wanted to know the names of the things he loved about this land. Taking the trouble to know the names of things was a way of paying them respect.

His library contained dozens of volumes about the flora, the fauna, the geology, and the natural history of these mountains. This trio offered more photographs than the others.

None of the three books contained a picture of any animal remotely like the pair in the meadow.

As the sun descended toward the peaks, Merlin rose and moved to the head of the porch steps. He stood as if serving as a sentinel, gazing across the backyard toward the tall grass, the woods beyond.

The wolfhound made a sound that was half purr and half growl, not as if warning of danger, but as if something puzzled him.

“What is it? Smell something, big guy?”

Merlin did not look at Grady but remained intent upon the deepening shadows among the distant trees.


Walls of shimmering gold and a treasure of gold cascading along the blacktop: The private lane that led to High Meadows Farm was flanked by quaking aspens in their autumn dress, which lent value to the late-afternoon sunshine and paid out rich patterns of light and shadow across the windshield of Cammy’s Explorer.

She drove past the grand house, to the equestrian facilities, and parked at the end of a line of horse trailers. Carrying her medical bag, she walked to the exercise yard, which was flanked by two stables painted emerald-green with white trim.

A promising yearling had come down with urticaria—nettle rash, as the older grooms called it. This allergic reaction would eventually clear up naturally, but for the comfort of the horse, Cammy could relieve the urticaria with an antihistamine injection.

At the end of the yard, a third building housed the tack room and the office of the trainer, Nash Franklin. Living quarters for the grooms were on the second floor.

Lights glowed in Nash’s office. The door stood open, but Cammy could find no one. The enormous tack room also proved to be deserted.

In the first stable, Cammy discovered the stall doors open on both sides of the central aisle. The horses were gone.

Stepping outside once more, she heard voices and followed them to the fenced meadow on the north side of the building.

The Thoroughbreds were in the pasture: the yearlings, the colts and fillies, the broodmares, the studhorses, the current racers, at least forty of them in all. She’d never seen them gathered in one place before, and she couldn’t imagine for what purpose they had been brought together.

Many of the horses were accompanied by their pets. High-strung, sensitive creatures, Thoroughbreds tended to be happier and calmer when they had a companion animal that hung with them and even shared their stalls. Goats were successful in this role, and to a lesser extent, dogs. But the meadow also contained a few cats, even a duck.

The fact of this assembly, the herd and its menagerie, was not the most curious thing about the scene. As Cammy passed through the gate and into the pasture, she noted that every one of the animals faced west, toward the mountains. They were extraordinarily still.

Heads raised, eyes fixed, they seemed less to be staring at something than to be … listening.

Suddenly she realized that she was witnessing a scene similar to what Ben Aikens had described when, in her absence, the rescued golden retrievers had gotten to their feet to listen to something that none of the people present had been able to hear.

The eastward-slanting light brightened the equine faces. Black shadows flowed backward from their heads, like continuations of their manes, flowed off their rumps and tails, reaching eastward across the grass even as the horses yearned toward the west.

Also in the pasture were half a dozen grooms. And the owners of High Meadows Farm, Helen and Tom Vironi.

Clearly perplexed, the people moved among the herd, gently touching the Thoroughbreds, speaking softly. But the animals appeared to be oblivious of them.

The goats, the dogs, the cats, the single duck were likewise entranced, seeming to hearken to something only animals could hear.

Tall enough to look into a horse’s eyes even when it stood proud with its head raised, Nash Franklin spotted Cammy. She and the trainer made their way toward each other.

“They’ve been like this for almost fifteen minutes,” Nash said. “It started with a few in the exercise yard, a few in the pasture.”

According to her vet tech Ben Aiken, the golden retrievers had stood in their trance for only a minute or so.

Nash said, “Those in the stables began to kick the walls around them so violently, we worried they’d injure themselves.”

“They were afraid of something?”

“That isn’t how it seemed. More just … determined to be let out. We didn’t know what was happening. We still don’t.”

“You released them?”

“Felt we had to. They came right to the pasture to be with the others. And they won’t be led away. What’s happening here, Cammy?”

She approached the nearest horse, Gallahad. A deep mahogany, almost black, the magnificent three-year-old weighed perhaps twelve hundred pounds.

Like the other horses, in his perfect stillness, Gallahad appeared to be tense, stiff. But when Cammy stroked his loin, his flank, and forward to his shoulder, she found that he was at ease.

She pressed her hand against his jugular groove and traced it along his muscular neck. The horse neither moved nor even so much as rolled an eye to consider her.

Cammy stood five feet four, and Gallahad towered, immense. Great Thoroughbreds were usually tractable, and some might be docile with the right trainer, but few were entirely submissive. Yet in this peculiar moment, Gallahad seemed lamblike. Nothing in the intensity of his concentration on the western mountains suggested fierceness or even willfulness.

His nostrils didn’t flare, neither did his ears twitch. His forelock fluttered against his poll as a faint breeze disturbed it, and his mane stirred along his crest, but otherwise Gallahad remained motionless. Even when she stroked his cheek, his nearer eye did not favor her.

Following his gaze, she saw nothing unusual in the foreground, only the next wave of foothills and the mountains in the background, and ultimately the sun swollen by the lens of atmosphere as Earth resolutely turned away from the light.

At her side, Nash Franklin said, “Well?”

Before she could reply, the horses stirred from their trance. They shook their heads, snorted, looked around. A few lowered their muzzles to graze upon the sweet grass, while others cantered in looping patterns as if taking pure pleasure from movement, from the cool air, from the orange light that seemed to burst through the pasture. The Thoroughbreds’ pets became animated as well, the goats and the dogs, the cats, the duck.

All the animals were behaving only as they ordinarily would, no longer spellbound. Yet here in the aftermath of the event, when all was normal, all seemed magical: the whispering grass, the soft incantatory thud of cantering hooves, the canticle of nickering horses and panting dogs, the season’s last lingering fireflies suddenly bearing their wishing lamps through the pre-dusk air, the sable shadows and the gilding of all things by the descending sun, the sky electric-purple in the east and becoming a cauldron of fire in the west.

The grooms and the exercise boys, the trainer and his assistant, Helen and Tom Vironi, and Cammy Rivers all turned to one another with the same unasked and unanswerable questions: Why did the animals seem enchanted? What did they hear if they heard anything at all? What happened here? What is still happening? What is this I feel, this wonder without apparent cause, this expectancy of I-know-not-what, this sense that something momentous passed through the day without my seeing it?

Cammy’s vision blurred. She did not know why tears filled her eyes. She blotted them on her shirtsleeve and blinked, blinked for clarity.


The harrier glided out of the east, into the autumnal light of the declining sun, less than ten feet above the harvested fields, its elongated shadow rippling over the furrowed earth behind it. The bird dropped abruptly and snared something from the ground while remaining in flight. An oarsman in a sea of air, it sculled into the westering sun, passing over Henry Rouvroy as he crossed from the barn toward the clapboard house.

Henry looked up and glimpsed a rodent squirming in the harrier’s clenched talons. He thrilled to the sight, which confirmed for him that he was no more and no less than this winged predator, a free agent in a world with no presiding presence.

During his years in public service, he had come to realize that he was a beast whose cruelest instincts were barely governed by the few tools of repression with which his upbringing and his culture provided him. Not long ago, he had decided to unchain himself and to be what he truly was. A monster. Not yet a monster fully realized, but certainly now a monster in the making.

In the house, he found Nora at the kitchen sink, deftly skinning potatoes with a swivel-blade peeler.

Eventually Henry would want a woman, although not to cook his meals. Nora was sufficiently attractive to excite him, and there was a perverse appeal to going by force where his brother had gone by invitation.

She didn’t realize he had entered the room until he asked, “Does the house have a cellar?”

“Oh. Henry. Yes, it’s a good big cellar. Potatoes keep well down there for the better part of the winter.”

She would keep well there, too, but he decided against her. When the time came to get a woman, he would be better off with a younger and more easily intimidated specimen, one who had not grown strong from farm work.

“Where’s Jim?” she asked.

“In the barn. He sent me to get you. He thinks something’s wrong with one of the horses.”

“Wrong? What’s wrong?”

Henry shrugged. “I don’t know horses.”

“Which is it—my Beauty or Samson?”

“The one in the second stall.”

“Samson. Jim loves that horse.”

“I don’t think it’s serious,” Henry said. “But it’s something.”

After rinsing her hands under the faucet and quickly drying them on a dishtowel, Nora hurried out of the kitchen.

Henry followed her through the house and onto the front porch.

Descending the steps, she said, “So you’ve never ridden?”

“Only things that have wheels,” he said.

“There’s nothing like saddling up and riding to the high meadows on a crisp day. The world’s never more right than it is then.”

Crossing the yard toward the barn, he said, “You make it sound appealing. Maybe I should learn.”

“You couldn’t find a better riding instructor than Jim.”

“Successful farmer, poet, horseman. Jim is a hard act to follow, even for an identical twin.”

He spoke only to have something to say, to keep her distracted. Nothing in his words revealed his intentions, but something in his tone or some unintended inflection given one word or another must have struck her as wrong.

Half a dozen steps short of the barn, Nora halted, turned, and frowned at him. Whatever she heard in his voice must have been even more evident in his face, because her eyes widened with recognition of his nature.

Our five senses are in service to our sixth, and the sixth is the intuitive sense of danger to body or soul.

He knew that she knew, and she confirmed her knowledge by taking a step backward, away from him, and then another step.

When Henry withdrew the pistol from under his jacket, Nora turned to run. He shot her in the back, again as she lay facedown.

After putting away the gun, he turned her on her back. He seized her by the wrists and dragged her into the barn and placed her beside her husband.

The first shot must have killed her instantly. Her heart had pumped little blood from her wounds.

Her eyes were open. For a long moment, Henry stared into them, into the nothing that had once appeared to be something, into the truth of her, which was that she had always been nothing.

Until this day, he had never killed anyone. He was pleased to know that he could do it, pleased also that he felt neither guilt nor anxiety.

Like Hamlet, he had no moral existence, no sense of any sacred order. Unlike Hamlet, his condition did not cause him to despair.

Henry’s major at Harvard had been political science. He minored in literature.

Prince Hamlet had something to teach those in either discipline. In literature classes, he was assumed to be a tragic figure, sworn to enforce the laws of a sacred order in which he could no longer believe. In certain political-science circles, he was used to illustrate that violence and anarchy can be preferable to indecision.

Henry lived free of despair and indecision. He was a man of his time and, he liked to think, perhaps a man for the ages.

Later, he would use the couple’s backhoe to excavate their final resting place. In the Land Rover lay a fifty-pound bag of lime, which he would pour atop them in their grave, to facilitate decomposition and to mask the odor of it, reducing the chances that some carrion eater would try to dig its way to them.

Leaving the cadavers in the barn, Henry went to the Rover, put up the tailgate, and removed two small suitcases. Each of them held a million dollars in hundreds and twenties. He carried them into the house.


On his way from Chicago to a conference in Denver, Dr. Lamar Woolsey took a side trip to Las Vegas.

The white sun blistered the pale sky. By late afternoon, a heat sink comprised of the towering hotels, the streets, the vast parking lots, and the surrounding desert had stored enough radiant energy to keep the city warm throughout the night.

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