“Maxy was always exceptional-looking. A pretty baby, then a beautiful toddler. More handsome year by year. He was six when things changed. He was eight when we learned there is a degree of beauty that, if exceeded, inspires envy and requires the removal of the one whose appearance causes offense.”

Her ability to speak of child murder with such bland words and in such a dispassionate tone indicates that in the three years since the killing of Maxy, she has developed and refined techniques of self-possession that I could never match. She is eerily composed, all excited feeling subdued, for this is what she must do to survive—and now to save her daughter.

She says, “There’s a short story by Shirley Jackson, ‘The Lottery,’ which concerns a ritual stoning. Everyone in the town must participate so that something outrageous and morally repugnant may seem normal, essential to public order, and a moment of community bonding. Those who participate in that lottery do so voluntarily. When someone too beautiful had to be removed from the Corner, everyone participated, one after the other, including Maxy himself, but none voluntarily.”

The horrific scene she suggests with such restraint chills me as much as anything ever has.

I am inexpressibly grateful that I am invulnerable to the power of this mysterious Presence. But then I pray that I am indeed not vulnerable, because perhaps on second try the puppetmaster will find a way to open my own private door.

Speaking now in a whisper, Ardys says, “Here, mere stones are considered uninspired. More imagination is employed. And unlike in the Jackson story, the sacrifice is not performed efficiently but with an intention to prolong the event as you might want to see a good ball game go into several extra innings to increase the drama and the ultimate satisfaction.”

My palms are damp. I blot them on my jeans before picking up the pistol from my lap.

“In three years, there has not been another whose appearance has caused such offense,” Ardys informs me. “Until recently. Members of our family have begun expressing envy of my daughter’s growing beauty, both to her and to me. Of course I mean this envy has been expressed by another for whom they are forced to speak.”

I have a hundred questions, but before I can pose one, Ardys gets up from the chair and asks that I come with her.

She opens the front door and leads me inside.

For a moment, I look back warily at the shadowed porch and the deeper gloom beyond. When I close the door, I turn the deadbolt, for it seems that the night itself might rise like a rough beast and slouch across the threshold in our wake.

I follow her along the hallway to the immaculate kitchen.

In my experience, everything in Harmony Corner is spotless. Hard work must be essential to relieve their minds from continuous morbid consideration of their desperate situation. Focusing intently on what they can control—like the cleanliness of their homes and enterprises—must be one of the few ways they can keep aglow the embers of hope.

In the kitchen light, I discover that Ardys Harmony is lovely. Perhaps in her late thirties, she has a complexion as clear as light, and her eyes are the color of crème de menthe, darker green than I would have thought any eyes could be. Her otherwise perfect skin is marked by crow’s-feet, but those tiny wrinkles seem to me to be evidence not of aging but instead of the courage and the steel willpower with which she faces each day in the Corner, as even now her eyes are squinted and her mouth tightly set with determination.

She draws me to the sink, above which is a window that frames a view of the larger house on the hill behind this one. As earlier, lamplight brightens some of the second-floor windows in that imposing residence.

“My husband’s parents bought this property in a foreclosure sale in 1955. It was dilapidated. They revitalized the businesses, turned failure into success, and built additional houses as their children got married and the family grew. They lived in the hilltop house until they died, both of them nine years ago. Bill and I lived up there four years—until everything changed. Five years now, we’ve lived down here.”

Without directly telling me that their controller and tormentor can be found in the highest of the seven houses, without mentioning a name or providing a description, without putting her request into words that might draw unwanted attention, she nevertheless conveys to me by her eyes and her expression what she hopes I might achieve. Maybe I, immune to the powers of the Presence, will be able to enter its lair undetected and kill it. I understand what she wants of me as clearly as if I could read minds.

If the Presence is alone and the Harmonys are many, and if it can control only one person at a time—as the story of Donny’s cut and Denise’s sewing up of his wound seems to indicate—then surely sometime in five years, they might have found a way to overwhelm their enemy. I don’t have enough information, however, to understand their long enslavement or to calculate the odds of my succeeding at the task she hopes that I will undertake.

The need to speak somewhat indirectly of these things and in a subdued manner complicates my information gathering. I ask, “Is it a man I’m looking for or something else?”

She turns from the window. “This line of talk is inadvisable.”

I persist: “A man?”

“Yes and no.”

“What does that mean?”

She shakes her head. She dares not say, for fear the words she would need to describe my quarry might alert him to the fact that we are conspiring against him. This suggests that once he has taken control of someone, even after he departs that person, the two of them remain linked at all times, at least tenuously.

“He’s only one, I assume.”

“Yes.”

She looks at the pistol in my hand.

I ask, “Will this be enough to do the job?”

Her expression is bleak. “I don’t know.”

As I consider how best to word certain other questions without setting off a psychic alarm in the mind of the Presence, I ask if I may have a drink of water.

She plucks a bottle of Niagara from the refrigerator, and as I put down the pistol on the dinette table, I assure her that I don’t need a glass.

For a man closing in on twenty-four hours without sleep, after a long day of exhausting action, too much caffeine is as problematic as too little. Drowsiness and the lack of focus that it promotes could be the death of me, although so could the edginess and the tendency to overreact that come with an overdose of stimulants. But Mountain Dew, candy bars, and a pair of NoDoz have not yet quite cleared the sandman’s dust from my eyes. I swallow one more caffeine tablet.

As I put down the water, Ardys comes to me and takes one of my hands in both of hers. Her eyes seem to express desperation, and her look is beseeching.

Something about her stare, perhaps the intensity of it, makes me uneasy. Because my life is marbled with the supernatural, I’m creeped out frequently enough to be familiar with the feeling that something is crawling on the nape of my neck. This time, however, before I can smooth down those fine hairs with my free hand, I realize that the crawling isn’t on my neck but inside my skull.

As I slam my own private door, rejecting what has sought to enter, Ardys says, “Have you figured out how to express it better, Harry?”

“Express what?”

“The analogy with the porpoise and the prairie dog.”

Alarmed, I twist my hand free of hers.

The form of Jolie’s mother still stands before me, and surely the substance of her—mind and soul—still inhabits the body even if she is no longer in control of it. The Presence and I are face-to-face, as last we were when it challenged me through Donny, and this time its true countenance is concealed by the Ardys mask. Her skin remains clear and radiant, but her expression of utter contempt is one that I doubt is familiar to that lovely visage. Those dark-green eyes are as striking as they were before, like the eyes of a woman in some magic-saturated Celtic myth, but they are no longer haunted or sad, or beseeching; they seem to radiate a palpable, inhuman fury.

I snatch the gun from the table.

She says, “Who are you really, Harry Potter?”

“Lex Luthor,” I admit. “That’s why I had to change my name. The thousandth time someone asked me why I hated Superman, I started wishing my name was just about anything else, even Fidel Castro.”

“You are the first of your kind I’ve ever encountered.”

“What kind is that?” I wonder.

“Inaccessible. I possess everyone who sleeps in the motor court, roam their memories, and embed recurrent nightmares that will destroy their sleep for weeks after I’ve departed them.”

“I’d prefer a free continental breakfast.”

Not stiffly, like a zombie, but with her usual grace, she walks—almost seems to glide—to the counter beside the cooktop and opens a drawer. “Sometimes I seize control of motor-court guests while they’re awake—use a husband to brutalize a wife or use a wife to tell her husband lies about infidelities that I imagine for her in delicious detail.”

Ardys stares into the drawer.

“When they leave,” the Presence says through her, “they’re beyond my control, but what I’ve done will have a lasting effect.”

“Why? What’s the point?”

Ardys looks up from the drawer. “Because I can. Because I want to. Because I will.”

“That’s a tidy little moral vacuum.”

Obeying the beast that rides her, Ardys withdraws a meat cleaver from the drawer. In her voice, the hidden demon says, “Not a vacuum. A black hole. Nothing escapes me.”

I suggest, “Delusions of grandeur.”

Raising the cleaver, Ardys approaches the dinette table, which stands between us. “You’re a fool.”

“Yeah? Well, you’re a narcissist.”

I find it dismaying that we never quite outgrow the schoolyard and the puerile behavior thereof. Even this puppetmaster, with almost godlike power over those it controls, feels the need to belittle me with childish insults, and I feel obliged to respond in kind.

Through Ardys, it says, “You’re dead, shitface.”

“Yeah? Well, you’re probably ugly as hell.”

“Not when I’m in this bitch.”

“I’d rather be dead than as ugly as you.”

“You’re ugly enough, shitface.”

I reply, “Sticks and stones.”

She starts around the table.

I circle in the other direction, taking a two-hand grip on the pistol and aiming it point-blank at her chest.

“You won’t shoot her,” the Presence says.

“I killed a woman earlier tonight.”

“Liar.”

“Freak.”

“Killing the bitch won’t kill me.”

“But you’ll have to find another host. By then I’ll be out of the house, and you won’t know where to look for me.”

She throws the cleaver.

My paranormal ability includes occasional prophetic dreams but not, darn it, glimpses of the future while I’m awake, which would be really, really helpful in moments like this.

I don’t expect her to throw it, I haven’t time to dodge, the blade whooshes past my face close enough to shave me if I had a beard, and chops into the cabinetry behind me, splitting the raised panel on an upper door.

The puppeteer is probably limited to the physical capabilities of whatever host it inhabits. I am maybe fifteen years younger than Ardys, stronger, with longer legs. The Presence is right, I won’t kill Ardys, she’s innocent, a victim, and now as she returns to the knife drawer, there’s nothing I can do but split in the figurative sense before her rider uses her to split me literally.

I race along the hallway, reaching the foyer just as the front door opens and a tall, husky guy halts on the threshold, startled to see me. He must be the husband, William Harmony. I say, “Hi, Bill,” hoping he’ll politely step out of the way, but even as I speak, his expression hardens, and he says, “Shitface,” which either means that the insult is so appropriate that it’s the first thing people think to say when catching sight of me or the Presence has flipped out of Ardys and into her spouse.

Although I don’t know Bill as well as I know Ardys, I don’t want to shoot this innocent, either. Call me prissy. If I retreat to the kitchen, the puppeteer will flip out of Bill and into Ardys once more, and she’ll have a carving knife or a butcher knife, or a battery-powered electric knife, or a chain saw if they happen to keep one in the kitchen. Bill is wearing a sailor’s cap, which is appropriate, because his neck is as thick as a wharf post, his hands look as big as anchors, and his chest is as wide as the prow of a ship. There’s no way that I can go through him, which leaves me no choice but to sprint up the nearby staircase to the second floor.

SIX

I am perpetually—sometimes darkly—amused by the workings of my mind, which can often seem less rational than I would like to believe they are. The human brain is by far the most complex object known to exist in the entire universe, containing more neurons than there are billions of stars in the Milky Way. The brain and the mind are very different things, and the latter is as mysterious as the former is complex. The brain is a machine, and the mind is a ghost within it. The origins of self-awareness and how the mind is able to perceive, analyze, and imagine are supposedly explained by numerous schools of psychology, although in fact they study only behavior through the gathering and the analysis of statistics. The why of the mind’s existence and the how of its profound capacity to reason—especially its penchant for moral reasoning—will by their very nature remain as mysterious as whatever lies outside of time.

As I race up the stairs to the second floor, intent upon not falling into the hands of the possessed Bill Harmony, who looks like he has the strength to break me apart as easily as I might break in half a breadstick, I am afraid of dying—and therefore failing to protect Annamaria as I promised—and at the same time I am mildly embarrassed by the impropriety of dashing pell-mell toward the more private portion of their residence, into which I haven’t been invited.

I hear myself saying, “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” as I ascend the stairs, which seems absurd, considering that my trespass is a far lesser offense than the puppetmaster’s intention to use Mr. Harmony to bash my brains out. On the other hand, I think it speaks well of human beings that we are capable of recognizing when we’ve committed an impropriety even while we’re in a desperate fight for survival. I’ve read that in the worst Nazi and Soviet slave-labor camps, where never enough food was provided to inmates, the stronger prisoners nearly always shared rations equitably with weaker ones, recognizing that the survival instinct does not entirely excuse us from the need to be charitable. Not all human competition has to be as brutal as that on the Food Network’s Cupcake Wars.

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