Terri frowned at me. “Robertson?”
“Fungus Man. The guy I borrowed your car to find.”
“Did you find him?”
“Yeah. He lives in Camp’s End.”
“The chief and I… we’re on it.”
“This Robertson is a toxic-waste mutant out of some psycho movie,” Stormy told Terri. “He came after us at St. Bart’s, and when we gave him the slip, he trashed some of the church.”
Terri offered Stormy more peach brandy. “He’s going to go gun­ning for people, you said?”
Stormy doesn’t drink heavily, but she accepted another round. “Your fry cook’s recurring dream is finally coming true.”
Now Terri looked alarmed. “The dead bowling-alley employees?”
“Plus maybe a lot of people in a movie theater,” Stormy said, and then she tossed back her peach brandy in one swallow.
“Does this also have something to do with Viola’s dream?” Terri asked me.
“It’s too long a story for now,” I told her. “It’s late. I’m whipped.”
“It has everything to do with her dream,” Stormy told Terri.
“I need some sleep,” I pleaded. “I’ll tell you tomorrow, Terri, after it’s all over.”
When I pushed my chair back, intending to get up, Stormy seized my arm and held me at the table. “And now I find out Elvis Presley himself has warned Oddie that he’s going to die tomorrow.”
I objected. “He did no such thing. He just patted me on the arm and then later, before he got out of the car, he squeezed my hand.”
“Squeezed your hand?” Stormy asked in a tone implying that such a gesture could be interpreted only as an expression of the darkest foreboding.
“It’s no big deal. All he did was just clasp my right hand in both of his and squeeze it twice - “
” - and he gave me that look again.”
“That look of pity?” Stormy demanded.
Terri picked up the bottle and offered to pour for Stormy.
I put my hand over the glass. “We’ve both had enough.”
Grabbing my right hand and holding it in both of hers as Elvis had done, Stormy said insistently, “What he was trying to tell you, Mr. Macho Psychic Batman Wannabe, is that his mother died on August fourteenth, and he died on August sixteenth, and you’re going to die on August fifteenth - the three of you like a hat trick of death - if you don’t watch your ass.”
“That isn’t what he was trying to tell me,” I disagreed.
“What - you think he was just hitting on you?”
“He doesn’t have a romantic life anymore. He’s dead.”
“Anyway,” Terri said, “Elvis wasn’t gay.”
“I didn’t claim he was gay. Stormy made the inference.”
“I’d bet the Grille,” Terri said, “and my left butt cheek that he wasn’t gay.”
I groaned. “This is the craziest conversation I’ve ever had.”
Terri demurred: “Gimme a break - I’ve had a hundred conversa­tions with you a lot crazier than this.”
“Me too,” Stormy agreed. “Odd Thomas, you’re a fountain of crazy conversations.”
“A geyser,” Terri suggested.
“It’s not me, it’s just my life” I reminded them.
“You better stay out of this,” Terri worried. “Let Wyatt Porter han­dle it.”
“I am going to let him handle it. I’m not a cop, you know. I don’t pack a gun. All I can do is advise him.”
“Don’t even advise this time,” Stormy said. “Just this one time, stay out of it. Go to Vegas with me. Now.”
I wanted to please her. Pleasing her pleases me, and then the birds sing sweeter than usual and the bees make better honey and the world is a place of rejoicing - or so it seems from my perspective.
What I wanted to do and the right thing to do were not one and the same. So I said, “The problem is that I was put here for this work, and if I walk away from the job, it will only follow me, one way or an­other.”
I picked up my glass. I’d forgotten it was empty. I put it down again.
“When I’ve got a specific target, my psychic magnetism works in two directions. I can cruise at random and find who I need to find… in this case Robertson… or he’ll be drawn to me if he wants to be, some­times even if he doesn’t. And in the second case, I have less control and I’m more likely to be… unpleasantly surprised.”
“That’s just a theory,” Stormy said.
“It’s nothing I can prove, but it’s true. It’s something I know in my gut.”
“I’ve always figured you don’t think with your head,” Stormy said, her tone changing from one of insistent - and almost angry - persua­sion to one of resignation and affection.
Terri said to me, “If I were your mother, I’d box your ears.”
“If you were my mother, I wouldn’t be here.”
These were the two most important women in the world to me; I loved each of them in a different way, and declining to do what they wanted, even in the interest of doing the right thing, was difficult.
The candlelight burnished their faces to the same golden glow, and they regarded me with an identical anxiety, as though by virtue of their female intuition they knew things that I could not perceive even with my sixth sense.
From the CD player, Elvis crooned, “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” I consulted my wristwatch. “It’s August fifteenth.” When I tried to get to my feet, Stormy didn’t restrain me as she had done previously. She, too, rose from her chair.
I said, “Terri, I guess you’ll have to cover for me on the first shift - or get Poke to come in if he’s willing.”
“What - you can’t cook and save the world at the same time?” “Not unless you want the bacon burnt. Sorry to give you such short notice.”
Terri accompanied us to the door. She hugged Stormy, then me. She boxed one of my ears. “You be here day after tomorrow, on time, at the griddle, flippin’ those cakes, or I’m going to demote you to fountain jockey.”
ACCORDING TO THE BIG DIGITAL SIGN AT THE BANK OF America, the temperature had fallen to a comparatively chilly ninety degrees here on the side of midnight when broomsticks are licensed to fly.
A lazy breeze stirred through town, repeatedly dying and rising again, as though rust inhibited the mechanisms of the wind gods. Hot and dry, it traveled in crisp and fitful whispers among ficuses, palms, and jacarandas.
The streets of Pico Mundo were quiet. When the breeze held its breath, I could hear the click of the switches in the traffic-signal con­trol boxes as the lights changed from green to yellow to red at the in­tersections.
As we walked to Stormy’s apartment, we remained alert, half ex­pecting Bob Robertson to pop like a jack-in-the-box from behind a parked car, out of a doorway.
Other than the wind-licked leaves, the only movement was the dart-and-swoop of a swarm of bats pursuing a flurry of moths through the glow of a streetlamp, to the moon, and then out past Cassiopeia.
Stormy lives three blocks from the Pico Mundo Grille. We held hands and walked in silence.
My course was set irrevocably. In spite of her objections, she knew as well as I did that I had no choice but to do whatever I could to help Chief Porter stop Robertson before he committed the slaughter that had drenched my dreams for three years.
Anything that could be said on the subject now would be useless repetition. And here on the dark side of a threatening dawn, small talk had no charm.
The old, two-story Victorian house had been divided into four apartments. Stormy lives in the ground-floor unit on the right.
We didn’t expect Robertson to be waiting there for us. Though he had somehow learned who I was, it didn’t follow that he would easily discover Stormy’s address.
If he was lying in wait for me, my apartment over Rosalia Sanchez’s garage was a better bet than Stormy’s place.
Prudence, however, made us cautious as we entered the foyer and then her apartment. Inside, the cool air had a faint peach scent. We left the Mojave far behind us when we closed the door.
She has three rooms, a bath, and a kitchen. Switching on lights, we went directly to her bedroom, where she keeps her 9-mm pistol.
She ejected the magazine, checked it to be sure that it was fully loaded, and snapped it back into the weapon.
I am wary of any gun, anywhere, anytime - except when it’s in Stormy’s hand. She could sit with her finger on the detonation button of a nuclear weapon, and I would feel safe enough to nap.
A quick check of the windows revealed that they were locked, as she had left them.
No boogeyman had taken up residence in any of the closets.
While Stormy brushed her teeth and changed for bed, I called Green Moon Lanes and listened to a recorded message regarding their hours,
services, and prices. They opened for business at 11:00 A.M. Thursday through Sunday, and at 1:00 P.M. Monday through Wednesday.
The earliest that Robertson could walk into the bowling center with murder in mind was when they unlocked the doors at one o’clock.
Two multiplex cinemas with a total of twenty screens serve the greater Pico Mundo area. By phone, I learned that the movie to which Viola had intended to take her daughters was playing at two theaters in only one multiplex. I made a mental note of the show times, the earliest of which was 1:10P.M.
In the bedroom, I turned down the bedclothes, took off my shoes, and stretched out atop the thin blanket, waiting for Stormy
She has furnished her humble home with items from thrift shops run by Goodwill and the Salvation Army; however, the look is neither shabby nor without character. She has a talent for eclectic design and for discerning the magic in objects that others might see as merely old or peculiar, or even grotesque.
Floor lamps featuring silk shades with beaded fringes, chairs in the Stickley style paired with plump Victorian footstools upholstered in tapestries, Maxfield Parrish prints, colorful carnival-glass vases and bibelots: The mix should not work, but it does. Her rooms are the most welcoming that I have ever seen.
Time seems suspended in this place.
In these rooms I am at peace. I forget my worries. The problems of pancakes and poltergeists are lifted from me.
Here I cannot be harmed.
Here I know my destiny and am content with it.
Here Stormy lives, and where she lives, I flourish.
Above her bed, behind glass, in a frame, is the card from the fortune-telling machine: YOU ARE DESTINED TO BE TOGETHER FOREVER.
Four years ago, on the midway of the county fair, a gaudy
contrivance called Gypsy Mummy had waited in a shadowy back corner of an arcade tent filled with unusual games and macabre attractions.
The machine had resembled an old-fashioned phone booth and had stood seven feet high. The lower three feet were entirely enclosed. The upper four feet featured glass on three sides.
In the glass portion sat a dwarfish female figure attired in a Gypsy costume complete with garish jewelry and colorful headscarf. Her gnarled, bony, withered hands rested on her thighs, and the green of her fingernails looked less like polish than like mold.
A plaque at her feet claimed that this was the mummified corpse of a Gypsy dwarf. In eighteenth-century Europe, she had been renowned for the accuracy of her prognostications and foretellings.
The mottled skin of her face stretched tight over the skull. The eye­lids were stitched shut with black thread, as were her lips.
Most likely this was not the art of Death working in the medium of flesh, as claimed, but instead the product of an artist who had been clever with plaster, paper, and latex.
As Stormy and I arrived at Gypsy Mummy, another couple fed a quarter to the machine. The woman leaned toward a round grill in the glass and asked her question aloud: “Gypsy Mummy tell us, will Johnny and I have a long and happy marriage?”
The man, evidently Johnny, pushed the ANSWER button, and a card slid into a brass tray. He read it aloud: “A cold wind blows, and each night seems to last a thousand years.”
Neither Johnny nor his bride-to-be regarded this as an answer to their question, so they tried again. He read the second card: “The fool leaps from the cliff, but the winter lake below is frozen.”
The woman, believing that Gypsy Mummy had misheard the question, repeated it: “Will Johnny and I have a long and happy mar­riage?”
Johnny read the third card: “The orchard of blighted trees produces poisonous fruit.”
And the fourth: “A stone can provide no nourishment nor will sand slake your thirst.”
With irrational persistence, the couple spent four more quarters in pursuit of an answer. They began bickering on receipt of the fifth card. By the time Johnny read number eight, the cold wind predicted by the first fortune was blowing at gale-force between them.
After Johnny and his love departed, Stormy and I took our turn with Gypsy Mummy. A single coin produced for us the assurance that we were destined to be together forever.
When Stormy tells this story, she claims that after granting to us what the other couple had wanted, the mummified dwarf winked.
I didn’t see this wink. I don’t understand how a sewn-shut eye could perform such a trick and yet fail to pop a single stitch. The image of a winking mummy resonates with me nonetheless.
Now, as I waited under the Gypsy Mummy’s framed card, Stormy came to bed. She wore plain white cotton panties and a SpongeBob SquarePants T-shirt.
All the models in the Victoria’s Secret catalogue, in thongs and skimpy teddies and peekaboo bras, collectively possess a fraction of the erotic allure of Stormy in schoolgirl briefs and SpongeBob top.
Lying on her side, cuddling against me, she put her head upon my chest to listen to my heart. She got an earful.
She often likes to be held in this way until she falls asleep. I am the boatman she trusts to row her into restful dreams.
After a silence, she said, “If you want me… I’m ready now.”
I am no saint. I have used my driver’s license to trespass in homes to which I’ve not been invited. I answer violence with violence and never turn the other cheek. I have had enough impure thoughts to destroy the ozone layer. I have often spoken ill of my mother.
Yet when Stormy offered herself to me, I thought of the orphaned girl, then known to the world as Bronwen, alone and afraid at the age of seven, adopted and given safe harbor, only to discover that her new father wanted not a daughter but a sex toy. Her confusion, her fear, her humiliation, her shame were too easy for me to imagine.
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