Page 33


I thought the smartest thing that I could do might be to take one of those cars from its owner at gunpoint and get out of Dodge with the rest of them.


Mr. Hitchcock seemed to follow my train of thought, because he raised his voice above the din and said, “One would be well-advised to stay as far away as possible from anything belonging to these people, Mr. Thomas. On foot. Hurry now.”


I ran past the parked vehicles toward the driveway, but before I had reached the place where the overhanging pines formed a tunnel that continued all the way out to the state route, a colossal noise brought me to a halt. I turned to see the ProStar+ whipping around and around, as though it were caught in a tornado, the trailer torn open as if it were no sturdier than a juice box, the entire vehicle casting off parts of itself—until abruptly it collapsed and lay in ruin, as though a giant invisible child had grown tired of playing with it.


Mr. Hitchcock appeared at my side. “Mr. Thomas, this might be difficult for you to believe, considering my movies, but I was always squeamish in life and remain so to a lesser extent even now. This is not a place I wish to be.”


A couple of SUVs were pulling out of the parking area, but they didn’t get far. Both tumbled away as if they had been hit hard by the shock waves of a powerful explosion, though no explosion had occurred. The other vehicles began to rock back and forth, shuddering together into a tighter and tighter space, as if they were inside a circular car-compacting machine similar to those that reduce a full-size sedan into a cube of metal no bigger than an armchair, although this one would be a disc or a ball of many vehicles. Windshields burst, metal squealed and crackled—and the people trapped in the cars screamed.


I smelled something familiar. That scent as sweet as incense yet suggestive of decomposition. I had experienced this malodor only once before, when it came to me from the empty black-and-yellow trailer, through the steel filigree of the elaborate gate of symbols. And again I felt the chill draft that came with the smell, not like a breath as before but a full breeze that prickled my face as though with tiny bits of sleet.


When I glanced toward the lake, I saw torchlight reflected on water. The link between this place and the wasteland had been broken. But the thing that Lyle Hetland had conjured and contained in his eighteen-wheeler was loose now and intent on kicking butt.


A cultist appeared on foot, running for the driveway. Spun off his feet, flailing at nothing I could see, he suddenly came apart in midair in such a spectacular fashion that I recalled Mr. Hitchcock’s warning about dismemberment, and I ran for my life.


As I raced along the tunnel formed by the pines that overhung the private lane, the racket behind me increased, and I expected to be suddenly flung into the air, but I passed the halfway point with my head still on my neck and all limbs functioning. I saw the portly director standing on the farther side of the low ranch-style gate, where he had fled in his magical way. He waved at me as I approached, pleased that I had finally gotten the message and acted on it.


The moment that I stepped around the gate, the escalating tumult behind me instantly ceased. Startled by the sudden hush, I stopped, turned, and peered back. The house and grounds were at too great a distance for me to see much, but I could discern that chaos still reigned there.


Mr. Hitchcock said, “They are quite loath to be overheard by neighbors even though none are close, so a certain spell was laid down around the perimeter of their property.”


When I stepped behind the gatepost, setting foot in the tree-canopied lane once more, the thunderous noise might have been that of the celestial foundry where entire worlds were cast and set spinning. I preferred the silence where the director stood, and I returned to him.


The night was cool, the mountain bathed in silver light. The moon no longer seemed like a ship on a dark sea. It made me think of a cataracted eye that might suddenly open to stare out from the rotted burial wrappings that swaddled a mummy’s face.


“Sir,” I asked worriedly, “when does it stop—the destruction, the revenge?”


“Never fear, Mr. Thomas. The entity’s rage will be restricted to this property.”


“Entity.” I let the word have its rhythm, pronouncing the three syllables distinctly, perhaps hoping that it would make more sense to me. I knew its definition. It just didn’t make sense. “Entity.”


“It doesn’t belong in this world, you see. Now that it has been released from its bonds, it will settle scores, so to speak, and then depart.”


“You’re sure?”


“Very.”


“Entity,” I said.


“This is all new to you, Mr. Thomas. Now that you’ve learned a bit more about the true nature of the world, you’re worried that from here on, it’ll be one damn thing after another.”


“Yes, sir. My very thought.”


“Take heart. It’s unlikely that anything this spectacular will ever happen to you again.”


“How unlikely?”


“Highly.”


“Entity,” I said again.


“Give it time, son. To settle in.”


“I’ll give it a little time to settle in.”


“There you go.”


From two hundred feet uphill, where she was parked on the shoulder of the state route, Mrs. Fischer switched on the headlights of the limousine, flashed them at me a couple of times, and then switched them off.


“She has the children safely gathered, Mr. Thomas. Not a one was lost or even injured.”


“Good old Boo.”


“Dogs,” he said with evident fondness. “I have always had dogs. As will you, Mr. Thomas.”


“You can call me Odd. I’d like that. Or Oddie.”


“Yes, Mr. Thomas. And you may call me Hitch.”


“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”


Mr. Hitchcock chose neither to dematerialize like an ordinary spirit nor to float swiftly ahead of me, feet off the ground. He walked at my side, one hand on my shoulder.


“When I was alive in the material sense,” he said, “I had many faults, as everyone does. At times I could be something of a glutton as regards both food and drink.”


I had no idea where this was leading.


“I remember once at the Chelsea Arts Ball at the Albert Hall, in London, I had much too much to drink and everything suddenly seemed to be receding from me—people, walls, everything. I’m afraid I embarrassed dear Alma.”


“Sir, it’s hard to imagine you reeling around, out of control.” As a director he was known as a perfectionist and a control freak.


“Oh, I didn’t embarrass my patient wife in that way. I simply clammed up and found it impossible to engage in conversation, which made me appear to be bored and rude.”


We walked a few steps in silence.


He said, “I was raised by Jesuits, you know. They were fierce disciplinarians. I lived in horror of the prior and his punishments, so much so that, as a boy, I developed a morbid revulsion from any behavior that might be considered bad. I came to fear my own capacity for evil and error, which developed into a dread of authority that was almost phobic.”


Perhaps it was best that I not ask what capacity for evil the director of Psycho had worried about in himself. But then it turned out to be less than I might have imagined.


“As an adult, I loved to drive, to be behind the wheel with open road ahead. But I so dreaded being stopped by a traffic cop—dreaded it like death, Mr. Thomas—that I hardly ever drove. I left all the driving to Alma or hired drivers even before I could afford to hire them. Always questioning your motivations is a healthy thing, but fearing your capacity for doing the wrong thing, so that you retreat from many aspects of life, is a terrible error in itself.”


If I’d had a father capable of wisdom and interested in passing it along to a son, this might have been what it would have felt like.


I said, “My girl, Stormy Llewellyn, she was the best person I’ve ever known. She was amazing, sir. She believed that this life is not the first of two but the first of three.”


“Quite the philosopher for a young lady who worked in an ice-cream shop,” he said sincerely, not with a wry edge.


After the scene that I had just witnessed, nothing more could surprise me that night.


I said, “Stormy called this life boot camp. She said we have to persevere through all this world’s obstacles and all the wounds that it inflicts if we want to earn a second life. We’re in training, see. After boot camp, there’s what she called service. Our life of service will be full of tremendous adventure, as if you had rolled all the adventure novels ever written into one.”


“And the third life, Mr. Thomas?”


“She thought that after we finish service, then we receive our eternal life.”


I stopped, withdrew my wallet from a hip pocket, and opened it to the plastic window in which I kept the card. I could read it in the moonlight. In fact, I could have read it in the dark: YOU ARE DESTINED TO BE TOGETHER FOREVER.


“We got it from a fortune-telling machine in an arcade at a carnival when we were just sixteen.”


“Gypsy Mummy,” he said, naming the machine. “Quite a colorful device. I might have used it in a movie if I’d made a few more.”


I looked up from the card and met his stare. The kindness in his eyes reminded me of my closest friends in Pico Mundo.


An owl hooted nearby, and a more distant owl responded. Two ordinary owls in an ordinary night.


“I believe this card, sir. I trust it totally. I’m sure it’s the truest thing I’ve ever known.”


He smiled and nodded.


“What do you think, sir? I’d really like to know. What do you think about the card?”


“You’re not ready to leave this world yet, Mr. Thomas.”


“I don’t think it’ll be much longer. It’s all coming around to how it started in Pico Mundo nineteen months ago.”


“What must be will be.”


I smiled. “You sound like Annamaria now.”


“And why wouldn’t I?” he asked, which gave me something to think about.


Putting away my wallet, I said, “Boot camp. Sometimes, sir, the training seems unnecessarily hard.”


“In retrospect, it won’t,” he assured me.


Mr. Hitchcock walked with me all the way to the car. He pointed not to the front door on the starboard side but to the door behind it, which served the long passenger compartment, and the power window purred down.


I leaned into the window and saw the children crammed into the back of the limousine, a couple of them sitting on the floor. None of them appeared to be uncomfortable. They looked tired but awake, wide awake.


They were silent, but they were not afraid. Neither I nor they needed to say anything just then.


Boo was lying on the floor at Verena Stanhope’s feet. The girl gave me two thumbs up.


I withdrew my head, and the window purred shut.


“I’m not sure how we handle it from here,” I said.


“Mrs. Fischer will know exactly.”


“Yeah,” I said, as I began to take off my shoulder holsters. “I guess I’d be surprised if she didn’t.”


He pointed to the moon. Although the night sky appeared to be clear around that sphere, there must have been thin mist or dust at some altitude to diffract its light, for the moon had developed a corona, concentric circles changing color outward from pale blue to purple-red.


“Quite a visual,” he said. “Nicely moody. You could do it as a trick shot, of course, but the real thing is prettier.”


“I still can’t get used to you talking.” I turned my back to him, and he unbuckled the bulletproof vest. “I sure wish we had time to discuss your movies. I have at least a thousand questions.”


“I’m not about movies anymore, Mr. Thomas.”


Turning to him, I said, “Will I be seeing you again, sir?”


“One cannot say.”


“Cannot or will not?”


He put a forefinger to his lips, as if to say that we must not discuss such things.


As he began to rise off the ground, he said, by way of good-bye, “Oddie.”


“Hitch.”


He didn’t merely ascend straight up, but also moved away from me laterally as he rose into the darkness, fast and then faster, until he vanished behind a remaining patch of clouds.


What a wonderful ham he was.


An owl hooted and another owl returned the call. Two ordinary owls in an extraordinary night, in a world unfathomed and perhaps unfathomable by the living.


Thirty-eight


ALTHOUGH THIS SHOULD HAVE BEEN A TAXING DAY FOR a woman of Mrs. Fischer’s age, she appeared to be fresh and alert as she piloted the Mercedes limousine down from the forested heights toward the flats where cactus and mesquite flourished.


Glancing at me, she said, “How are you, child?”


After a long moment of silence while I considered my condition, I said, “It’s getting easier, and that scares me.”


“You mean the killing.”


The guns, the Kevlar vest, and the utility belt were piled on the floor in front of my seat. My feet straddled all that gear.


“Yes, ma’am. The killing.”


“How many.”


“Five.”


I thought of Jinx. How blue the eye beneath the yellow contact lens. I wondered how much different she would have looked without the Goth makeup and the attitude.


Mrs. Fischer said, “You know what they were—those people. You know what they had done and would have done.”


“Yes, ma’am. And I only did what I had to do. But it was still too easy.”


“Maybe that was because they were such worse people than you’ve had to deal with before.”


“Maybe.”


We reached the flats, passed Jeb’s Trading Post, the clusters of modest houses, and then the sprawling complex of large buildings that might have been warehouses. At the interstate, Mrs. Fischer headed east toward Las Vegas.


Four of the children had been snatched from Vegas, but not the others. “Where are we going, ma’am?”


“Exactly where we need to go. You’ll see.”


After a while, we left the interstate for Las Vegas Boulevard South, where the night was splashed with neon pulsing-rippling-spiraling in different rhythms that somehow all seemed to suggest the thrust and throb of sex, where fountains gushed and waterfalls foamed, where the architecture promised elegance or wild delight, or both, where every nuance of design said that money was bliss and that godlike power could be bought or at least rented, where marquees announced the royalty of entertainment, where multitudes surged along the sidewalks, going to or from a show, moving from one casino to another.

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