‘Alas, you are,’ said Mummingford drily. ‘But I must tolerate Miss Payne to an extent I’m not obliged to toler¬ate the dog. And her friends enjoy sufferance as well.’
‘Where’s Mom?’ Del asked.
‘She awaits you in the music room, Miss Payne. I’ll send his nibs along to join you as soon as he’s presentably dry.’
Scootie grinned out of a cowl of white cotton, enjoying his rubdown.
‘We can’t stay long,’ Del told the butler. ‘We’re on the lam from a doll snake rat-quick monster thing. But could we please have coffee and a tray of breakfast pastries?’
‘In a trice, Miss Payne.’
‘You’re a dear, Mummingford.’
‘It’s the cross I bear,’ said Mummingford.
The grand hail, at least a hundred feet long, was floored with highly polished black granite on which their wet rubber-soled shoes squeaked with each step. The white walls were hung with enormous unframed canvases: all abstract art full of motion and colour, each piece illuminated precisely to the edges of the canvas by projector lamps in the ceiling, so it seemed as if the art
glowed from within. The ceiling was panelled with bands of polished steel alternating with bands of brushed steel. A double cove provided indirect lighting above, and additional indirect lighting flooded out at floor level from a groove in the black-granite baseboard.
Sensing Tommy’s amazement, Del said, ‘Mom built the outside of the house to please the community architec¬tural committee, but inside it’s as modem as a spaceship and as Mediterranean as Coca Cola.’
The music room was two-thirds of the way along the main hall, on the left. A black-lacquered door opened onto a room floored with polished white limestone speck¬led with gracefully curved marine fossils. The sound-baffled ceiling and walls were padded and then uphol¬stered in charcoal-grey fabric, as if this were a recording studio, and indirect lighting was tucked behind the baffles.
The chamber was huge, approximately forty by sixty feet. In the centre was a twenty-by-thirty custom carpet with a geometric pattern in half a dozen subtly different shades of taupe and gold. In the centre of the carpet were a black leather sofa and four black leather armchairs arranged in a conversational grouping around a solid rectangular-block coffee table veneered with a parquetry of faux-ivory squares.
Although a hundred music lovers could have been seated in the room for a piano recital no piano was pro¬vided. The music — Glenn Miller’s ‘Moonlight Serenade’ —didn’t issue from a state-of-the-art entertainment system with. surround-sound speakers, either. It came, instead, from what appeared to be a small, table-model, Art Deco radio that stood in the centre of the faux-ivory coffee table, in a cone of light from a tightly focused halogen lamp in the ceiling. The tinny and static-spotted quality of the sound suggested that the radio was act¬ually a cassette or CD player loaded with one of those
authentic as-recorded-live-on-dance-night-in-the-forties radio programs.
Del’s mother sat in one of the chairs, eyes closed, smiling as beatifically as Saint Francis in the limestone carvings around the front door, swaying her head from side to side with the music, keeping time by patting her hands against the arms of the chair. Although only fifty, she looked at least ten years younger: quite a striking woman, not blond like Del but olive-skinned with jet-black hair, delicate features, and a swanlike neck. She reminded Tommy of the elfin actress in that old movie, Breakfast at Tiffany’s …Audrey Hepburn.
When Del lowered the volume on the radio, Mrs. Payne opened her eyes. They were as blue as Del’s and even deeper. Her smile widened. ‘Good heavens, dear, you look like a drowned rat.’ She rose from the chair and regarded Tommy. ‘And so do you, young man.’
Tommy was surprised to see that Mrs. Payne was wearing an ao dais, a flowing silk tunic-and-pants ensem¬ble similar to those that his own mother wore at times.
Del said, ‘The drowned-rat look is simply the latest thing, very chic.’
‘You shouldn’t joke about such things, darling. The world is ugly enough these days, as it is.’
‘Mom, I’d like you to meet Tommy Phan.’
‘Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Payne.’
Taking his offered hand in both of hers, Del’s mother said, ‘Call me Julia.’
‘Thank you, Julia. I’m—’
‘Or even Lilith. They’re all names I quite like.’
Not sure how to respond to her offer of four names, Tommy said, ‘That’s a beautiful ao dais you’re wearing.’
‘Thank you, dear. It is lovely, isn’t it? And so comfort¬able. There’s a charming lady in Garden Grove who hand sews them.’
‘I think my mother may buy from the same woman.’
Del said, ‘Mom, Tommy is the one.’
Julia Rosalyn Winona Lilith Payne — or whatever her name was — raised her eyebrows. ‘Is he?’
Absolutely,’ said Del.
Mrs. Payne let go of Tommy’s hand and, oblivious of his wet clothes, embraced him, hugged him tightly, and kissed his cheek. ‘This is wonderful, just wonderful.’
Tommy wasn’t sure what was happening. Releasing him, Mrs. Payne turned to her daughter, and they hugged, laughed, all but jumped up and down like a couple of excited schoolgirls.
‘We’ve had the most wonderful night,’ Del said.
Her mother said, ‘Tell me, tell me.’
‘I set the yacht on fire and crashed it into the Balboa Island sea wall.’
Mrs. Payne gasped and put one hand against her breast as if to quiet her heart. ‘Deliverance, how exciting! You must tell me all about it.’
‘Tommy rolled his new Corvette.’
Wide-eyed, apparently delighted, Mrs. Payne regarded him with what might have been admiration. ‘Rolled a new Corvette?’
‘I didn’t plan to,’ he assured her.
‘How many times did you roll it?’
At least twice.’
And then,’ Del said, ‘it burst into flames!’
All this in one night!’ Mrs. Payne exclaimed. ‘Sit down, sit down, I must have all the details.’
‘We can’t stay long,’ Tommy said. ‘We’ve got to keep moving—’
‘We’ll be safe here for a little while,’ Del said, plopping into one of the commodious leather armchairs.
As Mrs. Payne returned to her chair, she said, ‘We should have coffee — or brandy if you need it.’
‘Mummingford is already bringing coffee and pas¬tries,’ Del said.
Scootie entered the room and padded directly to Mrs. Payne. She was so petite and the chair was so wide that there was room for both her and the Labrador. The dog curled up with its massive black head in her lap.
‘Scootie-wootums have fun too?’ Mrs. Payne asked as she petted the mutt. Indicating the radio, she said, ‘Oh, this is a lovely number.’ Although the volume was low, she could identify the tune. ‘Artie Shaw, “Begin the Beguine.”
Del said, ‘I like it too. By the way, mother, it’s not just burning yachts and cars. There’s an entity involved.’
‘An entity? This just gets better and better,’ said Mrs. Payne. ‘What sort of entity?’
‘Well, I haven’t identified it yet, haven’t had time, what with all the running and chasing,’ Del said. ‘But it started out as a devil doll with a curse note pinned to the hand.’
To Tommy, Mrs. Payne said, ‘This doll was delivered to you?’
‘It was left on my doorstep. I think Vietnamese gangs— ‘And you picked it up and brought it into your house?’
‘Yes. I thought—’
Mrs. Payne clucked her tongue and wagged one finger at him. ‘Dear boy, you shouldn’t have brought it into your house. In this sort of situation, the entity can’t become animate and do you harm unless you invite it across your threshold.’
‘But it was just a little rag doll—’
‘Yes, of course, a little rag doll but that’s not what it is now, is it?’
Leaning forward in his chair, agitated, Tommy said, ‘I’m amazed that you just accept all of this so easily.’
‘Why wouldn’t I?’ Mrs. Payne asked, clearly surprised by his statement. ‘If Del says there’s an entity, then I’m sure there’s an entity. Del is no fool.’
Mummingford entered the music room, pushing a tea cart laden with china, a silver coffee urn, and pastries.
To her mother, Del said, ‘Tommy suffers from an excess of scepticism. For instance, he doesn’t believe in alien abductions.’
‘They’re real’ Mrs. Payne assured Tommy with a smile, as though her confirmation of Del’s stranger beliefs was all that he needed to embrace them himself.
‘He doesn’t believe in ghosts,’ Del said.
‘Real’ said Mrs. Payne.
‘Or remote viewing.’
Listening to them made Tommy dizzy. He closed his eyes.
‘Though he does believe in Big Foot,’ Del said teasingly.
‘How odd,’ said Mrs. Payne.
‘I do not believe in Big Foot,’ Tommy corrected.
He could hear the devilment in Del’s voice as she said, ‘Well, that’s not what you said earlier.’
‘Big Foot,’ said Julia Rosalyn Winona Lilith Payne, ‘is nothing but tabloid trash.’
‘Exactly,’ said Del.
Tommy had to open his eyes to accept a cup of coffee from the apparently imperturbable Mummingford.
From the old-looking radio on the faux-ivory cof¬fee table came an announcer’s voice identifying the
broadcast as originating live from the fabulous Empire Ballroom, where ‘Glenn Miller and his big band bring the stars out when they play,’ followed by a commercial for Lucky Strike cigarettes.
Del said, ‘If Tommy can stay alive until dawn, then the curse fails, and he’s okay. Or at least that’s what we think.’
‘Little more than an hour and a half,’ said Mrs. Payne. ‘What do you suppose are his chances of making it?’
‘Sixty-forty,’ Del said.
Flustered, Tommy said, ‘What? Sixty-forty?’
‘Well,’ Del said, ‘that’s my honest assessment.’
‘Which is the sixty? Sixty percent chance that I’ll be killed or sixty percent chance that I’ll live?’
‘That you’ll live,’ Del said brightly.
‘I’m not comforted.’
‘Yes, but we’re steadily improving those odds by the minute, sweetheart.’
‘It’s still not good,’ said Mrs. Payne.
‘It’s terrible,’ Tommy said, distressed.
‘It’s just a hunch,’ Del ventured, ‘but I don’t think Tommy is scheduled for unnatural extraction. He feels as if he has a full-life destiny with a natural departure.’
Tommy had no idea what she was talking about. Addressing him in a reassuring tone, Mrs. Payne said, ‘Well, Tommy dear, even if the worst were to happen, death isn’t final. It’s only a transitional phase.’
‘You’re sure of that, are you?’
‘Oh, yes. I talk to Ned more nights than not.’
‘Daddy,’ Del clarified.
‘He appears on the David Letterman show,’ Mrs. Payne said.
Mummingford passed a silver tray of pastries to Del first, who took a plump cinnamon-pecan roll, and then to Tommy. Although Tommy initially selected a sensible
bran muffin, he reconsidered and asked for a chocolate croissant. If he only had an hour and a half to live, worrying about his cholesterol level seemed pointless.
As Mummingford used pastry tongs to transfer the croissant to a plate, Tommy asked Del’s mother for a clarification: ‘Your late husband appears on the David Letterman show?’
‘It’s a late-night talk show.’
‘Yes, I know.’
‘Sometimes David announces a guest, but instead of the movie star or singer or whoever it’s supposed to be, my Ned comes out and sits in the guest chair. Then the whole program freezes, as if time has stopped — David and the audience and the band all frozen in place — and Ned talks to me.’
Tommy tasted his chocolate croissant. It was delicious. ‘Of course,’ said Mrs. Payne, ‘this appears only on my personal TV, not all over the country. I’m the only one who sees Ned.’
With a mouthful of croissant, Tommy nodded.
Del’s mother said, ‘Ned always had style. He’d never settle for contacting me through a fake Gypsy medium at a séance or through a Ouija board, nothing as trite and tacky as that.’
Tommy tried the coffee. It was lightly flavoured with vanilla. Excellent.
‘Oh, Mummingford,’ Del said, ‘I almost forgot— there’s a stolen Ferrari in the driveway.’
‘What would you like done with it, Miss Payne?’
‘Could you have it returned to Balboa Island within the hour? I can tell you exactly where it was parked.’
‘Yes, Miss Payne. I’ll just refresh everyone’s coffee and then attend to it.’
As Del’s mother began feeding pieces of a cruller to Scootie, she said, ‘What vehicle would you like brought up from the garage, Del?’
Del said, ‘The way this night’s going, whatever we drive is liable to end up on the junk pile. So it shouldn’t be one of your most precious cars.’
‘Nonsense, darling. You should be comfortable.’
‘Well, I like the Jaguar two plus two.’
‘It’s a lovely car,’ Mrs. Payne agreed.
‘It has the power and manoeuvrability we need for work like this,’ said Del.
‘I’ll have it brought around to the front door at once,’ Mummingford said.
‘But before you do, do you think you could please bring a telephone?’ Del asked.
‘Certainly, Miss Payne,’ the butler said, and he departed. Having finished his croissant, Tommy got up from his chair, went to the tea cart, and selected a cheese Danish.
He had decided to concentrate on eating and not even try to be part of the conversation. Both women made him crazy, and life was too short to let them upset him. In fact, if reliable sources could be believed, there was a forty percent chance that life was very damn short indeed.