Mystery Walk

Chapter 13

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41

They reached Mobile at twilight the following day, traveling in the equipment truck. Because Billy was in no shape to drive, the Volkswagen van had been left in Birmingham. Mirakle would hire someone to bring it down.

The boy's sick, Mirakle had repeatedly thought during the long drive. Billy had been racked alternately with chills and fever; he'd slept for most of the trip, but the shudderings and moanings he'd made spoke of nightmares beyond Mirakle's experience. It had been Dr. Mirakle's intention to put Billy on a bus and send him back to Hawthorne, but Billy had said no, that he'd promised to come to Mobile and he'd be all right if he could just rest.

Billy's pallor had faded to a grayish brown, his face covered with sweat as he huddled on the seat under a green army blanket. Emotions sizzled within him, and terror had a grip on his bones.

They were driving along the flat expanse of Mobile Bay, where small waves topped with dirty green foam rolled in to a bare brown shore. Mirakle glanced over and saw that Billy was awake. "Are you feeling better?"

"Yeah. Better."

"You should've eaten when we stopped. You need to keep up your strength."

He shook his head. "I probably couldn't keep food down."

"I don't expect you to help me now. Not after what happened. You're just too sick and weak."

"I'll be okay." Billy shivered and drew the coarse blanket closer around him, though the Gulf air was thick and sultry. He stared out the window at the rolling waves, amazed at the vista of so much water; the sun was setting behind gray clouds, casting a pearly sheen over the bay.

"I should put you on a bus and send you home," Dr. Mirakle said. "You know, I . . . don't understand what happened last night and maybe I don't want to, but . . . it seems to me you're a very special young man. And possibly you have a very special responsibility, too."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean . . . taking this power, or gift, or ability – whatever you choose to call it – and helping those parapsychologists I was telling you about. If you can communicate with the dead – 'lay the dead to rest,' I suppose you might call it – then you should be working with scientists, not traveling with a two-bit carnival or spending your life in a town the size of a postage stamp. Billy, you have much to offer; perhaps the answer to a great many mysteries … or perhaps the beginning of new ones. Does it . . . affect you like this, every time?"

"It's only happened like this once before. That was bad too, but this is . . . agony. It's like having a long scream bottled up inside you, but you can't find your voice to let it out. I feel like I'm burning up, but I'm cold too. There's too much going on in my head, and I … I can't think straight." He sighed, more of a breathy moan, and let his head fall back against the seat, his eyes closed. He had to open them again, quickly, because strange blurred visions – the last things those people had seen before they died in the gondola: spinning sky and blinking lights, fingers curled in the mesh of the canopy, the world turning at frightening speed in a blaze of colors – whirled in his brain.

Dr. Mirakle drove the truck over a long bridge, and then turned off the road into an area of older clapboard houses; most of them were two-storied structures that spoke of the harsh hand of time and salt-air abrasion. Mirakle stopped the truck before a large house with a front porch and boarded-over windows. The white paint was peeling in long strips, showing the bleached gray wood underneath. They sat in the truck for a moment more, as the gray light darkened. "You don't have to do this," Mirakle said.

"I know. The way I feel, I don't even know if I can."

"Was what you did worth the pain?"

Billy considered the question, then nodded. "Yes. It was."

"And you'd do the same thing again?"

"I don't know. I try to . . . think I'm strong enough, but I'm afraid. And I know that when I'm afraid, I get weaker" He turned his weary gaze onto Mirakle. "I don't want to be like I am. I never asked for it. Oh God, if I just could forget about revenants and the black aura and Death for a little while! … I want to be like everybody else."

"Everybody else is afraid, too," the man said quietly. "But don't you understand that you of all people shouldn't be afraid, because you can see past Death to another kind of life? You know that going into the ground isn't the end of it; and if you can help other people see that, then . . . your life can make a difference in the whole scheme of things! My God, what an opportunity you have! If I were in my right mind, I'd try to talk you into touring the country with me, and giving some sort of demonstration of the spirit world! We'd wind up as either millionaires or skid-row bums!"

Billy smiled grimly.

"But," Mirakle continued, "your future lies far beyond the carnival circuit, Billy. Think about that parapsychology institute I told you about in Chicago. Will you?"

"Okay," Billy said. "I will."

"Good. Well. Are you ready? We'll leave the equipment in the truck for now."

They got out, Billy following Dr. Mirakle up a weeded-over sidewalk. It was all he could do to climb the porch steps.

"Forgive the place," Mirakle said. He left the door open so air could circulate. "I had to board up the windows after the glass was broken out one summer. It wouldn't be worth putting new glass in. Thank God the electricity still works."

"Do you have a telephone?" Billy wanted to call the hospital in Birmingham again, to check on Santha Tully. Early this afternoon, when he'd called for the second time, a nurse had told him that Santha was still on the critical list and that the antivenom flown up from Florida had been administered soon after Santha had been brought in.

"No, I'm afraid not. I don't have any callers. Please, sit down." He scooped newspapers out of the sofa and dumped them on the floor "I know you're concerned about your friend, but I'm sure they're doing everything they can for her. We'll find a phone booth later, if you like."

Billy nodded, wandering over to the bookshelves. He'd seen a pale gray aura around her, not a black one – did that mean there was a chance she might survive?

Mirakle said, "Why don't you sit down and rest. I'll look in the kitchen, perhaps I can find something to eat. All right?" Billy nodded, and the man went back through a corridor to the rear of the house. "Chicken noodle okay with you?" he called out in another moment. "It's canned, so I presume it's safe to eat."

"That's fine, thanks." Billy stepped into another large room, his shoes stirring up clouds of dust. The room held a cluttered desk and an upright piano with yellow keys. He punched his finger at a few of them, hearing off-key notes ring like a stabbed cat. Then he went through another door into the hallway, and there was the staircase that Dr. Mirakle had told him about. A single bulb studded the ceiling at the top of the stairs, casting a murky gray glow.

Billy touched the banister. He could hear Mirakle wrestling with pots and pans in the kitchen, at the hallway's end. He climbed the steps slowly, his hand clenching the banister, and when he reached the top he sat down. Water was running in the kitchen. Billy said softly, "Kenneth?" He waited for a few minutes, trying to concentrate through a wall of leftover terrors. "Kenneth?" he whispered.

There was a figure at the bottom of the stairs. It stood motionlessly for a moment, then placed a foot on the first step.

Billy sighed and shook his head. "I don't think there's anyone here. There might not have ever been."

"I know," Mirakle replied softly. "I . . . had once hoped that Kenneth was here, but . . . that's a selfish hope, isn't it? If some part of him remained, that would mean he was troubled, wouldn't it?"

Billy nodded.

"I don't know what Ellen saw, if indeed she saw anything at all, but we both had to shoulder a lot of pain. I think . . . seeing Kenneth's ghost was a way for Ellen to deal with his death, but instead of laying him to rest she tried to resurrect him. He was a very good boy. You would've liked him. Is there … is there nothing of him left?"

"Oh yes." Billy rose to his feet. "You bring him back to life when you remember him. Remembering doesn't have to be sad; it's a good thing, because you can keep your son with you all the time, in your heart and your memory. I think he's resting easy now, and he's gone on to whatever's waiting, but he's still alive inside you."

Dr. Mirakle smiled wistfully. "Yes. And I guess that's good enough, isn't it? Kenneth always remains a young man in my memories; he's always handsome in his uniform, and he's always the best son any man could ask for." He lowered his head and Billy heard him sigh deeply. Then he said, "I'd better check the soup. I've been known to burn it," and returned to the kitchen.

Billy stood at the top of the stairs for a while longer, his hand on the railing. But there was nothing there. Nothing stirred the air around him, nothing tried to make desperate contact, nothing yearned to shrug off its earthly pains and pass on. The house was silent and at peace. Billy descended the stairs and returned to the piano room. He ran his hands over the heat-cracked wood of the piano, tracing fingers over the battered and worn keyboard. He sat down on the bench and hit a single note that reverberated sharply in the air. Then another note, down in the bass register, that moaned like a low wind on a winter's night. He hit three notes at the same time, and winced at their discordant wail. The next try, though, the sound was sweet and harmonious, like a cooling balm against the fever that churned within him. Looking at the keyboard, trying to figure it out, was a mystery in itself: why were some keys black and others white? How could anybody make music out of it? What did those pedals down there do?

And suddenly he brought both fists crashing down onto the keyboard. Notes shrieked and shrilled, and Billy could feel the vibration thrumming up his wrists, up his forearms, his shoulders, his neck, and right to the top of his skull. The sound was awful, but somehow the energy he'd expended had cracked the hot cauldron of emotions in him, a tiny crack allowing a trickle to escape. Billy hammered again, with his left fist. Then with his right. Then both fists were coming down like pistons, and the house was pounding with a rough, jarring noise that perhaps harmonized with the music of terror and confusion. The old piano seemed about to burst with explosive noise; under Billy's relentless pounding several pieces of ivory flew off like rotten teeth. But when he stopped and he listened to the last echoes dying away there did seem to be a music in them: an eerie harmony of ignorantly struck chords, fading away now, fading into the very walls of the house. And Billy felt as if that cauldron had split down the middle, all the terrors and pains streaming out and flooding through him into this instrument that stood before him. He felt lightened, cleansed, and exhilarated.

And he remembered his grandmother saying, a long time ago, that it would be up to him to find a way to release the emotions he absorbed through contact with the revenants. She had her pottery, just as his mother had her needlepoint, and now . . . what was closer to human emotion than music? But how to bring out real music from this assembly of wood and metal wires? How to caress it instead of beating it half to death? How to let it soothe away the pain instead of ripping it out?

"Well," Dr Mirakle said from behind him, holding a tray with two bowls of soup, "I'm glad to see my house is still standing. I'm sure the police are on their way by now, but we'll ask them to join in the jamboree."

"Is this yours? Do you know how to play it?"

"Me? No, I couldn't play a kazoo. My wife is . . . was a piano teacher for a while. Can I venture to say that you're no Liberace?"

"Who?"

"Never mind. Then again, neither is Liberace a Billy Creekmore. Come on, we'll eat in the front room, it's too dark in here." He paused, because Billy wasn't rising from the bench. Instead, the boy was fingering the keyboard again, picking at various notes as if he'd stumbled upon Captain Kidd's treasure. "It's probably not too hard to learn," Mirakle said. "I never had the inclination, but there are a stack of old instruction books down in the basement. Are you interested?"

He struck a high note and listened to it sing. "Yes sir."

"I'll get them for you, then. They're probably so mildewed you can't read them, but …" Mirakle came over and set the tray down atop the piano. He saw the look of excitement in Billy's eyes, and noticed also that his coloring had improved. It had been a great relief, in a way, to hear that Kenneth was resting far from the confines of this house. "You've been a great help to me," Dr. Mirakle said. "I appreciate all the work you've done. I . don't know what's ahead for you, but I think I'll be hearing frorm you again. At the very least, I hope you'll write to let me know how you're doing."

"Yes sir, I will."

"I have an idea you're the kind of young man who means what he says. That's rare enough in itself, in this day and age. In the morning I'll take you to the bus station; I would offer you a sizeable increase in pay to join me on the carnival circuit next season, but . . . you've got better things to do, I think." He smiled. The thought streaked through him that somehow he was losing a second son, and he touched Billy's shoulder. "The soup's getting cold. Come on, let's eat."

Mirakle took the tray into the front room; Billy paused at the keyboard a moment longer, then joined him. Young man, Mirakle thought, I wish you much luck. That is the very least of what you'll need on your journey.

And it was possible – no, probable, Mirakle told himself – that sometime before winter's cold set in he might drive the truck back up to Hawthorne, back to that little shack off from the road, and deliver a piano that might yet learn to sing again.

NINE

Revelations

42

"He went to sleep," Ramona said, long gray strands of her hair blowing from around her scarf. There were deep lines under her eyes and on each side of her nose, yet she refused to bend to the will of the years; she carried herself strong and straight, her chin uplifted. "I read the Bible to him that night, and we ate a good dinner of vegetables. He talked a lot about you, as he had for the few days before that, and he said he was trying very hard to understand . . . what we're like. He said he knew you were going to be a great man, and he'd be proud of you. Then he said he was going to take a nap, and I washed the dishes. When I went in later to see about him, he . . . was as peaceful as a child. I pulled the covers over him, and then I went to get the doctor."

Billy touched the granite marker A chill breeze was sweeping down into their faces from the hills, and already winter was knocking at the door though it was hardly the middle of October. He'd come walking up the road yesterday, lugging his suitcase from the Greyhound bus stop at Coy Granger's, and had seen his mother out in the field, gathering pecans in a bowl. His father wasn't sitting on the front porch. The Oldsmobile was gone – sold for scrap, he'd later learned, to pay for his father's casket. The house was the same, fixed up and painted with the money he'd sent home; but things had changed. He could see the passage of time in his mother's face, and from what she'd told him his father had died near the time Billy had dreamed of him and his dad walking along the road to Hawthorne. Billy said, "You had to know. The aura. Didn't you see it?"

"Yes, I did," Ramona replied quietly. "I knew, and so did he. Your father had made his peace with the world . . . and especially with himself. He raised you with a good, strong hand and he worked very hard for us. He didn't always agree with us or understand us, but that was never the point: at the end, he loved us just as much as he always had. He was ready."

"Ready?" Billy shook his head disbelievingly. "Do you mean he just . . . wanted to die? No, I don't believe that!"

She looked at him with a cool, level gaze. "He didn't fight it. He didn't want to. At the end he had the mind of a child, and as all children have faith, so did he."

"But . . . I . . . should've been here! You should've written me! I . . . didn't … get to say good-bye! . . ."

"What would that have changed?" She shook her head and put a hand on his arm. A tear streaked down his cheek, and he let it fall. "You're here now," she said. "And though he is not, you'll always be John Creekmore's son, and he'll be in your child's blood as well. So is he really gone?"

Billy felt the restless wind pulling at him, heard it whispering around the pungent pines. It was true that his father lived within him, he knew, but still . . . separation was so hard to take. It was so hard not to miss someone, not to cry for him and mourn him; easy to look at death from a distance, more difficult to stare into its face. He already felt a world away from the carnival with its riotous noises and flashing lights; here on this bluff, framed by hills covered with woodland and overshadowed by gray sky, he seemed to stand at the center of a great silence. He ran his hands over the rough gravestone and remembered how his father's unshaven jaw had felt against his cheek. The world was spinning too fast! he thought; there were too many changes in the wind, and the summer of his childhood seemed lost in the past. For one thing he could be happy: before leaving Mobile yesterday morning, he'd called the hospital in Birmingham and had been told that Santha Tully was going to be all right.

"Winter's on the way," Ramona said. "It's going to be a cold one, too, from the way these pines have grown thick."

"I know." He looked at his mother. "I don't want to be like I am, Mom. I never asked for this. I don't want to see ghosts and the black aura, I want to be like everybody else. It's too hard this way; it's too . . . strange."

"Just as your father's in your blood," she replied, "so am I. No one ever said it would be easy. . . ."

"But no one ever gave me a choice, either."

"That's true. Because there can be no choice. Oh, you can live as a hermit and shut out the world, as I tried to do after you were born, but sooner or later there comes a knock at your door."

He thrust his hands into the pockets of his jacket, and hunched over as a cold wind blew around him. Ramona put her arm around him. Her crying was done, but it almost broke her heart to see so much pain in her son. Still, she knew that pain sculpts the soul, molds the will, and would leave him standing stronger when he'd finally straightened up.

After another moment he wiped his eyes on his sleeve and said, "I'm all right. I didn't mean to . . . act like a baby."

"Let's walk," she told him, and together they went down the hill among the tombstones, heading toward the road. It was over two miles back to the house, but they were in no hurry.

"What do I do now?" Billy asked.

"I don't know. We'll see." She was silent for a few minutes as they walked, and Billy knew that something important was on her mind. They came to a place where a stream spoke over flat stones, and Ramona suddenly motioned for him to stop. She said, "My legs aren't what they used to be, I'll tell you. When I was a girl I could run this distance without breathing hard, and now already I'm hiccuping like a frog." She sat down on a rock that had people's initials scraped on it. He lay on his stomach in the grass, watching the pattern of water as it swirled over the stones. "There are things you need to know now," Ramona said. "I couldn't have told you while your father was living, though he was well aware of them too. I'm going to tell you, and then you'll have to make up your own mind about what to do."

"What things?"

She looked up, watching a squadron of crows fly across her field of vision. Off in the distance there was the faint reflection of sunlight off an airplane, climbing toward the clouds. "The world's changing so fast," she said, almost to herself. "People fighting in the streets, killing and hating each other; children trying to escape through God knows what kind of drugs; a war going on and on and on without clarity or point . . . these things are making me afraid, because evil's walking without fear, and it changes its shape and voice to gain its own greedy end. It's reaching out, wanting more and more. You saw it once before, a long time ago, in the smokehouse."

"The shape changer," Billy said.

"That's right. It was testing you, probing at you. It tested you again, at the carnival, but you were stronger than it took you to be."

"Have you ever seen it?"

"Oh yes. Several times." She looked at him through narrowed eyes. "It always taunted me and tried to trick me, but I saw through its tricks. I wouldn't let it get into my mind; I wouldn't let it make me doubt myself, or my abilities. But now my work's almost done, Billy. Now the shape changer sees no threat in me; it wants you, and it'll do everything it can to destroy you."

"But I'll be all right, won't I? As long as I don't let it into my mind?"

She paused, listening to the sound of wind through the trees. "The shape changer never gives up, Billy," she said quietly. "Never It's as old as time, and it knows the meaning of patience. It means to catch you unawares, in a weak moment. And I think it's most dangerous when it's feeding off the dead, like a beast gnawing on bones. It draws in a revenant's energy to make itself stronger. I wish I could tell you that I know the limits of the shape changer's powers, but I don't. Oh, there's so much you need to know, Billy!" She gazed at him for a moment. "But I can't teach you. Life will."

"Then I'll learn," he replied.

"You'll have to." Ramona sighed deeply. "This is what I have to tell you: you were not born into this world alone."

Billy frowned. "What?"

"You were one of two," she said, staring off at the trees. "You were born first, but behind you there was a second child. You were so close inside me that the doctor could only hear one heartbeat, and in those days the medical facilities weren't very good. So: there were two children, born in a pickup truck on the way to the hospital on a cold night in November. Both of you were born with cauls, a sure sign of spiritual powers. Yours covered your face. His . . . had torn loose, and he was gripping it in his hands. Even so young, something within your brother made him want to escape his Mystery Walk. You weren't identical twins, though; you had my coloring, while he looked more like his father."

Her eyes were dark pools as she gazed solemnly at Billy. "You see, your father and I were very poor. We could hardly feed ourselves, much less two more mouths. We were expecting one, and we had to choose. That was the most terrible decision of my life, son. There's … a man named Tillman, who buys and sells babies. He bought your brother from us, and he promised to find him a good home." Her hands clenched into fists, and strain showed on her lined face. "It was … the only thing we could do, and we both agonized over it so long. Your father was never the same after we went through with it. We had to choose, and we chose you. Do you understand?"

"I . . . think so." Billy recalled the woman at the tent revival, a long time ago, confessing the sin of selling her baby. God, how that moment must've pained his mother!

"For years I thought nothing would come of it," she said. "Your father and I often wondered what had happened to him, but you were our son and we wanted to give you our full love and attention. But then … I saw him, and I knew from the first minute who he was. I knew that he might have a special power too, but that it might be different from yours . . . and I saw in his eyes that he was being used without knowing it. I saw him that summer night at the Falconer Crusade. He looks just like your father, but enough like Jimmy Jed Falconer to pass as his son."

Billy sat frozen for a moment, shocked numb. "No," he whispered. "No, not him. . . ."

"You know it's true. I've seen the way you look at each other. You've felt the same thing, probably, as him – maybe a kind of curiosity or attraction. I think . . . both of you need the other, without knowing it. You understand the meaning of your Mystery Walk, but Wayne is afraid and floundering in the dark."

"Why?" he asked, rising to his feet. He was angry and confused and dazed, and he realized he had always felt a pull toward the young evangelist, but he'd fought against it. "If it was a secret for so long, why tell me now?"

"Because J. J. Falconer passed on this summer. He was all that stood between Wayne and the grinding gears of that Crusade machine he built. Wayne is a young businessman now, and his mind is sealed with Jimmy Jed Falconer's thumbprint. He'll follow his father's path, but he doesn't know what's waiting for him at the end of it. He was taught at an early age how to use the power of fear and hatred and call it religion. His spirit is weak, Billy. The shape changer looks for weakness, and if it can use Wayne Falconer against you, it will – in a minute."

Billy bent and picked up a rock, flinging it into the stream. A bird wheeled for the sky from its cover of brush. "Why does he hate us?"

"He may feel the same pull we do. He may mistake it for our trying to lure him away from what he thinks is the righteous path. He doesn't understand us, and neither did his father."

"Do you think he could . . . ever really heal?" Billy asked her.

"I don't know. He's charismatic, there's no doubt. He can make a person believe they've been healed, even if maybe nothing's wrong with them. Falconer had a hand in teaching him that. But if Wayne can heal, he has to find that power deep inside himself, just like you do when you take on the revenants. He has to hurt, just like you do. The Crusade demands that he heal time after time, with no stopping. I think he pretends to heal so he won't have to feel that pain, if indeed he ever really felt it. Oh, he may be able to throw those people a spark or two – but if you throw off enough sparks, you don't have enough left to start a fire when you really need it."

"What's going to happen to him?"

"He may crack under the weight of the Crusade, or he might find the strength to stand on his own two feet. For him, that might be turning away from the greed that's all around him, and finding out he can learn more about his healing power and he doesn't have to sell it every day on a stage." She shook her head. "I don't think he'll leave the Crusade, though. It would be too much of a leap into the dark for him."

Billy's shoulders sagged. Ramona stood up, unsteadily. "We'd better be getting home before it gets dark," she said wearily.

"No, not yet. I need to … be alone for a while, to think. All right?"

She nodded. "Take all the time you need." She touched his cheek with a lingering hand, then started to walk away.

He asked, "Are you afraid of him?"

"Yes," she said. "There's something in him that wants to come home, but he doesn't know the way." She walked on, alongside the littered road, toward Hawthorne.

Billy watched her go, then crossed the stream to lose himself in the forest.

43

Beneath the same forbidding October sky, a group of men in business suits were slowly walking the length of the county's huge public swimming pool just outside Fayette. The pool was drained and in need of painting.

"I want it rebuilt," Wayne Falconer was saying to O'Brien, the architect from Birmingham, "in the shape of a Cross. I want the church there." He pointed to the concessions building. "I want it to be the biggest church this state has ever seen. And I want a fountain in the middle of the pool. One with colored lights. Can you do that?"

O'Brien chewed on a toothpick and nodded thoughtfully. "I think so. Have to be careful with wiring. Don't want to electrocute anybody. It would be some visual effect though, wouldn't it?" He grinned. "Not electrocution … I mean the colors."

Henry Bragg and George Hodges laughed. Bragg was still lean and boyish-looking, only a touch of gray in his stylishly cut sandy-brown hair; as a rule he wore blue blazers and gray slacks with razor-sharp creases. He'd moved his growing family to Fayette four years ago and had taken over the job of chief attorney for the Falconer Crusade, Inc.

George Hodges, by contrast, had not aged so gracefully. He was bald except for a fringe of brown hair, and his face had slowly collapsed into folds under the pull of gravity. He wore a rumpled brown suit, his breast pocket lined with pens.

"I want this to be the biggest baptismal pool in the world," Wayne said. The Crusade had recently purchased the pool for a million and a half. "People will come here from everywhere, wanting to be baptized. Of course, there'll be regular swimming here too – for Christian youth only – but the baptisms will be the big thing. It'll be . . . like a Christian swim club, but there won't be membership fees. There'll be donations to the Falconer Memorial. . . ." His voice trailed off. He was staring at the high-diving platform, the Tower. He remembered when he was almost ten, and he'd finally gotten the nerve to climb up there and try to jump. Poised on the edge, he felt his knees shaking – and then the older kids down in the pool had started yelling for him to jump, jump, Wayne, jump. It was just too high, and from way up there it looked like a sheet of blue glass that would cut him to pieces. Coming carefully down, he'd tripped and fallen and busted his lip and, crying, had run out to where the church bus was parked to get away from the laughter.

"I want that down," Wayne said quietly. "The Tower. I want it down, first thing."

"That's been here for over twenty-five years, Wayne," George Hodges said. "It's sort of a symbol for the whole – "

"Down," Wayne told him, and Hodges was silent.

At the far end of the pool, Wayne suddenly dismissed Bragg and O'Brien. As the two men walked away, Hodges waited uneasily for Wayne to speak. The young man stared at the pool, took a small bottle from his coat, and popped a pill into his mouth. His eyes were almost the same shade as the pool's faded paint. "I know I can trust you, George. You've always been there when I needed you." Hodges had done such a good job in his years as the Crusade's business manager that he could now afford a colonial-style house a few miles from the Falconer estate.

"That's right, Wayne," Hodges replied.

Wayne looked at him. "My daddy came again last night. He sat on the foot of my bed, and we had a long talk."

Hodges's face pulled tight. Oh God! he thought. Not again!

"He told me that the Creekmore witch and her boy want me now, George. They want to destroy me, like they destroyed my daddy."

"Wayne," Hodges said quietly, "please don't do this. That woman lives in Hawthorne. She's no threat to you. Why don't you just forget about her, and let's go on like – "

"I can feel her wanting me to come to her!" Wayne said. "I can feel her eyes on me, and I can hear her filthy voice, calling to me at night! And that boy's just as bad as she is! He puts himself in my head sometimes, and I can't get him out!"

Hodges nodded. Cammy was calling him at all hours of the night now, and driving him crazy with her complaints about Wayne's fits of black temper. One night last week Wayne had left the house and gone to the airport, flying up in the company Beechcraft and doing loops and circles like a maniac. Wayne wasn't yet eighteen, yet already he was faced with decisions that would stagger a seasoned business executive. Maybe it was understandable, Hodges thought, that Wayne should pretend to be counseled by his father's ghost as a way of shouldering the burden.

"My daddy says the Creekmores should burn in Hell," Wayne was saying. "He says, 'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.'"

"Wayne, we sent some people over to Hawthorne to ask around about her, just as you wanted. She stays to herself and never goes out, her son went and joined the circus or something, and her husband died not too long ago. She's strange, but so what? She's nothing but a faker. If she could really see ghosts and all that junk, then why isn't she out doing seances or stuff like that for rich people? And your daddy is dead, Wayne. He doesn't come to you at night. He doesn't advise you about business deals. Please, Wayne. Let him go."

Wayne blinked and touched his forehead gingerly. "I'm tired," he said. "All these meetings make me so tired. I wish I could sleep at night. I need more sleeping pills. The ones you got me before aren't strong enough."

"They'd knock out a horse!" Hodges grasped Wayne's arm. "Now listen to me. You've got to stop taking so many pills! I swear to God I could cut my throat for getting you that damned Percodan! Now you take stuff to put you to sleep and stuff to get you up in the morning."

"Daddy says for me to," Wayne said, his face expressionless.

"No. No more pills." Hodges shook his head and started to walk away.

"George?" Wayne's voice was soft and silken. Hodges stopped in his tracks and clenched his fists at his sides. "George, you forget. If I can't sleep, I can't address all those civic groups I'm supposed to meet with. I can't do the radio and the television shows. I can't go over the magazine material. I can't plan for next year's revival circuit. Can I?"

Hodges turned, his face reddening. "You don't need any more damned pills, Wayne!"

"Get them. Or I'll find someone who will."

Oh, that would be just dandy! Hodges thought. If someone outside the organization found out that Little Wayne Falconer was turning into a junkie, and having strange delusions as well, the press would tear the Crusade to pieces! "You need help. And not the kind you get from pills."

Wayne's eyes flashed. "I said get them for me, George! I want to be able to sleep without hearing that witch and her boy calling my name!"

Hodges knew he should say no. He knew he should tell Henry about the delusions. Wayne was coming apart at the seams. The entire Crusade was in danger. But his mouth opened and he said in a harsh rasp, "This is the last time, damn it! Do you hear me? If you ask me again, I walk. I swear it!"

Wayne smiled. "Fine. Now, I want this done too: I want an electric fence put up around the house by the time I get back from Nashville. And I want a new watchman hired. A younger man. I don't feel safe in the house anymore."

Hodges nodded grimly.

Wayne patted his back. "I know I can depend on you. Daddy says so." And then Wayne walked away to rejoin Bragg and O'Brien, new confidence in his stride.

George Hodges was in agony. The boy was killing himself with those pills! He'd promised J.J. he'd do his best to help Wayne with the business, but very often now he thought that they were all in danger of being consumed by a monstrous machine that had very little to do with personal worship. The Christian rock bands, the prayer cloths and the Clowns for Jesus at those revival meetings were just too much!

"George?" Bragg called to him. "What're you dreamin' about?"

I could walk away from it, he told himself. Yes. Anytime I want to. But he switched a ragged smile on his face and said, "Nothing. You boys want to get some lunch? I know a place that serves fine barbecue."

TEN

Krepsin

44

The lights were lowered in the projection room. Mr Niles picked up the telephone receiver set into the arm of his chair. "Mr. Krepsin's ready," he said.

A thin beam of light hit the screen. Luxuriating on a deserted beach was a beautiful brunette in a black skintight bikini. Palms stirred indolently behind her as she combed her long, shining black hair She glanced at the camera, smiling as she spread suntan oil across her stomach. She undid her bikini top and tossed it aside.

Lovely young woman, Niles thought. Coarse-looking, but certainly attractive. The projector was silent, but the room itself seemed to breathe: there was a muted noise of machinery at work, and the hiss of manufactured air. Niles was a lean man of indeterminate age; though his close-cropped hair was gray, his face was as smooth as a teenager's. His deep-set eyes were such a pale tint of gray that they seemed almost white. He wore a lightweight dark blue suit, comfortable for the Palm Springs climate. Around him the room throbbed quietly; the air was being cleaned over and over again, drawn in and out of a maze of hidden ducts in the thick, windowless walls. There was a faint aroma of pine-scented disinfectant.

On the screen, the young woman smiled nervously and took off her bikini bottom. There was a small dark birthmark on her lower stomach. A man, heavyset and wearing only khaki slacks, stepped into the frame, his back to the camera. Without ceremony he took off his pants.

"This time the photography's very clear, isn't it?" A large, indistinct shape sitting in a special double-width seat a few chairs away from Niles stirred slightly. Heavy-duty springs moaned. A football-shaped bald head was tilted to one side, and tiny black eye's glinted in thick folds of flesh. "Yes, very good. You see all the details in this film." His breathing was like the harsh noise of a bellows, and he had to gulp for air between words. "I didn't like the last two films. Too grainy."

"Yes sir" Niles watched the sexual acrobatics on the screen with only mild interest.

"Popcorn?" the obese man asked, offering a box to Niles.

"No thank you."

He grunted and dug one hand into the buttered popcorn, then filled his mouth. A second man, thin and with the tattoo of a skull on his shoulder, had joined in the action.

Niles never knew what films they'd be viewing. Sometimes they were simply parodies of Roadrunner or Tom and Jerry cartoons, other times old and rare silent films. Usually, though, they were like these – sent up from Mexico by Senor Alvarado. They didn't bother Niles, but he thought they were a waste of good film.

The girl lay on her stomach in the sand, her eyes closed. She was obviously exhausted. The first man came back onscreen. He was carrying a ball peen hammer.

The bulk of bone and fat had leaned forward. He tilted the popcorn to his mouth and then put the empty box on the floor. He wore a royal-blue caftan that seemed the size of a tent. "She doesn't know, does she?" Augustus Krepsin said quietly. "She thinks she's going to take her money and go buy herself a new dress, doesn't she?"

"Yes sir."

The hammer rose and fell. Krepsin's hands clenched in his lap. The second man, now wearing a black mask, stepped back onto the screen. He pulled the cord on a chain saw he was holding, and his skinny arms vibrated.

Krepsin's breathing was audible; his eyes darted from one figure to the next as the true action and intent of the film unfolded. When the screen finally went black, Niles could hear Krepsin's soft moan of pleasure. The projectionist was smart enough not to turn the lights up yet. Then Krepsin said, in a childlike voice, "I want light now, Mr. Niles."

He relayed the order through the telephone. As the lights slowly came up, Krepsin was leaning back in his chair with an oxygen mask pressed to his face, his eyes closed.

Niles watched him for a few silent moments. He'd worked for Augustus Krepsin for almost six years, first as a liaison between Krepsin and the overlords of organized crime in Mexico, now as a companion and righthand man here in Palm Springs. Still, he knew very little about the man. Krepsin was the king of his own hard-won empire. He had originally come to this country from Greece before World War II, and somewhere along the line Krepsin had become entranced with two subjects: death and disease. He talked about each with a clinical interest, and he watched the snuff films as if he could see the center of the universe in a dismembered corpse. Krepsin had built his Palm Springs fortress with strict cleanliness in mind, and rarely ventured out of it.

The telephone in the arm of Niles's chair buzzed softly. He picked up the receiver. "Yes?"

The operator said, "Mr. Niles? Jack Braddock's on the line again from Nashville."

"Mr Krepsin doesn't want to be disturbed. Tell Braddock – "

"Just a moment," Krepsin said. "Jack Braddock?" He breathed deeply and then took off his oxygen mask. "I'll talk to him." Krepsin's organization had taken over Braddock's Essex Records Company in Nashville several years ago. Essex was continuing to lose money, and there had been a record-pirating scandal two years ago that Essex had barely squeaked out of. Krepsin was beginning to regret letting such a poor manager as Braddock stay on, though Essex had been purchased primarily as an avenue to launder dirty money.

Niles told the operator to put the call through, and Krepsin answered the phone. "What do you want?"

There was a startled intake of air almost fifteen hundred miles away. "Uh . . . sorry to bother you, Mr. Krepsin. But somethin's come up that I need to – "

"Why don't you take speech lessons, Braddock? Everyone down there sounds as if they haven't had a good bowel movement in years. I can send you some herbal pills that will clean you out."

Braddock laughed nervously.

"I hope your line is green," Krepsin said. A bugged line would be "red." After the pirating mess, Krepsin suspected the FBI tapped Essex's phones.

"I'm calling from a pay phone."

"All right. What is it?"

"Well, I got a visit from a lawyer named Henry Bragg yesterday afternoon. He represents the Falconer Crusade, and they want to start making records. They're looking for an independent company to buy, and – "

"Falconer Crusade? What is that?"

"Religious bunch. They're into publishing, radio, lots of stuff. I don't suppose you get the 'Wayne Falconer Power Hour' on TV out there, do you?"

"I don't watch television. It sends out radiation, and radiation causes bone cancer."

"Oh. Yes sir Well, this Mr. Bragg is backed by a lot of money. They want to make an offer for Essex."

Krepsin was silent for a moment. Then he said, "Essex is not for sale. Not to anyone. We worked too hard getting through our troubles with the authorities to give it up just yet. Is this the important reason you've called me?"

On the other end, Braddock coughed. Krepsin knew the man was addicted to cigars, and he thought: Throat cancer. Malignant cells, running rampant through Braddock's body. Disease breeding disease. "There is one other thing I thought you might be interested in," Braddock said. "Wayne Falconer. He runs the whole Crusade from a little town in Alabama. He's only about twenty years old, but he's a hell of a preacher And he's a healer, too."

Krepsin paused. His face folded in thought. "Healer?"

"Yes sir. Cures people of all kinds of diseases. I saw him straighten a man's back on television last week, saw him heal a pair of crippled legs, too. Bragg says they want to make self-healing records for people to listen to. He says the boy wants to tour Essex, if it's on the market."

"A healer?" Krepsin asked. "Or is he simply a good actor?"

"An awful lot of people believe in him. And like I say, that Crusade's just rollin' in the money."

"Oh?" Krepsin grunted softly, his small black eyes glittered. "A healer? Mr. Braddock, I may have been hasty. I want you to contact those people. Let them tour Essex. Talk it up. I'm going to send Mr Niles to represent the corporation. You and he will work together, and I want to know everything about this Falconer boy. Understand?"

"Yes sir."

"Good. And one more thing: I don't want Mr. Niles returning to Palm Springs with his suits fouled by cigar smoke. Now get in contact with those people at once." He hung up and turned toward Niles. "You're leaving for Nashville today. I want something called the Falconer Crusade thoroughly investigated. I want to know everything about a boy named Wayne Falconer."

"Yes sir," Niles said. "May I ask why?"

"Because he's either a cunning charlatan – or he's a genuine healer. And if that's so, I want him here. With me. It's time for my massage now."

Niles helped Krepsin rise from the chair. The man's huge bulk – over four hundred pounds on a large-boned frame five-feet six-inches tall – left its shape impressed in the leather. As they neared the door, an electric eye triggered the mechanism that both unlocked the door and started a new flow of charcoal-filtered air in the outside corridor.

After they'd gone, a Mexican maid in a long white smock entered the empty projection room and began vacuuming the carpet. She wore spotless white gloves and white cotton slippers, and across the lower half of her face was a surgical mask.

45

There was a letter from Dr. Mirakle in the mailbox today. Billy read it as he walked up the hill to the house in the clear golden light of late October.

Dr. Mirakle said he had his eye on a cottage in Florida. He asked if Billy had read the last batch of books on spiritualism he'd sent, and how his piano lessons were coming along. He asked also if Billy had given any more thought to visiting that institute in Chicago.

Billy slipped the letter back into its envelope. Since that strange autumn three years ago, Dr. Mirakle had written frequently, and often sent him books on a variety of subjects. He'd visited once, about three months after Billy had come home to find his father buried, and had brought the old piano, tuned and repaired, that now stood in the front room.

The house was painted white, its windows glinting with sunlight. A wisp of smoke curled from the chimney. Around the house the trees had burst into color, and in the breeze there was a faint chill of approaching winter. An old brown pickup truck, an ugly and unreliable beast bought over a year before with money from a sizable corn crop, rested in front of the house. The Creekmore place was now one of the last houses that didn't have electricity, but Billy didn't mind. The dark wasn't threatening, and late at night the kerosene lanterns cast a soft golden glow that was much better, to his way of thinking, than harsh white electricity.

He was less than a month shy of turning twenty-one. In the last three years he'd grown another two inches and had gained twenty pounds, all of it firm muscle that came from hard outdoor work. His face had sharpened and matured, and thick dark curls tumbled over his forehead; his dark eyes glittered with an earthy intelligence, and could shine with good humor as well. He walked up onto the front porch and went into the house, past the upright piano in the front room; he'd been taking lessons for two years from a retired music teacher at two dollars a week, and had progressed from pounding hell out of the instrument to letting it draw the moods from him as his fingers rippled across the keyboard. Many evenings his mother sat with her needlepoint, listening to the slightly warped chords but appreciating the feeling behind the music.

"Any mail?" she called from the kitchen.

"One letter, from Dr. Mirakle. He says hello." He sat down in a chair before the hearth and read Dr Mirakle's letter again. When he looked up, Ramona was standing over him, drying her hands on a dishrag. "Did he mention that place again?" she asked quietly.

He nodded and handed her the letter, but she didn't read it. "Chicago. I wonder what kind of city that is?"

"Probably dirty," Billy replied. "They've got gangsters up there, too."

Ramona smiled. "I believe that was a long time ago you're thinking of. But I suppose there are gangsters just about everywhere." She rubbed her callused fingers; they were stiff and unresponsive. The lines in her face were many and deep. "I wonder what that institute would be like. Don't you wonder sometimes?"

"No."

"We could afford a bus ticket, if you wanted to go. From what I recall, they were eager to hear from you."

Billy grunted, watching the small tongues of flame in the hearth. "They'd probably treat me like a freak."

"Are you afraid to go?"

"I don't want to go."

"That's not what I asked." She stood over him for a moment more, then she went to a window and looked out. The breeze stirred reddening leaves. "You'll be twenty-one in November," she said. "I know . . . things happened to you when you joined that Ghost Show. I know that you came back home bearing scars. That's all right. Only tough folks carry scars. Maybe I shouldn't stick my nose in where it doesn't belong, but … I think you should go to that institute, I think you should see what they have to say."

"I don't belong up there. …"

"No." Ramona turned toward him. "You don't belong here. Not anymore. The land and the house are in fine shape, and now you're just filling up your days trying to stay busy. What kind of life is ahead for you in Hawthorne? Answer me that."

"A good life. I'll work hard, and I'll read, and I'll keep up my music …"

"… and there goes another year, doesn't it? Boy, have you forgotten everything your grandmother and I tried to teach you about the Mystery Walk? That you have to be strong enough to follow it wherever it leads, and that it's up to you break new ground? I've taught you all I know about the ceremony, about the use of the jimsonweed and hemp, and how to recognize the mushrooms that must be dried and crushed into powder to be smoked. I've taught you what I know of the shape changer, and how it can use other souls against yours; I've taught you to be proud of your heritage, and I thought you'd learned how to see by now."

"See? See what?"

"Your future," she said. "The Choctaw doesn't choose who's to make the Walk; only the Giver of Breath can make that choice. Oh, many before you lost their faith or their courage, or had their minds swept away by evil forces. But when evil can break the chain of the Mystery Walk, then all that's gone before is disrupted, all the learning and experience and pain might just as well be for nothing. I know that it left a scar on you that summer and autumn; but you can't let it win. The ceremony is important, but most important is what's out there." Ramona motioned toward the window. "The world."

"It's not my world," Billy said.

"It can be. Are you afraid? Are you giving up?"

Billy was silent. His experience on the Octopus was still burned into him, and there had been many nightmares of it to keep the wounds raw. Sometimes a cobra reared up in the darkness, and sometimes he had a gun that wouldn't fire as the thing coiled closer toward him. Soon after arriving home that autumn, he'd taken the bus to Birmingham and had gone to the hospital to see Santha Tully. The nurse there had told him that Santha Tully had left the day before, and had gone back to New Orleans; he'd stood in the empty room she'd occupied, knowing he'd never see her again. He silently wished her good luck.

"I'm not afraid," he said. "I just don't want to be . . . treated like a freak."

"And you think they will, at this institute in Chicago? You under who and what you are; what else matters? But if the institute works with people like us, then they can teach you . . . and learn from you as well. I think that's where you belong."

"No."

Ramona sighed and shook her head. "Then I've failed, haven't I? You're not strong enough. Your work isn't done – it hasn't really started – and already you think you deserve rest. You don't, not yet."

"Damn it!" Billy said sharply, and abruptly stood up. "Leave me alone!" He snatched Dr. Mirakle's letter from her and angrily ripped it up, throwing the pieces into the fireplace. "You don't understand what it was like on the Octopus! You didn't hear it! You didn't feel it! Leave me alone!" He started past her, toward the front door.

"Billy," Ramona said softly. When he turned, she held out the piece of coal in the palm of her hand. "I found this on the top of your dresser this morning. Why did you take it out of the drawer?"

He couldn't remember if he had or not. Ramona tossed it to him. There seemed to be heat in it, and it gleamed like a black, mysterious amulet.

"Your home is here," she said. "It'll always be here. I can take care of myself, the house, and the land; I've done it before. But you've got to go into the world and use what you know, and learn more about yourself. If you don't you've wasted everything that's gone before you."

"I need to think," he told her. "I'm not sure what to do."

"You're sure. You're just taking your time coming around to it."

Billy clenched the piece of coal in his fist. He said, "I want to sleep out tonight, out in the forest. I want to be by myself for as long as it takes."

Ramona nodded. "I'll get some food ready for you, if you …"

"No. If I can't catch my food or dig it up, I won't eat. I'll just need a sleeping bag."

She left the room to get what he wanted. Billy put the coal into his pocket and stepped out onto the porch; he wanted to lie on Southern earth tonight, to watch the stars move and let his mind drift. It was true that he'd felt the Hillburn Institute in Chicago pulling at him. He was curious as to what kind of place it might be and what might lie ahead of him in a city that size. Chicago seemed as far away as China, and just as foreign. It was true also that he was afraid.

He faced the horizon, ablaze with the colors of late autumn. The musky scent of dead summer wafted in the air like old wine. He didn't want to leave all the work to his mother, but he knew she was right; the Mystery Walk was beckoning him onward, and he had to follow.

Ready or not, he thought, recalling the games of hide-and-seek he used to play with Will Booker, whose symbol of faith in Billy's potential rested in his jeans pocket, here I come. . . .

46

The blue-and-silver Canadair Challenger had been in the air for less than an hour, and was now streaking over central Arkansas at twenty-three thousand feet. The late October sky was a dazzling blue, while beneath the jet a rainstorm whipped Little Rock.

Wayne Falconer, sitting in the plane's "quiet pocket" – the area just behind the flight deck – was stunned and delighted. This silent eagle made his Beechcraft seem like a clumsy moth. Leaving the ground at Fayette's airport had been one of the most sublime feelings he'd experienced. Up here the sky was so clear and blue, and he felt as if he'd left his worldly responsibilities very far behind. He wanted a jet like this, he had to have one and that was all there was to it.

The business jet's interior was done in dark blue and black, with a lot of shining chrome and waxed wood surface. The motorized swivel-and-reclining seats were upholstered in black Angus steerhide, and there was a long comfortable-looking sofa next to a fruit and vegetable juice bar. Danish teakwood tables were bolted to the carpeted floor in case of rough weather; on one of the tables were neatly arranged copies of the Falconer Crusade's magazine. Everything in the long, spacious cabin sparkled with cleanliness, as if someone had polished every fixture and surface with a strong disinfectant cleanser. The oval Plexiglass windows, George Hodges had noticed, didn't have one streak or fingerprint on them. He'd decided that this Mr Augustus Krepsin must be a very fastidious man, though something about the display of Crusade magazines bothered him; it was maybe too clever, and was trying to win Wayne over too fast. Krepsin's assistant, Mr. Niles, bothered Hodges too. The man was polite, intelligent, and well informed about the Crusade's business policies, but there was something about his eyes that disturbed Hodges; they looked soulless, and they lingered on Wayne far too often.

Hodges sat a few seats behind Wayne, closer to the high whine of the twin jet engines at the rear of the fuselage. Niles, Hodges had noticed, was quick to take the seat across the aisle from Wayne. Henry Bragg was paging through a Field and Stream a couple of seats behind him. Bragg was pleased to be away from his wife and three stairstep children; he sipped ginger ale through a straw and watched the clouds move far below, a dreamy and contented smile on his face.

Beth, their attractive young flight attendant, came down the aisle with a cup of orange juice for Wayne. The cabin was more than eight feet wide and six feet high, so she had no trouble making her way to the young man. "Here you go," she said with a sunny smile. "Can I get you a magazine?"

"No, thank you. What's our airspeed now, ma'am?"

"Beth. Oh, I think we're flying around five hundred miles per hour by now. I understand you're a pilot."

"Yes, ma'am. Beth, I mean. I've got a Beechcraft Bonanza, but it's nothing like this. I've always loved planes and flying. I . . . always feel so free when I'm up in the air."

"Have you ever been to California?"

He shook his head, sipped at the orange juice, and put the cup down on his service tray.

"Sun and fun!" Beth said. "That's the life-style there."

Wayne smiled, though uneasily. For some reason, Beth reminded him of a half-forgotten nightmare: a dark-haired girl slipping on a slick platform, the awful noise of her head hitting the sharp edge, the sound of painfully exhaled breath and water closing over her like a black shroud. In the past three years his face and body had thickened, and the texture of his red hair had become dense and wiry. His eyes were deep-set and glowed as blue as the sky beyond the jet's windows. But they were haunted eyes, holding back secrets, and there were purplish hollows beneath them. He was very pale except for a few rashes of late-blooming acne across his cheeks. "Beth?" he said. "Do you go to church?"

Mr. Niles had given her a thorough briefing on Wayne Falconer before they'd left Palm Springs. "Yes I do," she said, still smiling. "As a matter of fact, my father was a minister just like yours was."

Across the aisle, Niles's eyes were closed. He smiled very slightly. Beth was a resourceful person who could think on her feet.

"An evangelist," Wayne corrected her. "My daddy was the greatest evangelist that ever lived."

"I've never seen you on television, but I'll get it's a good show."

"I hope it does good for people. That's what I'm trying to do." He smiled wanly at her, and was pleased when she returned his smile with sunny wattage. She left him to his thoughts, and he drank his orange juice. He had just finished a three-day-long healing revival in Atlanta. It was estimated that he'd touched five thousand in the Healing Line, and he'd preached three scorching hellfire-and-brimstone messages. He was bone-tired, and in two weeks the Falconer Crusade was booked into the Houston Astrodome for yet another revival. If only he could find a record of a jet engine in flight, Wayne thought, maybe he could sleep better; the sound would soothe him, and he could pretend he was very far away from the Crusade, flying across a night sky sparkled with stars.

His daddy had told him buying this record company was a smart move to make. He should listen to this Mr. Krepsin, and trust in what the man said, his daddy had told him. It would all work out for the best.

"Wayne?" Mr. Niles was standing over him, smiling. "Come on up to the flight deck with me, will you?"

Niles led the way forward and pulled aside a green curtain. Wayne was breathless at the sight of the cockpit, with its magnificent control panel, its gleaming toggles and gauges and dials. The pilot, a husky man with a broad sunburned face, grinned below his smoke-tinted sunglasses and said, "Hi there, Wayne. Take the co-pilot's seat."

Wayne slipped into glove-soft leather. The engine noise was barely audible way up here; there was only the quiet hissing of air around the Challenger's nose. The windshield gave an unobstructed, wide-angle view of brilliant blue sky dotted with high, fleecy cirrus clouds. Wayne noticed the movements of the control yoke before him, and knew the jet was flying under autopilot command. The instruments he faced – altimeter, airspeed indicator, horizontal situation indicator, attitude director, and a few more he didn't recognize – were set in a Basic T formation, similar to the Beechcraft panel but of course much more complex. Between the pilot and co-pilot was a console holding the engine thrust throttles, the weather radar controls, the speed brake lever, and other toggle switches Wayne knew nothing about. He stared at the panel with rapt fascination.

"Everything's right there," the pilot said, "if you know where to look for it. My name's Jim Coombs. Glad to have you aboard." He shook Wayne's hand with a hard, firm grip. "Mr. Niles tells me you're a flyer. That right?"

"Yes sir."

"Okay." Coombs reached up to an overhead console and switched off the autopilot. The control yokes stopped their slight correction of ailerons and elevators; the Challenger slowly began to nose upward. "Take her and see how she feels."

Wayne's palms were sweating as he gripped the guidance wheel and placed his feet against the hard rubber pedals that controlled the rudder.

"Scan your instruments," Coombs said. "Airspeed's still on autopi, so don't worry about that. Bring your nose down a few degrees. Let's level her off."

Wayne pushed the yoke forward, and the Challenger instantly responded, the silver nose dropping back to level flight. He had overestimated, though, and had to pull slightly up from a six-degree downward pitch. The plane began to roll just a bit to the right, and Coombs let Wayne work with the yoke and pedals until he'd gotten the jet trimmed again. The controls needed a feather-light but decisive touch, and compared to this he'd had to fight the Beechcraft across the sky. He grinned and said in a shaky voice, "How was that?"

Coombs laughed. "Fine. Of course, we're about a hundred miles off our flight path, but you're okay for a prop-jockey. Want to co-pilot me into Palm Springs?"

Wayne beamed.

Less than two hours later the Challenger was landing at Palm Springs Municipal Airport. In the co-pilot's seat, Wayne watched intently as Coombs went through the landing procedure.

Two Lincoln Continental limousines awaited the Challenger. Wayne was escorted by Niles into the first one, and Hodges and Bragg climbed into the other. They started off together, but after ten minutes the Mexican driver of the second limo announced he felt "something funny" and pulled off the expressway. He got out to check, and reported that the left rear tire was going flat. Hodges watched the car carrying Niles and Wayne driving away out of sight, and he said tersely, "Fix it!"

The driver had already pocketed a small icepick-like blade as he unlocked the trunk to get the spare.

Wayne was driven along the edge of a huge golf course. A purple line of mountains undulated in the distance. Everywhere there was green grass being saturated with water from sprinklers, and palm trees sprouted bright green fans. The limo turned into a residential area where only roofs and palm trees showed high above stone walls. A uniformed watchman waved to them and opened a pair of wide wrought-iron gates. The limo continued up a long driveway bordered with bursts of red and yellow flowers, carefully trimmed hedges, and a few large species of cactus. Gardeners were at work, pruning and spraying. Wayne caught a glimpse of a red-slate roof capped with turrets, and then there was a huge structure before him that was perhaps the strangest house he'd ever seen.

It was made of pale brownish stone, and was a riot of angles and protuberances, blocks upon blocks, high towers, mansard roofs and gables and Gothic arches and masonry carved in geometric shapes and statuelike figures. It looked like the work of ten insane architects who'd all decided to build a structure on the same property and connect them with domes, parapets, and sheltered walkways. Work was still going on, Wayne saw; more stones were being placed one atop the other by workmen on a scaffolding. There was no telling how many floors the place had, because one level seemed to stop in midair and another shot up at a different place. But, oddly, only the ground floor had windows.

The limo pulled under a porte cochere, and Mr Niles escorted Wayne up a few stone stairs to a massive front door. It was opened for them by a white-jacketed Mexican butler with a brown, seamed face. "Mr Krepsin's expecting you, Mr. Falconer," the butler said. "You can go up immediately."

"This way," Niles said. He led Wayne across a gleaming hardwood floor to an elevator; when the elevator doors opened, a rush of cool dry air came out. As they ascended, Wayne could hear the quiet throbbing of machinery somewhere in the house, growing louder as they rose.

"Shouldn't we wait for the others?" he asked.

"They'll be along." The doors slid open.

They stood in a featureless white room. A pair of glass doors stood just opposite them, and beyond that was a dimly lit corridor Machinery hissed and hummed from the walls, and Wayne could smell the distinct odor of disinfectant.

"If you'll be so kind," Niles said, "as to take off your shoes? You can put these on." He stepped across to a chrome-topped desk and picked up one of the several pairs of cotton slippers. A box of surgical gloves sat atop the desk as well. "Also, if you'll take any change you might have in your pockets and put it in one of these plastic bags? Currency, too."

Wayne took his shoes off and slipped into the cotton ones. "What's this all about?"

Niles did the same, taking the change out of his pockets and putting it in a bag. "Shoes and money carry bacteria. Will you put on a pair of gloves, please? Ready? Follow me, then." He pressed a button on the wall next to the doors and they slid quickly open, like a pair of automatic supermarket doors. When Wayne followed him through, into an atmosphere that was cooler and noticeably drier than the rest of the house, the doors thunked shut like the closing of a bear trap. The corridor, illuminated by recessed lighting, was totally bare and uncarpeted; the thick stone walls radiated a chill, and somewhere in them an air-purifying system hissed faintly.

Wayne was taken almost to the end of the corridor, to a pair of large oak doors. Niles pressed a buzzer set into the wall, and a few seconds later Wayne heard the sound of the doors unlocking electronically. "Go right in," Niles said. Wayne, his stomach twisted into nervous knots and his head aching again, stepped through the doors.

There were skeletons in the room. Skeletons of fish, birds, animals, and one of a human being, laced together with wire and standing in a corner beneath a track light's beam. Smaller skeletons, of lizards and rodents, were placed under glass display cases. The doors closed automatically behind Wayne, and a lock softly clicked.

"Welcome."

Wayne looked toward the sound of that voice. In front of glass-enclosed bookcases there was a teakwood desk topped with a green blotter A man sat in a wide, high-backed black leather chair, a track light shining down upon a white, bald head. The room was wood-paneled, and on the floor was a dark blue Persian rug with gold figures. Wayne stepped closer to him, and saw that the head sat atop a mountain of caftan-dressed flesh; his face was made up of folds within folds, and small black eyes glittered. He smiled, showing tiny white teeth. "I'm so glad you could come," the man said. "May I call you Wayne?"

Wayne glanced uneasily around at the mounted skeletons. There was an entire skeleton of a horse, caught in midstride.

Augustus Krepsin waited until Wayne had almost reached the desk, then extended a hand. Only after Wayne had shaken it did he realize Krepsin was also wearing flesh-colored surgical gloves. "Please, sit down." Krepsin motioned toward a chair. "Can I offer you something? Fruit juice? Vitamins to perk you up?"

"No, thanks." Wayne took the seat. "I had a sandwich on the plane."

"Ah, the Challenger! How'd you like it?"

"It was . . . fine. Mr. Coombs is a good pilot. I . . . don't know what happened to the others. They were in the car right behind us. …"

"They'll be along soon, I'm sure. I see you're intrigued by my collection, aren't you?"

"Well, I … I've never seen anything quite like it."

Krepsin grinned. "Bones. The very framework of the body. Strong, durable, highly resistant to disease, yet . . . sadly, often the first thing to weaken in a body. I'm fascinated by the mysteries of the human body, Wayne: its flaws and faults as well as its strengths." He motioned toward the human skeleton. "What a grand design, isn't it? Yet . . . doomed to return to dust. Unless, of course, you treat it and varnish it and wire it together so it won't dissolve for a few hundred years."

Wayne nodded, his hands clasped together in his lap.

"You're a handsome young man," Krepsin said. "Twenty-one next month, am I right? Lived in Fayette all your life? You know, there's something about a Southern accent that's so . . . earthy. I've become quite a fan of yours, Wayne. I had Mr. Niles obtain video tapes of some of your shows when he visited Nashville, and I've watched them all several times. You have quite a commanding presence for such a young man."

"Thank you."

Krepsin's large head dipped in respect. "You've come a long way, I understand. Now you have an influential television show, a radio station that's turning at least a hundred thousand in profits every year, and a publishing company that will break even sometime in 1974. You speak before approximately a half-million people per year, and your foundation is planning to build a four-year Christian university before 1980."

"You've been checking up on me," Wayne said.

"Just as your Mr Hodges has been asking questions about the Ten High Corporation. It's only good business." He shrugged his massive shoulders. "But I'm sure you know what needs to be known: I own Ten High. Ten High owns a controlling interest in Essex Records. You want to purchase Essex Records for a million and a half, and so you're sitting in my study."

Wayne nodded. He said calmly, "Is Essex worth that much?"

Krepsin responded with a soft laugh. "Ha! My boy, you made the offer. Is it worth that much to you?"

"Essex lost two hundred thousand last year alone," Wayne replied. "It's lost clout in the country-western music business, and Essex can't afford to lure in hit-producing artists. I want to pump new money into it, and start it all over as a gospel label."

"So I understand," Krepsin said quietly. "You're a very bright young man, Wayne. You have … a great insight, as well as a very special ability. Tell me something, now, and your answer will never go beyond this room: I've watched your television shows over and over, I've seen the expressions of these people who pass through – what do you call it? – the Healing Line." His head bent forward, jowls and chin hanging. "Are you really a healer? Or is it . . . trickery?"

Wayne paused. He wanted to get up and leave this room, get away from this strange house and this man with the black eyes. But he remembered that his daddy had told him to trust Mr Krepsin, and he knew his daddy wouldn't tell him wrong. He said, "I am a healer."

"And you can heal any kind of sickness? Any kind of . . . disease?"

From a distance of time and space Wayne seemed to hear a whispered but accusing voice: Do you know what you're doing, son? He shut his mind on years of accumulated doubts that had haunted him in the night. "Yes."

Krepsin sighed and nodded. "Yes. You can, can't you? I've seen it in your face; I've seen it in the faces of those you've healed. You conquer the fading flesh and brittle bone. You conquer the filth of disease, and drive out the germs of Death. You . . . hold the power of Life itself, don't you?"

"Not me. God works through me."

"God?" Krepsin blinked, and then his smile was back. "Of course. You could have Essex Records, as my gift to your Crusade. But I'd prefer to stay on in a consulting position. I like the idea of going gospel. There's a lot of money to be made in it."

Wayne frowned. For an instant he thought he'd seen something dark and huge standing behind Krepsin – something bestial. But then it was gone.

"I know you're tired from the flight," Krepsin said. "You and I are going to get along very well, Wayne, and we'll have plenty of time to talk later. Mr. Niles is waiting for you at the end of the corridor. He'll take you downstairs for some lunch. I'd suggest a nice afternoon steambath and then a siesta. We'll talk again this evening, all right?"

Wayne stood up, an uncertain smile on his face, and Krepsin watched as he left the room in his sanitary cotton slippers. Krepsin peeled off his rubber gloves and dropped them into a waste receptacle beneath the desk. "Plenty of time," he said softly.

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