I fired again, missed again. In the movies they never miss from this distance. Unless it’s the hero being shot at, in which case they miss from five feet. Simon Varner was no hero. I didn’t know what I was doing.
He did. He plucked a fresh magazine from the utility belt. He was practiced, swift, and calm.
With the pistol I had taken from him, Eckles had used six rounds on the security guards. I had expended two. Only two left.
From about thirty feet, I squeezed off a third shot.
Varner took the hit in his left shoulder, but it didn’t drop him. He rocked, he recovered, he jammed the fresh magazine into the rifle.
Jittering, thrashing with excitement, scores of bodachs swarmed around me, around Varner. They were solid to me, invisible to him; they obstructed my view of him but not his view of me.
Earlier in the day, I had wondered if maybe I might be crazy. Issue settled. I am totally bugshit.
Running straight at him, through bodachs as opaque as black satin but as insubstantial as shadows, pistol held out stiff-armed in front of me, determined not to waste my final round, I saw the muzzle of the assault rifle coming up, and I knew that he would cut me down, but I waited one more step, and then one more, before I squeezed the trig­ger point-blank.
Whatever grotesque transformation occurred in his face, the ski mask concealed it, but the mask couldn’t entirely contain the spray.
He went down as hard as the Prince of Darkness himself had been cast out of Heaven, into Hell. The weapon clattered out of his hand.
I kicked the assault rifle a few feet away from him, out of his reach. When I stooped to examine him, there was no question that he was carrion. POD was DOA.
Nevertheless, I returned to the rifle and kicked it even farther from him. Then I followed it and kicked it farther still, and again.
The pistol in my hand was useless. I threw it aside.
As if I were suddenly standing on high ground, as if they were black water, the bodachs flowed away from me, seeking the spectacle of dead and dying victims.
I felt as if I might throw up. I went to the edge of the koi pond and dropped to my knees.
Although the motion of the colorful fish ought to have turned me inside out, the nausea passed in a moment. I didn’t purge, but as I got to my feet, I started to cry
Inside the stores, beyond the shot-out windows, people dared to raise their heads.
We are destined to be together forever. We have a card that says so. Gypsy Mummy is never wrong.
Trembling, sweating, wiping tears from my eyes with the backs of my hands, half sick with an expectation of unbearable loss, I started toward Burke &Bailey’s.
People had risen to their feet from the ruination in the ice-cream shop. Some began to make their way cautiously across the broken glass, returning to the promenade.
I didn’t see Stormy among them. She might have fled back to the storeroom, to her office, when the shooting started.
Suddenly I was overwhelmed by the need to move, move, move. I turned away from Burke & Bailey’s and took several steps toward the
department store at the south end of the mall. I stopped, confused. For a moment, I thought I must be in denial, that I was trying to run from what I might find in the ice-cream shop.
No. I felt the subtle but unmistakable pull. Psychic magnetism. Drawing me. I’d assumed that I had finished the job. Evidently not.
THIS DEPARTMENT STORE STYLED ITSELF MORE UPSCALE than the one in which Viola had bought the Rollerblades. The crap they sold here was of a more refined quality than the crap they sold in the store at the north end of the mall
I passed through a perfume and makeup department with beveled-glass cabinets and glamorous displays that not so subtly implied the merchandise was as valuable as diamonds.
The jewelry department dazzled with black granite, stainless steel, and Starfire glass, as if it offered not common diamonds but baubles from God’s own collection.
Although the gunfire had fallen silent, shoppers and employees still sheltered behind counters, behind marble-clad columns. They dared to peek at me as I strode among them, but many flinched and ducked out of sight again.
Even though I didn’t have a gun, I must have appeared to be dan­gerous. Or maybe I only seemed to be in a state of shock. They weren’t taking any chances. I didn’t blame them for hiding from me.
Still crying, blotting my eyes with my hands, I was also talking
aloud to myself. I couldn’t stop talking to myself, and I wasn’t even say­ing anything coherent.
I didn’t know where psychic magnetism might be taking me next, didn’t know if Stormy was alive or dead in Burke &Bailey’s. I wanted to go back to find her, but I continued to be drawn urgently forward by my demanding gift. My body language was marked by tics, twitches, hesitations, and sudden rushes of new purpose. I must have looked not just spastic but psychotic.
Sweet-faced, sleepy-eyed Simon Varner didn’t have such a sweet face anymore, or sleepy eyes. Dead in front of Burke & Bailey’s.
So maybe I was tracking something related to Varner. I couldn’t guess what that might be. This compulsion to keep moving without a dearly defined quarry was new to me.
Among racks of cocktail dresses, silk blouses, silk jackets, hand­bags, I hurried at last to a door marked EMPLOYEES ONLY. Beyond lay a storeroom. Directly across from the door by which I entered, another led to a concrete stairwell.
The layout was familiar from the department store at the north end of the mall. The stairs led down to a corridor where I passed employee-only elevators and came to oversize swinging doors marked RECEIVING.
This room reflected a thriving enterprise, though it didn’t quite equal the size of the one at the north-end store. Merchandise on racks and carts awaited processing, prepping, and transfer to stockrooms and sales floors.
Numerous employees were present, but work appeared to have come to a halt. Most had gathered around a sobbing woman, and oth­ers were crossing the room toward her. Down here where no shots could have been heard, news of the horror in the mall had now ar­rived.
Only one truck stood in the receiving room: not a full semi, about
an eighteen-footer, with no company name on the cab doors or the sides of the trailer. I moved toward it.
A burly guy with a shaved head and a handlebar mustache braced me as I reached the vehicle. ‘Are you with this truck?”
Without responding, I pulled open the driver’s door and climbed into the cab. The keys weren’t in the ignition.
“Where’s your driver,” he asked.
When I popped open the glove box, I found it empty. Not even the registration or proof of insurance required by California law.
“I’m the shift foreman here,” the burly guy said. ‘Are you deaf or just difficult?”
Nothing on the seats. No trash container on the floor. No scrap of discarded candy wrapper. No air freshener or decorative geegaw hanging from the mirror.
This didn’t have the feel of a truck that anyone drove for a living or in which anyone spent a significant amount of his day.
When I got out from behind the steering wheel, the foreman said, “Where’s your driver? He didn’t leave me a manifest, and the box is locked.”
I went around to the back of the truck, which featured a roll-up door on the cargo trailer. A key lock in the base bar of the door se­cured it to a channel in the truck bed.
“I’ve got other shipments due,” he said. “I can’t let this just sit here.”
“Do you have a power drill?” I asked.
“What’re you going to do?”
“Drill out the lock.”
“You’re not the guy drove this in here. Are you his crew?”
“Police,” I lied. “Off duty.”
He was dubious.
Pointing to the sobbing woman around whom so many workers had now gathered, I said, “You hear what she’s been saying?”
“I was on my way over there when I saw you.”
“Two maniacs with machine guns shot up the mall.”
His face drained of color so dramatically that even his blond mus­tache seemed to whiten.
“You hear they shot Chief Porter last night?” I asked. “That was prep for this.”
With rapidly growing dread, I studied the ceiling of the immense receiving room. Three floors of the department store were stacked on top of it, supported by its massive columns.
Scared people were hiding from the gunmen up there. Hundreds and hundreds of people.
“Maybe,” I said, “the bastards came here with something even worse than machine guns.”
“Oh, shit. I’ll get a drill.” He sprinted for it.
After placing both hands flat against the roll-up door on the cargo box for a moment, I then leaned my forehead against it.
I don’t know what I expected to feel. In fact, I felt nothing unusual. Psychic magnetism still pulled me, however. What I wanted wasn’t the truck but what was in the truck.
The foreman returned with the drill and tossed me a pair of safety goggles. Electrical outlets were recessed in the concrete floor at con­venient intervals across the receiving room. He plugged the drill into the nearest of these, and the cord provided more than sufficient play.
The tool had heft. I liked the industrial look of the bit. The motor shrieked with satisfying power.
When I bored into the key channel, shavings of metal clicked off my goggles, stung my face. The bit itself deteriorated, but punched through the lock in mere seconds.
As I dropped the drill and stripped off the goggles, someone shouted from a distance. “Hey! Leave that alone!”
Along the elevated loading dock - no one. Then I saw him. Outside the receiving room, twenty feet beyond the foot of the long truck ramp.
“That’s the driver,” the foreman told me.
He was a stranger. He must have been watching, perhaps through binoculars, from out in the employee garage, past the three lanes that served the loading docks.
Seizing the two grips, I shoved up the door. Well-oiled and effi­ciently counterweighted, the panel rose smoothly and quickly out of the way.
The truck was packed with what appeared to be hundreds of kilos of plastic explosive.
A gun cracked twice, one slug cried off the truck frame, people in the receiving room screamed, and the foreman ran.
I glanced back. The driver hadn’t come any closer to the foot of the ramp. He had a pistol, maybe not the best weapon for such a long shot.
On the truck bed in front of the explosives were a mechanical kitchen timer, two copper-top batteries, curious bits and pieces that I didn’t recognize, and a nest of wires. Two of the wires ended in cop­per jacks that were plugged into that gray wall of death.
With a shrill kiss of metal on metal, a third shot ricocheted off the truck.
I heard the foreman fire up a nearby forklift.
The coven hadn’t rigged the cargo to explode when the door was opened because they had set it on such a short countdown that they didn’t think anyone could get at it fast enough to disable it. The timer had a thirty-minute dial, and the ticking indicator hand was three min­utes from zero.
Click: two minutes.
The fourth shot hit me in the back. I didn’t at once feel pain, only the jolting impact, which drove me against the truck, my face inches from the timer.
Maybe it was the fifth shot, maybe the sixth, that slapped into one of the bricks of plastic explosive with a flat, wet sound.
A bullet wouldn’t trigger it. Only an electrical charge.
The two detonation wires were set six or eight inches apart. Was one positive and the other negative? Or was one just a backup in case the first wire failed to carry the detonating pulse? I didn’t know if I had to yank out just one or both.
Maybe it was the sixth shot, maybe the seventh, that again tore into my back. This time pain hammered me, plenty of it, excruciating.
As I sagged from the brutal impact of the bullet, I seized both wires, and as I fell backward, I jerked them out of the explosives, pulling the timer and the batteries and the entire detonator package with me.
Turning as I fell, I hit the floor on my side, facing the truck ramp. The shooter had ascended farther to get a better shot.
Though he could have finished me with one additional round, he turned away and sprinted down the ramp.
The foreman roared past me and descended the ramp in a forklift, somewhat protected from gunfire by the raised cargo tines and their armature.
I didn’t believe that the shooter had fled from the forklift. He wanted to get out of there because he couldn’t quite see what I had done to the detonator. He intended to escape the underground docks and the garage, and get as far away as luck allowed.
Worried people hurried to me.
The kitchen timer still functioned. It lay on the floor, inches from my face. Click: one minute.
Already my pain was subsiding; however, I was cold. Surprisingly
cold. The underground loading docks and the receiving room relied on passive cooling, no air conditioning, yet I was positively chilly.
People were kneeling beside me, talking to me. They seemed to be speaking a host of foreign languages because I couldn’t understand what they were saying.
Funny - to be so cold in the Mojave.
I never heard the kitchen timer click to zero.
STORMY LLEWELLYN AND I HAD MOVED ON FROM BOOT camp to our second of three lives. We were having great adventures together in the next world.
Most were lovely romantic journeys to exotic misty places, with amusing incidents full of eccentric characters, including Mr. Indiana Jones, who would not admit that he was really Harrison Ford, and Luke Skywalker, and even my Aunt Cymry, who greatly resembled Jabba the Hutt but was wonderfully nice, and Elvis, of course,
Other experiences were stranger, darker, full of thunder and the smell of blood and slinking packs of bodachs with whom my mother sometimes ran on all fours.
From time to time I would be aware of God and His angels looking down upon me from the sky of this new world. They had huge, loom­ing faces that were a cool, pleasant shade of green - occasionally white - though they had no features other than their eyes. With no mouths or noses, they should have been frightening, but they pro­jected love and caring, and I always tried to smile at them before they dissolved back into the clouds.
Eventually I regained enough clarity of mind to realize that I had come through surgery and was in a hospital bed in a cubicle in the intensive-care unit at County General.
I had not been promoted from boot camp, after all.
God and the angels had been doctors and nurses behind their masks. Cymry, wherever she might be, probably didn’t resemble Jabba the Hutt in the least.
When a nurse entered my cubicle in response to changes in the telemetry data from my heart monitor, she said, “Look who’s awake. Do you know your name?”
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