Perhaps they thought they could bring to this valley only those things they loved, leaving behind all ugliness.
We are not, however, a species that can choose the baggage with
which it must travel. In spite of our best intentions, we always find that we have brought along a suitcase or two of darkness, and misery.
For half a minute, the only movement was that of a hawk gliding high above, glimpsed between laurel branches.
The hawk and I were hunters this morning.
Penny Kallisto must have sensed my fear. She took my right hand in her left.
I was grateful for this kindness. Her grip proved firm, and her hand did not feel cold. I drew courage from her strong spirit.
Because the car was idling in gear, rolling at just a few miles per hour, I didn’t hear anything until it turned the corner. When I recognized the vehicle, I knew a sadness equal to my fear.
This 1968 Pontiac Firebird 400 had been restored with loving care. The two-door, midnight-blue convertible appeared to glide toward us with all tires a fraction of an inch off the pavement, shimmering like a mirage in the morning heat.
Harlo Landerson and I had been in the same high-school class. During his junior and senior years, Harlo rebuilt this car from the axles up, until it looked as cherry as it hadin the autumn of ‘67,when it had first stood on a showroom floor.
Self-effacing, somewhat shy, Harlo had not labored on the car with the hope either that it would be a babe magnet or that those who had thought of him as tepid would suddenly think he was cool enough to freeze the mercury in a thermometer. He’d had no social ambitions. He hadsuffered no illusions about his chances of ever rising above the lower ranks of the high-school caste system.
With a 335-horsepower V-8 engine, the Firebird could sprint from zero to sixty miles per hour in under eight seconds. Yet Harlo wasn’t a street racer; he took no special pride in having wheels of fury.
He devoted much time, labor, and money to the Firebird because
the beauty of its design and function enchanted him. This was a labor of the heart, a passion almost spiritual in its purity and intensity.
I sometimes thought the Pontiac figured so large in Harlo’s life because he had no one to whom he could give the love that he lavished on the car. His mom died when he was six. His dad was a mean drunk.
A car can’t return the love you give it. But if you’re lonely enough, maybe the sparkle of the chrome, the luster of the paint, and the purr of the engine can be mistaken for affection.
Harlo and I hadn’t been buddies, just friendly. I liked the guy. He was quiet, but quiet was better than the boast and bluster with which many kids jockeyed for social position in high school.
With Penny Kallisto still at my side, I raised my left hand and waved at Harlo.
Since high school, he’d worked hard. Nine to five, he unloaded trucks at Super Food and moved stock from storeroom to shelves.
Before that, beginning at 4:00 A.M., he dropped hundreds of news­papers at homes on the east side of Pico Mundo. Once each week, he also delivered to everyhouse a plastic bag full of advertising flyers and discount-coupon books.
This morning, he distributed only newspapers, tossing them with a snap of the wrist, as though they were boomerangs. Each folded and bagged copy of the Tuesday edition of the Maravilla County Times spun through the air and landed with a soft thwop on a driveway or a front walk, precisely where the subscriber preferred to have it.
Harlo was working the far side of the street. When he reached the house opposite me, he braked the coasting Pontiac to a stop.
Penny and I crossed to the car, and Harlo said, “Good mornin’, Odd. How’re you this fine day?”
“Bleak,” I replied. “Sad. Confused.”
He frowned with concern. “What’s wrong? Anything I can do?”
“Something you’ve already done,” I said.
Letting go of Penny’s hand, I leaned into the Firebird from the pas­senger’s side, switched off the engine, and plucked the key from the ignition.
Startled, Harlo grabbed for the keys but missed. “Hey, Odd, no foolin’ around, okay? I have a tight schedule.”
I never heard Penny’s voice, but in the rich yet silent language of the soul, she must have spoken to me.
What I said to Harlo Landerson was the essence of what the girl revealed: “You have her blood in your pocket.”
An innocent man would have been baffled by my statement. Harlo stared at me, his eyes suddenly owlish not with wisdom but with fear.
“On that night,” I said, “you took with you three small squares of white felt.”
One hand still on the wheel, Harlo looked away from me, through the windshield, as if willing the Pontiac to move.
‘After using the girl, you collected some of her virgin blood with the squares of felt,”
Harlo shivered. His face flushed red, perhaps with shame.
Anguish thickened my voice. “They dried stiff and dark, brittle like crackers.”
His shivers swelled into violent tremors.
“You carry one of them with you at all times.” My voice shook with emotion. “You like to smell it. Oh, God, Harlo. Sometimes you put it between your teeth. And bite on it.”
He threw open the driver’s door and fled.
I’m not the law. I’m not vigilante justice. I’m not vengeance per­sonified. I don’t really know what I am, or why.
In moments like these, however, I can’t restrain myself from action. A kind of madness comes over me, and I can no more turn away from
what must be done than I can wish this fallen world back into a state of grace.
As Harlo burst from the Pontiac, I looked down at Penny Kallisto and saw the ligature marks on her throat, which had not been visible when she had first appeared to me. The depth to which the garroting cloth had scored her flesh revealed the singular fury with which he had strangled her to death.
Pity tore at me, and I went after Harlo Landerson, for whom I had no pity whatsoever.
BLACKTOP TO CONCRETE, CONCRETE TO GRASS, ALONG-side the house that lay across the street from Mrs. Sanchez’s place, through the rear yard, to a wrought-iron fence and over, then across a narrow alleyway, up a slumpstone wall, Harlo Landerson ran and clambered and flung himself.
I wondered where he might be going. He couldn’t outrun either me or justice, and he certainly couldn’t outrun who he was.
Beyond the slumpstone wall lay a backyard, a swimming pool. Dappled with morning light and tree shadows, the water glimmered in shades of blue from sapphire to turquoise, as might a trove of jew­els left by long-dead pirates who had sailed a sea since vanished.
On the farther side of the pool, behind a sliding glass door, a young woman stood in pajamas, holding a mug of whatever brew gave her the courage to face the day
When he spotted this startled observer, Harlo changed directions toward her. Maybe he thought he needed a shield, a hostage. Whatever, he wasn’t looking for coffee.
I closed on him, snared his shirt, hooked him off his feet. The two of us plunged into the deep end of the pool.
Having banked a summer’s worth of desert heat, the water wasn’t cold. Thousands of bubbles like shimmering showers of silver coins flipped across my eyes, rang against my ears.
Thrashing, we touched bottom, and on the way up, he kicked, he flailed. With elbow or knee, or foot, he struck my throat.
Although the impeding water robbed the blow of most of its force, I gasped, swallowed, choked on the taste of chlorine flavored with tanning oil. Losing my grip on Harlo, I tumbled in slow-mo through undulant curtains of green light, blue shadow, and broke the surface into spangles of sunshine.
I was in the middle of the pool, and Harlo was at the edge. He grabbed the coping and jacked himself onto the concrete deck.
Coughing, venting atomized water from both nostrils, I splashed noisily after him. As a swimmer, I have less potential for Olympic com­petition than for drowning.
On a particularly dispiriting night when I was sixteen, I found myself chained to a pair of dead men and dumped off a boat in Malo Suerte Lake. Ever since then, I’ve had an aversion to aquatic sports.
That man-made lake lies beyond the city limits of Pico Mundo. Malo Suerte means “bad luck.”
Constructed during the Great Depression as a project of the Works Progress Administration, the lake originally had been named after an obscure politician. Although they have a thousand stories about its treacherous waters, nobody around these parts can quite pin down when or why the place was officially renamed Malo Suerte.
All records relating to the lake burned in the courthouse fire of 1954, when a man named Mel Gibson protested the seizure of his
property for nonpayment of taxes. Mr. Gibson’s protest took the form of self-immolation.
He wasn’t related to the Australian actor with the same name who would decades later become a movie star. Indeed, by all reports, he was neither talented nor physically attractive.
Now, because I hadn’t been burdened on this occasion by a pair of men too dead to swim for themselves, I reached the edge of the pool in a few swift strokes. I levered myself out of the water.
Having arrived at the sliding door, Harlo Landerson found it locked.
The pajamaed woman had disappeared.
As I scrambled to my feet and started to move, Harlo backed away from the door far enough to get momentum. Then he ran at it, lead­ing with his left shoulder, his head tucked down.
I winced in expectation of gouting blood, severed limbs, a head guillotined by a blade of glass.
Of course the safety pane shattered into cascades of tiny, gummy pieces. Harlo crashed into the house with all his limbs intact and his head still attached to his neck.
Glass crunched and clinked under my shoes when I entered in his wake. I smelled something burning.
We were in a family room. All the furniture was oriented toward a big-screen TV as large as a pair of refrigerators.
The gigantic head of the female host of the Today show was terri­fying in such magnified detail. In these dimensions, her perky smile had the warmth of a barracuda’s grin. Her twinkly eyes, here the size of lemons, seemed to glitter maniacally.
In this open floor plan, the family room flowed into the kitchen with only a breakfast bar intervening.
The woman had chosen to make a stand in the kitchen. She gripped a telephone in one hand and a butcher knife in the other.
Harlo stood at the threshold between rooms, trying to decide if a twentysomething housewife in too-cute, sailor-suit pajamas would really have the nerve to gut him alive.
She brandished the knife as she shouted into the phone. “He’s in­side, he’s right here!”
Past her, on a far counter, smoke poured from a toaster. Some kind of pop-up pastry had failed to pop. It smelled like strawberries and smoldering rubber. The lady was having a bad morning.
Harlo threw a bar stool at me and ran out of the family room, toward the front of the house.
Ducking the stool, I said, “Ma’am, I’m sorry about the mess,” and I went looking for Penny’s killer.
Behind me, the woman screamed, “Stevie, lock your door! Stevie, lock your door!”
By the time I reached the foot of the open stairs in the foyer, Harlo had climbed to the landing.
I saw why he had been drawn upward instead of fleeing the house: At the second floor stood a wide-eyed little boy, about five years old, wearing only undershorts. Holding a blue teddy bear by one of its feet, the kid looked as vulnerable as a puppy stranded in the middle of a busy freeway
Prime hostage material.
“Stevie, lock your door!”
Dropping the blue bear, the kid bolted for his room.
Harlo charged up the second flight of stairs.
Sneezing out the tickle of chlorine and the tang of burning straw­berry jam, dripping, squishing, I ascended with somewhat less heroic flair than John Wayne in Sands of Iwo jima.
I was more scared than my quarry because I had something to lose, not least of all Stormy Llewellyn and our future together that the fortune-telling machine had seemed to promise. If I encountered a
husband with a handgun, he’d shoot me as unhesitatingly as he would Harlo.
Overhead, a door slammed hard. Stevie had done as his mother in­structed.
If he’d had a pot of boiling lead, in the tradition of Quasimodo, Harlo Landerson would have poured it on me. Instead came a side­board that evidently had stood in the second-floor hall, opposite the head of the stairs.
Surprised to discover that I had the agility and the balance of a monkey, albeit a wet monkey, I scrambled off the stairs, onto the rail­ing. The deadfall rocked past step by step, drawers gaping open and snapping shut repeatedly, as if the furniture were possessed by the spirit of a crocodile.
Off the railing, up the stairs, I reached the second-floor hall as Harlo began to break down the kid’s bedroom door.
Aware that I was coming, he kicked harder. Wood splintered with a dry crack, and the door flew inward.
Harlo flew with it, as if he’d been sucked out of the hall by an en­ergy vortex.
Rushing across the threshold, pushing aside the rebounding door, I saw the boy trying to wriggle under the bed. Harlo had seized him by the left foot.
I snatched a smiling panda-bear lamp off the red nightstand and smashed it over Harlo’s head. A ceramic carnage of perky black ears, fractured white face, black paws, and chunks of white belly exploded across the room.
In a world where biological systems and the laws of physics func­tioned with the absolute dependability that scientists claim for them, Harlo would have dropped stone-cold unconscious as surely as the lamp shattered. Unfortunately this isn’t such a world.
As love empowers some frantic mothers to find the superhuman
strength to lift overturned cars to free their trapped children, so de­pravity gave Harlo the will to endure a panda pounding without sig­nificant effect. He let go of Stevie and rounded on me.
Although his eyes lacked elliptical pupils, they reminded me of the eyes of a snake, keen with venomous intent, and though his bared teeth included no hooked or dramatically elongated canines, the rage of a rabid jackal gleamed in his silent snarl.
This wasn’t the person whom I had known in high school so few years ago, not the shy kid who found magic and meaning in the pa­tient restoration of a Pontiac Firebird.
Here was a diseased and twisted bramble of a soul, thorny and can­kerous, which perhaps until recently had been imprisoned in a deep turning of Harlo’s mental labyrinth. It had broken down the bars of its cell and climbed up through the castle keep, deposing the man who had been Harlo; and now it ruled.
Released, Stevie squirmed all the way under his bed, but no bed of­fered shelter to me, and I had no blankets to pull over my head.
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