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“That’s your idea of a smaller, quieter place? I’ll bet that’s a place with thousands of dead people who won’t move on.”


“Why?”


“People who lost everything they owned at the craps tables, the roulette wheels, then went back to their rooms and blew their brains out.” I shivered. “Suicides always hang around after they’re dead. They’re afraid to move on.”


“You have a melodramatic view of Las Vegas, odd one. The average hotel maid doesn’t turn up a dozen suicides every morning.”


“Bunch of guys murdered by the mob, their bodies dumped in the fresh concrete footings of new hotels. You can bet your ass they have unfinished business and plenty of postmortem rage. Besides, I don’t gamble.”


“That doesn’t sound like the grandson of Pearl Sugars.”


“She did her best to turn me into a card hustler, but I’m afraid I dis­appointed her.”


“She taught you poker, didn’t she?”


“Yeah. We used to play for pennies.”


“Even just for pennies is gambling.”


“Not when I played with Granny Sugars.”


“She let you win? That’s sweet.”


“She wanted me to travel the Southwest poker circuit with her. Grandma said, ‘Odd, I’m going to grow old on the road, not in a rock­ing chair on some damn retirement-home porch with a gaggle of fart­ing old ladies, and I’m going to die facedown in my cards in the middle of a game, not of boredom at a tea dance for toothless retirees trying to cha-cha in their walkers.’”


“On the road,” Stormy said, “would have been too much new.”


“Every day, new and more new.” I sighed. “But we sure would have had fun. She wanted me along to share the laughs… and if she died in the middle of a particularly rough game, she wanted me to be sure the other players didn’t split her bankroll and leave her carcass in the desert as a coyote buffet.”


“I understand why you didn’t go on the road, but why don’t you gamble?”


“Because even if Granny Sugars didn’t play sloppy to give me an edge, I almost always won anyway.”


“You mean because of your… gift?”


“Yeah.”


“You could see what cards were coming?”


“No. Nothing that dramatic. I just have a feeling for when my hand is stronger than those of other players and when it’s not. The feeling proves to be right nine times out of ten.”


“That’s a huge advantage at cards.”


“It’s the same with blackjack, any card game.”


“So it’s not really gambling.”


“Not really. It’s just… harvesting cash.”


Stormy understood at once why I’d given up cards. “It would be pretty much the same as stealing.”


“I don’t need money that bad,” I said. ‘And I never will as long as people want to eat what’s been fried on a griddle.”


“Or as long as they have feet.”


“Yeah. Assuming I make the move into shoe retailing.”


“I said Vegas not because I want to gamble,” she explained.


“It’s a long way to go for an all-you-can-eat buffet.”


“I said Vegas because we could be there in maybe three hours, and the wedding chapels are open around the clock. No blood tests re­quired. We could be married by dawn.”


My heart did one of those funny gyrations that only Stormy can


make it do. “Wow. That’s almost enough to give me the nerve to travel.”


“Only almost, huh?”


“We can have our blood tests tomorrow morning, get a marriage li­cense Thursday, get hitched by Saturday. And our friends can be there. I want our friends there, don’t you?”


“Yes. But I want married more.”


I kissed her and said, ‘After all the hesitation, why the sudden rush?”


Because we had sat for a while in that unlighted alley, our eyes were thoroughly dark-adapted. Otherwise I would not have fully recog­nized the depth of concern in her face, her eyes; in fact, she seemed to be gripped not by mere anxiety but by a quiet terror.


“Hey, hey,” I assured her, “everything’s going to be all right.”


Her voice didn’t quaver. She’s too tough for easy tears. But in the softness of her speech, I could hear a haunted woman: “Ever since we were sitting on the edge of the koi pond and that man came along the promenade…”


When her voice trailed away, I said, “Fungus Man.”


“Yeah. That creepy sonofabitch. Ever since I saw him… I’ve been scared for you. I mean, I’m always scared for you, Oddie, but I don’t usually make anything of it because the last thing you need, on top of everything else on your mind, is a weepy dame always nagging you to be careful.”


” ‘Weepy dame’?”


“Sorry. I must’ve flashed back to a prior life in the 1930s. But it’s true, the last thing you need is some hysterical bitch always on your case.”


“I liked ‘weepy dame’ a lot better. Listen, I think this guy is maxi­mum sick, he’s ten megatons of blast power with a fast-ticking timer,


but the chief and I are on his case, and we’re going to pluck his fuse be­fore he blows.”


“Don’t be so sure. Please, Oddie, don’t be so sure. Being too sure with this guy will get you killed.”


“I’m not going to be killed.”


“I’m scared for you.”


“By tomorrow night,” I told her, “Bob Robertson, alias Fungus Man, is going to be wearing a jail-issued orange jumpsuit, and maybe he’ll have hurt some people, or maybe we’ll have stopped him right before he pulls a trigger, but whatever the situation, I’m going to be with you for dinner, and we’ll be planning our wedding, and I’ll still have both legs, both arms - “


“Oddie, stop, don’t say any more - “


” - still have the same stupid head you’re looking at now - “


“Please stop.”


” - and I won’t be blind, because I really need to see you, and I won’t be deaf because how can we plan our wedding if I can’t hear you, and I won’t be - “


She punched me in the chest. “Don’t tempt fate, dammit!”


In a sitting position, she couldn’t get enough swing behind her fist to land a solid blow. I was hardly winded by the punch.


With as little wheeze as I could manage, I drew a breath and said, “I’m not worried about tempting fate. I’m not superstitious that way.”


“Maybe I am.”


“Well, get over it.”


I kissed her. She kissed back.


How right the world was then,


I put an arm around her and said, “You silly, weepy dame. Bob Robertson might be so psychotic he wouldn’t even qualify to manage the Bates Motel, but he’s still just a mug. He has nothing going for him


except sixteen wheels of craziness spinning in his head. I will come back to you with no punctures, no scrapes, no dents. And none of my federally mandated stuffing-identification tags will have been ripped off.”


“My Pooh,” she said, as sometimes she does.


Having somewhat calmed her nerves and partially settled her fears, I felt quite manly, like one of those stout-hearted and rock-ribbed sheriffs in old cowboy movies, who with a smile sets the minds of the ladyfolk at ease and sweeps legions of gunfighters off the streets of Dodge City without smudging his white hat.


I was the worst kind of fool. When I look back on that August night, changed forever by all my wounds and all my suffering, that un­damaged Odd Thomas seems like a different human being from me, immeasurably more confident than I am now, still able to hope, but not as wise, and I mourn for him.


I am told not to let the tone of this narrative become too dark. A certain 400-pound muse will park his 150-pound ass on me by way of editorial comment, and there is always the threat of his urine-filled cat.


TWENTY-EIGHT


WHEN WE GOT OUT OF THE MUSTANG, THE FAMILIAR alleyway dwindled north and south into deeper gloom than I recalled from other nights, little-revealed by moonlight, obscured by moon-shadows.


Above the back entrance to the restaurant kitchen, a security lamp glowed. Yet the darkness seemed to press toward it rather than to shrink away.


Uncovered stairs led to a second-floor landing and the door to Terri Stambaugh’s apartment. Light shone behind the curtains.


At the top of the steps, Stormy pointed at the northern sky. “Cassiopeia.”


Star by star, I identified the points of the constellation.


In classic mythology, Cassiopeia was the mother of Andromeda. Andromeda was saved from a sea monster by the hero Perseus, who also slew the Gorgon Medusa.


No less than the fabled Andromeda, Stormy Llewellyn, daughter of another Cassiopeia, is stellar enough to deserve a constellation named for her. I have slain no Gorgons, however, and I am no Perseus.


Terri answered the door when I knocked, accepted the car keys, and insisted that we come in for coffee or a nightcap.


Light from two candles throbbed pleasantly over the kitchen walls as cool drafts of conditioned air teased the flames. Terri had been sit­ting at the table when I knocked. A small glass of peach brandy stood on the red-and-white-checkered oilcloth.


As always, the background music of her life was Elvis: this time, “Wear My Ring Around Your Neck.”


We had known that she would expect us to visit for a while, which is why Stormy hadn’t waited at the bottom of the stairs.


Terri sometimes suffers from insomnia. Even if sleep slips upon her with ease, the nights are long.


When the CLOSED sign is hung on the front door of the Grille at nine o’clock and after the last customer leaves between nine and ten, whether Terri is drinking decaf coffee or something stronger, she opens as well a bottle of loneliness.


Her husband, Kelsey, her high-school sweetheart, has been dead for nine years. His cancer had been relentless, but being a fighter of un­common determination, he had taken three years to die.


When his malignancy was diagnosed, he swore that he would not leave Terri alone. He possessed the will but not the power to keep that oath.


In his final years, because of the unfailing good humor and the quiet courage with which Kelsey waged his long mortal battle, Terri’s love and respect for him, always deep, had grown profound.


In a way, Kelsey had kept his promise never to leave her. His ghost does not linger around the Grille or anywhere else in Pico Mundo. He lives vividly in her recollections, however, and his memory is etched on her soul.


After three or four years, her grief had matured into a settled sor­row. I think she has been surprised that even after arriving at an acceptance


of her loss, she has had no desire to mend the tear in her heart. The hole that Kelsey left has become more comforting to her than any patch with which she could close it.


Her fascination with Elvis, his life and music, began nine years ago, when she was thirty-two, the same year that Kelsey died.


The reasons for her intense interest in Presley are numerous. Without a doubt, however, among them is this one: As long as she has an Elvis collection - music, memorabilia, biographical facts - to build and maintain, she has no time to be attracted to a living man and can remain emotionally true to her lost husband.


Elvis is the door that she closes in the face of romance. The archi­tecture of his life is her mountain retreat, her high redoubt, her nun­nery


Stormy and I sat at the table. Terri subtly steered us away from the fourth chair, the one that Kelsey had always occupied when alive.


The subject of our impending wedding came up before we prop­erly settled in our seats. With the peach brandy that she poured for us, Terri raised a toast to our enduring happiness.


Every autumn, she brews crocks full of peach skins into this elixir: ferments, strains, bottles it. The flavor is irresistible, and the brandy packs a punch best handled in small glasses.


Later, as Stormy and I were finishing our second servings, and as the King was singing “Love Me Tender,” I told Terri about taking Elvis for a ride in her car. She was thrilled at first, but then saddened to hear that he had wept throughout our travels.


“I’ve seen him cry a few times before,” I said. “Since his death, he seems emotionally fragile. But this was the worst he’s ever been in my experience.”


“Of course,” Terri said, “there’s no mystery why he would be a to­tal mess today of all days.”


“Well, it’s a mystery to me,” I assured her.


“It’s August fourteenth. At three-fourteen in the morning on August 14,1958, his mama died. She was only forty-six.”


“Gladys,” Stormy said. “Her name was Gladys, wasn’t it?”


There is movie-star fame like that enjoyed by Tom Cruise, rock-star


fame like that of Mick Jagger, literary fame, political fame__But


mere fame has grown into real legend when people of different gen­erations remember your mother’s name a quarter of a century after your death and nearly half a century after hers.


“Elvis was in the service,” Terri recalled. ‘August twelfth, he flew home to Memphis on emergency leave and went to his mother’s bed­side in the hospital. But the sixteenth of August is a bad day for him, too.”


“Why?”


“That’s when he died,” Terri said.


“Elvis himself?” Stormy asked.


“Yes. August 16, 1977.”


I had finished the second peach brandy.


Terri offered the bottle.


I wanted more but didn’t need it. I covered my empty glass with my hand and said, “Elvis seemed concerned about me.”


“How do you mean?” Terri asked.


“He patted me on the arm. Like he felt sympathy for me. He had this… this melancholy look, as if he was taking pity on me for some reason.”


This revelation alarmed Stormy. “You didn’t tell me this. Why didn’t you tell me?”


I shrugged. “It doesn’t mean anything. It was just Elvis.”


“So if it doesn’t mean anything,” Terri asked, “why did you men­tion it?”


“It means something to me,” Stormy declared. “Gladys died on the


fourteenth. Elvis died on the sixteenth. The fifteenth, smack between them - that’s when this Robertson sonofabitch is going to go gunning for people. Tomorrow.”

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