Page 3


As the siren swelled louder, rotating emergency beacons flashed far to the south, approaching.


Immediately ahead of me, a muscular man with tattooed arms and a pit-bull face sprang out of a Ford Explorer parked at the curb. Leaving the driver’s door open and the engine running, making an urgent keening sound, he ran past the bank in front of which he had left the SUV, raced past two other buildings, and disappeared around the corner, as if perhaps he had a prostate as big as a grapefruit and an urge to pee that sent him rushing pell-mell toward the nearest restroom.


The bank was a sleek contemporary building with big windows. In spite of the tinted glass, I could see two men inside. They were wearing identical President-of-the-United-States masks. They held what appeared to be short-barreled pistol-grip shotguns. I figured the employees and customers must be lying on the floor. Evidently, none of them in there could hear the siren yet.


At once I climbed behind the wheel of the Explorer and closed the door. I put the SUV in gear, pulled into the street, and drove perhaps seventy or eighty yards before the racing police car swept past me on its way to the supermarket.


I have never owned a motor vehicle. If you own one, you must purchase insurance for it, repair it, wash it, wax it, fill the tank with gasoline, scrub bug remains off the windshield, periodically rotate the tires.… The demands of a motor vehicle never stop.


Because my sixth sense is a massive complication, I simplify my life every way that I can. I own little, and I have no desire to possess any more than I already do. I would no more buy a car than I would acquire a performing elephant.


In the past, when I had needed wheels, I’d borrowed vehicles from various friends, and I’d always returned them without damage. But I had lived in this town only a month. And because I had been pretty much hiding out and waiting for the call to action that would send me traveling once more, I had not joined a book group or claimed a personal stool in a favorite pub where everybody knew my name.


In this emergency, the only way that I could obtain a suitable vehicle was to steal one. Stealing from thieves seemed less of a crime than taking from honest people. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Providence put this Explorer before me precisely when I needed it, because I wouldn’t want to imply that God collaborated with me in auto theft. But if it wasn’t Providence, it was something.


I circled a block, returned to the main drag, and headed south this time. When I passed the bank, two well-armed presidents were standing on the sidewalk, frantically looking north and south for their getaway wheels. I felt that I should do something to alert the police to the robbery, but running these guys down seemed extreme.


They recognized the Explorer and started into the street. I waved, tramped the accelerator, and was out of shotgun range in about three seconds.


A couple of blocks south of the bank, a decapitated woman was crossing the street. In black high heels and a slinky blue dress, she appeared to be attired for a party, and she held her severed head in the crook of her left arm.


Ordinarily, I would have stopped to comfort her and see if I could do anything to help her move on from this world. But she was already dead, just a spirit now, and those three imperiled children were still alive, so the kids came first.


Rare prophetic dreams and keen intuition are not the primary aspects of my paranormal ability. If those were the only unnatural talents I possessed, I might lead a relatively ordinary life and be able to hold a job more taxing than that of a short-order cook. Say a furniture-store manager or a home-appliances repairman.


Most important and exhausting is my ability to see the spirits of the lingering dead. They are reluctant to leave this world either because they are afraid of what awaits them on the Other Side or because they remain determined to see their murderers brought to justice, or because they love this beautiful world and refuse to let go of it.


The dead don’t talk. At best, they lead me to their killers or, if they weren’t murdered, react to me in ways that allow me to make accurate deductions about them based on what their behavior implies. At worst, they resort to an insistent pantomime that is as annoying as the least-talented street mime who has ever pretended to walk against a nonexistent hurricane wind. In the case of a mime who won’t get out of my face until I give him a dollar, I might respond to his performance with a pantomime of violent vomiting; but that seems disrespectful and even cruel when dealing with the dead.


Generally speaking, these spirits aren’t threatening, but now and then one of them goes poltergeist in anger or frustration. The results can play havoc with your household budget. Trust me, no insurance company on Earth will pay on a claim that an infuriated spirit tore apart your plasma-screen TV and wrecked your family room.


In this instance, the decapitated woman did not turn toward me beseechingly. Usually the lingering dead know that I can see them, and they are drawn to me. This one seemed oblivious of me, and I drove straight through her with no more effect than driving through a swirl of mist.


Suspended on a chain around my neck, under my sweatshirt, the tiny bell began to ring itself again, three silvery bursts of sound like those it had produced shortly before dawn.


The bell had been given to me on the night when Annamaria told me that certain unnamed people wanted to kill her. She had taken the pendant from around her neck, offered it to me, and asked, Will you die for me?


Amazing myself, I had at once said yes.


Now the inexplicable ringing of the bell apparently signified that my next challenge was at hand, that the time had come to move forward in my quest for meaning and purpose.


To the east, several residential streets ran parallel to the village’s main artery, and to the west were Coast Highway underpasses that led to shoreside neighborhoods, but I was compelled to ignore them. I drove directly to the access road that carried me onto the southbound lanes of the Coast Highway, past the town line, with the ocean to my right, the crazier part of California a few hundred miles behind me, the somewhat less crazy part of it still about seventy miles ahead.


The final aspect of my paranormal ability is psychic magnetism. If I need to find someone and don’t know where he is at the moment, I concentrate on his name or picture his face in my mind’s eye, and then I walk or bicycle or drive around at random, until psychic magnetism draws me to him. Usually I find him within half an hour.


Ahead, flanked by parched meadows of pale grass stippled with widely separated live oaks, the highway rose gradually toward a crest. In this sparsely populated stretch of coast, traffic remained light. If the cowboy in the ProStar+ was ahead of me, as intuition insisted, he must be cruising beyond this hill.


The Ford Explorer was a fine machine. Sturdy, easy to handle, it rode almost as smoothly at seventy miles per hour as at sixty, only minimally less well at eighty. I looked forward to seeing how it handled at ninety.


Someone starting my memoirs with this volume might think that I’m a lawless youth, an itinerant fry-cook rebel. But I didn’t steal the car to profit from it, only to get on the trail of the homicidal cowboy trucker before he receded beyond the range of my paranormal perception.


For the same reason, I broke the posted speed limit, which otherwise I would not have done. Probably would not have done. Might not have done. I must admit, the older I get, the more I like speed almost as much as I like hash browns. There’s something mystical about perfect hash browns, something that stirs the soul, and the same is true of speed.


Now, ahead of me, a Honda maintained such a leisurely pace that the guy behind the wheel might have been a Zen Buddhist for whom the act of driving was a disciplined meditation more concerned with enlightenment than with progress.


Intending to pass, I glanced at my side mirror to be sure that the left lane was clear, and I discovered an eighteen-wheeler looming alarmingly close. I hadn’t heard the truck, but now I did, and when I glanced at my rearview mirror, the snarling-shark grille of the ProStar+ seemed to be gnashing its chrome teeth in anticipation of a satisfying bite.


One thing I failed to disclose about psychic magnetism: Once in a while, not often but often enough to make me wonder when I will be sufficiently frazzled to require a Prozac prescription, this strange gift draws my target to me instead of drawing me to my target. This might seem to be a fine distinction of little importance, but it can be a life-or-death issue when a big rig, weighing seventy thousand pounds or more if loaded, driven by a maniac, hurtles into the rear bumper of your stolen Ford Explorer.


Before I could stomp the accelerator to the floor and try to outrun the cowboy, he rammed me hard enough to bounce the Ford off its back tires, tipping it forward for an instant. The steering wheel spun through my hands, I struggled for control, the tailgate window imploded, plastic cracked, metal tore with a banshee shriek, and I could no more regain control than I could vaporize the big rig with a well-chosen magic word.


I spat out a number of well-chosen words, but none of them was magic.


I’m not quite sure of the subsequent physics of the encounter, but somehow the Explorer turned its starboard flank to the ProStar+ and briefly stuttered violently sideways. More windows burst and the SUV noisily cast off pieces of itself, like one of those lizards that can escape by shedding at will the tail that is in the teeth of its attacker. Then, with the indifferent majesty of a freight train rolling on its rails, the big rig rumbled past, and the Ford was forced off the road, across the graveled shoulder. It plunged bow-first down a long, grassy embankment. It ricocheted off a boulder, off an ancient ficus tree, tipped, rolled, and slid on its roof about fifty feet until it came to rest where the shore grass transitioned to sand.


I wondered why the air bag hadn’t deployed. But then I realized that a vehicle belonging to professional criminals might have been modified to make it not only faster and easier to handle but perhaps also to remove from it any features that might hamper them in a slam-bang pursuit with police hot behind them. Besides, they weren’t the type to worry about collision injuries, any more than they would employ a BABY ON BOARD bumper sticker even if they turned from bank robbery to kidnapping.


Happily, the safety harness kept me from harm, although now I hung upside down in the inverted vehicle, with the ocean vista above my head and the blue sky under my blown tires. I might have taken a little while to savor this unusual perspective if I hadn’t smelled gasoline.


Three


AS I CLIMBED THE MEADOWY SLOPE TOWARD THE COAST Highway, I expected the Explorer to burst into flames behind me, but it merely lay in ruin, belly exposed as if it were some sad beast soon to be a meal for carrion crows.


By the time I arrived at the summit and stood on the shoulder of the road, the ProStar+ was long gone, as were the other cars and trucks that had been in the northbound and southbound lanes when the cowboy had attempted to murder me with an eighteen-wheeler. Blacktop receded into sun-baked silence, still and lonely, as if the rest of humanity had vanished from the planet while I’d ridden the runaway Ford to the shore.


Some of the people in those vehicles must have seen what happened, yet none stopped to ascertain my condition or to offer assistance. The world howls for social justice, but when it comes to social responsibility, you sometimes can’t even hear crickets chirruping.


Engine noise drew my attention to the north. A car appeared in the distance, and the closer it came, the longer it grew. When it stopped on the side of the highway, in front of me, it proved to be a black superstretch Mercedes limousine.


The front tinted window on the passenger side powered down, and when I bent to peer into the limo, I discovered that the driver was a pixie. Standing, she might have been an inch short of five feet. She could see over the steering wheel only because she was perched on a firm pillow. Elderly, slight but not frail, she wore her white hair in a Peter Pan cut.


“Child,” she said, “you look in need of something. Are you in need of something?”


I could see nothing to be gained and all kinds of complications that might arise if I mentioned the thoroughly wrecked Ford Explorer on the beach below.


“Well, ma’am, I need to get south in a hurry.”


“South where?”


“I’m not quite sure.”


“You don’t know where you need to go?”


“I’ll know it when I get there, ma’am.”


She cocked her head and regarded me in silence for a moment, and I thought of a cockatoo, perhaps because of her white hair and the birdlike brightness of her stare.


“Are you a cutthroat murderer?” she asked.


“No, ma’am.”


I chose not to say that I had sometimes killed in self-defense and to protect the innocent. Killing is different from murder, though most people tend to get nervous when you try to explain why one might be acceptable but never the other.


“Are you a rapist?”


“No, ma’am.”


“You don’t look like a rapist.”


“Thank you.”


“You don’t look drug-crazed, either.”


“People often tell me that, ma’am.”


She squinted at me but then smiled, apparently having decided that I wasn’t trying to be a wiseass.


“Do you have a job, child?”


“I’m a fry cook, currently unemployed.”


“I don’t need a fry cook.”


“I think everyone does, ma’am, they just don’t know it.”


A Peterbilt, a motor home, and a Cadillac Escalade roared past, and we waited for silence.


She said, “What I need is a chauffeur.”


“I thought you were the chauffeur.”


“Isn’t anybody in this big old boat but me. Four days ago, up in Moonlight Bay, Oscar Dunningham, my best friend and my driver for twenty-two years, dropped dead of a massive heart attack.”


“That’s terrible, ma’am. I’m sorry.”


“Maybe it would be a tragedy if Oscar wasn’t ninety-two years old. He had a good life. Now he’s ashes in an urn, flying back to Georgia where the truly sad thing is his mother will see him buried.”


“His mother is still alive?”


“She’s not some walking-dead zombie, child. Of course she’s alive. Or was this morning. You never know. None of us does. If it matters at all, I’m eighty-six.”


“You don’t look it, ma’am.”


“The hell I don’t. When I see myself in a mirror, I scream.”


In fact, she had one of those fine-boned, perfectly symmetrical faces that time could little distort, and her soft skin was not so much wrinkled as precisely pleated to sweet effect.


She said, “Can you drive?”


“Yes. But I can’t take a job right now.”


“You don’t look like a shiftless good-for-nothing.”

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