I put away the canister of pressurized sedative and drew one of the two Glocks. That seemed the wise thing to do.
Jessie, Jasmine, Jordan…
Remaining close to the tree line, I approached the stone-and-timber building that had a steep and beetling roof. From the moment I first glimpsed it, even from a distance and in the dark, it had seemed to be an ominous structure. Now as I circled it, on closer inspection, that first impression ripened, grew darker, and I felt that herein I would find corruption and depravity that explained the collection of heads.
The sixty-by-forty-foot block stood like a fortress, forbidding and windowless. Even a medieval castle would have featured arrow loops, narrow openings from which archers could defend against the barbarians, or high clerestory windows to admit natural light. But I sensed that nothing natural was wanted within, that this building had been constructed to celebrate barbarism, that its builders felt no need for arrow loops or gun ports, for they knew that civilization, in its current and foreseeable state, would have no interest in mounting an assault against them.
Three broad and shallow steps led up to the only door, which was at what seemed to be the back of the building, out of sight from the main house. I dared the flashlight and saw a bronze slab, green with time, featuring a pattern of scores of little arrowheads in many lines radiating out from a central hub, on which was a word in raised bronze letters—CONTUMAX.
I had no idea what the word contumax might mean. It sounded like an over-the-counter laxative or a drug to treat cold sores, although it was certainly neither. Whatever the word meant, the pattern of arrowheads suggested militant hostility to something.
Perhaps the door was most often locked, although not on this night of celebration. When it eased inward, I discovered a shadowy vestibule. Opposite this first door, a second stood a quarter open to a more well-lighted chamber.
I did not want to go inside, to risk being trapped in a place that had one exit, but I sensed that what waited to be learned here was something I must know if I were to be of any use to the children. I stepped inside and eased the outer door shut behind me.
After crossing quietly to the inner door, I stood listening, but heard nothing. I held my breath, the better to hear, but the silence remained absolute.
When I inhaled, a peculiar bitter smell, faint but unpleasant, caused me to grimace. It registered as a taste, too, even fainter than the scent. The flavor reminded me of ipecac, the syrup that doctors use to induce vomiting when someone has been poisoned, but in this case disguised—inadequately—by mint.
I pushed open the inner door, crossed the threshold, and was halted by the drama of the space.
Stone-and-timber walls as outside, cobblestone floor, without a piece of furniture, the room must have been forty feet wide and fifty end to end, the raftered ceiling forty feet overhead. Along the wall to the left and along the wall to the right stood seven concrete pedestals, fourteen in all, each perhaps seven feet high. Mounted atop every pedestal, lit from above by pin spots, angled to peer down imperiously, were the bleached-white skulls of what might have been Rocky Mountain bighorn rams, identifiable by their enormous, curved, and deeply grooved horns.
The cobblestones were flat, without rounded edges, with minimal grout lines, set in a circular pattern that swirled around the room, ring after diminishing ring, leading to a large round stone at the center. With growing alarm, I walked to that medallion and read the word carved into it: POTESTAS. Here was another test of my knowledge—and additional proof of my ignorance.
I looked left and right at the totems on the fourteen pedestals. Set on the sides of those narrow heads, twenty-eight eye sockets, though empty, though black and hollow, seemed to watch and menace me. The builders of this house of the profane did not mean for the skulls to be seen simply as what they were, did not intend for them to be thought of as mere rams’ heads, but placed them here as symbols of the great horned serpent who was the prince of this world. Fourteen goatish mouths were fixed open, perhaps to express the insatiable appetite that the prince encouraged and that he promised to feed generously.
I proceeded no farther, but I saw at the front of the room a large slab of what might have been black granite elevated on thick black-granite legs. On the wall directly behind the slab, hanging from two points on a rafter, a long loop of glossy red beads, each as large as a plum, had been threaded through five evenly spaced human skulls that I knew must be as real as those of the bighorn rams.
A miniature version of this macabre construction had hung from the citizens-band radio in the cab of the cowboy’s eighteen-wheeler.
From the first encounter that had led me here and in many other moments of the day, I had been given clear clues to the nature of my adversaries. On some level, I noted all those jigsaw pieces, fitted them together—and then refused to acknowledge the picture that they formed.
Patterns exist in our seemingly patternless lives, and the most common pattern is the circle. Like a dog pursuing its tail, we go around and around all our lives, through the circles of the seasons, repeating our mistakes and pursuing our redemption. From birth to death we explore and seek, and in the end we arrive where we started, the past having made one great slow turn on a carousel to become our future, and if we have learned anything worth learning, the carousel will bring us to the one place we most need to be.
My journey had so far taken almost twenty-two years, but it had become a far more profound voyage nineteen months ago than it had been previously. I have often said that in a quest for the purpose of my life, I learn by going where I have to go. And I do learn. But I realized here, only now, that learning had not been my primary motivation, that since the mall shootings in Pico Mundo, I had been on a pilgrimage to seek the sacrament of penance, in search of forgiveness for a failure that I refused to believe could ever be mitigated by ordinary confession and contrition. And I had come now full circle to the same adversary that I had not entirely defeated back then, the same implacable adversary from which I had perhaps saved many people, but not all, not nineteen who died, including she whose heart was one with mine.
The killers at the Green Moon Mall had been members of a satanic cult. And so were the cowboy trucker and the people gathered in this place, this night. Different people, different cult, same enemy. I’d known the truth hours earlier but had striven to repress it.
Denial couldn’t be maintained. The skulls of fourteen bighorn rams were positioned, mockingly, where in a Catholic church the fourteen stations of the cross would be. The red beads and the five human skulls insulted the rosary and its five joyful, five sorrowful, and five glorious mysteries.
The enemy was the same, but I was in a darker and far more desperate place now than I had been on that day in Pico Mundo.
The men in that cult nineteen months earlier had made a game of evil, committing murder primarily for the excitement of it, playing at satanic faith the way that boys might play at being vampires, with wax fangs and with capes made from blankets. The cultists in Pico Mundo never committed entirely to their faith, not intellectually or emotionally. When the confrontation came between me and them, they had their boldness and their viciousness, but they did not have any genuine power beyond that of other sociopaths. In the end, though deadly, they had been nothing more than thrill killers.
But the pilot of the ProStar+ and the congregation to which he belonged were true believers, so diligent and so passionate in the practice of their faith that they were rewarded with the ability to open doors to Elsewhere. They enjoyed the capacity to blind others to their actions, as the cowboy blinded the people in the supermarket to the fact that he had fired a pistol and threatened to kill innocent shoppers if I didn’t come with him quietly.
In this new and pending confrontation, these darksiders greatly outnumbered me. And although my paranormal gifts usually gave me an advantage, their gifts made them at least my equals.
My eyes had adjusted to the lighting, and now I saw that on the black-granite table at the front of the room lay what might have been a thick black book. I was loath to approach that altar, but I knew that I must do so.
Bound in black leather, the volume contained a thousand numbered pages, which must have been blank when it was bound. On the top of the first page someone had printed these words: This coven of the demon Meridian, founded to glorify his name, on the 7th day of October, in the year 1580, in Oxford, Oxfordshire, England.
Each of the next 433 pages was dedicated to one year in the coven’s existence. The heading of the page featured the year, a name followed by the words high priest, and the location. Each page also contained a handwritten meditation on the beauty and the necessity of evil, apparently composed by the priest. As I paged through, I saw that some priests served decades, others a few years. I didn’t have time to examine the book carefully enough to determine when they had moved their little cult to America. On page 433 was the current year and the name of the high priest, Lyle Hetland; otherwise that page was blank, for he had not yet written his meditation.
Over four hundred years and numerous generations of madness and murder. They were not the first of their kind and would not be the last. Accounts of such groups dated back to the earliest fragments of written history. If the world survived long enough, accounts of the activities of their latest iterations would be reported on the Internet or by whatever medium might one day replace it. The human heart may choose truth or lies, light or darkness, and even if the world were to become a universally prosperous, totally materialist sphere where everyone claimed to be scientific rationalists, some would secretly worship evil—and commit it—even if none were left who believed in the existence of absolute good. Good people are from time to time exhausted by the relentless nature of the enemy and need some period of peace, but those who worship darkness thrive on the battle, on violence and hatred, and have no taste for peace.
I’d gone where I had to go, and I’d learned what I resisted learning. And now there was only one place left for me: the house, where the children were being held, where the killing would soon begin.
The rams’ skulls were only that to me, no matter what they might be to others here, and I turned my back on them.
OUTSIDE, THE NIGHT LAY AS STILL AS IF THE WORLD had lost its atmosphere. A wind must have been ripping along at a higher altitude, because the clouds continued to tatter, unravel, and disintegrate before my eyes.
I rounded the church and stood looking at the house, wondering if security would be any better there than at the entrance to this property. I didn’t think it would be.
They knew that their fellow citizens, in this brave new century, chose to be unaware of them, to consign their master and them to the realm of myth. No one would come looking for them because no one believed in their existence. Who arms himself and goes hunting for the frumious Bandersnatch or leads an expedition to the North Pole with the serious intention of interviewing Santa Claus?
In addition, the cult might have cast a simple spell upon this property, a spell to blind people to its existence, as the shoppers in the produce section of the supermarket had been unable to see the silencered pistol with which the cowboy shot the cantaloupe. No self-respecting modern person would believe in the effectiveness of such a spell, but it worked just the same without their belief.
The Dobermans might be the extent of their precautions. And perhaps those creatures had been trained to patrol and kill less for security than for the pleasure that their trainer took in corrupting three dogs. Dogs are innocent by nature, and people such as these prized nothing more than the corruption—and destruction—of the innocent.
If the rhinestone cowboy thought I might be alive, perhaps guards would have been posted. But he believed that he had killed me in the Elsewhere version of Shower 5. I, too, thought he had killed me. It had sure felt like death, but then everything since had felt like life.
At the front of the house, lights had glowed behind uncurtained windows on all three floors. Back here, the third-floor rooms were dark. Even on the lower levels, fewer people were evident here than had been on the lake side of the building. In fact, on the ground floor, I could see no one anywhere but in the kitchen.
Pistol ready, I crossed the lawn. I sensed that I didn’t have time for excessive stealth, but I stayed away from the house until I was past the kitchen windows, through which I could see four people toiling.
Jessie, Jasmine, Jordan…
I passed French doors with lights beyond, went to a solid door, hesitated, tried it, opened it. Beyond lay a lighted mudroom: pegs on which to hang coats, benches on which to sit to take off or put on boots.
The mudroom offered two interior doors. I heard voices beyond one of them and figured it opened into the kitchen. The other door presented me with a set of softly lighted back stairs, one flight leading up to a landing, another flight leading down, no sound of footsteps above or below.
I felt drawn to the basement both by psychic magnetism and logic. If you’ve kidnapped seventeen children and are holding them for a series of human sacrifices that would give an Aztec priest second thoughts, the basement seemed the best place to lock away the little ones.
I descended two flights to a door, listened at the crack along the jamb, and liked what I heard, which was exactly nothing. Beyond lay a wide corridor leading the length of the building. On both sides were more doors, none of them open.
None of the doors was marked, either, not even with the universal language of clever symbols that, the world over, identify men’s and women’s bathrooms, first-aid stations, mail drops, and many other things. Most likely no symbol sign exists that means kidnapped children here.
Twenty feet ahead of me, a man stepped into the corridor from a room on the left, pulling the door shut behind him. He was reading a sheet of paper that he held in his right hand, and he didn’t at first register my presence.
I had nowhere to hide, no cloak of invisibility, only the pistol that I held down at my side, muzzle toward the floor, and for some reason I didn’t at once bring it on target. The Judeo-Christian ethic isn’t as easily cast off as we believe it is. Thou shalt not kill is a deeply programmed directive; if it were not, normal life would be virtually impossible, every trip to the 7-Eleven even more dangerous than it is now, and no one would survive a season as a judge on American Idol. Although self-defense allows an exception, we tend to hesitate nonetheless, especially when the guy we think will kill us appears to be unarmed.
He took two steps, laughed, became aware of me, and looked up from the item that he had been reading. He was florid-faced, with amusingly unruly white hair and sparkling blue eyes and a crooked smile that, as a package, made him one of those people who, upon first sight, you think you’d enjoy knowing.
If he found my two holsters, bulletproof vest, utility belt, and the weapon in my hand alarming, he concealed his concern quite well. Still smiling, he raised his right fist and said, “Contumax,” which was the word on the bronze door to their temple. He said it not as a challenge but as one member of a men’s club might have called out a greeting to another member, using a secret word that helped them tell the difference between themselves and the Odd Fellows or the Freemasons.
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