Wentworth recrossed his legs. He wore designer socks with a blue-and-red geometric motif.
“Charlie’s sons, Michael and Joseph, built a website. Very well done. A first step toward developing a chain of Cream and Sugars.”
“They got some business-magazine attention,” Linda remembered.
“And the website started getting hits. The regular-customer gallery featured two hundred of Charlie’s favorite photos—some with the liaison and the agent in the background, totally identifiable.”
“The senator’s man, meeting secretly with the equivalent of Osama bin Laden—that could wreck a political career,” Tim said.
“Even a political party,” said Wentworth.
“But with all your resources,” Linda said, “you could have hacked their website, somehow purged the photos.”
“We’ve done our best. If it’s on the Web, it’s out there somewhere forever. Besides, Charlie had discs of the photos in a safe at the Cream and Sugar.”
“Burglarize the place. Steal them.”
“He often gave copies to the customers he photographed.”
“So burglarize them, too. Why kill all these people?”
“If an ambitious prosecutor or a rebel journalist came to one of them, who knows what they might remember—or pretend to remember. ‘Oh, yes, I heard them talking about an embassy bombing, and months later it happened.’ People love the spotlight, their moment of fame.”
“So the decision was made,” Tim said, “to liquidate everyone who could have pretended to overhear them on the patio that day.”
Wentworth drummed his elegant fingers on the arms of his chair, which was the first movement of his hands since he had sat down.
“Much is at stake, Mr. Carrier. The fourth thing that happened is that the senator’s star ascended. We may be looking at our next president. Which would be a fine thing. The senator has been with us for twenty years, since our earliest days.”
“You mean with this shadow government of yours.”
“Yes. We thrive in bureaucracies, in law-enforcement agencies, in the intelligence community, in Congress—but now the opportunity exists to extend our reach into the Oval Office.”
Wentworth consulted his wristwatch and rose to his feet.
“The man I killed,” Tim said.
“A tool. A good one for quite a while. But his wiring seemed to be coming apart.”
“What was his real name?”
“He was no one special. There are multitudes like him.”
“Multitudes,” Linda murmured.
Lacing his fingers, cracking his knuckles, Wentworth said, “When we discovered he was targeting you and your family, Mr. Carrier, we had to intervene. As I said—some things must be respected for the sake of principled reconstruction.”
“But that’s just jargon.”
“Yes, all right, but behind the jargon is a philosophy in which we believe and by which we try to live. We are principled men and women.”
As Tim and Linda got up from the sofa, Wentworth adjusted the knot in his tie, shot his cuffs.
He smiled. “After all, if men like you had not so valiantly defended your country, we would have nothing to reconstruct.”
Tim had been both respected and put in his place.
Before opening the door to the hall, standing with one hand on the knob, Wentworth said, “If you try to go public with what I’ve said here, you’ll look like a paranoid fool. We’ll make sure of that, with all our opinionmakers in the media. And then one day, you will snap, kill Ms. Paquette, your entire family, then commit suicide.”
Linda was quick to Tim’s defense. “No one would believe he could do that.”
Wentworth arched his eyebrows. “A war hero, having seen such horrible things, suffering posttraumatic stress disorder, finally cracks, perpetrating a bloodbath? Ms. Paquette, considering all the impossible things that the public has been persuaded to believe these days, that one will go down as smooth as a spoonful of ice cream.”
He left the room.
Linda said, “Tim? War hero?”
“Not now,” he said, and led her into the hallway.
Wentworth departed the house by the front door, leaving it open behind him. Tim closed it.
All of the orcs seemed to have gone.
Tim’s mother and Pete were in the kitchen.
She had a haunted look, and Pete said, “What the hell was that?”
“Take Mom and Linda to your place.”
“I’m staying,” she said. “And you have to get your ear treated.”
“Trust me. Go with Pete. I have a couple things to do. I’ll call Dad, have him come home, take me to an emergency room. We’ll all meet at Pete’s later.”
“And then what?” she wondered.
“And then we’ll have our lives.”
The phone and doorbell began to ring simultaneously.
“Neighbors,” Tim said. “We’re not talking to any of them until we’ve talked among ourselves and decided on a story.”
When Pete had left with Linda and Mary, Tim went into the garage and got a carpet knife from his father’s tool cabinet.
He cut out the bloodstained sections of carpet on the stairs and in the upstairs hall. He bagged them and put them out with the trash.
The doorbell and phone rang periodically, but not as frequently as before.
Surprisingly, neither the small decorative pillow nor the chair cushion was bloodstained. He returned them to the living room.
He collected the ragged strips of the ruined painting and upstairs retrieved all the ejected shell casings and threw those things in the trash, as well.
With some effort, he walked the highboy against the wall where it belonged. He gathered up the broken lamps. He used the vacuum to sweep the wood chips and other debris from the master-bedroom carpet.
In a day or two, he would repair the bullet holes in the dry-wall and give the room two fresh coats of paint.
He closed and locked the open window, then closed but did not lock the window in his bedroom at the back of the house.
The orcs had taken with them all of the killer’s paraphernalia that had been on the kitchen island. They had taken the handcuff from the table leg.
The sliced apples in the metal bowl had turned brown. He put them down the garbage disposal with the peels that were in the sink.
He washed the bowl and the peeler and the knife, and he put them in the drawers where they belonged.
Later, he would repair the broken chair.
This was his home, where he had grown up, a sacred place to him, and he would put it right.
After calling his dad, he went across the street for a brief visit with Mickey McCready.
Pete’s cable service had been restored, and no one had taken his computer. He switched it on, encouraged Linda to sit at the keyboard, gave her the website address, and left the room.
On the website, this was the citation she found when she typed in Tim’s name:
Sergeant Timothy Eugene Carrier, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. A platoon of Sergeant Carrier’s company, while on operations, discovered a warehouse in which mass executions of civilians sympathetic to the democratic movement were under way. As the platoon fought to seize possession of the building and rescue the prisoners therein, which included scores of women and children, they were attacked from the rear and surrounded by a large enemy force. Realizing that the unit had suffered casualties depriving it of effective leadership, and aware that the platoon was even then under attack, Sergeant Carrier took eight men and proceeded by helicopter to reinforce the beleaguered platoon. Sergeant Carrier disembarked with his men from the helicopter, which was disabled on landing by enemy action, and braving withering fire, led them and the helicopter crew to the trapped platoon, where indeed every ranking officer had perished. For the next five hours, he moved fearlessly from position to position, directing and encouraging the troops. Although painfully wounded in the leg and back by fragments of an enemy grenade, Sergeant Carrier directed the valiant defense through repeated enemy assaults, apprising headquarters of the platoon’s plight. When the warehouse was breached by enemy forces, he personally held them off at the critical doorway for a grueling forty minutes, collapsing of his numerous wounds only when the enemy retreated upon the arrival of reinforcements for which he had called. Sergeant Carrier’s actions saved his fellow Marines from capture and minimized the loss of life. A full inspection of the warehouse complex revealed 146 dismembered and beheaded civilians, 23 of them women, and 64 of them children. Sergeant Carrier’s valiant devotion to duty and indomitable fighting spirit had helped to save another 366 civilians being detained there, 112 of them women, and 220 of them children, some of them infants. His leadership and great personal valor in the face of overwhelming odds reflect great credit upon himself and are in keeping with the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the U.S. Naval Service.
This man with his big sweet head and his tender heart had been presented with the Congressional Medal of Honor.
She read the citation once, shaking with awe. She read it again, through tears, and then again.
When Pete decided that she no longer needed to be alone, he came to her, sat on the edge of the desk, and took her hand.
“My God, Pete. My God.”
“I was in the original platoon at that warehouse, when he came with his eight men.”
“When you grew up together.”
“Later this evening, at dinner, you’ll meet Liam Rooney, who was one of the men Tim brought with him. And Liam’s wife, Michelle—she was the pilot of the downed helicopter. You know in the citation, where it says he led his men and the chopper crew through withering fire?”
“What it doesn’t say is first he put a tourniquet on Michelle’s arm. And when he led them through withering fire, he was sheltering her and half carrying her.”
For a while she could not speak, and then she said, “Every idiot from coast to coast knows who Paris Hilton is, but how many know his name?”
“One in fifty thousand?” Pete guessed. “But he wouldn’t have it any other way. That’s a small club he’s in, Linda. I’ve met several other men who’ve received the medal. They’re all different in many ways, and different ages going back to World War II, but in some ways they’re all the same. One thing, and it really impresses you when you meet them, one thing none of them does is talk about what they did back then, and if you press them on it, you see it embarrasses them to be thought of as a hero. There’s this humility that I don’t know if they were all of a type born with it or it came from the experience, but it’s a humility I know damn well I’ll never have.”
They went into the kitchen.
Mary stood at the sink, peeling apples for a pie.
Linda said, “Mrs. Carrier?”
“For what, sweetheart?”
“For your son.”
The sky was vast, and the plains, and the green fields of early corn, and across the vastness lay the quiet of things growing and of men patiently tending.
Tim had been stopped at the turnoff out at the highway, where he had been delayed awhile, and then he had driven a half mile along the lane to the farmhouse.
Two stories, roomy, but in no sense palatial, the house met the world through a veranda that encircled all sides of it. The white clapboard walls were so impeccably maintained that in the flat clear Midwest sun, he could detect no peeling paint, no smallest weathered patch.
Previously he had seen the house in photographs, but he had never been here before.
He had dressed in his only suit, one of two white shirts that he owned, and a new necktie that he had bought especially for this occasion. When he got out of his rental car, he had adjusted the knot in the tie, brushed his hands down the front of the coat to get rid of lint, if there was any, and looked down to be sure he didn’t need to spiff up the polish on his shoes with a quick rub on the back of each pant leg.
A pleasant young man in more casual dress had come out from the house and led him to the front porch, asking if he would like a glass of iced tea.
Now Tim sat in a handsome rocking chair on the veranda, with a glass of excellent tea.
He felt big, clumsy, costumed, but not out of place.
Every length of the veranda was furnished with bentwood rockers and wicker armchairs and wicker sofas and small wicker tables, as if in the evening neighbors came from all around to enjoy the commodious porch and talk about the weather.
She didn’t keep him waiting. She arrived in boots, tan jeans, and a crisp white blouse, much more casually dressed than on the one previous occasion when he had been in her company.
He said that it was a pleasure to see her again, and she said the pleasure was all hers, and made him feel that she meant it.
At seventy-five, she was tall and trim, with thick gray hair cut short, and her blue eyes were as direct as they were clear.
When she shook his hand, her grip was firm, as he remembered it. Her hands were strong and darkly tanned and well used.
They drank tea and talked about the corn and about horses, which she loved, and about the joys of a Midwest summer, here where she had been born and raised and hoped never to leave. Then he said, “Ma’am, I have come here to ask you for a favor of great importance to me.”
“Just ask, Sergeant Carrier, and I’ll do what I can.”
“I’ve come here to request a private meeting with your son, and it’s vital that you yourself directly speak with him about it.”
She smiled. “Fortunately, he and I have always been on excellent speaking terms except for a month when he was in the Navy and thought he had to marry a girl I flat-out knew was wrong for him.”
“How did that turn out, ma’am?”
“To my relief and considerable amusement, he discovered that the girl had no interest in marrying him.”
“I’m getting married myself in a month,” Tim said.
“And I’m flat-out sure that she’s the right one.”
“Well, you’re older now than my son was then, and I daresay more sensible.”
They talked about Linda for a while, and then they talked about the meeting he wanted, and why he wanted it, and he didn’t tell her all of it, but he told more than he had intended.
In the red twilight, the evergreen forest stood in a fragrant vaulted hush, like a cathedral in which only owls worshipped with a one-word prayer.