Smiling at Del, smiling at her mother, Tommy returned to his chair with the Danish.
From the radio, at reduced volume, issued Glenn Miller’s ‘String of Pearls.’
Del’s mother said, ‘I should have had you children change into bathrobes the moment you arrived. Then we could have thrown your clothes in the dryer. They’d be dry and warm by now.’
‘We’ll only get wet again when we leave,’ Del said.
‘No dear. The rain will be stopping in another four minutes.’
Del shrugged. ‘We’ll be fine.’
Tommy took a bite of the Danish and looked at his watch.
‘Tell me more about the entity,’ Mrs. Payne said. ‘What it looks like, what its capabilities are.’
‘I’m afraid that’ll have to wait till later, Mom. I need to use the bathroom quick, and then we’d better run.’
‘While you’re in there, comb your hair, dear. It’s kinking up now that it’s drying.’
Del left the room, and for perhaps ten seconds, Julia Rosalyn Winona Lilith and the big black dog stared at Tommy as he ate the Danish.
Then Mrs. Payne said, ‘So you’re the one.’ Tommy swallowed a mouthful of pastry. ‘What does that mean — the one?’
‘Why, of course, dear boy, it means precisely what it says. You’re the one.’
‘Yes, the one.’
‘The one. There’s something ominous about it.’
She seemed genuinely baffled. ‘Ominous?’
‘Sort of like a term that some lost tribe of volcano-worshipping South Sea islanders might use before they throw the virgin into the fiery pit.’
Mrs. Payne laughed with obvious delight. ‘Oh, you are precious. A sense of humour quite like Ned’s.’
‘That makes it even funnier.’
‘Tell me about — the one,’ he insisted.
‘Well, of course, Deliverance merely meant that you’re the one for her. The one. The one she should spend the rest of her life with.’
Tommy felt a hot blush rising faster than the mercury in a thermometer bathed with August sunshine.
Evidently Julia Rosalyn Winona Lilith saw the blush, for she said, ‘My heavens, you are the sweetest young man.’
Scootie chuffed as if in agreement.
Blushing so brightly that he was beginning to sweat,
Tommy desperately wanted to change the subject. ‘So you haven’t slept since Mud Lake.’
Mrs. Payne nodded. ‘Just south of Tonopah.’
‘Twenty-seven years with no sleep.’
‘Almost twenty-eight, since the night that my Deliver¬ance was conceived.’
‘You must be tired.’
‘Not at all,’ she said. ‘Sleep isn’t a necessity for me now. It’s a choice, and I simply don’t choose to do it, because it’s boring.’
‘What happened at Mud Lake?’
‘Didn’t Del tell you?’
‘Well,’ said Mrs. Payne, ‘then it’s certainly not my place to do so. I’ll let it to her, in her own good time.’
Mummingford entered the room with a portable tele¬phone, per Del’s request, and put it on the coffee table. He retreated without comment. He had to deal with a stolen Ferrari, after all.
Tommy looked at his watch.
‘Personally, Tommy dear, I think your chances of living until dawn are a hundred percent.’
‘Well, if I don’t make it, Rosalyn, I’ll visit you on the David Letterman show.’
‘I’d adore that!’ she said and clapped her hands to express her pleasure at the thought.
On the radio, Glenn Miller’s big band was playing ‘American Patrol.’
After washing down the last of the cheese Danish with the last of his coffee, Tommy said, ‘Is this your favourite kind of music?’
‘Oh, yes. It’s the music that might redeem our planet
— if it could be redeemed by music alone.’
‘But you’re a child of the fifties.’
‘Rock-’n’-roll,’ she said. ‘Yes. I love rock-’n’-roll. But this is the music that appeals to the galaxy.’
He mulled over those four words: Appeals to the galaxy.’
‘Yes. As no other.’
‘You’re so like your daughter,’ he said.
Beaming, Mrs. Payne said, ‘I love you too, Tommy.’
‘So you collect old radio programs.’
‘Collect?’ she asked, baffled.
He indicated the radio on the coffee table. ‘Is it a cassette player, or are they issuing those collectibles on CDs now?’
‘No, dear, we’re listening to the original program live.’
‘Live on tape.’
‘Glenn Miller died in World War Two.’
‘Yes,’ Mrs. Payne said, ‘in nineteen forty-five. I’m surprised anyone of your age would remember him —or when he died.’
‘Swing music is so American,’ Tommy said. ‘I love everything American, I really do.’
‘That’s one reason you’re so strongly drawn to Del,’ she said happily. ‘Deliverance is so thoroughly American, so open to possibilities.’
‘Back to Glenn Miller, if we may. He died more than fifty years ago.’
‘So sad,’ Mrs. Payne acknowledged, stroking Scootie.
She raised her eyebrows. ‘Oh, I see your confusion.’
‘Only one small part of it.’
‘Excuse me, dear?’
At this point, no one alive is capable of grasping the enormous dimensions of my confusion,’ Tommy assured her.
‘Really? Then perhaps your diet’s deficient. You might not be getting enough vitamin B complex.’
‘Along with vitamin E,’ Mrs. Payne explained, ‘a good B-complex supplement can clarify mental pro¬cesses.’
‘I thought you were going to tell me to eat tofu.’
‘Good for the prostate.’
‘Glenn Miller,’ Tommy reminded her, indicating the radio that still swung with ‘American Patrol.’
‘Let me clear up this one little confusion,’ she said. ‘We’re listening to this broadcast live because my radio has trans-temporal tuning capabilities.’
‘Cross-time, yes. Earlier I was listening to Jack Benny live. He was an enormously funny man. No one like him today.’
‘Who sells radios with trans-temporal tuning capabili¬ties, Winona? Sears?’
‘Do they? I don’t think so. As for how I got my little radio, I’ll have to let Deliverance explain. It’s related to Mud Lake, you know.’
‘Trans-temporal radio,’ Tommy mused. ‘I think I prefer to believe in Big Foot.’
‘You can’t possibly,’ Mrs. Payne said disapprovingly.
‘Why not? I now believe in devil dolls and demons.’
‘Yes, but they’re real.’
Tommy checked his wristwatch again. ‘It’s still raining.’
She cocked her head and listened to the faint drumming of the rain on the well-insulated roof of The Great Pile, and Scootie cocked his head as well. After a moment, she said, ‘Yes, it is. Such a restful sound.’
‘You told Del the rain would stop in four minutes. You were so precise about it.’
‘Yes, that’s right.’
‘But it’s still raining.’
‘Four minutes haven’t passed yet.’
Tommy tapped his watch.
She said, ‘Dear, your watch is wrong. It’s taken a lot of battering tonight.’
Tommy held the wristwatch to his ear, listened, and said, ‘Ticktock.’
‘Ten seconds yet,’ she said.
He counted them off, then looked at her and smiled ruefully.
The rain continued to fall.
At fifteen seconds, the rain abruptly stopped.
Tommy’s smile faded, and Mrs. Payne’s returned.
‘You were five seconds off,’ he said.
‘I never claimed to be God, dear.’
‘What do you claim to be, Lilith?’
She pursed her lips, considering his question, and then said, ‘Just an ex-ballerina with a considerable amount of enriching and strange experience.’
Slumping back in his armchair, Tommy said, ‘I’m never going to doubt a Payne woman again.’
‘That’s a wise decision, dear.’
‘What’s a wise decision?’ Del asked as she returned.
Mrs. Payne said, ‘He’s decided never to doubt a Payne woman.’
‘Never doubting a Payne woman,’ Del said, ‘is not just wise. It’s the prerequisite for survival.’
‘Although I keep thinking about the female preying mantis,’ Tommy said.
‘After she mates, she bites the head off her partner and eats him alive.’
Mrs. Payne said, ‘I think you’ll discover that Payne women will usually settle for a cup of tea and a scone.’
Indicating the portable telephone on the coffee table, Del said, ‘Did you make the call, Tommy?’
He had completely forgotten Gi.
Del handed him the phone, and he punched in the number for the back-office line at the New World Saigon Bakery.
Leaning forward in her chair without disturbing Scootie, Mrs. Payne switched off the trans-temporal radio, silencing the Glenn Miller band in the middle of ‘Little Brown Jug.’
Gi answered on the second ring, and when he heard Tommy’s voice, he said, ‘I was expecting you to call an hour ago.’
‘I was delayed by a yacht wreck.’
‘Have you translated the note?’
Gi Minh hesitated and then said, ‘Are you still with that blonde?’
‘I wish you weren’t with her.’
Tommy looked at Del and smiled. To Gi, he said, ‘Well, here I am.’
‘She’s bad news, Tommy.’
‘More like the comics pages.’
‘If Jeffery Dahmer were a cartoonist.’
Gi was silent. It was the silence of confusion, with which Tommy was too familiar.
Tommy said, ‘Were you able to translate the note?’
‘It didn’t dry out as well as I hoped. I can’t give you an entire translation of it — but I figured out enough to scare me. It’s not any gang that’s after you, Tommy.’
‘I’m not sure. What you’ve got to do is, you’ve got to go see Mom right away.’
Tommy blinked in surprise and rose from his armchair. His hands were suddenly clammy with the sweat of familial guilt. ‘Mom?’
‘The longer I worked on the note, the more it wor¬ried me—’
‘—and finally I called her for some advice.’
‘You woke Mom?’ he asked in disbelief.
‘When I told her about the note, as much as I could understand of it, she got scared too.’
Pacing nervously, glancing at Del and her mother, Tommy said, ‘I really didn’t want Mom to know about this, Gi.’
‘She understands the old world, Tommy, and this thing is more a part of the Old World than it is of this one.’
‘She’ll say I’ve been drinking whiskey—’
‘She’s waiting for you, Tommy.’
‘—like my crazy detective.’ His mouth went dry. ‘Waiting for me?’
‘You don’t have much time, Tommy. I think you better get there as fast as you can. I really think you better. Fast. But don’t take the blonde.’
‘I have to.’
‘She’s bad news, Tommy.’
Tommy glanced at Del. She sure didn’t look like bad news. She had combed her hair. Her smile was sweet. She winked at him.
‘Bad news,’ Gi repeated.
‘We’ve been on this page before, Gi.’
Gi sighed. ‘Well, at least cut Mom a little slack. She’s had a terrible day.’
‘Mine hasn’t exactly been a piece of cake.’
Mai was their younger sister.
‘Eloped?’ Tommy said, thunderstruck. ‘Eloped with whom?’
Gi sighed. ‘None of us knew she was dating a magi¬cian.’
‘This is the first I’ve heard she was dating any magi¬cian,’ Tommy said, eager to establish that he could not be accused of complicity in his sister’s astounding act of independence.
From her armchair, the ex-ballerina who hadn’t slept since Mud Lake said, ‘A magician — how romantic.’
Gi said, ‘His name is Roland Ironwright.’
‘Doesn’t sound Vietnamese.’
‘Oh, God.’ Tommy could too easily imagine the mood in which his mother would be stewing when he arrived at her doorstep with Del Payne.
Gi said, ‘He performs in Vegas a lot. He and Mai hopped a plane to Vegas and got married, and Mom only learned about it this evening, didn’t tell me about it until I called her a little while ago, so cut her some slack.’
Tommy was overwhelmed by remorse. ‘I should have gone to dinner, had com tay cam.’
‘Go now, Tommy,’ Gi said. ‘She might be able to help you. She said hurry.’
‘I love you, Gi.’
‘Well, sure. . . I love you, Tommy.’
‘I love Ton and Mai and Mom and Dad, I really do, I love all of you so much. . . but I’ve got to be free.’
‘I know, brother. I know. Listen, I’ll call Mom and tell her you’re on your way. Now get moving, you’re almost out of time!’
When Tommy hung up, he saw that Del’s mother was blotting tears from the corners of her eyes.
With a tremor in her voice, she said, ‘This is just so moving. I haven’t been so touched since Ned’s funeral, when Frank Sinatra gave the eulogy.’
Del moved beside her mother’s chair and put a hand on the older woman’s shoulder. ‘Now, now. It’s okay, Mom.’
To Tommy, Mrs. Payne said, ‘Frank was so eloquent. Wasn’t he eloquent, Del?’