An old but well-maintained Pontiac with a toothy chrome grin stood in the single stall.
Beside a rough workbench was an unlocked cabinet that proved to be full of tools. After choosing the heftiest of three hammers, he searched through boxes of nails until he found the size that he needed.
By the time Joey returned to the kitchen, Celeste had located six candles. Beth Bimmer evidently had bought them to decorate the house or the dining table at Christmas. They were about six inches tall, three to four inches in diameter: three red, three green, all scented with bayberry.
Joey had been hoping for simple, tall, white candles. "These will have to do."
He opened the sack that he'd made by gathering the bed sheets, and he added the candles, matches, hammer, and nails to the items that he had collected earlier.
"What is all this?" she asked.
"We're going to play into his fantasy."
"No time to explain. You'll see. Come on."
She carried her shotgun and the half-gallon jug of water. He carried the makeshift sack in one hand and his shotgun in the other. Thus encumbered, if they were threatened, they wouldn't be able to raise a weapon and fire with any accuracy or quickly enough to save themselves.
Joey was counting on his brother's desire to play games with them for a while yet. P.J. was enjoying their fear, feeding on it.
They left by the front door—boldly, without hesitation. The point was not to give P.J. the slip but to draw his attention and engage his curiosity. Joey's gut was clenched in dread anticipation of a rifle shot—not so much one aimed at him but one that might smash the porcelain beauty of Celeste's face.
They descended the porch steps into the rain, went to the end of the front walk, and turned left. They headed back toward Coal Valley Road.
The series of mine vents along North Avenue, set sixty feet on center, suddenly whooshed like a row of gas-stove burners being ignited all at once. Columns of baleful yellow fire, shot through with tongues of blue, erupted from the top of every pipe along the street.
Celeste cried out in surprise.
Joey dropped the bed-sheet sack, grabbed the shotgun with both hands, spun to the left swung to the right. He was so jumpy that he half thought P.J. was somehow responsible for the spontaneous venting of the fires under the town.
If he was nearby, however, P.J. did not reveal himself.
Fire didn't merely flap like bright banners at the tops of the vent pipes and dissolve in the storm wind. Instead, it shot four or five feet above the iron rims, under considerable pressure, like flames from the nozzles of blowtorches.
The ground didn't rumble, as it had done earlier, but the fierce rush of gases escaping up those metal shafts from far below produced a great roar that vibrated in Joey's bones. Strangely, the sound had a disturbing quality of rage about it, as though it had been produced not by natural forces but by some colossus trapped in the inferno and less pained than infuriated by it.
"What's happening?" he asked, raising his voice though Celeste was close beside him.
"I don't know."
"Ever see anything like this before?"
"No!" she said, looking around in fearful wonder.
As though they were the pipes of a gargantuan carnival calliope, the vents pumped forth a midnight music of roars and growls and huffs and whistles and occasional mad shrieks. Echoes ricocheted off the smoke-mottled walls of the abandoned houses, off windows as dark as blind eyes.
In the backwash of spectral light from the ferocious gushes of fire, pterodactyl silhouettes swooped through the rain-shattered night. Mammoth shadows lurched across North Avenue as if thrown by an army of giants marching through the street one block to the east.
Joey picked up the bundle that he had dropped. With a sense that time was swiftly running out, he said, "Come on. Hurry."
While he and Celeste sprinted along the deeply puddled street toward Coal Valley Road, the burn-off of subterranean gases ended as abruptly as it had begun. The queer light throbbed once, then again, and was gone. The flying-lurching shadows vanished into an immobilizing darkness.
Rain turned to steam when it struck the fiercely hot iron pipes, and even above the sounds of the storm there arose a hissing as if Coal Valley had been invaded by thousands upon thousands of serpents.
THE DOORS OF THE CHURCH STILL STOOD OPEN. THE LIGHTS GLOWED softly inside, as Joey had left them.
After following Celeste into the narthex, he pulled the double doors shut behind them. The big hinges rasped noisily—as he had expected. Now, if P.J. followed them by that route, he would not be able to enter quietly.
At the archway between the narthex and the nave, Joey indicated the marble font, which was as white as an ancient skull and every bit as dry. "Empty the jug."
"Just do it," he said urgently.
Celeste propped her shotgun against the wall and unscrewed the cap from the half-gallon container. The water splashed and gurgled into the bowl.
"Bring the empty jug," Joey said. "Don't leave it where he can see it."
He led her down the center aisle, through the low gate in the sanctuary railing, along the ambulatory that curved around the choir enclosure.
The body of Beverly Korshak, swaddled in heavy plastic, still lay on the altar platform. A pale mound.
"What now?" Celeste asked, following him along the presbytery to the altar platform.
Joey put down the white bundle, behind the dead woman. "Help me move her."
Grimacing in disgust at the prospect of that task, Celeste said, "Move her where?"
"Out of the sanctuary into the sacristy. She shouldn't be here like this. It's a desecration of the church."
"This isn't a church any more," she reminded him.
"It will be again soon."
"What are you talking about?"
"When we're done with it."
"We don't have the power to make it a church again. That takes a bishop or something, doesn't it?"
"We don't have the authority officially, no, but maybe that's not necessary to play into P.J.'s twisted fantasy. Maybe all we need is a little stage setting. Celeste, please, help me."
Reluctantly she obliged, and together they moved the corpse out of the sanctuary and put it down gently in a corner of the sacristy, that small room where priests had once prepared themselves for Mass.
On the first visit to St. Thomas's, Joey had found the exterior sacristy door open. He had closed and locked it. When he checked it now, he found that the door was still securely locked.
Another door opened onto a set of descending stairs. Gazing into that darkness, Joey said, "You've gone to church here for most of your life, right? Is there an outside entrance to the basement?"
"No. Not even windows. It's all below ground."
P.J. wouldn't be able to get into the church that way either, which left only the front doors.
Returning with Celeste to the sanctuary, Joey wished that they had been able to bring a card table or other small piece of furniture to serve as an altar. But the low, bare platform itself would have to suffice.
He unfolded the twisted ends of the sheets, with which he had formed the sack, and he set aside the hammer, box of nails, red and green candles, votive candles, matches, crucifix, and statuette of the Holy Mother.
At Joey's instruction, Celeste helped him cover the platform with the two white sheets.
"Maybe he nailed her to a floor while he ... did what he wanted," he said as they worked. "But he wasn't just torturing her. It meant more to him than that. It was a sacrilegious act, blasphemy. More likely than not, the whole rape and murder was part of a ceremony."
"Ceremony?" she asked with a shudder.
"You said that he's strong and difficult to rattle because he believes in something. Himself, you said. But I think he believes in more than that. He believes in the dark side."
"Satanism?" she asked doubtfully. "P.J. Shannon, football hero, Mr. Nice Guy?"
"We both already know that person doesn't exist any more—if he ever did. Beverly Korshak's body tells us that much."
"But he got a scholarship to Notre Dame, Joey, and I don't think they encourage Black Masses out there in South Bend."
"Maybe it all began right here, before he ever went away to the university or eventually to New York."
"It's so far out," she said.
"Here in 1975, okay, it's a little far out," he agreed as he finished straightening the sheets. "But by 1995, a troubled high-school kid getting into Satanism—it's not so unusual. Believe me. And it was happening in the sixties and seventies too—just not as often."
"I don't think I'd much like this 1995 of yours."
"You're not the only one."
"Did P.J. seem troubled in high school?"
"No. But sometimes the most deeply disturbed ones don't much show it."
The cloth was pulled taut across the altar platform. Most of the wrinkles had been smoothed. The white cotton seemed to be whiter now than when they had first unfolded the sheets—radiant.
"Earlier," Joey reminded her, "you said he behaves recklessly, so arrogantly it's as if he thinks he's blessed. Well, maybe that's exactly what he thinks. Maybe he thinks he's made a bargain that protects him, and now he can get away with just about anything."
"You're saying he sold his soul?"
"No. I'm not saying there is a soul or that it could be sold even if it existed. I'm only telling you what he might think he's done and why that ugly little fantasy gives him such extraordinary self-confidence."
"We do have souls," she said quietly, firmly.
Picking up the hammer and the box of nails, Joey said, "Bring the crucifix."
He went to the back of the sanctuary where a twelve-foot-high carving of Christ in blessed agony had once hung. No overhead spots were focused on the wall; instead, the plaster was washed with light from a pair of floor-mounted lamps. The rising light had been meant to lead the eye upward to the contemplation of the divine. He drove a nail into the plaster slightly above eye level.
Celeste slipped the brass loop over the nail, and once more St. Thomas's had a crucifix behind and above its altar platform.
Glancing at the rain-streaked windows and the unrelieved night beyond, Joey wondered if P.J. was watching them. What interpretation might he put upon their actions? Did he find these developments laughable—or alarming?
Joey said, "The tableau that he seems to want to create here—a mockery of the twelve apostles, arranged in a deconsecrated church, at the expense of twelve lives—it's not just an act of madness. It's almost ... an offering."
"A while ago, you said he thinks he's like Judas."
"The Betrayer. Betraying his community, his family, his faith, even God. And passing along the corruption wherever he can. Pushing thirty dollars into my pocket in his car that night before sending me back to school."
"Thirty dollars—thirty pieces of silver."
Returning to the altar platform and putting aside the hammer, he grouped the six Christmas candles at one end of the white sheet. "Thirty dollars. Just a little symbolic gesture to amuse himself. Payment for my cooperation in letting him get away with her murder, making a little Judas out of me."
Frowning as she picked up the pack of matches and began to light the candles, Celeste said, "So he sees Judas Iscariot as—what?—like his patron saint on the dark side?"
"Something like that, I think."
"Did Judas go to Hell for betraying Christ?" she wondered.
"If you believe there's a Hell, then I guess he has one of the deepest rooms there," Joey said.
"You, of course, don't believe in Hell."
"Look, it doesn't really matter what I believe in, only what P.J. believes in."
"You're wrong about that."
Ignoring her comment, he said, "I don't pretend to know all the twists and turns of his delusions—just maybe the overall design of it. I think even a first-rate psychiatrist would have trouble mapping the weird landscape in my big brother's head."
As she finished lighting the six bayberry candles, Celeste said, "So P.J. comes home from New York, takes a ride around the county, and he sees how weird things have gotten here in Coal Valley. All the abandoned houses. The subsidence everywhere. More vent pipes than ever. The open pit of fire out on the edge of town. The church deconsecrated, condemned. It's as if the whole town's sliding into Hell. Sliding pretty fast, in fact, and right before his eyes. And it excites him. Is that what you think?"
"Yeah. A lot of psychotics are very susceptible to symbolism. They live in a different reality from ours. In their world, everyone and everything has secret meanings. There are no coincidences."
"You sound like you've crammed the subject for a test."
"Over the years I read lots of books about aberrant psychology. At first I told myself it was all research for novels I'd write. Then, when I admitted I'd never be a writer, I kept reading—as a hobby."
"But subconsciously, you were trying to understand P.J."
"A homicidal sociopath with religious delusions, of the sort that P.J. seems to have, might see demons and angels masquerading as ordinary people. He believes cosmic forces are at work in the simplest events. His world is a place of constant high drama and immense conspiracies."
Celeste nodded. She was the principal's daughter, after all, raised in a house full of books. "He's a citizen of Paranoialand. Yeah, okay, so maybe he's been killing for years, since he went away to college if not before, one girl here, one there, little offerings from time to time. But the situation in Coal Valley really gets his juices up, makes him want to do something special, something big."
Joey placed the ceramic statuette of the Holy Mother at the far end of the white sheets from the candles and plugged the cord into a socket on the side of the altar platform. "So now we'll screw up his plans by opening the door to God and inviting Him back into the church. We'll step straight into P.J.'s fantasy and fight symbolism with symbolism, counter superstition with superstition."
"And how will that stop him?" she asked, moving to Joey's end of the altar to light the three votive candles in the ruby glasses, which he had carefully arranged in front of the statuette of the Virgin.
"It'll rattle him, I think. That's the first thing we have to do—rattle him, shake his confidence and get him to come in out of the darkness, where we have a chance at him."