I knelt beside the gunman and stripped off his ski mask. His nose was broken, bleeding; breath bubbled in the blood. His right eye would probably swell entirely shut. A welt had already begun to form on his forehead.
He wasn’t Simon Varner. Before me lay Bern Eckles, the deputy who had been at the barbecue, who had been invited because the chief and Karla Porter had been trying to match him up with Lysette Rains.
BOB ROBERTSON HAD NOT ONE COLLABORATOR BUT two. Maybe more. They probably called themselves a coven, unless that was only for witches. One more, and they could have a satanic combo, provide their own music for Black Mass, buy group health in­surance, get a block discount at Disneyland.
At the chief’s barbecue, I’d seen no bodachs around Bern Eckles. Their presence had tipped me to Roberston’s nature but not to either of his co-conspirators - which now began to seem intentional. As if they had become aware of my gift. As if they had… manipulated me.
After turning Eckles on his side to ensure that he wouldn’t choke on his own blood and saliva, I searched for something to tie his hands and feet.
I didn’t expect him to regain consciousness within the next ten min­utes. When he finally did come around, he would be crawling and puking and begging for painkillers, in no condition to snatch up the assault rifle and return to his mission.
Nevertheless, I disabled two security-room phones and quickly used their cords to bind his hands behind his back and to shackle his
ankles. I yanked the knots tight and didn’t worry unduly about in­hibiting his circulation.
Eckles and Varner were the newest officers on the Pico Mundo Police Department. They had applied and signed up only a month or two apart.
Smart money would take the proposition that they had known each other before they arrived in Pico Mundo. Varner had been hired first and had paved the way for Eckles.
Robertson had moved to Pico Mundo from San Diego and pur­chased the house in Camp’s End ahead of his two collaborators. If my memory could be trusted, Varner had previously been a police officer in the San Diego area if not in the city itself.
I didn’t know in what jurisdiction Bern Eckles served before he had signed up with the PMPD. Greater San Diego would be a better bet than Juneau, Alaska.
The three of them had targeted Pico Mundo for reasons impossible to guess. They had planned long and carefully.
When I had gone to the barbecue, suggesting that a background profile on Bob Robertson might be a good idea, the chief had enlisted Eckles’s assistance. At that instant, Robertson had been marked for death.
Indeed, he must have been murdered within half an hour. No doubt Eckles had telephoned Varner from the chief’s house, and Varner had pulled the trigger on their mutual friend. Perhaps Simon Varner and Robertson had been together when Varner got Eckles’s call.
With Eckles securely tied, I unzipped the front of his jumpsuit far enough to confirm that under it he wore his police uniform.
He had come into the security room in his blues and badge. The guards would have greeted him without suspicion.
Evidently he’d carried the assault rifle and the jumpsuit in a suit­case. A two-suiter lay open and empty on the floor. Samsonite.
The plan had most likely been to go on a shooting spree in the de­partment store and then, as the police arrived, to find a private place to strip out of the jumpsuit and the ski mask. Abandoning the assault ri­fle, Eckles could mingle with his fellow officers as though responding to the same call that they had received.
The why of it wasn’t as easy to understand as the how.
Some people said that God talked to them. Others heard the devil whispering in their heads. Maybe one of these guys thought Satan had told him to shoot up Green Moon Mall.
Or maybe they were just doing it for fun. A lark. Their religion is tolerant of extreme forms of recreation. Boys will be boys, after all, and sociopathic boys will be sociopathic.
Simon Varner remained on the loose. Maybe he and Eckles had not come to the mall alone. I had no idea how many might be in a coven.
Using one of the working phones, I called 911, reported three mur­ders, and without answering any questions, put the phone down, leav­ing it off the hook. The police would come, and a SWAT team. Three minutes, four. Maybe five.
That wouldn’t be fast enough. Varner would be blasting away at shoppers before they arrived.
The baseball bat hadn’t cracked. Good wood.
As effective as the bat had been with Eckles, I couldn’t expect to be lucky enough to surprise Varner in the same way. Regardless of my fear of guns, I needed a better weapon than a Louisville Slugger.
On a counter in front of the security monitors lay the pistol that Eckles had used to kill the guards. On inspection, I found that four rounds remained in the ten-shot magazine.
As much as I wanted to avoid looking at them, the dead men on the floor commanded my attention. I hate violence. I hate injustice more. I just want to be a fry cook, but the world demands more from me than eggs and pancakes.
I unscrewed the silencer, tossed it aside. Pulled my T-shirt our of my jeans. Tucked the pistol under my waistband.
Without success, I tried not to think of my mother with the gun under her chin, against her breast. I tried not to remember what the muzzle of that pistol had felt like when she pressed it against my eye and told me to look for the brass of the bullet at the bottom of that narrow bore of darkness.
The T-shirt hid the weapon but not perfectly. Shoppers would be too preoccupied finding bargains and salesclerks would be too busy serving shoppers to notice the bulge.
Cautiously, I opened the door barely wide enough to slip out of the security room, and closed it behind me. A man was walking away from me, in the direction I needed to go, and I followed him, wishing that he would hurry.
He turned right, through the swinging doors to the receiving room, and I ran past elevators reserved for company employees to a door labeled STAIRS. I took them two at a time.
Somewhere ahead, Simon Varner. Sweet face. Sleepy eyes. POD on his left forearm.
At the first floor of the department store, I left the stairs and pushed through a door into a stockroom.
A pretty redhead was busy pulling small boxes off the packed shelves. She said, “Hey,” in a friendly way.
“Hey,” I said back at her, and I went out of the stockroom onto the sales floor.
The sporting-goods department. Bustling. Men, a few women, a lot of teenagers. The kids were checking out Rollerblades, skateboards.
Beyond the sporting goods were aisles of athletic shoes. Beyond the shoes, men’s sportswear.
People, people everywhere. Too many people too tightly bunched. An almost festive atmosphere. So vulnerable.
If I hadn’t waylaid him as he came out of the security room, Bern Eckles would have killed ten or twenty by now. Thirty.
Simon Varner. Big guy. Beefy arms. Prince of Darkness. Simon Varner.
Reliably guided by my supernatural gift as any bat is guided by echolocation, I crossed the first floor of the department store, heading toward the exit to the mall promenade.
I didn’t expect to see another gunman here. Eckles and Varner would have chosen widely separated killing fields, the better to sow terror and chaos. Besides, they would want to avoid accidentally stray­ing into each other’s fire patterns.
Ten steps short of the promenade exit, I saw Viola Peabody, who was supposed to be at her sister’s house on Maricopa Lane.
THE BIRTHDAY GIRL, LEVANNA, AND HER PINK-INFATUATED little sister, Nicolina, were not at their mother’s side. I scanned the crowd of shoppers, but didn’t see the girls.
When I hurried to Viola and seized her by the shoulder from be­hind, she reacted with a start and dropped her shopping bag.
“What’re you doing here?” I demanded.
“Odd! You scared the salt off my crackers.”
“Where are the girls?”
“Why aren’t you with them?”
Picking up the shopping bag, she said, “Hadn’t done birthday shop­ping yet. Got to have a gift. Came here just quick for these Roller-blades.”
“Your dream,” I reminded her urgently. “This is your dream.”
Her eyes widened. “But I’m just in and out quick, and I’m not at the movies.”
“It’s not going to be at the theater. It’s happening here.”
For an instant her breath caught in her throat as terror cocked the hammers of her heart.
“Get out of here,” I said. “Get out of here now.”
She exhaled explosively, looked wildly around as if any shopper might be a killer, or all of them, and she started toward the exit to the promenade.
“No!” I pulled her close to me. People were looking at us. What did it matter? “It’s not safe that way.”
“Where?” she asked.
I turned her around. “Go to the back of this floor, through the ath­letic shoes, through sporting goods. There’s a stockroom not far from where you bought Rollerblades. Go to the stockroom. Hide there.”
She started away, stopped, looked at me. ‘Aren’t you coming?”
“Where are you going?”
“Don’t,” she pleaded.
As she moved toward the back of the department store, I hurried out into the mall promenade.
Here at the north end of the Green Moon Mall, the forty-foot wa­terfall tumbled over a cliff of man-made rocks, feeding the stream that ran the length of the public concourse. As I passed the base of the falls, the rumble and splash sounded uncannily like the roar of a crowd.
Patterns of darkness and light. Darkness and light as in Viola’s dream. The shadows were cast by palm trees that rose alongside the stream.
Looking up into the queen palms, up toward the second floor of the promenade, I saw hundreds upon hundreds of bodachs gathered along the balustrade above, peering down into the open atrium.
Pressed one against the other, excited, eager, twitching and swaying, squirming like agitated spiders.
A throng of bargain-hunting shoppers filled the first floor of the promenade, browsing from store to store, unaware of the audience of malevolent spirits that was watching them with such anticipation.
My wonderful gift, my hateful gift, my terrifying gift led me along the promenade, farther south, faster, following the splash and tumble of the stream, in a frantic search for Simon Varner.
Not hundreds of bodachs. Thousands. I’d never seen such a horde as this, never imagined I ever would. They were like a celebratory Roman mob in the Colosseum, watching with delight as the Christians made unanswered prayers, waiting for the lions, for blood on the sand.
I had wondered why they had vanished from the streets. Here was the answer. Their hour had come.
As I passed a bed-and-bath store, the hard chatter of automatic gun­fire erupted from the promenade ahead of me.
The first burst proved brief. For two seconds, three, after it ended, an impossible hush fell across the mall.
Hundreds of shoppers appeared to freeze as one. Although surely the water in the stream continued to move, it seemed to spill along its course without sound. I would not have been surprised if my watch had confirmed a miraculous stoppage of time.
One scream tore the silence, and at once a multitude answered it. The gun replied to the screamers with a longer death rattle than the first.
Recklessly, I pushed southward along the promenade. Progress wasn’t easy because the panicked shoppers were running north away from the gunfire. People ricocheted off me, but I stayed on my feet, pressing toward a third burst of gunfire.
I WILL NOT TELL EVERYTHING I SAW. I WILL NOT. CANNOT. The dead deserve their dignity. The wounded, their privacy. Their loved ones, a little peace.
More to the point, I know why soldiers, home from war, seldom tell their families about their exploits in more than general terms. We who survive must go on in the names of those who fall, but if we dwell too much on the vivid details of what we’ve witnessed of man’s inhumanity to man, we simply can’t go on. Perseverance is impossible if we don’t permit ourselves to hope.
The panicked throng surged past me, and I found myself among a scattering of victims, all on the ground, dead and wounded, fewer than I expected, but too many. I saw the blond bartender from Green Moon Lanes in her work uniform… and three others. Maybe they had come to the mall for lunch before work.
Whatever I am, I am not superhuman. I bleed. I suffer. This was more than I could handle. This was Malo Suerte Lake times ten.
Cruelty has a human heart… terror the human form divine.
Not Shakespeare. William Blake. Himself a piece of work.
Scores of bodachs had descended from the upper level of the mall. They were crawling among the dead and wounded.
Whether I could handle this or not, I had no choice but to make the effort. If I walked away, I might as well kill myself right here.
The koi pond lay not far ahead. The man-made jungle surrounded it. I saw the bench on which Stormy and I had sat to eat cones of co­conut cherry chocolate chunk.
A man in a black jumpsuit, black ski mask. Big enough to be Simon Varner. Holding an assault rifle apparently modified for full - and ille­gal - automatic fire.
A few people were hiding among the palm trees, huddled in the koi pond; but most had fled the open promenade for the specialty shops, desperately taking cover there, perhaps hoping to escape by the back doors. Through the windows - -jewelry store, gift shop, art gallery, culinary shop - I could see them crowding after one another, still too visible.
In this blood-jaded age that is as violent as video games, the cruel machine language increasingly in common use would refer to this as a target-rich environment.
His back to me, Varner sprayed the fronts of those businesses with bullets. The windows of Burke & Bailey’s dissolved, cascaded into the shop in a glittering deluge.
We are destined to be together forever. We have a card that says so. We have matching birthmarks.
Sixty feet from the crazy bastard, then fifty feet and closing, I dis­covered that I was gripping the pistol. I didn’t recall drawing it from my waistband.
My gun hand was shaking, so I held it with both hands.
I’d never used a firearm. I hated guns.
You might as well pull the trigger yourself, you little shit.
I’m trying, Mother. I’m trying.
Varner exhausted the assault rifle’s extended magazine. Maybe it was already the second magazine. Like Eckles, he carried spares on a utility belt.
From forty feet, I fired a round. Missed.
Alerted by the crack of the shot, he turned toward me and ejected the depleted magazine.
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