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At a minimum, I had an hour before the Dobies woke, remembered what had happened to them, sniffed one another’s butts to confirm their identities, pledged eternal commitment to total vengeance, and came looking for me. Long before then, I would be gone with the seventeen children. If I were still here an hour from now, the dogs would be the least of my concerns, because I’d be either imprisoned or dead.


Twenty-five


I NO LONGER HELD THE RHINESTONE COWBOY’S IMAGE in my mind’s eye. He was on this property, very close. If I sought him out with psychic magnetism, I risked drawing him to me instead of being drawn to him, as when I had been in the Ford Explorer and he had run me off the highway.


Instead, I thought of the Payton kids—Jessie, Jasmine, Jordan—and hoped that I would be drawn to them sooner than later. Wherever the Paytons were, the other kids would likely be there, too. Right now, I couldn’t feel them pulling at me.


My strange talent is reliable but not 100 percent so, any more than the amazing Magic Johnson, at his peak, could lay the ball in the basket every time he tried. More often than not, yes, and some of the misses were breathtakingly close. But no matter what gifts we’re given, we can never apply them to perfection because we’re human, after all, and given to error.


The stable door was held shut by a hinged steel strap and a swivel bolt. I turned the bolt and, loath to make a sound, eased the strap back on its hinge.


I doubted that the children were kept in this building. If they were here, a guard would be stationed outside. But I had to check.


The door creaked slightly as it opened, and I slipped inside, leaving it ajar behind me. The darkness smelled of straw and mold and dust.


The smooth casing of the small flashlight lacked any features that would snag on the stretchy tube that secured it to my utility belt. It came out as easily as a sword from a sheath, and the on-off button, recessed in the handle, brought forth a blade of soft white light, around which I cupped my hand to restrict it largely to the floor, so that it might not fall directly on the windows and be too visible outside.


Although this was a stable, with stalls to either side of the central aisle, no animals had been housed here in years. The only evidence that the place had ever accommodated horses were the few horseshoe prints embedded like fossils in the once impressional but now hard dry floor of compacted earth. In some corners were bristling wads of pale straw, like spiny sea creatures from a distant era when these mountains had been the bed of an ocean. Dust filmed everything, and the only livestock were the spiders that hung in still expectancy or crawled their silken architectures.


I walked the length of the aisle. Although there seemed to be nothing for me here, intuition told me that the appearance of the place was not the entire reality of it.


At the end of the building were two rooms opposite each other, doors standing open. One might have been a tack room. The other contained empty feed bins. Neither offered me anything of interest.


I had never been here before, but something about the stable seemed familiar.


For a moment, I stood listening, convinced that if I cocked my head at just the right angle, I would hear something essential to my—and the children’s—survival. The silence held.


Keeping the cupped light directed down, I returned along the aisle. As I was about to push open the painted plank door by which I had entered, I realized that the dirt floor had undergone a metamorphosis. It appeared to be concrete now.


Overhead, chain-hung lamps with conical shades cast down a sour light, and I saw that the board walls were also concretelike now, that same too-pristine material that composed the interior surfaces of buildings in Elsewhere. When I put a hand to the wall, it felt smooth, flawless, cool. But when I thought about the rustic walls that had been here a moment earlier, I could feel the rough texture of the lumber and the uneven joints between boards, as if my reality must be submerged and somehow accessible just below the surface of this stable in Elsewhere.


Turning, switching off the flashlight, I found that the stalls and the two rooms at the farther end were gone, the building now just one long, wide space. A series of breakfronts from different design periods stood along both walls, as though stored here by an antiques dealer. No bristling wads of straw, no dust, no spiders or their webs. At the windows, where they weren’t blocked by the display cabinets, the night beyond seemed darker than the night in Nevada, the blinding black in which I had struggled with the Other Odd on the roof of that industrial building.


They used Elsewhere to hide things where the best detectives and the most diligent searchers could never find them, and to meet others of their kind to discuss their dark business where no one in this world could hear them.


Because of my paranormal abilities, when I entered these way stations, I perceived the other world that, at these specific points only, was connected to mine. But if I had entered with a friend, he would have seen only the dust-mantled long-unused stable, and when I moved into Elsewhere, I would have become invisible and inaudible to him.


Shower 5 and the basement room at Star Truck, the abandoned industrial building near Los Angeles, and this place did not phase randomly back and forth between worlds, as until now I had thought might be the case. I could neither be kept out of Elsewhere nor be trapped in it. These places existed in both worlds at all times. Unconsciously I had opened this other realm—and closed it away—with an act of will.


Interesting.


And what were they hiding here other than antique furniture?


The lamps dangled along the center of the building, their light pooling on the gray floor between swaths of shadow. Against the long walls, the polished mahogany and pecan and walnut and cherry of the hulking breakfronts glimmered here and there, but I couldn’t see what, if anything, the cabinets contained behind their wood-framed glass doors. I had no reason to suppose that anything was on display in them, yet even as dread seemed to shrink my heart within my chest, I felt compelled to take a closer look.


I chose the array of cabinets on the left. The first two were empty, and my flashlight revealed that the shelves and back walls were upholstered in dark-blue velvet, the better to present select pieces of the finest china—Limoges, Dresden, Minton, Royal Doulton, Pickard—as if they were works of art.


Approaching the third cabinet, I saw that it was likewise darkly lined, but neither empty nor laden with china. I opened a pair of doors and found that the shelves held a series of wide, thick glass jars, almost crocks, with lids that had been fused in place with an annealing torch. The jars were filled with clear liquid, no doubt a preservative. Submerged in each jar waited a severed human head.


The nature of my life is such that I have discovered on several occasions various abominations hidden away by collectors who would not be satisfied with rare coins or postage stamps, or butterflies pinned to boards. They say that familiarity breeds contempt, but familiarity with the death trophies of demented sociopaths breeds not apathy, not an absence of feeling, but instead a composure that is feeling without agitation. To an extent, I could regard these heads as evidence, in the calm way that a police officer can study the most terrible aftermath of violence at a crime scene. I could soberly assess the threat of which these trophies warned me, for anyone who could harvest such a cruel collection would require from me absolute ruthlessness if I were to defeat them and safely shepherd the children out of this place.


I moved to the next breakfront and found more heads, eyes fixed open in every case except for three, where one or both eyes had been gouged out. A few other faces bore the marks of torture, which I will not describe, because the dead deserve their dignity no less than do the living. Most of the specimens bore no wounds except for where the necks had been severed, and if they, too, had been tortured, their suffering had involved violence to the body.


On the forehead of each trophy were hieroglyphics apparently drawn with an indelible felt-tip pen, still black in spite of being submerged in a preservative liquid. The script, written horizontally instead of vertically as the ancients would have done, looked like Egyptian to me but might not have been. Although the language was pictographic, I couldn’t guess what many of the symbols represented, though in each instance they included the stylized silhouette of one animal, most often one kind of bird or another, or groups of birds in strange arrangements, but also cats, rabbits, goats, bulls, snakes, lizards, scarabs, and centipedes. I couldn’t guess the reason for these pictographs, but they seemed to confirm that the murders were ritualistic.


The collection included more women than men, although the male sex was well represented. More of them were white than black, each about in proportion to the percentage in the population, but there were Asians and Hispanics well represented. These collectors—for this could not be the work of one maniac—were equal-opportunity killers. The fat and the thin, the beautiful and the unattractive, twenty-somethings and retirees had met their end on this isolated property and been preserved so that the murderers might stroll this grisly gallery, admiring their acquisitions and waxing nostalgic over glasses of fine Cabernet Sauvignon.


The hair of the dead floated freely in the preservative, and in some cases formed veils across portions of their faces. Sometimes the fright-wide eyes peering through those cloaking tresses seemed to turn to follow me as I moved along, but I knew that I imagined their interest in me, and I could not fear these dead as I feared those who had murdered them.


Suddenly I realized that the most extraordinary thing about the scene was the absence of lingering spirits wanting justice for their murderers. Had I imagined such a place before finding it, I would have expected it to be crowded with ghosts tormented by what had been done to them in the last hours of their lives, haunted and haunting.


With a growing sense of urgency, I toured what remained of the display, and though some faces might have been those of teenagers, none were those of children. I could only assume that this murderous cult, whatever its nature, must be methodical in its depravity, adhering to a policy of progressive outrages, only this night at last arriving at its most extreme transgression to date: the abuse, torture, and murder of the most innocent of victims.


In the last cabinet that contained trophies, the faces were to one degree or another charred, blistered, melted, and I knew beyond doubt that this was the recent work of the rhinestone cowboy. Judging by the size of the skulls, these people had all been adults, but soon he would turn his flamethrower on more diminutive targets.


In the presence of such unspeakable horror, I couldn’t any longer maintain my composure, that “feeling without agitation” that I previously described. Even the most experienced policeman and the battle-hardened soldier, courageously and of necessity repressing their anguish at the human condition, can sometimes repress it no longer, and the emotional pain threatens for a while to break them, before they suppress it once more.


Among the nations of Earth in all its history, ours is one of the precious few that has not brought forth its Hitler, its Stalin, its Pol Pot, its Mao Tse-tung, its Vlad the Impaler, the one who is never satisfied to have every knee bend to him but wants also to be the architect of a new world by destroying the existing one. But something is afoot. Atrocities like this, once rare but ever more frequent, would have at one time shocked the country but now seem to titillate as many people as they shock. My vision on the freeway in Los Angeles, others that have come in dreams, and things like this collection lead me to fear that our turn on the rack and wheel is coming. In this age when innocence is ever more mocked, when truth is aggressively denied if not actively hated, when so many people despise those with whom they disagree, when priests and teachers molest those whom they should protect, when power and fame are celebrated but true law and modesty are disparaged, what fire wall remains between the people and the forces that would devour them?


I am just one fry cook with a special talent, not David certain to bring down Goliath, one mortal man trying to make his way through a storm in which swarm uncountable leviathans. I am only you, like you, born of man and woman, but with this gift or burden. In that stable in Elsewhere, I felt as you would have felt, overwhelmed and terrified of failing.


At the door, I almost crossed the threshold before I realized that I would be stepping not into the Nevada night where three dogs slept and snored, but into the blind-black wasteland that surrounded buildings in Elsewhere. And waiting in that blighted place was the Other Odd who had wanted to kiss me, who’d said Give me your breath, piglet, your breath, and the sweet fruit at the end of it.


Twenty-six


HESITATING AT THE DOOR, I HAD NO WAY OF KNOWING how long I might have to wait for this dust-free and lifeless stable in Elsewhere to become again the dirty and spider-ruled building in my reality. A minute or two? An hour? Until all the children were dead?


Should the fabled Headless Horseman come here seeking to repair himself, he would have scores of heads to choose from, and if I again encountered the Other Odd, my head also might be available for the horseman’s consideration.


Thinking about the Other might quickly draw him to me, but he remained a figure of such dark fascination that I couldn’t banish him from my mind. I remembered the disgusting tone and texture of his cold, flaccid flesh, like that of a corpse after rigor mortis had come and gone, when the minions of Death were busy within. Yet he had been strong, unstoppable, and ten rounds of 9-mm ammunition had done no damage to him. Now I had two pistols with fifteen-round magazines, plus four spare magazines, nine times the ammo that I’d had before; but considering that ten shots had zero effect, nine times zero wasn’t a calculation worth making.


In that industrial building in Elsewhere, back in that suburb of Los Angeles, there had been a moment when I stared at one of the chain-hung lamps, questioning its existence—whereupon it began to lose substance and to dim. I was certain now that, by an act of will alone, I could cause Elsewhere to wane and my world to emerge once more around me.


Previously this door had been made of vertical planks with a Z of cross braces on the inside, knotholes visible through the white paint, here and there raw wood revealed where a splinter had been gouged out. The evenly white door before me looked and felt smooth, flawless, like a plastic panel, the half-formed idea of a door.


When I pressed the palm of my left hand against that surface and thought hard about its previous appearance, I began to feel the planks, the screw heads, the knotholes partly swollen out of the wood around them.


The lamps hanging from the ceiling went out, and I was left with only the frosty beam of the LED flashlight, which revealed the planks as they should have been, the floor of hard-packed earth, the empty stalls, the spiders poised in their gossamer traps, but nothing of the collection of heads.


I stepped into a night that was not a lightless wasteland, in which the heavens were not as black as the ceiling of a coal mine. Indeed, the storm, which I had assumed would catch up with us once more, must have been so drained by the thirsty desert to the west that it had nothing more to offer. The clouds were tattering and lifting, as though within the hour they might, at least in places, peel away like bandages and reveal a healed and vibrant sky.

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