Carl Greene drew the curtains back, pressed his forehead to the cold plate glass, and looked out across Elliott Bay toward West Seattle and the green smear of Bainbridge Island. The sun had just started its downward arc and the light was crisp and flawless. Late summer burned like a small pyre on the tip of each lazy swell. Sailboats tacked back and forth, white spinnakers snapping in the breeze. Manned by two tiny silhouettes, a sea kayak glided along the waterfront, paddles working in perfect tandem.
Carl wanted out. He wanted to fly home to Lucy. He wanted things as they had once been: the two of them in a simple ranch house in Arvada, the kitchen given over to oil paints and canvases, the whole place rich with the stink of turpentine. He wanted a weekend of skiing in the mountains, the snow fine and dry, his wife racing ahead of him on the last run of the afternoon, bright as a cardinal in her new red jacket. And later, in a cheap motel room in Avon, Lucy fresh out of the shower, her hair wet, her skin flushed.
Carl lifted his head from the window and looked at his watch. It was just after six-thirty. Rush hour had come and mostly gone. There were only stragglers in the streets below: a panhandler working the main door of the cineplex, a group of tourists moving in a slow pack along Fifth Avenue, toward the Old Navy or the Hard Rock Cafe. A bus labored up from the market and on toward Capitol Hill, its electric tethers jerking and jostling.
From Carl's room on one of the upper floors of the Hilton, all this seemed to happen without sound. A couple fought and made up on the corner of Sixth and Pike. An ambulance sped past the Gay Nineties bar and disappeared under the convention center A breeze kicked up from the bay and whistled through the granite canyons of downtown. But all Carl heard was the hum of the ventilation system and an occasional faint ding and sigh from the hallway as the elevator doors opened and closed.
Yes, he thought, crossing to the bedside table. He and Lucy would go away for a few days. To the mountains, maybe, someplace where he could explain everything. He picked up the phone, dialed the garage, and asked for his rental car. A half hour on the ferry, then another hour or so of driving, and he'd be in Elwha Beach. Still early, he told himself; still time enough to do what he needed to do and make the last boat back. By morning he'd be on a plane heading home.
Carl stood near the ferry's open stern and watched the wake unfurl behind it, the foam sculpted into ornate ruffles. He preferred to stay at water level during these short trips, to wander the mostly deserted automobile deck or sit in his car and listen to one of the classical radio stations. Tonight, he made a slow curcuit, from stern to bow and back.
As late as it was, the boat was packed, the cars and trucks crammed together, bumpers kissing. Just a handful of passengers had stayed below. A woman in an elegant suit sat in a green Explorer, poring over papers. A man napped in the front seat of his Acura, head back, mouth open, eyes shut tight. Another woman nursed her baby. You never knew, Carl thought as she glanced up at him through the window of her little Honda and smiled, what tragedy might have entered these lives, what misfortune was waiting to happen. Dead children, lost spouses, the lure of the bottle. All the innumerable possibilities for wreckage. The baby was tight against her chest, wrapped in a flannel blanket, and all Carl saw of the woman's breast was a crescent of pale and swollen skin, one thick blue vein.
The horn that signaled their impending arrival sounded, deep and resonant, and Carl made his way back to his car, fishing in his pocket for his key. He'd been scared the last few days, frightened by his own knowledge, by what it might mean for him, but he was getting accustomed to the idea of fear, habituated to the tightness in his throat.
The boat had slowed, and people were returning to their cars. This time of day the passengers were mostly commuters, the upper echelons of the middle class, men and women with enough disposable income to afford a piece of land along the water, something big enough for a garden and a few apple trees.
Carl pulled his key out and glanced around. A few yards in front of him a door popped open and a man got out of a tan SUV. He turned in Carl's direction and stretched, adjusting his waistband. He was not far from Carl's age, clean cut, in khaki stacks and a red polo shirt. He smiled briefly, courteously, one commuter to another. Nice day. Good to be going home.
Nodding in agreement, Carl put his hand on the door of the rental car, turned the key, and heard all the locks click open. Vail, he told himself, that's where they'd go. They'd stay in one of those quaint fake Tyrolean hotels in the village and have dinner on a terrace near the creek. He would explain everything, and somehow his accounting would change things for the better. They would go back to the room and he would watch Lucy undress, slowly, carefully.
He opened the door and slid into the driver's seat, settling in. The town of Winslow slipped into view and the ferry found its moorings, the engines laboring, the prow gently nudging the dock. Far ahead, a car started, then another, and the vehicles began to move forward.
Carl rolled across the gangplank, onto the blacktop apron, and past the line of cars waiting to make the crossing in the opposite direction. He headed north with most of the ferry traffic, toward Poulsbo and Port Gamble and the Hood Canal. By the time he passed over onto the Peninsula, late afternoon had given way to evening, and the deciduous forests were thick with shadows. Gnats hovered in black swarms along the road.
He cruised west through Blyn and Sequim and on past Port Angeles, the evening darkening to night around him, the traffic thinning until he was alone except for the occasional flicker of headlights coming toward him. North, through the trees, the Strait of Juan de Fuca ducked in and out of view. A light rain started, misty and gray, and Carl hit his wipers, heard the rhythmic whine and squeal of wet rubber against glass.
Just these few more miles, he told himself, thinking now that he shouldn't have come, thinking he could be on a flight to Denver or even driving home across the plains, dry lightning crackling in the distance, virga sheeting down over the heat-scorched fields, a curtain of rain stopping midway between sky and earth as if sheared off by a pair of giant scissors.
The road curved away into the woods, and through the trees and undergrowth Carl caught a glimpse of flames. A campfire, he thought, but as he rounded the next corner he could see that it was not a fire but a flare. Beyond it, bathed in the pinkish light of the sparks and flames, an SUV and a smaller car were sprawled out across the road, blocking the way. An accident, he thought, though from his viewpoint there didn't seem to be any damage. He braked to a stop and surveyed the scene from the car.
It was raining harder now. The flare sputtered and smoked. There was a figure inside the car and another in the SUV. Carl watched as the person in the SUV popped the door and climbed out.
"You need help?" Carl called, rolling his window down.
The man nodded, running his fingers through his rain-wet hair. There was something decidedly familiar about him, the red shirt, the pants, and as he came closer Carl realized it was the same man he'd seen on the ferry's car deck.
"Sorry about this," the man said genially, putting his hand on Carl's door, bending to lean slightly into the car.
"Can I give you a ride somewhere?" Carl asked.
The man looked back down the road, as if contemplating the darkness and the distance, the hum and patter of the rain. Then in one swift motion he pulled a beetle-black pistol from the back of his pants and brought the barrel just level with Carl's face. "I'd appreciate it," he said.
He yanked the door open; Carl felt his bowels constrict and then loosen. The man was so close that Carl could smell his deodorant. Old Spice? Carl wondered. Mennen? It seemed a strange thing to think about, but better than whatever was going to happen next, better than the rain beading on the barrel of the gun. Carl tipped his eyes and looked down at the man's pants. Dockers, he concluded, and his last thought was to be insulted by the casualness of the man's dress, the informality of death.
© 2002 Jenny Siler
Driven to find out the truth about her husband's death, headstrong Lucy Greene stumbles onto dangerous secrets about a government sponsored biological warfare program that has maimed her past and threatens her future.
From the outside, Carl and Lucy Greene seemed to be living the good life: they had a huge suburban mansion paid for by Carl's biotech job, and Lucy had the leisure to pursue her painting. But cracks in the facade---a child born with severe birth defects who only lived a few hours, and the couple's subsequent estrangement---had already put strains on their marriage. And then, during a business trip to the West Coast, Carl abruptly dies.
The story is that he had a car accident. But why did Carl contact their old friend, Kevin, a recently discredited TV journalist, just a few days before he died, with promises of a big story? Why does an intruder break into Carl's home office after the funeral? And what does any of this have to do with a rash of prison TB, their baby's encephalocele, or Lucy's brother's post-Gulf War illness?
Lucy wants some answers, and before she knows it she's careening across western landscape with a hired killer on her trail, warned that she's messing with some very big players. With the help of Kevin, who's also an old boyfriend, and an ex-con named Darcy, Lucy searches for the truth even as she seeks to put her own troubled past to rest. In helping her, Kevin wants to resuscitate his career, and Darcy wants to protect her junkie sister, who's still on the inside. But with her loved ones dead and a Glock for a new best friend, Lucy is the one who will do whatever it takes to uncover the real story behind her husband's death.
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Jenny Siler, who was educated at Andover and Columbia, lives in Missoula, Montana. Besides writing she has tended bar, driven a forklift, and graded salmon. Her first novel, Easy Money, was a New York Times Notable book.