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Page 34

Hatch agreed with her. But he had to try.


He was spared the humiliation and frustration of listening to Honell's reaction, however, because no one answered the phone out there in the far canyons of the desert night. He let it ring twenty times.


He was about to hang up, when a series of images snapped through his mind with a sound like short-circuiting electrical wires: a disarranged bed quilt; a bleeding, rope-encircled wrist; a pair of frightened, bloodshot, myopic eyes … and in the eyes, the twin reflections of a dark face looming close, distinguished only by a pair of sunglasses.


Hatch slammed down the phone and backed away from it as if the receiver had turned into a rattlesnake in his hand. “It's happening now.”


The ringing phone fell silent.


Vassago stared at it, but the ringing did not resume. He returned his attention to the man who was tied spread-eagle to the brass posts of the bed. “So Lindsey Harrison is the married name?”


“Yes,” the old guy croaked.


“Now what I most urgently need, sir, is an address.”


The public telephone was outside of a convenience store in a shopping center just two miles from the Harrison house. It was protected from the elements by a Plexiglas hood and surrounded by a curved sound shield. Hatch would have preferred the greater privacy of a real booth, but those were hard to find these days, a luxury of less cost-conscious times.


He parked at the end of the center, at too great a distance for anyone in the glass-fronted convenience store to notice—and perhaps recall—his license number.


He walked through a cool, blustery wind to the telephone. The center's Indian laurels were infested with thrips, and drifts of dead, tightly curled leaves blew along the pavement at Hatch's feet. They made a dry, scuttling sound. In the urine-yellow glow of the parking-lot lights, they almost looked like hordes of insects, queerly mutated locusts perhaps, swarming toward their subterranean hive.


The convenience store was not busy, and everything else in the shopping center was closed. He hunched his shoulders and head into the pay phone sound shield, convinced he wouldn't be overheard.


He did not want to call the police from home, because he knew they had equipment that printed out every caller's number at their end. If they found Honell dead, Hatch didn't want to become their prime suspect. And if his concern for Honell's safety proved to be unfounded, he didn't want to be on record with the police as some kind of nutcase or hysteric.


Even as he punched in the number with one bent knuckle and held the handset with a Kleenex to avoid leaving prints, he was uncertain what to say. He knew what he could not say: Hi, I was dead eighty minutes, then brought back to life, and now I have this crude but at times effective telepathic connection to a psychotic killer, and I think I should warn you he's about to strike again. He could not imagine the authorities taking him any more seriously than they would take a guy who wore a pyramid-shaped aluminum-foil hat to protect his brain from sinister radiation and who bothered them with complaints about evil, mind-warping extraterrestrials next door.


He had decided to call the Orange County Sheriffs Department rather than any particular city's police agency, because the crimes committed by the man in sunglasses fell in several jurisdictions.


When the sheriffs operator answered, Hatch talked fast, talked over her when she began to interrupt, because he knew they could trace him to a pay phone given enough time. “The man who killed the blonde and dumped her on the freeway last week is the same guy who killed William Cooper last night, and tonight he's going to murder Steven Honell, the writer, if you don't give him protection quick, and I mean right now. Honell lives in Silverado Canyon, I don't know the address, but he's probably in your jurisdiction, and he's a dead man if you don't move now.”


He hung up, turned away from the phone, and headed for his car, jamming the Kleenex into his pants pocket. He felt less relieved than he had expected to, and more of a fool than seemed reasonable.


On his way back to the car, he was walking into the wind. All the laurel leaves, sucked dry by thrips, were now blown toward him instead of with him. They hissed against the blacktop and crunched under his shoes.


He knew that the trip had been a waste and that his effort to help Honell had been ineffective. The sheriffs department would probably treat it like just another crank call.


When he got home, he parked in the driveway, afraid that the clatter of the garage door would wake Regina. His scalp prickled when he got out of the car. He stood for a minute, surveying the shadows along the house, around the shrubbery, under the trees. Nothing.


Lindsey was pouring a cup of coffee for him when he walked into the kitchen.


He took it, sipped gratefully at the hot brew. Suddenly he was colder than he had been while standing out in the night chill.


“What do you think?” she asked worriedly. “Did they take you seriously?”


“Pissing in the wind,” he said.


Vassago was still driving the pearl-gray Honda belonging to Renata Desseux, the woman he had overpowered in the mall parking lot on Saturday night and later added to his collection. It was a fine car and handled well on the twisting roads as he drove down the canyon from Honell's place, heading for more populated areas of Orange County.


As he rounded a particularly sharp curve, a patrol car from the sheriff's department swept past him, heading up the canyon. Its siren was not blaring, but its emergency beacons splashed red and blue light on the shale banks and on the gnarled branches of the overhanging trees.


He divided his attention between the winding road ahead and the dwindling taillights of the patrol car in his rearview mirror, until it rounded another bend upslope and vanished. He was sure the cop was speeding to Honell's. The unanswered, interminably ringing telephone, which had interrupted his interrogation of the author, was the trigger that had set the sheriffs department in motion, but he could not figure how or why.


Vassago did not drive faster. At the end of Silverado Canyon, he turned south on Santiago Canyon Road and maintained the legal speed limit as any good citizen was expected to do.


8


In bed in the dark, Hatch felt his world crumbling around him. He was going to be left with dust.


Happiness with Lindsey and Regina was within his grasp. Or was that an illusion? Were they infinitely beyond his reach?


He wished for an insight that would give him a new perspective on these apparently supernatural events. Until he could understand the nature of the evil that had entered his life, he could not fight it.


Dr. Nyebern's voice spoke softly in his mind: I believe evil is a very real force, an energy quite apart from us, a presence in the world.


He thought he could smell a lingering trace of smoke from the heat-browned pages of Arts American. He had put the magazine in the desk in the den downstairs, in the drawer with a lock. He had added the small key to the ring he carried.


He had never locked anything in the desk before. He was not sure why he had done so this time. Protecting evidence, he'd told himself. But evidence of what? The singed pages of the magazine proved nothing to anyone about anything.


No. That was not precisely true. The existence of the magazine proved, to him if to no one else, that he wasn't merely imagining and hallucinating everything that was happening to him. What he had locked away, for his own peace of mind, was indeed evidence. Evidence of his sanity.


Beside him, Lindsey was also awake, either uninterested in sleep or unable to find a way into it. She said, “What if this killer …”


Hatch waited. He didn't need to ask her to finish the thought, for he knew what she was going to say. After a moment she said just what he expected:


“What if this killer is aware of you as much as you're aware of him? What if he comes after you … us … Regina?”


“Tomorrow we're going to start taking precautions.”


“What precautions?”


“Guns, for one thing.”


“Maybe this isn't something we can handle ourselves.”


“We don't have any choice.”


“Maybe we need police protection.”


“Somehow I don't think they'll commit a lot of manpower to protect a guy just because he claims to have a supernatural bond with a psychotic killer.”


The wind that had harried laurel leaves across the shopping-center parking lot now found a loose brace on a section of rain gutter and worried it. Metal creaked softly against metal.


Hatch said, “I went somewhere when I died, right?”


“What do you mean?”


“Purgatory, Heaven, Hell—those are the basic possibilities for a Catholic, if what we say we believe turns out to be true.”


“Well … you've always said you had no near-death experience.”


“I didn't. I can't remember anything from … the Other Side. But that doesn't mean I wasn't there.”


“What's your point?”


“Maybe this killer isn't an ordinary man.”


“You're losing me, Hatch.”


“Maybe I brought something back with me.”


“Back with you?”


“From wherever I was while I was dead.”


“Something?”


Darkness had its advantages. The superstitious primitive within could speak of things that would seem too foolish to voice in a well-lighted place.


He said, “A spirit. An entity.”


She said nothing.


“My passage in and out of death might have opened a door somehow,” he said, “and let something through.”


“Something,” she said again, but with no note of inquiry in her voice, as there had been before. He sensed that she knew what he meant—and did not like the theory.


“And now it's loose in the world. Which explains its link to me—and why it might kill people who anger me.”


She was silent awhile. Then: “If something was brought back, it's evidently pure evil. What—are you saying that when you died, you went to Hell and this killer piggy-backed with you from there?”


“Maybe. I'm no saint, no matter what you think. After all, I've got at least Cooper's blood on my hands.”


“That happened after you died and were brought back. Besides, you don't share in the guilt for that.”


“It was my anger that targeted him, my anger—”


“Bullshit,” Lindsey said sharply. “You're the best man I've ever known. If housing in the afterlife includes a Heaven and Hell, you've earned the apartment with a better view.”


His thoughts were so dark, he was surprised that he could smile. He reached under the sheets, found her hand, and held it gratefully. “I love you, too.”


“Think up another theory if you want to keep me awake and interested.”


“Let's just make a little adjustment to the theory we already have. What if there's an afterlife, but it isn't ordered like anything theologians have ever described. It wouldn't have to be either Heaven or Hell that I came back from. Just another place, stranger than here, different, with unknown dangers.”


“I don't like that much better.”


“If I'm going to deal with this thing, I have to find a way to explain it. I can't fight back if I don't even know where to throw my punches.”


“There's got to be a more logical explanation,” she said.


“That's what I tell myself. But when I try to find it, I keep coming back to the illogical.”


The rain gutter creaked. The wind soughed under the eaves and called down the flue of the master-bedroom fireplace.


He wondered if Honell was able to hear the wind wherever he was—and whether it was the wind of this world or the next.


Vassago parked directly in front of Harrison's Antiques at the south end of Laguna Beach. The shop occupied an entire Art Deco building. The big display windows were unlighted as Tuesday passed through midnight, becoming Wednesday.


Steven Honell had been unable to tell him where the Harrisons lived, and a quick check of the telephone book turned up no listed number for them. The writer had known only the name of their business and its approximate location on Pacific Coast Highway.


Their home address was sure to be on file somewhere in the store's office. Getting it might be difficult. A decal on each of the big Plexiglas windows and another on the front door warned that the premises were fitted with a burglar alarm and protected by a security company.


He had come back from Hell with the ability to see in the dark, animal-quick reflexes, a lack of inhibitions that left him capable of any act or atrocity, and a fearlessness that made him every bit as formidable an adversary as a robot might have been. But he could not walk through walls, or transform himself from flesh into vapor into flesh again, or fly, or perform any of the other feats that were within the powers of a true demon. Until he had earned his way back into Hell either by acquiring a perfect collection in his museum of the dead or by killing those he had been sent here to destroy, he possessed only the minor powers of the demon demimonde, which were insufficient to defeat a burglar alarm.


He drove away from the store.


In the heart of town, he found a telephone booth beside a service station. Despite the hour, the station was still pumping gasoline, and the outdoor lighting was so bright that Vassago was forced to squint behind his sunglasses.


Swooping around the lamps, moths with inch-long wings cast shadows as large as ravens on the pavement.


The floor of the telephone booth was littered with cigarette butts. Ants teamed over the corpse of a beetle.


Someone had taped a hand-lettered OUT OF ORDER notice to the coin box, but Vassago didn't care because he didn't intend to call anyone. He was only interested in the phone book, which was secured to the frame of the booth by a sturdy chain.


He checked “Antiques” in the Yellow Pages. Laguna Beach had a lot of businesses under that heading; it was a regular shoppers' paradise. He studied their space ads. Some had institutional names like International Antiques, but others were named after their owners, as was Harrison's Antiques.


A few used both first and last names, and some of the space ads also included the full names of the proprietors because, in that business, personal reputation could be a drawing card. Robert O. Loffman Antiques in the Yellow Pages cross-referenced neatly with a Robert O. Loffman in the white pages, providing Vassago with a street address, which he committed to memory.


On his way back to the Honda, he saw a bat swoop out of the night. It arced down through the blue-white glare from the service-station lights, snatching a fat moth from the air in mid-flight, then vanished back up into the darkness from which it had come. Neither predator nor prey made a sound.

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