Beyond the window, under the low gray sky, the desert day came to night through the briefest twilight.
As here in Barstow, for a couple of weeks each spring, the desert around Pico Mundo suddenly bloomed bright with heliotrope and fiddlenecks, poppies and red maids and more. I hoped that I might live to see the land around my hometown thus enraptured one more time.
I said, “You didn’t for a moment think I was crazy when I told you that I see the dead.”
“Of course not, child. The world now is crazy. You are as sane as the world once was.”
Mrs. Fischer insisted that the treat was on her, and she left a 100 percent tip in cash. With the money, she put down a business card that had no name, address, or phone number. The small white rectangle presented only one of those perfectly round iconic cartoon faces with dots for the eyes and nose, and a big arc of a smile. Instead of traditional yellow, the face was blue. And very smooth.
Carrying the check, Mrs. Fischer led me through the diner to the cashier’s station. As we arrived, Sandy finished pouring a refill for one of the customers seated at the counter, returned the coffeepot to the warmer, and took time to ring up our bill.
As the waitress and Mrs. Fischer exchanged pleasantries, I spotted the stack of flyers on the counter beside the cash register. MISSING! the headline declared. Under that, a question: HAVE YOU SEEN THESE CHILDREN?
Here they were—the three faces from my vision. Now the flyer gave me names to go with them. The eight-year-old boy was Jessie Payton, the six-year-old was his sister Jasmine, and the ten-year-old girl was Jordan.
Having noticed my interest in the flyer, Sandy said, “Makes me sick to think about it.”
When I looked up, unshed tears stood in her sea-green eyes. I said, “When did they disappear?”
“Between seven and eight-thirty yesterday evening. It’ll soon be twenty-four hours. That can’t be good, no trace of them by now.”
“How did police figure the time?”
“A neighbor, Ben Samples, saw the back door open, knew something wasn’t right, went to check. Eight-thirty he found poor Agnes.”
The salt tide in Sandy’s eyes overflowed. She couldn’t speak. I understood why, earlier, she’d felt that laughter was not appropriate and why her voice had contained a note of sorrow not commensurate to her description of the desert carpeted in bright flowers.
From a nearby stool, a burly man in khakis and a checkered-flannel shirt, whose coffee had been refilled a moment earlier, spoke up. “Agnes Henry. Reverend Henry’s widow. Sweet lady. Did babysittin’ to stretch her Social Security. Paytons’ trash cans are kept to one side of their back porch. Ben Samples, he notices a lid is half off one. Just enough porch light, so when he happens to look down, he sees a face in there. Agnes. Stabbed through the heart, stuffed in the can like garbage.”
Wiping her eyes with a Kleenex, Sandy said, “Chet, good Lord, what’s the world coming to, helpless children all over snatched away the same day?”
“It’s comin’ to the bad end it’s always been comin’ to,” Chet said solemnly.
For a beat, I didn’t understand them, and then I did but wished that I had it wrong. “All over? Other children? Where?”
Chet turned more directly toward us on the swiveling stool. “Two in Bakersfield, one up to Visalia.”
All those diner smells that had been so appetizing congealed now into a greasy, meaty malodor, as though beneath every shining moment of culinary delight, the repressed knowledge of the slaughterhouse waited to assert the sacrifice that was the source of that pleasure. The aroma of coffee now had the bitter smell of an emetic.
“Two in Winslow, Arizona,” Sandy said, “and four from one family in a suburb of Phoenix.”
“Four more in Vegas,” Chet said. “Kidnappers killed the parents to get at the young’uns. And one from Cedar City, up to Utah.”
“Seventeen altogether,” I said.
“Maybe even others nobody knows of yet,” Chet said. “This smells like terrorism. Don’t it to you? Who knows where it ends?”
Mrs. Fischer crossed herself, the first indication of a traditional faith that I had witnessed from her, although I’d never seen anyone make the sign of the cross with jaws clenched tight in anger and eyes as fierce as hers were just then. Maybe she prayed the rosary every night, or maybe this terrible news reminded her of the Catholicism of her childhood and of why she’d once felt a need for it.
“All these things happened in so many jurisdictions,” Chet explained, “nobody saw the pattern till late this mornin’, early this afternoon. By then those kids they could be anywhere.”
“They’ve got to be connected, don’t they?” Sandy asked. “The TV news says they’ve got to be.”
“Not a ransom demand for a one of them,” Chet said. “That gives me a bad feelin’. Don’t it you?”
“My folks are staying with us till there’s some kind of end to this,” Sandy revealed. “Dad, Mom, Jim—they all have guns, and we’re schooling at home for the time being.”
On the road all day, with no interest in the radio, we had not heard the news. Usually I spare myself from the news, because if it’s not propaganda, then it’s one threat or another exaggerated to the point of absurdity, or it’s the tragedy of storm-quake-tsunami, of bigotry and oppression misnamed justice, of hatred passed off as righteousness and honor called dishonorable, all jammed in around advertisements in which a gecko sells insurance, a bear sells toilet tissue, a dog sells cars, a gorilla sells investment advisers, a tiger sells cereal, and an elephant sells a drug that will improve your lung capacity, as if no human being in America any longer believes any other human being, but trusts only the recommendations of animals.
Not having heard the news, I had been drawn to Ernestine’s to make an important discovery, and this was it. The Payton kids were not the only souls in peril. Some demented group was trawling the West for children, to bring them together for burning or to kill them otherwise, on a stage before a select audience more perverse than I cared to consider.
With my paranormal abilities, perhaps I might be the only one who could find the abductees in time to save them. This obligation was so heavy that I didn’t know if I had the shoulders to carry it. I have had successes but also failures, because whatever else I might be, I am first and foremost human, and the tendency of our fallen kind is to fall again. To fail so many innocent children—or any of them—would leave me in a dark place, perhaps even blacker than the emotional slough through which I suffered in the weeks immediately after I lost Stormy Llewellyn. I had no choice, of course, but to try.
The likelihood of failure seemed greater than usual, however, because I was one against what seemed to be phalanxes of enemies, and singularly brutal enemies, at that. More troubling than their numbers and bloodthirstiness, they were not the usual scapegraces, criminals, psychopaths, and sociopaths. They might be all of those things, yes, but they were also something more dangerous. At least two of them, the rhinestone cowboy and his stone-faced viper-eyed associate, possessed some paranormal abilities—or supernatural knowledge—unique to them.
Sandy gave Mrs. Fischer her change.
Mrs. Fischer deposited a few dollars of it into a clear-plastic collection bucket for the Special Olympics, which stood near the cash register.
Sandy wished us a safe journey.
Mrs. Fischer plucked a couple of complimentary cellophane-wrapped hard-candy mints from a plastic bowl beside the Special Olympics bucket.
I opened the door for Mrs. Fischer.
Mrs. Fischer gave me one of the mints.
Even if there are moments during the day when all seems normal and when every action of your own and of those around you seems to be unremarkable, the appearance of ordinariness is an illusion, and just below the placid surface, the world is seething.
NOT ALL DESERTS ARE HOT ALL THE TIME. THE HIGH ones can be as cold in winter as a Canadian plain. We were near the end of winter, but a chill had come with nightfall. The breeze smelled faintly of the rain that we had outrun but that soon would catch us again.
A huge tricked-up Harley-Davidson stood next to the limousine, basic black but, in the light from the diner, bright with intricacies of chrome.
The couple standing by the motorcycle, taking off their helmets, looked nothing like Hells Angels. Perhaps fifty, tall, muscular but lean, clean-shaven, the man had a salt-and-pepper lion’s mane of hair. He was character-actor rather than lead-actor handsome, his face subjected less to emollient lotions and toning gels than to wind and sun, and never to Botox. The woman might have been forty, with the high cheekbones, proud but chiseled features, and polished-bronze complexion that suggested she had floated into this world from the headwaters of the Cherokee gene pool. If Soldier of Fortune magazine had merged with Vogue, these two might have been models in those pages. I would have bet my liver that neither had the smallest tattoo or love handles, that they didn’t care what anyone’s opinion of them might be, that they didn’t give a thought to fashion yet owned not a single unfortunate item of clothing, and that they didn’t tweet in any sense of the word.
In a baritone voice as mellow as fifty-year-old port, the man said to Mrs. Fischer, “We heard on the grapevine that Oscar completed his tour of duty and went home.”
Mrs. Fischer hugged the woman and said, “He finished his last spoon of the best crème brûlée we ever had, and the maître d’ said nobody who ever died in that restaurant before had passed away more discreetly.”
As the man hugged Mrs. Fischer, he said, “Oscar was always a class act.”
“How’s his mom coping?” the woman asked.
“Well, dear, you don’t get to be a hundred and nine without having taken the world on your shoulders a time or two.”
Offering his right hand to me, the man said, “My name’s Gideon. This is my wife, Chandelle. You must be Edie’s new chauffeur. You’re Thomas, aren’t you? May I call you Tom?”
“Yes, sir.” I shook his hand. “But I haven’t taken the job yet.”
Mrs. Fischer said, “He’s very independent, self-reliant.”
“That’s the way, isn’t it,” Gideon said.
“That’s the way,” Mrs. Fischer confirmed.
When the motorcyclist smiled, his countenance crinkled in the most appealing way, as if all the good weather he had ever known had been stored up in his face but none of the bad.
From somewhere came a memory that I at once put into words. “Chandelle is French for ‘candle.’ ”
Her smile was as warming as her husband’s, much more luminous than a single candle.
Mrs. Fischer said, “Tom and his girlfriend, Stormy, once got a card from a carnival fortune-telling machine that said ‘You are destined to be together forever.’ ”
“I would take that very seriously,” Chandelle said.
“I do,” I told her.
Mrs. Fischer said, “Stormy passed away young, but he’s still faithful to her and believes in what the card said.”
“Of course you do,” Gideon said. “What kind of fool would you be if you didn’t believe in it?”
“Several kinds, sir.”
“Well,” Mrs. Fischer said, “we’ve got something of a crisis to deal with, a real life-or-death thing, and Tom here is eager to get into the thick of it, though I suspect he thinks he’ll be dead by morning.”
“Exhilarating,” Gideon said.
I said, “Yes, sir, to an extent it is.”
Chandelle and Gideon kissed Mrs. Fischer’s cheek, and Mrs. Fischer kissed their cheeks, and I kissed Chandelle’s cheek as she kissed mine, and I shook hands with Gideon again.
Carrying their helmets, like figures more suited to a dream than to Barstow, the couple moved toward Ernestine’s. After a few steps, Gideon looked back and said to Mrs. Fischer, “Will we see you in Lonely Possum, come July?”
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” she assured them.
“And it is for the world,” Chandelle said to me. “I hope we’ll see you there, too.”
“I’m certainly intrigued, ma’am.”
“Call me Chandelle,” she said.
“Yes, ma’am. Thank you, ma’am.”
They went into the diner.
The Harley-Davidson was an impressive machine. It looked as if it should be quietly purring like a well-fed and contented panther.
Mrs. Fischer got behind the wheel of the limousine.
I, known to the grapevine as her chauffeur, independent and self-reliant, rode shotgun. That’s the way.
Mrs. Fischer unwrapped her mint, popped it into her mouth, and started the car.
As we pulled out of the parking lot, I said, “Better stop for gas, ma’am.”
“One tank’s full and the other nearly so, dear.”
“How can that be? We’ve been on the road a lot today.”
“I believe I told you about One-Ear Bob.”
“You told me a little bit about him.”
“When I finish this mint, maybe I’ll tell you more.”
As we took the entrance ramp to Interstate 15, heading east, I said, “How do you know Gideon and Chandelle?”
“I introduced them to each other.”
“You’re a real matchmaker, ma’am.”
“I enjoy making people happy.”
“Do they live around here?”
“They have a home in Florida, but mostly they’re on the road.”
“They’re always around these parts in March?”
“Oh, no, they don’t have a schedule of any kind. They just go where they feel it’s necessary for them to go.”
“Did you know they were in Barstow?”
“No, dear. It was a pleasant surprise to see them.”
“Sort of like Andy Shephorn pulling us over.”
“Sort of like,” she agreed.
“Gideon has a great voice. Is he a singer? She looks like she might be a dancer.”
“Well, they do all kinds of things, child.”
“All kinds of things?”
“Many, many things. And you can be sure that those two always do the right thing.”
“July in Lonely Possum, huh?”
“It can be fiercely hot, but lovely nonetheless.”
No sooner were we on the interstate than the sky caught fire, and the entire desert seemed to leap in surprise, repeatedly, as it was revealed by reflection and then cast back into darkness and then revealed again. Thunder so furiously concussed the night that it seemed the Mojave might break under the blows and collapse into some cavernous realm over which it had been a bridge for tens of thousands of years.
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