Breathless Page 4

In the taxi, from the airport to the hotel, Lamar watched rising thermals distort the more distant buildings, making them shimmer like structures in a mirage. In the foreground, windows and glass walls, bright with solar reflections, appeared to buckle, an illusion caused by the changing perspective of the taxi in relation to the buildings.

Illusion and reality. The former enchanted most people these days; the latter had been out of fashion for years. This city of casinos stood as proof that humanity preferred fantasy over truth.

In his hotel room, Lamar changed into white tennis shoes, white slacks, a blue Hawaiian shirt, and a white sport coat.

In a money belt under the shirt, he carried ten thousand in hundred-dollar bills. He folded two thousand more into his pockets.

Wherever he went in the world, he never gambled at a casino in his hotel. That made it too easy for a pit boss to learn his name.

On Las Vegas Boulevard South, he walked north through crowds of tourists. Most wore sunglasses, some with lenses so dark that they seemed not to be shielding their eyes, but instead to be concealing that they had no eyes, only smooth skin where eyes should have been.

He chose a casino and a blackjack table. He bought six hundred dollars’ worth of chips.

Sixty years old, with a round brown grandfatherly face that reminded people of a beloved comedian and sitcom star, with wiry white hair, twenty pounds overweight, Lamar Woolsey seldom inspired suspicion. The pit crew glanced at him and showed no interest.

The black dealer was outgoing—“Have a seat, brother”—too young to have grown bored with table talk. Of the three other players, two were loquacious, one sullen.

Lamar identified himself as Benny Mandelbrot, and he chatted up everyone, patiently waiting to learn why he was there.

Decades earlier, when the effectiveness of card counting became widely known, most casinos went to six-deck shoes. Keeping a running mental inventory of a 312-card shoe to calculate the odds in your favor hand by hand was geometrically more difficult than doing the same with a single deck, foiling both amateurs and most hustlers.

When rich veins appeared in a six-deck game, however, they could run longer and be more rewarding than in single-deck play. In three hours, his six-hundred stake had grown to eleven thousand.

The pit crew had become interested in him but not suspicious. They hoped to keep him at the table until he gave back his winnings.

He allayed suspicion with occasional bad plays. When the dealer showed a king and the deck was full of face cards, Lamar split a pair of sevens “on a hunch,” and lost. His highly calculated erratic play made him appear to be an ordinary mark on a lucky streak.

Lamar still didn’t know why he was there until, at a quarter to six, the cocktail waitress—her name tag identified her as Teresa—asked if he wanted another diet soda.

She was an attractive brunette with a spray of freckles and a forced smile. When he glanced at her to confirm he wanted another soft drink, unshed tears stood in her eyes, barely repressed.

The current dealer, a redhead named Arlene, finished shuffling the six decks. Lamar had been tipping her well, so they had rapport.

As Arlene loaded the shoe, Lamar looked after Teresa, then asked the dealer, “What’s her story?”

“Terri? Husband was a Marine. Died in the war last year. One kid. Marty, eight years old, he’s a sweetie. She loves him to death. He has Down syndrome. She’s tough, but tough isn’t always enough.”

Lamar played three hands and won two before the cocktail waitress returned with his soft drink.

Of his stake on the table, he gave seven hundred and change to Arlene. He scooped up the remaining eleven thousand in chips and poured them onto Teresa’s drink tray.

Startled, the waitress said, “Hey, no, I can’t take this.”

“I don’t want anything for it,” Lamar assured her, “and there’s nothing I need it for.”

Leaving her astonished and stammering, he followed the bank of blackjack tables toward the street entrance to the casino.

So meticulously barbered, manicured, and well-dressed that he might have been a mannequin come to life, the pit boss caught up with Lamar and stepped between two game tables. “Mr. M., wait,” he said, referring to the Mandelbrot name that Lamar had used. “Mr. M., are you sure you want to do that?”

“Yes. Quite sure. Is there a problem?”

“You were only drinking diet soda. I don’t see a problem.” Still half suspicious of some scheme, he added, “But it’s unusual.”

“What if I were to tell you that I’ve got an incurable cancer, four months to live, no need for money and no one to leave it to?”

In the fantasy world of the casino, death was the truth most aggressively repressed. No clock could be found in any casino, as if games of chance were played outside of time. Gamblers now and then petitioned God for help, but they never talked to Death.

The pit boss was disconcerted, as if the C word might break the spell that had been cast upon everyone within these walls, as if the mere mention of metastasis would transform the swank and glitter into mud and ashes. He straightened the knot in his tie, which was not crooked. “That’s tough. Take care of yourself. Good luck, Mr. M.”

Lamar Woolsey did not have cancer. He had not claimed to have it. But the what-if question served as a sufficient reminder of reality to scare off the pit boss.

Outside, in the sharply angled gold-and-orange sunlight, the world seemed about to burst into flames. Acres of neon signs welcomed the oncoming evening.

Many people in the crowds of tourists no longer wore sunglasses, but their eyes couldn’t be read behind cataracts of brilliant colors.


With darkness at the windows and with the great mass of Merlin slumped at his feet, Grady Adams ate dinner at the kitchen table. The dog hoped for a piece or two of chicken but did not beg, feigning disinterest to preserve his dignity.

The CD player on a nearby counter provided music. Grady didn’t have a TV, and he didn’t want one. Although he usually preferred silence even to the most elegant noise, at times Merlin’s presence and books did not adequately fill his leisure hours.

At the moment, books were giving him little of what he sought from them, while Beethoven’s Opus 27, Number 2—the “Moonlight” Sonata—was both balm and inspiration.

Having exhausted his collection of illustrated volumes, he pored through essays about the Colorado mountains while he ate, through memoirs of lives passed in these precincts of the natural world. He skimmed pages in search of references to unknown animals, for strange tales about white-furred creatures that were playful but shy.

He suspected the books would not help him, but he searched them anyway. The encounter in the meadow had affected him powerfully for reasons he could understand but for others that he only half grasped. Something more about the creatures than their uniqueness and their mysterious nature affected him, some quality he sensed that they possessed but that remained too elusive to name.

Merlin leaped to his feet so suddenly that he knocked his head against the underside of the table. The wolfhound was at no risk of concussion. The table would collapse long before the dog did.

When Merlin padded out of the kitchen, into the hallway that led to the living room, Grady put down his fork, let his book fall shut, and sat listening for a bark. After half a minute, having heard neither a bark nor the thudding paws of the returning son of Ireland, he opened the book again.

As Grady picked up his fork, Merlin thumped along the hall to the kitchen doorway, where he stood in a posture of alarm. Easily read, his expression said, We’ve got a situation, Dad. What do I have to do—learn Morse code and beat out a message with my tail?

“All right, okay,” Grady said, rising from the dinette chair.

The dog hurried toward the front of the house once more. Grady found him in the open vestibule, off the living room, his back to the front door, facing the stairs to the second floor, ears pricked.

The rooms above were as silent as they should have been, as they always were in a house where a man lived alone with a dog that seldom left his side.

Nevertheless, Merlin abruptly galloped up the stairs two at a time. He disappeared into the second-floor hallway before his master had climbed three steps behind him.

In the upper hall, Grady switched on the ceiling light. Past a half-open door, he found the dog standing in shadows in the master bedroom. The wolfhound was at a window that faced onto the roof of the front porch, alert to something beyond the glass.

Grady left the lamps unlit. With its secondhand light, the moon painted the peeling white bark of the spreading birch that overhung the house, and silvered the autumn leaves that would be sovereign-gold in sunshine.

As Grady moved toward Merlin, before he could lean close to the window, a tom-tom and pitter-patter quickened across the porch roof. Several racing feet, by the sound of them.

Although Merlin was tall enough to see out of the lower panes, he put his forepaws on the windowsill and rose to a better view.

By the time Grady insisted on a place beside the window-hogging wolfhound and put his forehead to the cool glass, the noise stopped. Whatever once prowled the porch roof had now gone vertical.

In the windless night, the lower branches of the lacy birch first tossed but then merely trembled as the principal agitation shifted to higher realms. As something ascended, the tree opened its autumn purse and paid out a wealth of leaves.

Grady disengaged the window lock, but before he could raise the lower sash, the climbers sprang from tree to house roof: one thud, immediately another. Judging by their footfalls, they seemed to be exploring this way and that, up the slate slope toward the ridgeline.

Paws still on the windowsill, Merlin tipped his head back to stare at the ceiling.

“Maybe raccoons,” Grady said.

Snorting dismissively, the wolfhound dropped from the window, turned toward the bedroom, and cocked his head to listen.

The master-bedroom fireplace stood directly above the fireplace in the living room. A metallic rattle and creak echoed down the shared flue, drawing Merlin to the hearth.

Something on the roof was testing the copper spark-arresting hood atop the chimney. Having installed it himself, Grady knew that it couldn’t be easily removed.

Because no fire currently burned, the damper was engaged between the smoke chamber and the firebox. If something got into the flue, it could not penetrate the steel-plate damper and enter the bedroom.

Abandoning the chimney hood, the roof-travelers scurried down the west slope.

As the noises faded toward the back of the house, Merlin hurried out of the bedroom. Grady reached the top of the stairs just as the wolfhound arrived at the bottom.

Descending, he wondered if he had locked the back door after they had come in from the dog’s late-afternoon exercise. Then he wondered why he was apprehensive.

He could not deny that something less than fear but more than mere disquiet gripped him as he sought Merlin through the first floor and found him in the kitchen. The dog stood at the door. He wanted to go outside.

Grady hesitated.


The potatoes were stored in a walk-in room within the windowless cellar, behind a stout oak door with iron hardware, as if they were a treasure worth guarding.

Deep shelves lined the smaller room. On the shelves were many well-ventilated baskets that each contained three layers of spuds.

The highest shelves held only a few baskets. Standing on a step stool, Henry Rouvroy put the two suitcases full of currency on a top shelf, flat on their sides and against the wall.

After climbing off the stool, he could not see the precious luggage overhead. He returned to the kitchen. In a day or two, he would find another and better hiding place for the money.

Because he didn’t care for potatoes, he would throw away that starch stash and rip out the shelves. Properly refitted, the potato cellar would be an excellent place to keep a woman when eventually he got one.

In Jim and Nora’s bedroom, he selected underwear, socks, jeans, a flannel shirt, and work boots from Jim’s limited wardrobe. Although Henry was less work-toned than his twin brother, everything fit him.

The shirt was from Walmart, not from L.L. Bean. The jeans were cut for working and for horseback-riding, not for Sunday in the park. The boots had no style whatsoever. The disguise was perfect, but for a moment he felt displaced, cast down from his rightful position.

Leaving his shoulder rig and pistol on the bed with a spare magazine of ammunition, he wrapped his expensive clothes and shoes in the shirt that he had been wearing, and tied everything together with the sleeves. He would bury those garments in the grave with his brother and sister-in-law.

Posing in front of a free-standing mirror, Henry addressed his reflection: “Look at you, Jim—back from the dead.”

To his ear, at least, he sounded like his brother.

If those who knew Henry in his former life could see him now, they would not recognize him. The clothes alone would ensure that they looked through rather than at him. He could pass for a hick from fly-over country, with whom they had nothing in common except that they, too, were born of man and woman.

In the kitchen, at the sink, he gathered up the potatoes that Nora had been peeling, and he tossed them in the trash can.

After examining the contents of the pantry and refrigerator, Henry found excellent sausages, acceptable cheeses, fresh eggs, a jar of red peppers, and an unfortunate but edible loaf of white bread made of flour so bleached that it glowed as if radioactive.

He opened three different Cabernet Sauvignons, none known to him. Only the third proved drinkable. If this was the best wine that Jim and Nora could afford or, worse, if this was their idea of a good wine—well, sadly, then they were better off dead.

Henry planned to spend two weeks laying in a three-year supply of canned and packaged food. He hoped that somewhere in a hundred-mile radius would be a specialty grocer and spirits vendor offering a sophisticated selection of consumables of the quality to which he had long been accustomed.

Withdrawing from the world for three years would be an endurable hardship if he was provisioned with canned breast of pheasant, beluga caviar, hearts of palm, vintage balsamic vinegar, and scores of other delectable items that made the difference between living and merely existing.

After dinner, he washed the dishes. This was an annoyance that he would have to tolerate until he found a woman to keep in the potato cellar.

In his elegant townhouse at the farther end of the country, he had employed a housekeeper, but she’d received a salary and benefits. And she had not been the kind of woman who excited lust.

A windowless potato cellar made it possible not only to have the services of a housekeeper without the expense, but also to enjoy sex without the tedious process of seduction and without the tiresome pillow talk women expected afterward. Thus far he could see no other advantage that, in normal times, this crude residence had over his city digs; but normal times or not, a potato cellar might eventually prove to be a more desirable amenity than a home theater and a sauna combined.

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