Breathless Page 9

Whoever the sonofabitch might be, he was evidently a sadist. No surprise. Most people in Henry’s Washington circles were sadists. In a certain kind of personality, sadism and a craving for power were entwined character traits.

Henry put the shotgun on the dinette table. Still standing, he poured another glass of the wine that he had tolerated with dinner.

A year previously, Henry had become aware of a sadistic streak in himself. He first recognized it when, while watching a woman chef on the Food Network for half an hour, he imagined sixteen violent and grotesque things he wanted to do to her. At the end of the show, he had no memory of a single dish that she had prepared.

He then switched to Home and Garden Television, where he found a program hosted by a cute interior designer. By the end of the show, in Henry’s vivid imagination, the woman sagged na*ed and broken against a limestone column to which she had been lashed with lengths of barbed wire.

For the past year, no woman on television was safe when Henry picked up the remote control. Certain celebrities inspired in him such extravagantly savage fantasies that he bought the largest flat-screen TV on the market.

Jim and Nora didn’t have a TV. No cable service existed in these boondocks, and they refused to spring for satellite service.

If Henry Rouvroy’s plans were fulfilled, he would have no time for television, anyway. He doubted very much that he would be able to find celebrity chefs to imprison in the potato cellar, but even rural Colorado had plenty of tender flesh to suit his purposes.

Because he considered himself an intellectual, Henry had spent considerable time thinking about his sadistic impulses. He understood that they were not triggered by the cooking show. Extreme sadism always had been a fundamental quality of his nature. For most of his life, he repressed it in order to avoid imprisonment. He channeled that energy into his career, powered his ambition with it.

A year earlier, however, because of his insider knowledge, he recognized that a time was coming when societal upheaval and chaos would result in widespread failures of local authority, creating circumstances in which a sadist could surrender to his compulsions with little fear of punishment. The nation would soon be a thrill park for men like him.

To be ready for that time of infinite delights, he had much to do. Stock the place with years’ worth of consumables. Seed the first hundred yards or so of the dirt lane, this side of the highway, so that weeds and grass would make it vanish. Create a natural-looking deadfall of trees that further blocked entrance, but only after charting a driveable path through the forest, to get an SUV around the deadfall.

He must sell the horses and chickens, too, or otherwise dispose of them. His assumption of his brother’s identity had not been for the purpose of becoming a farmer.

The thought of feeding chickens and collecting their eggs made Henry shudder. And he would not slaughter and pluck them, either. A man of his education, sophistication, and accomplishments should not be reduced to killing the food he ate.

Before he killed the women he intended to keep in the potato cellar, he would most likely bite them, as part of his play, but he had no intention of eating them. That was so twentieth-century Hollywood, and Henry had as much contempt for clichés as he had for people who ate fast food, people who wore off-the-rack suits, people who believed in things, and people in general.

For a while, waiting for his enemy’s next move, Henry didn’t think about anything. Sometimes it was a relief not to think. He could at will become the blank, the vacant flesh, the nothing that was the truth of every human being.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, the literary genius, a hero of Henry’s, believed that each of us must be a circle, inventing his own truth moment by moment, consuming his truth as a snake consumes its tail, always rolling forward, living for this moment and the next, only this moment and the next, always seeking the new, becoming the new, metamorphosing, ever changing with our ever-changing truths. In transition, in progression toward the ever-new self, said Emerson, “I the imperfect adore my own Perfect.”

Now imperfect Henry was a perfect circle. Nothing inside the circle. Nothing outside. Just a thin line curving to meet itself.

This was a kind of meditation, meditation without even the awareness of meditating, meditation without purpose.

When he stopped being nothing, he sat at the kitchen table, sipping the mediocre wine. He waited for a development that would break the current impasse between him and his unknown enemy.

The moment arrived when he heard footsteps ascending the wooden staircase in the cellar.

He got to his feet and picked up the shotgun. He went to the chair-braced door.

The footsteps were plodding, as if the intruder carried a heavy burden or was weary. Finally he reached the top step.

Henry waited in silence. So did the man on the cellar stairs.

After a while, the doorknob turned back and forth, squeaking against the headrail of the tipped chair. Then it stopped moving.


After dinner, Lamar Woolsey returned to his Las Vegas hotel room and switched on his laptop. He had six e-mails.

He answered five quickly but took time to consider his response to the sixth, which was from Simon Northcott. Simon was already in Denver, where the conference would begin the following afternoon.

Scheduled to give a speech on Tuesday, he proposed instead that he and Lamar dedicate the time to debate. Simon listed three related propositions, which were all ground they had covered before.

Debating Simon would be as pointless as debating an issue of constitutional law with a Broadway tenor who cared only about winning over the audience by belting out show tunes. If the audience cared about law, the singer didn’t stand a chance of winning the debate; but because everyone appreciates a rousing rendition of “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” there would be enough applause to convince him that he had indeed won.

Having once been a man of reason, Simon had become more of an evangelist than a scientist. His new version of reason did not allow him to abandon or even to revise a cherished theory as a consequence of new information. Instead, Simon required that new information be interpreted in such a way as to support a theory to which he and so many others had devoted their careers.

At last Lamar Woolsey answered the invitation to debate.

Dear Northcott: For centuries, from the beginnings of science until the year I was born, the universe was believed to have existed forever in the same condition we observed it. Then came the big bang theory and decades of accumulating proof that the universe had a cataclysmic beginning and has been expanding ever since. If I live long enough, another revolution in science may make it unnecessary for us to debate your favorite issue. Then I will simply need to say I told you so. I look forward to hearing your speech.

After changing into pajamas and brushing his teeth, Lamar sat on the edge of the bed and keyed in his home number in Chicago. He listened to the voice-mail message: “You have reached the Woolsey residence. No one is available to take your call right now, but please leave a message, and we will get back to you.”

He could access existing messages, but he was too weary to deal with them now. He would call for that purpose in the morning.

He didn’t leave a message. There was no one to receive it.

He called only to hear his wife, Estelle, who recorded the greeting. She’d been gone almost three years, taken suddenly by an aortal aneurysm, but Lamar had not changed the recording.

When he switched off the bedside lamp, her voice remained clear in his memory. Closing his eyes, he could see her. Lying on the edge of sleep, he hoped to dream of her.

He wasn’t concerned about having a nightmare about Estelle. Her presence guaranteed a dream of great comfort and gladness.


Entering the dark kitchen, Grady whispered reassurances to the agitated wolfhound.

At the French door, peering out, Merlin stopped barking but began whining as though other dogs were at play in the yard and he was eager to romp with them.

Grady leaned over the table, squinting through the window at which he had earlier sat sentinel. His eyes were by now so dark-adapted that he saw the two creatures at once.

One of them sat as a dog might sit in the chair that Grady had occupied in the late afternoon, when Merlin had chased coveys of scents around the yard. The other sat on the marble-topped table on which Grady had earlier stacked three reference books about the fauna of the mountains.

Because the two had their backs to the house, Grady couldn’t see their eyes. Their impossible, inexplicable eyes.

The meadow had been more than a place. The meadow had been a moment. A moment and a motion, a pivot point and a lever, where and when his life had changed, and not just his life, much more than his life, maybe everything.

He thought of his mother at another window much like this, after the death of his father, the window through which she saw her past and her future.

This was a night of windows, upstairs and down, north, east, south, west, past and present and future. He went to the door where Merlin waited, and the door was in fact a window with nine panes.

On the porch, the animals continued to face out toward the yard, toward the night and the mountains and the moon.

They had to be aware of Grady’s presence, if only because of Merlin’s barking earlier and his eager entreaties now. Yet they didn’t look toward him.

Grady switched on the kitchen and porch lights.

Beside him, Merlin stopped whining and began to pant excitedly. The wolfhound appeared to be neither afraid nor aggressive. His wagging tail slapped, slapped, slapped against the wall.

Grady hesitated with his hand on the doorknob.

He thought of the shimmering light as he had moved through the piney woods toward the meadow.

He wondered who earlier turned on the lights in his workshop, and then in the garage. Who opened the workshop doors, raised the garage roll-up?

Hesitating with his hand on the knob, he rapped knuckles against one of the panes of the door.

The mysterious animals sat motionless on the chair and on the table, declining to reveal their eyes.

He thought of Marcus Pipp, who had given him the name Iguana, who had died violently, killed by the senator. He didn’t know why he should think of Marcus now, in this amazing moment, except that he had thought of him often over the past ten years.

Once more he raised his knuckles to the glass, but he didn’t rap the pane. He wanted to see their eyes, wanted very much to see them, but he did not rap.

He took a deep breath.

He opened the door of nine windows, and where the door had been was a threshold, and where the threshold had been was a porch floor underfoot.

The animals turned to look at him and at the suddenly shy dog.


Standing at the braced door, Henry waited for the knob to turn again, but it did not.

The hollow-core doors of the bedroom closet and the bathroom had offered little resistance to a blast of buckshot. Had anyone lurked on the other side, he would have been grievously wounded.

This cellar door, however, was a solid oak slab, hard enough and thick enough to stand up to the 20-gauge. There might even be some ricochets, which Henry chose not to risk.

Whoever stood on the landing at the head of the cellar stairs must be listening, as Henry listened. For a minute or so, neither of them gave the other anything to hear.

The mediocre wine had left a less than mediocre aftertaste. Now Henry’s mouth soured further. His lips were dry under the nervous passage of his dry tongue.

Beyond the door, the tormentor at last spoke in a rough whisper. “Henry?”

Low and hoarse, the voice could have been that of anyone. It had no recognizable character.

“Henry, Henry, Henry, Henry.”

Three of those four repetitions were slurred, as though the tormentor had a malformed—or damaged—mouth.

Henry didn’t know anyone with a speech impediment. The man beyond the door could be no one he knew. No one.

Because his adversary might be well-armed, Henry didn’t speak or otherwise make a sound that might reveal his presence and position.

Among the weapons packed in his Land Rover was an Urban Sniper, a pistol-grip shotgun that fired only slugs powerful enough to stop a charging bull. If the tormentor had armed himself with the Sniper, the oak wouldn’t provide sufficient protection for Henry.

From the farther side of the door came a shuffling as the intruder turned around on the landing. Heavy footsteps descended into the cellar, faded into silence.

Quietly, Henry returned to the dinette table. He put down the shotgun but remained standing. Although the wine wasn’t worthy of him, he drained his glass and poured another serving.

He expected to hear noises below, but silence endured.

If the tormentor had seen Henry carry two heavy suitcases into the house, and if he was someone who knew what might be in those bags, perhaps he already found them.

Henry waited to hear the outer cellar door opening and the rain doors being swung out and back from the exterior stairs. Nothing.

After a while, he sat at the table.

If the tormentor had somehow left quietly with the two million dollars, that would be a blow but not a disaster. Henry had with him five million in cut diamonds, another ten million in bearer bonds. In safe-deposit boxes in domestic and foreign institutions, he kept fortunes in commodities-grade gold coins, also in rare coins of greater value than their precious-metal content.

In the circles in which Henry once moved, embezzlement had such a long history that some viewed it as an honorable tradition. The sums drained from the system in the past, however, were pittances compared to the fortunes gushing from the spigots in recent years.

Those who stole billions were whales, and schools of them plied the waters, majestic superthieves to whom pilferers like Henry were mere pilot fish. He had assumed that the thirty million he filtered out of the flow would not be missed.

Now he wondered if he might be wrong to think that a small fish could swim safely among leviathans. Perhaps the whales devoured small fish as readily as they ate krill or plankton.

The climber and descender of the stairs wanted Henry to search the cellar. The subsequent silence was meant to wear his restraint to a fragile filament.

He was being baited. He would not take the hook.

Neither would he go outside at night to check on the remaining contents of the Land Rover. Dawn would be soon enough.

The thought of dawn led him to consider how his situation might deteriorate if his enemy cut power during the night. He didn’t want to be feeling his way through a strange house in absolute blackness.

When the University of Colorado had used this place for forest-management research, it paid to have the power company trench the dirt lane and bury cable. But the line must come out of the ground before entering the house, which was a point of vulnerability.

In the cellar, he’d seen a service panel. If his tormentor was still down there and decided to flip a few breakers, Henry would be effectively blind.

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