- From the Corner of His Eye
Nolly raised his glass. “To justice rough or smooth."
Kathleen savored her martini. “Mmmm ... as cold as a hit man's heart and as crisp as a hundred-dollar bill from the devil's wallet."
This encouraged Tom to raise both eyebrows.
“She reads too much hard-boiled detective fiction,” Nolly said. “And lately, she's talking about writing it."
“Bet I could, and sell it, too,” she said. “I might not be as good at it as I am at teeth, but I'd be better than some I've read."
“I suspect,” Tom said, “that any job you set your mind to, you'd be as good as you are at teeth."
“No question about it,” Nolly agreed, flashing his choppers.
“Tom,” Kathleen said, “I know why you became a cop, I guess. St. Anselmo's Orphanage ... the murders of those children."
He nodded. “I was a doubting Thomas after that."
“You wonder,” Nolly said, “why God lets the innocent suffer."
“I doubted myself more than God, though Him, too. I had those boys' blood on my hands. They were mine to protect, and I failed."
“You're too young to have been in charge of the orphanage back then."
“I was twenty-three. At St. Anselmo's I was the prefect of one dormitory floor. The floor on which all the murders occurred. After that ... I decided maybe I could better protect the innocent if I were a cop. For a while, the law gave me more to hold on to than faith did."
“It's easy to see you as a cop,” Kathleen said. All the whacks, pops, and worm buckets just trip off your tongue, so to speak. But it takes some effort to remember you're a priest, too."
“Was a priest,” he corrected. “Might be again. At my request, I've been under a dispensation from vows and suspension from duties for twenty-seven years. Ever since those kids were killed."
“But what made you choose that life? You must have committed to the seminary awfully young."
“Fourteen. It's usually the family that's behind an expression of the calling at such a young age, but in my case, I had to argue my folks into it."
He stared I out at the congregated ghosts of fog, white multitudes that entirely obscured the bay, as if all the sailors ever lost at sea had gathered here, pressing at the window, eyeless forms that nevertheless saw everything.
“Even when I was a young boy,” Tom continued, “the world felt a lot different to me from the way it looked to other people. I don't mean I was smarter. I've got maybe a little better than average IQ, but nothing I could brag about. Flunked geography twice and history once. No one would ever confuse me and Einstein. It's just, I felt ... such complexity and mystery that other people didn't appreciate, such layered beauty, layers upon layers like phyllo pastry, each new layer more amazing than the last. I can't explain it to you without sounding like a holy fool, but even as a boy, I wanted to serve the God who had created so much wonder, regardless of how strange and perhaps even beyond all understanding He might be."
Kathleen had never heard a religious calling described in such odd words as these, and she was surprised, indeed, to hear a priest refer to God as “strange."
Turning away from the window, Tom met her gaze. His smoke-gray eyes looked frosted, as though the fog ghosts had passed through the window and possessed him. But then the flame on the table candle flared in a draft; lambent light melted the chill from his eyes, and she saw again the warmth and the beautiful sorrow that had impressed her before.
“I'm a less philosophical sort than Kathleen,” Nolly said, “so what I've been wondering is where you learned the tricks with the quarter. How is it you're priest, cop-and amateur magician?"
“Well, there was this magician-"
Tom pointed to the nearly finished martini that stood on the table before him. Balanced on the thin rim of the glass: impossibly, precariously—the coin.
"-called himself King Obadiah, Pharaoh of the Fantastic. He traveled all over the country playing nightclubs-"
Tom plucked the quarter off the glass, folded it into his right fist, and then at once opened his hand, which was now empty.
"-and wherever he went, between his shows, he always gave free performances at nursing homes, schools for the deaf-"
Kathleen and Nolly shifted their attention to Tom's clenched left hand, although the quarter could not possibly have traveled from one fist to the other.
"-and whenever the good Pharaoh was here in San Francisco, a few times each year, he always stopped by St. Anselmo's to entertain the boys—"
Instead of opening his left fist, Tom lifted his martini with his right, and on the tablecloth under the glass lay the coin.
"—so I persuaded him to teach me a few simple tricks."
Finally his left hand sprang open, palm up, revealing two dimes and a nickel.
“Simple, my ass,” said Nolly, Tom smiled. “I've practiced a lot over the years."
He briefly closed his hand around the three coins, then with a snap of his wrist, flung them at Nolly, who flinched. But either the coins were never flung or they vanished in midair-and his hand was empty.
Kathleen hadn't noticed Tom replace his glass on the table, over the quarter. When he lifted it to drain the last of the martini, two dimes and a nickel glittered on the tablecloth, where previously the quarter had been.
After staring at the coins for a long moment, Kathleen said, “I don't think any mystery writer has ever done a series of novels about a priest detective who's also a magician."
Lifting his martini, theatrically gesturing to the tablecloth where the glass had stood, as though the lack of coins proved that he, too, had sorcerous power, Nolly said, “Another round of this magical concoction? “
Everyone agreed, and the order was placed when their waiter brought appetizers: crab cakes for Nolly, scampi for Kathleen, and calamari for Tom.
“You know,” Tom said when the second round of drinks arrived, “hard as it is to believe, some places never heard of martinis."
Nolly shuddered. “The wilds of Oregon. I don't intend ever to go there until it's civilized."
“Not just Oregon. Even San Francisco, some places."
“May God keep us,” Nolly said, “from such blighted neighborhoods as those."
They clinked their glasses in a toast.
IN NEED OF OIL, the hand crank squeaked, but the tall halves of the casement window parted and opened outward into the alleyway.
Alarm contacts gleamed in the header, but the system wasn't currently activated.
The sill was about four and a half feet off the lavatory floor. With both hands, Junior levered himself onto it.
Because the glass wings of the open window didn't lie flat against the exterior wall, they blocked his view. He had to thrust himself farther through the opening, until he seesawed on the sill, before he could see the length of the entire block, in which the gallery stood at approximately the middle.
Thick fog distorted all sense of time and place. At each end of the block, pearly hazes of light marked intersections with main streets but didn't illuminate this narrower passage in between. A few security lamps-bare bulbs under inverted-saucer shades or caged in wire—indicated the delivery entrances of some businesses, but the dense white shrouds veiled and diffused these, as well, until they were no brighter than gaslights.
The muffling fog quieted the city as much as obscured it, and the alley was surprisingly still. Many of the businesses were closed for the night, and as far as Junior could discern, no delivery trucks or other vehicles were parked the length of the block.
Acutely aware that someone with more need than patience might soon rap at the locked door, Junior dropped back into the men's room.
Neddy, dressed for work but overdressed for his own funeral, slumped against the wall, head bowed, chin on his chest. His pale hands were splayed at his sides, as though he were trying to strike chords from the floor tiles.
Junior dragged the musician out from between the commode and the sink.
Skinny, pasty-faced, chattering sissy,” he hissed, still so furious with Neddy that he wanted to jam the pianist's head in the toilet even though he was dead. Jam his head in and stomp on him. Stomp him into the bowl. Flush and flush, stomp and stomp.
To be useful, anger must be channeled, as Zedd explains with unusually poetic prose in The Beauty of Rage: Channel Your Anger and Be a Winner Junior's current predicament would only get worse if he had to telephone Roto-Rooter to extract a musician from the plumbing.
With that thought, he made himself laugh. Unfortunately, his laughter was high-pitched and shaky, and it scared the hell out of him.
Channeling his beautiful rage, Junior hefted the corpse onto the windowsill, and shoved it headfirst into the alley. The fog received it with what sounded almost like a swallowing noise.
He followed the dead man through the window, into the alley, managing not to step on him.
No inquiring voice echoed off the passage walls, no accusatory shout. He was alone with the cadaver in this mist-shrouded moment of the metropolitan night-but perhaps not for long, Another stiff might have required dragging; but Neddy weighed hardly more than a five-foot-ten breadstick. Junior hauled the body off the ground and slung it over one shoulder in a fireman's carry.
Several large Dumpsters hulked nearby, dark rectangles less seen than suggested in the slowly churning murk, like forms in a dream, as ominous as graveyard sarcophaguses, each as suitable for a musician's carcass as any of the others.
One worrisome problem: Neddy might be found in the container before it had been hauled away, instead of at the landfill that preferably would serve as his next-to-last resting place. If his body was discovered here, it must be at a distance from any trash bin used by the gallery. The less likely the cops were to connect Neddy to Greenbaum's art-sausage factory, the less likely they also were to connect the murder to Junior.
Bent like an ape, he humped the musician north along the alley. The original cobblestone pavement had been coated with blacktop, but in places the modem material had cracked and worn away, providing a treacherously uneven surface made even more treacherous by a skin of moisture shed by the fog. He stumbled and slipped repeatedly, but he used his anger to keep his balance and be a winner, until he found a distant enough dumpster.
The container-eye-level at the top, battered, rust-streaked, beaded with condensation-was larger than some in the alleyway, with a bifurcated lid. Both halves of the lid were already raised.
Without ceremony or prayer, although with much righteous anger, Junior hoisted the dead musician over the lip of the Dumpster. For a dreadful moment, his left arm tangled in the loosely cinched belt of the London Fog raincoat. Straining a shrill bleat of anxiety through his clenched teeth, he desperately shook loose and let go of the body.
The sound made by the dropping corpse indicated that cushioning trash lined the bottom of the bin, and also that it was no more than half full. This improved chances that Neddy wouldn't be discovered until a dump truck tumbled him into a landfill-and even then perhaps no eyes would alight upon him again except those of hungry rats.
Move, move, like a runaway train, leaving the dead nuns—or at least one dead musician-far behind.
To the open casement window, into the men's room. Still seething with rage. Angrily cranking shut the twin panes while lazy tongues of fog licked through the narrowing gap.
In case someone was waiting in the hallway, he flushed the john for authenticity, though binding foods and paregoric still gave him the sturdy bowels of any brave knight in battle.
When he dared to look in the mirror above the sink, he expected to see a haggard face, sunken eyes, but the grim experience had left no visible mark. He quickly combed his hair. Indeed, he looked so fine that women would as usual caress him with their yearning gazes when he made his way back through the gallery.
As best he could, he examined his clothes. They were better pressed than he expected, and not noticeably soiled.
He vigorously washed his hands.
He took more medication, just to be safe. One yellow capsule, one blue.
A quick survey of the lavatory floor. The musician hadn't left anything behind, neither a popped button nor crimson petals from his boutonniere.
Junior unlocked the door and found the hallway deserted.
The reception still roared in both showrooms of the gallery. Legions of the uncultured, taste-challenged in every regard except in their appreciation for hors d'oeuvres, yammered about art and chased their cloddish opinions with mediocre champagne.
Fed up with them and with this exhibition, Junior half wished that he would again be stricken by violent nervous emesis. Even in his suffering, he would enjoy spraying these insistently appealing canvases with the reeking ejecta of his gut: criticism of the most pungent nature.
In the main room, on his way toward the front door, Junior saw Celestina White surrounded by adoring fatheads, nattering ninnies, dithering dolts, saps and boneheads, oafs and gawks and simpletons. She was still as gorgeous as her shamelessly beautiful paintings. If the opportunity arose, Junior would have more use for her than for her so called art.
The street in front of the gallery was as flooded by a sea of fog as the alleyway at the back. The headlights of passing traffic probed the gloom like beams from deep-salvage submersibles at work on the ocean floor.
He had bribed a parking attendant to keep his Mercedes at the curb in a valet zone, in front of a nearby restaurant, so it would be instantly available when needed. He could also leave the car and follow Celestina on foot if she chose to stroll home from here.
Intending to keep the front of the gallery under surveillance from behind the wheel of his Mercedes, Junior checked the time as he walked toward the car. His wrist was bare, his Rolex missing.
He stopped short of his car, transfixed by a perception of onrushing doom.
The custom-fitted gold-link band of the wristwatch closed with a clasp that, when released, allowed the watch to slip over the hand with ease. Junior knew at once that the clasp had come undone when his arm tangled in the belt of Neddy's raincoat. The corpse had torn loose and tumbled into the Dumpster, taking Junior's watch with it.
Although the Rolex was expensive, Junior cared nothing about the monetary loss. He could afford to buy an armful of Rolexes, and wear them from wrist to shoulder.
The possibility that he'd left a clear fingerprint on the watch crystal had to be judged remote. And the band had been too textured to take a print useful to the police.
On the back of the watch case, however, were the incriminating words of a commemorative engraving: To Eenie/Love/Tammy Bean.