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No one was in the nearer half of the large chamber. None of the storage cabinets had a compartment big enough to hide a man.


With the .38 in hand, he circled the car, looked inside it, even eased down onto his creaking knees and peered under it. Nobody was hiding there.


The exterior mansize door of the garage was locked from the inside.


So was the only window, which in any case was too small to admit anyone older than five.


He wondered if the noise had originated on the roof. For a minute, two minutes, he stood beside the car, staring up at the rafters, waiting for the thump to come again. Nothing. Just the rain, rain, rain, an unceasing tattoo.


Feeling foolish, Ricky returned to the house and locked the connecting door. He took the revolver into the kitchen with him and put it on the builtin secretary beside the telephone.


The flames under both the pasta and sauce had gone out. For a moment he thought the gas service had failed, but then he saw that the knobs in front of both burners were in the OFF position.


He knew they had been on when he left the kitchen. He turned them on again, and blue flames came to life with a whoosh under the pots.


After adjusting them to the right intensity, he stared at them for a while; the flames did not subside of their own accord.


Somebody was playing games with him.


He returned to the secretary, picked up the gun, and considered searching the house again. But he had already inspected every inch of the place, and knew for certain that he was alone.


Following a brief hesitation, he searched it againwith the same result as the first time.


When he returned to the kitchen, no one had turned off the gas The sauce was boiling so rapidly, it had begun to stick to the bottom of the pot. He put the gun aside. He speared a piece of rigatoni with a large fork, blew on it to cool it, tasted. It was slightly overcooked but okay.


He drained the pasta into a colander in the sink, shook the colander, dumped the pasta on a plate, and added sauce.


Somebody was playing games with him.


But who?


Rain drizzled through the leafy oleander bushes, encountered the layers of plastic garbage bags that Sammy had draped across the packing crate, and drained off the plastic into the vacant lot or out into the alleyway. Under the rags that served as bedding, the floor of the crate was also lined with plastic, so his humble home was relatively dry.


Even if he had been sitting in water up to his waist, Sammy Shamroe might not have noticed, for he had already finished one doubleliter jug of wine and had started a second. He was feeling no painr at least that's what he told himself.


He had it pretty good, really. The cheap wine kept him warm temporarily purged him of selfhatred and remorse, and put him in touch with certain innocent feelings and naive expectations of childhood.


Two fat blueberryscented candles, salvaged from someone else's garbage and anchored now in a pie pan, filled his sanctuary with a pleasant fragrance and a soft light as cozy as that from an antique Tiffany lamp. The close walls of the packing crate.were comforting rather than claustrophobic. The ceaseless chorus of the rain was lulling. But for the candles, perhaps it had been something like this in the sac of fetal membranes: snugly housed, suspended weightless in amniotic fluid, surrounded by the soft liquid roar of Mother's blood rushing through her veins and arteries, not merely unconcerned about the future but unaware of it.


Even when the ratman pulled aside the hanging rug that served as a door over the only opening in the crate, Sammy was not delivered from his imitation prenatal bliss. Deep down, he knew that he was in trouble, but he was too whacked to be afraid.


The crate was eight feet by six, as large as many walkin closets.


Bearish as he was, the ratman still could have squeezed in across from Sammy without knocking over the candles, but he remained crouched in the doorway, holding back the rug with one arm.


His eyes were different from what they had always been before.


Shiny black Without any whites at all. Pinpoint yellow pupils in the center, glowing. Like distant headlights on the night highway to Hell.


“How're you doing, Sammy?” the rattnan asked in a tone of voice that was uncharacteristically solicitous. “You getting along okay, Hmmmmmmmm??”


Though a surfeit of wine had so numbed Sammy Shamroe's survival instinct that he couldn't get back in touch with his fear, he knew that he should be afraid. Therefore he remained motionless and watchful, as he might have done if a rattlesnake had slithered into his crate and blocked the only way out.


The ratman said, “Just wanted you to know, I won't be stopping around for a while. Got new business. Overworked. Got to deal with more urgent matters first. When it's over, I'll be exhausted, sleep for a whole day, around the clock.”


Being temporarily fearless did not mean that Sammy had become courageous. He dared not speak “Did you know how much this exhausts me, Sammy? No? Thinning out the herd, disposing of the lame and the diseasedit's no piece of cake, let me tell you.”


When the ratman smiled and shook his head, shining beads of rainwater were flung off his beard. They spattered Sammy.


Even in the comforting womb of his wine haze, Sammy retained -enough awareness to be amazed by the ratman's sudden garrulousness. Yet, as amazing as it was, the huge man's monologue was curiously reminiscent of something he had heard before, a long time ago in another place, though he could not recall where or when or from whom. It wasn't the gravelly voice or the words themselves that brought Sammy to the edge of deja vu, but the tonal quality of the ratman's revelations, the eerie earnestness, the cadences of his speech.


“Dealing with vermin like you,” the ratman said, "is draining.


Believe me. Draining. It'd be so much easier ill could waste each of you the first time we meet, make you spontaneously combust or make your head explode. Wouldn't that be nice?"


No. Cold, exciting, interesting for sure, but not nice, Sammy thought, although his fear remained in abeyance.


“But to fulfill my destiny,” the ratman said, “to become what I am required to become, I have to show you my wrath, make you quiver and be humbled before me, make you understand the meaning of your damnation.”


Sammy remembered where he had heard this sort of thing before Another street person. Maybe eighteen months ago, two years ago, up in Los Angeles. A guy named Mike, had a messiah complex, thought he was chosen by God to make the world pay for its sins, finally went over the top with the concept, knifed three or four people who were lined up outside an arthouse theater that was showing arereleased director's cut of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure with twenty minutes of material never seen in the original version.


“Do you know what I am becoming, Sammy?”


Sammy just clutched his remaining twoliter jug.


“I am becoming the new god,” said the ratman. “A new god is needed. I have been chosen. The old god was too merciful. Things have gotten out of hand. It's my duty to Become, and having Become, to rule more sternly.”


In the candlelight, the raindrops remaining in the ratman's hair and eyebrows and beard glimmered as if a woefully misguided artisan had decorated him with jewels in the manner of a Faberge' egg.


“When I deal out these more urgent judgments, and when I've had a chance to rest, I'll be back to see you,” the ratman promised. "I just didn't want you to think you'd been forgotten. Wouldn't want you to feel neglected, unappreciated. Poor, poor Sammy. I won't forget you.


That's not just a promiseit's the sacred word of the new god."


Then the ratman worked a malevolent miracle to insure that he was not forgotten even in the thousandfathom oblivion of a deep wine sea. He blinked, and when his lids popped up again, his eyes were no longer ebony and yellow, were not eyes at all any longer, but were balls of greasy white worms writhing in his sockets. When he opened his mouth, his teeth had become razorsharp fangs. Venom dripped, a glossy black tongue fluttered like that of a questing serpent, and a violent exhalation erupted from him, reeking of putrefied flesh. His head and body swelled, burst, but didn't deconstruct into a horde of rats this time. Instead, ratman and clothes were transformed into tens of thousands of black flies that swarmed through the packing crate, buzzing fiercely, batting against Sammy's face. The thrumming of their wings was so loud that it drowned out even the drone of the pouring rain, and thenThey were gone.


Vanished.


The rug hung heavy and wet over the open section of the crate.


Candle glow flickered and pulsed across the wooden walls.


The air smelled of blueberryscented wax.


Sammy chugged a couple of long swallows of wine directly from the mouth of the jug, instead of pouring it first into the dirty jelly jar that he had been using. A little of it spilled over his whiskerstubbled chin, but he didn't care.


He was eager to remain numb, detached. If he had been in touch with his fear during the past few minutes, he would no doubt have peed his pants.


He felt it was also important to remain detached in order to think less emotionally about what the ratman had said. Previously, the creature had spoken little and had never revealed anything of its own motivations or intentions. Now it was spouting all this babble about thinning the herd, judgment, godhood.


It was valuable to know the ratman's mind was filled with the same crazy stuff that had cluttered up the head of old Mike, stabber of moviegoers. Regardless of his ability to appear out of nowhere and into thin disappear air, in spite of his inhuman eyes and ability to change shapes, all of that god blather made him seem hardly more special than any of the countless heirs of Charles Manson and Richard Ramirez who roamed the world, heeding inner voices killing for pleasure, and keeping refrigerators filled with the severed heads of their victims. If in some fundamental way he was like the other psychos out there, then even with his special talents he was as vulnerable as they were.


Though functioning in a wine fog, Sammy could see that this new insight might be a useful survival tool. The problem was, he had never been good at survival.


Thinking about the ratman made his head hurt. Hell, the mere prospect of surviving gave him a migraine. Who wanted to survive?


And why? Death would only come later if not sooner. Each survival was merely a shortterm triumph. In the end, oblivion for everyone.


And in the meantime, nothing but pain. To Sammy, it seemed that the only terrible thing about the ratman was not that he killed people but that he apparently liked to make them suffer first, cranked up the terror, poured on the pain, did not remove his victims from this world with kindly despatch.


Sammy tipped the jug and poured wine into the jelly jar that was on the floor, braced between his splayed legs. He raised the glass to his lips. In the glimmering ruby liquid, he sought a glimmerless, peaceful, perfect darkness.


Mickey Chan was sitting alone in a back booth, concentrating on his soup.


Connie saw him as soon as she pushed through the front door of the small Chinese restaurant in Newport Beach, and she made her way toward him between blacklacquered chairs and tables with silvergray tablecloths. A red and gold painted dragon coiled across - the ceiling, serpentined around the light fixtures.


If Mickey saw her coming, he pretended to be unaware. He sucked soup from the spoon, then spooned up more, never taking his gaze off the contents of his bowl.


He was small but sinewy, in his late forties, and wore his hair closely cropped. His skin was the shade of antique parchment.


Although he allowed his Caucasian clients to think that he was Chinese, he was actually a Vietnamese refugee who had fled to the States after the fall of Saigon. Rumor had it, he'd been a Saigon homicide detective or an officer in the South Vietnamese Internal Security Agency, which was probably true.


Some said that he'd had a reputation as a real terror in the interrogation room, a man who would resort to any tool or technique to break the will of a suspected criminal or Communist, but Connie doubted those stories. She liked Mickey. He was tough, but he had about him the air of a man who had known great loss and was capable of profound compassion.


As she reached his table, he spoke to her without shifting his attention from the soup: “Good evening, Connie.”


She slid into the other side of the booth. “You're fixated on that bowl as if the meaning of life is in it.”


“It is,” he said, still spooning.


“It is? Looks like soup to me.”


“The meaning of life can be found in a bowl of soup. Soup always begins with a broth of some kind, which is like the liquid flow of days that makes up our lives.”


“Broth?”


"Sometimes in the broth are noodles, sometimes vegetables, bits of egg white, slivers of chicken or shrimp, mushrooms, perhaps rice.


Because Mickey would not look at her, Connie found herself staring across the table at his soup almost as intensely as he was.


He said, “Sometimes it is hot, sometimes cool. Sometimes it is meant to be cool, and then it is good even if there's no slightest warmth in it. But if it's not meant to be cool, then it will taste bitter, or curdle in the stomach, or both.”


His strong but gentle voice had a hypnotic effect. Enthralled Connie stared at the placid surface of the soup, oblivious now to everyone else in the restaurant.


“Consider. Before the soup is eaten,” Mickey said, “it has value and purpose. After it is eaten, it is valueless to everyone except to whoever has consumed it. And in fulfilling its purpose, it ceases to exist. Left behind will be only the empty bowl. Which can symbol either want and needr the pleasant expectation of other soups to come.”


She waited for him to continue, and only shifted her gaze from his soup when she realized that he was now staring at her. She met his eyes and said, “That's it?”


“Yes.”


“The meaning of life?”


“All of it.”


She frowned. “I don't get it.”


He shrugged. “Me neither. I make up this crap as I go along.”


She blinked at him. “You what?”


Grinning, Mickey said, “Well, it's sort of expected of a Chinese private detective, you see. Pithy sayings, impenetrable philosophical observations, inscrutable proverbs.”


He was not Chinese, nor was his real name Mickey Chan. When he arrived in the US and decided to put his police background to use by becoming a private detective, he had felt that Vietnamese names were too exotic to inspire confidence and too difficult for Westerners to pronounce. And he'd known he couldn't make a good living solely from clients of Vietnamese heritage. Two of his favorite American things were Mickey Mouse cartoons and Charlie Chan movies, and it made sense to him to have his name legally changed. Because of Disney and Rooney and Mantle and Spillane, Americans liked people named Mickey; and thanks to a lot of old movies, the name Chan was subconsciously associated with investigative genius. Evidently, Mickey had known what he was doing, because he had built a thriving business with a sterling reputation, and now had ten employees.

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