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If Robertson were found too soon, Chief Porter would have hard questions for me that might interfere with my attempts to deflect whatever horror was soon to descend on Pico Mundo. Ideally, the body would lie quietly decomposing for at least twenty-four hours be­fore someone found it and had a new love for Jesus scared into him.


Then I thought of the perfect hiding place: the Church of the Whispering Comet Topless Bar, Adult Bookstore, and Burger Heaven.


THIRTY-SIX


THE CHURCH OF THE WHISPERING COMET HAD BEEN erected more than twenty years ago, off the state highway and a few hundred yards past the town limits of Pico Mundo, on a tract of desert scrub.


Even when it had been a house of unusual worship, it had not resembled a church. Here in the clear and starry night, the main building - a two-hundred-foot-long, sixty-foot-wide, semicylindrical, corrugated-metal Quonset hut with porthole windows - looked like a spaceship, minus its nose cone, half buried in the earth.


Nestled among dead and dying trees, more than half concealed by a mottling camouflage of shadows and pale moonlight, smaller Quonsets ringed the perimeter of the property. These had been bar­racks for the true believers.


The founder of the church, Caesar Zedd Jr., preached that he re­ceived whispered messages, mostly in dreams but also sometimes when awake, from alien intelligences aboard a spacecraft traveling toward Earth inside a comet. These aliens claimed to be the gods who had created human beings and all species on the planet.


Most people in Pico Mundo had assumed that the services at the Church of the Whispering Comet would one day culminate in a com­munion with poisoned Kool-Aid and hundreds of deaths. Instead, the sincerity of Zedd’s religious faith came under question when he and his entire clergy were indicted and convicted of operating the largest Ecstasy production-and-distribution ring in the world.


After the church ceased to exist, an outfit calling itself the First Amendment Protection Society, Inc. - the largest operator of adult bookstores, topless bars, Internet p**n sites, and karaoke cocktail lounges in the United States - intimidated Maravilla County into giv­ing it a business license. They remade the property into a cheesy, sex-theme amusement park, converting the original church sign to neon and extending it to read CHURCH OF THE WHISPERING COMET TOPLESS


BAR, ADULT BOOKSTORE, AND BURGER HEAVEN.


Rumor has it that the burgers and fries were excellent and that the promise of free soft-drink refills was generously honored. Yet this es­tablishment never succeeded in winning over the family-dining crowd or the upscale professional couples who are so essential to any restau­rant operation.


The enterprise, known locally as the Whispering Burger, turned a handsome profit even after covering its food-service losses. The topless bar, the bookstore (which stocked no books, but offered thousands of videotapes), and the whorehouse (not mentioned in the original business-license application) brought oceans of money to this desert oasis.


Although the corporation’s lawyers, courageous defenders of the Constitution, managed to keep the doors open through ten convic­tions for operation of a prostitution ring, the Whispering Burger im­ploded following the gunning down of three prostitutes by a na*ed customer strung out on PCP and excessive doses of Viagra.


In lieu of unpaid taxes and fines, the property had fallen into the


hands of the county. During the past five years, cessation of all main­tenance and the relentless repossession efforts of the desert had re­duced a once-proud house of alien gods to rust and ruin.


The church grounds had been landscaped as a tropical paradise, with lush lawns, several varieties of palm trees, ferns, bamboo, and flowering vines. Without daily watering, the brief rainy season in the desert wasn’t sufficient to preserve this Eden.


Having switched off my headlights when I turned in from the state highway, I drove through the shaggy moonshadows cast by dead palm trees. The cracked and potholed blacktop driveway led to the back of the main building, and then farther to the arc of smaller Quonset huts.


I was reluctant to leave the car with the engine running, but I wanted to be able to make a quick getaway. Without keys, I could not start the engine quickly enough in a crisis.


With the flashlight I’d packed in my shopping bag, I set out to find a suitable place to stash an inconvenient corpse.


The Mojave had recovered its breath again. A lazy exhalation blew out of the east, smelling of dry brush, hot sand, and the strange life of the desert.


Each of the ten Quonset huts used as barracks by the church had housed sixty cult members in the cramped fashion of opium-den bunks. When the church was replaced by a bordello with burgers, a few of these structures were gutted, partitioned, and redecorated to serve as cozy cribs for the hookers who delivered what the topless dancers in the bar only promised.


In the years since the property had been abandoned, morbidly curi­ous people had explored and vandalized the main building and all the barracks. Doors had been broken open. Some had fallen off their cor­roded hinges.


At the third barracks that I inspected, the spring latch on the door still worked well enough to hold it closed.


I didn’t want to leave the corpse in a space to which coyotes could easily gain access. Robertson had been a monster; I remained con­vinced of that; however, regardless of what he might have done or might have been capable of doing, I couldn’t consign his remains to the indignity that Granny Sugars had feared might befall her if she dropped dead in a poker game with hardhearted players.


Maybe coyotes weren’t carrion eaters. Maybe they would eat only meat they killed.


The desert, however, teemed with more life than could be seen at casual inspection. Much of it would be pleased to dine on a carcass as fleshy as Robertson’s.


After pulling the Chevy as dose to the chosen building as possi­ble - about ten feet from the door - I required a minute to summon the nerve to deal with the corpse. I chewed two antacid tablets.


During the drive from town, Bob Robertson had not once asked, Are we there yet? Nevertheless, and against all reason, I didn’t trust him to stay dead.


Hauling him out of the car proved easier than getting him into it, ex­cept that at one point, when his big gelatinous body quivered inside the bedsheet shroud, I felt as if I were handling a bag full of live snakes.


After I dragged him to the door of the Quonset hut, which I had wedged open with the flashlight, I paused to wipe the sweat from my dripping brow - and saw the yellow eyes. Low to the ground, twenty or thirty feet away, they watched me with unmistakable hunger.


I snatched up the flashlight and focused the beam on the very thing I had feared: a coyote that had come in from the open range, exploring among the abandoned buildings. Big, sinewy, rough-hewn, sharp of brow and jaw, it was less wicked by nature than are many human be­ings, but at that moment it looked like a demon that had slipped through the gates of Hell.


The flashlight didn’t frighten it off, which suggested that it had be-


come dangerously certain of itself in the presence of people - and that it might not be alone. I swept the immediate night with the flash­light and discovered another slouching beast to the right of and be­hind the first.


Until recent years, coyotes rarely savaged children and never adults. As human settlements encroached on their hunting grounds, they had become bolder, more aggressive. Within the past five years, several adults in California had been stalked and even attacked.


These two didn’t appear to find me in the least intimidating, only savory.


I searched the ground near my feet, seeking a stone, and settled for a chunk of concrete that had broken off the edge of the walkway. I hurled it at the nearest predator. The missile struck the blacktop six inches wide of the target and bounced away into the darkness.


The coyote shied from the point of impact but did not run. The sec­ond stalker took its cue from the first and stood its ground.


The wheeze and clatter of the idling car, which didn’t faze the coy­otes, worried me. Whispering Burger was an isolated property; no one should have been near enough to have his curiosity pricked by the grumbling engine. If other intruders were already on the grounds, however, the noise would mask the sound of their movements.


I couldn’t deal with two things at once. Getting the corpse out of sight took precedence over dealing with the coyotes.


By the time I returned, maybe the predators would have gone, led away by the scent of rabbits or other easy game.


I dragged the wrapped cadaver across the threshold, into the Quonset hut, and then closed the door securely behind me.


A hallway along one side of the building served a bath and four rooms. Each room had been the workplace of a prostitute.


My flashlight revealed dust, spider webs, two empty beer bottles, a litter of dead bees….


After all these years, the air was still thinly laced with the faded bou­quet of scented candles, incense, perfume, fragrant oils. Underlying this faint but sweet melange was a fainter, acrid smell that might have been the stale urine of animals that had come and gone.


The furniture had been trucked away long ago. In two rooms, mir­rors on the ceiling suggested where the beds had been positioned. The walls were painted hot-pink.


Each room featured two portholes. Most of the glass had been shot out by kids with air guns.


In the fourth room, both small windows were intact. Here, none of the larger carrion eaters could get at the corpse.


One of the securing shoelaces had snapped. An end of the shroud sagged loose, and Robertson’s left foot became exposed.


I considered taking both laces and the sheet. They were possible connections to me, though they were such common brands, sold in so many stores, that they alone would not convict me.


As I bent to the task, into my mind came an image of the wound in Robertson’s chest. And in memory I heard my mother’s voice: You want to pull the trigger for me? You want to pull the trigger?


I’d had much practice turning my mind away from certain memo­ries of my childhood. I could quickly dial her remembered voice from a whisper to a silence.


Casting from my mind the image of Robertson’s wound was not as easy That wet hole pulsed in memory as though his dead heart were beating under it.


In my bathroom, when I’d opened his shirt to check for lividity and had seen the entrance wound in his empurpled flesh, something had compelled me to look more closely. Disgusted by my own morbid im­pulse and, indeed, frightened by it, afraid that my fascination proved I’d been twisted by my mother in ways I hadn’t realized, I had resisted looking closer and had at once turned away, rebuttoned his shirt.


Now, on one knee beside Robertson, fumbling with the knots in the remaining shoelace that secured the shroud, I tried to close the memory of that shirt over the memory of the oozing wound, but still it throbbed in my mind’s eye.


In the bloating cadaver, gas swizzled up a series of chuckles culmi­nating in what sounded like a sigh from the lips of the dead man, there behind his cotton veil.


Unable to spend another second with the corpse, I shot to my feet, fled the hot-pink room with my flashlight, and was halfway along the hall before I realized that I had left the door open. I went back and closed it, further protecting the body from the desert’s larger scav­engers.


I used the tail of my T-shirt to wipe the door handles to all the rooms that I had investigated. Then, scuffing my feet through the prints I’d left earlier, I smeared the thick dust on the floor with the hope that I could avoid leaving clear shoe-tread impressions.


When I opened the outer door, my flashlight beam struck flares of eyeshine from three coyotes that waited between me and the idling Chevy.


THIRTY-SEVEN


WITH THEIR SINEWY LEGS, LEAN FLANKS, AND NARROW muzzles, coyotes appear to be designed for speed and savage assault, and yet even as they face you down with a predatory gleam in their eyes, they have some of the appeal of dogs. Prairie wolves, some people call them, and although they lack most of the charm of wolves, they do have a puppylike quality because their feet are too big for their bodies and their ears are too big for their heads.


These three beasts appeared more quizzical than threatening - if you failed to read the right message in their tense posture and in the flare of their nostrils. Their large ears were pricked, and one of them cocked its head as if it found me to be deeply puzzling, an opinion of me that is not limited to coyotes.


Two stood in front of the Chevy, perhaps fourteen feet away. The third waited between me and the passenger’s side of the car, where I had left the rear door open.


I let out a shout at the greatest volume I could muster, for common wisdom holds that sudden loud noises will frighten coyotes into flight. Two twitched, but none of them retreated so much as an inch.


Stewed in my own sweat, I must have smelled like a salty but deli­cious dinner.


When I stepped back from the threshold, they didn’t spring at me, which meant their boldness had not yet matured into the absolute conviction that they could take me down. I let the door fall shut be­tween us.


Another door at the farther end of the hall also opened to the out­side, but if I slipped out by that exit, I would be at too great a distance from the Chevy. I couldn’t hope to circle around behind the car and get in through the door that I’d left open. Long before I got there, the three brethren of Wile E. would have caught my scent and would be waiting, and none would need to rely on a Byzantine killing ma­chine purchased by mail from Acme, Inc.


If I waited inside until dawn, I might escape them, for these were night hunters, and possibly too hungry to outwait me. The fuel gauge in Rosalia’s car had shown a half-full tank, which might last long enough, but the engine would almost surely overheat before the fuel gave out, leaving the car unusable.


Besides, the batteries in my flashlight most likely wouldn’t last an hour. For all my brave talk earlier about being unafraid of the un­known, I could not tolerate being trapped in the pitch-black Quonset hut in the company of a dead man.


With nothing to entertain my eyes, I’d obsess on the recollected im­age of his bullet wound. I’d be convinced that every breath of the night breeze, whispering at a broken window, was in fact the sound of Bob Robertson peeling out of his cocoon.


I went in search of something to throw at the coyotes. Unless I was prepared to strip the shoes off the corpse, I had nothing but the two empty beer bottles.


After returning to the door with the bottles, I switched off the flashlight, jammed it under the waistband of my jeans, and waited a


few minutes, giving peace a chance, but also letting my eyes adapt to darkness.


When I opened the door, hoping the chow line had broken up and slouched away, I was disappointed. The three remained almost where they had been when I’d left them: two in front of the car, the third near the forward tire on the passenger’s side.

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