Venice, California, and the last gondola long since departed and the lights going out and the canals filling with oil and old circus wagons with only the tide roaring behind the bars. . . .
“I have a little list,” I said.
“What?” said Shrank.
“The Mikado,” I told him. “One song explains you. Your object all sublime, you will achieve in time. To make the punishment fit the crime. The Lonelies. All of them. You put them on your list, in the words of the song, they never will be missed. Their crime was giving up or never having tried. It was mediocrity or failure or lostness. And their punishment, my God, was you.”
He was puffed now, with a peacock stride.
“Well?” he said, walking ahead. “Well?”
I loaded my tongue and took aim and fired a round.
“I imagine,” I said, “that somewhere nearby is the decapitated head of Scott Joplin.”
He could not help the impulse that moved his right hand to his greasy coat pocket. He pretended to pat it in place, found himself staring with pleasure at that hand, glanced away, and went on walking.
One shot, one hit. I glowed. Detective Lieutenant Crumley, I thought, wish you were here.
I fired a second round.
“Canaries for sale,” I said in a tiny voice like the faded lead-pencil lettering on the cardboard in the old lady’s window. “Hirohito ascends throne. Addis Ababa. Mussolini.”
His left hand twitched with secret pride toward his left coat pocket.
Christ! I thought. He’s carrying her old bottom-of-the-birdcage headlines with him!
He strode. I followed.
Target three. Aim three. Fire three.
“Lion cage. Old man. Ticket office.”
His chin dropped toward his breast pocket.
There, by God, would be found punchout ticket confetti from a train never taken!
Shrank plowed on through the mist, absolutely oblivious of the fact that I was butterfly-netting his crimes. He was a happy child in the fields of the Antichrist. His tiny shoes flinted on the planks. He beamed.
What next? My mind swarmed. Ah, yes.
I saw Jimmy in the tenement hall with his new choppers, all grin. Jimmy in the bathtub, turned over and six fathoms deep.
“False teeth,” I said. “Uppers. Lowers.”
Thank God, Shrank did not pat his pockets again. I might have shouted a terrible laugh of dread to think he carried a dead grin about. His glance over his shoulder told me it was back (in a glass of water?) in his hut.
Target five, aim, fire!
“Dancing Chihuahuas, preening parakeets!”
Shrank’s shoes did a dog-dance on the pier. His eyes jumped to his left shoulder. There were bird-claw marks and droppings there! One of Pietro Massinello’s birds was back there in the hut.
“Moroccan fort by an Arabian sea.”
Shrank’s little lizard tongue made a tiny whiplash along his thirsty lips.
One bottle of Rattigan’s champagne, shelved behind us, leaning on De Quincey in his dope, Hardy in his gloom.
A wind rose.
I shuddered, for suddenly I sensed that ten dozen candy wrappers, all mine, were blowing along after Shrank and me, ghost rodent hungers from other days, rustling along the night pier.
And at last I had to say and could not say but finally made myself say the terrible final sad words that broke my tongue even as something burst in my chest.
“Midnight tenement. Full icebox. Tosca.”
Like a black discus hurled across the town, the first side of Tosca struck, rolled, and slid under A. L. Shrank’s midnight door.
The list had been long. I was poised on the near rim of hysteria, panic, terror, delight at my own perception, my own revulsion, my own sadness. I might dance, strike, or shriek at any moment.
But Shrank spoke first, eyes dreaming, the whispered arias of Puccini turning and turning in his head.
“The fat woman’s at peace now. She needed peace. I gave it to her.”
I hardly remember what happened next. Somebody yelled. Me. Someone else yelled. Him.
My arm thrust up, Henry’s cane in it.
Murder, I thought. Kill.
Shrank fell back only in time as the cane chopped down. Instead of him, it struck the pier and was shocked from my grip. It fell, rattled, and was kicked by Shrank so it sailed over the edge of the pier and down into the sand.
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