The unreliability of this gift is not proof that God is either cruel or indifferent, though it might be one proof among many that He has a sense of humor.
The fault lies with me. I can’t stay sufficiently relaxed to let the gift work. I get distracted: in this case, by the possibility that Simon Makepeace, in willful disregard of his surname, would throw open a door, leap into the hallway, and bludgeon me to death.
I continued through the lamplight that spilled from Danny’s room, where Demi Moore still looked luminous and the Elephant Man still looked pachydermous. I paused in the gloom at an intersection with a second, shorter hallway.
This was a big house. It had been built in 1910 by an immigrant from Philadelphia, who had made a fortune in either cream cheese or gelignite. I can never remember which.
Gelignite is a high explosive consisting of a gelatinized mass of nitroglycerin with cellulose nitrate added. In the first decade of the previous century, they called it gelatin dynamite, and it was quite the rage in those circles where they took a special interest in blowing up things.
Cream cheese is cream cheese. It’s delicious in a wide variety of dishes, but it rarely explodes.
I would like to have a firmer grasp of local history, but I’ve never been able to devote as much time to the study of it as I have wished. Dead people keep distracting me.
Now I turned left into the secondary hallway, which was black but not pitch. At the end, pale radiance revealed the open door at the head of the back stairs.
The stairwell light itself wasn’t on. The glow rose from below.
In addition to rooms and closets on both sides, which I had no impulse to search, I passed an elevator. This hydraulic-ram lift had been installed prior to Wilbur and Carol’s wedding, before Danny—then a child of seven—had moved into the house.
If you are afflicted with osteogenesis imperfecta, you can occasionally break a bone with remarkably little effort. When six, Danny had fractured his right wrist while snap-dealing a game of Old Maid.
Stairs, therefore, pose an especially grave risk. As a child, at least, if he had fallen down a flight of stairs, he would most likely have died from severe skull fractures.
Although I had no fear of falling, the back stairs spooked me. They were spiral and enclosed, so it wasn’t possible to see more than a few steps ahead.
Intuition told me someone waited down there.
As an alternative to the stairs, the elevator would be too noisy. Alerted, Simon Makepeace would be waiting when I arrived below.
I could not retreat. I was compelled to go down—and quickly—into the back rooms of the lower floor.
Before I quite realized what I was doing, I pushed the elevator-call button. I snatched my finger back as though I’d pricked it on a needle.
The doors did not at once slide open. The elevator was on the lower floor.
As the motor hummed to life, as the hydraulic mechanism sighed, as the cab rose through the shaft with a faint swish, I realized that I had a plan. Good for me.
In truth, the word plan was too grandiose. What I had was more of a trick, a diversion.
The elevator arrived with a bink so loud in the silent house that I twitched, though I had expected that sound. When the doors slid open, I tensed, but no one lunged out at me.
I leaned into the cab and pushed the button to send it back to the ground floor.
Even as the doors rolled shut, I hurried to the staircase and rushed blindly down. The value of the diversion would diminish to zero when the cab arrived below, for then Simon would discover that I wasn’t, after all, on board.
The claustrophobia-inducing stairs led into a mud room off the kitchen. Although a stone-floored mud room might have been essential in Philadelphia, with that city’s dependably rainy springs and its snowy winters, a residence in the sun-seared Mojave needed it no more than it needed a snowshoe rack.
At least it wasn’t a storeroom full of gelignite.
From the mud room, one door led to the garage, another to the backyard. A third served the kitchen.
The house had not originally been designed to have an elevator. The remodel contractor had been forced to situate it, not ideally, in a corner of the large kitchen.
No sooner had I arrived in the mud room, dizzy from negotiating the tight curve of the spiral staircase, than a bink announced the arrival of the cab on the ground floor.
I snatched up a broom, as though I might be able to sweep a murderous psychopath off his feet. At best, surprising him by jamming the bristles into his face might damage his eyes and startle him off balance.
The broom wasn’t as comforting as a flamethrower would have been, but it was better than a mop and certainly more threatening than a feather duster.
Positioning myself by the door to the kitchen, I prepared to take Simon off his feet when he burst into the mud room in search of me. He didn’t burst.
After what seemed to be enough time to paint the gray walls a more cheerful color, but what was in reality maybe fifteen seconds, I glanced at the door to the garage. Then at the door to the backyard.
I wondered if Simon Makepeace had already forced Danny out of the house. They might be in the garage, Simon behind the wheel of Dr. Jessup’s car, Danny bound and helpless in the backseat.
Or maybe they were headed across the yard, toward the gate in the fence. Simon might have a vehicle of his own in the alleyway behind the property.
I felt inclined, instead, to push through the swinging door and step into the kitchen.
Only the under-the-cabinet lights were on, illuminating the countertops around the perimeter of the room. Nevertheless, I could see that I was alone.
Regardless of what I could see, I sensed a presence. Someone could have been crouched, hiding on the farther side of the large center work island.
Fierce with broom, gripping it like a cudgel, I cautiously circled the room. The gleaming mahogany floor pealed soft squeaks off my rubber-soled shoes.
When I had rounded three-quarters of the island, I heard the elevator doors roll open behind me.
I spun around to discover not Simon, but a stranger. He’d been waiting for the elevator, and when I hadn’t been in it, as he had expected, he’d realized that it was a ruse. He’d been quick-witted, hiding in the cab immediately before I entered from the mud room.
He was sinuous and full of coiled power. His green gaze shone bright with terrible knowledge; these were the eyes of one who knew the many ways out of the Garden. His scaly lips formed the curve of a perfect lie: a smile in which malice tried to pass as friendly intent, in which amusement was in fact dripping venom.
Before I could think of a serpent metaphor to describe his nose, the snaky bastard struck. He squeezed the trigger of a Taser, firing two darts that, trailing thin wires, pierced my T-shirt and delivered a disabling shock.
I fell like a high-flying witch suddenly deprived of her magic: hard, and with a useless broom.
WHEN YOU TAKE MAYBE FIFTY THOUSAND volts from a Taser, some time has to pass before you feel like dancing.
On the floor, doing a broken-cockroach imitation, twitching violently, robbed of basic motor control, I tried to scream but wheezed instead.
A flash of pain and then a persistent hot pulse traced every nerve pathway in my body with such authority that I could see them in my mind’s eye as clearly as highways on a road map.
I cursed my attacker, but the invective issued as a whimper. I sounded like an anxious gerbil.
He loomed over me, and I expected to be stomped. He was a guy who would enjoy stomping. If he wasn’t wearing hobnail boots, that was only because they were at the cobbler’s shop for the addition of toe spikes.
My arms flopped, my hands spasmed. I couldn’t cover my face.
spoke, but his words meant nothing, sounded like the sputter and crackle of short-circuiting wires.
When he picked up the broom, I knew from the way he held it that he intended to drive the blunt metal handle into my face repeatedly, until the Elephant Man, compared to me, would look like a GQ model.
He raised that witchy weapon high. Before he slammed it into my face, however, he turned abruptly away, looking toward the front of the house.
Evidently he heard something that changed his priorities, for he threw the broom aside. He split through the mud room and no doubt left the house by the back door.
A persistent buzzing in my ears prevented me from hearing what my assailant had heard, but I assumed that Chief Porter had arrived with deputies. I had told him that Dr. Jessup lay dead in the master bedroom on the second floor; but he would order a by-the-book search of the entire house.
I was anxious not to be found there.
In the Pico Mundo Police Department, only the chief knows about my gifts. If I am ever again the first on the scene of a crime, a lot of deputies will wonder about me more than they do already.
The likelihood was small to nonexistent that any of them would leap to the conclusion that sometimes the dead come to me for justice. Still, I didn’t want to take any chances.
My life is already muy strange and so complex that I keep a grip on sanity only by maintaining a minimalist lifestyle. I don’t travel. I walk almost everywhere. I don’t party. I don’t follow the news or fashion. I have no interest in politics. I don’t plan for the future. My only job has been as a short-order cook, since I left home at sixteen. Recently I took a leave of absence from that position because even the challenge of making sufficiently fluffy pancakes and BLTs with the proper crunch seemed too taxing on top of all my other problems.
If the world knew what I am, what I can see and do, thousands would be at my door tomorrow. The grieving. The remorseful. The suspicious. The hopeful. The faithful. The skeptics.
They would want me to be a medium between them and their lost loved ones, would insist that I play detective in every unsolved murder case. Some would wish to venerate me, and others would seek to prove that I was a fraud.