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Authors: Graham Masterton

Hymn

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The Hymn

Graham Masterton

One

If Bob Tuggey had thought for an instant that the girl in the red-chequered cowboy shirt was carrying that bright yellow petrol can across the car-park with the intention of burning herself alive, he would immediately have thrown down his spatula, vaulted the counter and run out of the restaurant as fast as his cruiser-weight build could have taken him.

From where he was standing in the kitchen, he was probably the first person in the Rosecrans Avenue branch of McDonald's to catch sight of her. And—ironically—he was probably the only person who had the experience to realize what was wrong about the way she was walking, even though she was smiling and swinging the petrol can like a basketful of summer flowers.

In another time, in another life, Bob Tuggey had been a junior clerk for Deputy Chief of Mission William Trueheart in South Viet Nam; and one evening late in June, 1963, when he was driving back to the embassy after buying himself half a dozen new sports shirts from his Chinese tailor in Cholon, a Buddhist monk had walked across the road in front of him in just the same way, swinging a petrol can. A-tisket, a-tasket . . .

Bob's Valiant had been brought to a halt a little further up the road by a long military convoy grinding past, and while he had sat smoking and listening to Peter, Paul and Mary, the monk had eased himself down on the pavement less than seventy feet away, splashed sparkling petrol all over his head, and set himself alight.

‘The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind . . .'

Bob had never forgotten the soft flaring noise of burning petrol, the whirl of ashes from burning robes, the stoical agony on the monk's gradually blackening face. There had been shouting, arguing, bicycle bells ringing, but nobody had screamed. Bob had heaved himself out of the car, dragging his picnic-blanket after him with the intention of smothering the flames, but three more monks had pushed him away, persistently, with the heels of their bony hands, until their brother had fallen stiffly sideways, still burning, beyond the ministrations of anybody but Buddha.

Bob had doubled up by the side of the road, under that bronze smoky sky, and vomited churned-up chicken and tomatoes. Even today, ‘Blowin' In The Wind' made his stomach tighten.

Maybe the smallest of small bells tinkled in Bob's memory as the girl came into view. But of course there was nothing about her that would have put him instantly in mind of a protesting Buddhist monk. She was petite and blonde, with bouncy brushed-back hair that reminded him of Doris Day. Her cowboy shirt was matched with a wide tan-leather belt, cinched tight, and well-fitting 501s.

‘Four quarter-pounders down,' called Sally, the ginger-haired manageress. Bob peeled off the greaseproof paper, and pressed the burgers on to the hotplate. Outside the window, the girl was already halfway across the car-park, still swinging the can, her shrunken shadow dancing after her. The sunlight flashed for an instant off the yellow enamel paint.

Bob was balding and overweight and by far the oldest employee at McDonald's Rosecrans Avenue. When his left eye looked west, his right eye looked nor'-nor'-west. But all of the kids liked him, and called him ‘Unca Tug'. He was fifty-one next week, a birthday he would have to celebrate on his own. After William Trueheart had left Saigon, Bob had drifted through one menial government clerkship after another, black coffee, brown offices. He had started to drink, a bottle of Ricard a day, often more. Days of milk-white clouds and aniseed. In France one rainy afternoon, in his small apartment in the Domaine de la Ronce, he had tried to commit suicide by gassing himself. What was the point of living, with no prospects, no money, and no companions but a brindled boxer with slobbery jowls that kept chewing the furniture?

All that had saved him was the stink of gas, which (with a stomachful of Ricard) had made him feel unbearably dizzy and sick. He had gone out for a breath of fresh air. Absurd, in the middle of killing himself, but he hadn't wanted to die nauseous. While he was out, the gas had blown up his kitchen, and deafened his dog. The concierge had been furious, and had followed him around for an hour, shouting at him.

‘Idiot! You think it's a good joke, to blow up your apartment?'

‘Pardon?' he had repeated, again and again. He, too, had been deafened, but only temporarily.

The girl kept walking towards the far side of the car-park. The hot shuddering air made it look as if she were walking through a crystal-clear lake. It was 95 degrees outside which, in San Diego, was exceptional for June. She was walking towards the far side of the car-park with what, by the slow way it swung, was obviously a full can of petrol. Yet where was she taking it? There were no cars parked on that side of the car-park, none at all, and no vehicles in sight on the road.

Bob turned the quarter-pounders over, and took two special orders for cheeseburger grills.

‘Sally—fillets up!' called Gino, next to him, all Adam's apple and razored black sideburns. The girl outside stepped with her can over the scrubby row of bushes that separated one section of the car-park from the next.

‘Unca Tug, where's those quarter-pounders?' Sally demanded. Bob glanced down. They were almost ready.

‘Three chicken sandwiches down!' Marianne called.

‘Big Macs up!' said Gino.

‘Two cheeseburgers down!' said Doyle.

Bob looked up again and the girl was still walking. She was probably five hundred feet away from the restaurant now. He didn't know why he kept on watching her, but she was so far away from any parked vehicles now, with that can of petrol, and she was slowing down, looking around her, as if she were lost, or as if she had decided that this was the spot.

The sizzle of quarter-pounders distracted Bob for a second. He scooped them off the hotplate and shovelled them into their buns. ‘Four Macs down!' called Sally.

Bob lifted the metal tray of quarter-pounders on to the counter and, as he did so, he saw the girl lowering herself crosslegged on to the concrete. He frowned, trying hard to focus. His eyes weren't so good at this kind of distance. He always wore his glasses when he went to the movies, or to San Diego Stadium to watch the Padres. But as the girl turned herself slightly to twist open the petrol can, he instantly interpreted the meaning of her gesture and it was then, in a thrill of total horror, that he connected the buoyant determined walk to nowhere in particular—a-tisket, a-tasket—with the yellow can swinging, and the dignified crosslegged posture, and the terrible composure with which she reached out to turn the screwtop.

His ears heard the spitting of cheeseburgers, and the chattering of Girl Scouts. But his eyes saw a burning Buddhist monk.

‘Oh Christ,' he said.

‘Unca Tug?' frowned Gino.

‘Two fillets down!' called Sally.

He dropped his spatula. It rang on the hotplate, bounced to the floor. ‘Hey, Unca Tug . . .' Sally began.

But Bob was already shouldering his way past Gino and David, jarring his thigh on the edge of the worktop. They were shouting at him but their voices just sounded like a deep blur. ‘Unnncccaaa Ttttuuggggg . . .' He hoisted the bright red fire-extinguisher off the wall. For Fat Fires Only—Jesus! Then his shoulder had collided with the emergency exit at the back of the kitchen and he was out in the heat, in his Mcdonald's hat and his flapping apron, carrying the fire-extinguisher like a quarterback heading for a touchdown.

He circled the restaurant, awkwardly hop-hurdling the low chainlink fencing at the side. Oh please God don't let her, oh please God don't let her.

His sneakers slapped loudly on the hot tarmac. His vision jumbled. Hunh! he panted. Overweight, unfit. Hunh! hunh! hunh! He heard a soft explosion, scarcely audible, poooffff! and a woman scream. He saw orange flame wagging in the breeze like a burning flag. His heart was bursting; the hot air scorched his lungs. But then he was crashing his way through the crackling dry bushes into the next section of the car-park and there she was, sitting right in front of him, on fire.

She was still crosslegged, but sitting rigidly upright. Her back was arched, her hands stiffly clenching her thighs. Her eyes were tightly shut; nobody had the willpower to burn with their eyes open. Her blonde hair was already blackened, a thousand ends glowing orange like a burning broom. Flames poured out of her face. She must have poured most of the petrol down her front, because her lap was a roaring nest of fire.

‘Hold on!' Bob screamed at her, although he didn't know why. He banged the fire-extinguisher against the concrete, and it started to spurt out foam. He directed a jet of foam straight at her face, then at her legs, and kept on squirting foam at her until the last flame had been smothered. There was foam, steam and oily smoke, and an overwhelming smell of burned flesh.

Five or six people were running from the shopping mall toward him. Some children were crying, and a woman was screaming, ‘Oh, God! Oh, God!'

‘Call an ambulance!' Bob roared, almost hysterical. Spit flew from his mouth. ‘Call a fucking ambulance!'

He turned back, off-balance, gasping, to look at the girl. She was still sitting upright, although all of her hair had burned off, and her face was corked black like a nigger minstrel's. She was shuddering with pain and shock. The skin on the back of her hands had burned through, and the bare bones were exposed.

‘It's all right,' Bob told her. He knew better than to touch her. ‘Just stay still, try not to move. The ambulance is coming.'

She opened her shrivelled eyelids, and stared at him with milked-over eyes.

‘You bastard,' she whispered. ‘You bastard. Why didn't you let me burn?'

‘It's all right,' he reassured her. ‘You're going to be fine. Do you want to lie down?'

A curious and shuffling crowd was already gathering around them. Bob heard a teenage kid say, ‘Shit man, just look at her.'

‘Would you go away, please?' Bob demanded, with a stiff sweep of his arm. There were tears in his eyes. ‘This woman's hurt. Would you please just go away?'

Nobody moved. Somebody even knelt down and started taking photographs. But when Bob looked back at the girl, she had stretched her cracked scarlet lips across her teeth. She was staring at him as if she could have damned him to hell.

‘Bastard,' she repeated. Then she coughed, and coughed again, and suddenly vomited up a bibful of blood and blackened lung and unburnt petrol. She fell sideways, trembling, and then she lay still. Bob would never forget the sound of her hairless skull, knocking against the concrete.

With an odd genuflexion, he laid down his fire-extinguisher. By the rivers of Babylon, I laid my fire-extinguisher down. In the distance, he could hear the yelping of a siren. He didn't know what to do. He didn't know what made him feel worse: the fact that he had tried to save her, and failed; or the fact that he had tried to save her at all. Nobody had ever looked at him with such hostility before, nobody. If looks could have killed, he would have been lying beside her, burned to death, just like she was—and his soul, too, would have been blowing in the wind, like smoke.

Two

‘Did you ever cook grunion, Mr Denman?' asked Waldo.

Lloyd swallowed wine and looked up from his cluttered rolltop desk, ‘Grunion? No, I never even thought about cooking them. Why?'

‘Oh, nothing. It's just that grunion's in season right now. I was wondering whether I ought to take the kids grunion-catching. Trouble is, I don't know what you're supposed to do with grunion once you've caught them.'

‘Did you ask Louis?'

‘Louis said he didn't have a clue.'

Lloyd eased himself back in his captain's chair. ‘Well . . . you remember Charles Kuerbis? The realtor? He was always the first one down on the beach when the grunion started running. I asked him once how he cooked them. He said he didn't know: he gave them to his wife. Whatever it was she did to them, they were always excellent. So I asked his wife, and she said she fed them to the cat, and went out to the market and bought some decent fish.'

‘Maybe I'll take them to Sea World instead,' Waldo suggested, in a defeated tone.

‘Didn't you take them to Sea World last time?'

‘Sure, and the time before that, and the time before that. I can't remember an access visit in three years when I haven't come back soaking wet. The kids always like to sit at the front. Did you ever smell a killer whale's breath, Mr Denman?'

‘Sure, halibutosis,' joked Lloyd. He shuffled a heap of bills together and jammed them on to a spike. ‘You're enough to put a guy off getting married, you know that?'

Waldo shook his head. ‘Don't take no notice of me, Mr Denman. There's only one woman in the world as bad as my Tusha, and that's my Tusha. Celia's perfect for you, and you know it. Celia's bright, she's pretty, she's classy. She knows all about music. Not like Tusha. Tusha thinks that Pavarotti is some kind of cheese, you know, like ricotta. Besides, you never met her, she's hideous.'

‘Why on earth did you marry her in the first place, if you think she's hideous?'

‘Oh, no, don't get me wrong. On the outside, she looks great. Great eyes, great smile. Great gazongas. It's just on the inside she's hideous. A really hideous inside.'

Lloyd stood up, and carried his empty glass out of the office and through to the bar. He took a bottle of San Pasqual Chenin Blanc out of the icebox and poured himself a generous measure. He allowed himself only two glasses of wine during the afternoon: otherwise things would start getting a little unreal by the time the restaurant opened for the evening trade.

He checked his watch, the Corum Gold Coin watch that Celia had given him for his birthday last April. Waldo, the maitre d', always came early, because he really had no place else to go. They talked usually, or shared a bottle of wine, or played draughts. The rest of the staff would be arriving in ones and twos within a half-hour, ready for their opening at six-thirty.

Lloyd walked through the twenty-six table restaurant, checking each place-setting individually. Fresh orchids, gleaming Lauffer cutlery, shell-pink linen napkins folded like chrysanthemums. Quite a few restaurants let their waiting staff leave for the afternoon without resetting the tables, but Lloyd insisted that when the staff returned for the evening shift, the place should look as entrancing to them as it did to their customers.

It was still magical for Lloyd. After eleven years as an insurance assessor for San Diego Marine Trust, working out how much rich men's boats were worth, this restaurant was everything he had always wanted. Freedom, independence, profitable hard work, fun. Denman's Original Fish Depot, an informal but stylish seafood restaurant with Victorian-tiled walls, oak parquet floor and mahogany ceiling-fans, and a balcony outside overlooking La Jolla Cove.

San Diego magazine had already complimented Lloyd on his north-west salmon steaks broiled over alderwood, his glazed mahi-mahi, and his trademark dish, the Denman's Original Fish Depot Delight, which was lobster chunks, shrimp, clams, crab legs and mushrooms, served with poured-over chowder in a hot French-style brioche.

He walked across to the sliding glass doors that led out on to the balcony, and opened them. A warm briny wind was blowing off the sea, and gulls were sloping and crying around the steep sandy-coloured cliffs. He leaned against the wooden rail and breathed in the evening air. This was it. This was the dream. It was all so ridiculously idyllic that sometimes it made him grin to himself in shameless self-satisfaction.

He had it all, or the best part of it, anyway. His own restaurant in a posh and profitable location; a talented and startling pretty girlfriend who loved him like crazy and wanted to marry him; a white 5-Series BMW with the personalized licence FISHEE, and a $568,000 house close to the University of California at San Diego with a hot tub and an olive tree and what his realtors had called ‘a tantalizing peek' of the North Shore. A full peek would have cost him $30,000 more, and so far an actual view was financially out of the question.

But think of it: his father had been a mail-carrier, and his mother had taken in sewing, and here he was.

Lloyd didn't really look the part of a restaurateur. He was very lean and tall, with a mop of grey-streaked hair and a prominent bony nose which had led his mother to describe him as ‘proud-looking' and his father to call him ‘the yooman can-opener'. But now that his fortieth birthday was approaching, and he was lightly suntanned and psychologically well balanced and everything was well with the world, he had an air about him that was both distinguished and light-hearted. Celia always said that if Basil Rathbone had been both Californian and funny, then he would have been Lloyd Denman instead.

He turned around and watched Waldo setting up his reservations book on the oak lectern beside the front doors. Waldo had smoothed-back hair, a clipped Oliver Hardy moustache, and a wide dark green cummerbund that made him look like a ribbon-wrapped Easter egg. He spoke to the customers with an amazingly over-the-top French accent, ‘Zees way, sair, see voo play—pardonnay mwuh, madarm,' but in fact his name was Waldo Slonimsky and he was Lithuanian; the only survivor of his entire family. Sometimes Lloyd could look at his face and clearly see the plump lonely seven-year-old boy who had been brought over to America just before the war. Waldo had married, had kids, divorced, dated a few women the same shape as him. But Lloyd thought: when you've lost for ever the people you love the most, how can you ever stop being lonely?

‘Waldo,' he called. ‘Come on out here.'

Waldo stepped out on to the balcony, tugging his cummerbund straight. ‘You want something, Mr Denman?'

Lloyd nodded. ‘Yes, I do. I want you to drop everything for just a couple of minutes and come out here and take a look at the cove.'

Waldo kept his eyes on Lloyd; obviously tense, obviously thinking anxiously about everything he had to do. Check the menus, update the wine-lists, call for two replacement waitresses because Angie and Kay had both phoned in sick. Sick, my ass, excuse my Lithuanian, surfing more like.

Lloyd tried to encourage him, ‘Relax, look around. What do you think of the cove this evening?'

Waldo glanced at it quickly. ‘This evening, it's a nice cove.'

‘Is that all? Just nice?'

Waldo contrived to look around some more. ‘This evening, it's a heck of a nice cove.'

Llody laughed and clamped his arm around Waldo's shoulders. ‘You know what your trouble is, Waldo?'

‘What?' asked Waldo, uneasily. ‘What's my trouble?'

‘You never stop to think how lucky you are.'

Waldo plainly didn't understand what Lloyd was trying to say to him. He shrugged, twisted the napkin that he always used for polishing fingerprints from knives and forks. ‘I do what I can, Mr Denman. You know that.'

‘Sure, Waldo, I know that. But just close your eyes and take a breath of this good Pacific air and let your muscles loose. You may have had your troubles with Tusha, but you've got yourself two beautiful children, and your own apartment and a car that actually runs, and a whole lot of people who like you.'

‘Well, that's nice, Mr Denman. Thank you very much.'

‘Waldo . . .' Lloyd began, squeezing Waldo's arm. But he knew that it was no use pushing Waldo any further. He would simply embarrass him.

Waldo went to the rail and looked out over the sea. Now that the sun was setting, La Jolla and all its jostling restaurants and souvenir shops and colour-washed apartment buildings were thickly coated in a glutinous shellac of amber light. The gulls continued to wheel and scream, and Waldo lifted his double chin and watched them.

‘My family used to live in Palanga, you know, on the Baltic,' he said. ‘It seems very far from here now, very long ago. My grandfather used to take me for walks along the shore. It's funny, don't you think, Mr Denman? I can see him as clear now as I did then. He always used to wear a long grey wool coat, and an old-fashioned black felt hat.'

‘That's not so funny,' smiled Lloyd. ‘I can almost see him myself.'

Waldo slowly shook his head. ‘Grandfather used to say to me that when we die, our souls become seagulls. They fly, they swoop. That is why seagulls always sound so sad. They are always looking for the people they left behind.'

Lloyd said, ‘That's a cute little story.'

Waldo wiped his eyes with his fingers. ‘I used to believe it. I think I still believe it. Maybe in the Baltic my grandfather still flies and swoops along the shoreline, looking for that boy that he once used to take for walks.'

He shrugged, and then he said, ‘I'd better get back in now. There's a whole lot to do.'

As he went in, however, Lloyd saw two men in budget-priced suits push their way in through the restaurant's oak-panelled front door, and stand uncertainly among the pot-plants. They certainly didn't look like the Fish Depot's usual type of customer, but then they didn't look like health inspectors, either. One of them was cavernous-cheeked and unshaven, with glittering eyes. The other was podgy and rumpled, with a surprised-looking face, and an uncontrollable quiff of fraying brown hair. Jackie Gleason meets James Belushi.

The unshaven one came up to Waldo and spoke to him. Waldo nodded, then shook his head. He said something else, and then he turned and pointed toward the balcony. The two men weaved their way between the tables with their hands in their pockets, and emerged out on the balcony.

‘Mr Lloyd Denman?' the unshaven one asked him, with a slight catch in his throat.

‘That's right. How can I help you?'

The man produced a gold badge. ‘I'm Sergeant David Houk, sir, San Diego Police Department. This is Detective Ned Gable.'

‘This doesn't concern unpaid parking tickets, does it?' asked Lloyd, mock-defensively. ‘There's a whole bunch still in my glovebox. You know how it is. Busy, busy, busy.'

‘Well, no, sir. We just wanted to ask you a couple of questions, sir.'

Lloyd could sense their disquiet. ‘What is it?' he demanded. ‘What's happened?'

Sergeant Houk cleared his throat, and then he said, ‘There's been an accident, Mr Denman, on Rosecrans Avenue, downtown.'

‘An accident? What kind of an accident?'

‘Woman got fatally burned, sir. Right in front of McDonald's restaurant.'

‘Well, that's terrible.'

‘Yes, sir.'

Lloyd waited. He didn't know what else to say. ‘So, a woman got burned. What does that have to do with me?'

‘Do you know Ms Celia Williams, sir?' asked Detective Gable.

Lloyd was baffled. ‘Sure I know Ms Celia Williams. She's my fiancée. But she's in San Francisco right now, giving a course of music lectures.'

‘She's in San Francisco?' asked Houk, glancing at Gable with unconcealed surprise.

‘Sure. She left at the weekend. I don't expect her back until Saturday afternoon. She called me last night . . . I don't know—it must have been twelve, half after twelve.'

Sergeant Houk massaged his bony, unshaven jowls. ‘Mr Denman . . . I don't know how to start saying this, sir. But as far as we can tell, Ms Celia Williams was the woman who burned to death in front of McDonald's today.'

Lloyd stared at him, and then laughed. The idea that Celia had been outside McDonald's today, only six or seven miles away from La Jolla on Rosecrans Avenue, was so patently absurd that he wasn't even upset. ‘Sergeant, that's impossible. That's totally impossible. Celia's in San Francisco. She was giving a lecture this afternoon at the Performing Arts Center.'

‘Did you speak to her today?' asked Detective Gable, sniffing, and wiping his nose with the back of his hand.

‘No, not yet. She usually calls me around midnight, when the restaurant's emptying out.'

‘And you're expecting her to call tonight?'

‘Of course I'm expecting her to call tonight. She's my fiancée. We're going to be married come September.'

Sergeant Houk reached into the pocket of his creased Sears suit and produced a transparent plastic envelope. He held it up, so that Lloyd could see what was in it. A white credit card wallet, badly charred at one end, and a gold charm bracelet.

‘Mr Denman, do you recognize either of these two items?'

Lloyd stared at him. ‘She's in San Francisco. If you doubt my word, you can try calling her. She's staying at the Miyako. Listen—do you want the number?'

A small spasm of panic. The wallet's clasp was curved and gold, in the shape of the Chinese symbol for yin and yang; just like the clasp of Celia's wallet. And although he hadn't looked closely at the charms, the charm bracelet looked startlingly like the one that he had given Celia when she had first moved in . . . and to which he had added a new charm each month. A treble clef, for the day she had graduated as a doctor of music; a house, for the day they had moved into 4884 North Torrey; a heart, for the day he had proposed to her.

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