During their passage, that tumult of purposeful shadows had left no stain on the hallway walls. No trace of the burning-electrical-cord smell remained, either.
For the third time, I stepped up to that doorway.
The black room was gone.
BEYOND THE THRESHOLD LAY AN ORDINARY CHAMBER, not infinite in its dimensions, as it had seemed earlier, measuring no more than twelve by fourteen feet.
A single window looked out through the branches of a lacy melaleuca that screened much of the sunlight. Nevertheless, I could see well enough to determine that no source existed for a sullen red light either in the center of this humble space or in any corner.
The mysterious power that had transformed and controlled this room - casting me minutes back, and then forward, in time - was no longer in evidence.
Apparently, this served as Fungus Man’s study. A bank of four-drawer filing cabinets, an office chair, and a gray metal desk with a laminated imitation-wood-grain top were the only furnishings.
Side by side on the wall opposite the desk hung three black-and-white, poster-size photographs that appeared to have been printed on a draftsman’s digital plotter. They were head shots, portraits of men - one with feverish eyes and a gleeful smile, the other two glowering in the gloom.
All three were familiar, but I could at first put a name to only the one with the smile: Charles Manson, the vicious manipulator whose fantasies of revolution and race war had exposed a cancer at the core of the flower-power generation and had led to the demise of the Age of Aquarius. He had carved a swastika on his forehead.
Whoever the other two might be, they didn’t have the look of ei­ther Vegas comics or famous philosophers.
Perhaps my imagination, as much as the melaleuca-filtered sun­light, imparted a feint silvery luminescence to each man’s intense gaze. This glow reminded me of the milky radiance that informs the hungry glare of animate corpses in movies about the living dead.
In part to alter the quality of those eyes, I switched on the overhead light.
The dust and disorder that characterized the rest of the house were not in evidence here. When he crossed this threshold, Fungus Man left his slovenliness behind and became a paragon of neatness.
The file cabinets proved to contain meticulously kept folders filled with articles clipped from publications and downloaded from the Internet. Drawer after drawer contained dossiers on serial killers and mass murderers.
The subjects ranged from Victorian England’s Jack the Ripper to Osama bin Laden, for whom Hell had prepared a special suite of fiery rooms. Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer. Charles Whitman, the sniper who killed sixteen in Austin, Texas, in 1966. John Wayne Gacy: He liked to dress up as a clown at children’s parties, had his picture taken at a po­litical event with First Lady Rosalyn Carter, and buried numerous dis­membered bodies in his backyard and under his house.
A particularly thick file had been assembled for Ed Gein, who had been the inspiration for both Norman Bates in Psycho and Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. Gein had enjoyed eating soup from
a human skull and had fashioned a fancy belt from the ni**les of his victims.
The unknown dangers of the black room had not daunted me, but here was a known evil, entirely comprehensible. Cabinet by cabinet, my chest tightened with dread and my hands trembled, until I slammed shut a file drawer and resolved to open no more of them.
Memory freshened by what I’d seen in those folders, I could now put names to the poster-size photographs that flanked Charles Manson.
A portrait of Timothy McVeigh hung to the right of Manson. McVeigh had been convicted and executed for the bombing of the fed­eral building in Oklahoma City, where 168 people were killed in 1995.
To the left hung Mohammed Atta, who had flown an airliner into one of the World Trade Center towers, killing thousands. I had seen no evidence that Fungus Man sympathized with the cause of radical Islamic fascists. As with Manson and McVeigh, he apparently admired Atta for the terrorist’s cruel vision, brutal actions, and accomplish­ments in the service of evil.
This room was less of a study than it was a shrine.
Having seen enough, too much, I wanted to get out of the house. I yearned to return to Tire World, breathe the scent of rubber ready for the road, and think about what to do next.
Instead, I sat in the office chair. I am not squeamish, but I cringed slightly when I put my hands on the arms of the chair where his hands might have rested.
On the desk were a computer, a printer, a brass lamp, and a day-date calendar. Not a speck of dust or lint could be seen on any surface.
From this perch, I surveyed the study, trying to understand how it could have become the black room and then could have reverted to this ordinary space again.
No residual St. Elmo’s fire of supernatural energy glimmered along the metal edges of the file cabinets. No otherworldly presences revealed themselves.
For a while, this room had been transformed into… a portal, a doorway between Pico Mundo and somewhere far stranger, by which I do not mean Los Angeles or even Bakersfield. Perhaps for a while this house had been a train station between our world and Hell, if Hell exists.
Or if I had reached the bloody red light at the center of that other­wise perfect darkness, perhaps I would have found myself on a planet in a remote arm of the galaxy, where bodachs ruled. Lacking a board­ing pass, I had instead been flung into the living room and the past, then into the carport and the future.
Of course I examined the possibility that what I had seen could have been mere delusion. I might be as crazy as a laboratory rat that has been fed a diet of psychosis-inducing toxins and forced to watch TV “reality” shows that explore in detail the daily lives of washed-up supermodels and aging rock stars.
From time to time, I do consider that I might be mad. Like any self-respecting lunatic, however, I am always quick to dismiss any doubts about my sanity.
I saw no reason to search the study for a hidden switch that might convert it again into the black room. Logic suggested that the formi­dable power needed to open that mysterious doorway had been pro­jected not from here but from the other side, wherever that might be.
Most likely Fungus Man was unaware that his sanctum served not merely as a catalogued repository for his homicidal fantasies but also as a terminal admitting bodachs to a holiday of blood. Without my sixth sense, perhaps he could sit here, happily working on one of his grisly files, and not be conscious of the ominous transformation of the room or of the arriving hordes of demonic entities.
From nearby came a tick-tick-tick, a bone-on-bone rattle that brought to mind Halloween images of ambulatory skeletons, and then a brief scuttling sound.
I rose from the chair and listened, alert.
Tickless seconds passed. A rattle-free half minute.
A rat, perhaps, had stirred in the walls or attic, made sick and rest­less by the heat.
I sat once more and opened the desk drawers one by one.
In addition to pencils, pens, paper clips, a stapler, scissors, and other mundane items, I found two recent bank statements and a checkbook. All three were addressed to Robert Thomas Robertson at this house in Camp’s End.
Good-bye, Fungus Man; hello, Bob.
Bob Robertson didn’t have the necessary malevolent ring for the name of a would-be mass murderer. It sounded more like a jovial car salesman.
The four-page statement from Bank of America reported upon a savings account, two six-month certificates of deposit, a money-market account, and a stock-trading account. The combined value of all Robertson’s assets at Bank of America amounted to $786,542.10.
I scanned the figure three times, certain that I must be misreading the placement of the comma and the decimal point.
The four-page statement from Wells Fargo Bank, accounting for in­vestments in its care, showed a combined value of $463,125.43.
Robertson’s handwriting was sloppy, but he faithfully kept a run­ning balance in his checkbook. The current available resources in this account totaled $198,648.21.
That a man with liquid assets of nearly one and a half million dol­lars should make his home in a shabby, sweltering casita in Camp’s End seemed downright perverse.
If I had this much green at my command, I might continue to cook
short-order now and then purely for the artistic satisfaction, but never for a living. The tire life might not in the least appeal to me any longer.
Perhaps Robertson required few luxuries because he found all the pleasure he needed in ceaseless bloody fantasies that gouted through his imagination.
A sudden frenzied flapping-rattling almost brought me up from the chair again, but then a sharp and repeated skreek identified the source as crows pecking out their turf on the roof. They come out early on summer mornings, before the heat is insufferable, spend the after­noon in leafy bowers, and venture out again when the gradually re­treating sun begins to lose some of its blistering power.
I am not afraid of crows.
In the checkbook register, I pored back through three months of entries but found only the usual payments to utilities, credit-card com­panies, and the like. The sole oddity was that Robertson had also writ­ten a surprising number of checks to cash..
During the past month alone, he had withdrawn a total of $32,000 in $2,000 and $4,000 increments. For the past two months, the total reached $58,000.
Even with his prodigious appetite, he couldn’t eat that much Burke & Bailey’s ice cream.
Evidently he had expensive tastes, after all. And whatever indul­gence he allowed himself, it was one that he couldn’t purchase openly with checks or credit cards.
Returning the financial statements to the desk drawer, I began to sense that I had stayed too long in this place.
I assumed that the engine noise of the Explorer pulling into the car­port would alert me to Robertson’s return and that I would be able to slip out of the front as he entered by the side door. If for any reason he parked in the street or came home on foot, however, I might find my­self trapped before I discovered that he had arrived.
McVeigh, Manson, and Mohammad Atta seemed to watch me. How easily I could imagine that genuine awareness informed the in­tense eyes in those photographs and that they glinted now with wicked expectation.
Lingering a moment longer, I turned backward through the small, square day-date pages on the desk calendar, searching for notations of appointments or other reminders that Robertson might have written during recent weeks. All the note lines were blank.
I returned to the current date - Tuesday, August 14 - and then flipped forward, into the future. The page for August 15 was missing. Nothing had been written in the calendar after that date for as far as I cared to look.
Leaving everything as I had found it, I rose from the desk and went to the door. I switched off the overhead light.
Golden sunshine, trimmed into flame shapes by the intervening bladelike leaves of the melaleuca, made a false fire on the sheer cur­tains, without greatly illuminating the room, and the emboldened shadows seemed to gather more heavily around the portraits of the three killers than elsewhere.
A thought occurred to me - which happens more often than some people might suppose and certainly more often than I would prefer - whereupon I switched the light on again and went to the bank of file cabinets. In the drawer labeled R, I checked to see if, among these dossiers of butchers and lunatics, Fungus Man kept a file on himself.
I found one. The tab declared: ROBERTSON, ROBERT THOMAS.
How convenient it would have been if this folder had contained newspaper clippings concerning unsolved murders as well as highly incriminating items related to those killings. I could have memorized the file, replaced it, and reported my findings to Wyatt Porter.
With that information, Chief Porter could have figured a way to entrap Robertson. We could have put the creep behind bars before he
had a chance to commit whatever crimes he might be currently con­templating.
The file, however, contained but a single item: the page that was missing from the desk calendar. Wednesday, August 15.
Robertson had written nothing on the note lines. Apparently, in his mind, the date itself was significant enough to include as the first item in the file.
I consulted my wristwatch. In six hours and four minutes, August 14 and August 15 would meet at the midnight divide.
And after that, what would happen? Something. Something… not good.
Returning to the living room, to the stained furniture and the dust and the litter of publications, I was struck once more by the sharp contrast between the well-cleaned and well-ordered study and the rest of the residence.
Out here, engrossed sometimes in raunchy magazines and some­times in romances innocent enough to be read by ministers’ wives, ev­idently oblivious of forgotten banana peels and empty coffee mugs and dirty socks long overdue for laundering, Robertson seemed to be unfocused, adrift. This was a man of half-formed clay, his identity in doubt.
By contrast, the Robertson who spent time in the study, creating and tending to those hundreds of files, surfing websites dealing with serial killers and mass murderers, knew precisely who he was - or at least who he wished to be.
I LEFT AS I HAD ENTERED, BY THE SIDE DOOR CONNECTing the kitchen and the carport, but I didn’t immediately return to the Mustang that I had borrowed from Terri Stambaugh. Instead, I went behind the house to have a close look at the backyard.
The front lawn had been half dead, but the grass here in back had withered away long ago. The well-baked dirt had not received a drop of water since the last rain in late February, five and a half hot months ago.
If a man were in the habit of burying his victims, dismembered or not, in the backyard, a la John Wayne Gacy, he would keep the soil re­ceptive to a shovel. This hardpan would break the point of a pick and send any midnight gravedigger in search of a jackhammer.
Fenced with open chain-link on which grew no vines or other screening vegetation, the backyard offered no privacy to a murderer with an inconvenient corpse on his hands. If they were of a ghoulish disposition, the neighbors could open a keg of beer, set up lawn chairs, and watch the interment for entertainment.
Supposing that Robertson was an actual serial killer instead of
merely a wannabe, he had planted his garden elsewhere. I suspected, however, that the file he had created for himself was complete as of this date and that his debut performance would be tomorrow.
Watching from the edge of the barrel-tile roof, a crow cracked its orange beak and shrieked, as though it suspected that I had come to poach whatever crispy beetles and other sparse fare it fed upon in this parched territory.
I thought of Poe’s dire raven, perched above the parlor door, mad­deningly repeating one word - nevermore, nevermore.
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