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Sometimes complex and difficult moral choices are decided less by reason and by right than by sentiment. Perhaps such decisions are the paving stones on the road to Hell; if so, my route is well paved, and the welcoming committee already knows my name.


In my defense, I can only say that I sensed, even then, that saving Viola meant saving her daughters, too. Three lives, not one.


“Is there any hope…” Viola touched her face with the trembling fingers of one hand, tracing the bones of jaw and cheek and brow, as if discovering not her skull but instead Death’s countenance in the process of replacing her own. “… any hope this can pass from me?”


“Fate isn’t one straight road,” I said, becoming the oracle that ear­lier in the day I had declined to be for her. “There are forks in it, many different routes to different ends. We have the free will to choose the path.”


“Do whatever Oddie says,” Stormy advised, “and you’ll be all right.”


“It’s not that easy,” I said quickly. “You can change the road you take, but sometimes it can bend back to lead you straight to that same stubborn fate.”


Viola regarded me with too much respect, perhaps even awe. “I was just sure you knew about such things, Odd, about all that’s Otherly and Beyond.”


Uneasy with her admiration, I went to the other open window. Terri’s Mustang stood under a streetlamp in front of the house. All quiet. Nothing to be alarmed about. Nothing and everything.


We had taken steps to be sure we weren’t being followed from the bowling center. I remained concerned, anyway, because Robertson’s appearance at Little Ozzie’s house and again in the churchyard had surprised me, and I could not afford to be surprised a third time.


“Viola,” I said, turning to her once more, “changing all your plans for tomorrow isn’t enough. You’ll also need to remain vigilant, alert to anything that seems… wrong.”


“I’m already as jumpy as a cricket.”


“That’s no good. Jumpy isn’t the same as vigilant.”


She nodded. “You’re right.”


“You need to be as calm as possible.”


“I’ll try. I’ll do my best.”


“Calm and observant, prepared to react fast to any threat but calm enough to see it coming.”


Poised on the edge of the chair, she still appeared to be as ready to leap as any cricket.


“In the morning,” Stormy said, “we’ll bring you a photo of a man you ought to be on the lookout for.” She glanced at me. “Can you get her a good picture of him, Oddie?”


I nodded. The chief would provide me with a computer-printed blow-up of the photo of Robertson that the DMV had released to him.


“What man?” Viola asked.


As vividly as possible, I described Fungus Man, who had been at the Grille during the first shift, before Viola had arrived for work. “If you see him, get away from him. You’ll know the worst is coming. But I don’t think anything will happen tonight. Not here. From all indica­tions, he’s intending to make headlines in a public place, lots of people__”


“Tomorrow, don’t go to the movies,” Stormy said.


“I won’t,” Viola assured her.


“And not out to dinner, either.”


Although I didn’t understand what could be gained from having a look at Nicolina and Levanna, I suddenly knew that I should not leave the house without checking on them. “Viola, may I see the girls?”


“Now? They’re sleeping.”


“I won’t wake them. But it’s… important.”


She rose from the chair and led us to the room that the sisters shared: two lamps, two nightstands, two beds, and two angelic little girls sleeping in their skivvies, under sheets but without blankets.


One lamp had been set at the lowest intensity on its three-way switch. The apricot-colored shade cast a soft, inviting light.


Two windows were open to the hot night. As insubstantial as a spirit, a translucent white moth beat its wings insistently against one of the screens, with the desperation of a lost soul fluttering against the gates of Heaven.


Mounted on the inside of the windows, with an emergency-release handle that couldn’t be reached from outside, were steel bars that would prevent a man like Harlo Landerson from getting at the girls.


Screens and bars could foil moths and maniacs, but neither could keep out bodachs. Five of them were in the room.


TWENTY-SIX


TWO SINISTER SHAPES STOOD AT EACH BED, VISITORS from one hell or another, travelers out of the black room.


They hunched over the girls and appeared to be studying them with keen interest. Their hands, if they had hands, floated a few inches above the sheets, and seemed slowly to trace the shrouded contours of the children’s bodies.


I couldn’t know for sure what they were doing, but I imagined that they were drawn to the very life energy of Nicolina and Levanna - and were somehow basking in it.


These creatures seemed to be unaware that we had entered the room. They were enthralled if not half hypnotized by some radiance that the girls emitted, a radiance invisible to me but evidently dazzling to them.


The fifth beast crawled the bedroom floor, its movements as fluid and serpentine as those of any reptile. Under Levanna’s bed it slith­ered, seemed to coil there, but a moment later emerged with a sala­mandrian wriggle, only to glide under Nicolina’s bed and whip itself silently back and forth, like a thrashing snake in slow-mo.


Unable to repress a shudder, I sensed that this fifth intruder must be savoring some exquisite spoor, some ethereal residue left by the pas­sage of the little girls’ feet. And I imagined - or hope I did - that I saw this squirming bodach repeatedly lick the carpet with a cold thin tongue.


When I would not venture far past the doorway, Viola whispered, “It’s all right. They’re deep sleepers, both of them.”


“They’re beautiful,” Stormy said.


Viola brightened with pride. “They’re such good girls.” Seeing in my face a faint reflection of the abhorrence that gripped my mind, she said, “What’s wrong?”


Glancing at me as I summoned an unconvincing smile, Stormy at once suspected the truth. She squinted into the shadowy corners of the room - left, right, and toward the ceiling - hoping to catch at least a fleeting glimpse of whatever supernatural presence revealed itself to me.


At the beds, the four hunched bodachs might have been priests of a diabolic religion, Aztecs at the altar of human sacrifice, as their hands moved sinuously and ceaselessly in ritualistic pantomime over the sleeping girls.


When I failed to answer Viola’s question at once, she thought that I’d seen something wrong with her daughters, and she took a step toward the bed.


Gently I gripped her arm and held her back. “I’m sorry, Viola. Nothing’s wrong. I just wanted to be sure the girls were safe. And with those bars on the windows, they are.”


“They know how to work the emergency release,” she said.


One of the entities at Nicolina’s bedside appeared to rise out of its swoon and recognize our presence. Its hands slowed but did not en­tirely stop their eerie movements, and it raised its wolfish head to peer in our direction with disturbing, eyeless intensity.


I was loath to leave the girls alone with those five phantoms, but I could do nothing to banish them.


Besides, from everything that I have seen of bodachs, they can experience this world with some if not all of the usual five senses, but they don’t seem to have any effect on things here. I have never heard them make a sound, have never seen them move an object or, by their passage, disturb so much as the dust motes floating in the air.


They are of less substance than an ectoplasmic wraith drifting above the table at a seance. They are dream creatures on the wrong side of sleep.


The girls would not be harmed. Not here. Not yet.


Or so I hoped.


I suspected that these spirit travelers, having come to Pico Mundo for ringside seats at a festival of blood, were entertaining themselves on the eve of the main event. Perhaps they took pleasure in studying the victims before the shots were fired; they might be amused and ex­cited to watch innocent people progress all unknowing toward immi­nent death.


Pretending to be unaware of the nightmarish intruders, putting one finger to my lips as if suggesting to Viola and Stormy that we be careful not to wake the girls, I drew both women with me, out of the room. I pushed the door two-thirds shut, just as it had been when we’d arrived, leaving the bodachs to slither on the floor, to sniff and thrash, to weave their patterns of sinuous gesticulations with mysteri­ous purpose.


I worried that one or more of them would follow us to the liv­ing room, but we reached the front door without a supernatural escort.


Speaking almost as quietly as in the girls’ bedroom, I said to Viola, “One thing I better clarify. When I tell you not to go to the movies


tomorrow, I mean the girls shouldn’t go, either. Don’t send them out with a relative. Not to the movies, not anywhere.”


Viola’s smooth satin brow became brown corduroy. “But my sweet babies… they weren’t shot in the dream.”


“No prophetic dream reveals everything that’s coming. Just frag­ments.”


Instead of merely sharpening her anxiety, the implications of my statement hardened her features with anger. Good. She needed fear and anger to stay sharp, to make wise decisions in the day ahead.


To stiffen her resolve, I said, “Even if you had seen your girls shot… God forbid, dead… you might’ve blocked it from your memory when you woke.”


Stormy rested her hand on Viola’s shoulder. “You wouldn’t have wanted those images in your mind.”


Tense with determination, Viola said, “We’ll stay home, have a little party, just ourselves.”


“I’m not sure that’s wise, either,” I said.


“Why not? I don’t know what place that was in my dream, but I’m sure it wasn’t this house.”


“Remember… different roads can take you to the same stubborn fate.”


I didn’t want to tell her about the bodachs in her daughters’ room, for then I would have to reveal all my secrets. Only Terri, the chief, Mrs. Porter, and Little Ozzie know most of the truth about me, and only Stormy knows all of it.


If too many people are brought into my innermost circle, my secret will leak out. I’ll become a media sensation, a freak to many people, a guru to some. Simplicity and quiet hours will be forever be­yond my reach. My life will be too complicated to be worth living.


I said to Viola, “In your dream, this house wasn’t where you were gunned down. But if you were destined to be shot at the movies, and


now you aren’t going to the theater… then maybe Fate comes here to find you. Not likely. But not impossible.”


“And in your dream, tomorrow is the day?”


“That’s right. So I’d feel better if you were two steps removed from the future you saw in your nightmare.”


I glanced toward the back of the house. Still no bodachs had ven­tured after us. I think they have no effect on this world.


Nevertheless, taking no chances with the girls’ lives, I lowered my voice further. “Step one - don’t go to the movies or the Grille tomor­row. Step two - don’t stay here, either.”


Stormy asked, “How far away does your sister live?”


“Two blocks. Over on Maricopa Lane.”


I said, “I’ll come by in the morning, between nine and ten o’clock, with the photo I promised. I’ll take you and the girls to your sister’s.”


“You don’t have to do that, Odd. We can get there ourselves.”


“No. I want to take you. It’s necessary.”


I needed to be certain that no bodachs followed Viola and her daughters.


Lowering my voice to a whisper, I said, “Don’t tell Levanna and Nicolina what you’re going to do. And don’t call your sister to say you’re coming. You could be overheard.”


Viola surveyed the living room, worried but also astonished. “Who could hear?”


By necessity, I was mysterious: “Certain… forces.” If the bodachs overheard her planning to move the kids to her sister’s house, Viola might not have taken two safe steps away from her dreamed-of fate, after all, but only one. “Do you really believe, like you said, that I know about all that’s Otherly and Beyond?”


She nodded. “Yes. I believe that.”


Her eyes were so wide with wonder that they scared me, for they reminded me of the staring eyes of corpses.


“Then trust me on this, Viola. Get some sleep if you can. I’ll come around in the morning. By tomorrow night, this’ll have been all just a nightmare, nothing prophetic about it.”


I didn’t feel as confident as I sounded, but I smiled and kissed her on the cheek.


She hugged me and then hugged Stormy. “I don’t feel so alone any­more.”


Lacking an oscillating fan, the night outside was hotter than the warm air in the little house.


The moon had slowly ascended toward the higher stars, shedding its yellow veils to reveal its true silver face. A face as hard as a clock, and merciless.


TWENTY-SEVEN


LITTLE MORE THAN AN HOUR BEFORE MIDNIGHT, WOR­ried about a new day that might bring children in the line of gunfire, I parked the Mustang behind the Pico Mundo Grille.


When I doused the headlights and switched off the engine, Stormy said, “Will you ever leave this town?”


“I sure hope I’m not one of those who insists on hanging around af­ter he’s dead, like poor Tom Jedd out there at Tire World.”


“I meant will you ever leave it while you’re alive.”


“Just the idea gives me hives on the brain.”


“Why?”


“It’s big out there.”


“Not all of it is big. Lots of towns are smaller and quieter than Pico Mundo.”


“I guess what I mean is… everything out there would be new. I like what I know. Considering everything else I have to deal with… I can’t at the same time handle a lot of new stuff. New street names, new ar­chitecture, new smells, all new people…”


“I’ve always thought it would be nice to live in the mountains.”


“New weather.” I shook my head. “I don’t need new weather.”


“Anyway,” she said, “I didn’t mean leave town permanently. Just for a day or two. We could drive to Vegas.”

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