Page 8

The prospect of rain pleased Harry. The world needed to be cleansed, freshened.

Connie said, “You going to check in for a mind massage?”

Following a shooting, they were encouraged to take a few sessions of counseling.

“No,” Harry said. “I'm fine.”

“Why don't you knock off, go home?”

“Can't leave you with everything.”

“I can handle it here.”

“What about all the paperwork?”

“I can do that, too.”

“Yeah, but your reports are always full of typos.”

She shook her head. “Your clock's wound too tight, Harry.”

“It's all computers, but you don't even bother to run the spellcheck program.”

“I just had grenades thrown at me. Fuck spellcheck.”

He nodded and got up from the table. “I'll go back to the office and start writing up the report.”

Accompanied by another long, low rumble of thunder, a couple of morgue attendants in white jackets approached the dead woman.

Under the supervision of an assistant coroner, they prepared to remove the victim from the scene.

Connie handed her notebook to Harry. For his report, he would need some of the facts she had collected.

“See you later,” she said.


One of the attendants unfolded an opaque body bag. It had been doubled so tightly upon itself that the layers of plastic separated with a sticky crackling, unpleasantly organic noise.

Harry was surprised by a wave of nausea.

The dead woman had been facedown with her head turned away from him.

He had heard another detective say that she had been shot in the chest and face. He didn't want to see her when they rolled her over to put her into the bag.

Quelling his nausea with an effort of will, he turned away and headed for the front door.

Connie said, “Harry?”

Reluctantly he looked back.

She said, “Thanks.”

“You, too.”

That was probably the only reference they would ever make to the fact that their survival had depended on being a good team.

He continued toward the front door, dreading the crowd of onlookers.

From behind him came a wet, suctionbreaking sound as they lifted the woman out of the congealing blood that half glued her to the floor.

Sometimes he could not remember why he had become a cop. It seemed not a career choice but an act of madness.

He wondered what he might have become if he had never entered police work, but as always his mind blanked on that one. Perhaps there was such a thing as destiny, a power infinitely greater than the force which drove the earth around the sun and kept the planets in alignment, moving men and women through life as iftheywere only pieces on a game board. Perhaps free will was nothing more than a desperate illusion.

The uniformed officer at the front door stepped aside to let him out.

“It's a zoo,” he said.

Harry wasn't sure if the cop was referring to life in general or just to the mob of onlookers.

Outside, the day was considerably cooler than when Harry and Connie had gone into the restaurant for lunch. Above the screen of trees, the sky as as gray as cemetery granite.

Beyond police sawhorses and a barrier of taut yellow crimescene tape, sixty or eighty people jostled one another and craned their necks for a better view of the carnage. Young people with newwave haircuts stood shoulder to shoulder with senior citizens, businessmen in suits next to beach boys in cutoffs and Hawiian shirts. A few were eating huge chocolatechip cookies bought at a nearby bakery, and they were generally festive, as if none of tbem would ever die.

Harry was uncomfortably aware that the crowd took an interest in him when he stepped out of the restaurant. He avoided meeting anyone's gaze. He didn't want to see what emptiness their eyes might reveal.

He turned right and moved past the first of the large windows, which was still intact. Ahead was the broken pane where only a few toothlike shards still bristled from the frame. Glass littered the concrete.

The sidewalk was empty between the police barriers and the front of the buildingand then a young man of about twenty slipped under the yellow tape where it bridged the gap between two curbside trees. He crossed the sidewalk as if unaware that Harry was approaching, his eyes and attention fixed intently on something inside the restaurant.

“Please stay behind the barrier,” Harry said.

The manmore accurately a kid in wellworn tennis shoes, jeans, and a Tecate beer T shirttopped at the shattered window, giving no indication that he had heard the warning. He leaned through the frame, fiercely focused on something inside.

Harry glanced into the restaurant and saw the body of the woman being maneuvered into a morgue bag.

“I told you to stay behind the barrier.”

They were close now. The kid was an inch or two shorter than Harry's six feet, lean, with thick black hair. He stared at the corpse, at the morgue attendants' glistening latex gloves which grew redder by the moment. He seemed unaware that Harry was at his side, looming over him.

“Did you hear me?”

The kid was unresponsive. His lips were parted slightly in breathless anticipation. His eyes were glazed, as though he'd been hypnotized.

Harry put a hand on the boy's shoulder.

Slowly the kid turned from the slaughter, but he still had a faraway look, staring through Harry. His eyes were the gray of lightly tarnished silver. His pink tongue slowly licked his lower lip, as if he had just taken a bite of something tasty.

Neither the punk's failure to obey nor the arrogance of his blank stare was what set Harry off. Irrationally, perhaps, it was that tongue, the obscene pink tip leaving a wet trail on lips that were too full.

Suddenly Harry wanted to hammer his face, split his lips, break out his teeth, drive him to his knees, shatter his insolence, and teach him something about the value of life and respect for the dead.

He grabbed the kid, and before he quite knew what was happenIng, he was half shoving and half carrying him away from the window, back across the sidewalk. Maybe he hit the creep, maybe not, he didn't think so, but he manhandled him as roughly as if he had caught him in the act of mugging or molesting someone, wrenched and jerked him around, bent him double, and forced him under the crimescene tape.

The punk went down hard on his hands and knees, and the crowd moved back to give him a little room. Gasping for breath, he rolled onto his side and glared up at Harry. His hair had fallen across his face. His Tshirt was torn. Now his eyes were in focus and his attention won.

The onlookers murmured excitedly. The scene in the restaurant was passive entertainment, the killer dead by the time they arrived, but this was real action right in front of their eyes. It was as if a television screen had expanded to allow them to step through the glass, and now they were part of a real cop drama, right in the middle of the thrills and chills; and when he looked at their faces, Harry saw that they were hoping the script was colorful and violent, a story worth recounting to their families and friends over dinner.

Abruptly he was sickened by his own behavior, and he turned from the kid. He walked fast to the end of the building, which extended to the end of the block, and slipped under the yellow tape at a spot where no crowd was gathered.

The department car was parked around the corner, twothirds of the way along the next treelined block With the onlookers behind him and out of sight, Harry began to tremble. The trembling escalated into violent shivering.

Halfway to the car he stopped and leaned one hand against the rough trunk of a tree. He took slow deep breaths.

A peal of thunder shook the sky above the canopy of trees.

A phantom dancer,ø made of dead leaves and litter, spun down the center of the street in the embrace of a whirlwind.

He had dealt much too harshly with the kid. He'd been reacting not to what the kid had done but to everything that had happened in the restaurant and the attic. Delayedstress syndrome.

But more than that: he had needed to strike out at something, someone, God or man, in frustration over the stupidity of it all, the injustice, the pure blind cruelty of fate. Like some grim bird of despair, his mind kept circling back to the two dead people in the restaurant, the wounded, the cop clinging to a thread of life at Hoag Hospital, their tortured husbands and wives and parents, bereaved children, mourning friends, the many links in the terrible chain of grief that was forged by each death.

The kid had just been a convenient target.

Harry knew he ought to go back and apologize, but couldn't. It was not the kid he dreaded facing as much as that ghoulish crowd.

“The little creep needed a lesson anyway,” he said, justifying his actions to himself.

He had treated the kid more like Connie might have done. Now he even sounded like Connie.

... you gotta be in sync with the rhythms of destruction...

civilization is coming down around our ears...gotta know when to break a rule to save the system ... sub on every random wave of ma'lnees that comes a......

Harry loathed that attitude.

Violence, madness, envy, and hatred would not consume them all.

Compassion, reason, and understanding would inevitably prevail.

Bad times? Sure, the world had known plenty of bad times, hundreds of millions dead in wars and pogroms, the official murderous lunacies of fascism and communism, but there had been a few precious eras of peace, too, and societies that worked at least for a while, so there was always hope.

He stopped leaning on the tree. He stretched, trying to loosen his cramped muscles.

The day had started out so well, but it sure had gone to hell in a hurry.

He was determined to get it back on trace Paperwork would help.

Nothing like official reports and forms in triplicate to make the world seem ordered and rational.

Out in the street, the whirlwind had gathered more dust and detritus.

Earlier the ghost dancer had appeared to be waltzing along the blacktop. Now it was doing a frantic jitterbug. As Harry took a step away from the tree, the column of debris changed course, rigged toward him, and burst upon him with startling power, forcing him to shut his eyes against the abrasive grit.

For one crazy moment he thought he was going to be swept up as Dorothy had been, and spun off to Oz. Tree limbs rattled and shook overhead, shedding more leaves on him. The huffing and keening of the wind briefly swelled into a shriek, a howlbut in the next instant fell into graveyard stillness.

Someone spoke directly in front of Harry voice low and raspy and strange: “Ticktock, ticktock.”

Harry opened his eyes and wished he hadn't.

A hulking denizen of the streets, fully sixfeetfive, odious and clad in rags, stood before him, no more than two feet away. His face was grossly disfigured by scars and weeping sores. His eyes were narrowed, little more than slits, and gummy white curds clogged the corners. The breath that came between the hobo's rotten teeth and across his suppurating lips was so foul that Harry gagged on the stench.

“Ticktock, ticktock,” the vagrant repeated. He spoke quietly but the effect was like a shout because his voice seemed to be the only sound in the world. A preternatural silence draped the day Feeling threatened by the size and by the extravagant filthiness of the stranger, Harry took a step backward. The man's greasy hair was matted with dirt, bits of grass, and leaf fragments; dried food and worse was crusted in his tangled beard. His hands were dark with grime, and the underside of every ragged, overgrown fingernail was tarblack. He was no doubt a walking petri dish in which thrived every deadly disease known to man, and an incubator of new viral and bacterial horrors.

“Ticktock, ticktock.” The hobo grinned. “You'll be dead in sixteen hours.”

“Back off,” Harry warned.

“Dead by dawn.”

The hobo opened his squinched eyes. They were crimson from lid to lid and corner to corner, without irises or pupils, as if there were only panes of glass where eyes should have been and only a store of blood within the skull.

“Dead by dawn,” the hobo repeated.

Then he exploded. It wasn't anything like a grenade blast, no killing shock waves or gush of heat, no deafening boom, just a sudden end to the unnatural stillness and a violent influx of wind, whoosh! The hobo appeared to disintegrate, not into particles of flesh and gouts of blood but into pebbles and dust and leaves, into twigs and flower petals and dry clods of earth, into pieces of old rags and scraps of yellowed newspapers, bottle caps, glittering specks of glass, torn theater tickets, bird feathers, string, candy wrappers, chewinggum foil, bent and rusted nails, crumpled paper cups, lost buttons....

The churning column of debris burst over Harry. He was forced to close his eyes again as the mundane remains of the fantastic hobo pummeled him.

When he could open his eyes without risk of injury, he spun around, looking in every direction, but the airborne trash was gone, dispersed to all corners of the day. No whirlwind. No ghost dancer.

No hobo: he had vanished.

Harry turned around again in disbelief, gaping.

His heart knocked fiercely.

From another street, a car horn blared. A pickup truck turned the corner, appraaching him, engine growling. On the other side of the street, a young couple walked - hand in hand, and the woman $ laughter was like the ringing of small silver bells.

Suddenly Harry realized just how unnaturally quiet the day had become between the appearance and departure of the ragclothed giant. Other than the gravelly and malevolent voice and what few sounds of movement the hobo made, the street had been as silent as any place a thousand leagues beneath the sea or in the vacuum of space between galaxies.

Lightning flashed. The shadows of tree limbs twitched on the sidewalk around him.

Thunder drummed the fragile membrane of the sky drummed harder, the heavens grew blacker as if lightningburnt, the air temperature seemed to drop ten degrees in an instant, and the laden clouds split. A scattering of fat raindrops snapped against the leaves, ponged off the hoods of parked cars, painted dark blotches on Harry's clothes, splattered his face, and drove a chill deep into his bones.

The world appeared to be dissolving beyond the windshield of the parked car, as if the clouds had released torrents of a universal solvent.

Silver rain sluiced down the glass, and the trees outside seemed to melt as readily as green crayons. Hurrying pedestrians fused with their colorful umbrellas and deliquesced into the gray downpour.

Harry Lyon felt as if he would be liquefied as well, rendered into an insensate solution and swiftly washed away His comfortable world of granite reason and steely logic was eroding around him, and he was powerless to halt the disintegration.

He could not decide whether he had actually seen the burly vagrant or merely halucinated him.

God knew, an underclass of the dispossessed wandered the American landscape these days. The more money the government spent to reduce their numbers, the more of them there were, until it began to seem as if they were not the result of any public policy or lack of it but a divine scourge. Like so many people, Harry had learned to i look away from them or through them because there seemed to be nothing he could do to help them in any significant way... and because their very existence raised disturbing questions about the stability of his own future. Most were pathetic and harmless. But some were undeniably strange, their faces enlivened by the ticks and twitches of neurotic compulsions, driven by obsessive needs, the gleam of madness in their eyes, the capacity for violence evident in the unremitting coiled tension of their bodies. Even in a town like Laguna Beachportrayed in travel brochures as a pearl of the Pacific, one more California paradiseHarry could no doubt find at least a few homeless men whose demeanor and appearance were as hostile as that of the man who had seemed to come out of the whirlwind.