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The New York Times bestselling novel is now available in a beautifully repackaged edition.
The Cold War is over, and Keith Landry, one of the nation’s top intelligence officers, is forced into early and unwanted retirement. Restless, Landry returns to Spencerville, the small Midwestern town where he grew up. The place has changed in the quarter century since Landry stepped off his front porch into the world, but two important people from his past are still there: Annie Prentis, his first love, and Cliff Baxter, the high school bully who became the police chief of Spencerville and now Annie’s possessive husband. They’re all about to reunite and rip Spencerville apart with violence, vengeance, and renewed passion.
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A Preview of Radiant Angel
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Author's Note: This book is entirely a work of fiction. Though there is a town in Ohio called Spencerville, its location and description are different from the town I describe, and any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
The barbarians are to arrive today.
Why such inaction in the Senate?
Why do the Senators sit and pass no laws?
Because the barbarians are to arrive today.
What further laws can the Senators pass?
.… night is here but the barbarians have not come.
Some people arrived from the frontiers,
and they said that there are no longer any barbarians.
And now what shall become of us without any barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.
"Expecting the Barbarians" (1904)
Keith Landry was going home after twenty-five years at the front. He turned his Saab 900 off Pennsylvania Avenue onto Constitution and headed west, along the Mall toward Virginia, crossing the Potomac at the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge. He caught a glimpse of the Lincoln Memorial in his rearview mirror, gave a wave, and continued west on Route 66, away from Washington.
Western Ohio, eight P.M., daylight saving time, mid-August, and Keith Landry remarked to himself that the sun was still about fifteen degrees above the horizon. He had nearly forgotten how much light remained here at this hour, at the end of the eastern time zone, and had forgotten how big his country was.
The driving on the flat, straight road was easy and mindless, so Landry allowed himself some thinking that he'd been putting off: The Cold War was over, which was the good news. Many Cold Warriors had been given pink slips, which, for Keith Landry, was the bad news.
But God had taken pity at last, Landry thought, and with a puff of divine breath blew away the pall of nuclear Armageddon that had hung over the planet for nearly half a century. Rejoice. We are saved.
He reflected, I will gladly beat my sword into a plowshare or pruning hook, and even my 9mm Glock pistol into a paperweight. Well, perhaps not gladly. But what was his choice?
The Cold War, once a growth industry, had downsized, leaving its specialists, technicians, and middle management exploring other options. On an intellectual level, Landry knew this was the best thing to happen to humanity since the Gutenberg printing press put a lot of monks out of work. On a more personal level, he was annoyed that a government that had taken twenty-five years of his life couldn't have found enough peace dividend to keep him around for five more years and full retirement pay.
But okay, Washington was two days ago and six hundred miles behind him. Today was day three of life two. Whoever said that there were no second acts in American lives had never worked for the government.
He hummed a few bars of "Homeward Bound" but found his own voice grating and switched on the radio. The scanner locked on to a local station, and Landry listened to a live report from the county fair, followed by a community bulletin board announcing church activities, a 4-H meeting, a VFW picnic, and so forth, followed by crop and livestock prices, hot tips on where the fish were running, and an excruciatingly detailed weather report. There were tornadoes in southern Indiana. Landry shut off the radio, thinking he'd heard this very same news a quarter century ago.
But a lot had happened to him in those years, most of it dangerous. He was safe now, and alive, whereas for the past quarter century he'd felt that he had one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel. He smiled. "Homeward bound."
Sure, he admitted, he had mixed emotions, and he had to sort them out. Two weeks ago he was in Belgrade exchanging threats with the minister of defense, and today he was in Ohio listening to a twangy voice speculating about hog prices. Yes, he was safe but not yet sound.
Landry settled back in his seat and paid attention to his driving. He liked the feel of the open road, and the Saab handled beautifully. The car's unusual shape attracted curious attention when Landry passed through the small towns and hamlets of western Ohio, and he thought he should probably trade it in for less of a conversation piece when he took up residence in Spencerville.
The cornfields stretched as far as the deep blue sky, and here and there a farmer had planted soybeans, or wheat, or alfalfa. But mostly it was corn: field corn to fatten livestock and sweet corn for the table. Corn. Corn syrup, cornstarch, cornflakes, cornmeal, corn, corn, corn, Landry thought, to fatten an already fat nation. Landry had been in a lot of famine areas over the years, so maybe that's why the sight of the heartland's bounty made him think of fat.
"For amber waves of grain," he said aloud. He noticed that the crops were good. He had no vested interest in the crops, neither as a farmer nor as a man who held crop futures. But he'd spent the first eighteen years of his life listening to everyone around him talk about the crops, so he noticed them wherever he was, in Russia, in China, in Somalia, and now, coming full circle, in western Ohio.
Landry saw the sign for Spencerville, downshifted, and took the turn without braking, causing the Ford Taurus behind him to try the same thing with less acceptable results.
On the horizon, he could see a water storage tower and grain silos, then later, he could make out the clock tower of the Spencer County courthouse, a sort of Gothic Victorian pile of red brick and sandstone built in a burst of turn-of-the-century enthusiasm and boosterism. The courthouse was a marvel when it was built, Landry reflected, and it was a marvel now—the marvel being that Spencer County had once been prosperous enough and populated enough to finance such a massive edifice.
As Landry drew closer, he could see most of the town's ten church spires, catching the light of the setting sun.
Landry did not enter the town but turned off onto a small farm road. A sign reminded him to watch out for slow-moving farm vehicles, and he eased off the accelerator. Within fifteen minutes, he could see the red barn of the Landry farm.
He had never driven all the way home before but had always flown to Toledo or Columbus and rented a car. This drive from the District of Columbia had been uneventful yet interesting. The interesting part, aside from the landscape, was the fact that he didn't know why he was driving to Spencerville to live after so long an absence. Interesting, too, was the sense of unhurried leisure, the absence of any future appointments in his daybook, the dangling wire where his government car phone had once sat, the unaccustomed feeling of being out of touch with the people who once needed to know on a daily basis if he was dead, alive, kidnapped, in jail, on the run, or on vacation. A provision of the National Security Act gave him thirty days from time of separation to notify them of a forwarding address. In fact, however, they wanted it before he left Washington. But Landry, in his first exercise of his rights as a civilian, told them tersely that he didn't know where he was going. He was gone but not forgotten, forcibly retired but of continuing interest to his superiors.
Landry passed a row of post-mounted mailboxes, noticing that the one with the Landry name had the red flag down, as it had been for about five years.
He pulled into the long gravel drive, overgrown with weeds.
The farmhouse was a classical white clapboard Victorian, with porch and gingerbread ornamentation, built in 1889 by Landry's great-grandfather. It was the third house to occupy the site, the first being a log cabin built in the 1820s when the Great Black Swamp was drained and cleared by his ancestors. The second house had been circa Civil War, and he'd seen a photo of it, a small shingled saltbox shape, sans porch or ornamentation. The better looking the farmhouse, according to local wisdom, the more the husband was henpecked. Apparently, Great-Grandpa Cyrus was totally pussy-whipped.
Landry pulled the Saab up to the porch and got out. The setting sun was still hot, but it was dusty dry, very unlike the Washington steam bath.
Landry stared at the house. There was no one on the porch to welcome him home, nor would there ever be. His parents had retired from farming and gone to Florida five years before. His sister, Barbara, unmarried, had gone to Cleveland to seek career fulfillment as an advertising executive. His brother, Paul, was a vice-president with Coca-Cola in Atlanta. Paul had been married to a nice lady named Carol who worked for CNN, and Paul had joint custody of his two sons, and his life was governed by his separation agreement and by Coca-Cola.
Keith Landry had never married, partly because of the experience of his brother and of most of the people he knew, and partly because of his job, which was not conducive to a life of marital bliss.
Also, if he cared to be honest with himself, and he might as well be, he had never completely gotten over Annie Prentis, who lived about ten miles from where he was now parked in front of his family farm. Ten-point-three miles, to be exact.
Keith Landry got out of his Saab, stretched, and surveyed the old homestead. In the twilight, he saw himself as a young college grad on the porch, an overnight bag in his hand, kissing his mother and his sister, Barbara, shaking hands with little Paul. His father was standing beside the family Ford, where Landry stood now beside the Saab. It was sort of a Norman Rockwell scene, except that Keith Landry wasn't going off to make his way in the world; he was going to the county courthouse, where a bus waited in the parking lot to take that month's levy of young men from Spencer County to the induction center in Toledo.
Keith Landry recalled clearly the worried looks on the faces of his family but could not recall very well how he himself felt or acted.
He seemed to remember, however, that he felt awful, and at the same time, he was filled with a sense of adventure, an eagerness to leave, which made him feel guilty. He didn't understand then his mixed emotions, but now he did, and it could be summed up in a line from an old song: How you gonna keep them down on the farm, after they've seen Paree?
But it wasn't Paree, it was Vietnam, and the recruits hadn't mustered in the village square for a roll call and jolly send-off, nor had they returned marching up Main Street after what would have been called V-V Day. And yet, the net effect of the experience for Landry was the same: He never came back to the farm. He'd come back physically, of course, in one piece, but he'd never come back in mind or spirit, and the farm was never his home after that.
So here it was, a quarter century after he'd stepped off his front porch into the world, and he was standing at the steps of that porch again, and the images of his family faded away, leaving him with an unexpected sadness.
He said to himself, "Well, I'm home, even if no one else is."
He climbed the steps, found the key in his pocket, and entered.
On the north side of Spencerville, the better side of town, ten-point-three miles from the Landry farm, Annie Baxter, née Prentis, cleared the dinner dishes from the kitchen table.
Her husband, Cliff Baxter, finished his can of Coors, barely suppressed a belch, looked at his watch, and announced, "I got to go back to work."
Annie had gathered as much from the fact that Cliff had not changed into his usual jeans and T-shirt before dinner. He wore his tan police uniform and had shoved a dish towel in his collar to keep the beef gravy off his pleated shirt. Annie noted that his underarms and waist were wet with perspiration. His holster and pistol hung from a peg on the wall, and he'd left his hat in his police car.
Annie inquired, "When do you think you'll be home?"
"Oh, you know better than to ask me that, honey buns." He rose. "Who the hell knows? This job's gettin' crazy. Drugs and fucked-up kids." He strapped on his holster.
Annie noticed that the gun belt was at the last notch, and if she had been mean-spirited, she would have offered to fetch a leather awl and make a new hole for him.
Cliff Baxter noticed her looking at his girth and said, "You feed me too damn good."
Of course it was her fault. She remarked, "You might ease up on the beer."
"You might ease up on your mouth."
She didn't reply. She was in no mood for a fight, especially over something she didn't care about.
She looked at her husband. For all his extra weight, he was still a good-looking man in many ways, with tanned, rugged features, a full head of thick brown hair, and blue eyes that had a little sparkle left. It was his looks and his body that had attracted her to him some twenty years before, along with his bad-boy charm and cockiness. He had been a good lover, at least by the standards of those days and this place. He'd turned out to be a passable father, too, and a good provider, rising quickly to chief of police. But he was not a good husband, though if you asked him, he'd say he was.
Cliff Baxter opened the screen door and said, "Don't bolt the doors like you did last time."
Last time, she thought, was nearly a year ago, and she'd done it on purpose, so he'd have to ring and knock to wake her. She was looking for a fight then but had gotten more than she'd bargained for. He'd come home that time after four A.M., and since then and before then, it was always around four, once or twice a week.
Of course his job required odd hours, and that alone was no cause for suspicion. But through other means and other sources, she'd learned that her husband fooled around.
Cliff trundled down the back steps and howled at their four dogs in the backyard. The dogs broke into excited barking and pawed at their chain-link enclosure. Cliff howled again, then laughed. To his wife he said, "Make sure you give them the scraps and let them run awhile."
Annie didn't reply. She watched him get into his chief's car and back out of the driveway. She closed the kitchen door and locked it but did not bolt it.
In truth, she reflected, there was no reason to even lock the door. Spencerville was a safe enough town, though people certainly locked their doors at night. The reason she didn't have to lock the door was that her husband had assigned police cars, nearly around the clock, to patrol Williams Street. His explanation: Criminals know where we live, and I don't want nobody hurting you. The reality: Cliff Baxter was insanely jealous, possessive, and suspicious.
Annie Baxter was, in effect, a prisoner in her own house. She could leave anytime, of course, but where she went and whom she saw came to the attention of her husband very quickly.
This was embarrassing and humiliating, to say the least. The neighbors on the neat street of Victorian homes—doctors, lawyers, businesspeople—accepted the official explanation for the eternal police presence with good grace. But they knew Cliff Baxter, so they knew what this was all about. "Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater," Annie said aloud for the millionth time, "had a wife but couldn't keep her. He put her in a pumpkin shell, and there he kept her very well." She added, "You bastard."
She went to the front door and looked out the leaded glass into the street. A Spencerville police cruiser rolled by and she recognized the driver, a young man named Kevin Ward, one of Cliff's favored fascists. She fantasized now and then about inviting Kevin Ward in for coffee, then seducing him. But maybe Cliff had someone watching Kevin Ward, probably in an unmarked car. She smiled grimly at her own paranoia, which was becoming as bad as her husband's. But in her case, the paranoia was well founded. In Cliff's case, it was not. Annie Baxter was sexually faithful. True, she didn't have much choice, but beyond that, she took her marriage vows seriously, even if her husband didn't. There were times, however, when she had urges that would have made her mother blush. Cliff's lovemaking came in spurts, followed by longer intervals of indifference. Lately, she welcomed the indifference.
The patrol car moved up the street, and Annie walked into the large living room. She sat in an armchair and listened to the grandfather clock ticking. Her son, Tom, had gone back to Columbus early, ostensibly to find a part-time job before school started, but in reality because Spencerville, and Williams Street in particular, had nothing to offer him for the summer, or for the rest of his life, for that matter. Her daughter, Wendy, was up at Lake Michigan with the church youth group. Annie had volunteered to be one of the chaperons, but Cliff had remarked smilingly, "Who's gonna chaperon you, darlin'?"
She looked around at the room that she'd decorated with country antiques and family heirlooms. Cliff had been both proud and sarcastic regarding her taste. She came from a far better family than he did, and at first she'd tried to minimize the dissimilarities in their backgrounds. But he never let her forget their social differences, pointing out that her family was all brains and good manners and no money, and his family had money even if they were a little rough around the edges. And brainless, Annie thought.
Cliff liked to show off the furnishings, show off his stuffed and mounted animals in the basement, his shooting trophies, his press clippings, his guns, his trophy house, and his trophy wife. Look but don't touch. Admire me and my trophies. Cliff Baxter was the classic collector, Annie thought, an anal compulsive personality who couldn't differentiate between a wife and a mounted deer head.
Annie recalled with amazement how proud she'd once been of her husband and her house, and how much hope and optimism she'd had as a young bride, building a life and a marriage. Cliff Baxter had been an attentive and courtly fiancé, especially in the months preceding their marriage. If Annie had any second thoughts about the engagement—which, in fact, she had—Cliff had given her no reason to break it off. But early in her marriage, she'd noticed that her husband was just going through the motions of marriage, keying off her in what he did and said. One day she realized with a sinking feeling that Cliff Baxter was not a charming rogue who was eager to be domesticated by a good woman, but was in fact a borderline sociopath. Soon, however, he lost interest in his half-hearted attempt to become normal. The only thing that kept him in line, kept him from going completely over the edge, she knew, was his official capacity as guardian of law and order. Spencerville had made the bad boy the hall monitor, and it worked for Spencerville and for the bad boy, but Annie lived in fear of what might happen if Cliff became a private citizen, without the prestige and accountability of office. She swore that the day he retired or was asked to step down, she'd run.
She thought of his gun collection: rifles, shotguns, pistols. Each and every weapon was locked in a rack the way a good cop would do. Most cops, however, probably all cops, gave their wife a key just in case there was an intruder. Cliff Baxter, though, did not give his wife a key. She knew how he thought: Cliff feared his wife would shoot him at four A.M. one morning and claim she mistook him for an intruder. There were nights when she stared at the locked weapons and wondered if she would actually put a pistol to her head or his head and pull the trigger. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the answer was no; but there had been moments…
She tilted her head back in the chair and felt the tears roll down her cheeks. The phone rang, but she didn't answer it.
She gathered the dinner scraps in a piece of newspaper and took them out to the kennel. She opened the wire gate and threw the scraps inside. Three of the four dogs—the German shepherd, the Doberman pinscher, and the Rottweiler—attacked the food. The fourth dog, a small gray mongrel, ran to Annie. She let the dog run out of the kennel and closed the gate.
Annie walked back to the house, the gray mongrel following her.
In the kitchen, she fed the dog raw hamburger, then poured herself a glass of lemonade, then went out to the big wrap-around porch and sat in the swing seat, her legs tucked under her, the gray mongrel beside her. It was cooling off, and a soft breeze stirred the old trees on the street. The air smelled like rain. She felt better in the fresh air.
Surely, she thought, there was a way out, a way that didn't pass through the town cemetery. Now that her daughter was about to start college, Annie realized that she couldn't put off making a decision any longer. If she ran, she thought, he'd probably grab her before she got out of town, and if she did manage to slip away, he'd follow. If she went to a lawyer in Spencer County, he'd know about it before she even got home. Cliff Baxter wasn't particularly liked or respected, but he was feared, and she could relate to that.
The patrol car passed again and Kevin Ward waved to her. She ignored him, and the dog barked at the police car.
Still, she thought, this was America, it was the twentieth century, and there were laws and protection. But instinctively, she knew that was irrelevant in her situation. She had to run, to leave her home, her community, and her family, and that made her angry. She would have preferred a solution more in keeping with her own standards of behavior, not his. She would like to tell him she wanted a divorce, and that she was moving in with her sister, and that they should contact lawyers. But Police Chief Baxter wasn't about to give up one of his trophies, wasn't about to be made a fool of in his town. He knew, without a word being said, that she wanted out, but he also knew, or thought he knew, that he had her safely under lock and key. He put her in a pumpkin shell. It was best to let him keep thinking that.
This summer night, sitting on the porch swing made her think of summer nights long ago when she was very happy and deeply in love with another man. There was a letter in her pocket and she pulled it out. By the light from the window behind her, she read the envelope again. She had addressed it to Keith Landry at his home address in Washington, and it had apparently been forwarded to someplace else where someone had put it in another envelope and mailed it back to her with a slip of paper that read: Unable to forward.
Keith had once written to her saying that if she ever received such a message, she should not try to write to him again. She would be contacted by someone in his office with a new address.
Annie Baxter was a simple country girl, but not that simple. She knew what he was telling her: If a letter was ever returned to her, he was dead, and someone in Washington would call or write to her regarding the circumstances.
It had been two days since the letter had been returned to her sister's address in the next county, where Keith sent all his letters to Annie.
Since then, Annie Baxter had feared answering her phone and feared seeing her sister's car pull up again with another letter, an official letter from Washington with a line or two beginning with, "We regret to inform you…"
But on second thought, why would they even bother with that? What was she to Keith Landry? A long-ago girlfriend, a sometimes pen pal. She hadn't seen him in over twenty years and had no expectation that she'd ever see him again.
But perhaps he'd instructed his people, whoever they were, to tell her if he died. Probably he wanted to be buried here with the generations of his family. He might, at this moment, she suddenly realized, be lying in Gibbs Funeral Home. She tried to convince herself it didn't matter that much; she was sad, but really how did it affect her? An old lover died, you heard the news, you became nostalgic and dwelled on your own mortality, you thought of younger days, you said a prayer, and you went on with your life. Maybe you went to the funeral service if it was convenient. It struck her then that if Keith Landry was dead, and if he was going to be buried in Spencerville, she could not possibly go to the service, nor, she thought, could she expect to sneak off to his grave someday without being seen by her constant police chaperons.
She petted the dog beside her. This was her dog—the other three were Cliff's. The dog jumped on her lap and snuggled against her as Annie scratched behind its ears. She said, "He's not dead, Denise. I know he's not dead."
Annie Baxter put her head down on the arm of the swing seat and rocked gently. Heat lightning flashed in the western sky and thunder rolled across the open cornfields, into the town, just ahead of the hard rain. She found herself crying again and kept thinking, We promised to meet again.
Keith Landry walked through the quiet farmhouse. Distant relatives had looked after the place, and it wasn't in bad shape considering it had been empty for five years.
Keith had called ahead to announce his arrival and had spoken to a woman on a nearby farm whom he called Aunt Betty, though she wasn't actually his aunt, but was his mother's second cousin, or something like that. He'd just wanted her to know in case she saw a light in the house, or a strange car, and so forth. Keith had insisted that neither she nor any other ladies go through any bother, but of course that had been like a call to arms—or brooms and mops—and the place was spotless and smelled of pine disinfectant.
Bachelors, Keith reflected, got a lot of breaks from the local womenfolk, who took inordinate pity on men without wives. The goal of these good women in caring for bachelors, Keith suspected, was to demonstrate the advantage of having a wife and helpmate. Unfortunately, the free cleaning, cooking, apple pies, and jams often perpetuated what they sought to cure.
Keith went from room to room, finding everything pretty much as he remembered when he'd seen it last about six years before. He had a sense of the familiar, but, at the same time, the objects seemed surreal, as if he were having a dream about his childhood.
- On Sale
- Jul 28, 2015
- Page Count
- 528 pages
- Grand Central Publishing