Page 28

The train began to tilt.

They entered the three-hundred-and-sixty-degree turn.

The train was on its side.

Tod tried to remain rigid, but he sagged a little against Jeremy, who was on the inside of the car when it curved to the right. The old rocket jockey was whooping like an air-raid siren, doing his best to hype himself and get the most out of the ride, now that the worst was behind them.


Jeremy estimated they were a third of the way around the circle.… halfway around … two-thirds.…

The track leveled out. The train stopped fighting gravity.

With a suddenness that almost took Jeremy's breath away, the train hit the first of the six hills and shot upward.

He let go of the lap bar with his right hand, the one farthest from Tod.

The train swooped down.

He made a fist of his right hand.

And almost as soon as the train dropped, it swooped upward again toward the crown of the second hill.

Jeremy swung his fist in a roundhouse blow, trusting instinct to find Tod's face.

The train dropped.

His fist hit home, smashing Tod hard in the face, and he felt the boy's nose split.

The train shot upward again, with Tod screaming, though no one would hear anything special about it among the screams of all the other passengers.

Just for a split second, Tod would probably think he'd smacked into the overhang where, in legend, a boy had been decapitated. He would let go of the lap bar in panic. At least that was what Jeremy hoped, so as soon as he hit the old rocket jockey, when the train started to drop down the third hill, Jeremy let go of the lap bar, too, and threw himself against his best friend, grabbing him, lifting and shoving, hard as he could. He felt Tod trying to get a fistful of his hair, but he shook his head furiously and shoved harder, took a kick on the hip—

—the train shot up the fourth hill—

—Tod went over the edge, out into the darkness, away from the car, as if he had dropped into deep space. Jeremy started to topple with him, grabbed frantically for the lap bar in the seamless blackness, found it, held on—

—down, the train swooped down the fourth hill—

—Jeremy thought he heard one last scream from Tod and then a solid thunk! as he hit the tunnel wall and bounced back onto the tracks in the wake of the train, although it might have been imagination—

—up, the train shot up the fifth hill with a rollicking motion that made Jeremy want to whoop his cookies—

—Tod was either dead back there in the darkness or stunned, half-conscious, trying to get to his feet—

—down the fifth hill, and Jeremy was whipped back and forth, almost lost his grip on the bar, then was soaring again, up the sixth and final hill—

—and if he wasn't dead back there, Tod was maybe just beginning to realize that another train was coming—

—down, down the sixth hill and onto the last straightaway.

As soon as he knew he was on stable ground, Jeremy scrambled back across the restraint bar and wriggled under it, first his left leg, then his right leg.

The last set of doors was rushing toward them in the dark. Beyond would be light, the main cavern, and attendants who would see that he had been daredevil riding.

He squirmed frantically to pass his h*ps through the gap between the back of the seat and the lap bar. Not too difficult, really. It was easier to slip under the bar than it had been to get out from beneath its protective grip.

They hit the swinging doors—wham!—and coasted at a steadily declining speed toward the disembarkation platform, a hundred feet this side of the gates through which they had entered the roller coaster. People were jammed on the boarding platform, and a lot of them were looking back at the train as it came out of the tunnel mouth. For a moment Jeremy expected them to point at him and cry, “Murderer!”

Just as the train coasted up to the disembarkation gates and came to a full stop, red emergency lights blinked on all over the cavern, showing the way to the exits. A computerized alarm voice echoed through speakers set high in the fake rock formations: “The Millipede has been brought to an emergency stop. All riders please remain in your seats—”

As the lap bar released automatically at the end of the ride, Jeremy stood on the seat, grabbed a handrail, and pulled himself onto the disembarkation platform.

“—all riders please remain in your seats until attendants arrive to lead you out of the tunnels—”

The uniformed attendants on the platforms were looking to one another for guidance, wondering what had happened.

“—all riders remain in your seats—”

From the platform, Jeremy looked back toward the tunnel out of which his own train had just entered the cavern. He saw another train pushing through the swinging doors.

“—all other guests please proceed in an orderly fashion to the nearest exit—”

The oncoming train was no longer moving fast or smoothly. It shuddered and tried to jump the track.

With a jolt, Jeremy saw what was jamming the foremost wheels and forcing the front car to rise off the rails. Other people on the platform must have seen it, too, because suddenly they started to scream, not the we-sure-are-having-a-damned-fine-time screams that could be heard all over the carnival, but screams of horror and revulsion.

“—all riders remain in your seats—”

The train rocked and spasmed to a complete stop far short of the disembarkation platform. Something was dangling from the fierce mouth of the insect head that protruded from the front of the first car, snared in the jagged mandibles. It was the rest of the old rocket jockey, a nice bite-size piece for a monster bug the size of that one.

“—all other guests please proceed in an orderly fashion to the nearest exit—”

“Don't look, son,” an attendant said compassionately, turning Jeremy away from the gruesome spectacle. “For God's sake, get out of here.”

The shocked attendants had recovered enough to begin to direct the waiting crowd toward exit doors marked with glowing red signs. Realizing that he was bursting with excitement, grinning like a fool, and too overcome with joy to successfully play the bereaved best friend of the deceased, Jeremy joined the exodus, which was conducted in a panicky rush, with some pushing and shoving.

In the night air, where Christmasy lights continued to twinkle and the laser beams shot into the black sky and rainbows of neon rippled on every side, where thousands of customers continued their pursuit of pleasure without the slightest awareness that Death walked among them, Jeremy sprinted away from the Millipede. Dodging through the crowds, narrowly avoiding one collision after another, he had no idea where he was going. He just kept on the move until he was far from the torn body of Tod Ledderbeck.

He finally stopped at the manmade lake, across which a few Hovercraft buzzed with travelers bound to and from Mars Island. He felt as if he were on Mars himself, or some other alien planet where the gravity was less than that on earth. He was buoyant, ready to float up, up, and away.

He sat on a concrete bench to anchor himself, with his back to the lake, facing a flower-bordered promenade along which passed an endless parade of people, and he surrendered to the giddy laughter that insistently bubbled in him like Pepsi in a shaken bottle. It gushed out, such effervescent giggles in such long spouts that he had to hug himself and lean back on the bench to avoid falling off. People glanced at him, and one couple stopped to ask if he was lost. His laughter was so intense that he was choking with it, tears streaming down his face. They thought he was crying, a twelve-year-old ninny who had gotten separated from his family and was too much of a pu**y to handle it. Their incomprehension only made him laugh harder.

When the laughter passed, he sat forward on the bench, staring at his sneakered feet, working on the line of crap he would give Mrs. Ledderbeck when she came to collect him and Tod at ten o'clock—assuming park officials didn't identify the body and get in touch with her before that. It was eight o'clock. “He wanted to ride daredevil,” Jeremy mumbled to his sneakers, “and I tried to talk him out of it, but he wouldn't listen, he called me a dickhead when I wouldn't go with him. I'm sorry, Mrs. Ledderbeck, Doctor Ledderbeck, but he talked that way sometimes. He thought it made him sound cool.” Good enough so far, but he needed more of a tremor in his voice: “I wouldn't ride daredevil, so he went on the Millipede by himself. I waited at the exit, and when all those people came running out, talking about a body all torn and bloody, I knew who it had to be and I … and I… just sort of, you know, snapped. I just snapped.” The boarding attendants wouldn't remember whether Tod had gotten on the ride by himself or with another boy; they dealt with thousands of passengers a day, so they weren't going to recall who was alone or who was with whom. “I'm so sorry, Mrs. Ledderbeck, I should've been able to talk him out of it. I should've stayed with him and stopped him somehow. I feel so stupid, so … so helpless. How could I let him get on the Millipede? What kind of best friend am I?”

Not bad. It needed a little work, and he would have to be careful not to overdramatize it. Tears, a breaking voice. But no wild sobs, no thrashing around.

He was sure he could pull it off.

He was a Master of the Game now.

As soon as he felt confident about his story, he realized he was hungry. Starving. He was literally shaking with hunger. He went to a refreshment stand and bought a hot dog with the works—onions, relish, chili, mustard, ketchup—and wolfed it down. He chased it with Orange Crush. Still shaking. He had an ice cream sandwich made with chocolate-chip oatmeal cookies for the “bread.”

His visible shaking stopped, but he still trembled inside. Not with fear. It was a delicious shiver, like the flutter in the belly that he'd experienced during the past year whenever he looked at a girl and thought of being with her, but indescribably better than that. And it was a little like the thrilling shiver that caressed his spine when he slipped past the safety railing and stood on the very edge of a sandy cliff in Laguna Beach Park, looking down at the waves crashing on the rocks and feeling the earth crumble slowly under the toes of his shoes, working its way back to mid-sole … waiting, waiting, wondering if the treacherous ground would abruptly give way and drop him to the rocks far below before he would have time to leap backward and grab the safety railing, but still waiting … waiting.

But this thrill was better than all of those combined. It was growing by the minute rather than diminishing, a sensuous inner heat which the murder of Tod had not quenched but fueled.

His dark desire became an urgent need.

He prowled the park, seeking satisfaction.

He was a little surprised that Fantasy World continued to turn as if nothing had happened in the Millipede. He had expected the whole operation to close down, not just that one ride. Now he realized money was more important than mourning one dead customer. And if those who'd seen Tod's battered body had spread the story to others, it was probably discounted as a rehash of the legend. The level of frivolity in the park had not noticeably declined.

Once he dared to pass the Millipede, although he stayed at a distance because he still did not trust himself to be able to conceal his excitement over his achievement and his delight in the new status that he had attained. Master of the Game. Chains were looped from stanchion to stanchion in front of the pavilion, to block anyone attempting to gain access. A CLOSED FOR REPAIRS sign was on the entrance door. Not for repairs to old Tod. The rocket jockey was beyond repair. No ambulance was in sight, which they might have thought they needed, and no hearse was anywhere to be seen. No police, either. Weird.

Then he remembered a TV story about the world under Fantasy World: catacombs of service tunnels, storage rooms, security and ride-computer control centers, just like at Disneyland. To avoid disturbing the paying customers and drawing the attention of the morbidly curious, they were probably using the tunnels now to bring in the cops and corpse-pokers from the coroner's office.

The shivers within Jeremy increased. The desire. The need.

He was a Master of the Game. No one could touch him.

Might as well give the cops and corpse-pokers more to do, keep them entertained.

He kept moving, seeking, alert for opportunity. He found it where he least expected it, when he stopped at a men's restroom to take a leak.

A guy, about thirty, was at one of the sinks, checking himself out in the mirror, combing his thick blond hair, which glistened with Vitalis. He had arranged an array of personal objects on the ledge under the mirror: wallet, car keys, a tiny aerosol bottle of Binaca breath freshener, a half-empty pack of Dentyne (this guy had a bad-breath fixation), and a cigarette lighter.

The lighter was what immediately caught Jeremy's attention. It was not just a plastic Bic butane disposable, but one of those steel models, shaped like a miniature slice of bread, with a hinged top that flipped back to reveal a striker wheel and a wick. The way the overhead fluorescent gleamed on the smooth curves of that lighter, it seemed to be a supernatural object, full of its own eerie radiance, a beacon for Jeremy's eyes alone.

He hesitated a moment, then went to one of the urinals. When he finished and zipped up, the blond guy was still at the sink, primping himself.

Jeremy always washed his hands after using a bathroom because that was what polite people did. It was one of the rules that a good player followed.

He went to the sink beside the primper. As he lathered his hands with liquid soap from the pump dispenser, he could not take his eyes off the lighter on the shelf inches away. He told himself he should avert his gaze. The guy would realize he was thinking about snatching the damn thing. But its sleek silvery contours held him rapt. Staring at it as he rinsed the lather from his hands, he imagined that he could hear the crisp crackle of all-consuming flames.

Returning his wallet to his hip pocket but leaving the other objects on the ledge, the guy turned away from the sink and went to one of the urinals. As Jeremy was about to reach for the lighter, a father and his teenage son entered. They could have screwed everything up, but they went into two of the stalls and closed the doors. Jeremy knew that was a sign. Do it, the sign said. Take it, go, do it, do it. Jeremy glanced at the man at the urinal, plucked the lighter off the shelf, turned and walked out without drying his hands. No one ran after him.

Clutching the lighter tightly in his right hand, he prowled the park, searching for the perfect kindling. The desire in him was so intense that his shivers spread outward from his crotch and belly and spine, appearing once more in his hands, and in his legs, too, which sometimes were rubbery with excitement.

Need …

Finishing the last of the Reese's Pieces, Vassago neatly rolled the empty bag into a tight tube, tied the tube in a knot to make the smallest possible object of it, and dropped it into a plastic garbage bag that was just to the left of the iceless Styrofoam cooler. Neatness was one of the rules in the world of the living.