Getting away with murder proved his superiority to all the other players, but he could not continue to get away with it if he were out of control, berserk, like one of those guys you saw on the news who opened up with a semiautomatic weapon on a crowd at a shopping mall. That was not a Master. That was a fool and a loser. A Master must pick and choose, select his targets with great care, and eliminate them with style.
Now, lying in the garage attic on a pile of folded dropcloths, he thought that a Master must be like a spider. Choose his killing ground. Weave his web. Settle down, pull in his long legs, make a small and insignificant thing of himself … and wait.
Plenty of spiders shared the attic with him. Even in the gloom they were visible to his exquisitely sensitive eyes. Some of them were admirably industrious. Others were alive but as cunningly still as death. He felt an affinity for them. His little brothers.
The gun shop was a fortress. A sign near the front door warned that the premises were guarded by multi-system silent alarms and also, at night, by attack dogs. Steel bars were welded over the windows. Hatch noticed the door was at least three inches thick, wood but probably with a steel core, and that the three hinges on the inside appeared to have been designed for use on a bathysphere to withstand thousands of tons of pressure deep under the sea. Though much weapons-associated merchandise was on open shelves, the rifles, shotguns, and handguns were in locked glass cases or securely chained in open wall racks. Video cameras had been installed near the ceiling in each of the four corners of the long main room, all behind thick sheets of bulletproof glass.
The shop was better protected than a bank. Hatch wondered if he was living in a time when weaponry had more appeal to thieves than did money itself.
The four clerks were pleasant men with easy camaraderie among themselves and a folksy manner with customers. They wore straight-hemmed shirts outside their pants. Maybe they prized comfort. Or maybe each was carrying a handgun in a holster underneath his shirt, tucked into in the small of his back.
Hatch bought a Mossberg short-barreled, pistol-grip, pump-action 12-gauge shotgun.
“The perfect weapon for home-defense,” the clerk told him. “You have this, you don't really need anything else.”
Hatch supposed that he should be grateful he was living in an age when the government promised to protect and defend its citizens from threats even so small as radon in the cellar and the ultimate environmental consequences of the extinction of the one-eyed, blue-tailed gnat. In a less civilized era—say the turn of the century—he no doubt would have required an armory containing hundreds of weapons, a ton of explosives, and a chain-mail vest to wear when answering the door.
He decided irony was a bitter form of humor and not to his taste. At least not in his current mood.
He filled out the requisite federal and state forms, paid with a credit card, and left with the Mossberg, a cleaning kit, and boxes of ammunition for the Brownings as well as the shotgun. Behind him, the shop door fell shut with a heavy thud, as if he were exiting a vault.
After putting his purchases in the trunk of the Mitsubishi, he got behind the wheel, started the engine—and froze with his hand on the gearshift. Beyond the windshield, the small parking lot had vanished. The gun shop was no longer there.
As if a mighty sorcerer had cast an evil spell, the sunny day had disappeared. Hatch was in a long, eerily lighted tunnel. He glanced out the side windows, turned to check the back, but the illusion or hallucination—whatever the hell it might be—enwrapped him, as realistic in its detail as the parking lot had been.
When he faced forward, he was confronted by a long slope in the center of which was a narrow-gauge railroad track. Suddenly the car began to move as if it were a train pulling up that hill.
Hatch jammed his foot down on the brake pedal. No effect.
He closed his eyes, counted to ten, listening to his heart pound harder by the second and unsuccessfully willing himself to relax. When he opened his eyes, the tunnel was still there.
He switched the car engine off. He heard it die. The car continued to move.
The silence that followed the cessation of the engine noise was brief. A new sound arose: clackety-clack, clackety-clack, clackety-clack.
An inhuman shriek erupted to the left, and from the corner of his eye, Hatch detected threatening movement. He snapped his head toward it. To his astonishment he saw an utterly alien figure, a pale white slug as big as a man. It reared up and shrieked at him through a round mouth full of teeth that whirled like the sharp blades in a garbage disposal. An identical beast shrieked from a niche in the tunnel wall to his right, and more of them ahead, and beyond them other monsters of other forms, gibbering, hooting, snarling, squealing as he passed them.
In spite of his disorientation and terror, he realized that the grotesqueries along the tunnel walls were mechanical beasts, not real. And as that understanding sank in, he finally recognized the familiar sound. Clackety-clack, clackety-clack. He was on an indoor roller coaster, yet in his car, moving with decreasing speed toward the high point, with a precipitous fall ahead.
He did not argue with himself that this couldn't be happening, did not try to shake himself awake or back to his senses. He was past denial. He understood that he did not have to believe in this experience to insure its continuation; it would progress whether he believed in it or not, so he might as well grit his teeth and get through it.
Being past denial didn't mean, however, that he was past fear. He was scared shitless.
Briefly he considered opening the car door and getting out. Maybe that would break the spell. But he didn't try it because he was afraid that when he stepped out he would not be in the parking lot in front of the gun shop but in the tunnel, and that the car would continue uphill without him. Losing contact with his little red Mitsubishi might be like slamming a door on reality, consigning himself forever to the vision, with no way out, no way back.
The car passed the last mechanical monster. It reached the crest of the inclined track. Pushed through a pair of swinging doors. Into darkness. The doors fell shut behind. The car crept forward.
Forward. Forward. Abruptly it dropped as if into a bottomless pit.
Hatch cried out, and with his cry the darkness vanished. The sunny spring day made a welcome reappearance. The parking lot. The gun shop.
His hands were locked so tightly around the steering wheel that they ached.
Throughout the morning, Vassago was awake more than asleep. But when he dozed, he was back in the Millipede again, on that night of glory.
In the days and weeks following the deaths at Fantasy World, he had without doubt proved himself a Master by exerting iron control over his compulsive desire to kill. Merely the memory of having killed was sufficient to release the periodic pressure that built in him. Hundreds of times, he relived the sensuous details of each death, temporarily quenching his hot need. And the knowledge that he would kill again, any time he could do so without arousing suspicion, was an additional restraint on self-indulgence.
He did not kill anyone else for two years. Then, when he was fourteen, he drowned another boy at summer camp. The kid was smaller and weaker, but he put up a good fight. When he was found floating facedown in the pond, it was the talk of the camp for the rest of that month. Water could be as thrilling as fire.
When he was sixteen and had a driver's license, he wasted two transients, both hitchhikers, one in October, the other a couple of days before Thanksgiving. The guy in November was just a college kid going home for the holiday. But the other one was something else, a predator who thought he had stumbled across a foolish and naive high-school boy who would provide him with some thrills of his own. Jeremy had used knives on both of them.
At seventeen, when he discovered Satanism, he couldn't read enough about it, surprised to find that his secret philosophy had been codified and embraced by clandestine cults. Oh, there were relatively benign forms, propagated by gutless wimps who were just looking for a way to play at wickedness, an excuse for hedonism. But real believers existed, as well, committed to the truth that God had failed to create people in His image, that the bulk of humanity was equivalent to a herd of cattle, that selfishness was admirable, that pleasure was the only worthwhile goal, and that the greatest pleasure was the brutal exercise of power over others.
The ultimate expression of power, one privately published volume had assured him, was to destroy those who had spawned you, thereby breaking the bonds of family “love.” The book said that one must as violently as possible reject the whole hypocrisy of rules, laws, and noble sentiments by which other men pretended to live. Taking that advice to heart was what had earned him a place in Hell—from which his father had pulled him back.
But he would soon be there again. A few more deaths, two in particular, would earn him repatriation to the land of darkness and the damned.
The attic grew warmer as the day progressed.
A few fat flies buzzed back and forth through his shadowy retreat, and some of them settled down forever on one or another of the alluring but sticky webs that spanned the junctions of the rafters. Then the spiders moved.
In the warm, closed space, Vassago's dozing became a deeper sleep with more intense dreams. Fire and water, blade and bullet.
Crouching at the corner of the garage, Hatch reached between two azaleas and flipped open the cover on the landscape-lighting control box. He adjusted the timer to prevent the pathway and shrubbery lights from blinking off at midnight. Now they would stay on until sunrise.
He closed the metal box, stood, and looked around at the quiet, well-groomed street. All was harmony. Every house had a tile roof in shades of tan and sand and peach, not the more stark orange-red tiles of many older California homes. The stucco walls were cream-colored or within a narrow range of coordinated pastels specified by the “Covenants, Conventions & Restrictions” that came with the grant deed and mortgage. Lawns were green and recently mown, flower beds were well tended, and trees were neatly trimmed. It was difficult to believe that unspeakable violence could ever intrude from the outer world into such an orderly, upwardly mobile community, and inconceivable that anything supernatural could stalk those streets. The neighborhood's normalcy was so solid that it seemed like encircling stone ramparts crowned with battlements.
Not for the first time, he thought that Lindsey and Regina might be perfectly safe there—but for him. If madness had invaded this fortress of normalcy, he had opened the door to it. Maybe he was mad himself; maybe his weird experiences were nothing as grand as psychic visions, merely the hallucinations of an insane mind. He would bet everything he owned on his sanity—though he also could not dismiss the slim possibility that he would lose the bet. In any event, whether or not he was insane, he was the conduit for whatever violence might rain down on them, and perhaps they would be better off if they went away for the duration, put some distance between themselves and him until this crazy business was settled.
Sending them away seemed wise and responsible—except that a small voice deep inside him spoke against that option. He had a terrible hunch—or was it more than a hunch?—that the killer would not be coming after him but after Lindsey and Regina. If they went away somewhere, just Lindsey and the girl, that homicidal monster would follow them, leaving Hatch to wait alone for a showdown that would never happen.
All right, then they had to stick together. Like a family. Rise or fall as one.
Before leaving to pick Regina up at school, he slowly circled the house, looking for lapses in their defenses. The only one he found was an unlocked window at the back of the garage. The latch had been loose for a long time, and he had been meaning to fix it. He got some tools from one of the garage cabinets and worked on the mechanism until the bolt seated securely in the catch.
As he'd told Lindsey earlier, he didn't think the man in his visions would come as soon as tonight, probably not even this week, maybe not for a month or longer, but he would come eventually. Even if that unwelcome visit was days or weeks away, it felt good to be prepared.
Without opening his eyes, he knew that night was coming. He could feel the oppressive sun rolling off the world and slipping over the edge of the horizon. When he did open his eyes, the last fading light coming through the attic vents confirmed that the waters of the night were on the rise.
Hatch found that it was not exactly easy to conduct a normal domestic life while waiting to be stricken by a terrifying, maybe even bloody, vision so powerful it would blank out reality for its duration. It was hard to sit in your pleasant dining room, smile, enjoy the pasta and Parmesan bread, make with the light banter, and tease a giggle from the young lady with the solemn gray eyes—when you kept thinking of the loaded shotgun secreted in the corner behind the Coromandel screen or the handgun in the adjacent kitchen atop the refrigerator, above the line of sight of a small girl's eyes.
He wondered how the man in black would enter when he came. At night, for one thing. He only came out at night. They didn't have to worry about him going after Regina at school. But would he boldly ring the bell or knock smartly on the door, while they were still up and around with all the lights on, hoping to catch them off-guard at a civilized hour when they might assume it was a neighbor come to call? Or would he wait until they were asleep, lights off, and try to slip through their defenses to take them unaware?
Hatch wished they had an alarm system, as they did at the store. When they sold the old house and moved into the new place following Jimmy's death, they should have called Brinks right away. Valuable antiques graced every room. But for the longest time after Jimmy had been taken from them, it hadn't seemed to matter if anything—or everything—else was taken as well.
Throughout dinner, Lindsey was a trooper. She ate a mound of rigatoni as if she had an appetite, which was something Hatch could not manage, and she filled his frequent worried silences with natural-sounding patter, doing her best to preserve the feeling of an ordinary night at home.
Regina was sufficiently observant to know something was wrong. And though she was tough enough to handle nearly anything, she was also infected with seemingly chronic self-doubt that would probably lead her to interpret their uneasiness as dissatisfaction with her.
Earlier Hatch and Lindsey had discussed what they might be able to tell the girl about the situation they faced, without alarming her more than was necessary. The answer seemed to be: nothing. She had been with them only two days. She didn't know them well enough to have this crazy stuff thrown at her. She'd hear about Hatch's bad dreams, his waking hallucinations, the heat-browned magazine, the murders, all of it, and figure she had been entrusted to a couple of lunatics.
Anyway the kid didn't really need to be warned at this stage. They could look out for her; it was what they were sworn to do.