Odd Apocalypse Page 2

Roseland, a private estate, was a mile from the California coast. But loons are loons wherever they nest; they don’t alter their voices to conform to the landscape. They’re birds, not politicians.

Besides, loons aren’t roosters with a timely duty. Yet this wailing came between midnight and dawn, not thus far in sunlight. And it seemed to me that the earlier it came in the new day, the more often it was repeated during the remaining hours of darkness.

I threw back the covers, sat on the edge of the bed, and said, “Spare me that I may serve,” which is a morning prayer that my Granny Sugars taught me to say when I was a little boy.

Pearl Sugars was a professional poker player who frequently sat in private games against card sharks twice her size, guys who didn’t lose with a smile. They didn’t even smile when they won. My grandma was a hard drinker. She ate a boatload of pork fat in various forms. Only when sober, Granny Sugars drove so fast that police in several Southwestern states knew her as Pedal-to-the-Metal Pearl. Yet she lived long and died in her sleep.

I hoped her prayer worked as well for me as it did for her; but recently I had taken to following that first request with another. This morning, it was: “Please don’t let anyone kill me by shoving an angry lizard down my throat.”

That might seem like a snarky request to make of God, but a psychotic and enormous man once threatened to force-feed me an exotic sharp-toothed lizard that was in a frenzy after being dosed with methamphetamine. He would have succeeded, too, if we hadn’t been on a construction site and if I hadn’t found a way to use an insulation-foam sprayer as a weapon. He promised to track me down when released from prison and finish the job with a different lizard.

On other days recently, I had asked God to spare me from death by a car-crushing machine in a salvage yard, from death by a nail gun, from death by being chained to dead men and dropped in a lake.… These were ordeals that I should not have survived in days past, and I figured that if I ever faced one of those threats again, I wouldn’t be lucky enough to escape the same fate twice.

My name isn’t Lucky Thomas. It’s Odd Thomas.

It really is. Odd.

My beautiful but psychotic mother claims the birth certificate was supposed to read Todd. My father, who lusts after teenage girls and peddles property on the moon—though from a comfortable office here on Earth—sometimes says they meant to name me Odd.

I tend to believe my father in this matter. Although if he isn’t lying, this might be the only entirely truthful thing he’s ever said to me.

Having showered before retiring the previous evening, I now dressed without delay, to be ready for … whatever.

Day by day, Roseland felt more like a trap. I sensed hidden deadfalls that might be triggered with a misstep, bringing down a crushing weight upon me.

Although I wanted to leave, I had an obligation to remain, a duty to the Lady of the Bell. She had come with me from Magic Beach, which lay farther north along the coast, where I’d almost been killed in a variety of ways.

Duty doesn’t need to call; it only needs to whisper. And if you heed the call, no matter what happens, you have no need for regret.

Stormy Llewellyn, whom I loved and lost, believed that this strife-torn world is boot camp, preparation for the great adventure that comes between our first life and our eternal life. She said that we go wrong only when we are deaf to duty.

We are all the walking wounded in a world that is a war zone. Everything we love will be taken from us, everything, last of all life itself.

Yet everywhere I look, I find great beauty in this battlefield, and grace and the promise of joy.

The stone tower in the eucalyptus grove, where I currently lived, was a thing of rough beauty, in part because of the contrast between its solemn mass and the delicacy of the silvery-green leaves that cascaded across the limbs of the surrounding trees.

Square rather than columnar, thirty feet on a side, the tower stood sixty feet high if you counted the bronze dome but not the unusual finial that looked like the much-enlarged stem, crown, and case bow of an old pocket watch.

They called the tower a guesthouse, but surely it had not always been used for that purpose. The narrow casement windows opened inward to admit fresh air, because vertical iron bars prevented them from opening outward.

Barred windows suggested a prison or a fortress. In either case, an enemy was implied.

The door was ironbound timber that looked as though it had been crafted to withstand a battering ram if not even cannonballs. Beyond lay a stone-walled vestibule.

In the vestibule, to the left, stairs led to a higher apartment. Annamaria, the Lady of the Bell, was staying there.

The inner vestibule door, directly opposite the outer, opened to the ground-floor unit, where the current owner of Roseland, Noah Wolflaw, had invited me to stay.

My quarters consisted of a comfortable sitting room, a smaller bedroom, both paneled in mahogany, and a richly tiled bathroom that dated to the 1920s. The style was Craftsman: heavy wood-and-cushion armchairs, trestle tables with mortise joints and peg decoration.

I don’t know if the stained-glass lamps were genuine Tiffany, but they might have been. Perhaps they were bought back in the day when they weren’t yet museum pieces of fantastic value, and they remained in this out-of-the-way tower simply because they had always been here. One quality of Roseland was a casual indifference to the wealth that it represented.

Each guest suite featured a kitchenette in which the pantry and the refrigerator had been stocked with the essentials. I could cook simple meals or have any reasonable request filled by the estate’s chef, Mr. Shilshom, who would send over a tray from the main house.

Breakfast more than an hour before dawn didn’t appeal to me. I would feel like a condemned man trying to squeeze in as many meals as possible on his last day, before submitting to a lethal injection.

Our host had warned me to remain indoors between dusk and dawn. He claimed that one or more mountain lions had recently been marauding through other estates in the area, killing two dogs, a horse, and peacocks kept as pets. The beast might be bold enough to chow down on a wandering guest of Roseland if given a chance.

I was sufficiently informed about mountain lions to know that they were as likely to hunt in daylight as in the dark. I suspected that Noah Wolflaw’s warning was intended to ensure that I would hesitate to investigate the so-called loon and other peculiarities of Roseland by night.

Before dawn on that Monday in February, I left the guest tower and locked the ironbound door behind me.

Both Annamaria and I had been given keys and had been sternly instructed to keep the tower locked at all times. When I noted that mountain lions could not turn a knob and open a door, whether it was locked or not, Mr. Wolflaw declared that we were living in the early days of a new dark age, that walled estates and the guarded redoubts of the wealthy were not secure anymore, that “bold thieves, rapists, journalists, murderous revolutionaries, and far worse” might turn up anywhere.

His eyes didn’t spin like pinwheels, neither did smoke curl from his ears when he issued this warning, though his dour expression and ominous tone struck me as cartoonish. I still thought that he must be kidding, until I met his eyes long enough to discern that he was as paranoid as a three-legged cat encircled by wolves.

Whether his paranoia was justified or not, I suspected that neither thieves nor rapists, nor journalists, nor revolutionaries were what worried him. His terror was reserved for the undefined “far worse.”

Leaving the guest tower, I followed a flagstone footpath through the fragrant eucalyptus grove to the brink of the gentle slope that led up to the main house. The vast manicured lawn before me was as smooth as carpet underfoot.

In the wild fields around the periphery of the estate, through which I had rambled on other days, snowy woodrush and ribbon grass and feathertop thrived among the majestic California live oaks that seemed to have been planted in cryptic but harmonious patterns.

No place of my experience had ever been more beautiful than Roseland, and no place had ever felt more evil.

Some people will say that a place is just a place, that it can’t be good or evil. Others will say that evil as a real power or entity is a hopelessly old-fashioned idea, that the wicked acts of men and women can be explained by one psychological theory or another.

Those are people to whom I never listen. If I listened to them, I would already be dead.

Regardless of the weather, even under an ordinary sky, daylight in Roseland seemed to be the product of a sun different from the one that brightened the rest of the world. Here, the familiar appeared strange, and even the most solid, brightly illuminated object had the quality of a mirage.

Afoot at night, as now, I had no sense of privacy. I felt that I was followed, watched.

On other occasions, I had heard a rustle that the still air could not explain, a muttered word or two not quite comprehensible, hurried footsteps. My stalker, if I had one, was always screened by shrubbery or by moonshadows, or he monitored me from around a corner.

A suspicion of homicide motivated me to prowl Roseland by night. The woman on horseback was a victim of someone, haunting Roseland in search of justice for her and her son.

Roseland encompassed fifty-two acres in Montecito, a wealthy community adjacent to Santa Barbara, which itself was as far from being a shantytown as any Ritz-Carlton was far from being mistaken for the Bates Motel in Psycho.

The original house and other buildings were constructed in 1922 and ’23 by a newspaper mogul, Constantine Cloyce, who was also the cofounder of one of the film industry’s legendary studios. He had a mansion in Malibu, but Roseland was his special retreat, an elaborate man cave where he could engage in such masculine pursuits as horses, skeet shooting, small-game hunting, all-night poker sessions, and perhaps drunken head-butting contests.

Cloyce had also been an enthusiast of unusual—even bizarre—theories ranging from those of the famous medium and psychic Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky to those of the world-renowned physicist and inventor Nikola Tesla.

Some believed that Cloyce, here at Roseland, had once secretly financed research and development into such things as death rays, contemporary approaches to alchemy, and telephones that would allow you to talk to the dead. But then some people also believe that Social Security is solvent.

From the edge of the eucalyptus grove, I gazed up the long easy slope toward the main house, where Constantine Cloyce had died in his sleep in 1948, at the age of seventy. On the barrel-tile roof, patches of phosphorescent lichen glowed in the moonlight.

Also in 1948, the sole heir to an immense South American mining fortune bought Roseland completely furnished when he was just thirty and sold it, furnished, forty years later. He was reclusive, and no one seems to have known much about him.

At the moment, only a few second-floor windows were warmed by light. They marked the bedroom suite of Noah Wolflaw, who had made his considerable fortune as the founder and manager of a hedge fund, whatever that might be. I’m reasonably sure that it had something to do with Wall Street and nothing whatsoever to do with boxwood garden hedges.

Now retired at the age of fifty, Mr. Wolflaw claimed to have sustained an injury to the sleep center in his brain. He said that he hadn’t slept a wink in the previous nine years.

I didn’t know whether this extreme insomnia was the truth or a lie, or proof of some delusional condition.

He had bought the residence from the reclusive mining heir. He restored and expanded the house, which was of the Addison Mizner school of architecture, an eclectic mix of Spanish, Moorish, Gothic, Greek, Roman, and Renaissance influences. Broad, balustraded terraces of limestone stepped down to lawns and gardens.

In this hour before dawn, as I crossed the manicured grass toward the main house, the coyotes high in the hills no longer howled, because they had gorged themselves on wild rabbits and slunk away to sleep. After hours of singing, the frogs had exhausted their voices, and the crickets had been devoured by the frogs. A peaceful though temporary hush shrouded this fallen world.

My intention was to relax on a lounge chair on the south terrace until lights appeared in the kitchen. Chef Shilshom always began his workday before dawn.

I had started each of the past two mornings with the chef not solely because he made fabulous breakfast pastries, but also because I suspected that he might let slip some clue to the hidden truth of Roseland. He fended off my curiosity by pretending to be the culinary world’s equivalent of an absentminded professor, but the effort of maintaining that pretense was likely to trip him up sooner or later.

As a guest, I was welcome throughout the ground floor of the house: the kitchen, the dayroom, the library, the billiards room, and elsewhere. Mr. Wolflaw and his live-in staff were intent upon presenting themselves as ordinary people with nothing to hide and Roseland as a charming haven with no secrets.

I knew otherwise because of my special talent, my intuition, and my excellent crap detector—and now also because the previous twilight had for a minute shown me a destination that must be a hundred stops beyond Oz on the Tornado Line Express.

When I say that Roseland was an evil place, that doesn’t mean I assumed everyone there—or even just one of them—was also evil. They were an entertainingly eccentric crew; but eccentricity most often equates with virtue or at least with an absence of profoundly evil intention.

The devil and all his demons are dull and predictable because of their single-minded rebellion against truth. Crime itself—as opposed to the solving of it—is boring to the complex mind, though endlessly fascinating to the simpleminded. One film about Hannibal Lecter is riveting, but a second is inevitably stupefying. We love a series hero, but a series villain quickly becomes silly as he strives so obviously to shock us. Virtue is imaginative, evil repetitive.

They were keeping secrets at Roseland. The reasons for keeping secrets are many, however, and only a fraction are malevolent.

As I settled on the patio lounge chair to wait for Chef Shilshom to switch on the kitchen lights, the night took an intriguing turn. I do not say an unexpected turn, because I’ve learned to expect just about anything.

South from this terrace, a wide arc of stairs rose to a circular fountain flanked by six-foot Italian Renaissance urns. Beyond the fountain, another arc of stairs led to a slope of grass bracketed by hedges that were flanked by gently stepped cascades of water, which were bordered by tall cypresses. Everything led up a hundred yards to another terrace at the top of the hill, on which stood a highly ornamented, windowless limestone mausoleum forty feet on a side.

The mausoleum dated to 1922, a time when the law did not yet forbid burial on residential property. No moldering corpses inhabited this grandiose tomb. Urns filled with ashes were kept in wall niches. Interred there were Constantine Cloyce, his wife, Madra, and their only child, who died young.

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