The blood pouring from Will Ravencroft’s gaping wounds slowly congealed in the thick crust of brittle lichen beneath him. Insects already had picked up the scent. It wouldn’t be long before the other predators did, too.
Less than ten feet away, Tosamovich finished working on the detonator, manipulating its intricate inner workings with instruments so small and delicate, they looked like toys in his massive hands. With a grunt of satisfaction, he completed the arduous task, removed his grotesquely thick spectacles, then crawled into his sleeping bag for a few hours of rest before project Deathwatch would begin in earnest. He rolled on to his side with his back toward Ravencroft, his hand familiarly wrapped around the 9mm Beretta as if it grew there, the heavy oak club with its deadly spiked cap just out of reach. Soon his enormous body heaved rhythmically and he began to snore, a harsh, more animal that human sound.
Ravencroft’s eyes swept the ground around him, seeking anything he could use as a weapon. Only a single oak twig, about eight inches long and a quarter inch in diameter, disrupted the uniform mat of woodland detritus that covered the ground between the rock that sheltered him and his quarry. He wouldn’t have noticed it except there was nothing else to see.
Slowly he inched toward the twig, gritting his teeth to keep from screaming as the weight of his body sheered off razor sharp slabs of lichen that ground into his battered flesh and set the blood flowing again. Almost blinded by pain, he grabbed the twig and stripped off its few leaves and sharpened one end into a crude point with his teeth, all the while staring at Tosamovich lying in the dimming light, willing him not to awaken.
He would only have one chance.
And it wouldn’t be a good one.
Tosamovich’s myopic eyes flew open the instant Ravencroft rammed the sharpened stick deep into the bomber’s ear canal and they remained open while Ravencroft repeatedly slammed the terrorist’s impaled skull into the ground, one time for each time the demented genius had hit him with that club.
Some time later Ravencroft heard it, a sound so familiar and yet so out of place. When his eyes focused through the pain he saw it. A greenbottle fly, Lucila caesar, circled then alit and walked lightly over the velvety surface of Tosamovich’s cornea to drank from the pool of blood that oozed from the corner of his eye.
The terrorist didn’t blink.
This part, at least, was over.
* * *
It was over for me, too. I tucked Chandler McCarthy’s latest book, Massacre in Monterey, back in my purse and stared out the plane window. If my former partner had Will Ravencroft ramming chewed sticks in people’s ears by page five, I could imagine what his hero would be doing by page ten. Considering Tosamovich intended to blow up a plane filled with innocents such as myself, I decided to nap rather than read.
Of course, I dreamed. Who wouldn’t after reading something like that? However, rather than dreaming about either Ravencroft or his creator, I dreamed that God was trying to kill me and one of my dogs, a corgi named Elizabeth. I screamed and then fell down a very long way, until I finally hit.
And then I bounced which, naturally, woke me up.
“Rough landing wasn’t it?” asked my seatmate as the crowded plane taxied toward the LaGuardia terminals.
“Not as rough as dreaming God just tried to kill me and my dog,” I automatically replied, struggling to rid myself of the unnerving dream and wake up simultaneously. I ran a hand through my gray-tinged curls and stretched my 5’4″ frame in the cramped space as best I could.
“You dream about God?” the woman asked.
“Not usually.” I stifled a yawn then babbled on while I searched for my shoes. “Although a week ago I did dream He planned to reincarnate me as a snappy poodle with chronic ear problems if I didn’t get my life together.”
A strangled gasp caused me to look at my companion for the first time since the plane left Denver.
“Oh, I didn’t mean to offend you,” I apologized to the older woman nervously fingering the large cross upheld by her ample bosom. “I work with a lot of problem animals and sometimes it spills over into my dreams.”
Unfortunately I waved my newly discovered shoe when I offered what I considered that logical explanation of my work as a veterinary behaviorist, a gesture that caused her to leap up in alarm. After flinging a packet of religious pamphlets in my direction, she forced her way into the mob vacating the crowded plane and disappeared.
“Welcome to New York,” I muttered to another passenger who just barely missed bashing me on the head with his laptop.
* * *
Weirdness begets weirdness. As I made my way toward the Upper Connecticut Valley Airlines hovel tucked in a remote nook of the Delta terminal, thoughts of former partner, writer/teacher/consultant/maybe sometimes cop/spook Chandler McCarthy cut into those of God trying to off me and my dog.
At the time I attributed the link between McCarthy and a vengeful God to exhaustion after giving a seminar on human-animal relationships to a group of veterinary colleagues in Denver, followed by a rough, crowded flight back to the East Coast and reading those few pages of his latest book. Being a quiet, peace-loving person, I tried to discount the uneasy feeling that he wound up in my head because the idea of dead bodies automatically reminded me of him.
Even though that explanation made extremely good sense.
However, I’d spent the last three months trying to forget the meticulous Chandler McCarthy and had no intention of letting a few dead bodies, even my own and my dog’s, throw me off track now. True, I did purchase his book in the airport in Denver, but only because I needed something to read on the plane.
As I made my way through the airport, I cleared my mind of all but the most pastoral thoughts, a technique that sustained me until I stood at the Upper Connecticut Valley Airlines ticket counter a short while later. Once there even the power of the most positive thinking couldn’t overshadow glaring reality: That damn plane wasn’t going to fly. I knew it the instant the ticket agent refused to establish eye contact when he handed me my boarding pass.
If I’d missed that telltale sign, even a gerbil couldn’t miss the fact that only two other people—a man and a woman—sat in the waiting area. Even if both intended to take my flight, a likely probability because there were no other scheduled flights at that time, it took no Wall Street wizard to realize it would cost more to fly the plane than the already struggling airline could afford.
“Will passenger Jeffrey Stone please come to the Upper Connecticut Valley Airlines ticket counter.” The bored voice that suddenly blared through the ceiling speaker directly above me caused me to jump.
The man sitting in the otherwise unoccupied last row rose slightly then abruptly settled back into his seat, an aborted conditioned response if I ever saw one. When the message filled the room again, he appeared totally oblivious to it. I saw a similar phenomenon in problem dogs during retraining. They reached a point where they knew the right response, but it wasn’t a habit yet and they still needed to consciously override the old behavior with the new. However, the fact that Jeffrey Stone chose not to acknowledge his page was his problem, not mine.
Still radiating the calm aura of an experienced, about-to-be-abused traveler, I sat down three seats away from the other woman passenger and removed Massacre in Monterey from my bag. However, my seatmate’s constant movements made it impossible to concentrate on McCarthy’s meticulous description of what a submachine gun modeled after a Heckler & Koch Model HK54 could do to a human body when fired a close range. Not that I really wanted to know.
First one, then the other expensive black leather boot tapped the dull gray carpeting next to me. Knees flexed and straightened repeatedly without disturbing the fine crease of the tan slacks. Slender fingers tugged at the pleats of an impeccably tailored white silk blouse and shot the cuffs of an equally elegant tan blazer. Even when the graceful hands appeared to lay quietly at rest on the rectangular handbag in her lap, the woman’s right thumb swept the same quadrant of expensive black leather again and again.
Intrigued, I stole a look at her face and saw a mask so devoid of animation it looked uninhabited. She looked like a doll, an exquisite electronic doll whose flawed circuitry only permitted her to twitch, tug, and tap incessantly from the neck down.
I found this analogy so disconcerting, I swiveled my head quickly in the opposite direction—just in time to catch the waiting area’s other occupant also staring at the woman. His presence startled me because I knew that he’d been sitting in a remote corner of the last row when I first noticed him. Now he occupied a seat less than six feet away. I tried to convince myself that I imagined he leaned ever so slightly toward me as if daring me to trust my middle-aged memory, the one that misplaced cups of tea and bank statements more and more often lately.
But it didn’t work.
Unfortunately I possess a vivid imagination and near-empty airports with their brain-rotting fluorescent lighting create a stimulus void that aches for fulfillment. The man’s cynical gray eyes shifted away from the woman and captured and held mine for less than an instant, but that was enough. I felt it in my stomach.
I felt it as my own pupils dilated as if to flee around the hard, precise limits of his.
I felt it in the instantaneous dryness of my throat.
“Will Upper Connecticut Valley Airlines Flight 3524 passenger Jeffrey Stone pul-ease come to the ticket counter,” stridently brayed the public address system once more.
There is was again. The almost imperceptible response of an almost trained dog. In the instant his eyes flashed upwards, I leaped from my seat and strode purposefully to the nearest bank of phones to reserve a rental car. True, the winged gods had yet to cancel the flight, but I needed some kind of normal activity to take my mind off those two or pretty soon I’d convince myself that they were both psychopathic killers or some damn thing.
Then because I still couldn’t bear the thought of turning around and facing the disconcerting duo again, I called my home number. After four rings my own voice answered and somewhat primly informed me of my absence, a sentiment I found peculiarly metaphysical every time I heard it. When I entered the message retrieval code, my housesitter’s cheerful voice bubbled forth.
“Uh, it’s like, uh, so beautiful out that I, uh, can’t imagine the plane not flying, so I, uh, fed and exercised the dogs and am, well, uh, I’m going camping with my boyfriend, Shawn, you know.”
Grouchy Traveler’s Translation I: My house-sitter, Sherry Pickering, had abandoned the pets in favor of a hot date.
Grouchy Traveler’s Translation II: The pets would suffer irreversible physical and emotional trauma if not die of starvation if I didn’t make it home that night.
I sighed, knowing both interpretations reflected my own sour mood far more than any reality. I couldn’t ask for a better housesitter than Sherry and the pets undoubtedly would survive, probably in much better shape than their owner.
Just as I hung up on Sherry’s disgustingly bubbly voice and turned back to the waiting area, a more mature voice from above gravely informed me that Upper Connecticut Valley Airlines Flight 3524 regrettably would not fly in spite of all their very best efforts due to bad weather in Lebanon, New Hampshire.
As this voice faded, the white-faced woman gave a strangled scream, grabbed her bag, and fled.
* * *
As usual, I found knowing where I stood—no matter how bad—preferable to not knowing. Now I could do something more than just sit and wait and read McCarthy’s book. Now I could drag my travel-weary body down to the car rental booth, pick up the keys to some equally weary car, and drive five hours on some of the most congested as well as most desolate roads in the country.
Oh, yippee. That called for a stop in the restroom.
As soon as I pushed open the door I saw the white-faced woman retching violently over a sink and sobbing hysterically, a physiological and emotional combination I immediately recognized as potentially disastrous. Dropping my belongings, I rushed to her side, placed both hands firmly on her shoulders, and commenced a soft but steady steam of comforting chatter. When the retching subsided, I shoved some tissues into her trembling hands and let her cry it out. Only when the sobs gave way to whimpers and then silence did I address her directly.
“How do you feel?” I asked as I replaced the soggy tissues with dry ones.
“Like a damn fool,” she replied with an accent I immediately pegged as British.
“Anything I can get you?” I couldn’t help sneaking a peek at my watch and thinking about the long drive ahead as I made the required helpful overture.
She shook her head and smiled slightly, further verifying the fact that she was indeed a strikingly beautiful woman.
“You were flying to Lebanon?” I asked the obvious question even as my more rational self had already placed me out the door. “I was too. I rented a car. You’re welcome to ride with me.”
These uncharacteristically inane remarks resulted from the fact that a voice inside my head was simultaneously screaming at me while I spoke.
“Are you out of your friggin’ mind? Dump this broad and get the hell outta here!” it shouted.
My conscience—I assume that’s what it is—originally consisted of a whole chorus on inner voices. However after I met McCarthy, one of the more earthy ones assumed a more dominant position, probably to compensate for what it considered my tendency to take a somewhat romantic, pollyanna-ish view of life. It became even more vocal and testy when my sons presented me with a copy of The Single Woman’s Guide To Self-Defense, co-authored by a retired marine drill sergeant and a militant feminist, after I’d had a run-in with a goatnapper and a killer.
Regardless what my internal inhabitant desired, though, the gorgeous traveler accepted my offer of a ride with sufficient animation to put a tinge of the faintest pink on either cheek and the glimmer of a sparkle in her already exceedingly lovely green eyes. That ignited a verbal fire storm in the minute area of my brain reserved for impolite expression.
“You idiot!” screamed my practically deranged alter-ego, surely jumping up and down and kicking some hopefully nonessential lump of gray matter. “You absolute idiot! Have you no brains?”
I, however, merely suggested to my new traveling companion that she freshen up while I get the car.
Although I requested a Toyota when I reserved my rental, I got stuck with a Chrysler, a car saved from total infamy only by the fact that it sported New Hampshire plates which I found symbolically comforting in my present mood. A short time later and genuinely trying to squelch my feelings of martyrdom, I pulled the vehicle up in front of the terminal just as the woman emerged from the building.
“Perfect timing!” she exclaimed with surprising animation as she stowed her luggage in the back seat with mine.
Although still quite pale, she looked well on her way toward full recovery. In fact, I found myself secretly hoping she wouldn’t recover too much more. I already felt sufficiently rumpled and dowdy to delay, if not completely abort, my martyr-squelching process.
“I’m Sara Klafin, come from London to relive a few good old days and attend a bit of business in New Hampshire,” my new traveling companion introduced herself as I pulled away from the terminal.
The statement struck me as awkward and contrived, especially the good old days part, and I forced myself to respond before my imagination caused me to wonder why.
“I’m StClair Upton, just a native just trying to get home.”
Although normally I would have offered my hand, the airport traffic was exceptionally hostile that evening and I flashed my passenger a quick smile instead.
“Sinclair, as in Sinclair Lewis?” asked the woman, echoing a question I’ve answered in one form or another almost every day of my life.
“And Upton Sinclair. Unfortunately my parents loved word games as well as American literature,” I explained. “It’s pronounced the same as the writers’ names, but spelled like that of a woman canonized for baking three million communion wafers in two hours without an oven for the Pope.”
“Really!” Sara Klafin exclaimed in astonishment.
“No,” I laughed. “I made up the wafer miracle when I was ten and wanted to be Catholic like my best friend. The ecclesiastical spelling comes from my parents’ desire to spare me from going through life burdened with a masculine name. Consequently I go through life burdened with a name no one can spell or pronounce.”
As I spoke, I threaded my way through LaGuardia’s perpetual maze of construction and mentally programmed myself for home. Two cabs made maliciously good-natured attempts to cut us off from either side and I gripped the wheel grimly and slipped between one of them and a cement barrier with scant inches to spare. Noticing my passenger nervously rubbing that same corner of her handbag again, I assured her that the worst of the traffic would soon be behind us.
As if to remind me that life offered no such guarantees, a grey sedan suddenly materialized much too close to my car’s rear end before moving to an equally unsafe position on its left side as the two-lane road converged into one.
“You moron!” I swore as I struggled to maneuver out of danger and glare at the shadowy driver of the other vehicle at the same time.
It all took place in less than a instant.
Surely I imagined it.
Surely the car didn’t veer even more closely toward us before dropping back to take its place among the featureless stream of traffic that flowed onto the expressway.
As the miles and minutes dragged on, Sara Klafin and I gradually became comfortable with each other in that special way of women. At first we explored only the most insignificant and unrevealing outermost circles of our respective lives. However each time we discovered an experience we shared in common, the conversation would make a sudden jump into a closer, more intimate ring, not unlike the way an electron gives up a photon of light when it moves from one energy level to another. Soon I knew that Sara was a biochemist who spent most of her professional life in academia, and Sara knew I was a veterinarian who explored the many ramifications of human-animal relationships.
“I find the idea of atoms and molecules totally incomprehensible,” I admitted, although I didn’t admit that I found those like Chandler McCarthy who also studied them damn incomprehensible at times, too.
“Well, I find the idea of diagnosing and treating animals equally mind-boggling—worse than working on infants,” my companion laughed.
The thought of someone working on infants caused my mind to jump to the memory of the surgeon who performed corrective eye surgery on my son more than twenty years before. The incident remained so vivid in my mind that I felt compelled to describe it to my new friend.
“Just the sight of that huge man holding that baby scared me to death even though I knew he was quite competent,” I summed up my feelings at the time.
“I know exactly what you mean,” Sara agreed with an degree of conviction that approached passion. “My son was born with a renal problem and I came close to letting the poor boy wear diapers for the rest of his life because the specialist who treated him so frightened me. Something about the juxtaposition of that helpless child and all that cleverly disguised ego…”
She let the words trail off and I lost myself in thoughts of kidneys and urinary bladders and all their related problems in youngsters. Then a carload of boisterous college students overtook and passed us, and that precipitated comments about the trials and tribulations of modern youth, particularly those of its young men which we both knew of first-hand from raising sons of our own. That particular conversational ring disintegrated when I proudly laid claim to two sons and Sara quietly countered that her son and only child had died suddenly, two days before his twenty-third birthday.
Feeling a great deal more compassion than I could possibly hope to articulate, I proffered the usual inanities that invariably follow such a joyless revelation.
“How terrible for you and your husband,” I sympathized without taking my eyes off the road.
“Yes, it was very terrible for me. Some days it still doesn’t seem possible,” Sara replied in a lifeless tone that suggested she, too, recognized both the social necessity as well as the vapidness of such exchanges.
Noticing that she had meticulously dissected her husband from her reference to the event, I attempted to rechannel the conversation along less troublesome lines without changing it sufficiently to suggest I didn’t want to talk about her loss if she wanted to continue the discussion.
“I imagine if anything happened to one of my sons, I’d take a trip or do something very distracting to keep from thinking about it all the time,” I commented, in reality knowing I’d probably go to pieces and do nothing, just like I did when my husband, Bob Brown, died.
“I feel exactly the opposite,” Sara replied almost apologetically. “My husband and I spent some time at Hanover College, the sister school of Crowningshield Abbey where we both taught in England. Then Philip-my son-attended several summer sessions there. Philip and I both loved it so much, it seemed a natural place to visit when things fell apart.”
“Hanover College? I teach there!” I felt my comments veering toward inanity again, but I prided myself in my ability to read people as well as animals and it bothered me that Sara Klafin exuded an aura that seemed to grow more obscure and impenetrable rather than clearer with each passing mile.
“How extraordinary!” exclaimed Sara..”Perhaps you knew my son, Philip, Philip Klafin?”
“Sorry,” I apologized as I maneuvered around an overloaded truck. “I just took the job. As a Wentworth Fellow. Before that, I rarely set foot on the campus except for an occasional concert.”
“Oh,” Sara sighed, obviously disappointed. “Not about you’re being a Fellow. That’s quite an honor. I’d just hoped to meet someone who knew him.”
The wistful tone that crept into her voice when she spoke of her son touched me deeply.
“Would you like to stop and get something to eat?” I offered, hoping to dispel the gloom that had settled over the two of us. If Sara wanted a graceful way to terminate the conversation about her son, I’d give her one.
* * *
After Sara gratefully accepted the offer, I pulled off the interstate about five miles west of Waterbury, Connecticut and we entered a McDonald’s. As I smoothed my napkin over my rumpled skirt in an attempt to hide its wrinkles more than to protect it, I tried to pinpoint what bothered me about the beautiful creature sitting across the table from me.
She didn’t seem normal, but not abnormal either in the kick-’em-in-the- crotch-ask-questions-later sense ofThe Single Woman’s Guide To Self-Defense. Aside from nervously running her fingers over that same quadrant of her handbag occasionally, her behavior appeared perfectly ordinary.
Segmented. As I picked the sesame seeds off my bun I decided that word described Sara Klafin much better. She acted as if she were playing out roles on two different stages simultaneously. In one, she sat opposite me playing with her iceberg lettuce and carrot pennies, while in the other, she did…What? I didn’t have a clue.
We ate in silence and eventually my thoughts drifted away from my enigmatic companion and toward my surroundings. Of all the diners I could see, only a handful didn’t belong to one of the gaggles of noisy teenagers clustered around tables littered with limp french fries and sweaty soda cups. One of these drew my attention initially for purely visual reasons. Tucked far back in a corner behind a fake colonial column, I saw one obviously male sneakered foot attached to one denim clad leg below a table, and a masculine hand holding a copy of “The Wall Street Journal” above.
The incongruity of the image caused me to keep staring. Consequently, I was able to see part of the man’s face in the brief interval when he turned the page.
Why did his perfectly logical presence made me feel suddenly exposed and vulnerable?
* * *
Feeling more than a little relieved when we left the restaurant, I settled myself as comfortably as any short woman could in a car seat designed for a male gorilla with scoliosis. No sooner did I merge into the flow of traffic and bring the vehicle up to speed, though, than Sara suddenly blurted out, “Somebody murdered him!” an exclamation that obviously demanded some sort of reply.
I racked my brain for an appropriate response, found none, and sputtered back, “Murdered him? Who? Who murdered who…or whom?”
“My son. Philip. Somebody murdered him,” Sara Klafin repeated with a great deal of agitation.
“Ah,” the word slipped out before I could stop it.
Ah. An elegant, almost archaic word that few people used any more. Nonetheless, it often produced the most extraordinary results, probably because others intuitively sensed it signaled my assumption of my nonjudgmental listener’s mode. As soon as I did, I sometimes suspected that I’d listen sympathetically to anyone tell my anything, no matter how bizarre.
“Somebody murdered Philip, your son?” I reiterated just in case I’d somehow misunderstood my companion.
“Yes.” And like air rushing in to fill a vacuum, Sara Klafin began to speak.