In spite of the fact that she had less fat on her bones than did the average praying mantis, she went up like a tallow candle. Although one of her rules was never to raise one's voice in the house, she screamed nearly loud enough to shatter windowsthough not for long. It was a controlled burn, focused on grandmother and her clothes, only singeing the armchair and ottoman, but she herself blazed so whitehot that Bryan had to squint when he looked at her. Like a caterpillar dipped in alcohol and lit with a match, she sizzled and popped and flared even brighter, then blackened to a crisp and curled up on herself. Still, he kept her burning until the charcoal residue of her bones became ashes and until the ashes became soot and until the soot just disappeared in a final puff of green sparks.
Then he dragged Pierre out of hiding and fried him, too.
It was a lovely day.
That was the end of Grandma Drackman and her rules. From then on Bryan lived according to his own rules. Soon the whole world would live according to them as well.
He got up and went to the refrigerator. It was filled with candies and dessert toppings. Not a mushroom or piece of chopped jicama to be found. He took a jar of butterscotch topping back to the table and added some of it to the sundae.
“Ding dong, the witch is dead, the wicked old witch, the witch is dead,” he sang happily By tampering with public records, he had given Grandma an official death certificate, altered his official age to twentyone (so no court would appoint a trustee), and had made himself the sole heir in her will. This was child's play, since no locked office or vault was proof against him; by the exercise of his Greatest and Most Secret Power, he could go where he wanted, do anything he wanted, and no one would know he had ever been there. After taking possession of the house, he had arranged for it to be gutted and remodeled to his own taste, eliminating every trace of the carroteating bitch.
Although he had spent more in the past two years than he had inherited, extravagance was no problem. He could get any amount of money any time he needed it. He didn't need it often because, thanks to his Greatest and Most Secret Power, he could also take virtually anything else he wanted and never be caught.
“Here's to you, Grandma,” he said, raising a heaping spoonful of ice cream and fudge sauce.
Although he was unableuite yetto heal his own injuries or even fade a bruise, he seemed able to maintain his proper weight and excellent body tone simply by concentrating on it for a few minutes every day, setting his metabolism as he might an ordinary thermostat. Because of this ability, he was confident that, after another growth surgeor two, his power would extend to rapid selfhealing and eventually to invulnerability.
Meanwhile, in spite of all the sweets and salties, he had a trim body.
He was proud of his lean muscularity, which was one reason he sometimes liked to be na*ed around the house and enjoyed catching unexpected glimpses of himself in the many mirrors.
He knew that women would like his body. If he had cared for women, he could have had any of them he wanted, maybe even without using any of his powers.
But sex was of no interest to him. For one thing, sex was the old god's biggest mistake. People had become obsessed with it, and all of their endless frantic breeding had ruined the world. Because of sex, the new god must thin the herd and clean up the planet. Besides, for him, orgasm was triggered not by sex but by the violent termination of a human life. After using one of his golems to kill someone, when he brought his entire consciousness back into his real body he often found the black silk sheets wet with glistening streams of semen.
What would Grandma think of that!
He could do what he wanted and eat what he wanted, and where was his nagging grandmother? Burned, dead, gone foreverthat's where.
He was twenty years old, and he might live to be a thousand, two thousand, possibly forever. When he had lived long enough, he would most likely forget about his grandmother altogether, and that would be good.
“Stupid old cow,” he said, and giggled. It tickled him to be able to talk about her any way he wanted, in what had been her house.
Though he had made the sundae in a large serving dish, he ate every bite of it. Exercising his powers was extremely taxing, and he required both more than the usual amount of sleep and far more calories per day than other people. He napped and snacked a lot of the time, but he assumed the need for food and sleep might entirely vanish when he had finished Becoming and was, at last, the new god.
When his Becoming was complete, he might never sleep, and take food not out of necessity but only for the pleasure of it.
After he had scooped up the last spoonful, he licked out the dish.
Grandma Drackman hated that.
He licked it thoroughly. When he was finished, it looked as clean as if it had been washed.
“I can do anything I want,” he said. “Anything.”
On the table, in a Mason jar, floating in preservative fluid, the eyes of Enrique Estefan watched him adoringly.
Driving north along the night coast with Ricky lying dead in the snakeinfested house in Dana Point, Harry said, “It's my fault, what happened to him.”
From the passenger seat, Connie said, “The hell it is.”
“The hell it isn't.”
“I suppose it's your fault he walked into that convenience store after he got offduty three years ago.”
“Thanks for trying to make me feel better, but no thanks.”
“Should I try to make you feel worse? Look, this thing we're up against, this Ticktockthere's no way you can figure what he's going to do next.”
“But maybe I can. I'm getting a handle on him, sort of. I'm starting to know what to expect. It's just that I'm running one step behind the sonofabitch. As soon as I saw that belt buckle, I knew it was natural for him to go after Ricky That's part of what his threat meant. I just saw it too late.”
“My point exactly. Maybe there's no way to get ahead of this guy He's something new, damn new, and he thinks a lot different from the way you and I think, from the way the average sleazebag thinks, doesn't fit any psychological profile, so there's no way you or anyone can be expected to outthink the bastard. Look, Harry, this is just not your responsibility.”
He snapped at her, not meaning to, not in the least blaming her for anything, but unable to contain his anger any longer. "That's what's wrong with the world these days, Jesus, that's ely what's wrong!
Nobody wants to be responsible for anything. Everybody wants a license to be and do any damn thing, nobody wants to pay the bill."
She obviously meant what she said, agreed with him, wasn't just humoring him, but he would not be defused that easily.
"These days, if your life is screwed up, if you've failed your family and friends, it's never your fault. You're a drunkard? Why, maybe it's a genetic predisposition. You're a compulsive adulterer, have a hundred sex partners a year? Well, maybe you just never felt loved as a child, maybe your parents never gave you all the cuddling you needed.
It's crap, all of it."
“Exactly,” she said.
“You just blew some shopkeeper's head off or beat some old lady to death for twenty bucks? Why, you're not a bad guy, no, you're not to blame! Your parents are to blame, your teachers are to blame, society is to blame, all of Western culture is to blame, but not you, never you, how crass to suggest such a thing, how insensitive, how hopelessly oldfashioned.”
“You had a radio show, I'd listen to it every day,” she said.
He was passing slow traffic even when he had to cross a double yellow line. He had never done that before in his life, not even when he'd been in a car with a siren and emergency beacons flashing.
He wondered what had gotten into him. He wondered how he could wonder about itbut keep doing it anyway, now swinging around a van with a Rocky Mountain mural on the side, into the oncomingtraffic lane in what was essentially a blind turn, even though the van was doing five miles an hour over the speed limit in the first place.
He raged on: “You can walk out on your wife and kids without paying child support, bilk your investors out of millions, beat some guy's brains to jelly because he's g*y or he showed you disrespect Connie joined in: ”crop your baby in a garbage dumpster because you had second thoughts about the joys of motherhood-“ ”cheat on your taxes, defraud the welfare-“ ”-sell drugs to gradeschool kids-“ ”-abuse your own daughter, and still claim you're the victim.
Everyone's a victim these days. No one's a victimizer. No matter what atrocity you commit, you can stake a claim for sympathy, moan about being a victim of racism, reverse racism, sexism, ageism, classism, prejudice against fat people, ugly people, dumb people, smart people.
That's why you robbed the bank or blew away that cop, because you're a victim, there're a million ways to be a victim.
Yeah, sure, you devalue the honest complaints of real victims, but what the hell, we only go around once, might as well get your piece of the action, and who cares about those real victims anyway, for God's sake, they're lash" He was coming up fast behind a slowmoving Cadillac.
A passing lane was provided. But an equally slowmoving Jeep station wagon with two bumper stickers on the rear windowt TRAVEL WITH JESUS and BEACHES, BIKINIS & BEERwas blocking the way.
He couldn't cross the double yellow line again because suddenly a stream of oncoming traffic appeared behind dazzling headlights.
He thought of blowing his horn, trying to make the Caddy or the Jeep speed up, but he didn't have the patience for that.
The shoulder of the highway was unusually wide at that point, and he took advantage of it, accelerating hard as he pulled off the pavement, passing the Cadillac on the right side. Even a- he was doing it, he couldn't believe he was doing it. Neither could the driver of the Cadillac; Harry looked over to his left and saw the man staring at him.
in astonishment, a funny little guy with a pencil mustache and a bad toupee. A soft bank of eroded earth, hung with ice plant and wild ivy, pressed close on the right side of the Honda. It was just inches away from the door even where the shoulder was broad ... and then the shoulder began to narrow. The Cadillac dropped back, trying to get out of his way. Harry accelerated, and the shoulder shrank further. A California Highway Department NO STOPPINC sign appeared directly ahead of him and was absolutely certain to stop him if he hit it. He swerved off the diminishing shoulder, onto the blacktop again, fish tailing in front of the Caddy, got control, and continued north with the Pacific vastness to his left, as black as his mood.
"Way cooln' Connie said.
He didn't know if she was being sarcastic or approving. With her love of speed and risk, it could be either.
“What I'm saying,” he told her, struggling to keep his anger whitehot, “is that I don't want to be like that, always pointing the finger somewhere else. When I'm responsible, I want to choke on my responsibility.”
“I hear you.”
“I'm responsible for Ricky.”
“Whatever you say.”
“If I'd been smarter, he'd still be alive.”
He's on my “Fine with me.”
“And I'm sure you'll rot in Hell for it.”
He couldn't help it: he laughed. The laughter was dark, and for a moment he was afraid it was going to turn into tears for Ricky, but she was not about to let that happen.
She said, “Sit for eternity in a pit of dog vomit, if that's what you think you deserve.”
Though Harry wanted to keep his rage at full blaze, it was dimmingas it should. He glanced at her and laughed harder.
She said, “You're such a bad guy, you'll have to eat maggots and drink demon bile for, oh, maybe a thousand years-” “I hate demon bile-” She was laughing, too: “-and for sure you'll have to let Satan give you a high colonic-” “-and watch Hudson Hawk ten thousand times-” “Oh, no, even Hell has its limits.”
They were both howling now, letting off steam, and the laughter didn't fade for a while.
When silence finally settled between them, Connie was the one to break it: “You okay?”
“I feel rotten.”
“You'll be okay.”
He said, “I will be, I guess.”
“Of course you will. When everything's said and done, maybe that's the real tragedy. Somehow we grow scabs over all the hurts and losses, even the worst ones, deepest ones. We go on, and nothing hurts forever, though sometimes it seems right that it should.”
They continued north. Sea to the left. Dark hills speckled with house lights to the right.
They were in Laguna Beach again, but he didn't know where they were going. What he wanted to do was keep driving toward the top of the compass, all the way up the coast, past Santa Barbara, along Big Sur, over the Golden Gate, into Oregon, Washington, Canada, maybe up into Alaska, far and away, see some snow and feel the bite of arctic wind, watch moonlight glimmer on glaciers, then keep right on going across the Bering Strait, the car handling water with all the magic ease of some fairytale conveyance, then down the frozen coast of what had once been the Soviet Union, thence into China, stopping for some good Szechwan cooking.
He said, “Gulliver?”
“I like you.”
“I mean it.”
“Well, I like you too, Lyon.”
“Just thought I'd say it.”
“Glad you did.”
“Doesn't mean we're going steady or anything.”
She smiled. “Good. By the way, where are we going?”
He resisted suggesting spicy duck in Beijing. "Ordegard's place.
You wouldn't happen to know the address, I guess."
“I don't just know itI've been there.”
He was surprised. “When?”
“Between leaving the restaurant and coming back to the office, while you were typing reports. Nothing special about the place, creepy, but I don't think we'll find anything helpful there.”
"When you were there before, you didn't know about Ticktock.
Now you'll be looking at things with a different attitude."
“Maybe. Two blocks ahead, turn right.”
He did, and they went up into the hills, along cramped and winding streets canopied by palms and overgrown eucalyptuses. A white owl with a threefoot wingspan swooped from the chimney of one house to the gabled roof of another, sailing through the night like a lost soul seeking heaven, and the starless sky pressed down so close that Harry could almost hear it grinding softly against the high points of the eastern ridges.