He wanted her dead.
He wanted to stop her heart and then hold her for hours, feeling the heat of life radiate out of her, until she was cold.
This one murder, it seemed to him, might at last earn him passage out of the borderland in which he lived and into the land of the dead and damned, where he belonged, where he longed to be.
Margaret made the mistake of going alone to a laundry room in her apartment complex at eleven o'clock at night. Many of the units were leased to financially comfortable senior citizens and, because they were near the University of California at Irvine, to pairs and trios of students who shared the rent. Maybe the tenant mix, the fact that it was a safe and friendly neighborhood, and the abundance of landscape and walkway lighting all combined to give her a false sense of security.
When Vassago entered the laundry room, Margaret had just begun to put her dirty clothes into one of the washing machines. She looked at him with a smile of surprise but with no apparent concern, though he was dressed all in black and wearing sunglasses at night.
She probably thought he was just another university student who favored an eccentric look as a way of proclaiming his rebellious spirit and intellectual superiority. Every campus had a slew of the type, since it was easier to dress as a rebellious intellectual than be one.
“Oh, I'm sorry, Miss,” he said, “I didn't realize anyone was in here.”
“That's okay. I'm only using just one washer,” she said. “There're two others.”
“No, I already did my laundry, then back at the apartment when I took it out of the basket, I was missing one sock, so I figure it's got to be in one of the washers or dryers. But I didn't mean to get in your way. Sorry about that.”
She smiled a little broader, maybe because she thought it funny that a would-be James Dean, black-clad rebel without a cause, would choose to be so polite—or would do his own laundry and chase down lost socks.
By then he was beside her. He hit her in the face—two hard, sharp punches that knocked her unconscious. She crumpled onto the vinyl-tile floor as if she were a pile of laundry.
Later, in the dismantled Hell under the moldering funhouse, when she regained consciousness and found herself na*ed on the concrete floor and effectively blind in those lightless confines, tied hand and foot, she did not attempt to bargain for her life as some of the others had done. She didn't offer her body to him, didn't pretend to be turned on by his savagery or the power that he wielded over her. She didn't offer him money, or claim to understand and sympathize with him in a pathetic attempt to convert him from nemesis to friend. Neither did she scream nor weep nor wail nor curse. She was different from the others, for she found hope and comfort in a quiet, dignified, unending chain of whispered prayers. But she never prayed to be delivered from her tormentor and returned to the world out of which she had been torn—as if she knew that death was inevitable. Instead, she prayed that her family would be given the strength to cope with the loss of her, that God would take care of her two younger sisters, and even that her murderer would receive divine grace and mercy.
Vassago swiftly came to loathe her. He knew that love and mercy were nonexistent, just empty words. He had never felt love, neither during his time in the borderland nor when he had been one of the living. Often, however, he had pretended to love someone—father, mother, a girl—to get what he wanted, and they had always been deceived. Being deceived into believing that love existed in others, when it didn't exist in you, was a sign of fatal weakness. Human interaction was nothing but a game, after all, and the ability to see through deception was what separated the good players from the inept.
To show her that he could not be deceived and that her god was powerless, Vassago rewarded her quiet prayers with a long and painful death. At last she did scream. But her screams were not satisfying, for they were only the sounds of physical agony; they did not reverberate with terror, rage, or despair.
He thought he would like her better when she was dead, but even then he still hated her. For a few minutes he held her body against him, feeling the heat drain from it. But the chilly advance of death through her flesh was not as thrilling as it should have been. Because she had died with an unbroken faith in life everlasting, she had cheated Vassago of the satisfaction of seeing the awareness of death in her eyes. He pushed her limp body aside in disgust.
Now, two weeks after Vassago had finished with her, Margaret Campion knelt in perpetual prayer on the floor of that dismantled Hell, the most recent addition to his collection. She remained upright because she was lashed to a length of steel rebar which he had inserted into a hole he had drilled in the concrete. Naked, she faced away from the giant, funhouse devil. Though she had been Baptist, a crucifix was clasped in her dead hands because Vassago liked the image of the crucifix better than a simple cross; it was turned upside down, with Christ's thorn-prickled head toward the floor. Margaret's own head had been cut off then resewn to her neck with obsessive care. Even though her body was turned away from Satan, she faced toward him in denial of the crucifix held irreverently in her hands. Her posture was symbolic of hypocrisy, mocking her pretense to faith, love, and life everlasting.
Although Vassago hadn't received nearly as much pleasure from murdering Margaret as from what he had done to her after she was dead, he was still pleased to have made her acquaintance. Her stubbornness, stupidity, and self-deception had made her death less satisfying for him than it should have been, but at least the aura he had seen around her in the bar was quenched. Her irritating vitality was drained away. The only energy her body harbored was that of the multitudinous carrion-eaters that teemed within her, consuming her flesh and bent on reducing her to a dry husk like Jenny, the waitress, who rested at the other end of the collection.
As he studied Margaret, a familiar need arose in him. Finally the need became a compulsion. He turned away from his collection, retracing his path across the huge room, heading for the ramp that led up to the entrance tunnel. Ordinarily, selecting another acquisition, killing it, and arranging it in the most aesthetically satisfying pose would have left him quiescent and sated for as much as a month. But after less than two weeks, he was compelled to find another worthy sacrifice.
Regretfully, he ascended the ramp, out of the purifying scent of death, into air tainted with the odors 9f life, like a vampire driven to hunt the living though preferring the company of the dead.
At ten-thirty, almost an hour after Harrison was resuscitated, he remained unconscious. His body temperature was normal. His vital signs were good. And though the patterns of alpha and beta brain waves were those of a man in a profound sleep, they were not obviously indicative of anything as deep as a coma.
When Jonas finally declared the patient out of immediate danger and ordered him moved to a private room on the fifth floor, Ken Nakamura and Kari Dovell elected to go home. Leaving Helga and Gina with the patient, Jonas accompanied the neurologist and the pediatrician to the scrub sinks, and eventually as far as the door to the staff parking lot. They discussed Harrison and what procedures might have to be performed on him in the morning, but for the most part they shared inconsequential small talk about hospital politics and gossip involving mutual acquaintances, as if they had not just participated in a miracle that should have made such banalities impossible.
Beyond the glass door, the night looked cold and inhospitable. Rain had begun to fall. Puddles were filling every depression in the pavement, and in the reflected glow of the parking-lot lamps, they looked like shattered mirrors, collections of sharp silvery shards.
Kari leaned against Jonas, kissed his cheek, clung to him for a moment. She seemed to want to say something but was unable to find the words. Then she pulled back, turned up the collar of her coat, and went out into the wind-driven rain.
Lingering after Kari's departure, Ken Nakamura said, “I hope you realize she's a perfect match for you.”
Through the rain-streaked glass door, Jonas watched the woman as she hurried toward her car. He would have been lying if he had said that he never looked at Kari as a woman. Though tall, rangy, and a formidable presence, she was also feminine.
Sometimes he marveled at the delicacy of her wrists, at her swan-like neck that seemed too gracefully thin to support her head. Intellectually and emotionally she was stronger than she looked. Otherwise she couldn't have dealt with the obstacles and challenges that surely had blocked her advance in the medical profession, which was still dominated by men for whom—in some cases—chauvinism was less a character trait than an article of faith.
Ken said, “All you'd have to do is ask her, Jonas.”
“I'm not free to do that,” Jonas said.
“You can't mourn Marion forever.”
“It's only been two years.”
“Yeah, but you have to step back into life sometime.”
“I don't know.”
Outside, halfway across the parking lot, Kari Dovell had gotten into her car.
“She won't wait forever,” Ken said.
“I can take a hint.”
“Good,” Jonas said.
Smiling ruefully, Ken pulled open the door, letting in a gust of wind that spat jewel-clear drops of rain on the gray tile floor. He hurried out into the night.
Jonas turned away from the door and followed a series of hallways to the elevators. He went up to the fifth floor.
He hadn't needed to tell Ken and Kari that he would spend the night in the hospital. They knew he always stayed after an apparently successful reanimation. To them, resuscitation medicine was a fascinating new field, an interesting sideline to their primary work, a way to expand their professional knowledge and keep their minds flexible; every success was deeply satisfying, a reminder of why they had become physicians in the first place—to heal. But it was more than that to Jonas. Each reanimation was a battle won in an endless war with Death, not just a healing act but an act of defiance, an angry fist raised in the face of fate.
Resuscitation medicine was his love, his passion, his definition of himself, his only reason for arising in the morning and getting on with life in a world that had otherwise become too colorless and purposeless to endure.
He had submitted applications and proposals to half a dozen universities, seeking to teach in their medical schools in return for the establishment of a resuscitation-medicine research facility under his supervision, for which he felt able to raise a sizable part of the financing. He was well-known and widely respected both as a cardiovascular surgeon and a reanimation specialist, and he was confident that he would soon obtain the position he wanted. But he was impatient. He was no longer satisfied with supervising reanimations. He wanted to study the effects of short-term death on human cells, explore the mechanisms of free-radicals and free-radical scavengers, test his own theories, and find new ways to evict Death from those in whom it had already taken up tenancy.
On the fifth floor, at the nurses' station, he learned that Harrison had been taken to 518. It was a semi-private room, but an abundance of empty beds in the hospital insured that it would be effectively maintained as a private unit as long as Harrison was ' likely to need it.
When Jonas entered 518, Helga and Gina were finishing with the patient, who was in the bed farthest from the door and nearest the rain-spotted window. They had gotten him into a hospital gown and hooked him to another electrocardiograph with a telemetry function that would reproduce his heart rhythms on a monitor at the nurses' station. A bottle of clear fluid hung from a rack beside the bed, feeding an IV line into the patient's left arm, which was already beginning to bruise from other intravenous injections administered by the paramedics earlier in the evening; the clear fluid was glucose enriched with an antibiotic to prevent dehydration and to guard against one of the many infections that could undo everything that had been achieved in the resuscitation room. Helga had smoothed Harrison's hair with a comb that she was now tucking away in the nightstand drawer. Gina was delicately applying a lubricant to his eyelids to prevent them from sticking together, a danger with comatose patients who spent long periods of time without opening their eyes or even blinking and who sometimes suffered from diminished lachrymal-gland secretion.
“Heart's still steady as a metronome,” Gina said when she saw Jonas. “I have a hunch, before the end of the week, this one's going to be out playing golf, dancing, doing whatever he wants.” She brushed at her bangs, which were an inch too long and hanging in her eyes. “He's a lucky man.”
“One hour at a time,” Jonas cautioned, knowing too well how Death liked to tease them by pretending to retreat, then returning in a rush to snatch away their victory.
When Gina and Helga left for the night, Jonas turned off all the lights. Illuminated only by the faint fluorescent wash from the corridor and the green glow of the cardiac monitor, room 518 was replete with shadows.
It was silent, too. The audio signal on the EKG had been turned off, leaving only the rhythmically bouncing light endlessly making its way across the screen. The only sounds were the soft moans of the wind at the window and the occasional faint tapping of rain against the glass.
Jonas stood at the foot of the bed, looking at Harrison for a moment. Though he had saved the man's life, he knew little about him. Thirty-eight years old. Five-ten, a hundred and sixty pounds. Brown hair, brown eyes. Excellent physical condition.
But what of the inner person? Was Hatchford Benjamin Harrison a good man? Honest? Trustworthy? Faithful to his wife? Was he reasonably free of envy and greed, capable of mercy, aware of the difference between right and wrong?
Did he have a kind heart?
Did he love?
In the heat of a resuscitation procedure, when seconds counted and there was too much to be done in too short a time, Jonas never dared to think about the central ethical dilemma facing any doctor who assumed the role of reanimator, for to think of it then might have inhibited him to the patient's disadvantage. Afterward, there was time to doubt, to wonder.… Although a physician was morally committed and professionally obligated to saving lives wherever he could, were all lives worth saving? When Death took an evil man, wasn't it wiser—and more ethically correct—to let him stay dead?
If Harrison was a bad man, the evil that he committed upon resuming his life after leaving the hospital would in part be the responsibility of Jonas Nyebern. The pain Harrison caused others would to some extent stain Jonas's soul, as well.
Fortunately, this time the dilemma seemed moot. Harrison appeared to be an upstanding citizen—a respected antique dealer, they said—married to an artist of some reputation, whose name Jonas recognized. A good artist had to be sensitive, perceptive, able to see the world more clearly than most people saw it. Didn't she? If she was married to a bad man, she would know it, and she wouldn't remain married to him. This time there was every reason to believe that a life had been saved that should have been saved.