“Well, maybe I’ve padded your bill to make up for not keeping that ten thousand,” he said, though he had done nothing of the sort, and though he knew that she was not for an instant disposed to take seriously his suggestion of dishonesty.

He was dismayed by his inability to accept her compliment with grace, and he wondered—though not with any analytic passion— why he felt obliged to slander himself.

Shaking her head, gentle amusement still written on her face, she returned her attention to the checkbook.

From the woman’s demeanor and a quality of mystery in her smile, Noah suspected that she understood him better than he knew himself. This suspicion didn’t inspire contemplation, and he busied himself switching off the TV and closing the doors on the entertainment center while she finished writing the check.

While Noah watched her from the doorway, Constance Tavenall left the presidential suite, carrying the congressman’s doom in the Neiman Marcus bag. The weight of her husband’s betrayals didn’t pull the lady’s plumb-bob spine even one millimeter out of true. Like a sylph she had come; and after she turned the corner at the far end of the hallway, disappearing into the elevator alcove, the path that she had followed seemed to be charged with some supernatural energy, as the aura of an elemental spirit might linger after its visitation.

While the red and then the purple dust of twilight settled, Noah remained in the three-bedroom suite, roaming room to room, gazing out a series of windows at the millions of points of light that blossomed across the peopled plains and hills, the shimmering dazzle of an electric garden. Although some loved this place as though it were Eden re-created, everything here was inferior to the original Garden in all ways but one: If you counted snakes an asset, then not merely a single serpent lurked within this foliage, but a wealth of vipers, all schooled in the knowledge of darkness, well practiced in deception.

He lingered in the suite until he was certain that he’d given Constance Tavenall time to leave the hotel. In case one of the congressman’s minions coiled in a car outside, waiting to follow the woman, Noah must avoid being seen.

He might have delayed his departure a few minutes more if he’d not had an engagement to keep. Visiting hours at the Haven of the Lonesome and the Long Forgotten were drawing toward a close, and a damaged angel waited there for him.

Chapter 7

SO HER BROTHER was on Mars, her hapless mother was on dope, and her stepfather was on a murderous rampage. Leilani’s eccentric tales were acceptable conversation over dinner in an asylum; but in spite of how looney life could sometimes be here in Casa Geneva, and though the relentless August heat withered common sense and wilted reason, Micky decided that they were setting a new standard for irrationality in this trailer where genteel daffiness and screwball self-delusion had heretofore been the closest they had come to madness.

“So who did your stepfather kill?” she asked nevertheless, playing Leilani’s curious game if for no reason other than it was more amusing than talking about a miserable day of job-hunting.

“Yes, dear, who did he whack?” Aunt Gen asked with bright-eyed interest. Perhaps her occasional confusion of real-life experiences with the fantasies of the cinema had prepared her to relate to the girl’s Hitchcockian-Spielbergian biography with less skepticism than the narrative aroused in Micky.

Without hesitation, Leilani said, “Four elderly women, three elderly men, a thirty-year-old mother of two, a rich gay-nightclub owner in San Francisco, a seventeen-year-old high-school football star in Iowa—and a six-year-old boy in a wheelchair not far from here, in a town called Tustin.”

The specificity of the answer was disconcerting. Leilani’s words struck a bell in Micky’s mind, and she recognized the sound as the ring of truth.

Yesterday in the backyard, when Micky admonished the girl not to invent unkind stories about her mother, Leilani had said, couldn’t make up anything as weird as what is.

But a stepfather who had committed eleven murders? Who killed elderly women? And a little boy in a wheelchair?

Even as instinct argued that she was hearing the clear ring of truth, reason insisted it was the reverberant gong of sheer fantasy.

“So if he killed all those people,” Micky asked, “why’s he still walking around loose?”

“It’s a wonderment, isn’t it?” the girl said. “More than a wonderment. It’s impossible.”

“Dr. Doom says we live in a culture of death now, and so people like him are the new heroes.” “What does that mean?”

“I don’t explain the doctor,” Leilani said. “I just quote him.” “He sounds like a perfectly dreadful man,” Aunt Gen said, as though Leilani had accused Maddoc of nothing worse than habitually breaking wind and being rude to nuns.

“If I were you, I wouldn’t invite him to dinner. By the way, he doesn’t know I’m here. He wouldn’t allow this. But he’s out tonight.” “I’d rather invite Satan than him,” said Geneva. “You’re welcome here anytime, Leilani, but he better stay on his side of the fence.”

“He will. He doesn’t like people much, unless they’re dead. He isn’t likely to chat you up across the backyard fence. But if you do run into him, don’t call him Preston or Maddoc. These days he looks a lot different, and he travels under the name Jordan—’call me Jorry’—Banks. If you use his real name, he’ll know I’ve ratted on him.”

“I won’t be talking to him,” said Geneva. “After what I’ve just heard, I’d as soon smack him as look at him.”

Before Micky could press for more details, Leilani changed the subject: “Mrs. D, did the cops catch the guy who robbed your store?”

Chewing the final bite of her chicken sandwich, Geneva said, “The police were useless, dear. I had to track him down myself.” “That’s so completely radical!” In the gathering shadows that darkened but didn’t cool tin- kitchen, in the scarlet light of the retiring sun, Leilani’s lace shone as much with enchantment as with a patina of perspiration. In spite of her genius IQ, her street smarts, and her well-polished wise-ass attitude, the girl retained some of the gullibility of a child. “But how’d you do what the cops couldn’t?”

As Micky struck a match to light the three candles in the center of the table, Aunt Gen said, “Trained detectives can’t compete with a wronged woman if she’s determined, spunky, and has a hard edge.”

“Spunky though you are,” Micky said as the second candle cloned the flame on her match, “I suspect you’re thinking about Ashley Judd or Sharon Stone, or maybe Pam Grier.”

Leaning across the dinette table, whispering dramatically to Leilani, Geneva said, “I located the bastard in New Orleans.”

“You’ve never been to New Orleans,” Micky affectionately reminded her.

Frowning, Geneva said, “Maybe it was Las Vegas.”

Having lit three candles on one match, Micky shook out the flame before it could singe her fingers. “This isn’t real memory, Aunt Gen. It’s movie memory again.”

“Is it?” Geneva still leaned forward. The slow unsynchronized throbbing of the candle flames cast an undulant glow across her face, brightening her eyes but failing to dispel the shadow of confusion in which she sat. “But, sweetie, I remember so clearly . . . the wonderful satisfaction of shooting him.”

“You don’t own a gun, Aunt Gen.”

“That’s right. I don’t own a gun.” Geneva’s sudden smile was more radiant than the candlelight. “Now that I think about it, the man who was shot in New Orleans—he was Alec Baldwin.”

“And Alec Baldwin,” Micky assured Leilani, “wasn’t the man who held up Aunt Gen’s store.”

“Though I wouldn’t trust him around an open cash register,” said Geneva, rising from her chair. “Alec Baldwin is a more believable villain than hero.”

Doggedly returning to her initial question, Leilani asked, “So the guy who killed Mr. D—was he caught?”

“No,” Micky said. “Cops haven’t had one lead in eighteen years.”

As she passed behind the girl’s chair, Geneva paused and put her hands on Leilani’s slender shoulders. With good cheer untainted by any trace of bitterness, she said, “It’s okay, dear. If the man who shot my Vernon isn’t already roasting in Hell, he will be soon.”

“I’m not sure I believe Hell exists,” the girl replied with the gravity of one who has given the matter considerable thought during the lonely hours of the night.

“Well, of course it does, sweetheart. What would the world be like without toilets?”

Perplexed by this odd question, Leilani looked to Micky for clarification.

Micky shrugged.

“An afterlife without Hell,” Aunt Gen explained, “would be as polluted and unendurable as a world without toilets.” She kissed the top of the girl’s head. “And now I myself am off to have a nice sit-down with Nature.” ,

As Geneva left the kitchen, disappeared into the short dark hallway, and closed the bathroom door behind her, Leilani and Micky stared at each other across the dinette table. For languid seconds in the time-distorting August heat, they were as silent as the trinity of flames bright upon the smokeless wicks between them.

Finally, Micky said, “If you want to establish yourself as an eccentric around this place, you’ve got your work cut out for you.”

“The competition is pretty stiff,” Leilani acknowledged.

“So your stepfather’s a murderer.”

“It could be worse, I guess,” the girl said with a calculated jauntiness. “He could be a bad dresser. A weaselly enough attorney can find a justification for virtually any murder, but there’s no excuse for a tacky wardrobe.”

“Does he dress well?”

“He has a certain style. At least one isn’t mortified to be seen in his company.”

“Even though he kills old ladies and boys in wheelchairs?”

“Only one boy in a wheelchair, as far as I know.”

Beyond the window, the wounded day left an arterial stain across the western sky, pulling over itself a shroud of gold and of purple.

When Micky rose to clear away the dinner dishes, Leilani pushed her chair back from the table and started to get up.

“Relax.” Micky switched on the light above the sink. “I can handle it.”

“I’m not a cripple.”

“Don’t be so sensitive. You are a guest, and we don’t charge guests for dinner or make them work it off.”

Ignoring her, the girl plucked a roll of plastic wrap from a counter and began to cover the serving bowls, which were half full.

Rinsing the dishes and the flatware, stacking them in the sink to be washed later, Micky said, “The logical assumption is that all this talk of the killer stepfather is just a vivid imagination at work, merely an attempt to add some dark glamour to the image of Ms. Leilani Klonk, flamboyant young mutant eccentric.”

“That would be a wrong assumption.”

“Just a bunch of hooey — “

“I live in a hooey-free zone.”

” — but a bunch of hooey that maybe has a second and more serious purpose,” Micky suggested.

Returning the potato salad to the refrigerator, Leilani said, “What — you think I’m talking in riddles?”

Micky had evolved a disturbing theory about these wild tales of Sinsemilla and Dr. Doom. If she stated her suspicions directly, however, she would risk driving Leilani to further evasion. For reasons that she hadn’t yet found time to analyze, she wanted to provide the girl with whatever help was needed if indeed help was being sought.

Instead of making eye contact, avoiding any approach that might seem like an inquisition, Micky continued rinsing dishes as she said, “Not riddles exactly. Sometimes there are things we can’t easily talk about, so we talk around them.”

Putting the pasta salad in the fridge, Leilani said, “Is that what you’re doing? Talking around what you really want to talk about? And I’m — what? — supposed to guess the true subject?”

“No, no.” Micky hesitated. “Well, yes, that is what I’m doing. But I meant maybe you’re talking around something when you tell these tall tales about Dr. Doom murdering boys in wheelchairs.”

From the corner of her eye, Micky was aware that the girl had stopped working and had turned to face her. “Help me here, Michelina Bellsong. This little chat of ours is making me dizzy. What is it you think I’m talking around?”

“I don’t have any idea what you’re talking around,” Micky lied. “That’s for you to tell me . . . when you’re ready.”

“How long have you been living with Mrs. D?”

“What’s that matter? A week.”

“One week, and already you’re a master of hugely befuddling conversation. Oh, I’d love to hear what a chinfest between the two of you is like when I’m not here to provide some rationality.”

“You provide rationality?” Micky rinsed the last of the dishes. “Just when was the last time you actually ate tofu and canned peaches on a bed of bean sprouts?”

“I never eat it,” Leilani said. “The last time old Sinsemilla served it was Monday. So come on, tell me, what do you think I’m talking around? You brought it up, so you must suspect something.”

Micky was flummoxed that her amateur psychology was proving to be no more successful than would have been a little amateur nuclear-reactor engineering or a session of brain surgery with kitchen utensils.

Drying her hands on a dishtowel, she turned to the girl. “I don’t have any suspicions. I’m just saying, if you want to talk about anything instead of just around it, I’m here.”

“Oh, Lord.” Although the sparkle in Leilani’s eyes might have been read as something other than merriment, the mirth in her voice was unmistakable: “You think I’m making up stories about Dr. Doom killing people because I’m too fearful or too ashamed to bring myself to talk about what he really does, and what you think maybe he really does is have his sweaty, greasy, drooling, lustful way with me.”

Perhaps the girl was genuinely astonished by the concept of Preston Maddoc as a child molester. Or perhaps this was nothing more than a pretense of amusement, to cover her discomfort at how close Micky had come to the truth.

The only thing trickier than an amateur using a psychologist’s techniques was an amateur trying to interpret a patient’s responses. If this had been nuclear-reactor engineering, Micky would already have been reduced to a cloud of radioactive dust.

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