Harry hit the floor hard and rolled into the side of the bed.
Gasping and dazed, Harry looked up and saw the hobo filling the doorway, watching him. The revolver was at the big man's feet. He kicked it into the room, toward Harry, and it spun to a stop on the carpet, just out of reach.
Harry wondered if he could get to the gun before the bastard came down on him. Wondered if there was any point trying. Four shots, four hits, no blood.
“Did you hear me?” the vagrant demanded. “Did you hear me' Did you hear me, hero? Did you hear me?” He didn't pause for an answer, kept repeating the question in an increasingly angry and curiously mocking tone of voice, louder, louder still, “Did you hear me, hero? Did you hear me, did you hear me, did you hear me, hear me, hear me? Did you hoor me? DID YOU HEAR ME, DID YOU DID I.O.U DID YOU HERO, DID YOU DID YOU?”
The hobo was trembling violently, and his face was dark with rage and hatred. He wasn't even looking at Harry any longer, but at the ceiling, howling the words-“DID YOU HEAR ME, DID YOU HEAR ME?”-as if his fury had become so enormous that one man could no longer be a satisfactory target for it, screaming at the whole world or even worlds beyond, voice oscillating between bass thunder and a piercing shriek.
Harry tried to get to his feet by supporting himself against the bed.
The vagrant raised his right hand, and green static electricity crackled between his fingers. Light shimmered in the air above his palm, and suddenly his hand was on fire.
He snapped his wrist and flung a fireball across the room. It hit the drapes, and they exploded into flames.
His eyes were not red liquid pools any longer. Instead, fire licked out of the sockets, lapping up over his eyebrows, as though he was just the hollow figure of a man, made of wicker, burning from the inside out.
Harry was on his feet. His legs were shaky.
All he wanted was to get out of there. Burning drapes covered the window. The hobo was in the doorway. No exit.
The vagrant turned and snapped his wrist in the manner of a magician revealing a dove, and another whitehot churning sphere spun across the room, smashed into the dresser, burst like a Molotov cocktail, showering flames. The dresser mirror shattered. Wood split, drawers popped open, and the conflagration spread.
Smoke curled out of his beard, and fire spat from his nostrils. His hooked nose blistered and began to melt. His mouth was open in a shout, but the only sounds he made were the hiss, pop, and crackle of combustion. He exhaled a pyrotechnic cascade, sparks in all the colors of the rainbow, and then flames shot from his mouth. His lips curled up as crisp as deepfried pork rinds, turned black, and peeled back from smouldering teeth.
Harry saw snakes of flame wriggle up the wall from the dresser and onto the ceiling. In places the carpet was burning.
Already the heat was tremendous. Soon the air would be full of acrid smoke.
Bright flares squirted out of the three bullet holes in the vagrant's chest, red and gold fire instead of blood. He flicked his wrist once more, and a third bright sputtering globe erupted øfrom his hand.
The hissing mass streaked at Harry. He dropped into a crouch. It passed over his head, so close that he protected his face with one arm and cried out when the wake of searing heat washed over him. The bedclothes erupted into flames as if they had been soaked in gasoline.
When Harry looked up, the doorway was empty. The vagrant was gone.
He scooped the revolver off the floor and rushed into the hall, with the carpet sprouting flames around his stockinged feet. He was glad his socks were sopping wet.
The hallway was deserted, which was good, because he didn't want another confrontation with... with whatever the hell he'd just had a confrontation with, not if bullets didn't work. The kitchen to his left. He hesitated, then stepped in front of the doorway, gun at the ready. Fire eating the cabinets, curtains flapping like the skirts of dancers in Hell, smoke rolling toward him. He kept moving. The foyer ahead, living room to the right, where the thing must have gone, thing not hobo. He was reluctant to pass the archway, afraid the thing would plunge out at him, seize him in its incandescent hands, but he had to get out fast, the place was filling with smoke, and he was coughing, unable to draw enough clean air.
Edging to the foyer with his back against the hallway wall, facing the arch, Harry kept the gun in front of him, more because of training and habit than because he had any faith in its efficacy.
Anyway, only one round remained in the cylinder.
The living room was burning, too, and in the middle stood the fiery figure, fully engulfed, arms spread wide to embrace the torrid tempest, consumed by it yet obviously in no pain, perhaps even in a state of rapture. Each lambent caress of flame seemed to be a source of perverse pleasure to the thing.
Harry was sure that it was watching him from within its shrouds of fire. He was afraid it might suddenly approach, arms still in a cruciform posture, to pin him against the wall again.
He crabbed sideways past the archway into the small foyer, as a black tide of smothering, blinding smoke rolled down the hall from the bedroom and submerged him. The last thing Harry saw was his soggy shoes, and he snatched them up in the same hand with which he held the gun. The smoke was so dense that no light penetrated to the foyer even from the leaping flames behind him. Anyway his eyes stung and flooded with tears; he was forced to squeeze them tight shut. In the tarry blackness, there was a danger of becoming disoriented, even in such a small space.
He held his breath. One inhalation would be toxic enough to bring him to his knees, choking, dizzy. But he hadn't been getting clean air since the master bedroom, so he wasn't going to be able to hold out long, a few seconds. Even as he scooped up the shoes, he grabbed for the doorknob, couldn't find it in the darkness, fumbled, began to panic, but closed his left hand around it. Locked. Deadbolt latch.
His lungs were hot, as if fire had gotten into them. Chest ached.
Where was the deadbolt? Should be above the knob. He wanted to breathe, found the deadbolt, had to breathe, couldn't, disengaged the lock, was aware of a growing inner darkness more dangerous than the outer one, grasped the knob, tore the door open, plunged outside. The smoke was still around him, sucked out by the cool night, and he had to weave to the right to find clean air, the first breath of which was painfully icy in his lungs.
In the garden courtyard, where walkways wound among azaleas and plumthorn hedges and lush beds of English primrose, with the Ushaped building around him, Harry blinked furiously, clearing his vision. He saw a few neighbors coming out of their apartments onto the lower promenade, and above were two people on the secondstory promenade by which all of the upper apartments were accessed. They'd probably been drawn by the gunfire, because it was not a neighborhood where that sound was common.
They were staring in shock at him and at the plumes of oily smoke churning out of his front door, but he didn't think he'd heard anybody yelling “fire,” so he began to shout it, and then the others picked up the cry.
Harry sprinted to one of the two alarm boxes along the ground floor promenade. He dropped his gun and shoes, and yanked down the lever that broke the fogged glass. Bells clanged stridently.
To his right the livingroom window of his own condo, which faced the courtyard, blew out and showered glass onto the concrete deck of the promenade. Smoke followed, and whipping pennants of fire, and Harry expected to see the burning man climb out through the broken window and continue the pursuit.
Crazily a line from a movie theme song flashed through his mind: Who you gonna call? GHOST BUSTERS!
He was living in a Dan Aykroyd movie. He might have found it funny if he hadn't been so scared that his thudding heart was halfway up his throat.
Sirens rose in the distance, fast approaching.
He ran from door to door, pounding with his fists on each. More soft explosions. A strange metallic screech. Ceaselessly clanging alarm bells. Sequenced bursts of shattering glass rang like hundreds of wind chimes hammered by an erratically gusting storm. Harry didn't look back for the source of any of the sounds, kept moving from door to door.
When the sirens grew to dominate all other sounds and seemed to be only a couple of blocks away, he was finally confident that everyone in the building had been alerted and gotten out. People were scattered across the courtyard garden, staring up at the roof or watching the street for the fire engines, horrified and scared, stunned silent or weeping.
He raced back to the first alarm box and pulled on his shoes, which he'd left there. He snatched up his revolver, stepped over a border of azaleas, waded through bloomladen primrose, and splashed through a couple of puddles on a concrete walkway.
Only then did he realize the rain had stopped falling during the few minutes he had been in his apartment. The ficus and palm trees were still dripping, as was the shrubbery. The wet fronds and leaves were bejeweled with thousands of tiny ruby reflections of the growing fire.
He turned and, like his neighbors, looked back at the building, startled to see how fast the blaze was spreading. The apartment above his was engulfed. At broken windows, bloody tongues of flame licked across the remaining teeth of glass that bristled from the frames.
Smoke billowed, and dreadful light pulsed and sputtered against the night.
Looking toward the street, Harry was relieved to see that fire trucks had entered the sprawling Los Cabos complex. Less than a block away, the sirens began to die, but the beacons kept flashing.
People had rushed into the street from other buildings, but they quickly got out of the way of the emergency vehicles.
An intense wave of heat drew Harry's attention to his own building again. The blaze had broken through to the roof.
As in a fairy tale, high upon the shingled peak, fire like a dragon was silhouetted against the dark sky, lashing its yellow and orange and vermillion tail, spreading huge carnelian wings, scales scintillant, scarlet eyes flashing, roaring a challenge to all knights and wouldbe slayers.
Connie stopped for a pepperoni and mushroom pizza on the way home. She ate at the kitchen table, washing the food down with a can of Coors.
For the past seven years, she had rented a small apartment in Costa Mesa. The bedroom contained only a bed, a nightstand, and a lamp, no dresser; her wardrobe was so simple that she was easily able to store all of her clothes and shoes in the single closet. The living room contained a black leather recliner, a floor lamp on one side of the big chair for when she wanted to read, and an end table on the other side; the recliner faced a television set and VCR on a wheeled stand. The dining area in the kitchen was furnished with a card table and four folding chairs with padded seats. The cabinets were mostly empty, containing only the minimum pots and utensils for cooking quick meals, a few bowls, four dinner plates, four salad plates, four cups and saucers, four glassesalways four because that was the number in the smallest set she could find to buyand canned goods. She never entertained.
Possessions did not interest her. She had grown up without them, drifting from one foster home and institution to another with only a battered cloth suitcase.
In fact she felt encumbered by possessions, tied down, trapped.
She owned not a single knickknack. The only artwork or decoration on the walls was a poster in the kitchen, a photograph taken by a skydiver from five thousand feetgreen fields, rolling hills, a dry riverbed, scattered trees, two blacktop and two dirt roads narrow as threads, intersecting in the manner of lines on an abstract painting.
She read voraciously, but all her books were from the library. All videotapes that she watched were rented.
She owned her car, but that was as much a machine of freedom as it was a steel albatross.
Freedom was the thing she sought and cherished, in place of jewelry and clothes and antiques and art, but it was sometimes more difficult to acquire than an original Rembrandt. In the long, sweet freefall before the parachute had to be deployed, there was freedom. Astride a powerful motorcycle on a lonely highway, she could find a measure of freedom, but a dirt bike in the desert vastness was even better, with only vistas of sand and rocky outcroppings and withered scrub brush rolling toward the blue sky in all directions.
While she ate pizza and drank beer, she took the snapshots out of the manila envelope and studied them. Her dead sister, so like herself.
She thought about Ellie, her sister's child, living up in Santa Barbara with the Ladbrooks, no image of her face among the pictures but perhaps as much like Connie as Colleen had been. She tried to decide how she felt about having a niece. As Mickey Chan suggested, it was a wonderful thing to have family, not to be alone in the world after having been alone for as long as she could remember. A pleasant thrill shivered through her when she thought about Ellie, but it was tempered by the concern that a niece might be an encumbrance far heavier than all the material possessions in the world.
What if she met Ellie and developed an affection for her?
No. She wasn't concerned about affection. She had given and received that before. Love. That was the worry.
She suspected that love, though a blessing, could also be a confining chain. What freedom might be lost by loving someoner by being loved?
She didn't know because she had never given or received any emotion as powerful and profound as loveor as what she thought love must be like, having read of it in so many great novels. She had read that love could be a trap, a cruel prison, and she had seen people's hearts broken by the weight of it.
She had been alone so long.
But she was comfortable in her solitude.
Change involved a terrible risk.
She studied her sister's smiling face in the almostreal colors of Kodachrome, separated from her by the thin glossy veneer of the photographic finishand by five long years of death.
For of all sad word of tongue or pen, the sadest are these: “It might have been!”
She could never know her sister. However, she could still know her niece. All she needed was the courage.
She got another beer from the refrigerator, returned to the table, sat down to study Colleen's face for a while longerand found a newspaper obscuring the photographs. The Register A headline caught her eye: SHOOTOUT AT LAGUNA BEACH RESTAURANT...
TWO DEAD, TEN WOUNDED.
For a long uneasy moment she stared at the headline. The paper hadn't been there a minute ago, hadn't been anywhere in the house, in fact, because she had never bought it.
When she'd gone to get a fresh beer from the refrigerator, her back had never been turned to the table. She knew beyond doubt that no one else was in the apartment. But even if an intruder had gotten in, she could not. possibly have missed seeing him enter the kitchen.
Connie touched the paper. It was real, but the contact chilled her as deeply as if she had touched ice.
She picked it up.
It stank of smoke. Its pages were brown along the cut edges, feathering to yellow and then to white toward the center, as if it had been salvaged from a fire just before it burned.