Lindsey blinked. She cleared her throat. “Uh, well, I'm an artist. A painter.”
“Not that style, no, but an artist like him, yes.”
“I saw a picture once of a bunch of dogs playing poker,” the girl said. “Did you paint that?”
Lindsey said, “No, I'm afraid I didn't.”
“Good. It was stupid. I saw a picture once of a bull and a bullfighter, it was on velvet, very bright colors. Do you paint in very bright colors on velvet?”
“No,” Lindsey said. “But if you like that sort of thing, I could paint any scene you wanted on velvet for your room.”
Regina crinkled up her face. “Puh-leeese. I'd rather put a dead cat on the wall.”
Nothing surprised the folks from St. Thomas's any more. The younger priest actually smiled, and Sister Immaculata murmured “dead cat,” not in exasperation but as if agreeing that such a bit of macabre decoration would, indeed, be preferable to a painting on velvet.
“My style,” Lindsey said, eager to rescue her reputation after offering to paint something so tacky, “is generally described as a blending of neoclassicism and surrealism. I know that's quite a big mouthful—”
“Well, it's not my favorite sort of thing,” Regina said, as if she had a hoot-owl's idea in hell what those styles were like and what a blend of them might resemble. “If I came to live with you, and if I had a room of my own, you wouldn't make me hang a lot of your paintings on my walls, would you?” The “your” was emphasized in such a way as to imply that she still preferred a dead cat even if velvet was not involved.
“Not a one,” Lindsey assured her.
“Do you think you might like living with us?” Lindsey asked, and Hatch wondered whether that prospect excited or terrified her.
Abruptly the girl struggled up from the chair, wobbling as she reached her feet, as if she might topple headfirst into the coffee table. Hatch rose, ready to grab her, even though he suspected it was all part of the act.
When she regained her balance, she put down her glass, from which she'd drunk all the Pepsi, and she said, “I've got to go pee, I've got a weak bladder. Part of my mutant genes. I can never hold myself. Half the time I feel like I'm going to burst in the most embarrassing places, like right here in Mr. Gujilio's office, which is another thing you should probably consider before taking me into your home. You probably have a lot of nice things, being in the antiques and art business, nice things you wouldn't want messed up, and here I am lurching into everything and breaking it or, worse, I get a bursting bladder attack all over something priceless. Then you'd ship me back to the orphanage, and I'd be so emotional about it, I'd clump up to the roof and throw myself off, a most tragic suicide, which none of us really would want to see happen. Nice meeting you.”
She turned and wrenched herself across the Persian carpet and out of the room in that most unlikely gait—sccccuuuurrrr … THUD!—which no doubt sprang from the same well of talent out of which she had drawn her goldfish ventriloquism. Her deep-auburn hair swayed and glinted like fire.
They all stood in silence, listening to the girl's slowly fading footsteps. At one point, she bumped against the wall with a solid thunk! that must have hurt, then bravely scrape-thudded onward.
“She does not have a weak bladder,” Father Jiminez said, taking a swallow from a glassful of amber liquid. He seemed to be drinking bourbon now. “That is not part of her disability.”
“She's not really like that,” Father Duran said, blinking his owlish eyes as if smoke had gotten in them. “She's a delightful child. I know that's hard for you to believe right now—”
“And she can walk much better than that, immeasurably better,” said The Nun with No Name. “I don't know what's gotten into her.”
“I do,” Sister Immaculata said. She wiped one hand wearily down her face. Her eyes were sad. “Two years ago, when she was eight, we managed to place her with adoptive parents. A couple in their thirties who were told they could never have children of their own. They convinced themselves that a disabled child would be a special blessing. Then, two weeks after Regina went to live with them, while they were in the pre-adoption trial phase, the woman became pregnant. Suddenly they were going to have their own child, after all, and the adoption didn't seem so wise.”
“And they just brought Regina back?” Lindsey asked. “Just dumped her at the orphanage? How terrible.”
“I can't judge them,” Sister Immaculata said. “They may have felt they didn't have enough love for a child of their own and poor Regina, too, in which case they did the right thing. Regina doesn't deserve to be raised in a home where every minute of every day she knows she's second best, second in love, something of an outsider. Anyway, she was broken up by the rejection. She took a long time to get her self-confidence back. And now I think she doesn't want to take another risk.”
They stood in silence.
The sun was very bright beyond the windows. The palm trees swayed lazily. Between the trees lay glimpses of Fashion Island, the Newport Beach shopping center and business complex at the perimeter of which Gujilio's office was located.
“Sometimes, with the sensitive ones, a bad experience ruins any chance for them. They refuse to try again. I'm afraid our Regina is one of those. She came in here determined to alienate you and wreck the interview, and she succeeded in singular style.”
“It's like somebody who's been in prison all his life,” said Father Jiminez, “gets paroled, is all excited at first, then finds he can't make it on the outside. So he commits a crime just to get back in. The institution might be limiting, unsatisfying—but it's known, it's safe.”
Salvatore Gujilio bustled around, relieving people of their empty glasses. He was still an enormous man by any standard, but even with Regina gone from the room, Gujilio no longer dominated it as he had done before. He had been forever diminished by that single comparison with the delicate, pert-nosed, gray-eyed child.
“I'm so sorry,” Sister Immaculata said, putting a consoling hand on Lindsey's shoulder. “We'll try again, my dear. We'll go back to square one and match you up with another child, the perfect child this time.”
Lindsey and Hatch left Salvatore Gujilio's office at ten past three that Thursday afternoon. They had agreed not to talk about the interview until dinner, giving themselves time to contemplate the encounter and examine their reactions to it. Neither wanted to make a decision based on emotion, or influence the other to act on initial impressions—then live to regret it.
Of course, they had never expected the meeting to progress remotely along the lines it had gone. Lindsey was eager to talk about it. She assumed that their decision was already made, had been made for them by the girl, and that there was no point in further contemplation. But they had agreed to wait, and Hatch did not seem disposed to violate that agreement, so she kept her mouth shut as well.
She drove their new sporty-red Mitsubishi. Hatch sat in the passenger seat with his shades on, one arm out his open window, tapping time against the side of the car as he listened to golden oldie rock-'n'-roll on the radio. “Please Mister Postman” by the Marvelettes.
She passed the last of the giant date palms along Newport Center Drive and turned left onto Pacific Coast Highway, past vine-covered walls, and headed south. The late-April day was warm but not hot, with one of those intensely blue skies that, toward sunset, would acquire an electric luminescence reminiscent of skies in Maxfield Parrish paintings. Traffic was light on the Coast Highway, and the ocean glimmered like a great swatch of silver- and gold-sequined cloth.
A quiet exuberance flowed through Lindsey, as it had done for seven weeks. It was exhilaration over just being alive, which was in every child but which most adults lost during the process of growing up. She'd lost it, too, without realizing. A close encounter with death was just the thing to give you back the joie de vivre of extreme youth.
More than two floors below Hell, na*ed beneath a blanket on his stained and sagging mattress, Vassago passed the daylight hours in sleep. His slumber was usually filled with dreams of violated flesh and shattered bone, blood and bile, vistas of human skulls. Sometimes he dreamed of dying multitudes writhing in agony on barren ground beneath a black sky, and he walked among them as a prince of Hell among the common rabble of the damned.
The dreams that occupied him on that day, however, were strange and remarkable for their ordinariness. A dark-haired, dark-eyed woman in a cherry-red car, viewed from the perspective of an unseen man in the passenger seat beside her. Palm trees. Red bougainvillea. The ocean spangled with light.
Harrison's Antiques was at the south end of Laguna Beach, on Pacific Coast Highway. It was in a stylish two-story Art Deco building that contrasted interestingly with the 18th- and 19th-century merchandise in the big display windows.
Glenda Dockridge, Hatch's assistant and the store manager, was helping Lew Booner, their general handyman, with the dusting. In a large antique store, dusting was akin to the painting of the Golden Gate Bridge: once you reached the far end, it was time to come back to the beginning and start all over again. Glenda was in a great mood because she had sold a Napoleon III ormolu-mounted black-lacquered cabinet with Japanned panels and, to the same customer, a 19th-century Italian polygonal, tilt-top table with elaborate marquetry inlay. They were excellent sales—especially considering that she worked on salary against a commission.
While Hatch looked through the day's mail, attended to some correspondence, and examined a pair of 18th-century rosewood palace pedestals with inlaid jade dragons that had arrived from a scout in Hong Kong, Lindsey helped Glenda and Lew with the dusting. In her new frame of mind, even that chore was a pleasure. It gave her a chance to appreciate the details of the antiques—the turn of a finial on a bronze lamp, the carving on a table leg, the delicately pierced and hand-finished rims on a set of 18th-century English porcelains. Contemplating the history and cultural meaning of each piece as she happily dusted it, she realized that her new attitude had a distinctly Zen quality.
At twilight, sensing the approach of night, Vassago woke and sat up in the approximation of a grave that was his home. He was filled with a hunger for death and a need to kill.
The last image he remembered from his dream was of the woman from the red car. She was not in the car any more, but in a chamber he could not quite see, standing in front of a Chinese screen, wiping it with a white cloth. She turned, as if he had spoken to her, and she smiled.
Her smile was so radiant, so full of life, that Vassago wanted to smash her face in with a hammer, break out her teeth, shatter her jaw bones, make it impossible for her to smile ever again.
He had dreamed of her two or three times over the past several weeks. The first time she had been in a wheelchair, weeping and laughing simultaneously.
Again, he searched his memory, but he could not recall her face among those he had ever seen outside of dreams. He wondered who she was and why she visited him when he slept.
Outside, night fell. He sensed it coming down. A great black drape that gave the world a preview of death at the end of every bright and shining day.
He dressed and left his hideaway.
By seven o'clock that early-spring night, Lindsey and Hatch were at Zov's, a small but busy restaurant in Tustin. The decor was mainly black and white, with lots of big windows and mirrors. The staff, unfailingly friendly and efficient, were dressed in black and white to complement the long room. The food they served was such a perfect sensual experience that the monochromatic bistro seemed ablaze with color.
The noise level was congenial rather than annoying. They did not have to raise their voices to hear each other, and felt as if the background buzz provided a screen of privacy from nearby tables.
Through the first two courses—calamari; black-bean soup—they spoke of trivial things. But when the main course was served—swordfish for both of them—Lindsey could no longer contain herself.
She said, “Okay, all right, we've had all day to brood about it. We haven't colored each other's opinions. So what do you think of Regina?”
“What do you think of Regina?”
Lindsey said, “Why not?”
He took a deep breath, hesitated. “I'm crazy about the kid.”
Lindsey felt like leaping up and doing a little dance, the way a cartoon character might express uncontainable delight, because her joy and excitement were brighter and bolder than things were supposed to be in real life. She had hoped for just that reaction from him, but she hadn't known what he would say, really hadn't had a clue, because the meeting had been … well, one apt word would be “daunting.”
“Oh, God, I love her,” Lindsey said. “She's so sweet.”
“She's a tough cookie.”
“That's an act.”
“She was putting on an act for us, yeah, but she's tough just the same. She's had to be tough. Life didn't give her a choice.”
“But it's a good tough.”
“It's a great tough,” he agreed. “I'm not saying it put me off. I admired it, I loved her.”
“She's so bright.”
“Struggling so hard to make herself unappealing,” Hatch said, “and that only made her more appealing.”
“The poor kid. Afraid of being rejected again, so she took the offensive.”
“When I heard her coming down the hall, I thought it was—”
“Godzilla!” Lindsey said.
“At least. And how'd you like Binky the talking goldfish?”
“Shit on the mayonnaise!” Lindsey said.
They both laughed, and people around them turned to look, either because of their laughter or because some of what Lindsey said was overheard, which only made them laugh harder.
“She's going to be a handful,” Hatch said.
“She'll be a dream.”
“Nothing's that easy.”
“She will be.”
He hesitated. “What if she doesn't want to come with us?”
Lindsey's smile froze. “She will. She'll come.”
“Don't be negative.”
“I'm only saying we've got to be prepared for disappointment.”