Logic put it between 5:30 and 7:45. During that period, I had
searched his Camp’s End house and explored the black room, had driven Elvis to the chief’s barbecue and subsequently to the Baptist church, and had cruised alone to Little Ozzie’s house.
Chief Porter and his guests could verify my whereabouts for part of that time, but no court would look favorably on the claim that the ghost of Elvis could provide me with an alibi for another portion of it.
The extent of my vulnerability became clearer by the moment, and I knew that time was running out. When a knock at the door eventu­ally came, it would most likely be the police, sent here by an anony­mous tip.
A SENSE OF URGENCY BORDERING ON PANIC GAVE ME new strength. With much grunting and the invention of a few colorful obscenities, I hauled Robertson out of the bathtub and flopped him onto the sheet that I’d spread on the bathroom floor,
Remarkably little blood had spilled in the tub. I cranked on the shower and washed the stains off the porcelain with steaming-hot water.
I’d never be able to take a bath here again. I would either have to go unwashed for the rest of my life or find a new place to live.
When I turned out Robertson’s pants pockets, I found a wad of cash in each: twenty crisp hundred-dollar bills in the left pocket, twenty-three in the right. Clearly he hadn’t been killed for money.
I returned those bankrolls to his pockets.
His billfold contained more cash. I stuffed that money in one of his pockets, as well, but kept the wallet with the hope that it might con­tain a clue to his murderous intentions when I had time to examine its remaining contents.
The corpse gurgled alarmingly as I wrapped it in the sheet. Bubbles of phlegm or blood popped in its throat, disturbingly like a belch.
I twisted the ends shut at the head and feet, and tied them as se­curely as possible with the white laces that I stripped out of a spare pair of shoes.
This package looked like an enormous doobie. I don’t do drugs, not even pot, but that’s what it looked like, anyway.
Or maybe a cocoon. A giant larva or pupa inside, changing into something new. I didn’t want to dwell on what that might be.
Using a plastic shopping bag from a bookstore as a suitcase, I packed a change of clothes, shampoo, toothbrush, toothpaste, electric razor, cell phone, flashlight, scissors, a package of foil-wrapped moist towelettes - and a roll of antacids, which I was going to need to get through the rest of the night.
I dragged the body out of the bathroom, across my dark room, to the larger of the two south-facing windows. If I had lived in an ordi­nary apartment house, with neighbors below, the tenants’ committee would have met first thing in the morning to draft a new rule forbid­ding corpse-hauling after 10:00 P.M.
The body weighed far too much for me to carry it. Tumbling it down the outside stairs would have been a noisy proposition - and a memorable spectacle if someone happened to be passing in the street at an inopportune moment.
A half-size dinette table and two chairs stood in front of the win­dow. I moved them aside, raised the lower sash, removed the bug screen, and leaned out to be sure I correctly remembered that the backyard could not be seen from neighboring houses.
A board fence and mature cottonwood trees provided privacy. If a narrow line of sight between branches gave neighbors a sliver of a view, the moonlight alone didn’t brighten the scene enough to lend credibility to their testimony in a courtroom.
I muscled the sheet-wrapped cadaver off the floor, into the open window. I shoved him out feetfirst because though he was inarguably dead, I felt squeamish about dropping him on his head. Halfway out the window, the sheet hung up on a protruding nail head, but with de­termination, I maneuvered him far enough to let gravity take over.
The drop from the windowsill to the ground measured twelve or thirteen feet. Not far. Yet the impact produced a brutal, sickening sound that seemed instantly identifiable as a dead body plummeting to hard earth from a height.
No dogs barked. No one said, Did you hear something, Maude? No one said, Yes, Clem, I heard Odd Thomas drop a corpse out his window. Pico Mundo slept on.
Using paper towels to avoid leaving fingerprints, I plucked the pis­tol off the carpet. I added the gun to the contents of the plastic shop­ping bag.
In the bathroom once more, I checked to be sure that I hadn’t missed anything obvious during the cleanup. Later I would need to do a more thorough job than I had time for now; vacuum for incriminating hairs and fibers, wipe every surface to eliminate Bob Robertson’s prints__
I wouldn’t be helping the killer get away with the crime. By all indi­cations, he was a cool professional who would have been too smart and too self-aware to have left fingerprints or any other evidence of his presence.
When I consulted my wristwatch, what I saw surprised me. One-thirty-eight A.M. The night had seemed to be racing toward dawn. I’d thought it must be two-thirty or later.
Nonetheless, time was running out for me. My watch was digital, but I could hear my opportunity for action tick-tick-ticking away.
After turning off the bathroom light, I went to the front window once more, cracked the blind, and studied the street. If anyone was standing vigil, I still couldn’t spot him.
Carrying the shopping bag, I went outside and locked the front door behind me. Descending the steps, I felt as intently watched as a Miss America contestant during the swimsuit competition.
Although pretty much certain that no eyes were on me, I balanced a load of guilt that made me self-conscious. I nervously scanned the night, looking everywhere but at the steps in front of me; it’s proof of miracles that I didn’t fall and break my neck and leave a second body for the police to puzzle over.
You might wonder what I had to feel guilty about, considering that I hadn’t killed Bob Robertson.
Well, I never need a good reason to embrace guilt. Sometimes I feel responsible for train wrecks in Georgia, terrorist bombs in distant cities, tornadoes in Kansas__
A part of me believes that if I worked more aggressively to explore my gift and to develop it, instead of merely coping with it on a day-by-day basis, I might be able to assist in the apprehension of more crimi­nals and spare more lives from both bad men and brutal nature, even in places far removed from Pico Mundo. I know this is not the case. I know that to pursue much greater involvement with the supernatural would be to lose touch with reality, to spiral down into a genteel mad­ness, whereafter I would be no good to anyone. Yet that chastising part of me weighs my character from time to time and judges me in­adequate.
I understand why I am such an easy mark for guilt. The origins lie with my mother and her guns.
Recognizing the structure of your psychology doesn’t mean that you can easily rebuild it. The Chamber of Unreasonable Guilt is part of my mental architecture, and I doubt that I will ever be able to reno­vate that particular room in this strange castle that is me.
When I reached the bottom of the steps without anyone rushing forward to shout J’accuse!, Istarted around the side of the garage -
then stopped, struck by the sight of the nearby house and the thought of Rosalia Sanchez.
I intended to use her Chevy, which she herself seldom drives, to move Robertson’s body, then return the vehicle to the garage without her being the wiser. I didn’t need a key. As a high-school student, I may not have paid as much attention in math class as would have been ad­visable, but long ago I had learned to hot-wire a car.
My sudden concern about Rosalia had nothing to do with the pos­sibility of her seeing me at this nefarious bit of work, and everything to do with her safety
If another man, with murder on his mind, had gone with Robertson into my apartment between 5:30 and 7:45, they’d done so in daylight. Bright Mojave daylight.
I suspected that the two men had arrived as conspirators and that Robertson thought they were engaged on a bit of nasty business aimed at me. Perhaps he believed they were going to lie in wait for me. He must have been surprised when his companion drew a gun on him.
Once Robertson was dead and I’d been set up for murder, the killer would not have hung around to try on my underwear and sample the leftovers in my refrigerator. He would have left quickly, also in day­light.
Surely he had worried that someone in the nearby house might have seen him entering with his victim or departing alone.
Unwilling to risk a witness, he might have knocked on Rosalia’s back door after he had dealt with Robertson. A gentle widow, living alone, would have been an easy kill.
In fact, if he were a thorough and cautious man, he probably would have visited her before bringing Bob Robertson here. He would have used the same pistol in both instances, framing me for two murders.
Judging by the swiftness and boldness with which he had acted to
eliminate a compromised associate, this unknown man was thor­ough, cautious, and much more.
Rosalia’s house stood silent. No lights shone at any of her windows, only a ghostly face that was, in fact, merely the reflection of the west­ering moon.
I STARTED ACROSS THE DRIVEWAY TOWARD ROSALIA’S back porch before I realized that I had begun to move. After a few steps, I halted.
If she was dead, I could do nothing for her. And if Robertson’s killer had visited her, he had surely not left her alive.
Until now I had thought of Robertson as a lone gunman, a mental and moral freak scheming toward his bloody moment in history, like so many of those infamous scum in his exquisitely maintained files.
He might have been exactly that at one time, but he had become that and more. He had met another who thrilled to the same fantasies of mindless slaughter, and together they had grown into a beast with two faces, two hateful hearts, and four busy hands to do the devil’s work.
The clue had hung on the study wall in Robertson’s house, but I had not understood it. Manson, McVeigh, and Atta. None of them had worked alone. They had conspired with others.
In the files were case histories of numerous serial killers and mass
murderers who acted alone, but the three faces in his shrine were men who had found meaning in a brotherhood of evil.
My illegal visit to Robertson’s residence in Camp’s End had some­how become known to him. Maybe cameras were hidden in the house.
Sociopaths are frequently paranoids, as well. If he chose to do so, Robertson had financial resources large enough to equip his home with well-concealed, state-of-the-art videocams,
He must have told his murderous friend that I had prowled his rooms. His kill buddy might then have decided that he himself was at risk if his association with Robertson became known.
Or because of my nosing around, Robertson might have grown nervous about their plans for August 15. He might have wanted to postpone the slaughter that they had been prepared to commit.
Perhaps his psychotic friend had been too excited to accept a delay. Having for so long contemplated this delicious violence, he now had a hunger for it, a need.
I turned away from Rosalia’s house.
If I went in there and discovered that she had been murdered as a consequence of my actions, I doubted that I would have the will to deal with Robertson’s body. At the very thought of discovering her corpse - Odd Thomas, can you see me? Odd Thomas, am I still visible? - I felt a loosening occur in the hinges of my reason, and I knew that I was at risk of coming apart emotionally if not psychologically.
Viola Peabody and her daughters were depending on me.
Unknown numbers of people currently destined to die in Pico Mundo before the next sunset might be saved if I could stay out of jail, if I could learn the place and the time of the planned atrocity.
As if magic suddenly overruled physics, the moonlight seemed to acquire weight. I felt the burden of that lunar radiance with every step that I took to the back of the garage, where the corpse waited in its white wrapping.
The rear door of the garage was unlocked. That interior darkness smelled of tire rubber, motor oil, old grease, and a raw-wood aroma baked from the exposed rafters by the summer heat. I set my shop­ping bag inside.
Grimly aware that the day had taken both a mental and a physical toll from me, I dragged the body across the threshold and dosed the door. Only then did I fumble for the light switch.
This detached garage contained two stalls, plus a home workshop where a third car might otherwise have been parked. Currently one stall was empty, and Rosalia’s Chevy stood in the space nearest the house.
When I tried the car trunk, I found it locked.
The thought of loading the corpse in the rear seat and driving with it behind my back disturbed me.
In my twenty years, I have seen many strange things. One of the more bizarre was the ghost of President Lyndon Johnson disembark­ing from a Greyhound at the Pico Mundo bus terminal. He arrived from Portland, Oregon, by way of San Francisco and Sacramento, only to board at once an outbound Greyhound destined for Phoenix, Tucson, and points in Texas. Because he had died in a hospital, he wore pajamas, no slippers, and he looked forlorn. When he realized that I could see him, he glared angrily, then pulled down his pajamas and mooned me.
I have never seen a corpse restored to life, however, nor have I en­countered any corpse animated by evil sorcery. Yet the thought of turning my back on Robertson’s cadaver and chauffeuring it to a lonely corner of Pico Mundo filled me with dread.
On the other hand, I couldn’t prop him, fully wrapped, on the front passenger’s seat and drive around with what appeared to be a 250-pound doobie.
Getting the corpse into the back of the Chevy taxed both my
strength and my stomach. In his cocoon, Robertson felt loose, soft… ripe.
Repeatedly, the vivid memory of the ragged, wet bullet hole in his chest rose in my mind: the flabby and livid flesh around it, the dark custardy ooze that had drooled from it. I had not peered closely at the wound, had quickly glanced away, yet that image kept rising like a dark sun in my mind.
By the time I loaded the corpse in the car and closed the back door, sweat streamed from me as though some giant had wrung me out like a washcloth. That’s how I felt, too.
Outside, at two o’clock in the morning, the temperature had fallen to a brisk eighty-five. Here in the windowless garage, the climate was ten degrees more desperate.
Blinking the perspiration out of my eyes, I fumbled under the dash­board and found the wires that I needed. Shocking myself only once, I got the engine started.
Through all of this, the dead man on the backseat did not stir.
I turned out the garage light and put my plastic shopping bag on the passenger’s seat. I got behind the wheel and used the remote con­trol to raise the garage door.
Blotting my face on a handful of Kleenex plucked from the box in the console, I realized that I hadn’t given a thought about where to un­load my cargo. Neither the town dump nor a Goodwill Industries col­lection box seemed like a good idea.
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