The Darkest Evening of the Year / Page 9

Page 9


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Their ashes were in urns in the Hammersmith house. A typed label with a name had been taped to each urn.


Renata and Jerry named them because, in puppy mills, breeder dogs have only numbers. No man or dog should die without a name.


Tick-infested, worm-plagued, flea-ridden, malnourished, they had to be shaved and medicated and, in some cases, patiently fed by hand.


The ad placed by the breeding operation to sell their puppies had said “farm-bred, raised by a loving family.”


In the month that followed, though heroic efforts were made to heal the remaining dogs, four had conditions so intractable that, to end their suffering, they had to be put down.


So fearful were they of human beings that they remained wary of being touched even when they were desperate for comforting. In each dog’s final hour, Golden Heart volunteers stroked it, murmured words of love, and held it as its life was, in mercy, given back to God.


Dog rescue is often joyful work, and often grim.


The six survivors were all females: the dogs now lying in the exercise yard, at various distances from Renata and Amy.


In the puppy mill, they had lived in cramped wire cages, without exercise or play. At Last Chance Ranch, this fenced yard had seemed to be a threatening vastness. They had first preferred the kennels.


Taken from the filthy cages at the mill, they had been fearful of every human being, of loud voices, of kindness because they had never encountered it, of cars because they had never ridden in one, of stairs because they had never climbed them, of soap and water because they had never been bathed, of hair dryers and of towels, of music and of the first toys given to them.


Four months later, these survivors had been to a large degree socialized; but they were not yet ready to be placed for adoption. They needed to be less shy to live with a forever family. They were still getting accustomed to lawn mowers and washing machines, still learning to trust slippery tile floors, hardwood floors, stairs.


Now, having said hello to Hugo, Renata’s golden, Fred and Ethel gamboled into the yard, ready for fun, and Hugo went with them. They approached the former breeder dogs. Play bows were exchanged, chases undertaken. Renata had scattered tug toys in the grass, and these were snatched up with glee, dog challenging dog to take the prize.


Nickie did not at once join in their games, but watched with interest the only one of the six surviving girls that was reluctant to participate. Finally, Nickie plucked up a tug toy from beside Renata and trotted across the yard toward the wallflower.


“That’s Honey,” said Renata, naming the shyest of the group.


Honey had been maybe two and a half when she had been rescued. Her toenails had never been trimmed at the puppy mill, and she had not worn them away with exercise, so they had grown back and under her feet to the extent that she could barely stand. Her leg muscles had been somewhat atrophied, as well.


Her feet were healed now, her muscles stronger, but while the concept of play intrigued her, she was always the last into the game, if she joined at all.


Standing before Honey, Nickie tauntingly dangled the tug toy. When this didn’t excite the shy dog, Nickie shook the toy vigorously.


“Your Nickie is a nightingale,” Renata said.


Most dogs were sensitive to illness and depression in people and other dogs, but a few were especially determined to nurture those in need. Amy called them nightingales, after Florence Nightingale.


“She’s something special,” Amy said.


“You haven’t had her a day yet.”


“I hadn’t had her an hour till I knew.”


In but a minute, Nickie had teased Honey into a chase and then a happy tumble.


Amy stood with the binoculars again and scanned the shadows under the jacarandas on the farther side of the county road.


“He get out of the car where you can see him?” Renata asked.


“Nope. Still behind the wheel.”


“Maybe he’s a sonofabitch from one of the puppy mills you’ve put out of business.”


“Maybe.”


“He comes on this property, I’ll put some bird shot in him.”


“You used to say, one of those sonsofbitches ever came around here, you’d neuter him.”


“The bird shot is just to make him cooperative. Then comes the neutering.”


Chapter 18


The living room yielded nothing of interest to Vernon Lesley, but in the back of the bedroom closet, he found two shoe boxes full of photographs.


His client had provided a list of items related to Amy Redwing’s other life that she might not have destroyed when she shed her past, changed her name, and relocated to southern California. Photographs were at the top of that list.


The box contained primarily snapshots and the digital-camera memory cards from which some of them had been printed. The most recent were almost nine years old.


Vern sat on the edge of Redwing’s bed and patiently pored through numerous envelopes of photos to see if they contained any pornographic material. His client hadn’t asked him to conduct such a meticulous inspection; but Amy Redwing happened to be an attractive woman, and Vern happened to be curious.


Unfortunately, not one picture proved to be erotic or even exotic. He had never seen a more mundane collection of snapshots.


Although he didn’t know Redwing’s story, to Vern it seemed that her current life and her former one had been equally boring.


In Vern’s other life, as Von Longwood, he tooled around on a radically customized motorcycle, a real hog, and he was a master of tae kwon do with the costumes to prove it, and in general he lived large. He didn’t understand why anyone would want another life that was as drab as the first.


In this life, Redwing even looked similar to how she had looked in her prior life. Her hair was long now, short then; she had done some things with makeup then that she didn’t do now; she had dressed more stylishly in those days. That was the extent of her makeover.


She had remained a brunette even though she might have looked hotter as a blonde. And judging by what evidence Vern possessed, she hadn’t undergone breast enlargement, which maybe she should have.


Whereas Vernon Lesley stood five eight, Von Longwood towered an awesome six feet six. Vern slouched through life with round shoulders and a potbelly, but Von had biceps to rival those of Schwarzenegger when he had been a great action-movie star instead of a governor.


Von had tattoos, an earring with a tiny skull dangling from it, a muscular chest instead of man boobs, and wings. They were huge, soft, feathery wings, but so strong, and when Von wanted to fly, no one could keep him grounded.


Vernon Lesley’s other life unfolded in Second Life, the Internet site that offered a vivid virtual world populated by avatars like Von Longwood.


Some people mocked this kind of role-playing, but they were ignorant. Virtual worlds were more imaginative than the real world, more exotic, more colorful, yet they were becoming more convincingly detailed by the week. They were the future.


Vern had more fun in his other life than in this one, more and better friends, and more memorable experiences. He was freer as Von Longwood than he could ever be as Vernon Lesley. He had never been creative in his first life, but in his second, he had designed and built a nightclub, and he had even bought an island that he intended to populate with fantastic creatures of his own invention.


Any of that, any moment of it, beat sitting in a stranger’s bedroom, poring through boxes of boring photographs, hoping to find a nude shot.


From an inner pocket of his sport coat, he withdrew a white plastic trash bag and unfolded it. He put all the photos in the bag, and then he returned the empty shoe boxes to the back of the closet, leaving them exactly where he had discovered them.


As far as he could tell, the only significant difference between Redwing’s two lives was the addition of dogs to this one. He saw no mutts in the photographs.


In one of her nightstands, he found a SIG P245 pistol loaded with +P.45 ACPs. This struck him as a perfectly manageable weapon for a woman who did not have the balance benefit of surgically enlarged breasts. He returned the gun to the drawer.


He was not surprised to find a loaded pistol. These days, if Vern had been a woman living alone, he would have slept with a shotgun.


From the bedroom, he proceeded to her study. Eventually he discovered a manila envelope taped to the underside of a desk drawer.


Carefully, he peeled off the Scotch tape with which the envelope had been sealed, pried up the clasp. His expired hope of discovering some homemade pornography had been resuscitated.


Instead, he found documents related to the woman’s name change. Well, this was the real world, so you shouldn’t expect many thrills.


She had also been Amy in her previous life, but she had swapped the surname Cogland for Redwing. Of this, Vern approved. Redwing was a cool name, even good enough for a Second Life avatar.


She had received a new Social Security card under this name, a passport, and a Connecticut driver’s license, which she had no doubt used to obtain a California license after moving across country.


Accompanying the documents was a copy of a judge’s order sealing the court’s actions and removing them from public record.


Intrigued, Vern read the legal documents more closely than he had the first time. He suspected that the name Cogland ought to ring a whole tabernacle’s worth of bells, but it didn’t.


If Redwing had been in the news during her Cogland life, Vern might not have read or heard about her. He had never been interested in the news.


Before Second Life, he’d spent most of his leisure time playing in on-line game groups of the Dungeons and Dragons variety. He had slain a vast menagerie of monsters, and no dungeon had held him long.


Vern put all of these papers in the white trash bag with the photographs and the digital-camera memory cards.


Occasionally, Redwing might reach under the desk drawer and feel the envelope to confirm that the hidden material remained where she had put it.


Vern took several sheets of paper from her computer printer. He folded them and inserted them in the envelope to approximate the feel of the original documents.


With the brass clasp, he secured the flap. From the dispenser on her desk, he pulled a length of tape and sealed the flap just as it had been, and then he taped the envelope under the drawer, where he had found it.


He was left with only the lengths of old tape. He wadded them in a ball and dropped them in the white trash bag.


Although Vernon had searched the half bath off the kitchen, he had not yet explored the full bath that adjoined her bedroom. He had been concerned that, in a moment of reckless bravado, he would be tempted to leave his traditional signature.


He was a professional, he had a job to finish, and he needed the money for his island of fantastic creatures.


In her bathroom, the lid of the toilet stood open, exposing the seat and the bowl. At once he put it down.


He took the lid off the tank. Sometimes people sealed things in a plastic bag and submerged it in the toilet tank. Not Redwing.


If he squinted when he looked in the mirror above the sink, he could see Von Longwood. Vern smiled and said, “Lookin’ good, dude.”


Chapter 19


Shortly before nine o’clock, Thursday morning, Brian heard his three employees coming to work in the offices below his apartment.


Earlier he had left a voice mail for Gretchen, his assistant, asking her to reschedule his Thursday appointments to the following week. He told her that inspiration had seized him, that he would be drawing in his apartment, and that he should not be interrupted.


Inspiration had more than seized him. A singularly persistent muse-insistent, incandescent-had overwhelmed him, filled him with a quiet excitement, and he labored in a state of enchantment.


Supposedly true tales of the supernatural had never struck him as credible; yet Brian now sensed that he was channeling a talent greater than his own. If what he felt was true, then the presence working through him must be benign, for he had seldom in his life felt this happy.


Although he had put a slantboard under the art-paper tablet, his fingers should have ached, and his hand should have cramped. He had been at this for at least five hours, with intense focus.


As if the laws of physics and physiology had been suspended, he suffered no stiffness in his hand, no slightest pain. The longer he drew, the more fluidly the images appeared upon the paper.


The eyes of the dog…Brian stopped drawing the surrounding facial structures, yielding to a fascination with just the glistening curves from lid to lid, from inner to outer canthus, the mysterious play of light upon and within the cornea, iris, lens, and pupil.


In each new drawing, the quality of the incoming light was different from that in previous renditions, was received by the eyes at different angles, obliquely and directly.


Out of his pencil flowed larger and still larger eyes, in pairs, filling the entire page.


Then he began rendering one eye per page, enlarging the scale for a more detailed study of the patterns of intraocular radiance.


When next he glanced at the clock, he was unnerved to discover that an hour and a half had passed since he had heard his small staff coming to work downstairs. Yet he did not put down the pencil.


Although the elliptical perimeter of an eye still framed the subject, though the iris and the pupil could still be discerned, enigmas of light and shadow began to dominate each composition to such an extent that the drawings became almost abstract.


Soon Brian began to see hieroglyphics in these soft yet complex patterns, strange symbols that blazed with meaning when glimpsed from the corner of an eye. They faded into gray haze or diffused into luminous mists when he attempted to look at them directly.


Even as meaning eluded him, he grew convinced that whatever the source of these images, whether they came from his intuition or were the work of a phantom presence that guided his hand, they contained a hidden truth and were leading him toward a shattering revelation.


He tore off another page, put it aside. He had used at least a third of the tablet. Drawings layered the table.


Only after his hand had worked for a while on the clean page did he realize that he was being led into a still deeper exploration of the dog’s mesmerizing gaze. Instead of merely portraying the beauty of the dusky yet luminous canine eyes as they appeared from without, Brian’s busy pencil took him within that architecture of shade and sheen, not into the substance of the eyeball itself, but inside the warp and woof of shadow and light within cornea, iris, pupil, lens.


This was a vision of which he, as an artist, could never have conceived. The eye as a recognizable subject disappeared from the page, leaving only the incoming luminous rays and the companion shadows as they traveled through the processing layers of the eye. The drawing became entirely abstract, yet achingly more beautiful, numinous. Here was genius at work, and Brian knew he was no genius.


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