I met his stare and didn’t retreat from him. I’ve learned that it’s not wise to show fear in these cases.
His heavy face indeed had the quality of a fungus, but a meaty vari­ety. Very portobello. His bloodless lips drew back from teeth that had seen too little of a brush.
He reached past my face and cupped his right hand against the back of my neck.
Penny Kallisto’s hand had been dry and warm. Robertson’s felt damp, cold. This was not his real hand, of course, only part of an ap­parition, a spirit image, that only I could have felt; but the nature of such a touch reveals the character of the soul.
Although I refused to shy from this unearthly contact, I cringed in­wardly at the thought of the creep playing with the ten souvenirs in his freezer. The visual stimulation of those frozen trophies might not always satisfy. Perhaps he thawed them now and then to increase his tactile pleasure and to conjure a more vivid memory of each kill - tweaking, pinching, petting, caressing, planting tender kisses upon those mementos.
No spirit, however evil, can harm a living person merely by touch. This is our world, not theirs. Their blows pass through us, and their bites draw no blood.
When he realized that he could not make me cower, Robertson lowered his hand from my neck. His fury doubled, trebled, wrenching his face into a gargoyle mask.
One way exists for certain spirits to harm the living. If their charac­ter is sufficiently pernicious, if they give their hearts to evil until malevolence ripens into incurable spiritual malignancy, they are able to summon the energy of their demonic rage and vent it upon the inanimate.
We call them poltergeists. I once lost a brand-new music system to such an entity, as well as the handsome award plaque for creative writ­ing that I had won in that high-school competition judged by Little Ozzie.
As he had done in the sacristy at St. Bart’s, Robertson’s wrathful spirit stormed through the kitchen, and from his hands streamed pulses of energy that were visible to me. The air quivered with them, a sight similar to the concentric ripples that spread across water from the impact point of a stone.
Cabinet doors flew open, slammed shut, open, shut, banging even louder and with less meaning than the jaws of ranting politicians. Dishes erupted from shelves, each cutting through the air with the whoosh of a discus thrown by an Olympian.
I ducked a drinking glass, which exploded into an oven door, spray­ing sparkling shrapnel. Other glasses spun wide of me, shattered against walls, cabinets, countertops.
Poltergeists are all blind fury and thrashing torment, without aim or control. They can harm you only by indirection, a lucky blow. Even by indirection and chance, however, decapitation can ruin your day.
Accompanied by the hardwood applause of clapping cabinet doors, Robertson flung bolts of power from his hands. Two chairs danced in place at the dinette table, tapping on the linoleum, clattering against the table legs.
At the cooktop, untouched, four knobs turned. Four rings of gas flames shimmered eerie blue light into the otherwise gloomy kitchen.
Alert for deadly projectiles, I edged away from Robertson and toward the door by which I’d entered the house.
A drawer shot open, and a cacophony of flatware exploded out of it, glittering and clinking in a levitated frenzy, as if starving ghosts were carving-forking-spooning a dinner as invisible as they were themselves.
I saw those utensils coming - they passed through Robertson with no effect on his ectoplasmic form - and I turned aside, brought up my arms to shield my face. The flatware found me as iron will find a mag­net, pummeled me. One fork speared past my defenses, stabbed my forehead, and raked back through my hair.
When this brittle rain of stainless steel rang to the floor behind me, I dared to lower my arms.
Like some great troll capering to a dark music that only he could hear, Robertson punched-clawed-twisted the air, appearing to howl and shout, but thrashing in the utter silence of the mute departed.
The upper compartment of the ancient Frigidaire sprang open, dis­gorging beer, soft drinks, the plate of ham, strawberry pie, a vomitous deluge that splashed and clattered across the floor. Ring tabs popped; beer and soda gouted from spinning cans.
The refrigerator itself began to vibrate, violently knocking side to side against the flanking cabinetry Vegetable drawers chattered; wire shelves jangled.
Kicking aside rolling cans of beer and scattered flatware, I contin­ued toward the door to the carport.
A juggernaut rumble alerted me to the fast approach of sliding death.
I dodged to my left, skidded on a foamy sludge of beer and a bent spoon.
With its grisly freight of frozen body parts still nestled in the freezer drawer, the Frigidaire slid past me and crashed into the wall hard enough to make the studs crack behind the plaster.
I plunged outside, into the shadows under the carport, and slammed the door behind me.
Inside, the tumult continued, the thump and crash, the rattle and bang.
I didn’t expect Robertson’s tortured spirit to follow me, at least not for a while. Once committed to a frenzy of destruction, a poltergeist will usually thrash out of control until it exhausts itself and wanders off in confusion to drift again in a purgatory zone between this world and the next.
AT THE CONVENIENCE STORE WHERE I PURCHASED THE No-Doz and the Pepsi, I bought another cola, Bactine, and a package of large-patch Band-Aids.
The cashier, a man with a face made for astonishment, put aside the sports section of the Los Angeles Times and said, “Hey, you’re bleeding.”
Being polite is not only the right way to respond to people but also the easiest. Life is so filled with unavoidable conflict that I see no rea­son to promote more confrontations.
At that moment, however, I happened to be in a rare bad mood. Time was flushing away at a frightening rate, the hour of the gun rap­idly drawing near, and I still had no name to hang on Robertson’s col­laborator.
“Do you know you’re bleeding?” he asked.
“I had a suspicion.”
“That looks nasty.”
“What happened to your forehead?”
“Yes, sir. I wish I’d been eating with a spoon.”
“You stabbed yourself with a fork?”
“A flipped fork?”
“It flicked my forehead.”
Pausing in the counting of my change, he gave me a narrow look.
“That’s right,” I said. “A flipped fork flicked my forehead.”
He decided not to have any further involvement with me. He gave me my change, bagged the items, and returned to the sports pages.
In the men’s room at the service station next door, I washed my bloody face, cleaned the wound, treated it with Bactine, and applied a compress of paper towels. The punctures and scratches were shallow, and the bleeding soon stopped.
This wasn’t the first time - nor the last - that I wished my super­natural gift included the power to heal.
Band-Aid applied, I returned to the Chevy. Sitting behind the wheel, engine running, air-conditioning vents aimed at my face, I chugged cold Pepsi.
Only bad news on my wristwatch - 10:48.
My muscles ached. My eyes were sore. I felt tired, weak. Maybe my wits hadn’t shifted into low gear, as they seemed to have, but I didn’t like my chances if I had to go one-on-one with Robertson’s kill buddy, who must have enjoyed a better night’s sleep than I had.
I’d taken two caffeine tablets no more than an hour ago, so I couldn’t justify swilling down two more. Besides, already the acid in my stomach had soured into a corrosive strength sufficient to etch steel, and I had grown simultaneously exhausted and jumpy, which is not a condition conducive to survival.
Although I had no person - no name, no description - as a focus for my psychic magnetism, I drove at random through Pico Mundo, hoping to be brought to a place of enlightenment.
The brilliant Mojave day burned at white-hot ferocity. The air itself seemed to be on fire, as if the sun - -by speed of light, less than eight and a half minutes from Earth - had gone nova eight minutes ago, giving us nothing more than this dazzling glare as a short warning of our impending bright death.
Each flare and flicker of light flashing off the windshield seemed to score my eyes. I hadn’t brought my sunglasses. The searing glare soon spawned a headache that made a fork in the brow seem like a tickle by comparison.
Turning aimlessly from street to street, trusting intuition to guide me, [ found myself in Shady Ranch, one of the newer residential de­velopments on the Pico Mundo hills that a decade ago were home to nothing more dangerous than rattlesnakes. Now people lived here, and perhaps one of them was a sociopathic monster plotting mass murder in upper-middle-class suburban comfort.
Shady Ranch had never been a ranch of any kind; it wasn’t one now, unless you counted houses as a crop. As for shade, these hills en­joyed less of it than most neighborhoods in the heart of town because the trees were far from maturity.
I parked in my father’s driveway but didn’t at once switch off the engine. I needed time to gather my nerve for this encounter.
Like those who lived in it, this Mediterranean-style house had little character. Below the red-tile roof, ornament-free planes of beige stucco and glass met at unsurprising angles arrived at less by architec­tural genius than by the dictates of lot size and shape.
Leaning closer to a dashboard vent, I closed my eyes against the rush of chilled air. Ghost lights drifted across the backs of my eyelids, retinal
memories of the desert glare, strangely soothing for a moment - until the wound in Robertson’s chest rose from deeper memory.
I switched off the engine, got out of the car, went to the house, and rang my father’s doorbell.
At this hour in the morning, he was likely to be home. He had never worked a day in his life and seldom rose before nine or ten o’clock.
My father answered, surprised to see me. “Odd, you didn’t call to say you were coming.”
“No,” I agreed. “Didn’t call.”
My father is forty-five, a handsome man with thick hair still more black than silver. He has a lean athletic body of which he is proud to the point of vanity.
Barefoot, he wore only khaki shorts slung low across his hips. His tan had been assiduously cultivated with oils, enhanced with toners, preserved with lotions.
“Why have you come?” he asked.
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t look well.”
He retreated one step from the door. He fears illness.
“I’m not sick,” I assured him. “Just bone tired. No sleep. May I come in?”
“We weren’t doing much, just finishing breakfast, getting ready to catch some rays.”
Whether that was an invitation or not, I interpreted it as one, and I crossed the threshold, pulling the door shut behind me.
“Britney’s in the kitchen,” he said, and led me to the back of the house.
The blinds were drawn, the rooms layered with sumptuous shadows.
I’ve seen the place in better light. It’s beautifully furnished. My fa­ther has style and loves comfort.
He inherited a substantial trust fund. A generous monthly check supports a lifestyle that many would envy.
Although he has much, he yearns for more. He desires to live far better than he does, and he chafes at terms of the trust that require him to live on its earnings and forbid him access to the principal.
His parents had been wise to settle their estate on him under those terms. If he had been able to get his hands on the principal, he would long ago have been destitute and homeless.
He is full of get-rich-quick schemes, the latest being the sale of land on the moon. Were he able to manage his own fortune, he would be impatient with a ten- or fifteen-percent return on investment and would plunge great sums on unlikely ventures in hopes of doubling and tripling his money overnight.
The kitchen is big, with restaurant-quality equipment and every imaginable culinary tool and gadget, though he eats out six or seven nights a week. Maple floor, ship’s-style maple cabinets with rounded corners, granite counters, and stainless-steel appliances contribute to a sleek and yet inviting ambience.
Britney is sleek, as well, and inviting in a way that makes your skin crawl. When we entered the kitchen, she was standing hipshot at a window, sipping a morning champagne and staring out at sun ser­pents sinuously flexing across the surface of the swimming pool.
Her thong bikini was small enough to excite the jaded editors of Hustler, but she wore it well enough to make the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.
She was eighteen but looked younger. This is my father’s basic cri­terion in women. They are never older than twenty, and they always look younger than they are.
Some years ago, he got in trouble for cohabiting with a sixteen-
year-old. He claimed to be unaware of her true age. An expensive at­torney plus payoffs to the girl and her parents spared him the indignity of a prison pallor and jail haircuts.
Instead of a greeting, Britney gave me a sullen, dismissive look. She returned her attention to the sun-dappled swimming pool.
She resents me because she thinks my father might give me money that would otherwise be spent on her. This concern has no validity. He would never offer me a buck, and I would never take it.
She would be better advised to worry about two facts: first, that she has been with my father for five months; second, that the average du­ration of one of his affairs is six to nine months. With a nineteenth birthday looming, she would soon seem old to him.
Fresh coffee had been brewed. I asked for a cup, poured it myself, and sat on a bar stool at the kitchen island.
Always restless in my company, my father moved around the room, rinsing out Britney’s champagne glass when she finished with it, wip­ing a counter that didn’t need to be wiped, straightening the chairs at the breakfast table.
“I’m getting married on Saturday,” I said.
This surprised him. He’d been married to my mother only briefly and regretted it within hours of exchanging vows. Marriage doesn’t suit him.
“To that Llewellyn girl?” he asked.
“Is that a good idea?”
“It’s the best idea I’ve ever had.”
Britney turned away from the window to study me with beady-eyed speculation. To her, a wedding meant a gift, a parental boon, and she was prepared to defend her interests.
She didn’t stir in me the slightest anger. She saddened me, for I could see her deeply unhappy future without need of any sixth sense.
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