Page 10


After she had driven a couple of blocks, Martie said, “I got some chopsticks.”


“I prefer a fork, thanks.”


“Chinese food doesn’t taste fully Chinese when you use a fork.”


“And cow milk doesn’t taste fully like milk unless you squirt it directly into your mouth from the teat.”


“You’re probably right,” Martie said.


“So I’ll settle for a reasonable approximation of the authentic taste. I don’t mind being a philistine as long as I’m a philistine with a fork.”


By the time they parked near her house on Balboa Peninsula, Susan was sufficiently in control of herself to make the trek from the car to her third-floor apartment. Nevertheless, she leaned on Martie all the way, and the journey was grindingly difficult.


Safe in her apartment, with all the blinds and drapes tightly shut, Susan was again able to stand fully erect, with her shoulders drawn back and her head held up. Her face was not wrenched anymore. Although her green eyes remained haunted, they were no longer wild with terror.


“I’ll zap the takeout containers in the microwave,” Susan said, “if you’ll set the table.”


In the dining room, as Martie was putting a fork beside Susan’s plate, her hand began to shake uncontrollably. The stainless-steel tines rattled against the china.


She dropped the fork on the place mat and stared at it with a queer dread that rapidly escalated into a repulsion so severe that she backed away from the table. The tines were wickedly pointed. She had never before realized how dangerous a simple fork might be in the wrong hands. You could tear out an eye with it. Gouge a face. Shove it into someone’s neck and snare the carotid artery as though you were twisting a strand of spaghetti. You could—


Overcome by a desperate need to keep her hands busy, safely busy, she opened one of the drawers in the breakfront, located a sixty-four-card pinochle deck used for playing a two-hand game, and took it out of the box. Standing at the dining table, as far from the fork as she could get, she shuffled the deck. At first she repeatedly fumbled, spilling cards across the table, but then her coordination improved.


She couldn’t shuffle the cards forever.


Stay busy. Safely busy. Until this strange mood passed.


Trying to conceal her agitation, she went into the kitchen, where Susan was waiting for the microwave timer to buzz. Martie took two bottles of Tsingtao from the refrigerator.


The complex fragrances of Chinese food filled the room.


“Do you think I’m getting the authentic smell of the cuisine when I’m dressed like this?” Susan asked.


“What?”


“Or to really smell it, maybe I should put on a cheongsam.”


“Ho, ho,” Martie said, because she was too rattled to think of a witty reply.


She almost put the two bottles of beer on the cutting board by the sink, to open them, but the mezzaluna was still there, its wicked crescent edge gleaming. Her heart hammered almost painfully hard at the sight of the knife.


Instead, she set the beers on the small kitchen table. She got two glasses from a cabinet and put them beside the beers.


Stay busy.


She searched through a drawer full of small utensils until she found a bottle opener. She plucked it from among the other items, and returned to the table.


The opener was rounded on one end, for bottles. The other end was pointed and hooked, for cans.


By the time she reached the kitchen table, the pointed end of the opener appeared to be as murderous an instrument as the fork, as the mezzaluna. She quickly put it beside the Tsingtaos before it dropped out of her trembling hand or she threw it down in horror.


“Will you open the beers?” she asked on her way out of the kitchen, leaving before Susan could see her troubled face. “I’ve got to use the john.”


Crossing the dining room, she avoided looking at the table, on which the fork lay, tines up.


In the hallway leading off the living room, she averted her eyes from the mirrored sliding doors on the closet.


The bathroom. Another mirror.


She almost backed out into the hail. She could think of nowhere else to go to collect her wits in private, however, and she didn’t want Susan to see her in this condition.


Summoning the courage to confront the mirror, she found nothing to fear. The anxiety in her face and eyes was distressing, although not as evident as she had thought it must be.


Martie quickly closed the door, lowered the lid on the toilet, and sat down. Only when her breath burst from her in a raw gasp did she realize that she’d been holding it for a long time.


Upon discovering the shattered mirror in the half bath off the kitchen, Dusty first thought that a vandal or a burglar was in the house.


Valet’s demeanor didn’t support that suspicion. His hackles weren’t raised. Indeed, the dog had been in a playful mood when Dusty first came home.


On the other hand, Valet was a love sponge, not a serious watchdog. If he had taken a liking to an intruder—as he did to ninety percent of the people he met—he would have followed the guy around, licking his larcenous hands as the family treasures were loaded into gunnysacks.


With the dog trailing after him this time, Dusty searched the house room by room, closet by closet, first the lower floor and then the upper. He found no one, no further vandalism, and nothing missing.


Dusty instructed the obedient Valet to wait in a far corner of the kitchen, to prevent him from getting slivers of glass in his paws. Then he cleaned up the mess in the half bath.


Maybe Martie would be able to explain the mirror when Dusty saw her later. It must have been an accident of some kind, which had happened just before she’d needed to leave for Susan’s place. Either that, or an angry ghost had moved in with them.


They would have a lot to talk about over dinner: Skeet’s would-be suicide plunge, another expedition with Susan, poltergeists...


14


Doing deep-breathing exercises in Susan’s bathroom, Martie decided that the problem was stress. Most likely that was the explanation for all this. She had so much on her mind, so many responsibilities.


Designing a new game based on The Lord of the Rings was the most important and difficult job she’d ever undertaken. And it came with a series of looming deadlines that put a lot of pressure on her, perhaps more pressure than she had realized until now.


Her mother, Sabrina, and the endless antagonism toward Dusty:


That stress had been with her a long time, too.


And last year, she’d had to watch her beloved father succumb to cancer. The last three months of his life had been a relentless, gruesome decline, which he had endured with his customary good humor, refusing to acknowledge any of the pains or the indignities of his condition. His soft laughter and his charm had, in those final days, failed to buoy her as they usually did; instead, his ready smile had pierced her heart each time she saw it, and though from those wounds she had lost no blood, a little of her lifelong optimism had bled away and had not yet been entirely replenished.


Susan, of course, was a source of more than a little stress. Love was a sacred garment, woven of a fabric so thin that it could not be seen, yet so strong that even mighty death could not tear it, a garment that could not be frayed by use, that brought warmth into what would otherwise be an intolerably cold world—but at times love could also be as heavy as chain mail. Bearing the burden of love, on those occasions when it was a solemn weight, made it more precious when, in better times, it caught the wind in sleeves like wings—and lifted you. In spite of the stress of these twice-weekly outings, she could no more walk away from Susan Jagger than she could have turned her back on her dying father, on her difficult mother, or on Dusty.


She would go out to the dining room, eat Chinese food, drink a bottle of beer, play pinochle, and pretend that she was not full of strange forebodings.


When she got home, she’d call Dr. Closterman, her internist, and make an appointment for a physical examination, just in case her self-diagnosis of stress was incorrect. She felt physically fit, but so had Smilin’ Bob just before the sudden onset of a curious little pain that had signaled terminal illness.


Crazy as it sounded, she was still suspicious of that unusually sour grapefruit juice. She’d been drinking it most mornings lately, instead of orange juice, because of the lower calorie count. Maybe that explained the dream about the Leaf Man, too: the raging figure formed of dead, rotting leaves. Perhaps she would give a sample of the juice to Dr. Closterman to have it tested.


Finally she washed her hands and confronted the mirror again. She thought that she appeared passably sane. Regardless of how she looked, however, she still felt like a hopeless nutcase.


After Dusty finished sweeping up the broken mirror, he gave Valet a special treat for being a good boy and staying out of the way: a few pieces of roasted chicken breast left over from dinner the previous night. The retriever took each bit of meat from his master’s hand with a delicacy almost equal to that of a hummingbird sipping sugar water from a garden feeder, and when it was all gone, he gazed up at Dusty with an adoration that could not have been much less than the love with which the angels regard God.


“And you are an angel, all right,” Dusty said, as he gently scratched under Valet's chin. “A furry angel. And with ears that big, you don’t need wings.”


He decided to take the dog with him to Skeet’s apartment and then to New Life. Although no intruder was in the house, Dusty didn’t feel comfortable leaving the pooch here alone, until he knew what had happened to the mirror.


“Man, if I’m this overprotective with you,” he said to Valet, “can you imagine how impossible I’m going to be with kids?”


The dog grinned as though he liked the idea of kids. And as if he understood that he was to ride shotgun on this trip, he went to the connecting door between the kitchen and the garage, where he stood patiently fanning the air with his plumed tail.


As Dusty was pulling on a hooded nylon jacket, the telephone rang. He answered it.


When he hung up, he said, “Trying to sell me a subscription to the L.A. Times,” as though the dog needed to know who had called.


Valet was no longer standing at the door to the garage. He was lying in front of it, half settled into a nap, as though Dusty had been on the phone ten minutes rather than thirty seconds.


Frowning, Dusty said, “You had a shot of chicken protein, golden one. Let’s see some vigor.”


With a long-suffering sigh, Valet stood.


In the garage, as he buckled the collar around the dog’s neck and snapped a leash to it, Dusty said, “Last thing I need is a daily newspaper. Do you know what newspapers are full of, golden one?”


Valet looked clueless.


“They are full of the stuff newsmakers do. And do you know who the newsmakers are? Politicians and media types and big-university intellectuals, people who think too much of themselves and think too much in general. People like Dr. Trevor Penn Rhodes, my old man. And people like Dr. Holden Caulfield, Skeet’s old man.”


The dog sneezed.


“Exactly,” Dusty said.


He didn’t expect Valet to ride in the back of the van, among the painting tools and supplies. Instead, the mutt jumped onto the front seat; he enjoyed gazing out the windshield when he traveled. Dusty buckled the safety harness around the retriever, and received a face-lick of thanks before closing the passenger door.


Behind the wheel, as he started the engine and backed out of the garage into the rain, he said, “Newsmakers screw up the world while trying to save it. You know what all their deep thinking amounts to, golden one? It amounts to the same thing we scoop up in those little blue bags when we follow you around.”


The dog grinned at him.


Pressing the remote control to close the garage door, Dusty wondered why he hadn’t said all this to the telephone salesperson who had been pushing the newspaper. Those incessant calls from the Times subscription hawkers were one of the few serious drawbacks to living in southern California, on a par with earthquakes, wildfires, and mudslides. If he’d delivered this same rant to the woman—or had it been a man?—pitching the Times, maybe his name would finally have been removed from their solicitation list.


As he backed out of the driveway into the street, Dusty had the peculiar realization that he couldn’t recall whether the Times representative on the phone had been a man or a woman. No reason why he should remember, really, since he had listened only to enough of the spiel to realize what it was, whereupon he had hung up.


Usually, he ended a Times call by making a proposition, to have fun with the salesperson. Okay, I’ll subscribe if you’ll take barter. I’ll paint one of your offices, you give me three years of the Times. Or, yeah, I’ll take a lifetime subscription if your paper promises never again to refer to a mere sports star as a hero.


He hadn’t made them a proposition this time. On the other hand, he couldn’t remember what he had said, even if it was as simple as no thanks or stop bothering me.


Odd. His mind was blank.


Evidently, he was even more preoccupied with—and disturbed by—the business with Skeet this morning than he had realized.


15


The Chinese takeout was no doubt as delicious as Susan said it was, but although Martie, too, exclaimed over it, she actually found the food flavorless. The Tsingtao tasted bitter today.


Neither the food nor the beer was at fault. Martie’s free-floating anxiety, although ebbing at the moment, robbed her of the ability to take pleasure in anything.


She ate with chopsticks, and at first she thought that merely watching Susan use a fork would induce another panic attack. But the sight of the wicked tines didn’t alarm her, after all, as it had earlier. She had no fear of the fork, per Se; she was afraid, instead, of what damage could be done with the fork if it were in her own hand. In Susan’s possession, the utensil seemed harmless.


The apprehension that she, Martie herself, harbored the dark potential for some unspeakable act of violence was so disturbing that she refused to dwell on it. This was the most irrational of fears, for she was certain in mind and heart and soul that she had no capacity for savagery. And yet she had not trusted herself with the bottle opener....


Considering how edgy she was—and how hard she was trying not to reveal that edginess to Susan—she should have been an even bigger loser at pinochle than usual. Instead, the cards favored her, and she played with masterful skill, taking full advantage of each piece of good luck, perhaps because the game helped to distract her from morbid considerations.


“You’re a champ today,” Susan said.


“I’m wearing my lucky socks.”


“Already your debt is down from six hundred thousand to five hundred and ninety-eight thousand.”

P/S: Copyright -->www_Novel12_Com

***