Page 9

He could not, however, expect to find one of them with scarlet eyes lacking irises and pupils. He was not confident, either, about the probability of locating any street person who could manifest himself out of a dust devil, or explode into a collection of mundane debris and fly away on the wind.

Perhaps he had imagined the encounter.

That was a possibility Harry was loath to consider. The pursuit and execuiionø of James Ordegard had been traumatic. But he didn't believe being caught in Ordegard's bloody rampage was sufficiently stressful to cause hallucinations replete with dirty fingernails and killer halitosis.

If the filthy giant was real, where had he come from? Where had he gone, who had he been, what disease or birth defect had left him with those terrifying eyes?

Ticktock, ticktock, you'll be all mine.

He twisted the key in the ignition and started the engine.

Paperwork awaited him, soothingly tedious, with blanks to fill in and boxes to check. A neatly typed file would reduce the messy Ordegard case to crisp paragraphs of words on clean white paper, and then none of it would seem as inexplicable as it did at that moment.

He wouldn't include the crimsoneyed hobo in his report, of course.

That had nothing to do with Ordegard. Besides, he didn't want to give Connie or anyone else in Special Projects a reason to make jokes at his expense. Dressing for work unfailingly in a coat and tie, being disdainful of foul language in a profession rife with it, going by the book at all times, and being obsessive about the neatness of his case files already made him a frequent target of their humor. But later, at home, he might type up a report about the hobo, just for himself, as a way of bringing order to the bizarre experience and putting it behind him.

“Lyon,” he said, meeting his own eyes in the rearview mirror, “you are a ridiculous specimen.”

He switched on the windshield wipers, and the melting world solidified.

The afternoon sky was so overcast that the streetlamps, which were operated by a solarsensitive switch, were deceived by the false twilight. The pavement glistened, shiny black. All of the gutters were full of fastmoving, dirty water.

He went south on Pacific Coast Highway, but instead of turning east on Crown Valley Parkway toward Special Projects, he kept going. He passed Kitz Cove, then the turnoff for the KitzCarlton Hotel, and drove all the way into Dana Point.

When he pulled up in front of Enrique Estephan's house, he was somewhat surprised, although subconsciously he had known where he was headed.

The house was one of those charming bungalows built in the '4Os or early '505, before soulless stucco tract homes had become the architecture of choice. Decoratively carved shutters, scalloped fascia, and a multiplepitch roof gave it character. Rain drizzled off the fronds of the big date palms in the front yard.

During a brief lull in the downpour, he left the car and ran up the walkway. By the time he climbed the three brick steps onto the porch, the rain was coming down hard again. There was no wind any more, as if the great weight of the rain suppressed it.

Shadows waited like a gathering of old friends on the front porch, among a benchstyle swing and white wooden chairs with green canvas cushions. Even on a sunny day the porch would be comfortably cool, for it was sheltered by densely interwoven, redflowering bougainvillaea that festooned a trellis and spread across the roof.

He put his thumb on the bell push and, above the drumming of the rain, heard soft chimes inside the house.

A sixinch lizard skittered across the porch floor to the steps, and out into the storm.

Harry waited patiently. Enrique EstefanRicky to his friends did not move very fast these days.

When the inner door swung open, Ricky squinted out through the screen door, clearly not happy to be disturbed. Then he grinned and said, “Harry, good to see you.” He opened the screen door, stepped aside.

“Really good to see you.”

“I'm dripping,” Harry said, pulling off his shoes and leaving them on the porch.

“That's not necessary,” Ricky said.

Harry entered the house in his stocking feet.

“Still the most considerate man I ever met,” Ricky said.

“That's me. Ms. Manners of the gunandhandcuff set.”

They shook hands. Enrique Estefan's grip was firm, although his hand was hot, dry, leathery, padded with too little flesh, almost withered, all knuckles and meta carpals and phalanges. It was almost like exchanging greetings with a skeleton.

“Come on in the kitchen,” Ricky said.

Harry followed him across the polishedoak floor. Ricky shuffled, never entirely lifting either foot.

The short hallway was illumined only by the light spilling in from the kitchen at the end and by a votive candle flickering in a ruby glass.

The candle was part of a shrine to the Holy Mother that was set up on a narrow table against one wall. Behind it was a mirror in a silverleafed frame. Reflections of the small flame glimmered in the silver leaf and danced in the looking glass.

“How've you been, Ricky?”

“Pretty good. You?”

“I've had better days,” Harry admitted.

Although he was Harry's height, Ricky seemed several inches shorter because he leaned forward as if progressing against a wind, his back rounded, the sharp lines of his shoulder blades poking up prominently against his paleyellow shirt. From behind, his neck looked scrawny.

The back of his skull appeared as fragile as that of an infant.

The kitchen was bigger than expected in a bungalow and a lot cheerier than the hallway: Mexicantile floor, knottypine cabinetry, a large window looking onto a spacious backyard. A Kenny G number was on the radio. The air was heavy with the rich aroma of coffee.

“Like a cup?” Ricky asked.

“If it's not any trouble.”

“No trouble at all. Just made a fresh pot.”

While Ricky got a cup and saucer from one of the cabinets and poured coffee, Harry studied him. He was worried by what he saw.

Ricky's face was too thin, drawn with deeply carved lines at the corners of his eyes and framing his mouth. His skin sagged as if it had lost nearly all elasticity. His eyes were rheumy. Maybe it was only a backsplash of color from his shirt, but his white hair had an unhealthy yellow tint, and both his face and the whites of his eyes exhibited a hint of jaundice.

He had lost more weight. His clothes hung loosely on him. His belt was cinched to theølast hole, and the seat of his pants drooped like an empty sack.

Enrique Estefan was an old man. He was only thirtysix, one year younger than Harry, but he was an old man just the same.

Much of the time, the blind woman lived not merely in darkness but in another world quite apart from the one into which she had been born.

Sometimes that inner realm was a kingdom of brightest fantasy with pink and amber castles, palaces of jade, luxury highrise apartments, Bel Air estates with vast verdant lawns. In these settings she was the queen and ultimate rulerr a famous actress, fashion model, acclaimed novelist, ballerina. Her adventures were exciting, C romantic, inspiring. At other times, however, it was an evil empire, all shadowy dungeons, dank and dripping catacombs full of decomposing corpses, blasted landscapes as gray and bleak as the craters of the moon, populated by monstrous and malevolent creatures, where she was always on the run, hiding and afraid, neither powerful nor famous, often cold and naked.

Occasionally her interior world lacked concreteness, was only a domain of colors and sounds and aromas, without form or texture, and she drifted through it, wondering and amazed. Often there was musicElton John, Three Dog Night, Nilsson, Marvin Gaye, Jim Croce, the voices of her timeand the colors swirled and exploded to accompany the songs, a light show so dazzling that the real world could never produce its equal.

Even during one of those amorphous phases, the magic country within her head could darken and become a fearful place. The colors grew clotted and somber; the music discordant, ominous. She felt that she was being swept away by an icy and turbulent river, choking on its bitter waters, struggling for breath but finding none, then breaking the surface and gasping in lungsful of sour air, frantic, weeping, praying for delivery to a warm dry shore.

Once in a while, as now, she surfaced from the false worlds within her and became aware of the reality in which she actually existed.

Muffled voices in adjacent rooms and hallways. The squeak of rubbersoled shoes. The pine scent of disinfectant, medicinal aromas, sometimes (but not now) the pungent odor of urine. She was swaddled in crisp, clean sheets, cool against her fevered flesh.

When she disentangled her right hand from the bedding and reached out blindly, she found the cold steel safety railing on the side of her hospital bed.

At first she was preoccupied by the need to identify a strange sound.

She did not try to rise up, but held fast to the railing and was perfectly still, listening intently to what initially seemed to be the roar of a great crowd in a far arena. No. Not a crowd. Fire. The chucklingwhisperinghissing of an allconsuming blaze. Her heart began to pound, but at last she recognized the fire for what it was: its opposite, the quenching downpour of a major storm.

She relaxed slightlybut then a rustle arose nearby, and she froze again, wary. “Who's there?” she asked, and was surprised that her speech was thick and slurred.

“Ah, Jennifer, you're with us.”

"Jennifer. My name is Jennifer The voice had been that of a woman.

She sounded past middleage, professional but caring.

Jennifer almost recognized the voice, knew she had heard it before, but she was not calmed.

“Who are you?” she demanded, disconcerted that she was unable to rid herself of the slur.

“It's Margaret, dear.”

The tread of rubbersoled shoes, approaching.

Jennifer cringed, half expecting a blow but not sure why.

A hand took hold of her right wrist, and Jennifer flinched.

“Easy, dear. I only want to take your pulse.”

Jennifer relented and listened to the rain.

After a while, Margaret let go of her wrist. “Fast but nice and regular.”

Memory slowly seeped back into Jennifer. “You're Margaret?”

“That's right.”

“The day nurse.”

“Yes, dear.”

“So it's morning?”

"Almost three o'clock in the afternoon. I go offduty in an hour.

Then Angelina will take care of you."

“Why am I always so confused when I first... wake up?”

"Don't worry about it, dear. There's nothing you can do to change it.

Is your mouth dry? Would you like something to drink?"

“Yes, please.”

“Orange juice, Pepsi, Sprite?”

“Juice would be nice.”

“I'll be right back.”

Footsteps receding. A door opening. Left open. Above the sound of the rain, busy noises from elsewhere in the building, other people on other errands.

Jennifer tried to shift to a more comfortable position in the bed, whereupon she rediscovered not merely the extent of her weakness but the fact that she was paralyzed on her left side. She could not move her left leg or even wiggle her toes. She had no feeling in her left hand or arm.

A deep and terrible dread filled her. She felt helpless and abandoned.

It seemed a matter of the utmost urgency that she recall how she had gotten in this condition and into this place.

She lifted her right arm. Although she realized that it must be thin and frail, it felt heavy.

With her right hand, she touched her chin, her mouth. Dry, rough lips.

They had once been otherwise. Men had kissed her.

A memory glimmered in the darkness of her mind: a sweet kiss, murmured endearments. It was but a fragment of a recollection, without detail, leading nowhere.

She touched her right cheek, her nose. When she explored the left side of her face, she could feel it with her fingertips, but her cheek itself did not register her touch. The muscles in that side of her face felt... twisted.

After a brief hesitation, she slid her hand to her eyes. She traced their contours with her fingertips, and what she discovered caused her hand to tremble.

Abruptly she remembered not only how she had wound up in this -place but everything else, -her life back to childhood all in a flash, far more than she wanted to remember, more than she could -bear.

She snatched her hand away from her eyes and made a thin, awful sound of grief. She felt crushed under the weight of memory.

Margaret returned, shoes squeaking softly.

The glass clinked against the nightstand when she put it down.

“I'll just raise the bed so you'll be able to drink.”

The motor hummed, and the head of the bed began to lift forcing Jennifer into a sitting position.

When the bed stopped moving, Margaret said, “What's wrong, dear? Why, I'd think you were trying to cry ... if you could.”

“Does he still come?” Jennifer asked shakily.

“Of course, he does. At least twice a week. You were even alert on one of his visits a few days ago. Don't you remember?”

“No. I.. .I...”

“He's very faithful.”

Jennifer's heart was racing. A pressure swelled across her chest.

Her throat was so tight with fear that she had trouble speaking: “I don't... don't ”What's the matter, Jenny?“ don't want him here!”

“Oh, now, you don't mean that.”

“Keep him out of here.”

“He's so devoted.”

"No. He's . . . he's . .

“At least twice a week, and he sits with you for a couple of hours, whether you're with us or wrapped up inside yourself.”

Jennifer shuddered at the thought of him in the room, by the bed, when she was not aware of her surroundings.

She reached out blindly, found Margaret's arm, squeezed it as tightly as she could. “He's not like you or me,” she said urgently.

“Jenny, you're upsetting yourself” “He's different” Margaret put her hand on jennifer's, gave it a reassuring squeeze.

“Now, I want you to stop this, Jenny.”

“He's inhuman.”

“You don't mean that. You don't know what you're saying.”

“He's a monster.”

“Poor baby. Relax, honey.” A hand touched Jennifer's forehead, began to smooth away the furrows, brush the hair back "Don't get yourself excited. Everything'll be all right. You're going to be fine, baby.

Just settle down, easy now, relax, you're safe here, we love you here, we'll take good care of you...

After more of that, Jennifer grew calmerbut no less afraid.