"After that night, I pretty much stopped reading newspapers, news magazines. Avoided TV news. Changed stations on the radio every time a news report came on. Told myself that I was burnt out on news, that it was all just airplane crashes and floods and fires and earthquakes. But what it really must have been ... I didn't want to read about or hear about any women being mutilated, murdered. Didn't want to risk some detail of a crime—eyes cut out, anything like that—making a subconscious connection for me and maybe blowing away my 'amnesia.'
"So for all you know—it happened. For all you know—they found twelve dead people in this church, lined up on the front pews, one of them on the altar platform."
"If it did come to pass—if that's what they found—no one ever nailed P.J. for it. Because in my future, he's still on the loose."
"Jesus. Mom and Dad." She pushed away from him and ran down the center aisle toward the back of the nave.
He rushed after her, through the narthex, through the open front doors, into the sleety night.
She slipped on the icy walkway, fell to one knee, scrambled up, and hurried on, rounding the car to the passenger side.
As he reached the driver's door of the Mustang, Joey heard a rumble that first seemed to be thunder—but then he realized that the sound was coming from beneath him, from under the street.
Celeste looked worriedly at him across the roof of the car. "Subsidence."
The rumble built, the street trembled as though a freight train were passing through a tunnel under them, and then both the shaking and the ominous sound faded away.
A section of a burning mine tunnel had collapsed.
Glancing around them, seeing no disturbance of the ground, Joey said, "Where?"
"Must be somewhere else in town. Come on, come on, hurry," she urged, getting into the car.
Behind the wheel, starting the engine, afraid that a sudden fissure in the street might swallow the Mustang and drop them into fire, Joey said, "Subsidence, huh?"
"I've never felt it that bad. Could be right under us but very deep, so far down that it didn't affect the surface."
EVEN THOUGH THE TIRES HAD WINTER TREAD, THEY SPUN USELESSLY A couple of times on the way to Celeste's place, but Joey concluded the short trip without sliding into anything. The Baker house was white with green trim and had two dormer windows on the second floor.
He and Celeste ran clumsily across the lawn to the front-porch steps, avoiding the walkway, which was far more treacherous than the frozen grass.
Lights glowed throughout the downstairs, glittering in laces of ice that filigreed some of the windows. The porch lamp was on as well.
They should have entered with caution, because P.J. might have gotten there ahead of them. They had no way of knowing which of the three families he intended to visit first.
But Celeste was in a panic about her folks, so she unlocked the door and plunged heedlessly into the short front hall, calling out to them as she entered. "Mom! Daddy! Where are you? Mom!"
No one answered.
Aware that any attempt to restrain the girl would prove futile, brandishing the crowbar at every shadow and imagined movement, Joey followed close behind her as she burst through doorways and flung open those doors that were closed, shouting for her mother and father with increasing terror. Four rooms downstairs and four up. One and a half bathrooms. The place wasn't a mansion by any definition, but it was better than any home that Joey had ever known, and everywhere there were books.
Celeste checked her own bedroom last, but her parents weren't there, either. "He's got them," she said frantically.
"No. I don't think so. Look around you—there aren't any signs of violence here no indications of a struggle. And I don't think they would have gone out with him anywhere willingly, not in this weather."
"Then where are they?"
"If they'd had to go somewhere unexpectedly, would they leave a note for you?"
Without answering, she spun around, dashed into the hall, and descended the stairs two at a time to the ground floor.
Joey caught up with her in the kitchen, where she was reading a message that was pinned to a corkboard beside the refrigerator.
Bev didn't come home from Mass this morning.
No one knows where she is. The sheriff is
looking for her. We've gone over to Asherville
to sit with Phil and Sylvie. They're half out
of their minds with worry. I'm sure it's all
going to turn out fine. Whatever happens,
we'll be home before midnight. Hope you had
a nice time at Linda's place. Keep the doors
locked. Don't worry. Bev will turn up. God
won't let anything happen to her. Love, Mom
Turning from the corkboard, Celeste glanced at the wall clock—only 9:02—and said, "Thank God, he can't get his hands on them."
"Hands." Joey suddenly remembered. "Let me see your hands."
She held them out to him.
The previously frightful stigmata in her palms had faded to vague bruises.
"We must be making right decisions," he said with a shiver of relief. "We're changing fate—your fate, at least. We've just got to keep on keeping on."
When he looked up from her hands to her face, he saw her eyes widen at the sight of something over his shoulder. Heart leaping, he swung toward the danger, raising the iron crowbar.
"No," she said, "just the telephone." She stepped to the wall phone. "We can call for help. The sheriff's office. Let them know where they can find Bev, get them looking for P.J."
The telephone was an old-fashioned rotary model. Joey hadn't seen one of those in a long time. Curiously, more than anything else, it convinced him that he was, indeed, twenty years in the past.
Celeste dialed the operator, then jiggled the cradle in which the handset had been hanging. "No dial tone."
"All this wind, ice—the lines might be down."
"No. It's him. He cut the lines."
Joey knew that she was right.
She slammed down the phone and headed out of the kitchen. "Come on. We can do better than the crowbar."
In the den, she went to the oak desk and took the gun-cabinet key from the center drawer.
Two walls were lined with books. Running one hand over their brightly colored spines, Joey said, "Just tonight, I finally realized ... when P.J. conned me into letting him ... letting him get away with murder, he stole my future."
Opening the glass door of the gun cabinet, she said, "What do you mean?"
"I wanted to be a writer. That's all I ever wanted to be. But what a novelist is always trying to do ... if he's any good, he's trying to get at the truth of things. How could I hope to get at the truth of things, be a writer, when I couldn't even face up to the truth about my brother? He left me with nowhere to go, no future. And he became the writer."
She removed a shotgun from the rack in the cabinet and put it on the desk. "Remington. Twenty-gauge. Pump action. Nice gun. So tell me something—how could he be a writer if it's supposed to be all about dealing with truth? He's only about lies and deceit. Is he a good writer?"
"Everyone says he is."
She took another shotgun from the cabinet and put it on the desk beside the first weapon. "Remington too. My dad's partial to the brand. Twelve-gauge. Pretty walnut stock, isn't it? I didn't ask you what everyone else says. What do you think? Is he any good as a novelist—in this future of yours?"
"So what. Doesn't necessarily mean he's good."
"He's won a lot of awards, and I've always pretended to think he's good. But ... I've really never felt he was much good at all."
Crouching, pulling open a drawer in the bottom of the cabinet, quickly pawing through the contents, she said, "So tonight you take your future back—and you will be good."
In one corner stood a gray metal box the size of a briefcase. It was ticking.
"What's that thing in the corner?" Joey asked.
"It monitors carbon monoxide and other toxic gases seeping up from the mine fires. There's one in the basement. This room isn't over the basement, it's an add-on, so it has a monitor of its own."
"An alarm goes off?"
"Yeah, if there's too many fumes." In the drawer she found two boxes of ammunition. She put them on the desk. "Every house in Coal Valley was equipped with them years ago."
"It's like living on a bomb."
"Yeah. But with a long, slow fuse."
"Why haven't you moved out?"
"Bureaucrats. Paperwork. Processing delays. If you move out before the government has the papers ready to sign, then they declare the house abandoned, a public danger, and they aren't willing to pay as much for it. You have to live here, take the risk, let it happen at their pace if you want to get a halfway fair price."
Opening one of the boxes of shells as Celeste opened the other, Joey said, "You know how to use these guns?"
"I've been going skeet-shooting and hunting with my dad since I was thirteen."
"You don't seem like a hunter to me," he said as he loaded the 20-gauge.
"Never killed anything. Always aim to miss."
"Your dad never noticed that?"
"Funny thing is—whether it's shotguns or rifles, whether it's small game or deer, he always aims to miss too. Though he doesn't think I know it."
"Then what's the point?"
As she finished loading the 12-gauge, she smiled with affection at the thought of her father. "He likes just being in the woods, walking in the woods on a crisp morning, the clean smell of the pines—and having some private time with me. He's never said, but I've always sensed he would've liked a son. Mom had complications with me, couldn't carry another baby. So I've always tried to give Dad a little of the son stuff. He thinks I'm a real tomboy."
"You're amazing," he said.
Hastily dropping spare shells into the various pockets of her black raincoat, she said, "I'm only what I'm here to be."
The strangeness of that statement harked back to other enigmatic things that she had said earlier in the night. He met her eyes, and once again he saw those mysterious depths, which seemed too profound for her years, too deep to be plumbed. She was the most interesting girl that he had ever known, and he hoped that she saw something appealing in his eyes.
As Joey finished stuffing spare shells into the pockets of his sheepskin-lined denim jacket, Celeste said, "Do you think Beverly is the first?"
"That he's ever killed."
"I hope so ... but I don't know."
"I think there've been others," she said solemnly.
"After that night, after Beverly, when I let him go ... I know there must've been others. That's why he was a gypsy. Poet of the highway, my ass. He liked the life of a drifter 'cause he could keep moving through one police jurisdiction after another. Hell, I never realized it before, didn't want to realize it, but it's the classic sociopathic pattern
the loner on the road, the outsider, a stranger everywhere he goes, the next thing to invisible. Easier for a man like that to get caught if the bodies keep piling up in the same place. P.J.'s brilliance was to make a profession out of drifting, to become rich and famous for it, to have the unstructured lifestyle of a rootless serial killer but with the perfect cover—a respectable occupation that all but required rootlessness, and a reputation for writing uplifting stories about love and courage and compassion."
"But all that's in the future, as far as I'm concerned," Celeste said. "Maybe my future, our future. Or maybe only one possible future. I don't know how that works—or that it'll even help to think about it."
Joey had a bitter taste in his mouth—as though biting into a hard truth could produce a flavor as acrid as chewing on dry aspirin. "Whether it was one possible future or the only future, I still have to carry some of the guilt for all those he killed after Beverly, because could've put an end to it that night."
"Which is why you're here now, tonight, with me. To undo it all, Not just to save me but everyone who came after ... and to save yourself." She picked up the 12-gauge and chambered a shell. "But what I meant was that I think he's killed before Beverly. He was just too cool with you, Joey, too smooth with that story about her running in front of his car up on Pine Ridge. If she'd been his first, he'd have been easily rattled. When you opened that trunk and found her, he'd have been more shaken. The way he handled you—he's used to carting dead women around in his car, looking for a safe place to dump them. He's had a lot of time to think about what he'd do if anyone ever caught him with a body before he was able to dispose of it."
Joey suspected that she was right about this, just as she was right about the weather not being responsible for the dead telephone.
No wonder he had reacted with blind panic in Henry Kadinska's office when the attorney revealed the terms of his father's last will and testament. The money in the estate had originally come from P.J. It was blood money in more ways than one, as tainted as Judas's thirty pieces of silver. Cash accepted from the devil himself could have been no less clean.
He chambered a shell in his shotgun. "Let's go."
OUTSIDE, THE SLEET STORM HAD PASSED, AND RAIN WAS FALLING ONCE more. The brittle ice on the sidewalks and in the streets was swiftly melting into slush.
Joey had been wet and cold all night. In fact, he had lived in a perpetual chill for twenty years. He was used to it.
Halfway along the front walk, he saw that the hood was standing open on the Mustang. By the time he got to the car, Celeste was shining the flashlight into the engine compartment. The distributor cap was gone.
"P.J.," Joey said. "Having his fun."
"To him it's all fun."
"I think he's watching us right now."
Joey surveyed the nearby abandoned houses, the wind-stirred trees between them: south to the end of the next block where the street terminated and the forested hills began, north one block to the main drag through town.
"He's right here somewhere," she said uneasily.
Joey agreed, but in the tumult of wind and rain, his brother's presence was even less easily detected than a reluctant spirit at a seance.