During those months, Jonas could have petitioned a court to have the boy removed from the intravenous feed. But Jeremy would have perished from starvation or dehydration, and sometimes even a comatose patient might suffer pain from such a cruel death, depending on the depth of his stupor. Jonas was not prepared to be the cause of that pain. More insidiously, on a level so deep that even he did not realize it until much later, he suffered from the egotistic notion that he still might extract from the boy—supposing the boy ever woke—an explanation of sociopathic behavior that had eluded all other seekers in the history of mankind. Perhaps he thought he would have greater insight owing to his unique experience with the madness of his father and his son, orphaned and wounded by the first, widowed by the second. In any event he paid the nursing-home bills. And every Sunday afternoon, he sat at his son's bedside, staring at the pale, placid face in which he could see so much of himself.
After ten months, Jeremy regained consciousness. Brain damage had left him aphasic, without the power to speak or read. He had not known his name or how he had gotten to be where he was. He reacted to his face in the mirror as if it were that of a stranger, and he did not recognize his father. When the police came to question him, he exhibited neither guilt nor comprehension. He had awakened as a dullard, his intellectual capacity severely reduced from what it had been, his attention span short, easily confused.
With gestures, he complained vigorously of severe eye pain and sensitivity to bright light. An ophthalmological examination revealed a curious—indeed, inexplicable—degeneration of the irises. The contractile membrane seemed to have been partially eaten away. The sphincter pupillae—the muscle causing the iris to contract, thereby shrinking the pupil and admitting less light to the eye—had all but atrophied. Also, the dilator pupillae had shrunk, pulling the iris wide open. And the connection between the dilator muscle and oculomotor nerve was fused, leaving the eye virtually no ability to reduce the amount of incoming light. The condition was without precedent and degenerative in nature, making surgical correction impossible. The boy was provided with heavily tinted, wraparound sunglasses. Even then he preferred to pass daylight hours only in rooms where metal blinds or heavy drapes could close off the windows.
Incredibly, Jeremy became a favorite of the staff at the rehabilitation hospital to which he was transferred a few days after awakening at the nursing home. They were inclined to feel sorry for him because of his eye affliction, and because he was such a good-looking boy who had fallen so low. In addition, he now had the sweet temperament of a shy child, a result of his IQ loss, and there was no sign whatsoever of his former arrogance, cool calculation, and smouldering hostility.
For over four months he walked the halls, helped the nurses with simple tasks, struggled with a speech therapist to little effect, stared out the windows at the night for hours at a time, ate well enough to put flesh on his bones, and exercised in the gym during the evening with most of the lights off. His wasted body was rebuilt, and his straw-dry hair regained its luster.
Almost ten months ago, when Jonas was beginning to wonder where Jeremy could be placed when he was no longer able to benefit from physical or occupational therapy, the boy had disappeared. Although he had shown no previous inclination to roam beyond the grounds of the rehabilitation hospital, he walked out unnoticed one night, and never came back.
Jonas had assumed the police would be quick to track the boy. But they had been interested in him only as a missing person, not as a suspected murderer. If he had regained all of his faculties, they would have considered him both a threat and a fugitive from justice, but his continued—and apparently permanent—mental disabilities were a kind of immunity. Jeremy was no longer the same person that he had been when the crimes were committed; with his diminished intellectual capacity, inability to speak, and beguilingly simple personality, no jury would ever convict.
A missing-person investigation was no investigation at all. Police manpower had to be directed against immediate and serious crimes.
Though the cops believed that the boy had probably wandered away, fallen into the hands of the wrong people, and already been exploited and killed, Jonas knew his son was alive. And in his heart he knew that what was loose in the world was not a smiling dullard but a cunning, dangerous, and exceedingly sick young man.
They had all been deceived.
He could not prove that Jeremy's retardation was an act, but in his heart he knew that he had allowed himself to be fooled. He had accepted the new Jeremy because, when it came right down to it, he could not bear the anguish of having to confront the Jeremy who had killed Marion and Stephanie. The most damning proof of his own complicity in Jeremy's fraud was the fact that he had not requested a CAT scan to determine the precise nature of the brain damage. At the time he told himself the fact of the damage was the only thing that mattered, not its precise etiology, an incredible reaction for any physician but not so incredible for a father who was unwilling to come face-to-face with the monster inside his son.
And now the monster was set free. He had no proof, but he knew. Jeremy was out there somewhere. The old Jeremy.
For ten months, through a series of three detective agencies, he had sought his son, because he shared in the moral, though not the legal, responsibility for any crimes the boy committed. The first two agencies had gotten nowhere, eventually concluding that their inability to pick up a trail meant no trail existed. The boy, they reported, was most likely dead.
The third, Morton Redlow, was a one-man shop. Though not as glitzy as the bigger agencies, Redlow possessed a bulldog determination that encouraged Jonas to believe progress would be made. And last week, Redlow had hinted that he was onto something, that he would have concrete news by the weekend.
The detective had not been heard from since. He had failed to respond to messages left on his phone machine.
Now, turning away from his computer and the conference paper he was unable to work on, Jonas picked up the telephone and tried the detective again. He got the recording. But he could no longer leave his name and number, because the incoming tape on Redlow's machine was already full of messages. It cut him off.
Jonas had a bad feeling about the detective.
He put down the phone, got up from the desk, and went to the window. His spirits were so low, he doubted they could be lifted any more by anything as simple as a magnificent view, but he was willing to try. Each new day was filled with so much more dread than the day before it, he needed all the help he could get just to be able to sleep at night and rise in the morning.
Reflections of the morning sun rippled in silver filaments through the incoming waves, as if the sea were a great piece of rippling blue-gray fabric with interwoven metallic threads.
He told himself that Redlow was only a few days late with his report, less than a week, nothing to be worried about. The failure to return answering-machine messages might only mean the detective was ill or preoccupied with a personal crisis.
But he knew. Redlow had found Jeremy and, in spite of every warning from Jonas, had underestimated the boy.
A yacht with white sails was making its way south along the coast. Large white birds kited in the sky behind the ship, diving into the sea and out again, no doubt snaring fish with each plunge. Graceful and free, the birds were a beautiful sight, though not to the fish, of course. Not to the fish.
Lindsey went to her studio between the master bedroom and the room beside Regina's. She moved her high stool from the easel to the drawing board, opened her sketch pad, and started to plan her next painting.
She felt that it was important to focus on her work, not only because the making of art could soothe the soul as surely as the appreciation of it, but because sticking to everyday routine was the only way she could try to push back the forces of irrationality that seemed to be surging like black floodwaters into their lives. Nothing could really go too far wrong—could it?—if she just kept painting, drinking her usual black coffee, eating three meals a day, washing dishes when they needed washed, brushing her teeth at night, showering and rolling on her deodorant in the morning. How could some homicidal creature from Beyond intrude into an orderly life? Surely ghouls and ghosts, goblins and monsters, had no power over those who were properly groomed, deodorized, fluoridated, dressed, fed, employed, and motivated.
That was what she wanted to believe. But when she tried to sketch, she couldn't quiet the tremors in her hands.
Honell was dead.
Cooper was dead.
She kept looking at the window, expecting to see that the spider had returned. But there was no scurrying black form or the lace-work of a new web. Just glass. Treetops and blue sky beyond.
After a while Hatch stopped in. He hugged her from behind, and kissed her cheek.
But he was in a solemn rather than romantic mood. He had one of the Brownings with him. He put the pistol on the top of her supply cabinet. “Keep this with you if you leave the room. He's not going to come around during the day. I know that. I feel it. Like he's a vampire or something, for God's sake. But it still doesn't hurt to be careful, especially when you're here alone.”
She was dubious, but she said, “All right.”
“I'm going out for a while. Do a little shopping.”
“For what?” She turned on her stool, facing him more directly.
“We don't have enough ammunition for the guns.”
“Both have full clips.”
“Besides, I want to get a shotgun.”
“Hatch! Even if he comes, and he probably won't, it's not going to be a war. A man breaks into your house, it's a matter of a shot or two, not a pitched battle.”
Standing before her, he was stone-faced and adamant. “The right shotgun is the best of all home-defensive weapons. You don't have to be a good shot. The spread gets him. I know just which one I want. It's a short-barreled, pistol-grip with—”
She put one hand flat against his chest in a “stop” gesture. “You're scaring the crap out of me.”
“Good. If we're scared, we're likely to be more alert, less careless.”
“If you really think there's danger, then we shouldn't have Regina here.”
“We can't send her back to St. Thomas's,” he said at once, as if he had already considered that.
“Only until this is resolved.”
“No.” He shook his head. “Regina's too sensitive, you know that, too fragile, too quick to interpret everything as rejection. We might not be able to make her understand—and then she might not give us a second chance.”
“I'm sure she—”
“Besides, we'd have to tell the orphanage something. If we concocted some lie—and I can't imagine what it would be—they'd know we were flimflamming them. They'd wonder why. Pretty soon they'd start second-guessing their approval of us. And if we told them the truth, started jabbering about psychic visions and telepathic bonds with psycho killers, they'd write us off as a couple of nuts, never give her back to us.”
He had thought it out.
Lindsey knew what he said was true.
He kissed her lightly again. “I'll be back in an hour. Two at most.”
When he had gone, she stared at the gun for a while.
Then she turned angrily away from it and picked up her pencil. She tore off a page from the big drawing tablet. The new page was blank. White and clean. It stayed that way.
Nervously chewing her lip, she looked at the window. No web. No spider. Just the glass pane. Treetops and blue skies beyond.
She had never realized until now that a pristine blue sky could be ominous.
The two screened vents in the garage attic were provided for ventilation. The overhanging roof and the density of the screen mesh did not allow much penetration by the sun, but some wan light entered with the vague currents of cool morning air.
Vassago was untroubled by the light, in part because his nest was formed by piles of boxes and furniture that spared him a direct view of the vents. The air smelled of dry wood, aging cardboard.
He was having difficulty getting to sleep, so he tried to relax by imagining what a fine fire might be fueled by the contents of the garage attic. His rich imagination made it easy to envision sheets of red flames, spirals of orange and yellow, and the sharp pop of sap bubbles exploding in burning rafters. Cardboard and packing paper and combustible memorabilia disappeared in silent rising curtains of smoke, with a papery crackling like the manic applause of millions in some dark and distant theater. Though the conflagration was in his mind, he had to squint his eyes against the phantom light.
Yet the fantasy of fire did not entertain him—perhaps because the attic would be filled merely with burning things, mere lifeless objects. Where was the fun in that?
Eighteen had burned to death—or been trampled—in the Haunted House on the night that Tod Ledderbeck had perished in the cavern of the Millipede. There had been a fire.
He had escaped all suspicion in the rocket jockey's death and the disaster at the Haunted House, but he'd been shaken by the repercussions of his night of games. The deaths at Fantasy World were at the top of the news for at least two weeks, and were the primary topic of conversation around school for maybe a month. The park closed temporarily, reopened to poor business, closed again for refurbishing, reopened to continued low attendance, and eventually succumbed two years later to all of the bad publicity and to a welter of lawsuits. A few thousand people lost their jobs. And Mrs. Ledderbeck had a nervous breakdown, though Jeremy figured it was part of her act, pretending she had actually loved Tod, the same crappy hypocrisy he saw in everyone.
But other, more personal repercussions were what shook Jeremy. In the immediate aftermath, toward morning of the long sleepless night that followed his adventures at Fantasy World, he realized he had been out of control. Not when he killed Tod. He knew that was right and good, a Master of the Game proving his mastery. But from the moment he had tipped Tod out of the Millipede, he had been drunk on power, banging around the park in a state of mind similar to what he imagined he'd have been like after chugging a six-pack or two. He had been swacked, plastered, crocked, totally wasted, polluted, stinko with power, for he had taken unto himself the role of Death and become the one whom all men feared. The experience was not only inebriating: it was addictive; he wanted to repeat it the next day, and the day after that, and every day for the rest of his life. He wanted to set someone afire again, and he wanted to know what it felt like to take a life with a sharp blade, with a gun, with a hammer, with his bare hands. That night he had achieved an early puberty, erect with fantasies of death, orgasmic at the contemplation of murders yet to be committed. Shocked by that first sexual spasm and the fluid that escaped him, he finally understood, toward dawn, that a Master of the Game not only had to be able to kill without fear but had to control the powerful desire to kill again that was generated by killing once.