“You disappoint me.”
“I’m trying to understand.”
“He’s proud of his face, isn’t he?” she asked.
“Proud? I don’t know.”
“It’s the only part of him not screwed up.”
My mouth had gone dry, but not because the shed was hot and layered with dust.
“He’s got a pretty face,” she said. “For now.”
She terminated the call.
Briefly I considered pressing *69 to see if I could ring her back even though she had a block on her caller ID. I did not do it because I suspected this would be a mistake.
Although her cryptic statements shed no light on her enigmatic agenda, one thing seemed clear. She was accustomed to control, and at the mildest challenge to it, she responded with hostility.
Having assigned to herself the aggressive role in this, she expected me to be passive. If I star-sixty-nined her, she would no doubt be pissed off.
She was capable of cruelty. What anger I inspired in her, she might vent on Danny.
The smell of dry rot. Of dust. Of something dead and desiccated in a shadowy corner.
I returned the phone to my pocket.
On a silken thread, a spider descended from its web, lazily turning in the still air, legs trembling.
I RIPPED OUT THE LOCK CYLINDER, SHOVED open the door, and left the spiders to their preying.
So otherworldly and disturbing had been the flood-control system, so eerie the phone conversation that followed, had I stepped across the threshold into Narnia, I would not have been more than mildly surprised.
In fact, I found myself beyond the limits of Pico Mundo, but not in a land ruled by magic. On all sides lay desert scrub, rocky and remorseless.
This shed stood on a concrete pad twice its size. A chain-link fence enclosed the facility.
I walked the perimeter of this enclosure, studying the rugged landscape, seeking any sign of an observer. The encircling terrain offered no good hiding places.
When it appeared that retreat to the shed, to avoid gunfire, would not be necessary, I climbed the chain-link gate.
The stony ground immediately before me took no impressions. Relying on intuition, I headed south.
The sun had reached its apex. Perhaps five hours of daylight remained before the early winter nightfall.
To the south and west, the pale sky looked three shades short of the ideal blue, as though it had been faded by millennia of sunshine reflected upon it from the Mojave.
In contrast, behind me, the northern third of the heavens had been consumed by ravenous masses of threatening clouds. They were dirty, as they had been earlier, but now also bruised.
Within a hundred yards, I topped a low hill and descended into a swale where the soft soil took prints. Before me again were the tracks of the fugitives and their captive.
Danny had been dragging his right foot worse here than in the flood tunnels. The evidence of his gait suggested acute pain and desperation.
Most victims of osteogenesis imperfecta—OI—experience a marked decrease in fractures following puberty. Danny had been one of those.
Upon reaching adulthood, the most fortunate discover that they are only minimally—if at all—more prone to broken bones than are people without their affliction. They are left with the legacy of bodies distorted by deformed healing and abnormal bone growth, and some of them eventually go deaf from otosclerosis, but otherwise the worst ravages of this genetic disorder are behind them.
While not ten percent as fragile as he had been as a child, Danny was one of an unfortunate minority of OI adults who must remain cautious. He had not in a long time casually broken a bone, as when he had at the age of six cracked his wrist while snap-dealing Old Maid. But a year ago, in a fall, he had fractured his right radius.
For a moment I studied the woman’s footprints, wondering who she was, what she was, why.
I followed the swale about two hundred yards before the tracks departed it. They vanished on a stony slope.
As I started to climb the hillside, the satellite phone rang.
She said, “Odd Thomas?”
“I’ve seen your picture,” she said.
“My ears always photograph bigger than they are.”
“You have the look,” she said.
“Is that a word?”
“You know what it means.”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t.”
“Liar,” she said, but not angrily.
This was the equivalent of table conversation at the Mad Hatter’s tea party.
She said, “You want the little creep?”
“I want Danny. Alive.”
“You think you can find him?”
I said, “I’m trying.”
“You were so fast, now you’re damn slow.”
“What do you think you know about me?”
In a coy voice, she said, “What is there to know, baby?”
“For Danny’s sake, I hope that’s not true.”
I began to have the queasy if inexplicable feeling that somehow Dr. Jessup had been murdered…because of me.
“You don’t want to be in trouble this bad,” I said.
“Nobody can hurt me,” she declared.
“Is that right?”
“Good for you.”
“You know why?”
“I have thirty in an amulet.”
“Thirty what?” I asked.
“Ti bon ange.”
I had never heard the term before. “What does that mean?”
When she didn’t hang up but didn’t immediately say anything more, either, I sat on the ground, facing west again.
Except for an occasional clump of mesquite and a bristle of bunch-grass, the land was ash-gray and acid-yellow
“You still there?” she asked.
“Where would I go?”
“So where are you?”
I traded another question: “Can I speak to Simon?”
“Simple or says?”
“What’s that mean?”
“Simple Simon or Simon Says?”
“Simon Makepeace,” I said patiently.
“You think he’s here?”
“He killed Wilbur Jessup.”
“You’re half-assed at this,” she said.
“Don’t disappoint me.”
“I thought you said I already had.”
“Don’t disappoint me anymore.”
“Or what?” I asked, and immediately wished that I had not.
“How about this….”
Finally she said, “How about, you find us by sundown or we break both his legs.”
“If you want me to find you, just tell me where you are.”
“What would be the point of that? If you don’t find us by nine o’clock, we also break both his arms.”
“Don’t do this. He never harmed you. He never harmed anyone.”
“What’s the first rule?” she asked.
Remembering our shortest and most cryptic conversation, from the previous night, I said, “I have to come alone.”
“You bring cops or anyone, we break his pretty face, and then the rest of his life, he’ll be butt ugly from top to bottom.”
When she hung up, I pressed END.
Whoever she might be, she was crazy. Okay. I’d dealt with crazy before.
She was crazy and evil. Nothing new about that, either.
I SHRUGGED OUT OF MY BACKPACK AND rummaged in it for an Evian bottle. The water wasn’t cold but tasted delicious.
The plastic bottle did not actually contain Evian. I had filled it at the tap in my kitchen.
If you would pay a steep price for bottled water, why wouldn’t you pay even more for a bag of fresh Rocky Mountain air if someday you saw it in the market?
Although I am not a skinflint, for years I have lived frugally. As a short-order cook with plans to marry, paid a fair but not lavish salary, I had needed to save for our future.
Now she is gone, and I am alone, and the last thing I need money for is a wedding cake. Yet from long habit, when it comes to spending on myself, I still pinch each penny hard enough to press it into the size of a quarter.