Mystery Walk

Chapter 14

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47

"Here ya go," the cab driver said, and pulled to the curb. "You sure this is where you want to get out?"

"Yes sir," Billy told him; at least he thought it was the place. A crooked sign said Cresta Street, and the address on the small brownstone building was 1212. Across the street was a sad-looking little park with a rusty swing set and a few drooping trees; set around the park were other brownstone buildings and old two- story houses, many of which looked empty. The larger buildings of downtown Chicago loomed in the distance, filtered by gray haze.

There was a small round peephole in the door, and for a moment Billy felt himself being watched. Then locks began to click open – one, two, and three. He had a sudden urge to run all the way back to the Greyhound bus station, but he stood his ground.

The door opened, and standing within was a young girl, perhaps sixteen or seventeen. She had long black hair that hung almost to her waist, and Billy thought she looked Spanish. Her eyes were pretty and alert, but there was a trace of sadness in them. She glanced at his suitcase. "Yes?"

"Uh . . . this must not be the right place. I thought this was the Hillburn Institute?"

She nodded.

"Well … my name's Billy Creekmore, and I'm here to see Dr. Hillburn." He fumbled in his back pocket for the envelope and held it out to her.

The girl said, "Come in," and then locked the door behind him.

The interior was a pleasant surprise. Dark wood paneling gleamed with oil and polish. There were clean rugs on the shining hardwood floor, and an abundance of green plants added a welcoming touch. The tempting aroma of good food wafted in the air. A staircase ascended to the second level, and just to the left of the front door, in a high-ceilinged parlor, a half-dozen people both young and old watched television, read, or played checkers. Billy's entrance caused a pause in their activities.

"I'm Anita," the girl told him. "You can leave your suitcase down here, if you like. Mr Pearlman," she said, addressing one of the men in the parlor. "It's your turn to help in the kitchen today."

"Oh. Right." The man put aside his Reader's Digest and went off through a hallway.

"Follow me, please." Anita took Billy upstairs, through a series of well-kept dormitory-like rooms. There were doors marked Testing Lab 1, Audio-Visual, Conference Room, Research Lab I. The building was very quiet, with pale green linoleum floors and tiled ceilings. Billy glimpsed other people moving about, several of them wearing white lab smocks. He saw a young woman about his own age coming out of a testing lab, and he felt a quick spark of attraction as their gazes met and held. She was wearing jeans and a blue sweater, and Billy saw that her eyes were different colors: one was a pale blue, the other a strange deep green. The young woman looked away first.

Then Anita led him around a corner to a door marked Dr. Hillburn, Ph.D., Director. Billy could hear a muffled voice within. The girl knocked on the door and waited. A moment passed. Then: "Come in." It was a woman's voice, carrying an inflection of annoyance.

Dr. Hillburn was sitting behind a battered desk in a small office cluttered with books and papers. The beige-colored walls were adorned with framed certificates and brass plaques, and a window looked out over the Cresta Street park. A green-shaded lamp burned atop the desk, which also held a blotter, a metal can with a collection of pencils and pens, and several pictures of people Billy assumed were her children and husband. Her hand was clamped around a telephone receiver.

"No," she said firmly. "I can't accept that. The grant was promised us last year and I'll fight for it right up to the capital, if I have to. I don't care that all the funds are tied up, and I don't believe that anyway! Am I just supposed to shut down everything and go out on the street? God knows we're almost on the street as it is!" She glanced up and motioned for Anita to close the door "Tell the esteemed senator that I was promised matching funds, dollar-for-dollar. No! We've cut our staff down to a skeleton crew already! Ed, just tell him that I won't stand for any more foolishness. I'll expect to hear from you by tomorrow afternoon. Good-bye." She put the receiver down and shook her head. "It's getting so deep over in Springfield you need waders to get through! Do you know what's ahead of us on the budget agenda, Anita? Consideration of a grant for a study of litter patterns on the north beach! I ask them for fifteen thousand dollars to keep our programs going for another year, and – " Her clear gray eyes narrowed. "Who are you, young man?"

"My name is Billy Creekmore. You people sent me this letter." He stepped forward and handed her the envelope.

"Alabama?" Dr. Hillburn said, with obvious surprise. "You're a long way from home, aren't you?" She was a fragile-looking woman in a white lab coat, her eyes deeply set, alert, and very intelligent. Billy thought she was probably in her late forties or early fifties. Her dark brown hair, threaded with silver, was cut short and brushed back from her high, furrowed forehead. Though she had a gentle appearance, the sound of her voice on that telephone told Billy she could spit nails if angered.

Dr. Hillburn looked up at him for a moment after reading the letter. "Yes, we sent you this some time ago. I think I recall the correspondence we got from this friend of yours, Mr Merkle. Anita, will you do me a favor please? Ask Max to go through the M files and bring me the letters from Mr. Reginald Merkle." She spelled out the name, and then Anita left. "Now. What can I do for you, Mr. Creekmore?"

"I've . . . come because your letter asked me to."

"I expected a reply by mail, not a visit. And besides, that was some time ago. Are you here in Chicago with your family?"

"No, ma'am. I'm here alone."

"Oh? Where are you staying, then?"

Billy paused, smelling disaster. "Staying? Well, I . . . left my suitcase downstairs. I thought I'd be staying here."

Dr. Hillburn was silent; she nodded and spread her hands before her on the blotter "Young man," she said, "this is not a hotel. This is a workshop and research center. The people you probably saw downstairs, and those in the labs, have been invited here after long consultation. I know nothing about you, and to be perfectly honest I can't even recall why we wrote you in the first place. We write hundreds of people who don't answer us. Our labs certainly aren't as well equipped as those at Duke University and Berkeley, but we have to make do on the budget we get from the University of Chicago and small grants. That budget is hardly enough to continue our tests and research on the individuals we select; and certainly there's no room here for someone off the street."

"I'm not here off the street!" Billy protested. "I've come a long way!"

"Of course you have, young man. But I'm saying that . . ." She looked up as a middle-aged man in horn-rimmed glasses and a lab jacket brought in a file folder containing several letters.

"Thank you, Max," she told the man, and when he'd gone she put on a pair of reading spectacles and took several letters from the folder Billy recognized Dr. Mirakle's spiky handwriting.

"What kind of place is this?" Billy asked her. "What goes on here?"

"Pardon? Don't you know?" She glanced up at him. "The Hillburn Institute is a death survival studies clinic, sponsored in part by the University of Chicago. But as I say, we . . ." She trailed off, engrossed in something she was reading.

"What do those people downstairs do?"

"They . . . they've had experiences with manifestations or spirit controls." Dr. Hillburn looked up from the letters and pushed the spectacles up onto her forehead. "Young man," she said quietly, "you evidently left your friend Mr Merkle deeply impressed. The experiences he's written down here are . . . quite interesting." She paused, returned the letters to the folder, and said, "Sit down, won't you?"

Billy took a chair in front of her desk. Dr. Hillburn swiveled her chair around to stare through the window at the park, her face illuminated by pale gray light. She took her glasses off and put them in her jacket pocket. "Young man," she said. "What do you think of our city?"

"Well, it's noisy," he replied. "And everybody's running around so fast." He didn't tell her that he'd seen the black aura twice – once clinging to an elderly black man on the bus and once surrounding a young girl a few blocks away from the bus station.

"Have you ever been this far away from home before?"

"No, ma'am."

"Then you must feel the ability you have – whatever it is – is very special. Special enough to leave Alabama and come such a distance? Why did you come here, Mr Creekmore? And I'm not talking about the letter. Why did you come?" She turned toward him again, her gaze sharp and watchful.

"Because … my friend, Dr Mirakle, said I should. And because my mother wanted me to. And . . . maybe because I didn't know where else to go. I want to understand more of why I'm like I am. I want to know why I see things that other people don't. Like the black auras, and the entities that look like mist and carry so much pain, and the shape changer. My mother could see the same things, and her mother before her . . . and it's likely that my son or daughter will be able to, as well. I want to know as much as I can about myself. If I'm in the wrong place for that, tell me now and I'll leave."

Dr. Hillburn had been observing and listening to him carefully. She was a trained psychiatrist as well as a parapsychologist with two books on death survival studies to her credit, and she'd been looking for telltale signs of emotional instability: inappropriate gestures or grins, facial tics, a general irritability or melancholia. She sensed in Billy Creekmore only a genuine desire for self-knowledge. "Did you think, young man, that you could just present yourself on our doorsteps and we would offer easy answers for all your questions? No. I'm afraid that's not to be the case. As I say, this is a workshop; a damned difficult workshop, I might add. If there's any learning to be done, we learn together. But everything has to be verified through extensive tests and experiments. We don't deal in trickery here, and I've seen enough psychic fakers in my lifetime. Some of them have sat where you're sitting now. But sooner or later their tricks fail them.

"I don't know anything about you, except from what I've read in these letters. As far as I know, you don't understand a thing about death survival research. You may have a psi ability – though I'm not saying I'm convinced you do – but as far as I'm concerned it may only be a figment of your imagination. You may be a publicity hound. You may even want to disrupt the work we're trying to do here, though God knows we have enough disruptions. Do you believe you can communicate with the dead, young man?"

"Yes. I can."

"That remains to be seen. I'm a born skeptic, Mr. Creekmore. If you say a traffic light's red, I'll say it's purple, just for the sake of an interesting argument." Her eyes had taken on a shine. "If I decide you're worth being here, you might rue the day you ever walked through the gate. I'll throw every test I can think of at you. I'll take your brain apart and put it back together again, more or less as it was. In two or three days you'll hate me, but I'm used to that. You'll have a room the size of a closet to sleep in, and you'll be expected to work around here like everyone else. It's no free ride. Sound like fun?"

"No."

"Now you've got the idea!" She smiled cautiously. "Tomorrow morning at eight o'clock you'll be right here, telling me your life story. I want to hear about your mother, and the black auras and the entities and . . . what was it? A shape changer? Indeed. Dinner's in fifteen minutes, and I hope you like Polish sausage. Why don't you go get your suitcase?"

Billy rose from his chair, feeling confused about the whole thing. It was still at the back of his mind that he should leave this place, and he had enough money for a return ticket home. But he'd come this far, and he could stick out whatever was in store for him for at least three days. He didn't know whether to thank the woman or curse her, so he left without saying a word.

Dr. Hillburn looked at her wristwatch. She was already late getting home, and her husband would be waiting. But she took the time to read Merkle's letters again. A pulse of excitement had quickened within her. Is this boy from Alabama the one? she asked herself – the same question she asked when any new subject came to the institute.

Is Billy Creekmore the one who'll show proof positive of life after death? She had no way of knowing, but she could hope. After a moment of reflection, she stood up and took her coat from a rack beside the desk.

48

Wayne Falconer's scream cracked the silence that had fallen over the Krepsin estate.

It was just after two o'clock in the morning. When George Hodges reached Wayne's bedroom – one of the few rooms in the strange house that had windows – he found Niles already there, pressing a cold washcloth to Wayne's forehead. Wayne was curled up on the bed, his eyes feverish with fear. Niles was still dressed as if he'd just stepped out of a business meeting.

"A nightmare," Niles explained. "I was walking along the hall when I heard him. He was just about to tell me what it was, weren't you, Wayne?"

Henry Bragg came in, rubbing his eyes. "Who screamed? Wayne? What the hell's . . ."

"Wayne's fine," Niles said. "Tell me your dream, and then I'll get you something for that headache."

Hodges didn't like the sound of that. Had Wayne gone through his Percodan and codeine capsules yet again?

In a halting voice, Wayne told them what he'd dreamed. It was a hellish vision of Jimmy Jed, a skeleton in a yellow suit gone green and rotten with grave dirt, screaming that the witch of Hawthorne had sent him to Hell where he would burn forever if Wayne didn't free him. When he was finished, a terrible groan came from Wayne's throat, and tears glittered in his eyes. "She knows where I am!" he whispered. "She's out there in the night, and she won't let my daddy come to me anymore!"

Bragg had gone a sick gray. Wayne's obsession with his dead father was getting worse, Hodges realized. For the past four nights, Wayne had been awakened with nightmares of Jimmy Jed and the Creekmores. Last night, he'd even sworn that he'd seen the Creekmore boy's pallid face grinning through the window at him. Wayne was coming to pieces, Hodges thought, right out here on the sunny Coast.

"I can't sleep," Wayne gripped Niles's smooth white hand. "Please . . . my daddy's rotted, and I . . . can't make him all right again. …"

Niles said softly, "Everything's going to be fine. There's no need for you to be afraid, not while you're in Mr Krepsin's house. This is the safest place in the world for you. Why don't you put on your robe and slippers? I'll take you to see Mr Krepsin. He can give you something to calm your nerves – "

"Now just one damned minute!" Hodges said angrily. "I don't like all these late-night 'visits' Wayne's been having with Krepsin! What's going on? We came here for a business conference and so far all we've done is hang around this crazy house! Wayne's got other obligations. And I don't want him taking any more pills!"

"Herbal medicine." Niles held Wayne's robe for him. "Mr Krepsin believes in the healing power of Nature. And I'm sure Wayne will agree that you're free to go anytime you please."

"What? And leave him here with you? Wayne, listen to me! We've got to get back to Fayette! This whole thing is as shady as the dark side of the moon!"

Wayne tied his robe and stared at him. "My daddy said I was to trust Mr. Krepsin. I want to stay here for a while longer. If you want to go, you can."

Hodges saw that the young man's eyes looked blurry and dazed. His grip on reality was lost, Hodges knew . . . and just what kind of pills was Wayne being given? "I'm begging you," he said. "Let's go home."

"Jim Coombs is going to take me up in the Challenger tomorrow," Wayne said. "He says I can learn to fly it, no trouble at all."

"But what about the Crusade?"

Wayne shook his head. "I'm tired, George. I hurt inside. I am the Crusade, and where I go, that's where the Crusade goes too. Isn't that right?" He looked at Henry Bragg.

The lawyer's smile was tight and strained. "Sure. Anything you say, Wayne. I'm behind you one hundred percent."

"You gentlemen needn't stay up," Niles said, taking Wayne's elbow and leading him toward the door. "I'll see that Wayne gets his sleep. …"

And suddenly George Hodges's face reddened with anger, and he was crossing the room to clamp his hand on the other man's shoulder "Listen to me, you – "

Niles twisted around in a blur, and for an instant there were two fingers pressing rigidly against the hollow of Hodges's throat. Hodges felt a brief, dizzying pain that almost buckled his knees, and then Niles's hand dropped to his side. A low fire burned in the man's pale gray eyes. Hodges coughed and backed away, his heart pounding.

"I'm sorry," Niles said. "But you must never touch me like that again."

"You . . . you tried to kill me!" Hodges croaked. "I've got witnesses! By God, I'll sue you for everything you've got! I'm getting out of here right now!" He stalked past them and out of the room, his hand pressed to his throat.

Niles glanced back at Bragg. "Will you see to your friend, Mr. Bragg? There's no way for him to leave tonight, because the house is kept sealed by hydraulic pressure on the doors and the first-floor windows. I reacted hastily, and I regret it."

"Oh . . . sure. Well, no harm done. I mean, George is . . . kind of upset."

"Exactly. I'm sure you can calm him down. We'll talk in the morning."

"Right," Bragg said, and managed a weak smile.

Augustus Krepsin was waiting in his huge bedroom one floor up and on the other side of the house. When Wayne had first seen it, he'd been reminded of a hospital room: the walls were an off-white, with a blue sky and clouds painted on the ceiling. There was a sunken living area with a sofa, a coffee table, and a few leather chairs. Persian rugs in soft colors covered the floor, and track lights delivered a delicate golden illumination. The large bed, complete with a console that controlled lighting, humidity, and temperature and contained several small closed-circuit television screens, was surrounded with a plastic curtain like an oxygen tent. An oxygen tank and mask were mounted next to the bed.

The chess game was still on the long teak coffee table, where it had been left the night before. Krepsin, dressed in a long white robe, sat over it, his small eyes pondering options as Niles brought Wayne in; he was wearing his cotton booties and surgical gloves. His bulk was stuffed into a specially supported Angus steerhide chair.

"Another nightmare?" he asked Wayne after Niles had left. "Yes sir."

"Come sit down. Let's pick up the game where we left off."

Wayne took his chair. Krepsin had been teaching him the fundamentals of the game; Wayne was losing badly, but the knights and pawns and rooks and whatever-they-weres took his mind off the bad dreams.

"They can be so real, can't they?" Krepsin said. "I think nightmares are more . . . true than ordinary dreams, don't you?" He motioned toward the two pills – one pink, one white -  and the cup of herbal tea that was set in front of Wayne.

Without hesitation Wayne swallowed the pills and drank the tea. They helped relax him, helped smooth out the throbbing pain in his head, and when he did sleep, toward morning, he knew he would have wonderful dreams of when he was a child playing with Toby. In those drug-induced dreams everything was bright and happy, and Evil couldn't find its way into his head.

"A little man fears inconsequential things, but only a man of great character feels true horror. I enjoy our talks, Wayne. Don't you?"

He nodded. Already he was feeling better, his brain clearing, all the musty cobwebs of fear drifting away in what felt like a fresh summer wind. In a little while he would be laughing like a small boy, the worries and responsibilities faded away like bad dreams.

"You can always judge a man," Krepsin said, "by what makes him afraid. And fear can be a tool, as well; a great lever that can move the world in any direction. You of all people must know the force of fear."

"Me?" Wayne looked up from the board. "Why?"

"Because in this world there are two great terrors: disease and death. Do you know how many millions of bacteria inhabit the human body? How many organisms that can suddenly become malignant with disease and leech themselves into human tissues? You know how frail flesh can be, Wayne."

"Yes sir," Wayne said.

"It's your move."

Wayne studied the inlaid ivory board. He moved a bishop, but had no particular plan in mind other than to capture one of Krepsin's black towers.

Krepsin said, "You've already forgotten what I've told you. You must keep looking over your shoulder." He reached across the board, his face like a bloated white moon, and moved the second of his black rooks to capture Wayne's last bishop.

"Why do you live like this?" Wayne asked. "Why don't you ever go outside?"

"I do go outside, occasionally. When I have a trip scheduled. Forty-nine seconds between the door and the limousine. Forty-six seconds between the limo and the jet. But don't you understand what floats in the air? Every plague that ever ravaged across cities and countries, destroying hundreds and thousands, began with a tiny microorganism. A parasite, riding a sneeze or clinging to a flea on a rat's hide." He leaned toward Wayne, his eyes widening. "Yellow fever. Typhus. Cholera. Malaria. The Black Plague. Syphilis. Blood flukes and worms can infect your body, drain your strength, and leave you a hollow shell. The bubonic plague bacillus can lie dormant and impotent for generations, and then suddenly it can lay half the world to waste." Small droplets of sweat glimmered on Krepsin's skull. "Disease," he whispered. "It's all around us. It's outside these walls right now, Wayne, pressed to the stones and trying to get in."

"But . . . people are immune to all those things now," Wayne said.

"There is no such thing as immunity!" Krepsin almost shouted. His lips worked for a few seconds before he could speak. "Levels of resistance rise and fall; diseases shift, parasites mutate and breed. Bubonic plague killed six million people in Bombay in 1898; in 1900 it broke out in San Francisco, and the same bacillus that causes plague has been found in the ground squirrel. Don't you see? It's waiting. There are cases of leprosy in the United States every year. Smallpox almost spread into the United States in 1948. The diseases are still out there! And there are new bacteria, new parasites, evolving all the time!

"If disease could be controlled, so could death," Krepsin said. "What power a man would have! Not to have to . . . fear. That would make a man godlike, wouldn't it?"

"I don't know. I've . . . never thought about it that way." Wayne stared at Krepsin's bulbous face. The man's eyes were fathomless pools of ebony, the pores in his flesh as big as saucers. His face seemed to fill the entire room. Warmth coursed through Wayne, and a feeling of safety and belonging. He knew he was safe in this house, and though he might have nightmares sent by the witch-woman, she couldn't get in at him. Nothing could get in at him: not pressures or responsibilities or fears, not any of the diseases of real life.

Krepsin rose from his chair with a grunt like a hippo rising from dark water. He lumbered across the room, drew aside the plastic curtain ringing his bed, and pressed a couple of buttons on the command console. Instantly images appeared on the three videotape screens. Wayne squinted and grinned. They were video tapes of his television show, and there he was on the three screens, touching people in the Healing Line.

"I've watched these again and again," the huge man said. "I hope I'm watching the truth. If I am, then you're the one person in the world who can do for me what I want." He turned to face Wayne. "My business is very complex and demanding. I own companies from L.A. to New York, plus many in foreign countries. I make a phone call, and stocks do what I want them to. People do anything to get close to me. But I'm fifty-five years old, and I'm susceptible to diseases, and I . . . feel things slipping away. I don't want that to happen, Wayne. I'll move Heaven – or Hell – to keep things as they are." His black eyes burned. "I want to keep death away from me," he said.

Wayne stared at his hands, clenched in his lap. Krepsin's voice echoed inside his head as if he were sitting within a huge cathedral. He remembered his daddy telling him to listen hard to what Mr. Krepsin had to say, because Mr Krepsin was a wise and just man.

Krepsin put his hand on Wayne's shoulder. "I've told you my fear," he said. "Now I want to hear yours."

Reluctantly at first, Wayne began. Then he told more and more, wanting to get it all out of him and knowing Mr. Krepsin would understand. He told him about Ramona Creekmore and the boy, about how she'd cursed both of them and wished his father dead, about his Daddy's death and rebirth, how she was making him have nightmares and how he couldn't get her face, or the demon boy's, out of his mind.

"She . . . makes my head hurt," Wayne said. "And that boy . . . sometimes I see his eyes, staring at me like . . . like he thinks he's better than me. . . ."

Krepsin nodded. "Do you trust me to do the right thing for you, Wayne?"

"Yes sir I do."

"And I've made you feel comfortable and safe here? And I've helped you sleep and forget?"

"Yes sir. I . . . feel like you believe me. You listen to me, and you understand. The others … I can tell they're laughing at me, like up on the Tower. . . ."

"The Tower?" Krepsin asked. Wayne rubbed at his forehead but didn't reply. "I want to show you how sincere I am, son. I want you to trust me. I can end your fear. It would be a simple thing. But . . . if I do this thing for you, I'll soon ask you to do something for me in return, to show me how sincere you are. Do you understand?"

The pills were working. The room had begun to slowly spin, colors merging together in a long rainbow scrawl. "Yes sir," Wayne whispered. "They should burn in the fires of Hell forever. Forever."

"I can send them to Hell, for you." He loomed over Wayne, squeezing his shoulder. "I'll ask Mr. Niles to take care of it. He's a religious man."

"Mr. Niles is my friend," Wayne said. "He comes in at night and talks to me, and he brings me a glass of orange juice just before I go to bed. . . ." Wayne blinked and tried to focus on Krepsin's face. "I . . . want some of the witch's hair. I want to hold it in my hand, so I'll know. …"

The huge face smiled. "A simple thing," it whispered.

49

Indian summer had lingered late. The blue evening light was darkening as yellow leaves stirred on the trees and a few of the dead ones chattered on the roof of the Creekmore house.

Ramona turned up the lamp wicks in the front room as darkness gathered outside. A small fire burned in the hearth, her chair pulled up so she could warm herself near it – she followed the Choctaw custom of building little fires and stepping close, instead of the white man's belief in making a bonfire and standing back. On a table next to her a lamp burned, a metal reflector behind it, so she could read for the third time the letter she'd gotten from her son today. It was written on lined notebook paper, but the envelope had Hillburn Institute and the address in nice black print up in the left-hand corner. Billy had been in Chicago for almost two weeks, and this was the second letter he'd sent. He described what he'd seen of the city and told her all about the Hillburn Institute. He'd had long talks with Dr Mary Hillburn, he'd said, and also with the other doctors who worked on a volunteer basis.

Billy said he'd met some of the other people, but many of them seemed withdrawn and kept to themselves. There was a Mr. Pearlman, a Mrs. Brannon, a Puerto Rican girl named Anita, and a scruffy-looking hippie named Brian; all of them, it seemed, had had an experience with what Dr Hillburn termed "theta agents" or "discarnate entities." Billy also mentioned a girl named Bonnie Hailey; she was very pretty, he'd written, but she stayed apart from the others and he saw her only infrequently.

He was taking tests. Lots of tests. They'd punched him with needles, wired electrodes to his head and studied squiggles on long pieces of paper that came from the machines he'd been connected to. They'd asked him to guess what kind of geometric shapes were printed on something called Zener cards, and he was keeping a diary of his dreams. Dr. Hillburn was very interested in his experiences with the shape changer, and whenever they talked she took everything down on a tape recorder. She seemed more demanding of him than of the others, and she'd said that she looked forward to meeting Ramona sometime. Next week there would be hypnosis sessions and sleep deprivation, not something he particularly looked forward to.

Billy said he loved her, and that he'd write again soon.

Ramona put his letter aside and listened to the wind. The fire crackled, casting a muted orange light. She'd written a reply to Billy and had mailed it this afternoon. It had said:

Son, you were right to leave Hawthorne. I don't know how things will tum out, but I have a lot of faith in you. Your Mystery Walk has led you out into the world, and it won't end in Chicago. No, it'll go on and on, right to the end of your days. Everybody's on their own kind of Mystery Walk, following the trail of their days and doing the best with what life throws at them. Sometimes its mighty hard to figure out what's right and wrong in this mixed-up world. What looks black can sometimes really be white, and what appears like chalk can sometimes be pure ebony.

I've been thinking a lot about Wayne. I drove over there once, but his house was dark. I'm afraid for him. He's pulled toward you, just like you are to him, but he's scared and weak. His Mystery Walk might've led him into teaching others how to heal themselves, but it's been warped now by greed and I don't think he can see his path clearly. You may not want to stomach this, but if ever in your life you can help him, you have to. You're bound by blood, and though the Walk took you off in different directions, you're still part of each other. Hate's easy. Loving's damned hard.

You know what's a greater mystery than death, Billy? Life itself, the way it twists and turns like a carnival ride.

By the by, I think I catch a little peacock-strutting when you talk about that Bonnie girl. I know she must be special if you've taken a shine to her.

I'm very proud of you. I know you'll make me even prouder. I love you.

She picked up the lamp and went to the bedroom to get her needlepoint.

Catching her reflection in a mirror, she stopped to examine herself as she combed out her hair. She saw more gray hairs than dark, and there were so many wrinkles in her face. Still, there remained deep in her eyes the awkward girl who'd seen John Creekmore standing across the barn at a hoedown, the girl who'd wanted that boy to hold her until her ribs ached, the girl who'd wanted to fly above the hills and fields on the wind of dreams. She was proud that she'd never lost that part of herself.

Her Mystery Walk was almost over, she realized with a touch of sadness. But, she thought, look at all she'd done! She'd loved a good man and been loved by him, had raised a son to manhood, had always stood up for herself and had done the painful work her destiny demanded. She had learned to take life for good or bad, and to see the Giver of Breath in a dewdrop or a dying leaf. She had only one pain, and that was the red-haired boy – the image of his father – that J.J. Falconer had named Wayne.

Unsettled wind whooped around the house. Ramona put on a sweater and took her needlepoint to the fireside, where she sat and worked steadily for over an hour. There was a prickling sensation at the back of her neck, and she knew it wouldn't be very much longer.

Something was coming through the night. She knew it was coming for her. She didn't know what it would look like, but she wanted to see its face and let it know she was not afraid.

In the mirror she'd seen her own black aura.

She closed her eyes and let her mind drift. She was a child again, running wild and free across the green meadows in the heat of a summer sun. She lay down in the grass and watched the clouds change shape. There were castles up there, with fleecy towers and flags and –

"Ramona!" she heard. "Ramona!" It was her mother, calling from the distance. "Ramona, you little dickens! You get yourself home now, you hear?"

A hand brushed her cheek, and her eyes flew open. The fire and the lamp's wick had burned very low. She'd recognized that touch, and she was filled with warmth.

There was a knock at the door.

Ramona rocked on in her chair a moment more. Then she lifted her chin, stood up, and approached the door; she let her hand rest on the latch for a few seconds, then she took a deep breath and opened it.

A tall man in a straw cowboy hat, a denim jacket, and faded jeans stood on the porch. He had a grizzled gray beard and dark, deep-set brown eyes. Behind him there was a glossy black pickup truck. He chewed on a toothpick and drawled, "Howdy, ma'am. Seems I took a wrong turn up the road a ways. Sure would appreciate it if I could get some directions and maybe a glass of water. Throat's kind of – "

"I know who you are," Ramona said, and saw a little shock and unease register in the man's eyes. He wasn't a real cowboy, she'd seen, because his hands were too smooth. "I know why you're here. Come in."

He paused, the smile slipping off his face. He saw that she did know. Some of the power seemed to drain out of him, and under her firm gaze he felt like a bug that had just crawled from beneath a rock. He almost called it off right then and there, but he knew he couldn't take their money and run; they'd find him, sooner or later After all, he was a professional.

"Aren't you coming in?" she asked, and opened the door wider.

He took the toothpick out of his mouth, mumbled, "Thank you," and stepped across the threshold. He couldn't look her in the face, because she knew and she wasn't afraid and that made it unbearable for him.

She was waiting.

The man decided he'd make it as quick and painless as possible. And that this would be his last one, God help him.

Ramona closed the door to shut away the cold, then turned defiantly toward her visitor.

ELEVEN

The Test

50

A muffled cry burst from Billy's throat, and he sat up in the darkness as the cot's hard springs squealed beneath him. His mind was jumbled with terrors. He switched on the lamp and sat with the blanket around his shoulders as rain crashed against the window.

He couldn't remember the details of the nightmare, but it had to do with his mother. And the house. Sparks flying into the night sky. The awful face of the shape changer, glowing dark red with reflected light.

Billy got out of bed and trudged into the corridor. On his way to the men's bathroom he saw a light on downstairs, in the parlor. He descended the stairs, hoping to find someone he could talk to.

In the parlor, a single lamp burned. The television was on, silently showing a ghostly test pattern. And curled up on the sofa, lying beneath a brown raincoat with patched elbows, was the girl with different-colored eyes. Except her eyes were closed now, and she was asleep. Billy stood over her for a moment, admiring the dark auburn of her hair and the beauty of her face. As he stared, she flinched in her sleep. She was even prettier than Melissa Pettus, he thought, but she seemed to be a troubled person. He'd found out from Mr Pearlman that she was nineteen and her family lived in Texas. No one else knew anything about her.

Suddenly, as if she'd sensed him in the room, her eyelids fluttered. She sat up so abruptly he was startled and stepped back a pace. She stared at him with the fierce concentration of a trapped animal, but her eyes looked glazed and dead. "They're going to burn up," she whispered, in a barely audible voice. "Cappy says they will, and Cappy's never wrong – "

Then Billy saw her gaze clear, and he realized she'd been talking in her sleep. She blinked uncertainly at him, a red flush creeping across her cheeks. "What is it? What do you want?"

"Nothing. I saw the light on." He smiled, trying to ease her obvious tension. "Don't worry, I won't bite."

She didn't respond, but instead drew the coat tighter around her. Billy saw she still wore jeans and a sweater, and either she'd gotten dressed after she was supposed to be in bed or she'd never been to bed at all.

"Doesn't look like there's much on TV," he said, and switched it off. "How long have you been in here?"

"Awhile," she replied, in her distinctive Texas drawl, topped with frost.

"Who's Cappy?"

She flinched as if he'd struck her. "Leave me alone," she said. "I don't bother folks, and I don't want to be bothered."

"I didn't mean to disturb you. Sorry." He turned his back on her. She was surely a pretty girl, he thought, but she lacked in manners. He had almost reached the stairs when she said, "What makes you so special?"

"What?"

"Dr. Hillburn thinks you're special. Why is that?"

He shrugged. "I didn't know I was."

"Didn't say you were. Only said that Dr Hillburn thinks so. She spends a lot of time with you. Must think you're important."

Billy paused at the bottom of the stairs, listening to the noise of the rain hammering at the walls. Bonnie sat with her legs drawn up defensively to her chest, the coat around her shoulders; there was a scared look in her eyes, and Billy knew she was asking for company in her own way. He walked back into the parlor. "I don't know why. Really."

A silence stretched. Bonnie wouldn't look at him. She stared out the bay window into the icy storm.

"It's sure been raining a lot today," Billy said. "Mrs. Brannon says she thinks it'll snow soon."

Bonnie didn't respond for a long while. Then she said softly, "I hope it keeps rainin'. I hope it rains and rains for weeks. Nothin' can burn if it rains like this, can it?" She looked at him appealingly, and he was struck by her simple, natural beauty. She wore no makeup, and she looked freshly scrubbed and healthy but for the dark hollows under her eyes. Not enough sleep, he thought.

He didn't understand her comment, so he didn't reply.

"Why do you always carry that?" she asked.

And it was only then that he realized he held the piece of coal gripped in his left hand. He must've picked it up when he left his room. He was seldom without it, and he'd explained its significance to Dr Hillburn when she'd inquired.

"Is it like a good-luck charm or somethin'?"

"I guess so. I just carry it, that's all."

"Oh."

Billy shifted his weight from foot to foot. He was wearing pajamas and a robe and slippers provided by the institute, and even though it was well after two in the morning he was in no hurry to return to bed. "Where are you from in Texas?"

"Lamesa. It's right between Lubbock and Big Spring. Where are you from in Alabama?"

"Hawthorne. How'd you know I was from Alabama?"

She shrugged. "How'd you know I was from Texas?"

"I guess I asked somebody." He paused, studying her face. "How come you've got one blue eye and one green?"

"How come you've got curly hair if you're an Indian?"

He smiled, realizing she'd been asking as many questions about him as he had about her. "Do you always answer a question with a question?"

"Do you?"

"No. I'm only part Indian. Choctaw. Don't worry, I won't take your scalp."

"I wasn't worryin'. I come from a long line of Indian hunters."

Billy laughed, and he saw from the sparkle in her eyes that she wanted to laugh, too, but she turned away from him and watched the rain. "What are you doing so far from Texas?" he asked.

"What are you doing so far from Alabama?"

He decided to try a different tack. "I really think your eyes are pretty."

"No, they're not. They're different, is all."

"Sometimes it's good to be different."

"Sure."

"No, I mean it. You ought to be proud of the way you look. It sets you apart."

"It does that, all right."

"I mean it sets you apart in a good way. It makes you special. And who knows? Maybe you can see things more clearly than most folks."

"Maybe," she said quietly, in an uneasy tone of voice, "it means I can see a lot of things I wish I couldn't." She looked up at him. "Have you been talkin' to Dr. Hillburn about me?"

"No."

"Then how'd you know about Cappy? Only Dr. Hillburn knows about that."

He told her what she'd said when she was startled out of sleep, and it was clear she was annoyed. "You shouldn't be creepin' around, anyway," Bonnie told him. "You scared me, that's all. Why'd you come sneakin' down here?"

"I didn't sneak. I had a nightmare that woke me up."

"Nightmares," she whispered. "Yeah, I know a lot about those."

"Haven't you been to bed?"

"No." She paused, a frown working across her face. She had a scatter of freckles across her cheeks and nose, and Billy could envision her riding a horse under the Texas sun. She was a little too thin, but Billy figured she could take care of herself just fine. "I don't like to sleep," Bonnie said after another moment. "That's why I was down here. I wanted to watch TV and read as long as I could."

"Why?"

"Well . . . it's just because I . . . have dreams sometimes. Nightmares. Sometimes they're . . . really awful. If I don't sleep, I won't see them. I . . . was even going to go out for a walk tonight, until it started rainin' so hard. But I hope it keeps on rainin' like this. Do you think it will?"

"I don't know. Why's it so important to you?"

"Because," she said, and gazed up at him, "then what Cappy's been showing me won't come true. Nothin' can burn like what he's been making me see."

The tone of her voice bordered on desperation. Billy sat down in a chair, prepared to listen if she wanted to talk.

She did, and Billy listened without interrupting. The story came hesitantly: when Bonnie Hailey was eleven years old, she was struck by lightning on the stark Texas plain. All her hair burned off, her fingernails turned black, and she lay near death for almost a month. She recalled darkness, and voices, and wanting to let go; but every time she wanted to die she heard a clear, high childish voice tell her no, that letting go wasn't the answer The voice urged her over and over to hang on, to fight the pain. And she did, winning by slow degrees.

She had a nurse named Mrs. Shelton, and every time Mrs. Shelton would come into the room Bonnie would hear a soft ringing sound in her ears. She began to have a strange recurring dream: a nurse's cap rolling down a flight of moving stairs. A week later, Bonnie found out that Mrs. Shelton had tripped on an escalator in a Lubbock department store and broken her neck. And that was the start of it.

Bonnie called the strange, high voice in her head Cappy, after an invisible playmate she'd had when she was five or six. She'd had a lonely childhood, spending most of the time on the small ranch her stepfather owned near Lamesa. Cappy's visits became more frequent, and with them the dreams. She foresaw suitcases falling from a clear blue sky, over and over again, and she could even read a nametag and a flight number on one of the cases. Cappy told her to tell somebody, quickly, but Bonnie's mother had thought it was utter foolishness. Two planes collided over Dallas less than a week later, and suitcases were strewn over the plains for miles. There had been many other incidents of dreams and hearing what she called Death Bells, until finally her stepfather had called the National Star and they'd come out to interview her. Her mother was horrified at the attention that followed, and in came in a flood of crackpot letters and obscene telephone calls. Her stepfather wanted her to write a book – oh, just make it up! he'd told her – and for her to go on tour talking about the Death Bells.

Bonnie's parents had split up, and it was clear to Bonnie that her mother was afraid of her and blamed her for the divorce. The dreams kept coming, and Cappy's voice with them, urging her to act. By this time, the National Star touted her as the Death Angel of Texas.

"A psychiatrist at the University of Texas wanted to talk to me," Bonnie said, in a quiet, tense voice. "Mom didn't want me to go, but I knew I had to. Cappy wanted me to. Anyway, Dr. Callahan had worked with Dr. Hillburn before, so he called her and made arrangements to send me up here. Dr. Hillburn says I've got precognition, that maybe the lightning jarred something in my brain and opened me up to signals from what she calls a 'messenger' She believes there are entities that stay here, in this world, after their bodies have died . . ."

"Discarnates," Billy offered.

"Right. They stay here and try to help the rest of us, but not everybody can understand what they're trying to say."

"But you can."

She shook her head. "Not all the time. Sometimes the dreams aren't clear. Sometimes I can hardly understand Cappy's voice. Other times . . . maybe I don't want to hear what he's saying. I don't like to sleep, because I don't want to see what he shows me."

"And you've been having dreams just recently?"

"Yes," she said. "For several nights now. I … I haven't told Dr Hillburn yet. She'll want to hook me up to those machines again, and I'm sick of those tests. Cappy's . . . shown me a building on fire. An old building, in a bad part of town. The fire's fast, and it's . . . it's so hot I can feel the heat on my own face. I can hear the fire engines coming. But the roof collapses, and I . . . can see people jumping out of the windows. It's going to happen, Billy. I know it is."

"But do you know where this building is?"

"No, but I think it's here, in Chicago. All the other dreams I've had came true within a hundred miles or so of where I was. Dr Hillburn thinks I'm like . . . like a radar or something. My range is limited," she said, with a frightened little smile. "Cappy says they're going to die if I can't help them. He says it's going to start in the wires, and it's going to be fast. He keeps saying something that sounds like 'spines,' but I can't figure out what he means."

"You need to let Dr Hillburn know," Billy told her. "Tomorrow morning. Maybe she can help you."

She nodded vaguely. "Maybe. But I don't think so. I'm so tired of being responsible, Billy. Why did it have to be me. Why?" When she looked up at him, there were tears glimmering in her eyes.

"I don't know," he said, and he reached out to take her hand as the rain flailed against the windows. For a long time they sat together, listening to the storm, and when the rain stopped Bonnie let out a soft, despairing whisper.

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