As Billy sat with Bonnie Hailey at the Hillburn Institute, the telephone was ringing at the Hodges's house in Fayette. George Hodges stirred, feeling his wife's back pressed against his own, and fumbled for the receiver.
It was Albert Vance, an attorney he'd met at a business conference in Fort Lauderdale the year before, calling from New York City. Hodges told him to stay on the line, nudged Rhonda, and asked her to hang up when he yelled from downstairs. He went down to the study, rubbing sleep from his eyes, and took the call. "Okay!" he shouted, and the upstairs phone clicked down.
He didn't want Rhonda overhearing. His heart was pounding as he listened to what Vance had to say.
"I had to go through red tape like you wouldn't believe," Vance said, in a northern accent abrasive to Hodges's eat "Ten High owns a few companies here in New York, and on the surface they're as clean as polished glass. No IRS trouble, no union problems, no bankruptcies. They're real Boy Scouts."
"So what does that mean?"
"It means I had to dig five thousand dollars deeper, and I had to cover my tracks. That's why I'm calling so late. I don't want anyone in my office to know what I found out about Ten High . . . just in case."
"I don't understand."
"You will. Ten High may or may not be connected."
"Connected? With what?"
"The organized boys. Got the picture? I said may or may not be. They've insulated themselves pretty damned well. But the word I get is that Ten High has sunken its claws into the West Coast porno business, the garment trade, owns a sizable slice of Vegas action, and controls most of the Mexican illegal-alien flow. Ten High is strong, prospering, and lethal."
"Oh . . . Jesus. . . ." Hodges's hand clenched around the receiver Wayne and Henry Bragg were still out there! Wayne had missed a television taping, and now the Houston date had passed and still Wayne showed no intent of coming back to Fayette! God only knew what hold Krespin had on him! He said weakly, "I . . . Al, what can I do?"
"You want my advice? I'll give you a fifty-buck warning for free: keep your ass away from those people! Whatever's going on between them and your client, it's not worth being made into dog food over. Right?"
Hodges's mouth was numb. He said in a whisper, "Yes."
"Okay, that's it. Send me the money and a case of Jack Daniel's, I'll call it even. But listen to me, and I'm serious about this: you never called me to check into Ten High. I never heard of Ten High before. Got it? Those guys have very long arms. Okay?"
"Al, I appreciate your help. Thank you."
"Sleep tight," Vance said, and the telephone was hung up in New York City.
George Hodges slowly returned the receiver to it cradle. He was shaking, and couldn't find the strength to rise from his desk.
For all intents and purposes, the Falconer Crusade – the foundation, the scholarship fund, everything! – was in the grip of Augustus Krepsin, chairman of the board of the Ten High Corporation. Surely Henry Bragg could see what was happening! Couldn't he?
No, he thought bitterly. Henry was too busy lying around that pool and meeting the young girls Niles introduced him to. Palm Springs was all the things Henry had ever fantasized about, and he was hooked as deeply as Wayne!
Hodges reached for the phone again, and dialed 0. When the operator answered, he said, "I'd like to make a long-distance call please. To Birmingham, to the Federal Bureau of . . ." And then he tasted ashes in his mouth, because what could he say? What could he do? Wayne wanted to be out there. Wayne felt safe in that stone tomb, hidden from his responsibilities.
Those guys have very long arms, Al Vance had said.
"Yes sir?" the operator asked.
Hodges thought of Rhonda, and of Larry in his freshman year at Auburn. Long arms. He'd seen Niles's eyes: the eyes of a killer. His gut lurched, and he hung up.
Things had been coming loose at the seams ever since J.J.'s death. Now the whole package was coming apart. Hodges feared what might be at its dark center.
But he had his family, his stocks and bonds. His house and money. He was alive.
Hodges rose wearily from his desk, and as he started across the room he thought he saw, through the picture window, a red glow in the sky when wind whipped through the trees. A fire? he wondered. In that direction lay Hawthorne. What could be burning?
Still, it couldn't be a very large fire. And it was several miles away. It would be put out. He'd find out what it was in the morning.
"God help me," he said quietly, and hoped he would be heard. Then he turned off the lights and climbed the stairs. He felt as if his soul had been scorched to a cinder.
"I'll be perfectly honest with you, Billy," Mary Hillburn said. She put on her reading glasses and opened a file folder that lay before her atop the desk. "I have all your test results right here, everything from Zener cards to biofeedback. You checked out just fine on your physical, incidentally."
"That's good to know." It had been several days since Billy's talk with Bonnie Hailey, and just yesterday morning he'd finished the last of the tests Dr Hillburn had planned for him. It had been a long hypnosis session conducted by Dr Lansing, and Billy had felt as if he were floating in a dark pool as the therapist tried to take him to different levels of consciousness. From the disappointment on Lansing's face, Billy could tell it had been a dismal failure.
"Oh," Billy said quietly. All that work for nothing? he thought. "Then . . . you don't think I can do what I say I can, is that right?"
"Take on pain from the dead? I really don't know. As I say, the tests – "
"They're not the right tests," Billy said.
She pondered that for a moment. "Perhaps you're right. But then, what would the proper test be, young man? Can you come up with one? You see, parapsychology – and death survival research in particular – is a very, very tricky enterprise. It's a fledgling science – a new frontier; we make up the tests as we go along, but even our tests have to be tested. We have to prove ourselves as being serious every day, and most scientists won't even listen to our findings." She closed his file. "Unfortunately, we have proven nothing. No proof of death survival, no proof of an afterlife . . . nothing. But still people come to us with sightings of discarnates. They come to us with precognitive dreams, with the ability to suddenly speak in different languages, or to play musical instruments that they had no prior experience with. I've seen individuals go into trancelike states and write in a completely different handwriting style. I've heard a little girl, also in a trance, speak in a man's voice. What does it mean? Simply that we have reached the edge of a new unknown, and we don't understand what lies before us."
Dr. Hillburn took off her glasses and rubbed her eyes. She was suddenly very tired, and she'd so hoped this young man from Alabama would be the one she was looking for "I'm sorry," she said. "I don't disbelieve what you've told me about yourself and your family. Your friend Mr. Merkle was certainly convinced. But . . . how can we test that black aura you say you see? How can we test someone who feels he can calm the dead? I don't know. Until we come up with new, verifiable test procedures, we cannot. So I'm going to send your file around to some other parapsychologists. In the meantime . . . I'm sorry, but I've got a list of people waiting to come in. I'm going to have to ask you to vacate your room."
"You . . . want me to leave?"
"No, I don't want you to; but I'm afraid you'll have to. I can give you until the end of the week, and we'll put you on a bus back home. I'm hopeful one of the other parapsychologists who get your file can …"
Heat pulsed in Billy's face. He stood up abruptly, thinking of all the money he'd spent to come up here. "I'll leave tomorrow," he said. "And nobody has to see me off. I thought you were going to help me!"
"I said we'd put you through some tests. We have. I'm groping through the dark, just as you are, and I wish I had room for everyone here who has psi potential, but we don't. It's not that I don't believe in your abilities. But right now there's only your word for them."
"I see," Billy said, confused and angry. All this time, wasted! "I shouldn't have come up here. I was wrong, I know that now. You can't understand or help me, because you look at everything through machines. How can a machine know what's in my mind and soul? My mother, and her mother before her, never needed machines to help them do their work – and I don't, either." He glowered at her and then stalked out of the office.
Dr. Hillburn couldn't blame him. She turned her chair toward the window to look at the park in the gray midafternoon sunlight. She hated to let Billy Creekmore go, because she sensed something about him – something important that she couldn't quite understand. But she needed the space he was occupying, and that was that. She drew in a deep breath and turned to her next priority, Bonnie Hailey's dream diary. Bonnie was still having dreams about a burning building, and her messenger was still trying to impress a word on her. Something that sounded like "spines"? She reread Bonnie's latest dreams – all of them similar except for minor details – and then took a Chicago street map from a bookshelf behind her desk.
They came for Henry Bragg at a quiet hour, just before three in the morning, and turned on all the lights in his mirrored bedroom.
Niles was standing over the bed when Bragg got his eyeglasses on. "Mr. Krepsin would like to see you," Niles said. "You won't need to get dressed, just your robe and slippers will do."
"What's going on? What time is it?"
"It's early. Wayne's repaying a debt to Mr. Krepsin. It's important that you be there."
Niles and a sturdy blond bodyguard named Dorn escorted Bragg into the east wing of the house, Krepsin's private domain. In the week since George Hodges had been gone, Bragg had felt as pampered as a prince. He was getting a good suntan and becoming addicted to pina coladas. When the young girls that Niles introduced to him fawned over him, he conveniently forgot about his wife, children, his house and legal practice. He'd begun wearing a chain around his neck with his zodiac sign on it. He was doing his job: staying close to Wayne. If there just happened to be one hell of a lot of fringe benefits, was it his fault?
Niles pressed the button outside Krepsin's study. The doors unlocked, and Bragg stepped into the room. Track lights were aimed on him, and the mounted skeletons threw dark slats upon the walls. Krepsin sat behind his desk, his hands folded before him, his head in a pool of light.
Bragg had to visor his hand over his eyes because the light in his face was almost painful. "Mr. Krepsin? Did you want to see me, sir?"
"Yes. Step forward, will you?"
Bragg did. The feel of the Persian carpet under his feet changed. He realized he was standing on a wide piece of thin, clear plastic that had been laid down over the carpet.
"That's fine," Krepsin said. "Right there, if you please."
"What's going on?" Bragg grinned.
"Wayne?" Krepsin looked to his left, at the figure sitting in a high-backed chair "Are you ready?"
It took Bragg a few minutes to recognize Wayne. The boy's face was pallid, haunted-looking. It had been several days since he'd last seen Wayne, and the boy looked like a stranger. Wayne held a small box in his lap and was rubbing something between his fingers. Was it . . . hair? he wondered.
"I don't know," Wayne said softly.
"What did I tell you before, son? You're either ready or not for your test."
"Hey," Bragg said, "is anybody going to tell me what's going on?"
Dorn was covering some of the skeletons nearest Bragg with clear plastic sheets. He moved a coffee table and chair to the far side of the room. Wayne sat staring at the hair in his hand; most of it was gray, and it had a luster that shone like starlight. He got a strange feeling from holding it. The Creekmore boy's face was fresh in his mind, and for an instant it didn't look evil at all. But then he remembered what his father had told him, about things of the Devil not always looking black as sin. "I'm ready," he said, and let Ramona Creekmore's hair slip back into the box. He could call it up from deep within, he knew he could. He rose to his feet, clenching and unclenching his fists at his sides.
"Let's begin," Krepsin said.
Before Bragg could turn, Dorn gripped his wrists and pinned his arms behind him. Bragg cried out in pain as Dorn held him so tightly he could barely breathe.
"Mr Niles?" Krepsin said softly.
Niles had taken what looked like a set of brass knuckles from a black leather pouch. He slipped the weapon on his right fist, and Bragg whined with fear as he saw the wicked glint of broken razor blades studding the weapon's surface.
"Wayne!" Bragg screamed, his glasses hanging from one ear. "For God's sake, don't let them kill me!" He tried to kick out at Niles, but the other man neatly sidestepped. Niles gripped his hair and jerked his head back while Dorn increased the pressure on his lockhold.
And then Niles's arm swept outward in a blurred arc, across Bragg's exposed throat. Fountains of bright red blood leaped into the air, jetting upon the plastic sheets. Niles leaped aside, but not in time: his gray suit was splattered with scarlet. Bragg's face had gone marble white.
"Let him go," Krepsin ordered. Bragg crumpled to his knees, his hands clasped around his throat, blood streaming between the fingers. Krepsin had clicked a stopwatch on when Bragg's throat was slashed, and the seconds were running; he inclined his head toward Wayne. "Now heal him," he said. "You have about three minutes before he bleeds to death."
Wayne had had no idea what the test was going to be. He was transfixed by the sight of all that blood.
"Please," Bragg whispered, and reached a gore-covered hand out for him. "Oh Jesus, oh Jesus don't let me die . . ."
"Hurry, Wayne," Krepsin urged.
Gripping the man's slippery hand, Wayne got on his knees beside him. Red tides rippled across the plastic. Wayne clamped his free hand over the gushing, ragged wound. "Be healed," he said, his voice shaking. "I . . . command you to be healed!" He tried to visualize the veins and arteries melding together as if by a cauterizing torch, but fie knew it wasn't working. "Please," he whispered. "Please be healed!"
Bragg moaned hoarsely and fell on his side.
The stopwatch on Krepsin's desk continued to ticktickticktick.
Wayne felt trapped in rust. He had felt the healing fire when he'd touched Toby; he had felt it when he'd healed a little girl's numbed legs; he had felt it a hundred times in those old days, before he felt so pushed and squeezed and pressured to keep doing it day after day. But he couldn't pretend anymore, not with Henry dying in front of him. He had to find the blue fire again, and he had to find it fast. When he looked pleadingly up at Krepsin, he saw the man's impassive face like a huge chunk of eroding stone. Krepsin had put on a surgical mask.
"Wayne . . ." Bragg whispered.
He clamped both hands to the wound. "Be healed be healed dear God heal this man please heal him." He squeezed his eyes shut. It wouldn't happen! Where was the blue fire? Where was the power? "Burn it shut!" he shouted. Still nothing. He thought of the Creekmore witch, scorching in Hellfire. He thought of the Creekmore boy, still out there roaming the earth. One had been dealt with, the other must follow. "BURN IT SHUT!" he screamed, his mind turning toward revenge for the death of his father.
A faint jolt shuddered through his hands, like a spark plug misfiring. He was covered with blood and sweat, and as he concentrated he bowed his back and screamed for his daddy to help him heal Henry Bragg.
Spark plugs fired. Fired. Fired. "Yes, I command you to be healed! I command you to be heal – " a terrific pain suddenly ripped across his head. His brain felt as if it were about to explode. "BE HEALED!" he shouted, as blood oozed from his nostrils. His eyes bulged from his head.
Bragg's body writhed, his mouth opening in a moan.
Krepsin, breathing hard, began to rise from his chair.
Pain crisscrossed Wayne's head in savage waves. His hands, curled into rigid claws, were locked against Bragg's throat. A fire was coming up from his soul, sizzling through sinew and muscle and flesh. With it there was an agony that made Wayne throw back bis head and shriek.
Krepsin thought he smelled charring flesh.
Wayne shook violently, the eyes rolling back in his head, as his hands convulsively twitched around Bragg's throat. The man's body was shaking too, his mouth making low gasping sounds.
And then Wayne fell backward as if thrust away by a physical force. He lay curled up on the bloody plastic. Agony throbbed through him like the vibration of a bass fiddle.
Bragg moaned, "Oh God help me . . . please help me . . . the pain …"
Krepsin released his breath in a hiss. The second hand of the stopwatch was sweeping past three minutes. "Check him," he rasped.
Niles bent over Bragg. "Pulse irregular The bleeding's almost stopped. The blood's coagulated into a hard crust. I … I think the wound's sealed, Mr Krepsin."
"Hurts." Bragg whispered.
Krepsin's bulk leaned over the desk. "That man should be dead by now," he said. "He should be dead!" Breathing like a steam engine, he came around the desk and stepped onto the plastic film, avoiding the blood. "Get away, get away," he told Niles, who moved quickly aside. Very slowly Krepsin dared to bend forward and touch with one finger the hard crust of dried blood that had effectively sealed Bragg's wound. He drew his finger back as if it had been burned. "He's going to live," Krepsin whispered. Then, in a shout that seemed to shake the room: "He's going to live!"
Wayne sat up, staring blankly ahead as blood dripped from his nose. His head was full of black, consumptive pain.
"He's a healer," Krepsin breathed, his eyes wide and astonished. "He's a healer, he's a healer, he's a goddamned healer! I've found a healer!" He turned toward Wayne, one of his shoes sinking into a puddle of blood. "You always knew you could do it, didn't you? You never doubted it! Oh, I've looked for someone like you for such a long time, Wayne! You can heal anything, can't you? Cancers, fevers, plagues, anything!"
The son of Satan, Wayne thought through a haze of pain. Loose in the world. Mocking me. I always knew I could do it. Death deserves death. Send the demon boy to join the witch in Hellfire. I always knew I could get it up!
"My God, Wayne!" Krepsin was saying. "What a gift you have! I'll give you anything you want, anything in the world! You want to stay here with me, don't you? Here where it's safe, where nothing can get at you? What do you want, Wayne? I'll give you – "
"The demon boy," Wayne whispered. "I . . . want the demon boy dead. He's loose in the world, spreading death like a plague. Death deserves death."
"The Creekmore boy? Anything you want done, anything in the world. We know he's in Chicago, at the . . ." He couldn't recall, and snapped his fingers at Niles.
"The Hillburn Institute," Niles answered. The courier had come this morning, bringing a package containing snippets of hair and an envelope Travis Bixton had found in the Creekmore house. On that envelope had been the institute's address, and inside a letter from the Creekmore boy.
"Right," Krepsin said. "But that boy can't hurt you, Wayne. It was his mother you feared, wasn't it? And now that she's …"
"Dead," Wayne said, his haunted gaze burning toward the other man. "Dead dead I want the demon boy dead."
Krepsin glanced quickly over at Niles, then returned his attention to Wayne. "I want you to go back to your room now. Mr Dorn will give you something to help you relax. Tomorrow you can go up in the Challenger with Coombs. All day if you want. Would you like that?"
Dorn helped Wayne to his feet. Bragg stirred and whispered, "Wayne, don't leave me."
"Henry's still hurting," Wayne said dazedly. "What's going to happen to him?"
"We'll see to Mr. Bragg. Go along now. And Wayne – you've passed your test magnificently!"
When Wayne had gone, Niles bent down beside Bragg and examined the throat wound as Krepsin raved on about Wayne's powers. Niles was fascinated at the way the blood had crusted; he'd never seen anything like this before. Bragg's bloodshot eyes were fixed on him. After a period of observation, Niles knew, Bragg would go into the incinerator "What about the boy at that institute, Mr Krepsin?" he asked.
"Wells won't have any problem with that, will he?"
"No sir." He stood up and stepped away from the body. "No problem. But aren't you curious about this Creekmore boy? He has some kind of hold over Wayne. Should we find out what it is?"
Krepsin recalled something Wayne had told him, in one of their first conversations: The Creekmores serve the Devil, and they know all the secrets of death. He narrowed his eyes and regarded Niles for a silent moment.
"Something about that boy and his mother has preyed on Wayne's mind for a long time," Niles said quietly. "What could it be? And could it be used to bind Wayne closer to you?"
"He'll never leave me," Krepsin said. "How long could a man live, Mr Niles, if he cannot be touched by injuries or disease? A hundred years? Longer?" Then he said in a soft, dreamy voice, "Not to die, but to know the secrets of death. That would . . . make a human being godlike, wouldn't it?"
"The Creekmore boy," Niles said, "may know something about Wayne that you should know. Possibly we acted prematurely on the woman, as well."
"What's your advice, then?"
Niles told him, and Krepsin listened very carefully.
It was Billy's last afternoon at the Hillburn Institute, and he was packing his suitcase when he heard the scream from downstairs. He knew, almost instinctively, that it was Bonnie's voice.
He found her in the parlor, hugging Mr Pearlman with tears streaming down her face. A few others were watching something on television. Billy stared numbly at the screen.
It was a nighttime scene of a blazing building, firemen wearing oxygen masks and scaling ladders to the upper floors as sparks exploded into the sky. The camera had caught pictures of people leaping to their deaths from the window.
"It wasn't a cigarette," Bonnie said, staring at Billy. "It was the wiring. It happened just like I knew it would, and I couldn't stop it, I couldn't do anything. . . ."
"There's nothing you could have done," Dr Hillburn said. She was standing at the foot of the stairs, and had seen the news bulletin. This morning she'd read in the paper about the fiery destruction of the Alcott Hotel, on South Spines Street, and had known that Bonnie's messenger had been right again.
"Yes there was. I could've told somebody. I could've – "
"You told me," Dr. Hillburn said. She glanced at Billy and the others and then her gaze returned to Bonnie. "I found Spines Street on a Chicago map. It's in a very bad area on the South Side, full of flophouses for derelicts. Two days ago I called the local police station and the fire department's prevention bureau. I explained who I was, and my conversation ended with, respectively, a desk sergeant and a secretary. I was told there were dozens of transient hotels on Spines Street, and an inspection of them all was impractical. You did the best you could, Bonnie, and so did I."
Forty people dead, Billy thought. Maybe more, their bodies buried in the rubble. The Alcott Hotel, South Spines Street. Forty people dead. He could envision them awakening from drunken sleep as fire roared through the corridors. They would've had no time, no chance to escape. It would have been a terrifying, agonizing way to die. Forty people.
Bonnie, her face strained and tear-streaked, took her coat from the closet and went out into the cold. She walked into the park, her head bowed.
"She'll survive," Dr. Hillburn said. "She's a fighter, and she knows I'm right. Billy, what time does your bus leave?"
"Whenever you're ready, I'll drive you to the station." Dr. Hillburn watched Bonnie walking in the park for a moment, then started up the stairs.
Billy kept thinking about the Alcott Hotel. The raw image of people leaping from the windows was imprinted on his brain. What would his mother want him to do? He already knew; but he didn't know if he was strong enough for that many of them. He had two hours before his bus left. No, he should forget about the Alcott, he told himself. He was going home, back where he belonged.
Dr. Hillburn was about to enter her office when Billy said quietly, behind her, "I'd like to talk to you, please."
"That hotel fire. All those people, trapped in there. I . . . think that's where I should go."
"Why? Are you presuming that just because there was fast and painful death, discarnates are present? I don't think that's a very valid – "
"I don't care what you think," Billy said firmly. "I know that some souls need help in crossing over, especially if death came so fast they didn't have time to prepare themselves. Some of them – a lot of them, I think – are probably still in that place, and they're still burning up. They don't know how to get out."
"So what are you suggesting?"
"I want to go there. I want to see for myself." He frowned when she didn't respond. "What my mother taught me had to do with compassion, with feeling. Not with brainwaves or machines. They need me at that place. I have to go, Dr. Hillburn."
"No," she said. "Out of the question. You're acting on an invalid, emotional assumption. And I'm sure that what remains of the Alcott is extremely dangerous. While you're in this city, I feel responsible for you, and I won't have you walking around in a burned-out building. I'm sorry. No." And she went into her office and closed the door.
Billy's face was grim. He went to his room, put on his heaviest sweater, and tucked the rest of his money into a jeans pocket. A bus stop was two blocks north, he knew. He'd have to find the Alcott Hotel by himself. Anita saw him leave, but he spoke to no one. Outside, small flakes of snow were spinning down from an overcast sky, and the wind was frigid. He saw Bonnie out in the park and almost went over to comfort her but he knew she needed to be alone, and if he paused he might lose the determination that was forcing him to the Alcott. He started walking north, and didn't hear Bonnie's voice when she looked up and called his name.
The bus doors hissed open, and Billy stepped onto the pavement in a chilly mix of rain and snow. On the corner was a rusted street sign that read South Spines. As the bus pulled away, Billy shoved his hands in his pockets and started walking into the wind, his teeth beginning to chatter.
For the last hour and a half he'd been transferring from bus to bus, heading deeper into Chicago's grim, gray South Side. He was almost at the edge of the city, and he'd ridden the bus to the end of the line. Rows of square, severe-looking buildings surrounded him, and on the horizon factory chimneys belched brown smoke. Metal shields were pulled down across storefront windows, and the reek of decay hung in the air.
Billy walked south, shivering. In the distance he heard a police car's siren, the wail strengthening and ebbing. The street was all but deserted. Around him snowflakes hissed as if falling on a hot griddle. From windows an occasional solemn face watched him pass.
After another block, he could smell charred timbers. The air grew denser, thick with a grayish brown haze that seemed to hang in layers. He heard an eerie chorus of police sirens, a noise that climbed the scales to a chilling dissonance. Billy could feel the hair at the back of his neck standing up.
The haze grew denser still, like a filthy fog. Billy walked into it, his eyes stinging.
And through it loomed his destination, a scorched five-story building with the letters ALL OTT HO remaining painted in dark red just under the rooftop, which had collapsed during the fire. Windows were rimmed with black, and rooms and narrow corridors had been exposed when part of the hotel's brick skin had slid down to the ground. Smoking rubble was piled up all over the street. A safety barricade, yellow sawhorses with blinking lights, had been set up to hold back a group of fifteen or twenty curious onlookers, and two police cars were parked nearby. Firemen in long brown canvas coats were picking through the debris. A group of men in scruffy clothes stood around a blaze in an empty oil can, passing a bottle back and forth. Parked across the street was a fire engine, its hoses snaking into the rubble.
Two firemen were digging something out. A third came over to help. The blackened shape they were trying to lift fell apart in their hands, and one of the men leaned unsteadily on his shovel as the group of drunks hooted and catcalled.
Billy's heart was pounding, the chorus of sirens making his skin crawl. He saw a couple of policemen moving around in the rubble. Something within the building cracked, and bricks fell from above, causing the officers to scatter.
And then Billy realized those weren't sirens he was hearing.
They were high, dissonant, eerie screams. Coming from inside the Alcott.
And he knew that he was the only one who could hear them.
"Got another one over here!" one of the firemen shouted. "Get me a bodybag, it's a bad one!"
Billy stared across the barricades into the blackened remnants of the lobby. Furniture had been charred into lumps. A tangle of pipes leaked dirty water, and a narrow staircase, warped by intense heat and the weight of water, ascended along a sooty wall. The screams drove themselves into his brain like spikes, and he knew there were too many. He couldn't handle them all, they'd kill him. He'd never tried to help this many, not at one time!
"Step back," a policeman told him, and he obeyed.
But he knew that if he didn't at least try, give it his best and strongest effort, he'd hear that terrible screaming in his mind for the rest of his life. He paused, waiting for the chance. I am strong, he told himself. I can do it. But he was trembling, and he'd never been more uncertain in his life.
The drunks started shouting at the firemen who were zipping a black form into a bodybag. The policeman hurried over to shut them up, his broad face reddening with anger.
And Billy slipped under the barricade, then into the Alcott Hotel's ruined lobby.
He ascended the stairs as quickly as he could, ducking low beneath twisted pipes and dangling timbers. The stairs groaned under his weight, and around him shifted a curtain of gray smoke. Above the sound of the ghostly screams he could hear restless wind roaring along the upper floors. As he reached the dank second floor, noises from the outside world faded away. He could sense the pulse of agony at the heart of the Alcott Hotel.
His foot plunged through a step; he fell to his knees, ashes whirling around him, as the entire staircase shook. It took him a moment to work his foot free, and then he forced himself upward. Cold sweat and soot clung to his face. The screaming spectral voices led him to the third floor; he was aware also of individual voices – low, agonized moaning, snippets of shouts, cries of terror – that he seemed to feel vibrating in his bones. The third-floor corridor was dark, puddled with ashy water, clogged with burned, unidentifiable shapes. Billy found a shattered window and leaned against it to inhale some fresh air Down on the street, a white van marked with the eye of Chicago had pulled up to the barricade. Three people, a woman and two men – one with a camera unit braced against his shoulder – were having a heated argument with the cop while the drunks shouted and whistled.
The voices of the dead urged Billy on. He continued along the corridor, feeling something like a cold hand exploring his features as a blind man might. The floor groaned under his weight, and from above ashes shifted down like black snow. His shoes crunched on a layer of debris.
To his right there was a doorway that had been shattered by firemen. Beyond was a thick gloom of gray ashes. Billy could sense the terrible cold in that room, leaking out into the corridor. It was the chill of terror, and Billy shivered in its frigid touch.
Beyond that doorway, he knew, was what he had come here to find.
Billy braced himself, his heart hammering, and stepped through the doorway. The voices stopped.
A pall of black ashes and smoke drifted around him. It had been a large room; he looked up, saw that most of the ceiling had collapsed in a morass of charred timbers. Water was still seeping down from above and lay a half-inch deep around the objects on the floor: charred rib cages, arm and leg bones, unrecognizable shapes that might once have been human beings. Around them, like black barbed wire, was a metal framework that had been melded together by intense heat. Bed frames, Billy realized. Bunk beds. They were sleeping in here when the ceiling collapsed on top of them.
There was a silence, as of something waiting.
He could feel them all around him. They were in the smoke, in the ash, in the burned bones and malformed shapes. They were in the air and in the walls.
There was too much agony here; it weighed heavily in the dense air, and terror crackled like electricity. But it was too late to run, Billy knew. He would have to do what he could.
But there was something else here, as well. The hair at the back of his neck stirred, and his flesh prickled. Hatred oozed from this room. Something in here seethed; something wanted to tear him to pieces.
A shape stirred in a far corner and rose up from the ashes, taking hideous form. It stood seven feet tall, and its narrowed eyes glittered like red beads. The shape changer's boarlike face grinned. "I knew you'd come," it whispered, in a voice neither masculine nor feminine, young nor old. "I've been waiting for you."
Billy stepped back, into puddled water.
"Oh, you're not afraid, are you?" The shape changer came out of the corner like a drift of smoke, its bestial gaze fixed on Billy. "Not you, no. Never afraid. You're strong, aren't you?"
"Yes," Billy said. "I am." And he saw a flicker of hesitation in the shape changer's gaze. He wasn't sure of the limits of the shape changer's powers – if indeed, there were any – but it seemed to him that as he got stronger, the shape changer grew more uncertain, more threatened. Perhaps, he thought, the beast couldn't physically hurt him in that demonic, elemental shape, but it could affect his mind, possibly make him hurt himself. If the shape changer ever devised a way to attack him physically, he feared he couldn't survive against such a hideous force.
The thing's form shifted, like a reflection seen in a rippling pond of stagnant water, and suddenly it looked like Lee Sayre. "You're a meddler," it said, in Sayre's voice. "Your family's full of meddlers. Some of them couldn't stand up to me, boy. Do you think you can?"
Billy didn't reply, but stood his ground.
Lee Sayre's face grinned. "Good! Then it'll be you and me, boy, with a roomful of souls in the balance! Think fast, boy!"
The floor creaked and pitched downward, dropping Billy to his knees in the water. It's a trick! he thought, as the floor seemed to sway precariously. An illusion, conjured up by the beast!
A blizzard of lighted matches swirled around Billy, burning him on the face and hands, sparking his hair and sweater. He cried out and tried to shield his face with his arms. A trick! Not really burning, not really . . . ! If he was strong enough, he knew, he could overcome the shape changer's tricks. He looked up into the matches that sizzled off his cheeks and forehead, and he tried to concentrate on seeing the shape changer not as Lee Sayre, but as it really looked. The blizzard of matches faded away, and the boar-thing stood before him.
"Tricks," Billy said, and looked up through the darkness at Melissa Pettus.
A fireball suddenly came crashing through the ceiling upon him, burying him in flaming debris. He could smell himself burning – a May Night smell – and he screamed as he tried to fight free. He ran, his clothes on fire, his mind panicked.
Before he reached the doorway, he stepped through a gaping hole in the floor that had been hidden by rubble.
As he plunged through, he caught a jagged piece of twisted metal bed frame that cut into his hand. His body hung halfway through the hole, his legs dangling twenty feet over a pile of timbers studded with blackened nails. His clothes were still on fire, and he could hear his skin sizzling.
"Let go, Billy," Melissa whispered. "It hurts, doesn't it? It hurts to burn."
"No!" he shouted. If he let go, he knew he'd fall to his death. The shape changer had wanted him to flee, had wanted him to step through this hole. Panic, terror, illusions, and insanity – those were the shape changer's most lethal weapons.
"Your mother's dead," Melissa's pretty face said. "The cowboy came and cut her throat. Your little house is a heap of ashes. Billy, your hand's bleeding – "
"Somebody up there?" a voice shouted from below.
"Let go, let go!" the shape changer, in Melissa's skin, said urgently.
Billy concentrated on the pain in his hand. His flesh had stopped sizzling. He turned his full attention to getting out of the hole. His clothes weren't on fire, weren't even scorched. He was strong, he told himself; he could resist the shape changer's weapons. Melissa's form began to fade away, and in its place was the boar. Billy climbed up and crouched on his knees in the water. What had the thing said about his mother? Lies, all lies! He had to hurry, he told himself, before the firemen found him in here.
There were scorched bones lying around him. A rib cage lay nearby. In the corner was a hideous, blackened form still wearing the shreds of clothes, its black skull-like head lolling.
Billy could feel them all around him, terrified and confused. They murmured and moaned, crowding around him to flee the dark power of the shape changer.
"No fear," Billy whispered. "Give up the pain, give up . . ."
"Get out of the dark place!" Jimmy Jed Falconer bellowed, his eyes blazing with righteous anger.
Something as soft as silk brushed Billy's face. A formless, pale bluish white mass had begun seeping out of the wall, reaching tentatively toward him. A second revenant hung in a corner like a spider web, clinging fearfully to the wall.
"You're not strong enough!" Falconer shouted. "You can't do it!"
"Give up the pain," Billy whispered, trying to mentally draw them closer. He squeezed his eyes shut, concentrating. When he opened them, he saw a third revenant drifting nearer, taking on a vague human shape, arms reaching to grasp for him.
"You have to leave this place," Billy said. "You don't belong here." And suddenly he shivered, as a cold white shape drifted over him from behind; it was as soft as velvet, and was so cold it made his bones ache. Two appendages that might have been arms enfolded him.
"No!" the shape changer thundered, reverting to the beast.
The revenant began to sink into him. Billy gritted his teeth as its human memories filled him; first the panic as the fire spread and the ceiling crashed down, then the agony of burning flesh. Then in his mind he saw a splay of cards on a table, a hand reaching for a bottle of Red Dagger wine, golden wheatfields seen from a speeding boxcar, dreaded policemen swinging clubs. Memories and emotions swept through him like leaves blown from dying trees.
Another form drifted closer, gripping Billy's hand and crawling up his arm.
Again, the agony of the blaze streaked through Billy's mind. Then a needle sinking into flesh. A thin woman standing in a doorway, cradling a child.
Billy shuddered and moaned from the intensity of the pain and emotions he was taking on. He saw dozens of white forms sifting through the room, rising from the heaps of bones and ashes. They were oozing out of the walls, some of them hurrying toward him, others still as frightened as little children and clinging to the corners.
"Let go of the pain," he whispered, as the forms clung to him. "No pain, no fear . . ." Images from other lives crackled through his mind: a knife fight in an alley, a bottle uptilted for the last precious drops.
"LOOK AT ME, BOY!" the shape changer shouted, and rippled into Fitts, standing with a python curled around his neck. "Your mother's dead, your mother's dead! The cowboy came and sheared her head!"
The revenants were all over Billy. Though they were weightless, the tonnage of the emotions they were shedding bore him to the floor, where he lay gasping on his side in ashes and water He heard the shape changer roar, "It's not over! It's not over yet, you'll see!" but he closed his mind to the thing's taunts, mentally fixed on bringing the revenants into him.
The shape changer vanished. But, behind Billy, the charred corpse in the corner stirred. Its dead, burned-out eye sockets began to show a gleam of red. The thing moved, slowly, slowly, and started to drag itself toward the boy. One skeletal hand closed around a piece of metal, and lifted it to strike Billy from behind.
Burned bone cracked. The arm dangled uselessly, and as Billy turned to look over his shoulder, he recognized in the reanimated corpse's face the shape changer's red, hate-filled eyes. He lay immobile as the corpse crawled toward him, its mouth opening to emit a hoarse whisper through burned vocal cords; then the head lolled, ripping loose from the neck. The body shuddered and settled again into the ashes, as the shape changer gave it up.
Someone shouted, "Jesus Christ!"
And another voice, rising frantically, "Get the lights on!"
A stunning beam of light flooded the room. Some of the wraiths scattered away from Billy, fleeing the harsh illumination. Others floated above the floor, transfixed.
The fireman with his spotlight backed away, stumbling into the camera crew from WCHI, who were doing a documentary on firetrap hotels. The room was filled with strange white shapes, some of them vaguely in human form. "What the hell? . . ." the fireman whispered.
"Barry!" a tall woman with red hair said. "Film it!" Her eyes were wide and startled, and she was fighting the urge to run like hell from whatever those things were. The cameraman paused, stunned, and at once the woman switched on a power-pack strapped to his back. She lifted the video-tape camera from its mount on his shoulder, popped off the plastic lens cap, and started filming. Two intense lights attached atop the camera came on, illuminating every corner of the room. "Give me more cable! Now, damn it!" She stepped into the room, panning from corner to corner:
"Nothing there," the fireman was babbling. "Nothing there. Just smoke. Just – " And then he fled the room.
The camerawoman stepped over the boy passed out on the floor, jerked at the cable to make sure it wasn't snagged, and filmed a white shape with a head and arms as it fled into a wall.READ MORE >>