While Connie spoke, she turned her eyes from Harry and stared at a ninebytwelve manila envelope lying on one of the chairs at the table.
He wondered what it contained.
“When you don't know where you come from, when you don't know if you can love,” she said quietly, almost as if talking to herself, “when all you want is freedom, you have to force yourself to take on responsibility, a lot of it. Freedom without responsibility is pure savagery.” Her voice was not merely quiet. It was haunted. “Maybe you come from savagery, you can't be sure, but what you do know about yourself is you can hate real well even if you can't love, and that scares you, means maybe you could slide into that abyss yourself....”
Harry stopped chewing halfway through a mouthful of pizza, riveted by her.
He knew she was revealing herself as she had never done before.
He just didn't fully understand what she was revealing.
As if she had broken out of a trance, her gaze clicked up from the envelope to Harry, and her soft voice hardened. “So, all right, the world is full of these shitheads, scumbags, sociopaths, whatever you want to call them. What's your point?”
He swallowed the pizza. “So suppose an ordinary cop, going about his business, runs into a sociopath who's worse than the usual scumbags, infinitely worse.”
She had gone to the refrigerator while he was talking. She took another beer from it. “Worse? In what way?”
“This guy has...”
“He has a . . . gift.”
“What gift? Is this riddle hour? Spit it out, Harry.”
He stepped to the table, stirred one finger through the four lead slugs lying there. They rattled against the Formica surface with a sound that seemed to echo down eternity.
Though he needed to tell her his theory, he was reluctant to begin.
What he had to say would no doubt forever blow his image as Mr. Equanimity.
He took a pull on his beer, followed it with a deep breath, and plunged: “Suppose you had to deal with a sociopath... a psychotic with paranormal powers that made going up against him like duking it out with an apprentice God. Psychic powers.”
She was gaping at him. The ringpull on the beer can encircled her index finger, but she wasn't popping it open. She appeared to be holding a pose for a painter.
Before she could interrupt, he said, "I don't mean he can just predict the suit of a playing card chosen randomly from a deck, tell you who's going to win the next World Series, or levitate a pencil.
Nothing as smalltime as that. Maybe this guy has the power to manifest himself out of thin airand vanish into it. The power to start fires, to burn without being consumed, to take bulletsøwithout really being killed. Maybe he can pin a psychic tag on you the way a game warden might tag a deer with an electronic transmitter, then keep track of you when you're out of his sight, no matter where you go or how far you run. I know, I know, it's absurd, it's crazy, 'it's like stumbling into a Spielberg movie, only darker, something by James Cameron out of David Lynch, but maybe it's true."
Connie shook her head, incredulous. Opening the refrigerator door and putting the unpopped beer can back on the shelf, she said, “Maybe two should be my limit tonight.”
He urgently needed to convince her. He was aware of how quickly the night was slipping away, how fast dawn was coming.
Turning from the refrigerator, she said, “Where'd he get these amazing powers?”
“Who knows? Maybe he lived too long under highpower electric lines, the magnetic fields caused changes in his brain. Maybe there was too much dioxin in his milk when he was a baby, or he ate too many apples contaminated with some bizarre toxic chemical, his house is right under a hole in the ozone layer, aliens are experimenting on him to give the National Enquieer a good story, he ate too damn many Twinkies, he listened to way too much rap music! How the f*ck do I know?”
She stared at him. At least she was no longer gaping. “You're serious about” “Yeah.”
“I know, because in the six months we've worked together, that's the first time you've ever used the F word.”
“Oh. I'm sorry.”
“Of course you are,” she said, managing a trace of sarcasm even under these circumstances. “But this guy ... he's just a bum.”
“I don't think that's his real appearance. I think he can be anything he wants to be, manifest himself in any form he chooses, because the manifestation isn't really him . . . it's a projection, a thing he wants us to see.”
“Isn't this the next thing to a ghost?” she asked. “And didn't we agree that neither of us believes in ghosts?”
He snatched the tendollar bill off the table. “If I'm so completely wrong, then how do you explain this?”
“Even if you're right... how do you explain it?”
“The power to move an object through time and space with only the power of the mind.”
“Then why didn't I see the bill floating through the air into my hand?”
“That's not how it works. More like teleportation. It goes from one place to another, poof, without physically traveling the distance in between.”
She threw her hands up in exasperation. “Beam me up, Scotty!”
He glanced at his wristwatch. 8:38. Ticktock... ticktock...
He knew he sounded like a lunatic, better suited to the afternoon television talk show circuit or latenight radio callin programs than to police work. But he also knew he was right, or at least that he was circling the periphery of the truth if not yet at the heart of it.
“Look,” he said, picking up the firebrowned newspaper and shaking it at her, “I haven't read it yet, but if you comb through this paper, I know you'll find a few stories to add to that damn collection of yours, evidence of the new Dark Ages.” He dropped the paper, and the odor of smoke puffed from it. "Let me see, what are some of the stories you've told me lately, things you picked up from other papers, television?
I'm sure I can remember some of them."
“Harry-” “Not that I want to remember. I'd rather forget, God knows.”
He started to pace more or less in a circle. “Wasn't there one about a judge in Texas sentencing a guy to thirtyfive years in jail for stealing a twelveounce can of Spam? And at the same time, up in Los Angeles, some rioters beat a guy to death in the street, all of it recorded by newsmen on videotape, but no one really wants to further disturb the community by tracking down the killers, not when the beating was a protest against injustice?”
She went to the table, pulled out a chair, turned it backward, and sat down. She stared at the burnt newspaper and other objects.
He kept pacing, speaking with increasing urgency: “And wasn't there one about a woman who got her boyfriend to rape her eleven yearold daughter, because she wanted a fourth child but wasn't able to have any more, so she figured she could be a mother to her little girl's bastard? Where was that? Wisconsin, was it? Ohio?”
“Michigan,” Connie said somberly.
“And wasn't there one about a guy beheading his sixyearold stepson with a machete-” “Five. He was five.”
“-and a bunch of teenage boys somewhere stabbed a woman a hundred and thirty times to steal a lousy dollar-” “Boston,” she whispered.
“h, yes, and there was that little jewel about the father who beat his preschooler to death because the boy couldn't remember the alphabet past G. And some woman in Arkansas or Louisiana or Oklahoma laced her baby's cereal with crushed glass, hoping to make her sick enough so the father would get a leave from the Navy and be able to spend some time at home.”
“Not Arkansas,” Connie said. “Mississippi.”
Harry stopped pacing, crouched beside her chair, face to face with her.
"See, you accept all these incredible things, incredible as they are.
You know they happened. These are the nineties, Connie. The premillennium cotillion, the new Dark Ages, when anything can happen and usually does, when the unthinkable isn't only thinkable but accepted, when every miracle of science is matched by an act of human barbarity that hardly raises anyone's eyebrow. Every brilliant technological achievement is countered by a thousand atrocities of human hatred and stupidity. For every scientist seeking a cure for cancer there are five thousand thugs willing to hammer an old lady's skull to applesauce just for the change in her purse."
Troubled, Connie looked away from him. She picked up one of the misshapen slugs. Frowning, she turned it over and over between her thumb and forefinger.
Spooked by the uncanny speed with which the minutes changed on the liquidcrystal display of his wristwatch, Harry would not relent.
“So who's to say there couldn't be some guy in a lab somewhere who discovered something to enhance the power of the human brain, to magnify and tap the powers we've always suspected are within us but could never use? Maybe this guy injected himself with this stuff. Or maybe the guy we're after, he's the subject of the experiment, and when he realized what he'd become, he killed everyone at the lab, everyone who knew. Maybe he walks the world among us now, the scariest damn pod person of them all.”
She put down the deformed slug. She turned to him again. She had beautiful eyes. “The experiment thing makes sense to me.”
“But it's probably not anything like that, not anything we could figure, something different.”
“If such a man exists, can he be stopped?”
“He's not God. No matter what powers he has, he's still a man and a deeply disturbed one at that. He'll have weaknesses, points of vulnerability.”
He still crouched beside her chair, and she put one hand against the side of his face. The tender gesture surprised him. She smiled.
“You've got one hell of a wild imagination, Harry Lyon.”
“Yeah, well, I've always liked fairy tales.”
Frowning again, she took her hand away as if chagrined to have been caught in a moment of tenderness. “Even if he's vulnerable, he can't be dealt with if he can't be found. How will we track down this Ticktock?”
“We don't know his real name,” she said, “so Ticktock seems as good as any for the time being.”
Ticktock. It was a fairytale villain's name if he had ever heard one.
Rumpelstiltskin, Mother Gothel, Knuckleboneand Ticktock.
“All right.”' Harry stood. He paced again. kt “How do we find him?”
“I don't know for sure. But I know where I want to start. The Laguna Beach city morgue.”
She twitched at that. “Ordegard?”
“Yeah. I want to see the autopsy report if they've done one yet, talk to the coroner if possible. I want to know if they found anything strange.”
“Strange? Like what?”
“Damned if I know. Anything out of the ordinary.”
“But Ordegard's dead. He wasn't just a... a projection. He was real, and now he's dead. He can't be Ticktock.”
Countless fairy tales, legends, myths, and fantasy novels gave Harry a vast store of incredible concepts from which to draw. "So maybe Ticktock has the power to take over other people, slip into their minds, control their bodies, use them as if they were puppets, then dispose of them when he wants, or slip out again when they die.
Maybe he was controlling Ordegard, then he moved on to the hobo, and now maybe the hobo is dead, really dead, his bones in my burnedout living room, and Ticktock will turn up in some other body next time."
“Something like it.”
“You're beginning to scare me,” she said.
“Beginning? You are a tough broad. Listen, Connie, just before he trashed my condo, Ticktock said something like... 'You think you can shoot anyone you like, and that's the end of it, but not with me, shooting me isn't the end of it.”'Harry tapped the butt of the gun in his shoulder holster. “So who'd I shoot today? Ordegard. And this Ticktock is telling me that's not the end of it. So I want to find out if there's anything odd about Ordegard's corpse.”
She was amazed but not disbelieving. She was getting in the swing of it. “You want to know if there were signs of possession.”
“Exactly what are the signs of possession?”
“Like the corpse's skull is empty, no brain, just ashes in there? Or maybe the number 666 burnt into the back of his neck?”
“I wish it would be something that obvious, but I doubt it.”
Connie laughed. A nervous laugh. Shaky. Brief.
She got up from the chair. “Okay, let's go to the morgue.”
Harry hoped that a talk with the coroner or a quick reading of the autopsy report would tell him what he needed to know, and that it would not be necessary to view the corpse. He didn't want to have to look at that moon face again.
The large institutional kitchen at Pacific View Care Home in Laguna Beach was all white tile and stainless steel, as clean as a hospital.
Any rats or roaches creep in here, Janet Marco thought, they better be able to live on scouring powder, ammonia water, and wax.
Though antiseptic, the kitchen did not smell like a hospital.
Lingering aromas of ham, roast turkey, herb stuffing, and scalloped potatoes were overlaid by the yeasty, cinnamon fragrance of the sweet rolls that they were baking for breakfast in the morning. It was a warm place, too, and the warmth was welcome after the chill that the recent storm had brought to the March air.
Janet and Danny were having dinner at one end of a long table in the southeast corner of the kitchen. They were in no one's way but enjoyed a vantage.point from which they could watch the busy staff.
Janet was fascinated by the operation of the big kitchen, which ticked along like clockwork The workers were industrious and seemed happy in their busyness. She envied them. She wished she could get a job at Pacific View, in the kitchen or any other department. But she didn't know what skills were required. And she doubted that even the owner, good man that he was, would hire anyone who lived in a car, washed in public lavatories, and had no permanent address.
Though she liked watching the kitchen staff, the sight of them sometimes frustrated the devil out of her.
But she couldn't blame Mr. Ishignra, the owner and operator of Pacific View, because he was a godsend on nights like this. Both thrifty and kind, he was dismayed by waste and by the thought of anyone going hungry in such a prosperous country. Invariably, after almost a hundred patients and the staff had eaten dinner, enough food remained to provide for ten or twelve people, because recipes could not be refined to produce precisely the number of portions needed. Mr. Ishigura provided these meals free to certain of the homeless.