The gate opened into a picturesque brick-paved alleyway, flanked by back fences and garages, shaded here and there by queen palms and willowy pepper trees. Neither Bob Robertson nor anyone else was afoot as far as I could see in either direction.
Returning through the woodlet, I half expected him to lunge at me, not gone after all but waiting to catch me with my guard down. If Robertson was hiding in that grove, he must have recognized that I re­mained alert, for he didn’t risk an assault.
When I reached the back porch, I stopped, turned, and studied the pocket forest. Birds flew from those branches, not as if chased out by anything, but only as if taking a last flight before sunset.
In the kitchen again, I closed the door. I engaged the deadbolt lock. And the security chain.
I peered through the windowpanes in the upper half of the door. Peaceful, the woods. And still.
When I returned to the living room with the bottle of Cabernet, half the cheese had disappeared from the canape plate, and Little Ozzie was still ensconced in his commodious chair, where he himself had once said that he looked as cozy as the Toad King on his throne. “Dear Odd, I was beginning to think you’d stepped through a ward­robe into Narnia.”
I told him about Robertson.
“You mean,” Ozzie said, “that he was here, in my house?”
“Yes, I think so,” I said as I refilled his wineglass.
“Probably standing in the hall, just beyond that archway, listening to us talk.”
“That’s damn bold.”
Setting the bottle on a coaster beside his glass, striving hard to re­press the palsy of fear that would have trembled my hands, I said, “No more bold than I was when I slipped into his house to poke through his drawers.”
“I suppose not. But then you’re on the side of the gods, and this bastard sounds like a giant albino cockroach on a day pass from Hell.”
Terrible Chester had moved from the windowsill to my chair. He raised his head to challenge me for possession of the seat. His eyes are as green as those of a scheming demon.
“If I were you,” Ozzie advised, “I would sit elsewhere.” He indi­cated the bottle of wine. “Won’t you have a second glass?”
“Haven’t quite finished my first,” I said, “and I’ve really got to be go­ing. Stormy Llewellyn, dinner - all of that. But don’t get up.”
“Don’t tell me not to get up,” he grumped as he began the process of disengaging his bulk from armchair cushions that, like the hungry
jaws of an exotic flesh-eating plant, had closed with considerable suc­tion around his thighs and buttocks.
“Sir, it’s really not necessary.”
“Don’t tell me what’s necessary, you presumptuous pup. What’s necessary is whatever I wish to do, regardless of how unnecessary it might seem.”
Sometimes when he gets up after having been seated for a while, his complexion reddens with the effort, and at other times he goes sheet-white. I’m frightened to think that such a simple thing as rising from a chair should tax him so much.
Fortunately, his face neither flushed nor paled this time. Perhaps fortified by the wine and burdened by only half a plate of cheese, he was on his feet markedly faster than a desert tortoise extracting itself from a dry slough of treacherous sand.
“Now that you’re up,” I said, “I think you should lock the door be­hind me. And keep all the doors locked till this thing is resolved. Don’t answer the bell unless you can see who rang it.”
“I’m not afraid of him,” Ozzie declared. “My well-padded vital or­gans are hard to reach with either blade or bullet. And I know a few things about self-defense.”
“He’s dangerous, sir. He might have controlled himself so far, but when he cracks, he’ll be so vicious that he’ll make the evening news from Paris to Japan. I’m scared of him.”
Ozzie dismissed my concern with a wave of his six-fingered hand. “Unlike you, I’ve got a gun. More than one.”
“Start keeping them handy. I’m so sorry to have drawn him here.”
“Nonsense. He was just something stuck to your shoe that you didn’t know was there.”
Each time that I leave this house after a visit, Ozzie hugs me as a fa­ther hugs a beloved son, as neither of us was ever hugged by his father.
And every time, I am surprised that he seems so fragile in spite of his formidable bulk. It’s as if I can feel a shockingly thin Ozzie within the mantles of fat, an Ozzie who is being steadily crushed by the lay­ers that life has troweled upon him.
Standing at the open front door, he said, “Give Stormy a kiss for me.”
‘And bring her around to bear witness to my beautiful exploded cow and the villainy it represents.”
“She’ll be appalled. She’ll need wine. We’ll bring a bottle.”
“No need. I have a full cellar.”
I waited on the porch until he closed the door and until I heard the deadbolt being engaged.
As I negotiated the cow-strewn front walk and then rounded the Mustang to the driver’s door, I surveyed the quiet street. Neither Robertson nor his dusty Ford Explorer was to be seen.
In the car, when I switched on the engine, I suddenly expected to be blown up like the Holstein. I was too jumpy.
I followed a twisty route from Jack Flats to St. Bartholomew’s Catholic Church in the historical district, giving a tail plenty of oppor­tunities to reveal himself. All the traffic behind me seemed to be inno­cent of the intent to pursue. Yet I felt watched.
PICO MUNDO IS NOT A SKYSCRAPER TOWN. THE RECENT construction of a five-story apartment building made longtime resi­dents dizzy with an unwanted sense of metropolitan crowding and led to editorials in the Maravilla County Times that used phrases like “high-rise blight,” and worried about a future of “heartless canyons of bleak design, in which people are reduced to the status of drones in a hive, and into which the sun never fully reaches.”
The Mojave sun is not a timid little Boston sun or even a don’t-worry-be-happy Caribbean sun. The Mojave sun is a fierce, aggressive beast that isn’t going to be intimidated by the shadows of five-story apartment buildings.
Counting its tower and the spire that sits atop the tower, St. Bartholomew’s Church is by far the tallest structure in Pico Mundo. Sometimes at twilight, under the barrel-tile roofs, the white stucco walls glow like the panes in a storm lantern.
With half an hour remaining before sunset on this Tuesday in August, the western sky blazed orange, steadily deepening toward
red, as though the sun were wounded and bleeding in its retreat. The white walls of the church took color from the heavens, and appeared to be full of holy fire.
Stormy waited for me in front of St. Bart’s. She sat on the top step, beside a picnic hamper.
She had traded her pink-and-white Burke & Bailey’s uniform for sandals, white slacks, and a turquoise blouse. She had been cute then; she was ravishing now.
With her raven hair and jet-black eyes, she might have been the bride of a pharaoh, swept forward in time from ancient Egypt. In her eyes are mysteries to rival those of the Sphinx and those of all the pyr­amids that ever were or ever will be excavated from the sands of the Sahara.
As if reading my mind, she said, “You left your hormone spigot running. Crank it shut, griddle boy. This is a church.”
I snatched up the picnic hamper and, as she rose to her feet, I kissed her on the cheek.
“On the other hand, that was a little too chaste,” she said.
“Because that was a kiss from Little Ozzie.”
“He’s sweet. I heard they blew up his cow.”
“It’s a slaughterhouse, plastic Holstein splattered everywhere you look.”
“What’s next - hit squads shooting lawn gnomes to pieces?”
“The world is mad,” I agreed.
We entered St. Bart’s through the main door. The narthex is a softly lighted and welcoming space, paneled in cherry wood stained dark with ruby highlights.
Instead of proceeding into the nave, we turned immediately to the right and stepped up to a locked door. Stormy produced a key and let us into the bottom of the bell tower.
Father Sean Llewellyn, rector of St. Bart’s, is Stormy’s uncle. He knows she loves the tower, and he indulges her with a key.
When the door fell quietly shut behind us, the sweet fragrance of incense faded, and a faint musty smell arose.
The tower stairs were dark. Unerringly, I found her lips for a quick but sweeter kiss than the first, before she switched on the light.
“Somehow it’s too strange… getting tongue in church.”
“Technically, we’re not in the church,” I said.
‘And I suppose technically that wasn’t tongue.”
“I’m sure there’s a more correct medical term for it.”
“There’s a medical term for you,” she said.
“What’s that?” I wondered as, carrying the hamper, I followed her up the spiral staircase.
“What’s it mean?”
“You wouldn’t want a doctor to cure that, would you?”
“Don’t need a doctor. Folk medicine offers a reliable cure.”
“Yeah? Like what?”
“A swift, hard blow to the source of the problem.”
I winced and said, “You are no Florence Nightingale. I’m going to start wearing a cup.”
At the top of the spiral stairs, a door opened to the belfry
A carillon of three bronze bells, all large but of different sizes, hung from the ceiling in the center of this lofty space. A six-foot-wide cat­walk encircled them.
The bells had rung for vespers at seven and would not ring again until morning Mass.
Three sides of the belfry were open above a waist-high wall, pre­senting splendid views of Pico Mundo, the Maravilla Valley, and the hills beyond. We stationed ourselves at the west side, the better to en­joy the sunset.
From the hamper, Stormy produced a Tupperware container filled with shelled walnuts that she had deep-fried and seasoned lightly with both salt and sugar. She fed me one. Delicious - both the walnut and being fed by Stormy.
I opened a bottle of good Merlot and poured while she held the wineglasses.
This was why earlier I had not finished the glass of Cabernet: As much as I love Little Ozzie, I would rather drink with Stormy.
We don’t eat in this perch every evening, only two or three times a month, when Stormy needs to be high above the world. And closer to Heaven.
“To Ozzie,” Stormy said, raising her glass in a toast. “With the hope that one day there’ll be an end to all his losses.”
I didn’t ask what she meant by that because I thought perhaps I knew. By the affliction of his weight, there is much in life that Ozzie has been denied and may never experience.
Citrus-orange near the western horizon, blood-orange across the ascending vault, the sky darkened to purple directly overhead. In the east, the first stars of the night would soon begin to appear.
“The sky’s so clear,” Stormy said. “We’ll be able to see Cassiopeia tonight.”
She referred to a northern constellation named after a figure of classic mythology, but Cassiopeia was also the name of Stormy’s mother, who had died when Stormy was seven years old. Her father had perished in the same plane crash.
With no family but her uncle, the priest, she had been placed for adoption. When in three months the adoption failed for good reason,
she made it explicitly clear that she didn’t want new parents, only the return of those whom she had loved and lost.
Until the age of seventeen, when she graduated from high school, she was raised in an orphanage. Thereafter, until she was eighteen, she had lived under the legal guardianship of her uncle.
For the niece of a priest, Stormy has a strange relationship with God. There is anger in it - always a little, sometimes a lot.
“What about Fungus Man?” she asked.
“Terrible Chester doesn’t like him.”
“Terrible Chester doesn’t like anyone.”
“I think Chester’s even afraid of him.”
“Now that is news.”
“He’s a hand grenade with the pin already pulled.”
“No. Fungus Man. Real name’s Bob Robertson. The hair on his back was standing straight up like I’ve never seen it.”
“Bob Robertson has a lot of hair on his back?”
“No. Terrible Chester. Even when he scared off that huge German shepherd, he didn’t raise his hackles like he did today.”
“Loop me in, odd one. How did Bob Robertson and Terrible Chester happen to be in the same place?”
‘Since I broke into his house, I think maybe he’s been following me around.”
Even as I spoke the word following, my attention was drawn to movement in the graveyard.
Immediately west of St. Bart’s is a cemetery very much in the old style: not bronze plaques set in granite flush with the grass, as in most modern graveyards, but vertical headstones and monuments. An iron fence with spearpoint pickets surrounds those three acres. Although a few California live oaks, more than a century old, shade portions of the burial ground, most of the green aisles are open to the sun.
In the fiery glow of that Tuesday twilight, the grass appeared to have a bronze undertone, the shadows were as black as char, the pol­ished surfaces of the granite markers mirrored the scarlet sky - and Robertson stood as still as any headstone in the churchyard, not under the cover of a tree but out where he could be easily seen.
Having set her wineglass on the parapet, Stormy crouched at the hamper. “I’ve got some cheese that’s perfect with this wine.”
If Robertson had been standing with his head bowed, studying the engraving on a memorial, I would still have been disturbed to see him here. But this was worse. He had not come to pay his respects to the dead, not for any reason as innocent as that.
With his head tipped back, with his eyes fixed on me where I stood at the belfry parapet, the singular intensity of his interest all but crack­led from him like arcing electricity.
Past the oaks and beyond the iron fence, I could see parts of two streets that intersected at the northwest corner of the cemetery. As far as I could tell, no marked or unmarked police vehicle was parked along either avenue.
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