I was somewhat surprised to hear myself answer him with the word in the center of the temple floor: “Potestas.”
Evidently I pronounced it correctly and it was the right thing to say, because he didn’t frown with suspicion. “I’m Rob Burkett.”
“Scottie Ferguson,” I replied, not sure why I took the name of the lead character in Vertigo.
Rob appeared to be delighted with me, perhaps somewhat envious, when he indicated my weaponized appearance and said, “So you’re all dressed for the stage. Be hard as nails, man, make it memorable. Which have you been assigned, a little bitch or a little bastard?”
I popped him twice in the chest. The sound suppressor proved to be of high quality, producing only one whifff and then another, which echoed quietly along the corridor like a pair of heavily muffled kitten sneezes that couldn’t have been heard through a closed door.
Even an unsentimental head-collecting child-murdering fanatic with big-time hoodoo tricks and a friend in the hierarchy of Hell can make a serious mistake. But only one.
In this place infested with human cockroaches, one mistake would be the end of me, too. I dared not leave a corpse sprawled in plain sight, and not just because the state of Nevada had anti-littering laws. I cautiously opened the door through which Rob had stepped less than a minute earlier. A small office with one desk, a computer, two chairs, no people. I holstered the Glock, gripped the dead man by his wrists, dragged him out of the corridor.
In books and movies, at moments like this, the good guy—a title that I’m taking the liberty of attaching to myself—goes through the pockets and the wallet of the thug he had to kill, searching for and discovering clues that tell him who his enemies are. I already knew what these people were, and I didn’t care who. I tucked him into the knee space under the desk.
I’m not sure what I expected the office of a hardworking devil-worshipper to look like. Maybe a lamp with a shade made of human skin, a baby’s skull used as a pencil holder, wallpaper after a design by the Marquis de Sade, and a desk calendar with 365 pages featuring the wit and wisdom of Hitler. The reality included a poster headlined THE 12 RULES OF SUCCESSFUL MANAGEMENT and another poster made from a photo of a house cat cornered by a crocodile above the words SHIT HAPPENS. On the desk were a bank statement and spreadsheet. Stuck here and there, Post-its provided neatly printed reminders: SHERRY’S BIRTHDAY GIFT, the culinarily specific HOT SAUCE, GREEN AND RED, and an almost desperate PAPER CLIPS!
I snatched a box of Kleenex from beside the computer, returned to the corridor, and quickly wiped up the blood on the gray vinyl-tile floor. There wasn’t much of it. One of the rounds had stopped his heart.
When I picked up the sheet of paper that he had been reading, it proved to be a joke going around the Internet. It concerned two dogs, a famous newspaper, Valentine’s Day, and urination. I couldn’t imagine why he’d found it funny enough to laugh out loud.
In the office again, I dropped the tissues and the paper in the waste can. I drew the Glock that now held thirteen rounds, turned off the lights, and stood in the dark, taking slow, deep breaths.
There is a keen distinction between the words murder and kill. Because of envy or greed, jealousy or rage, ideology or sheer blind hatred, the murderer takes the precious life of another. To prevent the murderer from doing so or to deal justice, or to save myself, I may kill him. He murders, I kill. Funny, then, that killers tend to be the ones who have to overcome nausea in the immediate aftermath and who struggle with guilt in the long run, while the murderers go from slaughter to celebration without a hiccup.
I returned to the hallway, pulled the door shut behind me, and almost shot Mr. Hitchcock, which would have been regrettable even if he was a spirit who couldn’t be harmed. He stood farther along the corridor, waving at me as if I might be so preoccupied that I wouldn’t notice him.
As I approached the director, he turned to his left, giving me his famous profile, and walked through a door. I almost sang the tune from his old TV show: Dunt-da-da-da-da-dunt-da-da, dunt-da-da-da-da-dunt-da-da.
When I opened the door through which he had passed, I found him waiting for me in a room about twenty feet square. Deep, sturdy metal shelving units lined all four walls from floor to ceiling. They were packed full of just two items: thousands of rolls of toilet paper and paper towels. It was such a strange hoard that I couldn’t help but marvel at it for a moment.
In that singular voice and precise diction, Mr. Hitchcock said, “They must have reason to believe the world will end by diarrhea.”
I don’t recall my reply. I know I said something, but my own words were forever knocked out of my memory by the sudden realization that he had talked.
THE DEAD DON’T TALK. I DON’T KNOW WHY. I’VE ALWAYS thought that they are denied speech because, if they possessed it, they would be likely to reveal something about death that the living are not meant to know.
Mr. Hitchcock had died thirty-two years earlier. There had never been any crazy rumors about him having faked his death, as there had been about Elvis. Besides, he chose to manifest as about fifty years of age, when he’d been in his prime as a filmmaker; but if this was the real Mr. Hitchcock, he would be far past the century mark, having been born in 1899.
I stared at him, aware that my mouth hung open but unable to close it.
“Mr. Thomas,” he said, “the hour is late, the clock is ticking, and this scenario requires James Stewart, not Tab Hunter.”
“Sir … you’re talking.”
“Your powers of observation are impressive. But they alone will not ensure the safety of seventeen children. There are things—”
“But the spirits of the lingering dead don’t talk.”
“I died, as you know. But I have never lingered in my entire existence, either before death or after. One always has too much to do to linger anywhere. Now there are things I need to tell you, Mr. Thomas, but the telling will be pointless if you are not prepared to listen.”
“Call me Odd, sir. Or Oddie. That would be cool. I mean, since I’m such a fan. Your work was brilliant.”
“Thank you, Mr. Thomas. Some of it was quite good, some just all right, some unfortunate. Where you may have serious complaints, I imagine they should be addressed to the producer with whom I had to work on occasion, Mr. David O. Selznick—wherever he may be. Now shall we get to the matter of the children?”
“Wait a minute,” I said, thunderstruck by a sudden realization. “You can’t just—We’ve got to—If you’re talking—I mean, then what are you, sir? Are you my … my guardian angel?”
“I am touched by your high opinion of me, Mr. Thomas.”
“Call me Odd.”
“That’s very kind of you. But angels, Mr. Thomas, are born angels and are never anything else, except of course when they disguise themselves, when visiting Earth, as people or dogs, or whatever. I assure you that during my many years on Earth, I was not an angel pretending to be human, and I am not an angel now.”
“Then what are you?”
“The hierarchy of spirits and the assignment of various tasks and responsibilities after death are issues more complicated than Hollywood has portrayed them. No surprise there. But if you insist on my spelling out all of that, I assure you that by the time I finish, the children will be dead.”
He pushed out his lower lip, raised his eyebrows, and regarded me expectantly, as if to say, Shall we let them die, then, so your curiosity can be satisfied?
In defense of my temporary inability to focus on the children, I can only plead that I had recently fended off three attack dogs, toured a collection of severed heads, visited a satanic temple, just killed a man—killed, not murdered—was afraid that I would have to kill many more, had heard a spirit speak for the first time ever, and he was Alfred Hitchcock.
But his raised eyebrows and his pout of disapproval, subtle as they were, brought me to my senses, as I imagine that expression and others equally well-practiced had brought errant actors back to the script and to the intended tone of a production with little or no argument. I thought of him turning the same look on Gregory Peck or Rod Taylor—surely never on Cary Grant or James Stewart—and I couldn’t help but grin.
As soon as I saw his reaction to my delight, of course, I wiped the grin off my face. “Where are the children, sir?”
“They are under guard on the third floor, Mr. Thomas. Getting them down from there and out of this house will test your wits and courage.”
“But I thought they were here in the basement. Jessie, Jasmine, Jordan, and the others. When I thought about them, I was drawn down here to the basement.”
“You were drawn here by me. Had you gone to the third floor without certain knowledge that you must have, you would by now be stone dead.”
He had my attention. “What knowledge?”
“The people here tonight have come from four states in the West. Most of them know one another, but to some of them, there are new faces.”
“I already figured that out by how the guy reacted to me in the hallway.”
“Good for you. One likes to have a leading man who is credibly clever.”
With some embarrassment, I said, “I don’t think of myself as a leading man, sir.”
“Frankly, Mr. Thomas, neither do I. Now, chances are, if you holster your guns and go to the third floor openly, as though you belong in this place, you will be met with no suspicion.”
“Except for the cowboy guy.”
“Yes. Except for him.”
“He thinks I’m dead.”
“I’m sure that he does.”
“What if I run into him?”
“Was I dead in Shower 5, sir?”
“That is not for me to say.”
“Did you … bring me back from … from the dead?”
Instead of answering, he winked. “Pay attention, Mr. Thomas. Now if someone greets you with a raised fist and the word contumax—”
“Even though I feel like an idiot, I raise my fist back at them and say potestas. But what does that mean?”
“The first is Latin for ‘defiant’ or ‘disobedient.’ The second is Latin for ‘power.’ They are a predictable bunch.”
“Except I would have predicted more security.”
Mr. Hitchcock shrugged. “They believe themselves to be charmed, given protection by the prince of this world, and untouchable.”
“Why do they believe that?”
“Because they are.”
“They have nothing to fear from most people. But because of their worldview, they are incapable of imagining or preparing for someone as different as you, Mr. Thomas.”
“You mean my gift.”
“That is the last thing I mean.”
“Then what’s different about me?”
“I’m just a fry cook.”
He smiled, and I had the strangest feeling that, like Mrs. Fischer, he was going to pinch my cheek. He didn’t. And he didn’t tell me what amused him.
Instead, he said, “Because you’re so intriguingly geared-up, people will think you’re one of the evening’s murderers of children. If they ask who’s your patron, say Zebulun, and they will especially respect you.”
“One of the more powerful demons.”
“I almost want to laugh, sir.”
“Did you want to laugh when you saw the collection of heads?”
“No, sir. All right. My patron is Zebulun.”
“Just try not to say the name too often.”
“It is never wise.”
“Okay, all right. Whatever you say.”
He pointed at me, which for him seemed to be as forceful a gesture as he might ever employ. In a confrontational business known for temperamental personalities, he had been famous for never losing his temper and for walking away rather than participate in an argument. “You must avoid the senoculus.”
“What’s the senoculus?”
“A lesser demon. Its usual form is a bull’s head on a man’s body, and it has six eyes, a cluster of three on each side of its face.”
“I’m sure I’ll recognize it.”
“The last time you met the senoculus, it didn’t look that way.”
A chill quivered along my spine. “The thing on that roof in all the blackness?”
“When you cross into what you call Elsewhere, you are known at once by those in the wasteland, Mr. Thomas. Known and hated. Hated because you are the antithesis of what they are. And because they can enter Elsewhere, one of them will always come for you. The senoculus chooses to look like you now. It will try to suck your life and your soul out of you.”
“ ‘Give me your breath … and the sweet fruit at the end of it.’ ”
“Avoid the senoculus at all costs.”
“If it shows up, how do I avoid it?”
“Run, Mr. Thomas. Run.”
Doubting my ability to handle this, I said, “Maybe I should just call the police, tell them the missing kids are all here. Maybe I can convince them. Maybe they’ll think they have to come take a look.”
He regarded me with sadness, as if I were pitiably naive. “Mr. Thomas, the county sheriff is among the guests downstairs.”
The director began to rise off the floor, as though he would leave through the ceiling, as he had done in the elevator at Star Truck.
I said, “Wait, wait, wait.”
He drifted back to the floor. “Time is short, Mr. Thomas.”
I said, “Why can’t you just take the kids under your wing and get them safely out of here?”
“This world isn’t run by miracles. This world is run by free will, and I can’t interfere with yours or the children’s.”
“But you stepped in to give me all this advice.”
“I was a film director, Mr. Thomas. I don’t give advice. I give instructions. And you have the free will to ignore them.”
When he started to rise again, like a Macy’s-parade balloon, I grabbed his arm to hold him down. “Why didn’t you talk to me right from the start, why all the pantomime until now?”
He smiled and shook his head as if to say that I had much to learn regarding the construction of a drama. “One does not reveal such a twist a moment sooner than the end of the second act.” His expression grew serious, and he searched my eyes as if taking the measure of my mettle. “Children, Mr. Thomas. Innocent children.”
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