“I shot them, ma’am. The circumstances don’t change that fact. I shot them.”
Mazie took one of my hands in both of hers. “Believe me, when your time comes, it will be women who hold you and comfort you during your last moments in this world, who carry you into the next, and who greet you there.”
Mazie kissed me on the forehead, as if bestowing a benediction, and I said, “I have done terrible things.” Harmony took my hand that her mother-in-law relinquished, her touch another tender benediction, and I said, “I’ll do terrible things again.” Justine put one hand on my shoulder and kissed me on the cheek in what I at once recognized as the way that I had sometimes kissed the urn containing my Stormy’s ashes.
Their reverence was too much for me, to be mistaken for the man that I might want to be but am not, to be thought brave for only going where I have to go and doing what I have to do. I was no less uncertain and unsteady than anyone else in this broken world, often a fumbler and a fool, with more failures than successes. These were good women, good people, and their kindness consoled me. I could never fulfill such lofty expectations, however, and a quiet yet compelling embarrassment drove me to leave as politely and as quickly as possible.
The limousine waited under the portico.
With Big Dog scowling at the surrounding night to ward off any man or animal with ill intentions, Kipp stowed our purchases in the passenger compartment.
Beyond the overhang, rain chased past the house at an extreme angle in an escalating wind.
Mrs. Fischer drove, and I rode in the front passenger seat, the face of the rhinestone cowboy in my mind’s eye.
WE RODE IN SILENCE ALONG THE SHALE—AND SNAKELESS—track, the length of the gravel lane, and across the potholed blacktop to the interstate, where Mrs. Fischer turned east once more, continuing our interrupted pursuit of the missing children and the men who had taken them.
A sense of duty was as real to me as the pounding rain, and I felt that I might drown in it as easily as in a flash flood. Duty is a good thing, a calling without which no civilization can survive, but it is also a weight and chain that sometimes seems sure to sink you to the airless bottom of a dark pool. I wasn’t burdened by a fear of death but instead by a fear of failure. If there were seventeen hostages and I rescued even sixteen, the one lost would be too sharp a reminder of another loss, nineteen months earlier, in the mall in Pico Mundo. I wished—and more than wished—that this responsibility might be lifted from me, but I knew that it would not be lifted.
I believe that Mrs. Fischer gave me the gift of silence because she knew that I had left Casa Bolthole in a state of embarrassment, that I felt inadequate to the challenges of my strange life, and that the more anyone told me that I was equal to those challenges, the more I would feel that I was not. The greatest danger, of course, was to believe that I was equal to them, because assurance can morph into arrogance that Death loves to prove unfounded.
The broad highway led east-northeast, and mile by mile, I felt more strongly the black-hole gravity of the cowboy.
Associating with bad men, even for the purpose of defeating them, can make you vulnerable to the allure of evil. A sense of duty can be corrupted into self-righteousness, which can inspire a self-exemption from all laws, an embrace of power and the will to use it ruthlessly. Power is the central promise of evil, the dark light of that lamp, because nothing extinguishes the soul more quickly than pride in power.
Mazie’s approval had seemed close to veneration. To endure such extreme praise was dangerous enough. If I came to believe that I had earned it, I would lose everything that mattered.
I was only a fry cook with paranormal abilities that were not a blessing but a weight to carry. And considering that I had no job, I couldn’t claim to be even a fry cook, but simply a man with a burden, which was one of the most common creatures on the earth.
The rain fell in torrents sufficient to float an ark. The world condensed into a highway that, for all I could see beyond it, might have ribboned through a void as deep as interstellar space.
We were racing so fast that the cataracts of rain crashing into the windshield were all but blinding, and yet Mrs. Fischer appeared confident about her ability to control the limo under these or any conditions. Humming one tune or another, each of them cheery, my elderly guide, the spiritual daughter of Hawkeye from The Last of the Mohicans and the bride of Tonto, was clearly unconcerned about the poor visibility, as though she—or the vehicle itself—could see for miles ahead in these or even worse conditions. I decided not to look at the speedometer.
Finally I said, “What amazing thing did Gideon and Chandelle do in Pennsylvania last December?”
After a hesitation, she said, “You’re only just coming into an awareness that you’re not alone, Oddie. It’s best to ease into a full understanding of the resistance.”
“Resistance? Sounds too political for me.”
“It’s not political in the least, child. It’s been going on through all the ages and all the countries of the world, no matter who the ruler is—prime minister, king, emperor, dictator, mullah. Our adversaries exist in every profession, every race, every ethnicity, every class, every political faction—but our friends abide also in all those places.”
She looked away from the interstate and smiled. Her brooch, the jeweled exclamation point, sparkled in the dashboard glow.
I asked, “Why is it best to ease into an understanding?”
Returning her attention to the highway, she said, “It’s best because you need to be able to cope with your fear, which will be perhaps too great to bear if you’re abruptly plunged into the full truth. In the thrall of absolute terror, you’re less likely to survive what’s coming in the hours ahead. Trust me, dear. Take this discovery moment by moment, event by event, allowing fear to increase at the same pace as your understanding. Then you’ll grow into your fear and be able to function with it.”
Earlier, I had thought that she seemed like the mother of Yoda, the pint-size sage from the Star Wars movies. Now she almost sounded like him, except that her syntax was correct.
The rain began to relent somewhat, and I suspected that we might be outrunning the storm once more.
Although the downpour still obscured much of the night here in the emptiness of the Mojave, I saw the sign welcoming us to Nevada, which we flew past as if we were degenerate gamblers desperate for the games of Las Vegas.
We drove steadily farther away from Pico Mundo, and yet I sensed that somehow I was coming full circle to it, that when I stood before the cowboy, I would discover some unfinished business with which I thought I had dealt in my hometown long before I’d left there. The adventures of which I’d written in multiple volumes of memoirs were in fact a single adventure, during which my understanding of reality evolved until now I seemed to be drawing steadily closer to what Annamaria—and later Mazie—called “the true and hidden nature of the world,” which Mrs. Fischer warned would give new meaning to the word terror.
Miles later, when again we had driven out of the rain, the glow of Vegas was a sullen fan-shaped beacon on the horizon, a scene like you might see on a poster for a science-fiction movie: lonely highway dwindling toward the eerie light of some interstellar vessel come down to Earth and waiting just beyond the next hill to fill your soul with wonder. But this glow was only Las Vegas, about which there was nothing transcendent, unless your idea of transcendence was topless dancers, a show by Blue Man Group, a run of luck at the blackjack tables, an abundance of free drinks culminating in a system-purging puke, unconsciousness, and a hangover in the brain-searing morning light of the desert.
Suddenly, in my mind’s eye, the image of the rhinestone cowboy grew brighter, more detailed.
“Next exit, ma’am,” I said. “North.”
The ramp led to a two-lane blacktop state route that took us past an array of unidentified large buildings that might have been warehouses, considering that many national companies distributed their products out of Nevada because it had no inventory tax. We passed a few modest clustered houses, then a few more assorted isolated structures, and a roadside business whose owner called it JEB’S TRADING POST, which included gasoline pumps.
Soon the road rose through rolling hills of desert brush and colonies of pampas grass with tall pale plumes, and then climbed at a steeper angle than before. The spectacle of Las Vegas lights, still miles away and not directly visible, refracting through the moisture-laden low clouds, fading with the distance from the source, paled the sky just enough to silhouette the mountains ahead of us.
As we drew nearer to the cowboy and as the incline increased, my gut tightened, much as it does when you’re ten years old and aboard a roller coaster, though what I felt was pure apprehension, with none of the pleasant anticipation of a thrill ride.
Stunted scrub pines appeared, rising twisted and misshapen from the dry, sandy soil. Increasing altitude meant a lower average annual temperature, some slow-release snowpack higher than we would go, and richer soil, where now full-scale pines towered over the roadway.
We arrived at a plateau of deep woods and small meadows. On the right, a blacktop lane that led away among the trees was secured by a low wooden ranch-style gate between two stacked-stone columns. I knew at once that it would lead me to the rhinestone cowboy, but I urged Mrs. Fischer to keep driving.
The plateau was broad. On both sides of the state route, a few more gated lanes led to private properties far back in the forest. Just when the pavement began to rise again, the headlights caught a sign on the left that announced FIRE ROAD / FORESTRY DEPT ONLY.
In the absence of a fire, no one would be using that rough dirt track. Mrs. Fischer parked on it, facing out toward the state route, but in far enough among the trees to avoid being seen by passing traffic, of which we had encountered none since turning off the interstate. She damped the headlights, cut the engine.
When I got out of the limousine, the flanking woods were quiet except for the metallic tick-and-ping of the cooling engine. The air smelled of pines and of something I couldn’t name.
On all sides, the night seemed to watch me as if the columnar trees were elements of a coliseum, as if I were the martyr of the hour, as if the darkness were full of lions.
In the passenger compartment of the limo, through the open privacy panel, I said, “Ma’am, I hope this boat is big enough to take all those kids.”
“It can comfortably seat ten adults in back, dear. I’m confident we can accommodate at least seventeen wee children.”
I opened the gunnysack, withdrew everything that we had gotten from Kipp and Mazie, and began to prepare myself by the frosty glow of the small LED flashlight.
“Ma’am, one thing I didn’t ask, and I’m curious.”
“What is that, dear?”
“Heath’s best man at our wedding. He was such a charmer.”
“Why did he have to go everywhere with a sack over his head?”
“He was considerate, dear.”
“What did he look like?”
“Purdy was born with terrible facial deformations. Far worse than the Elephant Man. People tended to faint when they saw him.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Well, they learned a valuable lesson.”
“Not to pull the sack off the head of someone who wears one. And not to tease and torment people. A lot of nasty teenagers soiled their pants because they pulled that sack off Purdy.”
“A memorable lesson.”
“On the plus side, Purdy’s looks made him rich.”
“He bought his own ten-in-one and was the star of it.”
“A freak show in a carnival, a tent with ten attractions in it. They’re outlawed now, but Purdy became a millionaire back when.”
“Still, he had to go everywhere with a sack over his head.”
“Don’t fret, child. The sack had eye holes.”
“That’s good to know.”
“And he didn’t wear the sack in the carnival world, where he spent ninety-nine percent of his time. Carnies accept everyone.”
“Not everyone. I had a problem with two carnies once, these guys, Bucket and Pecker. Excuse me, ma’am, but that was his name.”
“What was your problem with them, dear?”
“I annoyed them, so they tried to kill me.”
“Please tell me you didn’t pull a sack off one of their heads.”
“No, ma’am. I never would.”
“Good. If they were bad men, they weren’t friends of Purdy.”
“No, I’m sure they weren’t. But it’s sad.”
“Purdy must have lived a lonely life.”
“He married a beautiful girl, Darnelle, who worked the kootch show. Hootchy-kootchy. That doesn’t mean she was a stripper. Kootch dancers didn’t strip nude.”
“So his face didn’t bother her?”
“His face didn’t bother anyone, dear, once you got to know him. Purdy was all heart, not all face.”
I said, “That’s a nicer story than I expected.”
“Child, your story will turn out nicer than you expect, too.”
“I wouldn’t bet everything you own on that, ma’am.”
“Neither would I.”
“Good for you.”
“But only because I’m not a betting woman.”
Wearing two shoulder holsters, a Glock under each arm, and a police utility belt hung with all manner of stuff other than a gun, I got out of the car, and Mrs. Fischer got out, too, because the bulletproof vest buckled from behind, and I needed her to cinch it tight so that I could do a final adjustment to the shoulder rigs.
When I was geared-up and ready to go, she said, “Now let me look at you, child.”
She couldn’t have seen me all that clearly in the dark of the woods, under an overcast sky, but she checked the four sparemagazine pouches on the utility belt, to be sure the flaps were snapped shut. She asked if I had my Talkabout, which is a walkie-talkie, and I said that I had it. Cell-phone service would either be poor or nonexistent in this remote place, so if we needed to scheme together, Talkabouts were the best bet, as long as we were within range of each other. She checked off other items on my utility belt, brushed at my Kevlar vest as if she saw lint on it, pinched my cheek, said, “Well, you look as invincible as you are cute,” and I felt as if I should be a brave boy and go out to the street to wait for the school bus all by myself.
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