A Novel

Stephen Amidon


The alarm came in just as he was leaving the office. His first impulse was to keep walking. Even now, in the dead of the night, the time of break-ins and drunken squabbles and combusting embers,
it would almost certainly be false. Somebody coming home after a few too many and fumbling the abort code; a nightmare-addled child staggering into a forbidden room. And yet, Janine would know that he had heard, and Edward couldn’t just leave while she was in the middle of dealing with an alert. So he shut the door on the cold night and walked back into the office to see if he could lend a hand.
The gentle electronic pulse sounding from the dispatcher’s console had all the urgency of a boarding announcement at a regional airport. But Janine was all business as she slipped on her headphones and dialed the client. Edward was struck by the transformation: a moment ago she had been hinting at quitting, and now she had the tunnel vision of a frontline soldier. The word kicking around the office was that she was getting tired of the graveyard shift. And so, having found himself once again irrevocably awake at two a.m., Edward had decided to swing by to cheer her up. He’d discovered her standing beneath a nimbus of Camel smoke outside Stoneleigh Sentinel’s propped-open front door. She was wrapped in an oversized Patriots windbreaker; her outerwear seemed to be composed entirely of leavebehinds from boyfriends and husbands. She dropped the cigarette when she saw his car; the way her right shoe twisted over the butt made her look like a wallflower at a high school dance. He would have let her smoke in the office, but didn’t need the hassle of getting caught violating the town’s draconian anti-tobacco measures.
They chatted at the dispatch console. It was a family thing. Her girls were running wild. She sounded like she really would walk this time, which would not be good: a skilled dispatcher was as hard to find as a plumber on a Sunday morning. As she talked, Edward found himself examining the photos of her three daughters arranged on the console. All of them in their late teens, early twenties. The only feature they shared was the panicked, pre-impact sheen of their eyes. None were in school; all still lived at home; the one with the nose stud was pregnant. He could only imagine the cramped house at night, the tense silences and explosions of temper, the sullen visiting boys
slouched on weary furniture.
“What do you say we swap you to days?” he asked abruptly.
She narrowed her eyes in gratitude.
“Well, hell yes.”
And so it was decided that she would not be quitting after all.
He’d switch her with Cole Birdsong, his four-hundred-pound, Bibletoting day dispatcher. The man lived with his mother and was always hinting about needing more money for her diabetes bills; he’d take the extra ten percent to work nights. Of course, Edward would have to keep Janine on that rate of pay as well, but he could afford it. Business was good.
He hung around for the three a.m. status check; he felt no great rush to face the sleepless hours ahead. Janine went through the roster of the company’s eight guards, located in hushed lobbies throughout town, where they made sure nobody burgled the converted factories where their fathers and grandfathers had once held decent jobs. The tally ended with Mike Tolland, Stoneleigh Sentinel’s senior patrolman.
Its “armed response,” who covered the premier residential clients in the foothills west of town. Characteristically, he was out of position in a quiet subdivision in the north part of town. Edward almost got on the horn and asked him what the hell he was doing, but one personnel crisis was sufficient for a chilly November night. Instead, he headed for the door and Janine reached for her Camels.
That was when they’d heard the alarm. He read the screen as he neared the console. The alert was at Doyle Cutler’s place. As premier as an account could get. Cutler lived at the very edge of the town; his five-acre mountain estate backed onto wilderness. If there was a major burglary in Stoneleigh in the dead of a Sunday night, this was as likely a spot as any. As Janine speed-dialed the home phone, Edward read the screen more closely. The house’s front door and its gate had
both been opened. No abort code entered.
“Voice mail,” Janine said.
Edward listened to the police scanner mounted above the desk, but there was only static. The next step should be dispatching Tolland, though that would mean stirring him from his pint of Wild Turkey and this month’s Soldier of Fortune. It would be quicker just to send the police. Edward was about to call 911 when Janine held up a finger.
Someone had picked up.
“Yes, this is Stoneleigh Sentinel,” she said. “We have two alarms sounding at your house. We need you to provide your abort code.”
She listened with a scowl.
“I understand, sir, but you need to do that in thirty seconds or we
must respond.”
Edward looked at the screen. Galt.
“Could you repeat that?”
Janine’s eyes were locked on the screen as well. She nodded.
“Thank you. And with whom am I speaking?” She nodded. “Will you be in need of further assistance from us, Mr. Cutler? Then, have a good night.”
She looked at Edward after she broke the connection. Her expression was uneasy.
“What did he say?” he asked.
“A houseguest just left and they forgot about the alarm.” Her voice dropped into a conspiratorial register. “He sounded funny.”
“Funny as in . . .”
“You know, not right.”
“Drunk? Panicky?”
Edward looked back at the screen. Technically, contractually, the event had just ended. Inner door, outer gate, abort code. Why a guest would be leaving unexpectedly at three a.m. fell into the vast category of things that were none of Edward’s business. But he didn’t like the sound of a stressed client—not at three in the morning on the edge of the wilderness. Especially not Doyle Cutler. Images of some sort of home invasion—unprecedented in the town’s history, though certainly not in the nation’s—shifted through his mind.
“You want me to send Tolland?” Janine asked dubiously.
He could call Cutler back himself, but what would he say? My dispatcher said you sounded funny? What was really required was for a seasoned pro to have a quiet look around. Not Tolland, who had just last spring tried to Taser a Mt. Stoneleigh student for “getting lippy.” He would demand entry; he’d want to rattle doors and ask all the wrong questions. If he was denied access, he would almost certainly call in the town police.
“I think I’ll take a ride over there myself.”
“Kind of out of your way, isn’t it?”
Edward didn’t tell her that he was in fact headed in that general direction when he left, even though Cutler lived on the opposite side of town from his house. No one was supposed to know that it had
been almost a month since he’d slept in his own bed.
“You want Tolland to meet you there?” she asked when it became clear he wasn’t going to explain himself.
“I’ll let you know.”
It was three miles across town to the Cutler house. He drove fast. He turned on his scanner, but there was still nothing but static. The roads were late-night empty; the traffic lights had all been switched to flashing yellow. He first passed through Cheapside, the working class neighborhood in the eastern part of town: Sentinel didn’t have many residential clients among its boxy little houses and eight-unit apartment buildings; business here was limited to a few Cumberland Farms stores and the Liquid Assets pawnshop. People robbed them, the time-lapse cameras immortalized their faces, the cops made an arrest. Next he passed through Old Town, with its sturdy Victorians and revitalized downtown. He’d installed plenty of standard home systems here, though few were premier clients. Those were up ahead, on Mountain. He was forced to slow a little after he joined the winding and sporadically lit road, which was liable at this hour to be occupied by astonished animals, some of them large enough to total a car.
There were no shops or schools or traffic lights on Mountain Road; no billboards or parking lots or Little League fields. Just a few dozen estates, each hidden by its own automatic gate and impenetrable foliage and switchback driveway. Beyond these were the floor sensors and glass-break monitors and laser perimeter awareness systems, the hidden cameras and panic rooms. People up here liked to be left alone.
As he powered up the hill, Edward tried to decide exactly how he was going to play this. He’d spoken to Cutler only a few times, and that had been when he’d installed his system over two years ago.
There had been no activity on the account. No upgrades, either; just routine maintenance. The house had been a scrape job. The mansion the Cutlers had dozed was beautiful to look at, gables and dormer windows, a magnificent wraparound porch. The sort of place people referred to as a classic, though Edward had noticed that none of his neighbors had been moved to buy it during the two years it moldered on the market. The dry rot and subsidence and decrepit pipes were simply too daunting. The Cutlers had replaced it with a residence that many townsfolk complained would have fit more easily into a gated Houston suburb. Although Edward would never have admitted it to a living soul, he sort of liked the look of the place, with its indoor pool and a tennis court and hangar-like garage. When it came to security, Cutler had wanted the works, including a digital CCTV system and external burglar lights, although Edward had talked him out of the latter: with the wildlife up here, these would turn the property into a sort of rustic disco. He had also wanted a direct link to the town police, but the local cops were understaffed and overburdened and loath to drive up Mountain every time a raccoon got at the garbage. They had even started writing citations for false alarms.
In person, Doyle Cutler was unimposing in the way of most wealthy people Edward encountered: around five eight, with a neat beard meant to cover a receded chin and small, wandering eyes. He seemed to be the sort of person who was incapable of occupying the moment, always waiting for the next fortunate thing to happen to him. He’d made his money in a steamy, long-fanged sector of the capitalist jungle before taking early retirement. Debt consolidation, it was called, at least while there were witnesses around. Edward had never met his wife; according to Meg, she thought Stoneleigh was part of the Third World. Cutler was, in other words, the sort of man who would not appreciate being intruded upon, although Edward guessed that he would also be fairly unforgiving if let down. And then there was the fact that in five days he would be hosting a big party at this very house in honor of Edward’s wife.
He passed the entrance to Mt. Stoneleigh College and then the common land, the unofficial beginning of the Mountain Road neighborhood. From here it was less than a mile to Cutler’s. The road grew even narrower and more twisted, its shoulders sloping off abruptly into drainage ditches that sparkled with frost. Everything was getting darker. The only evidence of human habitation now were occasional mirrors indicating a blind drive and rusticated gates. The police scanner remained quiet; Janine still had not called with further news.
And then he was there. He rolled to a stop on the paved crescent in front of Cutler’s gate, his eyes traveling instinctively to his company’s royal blue sign, its subtle gold lettering pledging twenty-four hour vigilance and rapid armed response. Protected by Stoneleigh Sentinel. Edward got out of the car and stood perfectly still. There was only the usual moonlit hush. He stepped up to the gate to look through the spiked bars, their iron wrought into an unclimbable configuration.
Oddly for Mountain Road, part of the house was visible, the glow of a solitary window, although a stockade of shrubbery made it impossible to see the ground floor or the front courtyard. He walked over to the pillar on his right. A small camera, encased in a fake stone, peered down at him. He contemplated the brass control panel below it, the keypad and speaker box. What the hell, he thought.
Cutler was awake anyway. If he got angry, he’d get over it: Edward was just watching his back. He pressed the buzzer. Ten seconds passed, twenty. He was about to press it again when there was the familiar click of someone operating the system at the other end.
“Mr. Cutler?”
“This is Edward Inman from Stoneleigh Sentinel. I’m just following up on that alarm.”
There was no response. Edward realized that he hadn’t asked a question.
“I wanted to double-check that you weren’t in need of any assistance.”
“No, I’m fine here. A houseguest left without telling me. As I’ve explained.”
There was enough of a pause before the last sentence to register proprietary displeasure. Edward hesitated. The man sounded perfectly normal. Vaguely annoyed, though who wouldn’t be?
“Will there be anything else, Mr. Inman?”
“Then, good night.”
There was a concluding rattle in the speaker. After one last look at the house, Edward walked back to his car. The dashboard clock read 3:19. Too early to return to his own home without waking Meg and the girls. Which meant that he would be driving back to his temporary refuge to wait for dawn. As he rolled slowly past the mirrors and gates, he wondered if any of the other owners were at home. Most Mountain Road residents were weekenders, except during the summer and the ski season. David McGreeves, a former all-star defenseman for the Bruins, was on the road forty weeks a year to give rousing speeches at corporate retreats, where he reminded his audiences that
quitters never win, and winners never quit; that it wasn’t the size of the dog in the fight, and that you were only as good as your last deal.  Tom and Nancy Stubblefield, whose marriage had fused two family fortunes, now spent most of their time on their yacht tomandnancy, while Sun Tse-sen, a Taiwanese chemist who had once been a professor at Mt. Stoneleigh College but now worked as a consultant for a big pharmaceutical, was almost always at the company’s Swiss headquarters.
There were times, especially in the spring and fall, when Edward would have guessed that not a single house above the college was occupied.
He passed a sign explaining that this section of road was kept clean by the local chapter of the Sigma Epsilon Tau fraternity. He passed the common land; with his line of sight extended by the clear chill air, Edward could glimpse the campus sparkling through the depleted foliage. He drove on. A half mile farther down the road he passed College Avenue, the arrow-straight gaslit road that led to the school’s main entrance, so majestic that it seemed specially designed to make parents feel better about parting with the fifty thousand dollars a year it now cost to send their children to Mt. Stoneleigh.
And then, two hundred yards past the college, Edward saw someone walking along the narrow shoulder on his side of the road. It was the first human being he had seen since he left the office. Probably a student: you sometimes saw them after the bars closed. Sure enough, there was a weave in his walk. But he was moving in the wrong direction, downhill, away from campus. Edward slowed and swung toward the middle of the road. Just before he arrived, the walker turned in surprise. Headlights flared on his face, though only for an instant: his sudden movement had caused him to lose his balance. As the car passed, he was in the process of tumbling into the dying weeds at the side of the road. Edward pulled over. He knew that face. It was Kathryn’s son Conor.
The boy was already back on his feet by the time Edward got out of his car. He was so drunk that he looked like someone doing a bad imitation of a drunk. Edward tried to remember whether he would
be eighteen or nineteen.
“Are you all right?” Edward called out.
His voice echoed: he’d almost shouted, worried that Conor didn’t even know that there was someone standing in front of him. Sure enough, the boy kept coming. Edward put his large frame in his path. Conor wove a bit and Edward moved again. They were now ten feet from a collision.
“Conor, hold on a sec.”
The mention of his name finally caused him to stop. His eyes narrowed.
“You look like you could use a ride home,” Edward said.
A glimmer of lucidity entered Conor’s expression.
“Okay . . . Do I know you?”
“I know your mother.”
“No, I’m good.”
He nodded and took a step. Edward held up his right hand.
“Conor, come on. I’ll have you there in a minute.”
He finally got the message: he was getting in the car. He shrugged, his mouth twisting in private amusement. Edward opened the passenger door and guided him through. Once they were both inside, Edward could smell the alcohol. Sour and meaty. Red wine was his
guess. Plenty of it.
“So what brings you out here so late at night?” Edward asked.
“You up at the college?”
Conor nodded vaguely as he closed his eyes.
“You going there now?” he asked.
“Yeah, right,” he said. “As if.”
“Party, huh.”
Conor’s chin dropped a little and his lips parted, though no response was forthcoming. Edward studied him. Although he’d glimpsed him a few times over the summer at Stoneleigh Books, they had never been this close. Edward was struck by his likeness to Kathryn, more obvious than ever now. The tapered nose and long forehead, the mouth that managed to be both delicate and full. His long brown hair had her gentle waves, though it lacked the reddish hue.
“Conor?” Edward asked.
But the boy clearly would not be accounting for himself, at least not anytime soon. The only thing left to do was take him home to Jupiter Street.
Excerpted from Security. By Stephen Amidon.
Copyright © 2009 by Stephen Amidon.
Published in the United States by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in hardcover, and by Picador in trade paperback.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the publisher.