Pocketing the useless phone, I hurried forward a few steps. Then I halted: unsettled, uncertain.
Holding my breath, I listened. I heard only my storming heart, the thunder of my blood, no engine either idling or receding, no doors opening or closing, no voices.
I had been running. I couldn’t hold my breath for long. The echo of my exhalation traveled the narrow throat of the alleyway.
At the nearest of the big doors, I put my right ear to the corrugated steel. The space beyond seemed to be as soundless as a vacuum.
Crossing and recrossing the alley, from roll-up to roll-up, I heard no clue, saw no evidence, but felt hope ticking away.
I thought of the snake man driving. Danny must have been in back, with Simon.
Again I was running. Out of the alley, into the next street, right to the intersection, left onto Palomino Avenue, before I fully understood that I had given myself to psychic magnetism once more, or rather that it had seized me.
As reliably as a homing pigeon returns to its dovecote, a dray horse to its stable, a bee to its hive, I sought not home and hearth, but trouble. I left Palomino Avenue for another alley, and surprised three cats into hissing flight.
The boom of a gun startled me more than I had frightened the cats. I almost tucked and rolled, but instead dodged between two Dumpsters, my back to a brick wall.
Echoes of echoes deceived the ear, concealed the source. The report had been loud, most likely a shotgun blast. But I couldn’t determine the point of origin.
I had no weapon at hand. A dead cell phone isn’t much of a blunt instrument.
In my strange and dangerous life, I have only once resorted to a gun. I shot a man with it. He had been killing people with a gun of his own.
Shooting him dead saved lives. I have no intellectual or moral argument with the use of firearms any more than I do with the use of spoons or socket wrenches.
My problem with guns is emotional. They fascinate my mother. In my childhood, she made much grim use of a pistol, as I have recounted in a previous manuscript.
I cannot easily separate the rightful use of a gun from the sick purpose to which she put hers. In my hand, a firearm feels as if it has a life of its own, a cold and squamous kind of life, and also a wicked intent too slippery to control.
One day my aversion to firearms might be the death of me. But I’ve never been under the illusion that I will live forever. If not a gun, a germ will get me, a poison or a pickax.
After huddling between the Dumpsters for a minute, perhaps two, I came to the conclusion that the shotgun blast had not been meant for me. If I’d been seen and marked for death, the shooter would have approached without delay, pumping another round into the chamber and then into me.
Above some of these downtown businesses were apartments. Lights had bloomed in a few of them, the shotgun having made moot the later settings of alarm clocks.
On the move again, I found myself drawn to the next intersection of alleyways, then left without hesitation. Less than half a block ahead stood the white van, this side of the kitchen entrance to the Blue Moon Cafe.
Beside the Blue Moon is a parking lot that runs through to the main street. The van appeared to have been abandoned at the rear of this lot, nose out toward the alleyway.
Both front doors stood open, spilling light, no one visible beyond the windshield. As I drew cautiously closer, I heard the engine idling.
This suggested that they had fled in haste. Or intended to return for a quick getaway.
The Blue Moon doesn’t serve breakfast, only lunch and dinner. Kitchen workers do not begin to arrive until a couple hours after dawn. The cafe should have been locked. I doubted that Simon had shot his way inside to raid the restaurant refrigerators.
There are easier ways to get a cold chicken leg, though maybe none quicker.
I couldn’t imagine where they had gone—or why they abandoned the van if in fact they were not returning.
From one of the second-floor lighted apartment windows, an elderly woman in a blue robe gazed down. She appeared less alarmed than curious.
I eased to the passenger’s side of the vehicle, slowly circled toward the rear.
At the back, the pair of doors on the cargo hold also stood open. Interior light revealed no one inside.
Sirens rose in the night, approaching.
I wondered who had fired the shotgun, at whom, and why.
As deformed and vulnerable as he is, Danny couldn’t have wrested the weapon away from his tormentors. Even if he had tried to use the shotgun, the recoil would have broken his shoulder, if not also one of his arms.
Turning in a circle, mystified, I wondered what had happened to my friend with brittle bones.
P. OSWALD BOONE, FOUR-HUNDRED-POUND culinary black belt in white silk pajamas, whom I’d recently awakened, moved with the grace and swiftness of a dojo master as he whipped up breakfast in the kitchen of his Craftsman-style house.
At times his weight scares me, and I worry about his suffering heart. But when he’s cooking, he seems weightless, floating, like those gravity-defying warriors in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon—though he didn’t actually bound over the center island.
Watching him that February morning, I considered that if he had spent his life killing himself with food, it might also be true that without the solace and refuge of food, he would have been dead long ago. Every life is complicated, every mind a kingdom of unmapped mysteries, and Ozzie’s more than most.
Although he never speaks of how or what or why, I know that his childhood was difficult, that his parents broke his heart. Books and excess poundage are his insulation against pain.
He is a writer, with two successful series of mystery novels and numerous nonfiction books to his credit. He is so productive that the day may come when one copy of each of his books, stacked on a scale, will surpass his body weight.
Because he had assured me that writing would prove to be psychic chemotherapy effective against psychological tumors, I had written my true story of loss and perseverance—and had put it in a drawer, at peace if not happy. To his dismay, I had told him that I was done with writing.
I believed it, too. Now here I am again, putting words to paper, serving as my own psychological oncologist.
Perhaps in time I will follow Ozzie’s every example, and weigh four hundred pounds. I won’t be able to run with ghosts and slip down dark alleyways in quite the swift and stealthy fashion that I do now; but perhaps children will be amused by my hippopotamic heroics, and no one will disagree that bringing laughter to children in a dark world is admirable.
While Ozzie cooked, I told him about Dr. Jessup and all that had occurred since the dead radiologist had come to me in the middle of the night. Although as I recounted events I worried about Danny, I worried as well about Terrible Chester.
Terrible Chester, the cat about which every dog has nightmares, allows Ozzie to live with him. Ozzie cherishes this feline no less than he loves food and books.
Although Terrible Chester has never clawed me with the ferocity of which I believe he is capable, he has more than once urinated on my shoes. Ozzie says this is an expression of affection. This theory holds that the cat is marking me with his scent to identify me as an approved member of his family.
I have noticed that when Terrible Chester wishes to express his affection for Ozzie, he does so by cuddling and purring.
Since Ozzie opened the front door to me, as we passed through the house, and during the time that I sat in the kitchen, I had not seen Terrible Chester. This made me nervous. My shoes were new.
He is a big cat, so fearless and self-impressed that he disdains sneaking. He doesn’t creep into a room, but always makes an entrance. Although he expects to be the center of attention, he projects an air of indifference—even contempt—that makes it clear he wishes for the most part to be adored from a distance.
Although he does not sneak, he can appear at your shoes suddenly and by surprise.
The first indication of trouble can be a briefly mystifying warm dampness of the toes.
Until Ozzie and I moved to the back porch to take our breakfast al fresco, I kept my feet off the floor, on a chair rung.
The porch overlooks a lawn and a half-acre woodlet of laurels, podocarpus, and graceful California peppers. In the golden morning sunshine, songbirds trilled and death seemed like a myth.
Had the table not been a sturdy redwood model, it would have groaned under the plates of lobster omelets, bowls of potatoes au gratin, stacks of toast, bagels, Danish, cinnamon rolls, pitchers of orange juice and milk, pots of coffee and cocoa….
“‘What is food to one is to others bitter poison,’” Ozzie quoted happily, toasting me with a raised forkful of omelet.
“Shakespeare?” I asked.
“Lucretius, who wrote before the birth of Christ. Lad, I promise you this—I shall never be one of these health wimps who views a pint of heavy cream with the same horror that saner men reserve for atomic weapons.”
“Sir, those of us who care about you would suggest that vanilla soy milk isn’t the abomination you say it is.”
“I do not permit blasphemy, the F-word, or obscenities such as soy milk at my table. Consider yourself chastised.”
“I stopped in Gelato Italiano the other day. They now have some flavors with half the fat.”
He said, “The horses stabled at our local racetrack produce tons of manure each week, and I don’t stock my freezer with that, either. So where does Wyatt Porter think Danny might be?”
“Most likely Simon earlier stashed a second set of wheels in the lot beside the Blue Moon, in case things went bad at the Jessup house and someone saw him leaving there in the van.”
“But no one saw the van at the Jessup house, so it wasn’t a hot vehicle.”
“Yet he switched at the Blue Moon anyway.”
“Does that make sense to you?”
“It makes more sense than anything else.”
“For sixteen years, he remained obsessed with Carol, so obsessed that he wanted Dr. Jessup dead for having married her.”
“So it seems.”
“What does he want with Danny?”
“I don’t know.”
“Simon doesn’t seem like the type who’d yearn for an emotionally satisfying father-son relationship.”
“It doesn’t fit the profile,” I agreed.
“How’s your omelet?”
“There’s cream in it, and butter.”
“Also parsley. I’m not opposed to a portion of green vegetables now and then. Roadblocks won’t be effective if Simon’s second vehicle has four-wheel drive and he goes overland.”
“The sheriff’s department is assisting with aerial patrols.”
“Do you have any sense whether Danny’s still in Pico Mundo?”
“I get this strange feeling.”