Posted on a wall of this basement room, referred to by the brothers as the Kit Kat Katacombs, hung a framed needlepoint sampler: THE DEVIL IS IN THE DIGITAL DATA.
Using this computer, I could review the historical performance record as well as the current status of the heating-and-cooling system, the lighting system, the fire-control system, and the emergency-power generators.
On the second floor, the three bodachs still roamed from room to room, previewing victims to enhance the pleasure they would get from carnage when it came. I could learn no more from watching them.
Fear of fire had driven me to the basement. On the screen, I studied display after display relating to the fire-control system.
Every room featured at least one sprinkler head embedded in the ceiling. Every hallway had numerous sprinklers, spaced fifteen feet on center.
According to the monitoring program, all the sprinklers were in order and all the water lines were maintaining the required pressure. The smoke detectors and alarm boxes were functional and periodically self-testing.
I backed out of the fire-control system and called up the schema of the heating-and-cooling systems. I was particularly interested in the boilers, of which the school had two.
Because no natural-gas service extended to the remote Sierra, both boilers were fired by propane. A large pressurized storage tank lay buried at a distance from both the school and the abbey.
According to the monitors, the propane tank contained 84 percent of maximum capacity. The flow rate appeared to be normal. All of the valves were functioning. The ratio of BTUs produced to propane consumed indicated no leaks in the system. Both of the independent emergency-shutdown switches were operative.
Throughout the schema, every point of potential mechanical failure was signified by a small green light. Not a single red indicator marred the screen.
Whatever disaster might be coming, fire would probably not be a part of it.
I looked at the needlepoint sampler framed on the wall above the computer: THE DEVIL IS IN THE DIGITAL DATA.
Once, when I was fifteen, some seriously bad guys in porkpie hats handcuffed me, chained my ankles together, locked me in the trunk of an old Buick, picked up the Buick with a crane, dropped the car into a hydraulic compressing machine of the kind that turns any once-proud vehicle into a three-foot cube of bad modern art, and punched the CRUSH ODD THOMAS button.
Relax. It’s not my intention to bore you with an old war story.
I raise the issue of the Buick only to illustrate the fact that my supernatural gifts do not include reliable foresight.
Those bad guys had the polished-ice eyes of gleeful sociopaths, facial scars that suggested they were at the very least adventurous, and a way of walking that indicated either painful testicular tumors or multiple concealed weapons. Yet I did not recognize that they were a threat until they knocked me flat to the ground with a ten-pound bratwurst and began to kick the crap out of me.
I had been distracted by two other guys who were wearing black boots, black pants, black shirts, black capes, and peculiar black hats. Later, I learned they were two schoolteachers who had each independently decided to attend a costume party dressed as Zorro.
In retrospect, by the time I was locked in the trunk of the Buick with the two dead rhesus monkeys and the bratwurst, I realized that I should have recognized the real troublemakers the minute I had seen the porkpie hats. How could anyone in his right mind attribute good intentions to three guys in identical porkpie hats?
In my defense, consider that I was just fifteen at the time, not a fraction as experienced as I am these days, and that I have never claimed to be clairvoyant.
Maybe my fear of fire was, in this case, like my suspicion of the Zorro impersonators: misguided.
Although a survey of selected mechanical systems had given me no reason to believe that impending flames had drawn the bodachs to St. Bart’s School, I remained concerned that fire was a danger. No other threat seemed to pose such a challenge to a large community of the mentally and physically disabled.
Earthquakes were not as common or as powerful in the mountains of California as in the valleys and the flatlands. Besides, the new abbey had been built to the standards of a fortress, and the old one had been reconstructed with such diligence that it should be able to ride out violent and extended temblors.
This high in the Sierra, bedrock lay close underfoot; in some places, great granite bones breached the surface. Our two buildings were anchored in bedrock.
Here we have no tornadoes, no hurricanes, no active volcanoes, no killer bees.
We do have something more dangerous than all those things. We have people.
The monks in the abbey and the nuns in the convent seemed to be unlikely villains. Evil can disguise itself in piety and charity, but I had difficulty picturing any of the brothers or sisters running amok with a chain saw or a machine gun.
Even Brother Timothy, on a dangerous sugar high and crazed by Kit Kat guilt, didn’t scare me.
The glowering Russian staying on the second floor of the guesthouse was a more deserving object of suspicion. He did not wear a porkpie hat, but he had a dour demeanor and secretive ways.
My months of peace and contemplation were at an end.
The demands of my gift, the silent but insistent pleas of the lingering dead, the terrible losses that I had not always been able to prevent: These things had driven me to the seclusion of St. Bartholomew’s Abbey. I needed to simplify my life.
I had not come to this high redoubt forever. I had only asked God for a time-out, which had been granted, but now the clock was ticking again.
When I backed out of the heating-and-cooling-system schema, the computer monitor went to black with a simple white menu. In that more reflective screen, I saw movement behind me.
For seven months, the abbey had been a still point in the river, where I turned in a lazy gyre, always in sight of the same familiar shore, but now the true rhythm of the river asserted itself. Sullen, untamed, and intractable, it washed away my sense of peace and washed me toward my destiny once more.
Expecting a hard blow or the thrust of something sharp, I spun the office chair around, toward the source of the reflection in the computer screen.
MY SPINE HAD GONE TO ICE AND MY MOUTH to dust in fear of a nun.
Batman would have sneered at me, and Odysseus would have cut me no slack, but I would have told them that I had never claimed to be a hero. At heart, I am only a fry cook, currently unemployed.
In my defense, I must note that the worthy who had entered the computer room was not just any nun, but Sister Angela, whom the others call Mother Superior. She has the sweet face of a beloved grandmother, yes, but the steely determination of the Terminator.
Of course I mean the good Terminator from the second movie in the series.
Although Benedictine sisters usually wear gray habits or black, these nuns wear white because they are a twice-reformed order of a previously reformed order of post-reform Benedictines, although they would not want to be thought of as being aligned with either Trappist or Cistercian principles.
You don’t need to know what that means. God Himself is still trying to figure it out.
The essence of all this reformation is that these sisters are more orthodox than those modern nuns who seem to consider themselves social workers who don’t date. They pray in Latin, never eat meat on Friday, and with a withering stare would silence the voice and guitar of any folksinger who dared to offer a socially relevant tune during Mass.
Sister Angela says she and her sisters hark back to a time in the first third of the previous century when the Church was confident of its timelessness and when “the bishops weren’t crazy.” Although she wasn’t born until 1945 and never knew the era she admires, she says that she would prefer to live in the ’30s than in the age of the Internet and shock jocks broadcasting via satellite.
I have some sympathy for her position. In those days, there were no nuclear weapons, either, no organized terrorists eager to blow up women and children, and you could buy Black Jack chewing gum anywhere, and for no more than a nickel a pack.
This bit of gum trivia comes from a novel. I have learned a great deal from novels. Some of it is even true.
Settling into the second chair, Sister Angela said, “Another restless night, Odd Thomas?”
From previous conversations, she knew that I don’t sleep as well these days as I once did. Sleep is a kind of peace, and I have not yet earned peace.
“I couldn’t go to bed until the snow began to fall,” I told her. “I wanted to see the world turn white.”
“The blizzard still hasn’t broken. But a basement room is a most peculiar place to stand watch for it.”
She has a certain lovely smile that she can sustain for a long time in patient expectancy. If she held a sword over your head, it would not be as effective an instrument of interrogation as that forbearing smile.
After a silence that was a test of wills, I said, “Ma’am, you look as though you think I’m hiding something.”
“Are you hiding something, Oddie?”
I indicated the computer. “I was just checking on the school’s mechanical systems.”
“I see. Then you’re covering for Brother Timothy? Has he been committed to a clinic for Kit Kat addiction?”
“I just like to learn new things around here … to make myself useful,” I said.
“Your breakfast pancakes every weekend are a greater grace than any guest of the abbey has ever brought to us.”
“Nobody’s cakes are fluffier than mine.”
Her eyes are the same merry blue as the periwinkles on the Royal Doulton china that my mother owned, pieces of which Mom, from time to time, threw at the walls or at me. “You must have had quite a loyal following at the diner where you worked.”
“I was a star with a spatula.”
She smiled at me. Smiled and waited.
“I’ll make hash browns this Sunday. You’ve never tasted my hash browns.”
Smiling, she fingered the beaded chain on her pectoral cross.
I said, “The thing is, I had a bad dream about an exploding boiler.”
“An exploding-boiler dream?”
“A real nightmare, was it?”
“It left me very anxious.”
“Was it one of our boilers exploding?”
“It might have been. In the dream, the place wasn’t clear. You know how dreams are.”
A twinkle brightened her periwinkle eyes. “In this dream, did you see nuns on fire, screaming through a snowy night?”
Good heavens, no. Just the boiler exploding.”
“Did you see disabled children flinging themselves from windows full of flame?”
I tried silence and a smile of my own.
She said, “Are your nightmares always so thinly plotted, Oddie?”
“Not always, ma’am.”
She said, “Now and then I dream of Frankenstein because of a movie I saw when I was a little girl. In my dream, there’s an ancient windmill hung with ragged rotting sails creaking ’round in a storm. A ferocity of rain, sky-splitting bolts of lightning, leaping shadows, stairwells of cold stone, hidden doors in bookcases, candlelit secret passageways, bizarre machines with gold-plated gyroscopes, crackling arcs of electricity, a demented hunchback with lantern eyes, always the lumbering monster close behind me, and a scientist in a white lab coat carrying his own severed head.”
Finished, she smiled at me.
“Just an exploding boiler,” I said.
“God has many reasons to love you, Oddie, but for certain He loves you because you’re such an inexperienced and incompetent liar.”
“I’ve told some whoppers in my time,” I assured her.
“The claim that you have told whoppers is the biggest whopper you have told.”
“At nun school, you must’ve been president of the debating team.”
“Fess up, young man. You didn’t dream about an exploding boiler. Something else has you worried.”
“You were checking on the children in their rooms.”
She knew that I saw the lingering dead. But I had not told her or Abbot Bernard about bodachs.
Because these bloodthirsty spirits are drawn by events with high body counts, I hadn’t expected to encounter them in a place as remote as this. Towns and cities are their natural hunting grounds.
Besides, those who accept my assertion that I see the lingering dead are less likely to believe me if too soon in our acquaintance I begin to talk, as well, about sinuous shadowy demons that delight in scenes of death and destruction.
A man who has one pet monkey might be viewed as charmingly eccentric. But a man who has made his home into a monkey house, with scores of chattering chimpanzees capering through the rooms, will have lost credibility with the mental-health authorities.
I decided to unburden myself, however, because Sister Angela is a good listener and has a reliable ear for insincerity. Two reliable ears. Perhaps the wimple around her face serves as a sound-focusing device that brings to her greater nuances in other people’s speech than those of us without wimples are able to hear.
I’m not saying that nuns have the technical expertise of Q, the genius inventor who supplies James Bond with way-cool gadgets in the movies. It’s a theory I won’t dismiss out of hand, but I can’t prove anything.
Trusting in her goodwill and in the crap-detecting capability made possible by her wimple, I told her about the bodachs.
She listened intently, her face impassive, giving no indication whether or not she thought I was psychotic.
With the power of her personality, Sister Angela can compel you to meet her eyes. Perhaps a few strong-willed people are able to look away from her stare after she has locked on to their eyes, but I’m not one of them. By the time I told her all about bodachs, I felt pickled in periwinkle.
When I finished, she studied me in silence, her expression unreadable, and just when I thought she had decided to pray for my sanity, she accepted the truth of everything I’d told her by saying simply, “What must be done?”
“I don’t know.”
“That’s a most unsatisfactory answer.”
“Most,” I agreed. “The thing is, the bodachs showed up only half an hour ago. I haven’t observed them long enough to be able to guess what’s drawn them here.”
Cowled by voluminous sleeves, her hands closed into pink, white-knuckled fists. “Something’s going to happen to the children.”
“Not necessarily all the children.
Maybe some of them. And maybe not just to the children.”