Read The Darkest Evening of the Year Online

Authors: Dean Koontz

Tags: #Suspense, #Fiction, #Thrillers

The Darkest Evening of the Year (2 page)

Pointing the tire iron at Amy now, instead of at his wife, Carl said, “What are you staring at? What’re you even doing here, you dumb bitch? I told you
Get out
.”

Brian put both hands on a dinette chair. It wasn’t much of a weapon, but with it, he might be able to block the tire iron.

“Sir, I’ll pay you for the dog,” Amy said.

“You deaf?”

“I’ll buy her.”

“Not for sale.”

“A thousand dollars.”

“She’s mine.”

“Fifteen hundred.”

Familiar with Amy’s finances, Brian said, “Amy?”

Carl transferred the tire iron from his right hand to his left. He flexed his free hand as if he had been gripping the tool with such ferocity that his fingers had cramped.

To Brian, he said, “Who the hell are you?”

“I’m her architect.”

“Fifteen hundred,” Amy repeated.

Although the kitchen was not too warm, Carl’s face glistened with a thin film of greasy perspiration. His undershirt was damp. This was a drunkard’s sweat, the body struggling to purge toxins.

“I don’t need your money.”

“Yes, sir, I know. But you don’t need the dog, either. She’s not the only dog in the world. Seventeen hundred.”

“What’re you—crazy?”

“Yeah. I am. But it’s a good crazy. Like, I’m not a suicide bomber or anything.”

“Suicide bomber?”

“I don’t have bodies buried in my backyard. Well, only one, but it’s a canary in a shoe box.”

“Somethin’s wrong with you,” Carl said thickly.

“His name was Leroy. I didn’t want a canary, especially not one named Leroy. A friend died, Leroy had nowhere to go, he had nothing but his shabby little cage, so I took him in, and he lived with me, and then I buried him, though I didn’t bury him until he was dead because, like I said, I’m not that kind of crazy.”

Under his brow, Carl’s eyes were deep wells with foul water glistening darkly at the bottom. “Don’t mock me.”

“I wouldn’t, sir. I can’t. I was pretty much raised by nuns. I don’t mock, don’t take God’s name in vain, don’t wear patent-leather shoes with a skirt, and I have such an enlarged guilt gland that it weighs as much as my brain. Eighteen hundred.”

As Carl transferred the tire iron from his left hand to his right, he turned it end for end, now gripping it by the lug socket. He pointed the pry end, the sharp end, at Amy, but said nothing.

Brian didn’t know if the wife-beater’s silence was a good sign or a bad one. More than once, he’d seen Amy talk an angry dog out of a snarl, into a belly rub; but he would have bet his last dollar that Carl wasn’t going to lie on his back and put all four in the air.

“Two thousand,” Amy said. “That’s as much as I have. I can’t go any higher.”

Carl took a step toward her.

“Back off,” Brian warned, raising the dinette chair as if he were a lion tamer, although a lion tamer would also have had a whip.

To Brian, Amy said, “Take it easy, Frank Lloyd Wright. This gentleman and me, we’re building some trust here.”

Carl extended his right arm, resting the tip of the pry bar in the recess between her collarbones, the blade against her throat.

As though unaware that the point of a deadly weapon was poised to puncture her esophagus, Amy said, “So—two thousand. You’re a tough negotiator, sir. I won’t be eating filet mignon for a while. That’s okay. I’m more a hamburger kind of girl, anyway.”

The wife-beater was a chimera now, only part angry bull, part coiled serpent. His gaze was sharp with sinister calculation, and although his tongue was not forked, it slipped between his lips to test the air.

Amy said, “I knew this guy, he almost choked to death on a chunk of steak. The Heimlich maneuver wouldn’t dislodge it, so a doctor cut his throat open there in the restaurant, fished the blockage out.”

As still as stone, the dog remained alert, and Brian wondered if he should take his lead from her. If the bottled violence in Carl was about to be uncorked, surely Nickie would sense it first.

“This woman at a nearby table,” Amy continued, “she was so horrified, she passed out facedown in her lobster bisque. I don’t think you can drown in a bowl of lobster bisque, it might even be good for the complexion, but I lifted her head out of it anyway.”

Carl licked his cracked lips. “You must think I’m stupid.”

“You might be ignorant,” Amy said. “I don’t know you well enough to say. But I’m totally sure you’re not stupid.”

Brian realized he was grinding his teeth.

“You give me a check for two thousand,” Carl said, “you’ll stop payment on it ten minutes after you’re out the door with the dog.”

“I don’t intend to give you a check.” From an inside jacket pocket, she withdrew a wad of folded hundred-dollar bills held together by a blue-and-yellow butterfly barrette. “I’ll pay cash.”

Brian was no longer grinding his teeth. His mouth had fallen open.

Lowering the tire iron to his side, Carl said, “Something’s for sure wrong with you.”

She pocketed the barrette, fanned the hundred-dollar bills, and said, “Deal?”

He put the weapon on the table, took the money, and counted it with the deliberateness of a man whose memory of math has been bleached pale by tequila.

Relieved, Brian put down the dinette chair.

Moving to the dog, Amy fished a red collar and a rolled-up leash from another pocket. She clipped the leash to the collar and put the collar on the dog. “Nice doing business with you, sir.”

While Carl was conducting a second count of the two thousand, Amy tugged gently on the leash. The dog rose at once and padded out of the kitchen, at her side.

With her little girl in tow, Janet followed Amy and Nickie into the hallway, and Brian went after them, glancing back because he half expected Carl to find his rage again and pick up the tire iron.

Jimmy, the keening boy, was silent now. He had moved from the hallway to the living room, where he stood at a window in the posture of a prisoner at his cell bars.

Leading the dog, Amy went to the boy. She stooped beside him, spoke to him.

Brian couldn’t hear what she said.

The front door was open, as he had left it. With the dog prancing smartly at her side, Amy soon joined him on the porch.

Standing on the threshold, Janet said, “You were…amazing. Thank you. I didn’t want the kids to see…see it happen again.”

Her face was sallow in the yellow light of the porch lamp, and the whites of her eyes had a jaundiced tint. She looked older than her years, and tired.

“You know, he’ll get another dog,” Amy said.

“Maybe I can prevent that.”

“Maybe?”

“I can try.”

“Did you really mean what you said when you first answered the door?”

Janet looked away from Amy to study the threshold at her feet, and shrugged.

Amy reminded her: “You wished that you were me. ‘Or anybody, somebody.’”

Janet shook her head. Her voice lowered almost to a murmur. “What you did in there, the money was the least of it. The way you were with him—I can never do that.”

“Then do what you can.” She leaned close to Janet and said something that Brian could not hear.

Listening intently, Janet covered her split and swollen lip with her right hand.

When Amy finished, she stepped back, and Janet met her eyes once more. They stared at each other, and although Janet didn’t say a word or even so much as nod, Amy said, “Good. All right.”

Janet retreated into the house with her daughter.

Nickie seemed to know where she was going, and moved forward on her leash, leading them off the porch, to the Expedition.

Brian said, “You always carry two thousand bucks?”

“Ever since, three years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to save a dog if I hadn’t had the money on me to buy it. That first one cost me three hundred twenty-two bucks.”

“So sometimes to rescue a dog, you have to buy it.”

“Not often, thank God.”

Without command or encouragement, Nickie sprang into the cargo space of the SUV.

“Good girl,” Amy said, and the dog’s plumed tail swished.

“That was crazy, what you did.”

“It’s only money.”

“I mean letting him put the pry bar to your throat.”

“He wouldn’t have used it.”

“How can you be sure?”

“I know his type. He’s basically a pussy.”

“I don’t think he’s a pussy.”

“He beats up women and dogs.”

“You’re a woman.”

“Not his type. Believe me, sweetie, in a pinch, you’d have whupped his ass in a New York minute.”

“Hard to whup a guy’s ass after he embeds a tire iron in your skull.”

Slamming shut the tailgate, she said, “Your skull would be fine. It’s the tire iron that would’ve been bent.”

“Let’s get out of here before he decides he should have held out for
three
thousand.”

Flipping open her cell phone, she said, “We’re not leaving.”

“What? Why?”

Keying in three numbers, she said, “The fun’s just getting started.”

“I don’t like that look on your face.”

“What look is that?”

“Reckless abandon.”

“Reckless is a cute look for me. Don’t I look cute?” The 911 operator answered, and Amy said, “I’m on a cell phone. A man here is beating his wife and little boy. He’s drunk.” She gave the address.

Nose to the glass, peering from the dark cargo hold of the SUV, the golden retriever had the blinkless curiosity of a resident of an aquarium bumping against the walls of its world.

Amy gave her name to the operator. “He’s beaten them before. I’m afraid this time he’s going to cripple or kill them.”

The breeze stirred faster, and the eucalyptus trees tossed their tresses as if winged swarms spiraled through them.

Staring at the house, Brian felt chaos coming. He had much hard experience of chaos. He had been born in a tornado.

“I’m a family friend,” Amy lied in answer to the 911 operator’s question. “Hurry.”

As Amy terminated the call, Brian said, “I thought you took the steam out of him.”

“No. By now he’s decided that he sold his honor with the dog. He’ll blame Janet for that. Come on.”

She started toward the house, and Brian hurried at her side. “Shouldn’t we leave it to the police?”

“They might not get here in time.”

Vague leaf shadows shuddered on the moon-silvered sidewalk, as if they were a thousand beetles quivering toward sheltering crevices.

“But a situation like this,” he said, “we don’t know what we’re doing.”

“What we’re doing is the right thing. You didn’t see the boy’s face. His left eye is swollen. His father gave him a bloody nose.”

An old anger rose in Brian. “What do you want to do to the sonofabitch?”

Climbing the porch steps, she said, “That’s up to him.”

Janet had left the front door ajar. From the back of the house rose Carl’s angry voice and hammering and crystalline shatters of sound and the sweet desperate singing of a child.

At the core of every ordered system, whether a family or a factory, is chaos. But in the whirl of every chaos lies a strange order, waiting to be found.

Amy pushed open the door. They went inside.

Chapter
2

C
eramic salt and pepper shakers, paired dogs—sitting Airedales, quizzical beagles, grinning goldens, prancing poodles, shepherds, spaniels, terriers, noble Irish wolfhounds—waited in orderly rows on shelves beyond open cabinet doors, and others stood in disorder on a kitchen counter.

Shaking, face pale and wet with tears, Janet Brockman moved two sheep dogs from the counter to the table.

The tire iron swung high as the woman moved, descended as she put the shakers on the table, and barely missed her snatched-back hands. Salt and ceramic shrapnel sprayed from the point of impact, then pepper and sharp shards.

The double crack of iron on wood was followed by Carl’s demand: “Two more.”

Watching from the dark hallway, Amy Redwing sensed that the collection must be precious to Janet, the one example of order in her disordered life. In those small ceramic dogs, the woman found some kind of hope.

Carl apparently understood this, too. He intended to shatter both the figurines and his wife’s remaining spirit.

Clutching a ragged pink rabbit that might have been a dog toy, the little girl sheltered beside the refrigerator. Her jewel-bright eyes were focused on a landscape of the mind.

In a small but clear voice, she sang in a language that Amy did not recognize. The haunting melody sounded Celtic.

The boy, Jimmy, evidently had taken refuge elsewhere.

Alert to the fact that her husband would as soon shatter her fingers as break the salt and pepper shakers, Janet flinched at the
whoosh
of arcing iron. She dropped a pair of ceramic Dalmatians on the table.

Crying out as the weapon grazed her right wrist, she cowered back against the ovens, arms crossed over her breasts.

When the lug wrench rang off oak, sparing both the salt and pepper, Carl snatched up a Dalmatian and threw it at his wife’s face. The figurine ricocheted off her forehead, cracked against an oven door, and fell dismembered to the floor.

Amy stepped into the kitchen, and Brian pushed past her, saying, “Leave her alone, Carl.”

The drunkard’s head turned with crocodilian menace, eyes cold with a cruelty as old as time.

Amy had the feeling that something more than the man himself lived in Brockman’s body, as though he had opened a door to a night visitor that made of his heart a lair.

“Is she
your
wife now?” Carl asked Brian. “Is this
your
house? My Theresa there—is she
your
daughter now?”

The sweet song rose from the girl, her voice as clear as the air and as strange as her eyes, but mysterious in its clarity and tender in its strangeness.

“It’s your house, Carl,” said Brian. “Everything is yours. So why smash any of it?”

Carl started to speak but then sighed wearily.

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 cock 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.

Other books

August and Then Some by David Prete
Yesterday's Lies by Lisa Jackson
Careful What You Kiss For by Jane Lynne Daniels
Shades of Earth by Beth Revis
Goodbye Normal by Lily N Anderson
Wrong Chance by E. L. Myrieckes
The Skilled Seduction by Tracy Goodwin