“Why do I even try to reason with you? I always lose.”
“You’re a fabulous man of action, sweetie. You don’t need to be a good debater, too.”
“I’m a fabulous man of action and a terrific short-order cook.”
“The ideal husband.”
“I’m going to have a second doughnut.”
With full knowledge that she was offering a concession that I could not accept, she smiled and said, “Tell you what - I’ll take a day off work and go with you, right at your side, everywhere you go.”
Where I hoped to go, by the grace of psychic magnetism, was to the unknown man who’d killed Robertson and who might now be preparing himself to carry out the atrocity that they had planned to­gether. Stormy wouldn’t be safe at my side.
“No,” I said. “You get on with your dream. Pack those cones, mix those milkshakes, and be the best damn purveyor of ice cream that you can be. Even little dreams can’t come true unless you persevere.”
“Did you think that up, odd one, or are you quoting?”
“Don’t you recognize it? I’m quoting you.”
She smiled affectionately. “You’re smarter than you look.”
“I’d have to be. Where are you going on your lunch break?”
“You know me - I pack my lunch. It’s cheaper, and I can stay at work, on top of things.”
“Don’t change your mind. Don’t go near a bowling alley, near a movie theater, near anything.”
“Can I go near a golf course?”
“A miniature-golf course?”
“I’m serious about this.”
“Can I go near a game arcade?”
“Remember that old movie, Public Enemy?” I asked.
“Can I go near an amusement park?”
“James Cagney’s this gangster having breakfast with his moll - “
“I’m nobody’s moll.”
” - and when she irritates him, he shoves half a grapefruit in her face.”
“And what does she do - castrate him? That’s what I’d do, with my grapefruit knife.”
“Public Enemy was made in 1931. You couldn’t show castration on the screen back then.”
“What an immature art form it was in those days. So enlightened now. You want half my grapefruit and I’ll get my knife?”
“I’m just saying I love you and I’m worried about you.”
“I love you, too, sweetie. So I’ll promise not to eat lunch on a miniature-golf course. I’ll have it right at Burke &Bailey’s. If I spill salt, I’ll immediately throw a pinch over my shoulder. Hell, I’ll throw the entire shaker.”
“Thanks. But I’m still considering the grapefruit-face smash.”
AT THE TAKUDA HOUSE ON HAMPTON WAY, NO BODACHS were in sight. The previous night, they had been swarming over the residence.
As I parked in front of the place, the garage door rolled up. Ken Takuda backed out in his Lincoln Navigator.
When I walked to the driveway, he stopped the SUV and put down his window. “Good morning, Mr. Thomas.”
He’s the only person I know who addresses me so formally.
“Good morning, sir. It’s a beautiful morning, isn’t it?”
“A glorious morning,” he declared. “A momentous day, like every day, full of possibilities.”
Dr. Takuda is on the faculty of California State University at Pico Mundo. He teaches twentieth-century American literature.
Considering that the modern and contemporary literature taught in most universities is largely bleak, cynical, morbid, pessimistic, mis­anthropic dogmatism, often written by suicidal types who sooner or later kill themselves with alcohol or drugs, or shotguns, Professor Takuda was a remarkablv cheerful man.
“I need some advice about my future,” I lied. “I’m thinking of go­ing to college, after all, eventually getting a doctorate, building an aca­demic career, like you.”
When his lustrous Asian complexion paled, he acquired a taupe tint. “Well, Mr. Thomas, while I’m in favor of education, I couldn’t in good conscience recommend a university career in anything but the hard sciences. As a working environment, the rest of academia is a sewer of irrationality, hatemongering, envy, and self-interest. I’m get­ting out the moment I earn my twenty-five-year pension package, and then I’m going to write novels like Ozzie Boone.”
“But, sir, you always seem so happy.”
“In the belly of Leviathan, Mr. Thomas, one can either despair and perish, or be cheerful and persevere.” He smiled brightly.
This wasn’t the response I expected, but I pressed forward with my half-baked scheme to learn his schedule for the day and thereby per­haps pinpoint the place where Robertson’s kill buddy would strike. “I’d still like to talk to you about it.”
“The world has too few modest fry cooks and far too many self-important professors, but we’ll chat about it if you like. Just call the university and ask for my office. My graduate assistant will set up an appointment.”
“I was hoping we could talk this morning, sir.”
“Now? What has caused this sudden urgent thirst for academic pur­suits?”
“I need to think more seriously about the future. I’m getting mar­ried on Saturday.”
“Would that be to Ms. Bronwen Llewellyn?”
“Mr. Thomas, you have a rare opportunity for perfect bliss, and you would be ill advised to poison your life with either academia or drug dealing. I have a class this morning, followed by two student
conferences. Then I’m having lunch and seeing a movie with my fam­ily, so I’m afraid tomorrow is the absolute earliest we can discuss this self-destructive impulse of yours.”
“Where are you having lunch, sir? At the Grille?”
“We’re allowing the children to choose. It’s their day.”
“What movie are you seeing?”
“That thing about the dog and the alien.”
“Don’t,” I said, though I hadn’t seen the film. “It stinks.”
“It’s a big hit.”
“The critics like it,” he said.
“Randall Jarrell said that art is long and critics are but the insects of a day.”
“Give my office a call, Mr. Thomas. We’ll talk tomorrow.”
He put up his window, backed out of the driveway, and drove off toward the university and, later in the day, an appointment with Death.
NICOLINA PEABODY, AGE FIVE, WORE PINK SNEAKERS, pink shorts, and a pink T-shirt. Her wristwatch featured a pink plastic band and a pink pig’s face on the dial.
“When I’m old enough to buy my own clothes,” she told me, I’ll wear nothing but pink, pink, pink, every day, all year, forever.”
Levanna Peabody who would soon be seven, rolled her eyes and said, “Everybody’ll think you’re a whore.”
Entering the living room with a birthday cake on a plate under a clear-glass lid, Viola said, “Levanna! That’s an awful thing to say. That’s just half a step from trash talk and two weeks with no allowance.”
“What’s a whore?” Nicolina asked.
“Someone who wears pink and kisses men for money,” Levanna said in a tone of worldly sophistication.
When I took the cake from Viola, she said,I’ll just grab their box of activity books, and we’ll be ready to go.”
I had taken a quick tour of the house. No bodachs lurked in any corner.
Nicolina said, “If I kiss men for free, then I can wear pink and not be a whore.”
“If you kiss lots of men for free, you’re a slut,” Levanna said.
“Levanna, enough!” Viola reprimanded.
“But, Mom,” Levanna said, “she’s got to learn how the world works sooner or later.”
Noticing my amusement and interpreting it with uncanny skill, Nicolina confronted her older sister: “You don’t even know what a whore is, you only think you do.”
“I know, all right,” Levanna insisted smugly.
The girls preceded me down the front walk to Mrs. Sanchez’s car, which was parked at the curb.
After locking the house, Viola followed us. She put the box of ac­tivity books in the backseat with the girls, and then she sat up front. I handed the cake to her and closed her door.
The morning was pure Mojave, blazing and breathless. The sky, an inverted blue ceramic cauldron, poured out a hot dry brew.
With the sun still in the east, all shadows slanted westward, as if yearning for that horizon over which the night had preceded them. And along the windless street, only my shadow moved.
If supernatural entities were present, they were not evident.
As I got in the car and started the engine, Nicolina said, “I’m never going to kiss any men, anyway. Just Mommy, Levanna, and Aunt Sharlene.”
“You’ll want to kiss men when you’re older,” Levanna predicted.
“I won’t,” Nicolina firmly declared. “Just you, Mommy, Aunt Sharlene. Oh, and Cheevers.”
“Cheevers is a boy,” Levanna said as I pulled away from the curb and set out for Sharlene’s house.
Nicolina giggled. “Cheevers is a bear.”
“He’s a boy bear.”
“But he’s still a boy,” Levanna contended. “See, it’s started al­ready - you want to kiss men.”
“I’m not a slut,” Nicolina insisted. “I’m going to be a dog doctor.”
“They’re called veterinarians, and they don’t wear pink, pink, pink, every day, all year, forever.”
“I’ll be the first.”
“Well,” Levanna said, “if I had a sick dog and you were a pink vet­erinarian, I guess I’d still bring him to you ’cause I know you’d make him well.”
Following a circuitous route, checking the rearview mirror, I drove six blocks to wind up two blocks away on Maricopa Lane.
Using my cell phone en route, Viola called her sister to say that she was bringing the girls for a visit.
The tidy white clapboard house on Maricopa has periwinkle-blue shutters and blue porch posts. On the porch, a social center for the neighborhood, are four rocking chairs and a bench swing.
Sharlene rocked up from one of the chairs when we parked in her driveway. She is a large woman with a rapturous smile and a musical voice perfect for a gospel singer, which she is.
A golden retriever, Posey, rose from the porch floor to stand at her side, lashing a gorgeous plumed tail, excited by the sight of the girls, held in place not by a leash but by her master’s softly spoken command.
I carried the cake into the kitchen, where I politely declined Sharlene’s offer of ice-cold lemonade, an apple dumpling, three vari­eties of cookies, and homemade peanut brittle.
Lying on the floor with four legs in the air, forepaws bent in sub­mission, Posey solicited a belly rub, which the girls were quick to provide.
I dropped to one knee and interrupted long enough to say happy birthday to Levanna. I gave each of the girls a hug.
They seemed terribly small and fragile. So little force would be re­quired to shatter them, to rip them out of this world. Their vulnera­bility frightened me.
Viola accompanied me through the house to the front porch, where she said, “You were gonna bring me a picture of the man I’m supposed to be on the lookout for.”
“You don’t need it now. He’s… out of the picture.”
Her huge eyes were full of trust that I didn’t deserve. “Odd, tell me honest-to-Jesus, do you still see death in me?”
I didn’t know what might be coming, but though the desert day made a bright impression on my eyes, it seemed storm-dark to my sixth sense, with great thunder pending. Changing their plans, cancel­ing the movie and dinner at the Grille - that would surely be enough to change their fate. Surely. “You’re okay now. And the girls, too.”
Her eyes searched mine, and I dared not look away. “What about you, Odd? Whatever’s coming…is there a path for you to walk through it to someplace safe?”
I forced a smile. “I know about all that’s Otherly and Beyond - remember?”
She locked eyes with me a moment longer, then put her arms around me. We held each other tight.
I didn’t ask Viola if she saw death in me. She had never claimed to have a foretelling gift… but I was afraid nevertheless that she would say yes.
LONG AFTER “ALL NIGHT WITH SHAMUS COCOBOLO” had gone off the air and the strains of Glenn Miller had traveled out of the stratosphere toward distant stars, with no Elvis CDs to comfort me, I cruised the streets of Pico Mundo in the silence of the sun, won­dering where all the bodachs had gone.
At a service station, I stopped to fuel the Chevy and to use the men’s room. In the streaked mirror above the sink, my face suggested that I was a hunted man, haggard and hollow-eyed.
From the adjacent minimart, I bought a screw-top sixteen-ounce Pepsi and a small bottle of caffeine tablets.
With the chemical assistance of No-Doz, cola, and the sugar in the plate of cookies that Mrs. Sanchez had given me, I could remain awake. Whether I could think clearly enough on such a regimen would not be entirely evident until the bullets started flying.
Lacking a name or face to put to Robertson’s collaborator, my psy­chic magnetism would not lead me to my quarry. Cruising randomly, I would arrive nowhere of consequence.
With clear intention, I drove to Camp’s End.
The chief had ordered surveillance on Robertson’s house the previ­ous evening, but that stakeout had apparently been withdrawn. With the chief shot and the entire police department in shock, someone had decided to shift resources elsewhere.
Suddenly I realized that the chief might not have been targeted solely to frame me for a second murder. Robertson’s kill buddy might have wanted to eliminate Wyatt Porter in order to ensure that the Pico Mundo PD would be shaken, disoriented, and slow to respond to whatever crisis was coming.
Instead of parking across the street and down the block from the pale yellow casita with the faded blue door, I left the Chevy at the curb in front of the place. I walked boldly to the carport.
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