Page 4


Life itself is a kind of illusion. Blah, blab, blah, let’s have another Scotch.”


The distant mountains sure looked real. The roof under his butt felt real, too, and if he fell headfirst onto the driveway, he would either be killed or crippled for life, which wouldn’t prove a thing to the intractable Dr. Decon, but which was enough reality for Dusty.


“Is he why you’re afraid of heights,” Skeet asked, “because of something he did?”


“Who—Dr. Decon? Nah. Heights just bother me, that’s all.”


Sweetly earnest in his concern, Skeet said, “You could find out why. Talk to a psychiatrist.”


“I think I’ll just go home and talk to my dog.”


“I’ve had a lot of therapy.”


“And it’s done wonders for you, hasn’t it?”


Skeet laughed so hard that snot ran out of his nose. “Sorry.” Dusty withdrew a Kleenex from a pocket and offered it. As Skeet blew his nose, he said, “Well, me.. . now I’m a different story. Longer than I can remember, I’ve been afraid of everything.”


“I know.”


“Getting up, going to bed, and everything between. But I’m not afraid now.” He finished with the Kleenex and held it out to Dusty


“Keep it,” Dusty said.


“Thanks. Hey, you know why I’m not afraid anymore?”


“Because you’re shitfaced?”


Skeet laughed shakily and nodded. “But also because I’ve seen the Other Side.”


“The other side of what?”


“Capital 0, capital S. I had a visitation from an angel of death, and he showed me what’s waiting for us.”


“You’re an atheist,” Dusty reminded him.


“Not anymore. I’m past all that. Which should make you happy, huh, bro?”


“How easy for you. Pop a pill, find God.”


Skeet’s grin emphasized the skull beneath the skin, which was frighteningly close to the surface in his gaunt countenance. “Cool, huh? Anyway, the angel instructed me to jump, so I’m jumping.”


Abruptly the wind rose, skirling across the roof, chillier than before, bringing with it the briny scent of the distant sea—and then briefly, like an augury, came the rotten stink of decomposing seaweed.


Standing up and negotiating a steeply pitched roof in this blustery air was a challenge that Dusty did not want to face, so he prayed that the wind would diminish soon.


Taking a risk, assuming that Skeet’s suicidal impulse actually arose, as he insisted, from his newfound fearlessness, and hoping that a good dose of terror would make the kid want to cling to life again, Dusty said, “We’re only forty feet off the ground, and from the edge of the roof to the pavement, it’s probably only thirty or thirty-two. Jumping would be a classic feeb decision, because what you’re going to do is maybe end up not dead but paralyzed for life, hooked up to machines for the next forty years, helpless.”


“No, I’ll die,” Skeet said almost perkily. “You can’t be sure.”


“Don’t get an attitude with me, Dusty.” “I’m not getting an attitude.”


“Just denying you have an attitude is an attitude.”


“Then I’ve got an attitude.”


“See.”


Dusty took a deep breath to steady his nerves. “This is so lame. Let’s get down from here. I’ll drive you over to the Four Seasons Hotel in Fashion Island. We can go all the way up to the roof, fourteen, fifteen floors, whatever it is, and you can jump from there, so you’ll be sure it’ll work.”


“You wouldn’t really.”


“Sure. If you’re going to do this, then do it right. Don’t screw this up, too.”


“Dusty I’m smacked, but I’m not stupid.”


Motherwell and the security guard came out of the house with a king-size mattress.


As they struggled with that ungainly object, they had a Laurel and Hardy quality that was amusing, but Skeet’s laugh sounded utterly humorless to Dusty


Down in the driveway, the two men dropped their burden squarely atop the pair of smaller mattresses that were already on the tarp.


Motherwell looked up at Dusty and raised his arms, hands spread, as if to say, What’re you waiting for?


One of the circling crows went military and conducted a bombing run with an accuracy that would have been the envy of any high-tech air force in the world. A messy white blob splattered across Skeet’s left shoe.


Skeet peered up at the incontinent crow and then down at his soiled sneaker. His mood swung so fast and hard that it seemed his head ought to have spun around from the force of the change. His eerie smile crumbled like earth into a sinkhole, and his face collapsed in despair. In a wretched voice, he said, “This is my life,” and he reached down to poke one finger into the mess on his shoe. “My life.”


“Don’t be ridiculous,” Dusty said. “You’re not well enough educated to think in metaphors.”


This time, he couldn’t make Skeet laugh.


“I’m so tired,” Skeet said, rubbing bird crap between his thumb and forefinger. “Time to go to bed.”


He didn’t mean bed when he said bed. He didn’t mean he was going to take a nap on the pile of mattresses, either. He meant that he was going to settle in for the big sleep, under a blanket of dirt, and dream with the worms.


Skeet got to his feet on the peak of the roof. Although he was hardly more than a wisp, he stood at his full height and didn’t seem unduly bothered by the hooting wind.


When Dusty rose into a cautious crouch, however, the onshore flow hit him with gale force, rocking him forward, off the heels of his shoes, and he teetered for a moment before he settled into a position that gave him a lower center of gravity.


Either this was a deconstructionist’s ideal wind—the effect of which would be different according to each person’s interpretation of it, a mere breeze to me, a typhoon to thee—or Dusty’s fear of heights caused him to have an exaggerated perception of every gust. Since he’d long ago rejected his old man’s screwy philosophies, he figured that if Skeet could stand erect with no risk of being spun away like a Frisbee, then so could he.


Raising his voice, Skeet said, “This is for the best, Dusty”


“Like you would know what’s for the best.”


“Don’t try to stop me.”


“Well, see, I’ve got to try.”


“I can’t be talked down.”


“I’ve become aware of that.”


They faced each other, as though they were two athletes about to engage in a strange new sport on a slanted court: Skeet standing tall, like a basketball player waiting for the opening toss-up, Dusty crouched like an underweight sumo wrestler looking for leverage.


“I don’t want to get you hurt,” Skeet said.


“I don’t want to get me hurt, either.”


If Skeet was determined to jump off the Sorensons’ house, he couldn’t be prevented from doing so. The steep pitch of the roof, the rounded surfaces of the barrel tiles, the wind, and the law of gravity were on his side. All that Dusty could hope to do was to make sure the poor son of a bitch went off the edge at exactly the right place and onto the mattresses.


“You’re my friend, Dusty My only real friend.”


“Thanks for the vote of confidence, kid.”


“Which makes you my best friend.”


“By default,” Dusty agreed.


“A guy’s best friend shouldn’t get in the way of his glory.”


“Glory?”


“What I’ve seen it’s like on the Other Side. The glory.”


The only way to be sure that Skeet went off the roof precisely above the fall-break was to grab him at the right instant and hurl him to the ideal point along the brink. Which meant going down the roof and over the edge with him.


The wind tossed and whipped Skeet’s long blond hair, which was the last attractive physical quality that he had left. Once, he’d been a good-looking boy, a girl magnet. Now his body was wasted; his face was gray and haggard; and his eyes were as burnt out as the bottom of a crack pipe. His thick, slightly curly, golden hair was so out of sync with the rest of his appearance that it seemed to be a wig.


Except for his hair, Skeet stood motionless. In spite of being more stoned than a witch in Salem, he was alert and wary, deciding how best to break away from Dusty and execute a clean running dive headfirst into the cobblestones below.


Hoping to distract the kid or at least to buy a little time, Dusty said, “Something I’ve always wondered. .. . What does the angel of death look like?”


“Why?”


“You saw him, right?”


Frowning, Skeet said, “Yeah, well, he looked okay.”


A hard gust of wind tore off Dusty’s white cap and spun it to Oz, but he didn’t take his attention off Skeet. “Did he look like Brad Pitt?”


“Why would he look like Brad Pitt?” Skeet asked, and his eyes slid sideways and back to Dusty again, as he glanced surreptitiously toward the brink.


“Brad Pitt played him in that movie, Meet Joe Black.”


“Didn’t see it.”


With growing desperation, Dusty said, “Did he look like Jack Benny?”


"What’re you talking about?”


“Jack Benny played him once in a really old movie. Remember? We watched it together.”


“I don’t remember much. You’re the one with the photographic memory.”


“Eidetic. Not photographic. Eidetic and audile memory.”


“See? I can’t even remember what it's called. You remember what you had for dinner five years ago. I don’t remember yesterday.”


“It’s just a trick thing, eidetic memory. Useless, anyway.”


The first fat drops of rain spattered across the top of the house.


Dusty didn’t have to look down to see the dead lichen being transformed into a thin film of slime, because he could smell it, a subtle but singular musty odor, and he could smell the wet clay tiles, too.


A daunting image flickered through his mind: He and Skeet were sliding off the roof then tumbling wildly, Skeet landing on the mattresses without sustaining a single cut or bruise, but Dusty overshooting and fracturing his spine on the cobblestones.


“Billy Crystal,” Skeet said.


“What—you mean Death? The angel of death looked like Billy Crystal?”


“Something wrong with that?”


“For God’s sake, Skeet, you can’t trust some wise-ass, maudlin, shtick-spouting Billy Crystal angel of death!”


“I liked him,” Skeet said, and he ran for the edge.


5


As though the great guns of battleships were providing cover fire for invading troops, hard hollow explosions echoed along the south-facing beaches. Enormous waves slammed onto the shore, and bullets of water, skimmed off the breakers by a growing wind, rattled inland through the low dunes and sparse stalks of grass.


Martie Rhodes hurried along the Balboa Peninsula boardwalk, which was a wide concrete promenade with ocean-facing houses on one side and deep beaches on the other. She hoped the rain would hold off for half an hour.


Susan Jagger’s narrow, three-story house was sandwiched between similar structures. The weather-silvered, cedar-shingle siding and the white shutters vaguely suggested a house on Cape Cod, although the pinched lot did not allow for a full expression of that style of architecture.


The house, like its neighbors, had no front yard, no raised porch, only a shallow patio with a few potted plants. This one was paved with bricks and set behind a white picket fence. The gate in the fence was unlocked, and the hinges creaked.


Susan had once lived on the first and second floors with her husband, Eric, who had used the third floor—complete with its own bath and kitchen—as a home office. They were currently separated. Eric had moved out a year ago, and Susan had moved up, renting the lower two floors to a quiet retired couple whose only vice seemed to be two martinis each before dinner, and whose only pets were four parakeets.


A steep exterior set of stairs led along the side of the house to the third story. As Martie climbed to the small covered landing, shrieking seagulls wheeled in from the Pacific and passed overhead, crossing the peninsula, flying toward the harbor, where they would ride out the storm in sheltered roosts.


Martie knocked, but then unlocked the door without waiting for a response. Susan was usually hesitant to welcome a visitor, reluctant to be confronted with a glimpse of the outside world; so Martie had been given a key almost a year previously.


Steeling herself for the ordeal ahead, she stepped into the kitchen, which was revealed by a single light over the sink. The blinds were tightly shut, and lush swags of shadows hung like deep-purple bunting.


The room was not redolent of spices or lingering cooking odors. Instead, the air was laced with the faint but astringent scents of disinfectant, scouring powder, and floor wax.


“It’s me,” Martie called, but Susan didn’t answer.


The only illumination in the dining room came from behind the doors of a small breakfront, in which antique majolica china gleamed on glass shelves. Here, the air smelled of furniture polish.


If all the lights had been ablaze, the apartment would have proved to be spotless, cleaner than a surgery. Susan Jagger had a lot of time to fill.


Judging by the mélange of odors in the living room, the carpet had been shampooed recently, the furniture polished, the upholstery dry-cleaned in place, and fresh citrus-scented potpourri had been placed in two small, ventilated, red-ceramic jars on the end tables.


The expansive windows, which framed an exhilarating ocean view, were covered by pleated shades. The shades were for the most part concealed by heavy drapes.


Until four months ago, Susan had been able at least to look out at the world with wistful longing, even though for sixteen months she had been terrified of venturing into it and had left her home only with someone upon whom she could lean for emotional support. Now merely the sight of a vast open space, with no walls or sheltering roof, could trigger a phobic reaction.


All the lamps glowed, and the spacious living room was brightly lighted. Yet because of the shrouded windows and the unnatural hush, the atmosphere felt funereal.


Shoulders slumped, head hung, Susan waited in an armchair. In a black skirt and black sweater, she had the wardrobe and the posture of a mourner. Judging by her appearance, the paperback book in her hands should have been the Bible, but it was a mystery novel.


“Did the butler do it?” Martie asked, sitting on the edge of the sofa.

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