Behind the wheel once more, he decided not to leave the Honda in the underground garage or go to the museum of the dead through the catacombs. No time. God's slow but persistent paladins were closing in on him. He had so much to do, so much, in so few precious minutes. It wasn't fair. He needed time. Every artist needed time. To save a few minutes, he was going to have to drive along the wide pedestrian walkways, between the rotting and empty pavilions, and park in front of the funhouse, take the girl across the dry lagoon and in by way of the gondola doors, through the tunnel with the chain-drive track still in the concrete floor and down into Hell by that more direct route.
While Hatch was on the phone with the sheriff's department, Lindsey drove into the parking lot. The tall lamp poles shed no light. Vistas of empty blacktop faded away in every direction. Straight ahead a few hundred yards stood the once glittery but now dark and decaying castle through which the paying customers had entered Fantasy World. She saw no sign of Jeremy Nyebern's car, and not enough dust on the acres of unprotected, windswept pavement to track him by his tire prints.
She drove as close to the castle as she could get, halted by a long row of ticket booths and crowd-control stanchions of poured concrete. They looked like massive barricades erected on a heavily defended beach to prevent enemy tanks from being put ashore.
When Hatch slammed down the handset, Lindsey was not sure what to make of his end of the conversation, which had alternated between pleading and angry insistence. She didn't know whether the cops were coming or not, but her sense of urgency was so great, she didn't want to take time to ask him about it. She just wanted to move, move. She threw the car into park the moment it braked to a full stop, didn't even bother to switch off the engine or the headlights. She like the headlights, a little something against the cloying night. She flung open her door, ready to go in on foot. But he shook his head, no, and picked up his Browning from the floor at his feet.
“What?” she demanded.
“He went in by car somehow, somewhere. I think I'll find the creep quicker if we stay on his trail, go in the way he went in, let myself open to this bond between us. Besides, the place is so damned huge, we'll get around it faster in a car.”
She got behind the wheel again, popped the Mitsubishi into gear, and said, “Where?”
He hesitated only a second, perhaps a fraction of a second, but it seemed that any number of small helpless girls could have been slaughtered in that interlude before he said, “Left, go left, along the fence.”
Vassago parked the car by the lagoon, cut the engine, got out, and went around to the girl's side. Opening her door, he said, “Here we are, angel. An amusement park, just like I promised you. Isn't it fun? Aren't you amused?”
He swung her around on her seat to bring her legs out of the car. He took his switchblade from his jacket pocket, snapped the well-honed knife out of the handle, and showed it to her.
Even with the thinnest crescent moon, and although her eyes were not as sensitive as his, she saw the blade. He saw her see it, and he was thrilled by the quickening of terror in her face and eyes.
“I'm going to free your legs so you can walk,” he told her, turning the blade slowly, slowly, so a quicksilver glimmer trickled liquidly along the cutting edge. “If you're stupid enough to kick me, if you think you can catch my head maybe and knock me silly long enough to get away, then you're silly, angel. It won't work, and then I'll have to cut you to teach you a lesson. Do you hear me, precious? Do you understand?”
She emitted a muffled sound through the wadded scarf in her mouth, and the tone of it was an acknowledgement of his power.
“Good,” he said. “Good girl. So wise. You'll make a fine Jesus, won't you? A really fine little Jesus.”
He cut the cords binding her ankles, then helped her out of the car. She was unsteady, probably because her muscles had cramped during the trip, but he did not intend to let her dawdle. Seizing her by one arm, leaving her wrists bound in front of her and the gag in place, he pulled her around the front of the car to the retaining wall of the funhouse lagoon.
The retaining wall was two feet high on the outside, twice that on the inside where the water once had been. He helped Regina over it, onto the dry concrete floor of the broad lagoon. She hated to let him touch her, even though he still wore gloves, because she could feel his coldness through the gloves, or thought she could, his coldness and damp skin, which made her want to scream. She knew already that she couldn't scream, not with the gag filling her mouth. If she tried to scream she only choked on it and had trouble breathing, so she had to let him help her over the wall. Even when he didn't touch her bare hand with his gloved one, even when he gripped her arm and there was also her sweater between them, the contact made her belly quiver so badly that she thought she was going to vomit, but she fought that urge because, with the gag in her mouth, she would choke to death on her own regurgitation.
Through ten years of adversity, Regina had developed lots of tricks to get her through bad times. There was the think-of-something-worse trick, where she endured by imagining what more terrible circumstances might befall her than those in which she actually found herself. Like thinking of eating dead mice dipped in chocolate when she felt sorry for herself about having to eat lime Jell-O with peaches. Like thinking about being blind on top of her other disabilities. After the awful shock of being rejected during her first trial adoption with the Dotterfields, she had often spent hours with her eyes closed to show herself what she might have suffered if her eyes had been as faulty as her right arm. But the think-of-something-worse trick wasn't working now because she couldn't think of anything worse than being where she was, with this stranger dressed all in black and wearing sunglasses at night, calling her “baby” and “precious.” None of her other tricks were working, either.
As he pulled her impatiently across the lagoon, she dragged her right leg as if she could not move fast. She needed to slow him down to gain time to think, to find some new trick.
But she was just a kid, and tricks didn't come that easy, not even to a smart kid like her, not even to a kid who had spent ten years devising so many clever tricks to make everyone think that she could take care of herself, that she was tough, that she would never cry. But her trick bag was finally empty, and she was more afraid than she had ever been.
He dragged her past big boats like the gondolas in Venice of which she had seen pictures, but these had dragon prows from Viking ships. With the stranger pulling impatiently on her arm, she limped past a fearful snarling serpent's head bigger than she was.
Dead leaves and moldering papers had blown down into the empty pool. In the nocturnal breeze, which occasionally gusted heartily, that trash eddied around them with the hiss-splash of a ghost sea.
“Come on, precious one,” he said in his honey-smooth but unkind voice, “I want you to walk to your Golgotha just as He did. Don't you think that's fitting? Is that so much to ask? Hmmm? I'm not also insisting that you carry your own cross, am I? What do you say, precious, will you move your ass?”
She was scared, with no fine tricks left to hide the fact, no tricks left to hold back her tears, either. She began to shake and cry, and her right leg grew weak for real, so she could hardly remain standing let alone move as fast as he demanded.
In the past, she would have turned to God at a moment like this, would have talked to Him, talked and talked, because no one had talked to God more often or more bluntly than she had done from the time she was just little. But she had been talking to God in the car, and she had not heard Him listening. Over the years, all their conversations had been one-sided, yes, but she had always heard Him listening, at least, a hint of His great slow steady breathing. But now she knew He couldn't be listening because if He was there, hearing how desperate she was, He would not have failed to answer her this time. He was gone, and she didn't know where, and she was alone as she had never been.
When she was so overcome by tears and weakness that she could not walk at all, the stranger scooped her up. He was very strong. She was unable to resist, but she didn't hold on to him, either. She just curled her arms against her chest, made small fists of her hands, and pulled away within herself.
“Let me carry my little Jesus,” he said, “my sweet little lamb, it will be my privilege to carry you.” There was no warmth in his voice in spite of the way he was talking. Only hatred and scorn. She knew that tone, had heard it before. No matter how hard you tried to fit in and be everybody's friend, some kids hated you if you were too different, and in their voices you heard this same thing, and shrank from it.
He carried her through the open, broken, rotting doors into a darkness that made her feel so small.
Lindsey didn't even bother getting out of the car to see if the gate could be opened. When Hatch pointed the way, she jammed the accelerator to the floor. The car bucked, shot forward. They crashed onto the grounds of the park, demolishing the gate and sustaining more damage to their already battered car, including one shattered headlight.
At Hatch's direction, she followed a service loop around half the park. On the left was a high fence covered with the gnarled and bristling remnants of a vine that once might have concealed the chainlink entirely but had died when the irrigation system had been shut off. On the right were the backs of rides that had been too permanently constructed to be dismantled easily. There were also buildings fronted by fantastic facades held up by angled supports that could be seen from behind.
Leaving the service road, they drove between two structures and onto what had once been a winding promenade along which crowds had moved throughout the park. The largest Ferris wheel she had ever seen, savaged by wind and sun and years of neglect, rose in the night like the bones of a leviathan picked clean by unknown carrion-eaters.
A car was parked beside what appeared to be a drained pool in front of an immense structure.
“The funhouse,” Hatch said, for he had seen it before through other eyes.
It had a roof with multiple peaks like a three-ring circus tent, and disintegrating stucco walls. She could view only one narrow aspect of the structure at a time, as the headlights swept across it, but she did not like any part of what she saw. She was not by nature a superstitious person—although she was fast becoming one in response to recent experience—but she sensed an aura of death around the funhouse as surely as she could have felt cold air rising off a block of ice.
She parked behind the other car. A Honda. Its occupants had departed in such a hurry that both front doors were open, and the interior lights were on.
Snatching up her Browning and a flashlight, she got out of the Mitsubishi and ran to the Honda, looked inside. No sign of Regina.
She had discovered there was a point at which fear could grow no greater. Every nerve was raw. The brain could not process more input, so it merely sustained the peak of terror once achieved. Each new shock, each new terrible thought did not add to the burden of fear because the brain just dumped old data to make way for the new. She could hardly remember anything of what had happened at the house, or the surreal drive to the park; most of it was gone for now, only a few scraps of memory remaining, leaving her focused on the immediate moment.
On the ground at her feet, visible in the spill of light from the open car door and then in her flashlight beam, was a four-foot length of sturdy cord. She picked it up and saw that it had once been tied in a loop and later cut at the knot.
Hatch took the cord out of her hand. “It was around Regina's ankles. He wanted her to walk.”
“Where are they now?”
He pointed with his flashlight across the drained lagoon, past the three large gray canted gondolas with prodigious mastheads, to a pair of wooden doors in the base of the funhouse. One sagged on broken hinges, and the other was open wide. The flashlight was a four-battery model, just strong enough to cast some dim light on those far doors but not to penetrate the terrible darkness beyond.
Lindsey took off around the car and scrambled over the lagoon wall. Though Hatch called out, “Lindsey, wait,” she could not delay another moment—and how could he?—with the thought of Regina in the hands of Nyebern's resurrected, psychotic son.
As Lindsey crossed the lagoon, fear for Regina still far outweighed any concern she might have for her own safety. However, realizing that she, herself, must survive if the girl were to have any chance at all, she swept the flashlight beam side to side, side to side, wary of an attack from behind one of the huge gondolas.
Old leaves and paper trash danced in the wind, for the most part waltzing across the floor of the dry lagoon, but sometimes spinning up in columns and churning to a faster beat. Nothing else moved.
Hatch caught up with her by the time she reached the funhouse entrance. He had delayed only to use the cord she had found to bind his flashlight to the back of the crucifix. Now he could carry both in one hand, pointing the head of Christ at anything upon which he directed the light. That left his right hand free for the Browning 9mm. He had left the Mossberg behind. If he had tied the flashlight to the 12-gauge, he could have brought both the handgun and the shotgun. Evidently he felt that the crucifix was a better weapon than the Mossberg.
She didn't know why he had taken the icon from the wall of Regina's room. She didn't think he knew, either. They were wading hip deep in the big muddy river of the unknown, and in addition to the cross, she would have welcomed a necklace of garlic, a vial of holy water, a few silver bullets, and anything else that might have helped.
As an artist, she had always known that the world of the five senses, solid and secure, was not the whole of existence, and she had incorporated that understanding into her work. Now she was merely incorporating it into the rest of her life, surprised that she had not done so a long time ago.
With both flashlights carving through the darkness in front of them, they entered the funhouse.
All of Regina's tricks for coping were not exhausted, after all. She invented one more.
She found a room deep inside her mind, where she could go and close the door and be safe, a place only she knew about, in which she could never be found. It was a pretty room with peach-colored walls, soft lighting, and a bed covered with painted flowers. Once she had entered, the door could only be opened again from her side. There were no windows. Once she was in that most secret of all retreats, it didn't matter what was done to the other her, the physical Regina in the hateful world outside. The real Regina was safe in her hideaway, beyond fear and pain, beyond tears and doubt and sadness. She could hear nothing beyond the room, most especially not the wickedly soft voice of the man in black. She could see nothing beyond the room, only the peach walls and her painted bed and soft light, never darkness. Nothing beyond the room could really touch her, certainly not his pale quick hands which had recently shed their gloves.