“That’s kind of you to say. But the problem is, I have this thing I’ve got to do.”
“Somewhere south of here, you don’t know where, but you’ll know the place when you get there.”
“That’s right, ma’am.”
Her blue eyes were neither clouded nor sorrowed by age, but were alert, quick, and clear. “This thing you’ve got to do—have you any idea what it is?”
“More or less,” I said. “But I’d rather not talk about it.”
“Okay, then,” she said, putting the limo in park and applying the emergency brake, but leaving the engine running, “you be my chauffeur and just drive us where you need to go.”
“You can’t mean that, ma’am. What kind of chauffeur would that be?”
“The kind I can live with. A lot of the time, I don’t much care where I go, just so I go somewhere.”
She got out of the limousine and came around to the passenger side. She was wearing a yellow pantsuit with a white blouse that featured frilly lace-trimmed collar and cuffs, and a gold brooch with little diamonds and rubies arranged to form a glittering exclamation point.
When she looked up at me, I felt extraordinarily tall, like Alice after consuming a piece of cake labeled EAT ME.
“As my chauffeur,” she said, “you need to open the door for me.”
“I can’t be your chauffeur, ma’am.”
“I’ll ride up front with you to get to know you better.”
“I’m sorry, but I really can’t be your—”
“I’m Edie Fischer. I don’t hold with formalities, so you can just call me Edie.”
“Thank you, ma’am. But—”
“I was named after St. Eadgyth. She was a virgin and martyr. I can’t claim to be a virgin, but the way the world is sliding into darkness, I might yet be a martyr, even though I don’t aspire to it. What’s your name, child—or are you as unsure of that as you are of where you’re going?”
I have in the past used aliases. Using one now made sense, if only to avoid having to explain the origin of my first name for the ten thousandth time. Instead, I said, “My name’s Odd Thomas.”
“Of course, it is,” Mrs. Fischer said. “And if you need to be paid in cash, I am entirely comfortable with that arrangement. Please open the door for me, Oddie.”
Oddie and Edie. I had seen and enjoyed Driving Miss Daisy, but I was neither as reliable nor as noble as Morgan Freeman’s character, Hoke. “Ma’am—”
“Call me Edie.”
“Yes, ma’am. The problem is, I’m looking for a dangerous man, this trucker who dresses like a rhinestone cowboy, and maybe he’s looking for me.”
Without hesitation, she zippered open her large purse to show me the pistol nestled among all the lady things. “I can take care of myself, Oddie. Don’t you worry about me.”
“But, ma’am, in all good conscience—”
“Now that you’ve gotten me intrigued,” she said, “there’s no way you’re going to shake loose of me. Child, I need a little danger to keep the blood creeping through my veins. Last time I had some major fun was Elko, Nevada, four months ago, when Oscar and I outfoxed those government fools and helped that poor creature get home again.”
“Poor creature?” I asked.
“Never you mind.” She zippered shut her purse. “Let’s find your rhinestone cowboy if that’s what you want.”
I opened the door. She got into the limousine.
THE MERCEDES LIMO HAD A TWELVE-CYLINDER ENGINE and two fuel tanks, providing both speed and range.
Not a single cloud sailed the sea of sky above, and the coastal land rolled in gentle waves.
Riding shotgun with panache, voluminous black purse on her lap, Mrs. Fischer pointed to the radar detector that was fixed to the dashboard and then to something that she called a laser foiler, which she assured me meant that, regarding velocity, we were at little risk of being caught when we broke the law. I had never heard of a laser foiler; but she claimed that it was reliable, “as cutting-edge as any technology on the planet.”
She said her previous chauffeur, Oscar, had driven her across the United States, Maine to Texas, Washington State to Florida, again and again, often with the speedometer needle past the one-hundred mark, and they had never gotten a single speeding ticket. They had explored a hundred cities and a thousand small towns, mountains high and lush, deserts low and arid, anywhere a superstretch limousine could be piloted.
The current car was an impressive machine. So little vibration translated from the pavement into the frame that we seemed to be floating swiftly southward, as if the highway were a racing river.
“Oscar was a good employee and a perfect friend,” Mrs. Fischer said. “And he was as restless as I am, wanted always to be going somewhere. I knew him better than I ever knew either of my brothers. I would like to know you as well as I knew him, Odd Thomas. Even if I just live to be as old as Oscar, you and I will travel many thousands of miles together, and the journey will be so much more fun if we’re friends and understand each other. So … are you gay?”
“Gay? No. Why would you think I’m gay?”
“You’re chasing after this rhinestone cowboy. That’s all right with me, child. I have nothing against gays. I’ve always liked men a lot, so I understand why you would.”
“I don’t like men. I mean, I like them, I’m not a man-hater, but I don’t love them. Except, you know, in the sense that we should all love our fellow man. But that means man and woman. In general. You know, like the whole human species.”
She favored me with a grandmotherly smile, nodded knowingly, and said, “So you’re bisexual.”
“What? Good heavens, no. I’m not bisexual. Who would have the time or energy for that? I’m just saying, I’m fine with loving all mankind in theory, which is different from dating them.”
She winked and said, “So you mean, you’re g*y in theory but not in practice.”
“No. I’m not g*y in theory or practice.”
“Maybe you’re in denial.”
“No, not at all. I love a girl. My girl, Stormy Llewellyn—she’s the only one for me and always will be. We’re destined to be together forever.”
My contention is that I’m not a total conversational idiot, although the foregoing exchanges might indicate otherwise. Engaged once more in psychic magnetism, concerned that I might again draw the cowboy to me instead of being drawn to him, getting accustomed to handling the massive limo, I was distracted.
Mrs. Fischer said, “ ‘Destined to be together forever.’ That’s sweet. You’re a sweet child.”
“We once got a card from a carnival fortune-telling machine, and that’s what it said.”
As the speedometer needle crept past ninety, the highway might have been a runway. I felt as if we were on the brink of being airborne.
Mrs. Fischer said, “I hope you’re not one of these moderns who thinks marriage isn’t necessary. You’re going to marry the girl, aren’t you?”
“Yes, ma’am. It’s all I want.”
“You wouldn’t be saying that just to please an old woman and keep your new job, would you?”
“No, ma’am. I haven’t accepted the job. I’m not your chauffeur.”
“Call me Edie.”
“Seems that you’re driving my car, like you are a chauffeur. Of course, maybe I’m senile and imagining all this. When are you going to marry this Stormy?”
“I don’t know an exact date, ma’am. I have to die first. Wait. I’ll need to explain that. Stormy … well, she died, and we can’t ever be together in this world now, only in the next.”
“This is true? Yes, I see it is. You believe in an afterlife?”
“Yes, ma’am. Stormy believed in two afterlives. She said this world was boot camp, to test and toughen us, to prepare us for the next life of service in some great adventure. Our third and eternal life comes after that.”
“What a unique concept.”
“Not so much. You’ve heard of Purgatory, like Catholics believe. Well, maybe the next life is Purgatory—except with lots of running, jumping, chasing, and fighting with demons or something.”
“That makes sense,” she said.
Surprised by her quick acceptance, I said, “It does?”
“In eighty-six years, child, I’ve learned the world is a far more mysterious place than most people realize and that every moment of life is woven through with meaning. In fact, I learned that much by the time I was twenty-six, one oven-hot night in the little town of Lonely Possum.”
“Lonely Possum? I never heard of it.”
“Lonely Possum, Arizona. Not many people have heard of it. But one day, maybe soon, everyone in the world will know its name.”
The thought of Lonely Possum becoming world famous seemed to please her, because she smiled widely, dimpling both cheeks, and let out a sigh akin to those that diner patrons once made when they finished a plate of my roast-beef hash.
I said, “What happened sixty years ago, that oven-hot night in Lonely Possum?”
She winked. “Never you mind.”
“Why will everyone in the world know the name one day?”
“When you’ve been my chauffeur for a month or two, when we know each other better, I’ll share that with you.”
“I’m not your chauffeur, ma’am.”
“Call me Edie.”
Southbound, we topped a rise and started down a long easy hill, and in one of the northbound lanes, a California Highway Patrol car passed us. Too late, I let up on the accelerator. The officer braked, switched on his rooftop beacons, drove across the median strip, and soon fell in behind us.
Mrs. Fischer said, “He didn’t zap you with radar or anything. He doesn’t have a smidgen of proof. It’s just his word against yours.”
“But I was speeding.”
“Admit nothing, child.”
“I can’t lie to a policeman, ma’am. Well, not unless maybe he’s corrupt or a maniac or something. It’s okay to lie to evil.”
As I pulled to a stop along the side of the road, Mrs. Fischer said, “Then you better let me do all the talking.”
“I’m the driver. He’ll expect answers from me.”
“Not if you’re a deaf-mute.”
“That would be another lie. Besides, they might let a mute drive, but I’m not so sure about a deaf person.”
“So then you’re just mute. And you don’t have to lie. I’ll say you’re a mute, and then you just don’t say anything.”
Putting down the power window, watching the side mirror as the patrol car pulled in behind us, I said, “This is a bad idea.”
“Nobody’s going to the slammer, child. Unless you’re wanted by the law.”
“I’m wanted, but they don’t know my name and don’t have a photo, just a description.”
Her expression was one of dismay, but not because I was a wanted man. “Oddie, you are too truthful for your own good. I didn’t ask if you were wanted. There was no reason whatsoever to volunteer the information.”
“Sorry, ma’am. I thought you should know.”
Behind us, the driver’s door of the patrol car opened.
“Child, you said it was okay to lie to evil. Maybe I’m evil.”
“You’re not evil, ma’am.”
“Appearances can be deceiving. Maybe I’m the most evil person you’ve ever met. Maybe I’m demonic.”
“No, ma’am. I’ve met some way evil people. You’re a cream puff.”
In the side mirror, the man who got out of the patrol car looked like Hercules’ bigger brother, a guy who, at every breakfast, with his dozen eggs and pound of ham, drank a steaming mug of steroids.
Mrs. Fischer seemed miffed that I had called her a cream puff. “I’m about to lie to a policeman, child. Doesn’t that make me just a little bit evil?”
“It’s wrong,” I said, trying to soothe her hurt feelings, “it’s bad, no doubt about that, but it’s not evil.”
“You shush now,” she said, “and leave this to me.”
A moment later, the massive cop loomed at my window, blocking the morning sun as effectively as an eclipse. He bent down and looked into the car, mouth puckered in a frown and gray eyes squinted, as if the Mercedes were an aquarium and I were the strangest fish that he had ever seen.
He was a handsome bull, I’ll give him that, even though his head was as big as a butcher’s block. Those singular eyes were not the shade of ashes, not dull but bright, almost silver, steel that flensed away the skin of deception and saw the guilt beneath.
“Do you know how fast you were going?” he asked, which I’ve heard is what they always ask, giving you the option of telling the truth and convicting yourself or lying to a cop and thereby further incriminating yourself.
I forgot that I was a mute, but before I could speak, Mrs. Fischer said, “Andy Shephorn, is that you?”
His dissecting stare cut from me to her—and softened from blade steel to velveteen rabbit. “Edie Fischer, as I live and breathe.” His smile seemed to be too full of teeth, all as large and white as piano keys. “What is it—four years?—and you don’t look a day older.”
“Because I look a decade older. How many children do you and Penny have now? Last I recall, it was five.”
“Seven,” he said, “but we intend to stop at eight.”
“Worried about your family’s carbon footprint?” she asked, and they both laughed.
Although the cop was leaning in my window, his face inches from mine, I seemed to have become invisible to him.
To Mrs. Fischer, he said, “Since the boomers didn’t bother to have enough kids to pay their Social Security for them, someone’s got to do it.”
“I’d love to see your children again—and the two new ones.”
“Come around anytime for dinner.”
“I’ll do that when this current little adventure is over.”
“Where’s Oscar—sleeping in back?”
“Dear, I’m afraid Oscar passed away four days ago.”