Breathless Page 2

Henry Rouvroy had not seen his twin brother, James, for fifteen years. He was nervous but inexpressibly happy about the prospect of their reunion.

Their lives had followed different paths. So much time passed so quickly.

At first, when the idea to reconnect with Jim came to Henry, he dismissed it. He worried that he wouldn’t be met with hospitality.

They had never experienced the fabled psychic connection of identicals. On the other hand, they had never been at odds with each other, either. There was no bad blood between them, no bitterness.

They had simply been different from each other, interested in different things. Even in childhood, Henry was the social twin, always in a group of friends. Jimmy preferred solitude. Henry thrived on sports, games, action, challenges. Jimmy was content with books.

When their parents divorced, they were twelve. Instead of sharing custody of both boys, their father took Henry to New York to live with him, and their mother settled in a small town in Colorado with Jimmy, which seemed right and natural to everyone.

Since they were twelve, they had seen each other only once, when they were twenty-two, at the reading of their father’s will. Their mother died of cancer a year before the old man passed away.

They agreed to stay in touch. Henry wrote five letters to his brother over the following year, and Jim answered two of them. Thereafter, Henry wrote less often, and Jim never again replied.

Although they were brothers, Henry accepted that they were also virtually strangers. As much as he might want to be part of a closely knit family, it was not to be.

But by nature, the human heart yearns most for what it cannot have. Time and circumstances brought Henry here to rural Colorado, with the hope that their relationship might change.

Pines crowded close to the road, and branches swagged within inches of the roof. Even in daytime, headlights were needed.

Years earlier, the University of Colorado had owned this land. Jim’s remote house had been occupied by a series of researchers who studied conifer ecology and tested theories of forest management.

The hard-packed earth gave way to shale in places, and nine-tenths of a mile from the paved highway, at the end of the lane, Henry arrived at his brother’s property.

The one-story clapboard house had a deep porch with a swing and rocking chairs. Although modest, it looked well-maintained and cozy.

Willows and aspens shaded the residence.

Henry knew that the clearing encompassed six acres of sloping fields, because “Six Acres” was the title of one of his brother’s poems. Jim’s writing had appeared in many prestigious journals, and four slender volumes of his verse had been published.

No one made money from poetry anymore. Jim and his wife, Nora, worked their six acres as a truck farm during the growing season, selling vegetables from a booth at the county farmer’s market.

Attached to the barn were a large coop and fenced chicken yard. A formidable flock shared the yard in good weather, kept to the well-insulated coop in winter, producing eggs that Jim and Nora also sold.

She was a quilter of such talent that her designs were regarded as art. Her quilts sold in galleries, and Henry supposed she produced the larger part of their income, though they were by no means rich.

Henry knew all of that from reading his brother’s poems. Hard work and farm life provided the subjects of the verses. Jim was the latest in a long tradition of American literary rustics.

Following the dirt track between the house and the barn, Henry saw his brother splitting cordwood with an axe. A wheelbarrow full of split wood stood nearby. He parked and got out of the Land Rover.

Jim sunk the axe blade in the stump that he used as a chopping block, and left it wedged there. Stripping off his worn leather work gloves, he said, “My God—Henry?”

His look of incredulity was less than the delight for which Henry had hoped. But then he broke into a smile as he approached.

Reaching out to shake hands, Henry was surprised and pleased when Jim hugged him instead.

Although Henry worked out with weights and on a treadmill, Jim was better muscled, solid. His face was more weathered than Henry’s, too, and still tanned from summer.

Nora came out of the house, onto the porch, to see what was happening. “Good Lord, Jim,” she said, “you’ve cloned yourself.”

She looked good, with corn-silk hair and eyes a darker blue than the sky, her smile lovely, her voice musical.

Five years younger than Jim, she had married him only twelve years ago, according to the author’s bio on the poetry books. Henry had never met her or seen a photograph of her.

She called him Claude, but he quickly corrected her. He never used his first name, but instead answered to his middle.

When she kissed his cheek, her breath smelled cinnamony. She said she’d been nibbling a sweetroll when she heard the Land Rover.

Inside, on the kitchen table, beside the sweetroll plate were what Henry assumed to be five utility knives, useful for farm tasks.

As Nora poured coffee, she said nothing about the knives. Neither did Jim as he moved them—and two slotted sharpening stones—from the table to a nearby counter.

Nora insisted that Henry stay with them, though she warned him that a sofa bed was all they had by way of accommodations, in the claustrophobic room that Jim called an office.

“Haven’t had a houseguest in nine years,” Jim said, and it seemed to Henry that a knowing look passed between husband and wife.

The three of them fell into easy conversation around the kitchen table, over homemade cinnamon rolls and coffee.

Nora proved charming, and her laugh was infectious. Her hands were strong and rough from work, yet feminine and beautifully shaped.

She had nothing in common with the sharky women who cruised in Henry’s circle in the city. He was happy for his brother.

Even as he marveled at how warmly they welcomed him, at how they made him feel at home and among family, as he had never felt with Jim before, Henry was not entirely at ease.

His vague disquiet arose in part from his perception that Jim and Nora were in a private conversation, one conducted without words, with furtive looks, nuanced gestures, and subtle body language.

Jim expressed surprise that someone had drawn Henry’s attention to his poetry. “Why would they think we were related?”

They didn’t share the name Rouvroy. Following their parents’ divorce, Jim had legally taken his mother’s maiden name, Carlyle.

“Well,” Henry said drily, “maybe it was your photo on the book.”

Jim laughed at his thickheadedness, and although he seemed to be embarrassed by his brother’s praise, they talked about his poems. Henry’s favorite, “The Barn,” described the humble interior of that structure with such rich images and feeling that it sounded no less beautiful than a cathedral.

“The greatest beauty always is in everyday things,” Jim said. “Would you like to see the barn?”

“Yes, I would.” Henry admired his brother’s poetry more than he had yet been able to say. Jim’s verses had an ineffable quality so haunting it was not easy to discuss. “I’d like to see the barn.”

Clearly in love with this piece of the world that he and Nora had made their own, Jim grinned, nodded, and rose from the table.

Nora said, “I’ll put linens on the sofa bed and start thinking about what’s for dinner.”

Following Jim from the kitchen, Henry glanced at the knives on the counter. On second consideration, they looked less like ordinary task knives than like thrust-and-cut weapons. The four- and five-inch blades had nonreflective finishes. Two seemed to feature assisted-opening mechanisms for quick blade release.

Then again, Henry knew nothing about farming. These knives might be standard stock at any farm-supply store.

Outside, the afternoon air remained mild. From the split cords of pine came the scent of raw wood.

Overhead, two magnificent birds with four-foot wingspans glided in intersecting gyres. The ventral feathers of the first were white with black wing tips. The second was boldly barred in white and brown.

“Northern harriers,” Jim said. “The white one with the black tips is the male. Harriers are raptors. When they’re hunting, they fly low over the fields and kill with a sudden pounce.”

He worked the axe loose from the tree-stump chopping block.

“Better put this away in the barn,” he said, “before I forget and leave it overnight.”

“Harriers,” Henry said. “They’re so beautiful, you don’t think of them as killing anything.”

“They eat mostly mice,” Jim said. “But also smaller birds.”

Henry grimaced. “Cannibalism?”

“They don’t eat other harriers. Their feeding on smaller birds is no more cannibalism than us feeding on other mammals—pigs, cows.”

“Living in the city, I guess we idealize nature,” Henry said.

“Well, when you accept the way of things, there’s a stark kind of beauty in the dance of predators and prey.”

Heading to the barn, Jim carried the axe in both hands, as if to raise and swing it should he see something that needed to be chopped.

The harriers had fled the sky.

When Henry glanced back toward the house, he saw Nora watching them from a window. With her pale hair and white blouse, she looked like a ghost behind the glass. She turned away.

“Life and death,” Jim said as they drew near the barn.

“Excuse me?”

“Predators and prey. The necessity of death, if life is to have meaning and proportion. Death as a part of life. I’m working on a series of poems with those themes.”

Jim opened the man-size entrance beside the pair of larger barn doors. Henry followed his brother into the wedge of sunshine that the door admitted to this windowless and otherwise dark space.

Inside, in the instant before the lights came on, Henry was gripped by the expectation that before him would be some sight for which Jim’s poem had not prepared him, that the poem was a lie, that the truck farming and the quilting and the simple-folks image were all lies, that the reality of this place and these people was more terrible than anything he could imagine.

When Jim threw a switch, a string of bare light bulbs brightened the length of that cavernous space, revealing the barn to be nothing more than a barn. A tractor and a backhoe were garaged on the left. Two horses occupied stalls on the right. The air was fragrant with the scents of hay and feed grain.

Although Henry’s alarming premonition had proved false, and although he knew that fearing his brother was as absurd as fearing the tractor or the horses, or the smell of hay, his sense of a nameless impending horror did not abate.

Behind him, the barn door swung shut of its own weight.

Jim turned to him with the axe, and Henry shrank back, and Jim stepped past him to hang the axe on a rack of tools.

Heart racing, breath suddenly ragged, Henry drew the SIG P245 from the snugly fit shoulder rig under his jacket and shot his twin point-blank, twice in the chest and once in the face.

Henry had come here with the hope that his relationship with his brother would change, and his hope had been fulfilled. Claude Henry Rouvroy was in the process of becoming James Carlyle.

The pistol was fitted with a sound suppressor, and the shots were no louder than a horse cutting wind. Indeed, neither of the horses had been spooked by the gunfire.

Standing over the corpse, Henry strove to quiet his breathing. His tremors forced him to holster the pistol to avoid accidentally squeezing off another round.

He had worried that his brother would grow suspicious of him, and he had feared that he would not be able to pull the trigger when the time came. In the process of assiduously repressing those fears so that he could carry out his plan, he projected his motivations onto Jim, imagining a conspiracy between him and Nora, finding in everyday objects—the knives, the axe—proof of sinister intentions. He had misread menace in innocent actions: Nora watching them from the window, Jim talking about the harriers, about predators and prey.

After a couple of minutes, when his breathing returned to normal and the tremors abated, Henry was able to laugh at himself. Although his laughter was soft, something about it disturbed the horses. They whinnied nervously and pawed the stall floors with their hooves.


Grady Adams lived in a two-story house with silvered cedar siding and a black slate roof, the last of ten residences on a county road. The two-lane blacktop had no official name, only a number, but locals called it Cracker’s Drive, after Cracker Conley, who built—and for forty years occupied—the house in which Grady now lived.

No one remembered what Cracker’s first name had been or why he was called Cracker. Evidently he was an eccentric and certainly a recluse, because to the locals, Cracker was more of a legend than he was a real neighbor with whom they had interacted.

In their minds, Conley’s addiction to solitude forever affected the character of the house itself. They rarely called it the Conley place or Cracker’s place, never the Adams house or even the house at the end of the lane. It was known as the hermit’s house, and in respect of the name, they tended to keep their distance.

Most of the time, their reticence suited Grady just fine. He was not a misanthrope. But in recent years, he had enough experience—too much—of people, which was why he returned to these sparsely populated mountains. For at least a while, perhaps a long while, he preferred the solitude that Cracker Conley apparently had cherished.

In the kitchen, after returning from the hike on which the intriguing animals had been encountered, Grady prepared Merlin’s four o’clock meal. Preparation took longer than consumption.

“You were well named, the way you make food vanish.”

The dog licked his chops and ambled to the door to be let out.

Half of the three-acre property lay behind the house. After his dinner, the wolfhound liked to prowl the grounds, sniffing the grass to learn what creatures of field and forest had recently visited. The yard was Merlin’s newspaper.

On the back porch, with an icy bottle of beer, Grady sat in one of two teak rockers with wine-red cushions.

A low table with a black-marble top stood beside the chair. Stacked on the table were three reference books from his library.

As intent as a detective at a crime scene, nose to the grass, Merlin vacuumed every clue to the identities of all trespassers.

A large paper birch overhung the north side of the house, and three others graced the yard, their white bark tinted gold in places by the late-afternoon sun. At times, Merlin seemed to be following the intricate patterns the trees cast upon the lawn, as if their shadows were cryptography that he intended to read and decode.

No fence was needed to contain him. He never rebelled against the rule to stay within his master’s sight.

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