The Darkest Evening of the Year Page 27

When you believe life has meaning and can glimpse patterns that seem to suggest design, you risk seeking signs instead of waiting to receive them as a grace. Omens seem to be scattered as extravagantly as litter in the wake of a wind storm, and in the rain of reckless imagination, portents spring up in mushroom clusters.

After the telephone call from Sister Jacinta, Amy did not trust herself, for the time being, to recognize the difference between a true pattern and a fancy, between a significance and an iffiness. The coincidence of Nickie’s name, her behavior, the business with the slippers, Theresa’s reference to wind and chimes-all of that had been peculiar, suggestive, but not clearly evidence of otherworldly forces at work. A phone call from a dead nun, however, qualified as a higher order of the fantastic, and you tended thereafter to see portentous messages in every face that Nature turned toward you.

Movement drew her eye to a rat that scurried up the bole of a great phoenix palm and disappeared into the fringe of folded dead fronds beneath the green crown.

A rat was a symbol of filth, decay, death.

Here, on the sidewalk, a large black beetle lay on its back, legs stiff, and swarming ants fed on the leakage from it.

And here, beside a trash can with a gated top so loose that it creaked even in the sea’s faint exhalation, lay an empty bottle of hot sauce with a skull and crossbones on the label.

On the other hand, three white doves arrowed across the sky, and seven pennies were arranged on the rim of a drinking fountain, and on a bench lay a discarded paperback titled Your Bright Future.

She decided to let Nickie’s instincts guide her. The dog sniffed everything, fixated on nothing, and exhibited no suspicion. By the golden’s example, Amy found her way to a less fevered interpretation of every shape and shadow, and then to a disinterest in signs.

In fact, skepticism crept over her, and she began to question whether the conversation with Sister Jacinta had actually occurred. She could have dreamed it.

She thought she had awakened from a nightmare of wings moments before the phone rang, but maybe she only moved from a dream of Connecticut to a dream of a dialogue with a ghost.

After the call, she had faced Nickie, put her arm around the dog, and had gone to sleep again. They had awakened together in that cuddle. If the call only happened in a dream, she had merely turned to Nickie in her sleep.

By the time Amy returned to the motel room, she had decided not to tell Brian about Sister Mouse. At least not yet. Maybe when they were on the road.

Before he had gone to bed the previous night, Brian had sent an e-mail to Vanessa. While Amy had been walking Nickie, Vanessa sent a reply.

She gave the address of a restaurant in Monterey at which she wanted Amy and Brian to have lunch.

They grabbed breakfast at a fast-food joint and ate on the move again, northbound on Highway 101. They should be in Monterey by noon.

For the first three hours, Brian drove. He said little, and most of the time he stared at the road ahead with a grim expression.

Although he was eager to gain custody of his daughter, he must be worried about the condition in which he would find her and about how much she might hold him responsible for her suffering.

Amy tried more than once to lure him out of the glum currents of his thoughts, but he rose to the conversation only briefly each time, and then swam down again into brooding silence.

Forced by his introspection into some self-analysis of her own, she admitted to herself that skepticism had not been the real reason she hesitated to tell Brian about the telephone call from Sister Jacinta. Her dismissal of the visitation as just a dream had been insincere.

The truth was that relating the content of her conversation with the nun would require her to tell Brian the rest of the story she had been too exhausted and too emotionally drained-too gnawed by guilt-to finish the previous night. She had broken off that narrative with the death of Nickie at Mater Misericordiæ she tried to summon the courage to tell the rest of it.

After they parked in a lay-by to stretch their legs and to give Nickie a potty break, Amy drove the last two hours to Monterey. She had to keep her eyes on the road now. She had reason not to look at him directly while she talked, and this gave her confidence to return to the past.

Nevertheless, she could still only approach the monstrous event obliquely, and in steps. She began with the lighthouse.

“Did I ever tell you, I lived in a lighthouse for a few years?”

“Wonderful architecture in most lighthouses,” he said. “I would have remembered your lighthouse years.”

His tone implied that he knew she also would have remembered having told him, and that he recognized the false casualness of her revelation.

“With satellite navigation, many lighthouses aren’t in service anymore. Others have been automated-electricity instead of an oil brazier.”

“Some are bed-and-breakfast inns.”

“Yeah. They renovate the caretaker’s house. Some even offer a room or two in the lighthouse itself.”

This lighthouse had stood on a rocky promontory in Connecticut. She had been twenty when she moved there, twenty-four when she left.

She did not explain what brought her to that place or mention whether she had been there alone or with others.

Brian seemed to sense that questions would inhibit her and that the wrong question, asked too soon, would halt her altogether.

She spoke of the rugged shore and the thrilling seascapes, of the spectacular views from the lantern room at the top of the tower, and of the charming details of the lightkeeper’s house.

She dwelt at length on the beauty of the lighthouse itself, the walnut paneling of the round vestibule, the ornate fretwork of the circular iron staircase. At the summit, in the lantern room, waited the marvelous Fresnel lens, oval in shape, with integrated series of prismatic rings at bottom and top, which reflected the rays of a one-thousand-watt halogen bulb to the center of the lens, amplifying them. Thus concentrated, the light was beamed outward, across the dark Atlantic.

They arrived at the restaurant in Monterey as she finished telling him that, in the early nineteenth century, Fresnel lenses were so heavy, the only way to turn them-and make the beam sweep the coast-was to float them in pools of mercury. Extremely dense, mercury will support great weight and reduce friction to a minimum.

Mercury is highly toxic. Gradually, mercury flotation was phased out in favor of clockworks and counterweights, which were subsequently replaced by electric motors.

Before then, however, some lightkeepers were driven insane by mercury poisoning.

Chapter 52

Billy Pilgrim flew as the lone passenger in a chartered Learjet from Santa Barbara to Monterey.

The steward wore black slacks, a white coat, a white shirt, and a black bowtie. He had a British accent.

Airborne at ten o’clock, Billy was served a late breakfast of strawberries in clotted cream, a lobster omelet, and toasted brioche with raisin butter.

He’d left his suitcase of clothes at the hotel in Santa Barbara because, sometime in the evening, when everyone who needed to be dead was dead, he intended to resume his vacation as Tyrone Slothrop.

He had brought the second suitcase containing the guns. The first was a Glock 18 with thirty-three rounds in its magazine. The second was a disassembled sniper rifle.

Before leaving Santa Barbara, he had taken the tabloid newspaper for gun aficionados out of the suitcase and had left it on the living-room coffee table. He was not concerned that the publication would once more transform itself into Brian McCarthy’s drawings of the dog. That had been a hallucination born of weariness. Billy was rested and past all that. He merely wanted to save the paper for reading later in the week. Nothing more. Just that. He felt fine.

The steward brought him an array of glossy magazines, and when he opened one, the first thing he saw was an advertisement for high-end men’s suits. In the double-page spread, three well-tailored young men were walking three golden retrievers.

Billy closed the magazine and put it aside. The photo had meant nothing. Coincidence.

Suspecting that the same two-page spread might appear in many publications, Billy did not leaf through the front matter of the next magazine, but opened it to the middle, where he was more likely to encounter editorial content than advertising. The story in front of him concerned a dog-loving celebrity and her three golden retrievers.

In the opening photograph, all three dogs were looking directly into the camera, and something in their eyes suggested to Billy that months ago, when the photo shoot occurred, the dogs had known that he, Billy Pilgrim, would many weeks later be looking at them as he was looking at them now, in a state of agitation. The three dogs were grinning, but he saw no laughter in their eyes, quite the opposite.

Billy dropped the magazine and went at once into the bathroom. He didn’t throw up. He felt good about not throwing up. Not throwing up indicated that he had pretty much regained control of his nerves.

He looked in the mirror, saw that sweat beaded his brow, and blotted his face with a towel. After that, he looked good. He wasn’t pale, but he pinched his cheeks anyway, to get more color in them. He looked fine. He hadn’t wept a single tear. He winked at himself.

In Monterey, when Brian McCarthy and Amy Redwing arrived, Billy had the restaurant under surveillance from a rental car parked across the street.

He knew that she rescued goldens and owned them. But he had not expected her to bring one with her on a trip like this. They didn’t know their ultimate destination. They didn’t know how far they were going or where they might be staying, or what situation they would find on the other end. Taking the dog with them made no sense. It made no sense. He couldn’t see any way it made sense.

The restaurant didn’t accept dogs, so they locked the golden in the Expedition with the windows cracked. The SUV was parked at the curb. They went inside, and after a minute, Billy saw them in one of the windows. They had taken a table from which they could watch over the dog.

Billy telephoned Harrow to report that the pair had arrived in Monterey.

“Do they have a shadow?”

“If they’re suspicious and they came with backup, it’s way discreet. I’d bet my ass, no, they’re alone. Except they brought a golden retriever.”

Harrow surprised him by saying, “Kill it.”

To be sure he made no mistake, Billy said, “Kill the dog?”

“Kill it good. Kill it hard. That’s what she wants.”

“Who wants?”

“Vanessa. Kill the dog. But not until they get here. They’re flying on good feelings, coming to get his precious child. We want to keep them in a ‘What-me-worry?’ mood.”

Harrow hung up.

Billy watched the golden watching McCarthy and Redwing in the restaurant window. They occasionally looked up to check on the dog.

The Glock 18 featured a selector switch on the slide with which he could convert it from a semiautomatic to a full automatic that cycled at thirteen hundred rounds per minute. When the time came, he could pump twenty bullets into the dog in like one second. That seemed to qualify as kill-it-good-kill-it-hard.

The dog was watching Billy.

It had been intently focused on the restaurant window where McCarthy and Redwing were eating lunch, but it had turned around.

From across the street, Billy stared right back at it.

The dog seemed to have lost all interest in its owners. It appeared to be fascinated with Billy.

Not in the least intimidated, Billy narrowed his eyes to pull the golden retriever into even clearer focus.

The dog raised its nose to the two-inch gap at the top of the open window. It was getting Billy’s scent.

At once, Billy started the rental car. He drove back to the airport. He had a schedule to keep. He needed to get moving. Nothing more. Just that. He felt fine.

Chapter 53

In the restaurant, Amy did not return to the subject of the lighthouse. Brian sensed that she didn’t want to talk about that period of her life within earshot of anyone but him.

He realized that she must be leading to some disclosure that she was loath to make, to that ringbolt in the past to which he had long suspected she was tethered.

His own revelation surely had helped her. For ten years, he had failed the child whom he had fathered. Whatever Amy had done was not likely to have burdened her with the weight of guilt that Brian felt he had earned.

Vanessa phoned during their lunch. “You’ll be going through San Francisco and across the Golden Gate Bridge.”

“I didn’t realize it would be this far.”

“You’re going to whine at me, Bry?”

“No. I’m just saying.”

“Ten years of my life are crap because I had to take care of our Piggy Pig, and now you’re going to whine about one day on the road?”

“Forget I said anything. You’re right. Once we cross the bridge, what?”

“Stay north on 101. I’ll call with details. Anyway, Bry, you couldn’t have flown to San Francisco and driven from there. Not on short notice, not with the dog.”

He glanced out the window at Nickie in the Expedition. “So you really are watching us.”

“My nervous little rich boy says what if the dog’s wired by some scandal-crazy tabloid-TV show. You believe that? The dog?”

“I told you, I won’t risk blowing this deal.”

“I know you won’t, Bry. His security people were going to do an electronic sweep of you, your SUV, soon as you got here. Now they’ll also sweep the dog. Maybe there’s a microphone built into its collar. Maybe there’s a power pack up its butt. Isn’t that hysterical?”

“If you say so.”

“See you soon, Bry.”

She terminated the call.

Brian picked at the second half of his meal, and Amy seemed to have lost her appetite, too.

“I want it over,” he said. “I just want Hope away from her.”

“Then let’s hit the road,” Amy said.

Back at the Expedition, Nickie got out to take a pee and then graciously accepted two cookies as a reward for having been such a patient girl.

After the dog sprang into the back of the SUV once more and turned to Brian as he stood at the tailgate, he met her stare and held it. On this clouded day, Nickie’s warm-molasses gaze was not brightened by refracted sunshine, but full of shadows, steady and direct and dark.

For a moment, he felt nothing strange, but then the centripetal force of these eyes seemed to pull him toward them. He felt his heart quickening, and his mind was bright with a perception of deep mystery and with the desire to understand it that had led him to draw so many studies of her eyes with such obsession.

In his memory rose the complex and enfolding sound: hiss, whizz, soft clicking, rustle and flump, deep throb and ruffle, crumpcrump-crumpcrump-

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