I remained near the window, but I was grateful that Terrible Chester stood between me and Robertson. I also found it gratifying that the cat’s apparent intense dislike of the man, even at such a dis­tance as this, confirmed my distrust of him.
Until this moment, I would never have assumed that Terrible Chester and I would agree on any issue or have anything in common other than our affection for Little Ozzie.
For the first time in my experience, Robertson wore no smile, dreamy or otherwise. Standing in sunshine that the weight of the day had condensed from white glare into honey-gold, backdropped by the forms and shadows of the laurels, he looked as grim as the giant photo of Timothy McVeigh on his study wall.
From behind me, Ozzie said, ” ‘Oh, God, that men should put an enemy in their mouths, to steal away their brains.’ “
Turning, I found him with a tray on which he offered two glasses of wine and a small plate of cubed cheese surrounded by thin white crackers.
Thanking him, I took one of the glasses and glanced outside.
Bob Robertson was not where he had been.
Risking a dangerous misunderstanding with Terrible Chester, I stepped closer to the window, looking north and south along the street.
“Well?” Ozzie asked impatiently.
Robertson had gone, and quickly, as if with an urgent purpose.
As spooked as I had been to see this strange man at the picket fence, I was still more disturbed to have lost sight of him. If he wanted to fol­low me, I would submit to being tailed because then I would know where he was and, knowing, would rest easier.
” ‘Oh, God, that men should put an enemy in their mouths, to steal away their brains,’” Ozzie repeated.
Turning from the window, I saw that he had put down the tray and stood now with his glass raised as if making a toast.
Struggling to recover my composure, I said, “Some days are so dif­ficult that if we didn’t let wine steal our wits, how would we sleep?”
“Lad, I’m not asking you to debate the statement, merely to iden­tify its source.”
Still rattled by Robertson, I said, “Sir?”
With some exasperation, Ozzie said, “Shakespeare! I stack the quiz to ensure you a passing grade, and still you fail. That was Cassio speaking in Act 2, Scene 3 of Othello.”
“I was… distracted.”
indicating the window, where Chester no longer appeared to be ag­itated and had once more settled into a furry pile on the deep sill, Ozzie said, “The destruction that barbarians leave behind has a grim fascination, doesn’t it? We’re reminded how thin is the veneer of civi­lization.”
“Sorry to disappoint you, sir, but my thoughts weren’t running that deep. I just… I thought I saw someone I knew passing by.”
Raising the wineglass in his five-fingered hand, Ozzie said, “To the damnation of all miscreants.”
“That’s pretty strong, sir - damnation.”
“Don’t spoil my fun, lad. Just drink.”
Drinking, I glanced at the window again. Then I returned to the armchair where I had been seated before the cat hissed so alarmingly.
Ozzie settled down, as well, but his chair made a noisier issue of it than mine did.
I looked around at the books, at the wonderful reproductions of Tiffany lamps, but the room didn’t exert its usual calming influence. I could almost hear my wristwatch ticking off the seconds toward mid­night and August 15.
“You’ve come here with a burden,” Ozzie said, “and since I don’t see a hostess gift, I assume the weight you carry is some trouble or other.”
I told him everything about Bob Robertson. Although I’d withheld the story of the black room from Chief Porter, I shared it with Ozzie because he has an imagination big enough to encompass anything.
In addition to his nonfiction books, he has written two highly suc­cessful series of mystery novels.
The first, as you might expect, is about a fat detective of incompa­rable brilliance who solves crimes while tossing off hilarious bon mots. He relies on his beautiful and highly athletic wife (who utterly adores him) to undertake all the investigative footwork and to per­form all the derring-do.
Those books, Ozzie says, are based on certain hormone-drenched adolescent fantasies that preoccupied him throughout his teenage years. And still linger.
The second series involves a female detective who remains a likable heroine in spite of numerous neuroses and bulimia. This character had been conceived over a five-hour dinner during which Ozzie and his editor made less use of their forks than they made of their wine­glasses.
Challenging Ozzie’s assertion that a fictional detective could have any personal problems or habits, however unpleasant, and still be a hit with the public as long as the author had the skill to make the charac­ter sympathetic, the editor had said, “No one could make a large audi­ence want to read about a detective who stuck a finger down her throat and threw up after every meal.”
The first novel featuring such a detective won an Edgar Award, the mystery genre’s equivalent of an Oscar. The tenth book in the series had been recently published to greater sales than any of the previous nine.
In solemn tones that fail to disguise his impish glee, Ozzie says that no novels in the history of literature have featured so much vomiting to the delight of so many readers.
Ozzie’s success doesn’t in the least surprise me. He likes people and he listens to them, and that love of humanity shines out of his pages.
When I finished telling him about Robertson, the black room, and the file cabinets packed with thick case histories of homicidal maniacs, he said, “Odd, I wish you would get a gun.”
“Guns scare me,” I reminded him.
“Your life scares me. I’m certain Wyatt Porter would issue you a per­mit to carry a concealed weapon.”
“Then I’d have to wear a sports jacket.”
“You could switch to Hawaiian shirts, carry the gun in a belt holster in the small of your back.”
I frowned. “Hawaiian shirts are just not me.”
“Oh, yes,” he said with undisguised sarcasm, “your T-shirts and jeans are such a unique fashion statement.”
“Sometimes I wear chinos.”
“The depth of your wardrobe dazzles the mind. Ralph Lauren weeps.”
I shrugged. “I am who I am.”
“If I purchase a suitable weapon for you and personally instruct you in its use - “
“Thank you, sir, for your concern, but for sure I’d shoot off both my feet, and the next thing I knew, you’d be writing a series about a footless private investigator.”
“It’s already been done.” He sipped his wine. “Everything’s already been done. Only once in a generation does anything as fresh as a vom­iting detective come along.”
“There’s still chronic diarrhea.”
He grimaced. “I’m afraid you haven’t the knack to be a popular mystery novelist. What have you been writing lately?”
“This and that.”
‘Assuming ‘this’ refers to grocery-shopping lists and ‘that’ refers to mash notes to Stormy Llewellyn, what else have you been writing?”
“Nothing,” I admitted.
When I was sixteen, P. Oswald Boone, then a mere 350 pounds, agreed to judge a writing contest at our high school, from which he himself had graduated some years earlier. My English teacher re­quired each of her students to submit an entry to the contest.
Because my Granny Sugars had only recently died and because I’d been missing her, I wrote a piece about her. Unfortunately, it won first prize, making of me a minor celebrity in high school, though I pre­ferred to keep a low profile.
For my memories of Granny, I received three hundred dollars and a
plaque. I spent the money on an inexpensive but quite listenable mu­sic system.
The plaque and the music system were later smashed to bits by an angry poltergeist.
The only long-term consequence of that writing contest had been my friendship with Little Ozzie, for which I was grateful, although for five years he had harassed me to write, write, write. He said that such a talent was a gift and that I had a moral obligation to use it.
“Two gifts are one too many,” I told him now. “If I had to deal with the dead and also write something worthwhile, I’d either go stark raving mad or shoot myself in the head with that gun you want to give me.”
Impatient with my excuses, he said, “Writing isn’t a source of pain. It’s psychic chemotherapy. It reduces your psychological tumors and relieves your pain.”
I didn’t doubt either that this was true for him or that he had enough pain to require a lifetime of psychic chemotherapy.
Although Big Ozzie was still alive, Little Ozzie saw his father only once or twice a year. On each occasion, he required two weeks to re­cover his emotional equilibrium and trademark good humor.
His mother was alive, too. Little Ozzie hadn’t spoken to her in twenty years.
Big Ozzie currently weighed, at a guess, only fifty pounds less than his son. Consequently, most people assumed that Little Ozzie had in­herited his obesity.
Little Ozzie, however, refused to portray himself as a victim of his genetics. He said that at the heart of him was a weakness of will that resulted in his immensity.
Over the years, he sometimes implied and I frequently inferred that his parents had broken a part of his heart that resulted in this mortal
weakness of will. He never spoke of his difficult childhood, however, and refused to describe what he had endured. He just wrote mystery novel after mystery novel__
He didn’t speak of his folks with bitterness. Instead, he spoke of them hardly at all and avoided them as best he could - and wrote book after book about art, music, food, and wine___
“Writing,” I told him now, “cant relieve my pain as much as it’s re­lieved by the sight of Stormy… or by the taste of coconut cherry chocolate chunk ice cream, for that matter.”
“I have no Stormy in my life,” he replied, “but I can understand the ice cream.” He finished his wine. “What are you going to do about this Bob Robertson?”
Ozzie pressed me: “You’ve got to do something if he knows that you were in his house this afternoon and already he’s following you around.”
“All I can do is be careful. And wait for Chief Porter to get something on him. Anyway, maybe he wasn’t actually following me. Maybe he heard about your exploding cow and stopped by to gawk at the ruins.”
“Odd, I would be indescribably disappointed if, having not yet em­ployed your writing gift to any useful purpose, you wound up dead tomorrow.”
“Just think how I’d feel.”
“I might wish that you’d grow wiser faster, get a gun and write a book, but I won’t wish anyone’s life away for him. ‘How swift are the feet of the days of the years of youth.’ “
Giving attribution to the quote, I said, “Mark Twain.”
“Excellent! Perhaps you aren’t a willfully ignorant young fool, af­ter all.”
“You used that quote once before,” I admitted. “That’s how I know it.”
“But at least you remembered! I believe this reveals in you a desire, even if unconscious, to give up the griddle and make yourself a man of literature.”
“I expect I’ll switch to tires first.”
He sighed. “You’re a tribulation sometimes.” He rang his empty wineglass with one fingernail. “I should’ve brought the bottle.”
“Sit still. I’ll get it,” I said, for I could fetch the Cabernet from the kitchen in the time that he would require merely to lever himself up from his armchair.
The ten-foot-wide hallway served as a gallery for fine art, and open­ing off both sides of it were rooms rich with still more art and books.
At the end of the hall lay the kitchen. On a black-granite counter stood the bottle, uncorked to let the wine breathe.
Although the front rooms had been comfortably air-conditioned, the kitchen proved to be surprisingly warm. Entering, I thought for an instant that all four ovens must be filled with baking treats.
Then I saw that the back door stood open. The desert evening, still broiling in the stubborn summer sun, had sucked the coolness from the kitchen.
When I stepped to the door to close it, I saw Bob Robertson in the backyard, as pale and fungoid as ever he had looked.
ROBERTSON STOOD FACING THE HOUSE, AS THOUGH waiting for me to see him. Then he turned and walked toward the back of the property.
For too long, I hesitated in the doorway, uncertain what I should do.
I assumed that one of his neighbors might have recognized me and might have told him that earlier I’d been snooping around during his absence. But the swiftness with which he’d tracked me down and had begun to tail me was disconcerting.
My paralysis broke with the realization that I had endangered Ozzie, had led this psychopath to his house. I left the kitchen, crossed the porch, descended the steps to a patio, stepped onto the lawn, and went after Robertson.
Ozzie’s house sits at the front of his one-acre lot, and most of the property is given over to lawn and to trees that screen him from his neighbors. In the back half of the acre, the trees grow thicker than at the front, and stand close enough to qualify as a small woods.
Into this copse of laurel, podocarpus, and California pepper, Robertson strode - and disappeared from view.
The westward-dawdling sun slanted between the trees where it could find narrow gaps, but for the most part the layered branches suc­cessfully resisted it. Cooler than the sun-baked lawn, these greenery-scented shadows were nevertheless warm, and they pressed against me in stifling folds.
No less than the cloying shadows, the trunks of the many trees of­fered concealment. My quarry made good use of them.
I tacked quickly but warily through the woods, north to south, then south to north, first in silence, then calling his name - “Mr. Robertson?” - but he didn’t answer.
The few intruding flares of sunlight inhibited rather than assisted the search. They illuminated little but were just numerous enough to prevent my eyes from adjusting well to the gloom.
Afraid of leaving the woods unsearched and therefore giving Robertson a chance to creep in behind me, I took too long to get to the gate in the back fence. I found it closed, but it was held by a grav­ity latch that would have engaged automatically when it fell shut be­hind him.
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