Agnes Torres parked her white Ford Escort in the little parking area
outside the hedge and stepped into the cool dawn air. The hedges were twelve
feet high and as impenetrable as a brick wall; only the shingled peak of the
big house could be seen from the street. But she could hear the surf
thundering and smell the salt air of the invisible ocean beyond.
Agnes carefully locked the carit paid to be careful, even in this neighborhoodand, fumbling with the massive set of keys, found the right one and stuck it into the lock. The heavy sheet-metal gate swung inward, exposing a broad expanse of green lawn that swept three hundred yards down to the beach, flanked by two dunes. A red light on a keypad just inside the gate began blinking, and she entered the code with nervous fingers. She had thirty seconds before the sirens went off. Once, she had dropped her keys and couldn't punch in the code in time, and the thing had awakened practically the whole town and brought three police cars. Mr. Jeremy had been so angry she thought he would breathe fire. It had been awful.
Agnes punched the last button and the light turned green. She breathed a sigh of relief, locked the gate, and paused to cross herself. Then she drew out her rosary, held the first bead reverently between her fingers. Fully armed now, she turned and began waddling across the lawn on short, thick legs, walking slowly to allow herself time to intone the Our Fathers, the Hail Marys, and the Glory Bes in quiet Spanish. She always said a decade on her rosary when entering the Grove Estate.
The vast gray house loomed in front of her, a single eyebrow window in the roof peak frowning like the eye of a Cyclops, yellow against the steel gray of the house and sky. Seagulls circled above, crying restlessly.
Agnes was surprised. She never remembered that light on before. What was Mr. Jeremy doing in the attic at seven o'clock in the morning? Normally he didn't get out of bed until noon.
Finishing her prayers, she replaced the rosary and crossed herself again: a swift, automatic gesture, made with a rough hand that had seen decades of domestic work. She hoped Mr. Jeremy wasn't still awake. She liked to work in an empty house, and when he was up, everything was so unpleasant: the cigarette ashes he dropped just behind her mop, the dishes he heaped in the sink just after she had washed, the comments and the endless swearing to himself, into the phone or at the newspaper, always followed by a harsh laugh. His voice was like a rusty knifeit cut and slashed the air. He was thin and mean and stank of cigarettes and drank brandy at lunch and entertained sodomites at all hours of the day and night. Once he had tried to speak Spanish with her but she had quickly put an end to that. Nobody spoke Spanish to her except family and friends, and Agnes Torres spoke English perfectly well enough.
On the other hand, Agnes had worked for many people in her life, and Mr. Jeremy was very correct with her employment. He paid her well, always on time, he never asked her to stay late, never changed her schedule, and never accused her of stealing. Once, early on, he had blasphemed against the Lord in her presence, and she had spoken to him about it, and he had apologized quite civilly and had never done it again.
She came up the curving flagstone path to the back door, inserted a second key, and once again fumbled nervously with the keypad, turning off the internal alarm.
The house was gloomy and gray, the mullioned windows in front looking out on a long seaweed-strewn beach to an angry ocean. The sound of the surf was muffled here and the house was hot. Unusually hot.
From Brimstone by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child; chapter 1 (pages 1-5 of the hardcover edition). Copyright © 2004 by Lincoln Child and Splendide Mendax, Inc.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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