At the first intersection, Celeste pointed to a narrow street on the left. "Our house is over there."

A block away, through beaded curtains of rain and past a few screening pines, several windows were filled with a welcoming amber light. No other house in that direction appeared to be occupied.

"All the neighbors are gone, moved out," Celeste confirmed. "Mom and Dad are alone over there."

"And they may be safer alone," he reminded her, crossing the intersection, driving slowly past her street, studying both sides of the main drag.

Even though Coal Valley Road led to destinations beyond the town of Coal Valley itself, they had encountered no pass-through traffic, and Joey figured that they weren't likely to encounter any. Numerous experts and officials had assured the public that the highway was fundamentally safe and that there was no danger of sudden subsidence swallowing unwary motorists. Following the demolition of the village, however, the road was scheduled for condemnation and removal, and the residents of those mountain towns had long ago become skeptical about anything the experts had to say about the mine fire. Alternate routes had become popular.

Ahead of them, on the left, was St. Thomas's Catholic Church, where services had once been conducted every Saturday and Sunday by the rector and the curate of Our Lady of Sorrows in Asherville, who were circuit priests covering two other small churches in that part of the county. It was not a grand house of worship, but a wooden structure with plain rather than stained-glass windows.

Joey's attention was drawn to St. Thomas's by flickering light at the windows. A flashlight. Inside, each time the beam moved, shadows spun and leaped like tormented spirits.

He angled across the street and coasted to a stop in front of the church. He switched off the headlights and the engine.

At the top of the concrete steps, the double doors stood open.

"It's an invitation," Joey said.

"You think he's in there?"

"It's a pretty good bet."

Inside the church, the light blinked off.

"Stay here," Joey said, opening his door.

"Like hell."

"I wish you would."

"No," she said adamantly.

"Anything could happen in there."

"Anything could happen out here too."

He couldn't argue with the truth of that.

When he got out and went around to the back of the car, Celeste followed him, pulling up the hood of her raincoat.

The rain was now mixed with sleet, as when he'd lived through this night the first time and crashed on the interstate. It ticked against the Mustang with a sound like scrabbling claws.

When he opened the trunk, he more than half expected to find the dead blonde.

She wasn't there.

He removed the combination crowbar and lug wrench from the side well that contained the jack. It was made of cast iron, comfortingly heavy in his hand.

In the faint glow of the trunk light, Celeste saw the toolbox and opened it even as Joey was hefting the crowbar. She extracted a large screwdriver.

"It's not a knife," she said, "but it's something."

Joey wished that she would stay behind in the car with the doors locked. If anyone showed up, she could blow the horn, and he would be at her side in seconds.

Although he had met her hardly an hour ago, he already knew her well enough to recognize the futility of trying to dissuade her from accompanying him. In spite of her delicate beauty, she was uncommonly tough and resilient. Any lingering uncertainties of youth, which might have inhibited her, had been burned away forever with the realization that she'd been marked for rape and murder—and with the discovery of the eyes in the jar. The world as she knew it had abruptly become a far darker and more disturbing place than it had been when the day began, but she had absorbed that change and adapted to it with surprising and admirable courage.

Joey didn't bother to close the trunk quietly. The open doors of the church made it clear that the man who had led him onto Coal Valley Road was expecting him to follow here as well.

"Stay close," he said.

She nodded grimly. "Guaranteed."

In the front yard of St. Thomas's, a one-foot-diameter vent pipe rose six feet above the ground. It was surrounded by an hourglass construction of chain-link, which served as a safety barrier. Plumes of mine-fire smoke rose from deep underground and wafted from the top of the pipe, lessening the likelihood that toxic fumes would build to dangerous levels in the church and in nearby homes. During the past twenty years, as all efforts to extinguish—or even to contain—the subterranean inferno had proved inadequate, almost two thousand such vents had been installed.

In spite of the continuous scrubbing by the rain, the air around the entrance to St. Thomas's had a sulfurous stench, as if some rough beast, slouching toward Bethlehem to be born, had taken a detour to Coal Valley.

Painted in red on the front of the church was a large "13" with a red circle around it.

Curiously, Joey thought of Judas. The thirteenth apostle. The betrayer of Jesus.

The number on the wall merely indicated that the building had been the thirteenth property in Coal Valley to be condemned and added to the master demolition list, but he couldn't shake the notion that it was significant for other reasons. In his heart he knew that it was a warning to guard against betrayal. But betrayal from what source?

He hadn't gone to Mass in two decades, until the funeral this morning. He had called himself an agnostic—and sometimes an atheist—for many years, yet suddenly everything he saw and everything that happened seemed to have a religious association for him. Of course, in one sense, he wasn't a cynical and faithless man of forty any more but a young man of twenty who had still been an altar boy less than two years ago. Perhaps this strange fall backward in time had brought him closer to the faith of his youth.




Rather than dismiss that train of thought as superstition, he took it seriously and decided to be more cautious than ever.

Sleet had not yet mantled the sidewalk in ice, and the scattered pellets crunched under their feet.

At the top of the steps, at the open doors, Celeste clicked on the small flashlight that she had brought from the car, dispelling some of the darkness inside.

They crossed the threshold side by side. She slashed left and right with the beam, quickly revealing that no one was waiting for them in the narthex.

A white marble holy-water font stood at the entrance to the nave. Joey discovered that it was empty, slid his fingers along the dry bottom of the bowl, and crossed himself anyway.

He advanced into the church with the crowbar raised and ready, holding it firmly in both hands. He wasn't willing to trust to the grace of God.

Celeste handled the flashlight expertly, probing quickly to all sides, as though accustomed to conducting searches for homicidal maniacs.

Although no Masses had been said in St. Thomas's for the past five or six months, Joey suspected that the electrical service had not been disconnected. For safety reasons, the power might have been left on, because all the dangers inherent in an abandoned building were greater in darkness. Now that official indifference and incompetence had resulted in the loss of the entire town to the hidden, hungry fire below, the authorities were uniformly enthusiastic proponents of safety measures.

A faint scent of incense lingered from past Masses, but it was largely masked by the smell of damp wood and mildew. A trace of sulfurous fumes laced the air as well, and that stink gradually grew stronger till it drowned the spicy aroma from all the old ceremonies of innocence.

Although volleys of sleet rattled against the roof and the windows, the nave was filled with the familiar hush of all churches and with a sense of quiet expectation. Usually it was an expectation of the subtle visitation of a divine presence, but now it was the apprehension of a hateful intrusion into that once-consecrated space.

Holding the crowbar in one fist, he slid his other hand along the wall to the left of the narthex arch. He couldn't locate any switches.

Encouraging Celeste to move to the right of the arch, he felt along that wall until he found a panel of four switches. He snapped them all up with one sweep of his hand.

From overhead, cone-shaped fixtures cast dim, chrome-yellow light on the ranks of pews. Along the walls, hooded sconces directed soft light down across the fourteen stations of the cross an onto the dusty wood floor.

The front of the church beyond the sanctuary railing remained shrouded in shadows. Nevertheless, Joey could see that everything sacred had been removed, including all the statuary and the great crucifix that had graced the wall behind the altar.

Occasionally, as a boy, he had traveled with the priest from Asherville to Coal Valley, to serve when the local altar boys were ill or were for some other reason unavailable, so he was familiar with the appearance of St. Thomas's prior to its deconsecration. Carved by a villager in the latter part of the previous century, the twelve-foot-high crucifix had been a rough piece of work, but Joey had been fascinated by it, for it had possessed a power that he'd never seen in more professionally carved and polished versions.

When his gaze settled from the blank wall where the crucifix had been, he saw a pale and shapeless mound on the elevated altar platform. A soft radiance seemed to issue from it, but he knew that was only a trick of reflection—and his imagination.

They walked cautiously along the center aisle, checking the pews to the left and right, where someone could have been crouching out of sight, waiting to spring at them. The church was small, capable of seating approximately two hundred people, but this night there was neither a single worshiper nor a beast among the pews.

When Joey opened the gate in the sanctuary railing, the hip squealed.

Celeste hesitated, then preceded him into the sanctuary. She was riveted by the pale mound on the altar platform, but she didn't direct tie flashlight at it, evidently preferring, as he did, to delay the inevitable revelation.

As the low gate creaked shut behind him, Joey glanced back into the nave. No one had entered behind them.

Directly ahead was the choir enclosure. The chairs, the music stands, and the organ had all been hauled away.

They followed the ambulatory to the left, around the choir. Though they tried to tread lightly, their footfalls on the oak floor echoed hollowly through the empty church.

On the wall beside the door to the sacristy were more switches. Joey flicked them, and the sanctuary filled with sour light no brighter than that in the nave.

He motioned for Celeste to slip past the closed door, and when she was out of the way, he kicked it open as he had seen cops do in countless movies, rushed across the threshold, and swung the crowbar with all his might, right to left and back again, on the assumption that someone was waiting for him there. He hoped to surprise and cripple the bastard with a preemptive blow, but the length of iron cut the empty air with a whoosh.

Enough light spilled past him from the sanctuary to confirm that the sacristy was deserted. The outer door was standing open when he entered, but a gust of cold wind threw it shut.

"He's already gone," Joey told Celeste, who stood rigid with fear in the inner doorway.

They returned to the sanctuary, followed the ambulatory to the presbytery, and stopped at the foot of the three altar steps.

Joey's heart slammed in his breast.

Beside him, Celeste made a soft, plaintive sound—not a gasp of horror but a murmur of compassion, regret, despair. "Ah, no."

The high altar, with its hand-carved antependium, was gone.

Only the altar platform remained.

The mound that they had seen from the nave was neither as pale nor as shapeless as it had appeared to be when the sanctuary lights had been off. Portions of the fetally curled corpse were visible through the heavy-gauge, rumpled plastic. Her face was concealed, but a limp flag of blond hair trailed out of a gap in the folds of the tarp.

This was no precognitive vision.

Not an hallucination either.

Not merely a memory.

This time the body was real.

Nevertheless, the events of the past twenty-four hours had left Joey in doubt about what was real and what was not. He distrusted his own senses enough to seek confirmation from Celeste: "You see it too, don't you?"


"The body?"


He touched the thick plastic. It crackled under his fingers.

One slender, alabaster arm was exposed. The hand was cupped, and a nail hole marked the center. The fingernails were torn and caked with blood.

Although he knew that the blonde was dead, in his heart Joey harbored a fragile and irrational hope that the eyes in the jar were not hers, that a thread of life still sewed her to this world, and that she might yet be resuscitated. He dropped to his knees on the top altar step and put his fingertips against her wrist, seeking at least a feeble pulse.

He found no pulse, but the contact with her cold flesh jolted him as if he'd grasped a live electrical wire, and he was shocked into another memory that had been long suppressed:

... only wanting to help, carrying the two suitcases through the icy rain to the back of the car, putting them down on the gravel driveway to unlock the trunk. He raises the lid, and the small bulb inside the trunk is as dim as a half-melted votive candle in a ruby-dark glass. The light is tinted red, in fact, because the bulb is smeared with blood. The hot-copper stench of fresh blood virtually steams from that cramped space, making him gag. She is there. She is there. She is completely and totally there—so utterly unexpected that she might have been mistaken for an hallucination, but instead she is more solid than granite, more real than a punch in the face. Naked but swaddled in a semitransparent tarp. Face hidden by her long blond hair and by smears of blood on the inner surface of the plastic. One bare arm is free of the shroud, and the delicate hand is turned with the palm up, revealing a cruel wound. She seems to reach out beseechingly to him, seeking the mercy that she has found nowhere else in the night. His heart swells so terribly with each apocalyptic beat that it cramps his lungs and prevents him from drawing a breath. As the iron treads of thunder roll across the mountains, he hopes that lightning will strike him, that he will join the blonde in death, because trying to carry on with life after this discovery will be too hard, too painful, joyless, and pointless. Then someone speaks behind him, barely louder than the susurrant song of the rain and wind: "Joey." If he's not permitted to die here, right now, in this storm, then he prays to God to be struck deaf, to be blinded, to be freed from the obligations of a witness. "Joey, Joey." Such sadness in the voice. He turns from the battered corpse. In the nebulous blood-tinted light, he faces tragedy, faces the ruination of four lives in addition to that of the woman in the car trunk—his own, his mother's, his father's, his brother's. "I only wanted to help," he tells P.J. "I only wanted to help."