Mystery Walk

Chapter 16

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56

When Cammy Falconer saw her son, she was amazed at how much older he looked. He was growing into a handsome man, but he was getting fat. He sat out at a table by the glass-enclosed swimming pool that was part of the Krepsin house, working on a plastic airplane model.

"Wayne?" Niles said quietly. "Your visitors are here."

Wayne looked up incuriously, and Cammy saw that his eyes seemed dead. She managed a weak smile as she stepped forward. "Aren't you going to say hello to your mother?"

"You've been smoking," Wayne replied. "I can smell it on your clothes." He glanced up at the husky, curly-haired man who stood a few paces behind her, and frowned. One of her boyfriends, he thought. He'd heard she had a lot of boyfriends out in Houston, where she'd moved after the Falconer Foundation had bought her a condominium.

"Wayne, this is Darryl Whitton," she said uneasily. "He plays for the Oilers."

"I don't like football." He concerned himself with putting together the fuselage of a Concorde. "How'd you find me?"

"Where you are isn't a secret." She glanced quickly at Niles, who seemed determined to stay around. "Can I be alone with my son, please?" Niles nodded in accordance, wished them a good visit, and returned to the house. "It's been a long time since I've seen you, Wayne."

"Did they send you?"

"No," she said, but she was lying. The Crusade people had called her and explained that they needed her help. Little Wayne was out in Palm Springs, they told her, and he didn't want to come home. Henry Bragg was missing, and George Hodges had quit the Crusade only a few days ago. Cammy inwardly shuddered when Wayne looked at her; she feared he could see the lie through those scorched, haunted eyes.

Whitton, an affable lout, picked up one of the plastic pieces and grinned. "Mighty good job you're doin' there, Wayne. Your momma tells me you like …" And then the grin froze when Wayne's gaze fixed on him. Whitton cleared his throat, put the piece down, and ambled away along the edge of the large swimming pool.

"What's this all about?" Cammy asked. She was well tanned and obviously prosperous, and had broken out of the crystalline cocoon J.J. Falconer had spun around her. "Don't you want to continue the Crusade anymore?"

"They did send you, didn't they?"

"Wayne, you're the head of a multimillion-dollar corporation! And here you are, putting together kids' toys! Who is this Krepsin man, and why did he make it so hard for me to see you? I've called half a dozen times!"

"Mr. Krepsin is my friend," Wayne replied. "I'm resting. And you got in to see me, didn't you?" He concentrated on getting the wings done just right.

"Resting? For what?"

"The future," he said softly. "But you don't care, not really. You stopped caring after my daddy died. But I'll tell you about the future anyway. Mr Krepsin is going to help me build a church, right out in the desert. It's going to be the biggest church in the world, and it's going to last forever. It's going to be built in Mexico, and Mr. Krepsin is going to show me where …" His voice trailed away, and he sat staring into space for a moment. "We can build our own television network, Mr. Krepsin says. He wants to help me, every step of the way."

"In other words, this man's got control over you."

He shot a dark glance at her "You can't see the future, can you? I don't have any friends back in Fayette. They just want to use me. Back there I'm still Little Wayne Falconer, but here I'm Mr Wayne Falconer. I can have anything I want here, and I don't have to be afraid of anything. And know what? They let me fly a jet. Night or day, whenever I choose. I take those controls and I fly over the desert and I feel so … so free. Nobody demands anything from me here."

"And what do you do for money?"

"Oh, I've had my bank accounts transferred from Fayette. I've got a new lawyer, too. Mr Russo. We're going to put all the foundation money in a Mexican bank, because the interest rates are higher. So you see? I'm still in control."

"My God!" Cammy said incredulously. "You've handed over the foundation to a stranger? If the press finds out about this, you're through."

"I don't see it that way." He carefully squeezed plastic cement out of a tube, applying it to a tail fin. "Daddy doesn't either."

Cammy went cold. "What?"

"Daddy. He's come back to me, now that the Hawthorne witch is dead. He says what I'm doing is right, and he says he can rest in Heaven when the demon boy is dead."

"No," she whispered. "Wayne . . . where's Henry? Is Henry here with you?"

"Henry? Oh, he went on to Mexico."

Cammy realized her son was out of his mind. Her eyes stung with tears. "Please," she said. "Wayne, listen to me. I'm begging you. Please go back to Fayette. They can talk to you, and…" She touched his arm.

Instantly he jerked away, and the half-finished airplane scattered across the table and to the ground. "Don't touch me!" he told her. "I never asked you to come here!" His face reddened as he realized the model he'd worked so hard on was ruined. "Look what you made me do! You . . . you've broken it!"

"Wayne . . . please …"

"Get out!" he said angrily. "I don't want you near me!"

"You're destroying everything J.J. built. Don't throw it all away! You need help, Wayne! Please go back to Fayette, where they can – "

"GET OUT!" Wayne howled, rising to his feet. Whitton was hurrying over "You Jezebel!" Wayne shouted, and tore away the necklace she was wearing. Pearls rolled across the ground. "You painted whore! You're not my mother anymore, so GET OUT!"

A glass partition separating the pool from the house slid open. Felix, the butler, looked out and then went to summon Niles.

Cammy stared at her son. He was too far gone now to be helped. She knew she'd never see him again. She touched a red welt across her neck where he'd scratched her. And it came out of her before she could stop it: "You're right, Wayne," she said in a quiet, firm voice, "I'm not your mother. I never was."

"Don't, Cammy!" Whitton said.

But Cammy's anger and disgust at what her son had become was pouring out of her. "I was never your mother," she said, and saw Wayne blink. "You spoiled little bastard! Jimmy Jed Falconer bought you, because he wanted a son to carry on the Crusade, and it had to be done quickly. Do you hear me, Wayne?"

Wayne was motionless, his eyes narrowed into slits and his mouth half open.

"He paid hard cash for you!" And then she shouted it for the world to hear: "Jimmy Jed Falconer was impotent! God only knows who your mother and father really were!"

Niles, who'd just come up behind the woman, grabbed Cammy's elbow. "I'll have to ask you to – "

"Get your hand off me!" She pulled away. "What kind of tricks are you people playing? Why don't you let Wayne go?"

"He can leave anytime he likes. Can't you, Wayne?"

The boy's eyes had frozen into chunks of blue ice. "You're a liar," he whispered to the woman. "I'm J.J. Falconer's son."

"Not by blood. There's a man who buys and sells babies. It was done in secret, and I was expected to go along with it. Oh, he loved you like you were his blood, and I tried my best, but I can't stand to see you throwing everything away like this!"

"Liar," Wayne whispered.

"The visit is over," Niles said. "Felix, will you show these people to the door, please?"

"Go back to Fayette," Cammy pleaded. "Don't destroy J.J.'s lifework!" Tears filled her eyes. Whitton gently took her hand and they followed the Mexican butler. Cammy looked back only once, and saw the man named Niles put his hand firmly on Wayne's shoulder "That was kind of cruel, wasn't it?" Whitton asked.

She wiped her eyes. "Take me to a bar, Darryl. The nearest damned bar you can find."

Niles watched them leave through hooded eyes. "Are you all right, Wayne?"

"I'm J.J. Falconer's son," the boy replied in a dazed voice.

"Of course you are." He recognized the shock settling into Wayne's face, and he took a plastic bottle of small white pills from his inside coat pocket. He shook out a couple into his hand. "Your sedatives, Wayne. Chew these up."

"NO!" The boy struck out at Niles's wrist, and the pills went flying into the swimming pool. Wayne's face was mottled and stricken. "I'm J.J. Falconer's son!" he shouted.

"That's right." Niles tensed, ready for anything. If the boy went out of control, there was no telling what he might try. "Of course you're his son," he said soothingly. "Now why don't you finish your model? They're gone now; they won't bother you again. I'll have Felix bring you a nice glass of fresh orange juice." The juice would be laced with Valium, enough to turn him into a zombie again.

"My airplane." Wayne stared down at the scattered plastic pieces. "Oh," he whispered, and a tear dripped down his right cheek. "It's broken. . . ."

"You can fix it. Come on, sit down." Niles led him to his chair "What would you like to go with that orange juice?"

Wayne frowned, staring at the sun's reflection in the swimming pool. "Zingers," he said. "Vanilla."

"Remember, we leave for Mexico early in the morning. You'll need your sleep. Are your bags packed?"

"No sir."

"Felix will give you a hand with them." Niles hadn't understood all of what that damned woman had said, but she'd really given Wayne a jolt. Taped to the underside of the table was a voice-activated tape recorder about the size of a cigarette pack. Niles knew Mr Krepsin would be interested in hearing it. He left the poolside.

Wayne had gathered up the plastic pieces when Felix brought out his orange juice and Zingers. He stuffed the cakes into his mouth after Felix had gone; the orange juice seemed more bitter than usual today. He didn't like it, so after one swallow he poured it into the pool and stirred away the color with his hand. Mr. Niles always insisted he finish everything that was put in front of him, and Wayne didn't want to get Mr. Niles mad. Then Wayne sat cross-legged on the edge of the pool, telling himself over and over again that the painted Jezebel had lied.

57

Billy Creekmore was watching The House on Haunted Hill on TV in his room at Chicago's Armitage General Hospital when Bonnie Hailey knocked softly at the door and came in.

"Hi," she said. "How're you doin' today?"

"Better." He sat up and tried to make himself presentable by running a hand through his unruly hair. His bones still ached, and his appetite had dropped to almost nothing. Sleep was a confusion of nightmares, and in the television's blue glow Billy's face looked ghostly and tired. He'd been in the hospital for two days, suffering from shock and exhaustion. "How about you?"

"I'm fine. Here, I brought you somethin' to read." She gave him a copy of the Tribune she'd bought down at the newsstand. "Helps to pass the time, I guess."

"Thank you." He didn't tell her that every time he tried to read, the lines ran together like columns of ants.

"You okay? I mean … are they treatin' you right around here? Everybody at the institute wants to come over, but Dr. Hillburn says nobody can come for a while. But me, that is. I'm glad you wanted to see me."

It was late afternoon, and the last rays of sunlight were slanting through the blinds beside Billy's bed. Dr. Hillburn had spent most of yesterday with him and had been there this morning as well.

"Did Dr Hillburn call Hawthorne like she promised she would?" Billy asked.

"I don't know."

"I haven't heard from my mother for a while. I want to know if she's all right." Billy remembered the shape changer's mocking singsong: Your mother's dead, the cowboy came and sheared her head.

Bonnie shrugged. Dr. Hillburn had told her not to mention Billy's mother. The owner of a general store in Hawthorne – the number Billy had said to call – had told Dr Hillburn that Ramona Creekmore had perished when her cabin had caught fire in the middle of the night. Embers stirred by the wind in the hearth, the man had said. The place went up quick.

"I'm so tired," Billy said. Had a dark cloud passed over Bonnie's face, or not? His brain was still teeming with the emotions and memories he'd absorbed in the Alcott Hotel; he realized he had narrowly escaped death from the shape changer. The beast hadn't been able to crack his mind or erode his determination, but Billy shivered when he thought of that burned corpse dragging itself slowly through the ashes toward him. Had it been another mental trick, another assumed shape, or did the beast have the power to animate the dead as if they were grisly puppets? There had been utter hatred – and grim desperation – burning in those hollow eye sockets. When the shape changer had given up that husk of crisped flesh, the red glint of its eyes had extinguished like spirit lamps. And where was the beast now? Waiting, for another chance to destroy him?

They were going to meet again, somewhere. He was sure of it.

"Dr. Hillburn told me the people at the television station have a video tape," Billy said quietly. "They're keeping it locked in a safe, but they showed it to her yesterday. It shows everything. Me, the revenants in the room . . . everything. She said it shows some of the revenants being drawn into me, and some seeping into the walls. She said they're trying to decide whether to show the tape on TV or not, and they may do a documentary on the institute." He remembered the charge of emotion in Dr. Hillburn's voice as she'd told him other parapsychologists were going to want to see that film, and to meet him, and that very soon his life was going to change. He might not stay in Chicago, she'd said; Chicago – and specifically the institute – might be for him just the first step in a long, arduous journey. Dr Hillburn's eyes had been bright with hope.

Pain stitched across Billy's forehead. His body felt like a damp rag. "I wonder if there's a piano somewhere around here," he said.

"A piano? Why?"

"I like to play. Didn't I tell you? There's a lot I want to tell you, Bonnie. About my family, and about something called the Mystery Walk. I'd like to show you Hawthorne someday. It's not much, but it's where I was born. I'll show you my house, and the high school; I'll show you the trails I used to wander when I was a kid. I'll take you to a place where a creek sings over the rocks, and where you can hear a hundred different birds." He looked up at her, hopefully. "Would you like that?"

"Yes," she replied. "I … I think I'd like that. A lot."

"It won't take me long to get well." His heartbeat had quickened. "I want to know the things that are important to you. Will you take me to Lamesa sometime?"

Bonnie smiled and found his hand under the sheet.

"Do you think a cowgirl could get along with an Indian?" he asked her.

"Yep. I think they could get along just fine."

Someone screamed from The House on Haunted Hill. It startled Bonnie, but then she laughed. It was a sound that warmed Billy's bones as if he were standing before a fireplace. Suddenly he was laughing too; then she leaned close to him, those strange and beautiful eyes luminous, and their lips gently touched. Bonnie pulled back, her face blooming with color – but Billy cupped his hand behind her head and this time their kiss was long and lingering.

"I'd better go," Bonnie said finally. "Dr. Hillburn wanted me back before dark."

"Okay. But you'll come back tomorrow?"

She nodded. "As early as I can."

"Good. Will you say hello to everybody else for me? And thanks for coming to see me. Thanks a lot."

"Get your rest," she said, and kissed him lightly on the forehead. At the door, she paused to say, "I do want to see Hawthorne with you, Billy. Very much." And then she left, while Billy grinned and stretched and dared believe that everything was going to be just fine.

She's dead, she's dead, the cowboy came and sheared her head.

I'll be waiting for you.

When a nurse brought in his dinner at five-thirty, Billy asked about finding a piano. There was one up on the fourth floor, in the chapel, she told him – but he was supposed to lie right there and get plenty of rest. Doctor's orders.

After she'd gone, Billy picked at his dinner. He paged through the Tribune for a while and then, restless and troubled, he put on the robe the hospital had provided and slipped down the hallway to the staircase. He hadn't noticed a heavyset Mexican orderly who'd been mopping the corridor outside his room. The man put aside his mop and took a beeper from his back pocket.

On the fourth floor, Billy was directed to the chapel. It was empty, and an old piano stood next to an altar with a brass crucifix. The walls were covered with heavy red drapes that would muffle sound, but he closed the chapel doors. Then he sat down at the piano as if gratefully greeting an old friend.

What came out was a quiet song of pain, made up of the emotions he'd drained from the revenants at the Alcott Hotel. It was dissonant at first, an eerie melody that advanced up the keyboard until the high notes sounded like strident human voices, but as Billy played he felt the terrors begin to leave him. Gradually the music became more harmonious. He ended only when he felt cleaned out and renewed, and he had no idea how long he'd been playing.

"That was nice," a man standing near the door said. Billy turned toward him and saw he was an orderly. "I enjoyed that."

"How long have you been there?"

"About fifteen minutes. I was out in the hallway and heard you." He smiled and came along the center aisle. He was a stocky man with close-cropped brown hair and green eyes. "Did you make that up yourself?"

"Yes sir."

The orderly stood beside Billy, leaning against the piano. "I always wanted to play an instrument. Tried the bass fiddle once, but I wasn't no good. My hands are too big, I guess. What's your name?"

"Billy Creekmore."

"Well, Billy . . . why don't you play something else? Go on. For me."

He shrugged. "I don't know what else to play."

"Anything. I've always liked piano music. Do you know any jazz?"

"No sir. I just play what I feel."

"Is that so?" He whistled appreciatively. "I sure wish I could do that. Go ahead, okay?" He motioned toward the keyboard, a smile fixed to his broad face.

Billy started playing, picking out a few chords, as the man nodded and moved around behind so he could watch the way Billy's hands worked. "I'm not really very good," Billy said. "I haven't practiced like I ought . . ." Suddenly he was aware of a sharp, medicinal aroma. He started to turn his head, but a hand clamped around the back of his neck. A wet cloth was pressed to his mouth and nose, stifling his cry.

"I like music," the man said. "Always have."

It only took a minute or two for the chloroform solution to work. He would've preferred to use a needle on him, but he didn't want it breaking off in the boy's skin. Anybody who could play a piano like that deserved some respect.

The Mexican orderly who'd been guarding the doors wheeled in a clothes hamper filled with dirty laundry. Billy was stuffed into the bottom, covered over with sheets and towels. Then the hamper was taken out and rolled along the corridor to a service elevator. A car was waiting outside, and a plane was waiting at an airstrip south of the city. Within ten minutes, Billy was asleep in the car's trunk. At the airport he would be given an injection that ensured he would sleep all the way to Mexico.

58

Moonlight shimmered on the swimming pool's surface. In his pajamas, Wayne switched on the underwater light, then slid the glass partition open and stepped into the poolhouse. He was trembling, and there were dark blue circles under his eyes. He'd tried to sleep, but what the woman had told him this morning had driven him crazy with doubts. He hadn't taken his sleeping pill before bedtime, and his nerves jangled like fire alarms; instead, he'd flushed the pill down the toilet because he'd wanted his mind clear, to think about what Cammy had told him.

The pool glowed a rich aquamarine. Wayne sat on the edge; he twitched with nervous energy, and his brain seemed to be working so fast he could smell the cells burning up. Why would Cammy have said that if it wasn't true? To hurt him? She was jealous of his power and stature, that was it. Yes. She was jealous.

His head ached. But hadn't he loved his "mother" at one time? he asked himself. What had made things change? How had they gotten so out of control? He raised up his healing hands and stared at them. Where was Henry Bragg? Waiting for them in Mexico?

All that blood, he thought. All that awful blood.

It hadn't been right to hurt Henry Bragg like that. Henry was a good man. But what kind of man was Mr. Krepsin, if he'd ordered that Henry be hurt?

His daddy had visited him in the night, and told him to trust Mr. Krepsin completely. But, Wayne thought, his daddy had tricked him because if he wasn't of J.J. Falconer's blood, then whose blood ran in his veins? And if his daddy had tricked him about that, if he'd failed to tell Wayne the whole truth, then could he be tricking him about Mr. Krepsin too?

A sudden clear thought rang in Wayne's head, a sharp peal of pain: My daddy is dead. I tried to raise him and couldn't, and I saw the coffin go into the ground. He's dead.

Then what came in the night, wearing his father's skin and yellow suit?

He was confused, his head a ball of pain breeding black thoughts. The witch was dead, and the demon boy would be dead soon … so why did he still feel Evil in the air, all around him, like one of the plagues Mr Krepsin talked about? He trembled, clasping his arms around himself for warmth.

The witch was dead. There was no need to fear going home anymore. And Cammy was right; there was so much to be done to keep the Crusade going, just as his daddy – if J.J. had been his daddy – had wanted him to do. And only by returning to Fayette, Wayne realized, would he ever find out who his parents actually were. He stared blankly out across the water. So many decisions to be made; it was so safe here in Palm Springs, and what about the church to be built?

God help me, he prayed. Please help me decide what I should do.

The answer came to him with electric, painful clarity: he would not go with Mr. Krepsin to Mexico in the morning. He would return to Fayette, first to find out if that woman had been lying or not, and then to make sure the Crusade was in good shape because, no matter who had given him birth, he was a child of the Crusade as well, and now he must in turn take care of it.

And perhaps, he thought, in finding out who his parents were he would learn more about himself and the healing power that had shaped his life.

Yes. He would go back to Fayette in the morning.

He trembled and jittered, his nerves sputtering like raw fuses. He needed a Valium, he thought. No, no – his mind had to be sharp and clear when he went back home, so he could deal with all the problems. He was going to have to sweat all the Valiums, Dalmanes, and Tuinals out of his system. But fear throbbed through him, and he didn't know if he was strong enough to leave Mr Krepsin and go back to that place where he would have to work and pray and preach and heal. It seemed there were so many problems, and so many people in the world who wanted his healing touch. And if he really healed them, if he reached down deep inside and brought up the cleansing power instead of prancing on a stage and pretending, in time the pain would tear him apart.

The voice came drifting into his head like a distant whisper: Do you know what you're doing, son?

"No," Wayne said, and shivered. "Oh God help me, I don't. …"

He leaned forward and put his hand into the water; it was comfortably warm. He sat for a moment listening to the noise of the desert wind outside the poolhouse, and a slight movement pulled his gaze toward a far corner He thought something had shifted over there, like a haze of dark smoke, but now there was nothing. He stood up, took off his pajamas, and eased himself into the pool.

He slowly swam the pool's length. He was winded when he reached the deep end, and he treaded water beneath the diving board; then he reached up and gripped the board's edge, letting his body relax.

Water gurgled softly behind him.

A pair of purplish brown, rotting arms wound around his neck, like a lover's embrace. The foul odor of lake mud bubbled up. Black fingernails on skeletal hands playfully scratched at Wayne's cheeks.

He screamed, lost his grip on the board, and sank. Water flooded his mouth; he flailed and kicked, trying to get away from the thing that clutched at him. In the glare of the underwater light he saw a misshapen form with long black hair. Its bony arms reached for him, its purple rotten face pressed close, the lips seeking his. The thing kissed him, trying to plunge its bloated tongue into his mouth.

Wayne got his knee up against its chest and pushed it away. As he fought wildly to the surface, air exploded from his lungs. He swam frantically, tried to scream. Then he felt concrete underneath and he stood in water up to his waist; he turned toward the deep end, wiping hair and water out of his eyes, to see what had attacked him.

Water sloshed against the pool's sides. There was nothing in the deep end; nothing between him and the underwater light.

He whimpered softly, the breath burning in his lungs. Nothing there, he thought. Nothing. . . .

Something reached between his legs from behind, grabbing at his genitals. He gave a hoarse bark of fear and whirled around.

She was nude, too; but her breasts had decayed and fallen and Wayne could see the yellow bones of her rib cage through the slack, purple flesh. The gases in her body had long since swelled and exploded, and the skin hung down in putrid tatters. Her nose had collapsed or been nibbled away by fish; there was a hole in the center of her face. Her eyeballs were gelatinous, as yellow-white as pools of lake water about to break over her ruined cheeks. But her hair was the same: long and black and lustrous, as if the years of immersion had preserved it.

"Wayne," the awful mouth whispered. There was a shattered place at the side of her head, where she'd struck a diving platform a long time ago.

He moaned and backed away, toward deeper water.

What was left of Lonnie's face grinned. "I'm waiting for you in Fayette, Wayne. I need you sooooo bad." She came closer, bits of her floating away in the water "I'm still waiting, right where you left me."

"I didn't mean to!" he screamed.

"Oh, I want you to come back to Fayette. I'm so tired of swimmin', and I need my sweet lover boy back again. . . ."

"Didn't mean to . . . didn't mean to . . . didn't mean . . ." He stepped into deep water, sank, and heard himself scream underwater. He fought back to the surface, and now Lonnie was nearing him, holding out one purple claw.

"I need you, sweet thang," she said. "I'm waitin' for you to come home. I need you to heal me."

"Leave me . . . alone . . . please . . . leave me . . ."

He tried to swim away, but then she splashed behind him and her arms curled around his neck again. Her teeth nipped at his ear, and she whispered, "Let me show you what death is like, Wayne."

He sank as her weight became monstrous, as if she were made of concrete instead of rotten flesh and bone. She bore him deep. He opened his mouth; bubbles rushed from him, rising to the churning surface. They turned over and over, locked together as if in some hideous underwater ballet.

The light darkened. His cheek scraped against the bottom of the pool.

And then he was being pulled upward, wrenched to the surface, and dragged out onto the Astro turf. Someone turned him over on his stomach, and pressure squeezed the small of his back. Water streamed from his mouth and nose, and then he was throwing up his dinner and the three Zingers he'd eaten. He moaned, curled up on his side, and began sobbing.

"He'll be all right," Dorn said, stepping away from the body. His suit was soaked, and he glanced at Niles, who stood a few feet away with Felix. "What'd he try to do, drown himself?"

"I don't know." If Felix hadn't heard Wayne scream, Niles knew, the boy would be dead by now. When Dorn had leaped in, Wayne had been down in the deep water, struggling weakly as if trying to escape from something. "Bring me a canister of oxygen," he told Felix. "Fast." The boy's body was almost blue, and he was shivering violently. "And bring a blanket, too. Move it!"

They covered Wayne with the blanket and cupped an oxygen mask to his mouth and nostrils.

The boy shuddered and moaned, and then finally drew a rattling breath. His eyes came open, bulging with terror. Tears slid down his cheeks. He gripped Niles's hands, his fingers digging into the man's flesh.

Niles said quietly to the others, "Mr. Krepsin doesn't have to know about this. It was an accident. Wayne went swimming, and he got water in his lungs." He looked up at them, his eyes darkening. "Mr. Krepsin would be very upset if he thought we almost let Wayne . . . hurt himself. Do you both understand? Okay, he's breathing fine now. Shit, what a mess! Felix, I want you to go to the kitchen and pour Wayne a large glass of orange juice. Bring it up to his room."

Wayne pushed the oxygen mask away from his face. "She was here in the pool and she grabbed me and wanted me to die she's waiting for me she said she wanted me to know what death was like. . . ." His voice cracked, and he clung to Niles like a little boy.

"Help me with him," he told Dorn. "He's got to be ready to leave in the morning."

"No don't make me go back," Wayne moaned. "Please don't make me go back she's waiting for me in the lake she wants me to come back. …"

"He's flipped his fucking lid!" Dorn picked up the pajamas, his wet shoes squeaking.

"So what else is new? Come on, let's get him upstairs."

"Don't make me go back!" Wayne blubbered. "I want to stay with Mr Krepsin, I want to stay and I'll be a good boy, I'll be good I swear I swear it. …"

As they reached the glass partition, Niles looked over his shoulder at the pool and thought he saw a shadow – a huge shadow, maybe seven feet tall, that might have been some kind of animal standing on its hind legs – in the corner where there should have been no shadows. He blinked; the shadow was gone.

"What is it?" Dorn asked.

"Nothing. Damn it, this door should've been locked!"

"I thought it was."

"Forever," Wayne said, the tears dripping down his face. "I want to stay here forever Don't make me leave . . . please don't. …"

Niles turned off the pool's light. For an instant the rippling of disturbed water sounded like a high, inhuman giggle.

TWELVE

Inferno

59

Lizards scampered over rocks baking in the sun. A distant line of sharp-edged mountains shimmered in the midday Mexican heat. As Niles came out of the air-conditioned interior of Krepsin's concrete bunker twenty-five miles north of Torreon, he slipped on his sunglasses to keep from being blinded by a world of burning white.

Niles, immaculate in a khaki suit, walked past Thomas Alvarado's copper Lincoln Continental toward the concrete garage where a few electric carts were kept. Under a brightly striped canvas awning, Wayne Falconer was hitting golf balls out into the desert, where pipe-organ cactus and palmetto grew like a natural barbed-wire fence. Wayne had been urged to find something to do while Krepsin went over business matters with Alvarado, Ten High's Mexican connection.

Wayne hit a ball and shielded his eyes from the glare, watching it bounce across the rocky terrain. It came to rest about twenty yards from one of the observation towers, where a bored Mexican security man dreamt of a cold margarita.

"Nice shot," Niles observed.

Wayne looked up. His eyes were drugged from the extra Valium in his system, his movements slow and heavy. Since the incident at the swimming pool several days before, Wayne had needed careful watching. He fawned over Mr. Krepsin at every opportunity, and Niles was sick of him. Wayne's face was puffy with sunburn.

"I'm almost through with this bucket of balls," he told Niles, his speech slurring. "Get another one."

"Mr Krepsin says my church is going to be the biggest one in the world."

"That's fine." Niles walked past him, in a hurry.

"Are you going out there again?" Wayne asked, motioning with his golf club toward the little white concrete structure about a mile away from the main house. "I saw Lucinda go out there with some food this morning. I saw her come back. Who's out there, Mr Niles?"

The man paid no attention to him. Suddenly there was the whoosh of the golf club, and a ball cracked off the garage wall and ricocheted dangerously close to Niles. He tensed and turned toward Wayne.

Wayne was smiling, but his face was slack and Niles sensed his belligerence. Niles had realized in the last few days that Wayne was jealous of his closeness to Mr. Krepsin. "You thought you could fool me, didn't you?" Wayne asked. "You thought you could put him right under my nose and I wouldn't know."

"No one's trying to fool you."

"Oh yes you are. I know who's over there. I've known all along!"

"Who, Wayne?"

"Henry Bragg." Wayne's smile stretched wider "He's resting, isn't he? And that's why I'm not supposed to go over there."

"That's right."

"When can I see him? I want to tell him I'm sorry he got hurt."

"You'll see him soon."

"Good." Wayne nodded. He wanted to see Henry very much, to let him know what he was doing for Mr. Krepsin. Last night Krepsin had asked him to feel a lump in his neck because he was afraid it might be a cancer. Wayne hadn't been able to feel any lump at all, but said he did anyway, and that Mr Krepsin would be just fine. "I've been having that nightmare again, Mr Niles."

"Which one?"

"The one I have all the time. I thought I wouldn't have nightmares anymore, after she was dead. The snake and the eagle are trying to kill each other, and last night the snake bit the eagle in the neck and pulled it to the ground." He blinked, staring out at the horizon. "The snake's winning. I don't want it to win. But I can't stop it."

"It doesn't mean anything. It's just a dream."

"No sir. It's more. I know it is. Because . . . when the eagle dies, I'm scared something inside me – something important – is going to die too."

"Let's see you hit another ball," Niles said. "Go ahead, tee it up."

Wayne moved like an obedient machine. The ball sailed out toward another observation tower.

Niles continued to the garage, got in one of the electric carts, and drove out toward the white structure. A fly buzzed around his head in the heat, and the air smelled like scorched metal.

Niles rapped on the door. Lucinda, a short squat Mexican woman with gray hair and a seamed, kindly face, opened it at once. He stepped into a sparsely furnished living room where a fan blew the heavy air around. "How is he?" he asked in Spanish.

She shrugged. "Still sleeps. I gave him another shot about an hour ago."

"Was he coming out of it?"

"Enough to be talking. He spoke a girl's name: Bonnie. After this morning when he threw his breakfast all over the wall, I wanted to take no chances."

"Good. Mr. Krepsin wants to see him tonight. Until then, we'll just keep him under." Niles unlocked a slatted door across the room and stepped into a darkened, windowless bedroom with cinder-block walls. The boy was lying on the bed with a strap across his chest, though the precaution was hardly necessary; he was deeply asleep from the drug Lucinda had injected. The boy had been kept drugged since he'd been brought in on the private airstrip behind Krepsin's bunker several days before. Niles stood over him, felt the boy's pulse, hooked up an eyelid and then let it fall. This was the boy Wayne feared so much? Niles wondered. Why? What hold did this boy and his mother have on Wayne?

Niles said, "I'll call before I come to get him tonight. You might want to give him some sodium pentothal around nine o'clock. Just enough to keep him settled down for Mr Krepsin. Okay?"

Lucinda nodded in agreement. She was as familiar with drugs as she was with fried tortillas.

Satisfied with Billy's condition, Niles left the white house and drove back to the bunker. Wayne had started on a new bucket of balls, chopping them in all directions.

The bunker's front door was metal covered with oak, and it fit into the concrete wall like the entrance to a bank vault. Niles pressed a little beeper clipped to his belt, and electronic locks disengaged. Disinfectant filled the entrance foyer, which led to a honeycomb of rooms and corridors, most of which were underground. As Niles closed the door behind him, he failed to notice the fly that circled quickly above his head and flew off through a faint swirl of air-cleansing chemicals.

He found Mr. Krepsin in his study, talking to Thomas Alvarado, a gaunt dark-skinned man with a diamond in his right earlobe.

"Twenty-six?" Krepsin, wearing a white caftan and surgical gloves, was saying as he ate from a plate of Oreo cookies. "Ready to come across by when?"

"Next week. Thursday at the latest. We're bringing them in a truckload of uncured iguana hides. They'll have to bear the stink, but at least the federales won't poke their noses in."

Krepsin grunted and nodded. The cheap Mexican labor that Alvarado provided was used by Ten High in a number of ways, from the orange groves to the Sundown Ranch in Nevada. On the floor beside Krepsin's chair was a can of film, another gift from Alvarado, who owned a motion-picture studio that cranked out cheap westerns, horror films, and martial-arts gore-fests. "How is he, Mr. Niles?"

"Sleeping. He'll be ready."

"A secret project?" Alvarado asked.

"In a manner of speaking," Krepsin said. Behind his desk was a stack of newspapers, all carefully sprayed with disinfectant, carrying articles on Chicago's vanished "Mystery Medium" and photographs from a video tape that had been made in a burned-out vagrants' hotel. The boy's sudden disappearance from the hospital had fueled a controversy over the authenticity of that tape, and emotions were running high. Krepsin was intrigued, and wanted to know more about Billy Creekmore.

Krepsin had been explaining to Alvarado how the Falconer Crusade's assets were being transferred to Mexican banks, and how Wayne was fully in favor of the idea.

"But what about his own people? Won't they cause trouble?"

"It's not to their advantage to rock the boat, and that's what Mr Russo is telling them right now. They'll still run part of the show and draw their salaries. Every penny donated to the Crusade will first go to Alabama. In time, we'll build a television center outside Palm Springs so Wayne can continue his network ministry."

Alvarado smiled slyly. "It's a bit late for you to become a man of God, isn't it, Senor Krepsin?"

"I've always been a man of God," he replied, chewing another cookie. "God's green, and he folds. Now let's go on to the next item of business, shall we?"

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