Lindsey shook her head adamantly. “No. It's going to work out. It has to. We've had more than our share of bad luck, bad times. We deserve better. The wheel has turned. We're going to put a family together again. Life is going to be good, it's going to be so fine. The worst is behind us now.”
That Thursday night, Vassago enjoyed the conveniences of a motel room.
Usually he used one of the fields behind the abandoned amusement park as a toilet. He also washed each evening with bottled water and liquid soap. He shaved with a straight razor, an aerosol can of lather, and a piece of a broken mirror that he had found in a corner of the park.
When rain fell at night, he liked to bathe in the open, letting the downpour sluice over him. If lightning accompanied the storm, he sought the highest point on the paved midway, hoping that he was about to receive the grace of Satan and be recalled to the land of the dead by one scintillant bolt of electricity. But the rainy season in southern California was over now, and most likely would not come around again until December. If he earned his way back into the fold of the dead and damned before then, the means of his deliverance from the hateful world of the living would be some other force than lightning.
Once a week, sometimes twice, he rented a motel room to use the shower and make a better job of grooming than he could in the primitive conditions of his hideaway, though not because hygiene was important to him. Filth had its powerful attractions. The air and water of Hades, to which he longed to return, were filth of infinite variety. But if he was to move among the living and prey upon them, building the collection that might win him readmission to the realm of the damned, there were certain conventions that had to be followed in order not to draw undue attention to himself. Among them was a certain degree of cleanliness.
Vassago always used the same motel, the Blue Skies, a seedy hole toward the southern end of Santa Ana, where the unshaven desk clerk accepted only cash, asked for no identification, and never looked guests in the eyes, as if afraid of what he might see in theirs or they in his. The area was a swamp of drug dealers and streetwalkers. Vassago was one of the few men who did not check in with a whore in tow. He stayed only an hour or two, however, which was in keeping with the duration of the average customer's use of the accommodations, and he was allowed the same anonymity as those who, grunting and sweating, noisily rocked the headboards of their beds against the walls in rooms adjoining his.
He could not have lived there full time, if only because his awareness of the frenzied coupling of the sluts and their Johns filled him with anger, anxiety, and nausea at the urgent needs and frenetic rhythms of the living. The atmosphere made it difficult to think clearly and impossible to rest, even though the perversion and dementia of the place was the very thing in which he had reveled when he had been one of the fully alive.
No other motel or boarding house would have been safe. They would have wanted identification. Besides, he could pass among the living as one of them only as long as their contact with him was casual. Any motel clerk or landlord who took a deeper interest in his character and encountered him repeatedly would soon realize that he was different from them in some indefinable yet deeply disturbing way.
Anyway, to avoid drawing attention to himself, he preferred the amusement park as primary quarters. The authorities looking for him would be less likely to find him there than anywhere else. Most important, the park offered solitude, graveyard stillness, and regions of perfect darkness to which he could escape during daylight hours when his sensitive eyes could not tolerate the insistent brightness of the sun.
Motels were tolerable only between dusk and dawn.
That pleasantly warm Thursday night, when he came out of the Blue Skies Motel office with his room key, he noticed a familiar Pontiac parked in shadows at the back of the lot, beyond the end unit, not nose-in to the motel but facing the office. The car had been there on Sunday, the last time Vassago had used the Blue Skies. A man was slumped behind the wheel, as if sleeping or just passing time while he waited for someone to meet him. He had been there Sunday night, features veiled by the night and the haze of reflected light on his windshield.
Vassago drove the Camaro to unit six, about in the middle of the long arm of the L-shaped structure, parked in front, and let himself into his room. He carried only a change of clothes—all black like the clothes he was wearing.
Inside the room, he did not turn on the light. He never did.
For a while he stood with his back against the door, thinking about the Pontiac and the man behind the steering wheel. He might have been just a drug dealer working out of his car. The number of dealers crawling the neighborhood was even greater than the number of cockroaches swarming inside the walls of that decaying motel. But where were his customers with their quick nervous eyes and greasy wads of money?
Vassago dropped his clothes on the bed, put his sunglasses in his jacket pocket, and went into the small bathroom. It smelled of hastily sloshed disinfectant that could not mask a melange of vile biological odors.
A rectangle of pale light marked a window above the back wall of the shower. Sliding open the glass door, which made a scraping noise as it moved along the corroded track, he stepped into the stall. If the window had been fixed, or if it had been divided vertically into two panes, he would have been foiled. But it swung outward from the top on rusted hinges. He gripped the sill above his head, pulled himself through the window, and wriggled out into the service alley behind the motel.
He paused to put on his sunglasses again. A nearby sodium-vapor streetlamp cast a urine-yellow glare that scratched like windblown sand at his eyes. The glasses mellowed it to a muddy amber and clarified his vision.
He went right, all the way to the end of the block, turned right on the side street, then right again at the next corner, circling the motel. He slipped around the end of the short wing of the L-shaped building and moved along the covered walkway in front of the last units until he was behind the Pontiac.
At the moment that end of the motel was quiet. No one was coming or going from any of the rooms.
The man behind the wheel was sitting with one arm out of the open car window. If he had glanced at the side mirror, he might have seen Vassago coming up on him, but his attention was focused on room six in the other wing of the L.
Vassago jerked open the door, and the guy actually started to fall out because he'd been leaning against it. Vassago hit him hard in the face, using his elbow like a battering ram, which was better than a fist, except he didn't hit him squarely enough. The guy was rocked but not finished, so he pushed up and out of the Pontiac, trying to grapple with Vassago. He was overweight and slow. A knee driven hard into his crotch slowed him even more. The guy went into a prayer posture, gagging, and Vassago stepped back far enough to kick him. The stranger fell over onto his side, so Vassago kicked him again, in the head this time. The guy was out cold, as still as the pavement on which he was sprawled.
Hearing a startled intake of breath, Vassago turned and saw a frizzy-haired blond hooker in a miniskirt and a middle-aged guy in a cheap suit and a bad toupee. They were coming out of the nearest room. They gaped at the man on the ground. At Vassago.
He stared back at them until they reentered their room and quietly pulled the door shut behind them.
The unconscious man was heavy, maybe two hundred pounds, but Vassago was more than strong enough to lift him. He carried the guy around to the passenger side and loaded him into the other front seat. Then he got behind the wheel, started the Pontiac, and departed the Blue Skies.
Several blocks away, he turned onto a street of tract homes built thirty years ago and aging badly. Ancient Indian laurels and coral trees flanked the canted sidewalks and lent a note of grace in spite of the neighborhood's decline. He pulled the Pontiac to the curb. He switched off the engine and the lights.
As no streetlamps were nearby, he removed his sunglasses to search the unconscious man. He found a loaded revolver in a shoulder holster under the guy's jacket. He took it for himself.
The stranger was carrying two wallets. The first, and thicker, contained three hundred dollars in cash, which Vassago confiscated. It also held credit cards, photographs of people he didn't know, a receipt from a dry cleaner, a buy-ten-get-one-free punch card from a frozen-yogurt shop, a driver's license that identified the man as Morton Redlow of Anaheim, and insignificant odds and ends. The second wallet was quite thin, and it proved to be not a real wallet at all but a leather ID holder. In it were Redlow's license to operate as a private investigator and another license to carry a concealed weapon.
In the glove compartment, Vassago found only candy bars and a paperback detective novel. In the console between seats, he found chewing gum, breath mints, another candy bar, and a bent Thomas Brothers map book of Orange County.
He studied the map book for a while, then started the car and pulled away from the curb. He headed for Anaheim and the address on Redlow's driver's license.
When they were more than halfway there, Redlow began to groan and twitch, as if he might come to his senses. Driving with one hand, Vassago picked up the revolver he had taken off the man and clubbed him alongside the head with it. Redlow was quiet again.
One of the five other kids who shared Regina's table in the dining hall was Carl Cavanaugh, who was eight years old and acted every bit of it. He was a paraplegic, confined to a wheelchair, which you would have thought was enough of a handicap, but he made his lot in life worse by being a complete nerd. Their plates had no sooner been put on the table than Carl said, “I really like Friday afternoons, and you know why?” He didn't give anyone a chance to express a lack of interest. “Because Thursday night we always have beans and pea soup, so by Friday afternoon you can really cut some ripe farts.”
The other kids groaned in disgust. Regina just ignored him.
Nerd or not, Carl was right: Thursday dinner at St. Thomas's Home for Children was always split-pea soup, ham, green beans, potatoes in herb butter sauce, and a square of fruited Jell-O with a blob of fake whipped cream for dessert. Sometimes the nuns got into the sherry or just went wild from too many years in their suffocating habits, and if they lost control on a Thursday, you might get corn instead of green beans or, if they were really over the top, maybe a pair of vanilla cookies with the Jell-O.
That Thursday the menu held no surprises, but Regina would not have cared—and might not have noticed—if the fare had included filet mignon or, conversely, cow pies. Well, she probably would have noticed a cow pie on her plate, though she wouldn't have cared if it was substituted for the green beans because she didn't like green beans. She liked ham. She had lied when she'd told the Harrisons she was a vegetarian, figuring they would find dietary fussiness one more reason to reject her flat-out, at the start, instead of later when it would hurt more. But even as she ate, her attention was not on her food and not on the conversation of the other kids at her table, but on the meeting in Mr. Gujilio's office that afternoon.
She had screwed up.
They were going to have to build a Museum of Famous Screw-ups just to have a place for a statue of her, so people could come from all over the world, from France and Japan and Chile, just to see it. Schoolkids would come, whole classes at a time with their teachers, to study her so they could learn what not to do and how not to act. Parents would point at her statue and ominously warn their children, “Anytime you think you're so smart, just remember her and think how you might wind up like that, a figure of pity and ridicule, laughed at and reviled.”
Two thirds of the way through the interview, she had realized the Harrisons were special people. They probably would never treat her as badly as she had been treated by the Infamous Dotterfields, the couple who accepted her and took her home and then rejected her in two weeks when they discovered they were going to have a child of their own, Satan's child, no doubt, who would one day destroy the world and turn against even the Dotterfields, burning them alive with a flash of fire from his demonic little pig eyes. (Uh-oh. Wishing harm to another. The thought is as bad as the deed. Remember that for confession, Reg.) Anyway, the Harrisons were different, which she began to realize slowly—such a screwup—and which she knew for sure when Mr. Harrison made the crack about caviar pajamas and showed he had a sense of humor. But by then she was so into her act that somehow she couldn't stop being obnoxious—screwup that she was—couldn't find a way to retreat and start over. Now the Harrisons were probably getting drunk, celebrating their narrow escape, or maybe down on their knees in a church, weeping with relief and fervently saying the Rosary, thanking the Holy Mother for interceding to spare them the mistake of adopting that awful girl sight-unseen. Shit. (Oops. Vulgarity. But not as bad as taking the Lord's name in vain. Even worth mentioning in the confessional?)
In spite of having no appetite and in spite of Carl Cavanaugh and his crude humor, she ate all of her dinner, but only because God's policemen, the nuns, would not let her leave the table until she cleaned her plate. The fruit in the lime Jell-O was peaches, which made dessert an ordeal. She couldn't understand how anyone could think that lime and peaches went together.
Okay, so nuns were not very worldly, but she wasn't asking them to learn which rare wine to serve with roast tenderloin of platypus, for God's sake. (Sorry, God.) Pineapple and lime Jell-O, certainly. Pears and lime Jell-O, okay. Even bananas and lime Jell-O. But putting peaches in lime Jell-O was, to her way of thinking, like leaving the raisins out of rice pudding and replacing them with chunks of watermelon, for God's sake. (Sorry, God.) She managed to eat the dessert by telling herself that it could have been worse; the nuns could have served dead mice dipped in chocolate—though why nuns, of all people, would want to do that, she had no idea. Still, imagining something worse than what she had to face was a trick that worked, a technique of self-persuasion that she had used many times before. Soon the hated Jell-O was gone, and she was free to leave the dining hall.
After dinner most kids went to the recreation room to play Monopoly and other games, or to the TV room to watch whatever slop was on the boob tube, but as usual she returned to her room. She spent most evenings reading. Not tonight, though. She planned to spend this evening feeling sorry for herself and contemplating her status as a world-class screwup (good thing stupidity isn't a sin), so she would never forget how dumb she had been and would remember never to make such a jackass of herself again.
Moving along the tile-floored hallways nearly as fast as a kid with two good legs, she remembered how she had clumped into the attorney's office, and she began to blush. In her room, which she shared with a blind girl named Winnie, as she jumped into bed and flopped on her back, she recalled the calculated clumsiness with which she had levered herself into the chair in front of Mr. and Mrs. Harrison. Her blush deepened, and she put both hands over her face.