The Living and The Dead
The forces that affect our lives, the influences that mold and shape us, are often like whispers in a
distant room, teasingly indistinct, apprehended
only with difficulty.
TUESDAY AT DAWN, Los Angeles trembled. Windows rattled in their frames. Patio wind chimes tinkled merrily even though there was no wind. In some houses, dishes fell off shelves.
At the start of the morning rush hour, KFWB, all-news radio, used the earthquake as its lead story. The tremor had registered 4.8 on the Richter Scale. By the end of the rush hour, KFWB
demoted the story to third place behind a report of terrorist bombings in Rome and an account of a five-car accident on the Santa Monica Freeway. After all, no buildings had fallen. By noon, only a handful of Angelenos (mostly those who had moved west within the past year) found the event worthy of even a minute's conversation over lunch.
The man in the smoke-gray Dodge van didn't even feel the earth move. He was at the northwest edge of the city, driving south on the San Diego Freeway, when the quake struck. Because it is difficult to feel any but the strongest tremors while in a moving vehicle, he wasn't aware of the shaking until he stopped for breakfast at a diner and heard one of the other customers talking about it.
He knew at once that the earthquake was a sign meant just for him. It had been sent either to assure him that his mission in Los Angeles would be a success--or to warn him that he would fail.
But which message was he supposed to perceive in this sign?
He brooded over that question while he ate. He was a big strong man--six-foot-four, two hundred and thirty pounds, all muscle--and he took more than an hour and a half to finish his meal. He started with two eggs, bacon, cottage fries, toast and a glass of milk. He chewed slowly, methodically, his eyes focused on his food as if he were entranced by it. When he finished his first plateful, he asked for a tall stack of pancakes and more milk. After the pancakes, he ate a cheese omelet with three pieces of Canadian bacon on the side, another serving of toast, and orange juice.
By the time he ordered the third breakfast, he was the chief topic of conversation in the kitchen.
His waitress was a giggly redhead named Helen, but each of the other waitresses found an excuse to pass by his table and get a better look at him. He was aware of their interest, but he didn't care.
When he finally asked Helen for the check, she said, "You must be a lumberjack or something."
He looked up at her and smiled woodenly. Although this was the first time he had been in the diner, although he had met Helen only ninety minutes ago, he knew exactly what she was going to say. He had heard it all a hundred times before.
She giggled self-consciously, but her blue eyes fixed unwaveringly on his. "I mean, you eat enough for three men."
"I guess I do."
She stood beside the booth, one hip against the edge of the table, leaning slightly forward, not-so-subtly letting him know that she might be available. "But with all that food ... you don't have an ounce of fat on you."
Still smiling, he wondered what she'd be like in bed. He pictured himself taking hold of her, thrusting into her--and then he pictured his hands around her throat, squeezing, squeezing, until her face slowly turned purple and her eyes bulged out of their sockets.
She stared at him speculatively, as if wondering whether he satisfied all of his appetites with such single-minded devotion as he had shown toward the food. "Must get a lot of exercise."
"I lift weights," he said.
"Like Arnold Schwarzenegger."
She had a graceful, delicate neck. He knew he could break it as if it were a dry twig, and the thought of doing that made him feel warm and happy.
"You sure do have a set of big arms," she said, softly, appreciatively. He was wearing a short-sleeved shirt, and she touched his bare forearm with one finger. "I guess, with all that pumping iron, no matter how much you eat, it just turns into more muscle."
"Well, that's the idea," he said. "But I also have one of those metabolisms."
"I burn up a lot of calories in nervous energy."
"Jumpy as a Siamese cat."
"I don't believe it. I bet there's nothing in the world could make you nervous," she said.
She was a good-looking woman, about thirty years old, ten years younger than he was, and he figured he could have her if he wanted her. She would need a little wooing, but not much, just enough so she could convince herself that he had swept her off her feet, playing Rhett to her Scarlett, and had tumbled her into bed against her will. Of course, if he made love to her, he would have to kill her afterward. He'd have to put a knife through her pretty br**sts or cut her throat, and he really didn't want to do that. She wasn't worth the bother or the risk. She simply wasn't his type, he didn't kill redheads.
He left her a good tip, paid his check at the cash register by the door, and got out of there.
After the air conditioned restaurant, the September heat was like a pillow jammed against his face. As he walked toward the Dodge van, he knew that Helen was watching him, but he didn't look back.
From the diner he drove to a shopping center and parked in a corner of the large lot, in the shade of a date palm, as far from the stores as he could get. He climbed between the bucket seats, into the back of the van, pulled down a bamboo shade that separated the driver's compartment from the cargo area, and stretched out on a thick but tattered mattress that was too short for him. He had been driving all night without rest, all the way from St. Helena in the wine country. Now, with a big breakfast in his belly, he was drowsy.
Four hours later, he woke from a bad dream. He was sweating, shuddering, burning up and freezing at the same time, clutching the mattress with one hand and punching the empty air with the other.
He was trying to scream, but his voice was stuck far down in his throat; he made a dry, gasping sound.
At first, he didn't know where he was. The rear of the van was saved from utter darkness only by three thin strips of pale light that came through narrow slits in the bamboo blind. The air was warm and stale. He sat up, felt the metal wall with one hand, squinted at what little there was to see, and gradually oriented himself. When at last he realized he was in the van, he relaxed and sank back onto the mattress again.
He tried to remember what the nightmare had been about, but he could not. That wasn't unusual.
Nearly every night of his life, he suffered through horrible dreams from which he woke in terror, mouth dry, heart pounding; but he never could recall what had frightened him.
Although he knew where he was now, the darkness made him uneasy. He kept hearing stealthy movement in the shadows, soft scurrying sounds that put the hair up on the back of his neck even though he knew he was imagining them. He raised the bamboo shade and sat blinking for a minute until his eyes adjusted to the light.
He picked up a bundle of chamois-textured clothes that lay on the floor beside the mattress. The bundle was tied up with dark brown cord. He loosened the knot and unrolled the soft clothes, four of them, each rolled around the other. Wrapped in the center were two big knives. They were very sharp. He had spent a lot of time carefully honing the gracefully tapered blades. When he took one of them in his hand, it felt strange and wonderful, as if it were a sorcerer's knife, infused with magic energy that it was now transmitting to him.
The afternoon sun had slipped past the shadow of the palm tree in which he had parked the Dodge.
Now the light streamed through the windshield, over his shoulder, and struck the icelike steel; the razor-edge glinted coldly.
As he stared at the blade, his thin lips slowly formed a smile. In spite of the nightmare, the sleep had done him a lot of good. He felt refreshed and confident. He was absolutely certain that the morning's earthquake had been a sign that everything would go well for him in Los Angeles. He would find the woman. He would get his hands on her. Today. Or Wednesday at the latest. As he thought about her smooth, warm body and the flawless texture of her skin, his smile swelled into a grin.
Tuesday afternoon, Hilary Thomas went shopping in Beverly Hills. When she came home early that evening, she parked her coffee-brown Mercedes in the circular driveway, near the front door. Now that fashion designers had decided women finally would be allowed to look feminine again, Hiliary had bought all the clothes she hadn't been able to find during the dress-like-an-army-sergeant fever that had seized everyone in the fashion industry for at least the past five years. She needed to make three trips to unload the trunk of the car.
As she was picking up the last of the parcels, she suddenly had the feeling that she was being watched. She turned from the car and looked toward the street. The low westering sun slanted between the big houses and through the feathery palm fronds, streaking everything with gold. Two children were playing on a lawn, half a block away, and a floppy-eared cocker spaniel was padding happily along the sidewalk. Other than that, the neighborhood was silent and almost preternaturally still. Two cars and a gray Dodge van were parked on the other side of the street, but as far as she could see, there wasn't anyone in them.
Sometimes you act like a silly fool, she told herself. Who would be watching?
But after she carried the last of the packages inside, she came out to park the car in the garage, and again she had the unshakable feeling that she was being observed.
Later, near midnight, as Hilary was sitting in bed reading, she thought she heard noises downstairs. She put the book aside and listened.
Rattling sounds. In the kitchen. Near the back door. Directly under her bedroom.
She got out of bed and put on a robe. It was a deep blue silk wrapper she had bought just that afternoon.
A loaded .32 automatic lay in the top drawer of the nightstand. She hesitated, listened to the rattling sounds for a moment, then decided to take the gun with her.
She felt slightly foolish. What she heard was probably just settling noises, the natural sounds a house makes from time to time. On the other hand, she had lived here for six months and had not heard anything like it until now.
She stopped at the head of the stairs and peered down into the darkness and said, "Who's there?"
Holding the gun in her right hand and in front of her, she went downstairs and across the living room, breathing fast and shallow, unable to stop her gun hand from shaking just a bit. She switched on every lamp that she passed. As she approached the back of the house, she still could hear the strange noises, but when she stepped into the kitchen and hit the lights, there was only silence.
The kitchen looked as it should. Dark pegged pine floor. Dark pine cabinets with glossy white ceramic fixtures. White tile counters, clean and uncluttered. Shining copper pots and utensils hanging from the high white ceiling. There was no intruder and no sign that there had been one before she arrived.
She stood just inside the doorway and waited for the noise to begin again.
Nothing. Just the soft hum of the refrigerator.
Finally she walked around the gleaming central utility island and tried the back door. It was locked.
She turned on the yard lights and rolled up the shade that covered the window above the sink.
Outside, off to the right, the forty-foot-long swimming pool shimmered prettily. The huge shadowy rose garden lay to the left, a dozen bright blossoms glowing like bursts of phosphorescent gas in the dark green foliage. Everything out there was silent and motionless.
What I heard was the house settling, she thought. Jeez. I'm getting to be a regular spooky old maid.
She made a sandwich and took it upstairs with a cold bottle of beer. She left all the lights burning on the first floor, which she felt would discourage any prowler--if there actually was someone lurking about the property.
Later, she felt foolish for leaving the house so brightly lit. She knew exactly what was wrong with her. Her jumpiness was a symptom of the I-don't-deserve-all-this-happiness disease, a mental disorder with which she was intimately acquainted. She had come from nowhere, from nothing, and now she had everything. Subconsciously, she was afraid that God would take notice of her and decide that she didn't deserve what she'd been given. Then the hammer would fall. Everything she had accumulated would be smashed and swept away: the house, the car, the bank accounts.... Her new life seemed like a fantasy, a marvelous fairytale, too good to be true, certainly too good to last.
No. Dammit, no! She had to stop belittling herself and pretending that her accomplishments were only the result of good fortune. Luck had nothing to do with it. Born into a house of despair, nurtured not with milk and kindness but with uncertainty and fear, unloved by her father and merely tolerated by her mother, raised in a home where self-pity and bitterness had driven out all hope, she had of course grown up without a sense of real worth. For years she had struggled with an inferiority complex. But that was behind her now. She had been through therapy. She understood herself. She didn't dare let those old doubts rise again within her. The house and car and money would not be taken away; she did deserve them. She worked hard, and she had talent. Nobody had given her a job simply because she was a relative or friend; when she'd come to Los Angeles, she hadn't known anyone. No one had heaped money in her lap just because she was pretty. Drawn by the wealth of the entertainment industry and by the promise of fame, herds of beautiful women arrived every day in L.A. and were usually treated worse than cattle. She had made it to the top for one reason: she was a good writer, a superb craftsman, an imaginative and energetic artist who knew how to create the motion pictures that a lot of people would pay money to see. She earned every dime she was paid, and the gods had no reason to be vindictive.
"So relax," she said aloud.
No one had tried to get in the kitchen door. That was just her imagination.
She finished the sandwich and beer, then went downstairs and turned out the lights.
She slept soundly.
The next day was one of the best days of her life. It was also one of the worst.
Wednesday began well. The sky was cloudless. The air was sweet and clear. The morning light had that peculiar quality found only in Southern California and only on certain days. It was crystalline light, hard yet warm, like the sunbeams in a cubist painting, and it gave you the feeling that at any moment the air would part like a stage curtain to reveal a world beyond the one in which we live.
Hilary Thomas spent the morning in her garden. The walled half-acre behind the two-story neo-Spanish house was adorned with two dozen species of roses--beds and trellises and hedges of roses.
There were the Frau Karl Druschki Rose, the Madame Pierre Oger Rose, the rosa muscosa, the Souvenir de la Malmaison Rose, and a wide variety of modern hybrids. The garden blazed with white roses and red roses, orange and yellow and pink and purple and even green roses. Some blooms were the size of saucers, and others were small enough to pass through a wedding ring. The velvety green lawn was speckled with windblown petals of every hue.