On this occasion, the doors did not attract me. Intuition led me to the stairs, and swiftly up.
The dark second-floor hallway was brightened only by the pale outfall of light from two rooms.
I’ve had no dreams about open doors. I went to the first of these two without hesitation, and stepped into a bedroom.
The blood of violence daunts even those with much experience of it. The splash, the spray, the drip and drizzle create infinite Rorschach patterns in every one of which the observer reads the same meaning: the fragility of his existence, the truth of his mortality.
A desperation of crimson hand prints on a wall were the victim’s sign language: Spare me, help me, remember me, avenge me.
On the floor, near the foot of the bed, lay the body of Dr. Wilbur Jessup, savagely battered.
Even for one who knows that the body is but the vessel and that the spirit is the essence, a brutalized cadaver depresses, offends.
This world, which has the potential to be Eden, is instead the hell before Hell. In our arrogance, we have made it so.
The door to the adjacent bathroom stood half open. I nudged it with one foot.
Although blood-dimmed by a drenched shade, the bedroom lamplight reached into the bathroom to reveal no surprises.
Aware that this was a crime scene, I touched nothing. I stepped cautiously, with respect for evidence.
Some wish to believe that greed is the root of murder, but greed seldom motivates a killer. Most homicide has the same dreary cause: The bloody-minded murder those whom they envy, and for what they covet.
That is not merely a central tragedy of human existence: It is also the political history of the world.
Common sense, not psychic power, told me that in this case, the killer coveted the happy marriage that, until recently, Dr. Jessup had enjoyed. Fourteen years previously, the radiologist had wed Carol Makepeace. They had been perfect for each other.
Carol came into their marriage with a seven-year-old son, Danny. Dr. Jessup adopted him.
Danny had been a friend of mine since we were six, when we had discovered a mutual interest in Monster Gum trading cards. I traded him a Martian brain-eating centipede for a Venusian methane slime beast, which bonded us on first encounter and ensured a lifelong brotherly affection.
We’ve also been drawn close by the fact that we are different, each in his way, from other people. I see the lingering dead, and Danny has osteogenesis imperfecta, also called brittle bones.
Our lives have been defined—and deformed—by our afflictions. My deformations are primarily social; his are largely physical.
A year ago, Carol had died of cancer. Now Dr. Jessup was gone, too, and Danny was alone.
I left the master bedroom and hurried quietly along the hallway toward the back of the house. Passing two closed rooms, heading toward the open door that was the second source of light, I worried about leaving unsearched spaces behind me.
After once having made the mistake of watching television news, I had worried for a while about an asteroid hitting the earth and wiping out human civilization. The anchorwoman had said it was not merely possible but probable. At the end of the report, she smiled.
I worried about that asteroid until I realized I couldn’t do anything to stop it. I am not Superman. I am a short-order cook on a leave of absence from his grill and griddle.
For a longer while, I worried about the TV news lady. What kind of person can deliver such terrifying news—and then smile?
If I ever did open a white paneled door and get skewered through the throat, the iron pike—or whatever—would probably be wielded by that anchorwoman.
I reached the next open door, stepped into the light, crossed the threshold. No victim, no killer.
The things we worry about the most are never the things that bite us. The sharpest teeth always take their nip of us when we are looking the other way.
Unquestionably, this was Danny’s room. On the wall behind the disheveled bed hung a poster of John Merrick, the real-life Elephant Man.
Danny had a sense of humor about the deformities—mostly of the limbs—with which his condition had left him. He looked nothing like Merrick, but the Elephant Man was his hero.
They exhibited him as a freak, Danny once explained. Women fainted at the sight of him, children wept, tough men flinched. He was loathed and reviled. Yet a century later a movie was based on his life, and we know his name. Who knows the name of the bastard who owned him and put him on exhibit, or the names of those who fainted or wept, or flinched? They’re dust, and he’s immortal. Besides, when he went out in public, that hooded cloak he wore was way cool.
On other walls were four posters of ageless sex goddess Demi Moore, who was currently more ravishing than ever in a series of Versace ads.
Twenty-one years old, two inches short of the five feet that he claimed, twisted by the abnormal bone growth that sometimes had occurred during the healing of his frequent fractures, Danny lived small but dreamed big.
No one stabbed me when I stepped into the hall once more. I wasn’t expecting anyone to stab me, but that’s when it’s likely to happen.
If Mojave wind still whipped the night, I couldn’t hear it inside this thick-walled Georgian structure, which seemed tomblike in its stillness, in its conditioned chill, with a faint scent of blood on the cool air.
I dared not any longer delay calling Chief Porter. Standing in the upstairs hall, I pressed 2 on my cell-phone keypad and speed-dialed his home.
When he answered on the second ring, he sounded awake.
Alert for the approach of a mad anchorwoman or worse, I spoke softly: “Sir, I’m sorry if I woke you.”
“Wasn’t asleep. I’ve been sitting here with Louis L’Amour.”
“The writer? I thought he was dead, sir.”
“About as dead as Dickens. Tell me you’re just lonesome, son, and not in trouble again.”
“I didn’t ask for trouble, sir. But you better come to Dr. Jessup’s house.”
“I’m hoping it’s a simple burglary.”
“Murder,” I said. “Wilbur Jessup on the floor of his bedroom. It’s a bad one.”
“I’m thinking kidnapped.”
“Simon,” he said.
Simon Makepeace—Carol’s first husband, Danny’s father—had been released from prison four months ago, after serving sixteen years for manslaughter.
“Better come with some force,” I said. “And quiet.”
“Someone still there?”
“I get the feeling.”
“You hold back, Odd.”
“You know I can’t.”
“I don’t understand your compulsion.”
“Neither do I, sir.”
I pressed END and pocketed the cell phone.
ASSUMING THAT DANNY MUST BE STILL NEARBY and under duress, and that he was most likely on the ground floor, I headed toward the front stairs. Before I began to descend, I found myself turning and retracing the route that I’d just followed.
I expected that I would return to the two closed doors on the right side of the hall, between the master bedroom and Danny’s room, and that I would discover what lay behind them. As before, however, I wasn’t drawn to them.
On the left side were three other closed doors. None of those had an attraction for me, either.
In addition to the ability to see ghosts, a gift I’d happily trade for piano artistry or a talent for flower arranging, I’ve been given what I call psychic magnetism.
When someone isn’t where I expect to find him, I can go for a walk or ride my bicycle, or cruise in a car, keeping his name or face in my mind, turning randomly from one street to another; and sometimes in minutes, sometimes in an hour, I encounter the one I’m seeking. It’s like setting a pair of those Scottie-dog magnets on a table and watching them slide inexorably toward each other.
The key word is sometimes.
On occasion, my ps
ychic magnetism functions like the finest Cartier watch. At other times, it’s like an egg timer bought at a cheap discount store’s going-out-of-business sale; you set it for poached, and it gives you hard-boiled.