Page 43

Sometimes the headlights of oncoming cars forced him to squint in spite of the protection provided by his heavily tinted glasses.

As he drove, Vassago periodically glanced at the unconscious girl in the seat beside him, facing him. Her chin rested on her breast. Though her head was tipped down and auburn hair hung over one side of her face, he could see her lips pulled back by the scarf that held in the gag, the tilt of her pixie nose, all of one closed eyelid and most of the other—such long lashes—and part of her smooth brow. His imagination played with all the possible ways he might disfigure her to produce the most effective offering.

She was perfect for his purposes. With her beauty compromised by her leg and deformed hand, she was already a symbol of God's fallibility. A trophy, indeed, for his collection.

He was disappointed that he had failed to get the mother, but he had not given up hope of acquiring her. He was toying with the idea of not killing the child tonight. If he kept her alive for only a few days, he might have an opportunity to make another bid for Lindsey. If he had them together, able to work on them at the same time, he could present their corpses as a mocking version of Michelangelo's Pieta, or dismember them and stitch them together in a highly imaginative obscene collage.

He was waiting for guidance, another vision, before deciding what to do.

As he took the Ortega Highway off-ramp and turned east, he recalled how Lindsey, at the drawing board in her studio, had reminded him of his mother at her knitting on the afternoon when he had killed her. Having disposed of his sister and mother with the same knife in the same hour, he had known in his heart that he had paved the way to Hell, had been so convinced that he had taken the final step and impaled himself.

A privately published book had described for him that route to damnation. Titled The Hidden, it was the work of a condemned murderer named Thomas Nicene who had killed his own mother and a brother, and then committed suicide. His carefully planned descent into the Pit had been foiled by a paramedic team with too much dedication and a little luck. Nicene was revived, healed, imprisoned, put on trial, convicted of murder, and sentenced to death. Rule-playing society had made it clear that the power of death, even the right to choose one's own, was not ever to be given to an individual.

While awaiting execution, Thomas Nicene had committed to paper the visions of Hell that he had experienced during the time that he had been on the edge of this life, before the paramedics denied him eternity. His writings had been smuggled out of prison to fellow believers who could print and distribute them. Nicene's book was filled with powerful, convincing images of darkness and cold, not the heat of classic hells, but visions of a kingdom of vast spaces, chilling emptiness. Peering through Death's door and the door of Hell beyond, Thomas had seen titanic powers at work on mysterious structures. Demons of colossal size and strength strode through night mists across lightless continents on unknown missions, each clothed in black with a flowing cape and upon its head a shining black helmet with a flared rim. He had seen dark seas crashing on black shores under starless and moonless skies that gave the feeling of a subterranean world. Enormous ships, windowless and mysterious, were driven through the tenebrous waves by powerful engines that produced a noise like the anguished screams of multitudes.

When he had read Nicene's words, Jeremy had known they were truer than any ever inked upon a page, and he had determined to follow the great man's example. Marion and Stephanie became his tickets to the exotic and enormously attractive netherworld where he belonged. He had punched those tickets with a butcher knife and delivered himself to that dark kingdom, encountering precisely what Nicene promised. He had never imagined that his own escape from the hateful world of the living would be undone not by paramedics but by his own father.

He would soon earn repatriation to the damned.

Glancing at the girl again, Vassago remembered how she had felt when she shuddered and collapsed limply in his fierce embrace. A shiver of delicious anticipation whidded through him.

He had considered killing his father to learn if that act would win him back his citizenship in Hades. But he was wary of his old man. Jonas Nyebern was a life-giver and seemed to shine with an inner light that Vassago found forbidding. His earliest memories of his father were wrapped up in images of Christ and angels and the Holy Mother and miracles, scenes from the paintings that Jonas collected and with which their home had always been decorated. And only two years ago, his father had resurrected him in the manner of Jesus raising cold Lazarus. Consequently, he thought of Jonas not merely as the enemy but as a figure of power, an embodiment of those bright forces that were opposed to the will of Hell. His father was no doubt protected, untouchable, living in the loathsome grace of that other deity.

His hopes, then, were pinned on the woman and the girl. One acquisition made, the other pending.

He drove east past endless tracts of houses that had sprung up in the six years since Fantasy World had been abandoned, and he was grateful that the spawning multitudes of life-loving hypocrites had not pressed to the very perimeter of his special hideaway, which still lay miles beyond the last of the new communities. As the peopled hills passed by, as the land grew steadily less hospitable though still inhabited, Vassago drove more slowly than he would have done any other night.

He was waiting for a vision that would tell him if he should kill the child upon arrival at the park or wait until the mother was his, as well.

Turning his head to look at her once more, he discovered she was watching him. Her eyes shone with the reflected light from the instrument panel. He could see that her fear was great.

“Poor baby,” he said. “Don't be afraid. Okay? Don't be afraid. We're just going to an amusement park, that's all. You know, like Disneyland, like Magic Mountain?”

If he was unable to acquire the mother, perhaps he should look for another child about the same size as Regina, a particularly pretty one with four strong, healthy limbs. He could then remake this girl with the arm, hand, and leg of the other, as if to say that he, a mere twenty-year-old expatriate of Hell, could do a better job than the Creator. That would make a fine addition to his collection, a singular work of art.

He listened to the contained thunder of the engine. The hum of the tires on the pavement. The soft whistle of wind at the windows.

Waiting for an epiphany. Waiting for guidance. Waiting to be told what he should do. Waiting, waiting, a vision to behold.

Even before they reached the Ortega Highway off-ramp, Hatch received a flurry of images stranger than anything he had seen before. None lasted longer than a few seconds, as if he were watching a film with no narrative structure. Dark seas crashing on black shores under starless and moonless skies. Enormous ships, windowless and mysterious, driven through the tenebrous waves by powerful engines that produced a noise like the anguished screams of multitudes. Colossal demonic figures, a hundred feet tall, striding alien landscapes, black capes flowing behind them, heads encased in black helmets as shiny as glass. Titanic, half-glimpsed machines at work on monumental structures of such odd design that purpose and function could not even be guessed.

Sometimes Hatch saw that hideous landscape in chillingly vivid detail, but sometimes he saw only descriptions of it in words on the printed pages of a book. If it existed, it must be on some far world, for it was not of this earth. But he was never sure if he was receiving pictures of a real place or one that was merely imagined. At times it seemed as vividly depicted as any street in Laguna but at other times seemed tissue-paper thin.

Jonas returned to the living room with the box of items he had saved from Jeremy's room, and put it down beside his armchair. He withdrew from the box a small, shoddily printed volume titled The Hidden and gave it to Kari, who examined it as if he had handed her an object encrusted with filth.

“You're right to wrinkle your nose at it,” he said, picking up his glass of wine and moving to the large window. “It's nonsense. Sick and twisted but nonsense. The author was a convicted killer who claimed to have seen Hell. His description isn't like anything in Dante, let me tell you. Oh, it possesses a certain romance, undeniable power. In fact, if you were a psychotic young man with delusions of grandeur and a bent for violence, with the unnaturally high testosterone levels that usually accompany a mental condition like that, then the Hell he describes would be your ultimate wet dream of power. You would swoon over it. You might not be able to get it out of your mind. You might long for it, do anything to be a part of it, achieve damnation.”

Kari put the book down and wiped her fingertips on the sleeve of her blouse. “This author, Thomas Nicene—you said he killed his mother.”

“Yes. Mother and brother. Set the example.” Jonas knew he had already drunk too much. He took another long sip of his wine anyway. Turning from the night view, he said, “And you know what makes it all so absurd, pathetically absurd? If you read that damn book, which I did afterward, trying to understand, and if you're not psychotic and disposed to believe it, you'll see right away that Nicene isn't reporting what he saw in Hell. He's taking his inspiration from a source as stupidly obvious as it is stupidly ridiculous. Kari, his Hell is nothing more than the Evil Empire in the Star Wars movies, somewhat changed, expanded upon, filmed through the lens of religious myth, but still Star Wars.” A bitter laugh escaped him. He chased it with more wine. “His demons are nothing more than hundred-foot-tall versions of Darth Vader, for God's sake. Read his description of Satan and then go look at whichever film Jabba the Hut was a part of. Old Jabba the Hut is a ringer for Satan, if you believe this lunatic.” One more glass of chenin blanc, one more glass. “Marion and Stephanie died—” A sip. Too long a sip. Half the glass gone. “—died so Jeremy could get into Hell and have great, dark, antiheroic adventures in a fu**ing Darth Vader costume.”

He had offended or unsettled her, probably both. That had not been his intention, and he regretted it. He wasn't sure what his intention had been. Maybe just to unburden himself. He had never done so before, and he didn't know why he'd chosen to do so tonight—except that Morton Redlow's disappearance had scared him more than anything since the day he had found the bodies of his wife and daughter.

Instead of pouring more wine for herself, Kari rose from her armchair. “I think we should get something to eat.”

“Not hungry,” he said, and heard the slur of the inebriate in his voice. “Well, maybe we should have something.”

“We could go out somewhere,” she said, taking the wine glass from his hand and putting it on the nearest end table. Her face was quite lovely in the ambient light that came through the view windows, the golden radiance from the web of cities below. “Or call for pizza.”

“How about steaks? I've got some filets in the freezer.”

“That'll take too long.”

“Sure won't. Just thaw 'em out in the microwave, throw 'em on the grill. There's a big Gaggenau grill in the kitchen.”

“Well, if that's what you'd like.”

He met her eyes. Her gaze was as clear, penetrating, and forthright as ever, but Jonas saw a greater tenderness in her eyes than before. He supposed it was the same concern she had for her young patients, part of what made her a first-rate pediatrician. Maybe that tenderness had always been there for him, too, and he had just not seen it until now. Or perhaps this was the first time she realized how desperately he needed nurturing.

“Thank you, Kari.”

“For what?”

“For being you,” he said. He put his arm around her shoulders as he walked her to the kitchen.

Mixed with the visions of gargantuan machines and dark seas and colossal figures, Hatch received an array of images of other types. Choiring angels. The Holy Mother in prayer. Christ with the Apostles at the Last Supper, Christ in Gethsemane, Christ in agony upon the cross, Christ ascending.

He recognized them as paintings Jonas Nyebern might have collected at one time or another. They were different periods and styles from those he had seen in the physician's office, but in the same spirit. A connection was made, a braiding of wires in his subconscious, but he didn't understand what it meant yet.

And more visions: the Ortega Highway. Glimpses of the night-scapes unrolling on both sides of an eastward-bound car. Instruments on a dashboard. Oncoming headlights that sometimes made him squint. And suddenly Regina. Regina in the backsplash of yellow light from that same instrument panel. Eyes closed. Head tipped forward. Something wadded in her mouth and held in place by a scarf.

She opens her eyes.

Looking into Regina's terrified eyes, Hatch broke from the visions like an underwater swimmer breaking for air. “She's alive!”

He looked at Lindsey, who shifted her gaze from the highway to him. “But you never said she wasn't.”

Until then he did not realize how little faith he'd had in the girl's continued existence.

Before he could take heart from the sight of her gray eyes gleaming in the yellow dashboard light of the killer's car, Hatch was hit by new clairvoyant visions that pummeled him as hard as a series of blows from real fists:

Contorted figures loomed out of murky shadows. Human forms in bizarre positions. He saw a woman as withered and dry as tumbleweed, another in a repugnant state of putrefaction, a mummified face of indeterminate sex, a bloated green-black hand raised in horrid supplication. The collection. His collection. He saw Regina's face again, eyes open, revealed in the dashboard lights. So many ways to disfigure, to mutilate, to mock God's work. Regina. Poor baby. Don't be afraid. Okay? Don't be afraid. We're only going to an amusement park. You know, like Disneyland, like Magic Mountain? How nicely will she fit in my collection. Corpses as performance art, held in place by wires, rebar, blocks of wood. He saw frozen screams, silent forever. Skeletal jaws held open in eternal cries for mercy. The precious collection. Regina, sweet baby, pretty baby, such an exquisite acquisition.

Hatch came out of his trance, clawing wildly at his safety harness, for it felt like binding wires, ropes, and cords. He tore at the straps as a panicked victim of premature burial might rip at his enwrapping shrouds. He realized that he was shouting, too, and sucking breath as if in fear of suffocation, letting it out at once in great explosive exhalations. He heard Lindsey saying his name, understood that he was terrifying her, but could not cease thrashing or crying out for long seconds, until he had found the release on the safety harness and cast it off.

With that, he was fully back in the Mitsubishi, contact with the madman broken for the moment, the horror of the collection diminished though not forgotten, not in the least forgotten. He turned to Lindsey, remembering her fortitude in the icy waters of that mountain river the night that she had saved him. She would need all of that strength and more tonight.