“With what Rob Burkett sent me up here to do.”
Stepping away from the window, Ken #2 said, “Why didn’t you say Rob Burkett in the first place?”
Getting up from his chair, cattle prod in his right hand, Ken #1 said, “Shit, Lucius, you know how Rob is. He’s an office guy, not a field guy. He wouldn’t have known what to do if he’d been there in Vegas last night. So it got messy. But we still got those four kids.”
I remembered what Chet, the customer in the diner, told us: The kidnappers in Vegas murdered the parents to get their four children.
Looking concerned as he joined us, Ken #2 said, “Who would’ve thought a milksop Baptist minister and his wife would be carrying concealed weapons?”
Ken #1 sought my sympathy: “Hey, man, the TV news said that [fornicating] preacher and that bitch wife of his had permits to carry. What kind of crazy government bureaucrat as**ole licenses [fornicating] preachers to walk around with [fornicating] pistols under their suit coats?”
“Good thing,” said Ken #2, “the preacher didn’t realize there were two of us.”
“Good thing,” Ken #1 agreed. “A preacher ought to know the Bible says ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ ”
“Actually,” I corrected, “if you go back to the root language of the original commandments, it said ‘Thou shalt not murder,’ but over the millennia and through a lot of translations, it ended up saying ‘kill.’ ”
Puzzled, Ken #2 said, “Murder or kill, kill or murder, what the hell’s the difference?”
“Anyway,” I said, “Rob is cool with Vegas. It turned out all right, and we have four juicy preacher kids raised pure, the way we need them to be. He sent me up here to do this thing with the little darlings.”
“What thing?” both Kens asked.
Winking at them, I said, “You’re going to like this.”
Inside of me there seemed to be a butterfly farm where two thousand wings fluttered out of a thousand split cocoons all at once.
These kids would have to live with this trauma all the days of their lives, and I didn’t want to do anything that would leave them with even darker memories of these events.
Turning to the captives, I remembered that Mr. Hitchcock had said they didn’t know what was going to happen to them, that the cultists wanted to surprise the remaining sixteen when the first of them was slashed or chopped, or hammered. “Listen up, kids. It’s going to take another day or two for the ransom to be paid, and we can’t let you go until then.”
One of the two that had an openly defiant attitude, a girl of nine or ten, with a blond ponytail and celadon eyes, said, “That’s a crock of horseshit.”
“Well, personally, I don’t use that kind of language,” I told her, “though I can understand why you might feel the way you do. But the truth is, we know you’re bored, and since there are a few people here who’re magicians, we’re going to put on a show for you kids in a little while.”
“That’s more horseshit,” the girl said.
Because I was standing a step in front of the Kens, I was able to wink at her without them seeing what I did. She frowned, not sure what to make of the wink.
I said, “We need one of you to be on stage to assist one of the magicians with a few totally amazing tricks. It’ll be really cool.”
One sweet-faced boy of about six raised his hand and said, “I’ll do it.”
“I’m sorry, son, but I’m not asking for a volunteer. We’re going to play a fun game, and the winner gets to help the magician. First I need all of you to close your eyes. Come on, now. Close them. Close them tight. You, too. That’s right, that’s good. You have to keep them closed through the whole game, until I tell you to open them.”
I drew one of the Glocks, turned, and shot Ken #1 in the head. His eyes weren’t closed, of course, but they didn’t even have time to widen in recognition of what was happening.
Ken #2 must have been thinking about superdelicious mammaries, because he was slower on the draw than I expected, and I shot him point-blank in the face and throat before he could get his piece out of his shoulder rig. Just to be sure about Ken #1, I leaned down to where he’d fallen and popped him again.
Every shot was a whifff, but the bodies made some hard sounds when they hit the carpet, so I said, “Keep your eyes closed, kids. Keep them closed really tight.”
The butterflies in my stomach were snakes now, slippery masses of serpents squirming over one another.
I knelt beside the first Ken, looked into his eyes, and then pulled his Kermit the Frog sweater over his face like a shroud, to conceal his wounds. I looked in the second Ken’s eyes and drew his Rudolph sweater over his face, as well.
I thought that I heard a noise in the hallway. I froze, stared at the door, waiting for a knock or for the knob to turn. Nothing happened.
In the farther half of the room, there might be chunks of skull and worse. I turned to the kids to be sure that they had their eyes shut, and they all did, except for the girl with the ponytail. Her stare was wide and gray-green and bright.
“Keep your eyes closed,” I told the others. “We’re almost ready to begin the game.”
I went to the lamp that cast light into that part of the room where debris had fallen. I yanked its plug from the wall receptacle.
Returning to the kids, I said, “When you open your eyes, try not to look too close at things. There’s no reason to look close. Okay, you can open them.”
They stared at the dead men. Some of them—but not most—looked away. A few started to cry, but I gently shushed them.
“I’m going to take you out of here and home again,” I told them. “But you have to be quiet, very quiet, and do exactly what I say.”
The girl with the ponytail stared intensely at me, as if she were a living polygraph. She nodded. To the others, she said, “Do what he tells you. If he has to, he’ll die for us.”
The crying children wiped at their eyes, choked back their sobs.
I smiled at the girl. “No horseshit, huh?”
“Zero,” she said.
INITIALLY, I THOUGHT THAT THE CHILDREN SHOULD be untied or the ribbons cut, but I quickly realized the advantage of leaving them tethered to those on both sides of them, wrist to wrist. If suddenly they were spooked by something, they could not scatter in a panic. I was more likely to be able to protect them if they remained together, less likely to lose one who, in unthinking terror, might run and hide.
I went once more to the window, to assess quickly the state of things.
Directly overhead, the architecture of the now-parched storm continued to come apart. Through holes in the roof of clouds, more stars appeared moment by moment, as if those distant suns were just now being born by the thousands.
Over the lake or where the lake had been, that other sky, awful and without one flicker, concealed beneath it what had come from some malignant shore to this one. Dark forms, moving and threatening within a deeper darkness, defied the eye and would not be defined.
As I have explained in previous volumes of this memoir, there are other spirits that I sometimes see in addition to those of the lingering dead, though they might never have been human at any stage of their existence. I call them bodachs because, when visiting Pico Mundo many years earlier, an English boy who apparently had talents akin to mine and who could also see these spirits called them bodachs just before he was crushed to death by a runaway truck. They are as insubstantial as fumes but not transparent, instead soot-black and without features, sinuous. Although they can’t pass through walls as ghosts can, they are able to slip through any crevice or crack, or keyhole. Their silhouettes suggest wolf and human both. They slink and slouch, glide and slither, and they have an interest in certain people, especially in those who will soon die by violence and also in those who will murder them.
I’ve long believed that bodachs feed on human misery, which is why they appear at sites of forthcoming mass murders, where deadly fires will burn, where earthquakes will shake down buildings on our heads. I imagine that they swarm in frenzied multitudes across hard-contested battlefields. They do not appear for single deaths or even for two or three that occur in, say, a car wreck. They are attracted to great slaughters and catastrophes, incapable of harming anyone, as far as I know, just psychic vampires hungry not for our blood but for our pain.
The prospect of seventeen tortured and murdered children should have drawn bodachs to this place, but I hadn’t yet seen one. If a horde of them gathered in the churning blackness just offshore, some other entity abided there as well, some greater power than they, to which they were subservient, some power that could inflict enormous suffering rather than merely feed off it.
Unlike that industrial building in Elsewhere, this place wasn’t surrounded by the lightless wasteland, but only adjoined it for the coming homicidal performances. Leaving by the back of the building, staying away from the lake, we ought to be able to find our way to Mrs. Fischer.
At the stainless-steel stage on the terrace, the cowboy shook an aspergillum, one of those bulbed and pierced hollow wands with which a Catholic priest sprinkled holy water. Whatever he might have been dispensing, it wasn’t holy.
On the second-floor terrace immediately below the window, more members of the cult than ever gathered, seventy or eighty. The senator spoke animatedly with a famous female singer that I had not seen here earlier.
Thus far, I had used one Glock exclusively. Six of fifteen rounds remained. I swapped that magazine for one of the fresh ones on my utility belt.
The children were standing, ready to leave, each of them linked to two others, except a boy at one end and the ponytailed girl at the other end, who each had a hand free. None of them appeared to be as frightened as I felt.
“I’ll lead the way,” I told them. “Stay close, two-by-two to keep the line shorter, unless you have to go single file on the stairs to avoid stumbling over one another.”
Some of them nodded solemnly, while others stared at me with eyes full of lamplight and determination, all of them past tears.
Our culture sentimentalizes children, and we forget one of the things that we should most remember from that time of our lives: Children know that this world can be hard on them, harder than it is on adults. They are physically weaker than adults, financially dependent, and in times of danger, nothing clarifies our thinking more than an awareness of our extreme vulnerability. The power of imagination is at its peak in childhood, and in a crisis like this, it allows no illusions, conjures in the mind a thousand ways that death might come, and thereby makes even the most vulnerable perhaps equal to the moment.
“You might see frightening things and scary people,” I warned them. And the next words I spoke were so spontaneous that it seemed they had not been spoken by me, but instead through me. “If you do see anything scary, then just say very quietly, ‘I am not yours, you may not touch me.’ Can you remember that?”
They nodded, some of them softly repeated what I’d told them, and then all of them recited it in a whisper. Some ineffable quality of that quiet chorus so moved me that my heart, having grown as heavy as iron, grew lighter again, and I allowed myself more hope than I’d been willing to entertain since discovering the collection of heads.
As I turned to lead them from the room, a snow-white German-shepherd mix passed through the closed door. My ghost dog, Boo, had once been the companion of the monks at St. Bartholomew’s Abbey, and he had been with me since I left that place less than three months earlier.
He came to me, and I lowered my left arm to let him nuzzle and lick that hand. He feels as real to me as do human spirits, as did Mr. Hitchcock, whatever the director might be in his current incarnation.
Boo was one of only two animal spirits that I have ever seen lingering in this world. The reasons that inhibit some dead people from crossing to the Other Side do not apply to animals, which are blameless. Since Boo left St. Bartholomew’s with me, I have suspected that he had stayed in this world after death so that I would find him, that he hung out with me not for companionship but because eventually I would need him in a crisis.
Perhaps eventually was now.
The sudden appearance of the dog, the sight of which usually comforted me, alarmed me this time. I thought at once that someone might be in the third-floor hallway, approaching this room, perhaps an entire contingent of cultists, though the Kens had implied that they would be conveying the seventeen sacrifices to the terrace at the appropriate time.
Pistol in hand, I went to the door, which was the only exit from the room, because going out the window would put us in the hands of those apostles of evil on the second-floor deck. I listened, heard nothing over the excited babble of the crowd below, opened the door, stuck my head out, and found the hall deserted.
When I turned, the girl with the ponytail beckoned me. Her brow was furrowed, and she shifted weight back and forth from one foot to the other, as if something excited her.
Leaving the door ajar, I said, “Come on, come on, let’s go.”
Because she was at an end of the line, she led the other kids across the room. But just short of me, she stopped and reached back as far as she could with her left arm, to keep the maximum distance between her and the second child in the procession.
She whispered, “I have to tell you something.”
Ken #1 had said a gong would sound, summoning them to escort the sacrifices to the terrace. I expected to hear it at any moment.
“Tell me later,” I said.
“No,” the girl said adamantly, although still whispering. “It’s really important. I can see him, too.”
She craned her head forward, and I lowered mine, and in an even fainter whisper that those behind her could not hear, she said, “The others don’t see him, but I do. The dog. I see the dog and how you let him lick your hand.”
IN MY ALMOST TWENTY-TWO YEARS, I HAD ENCOUNTERED only one other who could see spirits, the English boy whom I mentioned earlier. I had known him less than a day before he had been crushed to death between a stone wall and a runaway truck.
Risking the gong, certain now that the moment for which Boo lingered in this world would soon come, I closed the door, dropped on one knee before the girl, and matched her whisper.
“What’s your name, sweetheart?”
“Verena. Verena Stanhope.”
“You see people, too, people no one else sees.”
Her eyes searched mine, and it seemed to me that the gray-green shade of them darkened just before she said, “Dead people, you mean.”
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