Carroll Monks was planning a trip to Ireland. His grandfather
had grown up near Kilrush, on the west coast, before emigrating to the States.
Monks had seen a photo of the place -- a stone hovel in a barren field, miles
from the nearest tiny village.
But Monks himself had never set foot on Irish soil. Why that was
so was a puzzle even to him. The only answer he could give was that his life for
the past thirty-odd years seemed to have been one long struggle to stay on top
of whatever he was doing, while stumbling toward the next goal -- college,
medical school, five years in the navy, getting established in practice. Then
marriage, children, divorce, and the thousands of vicissitudes that went with
all that. Most of the traveling he had done had either been out of necessity, or
vacations that were aimed at pleasing his children.
But the lapse was still inexcusable, and he was going to rectify
it, come next March. He was not in search of his roots -- he intended to make
that clear to everybody he met. Mainly, he hoped to drink in some good pubs,
walk on deserted beaches, and listen to a lot of rain, while he was warm and dry
He was warm and dry right now, inside his own living room. It
was early December, getting toward dusk, and the northern California winter was
starting to settle in. A fire crackled in his woodstove, with cats sleeping in
front of it, waiting for him to break out the slab of fresh salmon that they
knew was in the refrigerator, ready to broil on a charcoal grill. Meanwhile, to
get himself in shape for the journey, Monks had put aside the vodka that was his
usual preference and taken up an apprenticeship with John Power whiskey, a
working-class Irish malt with a good rough edge. He liked to sip it neat,
slowly, sampling various stouts as chasers. The effect was like nectar and
He had been reading up on Irish history and had a pile of maps
and guidebooks that he consulted while plotting his course. His main focus was a
leisurely trip up the west coast, through Galway to Donegal, staying as close as
he could to the ocean. He had no fixed schedule. In early spring, lodging should
be easy to find. He would be traveling alone. Ideally, he would have a female
companion along, but there was no one on the radar just now. He was starting to
wonder if there ever would be again.
Monks decided to pour one more short splash of whiskey before
starting the charcoal for the salmon. He was getting to his feet when a knock
came at the front door.
This surprised him. His house was a good hundred yards off a
little-traveled county road, surrounded by redwoods, all but hidden from view.
He would have heard a car coming up his gravel drive. So the caller was on foot
-- but there were no near neighbors, and no one in the habit of dropping by.
He stepped to a window that gave a view of the deck outside the
front door. His surprise deepened. A young woman was standing there. The evening
darkness was closing in, but he was quite sure she wasn't anyone he knew. She
was looking around, in a way that suggested she might be nervous at approaching
a stranger's house at dusk.
Monks walked to the door and opened it.
She was in her early twenties, tall and full-figured; not really
pretty but attractive, with olive skin and strong Mediterranean features. Her
black hair was pinned with a clasp and worn long down her back. She was dressed
as if for business, in tailored slacks and a silk blouse. She smiled but that
looked nervous, too.
"I saw your lights," she said, with a slight stammer.
"I got a flat tire, down on the road."
Monks's heart sank a little. Changing a tire, in the dark, on a
vehicle he didn't know anything about, was not an enjoyable prospect. "I'll
come take a look," he said.
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