“Of course not.”

“Would they have been willing to debate the righteousness of the crimes they intended to commit?”

“The mockery I get, but I can’t see how it’s compassionate.”

She is unrelenting. “Perhaps they would have been willing to go with you on that TV-courtroom show and let Judge Judy decide whether they did or did not have the moral authority to nuke four cities.”

“No. They’d be too scared of Judge Judy. I’m scared of Judge Judy.”

“You did the only thing you could have done, young man.”

“Yeah. All right. But why do I have to go from Magic Beach to Harmony Corner in the same night? So much death. No matter how bad those people were, no matter how bad someone might be here … I’m not a killing machine.”

She reaches out to me, and I take her hand. Although I can’t explain why, the very contact lifts my spirits.

“Maybe there won’t be any killing here,” she says.

“But it’s all accelerating.”

“What is?”

“My life, these threats, the craziness—coming at me like an avalanche.”

The feathers of soft light flutter not just across her face but also in her eyes as she squeezes my hand. “What do you most want, Oddie? What hope drives you? The hope of a little rest, some leisure time? The hope of an uneventful, quiet life as a fry cook, a shoe salesman?”

“You know it’s none of that.”

“Tell me. I’d like to hear you say it.”

I close my eyes and see in memory the card that came out of a fortune-telling machine in a carnival arcade six years earlier, when with Stormy at my side I had bought a precious promise for a quarter.

“Ma’am, you know what the card said—‘You are destined to be together forever.’ ”

“And then she died. But you kept the card. You continued to believe in the truth of the card. Do you still believe in it?”

Without hesitation, I reply: “Yes. I’ve got to believe. It’s what I have.”

“Well then, Oddie, if the hope that drives you is the truth of that card, might not the acceleration that frightens you be what you actually want? Might you be quickening toward the fulfillment of that prediction? Could it be that the avalanche coming at you is nothing more than Stormy?”

Opening my eyes, I meet her stare once more. The fluttering wings reflected on her face and in her dark eyes might also be the flicker of golden flames. I am reminded that fire not only consumes; it also purifies. And another word for purification is redemption.

Annamaria cocks her head and smiles. “Shall we find a castle with a suitable room where you can do your version of Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy to your heart’s content? Or shall we just get on with this?”

I am not out of smiles, after all. “We’d best be getting on with it, ma’am.”

Our only luggage is a hamper of food for us and the golden retriever, which was packed by our friend Blossom Rosedale in Magic Beach. After Raphael finds a patch of grass in which to pee, I follow the dog and Annamaria to Cottage 6, which she has taken for herself, and I leave the hamper with her.

On the stoop, delivery made, as I turn away, she says, “Whatever happens here, trust your heart. It’s as true as any compass.”

The white German shepherd, Boo, has been with me for several months. Now he accompanies me to Cottage 7. Because he is a ghost dog, he has no need to pee, and he walks through the door before I can unlock it.

The accommodations are clean and cozy. Sitting area, bedroom alcove, bath. The unit seems to have been remodeled and upgraded within the past few years.

There’s even an under-the-counter fridge that serves as an honor bar. I take a can of beer and pop the tab.

I am exhausted but not sleepy. Now, two hours before dawn, I’ve been awake twenty-two hours; yet my mind spins like a centrifuge.

After switching on the TV, I sit with the remote in an armchair, while Boo explores every cranny of the cottage, his curiosity as keen in death as in life. Satellite service provides a huge smorgasbord of programming. But nearly everything seems stale or wilted.

As far as I can tell from the cable-news channels, the thwarted nuclear terrorists in Magic Beach have not made the news. I suspect they never will. The government will decide that the public prefers to remain ignorant of such disturbing near disasters, and the political class prefers to keep them ignorant rather than arouse in them suspicions of corruption and incompetence in high places.

On NatGeo, in a documentary about big cats, the narrator informs us that panthers are a variety of leopard, black with black spots. A panther with golden eyes stares directly at the camera, bares its fangs, and in a low, rough voice says, “Sleep.”

I realize that I am less than half awake, in that twilight consciousness where dreams and the real world sometimes intersect. Before I drop off and spill the beer, I put the nearly empty can on the table beside the armchair.

On the screen, a panther seizes an antelope with its claws, pulls the prey off its feet, and tears out its throat. The graphic violence does not shock me awake but instead weighs on me, wearies me. Lifting its head, the triumphant cat stares at me, blood and saliva drizzling from its mouth, and says, “Sleep … sleep.”

I can feel the words as well as hear them, sound waves issuing from the TV speakers, pulsing through me, a kind of sonic massage that relaxes my tense muscles, soothes the taut fibers of my nerves.

Several hyenas test the panther as it drags the antelope into a tree to feed on it in higher branches where neither these wolfish rivals nor lions—which also do not climb—are able to follow.

A hyena, wild-eyed and loathsome, bares its ragged teeth at the camera and whispers, “Sleep.” The rest of the pack repeats the word, “Sleep,” and the sonic waves quiver through me with a most pleasing narcotic effect, as does the voice of the panther in the tree, while the head of the antelope lolls on its ruined neck, its fixed eyes glazed with the most perfect sleep of all.

I close my eyes, and the panther of the waking dream follows me into slumber. I hear the soft but heavy padding of its paws, feel its sinuous form slinking through my mind. For a moment, I am disquieted, but the intruder purrs, and its purring calms me. Now the big cat is climbing into another tree, and although I am not dead, the creature carries me with it, for I am powerless to resist. I am not afraid, because it tells me that I should have no fear, and as before, not just the meaning of the words but also the sound waves of which they are formed seem to oil the waters of my mind.

This is the tree of night, black branches reaching high into the starless sky, and nothing can be seen but the panther’s lantern eyes, which grow in size and brightness until they are owlish. In that low, rough voice, it says, Why can’t I read you? Perhaps it is neither owl nor panther, because now I feel what seem to be fingers, as if I am a book of countless pages that are being turned, pages that prove to be blank, the fingers sliding across the paper as if seeking the raised dots of a biography in braille.

The mood changes, the would-be reader’s frustration is palpable, and in the darkness, the eyes are suddenly green with elliptical pupils. If this is a dream, it’s also something more than a dream.

Although a dream shapes itself and can’t be consciously scripted by the dreamer, when I wish for light, I have the power to call it forth. Darkness begins to recede from the tangled black limbs of the tree, and the shape of the would-be reader begins to coalesce out of the gloom.

I am thrust awake, as if the mysterious figure in the nightmare has thrown me out of it. I scramble to my feet, aware of movement to my right, at the periphery of vision, but when I pivot toward it, I find myself alone.

Behind me, something thrums, as if a pair of practiced hands are strumming arpeggios from a harp with only bass strings. When I turn, no origin of the sound is obvious—and now it arises not from where it had been but from the alcove in which stands the bed.

Seeking the source, I am led into the alcove and then to the bathroom door, which is ajar. Darkness lies beyond.

In my exhaustion and emotional confusion, I have forgotten my pistol. It’s tucked under the front passenger seat of the Mercedes.

The gun once belonged to the wife of a minister in Magic Beach. Her husband, the reverend, had shot her to death before she could shoot him. In their particular denomination of Christianity, the faithful are evidently too impatient to wait for prayer to solve their problems.

I push open the bathroom door and switch on the lights. The thrumming swells louder, but now comes from behind me.

Turning, I discover that Boo has returned, but he is not the primary point of interest. My attention is drawn to what has also transfixed the dog: a quick transparent something, visible only by the distortion that it imparts to things as it crosses the alcove, enters the sitting area, seems to spring into the TV screen without shattering it, and is gone.

That presence is so fast and shapeless, I half suspect that I have imagined it, except that the wildlife documentary on the TV ripples with concentric rings, as if the vertical screen is a horizontal body of water into which a stone has been dropped.

Blinking repeatedly, I wonder if what I’m seeing is real or if I have a problem with my vision. The phenomenon diminishes gradually until the images on the screen become clear and stable once more.

This was no ghost. When I see one of the lingering dead, it is the very image of the once-living person, and it doesn’t move quicker than the eye can follow.

The dead don’t talk, and neither do they make other sounds. No rattling of chains. No ominous footsteps. They have no weight to make the stair treads creak. And they certainly don’t strum arpeggios from a bass-string harp.

I look at Boo.

Boo looks at me. His tail doesn’t wag.

TWO

I am now wide awake.

The dream of tree and panther lasted less than five minutes. I am still suffering serious sleep deprivation, but I am as alert as might be a man in a foxhole when he knows the enemy will charge at any moment.

Leaving the lights on rather than return to a dark cottage, I step outside, lock the door, and retrieve the pistol from under the passenger seat of the Mercedes.

I am wearing a sweatshirt over a T-shirt, and I tuck the pistol between them, under my belt, in the small of my back. It isn’t an ideal way to carry a weapon, but I don’t have a holster. And in the past, when I have resorted to this method, I have never accidentally shot off a chunk of my butt.

Although I don’t like guns and do not usually carry one, and although killing even the worst of men in self-defense or in defense of the innocent leaves me sickened, I am not so fanatically antigun that I would rather be murdered—or watch a murder be committed—than use one.

Boo materializes at my side.

He is the only spirit of an animal that I have ever seen. An innocent, he surely has no fear of what he might face on the Other Side. Although he is immaterial and cannot bite a bad guy, I believe that he lingers here because there will come a moment when he will be Lassie to my Timmy and will save me from falling into an abandoned well or the equivalent.

Sadly, most kids these days don’t know Lassie. The media dog that they know best is Marley, who is less likely to save children from a well or from a burning barn than he is to barf on them and accidentally start the barn fire in the first place.

The oppressive mood infecting me since recent events in Magic Beach seems to have lifted. Curiously, nothing restores my common sense and puts me back on the firm ground of reason like a creepy encounter with something apparently supernatural.

In the lighted branches of the trees, the weak breath of the night makes the leaves quiver as if in anticipation of an approaching evil. On the ground around me, trembling patterns of light and shadow create the illusion that the land is unstable underfoot.

In the arc of cottages, no lamps brighten any windows except those in my unit and Annamaria’s, although five other vehicles are parked here. If those guests of the Harmony Corner motor court are sleeping, perhaps a secret reader pages through their memories and seeks … Seeks what? Merely to know them?

The reader—whoever or whatever it might be—wants something more than to know me. As surely as the antelope in the documentary is a few days’ worth of meals to the panther, I am prey, perhaps not to be eaten but in some way to be used.

I look at Boo.

Boo looks at me. Then he looks at Annamaria’s lighted windows.

At Cottage 6, as I rap lightly on the door, it swings open as though the latch must not have been engaged. I step inside and find her sitting in a chair at a small table.

She has taken an apple from the hamper, peeled and sectioned it. She is sharing the fruit with Raphael. Sitting at attention beside her chair, the golden retriever crunches one of the slices and licks his chops.

Raphael looks at Boo and twitches his tail, happy that there’s no need to share his portion with a ghost dog. All dogs see lingering spirits; they aren’t as self-deluded about the true nature of the world as most people are.

“Has anything unusual happened?” I ask Annamaria.

“Isn’t something unusual always happening?”

“You’ve had no … no visitor of any kind?”

“Just you. Would you like some apple, Oddie?”

“No, ma’am. I think you’re in danger here.”

“Of the many people who want to kill me, none is in Harmony Corner.”

“How can you be sure?”

She shrugs. “No one here knows who I am.”

“I don’t even know who you are.”

“You see?” She gives another slice of apple to Raphael.

“I won’t be next door for a while.”

“All right.”

“In case you scream for me.”

She appears amused. “Whyever would I scream? I never have.”

“Never in your whole life?”

“One screams when one is startled or frightened.”

“You said people want to kill you.”

“But I’m not afraid of them. You do what you need to do. I’ll be fine.”

“Maybe you should come with me.”

“Where are you going?” she asks.

“Here and there.”

“I’m already here, and I’ve been there.”

I look at Raphael. Raphael looks at Boo. Boo looks at me.

“Ma’am, you asked if I would die for you, and I said yes.”

“That was very sweet of you. But you’re not going to have to die for me tonight. Don’t be in such a hurry.”

I once thought Pico Mundo had more than its share of eccentric folks. Having traveled some, I now know eccentricity is the universal trait of humanity.

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