In the southwest corner, a pair of sturdy metal doors drew our attention because beside them were two dilapidated aluminum lawn chairs with green-vinyl webbing, between which stood a Styrofoam picnic cooler and a half-empty bottle of Jack Daniel’s. Cigarette butts and nine dust-free half-crumpled Heineken cans littered the floor around the chairs.
The faint scent of beer arose from the residue that had not yet evaporated from those containers.
“They must have kept the kids behind these doors,” I said. “Some guys sat here to guard them.”
My voice ricocheted around the abandoned factory: “… kids, kids, kids … doors, doors, doors … them, them, them …”
The fading echoes were followed by that creepy rustling noise again, louder than before. I slashed the air with the flashlight beam, as though fencing with an invisible foe, but as before I discovered no one.
After the rustling subsided into silence, I tried one of the heavy double doors. With some creaking, it opened onto a generous landing. Unusually wide stairs led down into a grave-dark lower room.
Standing with her back against the other door, Mrs. Fischer whispered so low that her words could not rise far enough to inspire an echo in the rafters: “Can’t both go down there and risk being locked in. I mean, if someone’s here to lock us.”
“Can’t leave you here alone in the dark,” I said.
Indicating the three big squares of gray light at the farther end of the vast room, where the roll-up doors had once been, she said, “Those will silhouette him, if anyone’s here. And probably no one is.”
I said, “I don’t need to go down there. The children have been taken somewhere else.”
“You owe it to them to be sure. Go now. Get it over with.”
She was quietly adamant, but she was also right. I left her alone in the gloom.
I didn’t have to prop open the door. Its hinges were corroded enough to prevent it from swinging shut on its own.
As I made my way down the first flight of stairs to a landing, I knew that the children had indeed been held here, because their three faces, as they had appeared in the vision in the supermarket parking lot, rose now in my memory, more vivid step by step.
Descending the second flight, picking out the treads with the flashlight, pistol at the ready, I noticed first that the air was cooler here than on the ground floor and, second, that it smelled of blood.
Blood has an odor faint but distinct, of conceit and modesty, of courage and cowardice, of charity and greed, of faith and doubt, in short the fragrance of what we might have been and the smell of what we are, vaguely suggestive of hot copper, having carried life along the arteries like current through a wire. Because the scent is subtle, however, a room can smell of it only if the quantity spilled is significant.
With dread, I continued to the bottom, into a basement that extended under about a quarter of the building. Perhaps this space had once contained a heating system, boilers, and other machines that were stripped out and sold in the distant past. Now it housed the dead.
THE DEAD EYES APPEARED TO ROLL TOWARD ME IN THE crusted sockets, but in fact only the reflection of the flashlight beam moved across those glassy curves from which tears would never spill again.
Even two bad men who earn a bad end deserve a measure of discretion from such as me when I write about them, at least as regards the horror of their suffering. Besides, if I detailed their many wounds, you might be persuaded to pity them, and I doubt they were worthy of much tender sympathy. Suffice it to say that the coup de grace in each case was a bullet fired point-blank, just above the bridge of the nose. Before that, they had been tortured extensively with razors or stilettos.
The two were naked, stripped before they were murdered. Later their clothing had been removed from the scene, along with any watches or jewelry they might have been wearing, perhaps to ensure that they would be more difficult to identify if they were ever found.
Their wrists were cuffed behind them, and their hands were sheathed in blood-soaked gray cotton gloves. The latter detail at first baffled me until I realized that these must be the two men who had sat in the lawn chairs upstairs, smoking and drinking while they guarded their hostages. They had worn the gloves to ensure that they left no incriminating fingerprints.
Supposing these were the kidnappers, they must have been part of a larger conspiracy. Evidently the plan called for the children to be stashed here for a while, on the outskirts of town, whereafter others—including the rhinestone cowboy—would arrive to take custody of them and move them elsewhere.
If these two dead men had been discovered drunk and asleep in the lawn chairs, or merely drunk, other members of the conspiracy might have decided to execute them rather than to trust them further.
Although that might be the most likely explanation, the torture seemed illogical, especially the extent and cruelty of it. With three hostages to manage and with the need to spirit them out of the area while local and perhaps federal authorities were searching for them, the killers should have opted for quick mob-style executions. Taking time to carve their victims extensively, slowly bleeding them almost to death before administering the killing shot, seemed as reckless as it was savage.
From their perspective, however, torture might make a sort of cockeyed sense if it was ritualistic, part of a ceremony that this fraternity of the demented required of themselves when they murdered one of their own. I didn’t want to believe that was true, because it made them crazier, more vicious, and more dangerous than I previously assumed that they were. The quickest review of the bodies suggested there were similar, patterned wounds on each, but I didn’t have the stomach to conduct a thorough analytic review of them.
Most of the blood had soaked into the concrete floor, but one pool remained on which a thin film had formed, suggesting that the victims might have been murdered within the past couple of hours. I stooped to touch the shoulder of the nearest corpse, and though the flesh was cool, it still held some body heat.
Two dead men … but not one soul beseeching me for justice. I have observed before that lingering spirits are nearly always those of people who led largely good and admirable lives. Rare is the deeply wicked soul that does not cross over after death. I suspect that for their kind, a debt collector—one with a legendary name and no patience for tardy debtors—insists on payment immediately after the heart has struck its last beat and even as the final exhalation withers in the throat.
I climbed the steps two at a time, and as I drew near the top, I called out, “It’s only me.”
Mrs. Fischer said, “Only you is exactly what I hoped for, dear.”
As we made our way through the building toward the daylight at the roll-up doors, I told her what I had found, though I left out the most disturbing details.
Whoever Mrs. Edie Fischer might be and whatever secrets she might be keeping, I could tell by her calm reaction that she had not led a sheltered life defined only by home, hearth, family, church, and bingo on Saturday night.
Halfway toward the doors, we heard the rustling again, but this time I found the source almost at once. Curved dead leaves like an infestation of hard-shelled brown beetles skittering this way and that, twists of foil and scraps of cellophane spraying up as bright as hot sparks in the reflected flashlight, brittle sheets of crumpled notepad paper crackling, rusted bottle caps clicking-clinking: All were lashed into action by the scrabbling feet and the scaly whipping tails of a flurry of rats. There might have been eight, ten, twelve of the foot-long specimens with coarse brown coats and bristling whiskers and long pale toes. Their eyes were black beads that flared red when the white light caught them at a certain angle, and though the pack curved past us, I felt that I was the primary object of their attention, every ratty stare meeting mine before they swarmed away toward the back of the building, perhaps enticed here by the scent of blood, confused about the source until the metal door had stood open long enough to allow the odor of carnage to rise from the basement.
The moment wasn’t melodramatic. I didn’t expect them to attack. They were rats, not wolves. But the sight of them oppressed me. Death was always terrible, even when the dead were people who had served as agents of pain and ruin all their lives, but death was made worse by the consideration of these omnivores descending upon the murdered pair. Bodies are in a sense sacred, having been the vessels that carried souls through the world, and that they should ever become mere carrion sickens me.
Mrs. Fischer and I hurried out of the abandoned building, into the late-afternoon light, which was too cool to melt away the chill that prickled through me.
She said she’d drive, and that was all right with me because I felt that we weren’t yet done in Barstow. I sensed that the cowboy had been somewhere else in town, no doubt before he came here to collect the children. I was hoping psychic magnetism could lead me not yet to where my quarry was this moment, but first to where he had been earlier, which required a concentration that wouldn’t be possible if I were driving.
In the limousine once more, I considered using the disposable cell phone to call the police and report the bodies in the factory basement. I hoped to foil the rats before they feasted.
But during the past few years, the government had spent many billions to develop systems that could capture from the ether every one of the hundreds of millions of daily phone calls and e-mails sent in this country, store them, and conduct high-speed analysis of that data with enormous arrays of supercomputers. In addition, every smartphone was now a GPS by which they could track you if they wanted to, even when the phone was switched off.
My phone was far from smart, but I suspected that if I called the police, they would at once have my position. And maybe they could electronically tag even this dumb phone, so that they would know everywhere I went from this point forward.
I didn’t dare reveal myself to the police if I were to be free to find the children and rescue them. Although I had not always saved everyone whom I tried to help, I nevertheless felt certain that, even as flawed as I was, I would be more likely to pull those three kids from the pending fire alone than with even well-meaning policemen kibitzing my every move. Besides, they were certain to regard my claims of paranormal talents as delusional. I might be committed to a psychiatric ward on a temporary hold, and the children would be torched days before I was released.
Mrs. Fischer drove, Hoke to my Miss Daisy. Although I needed to concentrate harder than ever to sense out the cowboy’s fading trail through Barstow, distractions plucked at me, each of them arousing in me the thought that I was missing something, failing to see something that I must see if I were to survive: thoughts of the swarming rats in the factory and of the rats descending the palm tree, a pack of rangy yellow-eyed coyotes that had behaved strangely when they had stalked me and Annamaria through a fogbound night in Magic Beach more than a month previously, rats and coyotes that were different creatures and yet somehow one and the same, the head of the Kewpie doll wallowing in the storm runoff and trading its face for mine as it was yanked through the bars of the iron grating, the premonition of a demonic mob slaughtering stalled motorists on the traffic-choked freeway, all of that connected in some way that I could feel but could not define, pointing to some inevitable confrontation, and then three lines from T. S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton” remembered for no apparent reason—Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future / And time future contained in time past—and now the carnival-bright ProStar+ with the yellow symbols painted throughout the black interior of the trailer, the gate of symbols made of steel, the wasteland with the lakes of fire and the Other Odd who had come out of that ultimate darkness, Mr. Hitchcock giving me two thumbs up when I woke in Shower 5 after being shot in the throat by the cowboy, a gesture that now seemed peculiar to me or perhaps more meaningful than I’d taken it to be at the time, Mr. Hitchcock raising one eyebrow as if amused when I suggested that he must be suffering some guilt and remorse that kept him from crossing over to the Other Side, the lightning-bolt grate and the eerie light in the storm drain, Mr. Hitchcock leading me into the basement of Star Truck and cupping a hand around one ear to suggest that I listen for what soon proved to be the voice of the rhinestone cowboy in a different version of the basement, a version in Elsewhere.…
I managed occasionally to give Mrs. Fischer a direction, though I was barely aware of Barstow beyond the windshield, preoccupied with the swift flow of thoughts and memories, the river of puzzling associations that seemed to have two currents, one enticing me into the past, the other sweeping me toward some terrible cataract in the near future.
When I shuddered violently and said, “Here, this place, right now,” Mrs. Fischer pulled off the street, into a parking lot, and braked to a stop.
I came out of my half trance, expecting some place more terrible than the house where a family waited heartsick for any news of their abducted son and daughters, more ominous than the abandoned factory. Instead, we were adjacent to an exit from Interstate 15, in front of a large rectangular diner with a ziggurat-style roof stepping back and up in a pyramidal form, each level outlined in parallel tubes of ruby-red and sapphire-blue neon that were not only cheerful but also seemed to be defiant in the dreary half-light of the waning day and the oncoming storm. The playful architecture was fun to look at, even though I felt certain that the cowboy trucker had been here, and not alone, before he’d gone to the ruins of Black & Buckle Manufacturing to carve and kill two men and to collect the children that he intended to set afire. The place was called Ernestine’s.
Tucking the loaded pistol under the seat, I said, “There’s something here we need to know.”
Mrs. Fischer said, “What would that be?”
“Beats me. But I’ll know it when I see it or hear it.”
“You don’t think you’ll need the gun?”
“No, ma’am. Not here.”
“Just the same, I’ll keep mine in my purse. I’ve needed it before in the most unlikely places.”
I RARELY HAVE SUCH MIXED FEELINGS ABOUT A NEW place when first setting foot in it as I had upon entering Ernestine’s.
On the one hand, I felt as if I had come home. From the age of sixteen, when I moved out of my mother’s house to live alone, I had worked at the Pico Mundo Grille, the quintessential diner, where I knew some of the happiest times of my life.
The Grille was scrupulously clean, both in the public areas and in the kitchen, and judging by what I could see of Ernestine’s, the hygiene standards were equally stringent. The lighting achieved that perfect median—bright enough to read the menu easily, to be assured that the management was proud enough to cast light into every well-scrubbed corner, and to engage in people-watching, but low enough to be cozy, intimate.
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