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— if you care to propose to me.’

Scootie looked at him expectantly.

Tommy was surprised to hear her offer, but he was not surprised to hear himself say, ‘Deliverance Payne, daughter of Ned and Julia Rosalyn Winona Lilith, will you marry me?’

‘It’s going to take a lot more than a doll snake rat-quick little monster thing to stop me.’

‘You have a beautiful smile,’ he said.

‘You too.’

Actually, he wasn’t smiling. He was grinning like a fool.

Tommy had expected to catch a commercial flight from John Wayne Airport to Las Vegas, but Del’s mother owned a Learjet, which was ready for use with a fifteen-minute notice. Del was a qualified pilot.

‘Besides,’ she said, as they walked the last block to the airport from the abandoned Peterbilt, ‘I think the sooner we tie the knot, the better — in regards to whatever Mrs. Dai may have in mind. Married, we geometrically increase our psychic resources. We have more power to resist.’

A few minutes later, as they boarded the private jet, Del said, ‘Anyway, I want to see if we can beat my mom’s record. She married Daddy nineteen hours after she met him.’

Studying his watch, calculating, Tommy said, ‘You served me dinner about. . . twelve hours ago.’

‘We’ll make it. Are you tired, darling?’

‘Damn if I don’t feel totally rested. And I didn’t have a wink of sleep all night.’

‘You may never need it again,’ she said. ‘It’s such a waste of time, sleeping.’

Tommy sat in the co-pilot’s seat, while Scootie lounged in the passenger compartment.

They flew east into the morning sun, where the sky was no longer pink but as blue as Deliverance Payne’s eyes.

Their suite at the Mirage Hotel was one of several spacious and lavishly appointed accommodations. that were not rented to ordinary customers but were reserved to be provided free to high rollers who regularly gambled fortunes in the casino downstairs. Though neither Del nor Tommy intended to wager one dollar on the tables, the Payne name elicited a response no less generous and effusive than would have been accorded to an Arab prince bearing suitcases full of cash. Eighteen years after his death, Ned Payne remained a legendary poker player, and the hotel management’s affection for Del’s mother was evident in their numerous enquiries into the state of her health, her current activities, and the likelihood of her coming to visit sometime soon.

Even Scootie was greeted with huzzahs, petted and nuzzled and talked to in baby talk. In addition to the enormous vases full of fresh flowers that lent their fragrance to each of the seven rooms in the suite, there were strategically placed, silver-plated bowls full of dog biscuits.

A clothing store in the hotel shopping arcade sent up two salespersons and carts laden with garments. Within ninety minutes of their arrival, Tommy and Del had showered, shampooed, and selected their wedding outfits.

He wore black tassel loafers, black socks, charcoal-grey slacks, a blue blazer, a white shirt, and a blue-striped tie.

‘You look very preppy,’ Del said approvingly.

She wore white heels, a figure-flattering white silk dress with white lace at the neck and at the cuffs of the long sleeves, and two white orchids in her hair.

‘You look like a bride,’ he said.

‘No veil, though.’

‘Wouldn’t want to hide that face,’ he said.

‘You’re so sweet.’

Just as they were ready to leave the hotel for the chapel, the mayor of the City of Las Vegas arrived with an envelope containing their license. He was a tall, distinguished-looking man with silver hair, attired in an expensive blue suit, wearing a five-carat pinkie ring.

‘You dear girl,’ the mayor said, kissing Del on the forehead, ‘you are the most glamorous creature I’ve ever seen. How is Ingrid?’

‘She’s splendid,’ Del said.

‘She doesn’t come to town often enough. Will you tell her that I pine for her?’

‘She’ll be so pleased to know she’s remembered.’

‘She’s more than remembered. She’s unforgettable.’

Del said, ‘Well I’m spilling a secret here, but I’m sure you’ll have a chance to tell her yourself.’

The major embraced Tommy as if they were father and son. ‘This is a great day, a great day.’

‘Thank you, sir.’

To Del the mayor said, ‘Dear, you have arranged a limousine, I presume.’

‘Yes, it’s waiting.’

‘Then just delay here two minutes, so I can pop downstairs and be sure the police escort is ready too.’

‘You’re an absolute jewel,’ Del said, kissing his cheek.

The mayor departed, and Tommy said, ‘Who’s Ingrid?’

Examining herself in the marble-lined foyer’s ornate

mirror, Del said, ‘That’s what some people call my mother.’

‘Of course. Will she be very upset that she wasn’t at the wedding?’

‘Oh, she’s here,’ Del said happily.

Still capable of surprise, Tommy said, ‘How?’

‘I called her as soon as we arrived, before I showered, and she flew up in her other jet.’

On the way down in the elevator, Tommy said, ‘How could you possibly manage to arrange all this so quickly?’

‘You took so long selecting your wardrobe,’ she said, ‘that I had time to make a few calls.’

An enormous black stretch limousine waited in front of the hotel, in the shade of the portico. Mummingford stood beside it. He had flown up from Newport Beach with Ingrid.

‘Miss Payne,’ he said, ‘may I offer my best wishes for much happiness.’

‘Thank you, Mummingford.’

‘Mr. Phan,’ said the butler, ‘I offer you my congratu¬lations. You’re a fortunate young man.’

‘Thank you, Mummingford. I think I’m more than fortunate. I’m blessed. And bewildered.’

‘I myself,’ said Mummingford, ‘have functioned in a state of perpetual bewilderment ever since coming to work for Mrs. Payne. Isn’t it delightful?’

The Chapel of Everlasting Bliss, one of Las Vegas’s more well-appointed wedding mills, was bedecked with so many hundreds of red and white roses that Tommy feared an attack of hay fever. He stood by the altar railing, trying not to fidget, smiling stupidly because the place was full of people smiling at him.

Designed primarily to provide a suitable quasi-religious venue to impulsive out-of-state couples who arrived in Vegas either alone or with a few carloads of friends, the chapel seated only sixty people. Even given such short notice of the ceremony, friends of the Payne family filled the pews to capacity, and another thirty stood in the side aisles.

At Tommy’s right hand, Roland Ironwright, the magi¬cian, said, ‘Relax. Getting married is a snap. I did it myself eighteen hours ago in this very room.’

Accompanied by a nine-piece band, Frank sang, ‘I’ve got the World on a String,’ as only Frank had ever been able to sing it, while Mrs. Payne gave Del a final once-over in the vestibule at the back of the chapel.

Then the band struck up ‘Here Comes the Bride.’

Scootie entered from the vestibule, carrying a nosegay in his mouth, which he brought to Tommy.

Behind Scootie was Mai, Tommy’s sister, radiant as he had never seen her. She carried a white basket full of rose petals, which she sprinkled on the carpet as she advanced.

Del appeared, and everyone seated in the chapel rose to beam at her as she approached the altar.

Somehow Frank managed to ad-jib additional lyrics to ‘Here Comes the Bride,’ adding lines like ‘she looks so groovy, like she stepped out of a movie,’ without diminishing the beauty and solemnity of the piece. Indeed, if anything, his version enormously enriched the old standard, and he sounded fifty years younger than he was, not like a crooner at the twilight of his life but like a young swinger in the days of the Dorsey Brothers and Duke Ellington.

When Tommy handed the nosegay to Del and took her arm to lead her to the altar, his heart swelled with love.

The minister was mercifully swift in the performance of his sacred duties, and precisely when it was needed,

Roland Ironwright cut open a fresh orange and produced the wedding band from the heart of the fruit.

After the minister pronounced them man and wife at 11:34 in the morning, less than eighteen hours after they had first met, Tommy and Deliverance indulged in another kiss of earthshaking power, only the second they had ever shared, and the onlookers applauded joyously.

From his place in front of the band, Frank called out to Del’s Mother, ‘Hey, Sheila, you wonderful broad, come up here and do this number with me!’

Del’s mother joined him, and they shared a micro¬phone to belt out an up-tempo rendition of ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin,’ which served as a recessional.

In the receiving line outside, Del reminded everyone about the reception at the grand ballroom of the Mirage at seven o’clock that evening. It promised to be the party of the year.

When the two of them were alone again with Scootie in the back of the limousine, returning to the hotel, Del said to Tommy, ‘Are you tired yet?’

‘I don’t understand it, but I feel as if I just woke up from the longest sleep on record. I’ve got so much energy it’s absurd.’

‘Lovely,’ she said, snuggling against him.

He put his arm around her, suddenly excited by the warmth of her and by the exquisite perfection with which her supple body moulded to his.

‘We’re not going back to the hotel,’ she told him.

‘What? Why not?’

‘I told Mummingford to take us to the airport. We’re flying back to Orange County right away.’

‘But I thought… I mean… aren’t we going to… Oh, Del, I want to be alone with you.’

‘I’m not going to ask you to consummate until you know all of my secrets,’ she said.

‘But I want to consummate,’ he said. ‘I want to con¬summate this morning, as soon as possible, right here in the limo!’

‘Have you been eating too much tofu?’ she asked coquettishly.

‘If we go back to Orange County, we’ll miss our own party this evening.’

‘It’s less than an hour flight each way. We have maybe two hours of business when we get there. We’ll make it back with time to spare.’ She put a hand in his lap. ‘With time to consummate.’

In her house on Balboa Peninsula, Del led Tommy upstairs to the studio where she created her paintings.

Canvases were hung on all sides, and others stood in stacks against one wall, at least a hundred altogether. Most of them were exceedingly strange landscapes of places that could never exist on this world, scenes of such stunning beauty that the sight of them brought tears to Tommy’s eyes.

‘I painted these by remote viewing,’ she said, ‘but someday I hope to travel there.’


‘I’ll tell you later.’

Eight paintings were different from all the others. They were portraits of Tommy, rendered with a photographic realism equal to that with which the landscapes had been painted.

Blinking in astonishment, he said, ‘When did you do these?’

‘Over the past two years. That’s how long I’ve been having dreams about you. I knew you were the one, my destiny, and then last night you just walked into the restaurant and ordered two cheeseburgers.’

The living room in the Phan house in Huntington Beach was remarkably similar to the living room of the Dai House, although the furnishings were somewhat more expensive. A painting of Jesus, revealing His Sacred Heart, hung on one wall, and in a corner was a Buddhist shrine.

Mother Phan sat in her favourite armchair, slack-jawed and pale, having taken the news of the wedding as though she had been hit in the face with a skillet.

Scootie licked one of her hands consolingly, but she didn’t seem to be aware of the dog.

Del sat on the sofa with Tommy, holding his hand. ‘First, Mrs. Phan, I want you to understand that the Payne’s and the Phan’s could be the most wonderful combination of families imaginable, a tremendous union of talents and forces, and my mother and I are prepared to embrace all of you as our own. I want to be given a chance to love you and Mr. Phan and Tommy’s brothers, and I want all of you to learn to love me.’

‘You steal my son,’ said Mother Phan.

‘No,’ Del said, ‘I stole a Honda and later a Ferrari, and then we borrowed the Peterbilt that the demon stole, but I didn’t steal your son. He gave his heart to me of his own free will. Now before you say anything more that might be rash, that you might later come to regret having said, let me tell you about my mother and me.’

‘You bad news.’

Ignoring the insult, Del said, ‘Twenty-nine years ago, when my Mom and Dad were driving from Vegas to a poker tournament in Reno, taking a scenic route, they were abducted by aliens from a lonely stretch of highway near Mud Lake in Nevada.’

Gazing at Del, his head ringing like a gong with

remembered lines of conversation that had seemed like sheer lunacy when she had spoken them, Tommy said, ‘South of Tonopah.’

‘That’s right, darling,’ said Del. To Tommy’s mother, she said, ‘They were taken up to the mothership and examined. They were allowed to remember all of this, you see, because the aliens who abducted them were good extraterrestrials. Unfortunately, most of the abductions are perpetrated by evil ET’s whose plans for this planet are nefarious in the extreme, which is why they block abductees’ memories of what happened.’

Mother Phan scowled at Tommy. ‘You rude to Mrs. Dai, won’t even stay for tea, run off and marry crazy woman.’ She discovered Scootie licking her hand, and she shooed him away. ‘You want lose tongue, you filthy dog?’

‘Anyway, in the mothership, hovering above Mud lake,’ Del continued, ‘the aliens took an egg from my mother, sperm from Daddy, added some genetic wizardry of their own, and implanted mother with an embryo — which was me. I am a starchild, Mrs. Phan, and my mission here is to ferret out damage done by certain other extraterrestrials

— which often includes teaching people like Mrs. Dai to perform evil mojo — and set things right. Because of this, I lead an eventful life, and often a lonely one. But at last

not lonely anymore, because I have Tommy.’

‘World full of lovely Vietnamese girls,’ Tommy’s mother told him, ‘and you run away with crackpot maniac blonde.’

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