Authors: Stephen L. Carter
Tags: #Mystery, #Thriller
ALSO BY STEPHEN L. CARTER
New England White
The Emperor of Ocean Park
God’s Name in Vain:
The Wrongs and Rights of Religion in Politics
The Dissent of the Governed: A Meditation on Law, Religion, and Loyalty
Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy
The Confirmation Mess:
Cleaning Up the Federal Appointments Process
The Culture of Disbelief:
How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion
Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby
Once again, with love, for Enola
And it came to pass, when Joshua was by Jericho, that he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, behold, there stood a man over against him with his sword drawn in his hand: and Joshua went unto him, and said unto him, Art thou
for us, or for our adversaries?
On the Sunday before the terror began, Rebecca DeForde pointed the rental car into the sullen darkness of her distant past. The Interstate was behind her. So was the chilly rain that had slowed her progress. The county road wound through thick Colorado forest, now snuggling along mountain peaks, now twisting among glowering trees. Here and there a distant flicker marked a farmhouse, then was gone. Fog enclosed her like sudden blankness. There was no moon. There were no stars. Street lamps had overlooked this corner of America, and so had the programmers of the car’s GPS. The road was curvy and unkempt and, in mid-April, icy in places. Still, Rebecca drove very fast, the way she always did. She did not know whether she was running away or running toward. She was thirty-four years old and for most of her life had felt as if she were running sideways, a cheerleader watching others play the game. She had grown accustomed to her role, and hated to be dragged onto the field. She had not wanted to make the journey, but she had no choice. Jericho Ainsley was dying, and although hardly anybody remembered nowadays exactly what Rebecca and Jericho had been to each other, everybody agreed that they had once been something. Beck herself had trouble recalling the precise details of their eighteen months together, even though, once upon a time, she had given interviews about it.
“Come on,” she urged the poky car as it struggled up the slope. Like many lonely people, Beck was on terms of easy conversational familiarity with the objects around her, and, often, with herself. “Come on, you can do this, don’t quit on me.”
The car seemed to grumble back at her.
“It’s okay.” Patting the dashboard as its screens glowed sullen rebuke. “It’s okay. You can do this.”
The car finally upshifted, and picked up the pace. Rebecca smiled, although another part of her would happily have missed the trip entirely.
Jericho was not supposed to die. Not yet. He and Beck were supposed to—what? Reconcile? Apologize? Have an ordinary human conversation? There was some ceremony left, anyway, and they were supposed to have all the time in the world to perform it.
“Guess not,” she muttered.
Beck had learned of Jericho’s condition not from his family but from an enterprising reporter, who had tracked her down in Boston. The reporter called not the BlackBerry she used for business but her personal cell, a number known to perhaps a dozen people. It was Saturday. She liked weekends, because the stores were crowded, and you could observe the flow of customers, looking for bottlenecks and underused spaces.
I’m updating Ambassador Ainsley’s obituary
, the reporter had shouted, because Rebecca was walking the sales floor and could hardly hear over the din.
Not the national-security angle
, the reporter explained.
The personal side. The scandal. In case he dies this time
And wondered whether she would care to comment.
Beck had said something rude and unprintable. Hanging up, she had called the house, the number she never forgot although she had not used it in years. She feared and half hoped the number had been changed, but Audrey answered on the second ring and said that Jericho had been asking for her: Audrey, who never went anywhere. If Audrey was at the bedside, things were grim indeed.
The doctors have surrendered
, she said.
My fathers future is in God’s hands
, added Audrey, who preached that all things were.
Beck promised to come at once.
proved complicated. She arranged for her conniving deputy to take over the semi-annual inspection tour of the nineteen New England stores owned by the retail conglomerate that employed her, then called her boss, an acerbic little man called Pfister, who grumbled and fussed and told her that this was a really lousy time to take family leave. Had Rebecca finished college, she would be Pfister’s boss rather than the other way around: they both knew it. He scolded her all the harder as a result. But when Rebecca for once stood her ground, Pfister, astonished at his own generosity, told her that she could have three days, no more. He needed her back in time for the regional managers’ meeting, set to begin Friday morning in Chicago. Beck promised she would be there.
Actually, she would not.
By Friday, Rebecca DeForde would be running for her life.
Darkness bore down on her as the car shuddered up the mountain. Distant lights danced at the edge of her vision, then vanished. Beck wondered how bad it would be. In her mind, she saw only the Jericho she had loved fifteen yeas ago and, in some ways, still did: the dashing scion of an old New England family that had provided government officials since the Revolution. One of his ancestors had a traffic circle named for him in Washington. A cousin served in the Senate. The family’s history was overwhelming; the Jericho for whom Beck had fallen had certainly overwhelmed her. He had been brilliant, and powerful, and confident, and fun, ever ready with eternal wisdom, or clever barbs. She did not like to think of that mighty man ravaged by disease. She had no illusions. She remembered what cancer had done to her own father.
Whatever was waiting, she had to go.
On Saturday afternoon, having cleared her decks with Pfister, Beck took the shuttle from Boston to Washington. She lived in Virginia, a stone’s throw from Reagan National Airport. Her daughter was at a church retreat, church being a thing that Beck did because she had been raised that way, and her mother would be offended if Rebecca dared differ. Beck decided to let Nina stay the night with the other kids. The two of them could ride together to the airport on Sunday,
then enplane for their different destinations. Rebecca’s mother, Jacqueline, had been after her for weeks to send Nina for a visit, and maybe this was the time. The child was only in second grade; missing a few days of instruction would do her no harm. Beck hesitated, then made the inevitable call to Florida, to ask if her mother could look after Nina. The conversation soon turned into a battle.
I don’t know how you could even think about taking a six-year-old to visit a man like that
I’m not taking her, Mom. That’s why I’m calling you
You said you
not to take her. That means you thought about it. I don’t understand how your mind works sometimes
She tried, and failed, to remember a time when she and her mother had not been at odds. Because, in the eyes of her eternally disappointed mother, Beck would never be more than ten years old. Certainly their animosity predated Jericho; and perhaps it had played some sort of role (as every one of the therapists Rebecca had consulted over the years seemed to think) in her falling in love, as a college sophomore, with a married man thirty-two years her senior who tossed away his remarkable career in order to possess her.
I appreciate your help, Mom
Oh, so you appreciate me now. Does that mean you’ll call more often?
But Beck rarely called anybody. She was not the calling sort. She lived in a cookie-cutter townhouse in Alexandria, along with her daughter and the cat, and when she was not homemaking or child-rearing she was working. Her mother had married young, and was supported by her husband until the day he died. Beck’s marriage had lasted less than two years. The thing with Jericho had ruined Rebecca for men, her mother insisted; and maybe it was true. Her mother was full of certitudes about the errors of others, and for the next few days would fill Nina’s mind with her fevered dogmas. Hating herself, Beck had put her daughter on the plane to Florida anyway; and Nina, cradling the cat carrier, had marched regally into the jetway, never turning her head for a final wave, because she was a lot more like her grandmother than like her mother.
Or maybe not. Rebecca herself had been a feisty child, curious and willful and prepared at any moment to be disobedient. She had always pretended that she was fine without her mother, perhaps because her mother spent so much time insisting on the opposite. Her rebelliousness had led her into trouble all her life, including at her pricey private high school, where a protest against the dress code had led to a suspension; and at Princeton, where a star wide receiver tried to have his way with the reluctant freshman and wound up with a broken nose for his troubles, missing half the season. A year later, she had wound up in Jericho’s bed. Maybe Nina was not like her grandmother at all, but simply a younger version of Beck—a possibility too scary to contemplate.
Lights on her tail. Was she being followed?
A wiser woman, Beck told herself, would have dismissed such a notion as the sort of nonsense that always sneaked into her head when she thought about Jericho. In the chilly night hours on a lonely and lightless mountain road, however, when the same pair of headlights kept slipping in and out of the fog, it was easier to be fearful than wise.
She accelerated—no easy matter for the little rental car—and the headlights vanished. She slowed to round a curve, and they were behind her again.
“How do you know they’re the same headlights?” she sneered.
She just knew. She knew because the years had slipped away and she was back in Jericho’s world, a world where a canoodling couple at the next table in a restaurant at a resort in Barbados meant you were under surveillance, where the maid at the Ritz planted bugs in the bedroom, where unexpected cars in the middle of the Yucatán were packed with terrorists ready to exact revenge for your earnest defense of your country.
She reminded herself that Jericho’s paranoia no longer guided her life, but her foot pressed harder anyway, and the little car shuddered
ahead. She shot down into the valley and passed through half a town. It began to snow. She climbed again, breasted the rise, went around a curve, and suddenly was suspended in nothing.
No headlights behind her, no road in front of her.
Then she almost drove over the cliff.
Things like that happened in the Rockies, not metaphorically but in reality, especially in the middle of the night, when you daydreamed your way into an unexpected nighttime snowstorm—unexpected because in Beck’s corner of the country, the worst that ever happened in April was rain. At ten thousand feet, as she was beginning to remember, the weather was different. One moment, hypnotized by the cone of her headlights as it illuminated the shadowy road ahead and the dark trees rushing by on either side, Beck was gliding along, totting up the errors of her life; then, before she realized what was happening, heavy flakes were swirling thickly around her, and the road had vanished.
Rebecca slowed, then slewed, the front end mounting an unseen verge, the rear end fishtailing, but by then her winter smarts had returned, and she eased the wheel over in the direction of the skid. The car swiveled and bumped and came to rest ten yards off the road. She sat still, breath hitching. No headlights behind her, or up on the road, or anywhere else.