It isn't too late.
There is still world enough, and time.
Everything hinges on making a left turn.
That is the route he had intended to take anyway.
Just turn left, as planned, and do what must be done.
Red taillights, beacons in the dismal rain. Waiting.
Joey drives through the intersection, straight ahead, passing the turnoff to Coal Valley, taking the county route all the way to the interstate.
And on the interstate, although he still invites the devil of detachment into his heart, he can't prevent himself from recalling certain things that P.J. said, statements that have a more profound meaning now than they'd had earlier: "It's so easy to destroy me, Joey ... but ... even easier just to believe." As if truth were not an objective view of the facts, as if it could be whatever a person chose to believe. And: "Don't worry about fingerprints. There aren't any to be found. I've been careful." Caution implied intent. A frightened, confused, innocent man wasn't rational enough to be cautious; he didn't take steps to ensure that he'd eradicated all the evidence linking him to a crime.
Had there been any bearded man with greasy hair—or had that been a Charles Manson-inspired convenience? If he'd hit the woman up on Pine Ridge, hit her hard enough to kill her instantly, why wasn't his car damaged?
Southbound in the night, Joey becomes increasingly distraught, and he drives faster, faster, faster, as though he believes that he can outrun all the facts and their dark implications. Then he finds the jar, loses control of the Mustang, spins out, crashes ...
... and finds himself standing by the guardrail, staring out at a field full of knee-high grass and taller weeds, not quite sure what he's doing there. Wind howling down the interstate with a sound like legions of phantom trucks hauling strange cargo.
Sleet stings his face, his hands.
Blood. A cut above his right eye.
A head injury. He touches the wound, and a brightness spirals behind his eyes, brief hot fireworks of pain.
A head injury, even one as small as this, provides infinite possibilities, not the least of which is amnesia. Memory can be a curse and a guarantee against happiness. On the other hand, forgetfulness can be a blessing, and it can even be mistaken for that most admirable of all virtues—forgiveness.
He returns to the car. He drives to the nearest hospital to have his bleeding wound stitched.
He is going to be all right.
He is going to be all right.
At college again, he attends classes for two days, but he finds no value in following the narrow highways of formal education. He is a natural autodidact anyway and will never find a teacher as demanding of him as he is of himself. Besides, if he is going to be a writer, a novelist, then he needs to acquire a fund of real-world experiences from which to draw on for the creation of his art. The stultifying atmosphere of classrooms and the outdated wisdom of textbooks will only inhibit development of his talent and stifle his creativity. He needs to venture far and wide, leave academia behind, and plunge into the turbulent river of life.
He packs his things and leaves college forever. Two days later, somewhere in Ohio, he sells the damaged Mustang to a used-car dealer, and thereafter he hitchhikes west.
Ten days after leaving college, from a desert truck stop in Utah, he drops a postcard to his parents, explaining his decision to begin the experience-gathering process that will give him the material he needs to be a writer. He tells them that they should not worry about him, that he knows what he's doing, that he'll keep in touch.
He's going to be all right. He's going to be all right.
"Of course," Joey said, still kneeling beside the dead woman in the deconsecrated church, "I was never all right again."
The rain on the roof was a mournful sound, like a dirge for her, the doubly dead, in that she died so young.
Joey said, "I drifted from place to place, job to job. Fell out of touch with everyone ... even with the dream of becoming a writer. I was too busy for dreams. Too busy playing the game of amnesia. Didn't dare see Mom and Dad ... and risk coming apart, spilling the truth."
Turning away from the deserted nave over which she had been keeping watch, returning to his side, Celeste said, "Maybe you're being too hard on yourself. Maybe the amnesia wasn't just self-delusion. The head injury could explain it."
"I wish I was able to believe that," Joey said. "But the truth is objective, not just what we'd like to make it."
"Two things I don't understand."
"If there're only two, then you're way ahead of me.'
"In the car with P.J. that night—"
"Tonight. It was twenty years ago ... but also just tonight."
"—he'd already convinced you to believe him, or at least to go along and get along. Then, after he had you in the palm of his hand, he told you he knew the dead girl. Why would he make a revelation like that when he'd already won? Why would he risk raising your suspicions again and losing you?"
"You had to know P.J. well to understand. There was always this ... dangerous quality about him. Not recklessness, not anything that anyone found truly scary in any way. Just the opposite. It added to his allure. It was a wonderful, romantic sort of dangerousness, a thing that people admired. He liked to take chances. It was most obvious on the football field. His maneuvers were often so bold and unorthodox—but they worked."
"They always said he liked to play on the edge."
"Yeah. And he enjoyed driving fast, really fast—but he could handle a car about as well as anyone in the Indy 500, never had an accident or traffic ticket. In a poker game, he'd bet everything he had on a single hand, even a bad one if the timing felt right to him—and he nearly always won. You can live dangerously, almost to any extreme, and as long as you win, as long as the risks you take pay off—then people admire you for it."
Standing over him, she put her hand on his shoulder. "I guess that also explains the other thing I didn't understand."
"The jar in the glove box," he guessed.
"Yeah. I'm assuming he put it there while you were packing your bags to go back to college."
"He must've cut out her eyes earlier in the day, kept them as a memento, for God's sake. I'm sure he thought it would be funny to put them in my car and let me find them later. Test the strength of our bond."
"After he'd convinced you he was innocent, persuaded you to let him dispose of the body, he was crazy ever to let you see the eyes—let alone give them to you."
"He couldn't resist the thrill. The danger. Walking that thin line along the edge of disaster. And you see—he pulled it off again. He got away with it. I let him win."
"He acts like he thinks he's blessed."
"Maybe he is," Joey said.
"By what god?"
"There's no god involved."
Celeste stepped past him onto the altar platform, moved to the far side of the dead woman, pocketed the screwdriver and flashlight, and knelt. Facing him across the body, she said, "We have to look at her face."
Joey grimaced. "Why?"
"P.J. didn't tell you her name, but he said she's from here in Coal Valley. I probably know her."
"That'll make it even harder on you."
"There's no choice but to look, Joey," she persisted. "If we know who she is, we might have a clue about what he's up to, where he's gone."
They found it necessary to roll the body on its side to pull free a loose end of the plastic tarp. They eased the dead woman onto her back again before uncovering her face.
A thick fall of blood-spotted blond hair mercifully veiled her ravaged features.
With one hand Celeste carefully pushed the hair aside with a tenderness that Joey found deeply touching. Simultaneously, with her other hand, she crossed herself and said, "In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, amen."
Joey tilted his head back and stared at the sanctuary ceiling, not because he hoped to get a glimpse of the Trinity, whose names she had intoned, but because he couldn't bear to look into the empty sockets.
"There's a gag in her mouth," Celeste told him. "One of those things you wash a car with—chamois. I think ... yes, her ankles are tied with wire. She wasn't running from any crazed mountain man."
"Her name's Beverly Korshak," Celeste said. "She was a few years older than me. A nice girl. Friendly. She still lived with her folks, but they sold out to the government here and moved into a house in Asherville last month. Beverly had a secretarial job there, at the electric-company office. Her folks are good friends with my folks. Known them a long, long time. Phil and Sylvie Korshak. This is going to be hard on them, real hard."
Joey still stared at the ceiling. "P.J. must've seen her in Asherville earlier today. Stopped to chat her up. She wouldn't have hesitated to get in the car with apparently."
"Let's cover her," Celeste said.
"You do it."
He wasn't squeamish about what her eyeless face might look like. He was afraid, instead, that in her empty sockets he would somehow be able to see her blue eyes, still intact, as they had been in the last moments of her terrible agony, when she had screamed for help through the wadded rag in her mouth and had known that no savior would answer her pleas.
The plastic rustled.
"You amaze me," he said.
"I'm here to help you, that's all."
"I thought I was here to help you."
"Maybe it's both ways."
The rustling stopped.
"Okay," Celeste assured him.
He lowered his head and saw what he first thought was blood on the floor of the altar platform. It had been revealed when they shifted the position of the corpse.
On second look, however, Joey realized that it was not blood but paint from a spray can. Someone had written the number 1 and drawn a circle around it.
"You see this?" he asked Celeste, as she rose to her feet on the other side of the dead woman.
"Yeah. Something to do with the demolition plans."
"I don't think so."
"Sure. Must be. Or maybe just kids vandalizing the place. They painted more of them back there," she said, gesturing in the general direction of the nave.
He got up, turned, and frowned at the dimly lighted church. "Where?"
"The first row of pews," she said.
Against the dark wood backs of the benches, the red paint was difficult to read from a distance.
After picking up the crowbar, Joey swung his legs over the presbytery balustrade, dropped into the three-sided choir enclosure, and went to the sanctuary railing.
He heard Celeste following him, but by way of the ambulatory.
On the front pew to the left of the center aisle, a series of sequential numbers, circled in red, had been painted side by side. They were spaced approximately as people would have been if any had been sitting there. Farthest to the left was the number 2, and the last number, nearest the center aisle, was 6.
Joey felt as though spiders were crawling on the back of his neck, but his hand found none there.
On the pew to the right of the center aisle, the red numbers continued in sequence—7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12—to the far side of the church.
"Twelve," he brooded.
Joining him at the sanctuary railing, Celeste said softly, "What's wrong?"
"The woman on the altar ..."
He stared intently at the red numbers on the pews, which now seemed as radiant as signs of the Apocalypse.
"Joey? What about her? What is it?"
Joey was still puzzling it out, standing in the shadow of truth but not quite able to see the whole icy structure of it. "He painted the number one and then put her on top of it."
A hard blast of wind battered the old church, and a draft swept through the nave. The faintly lingering scent of stale incense and the stronger smell of mildew were swept away, and the draft brought with it the stink of sulfur.
Joey said, "Do you have any brothers or sisters?"
Clearly puzzled by the question, she shook her head. "No."
"Does anyone else live with you and your folks, like maybe a grandparent, anyone?"
"No. Just the three of us."
"Beverly's one of twelve."
He pointed at Celeste, and his hand shook. "Then your family—two, three, four. Who else still lives in Coal Valley?"
"How many of them?"
"Five in their family."
"John and Beth Bimmer. John's mother, Hannah, lives with them."
"Three. Three Bimmers, five Dolans, plus you and your folks. Eleven. Plus her, there on the altar." With a sweep of his hand, he indicated the numbers on the pews. "Twelve."
"I don't need any psychic flash to see where he's going with this one. The number twelve must appeal to him for the obvious reason. Twelve apostles, all dead and lined up in a deconsecrated church. All of them paying silent homage not to God but to the thirteenth apostle. That's how P.J. sees himself, I think—as the thirteenth apostle, Judas. The Betrayer."
Still holding the crowbar, he pushed open the sacristy gate and returned to the nave.
He touched one of the numbers on the left-hand pew. In places, the paint was still tacky.
"Judas. Betraying his family," Joey said, "betraying the faith he was raised in, with reverence for nothing, loyal to nothing, to no one. Fearing nothing, not even God. Walking the most dangerous line of them all, taking the biggest imaginable risk to get the greatest of all thrills: risking his soul for a ... for a dance along the edge of damnation."
Celeste moved close to Joey, pressed against his side, needing the comfort of contact. "He's setting up ... some sort of a symbolic tableau?"
"With corpses," Joey said. "He intends to kill everyone who still lives in Coal Valley before the night is through and bring their bodies here."
She paled. "Did that come to pass?"
He didn't understand. "Come to pass?"
"In the future that you've already lived—were all the people in Coal Valley killed?"
With a shock, Joey realized that he didn't know the answer to her question.