Page 24


Harry could see just enough of the corpse to know beyond a doubt that it was Ricky. Never had he felt so sick at heart. A coldness rose in the pit of his stomach, and his legs grew weak.


As Harry moved around the hole in the floor, Connie entered the house after him. She saw the body, said nothing, but gestured toward the livingroom arch.


Habitual police procedure had tremendous appeal for Harry at the moment, even if it was pointless to search for the killer in this instance. Ticktock, whatever manner of creature he was, would not be cowering in a corner or clambering out a back window, not when he could vanish in a whirlwind or a pillar of fire. And what good were guns against him, even if he could be found? Nonetheless, it was calming to proceed as if they were the first to arrive at an ordinary crime scene; order was imposed on chaos through policy, method, custom, and ritual.


Just inside the livingroom archway and to the left lay a pile of dark mud, an eighth of a ton if there was an ounce. He would have thought that it had come from under the house, geysering up with the explosion, except that no mud was splattered in the foyer or hallway. It was as if someone had carefully carried the mud into the house in buckets and heaped it on the livingroom carpet.


Curious as it was, Harry gave the mud only a cursory glance before continuing across the living room. Later there would be time to ponder it at length.


They searched the two baths and bedrooms, but found only a fat tarantula. Harry was so startled by the spider, he almost squeezed off a shot. If it had run toward him instead of out of sight under a dresser, he might have blown it to bits before realizing what it was.


Southern California, a desert before man had brought in water and made larger areas of it habitable, was a perfect breeding ground for tarantulas, but they kept to undeveloped canyons and scrublands.


Though fearsome in appearance, they were shy creatures, living most of their lives underground, rarely surfacing outside of the mating season.


Dana Point, or this part of it at least, was too civilized to be of interest to tarantulas, and Harry wondered how one had found its way into the heart of the town, where it was as out of place as a tiger would have been.


Silently they retraced their route through the house, into the foyer, the hall, then moved past the body. A quick glance confirmed that Ricky was far beyond help. Fragments of the ceramic religious statue clinked underfoot.


The kitchen was full of snakes.


“Oh shit,” Connie said.


One snake was just inside the archway. Two more were questing among the chair and table legs. Most were at the far side of the room, a tangled mass of squirming, serpentine coils, no fewer than thirty or forty, perhaps half again as many. Several seemed to be feeding on something.


Two more tarantulas were scuttling along a white tile counter, near the edge, keeping a watch on the teeming serpents below.


“What the hell happened here?” Harry wondered, and was not surprised to hear a tremor in his voice.


The snakes began to notice Harry and Connie. Most of them were disinterested, but a few slithered forth from the churning mass to investigate.


A pocket door separated the kitchen from the hall. Harry quickly slid it shut.


They checked the garage. Ricky's car. A damp spot on the concrete where the roof had leaked earlier in the day, and a puddle that had not entirely evaporated. Nothing else.


Back in the hallway, Harry finally kneltøbeside the body of his friend.


He had delayed the dreaded examination as long as possible.


Connie said, “I'll see if there's a bedroom phone.”


Alarmed, he looked up at her. “Phone? No, for God's sake, don't even think about it.”


“We've gotta put in a homicide call.”


“Listen,” he said, checking his wristwatch, “it's going on eleven o'clock already. If we report this, we're going to be tied up here for hours.”


“But-” “We don't have the time to waste. I don't see how we're ever going to find this Ticktock before sunrise. We don't seem to have a chance in hell. Even if we find him, I don't know how we could deal with him. But we'd be foolish not to try, don't you think?”


“Yeah, you're right. I don't just want to sit around waiting to be whacked.”


“Okay then,” he said. “Forget the phone.”


“I'll just . . . I'll wait for you.”


“Watch out for snakes,” he said as she moved up the hall.


He turned his attention to Ricky.


The condition of the corpse was even worse than he anticipated.


He saw the snake head fixed by deepsunk fangs to Ricky's left hand, and he shivered. Pairs of small holes on the face might have been bite marks. Both arms were bent backward at the elbows; the bones were not just broken but pulverized. Ricky Estefan was so battered that it was difficult to specify one injury as the cause of death; however, if he had not been dead when his head had been wrenched a hundred and eighty degrees around on his shoulders, he had surely died in that savage moment. His neck was torn and bruised, his head lolled loosely, and his chin rested between his shoulder blades.


His eyes were gone.


“Harry?” Connie called.


Staring into the dead man's empty eye sockets, Harry was unable to answer her. His mouth was dry, and his voice caught like a burr in his throat.


“Harry, you better look at this.”


He had seen enough of what had been done to Ricky, too much.


His anger at Ticktock was exceeded only by his fury with himself He rose from the body, turned, and caught sight of himself in the silverleafed mirror above the shrine table. He was ashen. He looked as dead as the man on the floor. A part of him had died when he'd seen the body; he felt diminished.


When he met his own eyes, he had to look away from the terror, confusion, and primitive rage that he saw in them. The man in the mirror was not the Harry Lyon he knewr wanted to be.


“Harry?” she said again.


In the living room, he found Connie crouching beside the pile of mud.


It was not sloppy enough to be mud, actually, just two or three hundred pounds of moist, compacted earth.


“Look at this, Harry.”


She pointed to an inexplicable feature that he had not noticed during the search of the house. For the most part, the pile was shapeless, but sprouting from the formless heap was one human hand, not real but shaped from moist earth. It was large, strong, with blunt spatulate fingers, as exquisitely detailed as if it had been carved by a great sculptor.


The hand extended from the cuff of a coat sleeve that was also molded from the dirt, complete with sleeve strap, vent, and three mud buttons.


Even the texture of the fabric was well realized.


“What do you make of it?” Connie asked.


“Damned if I know.”


He put one finger to the hand and poked at it, half expecting to discover that it was a real hand coated thinly with mud. But it was dirt all the way through, and it crumbled at his touch, more fragile than it appeared, leaving only the coat cuff and two fingers.


A pertinent memory swam into Harry's mind and out again before he could catch it, as elusive as a halfglimpsed fish quickening with a flash of color into the murky depths of a koi pond. Staring at what remained of the dirt hand, he felt that he was close to learning something of tremendous importance about Ticktock. But the harder he seined for the memory, the emptier his net.


“Let's get out of here,” he said.


Following Connie into the hallway, Harry didn't look toward the body.


He was walking a thin line between control and derangement, filled with a rage so intense that he could barely contain it, like nothing he had ever felt before. New feelings always troubled him because he could not be sure where they might lead; he preferred to keep his emotional life as ordered as his homicide files and his CD collection. If he looked at Ricky just once more, his anger might grow beyond containment, and hysteria of a sort might grip him. He try, felt the urge to shout at someone, anyone at all, scream until his throat ached, and he needed to punch someone, too, punch and gouge and kick. Lacking a deserving target, he wanted to turn his wrath on inanimate objects, break and smash anything within reach, stupid and pointless as that would be, even if it drew the desperately unwanted attention of neighbors. The only thing that restrained him from venting his rage was a mental image of himself in the throes of such a frenzy wildeyed and bestial; he could not tolerate the thought of being seen that far out of control, especially if the one who saw him was Connie Gulliver.


Outside, she closed the front door all the way. Together, they walked to the street.


Just as they reached the car, Harry stopped and surveyed the neighborhood. “Listen.”


Connie frowned. “What?”


“Peaceful.”


“So?”


“It would've made one hell of a lot of noise,” he said.


She was with him: “The explosion that tore up the hall floor. And he would have screamed, maybe called for help.”


“So why didn't any curious neighbors come out to see what was happening? This isn't the big city, this is a fairly tight little community. People don't pretend to be deaf when they hear trouble next door. They come to help.”


“Which means they didn't hear anything,” Connie said.


“How's that possible?”


A night bird sang in a tree nearby.


Faint music still came from one of the houses. He could identify the tune this time. “A String of Pearls.”


Perhaps a block away a dog let out a lonely sound between a moan and a howl.


“Didn't hear anything. ... How's that possible?” Harry repeated.


Farther away still, a big truck started up a steep grade on a distant highway Its engine made a sound like the low bellow of a brontosaurus displaced in time.


His kitchen was all whitewhite paint, white floor tile, white marble counters, white appliances. The only relief from white was polished chrome and stainless steel where metal frames or panels were required, which reflected other white surfaces.


Bedrooms should be black Sleep was black except when dreams were unreeling in the theater of the mind. And although his dreams always seethed with color, they were also somehow dark; the skies in them were always black or churning with contusive storm clouds.


Sleep was like a brief death. Death was black.


However, kitchens must be white because kitchens were about food, and food was about cleanliness and energy. Energy was white: electricity, lightning.


In a red silk robe, Bryan sat in a shellwhite chair with white leather upholstery in front of a whitelacquered table with a thick glass top.


He liked the robe. He had five more of the same. The fine silk felt good against his skin, slippery and cool. Red was the color of power and authority: the red of a cardinal's cassock, the gold- and erminetrimmed red of a king's imperial mantle; the red of a Mandarin emperor's dragon robe.


At home, when he chose not to be naked, he dressed only in red.


He was a king in hiding, a secret god.


When he went out into the world, he wore drab clothing because he did not wish to call attention to himself. Until he had Become, he was at least marginally vulnerable, so anonynuty was wise. When his power had fully developed and he had learned total control of it, he would at last be able to venture out in costumes that befitted his true station, and everyone would kneel before him or turn away in awe or flee in terror.


The prospect was exciting. To be acknowledged. To be known and venerated. Soon.


At his white kitchen table, he ate chocolate ice cream in fudge sauce, smothered in maraschino cherries, sprinkled with coconut and crumbled sugar cookies. He loved sweets. Salties, too. Potato chips, cheese twirls, pretzels, peanuts, corn chips, deepfried pork rinds. He ate sweets and salties, nothing else, because no one could tell him what to eat any more.


Grandmother Drackman would have a stroke if she could see what his diet consisted of these days. She had raised him virtually from birth until he was eighteen, and she had been uncompromisingly strict about diet.


Three meals a day, no snacks. Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, breads, pasta, fish, chicken, no red meat, skim milk, frozen yogurt instead of ice cream, minimal salt, minimal sugar, minimal fat, minimal fun.


Even her hateful dog, a nervous poodle named Pierre, was forced to eat according to Grandma's rules, which in his case required a vegetarian regimen. She believed that dogs ate meat only because they were expected to eat it, that the word “carnivore” was a meaningless label applied by knownothing scientists, and that every speciesspecially dogs, for some reasonhad the power to rise above their natural urges and live more peaceful lives than they usually did. The stuff in Pierre's bowl sometimes looked like granola, sometimes like tofu cubes, sometimes like charcoal, and the closest he ever came to the taste of flesh was the imitation beef soy gravy spiked with protein powder that drenched most of what he was served. A lot of the time, Pierre had a strained and desperate look, as if maddened by a craving for something that he could not identify and therefore could not satisfy. Which was probably why he'd been so hateful, sneaky, and so given to nervous peeing in inconvenient places like in Bryan's closet, all over his shoes.


She was a demon rulemaker, Grandma Drackman. She had rules for grooming, dressing, studying, and deportment in every conceivable social situation. A ten megabyte computer would offer insufficient capacity for the cataloguing of her rules.


Pierre the dog had his own rules to learn. Which chairs he could sit on, which he could not. No barking. No whining. Meals on a strict schedule, no table scraps. Semiweekly brushing, be still, don't fuss.


Sit, roll over, play dead, don't claw the furniture...


Even as a child of four or five, Bryan had understood in his own terms that his grandmother was something of an obsessive compulsive personality, an analretentive wreck, and he had been cautious with her, polite and obedient, pretending love but never letting her into his true inner world. When, at that young age, his specialuess initially manifested itself in small ways, he was canny enough to conceal his budding talents from her, aware that her reaction might be... dangerous to him. Puberty brought with it a surge of growth not merely in his body but in his secret abilities, yet still he kept his own counsel, exploring his power with the help of a host of small animals that perished in a wide variety of satisfying torments.


Two years ago, only a few weeks after his eighteenth birthday, the strange and dynamic force within him surged again, as it did periodically, and though he still didn't feel strong enough to deal with the entire world, he knew that he was ready to deal with Grandma Drackman. She was sitting in her favorite armchair with her feet on an ottoman, eating carrot sticks, sipping at a glass of sparkling water, reading an article about capital punishment in the Los Angeles Times, adding her heartfelt comments about the need for extending compassion even to the worst of criminals, when Bryan used his newly refined power of pyrokinesis to set her on fire. Jeer, did she burn!

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