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I leaned hard against the sanctuary door to brace it. When I disen­gaged the lock, the bolt made a thin sound reminiscent of a razor sharpening against a strop.


Had Robertson been poised to burst in upon me, he ought to have reacted to the deadbolt retracting from the striker plate in the door frame. Of course he might be less of a hothead and more cunning than he had appeared to be when he’d stood in the graveyard, flipping us the finger.


Perhaps he suspected that I was wedging the door shut with my body and that I would snap the lock in place the instant that he tried to


shove into the sacristy. Insane as he might be, he would nonetheless have some intuition of his own.


The Bob Robertson who left his kitchen strewn with dirty dishes, banana peels, and crumbs was too sloppy to be a wise strategist. The Robertson who kept the neat study and maintained the meticulous files in those cabinets of dread was, however, a different man from the one whose living room had featured drifts of sleazy magazines and well-read paperback romances.


I couldn’t know which Bob Robertson might be, at this moment, beyond the door.


When I glanced at Stormy, she made a gesture that meant either “get on with it” or “up yours.”


Leaning against the door with undiminished purpose, I turned the knob all the way to the left. It squeaked. I would have been amazed if it hadn’t.


I shifted my weight and let the door ease open half an inch… an inch… and all the way.


If Robertson waited at either entrance to the sacristy, he was out­side in the churchyard. Standing in the ruddy reduction of the last red light, he must have looked like something that belonged under a gran­ite headstone.


Stormy stepped away from her station. Together we quickly re­turned to the sanctuary from which we had been so eager to flee only two minutes ago.


The moth danced across the light, and again Christ seemed to twist upon the cross.


The lingering incense smelled not sweet, as before, but had a new astringency and the votive flames throbbed with the urgency of arte­rial aneurysms about to burst.


Down the ambulatory, past the choir enclosure, through the gate in the communion railing, I half expected Robertson to spring at us from


unlikely cover. He had grown into such a menacing figure in my mind that I would not have been surprised if he had dropped upon us from the vaulted ceiling, suddenly having sprouted wings, a furious dark angel with death upon his breath.


We were in the main aisle when a great crash and shattering of glass shook away the churchly silence behind us. We spun, we looked, but saw no wreckage.


The sacristy had been windowless, and there’d been no glass in the door to the churchyard. Nevertheless, that chamber, which we’d just left, seemed to be the source of these sounds of destruction. They rose again, louder than before.


I heard what might have been the vesting bench slamming against the vestment closets, heard wine bottles smashing, heard the silver chalice and other sacred vessels ricocheting off walls and cabinets with a reverberant metallic clatter.


In our haste to escape, we had left the light on in that room. Now, through the open door, secondhand movement was visible: a farrago of leaping shadows and flares of shimmery light.


I didn’t know what was happening, and I didn’t intend to return to the sacristy for a look. Holding Stormy’s hand again, I ran with her along the center aisle, the length of the nave, and through a door into the narthex.


Out of the church, down the steps, we fled into a twilight that had nearly bled to death, had little red left to give, and had begun to pull purple shrouds over the streets of Pico Mundo.


For a moment I couldn’t fit the trembling key in the Mustang’s igni­tion. Stormy urged me to hurry, as if hurrying weren’t already my in­tention, and finally the key mated as it should, and the engine roared to life.


Leaving a significant offering of rubber in front of St. Bart’s, we


traveled a block and a half on smoking tires, so fast that we almost seemed to have teleported, before I had the breath to say, “Call the chief.”


She had a cell phone of her own, and she entered Wyatt Porter’s home number as I gave it to her. She waited as it rang, said, “Chief, it’s Stormy,” listened, and said, “Yeah, it does sound like a weather report, doesn’t it. Odd needs to speak to you.”


I took the phone and blurted, “Sir, if you send a car to St. Bart’s real quick, you might catch that Robertson guy trashing the sacristy, maybe more than the sacristy, maybe the whole church.”


He put me on hold and made a call on another line.


Three blocks from St. Bartholomew’s, I pulled the Mustang off the street, into a Mexican fast-food franchise.


“Dinner?” I asked Stormy.


‘After all that in the church?”


I shrugged. “The entire rest of our lives will be after all that in the church. Personally, I intend to eat again, and the sooner the better.”


“It’s not going to be the equal of my tower feast.”


“What could be?”


“I am starved.”


Holding the phone to my ear and driving with one hand as if that were still legal, I swung the Mustang into the line of vehicles waiting to get to the drive-up service window.


When Chief Porter came back, he said, “Why is he vandalizing St. Bart’s?”


“Don’t have a clue, sir. He tried to trap me and Stormy in the church belfry - “


“What were you doing in the belfry?”


“Having a picnic, sir.”


“I suppose that makes sense to you.”


“Yes, sir. It’s nice. We have dinner up there a couple times a month.”


“Son, I don’t ever want to catch you having dinner on the court­house flagpole.”


“Maybe just hors d’oeuvres, sir, but never dinner.”


“If you want to come by here, we can still feed you two from the barbecue. Bring Elvis.”


“I left him at the Baptist church, sir. I’m with Stormy - in line to have some tacos, but thanks just the same.”


“Tell me about Robertson. I have a man watching his house in Camp’s End, but he hasn’t gone home yet.”


I said, “He was down in the graveyard, saw us up in the belfry. He gave us the rude number one with lots of emphasis and then came af­ter us.”


“You think he knows you were in his house?” the chief asked.


“If he hasn’t been home since I was there, I don’t see how he could know, but he must. Excuse me a second, sir.”


We had reached the menu board.


“Swordfish tacos with extra salsa, fried corn fritters, and a large Coke, please,” I told the sombrero-wearing donkey that holds the or­der microphone in its mouth. I looked at Stormy. She nodded. “Make that two of everything.”


‘Are you at Mexicali Rose?” the chief asked.


“Yes, sir.”


“They have fantastic churros. You should try some.”


I took his advice and placed a double order with the donkey, which, as before, thanked me in the voice of a teenage girl.


As the line of cars crept forward, I said, “When we gave Robertson the slip in the church, he must’ve been angry. But why he decided to take it out on the building, I don’t know.”


“Two cars are on the way to St. Bart’s, no sirens. They might even


be there now. But vandalism - that doesn’t measure up to the horrors you said he’s going to commit.”


“No, sir. Not close. And there’s less than three hours till August fif­teenth.”


“If we can park his butt in jail overnight for vandalism, we’ll have an excuse to poke around in his life. Maybe that’ll give us a chance to figure out the bigger thing he’s up to.”


After wishing the chief luck, I pressed END and returned the phone to Stormy.


I checked my watch. Midnight - and August 15 - seemed like a tsunami, building height and power, racing toward us with silent but deadly force


TWENTY-ONE


WAITING TO HEAR FROM THE CHIEF THAT THEY HAD NAILED Robertson in the act of vandalism, Stormy and I ate dinner in the Mexicali Rose parking lot, with the windows of the Mustang rolled down, hoping to catch a breeze. The food was tasty, but the hot night air smelled of exhaust fumes.


“So you broke into Fungus Man’s house,” Stormy said.


“Didn’t smash any glass. Just used my driver’s license.”


“Does he keep severed heads in his refrigerator?”


“I didn’t open his refrigerator.”


“Where else would you expect to find severed heads?”


“I wasn’t looking for any.”


She said, “That creepy smile of his, those weird gray eyes… First thing I’d look for is a collection of knickknacks with ears. These tacos are fabulous.”


I agreed. ‘And I like all the colors in the salsa. Yellow and green chiles, the red of the chopped tomatoes, the little purple flecks of onion… sort of looks like confetti. You should do it this way when you make salsa.”


“What - you were bitten by Martha Stewart, now you’re a walking-dead lifestyle guru? So tell me what you found if you didn’t find heads?”


I told her about the black room.


Licking corn fritter crumbs off her elegant fingers, she said, “Listen to me, odd one.”


“I’m all ears.”


“They’re big, but they’re not all of you. Open them wide now and hear this: Don’t go in that black room again.”


“It doesn’t exist anymore.”


“Don’t even go looking for it, hoping it’ll come back.”


“That never even crossed my mind.”


“Yes, it did,” she said.


“Yes, it did,” I admitted. “I mean, I’d like to understand it - what it is, how it works.”


To emphasize her objection, she poked a corn fritter in my direc­tion. “It’s the gate to Hell, and you’re not meant for that neighbor­hood.”


“I don’t think it’s the gate to Hell.”


“Then what is it?”


“I don’t know.”


“It’s the gate to Hell. If you go looking for it, and you find it, and you wind up in Hell, I’m not going to go down there looking for you and pull your ass out of the fire.”


“Your warning is duly noted.”


“It’s hard enough being married to a guy who sees dead people and goes chasing after them every day, and just too hard if he goes on some quest to find the gate to Hell.”


“I don’t go chasing after them,” I said, “and since when are we married?”


“We will be,” she said, and finished her final fritter.


On more than one occasion, I have asked her to marry me. Though we both agree that we are soul mates and that we will be together for­ever, she has always shied from my proposals with something like, I love you madly, desperately, Oddie, so madly that I would cut off my right hand for you, if that made any sense as a proof of love. But as for this mar­riage thing - let’s put a pin in it.


Understandably, dribbles of swordfish taco fell out of my mouth when I heard that we were going to be taking vows. I plucked those morsels off my T-shirt and ate them, buying time to think furiously, before I said, “So,.. you mean you’re accepting my proposal?”


“Silly, I accepted it ages ago.” Off my look of bewilderment, she said, “Oh, not with a conventional ‘Yes, darling, I’m yours,’ but I ac­cepted in so many words.”


“I didn’t interpret ‘put a pin in it’ as meaning yes.”


Brushing swordfish crumbs off my shirt, she said, “You have to learn to listen with more than your ears.”


“What orifice do you suggest I listen with?”


“Don’t be crude. It doesn’t become you. I mean, sometimes you have to listen with your heart.”


“I’ve listened with my heart for so long I’veperiodically had to swab earwax out of my aortal valve.”


“Churros?” she asked, opening a white pastry bag and at once fill­ing the car with a delicious, cinnamony, doughnutlike aroma.


I said, “How can you think about dessert at a time like this?”


“You mean at dinner time?”


“I mean at talking-about-getting-married time.” My heart raced as if I were chasing someone or being chased, but with luck that part of the day was over. “Listen, Stormy, if you really mean it, then I will do some­thing big to improve my financial situation. I’ll give up the short-order job at the Grille, and I don’t just mean for tires. Something bigger.”


Her look of amused speculation was so heavy that the weight of it


tilted her head. Cocking one eye at me, she said, ‘And from your per­spective, what could be bigger than tires?”


I gave it some thought. “Shoes.”


“What kind of shoes?”


‘All kinds. Retail shoe sales.”


She looked dubious. “That’s bigger than tires?”


“Sure. How often do you buy tires? Not even once a year. And you need only one set of tires per vehicle. But people need more than one pair of shoes. They need all types. Brown dress shoes, black dress shoes, running shoes, sandals - “


“Not you. All you have is three pairs of the same sneakers.”


“Yes, but I’m not like other people.”


“Not in the least,” she agreed.


‘Another thing to consider,” I said, “is that not every man, woman, and child has a car, but everyone has feet. Or nearly everyone. A fam­ily of five might have two cars, but they have ten feet.”


“There are so many reasons to love you, Oddie, but this is maybe my favorite thing about you.”


Stormy no longer tilted her head or cocked one eye. She stared at me directly. Her eyes were galactic: as deep as the darkness between any two stars in the sky. Her expression had softened with affection. She seemed sincere and genuinely touched by something that I said, and this perception was supported by the fact that she had still not taken a churro out of the bag.


Unfortunately, I must have been listening with only my ears, be­cause I didn’t know what she meant. “Your favorite thing about me? You mean… my analysis of shoe retailing?”


“You’re as smart as anyone I’ve ever known… and yet so simple. It’s a lovely combination. Brains and innocence. Wisdom and naivete. Sharp wit and genuine sweetness.”

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