Mulheisen was much older than she looked, a bird-like
woman. It was the tightness of the deeply tanned
skin on her face, which hardly seemed wrinkled,
until you looked closely. Then you could see a
very fine network of tiny crosshatchings,
as if drawn with a super-fine nib using faint
sepia tone ink.
She was eighty if she was a day, but she was very
agile, with hardly a trace of creakiness
in her gait, and she dressed as if she were a
younger woman, in well-tailored slacks, an oxford
cloth shirt and a navy blue cashmere blazer. She
wore cordovan walking shoes, the kind of oddly
formal shoes that one might see at English hunt
weekends -- waxed and brushed to a dull sheen.
The hands always give it away. Hers looked too
large and knotty, mottled with pale blotches and
bony, the nails too thick. She fumbled for her
reading glasses, which reposed in the breast
pocket of the blazer.
Interestingly, her eyesight had remarkably improved
with age. When she was sixteen she had begun to
have trouble in school because of her eyes. Her
mother had been reluctant to send her to the optometrist.
In those days, a girl wearing spectacles was considered
doomed to spinsterhood. But Cora laughed at her
mother's fears. She loved her new glasses. She
thought the tortoise-shell frames made her look
sophisticated and intelligent. And the doctor
had told her that, if nothing else went wrong
with her eyesight, when she got older her myopia
would be countered by a natural astigmatism.
"You'll trade your specs in for reading glasses,"
he said. And so it proved.
She had largely given up regular glasses nearly
thirty years ago, not long after she had belatedly
discovered the joys of birdwatching. She had struggled
with binoculars, initially. They were clumsy and
she couldn't focus fast enough to spot the bird.
It was the glasses -- they got in the way and
one was too conscious of them. But as her distance
vision improved she found that she could dispense
with the glasses and now she was able to see birds
and their distinguishing features even without
binoculars, except at great distances, of
course. And, of course, as one becomes more and
more familiar with the birds, one learns to recognize
them by a whole host of signs, such as shape or
form, size, posture, general behavior, and so
on -- one "knows" instinctively
what species a bird is, to a degree. In fact,
she was the one to whom her fellow birders invariably
looked for verification of a bird's identity.
They would peer at a bird and say, tentatively,
"Marsh Wren ... I think?" And wait for
her to say, "I think you'll find it's a Sedge
But the other part of the doctor's prediction
also proved true: her close vision declined. Now,
she held the reading glasses up to the light to
see if the lenses were too murky, then perched
them on her beaky nose. She looked around her
seat for the bag in which she carried her papers.
Before her was a low dais on which several men
sat, behind microphones. One of them was reading
from a sheaf of papers. An American flag stood
off to one side. Cora ignored what the man was
saying, searching for her bag. After a moment,
however, it was obvious that it was not with her.
She leaned over to her neighbor, a middle-aged
man in a tweed jacket, and whispered, "I've
forgotten my questions."
He frowned. "Oh, dear," he said. "Are
you sure? Perhaps you left them in the bus."
"That's what I mean," she said, nodding.
"I left them in the bus. I'll just run out
and get them. Won't be a minute."
The man nodded and Cora eased out of her row,
one of several rows of folding chairs in this
public room, most of them occupied by people who
were listening to the droning speaker, or themselves
rummaging through papers.
When Cora exited the room she realized right away
that the first thing she ought to do was go to
the bathroom. A policeman was standing in the
hallway, evidently assigned to this municipal
building, the site of the mayor's office, the
council chambers, as well as courtrooms and hearing
rooms. Cora asked the policeman where the
public toilets were and he escorted her down the
hallway a few feet and pointed toward the sign
She turned to thank him and, at the same time,
noticed a young man being brought along the corridor,
evidently a prisoner, dressed in an orange coverall,
his hands behind him as if in restraints. He was
guided by two uniformed policemen, accompanied
by a couple of men in sport coats who she was
sure were detectives. Cora's son was a detective,
though not in this suburb of Detroit. The
group stopped outside a door, before which was
a sign on a stand describing it as the courtroom
of a Judge Ed DePeau.
The policeman who had assisted her also watched
the men outside the courtroom and lifted his hand
to acknowledge the other officers, who nodded
at him. Cora smiled at this but paid no further
attention and turned back toward the restroom.
She was abruptly confronted with a man who issued
from the "Men."
"Oops, pardon me, ma'am," he said. He
held her by the arms to avoid crashing into her.
"Are you all right?"
"Oh, I'm fine, thank you," Cora said.
The man looked over her shoulder intently, staring
down the corridor toward the courtroom. He was
a tall, nice-looking man wearing a Filson hat,
one of those rakish waterproof canvas affairs
that were popular with outdoorsmen. He seemed
to her to be a youthful sixty, with the weathered
face of a birdwatcher. She supposed he was with
her group, or some related group, protesting the
proposed draining of the Wards Lake marsh, but
she had never seen him before.
He glanced down at her, still holding her stick-thin
upper arms, in fact gripping them more tightly,
as he suddenly blurted, in a low, but intense
voice, "Get out of this! Now!" And then
he released her and hurried away with long strides.
Cora stared after his back, astonished. But then
she called after him, indignantly, "But what
about Ammodramus nelsoni?"
But the man was gone, around a corner. Cora took
a deep breath, recovered her composure and strolled
on to the "Ladies". Whatever this agitated
gentleman was about, she refused to hurry. She
knew the men on the dais would be talking for
many more minutes before they allowed questions
from the floor. She had plenty of time. She would
protest the destruction of the habitat of Nelson's
Sharp-tailed Sparrow, and no snippy anti-environmentalist
could stop her.
Still, the encounter had startled her. She retained
a vivid impression of the man's face, his dark
eyebrows, the strong nose and firm chin, the glow
of his eyes.
What was his problem?, she wondered. Well, she'd
no doubt hear from him when she got back. She
attended to her needs quickly and then went out.
The group by the courtroom had evidently gone
She walked out the front door of the municipal
building and down the broad walkway toward the
street. There was a drive that ran closely along
the front of the building, separated from the
not very busy street by a broad grassy median
which was bounded by curbs. This drive was no
longer accessible to the automobiles of the
general public, being blocked at either end by
heavy steel barriers, manned by police -- a consequence
of the new and heightened security that the public
now endured, ostensibly because of terrorism.
Cora thought: This was the world we had to live
The municipal building, a rather modern structure
with tall expanses of tinted glass and immense
wooden posts and beams, stood at the end of a
broad avenue. A cross street passed in front of
the building. As a further safety measure, a series
of heavy pre-cast concrete traffic dividers, tapered
from broad bases to narrow tops, about four feet
high and six feet long, had been arranged along
the median between the drive and the cross street.
This was not part of the original design, to protect
pedestrians from errant drivers -- some iron
posts had been sunk into the concrete of the walk
to accomplish this purpose -- but to prevent a
motorized attack from the avenue. Cora, like most
of the citizenry in this area, thought
it was ridiculous and unnecessary. This suburban
government building was hardly a terrorist
target. This was just public officials going through
the motions of being security conscious, or perhaps,
taking themselves rather too seriously.
But she spent no time on this thought, instead
looking about for the bus. It had been granted
a special permit to enter the drive, for the convenience
of debarking passengers, and it had been allowed
to park and wait there. It stood close by the
entry to the building, at the head of a line
of other vehicles, which appeared to be police
vehicles, including the van from the county
jail, which she noticed. Presumably, that was
how the prisoner she'd seen had been transported.
Usually, her group travelled to these meetings
in a yellow school bus that they rented from a
company in her town, which was a different suburb
of Detroit, miles away on the eastern edge of
the vast Detroit metropolitan area. But for some
reason, this morning the bus company had provided
them with a much larger and fancier bus, which
was welcomed because it was a warm day and this
bus was air-conditioned. It was more of an inter-city
bus, suitable for the highway, with comfortable
There was another line of the waist-high pre-cast
concrete dividers between the drive and sidewalk
that ran along the front of the building, but
the bus had been drawn up next to the barriers.
The old woman went up to the very front of the
bus and rapped on the glass to get the attention
of the driver, who was watching the activity of
a large industrial machine, a noisy piece of heavy
equipment. It was a front loader, she thought,
and it nosed around the segments of concrete barriers
next to the street like a monstrous yellow elephant,
shoving them this way and that. It wasn't clear
just what the operator was up to, and she supposed
that was what was occupying the attention of the
The driver turned at last, saw her, and opened
the door with a hiss of hydraulics. He was a pleasant,
heavy-set black man wearing a nice black suit
with a white shirt and red tie that could almost
be a uniform, but wasn't, quite. He had introduced
himself to the group when they had boarded, as
John Larribee. He had a neatly trimmed black moustache,
which the old woman liked, and he wore dark aviator
glasses. He was bald, which she also liked.
"Mr. Larribee," she said, speaking up
to where he sat at the wheel of the bus. Cool
air wafted out to her. He had arisen from his
seat and took a step down to help her up. "Thank
you. I just need to find my bag. I'm afraid I
left it in my seat."
"Yes, ma'am," Larribee said. "Can
I help you look for it?"
"No thanks. I'm sure I can find it."
She went past him toward the back of the bus.
She found her bag, checked it quickly, finding
her papers within, and returned to the front.
"Now what the devil is he up to?" Larribee
said, looking out at the street.
"What is it?" Cora asked, peering around
"That guy's flattened all them posts and
he's shifting them barriers," Larribee said.
"And he ain't doing a very neat job of it.
They must be gonna put some permanent barrier
Then, as they both watched, the front loader roared
and lunged forward, shoving the barriers completely
aside, one of them actually tumbling sideways
into the street. The machine ran on down the sidewalk
at an unusually fast pace.
"Holy shit!" Larribee yelled. He turned
to the old woman and shouted, "Get off! Get
off! Get away!" He actually pushed at her.
The old woman stumbled down the steps of the bus,
missed her footing and fell to one side, actually
tumbling over and behind the barrier. She landed
in an awkward and painful bump on her shoulder.
In her amazement, the only thing she noticed
was that the bus suddenly lurched ahead, blocking
the entrance to the municipal building. A moment
later, the bus was struck with a tremendous crash
by something heavy and it leaned precipitously
over toward the fallen woman. It hung there for
a moment, then toppled sideways, crashing against
the concrete barriers behind which the old woman
was sprawled. Then there was a brilliant flash
and a roaring noise even louder than the smashing
and breaking tumult of the bus. She lost consciousness.
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