Adam Matheson stood by the front door of a sprawling beach house, and watched the elegantly-dressed guests part for his wife. Ignoring the stares, smiles, and proffered hands she slipped through the crowd quickly and cleanly, a skyscape of diaphanous silk trailing from her slender frame. As she approached him, he felt a burst of desire; but when she drew closer he saw that her eyes were not on his, but on the open door. Once again, he thought she might bound past him and disappear into the night.
“Damn, Adam,” breathed Jay Sheinkopf. “You are one lucky man.”
She stopped before them, her face impassive, and Jay rested his hand on her shoulder. “Great to see you, Luna,” he said. “Seriously, when are you going to ditch this guy and move in with me?”
Luna glanced at his hand, then gave him a level gaze. Adam grinned as he encircled her with his arm and ushered her away. “You keep trying, Jay,” he whispered, and winked.
The inside of the limousine was silent. Adam poured himself a Scotch as Luna lowered her window. “You didn’t say five words all night,” he said. “I didn’t think you were going to come out of the bathroom.”
“You know I hate those things,” she replied, her eyes on the passing streetlights.
Adam stared at the slope of her cheekbone, the curve of her shoulder, and ran a hand through his greying hair. “Tell you what,” he said. She turned toward him and he felt a rush of vertigo, a surge of all the emotions he had always claimed but never actually felt until he met her. “Let’s throw a benefit for the Sierra Club. Would you like that?”
He watched her anger subside, replaced by a coiled despondency that alarmed him. He silenced his buzzing phone.
“It’s not working, Adam,” she said. “I can’t deal with all these people. The parties and the questions and the media and your friends hitting on me all the time.”
Adam felt a sense of foreboding. “I’ll take care of it,” he said, reaching for her hand and kissing it. “I promise it will get better. We’ve only been married six months.”
She took a breath. ”You can have it annulled,” she said. “You don’t have to give me anything.”
Adam was proud of his mastery of facial expression and body language, two of the arsenal of skills he had used to amass his vast fortune. But suddenly, unthinkably, his grid went down. He felt his eyes widen, his lips part, and his hand clench tightly around hers. The car stopped, the door opened, and Roland Edwards — impossibly big, dark, and wearing a perfect suit — stood waiting. Luna slid out of the car and headed not for the ornate, wrought-iron front door of Cielo Azul, but for the stucco archway that led to the ten acres behind it.
“Wait!” said Adam.
A young man in khakis and a blazer stepped forward, holding a phone. “Mr. Matheson,” he said. “Don Besko. It’s urgent.”
“I’ll be ten minutes,” Adam said, touching her hand. “Please. Can we talk about it? Can you wait for me in the sun room?”
Luna hesitated. She glanced at the driver, at Roland, and at Adam’s assistant, all waiting; and at Adam, his dark eyes boring into hers. ”All right,” she said. Adam gave her a relieved smile, and she followed him into the house. Beneath the heavy chandelier he angled toward his office, and Luna turned and walked down the long hallway to the south wing. She passed a heavy oak door, and entered the sun room.
Discreet spotlights illuminated the soaring glass panels, the rare orchids, and the murmuring marble fountain. Luna crossed the room and gazed through the delicate glass door leading to the veranda. From where she stood she could see part of the enormous Spanish-style villa, the patio overlooking the ocean, and the stairway leading to the pool. Directly across the lawn Adam stood in his office, gesturing as he talked on the phone.
Luna briefly settled on a couch, then rose and circled the room. She trailed a hand through the fountain, and inspected a new orchid in its ornate pot. Finally she glanced at the clock and then at Adam, still framed by his office window. She started into the hallway and nearly ran into of one of Adam’s longtime security men, who was standing outside the door.
“Evening, Mrs. Matheson,” said Paszkiewicz, who was tall, solid, and wore a brown linen suit.
“Hi, Paz,” she answered. “Could you excuse me, please?”
Paszkiewicz’s broad face flushed slightly as he moved forward, nearly filling the doorway. “Would you mind waiting a few more minutes? Mr. Matheson said he’s very sorry for the delay, but he’ll be right with you.”
“I’ve waited long enough. Could I get by?”
Luna blinked, confused. She tried to squeeze between him and the door frame, but he shifted his weight.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” he said quietly, then reached for the door and pulled it shut.
She flinched at the click of the latch. Turning on her heels, she crossed the room and reached for the glass door. It was locked. She turned the twist button and tried the knob once more, to no avail. Her stomach clutched as she tried to recall what Adam had said about the automatic locking system.
Luna scanned the empty room. Her adrenaline rose like a wave, and a sheen of sweat appeared on her skin. When she rattled the knob the sound screamed around her, thudding against her chest and blocking the air from her lungs. Seizing an antique chair, she swung it against the door. The glass shattered into an icy cascade, and the broken chair sailed into the night. Shards and splinters fell to the stone patio as Luna slipped from the room, her ethereal dress floating behind her.
• • •
Celia Jenkins sat in the office of the Western Pennsylvania Wildlife Center, staring at the computer screen and curling a strand of pale hair around her finger. The newsletter was due. The 638 people on her donor list were waiting for her stories about orphaned fawns, rescued raccoons, birds injured, healed, and set free; for news of just-completed cages, recently-won grants, and second-hand medical equipment topped with bows and left at the clinic door; for tales of panic-stricken people who found themselves racing up the long dirt driveway with something alive in a box, unaware of how their lives might be about to change.
Do you think this is any good, Dad? she had asked him six years before. Do you think if I wrote one a couple of times a year, we might get some donations?
Lord, Celia! Elias had replied, astonished, looking up from her computer. I didn’t know you could write like that!
Celia knew she should get to work, but instead she left the office and headed up the hill toward their biggest flight cage. Twelve feet high, twelve feet wide, and a hundred feet long, it had been built with donated lumber and erected by revolving groups of volunteers, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, Audubon and Lions Club members, even minimumsecurity prisoners on work programs. The splendid slatted structure was for two unreleasable Bald Eagles, a bonded pair who had raised orphaned eaglets four out of the last five years.
The eaglets were delivered by wildlife rehabilitators as far away as Maine, all happy to make the drive knowing the orphans would be raised by their own kind. By summer’s end they were as large as their foster parents, and had learned to catch the live fish volunteers supplied in rubber tubs. The young eagles were skillful, strong, and healthy, and every year dozens of people met at one of the lakes to watch them fly away.
Celia peered into the flight cage, at the two regal birds resting side by side on a high perch. From her own perch on the hill Celia could see the office, the clinic, the pens, the smaller flights, and the storage sheds. She gave a contented sigh. It was rare for her to be here alone, but her daughter, father, and all eight of the Sunday volunteers were at the wildlife festival in Ellington. So far this year there had been no orphaned eaglets. She smiled up at the birds, wondering if they were enjoying their solitary tranquility, as well.
Celia heard the sound of an engine, and opened her eyes as a black Suburban rolled to a stop by the office. Two men in suits emerged from the front seat, and two men in jeans from the back. The men in suits spotted and started toward her.
Celia scrambled to her feet. “Ms. Jenkins?” asked the first, a white-haired man in sunglasses. “We’re here on behalf of Adam Matheson.”
“We’re here for the male eagle,” said the second, who was young and tanned. “Here are the papers.”
Celia watched the two men in jeans pull out a large animal crate, a heavy, longhandled net, and two pairs of elbow-length leather gloves. She felt sick with dread, and cursed herself for believing she could handle the center alone. “No!” she shouted, but when her voice emerged it was little more than a whisper.
“No,” she tried again, staring at the papers. “You can’t have him! It’s not legal!”
The younger man regarded her coldly. The two men in jeans passed by, carrying the crate between them.
“Sign here, please,” said the older man, handing her a pen. Behind her, the flight cage door opened with a soft creak.
“No! I’m calling the police!”
Celia reached a trembling hand into her pocket, but her phone was on the office desk. The high perch groaned, and there was a rush of feathers. Celia peered through the wooden slats as a huge dark bird hurtled toward one of the men in jeans, the man raising his net in defense but not in time. Swinging its legs forward, talons outstretched, the eagle slammed into the man’s shoulder and knocked him off his feet.
“Stop!” sobbed Celia and ran for the door, but the young suited man blocked her way. Tears blurred her vision as she stumbled down the hill and into her office. She seized her phone, shaking so violently she dropped it twice, misdialing as through her window she saw the flight cage door swing open. The men in jeans emerged, carrying the animal crate between them; one’s shirt stained crimson, the other with a bleeding gash on the side of his face.
“911,” came the dispatcher’s voice.
The white-haired man leaned in the door. “Thank you for your cooperation, Ms. Jenkins,” he said, and Celia wept as they drove away.
• • •
“Dammit,” murmured Luna, as three-quarters of a pound of regurgitated mackerel landed on the lap of her cotton pants.
The otherwise healthy adult Brown Pelican had come in with a broken humerus, mid-shaft, perfectly fixable. He had been found dragging a wing along Schooner’s Cove by a family from Vermont, a can-do group of five who had each manned a beach towel and eventually cornered and tackled the very large bird. They had sensibly wrapped one towel around his beak, another around his wings, and sandwiched him in the back seat of their car. The mom had located Starfish Key Wildlife Center on her cellphone, and the dad had driven like a bandit.
Miss? the smaller girl had asked, her face aglow with concern. Will you take care of him and make him better?
Yes, Luna had replied, then x-rayed, set, and wrapped the broken wing. Two days later the patient was better, but unable to keep his food down. “Hey, Kelly?” called Luna. “This guy needs a shot of Reglan. You have any? He’s 3.7 kilos.”
“Hang on,” came a voice.
Kelly appeared, wiry and sunburned, her sandy hair just turning grey. She gave the bird the injection while Luna held him gently but firmly. “Listen,” said Kelly. “I know you said a week, but you can stay with me as long as you want.” She grinned. “And not just because you rock at pelicans.”
At two o’clock Luna collapsed onto one of the Adirondack chairs behind the wildlife center. She tossed her baseball cap onto a nearby table, put her feet up, and closed her eyes. Immediately her thoughts turned to Adam, and to where she would go from here.
She opened her eyes to find Kelly standing next to a man. He was brown-haired, ponytailed, and wore horn-rimmed glasses, shorts and a t-shirt. He stood with his hands in his pockets, slouching and looking noncommittal. “This is Ned,” said Kelly. “Potential volunteer. Can you quiz him? I got a beached dolphin on Vero.”
She disappeared, and Luna gestured to the chair beside her. Ned sat down on the edge, glanced at her briefly, then stared at the palm tree in the yard. Luna waited, but the man stayed silent. “Have you worked with wildlife before?” she asked finally.
“Because.” The man frowned at her. “You look familiar,” he said.
“Is that your roadster out there in the parking lot? I thought animal people didn’t have any money.”
Luna gave an exasperated sigh. “Why do you want to work here?”
The man grimaced, as if he were about to do something he truly didn’t want to do. “Because wildlife are valuable…and free…and filled with free…things…and they have wild lives…and…”
Luna held up a restraining hand. Ned removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes.
“Is this a condition of your parole?” she asked.
“Too many speeding tickets? Part of your community service?”
“You work for one of those high-tech computer companies that are all touchy-feely and have gyms and day-care centers and don’t want their staff to be a bunch of nerds with no social skills, so they require everyone to do volunteer work.”
Ned pointed an affirmative index finger at her. “Listen,” he said. “I’m not exactly an animal person. I mean, I have nothing against them. Except for birds. I don’t like birds.”
“Then why volunteer here?”
“Because I drew the short straw!”
He gave her a pained look. “I’m not criticizing you or anything,” he added, “but there’s this really nasty smell coming from your pants.”
She grinned. “You seriously have no social skills, do you?”
“None,” said Ned, shaking his head. “Sorry. I have none.”
“Welcome to the world of wildlife,” said Luna. “We’re the poster group for people with no social skills.”
The new volunteer spent the afternoon industriously cleaning empty aquariums, having preferred it to unpacking the just-delivered boxes of live mealworms. “Live worms?” he’d asked, in a tone that made her respond, “Never mind,” and lead him to the outdoor shower with the hose attachment.
Later that afternoon she pulled a ringing phone from her pocket. “Harper?” she said, after glancing at the screen.
“New arrival,” came a woman’s voice, clearly angry. “It’s Mars.”
“What?” said Luna.
“He’s here at the zoo. Just came in. Adam sent a crew to Celia’s, and they took him.”
“What do you mean, ‘they took him?’ They can’t just…”
“Two lawyers, two handlers. They timed it so Celia was the only one there. You know Celia, she practically had a breakdown.”
“Is he all right?”
“Mars?” asked Harper, and snorted. “He ripped them up. Nearly took the eye out of one of them.”
Luna hurried out of the building. “But why did Adam take him?” she asked, her fingers digging into her palms. “What’s he going to do with him?”
“Evidently he’s your welcome home present. I gotta go. Do something!”
Luna disconnected, and a bead of sweat trickled down her back. She tapped her phone again. After three rings, there was a faint click.
“I’m in a meeting, can you give me a second? I’ll be right with you.”
His voice was low and modulated, unlike the staccato bark he used when things weren’t going his way. This was the voice he used to soothe, to reassure, to convey the illusion that even though he held all the cards, he was still, somehow, on your side.
“What have you done?”
“I brought Mars down to see you. I thought it would make you happy.”
“Are you kidding?”
“Babe — you’ve been gone almost a week. I gave you your space, just like you asked. I haven’t called you, I sent you your things. How else can I show you I’m sorry? It was a miscommunication. A system fail. You know I’d never lock a door on you.” He paused. “And I’m still completely in the dark, I have no idea why you would…”
“You took Mars,” she interrupted, gripping her phone.
“I took him for you. He’s right here. Just come home, and you can see him.” Luna stood immobile, her eyes on the sliver of ocean just visible beyond the sandy yard.
“I’ll be there tomorrow morning.”
“Oh, that’s great,” said Adam warmly. “I’m so glad. I can’t wait to see you.” Luna hung up, a fiery ember in the pit of her stomach. Her expression darkened. She spun toward the clinic and nearly banged into Ned, who took a quick step backward.
“I need a big car!” she snapped.
“I, uh…I have a big car,” he stammered.
• • •
At midnight Ned eased to a stop by the southeast entrance of Cielo Azul. He had no idea why he had agreed to meet this crazy animal person outside the compound of Florida’s wealthiest financier, any more than he knew why he had agreed to volunteer at a home for wounded iguanas, or wherever he’d spent his whole stupid afternoon.
“Neddy, honey,” his mother had said during her last visit. “I don’t want to keep sounding like a broken record, but you’re twenty-six. You need to get out more.”
Maybe after he told her about this little foray, she’d leave him alone.
He rested his arm on his car’s open window. Beyond the property’s eight-foot wall, the roofline of a huge Spanish-style villa seemed to ripple in the moonlight. Adam Matheson was in his mid-fifties, charismatic, wildly successful, and, so it was said, very much a dick. Ned puzzled over the connection between the famous financier and the smelly young woman who had ranted for twenty minutes about plastic six-pack holders and their effect on marine life.
Luna and a second woman struggled toward him, each carrying a duffel bag and one end of an enormous covered box. As they placed the box on the ground, Luna regarded Ned’s car with astonishment.
The classic old Cadillac convertible was impossibly long, sleek, and low. The forward-canted, stacked dual headlights made it look like it was in motion, even though it was parked. It rested by the curb like an elegantly grounded battleship, its dark blue paint pristine, its shining hubcaps encircled by spotless whitewalls, its massive front grille buffed to a high sheen.
“Wow!” she whispered. “What year?”
“1968 de Ville,” Ned whispered back, relieved to see she’d changed her clothes.
“472 cubic inch V-8 Turbo Hydra-Matic, 4-barrel carburetor with a ….”
“Would you two shut up about the fucking car?” hissed the other woman. “I’ve got exactly four minutes before all hell breaks loose! This is not going to fit through the door, can you put the top down?”
“But what’s in there?”
The two women exchanged looks. “Top down,” growled the woman. She was very tall and solid and wore a ferocious expression, so he opened the locks, flipped the switch, and the roof folded neatly into place. The women lifted the box onto the back seat, then tossed the two duffel bags onto the floor.
“Thank you, Harper,” whispered Luna, giving the woman a tight hug. “I love you. I owe you.”
“Damn straight you owe me,” replied Harper, kissed her on the cheek, and returned to the compound. Luna slid onto the front seat beside Ned.
“Hit it,” she ordered.
“Wait a minute,” he said, frowning. “Did you just steal something? Because I know who lives in there — it’s Adam Matheson, and he’s a major big shot, so if…”
“Will you go?” she snapped. “And no sharp turns.”
Ned crossed his arms, steeled himself, and gazed into her blazing blue eyes. “No. I’m not going anywhere until you tell me what’s in that box.”
The sound of an alarm pierced the night. Luna flinched, then seized his arm in an iron grip. Oh God, thought Ned. She’s going to eat me.
Instead she loosened her grip, clasped her hands in prayer, and lowered her voice until it was ragged and husky. “Please, Ned — it’s a living being in need of help! Please! I’m begging you!”
A police siren wailed. From within the crate came the sound of a heavy thud. Ned winced, and stepped on the gas.
• • •
The covered box sat innocently in a corner of Ned’s living room.
He had continued to circle Key West long after it became clear that Luna had no plan. Silently he rehearsed questions, then rejected them as potential sources of conflict. I used to work for Adam Matheson, okay? she had finally blurted. And what’s in that box does not belong to him.
He stood in his apartment a few feet from the box, daring himself to walk over and lift the cover. He watched Luna slide the plastic-wrapped contents of a duffel bag into the refrigerator, envisioning health inspectors arriving in the morning and wrapping the entire appliance with biohazard tape.
“This is nice!” she said, standing in the doorway and surveying the minimalist twobedroom. “How long have you lived here?”
“What’s in the box?” he replied. “And what did you just put in my refrigerator?”
“Can I use your bathroom?” she asked.
Ned watched the door close. Cursing his inability to bend women to his will, he went into his bedroom. When he returned, Luna looked up from the couch and smiled. He held up a freshly printed photograph of her in a silver evening gown and a million dollars’ worth of emeralds, hand in hand with a handsome, tuxedoed man. Her smile disappeared.
“Bet you didn’t get that job on Craigslist,” he said.
Luna sighed. “It’s not like I lied to you,” she said. “I did work for him. And then I… you know. Married him.”
Ned grimaced. “How old is that guy?”
“Listen,” she said haltingly. “I can’t…it’s just that…”
She stopped, and a flush rose to her cheeks. Ned watched silently, unsure if she was about to burst into tears or demolish his apartment. She crossed the room, unzipped one of the duffel bags and pulled on an elbow-length leather glove. “You’ll understand when you see him,” she said, as she knelt in front of the box and reached inside. “Don’t worry, he’s really gentle.”
Ned’s blood turned cold. Gracefully she rose, her glove gripped by the bear clawsized talons of an enormous Bald Eagle. The bird spread its dark wings, turned its snowy head, and raked him with malevolent yellow eyes. The room spun, and Ned dropped to the floor.
When he regained consciousness, his head was cradled by a pillow and there was a glass of water by his side. He sat up and gazed at the slight, curly-haired woman wearing cargo pants and a t-shirt, a silver bead on a leather cord hanging from her neck. As she rested her cheek against the razor-sharp beak of a bird the size of a St. Bernard, her husky half-whisper sent a pang through his heart. “It’s okay,” she told the eagle. “It’ll be all right.”
Delicately she stroked the massive creature’s chest feathers. “Ned,” she said. “I need to take him to a safe place. Can you get us out of here?”
Holy shit, he thought. I’m heading for a road trip with Adam Matheson’s wife and her stolen pterodactyl.