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for the Desert Eagle. ‘Unfortunately, I’m not half as good at fencing as I’d like to be, though I’ll admit to being first-rate with a crossbow.’


‘He died when you were ten,’ Tommy said. ‘So he taught you all this when you were just a little kid?’


‘Yeah. We’d go out in the desert near Vegas and blow the crap out of empty soda bottles, tin cans, posters of old movie monsters like Dracula and the creature from the Black Lagoon. It was a lot of fun.’


‘What in the name of God was he preparing you for?’


‘Dating.’


‘Dating?’


‘That was his joke. Actually he was preparing me for the unusual life he knew I was going to have.’


‘How could he know?’


Rather than answer the question, Del said, ‘But the truth is, because of the training Daddy gave me, I’ve never been on a date with any guy who intimidated me, never had a problem.’


‘I guess not. I think you’d have to be dating Hannibal Lecter before you’d feel uneasy.’


Pressing the last two rounds into the .44 magazine, she said, ‘I still miss Daddy. He truly understood me — and not many people ever do.’


‘I’m trying,’ Tommy assured her.


Passing by on his sentry duties, Scootie came to Del, put his head in her lap, and whimpered as though he had heard the regret and the sense of loss in her voice.


Tommy said, ‘How could a little girl hold and fire a gun like that? The recoil—’


‘Oh, of course, we started with an air rifle, an air pistol, and then a .22,’ she said, slamming the loaded magazine into the Israeli pistol. ‘When we practiced with rifles or shotguns, Daddy padded my shoulders, crouched behind to brace me, and held the gun with me. He was only familiarizing me with the more powerful weapons, so I’d


feel comfortable with them from an early age, wouldn’t be afraid of them when the time came to actually handle them. He died before I really got good with the bigger stuff, and then Mom continued the lessons.’


‘Too bad he never got around to teaching you how to make bombs,’ Tommy said with mock dismay.


‘I’m comfortable with dyn**ite and most plastic explosives, but they really aren’t particularly useful for self-defence.’


‘Was your father a terrorist?’


‘Furthest thing from it. He thought all politics were stupid. He was a gentle man.’


‘But he just usually had some dyn**ite laying around to practice making bombs.’


‘Not usually.’


‘Just at Christmas, huh?’


‘Basically, I learned explosives not to make bombs but to disarm them if I had to.’


‘A task we’re all faced with every month or so.’


‘No,’ she said, ‘I’ve only had to do it twice.’ Tommy wanted to believe that she was kidding, but he decided not to ask. His brain was overloaded with new discoveries about her, and in his current weariness, he did not have the energy or the mental capacity to contemplate more of her disconcerting revelations. ‘And I thought my family was strange.’


‘Everyone thinks his family is strange,’ Del said, scratching Scootie behind the ears, ‘but it’s just that, because we’re closer to the people we love, we tend to see them through a magnifying glass, through a thicker lens of emotion, and we exaggerate their eccentricities.’


‘Not in the case of your family,’ he said. ‘Magnifying glass or no magnifying glass, it’s a strange clan.’


Scootie returned to his patrol, padding quietly away through the motionless stampede of wooden horses.


As Del zipped shut the pocket from which she had


taken the ammunition, she said, ‘The way I see it, your family might have a prejudice against blondes, but when they see how much I’ve got to offer, they’ll learn to like me.’


Grateful that she couldn’t see him blush in this gloom, Tommy said, ‘Never mind expertise with guns. Can you cook? That’s a big deal in my family.’


‘Ah, yes, the family of fighting bakers. Well, I’ve picked up a lot from my folks. Daddy won several prizes in chilli-cooking contests all across Texas and the Southwest, and Mom graduated from Cordon Bleu.’


‘Was that while she was a ballerina?’


‘Right after.’


He checked his watch — 2:37. ‘Maybe we better get moving again.’


Another siren rose in the distance.


Del listened long enough to be sure that the siren was drawing nearer rather than receding. ‘Let’s wait a while. We’re going to have to find new wheels and hit the road again, but I don’t want to be hot-wiring a car when the streets around here are crawling with cops.’


‘If we stay too long in one place—’


‘We’re okay for a while. You sleepy?’


‘Couldn’t sleep if I tried.’


‘Eyes itchy and burning?’


‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘But I’ll be okay.’


‘Your neck aches so bad you can hardly hold up your head,’ she said, as if she could feel his discomfort.


‘I’m alert enough. Don’t worry about me,’ he said, and with one hand he squeezed the nape of his neck as if he could pull the pain out of his flesh.


She said, ‘You’re weary to the bone, poor baby. Turn away from me a little. Let me work on you.’


‘Work on me?’


‘Move your butt a little, tofu boy, come on,’ she said, nudging him with her hip.


The chariot was narrow, but he was able to turn enough to allow her to massage his shoulders and the back of his neck. Her slender hands were surprisingly strong, but though she pressed hard at times, she relieved rather than caused pain.


Sighing, he said, ‘Who taught you this?’


‘It’s just a thing I know. Like my painting.’


They were both quiet for minute, except for Tommy’s occasional groan as Del’s fingers found another coil of tension and slowly unwound it.


The diligent Scootie passed, out at the edge of the platform, as black as the night itself and as silent as a spirit.


As she worked her thumbs up and down the nape of Tommy’s neck, Del said, ‘Have you ever been abducted by aliens?’


‘Oh, boy.’


‘What?’


‘Here we go again.’


‘You mean you have?’


‘Been abducted? Of course not. I mean, here you go again, getting weird.’


‘You don’t believe in extraterrestrial intelligences?’


‘I believe the universe is so big that there’s got to be lots of other intelligent species in it.’


‘So what’s weird?’


‘But I don’t believe they come all the way across the galaxy to kidnap people and take them up in flying saucers and examine their gen**als.’


‘They don’t just examine the gen**als.’


‘I know, I know. Sometimes they take the abductee to Chicago for beer and pizza.’


She lightly, chastisingly slapped the back of his head. ‘You’re being sarcastic.’


‘A little.’


‘It’s not becoming to you.’


‘Listen, an alien species, vastly more intelligent than we are, creatures millions of years more evolved than we are, probably wouldn’t have any interest in us at all — and certainly wouldn’t be interested enough to spend so much manpower harassing a bunch of ordinary citizens.’


Massaging his scalp now, Del said, ‘Personally, I believe in alien abductions.’


‘I am not surprised.’


‘I believe they’re worried about us.’


‘The aliens?’


‘That’s right.’


‘Why would they be worried about us?’


‘We’re such a troubled species, so confused, self-destructive. I think the aliens want to help us achieve enlightenment.’


‘By examining our gen**als? Then those guys sitting ringside at nude-dancing clubs only want to help the girls on the stage to achieve enlightenment.’


From behind him, she reached around to his forehead, drawing light circles on his brow with her fingers. ‘You’re such a wise guy.’


‘I write detective novels.’


‘Maybe you’ve even been abducted,’ she said.


‘Not me.’


‘You wouldn’t remember.’


‘I’d remember,’ he assured her.


‘Not if the aliens didn’t want you to.’


‘Just a wild shot in the dark here — but I bet you think you've been abducted.’


She stopped massaging his brow and pulled him around to face her again. Her murmur fell to a con¬spiratorial whisper: ‘What if I told you there are a few nights when I’ve had missing hours, blank spots, where I just seem to have blacked out, gone into a fugue state or something. All abductees report these missing hours,


these holes in their memories where their abduction experiences have been erased or suppressed.’


‘Del, dear sweet loopy Del, please don’t be offended, please understand that I say this with affection: I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that you had a couple of these missing hours every day of the week.’


Puzzled, she said, ‘Why would I be offended?’


‘Never mind.’


‘Anyway, I don’t have them every day of the week —only one or two days a year.’


‘What about ghosts?’ he asked.


‘What about them?’


‘Do you believe in ghosts?’


‘I’ve even met a few,’ she said brightly. ‘What about the healing power of crystals?’ She shook her head. ‘They can’t heal, but they can focus your psychic power.’


‘Out-of-body experiences?’


‘I’m sure it can be done, but I like my body too much to want to leave it even for a short time.’


‘Remote viewing?’


‘That’s easy. Pick a town.’


‘What?’


‘Name a town.’


‘Fresno,’ he said.


With bubbly confidence, she said, ‘I could describe any room in any building in Fresno — where I’ve never been in my life, by the way — and if we drove up there tomorrow, you’d see it was just like I said.’


‘What about Big Foot?’


She put a hand over her mouth to stifle her giggle. ‘You’re such a goof, Tuong Tommy. Big Foot is bull¬shit, invented by the tabloids to sell newspapers to gullible fools.’


He kissed her.


She kissed him too. She kissed him better than he had


ever been kissed before. She had a talent for it, like throwing knives.


When at last he pulled back from her, Tommy said, ‘I’ve never met anyone remotely like you, Deliverance Payne — and I’m not sure if that’s good or bad.’


‘One thing’s for sure. If it had been any other woman who picked you up from your burning car, you wouldn’t have lived half this long.’


That was inarguably true. No other woman — no other person — he had ever met would have reacted with such equanimity when the demon had slammed against the window and fastened itself to the glass with its hideous sucker pads. No one else could have done the stunt driving necessary to detach the repulsive beast from the van — and perhaps no one else, even having seen the creature, would have accepted Tommy’s devil-doll story so unequivocally.


‘There is such a thing as fate,’ she told him.


‘I suppose there might be.’


‘There is. Destiny. It’s not written in stone, however. On a spiritual level, completely unconsciously, we make our destinies for ourselves.’


Bewilderment and joy swelled in Tommy, and he felt as though he were a child just beginning to unwrap a wonderful gift. ‘That doesn’t sound as totally crazy to me as it would have an hour or two ago.’


‘Of course, it doesn’t. I suspect that while I wasn’t looking, I’ve made you my destiny, and it’s beginning to seem as if you’ve made me yours.’


Tommy had no answer to that. His heart was pound¬ing. He had never felt this way before. Even if he’d had a computer keyboard in front of him and time to think, he would not easily have been able to put these new feelings into words.


Abruptly his joyful mood and sense of impending tran-scendence were diminished when a strange slithering


sensation crept up the hollow of his spine. He shiv¬ered.


‘Cold?’ she asked.


‘No.’


As sometimes happens along the coast, the air tem¬perature had bottomed out after midnight; it was rising again. The sea was an efficient heat sink that stored up the warmth of the sun during the balmy day and gradually released it after darkness fell.


The slithering in the spine came again, and Tommy said, ‘It’s just a weird feeling . .


‘Oooh, I like weird feelings.’


‘...maybe a premonition.’


‘Premonition? You’re getting more interesting by the moment, Tuong Tommy. Premonition of what?’


He looked around uneasily at the tenebrous forms of the carousel horses. ‘I… don’t quite… know…


Then he suddenly became aware that his neck and shoulders were no longer sore. His headache had pas¬sed too.


Astonished, he said, ‘That was an incredible massage.’


‘You’re welcome.’


In fact, no pain lingered in any muscle in his body, not even in those that he had bruised when he had been tackled on the concrete patio. He was not sleepy, either, and his eyes no longer itched and burned as before. Indeed, he felt wide-awake, energetic, and better than he had felt before this entire pursuit had begun.


Frowning at Del in the gloom, he said, ‘Hey, how did—’


Scootie interrupted, thrusting his head between them and whining fearfully.


‘It’s coming,’ Del said, rising from the chariot.


Tommy snatched the Mossberg off the carousel floor.


Already Del was easing between the horses, using


them for cover but moving closer to the edge of the platform for a better view of the promenade.


Tommy joined her behind a great black stallion with bared teeth and wild eyes.


Standing almost on point and utterly still, like a hunt¬ing dog in a field where a pheasant had been spotted in the brush, Scootie stared east along lamp lit Edgewater Avenue, past Anchors Away Boat Rentals and Original Harbour Cruises toward Balboa Beach Treats. Except for his smaller size, he might have been one of the carved animals waiting in mid-stampede for sunshine and for the riders who would come with it.

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