‘You not scare me,’ Mrs. Dai said disdainfully. ‘Zip up face and go away.’
The writhing tendrils withdrew into the skull, and the torn visage re-knit into the face of the fat man — although with the green eyes of the demon.
‘You see,’ Mother Phan told Tommy, still sitting com¬placently with her purse in her lap and her hands on the purse. ‘Don’t need gun when have Quy Trang Dai.’
‘Impressive,’ Del agreed.
At the window, its frustration palpable, the Samaritan-thing issued a pleading, needful mewl.
Mrs. Dai took three steps toward the window, lights flashing across the heels of her shoes, and waved at the beast with the backs of her hands. ‘Shoo,’ she said impatiently. ‘Shoo, shoo.’
This was more than the Samaritan-thing could tolerate, and it smashed one fat fist through the window.
As shattered glass cascaded into the living room, Mrs. Dai backed up three steps, bumping against the chinoiserie chair, and said, ‘This not good.’
‘This not good?’ Tommy half shouted. ‘What do you mean this not good?’
Rising from the sofa, Del said, ‘I think she means we turned down the last cup of tea we’re ever going to have a chance to drink.’
Mother Phan got up from the bergêre. She spoke to Quy Trang Dai in rapid Vietnamese.
Keeping her eyes on the demon at the broken window, Mrs. Dai answered in Vietnamese.
Looking distressed at last, Mother Phan said, ‘Oh, boy.’
The tone in which his mother spoke those two words affected Tommy in the same way as an icy finger drawn down his spine would have affected him.
At the window, the Samaritan-thing at first seemed shocked by its own boldness. This was, after all, the sacred domain of the hairdresser witch who had sum¬moned it from Hell — or from wherever Xan River magi¬cians summoned such creatures. It peered in amazement at the few jagged fragments of glass that still prickled from the window frame, no doubt wondering why it had not instantly been cast back to the sulfurous chambers of the underworld.
Mrs. Dai checked her wristwatch.
Tommy consulted his as well.
Half snarling, half whining nervously, the Samaritan-thing climbed through the broken window into the living room.
‘Better stand together,’ said Mrs. Dai.
Tommy, Del, and Scootie moved out from behind the coffee table, joining his mother and Mrs. Dai in a tight grouping.
The serpent-eyed fat man no longer wore the hooded raincoat. The fire from the yacht should have burned away all attire, but curiously the flames had only singed its clothes, as though its imperviousness to fire extended somewhat to the garments it wore. The black wingtip shoes were badly scuffed and caked with mud. The filthy and rumpled trousers, the equally dishevelled and bullet-torn shirt and vest and suit jacket, the acrid smell of smoke that seeped from the creature, combined with its gardenia-white skin and inhuman eyes, gave it all the charm of a walking corpse.
For half a minute or more, the demon stood in inde¬cision and evident uneasiness, perhaps waiting to be punished for violating the sanctity of Mrs. Dai’s house.
Then it shook itself. Its plump hands curled into fists, relaxed, curled into fists. It licked its lips with a fat pink tongue — and it shrieked at them.
The deadline is dawn.
Beyond the windows the sky was still dark — though perhaps more charcoal grey than black.
Mrs. Dai startled Tommy by raising her left hand to her mouth and savagely biting the meatiest part of her palm, below her thumb, drawing blood. She smacked her bloody hand against his forehead, in the manner of a faith healer knocking illness out of a penitent sufferer.
When Tommy started to wipe the blood away, Mrs. Dai
said, ‘No, leave. I safe from demon because I summon into rag doll. Can’t harm me. If you smell like me, smell like my blood, it can’t know who you really are, think you me, then not harm you either.’
As the Samaritan-thing approached, Mrs. Dai smeared her blood on Del’s forehead, on Mother Phan’s fore¬head, and after hesitating only briefly, on Scootie’s head as well.
‘Be still,’ she instructed them in an urgent whisper. ‘Be still, be quiet.’
Grumbling, hissing, the creature approached to within
a foot of the group. Its fetid breath was repulsive, reeking
of dead burnt flesh and curdled milk and rancid onions
— as though, in another life, it had eaten hundreds of
cheeseburgers and had been plagued with indigestion
even in Hell.
With a wet crackling sound, the plump white hands metamorphosed into serrated pincers that were designed for efficient slashing and rending.
When the radiant green eyes fixed on Tommy’s eyes, they seemed to look through him, as if the beast were reading his identity on the bar code of his soul.
Tommy remained still. Silent.
The demon sniffed him, not as a snorting pig might revel in the delicious stink of its slops, but as a master viniculturist with an exquisitely sensitive nose might seek to isolate and identify each of the many delicate aromas rising from a glassful of fine Bordeaux.
Hissing, the beast turned to sniff Del, lingering less than it had with Tommy.
Then Mrs. Dai.
Then Mother Phan.
When the creature bent down to sniff Scootie, the Labrador returned the comptiment.
Apparently puzzled by finding the scent of the sor¬ceress on all of them, the demon circled the group,
grumbling, mumbling to itself in some strange lan¬guage.
As one, without having to discuss it, Tommy and the three women and the dog shuffled in a circle to keep their blood-smeared faces toward the Samaritan-thing as it prowled for prey.
When they had shuffled all the way around, three hundred and sixty degrees, and were back where they had started, the creature focused on Tommy once more. It leaned closer, until their faces were only three inches apart, and it sniffed. Sniffed. Sniffed. With a disgusting squishy sound, the fat man’s nose broadened and dark-ened into a scaly reptilian snout with wide, pug nostrils. It breathed in slowly and deeply, held its breath, exhaled, breathed in even slower and deeper than before.
The serpent-eyed thing opened its mouth and shrieked at Tommy, but though his heart raced faster, Tommy neither flinched nor cried out.
At last the demon exhaled its pent-up inhalation, bathing Tommy’s face in a gale of foul breath that made him want to spew up the coffee and pastries that he had eaten during the stop at The Great Pile.
The beast shuffled to the bergere, where Tommy’s mother had been sitting, and knocked her purse to the floor. It settled down and folded its killing pincers in its lap — and after a moment they metamorphosed into the fat man’s hands once more.
Tommy was afraid that his mother would leave the group, pick up her purse, and smack the demon over the head with it. But with uncharacteristic timidity, she remained as still and quiet as Mrs. Dai had instructed.
The hulking Samaritan-thing smacked its lips. It sighed wearily.
The radiant green eyes changed into the ordinary brown eyes of the murdered Samaritan.
The demon looked at its wristwatch.
Yawning, it blinked at the group standing before it.
The beast bent forward in the bergêre, seized its right foot with both hands, and brought the foot to its face in a display of impossible double-jointedness. Its mouth cracked open from ear to ear, like the mouth of a crocodile, and it began to stuff its foot and then its heavy leg into its maw.
Tommy glanced at the windows.
Pale pink light spread like a dim blush on the face of the eastern sky.
As if it were not a solid creature, but an elaborate origami sculpture, the demon continued to fold itself into itself, growing smaller and smaller still — until, with a shimmer that hid the how of the final transformation, it became only a rag doll once more, exactly as it had been when he had found it on his doorstep, a limp-limbed figure of white cotton, with all the black stitches intact.
Pointing at the pink sky beyond the windows, Mrs. Dai said, ‘Going to be nice day.’
With paper towels and tap water, they had cleaned the blood off their foreheads.
The two Vietnamese women sat at the kitchen table. After applying a healing poultice that the hairdresser witch kept in the refrigerator, Mother Phan taped a gauze pad to Mrs. Dai’s bitten hand. ‘You sure not hurt?’
‘Fine, fine,’ said Quy Trang Dai. ‘Heal fast, no prob¬lem.’
The rag doll lay on the table.
Tommy couldn’t take his eyes off it. ‘What’s in the damn thing?’
‘Now?’ Mrs. Dai said. ‘Mostly just sand. Some river mud. Snake blood. Some other things better you not know.’
‘I want to destroy it.’
‘Can’t hurt you now. Anyway, taking apart is my job,’ said Mrs. Dai. ‘Have to do according to rules or magic won’t be undone.’
‘Then take it apart right now.’
‘Have to wait till noon, sun high, night on other side of world, and then magic be undone.’
‘That’s only logical,’ Del said.
Getting up from the table, Mrs. Dai said, ‘Ready for tea now?’
‘I want to see it dismembered, everything inside cast to the wind,’ Tommy said.
‘Can’t watch,’ said Mrs. Dai as she took a tea kettle from one of the cabinets. ‘Magic must be done by sorceress alone, no other eyes to see.’
‘Dead ancestors of River Xan set rules, not me.’
‘Sit down, Tuong, stop worry, have tea,’ said Mother Phan. ‘You make Mrs. Dai think you not trust her.’
Taking Tommy by the arm, Del said, ‘Could I see you a minute?’
She led him out of the kitchen into the dining room, and Scootie followed them.
Speaking in a whisper, she said, ‘Don’t drink the tea.’
‘Maybe there’s more than one way to make a stray son return to the fold.’
‘A potion, a combination of exotic herbs, a pinch of river mud — who knows?’ Del whispered.
Tommy looked back through the open door. In the kitchen, his mother was putting out cookies and slices of cake while Mrs. Dai brewed the tea.
‘Maybe,’ whispered Del, ‘Mrs. Dai was too enthusiastic about bringing you to your senses and back into the family. Maybe she started out with the drastic approach, the doll, when a nice cup of the right tea would have made more sense.’
In the kitchen, Mrs. Dai was putting cups and saucers on the table. The devil doll still lay there, watching the preparations with its cross-stitched eyes.
Tommy stepped into the kitchen and said, ‘Mom, I think we’d better go now.’
Looking up from the cake that she was slicing, Mother Phan said, ‘Have tea and nibble first, then go.’
‘No, I want to go now.’
‘Don’t be rude, Tuong. While we have tea and nibble, I call your father. By time we done, he stop by, take us
home before he go work at bakery.’
‘Del and I are leaving now,’ he insisted.
‘No car,’ she reminded him. ‘This crazy woman’s car just trash in garage.’
‘The Peterbilt’s parked out there at the curb. The engine’s still idling.’
Mother Phan frowned. ‘Truck stolen.’
‘We’ll return it,’ Tommy said.
‘What about trash car in garage?’ Mrs. Dai asked.
‘Mummingford will send someone for it,’ said Del.
Tommy and Del and Scootie went into the living room, where the glass from the broken window crunched and clinked under their shoes.
Mrs. Dai and Mother Phan followed them.
As Tommy unlocked and opened the front door, his mother said, ‘When I see you again?’
‘Soon,’ he promised, following Del and Scootie onto the porch.
‘Come to dinner tonight. We have com tay cam, your favourite.’
‘That sounds good. Mmmmm, I can’t wait.’
Mrs. Dai and Mother Phan stepped onto the porch as well, and the hairdresser said, ‘Miss Payne, what day your birthday?’
Descending the porch steps, Del said, ‘October thirty-first.’
‘Which true?’ Mrs. Dai asked a little too eagerly. ‘July fourth,’ said Del. And to Tommy, sotto voce, she said, ‘They always need a birthday to cast the spell.’
Moving onto the front steps as Del reached the walk¬way, Mrs. Dai said, ‘You have beautiful hair, Miss Payne. I enjoy doing such beautiful hair.’
‘So you can get a lock of it?’ Del wondered as she continued to walk toward the Peterbilt.
‘Mrs. Dai is wonderful genius hairdresser,’ said Mother Phan. ‘She give you best look ever have.’
‘I’ll call for an appointment,’ Del promised as she went around the truck to the driver’s door.
Tommy opened the passenger door to the truck cab so the dog could spring inside.
His mother and Mrs. Dai stood side by side on the steps of the front porch, his mother in black slacks and a white blouse, Mrs. Dai in her pink jogging suit. They waved.
Tommy waved back at them, climbed into the truck cab beside the dog, and pulled the door shut.
Del was already behind the wheel. She put the truck in gear.
When Tommy glanced at the house again, Mrs. Dai and his mother waved at him.
Again he returned the wave.
As Del drove away from the house, Tommy said miserably, ‘What am I going to do now? I love my mother, I really do, but I’m never going to be a baker or a doctor or any of the things she wants me to be, and I can’t spend the rest of my life afraid to drink tea or answer a doorbell.’
‘It’ll be all right, tofu boy.’
‘It’ll never be all right,’ he disagreed.
‘Don’t be negative. Negative thinking disturbs the fab¬ric of the cosmos. A little bit of self-indulgent negativity might seem like an innocent pleasure, but it can cause a tornado in Kansas or a blizzard in Pennsylvania.’
Scootie licked Tommy’s face, and he didn’t resist. He knew he was genuinely desperate when he found himself taking comfort from the dog’s attentions.
‘I know exactly what we need to do,’ she said.
‘Oh, yeah? What?’
‘You’ve known since we kissed on the carousel.’
‘What a kiss.’
‘So for starters, we need to fly to Vegas and get married