“I’ll do my best, sir.”
“Do better than your best.”
His usual droll demeanor gave way to more emotion than he had allowed himself in public, during his days of fame. “This world can be hard on children.”
Later, I would learn that he and his wife, Alma, had had one child, a daughter named Patricia, on whom he doted. There are many charming pictures of portly Mr. Hitchcock and tiny Pat on vacation with Alma in exotic places like Paris and Africa and Switzerland. His smile, though ironic when calculated for publicity, could be sweet, and never sweeter than in photographs with Pat or with her children. At play with the grandchildren, he had been like a child himself, Hitchcockian dignity discarded in favor of participating fully in the game of the moment.
Perhaps his regard for children and their happiness had its roots in his own lonely childhood. At the age of nine, he was sent off to a Catholic boarding school. Until he was fourteen, he was raised by Jesuits who believed most strongly in severe corporal punishment, and before he was fifteen, he quit school and took his first job. He was remembered by others as a sensitive and retiring boy, and he called himself “a particularly unattractive youth,” though rare photos from those days don’t really support such a harsh self-assessment. One of his earliest vivid memories was of waking late on Christmas Eve, when he was only five, to discover his mother sneaking two toys from his Christmas stocking, putting them in the stockings of his older siblings, and replacing them with a couple of oranges.
“This world can be hard on children,” he repeated. “Now, these seventeen think they’re being held for ransom. They don’t know what’s going to be done to them, although a few might suspect something. The cultists want to surprise them, the better to savor their terror as the full horror of their fate dawns on them.”
“I’ll remember everything you told me, sir. I feel better now that you’re on my side. Everything’s sure to be all right now.”
He raised one eyebrow. “Is it sure to be, Mr. Thomas? Are you really certain that you’ve seen my films?”
I thought of the end of Vertigo, and wished I hadn’t.
Again he rose off the floor.
This time I didn’t try to stop him, though I did say, “Please call me Odd, sir.”
Halfway to the ceiling, he said, “That’s very kind of you, Mr. Thomas. Please call me Hitch.”
“Yes, sir. Will I see you again, Mr. Hitchcock?”
“I would count on it, Mr. Thomas, whether or not you survive the next half hour.”
He disappeared through the ceiling.
The time had come to kill or die. Or both.
NOT BEING A QUICK-DRAW ARTIST, I WAS RELUCTANT to leave both pistols in their shoulder rigs, as Mr. Hitchcock had suggested. I understood that I would be more likely to arouse suspicion if I went everywhere with one of the Glocks drawn and ready for action, but I had to work up the nerve to do as he had instructed.
I turned out the lights in that room of paper towels and toilet paper. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. I stepped into the basement corridor.
As I moved toward the farther end of the hallway and the back stairs by which I’d come here, a door opened on my right, and a woman came out of the office of the man whom I had killed.
In her twenties, pretty even under enough Goth makeup to supply Alice Cooper through a national nostalgia tour, she wore high-heeled shoes, tight and wonderfully supple black-leather pants, and a sort of half jacket of matching leather that bared her midriff. As most belly dancers have a jewel in their navels, this woman had a carved-bone skull.
She didn’t appear to be alarmed, which surely she would have been if she’d discovered a corpse, unless these people found so many corpses with such regularity that all the shock value had gone out of the experience. She smiled at me, and she had the whitest teeth I’d ever seen, though the upper cuspids seemed to have been filed into sharper points than nature would have given them.
I raised my fist and said “Contumax,” but I felt like a satanic geek when instead of replying with “Potestas,” she said, “Hey, look at you, boy toy.”
“Hey,” I said.
Being called a boy toy might have been flattering if she hadn’t been festooned with knives. At each hip, two loaded sheaths were fixed to her belt. In a scabbard against her back hung a full-length sword, which she could draw by reaching over her left shoulder. From each wrist dangled a straight razor, and though the blades were at the moment safely folded into the polished-ivory handles, I suspected that with a flick of her hands, she could bring both razors out, up, and into service. Whatever all she might want to do to a boy toy, I didn’t think I could assume that sex would be part of it.
“You know Rob Burkett, honey?” she asked.
I said, “The twelve rules of successful management.”
The sound she made was half laugh and half snort. “Yeah, he’s kind of an as**ole. Where’d he get that stupid shit-happens poster with the cat and the crocodile?”
“Wherever, it wasn’t a Hallmark store.”
“You seen him? He said he’d be down here in his office.”
Evidently, she hadn’t gone around behind the desk and looked in the knee space, where Rob was in the fetal position as if being born into death.
She came close and looked me over from crotch to lips to eyes. “You part of the show tonight?”
“Yeah. Are you?”
“Can’t wait. They’re givin’ me a juicy little boy.”
With a flick of her wrist, she brought the dangling ivory handle into her hand and released the straight razor, which appeared to be sharp enough to divide a human hair from end to end.
“Excellent,” I said, pretending to admire her dexterity and style. “You ever cut one before?”
“A juicy little boy? Nah. Youngest ones I’ve cut are like eighteen, they come on to me, thinkin’ they’re so hot, but they’re pussies. Only thing hot about ’em is their blood. My name’s Jinx.”
Yes, I thought, I suppose it would be.
But I said, “I’m Lucius.”
“I think you’re luscious,” she said, and she stroked the flat of the razor blade slowly along my left cheek, as if she were giving me a shave.
The steel was cold.
Her eyes were the jaundice yellow of a very sick man’s urine.
“Your eyes are amazing,” I said.
“They’re really blue. I’m wearin’ contacts that make ’em this way. Wild-animal eyes. I want my little boy so scared the second he sees me, he pisses himself right then.”
“I think he will.”
“You think he will?”
“I know he will.”
Jinx said, “I’m from Reno.”
“I’m from Arizona.”
“Where in Arizona?” she asked, flicking open the straight razor in her left hand and drawing the flat of the blade along my right cheek.
“Little town you never heard of.”
“Maybe I have.”
“Lonely Possum, Arizona.”
“Sounds like the ass end of nowhere.”
“You can get a lot of land cheap. Keep neighbors at a distance.”
She said, “Nobody hears nothin’ you’re doin’, huh?”
“None of their business, anyway.”
With a quick gesture of each hand, she flipped the blades back into the handles and let them dangle from her wrists again.
I didn’t feel any safer.
Jinx said, “What’re they givin’ you for the show?”
“This girl. They say she’s eight.”
“Who’s your patron?”
She was impressed. “I want to see her, the girl.”
“Yeah. Don’t you want to see my juicy little boy?”
“Maybe in the show, when I’m almost done with him, you can step in and help me finish.”
“And you could step in and help me finish mine.”
Smiling, she put one finger to my mouth. Her nails were long and glossy-black. Slowly she traced the outline of my lips.
I couldn’t decide whether she wanted to kiss them or cut them off.
She said, “Later, should we get it on, really rock it hard?”
This didn’t seem to be the kind of woman to whom I could explain that there was only one girl for me, Stormy Llewellyn, and that I was faithful to her.
I said, “The way it looks to me, that decision is entirely up to you.”
My response pleased her, and her smile widened. “You got that right, boy toy.”
Just when I thought I knew what she would do, she surprised me by pressing close and licking my chin.
Although I had never before had my chin licked by anything other than a dog, I felt pretty sure that this lick would proceed to a kiss either directly or after she licked other facial features that she found appealing. I can fake a lot of things convincingly, but I knew I couldn’t fake the rough and hungry kiss that she would expect from me, and in that moment her suspicion would soar.
When she had come out of Rob Burkett’s office and had seen me, Jinx had left the door ajar.
I lifted my wet chin and cocked my head and said, “Rob?”
Puzzled, she said, “Who, what?”
“Did you just hear that?”
“That was Rob’s voice.”
I separated myself from her. Although I would rather have turned my back on a crazy man with a chain saw than turn my back on Jinx, I did it anyway. I went to the office door, pushed it open, and turned on the light.
“Rob?” I said.
“I told you, he’s not there.”
“No. I heard something.”
I went into the office and thought that she followed me at least to the threshold. Pretending to be perplexed, looking this way and that, I crossed the room, rounded the desk, registered peripherally that Jinx was just this side of the threshold, glanced down, and said, “Rob, no. What the hell?” As I spoke, I dropped to my knees, hunching my head and shoulders, out of Jinx’s line of sight, and I drew one of the Glocks.
“Lucius?” she said.
I heard her coming, and when she rounded the desk, she had a straight razor in each hand, too smart for me, rushing in fast and mean, slashing at me. She hadn’t known Rob’s body was here, but I had done something to make her suspicious. The first round from the Glock knocked her back just far enough that the razor sliced the air about an inch from my eyes, the blade having been stropped so thin that it seemed to disappear for part of its arc. That was as close as she got, because the next two rounds kicked her off balance and sent her sprawling.
For a terrible moment, she lay there on her back, arms at her sides, the straight razors no longer in her hands but still tethered to her wrists, the blades rattling against the vinyl-tile floor while she spasmed as though trying to hold on to life and stave off death.
And then silence.
Jumpy, half convinced that Rob was reaching for me, I twitched toward him. He was still dead.
No lingering spirit had risen from either Rob or Jinx. They had been collected without delay.
I didn’t want to look in Jinx’s face. When you’re forced to kill people, however, you’ve got to look at them afterward, at what you’ve done. It’s like an acknowledgment that you owe the dead, no matter who he or she might have been, an acknowledgment that, in this case, she was potentially your sister even if she had fallen farther than you, a recognition that you have brought an end to someone who, no matter how unlikely a candidate for redemption, might nevertheless have been redeemed if she had lived. You’ve got to look at them for your own good, too, so that it never becomes too easy, so that you never begin to think of your adversaries as animals, even if they think of themselves that way.
I crawled to Jinx and looked at her face. One of the contact lenses had popped out when she fell. Her left eye was sour yellow, but her right was cornflower blue, as innocent a blue gaze as it would have been when, as a newborn, she first opened her eyes. She had been somebody’s daughter, and maybe eventually they had abused her or been indifferent to her, but they must have had hopes for her at some point, must have loved at least the idea of her, because they hadn’t aborted her. For however short a time, she had been loved—until somebody turned her into an engine of hate.
If I had a time machine that would take me back through Jinx’s life, so that I could find who twisted her mind with an ideology or sick philosophy … Well, no, I wouldn’t kill them to spare her from what she became. That way lies madness.
The wisdom of the most sagacious ancient Greeks, the wisdom of the most perceptive rabbis of ancient Canaan, and all the parables of Christ teach us to believe not in justice, but in truth. In a world of rampant lying, where so many lies are used to inflame passions and justify false grievances, the indiscriminate pursuit of justice leads sooner or later to insanity, mass murder, and the ruin of entire civilizations. Therefore, those who wish to punish the current and future generations for the inequities of a generation long gone, and who equate justice with revenge, are the most dangerous people in the world.
I got to my feet, crossed the room, and turned off the lights. In the hallway, I holstered the pistol and pulled shut the door.
There were now ten rounds in one Glock, fifteen in the other. I hoped I would need none of them, but I knew otherwise.
Returning to the back stairs, I started to climb the six flights of steps to the third floor.
Jessie, Jasmine, Jordan…
PASSING THE SECOND FLOOR, I HEARD THE EXCITED voices of partiers beyond the stairwell door. The action seemed to be centered now on that level, and I sensed an acceleration of the crowd’s mood toward some much-desired condition of dark ecstasy.
My impression that this building had once been a lodge or perhaps a corporate retreat seemed to be confirmed when I stepped into the third-floor hallway. Numbered doors, as in a hotel, served evenly spaced rooms on both sides.
Although deserted, the third-floor hall wasn’t quiet. Laughter and the muffled roar of fevered conversation rose from below.
Jessie, Jasmine, Jordan brought me to Room 4 on the left, where I stood for a long moment with my hand on the doorknob.
I knew beyond doubt that the children were being kept in there, but intuition told me that I still lacked some information essential to ensure their rescue. As the energy of the crowd grew and as the party noise seemed increasingly to come from the lake side of the house, I needed to see what might be happening out there in the torchlit night.