“I never read any of that.”
Instead of rushing past the windows, the smoke is for a moment caught in a vortex of hot air and swirls around the Grand Cherokee. I feel as if the vehicle is being levitated and spun, as it might be in a tornado, and I close my eyes.
“Ed, was it you who opened that sealed drain, so I didn’t have to go back by way of the beach?”
“You are welcome, Odd Thomas.”
“When you led me that way, did you know I’d hijack a truck?”
“I was not surprised when you did.”
“But I didn’t know I was going to do it until I climbed out of that manhole and found myself outside Harmony Corner. I made it up as I went along. So how did you know?”
“A consideration of all possibilities and an analysis of the viability of each suggested that hijacking a truck and doing what you did with it was the option most likely to help you achieve your goal. My observation of you, in your discussions with Jolie Ann Harmony, suggested to me that, in spite of your self-deprecating manner, you usually make the correct decisions in such matters.”
Jolie interprets: “I think what Ed means is you kick butt.”
Ed has a question: “Now tell me, Odd Thomas, did you take Purvis Eugene Beamer’s smartphone?”
“What? I don’t know any Purvis Beamer.”
“You are driving the vehicle that he reported stolen.”
“Oh. Bermuda Guy. No, I didn’t take his smartphone.”
“Two GPS-reporting signals related to Purvis Eugene Beamer are being emitted from the same map coordinates.”
When I open my eyes, the smoke is no longer swirling around the Jeep, merely surging past as before.
“Yeah. I see it now. His phone’s in one of the cup holders.”
“Take it and put it in a pocket. Then we will be able to remain in contact even when you have gravely damaged that vehicle.”
“How do you know I’m going to gravely damage it?”
“I have deduced your intentions, Odd Thomas.”
Jolie says, “He’s like super-smart, Oddie. In a kind of way, he was homeschooled like me, in a lab instead of a home, by scientists instead of by his mom, since he doesn’t have a real mom. But he’s humongously smarter, not because he studies harder than I do, but because he can absorb entire ginormous libraries in minutes, and because he’s never bored with anything like I am. It’s kind of sad he doesn’t have a mom and all. Don’t you think it’s sad? It’s not so sad you want to lie around all day sobbing through a thousand Kleenex, but sad enough.”
Ed will be my Natty Bumppo, the unlikely name of the scout in The Last of the Mohicans, who was also known as Hawkeye. From his electronic aerie, he will show me the way through the blinding drifts of smoke.
The Jeep Grand Cherokee with the COOL DUDE license plate is equipped not just with OnStar’s real-time voice communication, but also with GPS navigation. GPS maps include all streets, county roads, state routes, and federal highways, but if you decide to go off-road, you’re on your own; the graphics on the monitor won’t be able to warn you about treacherous features of the open land, and the recorded, guiding voice of that businesslike yet somewhat sultry lady who provides direction will fall silent in disapproval.
Fortunately, Ed enjoys instant access to the latest digitized surveys of the planet conducted by satellite, and therefore he knows the most minute details of the terrain in Harmony Corner, as well as in just about anywhere else you can name. He is able precisely to locate the Jeep Grand Cherokee by the identifying signal that its transponder continuously broadcasts. His voice has not a scintilla of sultriness, but I am calmed and made confident by his assurances that he can assist me in achieving my goal, which the density of the smoke has seemed to put beyond my reach.
“In the first phase of the approach,” Ed says, “drive slowly. Will you drive slowly, Odd Thomas?”
“Yes. Yes, I will, Ed.”
“You must listen closely to my instructions and follow them to the letter.”
“Of course. Yes.”
“If I were to tell you to turn the steering wheel a quarter of a revolution to the left and you turned it forty percent—”
“I would never do that.”
“—you might drive directly into a sinkhole that we are trying to avoid. Another thing, Odd Thomas—do not interrupt me.”
“I won’t, Ed.”
“You just did.”
“I won’t do it again.”
“I am not a harsh taskmaster and certainly not a tyrant.”
“I didn’t think you were, Ed.”
Jolie says, “He really doesn’t want to rule the world.”
“However,” Ed says, “if this is going to work, I must give you precise instructions, and you must follow them precisely.”
“In my experience,” Ed says, “human beings frequently say that they understand, when in fact they do not understand at all.”
“But I do understand. You’ll just have to trust me, Ed.”
“I suppose I must. However, if through no fault of mine, you drive over a cliff to your death, I will be sad.”
“If I do, I won’t blame you, Ed.”
“That will be insufficient consolation.”
The girl says, “You won’t drive over a cliff—will you, Oddie?”
“No, Jolie, I won’t. Though I might bash my head on the steering wheel until my brains come out my ears, if we don’t get started now.”
Ed is baffled. “Why would you bash your head on the steering wheel, Odd Thomas?”
“It’s just an expression of frustration, Ed. I didn’t mean it.”
“If you would bash your brains out, there is no point in our going forward with this plan.”
“I would never do such a thing, Ed. I swear.”
“I do not detect any vocal patterns of deceit.”
“Because I’m telling the truth, Ed. May we begin?”
“Drive directly forward at five miles an hour.”
Following the foregoing reminder that life often is as shot through with absurdity as it is with terror and joy, phase one of the approach to Hiskott begins.
For all that I can see, the whole world might be smouldering, its entire substance being steadily converted to gasses and soot. Maybe the smoke is less white and more gray than before, or maybe the layer of crud gathered over the Corner is so thick now that, short of going nova, the sun can’t penetrate it.
In spite of the smell of burning grass, the fumes that sting my eyes, and the hot irritation in my throat, the realm through which I travel seems to be a steadily darkening sea full of stirred silt and clouds of minute plankton. As I follow Ed’s directions down the hills, I feel as though I am descending into an oceanic abyss where eventually I will find myself in perfect blackness eons old, where eyeless and pressure-deformed creatures eke out a desperate living in a dark cold desolation.
I suspect that this feeling of sinking ever deeper has less to do with the formless, surging masses beyond the windows of the Jeep than with the fact that I am drawing nearer to the thing that once was Norris Hiskott. It’s now a unique entity of singular malevolence, and the pressure that I sense isn’t pressure at all, but instead the black-hole gravity of its evil.
Although every vent in the vehicle is tightly shut, the air seems to be increasingly polluted, and a variety of claustrophobia overcomes me, a sense of being trapped in a place where I will slowly suffocate. I sneeze once, twice, a third time.
“Thank you, Ed.”
Shortly after that exchange, he tells me to brake to a stop and informs me that I have arrived at the brink of the slope that leads down to the backyard of the residence in which Hiskott has spent the past five years becoming … whatever he has become. Although the murk surrounding the Jeep seems fractionally less oppressive than before, I can see nothing of the house.
Ed agrees that my original strategy and tactics are the most likely to succeed. Because he’s able to consult Google Earth for a look-down on the building, he can refine my approach enough to substantially increase my chances of success.
At his suggestion, I release my safety harness long enough to pick up the pistol and the revolver from the passenger seat. I tuck them under my belt, the pistol against my abdomen, the revolver in the small of my back. I buckle up once more and lean forward, both hands on the wheel.
Monitoring the GPS transponders on various county fire-control-agency vehicles, Ed suggests that I wait another forty seconds until those trucks are about to enter Harmony Corner. Their sirens will add to the cacophony and further mask the noise I will be making. He says that sheriff’s deputies are close behind.
Generally speaking, these harrowing moments in my unusual life, when I am compelled to reckless action and violence, do not thrill me, do not have any quality of positive excitement or exhilaration. They are characterized by fear that must not be allowed to ripen into incapacitating terror, by abhorrence, by consternation that is mostly an expectation of the confusion that usually arises in the thick of action, the battleground confusion that can be the death of me.
This, however, is one of those rare occasions in which I’m also exhilarated. I feel so right about the commitment of life and limb that I anticipate the pending encounter with exuberance. I might not be capable of the offhand amusement and ready quips of James Bond, but I do feel that taking it to the bad guys can be at times a lively and beguiling sport.
Over the years, I have noticed that these special moments are always in situations where I’m not struggling alone against some mortal threat, when I have the support of people whom I like and trust. Loyal companions are an unequaled grace, staunching fear before it bleeds you numb, a reliable antidote for creeping despair. This is true even when my team is comprised of a twelve-year-old girl a mile or more removed from the action and an artificial intelligence who has no body that might be shot or bludgeoned, or torn, as I might be shot, bludgeoned, and torn.
But, hey, I prefer our tomboy Jolie to Batman’s Robin in those embarrassing girly tights of his, and our Ed goes a long way toward rehabilitating the image of artificial intelligences that HAL 9000 ruined more than four decades earlier.
“Fire trucks arriving,” Ed alerts me. “Sirens loud, cover good, time to go.”
En route, he’s told me what I must do. Hold the wheel straight, drift neither left nor right. Don’t deviate from a direct downhill course to the house. The land is hard-packed from much sun and little rain, and supposedly it has no significant irregularities that might jolt me off course. Even Ed, with all his resources for data and his powers of computation, can’t calculate the precise speed at which I should arrive at my destination, although he advises that anything under forty miles per hour might be inadequate and anything over sixty is likely to leave me incapacitated.
When he says go, I accelerate rapidly into the blinding miasma, which races across the windshield like clouds might rush across the cockpit windows of an aircraft. Ed says the slope is long, giving me all the territory I require to build speed. The tall, dry grass, not yet on fire here, rustles under the Cherokee and swishes against its flanks, so that it sounds as if I’m racing through a shallow stream. Tires stutter on summer-baked earth that rain has not yet softened, but they have good traction. Although vibrations travel through the frame into the steering wheel, I have no trouble maintaining control.
Suddenly the false dusk relents, sunlight swells through the diminishing billows of soot and ash, and as I achieve fifty miles per hour, I am no longer blind. Here, nearer the shore, the stiff breeze angling in from the northwest pushes the smoke farther inland, leaving this most remote corner of the Corner draped only in a blue haze.
As Ed ascertained by reviewing aerial shots of the property on Google Earth, the target house, which has a large front porch, offers no porch here in back, only a patio with a trellis cover on which nothing grows. A single door most likely opens to the kitchen, and a pair of large French sliding doors probably serve the family room, which in the absence of a family is now used for God knows what purpose by the half-human Hiskott. The outdoor furniture and potted plants that might once have made a pleasant space of the patio have long previously been taken away, and nothing stands between me and those French sliders.
Because my existence is greatly complicated by my paranormal abilities, I strive always to keep the rest of my life simple, which is why I work as a fry cook, when I work at all, and which is why, when rarely I daydream of a career change, I consider only a job in shoe sales or maybe tire sales, which seems undemanding. I have few material possessions, no retirement account, and I do not own—and never have owned—a car. What I am about to do to Purvis Beamer’s Jeep Grand Cherokee is confirmation enough that, even if I had the money to purchase a nice car, I would be unwise to do so, because with a vehicle of my own to sacrifice in an emergency like this, I would never steal that of another.
I’m safely harnessed. I trust—as I must—the impact-reduction technology in contemporary vehicles, which involves the absorption of energy through the tactical and engineered collapse of certain parts of their structure. Nevertheless, approaching the patio, I slide down in the driver’s seat as far as the harness will allow, to minimize the chance that I will be decapitated by something that might slam through the windshield. As the tires find the patio, I let go of the steering wheel and cover my face with my hands, as a child might do at the brink of the first big drop in a roller-coaster track.
An instant before impact, I move my right foot from accelerator to brake pedal. The crash must be loud, but it doesn’t seem so to me, because the air bag deploys, briefly enveloping me as though it is a gigantic prophylactic, muffling the sound of the collision. At the moment when the bag warmly embraces me, I jam my foot down on the brake, the wood of the French sliders cracks like a quick volley of rifle shots, tortured metal shrieks, and the windshield shatters. Fishtailing into the room, the Grand Cherokee batters through what I imagine to be sofas and chairs and other furniture, although I am not foolish enough even to hope that the Hiskott thing has just been killed while napping in a La-Z-Boy.
As the air bag deflates and as the Grand Cherokee comes to a stop, I switch off the engine. If the fuel tank has been ruptured, I want to avoid igniting a blaze that might draw the attention of the county firefighters away from the grass fire farther north in Harmony Corner.