Page 24


My cell phone lay on the breakfast counter, and the apartment phone was on the nightstand beside my bed. I considered those whom I should call and those I could call. None of my options appealed to me.


To better understand the situation, I needed to see the face of the corpse.


I returned to the bathroom. I bent over the tub. Avoiding the hooked and twisted fingers, I clutched handfuls of his clothing and, with some struggle, wrestled the dead man onto his side, and then onto his back.


The towel slid off his face.


Still a washed-out gray but devoid now of their characteristic eerie amusement, Bob Robertson’s eyes were more sharply focused in death than in life. His gaze fixed intently on a distant vision, as though in the final instant of existence, he had glimpsed something more star­tling and far more terrifying than just the face of his killer.


THIRTY-TWO


FOR A MOMENT I EXPECTED FUNGUS MAN TO BLINK, TO grin, to grab me and drag me into the tub with him, to savage me with those teeth that had served him so well during his gluttony at the counter in the Pico Mundo Grille.


His unexpected death left me with no immediate monster, with my plan derailed and my purpose in doubt. I had assumed that he was the maniacal gunman who shot the murdered people in my recur­ring dream, not merely another victim. With Robertson dead, this labyrinth had no Minotaur for me to track down and slay.


He had been shot once in the chest at such close range that the muzzle of the gun might have been pressed against him, His shirt bore the gray-brown flare of a scorch mark.


Because the heart had stopped functioning in an instant, little blood had escaped the body.


Again I retreated from the bathroom.


I almost pulled the door shut. Then I had the strange notion that behind the closed door, in spite of his torn heart, Robertson would


rise quietly from the tub and stand in wait, taking me by surprise when I returned.


He was stone dead, and I knew that he was dead, and yet such irra­tional worries tied knots in my nerves.


Leaving the bathroom door open, I stepped to the kitchen sink and washed my hands. After drying them on paper towels, I almost washed them again.


Although I had touched only Robertson’s clothes, I imagined that my hands smelled of death.


Lifting the receiver from the wall phone, I unintentionally rattled it against the cradle, almost dropped it. My hands were shaking.


I listened to the dial tone.


I knew Chief Porter’s number. I didn’t need to look it up.


Finally I racked the phone again without entering a single digit on the keypad.


Circumstances had altered my cozy relationship with the chief. A dead man awaited discovery in my apartment. The gun that had killed him was here, as well.


Earlier I had reported an unsettling encounter with the victim at St. Bartholomew’s. And the chief knew that I had illegally entered Robertson’s house on Tuesday afternoon and had thereby given the man reason to confront me.


If this pistol was registered to Robertson, the most obvious as­sumption on the part of the police would be that he had come here to demand to know what I’d been doing in his house and perhaps to threaten me. They would assume that we had argued, that the argu­ment had led to a struggle, and that I had shot him with his own gun in self-defense.


They wouldn’t charge me with murder or with manslaughter. They probably wouldn’t even take me into custody for questioning.


If the pistol wasn’t registered to Robertson, however, I’d be as stuck as a rat on a glue-board trap.


Wyatt Porter knew me too well to believe that I could kill a man in cold blood, when my life was not at risk. As the chief, he set the poli­cies for the department and made important procedural decisions, but he wasn’t the only cop on the force. Others would not be so quick to declare me innocent under questionable circumstances, and if for no reason but appearances, the chief might have to park me in a cell for a day, until he could find a way to resolve matters in my favor.


In jail, I would be safe from whatever bloody catastrophe might be descending on Pico Mundo, but I would be in no position to use my gift to prevent the tragedy. I couldn’t escort Viola Peabody and her daughters from their house to the safer refuge of her sister’s home. I couldn’t find a way to induce the Takuda family to change their Wednesday plans.


I had hoped to follow the bodachs to the site of the impending crime as Wednesday morning gave way to afternoon, when this event seemed destined to occur. Those malevolent spirits would gather in advance of the bloodshed, perhaps giving me enough time to change the fates of all those who were unwittingly approaching their deaths at that as yet unknown place.


Odysseus in chains, however, cannot lead the way back to Ithaca.


I include this literary allusion solely because I know Little Ozzie will be amused that I would have the audacity to compare myself to that great hero of the Trojan War.


“Give the narrative a lighter tone than you think it deserves, dear boy, lighter than you think that you can bear to give it,” he instructed before I began to write, “because you won’t find the truth of life in morbidity, only in hope.”


My promise to obey this instruction has become more difficult to


fulfill as my story progresses relentlessly toward the hour of the gun. The light recedes from me, and the darkness gathers. To please my massive, six-fingered muse, I must resort to tricks like the Odysseus bit.


Having determined that I couldn’t turn to Chief Porter for help in these circumstances, I switched off all the lights except the one in the bathroom. I couldn’t bear to be entirely in the dark with the corpse, for I sensed that, even though dead, he still had surprises in store for me.


In the gloom, I quickly found my way through the cluttered room with as much confidence as if I had been born sightless and raised here since birth. At one of the front windows, I twisted the control rod to open the Levolor.


To the right, I could see the moonlit stairs framed in slices by the slats of the blind. No one was ascending toward my door.


Directly ahead lay the street, but because of the intervening oaks, I didn’t have an unobstructed view. Nevertheless, between the branches I could see enough of Marigold Lane to be certain that no suspicious vehicles had parked at the curb since my arrival.


Judging by the evidence, I wasn’t under observation, but I felt cer­tain that whoever had whacked Bob Robertson would be back. When they knew that I had come home and discovered the cadaver, they would either pop me, too, and make the double murder look like murder-suicide, or more likely place an anonymous call to the police and land me in the cell that I was determined to avoid.


I knew a set-up when I saw one.


THIRTY-THREE


AFTER CLOSING THE LEVOLOR AT THE WINDOW, LEAVING the lights off, I went to the bureau, which was near the bed. In this one room, everything could be found near the bed, including the sofa and the microwave.


In the bottom drawer of the bureau I kept my only spare set of bed linens. Under the pillowcases, I found the neatly pressed and folded top sheet.


Although without a doubt the situation warranted the sacrifice of good bedclothes, I regretted having to give up that sheet. Well-made cotton bedding is not cheap, and I am mildly allergic to many of the synthetic fabrics commonly used for such items.


In the bathroom, I opened the sheet on the floor.


Being dead and therefore indifferent to my problems, Robertson could not be expected to make my job easier; however, I was surprised when he resisted being hauled out of the tub. This wasn’t the active counterforce of conscious opposition, but the passive resistance of rigor mortis.


He proved to be as stiff and difficult to manage as a pile of boards nailed together at odd angles.


Reluctantly, I put a hand to his face. He felt colder than I’d expected that he would.


Perhaps adjustments needed to be made in my understanding of the events of the previous evening. Unthinkingly, I had made certain assumptions that Robertson’s condition didn’t support.


To learn the truth, I had to examine him further. Because he had been lying facedown in the tub when I’d found him, before I’d turned him over, I now unbuttoned his shirt,


This task filled me with loathing and repugnance, which I had an­ticipated, but I wasn’t prepared for the abhorrent sense of intimacy that spawned a slithering nausea.


My fingers were damp with sweat. The pearlized buttons proved slippery.


I glanced at Robertson’s face, certain that his gaze would have refo­cused from some otherworldly sight to my fumbling hands. Of course his expression of shock and terror had not changed, and he continued staring at something beyond the veil that separates this world and the next.


His lips were slightly parted, as though with his last breath he had greeted Death or had spoken an unanswered plea.


Looking at his face had only made my heebie-jeebies worse. When I lowered my head, I imagined that his eyes tracked the shifting of my attention to the stubborn buttons. If I had felt a fetid breath exhaled against my brow, I might have screamed, but I wouldn’t have been sur­prised.


No corpse had ever creeped me out as badly as this one. For the most part, the deceased with whom I interact are apparitions, and I am spared too much familiarity with the messy biological aspect of death.


In this instance, I was troubled less by the scents and sights of early-


stage corruption than by the physical peculiarities of the dead man, mostly that spongy fungoid quality that had marked him in life, but also by his extraordinary fascination - as revealed in his files - for tor­ture, brutal murder, dismemberment, decapitation, and cannibalism.


I undid the final button. I folded back his shirt.


Because he wore no undershirt, I saw the advanced lividity at once. After death, blood settles through the tissues to the lowest points of the body, giving those areas a badly bruised appearance. Robertson’s flabby chest and sagging belly were mottled, dark, and repulsive.


The coolness of his skin, the rigor mortis, and the advanced lividity suggested that he had not died within the past hour or two but much earlier. The warmth of my apartment would have accelerated the de­terioration of the corpse, but not to this extent.


Very likely, in St. Bart’s cemetery, when Robertson had given me the finger as I’d looked down on him from the bell tower, he had not been a living man but an apparition.


I tried to recall if Stormy had seen him. She had been stooping to retrieve the cheese and crackers from the picnic hamper. I had acci­dentally knocked them from her hands, spilling them across the cat­walk -


No. She hadn’t seen Robertson. By the time she got up and leaned against the parapet to look down at the graveyard, he had gone.


Moments later, when I opened the front door of the church and encountered Robertson ascending the steps, Stormy had been behind me. I had let the door fall shut and had hustled her out of the narthex, into the nave, toward the front of the church.


Before going to St. Bart’s, I’d seen Robertson twice at Little Ozzie’s place in Jack Flats. The first time, he had been standing on the public sidewalk in front of the house, later in the backyard.


In neither instance had Ozzie been in a position to confirm that this visitor was a real, live person.


From his perch on the windowsill, Terrible Chester had seen the man at the front fence and had strongly reacted to him. But this did not mean that Robertson had been there in the flesh.


On many occasions, I have witnessed dogs and cats responding to the presence of spirits - though they don’t see bodachs. Usually ani­mals do not react in any dramatic fashion, only subtly; they seem to be totally cool with ghosts.


Terrible Chester’s hostility was probably a reaction not to the fact that Robertson was an apparition but to the man’s abiding aura of evil, which characterized him both in life and death.


The evidence suggested that the last time I’d seen Robertson alive had been when he’d left his house in Camp’s End, just before I had loided the lock, gone inside, and found the black room.


He had haunted me since, and angrily. As though he blamed me for his death.


Although he’d been murdered in my apartment, he must know that I hadn’t pulled the trigger. Facing his killer, he’d been shot from a distance of no more than a few inches.


What he and his killer had been doing in my apartment, I could not imagine. I needed more time and calmer circumstances to think.


You might expect that his pissed-off spirit would have lurked in my bathroom or kitchenette, waiting for me to come home, eager to threaten and harass me as he had done at the church. You would be wrong because you forget that these restless souls who linger in this world do so because they cannot accept the truth of their deaths.


In my considerable experience, the last thing they want to do is hang around their dead bodies. Nothing is a more poignant reminder of one’s demise than one’s oozing carcass.


In the presence of their own lifeless flesh, the spirits feel more sharply the urge to be done with this world and to move on to the next, a compulsion that they are determined to resist. Robertson


might visit the place of his death eventually, but not until his body had been removed and every smear of blood had been scrubbed away.


That suited me fine. I didn’t need all the hullabaloo associated with a visitation by an angry spirit.


The vandalism in St. Bart’s sacristy had not been the work of a liv­ing man. That destruction had been wrought by a malevolent and in­furiated ghost in full poltergeist mode.


In the past, I’d lost a new music system, a lamp, a clock radio, a handsome bar stool, and several plates during a tantrum by such a one. A short-order cook can’t afford to play host to their kind.


This is one reason why my furnishings are thrift-shop rejects. The less that I have, the less I can lose.


Anyway, I looked at the lividity in Robertson’s flabby chest and sag­ging belly, quickly made the aforementioned deductions, and tried to button his shirt without looking directly at his bullet wound. Morbid interest got the best of me.


In the soft and livid chest, the hole was small but ragged, wet - and strange in some way that I didn’t immediately grasp and that I didn’t want to contemplate further.


The nausea crawling the walls of my stomach slithered faster, faster. I felt as if I were four years old again, with a dangerously viru­lent case of the flu, feverish and weak, staring down the barrel of my own mortality.


Because I had enough of a mess to clean up without reenacting Elvis’s historic last spew, I clenched my teeth, repressed my gorge, and finished buttoning the shirt.


Although I surely know more than the average citizen about how to read the condition of a corpse, I am not a specialist in forensic med­icine. I couldn’t accurately determine, to the half hour, the exact time of Robertson’s death.

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