He checked himself just in time to avoid his previous mistake, whirled, and instead fired up at the jumbled pews behind him, from which P.J. had attacked him with the two-by-four. The buckshot shredded empty air. P.J. wasn't there.
Confused, Joey turned to the car and blasted out the windshield, as he had done before, but no scream came from inside, so he whipped around to cover his back again. P.J. still wasn't coming at him with the two-by-four.
Jesus! Screwing up again, screwing up, doing the wrong thing again. Think. Think!
Celeste. She was all that mattered.
Forget about taking P.J. Just get to Celeste before he does.
Carrying the shotgun with him even though it inhibited movement, Joey scrambled up the tilted pews and kneelers, across the rubble, toward the rear of the nave, down again into the center aisle where he'd seen Celeste knocked unconscious by the spinning chunk of wood. She wasn't there.
In the sanctuary at the front of the church, a slouching figure hunched along the ambulatory, through the dervish reflections of the altar fire above. It was P.J. He was carrying Celeste.
The center aisle was blocked. Joey ran between two rows of pews to the side aisle along the east wall of the church, and then raced forward along the unbroken panes of rain-beaten glass toward the sanctuary railing.
Rather than proceed to the altar as before, P.J. disappeared with Celeste through the door to the sacristy.
Joey leaped over the sanctuary railing, as though too eager to accept a proffered sacrament, and edged swiftly but warily along the wall to the sacristy. He hesitated at the doorway, fearful of stepping face-first into a hard-swung two-by-four or a gun blast, but then he did what must be done—the right thing—and stepped up to the threshold.
The sacristy door was closed, locked.
He stepped back, aimed the shotgun. One round trashed the lock and blew the door open.
The sacristy was deserted—except for Beverly Korshak's body, which lay in a corner, a pale mound in a plastic shroud.
Joey went to the exterior door. It was secured with a deadbolt from the inside, as he had left it.
The cellar door. He opened it.
In the moon-yellow light below, a serpentine shadow slithered into a coil and rolled out of sight around a corner.
The stairs were unpainted wood, and in spite of every effort he made at stealth, his boots met every tread with a hollow knock like the deliberative countdown of a doomsday clock.
Heat rose in parching currents, in torrid waves, in scorching tides, and by the time he reached the basement floor, he felt as if he had descended into a primal furnace. The air was redolent of superheated wood ceiling beams on the brink of charting, hot stone from the masonry walls, hot lime from the concrete floor—and a trace of sulfur from the mine fires below.
When he stepped off the final wooden tread, Joey would not have been surprised if the rubber heels of his boots had melted on contact with the cellar floor. Sweat streamed from him, and his hair fell across his face in lank, dripping strands.
The cellar appeared to be divided into several chambers that were separated by deep, offset archways, so it was impossible to see into one room from another. The first was illuminated only by a single, bare, dust-caked bulb seated in a coffer between two beams that severely limited the spread of the light.
A fat black spider, as if driven mad by the heat and sulfurous fumes, circled frenziedly around and around and around the crystal-glittering strands of its enormous web, in the same coffer as the lightbulb. Its exaggerated shadow jittered and stilted across the floor in a spiral that made Joey nauseous and dizzied him when he trod upon it as he headed toward the archway to the next room.
Aboveground, the structure had been a plain coal-country church, but its masonry underpinnings were more formidable, seemed older than the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania itself, and had a Gothic weight that imprisoned his heart. Joey felt as though he had descended not only into St. Thomas's basement but into haunted catacombs beneath Rome itself—one sea, one continent, one millennium away from Coal Valley.
He paused long enough to reload the Remington with shells from his jacket pockets.
As Joey entered the second room, the serpentine shadow shimmered away from him across the floor again, as though it were a stream of black mercury. It darkled out of the bile-yellow light and around the corner of another archway into the next crypt.
Because the slippery shade was P.J.'s shadow and bore with it the precious shadow of Celeste, Joey swallowed his fear and followed into a third vault, a fourth. Although none of those low-ceilinged spaces was immense, the subterranean portion of the church began to seem vast, immeasurably larger than the humble realm above. Even if the basement architecture proved to be supernaturally extensive, however, he would arrive eventually at a final chamber where brother could come face to face with brother and the right thing at last could be done.
The cellar had no windows.
No outside doors.
Confrontation was inevitable.
Sooner rather than later, holding the shotgun at the ready, Joey edged cautiously through a final archway with carved-scroll keystone, into a bleak hold that measured approximately forty feet from left to right and eighteen from the archway to the back wall. He figured that it lay under the narthex. Here, the floor wasn't concrete but stone, like the walls, either black by its nature or grime-coated by time.
Celeste lay in the middle of the room, in a drizzle of yolk-yellow light from the lone overhead bulb. Wispy beards of dust and tattered spider silk hung from the fixture, casting a faint faux lace over her pale face. Her raincoat was spread like a cape around her, and her silken hair spilled black-on-black across the floor. She was unconscious but, judging by appearances, otherwise unharmed.
P.J. had vanished.
In a socket between two massive beams, the single light didn't reach to every end of the chamber, but even in the farthest corners the gloom was not deep enough to conceal a door. Except for the entrance archway, the stone walls were featureless.
The heat was so intense that Joey felt as though his clothes—if not his body—might spontaneously combust, and he worried that his fevered brain was boiling up hallucinations. No one, not even the soul-mortgaged companion of Judas, could have walked through those walls.
He wondered if the walls were, in fact, as solid as they seemed and if exploration might reveal a panel of masonry cleverly hinged to swing open into an extension of the cellar. But even half roasted in that stone oven, confused and beginning to be disoriented, he couldn't bring himself to believe that there were secret passages, keeps, and dungeons under ramshackle old St. Thomas's. Who would have built them—legions of demented monks in some clandestine and evil brotherhood?
Yet P.J. was gone.
Heart pounding like a blacksmith's hammer, the anvil ring of it filling his ears, Joey eased across the room to Celeste. She seemed to be sleeping peacefully.
He spun in a crouch and swept the room with the shotgun, finger taut on the trigger, certain that P.J. was looming behind him, having materialized out of thin air.
He needed to wake Celeste, if possible, and quickly lead her out of there—or carry her out as she had been carried in. If she had to be carried, however, he would need to set aside the shotgun, which he was loath to do.
Gazing down at her, at the fine filigree of dust-web shadows that trembled like a veil on her face, Joey recalled the frenzied spider pointlessly circling its web in the first room at the foot of the basement stairs.
Shocked by a sudden dreadful thought, he sucked hot breath between clenched teeth, producing a brief, thin whistle of alarm.
He stepped back from under the coffer that contained the light fixture. He squinted up into the unlighted three-foot-wide, foot-deep recess between the next pair of beams.
P.J. was there, a cunning shadow among shadows, not simply wedged in place and waiting to drop upon his prey, but scuttling straight at Joey from the right side of the chamber with all the horrid grace of a spider, diabolically nimble and impossibly silent, upside down, clinging to the ceiling by means unknowable, softly ricocheting back and forth between the timbers, defying gravity, defying reason, his eyes gleaming like polished coal, teeth bared—and there could no longer be any doubt that he was something other than merely a man.
Joey started to raise the 20-gauge, which felt like a ton weight in his arms. Too late and far too slow, he knew the despair of defeat even as he reacted, felt himself in the cold and paralyzing grip of nightmare though he was awake.
Like a bat erupting from its roost, P.J. sprang out of the well between the rough-hewn beams, swooped down, and knocked Joey off his feet. The shotgun spun away across the concrete, out of reach.
As boys, they had occasionally wrestled and roughhoused, but they had never actually fought each other with serious intention. They had always been too tight for that—the Shannon brothers against the world. But now twenty years of pent-up rage flashed through Joey with atomic heat, instantly purging him of all lingering affection and compassion for P.J., leaving only an energizing remorse-regret-resentment. He was determined not to be a victim any more. He had a passion for justice. He punched and clawed and kicked, fighting for his life and for Celeste's, tapping a wrath that was Biblical in its power, a righteous and frightening fury that freed a savage avenger within him.
But even driven by rage and desperation, Joey was no match for whomever and whatever his brother had become. P.J.'s stone-hard fists landed an avalanche of punches, and no blocking arm or turned head seemed able to deflect the power of a single blow. His fury was inhuman, his strength superhuman. As Joey's resistance collapsed, P.J. grabbed him, lifted him half off the floor, slammed him down, slammed him down, slammed him down again, bouncing the back of his skull off the stone.
P.J. rose from him, stood, loomed over him, looking down with scorching contempt. "Fucking altar boy!" The angry, sneering voice was P.J.'s but changed, deeper than it had ever been before, fierce and reverberant, like a raging voice out of an abysmal stone place, out of iron walls and inescapable prisons, shivering with icy hatred, each word echoing as hollowly as if it were a dropped stone that had found the impossible bottom of eternity. "Fucking altar boy!" With the repetition of those words came the first kick, delivered with incredibly vicious power, landing in Joey's right side, cracking his ribs, as if P.J. was wearing steel-toed boots. "Rosary-kissing little bastard." Another kick, another, and Joey tried to curl up defensively, as though he were a pill bug turning its armor to the world. But each furious kick found a vulnerable spot—ribs, kidneys; the base of his spine—and seemed to have been meted out not by a man but by a pile driver, a mindless robotic torture machine.
Then the kicking stopped.
With one throttling hand clamped on Joey's throat and the other hand on the belt of his blue jeans, P.J. snatched him off the floor as a world champion power lifter might clean-and-jerk a barbell that carried only light-workout weights. He hoisted him overhead, turned, and threw him.
Joey bounced off the wall beside the archway and crashed to the floor in a broken-marionette heap. Mouth full of cracked teeth. Choking on blood. Chest tight. Lungs painfully compressed, maybe even punctured by a splintered rib. Inhaling with a consumptive wheeze, exhaling with a thick wet rattle. His heart was stuttering arrhythmically. Precariously balanced on a high wire of consciousness over a bottomless dark, he blinked through scalding tears and saw P.J. turn away from him and toward Celeste.
He also saw the shotgun. Within reach.
He could not control his extremities. He strove determinedly to reach out to the Remington, but his muscles spasmed. His arm merely twitched, and his right hand flopped uselessly on the floor.
A menacing rumble rose under him. Vibrations in the hot stone.
P.J. crouched over Celeste, turning his back to Joey, giving him up for dead.
So close. Tantalizingly close.
Joey focused all his attention on the shotgun, marshaled all his remaining strength for the task of getting hold of it, put all his faith in the power of the weapon, and willed himself to ignore the ungodly pain that crippled him, to overcome the paralyzing shock of the brutal beating that he had endured. Come on, come on, you fu**ing altar boy, come on, do it, do it, do the right thing for once in your sorry damn life!
His arm responded shakily. His hand clenched into a fist, then sprang open, then reached out. His trembling fingers touched the walnut stock of the Remington.
Hunched over Celeste, P.J. reached into a pocket of his ski jacket and withdrew a knife. At the touch of a button, the six-inch springloaded blade snapped out of the handle, and the yellow light lovingly caressed the razor-sharp edge.
Smooth walnut. Hot, smooth steel. Joey curled his fingers. They palsied, weak. Not good. He had to get a firm grip. Tight. Tighter. Try to lift. Quietly, quietly.
P.J. was talking—not to Joey, not to Celeste, either to himself or to someone whom he imagined to be present. His voice was low and guttural, still disturbing and strange, and now he seemed to be speaking a foreign language. Or gibberish. Rough and rhythmic, full of hard punctuation and low animal sounds.
The rumble grew louder.
Good. A blessing, that rumble—fearful but welcome. Together, the subterranean disturbance and P.J.'s queer muttering provided some cover for any sounds that Joey made.
He had one chance, and he needed to execute his plan—his feeble, pathetic plan—smoothly, quickly, confidently, before P.J. realized what was happening.
He hesitated. Didn't want to act precipitously, before he was sure that he had summoned all his depleted resources. Wait. Wait. Be sure. Wait forever? The ultimate consequences of inaction could be greater than the consequences of action. Now or never. Do or die. Do and die, but at least, for God's sake, do something!
In one fluid movement, clenching his broken teeth against the explosion of pain that he knew would come—that came—Joey rolled up from his side into a sitting position, pulling the shotgun with him, bracing his back against the wall.
Even over his muttering and the persistent rumbling in the earth under the church, P.J. heard and reacted, simultaneously rising from his crouch and turning.
Joey had both hands on the Remington. The butt of the stock was jammed against his shoulder.
The baleful light that glimmered on the switchblade also leaped in P.J.'s eyes.
Pointblank. Joey squeezed the trigger.
The boom seemed loud enough to shatter the stone around them, and echoes of the shot crashed back and forth from one end of the room to the other, from ceiling to floor, with a volume that seemed to swell rather than diminish.
The recoil from the Remington struck lightning bolts of pain through Joey's entire body, and the shotgun fell out of his hands, clattering to the floor beside him.