The aroma of oranges made her mouth water. While Margaret held the glass, Jennifer drank through a straw. Her mouth didn't work quite right. Occasionally she had minor difficulty swallowing, but the juice was cold and delicious.
When she emptied the glass, she let the nurse blot her mouth with a paper napkin.
She listened to the soothing fall of the rain, hoping that it would settle her nerves. It did not.
“Should I turn the radio on?” Margaret asked.
“No, thank you.”
“I could read to you if you'd like. Poetry. You always enjoy listening to poetry.”
“That would be nice.”
Margaret drew a chair to the side of the bed and sat in it. As she sought a certain passage in a book, the turning of the pages was a crisp and pleasant sound.
“Margaret?” Jennifer said before the woman could begin to read.
"When he comes to visit..
“What is it, dear?”
“You'll stay in the room with us, won't you?”
“If that's what you want, of course.”
“Now how about a little Emily Dickinson?”
“When he comes to visit and I'm... lost inside myself.”. . you never let me alone with him, do you?"
Margaret was silent, and Jennifer could almost see the woman's disapproving frown.
“Do you?” she insisted.
“No, dear. I never do.”
Jennifer knew the nurse, was lying.
“Please, Margaret. You seem like a kind person. Please.”
“Dear, really, he loves you. He comes so faithfully because he loves you. You're in no danger from your Bryan, none at all.”
She shivered at the mention of the name. "I know you think I'm mentally disturbed... confused.
“A little Emily Dickinson will help.”
“I am confused about a lot of things,” Jennifer said, dismayed to hear her voice growing rapidly weaker, “but not about this. I'm not the least bit confused about this.”
In a voice too full of artifice to convey the powerful, hidden sinewiness of Dickinson, the nurse began to read: “That Love is all there is' 4 all we know of Love....”
Half of the large table in Ricky Estefan's spacious kitchen was covered with a dropcloth on which were arranged the smallscale power tools he used to craft silver jewelry: a handheld drill, engraving instrument, emery wheel, buffer, and less easily identifiable equipment. Bottles of fluids and cans of mysterious compounds were neatly arranged to one side, as were small paintbrushes, white cotton cloths, and steelwool pads.
He had been at work on two pieces when Harry interrupted: a strikingly detailed scarab brooch and a massive belt buckle covered with Indian symbols, maybe Navajo or Hopi. His second career.
His forge and moldmaking equipment were in the garage. But when he worked on the finishing details of his jewelry, he sometimes liked to sit by the kitchen window where he could enjoy a view of his rose garden.
Outside, even in the dreary gray deluge, the plentiful blooms were radiantyellow and red and coral, some as big as grapefruits.
Harry sat at the uncluttered part of the table with his coffee, while Ricky shuffled to the other side and put his cup and saucer down among the cans, bottles, and tools. He lowered himself into his chair as stiffly as an octogenarian with severe arthritis.
Three years ago, Ricky Estefan had been a cop, one of the best, Harry's partner. He'd been a goodlooking guy, too, with a full head of hair, not yellowwhite as it was now but thick and black.
His life had changed when he had unwittingly walked into the middle of a robbery at a convenience store. The strungout gunman had a crack habit for which he needed financing, and maybe he smelled cop the moment Ricky stepped through the door or maybe he was in the mood to waste anyone who even inadvertently delayed the transfer of the money from the cash register to his pockets.
Whichever the case, he fired four times at Ricky, missing him once, hitting him once in the left thigh and twice in the abdomen.
“How's the jewelry business?” Harry asked.
“Pretty good. I sell everything I make, get more orders for custom belt buckles than I can fill.”
Ricky sipped his coffee and savored it before swallowing. Coffee was not on his approved diet. If he drank much, it played hell with his stomachr what was left of his stomach.
Getting gutshot is easy; surviving is a bitch. He was lucky that the perp's weapon was only a .22 pistol, unlucky that it was fired at close range. For beginners, Ricky lost his spleen, part of his liver, and a small section of his large intestine. Although his surgeons took every precaution to keep the abdominal cavity clean the slugs spread fecal matter, and Ricky quickly developed acute, diffuse, traumatic peritonitis. Barely survived it. Gas gangrene set in, antibiotics wouldn't stop it, and he underwent additional surgery in which he lost his gallbladder and a portion of his stomach. Then a blood infection.
Temperature somewhere near that on the sunward surface of Mercury.
Peritonitis again, too, and the removal of another piece of the colon.
Through it all he had maintained anamazingiy upbeat mood and, in the end, felt blessed that he had retained enough of his gastrointestinal system to be spared the indignity of having to wear a colostomy bag for the rest of his life.
He had been offduty when he'd walked into that store, armed but expecting no trouble. He had promised Anita, his wife, to pick up a quart of milk and tub of soft margarine on his way home from work.
The gunman had never come to trial. The distraction provided by Ricky had allowed the store ownerMr. Wo Tai Hanto pick up a shotgun which he kept behind the counter. He'd taken off the back of the perp's head with a blast from that 12-gauge.
Of course, this being the last decade of the millennium, that had not been the end of it. The mother and father of the gunman sued Mr. Han for depriving them of the affection, companionship, and a, financial support of their deceased son, and never mind that a crack addict was incapable of providing any of those things.
Harry drank some coffee. It was good and strong. “You hear from Mr. Han lately?”
“Yeah. He's real confident about winning on appeal.”
Harry shook his head. “Never can tell what a jury will do these days.”
Ricky smiled tightly. "Yeah. I figure I'm lucky I didn't get sued, too.
He hadn't been lucky in much else. At the time of the shooting, he and Anita had been married only eight months. She stayed with him another year, until he was on his feet, but when she realized he was going to be an old man for the rest of his days, she called it quits. She was twentysix. She had a life to live. Besides, these days, the clause of the matrimony vows that mentioned “in sickness and in health, till death do us part” was widely regarded as not binding until the end of a lengthy trial period of, say, a decade, sort of like not being vested in a pension plan until you had worked with the company for five years.
For the past two years, Ricky had been alone.
It must be Kenny G Day. Another of his tunes was on the radio.
This one was less melodic than the first. It made Harry edgy. Maybe any song would have made him edgy just then.
“What's wrong?” Ricky asked.
“How'd you know something's wrong?”
“You'd never in a million years go visiting friends for no reason during work hours. You always give the taxpayer his money's worth.”
“Am I really that rigid?”
“Do you really need to ask?”
“I must've been a pain in the ass to work with.”
“Sometimes.” Ricky smiled.
Harry told him about James Ordegard and the death among the mannequins.
Ricky listened. He spoke hardly at all, but when he did have something to say, it was always the right thing. He knew how to be a friend.
When Harry stopped and stared for a long while at the roses in the rain, apparently finished, Ricky said, “That's not everything.”
“No,” Harry admitted. He fetched the coffee pot, refreshed their cups, sat down again. “There was this hobo.”
Ricky listened to that part of it as soberly as he had listened to the rest. He did not seem incredulous. No slightest doubt was visible in his eyes or attitude. After he had heard it all, he said, “So what do you make of it? ” “Could've been seeing things, hallucinating.”
“Could you? You?”
“But for God's sake, Ricky how could it have been real?”
“Is the hobo really weirder than the perp in the restaurant?”
The kitchen was warm, but Harry was chilled. He folded both hands around the hot coffee cup. “Yeah. He's weirder. Not by much, maybe, but worse. The thing is ... you think maybe I should request psychiatric leave, take a couple of weeks for counseling?”
“Since when did you start believing those brain flushers know what they're doing?”
“I don't. But I wouldn't be happy about some other cop walking around with a loaded gun, hallucinating.”
“You're no danger to anyone but yourself, Harry You're going to worry yourself to death sooner or later. Look, as for this guy with red everybody has something happen to him sometime in his life that he can't explain, a brush with the unknown.”
“Not me,” Harry said firmly, shaking his head.
“Even you. Now if this guy starts driving up in a whirlwind every hour on the hour, asking if he could have a date, wants to tonguekiss youthen maybe you have a problem.”
Armies of rain marched across the bungalow roof.
“I'm a tightly wound customer,” Harry said. “I realize it.”
“Exactly You're tight. Not a loose bolt in you, my man.”
He and Ricky watched the rain for a couple of minutes, saying nothing.
Finally Ricky put on a pair of protective goggles and picked up the silver belt buckle. He switched on the handheld buffer, which was about the size of an electric toothbrush and not loud enough to hinder conversation, and began cleaning tarnish and minute silver shavings out of one of the etched designs.
After a while Harry sighed. “Thanks, Ricky.”
Harry took his cup and saucer to the sink, rinsed them off, and put them in the dishwasher.
On the radio, Harry Connick, Jr was singing about love.
Over the sink was another window. The hard rain was beating the hell out of the roses. Bright petals, like confetti, were scattered across the soaked lawn.
When Harry returned to the table, Ricky turned off the buffer and started to get up. Harry said, “It's okay, I'll let myself out.”
Ricky nodded. He looked so frail.
“See you soon.”
“Won't be too long till the season starts,” Ricky said.
“Let's take in an Angels game opening week.”
“I'd like that,” Ricky said.
They both enjoyed baseball. There was a comforting logic in the structure and progression of every game. It was an antidote for daily life.
On the front porch, Harry slipped into his shoes again and tied the laces, while the lizard that he had frightened upon arrivalr one just like itwatched him from the arm of the nearest chair.
Slightly iridescent green and purple scales glimmered dully along each serpentine curve of its body, as if a handful of semiprecious stones had been discarded there on the white wood.
He smiled at the tiny dragon.
He felt back in balance again, calm.
As he came off the last step onto the sidewalk and into the rain, Harry looked toward the car and saw someone sitting in the front passenger seat. A shadowy hulking figure. Wild hair and a tangled beard. The intruder was facing away from Harry, but then he turned his head. Even through the rainspotted side window and from a distance of thirty feet, the hobo was instantly recognizable.
Harry swung back toward the house, intending to shout for Ricky Estefan, but changed his mind when he recalled how suddenly the vagrant had vanished before.
He looked at the car, expecting to discover that the apparition had evaporated. But the intruder was still there.
In his bulky black raincoat, the man seemed too large for the sedan, as if he were not in a real car but in one of those scaleddown versions in a bumpercar pavilion at a carnival.
Harry moved quickly along the front walk, slopping through gray puddles. Drawing nearer the street, he saw the wellremembered scars on the maniacal faceand the red eyes.
As he reached the car, Harry said, “What're you doing in there?”
Even through the closed window, the hobo's reply was clearly audible: “Ticktock, ticktock, ticktock....”
“Get out of there,” Harry ordered.
An indefinable but unnerving quality of the derelict's grin made Harry hesitate.
Harry drew his revolver, held it with the muzzle skyward. He put his left hand on the door handle.
Those liquid red eyes daunted Harry. They looked like blood blisters thit might burst and stream down the grizzled face. The sight of them, so inhuman, was enervating.
Before his courage could drain away, he jerked open the door.
He was almost knocked over by a blast of cold wind, and staggered backward two steps. It came out of the sedan as if an arctic gale had been stored up in there, stung his eyes and drew forth tears.
The wind passed in a couple of seconds. Beyond the open car door, the front passenger seat was empty.
Harry could see enough of the sedan interior to know for certain that the vagrant was not in there anywhere. Nevertheless, he circled the vehicle, looking through all of the windows.
He stopped at the back of the car, fished his keys out of his pocket, and unlocked the trunk, covering it with his revolver as the lid swung up. Nothing: spare tire, jack, lug wrench, and tool pouch.
Surveying the quiet residential neighborhood, Harry slowly became aware of the rain again, of which he'd been briefly oblivious. A vertical river poured out of the sky. He was soaked to the skin.
He slammed the trunk lid, and then the front passenger door. He went around to the driver's side and got in behind the steering wheel. His clothes made wet squishing noises as he sat down.
Earlier, on the street in downtown Laguna Beach, the hobo had reeked of body odor and had expelled searingly had breath. But there was no lingering stink of him in the car.
Harry locked the doors. Then he returned his revolver to the shoulder holster under his sodden sportcoat.
He was shivering.
Driving away from Enrique Estefan's bungalow, Harry switched on the heater, turned it up high. Water seeped out of his soaked hair and trickled down the nape of his neck. His shoes were swelling and tightening around his feet.