Tick Tock Page 18


Placatingly, Del said, ‘We’ll stop at my place just long enough to pick up Scootie, and then we’ll hit the road again, cruise around until it’s time to call your brother and see if he’s been able to translate the note.’


Newport Harbour, home to one of the largest armadas of private yachts in the world, was enclosed on the north by the curve of the continental shoreline and on the south by a three-mile-long peninsula that extended west to east and separated the hundreds of protected boat docks and moorings from the surges of the Pacific.


The homes on the shoreline and on the five islands within the harbour were among the priciest in southern California. Del lived not in a less expensive home on one of the land-locked blocks of Balboa Peninsula, but in a sleek three-story contemporary house that faced the harbour.


As they approached the place, Tommy leaned forward, staring out of the windshield in astonishment.


Because she had left her garage-door opener in the


van, Del parked the stolen Honda on the street. The police wouldn’t be looking for it yet — not until the shifts changed at the bakery.


Tommy continued to stare through the blurring rain after Del switched off the windshield wipers. In the burnishing glow of the landscape lighting that under lit the queen palms, he could see that every corner of  the house was softly rounded. The patinated-copper windows were rectangular with radius corners, and the white stucco was towelled so smoothly that it appeared to be as slick as marble, especially when wet with rain. It was less like a house than like a small, gracefully designed cruise ship that had run aground.


‘You live here?’ he asked wonderingly.


‘Yeah.’ She opened her door. ‘Come on. Scootie’s wondering where I am. He’s worried about me.’


Tommy got out of the Honda and followed her through the rain to a gate at one side of the house, where she entered a series of numbers — the disarming code — into a security keypad.


‘The rent must be astronomical,’ he said, dismayed to think that she might not be a renter at all but might be living here with the man who owned the place.


‘No rent. No mortgage. It’s mine,’ she said, unlocking the gate with keys that she had fished from her purse.


As he closed the heavy gate behind them, Tommy saw that it was made of patinated geometric copper panels of different shapes and textures and depths. The resultant Art Deco pattern reminded him of the mural on her van.


Following her along a covered, pale-quartzite walkway in which flecks of mica glimmered like diamond chips under the light from the low path lamps, he said, ‘But this must’ve cost a fortune.’


‘Sure did,’ she said brightly.


The walkway led into a romantic courtyard paved with


the same quartzite, sheltered by five more dramatically lighted queen palms, softened with beds of ferns, and filled with the scent of night-blooming jasmine.


Bewildered, he said, ‘I thought you were a waitress.’


‘I told you before — being a waitress is what I do. An artist is what I am.’


‘You sell your paintings?’


‘Not yet.’


‘You didn’t pay for this from tips.’


‘That’s for sure,’ she agreed, but offered no expla¬nation.


Lamps glowed warmly in one of the downstairs rooms facing onto the courtyard. As Tommy followed Del to the front door, those windows went dark.


‘Wait,’ he whispered urgently. ‘The lights.’


‘It’s okay.’


‘Maybe the thing got here ahead of us.’


‘No, that’s just Scootie playing with me,’ she assured him.


‘The dog can turn off the lights?’


She giggled. ‘Wait’ll you see.’ She unlocked the front door and, stepping into the foyer, said, ‘Lights on.’


Responding to her vocal command, the overhead fixture and two sconces glowed.


‘If my cell phone wasn’t in the van,’ she said, ‘I could’ve called ahead to the house computer and turned on any combination of lights, the spa, the music system, the TV. The place is totally automated. I also had the software customized so Scootie can turn the lights on in any room with just one bark and turn them off with two.’


‘And you could train him to do that?’ Tommy asked, closing the door behind him and engaging the thumb turn deadbolt.


‘Sure. Otherwise he never barks, so he can’t confuse the system. Poor thing, he’s here alone for hours at a time in the evening. He should be able to have it dark


if he wants to nap — and light if he’s feeling lonely or spooked.’


Tommy had expected the dog to be waiting at the door, but it was not in sight. ‘Where is he?’


‘Hiding,’ she said, putting her purse on a foyer table with a black granite top. ‘He wants me to find him.’


‘A dog that plays hide and seek?’


‘Without hands, it’s too frustrating to play Scrab¬ble.’


Tommy’s wet shoes squished and squeaked on the honed travertine floor. ‘We’re making a mess.’


‘It’s not Chernobyl.’


‘Huh?’


‘It’ll clean up.’


At one end of the generous foyer, a door stood ajar. Del went to it, leaving wet shoeprints on the marble.


‘Is my naughty little fur ball in the powder room?’ she asked in an annoyingly cute, coddling tone of voice. ‘Hmmmm? Is my bad boy hiding from his mommie? Is my bad boy hiding in the powder room?’


She opened the door, manually switched on the lights, but the dog wasn’t there.


‘I didn’t think so,’ she said, leading Tommy into the living room. ‘That was too easy. Though sometimes, he knows easy works because it’s not what I’m expecting. Lights on.’


The large travertine-floored living room was furnished with J. Robert Scott sofas and chairs upholstered in platinum and gold fabrics, blond-finished tables in exotic woods, and bronze Art Deco lamps in the form of nymphs holding luminous crystal balls. The enormous Persian carpet boasted such an intricate design and was so softly coloured, as if exquisitely faded by time, that it must be an antique.


Del’s vocal command had switched on mood lighting


that was low enough to minimize reflection on the glass wall and allow Tommy to see outside to the patio and the boat dock. He also had a glimpse of rain-dimmed harbour lights.


Scootie was not in the living room. He wasn’t in the study or the dining room, either.


Following Del through a swinging door, Tommy stepped into a large, stylish kitchen with clear-finished maple cabinets and black-granite counter tops.


‘Oh, him not here, either,’ Del said, cooing again as if talking to a baby. ‘Where could my Scootie-wootums be? Did him turn off the lights and quick-like-a-bunny run upstairs?’


Tommy was riveted by a wall clock with a green neon rim. It was 1:44 in the morning. Time was running out, so the demon was sure to be seeking them with increasing fury.


‘Let’s find the damn dog and get out of here quick,’ he said nervously.


Pointing to a tall narrow section of cabinetry next to which Tommy was standing, Del said, ‘Get me the broom out of there, would you, please?’


‘Broom?’


‘It’s the broom closet.’


Tommy opened the door.


Squeezed into the broom closet was a huge midnight-black creature with teeth bared and fat pink tongue lolling, and Tommy bolted backward, slipped in his own wet shoeprints, and fell on his butt before he realized that it wasn’t the demon leering out at him. It was a dog, an enormous black Labrador.


Del laughed delightedly and clapped her hands. ‘I knew you were in there, you naughty little fur ball!’


Scootie grinned out at them.


‘I knew you’d give Tommy a good scare,’ she told the dog.


‘Yeah, just what I needed,’ Tommy said, getting to his feet.


Panting, Scootie came out of the closet. The space was so narrow and the dog so large that it was like a cork coming out of a wine bottle, and Tommy half expected to hear a pop.


‘How’d he get in there?’ Tommy wondered.


Tail wagging furiously, Scootie went directly to Del, and she dropped to her knees so she could pet him and scratch behind his ears. ‘Him miss mommie, did him? Hmmmmm? Was him lonely, my fuzzy-wuzzy baby, my cutie Scootie?’


‘He couldn’t step in there and turn around,’ Tommy said. ‘Not enough room.’


‘He probably backed into it,’ Del said, hugging Scootie. ‘Dogs don’t back into things any more than motorcycles do. Besides, how did he get the door shut after he was in there?’


‘It falls shut on its own,’ Del said.


Indeed, the broom-closet door had slowly closed after the Labrador had squeezed out of confinement into the kitchen.


‘Okay, but how did he open it in the first place?’ Tommy persisted.


‘Pawed it open. He’s clever.’


‘Why did you teach him this?’


‘Teach him what?’


‘To play hide-and-seek.’


‘Didn’t teach him. He’s always liked to do it.’


‘It’s weird.’


Del puckered her lips and made kissing sounds. The dog took the cue and began to lick her face.


‘That’s disgusting,’ Tommy said.


Giggling, Del said, ‘His mouth is cleaner than yours.’


‘I seriously doubt that.’


As if quoting from a medical journal, she pulled back


from the Labrador and said, ‘The chemical composition of a dog’s saliva makes its mouth a hostile environment for the spectrum of bacteria that are harmful to people.’


‘Bullshit.’


‘It’s true.’ To Scootie, she said, ‘He’s just jealous, because he wants to lick my face.’


Nonplussed, blushing, Tommy looked at the wall clock. ‘Okay, we have the dog, so let’s get out of here.’


Rising to her feet, heading out of the kitchen, with the dog at her heels, Del said, ‘A waitress’s uniform isn’t suitable gear for a girl on the lam. Give me five minutes to change clothes, get into jeans and a sweater, and then we can split.’


‘No, listen, the longer we stay in one place, the quicker it’s going to find us.’


In a train — woman, dog, and man — they crossed the dining room as Del said, ‘Relax, Tommy. There’s always enough time if you think there is.’


‘What’s that mean?’


‘Whatever you expect is what will be, so simply change your expectations.’


‘I don’t know what that means, either.’


‘It means what it means,’ she said, enigmatic once more.


In the living room, he said, ‘Damn it, wait a minute!’


Del turned to look at him.


The dog turned to look at him.


Tommy sighed, gave up. ‘Okay, change your clothes. But hurry.’


To the dog, Del said, ‘You stay here and get acquainted with Tuong Tommy.’ Then she went into the foyer and up the stairs.


Scootie cocked his head, studying Tommy as if he were a strange and amusing form of life never seen before.


‘Your mouth is not cleaner than mine,’ Tommy said.


Scootie pricked one ear.


‘You heard me,’ Tommy said.


He crossed the living room to the large glass sliding doors and gazed out toward the harbour. Most of the houses on the far shore were dark. Where dock and landscape lamps glowed, attenuated reflections of gold and red and silver light glimmered hundreds of feet across the black water


After a few seconds, Tommy became aware of being watched — not by someone outside, but by someone inside


He turned and saw the dog hiding behind the sofa, only its head revealed, observing him.


‘I see you,’ Tommy said.


Scootie pulled his head back, out of sight.


Along one wall was a handsome entertainment centre and library unit made from a wood with which Tommy was unfamiliar. He went to have a closer look, and he discovered that the beautiful grain was like rippled ribbons that appeared to undulate as he shifted his head from one side to the other.


He heard noises behind him and knew that Scootie was on the move, but he refused to be distracted from his examination of the entertainment centre. The depth of the glossy lacquer finish was remarkable.


From elsewhere in the room came the sound of a fart.


‘Bad dog,’ he said.


The sound repeated.


Finally Tommy turned.


Scootie was sitting on his hindquarters in one of the armchairs, staring at Tommy, both ears pricked, holding a large rubber hotdog in his mouth. When he bit down on the toy, it made that sound again. Perhaps the rubber hotdog had once produced a squeak or a whistle, but now only a repulsive flatulence issued from it.


Checking his watch, Tommy said, ‘Come on, Del.’


Then he went to an armchair that directly faced


that in which the dog sat, with only the coffee table between them. The chair was upholstered in leather, in a sea skin shade, so he didn’t think his damp jeans would harm it.


He and Scootie stared at each other. The Labrador’s eyes were dark and soulful.


‘You’re a strange dog,’ Tommy said.


Scootie bit the hotdog again, producing the blatty noise.


‘That’s annoying.’


Scootie chomped on the toy.


‘Don’t.’


Another faux fart.


‘I’m warning you.’


Again the dog bit the toy, again, and a third time.


‘Don’t make me take it away from you,’ Tommy said. Scootie dropped the hotdog on the floor and barked twice.


The room was plunged into darkness, and Tommy was startled out of his chair before he remembered that two closely spaced barks was the signal that told the computer to switch off the lights.


Even as Tommy was bolting to his feet, Scootie was coming across the coffee table in the dark. The dog leaped, and Tommy was carried backward into the leather armchair.


The dog was all over him, chuffing in a friendly way, licking his face affectionately, licking his hands when he raised them to cover his face.


‘Stop, damn it, stop, get off me.’


Scootie scrambled off Tommy’s lap, onto the floor —but seized the heel of his right shoe and began to worry at it, trying to gain possession of it.


Not wanting to kick at the mutt, afraid of hurting it, Tommy reached down, trying to get hold of its burly head.


The Rockport suddenly slipped off his foot.


‘Ah, shit.’


He heard Scootie hustling away through the darkness with the shoe.

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