The Darkest Evening of the Year Page 3

The tide of foul emotion seemed to recede in him, leaving his face as smooth as washed sand.

Without the anger he had shown previously, he said, “See…the way things are…nothing’s better than smashing.”

Taking a step toward the table that separated them, Brian said, “The way things are. Help me understand the way things are.”

The hooded eyes looked sleepy, but the reptilian mind behind them might be acrawl with calculation.

“Wrong,” Carl said. “Things are all wrong.”

“What things?”

His voice swam up from fathoms of melancholy. “You wake in the middle of the night, when it’s blind-dark and quiet enough to think for once, and you can feel then how wrong it all is, and no way ever to make it right. No way ever.”

As clear and silvery as the music of Uilleann pipes in an Irish band, Theresa’s small voice raised the hairs on the nape of Amy’s neck, because whatever the girl’s words meant, they conveyed a sense of longing and loss.

Brockman looked at his daughter. His sudden tears might have been for the girl or for the song, or for himself.

Perhaps the child’s voice had a premonitory quality or perhaps Amy’s instincts had been enriched by the companionship of so many dogs. She was suddenly certain that Carl’s rage had not abated and that, concealed, it swelled toward violent expression.

She knew the iron would swing without warning and take the broken wife in the face, breaking her twice and forever, shattering the hidden skull into the living brain.

As if premonition were a wave as real as light, it seemed to travel from Amy to Brian. Even as she inhaled to cry out, he moved. He didn’t have time to circle the kitchen. Instead he scrambled from floor to chair to table.

A tear fell to the hand that held the iron, and the fingers tightened on the weapon.

Janet’s eyes widened. But Carl had drowned her spirit. She stood motionless, breathless, defenseless under a suffocating weight of despair.

As Brian climbed toward confrontation, Amy realized that the bludgeon might as likely be flung at the child as swung at the wife, and she moved toward Theresa.

Atop the table, Brian seized the weapon as it ascended to strike a blow at Janet, and he fell upon Brockman. They sprawled on the floor, into broken glass and slices of lime and puddles of tequila.

Amy had left the front door open, and from the farther end of the house came a voice: ”Police.” They had arrived without sirens.

“Back here,” she called, gathering Theresa to her as the girl’s song murmured to a whisper, whispered into silence.

Janet stood rigid, as if the blow might yet come, but Brian rose in possession of the tire iron.

Braided leather gun belts creaking, hands on the grips of their holstered pistols, two policemen entered the kitchen, solid men and alert. One told Brian to put down the tire iron, and Brian placed it on the table.

Carl Brockman clambered to his feet, left hand bleeding from a shard of embedded bottle glass. Once burning bright with anger, his tear-streaked face had paled to ashes, and his mouth had gone soft with self-pity.

“Help me, Jan,” he pleaded, reaching out to her with his bloody hand. “What am I gonna do now? Baby, help me.”

She took a step toward him, but halted. She glanced at Amy, then at Theresa.

With her thumb, the child had corked her song inside, and she had closed her eyes. Throughout these events, her face had remained expressionless, as though she might be deaf to all the threats of violence and to the crash of iron on oak.

The only indication that the girl had any connection to reality was the fierceness of her grip on Amy’s hand.

“He’s my husband,” Janet told the police. “He hit me.” She put a hand to her mouth, but then lowered it. “My husband hit me.”

“Oh, Jan, please don’t do this.”

“He hit our little boy. Bloodied his nose. Our Jimmy.”

One of the officers took the tire iron off the table, propped it in a corner beyond easy reach, and instructed Carl to sit in a dinette chair.

Now came questions and inadequate answers and gradually a new kind of awfulness: the recognition of lost promise and the bitter cost of vows not kept.

After Amy had told her story to the police, and while the others told theirs, she led Theresa out of the kitchen, along the hallway, seeking the boy. He might have been anywhere in the house, but she was drawn to the open front door.

The porch smelled of the night-blooming jasmine that braided through the white laths of a trellis. She had not detected the scent earlier.

The breeze had died. In the stillness, the eucalyptus trees stood as grim as mourners.

Past the dark patrol car at the curb, in the middle of the moon-washed street, boy and dog seemed to be at play.

The tailgate of the Expedition was open. The boy must have let Nickie out of the SUV.

On second look, Amy realized that Jimmy was not playing a game with the retriever, that instead he was trying to run away. The dog blocked him, thwarted him, strove to herd him back to the house.

The boy fell to the pavement and stayed where he dropped, on his side. He drew his knees up in the fetal position.

The dog lay next to him, as though keeping a watch over him.

Settling Theresa on a porch step, Amy said, “Don’t move, honey. All right? Don’t move.”

The girl did not reply and perhaps was not capable of replying.

Through a night as quiet as an abandoned church, breathing eucalyptic incense, Amy hurried into the street.

Nickie watched her as she approached. Under the moon, the golden looked silver, and all the light of that high lamp seemed to be given to her, leaving everything else in the night to be brightened only by her reflection.

Kneeling beside Jimmy, Amy heard him weeping. She put a hand on his shoulder, and he did not flinch from her touch.

She and the dog regarded each other across the grieving boy.

The retriever’s face was noble, with at this moment none of the comic expression of which the breed was so capable. Noble and solemn.

All the houses but one remained dark, and the silence of the stars filled the street, disturbed only by the boy’s softly expressed anguish, which grew quiet as Amy smoothed his hair.

“Nickie,” she whispered.

The dog did not raise its ears or c**k its head, or in any way respond, but it stared at her, and stared.

After a while, Amy encouraged the boy to sit up. “Put your arms around my neck, sweetheart.”

Jimmy was small, and she scooped him off the pavement, carrying him in the cradle of her arms. “Never again, sweetheart. That’s all over.”

The dog led the way to the Expedition, ran the last few steps, and sprang through the open tailgate.

While Amy deposited the boy in the backseat, Nickie watched from the cargo space.

“Never again,” Amy said, and kissed the boy on the forehead. “I promise you, honey.”

The promise surprised and daunted her. This boy was not hers, and the arcs of their lives likely would have only this intersection and a short parallel course. She could not do for a stranger’s child what she could do for dogs, and sometimes she could not even save the dogs.

Yet she heard herself repeat, “I promise.”

She closed the door and stood for a moment at the back of the SUV, shivering in the mild September night, watching Theresa on the front-porch steps.

The moon painted faux ice on the concrete driveway and faux frost on the eucalyptus leaves.

Amy remembered a winter night with blood upon the snow and a turbulence of sea gulls thrashing into flight from the eaves of the high catwalk, white wings briefly dazzling as they oared skyward through the sweeping beam of the lighthouse, like an honor guard of angels escorting home a sinless soul.

Chapter 3

Brian McCarthy and Associates occupied offices on the ground floor of a modest two-story building in Newport Beach. He lived on the upper floor.

Amy braked to a stop in the small parking lot beside the place. Leaving Janet, the two children, and the dog, Nickie, in the SUV, she accompanied Brian to the exterior stairs that led to his apartment.

A lamp glowed at the top of the long flight, but here at the bottom, the darkness was unrelieved.

She said, “You smell like tequila.”

“I think I’ve still got a slice of lime in my shoe.”

“Climbing the table to jump him-that was reckless.”

“Just trying to impress my date.”

“It worked.”

“I’d sure like to kiss you now,” he said.

“As long as we don’t generate enough heat to bring the global-warming police down on us, go ahead.”

He looked at the Expedition. “Everybody’s watching.”

“After Carl, maybe they need to see people kissing.”

He kissed her. She was good at it.

“Even the dog’s watching,” he said.

“She’s wondering-if I paid two thousand for her, how much did I pay for you.”

“You can put a collar on me anytime.”

“Let’s leave it at kisses for now.” She kissed him again before returning to the Expedition.

After watching her drive away, he went upstairs. His apartment was spacious, with Santos-mahogany floors and butter-yellow walls.

The minimalist contemporary furnishings and serene Japanese art suggested less a bachelor pad than a monk’s quarters. He had gutted, rebuilt, and furnished these rooms before he met Amy. He didn’t want to be either a bachelor or a monk anymore.

After stripping out of his tequila-marinated clothes, he took a shower. Maybe the hot water would make him sleepy.

Still feeling as alert and wide-eyed as an owl, he dressed in jeans and a Hawaiian shirt. At 2:56 A.M., he was awake for the day.

With a mug of fresh-brewed coffee, he settled at the computer in his study. He needed to get work done before sleep deprivation melted the edge off his concentration.

Two e-mails awaited him. The sender was pigkeeper.

Vanessa. She hadn’t contacted him in over five months. He had begun to think he would never hear from her again.

For a while, he stared at the screen, reluctant to let her into his life once more. If he never again read her messages, if he never answered them, he might be rid of her in time.

Hope would be gone with her, however. Hope would be lost. The price of freezing Vanessa out of his life was too great.

He opened the first e-mail.

Piggy wants a puppy. How stupid is that? How can a piggy take care of a puppy when the puppy’s smarter? I’ve known houseplants smarter than Piggy.

Brian closed his eyes. Too late. He had opened himself to her, and now she was alive again in the lighted rooms of his mind, not just in the dark corners of memory.

How are you doing, Bry? Do you have cancer yet? You’re only thirty-four next week, but people die young of cancer all the time. It’s not too much to hope for.

After printing a hard copy of her message, he filed the e-mail electronically under Vanessa.

To avoid slopping coffee out of the mug, he held it with both hands. The brew tasted fine, but coffee was no longer all that he needed.

From the sideboard in the dining room, he fetched a bottle of cognac. In the study once more, he added a generous portion of Rémy Martin to the mug.

He was not much of a drinker. He kept the Rémy for visitors. The visitor tonight was unwelcome, and here in spirit only.

For a while he wandered through the apartment, drinking coffee, waiting for the cognac to take the edge off his nerves.

Amy was right: Carl Brockman was a pussy. The drunkard reeked of tequila, but even at a distance, Vanessa smelled of brimstone.

When Brian felt ready, he returned to the computer and opened the second e-mail.

Hey, Bry. Forgot to tell you a funny thing.

Without reading further, he pressed the PRINT key and then filed the e-mail under Vanessa.

Silence pooled in the apartment, and not a sound ascended from the office below or from the dark depths of the street.

He closed his eyes. But only genuine blindness would excuse him from the obligation to read the hard copy.

Back in July, the pigster built sandcastles all day on the little beach we have in this new place, then wound up with a killer sunburn, looked like a baked ham. Old Piggy couldn’t sleep for days, cried half the night, started peeling and then itched herself raw. You might expect the smell of fried bacon, but there wasn’t.

He was a swimmer on the surface of the past, an abyss of memory under him.

Piggy is pink and smooth again, but there’s a mole on her neck that seems to be changing. Maybe the sunburn made some melanoma. I will keep you informed.

He put this second printout with the first. Later he would read both again, searching for clues in addition to “the little beach.”

In the kitchen, Brian poured the contents of the mug down the drain. He no longer needed coffee and no longer wanted cognac.

Guilt is a tireless horse. Grief ages into sorrow, and sorrow is an enduring rider.

He opened the refrigerator, but then closed it. He could no more eat than sleep.

Returning to the study and working on one of his current custom-home projects had no appeal. Architecture might be frozen music, as Goethe once said, but right now he was deaf to it.

From a kitchen drawer, he extracted a large tablet of art paper and a set of drawing pencils. He had stashed these things in every room of the apartment.

He sat at the dinette table and began to sketch a concept for the building that Amy hoped he would design for her: a place for dogs, a haven where no hand would ever be raised against them, where every affection wanted would be given.

She owned a piece of land on which hilltop oaks spread against the sky, long shadows lengthening down sloped meadows in the early morning, retracting toward the crest as the day ripened toward noon. She had a vision for it that inspired him.

Nevertheless, after a while, Brian found himself turning from sketch to portrait, from a haven for dogs to the animal itself. He had a gift for portraiture, but never before had he drawn a dog.

As his pencils whispered across the paper, an uncanny feeling overcame him, and a strange thing happened.

Chapter 4

After dropping Brian at his place, Amy Redwing called Lottie Augustine, her neighbor, and explained that she was bringing in three rescues who were not dogs and who needed shelter.

Lottie served in the volunteer army that did the work of Golden Heart, the organization Amy founded. A few times in the past, she’d risen after midnight to help in an emergency, always with good cheer.

Having been a widow for a decade and a half, having retired from a nursing career, Lottie found as much meaning in tending to the dogs as she had found in being a good wife and a caring nurse.

The drive from Brian’s place to Lottie’s house was stressed by silence: little Theresa asleep in the backseat, her brother slumped and brooding beside her, Janet in the passenger seat but looking lost and studying the deserted streets as if these were not just unknown neighborhoods but were the precincts of a foreign country.

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