“You’re nothing at all like your dad.”
“Who would want to be?”
“I think you’re wrong about that.”
“You know what? You ought to give cooking classes.”
“Mostly what I do is fry.”
“I’d still sign up.”
“It’s not exactly healthy cuisine,” I said.
“We’ve all got to die of something. You still with Bronwen?”
“Stormy. Yeah. It’s like destiny.”
“How do you know?”
“We have matching birthmarks.”
“You mean the one she got tattooed to match yours?”
“Tattooed? No. It’s real enough. We’re getting married.”
“Oh. I didn’t hear about that.”
“It’s breaking news.”
“Wait’ll the girls find out,” Jenna said.
“All of them.”
This conversation wasn’t always making perfect sense to me, so I said, “Listen, I’m walking grime, I need a bath, but I don’t want to leave the hospital till Chief Porter comes out of surgery safe like you say. Is there anywhere here I can get a shower?”
“Let me talk to the head nurse on this floor. We should be able to find you a place.”
“I’ve got a change of clothes in the car,” I said.
“Go get them. Then ask at the nurses’ station. I’ll have arranged everything.”
As she started to turn away, I said, “Jenna, did you take piano les­sons?”
“Did I ever. Years of them. But why would you ask?”
“Your hands are so beautiful. I bet you play like a dream.”
She gave me a long look that I couldn’t interpret: mysteries in those blue-flecked gray eyes.
Then she said, “This wedding thing is true?”
“Saturday,” I assured her, full of pride that Stormy would have me.
“If I could leave town, we’d have gone to Vegas and been married by dawn.”
“Some people are way lucky,” Jenna Spinelli said. “Even luckier than Chief Porter still sucking wind after three chest wounds.”
Assuming that she meant I was fortunate to have won Stormy, I said, ‘After the mother-father mess I was handed, fate owed me big.”
Jenna had that inscrutable look down perfect. “Call me if you de­cide to give cooking lessons, after all. I’ll bet you really know how to whisk,”
Puzzled, I said, “Whisk? Well, sure, but that’s mainly just for scram­bled eggs. With pancakes and waffles, you’ve got to fold the batter, and otherwise almost everything is fry, fry, fry.”
She smiled, shook her head, and walked away, leaving me with that perplexity I’d sometimes felt when, as the player with the best stats on our high-school baseball team, I had been served up what appeared to be a perfect strike-zone slow pitch and yet had swung above it, not even kissing the ball.
I hurried out to Rosalia’s car in the parking lot. I took the gun from the shopping bag and tucked it under the driver’s seat.
When I returned to the fourth-floor nurses’ station with my bag, they were expecting me. Although tending to the sick and dying would seem to be grim work, all four nurses on the graveyard shift were smiling and clearly amused about something.
In addition to the usual range of private and semiprivate rooms, the fourth floor offered a few fancier co-payment accommodations that could pass for hotel rooms. Carpeted and decorated in warm colors, they featured comfortable furniture, nicely framed bad art, and full bathrooms with under-the-counter refrigerators.
Ambulatory patients able to afford to augment their insurance ben­efits can book such swank, escaping the dreary hospital ambience. This is said to speed recuperation, which I’m sure that it does, in spite
of the paint-by-the-number sailing ships and the kittens in fields of daisies.
Provided with a set of towels, I was given the use of a bathroom in an unoccupied luxury unit. The paintings followed a circus theme: clowns with balloons, sad-eyed lions, a pretty high-wire walker with a pink parasol. I chewed two tablets of antacid.
After shaving, showering, shampooing, and changing into fresh clothes, I still felt as if I’d crawled out from under a steamroller, fully flattened.
I sat in an armchair and went through the contents of the wallet that I’d taken off Robertson’s body. Credit cards, driver’s license, a li­brary card…
The only unusual item was a plain black plastic card featuring noth­ing but a line of blind-embossed dots that I could feel with my finger­tips and see clearly in angled light. They looked like this:
The dots were raised on one side of the card, depressed on the other. Although it might have been coded data that could be read by some kind of machine, I assumed that it was a line of tangible type, otherwise known as Braille.
Considering that he had not been blind, I couldn’t imagine why Robertson would have carried a card bearing a statement in Braille.
Neither could I imagine why any blind person would have kept such an item in his wallet.
I sat in the armchair, slowly sliding a thumb across the dots, then the tip of a forefinger. They were only bumps in the plastic, unread­able to me, but the more that I traced their patterns, the more disqui­eted I became.
Tracing, tracing, I closed my eyes, playing at being blind and hoping that my sixth sense might suggest the purpose of the card if not the meaning of the words spelled by the dots.
The hour was late, the moon sinking beyond the windows, the darkness intensifying and marshaling itself for a futile resistance against the bloody dawn.
I must not sleep. I dared not sleep. I slept.
In my dreams, guns cracked, slow-motion bullets bored visible tun­nels in the air, coyotes bared fierce black plastic teeth marked by cryp­tic patterns of dots that I could almost read with my nervous fingers. In Robertson’s livid chest, the oozing wound opened before me as if it were a black hole and I were an astronaut in deep space, drawing me with irresistible gravity into its depths, to oblivion.
I SLEPT ONLY AN HOUR UNTIL A NURSE WOKE ME. CHIEF Porter was being moved from surgery to the intensive-care unit.
The window presented a view of black hills rising to a black sky full of Braille dots leafed with silver. The sun still lay an hour below the eastern horizon.
Carrying my shopping bag of dirty clothes, I returned to the hall­way outside the ICU
Jake Hulquist and the chief’s sister were waiting there. Neither had seen anything like the black plastic card.
Within a minute, a nurse and an orderly entered the long hallway from the elevator alcove, one at the head and one at the foot of a gurney bearing the chief. Karla Porter walked at her husband’s side, one hand on his arm.
When the gurney passed us, I saw that the chief was unconscious, with the prongs of an inhalator in his nose. His tan had turned to tin; his lips were more gray than pink.
The nurse pulled and the orderly pushed the gurney through the
double doors of the ICU, and Karla followed them after telling us that her husband wasn’t expected to regain consciousness for hours.
Whoever murdered Robertson had wounded the chief. I couldn’t prove it; however, when you don’t believe in coincidences, then two shootings with the intent to kill, hours apart, in a sleepy town as small as Pico Mundo, must be as indisputably connected as Siamese twins.
I wondered if the caller on the chief’s private night line had at­tempted to imitate my voice, if he had identified himself as me, seek­ing counsel, asking to be met downstairs at the front door of the house. He might have hoped that the chief would not only be fooled by the deception but would mention my name to his wife before he left the bedroom.
If an effort had been made to frame me for one killing, why not for two?
Though I prayed that the chief would recover quickly, I worried about what he might say when he regained consciousness.
My alibi for the time of his shooting amounted to this: I had been hiding a corpse in a Quonset hut at the Church of the Whispering Comet. This explanation, complete with verifying cadaver, would not give heart to any defense attorney.
At the fourth-floor nurses’ station, none of the women on duty rec­ognized the item that I’d found in Robertson’s wallet.
I had better luck on the third floor, where a pale and freckled nurse with a fey quality stood at the station counter, checking the contents of pill cups against a list of patients* names. She accepted the mysteri­ous plastic rectangle, examined both sides of it, and said, “It’s a medi­tation card.”
“Usually they come without the bumps. Instead they have little
symbols printed on them. Like a series of crosses or images of the Holy Virgin.”
“Not this one.”
“You’re supposed to say a repetitive prayer, like an Our Father or a Hail Mary, as you move your finger from symbol to symbol.”
“So it’s like a convenient form of a rosary you can carry in your wallet?”
“Yeah. Worry beads.” Sliding her fingertips back and forth over the raised dots, she said, “But they’re not only used by Christians. In fact, they began as a New Age thing.”
“What’re those like?”
“I’ve seen them with rows of bells, Buddhas, peace signs, dogs or cats if you want to direct your meditative energy toward the achieve­ment of rights for animals, or rows of planet Earths so you can medi­tate for a better environment.”
“Is this one for blind people?” I wondered.
“No. Not at all.”
She held the card against her forehead for a moment, like a mental­ist reading the contents of a note through a sealed envelope.
I don’t know why she did this, and I decided not to ask.
Tracing the dots again, she said, ‘About a quarter of the cards are Braille like this. What you’re supposed to do is press a finger to the dots and meditate on each letter.”
“But what does it say?”
As she continued to finger the card, a frown took possession of her face as gradually as an image rising out of the murk on Polaroid film. “I don’t read Braille. But they say different things, this and that, a few inspirational words. A mantra to focus your energy. It’s printed on the package the card comes in.”
“I don’t have the package.”
“Or you can also order a custom imprint, your personal mantra, anything you want. This is the first black one I’ve ever seen.”
“What color are they usually?” I asked.
“White, gold, silver, the blue of the sky lots of times green for the environmentalist mantras.”
Her frown had fully developed.
She returned the card to me.
With evident distaste, she stared at the fingers with which she had traced the dots.
“Where’d you say you found this?” she asked.
“Downstairs in the lobby, on the floor,” I lied.
From behind the counter, she picked up a bottle of Purell. She squirted a gob of the clear gel onto her left palm, put the bottle down, and vigorously rubbed her hands together, sanitizing them.
“If I were you, I’d get rid of that,” she said as she rubbed. “And the sooner the better.”
She had used so much Purell that I could smell the ethyl alcohol evaporating.
“Get rid of it - why?” I asked.
“It’s got negative energy. Bad mojo. It’ll bring wickedness down on you.”
I wondered which school of nursing she had attended.
“I’ll throw it in the trash,” I promised.
The freckles on her face seemed to have grown brighter, burning like sprinkles of cayenne pepper. “Don’t throw it away here.”
‘All right,” I said, “I won’t.”
“Not anywhere in the hospital,” she said. “Take a drive out in the desert, where there’s nobody around, drive fast, throw it out the win­dow, let the wind take it.”
“That sounds like a good plan.”
Her hands were dry and sanitized. Her frown had evaporated along with the alcohol gel. She smiled. “I hope I’ve been of some help.”
“You’ve been great.”
I took the meditation card out of the hospital, into the waning night, but not for a drive in the desert.
THE STUDIOS OF KPMC RADIO, VOICE OF THE MARAVILLA Valley, are on Main Street, in the heart of Pico Mundo, in a three-story brick Georgian townhouse, between two Victorian edifices housing the law offices of Knacker & Hisscus and the Good Day Bakery.
In this last hour of darkness, lights were on in the kitchen of the bakery. When I got out of the car, the street smelled of bread fresh from the oven, cinnamon buns, and lemon strudel.
No bodachs were in sight.
The lower floors of KPMC house the business offices. Broadcast studios are on the third level.
Stan “Spanky” Lufmunder was the engineer on duty. Harry Beamis, who managed to survive in the radio business without a nick­name, was the producer of ‘All Night with Shamus Cocobolo.”
I made faces at them through the triple-insulated view window be­tween the third-floor hall and their electronic aerie.
After conveying by hand gestures that I should copulate with my­self, they gave me the okay sign, and I continued along the hall to the door to the broadcast booth.
From the speaker in the hallway, at low volume, issued “String of Pearls,” by the immortal Glenn Miller, the platter that Shamus was currently spinning on the air.
The music actually originated from a CD, but on his show, Shamus uses the slang of the 1930s and ’40s.
Harry Beamis alerted him, so when I entered the booth, Shamus took off his headphones, tuned up the on-air feed just enough to stay on track with it, and said, “Hey, Wizard, welcome to my Pico Mundo.”
To Shamus, I am the Wizard of Odd, or Wizard for short.
He said, “Why don’t you smell like peach shampoo?”
“The only soap I had was unscented Neutrogena.”
He frowned. “It’s not over between you and the goddess, is it?”
“It’s only just begun,” I assured him.
“Glad to hear it.”
The foam-cone walls mellowed our voices, smoothed rough edges.
The lenses of his dark glasses were the blue of old Milk of Magnesia bottles. His skin was so black that it, too, seemed to have a blue tint.
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