“Your lips should feel scorched. The burning question just fell from them. It’s quite a puzzler to put to another mortal.”
“Yes, sir. But I’ll be happy even with one of your standard shallow answers.”
“The correct question has three equal parts. What’s wrong with humanity? Then…what’s wrong with nature, with its poison plants, predatory animals, earthquakes, and floods? And last…what’s wrong with cosmic time, as we know it, which steals everything from u
Ozzie may assert that I mistake his absolute self-confidence for profundity; but I do not. He is truly wise. Evidently, however, life has taught him that the wise make targets of themselves.
A lesser mind might try to hide its brilliance behind a mask of stupidity. He chooses, instead, to conceal his true wisdom under a flamboyant pretense of erudition that he is pleased to let people think is the best of him.
“Those three questions,” he said, “have the same answer.”
“It’s no good if I just give it to you. You’ll resist it—and waste years of your life looking for an answer that pleases you more. When you arrive at it on your own, however, you’ll be convinced by it.”
“That’s all you have to say?”
He smiled and shrugged.
“I come here with a burning philosophical question, and all I get is breakfast?”
“You got quite a lot of breakfast,” he said. “I will tell you this much—you already know the answer and always have. You don’t have to discover it so much as recognize it.”
I shook my head. “Sometimes, you’re a frustrating man.”
“Yes, but I’m always gloriously fat and fun to look at.”
“You can be as mystical as a damn…” Terrible Chester still sat on the top porch step, riveted by me. “…as mystical as a damn cat.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“It wasn’t meant as one.” I pushed my chair away from the table. “I’d better go.”
As usual when I leave, he insisted on struggling to his feet. I am always concerned that the effort to get up will spike his blood pressure into the stroke zone and fell him on the spot.
He hugged me, and I hugged him, which we always do on parting, as if we do not expect to see each other again.
I wonder if sometimes the distribution of souls gets screwed up, and the wrong spirit ends up in the wrong baby. I suppose this is blasphemous. But then, with my smart mouth, I’ve already blown any chance of sainthood.
Surely, with his kind heart, Ozzie was meant for slim good health and ten fingers. And my life would make more sense if I had been his son instead of the offspring of the troubled parents who had failed me.
When the hug was done, he said, “What now?”
“I don’t know. I never do. It comes to me.”
Chester did not pee on my shoes.
I walked to the end of the deep yard, through the woodlet, and left by the gate in the back fence.
NOT ENTIRELY TO MY SURPRISE, AGAIN THE Blue Moon Cafe.
The cloak of night had dressed the alleyway with some romance, but daylight had stripped it of the pretense of beauty. This was not a realm of filth and vermin; it was merely gray, grim, drab, and unwelcoming.
All but universally, human architecture values front elevations over back entrances, public spaces over private. For the most part, this is a consequence of limited resources, budgets.
Danny Jessup says that this aspect of architecture is also a reflection of human nature, that most people care more about their appearance than they do about the condition of their souls.
Although I’m not as cynical as Danny, and although I don’t think the analogy between back doors and souls is well drawn, I’ll admit to seeing some truth in what he says.
What I could not see, here in the pale-lemon morning light, was any clue that might lead me a single step closer to him or to his psychotic father.
The police had done their work and gone. The Ford van had been hauled away.
I hadn’t come here with the expectation that I would find a clue overlooked by the authorities and, shifting into Sherlock, would track down the bad guys in a rush of deductive reasoning.
I returned because this was where my sixth sense had failed me. I hoped to find it again, as though it were a spool of ribbon that I’d dropped and that had rolled out of sight. If I could locate the loose end of the ribbon, I could follow it to the spool.
Opposite the kitchen entrance of the cafe was the second-floor window from which the elderly woman in the blue robe had watched as I had approached the van only hours ago. The drapes were shut.
Briefly I considered having a word with her. But she had already been interviewed by the police. They are far more skilled than I am at teasing valuable observations from witnesses.
I walked slowly north to the end of the block. Then I turned and walked south, past the Blue Moon.
Trucks were angled between the Dumpsters; early deliveries were being received, inspected, inventoried. Shopkeepers, almost an hour ahead of their employees, were busy at the rear entrances of their establishments.
Death came, Death went, but commerce flowed eternal.
A few people noticed me. I knew none of them well, some of them not at all.
The character of their recognition was uncomfortably familiar to me. They knew me as the hero, as the guy who stopped the lunatic who had shot all those people the previous August.
Forty-one were shot. Some were crippled for life, disfigured. Nineteen died.
I might have prevented all of it. Then I might have been a hero.
Chief Porter says hundreds would have perished if I hadn’t acted when I did, how I did. But the potential victims, those spared, do not seem real to me.
Only the dead seem real.
None of them have lingered. They all moved on.
But too many nights I see them in my dreams. They appear as they were in life, and as they might have been if they had survived.
On those nights, I wake with a sense of loss so terrible that I would prefer not ever to wake again. But I do wake, and I go on, for that is what the daughter of Cassiopeia, one of the nineteen, would want me to do, would expect me to do.
I have a destiny that I must earn. I live to earn it, and then to die.
The only benefit of being tagged a hero is that you are regarded by most people with some degree of awe and that, by playing to this awe, by wearing a somber expression and avoiding eye contact, you can almost always ensure that your privacy will be respected.
Wandering the alleyway, occasionally observed but undisturbed, I came to a narrow undeveloped lot. A chain-link fence restricted access.
I tried the gate. Locked.
A sign declared MARAVILLA COUNTY FLOOD-CONTROL PROJECT, and in red letters warned AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY.
Here I discovered the unspooled ribbon of my sixth sense. Touching the chain-link gate, I felt certain that Danny had gone this way.
A lock would be no impediment to a determined fugitive like Simon Makepeace, whose criminal skills had been enhanced by years of prison learning.
Beyond the fence, in the center of the lot, stood a ten-foot-square slump-stone building with a concrete barrel-tile roof. The two plank doors on the front of this structure were no doubt also locked, but the hardware looked ancient.
If Danny had been forced through this gate and through those doors, as I sensed he had been, Simon had not chosen this route on impulse. This had been part of his plan.
Or perhaps he had intended to retreat here only if things went badly at Dr. Jessup’s place. Because of my timely arrival at the radiologist’s house and because of Chief Porter’s decision to block both highways, they had come here.
After parking in the Blue Moon lot, Simon had not put Danny in another vehicle. They had instead gone through this gate, through those doors, and down into a world below Pico Mundo, a world that I knew existed but that I had never visited.
My first impulse was to reach Chief Porter and to share what I intuited.
Turning away from the fence, I felt restrained by a subsequent intuition: Danny’s situation was so tenuous that a traditional search party, pursuing them into the depths, would likely be the death of him.
Furthermore, I sensed that while his situation might be grave, he was not in imminent danger. In this particular chase, speed wasn’t as important as stealth, and the pursuit
would be successful only if I remained acutely observant of every detail the trail provided.
I had no way of knowing any of this to be true. I felt it in a half-assed precognitive way that is far more than a hunch but far short of an unequivocal vision.
Why I see the dead but cannot hear from them, why I can seek with psychic magnetism and sometimes find, but only sometimes, why I sense the looming threat but not its details, I do not know. Perhaps nothing in this broken world can be pure or of a piece, unfractured. Or perhaps I haven’t learned to harness all the power I possess.
One of my most bitter regrets from the previous August is that in the rush and tumble of events, I had at times relied on reason when gut feelings would have served me better.
Daily I walk a high wire, always in danger of losing my balance. The essence of my life is supernatural, which I must respect if I am to make the best use of my gift. Yet I live in the rational world and am subject to its laws. The temptation is to be guided entirely by impulses of an otherworldly origin—but in this world a long fall will always end in a hard impact.
I survive by finding the sweet spot between reason and unreason, between the rational and the irrational. In the past, my tendency has been to err on the side of logic, at the expense of faith—faith in myself and in the Source of my gift.
If I failed Danny, as I believed that I had failed others the previous August, I would surely come to despise myself. In failure, I would resent having been given the gift that defines me. If my destiny can be fulfilled only through the use of my sixth sense, too great a loss of self-respect and self-confidence would lead me to another fate different from the one that I desire, making a lie of the fortune-machine card that is framed above my bed.
This time I would choose to err on the side of illogic. I had to trust intuition, and plunge as I had never plunged before, with blind faith.
I would not call Chief Porter. If my heart said I alone must go after Danny, I would obey my heart.
AT MY APARTMENT, I STUFFED A SMALL BACK-PACK with items I might need, including two flashlights and a package of spare batteries.
In the bedroom, I stood at the foot of the bed, silently reading the framed card on the wall: YOU ARE DESTINED TO BE TOGETHER FOREVER.