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From the doorway George Valdoski said, "What's going on here?"


Loman had been so focused on Nella that he had not heard George coming. He got up at once and let go of Nella's hand. "The doctor thought she needed—"


"What's that horse needle for?" George said, referring to the huge syringe. The needle itself was no larger than an ordinary hypodermic.


"Tranquilizer," Dr. Worthy said. "She needs to—"


"Tranquilizer?" George interrupted. "Looks like you gave her enough to knock down a bull."


Loman said, "Now, George, the doctor knows what he's—"


On the bed Nella fell under the thrall of the injection. Her body suddenly stiffened, her hands curled into tight fists, her teeth clenched, and her jaw muscles bulged. In her throat and temples, the arteries swelled and throbbed visibly as her heartbeat drastically accelerated. Her eyes glazed over, and she passed into the peculiar twilight that was the Change, neither conscious nor unconscious.


"What's wrong with her?" George demanded.


Between clenched teeth, lips peeled back in a grimace of pain, Nella let out a strange, low groan. She arched her back until only her shoulders and heels were in contact with the bed. She appeared to be full of violent energy, as if she were a boiler straining with excess steam pressure, and for a moment she seemed about to explode. Then she collapsed back onto the mattress, shuddered more violently than ever, and broke out in a copious sweat.


George looked at Worthy, at Loman. He clearly realized that something was very wrong, though he could not begin to understand the nature of that wrongness.


"Stop." Loman drew his revolver as George stepped backward toward the second-floor hall.


"Come all the way in here, George, and lie down on the bed beside Nella."


In the doorway George Valdoski froze, staring in disbelief and dismay at the revolver.


"If you try to leave," Loman said, "I'll have to shoot you, and I don't really want to do that."


"You wouldn't," George said, counting on decades of friendship to protect him.


"Yes, I would," Loman said coldly.


"I'd kill you if I had to, and we'd cover it with a story you wouldn't like. We'd say that we caught you in a contradiction, that we found some evidence that you were the one who killed Eddie, killed your own boy, some twisted sex thing, and that when we confronted you with the proof, you grabbed my revolver out of my holster. There was a struggle. You were shot. Case closed."


Coming from someone who was supposed to be a close and treasured friend, Loman's threat was so monstrous that at first George was speechless. Then, as he stepped back into the room, he said, "You'd let everyone think … think I did those terrible things to Eddie? Why? What're you doing, Loman? What the hell are you doing? Who … who are you protecting?"


"Lie down on the bed," Loman said.


Dr. Worthy was preparing another syringe for George.


On the bed Nella was shivering ceaselessly, twitching, writhing. Sweat trickled down her face; her hair was damp and tangled. Her eyes were open, but she seemed unaware that others were in the room. Maybe she was not even conscious of her whereabouts. She was seeing a place beyond this room or looking within herself; Loman didn't know which and could remember nothing of his own conversion except that the pain had been excruciating.


Reluctantly approaching the bed, George Valdoski said, "What's happening, Loman? Christ, what is this? What's wrong?"


"Everything'll be fine," Loman assured him. "It's for the best, George. It's really for the best."


"What's for the best? What in God's name—"


"Lie down, George. Everything'll be fine."


"What's happening to Nella?"


"Lie down, George. It's for the best," Loman said.


"It's for the best," Dr. Worthy agreed as he finished filling the syringe from a new bottle of the golden fluid.


"It's really for the best," Loman said. "Trust me." With the revolver he waved George toward the bed and smiled reassuringly.


18


Harry Talbot's house was Bauhaus-inspired redwood, with a wealth of big windows. It was three blocks south of the heart of Moonlight Cove, on the east side of Conquistador Avenue, a street named for the fact that Spanish conquerors had bivouacked in that area centuries earlier, when accompanying the Catholic clergy along the California coast to establish missions. On rare occasions Harry dreamed of being one of those ancient soldiers, marching northward into unexplored territory, and it was always a nice dream because, in that adventure fantasy, he was never wheelchair-bound.


Most of Moonlight Cove was built on wooded hillsides facing the sea, and Harry's lot sloped down to Conquistador, providing a perfect perch for a man whose main activity in life was spying on his fellow townsmen. From his third-floor bedroom at the northwest corner of the house, he could see at least portions of all the streets between Conquistador and the cove—Juniper Lane, Serra Street, Roshmore Way, and Cypress Lane—as well as the intersecting streets which ran east-west. To the north, he could glimpse pieces of Ocean Avenue and even beyond. Of course the breadth and depth of his field of vision would have been drastically limited if his house hadn't been one story higher than most of those around it and if he hadn't been equipped with a 60mm f/8 refractor telescope and a good pair of binoculars.


At 9:30 Monday night, October 13, Harry was in his custommade stool, between the enormous west and north windows, bent to the eyepiece of the telescope. The high stool had arms and a backrest like a chair, four wide-spread sturdy legs for maximum balance, and a weighted base to prevent it from tipping over easily when he was levering himself into it from the wheelchair. It also had a harness, something like that in an automobile, allowing him to lean forward to the telescope without slipping off the stool and falling to the floor.


Because he had no use whatsoever of his left leg and left arm, because his right leg was too weak to support him, because he could rely only on his right arm—which, thank God, the Viet Cong had spared—even transferring from the battery-powered wheelchair to a custom-made stool was a torturous undertaking. But the effort was worthwhile because every year Harry Talbot lived more through his binoculars and telescope than he had the year before. Perched on his special stool, he sometimes almost forgot his handicaps, for in his own way he was participating in life.


His favorite movie was Rear Window with Jimmy Stewart. He had watched it probably a hundred times.


At the moment the telescope was focused on the back of CalIan's Funeral Home, the only mortuary in Moonlight Cove, on the east side of Juniper Lane, which ran parallel to Conquistador but was one block closer to the sea. He was able to see the place by focusing between two houses on the opposite side of his own street, past the thick trunk of a Big Cone pine, and across the service alley that ran between Juniper and Conquistador. The funeral home backed up to that alley, and Harry had a view that included a corner of the garage in which the hearse was parked, the rear entrance to the house itself, and the entrance to the new wing in which the corpses were embalmed and prepared for viewing, or cremated.


During the past two months he had seen some strange things at Callan's. Tonight, however, no unusual activity enlivened Harry's patient watch over the place.


"Moose?"


The dog rose from his resting place in the corner and padded across the unlighted bedroom to Harry's side. He was a fullgrown black Labrador, virtually invisible in the darkness. He nuzzled Harry's leg: the right one, in which Harry still had some feeling.


Reaching down, Harry petted Moose.


"Get me a beer, old fella."


Moose was a service dog raised and trained by Canine Companions for Independence, and he was always happy to be needed. He hurried to the small refrigerator in the corner, which was designed for under-the-counter use in restaurants and could be opened with a foot pedal.


"None there," Harry said.


"I forgot to bring a six-pack up from the kitchen this afternoon."


The dog had already discovered that the bedroom fridge contained no Coors. He padded into the hallway, his claws clicking softly on the polished wood floor. No room had carpets, for the wheelchair rolled more efficiently on hard surfaces. In the hall the dog leaped and hit the elevator button with one paw, and immediately the purr and whine of the lift machinery filled the house.


Harry returned his attention to the telescope and to the rear of Callan's Funeral Home. Fog drifted through town in waves, some thick and blinding, some wispy. But lights brightened the rear of the mortuary, giving him a clear view; through the telescope, he seemed to be standing between the twin brick pilasters flanking the driveway that served the back of the property. If the night had been fogless, he would have been able to count the rivets in the metal door of the embalmery-crematorium.


Behind him the elevator doors rolled open. He heard Moose enter the lift. Then it started down to the first floor.


Bored with Callan's, Harry slowly swiveled the scope to the left, moving the field of vision southward to the large vacant lot adjacent to the funeral home. Adjusting the focus, he looked across that empty property and across the street to the Gosdale house on the west side of Juniper, drawing in on the dining room window.


With his good hand, he unscrewed the eyepiece and put it on a high metal table beside his stool, quickly and deftly replacing it with one of several other eyepieces, thus allowing a clearer focus on the Gosdales. Because the fog was at that moment in a thinning phase, he could see into the Gosdale dining room almost as well as if he had been crouched on their porch with his face to the window. Herman and Louise Gosdale were playing pinochle with their neighbors, Dan and Vera Kaiser, as they did every Monday night and on some Fridays.


The elevator reached the ground floor; the motor stopped whining, and silence returned to the house. Moose was now two floors below, hurrying along the hallway to the kitchen.


On an unusually clear night, when Dan Kaiser was sitting with his back to the window and at the correct angle, Harry occasionally could see the man's pinochle hand. A few times he had been tempted to call Herman Gosdale and describe his adversary's cards to him, with some advice on how to play out the trick.


But he dared not let people know he spent much of his day in his bedroom—darkened at night to avoid being silhouetted at the window—vicariously participating in their lives. They would not understand. Those whole of limb were uneasy about a handicapped person from the start, for they found it too easy to believe that the crippling twist of legs and arms extended to the mind. They would think he was nosy; worse, they might mark him as a Peeping Tom, a degenerate voyeur.


That was not the case. Harry Talbot had set down strict rules governing his use of the telescope and binoculars, and he faithfully abided by them. For one thing, he would never try to get a glimpse of a woman undressed.


Amelia Scarlatti lived across the street from him and three doors north, and he once discovered, by accident, that she spent some evenings in her bedroom, listening to music or reading in the nude. She turned on only a small bedside lamp, and gauzy sheers hung between the drapes, and she always stayed away from the windows, so she saw no need to draw the drapes on every occasion. In fact she could not be seen by anyone less prepared to see her than Harry was. Amelia was lovely. Even through the sheers and in the dim lamplight, her exquisite body had been revealed to Harry in detail. Astonished by her nakedness, riveted by surprise and by the sensuous concavities and convexities of her full-breasted, long-legged body, he had stared for perhaps a minute. Then, as hot with embarrassment as with desire, he had turned the scope from her. Though Harry had not been with a woman in more than twenty years, he never invaded Amella's bedroom again. On many mornings he looked at an angle into the side window of her tidy first-floor kitchen and watched her at breakfast, studying her perfect face as she had her juice and muffin or toast and eggs. She was beautiful beyond his abilities of description, and from what he knew of her life, she seemed to be a nice person, as well. In a way he supposed he was in love with her, as a boy could love a teacher who was forever beyond his reach, but he never used unrequited love as an excuse to caress her unclothed body with his gaze.


Likewise, if he caught one of his neighbors in another kind of embarrassing situation, he looked away. He watched them fight with one another, yes, and he watched them laugh together, eat, play cards, cheat on their diets, wash dishes, and perform the countless other acts of daily life, but not because he wanted to get any dirt on them or find reason to feel superior to them. He got no cheap thrill from his observations of them. What he wanted was to be a part of their lives, to reach out to them—even if one-sidedly—and make of them an extended family; he wanted to have reason to care about them and, through that caring, to experience a fuller emotional life.


The elevator motor hummed again. Moose evidently had gone into the kitchen, opened one of the four doors of the under-the-counter refrigerator, and fetched a cold can of Coors. Now he was returning with the brew.


Harry Talbot was a gregarious man, and on coming home from the war with only one useful limb, he was advised to move into a group home for the disabled, where he might have a social life in a caring atmosphere. The counselors warned him that he would not be accepted if he tried to live in the world of the whole and healthy; they said he would encounter unconscious yet hurtful cruelty from most people he met, especially the cruelty of thoughtless exclusion, and would finally fall into the grip of a deep and terrible loneliness. But Harry was as stubbornly independent as he was gregarious, and the prospect of living in a group home, with only the companionship of disabled people and caretakers, seemed worse than no companionship at all. Now he lived alone, but for Moose, with few visitors other than his once-a-week housekeeper, Mrs. Hunsbok (from whom he hid the telescope and binoculars in a bedroom closet). Much of what the counselors warned him about was proved true daily; however, they had not imagined Harry's ability to find solace and a sufficient sense of family through surreptitious but benign observation of his neighbors.


The elevator reached the third floor. The door slid open, and Moose padded into the bedroom, straight to Harry's high stool.


The telescope was on a wheeled platform, and Harry pushed it aside. He reached down and patted the dog's head. He took the cold can from the Labrador's mouth. Moose had held it by the bottom for maximum cleanliness. Harry put the can between his limp legs, plucked a penlight off the table on the other side of his stool, and directed the beam on the can to be sure it was Coors and not Diet Coke.

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