A vision of a newspaper flashed through his mind. He could not see it clearly, but something on the page was the cause of his anger. He squinted as if narrowing his eyes would help him see the words.
The vision passed, but the anger remained. He nurtured it the way a happy man might consciously force a laugh beyond its natural span just because the sound of laughter buoyed him. Words blurted from him, “Of all the fu**ing nerve!”
He had no idea where the exclamation had come from, just as he had no idea why he had said the name “Lindsey” out loud in that lounge in Newport Beach, several weeks ago, when these weird experiences had begun.
He was so abruptly energized by anger that he turned away from his collection and stalked across the enormous chamber, up the ramp down which the gargoyle gondolas had once plunged, and out into the night, where the moon forced him to put on his sunglasses again. He could not stand still. He had to move, move. He walked the abandoned midway, not sure who or what he was looking for, curious about what would happen next.
Disjointed images flashed through his mind, none remaining long enough to allow contemplation: the newspaper, a book-lined den, a filing cabinet, a hand-written letter, a telephone. … He walked faster and faster, pivoting suddenly onto new avenues or into narrower passageways between the decaying buildings, in a fruitless search for a connection that would link him more clearly with the source of the pictures that appeared and swiftly faded from his mind.
As he passed the roller coaster, cold moonlight fell through the maze of supporting crossbeams and glinted off the track in such a way as to make those twin ribbons of steel look like rails of ice. When he lifted his gaze to stare at the monolithic—and suddenly mysterious—structure, an angry exclamation burst from him: “Pitch him into that freezing river!”
A woman said, Honey, lower your voice.
Though he knew that her voice had arisen from within him, as an auditory adjunct to the fragmentary visions, Vassago turned in search of her anyway. She was there. In a bathrobe. Standing just this side of a doorway that had no right to be where it was, with no walls surrounding it. To the left of the doorway, to the right of it, and above it, there was only the night. The silent amusement park. But beyond the doorway, past the woman who stood in it, was what appeared to be the entrance foyer of a house, a small table with a vase of flowers, a staircase curving up to a second floor.
She was the woman he had thus far seen only in his dreams, first in a wheelchair and most recently in a red automobile on a sun-splashed highway. As he took a step toward her, she said, You'll wake Regina.
He halted, not because he was afraid of waking Regina, whoever the hell she was, and not because he still didn't want to get his hands on the woman, which he did—she was so vital—but because he became aware of a full-length mirror to the left of the Twilight-Zone door, a mirror floating impossibly in the night air. It was filled with his reflection, except that it was not him but a man he had never seen before, his size but maybe twice his age, lean and fit, his face contorted in rage.
The look of rage gave way to one of shock and disgust, and both Vassago and the man in the vision turned from the mirror to the woman in the doorway. “Lindsey, I'm sorry,” Vassago said.
Lindsey. The name he had spoken three times at that lounge in Newport Beach.
Until now, he had not linked it to this woman who, nameless, had appeared so often in his recent dreams.
“Lindsey,” Vassago repeated.
He was speaking of his own volition this time, not repeating what the man in the mirror was saying, and that seemed to shatter the vision.The mirror and the reflection in it flew apart in a billion shards, as did the doorway and the dark-eyed woman.
As the hushed and moon-washed park reclaimed the night, Vassago reached out with one hand toward the spot where the woman had stood. “Lindsey.” He longed to touch her. So alive, she was. “Lindsey.” He wanted to cut her open and enfold her beating heart in both hands, until its metronomic pumping slowed … slowed … slowed to a full stop. He wanted to be holding her heart when life retreated from it and death took possession.
As swiftly as the flood of rage had poured into Hatch, it drained out of him. He balled up the pages of the newspaper and threw them in the waste can beside the desk, without glancing again at the story about the truck driver. Cooper was pathetic, a self-destructive loser who would bring his own punishment down upon himself sooner or later; and it would be worse than anything that Hatch would have done to him.
Lindsey gathered the letters that were scattered on the floor in front of the filing cabinet. She returned them to the file folder labeled MISCELLANEOUS BUSINESS.
The letter from Cooper was on the desk beside the telephone. When Hatch picked it up, he looked at the hand-written address at the top, above the telephone number, and a ghost of his anger returned. But it was a pale spirit of the real thing, and in a moment it vanished like a revenant. He took the letter to Lindsey and put it in the file folder, which she reinserted into the cabinet.
Standing in moonglare and night breeze, in the shadow of the roller coaster, Vassago waited for additional visions.
He was intrigued by what had transpired, though not surprised. He had traveled Beyond. He knew another world existed, separated from this one by the flimsiest of curtains. Therefore, events of a supernatural nature did not astonish him.
Just when he began to think that the enigmatic episode had reached a conclusion, one more vision flickered through his mind. He saw a single page of a hand-written letter. White, lined paper. Blue ink. At the top was a name. William X. Cooper. And an address in the city of Tustin.
“Pitch him into that freezing river,” Vassago muttered, and knew somehow that William Cooper was the object of the unfocused anger that had overcome him when he was with his collection in the funhouse, and which later seemed to link him with the man he had seen in the mirror. It was an anger he had embraced and amplified because he wanted to understand whose anger it was and why he could feel it, but also because anger was the yeast in the bread of violence, and violence was the staple of his diet.
From the roller coaster he went directly to the subterranean garage. Two cars waited there.
Morton Redlow's Pontiac was parked in the farthest corner, in the deepest shadows. Vassago had not used it since last Thursday night, when he had killed Redlow and later the blonde. Though he believed the fog had provided adequate cover, he was concerned that the Pontiac might have been glimpsed by witnesses who had seen the woman tumble from it on the freeway.
He longed to return to the land of endless night and eternal damnation, to be once more among his own kind, but he did not want to be gunned down by police until his collection was finished. If his offering was incomplete when he died, he believed that he would be deemed as yet unfit for Hell and would be pulled back into the world of the living to start another collection.
The second car was a pearl-gray Honda that had belonged to a woman named Renata Desseux, whom he had clubbed on the back of the head in a shopping-mall parking lot on Saturday night, two nights after the fiasco with the blonde. She, instead of the neo-punker named Lisa, had become the latest addition to his collection.
He had removed the license plates from the Honda, tossed them in the trunk, and later replaced them with plates stolen off an old Ford on the outskirts of Santa Ana. Besides, Hondas were so ubiquitous that he felt safe and anonymous in this one. He drove off the park grounds and out of the county's largely unpopulated eastern hills toward the panorama of golden light that filled the lowlands as far south and as far north as he could see, from the hills to the ocean.
The very immensity of southern California—thousands of square miles, tens of millions of people, even excluding Ventura County to the north and San Diego County to the south—was Vassago's ally in his determination to acquire the pieces of his collection without arousing the interest of the police. Three of his victims had been taken from different communities in Los Angeles County, two from Riverside, the rest from Orange County, spread over many months. Among the hundreds of missing persons reported during that time, his few acquisitions would not affect the statistics enough to alarm the public or alert the authorities.
He was also abetted by the fact that these last years of the century and the millennium were an age of inconstancy. Many people changed jobs, neighbors, friends, and marriages with little or no concern for continuity in life. As a result, there were fewer people to notice or care when any one person vanished, fewer to harass authorities into a meaningful response. And more often than not, those who disappeared were later discovered in changed circumstances of their own invention. A young executive might trade the grind of corporate life for a job as a blackjack dealer in Vegas or Reno, and a young mother—disillusioned with the demands of an infant and an infantile husband—might end up dealing cards or serving drinks or dancing topless in those same cities, leaving on the spur of the moment, blowing off their past lives as if a standard middle-class existence was as much a cause for shame as a criminal background. Others were found deep in the arms of various addictions, living in cheap rat-infested hotels that rented rooms by the week to the glassy-eyed legions of the counterculture. Because it was California, many missing persons eventually turned up in religious communes in Marin County or in Oregon, worshipping some new god or new manifestation of an old god or even just some shrewd-eyed man who said he was God.
It was a new age, disdaining tradition. It provided for whatever lifestyle one wished to pursue. Even one like Vassago's.
If he had left bodies behind, similarities in the victims and methods of murder would have linked them. The police would have realized that one perpetrator of unique strength and cunning was on the prowl, and they would have established a special task force to find him.
But the only bodies he had not taken to the Hell below the funhouse were those of the blonde and the private detective. No pattern would be deduced from just those two corpses, for they had died in radically different ways. Besides, Morton Redlow might not be found for weeks yet.
The only links between Redlow and the neo-punker were the detective's revolver, with which the woman had been shot, and his car, out of which she had fallen. The car was safely hidden in the farthest corner of the long-abandoned park garage. The gun was in the Styrofoam cooler with the Oreo cookies and other snacks, at the bottom of the elevator shaft more than two floors below the funhouse. He did not intend to use it again.
He was unarmed when, after driving far north into the county, he arrived at the address he had seen on the hand-written letter in the vision. William X. Cooper, whoever the hell he was and if he actually existed, lived in an attractive garden-apartment complex called Palm Court. The name of the place and the street number were carved in a decorative wooden sign, floodlit from the front and backed by the promised palms.
Vassago drove past Palm Court, turned right at the corner, and parked two blocks away. He didn't want anyone to remember the Honda sitting in front of the building. He didn't flat-out intend to kill this Cooper, just talk to him, ask him some questions, especially about the dark-haired, dark-eyed bitch named Lindsey. But he was walking into a situation he did not understand, and he needed to take every precaution. Besides, the truth was, these days he killed most of the people to whom he bothered to talk any length of time.
After closing the file drawer and turning off the lamp in the den, Hatch and Lindsey stopped at Regina's room to make sure she was all right, moving quietly to the side of her bed. The hall light, falling through her door, revealed that the girl was sound asleep. The small knuckles of one fisted hand were against her chin. She was breathing evenly through slightly parted lips. If she dreamed, her dreams must have been pleasant.
Hatch felt his heart pinch as he looked at her, for she seemed so desperately young. He found it hard to believe that he had ever been as young as Regina was just then, for youth was innocence. Having been raised under the hateful and oppressive hand of his father, he had surrendered innocence at an early age in return for an intuitive grasp of aberrant psychology that had permitted him to survive in a home where anger and brutal “discipline” were the rewards for innocent mistakes and misunderstandings. He knew that Regina could not be as tender as she looked, for life had given her reasons of her own to develop thick skin and an armored heart.
Tough as they might be, however, they were both vulnerable, child and man. In fact, at that moment Hatch felt more vulnerable than the girl. If given a choice between her infirmities—the game leg, the twisted and incomplete hand—and whatever damage had been done to some deep region of his brain, he would have opted for her physical impairments without hesitation. After recent experiences, including the inexplicable escalation of his anger into blind rage, Hatch did not feel entirely in control of himself. And from the time he had been a small boy, with the terrifying example of his father to shape his fears, he had feared nothing half as much as being out of control.
I will not fail you, he promised the sleeping child.
He looked at Lindsey, to whom he owed his lives, both of them, before and after dying. Silently he made her the same promise: I will not fail you.
He wondered if they were promises he could keep.
Later, in their own room, with the lights out, as they lay on their separate halves of the bed, Lindsey said, “The rest of the test results should be back to Dr. Nyebern tomorrow.”
Hatch had spent most of Saturday at the hospital, giving blood and urine samples, submitting to the prying of X-ray and sonogram machines. At one point he had been hooked up to more electrodes than the creature that Dr. Frankenstein, in those old movies, had energized from kites sent aloft in a lightning storm.
He said, “When I spoke to him today, he told me everything was looking good. I'm sure the rest of the tests will all come in negative, too. Whatever's happening to me, it has nothing to do with any mental or physical damage from the accident or from being … dead. I'm healthy, I'm okay.”
“Oh, God, I hope so.”
“I'm just fine.”
“Do you really think so?”
“Yes, I really think so, I really do.” He wondered how he could lie to her so smoothly. Maybe because the lie was not meant to hurt or harm, merely to soothe her so she could get some sleep.
“I love you,” she said.
“I love you, too.”
In a couple of minutes—shortly before midnight, according to the digital clock at bedside—she was asleep, snoring softly.
Hatch was unable to sleep, worrying about what he might learn of his future—or lack of it—tomorrow. He suspected that Dr. Nyebern would be gray-faced and grim, bearing somber news of some meaningful shadow detected in one lobe of Hatch's brain or another, a patch of dead cells, lesion, cyst, or tumor. Something deadly. Inoperable. And certain to get worse.