Page 27


As they moved through the living room, dining room, den, and kitchen, Harry noted that no artwork adorned the walls. There were no decorative objects of any kind; tables were utterly bare except for plain ceramic lamps in white and black. No books or magazines were to be found anywhere.


The rooms had a monastic feel, as if the person living in them was doing longterm penance for his sins.


Ordegard seemed to be a man of two distinct characters. The organic lines and textures of the house itself described a resident who had a strong sensual nature, who was easy with himself and his emotions, relaxed and selfindulgent to some extent. On the other hand, the relentless sameness of the furniture and utter lack of ornamentation indicated that he was cold, hard on himself and others, introverted, and brooding.


“What do you think?” Connie asked as they entered the hall that served the bedrooms.


“Creepy” “I told you. But why exactly?”


“The contrasts ... . too extreme.”


“Yeah. And it just doesn't look livedin.”


Finally in the master bedroom, there was a painting on the wall directly opposite the bed. Ordegard would have seen it first thing upon waking and last thing before falling asleep each night. It was a reproduction of a famous work of art with which Harry was familiar, though he had no idea what the title was. He thought the artist was Francisco de Goya; that much had stuck with him from Art Appreciation 101. The work was menacing, abrasive to the nerves, conveying a sense of horror and despair, not least of all because it included the figure of a giant, demonic ghoul in the act of devouring a bloody and headless human body Profoundly disturbing, brilliantly composed and executed, it was without doubt a major work of artbut more suited to the walls of a museum than to a private home. It needed to be dwarfed by a huge exhibition space with vaulted ceiling; here, in this room of ordinary dimensions, the painting was too overpowering, its dark energy almost paralyzing.


Connie said, “Which do you think he identified with?”


“What do you mean?”


“The ghoul or the victim?”


He thought about it. “Both.”


“Devouring himself” “Yeah. Being devoured by his own madness.”


“And unable to stop.”


“Maybe worse than unable. Unwilling. Sadist and masochist rolled up in one.”


Connie said, “But how does any of this help us figure out what's been happening?”


Harry said, “As far as I can see, it doesn't.”


“Ticktock,” said the hobo.


When they spun around in surprise at hearing the low gravelly voice, the vagrant was only inches away. He could not have crept so close without alerting them, yet there he was.


Ticktock's right arm slammed across Harry's chest with what seemed like as much force as the steel boom of a construction crane.


He was hurled backward. He crashed into the wall hard enough to make the bedroom windows vibrate in their frames, his teeth snapping together so forcefully that he would have bitten his tongue off if it had been in the way. He collapsed on his face, sucking up dust and carpet fibers, struggling to recapture the breath that had been knocked out of him.


With tremendous effort, he raised his face from the Berber, and saw that Connie had been lifted off her feet. Ticktock pinned her against the wall and shook her furiously. The back of her head and the heels of her shoes drummed the Sheetrock.


Ricky, now Connie.


First everyone your...


Harry got up as far as his hands and knees, choking on carpet fibers that were stuck to the back of his throat. Every cough sent a quiver of pain through his chest, and he felt as if his rib cage was a vise that had closed around his heart and lungs.


Ticktock was screaming in Connie's face, words Harry couldn't understand because his ears were ringing.


Gunfire.


She had managed to draw her revolver and empty it into her assailant's neck and face. The slugs jolted him slightly but didn't loosen his grip on her.


Grimacing at the pain in his chest, pawing at a stark Danish modern dresser, Harry lurched to his feet. Dizzy wheezing. He pulled his own gun, knowing it would be ineffective against this adversary Still shouting and holding Connie off the floor, Ticktock swung her away from the wall and threw her at the two sliding glass doors to the balcony.


She exploded through one of them as if she had been shot from a cannon, and the pane of tempered glass dissolved into tens of thousands of gummy fragments.


No. It couldn't happen to Connie. He couldn't lose Connie.


Unthinkable.


Harry fired twice. Two ragged holes appeared in the back of Ticktock's black raincoat.


The vagrant's spine should have been shattered. Bone and lead shrapnel should have skewered all of his vital organs. He should have gone down like King Kong taking the plunge off the Empire State Building.


Instead, he turned.


Didn't cry out in pain. Didn't even wobble.


He said, “Bigshot hero.”


How he could still talk was a mystery, maybe a miracle. In his throat was a bullet wound the size of a silver dollar.


Connie had also blown away part of his face. Missing tissue left a large concavity on the left side, from jaw line to just under the eye socket, and his left ear was gone.


No blood flowed. No bone lay exposed. The meat of him was not red but brownblack and strange.


His smile was more terrible than ever because the disintegration of his left cheek had exposed his rotten teeth all the way back along the side of his face. Within that calcium cage, his tongue squirmed like a fat eel in a fisherman's trap.


“Think you're so bad, big hero cop, bigshot tough guy,” Ticktock said.


In spite of his deep and raspy voice, he sounded curiously like a schoolboy issuing a challenge to a playground fight, and even his fearsome appearance could not entirely conceal that childish quality in his demeanor. “But you're nothing, you're nobody just a scared little man.”


Ticktock stepped toward him.


Harry pointed the revolver at the huge assailant andwas sitting on a chair in James Ordegard's kitchen. The gun was still in his hand, but the muzzle was pressed to the underside of his chin, as if he were about to commit suicide. The steel was cold against his skin, and the gunsight dug painfully at his chin bone.


His finger was curled around the trigger.


Dropping the revolver as if he had discovered a poisonous snake in his hand, he bolted up from the chair.


He had no memory of going to the kitchen, pulling the chair out from the table, and sitting down. In the blink of an eye, he seemed to have been transported there and encouraged to the brink of selfdestruction.


Ticktock was gone.


The house was silent. Unnaturally silent.


Harry moved toward the door -and was sitting on the same chair as before, the gun in his hand again, the muzzle in his mouth, his teeth biting down on the barrel.


Stunned, he took the .38 out of his mouth and put it on the floor beside the chair. His palm was damp. He blotted it on his slacks.


He got to his feet. His legs were shaky He broke into a sweat, and the sour taste of halfdigested pizza rose in the back of his mouth.


Although he didn't understand what was happening to him, he knew for certain that he did not have a suicidal urge. He wanted to live: Forever, if possible. He would not have put the barrel of the gun between his lips, not voluntarily, not in a million years.


He wiped one trembling hand down his damp face and ø was on the chair again, holding the revolver, the muzzle pressed to his right eye, staring into the dark barrel. Five steely inches of eternity. Finger around the trigger.


Sweet Jesus.


His heart knocked so hard that he could feel it in every bruise on his body Carefully he put the revolver in his shoulder holster, under his rumpled coat.


He felt as if he were caught in a spell. Magic seemed to be the only explanation for what was happening to him. Sorcery witchcraft, voodohe was suddenly willing to believe in all of it, as long as believing would buy a pardon from the sentence that Ticktock had pronounced on him.


He licked his lips. They were chapped, dry, burning. He looked at his hands, which were pale, and he figured that his face was even paler.


After getting shakily to his feet, he hesitated briefly, then started toward the door. He was surprised to reach it without being returned inexplicably to the chair.


He remembered the four expended bullets that he had found in his shirt pocket after shooting the vagrant four times, and he recalled as well the discovery of the newspaper under his arm as he'd walked out of the convenience store earlier in the night. Finding himself three times in the kitchen chair with no recollection of having gone to it was, he sensed, merely the result of a different application of the same trick that had put those slugs in his pocket and the paper under his arm. An explanation of how the effect was achieved seemed almost within his grasp... but remained elusive.


When he edged out of the kitchen without further incident, he decided that the spell was broken. He rushed to the master bedroom, wary of encountering Ticktock, but the vagrant seemed to have gone.


He was afraid of finding Connie dead, her head turned around backward like Ricky's had been, eyes torn out.


She was sitting on the balcony floor in glittering puddles of tempered glass, still alive, thank God, holding her head in her hands and groaning softly. Her short dark hair fluttered in the night breeze, shiny and soft. Harry wanted to touch her hair, stroke it.


Crouching beside her, he said, “You all right?”


“Where is he?”


“Gone.”


"I want to tear his lungs out.


Harry almost laughed with relief at her bravado.


She said, "Tear 'em out and stuff 'em where the sun don't shine, make him breathe through his ass from now on.


“Probably wouldn't stop him.”


“Slow him down some.”


“Maybe not even that.”


“Where the hell did he come from?”


“Same place he went. Thin air.”


She groaned again.


Harry said, “You sure you're all right?”


She finally raised her face from her hands. The right corner of her mouth was bleeding, and the sight of her blood made him shiver with rage as much as with fear. That whole side of her face was red, as if she had been slapped hard and repeatedly. It would probably darken with bruises by tomorrow.


If they lived to see tomorrow.


“Man, could I use some aspirin,” she said.


“Me, too.”


From his coat pocket, Harry removed the bottle of Ahacin that he had borrowed from her medicine cabinet a few hours ago.


“A genuine Boy Scout,” she said.


“I'll get you some water.”


“I can get it myself.”


Harry helped her to her feet. Bits of glass fell from her hair and clothes.


When they stepped inside from the balcony, Connie paused to look at the painting on the bedroom wall. The headless human corpse. The hungry ghoul with mad, staring eyes.


“Ticktock had yellow eyes,” she said. “Not like before, outside the restaurant when he panhandled me. Yellow eyes, bright, with black slits for pupils.”


They headed for the kitchen to get water to chase the Anacin.


Harry had the irrational feeling that the ghoul's eyes in the Goya painting turned to watch as he and Connie passed by, and that the monster climbed out of the canvas and crept after them through the dead man's house.


Sometimes when he was weary from exercising his powers, Bryan Drackman grew sullen and petulant. He didn't like anything. If the night was cool, he wanted it warm; if it was warm, he wanted it cool.


Ice cream tasted too sweet, corn chips too salty, chocolate far too chocolaty. The feel of clothes against his skin, even a silk robe, was intolerably irritating, yet he felt vulnerable and strange when he was naked. He didn't want to stay in the house, didn't want to go out.


When he looked at himself in the mirror, he didn't like what he saw, and when he stood in front of the jars full of eyes, he had the feeling that they were mocking rather than adoring him. He knew he should sleep in order to restore his energy and improve his mood, but he loathed the world of dreams as much as he despised the waking world.


This crabbiness escalated until he became quarrelsome. Because he had no one with whom to quarrel in his seaside sanctum, his temper could not be vented. Irascibility intensified into anger.


Anger became blind rage.


Too exhausted to work off his rage in physical activity, he sat na*ed in his black bed, propped against pillows covered in black silk, and allowed wrath to consume him. He closed his hands into fists on his thighs, squeezed tighter, tighter, until his fingernails dug painfully into his palms and until the muscles in his arms ached from the exertion. He pounded his thighs with his fists, knuckle first to hurt the most, then his abdomen, then his chest. He twisted strands of hair around his fingers and pulled on it until tears blurred his vision.


His eyes. He hooked his fingers, pressed the nails against his eyelids, and tried to generate enough courage to gouge his eyes out, tear them loose and crush them in his fists.


e didn't understand why he was overcome by the urge to blind himself, but the compulsion was powerful.


Irrationality seized him.


He wailed, tossed his head in anguish and thrashed upon the black sheets, kicked and flailed, screamed and spat, cursed with a fluidity and vehemence that made his tantrum appear to be the work of some spawn of Hell that had possessed him. He cursed the world and himself, but most of all he cursed the bitch, the breeding bitch, the stupid hateful breeding bitch. His mother.


His mother.


Rage abruptly turned to piteous distress, and his furious cries and hatefilled screams shivered into agonized sobs. He curled into the fetal position, hugging his pummeled and aching body, and he wept as intensely as he had shrieked and flailed, as passionate in his self pity as he had been in his wrath.


It wasn't fair, not fair at all, what was expected of him. He had to Become without the company of a brother, without the guiding hand of a carpenter father, without the tender mercy of his mother.


Jesus, while Becoming, had enjoyed the perfect love of Mary, but there was no Holy Virgin this time, no radiant Madonna at his side.


This time there was a hag, withered and debilitated by her greedy appetites and selfindulgence, who turned from him in loathing and fear, unable and unwilling to provide comfort. It was so unfair, so bitterly unjust, that he should be expected to Become and remake the world without the adoring disciples who had stood at the side of Jesus, and without a mother like Mary, Queen of Angels.


Gradually his wretched sobbing subsided.


The flow of tears slowed, dried up.


He lay in miserable solitude.


He needed to sleep.


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