I suppose those tourists might have been portraits of gaiety, rejoicing, sweet contentment, and happiness in all its shades. But where I saw those expressions, they seemed to be masks, and often I saw faces shaped by disquiet, misgiving, trepidation, confusion, and doubt, with body language that translated as anxiety and impatience. Perhaps it was my mood, the head collection and other atrocities still so fresh in my mind, but these people seemed like refugees from places that had gone drab and lusterless for reasons that they could not fully understand. They had come here to find the fun that had been lost elsewhere, fun and brightness and freedom and hope, but they were beginning to suspect, still on some unconscious level, that this hundred-billion-dollar biggest carnival in the history of the world was not an oasis, after all, but just another version of the desert from which they’d fled.
At that moment, there wasn’t a party anywhere in the world that I couldn’t have brought down in five minutes flat.
Mrs. Fischer drove off the famous Strip, zigzagged from one long, flat street to another, found some hills, and at last pulled into the driveway of a substantial but welcoming house with warm light aglow in all its windows. A friendly couple in their fifties at once came out of the residence to welcome us and to assist with the children, all of whom were escorted inside. No names were offered, and I was not asked for mine, but they greeted me as if we had long known one another—as was true of everyone I would later encounter here.
I sensed by the way that Boo remained faithfully at Verena’s side, he might not be my ghost dog anymore, but might have attached himself to a new companion.
This expansive residence, on two levels, was a place where books were honored, as almost every room contained shelves of them. These people had built a shrine to family and to friendship, with clusters of framed photographs of loved ones on tables and mantels and in wall arrangements. Every space seemed to be designed for celebration, with numerous carefully considered groupings of furniture, cozy nooks, and window seats to accommodate easy conversation. Although the place was clean and neat and tastefully appointed, you felt that you could put your feet up on anything, as you might in your own home.
I can describe what happened in that house over the next few hours, but I cannot explain it. No experience of my life has been so radiant, other than my time with Stormy in our years together, and yet so mysterious.
We were brought into the living room, where three dogs awaited us: a golden retriever, a Bernese mountain dog, and a Bouvier des Flandres, all of which at once began to circulate, like huge stuffed toys come to life, among the children.
On the kitchen island, on the dining-room table, on a side table in the living room were trays of cookies and little cakes, and the children were offered drinks, though most of them at first declined. They were still stressed, if not in some degree of shock. At least four of these knew that their parents had been killed. And the limousine ride here, to an unknown destination, had provided no decompression.
After perhaps ten minutes, nine children joined our group, not all of them the sons and daughters of our hosts, because the nine seemed to range in age from seven to ten. I will not say that they were all beautiful by the standards of our culture, which is obsessed with models and airbrushed celebrities, but they were beautiful to me, fresh-faced and glowing with good health.
The nine were the most socially adept group of kids that I had ever seen. They were neither hesitant nor forward, and certainly not territorial as most kids are, but spread out at once among our seventeen rescuees, welcoming them, asking about them, touching them affectionately in that unself-conscious way that childhood friends of some duration can be with one another.
At first the seventeen were awkward, uncertain, confused, but sooner than I would have thought possible, they were drawn out of their shells. The twenty-six of them separated into groups of three and four, always with at least one of these new children included, and they wandered off to corners all over the house.
I approached Mrs. Fischer and said, “What’s all this? What’s happening here?”
“What needs to happen, dear. Just watch. You’ll see.”
“Who are these other children?”
“Watch and see,” she repeated, and pinched my cheek.
I wandered the house, upstairs and down and up again, in a state of wonder as events progressed. Soon our traumatized seventeen were engaged in conversations with the nine and with each other, and now and then I saw tears and trembling and despair that somehow didn’t last. I stood listening to many of these conversations, and they all made sense to me and seemed in fact beautiful at the time, but as soon as I walked away from any one of them, I couldn’t quite recall what had been said.
The three dogs circulated ceaselessly. Often I came upon one of our seventeen clinging almost desperately to the golden retriever or the Bernese or the Bouvier. Later, their anxious looks and pained expressions had given way to smiles, some tentative but nonetheless smiles.
Cookies appeared in small hands, and mugs of hot chocolate or cold milk, glasses of Coca-Cola. Conversations became more animated, sometimes almost intense, and though I eavesdropped everywhere, and understood, I at once seemed to forget, as if the things they said were truths and consolations that only a child’s mind could retain.
For most of those three hours, I felt as if I were in a dream, though every minute of it was as real as any experience of my life. I ate cookies, traveled continuously through the house, and felt at peace as I had not felt in a long time. I knew that whatever might be happening to our seventeen—guidance or therapy, or something utterly different from either—it was a thing of great goodness.
The most dreamlike moment came at the start of the third hour, when five new adults appeared, though the doorbell had not rung. I wondered at once if they were parents of the nine, not because they particularly resembled those children, but because they shared that glow of health and quiet beauty that so distinguished the youngsters, and they were in their late twenties or thirties, the right age to be the parents. No names were offered, none were asked, and the five newcomers spread out through the house, each sitting down to converse with a group of children.
I remembered no more of these new conversations than I did of the previous ones, but I often found myself smiling. None of these five adults made an effort to speak to me. They changed groups from time to time, as if all of them wanted to be sure to speak with all of our seventeen, and when I passed one of them in a room or hallway, I felt the urge to introduce myself, to ask about them. But though I am not by nature shy, I found myself reluctant to intrude. Strangest of all, when I made eye contact with one of them, I looked away, and felt that I shouldn’t ask them to see what my eyes had seen, whatever that might mean.
Later in the evening, I noticed that the hieroglyphics had been removed from the brows of the seventeen. I hadn’t seen it being done.
As I made that realization, Verena Stanhope came to me to say that the questions she’d had for me had been answered. She thanked me, and I thanked her for being so brave when it counted the most. She took my hand, and on contact I smiled at what I saw of her in the years to come. “You’ll have a beautiful life,” I told her.
Still later, I found myself sitting on a sofa, my wallet open in my hands to the card from Gypsy Mummy. I didn’t know how long I had been sitting there, but when I raised my head, the mysterious five adults and nine children seemed to have gone. Our hosts and Mrs. Fischer were ushering the children from the living room to the foyer.
I asked, “What’s happening?”
Mrs. Fischer said, “They’re taking the children home.”
“Each to his or her own home—except for the four who lost their parents. Those will be taken to their grandparents.”
The husband of our hostess opened the door, and his wife led the three Payton kids down the front walk to a car parked at the curb.
I stepped onto the front porch to watch a young couple, whose car it must have been, as they greeted Jessie, Jasmine, and Jordan, and got them aboard.
As Mrs. Fischer joined me on the porch, I said, “You mean they will be driven back to Barstow.”
“Yes, dear. They’ll be let off at their front walk and watched until their parents open the door to them.”
“Do the parents know they’re coming?”
“They’ll all go home by surprise. Let off at the street but watched until they’re safe, so no one will know who delivered them.”
The couple with the car were not among the five adults whose eyes I had been unable to meet for longer than two seconds. I asked who they were.
“Good people,” Mrs. Fischer said.
That car pulled away, and a moment later another arrived. Our hostess had by then returned to escort a little boy to his ride.
Soon all seventeen were gone, Verena Stanhope in the company of Boo. The ghost dog gave my hand one last lick before departing. Now there were only Mrs. Fischer and the couple whose house this was, and the three dogs, who seemed remarkably bright-eyed considering all the petting they had received and all the comfort they had given.
Our host and hostess wanted to hug Mrs. Fischer, and then they wanted to hug me, and I found I wanted to hug them, though if I had known their names, I had forgotten them.
As we drove away in the limousine, I asked, “What about the police?”
“Tomorrow,” Mrs. Fischer said, “the authorities in the various jurisdictions will receive phone calls regarding the location of the property where that foul group of people held their sick games. What they find there will no doubt astonish them.”
“What will the children say?”
“That they were driven somewhere and then held in a room for a while, after which some nice people came and untied them and took them home.”
“Your limousine is very identifiable, ma’am. And my face was once in the newspapers a lot.”
“The children won’t remember you or me, Oddie. They won’t recall things that might have been said to them by their disgusting captors or what terrible things they were afraid might happen to them. They have been given the gift of forgetfulness.”
“Was it in the cookies, the hot chocolate?”
“Good heavens, dear, nothing as crude as drugs. And before you say hypnosis, not that either.”
“Then what, how?”
She flashed that irresistible dimpled smile, patted my shoulder, and said, “You know what happened back there, sweetie.”
“But I don’t. I’m mystified. Who were those nine children and then those five older people?”
“Sleep on it, Oddie. Then you’ll wake up knowing.”
“What if I don’t wake up knowing?”
“Then ask your Mr. Hitchcock if he knows them.”
I brooded on that awhile. Then I said, “With all your resources, why didn’t you put together a rescue for those children?”
“For heaven’s sake, sweetie, you are part of my resources.”
As she took the westbound entrance ramp to the I-15, I said, “Where are we going now, ma’am?”
“I’m taking you home.”
“That’s a long drive, ma’am. We’re both too tired for it.”
“Oh, I never sleep anymore. I don’t have time for sleeping, too much to do.”
“Well, I’m wiped out.”
“You sleep, my dear chauffeur. I’ll wake you when we get there.”
I closed my eyes, almost drifted off, then opened them and said, “Problem, ma’am. You picked me up along the highway. You don’t know where I live.”
“I’ll figure it out, child. Don’t you worry yourself.”
Vegas rapidly fell away behind us, and the Mojave night lay vast and starry.
“The people who owned the house where we took the kids,” I said.
“I thought you were asleep.”
“Did they just happen to be near enough that you drove there? Or if this had happened in Oklahoma or New Hampshire, or Georgia, would there be other people like them, in other houses that feel so … good as that one felt?”
“Some places I might have had to drive farther, but people like them are out there, sweetie. They’re out there everywhere.”
Later, driving with one hand, Mrs. Fischer shook me half awake, worried because I had been crying in my sleep.
“It’s all right, ma’am,” I assured her. “I was crying because it was so wonderful.”
And because it was so wonderful, I slipped back down into that dream of dogs and children and beautiful people who met my eyes and knew me in full, knew me and did not reject me.
HALF AN HOUR AFTER DAWN, I WOKE AND FOUND THAT we were cruising the street on which I lived, for the time being, with Annamaria and Tim, the boy we had rescued from the creepy estate named Roseland, in Montecito. Mrs. Fischer parked at the curb in front of the picturesque cottage with the roof draped in yellow bougainvillea.
I sat up straighter in my seat, stretched and yawned.
As she switched off the engine, Mrs. Fischer said, “How do you feel, Oddie?”
“Starved. I need a big pile of breakfast.”
“First you need a shower, dear, so the rest of us will have the stomach to take breakfast at the same table with you.”
“Sorry, ma’am. Excess sweating is one of the negatives about being a man of action.”
We got out of the Mercedes, and looked up at the power lines from which the fitful wind raised an eerie but not unpleasant sound.
I escorted Mrs. Fischer away from the front door and along the brick walkway at the side of the cottage. I wanted to see the ocean and then enter the house by way of the back porch.
As we stood on the beach, the sky far to the east might have been by Tiffany, lemon light as clear as colored lamp glass, but most of the heavens were lost to an overcast. Steel-wool clouds scoured northward. With no western sky to lend it color, the sea churned deep gray. Wind swept the whitecaps off the waves and, by contrast with that sparkling foam, gray water became black.
“ ‘When the wind blows the water white and black,’ ” I quoted.
As Mrs. Fischer surveyed the vast Pacific, the singing of the power lines sounded like the serenade of mermaids, not the sirens whose songs lured sailors to their death on rocks, but the voices of mermaids who loved the sea and loved the land and yearned for one when they had only the other.
Under my sweater, the tiny silver bell that I wore around my neck rang softly, though I stood quite still.
Annamaria must have seen us arrive. She appeared beside Mrs. Fischer, and each of them at once put an arm around the other’s waist. The three of us enjoyed the wind for a while, the sound and motion of the water, the timeless face of the enduring sea.