“Fantasy World,” he said urgently, “where they had the fire years ago, abandoned now, that's where he's going. Jesus Christ, Lindsey, drive like you've never driven in your life, put the pedal to the floor, the son of a bitch, the crazy rotten son of a bitch is taking her down among the dead!”
And they were flying. Though she could have no idea what he meant, they were suddenly flying eastward faster than was safe on that highway, through the last clusters of closely spaced lights, out of civilization into ever darker realms.
While Kari searched the refrigerator in the kitchen for the makings of a salad, Jonas went to the garage to liberate a couple of steaks from the chest-style freezer. The garage vents brought in the coolish night air, which he found refreshing. He stood for a moment just inside the door from the house, taking slow deep breaths to clear his head a little.
He had no appetite for anything except perhaps more wine, but he did not want Kari to see him drunk. Besides, though he had no surgery scheduled for the following day, he never knew what emergency might require the skills of the resuscitation team, and he felt a responsibility to those potential patients.
In his darkest hours, he sometimes considered leaving the field of resuscitation medicine to concentrate on cardiovascular surgery. When he saw a reanimated patient return to a useful life of work and family and service, he knew a reward sweeter than most other men could ever know. But in the moment of crisis, when the candidate for resuscitation lay on the table, Jonas rarely knew anything about him, which meant he might sometimes bring evil back into the world once the world had shed it. That was more than a moral dilemma to him; it was a crushing weight upon his conscience. Thus far, being a religious man—though with his share of doubts—he had trusted in God to guide him. He had decided that God had given him his brain and his skills to use, and it was not his place to out-guess God and withhold his services from any patient.
Jeremy, of course, was an unsettling new factor in the equation. If he had brought Jeremy back, and if Jeremy had killed innocent people … It did not bear thinking about.
The cool air no longer seemed refreshing. It seeped into the hollows of his spine.
Okay, dinner. Two steaks. Filet mignon. Lightly grilled, with a little Worcestershire sauce. Salads with no dressing but a squirt of lemon and a sprinkle of black pepper. Maybe he did have an appetite. He didn't eat much red meat; it was a rare treat. He was a heart surgeon, after all, and saw firsthand the gruesome effects of a high-fat diet.
He went to the freezer in the corner. He pushed the latch-release and put up the lid.
Within lay Morton Redlow, late of the Redlow Detective Agency, pale and gray as if carved from marble but not yet obscured by a layer of frost. A smear of blood had frozen into a brittle crust on his face, and there was a terrible vacancy where his nose had been. His eyes were open. Forever.
Jonas did not recoil. As a surgeon, he was equally familiar with the horrors and wonders of biology, and he was not easily repulsed. Something in him withered when he saw Redlow. Something in him died. His heart turned as cold as that of the detective before him. In some fundamental way, he knew that he was finished as a man. He didn't trust God any more. Not any more. What God? But he was not nauseated or forced to turn away in disgust.
He saw the folded note clutched in Redlow's stiff right hand. The dead man let go of it easily, for his fingers had contracted during the freezing process, shrinking away from the paper around which the killer had pressed them.
Numbly, he unfolded the letter and immediately recognized his son's neat penmanship. The post-coma aphasia had been faked. His retardation was an immensely clever ruse.
The note said, Dear Daddy: For a proper burial, they'll need to know where to find his nose. Look up his back end. He stuck it in my business, so I stuck it in his. If he'd had any manners, I would have treated him better. I'm sorry, sir, if this behavior distresses you.
Lindsey drove with utmost urgency, pushing the Mitsubishi to its limits, finding every planning flaw in a highway not always designed for speed. There was little traffic as they moved deeper into the east, which stacked the odds in their favor when once she crossed the center line in the middle of a too-tight turn.
Having snapped on his safety harness again, Hatch used the car phone to get Jonas Nyebern's office number from information, then to call the number itself, which was answered at once by a physician's-service operator. She took his message, which baffled her. Although the operator seemed sincere in her promise to pass it on to the doctor, Hatch was not confident that his definition of “immediately” and hers were materially the same.
He saw all the connections so clearly now, but he knew he could not have seen them sooner. Jonas's question in the office on Monday took on a new significance: Did Hatch, he asked, believe that evil was only the result of the acts of men, or did he think that evil was a real force, a presence that walked the world? The story Jonas had told of losing wife and daughter to a homicidal, psychopathic son, and the son himself to suicide, connected now to the vision of the woman knitting. The father's collections. And the son's. The Satanic aspects to the visions were what one might expect from a bad son in mindless rebellion against a father to whom religion was a center post of life. And finally—he and Jeremy Nyebern shared one obvious link, miraculous resurrection at the hands of the same man.
“But how does that explain anything?” Lindsey demanded, when he told her only a little more than he had told the physician's-service operator.
“I don't know.”
He couldn't think about anything except what he had seen in those last visions, less than half of which he understood. The part he had comprehended, the nature of Jeremy's collection, filled him with fear for Regina.
Without having seen the collection as Hatch had seen it, Lindsey was fixated, instead, on the mystery of the link, which was somewhat explained—yet not explained at all—by learning the identity of the killer in sunglasses. “What about the visions? How do they fit the damned composition?” she insisted, trying to make sense of the supernatural in perhaps not too different a way from that in which she made sense of the world by reducing it to ordered images on Masonite.
“I don't know,” he said.
“The link that's letting you follow him—”
“I don't know.”
She took a turn too wide. The car went off the pavement, onto the gravel shoulder. The back end slid, gravel spraying out from beneath the tires and rattling against the undercarriage. The guardrail flashed close, too close, and the car was shaken by the hard bang-bang-bang of sheet metal taking a beating. She seemed to bring it back under control by a sheer effort of will, biting her lower lip so hard it appeared as if she would draw blood.
Although Hatch was aware of Lindsey and the car and the reckless pace they were keeping along that sometimes dangerously curved highway, he could not turn his mind from the outrage he had seen in the vision. The longer he thought about Regina being added to that grisly collection, the more his fear was augmented by anger. It was the hot, uncontainable anger he had seen so often in his father, but directed now against something deserving of hatred, against a target worthy of such seething rage.
As he approached the entrance road to the abandoned park, Vassago glanced away from the now lonely highway, to the girl who was bound and gagged in the other seat. Even in that poor light he could see that she had been straining at her bonds. Her wrists were chafed and beginning to bleed. Little Regina had hopes of breaking free, striking out or escaping, though her situation was so clearly hopeless. Such vitality. She thrilled him.
The child was so special that he might not need the mother at all, if he could think of a way to place her in his collection that would result in a piece of art with all the power of the various mother-daughter tableaux that he had already conceived.
He had been unconcerned with speed. Now, after he turned off the highway onto the park's long approach road, he accelerated, eager to return to the museum of the dead with the hope that the atmosphere there would inspire him.
Years ago, the four-lane entrance had been bordered by lush flowers, shrubbery, and groupings of palms. The trees and larger shrubs had been dug up, potted, and hauled away ages ago by agents of the creditors. The flowers had died and turned to dust when the landscape watering system had been shut off.
Southern California was a desert, transformed by the hand of man, and when the hand of man moved on, the desert reclaimed its rightful territory. So much for the genius of humanity, God's imperfect creatures. The pavement had cracked and hoved from years of inattention, and in places it had begun to vanish under drifts of sandy soil. His headlights revealed tumbleweed and scraps of other desert brush, already brown hardly six weeks after the end of the rainy season, chased westward by a night wind that came out of the parched hills.
When he reached the tollbooths he slowed down. They stretched across all four lanes. They had been left standing as a barrier to easy exploration of the shuttered park, linked and closed off by chains so heavy that simple bolt cutters could not sever them. Now the bays, once overseen by attendants, were filled with tangled brush that the wind had put there and trash deposited by vandals. He pulled around the booths, bouncing over a low curb and traveling on the sun-hardened soil of the planting beds where lush tropical landscaping would once have blocked the way, then back to the pavement when he had bypassed the barrier.
At the end of the entrance road, he switched off his headlights. He didn't need them, and he was at last beyond the notice of any highway patrolmen who might pull him over for driving without lights. His eyes immediately felt more comfortable, and now if his pursuers drew too close, they would not be able to follow him by sight alone.
He angled across the immense and eerily empty parking lot. He was heading toward a service road at the southwest corner of the inner fence that circumscribed the grounds of the park proper.
As the Honda jolted over the pot-holed blacktop, Vassago ransacked his imagination, which was a busy abattoir of psychotic industry, seeking solutions for the artistic problems presented by the child. He conceived and rejected concept after concept. The image must stir him. Excite him. If it was really art, he would know it; he would be moved.
As Vassago lovingly envisioned tortures for Regina, he became aware of that other strange presence in the night and its singular rage. Suddenly he was plunged into another psychic vision, a flurry of familiar elements, with one crucial new addition: he got a glimpse of Lindsey behind the wheel of a car … a car phone in a man's trembling hand … and then the object that instantly resolved his artistic dilemma … a crucifix. The nailed and tortured body of Christ in its famous posture of noble self-sacrifice.
He blinked away that image, glanced at the petrified girl in the car with him, blinked her away as well, and in his imagination saw the two combined—girl and cruciform. He would use Regina to mock the Crucifixion. Yes, lovely, perfect. But not raised upon a cross of dogwood. Instead, she must be executed upon the segmented belly of the Serpent, under the bosom of the thirty-foot Lucifer in the deepest regions of the funhouse, crucified and her sacred heart revealed, as backdrop to the rest of his collection. Such a cruel and stunning use of her negated the need to include her mother, for in such a pose she would alone be his crowning achievement.
Hatch was frantically trying to contact the Orange County Sheriffs Department on the cellular car phone, which was having transmission problems, when he felt the intrusion of another mind. He “saw” images of Regina disfigured in a multitude of ways, and he began to shake with rage. Then he was struck by a vision of a crucifixion; it was so powerful, vivid, and monstrous that it almost rendered him unconscious as effectively as a skull-cracking blow from a hard-swung hammer.
He urged Lindsey to drive faster, without explaining what he had seen. He couldn't speak of it.
The terror was amplified by Hatch's perfect understanding of the statement Jeremy intended to make by the perpetration of the outrage. Was God in error to have made His Only Begotten Child a man? Should Christ have been a woman? Were not women those who had suffered the most and therefore served as the greatest symbol of self-sacrifice, grace, and transcendence? God had granted women a special sensitivity, a talent for understanding and tenderness, for caring and nurturing—then had dumped them into a world of savage violence in which their singular qualities made them easy targets for the cruel and depraved.
Horror enough existed in that truth, but a greater horror, for Hatch, lay in the discovery that anyone as insane as Jeremy Nyebern could have such a complex insight. If a homicidal sociopath could perceive such a truth and grasp its theological implications, then creation itself must be an asylum. For surely, if the universe were a rational place, no madman would be able to understand any portion of it.
Lindsey reached the approach road to Fantasy World and took the turn so fast and sharp that the Mitsubishi slid sideways and felt, for a moment, as if it would roll. But it remained upright. She pulled hard on the wheel, brought it around, tramped on the accelerator.
Not Regina. No way was Jeremy going to be permitted to realize his decadent vision with that lamb of innocence. Hatch was prepared to die to prevent it.
Fear and fury flooded him in equal torrents. The plastic casing of the cellular-phone handset creaked in his right fist as though the pressure of his grip would crack it as easily as if it had been an eggshell.
Tollbooths appeared ahead. Lindsey braked indecisively, then seemed to notice the tire tracks through the drifting, sandy earth at the same time Hatch saw them. She whipped the car to the right, and it bounced over the concrete border of what had once been a flower bed.
He had to rein in his rage, not succumb to it as his father had always done, for if he didn't remain in control of himself, Regina was as good as dead. He tried to place the emergency 911 call again. Tried to hold fast to his reason. He must not descend to the level of the walking filth through whose eyes he had seen the bound wrists and frightened eyes of his child.
The surge of rage pouring back across the telepathic wire excited Vassago, pumped up his own hatred, and convinced him that he must not wait until both the woman and the child were within his grasp. Even the prospect of the single crucifixion brought him such a richness of loathing and revulsion that he knew his artistic concept was of sufficient power. Once realized through the flesh of the gray-eyed girl, his art would reopen the doors of Hell to him. He had to stop the Honda at the entrance to the service road, which appeared to be blocked by a padlocked gate. He had broken the massive padlock long ago. It only hung through the hasp with the appearance of effectiveness. He got out of the car, opened the gate, drove through, got out again and closed it.