Authors: Justin Scott
Tags: #FICTION / Mystery & Detective / General
It really did have a turret. I'd always assumed the talk of a turret was an exaggeration, but up one corner rose a round stone tower, with a conical roof and narrow windows suitable for sheltering archers. I wondered how they'd slipped it by the building inspector. Newbury had a thirty-seven-foot height limit to keep the countryside from being blighted, but the Longs' must have topped sixty feet. Actually, it worked, nicely, even with no moat.
Ninety-nine percent of the new houses I try to sell have been “landscaped” after they're built. It's the commonest mistake, and the most glaring. One look at the Longs' place and you knew that a savvy landscape designer had sited it before a bulldozer was allowed on the property. What could have looked like an oversized, pretentious pile had been rendered romanticânot by the silly crenelations or the too-tall turret, but by being placed perfectly on the edge of the woods. To the south the upstairs rooms would enjoy wonderful views of the hill rambling down to the river. But in back the woods cozied things down to a pleasant scale. Grand, but livable, in a stand of dark, dark cedars. The back rooms, I imagined, would feel like a tree house, the sloped forest looming kindly and mysterious.
I saw two problems right away. The lady's bedroom was probably in front, to take advantage of the views, while my best shot would be shooting down from the woods. Second problem was what to do with the car. Everybody knows everybody's car around here. I drove back to 349, cruised around until it got dark, then stashed it behind one of the Longs' decorative barns and walked.
The night was soft, warm, and quiet. We'd had our first frost earlier in the week, and it sounded as if a lot of the bugs had packed it in for the winter. A mosquito found me, but the
! held her off until she eventually lost interest.
I had rerigged the camcorder's shoulder bag so I could strap it around my waist, leaving my hands free, and clipped the penlights into the breast pocket of the jeans jacket I wore over my sweater. The Raichles made more noise on the dirt road than running shoes would have, a tradeoff for the support they'd give on rough ground.
A car came up behind me. High beams reflecting on the overhead electric wires gave me plenty of warning to get behind a tree. Oliver Moody's cruiser, working late; but then Ollie always did like haunting the back roads. I watched his taillights with one eye closed until he was gone, then eased back onto the road, like an outlaw.
It had been a long time since I'd gone walking in the dark, probably as long ago as before I'd got my license. As kids, we'd walk forever on weekend nights, hoping something would happen. Newbury was a great place for little children and adults. But were you between the ages of fifteen and thirty Newbury could be dull as a cement wall, unless you had the balls to cook up some excitement. It was kind of fun to have mine backâyet another reason I had agreed to take this job against my better judgment.
The few dimly lit windows in the Castle were mostly on the second floor, hinting that Mrs. Long and her boyfriend were heading for bed. I stuffed my pants cuffs inside my socks against the deer ticks and cut across the meadow to the lawn, which was smooth as a putting green. I circled behind the house, hugging the woods as I climbed the slope.
A figureâit looked to be a manâpassed across a second-floor window, thirty feet from where I was catching my breath after the steep climb. The house was tucked so close to the woods and the slope was so steep that I was literally standing above the second floor, looking down through the back windows.
He came back the other way, carrying a pair of wineglasses. I crouched down to scope out the floor plan. He had apparently come up a back stair from the kitchenâthis was all happening in the center of the house and the window I saw him in seemed to light a hallway. I headed left along the woods, paralleling the direction he had gone. At the end of the house an odd, square structure bulked up out of the pitched roof. I puzzled out that the crenelations were a false front, behind which the roof pitched down to the second floor. The thing at the end was a big, square dormer.
White light exploded in my faceâbright as the sun. I dived into the woods, thinking that they had seen me and turned on the security floods. Blinded and confused, I crawled through shrubs and briars, fleeing by animal instinct for the deeper shadows. I banged into something solid, a huge tree, scrambled behind it, and tried to figure out where to run next.
But no one shouted. No attack hounds bellowed up the slope. No one started shooting. I peeked around the tree and saw that the light source was not security floods, but a wall of glass, lit from within. The square dormer that spoiled the roofline housed an artist's studio, a huge, lofty bare white room. Clearly someone had finally taken the architect in hand and said, Okay, you've got your turret, your crenelations, your moat and goddamned drawbridge, now what I need in the back of this fantasy is an old-fashioned Greenwich Village studio with high windows facing north; no one will even see it unless they're sneaking around in the woods.
I found myself liking the house more; the studio lent it purpose. There was something no-nonsense about it. A huge canvas was propped on an enormous easel, draped with a bedsheet. Next to it, a small easel that held a blank sketchpad faced a low platform.
A pair of shadows leaped on the walls. For a moment, I was back in Manhattan, beside a perfumed woman in a darkened theater, waiting for a play to begin.
Naked, the boyfriend, the one Rose said tended to violence, looked like a guy who enjoyed working out. His shoulders, broad chest, and upper arms were heavily muscled, his waist and hips model-trim. He was not, however, a professional model. He mounted the platform a little clumsily, threw his arms apart in a self-conscious way, and grinned at someone who I assumed cared for him, because otherwise a ready and willing erection was going to go to waste.
He looked very happyâa young, happy, naked clean-shaven guy with white-blond hair. I was reaching belatedly for the camcorder when Mrs. Long strode into view, her back to me, and fully clothed in a long, flowing silvery blouse over jeans. Only her feet were bare. Rose had called her a brunette, which hardly conveyed the Oriental splendor of the inky black hair that fell shining down her back.
By the time I unlimbered the camera, Mrs. Long was hard at work with a pencil. Zooming the lens over her shoulder, I could see the drawing as clearly as she could. She quickly established the bulge and swell of the muscles on his chest and worked her way down his flat belly. I panned the sketch, the easel, unzoomed to take in her standing before it, swept the studio, then zoomed in on his body and face. I got back to the sketch in time to see her hesitate.
She had done his waist and brought life to his legs with uncommon skill, catching their main lines before she concentrated on his muscles. He was still standing as before, a little awkward, and undoubtedly uncomfortable. Holding the pose with his arms apart, he must have been getting tired, if his wilting erection were any clue. It was there at the groin that she had hesitated.
Suddenly she went for the face. I let go the trigger. He had a broad, almost round face, but on drawing paper only his pathologist would ever know him. Instead of his face, she sketched his skull. She drew cheekbones, but no cheeks, brow ridges, but no brow, no hair, no eyes, only their sockets. She did his teeth in jagged strokes, a bony jaw, and the short, split bone of a fleshless nose. I shivered. She was so skilled she seemed to peer through his skin, into his future.
She put down her pencil and started toward him. By now my camera was dangling from one hand. He too was down to half mast. He watched her come toward him and smiled with an anticipation he might not have felt had he seen how she had rendered his face. I was beginning to wonder about Mrs. Long, but her boyfriend had no doubts. He jumped down from the platform, scooped her into his arms, and kissed her. They kissed awhile, which I dutifully recorded, though from the back he could have been kissing any woman with beautiful black hair. They broke at last, and now when he hugged her, I could see by his expression that he probably wouldn't give a damn what she sketched on paper.
She pushed him back onto the stage, gestured that he should spread his arms again. I fired up the camera, anticipating her next move by the one remaining blank on her drawing paper. Sure enough, slowly unbuttoning her blouse, she let it slither off her shoulders. There are fashion-model square clotheshorse shoulders, and there are courtesan shoulders like Rubens painted. Mrs. Long had round, white courtesan shoulders. How she looked in front could be assumed by her boyfriend's eager “Yes, yes, yes,” clearly audible through the open casement window.
She laughed and did a little shimmy that could have gotten her a job dancing hiphop for Madonna. Her shirt slid off her back, a smooth, white, very beautiful back with twin rounds of muscle softly rimming her spine.
“Yes! Yes! Yes!”
She stepped closer, bent her head.
Her hair blocked the camera, but there wasn't a divorce court in the nation that wouldn't get the picture. Her boyfriend cried out. He reached for her. She pushed his hands back in position. He laughed. Mrs. Long stepped back, leaving him rigid and glistening, and whirled to the easel.
It was my turn to cry outâan up-from-the-gut gasp of astonishment at my first glimpse of her face. I had never seen a woman so beautiful or so happy. She had a heart-shaped feminine face with a high brow, wide-set cheekbones, a strong nose, and enormous blue eyes. There was a fine quality to her bone structure that made me think of Norwegian blood, despite her jet-black hair. Blue eyes, black hair, maybe Irish, maybe Scots, who knew? Who cared? Her lips were full and wet, and when she laughed she radiated joy.
I ripped the video cartridge from the camera and threw it into the woods.
I felt redeemed, for a fraction of a second: I had come too close to doing a terrible thing to a couple of happy peopleâa far worse sin than sacrificing little Alison's bracesâand I saw Rose's spy job for the dirty job it had been all along.
Then the damned tape hit a treeâwith a surprisingly loud
âand bounced onto the lawn. The cartridge was made of black plastic, except for the white label on the face, and sure enough it landed face up, gleaming in the light from the window. If they didn't find it, the lawn-mowing guys would hand it to the husband.
Mrs. Long had apparently caught the
through the open window. I heard her say, “What was that?”
I scrambled after the cartridge, hugging the woods. I was nearly to it, crouching across the cut grass, when she cried, “Raccoons! Raccoons. Turn on the light.”
Fortunately, he didn't know his way around the house that well, and it took him an extra moment to find the switch, during which time I slid down the slope, grabbed the videotape, and started scrambling for cover. I almost made it. In fact my head and shoulders were in the dark space between two bushes. Then he found the outside floodlights switch, and suddenly the back yard was bright enough to land helicopters.
“Look! It's a
“That's no bear. It's some son of a bitch hiding in your woods. Hey!”
Deep in shadow, at last, I glanced back. He was leaning out the window. She was pulling him back. “What if he has a gun?” Then she acted like a smart city girl. Instead of hauling out her own gun, or setting a dog on me, she ran to a security keypad embedded in the wall and pushed the panic button on her burglar alarm.
More lights. They blazed down from the roof and lit three acres, some flashing, while a siren began whooping loud enough to alert the next county. It was one of those
klaxons straight out of
The Hunt for Red October
, and I would not have been surprised to see Sean Connery submerge the Castle to a hundred fathoms. Nor would I doubt that the burglar alarm also sounded in the alarm company's New Milford office, where they would immediately dispatch a car, and alert Oliver Moody that someone was housebreaking on his turf. Oliver would respond first, armed and dangerous. I ran, tripped on a fallen limb, and fell face down, crunching my knee on a piece of granite ledge.
I have felt real pain twice in my life, but nothing like what I felt then. It was as if someone had driven a three-eighths drill through my kneecap, backed it out, and hammered in a rusty spike. I went blank for several seconds, dead to the world except for the siren, which grew faint. Then I started to vomit.
I held it down, ground my teeth, and dragged myself deeper into the shadows. The siren kept shrieking, throwing up walls of sound, and I thought I heard them arguing behind it. He wanted to come looking for me. She was saying no, hide. I worked at getting my breath back. And when I had, and my heart was slowing a little, I tried to bend my knee.
It moved. Not a lot, and not without considerable pain. But I'd be able to walk to my carâin a half hour or soâif I took it real easy and walked on the level road.
Inside the studio, Mrs. Long took charge again.
She strode first to the security keypad and punched in a code that stopped the siren abruptly, leaving an
echoing in my ears. Then she put on her blouse and went to the open window where her boyfriend was peering intently into the dark, and took his arm.
“Lock yourself in our room. I'll deal with the cops.”
She said, “I'll be fine. Here they come now. Go!”
I heard it too, across the hills the urgent scream of a state police siren. And on the low ends of the siren, the spectacular roar of a fullblown Plymouth Fury flat out.
Even if I ditched the camera and hid the tape, what possible explanation could I offer for trespassing in Mrs. Long's woods in the middle of the night? And even if Oliver didn't arrest meâfantasy, because he would find some charge, having waited twenty years for the opportunityâmy name would be wrecked once again, and once and for all, in the town, which would put me out of business. You can't make money selling houses without listings. A number of straitlaced people had been very kind when I came homeâkind perhaps to the memory of my father, kind nonetheless to give me their business. But two strikes and I was out. This stupid lark was about to finish me.
I stood up, took a step and fell down. It hurt like hell, but I knew nothing was broken. I just needed time. Oliver's siren got loud and his lights came bumping across the Longs' meadow as he careened into their driveway. I backed up the wooded slope, pulling myself along from tree trunk to tree trunk, getting nowhere fast. A wolf tree loomed, a huge, fat red oak, a sentinel standing alone, older than the second-growth stuff around it. Its lower limbs were dead, but enormous, barely clearing the ground that sloped up behind the tree. I got my hands around one, swung, and tugged myself up onto it. Then, clutching the main trunk, I climbed another and perched precariously on the backside of the tree, fifteen feet above the forest floor, some twenty or thirty feet in from the floodlit lawn. I peered around the trunk.
Oliver had gone in the front door and now he came out the back, wielding a five-cell Mag light, the brilliant halogen type about two feet long with instructions from the maker that it is not to be used as an “impact” instrument. “Stay inside!” he commanded Mrs. Long.
He started up the slope. He held the light in his left hand. His right hovered near his holstered gun.