The Darkest Evening of the Year Page 30

After she had stopped being Amy Cogland and could not return to being Amy Harkinson, as Amy Redwing, she had never told the story of that night to anyone. After so many years of husbanding her emotion, tending to it in the dark and quiet nights of sleepless recollection, she discovered that telling it to Brian had torn her down harder and farther than she had expected.

Knees and hands against the earth, she hung her head, for it was heavier than stone, and the sounds she made were more efforts to draw breath than they were sobs. She had wept when recounting the death of Nickie, Misericordiæ’s mascot. Now tears seemed not to be an adequate expression of the loss of her second Nickie. Perhaps the only way to honor such a loss would be to have died that night with her daughter.

She sat on the yellow grass, legs crossed, almost in the lotus position, except that she clutched her knees with her hands and still hung her head. She rocked slowly back and forth.

Once she had read that meditation was the path to serenity; but she never meditated. She knew that inevitably meditation would lead every time to contemplation of that night, to the same unanswerable questions, the one why and the thousand what-ifs.

She had prayer instead, and it sustained her. She prayed for her daughter, for James and Ellen, for Lisbeth and Caroline. She prayed for the dogs, all the dogs, for the amelioration of their suffering.

After a while, Amy looked up and saw Brian standing awkwardly forty feet away, with Nickie on a leash. Clearly, he wasn’t sure that giving her time to herself was the right thing, but of course it was.

She loved him for his occasional awkwardness, his hesitations, his doubts, his self-consciousness.

Michael Cogland had been always self-assured and smooth and confident in any context. But what had seemed to be a natural grace had been in fact the sociopathic gloss of a man who had never been inhibited by so much as a scintilla of humility.

Now Brian released the golden from the leash, and that was also the right thing. The dog raced into her arms.

After a hesitation, almost as gawky as a boy, Brian came to her and sat beside her.

Following an awkward silence, he said, “Dogs’ lives are short, too short, but you know that going in. You know the pain is coming, you’re going to lose a dog, and there’s going to be great anguish, so you live fully in the moment with her, never fail to share her joy or delight in her innocence, because you can’t support the illusion that a dog can be your lifelong companion. There’s such beauty in the hard honesty of that, in accepting and giving love while always aware it comes with an unbearable price. Maybe loving dogs is a way we do penance for all the other illusions we allow ourselves and for the mistakes we make because of those illusions.”

Dear God, she heard nothing awkward in that. In that was the perfect truth of her eight years in rescue, as she could never have put it into words.

For a time they didn’t need to speak, and they lavished on the dog, on this living Nickie, the affection they felt for each other.

“Michael fled the country,” she said at last, needing to finish the account. “They never found him. Although he didn’t go back to Argentina, he had established quite an alibi in Buenos Aires. His friends there swore he’d been with them on the night. Of course that wouldn’t work after I’d seen him and survived. What kind of people were they, swearing to a lie known to be a lie, when swearing to it didn’t matter anymore?”

Having claimed his inheritance by marrying and by fathering a child, Michael had no further use for a family. By law, a wife had a claim on a portion of his wealth, as did a child. Amy and Nicole were not assets, but liabilities, and he needed to purge them from his books.

He could have hired someone for this little accounting job, but he must have worried that a paid killer would have no scruples about engaging in blackmail. The savagery of the murders suggested that Michael had done the deed not solely to avoid being vulnerable to extortion, but also because killing gave him pleasure.

The police discovered he had prepared for the possibility that he might become a suspect in spite of his tightly woven alibi. In the three years preceding the night, he had gradually transferred most of his fortune out of the United States, moving it through a complex series of investments and entities designed to launder it and fold it away under an alternate identity that could never be traced.

Devastated by the actions of their son, the senior Coglands had been kind to Amy; they would have treated her as if she were their daughter. But her taste for luxury had been lost, and the lifestyle in which she once delighted now appealed to her no more than would have a diet of vinegar and ashes.

Amy had cashed out what comparatively little equity Michael had left in such mortgaged assets as their houses. Even that felt too much like blood money, and she knew she would have to find something to do with her life that would make her funds clean again.

Michael’s cold calculation and the extreme brutality with which he had treated his victims argued that he would not remain safely on some tropical island, lazing in the sun with piña coladas for the rest of his life. By fighting back, she had forced him into hiding; worse, literally and figuratively, she had wounded him.

When a man has no humility, pride is the thing that fills the void. He might feel that the wound she’d dealt to his pride required payback, and in time he might come looking for her.

Consequently, her attorney was able to convince the court that the government needed to assist her in the creation of a new identity and forever seal the records involving her name change.

She had lived as Amy Harkinson since she was three, and she had all but forgotten the last name pinned to her shirt when she’d been abandoned in the church at Mater Misericordiæ. Redwing.

She was quite sure she had never mentioned it to Michael. Her history of tragedy embarrassed her, as if she were a waif imagined by Dickens. Rather than the full truth with all the melodrama of her abandonment, and rather than present herself as a woman of unknown parentage, she had preferred a white lie of omission, allowing him to believe she had been the Harkinsons’ child and had gone to the orphanage only after their death.

Her attorney and the judge preferred she create a new name from whole cloth, but she had suffered panic attacks at the thought of a life without any touchstones to her past. The nuns at Misericordiæ cooperated by redacting the name Redwing from their records, and as best they could from memory.

She had, then, also lost the sisters who had raised her. Until Michael was found, if ever he was, Amy dared not return to Mater Misericordiæ for a visit.

She had come west. She bought a little bungalow. She became a bone to grief, gnawed thin, and a prisoner of loneliness, who for most of a year could find no way to escape her cell.

Then one day, slipping her locket around her neck, remembering sweet Nickie who had come to her out of an autumn meadow, she knew what she must do. She found a good breeder. She bought two puppies.

Fred and Ethel had brought hope back into her life. With hope she could again consider what meaning her life might have, and so she founded Golden Heart.

Now in the withered meadow, Brian’s cell phone rang. Vanessa had further directions. They were less than an hour from bringing Hope back into Brian’s life.

Chapter 60

The single-lane blacktop led half a mile off the county road before arriving at the simple, painted steel-pipe gate that barred passage.

If the pearly fog grew thicker, even in daylight the white gate might be hard to see in spite of the red reflectors affixed to it. In the headlights, a line of those ovals glittered as if the gate were a trophy rack mounted with the heads of giant rattlesnakes.

Billy Pilgrim put down the driver’s window and pressed the button on the call post.

After only a short delay, Harrow replied. “Who’s there?”

“It’s Billy.”

Harrow knew him by a few other names, as well, though not by the name Tyrone Slothrop.

“You’re cutting it tight,” Harrow admonished.

“I saw this beautiful young girl in a car with a bumper sticker that said ABSTINENCE ALWAYS WORKS, and I didn’t kill her.”

After a silence, Harrow said, “You always make me laugh, Billy. But not now, okay?”

“Juliette Junke says I’m working too hard. Maybe that’s it.”

“We’re gonna talk workloads now?”

“No. I’m just saying.”

“You have the bag of stuff from Amy’s house?”

“Yeah, but I’ll bring it to you later.”

“Later when?”

“Like you said, I’m cutting it tight. I’ve got to get set up. I’ll bring the bag when I bring you the bitch and McCarthy.”

“Are you all right?” Harrow asked.

“After this, I’m taking some time off. Do some reading, see if I can find that young mother with the two kids in the tandem stroller.”

“Young mother who?”

“Listen, I’ll get set up right away. I’ll bring the bag of stuff from Redwing’s house later.”

The gate swung open, and Billy drove through.

In the event of clear weather, he had the sniper rifle, which would have allowed him to conceal himself at a distance and shoot out a couple of tires on Redwing’s Expedition at the designated point in the road, taking them by surprise. They wouldn’t have had a chance to see him with a gun and throw the SUV in reverse, backing out of sight at high speed.

In this fog, however, Billy didn’t need the rifle. He could wait closer to the road. He would use the Glock machine pistol to blow the tires, to persuade Redwing and McCarthy to get out of the Expedition, and to shoot the dog through the side window.

Past the gate, the road rose and fell and curved for nearly a mile before it topped a final rise and descended the last two hundred yards to the lighthouse.

Harrow wanted Redwing to cross this crest, see the lighthouse, and realize that she had been lured to her death, and to worse than death. At that moment, Billy would disable the Expedition.

Right now, fog shrouded much of the lighthouse, but the tower was huge, and it loomed even in this murk.

Billy pulled off the pavement, drove among a cluster of hillside pines, parked, switched off the headlights, and killed the engine.

When he marched Redwing and McCarthy to the caretaker’s house, quite a program would unfold. The boss had showman-ship.

After the pair were chained in the kitchen, Harrow would no doubt tell Billy to wait for him in the lighthouse. That was where they discussed business, not in front of Vanessa.

Because Billy was the last man left who could link Redwing and McCarthy to the boss, Harrow would kill him in the lighthouse.

Billy wanted his midlife crisis to be in the middle of his life, not at the end. He wouldn’t wait in the lighthouse to be killed.

Instead, he would go to the garage and remove the spark plugs from both of Harrow ’s vehicles. Then he would return to his rented SUV and drive out of there, around the gate in the road, away.

No more Billy Pilgrim. Done, over, finito. He would be Tyrone Slothrop for a week, a month, perhaps for the rest of his life.

He would not be able to continue criminal activity in California, Arizona, or Nevada, or in select South American countries, because he was well known there in too many circles as an associate of Harrow.

Everybody liked pudgy balding Billy and wanted to hug him, but they feared Harrow and wanted to kiss his butt. Fear always trumped affection, and it was Billy’s experience that most human beings also preferred butt-kissing to hugging.

Once it was known that Billy had fallen from Harrow’s grace, every old friend he met would want to kill him right away, to please Harrow. Friendship wasn’t worth the heart it was written on, as Billy himself had proved many times, as when he had shot Georgie Jobbs. A heart was just meat, people were meat, meat didn’t care. Did a filet mignon care about a pork chop? No.

As Tyrone Slothrop, he would have to go somewhere Harrow and his crowd would never travel. Like Oklahoma or Utah or South Dakota. This would be a hardship, but he would find lots of crime to commit in his new turf; and there were people to kill no matter where you went.

He would have to lose weight, grow a mustache, cut off an ear. If a friend of Harrow’s did cross Tyrone’s path in Pierre, South Dakota, he would maybe do a double take, but then say Nah, it can’t be Billy. Billy had two ears. As a disguise, cutting off an ear is better than a Tyrolean hat and fake gold teeth combined and cubed.

Maybe he was getting his groove back. His life was beginning to seem meaningless and brutal and comic again, just like the fiction he admired.

He got out of the rented SUV with the plastic bag of crap from Redwing’s house and the Glock 18. He had taken the silencer off the Glock. The boss wanted to hear the bang.

He walked up the slope and chose a position just below the crest, at the edge of the small copse of trees.

The fog imparted a pleasant chill to his exposed face and his bare head, and it suppressed most noises. He could barely hear the surf breaking, which sounded like ten thousand people whispering in the distance.

Thinking in similes and metaphors was a not always welcome consequence of being formed by literature.

Like ten thousand people whispering in the distance.

It wasn’t a very good simile, because why would ten thousand people be gathered anywhere to whisper?

Once the simile was in his head, he couldn’t cast it out, and it began to annoy him. Annoyance phased into uneasiness, and soon uneasiness became a deep disquiet.

As improbable as the image was, the thought of ten thousand people whispering together began to creep him out.

All right. Enough. It was just a damn simile. It didn’t mean anything. Nothing meant anything, ever. He was doing fine. He was back in his groove. He was just swell. Hi-ho.

Chapter 61

They turned toward the coast and were eventually found by fog again, which didn’t creep around them on little cat feet but prowled forward with no less menace than a pack of lions.

Vanessa called Brian three times at fifteen-minute intervals, with additional bursts of directions, as her wealthy paranoid fiancé tried to thwart any tabloid-television crews that might be tailing them with or without their knowledge.

The absurdity of it seemed to confirm the reality of Vanessa’s story, and by the time they reached the white gate, Amy wanted to believe that the document signing, while awkward and unpleasant, would not be an intolerable ordeal.

Even with fog lights, they almost didn’t see the gate. The red reflectors were nearly defeated by the curdled mist.

When Brian, who was driving, pushed a button on the call post, Vanessa answered. “It’s a mile and a half past the gate, Bry. Piggy’s packed and I’ve got Dom Perignon on ice. Let’s get this done. I’m so happy the little freak is getting out of here, I might pee myself.”

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