The Darkest Evening of the Year Page 29

If it’s just a dream woods, Amy replied, why wouldn’t the ground be soft?

It’s soft but it’s cold.

It’s a winter woods, is it?

Uh-huh. Lots of snow.

So dream yourself a summer woods.

This night was in the winter. The first snow of the season had fallen the previous week, and just that afternoon, the sky had salted two fresh cold inches across the coast.

I like the snow, said Nickie.

Then maybe you should wear boots to bed.

Maybe I should.

And thick woolen socks and long johns.

Mommy, you’re silly.

And a mink coat and a big mink Russian hat.

The girl giggled but then sobered. I don’t like the dream, but I don’t like the barefoot part the most.

Amy had gotten a pair of slippers from the closet and had put them under Nickie’s pillow.

There. Now if you dream about the woods, and if you’re barefoot again, just reach under your pillow and put them on in your sleep.

She had tucked her daughter in for the night. She had smoothed Nickie’s hair back from her face, kissed her brow, kissed her left cheek and then her right, so her head wouldn’t be unbalanced by the weight of a kiss.

Then Amy had spent the evening reading and had gone to bed in her own room at half past ten.

Now, in the passenger seat of the Expedition, Brian said with awful tenderness, “Maybe I should drive.”

Having crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, they were heading north on Highway 101.

The clotted mass of fog that smothered the bridge had boiled off into a thin milk as they had come somewhat inland.

“No,” she said. “It’s better if I drive, something for my hands to grip.”

That winter night, wind had awakened her, not with its own moan and whistle, but with the disharmony that it rang from the collection of wind chimes on the balcony off the master bedroom.

Amy looked toward a west-facing window, expecting to see the fairy dance of falling snow against the glass, but there was only the darkness and no snow.

Although the chimes usually appealed, something in their jangle disturbed her. In her years here, this was the first wind that was not a good musician.

As she came fully awake, instinct told her that not the chimes but some other sound had awakened her and stropped her nerves. She sat up in bed, threw aside the covers.

A separate house was occupied by the couple-James and Ellen Avery-who managed the property and made sure that their employers’ every need was met. In addition to being a good manager, James was a strapping man, and responsible.

In their own wing of the main house were private rooms for Lisbeth, the maid, and Caroline, the nanny.

Each night a perimeter alarm was engaged. The breaking of a window or the forcing of a door would trigger a siren, and James Avery would come running.

Nevertheless, Amy was impelled by animal suspicion to remain standing beside her bed.

Head lifted, she listened intently, wishing that the wind would declare an intermission and let the chimes fall silent.

Her bedside lamp featured a dimmer switch. She fumbled for it and eased the palest light into the room.

Only weeks before, she’d done something that, at the time, had seemed impulsive, excessive, even foolish. Because several stories of grisly murder had recently filled the news, she had bought a pistol and had taken three lessons in its use.

No. Not because of murder in the news.

That was a self-deception that allowed her to go on believing her life had merely encountered a length of bad track, that it had not derailed.

If her fear had been of homicidal strangers, she would have told someone, at least James Avery, that she had purchased the pistol and had taken lessons. She would have left the weapon in her night-stand, where it would be easy to reach-and where the maid would have seen it. She would not have hidden it in an unused purse, in the back of a bureau drawer that held a collection of purses.

Feeling as though she moved not through the waking world but in a dream, with just enough light to avoid the furniture, she went to the bureau and withdrew the purse that served as holster.

As Amy turned from the bureau, she heard the faint creak of the doorknob, and gasping she turned in time to see him enter, his eyes shining in the gloom, like ice on stone in moonlight. Michael.

Supposedly in Argentina on business, he was not due back for another six days.

He did not speak a word, nor did she, for the circumstances and his eyes and his lurid sneer were phrases in an infinite sentence on the subject of motive and violence.

Fast he was, and brutal. He hit her, and she rocked backward, the knobs of bureau drawers gouging her back. But she held on to the purse.

He clubbed her with one fist, striking at her face but hitting the side of her head, and she fell to her knees. But she held on to the purse.

Grabbing a fistful of her hair, Michael hauled her to her feet, and she was conscious of no pain, so totally was she in the thrall of terror.

She saw the knife then, how big it was.

He was not ready to use the blade, but twisted her hair to turn her, and she turned like a helpless doll.

When Michael shoved her hard, she stumbled away from him and fell, and almost struck her head against a dresser. But she held on to the purse.

She tore at the zipper of the purse, reached within, rolled onto her back, and worked the double action as she had been instructed.

The shot shattered something, missing Michael, but in shock he shrank from her.

She fired again, he fled, and as he passed through the doorway between the bedroom and hall, he cried out in pain when the third shot nailed him. He staggered, but he did not go down, and then he vanished.

In self-defense and in defense of the innocent, killing is not murder, hesitation is not moral, and cowardice is the only sin.

She went after him, certain that he was not mortally wounded, determined that he would be.

Into the hallway, light spilled from Nickie’s room.

In the clockworks of Amy’s heart, the key of terror wound the mainspring past the snapping point, and the scream that came from her was silent, silent, her lungs suddenly as airless as the world around her seemed to be, a vacuum in a vacuum.

With the pistol in both hands and held stiff-armed before her, she went into Nickie’s room, and Michael was not there.

He had been there earlier, and what Amy saw was aftermath, a sight from which she reeled in horror and in instant crippling grief, a sight that almost compelled her to put the pistol in her mouth and swallow her fourth shot.

But if in that moment she did not care whether she sent herself to Hell, she was determined to send him there.

Into the hall, down the stairs, she seemed not to run but fly, and in the entry hall found the front door standing open.

Impossible that she was still alive, that she was not dead from her own ardent wish to be dead, and yet she moved out of the house, across the porch, down the steps, into the night.

To the east, beyond the house, the concentrated light beamed out from the high lantern room, as powerful and silent as her still-silent scream, warning sailors in transit on the deep Atlantic.

Because its arc was constrained to 180 degrees in respect of inland dwellers, the lighthouse failed to brighten the night here in the west. Only a faint ghost pulse of its sweeping beam played upon the snow, so weak that it could quiver up no shadows.

Scanning the night, seeking Michael, she could not see him-and then did. He was running for the woods.

She squeezed off her fourth shot, and sea gulls thrashed into flight from the eaves of the high catwalk of the lighthouse, flew west in confusion, but then over her head wheeled east and high into the sky.

Michael was beyond the reach of the pistol, and she ran after him, holding her fire until she had gained ground.

She closed on him as she knew she would, because he was wounded and she was not, because he ran in fear and she ran in fury.

As Michael reached the woods, Amy fired again, but he did not fall, and the trees crowded around him and welcomed him into their dark.

Now it seemed to her that this was a fulfillment of her sweet girl’s dream, Nickie’s dream that she would be lost in the woods. Her father had not only taken her life but her soul, and he would cast it away in the forest, where she would wander forever, barefoot and afraid.

Crazy as that thought was, it compelled Amy ten steps into the woods, twenty, until she halted. Before her were a thousand pathways through the night, a maze of trees.

She listened but heard nothing. Either he was laying for her in this labyrinth or he had fled far enough along a trail he knew that she could not hear him running.

Were he lying in wait, she would risk being taken by surprise, because she might kill him anyway, in the struggle.

If on the other hand he had gone deep into the woods, if he had left a car on the farther side, along the county road, her pursuit of him would only ensure his escape.

Reluctantly, desperately, she retreated from the trees and ran back toward the house, to call the police.

She was almost to the front-porch steps when she realized that her gunfire had brought no one out of either house. Neither James nor Ellen Avery, nor Lisbeth, the maid, nor Caroline, the nanny.

They were all dead, and she the sole survivor.

Chapter 58

Harrow stands on the rocky brink above the beach, watching the wall of fog advance across the sea.

In a sufficient desolation of fog, when above the lower mist the sky itself is plated with black clouds and sunlight therefore doubly curtained, the automated lighthouse is programmed to beam forth even before darkfall.

Although the Coast Guard engineers are unaware of it, Harrow has learned to confuse the sensors and to prevent the light show from starting early in this weather. There will be no high flare to warn their incoming visitors.

Having waited nine years to finish the hard work of that night, he is impatient to show Amy the whetted knife, which is the same he used then. He hopes that she will recognize it and know, as he slips it in, that her daughter’s fate is hers, after all.

She may know the knife before she recognizes him. During the two years that he lived in Brazil, much work was done on his face.

Rio is the world capital of plastic surgery, boasting the finest collection of cosmetic surgeons to be found anywhere. People travel there from every continent to be made young and recuperate.

When after two years he returned to the States with a different name and a different face, he had begun to search for Amy. He was a busy man, with numerous lieutenants, and though he gave them orders for the most part indirectly and from a distance, he could not make the search his full-time job. He made of it instead his primary avocation.

He’d had to be discreet. Expressing an interest in her fate to anyone with access to sealed court records would bring him under too much scrutiny.

For a long while, both his own wits and private investigators had failed him. She had gone deep into her new life.

Only nine months ago had he thought of the locket she wore and of the sentimental story she had told about the dog that had walked out of a meadow, starving, and into the hearts of nuns and orphans.

She had always so admired golden retrievers. She had said that when Nicole was eight or nine, old enough to be responsible for a dog, she would buy a golden for the girl.

Also she had given money-his money-to a local golden-retriever rescue group. He had seen their publication and had wondered why they bothered. Dogs are dogs, and men are men, and they all die, and none of it matters if it isn’t you.

He suspected that, when adopting a new identity, she had kept her first name. Most people did, even in the witness-protection program, when the mob was hunting them.

Besides, after that winter night, she’d had not much left except her name. Needy orphan that she is, she would not want to be shorn of both her Christian name and her surname. Even more than most people, she has always needed something of the past to which she can hold tight.

The Internet had failed him and the investigators he had hired, but only for the lack of the right search string. With the words Amy, dogs, golden, retriever, and rescue, he made another try.

He located more than a few dog-loving Amys, but none other that had founded a rescue group. Her photograph did not grace their web site, but the more he read of the rescue accounts that she posted there, the more he recognized the voice of the woman he had married.

An investigator named Vernon Lesley had been able to obtain a photo of her, which confirmed that she was, indeed, the mother of Michael Cogland’s child, Harrow ’s child.

He could have moved against her then, aggressively, but he did not know how wary she might be. He took his time. He did research.

When he discovered she was dating McCarthy, he paid Vernon Lesley to do a sweep of the architect’s apartment. From that, he had learned of Vanessa, had read the e-mails she sent to Brian, and had become fascinated by her.

When he tracked her down-using sources more illegal than any available to McCarthy-and saw what she looked like, and met her face to face, he knew that his life had changed. Exploring the body, mind, and heart of Moongirl became more important to him, for a while, than finishing his business with Amy.

Now the day has come.

Chapter 59

For the moment, Amy could not talk any more, and she could not drive. She parked the Expedition on the shoulder of the highway.

Without another word, she walked into a meadow of stunted yellow grass, gray weeds. The land sloped but only slightly, and far out at the low crest, no oaks waited, but only more struggling grass and weeds, and beyond the crest an ashen sky, bearded and blind.

She stopped after she had gone twenty feet and looked at her hands, the palms and then the backs of them, and the palms again.

The memories were not stored only in her mind, but in her hands as well. The skin of her palms retained the memory of the last time she had touched her living child, the softness of her girl’s skin and the texture of her clean glossy hair as Amy had smoothed it back from her face, the warmth of the breath from her delicate nostrils.

Amy could feel all that and more-the sweet sweep of Nicole’s jaw line, the curve of her cheek, the tender lobe and helix of her ear-detailed sensations as real to her now as when the touch had occurred, sensations that she would carry with her all the days of her life, that could rush back to her both summoned and unsummoned, to devastate her when she least expected.

She walked farther into the meadow with no destination in mind, as she had proceeded for almost nine years, toward nothing concrete, seeking only a solution to her loss, all the while knowing that no solution was possible, that the meaning of her loss was an equation that could not be solved in this life.

In another twenty steps or a hundred, she dropped to her knees, but could not even maintain that posture, and went to her hands and knees, all fours, as if she were a child reduced to crawling, but she didn’t have the strength to crawl, or anywhere to go.

Source: www_Novel22_Net

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