Cammy in the night, on the lawn, playing with Puzzle and Riddle, astonished by their eyes, enraptured by the mystery of them, laughing with delight: Grady had never known a finer moment in his life.
In his hotel room in Las Vegas, Lamar Woolsey dreamed, but not of his lost wife, Estelle.
He dreamed of a casino so vast that he could not see as far as any wall. From the gold-leafed ceiling depended an infinite number of perfectly aligned chandeliers swagged with symmetrical ropes of crystal beads, each great lamp icicled with exactly the same number of crystal pendants in precisely the same arrangement.
Under this exquisitely ordered ceiling, he sat at a blackjack table with three other players: a one-eyed woman, a one-armed man, and a nine-year-old boy with one missing front tooth.
The woman wore a low-cut dress and repeatedly withdrew black hundred-dollar chips from between her ample breasts. Each time that she put them on the table, they transformed into black beetles and scurried across the green felt, much to the dealer’s annoyance.
Every time the one-armed man received a card, he looked at it and in disgust threw it angrily at the dealer, who then dealt it to the boy. The boy didn’t know the rules of the game and kept asking, “Has anyone seen my sister? Does anyone know where she’s gone?”
The six-deck shoe contained ordinary playing cards but also tarot cards and picture cards from a children’s game. Regardless of what Lamar drew, he won. A six of diamonds and a rabbit holding an umbrella: winner. The tarot hangman and an eight of hearts: winner.
When Lamar’s winnings had grown sizeable, the one-eyed woman said, “There’s the Pipp boy.”
Glancing at the gap-toothed child who sat farther around the elliptical table, Lamar said, “That’s not Marcus. Not him at all.”
“Over there,” she said, “at the roulette wheel.”
The roulette game lay behind them, not in their line of sight. Turning on his stool, Lamar saw Marcus Pipp where she said he was.
Lamar left the table with his winnings in a chip rack, intending to give everything to Marcus. By the time he got to the roulette game, Marcus had gone.
The roulette table was one in an infinite row of them. Surveying the casino, Lamar saw Marcus four tables away and hurried toward him.
Rotors spun, balls danced and clattered, and croupiers called the results, which suddenly were the same: “Double zero … double zero … double zero … double zero. …”
The dream didn’t descend into a full-blown nightmare, but it became a drama of fleeting promise and enduring frustration. Table after table, Lamar pursued Marcus but couldn’t reach him or catch his attention. Later, glimpsing him in the slot-machine maze, Lamar sought to intercept him without success. Later still, he spotted Marcus at a craps table, then at others, but Marcus drifted away.
Dead in reality, alive in the dream, Marcus Pipp was in both cases outward bound and beyond contact.
During the walk into town, Tom Bigger worked up an appetite.
At a convenience store that offered prepackaged deli creations, he bought a submarine sandwich, a bag of potato chips, and a sixteen-ounce bottle of Coke.
A couple of customers shied away from him. The clerk had served him before, however; she took some of his panhandled money and gave him change without saying a word to him, without glancing at his face.
In a nearby park, under an old iron lamppost that provided more atmosphere than light, Tom sat on a bench that looked out onto the street. He watched the passing traffic as he ate.
Behind the bench rose an enormous phoenix palm. During the lulls in traffic, he could hear rats agitating one another in their nest high in the crown of the tree.
Tom didn’t have much overhead, but panhandling alone couldn’t pay for his needs. Every other month, he took a bus to the nearest city and, working at night, stole enough to cover his expenses.
Primarily, he burglarized suburban homes where a lack of lights and a few days’ of newspapers scattered on the driveway suggested he would not risk coming face-to-face with a homeowner.
If he found a likely target walking alone on a lonely street, he robbed him at gunpoint. Tom’s face and the pistol turned even strapping young men into situational pacifists.
The gun wasn’t loaded. He didn’t trust himself with cartridges.
He never worried that in a frenzy of self-hatred he might kill himself. Suicide required either more courage than he possessed or more despair than afflicted him.
His hatred was directed inward, his rage outward. With bullets in the weapon, he would sooner or later kill somebody.
From experience, he knew that once he indulged in a vice, that indulgence became a habit, then an obsession. Murder would be no less addictive than tequila or weed, or the other drugs that he consumed so recklessly when he could get them.
He was a lot of things, none of them good. He dreaded adding murderer to the list of words that described him.
As he ate the sandwich, his mind reeled back more than once to the incident in the bluff-top rest area.
Initially, he had been astonished. Astonishment turned to shock that rendered him bewildered and emotionally numb. On the walk from his cave to the town, numbness relented to a creeping disquiet.
Watching the passing traffic, Tom saw a bumper sticker that proclaimed I STOP SUDDENLY JUST FOR THE HELL OF IT.
Across the street, a multiplex was playing a movie about the end of the world.
In memory, he heard a fragment of what at the time had seemed to be a perpetual argument, conflict without end.
“Why are you doing this, Tommy?”
“Just for the hell of it.”
“You’re throwing away your life, your future.”
“There isn’t a future. It’s the end of the world.”
“It isn’t the end of the world.”
“Bastards like you are the ones destroying it.”
“How can you talk to me like that?”
“How can you be the shit you are?”
The fitful breeze brought a handbill to his feet. In the wan lamplight he saw that it was for a restaurant called Magic Pizza.
After a moment of consideration, he carried the handbill, the sandwich wrapper, the empty bag of potato chips, and the half-empty bottle of Coke to the nearest trash can and threw everything away.
He needed a joint of sinsemilla. Local authorities were tolerant of the discreet use of pot. He took the tin of hand-rolleds from his backpack, fished a joint from the supply, and put the tin away.
Deeper in the park, he found a more secluded bench.
He had a butane lighter. He struck the flame but didn’t light the joint.
If he smoked one, he would smoke a second, perhaps a third. He would wash away the pot taste with tequila. In the morning, he would wake up behind a screen of bushes, with dirt matted in his beard stubble and spiders in his hair.
The creeping disquiet inspired by the incident on the bluff was growing into a motivating apprehension.
He put away the lighter. Instead of returning the joint to the stash in the tin, he shredded it in his fingers and scattered it on the breeze.
This action so surprised him that for a moment he seined the air with his fingers, trying to recapture the debris that he’d cast away an instant earlier.
Already, the disquiet that thickened into apprehension was further thickening into dread.
While he’d been eating a late dinner on the first bench, he was given signs from which he deduced where he must go. He suspected that time was running out for him to do what he must do.
The thought of riding for three hours in a bus chilled him. If this weight of dread became too heavy, he would feel oppressed in a bus. Claustrophobia would overwhelm him.
Intuition told him to begin the journey on foot. He set out for the coastal highway.
After watching Merlin drink from his large water bowl, Puzzle and Riddle attended Grady’s preparations with interest as he chose two bowls from a cabinet and filled each with cold water from the kitchen tap.
As she extracted the memory stick from Grady’s camera and tucked it in a side compartment of her medical bag to take home, Cammy said, “Neither of us seems to want to speculate.”
“About what do you think?”
“You said earlier—you do medicine, you don’t do theory.”
“Speculation isn’t theory,” she said. “It’s not even up to the level of hypothesis. It’s just blue-skying. It’s what-if, if-maybe, could-it-be stuff.”
“I don’t want to speculate about them.”
“That’s what I just said. Neither of us wants to speculate.”
“All right, then. Good. We’re agreed.”
“But why do you think that is?”
He said, “I don’t do self-analysis.”
She watched him put the two bowls of water on the floor.
Immediately, Puzzle and Riddle went to the bowls, lowered their heads to the water, smelled it, and drank.
Cammy said, “I think the reason we don’t want to speculate about them is because most of the what-ifs we come up with are likely to be scary, one way or another.”
“There’s nothing scary about Puzzle and Riddle.”
“I didn’t say there was. I just said speculating about their origins is going to lead to some scary what-ifs.”
“Right now I just want to experience them,” Grady said. “If I think too much about what they might be, that’s going to color how I interpret their behavior.”
Watching the animals drink, Merlin seemed to strike a proud pose, as if they were good students to whom he had successfully imparted the right technique for drinking from a bowl.
“Anyway,” Cammy said, “you can’t know for sure there’s nothing scary about them.”
“There’s nothing scary about them,” he insisted.
“Not now, they’re as cute as Muppets now, but maybe later when the lights are off and you’re asleep, that’s when they reveal their true grotesque form.”
“You don’t really believe that’s a possibility.”
“No. It’s a what-if, but it’s a ridiculous what-if.”
“Anyway, they’re a lot cuter than Muppets,” he said. “Some Muppets creep me out. Nothing about these two creeps me out.”
“Muppets creep you out? Freud would find that interesting.”
“Not all Muppets creep me out. Just a few.”
“Surely not Kermit.”
“Of course not Kermit. But Big Bird’s a freak.”
“He’s a freak?”
“A total freak.”
As predictably steady, reliable, and self-contained as Grady might be, his conversation could take unpredictable deadpan turns. Cammy liked that. He was smart and amusing, but he was safe.
“Big Bird,” she said. “Is that why you don’t have a TV?”
“It’s one of the reasons.”
Riddle and then Puzzle finished drinking. They sat up on their haunches like a couple of giant prairie dogs, folded their hands on their bellies, and regarded Grady with expectation.
“Maybe they’re hungry,” Cammy suggested.
“They already ate three chicken breasts. And as far as I know, they ate the pan, too.”
“You don’t know these guys are the chicken thieves. There might be another factor—whoever went in your workshop, the garage, whoever switched on the lights.”
“See, this is why I make furniture.”
“What’s furniture got to do with it?”
“When I make furniture, I don’t have to think. My hands do all the thinking for me.”
“Even if Puzzle and Riddle did eat the chicken,” Cammy said, “maybe that’s the only thing they’ve had to eat all day. You don’t want to send them to bed hungry.”
“Because they might eat me alive in the middle of the night? Problem is, I don’t have any more chicken.”
“Give them some of Merlin’s kibble, see if they like it.”
“If I pour bowls of kibble for them, I’ll have to give Merlin some, and he’s already had all he should have for one day.”
“Merlin isn’t fat. You’d have to dole out kibble with a shovel to overfeed him. Give him a bowl, let him celebrate his new friends.”
“They do look like they expect something. Maybe you’re right, maybe they’re hungry.”
He kept forty pounds of Science Diet in the pantry—twenty pounds in a large aluminum can with an airtight lid, and an unopened twenty-pound backup bag. He put a large scoopful in Merlin’s food bowl and a smaller serving in each of two cereal bowls.
The wolfhound was trained to sit in front of his bowl and wait for permission to eat. The word okay released him to his meal.
Puzzle and Riddle studied Merlin and mimicked him, sitting at their bowls. When the dog ate, the two tasted their kibble, found it acceptable, and chowed down.
Needing to go home and get to work with the memory stick from Grady’s camera, still too enchanted to leave, Cammy watched the three eat. “In his way, Merlin’s as wonderful and mysterious as they are.”
Grady seemed surprised. “I was thinking the same thing.”
After his return to the mountains, near the end of his first year, Grady had told Cammy that he’d rediscovered the mystery of the ordinary. He said, if you allowed yourself to be enchanted by the beauty to be seen in even ordinary things, then all things proved to be extraordinary. Shortly thereafter, she gave Merlin to him, a puppy as large as some grown dogs, rough-coated, shaggy-browed, and as magical as the magician for whom he had been named.
Cammy said, “You know High Meadows Farm?”
“That’s the Vironi place, they raise Thoroughbreds?”
“Yeah. Something happened at High Meadows this afternoon, right before twilight.”
She told him about the strange condition of the horses and the other animals.
“Diagnosis?” he asked.
“I was working on it when you called me out here. Now I don’t think there can be a diagnosis because there wasn’t an illness.”
“But you said, they were in something like a trance.”
“I don’t know what this means, it’s just what I feel. …” She took a deep breath, blew it out. “There wasn’t anything wrong with them, something was right with them.”
“I can understand why you wouldn’t know what that means.”
She told him about the incident with the abused breeder dogs that had been rescued from the puppy mill. “I didn’t witness the trance part, but I saw the change in the dogs after it, they were happy, totally and suddenly socialized. Somehow, what happened at our clinic and what happened at High Meadows Farm must be related to Puzzle and Riddle.”
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