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Innocence

Innocence

Innocence 20


  I hurried after her along the hallway. “Where are we going?”

  “I don’t know.”

  We left the rest of the lights on, the television as well, and we stepped out of the kitchen onto the back porch as the network newsreader said, “—to our reporter Jeffrey Stockwell in Mumbai, India.”

  If possible, the snow fell heavier than before, as if the sky were emptying itself, so that when the last clouds shed all their substance, there would be nothing above us but blackness, no moon or stars, no sun in the morning. Right now, all was erratic wind and whirling snow, a beautiful chaos.

  As we approached the Land Rover, Gwyneth said, “Death is here tonight. Not just with Simon. Death is with us. Do you feel him?”

  I didn’t answer, because the answer wouldn’t have heartened her.

  Once again, after six years, I had something to lose, and my fear was great.

  50

  THE NIGHT OF LIGHTNING, THE SKY ON FIRE, WHEN we stood exposed and survived …

  During our time together, Father and I explored the city in many fierce storms, not just the one in which a dying man gave me a gold watch. On a night in July, in my sixteenth year, the heavens opened to release a sea, and we went abroad in our high boots, black hooded raincoats, and ski masks. We splashed through torrents and across flooded streets, as if we were mariners washed overboard but, by some sorcery, able to walk on water in search of our ship.

  We stood in the great park, which the city surrounded, and all that would be warm and green under the sun was cold and black. The lamplight along the winding walkways silvered the rain and the faint low mist created when the droplets dashed themselves apart on the pavement. Those serpentine paths withered away past shrubs and trees, milky and vaporous before they turned out of sight. On that night, the pathways seemed mysterious and promised to lead to a revelation, but we knew them to their fullest lengths, and they did not lead anywhere except elsewhere in the park.

  So near that the crash of thunder came simultaneously, a great blazing bolt of lightning sheared the sky above the mown meadow in which we stood, angled eastward, and struck the spire—which was a lightning rod—on the roof of a high-rise across the street from the park. The thousand lights of the building fluttered but did not go out, and I was certain that for a moment the spire had glowed red.

  I was very afraid and wanted to take shelter, but Father assured me that we wouldn’t be taken by lightning, that no storm would finish us. If we were to die short of old age, the killing blows would come from weapons wielded by the hands of our fellow citizens. Although I did not believe that we enjoyed any dispensation from Nature’s rage, I reined in my fear as best I could and stood beside him, trusting in his wisdom.

  The black shell of the sky cracked again and again, and some of the fissures zigzagged toward farther targets that we couldn’t see, while others seemed to leap from point to point in the heavens, as if there were gods who warred with one another.

  Between cannonades of thunder, Father spoke of the power of nature: each storm bolt as hot as the molten sun, earthquakes that brought down buildings as if they were as fragile as termite mounds, tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis. “Nature is an exquisite machine that is never violent except when contending forces within it need to be rebalanced. And then the violence is nearly always short-lived, a day or two of storm, ten minutes of tsunami, a minute for tectonic plates to shift and accommodate each other. Nature doesn’t make war for years on end, and she has no malice.”

  Humankind, on the other hand … Well, that was a darker story. Adam and Eve, he said, hadn’t sought forbidden knowledge so much as they sought power, the power to be as gods. Great power could be a beautiful thing when men and women who had it were inclined to use it wisely and with kindness. But few were so inclined. When a leader used his power over the ruled for the purpose of settling scores and inflating his self-esteem, for remaking society according to his own grand designs, class warfare and genocide ensued.

  I didn’t know his purpose in telling me this, and as I started to ask his meaning, one of the last bolts of the fierce display split a giant oak a hundred feet from us. Flames spurted out of the cleaved trunk, as if the core of the tree had always been molten but contained. Half the oak pulled up steaming roots and toppled, but the other half stood defiant, and the deluge quickly put out the fire.

  When the pyrotechnics concluded and the sky brought forth only rain, Father said, “When men in power decide that things need to be rebalanced at any cost, the violence is never brief and never really directed solely at the imbalance that supposedly inspired it. The rule of law becomes the rule of violence. Revenge becomes a synonym for justice. No city is safe from such horror, no nation, no time in all of history. Be ready to recognize the moment. Be always ready.”

  I had many questions for him, but he would not answer them. He was finished with the subject, which clearly distressed him. He never spoke of it again in the remaining four years that we were together.

  Whenever I looked back on that night and considered what Father had said, I sometimes thought he knew or suspected something that he was loath to share even with me. Perhaps in a dream or in a moment of clarity close to clairvoyance, he had discerned the shape of things to come, and had been in awe of the supreme grandness or the terrible power of those events, to the extent that he could not speak of them, but only hope that he had not in fact seen clearly.

  51

  GWYNETH PILOTED THE LAND ROVER AS IF SHE WERE a Valkyrie, from Viking lore, whose wings had been clipped, as if she needed urgently to find the fallen warrior assigned to her before he died and, in the moment when his soul emerged from his body, drive his spirit to Valhalla. Earlier she had seemed reckless behind the wheel. But now, though she drove faster and took corners more sharply than before, she seemed not heedless and not even imprudent, but shrewd, as if she knew where she was going and why, though her route seemed random as she sometimes doubled back upon it.

  In our pell-mell plunge through the city to Ogilvie Way, she had been motivated by fear for Simon, but now the flame in her was anger, not focused on Telford and his associates, but on herself, for having been too late to the artist’s bungalow. She was angry, not with Simon, but again with herself for having failed to see that when he rebuilt his life, he’d be proud of his recovery and of her faith in him, that he would be pleased to be regarded by her neighbors as someone who had been entrusted with her keys, and would thus endanger himself. Such a thing as righteous anger exists, especially but not always when it is directed at oneself.

  I was distressed, however, by the extent to which Gwyneth blamed herself. To me and for all time, in all matters that might arise, she would always be blameless, for I knew the purity of her heart.

  Nothing that I could say would induce her to accuse herself less bitterly, so that for the moment I was merely along for the ride—and quite a ride it was. We slalomed around more stalled vehicles than before, tested drifts sloping out from parked vehicles, drove on the sidewalk along a cross street where two SUVs had collided and were blocking the way. When the drivers of city plows sounded their horns, admonishing her to cut her speed, she only blew the Rover’s horn in return and eased down farther on the accelerator, churning through the all-but-deserted snow-choked avenues.

  Although her route seemed impromptu, I knew that it was taken with purpose, because a few times she slowed, stopped, and considered a residence or a business, as if this might be a place where Simon had been taken. Then she either shook her head or muttered something under her breath, and we were away again, the tire chains softly burring through compacted snow, louder on the ever-fewer occasions when they bit down to pavement.

  “Why would he have a partner?” Gwyneth asked. “He doesn’t need anyone to help him steal these things. He has easy access. And all kinds of ways to conceal the theft. Why share with a partner?”

  I didn’t think the question had been addressed to me; she was clearly thinking out loud. Besides,
although she led a severely circumscribed life, limited by her social phobia, she had vastly more experience than I. Perhaps she knew enough about the ways of the world to puzzle out the reasons for a criminal’s behavior, but I was a naïf and knew it.

  Before I could regret my uselessness, she answered her own question. “Of course! He needs a fence! If he sold these things himself, the buyers would know he isn’t rich enough to have such pieces in a collection. They would suspect that he was looting the museum and library. He needs an art dealer with at least an okay reputation—and a heart for larceny.” She let up on the accelerator and repeated, “Yes, of course.” She hung a U-turn on the avenue, thumping across the raised median rather than taking the time to drive to the next intersection. “Goddard. Edmund Goddard.”

  “Who’s Edmund Goddard?”

  “He deals in high-end fine art and antiquities, gallery sales and auctions. He has a sterling reputation, but not with me.”

  “Why not with you?”

  “Daddy worked with many of the better dealers to build his collection, but after a few experiences with Goddard, he never did business with him again. He said Goddard was a man of such sharp practices that one day he would cut himself instead of others, and cut himself mortally.”

  On a street of luxury shops, she pulled to the curb in front of a large gallery, where the sign announced only GODDARD. Laminated to the interior of each of the four big windows was a three-inch border of beveled mirror, meant to create a jewel-box effect that, with the assistance of cunningly designed lighting and black-velvet backdrops, presented just four paintings as if they were diamonds of priceless character.

  They were postmodern abstracts that I found not merely ugly but also depressing. I admit that I don’t understand art that isn’t in the least representational. But I feel no need to understand it.

  “I know where Goddard lives,” Gwyneth said. “But I’m drawn to this place.”

  She pulled away from the curb, turned left at the corner, and turned left again into an alleyway that led behind the stores that faced the avenue. The back door of the gallery stood wide, and a man in a long overcoat shoved a large carton through the open tailgate of a Mercedes SUV.

  Free of his burden, he turned toward us. He was tall, stout, and totally bald. From a distance, I couldn’t determine his age, only that he might be somewhere between forty and sixty. A lot of men, even the young, had embraced baldness for many years; and it wasn’t easy to tell who earned the look and who faked it.

  Gwyneth braked twenty feet short of him, put the Rover in park, doused the headlights, switched off the engine. “That’s him. That’s Goddard.”

  “What now?” I asked.

  “I have no idea.”

  We got out of the Rover and approached Goddard, and he said to Gwyneth, “There’s nothing here for you, girl.”

  “I’m looking for Simon.”

  As we closed the distance between us and him, he drew a pistol from a coat pocket and aimed it at her. “That’s far enough.”

  I had no illusion that we could win a duel with Mace and Taser against a pistol, and neither did Gwyneth. She said, “You wouldn’t shoot me and put your swanky life at risk.”

  “If you give me the slightest reason,” he said, “I’ll shoot you and your mysterious friend, and I’ll piss on your corpse.”

  52

  THE ALLEYWAY WAS LIT ONLY BY A FEW WIRE-CAGED security lamps above the back entrances to some of the businesses, and the one above the door to the gallery had been extinguished. The blanket of snow didn’t brighten the way, for the flanking walls of the six- and eight-story buildings crowded close and blocked the ambient light of the city. Along the length of the alley were strange and tortured shadows, though I thought they must be only the shapes of things and not the things themselves.

  Far enough from Goddard to feel certain that he was not able to see my eyes within my hood, I stared directly at him, but I still couldn’t guess his age. Fat smoothed out whatever lines time might have carved in his face. His voice had sounded as though he lived entirely on mayonnaise and butter but never quite cleared his throat of them; and even in this poverty of light, he had about him an air of dissolution.

  “I’m looking for Simon,” Gwyneth repeated. “Will you pretend you don’t know who I mean?”

  Goddard waved the gun in a dismissive gesture but at once brought it back on target. “I’m past all pretense. What would be the point now? He’s not here.”

  “Where are they holding him?” she asked.

  “Why should I bother to tell you? It’s over now, all of it, even if Telford refuses to see.”

  “Simon has no idea how to find me. There’s no point in hurting him.”

  “There’s no point in any of it, anymore,” Goddard said, “but I don’t care enough about your Simon to tell you anything. Unless …”

  “Unless what?” she asked.

  “I’m leaving the city. You should, too, if you want to live.”

  “I think I’ll stay awhile.”

  “I’ve got a private island, everything I need.”

  “Except integrity.”

  His laugh was wet and low. “Integrity isn’t a survival trait, little girl.”

  “You said ‘unless.’ Unless what?”

  “You might not think so, but I can be sweet,” Goddard said. “I’m a man of culture, of highly refined taste and much experience. Out of this rat race, with nothing more to win or lose, you’ll find that I’m quite compatible. You might even find, after all, that you don’t mind being touched.”

  I had begun to wonder if he and Gwyneth were not talking about precisely the same thing. There seemed to be implications in his words that didn’t quite relate to Simon and Telford. Now his proposition was so outrageous that I thought he must be to some degree unhinged.

  He said, “Leave the city with me, and on the way, I’ll call Ryan Telford and tell him we’re both out of it, you and me, there’s no reason for him trying to squeeze information out of your artist friend Simon. It’s all over now. It’s wasted effort.”

  For a moment, the quality of her silence suggested that she might be considering his proposal, but then she said, “You’d only take me to Telford.”

  “Little girl, tender as you are, if you came with me, I’d betray a hundred Ryan Telfords. I’d shoot a hundred of them dead for you, and my own mother if she were still living.”

  In this gloom, the falling snow was not as bright white as it was elsewhere, and in the shelter of the buildings, the wind proved not as fickle as before, so that the night seemed less chaotic. And yet, listening to their conversation, I felt as if everything was cockeyed, and I wouldn’t have been much surprised if the buildings suddenly tilted at precarious angles or if the pavement rolled like a ship’s deck under my feet.

  Gwyneth chose silence again, and the longer it lasted, the more I wondered why she didn’t take offense. Then she said, “There are a few things I would need to know first. Not that they matter anymore. But just for my satisfaction.”

  “This island of mine is eleven acres with—”

  “Not that. I’m sure your island is lovely and your preparations complete.”

  “Then what? Ask me, dear. Anything.”

  “You sold pieces for Telford.”

  “Quite a few. Some belonging to your father.”

  “Among them were many famous works. Stolen works.”

  “Yes, famous to one degree or another.”

  “If the buyers ever sell or display them, they’ll incriminate themselves.”

  “I have only a single buyer for everything Ryan brings to me. A consortium. And the consortium never intends to sell anything that it buys.”

  “Then how could they hope to profit?”

  “Profit is not their motive,” Goddard said. “The consortium is comprised of some of the world’s richest men. They wish to acquire certain meaningful works of art from the heritage of the West, so that they can destroy them.”

&nb
sp; I couldn’t keep silent. “Destroy them? Destroy great works of art? But why?”

  “They’re fools,” Goddard said. “Less than most men, but fools nonetheless. Like voodooists, they believe that each iconic thing they burn or shatter or melt down will strengthen their cause and weaken their enemy. From their kingdom in the Middle East, they intend soon to destroy the West entire, but first they want the personal satisfaction of eradicating some of its most precious and inspiring creations, piece by piece.”

  Sickened, I said, “But that’s insane.”

  “Insane and evil,” Gwyneth said.

  “Quite insane,” Goddard agreed. “But insanity is everywhere these days, and celebrated. Insanity is rapidly becoming the new normal. Don’t you think? And as for evil … Well, we all know that evil is relative. Has your curiosity been satisfied, little girl?”

  “One more thing. The Paladine marionettes.”

  Clearly surprised, he said, “What about them?”

  “Through surrogates, I’ve tracked down, purchased, and destroyed four of them.”

  Another wet laugh escaped him, a sound hardly more mirthful than the sodden wheeze of a consumptive. “You’re no different from the gentlemen of that consortium.”

  “More different than you could conceive,” she disagreed. “They destroy what is precious and inspiring. I don’t. I need to know if there were only six. Only six were ever announced, but maybe you’ve held back a couple, waiting for the price to rise.”

  “Why are you concerned about imaginary marionettes if you still have two of the originals to find?”

  “I need to know. That’s all. I need to know.”

  “There were only six. They’re kitsch, not art. I don’t expect them to appreciate in price. If there had been seven or eight, I’d have sold them when the selling was good. Come with me tonight, and I’ll re-acquire the remaining two for you. We’ll burn them together. Oh, little girl, I have a thousand stories to fascinate you, the truth of the world, what happens behind the scenes. You’d find me witty and charming company.”