In less than two minutes, as I quickly scanned this montage of mementos from Johnny’s scrapbook, my claustrophobia had been pressed out of me by a more fundamental, more visceral terror. The faint but constant electronic hum, the trainlike rumble, and the less frequent but fearsome keening combined to mask any sounds that we made as we approached the killer’s lair, but the same cacophony might screen the sounds that Johnny made as he crept up on us.
I was the last in our procession, and each time I glanced back the way we had come—which was about every ten seconds—I was certain old Johnny Randolph would be there, about to strike at me, slithering snakelike on his belly or crawling spiderlike across the ceiling.
Evidently, he had been a brutal killer all his life. Was he now becoming? Was that why he snatched these kids and squirreled them away in this weird place—in addition to the desire for revenge on those who had proved he’d killed his parents and had locked him away? If a good man like Father Tom could spiral so far down into madness and savagery, how much farther into the heart of darkness could John Randolph descend? What unthinkable beast might he become, considering where he’d started?
In retrospect, I realize that I was encouraging my imagination to spin even further out of control than usual, because as long as it was feverishly conjuring crawly fears of bizarro Johnny, it wasn’t able to taunt me with images of Bobby Halloway alone and helpless, bleeding to death in the elevator alcove.
Following Sasha, Doogie, and Roosevelt, I swiftly played the infrared beam over the final cluster of clippings.
Two years ago, the frequency of these killings increased. Judging by the presentation on this wall, they were occurring every three months. The headlines roared of sensational mass murders, not of solitary victims anymore: three to six souls per pop.
Perhaps this was when Johnny had decided to bring in a partner: the stocky charmer who had so earnestly endeavored to give me some skull exercise in the hallway under the warehouse. Where do tandem killers meet? Probably not at church. How do they decide to divide the labor, or do they just take turns sweeping up after?
With a fun partner, perhaps, Johnny had expanded his territory, and the clippings showed him venturing as far as Connecticut and then south to sunny Georgia. On to Florida. A jaunt over to Louisiana. A long ride up to the Dakotas. Travelin’ man.
Johnny’s weapons of choice had changed: no more hammers, no lengths of iron pipe, no knives, no meat cleavers, no ice picks, no hatchets, not even any labor-saving chain saws or power drills. These days the lad favored fire.
And these days his victims fit a clear, consistent profile. For the past two years, they had all been children.
Were they all the children or grandchildren of people who had once crossed him? Or perhaps until these latest abductions, he’d been motivated solely by the thrill of it.
I was more than ever frightened for the four kids now in John Joseph Randolph’s hands. I took some cold comfort from the knowledge that, according to the clippings in this demonic gallery, when he committed these atrocities against groups of victims, he destroyed them all at once, in a single fire, as if making a burnt offering. Therefore, if one of the kidnapped children was alive, then all were probably still alive.
We had assumed that the disappearances of Jimmy Wing and the other three were related to the gene-swapping retrovirus and to the events at Wyvern. But not all the evil in the world arises directly from my mom’s work. John Joseph Randolph had been busy prepping for Hell from at least his twelfth year, and perhaps what I’d suggested to Bobby last night was true: Randolph might have imprisoned these children here for no other reason than that he had stumbled upon the place and enjoyed the atmosphere, the satanic architecture.
The gallery ended with two startling items.
Taped to the wall was a sheet of art paper bearing the likeness of a crow. The crow. The crow on the rock at the top of Crow Hill. This was an impression that had been made by pressing the paper over the incised stone and rubbing it with graphite until the image appeared.
Beside the crow was a Mystery Train patch of the kind that we’d seen on the breast of William Hodgson’s spacesuit.
Already, then, Wyvern was back in the picture. There was a connection between Randolph and top-secret research conducted on the base, but the link might not be my mother or her retrovirus.
A rock of truth was visible in this sea of confusion, and I strove to get a grip on it, but my mind was exhausted, weak, and the rock was slippery.
John Joseph Randolph wasn’t merely becoming. Maybe he wasn’t becoming at all. His connection to Wyvern was more complex than that.
I dimly remembered a story about a wacko kid killing his folks in a house on the edge of town, out along Haddenbeck Road, a lot of years ago, but if I’d ever known his name, I’d long forgotten it. Moonlight Bay was a conservative community, assiduously well groomed for tourists; the citizens preferred to talk up the fine scenery and the seductively easy lifestyle, while playing down the negatives. Johnny Randolph, self-made orphan, would never have been featured in the chamber of commerce literature or written up in the Mobil Guide under local historical figures.
If he’d returned to Moonlight Bay as an adult, long before the recent child snatchings, to work or live here, that would have been major news. The past would have been dredged up, and I would have known all the gossip.
He might, of course, have come back under a new name, having legally changed from John Joseph Randolph with the sanction of the doting therapists at the facility where he’d been incarcerated, in the interest of putting his troubled past behind him and starting his life anew, with a healed heart and enhanced self-esteem and blah-blah-blah. Fully grown, no longer recognizable as the infamous dad-blasting, mom-chopping twelve-year-old, he might have walked unknown on the streets of his hometown. He might have gone to work at Fort Wyvern in some capacity associated with the Mystery Train.
John Joseph Randolph.
The name still gnawed at me.
Now, as Mungojerrie led us along the final length of this tunnel, which appeared to be a dead end, I took one last look at the gallery—and thought I grasped the purpose of it.
Initially it had seemed to be a bragging wall, the equivalent of a star athlete’s trophy case, a display that would make Johnny tuck his thumbs in his armpits, puff out his chest, and strut. Homicidal sociopaths are proud of their handiwork but can seldom risk opening their scrapbooks and grisly souvenir collections for the admiration of family and neighbors; they are forced to preen privately.
Then I had thought the gallery was nothing more than pornography to titillate a radically twisted mind. To this freak, the newspaper headlines might be the equivalent of obscene dialogue. The victim and crime-scene photographs might get him off more readily than any triple-X adult film ever made.
But now I saw that the display was an offering. His whole life was an offering. The murder of his parents, the single killing every twelve months, his three hundred sixty-four days of stern self-denial each year, and recently the storm of child murders. Burnt offerings. As I studied the vile gallery, I didn’t know to whom these terrible gifts were made, or for what purpose; although even at that point, I would have been willing to hazard a guess.
The tunnel ended at a fully deployed, eight-foot-diameter gate valve, which had once been operated by an electric motor.
When Doogie set aside his machine pistol and hooked his fingers into a groove on the face of the valve, without the aid of a motor he was able to roll the barrier aside almost as easily as he would have retracted a sliding door. Although unused for more than two years, it traveled in its recessed tracks with only a little noise, which was, in any case, lost in the increasingly ominous sounds that rumbled and squealed through these drained guts of the “temporal relocator.”
Oddly enough, I thought of the awestricken, shipwrecked seamen who had been rescued by Captain Nemo in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and then given a tour of the labyrinthine mechanical bowels of the megalomaniac’s Nautilus. Eventually they might have felt enough at home aboard that leviathan of a submarine to break out the hornpipe, play a tune, and dance a sprightly jig; but even the most gregarious and adaptable of folks, left to prowl the seemingly endless metal intestines here below the egg room, would forever feel that they were in alien and hostile territory.
Although Doogie opened the doorlike valve only three feet, lamplight poured through from a space beyond, flaring with blinding power in my infrared lenses.
I raised the goggles to my brow, switched off the infrared flashlight and jammed it under my belt. The lamplight wasn’t as bright as I had expected; the lenses had exaggerated it, because they weren’t meant to function in the ultraviolet spectrum. The others pulled up their goggles, too.
Beyond the gate valve was a fourteen-or sixteen-foot length of tunnel, clad in seamlessly butted sleeves of brushed stainless steel, terminating in a second valve, identical to the first. This one was already open approximately as far as Doogie had opened the first; the goggle-defeating UV light issued from the room beyond.
Sasha and Roosevelt remained at the first valve. Armed with the .38, Sasha would make sure that no one came along behind us to block what might be our only exit. Roosevelt, whose left eye was swelling again, stayed with her because he wasn’t armed and because he was our essential link to the cat.
The mouser hung with Sasha and Roosevelt, keeping safely out of the forward action. We hadn’t dropped a trail of bread crumbs on the way in, and we weren’t a hundred percent certain that we could find the route back to Bobby and the elevator without feline guidance.
I followed Doogie to the inner gate valve.
After peering into the space beyond the gate, he raised two fingers to suggest that there were only two people in there about whom we needed to worry. He indicated that he would go first, moving immediately to the right after entering, and that I should follow, going to the left.
As soon as he cleared the doorway, I slipped into the room, with the shotgun thrust in front of me.
The Twilight-of-the-Gods rumble, rattle, bang, and skreek that shook down through the entire facility, from roof to bedrock, was muffled here, and the only light came from an eight-battery storm lamp sitting on a card table.
This chamber was similar in shape to the egg room three floors overhead, though this was much smaller, about thirty feet long and fifteen feet in diameter at its widest point. The curving surfaces were sheathed not in that glassy, gold-flecked substance but in what appeared to be ordinary copper.
My heart soared when I saw the four missing children sitting with their backs to the wall in the shadows at one end of the room. They were exhausted and frightened. Their small wrists and ankles were bound, and their mouths were covered with strips of cloth tape. They were not visibly injured, however, and their eyes widened with amazement at the sight of Doogie and me.
Then I spotted Orson, lying on his side, near the kids, muzzled and restrained. His eyes were open, and he was breathing. Alive. Before my vision could blur, I looked away from him.
In the center of the room, frozen by Doogie’s gun, two men sat in padded folding chairs, facing each other across the card table that held the storm lamp. In this stark tableau, they reminded me of characters in a stripped-down stage set from one of those stultifying minimalist plays about boredom, isolation, emotional disconnection, the futility of modern relationships, and the sobering philosophical implications of the cheeseburger.
The guy on the right was the abb who had tried to brain me with a two-by-four under the warehouse. He was wearing the same clothes he’d been wearing then, and he still had those tiny white teeth, although his smile was considerably more strained than it had been previously, as though he had just discovered a corn worm among that mouthful of white kernels.
I wanted to pump one shot into his mug, because I sensed not just smugness in the geek, but also vanity. After he took a magnum round at such close range, the only word adequate to describe his face would also spur on a dogsled team.
The man on the left was tall, blond, with pale green eyes and a puckered scar, in his mid-fifties. He was the one who had snatched the Stuart twins—and his smile was as winning as it had been when he was a boy of twelve with the blood of his parents on his hands.
John Joseph Randolph was unnervingly self-possessed, as if our arrival neither startled nor concerned him. “How’re you doing, Chris?”
I was surprised he knew my name. I’d never seen him before.
Whispery echoes of his voice were conducted like a current along the copper walls, one word overlaying the next: “Your mother, Wisteria—she was a great woman.”
I couldn’t understand how he knew my mother. Instinct told me that I didn’t want to know. A shotgun blast would silence him, and scour that smile off his face—the smile with which he charmed the innocent and the unwary—turning it into a lipless death’s-head grin.
“She was deadlier than Mother Nature,” he said.
Renaissance men ponder, brood, and analyze the complex moral consequences of their actions, preferring persuasion and negotiation to violence. Evidently, I’d forgotten to renew my membership in the Renaissance Man Club, and they had repossessed my principles, because all I wanted to do was blow away this butchering creep—and with extreme prejudice.
Or maybe I’m just becoming.
It’s the rage these days.
With my heart made brittle by bitterness, I might have pulled the trigger if the kids hadn’t been there to witness the carnage. I was also inhibited because the copper skin on the curved walls was guaranteed to spin deadly ricochets in all directions. My soul was saved not by the purity of my morals but by circumstances, which is a humbling confession.
With the barrel of the Uzi, Doogie gestured at the playing cards in the two men’s hands. “What’s the game?” His voice echoed tinnily around the curved copper walls.
I didn’t like these two men’s watchful calm. I wanted to see fear in their eyes.
Now Randolph turned his hand of cards faceup on the table and replied to Doogie’s question with too much dry amusement. “Poker.”
Before Doogie decided how best to restrain the card-players, he needed to determine, if he could, whether they had guns. They were wearing jackets that could conceal shoulder holsters. With nothing to lose, they might do something reckless—like take wild shots at the kids, rather than at us, before they themselves were cut down, hoping to kill one more tender victim just to go out on a final thrill.
With four children in the room, we didn’t dare make a mistake.
“If not for Wisteria,” Randolph said, addressing me, “Del Stuart would have pulled the plug on my financing long before he did.”
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