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“We’re a funny family.”


“I asked when the baby was due, and she said she’d been pregnant forever and still had a few years to go.”


“That’s Sis, sure enough.”


We arrived at a short hallway with changing rooms on both sides, where customers could try on the secondhand clothes.


The clerk said, “There’s a basket in the room. If your new things fit, just put all your wet clothes in the basket. Your sister said you’d want to donate them.”


At the last room on the right, an OCCUPIED sign hung on the doorknob.


“It’s your room,” she said. “I reserved it when your sister said you’d be along shortly.”


“Thank you, ma’am. I’m sorry for dripping all over your store.”


“Oh, dear, don’t you worry. That’s why God made mops.” She patted me on the shoulder and left me alone.


On a bench in the changing room were a white T-shirt, a pair of briefs, socks, blue jeans, a blue crewneck sweater, a pair of Nike basketball shoes, and a black raincoat with a hood.


Everything fit perfectly. I left my wet clothes in the plastic laundry basket.


In the right-hand pocket of the raincoat, I found a disposable cell phone. It rang in my hand.


I felt as if I were in a Mission Impossible movie. The internals of the phone would probably melt into slag as soon as we finished our conversation.


“Hello?”


As always, her words seemed to float to me on the warm currents of her voice. “Do you remember the promise you made to me when I gave you the pendant with the bell?”


“Yes, ma’am.” Because the walls of the changing room were thin, I lowered my voice. “You said some people wanted to kill you. And you asked me if I’d die for you. I said yes, somewhat to my surprise.”


“But not to mine. When my hour of need arrives, how will you be able to die for me if you’re already dead from pneumonia?”


“I was just a little wet.”


“And I’m just a little pregnant. You should wear galoshes, too.”


“I’m not a galoshes kind of guy. Where are you right now?”


“Where you left me. At the cottage by the sea, with Tim. We baked cookies, and now we’re eating them while we play cards.”


“How could you be at the cottage, a couple hundred miles from here, and buy me these clothes?”


“Every place is the same place in the end.”


“Another riddle.”


“You hear riddles, but I never speak in them.”


High in the flooded sky, thunder crashed like great structures falling into ruin, and here below, the building vibrated as if with a premonition of its own destruction.


I said, “The clerk told me you called yourself my sister.”


“People hear what they need to hear.”


“I wish you were my sister.”


I swear I could hear her smile when she said, “That’s sweet of you, odd one, and I know you don’t intend to diminish me.”


“Diminish you? What does that mean?”


“It means what it means, as you will understand in time.”


In the silent wake of the thunder, more intimate sounds arose from the ductwork behind a ventilation grille, in the back wall of the dressing room, near the ceiling. The soft ponk and bink of sheet metal dimpling and tweaking under some weight. An intermittent ticking accompanied by a faint slithering noise.


“Now tell me,” Annamaria said, “have the events of the day made you afraid?”


“For a while there, yeah. But I’m okay now.”


“Acknowledge your fear, odd one. Fearlessness is for the insane and the arrogant. You are neither. Those who rely on you for their lives will be well served only if you fear what you should fear. You are a unique soul, a child of grace, but you can still fail yourself and others.”


I thought of the Green Moon Mall in Pico Mundo, nineteen months earlier, when many had been saved but some had died, when among the dead had been she whom I loved more than myself, more than life.


I sat on the bench where I had found my fresh clothes folded and waiting for me. “Truth is, ma’am, I’m more afraid than I have been in a long time. And I’m afraid to be afraid.”


“Afraid to be afraid, but why?” she asked, though it seemed to me that she knew me as well as I knew myself and that her question was therefore moot.


“Because I’ve always gotten by on grit and little more. Or be fancy and call it fortitude. I can endure pain and trial, and not lose hope. Grit and wit—laughter in the dark is my surest defense. I usually hold off fear with a joke, but that only works for a while. What true courage I might have is limited and comes from desperation, brief spurts, just enough to get through a crisis. If the crisis is protracted, as I suspect this one will be, if fear is constant for too long, then courage will for darn sure bleed out of me when I need it most.”


Annamaria was silent so long that I thought I had embarrassed her with my confession, but that seemed not to be the case when she spoke. “Young man, there are few people who understand as much about themselves as you understand about yourself, to the depth that you understand it. But your greatest strength is that there are things you don’t recognize about yourself.”


“Which would be what?”


“There’s one kind of ignorance that is the very essence of enlightenment, and I won’t tell you what it is, because it is an ignorance that makes you so beautiful.”


Evidently, I hadn’t embarrassed her, but the word beautiful embarrassed me because it had no relationship to the mug I see in mirrors. “Another riddle,” I said.


“If you want to think it is.”


The hardest crack of thunder yet shook the afternoon, as if the sky were stone that had fractured clean through. Either echoes of the thunder rattled the sheet metal or something in the heating duct was agitated by the storm.


I said, “What frightens me is, there’s a difference in what’s happening today, this time, this situation.…”


“Yes,” Annamaria said, as if she knew of my recent experiences.


I said, “The spirits who seek me out aren’t for the most part malevolent, just lost. The evil that comes my way is mostly stuff we might see in the newspapers and wouldn’t find unusual. An old high-school friend turned child-killer, cops gone bad, terrorists with a boatload of nukes … But what I’ve seen today is different in kind and magnitude. Stranger. Darker. More terrifying.”


“Anyone who learns the true and hidden nature of the world will be terrified, Oddie, but there’s a safe harbor past the terror.”


“Is that what I’m learning today—the true and hidden nature of the world?”


“Tim promises he’ll save two cookies for you. They’re very good, if I say so myself. Listen, because of who you are, it’s inevitable that eventually you will peel the onion, so to speak, and see the truth of everything.”


“I’d rather just chop the onion, fry it with a dribble of olive oil, and put it on top of a cheeseburger. Sometimes I have a dream in which I’m nothing but a fry cook, with a paycheck every Friday, good books to read, and all my friends in Pico Mundo.”


She said, “But that is only a dream. Your life has always been a journey metaphorically. And since you left Pico Mundo, it has become also a literal journey from which you can’t turn back.”


I watched the grille over the ventilation duct and thought about the quartet of rats abandoning the phoenix palm in formation, but no pointed twitching nose or radiant blood-drop eyes appeared.


She continued: “Every journey has a destination, known or unknown. In a journey of discovery like yours, the pace quickens and the disclosures mount steadily toward the end.”


“Am I nearing the end of mine?”


“I’d guess that what’s behind you is much more than what lies ahead, though you have a way to go yet. But I’m not a fortuneteller, odd one.”


I said, “You’re something.”


“Be afraid in proportion to the threat,” Annamaria said, “but if you trust yourself, we will see each other again—”


“ ‘—when the wind blows the water white and black,’ ” I finished, quoting her words from earlier in the day. “Whatever that means.”


“It means what it means, Oddie. Remember, there are cookies waiting here for you.”


She disconnected, and I switched off the disposable cell phone.


When I stood up from the bench and stared at the grille near the ceiling, all grew quiet in the duct beyond.


I tucked the pistol in a deep pocket of the raincoat and opened the changing-room door, prepared—though not eager—to learn the true and hidden nature of the world. But first I stopped in the thrift-shop men’s room. Even the most urgent journey of discovery must allow time for the journeyer to pee.


Sixteen


PERCHED ON HER PILLOW, MRS. EDIE FISCHER PILOTED the Mercedes limousine northeast on Interstate 15, into a steadily darkening day, leaving the city and its suburbs well behind us, out-racing the storm but not yet the sullen clouds that paved the sky in advance of the downpour. Between Victorville and Barstow, meadows made green by the four-month rainy season gave way to fields of wild golden grass on the brink of the Mojave, where that season had been shorter and drier than it had been across the lower lands closer to the coast. Mile by mile, the gilded grass cheapened to silver, soon the silver grayed, and at last plush meadows succumbed to gnarled and bristling desert scrub.


Twelve cylinders of internal combustion powered us, and psychic magnetism guided us as I held the face of the rhinestone cowboy in my mind’s eye. I’d taken off the hooded raincoat and dropped it through the open privacy panel between the front seat and the passenger compartment.


The cell phone was tucked in one of the two cup holders in the center console, in case it rang again, though that seemed unlikely. Annamaria’s meaning might be as puzzling as a five-thousand-piece jigsaw of one of M. C. Escher’s most intricate drawings, but she always said succinctly what she wanted to say. She wasn’t given to long, chatty conversations about the weather or celebrities, or the aches and pains of a life in gravity.


In such a short time, Mrs. Fischer and I had achieved a degree of friendship that allowed periods of silence without awkwardness. I felt comfortable with her. I was reasonably sure that she would never shoot me or stab me, or set me on fire, or throw acid in my face, or lock me in a room with a hungry crocodile, or dump me in a lake after chaining me to two dead men. Such confidence in a new acquaintance is more rare these days than it once was.


Twenty-six miles south of Barstow, I said, “Now we’ve driven out of the rain, we could switch places without you getting wet.”


“I’ll keep driving. I’m not tired. Haven’t been tired since the thingumajig.”


“What thingumajig?”


“The implant doohickey with the three little lithium batteries. I shouldn’t talk about it.”


I frowned. “Implant? Like a heart pacemaker or something?”


“Oh, don’t you be concerned, child. It’s nothing like that. My ticker’s fine.”


“Good. I’m glad to hear it.”


“They put this gismo in your buttocks. Well, in one buttock, on the right. Used to worry it might be uncomfortable on long rides, but I don’t even ever know it’s there.”


I half suspected that my chain was being pulled. “Whyever would they implant anything there?”


“Because that’s where it needs to go, of course.”


“What does?”


“The doohickey gismo.”


“What does it do?”


“Everything they said it would. This is all a little indelicate, dear. I’d rather not discuss it anymore.”


Generally speaking, when someone asks me not to inquire further about his or her butt implant, whether it’s a little old lady or not, I politely refrain from posing additional questions, but I was sorely tempted to seek more information in this case.


Instead, I said, “Sure. All right. But I still don’t think you should do all the driving. We might have a long way to go.”


She deployed her legendary dimples to take the sting out of what she had to say. “No offense, sweetie, but you make me a little crazy when you drive.”


I was surprised to hear my reply: “But I’m your chauffeur.”


“Well, what I think maybe we should do is, we should give you a different job description.”


“Such as what?”


“How about—male secretary?”


“I have no secretarial skills, ma’am.”


Driving with one hand, Mrs. Fischer reached out to pinch my cheek affectionately. “God love you, child, you don’t have the best chauffeuring skills, either.”


“Back at the truck stop you said I was a good driver.”


“You are a good driver, dear. But you dawdle.” Her sudden smile was radiant. “I know! You can be my fry cook.”


“You said you didn’t need a fry cook. But really…dawdle?”


“Well, I’ve changed my mind. I need a fry cook. Yes, you dawdle. You’re no Steve McQueen, dear. In fact, you’re no Matt Damon.”


“Matt Damon is no Jason Bourne. He has a stunt driver in those movies.”


“Well, it seems silly to hire a full-time stunt driver for my chauffeur, sweetie. Fry cook it is.”


“Ma’am, I had this beauty up to ninety back there.”


“My point exactly. How do you expect ever to catch this nasty rhinestone cowboy of yours that way?”


“Look, Mrs. Fischer—”


“Call me Edie.”


“Yes, ma’am. Anyway, you don’t need a fry cook. You said you’re always on the road, you eat at restaurants all the time.”


“I’ll buy some restaurants here and there, so whenever we’re near one, we’ll stop and you can cook for me.”


“You’re not serious.”


“It makes perfect sense to me.”


“Good grief, how much money do you have?”


“Oh, gobs and gobs of it. Don’t you worry.” She reached across the console to pat me on the shoulder. “My delightful fry cook.”


I don’t know why I couldn’t let go of it, but I said, “You’re not even doing ninety now.”


“One hundred and four miles an hour, child.”


I leaned to my left to look more directly at the speedometer. “Wow. It sure doesn’t feel like we’re going that fast. I guess that’s one of the pluses of a Mercedes.”

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