IN THE CORNER
I wants to make your flesh creep.
—Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers
In the highest meadow in the southeast quadrant of Harmony Corner, face-to-face with Donny, the mechanic who nightly feeds two possums named Wally and Wanda, my choice is kill or die. I have a pistol, he has a revolver, and the range is point-blank.
The thought of the hungry possums waiting for diner scraps that never come and then eventually waddling off in despair, the thought of Denise, Donny’s fry-cook wife, being widowed by me, a fellow fry cook, and other considerations cause me to hesitate a fateful couple of seconds, which ought to be the death of me. Because his face seems to be wrenched by rage, because of what he says—“Harry Potter, Lex Luthor, Fidel Castro, whoever you are, you’re goin’ to die here”—I feel sure that he is possessed by Hiskott, and I almost blow a big hole in him. But his face is easy to misread because of his terrible scar, and into my hesitation, he says with some desperation, “Run. Get out of the Corner, where he can’t get at you. This isn’t your battle. For God’s sake, run!”
Although he’s no one other than Donny, at any moment he might fall under the control of Hiskott and open fire without warning. I choose not to waste time engaging in a philosophical discussion of the merits of being thy brother’s and thy sister’s keeper.
With one sleeve I wipe at my nose, which has been set adrip by the flowery fumes of Bermuda Guy’s aftershave that lent the interior of his SUV the atmosphere of a mad perfumer’s laboratory.
Matching Donny’s urgency, I insist, “It is my battle. Jolie dies today if I don’t fight. I’m the only one who can get close to him without his knowledge.”
The thought of Jolie dying in the same brutal fashion that Maxy was murdered so distresses him that his once-torn face seems about to come apart along its inadequately stitched seam.
“But he’s commanded us to search for you. And he cycles through us, readin’ memories. I can’t hide I’ve seen you—and where.”
Belatedly, he realizes how dangerous it is for me if he retains his revolver. Holding the weapon by the barrel, he thrusts it toward me, and I take it with relief.
“Listen, Donny, sir, you’re the one who has to get out of the Corner, beyond his reach. If he discovers where I am, through you, then he’ll send the rest of the family to surround me.”
Anguished, he rebels at my suggestion. “No, no, no. No, he’ll torture ’em when he finds out I’m gone beyond his reach. He don’t have mercy. He don’t know what mercy is. He’ll make ’em torture and kill each other.”
“He won’t have time. First he’ll be searching for me. Then I’ll be in that house with him.”
“Just ’cause he can’t control you, don’t mean you’ll get the bastard. You won’t get him.”
“I’ve got more advantages than you know.”
I inhale sharply to staunch the nasal drip, and the inhalation becomes a reverberant snort. “No time to tell you. Please, sir, get the hell out of Harmony Corner. County road is right over there past the rail fence. You can be out in two minutes. Less. Go till you know it’s safe. Go!”
Five years of oppression and his own failed rebellion have nearly robbed him of all but perhaps the dimmest flicker of hope. Despondent, he has no energy for either resistance or flight.
I raise the revolver that he has surrendered to me, and I give him a chance to look down the barrel, to consider the potential of the bullet.
“Sir, I need that SUV, and I need more time that Hiskott doesn’t know where I am. Either you run out of his range fast as you can or I shoot you dead right now. I mean now.”
For a moment I think I’ll have to make a widow of Denise, but then Donny turns and bolts through the tall grass, as if a demon might be at his heels.
As I watch him to be sure that, under the influence of the alien other, he doesn’t turn back toward me, I can too easily imagine how his feathery hope is being crushed beneath a weight of unearned shame. His failure to defeat something more powerful than himself, and the scar that reminds him of his failure, is no reason for shame; guilt is deserved only when the effort to resist evil is never made.
Yet the human heart is disheartened by the most unreasonable self-judgments, because even when we take on giants, we too often confuse failure with fault, which I know too well. The only way back from such a bleak despondency is to shape humiliation into humility, to strive always to triumph over the darkness while never forgetting that the honor and the beauty are more in the striving than in the winning. When triumph at last comes, our efforts alone could not have won the day without that grace which surpasses all understanding and which will, if we allow it, imbue our lives with meaning.
In the learning of that simple truth, I have come from Pico Mundo, from the worst day of my life, from the loss that was worse than losing my own life, through much trouble and tumult in various places, to this picturesque spot along the coast. In the course of that dark passage, the shame and guilt of my failure have been much diminished, and hope is brighter in my heart than once it was.
Watching Donny clamber across the split-rail fence and hurry south along the county road, as he races out of Hiskott’s reach, I would like nothing more than to learn one day that he has taken the same journey of the heart that I have taken.
My sinuses weep, and my nose is a faucet. Much of the time, I find it difficult to sustain an image of myself as a man of action and a defender of the innocent.
Just as the mechanic disappears along the road, I smell smoke. The mayhem I have instigated must be evolving nicely. I need to reconnoiter.
By moving farther from the trees, I will be more easily seen, because my navy-blue sweatshirt and my jeans are in stark contrast to the sun-bleached grass around me. If someone spots me from afar I might not be recognized, but I don’t dare take any chances.
Crouched low, with a .38 revolver in one hand and a pistol in the other, I scuttle through the tall grass, alert for snakes because it seems to be that kind of day. As I press forward, insects spring into flight, leaves of grass and feathertop brushing against my face bring to mind the forked and tickling tongues of serpents, and I narrowly avoid stepping in a pile of deer poop.
The meadow begins to slope, and I come to a place where I can see the descending hills of Harmony Corner and the sea beyond. I lie down and raise my head just high enough to study the seven Victorian houses that stand a few hundred yards below, to the west and slightly farther south of my position. If any guards are stationed around the uppermost of those residences, where Dr. Hiskott makes his lair, they are well concealed.
Perhaps three hundred yards to the north lies the demolished big rig, the detached tractor on its side beneath the Monterey cypress. Both the tractor and the tree have caught fire, after all, and flames seethe up through the branches, which across decades have been sculpted by the wind into elegant southeast-leaning forms that are reminiscent of lines of Japanese calligraphy. Whatever the wind has written over time, fire rapidly erases and disperses as oily black smoke.
People have gone down into those hills, no doubt seeking the truck driver, but at this distance it’s impossible to know which of them are members of the Harmony family, under Hiskott’s rule, and which are patrons of the diner. Nor am I able to get an accurate count of them. They are small figures at this remove.
The larger blaze is closer than the one consuming the cypress. The tumbling propane tank, fire gouting from the open valve, must have looked like a flamethrower in the grip of a furious poltergeist. The fire line in its wake follows a sinuous path, a leaping tossing brightness that, like an agitated dragon, wriggles down one slope and up another.
The intensity of this blaze is much greater than I anticipated. Evidently no wildfire has occurred here in a long time, and previous years of grass have died and been compacted into a dense dry sod that burns aggressively, so that it isn’t the grass of a single year that fuels this tempest. The rising smoke from the conflagration is pale gray, almost white, billowing in alarming volume, rapidly forming high columns that, in this still air, seem to support the sky.
Although I am no more a pyromaniac than I am a brain surgeon, I can’t help but take some satisfaction from the scene. Besides distracting Hiskott and his army of slaves, I need to generate at least some smoke at ground level to screen my approach to the target house. Most of the white masses churn straight up from the burning turf; however, a thin, lower haze creeps downhill. Soon I should have the conditions I require.
To an uninformed observer, my grin might appear to be wicked. I congratulate myself aloud—“Fine work, bucko”—and wipe my dripping nose on a sleeve of my sweatshirt as though I am a filthy pirate preparing to plunder and destroy a seaside settlement. Sometimes, I wonder to what criminal depths I might descend if ever I went over to the dark side.
A tanker truck, half the size of an eighteen-wheeler, appears at the crest of the blacktop lane that connects the businesses to the houses below. On the white tank are two words in red—HARMONY CORNER—and I can only suppose that this is a loaded-and-ready piece of firefighting equipment, a wise precaution in a part of California where some rainy seasons produce only an occasional drizzle and where wildfires will periodically blacken the land.
From the houses, an extended-bed Dodge pickup appears, with six men from the Harmony clan seated in the cargo area. The truck is a beefed-up beauty, jacked high on large tires, and it’s fitted with a V-shaped plow, currently raised. It stops on the blacktop halfway between the houses and the fire.
The guys in the back of the pickup, armed with shovels and hoes, bail out and marshal along the shoulder of the lane. The driver pulls off the pavement, lowers the big V-shaped blade, and drives into the field, plowing a firebreak toward the sea. At once the men follow the truck, hoeing away the loosened grass, spading up any chunks that the plow didn’t churn loose, creating a six- or eight-foot width of bare earth.
With no wind to chase the fire, it might spread slowly enough for the truck to make a return pass from shore to road, establishing a twelve- or sixteen-foot barrier. In this stillness, the flames will not be able to jump across a swath that wide.
Farther up the lane, the tanker truck comes to a stop. The man hanging on the back of it drops off, and two women exit the cab. The three set to work in what appears to be a much-practiced plan, and I can imagine only that the truck has a powerful pump and fire hose that will direct a quenching stream of water deep into the grassland.
One of the problems of making it up as you go along—my modus operandi—is that sometimes you find yourself pitted against people who have a well-considered plan and are expert at executing it.
I counsel myself that although events have turned against me, there’s always a chance they will tip once more in my favor.
Then I sneeze. The scent of Bermuda Guy’s aftershave lingers in the sinuses as might a skunk’s malodor, the dry grass in which I lie smells of dust and chaff, and although the ground-level smoke is too thin to offer concealment, it is acrid enough to burn like the fumes of a habanero pepper in my nostrils. Explosive sneezes reduce me to a parody of a red-eyed allergy sufferer in a TV commercial for an antihistamine. I’m sure I can’t be heard at any significant distance, but I put down the guns and bury my face in my hands, muffling the sound, glad that these are essentially dry sneezes.
If I were Batman, my cape would already be on fire.
Suddenly, a breeze. The grass around me shivers and flutters toward the south and east. And the breeze grows stronger. They say a blaze in the wild can generate its own wind, but I think that has to be a big firestorm.
Surprised out of my sneezing for a moment, I see the invisible wind by its effects, as it angles through Harmony Corner from the northwest, off the sea and across the hilly meadows. The flames feed more voraciously on the grass and leap higher, and from the Monterey cypress, scabs of burning bark peel away and, airborne, carry the contagion of fire over the heads of those who fight it, infecting grass beyond them. The new smoke doesn’t ascend vertically, instead rises at a shallow angle, and a soft tide rolls toward the tanker truck, toward the firebreak crew.
I am getting the chaos I wanted. The problem is, you can switch chaos on, but chaos itself is in control of the off switch.
Ed, once called Aladdin, is the first artificial intelligence I’ve ever known. Maybe if Harry can kill Hiskott and if then I live long enough to see the world become the total science-fiction theme park it seems to be headed toward, I’ll probably know dozens of them one day. Let me tell you, if they’re all as nice as Ed has turned out to be, that’s okay with me.
So after he breaks the beastly news to me—that if the FBI ever knows where Dr. Hiskott went and what he’s been doing these past five years and all, they’ll quarantine my whole family forever—Ed asks me to sit at one of the workstations in the sphere-observation room. As I park my butt in the chair, the computer switches on even though I don’t touch it.
Although the whole freaking government will throw my family in the slammer of all slammers, Ed says my Harry Potter, cute as he is, isn’t the only one who can help us, that there is another. Well, as you can imagine, I have a need to know who that is.
“First things first,” Ed says.
On the computer screen appears a head shot of Harry in the yellow hallway where Orc lies mummified.
“You have cameras everywhere, huh?”
“Not everywhere. But wherever there is a security camera or a computer with an online link and Skype capacity, or a cell phone with a camera function, anywhere in the world, I have eyes.”
“Whoa. That’s a whack upside the head. I guess with artificial intelligence, just like with natural intelligence, there can be a way-creepy side.”
“Would you rather that I were blind, Jolie Ann Harmony?”
“Well, now I feel seriously mean. No, Ed, I don’t wish you were blind. I just hope you never watch me in the bathroom or anything.”
“Security cameras are not installed in bathrooms, and neither are computers with Skype capacity.”
“Well, I guess that’s mostly right.”
“If you take a smartphone into the bathroom, I would advise you to keep it switched off.”
“I guarantee you, Jolie Ann Harmony, that I personally have no interest in watching human beings in bathrooms.”
“I didn’t really think you did, Ed. I’m sorry if I seemed to imply you were a pervert or something. What I was thinking was, some other artificial intelligence someday might not be as respectful as you are.”