“Did she keep almost breaking into tears?”
“Not at all. She had the sweetest smile.”
“Maybe she smiled too much?”
“It isn’t possible to smile too much, odd one.”
“Did you ever see the Joker in Batman?”
Finished with Raphael’s dental hygiene, Annamaria puts the toothbrush aside and uses the hand towel to mop his face once more. The retriever grins like the Joker.
As she picks up a grooming comb and begins to work on Raphael’s silky coat, she says, “The little finger on her right hand ended between the second and third knuckles.”
“Who? The waitress? Holly? You said she was normal.”
“There’s nothing abnormal about losing part of a finger in an accident. It’s not in the same category as eating a fly.”
“Did you ask her how it happened?”
“Of course not. That would have been rude. The little finger on her left hand ends between the first and second knuckles. It’s just a stump.”
“Wait, wait, wait. Two chopped little fingers is definitely abnormal.”
“Both injuries could have happened in the same accident.”
“Yeah, of course, you’re right. She could have been juggling a meat cleaver in each hand when she fell off the unicycle.”
“Sarcasm doesn’t become you, young man.”
I don’t know why her mild disapproval stings, but it does.
As though he understands that I have been gently reprimanded, Raphael stops grinning. He favors me with a stern look, as though he suspects that if I’m capable of being sarcastic with Annamaria, I might be the kind of guy who sneaks biscuits from the dog-treat jar and eats them himself.
I say, “Donny the mechanic has a huge scar across his face.”
“Did you ask him how it happened?” Annamaria inquires.
“I would have, but then Sweet Donny became Angry Donny, and I thought if I asked, he might demonstrate on my face.”
“Well, I’m pleased that you’re making progress.”
“If this is the rate of progress I can expect, we better rent the cottages by the year.”
As she makes long, easy strokes with the comb, the teeth snare loose hairs from the dog’s glorious coat. “You haven’t already stopped snooping for the night, have you?”
“No, ma’am. I’ve just begun to snoop.”
“Then I’m sure you’ll get to the truth of things shortly.”
Raphael decides to forgive me. He grins at me once more, and in response to the tender grooming that he’s receiving, he lets out a sound of pure bliss—part sigh, part purr, part whimper of delight.
“You sure do have a way with dogs, ma’am.”
“If they know you love them, you’ll always have their trust and devotion.”
Her words remind me of Stormy, the way we were with each other, our love and trust and devotion. I say, “People are like that, too.”
“Some people. Generally speaking, however, people are more problematic than dogs.”
“The bad ones, of course.”
“The bad ones, the ones adrift between good and bad, and some of the good ones. Even being loved profoundly and forever doesn’t necessarily inspire devotion in them.”
“That’s something to think about.”
“I’m sure you’ve thought about it often, Oddie.”
“Well, I’m off to snoop some more,” I declare, turning toward the door, but then I don’t move.
After combing the long, lush fringe of fur on the dog’s left foreleg, which retriever aficionados call feathers, Annamaria says, “What is it?”
“The door is closed.”
“To keep out the mercurial mechanic, Donny, about whom you have so effectively warned me.”
“It only opens itself when I’m approaching it from outside.”
“Your point being—what?”
“I don’t know. I’m just saying.”
I look at Raphael. Raphael looks at Annamaria. Annamaria looks at me. I look at the door. It remains closed.
Finally, I take the knob in hand and open the door.
She says, “I knew you could do it.”
Gazing out at the night-shrouded motor court, where the trees discreetly shiver, I dread the bloodshed that I suspect I will be required to commit. “There’s no real harmony in Harmony Corner.”
She says, “But there’s a corner in it. Make sure you’re not trapped there, young man.”
In case I am being watched, I don’t immediately continue my snooping, but return to my cottage and lock the door behind me.
Not many years ago, nearly 100 percent of people who thought they were being constantly watched were certifiable paranoids. But recently it was revealed that, in the name of public safety, Homeland Security and more than a hundred other local, state, and federal agencies are operating aerial surveillance drones of the kind previously used only on foreign battlefields—at low altitudes outside the authority of air-traffic control. Soon, the bigger worry will not be that, as you walk your dog, you are secretly being watched but that the rapidly proliferating drones will begin colliding with one another and with passenger aircraft, and that you’ll be killed by the plummeting drone that was monitoring you to be sure that you picked up Fido’s poop in a federally approved pet-waste bag.
Having returned to my cottage, I consider switching on the TV to a channel running classic movies, to see if Katharine Hepburn or Cary Grant will suggest that I should sleep. But the caffeine will soon pin my eyelids open, and I suspect that I need to be at least on the brink of nodding off before the invader—whoever or whatever it might be—can access me through the television.
I switch off most of the lights, so that from outside it might appear that I’m finished exploring Harmony Corner and am leaving one lamp aglow as a night-light. Sitting on the edge of the bed, I eat a candy bar.
One of the benefits of living in almost constant jeopardy is that I don’t need to worry about things like cholesterol and tooth decay. I’m sure to be killed long before my arteries can be closed by plaque. As for dental cavities, I tend instead to lose my teeth in violent confrontations. Not yet twenty-two, I already have seven teeth that are man-made implants.
I eat the second candy bar. Soon, thanks to all the sugar and caffeine, I should be so wired that I’ll be able to receive the nearest tower-of-power radio broadcast through the titanium pins that lock those seven artificial teeth into my jawbone. I hope it won’t be a greatest-hits station specializing in seventies disco tunes.
I switch off the last lamp, which is on a nightstand.
Beyond the bed, in the back wall of the cottage, one crank-operated casement window offers a view of the night woods. The two panes open inward to provide fresh air, and a screen keeps out moths and other pests. The screen is spring-loaded from the top and easily removed. From outside, I reinstall it with little noise.
The final aspect of my sixth sense is what Stormy called psychic magnetism. If I need to find someone whose whereabouts I do not know, I keep his name at the forefront of my thoughts and his face in my mind’s eye. Then I walk or bicycle, or drive, with no route intended, going where whim takes me, although in fact I am being drawn toward the needed person by an uncanny intuition. Usually within half an hour, often faster, I locate the one I seek.
Psychic magnetism also works—although less well—when I’m searching for an inanimate object, and occasionally even when I’m searching for a place that I can name only by its function. For instance, in this case, wandering behind the arc of cottages and through the moonlit woods, I keep in mind the word lair.
A unique Presence is at work in Harmony Corner, someone or something that can travel by television and push a drowsy man into deep sleep, entering his dreams with the expectation that, while he sleeps, his lifetime of memories can be read, his mind searched as easily as a burglar might ransack a house for valuables. That entity, human or otherwise, must have a physical form, for in my experience no spirit possesses such powers. This creature resides somewhere, and considering its seemingly predatory nature, where it resides is best described as a lair rather than a home.
Soon I arrive at the end of the woods, beyond which the grassy land descends in pale, gentle waves toward the shore, perhaps three hundred yards distant. Incoming from the west, dark waves of a more transitory nature ceaselessly disassemble themselves on the sand. The declining moon silvers the knee-high grass, the beach, and the foam into which the breaking waves dissolve.
I am overlooking a cove. On the highlands to the north are the lights of the service station and the diner. A black ribbon, perhaps a lane of pavement, unspools from behind the diner, through the moon-frosted grass, diagonally over the descending series of slopes and along the vales, to a cluster of buildings just above the beach, near the southern end of the cove.
They appear to be seven houses, one larger than the other six, but all of generous size. In two of the structures, a few windows glow with lamplight, but five houses are dark.
If the extended Harmony family, including sons-in-law and daughters-in-law, staff the enterprises just off the coast highway, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, they will live nearby. This must be their private little enclave of homes, a picturesque and privileged place to live, though somewhat remote.
Although this is a mild January, snakes are most likely not as active in these meadows as they will be in warmer seasons, and especially not in the coolness of the night. I particularly dislike snakes. I was once locked overnight in a serpentarium where many specimens had been released from their glass viewing enclosures. If they had offered me apples from the tree of knowledge, I might have hoped to cope with that, but they wanted only to inject me with their venom, denying me the chance to undo the world’s disastrous history.
I wade down through the sloping meadows, grass to my knees, until I come, unbitten by lurking serpents and unscathed by plummeting drones, to the blacktop lane, which I follow toward the houses.
They are charming Victorian homes graced with generous porches and decorative millwork—some call it gingerbread—exuberantly applied. In the moonlight, they all appear to be in the Gothic Revival style: asymmetrical, irregular massings with steeply pitched roofs that include dormer windows, other windows surmounted by Gothic arches, and elaborately trimmed gables.
Six houses stand side by side on big lots, and the seventh—which is also the largest—presides over the others from a hilltop, thirty feet above them and a hundred feet behind. Lights are on in a second-floor room of the dominant residence, and also in several rooms on the ground floor in the last of the six front-row dwellings.
At first I feel pulled toward that last house on the lane. As I reach it, however, I find myself continuing past the end of the pavement and down a slope, along a rutted dirt track on which broken seashells crunch and rattle underfoot.
The beach is shallow, bordered by a ten-foot bank overgrown with brush, perhaps wild Olearia. About three feet high, the waves crest late, collapsing abruptly with a low rumble, as if slumbering dragons are grumbling in their sleep.
Thirty feet to the north, movement catches my eye. Alert to my arrival, someone drops to a crouch on the sand.
Reaching under my sweatshirt, I draw the pistol from the small of my back.
I raise my voice to outspeak the sea. “Who’s there?”
The figure springs up and sprints to the overgrown embankment. It’s slight, about four and a half feet tall, a child, most likely a girl. A flag of long pale hair flutters briefly in the moonlight, and then she disappears against the dark backdrop of brush.
Intuition tells me that if she is not the one I have set out to find, she is nevertheless key to discovering the truth of things in Harmony Corner.
I angle toward the embankment as I hurry north. Earlier, the purling waves must have reached within a foot of the brush, because now that high tide has passed, the narrow strip between the surf line and the enshrouded slope is still damp and firmly compacted.
After I have gone perhaps a hundred feet without catching sight of my quarry, I realize that I have passed her by. I turn back and make my way south, studying the dark hillside for some path by which she might have ascended through the vegetation.
Instead of a trail, I discover the dark mouth of a culvert that I hadn’t noticed in my rush to pursue the girl. It’s immense, perhaps six feet in diameter, set in the embankment and overhung in part by vines.
Backlit as I am by the westering moon, I assume that she can see me. “I don’t mean you any harm,” I assure her.
When she doesn’t answer, I push through the straggled vines and take two steps into the enormous concrete drainpipe. I now must be a somewhat less defined silhouette to her, but she remains invisible to me. She might be within arm’s reach or a hundred feet away.
I hold my breath and listen for her breathing, but the rumbling pulse of the sea becomes an encircling susurration in the pipe, sliding around and around the curved walls. I can’t hear anything as subtle as a child’s respiration—or her stealthy footsteps if she is approaching me through the blind-black tunnel.
Considering that she is a young girl and that I am a grown man unknown to her, she will surely retreat farther into the pipe as I advance, rather than attempt to bowl me off my feet and escape—unless she is feral or dangerously psychotic, or both.
Years of violent encounters and supernatural experiences have ripened the fruits on the tree of my imagination past the point of wholesomeness. A few steps farther into the pipe, I am halted by a mental image of a blond girl: eyes glittering feverishly, lips peeled in a snarl, perfect matched-pearl teeth, between several of which are stuck shreds of bloody meat, the flesh of something she has eaten raw. She’s got a huge two-tined fork in one hand and a wicked carving knife in the other, eager to slice my abdomen as if it were a turkey.
This is not a psychic vision, merely a boogeygirl sparked into existence by the rubbing together of my frayed nerves. As ridiculous as this fear might be, it nevertheless reminds me that I would be foolish, pistol or not, to proceed farther in such absolute darkness.
“I’m sorry if I’ve frightened you.”
She abides in silence.
Reason having dismissed my imagined psychopathic child, I speak to the real one. “I know something is very wrong in Harmony Corner.”
The revelation of my knowledge fails to charm the girl into conversation.
“I’ve come to help.”
The claim of noble intent I’ve just made embarrasses me, because it seems boastful, as if I believe that the people of Harmony Corner have been waiting for none but me and, now that I am here, can rest assured that I will set right all wrongs and bring justice to the unjust.