Page 40


I nodded.


“Can you tell me what it is?”


I didn’t realize how weak I was until I tried to respond. My voice sounded thin and thready. “Odd Thomas.”


As she fussed over me and told me that I was some kind of hero and assured me that I would be fine, I said, “Stormy,” in a broken whisper.


I had been afraid to pronounce her name. Afraid of what terrible news I might be bringing down on myself. The name is so lovely to me, however, that immediately I liked the feel of it on my tongue once I had the nerve to speak it.


The nurse seemed to think that I’d complained of a sore throat, and as she suggested that I might be allowed to let a chip or two of ice melt in my mouth, I shook my head as adamantly as I could and said, “Stormy. I want to see Stormy Llewellyn.”


My heart raced. I could hear the soft and rapid beep-beep-beep from the heart monitor.


The nurse brought a doctor to examine me. He appeared to be awestruck in my presence, a reaction to which no fry cook in the world is accustomed and with which none could be comfortable.


He used that word hero too much, and in my wheezy way, I asked him not to use it again.


I felt crushingly tired. I didn’t want to fall asleep before I’d seen Stormy. I asked them to bring her to me.


Their lack of an immediate response to my request scared me again. When my heart thumped hard, my wounds throbbed in sym­pathy, in spite of any painkillers I was receiving.


They were worried that even a five-minute visit would put too much strain on me, but I pleaded, and they let her come into the ICU.


At the sight of her, I cried.


She cried, too. Those black Egyptian eyes.


I was too weak to reach out to her. She slipped a hand through the bed rail, pressed it atop mine. I found the strength to curl my fingers into hers, a love knot.


For hours, she had been sitting out in the ICU waiting room in the Burke & Bailey’s uniform that she dislikes so much. Pink shoes, white socks, pink skirt, pink-and-white blouse.


I told her that this must be the most cheerful outfit ever seen in the ICU waiting room, and she informed me that Little Ozzie was out there right now, sitting on two chairs, wearing yellow pants and a Hawaiian shirt. Viola was out there, too. And Terri Stambaugh.


When I asked her why she wasn’t wearing her perky pink cap, she put a hand to her head in surprise, for the first time realizing that she didn’t have it. Lost in the chaos at the mall.


I closed my eyes and wept not with joy but with bitterness. Her hand tightened on mine, and she gave me the strength to sleep and to risk my dreams of demons.


Later she returned for another five-minute visit, and when she said that we would need to postpone the wedding, I pushed to remain on schedule for Saturday. After what had happened, the city would surely cut all red tape, and if Stormy’s uncle wouldn’t bend church rules to marry us in a hospital room, there was always a judge.


I had hoped that our wedding day would be followed at once by our


first night together. The marriage, however, had always been more important to me than the consummation of it - now more than ever. We have a long lifetime to get na*ed together.


Earlier she had kissed my hand. Now she leaned over the railing to kiss my lips. She is my strength. She is my destiny.


With no real sense of time, I slept on and off.


My next visitor, Karla Porter, arrived after a nurse had raised my bed and allowed me a few sips of water. Karla hugged me and kissed me on the cheek, on the brow, and we tried not to cry, but we did.


I had never seen Karla cry She is tough. She needs to be. Now she seemed devastated.


I worried that the chief had taken a turn for the worse, but she said that wasn’t it.


She brought the excellent news that the chief would be moved out of the ICU first thing in the morning. He was expected to make a full recovery.


After the horror at the Green Moon Mall, however, none of us will ever be as we had been. Pico Mundo, too, is forever changed.


Relieved to know the chief would be okay, I didn’t think to ask any­one about my wounds. Stormy Llewellyn was alive; the promise of Gypsy Mummy would be fulfilled. Nothing else mattered.


SIXTY-FOUR


FRIDAY MORNING, JUST ONE DAY AFTER CHIEF PORTER escaped the ICU, the doctor issued orders for me to be transferred to a private room.


They gave me one of their swanky accommodations decorated like a hotel suite. The same one in which they had let me take a shower when I’d been sitting vigil for the chief.


When I expressed concern about the cost and reminded them that I was a fry cook, the director of County General personally assured me that they would excuse all charges in excess of what the insurance company would be willing to pay.


This hero thing disturbed me, and I didn’t want to use it to get any special treatment. Nevertheless, I graciously accepted their generosity because, while Stormy could only visit me in an ordinary hospital room, she could actually move right in here and be with me twenty-four hours a day.


The police department posted a guard in the corridor outside my room. No one posed any threat to me. The purpose was to keep the news media at bay.


Events at the Green Moon Mall had, I was told, made headlines worldwide. I didn’t want to see a newspaper. I refused to turn on the TV.


Reliving it in nightmares was enough. Too much.


Under the circumstances, the Saturday wedding finally proved to be impractical. Reporters knew of our plans and would be all over the courthouse. That and other problems proved insurmountable, and we postponed for a month.


Friday and Saturday, friends poured in with flowers and gifts.


How I loved seeing Terri Stambaugh. My mentor, my lifeline when I’d been sixteen and determined to live on my own. Without her, I would have had no job and nowhere to go.


Viola Peabody came without her daughters, insisting that they would have been motherless if not for me. The next day she returned with the girls. As it turned out, Nicolina’s love of pink had to do with her enthusiasm for Burke & Bailey’s ice cream; Stormy’s uniform had always enchanted her.


Little Ozzie visited without Terrible Chester. When I teased him about the yellow pants and the Hawaiian shirt thathe’d worn to the ICU, he denied that he would ever “costume” himself in thatfashion because such “flamboyant togs” would inevitably make him look even bigger than he was. He did, he said, have some vanity. As it turned out, Stormy had made up this colorful story to give me asmile in the ICU when I badly needed one.


My father brought Britney with him, full of plans to represent my story for books, movies, television, and product placements. I sent him away unsatisfied.


My mother did not visit.


Rosalia Sanchez, Bertie Orbic, Helen Arches, Poke Barnet, Shamus Cocobolo, Lysette Rains, the Takuda family, so many others…


From all these friends, I could not escape learning some of the


statistics that I preferred not to know. Forty-one people at the mall had been wounded. Nineteen had died.


Everyone said it was a miracle that only nineteen perished.


What has gone wrong with our world when nineteen dead can seem like any kind of miracle?


Local, state, and federal law-enforcement agencies had studied the quantity of plastic explosives in the truck and estimated that it would have brought down the entire department store plus a not insignifi­cant portion of the south side of the mall.


Estimates are that between five hundred and a thousand would have been killed if the bomb had detonated.


Bern Eckles had been stopped before he killed more than the three security guards, but he’d been carrying enough ammunition to cut down scores of shoppers.


At night in my hotel-style hospital room, Stormy stretched out on the bed and held my hand. When I woke from nightmares, she pulled me against her, cradled me in her arms while I wept. She whispered reassurances to me; she gave me hope.


Sunday afternoon, Karla brought the chief in a wheelchair. He un­derstood perfectly well that I would never want to talk to the media, let alone entertain offers for books, movies, and television miniseries. He had thought of many ways to foil them. He is a great man, the chief, even if he did break that Barney the dinosaur chair.


Although Bern Eckles refused interrogation, the investigation into the conspiracy had proceeded rapidly, thanks to the fact that a man named Kevin Gosset, having been run down by a forklift, was talking his hateful head off.


Gosset, Eckles, and Varner had been bent a long time. At the age of fourteen, they developed an interest in satanism. Maybe it was a game for a while. Quickly it grew serious.


On a mutual dare, they killed for the first time when they were fifteen.


They enjoyed it. And satanism justified it. Gosset called it “just another way of believing.”


When they were sixteen, they pledged to their god that they would go into law enforcement because it would give them excellent cover and because one of the requirements of a devout satanist is to under­mine the trusted institutions of society whenever possible.


Eckles and Varner eventually became cops, but Gosset became a schoolteacher. Corrupting the young was important work, too.


The three childhood pals had met Bob Robertson sixteen months previously through a satanic cult from which they cautiously sought out others with their interests. The cult had proved to be a gaggle of wannabes playing at goth games, but Robertson had interested them because of his mother’s wealth.


Their first intention had been to kill him and his mother for what­ever valuables might be in their house - but when they discovered that Robertson was eager to bankroll what he called nasty news, they formed a partnership with him. They murdered his mother, made it appear that she’d died and been all but entirely consumed in an acci­dental fire - and gave Robertson her ears as a souvenir.


Indeed, the contents of the Rubbermaid containers in Robertson’s freezer had come from the collections of Eckles, Varner, and Gosset. Robertson himself had never had the guts to waste anyone, but be­cause of his generosity, they wanted to make him feel like a genuine part of their family.


With Robertson’s money behind them, they were full of big plans. Gosset didn’t recall who first proposed targeting a town and turning it into Hell on Earth with a series of well-planned horrors, with the cold intention of ultimately destroying it entirely. They checked out nu­merous communities and decided that Pico Mundo was ideal, neither too large to be beyond ruination nor too small to be uninteresting.


Green Moon Mall was their first target. They intended to murder


the chief and parlay the mall disaster - and a list of other complex and Machiavellian moves - into firm control of the police department. Thereafter, the steady destruction of the town would be their sport and their form of worship.


Bob Robertson moved into Camp’s End because the neighborhood offered him a low profile. Besides, he wanted to manage his money wisely, to ensure that he could buy as much fun as possible.


By the time Chief Porter got around to telling me and Stormy how he was going to protect me and help me to keep the secret of my sixth sense, his face had grown haggard, and I imagine I looked worse. Through Karla, I’d gotten word to him about Robertson’s body out there at the Church of the Whispering Comet, so he’d been able to work that bizarre detail into his cover story. He’d always done well by me in the past, but this Porter-spun narrative left me in stunned admi­ration.


Stormy said it was a work of genius. Clearly, the chief had not been spending all his time recuperating.


SIXTY-FIVE


MY WOUNDS PROVED TO BE NOT AS BAD AS I HAD FEARED in the ICU, and the doctor discharged me from County General the following Wednesday, one week to the day after the events at the mall.


To foil the media, they had been told that I’d be in the hospital an­other day. Chief Porter conspired to have me and Stormy conveyed se­cretly in the department’s beige undercover van, the same one from which Eckles had watched Stormy’s apartment that night.


If Eckles had seen me leaving, he would have arranged to have me caught in my apartment with the body of Bob Robertson. When I had slipped out the back, he had figured that I must be staying the night with my girl, and eventually he had given up the stakeout.


Leaving the hospital, I had no desire to return to my apartment above Mrs. Sanchez’s garage. I’d never be able to use the bathroom there without remembering Robertson’s corpse.


The chief and Karla didn’t think it was wise to go to Stormy’s place, either, because the reporters knew about her, too. Neither Stormy nor I was of a mind to accept the Porters’ hospitality. We wanted to be


alone, just us, at last. Reluctantly, they delivered us to her place through the alley.


Although we were besieged by the media, the next few days were bliss. They rang the doorbell, they knocked, but we didn’t respond. They gathered in the street, a regular circus, and a few times we peeked at these vultures through the curtains, but we never revealed ourselves. We had each other, and that was enough to hold off not merely reporters but armies.


We ate food that wasn’t healthy. We let dirty dishes stack up in the sink. We slept too much.


We talked about everything, everything but the slaughter at the mall. Our past, our future. We planned. We dreamed.


We talked about bodachs. Stormy is still of the opinion that they are demonic spirits and that the black room was the gate to Hell, opening in Robertson’s study.


Because of my experiences of lost and gained time related to the black room, I have developed a more disturbing theory. Maybe in our future, time travel becomes possible. Maybe they can’t journey to the past in the flesh but can return in virtual bodies in which their minds are embodied, virtual bodies that can be seen only by me. Me and one long-dead British child.


Perhaps the violence that sweeps our world daily into greater dark­ness has led to a future so brutal, so corrupt, that our twisted descen­dants return to watch us suffer, charmed by festivals of blood. The appearance of the bodachs might have nothing to do with what those travelers from the future really look like; they probably pretty much resemble you and me; instead, the bodachs may be the shape of their deformed and diseased souls,


Stormy insists they are demons on a three-day pass from Hell.


I find her explanation less frightening than mine. I wish that I could embrace it without doubt.


The dirty dishes stacked higher. We finished most of the truly un­healthy food and, not wanting to venture out, began to eat more-sensible fare.


The phone had been ringing constantly. We’d never taken it off the answering machine. The calls were all from reporters and other media types. We turned the speaker volume off, so we wouldn’t have to hear their voices. At the end of each day, I erased the messages without lis­tening to them.

P/S: Copyright -->www_Novel12_Com

***