Page 31


Tanya sat in an armchair near the blind woman's bed, silently reading a Mary Higgins Clark novel. She liked to read, and she was a night person by nature, so the weehour shift was perfect for her.


Some nights she could finish an entire novel and start another one because Jennifer slept straight through.


Other times, Jennifer was unable to sleep, raving incoherently and consumed by terror. On those occasions, Tanya knew the poor woman was irrational and that there was nothing to be afraid of, yet the patient's angst was so intense that it was communicated to the nurse.


Tanya's own skin would prickle with gooseflesh, the back of her neck would tingle, she would glance uneasily at the darkness beyond the window as if something waited in it, and would jump at every unexpected noise.


At least the predawn hours of that Wednesday were not filled with shouts and tortured cries and strings of words as meaningless as the manic babble of a religious passionary speaking in tongues.


Instead, Jennifer slept but not well, harried by bad dreams.


From time to time, without waking, she moaned, grasped with her good hand at the bed rail, and tried without success to pull herself up.


With bony white fingers hooked around the steel, atrophied muscles barely defined in her fleshless arms, face gaunt and pale, eyelids sewn shut and concave over empty sockets, she seemed not like a sick woman in bed but like a corpse struggling to rise from a coffin. When she talked in her sleep, she didn't shout but spoke almost in a whisper, with tremendous urgency; her voice seemed to arise from thin air and Boat through the room with the eeriness of a spirit speaking at a seance: “He'll kill us all. . . kill. . . he'll kill us all....”


Tanya shivered and tried to concentrate on the suspense novel, though she felt guilty about ignoring her patient. At the least she should pry the bony hand off the railing, feel Jennifer's forehead to be sure she was not feverish, murmur soothingly to her, and attempt to guide her through the stormy dream into calmer shoals of sleep. She was a good nurse, and ordinarily she would rush to comfort a patient in the grip of a nightmare. But she stayed in the armchair with her Clark book because she didn't want to risk waking Jennifer. Once awakened, the woman might slip from the nightmare into one of those frightening fits of shouting, tearless weeping, wailing, and glossolalic shrieking that made Tanya's blood turn to ice.


Came the ghostly voice out of sleep: .... . the worll's on fire...


fires of blood...fire and blood... I'm the mother of Hell... God hep me, I'm the mother of Hell. . .


Tanya wanted to turn the thermostat higher, but she knew the room was already a bit too warm. The chill she felt was within her, not without.


..... such a cad mind... dead heart... beating but..."


Tanya wondered what the poor woman had endured that had left her in such a dismal state. What had she seen? What had she suffered? What memories haunted her?


The Green House on Pacific Coast Highway included a large and typical Californiastyle restaurant filled with too many ferns and pothos even for Harry's taste, and a sizable barroom where fern weary patrons had long ago learned to keep the greenery under control by poisoning the potting soil with a dribble of whiskey every now and then. The restaurant side was closed at that hour.


The popular bar was open until two o'clock. It had been remodeled in a blacksilvergreen Art Deco style that was nothing like the adjacent restaurant, a strained attempt to be chic. But they served sandwiches along with the booze.


Midst stunted and yellowing plants, about thirty customers drank, talked, and listened to jazz played by a fourman combo. The musicians were performing quirky semiprogressive arrangements of famous numbers from the bigband era. Two couples, who didn't realize the music was better for listening, were gamely dancing to quasimelodic tunes marked by constant tempo changes and looping extemporaneous passages that would have thwarted Fred Astaire or Baryshnikov When Harry and Connie entered, the thirtyish managerhost met them with a dubious look. He was wearing an Armani suit, a handpainted silk necktie, and beautiful shoes so softlooking that they might have been made out of a calf fetus. His fingernails were manicured, his teeth perfectly capped, his hair permed. He subtly signaled one of the bartenders, no doubt to help give them the bum's rush back into the street.


Aside from the dried blood at the corner of her mouth and the bruise only beginning to darken one whole side of her face, Connie was reasonably presentable, if slightly rumpled, but Harry was a spectacle.


His clothes, baggy and misshapen from having been rainsoaked, were more wrinkled than an ancient mummy's shroud.


Formerly crisp and white, his shirt was now mottled gray, smelling of smoke from the house fire he'd barely escaped. His shoes were scuffed, scraped, muddy. A moist bloody abrasion as big as a quarter marred his forehead. He had heavy beard stubble because he hadn't shaved in eighteen hours, and his hands were grimy from pawing through the pile of dirt on Ordegard's lawn. He realized he must appear to be only a treacherous step up the ladder from the hobo outside the bar to whom Connie had just delivered a warning about forced detoxification, even now socially devolving before the scowling host's eyes.


Only yesteltlav Harry would have been mortified to appear in public in such a state of dishevelment. Now he didn't particularly care. He was too worried about survival to fret about good grooming and sartorial standards.


Before they could be ejected from The Green House, they both flashed their Special Projects ID.


“Police,” Harry said.


No master key, no password, no blueblood social register, no royal lineage opened doors as effectively as a badge. Opened them grudgingly, more often than not, but opened them nonetheless.


It also helped that Connie was Connie: “Not just police,” she said, “but pissedoff police, having a bad day, in no mood to be refused service by some prissy sonofabitch who thinks we might offend his effete clientele.”


They were graciously shown to a corner table that just happened to be in the shadows and away from most of the other customers.


A cocktail waitress arrived at once, said her name was Bambi, crinkled her nose, smiled, and took their orders. Harry asked for coffee and a hamburger medium well with cheddar.


Connie wanted her burger rare with blue cheese and plenty of raw onions. “Coffee for me, too, and bring both of us double shots of cognac, Re'my Martin.” To Harry she said, “Technically, we're not onduty any more. And if you feel as crappy as I feel, you need more of a jolt to the system than you're going to get from coffee or a burger.”


While the waitress filled their orders, Harry went to the men's room to wash his grubby hands. He felt as crappy as Connie suspected, and the restroom mirror confirmed that he looked even worse than he felt. He could hardly believe that the grainyskinned, holloweyed, desperationlined face before him was his face.


He vigorously scrubbed his hands, but a little dirt stubbornly remained under his fingernails and in some knuckle creases. His hands resembled those of a car mechanic.


He splashed cold water in his face, but that didn't make him look fresher or less distraught. The day had taken a toll from him that might forever leave its mark. The loss of his house and all his possessions, Ricky's gruesome death, and the bizarre chain of supernatural events had rattled his faith in reason and order. His current haunted expression might be with him for a long timeassuming he was going to live beyond a few more hours.


Disoriented by the strangeness of his reflection, he almost expected the mirror to prove magical, as mirrors so often were in fairy talesa doorway to another land, a window on the past or future, the prison in which an evil queen's soul was trapped, a magic talking marror like the one from which Snow White's wicked stepmother learned that she was no longer the fairest of them all. He put one hand to the glass, warm fingers met cold, but nothing supernatural happened.


Still, considering the events of the past twelve hours, it was not madness to expect sorcery. He seemed to be trapped in a fairy tale of some kind, one of the darker variety like The Red Shoes, in which the characters suffer terrible physical tortures and mental anguish, die horribly and then are finally rewarded with happiness not in this world but in Heaven. It was an unsatisfying plot pattern if you were not entirely sure that Heaven was, in fact, up there and waiting for you.


The only indication that he hadn't become imprisoned in a children's fantasy was the absence of a talking animal. Talking animals populated fairy tales even more reliably than psychotic killers populated modern American films.


Fairy tales. Sorcery. Monsters. Psychosis. Children.


Suddenly Harry felt he was teetering on the edge of an insight that would reveal an important fact about Ticktock.


Sorcery Psychosis. Children. Monsters. Fairy tales.


Revelation eluded him.


He strained for it. No good.


He realized he was no longer lightly touching his fingertips to their reflection, but was pressing his hand against the mirror hard enough to crack the glass. When he took his hand away, a vague moist imprint remained for a moment, then swiftly evaporated.


Everything fades. Including Harry Lyon. Maybe by dawn.


He left the restroom and walked back to the table in the bar where Connie was waiting.


Monsters. Sorcery. Psychosis. Fairy tales. Children.


The band was playing a Duke Ellington medley with a modern jazz interpretation. The music was crap. Ellington simply didn't need improvement.


On the table stood two steaming coffee cups and two brandy snifters with Re'my glowing like liquid gold.


“The burgers'll be a few minutes,” Connie said as he pulled out one of the black wooden chairs and sat down.


Psychosis. Children. Sorcery.


Nothing.


He decided to stop thinking about Ticktock for a while. Give the subconscious a chance to work without pressure.


“I Gotta Know,” he said, giving Connie the title of a Presley song.


“Know what?”


“Tell Me Why.”


“Huh?”


“It's Now or Never.”


She caught on, smiled. “I'm a fanatical Presley fan.”


“So I gathered.”


“Came in handy.”


“Probably kept Ordegard from throwing another grenade at us, saved our lives.”


“To the king of rock-'n'-roll,” she said, raising her brandy snifter.


The band stopped torturing the Ellington tunes and took a break, so maybe there was a God in Heaven after all, and blessed order in the universe.


Harry and Connie clinked glasses, sipped. He said, “Why Elvis?”


She sighed. “Early Elvishe was something. He was all about freedom, about being what you want to be, about not being pushed around just because you're different. 'Don't step on my blue suede shoes.” Songs from his first ten years were already golden oldies when I was just seven or eight, but they spoke to me. You know?"


“Seven or eight? Heavy stuff for a little kid. I mean, a lot of those songs were about loneliness, heartbreak.”


“Sure. He was that dream figurea sensitive rebel, polite but not willing to take any shit, romantic and cynical at the same time. I was raised in orphanages, foster homes, so I knew what loneliness was all about, and my heart had some cracks of its own.”


The waitress brought their burgers, and the busboy refreshed their coffee.


Harry was beginning to feel like a human being again. A dirty, rumpled, aching, weary, frightened human being, but a human being nonetheless.


“Okay,” he said, “I can understand being crazy for the early Elvis, memorizing the early songs. But later?”


Shaking ketchup onto her burger, Connie said, “In its way, the end's as interesting as the beginning. American tragedy.”


“Tragedy? Winding up a fat Vegas singer in sequined jumpsuits?”


“Sure. The handsome and courageous king, so full of promise, transcendentthen because of a tragic flaw, he takes a tumble, a long fall, dead at fortytwo.”


“Died on a toilet.”


“I didn't say this was Shakespearean tragedy. There's an element of the absurd in it. That's what makes it American tragedy. No country in the world has our sense of the absurd.”


“I don't think you'll see either the Democrats or Republicans using that line as a campaign slogan anytime soon.” The burger was delicious. Around a mouthful of it, he said, “So what was Elvis's tragic flaw?”


“He refused to grow up. Or maybe he wasn't able.”


“Isn't an artist supposed to hold on to the child within him?”


She took a bite of her sandwich, shook her head. "Not the same as perpetually being that child. See, the young Elvis Presley wanted freedom, had a passion for it, just like I've always had, and the way he got total freedom to do anything he wanted was through his music.


But when he got it, when he could've been free forever... well, what happened?"


“Tell me.”


She had clearly thought a lot about it. “Elvis lost direction. I think maybe he fell in love with fame more than freedom. Genuine freedom, freedom with responsibility not from itthat's a worthy adult dream. But fame is just a cheap thrill. You'd have to be immature to really enjoy fame, don't you think?”


“I wouldn't want it. Not that I'm likely to get it.”


“Worthless, fleeting, a trinket only a child would mistake for diamonds. Elvis, he looked like a grownup, talked like one-” “Sure as hell sang like agrownup when he was at his best.”


“Yeah. But emotionally he was a case of arrested development, and the grownup was just a costume he wore, a masquerade. Which is why he always had a big entourage like his own private boy's club, and ate mostly fried banana sandwiches with peanut butter, kids' food, and rented whole amusement parks when he wanted to have fun with his friends. It's why he wasn't able to stop people like Colonel Parker from taking advantage of him.”


Grownups. Children. Arrested development. Psychosis. Fame.


Sorcery Fairy tales. Arrested development. Monsters. Masquerade Harry sat up straighter, his mind racing.


Connie was still talking, but her voice seemed to be coming from a distance:" . . so the last part of Elvis's life shows you how many traps there are .


Psychotic child. Fascinated by monsters. With a sorcerer's power.


Arrested development. Looks like a grownup but masquerading.


how easy it is to lose your freedom and never find your way back to it..."


Harry put down his sandwich. “My God, I think maybe I know who Ticktock is.”


“Who?”


“Wait. Let me think about this.”


Shrill laughter erupted from a table of noisy drunks near the bandstand. Two men in their fifties with the look of wealth about them, two blondes in their twenties. They were trying to live their own fairy tales: the aging men dreaming of perfect sex and the envy of other men; the women dreaming of riches, and happily unaware that their fantasies would one day seem dreary, dull, and tacky even to them.

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