The Whispering Room
Cora Gundersun walked through seething fire without being burned, nor did her white dress burst into flames. She was not afraid, but instead exhilarated, and the many admiring people witnessing this spectacle gaped in amazement, their expressions of astonishment flickering with reflections of the flames. They called out to her not in alarm, but in wonder, with a note of veneration in their voices, so that Cora felt equally thrilled and humbled that she had been made invulnerable.
Dixie, a long-haired dappled gold dachshund, woke Cora by licking her hand. The dog had no respect for dreams, not even for this one that her mistress had enjoyed three nights in a row and about which she had told Dixie in vivid detail. Dawn had come, time for breakfast and morning toilet, which were more important to Dixie than any dream.
Cora was forty years old, birdlike and spry. As the short dog toddled down the set of portable steps that allowed her to climb in and out of bed, Cora sprang up to meet the day. She slipped into fur-lined ankle-high boots that served as her wintertime slippers, and in her pajamas she followed the waddling dachshund through the house.
Just before she stepped into the kitchen, she was struck by the notion that a strange man would be sitting at the dinette table and that something terrible would happen.
Of course no man awaited her. She’d never been a fearful woman. She chastised herself for being spooked by nothing, nothing at all.
As she put out fresh water and kibble for her companion, the dog’s feathery golden tail swept the floor in anticipation.
By the time Cora had prepared the coffeemaker and switched it on, Dixie had finished eating. Now standing at the back door, the dog barked politely, just once.
Cora snared a coat from a wall peg and shrugged into it. “Let’s see if you can empty yourself as quick as you filled up. It’s colder than the cellar of Hades out there, sweet thing, so don’t dawdle.”
As she left the warmth of the house for the porch, her breath smoked from her as if a covey of ghosts, long in possession of her body, were being exorcised. She stood at the head of the steps to watch over precious Dixie Belle, just in case there might be a nasty-tempered raccoon lingering from its night of foraging.
More than a foot of late-winter snow had fallen the previous morning. In the absence of wind, the pine trees still wore ermine stoles on every bough. Cora had shoveled a clearing in the backyard so that Dixie wouldn’t have to plow through deep powder.
Dachshunds had keen noses. Ignoring her mistress’s plea not to dawdle, Dixie Belle wandered back and forth in the clearing, nose to the ground, curious about what animals had visited in the night.
Wednesday. A school day.
Although Cora had been off work for two weeks, she still felt as if she should hurry to prepare for school. Two years earlier, she had been named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year. She dearly loved—and missed—the children in her sixth-grade class.
Sudden-onset migraines, five and six hours long, sometimes accompanied by foul odors that only she could detect, had disabled her. The headaches seemed to be slowly responding to medications—zolmitriptan and a muscle relaxant called Soma. Cora had never been a sickly person, and staying home bored her.
Dixie Belle finally peed and left two small logs, which Cora would pick up with a plastic bag later, after they froze solid.
When she followed the dachshund into the house, a strange man was sitting at the kitchen table, drinking coffee that he had boldly poured for himself. He wore a knitted cap. He had unzipped his fleece-lined jacket. His face was long, his features sharp, his cold, blue stare direct.
Before Cora could cry out or turn to flee, the intruder said, “Play Manchurian with me.”
“Yes, all right,” she said, because he no longer seemed to be a threat. She knew him, after all. He was a nice man. He had visited her at least twice in the past week. He was a very nice man.
“Take off your coat and hang it up.”
She did as he asked.
“Come here, Cora. Sit down.”
She pulled out a chair and sat at the table.
Although a friend of everyone, Dixie retreated to a corner and settled there to watch warily with one light-blue eye and one brown.
“Did you dream last night?” the nice man asked.
“Was it the dream of fire?”
“Was it a good dream, Cora?”
She smiled and nodded. “It was lovely, a lovely walk through soothing fire, no fear at all.”
“You’ll have the same dream again tonight,” he said.
She smiled and clapped her hands twice. “Oh, good. It’s such a delightful dream. Sort of like one I sometimes had as a girl—that dream of flying like a bird. Flying with no fear of falling.”
“Tomorrow is the big day, Cora.”
“Is it? What’s happening?”
“You’ll know when you get up in the morning. I won’t be back again. Even as important as this is, you need no hands-on guidance.”
He finished his coffee and slid the mug in front of her and got to his feet and pushed his chair under the table. “Auf Wiedersehen, you stupid, skinny bitch.”
“Good-bye,” she said.
A twinkling, zigzagging chain of tiny lights floated into sight, an aura preceding a migraine. She closed her eyes, dreading the pain to come. But the aura passed. The headache did not occur.
When she opened her eyes, her empty mug stood on the table before her, a residue of coffee in the bottom. She got up to pour another serving for herself.
On a Sunday afternoon in March, in self-defense and with great anguish, Jane Hawk had killed a dear friend and mentor.
Three days later, on a Wednesday, when the evening was diamonded with stars that even the great upwash of lights in the San Gabriel Valley, northeast of Los Angeles, could not entirely rinse from the sky, she came on foot to a house that she had scouted earlier by car. She carried a large tote bag with incriminating contents. In a shoulder rig under her sport coat hung a stolen Colt .45 ACP pistol rebuilt by one of the country’s finest custom-handgun shops.
The residential neighborhood was calm in this age of chaos, quiet in a time characterized by clamor. California pepper trees whispered and palm fronds softly rustled in a breeze fragrant with jasmine. The breeze was also threaded through with the malodor of decomposition that issued from one gutter drain and then another, perhaps from the bodies of poisoned tree rats that earlier had fled the sunlight to die in the dark.
A for-sale sign in the front yard of the target house, grass in need of mowing, a Realtor’s key safe fixed to the front-door handle, and closed draperies suggested that the place must be vacant. The security system most likely wasn’t operational, because nothing remained in the residence to steal and because an alarm would have complicated the task of showing the property to prospective buyers.
Behind the house, the patio lacked furniture. Breathing out the faint scent of chlorine, black water rippled in the swimming pool, a mirror to the waning moon.
A stuccoed property wall and Indian laurels screened the back of the house from the neighbors. Even in daylight, she would not have been seen.
With a black-market LockAid lock-release gun legally sold only to law-enforcement agencies, Jane defeated the deadbolt on the back door. She returned the device to the tote and opened the door and stood listening to the lightless kitchen, to the rooms beyond.
Convinced that her assessment of the house must be correct, she crossed the threshold, closed the door behind her, and re-engaged the deadbolt. From the tote, she fished out an LED flashlight with two settings, clicked it to the dimmest beam, and surveyed a stylish kitchen with glossy white cabinets, black granite countertops, and stainless-steel appliances. No cooking utensils were in sight. No designer china waited to be admired on the shelves of those few upper cabinets that featured display windows.
She passed through spacious rooms as dark as closed caskets and devoid of furniture. Although draperies were drawn over the windows, she kept the flashlight on low beam, directing it only at the floor.
She stayed close to the wall, where the stair treads were less likely to creak, but they still announced her as she ascended.
Although she wanted the front of the house, she toured the entire second floor to be certain she was alone. This was an upper-middle-class home in a desirable neighborhood, each bedroom with its private bath, though the chill in its vacant chambers gave rise in Jane to a presentiment of suburban decline and societal decay.
Or perhaps the dark, cold rooms were not what fostered this apprehension. In fact, a persistent foreboding had been with her for nearly a week, since she had learned what some of the most powerful people in this new world of technological wonders were planning for their fellow citizens.
She put her tote bag down by a window in a front bedroom and clicked off the flashlight and parted the draperies. She studied not the house directly across the street but the one next door to it, a fine example of Craftsman architecture.
Lawrence Hannafin lived at that address, a widower since the previous March. He and his late wife never had children. Though only forty-eight—twenty-one years older than Jane—Hannafin was likely to be alone.
She didn’t know if he might be an ally in waiting. More likely, he would be a coward with no convictions, who would shrink from the challenge she intended to put before him. Cowardice was the default position of the times.
She hoped that Hannafin wouldn’t become an enemy.
For seven years, she had been an FBI agent with the Critical Incident Response Group, most often assigned to cases involving Behavioral Analysis Units 3 and 4, which dealt with mass murders and serial killings, among other crimes. In that capacity, she’d killed only twice, in a desperate situation on an isolated farm. In the past week, on leave from the Bureau, she’d killed three men in self-defense. She was now a rogue agent, and she’d had enough of killing.
If Lawrence Hannafin didn’t have the courage and integrity that his reputation suggested, Jane hoped that at least he would turn her away without attempting to bring her to justice. There would be no justice for her. No defense attorney. No jury trial. Considering what she knew about certain powerful people, the best she could hope for was a bullet in the head. They had the means by which to do much worse to her, the ability to break her, to scrub her mind of memories, rob her of free will, and reduce her to docile slavery.