One Door Away from Heaven

Page 62

The amber light winked out. Darkness married door to threshold. Then in that gap, Leilani detected the faint yet telltale flicker of a television: the pulse of phantoms moving through dreamscapes on the screen, casting- their ghost light on the walls of the bedroom.

She heard familiar strains, the theme music of Faces of Death. This repulsive videotape documentary collected rare film of violent death and its aftermath, lingering on human suffering and on cadavers in all stages of ravagement and corruption.

Preston had watched this demented production so often that he'd memorized every hideous image to the same extent that a stone-serious fan of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock could recite its dialogue word for word. Occasionally Sinsemilla enjoyed the gorefest with him; admiration for this documentary had been the animating spirit behind her road-kill photography.

After being compelled to watch a few minutes of Faces of Death, Leilani had struggled free of Sinsemilla's arms and thereafter had refused even to glance at it again. What fascinated the pseudofather and the hive queen only sickened Leilani. More than nausea, however, the video inspired such pity for the real dead and dying people shown on screen that after viewing but three or four minutes of it, she'd taken refuge in the water closet, muffling her sobs in her hands.

Sometimes Preston called Faces of Death a profound intellectual stimulant. Sometimes he referred to it as avant-garde entertainment, insisting that he wasn't titillated by its content but was creatively intrigued by the high art with which it explored its grisly subject.

In truth, even if you were only nine going on ten, you didn't have to be a prodigy to understand that this video did for the doom doctor exactly what the racy videos produced by the Playboy empire did for most men. You understood it, all right, but you didn't want to think about it often or deeply.

The theme music quieted as Preston adjusted the volume. He liked it low, for he was more attuned to images than to cries of pain and anguish.

Leilani waited.

Ghost light under the door, pale spirits fluttering.

She shuddered when at last she became convinced that this wasn't merely a trick to catch her unaware. Love-or what passed for love aboard the Fair Wind-was in full bloom.

Boldly Leilani went into the galley, switched on the sink light that earlier Preston had switched off, and opened the cutlery drawer. After extracting the paring knife from inside her mattress, he hadn't returned it to the collection. Gone also were the butcher knife, the carving knife, the bread knife-in fact, all the knives. Gone.

She opened the drawer that contained their flatware. Teaspoons, tablespoons, and serving spoons were arrayed as always they had been. The steak knives were gone. Though too dull to be effective weapons, the table knives had been removed, as well. The forks were missing.

Drawer to drawer, door to door, around the small galley, no longer caring if Preston caught her in the search, Leilani sought something that she could use to defend herself.

Oh, yes, of course, with a rasp or a file, as per a thousand prison movies, you could reshape the handle of an ordinary teaspoon until it acquired a killing point, until one edge gleamed as sharp as a knife. Maybe you could do the work secretly even in the confines of a motor home, and do it although your left hand was a stumpy little, twisty little, half-baked muffin lump. But you couldn't do it if you didn't have a rasp or a file.

By the time she opened the last drawer, checked the final cabinet, and inspected the dishwasher, she knew that Preston had removed every object that might serve as a weapon. He had also purged the galley of every tool-equivalent to a rasp or file-that might be employed to transform an ordinary object into a lethal instrument.

He was preparing for the end game.

Maybe they would cross into Montana after visiting the alien-healed fruitcake in Nun's Lake. Or maybe Preston would forgo the satisfying symmetry of burying her with Luki, and would simply kill her in Idaho.

After years in these close quarters, the galley was as familiar to her as any place on earth, and yet she felt as lost as she might have felt if she'd abruptly found herself in the depths of a primeval forest. She turned slowly in a circle, as though bewildered by a dark forbidding woods, seeking a promising path, finding none.

For so long, she had been operating under the belief that she wouldn't be in serious jeopardy until her tenth birthday drew near, that she had time to plan an escape. Consequently, her mental file of survival schemes was thin, although not empty.

Even before Leilani's appeal to the waitress at lunch, Preston had changed his timetable. The proof was in the missing knives, which he must have removed from the motor home during the night, before he had driven Leilani and Sinsemilla to the garage early this morning and had brought them aboard the Fair Wind.

She wasn't ready to make a break for freedom. But she'd better be ready by the time they reached Nun's Lake on Sunday.

Until then, the best thing she could do would be to encourage Preston to believe that she hadn't yet discovered the trade of the penguin for the paring knife or the removal of all the sharp-edged utensils from the kitchen. He was taunting her for the sheer pleasure of it, and she was determined not to let him see the intensity of her fear, not to let him feed on her dread.

Besides, the moment he knew that she knew about the penguin, he might further advance his killing schedule. He might not wait for Idaho.

So she cleaned up the dinner table as usual. Put the leftovers in the refrigerator. Rinsed the plastic utensils from the sandwich shop-all spoons-and dropped them in the trash compactor.

At the sofabed again, she inserted the penguin in the mattress and resealed the slashed ticking with the two strips of tape.

Using the remote control, she restored the sound to the TV, blocking the faint music and the voices from Faces of Death.

She climbed onto her bed, where she'd left dinner unfinished. Although she had no appetite, she ate.

Later, lying alone with only the glow of the TV to relieve the darkness, as ghostly light pulsed across the features of the sun god on the ceiling, she wondered what had happened to Mrs. D and Micky. She'd left the penguin figurine in their care, and somehow Preston had recovered it. Neither Mrs. D nor Micky would have given it to him voluntarily.

She desperately wanted to phone them.

Preston had a digital telephone providing worldwide service, but when he wasn't carrying it with him, clipped to his belt, he left it in the bedroom, where Leilani was forbidden to go.

Over the months, she had secreted three quarters in three places within the motor home. She filched each coin from Sinsemilla's purse on occasions when the two of them were alone aboard the Fair Wind and when her mother was in one state of drugged detachment or another.

In an emergency, with just a quarter, if she could get to a pay phone, she could call 911. She could also place a collect call to anyone who might accept it-though Mrs. D and Micky were the only people who would accept a collect call from her.

The nearby motel-casino surely had pay phones, but getting to them would be tricky. In fact, reaching a phone before morning wasn't possible because Preston armed the security alarm after he arrived with dinner, using a keypad by the door . Only he and Sinsemilla knew the code that would disarm it. If Leilani opened the door, she would trigger a siren and switch on all the lights from one end of the vehicle to the other.

When she closed her eyes, she saw in her mind Mrs. D and Micky at the kitchen table, by candlelight, laughing, on the night that they invited her to dinner. She prayed that they were safe.

When you've got this I-survived-the-nuclear-holocaust left hand and this kick-ass-cyborg left leg, you expect people to be especially aware of you, to stare, to gawk, to blanch in terror and scurry for cover if you hiss at them and roll your eyes. But instead, even when you're wearing your best smile and you've shampooed your hair and you think you're quite presentable, even pretty, they look away from you or through you, maybe because they're embarrassed for you, as if they believe that your disabilities are your fault and that you are-or ought to be-filled with shame. Or, to give them the benefit of the doubt, maybe most people look through you because they don't trust themselves to look at you without staring, or to speak to you without unintentionally saying something that will be hurtful. Or maybe they think you're self-conscious, that therefore you want to be ignored. Or maybe the percentage of human beings who are hopeless as**oles is just fantastically higher than you might want to believe. When you speak to them, most only half listen; and if in their half-listening mode, they realize that you're smart, some people go into denial and nevertheless resort to a style of speech hardly more sophisticated

than baby talk, because ignorantly they associate physical deformity with dumbness. In addition to having the freak-show hand and the Frankenstein-monster walk, if you are also a kid and if you are rootless, always hitting the road in search of Obi-Wan Kenobi and the bright side of the Force, you are invisible.

Aunt Gen and Micky, however, had seen Leilani. They had looked at her. They had listened. She was real to them, and she loved them for seeing her.

If they had been hurt because of her . . .

Lying awake until the TV timer went off, and then closing her eyes to block out the faintly luminous sun god's sleepy smile, she worried up numerous possible deaths for them. If Preston had killed Gen and Micky, then Leilani would kill him somehow, and it wouldn't matter if she had to sacrifice herself to get him, because life would not be worth living anymore, anyway.

Chapter 60

"YOUR WORK is so exciting. If I could live my life again, I'd be a private investigator, too. You call yourselves dicks, don't you?"

"Maybe some do, ma'am," Noah Farrel said, "but I call myself a PI. Or used to."

Even in the morning, two hours before noon, the August heat prowled the kitchen, as though it were a living presence, a great cat with sun-warmed fur, slinking among the table legs and chairs. Noah felt a prickle of sweat forming on his brow.

"In my twenties," said Geneva Davis, "I fell passionately in love with a PI. Though I must admit I wasn't worthy of him."

"I find that hard to believe. You would've been quite a catch."

"You're sweet, dear. But the truth is, I was something of a bad girl in those days, and like all his kind, he had a code of ethics that wouldn't bend for me. But you know about PI ethics."

"Mine are tied in knots."

"I sincerely doubt that. How do you like my cookies?"

"They're delicious. But these aren't almonds, ma'am."

"Exactly. They're pecans. How's your vanilla Coke?"

"I think it's a cherry Coke."

"Yes, I used cherry syrup instead of vanilla. I've had vanilla Cokes with vanilla two days in a row. This seemed a nice change."

"I haven't had a cherry Coke since I was a kid. I'd forgotten how good they taste."

Smiling, indicating his glass with a nod of her head, she said, "And what about your vanilla Coke?"

Having sat at Geneva Davis's kitchen table for fifteen minutes, Noah had adapted to the spirit of her conversation. He raised his glass as if in a toast. "Delicious. You said your niece phoned you?"

"Seven this morning, yes, from Sacramento. I worried about her staying there overnight. A pretty girl isn't safe in a town where there's so many politicians. But she's on the road now, hoping to make Seattle by tonight."

"Why didn't she fly to Idaho?"

"She might not be able to grab Leilani right away. Might have to follow them somewhere else, maybe for days. She preferred her own car for that. Plus her budget's too tight for planes and rental cars."

"Do you have her cell-phone number?"

"We aren't people who have cell phones, dear. We're church-mouse poor."

"I don't think what she's doing is advisable, Mrs. Davis."

"Oh, good Lord, of course it's not advisable, dear. It's just what she had to do."

"Preston Maddoc is a formidable opponent."

"He's a vicious, sick sonofabitch, dear, which is exactly why we can't leave Leilani with him."

"Even if your niece doesn't wind up in physical danger up there, even if she gets the girl and brings her back here, do you realize what trouble she's in?"

Mrs. Davis nodded, sipped her drink, and said, "As I understand it, the governor will make her suck down a lot of lethal gas. And me, too, no doubt. He's not a very nice man, the governor. You'd think he would let us alone after already tripling our electricity bills."

Mopping his brow with a paper napkin, Noah said, "Mrs. Davis-"

"Please call me Geneva. That's a lovely Hawaiian shirt."

"Geneva, even with the very best of motives, kidnapping is still kidnapping. A federal offense. The FBI will get involved."

"We're thinking of hiding Leilani with all the parrots," Geneva confided. "They'll never find her."

"What parrots?"

"My sister-in-law, Clarissa, is a sweet tub of a woman with a goiter and sixty parrots. She lives out in Hemet. Who goes to Hemet? Nobody. Certainly not the FBI."

"They'll go to Hemet," he solemnly assured her.

"One of the parrots has a huge vocabulary of obscenities, but none of the others is foul-mouthed. The garbage-talking bird used to be owned by a policeman. Sad, isn't it? A police officer. Clarissa's been trying to clean up its act, but without much success."

"Geneva, even if the girl isn't making up all this stuff, even if she's in real danger, you can't take the law into your hands-"

"There's lots of law these days," she interrupted, "but not much justice. Celebrities murder their wives and go free. A mother kills her children, and the news people on TV say she's the victim and want you to send money to her lawyers. When everything's upside down like this, what fool just sits back and thinks justice will prevail?"

This was a different woman from the one with whom he had been speaking a moment ago. Her green eyes were flinty now. Her sweet face hardened as he wouldn't have thought possible.

"If Micky doesn't do this," she continued, "that sick bastard will kill Leilani, and it'll be as if she never existed, and no one but me and Micky will care what the world lost. You better believe it'll be a loss, too, because this girl is the right stuff, she's a shining soul. These days people make heroes out of actors, singers, power-mad politicians. How screwed up are things when that's what hero has come to mean? I'd trade the whole self-important lot of 'em for this girl. She's got more steel in her spine and more true heart than a thousand of those so-called heroes. Have another cookie?"

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