The Darkest Evening of the Year Page 22

Through her memory, the flock of sea gulls startled into flight with a thunderous drumming of wings, feathers blazing white in the sweeping beam of the lighthouse, sharply shrieking as they ascended, shrieking as if testifying to the terror below, as if crying Murder, murder! and Amy with the gun in both hands, standing in the blood-spotted snow, screaming with the gulls.

Chapter 43

Billy Pilgrim walked twice past the building that housed Brian McCarthy’s company offices and apartment. The windows were dark on both floors.

The boss had confirmed by phone that the deal was made. McCarthy and Redwing were evidently on the road to Santa Barbara by now.

Billy returned to the Cadillac in which Pauline Shumpeter had died of a massive stroke but had not soiled herself. He boldly reparked it in the lot beside McCarthy’s building.

After sheathing his hands in latex gloves, he got out of the car and climbed the exterior stairs to the apartment door.

He needed gloves because he didn’t intend to reduce this place to molten metal and soot with exotic Russian incendiary weapons. He would have preferred to leave fingerprints and then burn the building because his hands sweated in the gloves, and they made him feel like a proctologist.

With a LockAid lock-release gun, he picked the deadbolt pins in twenty seconds, went inside, closed the door behind him, and stood listening for the sound of somebody he might need to kill.

Billy did not usually kill two people per day and assist in the murder and disposal of two others. If this had been a take-your-son-to-work day, and if he had had a son, the boy would have come to the conclusion that his dad’s job was a lot more glamorous than it really was.

Sometimes months would pass between killings. And Billy could go a year, even two years, without having to waste a friend like Georgie Jobbs or a complete stranger like Shumpeter.

Sure, in his line of work, every day required the commission of felonies, but mostly they were not capital crimes that could earn you a lethal injection and burial at public expense.

Episodes of life seldom had the body count of good novels in the everything-is-pointless-and-silly genre, which is why Billy still read so many books even after all these years.

Unnervingly, episodes of real life also were not reliably as meaningless as life was portrayed by his favorite writers. Once in a while, something would happen to suggest meaningful patterns in events, or he would encounter someone whose life seemed to be filled with purpose.

On those occasions, Billy would retreat to his books until his doubts were put to rest.

If his favorite books failed to encourage a full renewal of his comfortable cynicism, he would kill the person whose life had seemed to be meaningful, which at once proved that the meaning had been an illusion.

The apartment remained silent, and finally Billy moved room to room, switching on lights.

He disliked the minimalist decor. Too Zen. Too calm. Nothing here was real. Life was chaos. This decor was not authentic.

Authentic decor was a deranged old lady living with fifty years of daily newspapers and thousands of bags of trash stacked throughout the residence, her husband dead twelve years on the parlor sofa, and twenty-six cats with various seizure disorders. Authentic decor was bombed-out shells of buildings, tenements full of crack whores, and anything Vegas.

Billy loved Vegas. His ideal vacation, which he didn’t get to enjoy often enough, was to go to Vegas with two hundred thousand in cash, lose half of it at the tables, win the losses back, then lose the entire bankroll, and kill a perfect stranger chosen at random on the way out of town.

In McCarthy’s annoyingly clean neon-free study, Billy unplugged the brain of the computer, carried it from the room, and stood beside the front door. When he headed for Santa Barbara, this logic unit would be in the trunk of his car. Later, he would flood it with corrosive materials and burn it in a crematorium.

The architect had been instructed to take his laptop with him. Billy would have to destroy that machine after McCarthy was dead.

In the study again, he searched the file cabinets and found the printouts of all the e-mails that Vanessa had sent to the architect over the past ten years. Although the waste can was tall, those files filled it to the brim, and he put them by the front door.

Because McCarthy might have saved old e-mail files on diskettes when he updated computers, Billy searched boxes of those but found nothing that, judging by the labels, needed to be trashed.

His purpose here was to eliminate anything that might, in the event of McCarthy’s disappearance, lead the police to Vanessa.

In the study and bedroom, he also searched for a diary. He did not expect to find one.

As with literature, authentic decor, ideal vacations, and so many things, Billy Pilgrim had a theory about diaries.

Women were more likely than men to think that their lives had sufficient meaning to require recording on a daily basis. It was not for the most part a God-is-leading-me-on-a-wondrous-journey kind of meaning, but more an I’ve-gotta-be-me-but-nobody-cares sentimentalism that passed for meaning, and they usually stopped keeping a diary by the time they hit thirty, because by then they didn’t want to ponder the meaning of life anymore because it scared the crap out of them.

He did not find a diary in McCarthy’s apartment, but he did find scores of art-paper tablets full of sketches and detailed drawings, mostly portraits. This suggested that the architect secretly yearned to be not a designer of buildings but instead a fine artist.

Pencil drawings littered the kitchen table. One of them was a striking portrait of a golden retriever. Some were studies of the dog’s eyes in different light conditions. Others were abstract patterns of light and shadow.

Billy became at once fascinated by the drawings because he inferred that during their creation, the artist had been in emotional chaos. Billy was a connoisseur of chaos.

He stood at the table, sorting through the pictures, and after a while he found himself in a chair without remembering having sat down. The wall clock revealed that he had been with the drawings for more than fifteen minutes, when he would have sworn it had been two or three.

Later, still enthralled by the art, he was startled to feel blood trickle down his face.

In no pain, puzzled, Billy raised one hand and felt his cheeks, his brow, seeking the wound, which he could not find. When he looked at his fingertips, they glistened with a clear fluid.

He recognized this substance. These were tears. In his line of work, he sometimes reduced people to tears.

Billy had not wept in thirty-one years, since he had read a huge novel of such stunning brilliance that it had drained him of his last measures of sadness and sympathy for his fellow human beings. People were nothing but machines of meat. You couldn’t feel sorry for either machines or meat.

That same novel had made him guffaw so strenuously, for so long, at the folly and bottomless stupidity of humankind that he had also used up his lifetime allotment of tears of laughter.

These new tears perplexed Billy.

They amazed and astonished him.

They also alarmed him.

Dread made his palms clammy.

The nanopowder-coated latex gloves were slimy with sweat, which backed up to the cuffs and leaked out at his wrists, dampening his shirt sleeves.

If his tears were tears of laughter, a preparatory lubricant for gales of giggles, he might have been able to accept them. But he did not feel any laughter building inside him.

His contempt for humanity remained so pure that he knew these could not be tears inspired by the richly comic horror of the human condition.

Only one other possibility occurred to him-that these were tears shed for himself, for the life that he had made for himself.

His alarm escalated into fear.

Self-pity implied that you felt wronged, that life had not been fair to you. You could only have an expectation of fairness if the universe operated according to some set of principles, some tao, and was at its heart benign.

Such an idea was an intellectual whirlpool, a black hole that would suck him in and destroy him if he allowed its fearsome gravity to capture him for another moment.

Billy knew well the power of ideas. “You are what you eat,” the nutritionists endlessly hector fast-food addicts, and you are also what ideas you have consumed.

With the thirst of an insatiable swillpot, he had poured down the fiction of two generations of deep thinkers, and he was pickled in their ideas, comfortably pickled. At fifty-one, he was too old to be transformed from a dill into a gherkin; he would have been too old at twenty-five.

He did not know why the drawings had brought him to tears.

Heart racing, breathing like a man in panic, he resisted the desire to study them further to ascertain the reason for their extraordinary effect on him.

With his happiness and his future at stake, Billy at once gathered up the drawings, hurried with them into Brian McCarthy’s study, and fed them through a paper shredder that stood beside the desk.

Half convinced that they wriggled with life in his hands, he packed the tangled mass of quarter-inch ribbons of paper into a dark-green plastic garbage bag that he found in the kitchen. Later, in Santa Barbara, he would burn the shredded drawings.

By the time he carried the computer brain, the wastebasket full of e-mail files, and the bag of shredded drawings to the Cadillac, where he stowed them in the trunk, his heart rate had subsided almost to normal, and he had regained control of his breathing.

Behind the wheel of the car, he stripped off the disgustingly slimy latex gloves and tossed them into the backseat.

He blotted his hands on his slacks, on his sport coat, on his shirt, and then drove away from McCarthy’s den of perils.

By the time he found the freeway entrance, the flow of tears had stopped, and his cheeks had begun to dry.

He suspected that to blot from his mind the entire disturbing incident, the best thing that he could do would be to kill a total stranger selected on a whim.

Sometimes, however, even a random act of murder had to wait for a more propitious moment. Billy was already late setting out for Santa Barbara, and he had to make up for lost time.

Chapter 44

At Amy’s house, Brian measured kibble and treats into plastic Ziploc bags, more than they would need, enough for three days. He packed them in a tote with a food dish, a water dish, and other dog gear, while Nickie politely and successfully begged for nibbles.

In her bedroom, Amy selected two days’ worth of clothes-jeans and sweaters-and packed them in a carryall with her SIG P245. She included a fully loaded spare magazine.

Since moving to California, she had not used the weapon.

She had no clear reason to suppose that she would need it on this trip. Vanessa was evidently a disturbed, petty, and vindictive woman-even cruel, judging by the evidence of her e-mails-but that did not make her homicidal.

In fact, she seemed too selfish to do anything that would put her liberty-and therefore her pleasures-at risk. To secure a life of luxury and privilege with the wealthy man who evidently thought more with his little head than with his big one, she had good reason to expedite this transferral of custody without a hitch.

Besides, although Vanessa might have been a bad mother, might have been resentful of and mean toward her daughter, she had neither abandoned the girl nor strangled her in infancy. Judging by the news these days, more babies than puppies ended up discarded in Dumpsters. A decade spent looking after the girl, no matter how reluctantly, seemed to argue that at least a faint flame of accountability still lit the final chamber in the otherwise dark nautilus of her heart.

Abandoned in a church at the age of two, with a name pinned to her shirt, Amy could never say for certain who she was or that her birth parents had found her any less repulsive than Vanessa found the girl whom she called Piggy.

By the age of three, she’d been adopted from Mater Misericordiæ Orphanage by a childless couple, Walter and Darlene Harkinson. She had legally taken their name.

She retained only vague memories of them because, just a year and a half later, their car had been hit by a cement truck. Walter and Darlene had perished instantly, but Amy had survived unscathed.

At four and a half, twice traumatized-once by cold rejection, once by loss-Amy had returned to the orphanage, where she lived until shortly after her eighteenth birthday.

Young Amy Harkinson might have been emotionally fragile and even psychologically damaged for life if not for the wisdom and kindness of the nuns. The nuns alone, however, could not have restored her.

No less important had been the golden retriever who had come limping toward her across an autumn meadow, filthy and half starved, only a month after her return to Mater Misericordiæ.

With its charm, the golden earned itself permanent residence as the orphanage dog. And because of its mysterious inclination, it had bonded to Amy above all others and had become no less than a sister to her and the foremost healer of her heart.

Curiously, what now inspired Amy to include the pistol in her bag was not the e-mail witch who had tormented Brian, but this new golden retriever that, less than a day previously, had come into her life with an air of mystery and with a direct stare that reminded her so powerfully of the dog who, long ago, had given her life meaning and who perhaps had even saved her.

She had known terror, loss, and chaos, but always she had found at least a fragile peace after terror, hope after loss, and pattern in the wake of chaos. In fact, it was her eye for pattern that made it possible for her to go on living.

The directness of Nickie’s eyes, Theresa’s beautiful but bruised purple eyes, Brian’s drawings of the dog’s eyes, his grandmother’s vivid wink in the dream, the bright eye of the lighthouse repeatedly flaring into her memory after all these years, blind Marco in the Philippines (real or not), blind Daisy at the side of three-legged Mortimer: Eyes, eyes, open your eyes, the pattern said.

The only physical danger she had faced recently had been from Carl Brockman and his tire iron, and that threat had passed. Yet she read the pattern of these eyes as having urgent and dire meaning.

Among other recent patterns, there were several incidents of strange effects of light and shadow, reminding her that there are both things seen and unseen.

In the scene as now set, something unseen waited.

Until her eyes were fully open or until the patterns proved to be benign and her interpretation proved to be misguided, she believed that packing the pistol and the spare magazine in the carryall was only prudent.

She had told Brian she would bring the gun. He had merely nodded as if to say Why wouldn’t you?

Likewise, neither of them had questioned the wisdom of bringing Nickie. Of all the patterns in the current web, the one that wove through all the others was dogs, and this dog in particular.

Although they were using Amy’s Expedition, Brian drove because he’d more recently gotten sleep, even if it had been troubled by a tornado, and because Amy wanted to think without the distraction of traffic.

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