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Page 46


Most important, the only smell in her sanctuary was the scent of roses like those painted on the bed, a clean sweet fragrance. Never the stench of dead things. Never the awful choking odor of decomposition that could bring a sour gushing into the back of your throat and nearly strangle you when your mouth was full of crushed, saliva-damp scarf. Nothing like that, no, never, not in her secret room, her blessed room, her deep and sacred, safe and solitary haven.


Something had happened to the girl. The singular vitality that had made her so appealing was gone.


When he put her on the floor of Hell, with her back against the base of the towering Lucifer, he thought she'd passed out. But that wasn't it. For one thing, when he crouched in front of her and put his hand against her chest, he felt her heart leaping like a rabbit whose hindquarters were already in the jaws of the fox. No one could possibly be unconscious with a thundering heartbeat like that.


Besides, her eyes were open. They were staring blindly, as if she could find nothing upon which to fix her gaze. Of course, she could not see him in the dark as he could see her, couldn't see anything else for that matter, but that wasn't the reason she was staring through him. When he flicked the eyelash over her right eye with his fingertip, she did not flinch, did not even blink. Tears were drying on her cheeks, but no new tears welled up.


Catatonic. The little bitch had blanked out on him, closed her mind down, become a vegetable. That didn't suit his purposes at all. The value of the offering was in the vitality of the subject. Art was about energy, vibrancy, pain, and terror. What statement could he make with his little gray-eyed Christ if she could not experience and express her agony?


He was so angry with her, just so spitting angry, that he didn't want to play with her any more. Keeping one hand on her chest, above her rabbity heart, he took his switchblade from his jacket pocket and popped it open.


Control.


He would have opened her then, and had the intense pleasure of feeling her heart go still in his grip, except that he was a Master of the Game who knew the meaning and value of control. He could deny himself such transitory thrills in the pursuit of more meaningful and enduring rewards. He hesitated only a moment before putting the knife away.


He was better than that.


His lapse surprised him.


Perhaps she would come out of her trance by the time he was ready to incorporate her into his collection. If not, then he felt sure that the first driven nail would bring her to her senses and transform her into the radiant work of art that he knew she had the potential to be.


He turned from her to the tools that were piled at the point where the arc of his collection currently ended. He possessed hammers and screwdrivers, wrenches and pliers, saws and a miter box, a battery-powered drill with an array of bits, screws and nails, rope and wire, brackets of all kinds, and everything else a handyman might need, all of it purchased at Sears when he had realized that properly arranging and displaying each piece in his collection would require the construction of some clever supports and, in a couple of cases, thematic backdrops. His chosen medium was not as easy to work with as oil paints or watercolors or clay or sculptor's granite, for gravity tended to quickly distort each effect that he achieved.


He knew he was short on time, that on his heels were those who did not understand his art and would make the amusement park impossible for him by morning. But that would not matter if he made one more addition to the collection that rounded it out and earned him the approbation he sought.


Haste, then.


The first thing to do, before hauling the girl to her feet and bracing her in a standing position, was to see if the material that composed the segmented, reptilian belly and chest of the funhouse Lucifer would take a nail. It seemed to be a hard rubber, perhaps soft plastic. Depending on thickness, brittleness, and resiliency of the material, a nail would either drive into it as smoothly as into wood, bounce off, or bend. If the fake devil's hide proved too resistant, he'd have to use the battery-powered drill instead of the hammer, two-inch screws instead of nails, but it shouldn't detract from the artistic integrity of the piece to lend a modern touch to the reenactment of this ancient ritual.


He hefted the hammer. He placed the nail. The first blow drove it a quarter of the way into Lucifer's abdomen. The second blow slammed it halfway home.


So nails would work just fine.


He looked down at the girl, who still sat on the floor with her back against the base of the statue. She had not reacted to either of the hammer blows.


He was disappointed but not yet despairing.


Before lifting her into place, he quickly collected everything he would need. A couple of two-by-fours to serve as braces until the acquisition was firmly fixed in place. Two nails. Plus one longer and more wickedly pointed number that could fairly be called a spike. The hammer, of course. Hurry. Smaller nails, barely more than tacks, a score of which could be placed just-so in her brow to represent the crown of thorns. The switchblade, with which to recreate the spear wound attributed to the taunting Centurion. Anything else? Think. Quickly now. He had no vinegar or sponge to soak it in, therefore could not offer that traditional drink to the dying lips, but he didn't think the absence of that detail would in any way detract from the composition.


He was ready.


Hatch and Lindsey were deep in the gondola tunnel, proceeding as fast as they dared, but slowed by the need to shine flashlights into the deepest reaches of each niche and room-size display area that opened off the flanking walls. The moving beams caused black shadows to fly and dance off concrete stalactites and stalagmites and other manmade rock formations, but all of those dangerous spaces were empty.


Two solid thuds, like hammer blows, echoed to them from farther in the funhouse, one immediately after the other. Then silence.


“He's ahead of us somewhere,” Lindsey whispered, “not real close. We can move faster.”


Hatch agreed.


They proceeded along the tunnel without scanning all the deep recesses, which once had held clockwork monsters. Along the way, the bond between Hatch and Jeremy Nyebern was established again. He sensed the madman's excitement, an obscene and palpitating need. He received, as well, disconnected images: nails, a spike, a hammer, two lengths of two-by-four, a scattering of tacks, the slender steel blade of a knife popping out of its spring-loaded handle.…


His anger escalating with his fear, determined not to let the disorienting visions impede his advance, he reached the end of the horizontal tunnel and stumbled a few steps down the incline before he realized that the angle of the floor had changed radically under his feet.


The first of the odor hit him. Drifting upward on a natural draft. He gagged, heard Lindsey do the same, then tightened his throat and swallowed hard.


He knew what lay below. At least some of it. Glimpses of the collection had been among the visions that had pounded him when he had been in the car on the highway. If he didn't get an iron grip on himself and stifle his repulsion now, he would never make it all the way into the depths of this hellhole, and he had to go there in order to save Regina.


Apparently Lindsey understood, for she found the will to repress her retching, and she followed him down the steep slope.


The first thing to attract Vassago's attention was the glow of light high up toward one end of the cavern, far back in the tunnel that led to the spillway. The rapid rate at which the light grew brighter convinced him that he would not have time to add the girl to his collection before the intruders were upon him.


He knew who they were. He had seen them in visions as they, evidently, had seen him. Lindsey and her husband had followed him all the way from Laguna Niguel. He was just beginning to recognize that more forces were at work in this affair than had appeared to be the case at first.


He considered letting them descend the spillway into Hell, slipping behind them, killing the man, disabling the woman, and then proceeding with a dual crucifixion. But there was something about the husband that unsettled him. He couldn't put his finger on it.


But he realized now that, in spite of his bravado, he had been avoiding a confrontation with the husband. In their house earlier in the night, when the element of surprise had still been his, he should have circled behind the husband and disposed of him first, before going after either Regina or Lindsey. Had he done so, he might have been able to acquire both woman and child at that time. By now he might have been happily engrossed in their mutilation.


Far above, the pearly glow of light had resolved into a pair of flashlight beams at the brink of the spillway. After a brief hesitation, they started down. Because he had put his sunglasses in his shirt pocket, Vassago was forced to squint at the slashing swords of light.


As before, he decided not to move against the man, choosing instead to retreat with the child. This time, however, he wondered at his prudence.


A Master of the Game, he thought, must exhibit iron control and choose the right moments to prove his power and superiority.


True. But this time the thought struck him as spineless justification for avoiding confrontation.


Nonsense. He was afraid of nothing in this world.


The flashlights were still a considerable distance away, focused on the floor of the spillway, not yet to the midpoint of the long incline. He could hear their footsteps, which grew louder and developed an echo as the pair advanced into the huge chamber.


He seized the catatonic girl, lifted her as if she weighed no more than a pillow, slung her over his shoulder, and moved soundlessly across the floor of Hell toward those rock formations where he knew a door to a service room was hidden.


“Oh, my God.”


“Don't look,” he told Lindsey as he swept the beam of his flashlight across the macabre collection. “Don't look, Jesus, cover my back, make sure he's not coming around on us.”


Gratefully, she did as he said, turning away from the array of posed cadavers in various stages of decomposition. She was certain that her sleep, even if she lived to be a hundred, would be haunted every night by those forms and faces. But who was she kidding—she would never make a hundred. She was beginning to think she wouldn't even make it through the night.


The very idea of breathing that air, reeking and impure, through her mouth was almost enough to make her violently ill. She did it anyway because it minimized the stink.


The darkness was so deep. The flashlight seemed barely able to penetrate. It was like syrup, flowing back into the brief channel that the beam stirred through it.


She could hear Hatch moving along the collection of bodies, and she knew what he had to be doing—taking a quick look at each of them, just to be sure that Jeremy Nyebern was not posed among them, one living monstrosity among those consumed by rot, waiting to spring at them the moment they passed him.


Where was Regina?


Ceaselessly, Lindsey swept her flashlight back and forth, back and forth, in a wide arc, never giving the murderous bastard a chance to sneak up on her before she brought the beam around again. But, oh, he was fast. She had seen how fast. Flying down the hallway into Regina's room, slamming the door behind him, fast as if he'd flown, had wings, bat wings. And agile. Down the trumpet-vine trellis with the girl over his shoulder, unfazed by the fall, up and off into the night with her.


Where was Regina?


She heard Hatch moving away, and she knew where he was going, not just following the line of bodies but circling the towering figure of Satan, to be sure Jeremy Nyebern wasn't on the other side of it. He was just doing what he had to do. She knew that, but she didn't like it anyway, not one little bit, because now she was alone with all of those dead people behind her. Some of them were withered and would make papery sounds if somehow they became animated and edged toward her, while others were in more horrendous stages of decomposition and sure to reveal their approach with thick, wet sounds.… And what crazy thoughts were these? They were all dead. Nothing to fear from them. The dead stayed dead. Except they didn't always, did they? No, not in her own personal experience, they didn't. But she kept sweeping her light back and forth, back and forth, resisting the urge to turn around and shine it on the festering cadavers behind her. She knew she should mourn them rather than fear them, be angry for the abuse and loss of dignity that they had suffered, but she only had room at the moment for fear. And now she heard Hatch coming closer, around the other side of the statue, completing his circumnavigation, thank God. But in the next breath, horribly metallic as it passed through her mouth, she wondered if it was Hatch or one of the bodies moving. Or Jeremy. She swung around, looking past the row of corpses rather than at them, and her light showed her that it was, indeed, Hatch coming back.


Where was Regina?


As if in answer, a distinctive creak sliced through the heavy air. Doors the world over made that identical sound when their hinges were corroded and unoiled.


She and Hatch swung their flashlights in the same direction. The overlapping terminuses of their beams showed they had both judged the origin of the sound to have come from a rock formation along the far shore of what would have been, with water, a lake larger than the lagoon outside.


She was moving before she realized it. Hatch whispered her name in an urgent tone that meant move aside, let me, I'll go first. But she could no more have held back than she could have turned coward and retreated up the spillway. Her Regina had been among the dead, perhaps spared the direct sight of them because of her strange keeper's aversion to light, but among them nevertheless and surely aware of them. Lindsey could not bear the thought of that innocent child held in this slaughterhouse one minute longer. Lindsey's own safety didn't matter, only Regina's.


As she reached the rocks and plunged in among them, stabbing here with her light, then there, then over there, shadows leaping, she heard the wail of distant sirens. Sheriffs men. Hatch's phone call had been taken seriously. But Regina was in the hands of Death. If the girl was still alive, she would not last as long as it would take the cops to find the funhouse and get down to the lair of Lucifer. So Lindsey pressed deeper into the rocks, the Browning in one hand, flashlight in the other, turning corners recklessly, taking chances, with Hatch close behind her.


She came upon the door abruptly. Metal, streaked with rust, operated by a push-bar rather than a knob. Ajar.


She shoved it open and went through without even the finesse that she should have learned from a lifetime of police movies and television shows. She exploded across the threshold as might a mother lion in pursuit of the predator that had dared to drag off her cub. Stupid, she knew that it was stupid, that she could get herself killed, but mother lions in a fever of matriarchal aggression were not notably creatures of reason. She was operating on instinct now, and instinct told her that they had the bastard on the run, had to keep him running to prevent him from dealing with the girl as he wanted, and should press him harder and harder until they had him in a corner.

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