Page 11

He remembered the softly radiant red eyes staring at him through the car window, the oozing sores in the scarred and filthy face, the crescent of broken yellow teethand abruptly he was able to identify the unnerving quality in the hobo's grin which had halted him as he had first been about to yank open the door. Gibbering lunacy was not what made the strange derelict so threatening. It was not the grin of a madman. It was the grin of a predator, cruising shark, stalking panther, wolf prowling by moonlight, something far more formidable and deadly than a mere deranged vagrant.

All the way back to Special Projects in Laguna Niguel, the scenery and the streets were familiar, nothing mysterious about the other motorists that he passed, nothing otherworldly about the play of headlights in the nickelbright rain or the metallic clicking that the cold droplets made against the skin of the sedan, nothing eerie about the silhouettes of palm trees against the iron sky. Yet he was overcome by a feeling of the uncanny, and he struggled to avoid the conclusion that he had brushed up against something ...


Ticktock, ticktock...

He thought about the rest of what the hobo had said after appearing out of the whirlwind: You'll be dead by dawn.

He glanced at his watch. The crystal was still filmed with rainwater, the face distorted, but he could read the time: twentyeight minutes past three.

When was sunrise? Six o'clock? Sixthirty? Thereabouts, somewhere between. At most, fifteen hours away.

The metronomic thump of the windshield wipers began to sound like the ominous cadence of funeral drums.

This was ridiculous. The derelict couldn't have followed him all the way to Enrique's house from Laguna Beachwhich meant the hobo was not real, merely imagined, and therefore posed no threat.

He was not relieved. If the hobo was imaginary, Harry was in no danger of dying by dawn. But as far as he could see, that left a single alternative explanation, and not one that was reassuring: he must be having a nervous breakdown.

Harry's side of the office was comforting. The blotter and pen set -were perfectly squared with each other and precisely aligned with the edges of the desk. The brass clock showed the same time as did his wristwatch. The leaves of the potted palm, Chinese evergreens, and pothos were all clean and glossy The blue screen of the computer monitor was soothing, as well, and all the Special Projects forms were installed as macros, so he could complete them and print them without resort to a typewriter.

Uneven spacing inevitably resulted when one attempted to fill in the blanks on forms with that antiquated technology He was an excellent typist, and he could compose case narrative in his head almost as fast as he could type. Anyone was capable of filling in blank spaces or making Ks in boxes, but not everyone was skilled at the part of the job he liked to call the “essay test.” His case narratives were written in language both more vivid and succinct than that of any other detective he had ever known.

As his fingers flew across the keyboard, crisp sentences formed on the screen, and Harry Lyon was more at peace with the world than he had been at any time since he had sat at his breakfast table that morning, eating English muffins with lemon marmalade and enjoying the view of the meticulously trimmed condominium greenbelt.

When James Ordegard's killing spree was summarized in spare prose stripped of valueweighted verbs and adjectives, the episode didn't seem half as bizarre as when Harry actually had been a part of it. He hammered out the words, and the words soothed.

He was even feeling sufficiently relaxed to allow himself to get more casual in the office than was his habit. He unbuttoned the collar of his shirt and slightly loosened the knot of his tie.

He took a break from the paperwork only to walk down the hall to the vendingmachine room to get a cup of coffee. His clothes were still damp in spots and hopelessly wrinkled, but the frost in his marrow had melted.

On his way back to the office with the coffee, he saw the hobo.

The hulking vagrant was at the far end of the hall, crossing the intersection, passing left to right in another corridor. Facing forward, never looking toward Harry, the guy moved purposefully, as if in the building on other business. Ih a few long strides he was through the intersection and out of sight.

As Harry hurried along the hall to see where the man had gone, trying not to spill the coffee, he told himself that it hadn't been the same person. There had been a vague resemblance, that was all; imagination and frayed nerves had done the rest.

His denials were without conviction. The figure at the end of the corridor had been the same height as his nemesis, with those bearish shoulders, that barrel chest, the same filthy mane of hair and tangled beard. The long black raincoat had spread around him like a robe, and he'd had that leonine selfpossession, as if he were some mad prophet mystically transported from the days of the Old Testament and dropped into modern times.

Harry braked at the end of the hallway by sliding into the intersection, wincing as hot coffee slopped out of the cup and stung his hand. He looked right, where the vagrant had been headed. The only people in that corridor were Bob Wong and Louis Yang, loan outs from the Orange County Sheriff's Department, who were consulting over a manila file folder.

Harry said, “Where'd he go?”

They blinked at him, and Bob Wong said, “Who?”

“The hairball in the black raincoat, the hobo.”

The two men were puzzled.

Yang said, “Hobo?”

“Well, if you didn't see him, you had to smell him.”

“Just now?” Wong asked "Yeah. Two seconds g.)1

“Nobody came through here,” Yang said.

Harry knew they weren't lying to him, weren't part of some immense conspiracy. Nevertheless, he wanted to walk past them and inspect all of the rooms along the corridor.

He restrained himself only because they were already staring at him curiously. He suspected he was something of a sightdisheveled, pale, wildeyed.

He could not tolerate the idea that he was making a spectacle of himself He'd built a life on the principles of moderation, orderliness, and seflcontrol.

Reluctantly he returned to his office. He took a cork coaster from his top desk drawer, put it on the blotter, and set the dripping cup of coffee on it.

He kept a roll of paper towels and a spray bottle of Windex in the bottom drawer of one of the filing cabinets. He used a couple of the towels to blot his coffeedamp hands, then wiped off the wet cup.

He was pleased to see that his hands were not shaky Whatever the hell was happening, he would eventually figure it out and deal with it. He could deal with anything. Always had.

Always would. Selfcontrol. That was the key.

He took several slow, deep breaths. With both hands he smoothed his hair back from his forehead.

Heavy as a slab of slate, the lowering sky had pressed twilight into an earlier appearance. It was only a few minutes after five o'clock, an hour until sunset, but the day had surrendered to a protracted dusk.

Harry turned on the overhead fluorescent lights.

For a minute or two he stood at the partially fogged window, watching tons of rain crash straight down on the parking lot. The thunder and lightning were long past, and the air was too heavy to permit wind, so the deluge had a tropical intensity a grueling relentlessness that led the mind to ancient myths involving divine punishment, arks, and lost continents vanished beneath swollen seas.

Calmed somewhat, he returned to his desk chair and swung around to the computer. He was about to call up the casenarrative document that he had saved before going down the hall for coffee, when he realized that the screen was not blank, as it should have been.

Another document had been created in his absence. It consisted of a single word centered on the screen: TICKTOCK It was nearly six o'clock when Connie Gulliver returned to the office from the crime scene, having caught a ride in a Laguna Beach Police Department blackandwhite. She was grousing about the media, one television reporter in particular who had dubbed her and Harry “Batwoman and Batman,” for Godaloneknew what reason, maybe because their desperate pursuit of James Ordegard involved so much derringdo, or maybe just because there had been a flock of bats in 'the attic where they had nailed the bastard. Electronic journalists did not always have discernibly logical reasons or credible justifications for doing and saying some of the things they did and said. Reporting the news was neither a sacred trust nor a public service to them, it was show business, where you needed flash and splash more than facts and figures. Connie had been around long enough to know all of that and to be resigned to it, but she was hot about it anyway, haranguing Harry from the moment she walked through the door.

He was just finishing the paperwork when she arrived, having dawdled during the past half an hour, waiting for her. He'd decided to tell her about the tramp with the bloodred eyes, in part because she was his partner and he was loath to conceal anything significant from a partner. He and Ricky Estephen had always shared everything, which was one reason he had gone to see Ricky before returning to Special Projects, the other reason being that he valued Ricky's insights and advice. Whether the threatening hobo was real or a symptom of mental collapse, Connie had a right to know about him.

If that filthy, spectral figure was imaginary, perhaps just talking about him with someone would puncture the balloon of delusion.

The hobo might never appear again.

Harry also wanted to tell her because telling her gave him a reason to spend some offduty time with her. At least a little socializing between partners was advisable, helped strengthen that special bond between cops who had to put their lives on the line for each other.

They needed to talk about what they had been through that afternoon, relive it together, and thereby transform it from a traumatic experience into a polished anecdote with which to annoy rookies for years to come.

And in truth, he wanted to spend some time with Connie because he had begun to be interested in her not only as a partner but as a woman.

Which surprised him. They were such opposites. He had spent so much time telling himself that she drove him nuts. Now he couldn't stop thinking about her eyes, the luster of her hair, the fullness of her mouth. Though he had not wanted to admit it, this change in his attitude had been building up speed for some time, and today gears had finally shifted in his head.

No mystery about that. He'd nearly been killed. More than one A brush with death was a great clarifier of thoughts and feelings.

He'd not only had a brush with death; he'd been embraced by it, hugged tight.

He had seldom harbored so many intense emotions all at once: loneliness, fear, aching selfdoubt, joy at just being alive, desire so acute that it weighed upon his heart and made breathing just a little more difficult than usual.

“Where do I sign?” Connie asked, when he told her he had completed the paperwork.

He spread out all the requisite forms on his desk, including Connie's own official statement. He had written it for her, as he always did, which was against department policy and one of the few rules he had ever broken. But they split chores according to their skills and preferences, and he just happened to be better at this part than she was. Her own case narratives tended to be angry in tone instead of solemnly neutral, as if every crime was the most grievous personal affront to her, and sometimes she used words like “asshole” or “shithead” instead of “suspect” or “arrestee,” which was guaranteed to send the defendant's attorney into rapturous spasms of selfrighteousness in the courtroom.

Connie signed all of the forms that he put in front of her, including the cleanly typed statement attributed to her, without reading any of them. Harry liked that. She trusted him.

As he watched her scribble her signature, he decided they should go somewhere special, even with him rumpled and damp, a cozy bar with plushly padded booths and low lighting and candles on the tables, a pianist making cocktail musicbut not one of those slick guys who did polyester lounge versions of good tunes and sang “Feelings” once every half hour, the anthem of sentimental inebriates and mushheads in all fifty states.

Connie couldn't stop fuming about being labeled Batwoman and other abuses suffered at the hands of the media, so Harry had difficulty finding a moment to insert an invitation to drinks and dinner, which gave him too much time to look at her. Not that she looked any less appealing the longer he watched her. Just the opposite: when he took the time to study her face feature by feature, she proved to be more attractive than he had ever realized. The problem was, he also began to see just how tired she was: redeyed, pale, large dark smudges of weariness beneath her eyes, shoulders slumped under the weight of the day. He began to doubt that she would want to have a drink and rehash the events of the lunch hour.

And the more aware he became of her exhaustion, the more profoundly weary he felt himself.

Her bitterness over the electronic news media's tendency to turn tragedy into entertainment reminded Harry that she had begun the day angry, as well, troubled by something she had refused to discuss.

As his ardor cooled, he wondered whether it was really such a good idea to have a romantic interest in a partner in the first place.

Department policy was to split up teams who developed more than a friendly relationship when offduty, whether g*y or straight.

Longenforced policies were usually based on a wealth of hard experience.

Connie finished signing the papers and gave him a onceover.

“This is the first time you've ever looked as if you might consider shopping at the Gap instead of exclusively at Brooks Brothers.”

Then she actually hugged him, which might have stirred his passion agnnøexcept that it was a buddy hug. “How's you feel?”

Justa dull ache, that's all, thank you, nothing that would inhibit me from making passionate, hot, sweary love to you.

He said, “I'm fine.”

“You sure?”


“God, I'm tired.”

“Me, too.”

“I think sleep a hundred hours.”' “At least ten.”

She smiled and, to his surprise, affectionately pinched his cheek “See you in the morning, Harry.”

He watched her as she walked out of the office. She was still wearing badly scuffed Reeboks, blue jeans, a redandbrown checkered blouse, and a brown corduroy jacketand the outfit was worse for the wear of the past ten hours. Yet he could not have found her more alluring if she had been shoehorned into a clinging, sequined gown with canyonesque decolletage.

The room was dreary without her. The fluorescent light painted hard, cold edges on the furniture, on every leaf of every plant.

Beyond the steamed window, the premature twilight was giving way to night, but the stormy day had been so somber that the phase of demarcation was excruciatingly subtle. Rain hammered on the anvil of darkness.