Fire flared to both sides of the Escalade, and lesser flames crawled under it, but the interior wasn’t yet ablaze. There were so many tinder-dry tumbleweeds that the ravine would be aglow for quite a while.
As I neared the vehicle, I saw painted on its tailgate neatly formed characters in a pictographic language reminiscent of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, white against the black paint. I halted and reconsidered the meaning of the encounter with the unknown driver.
A couple of months earlier, on a mountain in Nevada, I had found it necessary to explore a well-guarded estate where, as it turned out, kidnapped children were being held for the purpose of ritual murder by a satanic cult. Before I found the kids, I discovered a stable filled with antique breakfronts instead of horses, and in those breakfronts had stood thick glass jars the size of crocks, filled with a clear preservative, the lids fused in place with an annealing torch. In those jars were souvenirs of previous human sacrifices: severed heads, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, as if in the grip of eternal shock and terror, and on every forehead a different line of a pictographic language exactly like that on the tailgate of the Escalade.
Small-town boy meets big-time evil.
The driver of the Escalade hadn’t encountered me by chance. He had learned what route I was taking, when I would take it, and he’d set out in pursuit of me, no doubt intending to avenge the damage I had done to the cult. I’d killed a number of them. But their resources were impressive—in fact otherworldly—and we were far from finished with each other.
My code of conduct didn’t require me to save the lives of vicious murderers any more than it required me to feed myself to a shark just because the shark happened to be hungry. In fact, I felt obligated to kill murderous sociopaths if that was the only way to prevent them from slaughtering more innocents. Usually, that turned out to be the only way, because few of their kind responded well to reason or to stern warnings, or to the wisdom of the Beatles, which tells us that all we need is love.
The doors of the Escalade had buckled but hadn’t popped open, and if anyone had clambered out of a shattered window, I had not seen him. The driver—and passenger, if there was one—were all but certainly still inside. Maybe dead. At least badly injured. Perhaps unconscious.
As I retreated, the crackling fire under the vehicle abruptly found its way inside, and with a whoosh, the interior filled with flames. I saw no thrashing shadows in the Escalade and heard no screams.
I couldn’t imagine how they had known I was going home to Pico Mundo or when I would make the trip, or what I would be driving. But as I had unusual talents, abilities, and connections, so did they. I might never learn how they had located me. What mattered now was that they were looking for me; and if they had found me once, they could find me again.
They wouldn’t have tried to find me and kill me en route, however, if they had known where I would be staying when I got to Pico Mundo. Instead, they would have waited for me there and cut me down when I arrived. The safe house waiting for me was still safe.
Climbing the shale slope proved more difficult than the descent had been. I kept glancing behind me, half expecting to discover a pursuer, some grotesque nemesis with hair afire and smoke seething from his twisted mouth.
At the top, I looked back and saw that the flames, a bright contagion, had spread maybe sixty yards to the west, from one crisp tumbleweed to another. The shale must have been veined with pyrite, for in the walls of the ravine, in the throbbing firelight, ribbons of yellow glimmered brighter than the surrounding stone. The burning Escalade screaked and twanged. As its metallic protests echoed and re-echoed along the crevasse, they were distorted, changed, until I could almost believe that I was hearing human voices, a suffering multitude crying out below.
I had not seen their faces. I had not killed them, only given them the chance to kill themselves. But still it seemed wrong that I should not know the faces of those I allowed to die.
The noise and the blaze must have disturbed a colony of bats. Just then, no doubt having recently returned to their cave in a ravine wall after a night of feeding, they burst into agitated flight, shrieking as they soared on rising thermals, many hundreds of them, perhaps thousands, their membranous wings snapping in accompaniment to the crackle of the flames. They rose to the top of the ravine, then descended, only to rise again, surged east and then west and then east again, as if confused and seeking something and failing to find it, their shrill cries both angry and despairing.
Life had taught me to believe in omens.
I knew one when I saw it.
I came home to die and to live in death. My life had begun in the desert town of Pico Mundo, California, and I had remained there until I was twenty, when I lost what mattered most to me. During the twenty-one months since then, I had traveled in search of my purpose, and I had learned by going where I had to go. That I had come full circle shouldn’t have surprised me, for we are born into time only to be born out of it, after living through the cycles of the seasons, under stars that turn because the world turns, born into ignorance and acquiring knowledge that ultimately reveals to us our enduring ignorance: The circle is the essential pattern of our existence.
The Green Moon Mall stood along Green Moon Road, smack between old-town Pico Mundo and its more modern neighborhoods. The structure was immense because it was intended to serve not just our town but others in the area that were too small to support a mall of their own. With sand-colored walls and curved planes and rounded corners, the architect meant to suggest adobe construction. In recognition of the Mojave heat, there were few windows, and the most glass to be seen was at the several entrances, where pneumatic doors once whisked aside to welcome shoppers.
The mall had been closed for a long time, contaminated by its history of mass murder. Many feared that to reopen it would invite some unhinged person to attempt to rack up a larger kill than the nineteen who were murdered on that day. Of the forty-one wounded, several were disabled for life. Starbucks, Crate & Barrel, Donna Karan, and other retailers had bailed on their leases, having no desire to be associated with a place of such horror. The mall owners, with common sense that was rare in modern America, had taken no tenants to court, instead announcing that the building eventually would be torn down and the land repurposed for upscale apartments.
After parking the Big Dog bike on a nearby residential street, I visited the mall more than an hour before dawn, carrying a pillowcase in which were a bolt cutter, a crowbar, and a sixteen-ounce hammer with a rubberized grip that I’d brought with me from the coast. I found my way by flashlight down a long, wide ramp that led to an immense segmented garage door through which countless eighteen-wheelers had once driven with loads of merchandise for the department stores and the many smaller shops.
The moon was down, the glimmering constellations so distant, and even in May the Mojave night was as mild as baby-bottle milk. On flanking concrete walls that loomed higher as the ramp descended, pale reflections of the flashlight drifted alongside me as if they were spirit companions.
I knew a great deal about the ghosts that haunted this world. I saw those who had died but who, for whatever reasons, would not or could not cross over to whatever came next. My life had been shaped by those lingering dead, by their regrets, their hopes, their needs, their melancholy. In my twenty-two years of life, I had come to regard even angry spirits with equanimity, reserving my dread for certain still-living human beings and the horrors of which they were capable.
To the left of the enormous roll-up door was one of ordinary dimensions, secured with both a mortise lock and a large padlock. I propped my flashlight against the door frame, with its beam angled upward.
Using the long-handled bolt cutter, I severed the shackle from the case of the padlock. I unhooked the padlock from the slotted strap and threw it aside.
e rimless lock cylinder could not be gripped with lever-wrench pliers and pulled out of the escutcheon. From my shirt pocket, I took a wedge-shaped steel tap with a broad head, and I pounded the tap into the keyway of the mortise lock. The poll of the hammer rang off its target, the pin tumblers in the keyway shrieked as the guts of the lock were distorted, and the stricken door clattered in its frame.
I had no concern that the racket I raised would draw unwanted attention. The deserted mall was surrounded by a vastness of empty parking lot, which was these days encircled by chain-link fencing crowned with concertina wire to discourage romantically inclined teenagers in cars, homeless people with their worldly possessions packed in shopping carts, and whatever creeps might be drawn to the place by its history of violence. The police chose not to patrol the property anymore because, after all, everything on it was scheduled for demolition in a few months.
My version of the “Anvil Chorus” was brief. When I’d driven the tap fully into the keyway, the deadbolt rattled loosely in the latch assembly, and a narrow gap opened between door and jamb, although the bolt remained seated in the faceplate. I applied the crowbar and worked up a sweat before I broke into what had been the subterranean loading docks and the employee parking lot beneath Green Moon Mall, leaving my tools behind.
I am a fry cook, at my best when working the griddle, master of the spatula, maker of pancakes so light they seem about to float off your plate. I am a fry cook and wish to be nothing more, but the many threats I face have required me to develop skills not needed in the kitchen of a diner—like breaking and entering.
Stained concrete underfoot, overhead, on all sides, the ceiling supported by columns so thick that I couldn’t have gotten my arms around one: As a deep-sea diver in his pressurized suit and armored helmet might nevertheless sense the tremendous tonnage of the ocean pressing upon him, so I felt the great mass of the two-story mall and the anchoring pair of three-story department stores above me. For a moment, I felt buried, as if I had died on that day of violence and now must be a spirit haunting this elaborate catacomb.
Here and there lay small piles of trash: the splintered boards of a broken packing crate, empty and moldering cardboard boxes, and items not easily identified in the flare of the beam and the dance of shadows.
The rubber soles of my sneakers failed to disturb the absolute silence, as though I had no substance. Then a short-lived rustling sound rose from my left. It must have been a rat disturbed in a nest of trash, but nevertheless I said, “Hello?” The only response was the echo of that word, which in the colonnaded darkness returned to me from all sides.
When last I’d been here, the place had hummed with activity as numerous trucks off-loaded merchandise and harried stockroom clerks prepared it for delivery to the holding rooms and the sales floor, using forklifts and electric carts and hand trucks.
The elevated loading dock ran the full length of the enormous structure. I climbed a set of steel rungs embedded in the face of it, crossed the dock, and pushed through a pair of extra-wide double doors into a spacious corridor with concrete walls painted white. Two freight elevators waited on the left; but even if they were still operative—which I doubted—I didn’t want to be boxed in one of them. I opened a door labeled STAIRS, and I climbed.
From a ground-floor stockroom, I proceeded into what had been a department store. Silence pooled in the cavernous building, and I felt as if something akin to sharks swam through the waterless dark, circling me beyond the reach of the flashlight.
Sometimes entities appear to me that no one else can see, inky and undulant, as quick and sleek as wolves, though without features, terrible and predatory shadows that can enter a room by the narrowest crack between a door and jamb or through a keyhole. I call them bodachs, although only because an English boy, visiting Pico Mundo, once saw them in my company and gave them that name. Seconds later, a runaway truck crushed him to death between its front bumper and a concrete-block wall.
He was the first person I’d ever known with my ability to see the lingering dead and bodachs. Later I discovered that bodachs were mythical beasts of the British Isles; they were said to squirm down chimneys at night to carry off naughty children. The creatures that I saw were too real, and they were interested not solely in naughty children.
They appeared only for horrific events: at an industrial explosion, at a nursing-home collapse during an earthquake, at a mass murder in a shopping mall. They seemed to feed on human suffering and death, as if they were psychic vampires to whom our terror, pain, and grief were far sweeter than blood.
I didn’t know where they came from. I didn’t know where they went when they weren’t around. I had theories, of course, but all of my theories bundled together proved nothing except that I was no Einstein.
Now, in the abandoned department store, if bodachs had been swarming in the farther reaches of that gloomy chamber, I would not have seen them, black forms in blackness. No doubt I was alone, because in that desolate and unpopulated structure, there were no crowds for a gunman to cut down in the quantities that appealed to bodachs. They never deigned to manifest for a single death or even two, or three; their taste was for operatic violence.
Back in the awful day, when I’d come out of the busy department store into the even busier promenade that served the other shops, I had seen hundreds—perhaps thousands—of bodachs gathered along the second-floor balustrade, peering down, excited, twitching and swaying in anticipation of bloodshed.
And I had come to think that they were mocking me, that perhaps they had always known I could see them. Instead of putting an end to me with a runaway truck and a concrete-block wall, maybe they had schemed to manipulate me toward my loss, toward the fathomless grief that would be born from that loss. Such grief might be to them quite delicious, a delicacy.
At the north end of the mall, the ground-floor promenade had once featured a forty-foot-high waterfall that cascaded down man-made rocks and flowed to the south, terminating in a koi pond. From sea to shining sea, the country had built glittering malls that were as much entertainments as they were places to shop, and Pico Mundo prided itself on satisfying Americans’ taste for spectacle even when buying socks. No water flowed anymore.
By flashlight, I walked south along the public concourse. All the signage had long ago been taken down. I could no longer remember what stores had occupied which spaces. Some of the show windows were shattered, drifted glass glittering against the bases on which the large panes had stood. Other sheets of intact glass were filmed with dust.
I had come there with determination, but as I approached the southern end of the building, I moved slower, and then slower still, overcome by cold that had nothing to do with the temperature of the abandoned shopping mall. In memory, I heard the gunfire, the screams, the piercing cries of terror, the slap-slap-slap of running feet on travertine.
At the south end of the concourse lay another vacated department store, but before it, on the left, was the space where once Burke & Bailey’s had done business, the ice-cream shop where Stormy Llewellyn had been the manager.
A tattered hot-pink awning with a scalloped edge overhung the entrance. In memory, I heard the hail of bullets that had shattered the windows and doors, and I saw Simon Varner in a black jumpsuit and black ski mask, sweeping a fully automatic rifle left to right, right to left.
He had been a cop. Secondarily a cop. Primarily an insane cultist. There had been four of them. They murdered one of their own, and I killed one of them. The other two were now in prison for life, where they still worshipped their satanic master.
In that moment of my return, I felt as though I were a spirit, having perished in a forgotten conflict, my body shed and left to decompose in some far field. I was unaware of moving my legs, and I no longer either heard or felt my feet stepping across the dirty travertine. I seemed to float toward the ice-cream shop, as if the white beam before me came not from the flashlight that I held but from some mysterious distant source, levitating and
transporting me toward Burke & Bailey’s.
The broken glass had been broomed into small jagged piles. Even under a thin film of dust, the sharp edges of the shards sparkled. I thought, Here lie your hopes and dreams, shattered and swept aside, and could not raise a ghost of the optimism that previously I had been able to conjure even in the bleakest moments.
As I crossed the threshold, I saw in memory Stormy Llewellyn as she had been that day, dressed in her work clothes: pink shoes, white socks, a hot-pink skirt, a matching pink-and-white blouse, and a perky pink cap. She’d sworn that when she had her own ice-cream shop, which she expected to secure by the time she was twenty-four, if not sooner, she would not provide her employees with dorky uniforms. No matter how frivolous the outfit she wore, she was an incomparable beauty with jet-black hair, dark eyes of mysterious depth, a lovely face, and perfect form.
Was. Had been. No more.
I think you look adorable.
Get real, odd one. I look like a goth Gidget.
She’d been standing behind the service counter when Simon Varner opened fire. Perhaps she had looked up as the windows shattered, had seen the ominous masked figure, and thought not of death but of me. She had always considered her own needs less than those of others; and I believe that her last thought in this world wouldn’t have been regret at dying so young but instead concern for me, that I should be left alone in my grief.
Maybe one day when I have my own shop, we can work together.…
The ice-cream business doesn’t move me. I love to fry.
I guess it’s true.