Getting to his feet, Tommy said, ‘Lights!’ The room remained dark, and then he remembered the complete command. ‘Lights on!’
Scootie was gone.
From the study, adjacent the living room, came a single bark, and light appeared beyond the open door.
‘They’re both crazy,’ Tommy muttered as he went around the coffee table and picked up the rubber bone from beside the second armchair.
Scootie appeared in the study doorway, without the shoe. When he saw that he’d been seen, he retreated.
Limping across the living room to the study, Tommy said, ‘Maybe the dog wasn’t always crazy. Maybe she made it crazy, the same way she’ll make me crazy sooner or later.’
When he entered the study, he found the dog standing on the bleached-cherry desk. The mutt looked like an absurdly oversized decorative accessory.
‘Where’s my shoe?’
Scootie cocked his head as if to say, What shoe? Holding up the toy hotdog, Tommy said, ‘I’ll take this outside and throw it in the harbour.’
With his soulful eyes focused intently on the toy, Scootie whined.
‘It’s late, I’m tired, my Corvette blew up, some damn thing is after me, so I’m in no mood for games.’
Scootie merely whined again.
Tommy circled the desk, searching for his shoe.
Atop the desk, Scootie turned, following him with interest.
‘If I find it without your help,’ Tommy warned, ‘then I won’t give the hotdog back.’
‘Find what?’ Del asked from the doorway.
She had changed into blue jeans and a cranberry-red turtle-neck sweater, and she was holding two big guns.
‘What the hell are those?’ Tommy asked.
Hefting the weapon in her right hand, she said, ‘This is a short-barreled, pump-action, pistol-grip, 12-gauge Mossberg shotgun. Excellent home-defence weapon.’ She raised the gun in her left hand. ‘This beauty is a Desert Eagle .44 Magnum pistol, Israeli-made. It’s a real door-buster. A couple of rounds from this baby will stop a charging bull.’
‘You run into a lot of charging bulls?’
‘Or the equivalent.’
‘No, seriously, why do you keep heavy artillery like that?’
‘I told you before — I lead an eventful life.’
He remembered how easily she had dismissed the damage to her van earlier in the evening: It comes with the territory.
And when he had worried about the rain ruining the upholstery, she had shrugged and said, There’s frequently damage… I’ve learned to roll with it.
Tommy sensed a satori, a sudden profound insight, looming like a tidal wave, and he waited breathlessly for it to wash over him. This woman was not what she appeared to be. He had thought of her as a waitress, but had discovered she was an artist. Then he had thought of her as a struggling artist who worked as a waitress to pay the rent, but she lived in a multimillion-dollar house. Her eccentricities and her habit of peppering her conversation with cryptic babble and non sequiturs had convinced him that she had a few screws loose in the cranium, but now he suspected that the worst mistake he could make with her would be to write her off as a flake. There were depths to her that he was only beginning to perceive —and swimming in those depths were some strange fish
that would surprise him more than anything that he had seen to date.
He recalled another fragment of their conversation, and it seemed to have new import: Reality is perception. Perceptions change. Reality is fluid. So if by ‘reality’ you mean reliably tangible objects and immutable events, then there’s no such thing. I’ll explain someday when we have more time.
He sensed that every screwball statement she made was not, in fact, half as screwball as it seemed. Even in her most air headed statements, an elusive truth was lurking. If he could just step back from her, put aside the conception of her that he had already formed, he would see her entirely differently from the way that he saw her now. He thought of those drawings by M.C. Escher, which played with perspective and with the viewer’s expectations, so a scene might appear to be only a drift of lazily falling leaves until, suddenly, one saw it anew as a school of fast-swimming fish. Within the first picture was hidden another. Within Del Payne was hidden a different person — someone with a secret — who was cloaked by the ditsy image that she projected.
The satori, tidal wave of revelation, loomed, loomed, loomed — and then began to recede without bringing him understanding. He had strained too hard. Some¬times enlightenment came only when it wasn’t sought or welcomed.
Del stood in the doorway between the study and the living room, a gun in each hand, meeting Tommy’s gaze so directly that he half suspected she knew what he was thinking.
Frowning, he said, ‘Who are you, Del Payne?’
‘Who is any of us?’ she countered.
‘Don’t start that again.’
‘Don’t start what?’
‘That inscrutable crap.’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. What’re you doing with Scootie’s rubber hotdog?’
Tommy glared at the Labrador on the desk. ‘He took my shoe.’
In an admonishing tone, she said to the dog, ‘Scootie?’
The mutt met her eyes almost defiantly, but then he lowered his head and whined.
‘Bad Scootie,’ she said. ‘Give Tommy his shoe.’ Scootie studied Tommy, then chuffed dismissively. ‘Give Tommy his shoe,’ Del repeated firmly. Finally the dog jumped down from the desk, padded to a potted palm in one corner of the room, poked its head behind the celadon pot, and returned with the athletic shoe in his mouth. He dropped it on the floor at Tommy’s feet.
When Tommy bent down to pick up his shoe, the dog put one paw on it — and stared at the rubber hotdog.
Tommy put the hotdog on the floor.
The dog looked at the hotdog and then at Tommy’s hand, which was only a few inches away from the toy.
Tommy withdrew his hand.
The Labrador picked up the hotdog with his mouth —and only then lifted his paw off the shoe. He padded into the living room, biting on the toy to produce the farting sound.
Staring thoughtfully after Scootie, Tommy said, ‘Where did you get that mutt?’
‘At the pound.’
‘I don’t believe it.’
‘What’s not to believe?’
From the living room came a veritable symphony of rubber-hotdog flatulence.
‘I think you got him from a circus.’
‘He’s clever,’ she agreed.
‘Where did you really get him?’
‘At a pet store.’
‘I don’t believe that, either.’
‘Put on your shoe,’ she said, ‘and let’s get out of here.’
He hobbled to a chair. ‘Something’s strange about that dog.’
‘Well, if you must know,’ Del said flippantly, ‘I’m a witch, and he’s my familiar, an ancient supernatural entity who helps me make magic.’
Untying the knot in his shoelace, Tommy said, ‘I’d believe that before I’d believe you found him at the pound. He’s got a demonic side to him.’
‘Oh, he’s just a little jealous,’ Del said. ‘When he gets to know you better, he’ll like you. The two of you are going to get along famously.’
Slipping his foot into the shoe, Tommy said, ‘What about the house? How can you afford this place?’
‘I’m an heiress,’ she said.
He tied the shoelace and got to his feet. ‘Heiress? I thought your father was a professional poker player.’
‘He was. A damned good one. And he invested his winnings wisely. When he died, he left an estate worth thirty-four million dollars.’
Tommy gaped at her. ‘You’re serious, aren’t you?’
‘When am I not?’
‘That’s the question, alright.’
‘You know how to use a pump-action shotgun?’
‘Sure. But guns aren’t going to stop it.’
She handed the Mossberg to him. ‘They might slow it down — like your pistol did. And these pack a lot more punch. Come on, let’s hit the road. I think you’re right about being safe only when we’re on the move. Lights out.’
Following her out of the now dark study, Tommy said, ‘But… for God’s sake, when you’re already a multimillionaire, why do you work as a waitress?’
Moving toward the foyer, she said, ‘Lights out,’ and the living room went dark. ‘To understand what the average person’s life is like, to keep my feet on the ground.’
‘My paintings wouldn’t have any soul if I didn’t live part of my life the way most people do.’ She opened the door to the foyer closet and slipped a blue nylon ski jacket off a hanger. ‘Labour, hard work, is at the centre of most people’s lives.’
‘But most people have to work. You don’t. So in the end, if it’s only a choice for you, how can you really understand the necessity the rest of us feel?’
‘Don’t be mean.’
‘I’m not being mean.’
‘You are. I don’t have to be a rabbit and get myself torn to pieces in order to understand how a poor bunny feels when a hungry fox chases it through a field.’
‘Actually, I suspect you do have to be the rabbit to really know that kind of terror.’
Shrugging into the ski jacket, she said, ‘Well, I’m not a rabbit, never have been a rabbit, and I’m not going to become a rabbit. What an absurd idea.’
‘If you want to know what that kind of terror feels like, then you become a rabbit.’
Befuddled, Tommy said, ‘I’ve lost track of the conver¬sation, the way you keep twisting things around. We aren’t talking about rabbits, for God’s sake.’
‘Well, we certainly weren’t talking about squirrels.’
Trying to get the discussion back on track, he said, ‘Are you really an artist?’
Sorting through the other coats in the closet, she said, ‘Is any of us really anything?’
Exasperated with Del’s preference for speaking in cryptograms, Tommy indulged in one himself: ‘We’re anything in the sense that we are everything.’
‘You’ve finally said something sensible.’
Behind Tommy, as if by way of comment, Scootie bit the rubber hotdog: tthhhpphhtt.
Del said, ‘I’m afraid none of my jackets will fit you.’
‘I’ll be okay. I’ve been cold and wet before.’ On the granite-topped foyer table, beside Del’s purse, were two boxes of ammunition: cartridges for the Desert Eagle and shells for the 12-gauge Mossberg that Tommy carried. She put down the pistol and began to fill the half dozen zippered pockets of her ski jacket with spare rounds for both weapons.
Tommy studied the painting that hung above the table:
a bold work of abstract art in primary colours. Are these your paintings on the walls?’
‘That would be tacky, don’t you think? I keep all my canvases in my studio, upstairs.’
‘I’d like to see them.’
‘I thought you were in a hurry.’
Tommy sensed that the paintings were the key that would unlock the mysteries of this strange woman—
—and her strange dog. Something about her style or her subject matter would be a revelation, and upon seeing what she had painted, he would achieve the satori that had eluded him earlier.
‘It’ll only take five minutes,’ he pressed.
Still jamming spare ammo into her pockets, she said, ‘We don’t have five minutes.’
‘Three. I really want to see your paintings.’
‘We’ve got to get out of here.’
‘Why are you suddenly so evasive?’ he asked.
Zipping shut a pocket bulging with shotgun shells, she said, ‘I’m not being evasive.’
‘Yes, you are. What the hell have you been painting up there?’
‘Why are you so nervous all of a sudden?’
‘This is weird. Look me in the eyes, Del.’
‘Kittens,’ she said, avoiding his gaze.
‘That’s what I’ve been painting. Stupid, tacky, senti¬mental crap. Because I’m not really very talented. Kittens with big eyes. Sad little kittens with big sorrowful eyes and happy little kittens with big laughing eyes. And moronic scenes of dogs playing poker, dogs bowling. That’s why I don’t want you to see them, Tommy. I’d be embarrassed.’
‘Kittens,’ she insisted, zipping shut another pocket.
‘I don’t think so.’ He started toward the stairs. ‘Two minutes is all I need.’
She snatched the Desert Eagle .44 Magnum off the foyer table, swung toward him, and pointed the weapon at his face. ‘Stop right there.’
‘Jesus, Del, that gun’s loaded.’
‘Don’t point it at me.’
‘Get away from the stairs, Tommy.’
There was nothing frivolous about her now. She was cold and businesslike.
‘I’d never point this at you,’ he said, indicating the shotgun in his right hand.
‘I know,’ she said flatly, but she didn’t lower her weapon.
The muzzle of the Desert Eagle was only ten inches from Tommy and aligned with the bridge of his nose.
He was looking at a new Deliverance Payne. Steely. His heart thudded hard enough to shake his entire body. ‘You won’t shoot me.’
‘I will,’ she said with such icy conviction that she could not be doubted.
‘Just to keep me from seeing some paintings?’
‘You’re not ready to see them yet,’ she said.
‘Meaning. . . someday you will want me to see them.’
‘When the time is right.’
Tommy’s mouth was so dry that he had to work up some saliva to loosen his tongue. ‘But I won’t ever see them if you blow my brains out.’
‘Good point,’ she said, and she lowered the gun. ‘So I’ll shoot you in the leg.’
The pistol was aimed at his right knee.
‘One round from that monster would blow my whole damn leg off.’
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