Page 17


The crowns of the tallest palm trees disappeared into roiling clouds of smoke.


Stunned and weeping residents moved back as firemen in yellowandblack slickers and high rubber boots unrolled hoses from the trucks and pulled them across walkways, flowerbeds. Other firemen appeared at a trot, carrying axes. Some were wearing breathing apparatus so they could enter the smokefilled condominiums.


Their swift arrival virtually insured that most of the apartments would be saved.


Harry Lyon glanced toward his own unit, at the south end of the building, and a sharp pang of loss stabbed through him. Gone. His alphabetically shelved collection of books, his CDs neatly arranged in drawers according to type of music and then by the artist's name, his clean white kitchen, carefully nurtured house plants, the twentynine volumes of his daily diary which he had been keeping since he was nine (a separate journal for each year)all gone. When he 'Ithought of the ravenous fire eating its way through his rooms, soot sifting over what little the fire didn't consume, everything glossy turning mottled and dull, he felt nauseous.


He remembered his Honda in the attached garage behind the building, started in that direction, then halted because it seemed foolish to jeopardize his own life to save a car. Besides, he was the president of the homeowners' association. At a time like this he ought to stay with his neighbors, offer them reassurance, comfort, advice about insurance and other issues.


As he øholstered his revolver to avoid alarming the firemen, he remembered something the vagrant had said- to him when he was pinned against the wall, the breath knocked out of him: Iitrt everything and everyone you love... then you!


When he thought about those words, considered the ramifications of them, profound fear crept spiderquick through him, worse than any fright he'd known so far, as dark as the fire was bright.


He headed for the garages, after all. Suddenly he desperately needed the car.


As Harry dodged firemen and rounded the side of the building, the air was filled with thousands of glowing embers like luminescent moths, swooping and fluttering, a dance upon the spiraling thermal currents.


High on the roof a cataclysmic crack was followed by a crash that jarred the night. A hail of burning shingles clattered down on the sidewalk and flanking shrubs.


Harry crossed his arms over his head, afraid the flaming cedar shakes would set his hair on fire, hoping that his clothes were still too damp to ignite. Slipping out of the fire fall unharmed, he pushed through a wet iron gate still cold from the rain.


Behind the building, the wet blacktop was sequined with glass from exploded rear windows, spangled with puddles. Every mirrored surface swarmed with copper and claret images of the bright tempest raging on the roof of the main building. Glowing serpents slithered around Harry's feet as he ran.


The back driveway was still deserted when he reached his garage door and yanked it up. But even as it was swinging out of the way, a fireman appeared and shouted at him to get out of there.


“Police!” Harry replied. He hoped that would buy him the few seconds he needed, though he didn't pause to flash his badge.


Falling embers had seeded a few flames on the long garage roof.


Thin smoke filled his doublewide stall, trickling down from the smouldering tarpaper between the rafters and the shingles.


Keys. Harry was suddenly afraid he had left them on the foyer table or in the kitchen. Approaching the car, coughing because of the wispy but bitter smoke, he frantically patted his pockets and was relieved to hear the keys jingle in his sportcoat.


He reversed out of the garage, shifted gears, drove past the fireman who had shouted, and escaped the far end of the driveway two seconds before an approaching fire truck would have turned in and blocked it.


They nearly kissed bumpers as Harry swung the Honda into the street.


When he had driven three or four blocks with uncharacteristic recklessness, weaving through traffic and running red lights, the radio snapped on of its own accord. The vagrant's deep, raspy voice echoed from the stereo speakers, startling him.


“Gotta rest not, heeo. Gotta rest.”


“What the hell?”


Only a static hiss answered him. Harry eased up on the accelerator.


He reached toward the radio to switch it off, but hesitated.


"Very tired... a little nap..


Hissing static.


so you have an hour..."


Hissing.


hut I'll be back..."


Hissing.


Harry kept glancing away from the busy street ahead, at the lighted dial of the radio. It glowed a soft green but recalled to him the radiant red eyesfirst blood, then firef the vagrant.


big hero.. . just walking meat..


Hissing.


shoot anyone you like. . .big man... butshootingme... never the end of it . . . not me. . . not me. .


Hissing. Hissing. Hissing.


The car passed through a flooded depression in the pavement.


Phosphorescent white water plumed like angels' wings on both sides.


Harry touched the radio controls, half expecting an electric shock or worse, but nothing happened. He punched the OFF button, and the hissing stopped.


He didn't try to run the next red traffic light. He eased to a stop behind a line of cars, struggling to sort through the events of the past several hours and make sense of them.


Who you gonna call?


He didn't believe in ghosts or ghost busters.


Nevertheless he was shivering, and not merely because his clothes were still damp. He switched on the heater.


Who you gonna call?


Ghost or not, at least the vagrant had not been hallucinated. He wasn't a sign of mental breakdown. He was real. Not human, perhaps, but real.


That understanding was strangely calming. The thing Harry feared the most was not the supernatural or the unknownbut the internal disorder of madness, a threat that now seemed to have been replaced by an external adversary, bizarre beyond reckoning and terrifyingly powerful but, at least, external.


As the light changed to green and the traffic started moving again, he looked around at the streets of Newport Beach. He saw that he had headed west toward the coast and north from Irvine, and for the first time became consciously aware of where he was going.


Costa Mesa. Connie Gulliver's apartment.


He was surprised. The burning apparition had promised to destroy everyone and everything he loved before destroying him, and all by the break of dawn. Yet Harry had chosen to go to Connie before checking in with his own parents in Carmel Valley. Earlier he had admitted to a keener interest in her than he had previously been willing to acknowledge, but perhaps that admission had not exposed the true complexity of his feelings even to himself. He knew that he cared for her, though the why of his caring was still in part a mystery to him, considering how utterly different from one another they were and how tightly closed upon herself she was. Neither was he sure of the depth of his caring, except that it was deep, more than deep enough to be the biggest revelation in a day filled with revelations.


As he passed Newport Harbor, through the gaps between the commercial buildings on his left, he saw the tall masts of yachts thrusting into the night, sails furled. Like a forest of church steeples. They were reminders that, like many of his generationhe had been raised without any specific faith and, as an adult, had never managed to discover a faith of his own. It wasn't that he denied the existence of God, only that he could not find a way to believe.


When you encounter the supernatural, who you gonna call? If not ghost busters, then God. If not God... who you gonna call?


For most of his life Harry had placed his faith in order, but order was merely a condition, not a force he could call upon for help. In spite of the brutalities with which his job brought him into contact, he continued to believe, as well, in the decency and courage of human beings. That was what sustained him now. He was going to Connie Gulliver not merely to warn her but to seek her counsel, to ask her to help him find his way out of the darkness that had descended upon him.


Who you gonna call? Your partner.


When he stopped at the next red traffic light, he was surprised again, but this time not by what he found within himself. The heater had warmed the car and chased away the worst of his shivers.


But he still felt a hard coldness over his heart. This newest surprise was in his shirt pocket, against his breast, not emotions but something tangible that he could fish out and hold and see. Four shapeless dark lumps. Metal. Lead. Though he could not begin to grasp how they had wound up in his pocket, he knew what the objects were: the shots that he had pumped into the vagrant, four lead slugs misshapen by highvelocity impacts with flesh, bone, and cartilage.


Harry took off his jacket, tie, and shirt to clean up as best he could in Connie's bathroom. His hands were so grimy they reminded him of the vagrant's hands, and required vigorous lathering to come clean.


He washed his hair, face, chest, and arms in the sink' sluicing away some of his weariness with the soot and ashes, then slicked his hair back with her comb.


He could not do much with his clothes. He wiped them with a dry washcloth to remove the surface grit, but they remained somewhat spotted and heavily wrinkled. His white shirt was gray now, fouled by a vague perspiration odor and the heavier stench of smoke, but he had to put it on again because he had no other clothes into which he could change. In memory, he had never allowed himself to be seen in such a disheveled state.


He attempted to rescue his dignity by securing the top button on his shirt and knotting his tie.


More than the dismaying condition of his clothes, the condition of his body worried him. His abdomen was sore where the hand of the mannequin had rammed into him. A dull ache throbbed in the small of his back and did not fade altogether until it reached halfway up his spine, a reminder of the force with which the hobo had slammed him into the wall. The back of his left arm, all along the triceps, was tender, as well, because he had landed on it when the hobo had thrown him out of the hallway into the bedroom.


While he had been on the move, running for his life, pumped up with adrenaline, he hadn't been aware of his various pains, but inactivity revealed them. He was concerned that his muscles and joints might begin to stiffen. He was pretty sure, before the night was out, he would need to be quick and agile more than once if he hoped to save his butt.


In the medicine cabinet he found a bottle of Anacin. He shook four into the palm of his right hand, then capped the bottle and put it in a jacket pocket.


When he returned to the kitchen and asked for a glass of water with which to take the pills, Connie handed him a can of Coors.


He declined. “I've got to keep a clear head.”


“One beer won't hurt. Might even help.”


“I don't drink much.”


“I'm not asking you to mainline vodka with a needle.”


“I'd prefer water.”


“Don't be a prig, for Christ's sake.”


He nodded, accepted the beer, popped the tab, and chased the four aspirin with a long cold swallow. It tasted wonderful. Maybe it was just what he needed.


Starved, he took a slice of cold pizza from the open box on the counter. He tore off a mouthful and chewed enthusiastically, with none of his usual concern for manners.


He had never been to her place before, and he had noticed how Spartan it was. “What do they call this style of decorEarly Monk?”


“Who cares about decor? I'm just showing my landlord a little courtesy. If I croak in the line of duty, he can hose the place out in an hour and have it rented tomorrow.”


She returned to the card table and stared at the six objects she had lined up on it. A tendollar bill worn soft with age. One heat discolored newspaper with pages slightly burnt along one edge.


Four misshapen lead slugs.


Joining her, Harry said, “Well?”


“I don't believe in ghosts, spirits, demons, that crap.”


“Me neither.”


“I saw this guy. He was just a bum.”


“I still can't believe you gave him ten bucks,” Harry said.


She actually blushed. He had never seen her blush before. The first thing ever to embarrass her in his company was this indication that she possessed some compassion.


She said, “He was... compelling somehow.”


“So he wasn't 'just a bum.”“ ”Maybe not, if he could get ten bucks out of me."


“I'll tell you one thing.” He stuffed the last bite of pizza in his mouth.


“So tell me.”


Around the pizza, Harry said, "I saw him burn up alive in my living room, but I don't think they'll find any charred bones in the ashes.


And even if he hadn't spoken out of the car radio, I'd expect to see him again, as big and dirty and weird and unburnt as ever.


As Harry got a second piece of pizza, Connie said, “Thought you just told me you don't believe in ghosts either.”


“Don't.”


“Then what?”


Chewing, he regarded her thoughtfully. “You believe me, then?”


“Part of it happened to me, too, didn't it?”


“Yeah. I guess enough to make you believe me.”


“Then what?” she repeated.


He wanted to sit down at the table, take a load off his feet, but he figured he was more likely to stiffen up if he settled in a chair. He leaned against the counter by the sin “I've been thinking. ... Every day, working an investigation, out on the street, we meet people who aren't like us, who think the law is just a sham to gull the ignorant masses into obedience. These people care about nothing but themselves, satisfying their own desires regardless of the cost to others.”


“Hairballs, scumbathey're our business,” she said.


“Criminal types, sociopaths. They have lots of names. Like the pod people from Invasion of the Body Snatcher!, they walk among us and pass for civilized, ordinary human beings. But even though there's a lot of them, they're still a small minority and anything but ordinary. Their civilization is a veneer, stage makeup concealing the scaly, crawling savage thing we evolved from, the ancient reptile consciousness.”


“So? This isn't news,', she said impatiently. ”We're the thin line between order and chaos. We look into that abyss every day. Teetering on that edge, testing myself, proving I'm not one of them, won't l fall into that chaos, won't become, can't become, like themthat's what makes this work so exciting. It's why I'm a cop."


“Really?” he said, surprised.


That was not at all why he was a cop. Protecting the genuinely civilized, guarding them from the pod people among them, preserving peace and the beauty of order, providing for continuity and progressthat was why he had become a police officer, at least part of the reason, and certainly not to prove to himself that he was not one of the reptilian throwbacks.

***

***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com

***