Page 37


Now that I suspected the identity of Robertson’s collaborator, I trusted my supernatural gift to lead me to him. Considering that in the grip of psychic magnetism - Stormy sometimes shortens it to PM


syndrome or PMS - I occasionally make abrupt turns, I drove with as much speed as seemed prudent.


Under the influence of PMS, I zone out to some extent, and try to think only about the object of my interest - in this case, Varner - rather than about where I am at any moment or about where I might be going. I’ll know where I’m going when I get there.


In this state, my conscious mind relaxes, and random thoughts pop into it almost as often as I make seemingly random turns in search of my quarry. This time, one of those thoughts involved my mother’s older sister, Cymry, whom I have never met.


According to my mother, Cymry is married to a Czechoslovakian whose first name is Dobb. My father says Cymry has never married.


Neither of my parents has a history of reliability. In this case, how­ever, I suspect that my father is telling the truth and that I have no un­cle of either Czechoslovakian or any other heritage.


My father says that Cymry is a freak, but he will say no more. His assertion infuriates my mother, who denies Cymry’s freakhood and calls her a gift from God.


This is an odd statement on my mother’s part, considering that she lives her life as if with the firm conviction that God does not exist.


The first time that I asked Granny Sugars about her mysterious firstborn, she dissolved in tears. I had never seen her cry before. The next day, still red-eyed, she had hit the road again in pursuit of faraway poker games.


The second time I asked her about Cymry, she became angry with me for pursuing the issue. I had never before seen her angry. Then she became cold and distant. She had never previously been that way with me, and her behavior reminded me too much of my mother.


Thereafter, I never asked about Cymry.


I suspect that in an institution somewhere, managed with drugs


and humane restraints, I have an aunt who is at least a little like me. I suspect that as a child she didn’t conceal her special gift as I did.


This is probably why Granny Sugars, with all her poker winnings, left no estate of which I’m aware. I think she funded a trust to pay for Cymry’s care.


Over the years, my father has let slip certain dues leading me to speculate that Cymry’s sixth sense, whatever strange talents it may en­compass, is accompanied by physical mutation. I think she scared people not just because of things that she said but also because of how she looked.


More often than not, a baby born with one mutation will,in fact, have two or more. Ozzie says - and apparently not in his role as a writer of fiction - that one in every eighty-eight thousand babies is born with a sixth finger on one hand, as he was. Hundreds if not thou­sands of them should be walking the streets of America, yet how many six-fingered hands have you seen on adults? You don’t encounter them because most of those babies are born with other and more ter­rible deformities that cause them to die in early infancy.


Those six-fingered children fortunate enough to be robustly healthy will usually receive surgery if the superfluous digit can be re­moved without affecting the function of the hand. They walk among us, Little Ozzie says, passing for five-fingered “mundanes.”


I think all this is true, because Ozzie is proud of his sixth finger and enjoys collecting lore on what he calls “the natural-born pickpockets who are members of my superior breed.” He says that his second mu­tation is his ability to write well and swiftly, turning out enthusiasti­cally received books at a prodigious pace.


I dream of Aunt Cymry from time to time. These are not prophetic dreams. They are full of yearning. And sadness.


Now, at 12:21, daydreaming about Cymry yet acutely and nervously


aware of precious minutes passing, fully in the PMS zone, I expected to find Officer Simon Varner in the vicinity of either the bowling alley or the multiplex theater where the dog movie would unreel shortly after one o’clock. Instead, I was led unexpectedly to the Green Moon Mall.


What I saw was unusual for a Wednesday in summer: a packed parking lot. The giant banner reminded me that the mall merchants’ annual summer sale had begun at ten o’clock this morning and would continue through the weekend.


What a crowd.


FIFTY-SEVEN


A GALAXY OF SUNS BLAZED ON THE WINDSHIELDS OF the serried cars and SUVs, a lightquake that shocked my bloodshot eyes and forced me to squint.


Three-story department stores anchored the north and south ends of the mall. Numerous specialty shops occupied the two levels be­tween those leviathans.


PMS drew me to the department store at the north end. I drove around to the back and parked near a wide descending ramp that led to the subterranean loading docks where trucks delivered merchan­dise.


Three spaces away stood a black-and-white police cruiser. No cop in sight.


If this was Varner’s car, he was already in the mall.


My hands shook. The buttons on my cell phone were small. To get it right, I had to key in the number of Burke & Bailey’s twice.


I intended to tell Stormy to leave work immediately, to get out of the mall by the nearest door, to go quickly to her car and drive away fast, drive anywhere, just drive.


As the number was ringing, I hung up. She might not at this mo­ment be destined to cross Varner’s path, but if I persuaded her to get the hell out of there, she might cross his sights at the instant that he pulled his gun and opened fire.


Her destiny is to be with me forever. We have the card from the fortune-telling machine as proof. It hangs above her bed. Gypsy Mummy had given us, for a single quarter, what that other couple couldn’t buy at any price.


Logic argued that if I did nothing, she would be safe. If she changed her plans at my urging, I might be thwarting her destiny and mine. Trust in fate.


My responsibility was not to warn off Stormy but to stop Simon Varner before he was ready to put his plan in action, before he killed anyone.


There you have your classic easier-said than-done. He was a cop, and I wasn’t. He carried at least one firearm, and I didn’t. Taller than me, stronger than me, trained in every possible method to subdue an aggressive citizen, he enjoyed all the advantages - except a sixth sense.


The gun that had killed Robertson was stashed under the driver’s seat. I had put it there the previous night, meaning to dispose of it later.


Leaning forward, I fumbled under my seat, found the weapon, and withdrew it. I felt as if I were holding hands with Death.


After more fumbling, I figured out how to eject the magazine. I counted nine rounds. Bright brass. Loaded nearly to capacity. The only round missing was the one that had put a hole in Robertson’s heart.


I shoved the magazine back into the pistol. It clicked in place.


My mother’s gun has a safety. A red dot is revealed when the safety is switched off.


This piece appeared to have no comparable feature. Perhaps the safety was built into the trigger, requiring a double pull.


No safety on my heart. It was booming.


I felt as though I were holding hands with death, all right - my death.


With the pistol in my lap, I picked up the phone and punched in Chief Porter’s private cell number, not his police-department line. The keys seemed to be growing smaller, as if this were a phone Alice had gotten from a hookah-smoking caterpillar, but I entered the seven digits correctly on the first try, and pressed SEND.


Karla Porter answered on the third ring. She said that she was still in the ICU waiting room. She’d been allowed to see the chief on three occasions, for five-minute visits.


“He was awake the last time, but very weak. He knew who I was. He smiled for me. But he’s not able to talk much, and not coherently. They’re keeping him semisedated to facilitate healing. I don’t think he’ll be really talking much before tomorrow.”


“But he’s going to be all right?” I asked.


“That’s what they say. And I’m beginning to believe it.”


“I love him,” I said, and heard my voice break.


“He knows that, Oddie. He loves you, too. You’re a son to him.”


“Tell him.”


“I will.”


“I’ll call,” I promised.


I pressed END and dropped the phone on the passenger’s seat.


The chief could not help me. No one could help me. No sad, dead prostitute to quell the killing frenzy of this coyote. Just me.


Intuition told me not to take the pistol. I slid it under the seat again.


When I switched off the engine and got out of the car, the fiery sun was both a hammer and an anvil, forging the world between itself and its reflection.


Psychic magnetism works whether I’m rolling on wheels or afoot. I was drawn to the delivery ramp. I went down into the coolness of the subterranean loading docks.


FIFTY-EIGHT


WITH A LOW CEILING AND ENDLESS GRAY CONCRETE, the mall-employee underground parking garage and loading dock had the bleak and ominous atmosphere of an ancient tomb deep under Egyptian sands, the tomb of a hated pharaoh whose subjects had buried him on the cheap, without glittering gold vessels or ornamen­tation of any kind.


The elevated dock ran the length of the immense structure, and big trucks were backed up to it at various points. At the department store, two semis at a time could bypass the dock and pull directly into an enormous receiving room,


This place clattered and hummed with activity as the truck crews off-loaded late-arriving sales merchandise and the harried stockroom employees prepped it for delivery to the sales floors after the close of business.


I passed among racks, carts, carousels, bins, boxes, and drums of merchandise, everything from women’s party dresses to culinary gadgets to sporting goods. Perfume, swimwear, gourmet chocolates.


Nobody challenged my right to be there, and when I plucked a


hardwood baseball bat out of a drum full of them, no one ordered me to put it back.


Another drum contained hollow aluminum bats. They weren’t what I wanted. I preferred a bat with heft. I required a certain balance to the instrument. You can better break an arm with a wooden club, more easily shatter a knee.


Maybe I would need the baseball bat, maybe I wouldn’t. The fact that it was there - and that PMS brought me to it - seemed to suggest that if I didn’t avail myself of it, then I would later regret my decision.


The only extracurricular activity I went out for in high school was baseball. As I wrote earlier, I had the best stats on the team, even though I could only play home games.


I’m not out of practice, either. The Pico Mundo Grille has a team. We play other businesses and civic organizations; we whup ass, year after year.


Repeatedly, loaded forklifts and electric carts announced their ap­proach with soft beeps and musical toots. I stepped out of their way but kept moving, though I had no idea where I was going.


In my mind’s eye: Simon Varner. Sweet face. Sleepy eyes. POD on his left forearm. Find the bastard.


A pair of extra-wide double doors swung into a corridor with a bare concrete floor and painted concrete walls. I hesitated, looked right, turned left.


My stomach churned. I needed antacids.


I needed a bigger bat, a bulletproof vest, and backup, too, but I didn’t have them, either. I just kept moving.


Doors led to rooms off the right side of the corridor. Most were la­beled. BATHROOMS. SHIPPING OFFICE. MAINTENANCE OFFICE.


Seeking Simon Varner. Sweet face. Prince of Darkness. Feel the pull of him, drawing me forward.


I passed two men, a woman, another man, We smiled and nodded.


None of them seemed to wonder where the game was, what the score might be, whose team I was on.


Soon I came to a door marked SECURITY. I stopped. This didn’t feel right… and yet it did.


When PMS works, I usually know that I’ve arrived. This time I felt that I’d arrived. I can’t explain the difference, but it was real.


I put my hand on the knob but hesitated.


In my mind, I heard Lysette Rains as she’d spoken to me at the chief’s recent barbecue: / was just a nail technician, and now I’m a certi­fied nail artist.


For the life of me - and it really might be for the life of me, consid­ering that I was about to plunge into a fire of one kind or another - I didn’t know why I should recall Lysette at this juncture.


Her voice haunted me again: It takes a while to realize what a lonely world it is, and when you do… then the future looks kinda scary.


I took my hand off the knob.


I stepped to one side of the door.


Iron-shod hooves on hard-baked ground could have made no louder thunder than the internal booming of my galloping heart.


My instinct is a winning coach, and when it said Batter up, I didn’t ar­gue that I wasn’t ready for the game. I gripped the bat in both hands, assumed the stance, and said a prayer to Mickey Mantle.


The door opened, and a guy stepped boldly into the corridor. He was dressed in black boots, a lightweight black jumpsuit with hood, a black ski mask, and black gloves.


He carried an assault rifle so big and wicked that it looked as unreal as the weaponry in an early Schwarzenegger movie. From a utility belt hung eight or ten spare magazines.


He looked to his left when he came out of the security room. I stood to his right, but he sensed me at once and in midstep turned his head toward me.


Never one who liked to bunt, I swung hard, high above the strike zone, and hit him in the face.


I would have been surprised if he hadn’t gone down cold. I was not surprised.


The corridor was deserted. No one had seen. For the moment.


I needed to handle this as anonymously as possible, to avoid ques­tions later if the chief remained unable to run interference for me.


After rolling the baseball bat into the security room and sliding the assault rifle after it, I grabbed the gunman by the jumpsuit and dragged him in there, too, out of the hallway, and shut the door.


Among overturned office chairs and spilled mugs of coffee, three unarmed security guards lay dead in this bunker. Apparently they had been killed with a silencer-fitted pistol, because the shots had not at­tracted attention. They looked surprised.


The sight of them tortured me. They were dead because I had been too slow on the uptake.


I know that I’m not responsible for every death I can’t prevent. I un­derstand that I can’t carry the world on my back, like Atlas. But I feel that I should.


Twelve oversize TV monitors, each currently in quartered-screen format, featured forty-eight views provided by cameras positioned throughout the department store. Everywhere I looked, the aisles were busy; the sale had pulled in shoppers from all over Maravilla County.


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