I reached in front of him and put down the meditation card, snap­ping it sharply against the countertop to intrigue him.
He played cool, didn’t pick it up right away. “I plan to come by the Grille after the show, chow down on a heart-stopping pile of fried shaved ham, shoestring onions, and biscuits in gravy”
As I circled the microphone island, sat on a stool opposite him, and pushed the other mike aside on its flexible arm, I said, “I won’t be cooking this morning. Got the day off.”
“What do you do on a day off - go out there and moon around at the tire store?”
“I thought I might go bowling.”
“You’re one wild party animal, Wizard. I don’t know how your lady keeps up with you.”
The Miller tune wrapped. Shamus leaned into the mike and let ad-libbed patter dance off his tongue, cuing back-to-back cuts of Benny Goodman’s “One O’clock Jump” and Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train.”
I like to listen to Shamus on the air and off. He has a voice that makes Barry White and James Earl Jones sound like carnival barkers with strep throat. To radio people, he’s the Velvet Tongue.
From 1:00 A.M. to 6:00, every day but Sunday, Shamus spins what he calls “the music that won the big war,” and recounts tales of the night life of that long-ago age.
The other nineteen hours of the day, KPMC eschews music in favor of talk radio. Management would prefer to shut down during those five least-listened hours, but their broadcast license requires them to serve the community 24/7.
This situation gives Shamus the freedom to do anything he wants, and what he wants is to immerse himself and his insomniac listeners in the glories of the Big Band era. In those days, he says, the music was real, and life was more grounded in truth, reason, and good will.
The first time I heard this rap, I expressed surprise that he would feel such affinity for an age of active segregation. His answer was, “I’m black, blind, seriously smart, and sensitive. No age would be easy for me. At least the culture had culture then, it had style.”
Now he told his audience, “Close your eyes, picture the Duke in his trademark white tux, and join me, Shamus Cocobolo, as I ride that A Train to Harlem.”
His mother named him Shamus because she wanted her son to be a police detective. When he went blind at three, a law-enforcement ca­reer ceased to be an option. The “Cocobolo” came with his father, straight out of Jamaica.
Picking up the black plastic card, holding it by the top and bottom
edges between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand, he said, “Some stupefyingly stupid bank give you a credit card?”
“I was hoping you could tell me what it says.”
He slid one finger across the card, not really reading it, just deter­mining its nature. “Oh, Wizard, surely you don’t think I need medita­tion when I’ve got Count Basie and Satchmo and Artie Shaw.”
“So you know what it is.”
“The last couple years, people have given me maybe a dozen of these things, all different inspirational thoughts, as though blind people can’t dance, so they meditate. No offense, Wizard, but you’re entirely too cool to give me a plastic fantastic spiritual whizbang like this, and I’m a little embarrassed for you.”
“You’re welcome. But I’m not giving it to you. I’m just curious what it says in Braille.”
“I’m relieved to hear that. But why curious?”
“I was born that way.”
“I get the point. None of my business.” He read the card with his fingertips and said, ” ‘Father of lies.’ “
” ‘Father of flies’?”
The phrase was familiar to me, but for some reason I couldn’t make sense of it, perhaps because I didn’t want to.
“The devil,” Shamus said. “The Father of Lies, Father of Evil, His Satanic Majesty. What’s the story, Wizard? Is St. Bart’s old-time reli­gion just too boring these days, you need a whiff of sulfur to give your soul a thrill?”
“It’s not my card.”
“So whose card is it?”
“A nurse at County General told me to drive pedal-to-the-metal, into the desert, toss it out a window, let the wind take it.”
“For a nice boy who makes an honest living with a fast spatula, you sure hang around with some seriously whacked people.”
He slid the card toward me, across the microphone island.
I got up from my stool.
“Don’t you leave that brimstone Braille here,” he said.
“It’s just a plastic fantastic spiritual whizbang, remember?”
My twin reflections watched me from the dark-blue lenses of his glasses.
Shamus said, “I knew a practicing Satanist once. The guy claimed he hated his mother, but he must’ve loved her. Cops found her severed head in his freezer, in a sealed plastic bag with rose petals to keep it fresh.”
I picked up the meditation card. It felt cold.
“Thanks for your help, Shamus.”
“You be careful, Wizard. Interestingly eccentric friends aren’t easy to find. You were suddenly dead, I’d miss you.”
THE RED DAWN CAME, THE SUN LIKE AN EXECUTIONER’S blade slicing up from the dark horizon.
Elsewhere in Pico Mundo, a would-be mass murderer might have been looking at this sunrise while inserting cartridges in spare maga­zines for his assault rifle.
I parked in the driveway and turned off the engine. I could wait no longer to learn if the shooter who popped Bob Robertson had also murdered Rosalia Sanchez. Yet two or three minutes passed before I found sufficient courage to get out of the car.
The night birds had fallen silent. Usually active at first light, the morning crows had not yet appeared.
Climbing the back-porch steps, I saw that the screen door was closed but that the door stood open. The kitchen lights were off.
I peered through the screen. Rosalia sat at the table, her hands folded around a coffee mug. She appeared to be alive.
Appearances can be deceiving. Her dead body might be awaiting discovery in another room, and this might be her earthbound spirit
with its hands around the mug that she had left when she’d gone to answer the killer’s knock on her door the previous evening.
I could not smell freshly brewed coffee.
Always before, when she waited for me to arrive to tell her that she was visible, the lights had been on. I had never seen her sitting in the dark like this.
Rosalia looked up and smiled as I entered the kitchen.
I stared at her, afraid to speak, for fear that she was a lingering spirit and could not answer.
“Good morning, Odd Thomas.”
Dread blew out of me with my pent-up breath. “You’re alive.”
“Of course I’m alive. I know I’m a long way down the road from the young girl I used to be, but I don’t look dead, I hope.”
“I meant - visible. You’re visible.”
“Yes, I know The two policemen told me, so I didn’t have to wait for you this morning.”
“It was good knowing early. I turned out the lights and just enjoyed sitting here, watching the dawn develop.” She raised her mug. “Would you like some apple juice, Odd Thomas?”
“No thank you, ma’am. Did you say two policemen?”
“They were nice boys.”
“When was this?”
“Not forty minutes ago. They were worried about you.”
“Worried - why?”
“They said someone reported hearing a gunshot come from your apartment. Isn’t that ridiculous, Odd Thomas? I told them I hadn’t heard anything.”
I was sure that the call reporting the shot had been made anony­mously, because the caller had likely been Robertson’s killer.
Mrs. Sanchez said, “I asked them what on earth you’d be shooting
at in your apartment. I told them you don’t have mice.” She raised her mug to take a sip of apple juice, but then said, “You don’t have mice, do you?”
“They wanted to look anyway. They were concerned about you. Nice boys. Careful to wipe their feet. They didn’t touch a thing.”
“You mean you showed them my apartment?”
After swallowing some apple juice, she said, “Well, they were po­licemen, and they were so worried about you, and they felt much bet­ter when they didn’t find that you’d shot your foot or something.”
I was glad I’d moved Robertson’s body immediately upon finding it in my bathroom.
“Odd Thomas, you never came around last night to get the cookies I baked for you. Chocolate chip with walnuts. Your favorite.”
A plate, heaped with cookies, covered with plastic wrap, stood on the table.
“Thank you, ma’am. Your cookies are the best.” I picked up the plate. “I was wondering… do you think I could borrow your car for a little while?”
“But didn’t you just drive up in it?”
My blush was redder than the spreading dawn beyond the win­dows. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Well, then, you’ve already borrowed it,” she said without the slightest trace of irony. “No need to ask twice.”
I retrieved the keys from a pegboard by the refrigerator. “Thank you, Mrs. Sanchez. You’re too good to me.”
“You’re a sweet boy, Odd Thomas. You remind me so much of my nephew Marco. Come September, he’ll have been invisible three years.”
Marco, with the rest of his family had been aboard one of the planes that flew into the World Trade Center.
She said, “I keep thinking he’ll turn visible again any day, but it’s been so long now…. Don’t you ever go invisible, Odd Thomas.”
She breaks my heart sometimes. “I won’t,” I assured her.
When I bent down and kissed her brow, she put a hand to my head, holding my face to hers. “Promise me you won’t.”
“I promise, ma’am. I swear to God.”
WHEN I PARKED IN FRONT OF STORMY’S APARTMENT house, the undercover PD van was no longer across the street.
Obviously, when the police detail had been in place, it hadn’t been providing security for her. As I’d suspected, they had been keeping a watch with the hope that Robertson would come looking for me. When I’d shown up at Chief Porter’s house, after the shooting, they realized that I was no longer with Stormy, and evidently they pulled up stakes.
Robertson was embarked upon an endless sleep, watched over by the ghost of a young prostitute, but his murderer and former kill buddy remained at large. This second psychopath would have no rea­son to make a special target of Stormy; besides, she had her 9-mm pis­tol and the hard-nosed will to use it.
Yet into my mind came the image of Robertson’s chest wound, and I could not turn away from it or close my eyes to it as I had done in my bathroom. Worse, my imagination transferred the mortal hole from the dead man’s livid flesh to Stormy, and I thought also of the young
woman who saved me from the coyotes, arms crossed modestly over her br**sts and wounds.
On the front walkway, I broke into a run. Slammed up the stairs. Crashed across the porch. Threw open the door with the leaded glass.
I fumbled the key, dropped it, bent and snatched it from the air as it bounced off the hardwood floor, and let myself into her apartment.
From the living room, I saw Stormy in the kitchen, and I went to her side.
She stood at the cutting board, beside the sink, using a small grape­fruit knife to section the prime Florida fruit. A small pile of extracted seeds glistened on the wood.
“What’re you wired about?” she asked as she finished her task and set aside the knife.
“I thought you were dead.”
“Since I’m not, do you want some breakfast?”
I almost told her that someone had shot the chief.
Instead, I said, “If I did drugs, I’d love an amphetamine omelet with three pots of black coffee. I didn’t get much sleep. I need to stay awake, clarify my thinking.”
“I’ve got chocolate-covered doughnuts.”
“That’s a start,”
We sat at the kitchen table: she with her grapefruit, me with the box of doughnuts and with a Pepsi, full sugar, full caffeine.
“Why did you think I was dead?” she asked.
She was already worried about me. I didn’t want to wind her anxi­ety spring to the breaking point.
If I told her about the chief, I’d wind up also telling her about Bob Robertson in my bathtub, about how he’d been a dead man already when I’d seen him in the churchyard, about the events at the Church of the Whispering Comet and the satanic meditation card.
She’d want to stay at my side for the duration. Ride shotgun, give me cover. I couldn’t allow her to endanger herself like that.
I sighed and shook my head. “I don’t know. I’m seeing bodachs everywhere. Hordes of them. Whatever’s coming, it’s going to be big. I’m scared.”
Warningly, she pointed her spoon at me. “Don’t tell me to stay home today.”
“I’d like you to stay home today.”
“What’d I just say?”
“What’d Ijust say.”
Chewing, silenced by grapefruit and by chocolate doughnut, we stared at each other,
“I’ll stay home today,” she said, “if you’ll stay here all day with me.”
“We’ve been through this. I can’t let people die if there’s a way to spare them.”
“And I’m not going to live even one day in a cage just because there’s a loose tiger out there somewhere.”
I chugged Pepsi. I wished that I had some caffeine tablets. I wished that I had smelling salts to clear my head each time a fog of sleep be­gan to creep upon me. I wished that I could be like other people, with no supernatural gift, with no weight to carry except whatever choco­late doughnuts might eventually put on me.
“He’s worse than a tiger,” I told her.
“I don’t care if he’s worse than a Tyrannosaurus rex. I’ve got a life to live - and no time to waste if I’m going to have my own ice-cream shop within four years.”
“Get real. One day off work isn’t going to destroy your chances of fulfilling the dream.”
“Every day I work toward it is the dream. The process, not the final achievement, is what it’s all about.”
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