Dozing by the fire over her seed catalogues, Sarah Kimball was startled by rumbling far away in the covered bridge. A minute later she heard the whine of a motor, mounting the zigzags that led up Barker’s Hill. Dreams of summer squash and beefsteak tomatoes, of zinnias and tea roses, dissolved: she woke again to the bright encirclement of the New Hampshire winter.
She winced as the tires of the invader scuffled at the turns in the icy road. Excursions up the hill were rare in November. The summer folk had shuttered their houses months ago; even the last fraternity of hunters had broken up and left the rocky fields. Stafford had been handed back to the “natives,” a category to which the village had finally assimilated her. (“You’re Boston,” the sheriff had told her, “but you’ve lived here a sight longer than many. And it’s not every day we can have an ambassador on the Council.”) Except for the chugging of the postman’s truck or the automobiles of strayed skiers from the Notch, these were the days of silence and secret snow. It sifted down over her garden at night; at dawn there were always tracks. Raccoons: they were the fussiest feeders, nibbling at a whole succession of carrot tops. Only last week the ambassador had glimpsed through the naked trees the dark bulk of a bear, lumbering back into the woods. My companion, she had thought, my companion in hibernation.
Sometimes the tracks were human: pillagers of the summer houses. In the last months, cabalistic circles and crosses and slogans had begun to appear on the bridge and even on the walls that separated the ambassador from her neighbors.
Sarah hauled herself to her feet, joints creaking after the long postluncheon sit. Before the girandole mirror she patted her close-cropped hair into place. In the winter light her long, thin face looked worn, but the web of her skin was silkfine, and in the gilt-framed circle her eyes were as fresh as cornflowers.
She crossed to the cherrywood table in the bay window, where her typewriter sat, awash in eraser crumbs and bits of scrawled yellow paper. The roller held a curling page; for what seemed like the hundredth time she scanned the unfinished paragraph: “When one of my friends phoned me that the White House had sent my name up to the Hill, it fair gave me, as we say in New Hampshire, a conniption fit. I had no illusions: Washington was beating the bushes for women’s lib, as my husband had warned me. But Ambassador to the Netherlands! Somehow I hadn’t thought—”
The sounds of invasion grew louder on the road. Muttering impatiently, Sarah went out on the porch and peered down the aisle of evergreen. A Land Rover of the state police was lurching upward in the ruts. The chrome radiator flashed for a second in the sun, which had nearly run its shallow winter arc. The brim of the driver’s hat touched the windshield as he negotiated the final stretch that would bring him to the foot of the Kimball driveway.
Sarah went inside to fetch her chamois-lined corduroy. Clear cold threatened less than leaden snow clouds, but it bit shrewdly. And now that she had no man about the house, she had to venture out more often, fetching wood, wrapping newspapers around pipes under the porch, or whistling up her Airedale Josie, who, unlike her mistress, found old age a time for wandering.
When she came out, she heard a motor throbbing in the loop of driveway at the north side of the house. A voice, graveled with annoyance, cried, “Anybody home?” Sarah gave a shout, and the motor gasped into silence. Presently a figure, topped with a high Stetson, came bobbing along below the porch.
Sarah was not used to visits from the police. She kept on
good terms with the sheriff, who lived down the hill, but the trooper was a stranger, the kind of officer one saw in summer, waiting near the bridge for speeding vacationers or, in early fall for poachers. He was stout and round, with pointed fox ears. His florid cheeks were glazed with cold, but Sarah guessed that the vexation that dragged at the corners of his mouth had other causes. He touched the brim of his hat:
Sarah caught an undertone of reproach.
“Lieutenant Dickson, ma’am. State Police.”
“Sarah Kimball. What can I do for you, lieutenant?”
“Sorry to bother you, but your sheriff is nowhere about.”
“He’s gone to a Republican rally in Concord.”
“You reckon he’ll be back before long?”
“He doesn’t keep me posted,” she said with a touch of dryness, “but I shouldn’t wonder if he came back tonight. Meantime let me do the honors. Let’s go inside. I’ll make us some coffee.”
The trooper stamped his feet on the vestibule mat and followed her into the living room. He took off hat and gloves but refused a chair. Even when she came back from the kitchen, he stayed on his feet, gripping the edge of the dining table behind him, as if he feared that his authority might be undermined by hospitality.
“They tell me in the village you’re an ambassador.”
“That was some time back, lieutenant.” She filled two Delft cups and set the pot on the trivet. “Let’s hear your problem.”
“We’re looking for a kid who’s loose hereabouts, Miss Kimball.”
“Beg pardon, ma’am. Anyway the kid’s name”—he fished a plastic card from his breast pocket—”yes, name’s Grant, James Grant.”
“I don’t know any Grants. He’s not from Stafford surely.”
A grim smile. “Don’t I wish he was! But being your house is about the only one open up this way, we thought he might knock on your door.”
“Am I so notorious?”
Dickson let go of the table; he crossed his hands over his paunch. “These new gangs have eyes and ears all over.”
“A new gang, you say. Not just another winter break-in?”
“It’s a break-in, but not the kind we used to have.”
“Like in the good old days of simple burglary?”
The trooper gave a stiff little shake of his head: he was not amused. He explained that operations had changed. Summer places were robbed in steady succession but in no regular pattern. “You never can tell where to watch—or what.” He said that this year silverware and transistors had gone untouched; instead shotguns were missing, and hunting rifles and blankets and even canned goods. “And that ain’t the end of it. We’re beginning to get fires. We had one at the courthouse—how in tunket it got started is anyone’s guess. One of the judges got out by the skin of his teeth.”
“Is that the judge who jailed those kids from—what do they call themselves?”
“Terra Nova. I see you keep up with local doings, ma’am.”
“That’s what’s known as a professional deformity, lieutenant.” Her neat blue eyes fixed him. “Even retired, I’m still a Lena Pry. Now what about this boy?”
“He and his girl were just coming out of the big house at the Notch where the freeway ends. Happened I was taking a swing around there.”
“That’s Joe Mitchell’s place. A great hunter—and careless. I suppose this precious pair are loaded down with his guns.”
“Not now, they ain’t.” The lieutenant swelled. “And I’ve got Grant’s driver’s license if you care to have a look.”
Sarah peered at the greenish document frozen in plastic. Grant, James Archibald (what a name for a housebreaker, let alone a terrorist!); born Los Angeles (another world), April 1956 (a year for her doubly memorable: second secretary at Budapest during the worst of the uprising, and captured just at the verge of spinsterhood by Colonel Kimball, the military attaché). The dim photo showed tangled curls, heavy eyelids, an adenoidish mouth, but with a humorous curve. Less of a bomb-thrower, Sarah thought, than a teeny-bopper, sharing a joint or a stolen motorbike.
“Not quite the ail-American boy, is he?” She handed back the card. “Wanted by the police elsewhere too, I shouldn’t wonder. Or the Army; he was too young for Vietnam, though.” She set down her cup. “If you’re planning to beat the woods on Parker’s Hill, you’ll need some more hot coffee.”
“I’d admire to have some, ambassador, but I aim to relieve my buddy at Lunaville. He’s all alone at the station there today.”
“What about the girl with Grant?”
“A woman, really; quite a bit older than the boy. All togged out in G. I. fatigues. Had an accent: sounded to me like a German.”
“Hardly a desirable alien. She’s still at large too, I take it.”
The red face grew redder. “While I was looking at Grant’s papers, they dropped their loot and took off. I’m no track star and the folks down in Concord don’t want us taking potshots at people around election time. So they just separated and hightailed it into the woods.”
“What makes you think they’ll head this way?”
“They won’t travel together; girl’s too smart for that. But the kid may get scared. It’s getting dark and it’s fair cold out.” The trooper rubbed a stubby fist in his palm. “Look here, Mrs. Kimball, if this Grant fellah shows up, maybe you could hang onto him for a spell.”
“Hang onto him! You must be joking.”
“No ma’am. If you could sweet-talk him a bit, maybe even feed him, I could get back here same time as your sheriff. Then we could lock him up proper and maybe get some leads on the girl.”
“You flatter me, lieutenant. But once this boy has gotten tired of my cooking and my conversation, what do I do? Shut him up with the chickens? Or with my poor old dog?”
“You got a dog?”
“It’s Josie who’d need protection, not me.”
“In the kitchen—assuming he’d let me get to it.”
“Sold my husband’s shotgun last year. I’ve got a revolver, but I’d just as lief not use it.”
The trooper braced himself again on the table; now he was every inch a New Englander. “All of us got to turn to weapons on this kind of thing. Police are spread mighty thin these days, ma’am.”
“I know that.”
“We need help from everybody.”
“Are we under martial law?” Sarah asked with an edge of mockery. “Are you giving me an order?”
Dickson’s face had turned to ivory, with a red point in each cheek. “I don’t reckon a lady like you would turn away folks that were freezing—specially when they ain’t armed.”
Sarah’s mouth tightened. She thought of Budapest and Beirut: the watches in the night, the messages she had carried through the streets—missions usually reserved for the men. Memories of emergency did stir the blood, absurd though the parallel might be.
In the silence the snow moved on the roof. “I’ll tell you what,” she said. “If this boy turns up, I’ll let him in. I can defend myself all right. But there I draw the line; handcuffs are not in my bailiwick.”
Dickson squinted, as if to gauge what the traffic would bear. “I don’t give you orders, ma’am, but I sure count on your cooperation.”
“Fiddlesticks,” said Sarah Kimball under her breath. The old-fashioned word expressed more for her than its modern equivalent.
The trooper touched his hat. “See you later then.”
She opened the door. “Not too much later I hope, lieutenant.”
Listening to the whine of the Land Rover as it felt its way down the hill, she poked angrily at the fire and threw on a log. Armchair and seed catalogue no longer drew her. She opened the top of her secretary and reached down a crumpled carton that held her nickel-plated 38. Colonel Kimball had “issued” it to her during the worst days in Budapest. “Contrary to all regs, Annie Oakley,” he had told her, “so fire only in anger.” She never had, thank God, but the revolver had stayed with them in Budapest and Beirut; it had even gone with them to the tree-lined canals of The Hague.
With an oiled rag and a pencil she wiped out the inside of the barrel, scraping with a fingernail at the flecks of rust on the outside. She clicked the cylinder around, and cautiously—recalling Cassius Kimball’s warnings—she inserted the cartridges in the chambers. Laying it on the dining table, she switched on the overhead light and went back to her typewriter.
In the first year after Cassius died, loneliness had revived old impulses, even in this house which they had bought together and stocked with shared moments, good and bad. The tasks of the sickroom were finished; hope and rage alike were expended; the vacuum of the days and nights had somehow to be filled. There were letters from Washington and Europe and the Mideast to be answered; lectures to prepare for colleges in New England; and talks for women’s organizations—a sight too many—for whom she was a prize exhibit And there were the memoirs.
She had few visitors: a pair of nephews, who came up from New York with girlfriends for the skiing; the sheriff and the councilmen, who dropped in to drink her Scotch and sharpen their conservative knives on an old-fashioned liberal. The state’s junior senator came over for coaching on foreign policy. Friends from service days passed through on their way to the ski slopes, but when the freshets of reminiscence had spent themselves, there was nothing to keep them. The only children were summer kids who raided the garden for snails. With no Cassius to share walks by the green river or the minor triumphs of the vegetable patch, she kept her typewriter clicking for longer hours. In a village that lived for summer, Sarah had withdrawn (she knew it was unhealthy) from the struggle against the defections of winter.
This afternoon the angry face of the trooper kept rising between her and her manuscript. The formulae of diplomacy loitered and straggled, otiose as guests stranded between lunch and dinner, waiting for their hostess to untie the knots and set them in motion— but to prove what? That the world was a mess and international affairs a public circus, haunted by falls from trapezes and the uncaging of wild beasts?
Intrusion had sharpened also the spur of her own dependence. The cans and packages in her cupboard, the baskets of apples in her cellar, were dwindling. The hens had gone on winter hours; with the garden under snow, she needed vegetables from the supermarket, or a bit of fresh cod, or even an extravagant bottle of Scotch. Today the house was not a refuge but a citadel, besieged by invisible armies of the season. And in Lunaville or at the Notch, she might find rescue from the torture of eating alone. It was really worse than sleeping alone.
Almost before her ears had conveyed any presence, Sarah became aware of feet on the front steps. Through the froststreaked bay window, she made out long legs, a pea jacket, and an oval of face, framed by a blur of hair and a stocking cap, tilting up at the house. The blood pounded in her ears as she pushed open the storm door. Sharply she called out, “What’s wanted?”
The visitor came slowly up the steps, one hand in his pocket. He bent down into the light, watching the door as though it might conceal an ambush, Sarah flapped an arm. “Come on in for God’s sake! No sense in both of us catching our death.”
“You American?” The voice was hoarse with fatigue and cold. In one nostril a tiny icicle glinted.
“Of course I’m American. What did you expect?”
“They told me some foreigner lived up here.”
“Poor old Foreign Service: no one ever gets us quite straight.” She shut the doors and backed into the living room; the boy stumbled in after her. “But who was it told you I lived up here?”
Her guest took off his cap. His eyes, like those of a captive animal, flashed from cupboard to fireplace to window and came to rest on his hostess. “Well, I got lost,” he said loudly, as though she might be deaf. To Sarah’s relief he took his hand out of his pocket. “Lost our way—my way—on these fucking back roads.”
“As long as you’re in this house, young man, you’ll watch your language. And don’t goop at me.” She couldn’t help smiling at his surprise. “If your people taught you to take off your hat, they must have taught you how to talk to women. Older women anyway. And you haven’t answered my question.”
“How do I know who it was? Just somebody I met up with.” He looked away, stretching his hands in front of him: the fingers, white with cold, were thin and splayed at the tips. Reddish curls trailed off into whorls of beard along his jaw. His eyelids, striated like clamshells, belonged to a tough old man, but the eyes, yellow in the firelight, were empty, opaque: taxidermist’s eyes. Levis drooped wetly below the jacket, and one stockinged foot pushed through a hole in his blue sneaker, which had been mended with yellow tape.
When Sarah introduced herself, he offered an icy hand. “Name’s Jim.”
“Come on over by the fire, Jim.” The pot hissed softly on the trivet. “There’s coffee if you want it.”
“Thanks, sister.” With the ebbing of fear, the boyish voice had deepened. She filled the cup; he wrapped both hands around it as if accepting a chalice. “Thanks a lot. I can use it.”
When he squatted on the hearth, a gluey smell, like that of the Airedale when she came wet to the fire, rose from the pea jacket. Sarah said, “Looks as though you’d been outdoors quite a spell.”
“All day—and last night in a stable.” He stood up and set his cup on the mantel. Mechanically he scratched at his crotch and then, catching her glance, stopped. “Fleas,” he explained.
“Thank you,” she said, “for not characterizing them.”
At that he gave her a grin. It was the face on the driver’s license, but how had the photographer missed those eyebrows that turned up toward his temples like impatient wings? “Yeah, fleas,” he said, “and other things. Not like this place, sister.”
“I’m glad you like it, Jim.” Grimacing, she raked at her hair. “But would you mind not calling me Sister.”
Grant’s right arm sketched a salute. “How about “My Lady”?”
“Don’t strain yourself, young man.”
“Look: I won’t call you Sister if you don’t call me Young Man.”
“Fair enough. Now give me that wet coat.”
She took it from him; she could feel nothing in the pocket, but the stench of the wet cloth was overpowering. “I’ll just hang this out in the back hall for a bit.”
As she turned to open the door, the revolver on the table caught her eye. Grant didn’t miss it either: “You expecting callers?”
“Up here we always expect callers—or visitors anyway. Some pretty peculiar characters come over the hills in winter.
“Maybe—maybe not. You haven’t given me much to go on, Jim.”
Immediately she cringed at this bit of hypocrisy. She scooped up the revolver and, holding the jacket at arm’s length, made for the back of the house. But when she had stretched it over an old kitchen chair and wiped her hands, she felt the need to linger alone while she marshaled her tactics. For the first time in many months, she ventured into the cubbyhole that Cassius had called his study. She sank down in his Morris chair; the musty chill hadn’t quite killed the smells of his pipe and his leather boots. Rubbing her forehead, she tried to sort out the choices of the hours to come. Here she was, back at the old stand: confronting a foreign envoy again, but this time from a country she had never known. And again the diplomatic method failed her: her thoughts kept drifting away on tangents like those that lie along the edges of sleep.
Settling in Stafford five years ago, with a career behind her and a husband suddenly become senior partner, had been like arriving at a new post. At first they had missed the sounds they had left behind: the trictrac of feet in the corridors of embassies, busy or besieged; the unassimilated chatter and buzz of parties. But it hadn’t taken long to adjust to the whirring of birds in the elms; the clucking of hens; the bell voices of youth in summer and the pock of tennis balls; the soughing of night wind in the pines. Each year they went to New York and Washington later and more briefly; and as friends died or were exiled by the missions of the Republic, they began to stay put the year around. The harsh winter and sudden spring had matched well with the ups and downs of aging—until the day when Cassius had confessed his illness.
But neither age nor death had led her to expect that in New Hampshire a revolver would be bulging in the pocket of her sweater.
She got up finally and tiptoed down the hall. When she heard nothing but the hissing of logs in the chimney, she felt a skip of hope: maybe her problem, like a toothache, in remission, had taken itself off.
No such luck: in the low chair by the fire, Grant (James Archibald) sat with his arms folded behind his head like wings. For a minute she thought he was asleep, but when she stirred the fire, she saw that the chambered lids were half open, as though in some private hell, nurtured by anarchy, the boy no longer dared to reach into darkness for his solace.
Sarah said, “It’s time for supper.”
Grant watched the reflections of flame in the darkened windowpanes. “It’s time I split, I guess.”
“No hurry on this end.” The irony of this timeworn New England formula struck her too late.
“Well,” said Grant, getting up, “matter of fact I haven’t eaten since yesterday.”
“That makes two days you’ve been lost then.”
His eyes narrowed. “Not exactly. Last night I had company.
“Of course.” She paused. “I’d forgotten the fleas. At least they stayed by you.”
The farouche eyebrows flew up; for the first time he laughed: a deep chortle Without the strain of his grin. “That’s about the size of it. The chick I was with took off.”
Sarah stared at this indiscretion: male vanity was inexhaustible. Still she could find no thread to draw him further. And she mustn’t reach out too fast. “I suggest you wash up,” she said. “Second left down the hall.”
When he had gone, she put two plates on the table, and knives and forks, and a bottle of red wine—the last in her cupboard, but it might help. Looping back the rug that hung in the kitchen archway, she took one egg from the refrigerator and then, with a shake of her head, three more. She was cracking them on the edge of a bowl when a sudden shadow loomed from behind her.
She jumped and the revolver in her pocket thumped against the edge of the stove. Grant said, “Can I help?”
Sarah reached for the skillet, pacing her recovery with culinary bustle. “Easier if I do it. But you can watch Julia Child at work.”
Her hand shook a little as she beat the eggs, added salt, plopped a lump of butter in the pan. She felt an absurd relief when she heard a whine at the back door. The Airedale padded in; her doormat hair shone with snow crystals. She circled Grant twice, growled once without conviction, and subsided in the corner with a thump.
“Josie’s harmless,” Sarah said. “An old pensioner like me.”
Was the assurance imprudent? Anyway Grant wasn’t watching the dog. His eye had caught the ancient telephone on the kitchen wall. “How come you let me in so quick?”
“Yankee hospitality. We’re not as unfriendly as people say.
“You’re pretty sure I’m a stranger, aren’t you?”
“You’re no Yankee, not with that accent.” She slithered the eggs into the pan and turned to face him. “But I couldn’t care less. Let me fatten you up a bit anyway.”
“Yeah,” he said, “fatten me up for the kill.” Again the tiger grin: he had the oddest transitions; his impulsiveness was almost adolescent. But again she drew back from the obvious question.
Sarah rotated the pan fast over the flame; when the eggs were set, she hit the long handle with her fist and flipped them onto a platter. From above the window she reached down a wire basket full of lettuce and thrust it into Crant’s hand. “We’ll eat by the fire. And I’ll give you some gingerbread and my own applesauce for dessert.”
The double place setting on the table gave her a pang she hadn’t reckoned for. When the boy had settled on the chair facing her, she poured the wine and raised her glass.
“Cheers,” said Grant. It didn’t sound convivial. He wolfed his omelette, but he handled his knife and fork in approved style and broke his bread before he buttered it. “You’re really into it with the cooking,” he said. “How come you’re not married?”
For the second time that day Sarah supplied correction. “My husband is dead.”
“Tough,” he said. He chomped his salad, swigged his wine. “But what d’you do up here by yourself besides cook and shovel snow?”
“Well, there’s my garden. And I’m writing a book.”
“A book? International stuff, I suppose. You said you were Foreign Service?” He made it sound like another conspiracy.
“I used to be, but I’m retired.”
“I guess the women get all the easier glamour spots.”
“If you call Budapest a glamour spot—or Beirut.”
“Beirut?” He looked at her with greater interest. “The chick I was with told me about Beirut. Weren’t you scared?”
“Once a day at least.”
“Jesus, Beirut! It must be even worse now than when you were there. I’d go for that, man.”
She tried to imagine Jim Grant yanking drawers open, scattering papers, swinging a Tommy gun. But all she saw were the empty yellow-brown eyes—no sign of love or loss there yet—and below the chin the traces of baby fat that trembled as he looked at her.
“You’re in trouble, aren’t you, Jim?”
His eyes moved away. “What makes you think so?”
“It’s written all over you. Police after you?”
“It’s nothing I can’t handle.” He leaned back, and the joints of his chair gave a little cry. “You think they might come here?”
“Yes,” she said, “I suppose they might.”
“D’you think they’d torture me?”
Sarah put down her fork as she stared across the abyss of time. Her own youth hadn’t contained shadows of that kind: for all its wars and revolutions, her world had been less precarious. Maybe she was even more naïve than this kid.
“You’re in a country that still passes for civilized.”
“You mean like Vietnam?” He peered at the ruby flickerings in his glass. “Or Kent State? Or the neutron bomb?”
“You think there’s no cure for those things? They’re not a way of life.”
“College stuff. Liberal crap.”
“How long were you in college, Jim?”
“Too long.” He smiled. “I’m like you, retired. No more bourgeois moral junk for me.”
“It must be great to know that someone can wash away all your sins.”
She regretted this immediately, but he took it straight in the face. “My sins are my business. Anyway they don’t count for much now. Not in the outfit I’m in.”
“That’s as may be,” Sarah said. “I don’t think your outfit will get much help in this neck of the woods.”
“Maybe not.” He laughed and got up a little unsteadily. “Still you haven’t done too badly by me, you know.”
Again she was stirred. Maternal snapshots clicked in her mind: buy him a suit, a pair of decent shoes; get him a summer job at the colonial museum; tutor him in history,
He scratched at his belly and gave a loud yawn. Sarah looked at the Seth Thomas on the mantel: nearly eight o’clock. With luck her ordeal would be over in an hour, and his would begin.
“How about 40 winks, Jim?”
He hesitated, then yawned again. “I guess that’s about all I’m good for right now.”
When she had stacked the dishes and thrown the empty bottle in the trash, she fetched an army blanket from the Colonel’s closet. Grant rolled himself up by the hearth. Josie sniffed warily at his feet and then quit the field, nails clicking on the kitchen linoleum.
“Man, you should join up,” Grant said drowsily. “You can cook, build a fire. You’re into foreigners. You got a gun.” He reared up as if he were at his last gasp and waved at the typewriter. “Maybe they’d put you in charge of propaganda.”
Why “they”? she wondered. Had he kept a corner for himself, where hypnosis hadn’t touched him or his jokes? “Propaganda,” she said. “Propaganda, yeah man.”
But Grant had dropped into a well; quickly his breathing lengthened. To Sarah, fidgeting in her wing chair, with her seed catalogue on her knees, this new rhythm was a torment. It took her back to the improvised bunks in the basement of the Budapest chancery, where the exhausted staff lay strewn about in the attitudes in which sleep had seized them, until circling gunfire, breaking the spell, woke them again into their separate fears.
Unseeing, she flipped over the pages of the catalogue. “Tea roses and zinnias,” she said aloud. “What a world!”
But she knew that nothing in that world could give her the right to forgive herself if she did the dirty now.
When Sarah shook him by the shoulder, Grant jumped up with a cry, his eyes darting around the room.
“Sorry, Jim, but it’s getting late.”
“Okay, okay.” He leaned down and started squeezing his feet into the torn sneakers, which the fire had dried stiff.
“Wait a second.”
In Cassius’s study she rummaged in the cupboard till she found a pair of hunting boots. When she turned off the light, she heard something stir and her eye caught a flick at the window, like the wing of a bird. She waited, motionless, but all she saw was the dark flame of a cypress, wavering against the moon. She hauled on her chamois coat and stuck the revolver in the pocket.
Grant tossed his sneakers on the hearth and fought his way into the boots. While he struggled, she fished a ten dollar bill from the secretary and, before he could see, stuffed it quickly into the pocket of the pea jacket. Grant stood up, looked at his feet. “They fit fine,” he said, and took his coat from her. Then he spotted the bulge in her pocket.
“You’re not taking me out to liquidate me?” The wag of his head was playful, but the shell eyelids weren’t quite steady.
Disgust clotted at the back of Sarah’s throat. She planked the revolver on the dining table. “Take it yourself if you have the guts.” She flung open the front door; the draft scattered ashes on the hearth. “You’re forgetting about my bourgeois morality.”
Grant looked at her and at the gleaming object on the table. Sarah’s hand crisped on the doorknob. “Keep your fucking revolver,” he said. “One of these days you may need it worse than me.”
For a minute she thought of shutting the door and staying put. But she knew it wouldn’t do, not now.
With Grant following, she marched down the front steps and across the snow-covered lawn to the road. They trudged in silence along the shoulder, climbing single file to where the shuttered houses thinned out and the pavement trailed off among the pines. At the top was a clearing; from it the ruts of a cart track twisted down through the snow like dirty ribbons. “You’ll have to decide for yourself which way to go,” Sarah said, “but that track will take you away from Stafford and the bridge. You’ll come out on the main road, but you’ll be well south of the town. If you don’t freeze, some sucker may give you a lift.”
“Well,” she said, “I suppose you won’t take a chance on driving without your license—at least not till you get back to California.”
Grant didn’t budge. Behind him the moon breasted a foam of scattered clouds. “What the hell! How did you know?”
“Never mind; it’s all right.” Her mittened hand gave him a light tap on the elbow. “You’re the one that told me what I really needed to know.”
Before he could answer, she started down the hill, but where the road curved, she couldn’t keep from looking back. Grant still waited in the moonlit clearing, his head on one side, rather like Josie when she was ordered to stay behind at home. “Good luck!” Sarah cried. She waved once and quickened her pace.
As she crossed her yard, headlights flickered far off by the river, then disappeared in the covered bridge. When she heard the ascent begin, she hurried into the house and turned off the lights.
She was pulling her flannel nightgown over her head when Josie started to bark. Someone knocked briskly. Sarah crept out of her bedroom. She waited in the hallway, counting off the seconds. Then she snapped on the light and went to the porch door.
Lieutenant Dickson was not alone: when he pushed his companion out of the shadows, Sarah saw that it was a woman. She was dressed in camouflage fatigues: pants, blouse, even the cap, which was clamped down on streaky blond hair. The face was pale, with eyebrows barely visible and a thin, immobile mouth. An urban face, Sarah thought; if it hadn’t been for the absurd costume, you might pass her a dozen times in Hamburg or Budapest without registering, but in New Hampshire those contemptuous eyelids would create instant distrust. She reached toward the fire; the wrists that thrust out of the damp sleeves were handcuffed. The” gleam of metal made Sarah shiver.
Dickson threw out his chest, rocking on the balls of his feet. “Ambassador ma’am, we’ve had a break. This little lady was climbing down the rocks by your bridge, and she ran snackety-dab into my headlights. So naturally I wondered if you’d had callers up here.”
Sarah stroked her chin: the wary Yankee. “I’m not sure I follow.”
“Why Grant, ma’am. Whatever else would she be hanging around these parts for at this stage of the game?”
“Perhaps you should ask her.”
The woman did not turn from the fire. “I have nothing to say. You have taken my papers; you can require nothing more.” Her voice was thready, as if it were filtering through a weak telephone connection. Behind the formal syntax, Sarah caught just the faintest trace of gutturals.
“We’ll let the judge in Lunaville decide about that,” Dickson said. “But what about you, ambassador? No news for me?” He waved at the revolver, still shining on the table. “I see you took no chances.”
“As it turned out, Lieutenant, I didn’t need to worry.”
“That young squirt is smarter than I thought.” He eyed her sharply, then shrugged. “I reckon he’s getting mighty cold.”
“No doubt. But what about the sheriff”—have you seen him?”
“He stopped off at his place to telephone. He aims to fix up a roadblock by the bridge. I’ll tell him you’re on the lookout up here too, okay?”
“I’ll be on the lookout, Lieutenant.”
He touched the brim of his Stetson; his buttons glinted in the firelight. “Let’s move it, kiddo,” he said.
When the trooper had started toward the door, the woman looked around. Her manacled hands hung stiffly in front of her, as though in a cast. She stretched them toward the hearth, where Grant’s sneakers lay with their laces all jumbled together. Her left cheek and eye twitched into a smile that was like the crack of a whip.
Huddled by the fire in her bathrobe, Sarah listened as the drumming of the landrover reverberated in the bridge and then faded on the quiet night. When she could hear it no more, she got up with a little shudder as if pulling back from the brink of a trance. In the coop behind the kitchen the hens stirred and faintly clucked. Josie’s muzzle twitched.
“Raccoons, Josie,” Sarah said. “There’ll be tracks again in the morning.”
An urgency she couldn’t define—something breathing cold at her back—held her motionless before the chimney. As she watched, a solitary flame spurted up, hung for an instant above the log, and vanished. Reaching for Crant’s sneakers, she dangled them by their laces above the pulsing embers. But after a few seconds she snatched them back and, crossing to the secretary, stuffed them with the revolver into the corner of the top shelf.