"He's like a wolf out there," she agreed, "just circling beyond the campfire light."
"He's promised this offering—twelve sacrifices, twelve innocent people—and now he feels he's got to deliver. But he's committed to setting up his tableau of corpses in a church from which God's been driven out."
"You seem so sure ... as if you're in tune with him."
"He's my brother."
"It's a little scary," she said.
"For me too. But I sense that he needs St. Thomas's. He has no chance of finding another place like it, not tonight. And now that he's started all this, he feels compelled to finish it. Tonight. If he's watching us right now, he'll see what we're doing, and it'll rattle him, and he'll come in here to make us undo it all."
"Why won't he just shoot us through the windows, then come in and undo it all himself?"
"He might have handled it that way—if he'd realized soon enough what we were up to. But the moment we hung the crucifix, it was too late. Even if I'm only half right about his delusions, even if he's only half as deeply lost in his fantasy as I think he is ... I don't believe he'll be able to touch a crucifix on a sanctuary wall any more easily than a vampire could."
Celeste lit the last of the three votive candles.
The altar should have looked absurd—like a playhouse vignette arranged by children engaged in a game of church. Even with their makeshift stage furnishings, however, they had created a surprisingly convincing illusion of a sacred space. Whether it was a function of the lighting or arose by contrast with the starkness of the stripped, deconsecrated, dusty church, an unnatural glow seemed to emanate from the bed sheets on the altar platform, as though they had been treated with phosphorescent dye; they were whiter than the whitest linens that Joey had ever seen. The crucifix, lighted from below and at an extreme angle, cast an absurdly large shadow across the back wall of the sanctuary, so it almost appeared as though the massive, hand-carved icon that had been removed during deconsecration had now been brought back and lovingly re-hung. The flames on the fat Christmas candles all burned strong and steady in spite of myriad cross drafts in the church; not one guttered or threatened to go out; curiously, the bayberry-scented wax smelled not at all like bayberry but quite like incense. By some fluke of positioning and trick of reflection, one of the votive candles in the ruby-red glasses cast a shimmering spot of crimson light on the breast of the small bronze crucifix.
"We're ready," Joey said.0
He put the two shotguns on the floor of the narrow presbytery, out of sight but within easy reach.
"He saw us with the guns earlier," Celeste said. "He knows we have them. He won't come close enough to let us use them."
"Maybe not. It depends on how deeply he believes in his fantasy, how invincible he feels."
Turning his back to the altar steps, Joey dropped to one knee behind the presbytery balustrade that overlooked the choir enclosure. The heavy handrail and the chunky balusters offered some protection from gunfire, but he wasn't under the illusion that they provided ideal cover. The gaps between the balusters were two to three inches wide. Besides, the wood was old and dry; hollow-point rounds from a high-caliber rifle would chop it into kindling pretty quickly, and some of the splinters would make deadly shrapnel.
Kneeling beside him, as if reading his mind, Celeste said, "It won't be decided with guns, anyway."
"It's not a question of force. It's a question of faith."
As on more than one previous occasion, Joey saw mysteries in her dark eyes. Her expression was unreadable—and strangely serene, considering their circumstances.
He said, "What do you know that I don't know?"
After meeting his gaze for a long beat, she looked out at the nave and said, "Many things."
"Sometimes you seem ... "
"How do I seem?"
A shadow of a smile drew her lips into a suggestion of a curve. "I'm not just the principal's daughter."
"Oh? What else?"
"I'm a woman."
"More than that," he insisted.
"Is there more than that?"
"Sometimes you seem ... much older than you are."
"There are things I know."
"I should know them too."
"They can't be told," she said enigmatically, and her pale smile faded.
"Aren't we in this together?" he asked sharply.
She looked at him again, eyes widening. "Oh, yes."
"Then if there's anything you know that can help—"
"Deeper than you think," she whispered.
"We're in it together deeper than you think."
Either she was choosing to be inscrutable or there was less mystery in the moment than Joey imagined.
She returned her attention to the nave.
They were silent.
Like the frantic wings of trapped birds struggling to break free, rain and wind beat against the church.
After a while he said, "I feel warm."
"It's been heating up in here for some time," Celeste confirmed.
"How can that be? We didn't turn on any furnace."
"It's coming up through the floor. Don't you feel it? Through every chink, every crack in the boards."
He put his hand on the presbytery floor and discovered that the wood was actually warm to the touch.
Celeste said, "Rising from the ground under the church, from the fires far below."
"Maybe not so far any more." Remembering the ticking metal box in the corner of the study at her house, Joey said, "Should we be worried about toxic gases?"
"There's worse tonight."
Within only a minute or two, a fine dew of perspiration formed on his brow.
Searching his jacket pockets for a handkerchief, Joey found a wad of money instead. Two ten-dollar bills. Two fives. Thirty bucks.
He kept forgetting that what had happened twenty years in the past had also, in another sense, happened only hours ago.
Staring in horror at the folded currency, Joey recalled the persistence with which P.J. had forced it upon him back there in the humid closeness of the parked car. The body hidden in the trunk. The smell of rain heavy in the night. The odor of blood heavier in his memory.
He shuddered violently and dropped the money.
As they fell out of his hand, the rumpled bills became coins and rang against the wooden floor, making a music like altar bells. Glittering, spinning, clinking, wobbling, rattling, they quickly settled into a silent heap beside him.
"What's that?" Celeste asked.
He glanced at her. She hadn't seen. He was between her and the coins.
"Silver," he said.
But when he looked again, the coins were gone. Only a wad of paper currency lay on the floor.
The church was hot. The window glass, streaming with rain, appeared to be melting.
His heart was suddenly racing. Pounding like a penitent fist upon the wrong side of his breast.
"He's coming," Joey said.
Rising slightly, Joey pointed across the balustrade and along the center aisle to the archway at the back of the nave, to the dimly lighted narthex beyond the arch, to the front doors of the church, which were barely visible in the shadows. "He's coming."
WITH A FORTHRIGHT SHRIEK OF UNCOILED HINGES, THE CHURCH DOORS opened out of darkness into shadow, out of the cold night into the strange heat, out of the blustering storm into a quiet one, and a man entered the narthex. He didn't proceed stealthily or even with any noticeable caution, but walked directly to the nave arch, and with him came the rotten-egg fumes from the vent pipe outside.
It was P.J. He was wearing the same black boots, beige cords, and red cable-knit sweater that he had been wearing earlier in the evening, back at the house, at dinner, and later in the car when he had argued the merits of forgetfulness and brotherly bonds. Since then he had put on a black ski jacket.
This was not the P.J. Shannon whose novels always found a home on the best-seller lists, not the New-Age Kerouac who had crossed the country uncounted times in various vans, motor homes, and cars. This P.J. was still shy of his twenty-fourth birthday, a recent graduate of Notre Dame, home from his new job in New York publishing.
He wasn't carrying the rifle with which he'd shot the Bimmers, and he didn't seem to think he needed it. He stood in the archway, feet planted wide, hands empty at his sides, smiling.
Until now, Joey had forgotten the extreme confidence of P.J. at that age, the tremendous power that he radiated, the sheer intensity of his presence. The word "charismatic" had been overused even in 1975; by 1995, it was employed by journalists and critics to describe every new politician who had not yet been caught stealing, every new rap singer who thought "hate" rhymed with "rape," every young actor with more smoldering in his eyes than in his brain. But whether in 1995 or 1975, the word seemed to have been invented for P.J. Shannon. He had all the charisma of an Old Testament prophet without the beard and robes, commanding attention sheerly by his presence, so magnetic that he seemed to exert an influence upon even inanimate objects, realigning all things around him until even the lines of the church's architecture subtly focused attention toward him.
Meeting Joey's eyes across the length of the church, P.J. said, "Joey, you surprise me."
With one sleeve, Joey blotted the sweat on his face, but he didn't reply.
"I thought we had a bargain," said P.J.
Joey put one hand on his shotgun, which lay on the presbytery floor beside him. But he didn't pick it up. P.J. could dodge out of the archway and back into the narthex before Joey would be able to raise the gun and pump off a round. Besides, at that distance, mortal damage probably couldn't be done with a shotgun even if P.J. failed to get out of the line of fire fast enough.
"All you had to do was go back to college like a good boy, back to your job at the supermarket, lose yourself in the daily struggle of life, the gray grinding boredom that you were born for. But you had to stick your nose in this."
"You wanted me to follow you here," Joey said.
"Well, true enough, little brother. But I was never sure you'd actually do it. You're just a little priest-loving, rosary-kissing altar boy. Why should I expect you to have any guts? I thought you might even go back to college and make yourself accept my cockamamie story about the mountain man up on Pine Ridge."
"Once," Joey said. "But not this time."
P.J. was clearly baffled. This was the first and only time that he would ever live through this strange night. Joey had been through a variation of it once before, and only Joey had been given a second chance to do it right.
From the floor beside him, Joey scooped up the thirty dollars and, still half sheltered behind the balustrade, threw it at P.J. Although wadded in a ball the paper currency sailed only as far as the end of the choir enclosure and fell short of the sanctuary railing. "Take back your silver."
For a moment P.J. seemed stunned, but then he said, "What an odd thing to say, little brother."
"When did you make your bargain?" Joey asked, hoping that he was right about P.J.'s psychotic fantasy and was playing into it in a way that would shake him out of his smug complacency.
"Bargain?" P.J. asked.
"When did you sell your soul?"
Shifting his attention to Celeste, P.J. said, "You must have helped him puzzle it out. His mind doesn't have a dark bent that would let him see the truth on his own. Certainly not in the couple of hours since he opened my car trunk. You're an interesting young lady. Who are you?"
Celeste didn't answer him.
"The girl by the road," P.J. said. "I know that much. I would hat had you by now if Joey hadn't interfered. But who else are you?"
Secret identities. Dual identities. Conspiracies. P.J. was indeed operating in the complex and melodramatic world of a paranoid psychotic with religious delusions, and he evidently believed that he saw in Celeste some otherworldly presence.
She remained silent. Crouching by the balustrade. One hand on hey shotgun, which lay on the presbytery floor.
Joey hoped she wouldn't use the weapon. They needed either to lure P.J. farther into the church, within range—or they needed to convince him that they didn't need guns at all and felt confident about trusting in the power of the holy ground on which they stood.
"Know where the thirty bucks came from, Joey?" P.J. asked. "From Beverly Korshak's purse. Now I'll have to gather it up and put it its your pocket again later. Preserve the evidence."
At last Joey understood what role P.J. had in mind for him. was expected to take the fall for everything his brother had done—and would do—this night. No doubt his own murder would have been made to look like suicide: Priest-loving, rosary-kissing altar flips out, kills twelve in Satanic ceremony, takes own life, film al eleven.
He had escaped that fate twenty years ago when he had failed to follow P.J. onto Coal Valley Road—but he'd taken a turn into another destiny that had been nearly as bad. This time, he had to avoid both those options.
"You asked when I sold my soul," P.J. said, still lingering in the narthex archway. "I was thirteen, you were ten. I got hold of the books about Satanism, the Black Mass—neat stuff. I was ripe for them Joey. Held my funny little ceremonies in the woods. Small animals on my little altar in the woods. I was ready to slit your throat, kiddo, and cut your heart out if nothing else had worked. But it didn't come to that. It was so much easier than that. I'm not even sure the ceremonies were necessary, you know? I think all that was necessary was to want it badly enough. Wanting it with every fiber of my being, with all my heart, wanting it so badly that I hurt with wanting it—that's what opened the door and let him in."
"Him?" Joey said.
"Satan, Scratch, the devil, spooky old Beelzebub," said P.J. in a jokey and theatrical tone of voice. "Boy, he's not at all like that, Joey. He's actually a warm, fuzzy old beast—at least to those who embrace him."
Though Celeste remained crouched behind the balustrade, Joey rose to his full height.