Breathless Page 7

He pumped the last round into the breech, dug spare shells out of his pockets, and reloaded the magazine.

His hands trembled, stomach acid scalded the back of his throat, and his bowels felt loose. But he neither vomited nor soiled his pants.

In such a pressurized situation, with everything at risk, not losing control of bodily functions seemed to be a triumph. Henry gained confidence from the fact that his underwear remained dry.

Killing unsuspecting people was far easier than defending your life against an armed enemy.

That was a truth they didn’t teach you at Harvard. At least not in any of the classes that Henry had taken.

The anticipation of violence before a murder was pleasurable, but the expectation of being shot in the head wasn’t in the least exhilarating, no matter what psychology professors said about death having a subconscious appeal similar to that of sex. A good-looking woman chained in a potato cellar had infinitely more appeal than stalking—and being stalked by—someone who perhaps wanted to blow your brains out.

He opened the riddled door to the closet and found no one alive or dead. In the bathroom, buckshot had shattered the mirror.

Having secured the residence, he felt safer but far from safe. The house was not a fortress. Anyway, sooner or later, he would have to go outside.


Standing in the dark, face to the kitchen window, looking south beyond the house, Grady saw lights in the garage windows. And the big roll-up door was raised.

Getting into the garage would not have been difficult for an intruder. Neither of the two windows had a working latch. In a rural county with a crime rate almost as low as that in the Vatican, he’d never seen a need for garage security.

For a minute, he watched for a silhouette of someone against the big rectangle of light. But then he returned to his chair and poured his first mug of coffee from the thermos.

Sitting at the French door, Merlin issued a thin, inquisitive sound.

“I don’t know,” Grady said, “but I think maybe the idea is to determine if we’re watching. If we’re watching, we’d be expected to go out to the garage to see what’s up.”

The dog said nothing.

“My feeling is,” Grady said, “it’s better if it looks like we’ve gone to bed. If no one thinks we’re watching, then there might be something to see.”

Having been seasoned with cinnamon, the black coffee gave off a mellow aroma. The brew tasted as good as it smelled.

Watchfulness and patient waiting were tasks for which Grady possessed the temperament and the skills, and with which he had years of deep experience.

His friend Marcus Pipp had called him Iguana. Like that lizard, he could sit motionless for so long that his stillness became a kind of camouflage. You could see him, yet you forgot he was there.

Marcus had been dead for ten years. Grady still thought of him more days than not.

A United States senator killed Mrs. Pipp’s boy. Grady should have seen it coming and should have acted to prevent Marcus’s death; therefore, he was in part at fault.

Some would not agree with that assessment. Present when Marcus died, Grady knew the truth. He would neither endorse the official lie nor make excuses for himself.

His mother said the lies you told yourself were the worst lies of all. If you could not face every truth about yourself, you would not know who you really were. You could not redeem yourself if you failed to recognize the need for redemption.

Grady recognized the need for redemption, all right, and he realized that to finish the task, he would have to live a long life.

Having gotten to his feet again, Merlin padded through the gloom to his water bowl, which was wide and deep. In the stillness of the kitchen, he sounded like a Clydesdale drinking from a trough.

Out in the yard, only the moon now relieved the darkness. The garage lights had gone off.

Seeking affection, the wolfhound came to Grady. Merlin’s head was above the table, and Grady gently worked the dog’s ears between his thumb and forefinger.

When your task was patient watchfulness, the anchored body frustrated the mind into cutting loose, setting sail. Your thoughts tended to tack through an archipelago of disconnected subjects. The journey could seem to have no destination—yet could bring you to a port worth exploring.

He found himself in a vivid memory of the afternoon woods, at the instant when Merlin passed through the last trees into the golden meadow. Beyond the woods, the sunshine seemed witchy, as lurid as a coppery twilight, glimmering as if a cloud of sequined atmosphere had plumed through an open door from a realm more magical than this one.

He had hesitated to follow the wolfhound, but when he stepped from the forest, he had found the meadow descending in sunshine as ordinary as ever it was. He had dismissed the perception of coppery scintillation as a short-lived phenomenon resulting from his angle of view and from the contrast between dusky woodland and open field. And then the appearance of the white animals caused him to forget the unique quality of the light.

Now, as he sat at the kitchen table, the nape of his neck prickled, and the memory replayed like a film loop. Again, again. And again. Each time, the experience returned to Grady with greater force. He didn’t merely recall the shimmering incandescence but saw it as he had never relived a previous memory: in three dimensions, with the true color and the poignant detail of the event itself, hypersensitive to every nuance.

He seemed to be transported to the deer trail, to the pregnant moment. Charcoal and gray, untethered shadow, Merlin strode toward the meadow as Grady hesitated behind him. Overhead: the canopy of evergreen boughs, more feathery than needled, green-dark and still and fragrant. Ahead: pine trunks and limbs almost black against the backdrop of twinkling and glistering coppery light, the compelling and coruscating light, the significant light, the light.

The memory relented, the past moment in the woods released him to the present moment in the kitchen, and he found himself standing at the table, having knocked over the chair as he’d gotten to his feet. He had experienced not merely a memory but something else for which he had no name, a re-immersion in a past event, all five senses fully engaged.

And it was as though, earlier in the day, during the actual occurrence, he was blinded to the intense character of the light, and was able to perceive the momentous quality of it only when he experienced it through recollection, from the safety of this later hour.

His scalp crawled, cold sweat slicked the nape of his neck, and he heard his heart knocking.

Grady’s eyes were sufficiently dark-adapted that he could see Merlin a few feet away, alert and regarding him with interest.

Beyond the window, beyond the shadowed porch, the burning moon seemed to have dusted the yard and the trees with its phosphorescent ashes. The night lay as still as if it were airless.

Then something moved in the moonlight: quick, lithe, on all fours, white. Two of them.


The most expensive of the hotel-casino’s five restaurants had a large holding bar that featured a black-marble floor with small diamond-shaped inlays of gold onyx. The walls were clad in the same marble but without the diamonds. A highly dimensional black-marble ceiling glowed with panels of backlit translucent gold onyx at the bottom of each coffer. Instead of a mirror behind the black-marble bar, huge panels of backlit onyx were inlaid with the silhouettes of Art Deco wolves perpetually leaping.

If Dracula had moonlighted as an interior designer, he might have created a room like this.

Sitting at the bar, Lamar Woolsey ordered his only alcoholic beverage of the evening: a bottle of Elephant Beer, a Danish import.

Some people at the cocktail tables were waiting to be told by the maître d’ that their dinner tables were ready, but those at the bar had not come for dinner. They were mostly men, but whether men or women, they fled the casino for a respite from self-destruction.

Their moods ranged between forced gaiety and somber reflection, but the impression they all made on Lamar was of desperation.

They had come to the games of chance with hope. Emily Dickinson, the poet, had written that “Hope is the thing with feathers / That perches in the soul …” But if your hope was hope for the wrong thing, it could be a sharp-beaked hawk that ravaged the soul and the heart.

In his easy way, Lamar chatted up six fugitives from cards and dice, as they came and went. Eventually, in each conversation, he briefly waxed philosophical, and then said, “Don’t think, just answer. What’s the first word comes into your mind when I say hope?”

As he nursed his beer, he didn’t know what answer he would find appealing, but it wasn’t among the first five: luck, money, money, change, none.

The sixth of these brief companions, Eugene O’Malley, appeared to be in his late twenties. He had such an innocent face and such a humble manner that beard stubble and bloodshot eyes didn’t make him appear dissolute, only harried.

Both arms on the bar, hands around a bottle of Dos Equis, he replied “Home,” in response to Lamar’s question.

“Where’s home, Mr. O’Malley?”

“Call me Gene. Home’s just down the road in Henderson.”

“What’s at home that gives you hope?”

“Lianne. She’s my wife.”

“She’s a good wife, is she?”

“Lianne’s the best.”

“So why’re you here, O’Malley?”

“Supposed to be at work. Night-shift construction foreman.”

Lamar said, “I don’t see anyone constructing anything around here except hangovers.”

“In this economy, who needs a night shift? Lost my job a week ago, can’t bring myself to tell Lianne.”

“But my dear O’Malley, if she’s a good woman …”

“She was fired in July. We’ve got a baby coming in six weeks.”

“So you figured your luck had to turn.”

“Figured wrong, Ed.”

Lamar had introduced himself as Edward Lorenz. Now he asked, “You lose a lot?”

“Anything is a lot right now. I dropped fourteen hundred, half my severance pay. Don’t know what happened, sort of lost my mind.”

After finishing his bottle of Elephant Beer, Lamar said, “You aren’t fighting Irish, are you, O’Malley? Don’t take a poke at an old man just because he asks a rude question.”

“You’re not that old, and I can’t see you being rude.”

“No lie—are you a degenerate gambler or just a damn fool?”

Gene laughed softly. “You have a way about you, Ed. I’m a damn fool who doesn’t ever want to see the inside of a casino again.”

“I guess I’ll believe you. Never known an O’Malley to lie.”

“Have you known a lot of O’Malleys?”

“You’re the first one. O’Malley, do you know who Sir Isaac Newton was?”

“A scientist or somebody.”

“Both somebody and a scientist. For centuries, Newtonian physics gave science the tools it needed to build the modern world. Newton’s theories and methods still work, but we now know that many of them are incomplete or even wrong.”

“How can they work if they’re wrong?”

“It has to do with reductionist observation and the power of approximation in the reliability of short-term effect.”

“Well, of course,” O’Malley said, and rolled his eyes.

“Einstein destroyed Newton’s illusion of absolute space and time. Quantum theory put an end to the notion of a controllable measurement process.”

“How many beers have you had, Ed?”

“This all relates to something good that’s soon going to happen to you, O’Malley. You know Galileo?”

“Not personally.”

“Galileo was a great scientist, too, and one of his theories, related to the oscillation of a pendulum—that its period remains independent of its amplitude—is still taught in most high-school physics classes more than three hundred years later. But it’s wrong.”

“I’ll bet you know what’s wrong with it,” O’Malley said, as if he was humoring an eccentric.

“Everyone doing physics for the last thirty years knows it’s wrong, but it’s taught anyway. Galileo used linear equations. But turbulence is present in the system, so it requires a nonlinear approach. Chaos, O’Malley. Underlying even the simple system of a pendulum is chaos, potential for complex and unexpected behavior. Now, I’m going to give you something.”

“What I need are the magic words to make Lianne forgive me.”

“Life can sometimes seem hopelessly complex, unpredictable, chaotic. Then a strange order makes itself known. You tell Lianne what you’ve done and what I’ve done, so she’ll know there’s order in the chaos. But first, cash these and take the money home to her.”

From a pocket of his white sport coat, Lamar extracted seventeen chips worth seventeen thousand dollars and put them on the bar.


The snowy pair glided across the moon-chilled yard: clearly seen but not in detail, catlike, wolflike, yet little resembling either cats or wolves, both familiar and strange, dreamlike.

When the animals arced toward the house, disappearing around the north end of the porch, Grady hurried from the kitchen, navigating by the LED numbers in the oven clock and by the hum of the refrigerator.

Blind in the windowless hallway, he felt along the left wall until he found a door.

In his study, two pale rectangles silvered the darkness directly opposite the entrance. His familiarity with the furniture arrangement allowed him to make his way quickly toward those undraped windows.

Halfway across the room, he gasped as a figure loomed against one of the framed panels of moonlight. But at once he realized that it was Merlin, on this side of the glass, paws on the sill. Grady went to the other window.

The night remained for a moment as night had been for millennia: full of myth, mystery, and threat, but in fact less dangerous than the day, if only because more men were sleeping now than would be sleeping after dawn. The venerable stars. The ancient moon. The old Earth, its timeworn beauty under wraps until sunrise …

Then suddenly the night was new, as the white enigmas appeared. Having been out of sight, tight against the house, directly under the windows, they raced away from the building, past the trunk of the birch, north across the lawn. They halted at the limit of visibility, faint featureless presences, huddling together as if conferring.

Panting agitatedly, beating his forepaws against the windowsill, the wolfhound wanted to be in the night and in pursuit.

“Settle,” Grady said, and again, “settle.” A third issuance of the command was required when always before one had calmed the dog.

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