There was that sensation of blink. and a chill morning breeze struck his face. Ralph opened his eyes and looked at the woman beside him. For just a moment he could see her aura wisping away behind her like the gauzy overskirt of a lady’s ball-gown and then it was just Lois, looking twenty years younger than she had the week before… and also looking extremely out of place, in her light fall coat and good visiting-the-sick dress, here on the tar-and-gravel hospital roof.
Ralph hugged her tighter as she began to shiver. Of Lachesis and Clotho there was no sign.
Although they could be standing right beside us, Ralph thought.
Probably are, as a matter of fact.
He suddenly thought of that old carny pitchman’s line again, the one about how you had to pay if you wanted to play, so step right up, gentlemen, and lay your money down. But more often than not you were played instead of playing.
Played for what? A sucker, of course. And why did he have that feeling now?
Because there were a lot of things you never found out, Carolyn said from inside his head. They led you down a lot of interesting sidetracks and kept you away from the main point until it was too late for you to ask the questions they might not have wanted to answer…
. and I don’t think something like that happens by accident, do you?
No. He didn’t.
That feeling of being pushed by invisible hands into some dark tunnel where anything might be waiting was stronger now. That sense of being manipulated. He felt small… and vulnerable… and pissed off.
“W-Well, we’re b-b-back,” Lois said through her briskly chattering teeth. “What time is it, do you think?”
It felt like about six o’clock, but when Ralph glanced down at his watch, he wasn’t surprised to see it had stopped. He couldn’t remember when he had last wound it. Tuesday morning, probably.
He followed Lois’s gaze to the southwest and saw the Civic Center standing like an island in the middle of a parking-lot ocean. With the early-morning sunlight kicking bright sheets of reflection from its curved banks of windows, it looked like an oversized version of the office building George jetson worked in. The vast deathbag which had surrounded it only moments before was gone.
Oh, no us not. Don’t kid yourself, buddy. You may not be able to see it right now, but it’s there, all right.
“Early,” he said, pulling her more tightly against him as the wind gusted, blowing his hair-hair that now had almost as much black in it as white-back from his forehead. “But it’s going to get late fast, I think.”
She took his meaning and nodded. “Where are L-Lachesis and C-C-”
“On a level where the wind doesn’t freeze your ass off, I imagine.
Come on. Let’s find a door and get the hell off this roof.”
She stayed where she was a moment longer, though, shivering and looking across town. “What has he done?” she asked in a small voice.
“If he hasn’t planted a bomb in there, what can he have done?”
“Maybe he has planted a bomb and the dogs with the educated noses just haven’t found it yet. Or maybe it’s something the dogs aren’t trained to find. A canister stuck up in the rafters, say-a little something nasty Ed whipped up in the bathtub. Chemistry is what he did for a living, after all… at least until he gave up his job to become a full-time psycho. He could be planning to gas them like rats.
“Oh Jesus, Ralph!” She put her hand to her chest just above the swell of her bosom and looked at him with wide, dismayed eyes.
“Come on, Lois. Let’s get off this damned roof.”
This time she came willingly enough. Ralph led her toward the roof door… which, he fervently hoped, they would find unlocked, “Two thousand people,” she almost moaned as they reached the door. Ralph was relieved when the knob turned under his hand, but Lois seized his wrist with chilly fingers before he could pull the door open. Her uptilted face was full of frantic hope. “Maybe those little men were lying, Ralph-maybe they’ve got their own axe to grind, something we couldn’t even hope to understand, and they were lying.”
“I don’t think they can lie,” he said slowly. “That’s the hell of it, Lois-I don’t think they can. And then there’s that.” He pointed at the Civic Center, at the dirty membrane they couldn’t see but which both knew was still there. Lois would not turn to look at it. She put her cold hand over his instead, pulled the roof door open, and started down the stairs, Ralph opened the door at the foot of the stairs, peeped into the sixth-floor corridor, saw that it was empty, and drew Lois out of the stairwell. They headed for the elevators, then stopped together outside an open door with DOCTORS’ LOUNGE printed on the wall beside it in bright red letters. Inside was the room they had seen on their way up to the roof with Clotho and Lachesis-Winslow Homer prints hanging crooked on the walls, a Silex standing on a hotplate, hideous Swedish Modern furniture. No one was in the room right now, but the TV bolted to the wall was playing nevertheless, and their old friend Lisette Benson was reading the morning news. Ralph remembered the day he and Lois and Bill had sat in Lois’s living room, eating macaroni and cheese as they watched Lisette Benson report on the doll-throwing incident at WomanCare. Less than a month ago that had been. He suddenly remembered that Bill McGovern would never watch Lisette Benson again, or forget to lock the front door, and a sense of loss as fierce as a November gale swept through him. He could not completely believe it, at least not yet. How could Bill have died so quickly and so unceremoniously?
He would have hated it, Ralph thought, and not just because he would have considered dying of a heart-attack in a hospital corridor in bad taste. He would’ve considered it bad theater, as well.
But he had seen it happen, and Lois had actually felt it eating away at Bill’s insides. That made Ralph think of the deathbag surrounding the
Civic Center, and what was going to happen there if they didn’t stop the speech. He started toward the elevator again, but Lois pulled him back. She was looking at the TV, fascinated. -will feel a lot of relief when tonight’s speech by feminist abortion-rights advocate Susan Day is history,” Lisette Benson was saying, “but the police aren’t the only ones who will feel that way.
Apparently both pro-life and pro-choice advocates are beginning to feel the strain of living on the edge of confrontation, John Kirkland is live at the Derry Civic Center this morning, and he has more.
The pallid, unsmiling man standing next to Kirkland was Dan Dalton. The button on his shirt showed a scalpel descending toward an infant with its knees drawn up in the fetal position. This was In a cross surrounded by a red circle with a diagonal red line slashed it.
Ralph could see half a dozen police cars and two news trucks, one with the NBC logo on its side, in the background of the shot.
A uniformed cop strolled across the lawn leading two dogs-a bloodhound and a German shepherd-on leashes.
“That’s right, Lisette, I’m here at the Civic Center, where the mood could be termed one of worry and quiet determination. With me is Dan Dalton, President of The Friends of Life organization, which has been so vehemently opposed to His. Day’s speech. Mr. Dalton, would you agree with that assessment of the situation?”
“That there’s a lot of worry and determination in the air?”
Dalton asked. To Ralph his smile looked both nervous and disdainful.
“Yes, I suppose you could put it that way. We’re worried that Susan Day, one of this country’s greatest unindicted criminals, will succeed in her efforts to confuse the central issue here in Derry: the murder of twelve to fourteen helpless unborn children each and every day.”
“But Mr. Dalton-”
“And”-Dalton overrode him-“we are determined to show a watching nation that we are not willing to be good Nazis, that we are not all cowed by the religion of political correctness-the dreaded pee-cee.”
“We are also determined to show a watching nation that some of us are still capable of standing up for our beliefs, and to fulfill the sacred responsibility which a loving God has-”
“Mr. Dalton, are The Friends of Life planning any sort of violent protest here?”
That shut him up for a moment and at least temporarily drained all the canned vitality from his face. With it gone, Ralph saw a dismaying thing: underneath his bluster, Dalton was scared to death.
“Violence?” he said at last. He brought the word out carefully, like something that could give his mouth a bad cut if mishandled.
“Good Lord, no. The Friends of Life reject the idea that two wrongs can ever make a right. We intend to mount a massive demonstration-we are being joined in this fight by pro-life advocates from Augusta, Portland, Portsmouth, and even Boston-but there will be no violence.”
“What about Ed Deepneau? Can you speak for him?”
Dalton’s lips, already thinned down to little more than a seam, now seemed to disappear altogether. “Mr. Deepneau is no longer associated with The Friends of Life,” he said. Ralph thought he detected both fear and anger in Dalton’s tone. “Neither are Frank Felton, Sandra McKay, and Charles Pickering, in case you intended to ask.”
John Kirkland’s glance at the camera was brief but telling. It said that he thought Dan Dalton was as nutty as a bag of trail-mix.
“Are you saying that Ed Deepneau and these other individualsI’m sorry, I don’t know who they are-have formed their own anti-abortion group? A kind of offshoot?”
“We are not anti-abortion, we are pro-life” Dalton cried.
“There’s a big difference, but you reporters seem to keep missing it!”
“So you don’t know Ed Deepneau’s whereabouts, or what-if anything-he might be planning?”
“I don’t know where he is, I don’t care where he is, and I don’t care about his… offshoots, either.”
You’re afraid, though, Ralph thought. And if a Self-righteous little prick like you is afraid, I think I’m terrified.
Dalton started off. Kirkland, apparently deciding he wasn’t wrung completely dry yet, walked after him, shaking out his microphone cord as he went.
“But isn’t it true, Mr. Dalton, that while he was a member of The several violence-oriented Friends of Life, Ed Deepneau instigated protests, including one last month where dolls soaked with artificial blood were thrown-”
“You’re all the same, aren’t you?” Dan Dalton asked. “I’ll pray for you, my friend.” He stalked off.
Kirkland looked after him for a moment, bemused, then turned back to the camera. “We tried to get hold of Mr. Dalton’s opposite number-Gretchen Tillbury, who has taken on the formidable job of coordinating this event for WomanCare-but she was unavailable for comment. We’ve heard that His. Tillbury is at High Ridge, a women’s shelter and halfway house which is owned and operated by WomanCare.
Presumably, she and her associates are out there putting the finishing touches on plans for what they hope will be a safe, violence-free rally and speech at the Civic Center tonight.”
Ralph glanced at Lois and said, “Okay-now we know where we’re going, at least,” The TV picture switched to Lisette Benson, in the studio. “John, are there any real signs of possible violence at the Civic Center?”
Back to Kirkland, who had returned to his original location in front of the cop-cars. He was holding up a small white rectangle with some printing on it in front of his tie. “Well, the private security police on duty here found hundreds of these file-cards scattered on the Civic Center’s front lawn this morning just after first light. One of the guards claims to have seen the vehicle they were dumped from. He says it was a Cadillac from the late sixties, either brown or black.
He didn’t get the license number, but says there was a sticker on the back bumper reading ABORTION is MURDER, NOT CHOICE.
Back to the studio, where Lisette Benson was looking mighty interested. “What’s on those cards, John?”
Back to Kirkland.
“I guess you’d have to say it’s sort of a riddle.” He glanced down at the card.” ’If you have a gun loaded with only two bullets and you’re in a room with Hitler, Stalin, and an abortionist, what do you do?”
“Kirkland looked back up into the camera and said, “The answer printed on the other side, Lisette, is ’shoot the abortionist twice.”
“This is John Kirkland, reporting live from the Derry Civic Center.”
“I’m starving,” Lois said as Ralph carefully guided the Oldsmobile down the series of parking-garage ramps which would presumably set them free… if Ralph didn’t miss any of the exit signs, that was.
“And if I’m exaggerating, I’m not doing it by much.”
“Me too,” Ralph said. “And considering that we haven’t eaten since Tuesday, I guess that’s to be expected. We’ll grab a good sitdown breakfast on the way out to High Ridge.”
“Do we have time?”
“We’ll make time. After all, an army fights on its stomach.”
“I suppose so, although I don’t feel very army-ish. Do you know where-”
“Hush a second, Lois.”
He stopped the Oldsmobile short, put the gearshift lever in Park, and listened. There was a clacking sound from under the hood that he didn’t like very much. Of course the concrete walls of places like this tended to magnify sounds, but still…
“Ralph?” she asked nervously, “Don’t tell me something’s wrong with the car. just don’t tell me that, okay?”
“I think it’s fine,” he said, and began creeping toward daylight again. “I’ve just kind of fallen out of touch with old Nellie here since Carol died. Forgotten what kinds of sounds she makes. You were going to ask me something, weren’t you?”
,if you know where that shelter is. High Ridge.”
Ralph shook his head. “Somewhere out near the Newport town line is all I know. I don’t think they’re supposed to tell men where it is. I was kind of hoping you might have heard.” Lois shook her head. “I never had to use a place like that, thank God.
We’ll have to call her. The Tillbury woman. You’ve met her with Helen, so you can talk to her. She’ll listen to YOU.” She gave him a brief glance, one that warmed his heart-anyone with any sense would listen to you, Ralph, it said-but Ralph shook his head.
“I bet the only calls she’s taking today are ones that come from the Civic Center or from wherever Susan Day is.” He shot her a glance. “You know, that woman’s got a lot of guts, coming here.
Either that or she’s donkey-dumb.”
“Probably a little of both. If Gretchen Tillbury won’t take a call, how will we get in touch with her?”
“Well, I tell you what. I was a salesman for a lot of what Faye Chapin would call my real life, and I bet I can still be inventive when I need to be.” He thought of the information-lady with the orange aura and grinned. “Persuasive, too, maybe.”
“Ralph?” Her voice was small. “What, Lois?”
“This feels like real life to me.” He patted her hand. “I know what you mean.” A familiar skinny face poked out of the pay-booth of the hospital parking garage; a familiar grin-one from which at least half a dozen teeth had gone AWOL-brightened it. “Eyyyy, Ralph, dat you? Goddam if it ain’t! Beauty! Beauty!”
“Trigger?” Ralph asked slowly. “Trigger Vachon?”
“None udder! “Trigger flipped his lank brown hair out of his eyes so he could get a better look at Lois. “And who’s dis marigold here?
I know her from somewhere, goddam if I don’t!”
“Lois Chasse,” Ralph said, taking his parking ticket from its place over the sun-visor. “You might have known her husband, Paul-”
“Goddam right I did!” Trigger cried. “We was weekend warriors togedder, back in nineteen-seb’ny, maybe seb’ny-one! Closed down Nan’s Tavern more’n once! My suds n body! How is Paul dese days, ma’am?”
“Mr. Chasse passed on a little over two years ago,” Lois said.
“Oh, damn! I’m sorry to hear it. He was a champ of a guy, Paul Chasse. Just an all-around champ of a guy. Everybody liked him.”
Trigger looked as distressed as he might have done if she had told him it had happened only that morning.
“Thank you, Mr. Vachon.” Lois glanced at her watch, then looked up at Ralph. Her stomach rumbled, as if to add one final point to the argument.
Ralph handed his parking ticket through the open window of the car, and as Trigger took it, Ralph suddenly realized the stamp would show that he and Lois had been here since Tuesday night. Almost sixty hours.
“What happened to the dry-cleaning business, Trig?” he asked hastily.
“Ahhh, dey laid me off,” Trigger said. “Didn’t I tell you?
Laid almost everybody off. I was downhearted at first, but I caught on here last April, and… eyyy! I like dis all kindsa better. I,of iiiv little TV for when it’s slow, and there ain’t nobody beepin their horns at me if I don’t go the firs second a traffic-light turns green, or cutting me off out dere on the Extension.
Everyone in a hurry to get to the nex place, dey are, just why I dunno.
Also, I tell you what, Ralph: dat damn van was colder’n a witch’s tit in the winter. Pardon me, ma I am.”
Lois did not reply. She seemed to be studying the backs of her hands with great interest. Ralph, meanwhile, watched with relief as Trigger crumpled up the parking ticket and tossed it into his wastebasket without so much as a glance at the time-and-date stamp. He punched one of the buttons on his cash-register, and $0.00 popped up on the screen in the booth’s window.
“Jeer, Trig, that’s really nice of you,” Ralph said.
“Eyyy, don’t mention it,” Trigger said, and grandly punched another button. This one raised the barrier in front of the booth.
“Good to see you. Say, you member dat time out by the airport-?
Gosh! Hotter’n hell, it was, and dose two fella almost got in a punchup? Den it rained like a bugger. Hailed some, too. You was walkin and I give you a ride home. Only seen you once or twice since den.” He took a closer look at Ralph. “You look a hell of a lot better today than you did den, Ralphie, I’ll tell you dat. still, you don’t look a day over fifty-five. Beauty!”
Beside him, Lois’s stomach rumbled again, louder this time. She went on studying the backs of her hands.
“I feel a little older than that, though,” Ralph said. “Listen, Trig, it was good to see you, but we ought to-”
“Damn,” Trigger said, and his eyes had gone distant. “I had sumpin to tell you, Ralph. At least I tink I did. Bout dat day. C;osil, ain’t I got a dumb old head!
Ralph waited a moment longer, uncomfortably poised between impatience and curiosity. “Well, don’t feel bad about it, Trig. That was a long time ago.”
“What the hell…?” Trigger asked himself. He gazed up at the ceiling of his little booth, as if the answer might be written there.
“Ralph, we ought to go,” Lois said. “It’s not just wanting breakfast, either.”
“Yes. You’re right.” He got the Oldsmobile rolling slowly again.
“If you think of it, Trig, give me a call. I’m in the book. It was good to see you.”
Trigger Vachon ignored this completely; he no longer seemed aware of Ralph at all, in fact. “Was it sumpin we saw?” he enquired of the ceiling. “Or sumpin we did? Gosh!”
He was still looking up there and scratching the frizz of hair on the nape of his neck when Ralph turned left and, with a final wave, guided his Oldsmobile down Hospital Drive toward the low brick building which housed WomanCare.
Now that the sun was up, there was only a single security guard, and no demonstrators at all. Their absence made Ralph remember all the jungle epics he’d seen as a young man, especially the part where the native drums would stop and the hero-Jon Hall or Frank Buck-would turn to his head bearer and say he didn’t like it, it was too quiet. The guard took a clipboard from under his arm, squinted at Ralph’s Olds, and wrote something down-the plate number, Ralph supposed. Then he came ambling toward them along the leaf-strewn walk.
At this hour of the morning, Ralph had his pick of the ten-minute spaces across from the building. He parked, got out, then came around to open Lois’s door, as he had been trained.
“How do you want to handle this?” she asked as he took her hand and helped er out.
“We’ll probably have to be a little cute, but let’s not get carried away. Right?”
“Right.” She ran a nervous, patting hand down the front of her coat as they crossed, then flashed a megawatt smile at the security guard. “Good morning, officer.”
“Morning.” He glanced at his watch. “I don’t think there’s anyone in there just yet but the receptionist and the cleaning woman.”
“The receptionist is who we want to see,” Lois said cheerfully.
It was news to Ralph. “Barbae Richards. Her aunt Simone has a message for her to pass along. Very important. just say it’s Lois Chasse.”
The security guard thought this over, then nodded toward the door.
“That won’t be necessary. You go on right ahead, ma’am.”
Lois said, smiling more brilliantly than ever, “We won’t be two shakes, will we, Norton?”
“Shake and a half, more like it,” Ralph agreed. As they approached the building and left the security man behind, he leaned toward her and murmured: “Norton? Good God, Lois, Norton?”
“It was the first name that came into my head,” she replied. “I guess I was thinking of The Honeymooners-Ralph and Norton, remember?”
“Yes,” he said. “One of these days, Alice… pow! Right to da moon!
Two of the three doors were locked, but the one on the far left opened and they went in. Ralph squeezed Lois’s hand and felt her answering squeeze. He sensed a strong focusing of his concentration at the same moment, a narrowing and brightening of will and awareness.
All around him the eye of the world seemed to first blink and then open wide. All around them both.
The reception area was almost ostentatiously plain. The posters on the walls were mostly the sort foreign tourist agencies send out for the price of postage. The only exception was to the right of the receptionist’s desk: a large black-and-white photo of a young woman in a maternity smock. She was sitting on a barstool with a martini glass in one hand. WHEN YOU’re PREGNANT, YOU NEVER DRINK ALONE, the copy beneath the photo read. There was no indication that in a room or rooms behind this pleasant, unremarkable business space, abortions were done on demand.
Well, Ralph thought, what did you expect? An advertisement? A poster of aborted fetuses in a galvanized garbage pail between the one showing the Isle of Capriand the one of the Italian Alps? Get real, Ralph.
To their left, a heavyset woman in her late forties or early fifties was washing the top of a glass coffee-table; there was a little cart filled with various cleaning implements parked beside her. She was buried in a dark blue aura speckled with unhealthy-looking black dots which swarmed like queer insects over the places where her heart and lungs were, and she was looking at the newcomers with undisguised suspicion.
Straight ahead, another woman was watching them carefully, although without the janitor’s suspicion. Ralph recognized her from the TV news report on the day of the doll-throwing incident. Simone Castonguay’s niece was dark-haired, about thirty-five, and close to gorgeous even at this hour of the morning. She sat behind a severe gray metal desk that perfectly complemented her looks and within a forest-green aura which looked much healthier than the cleaning woman’s. A cut-glass vase filled with fall flowers stood on one corner of her desk.
She smiled tentatively at them, showing no immediate recognition of Lois, then wiggled the tip of one finger at the clock on the wall.
“We don’t open until eight,” she said, “and I don’t think we could help you today in any case. The doctors are all off-I mean, Dr. Hamilton is technically covering, but I’m not even sure I could get to her. There’s a lot going on-this is a big day for us,”
“I know,” Lois said, and gave Ralph’s hand another squeeze before letting it go. He heard her voice in his mind for a moment, very faint-like a bad overseas telephone conversation-but audible: [“Stay where you are, Ralph. She’s got-“] Lois sent him a picture which was even fainter than the thought, and gone almost as soon as Ralph glimpsed it. This sort of communication was a lot easier on the upper levels, but what he got was enough. The hand with which Barbara Richards had pointed at the clock was now resting easily on top of the desk, but the other was underneath it, where a small white button was mounted on one side of the kneehole. If either of them showed the slightest sign of odd behavior, she would push the button, summoning first their friend with the clipboard who was posted outside, and then most of the private security cops in Derry.
And I’m the one she’s watchting most carefully, because I’m the man, Ralph thought.
As Lois approached the reception desk, Ralph had an unsettling thought: given the current atmosphere in Derry, that sort of sexdiscrimination-unconscious but very real-could get this pretty black-haired woman hurt… maybe even killed. He remembered Leydecker telling him that one of Ed’s small cadre of co-crazies was a woman. Pasty complexion, he’d said, lots Of acne, glasses so thick they make her eyes look like poached eggs. Sandra something, her name was. And if Sandra Something had approached His. Richards’s desk as Lois was approaching it now, first opening her purse and then reaching into it, would the woman dressed in the forest-green aura have pushed the hidden alarm button?
“You probably don’t remember me, Barbara,” Lois was saying, “because I haven’t seen you much since you were in college, when you were going with the Sparkmeyer boy-”
“Oh my God, Lennie Sparkmeyer, I haven’t thought of him in years,” Barbara Richards said, and gave an embarrassed little laugh.
“But I remember you. Lois Delancey. Aunt Simone’s poker-buddy.
Do you guys still play?”
“It’s Chasse, not Delancey, and we still do.” Lois sounded delighted that Barbara had remembered her, and Ralph hoped she wouldn’t lose track of what they were supposed to be doing here.
He needn’t have worried. “Anyway, Simone sent me with a message for Gretchen Tillbury.” She brought a piece of paper out of her purse.
“I wonder if you could give it to her?”
“I doubt very much if I’ll even talk to Gretchen on the phone today,” Richards said. “She’s as busy as the rest of us. Busier.”
“I’ll bet.” Lois tinkled an amazingly genuine little laugh. “I guess there’s no real hurry about this, though. Gretchen has got a niece who’s been granted a full scholarship at the University of New Hampshire. Have you ever noticed how much harder people try to get in touch when it’s bad news they have to pass on? Strange, isn’t it?”
“I suppose so.” Pichards said, reaching for the folded slip of paper. “Anyway, I’ll be happy to put this in Gretchen’s-” Lois seized her wrist, and a flash of gray light-so bright Ralph had to squint his eyes against it to keep from being dazzled-leaped up the woman’s arm, shoulder, and neck. It spun around her head in a brief halo, then disappeared.
No, it didn’t, Ralph thought. It didn’t disappear, it sank in.
“What was that?” the cleaning woman asked suspiciously. “What was that bang?”
“A car backfired,” Ralph said. “That’s all.”
“Huh,” she said. “Goshdarn men think they know everything. Did you hear that, Barbie?”
“Yes,” Richards said. She sounded entirely normal to Ralph, and he knew that the cleaning woman would not be able to see the pearl gray mist which had now filled her eyes. “I think he’s right, but would you check with Peter outside? We can’t be too careful.”
“You goshdarn bet,” the cleaning woman said. She set her Windex bottle down, crossed to the doors (sparing Ralph a final dark look which said You’re old but I just goshdarn bet you still have a penis down there somewhere), and went out.
As soon as she was gone, Lois leaned over the desk. “Barbara, my friend and I have to talk to Gretchen this morning,” she said.
“She’s not here. She’s at High Ridge.”
“Tell us how to get there.”
Richards’s gaze drifted to Ralph. He found her gray, pupilless eyesockets profoundly unsettling. It was like looking at a piece of classic statuary which had somehow come to life. Her dark-green aura had paled considerably as well. ht. It’s been temporarily overlaid by Lois’s gray, that’s all.
Lois glanced briefly around, followed Barbara Richards’s gaze to Ralph, then turned back to her again. “Yes, he’s a man, but this time it’s okay. I promise you that. Neither one of us means any harm to Gretchen Tillbury or any of the women at High Ridge, but we have to talk to her, so tell us how to get there.” She touched Richards’s hand again, and more gray flashed up Richards’s arm.
“Don’t hurt her,” Ralph said.
“I won’t, but she’s going to talk.” She bent closer to Richards.
“Where is it? Come on, Barbara.”
“You take Route 33 out of Derry,” she said. “The old Newport Road. After you’ve gone about ten miles, there’ll be a big red fart-nhouse on your left. There are two barns behind it. You take your first left after that-” The cleaning woman came back in. “Peter didn’t hear-” She stopped abruptly, perhaps not liking the way Lois was bent over her friend’s desk, perhaps not liking the blank look in her friend’s eyes.
“Barbara? Are you all ri-”
“Be quiet,” Ralph said in a low, friendly voice. “They’re talking.”
He took the cleaning woman’s arm just above the elbow, feeling a brief but powerful pulse of energy as he did so. For a moment all the colors in the world brightened further. The cleaning woman’s name was Rachel Anderson. She’d been married once, to a man who’d beaten her hard and often until he disappeared eight years ago. Now she had a dog and her friends at WomanCare, and that was enough.
“Oh sure,” Rachel Anderson said in a dreamy, thoughtful voice.
“They’re talking, and Peter says everything’s okay, so I guess I better just be quiet.”
“What a good idea,” Ralph said, still holding her upper arm lightly, Lois took a quick look around to confirm Ralph had the situation under control, then turned back to Barbara Richards once again.
“Take a left after the red farmhouse with the two barns. Okay, I’ve got that. What then?”
“You’ll be on a dirt road. It goes up a long hill-about a mile and a half-and then ends at a white farmhouse. That’s High Ridge.
It’s got the most lovely view-”
“I’ll bet,” Lois said. “Barbara, it was great to see you again. Now my friend and I-”
“Great to see you, too, Lois,” Richards said in a distant, uninterested voice.
“Now my friend and I are going to leave. Everything is all right.”
“You won’t need to remember any of this,” Lois said.
Lois started to turn away, then turned back and plucked up the piece of paper she had taken from her purse. It had fallen to the desk when Lois grabbed the woman’s wrist.
“Why don’t you go back to work, Rachel?” Ralph asked the cleaning lady. He let go of her arm carefully, ready to grab it again at once if she showed signs of needing reinforcement.
“Yes, I better go back to work,” she said, sounding much more friendly. “I want to be done here by noon, so I can go out to High Ridge and help make signs.”
Lois joined Ralph as Rachel Anderson drifted back to her cart of cleaning supplies. Lois looked both amazed and a little shaky.
“They’ll be okay, won’t they, Ralph?”
“Yes, I’m sure they will be. Are you all right? Not going to faint or anything like that?”
“I’m okay. Can you remember the directions?”
“Of course-she’s talking about the place that used to be Barrett’s Orchards. Carolyn and I used to go out there every fall to pick apples and buy cider until they sold out in the early eighties. To think that’s High Ridge.”
“Be amazed later, Ralph-I really am starving to death.”
“All right. What was the note, by the way? The note about the niece with the full scholarship at UNH?”
She flashed him a little smile and handed it to him. it was her light-bill for the month of September.
“Were you able to leave your message?” the security guard asked as they came out and started down the walk.
“Yes, thanks,” Lois said, turning on the megawatt smile again.
She kept moving, though, and her hand was gripping Ralph’s very tightly. He knew how she felt; he hadn’t the slightest idea how long the suggestions they had given the two women would hold.
“Good,” the guard said, following them to the end of the walk, “This is gonna be a long, long day. I’ll be glad when it’s over.
You know how many security people we’re gonna have here from noon until midnight? A dozen. And that’s just here. They’re gonna have over forty at the Civic Center-that’s in addition to the local COPS.”
And it won’t do a damned bit of good, Ralph thought.
“And what for? So one blonde with an attitude can run her mouth.”
He looked at Lois as if he expected her to accuse him of being a male sexist oinker, but Lois only renewed her smile.
“I hope everything goes well for you, Officer,” Ralph said, and then led Lois back across the street to the Oldsmobile. He started it up and turned laboriously around in the WomanCare driveway, expecting either Barbara Richards, Rachel Anderson, or maybe both of them to come rushing out through the front door, eyes wild and fingers pointing. He finally got the Olds headed in the right direction and let out a long sigh of relief. Lois looked over at him and nodded in sympathy.
“I thought I was the salesman,” Ralph said, “but man, I’ve never seen a selling job like that.”
Lois smiled demurely and clasped her hands in her lap.
They were approaching the hospital parking-garage when Trigger came rushing out of his little booth, waving his arms. Ralph’s first thought was that they weren’t going to make a clean getaway after all-the security guard with the clipboard had tipped to something suspicious and phoned or radioed Trigger to stop them. Then he saw the look-out of breath but happy-and what Trigger had in his right hand.
It was a very old and very battered black wallet. It flapped open and closed like a toothless mouth with each wave of his right arm.
“Don’t worry,” Ralph said, slowing the Olds down.
“I don’t know what he wants, but I’m pretty sure it’s not trouble.
At least not yet.”
“I don’t care what he wants. All I want is to get out of here and eat some food. If he starts to show you his fishing pictures, Ralph, I’ll step on the gas pedal myself,”
“Amen,” Ralph said, knowing perfectly well that it wasn’t fishing pictures Trigger Vachon had in mind. He still wasn’t clear on everything, but one thing he knew for sure: nothing was happening by chance. Not anymore. This was the Purpose with a vengeance. He pulled up beside Trigger and pushed the button that lowered his window. It went down with an ill-tempered whine.
“Eyyy, Ralph!” Trigger cried. “I t’ought I missed you!”
“What is it, Trig? We’re in kind of a hurry-”
“Yeah, yeah, dis won’t take but a second. I got it right here in my wallet, Ralph.
Man, I keep all my paperwork in here, and I never lose a ting out of it.”
He spread the old billfold’s limp jaws, revealing a few crumpled bills, a celluloid accordion of pictures (and damned if Ralph didn’t catch a glimpse of Trigger holding up a big bass in one of them), and what looked like at least forty business cards, most of them creased and limber with age. Trigger began to go through these with the speed of a veteran bank-teller counting currency.
“I never t’row dese tings out, me,” Trigger said. “They’re great to write stuff on, better’n a notebook, and free. Now just a second… just a second, oh you damn ting, where you be?”
Lois gave Ralph an impatient, worried look and pointed up the road. Ralph ignored both the look and the gesture. He had begun to feel a strange tingling in his chest. In his mind’s eye he saw himself reaching out with his index finger and drawing something in the foggy condensate that had appeared on the windshield of Trigger’s van as a result of a summer storm fifteen months ago-cold rain on a hot day.
“Ralph, you ’member the scarf Deepneau was wearin dat day?
White, wit some kind of red marks on it?”
“Yes, I remember,” Ralph said. Cuntlicker, Ed had told the heavyset guy. Fucked your mother and licked her cunt. And yes, he remembered the scarf-of course he did. But the red thing hadn’t been just marks or a splotch or a meaningless bit of pattern; it had been an ideogram or ideograms. The sudden sinking in the pit of his stomach told Ralph that Trigger could quit rummaging through his old business cards right now. He knew what this was about. He knew.
“Was you in da war, Ralph?” Trigger asked. “The big one? Number Two?”
“In a way, I guess,” Ralph said. “I fought most of it in Texas.
I went overseas in early ’45, but I was rear-echelon all the way.”
Trigger nodded. “Dat means Europe,” he said. “Wasn’t no rearechelon in the Pacific, not by the end.”
“England,” Ralph said. “Then Germany.”
Trigger was still nodding, pleased. “If you’d been in the Pacific, you woulda known the stuff on that scarf wasn’t Chinese.”
“It was Japanese, wasn’t it? Wasn’t it, Trig?”
Trigger nodded. In one hand he held a business card plucked from among many. On the blank side, Ralph saw a rough approximation of the double symbol they had seen on Ed’s scarf, the double symbol he himself had drawn in the windshield mist.
“What are you talking about?” Lois asked, now sounding not impatient but just plain scared.
“I should have known,” Ralph heard himself say in a faint, horrified voice. “I still should have known.”
“Known what?” She grabbed his shoulder and shook it. “Known what?”
He didn’t answer. Feeling like a man in a dream, he reached out and took the card. Trigger Vachon was no longer smiling, and his dark eyes studied Ralph’s face with grave consideration. “I copied it before it could melt off a da windshield,” Trigger said, “cause I knew I seen it before, and by the time I got home dat night, I knew where.
My big brother, Marcel, fought da las year of the war in the Pacific.
One of the tings he brought back was a scarf with dat same two marks on it, in dat same red. I ast him, ’us to be sure, and he wrote it on dat card.” Trigger pointed to the card Ralph was holding between his fingers. “I meant to tell you as soon as I saw you again, only I forgot until today. I was glad I finally remembered, but looking at you now, I guess it woulda been better if I’d stayed forgetful.”
“No, it’s okay.”
Lois took the card from him. “What is it? What does it mean?”
“Tell you later.” Ralph reached for the gearshift. His heart felt like a stone in his chest. Lois was looking at the symbols on the blank side of the card, allowing Ralph to see the printed side.
R. H. FOSTER, WELLS amp; DRY-WALLS, it said. Below this, Trigger’s big brother had printed a single word in black capital letters.