The Darkest Evening of the Year Page 1



“The woods are lovely, dark, and deep”


Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Chapter 1

Behind the wheel of the Ford Expedition, Amy Redwing drove as if she were immortal and therefore safe at any speed.

In the fitful breeze, a funnel of golden sycamore leaves spun along the post-midnight street. She blasted through them, crisp autumn scratching across the windshield.

For some, the past is a chain, each day a link, raveling backward to one ringbolt or another, in one dark place or another, and tomorrow is a slave to yesterday.

Amy Redwing did not know her origins. Abandoned at the age of two, she had no memory of her mother and father.

She had been left in a church, her name pinned to her shirt. A nun had found her sleeping on a pew.

Most likely, her surname had been invented to mislead. The police had failed to trace it to anyone.

Redwing suggested a Native American heritage. Raven hair and dark eyes argued Cherokee, but her ancestors might as likely have come from Armenia or Sicily, or Spain.

Amy’s history remained incomplete, but the lack of roots did not set her free. She was chained to some ringbolt set in the stone of a distant year.

Although she presented herself as such a blithe spirit that she appeared to be capable of flight, she was in fact as earthbound as anyone.

Belted to the passenger seat, feet pressed against a phantom brake pedal, Brian McCarthy wanted to urge Amy to slow down. He said nothing, however, because he was afraid that she would look away from the street to reply to his call for caution.

Besides, when she was launched upon a mission like this, any plea for prudence might perversely incite her to stand harder on the accelerator.

“I love October,” she said, looking away from the street. “Don’t you love October?”

“This is still September.”

“I can love October in September. September doesn’t care.”

“Watch where you’re going.”

“I love San Francisco, but it’s hundreds of miles away.”

“The way you’re driving, we’ll be there in ten minutes.”

“I’m a superb driver. No accidents, no traffic citations.”

He said, “My entire life keeps flashing before my eyes.”

“You should make an appointment with an ophthalmologist.”

“Amy, please, don’t keep looking at me.”

“You look fine, sweetie. Bed hair becomes you.”

“I mean, watch the road.”

“This guy named Marco-he’s blind but he drives a car.”

“Marco who?”

“Marco something-something. He’s in the Philippines. I read about him in a magazine.”

“Nobody blind can drive a car.”

“I suppose you don’t believe we actually sent men to the moon.”

“I don’t believe they drove there.”

“Marco’s dog sits in the passenger seat. Marco senses from the dog when to turn right or left, when to hit the brakes.”

Some people thought Amy was a charming airhead. Initially, Brian had thought so, too.

Then he had realized he was wrong. He would never have fallen in love with an airhead.

He said, “You aren’t seriously telling me that Seeing Eye dogs can drive.”

“The dog doesn’t drive, silly. He just guides Marco.”

“What bizarro magazine were you reading?”

“National Geographic. It was such an uplifting story about the human-dog bond, the empowerment of the disabled.”

“I’ll bet my left foot it wasn’t National Geographic.”

“I’m opposed to gambling,” she said.

“But not to blind men driving.”

“Well, they need to be responsible blind men.”

“No place in the world,” he insisted, “allows the blind to drive.”

“Not anymore,” she agreed.

Brian did not want to ask, could not prevent himself from asking: “Marco isn’t allowed to drive anymore?”

“He kept banging into things.”

“Imagine that.”

“But you can’t blame Antoine.”

“Antoine who?”

“Antoine the dog. I’m sure he did his best. Dogs always do. Marco just second-guessed him once too often.”

“Watch where you’re going. Left curve ahead.”

Smiling at him, she said, “You’re my own Antoine. You’ll never let me bang into things.”

In the salt-pale moonlight, an older middle-class neighborhood of one-story ranch houses seemed to effloresce out of the darkness.

No streetlamps brightened the night, but the moon silvered the leaves and the creamy trunks of eucalyptuses. Here and there, stucco walls had a faint ectoplasmic glow, as if this were a ghost town of phantom buildings inhabited by spirits.

In the second block, lights brightened windows at one house.

Amy braked to a full stop in the street, and the headlights flared off the reflective numbers on the curbside mailbox.

She shifted the Expedition into reverse. Backing into the driveway, she said, “In an iffy situation, you want to be aimed out for the fastest exit.”

As she killed the headlights and the engine, Brian said, “Iffy? Iffy like how?”

Getting out of the SUV, she said, “With a crazy drunk guy, you just never know.”

Joining her at the back of the vehicle, where she put up the tailgate, Brian glanced at the house and said, “So there’s a crazy guy in there, and he’s drunk?”

“On the phone, this Janet Brockman said her husband, Carl, he’s crazy drunk, which probably means he’s crazy from drinking.”

Amy started toward the house, and Brian gripped her shoulder, halting her. “What if he’s crazy when he’s sober, and now it’s worse because he’s drunk?”

“I’m not a psychiatrist, sweetie.”

“Maybe this is police business.”

“Police don’t have time for crazy drunk guys like this.”

“I’d think crazy drunk guys are right down their alley.”

Shrugging off his hand, heading toward the house once more, she said, “We can’t waste time. He’s violent.”

Brian hurried after her. “He’s crazy, drunk, and violent?”

“He probably won’t be violent with me.”

Climbing steps to a porch, Brian said, “What about me?”

“I think he’s only violent with their dog. But if this Carl does want to take a whack at me, that’s okay, ’cause I have you.”

“Me? I’m an architect.”

“Not tonight, sweetie. Tonight, you’re muscle.”

Brian had accompanied her on other missions like this, but never previously after midnight to the home of a crazy violent drunk.

“What if I have a testosterone deficiency?”

“Do you have a testosterone deficiency?”

“I cried reading that book last week.”

“That book makes everyone cry. It just proves you’re human.”

As Amy reached for the bell push, the door opened. A young woman with a bruised mouth and a bleeding lip appeared at the threshold.

“Ms. Redwing?” she asked.

“You must be Janet.”

“I wish I wasn’t. I wish I was you or anybody, somebody.” Stepping back from the door, she invited them inside. “Don’t let Carl cripple her.”

“He won’t,” Amy assured the woman.

Janet blotted her lips with a bloody cloth. “He crippled Mazie.”

Mouth plugged with a thumb, a pale girl of about four clung to a twisted fistful of the tail of Janet’s blouse, as if anticipating a sudden cyclone that would try to spin her away from her mother.

The living room was gray. A blue sofa, blue armchairs, stood on a gold carpet, but a pair of lamps shed light as lusterless as ashes, and the colors were muted as though settled smoke from a long-quenched fire had laid a patina on them.

If Purgatory had formal parlors for the waiting multitudes, they might be as ordered and cheerless as this room.

“Crippled Mazie,” Janet repeated. “Four months later, he…” She glanced down at her daughter. “Four months later, Mazie died.”

Having begun to close the front door, Brian hesitated. He left it half open to the mild September night.

“Where is your dog?” Amy asked.

“In the kitchen.” Janet put a hand to her swollen lip and spoke between her fingers. “With him.”

The child was too old to be sucking her thumb with such devotion, but this habit of the crib disturbed Brian less than did the character of her stare. A purple shade of blue, her eyes were wide with expectation and appeared to be bruised by experience.

The air thickened, as it does under thunderheads and a pending deluge.

“Which way to the kitchen?” Amy asked.

Janet led them through an archway into a hall flanked by dark rooms like flooded grottoes. Her daughter glided at her side, as firmly attached as a remora to a larger fish.

The hall was shadowy except at the far end, where a thin wedge of light stabbed in from a room beyond.

The shadows seemed to ebb and flow and ebb again, but this phantom movement was only Brian’s strong pulse, his vision throbbing in time with his laboring heart.

At the midpoint of the hallway, a boy leaned with his forehead against a wall, his hands fisted at his temples. He was perhaps six years old.

From him came the thinnest sound of misery, like air escaping, molecule by molecule, from the pinched neck of a balloon.

Janet said, “It’ll be okay, Jimmy,” but when she put a hand on the boy’s shoulder, he wrenched away from her.

Trailed by her daughter, she proceeded to the end of the hall and pushed the door open, and the stiletto of light became a broad-sword.

Entering the kitchen behind the two women and the girl, Brian could almost have believed that the source of the light was the golden retriever sitting alertly in the corner between the cooktop and the refrigerator. The dog seemed to shine.

She was neither pure blond nor the coppery hue of some retrievers, but clothed in many shades of gold, and radiant. Her undercoat was thick, her chest deep, her head beautifully formed.

More compelling than the dog’s appearance were her posture and attitude. She sat erect, head lifted, alertness signified by a slight raising of her pendant ears and by the ceaseless subtle flare-and-quiver of her nostrils.

She didn’t turn her head, but she shifted her eyes toward Amy and Brian-and at once refocused on Carl.

The man of the house was at the moment something less than a man. Or perhaps he was only what any man eventually might become when guided by no hand but his own.

When sober, he probably had a neighborly face or at least one of those faces that, seen by the thousands in city streets, is a bland mask of benign indifference, with lips compressed and eyes fixed on a distant nothing.

Now, as he stood beside the kitchen table, his face was full of character, though of the wrong kind. His eyes were watery with drink and blood, and he looked out from under a lowered brow, like a bull that sees on every side the challenge of a red cape. His jaw hung slack. His lips were cracked, perhaps from the chronic dehydration that afflicts an alcoholic.

Carl Brockman turned his gaze on Brian. In those eyes shone not the mindless aggression of a man made stupid by drink, but instead the malevolent glee of a chained brute who had been liberated by it.

To his wife, in a voice thick with bitterness, he said, “What’ve you done?”

“Nothing, Carl. I just called them about the dog.”

His face was a snarl of knotted threats. “You must want some.”

Janet shook her head.

“You must really want some, Jan. You do this, you know it’s gonna get you only one thing.”

As though embarrassed by the evidence of her submissiveness, Janet covered her bleeding mouth with one hand.

Crouching, Amy called to the dog. “Here, cutie. Come here, girl.”

On the table stood a bottle of tequila, a glass, a salt shaker in the shape of a white Scottish terrier, and a plate holding slices of a fresh lime.

Raising his right hand from his side and high above his head, Carl revealed a tire iron. He gripped it by the pry end.

When he slammed the tool down hard upon the table, slices of lime leaped from the plate. The bottle of tequila wobbled, and the ice rattled in the glass.

Janet cringed, the little girl stoppled a cry with her thumb, Brian winced and tensed, but Amy just continued to coax the retriever to come to her. The dog was neither startled nor made fearful by the crash of iron on wood.

With a backhand swing of the tool, Carl swept everything off the table. At the farther end of the kitchen, tequila splashed, glass shattered, and the ceramic Scottie scattered salt across the floor.

“Get out,” Carl demanded. “Get out of my house.”

Amy said, “The dog’s a problem. You don’t need a problem dog. We’ll take her off your hands.”

“Who the hell are you, anyway? She’s my dog. She’s not yours. I know how to handle the bitch.”

The table was not between them and Carl. If he lurched forward and swung the tire iron, they might be able to dodge a blow only if the tequila made him slow and clumsy.

The guy didn’t look slow and clumsy. He seemed to be a bullet in the barrel, and any wrong move they made or wrong word they spoke might be the firing pin that sent him hurtling toward them.

Turning his malevolent gaze upon his wife, Carl repeated, “I know how to handle the bitch.”

“All I did,” Janet said meekly, “was give the poor thing a bath.”

“She didn’t need a bath.”

Pleading her case but careful not to argue it, Janet said, “Carl, honey, she was filthy, her coat was all matted.”

“She’s a dog, you stupid skank. She belongs in the yard.”

“I know. You’re right. You don’t want her in the house. But I was just, I was afraid, you know, afraid she’d get those sores like she did before.”

Her conciliatory tone inflamed his anger instead of quenching it. “Nickie’s my dog. I bought her. I own her. She’s mine.” He pointed the tire iron at his wife. “I know what’s mine, and I keep what’s mine. Nobody tells me what to do with anything that’s mine.”

At the start of Carl’s rant, Amy rose from a crouch and stood staring at him, rigid and still and moon-eyed.

Brian saw something strange in her face, an expression he could not name. She was transfixed but not by fear.

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