The Darkest Evening of the Year Page 21

He left the house by the front door, walked out to the street, and got behind the wheel of the Cadillac. He put the bag on the floor, in front of the passenger seat.

At the end of the block, he turned right, then right again at the next intersection. On the street parallel to Shumpeter’s street, and behind his property, Billy parked at the curb in front of two houses where other American families were preoccupied with their own joys and problems.

He took off the Tyrolean hat and the horn-rimmed glasses. He pocketed the clip-on gold dental cap. Good-bye Dwayne Hoover.

He got out of the Cadillac, stood on the sidewalk, and withdrew a remote control from his jacket pocket.

Between these two handsome houses, he could see the roof of the Shumpeter residence on the next street to the west. He pointed the remote control, which had plenty of range for the job, pressed the button, and heard the soft whump of the initial detonation.

The two suitcases supplied to him by Georgie Jobbs, which he had stored on the floor behind the front seats of the Rover, contained a small initial explosive charge for the purpose of ignition, but held mostly bricks of a ferociously incendiary substance developed by the weaponry wizards of the former Soviet Union, who were currently the weaponry wizards of the new Russia.

Behind the wheel of the Cadillac again, Billy Pilgrim watched the dark roof of the Shumpeter house on the parallel street.

His intention was not to blow up the Land Rover and all of the evidence in it. Rather, he intended to burn everything to ashes and slag: the brains from the two detectives’ computers, their files and appointment calendars, and Georgie’s corpse.

The incendiary material would produce temperatures as high as 42,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which was less than half as hot as the surface of the sun, not hot at all compared to the eighteen million degrees at the core of the sun. Nevertheless, it would be hot enough and sustained long enough virtually to vaporize everything in the Rover and to reduce the vehicle itself to molten steel from which the make, model, and owner could never be identified.

Of Georgie Jobbs, nothing whatsoever would remain, not even a bone fragment, nothing except Billy’s fond memories of him.

On the next street, the night brightened. The first flames broke through the garage roof. They were white with blue edges.

Billy drove out of that neighborhood. The situation there would shortly be untenable.

When Amy Redwing went missing or subsequently turned up dead, nothing in her house would remain to connect her to her previous life; consequently, the authorities would have no reason to suspect Billy’s boss of her murder.

Vernon Lesley, who had searched Redwing’s house, was dead, and the man whom he had hired for backup, Bobby Onions, was dead, and the man who cleaned out their offices of any possible reference to Redwing was also dead, and all those items from their offices would shortly be smoke and fumes and soot.

If the fire department failed to arrive quickly, houses flanking the Shumpeter residence would either be set afire by traveling flames or, possibly, would be ignited solely by the intense heat of the pyre next door.

In Billy’s experience, a truly thorough job usually required some collateral damage.

He drove toward Newport Beach. Although hungry, Billy could wait for dinner until he had done one more job here in Orange County and then had driven to Santa Barbara.

He and Gunther Schloss, who had shot Lesley and Onions, would have a late dinner together, whereafter Billy would kill him. When Gunny was dead, the next to the last connection between Redwing and Billy’s boss would have been erased.

The last connection was Billy. This fact had not been lost on him. He had given it much hard thought.

In Santa Barbara, he had booked a luxurious hotel suite in the name of Tyrone Slothrop, a pseudonym that he had not used previously, that he had been saving for a special occasion.

Billy liked extreme luxury and especially enjoyed over-the-top hotels that provided amenities so extravagant that Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, given a chance to experience such establishments, would have been embarrassed by the comparative grubbiness of their life at the palace.

In Newport Beach, Billy parked around the corner from the building in which Brian McCarthy had both his offices and his apartment.

Chapter 42

Millie and Barry Packard, who had agreed to keep Fred and Ethel for a night or two, lived in a shingle-sided New England-style house on a low rise above the beach.

The front door was unlocked, as Amy had been told it would be. She and Brian followed Fred, Ethel, and Nickie through the house to the back patio, where Millie sat at a teak table, sipping a martini, in the magical light of gas-flame hurricane lanterns with prismatic panes.

Five feet two, slender, with short shaggy blond hair and large eyes, Millie had an air of elfin glamour and looked as if she had just gotten home from playing the lead in a production of Peter Pan. She was fiftyish, perhaps too old for the role, though Mary Martin had probably still played the part in Broadway revivals at that age.

“Freddie darling, my adorable Ethel,” she exclaimed as the two kids went straight to her, tails lashing, confident of receiving ear rubs and chin scratches. “You’re as fabulous as ever, but why didn’t you fix your folks a drink before you brought them out here?”

“Don’t get up,” Amy said, bending to kiss Millie on the cheek.

“Cupcake, I never get up for family, only for people I don’t like, so I can mix them weak drinks that make them desperate to go elsewhere.”

They were family because they were both board members of Golden Heart and both besotted with goldens.

“Brian, dear, you know where to find the liquor cabinet. We’re out of cocktail olives, it’s a tragedy of historic proportions, but we’re coping because we’re Americans.”

After bending for a kiss of his own, Brian said, “We can’t stay more than a minute, Millie. We have to hit the road.”

“My God, you’re a handsome young man. It can’t be natural. You shouldn’t start cosmetic surgery so young. By the time you’re sixty, your mouth will be stretched ear to ear.”

Amy said, “Where’s Barry?”

“On the beach with the dogs. Just for a walk. No romping in the surf. It’s too late to be combing sand out of fur, and the dogs would need grooming, too.”

Fred and Ethel spotted the trio on the sand below. They hurried to the edge of the patio. As much as they wanted to plunge down the slope to the sea, they wouldn’t dash off without permission.

When Millie glimpsed Nickie, her eyes widened with delight. “Oh, Amy, you’re right. She’s a beauty. Come here, you fabulous creature. I’m your Aunt Millie. Nothing they’ve told you about me is true.”

While Nickie and Millie charmed each other, Amy watched Barry on the beach with Daisy and Mortimer.

Past play, the dogs weaved lazily along the strand, smelling one by one the shells, the driftwood, the knots of weed, the sea urchins, the ocean-smoothed medallions of bottle glass left by the last high tide and to be carried away on the next.

A million fragments of the shattered moon knocked together in the troughs and crests of a low surf, while in the lulls between sets of waves, the jigsaw self-assembled, repairing the silvery sphere, which shimmered in the currents, twisted, and came apart once more.

The rhythms of the sea, the quarter-million-mile light of the moon, and the companionship of dogs inspired a sense of timelessness, of peace, of the profound grace always waiting to be discovered when the noise of daily life subsides.

Amy had the uneasy feeling that this tranquil moment might be the last that she would know for a long time, if not forever.

Perhaps having seen them on the patio, Barry Packard came up from the sea, his dogs preceding him.

Of the Packards’ many fine qualities, Amy admired none more than the compassion they revealed in their choice of dogs. They adopted only goldens with special needs, which were the hardest to place in forever homes.

As a puppy only a few weeks old, Mortimer had been found in a Dumpster, thrown away because he had spina bifida and was paralyzed from the waist down. Although treated like garbage, he had been fortunate-considering that he might have been drowned in a bucket before being tossed in the trash.

After examinations by three different vets, Mortimer was judged too severely disabled to be saved. Euthanasia was recommended.

In his expressive face, in his sweet and cheerful demeanor, Amy had seen not an inconvenience but instead a soul as bright as any.

At the start, Mortimer could walk on his front legs but only drag his rear. Surgery to remove his hopelessly deformed left hind leg, followed by weeks of therapy, resulted in an accomplished tripod pup who could not only walk without dragging his butt but also run with a gait that was as peculiar as it was swift.

Five years old now, Mortimer was a certified therapy dog. Millie took him to children’s hospitals to visit ill and disabled kids who, every one, were inspired by his courage and good cheer.

Daisy was blind. She navigated by sound and smell and instinct, but also by staying close to Mortimer, who was her trusted guide and boon companion.

Steps led up the ice-plant-covered slope, and three-legged Morty and blind Daisy ascended with the enthusiasm of any goldens at the realization that visitors had come calling.

Usually, their rapidly rotating tails would wind them up and wiggle them directly to Amy and Brian. But when they came off the stairs onto the patio, and encountered Nickie, a remarkable thing happened.

Morty froze, Daisy froze, tails suddenly still but not lowered, heads high, ears lifted. Like Fred and Ethel, these two did not rush to Nickie for the usual doggy meet-and-greet.

First Mortimer came forward tentatively, then Daisy. Approaching Nickie, Morty bowed his head, and Daisy did the same a moment later.

Mortimer settled onto his belly and awkwardly crawled forward the last few feet. Daisy, sensing what he had done, followed his example.

When they had reached her, Nickie lowered her head to Mortimer and, as if grooming her pup, began lovingly to lick his face.

Eyes closed, he submitted with a look of ecstasy, tail sweeping the brick patio. His failure to return the kisses was odd behavior.

When after half a minute Nickie had finished with Morty, she turned her attention to Daisy and licked her face, too, as though she were a mother tending to a newborn. Daisy closed her sightless eyes and sighed contentedly.

Fred and Ethel had refrained from greeting their old friends, the disabled Packard dogs, as if in Nickie’s presence new protocols applied. They stood nearby, watching intently.

Having come up the steps immediately behind his goldens, Barry Packard witnessed this strange ceremony. A burly, barrel-chested man of reliable good humor, he usually entered with a laugh line followed by handshakes and hugs. Here he stood in silence, intrigued by the dogs’ behavior.

Martini forgotten, Millie had risen from her chair to get a better view of these events.

Amy realized that the actions and the attitudes of the dogs were not alone responsible for the extraordinary quality of the moment.

A hush had fallen upon the night, as though a great bell jar had been lowered over the house and patio. The background sounds of which she had been only half aware-faint music from one neighbor’s house, soft laughter from another, the spirited singing of shore toads-were silenced. Even the low surf, although no lower or in less frequent sets than before, seemed to dissolve upon the sand with less exuberance, almost in a whisper.

The prismatic lenses of the six gas-fed hurricane lamps had all along sprayed quivering rainbows across the white painted ceiling of the patio and had scattered shimmering coins of light across chairs and tables and faces, but surely the colors had not been as intense as they were now.

Imagination might have accounted for Amy’s impression that the air carried a subtle new energy, similar to the freighted atmosphere under storm clouds before the first flash of lightning. But she was not imagining when she felt the fine hairs on her arms and on the nape of her neck quiver as though responding to the silent flute of static electricity.

Mortimer rose to his three feet, blind Daisy to her four. The five dogs regarded one another, grinning, tails wagging, but still in some transported state.

In a voice subdued for him, Barry Packard said, “I knew this kid in college, Jack Dundy. Total party animal. Lived for beer and card games and girls and laughs. Skated through his studies with the minimum of work. Came from money, spoiled, irresponsible, but damn likable in his way.”

Whatever story Barry might be telling, it seemed to have no connection to what had just happened among the dogs. Nevertheless, Amy still felt a prickling along her arms, the back of her neck, her scalp.

“One Sunday night, Jack’s coming back to college from a weekend home. Just two blocks from the campus, he sees fire in the ground-floor windows of a three-story apartment building. He goes into the place, shouting fire, pounding on doors, the place filling fast with smoke.”

To Amy, it seemed that even the dogs were alert to the story.

“They say Jack led people out three times before the fire department arrived, saved at least five children whose parents had been trapped by flames and died. He heard other kids screaming, went in a fourth time, even though he heard sirens coming, went back in and up, broke out a third-story window, dropped two little girls to people on the lawn catching them in blankets, went back into that room for a third child but never made it to the window again, died in there, burned beyond recognition.”

The night sounds were returning. Faint music from another house. The songs of shore toads.

“I couldn’t understand how the Jack Dundy I knew, slacker and party animal, spoiled rich kid, quick to play the fool…could have done something so damn heroic and so selfless. For the longest time it seemed to me not only that I hadn’t understood Jack Dundy but also that I didn’t understand the world at all, that nothing was as simple as it seemed, as if I were an actor just realizing I was in a play, nothing but painted sets around me, and something else altogether behind the stage scenery.”

Barry fell silent, blinked, and looked around as though for a moment he had forgotten where he was.

“I haven’t thought about Jack Dundy in years. Why did he come to me now?”

Amy had no answer for him, but for reasons she couldn’t quite articulate, the story nevertheless seemed appropriate to the moment.

Suddenly dogs were dogs again, each of them seeking the touch of human hands, the sweet-talk that told them they were beautiful and were loved.

The ocean receded into blackness. More blackness lay behind the moon, and still more beyond the stars.

Amy knelt to give Daisy a tummy rub, but because the blind dog could not meet her eyes, her gaze traveled instead to Nickie, who was watching her.

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