Page 26

He felt lost.

Small and powerless and afraid.

And although Lindsey and Regina had come through the night unharmed, he sensed more strongly than ever that they were in great danger. Growing greater by the day. By the hour.


Before dawn, the thirtieth of April, Vassago bathed outdoors with bottled water and liquid soap. By the first light of day, he had safely ensconced in the deepest part of his hideaway. Lying on his mattress, staring up the elevator shaft, he treated himself to Oreos and warm root beer, then to a couple of snack-size bags of Reese's Pieces.

Murder was always enormously satisfying. Tremendous internal pressures were released with the strike of a killing blow. More important, each murder was an act of rebellion against all things holy, against commandments and laws and rules and the irritatingly prissy systems of manners employed by human beings to support the fiction that life was precious and endowed with meaning. Life was cheap and pointless. Nothing mattered but sensation and the swift gratification of all desires, which only the strong and free really understood. After every killing, Vassago felt as liberated as the wind and mightier than any steel machine.

Until one special, glorious night in his twelfth year, he had been one of the enslaved masses, dumbly plodding through life according to the rules of so-called civilization, though they made no sense to him. He pretended to love his mother, father, sister, and a host of relatives, though he felt nothing more for them than he did for strangers encountered on the street. As a child, when he was old enough to begin thinking about such things, he wondered if something was wrong with him, a crucial element missing from his makeup. As he listened to himself playing the game of love, employing strategies of false affection and shameless flattery, he was amazed at how convincing others found him, for he could hear the insincerity in his voice, could feel the fraudulence in every gesture, and was acutely aware of the deceit behind his every loving smile. Then one day he suddenly heard the deception in their voices and saw it in their faces, and he realized that none of them had ever experienced love, either, or any of the nobler sentiments toward which a civilized person was supposed to aspire—selflessness, courage, piety, humility, and all the rest of that dreary catechism. They were all playing the game, too. Later he came to the conclusion that most of them, even the adults, had never enjoyed his degree of insight, and remained unaware that other people were exactly like them. Each person thought he was unique, that something was missing in him, and that he must play the game well or be uncovered and ostracized as something less than human. God had tried to create a world of love, had failed, and had commanded His creations to pretend to the perfection with which He had been unable to imbue them. Perceiving that stunning truth, Vassago had taken his first step toward freedom. Then one summer night when he was twelve, he finally understood that in order to be really free, totally free, he had to act upon his understanding, begin to live differently from the herd of humanity, with his own pleasure as the only consideration. He had to be willing to exercise the power over others which he possessed by virtue of his insight into the true nature of the world. That night he learned that the ability to kill without compunction was the purest form of power, and that the exercise of power was the greatest pleasure of them all____

In those days, before he died and came back from the dead and chose the name of the demon prince Vassago, the name to which he had answered and under which he had lived was Jeremy. His best friend had been Tod Ledderbeck, the son of Dr. Sam Ledderbeck, a gynecologist whom Jeremy called the “crack quack” when he wanted to rag Tod.

In the morning of that early June day, Mrs. Ledderbeck had taken Jeremy and Tod to Fantasy World, the lavish amusement park that, against all expectations, had begun to give Disneyland a run for its money. It was in the hills, a few miles east of San Juan Capistrano, somewhat out of the way—just as Magic Mountain had been a bit isolated before the suburbs north of Los Angeles had spread around it, and just as Disneyland had seemed to be in the middle of nowhere when first constructed on farmland near the obscure town of Anaheim. It was built with Japanese money, which worried some people who believed the Japanese were going to own the whole country some day, and there were rumors of Mafia money being involved, which only made it more mysterious and appealing. But finally what mattered was that the atmosphere of the place was cool, the rides radical, and the junk food almost deliriously junky. Fantasy World was where Tod wanted to spend his twelfth birthday, in the company of his best friend, free of parental control from morning until ten o'clock at night, and Tod usually got what he wanted because he was a good kid; everyone liked him; he knew exactly how to play the game.

Mrs. Ledderbeck left them off at the front gate and shouted after them as they raced away from the car: “I'll pick you up right here at ten o'clock! Right here at ten o'clock sharp!”

After paying for their tickets and getting onto the grounds of the park, Tod said, “What do you wanna do first?”

“I don't know. What do you wanna do first?”

“Ride the Scorpion?”



Bang, they were off, hurrying toward the north end of the park where the track for the Scorpion—“The Roller Coaster with a Sting!” the TV ads all proclaimed—rose in sweet undulant terror against the clear blue sky. The park was not crowded yet, and they didn't need to snake between cow-slow herds of people. Their tennis shoes pounded noisily on the blacktop, and each slap of rubber against pavement was a shout of freedom. They rode the Scorpion, yelling and screaming as it plummeted and whipped and turned upside down and plummeted again, and when the ride ended, they ran directly to the boarding ramp and did it once more.

Then, as now, Jeremy had loved speed. The stomach-flopping sharp turns and plunges of amusement-park rides had been a childish substitute for the violence he had unknowingly craved. After two rides on the Scorpion, with so many speeding-swooping-looping-twisting delights ahead, Jeremy was in a terrific mood.

But Tod tainted the day as they were coming down the exit ramp from their second trip on the roller coaster. He threw one arm around Jeremy's shoulders and said, “Man, this is gonna be for sure the greatest birthday anybody's ever had, just you and me.”

The camaraderie, like all camaraderie, was totally fake. Deception. Fraud. Jeremy hated all that phoney-baloney crap, but Tod was full of it. Best friends. Blood brothers. You and me against the world.

Jeremy wasn't sure what rubbed him the rawest: that Tod jived him all the time about being good buddies and seemed to think that Jeremy was taken in by the con—or that sometimes Tod seemed dumb enough to be suckered by his own con. Recently, Jeremy had begun to suspect that some people played the game of life so well, they didn't realize it was a game. They deceived even themselves with all their talk of friendship, love, and compassion. Tod was looking more and more like one of those hopeless jerks.

Being best friends was just a way to get a guy to do things for you that he wouldn't do for anyone else in a thousand years. Friendship was also a mutual defense arrangement, a way of joining forces against the mobs of your fellow citizens who would just as soon smash your face and take whatever they wanted from you. Everyone knew that's all friendship was, but no one ever talked truthfully about it, least of all Tod.

Later, on their way from the Haunted House to an attraction called Swamp Creature, they stopped at a stand selling blocks of ice cream dipped in chocolate and rolled in crushed nuts. They sat on plastic chairs at a plastic table, under a red umbrella, against a backdrop of acacias and manmade waterfalls, chomping down, and everything was fine at first, but then Tod had to spoil it.

“It's great coming to the park without grownups, isn't it?” Tod said with his mouth full. “You can eat ice cream before lunch, like this. Hell, you can eat it for lunch, too, if you want, and after lunch, and nobody's there to whine at you about spoiling your appetite or getting sick.”

“It's great,” Jeremy agreed.

“Let's sit here and eat ice cream till we puke.”

“Sounds good to me. But let's not waste it.”


Jeremy said, “Let's be sure, when we puke, we just don't spew on the ground. Let's be sure we puke on somebody.”

“Yeah!” Tod said, getting the drift right away, “on somebody who deserves it, who's really pukeworthy.”

“Like those girls,” Jeremy said, indicating a pair of pretty teenagers who were passing by. They wore white shorts and bright summery blouses, and they were so sure that they were cute, you wanted to puke on them even if you hadn't eaten anything and all you could manage was the dry heaves.

“Or those old farts,” Tod said, pointing to an elderly couple buying ice cream nearby.

“No, not them,” Jeremy said. “They already look like they've been puked on.”

Tod thought that was so hilarious, he choked on his ice cream. In some ways Tod was all right.

“Funny about this ice cream,” he said when he stopped choking.

Jeremy bit: “What's funny about it?”

“I know the ice cream is made from milk, which comes from cows. And they make chocolate out of cocoa beans. But whose nuts do they crush to sprinkle over it all?”

Yeah, for sure, old Tod was all right in some ways.

But just when they were laughing the loudest, feeling good, he leaned across the table, swatted Jeremy lightly alongside the head, and said, “You and me, Jer, we're gonna be tight forever, friends till they feed us to the worms. Right?”

He really believed it. He had conned himself. He was so stupidly sincere that he made Jeremy want to puke on him.

Instead, Jeremy said, “What're you gonna do next, try to kiss me on the lips?”

Grinning, not picking up on the impatience and hostility aimed at him, Tod said, “Up your grandma's ass.”

“Up your grandma's ass.”

“My grandma doesn't have an ass.”

“Yeah? Then what's she sit on?”

“Your face.”

They kept ragging each other all the way to Swamp Creature. The attraction was hokey, not well done, but good for a lot of jokes because of that. For a while, Tod was just wild and fun to be around.

Later, however, after they came out of Space Battle, Tod started referring to them as “the two best rocket jockeys in the universe,” which half embarrassed Jeremy because it was so stupid and juvenile. It also irritated him because it was just another way of saying “we're buddies, blood brothers, pals.” They'd get on the Scorpion, and just as it pulled out of the station, Tod would say, “This is nothing, this is just a Sunday drive to the two best rocket jockeys in the universe.” Or they'd be on their way into World of the Giants, and Tod would throw his arm around Jeremy's shoulder and say, “The two best rocket jockeys in the universe can handle a fu**ing giant, can't we, bro?”

Jeremy wanted to say, Look, you jerk, the only reason we're friends is because your old man and mine are sort of in the same kind of work, so we got thrown together. I hate this arm-around-the-shoulders shit, so just knock it off, let's have some laughs and be happy with that. Okay?

But he did not say anything of the sort because, of course, good players in life never admitted that they knew it was all just a game. If you let the other players see you didn't care about the rules and regulations, they wouldn't let you play. Go to Jail. Go directly to Jail. Don't pass Go. Don't have any fun.

By seven o'clock that evening, after they had eaten enough junk food to produce radically interesting vomit if they really did decide to puke on anyone, Jeremy was so tired of the rocket jockey crap and so irritated by Tod's friendship rap, that he couldn't wait for ten o'clock to roll around and Mrs. Ledderbeck to pull up to the gate in her station wagon.

They were on the Millipede, blasting through one of the pitch-black sections of the ride, when Tod made one too many references to the two best rocket jockeys in the universe, and Jeremy decided to kill him. The instant the thought flashed through his mind, he knew he had to murder his “best friend.” It felt so right. If life was a game with a zillion-page book of rules, it wasn't going to be a whole hell of a lot of fun—unless you found ways to break the rules and still be allowed to play. Any game was a bore if you played by the rules—Monopoly, 500 rummy, baseball. But if you stole bases, filched cards without getting caught, or changed the numbers on the dice when the other guy was distracted, a dull game could be a kick. And in the game of life, getting away with murder was the biggest kick of all.

When the Millipede shrieked to a halt at the debarkation platform, Jeremy said, “Let's do it again.”

“Sure,” Tod said.

They hurried along the exit corridor, in a rush to get outside and into line again. The park had filled up during the day, and the wait to board any ride was now at least twenty minutes.

When they came out of the Millipede pavillion, the sky was black in the east, deep blue overhead, and orange in the west. Twilight came sooner and lasted longer at Fantasy World than in the western part of the county, because between the park and the distant sea rose ranks of high, sun-swallowing hills. Those ridges were now black silhouettes against the orange heavens, like Halloween decorations out of season.

Fantasy World had taken on a new, manic quality with the approach of night. Christmas-style lights outlined the rides and buildings. White twinkle lights lent a festive sparkle to all the trees, while a pair of unsynchronized spotlights swooped back and forth across the snow-covered peak of the manmade Big Foot Mountain. On every side neon glowed in all the hues that neon offered, and out on Mars Island, bursts of brightly colored laser beams shot randomly into the darkening sky as if fending off a spaceship attack. Scented with popcorn and roasted peanuts, a warm breeze snapped garlands of pennants overhead. Music of every period and type leaked out of the pavilions, and rock-'n'-roll boomed from the open-air dance floor at the south end of the park, and from somewhere else came the bouncy strains of Big Band swing. People laughed and chattered excitedly, and on the thrill rides they were screaming, screaming.

“Daredevil this time,” Jeremy said as he and Tod sprinted to the end of the Millipede boarding line.

“Yeah,” Tod said, “daredevil!”

The Millipede was essentially an indoor roller coaster, like Space Mountain at Disneyland, except instead of shooting up and down and around one huge room, it whipped through a long series of tunnels, some lit and some not. The lap bar, meant to restrain the riders, was tight enough to be safe, but if a kid was slim and agile, he could contort himself in such way as to squeeze out from under it, scramble over it, and stand in the leg well. Then he could lean against the lap bar and grip it behind his back—or hook his arms around it—riding daredevil.