"Oh. I see. Just some mechanical breakdown in the great cosmic machinery," she said sarcastically, letting go of his hand.


"Seems to make more sense than God."


"So we're not in the Twilight Zone, huh? Now we're aboard the starship Enterprise with Captain Kirk, assaulted by energy waves, catapulted into time warps."


He didn't reply.


She said, "You remember Star Trek? Anyone still remember it up there in 1995?"


"Remember? Hell, I think maybe it's a bigger industry than General Motors."


"Let's bring a little cool Vulcan logic to the problem, okay? If this amazing thing that happened to you is meaningless and random, then why didn't you get folded back in time to some boring day when you were eight years old and had the puking flu? Or why not to some night a month ago, when you were just sitting in your trailer out in Vegas, half drunk, watching old Road Runner cartoons or something? You think some random anomaly of physics would just by purest chance bring you back to the most important night of your life, this night of all nights, to the very moment it all went wrong beyond any hope of recovery?"


Just listening to her had calmed him, although his spirits had not been lifted. At least he was able to pick up the spilled shells and reload his shotgun.


"Maybe," she said, "you're living this night again not because there's something you have to do, not to save lives and bring down P.J. and be a hero. Maybe you're living this night again only so you'll have one last chance to believe."


"In what?"


"In a world with meaning, in life with some greater purpose."


At times she seemed able to read his mind. More than anything, Joey wanted to believe in something again—as he had when he'd been an altar boy, so many years ago. But he vacillated between hope and despair. He remembered how filled with wonder he'd been a short while ago when he'd realized that he was twenty again, how grateful he had been to something-someone for this second chance. But already it was easier to believe in the Twilight Zone or in a fluke of quantum mechanics than in God.


"Believe," he said. "That's what P.J. wanted me to do. Just believe in him, believe in his innocence, without one shred of proof. And I did. I believed in him. And look where that got me."


"Maybe it wasn't believing in P.J. that ruined your life."


"It sure didn't help," he said sourly.


"Maybe the main problem was that you didn't believe in anything else."


"I was an altar boy once," he said. "But then I grew up. I got an education."


"Having gone to college a little, you've surely heard the word ,sophomoric,'" Celeste suggested. "It describes the kind of thinking you're still indulging in."


"You're really wise, huh? You know it all?"


"Nope. I'm not wise at all, not me. But my dad says—admitting you don't know everything is the beginning of wisdom."


"Your dad the jerkwater high-school principal—suddenly he's a famous philosopher?"


"Now you're just being mean," she said.


After a while, he said, "Sorry."


"Don't forget the sign I was given. My blood on your fingertips. How can I not believe? More important, how can you not believe after that? You called it a 'sign' yourself."


"I wasn't thinking. I was all ... emotional. When you take time to think about it, apply just a little of that cool Vulcan logic you mentioned—"


"If you think hard enough about anything, you won't be able to believe in it. If you saw a bird fly across the sky—the moment it's out of sight, there's no way to prove it existed. How do you even know Paris exists—have you ever been there?"


"Other people have seen Paris. I believe them."


"Other people have seen God."


"Not the way they've seen Paris."


"There are a lot of ways to see," she said. "And maybe neither your eyes nor a Kodak is the best way."


"How can anyone believe in any god so cruel that he'd let three people die like that, three innocent people?"


"If death isn't permanent," she said without hesitation, "if it's only a transition from one world to the next, then it isn't necessarily cruel."


"It's so easy for you," he said enviously. "So easy just to believe."


"It can be easy for you too."


"No."


"Just accept."


"Not easy for me," he insisted.


"Then why even bother to believe that you're living this night again? Why not write it off as just a silly dream, roll over, go on sleeping, and wait to wake up in the morning?"


He didn't answer. He couldn't.


Although he knew it was pointless to try, he crawled to the wall phone, reached up, and pulled the receiver off the cradle. No dial tone.


"Can't possibly work," Celeste said with an edge of sarcasm.


"Huh?"


"Can't work because you've had time to think about it, and now you realize—there's no way to prove there's anyone else in the world to call. And if there's no way to prove beyond a doubt, right here, right now, that other people exist—then they don't exist. You must have learned the word for that in college. 'Solipsism.' The theory that nothing can be proven except your own awareness, that there is nothing real beyond yourself."


Letting the telephone handset dangle on its springy cord, Joey leaned back against the kitchen cabinet and listened to the wind, to the rain, to the special hush of the dead.


Eventually Celeste said, "I don't think P.J.'s going to come in after us."


Joey had arrived at the same conclusion. P.J. wasn't going to kill them. Not yet. Later. If P.J. had wanted to waste them, he could have nailed them easily when they were on the front porch, standing in the light with their backs to him. Instead, he had carefully placed his first shot in the narrow gap between their heads, taking out John Bimmer with a perfectly placed bullet in the heart.


For his own twisted reasons, P.J. evidently wanted them to bear witness to the murders of everyone in Coal Valley, then waste them. Apparently he intended that Celeste should be the twelfth and final apostle in the freeze-frame drama that he was creating at the church.


And me? Joey wondered. What do you have in mind for me, big brother?


14


THE BIMMER KITCHEN WAS PURGATORY WITH LINOLEUM FLOORS AND Formica countertops. Joey waited to be propelled from that place either by events or by inspiration. There must be something that he could do to stop P.J.


Nevertheless, merely proceeding to the Dolan house with the intention of preventing those five pending murders would be sheer folly. He and Celeste would only serve as witnesses to the deaths.


Maybe they could slip into the Dolan place without anyone being shot down at the front door or at the windows. Maybe they could even convince the Dolans of the danger and conspire with them to turn the house into a fortress. But then P.J. could easily set a fire to kill them where they hid or to drive them out into the night where he could shoot them down.


If the Dolan house had an attached garage, and if the Dolans could get in their car and make a run for it, P.J. would shoot out the tires as they tried to flee. Then he would kill them with a spray of gunfire while they were helpless in the disabled vehicle.


Joey had never met the Dolan family. At that moment, convincing himself that they actually existed was, in fact, harder than he would have thought. How easy it would be to sit there in the kitchen and do nothing, let the Dolans—if they existed—look out for themselves, and believe only in the bottle-green shadows around him, the faint smell of cinnamon, the strong aroma of fresh coffee warming in the pot, the hard wood against his back, the floor beneath him, and the hum of the refrigerator motor.


Twenty years ago, when he turned his back on the grisly proof of what his brother had done, he had been equally unable to believe in all the victims to come. Without their bloodied faces before him, without their battered bodies piled high, they had been as unreal to him as the citizens of Paris were unreal to a man convinced of the wisdom of solipsism. How many people had P.J. killed in those twenty years following the first passage of this night? Two per year, forty in all? No. Too low. Killing that infrequently would be too little challenge, too little thrill. More than one a month for twenty years? Two hundred fifty victims: tortured, mutilated, dumped along back roads from one end of the country to the other or buried in secret graves? P.J. seemed more than sufficiently energetic to handle that. By refusing to believe in future horrors, Joey had ensured that they would come to pass.


For the first time he was aware of the true size of his burden of responsibility, which was far greater than he wanted to believe. His acquiescence to P.J. on that long-ago night had resulted in a triumph of evil—so enormous that now he was half crushed by the belated recognition of its weight, under which his soul was pinned.


The ultimate consequences of inaction could be greater than the consequences of action.


"He wants us to go to the Dolans' place, so I can see them being murdered," Joey said thickly. "If we don't go right away ... we'll be buying them a little time at least."


"We can't just sit here," she said.


"No. Because sooner or later, he'll go kill them anyway."


"Sooner," she predicted.


"While he's still watching us here, waiting for us to come out, we have to do something he's not expecting, something that'll make him curious and keep him close to us, away from the Dolans, something that'll surprise and unsettle him."


"Like what?"


The refrigerator motor. The rain. Coffee, cinnamon. The oven clock: ticking, ticking.


"Joey?" she prodded.


"It's so hard to think of something that might rattle him," he said miserably. "He's so sure of what he's doing, so bold."


"That's because he has something to believe in."


"P.J.? Something to believe in?"


"Himself. The sick creep believes in himself, in his cleverness and charm and intelligence. In his destiny. It's not much in the way of a religion, but he believes in himself with a real passion, which gives him a whole lot more than confidence. It gives him power."


Celeste's words electrified Joey, but at first he didn't quite understand why.


Then, with sudden excitement, he said, "You're right. He does believe in something. But he doesn't believe only in himself. He believes in something else all right. It's clear, isn't it? All the evidence is there, easy to see, but I didn't want to admit it. He believes, he's a true believer, and if we play into that belief, then we might be able to rattle him and get an advantage."


"I'm not following you," Celeste said worriedly.


"I'll explain later. Right now we don't have much time. You have to search the kitchen, see if you can find candles, matches. Get an empty bottle or jar and fill it with water."


Scrambling to his feet but staying in a crouch, he said, "Just find it if you can. I'll have to take the flashlight with me, so open the refrigerator door for more light if you need it. Don't turn on the overhead fluorescents. They're too bright. You'll throw a shadow on one of the blinds just when he's tired of waiting for us and ready to take a shot after all."


As Joey headed toward the open door to the dining room, leaving Celeste alone in the green gloom, she said, "Where're you going?"


"The living room. And upstairs. There's some stuff I need."


"What stuff?"


"You'll see."


In the living room, he used the flashlight judiciously, twice flicking it on and immediately off, to orient himself and avoid the three dead bodies. The second burst of light revealed Beth Bimmer's wide eyes as she stared at something beyond the ceiling of the room, beyond the confines of the house, far above the storm clouds outside, somewhere past the North Star.


To take down the crucifix, he had to climb onto the sofa and stand beside the body of the old woman. The long, affixing nail was driven not simply into plaster or dry wall but into a stud, and the head of it was larger than the brass loop through which it was driven, so he had to work hard to remove the stubborn cross from the wall. As he struggled in the darkness, he was afraid that Hannah's body would tip on its side and slump against his legs, but he managed to pry loose the prize and get down on the floor again without coming into contact with her.


A third flick of the light, a fourth, and he was at the stairs.


The second floor offered three small rooms and a bath, each revealed with a quick sweep of the flashlight.


If P.J. was watching outside, perhaps his curiosity had begun to be pricked by Joey's exploration of the house.


In spite of her advanced years and her cane, Hannah had slept on the second floor, and in her bedroom Joey found what he needed. A shrine to the Holy Mother stood in one corner, on a three-legged table in the shape of a pie slice: a ten-inch-tall ceramic statuette with a built-in three-watt bulb at the base, which cast a fan of light over the Virgin. Also on the table were three small ruby-red glasses containing votive candles—all extinguished.


Using the flashlight, he confirmed that the sheets on the bed were white, and then he pulled them off. He carefully bundled the statuette and other items in the sheets.


He went down to the living room again.


The wind was pushing through the broken window, tossing the drapes. He stood tensely at the foot of the stairs for a moment, until he was certain that, in fact, nothing else was moving at the window besides those streaming panels of fabric.


The dead remained dead, and in spite of the inrushing night air, the room stank like the car trunk in which the tarp-wrapped blonde had been kept.


In the kitchen, the refrigerator door was open a few inches, and by that cold light, Celeste was still searching the cabinets. "Found a half-gallon plastic jug, filled it with water," she said. "Got some matches too, but no candles yet."


"Keep looking," Joey said as he put down the sheet-wrapped articles from Hannah's room.


In addition to the entrance to the dining room and the exit to the back porch, the kitchen contained a third door. He cracked it open. The influx of freezing air, bringing the faint scent of gasoline and motor oil, told him that he'd found the attached garage.


"Be right back," he said.


The flashlight revealed that the only window in the garage was in the back wall and covered with a flap of oilcloth. He switched on the overhead light.

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