Breathless Page 6

Even a simple system, like a card game dealt from a six-deck blackjack shoe, was fundamentally chaotic, likely to produce complex and unpredictable results. As a card counter, Lamar Woolsey hoped to impose a profitable order on the random flow of cards.

After thirty minutes of play, the composition of the six-deck shoe tipped slightly in Lamar’s favor: somewhat rich in aces and face cards, a bit low on fives and sixes, but still ruled by randomness. He couldn’t yet justify aggressive betting.

Then something strange happened. A series of Hail Mary draws gave Lamar a glimpse of the eerie nature of reality, of hidden and mysterious order.

The dealer showed a queen above his hole card. Lamar had a ten and a six, to which he drew a five, beating the dealer by a point.

In the next hand, he drew a three and a seven while the dealer showed a six. He doubled down, but drew only a deuce. The dealer revealed a sixteen count—and drew a six, busting.

Now the dealer had an ace up, and Lamar had a four and a three. He drew another four. Then a deuce. Another deuce. Then a six. His final twenty-one beat the dealer, who had a nine under his ace.

None of those three wins involved card counting, and even the most paranoid pit boss would see them as nothing but luck.

Not a believer in luck, Lamar read them instead as one of those curious patterns that expressed a hidden order under the randomness—under the chaos—of any game of chance. This phase of the pattern, which benefited him, was a wave that offered effortless surfing. Until it lost its benign character, he ought to ride it.

He won nine more hands in a row, lost two, then won another eight with such unlikely combinations of cards that counting tens and aces could have had no effect on his fortunes.

Sometimes the power of hidden order can have, with its patterns, such an obvious presence in a system that its precise mechanisms seem within the theorist’s grasp—until chaos reappears. Even when Lamar played irrationally, splitting a pair of fours when the dealer showed a face card, he won. When the dealer showed an ace, Lamar doubled down on eight—and won.

After losing three hands in a row, he suspected that the patterns under the apparent chaos of the cards no longer favored him, and he asked to have his winnings converted into high-value chips to make them easier to carry. His thousand-dollar buy-in had grown to nineteen thousand.

At the cashier’s window, he converted two chips into folding money. After the two casinos, this left him ahead four hundred for the night. He intended to give away the other seventeen thousand in chips before leaving the building.


Exploring the house bottom to top with Grady, Merlin was as stealthy as an excited pony. They found no intruder.

Whatever had finished Grady’s dinner for him, whatever had taken the three baked chicken br**sts and the pan on the stove, left no sign that it had ventured farther than the kitchen.

Before returning to the ground floor, Grady turned off the lights room by room. In the darkness, he drew aside any draperies that were closed, raised any shades that were lowered.

On the ground floor again, he made sure that the views from all the windows were likewise unobstructed.

In the kitchen, he washed his dinner dishes. He brewed a pot of coffee, poured it into a thermos bottle, and stood the thermos on the dinette table. He set a mug on the table, too.

Merlin watched as if witnessing a ritual with solemn meaning.

Only two chairs served the table. They were at opposite ends of the window that looked out onto the back porch.

Grady moved one of the chairs to face the window from across the table. He switched off the lights and sat in the chair, in the dark, in the lingering aroma of strong coffee, his mug empty.

Merlin stood very still, as if pondering the situation. He was a contemplative dog, always ruminating on some aspect of his world.

Out of sight above the house, the mirror moon reflected the sun of a day not yet dawned, shining the pale light of tomorrow on the yard and on the paper birches.

The porch lay in shadow.

Merlin padded to the kitchen door, a French door with panes all the way to the bottom, installed specifically to allow the wolfhound to see outside. Alert, he stood there, barely visible in the gloom.

Grady’s window had three rows of panes, three panes per row. In another house, miles from here, this was the identical configuration of the window through which Grady’s mother had foreseen her future.

A year before Grady was born, his father gave his mother a puppy—half German shepherd, half everything else. She named him Sneakers because he had a dark coat and paws as white as tennis shoes.

Growing up with Sneakers was a fine adventure, although the dog reserved the greater part of his devotion for Grady’s mother. He loved his human brother, but he adored Ellen Adams.

Grady’s dad, Paul, worked at the lumber mill. A few weeks before his son’s eighth birthday, he was killed on the job.

The huge sizing saw, which cut logs into manageable lengths, had every safety feature. The saw was not the problem.

People were the problem. A group opposed to logging operations had driven dozens of eight-inch spikes into each of numerous randomly selected, mature, mill-ready pines. The spiking didn’t kill the trees but rendered them useless for lumber.

Harvesting crews identified most of the ruined specimens. Only one slipped past their inspection.

The giant circular saw ripped the spikes from the wood, tangled them into bristling knots, and spat them out. When the blade met the resistance of the steel spikes, a sensor killed the power to the saw. But already the mangled spikes were in flight at maximum velocity, as was a piece of broken blade like a wide and toothy smile.

Grady never heard exactly what the shrapnel did to his father. Considering the vivid images his imagination conjured, perhaps he should have been told. But perhaps not.

Millworkers, police, friends, and the family priest advised Ellen not to view the body. But Paul had been, she said, “the other half of my heart.” She declined to heed their advice.

She accompanied her lost husband from the mill to the coroner’s office. Later, she went with him from coroner to mortician.

His mother’s courage in a time of terrible loss, and her faith, were profound. Young Grady had drawn his strength from her example.

He loved his dad. The loss was so grievous, he felt as though he had been cut open and robbed of a vital essence. Every morning for a long time, when he woke, he was aware of being incomplete.

Because his mother endured, Grady endured. For him, endurance led to acquiescence, then to acceptance, and at last to peace.

Long before he found peace, only a month following his father’s death, after waking past midnight, he went downstairs to get a snack. He wasn’t hungry, but he couldn’t just lie in bed and think.

A lamp already lit the downstairs hallway. His mom sat at the table in the kitchen, which was brightened only by the spill from the hall lamp. Her back to him, she gazed at the night beyond the window.

Beside her chair sat Sneakers, his head in her lap. With her right hand, she tenderly, ceaselessly stroked the dog’s head.

His mom didn’t know Grady stood in the doorway. The dog surely knew, but he would not turn from the woman’s consoling hand.

Grady could think of nothing to say. As quietly as if he were the ghost of a boy, he retreated from the kitchen, returned to bed.

A few nights later, waking at one in the morning, he silently went downstairs and found her as before, with the dog.

He stood for a while in the doorway, unannounced. It felt right that he should be with her yet at this distance, watching over her as she stared through the window at the night.

During the next month, he joined her a few more times, as silent and unnoticed as a guardian spirit. When he returned to his bed, he always wondered when his mother slept. Perhaps she didn’t.

One night he went downstairs and found the hall lamp off. His mother wasn’t in the kitchen, nor was Sneakers.

Grady assumed that she had changed her routine. He, too, was sleeping better than in the weeks immediately after his dad’s death.

A year passed before he again discovered her and Sneakers at the kitchen table, in the dark. She had never entirely stopped coming here in the emptiest hours. Perhaps she came more nights than not.

This time he said, “Mom,” and went to her side. He touched her shoulder. She reached up and took his hand in hers. After a moment, he said, “Do you think … he’ll come to visit?”

She had the softest voice: “What? A ghost? No, sweetheart. This is my past and future window. When I want my past, I see your father working out there in the vegetable garden.”

They grew tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, radishes, and more, for their own use.

Grady sat at the table with her.

“When I want my future,” she continued, “I see you tall and handsome and grown, with a family of your own. And I see myself with your dad again, in a new world without struggle.”

“Don’t be sad,” Grady said.

“Oh, honey, I’m not sad. Have I ever seemed sad to you?”

“No. Just … here like this.”

“When I say I see myself with your dad again, I’m not saying that I wish it. I mean I truly see it.”

Grady peered through the window and saw only the night.

“Believing isn’t wishing, Grady. What you know with your heart is the only thing you really ever know.”

By then she had taken a job in the office of the lumber mill. She spent five days a week where Paul died. They needed the money.

For a long time, Grady was concerned about her working at the mill. He thought she suffered the constant reminder of the twisted spikes and the broken saw blade.

He came to understand, however, that she liked the job. Being at the mill, among the people who had worked with Paul, was a way of keeping the memory of her husband sharp and clear.

One Saturday when he was fourteen, Grady came home from a part-time job to discover that Sneakers had died. His mom had dug the grave.

She had prepared the body for burial. She wrapped the beloved dog in a bedsheet, then in the finest thing she owned, an exquisite Irish-lace tablecloth used only on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.

Grady found her sitting on the back-porch steps, cradling the shrouded body, weeping, waiting for him. Two people were required to put Sneakers in the grave with respect and gentleness.

As the summer sun waned, they lowered the dog to his rest. Grady wanted to shovel the earth into the grave, but his mom insisted she would do it. “He was so sweet,” she said. “He was so sweet to me.”

Determined to be strong for him, she never allowed Grady to see her crying for his father. She couldn’t hide her tears for the dog.

His father had given her the dog. On lonely nights, the dog had grieved with her. Now she’d lost Sneakers, but in a way, she had also lost her husband again.

Later, Grady sat with his mom in the dark kitchen. The dog’s grave lay in a direct line with the window, at the end of the yard.

Grady was six years older than he’d been when his dad died. His mother could talk more frankly about love and loss, about grief and faith, about the sharpness of her pain, than she had talked back in the day.

Although she had withheld from him the depth of her anguish and her fear about their future—for a while, they had been in danger of losing the house—she never deceived him. She had always told him as much as she thought he was old enough to handle.

The night of the day that Sneakers died, Grady realized that all of his mother’s sterling qualities arose from the same basic virtue. She loved Truth, and she did not lie.

Until she drew her last breath—far too young—she never told him a falsehood. Because of her, Grady valued nothing higher than veracity.

In this age, lies were the universal lubricant of the culture. A love of Truth and a commitment to it were seldom rewarded and were often punished.

So you came home to the mountains, and you built tables and chairs and consoles in one Craftsman style or another. The simple materials and the clean lines of such furniture revealed where a woodworker dared to take a shortcut or to employ a substandard technique. Honest craftsmanship and a commitment to quality were evident in a finished piece, and no one could spin the truth of your work into a lie.

As Grady sat at the table, watching the night, as Merlin sat sentry at the French door, the south end of the moonlit yard suddenly became slightly brighter than it had been. The source of the light lay out of sight.

Grady rose, stepped around the table, and put his face to the window. He expected to see lights in the workshop, which earlier he locked tight. Instead, the glow came from the garage, to which the workshop was attached.

Nevertheless, he knew this intruder must be the same that had toured the workshop and later had taken the baked chicken breasts.


Upon finding the bloody handprint on the wall near the head of the cellar stairs, Henry Rouvroy considered firing the shotgun down into the darkness. Restraint was not a quality of character natural to him, yet he managed to resist the urge to squeeze the trigger.

When he flicked the switch and light bloomed, he found no one waiting at the bottom of the stairs. He let out his pent-up breath.

Listening to the room below, he became convinced that someone down there likewise listened to him.

He almost whispered a name. But he kept his silence for fear of receiving an answer in a familiar voice.

Anyone in the cellar could leave by the outer door, which opened onto exterior stairs that led up to the lawn. Henry couldn’t imprison the intruder, but he could prevent him from returning to the ground floor by this route.

After switching off the cellar light, he closed the door and slid the bolt into the latch plate. He doubted it would hold against a determined assault. He fetched a chair from the nearby dinette, tipped it on its back legs, and wedged the headrail under the doorknob.

He continued his sweep of the house, making sure no one was concealed anywhere, checking that windows were securely latched. He felt exposed at every pane of glass while he closed the draperies.

In the bedroom, on the bed, he had left the pistol with which he had killed Jim and Nora. During his absence, someone had taken it. The shoulder holster and the spare magazine were also gone.

A small smear of blood brightened the beige chenille bedspread.

Two spaces remained to be searched: the closet and the bathroom. Both doors were in the same wall, and they were closed.

Taking a wide stance to brace himself against the recoil, Henry leveled the pistol-grip shotgun at the closet, fired, fired again. In this closed space, the sound slammed off the walls with a blowback that he could almost feel. He fired two rounds at the bathroom.

The buckshot punched holes through both of the cheap hollow-core doors, with enough velocity remaining to tear up whoever might be waiting beyond. The absence of a scream suggested that he’d wasted ammunition.

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