Page 36


My mother and my grandmother exist in widely separated king­doms of my mind, in sovereign nations of memory that have no trade with each other. Because I loved Pearl Sugars, I had always been loath to think of her in context with her demented daughter.


Considering them together raised terrible questions to which I had long resisted seeking answers.


Pearl Sugars knew that her daughter was mentally unstable, if not unbalanced, and that she had gone off medication at eighteen. She must have known, as well, that pregnancy and the responsibility of child-rearing would stress my fragile mother to the breaking point.


Yet she did not interfere on my behalf.


For one thing, she feared her daughter. I had seen evidence of this on numerous occasions. My mother’s abrupt mood swings and hot temper cowed my grandmother even though she was not intimidated


by anyone else and would not hesitate to take a swing at a threatening man twice her size,


Besides, Pearl Sugars liked her rootless life too much to settle down and raise a grandchild. Wanderlust, the lure of rich card games in fabled cities - Las Vegas, Reno, Phoenix, Albuquerque, Dallas, San Antonio, New Orleans, Memphis - a need for adventure and excite­ment kept her away from Pico Mundo more than half the year.


In her defense, Granny Sugars could not have imagined either the intensity or the relentless nature of my mother’s cruelty to me. She didn’t know about the gun and the threats that shaped my childhood.


As I write this, no one knows except me and my mother. Although Stormy has been told all my other secrets, I withheld this one from even her. Only when Little Ozzie reads this manuscript, which I have written at his insistence, will I have shared entirely what my mother is to me and what I am to her.


Guilt and shame have, until now, kept me silent on this issue. I am old enough, even if just twenty, to know that I have no logical reason to feel either guilt or shame, that I was the victim, not the victimizer. Yet I’ve been so long marinated in both emotions that they will forever flavor me.


When I give this script to Ozzie, I will burn with humiliation. After he has read it, I will cover my face, abashed, when he speaks of these portions of the narrative.


Infected minds to their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets.


Shakespeare. MacBeth, Act 5, Scene 1.


That literary allusion is included here not merely to please you, Ozzie. There’s bitter truth in it that resonates with me. My mother had infected my mind with such a potent virus that I had not been able to confess my shameful victimization even to my pillow, but car­ried it into sleep each night, unpurged.


As for Granny Sugars: I must now wonder whether her peripatetic lifestyle and her frequent absences, combined with her gambling and restless nature, contributed materially to my mother’s psychological problems.


Worse, I cannot avoid considering that my mother’s sickness might not be the result of inadequate nurturing, but might entirely be the consequence of genetics. Perhaps Pearl Sugars suffered from a milder form of the same psychosis, which expressed itself in more appealing ways than did my mother’s.


Mother’s hermetic impulse might have been an inversion of my grandmother’s wanderlust. My mother’s need for financial security, won at the expense of a pregnancy that repulsed her, might be my grandmother’s gambling fever turned inside out.


This would suggest that much - though not all - of what I loved about Granny Sugars was but a different facet of the same mental condition that made my mother such a terror. This disturbs me for reasons I can understand but also for reasons that I suspect will not be clear to me until I’ve lived another twenty years, if I do.


When I was sixteen, Pearl Sugars asked me to come on the road with her. By then, I had become what I am: a seer of the dead with limitations, with responsibilities that I must fulfill. I had no choice but to decline her offer- If circumstances had allowed me to travel with her from game to game, adventure to adventure, the stresses of daily life and constant contact might have revealed a different and less ap­pealing woman from the one I thought I knew.


I must believe that Granny Sugars had the capacity for genuine love that my mother lacks, and must believe that she did indeed love me. If these two things are not true, then my childhood will have been an unrelieved wasteland.


Having failed to banish these troubling thoughts on the drive out of


Pico Mundo, I arrived at the Church of the Whispering Comet in a mood that matched the ambience of dead palm trees, sun-blasted landscape, and abandoned buildings on the slide to ruin.


I parked in front of the Quonset hut where the three coyotes had encircled me. They weren’t in evidence.


They are generally night hunters. In the noonday heat, they shelter in cool dark dens.


The dead prostitute, charmer of coyotes, was not to be seen, either. I hoped that she had found her way out of this world, but I doubted that my fumbling counsel and platitudes had convinced her to move on.


From among the items in the bottom of the plastic shopping bag that served as my suitcase, I withdrew the flashlight, the scissors, and the package of foil-wrapped moist towelettes.


In my apartment, when I packed the bag, the towelettes had seemed to be a peculiar inclusion, the scissors even more peculiar. Yet subconsciously I must have known exactly why I would need them.


We are not strangers to ourselves; we only try to be.


When I got out of the car, the fierce heat of the Mojave was matched by its stillness, a nearly perfect silence found perhaps nowhere else but in a dioramic snow scene sealed in Lucite.


My watch revealed that time had not stood still - 11:57.


Two desiccated brown phoenix palms cast frond shadows across the dusty ground in front of the Quonset hut, as if paving the way not for me but for an overdue messiah. I had not returned to raise the dead, only to examine him.


When I stepped inside, I felt as if I had cast my lot with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the furnace of Nebuchadnezzar, though this was a heat, laced with an unspeakable scent, from which even an angel could not spare me.


Alkaline-white desert light seared through the portal-style windows,


but they were so small and set so wide apart that I still needed the flashlight.


I followed the littered hallway to the fourth door. I went into the pink room, once a den of profitable fornication, now a slow-cook crematorium.


FIFTY-FIVE


NO CURIOUS PEOPLE OR CARRION EATERS HAD BEEN


here in my absence. The corpse lay where I had left it, one end of the shroud open, one shod foot exposed, otherwise wrapped in the white bedsheet.


The hot night and the blistering morning had facilitated and accel­erated decomposition. The stench was much worse here than in the rest of the hut.


The suffocating heat and the stink had the power of two quick punches to the gut. I backed quickly out of the room, into the hall, si­multaneously gasping for a cleaner breath and struggling to repress the urge to vomit.


Although I hadn’t brought the foil-sealed towelettes for this pur­pose, I ripped open one of them and tore two strips from it. The mois­tened paper had a lemony fragrance. I rolled the saturated strips into dripping wads and plugged my nostrils with them.


Breathing through my mouth, I couldn’t smell the decomposing corpse. When I reentered the room, I gagged again, anyway.


I could have cut the shoelace that secured the top of the shroud -


the one at the foot had broken the previous night - and rolled the body out of its wrapping. The thought of the dead man tumbling across the floor, as if animated again, convinced me to approach the problem with a different solution.


Reluctantly, I knelt at the head of the corpse. I propped the flash­light against it in such a way as to best illuminate my work.


I snipped the shoelace and tossed it aside. The scissors were sharp enough to trim through all three layers of rolled sheeting at once. I cut with patience and care, repulsed by the possibility of gouging the dead man.


As the fabric fell away to both sides of the body, the face came into view first. I realized too late that if I had started from the bottom, I would have had to open the shroud only as far as the neck, to see his wound, and could have avoided this hideous sight.


Time and the ungodly heat had done their nasty work. The face - upside down to me - was bloated, darker than it had been when last I had seen it, and marbled with green. The mouth had sagged open. Thin cataracts of milky fluid had formed over both eyes, although I could still discern the delineation between the whites and irises.


As I reached across the dead man’s face to cut the shroud away from his chest, he licked my wrist.


I cried out in shock and disgust, reared back, and dropped the scissors.


From the cadaver’s sagging mouth exploded a squirming black mass, a creature so strange in this context that I didn’t realize what it must be until it fully extracted itself. On Robertson’s dead face, the thing reared up on its four back legs and raked the air with its forelegs. Tarantula.


Moving too quickly to give it a chance to bite, I backhanded the spi­der. It tumbled across the floor, sprang to itsfeet, and scurried into a far corner.


When I picked up the fallen scissors, my hand shook so badly that I gave the air a vigorous trimming before I was able to steady myself.


Concerned that more critters might have crawled into the bottom of the shroud to explore the fragrant contents, I resumed my work on the sheet with nervous care. I exposed the body to the waist without encountering another eight-legged forager.


In my startled reaction to the tarantula, I had blown the plug out of my right nostril. When the residue of lemony fluid evaporated, I could smell the body again, though not at full strength because I con­tinued to breathe through my mouth.


Glancing toward the corner into which the spider had retreated, I discovered that it wasn’t there anymore.


I searched anxiously for a moment. Then, in spite of the poor light, I saw the hairy beast just to the left of the corner, three feet off the floor, slowly ascending the pink wall.


Too shaky and too pressed for time to unbutton the dead man’s shirt as I’d done in my apartment, I tore it open, popping buttons. One of them snapped off my face, and the others bounced across the floor.


When I pressed from my mind the inhibiting image of my mother with a pistol to her breast, I was able to focus the flashlight on the wound. Steeling myself to examine it closely, I saw why it had seemed strange to me.


I propped the flashlight against the body again and tore open three foil-wrapped towelettes. I sandwiched them into one thick pad and gently swabbed away the obscuring custardy ooze that had seeped from the wound.


The bullet had pierced a tattoo on Robertson’s chest, directly over his heart. This black rectangle was the same size and shape as the meditation card that I had found in his wallet. In the center of the rectangle were three red hieroglyphs.


Bleary-eyed, nervous, strung out on caffeine, I couldn’t quickly make sense of the design when it was upside down.


As I shifted from behind Robertson’s head to his side, those dead eyes seemed to move, tracking me under the semiopaque, milky cataracts.


When I checked on the tarantula, it had vanished from the farther wall. With the flashlight, I located it on the ceiling, working its way toward me. It froze in the direct light.


I turned the beam on the tattoo and discovered that the three red hieroglyphs were actually three letters of the alphabet in a script with flourishes. F… O… The third had been partially torn away by the bul­let, but I was certain that it had been an L.


FOL. Not a word. An acronym. Thanks to Shamus Cocobolo, I knew what it meant; Father of Lies.


Robertson had worn the name of his dark lord over his heart.


Three letters: FOL. Three others, encountered elsewhere, and re­cently …


Suddenly I could see Officer Simon Varner vividly in memory: be­hind the wheel of the department cruiser in the parking lot at the bowling alley, leaning toward the open window, his face sweet enough to qualify him as the host of a children’s TV program, his heavy-lidded eyes like those of a sleepy bear, his burly forearm resting on the driver’s door, the “gang tattoo” that he claimed embarrassed him. Nothing as elaborate as Robertson’s tattoo, no similarity of style whatsoever. No black rectangle inlaid with fancy red script. Just an­other acronym in black block letters: D… something. Maybe DOR


Did Officer Simon Varner, of the Pico Mundo Police Department, wear the name of this same master on his left arm?


If Robertson’s tattoo marked him with one of the devil’s many names, then Simon Varner’s put him in the same club.


Names for the devil raced through my mind: Satan, Lucifer, Old Scratch, Beelzebub, Father of Evil, His Satanic Majesty, Apollyon, Belial….


I couldn’t think of the words that would explain the acronym on Varner’s arm, but I had no doubt that I had identified Robertson’s kill buddy.


At the bowling alley, there had been no bodachs around Varner as there had been, at times, around Robertson. If I’d seen him with bo­dachs in attendance, I might have realized what a monster he was,


Because they might take fingerprints, I hurriedly gathered the scraps of foil that had wrapped the towelettes and shoved them in a pocket of my jeans. I grabbed the scissors, stood, swept the ceiling with the flashlight, and found the tarantula directly overhead.


Tarantulas are timid. They do not stalk human beings.


I sprinted from the room, heard the spider drop to the floor with a soft but solid fleshy sound, slammed the door between us, and wiped prints off the knob with the tail of my T-shirt, then off the front door, too, as I left.


Because tarantulas are timid and because I believe there are no co­incidences, I raced to the Chevy, threw the scissors and flashlight in the shopping bag, started the engine, and stomped the accelerator. I exited the grounds of the Church of the Whispering Comet with a shriek of tortured rubber, kicking up a spray of sand and crumbled blacktop, eager to reach the state highway before being surrounded by legions of tarantulas, an army of coyotes, and a slithering swarm of rattlesnakes all functioning in concert.


FIFTY-SIX


NOT DOP. POD. PRINCE OF DARKNESS. THE SOURCE OF Simon Varner’s tattooed acronym, POD, occurred to me as I crossed the town line, returning to Pico Mundo.


Costumed satanists performing weird rituals with an obscenely decorated chalice would be regarded by most people as being less well intentioned but also markedly sillier than the elaborately fur-hatted members of a men’s lodge called the Fraternal Order of Hedgehogs. Men who dress up to look bad are as suspect of being nerds as are those men with weed-whacker haircuts, tortoiseshell eyeglasses, pants worn five inches above the navel and three inches above the shoes, and bumper stickers that say JAR JAR BINKS RULES.


If I would have been inclined to dismiss them as nerds playing at evil, that inclination had not held past the moment when I found the Rubbermaid-boxed souvenirs in the freezer.

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