“It's a homicide case,” he said. “They take every tip seriously in a murder investigation, even if it's anonymous. I'm not going to let them make headlines out of me again.”
From the restaurant they went across town to Harrison's Antiques, where Lindsey had an art studio on part of the top floor in addition to the one at home. When she painted, a regular change of environment contributed to fresher work.
In the car, with the sun-spangled ocean visible between some of the buildings to their right, Lindsey pressed the point that she had nagged him about over breakfast, because she knew that Hatch's only serious character flaw was a tendency to be too easy-going. Jimmy's death was the only bad thing in his life that he had never been able to rationalize, minimalize, and put out of mind. And even with that, he had tried to suppress it rather than face up to his grief, which is why his grief had a chance to grow. Given time, and not much of it, he'd begin to downplay the importance of what had just happened to him.
She said, “You've still got to see Nyebern.”
“I suppose so.”
“If there's brain damage, if that's where this psychic stuff comes from, you said yourself it was benevolent brain damage.”
“But maybe it's degenerative, maybe it'll get worse.”
“I really don't think so,” he said. “I feel fine otherwise.”
“You're no doctor.”
“All right,” he said. He braked for the traffic light at the crossing to the public beach in the heart of town. “I'll call him. But we have to see Gujilio later this afternoon.”
“You can still squeeze in Nyebern if he has time for you.”
Hatch's father had been a tyrant, quick-tempered, sharp-tongued, with a penchant for subduing his wife and disciplining his son by the application of regular doses of verbal abuse in the form of nasty mockery, cutting sarcasm, or just plain threats. Anything at all could set Hatch's father off, or nothing at all, because secretly he cherished irritation and actively sought new sources of it. He was a man who believed he was not destined to be happy—and he insured that his destiny was fulfilled by making himself and everyone around him miserable.
Perhaps afraid that the potential for a murderously bad temper was within him, too, or only because he'd had enough tumult in his life, Hatch had consciously striven to make himself as mellow as his father was high-strung, as sweetly tolerant as his father was narrow-minded, as greathearted as his father was unforgiving, as determined to roll with all of life's punches as his father was determined to punch back at even imaginary blows. As a result, he was the nicest man Lindsey had ever known, the nicest by light-years or by whatever measure niceness was calculated: bunches, bucketsful, gobs. Sometimes, however, Hatch turned away from an unpleasantness that had to be dealt with, rather than risk getting in touch with any negative emotion that was remotely reminiscent of his old man's paranoia and anger.
The light changed from red to green, but three young women in bikinis were in the crosswalk, laden with beach gear and heading for the ocean. Hatch didn't just wait for them. He watched them with a smile of appreciation for the way they filled out their suits.
“I take it back,” Lindsey said.
“I was just thinking what a nice guy you are, too nice, but obviously you're a piece of lecherous scum.”
“Nice scum, though.”
“I'll call Nyebern as soon as we get to the shop,” Lindsey said.
He drove up the hill through the main part of town, past the old Laguna Hotel. “Okay. But I'm sure as hell not going to tell him I'm suddenly psychic. He's a good man, but he won't be able to sit on that kind of news. The next thing I know, my face'll be all over the cover of the National Enquirer. Besides, I'm not psychic, not exactly. I don't know what the hell I am—aside from lecherous scum.”
“So what'll you tell him?”
“Just enough about the dreams so he'll realize how troubling they are and how strange, so he'll order whatever tests I ought to have. Good enough?”
“I guess it'll have to be.”
In the tomb-deep blackness of his hideaway, curled na*ed upon the stained and lumpy mattress, fast asleep, Vassago saw sunlight, sand, the sea, and three bikinied girls beyond the windshield of a red car.
He was dreaming and knew he dreamed, which was a peculiar sensation. He rolled with it.
He saw, as well, the dark-haired and dark-eyed woman about whom he had dreamed yesterday, when she had been behind the wheel of that same car. She had appeared in other dreams, once in a wheelchair, when she had been laughing and weeping at the same time.
He found her more interesting than the scantily clad beach bunnies because she was unusually vital. Radiant. Through the unknown man driving the car, Vassago somehow knew that the woman had once considered embracing death, had hesitated on the edge of either active or passive self-destruction, and had rejected an early grave—
… water, he sensed a watery vault, cold and suffocating, narrowly escaped …
—whereafter she had been more full of life, energetic, and vivid than ever before. She had cheated death. Denied the devil. Vassago hated her for that, because it was in the service of death that he had found meaning to his own existence.
He tried to reach out and touch her through the body of the man driving the car. Failed. It was only a dream. Dreams could not be controlled. If he could have touched her, he would have made her regret that she had turned away from the comparatively painless death by drowning that could have been hers.
When she moved in with the Harrisons, Regina almost thought she had died and gone to Heaven, except she had her own bathroom, and she didn't believe anyone had his own bathroom up in Heaven because in Heaven no one needed a bathroom. They were not all permanently constipated in Heaven or anything like that, and they certainly didn't just do their business out in public, for God's sake (sorry, God), because no one in his right mind would want to go to Heaven if it was the kind of place where you had to watch where you stepped. It was just that in Heaven all the concerns of earthly existence passed away. You didn't even have a body in Heaven; you were probably just a sphere of mental energy, sort of like a balloon full of golden glowing gas, drifting around among the angels, singing the praises of God—which was pretty weird when you thought about it, all those glowing and singing balloons, but the most you'd ever have to do in the way of waste elimination was maybe vent a little gas now and then, which wouldn't even smell bad, probably like the sweet incense in church, or perfume.
That first day in the Harrisons' house, late Monday afternoon, the twenty-ninth of April, she would remember forever, because they were so nice. They didn't even mention the real reason why they gave her a choice between a bedroom on the second floor and a den on the first floor that could be converted into a bedroom.
“One thing in its favor,” Mr. Harrison said about the den, “is the view. Better than the view from the upstairs room.”
He led Regina to the big windows that looked out on a rose garden ringed by a border of huge ferns. The view was pretty.
Mrs. Harrison said, “And you'd have all these bookshelves, which you might want to fill up gradually with your own collection, since you're a book lover.”
Actually, without ever hinting at it, their concern was that she might find the stairs troublesome. But she didn't mind stairs so much. In fact she liked stairs, she loved stairs, she ate stairs for breakfast. In the orphanage, they had put her on the first floor, until she was eight years old and realized she'd been given ground-level accommodations because of her clunky leg brace and deformed right hand, whereupon she immediately demanded to be moved to the third floor. The nuns would not hear of it, so she threw a tantrum, but the nuns knew how to deal with that, so she tried withering scorn, but the nuns could not be withered, so she went on a hunger strike, and finally the nuns surrendered to her demand on a trial basis. She'd lived on the third floor for more than two years, and she had never used the elevator. When she chose the second-floor bedroom in the Harrisons' house, without having seen it, neither of them tried to talk her out of it, or wondered aloud if she were “up” to it, or even blinked. She loved them for that.
The house was gorgeous—cream walls, white woodwork, modern furniture mixed with antiques, Chinese bowls and vases, everything just so. When they took her on a tour, Regina actually felt as dangerously clumsy as she had claimed to be in the meeting in Mr. Gujilio's office. She moved with exaggerated care, afraid that she would knock over one precious item and kick off a chain reaction that would spread across the entire room, then through a doorway into the next room and from there throughout the house, one beautiful treasure tipping into the next like dominoes in a world-championship toppling contest, two-hundred-year-old porcelains exploding, antique furniture reduced to match sticks, until they were left standing in mounds of worthless rubble, coated with the dust of what had been a fortune in interior design.
She was so absolutely certain it was going to happen that she wracked her mind urgently, room by room, for something winning to say when catastrophe struck, after the last exquisite crystal candy dish had crashed off the last disintegrating table that had once been the property of the First King of France. “Oops,” did not seem appropriate, and neither did “Jesus Christ!” because they thought they had adopted a good Catholic girl not a foul-mouthed heathen (sorry, God), and neither did “somebody pushed me,” because that was a lie, and lying bought you a ticket to Hell, though she suspected she was going to wind up in Hell anyway, considering how she couldn't stop thinking the Lord's name in vain and using vulgarities. No balloon full of glowing golden gas for her.
Throughout the house, the walls were adorned with art, and Regina noted that the most wonderful pieces all had the same signature at the bottom right corner: Lindsey Sparling. Even as much of a screwup as she was, she was smart enough to figure that the name Lindsey was no coincidence and that Sparling must be Mrs. Harrison's maiden name. They were the strangest and most beautiful paintings Regina had ever seen, some of them so bright and full of good feeling that you had to smile, some of them dark and brooding. She wanted to spend a long time in front of each of them, sort of soaking them up, but she was afraid Mr. and Mrs. Harrison would think she was a brownnosing phony, pretending interest as a way of apologizing for the wisecracks she had made in Mr. Gujilio's office about paintings on velvet.
Somehow she got through the entire house without destroying anything, and the last room was hers. It was bigger than any room at the orphanage, and she didn't have to share it with anyone. The windows were covered with white plantation shutters. Furnishings included a corner desk and chair, a bookcase, an armchair with footstool, nightstands with matching lamps—and an amazing bed.
“It's from about 1850,” Mrs. Harrison said, as Regina let her hand glide slowly over the beautiful bed.
“English,” Mr. Harrison said. “Mahogany with hand-painted decoration under several coats of lacquer.”
On the footboard, side rails, and headboard, the dark-red and dark-yellow roses and emerald-green leaves seemed alive, not bright against the deeply colored wood but so lustrous and dewy-looking that she was sure she would be able to smell them if she put her nose to their petals.
Mrs. Harrison said, “It might seem a little old for a young girl, a little stuffy—”
“Yes, of course,” Mr. Harrison said, “we can send it over to the store, sell it, let you choose something you'd like, something modern. This was just furnished as a guest room.”
“No,” Regina said hastily. “I like it, I really do. Could I keep it, I mean even though it's so expensive?”
“It's not that expensive,” Mr. Harrison said, “and of course you can keep anything you want.”
“Or get rid of anything you want,” Mrs. Harrison said.
“Except us, of course,” Mr. Harrison said.
“That's right,” Mrs. Harrison said, “I'm afraid we come with the house.”
Regina's heart was pounding so hard she could barely get her breath. Happiness. And fear. Everything was so wonderful—but surely it couldn't last. Nothing so good could last very long.
Sliding, mirrored doors covered one wall of the bedroom, and Mrs. Harrison showed Regina a closet behind the mirrors. The hugest closet in the world. Maybe you needed a closet that size if you were a movie star, or if you were one of those men she had read about, who liked to dress up in women's clothes sometimes, 'cause then you'd need both a girl's and boy's wardrobe. But it was much bigger than she needed; it would hold ten times the clothes that she possessed.
With some embarrassment, she looked at the two cardboard suitcases she had brought with her from St. Thomas's. They held everything she owned in the world. For the first time in her life, she realized she was poor. Which was peculiar, really, not to have understood her poverty before, since she was an orphan who had inherited nothing. Well, nothing other than a bum leg and a twisted right hand with two fingers missing.
As if reading Regina's mind, Mrs. Harrison said, “Let's go shopping.”
They went to South Coast Plaza Mall. They bought her too many clothes, books, anything she wanted. Regina worried that they were overspending and would have to eat beans for a year to balance their budget—she didn't like beans—but they failed to pick up on her hints about the virtues of frugality. Finally she had to stop them by pretending that her weak leg was bothering her.
From the mall they went to dinner at an Italian restaurant. She had eaten out twice before, but only at a fast-food place, where the owner treated all the kids at the orphanage to burgers and fries. This was a real restaurant, and there was so much to absorb that she could hardly eat, keep up her end of the table conversation, and enjoy the place all at the same time. The chairs weren't made out of hard plastic, and neither were the knives and forks. The plates weren't either paper or Styrofoam, and drinks came in actual glasses, which must mean that the customers in real restaurants were not as clumsy as those in fast-food places and could be trusted with breakable things. The waitresses weren't teenagers, and they brought your food to you instead of handing it across a counter by the cash register. And they didn't make you pay for it until after you'd eaten it!
Later, back at the Harrison house, after Regina unpacked her things, brushed her teeth, put on pajamas, took off her leg brace, and got into bed, both the Harrisons came in to say goodnight. Mr. Harrison sat on the edge of her bed and told her that everything might seem strange at first, even unsettling, but that soon enough she would feel at home, then he kissed her on the forehead and said, “Sweet dreams, princess.” Mrs. Harrison was next, and she sat on the edge of the bed, too. She talked for a while about all the things they would do together in the days ahead. Then she kissed Regina on the cheek, said, “Goodnight, honey,” and turned off the overhead light as she went out the door into the hall.