I thought also of Penny Kallisto and the seashell that she had handed to me. From the glossy pink throat of that shell had come the voice of a monster speaking the language of demented lust.
Though I didn’t confuse my clean passion with Harlo Landerson’s sick desire and savage selfishness, I could not purge from memory his rough breathing and bestial grunts. “Saturday is almost here,” I told Stormy. “You’ve taught me the beauty of anticipation.”
“What if Saturday never comes?”
“We’ll have this Saturday and thousands more,” I assured her.
“I need you,” she said.
“Is that something new?”
“It’s not new for me, either.”
I held her. She listened to my heart. Her hair feathered like a raven’s wing against her face, and my spirits soared.
Soon she murmured to someone she seemed pleased to see in her sleep. The boatman had done his job, and Stormy drifted on dreams.
I eased off the bed without waking her, drew the top sheet and thin blanket over her shoulders, and switched the bedside lamp to its low­est setting. She doesn’t like to wake in darkness.
After slipping into my shoes, I kissed her forehead and left her with the 9-mm pistol on her nightstand.
I turned out the lights elsewhere in the apartment, stepped into the public hall, and locked her door with a key she’d given to me.
The front door of the apartment house featured a large oval of
leaded glass. The beveled edges of the mosaic pieces presented a frag­mented and distorted view of the porch.
I put one eye to a flat piece of glass to see things more clearly. An unmarked police van stood at the curb across the street.
Law enforcement in Pico Mundo involves few clandestine opera­tions. The police department owns only two unmarked units.
The average citizen wouldn’t recognize either vehicle. Because of the assistance that I’ve provided to the chief on numerous cases, I have ridden in and am familiar with both.
Of the white van’s identifying features, the stubby shortwave an­tenna spiking from the roof at the back was the clincher.
I had not asked the chief to grant protection to Stormy; she would have been angry at the implication that she couldn’t take care of her­self. She has her pistol, her certificate of graduation from a self-defense course, and her pride.
The danger to her, if any, would seem to exist only when I was with her. Bob Robertson had no beef with anyone but me.
This chain of logic brought me to the realization that Chief Porter might be providing protection not to Stormy but to me.
More likely, it wasn’t protection but surveillance. Robertson had tracked me to Little Ozzie’s place and had found me again later at St. Bart’s. The chief might be keeping a watch on me in the hope that Robertson would sniff out my trail once more, whereupon he could be taken into custody for questioning about the vandalism at the church.
I understood his thinking, but I resented being used as bait without first being asked politely if I minded having a hook in my ass.
Besides, in the course of meeting the responsibilities of my super­natural gift, I sometimes resort to tactics frowned upon by the police. The chief knows this. Being subjected to police surveillance and
protection would inhibit me and, if I acted in my usual impulsive fashion, would make Chief Porter’s position even more difficult.
Instead of leaving by the main entrance, I walked to the end of the public hall and departed by the back door. A small moonlit yard led to a four-car garage, and a gate beside the garage opened into an alleyway
The officer in the van thought that he was running surveillance on me, but now he served as Stormy’s guardian. And she couldn’t get an­gry with me because I had never asked that she be provided with pro­tection.
I was tired but not ready to sleep. I went home anyway
Maybe Robertson would be waiting for me and would try to kill me. Maybe I would survive, subdue him, call the chief, and thereby put an end to this.
I had high hopes of a violent encounter with a satisfactory con­clusion.
THE MOJAVE HAD STOPPED BREATHING. THE DEAD LUNGS of the desert no longer exhaled the lazy breeze that had accompanied Stormy and me on our walk to her apartment.
By streets and alleyways, along a footpath bisecting a vacant lot, through a drainage culvert dry for months, and then to streets again, I made my way home at a brisk pace.
Bodachs were abroad.
First I saw them at a distance, a dozen or more, racing on all fours. When they passed through dark places, they were discernible only as a tumult of shadows, but streetlights and gatepost lamps revealed them for what they were. Their lithe motion and menacing posture brought to mind panthers in pursuit of prey.
A two-story Georgian house on Hampton Way was a bodach mag­net. As I passed, staying to the far side of the street, I saw twenty or thirty inky forms, some arriving and others departing by cracks in window frames and chinks in door jambs.
Under the porch light, one of them thrashed and writhed as if in
the throes of madness. Then it funneled itself through the keyhole in the front door.
Two others, exiting the residence, strained themselves through the screen that covered an attic vent. As comfortable on vertical surfaces as any spider, they crawled down the wall of the house to the porch roof, crossed the roof, and sprang to the front lawn.
This was the home of the Takuda family, Ken and Micali, and their three children. No lights brightened any windows. The Takudas were asleep, unaware that a swarm of malevolent spirits, quieter than cock­roaches, crawled through their rooms and observed them in their dreaming.
I could only assume that one of the Takudas - or all of them - were destined to die this very day, in whatever violent incident had drawn the bodachs to Pico Mundo in great numbers.
Experience had taught me that these spirits often gathered at the site of forthcoming horror, as at the Buena Vista Nursing Home be­fore the earthquake. In this case, however, I didn’t believe that the Takudas would perish in their home any more than I expected that Viola and her daughters would die in their picturesque bungalow.
The bodachs were not concentrated in one place this time. They were all over town, and from their unusually wide disbursement and their behavior, I deduced that they were visiting the potential victims prior to gathering at the place where the bloodshed would occur. Call this the pregame show.
I hurried away from the Takuda house and didn’t glance back, con­cerned that the slightest attention I paid to these creatures would alert them to the fact that I could see them.
On Eucalyptus Way, other bodachs had invaded the home of Morris and Rachel Melman.
Since Morrie had retired as the superintendent of the Pico Mundo School District, he’d stopped resisting his circadian rhythms and had
embraced the fact that he was a night lover by nature. He spent these quiet hours in the pursuit of various hobbies and interests. While Rachel slept in the dark upstairs, warm light brightened the lower floor.
The distinctive shadowy shapes of bodachs in their erect but hunch-shouldered posture were visible at every ground-floor window. They appeared to be in ceaseless, agitated movement through those rooms, as though the scent of impending death stirred in them a vio­lent and delirious excitement.
To one degree or another, this silent frenzy marked their behavior wherever I had seen them since walking to work less than twenty-four hours ago. The intensity of their malignant ecstasy fueled my dread.
In this infested night, I found myself glancing warily at the sky, half expecting to see bodachs swarming across the stars, The moon wasn’t veiled by spirit wings, however, and the stars blazed unobstructed from Andromeda to Vulpecula.
Because they have no apparent mass, the bodachs should not be af­fected by gravity. Yet I have never seen them fly. Although supernatu­ral, they seem to be bound by many, though not all, of the laws of physics.
When I reached Marigold Lane, I was relieved that the street on which I lived appeared to be free of these beasts.
I passed the spot where I had stopped Harlo Landerson in his Pontiac Firebird 400. How easily, by comparison, the day had begun.
With her killer named and prevented from assaulting other girls, Penny Kallisto had made her peace with this world and moved on, This success gave me hope that I might prevent or minimize the pend­ing carnage that had drawn legions of bodachs to our town.
No lights glowed at Rosalia Sanchez’s house. She is always early to bed, for she rises in advance of the dawn, eager to hear if she remains visible.
I didn’t approach her garage by the driveway. I crossed the side lawn from one oak tree to the next, stealthily scouting the territory
When I determined that neither Robertson nor any other enemy had stationed himself in the yard, I circled the garage. Although I didn’t find anyone lying in wait, I flushed a frightened rabbit from a lush bed of liriope, and when it shot past me, I achieved a personal best in the vertical-jump-and-gasp event.
Climbing the exterior stairs to my apartment, I watched the win­dows above, alert for the telltale movement of a blind.
The teeth of the key chattered faintly across the pin-tumblers in the lock. I turned the bolt and opened the door.
When I switched on the light, I saw the gun before anything else. A pistol.
With Chief Porter as my friend, with Stormy as my fiancee, I would know the difference between a pistol and a revolver even if my mother hadn’t instructed me in various fine points of firearms on nu­merous harrowing occasions.
The pistol had not merely been dropped on the floor but appeared to have been arranged as surely as a diamond necklace on a jeweler’s black-velvet display board, positioned to catch the lamplight in such a way that its contours had an almost erotic quality. Whoever left it there had hoped to entice me to pick it up.
MY SALVAGE-YARD FURNITURE (TOO SCARRED AND TACKY to meet the standards of the thrift shops that sold to Stormy), my pa­perback books neatly arranged on shelves made of stacked bricks and boards, my framed posters of Quasimodo as played by Charles Laughton and Hamlet as played by Mel Gibson and ET from the movie of the same name (three fictional characters with whom I iden­tify for different reasons), the cardboard Elvis perpetually smiling…
From the open doorway in which I stood, everything appeared to be as it had been when I’d left for work Tuesday morning.
The door had been locked and bore no signs of a forced entry. Circling the building, I had noticed no broken windows.
Now I was torn between leaving the door open to facilitate a hasty exit and locking it to prevent anyone from entering at my back. After too long a hesitation, I quietly closed the door and engaged the dead-bolt.
Except for the occasional chirr-and-coo of a night bird that filtered through two screened windows I’d left open for ventilation, the hush
was so profound that a drop of water, in the kitchenette, fell from faucet to sink pan with a plonk that quivered my eardrums.
Certain that I was meant to pick up the gun, easily resisting its al­lure, I stepped over the weapon.
One of the benefits of living in a single room - the armchair a few steps from the bed, the bed a few steps from the refrigerator - is that the search for an intruder takes less than a minute. Your blood pres­sure hasn’t the time to rise to stroke-inducing levels when you need only look behind the sofa and in a single closet to clear all possible hid­ing places.
Only the bathroom remained to be searched.
That door was closed. I had left it open.
After a shower, I always leave it open because the bathroom has a single small window, hardly more than a porthole, and an exhaust fan that makes all the noise of - but stirs less air than - a drum set ham­mered by a heavy-metal musician. If I didn’t leave the door open, the bath would be ruled by aggressive mutant molds with a taste for hu­man flesh, and I would be forced henceforth to bathe in the kitchen sink.
Unclipping the phone from my belt, I considered calling the police to report an intruder.
If officers arrived and found no one in the bathroom, I would look foolish. And scenarios occurred to me in which I might appear worse than merely foolish.
I glanced at the gun on the floor. If it had been placed with careful calculation, with the intent that I should pick it up, why did someone want me to have possession of it?
After putting the phone on the breakfast counter, I stepped to one side of the bathroom door and listened intently. The only sounds were the periodic song of the night bird and, after a long pause, the plonk of another water drop in the kitchen sink.
The knob turned without resistance. The door opened inward.
Someone had left a light on.
I am diligent about conserving electricity. The cost may be only pennies, but a short-order cook who hopes to marry cannot afford to leave lights burning or music playing for the pleasure of the spiders and spirits that might visit his quarters in his absence.
With the door open wide, the small bathroom would offer no­where for an intruder to hide except in the bathtub, behind the closed shower curtain.
I always close the curtain after taking a shower, because if I left it drawn to one side, it would not dry properly in that poorly vented space. Mildew would at once set up housekeeping in the damp folds.
Since I’d left Tuesday morning, someone had pulled the curtain aside. That person or another was at this moment facedown in the bathtub.
He appeared to have fallen into the tub or to have been tumbled there as a dead weight. No living person would lie in such an awkward position, face pressed to the drain, his right arm twisted behind his body at a torturous angle that suggested a dislocated shoulder or even a torn rotator cuff.
The fingers of the exposed, pale hand were curled into a rigid claw. They did not twitch; neither did they tremble.
Along the far rim of the tub, a thin smear of blood had dried on the porcelain.
When blood is spilled in quantity you can smell it: This is not a foul odor when fresh, but subtle and crisp and terrifying. I couldn’t detect the faintest scent of it here.
A glistening spill of liquid soap on the tile counter around the sink and thick soap scum in the bowl suggested that the killer had washed his hands vigorously after the deed, perhaps to scrub away blood or traces of incriminating gunpowder.
After drying, he had tossed the hand towel into the tub. It covered the back of the victim’s head.
Without conscious intent, I had backed out of the bathroom. I stood just beyond the open door.
My heart played an inappropriate rhythm for the melody of the night bird.
I glanced toward the gun on the carpet, just inside the front door. My instinctive reluctance to touch the weapon had proven to be wise, although I still didn’t grasp the full meaning of what had transpired here.
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