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If I’m insane, a Freudian psychiatrist will be of no help to me whatsoever. By the time we were halfway through analysis, he would be in an asylum.


Because I had not passed through this part of the yard on my approach to the house, I hadn’t until now seen the circular gazebo, which stood about ten yards to my left. I hurried to it, plucking the Talkabout from my utility belt.


All white, about twelve feet in diameter, graced by elaborate latticework, and with gingerbread around the eaves of the fanciful scalloped roof, it seemed almost to be a mirage, a glimpse of a magical place in Fairyland. Occasionally, with so much to corrupt and destroy, being a committed satanist must get overwhelming, must start to feel, you know, like a job, and not an easy one. Some days, they probably want to take a break from the killing and conjuring and endless scheming against the forces of good, take a break and chill out in a less dour atmosphere. Nothing will lighten the spirit more than to spend some time in a whimsical gazebo on a sunny day, with the scent of spring lilacs in the air, birds chirruping all around, while you compose an amusing hate poem and nibble on human sweetbreads.


In the shelter of the gazebo, crouched below the railing that capped its lattice wall, I switched on the Talkabout, made sure the volume was turned low, and said, “Are you there, Mrs. Fischer? Over.”


After a mild crackle of static, she said, “Where else would I want to be, dear? Over.”


“I was just afraid maybe you were out of range. Be ready, the kids are on their way to you. Over.”


“I moved the car out of that funky fire road and closer to your position. Over.”


“Good. That’s good. They’re being led to you by a dog, ma’am, though you won’t see it because it’s a ghost dog. You’ll see them sure enough. Over.”


“You’re such fun, child. It’s good to know you’re alive. Over.”


“Thank you, ma’am. You’re fun, too. Over and out.”


As I returned the Talkabout to my utility belt and stepped out of the gazebo, clouds claimed the moon once more.


Before I could continue on the kids’ trail, I heard voices. When I looked back, a few people were exiting the house, onto the patio. I could see them because they were backlighted, but I didn’t think they would see me in the dark of the moon. Three other people appeared around the north end of the house, and more voices arose to the south.


Somebody had been sent to the third floor to see why the Kens hadn’t answered the gong. The two were found dead with their sweaters pulled over their heads; and now there would be hell to pay, perhaps literally.


Thirty-six


NO ONE SHOUTED “GET HIM” OR ANYTHING SIMILAR, which seemed to indicate that they had not yet seen me.


The woods were a long way off, nothing but open yard between here and there. The moon would soon emerge once more. Although I wore dark clothes, they would see me when the lunar lamp returned, and I didn’t want to lead them in the direction that Boo and the kids had gone.


Between the gazebo and the stable, isolated trees stood here and there, as well as a few shrubs. I drew a Glock and headed that way, as more voices enlivened the night.


They would have guns. They would have knives. God alone knew what all they might have. My swift execution, however, was not what they intended. If they took me alive, I would end up on that steel stage, either here or at another of their secure locations. They would peel me alive, head to foot, until I spilled every secret that I possessed, which would probably occur even as they were laying out their skinning instruments and sharing with one another fond memories of previous flayings they had conducted together.


I felt like Frodo in Mordor, but without good Samwise to fight alongside me, alone and with no idea where I’d put the damn ring. When Gollum showed up, he would bite off my finger anyway, ring or not, just for the hell of it. If you’ve never read The Lord of the Rings, my apologies for alluding to it at such length.


Huddled under the first tree along my planned route, I scoped the way ahead and couldn’t detect any cultists in my path. When I looked back the way I’d come, past the gazebo, I saw three people with flashlights, the beams sweeping the ground ahead of them as they hurried toward their church. The search had begun in earnest.


Before the clouds stopped conspiring with me and the moon became a traitor, I ran in a crouch to a tall pine and sheltered against its trunk long enough to scan the night. I almost bolted for the next bit of cover, but three men appeared, hurrying up the gentle slope from the house, carving away the darkness with their flashlights. I pulled back, putting the pine between us a moment before one of the beams painted the curve of the trunk where I had just been standing.


Because I didn’t have a ghost dog to lead me, I didn’t want to make my way through the woods to the road where Mrs. Fischer waited. Psychic magnetism would reliably pull me to her, and there were most likely deer trails that I could follow rather than blunder noisily through the brush, but I would have to use my flashlight, which was out of the question.


I intended to leave via the long driveway by which I’d entered earlier. A crew of cultists would already have taken up position there, guarding the exit. To leave by that route, I would have to be reckless, and I would have to kill everyone I encountered before any of them might go out to the end of the private lane and discover the limo parked along the state route. No doubt Mrs. Fischer was expert with a handgun, smoothed out and fully blue, but she couldn’t hold off an army while she loaded the kids in the superstretch.


As the three men continued toward the stable, I saw more flashlights past that building, probing along the tree line. They would soon find the sleeping Dobermans.


The night was a box of dynamite. The fuse had been lit.


Ever since fleeing the house, I’d operated under the assumption that they knew who they were looking for; but that wasn’t necessarily true. Rob Burkett, Jinx, and the two Kens were too dead to describe me to anyone. The senoculus knew my face, which was exactly like its face with a more reasonable number of eyes, but just because that demon and all of these devil-worshippers were on the same team didn’t mean that they were constantly text messaging one another.


Anyway, in the dark, probing here and there with a light, I might be just another bad guy looking for the intruding bigot who had violated the sanctity of our religious service. Pistol in my right hand, flashlight in my left, I walked boldly away from the pine tree, toward the parking area, beyond which lay the driveway that led out to the state route.


So many flashlights were sweeping this way and that across the large property that I was reminded of the scene in E.T. when Peter Coyote and the other feds are searching the woods and fields for any indication of where the little visitor from another planet might have gone. I was E.T. and I really did just want to go home, but these searchers had crossed over from a different movie, Rosemary’s Baby.


As I walked past the back of the ProStar+, someone came around the side of it and shone a flashlight in my face just as I shone mine in his, and thus began an encounter as choreographed as any Rockettes number. The rhinestone cowboy. High priest of the cult. He wore the suit from the vision in which he had torched three children. He was probably more startled than I was, because he thought that I was dead but I knew that he wasn’t. He had a pistol with a silencer, and I had a pistol with a silencer. Simultaneously, we said, “You.” We pointed our weapons at each other, but neither of us fired immediately. I hesitated because I suddenly thought there was something I needed to know that only he could tell me. I think he hesitated because, even though I’d taken out the Kens and freed the children, he still felt invulnerable. He said, “Where are they?” I said, “Where are who?” He said, “Listen, pu**y boy, I need those kids. I have a commitment, and I’m damn sure gonna keep it.” He looked a little fearful, like maybe, if he failed to sacrifice the seventeen, he would spend eternity in Hell, eating toe jam and boogers, and none of it fried. I realized what I needed to ask him, but first I said, “I think everything’s now coming full circle for me.” With some fury, he said, “Where are those snot-nosed little bastards?” I said, “I think soon I’ve got to go back home.” He said, “You [fornicating] little [fornicating] [fornicator], WHERE ARE THOSE KIDS!” I asked what I needed to ask: “You people, you or others like you, have something planned for Pico Mundo?” His eyes widened, and I had my answer. He shot me in the chest at the same moment that I shot him in the chest. Whifff, whifff. Because he wasn’t wearing a Kevlar vest, he collapsed. I was wearing one, but I also collapsed, because although the bullet flattened against the bulletproof fabric and didn’t penetrate, I felt as though I’d been hit in the breastbone by a hard-pitched baseball. He dropped his pistol. I dropped my flashlight. I knocked his weapon beyond his reach. He tried to kick my gun hand, but with a bullet lodged in the torso, he lacked the strength to follow through. He coughed up some blood, and I spit out a little blood because I’d bitten my tongue. He was weak and going fast. He called me a disgusting name that suggested I had committed incest, and as I got my wind back, I called him a nutjob. I took the flashlight from his hand and switched it off.


My flashlight, lying on the ground and aimed at me, drew his attention to something, and in a thin, quavering voice, he said, “Why are you wearing that, where did you get that?” The object of his astonishment proved to be the diamond-and-ruby exclamation point, the brooch that Mrs. Fischer had pinned to the sleeve of my sweater for good luck. The cowboy’s gaze shifted from the pin to my eyes. He said, “Who are you? Who are you to be wearing that?” Instead of answering him, I said, “I’m done with you, Lyle Hetland,” and I put him out of his misery with another shot, this time to the throat.


Gagging but trying to be quiet about it, I got to my feet and leaned against the back of the eighteen-wheeler. A quick survey of the night confirmed that our encounter had attracted no attention. The various clusters of flashlights were fanning the night elsewhere, with increasing urgency.


Being a positive thinker, at least overall, I thought that putting an end to the cowboy must be a good omen, a sign that, with my primary enemy dead, I would walk off this property unscathed. That was when the night really got nuts.


Thirty-seven


AFTER SWITCHING OFF MY FLASHLIGHT, I DRAGGED THE cowboy from the back of his truck to the side of it and rolled him under the vehicle, sort of tucking him in for the night, though in this case an endless night. I didn’t want to waste time on the task, but leaving the body in the open, where someone might stumble across it, seemed likely to complicate my situation.


No sooner was the dead man safely out of sight than a loud thump issued from the trailer. Back in Los Angeles, when I’d looked inside, I’d found nothing behind the rear doors except that ornate stainless-steel gate worked through with all manner of symbols from a Celtic cross to swastikas, to an ankh, and beyond it an empty trailer painted black with arresting patterns of symbols in bright yellow. A quick series of heavy thumps and a rat-a-tat-tat of rapid knocks convinced me that the cargo space was no longer without freight.


Considering that I’d just freed seventeen kidnapped children from these people, I assumed that the cowboy might have stowed a few more captives in this vehicle between L.A. and here. I should search the dead man for his keys, open the rear doors, and—


“Curiosity is not always well-advised,” Mr. Hitchcock said, startling me so badly that I let out the thin little yeep that a dog will make if you accidentally step on its tail but offend more than hurt it.


In the milky moonlight, the director had a decidedly spooky-dude quality, not merely because he was Alfred Hitchcock and had been dead for more than thirty years, but also because, I think, he wanted to be spooky, the better to impress me with the importance of his words.


“Sir, I’m thinking maybe this guy’s got captives stashed in—”


“He has one captive in the truck, Mr. Thomas, but it is not one you would be wise to release.”


“But—”


Interrupting me with a raised hand, Mr. Hitchcock said, “I stress again that I am not your guardian angel, which I suspect might be a thankless task. But after all you’ve been through this evening, I would be most disappointed if at the very end you did something so stupid that you got yourself violently dismembered.”


“That would disappoint me, too.”


“The gentleman who owned this truck used an ancient ritual to call forth an entity and to imprison it herein.”


I said, “Hmmm. Call forth. Entity.”


“As long as he kept it in his control, he shared in its power.”


“What entity?”


“Let’s just leave it at that, Mr. Thomas. A demonic entity. Now that the gentleman is dead, the aforementioned entity will not be long contained.”


“But—”


Something inside the trailer slammed into the sidewall in front of me, and the sheet-metal skin bulged out toward my face.


I did that yeep thing again, and Mr. Hitchcock said, “We had best adjourn to more hospitable territory.”


Abruptly something of disturbing power and vehemence began to ricochet around the interior of the trailer, slamming into the walls and ceiling, rocking the entire truck, rattling the trailer against the tractor’s frame rail and fifth wheel, making the leaf springs twang like poorly tuned bass fiddles, causing the tires to stutter against the pavement. The entire trailer torqued, and the marker lights in the lower side-rail burst from stress.


As I backed away from the ProStar+, the cultists searching the property grew aware of the ruckus and came running. A multitude of flashlight beams found the truck from all sides, seeming to tie it to the ground as if it were giant Gulliver in Lilliput restrained by the fragile ropes of a legion of tiny natives. As though the eighteen-wheeler took offense at their interest, it began bouncing and rocking so violently that I expected the trailer would uncouple from the tractor and crash onto its side.


Everyone appeared to understand the meaning of this furious display. After a moment of stunned disbelief, they erupted into curses and wordless cries, and sprinted to the cars and SUVs parked just to the east of the big rig.


The funny thing about fear is that after so much of it jammed into a short period of time, you become exhausted, you think you’re numb to it, you’re drained, you’re done with it, nothing can scare you anymore, to hell with everything, you’re fearless now. And then some little thing happens, like seeing all these satanic murderers in a state of terror, and your fear is instantly refreshed, your terror tank is full to the brim, and you’re cranking away with all cylinders once more.

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