As on this occasion, bodachs sometimes take a special interest in me. I don’t know why.
I don’t think they realize that I am aware of them. If they knew that I can see their kind, I might be in danger.
Considering that bodachs seem to have no more substance than do shadows, I’m not sure how they could harm me. I’m in no hurry to find out.
The current specimen, apparently fascinated by the rituals of short-order cookery, lost interest in me only when a customer of peculiar demeanor entered the restaurant.
In a desert summer that had toasted every resident of Pico Mundo, this newcomer remained as pale as bread dough. Across his skull spread short, sour-yellow hair furrier than a yeasty mold.
He sat at the counter, not far from the short-order station. Turning his stool left and right, left and right, as might a fidgety child, he gazed at the griddle, at the milkshake mixers and the soft-drink dispensers, appearing to be slightly bewildered and amused.
Having lost interest in me, the bodach crowded the new arrival and focused intently on him. If this inky entity’s head was in fact a head, then its head cocked left, cocked right, as though it were puzzling over the smiley man. If the snout-shaped portion was in fact a snout, then the shade sniffed with wolfish interest.
From the service side of the counter, Bertie Orbic greeted the new­comer. “Honey, what can I do you for?”
Managing to smile and talk at the same time, he spoke so softly that I couldn’t hear what he said. Bertie looked surprised, but then she be­gan to scribble on her order pad.
Magnified by round, wire-framed lenses, the customer’s eyes dis­turbed me. His smoky gray gaze floated across me as a shadow across a woodland pool, registering no more awareness of me than the shadow has of the water.
The soft features of his wan face brought to mind pale mushrooms that I once glimpsed in a dark dank corner of a basement, and mealy puftballs clustered in moist mounds of forest mast.
Busy with his mess of eggs, Chief Porter appeared to be no more aware of Fungus Man than he was of the observing bodach. Evi­dently, his intuition did not tell him that this new customer warranted special attention or concern.
I, however, found Fungus Man worrisome - in part but not entirely because the bodach remained fascinated by him.
Although, in a sense, I commune with the dead, I don’t also have
premonitions - except sometimes while fast asleep and dreaming. Awake, I am as vulnerable to mortal surprises as anyone is. My death might be delivered through the barrel of a terrorist’s gun or by a falling stone cornice in an earthquake, and I would not suspect the danger until I heard the crack of the fatal shot or felt the earth leap vi­olently beneath my feet.
My wariness of this man came from suspicion based not on reason, either, but on crude instinct. Anyone who smiled this relentlessly was a simpleton - or a deceiver with something to hide.
Those smoke-gray eyes appeared to be bemused and no more than half-focused, but I saw no stupidity in them. Indeed, I thought that I detected a cunningly veiled watchfulness, like that of a stone-still snake feigning prestrike indifference to a juicy mouse.
Clipping the ticket to the rail, Bertie Orbic relayed his order: “Two cows, make ‘em cry, give ‘em blankets, and mate ‘em with pigs.”
Two hamburgers with onions, cheese, and bacon.
In her sweet clear voice, which sounds like it belongs in a ten-year-old girl destined for a scholarship to Juilliard, she continued: “Double spuds twice in Hell.”
Two orders of French fries made extra crispy
She said: “Burn two British, send ‘em to Philly for fish.”
Two English muffins with cream cheese and lox.
She wasn’t finished: “Clean up the kitchen, plus midnight whistle-berries with zeppelins.”
An order of hash, and an order of black beans with sausages.
I said, “Should I fire this or wait till his friends join him?”
“Fire it,” Bertie replied. “This is for one. A skinny boy like you wouldn’t understand.”
“What’s he want first?”
“Whatever you want to make.”
Fungus Man smiled dreamily at a salt shaker, which he turned
around and around on the counter in front of him, as if the white crystalline contents fascinated and mystified him.
Although the guy didn’t have a buffed physique that would qualify him as a spokesman for a health club, he wasn’t fat, just gently rounded in his mushroom way. If his every meal was this elaborate, he must have the metabolism of a Tasmanian devil on methamphetamine.
I toasted and finished the muffins first, while Bertie prepared both a chocolate milkshake and a vanilla Coke. Our star eater was also a two-fisted drinker.
By the time I followed the muffins with the hash and sausages, a second bodach had appeared. This one and the first moved through the diner with an air of agitation, back and forth, here and there, al­ways returning to the smiley gourmand, who remained oblivious of them.
When the bacon cheeseburgers and the well-done fries were ready, I slapped one hand against the bell that rested beside the griddle, to alert Bertie that the order was up. She served it hot, kissing plate to counter without a rattle, as she always does.
Three bodachs had gathered at the front window, persistent shad­ows that remained impervious to the wilting power of the desert sun, peering in at us as though we were on exhibit.
Months often pass during which I encounter none of their kind. The running pack that I’d seen earlier in the street and now this con­vocation suggested that Pico Mundo was in for hard times.
Bodachs are associated with death much the way that bees seek the nectar of flowers. They seem to sip of it.
Ordinary death, however, does not draw a single bodach, let alone a swarm of them. I’ve never seen one of these beasts hovering at the bedside of a terminal cancer patient or in the vicinity of someone about to suffer a fatal heart attack.
Violence attracts them. And terror. They seem to know when it’s coming. They gather like tourists waiting for the predictable eruption of a reliable geyser in Yellowstone Park.
I never saw one of them shadowing Harlo Landerson in the days before he murdered Penny Kallisto. I doubt that any bodachs were in attendance when he raped and throttled the girl.
For Penny, death had come with terrible pain and intolerable fear; surely each of us prays - or merely hopes, depending on his certainty of God - that his death will not be as brutal as hers. To bodachs, how­ever, a quiet strangulation apparently isn’t sufficiently exciting to be­stir them from whatever lairs they inhabit in whatever strange realm is their true home.
Their appetite is for operatic terror. The violence they crave is of the most extreme variety: multiple untimely deaths spiced with pro­tracted horror, served with cruelty as thick as bad gravy.
When I was nine years old, a drug-whacked teenager named Gary Tolliver sedated his family - little brother, little sister, mother, father - by doctoring a pot of homemade chicken soup. He shackled them while they were unconscious, waited for them to wake, and then spent a weekend torturing them before he killed them with a power drill.
During the week preceding these atrocities, I had twice crossed Tolliver’s path. On the first occasion, he’d been followed closely by three eager bodachs. On the second occasion: not three but fourteen.
I have no doubt that those inky forms roamed the Tolliver house throughout that bloody weekend, invisible to the victims and to the killer alike, slinking from room to room as the scene of the action shifted. Observing. Feeding.
Two years later, a moving van, driven by a drunk, sheered off the gasoline pumps at a busy service station out on Green Moon Road, triggering an explosion and fire that killed seven. That morning, I had
seen a dozen bodachs lingering there like misplaced shadows in the early sun.
Nature’s wrath draws them as well. They were seething over the ruins of the Buena Vista Nursing Home after the earthquake eighteen months ago, and did not leave until the last injured survivor had been extracted from the rubble.
If I had passed by Buena Vista prior to the quake, surely I would have seen them gathering. Perhaps I could have saved some lives.
When I was a child, I first thought that these shades might be malevolent spirits who fostered evil in those people around whom they swarmed. I’ve since discovered that many human beings need no supernatural mentoring to commit acts of savagery; some people are devils in their own right, their telltale horns having grown inward to facilitate their disguise.
I’ve come to believe that bodachs don’t foster terror, after all, but take sustenance from it in some fashion. I think of them as psychic vampires, similar to but even scarier than the hosts of daytime-TV talk shows that feature emotionally disturbed and self-destructive guests who are encouraged to bare their damaged souls.
Attended now by four bodachs inside the Pico Mundo Grille and also watched by others at the windows, Fungus Man washed down the final bites of his burgers and fries with the last of his milkshake and vanilla Coke. He left a generous tip for Bertie, paid his check at the cashier’s station, and departed the diner with his slinking en­tourage of slithery shadows.
Through dazzles of sunlight, through shimmering curtains of heat rising from the baked blacktop, I watched him cross the street. The bodachs at his sides and in his wake were difficult to count as they swarmed over one another, but I would have bet a week’s wages that they numbered no fewer than twenty.
ALTHOUGH HER EYES ARE NEITHER GOLDEN NOR HEAVenly blue, Terri Stambaugh has the vision of an angel, for she sees through you and knows your truest heart, but loves you anyway, in spite of all the ways that you are fallen from a state of grace.
She’s forty-one, therefore old enough to be my mother. She is not, however, eccentric enough to be my mother. Not by half.
Terri inherited the Grille from her folks and runs it to the high stan­dard that they established. She’s a fair boss and a hard worker.
Her only offbeat quality is her obsession with Elvis and all things Elvisian.
Because she enjoyed having her encyclopedic knowledge tested, I said, “Nineteen sixty-three.”
I picked one at random: “The twenty-ninth.”
“That was a Wednesday,” Terri said.
The lunch rush had passed. My workday had ended at two o’clock.
We were in a booth at the back of the Grille, waiting for a second-shift waitress, Viola Peabody, to bring our lunch.
I had been relieved at the short-order station by Poke Barnet. Thirty-some years older than I am, lean and sinewy, Poke has a Mojave-cured face and gunfighter eyes. He is as silent as a Gila mon­ster sunning on a rock, as self-contained as any cactus.
If Poke had lived a previous life in the Old West, he had more likely been a marshal with a lightning-quick draw, or even one of the Dalton gang, rather than a chuck-wagon cook. With or without past-life ex­perience, however, he was a good man at grill and griddle.
“On Wednesday, May 29, 1963,” Terri said, “Priscilla graduated from Immaculate Conception High School in Memphis.”
“She was Priscilla Beaulieu back then. During the graduation cere­mony, Elvis waited in a car outside the school.”
“He wasn’t invited?”
“Sure he was. But his presence in the auditorium would have been a major disruption.”
“When were they married?”
“Too easy. May 1, 1967, shortly before noon, in a suite in the Aladdin Hotel, Las Vegas.”
Terri was fifteen when Elvis died. He wasn’t a heartthrob in those days. By then he had become a bloated caricature of himself in em­broidered, rhinestone-spangled jumpsuits more appropriate for Liberace than for the bluesy singer with a hard rhythm edge who had first hit the top of the charts in 1956, with “Heartbreak Hotel.”
Terri hadn’t yet been born in 1956. Her fascination with Presley had not begun until sixteen years after his death.
The origins of this obsession are in part mysterious to her. One rea­son Elvis mattered, she said, was that in his prime, pop music had still been politically innocent, therefore deeply life-affirming, therefore relevant.
By the time he died, most pop songs had become, usually with­out the conscious intention of those who wrote and sang them, anthems endorsing the values of fascism, which remains the case to this day.
I suspect that Terri is obsessed with Elvis partly because, on an un­conscious level, she has been aware that he has moved among us here in Pico Mundo at least since my childhood, perhaps ever since his death, a truth that I revealed to her only a year ago. I suspect she is a la­tent medium, that she may sense his spiritual presence, and that as a consequence she is powerfully drawn to the study of his life and career.
I have no idea why the King of Rock-’n'-Roll has not moved on to the Other Side but continues, after so many years, to haunt this world. After all, Buddy Holly hasn’t hung around; he’s gotten on with death in the proper fashion.
And why does Elvis linger in Pico Mundo instead of in Memphis or Vegas?
According to Terri, who knows everything there is to know about all the days of Elvis’s busy forty-two years, he never visited our town when he was alive. In all the literature of the paranormal, no mention is made of such a geographically dislocated haunting.
We were puzzling over this mystery, not for the first time, when Viola Peabody brought our late lunch. Viola is as black as Bertie Orbic is round, as thin as Helen Arches is flat-footed.
Depositing our plates on the table, Viola said, “Odd, will you read me?”
More than a few folks in Pico Mundo think that I’m some sort of psychic: perhaps a clairvoyant, a thaumaturge, seer, soothsayer, some­thing. Only a handful know that I see the restless dead. The others have whittled an image of me with the distorting knives of rumor until I am a different piece of scrimshaw to each of them.
“I’ve told you, Viola, I’m not a palmist or a head-bump reader. And tea leaves aren’t anything to me but garbage.”
“So read my face,” she said. “Tell me - do you see what I saw in a dream last night?”
Viola was usually a cheerful person, even though her husband, Rafael, had traded up to a waitress at a fancy steakhouse over in Arroyo City, thereafter providing neither counsel nor support for their two children. On this occasion, however, Viola appeared solemn as never before, and worried.
I told her, “The lost thing I can read is faces.”
Every human face is more enigmatic than the timeworn expression on the famous Sphinx out there in the sands of Egypt.
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