Forever Odd Page 2

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.

Where’s Danny?

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 psychic magnetism functions like the finest Carrier 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.

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.

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