Page 2

I seemed to be standing in a moonless night, before a stainless-steel platform on steel legs, a round stage, lit by the leaping flames of four torches fixed to tall poles. On the stage, in straight-backed chairs, sat three children: a boy of about eight, a girl of perhaps six, and an older girl who might have been ten. Something was wrong with them. They sat wide-eyed but slack-mouthed, their hands limp in their laps. Emotionless. Drugged. A white-haired man in a blood-red suit, black shirt, and black mask ascended to the stage on steel steps. He was carrying a flamethrower. He torched the children.


The vision burst like a bubble, reality returned, and the cowboy and I staggered backward from each other, the pistol on the pavement between us. His stunned expression and a wildness in his eyes told me two things: First, he’d seen the same vision that I had seen; second, he was the masked man in the red suit, and he already intended at some future date to set helpless children afire in an insane act of homicidal performance art.


I had just experienced my first portent of the future that did not come in the form of a prophetic dream.


He went for the dropped pistol, but I was able to kick it under the eighteen-wheeler even as his fingers were an inch from the prize.


As if from a forearm sheath, a knife slid into his right hand, and a thin six-inch blade sprang out of the yellow handle.


I dislike guns, but I’m no fan of knives, and I carry neither. I turned away from him and ran across the parking lot, toward the market, where he wouldn’t dare slash at me in front of witnesses.


Suddenly the entire world seemed to have turned hostile, as if the spirit of ultimate darkness had arrived to rule, his hour come round at last. Even my morning shadow, following as I ran westward, seemed to have ill intentions, as if it would catch me, drag me down.


When I glanced back, the cowboy trucker wasn’t coming after me. I couldn’t see him anywhere. I slowed to a fast walk, so as not to draw attention to myself, and when the automatic door slid aside, I went into the coolness of the market.


If I had been in Pico Mundo, my hometown, I would have known what to do. The chief of police there, Wyatt Porter, understood me and believed in me. On my say-so, he would have detained the cowboy and searched the truck.


But I had been on the road for some time now, going where my unusual talents were most needed, drawn by siren songs that I could not hear but to which my blood responded. Nobody in this place knew me, and I would sound like just another drug-addled paranoid, another piece of sad human wreckage of the kind that littered the landscape of an America that seemed to be rapidly fading out of history in a world growing darker by the day.


In the market, I stood at a closed checkout station, pretending to be searching for a particular magazine among the many offered, but in fact watching the customer doors at the north and south ends of the building.


Little more than a month earlier, in a town called Magic Beach, I had for the first time, by touch, recognized a potential murderer. On that occasion, into my mind’s eye—and into his—had erupted a scene from a nightmare of nuclear Armageddon that I’d dreamed the previous night, and I had known that he must be part of a conspiracy to atomize American cities. But I had not dreamed of these children set afire upon a stage.


I didn’t expect the cowboy to follow me. I expected him instead to board his big rig and head for whatever highway to Hell might be programmed into his GPS. The vision surely rattled him as much as it did me. But as I long ago learned, expectations are fragile and easily shattered.


The cowboy came through the north doors, spotted me at once, and approached purposefully. He looked like a star in some parallel-world version of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, one that featured maniac country singers.


I hurried down the cereal aisle, turned right, and crossed the big store to the produce section, buying time to think.


Even if I could find a sympathetic shopper or a credulous clerk, or an off-duty police officer picking through the McIntosh apples, I couldn’t seek help from anyone because of the aftermath of my few weeks in Magic Beach. Bad people were in jail in that town, and other bad people were dead. Homeland Security and the FBI had been brought in at the end of those events by an anonymous phone call that I placed; and now they were seeking someone fitting my description, though they had no name. I dared not attract the attention of the police in this smaller town, which was little more than a hundred miles farther along the coast from Magic Beach.


In this big, complex, often mysterious world, I don’t pretend to know much. How to make fluffy pancakes might be the most important knowledge that I possess. In spite of my ignorance, I know without a doubt that if federal officers of any agency were to suspect that I possess paranormal abilities, I would spend the rest of my life in custody, being used for their purposes.


I would also be studied and might be the subject of unpleasant experiments. I have a perhaps irrational but nonetheless genuine fear of scientists sawing open my skull while I’m awake and sticking pins in various parts of my brain to determine if they can make me cluck like a chicken or bark like a dog, or sing the lead role in The Phantom of the Opera.


A spectacle in black and red, the cowboy arrived in the produce department. His pistol and his knife were tucked out of sight, but his face announced his madness as obviously as if he had been shouting gibberish and capering like a monkey.


At that moment, I realized something more striking about this man than just his wardrobe and his taste for psychotic violence. In spite of his flamboyance, he seemed to elicit no special interest from the shoppers or the market staff around us. They appeared all but oblivious of him.


Of course, a lot of people these days have developed a kind of radar to spot the numerous lunatics among us, and when that little alarm of recognition goes off in their minds, they keep their heads down and avert their eyes. They go about their business as if they are tuned out of here and now, instead tuned in to their private realities: Look at that weird dude with blue fire shooting out of his eyes. And look at these peaches! These are lovely peaches! I have never seen finer peaches than these superb peaches! And look at those grapes. I’m going to buy some peaches and grapes. Or maybe I should mosey over to the baked goods and browse there until I have thought over this … this scary peaches-and-grapes thing for a while.


But I suspected that he drew no attention for some other reason, which eluded me.


The cowboy approached me and stopped on the other side of the wide display bin, which offered four varieties of apples on my side, potatoes and sweet potatoes and leeks on his side. His fixed smile reminded me of a hyena, if a hyena had an excellent oral-health plan and a first-rate dentist.


He said, “You come with me and answer some questions about what happened back there, and I’ll kill you easy. You don’t come, I’ll blow away a couple of these innocent women shopping for groceries, and then I’ll kill you. Want that on your conscience?”


I didn’t think this was a guy who ever bluffed. He did what he wanted to do and moved on.


As crazy as he might be, however, he didn’t want to go to prison or to be shot down by police responding to the outrage that he had just now proposed.


When I didn’t answer him, he drew the silencer-equipped pistol from under his sports coat and shot a cantaloupe on the pile that an elderly woman was examining. Chunks of rind and orange melon flesh flew into the air and spattered the shopper.


She startled backward. “Oh! Oh, goodness!”


Although the cowboy still held the Sig Sauer, when the woman looked around in perplexity, her gaze rested longer on me than on him, and the pistol didn’t seem to register with her. She was bewildered, not afraid.


Apologizing as if from time to time these darn cantaloupes just blew up on people, a produce-department clerk hurried to the elderly woman, showing no interest in the cowboy. The other customers focused on the clerk and the melon-soiled lady.


The trucker’s hyena smile grew wider.


I remembered something that he had said when he threatened to make a eunuch of me in the parking lot: You think I won’t do it right here in the open. But you’d be surprised what people don’t see.


He expected me to run, whereupon he would have to shoot me in the back and forget about the interrogation that he wanted to conduct. But as he might have remembered from our recent encounter in the parking lot, expectations often don’t pan out, and what he did not expect was an assault with high-velocity fruit.


Without taking time for a windup, I snatched a Red Delicious apple off the display in front of me and put a spin on the pitch. It hit him dead-center in the face, he staggered backward, and a second Red Delicious bounced off his forehead as blood streamed from his nose, stunning him so that he reflexively dropped his gun. I had been a pitcher on our high-school baseball team; and I could still put the ball where I wanted it, with wicked speed. Moving fast along the display bin, I plucked up a couple of Granny Smiths, which are hard little green numbers used for baking. The first hit his mouth maybe two seconds after he took the Red Delicious to the head, and the second caught him in the throat, dropping him to the floor, overwhelmed by apples.


Shoppers cried out, staring at me as if I were the deranged man and as though the costumed cowboy with the silencer-equipped pistol were as innocent as a lamb set upon by a rabid wolf.


The produce-department clerk shouted at me, I threw a Granny Smith with no intention of hitting him, he ducked, he popped up, and I threw another Granny Smith. He turned and fled, crying out for help, and all the terrified customers fled after him.


Around the other side of the display bins, the apple-stunned cowboy, bleeding from his nose and from a split lip, was on his hands and knees, reaching for the pistol that he had dropped. He would retrieve it before I could kick it away from him.


I ran from the produce department. Past displays of exotic imported crackers, cookies, and candies. Left into the long back aisle. Past coolers offering cheeses and a bewildering variety of pickles.


Before I got to the fresh-meat display, I slammed through a pair of swinging doors, into an immense stockroom with tall metal shelving units to the left and right.


A couple of stock boys in white aprons looked up from their work as I sprinted through their domain, but they wisely did not pursue me. Now I was the beneficiary of that lunatic-identifying radar that I mentioned earlier. As if desperately fleeing men raced wild-eyed through this place a few times every day, the stock boys continued preparing huge carts full of bagged potato chips and Cheez Doodles for delivery to the selling floor.


Passing a cart on which were stacked open cases of canned goods, I borrowed a two-pound can of baked beans, and then another.


At the back of the stockroom, in line with the door by which I had entered, another metal door led to a loading dock and the service alley. I left it ajar, to indicate where I’d gone, and stood with my back against the building wall, a can of beans in each hand.


Such is the absurd and violent nature of my life, that I am not infrequently reduced to battles involving highly bizarre bad guys and unconventional weapons that Mr. Matt Damon and Mr. Daniel Craig never have to deal with when, always solemn and dignified, they save the world in their movies.


I expected the cowboy to follow me as quickly as he was able. He didn’t seem to be a guy who quit easily, nor did he seem to be one who would proceed with caution. When he plunged through the door, eager not to lose track of me, I would bean him with one can and try to smack the gun out of his hand with the other.


After a minute or so, I began to wonder if I had disabled him more than I’d realized. At about the minute-and-a-half mark, the door opened slowly. One of the stock boys warily peeked out, reeled back in pale-faced fright, as if I were Dr. Hannibal Lecter holding two severed heads, and hurriedly returned to his Cheez Doodles.


I put down the cans, jumped off the loading dock, and sprinted toward the north end of the building.


If the cowboy decided to disengage, I needed to get the license number of his truck. I could make an anonymous call to the highway patrol, accuse him of hauling contraband of one kind or another, and give them an excuse to look in that black trailer.


Although my special intuition told me that he had not yet abducted the children, there would almost certainly be something incriminating in his trailer.


I turned the corner, ran along the north wall, and burst into the parking lot, where sunlight dazzled off a hundred windshields. The truck was gone.


I hurried among the parked cars, slipped between two trees in the row of tall eucalyptuses at the end of the lot, halted on the sidewalk, and looked both ways along the street. No red, black, and sparkly silver ProStar+.


From a distance came a siren.


After crossing the street, I headed south, glancing in shop windows, just a young guy off work, with a day to kill, not at all the kind of hooligan who would terrorize innocent grocery shoppers with a ferocious barrage of fruit.


I made a mental note to mail five dollars to the supermarket to pay for the damaged apples when this business with the cowboy was concluded. I wouldn’t pay for the cantaloupe. I hadn’t shot it. The maniac had shot it.


Yes, I had fled into the market, drawing the maniac after me; therefore, an argument could be made that part of the cost of the cantaloupe might be my responsibility. But the line between moral behavior and narcissistic self-righteousness is thin and difficult to discern. The man who stands before a crowd and proclaims his intention to save the seas is convinced that he is superior to a man who merely picks up his own and other people’s litter on the beach, when in fact the latter is in some small way sure to make the world a better place, while the former is likely to be a monster of vanity whose crusade will lead to unintended destruction.


Not a penny for the damn cantaloupe. If I was wrong and woke up in a chamber in Hell, eternally drowning in the slime and seeds found at a cantaloupe’s core, I would just have to deal with that.


As I followed the sidewalk south, the bright image of the three torched children plagued me. I didn’t know when or where the cowboy trucker intended to burn them, or why. My sixth sense has limits and often frustrates more than serves me.


Do what you must, Annamaria had said. Her words seemed to be not merely advice meant for this moment but also a recognition of the likelihood that, after all, I would not be back long before sunset.


I really needed socks and a new pair of jeans. But given a choice between replenishing wardrobe items and trying my best to prevent children from being cooked alive, the correct course seemed obvious. Hurrying through the village, along a sidewalk dappled with sunshine and oak shadows, I intended to do the right thing. Ironically, in order to do the right thing, I needed to steal a car, and quickly.


Two


THE COWBOY TRUCKER HAD WHEELS, AND I DIDN’T. HE was getting farther away by the minute.

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