Although Mr. Hitchcock had said that the clock was ticking, and although no one would know more about ticking clocks than the Master of Suspense, I went to the next door on the left, Room 6. It wasn’t locked.
They tortured people for pleasure and to win the favor of their malevolent god, and they made a sacrament of murder, but they trusted one another not to steal. Maybe that was because they also brutally executed their own—like the two men in the basement of the former Black & Buckle Manufacturing building in Barstow—for any behavior that might put the cult at risk or harm any of its members. I suppose the prospect of having your fingers amputated one by one with a bolt cutter and being set afire would make you think twice about sneaking into someone’s room and stealing his iPad.
The wall switch just inside the door brought light to the pair of bedside lamps in Room 6. The bedding had not been disturbed. On the dresser, someone had left a newspaper, a set of keys, and pocket change. A few paperback books were stacked on one of the night-stands.
At the wide window, the draperies were open. The flames of the propane torches, below my line of sight on the ground-floor terrace, made this higher night quiver with sinuous light.
To be sure I was alone, I checked the bathroom. Separate sets of personal-care products beside the two sinks indicated that a couple occupied this unit, a man and a woman. They were on a late-winter getaway: fresh mountain air, an entertaining novel or two, perhaps a little boating on the lake, the ritualistic murder of seventeen children to unwind taut nerves and ensure a good night’s sleep.…
Satisfied that for the moment I had the room to myself, I went to the window.
Immediately below, at the second floor, on the twenty-foot-wide cantilevered deck that extended the length of the building, more than twenty people were gathered, enjoying cocktails and wine, men and women in about equal numbers. They all wore sweaters, though not only or even primarily for comfort in the cool night air. Perhaps as an act of mockery, every sweater had a Christmas motif featuring Santa Claus or reindeer, snowmen or elves, holiday trees or snowflakes, and some featured words of the holiday like NOEL, FELIZ NAVIDAD, HO HO HO, and JOY TO THE WORLD. They were colorful, festive, and—out of season, under these circumstances—deeply sinister.
I didn’t know what the county sheriff looked like, but I saw a well-known film actor, a United States senator, and a couple of other faces that were familiar but that I couldn’t identify. The rhinestone cowboy wasn’t among them.
In this age of smartphones that can be used surreptitiously as cameras and recorders, for such prominent and recognizable people to attend this abomination seemed reckless in the extreme. But Mr. Hitchcock had said they were protected by their master, the rebel angel who was the prince of this world, to whom they had pledged everything. He said that they were untouchable. And perhaps they trusted one another not to steal and not to betray them with video on the Internet because when they had joined the darksiders, they had surrendered their free will and no longer had the capacity to change their minds and betray the cult. A satanic society, after all, would operate as the ultimate totalitarianism.
Beyond the deck, on the terrace below, in the center of a space defined by four of the tall propane torches, the round steel stage waited for the night’s performances. I had seen this same platform when I touched the cowboy in the supermarket parking lot. The three children had been seated on it when he set them afire.
Just past the farther end of the terrace, on the shore, between two torches stood a man with spiky white hair. He wore a blood-red suit, black shirt, and harlequin mask. The cowboy. He held a censer that was suspended by three chains from a handle, and as he turned, swinging it toward all four points of the compass, I could see the pale fumes of incense escaping from the holes in the filigreed lid of the gold thurible.
Only as I looked past the people in their Christmas sweaters and the stage below them, past the cowboy, did I realize that the night had undergone a frightening change. Directly overhead, stars winked between the tattered clouds, the edges of which were aglow with a reflection of an otherwise still-shrouded moon. But beyond the evenly spaced line of tall propane torches that defined the curving shoreline, the lake had been transformed.
Previously, the placid surface had been inky, and only the torches, reflected in the water, had revealed the presence of a lake. Now the pale soil of the shore seemed to flutter in firelight, as if it were alive and trembling with expectation, but the water did not mirror the flames, as though it had drained away. Earlier, across the portion of the sky above the lake, the clouds had been faintly luminous with the refracted lights of distant Las Vegas, providing just enough contrast to see the rising land along the farther shores. Unlike the heavens directly above this property, those looming over the lake were now so perfectly black that looking at them strained the eyes. The farther land and the lake that it had defined were now invisible.
The line of torches no longer marked the edge of the lake but defined the boundary between this reality and that wasteland I had seen through the windows—and from the roof—of the old industrial building in Elsewhere. Here, that vast cold hateful darkness met our world without the bridge of Elsewhere.
On the second-floor deck, more people were gathering, at least forty now, more colorful Christmas sweaters, and their conversation grew increasingly excited but at the same time quieter, as though they were anticipating the arrival of some special guest immeasurably more prestigious than the senator with the leonine mane of salt-and-pepper hair, far more glamorous than the movie star. Their attention focused now less on one another than on the absolute blackness where the lake had been.
A chill traveled through me, and it seemed that my blood had turned cold and thick. My heart pumped not just faster but also with much greater force, as though higher pressure was required to drive the syrup of life through the arteries to every extremity. I could feel the hard strokes of my heart not merely in my chest and throbbing temples, but as well in my eyes, my vision pulsing, and in the thyroid cartilage of my Adam’s apple, my larynx vibrating with each beat, and in the deep pit of my stomach, which might have been my aorta swelling with each surge of blood. The fear that rose in me was unlike any that I’d known before, raw, primal, like a hibernating lodger that all my life had slept in my bones, that I had not known was part of me, until now it came awake.
Within that oppressive gloom where the lake had been, a presence slightly less black moved, and then more than one. I could discern no shapes, no features. I became aware of things roiling, writhing, creatures that, in their biological convolutions, by far exceeded in strangeness the strangest living things upon the earth. It seemed to me the darkness through which they moved, out of which they came, was without end, that they were many and yet somehow one, that rising toward the shore was something vast beyond measuring and grotesque beyond human comprehension.
The cowboy turned his back upon the blackness. Slowly and without apparent fear, carrying the censer, he started toward the house.
I turned away from the window.
The nightstand lamps brightened and dimmed rhythmically, and because they were not in time with my racing heart, I thought their throbbing must be real, not merely the consequence of my pulsating vision.
I drew both pistols but then holstered them. Such fear as this could inspire irrational action, which might lead me to fail not just one or two of the children, but all of them.
Whatever gate had been opened to whatever realm, whatever presence or legion had come out of the wasteland to the shore behind the house, it was not here to find me and carry me away. It was here to witness the extreme atrocities that these people intended to offer in gratitude for the power and the wealth that they had been given, for the success in their careers that came from the dark grace of their patron. They were the real threat to me.
My palms were damp with sweat.
I blotted them on my jeans.
I held my hands before my face, watching them tremble—until they didn’t.
Whatever might be out there in the night didn’t matter. The world was proving far more mysterious than even I had heretofore imagined, but that didn’t matter, either.
The task that I needed to perform was the same task that I had needed to perform since I first saw that vision of burning children earlier in the day. The thing to understand is that you have to do what you have to do, always and without complaint.
That’s the way.
IN THE THIRD-FLOOR HALLWAY, THE CEILING LIGHTS were cycling brighter, dimmer, brighter, but there wasn’t another pretty, yellow-eyed chin-licking Goth-girl maniac or the equivalent waiting for me. That seemed to be a good sign. Stay positive.
I returned to Room 4, opened the door this time, and walked boldly into the temporary prison where the seventeen children were being watched over by two men.
When I saw that a felt-tip pen had been used to draw a line of hieroglyphics across the brow of each child, I recalled the severed heads in the breakfronts, and had to remind myself to stay positive. But the abhorrence, the hatred of corruption and the detestation of those who ate at the trough of corruption, which I would need if I were to lead the captives safely out of here, did not need to be ginned up; I was almost wild with a righteous hatred and knew that I must get a leash and muzzle on it to avoid reckless action that would ensure the children’s death and mine. I dared not let a trace of contempt color my voice or a shadow of loathing darken my face.
The two guards were absurdly handsome, coiffed as if they had a fetish for hair. They looked like Ken dolls that had been infused with life by a malevolent force, had dismembered Barbie, and had come here to take vengeance on these children for having spent years, as dolls, being dressed up in outfits that humiliated them.
The only pieces of furniture in the room were two straight-backed chairs. There were two floor lamps with pleated-silk shades, one in each half of the room, and they throbbed like the lights in the hallway and in Room 6. One of the Kens, a blond hunk with chiseled features, sat in a chair, holding a cattle prod across his lap. He wore a sweater that depicted Kermit the Frog in a Santa hat, overlaid with a shoulder holster and pistol.
“Contumax,” I said, pumping my fist in the air.
The other Ken, who wore a Rudolph sweater and also had a gun in a shoulder rig, stood at the window, on the farther side of the large room, watching the preparations for the festivities. He resembled the actor Hugh Grant if Hugh Grant were like three times better-looking than he’d been in his prime. If the two Kens had been close together, I would have been sure of dropping them without taking return fire, but this situation made me nervous. Besides, I didn’t want to shoot at a guy standing by the window, in case I blew out one of the panes and alerted the people on the deck below.
Ken #2 answered my “Contumax” with “Potestas” and a lame fist pump, but Ken #1 just wanted to know when the fornicating action was going to fornicating begin, though the word he used wasn’t fornicating. I said that my name was Lucius and I was from Arizona. Indicating my weaponry, I said that I was part of the show tonight, that I was a friend of Jinx’s, and that we were looking for her, because the action couldn’t begin without her. Ken #2 said that Jinx was probably outside somewhere, getting it on with one of the Dobermans, and Ken #1 said he couldn’t wait to see the show that witchy bitch was going to put on, she was always over the top, whereupon Ken #2 said Jinx had superdelicious mammaries, with megabounce, though he didn’t use the word mammaries. Ken #1 said that he liked her mammaries and her cool black fingernails but that the yellow contact lenses were just vampire-movie stupid, and Ken #2 agreed that the contacts were stupid and said that the only mammaries more superdelicious than Jinx’s were Nedra’s, to which Ken #1 replied that he shouldn’t have eaten those fornicating wasabi shrimp because now he had fornicating heartburn, by which time I realized that even head-collecting satanists who performed human sacrifices and who lived without rules could be dull conversationalists.
The captives sat on the floor, in a large semicircle, the three Payton children among them, all ten years old or younger, eight boys and nine girls. Some were numb with terror, some twitchy, and others appeared to be emotionally drained, exhausted. They must have cried themselves dry. Two had a sullen and defiant attitude; they might have resisted or tried to flee and been badly hurt, except that each of the seventeen was firmly linked to the next, wrist to wrist, with eighteen-inch lengths of tightly knotted red-satin ribbon, and this chain-gang arrangement hampered them.
The lights stopped pulsing. Whatever presence had disturbed the night by its approach had fully arrived, and the night had adjusted to it.
Annoyed with me even though I had been entirely cordial, Ken #1 said, “Listen, man, I’ll tell you what I told the others who’ve come sniffing around. We can’t let you take one of these [fornicating] little muffins into the [fornicating] bathroom for a taste. They have to be pure … for later. Besides, they’ve all just had a piss before we tied them, and now we can’t untie any ’cause soon, when we hear the gong, we have to lead them out to the [fornicating] stage.”
“Her or him,” Ken #2 said.
Ken #1 said, “What?”
“Her or him,” Ken #2 repeated. “We can’t let Lucius here get it on with one of the girls or one of the boys.”
“Man, that’s exactly just what I said,” Ken #1 declared, further annoyed.
“No, what you told him was that we can’t let him take her into the bathroom for a taste.”
After a few words of blasphemy, Ken #1 said, “Him was implied when I said her.”
“Maybe you implied it, but maybe he didn’t infer it.”
“What the hell’s that mean?” Ken #1 asked. “When I said ‘taste,’ I didn’t mean taste, either, but Lucius knew what I was implying.” He looked up at me. “Didn’t you [fornicating] know what I was implying?”
“Absolutely. But that’s not what I came here for.”
Ken #1’s sneer was sharp enough to peel an apple. “Yeah, right.”
“No, really. Rob sent me up here to do something.”
“Rob who? There’s ninety people here tonight, and I know like three Robs. There’s at least twenty people I haven’t met before, and for all I know every [fornicating] one of them is Rob.”
Ken #2 said, “Except Rob Cornell is actually Robert, but he just doesn’t like Bob, so he calls himself Rob.”
Before Ken #1 could employ his profane vocabulary even more colorfully than before, I said to the Ken at the window, “I’ll need your help with this.”
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