When an amber oval moon had risen over the stark mountain peaks and Wayne Falconer was asleep in his room, Niles and Dorn came for Billy.
Floating in the darkness, unaware of where he was or how he'd gotten here, Billy heard the lock click and thought it was the woman again. He was startled when the overhead light came on, blazing into his eyes. There were two men in suits standing over him. A strap cut across his stomach as he weakly tried to lift his head. He remembered a tray of food, and the way it had splattered against the wall. The woman with the needle had said some very nasty things to him.
"Mr Krepsin wants him scrubbed," one of the men said.
The woman started on Billy with a soapy, rough sponge, and scrubbed him until blood was almost drawn. Billy had come to like the woman in a way, to depend on her. She helped him find the bedpan when he needed to go to the bathroom, and she fed him when he was hungry.
The strap was loosened.
The man who'd spoken put a finger against Billy's throat to check his pulse.
"Is Bonnie here?" Billy asked. "Where's Dr. Hillburn?"
The man ignored his questions. "We want you to stand up now. We've brought you some clothes." He motioned toward a chair across the room, and Billy made out a pair of yellow pants and a pale blue short-sleeved shirt. Something about the yellow pants jarred him – the color was familiar From where? he wondered.
"Stand up, now."
Billy did, and his legs collapsed. The two men waited until he could stand up by himself. "Need to call my mom," Billy said.
"Right. Come on, get dressed. Mr Krepsin's waiting."
Dazed and weak, Billy put on the clothes. He couldn't understand why they hadn't brought him any shoes. He almost cried because he had no shoes, and the pants were so loose they bagged around the thighs and hips. The shirt had a monogram: a scrolled W.
"These aren't my clothes," he said. The two men were blurred shapes in his fogged vision. "I went up to play the piano."
The night was chilly. During a ride in a little car, Billy felt the cold wind in his face. Its chill helped to clear his senses a bit. He could see lights on towers that stood high off the ground. "Where is this place?" he asked the two men, but neither of them answered.
They approached what looked to Billy like a huge square of concrete. He almost fell twice on the flagstone walkway, and the man in the gray suit had to help him walk. Billy felt a coldness coming off the man, like a bitter frost.
And then he remembered the shape changer saying his mother was dead.
The memories came back in a rush: the hospital, the chapel, the man behind him pressing a strong-smelling cloth to his face. A distant memory of engines whining. The sun beating down on a runway, and on the horizon nothing but white desert. He tried to pull free from the gray-suited man, but he was held in a viselike grip. Inside the concrete structure, Billy was made to put on a pair of cotton slippers. The air smelled like the hospital room. The two men led him along a hallway to a closed door, and one of them knocked on it. A voice said, "Come in."
They took him in and left him, and the door closed behind him. Billy weaved on his feet, his vision blurring in and out. The largest man he'd ever seen was waiting in a chair before him, next to a table that held a lamp and a cassette recorder. The man wore a long white caftan trimmed in gold, was bald, and had small black eyes.
"Hello, Billy," Krepsin said, and put aside the file folder of newspaper clippings he'd been going through. "Please sit down." He motioned toward one of the two chairs that faced him.
"Think." Billy told himself. He knew he'd been drugged, knew he was a long way from home. And knew also that he was in danger "Where am I?"
"In a safe place. Don't you want to sit down?"
"My name is Augustus Krepsin. I'm a friend of Wayne Falconer's."
"Wayne Falconer? What's he got to do with this?"
"Oh, everything! Wayne asked that you be brought here. He wants very much to see you. Look here at what Wayne's been doing." He showed Billy the folder, full of clippings about the Alcott Hotel video tape. "He's been cutting these out. You're a famous young man, did you know that?"
"Then . . . Wayne's here?"
"Of course. He even loaned you his clothes. Come on, sit down! I'm not going to bite you!"
"What do you want with me? I was playing the piano. Somebody came up behind me and – "
"Just to talk," Krepsin said. "Just a few minutes of your time, and then we'll take you wherever you'd like to go." He offered a plateful of Oreos, Lorna Doones and vanilla wafers. "Have one."
Billy shook his head. Everything was mixed up in his mind, nothing was clear. Wayne wanted to see him? Why? "The woman with the needles," he said, pressing a hand to his forehead. "Why'd she keep sticking me?"
"What woman, Billy? Oh, I imagine you've been under a lot of strain. With what you did at that hotel, I mean. You're in newspapers all across the country. Wayne's very interested in you, Billy. He wants to be your friend."
"No. I don't believe you." Exhausted, he sank down into one of the chairs. "I want to call Dr. Hillburn, tell her where I am."
"Of course you do. And you will. Tomorrow morning. It's late, and the telephone system here isn't very reliable. Wayne wanted you brought here – to Mexico – as his guest. I'm sorry if you've been under a strain, but – "
"Why didn't Wayne just ask me to come?"
"He did. Well, he asked Dr. Hillburn. Several times. But evidently that woman was resistant to your leaving Chicago. Perhaps some of the staff misinterpreted Wayne's request. Wayne's told me so much about you, I feel I know you already. You and Wayne . . . you're alike in many ways. You're both well on your way in making a mark for yourselves – and you're both special, aren't you? He's a healer, and you're . .. . blessed with a sight few other men ever know. To see beyond this world, and into the next. The pictures in those clippings aren't faked, are they?"
Billy didn't want to answer, but he was so sluggish and lazy it didn't seem to matter "No, they're real."
"I knew they weren't faked. How could you fake something like that, in front of so many witnesses? No, no; you can see the dead, can't you? And you can speak to them?"
Krepsin ate another cookie; his black eyes gleamed with the desire to pick the secrets from Billy Creekmore's mind. "You've seen life after death, haven't you? And you can control the dead? You can speak to them and make them do as you please?"
"I don't try to control them. I try to help them. Why are you taping all this? Why's it so important to you?"
"It's just . . . this subject excites me. And it excites Wayne, too."
"What do you mean?"
Krepsin smiled. "You really don't see it, do you? You don't understand your own potential! What you've done up to now is important, but you can go much, much further. Oh, the secrets you could know about Death! The power you could hold! You could reach anyone on the other side, you could relay messages back and forth. People would pay a lot for that. You could find out where lost treasures were, you could bring back messages that would shock the world! You'd be a famous and powerful young man! Don't you see that?"
"Wayne does," Krepsin said quietly. "He wants you to join the Crusade, Billy. He wants you to tour with him."
"Yes. Tour with him. Wayne would be the healer, and you would be the … the spiritual adviser! With all this publicity, it would be a simple thing! People would pay to see you summon the dead. Oh, they'd sit in awe of you, Billy! You'd have your own television show, and you'd speak to the dead right on the air before millions of people!"
Staring at the man, Billy shuddered inwardly. It would be like digging up graves so people could gawk at the bones, like a Ghost Show using real revenants, a hideous entertainment.
"Think of it!" Krepsin said. "You've only scratched the surface! You and Wayne, touring together! There are no secrets that would be hidden from you. Billy, you'd even hold power over the dead!"
Billy felt dizzy and sick. But he looked into the man's black eyes and saw the truth. The man wanted power over the dead himself. The man wanted to use him like some puppet in a sideshow, pulling in the paying customers with hints of dark mysteries. He couldn't believe that Wayne had any part in this! "No," he said. "I can't do that. I won't do it."
"And why not? Why not? Of course you may be afraid and reluctant now, but after you think about it – and after Wayne's talked to you – you'll see the light. Ever since I saw those newspaper articles – no, ever since Wayne told me all about you and your mother, I knew there was something special about you. I knew you had the power to – "
And then he stopped, a strangled whine bubbling in his throat.
Billy stared at him. On Krepsin's hand a fly had landed.
The man leaped up with a scream, knocking over the chair and table as he tried to get away from the thing. He batted wildly at the air as the fly buzzed around his head. In his mind he was back on the refugee ship that had brought him and his family from Greece, and he was seven years old and watching the flies crawl over his parents' stiffened corpses as fever killed half the people aboard.
Krepsin's eyes bulged from their sockets. The fly had touched him. Disease had broken through his barriers. Rats chittered in the ship's hold, his parents' bodies moldering and full of maggots. He screamed with pure terror as the fly danced across his cheek, and he fell to his knees.
Billy stood up and waved the fly away from his face. The men would be coming back for him, he knew, and they'd take him back to the woman with the needles. Danger was here, all around. He had to shake off the dizziness, had to find a way out of this place! He turned the doorknob and stepped out into the empty corridor as Krepsin shrieked again behind him.
He started along the corridor, trying to remember how he'd come in. Krepsin's voice echoed behind him. Billy broke into a run, stumbled and fell, then got up and ran again. The walls around him seemed to breathe, as if he were caught inside a huge beast that was trying to consume him.
And then he turned a corner and abruptly stopped.
A young man with electric-blue eyes and a shock of curly red hair was standing in his pajamas less than ten feet away, in front of an open doorway. He had frozen when he saw Billy. The sweat of a nightmare sheened his sunburned cheeks.
"Wayne?" Billy said.
Wayne's mouth hung half open. His eyes were glazed and dull with shock.
Billy took a step toward the other boy, and saw Wayne cringe. "What have they done to you?" Billy whispered. "Wayne? What have they – "
A hand gripped his shoulder. Niles wrenched upward on Billy's arm to keep him from running. Krepsin was still screaming like a madman.
Wayne was pressed against the wall. He had seen that they had even provided the Hawthorne demon boy with his clothes. They had brought him here and hidden him in the white house, and they had given him his clothes! "You said I was safe," Wayne whispered to Niles. "You said as long as I stayed here, I was – "
"Shut up, goddamn it!" Niles told him.
"Wayne, they brought me here!" Billy said, the pain clearing his head. "They're trying to use me, Wayne, just like they're trying to use you!"
Niles said, "Wayne, I want you to get dressed and pack your bag. Do it quickly. Mr. Krepsin wants to leave here in fifteen minutes."
"Demon," Wayne whispered, as he huddled against the wall.
"Get ready to go! Move.'"
"Kill him for me," Wayne said. "Right here. Right now. Kill him like you had the witch killed."
Billy almost got free with a sudden burst of strength, but Niles pinned him tighter.
And then Wayne knew the truth. "You did bring him here," he said, tears in his eyes. "Why? To hurt me? To make me have nightmares? Because," he moaned softly, "that boy's evil . . . and Mr. Krepsin is too?"
"I won't tell you again to get your fat ass moving!" Niles said, and forced Billy back along the corridor, toward where Krepsin was babbling about returning to Palm Springs because there was disease in the bunker.
It was all a trick, Wayne realized. They'd never really been his friends; they'd never really wanted to protect him. They'd brought the demon right to his door! Everything had been a trick to get the Crusade!
It was all clear to him now, and his mind crackled with wild currents. Maybe they'd even brought Billy Creekmore here, he realized, to replace him.
Even his daddy had tricked him and wasn't his daddy. He'd been tricked and lied to from the very start. Had been told Keep healing, Wayne, keep healing keep healing even though you don't feel the fire anymore keep healing. . . .
His mind was cracking. The snake was winning.
But not yet! He was still Wayne Falconer, the South's Greatest Evangelist! And there was one last way to destroy the corruption that had surrounded and finally trapped him. He wiped the tears from his face.
The eagle might still destroy the snake.
Jim Coombs took the Challenger to sixteen thousand feet. He checked his instruments and turned on the automatic pilot. Below the jet, as indicated by a downward-tilted radar mechanism set in the nose, was a rough terrain of desert and mountains. A scan of the weather ahead showed clear skies. The takeoff and landing were the skillful parts of flying the Challenger; now, with the jet flying itself and visibility almost perfect, Coombs could sit back and relax. He'd been awakened in his quarters at the jet hangar about half an hour earlier, and told by Dorn that Mr. Krepsin wanted to go back to Palm Springs immediately. Krepsin was a nervous wreck back in the passenger section; the man had waddled aboard wearing his white caftan, his face as pale as milk, and had started sucking at an oxygen mask as soon as he'd strapped in. Niles and Dorn were even more quiet than usual. Wayne was silent and brooding, not even bothering to answer when Coombs had spoken to him. And there was another passenger aboard, as well: the dark-haired boy that Coombs had flown down from Chicago. The boy had a hard, shiny look in his eyes, something between fear and rage and probably a bit of both. Coombs didn't know what was going on, but for some reason he was very glad he wasn't that boy.
Coombs yawned, still weary from his interrupted sleep. They'd be in Palm Springs in a couple of hours.
From his seat at the middle of the plane, Billy watched Krepsin's chest heaving as the huge man breathed through an oxygen mask. Krepsin sat toward the front, where he had plenty of room; his breathing sounded like that of a man in agony. Abruptly, he reached out and drew the clear plastic curtain around his seat, cutting himself off from the rest of the cabin. Niles sat sleeping just behind Billy, Dorn across the aisle. Across from Krepsin, Wayne sat like a statue.
What had they done to him? Billy wondered. How had these people gotten control of the Falconer Crusade? There had been madness and terror in Wayne's eyes, and Billy feared his brother was beyond help. But still, somehow, he had to try. He saw that, too, as part of his Mystery Walk – breaking through the barrier of fear that kept them apart, that had put Wayne on a twisted path leading into the clutches of Augustus Krepsin. His mother – their mother – was probably dead. Wayne's madness had wanted it done, and Krepsin had obliged. Fear and hatred had been Jimmy Jed Falconer's legacy to his adopted son.
And now Billy recalled something his mother had told him: that Wayne wouldn't be able to recognize true Evil when it reached out for him. That Wayne might be his weak link, that the shape changer might be able to work on Wayne to get at Billy. He leaned his head back, squeezing his eyes shut. What would she want him to do now? When he opened his eyes, he saw Wayne looking back at him over his shoulder They stared at each other for a long moment; Billy thought he could feel electricity passing between them, as if they were batteries feeding off each other. Then Wayne rose from his seat and came back along the aisle, averting his gaze from Billy.
"What is it?" Niles asked him, when Wayne had prodded him awake.
"I want to go up to the cockpit," Wayne said. His eyes were glassy, and a pulse beat rapidly at one temple. "Can I?"
"No. Go sit down."
"Mr Krepsin always lets me," Wayne told him. "I like to sit up front, where I can see the instruments." One side of his mouth hitched up in a slight sneer. "Mr Krepsin wants me to be happy, doesn't he?"
Niles paused for a moment. Then he said irritably, "Go on, then. I don't care what you do!" He closed his eyes again.
"Wayne?" Billy said, and the other boy looked at him. "I'm not your enemy. I never wanted things to be like this."
"You're going to die." Wayne's eyes flared, two hot bursts of blue. "I'm going to make sure of that, if it's the last thing I do. God's going to help me."
"Listen to me," Billy said; it was burning to come out of him. He had to tell him, right now, and he had to make him understand. "Please. I'm not evil, and neither is . . . was my mother. Didn't you ever wonder where your healing power came from? Didn't you ever wonder, why you? I can tell you why. Don't turn away! Please! The Falconers weren't your real parents, Wayne. . . ."
Wayne froze. His mouth worked for a few seconds, and then he whispered, "How did you know that?"
"I know, because my mother – our mother – told me. I'm telling you the truth. Ramona Creekmore was your mother Wayne. John Creekmore was your father You were born the same day as me: November 6, 1951. Jimmy Jed Falconer bought you from a man named Tillman, and he raised you as his son. But it wasn't because our parents didn't love you, Wayne. They did. But they wanted you to have a good home, and they had to – "
"Liar!" Wayne said in a strangled voice. "You're lying, trying to save your own life."
"She loved you, Wayne," Billy said. "No matter what you did. She knew who you were from the first time she saw you, at the tent revival. But she saw you were being used, and she couldn't stand it. Look at me, Wayne! I'm telling you the truth!"
He blinked, touched his forehead. "No. Lies . . . everybody's lied to me. Even … my own daddy. …"
"You've got Creekmore blood in you. You're strong; stronger than you think. I don't know what they've done to you, but you can fight it. You don't have to let them win!"
Niles, who'd been dozing in his seat, stirred and told Billy to shut his mouth.
"You're going to burn in Hell," Wayne told Billy. And then he turned away, and walked toward the flight deck. He stood staring at Augustus Krepsin for a moment; Krepsin's eyes were closed, the breath rasping in and out of his lungs like a bellows. "You'll see," Wayne whispered, and then he stepped through onto the flight deck, where Jim Coombs sat half dozing in the pilot's seat.
Coombs yawned and sat up, quickly checking the instruments. " 'Lo, Wayne," he said.
"Glad you came up. I was just about to ask you to sit in for me while I go to the john. We're on auto, you don't have to touch a thing. Pretty moon, isn't it?"
"Well . . ." He stretched, then unstrapped his belt and stood up. "I'll be as quick as I can. Listen to those engines hum. Man, that can just about put you to sleep!"
"Yes sir." Wayne eased into the co-pilot's seat, fastened his belt tightly, and glanced over the instrumentation panel. Airspeed 431 knots. Altitude sixteen thousand. Compass showing a northwest heading.
"Good boy," Coombs said, and left the cockpit.
Wayne listened to the headphones, hearing signals floating through space from navigational beacons. He watched the control yoke, moving at the command of the autopilot. A sense of power thrummed through him, setting him on fire. He had them all now, right where he wanted them; he knew he couldn't let them take him back to Palm Springs. He'd failed the Crusade, failed in his healing mission, failed, failed. . . .
But now, up here in the sky, he could forget all about that. He could be in control. He lifted a trembling hand and cut off the autopilot.
"Don't do it, son." Jimmy Jed Falconer, in his bright yellow suit, was sitting in the pilot's seat; there was an earnest, concerned look on his face. "You can trust Mr Krepsin; he cares about you, son. He'll let you do what you like with Billy Creekmore. Anything you like. But don't do what you're thinking. That'll . . . that'll ruin everything. …"
Wayne stared at him, then shook his head. "You lied to me. All the time. I'm not your son, am I? I never was. …"
"Yes you are! Don't listen to that shit! Listen to me! Trust Mr Krepsin, Wayne. Don't do what you're about to try. . . ."
Wayne saw the frightened look in the man's eyes. It pleased him. "You're scared," he said. "You're scared to death, aren't you? Why? You're already dead. …"
"DON'T DO IT, YOU LITTLE FUCK!" Falconer's face began to crack like a waxen mask. One red, animalish eye glared out at Wayne.
In the cabin, Billy felt a cold chill and opened his eyes. The pilot was just moving past him, on his way to the bathroom at the rear of the plane. Billy jerked his head up and looked around, because he'd seen the thing that had made his heart hammer in his chest.
The pilot stopped and looked back, his forehead creasing. "What's wrong?" he asked uneasily.
Billy stared. The man's body was surrounded by a malignant purplish black haze; stubby, vaporous tentacles undulated around him.
"What're you looking at?" Coombs asked, transfixed by Billy's dark, intense gaze.
Billy turned his head and looked across the aisle at Dorn. The black aura clung to him like a shiny, dark skin. Niles's hand came over the seat and grasped Billy's shoulder. The hand was coated with the black harbinger of death. Niles's face, surrounded by the roiling black aura, thrust forward. He said, "What's your problem, kid?"
They were all about to die, Billy realized. And possibly himself, as well. The jet. Who was at the controls? Wayne? Suddenly Death's cold chill had filled the cabin. When Wayne had entered the cockpit, things had abruptly changed. Wayne was going to do it. Wayne was going to kill them all.
"NO! DON'T DO THAT, YOU LITTLE SHIT!" the thing in the pilot's seat roared. "DON'T DO IT!" Its J.J. Falconer mask had melted away, and now Wayne saw it for what it was: a bestial thing with flaring red eyes and the hideous snout of a wild, savage boar. Wayne knew he was seeing Evil for what it was. The thing made a garbled, babbling noise as Wayne gripped the control column, his foot finding the rudder pedals. Then he whipped the Challenger to the right and upward, at the same time throttling more fuel to the engines.
Billy heard the shape changer's roar an instant before the jet's nose lurched upward; the plane veered over on its right side, its engines screaming. Billy's body pressed backward in his seat, the pressure so great against his chest he couldn't draw a breath. Everything that wasn't strapped or bolted down in the cabin - briefcases, glasses, bottles of Perrier – took dangerous flight, slamming and crashing against the bulkheads. Jim Coombs was jerked upward so fast he never knew what had happened; his head hit the cabin roof with a sharp sound of cracking bone, and his body stayed glued in place until the jet rolled over and leveled off. Then Coombs slithered into the aisle, his eyes open and his teeth clenched through the bloody stub of his tongue. His hands twitched as if he were trying to snap his fingers.
Billy gasped for air. The jet rolled suddenly to the left and went into a steep dive. A bottle of Perrier whirled past Billy's head and exploded against the wall. Krepsin was screaming through his oxygen mask. Dorn's face was marble white, his hands gripped deeply into the armrests of his seat; he was squealing like a child on a scary fairgrounds ride.
The thing in the pilot's seat shimmered like a mirage and dissolved. Wayne's face was set in a rigid grin, the flesh of his cheeks pushed back by the intense g-forces. Now he'd show them, he thought. He'd show all the liars. He laughed aloud and cut back on his airspeed, rolling the jet over; the Challenger responded immediately. A loose clipboard smacked him in the middle of his head; a pencil and paper clips danced around him. He pushed the control column forward, putting the Challenger into a shallow dive toward the dark plain below. There was a high whine of air around the nose cone. He watched the altimeter falling. Thirteen thousand. Twelve thousand. Eleven thousand. Ten.
"WAYNE!" Niles shrieked from his seat behind Billy. "STOP IT!" He started to unstrap his belt, but he saw Coombs's corpse folded over a teakwood table, blood leaking from the cracked skull, and he realized with a cold certainty that he was a dead man if he left the safety of his seatbelt.
Wayne grinned, his eyes filling with tears. Up here, at the throttle of this fantastic machine, he was in full control. He saw the altimeter reach four thousand feet, and then he whipped the jet off to the right. Airspeed fell dramatically; the control column shivered in his grip. He had never felt so free and full of power before in his life. The engines moaned; the entire plane began shuddering, straining to its limits. He couldn't breathe, and black motes danced before his eyes.
With an effort that almost tore his arms from their sockets, Billy unsnapped his belt. Instantly he was pushed over the top of his seat, almost into Niles's lap; he clutched at the seat in front of him, trying to pull himself toward the flight deck.
Wayne leveled the Challenger off and then threw it into a dive again. Billy was tossed like a cork inside the cabin; he rolled head over heels, trying to grab anything to steady himself. His chin cracked against a table; dazed, he tumbled forward. His left shoulder smashed into something, and white-hot pain filled him. Then he gripped the plastic curtain around Krepsin's seat; it ripped down, and through the haze of pain Billy saw feral fear stitched across Augustus Krepsin's pallid face.
At less than five hundred feet, Wayne wrenched back on the control column. The Challenger shuddered and leveled off; the altimeter read four-nine-two. He was aware of strange shapes on the landscape before him, bathed in amber moonlight; he pulled the throttles back, cutting airspeed. Something huge and dark and jagged passed to the right, barely fifty yards away.
Billy was at the flight deck, and Wayne looked over his shoulder with a half-snarl, half-grin.
And then Billy saw it; it loomed up, filling the windshield. Moonlight glinted off wind-etched rock. Wayne twisted around, and instinctively tried to lift the jet over the mountain peak they were almost upon. The Challenger shuddered, caught by an updraft. Then there was a banshee scream of ripping metal as the right wingtip was clipped by rock. The violent motion of collision threw Billy against a bulkhead; he heard bone snap, and then he was on his knees watching blood drip from his nostrils.
The underside of the fuselage scraped rock, splitting open like a sardine can; sparks and fire rippled along the seam, being sucked upward into the starboard jet engine. It exploded, first crumpling the starboard fuselage wall and then bursting through with the scream and whine of popping rivets. Red-hot daggers of metal impaled Niles from behind, going through him and into the seat Billy had left. A flying sheet of metal, rippling with flame, took off the top of Niles's head and splattered Dorn with brains.
Warning buzzers went off all over the instrument panel. The rear of the plane was on fire, the starboard engine gone, the starboard wingtip and ailerons mangled. The rudder wouldn't respond. Wayne saw the airspeed falling. They were going down, toward a wide flat plain rimmed with mountains. Fuses were burning, the cockpit filling with acrid smoke. The ground was coming up fast, a blur of amber-colored earth strewn with sparse vegetation.
Wayne had time only to cut the remaining engine's power. The jet hit, and bounced. Hit again. Dust boiled up, obscuring his vision. He was thrown forward and then backward, the belt almost squeezing him in two, and he lost his grip on the yoke. The jet ground forward on a sizzling sheet of sparks. It split in half, lost its wings, spun, and careened onward over a rough runway of pebbled desert. Wayne's head rocked forward, slarnming into the yoke. The skeletal remains of the jet slid on a hundred more yards, then lay still.
Billy stirred from the floor of the flight deck, where he'd been pinned against the back of the pilot's seat. He saw that the cabin was a mangled mass of burning cables and furniture. Where the jet had cracked in half he could see out across the desert plain – for over three hundred yards there was a litter of burning debris and a trail of flaming jet fuel. The rear section had been ripped away. Through a haze of eye-stinging smoke, Billy saw that Krepsin's seat had been torn away, too. The man was gone.
He tried to stand. There was no feeling in his left arm; looking at it, he saw white bone gleaming at the severe break of his left wrist. A wave of pain and nausea passed over him, and cold sweat broke out on his face. Wayne moaned softly and began sobbing. In the remains of the passenger cabin, the carpet and seats were on fire. The plastic curtain that had hung around Krepsin's seat was melting. Billy forced himself up, cradling his injured arm against his chest. He grasped Wayne's shoulder and eased the boy back; Wayne's head lolled. There was a purple lump over his right eye, and the eye itself was swelling shut.
Moving as if in agonized slow motion, Billy unstrapped Wayne's seatbelt and managed to haul him from the seat. "Wake up, wake up," he kept saying as he dragged Wayne out through the burning cabin with his good arm. With the last of his ebbing strength, Billy half carried, half dragged Wayne as far as he could before his legs gave out. He fell to the ground, smelling his own burned flesh and hair Then the long, terrible pain racked him and he curled up like a fetus against the oncoming darkness.
He knew he was moving. Hurtling rapidly through darkness. He was in a tunnel, he thought, and soon he'd reach the far end. He wasn't hurting anymore. He was afraid, but he felt fine.
In the distance there was a sudden glint of bright, hazy golden light. As if a door were slowly being opened.
For him, he realized. For him.
It was the most beautiful light he'd ever seen. It was all the sunrises and sunsets he'd ever witnessed, all the golden sunny summer days of his childhood, all the colors of sunlight streaming through the multicolored leaves of an autumn forest. He'd soon reach that light, if he hurried; he desperately wanted to get there, to feel that warmth on his body, to bask in it and just let everything go. He was able to turn his head – or he thought he turned his head, but he wasn't sure – and looked back along the tunnel at what he was leaving behind. There was something back there on fire.
The door was opening wider, flooding the tunnel with that wonderful glow. He had to reach it, he knew, before it closed again. His forward progress seemed to be slowing . . . slowing .. .
The door was wide open, the light so bright it stung his eyes. Beyond the doorway was a suggestion of blazing blue sky, green fields, and hills and forest stretching on as far as he could see. There were wonders over there, a beautiful place of peace and rest. There would be new paths to explore, new secret places, new journeys to be made. Joy surged through him, and he stretched out his arm to reach the opening.
A figure stepped into the threshold. A woman, with long russet hair that flowed over her shoulders. He knew instantly who it was, and she looked at him with an expression of sadness and compassion.
"No," she said softly. "You can't give it up yet. It's too soon." And the door began closing.
"Please!" Billy said. "Help me . . . let me stay!"
"Not yet," she replied.
He shouted, "No!" but he was already falling away from it, falling faster and faster as the door closed and the light faded. He sobbed and fought as he tumbled along the tunnel, returning to the place where pain waited to grip into him again. Memory ripped through him: Wayne at the controls, Krepsin screaming, the jet skidding along the ground while flames chewed at the cabin, a shriek of metal as the wings tore away, the final violent thrashing of the fuselage. …
He moaned and opened his eyes. Two dark forms that had been poised near his head spread their wings, making startled cries as they flew away. They circled overhead in the graying sky, then dropped down onto something about a hundred yards away.
I'm not dead, Billy thought. But the memory of the golden light and the beautiful landscape almost cracked his heart; his mother had been there, waiting for him, but had turned him away instead. Why? Because his Mystery Walk wasn't yet finished?
He braced himself with his right arm and tried to sit up. Pain pounded through his head, broken bones grinding in his jaw where his head had struck the table. Then he had forced himself into a sitting position, and he looked across the desert.
The first orange rays of the sun were slicing the sky over a line of purple mountains to the east. Small fires still flickered everywhere; a large section of the jet – the rear of the cabin and the tail – had burned itself out into a black mass of tangled metal. Debris was scattered for more than a mile. Billy watched sunlight explode over the mountains. The heat was already stifling; in another hour or so it would be unbearable, and there wasn't a scrap of shelter.
He heard a soft, shuddered moan behind him. With an effort, he turned his head and saw Wayne Falconer – his face swollen, his hair scorched, his clothes ripped and burned – lying about ten feet away, his back supported by part of a seat that had been blown out of the aircraft. There was crusted blood all over Wayne's face, and one eye was swollen shut. The other was deep-sunken, bright blue, and was fixed on the Challenger's strewn wreckage. The eye moved and came to rest on Billy.
Wayne whispered, "The beautiful eagle. It's dead. It's all torn up and dead." A tear glittered in his eye, overflowed, and ran down his blood-streaked cheek.
Billy watched the vultures circle and swoop. A few of them were fighting over something that lay about thirty yards or so away – something twisted and charred black. "Do you know where we are?" he asked Wayne.
"No. What does it matter? Krepsin's dead; they're all dead . . . except you."
"Can you move?"
"My head hurts. And so does my side. But I landed her, didn't I? We were on fire, and I put her right down. What did we hit?"
"One of those, I think." Billy motioned toward the peaks with his right hand. "Somebody'll help us. They'll see the smoke."
Wayne watched the smoke rising. The sun painted his bruised face bright orange. "I wanted them all dead . . . but you, most of all. I wanted to die, too. I don't remember much after we hit the ground; but I remember somebody pulling me out of the flight deck." He turned his head, the single eye unblinking. "Why didn't you leave me there to burn?"
"I don't hate you," Billy said. "No matter what you think, I'm not your enemy. Krepsin was, because he wanted to own you - and he wanted to own me, too. They brought me here from Chicago, to make me do . . . awful things. If you hate me, it's because J.J. Falconer owned you, and he taught you how to hate."
"Daddy . . ." Wayne said softly. "He used to visit me, all the time. Late at night, just before I slept. But … he lied to me, didn't he? No, no; it wasn't my daddy. It was . . . something else, something that . . . looked like an animal. I saw it, in the flight deck, just before we went down. It was lying to me, all the time, making me think my … my daddy was still alive. And it told me to trust Mr Krepsin, to stay with him and do whatever he wanted. They hurt Henry Bragg. They hurt him bad, and I had to heal him." Wayne lifted his hands and looked at them. "I just wanted to do good," he said. "That's all. Why was it always so hard?" There was pleading in his voice.
Billy slowly rose to his feet. He was still wearing the cotton slippers that had been issued to him at Krepsin's hacienda. The ground was a pavement of rough pebbles, interrupted here and there by gnarled growths of cactus and spikes of palmetto. "We've got to find some shade," he told Wayne. "Can you walk?"
"I don't want to move."
"The sun's still low. In a couple of hours it's going to be over a hundred degrees out here. Maybe we can find a village. Maybe …" His gaze passed across the rise of mountains that stood to the north, and he squinted in the fierce, hot glare. The mountains seemed to be only a mile or so away, shimmering in the heat waves. There were rippled outcrops of rock that might throw enough shade to keep them alive. "Up there," he said, and pointed. "It's not too far. We can make it."
Wayne balked for another moment, then stood up. He grasped Billy's shoulder for support, and something like a charge of electricity passed between them, stunning and energizing both of them. The pain seemed to drain out of Billy's body; Wayne's head was cleared as if he'd inhaled pure oxygen. Startled, Wayne drew his hand back.
"We can make it," Billy said firmly. "We have to."
"I don't understand you. Why don't you just leave me and walk away? Whenever I saw you and your mother, whenever I heard your names, I was afraid; and I was ashamed, too, because I liked the power I had." His face was agonized. "But I had to start lying about the healing, because I couldn't heal everybody. I had to make them think I could, or they wouldn't listen to me anymore. I wouldn't have the power anymore. Even when I was a child, I was lying about it . . . and I knew it. And somehow, you and she knew it too, right from the start. You could see right through me. I … I hated both of you, and I wanted to see you dead." He squinted up toward the sun. "But maybe it was because I hated what I was, and I wanted to die . . .1 still want to die. Just leave me here. Let me rest."
"No. I don't know what Krepsin did to you, but you can get help. Now let's start walking." He took the first step, then the next and the next. The pebbles felt like glass under his feet. When he looked back, he saw that Wayne was following, but at a dazed, unsteady pace.
They passed through the wreckage. Puddles of jet fuel still burned. Cocktail napkins with Ten High, Inc. printed on them fluttered past on a hot breath of wind. There was a litter of burned cables, shredded seats, broken glass, and razor-edged sheets of metal. A headless body in a scorched suit lay draped over the crisp remnant of a black leather sofa. The vultures were at work, stopping only to eye Billy and Wayne as they passed.
They found Krepsin's a few minutes later. The massive body was still strapped in its seat, lying on its side in a thatch of sharp palmettos, which had kept most of the vultures away. Krepsin, the clothes almost all ripped away from his body, was covered with mottled bluish black bruises. The tongue lolled from his head, and his eyes protruded as if they were about to explode. The body was already swelling, the face, neck, and arms grown to even more freakish proportions.
Billy heard the thin, high screaming in his head; the noise grew louder and then ebbed. He said, "Wait," and Wayne stopped. The screaming was agonized, terrified; Krepsin and the others were still here, caught at the instant of their deaths. Abruptly, the screaming stopped as if it had been squeezed off. Billy listened, feeling a cold chill work through him. Now there was only silence.
Something was different, Billy thought. Something was wrong. The hair at the back of his neck was standing up. He felt danger here. The shape changer, Billy thought, and was suddenly afraid. What had happened to the shape changer? If it fed off the evil in Krepsin, Niles, and Dorn, might it not swell with hideous, consumptive strength?
Billy said, "Let's get out of here. Right now." He started off again. Wayne stared down at Krepsin's corpse for a moment, then followed.
Behind them, one of Krepsin's swollen, burned hands moved. The fingers crept down and worked the seatbelt loose. It shrugged free of the seat, and grinned with a mouthful of shattered teeth. Its face turned toward the figures who were walking fifty yards away; its eyes had changed, now burning red and animalish. The reanimated corpse crawled through the palmetto, muttering and chuckling. Powered by a surge of evil stronger than anything it had ever consumed, the shape changer rose slowly on its scorched, swollen legs. Its hands clenched into fists as it watched the figures walking away. This body was still strong, not like the others that had been torn to pieces and gnawed on by the vultures. This body could be used.
The thing prowled through the wreckage, getting used to the feel of its fleshy cocoon. It giggled and muttered, ready now to smash and crush and rip. Vultures squalled and flew away from the lumbering thing; it sought Niles's headless body, ripped open the coat, and dug a thick hand into the pocket. It brought out a leather pouch, tied with a drawstring. The prize inside wouldn't fit on the swollen hand; impatiently, the shape changer snapped off the first joints of the fingers and jammed the prize onto the stubs.
Sharp pieces of razor blades gleamed in the sunlight. It was the weapon that Niles had used to slash Henry Bragg's throat.
Krepsin's face turned toward the distant figures; the red eyes glared out as if through a bloated, bruised mask of flesh. Now it had human form – and superhuman, evil-charged strength – and it would show them it would not be cheated. The thing swung its arm in a vicious arc and grinned. Now it would show them both.
The corpse waddled after them, with murder flaring in its eyes.READ MORE >>