You’ve trashed it.
Is that what you think?
Unless you’re going to make a potpourri with it.
When the flower was floating in the bowl, although it had been cut from the tree, how did it look?
Lush and alive? she asked.
And now it looks dead.
She propped her elbows on the table, rested her face in her cupped hands, and smiled. I’m going to show you something.
Something with the flower.
All things in their time, she said.
I hope I live that long.
Her smile broadened, and her voice was soft with the affection of a friend. You have a certain grace, you know.
I shrugged and shifted my attention to the flame within the red glass lamp between us.
She said, Let’s have no misunderstanding. I mean—a grace on which you can rely.
If she thought that she had distracted me with the flower and that I had forgotten the question that she had dodged, she was wrong. I returned to it:
If they don’t want to kill you right now but will want to kill you soon, and for the wrong reason—what is the right reason? I’m sorry. Excuse me. I mean, what is the better reason they might have for wanting you dead?
You will know when you will know, she said.
And when will I know?
As she replied, I answered my question in sync with her: All things in their time.
Crazily, I did not believe that she was withholding information or was speaking in riddles either to deceive me or to entice me. She impressed me as being absolutely truthful.
Furthermore, I had the sense that everything she had said had carried more meaning than I had taken from it, and that eventually, when I looked back on our dinner, I would realize that on this night, in this hour, I should have known her for who she was.
With both hands, Annamaria picked up her mug of tea and sipped from it.
She looked no different in this flattering lamplight from the way that she had looked in the gray light of late afternoon, on the pier. Neither beautiful nor ugly, and yet not merely plain. Petite yet somehow powerful. She had a compelling presence for reasons that I could not define, a presence that was not as magnetic as it was humbling.
Suddenly my promise to keep her safe was a weight on my chest.
I raised one hand to the pendant that I now wore.
Lowering the mug of tea, she looked at the bell captured between my thumb and forefinger.
I said, ‘The bell invites me…it is a knell that summons me to Heaven or to Hell.’
Shakespeare, she said. But that’s not quite the quote. And a man like you doesn’t need to doubt his ultimate destination.
Again I lowered my gaze to the oil lamp. Perhaps because my imagination is so rich, I saw the leaping flame fashion itself, for just a moment, into the image of a dragon rampant.
Together, without more talk, we quickly cleared the table, hastily put away the uneaten food, rinsed and stacked the dishes.
Annamaria retrieved a car coat from a closet and pulled it on as I employed a long-handled wick pincher to snuff the flame in the kitchen lamp, and also the one in the lamp by which we had eaten dinner.
She came to me with just a purse, and I said, You may need more than that.
I don’t have much else, she said, some clothes, but suddenly I don’t think we have time.
The same hunch had harried me into quickly cleaning off the dinner table.
Put out the other lamps, she said, withdrawing a flashlight from the purse. Quickly.
I extinguished the remaining three flames.
As she played the flashlight across the floor, toward the door, out of the silent night came the roar of an approaching vehicle, a truck by the sound of it.
At once, she hooded the beam to prevent it from brightening the windows.
Brakes barked in the night, and the previously racing engine only idled now—in the driveway in front of the garage above which we waited.
A truck door slammed. And then another.
THIS WAY, SHE SAID, AND WITH THE FLASHLIGHT still hooded, Annamaria led me to a door that I assumed must open on a closet.
Instead, a landing lay beyond, and narrow interior stairs went down to the garage.
Although sturdy, the stairhead door could be locked only from inside the apartment. If the hulk and his friends got into the apartment, we could not foil their pursuit.
Because Annamaria was pregnant and because I was afraid that, in a rush, she might trip and fall, I took the flashlight and urged her to hold fast to the railing and to follow me with caution.
Filtering the beam through fingers, holding the light behind me to illuminate her way more than mine, I descended into the garage less quickly than I would have liked.
I was relieved to see that the roll-up door featured no glass panels. Two windows, one in the north wall and one in the south, were small and set just below the ceiling.
Our light was not likely to be seen through those high dusty panes. Nevertheless, I continued to keep the lens half covered.
Two vehicles were parked in the garage: facing out, a Ford Explorer; facing in, an older Mercedes sedan.
As Annamaria reached the bottom of the stairs, she whispered, There’s a way out, along the south wall.
From above came the knock of knuckles on the door to her tiny apartment.
Through the smell of grease and oil and rubber, wary of putting a foot in a slippery spot on the floor, we moved past the SUV, past the sedan, and found the side exit.
Overhead, a second round of knocking sounded more insistent than the first. Definitely not just a pizza delivery.
With the thumb-turn knob, I disengaged the deadbolt. Because the door opened inward, it did not block my view in any direction when I leaned through to have a look outside.
The Victorian house stood to the north side of this building, out of sight. Here, a narrow walkway lay between the south wall of the garage and the high hedge that defined the property line.
If we stepped outside and went east, toward the front of the garage, we would find our visitors’ truck in the driveway. If we went west, toward the back of the structure, we would be at the foot of the stairs that led up to the landing, where someone had just been knocking.
Even in the dense fog, I did not want to place a bet on our chances of getting off the property without encountering trouble. Two doors had slammed, so two men were out there—at least two—and I did not think they would both have gone up the outer stairs, since they had not arrived with a large gift basket, wine, and flowers. One of them would remain behind to snare us if we escaped from the man now knocking upstairs.
Turning from the door, leaving it open, I scanned the shadowy ceiling and saw no fluorescent fixtures, only one bare incandescent bulb. Another light would be built in to the chain-drive mechanism that raised the large roll-up, but it would come on only when that door was up.
When I guided Annamaria toward the Mercedes sedan, she trusted me at once. She neither resisted nor asked what I intended.
The knocking had stopped. From above came a subtle crack of breaking glass, which the visitor could not entirely muffle.
As I took hold of the handle on the rear passenger-side door, I was suddenly afraid that the car would be locked. Our luck held, and the door opened.
Overhead, the footsteps were so heavy that I would not have been surprised if they had been accompanied by a giant’s voice chanting, Fee, fi, fo, fum, and promising to grind up our bones to make his bread.
The interior lights of the Mercedes were not bright. We had no choice but to risk them.
As I encouraged Annamaria into the backseat of the sedan, I saw in my mind’s eye the modest apartment above us. The intruder would see the stacked dishes in the sink: two mugs, two sets of flatware. Sooner than later, he would touch the long neck of one of the oil lamps.
The glass would not be merely warm, but hot. With a smile, he would snatch back his stung fingers, certain that we had fled only as he had arrived.
I glanced toward the south-wall door that I had left standing open to the walkway alongside the property-line hedge. Tendrils of fog crept across the threshold and probed around the jamb, like the fingers of a blind ghost, but no one had yet appeared in the doorway.
Annamaria slid across the backseat, and I climbed into the sedan after her. I pulled the door shut firmly without slamming it, though with more noise than I would have liked. The interior car lights winked out.
The Mercedes was at least twenty years old, maybe twenty-five, from the era when the Germans still made them big, boxy, and not in the least aerodynamic. We were able to slide down in that roomy space, heads below the windows.
This was not quite Poe’s purloined-letter trick, but something similar. Our pursuers would expect us to flee, and the open south-side door would suggest that we had done just that.
In the heat of the moment, believing they were close on our heels, they were not likely to suspect that we would risk hiding in what was virtually plain sight.
Of course, they might find the open door and the in-creeping fog to be a tad too obvious. They might decide to search the garage, and if they did, we were doomed.
They were not fools, after all. They were serious men. I had it on good authority that they were planning many deaths and much destruction; and men don’t get much more serious than that.
HUDDLING IN THE BACK OF THE MERCEDES, WE had arrived at one of those moments of extreme stress that I mentioned earlier, one of those awkward situations in which my imagination can be as ornate as a carousel of grotesque beasts, standing on end like a Ferris wheel, vigorously spinning off visions of ludicrous fates and droll deaths.
If we were found, these men could shoot us through the windows. They could open the doors and shoot us point-blank. They could bar the doors, set the car on fire, and roast us alive.
Whatever they chose to do to us, we would not die as easily as any of those scenarios allowed. They would first need to find out who we were and what we knew about their plans.
Torture. They would torture us. Pliers, sharp blades, needles, red-hot pokers, nail guns, garlic presses applied to the tongue. Blinding bleach, caustic acids, unpleasant-tasting elixirs, secondhand smoke. They would be enthusiastic torturers. They would be relentless. They would enjoy it so much that they would take videos of our suffering to play later for their adoring mothers.
I had told Annamaria that I was prepared to die for her, and I had told the truth, but my vow had come with the implicit promise that I would also not lead her to her death before I died for her. At least not in the same hour that I had solemnly sworn to be her protector.
Someone switched on the single bare bulb in the garage ceiling. The car was parked nose-in, which meant we were at the front of the garage, farther from the stairs than anywhere else we could have hidden. The light proved too weak to penetrate to our dark little haven.
Mercedes’ engineers could be proud of their skill at providing sound attenuation. If someone was poking around the garage, opening the door to the water-heater closet or peering behind the furnace, I could not hear him.
Silently I counted sixty seconds, then another sixty, and then a third set.
Timing our confinement proved to whittle my nerves, so I stopped counting minutes and waited, trying not to think about torture.
The interior of the old Mercedes smelled of well-worn leather, mentholated liniment, gardenia-based perfume, cat dander, and dust.
An urge to sneeze overcame me. In a spirit of Zen stoicism, I meditated on transforming the urge to sneeze into an itch between my shoulder blades, which I would have been more able to endure. When that did not work, I meditated on transforming the urge to sneeze into a benign colon polyp.
After tightly pinching my nose and breathing through my mouth for a while, I began to believe that the agents of the nefarious harbor department would have by now concluded that Annamaria and I had escaped. They must have gone away.
As I cautiously raised my head, intending to scope the garage, two male voices rose nearby, one deep-toned and the other full of wheedle. I dropped back into my hole as though I were a jack-in-the-box.
Annamaria reached out of the shadows and found my hand. Or maybe I reached out and found hers.
I could not discern what the men were saying. Clearly, however, one of them was angry, and the other was making excuses.
A loud crash followed by a diminishing clatter suggested that the deep-voiced one had knocked over something or had thrown a heavy object at the excuse-maker.
As the argument continued, I realized that Annamaria’s hand in mine seemed to give me courage. My racing heart began to slow and my teeth unclenched.
The two men proved to be closer than I had first realized. To make a point, the angrier one pounded a hand three times on the hood or on a front fender of the sedan in which we had taken refuge.
THE DEEP-VOICED THUG, WHO MOST LIKELY HAD yellow eyes and a chin beard and a reservation for a bed of nails in Hell, pounded on the Mercedes again.
In our inadequate hidey-hole in the backseat of that very sedan, Annamaria squeezed my hand gently, reassuringly.
My eyes had adapted to the gloom. I could see her face just well enough to know that she was smiling as though to say that this would prove to be a temporary setback in our escape, that soon we would be skipping through meadows full of flowers, where iridescent butterflies would dance through the air to the sweet songs of larks and robins and bright yellow warblers.
I knew that she was not stupid, and I doubted that she would prove to be foolish. Consequently, I assumed that either she knew something that I did not or that she had more faith in me than my survival skills justified.
As the argument subsided, the voices grew quieter. Then they moved away from the Mercedes.
The garage light went off.
A door closed.
I could no longer see Annamaria’s face. I hoped that she was not smiling at me in the dark.
Although it is not a full-blown phobia, I am made uncomfortable by the thought of people smiling at me in the dark, even people as benign—and even as good-hearted—as this woman seemed to be.
In the movies, when a character in a pitch-black place strikes a match and finds himself face to face with someone or something that is grinning at him, the someone or something is going to tear off his head.
Of course, movies bear virtually no resemblance to real life, not even the kind that pile up awards. In movies, the world is either full of fantastic adventure and exhilarating heroism—or it’s a place so bleak, so cruel, so full of treachery and vicious competition and hopelessness that you want to kill yourself halfway through a box of Reese’s miniature peanut-butter cups. There’s no middle ground in modern movies; you either save a kingdom and marry a princess or you are shot to death by assassins hired by the evil corporation that you are trying to bring to justice in the courtroom of a corrupt judge.