When the unexpected caller knocked, a pang of resentment shot through Honell. His face puckered sourly. He preferred the company of his own characters to that of anyone who might conceivably come visiting, uninvited. Or invited, for that matter. All of the people in his books were carefully refined, clarified, whereas people in real life were unfailingly … well, fuzzy, murky, pointlessly complex.
He glanced at the clock on the mantel. Ten past nine o'clock.
The knock sounded again. More insistent this time. It was probably a neighbor, which was a dismaying thought because his neighbors were all fools.
He considered not answering. But in these rural canyons, the locals thought of themselves as “neighborly,” never as the pests they actually were, and if he didn't respond to the knocking, they would circle the house, peeping in windows, out of a country-folk concern for his welfare. God, he hated them. He tolerated them only because he hated the people in the cities even more, and loathed suburbanites.
He put down his Chivas and the book, pushed up from the rocking chair, and went to the door with the intention of giving a fierce dressing-down to whoever was out there on the porch. With his command of language, he could mortify anyone in about one minute flat, and have them running for cover in two minutes. The pleasure of meting out humiliation would almost compensate for the interruption.
When he pulled the curtain back from the glass panes in the front door, he was surprised to see that his visitor was not one of the neighbors—in fact, not anyone he recognized. The boy was no more than twenty, pale as the wings of the snowflake moths that batted against the porch light. He was dressed entirely in black and wore sunglasses.
Honell was unconcerned about the caller's intentions. The canyon was less than an hour from the most heavily populated parts of Orange County, but it was nonetheless remote by virtue of its forbidding geography and the poor condition of the roads. Crime was no problem, because criminals were generally attracted to more populous areas where the pickings were more plentiful. Besides, most of the people living in the cabins thereabouts had nothing worth stealing.
He found the pale young man intriguing.
“What do you want?” he asked without opening the door.
“S. Steven Honell?”
“Are you going to make a torture of this?”
“Sir, excuse me, but are you the writer?”
College student. That's what he had to be.
A decade ago—well, nearly two—Honell had been besieged by college English majors who wanted to apprentice under him or just worship at his feet. They were an inconstant crowd, however, on the lookout for the latest trend, with no genuine appreciation for high literary art.
Hell, these days, most of them couldn't even read; they were college students in name only. The institutions through which they matriculated were little more than day-care centers for the terminally immature, and they were no more likely to study than to fly to Mars by flapping their arms.
“Yes, I'm the writer. What of it?”
“Sir, I'm a great admirer of your books.”
“Listened to them on audiotape, have you?”
“Sir? No, I've read them, all of them.”
The audiotapes, licensed by his publisher without his consent, were abridged by two-thirds. Travesties.
“Ah. Read them in comic-book format, have you?” Honell said sourly, though to the best of his knowledge the sacrilege of comicbook adaptation had not yet been perpetrated.
“Sir, I'm sorry to intrude like this. It really took a lot of time for me to work up the courage to come see you. Tonight I finally had the guts, and I knew if I delayed I'd never get up the nerve again. I am in awe of your writing, sir, and if you could spare me the time, just a little time, to answer a few questions, I'd be most grateful.”
A little conversation with an intelligent young man might, in fact, have more charm than re-reading Miss Culvert. A long time had passed since the last such visitor, who had come to the eyrie in which Honell had then been living above Santa Fe. After only a brief hesitation, he opened the door.
“Come in, then, and we'll see if you really understand the complexities of what you've read.”
The young man stepped across the threshold, and Honell turned away, heading back toward the rocking chair and the Chivas.
“This is very kind of you, sir,” the visitor said as he closed the door.
“Kindness is a quality of the weak and stupid, young man. I've other motivations.” As he reached his chair, he turned and said, “Take off those sunglasses. Sunglasses at night is the worst kind of Hollywood affectation, not the sign of a serious person.”
“I'm sorry, sir, but they're not an affectation. It's just that this world is so much more painfully bright than Hell—which I'm sure you'll eventually discover.”
Hatch had no appetite for dinner. He only wanted to sit alone with the inexplicably heat-curled issue of Arts American and stare at it until, by God, he forced himself to understand exactly what was happening to him. He was a man of reason. He could not easily embrace supernatural explanations. He was not in the antiques business by accident; he had a need to surround himself with things that contributed to an atmosphere of order and stability.
But kids also hungered for stability, which included regular mealtimes, so they went to dinner at a pizza parlor, after which they caught a movie at the theater complex next door. It was a comedy. Though the film couldn't make Hatch forget the strange problems plaguing him, the frequent sound of Regina's musical giggle did somewhat soothe his abraded nerves.
Later, at home, after he had tucked the girl in bed, kissed her forehead, wished her sweet dreams, and turned off the light, she said, “Goodnight … Dad.”
He was in her doorway, stepping into the hall, when the word “dad” stopped him. He turned and looked back at her.
“Goodnight,” he said, deciding to receive her gift as casually as she had given it, for fear that if he made a big deal about it, she would call him Mr. Harrison forever. But his heart soared.
In the bedroom, where Lindsey was undressing, he said, “She called me Dad.”
“Be serious, who do you think?”
“How much did you pay her?”
“You're just jealous 'cause she hasn't called you Mom yet.”
“She will. She's not so afraid any more.”
“Of taking a chance.”
Before getting undressed for bed, Hatch went downstairs to check the telephone answering machine in the kitchen. Funny, after all that had happened to him and considering the problems he still had to sort out, the mere fact that the girl had called him Dad was enough to quicken his step and lift his spirits. He descended the stairs two at a time.
The answering machine was on the counter to the left of the refrigerator, below the cork memo board. He was hoping to have a response from the estate executor to whom he had given a bid for the Wedgwood collection that morning. The window on the machine showed three messages. The first was from Glenda Dock-ridge, his right hand at the antique shop. The second was from Simpson Smith, a friend and antique dealer on Melrose Place in Los Angeles. The third was from Janice Dimes, a friend of Lindsey's. All three were reporting the same news: Hatch, Lindsey, Hatch and Lindsey, have you seen the paper, have you read the paper, have you heard the news about Cooper, about that guy who ran you off the road, about Bill Cooper, he's dead, he was killed, he was killed last night.
Hatch felt as if a refrigerant, instead of blood, pumped through his veins.
Last evening he had raged about Cooper getting off scot-free, and had wished him dead. No, wait. He'd said he wanted to hurt him, make him pay, pitch him in that icy river, but he hadn't actually wanted Cooper dead. And so what if he had wanted him dead? He had not actually killed the man. He was not at fault for what had happened.
Punching the button to erase the messages, he thought: The cops will want to talk to me sooner or later.
Then he wondered why he was worried about the police. Maybe the murderer was already in custody, in which case no suspicion would fall upon him. But why should he come under suspicion anyway? He had done nothing. Nothing. Why was guilt creeping through him like the Millipede inching up a long tunnel?
The utterly enigmatic nature of that image chilled him. He couldn't reference the source of it. As if it wasn't his own thought but something he had … received.
He hurried upstairs.
Lindsey was lying on her back in bed, adjusting the covers around her.
The newspaper was on his nightstand, where she always put it. He snatched it up and quickly scanned the front page.
“Hatch?” she said. “What's wrong?”
“The guy driving the beer truck. William Cooper. Murdered.”
She threw back the covers and sat on the edge of the bed.
He found the story on page three. He sat beside Lindsey, and they read the article together.
According to the newspaper, police were interested in talking to a young man in his early twenties, with pale skin and dark hair. A neighbor had glimpsed him fleeing down the alleyway behind the Palm Court apartments. He might have been wearing sunglasses. At night.
“He's the same damned one who killed the blonde,” Hatch said fearfully. “The sunglasses in the rearview mirror. And now he's picking up on my thoughts. He's acting out my anger, murdering people that I'd like to see punished.”
“That doesn't make sense. It can't be.”
“It is.” He felt sick. He looked at his hands, as if he might actually find the truck driver's blood on them. “My God, I sent him after Cooper.”
He was so appalled, so psychologically oppressed by a sense of responsibility for what had happened, that he wanted desperately to wash his hands, scrub them until they were raw. When he tried to get up, his legs were too weak to support him, and he had to sit right down again.
Lindsey was baffled and horrified, but she did not react to the news story as strongly as Hatch did.
Then he told her about the reflection of the black-clad young man in sunglasses, which he had seen in the mirrored door in place of his own image, last night in the den when he had been ranting about Cooper. He told her, as well, how he lay in bed after she was asleep, brooding about Cooper, and how his anger suddenly exploded into artery-popping rage. He spoke of the sense he'd had of being invaded and overwhelmed, ending in the blackout. And for a kicker, he recounted how his anger had escalated unreasonably as he had read the piece in Arts American earlier this evening, and he took the magazine out of his nightstand to show her the inexplicably scorched pages.
By the time Hatch finished, Lindsey's anxiety matched his, but dismay at his secretiveness seemed greater than anything else she was feeling. “Why'd you hide all of this from me?”
“I didn't want to worry you,” he said, knowing how feeble it sounded.
“We've never hidden anything from each other before. We've always shared everything. Everything.”
“I'm sorry, Lindsey. I just… it's just that… these last couple months … the nightmares of rotting bodies, violence, fire,… and the last few days, all this weirdness. …”
“From now on,” she said, “there'll be no secrets.”
“I only wanted to spare you—”
“No secrets,” she insisted.
“Okay. No secrets.”
“And you're not responsible for what happened to Cooper. Even if there is some kind of link between you and this killer, and even if that's why Cooper became a target, it's not your fault. You didn't know that being angry at Cooper was equivalent to a death sentence. You couldn't have done anything to prevent it.”
Hatch looked at the heat-seared magazine in her hands, and a shudder of dread passed through him. “But it'll be my fault if I don't try to save Honell.”
Frowning, she said, “What do you mean?” , “If my anger somehow focused this guy on Cooper, why wouldn't it also focus him on Honell?”
Honell woke to a world of pain. The difference was, this time he was on the receiving end of it—and it was physical rather than emotional pain. His crotch ached from the kick he'd taken. A blow to his throat had left his esophagus feeling like broken glass. His headache was excruciating. His wrists and ankles burned, and at first he could not understand why; then he realized he was tied to the four posts of something, probably his bed, and the ropes were chafing his skin.
He could not see much, partly because his vision was blurred by tears but also because his contact lenses had been knocked out in the attack. He knew he had been assaulted, but for a moment he could not recall the identity of his assailant.
Then the young man's face loomed over him, blurred at first like the surface of the moon through an unadjusted telescope. The boy bent closer, closer, and his face came into focus, handsome and pale, framed by thick black hair. He was not smiling in the tradition of movie psychotics, as Honell expected he would be. He was not scowling, either, or even frowning. He was expressionless—except, perhaps, for a subtle hint of that solemn professional curiosity with which an entomologist might study some new mutant variation of a familiar species of insect.
“I'm sorry for this discourteous treatment, sir, after you were kind enough to welcome me into your home. But I'm rather in a hurry and couldn't take the time to discover what I need to know through ordinary conversation.”
“Whatever you want,” Honell said placatingly. He was shocked to hear how drastically his mellifluous voice, always a reliable tool for seduction and expressive instrument of scorn, had changed. It was raspy, marked by a wet gurgle, thoroughly disgusting.
“I would like to know who Lindsey Sparling is,” the young man said dispassionately, “and where I can find her.”
Hatch was surprised to find Honell's number in the telephone book. Of course, the author's name was not as familiar to the average citizen as it had been during his brief glory years, when he had published Miss Culvert and Mrs. Towers. Honell didn't need to be worried about privacy these days; evidently the public gave him more of it than he desired.
While Hatch called the number, Lindsey paced the length of the bedroom and back. She had made her position clear: she didn't think Honell would interpret Hatch's warning as anything other than a cheap threat.