I no longer sensed that alternate basement. But then came a sound like two metal fire doors falling shut, one a fraction of a second after the other, the former softer than the latter.
When I turned to Mr. Hitchcock, I found that he was watching me. As though soliciting my reaction to what had just happened, he raised his eyebrows.
Although I am not an important person by any definition, at that moment I almost felt like one. In spite of my paranormal ability, I am just a hapless out-of-work short-order cook who struggles to fry well when he has a job and, if possible, at all times to do the right thing. But now I suddenly thought of all those male leads in Mr. Hitchcock’s films, and I felt obligated to fulfill his directorial expectations, to answer his raised eyebrows with a remark witty enough to be delivered by Cary Grant.
Instead, I said, “Uh … wow … see … you know … the thing is … I don’t understand. Where were those two men? Where are they now? Was their argument something that happened here earlier? Or something that’ll happen in the future?”
He shook his head and then tapped the face of his wristwatch with one finger, perhaps to indicate that the time in both basements was the same, that what I’d seen had happened just now. Or maybe he had done a Rolex commercial during his life and felt a duty to sell the brand even after death.
“Sir, I’m confused.”
With fingers widely spread, hands framing his face, with an expression of amazement, Mr. Hitchcock mocked me, as if to say, You? Confused? Who knew? Astonishing! Impossible! It beggars belief!
If he’d been Quentin Tarantino or Oliver Stone, I might have been a bit offended—or even alarmed by the possibility of mindless violence—but in his day he’d been known for his unexpected clowning and practical jokes. His friend, the actor Gerald du Maurier, had been appearing in a play at St. James Theater, in London, when during a performance Mr. Hitchcock somehow had gotten a full-grown horse into the star’s dressing room without anyone seeing it happen. When du Maurier returned at the end of the play, he found the huge animal contentedly eating grain from a feed bag.
Now the director turned from me and glided across the basement as if he wore ice skates and the floor were a frozen pond, and I had to hurry to keep up with him. He passed through a heavy fire door, which I yanked open in his wake, wondering if this might be the door that I had heard crash shut twice in quick succession when the see-through cowboy had departed the other basement or this basement, or both.
With my confusion growing more profound, I rushed along a drab corridor to a pair of elevators—the smaller for people, the larger for freight—where Mr. Hitchcock stood. As I arrived, a bell sounded, the first set of doors slid open, he stepped into the waiting car, and I followed him.
Even if I’d been able by then to come up with a line worthy of Cary Grant, before I could have delivered it, the director soared through the roof of the elevator and disappeared. I had never known a ghost to be this exuberant, this frolicsome, and his apparent delight in his supernatural abilities flummoxed me.
Stepping out of the elevator into the hallway lined with shops on the main floor of Star Truck, I spotted Mr. Hitchcock to my right, standing by the service-map kiosk in the lobby. He raised his right arm high and waved at me, as though I might not recognize him among the dozen or so truck drivers currently entering and leaving the building.
As I approached, he winked out of existence—and then reappeared on the far side of the glass doors of the main entrance.
Exiting the building, joining Mr. Hitchcock, I sensed the cowboy nearby, although he was nowhere in sight. Then I saw the ProStar+ receding along the exit lanes from Star Truck, speeding toward the Coast Highway.
The roar of a nearer engine followed by the shrill squealing of brakes startled me backward. The superstretch Mercedes limo ran down Mr. Hitchcock and slid to a smoking-rubber stop in front of me.
He couldn’t have been roadkill, of course, because he lacked material substance. He was just gone.
Through the open window in the driver’s door, Mrs. Edie Fischer said, “Hurry, child, or we might lose him.”
In the distance, the red-and-black rig disappeared into the underpass beneath the highway.
I darted around the car, climbed in the front passenger seat, pulled my door shut, and glanced through the open privacy panel into the passenger compartment. “Where is he?”
Of course Mrs. Fischer didn’t know that I was looking for Mr. Hitchcock, who I thought must have entered the limousine through the undercarriage.
Perched on her booster pillow, barely able to see over the steering wheel, piloting the immense car around the service islands, she said, “You called him a flamboyant rhinestone cowboy, but I saw him, and there’s no honest honky-tonk in that man. He’s flam with none of the buoyant. All deceit, lies, trickery. Planning murder, is he? Child, you need to take him down.”
“I knocked him flat with apples—Red Delicious, Granny Smiths—but even as much as I hate guns, I probably need one.”
Indicating the purse on the seat between us, she said, “Take the pistol I showed you earlier.”
“I don’t want to get you in trouble.”
“Sweetie, that gun’s even harder to trace than apples.”
I didn’t feel that it was proper to open her purse, even though she invited me to do so. Besides, I didn’t have an immediate use for the weapon. For the time being, we were only following my enemy. I wasn’t going to shoot out his tires or leap from the speeding limo to the driver’s door of the truck. I’m not Tom Cruise. I’m not even Angelina Jolie.
Entering one of the exit lanes, Mrs. Fischer accelerated toward the underpass. “Belt up,” she advised.
By this point, I knew her well enough to take such advice without hesitation.
Coming out of the underpass, ascending the curved on-ramp to the Coast Highway, she rapidly accelerated, as if the laws of physics did not apply to her. If we’d been in an SUV or an ordinary car, we might have demonstrated the power of centrifugal force, might have rolled off the roadway at the apex of the arc. The limo was heavy, however, with a low center of gravity, and we rocketed to the top of the ramp at launch speed.
Contemptuous of the yield sign, Mrs. Fischer pressed great blasts of sound from the car horn as a warning to any motorists who might be approaching from behind her in the right-hand lane. The limo shot onto the highway, whistling south toward the targeted ProStar+.
“Take it easy,” I warned. “We don’t want to catch him.”
“But you said he’s going to murder three people. He has to be stopped.”
“We’ll stop him, but not yet. We need to see where he’s going, what he’s up to. He’s not in this alone. That reminds me, did you see another guy come out of the truck stop with him?”
“No. He was alone. So this is a conspiracy?” She lingered on the last word, as though the sound of it enchanted her.
“I don’t know what it is. This other guy—he’s wearing jeans and a black-leather jacket. Lizard-lid eyes, stocky, looks like he was into one of those martial arts where he broke cement blocks with his face but sometimes the block won.”
“This is more delicious by the moment.” She grinned broadly, and her adorable dimples were so deep that faeries might have lived in them. Having eased up on the accelerator, she said, “So we’ll just stay far back and keep the truck in sight—is that it?”
Relying on my psychic magnetism, we wouldn’t even have to keep the ProStar+ in sight, but I didn’t want to explain to her that I was like Miss Jane Marple with paranormal abilities.
“Yes, ma’am. Just keep it in sight. Nothing bad is going to happen right away. He doesn’t have the children yet.”
I realized my mistake even as I spoke.
She understood the significance of what I said. Her smile faded, her dimples withered. Her voice grew so tough that she sounded as if she might be Clint Eastwood’s hard-bitten sister. “That’s who he’s going to kill—three children?”
Reluctantly, I said, “Yes, ma’am, I believe so. Two girls—one maybe six years old, the other ten. And a boy of about eight.”
“Evil is always drawn to the innocent,” she declared with the precise note of contempt and disgust that, if she were Mr. Eastwood and if this were a Western, would have been punctuated with a stream of tobacco juice well aimed at a spittoon. “How do you know he’s going to kill children?”
“I’d rather not say, ma’am.”
“Call me Edie.”
“I’d rather that you did say.”
“What if first you tell me what it means to be smoothed out and fully blue?”
After a silence, she said, “I’ll tell you when I tell you, but this isn’t the when.”
“That works for me, too, ma’am.”
Squinting at the distant eighteen-wheeler as though she might vaporize it with her stare, Mrs. Fischer said, “If I catch the freak laying a hand on a child, I’ll feed his testicles to coyotes while he watches.”
She didn’t look quite so adorable at the moment. She looked like a mean Muppet hot for vengeance.
IN THE TIGHTLY CLUSTERED SUBURBS JUST NORTH OF Los Angeles, the ProStar+ turned away from any hope of the sea, and we followed. Soon Highway 101 became State Route 134, the widest river of concrete that I had yet seen, which offered passage through the metropolitan sprawl to stark and lonely mountains in the east.
I was born in quiet Pico Mundo, where prairie surrendered to desert long before my time, and I lived there for more than twenty years. But the memory of my loss was too much with me in Pico Mundo. Although I knew that Stormy Llewellyn would not have hesitated to cross over to the Other Side, I woke many mornings with the hope that her lingering spirit would come to me, that I might see her again, and I went to bed at night to dream of the reunion that the day had not produced.
When at last I ventured out into the world, seeking peace that I could no longer find in my hometown, I went only as far as St. Bartholomew’s Abbey, on the California side of the Sierra Nevada, high in the mountains, where I stayed as a lay resident in the monks’ guesthouse for half a year. My adventures since leaving the monastery had taken me to the town of Magic Beach, to a roadside enterprise called Harmony Corner, to a strange private estate in Montecito, but only now, for the first time in my life, into the outer precincts of a major city.
Maybe I am by nature too lacking in sophistication to appreciate or adapt to life among teeming multitudes. The sight of one community after another flowing together without discernible borders, the vast valley and the serried hillsides encrusted with miles upon miles of houses and low-rise buildings, here and there clusters of high-rises: It oppressed me, and though we were traveling through it all at great speed—past exits for Burbank and Glendale and Eagle Rock—I felt enchained, claustrophobic.
The volume of traffic increased by the minute. Afraid of losing our quarry, Mrs. Fischer wanted to close the gap between us and the truck.
I insisted that we remain at such a distance that we could just barely see the eighteen-wheeler. “You said he’s all deceit, lies, and trickery, and that’s true. But he’s also … I don’t know. Intuitive. Strangely intuitive. If we aren’t extremely careful, he’ll become aware of us.”
She glanced at me, her face that of a wizened pixie but her eyes as analytic as the lasers of some facial-recognition scanner that could read volumes of information even in the blandest expression that I might turn upon her. “And if we lose him, Oddie?”
“We’ll find him again.”
“How can you be so sure of that?”
Rather than meet that blue stare a moment longer, I shifted my gaze to the habitations of humanity that, in their plenitude, raised an inexplicable but nonetheless terrible foreboding in my heart.
When I didn’t reply to her question, she answered it for me. “Maybe you’re so sure of finding him again because you’re ‘strangely intuitive’ yourself.”
I didn’t respond because her words were not just words; they were also bait. She had her secrets and I had mine, and for the time being, we would keep them to ourselves.
The clear sky, under which I had left Annamaria back at the cottage, remained clear here to the north of the city. But ominous palisades of dark clouds rose in the south and appeared to be falling toward us in a slow-motion avalanche. A wind had come out of the south, as well, shuddering the trees. The high-soaring, graceful flocks of birds seen previously were gone, replaced by quick pairs and lone individuals that flew fast and low, darting as if from one temporary roost to another in search of the safest haven in which to ride out a coming storm.
“What happened to your disguise?” Mrs. Fischer asked.
“Oscar’s lovely plaid cap.”
“I don’t know. I must have left it somewhere. I’m sorry.”
“And the sunglasses?”
“They broke when—” I almost said when the cowboy shot me in the throat, but caught myself. “They just broke.”
She clucked her tongue. “Not good. Now there’s just the chin beard and the choice of mustaches.”
“I’m done with disguises, ma’am. They won’t fool this guy.”
Across the wide highway, through the valley, over the tiered foothills, and up the rough slopes of the San Gabriel Mountains, vast ragged shadows suddenly flew northward, although the clear sky revealed no cause for them. In all my troubled life, I had never seen anything like these swift shades, as if aircraft as large as football fields—and larger—passed low overhead in jet-speed squadrons.
I almost exclaimed about them, but then I realized that Mrs. Fischer was unaware of this spectacle. She leaned forward over the steering wheel, squinting to keep the distant ProStar+ in sight among other eighteen-wheelers that might at any moment change lanes and screen her from it. Even if focused intently on the truck, she would have been aware of the racing shadows if she had been capable of seeing them. Evidently, they weren’t real shadows but perhaps were instead portents of some threat, visible only to me.
The many densely populated communities encircling us were more oppressive than ever, huddled, hivelike. In the stroboscopic flicker of light, the impossible shadows seemed not only to race over the landscape but also to flail at it, and the buildings and all the artifacts of mankind appeared to twitch and shiver much as the trees shuddered in the rising wind.
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