Darkness bore down on her as the car shuddered up the mountain. Distant lights danced at the edge of her vision, then vanished. Beck wondered how bad it would be. In her mind, she saw only the Jericho she had loved fifteen yeas ago and, in some ways, still did: the dashing scion of an old New England family that had provided government officials since the Revolution. One of his ancestors had a traffic circle named for him in Washington. A cousin served in the Senate. The family’s history was overwhelming; the Jericho for whom Beck had fallen had certainly overwhelmed her. He had been brilliant, and powerful, and confident, and fun, ever ready with eternal wisdom, or clever barbs. She did not like to think of that mighty man ravaged by disease. She had no illusions. She remembered what cancer had done to her own father.
Whatever was waiting, she had to go.
On Saturday afternoon, having cleared her decks with Pfister, Beck took the shuttle from Boston to Washington. She lived in Virginia, a stone’s throw from Reagan National Airport. Her daughter was at a church retreat, church being a thing that Beck did because she had been raised that way, and her mother would be offended if Rebecca dared differ. Beck decided to let Nina stay the night with the other kids. The two of them could ride together to the airport on Sunday, then enplane for their different destinations. Rebecca’s mother, Jacqueline, had been after her for weeks to send Nina for a visit, and maybe this was the time. The child was only in second grade; missing a few days of instruction would do her no harm. Beck hesitated, then made the inevitable call to Florida, to ask if her mother could look after Nina. The conversation soon turned into a battle.
I don’t know how you could even think about taking a six-year-old to visit a man like that.
I’m not taking her, Mom. That’s why I’m calling you.
You said you decided not to take her. That means you thought about it. I don’t understand how your mind works sometimes.
She tried, and failed, to remember a time when she and her mother had not been at odds. Because, in the eyes of her eternally disappointed mother, Beck would never be more than ten years old. Certainly their animosity predated Jericho; and perhaps it had played some sort of role (as every one of the therapists Rebecca had consulted over the years seemed to think) in her falling in love, as a college sophomore, with a married man thirty-two years her senior who tossed away his remarkable career in order to possess her.
I appreciate your help, Mom.
Oh, so you appreciate me now. Does that mean you’ll call more often?
But Beck rarely called anybody. She was not the calling sort. She lived in a cookie-cutter townhouse in Alexandria, along with her daughter and the cat, and when she was not homemaking or childrearing she was working. Her mother had married young, and was supported by her husband until the day he died. Beck’s marriage had lasted less than two years. The thing with Jericho had ruined Rebecca for men, her mother insisted; and maybe it was true. Her mother was full of certitudes about the errors of others, and for the next few days would fill Nina’s mind with her fevered dogmas. Hating herself, Beck had put her daughter on the plane to Florida anyway; and Nina, cradling the cat carrier, had marched regally into the jetway, never turning her head for a final wave, because she was a lot more like her grandmother than like her mother.
Or maybe not. Rebecca herself had been a feisty child, curious and willful and prepared at any moment to be disobedient. She had always pretended that she was fine without her mother, perhaps because her mother spent so much time insisting on the opposite. Her rebelliousness had led her into trouble all her life, including at her pricey private high school, where a protest against the dress code had led to a suspension; and at Princeton, where a star wide receiver tried to have his way with the reluctant freshman and wound up with a broken nose for his troubles, missing half the season. A year later, she had wound up in Jericho’s bed. Maybe Nina was not like her grandmother at all, but simply a younger version of Beck --- a possibility too scary to contemplate.
Lights on her tail. Was she being followed?
A wiser woman, Beck told herself, would have dismissed such a notion as the sort of nonsense that always sneaked into her head when she thought about Jericho. In the chilly night hours on a lonely and lightless mountain road, however, when the same pair of headlights kept slipping in and out of the fog, it was easier to be fearful than wise.
She accelerated --- no easy matter for the little rental car --- and the headlights vanished. She slowed to round a curve, and they were behind her again.
“How do you know they’re the same headlights?” she sneered.
She just knew. She knew because the years had slipped away and she was back in Jericho’s world, a world where a canoodling couple at the next table in a restaurant at a resort in Barbados meant you were under surveillance, where the maid at the Ritz planted bugs in the bedroom, where unexpected cars in the middle of the Yucatán were packed with terrorists ready to exact revenge for your earnest defense of your country.
She reminded herself that Jericho’s paranoia no longer guided her life, but her foot pressed harder anyway, and the little car shuddered ahead. She shot down into the valley and passed through half a town. It began to snow. She climbed again, breasted the rise, went around a curve, and suddenly was suspended in nothing.
No headlights behind her, no road in front of her.
Then she almost drove over the cliff.
Things like that happened in the Rockies, not metaphorically but in reality, especially in the middle of the night, when you daydreamed your way into an unexpected nighttime snowstorm --- unexpected because in Beck’s corner of the country, the worst that ever happened in April was rain. At ten thousand feet, as she was beginning to remember, the weather was different. One moment, hypnotized by the cone of her headlights as it illuminated the shadowy road ahead and the dark trees rushing by on either side, Beck was gliding along, totting up the errors of her life; then, before she realized what was happening, heavy flakes were swirling thickly around her, and the road had vanished.
Rebecca slowed, then slewed, the front end mounting an unseen verge, the rear end fishtailing, but by then her winter smarts had returned, and she eased the wheel over in the direction of the skid. The car swiveled and bumped and came to rest ten yards off the road. She sat still, breath hitching. No headlights behind her, or up on the road, or anywhere else.
“False alarm,” Beck muttered, furious at herself for having let Jericho back into her head, gleefully whispering his mad cautions.
She set the brake and opened the door and found, to her relief, that she was not in a ditch or a snowbank. She could back the car uphill onto the tarmac. But turning around would be easier, if there was room. Shivering as the cold leached into her fashionable boots, she squinted ahead, checking to make sure that she had room enough. The whirl of snow was slowing. She had trouble judging the distance. The beams of her headlights were swallowed up by a stand of conifers dead ahead, but there was plenty of room. Except, when she looked again, the trees were a forest, and miles away, on the other side of a steep gorge. Her toes skirted the edge. She shuffled backward. Had she tried to turn around instead of backing up, she would likely have gone over.
There in a nutshell was life since Jericho: backing up and backing up, never taking chances. One plunge over the cliff was enough for any life.
Beck stood at the edge and peered into the yawning darkness. High up on the opposite slope, she could pick out what had to be the lights of Jericho’s vast house. His family wealth had purchased the property, and the scandal of their relationship had sentenced him to life imprisonment within. She had dropped out of college. He had dropped out of much more. She did the arithmetic, all the presidential ears into which he had whispered his devious advice. She remembered the year they met, the start of his indefinite sabbatical from public life, spent among the lawns of Princeton, the hushed and reverent tones in which the faculty murmured Jericho’s name. She remembered how his seminars were interrupted almost weekly by protesters branding him a war criminal; and the relish with which he had baited his young accusers, demanding that they explain which of the regimes he was alleged to have overthrown they would have preferred to preserve, and why.
Since leaving government service, Jericho had published half a dozen books on international politics, but nobody cared any more. Hardly anyone remembered who he was, or had been. Not two months ago, she had found his recent nine-hundred-page tome on the achievement of peace in the Middle East remaindered at Barnes & Noble, going for three dollars and ninety-nine cents.
Her cell phone vibrated on her hip. Beck was surprised. Usually there was no service up here, but every now and then one found a patch of mountain digitally linked to the rest of the world. She fished the phone from her jacket. The screen said the number was unknown. When she answered, she got a blast of static in her ear, followed by a whine like a fax signal. Annoyed, she cut off the call. The phone immediately rang again, another unknown number, the same screech in her ear. No third ring. She decided to test her momentary connectedness by checking her messages, but when she tried she had no bars.
So how had whoever it was called her? She walked back and forth in the clearing, but found no service anywhere.
Never mind. Time to get moving. Rain was falling again, big freezing drops, and she managed a smile at the absurdity. Rain, fog, snow, rain again --- all she needed was a flood to complete a biblical weather cycle, because, in her current mood, she was ready to believe in anything.
The whup-whup of an approaching engine caught her ear. Another car, she thought, but then an inky form shot across her vision, and she crouched protectively until she realized that her perspective was still playing tricks: it was a helicopter, flying low but still hundreds of feet in the air. She had not realized they built them so quiet. The helicopter passed directly over her, then swooped down the valley, joining other shadows. It climbed again, reaching Jericho’s house, where the pilot seemed to hesitate, circling, cutting back for another look. Was she too late? Could this be the medevac chopper, preparing to rush the patient down to Denver? Or was it perhaps carrying a VIP, come to say farewell, the trip too secret for daylight?
The answer was neither. The helicopter never landed. For a long moment the pilot hovered. Another false departure, another circle. Then, evidently satisfied, the craft rose once more, returning the way it had come, and Beck found herself shutting off the headlights. An unnamable instinct warned Beck not to let whoever was aboard see her.
The media, she told herself firmly, climbing back into the car as the craft vanished over the hills. Television networks, compiling footage for the obituary. No question, that’s who it was.
And yet ---
And yet, why risk a flight through the Rockies to shoot the house in the dead of night? Atmosphere, she decided, starting the engine. They wanted to convey the sense of dread.
There was plenty to go around.
Excerpted from JERICHO'S FALL © Copyright 2011 by Stephen L. Carter. Reprinted with permission by Vintage. All rights reserved.