Page 15

The restaurant was in a new strip shopping center, and a deep overhang kept the pedestrian walkway dry. A man was standing to the left of the door. Peripheral vision gave Connie the impression that he was tall and husky, but she didn't actually look at him until he spoke to her.


“Have mercy on a poor man, will you, please? Mercy for a poor man, lady?”


She was about to step off the curb, out from under the overhang, but his voice was arresting. Soft, gentle, even musical, it seemed radically out of sync with the size of the person she had seen from the corner of her eye.


Turning, she was surprised by the formidable ugliness of the man, and wondered how he could possibly earn even a meager living as a beggar.


His unusual size, knotted hair, and unkempt beard gave him the mad aspect of Rasputin, though that crazed Russian priest had been a prettyboy by comparison. Terrible bands of scar tissue disfigured his face, and his beak nose was dark with broken blood vessels. His lips were marked by oozing blisters. One glimpse of his diseased teeth and gums reminded her of those in a corpse she had once seen after it had been exhumed for poison tests nine years after burial. And the eyes.


Cataracts. Thick, milky membranes. She could barely see the dark circles of the irises underneath. His appearance was so threatening that Connie imagined most people, upon being panhandled by him, turned and fled rather than approach to press money into his extended hand.


“Mercy on a poor man? Mercy on the blind? Spare change for one less fortunate than you?”


The voice was extraordinary in its own right, but doubly so considering the source. Clear, melodious, it was the instrument of a born singer who would deliver every lyric sweetly It must be the voice alone that, in spite of his appearance, made it possible for him to live as a mendicant.


Ordinarily, in spite of his voice, Connie would have told him to buzz offthough not so politely Some beggars became homeless by no fault of their own; and having experienced homelessness of a kind when she'd been an institutionalized child, she had compassion for the genuinely victimized. But her job required daily contact with too many street people for her to be able to romanticize them as a class; in her experience, many were gravely demented and for their own sakes belonged in the mental institutions from which dogooders had “main streamed” them, while others had earned their perdition through alcohol, drugs, or gambling.


She suspected that in every stratum of society from the mansion to the gutter, the genuinely innocent were a distinct minority.


For some reason, however, although this guy looked as if he had made every bad decision and selfdestructive choice it was within his power to make, she fished in her jacket pockets until she found a couple of quarters and a tendollar bill worn soft with age.


To her greater surprise, she kept the quarters and gave him the ten bucks.


“Bless you, lady. God bless you and keep you and make His face to shine upon you.”


Astonished at herself, she turned away from him. She hurried out into the rain, toward her car.


As she ran, she wondered what had possessed her. But it really wasn't hard to figure. She had been given more than one gift during the course of the day. Her life had been spared in the pursuit of Ordegard. And they had nailed the creep. And then there was five yearold Eleanor Ladbrook. Ellie. A niece. Connie could not recall many days as fine as this, and she supposed her good fortune had put her in the mood to give something back when an opportunity arose.


Her life, one wasted perp, and a new direction for her futurenot a bad trade for ten dollars.


She got in the car, slammed the door. She already had the keys in her right hand. She switched on the engine and gunned it because It chugged a little as if protesting the weather.


Suddenly she was aware that her left hand was clenched in a tight fist.


She wasn't conscious of having made the fist. It was as if her hand had closed in a lightningquick spasm.


Something was in her hand.


She uncurled her fingers to look at what she held.


The parkinglot lamps shed enough light through the rainsmeared windshield for her to see the crumpled item.


A tendollar bill. Worn soft with age.


She stared at it in confusion, then with growing disbelief. It must be the same ten bucks she thought she had given to the beggar.


But she had given the money to the tramp, had seen his grimy mitt close around it as he babbled his gratitude.


Bewildered, she looked through the side window of the car toward the Chinese restaurant. The beggar was no longer there.


She scanned the entire pedestrian walkway. He was nowhere in front of the strip shopping center.


She stared at the crumpled money.


Gradually her good mood faded. She was overcome by dread.


She had no idea why she should be afraid. And then she did. Cop instinct.


Harry took longer than he expected to get home from Special Projects.


Traffic moved sluggishly, repeatedly clogging up at flooded intersections.


He lost more time when he stopped at a 7-Eleven to get a couple of things he needed for dinner. A loaf of bread. Mustard.


Every time he went into a convenience store, Harry thought of Ricky Estefan stopping after work that day for a quart of milkand buying a drastic life change instead. But nothing bad happened in the 7-Eleven, except that he heard the story about the baby and the birthday party.


A small television on the checkout counter kept the clerk entertained when business was slow, and it was turned to the news while Harry was paying for his purchases. A young mother in Chicago had been charged with murdering her own infant child. Her relatives had planned a big birthday party for her, but when her babysitter failed to show up, it had looked as if she wouldn't be able to go and enjoy herself. So she dumped her twomonthold infant down the chute of her apartmentbuilding trash incinerator, went to the party, and danced up a storm. Her lawyer had already said her defense would be postpartum depression.


Yet another example of the continuing crisis for Connie's collection of outrages and atrocities.


The clerk was a slender young man with dark, sorrowful eyes. In Iranianaccented English, he said, “What's this country coming to?”


“Sometimes I wonder,” Harry said. “But then again, in your former country, they don't just let the lunatics run around free, they actually put them in charge.”


“True,” the clerk said. “But here, too, sometimes.”


“Can't argue that.”


As he was pushing through one of the two glass doors on his way out of the store, with the bread and mustard in a plastic bag, Harry suddenly realized he was carrying a folded newspaper under his right arm. He stopped with the door half open, took the paper from under his arm, and stared at it uncomprehendingly. He was sure he had not picked up a paper, let alone folded one and put it under his arm.


He returned to the cash register. When he put the paper on the counter, it unfolded.


“Did I pay for this?” Harry asked.


Puzzled, the clerk said, “No, sir. I didn't even see you pick it up.”


“I don't remember picking it up.”


“Did you want it?”


“No, not really.”


Then he noticed the headline at the top of the front page: SHOOTOUT AT LAGUNA BEACH RESTAURANT. And the subhead: TWO DEAD, TEN WOUNDED. It was the late edition with the first story about Ordegard's bloody rampage.


“Wait,” Harry said. “Yes. Yes, I guess I'll take it.”


On those occasions when one of his cases became newsworthy, Harry never read about himself in the papers. He was a cop, not a celebrity.


He gave the clerk a quarter and took the evening edition.


He still didn't understand how the paper had gotten folded and tucked under his arm. Blackout? Or something stranger, more directly related to the other inexplicable events of the day?


When Harry opened the front door and, dripping, stepped into the foyer of his condominium, home had never seemed so inviting. It was a neat and ordered haven, into which the chaos of the outside world could not intrude.


He took off his shoes. They were saturated, probably ruined. He should have worn galoshes, but the weather report had not called for rain until after nightfall.


His socks were wet, too, but he left them on. He would mop the foyer tile after he changed into clean, dry clothes.


He stopped in the kitchen to put the bread and mustard on the I" counter beside the cutting board. Later he would make sandwiches with some cold poached chicken. He was starved.


The kitchen sparkled. He was so pleased that he had taken the time to clean up the breakfast mess before going to work. He would have been depressed to see it now.


From the kitchen he went through the dining room, down the short hall to the master bedroom, carrying the evening newspaper.


As he crossed the threshold, he snapped on the lightsand discovered the hobo on his bed.


Alice never fell down any rabbit hole deeper than the one into which Harry dropped at the sight of the vagrant.


The man seemed even bigger than he had been out of doors or from a distance in the Special Projects corridor. Dirtier. More hideous. He did not have the semitransparency of an apparition; in fact, with his masses of tangled hair and intricately layered varieties of grime and webwork of scars, with his dark clothes so wrinkled and tattered that they recalled the interment wrappings of an ancient Egyptian mummy, he was more real than the room itself, like a painstakingly detailed figure painted by a photorealist and then inserted into a minimalist's linedrawing of a room.


The tramp's eyes opened. Like pools of blood.


He sat up and said, “You think you're so special. But you're just one more animal, walking meat like all the rest of them.”


Dropping the newspaper, pulling his revolver from his shoulder holster, Harry said, “Don't move.”


Ignoring the warming, the intruder swung his legs over the side of the bed, got up.


The impression of the vagrant's head and body remained in the spread, pillows, and mattress. A ghost could walk through snow, leaving no footprints, and hallucinations had no weight.


“Just another diseased animal.” If anything, the vagrant's voice was deeper and raspier than it had been on the street in Laguna Beach, the guttural voice of a beast that had laboriously learned to talk. “Think you're a hero, don't you? Big man. Big hero. Well, you're nothing, less than a pissant, that's what you are. Nothing!”


Harry couldn't believe it was going to happen again, not twice in one day, and for God's sake not in his own home.


Backing up one step into the doorway, he said, “You don't lie down on the floor right now on your face, hands behind your back right now, so help me God I'll blow your head off” Starting around the bed toward Harry, the vagrant said, “You think you can shoot anyone you like, push anyone around if you want to, and that's the end of it, but that's not the end of it with me, shooting me is never the end of it.”


“Stop, right now I mean it!”


The intruder didn't stop. His moving shadow was huge on the wall.


“Rip your guts out, hold them in your face, make you smell them while you die.”


Harry had the revolver in both hands. A shooter's stance. He knew what he was doing. He was a good marksman. He could have hit a flitting hummingbird at such close range, let alone this great looming hulk, so there was only one way it could end, the intruder as cold as a side of beef, blood all over the walls, only one plausible scenariyet he felt in greater danger than ever before in his life, infinitely more vulnerable than he had been among the mannequins in the boxmaze attic.


“You people,” the vagrant said, rounding the foot of the bed, “are so much fun to play with.”


One last time, Harry ordered him to stop.


But he kept coming, maybe ten feetaway, eight, six.


Harry opened fire, squeezing shots off nice and smooth, not letting the hard recoil of the handgun pull the muzzle off target, once, twice, three times, four, and the explosions were deafening in the small bedroom. He knew every round did damage, three in the torso, the fourth in the base of the throat from only inches more than arm's length, causing the head to snap around as if doing a comic double take.


The hobo didn't go down, didn't stagger backward, only jerked with each hit he took. Inflicted pointblank, the throat wound was ghastly. The bullet must have punched all the way through, leaving an even worse exit wound in the back of the neck, fracturing or t, severing the spine, but there was no blood, no spray or spout or smallest spurt, as if the man's heart had stopped beating long ago and all the blood had dried and hardened in his vessels. He kept coming, no more stoppable than an express train, rammed into Harry, knocking the wind out of him, lifting him, carrying him backward through the doorway, slamming him so hard against the far hallway wall that Harry's teeth snapped together with an audible clack and the revolver flipped out of his hand.


Pain spread like a Japanese accordion fan from the small of Harry's back across both shoulders. For a moment he thought he was going to black out, but terror kept him conscious. Pinned to the wall, feet dangiing off the floor, stunned by the plastercracking force with which he'd been hammered, he was as helpless as a child in the iron grip of his assailant. But if he could remain conscious, his strength might flood back into him, or maybe he would think of something to save himself, anything, a move, a trick, a distraction.


The hobo leaned against Harry crushing him. The nightmarish face loomed closer. The livid scars were encircled by enlarged pores the size of match heads, packed with filth. Tufts of wiry black hair bristled from his flared nostrils.


When the man exhaled, it was like a mass grave venting the gases of decomposition, and Harry choked in revulsion.


“Scared, little man?” the vagrant asked, and his ability to speak seemed unaffected by the hole in his throat and the fact that his vocal cords had been pulverized and blown out through the back of his neck.


“Scared?”


Harry was scared, yes, he would have been an idiot if he hadn't been scared. No amount of weapons training or police work prepared you for going face to face with the boogeyman, and he didn't mind admitting it, was prepared to shout it from a rooftop if that's what the vagrant wanted, but he couldn't get his breath to speak.


“Sunrise in eleven hours,” the hobo said. “Ticktock.”


Things were moving in the depths of the tramp's bushy beard.


Crawling. Maybe bugs.


He shook Harry fiercely, rattling him against the wall.


I" Harry tried to bring his arms up between them, break the big man's hold. It was like trying to force concrete to yield.


“First everything and everyone you love,” the vagrant snarled.


Then he turned, still holding Harry, and threw him back through the bedroom doorway.

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