One Door Away from Heaven

Page 49

Through a fringe of eyelashes, she sought him, saw him. He passed the low buffet divider that separated the living room from the kitchen.

One small lamp, the three-way bulb set at the lowest wattage, didn't reject the shadows in the living loom, but romanced than, and in the kitchen, only the small light under the range hood slaved off the full embrace of darkness.

Even seen from behind, and then glimpsed only briefly in profile as he turned in the kitchen gloom to approach the back door, he could be mistaken for no one else. Uninvited, Preston Maddoc had paid a visit.

Micky had left the back door ajar for Leilani if she came. Now Maddoc left it standing wide open when he departed.

Warily she got off the sofa and approached the kitchen. She half expected to find him waiting beyond the threshold, facing inside, amused to have caught her faking sleep.

He wasn't there.

She dared to step outside. No one lurked in the backyard. Maddoc had gone home.

Retreating into the kitchen, she shut out the night. Engaged the dead-bolt lock.

Fear drained away, leaving a feeling of violation. Before she could work up a proper sense of outrage, however, she thought of Geneva, and fear flooded back.

She had no idea how long Maddoc was in the house. He might have gone elsewhere before entering the living room to watch her sleep.

Micky hurried out of the kitchen, into the short hall. As she passed her own room, she noticed light bleeding under the door. She was certain that she hadn't left a lamp on.

End of the hall. Last door. Standing ajar.

The luminous numerals and the lighted tuning bands on the clock radio provided the only relief from a clutching darkness that seemed jagged with menace. When Micky reached the bed, this ghostly radiance revealed only the one thing that she wanted to see: Aunt Gen's face against a pillow, eyes shut, peaceful in sleep.

Micky held one trembling hand before Geneva's face and felt the gentle breath against her palm.

A knot pulled loose in her breast, freeing her bound breath.

In the hall once more, she soundlessly drew Geneva's door shut and went directly to her own room.

Scattered across the bedspread were her purse and everything it had contained. Her wallet had been emptied, though no money had been stolen; the currency lay discarded with her social-security card, her driver's license, lipstick, compact, comb, car keys. . . .

The closet was open. The dresser had been searched, as well, and the contents of each drawer had been left in disarray.

On the floor lay her prison-discharge papers. She'd left them in the nightstand, under the Bible that Aunt Gen had provided.

Regardless of the initial purpose of Maddoc's visit, he'd taken brazen advantage of the situation when he found the kitchen door ajar and Micky asleep on the sofa. From what she'd learned at the library, she knew that he was a calculating man rather than a reckless one, so she attributed his shameless prowling not to impetuosity, but to arrogance.

Evidently he knew more about her relationship with Leilani than she'd thought he did, perhaps more than Leilani realized, too. The contrived welcome with the plate of cookies either had not fooled him or had sharpened his suspicion.

Now he'd learned enough about Micky's recent past and about her weakness to make her uneasy.

She wondered what he might have done if she'd awakened and found him in her room.

The Bible lay open on the nightstand, in the lamplight. Maddoc had used the felt-tip pen from her purse to circle a passage. Joel, chapter 1, verse 5: Awake, ye drunkards, and weep.

She was unnerved that he knew the Bible well enough to recall such an apt but obscure passage. This erudition suggested that he might be an adversary even more clever and resourceful than she'd expected. Also, clearly, she impressed him as being such a negligible threat that he believed he could mock her with impunity.

Flushed with humiliation, Micky went to the dresser, confirming that Maddoc had turned back the concealing yellow sweater and had found the two bottles of lemon-flavored vodka.

She removed the bottles from the drawer. One was full, the seal unbroken. The sight of it gave her a sense of power, of control; to an impoverished and improvident spirit, an untapped bottle seemed to be a bottomless fortune, but it was really fortune's ruin. After her binge the previous night, little remained in the second container.

In the kitchen, Micky switched on the light above the sink and emptied both bottles into the drain. The fumes-not the lemony aroma, but the quasi-aphrodisiacal scent of alcohol-enflamed more than one appetite: for drink, for oblivion, for self-destruction.

After she dropped the two empties in the trash can, her hands shook uncontrollably. They were damp, too, with vodka.

She breathed the evaporating spirits rising from her skin, and then pressed her cool hands to her burning face.

Into her mind came an image of the brandy that Aunt Gen kept in a kitchen cupboard. Following the image came the taste, as real as if she'd taken a sip from a full snifter.


She understood too well that the brandy wasn't what she wanted, nor the vodka; what she really sought was an excuse to fail Leilani, a reason to turn inward, to retreat beyond the familiar drawbridge, up to the ramparts, behind the battlements of her emotional fortress, where her damaged heart wouldn't be at risk of further wounds, where she could live once more and forever in the comparatively comfortable suffering of isolation. Brandy would give her that excuse and spare her the pain of caring.

When she turned away from the cupboard where the brandy waited, leaving the door unopened, she went to the refrigerator, hoping to satisfy her thirst with a Coca-Cola. But this was less a thirst than a hunger, a ravenous clawing in the gut, so she plucked a cookie from the ceramic bear whose head was a lid and whose plump body was a jar. On further consideration, she carried the bear and all its contents to the table.

Sitting down to Coke and cookies, feeling like an eight-year-old girl, confused and afraid as she had so often been back then, seeking solace from the sugar demon, the first unsettling thing she noticed was the plate beside the candleholders. The gift plate that she had piled with cookies and taken next door earlier in the evening. Mad-doc had returned it empty, washed.

Arrogance again. If Micky hadn't awakened in time to see him leave, she might have guessed who had searched her dresser drawers and turned out the contents of her purse, but she couldn't have been certain that her guess was correct. By leaving the plate, Maddoc had made it clear that he wanted her to know who the intruder had been.

This was a challenge and an act of intimidation.

More disturbing than the plate returned was the penguin taken. The two-inch figurine, from the collection of a dead woman, had been standing on the kitchen table, among the small colored glasses that held half-melted candles. Maddoc must have seen it when he put down the plate.

Whatever suspicions he'd harbored about Leilani's relationships with Micky and with Aunt Gen had been confirmed and had surely grown darker when he'd discovered the penguin.

The dropping sensation in the stomach, the tightening in the chest, the lightheadedness familiar from the sudden speedy plunge of a roller coaster afflicted her now, as she sat dead still on the kitchen chair.

Chapter 47

ALTHOUGH POLLY wasn't a Pollyanna, she liked most people she met, made friends easily, and seldom made enemies, but when the service-station attendant came up to her, grinning like a jack-in-the-box jester with a ticklish spring up its butt, saying, "Hi, my name's Earl Bockman and my wife's Maureen, we own this place, been here twenty years," she made an immediate judgment that he wasn't going to be one of the people she liked.

Tall, pleasant in appearance, his breath smelling of spearmint, looking freshly scrubbed and shaved, in neatly laundered clothes, he possessed many of the fundamentals necessary to make a good first impression, and though a tragic Pagliacci-smiling-through-heartbreak expression might have provided him a certain additional melancholy appeal, this toothy display was classic mad-clown grin from molar to molar .

"I'm originally from Wyoming," Earl said, "but Maureen is from around these parts, and now I've been here so long, it seems like I'm a native, too. Every last man, woman, and child in the county knows Earl and Maureen Bockman." He seemed to feel that he had to convince them of his bona fides before they would trust the purity of the fuel that he was selling. "Just say the names Earl and Maureen, and anyone will tell you that's the folks who own the little pump-and-grocery out at the federal-highway crossroads. And they'll probably tell you Maureen is a peach, too, because she's just as sweet as they come, and what I'll tell you is I'm the luckiest man ever stood before an altar and took the vows, and never regretted it one minute since."

He babbled half this astonishing speech through his toothpaste-advertisement smile, wrapping the grin in and around the rest of it when punctuation gave him pause, and Polly was ready to bet ten thousand dollars against a pack of Hostess Cup Cakes that poor Maureen lay dead inside the store, perhaps strangled by Earl's bare hands, perhaps bludgeoned with an economy-size can of pork and beans, perhaps staked through the heart with a fossilized Slim Jim sausage that had hung neglected on a snack rack for fifteen years.

The insistent smile and the inappropriate deluge of personal chatter was enough to win Earl a place in Polly's let-him-vote-but-don't-let-him-run-for-President file, but there was also the matter of his wristwatch. The face of this unusual timepiece was black and blank: no hour numbers, no minute checks, no hands. It might have been one of those inconvenient digital chronometers that gave you the time in a luminous read-out only when you pushed a button on the casing; but she suspected that it wasn't a watch at all. From the moment that he arrived at the service island, Earl contrived to turn his body and his right arm to direct the numberless black face toward Cass, then toward Polly, and then toward Cass again, back and forth, while further contriving to glance repeatedly and furtively at the gadget in the inadequate light of the red and amber Christmas bulbs. If he'd ever taken a home-correspondence course in successful furtive behavior, he had wasted his money. Polly first thought that the thing on his wrist must be a camera, that he must be some brand of pervert who secretly took pictures of women for whatever sick purpose, but though his nervous folksiness definitely screamed PERVERT, she didn't believe that anyone had yet invented a camera that could see through women's clothing.

Cass liked more people than Polly did, and if she had popped out of Mom's oven with a twin whose personality had been identical to her own, she would have been a Pollyanna, trusting implicitly and equally in nuns and convicted murderers. During the twenty-seven years that they had lived together this side of the placenta, however, Cass's optimism had been tempered by Polly's more-reasoned expectations of people and fate. Indeed, Cass had grown so street-smart that by the time Karl had spoken only a single sentence, she cocked an eyebrow and tweaked her mouth in a Freak alert! expression that Polly had no difficulty reading.

Earl might have chattered at them until either he or one of them fell dead from natural causes, all the while not-so-secretly aiming his curious wristwatch at them-which suddenly seemed reminiscent of the way airport-security personnel sometimes used a handheld metal-detection wand to scan a traveler who had more than once failed to pass through the standard gate without setting off an alarm. But as Earl babbled, Cass examined the antique pump marked DIESEL, and when she found its workings to be more arcane than any she had previously encountered, she asked for assistance.

When Earl turned to the pump, Polly thought he looked baffled, as though he were no more familiar with its operation than was Cass. Frowning, he stepped to the pump, put one hand on it, stood as if in profound thought, almost as if through some sixth sense he were divining the workings of the machinery, soon broke again into that crackbrained-clown grin, and said cheerily, "Fill 'er up?" Assured that they wanted the tank topped off, he cranked a handle on the pump, disengaged the hose spout from the nozzle boot, and turned toward the Fleetwood, whereupon both he and his smile froze.

As it became clear that this seasoned pump jockey wasn't sure where to service the big motor home, Cass telegraphed What's wrong with this bozo? by way of a glance at her sister. She took the hose from Earl with the polite explanation that she, being a fussbudget loath to get a scratch on the paint around the fuel port, would be happier if she could tend to the task herself.

Polly flipped open the hinged lid of the port, twisted the cap off the tank, and stepped back as her sister jammed the spout into the Fleetwood, all the while surreptitiously keeping an eye on Earl, who, thinking that she was preoccupied, boldly aimed his trick watch at two windows of the motor home, twice glancing at the face of the timepiece as though reading something in its glossy black surface- which made him unique among men, who invariably checked out Polly's ass when they thought she wasn't looking, even g*y men burning not with desire but with envy.

She might have judged him to be a harmless crank, a once-proud gasoline merchant made dolly by the vast open spaces of Nevada, by the frighteningly huge sky that hung so fiercely starred over the black land, by too little human contact or by too much contact with too many prairie rustics, or even by Maureen, that sweet peach. But even cranks, eccentrics, and certifiably insane men checked out her butt when they had a chance, and the more often she saw that teeth-drying grin of his, the less it reminded her of a clown, psychopathic or otherwise, and the more she flashed to the velociraptors in those Jurassic Park movies. The thought had formed, however odd, that Earl was something she had never before encountered.

Out of the night came Old Yeller, running, agitated as she had never been before, straight to Polly or rather straight to Polly's left sandal, which she seized by the acrylic heel and which she tried to shake as a terrier might shake a rat. Polly blurted out the name of a famous movie star she'd known when married to the film producer Julian Flackberg; the star was a dreadful actor as well as a deeply vile human being, and sometimes Polly used his famous name in place of an obscenity, usually in place of a four-letter word meaning "dung." Startled, Cass called to the dog, Polly tried to pull her foot away without hurting either the animal or herself, Old Yeller likewise seemed to be trying to avoid causing injury as she vigorously chewed on the footwear without even the softest of growls, and Smilin' Earl Bockman, believing himself to be unobserved in this uproar, aimed the wristwatch at the pooch and peered anxiously at the timepiece, as if it were an analytic device that could tell him whether or not the animal was rabid.

In trying to yank her foot away from Old Yeller, Polly pulled it out of the sandal, and the dog at once made off with the prize, stopping at the front corner of the motor home to look back and to adjust her grip until the shoe dangled from her mouth by one thin strap. The dog swung the sandal teasingly back and forth. Cass said, "She's inviting you to play," and Polly said, "Yeah, well, the way I interpret it, even cute as she is, she's asking me to drop-kick her over that string of Christmas lights," and for once Earl's maniacal smile almost seemed appropriate.

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