For Bernal, the message in the cowboy boot finally confirmed that something was wrong.
Muriel liked to make her communications to her single employee works of art. The one standing on the windowsill at the end of the hall was an elaborately decorated cowboy boot, complete with spur. In it were three foil- wrapped chocolates, bittersweet, and a 3 × 5 index card on which was written, in Muriel’s slanted handwriting, “Bernal. What I learned today changes everything. Head over to Ungaro’s lab if you crave an explanation.”
Of course he craved an explanation. Muriel was supposed to be at the opening of an exhibit of Re nais sance silver at the Cheriton Art Gallery that night, not hanging around the lab of her pet AI researcher.
Impromptu visits to Muriel- funded research programs were what Bernal got paid for. He’d just gotten back from one, a road trip to South Dakota to deal with some bad feelings about the mammoth project, with a few side visits on the way. Bernal rubbed his eyes. It had been a long day’s drive from the campground at Seneca Lake, and he’d been looking forward to a hot shower and quick sleep in a back bedroom, with business left for the next day.
But something had seemed off as soon as he had made it into the house, a quality of deliberate silence. He’d run up the curving staircase to the sconce- lit hallway upstairs and said hello to the tailor’s dummy in the military dress jacket that guarded the low bureau with the turned wood bowl on it. A glance into Muriel’s bedroom had increased his unease.
Clothing lay piled against a radiator. An old wooden soft- drink box, smelling of damp cellar, had been dumped out, and the toys that had once been stored in it, things like stuffed tigers with green eyes and long- obsolete video games, lay scattered across the darkred Oriental carpet at the foot of the bed. A doll’s head had rolled under a highboy. It stared demurely at Bernal from beneath long lashes, one eye half closed.
Found objects, like a wooden shoe form, the numerals 61⁄2 bold black on its side, and a row of glass eyeballs of various colors, rested on top of door moldings, safe above the mess. Her bedside lamp was an Art Deco Atlas nobly holding up a frosted glass circle with a 40- watt bulb behind it. What looked like the contents of her jewelry box had been poured over his patinaed bronze feet.
The yellow silk-upholstered daybed was piled with shoe boxes. Dozens of them. He knew that Muriel loved shoes, but this was ridiculous. The entire top layer was new purchases from some store called DEEP. A receipt showed that they had been purchased just that afternoon, and the figure made Bernal’s male eyes bug out.
He’d worked for Muriel for two years now, and he knew how to judge her mood from the disorder in her private space. This was worse than he’d ever seen it. Something was definitely up with her.
A suit bag, unzipped and empty, lay on the bed.
He’d made fun of her for that bag. It usually contained what he called her ninja outfit: fitted black microfiber and Kevlar, which she always insisted would come in handy some day if she had to commit a crime. Muriel was somewhere beyond sixty but fit enough to carry the suit off. Accessorized by some usually over- the- top diamonds, the thing actually looked like a real outfit. He understood that she sometimes wore it to the gym. But not to a gallery opening.
Hanging by the mirror was the gown she’d been prepared to wear, a bronze knee-length. If she’d decided to switch outfits, she’d done it recently.
When he saw the cowboy boot on the windowsill, he figured he’d have his answer. But all he got were more questions. He ran his fingers through his hair as he reread the card, wondering what she was up to.
A door slam downstairs made Bernal jump. Just as he was turning from the window to head down there, a flicker of motion outside caught his eye. He pressed his forehead against the glass and peered through the tree branches to the ground.
A figure in a pink nightgown ran across the lawn, heading toward the garage.
He recognized Muriel. Chapter 2
Bernal ran down the stairs and along the hallway toward the kitchen. This hallway was dark, and he didn’t take the time to turn on the light. The rear door was right—
He tripped over something heavy, windmilled arms, and landed with a crash amid outdoor boots and umbrellas. The pain was shocking. He’d smashed the side of his head and his upper body. He rolled and pushed himself up, favoring his right side. He felt up the wall and found the light switch.
The light revealed what he had tripped over: a large flowered bag, something he would have thought was much too old- ladyish for Muriel. It was lying right outside the closed hall closet door. Muriel was messy, but she kept her messes private. It was unlike her to leave things like that out in the more visible parts of the house.
The back door hung open. A cool breeze blew in.
He ran out through it and up the rear driveway.
Muriel’s Audi was inside the dark garage with its door open and keys dangling in the ignition. Its dome light lit up rusty shelves packed with oil cans and cleaning rags.
He stopped himself from throwing himself into the car, peering behind the seats, under the seats, in the trunk. She wasn’t there. She’d abandoned the car, even though she’d clearly been heading for it.
The key was turned, but nothing glowed on the dashboard. The thing was dead.
He swung himself back out of the garage and stopped there. He let the night wash over him. Stop, he told himself. Let it come. A few houses down some teenager played music, nothing but the thumping bass notes making it out. The air had that sweetish smell of long- frozen things rotting at last, making way for new life. Cool breeze shouldered past him on its endless errand. Glowing cirrus revealed the otherwise invisible moon. Dry leaves crackled, and a branch snapped.
Down the yard, by the fence. Where the hell was Muriel heading?
It didn’t matter. That was a blocked corner. Her yard was a worse mess than her bedroom, overgrown and savage, hidden behind stockade fences so it did not affront the neighborhood. She probably had forgotten what was back there.
Bernal was still sucking breath. He could shout or run but not both.
But there was no one there. Had he imagined it?
No. There were dark streaks in the gray of the decaying leaves covering the beds. Bernal pushed past the sharp points of gigantic rhododendrons, right up to the smooth boards of the fence. Muriel was pretty old, but maybe, in her panic, she had managed to climb . . . he pushed, and found a loose board. How long had she been planning this? He flipped it up and squeezed under.
He found himself in the opposite of Muriel’s overgrown yard: an expanse of trimmed lawn and mulched flower beds glowing with daffodils. A Tudor mansion loomed overhead.
Muriel disappeared around the corner of the house, her robe pale in the darkness. He sprinted across the grass after her.
Tires shrieked on pavement. Bernal came around the corner to catch a glimpse of a car, a Mercedes sedan by the looks of it. The left taillight had a piece of orange tape across a crack. It fishtailed onto the street and vanished. If there was a stop sign or something at the end of the block, maybe he would be able to catch up with her when she . . . no, that was ridiculous. She was gone.
In the stunning quiet, Bernal heard the breeze blow a branch against a window with a faint click.
“Hey!” A man ran off the porch and stood next to Bernal. “My car! I didn’t even . . .” He put down a cast- iron borzoi and felt at his pockets. “He took my keys!” He looked up at the house. “How the hell am I supposed to get in?”
“No one’s home?”
“Nah, they’re all down in Hilton Head. Coming back tomor- row.” He checked his watch. “Today, I guess. Do you know who the hell took my car?”
He was being remarkably calm about it, Bernal thought. He was a kind of young- old guy, with graying hair but a slim build. He wore white running shoes, gray wool pants, and a sweatshirt from a music school with a picture of a harpsichord on it. The man picked the metal dog back up and cradled it in his arms.
“Friend of mine,” Bernal said. He decided not to identify Muriel as this guy’s neighbor. No need to cause trouble before he knew what was going on.
The guy eyed him. “Not a fugitive from, ah, justice, I hope.”
“She was just in a hurry.”
To Bernal’s surprise, the guy laughed. “I’ve been there. But it looks to me like you and your friend got my car stolen. Can you help me get it back?”
“I’d love to. What was the license number?” Bernal let his mind clear. After a moment, he saw a couple of letters, DA. That memory hadn’t had time to get associated with anything, but it had to belong to the car.
“Come on. You got a phone?”
“Only in my car.”
“I really need to use it. This is really annoying.”
The two of them walked down the street. Damn it, Bernal thought. He had to get rid of this guy and figure out what Muriel was up to.
His Dodge Ram came into view. The beat- up old red van with the scratch on its side wasn’t a sexy ride, but it carried his gear without attracting attention. He unlocked the door.
Then what he had seen finally came clear to him. When Muriel had stolen the man’s car, he had run down the stairs, as if interrupted while opening the door. But his keys had been in the car, motor running. And he had come down with a cast- iron dog. He’d carried it so naturally it had seemed like an accessory.
He’d stolen it. Bernal was suddenly sure. This guy had broken into the house, stolen some stuff, the dog among it, and been finishing up, ready to load the car, when Muriel took off with it.
“Look,” Bernal said, trying to be reasonable. “I don’t care what the hell you’re up to out here—”
“Step away from the car.”
The guy was all of a sudden sweating and desperate. “I need to go. I need to get out of here. Give me your keys and there’s nothing else that has to happen.”
“Look, I’d like—”
Bernal never saw the swing of the iron dog, but pain flared in the side of his head.
Copyright © 2009 by Alexander Jablokov