The Darkest Evening of the Year / Page 24

Page 24


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“The little girl, the autistic girl,” Brian said.


“Yes. Autistic or whatever she may be. Theresa said the dog should be called Nickie because that’s what her name had always been.”


He glanced at her again. “Always?”


“Always. What she meant by that…who knows. But, Brian, she meant something.”


Twenty-eight years earlier and three thousand miles east of the California coast, on that long-ago bath night, the sisters accepted the name Nickie for the foundling. They had seen that already the dog had brought Amy out of her troubling silence, that she no longer seemed to want to keep herself at a distance, that she had begun to smile again. They wanted to encourage her.


Once Nickie was clean and dry, the nuns decided that she could sleep in the infirmary, where Sister Regina Marie served as the night nurse when patients were in residence.


Although bathed, medicated, fed, and provided with a soft bed of folded blankets, the dog who was an early gift from Saint Nicholas proved not to be content without Amy at its side. The ceaseless and pathetic whimpering began again.


In those days, the concept of a therapy dog might not have been widely in use; but the nuns of Mater Misericordiæ recognized that a bond of some value had formed between the girl and the four-footed waif. Rules were bent if not broken, and although in the best of health, Amy bunked in the infirmary during the week that attempts were made to determine from where the dog had come.


The unrelenting and insistent prayers with which Amy pestered God must have made Him throw up His hands in exasperation and shout “All right already!” in the halls of Heaven, because the sisters failed in their good-faith efforts to locate an owner.


After Dr. Shepherd, a veterinarian, had examined Nickie and had brought her shots up to date, and after it had become clear that the dog was uncommonly well-behaved and housebroken, Mater Misericordiæ yet again lived up to its name-Mother of Mercy-and gave Nickie a forever home.


Although, as official mascot, the dog had free rein of all buildings except the church-and was often invited there, as well-she slept every night in Amy’s dorm room. For the next eleven years she was Amy’s shadow, Amy’s confidant, and Amy’s deepest love.


Over those years, of the more than three hundred girls who came at different points in their lives to Mother of Mercy, none became better known than once-shy and silent Amy Harkinson or had more friends, or held more student offices. In each yearbook for more than a decade, no one among them saw her photograph appear more frequently than Amy’s-except Nickie, of course, whose grinning mug brightened more pages than not, appearing in class plays and in a Santa hat at Christmas parties, wearing bunny ears for Easter and an American-flag neckerchief on the Fourth of July, always surrounded by adoring girls and beaming nuns.


Amy was sixteen when one day the usual energetic Nickie seemed tired, the next day still tired, and on the third day lethargic. She was diagnosed with hemangiosarcoma, a fast-spreading cancer that was too advanced for a surgeon to strip it all out or for chemotherapy to hold it at bay.


Nickie’s decline was swift. Her suffering would be certain if she was not given the mercy that is right for innocent animals; and no one could bear to see her suffer.


Because God is never cruel, there is a reason for all things. We must know the pain of loss; because if we never knew it, we would have no compassion for others, and we would become monsters of self-regard, creatures of unalloyed self-interest. The terrible pain of loss teaches humility to our prideful kind, has the power to soften uncaring hearts, to make a better person of a good one.


Mother of Mercy was a fine school as well as an orphanage. The passing of Nickie, dear mascot to all and sister to Amy, provided an opportunity not only to share but also to learn.


Those girls who felt strong enough-most did-were invited to assemble at twilight in the quadrangle, where the issue of animals’ souls was not debated but quietly accepted, and where prayers were said for Nickie. And during prayers, as twilight faded, candles were raised, hundreds of candles, while at the center of those assembled, Amy knelt beside her best friend to give comfort and to bear witness.


Sister Agnes Mary, the infirmarian, had volunteered to assist Dr. Shepherd, the veterinarian, in the administration of the two injections. The first would be a sedative to convey Nickie into a deep sleep, and the second would be the drug that stopped her heart.


Nickie’s favorite recreation-room sofa had earlier been placed in the center of the quadrangle, and Nickie, so weakened, had been carried to it. Amy knelt on the ground, face to face with this first dog that she had ever saved.


Estimated to have been three when she had limped up the meadow to her mistress, Nickie had been fourteen there in the last twilight of her fabled life, but she had still looked like a puppy, with little white in her face.


Only sixteen, Amy found a strength in herself that she had not known she possessed, strength to keep her voice calm and reassuring, even if she could not hold back the tears.


As if to say It’s all right, you’re doing great, Nickie licked Amy’s fingers, as she had licked them that first moment they had met in the meadow. A kiss hello, and now a kiss good-bye.


Nickie had always loved to have her face held firmly in cupped hands, thumbs stroking her cheeks, and would submit to this pleasure as long as anyone could be conned into providing it. Now Amy held that always-before comic face in her hands and looked into those expressive brown eyes. She said to Nickie, “You’re the sweetest dog who ever lived, and I have always been so proud of you, how smart you are, how quick to make a friend of everyone. I’ve loved you every moment, I couldn’t love a sister more, or my own child, or life,” and while she talked, the injections were administered, and Nickie went to sleep looking into Amy’s eyes. Amy felt the poor body twitch when the great heart stopped, just stopped, and Nickie went to God while waves of candlelight washed across the walls of the quadrangle and dazzled in windows and glimmered in grief-wet faces, and every flame said the same thing-A special dog passed this way, who brightened the life of everyone she met.


Seventeen years later, recounting all of this to Brian, Amy felt a grief almost as sharp as the pain she had felt that awful twilight. Although in the intervening years she had held so many dogs as they were put down, she wept and her voice broke often as she described the scene on the quadrangle.


A week thereafter, Sister Jacinta, “Sister Mouse,” had given Amy the locket with the profile of a golden retriever. She had worn it ever since.


Now, in the center of that quadrangle, a flat granite plaque, polished and black, marks where an urn of ashes is buried. A cameo inset in the marker matches the one on Amy’s locket. Under the cameo are carved these words:


IN MEMORY OF NICKIE,


THE FIRST MASCOT OF MATER MISERICORDIÆ,


WHO WAS EVERYTHING A GOOD DOG SHOULD BE.


Brian said, “I understand you so much better now-the commitment to dogs, the risks you take. Your life was chaos, and Nickie brought order to it, order and hope. You’re repaying that debt.”


Everything he said was true, but the story she had set out to tell was not yet entirely told.


What came after that night in the quadrangle took far greater courage to discuss. She had not spoken of the next part to anyone in more than eight years.


In telling him of her first dog, Amy had discovered an intensity of emotion greater than she had expected. Shaken by the depth of that revisited grief, she didn’t feel that she could tell him the rest of it now.


She was tired, exhausted. So much had happened in-what?-maybe nineteen hours, and another busy and emotional day most likely lay ahead of them.


Although she had steeled herself to tell it all, she could not proceed to the end. Better to wait now until they had found Brian’s daughter and brought her into his life, where she belonged.


Chapter 47


Gunther Schloss, hired killer and pilot and happy anarchist, with a wife in Costa Rica and a second wife in San Francisco, had a girlfriend in Santa Barbara. Her name was Juliette Junke, pronounced junkie, which was ironic because she was so adamantly opposed to the use of illegal drugs that she had once castrated two small-time dope dealers who had sold marijuana to her niece.


Juliette Junke did business under the name Juliette Churchill. She was a mortician. She, her sister, and her two brothers owned and operated Churchill’s Funeral Home, an elegant and stately facility with four viewing rooms that were frequently in use at the same time.


Although the funeral business turned a profit, the Churchill clan moonlighted by smuggling terrorists-among other things-in and out of the United States in specially designed caskets that contained bottled oxygen and a clever system for collecting and storing the urine of the terrorists therein transported.


Many murderous thugs just hiked across the unprotected border or used international airlines and-wearing T-shirts that proclaimed DEATH TO ALL JEWS in Arabic-breezed through U.S. checkpoints, where highly suspicious federal security personnel strip-searched Irish grandmothers and Boy Scouts on field trips.


Juliette and her family specialized in the smuggling of those terrorists who were so notorious and whose faces were so well known to police organizations worldwide, they couldn’t even risk traveling in disguise and must be shipped on missions of jihad while posing as embalmed cadavers. These were the most successful of all terrorists, of course, and therefore the richest, and they paid well.


Arriving in Santa Barbara after viewing hours at the funeral home, Billy Pilgrim met Juliette at the garage entrance. He pulled the Shumpeter Cadillac into an empty bay in the row of black hearses.


Juliette Junke-Churchill was a good-looking woman, terrific-looking for a mortician. She reminded him of a young Jodie Foster: those fine cheekbones and those blue eyes that with just one wink could set your heart racing or, with one tear, break it.


Juliette probably did not cry much-or ever-and she would never do anything as coy as wink. She looked soft, but she was hard. If she claimed to be able to crack walnuts with her thighs, Billy would want to watch but only while wearing goggles to protect against walnut-shell shrapnel.


She greeted him with the nickname she had given him-“Bookworm, you are a sight for sore eyes”-and they hugged because everyone felt they had to hug Billy and because Billy didn’t mind hugging someone as delectable as Juliette.


They set right to work unloading the trunk of the Cadillac. Juliette carried the bag of shredded dog’s-eye drawings, and Billy toted the wastebasket full of e-mail files.


The funeral home had two superefficient Power-Pak II Cremation Systems, and one of them was ready to be fired up.


Billy left the wastebasket full of e-mails with Juliette, and by the time he returned with the brain to Brian McCarthy’s computer, she had fed all the papers into the cremator. He tossed in the bag of shredded drawings, and pointing to the computer logic unit, he said, “I want to pour something corrosive into it.”


“Why, if we’re going to burn it down to char and twisted scrap?”


“I like to be double sure.”


“Billy, I’m having a rotten day, don’t bust my chops.”


“Well, you know cremators better than I do. You say it’ll do the job, that’s good enough for me.”


Before he could move, she snared the logic unit with one hand, swung it up and into the cremator as if it weighed less than a dead cat. Juliette hated cats, and more than a few of them had most likely gone through this Power-Pak II.


She was a beautiful woman and hard and strong, but she was not a good person.


“What kind of rotten day?” he asked as she closed the cremator door and fired up the burner.


“Gunny wants it to get more serious between us.”


The thought of those two in bed seemed, to Billy, to be about as serious as sex could get, except maybe if a grizzly bear tried to get it on with a puma.


“He wants to dump the wife in San Francisco and marry me. She’s Chinese, has some connection to China ’s military-security apparatus, and she collects knives. I don’t know what Gunny’s thinking.”


“Gunny has a hopeless romantic streak,” Billy said, which was true.


“Tell me about it. He says, just shacking up with me doesn’t fulfill him like marriage would. I’m his destiny, he says.”


“I could talk to him.”


“I’m nobody’s destiny, Billy, except mine. The thing is, I’ve been thinking of ending it with him even before this, but he’s as tight with Harrow as you are, and I don’t want Gunny getting pissy and bad-mouthing me to Harrow.”


“He’s maybe not as important to Harrow as you think.”


“Is that right? Well, anyway, he’s such a big sonofabitch, he scares me.”


“We go way back, Gunny and me. I can talk to him so he doesn’t get a mad-on for you.”


“Could you? Would you? That would be great. He’s up on the top floor, making dinner.”


She maintained a large and beautifully furnished apartment above the funeral home.


“I could go up there and see him,” Billy said, “or you could get on the intercom and ask him to come down here.”


“I just redid the kitchen cabinetry.”


“What was wrong with the old cabinets? They were beautiful.”


“Too dark,” Juliette said. “All that egg-and-dart crown molding. I wanted a lighter, more modern look.”


“Are you happy with it?”


“Oh, yeah. It’s gorgeous.”


“Good cabinetry can bust your bank these days.”


“That’s what I’m saying.”


“So ask him to come down here.”


She used the intercom in the garage, just outside the door to the crematorium. “Hey, Big Gun,” she said, “are you there?”


Gunny’s voice issued from the intercom speaker: “What’s up?”


“I’ve got a really fat dead guy here I need some help with.”


“What about Herman and Werner?”


They were her brothers and business partners.


“Viewing hours are over. They went home,” she said. “We weren’t expecting a stiff.”


“I’ve got to keep an eye on the rack of lamb.”


“I just need help getting the stiff into the cooler. One minute. He’s a big old hog of a guy or I could do it myself.”


“Be right there.”


Because it had to accommodate a casket, the elevator was large, but quieter than Billy expected.


When the doors opened, Gunther Schloss looked as big as a steer in a rodeo pen.


He said, “Shit,” and Billy shot him three times while he was upright, once while he was falling, and four times as he lay half in and half out of the elevator.


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