“It’s partly Mercedes, but also the aftermarket work that went into it. This baby is souped.”
We rocketed past a guy in a Ferrari, probably on his way to Vegas. I think he was wearing a poofy cap, though it wasn’t green and black.
“Hundred and ten,” Mrs. Fischer said, “and smooth as butter.”
“It really is souped,” I acknowledged.
“Radically souped. There’s this nice man in Arizona, everybody calls him One-Ear Bob, though his name’s Larry. He’s such a big handsome bruiser, you hardly notice the ear thing, except you tend to tilt your head to one side when you’re talking to him. His front business is a combination real-estate brokerage, insurance agency, souvenir shop, and roadside cafe. But he makes his real money in secret, in the buildings far at the back end of his property, where he can do anything you want done to a vehicle and then some.”
In a dramatic but unnecessary whisper, she said, “Because a lot of what One-Ear Bob does to cars breaks the law.”
“Oh, all kinds of laws, sweetie. Idiot safety laws, bone-headed environmental laws that actually contribute to pollution, the laws of physics, you name it.”
“Arizona, huh? Wouldn’t be Lonely Possum, Arizona, would it?”
Suddenly coy, she said, “Might be, might not.”
“What happened there sixty years ago on that oven-hot night?”
“Never you mind. Now let me tend to my driving. With all this conversation, my speed’s fallen to a hundred.”
From the console between the front seats, I fetched a box of 9-mm ammunition about which Mrs. Fischer had told me earlier. I had emptied the magazine of the pistol while resisting my assailant on the roof of the building in Elsewhere. Now I pressed ten rounds into it and locked it into the butt of the weapon.
Mile by mile, the desert grew more stark, a vastness of sand and rock, mesquite and sage and withered bunchgrass, with here and there low shapes of rock that looked like the serrated backs and long, flat heads of Jurassic-era crocodiles immense in size, petrified now and half buried in the earth.
The low clouds were gray in the east, darker overhead, nearly black in the west. Ahead of us, a wedge of birds flew high across the interstate, winging southeast.
Pico Mundo, my hometown, lay more than a hundred miles in that direction. Perhaps I might soon be led back there. If patterns exist in our seemingly patternless lives—and they do—then the law of harmony insists that the most harmonious of all patterns, circles within circles, will most often assert itself. If my end was coming, it might find me in those familiar streets that I loved and through which I had been haunted for so much of my life. But we were racing away from Pico Mundo at the moment, and I sensed that the case of the man who would burn children was not the one that would lead me home.
I put ten rounds of ammunition in each front pocket of my jeans. For one who dislikes guns as thoroughly as I do, I strangely find myself resorting to them more frequently as I make steady progress on my circular journey from loss to acceptance of loss, from failure to possible redemption.
A sign announced the interstate exits to Barstow, a community of military installations, railyards, warehouses, outlet stores, and chain motels. Although I intuited that I would find my quarry much deeper in the Mojave than this place, I suddenly said, “Here. Exit here. He’s done something in Barstow. Something terrible.”
By the grace of Mrs. Fischer’s expert driving and One-Ear Bob’s improvements to the vehicle, we decelerated as efficiently as if we had reverse rocket thrusters, crossed three lanes in an exquisite arc that brought us to the foot of the exit ramp, and swept into Barstow, home of the Mojave River Valley Museum.
We had come now to one of those times in my life when humor was no longer an armor, when any joke would have been an abomination, the slightest smile a transgression.
“The children,” I said. “The two girls and the boy. They lived here.”
“You mean live here,” Mrs. Fischer corrected.
Taken by a sudden chill, I said, “No, I don’t believe I do.”
THE RHINESTONE COWBOY ONCE PROWLED THE STREETS of Barstow to what end I thought I knew, but he was gone now, his corrupted and magnetic spirit an attractant that issued from some nest deeper in the barrens.
The superstretch limousine looked out of place in this humble desert burg, eliciting interest when we passed other motorists and pedestrians. As we cruised residential neighborhoods according to my whim, Mrs. Fischer made tight corners with ease.
On a street of neatly maintained stucco houses, behind desert-friendly landscapes reliant on succulents and sage, a residence stood in the shade of immense Indian laurels that massed their surface roots around them like tangles of sleeping pythons. As nowhere else in the vicinity, cars and SUVs and pickups—and one police sedan—were clustered at the curb and in the driveway. Carrying baking pans and casseroles, four women of the neighborhood came along the street to the front walk of the house. On the porch, several grim-faced men were engaged in what appeared to be an earnest and quiet discussion dealing with something more serious than sports, and through the windows I could see what seemed to be a solemn gathering of people.
“This is where they lived,” I said, and Mrs. Fischer didn’t need to ask to whom I referred. “The cowboy trucker … I don’t think he was ever at this place. It’s the children, my memory of their faces that has … drawn me here.”
Were I to go inside, seeking information, I would surely become a suspect. I had no authority, no credentials, no reason that I could offer why this stricken family should trust me. If I spoke about my paranormal gifts, I would be considered at best a kook, at worst a charlatan seeking publicity and an easy path to profit. If I inspired suspicion in the police, I might be detained long enough to ensure that I would not find the abducted children in time.
Even lingering in the street a moment too long was inadvisable, and I said, “Ma’am, let’s ease away from here. There’s another place I feel the need to see … if we can find it.”
Two blocks later, as I asked her to turn left, Mrs. Fischer said, “What do you call it, child?”
“This bloodhound ability of yours.”
For a moment, I considered answers with which I could continue to stonewall her.
She said, “Was it this that helped you save all those lives in the shooting at that Pico Mundo mall—or do you have other talents, as well?”
“You’ve been doing some research when I’ve been out of the car.”
“For the longest time, I resisted the Internet, too busy seeing the world to bother with a computer. But a smartphone makes it easy even for an old gypsy like me.”
“I call it psychic magnetism, ma’am. It’s a way of … finding people.”
“The newspapers said you were a hero. But there were never any details of how you discovered the plot and foiled it.”
“I didn’t talk to the press afterward. My friend Wyatt Porter, he’s chief of police in Pico Mundo, and he has always helped me keep my secrets. Anyway, I didn’t foil any plot like in the movies. People died that day, ma’am.”
“Only a fraction as many as those who would have been killed if you hadn’t stepped up.”
I shifted uncomfortably in my seat, adjusting the shoulder strap on the safety harness, though that wasn’t the cause of my discomfort. “Well, if I hadn’t intervened, someone else would have.”
“Not much reason to think so, considering the kind of world we live in now.”
I suggested that she make a right turn, and we rode in silence for two blocks.
She said, “The mall shooting wasn’t the last thing you took on yourself, was it?”
“No, ma’am. It wasn’t even the first. But I don’t take them on so much as they … they just come to me. There’s no way to avoid any of it.”
She braked at a stop sign and looked at me. There was worry in her wizened face and sorrow in her eyes. “I read about your loss that day.”
“She isn’t lost forever, ma’am. Only until this world finishes with me and I can go where she’s gone.”
“In respect of that loss,” she said, “I’m not going to pry at you anymore, child. I’m curious, of course. Who wouldn’t be? But I have no right.”
I nodded, not in agreement with her but in gratitude, and she drove through the intersection.
“Here’s a thing I think,” she said, then paused as if to make sure that she found the most apt words. “Sometimes in life a thing happens, sometimes it’s a person, and you know that what happens next and for some time, maybe for minutes or hours, will not be common, will not be just life moving on how it usually does. You know that those minutes or hours will be a gift of clarity, that the truth of the world will reveal itself if you care to look. Day after day, everything we see that seems real is only apparition, a ghost reality that we have conjured up in our self-delusion. Then the clarifying thing happens, and what you need to do, what you must do, is not question it, not demand more revelation than what is given, be quiet in the face of it, quiet and grateful that it has been given to you to see this, to be for even a short time aware of the extraordinary layered depths and profound beauty of the world to which we mostly blind ourselves.”
I pointed right, and Mrs. Fischer wheeled the limo in that direction.
If someone says that she’s having a moment of enlightenment, you don’t blow dust in her eyes.
I said only this and only the truth: “I’m nothing more than a talented fry cook, ma’am, but that’s a worthy enough occupation in a world where so many things are fried so badly.”
A mile later, on the edge of town, we came to a tract of land around which an industrial fence had been engaged in a decades-long slow-motion collapse that was half finished. Piles of tumble-weeds pressed here and there against the chain-link, revealing the predominant pathways favored by the local winds, which were at the moment still.
The entry gates hung open, and we drove between them.
The blacktop parking lot was fissured and potholed and pierced in places by weeds. On the graveled storage yard to one side of the hulking building, a mammoth stack of a couple hundred wooden pallets had partially collapsed in upon itself, weakened by rot and termites, bleached pale gray by the Mojave sun, so that the remains looked like the ashen ruins of a giant wicker man burned at the conclusion of a pagan festival. I would not have been entirely surprised if under the rubble were the charred bones of a human sacrifice.
The building itself appeared to be nearly as large as a football field, a corrugated-metal structure anchored by a four-foot-high concrete base. The three big roll-up doors and associated tracks and motors evidently had been salvaged, leaving the abandoned factory open to the elements. Above those doors and a couple of man-size entrances, a badly weathered sign identified the former home of BLACK & BUCKLE MANUFACTURING.
Mrs. Fischer mentioned the flashlight in the glove box, and I thanked her for it.
We got out of the limousine, and she said, “I won’t let you go alone this time. But I’m afraid of what we might find.”
“I’m pretty sure the children aren’t here, ma’am. Not them and not … their bodies. They’re still alive. But I think they might have been held here for a while. And he was here. The cowboy.”
“He was here but never at their house?”
“That’s how it feels to me. I don’t know what it means.”
Without my seeing from where she’d taken it, Mrs. Fischer had one of the other guns she had mentioned, a smaller pistol than mine, but deadly enough.
Although she looked nothing like my grandmother—Pearl Sugars, who had been a professional poker player—Mrs. Edie Fischer sort of reminded me of Granny. Pearl Sugars was the kind of lady you’d want to have your back in a tight spot, and I felt the same about Mrs. Fischer. If an eighty-six-year-old woman has been clear-seeing from a young age, she will have gone through a lot of life developing an eye for snares and pitfalls, an ear for deceit, and a good nose for knavery. And by such an age, a smart woman with no illusions is one to whom courage comes far more readily than it does to those young people who don’t yet know the world for what it is.
In the cavernous building, the only daylight came through the missing roll-up doors and from rows of high windows just under the ceiling, nearly thirty feet above the floor. Although we had outrun the storm, the sky remained mantled, and the waning afternoon could illumine little. The factory was a storehouse of rust-scented air, stillness, and darkness.
The flashlight beam couldn’t reach as far as any wall, but we were able to determine that nothing of value remained from the days when industry occurred here, nor anything that might provide a clue as to what Black & Buckle had manufactured. The concrete floor was irregularly carpeted in thick dust, drifts of dead leaves, scraps of cardboard, crumpled papers, and other trash that had blown in through the missing doors.
Suddenly a prolonged rustling suggested that in the shadows someone moved through the brittle debris. The concrete-and-metal structure reflected the noise in confusing ways, so that it seemed to come from our left, then from the right, from directly ahead of us, but then from the right again, now very near, now more distant. This auditory distortion perplexed the ear much as a maze of fun-house mirrors might bewilder the eye.
I probed every which way with the flashlight, yet I couldn’t find the source of the sound. Perhaps a draft slithered along the floor, disturbing what it touched. But the day outside was in the thrall of the eerie tranquility that sometimes settles upon the land in anticipation of an approaching thunderstorm, and the air within this place was as leaden as the air outside.
The rustling ceased, but the ensuing silence was of a kind in which something crouched and waited. That quality of menace didn’t diminish as the quiet lengthened.
“Nothing,” Mrs. Fischer said, and the word cycled and recycled through the rafters far overhead, though the echo seemed to be in a voice different from hers.
With the flashlight, I found recent tire tracks leading through the dust; and in those tread patterns, dry leaves had been crushed by the weight of the vehicle. We followed the trail toward the back of the building.
In the last ten yards of the structure, across the width of it, side-by-side offices featured windows looking onto the factory floor. The painted hollow-core doors were scarred and stained, and most of the fiberboard panels were buckled, having pulled partway loose of the frames.
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