I had some sympathy for Hoss and Utgard, although not nearly enough to hold the door open for them. In fact, I leaned against that steel barrier to shut it quickly, closing them in the perilous dark. I would have locked it, too, except that it locked from the outside only with a key.
In spite of the care the chief had taken to isolate noise within the room, the fusillade of furniture grew thunderous, especially when a chair or the table struck the steel door. I could hear the two men shouting, as well, because neither of them had a gag in his mouth and duct tape across his lips, as I would have had after failing the lie-detector test.
The basement hallway with the interestingly stained concrete floor was not a place I wanted to be discovered by whoever responded to the racket in the interrogation room. I hurried toward the stairs, down which the two young officers had earlier conducted me.
AS I REACHED THE STAIRS THAT LED UP FROM the basement of the police station, the muffled clatter-clang from the interrogation room erupted into a full-fledged cacophony as the steel door came open.
Glancing back, I saw neither Hoss Shackett nor Utgard Rolf. Mr. Sinatra did not appear, either.
Through the open door and into the hall came a collection of badly abused public property for which the police department should have to answer to taxpayers when submitting its next budget request: a mangled metal chair, bent and twisted parts of other chairs, shards of frosted plastic, a once sturdy metal table now folded in half like a slice of bread….
The whirling vortex of trash scraped and rattled off the walls, remaining just outside the interrogation room for a moment—and then proceeded toward me.
Addressing this indoor tornado, I declared, I didn’t say Rod Stewart. He said Rod Stewart.
Realizing the folly of defending myself to a cyclone of debris, I raced up the two flights of stairs.
I had done so much racing, jumping, crawling, running, dodging, scuttling, climbing, and swimming that I ached from head to foot and felt my energy ebbing.
During the evening, I had developed considerable admiration for Matt Damon. In spite of his amnesia and in spite of being opposed by numerous nefarious government goons with infinite resources at their command, he waded through squads of ruthless assassins, killing them or sometimes letting them live but making them wish they had never dedicated themselves to fascist ideologies, and he just kept going, indomitable and undiminished.
Here I was, a pathetic excuse for a paladin, complaining about exhaustion when I had not yet even been through a car crash. Already, Matt Damon would have been through six.
As I neared the top of the narrow stairs, a ferocious noise below indicated that into the stairwell had come the Office Furniture of Death. The crash-clang-shriek of the swiftly ascending junk storm suggested supernatural power so furious that it could have been summoned only by a Vegas headliner.
The stairhead door had not been locked when I had been escorted to the basement; and it was not locked now. I stepped into the long back hallway on the main floor.
Although I could not recall which door I’d been brought through from the alleyway, I thought it had been on the right. I opened the first that I came to, which was a storeroom. The second revealed a deserted office.
Whether they were responding to the escalating tumult, which had been heard at the front of the building, or to a frantic cell-phone call from Hoss Shackett, two uniformed officers appeared at the far end of the corridor. I had never seen them before, but they knew at once that I did not belong here, most likely because I was scuttling and furtive and looked harried.
One of them called out to me—Who was I, what was I doing here?—and I called back to them, Just looking for the men’s room.
They didn’t buy that even as I was saying it. One of them drew his gun, and the other told me to stop where I was, to lie facedown, but Matt Damon would never lie down on a floor that looked like blue-Slurpee upchuck, or on any floor whatsoever, for that matter, just because some guy with a gun told him to do it.
Fortunately, I did not have to improvise a deadly weapon out of my wristwatch or one of my shoes, because no sooner had the officer ordered me to lie down than the stairhead door behind me flew open. I did not have to turn and look to know that the wreckage from the interrogation room had spun out of the stairs like some motorized work of modern art by one of those sculptors who regularly conned museums into giving display space to the contents of a Dumpster.
The officers’ attention having been diverted from me, I dared to move forward, staying close to the wall, seeking the next door.
A new sound, a terrible ripping and slithering noise, grew in volume so rapidly that my curiosity got the best of me. I glanced back and saw that into the hallway had come Polterfrank.
From his hands radiated pulses of power that stripped the blue linoleum tiles off the floor and whirled them into the air like a wind devil gathering drifts of autumn leaves to itself. The vinyl squares, in their wild waltz, whispered and clicked against one another.
Because the officers paralyzed by this sight could not see Mr. Sinatra, they were merely startled and frightened by the spectacle before them. They were not propelled at once into a state of blind terror because they were not able to appreciate the phenomenon in its terrible fullness. Had they been able to see the singer in all his glorious wrath, they would have thrown down their weapons in surrender and fled to their mothers.
Here he came, a punctured eardrum no longer an obstacle to his service to his country. He was feisty Private Angelo Maggio in From Here to Eternity, tough Tom Reynolds in Never So Few, courageous and determined Joseph Ryan in Von Ryan’s Express, and the righteous Sam Loggins in Kings Go Forth, but most of all he was Mr. Francis Albert Sinatra with a mad-on for the enemies of his country and the ignorant critics of his impeccable singing.
Spinning metal furniture and parts of furniture seemed to remain the primary danger in the tornado, because the vinyl tiles appeared too flexible and too soft to inflict serious damage. On the other hand, they were stiffened by the mastic with which they had been glued to the floor; and when a critical velocity had been achieved, every edge of every thin tile might be stropped into a lacerating blade.
Like a cresting wave, the floor peeled toward me, and from this tsunami of potentially lethal linoleum came an awful skirling like a thousand busy flensing knives scraping bone.
Spooked, the cops bolted from the corridor, back the way they had come.
The next door on the right led to the men’s restroom. The escalating tempest convinced me that I did not have time to explore farther.
I stepped into the lavatory and backed away from the door, which closed between me and the haunt from Hoboken.
As the tidal wave of churning vinyl and clanging metal scraped past the restroom door, the noise became so disturbing that I clapped my hands over my ears.
Although Mr. Sinatra had been angry with me when I poked and prodded him toward an outburst, I trusted his intelligence to lead him to the realization that I had meant nothing I said and that I had acted out of desperation. Nevertheless, I was relieved when the storm of debris roared by and receded along the corridor.
An operable casement window offered an escape route, but I did not at once flee the restroom. First, I needed to pee.
Here is another difference between me and the indefatigable Matt Damon. He never has either the time or the need to visit a lavatory unless he has to go there to engage in a fight to the death with an agent of the fascist conspiracy.
After washing my hands, I dropped from the window into the alleyway behind the police station. As far as I could tell in the fog, I was alone.
I proceeded east for two hundred feet and then turned south into the covered and lighted walkway between the police department and the courthouse, where the fog did not rule. I hurried, not sure how long Mr. Sinatra could sustain his fury.
No one but the cleaning crew would be working in the courthouse at that hour; and the police in the adjacent building were too busy dealing with an X-Files moment for any of them to step outside for a quick smoke.
I ran to the end of the walk and into Civic Center Park, which—in opposition to Magic Beach tradition—was actually surrounded by the government buildings that justified its name.
The dark skirts of huge evergreens dripped with condensed mist. Fallen pine cones crunched underfoot, and others tried to roll me off my feet.
Concrete park benches, like caskets in a winding processional, appeared periodically, forcing me to dodge left, dodge right.
Windows began to explode in the building from which I had fled. One, two, three, a half-dozen. The tintinnabulation of glass raining on stonework was as charming as an orchestra of fairy bells, which I was able to enjoy because I had gotten safely beyond the zone of raining shards.
Shouting drew my attention to the north where, even in the fog, dimly visible figures could be seen hurriedly descending a broad and brightly lighted set of stairs to a public plaza. Although I was not a psychic primed for clairvoyant espionage by mad scientists employed by power-crazed intelligence agencies, I somehow knew that these figures were police officers fleeing their headquarters.
From afar rose sirens, surely incoming squad cars, perhaps also fire engines or ambulances.
In spite of the inhibiting murk, I ran faster, wishing I could summon the golden retriever again as a kind of Seeing Eye dog. A few minutes later, having put sufficient distance between myself and Civic Center Park, I slowed to a walk for two blocks.
Only then did I think to check my wristwatch—9:38.
At midnight if not before, Chief Hoss Shackett and Utgard Rolf intended to bring nuclear weapons onto United States soil by way of Magic Beach Harbor.
If the chief and the hulk had been killed or at least disabled in the chaos at the station, perhaps the plot would collapse. But I did not think I could count on that. If more than four hundred million dollars had been provided for bribes alone, this operation would have been developed with more than one contingency plan.
Supposing that two stopped clocks constituted an omen, my guess was that the nukes would not be delivered to the harbor at a minute till midnight, but that they would instead be picked up at sea before that hour. The numbers on the clocks more likely signified the last minute that the plan could be foiled: the time when the bombs were taken from the harbor and placed aboard one truck or several, when they would be moved out of Magic Beach and might subsequently be transferred again to other vehicles bound for doomed cities unknown.
SINCE THE ENCOUNTER WITH UTGARD AND THE redheaded gunmen on the pier, so much had happened that I’d had little time to think. I had been barely coping with the torrent of events, allowing myself to be guided largely by instinct and by those paranormal gifts that make my journey through life so interesting, so complicated, and at times so heartbreaking.
I needed fifteen minutes for calm deliberation, a quarter of an hour during which neither my life nor the life of anyone depending on me was in immediate jeopardy. Things had happened this night that I had never experienced previously, moments of a supernatural nature that mystified me. They required a quality of reflection that I could not achieve while sprinting from a mortal threat or verbally fencing with a sadistic police chief in a windowless room that resembled an abattoir.
Slowing from a fast walk, gradually catching my breath, I sought a place to rest, where I was not likely to be disturbed. Usually a church would have appealed to me, but not after Reverend Moran.
My lower lip felt swollen at the right corner of my mouth. When I explored gingerly with my tongue, I found a split that stung, and I prudently decided not to lick it again. The bleeding seemed to have stopped.
Considering the force of Utgard’s backhand blow, I was lucky not to have spat out a tooth or two.
The blinding mist transformed even familiar neighborhoods into strange precincts. Shrouded objects looked not like what they turned out to be, but like unearthly flora and alien structures on a world circling a star other than our own.
I found myself in a commercial district that I didn’t recognize, not the one near the pier nor the one around the harbor, nor the one in the vicinity of the civic center.
Ornate lampposts of cast iron were so old that they might have hailed from the era of gaslight and been converted to electricity. Their glass panes poured forth a sour yellow light that had about it no quality of romance but instead an industrial grimness that brewed the fog into smoke and lent to every shadow the character of a cloud of soot.
The concrete sidewalk was cracked, canted, stained, and strewn with litter that our tourist town usually did not tolerate. In the breathless night, the larger wads of crumpled paper occasionally resembled the corpses of birds, and the smaller scraps reminded me of dead insects.
At this hour, the stores were closed. Most of their windows offered a browser only darkness, although a few were colored by all-night neon that spelled names and services in blown-glass script.
Blue, green, red—for some reason the neon enlivened nothing. The colors were wrong, inducing dyspepsia, giving rise to thoughts of bottom-feeding carnivals where something too freakish for any freak show waited in the ultimate tent.
Some shabby storefronts housed businesses I was surprised to find in Magic Beach, which for the most part was an upscale coastal town. Here was a pawnshop, there another one. Here a tattoo parlor had gone out of business; and here an operation with dirty windows offered payday advances.
Behind the plate glass of a secondhand-clothing store that advertised a one-dollar bin, eight dressed mannequins—as secondhand as the clothes they wore—watched the street with dead eyes and joyless faces.
Traffic had been light elsewhere in town. In this neighborhood, no vehicles whatsoever traveled the streets. I saw no pedestrians, either, no shopkeepers working late.
In the apartments above the stores, few lights glowed. No faces could be seen at either the dark or lighted windows.
When I came to an open-air bus stop, I sat on the bench to think. At the sound of an engine or the first sight of headlights, I could retreat to a serviceway between buildings and wait until the vehicle had passed.
I love novels about road trips, about characters who walk out of their lives, who get on a bus or in a car and go. Just go. They leave the world behind and find something new.
In my case, such a solution would never work. No matter how far I went or how long I kept moving, the world would find me.
On the worst day of my life, I disabled one man and killed another who went on a well-planned shooting spree in my hometown, Pico Mundo. Before I got the second gunman, they had wounded forty-one people and had killed nineteen.
They had parked a truck bomb under the mall as final punctuation to their rampage. I found it and prevented it from detonating.
The media called me a hero, but I didn’t agree. A hero would have saved everyone. Everyone. A hero would have saved the one person in the world who most mattered to him and who trusted him without reservation.