One Door Away from Heaven

Page 69

Hooked on the windowsill were several canes. He seized one that featured a bronze wolf's head for a handle.

On his back, flat on the floor, the Toad gazed up, his hideous nose now shattered and more repulsive than before, his unkempt beard bejeweled with blood, his blotchy face suddenly every bit as pale as it had previously been flushed.

Holding the cane by the wrong end, Preston raised it overhead.

The Toad lay stunned, perhaps disoriented, but then his eyes cleared, and when he saw what was coming, he spoke with tremulous emotion and with obvious relief: "Thank you."

"You're welcome," Preston assured him, and hammered the wolf's head into the center of the man's brow. More than once. Maybe half a dozen times. The cane cracked but didn't come apart.

When he was certain that he had killed the Toad, he threw the damaged walking stick on the bed beside the binoculars. Later, he would wipe both objects clean of fingerprints.

He intended ultimately to burn down this great pile of tinder. No evidence would be likely to survive the flames. But he was a careful man.

Quickly, Preston selected another cane. A polished-brass serpent formed the handle, inset with faceted red-glass eyes.

He suppressed the madcap urge to select a jaunty straw hat in which to court the lady of the hour. In addition to being a service to humanity and to Mother Earth, killing was fun, but one must never lose sight of the fact that it was also serious business, fraught with risk and frowned upon by many.

Out of the dead toad's boudoir, along the trash-packed upstairs hall, to the bottle-decorated back stairs and down. Through the foul kitchen, onto the enclosed porch where a thousand and yet a thousand bottles glimmered darkly as if the coming storm were pent up in them and soon to be uncorked.

Outside, he hurried across a backyard that was more dirt than scattered bunch-grass, careful to keep the house between him and the position in the woods from which the entirely useless Ms. Bell-song maintained surveillance.

Most likely she expected to follow him into Nun's Lake, staying at a distance to avoid being spotted. Once she'd found where he had parked the motor home, she evidently intended to watch and wait- and seize the first opportunity to spirit Leilani away, out of Idaho, to Clarissa the Goiter and her sixty parrots in Hemet.

The stupid slut. Fools, the lot of them. They thought that he knew nothing, but he knew all.

Beyond the barren yard lay a thriving field of shoulder-high weeds. He had to stoop only slightly to disappear among them.

Heading east, he plunged through wild grass, milkweed. Cover was provided, too, by scattered cornstalks that had been cultivated long in the past and that had gone wild generations ago, but that still raggedly, stubbornly ruled the field.

He hurried parallel to the distant road, intending eventually to turn north, cross the road beyond her view, and then turn west. He would circle behind the useless Micky Bellsong and club her to the ground with the serpent cane.

The glowering sky pressed lower by the minute, black clouds like knotted fists, full of cruel power. No thunder yet, but thunder soon. And eventually lightning would score the sky and cast hot reflections on the brass serpent, perhaps even as it struck-and struck. But in spite of the dazzling flash and rumble soon to descend, Preston Maddoc knew that the halls of Heaven were deserted, and that no one occupied those heights to look down on what he did, or to care.

Chapter 65

THE MOTHERLESS BOY is troubled, and he doesn't trouble easily. He sits on one of the sofas in the lounge of the Fleetwood, petting Old Yeller, who lies across his lap, while the twins continue to brood over maps in the dining nook.

Advance preparation had left Curtis with considerable knowledge regarding most of the Earth species he would be likely to encounter on his mission. Consequently he knows a great deal about dogs, not solely what he absorbed from the astonishing number of canines that he's seen in 9,658 movies, but from specific flash-feed instruction he has received regarding the flora and fauna of this planet.

Sister-become has numerous admirable qualities, not the least of which is her nose. Its shape, pebbly texture, and shiny blackness contribute to her beauty, but more important, her sense of smell is perhaps twenty thousand times more sensitive than that of any human being.

If the enormous motor home in which he saw the radiant girl also contained hunters of the kind that were encountered at the crossroads store in Nevada, the dog would have detected their unique scent, would have recognized it instantly, and would have reacted either ferociously or with greater fear than she had shown. Bonded with his sister-become, Curtis would have been aware of her memories from the crossroads, flurries of mental images triggered by this exotic smell, as he is aware of such images when the dog encounters other familiar odors.

The vicious beast whose malodor Old Yeller smelled around that motor home is not one she has ever met before. It is something or someone of her world.

This is not entirely reassuring. He remembers her reaction to Vern Tuttle, the teeth-collecting serial killer, when they had been watching him from the bedroom in the Windchaser as he had conversed with his bathroom mirror. She had wagged her tail a little. If such a fiend as Tuttle hadn't put her hackles up, how much worse must the human monster be in this new motor home, this ominous juggernaut? It has, after all, elicited a growl from her.

Since he is confident that their mysterious campground neighbors are not hostile extraterrestrials and, therefore, do not require any action from him, evasive or otherwise, the prudent course would be to stay safely inside the Fleetwood. He finds it difficult, however, to be entirely judicious or even cautious as long as the memory of the radiant girl continues to haunt him.

He cannot put her out of his mind.

When he closes his eyes, he can see her standing beside the driver's seat, leaning forward, peering out of the windshield. Her expression of profound loneliness and loss resonates with him because it expresses emotions he knows too well, feelings that rise anew in him each time he dares to dwell upon what happened in the Colorado mountains before he ever was Curtis Hammond.

At last he realizes that he would not be his mother's son if he could turn away from this wounded-looking girl. The prudent course is not always the course that the heart demands.

He is here, after all, to change the world. And as always, this task begins with the rescue of one soul, and then the next, and then the next, with patience and commitment.

When he moves from lounge to nook and interrupts Cass and Polly at their maps, explaining what he intends to do, they are opposed to his plan. They prefer that he remain safely in the Fleetwood until, come morning, they can pull up stakes and head for Seattle. There, the large population will provide adequate commotion and give him cover until he is confidently Curtis Hammond, is at last producing an ordinary energy signature, and is beyond detection.

Their adamant resistance to his leaving the motor home is for a moment frustrating. Then, using the template through which they are most comfortable regarding these recent events, he reminds them that they are his royal guards and that while valuing their valiant service and respecting their sage advice, he cannot allow his guards to dictate what an heir to the throne may or may not do. "That's no more a choice for me than it would be for Princess Leia."

Perhaps they realize that he's using their own rope to tie their hands, so to speak, because he's previously denied being ET royalty, but this strategy nevertheless flummoxes them . They continue to be in such awe of his off-world origins and so thrilled to be a part of his mission that they can't long resist him. As much as they might like to deal with him sometimes as the sovereign majesty of a far planet and sometimes as just a ten-year-old boy, they cannot have it both ways. Realizing this, they beam megadata at each other with one of their Spelkenfelter glances, sigh prettily, as only they can sigh, and prepare to provide him with an armed escort.

Although they would prefer that Curtis remain indoors, they reveal a quiet enthusiasm at the prospect of accompanying him now that he's pulled rank on them. After all, as they themselves have said, they are girls who like adventure.

They are dressed this afternoon in carved-leather cowboy boots, blue jeans, and blue-checkered Western shirts with bolo ties. This seems to be a suitable costume for bodyguards, though it lacks the dazzle of low-cut toreador pants, halter tops, and navel opals.

Each of the twins slings a purse over her right shoulder. Each purse contains a 9-mm pistol.

"You stay between us, sweetie," Polly cautions Curtis, which seems an odd form of address if she insists on viewing him as alien royalty, though he sure likes it.

Cass leaves the Fleetwood first, keeping her right hand inside the purse that is slung over her shoulder.

Sister-become follows Cass. Curtis follows the dog, and Polly comes last, right hand firmly on the pistol in her purse, too.

At only a few minutes past three o'clock on a summer afternoon, the day looks more like a winter twilight, and in spite of the warm air, the gray light imposes a chilly impression on everything that it touches, emphasizing the trace of frosty silver in each evergreen needle, plating the lake with a mirage of ice.

Outside, Old Yeller assumes the lead, following her previous route to the juggernaut, though with no pee stops this time.

Few campers are out and about. Having finished battening down for the storm, most are inside.

The radiant girl hasn't returned to the front of the motor home. Curtis can see nothing more than a dim light farther back in the big vehicle, filtered by the tinted windshield, and reflections of pine branches and sullen clouds on the surface of the glass.

Cass intends to knock on the door, but Curtis halts her with a softly spoken "No."

As before, the dog senses not only that a vicious beast of the human variety frequents this motor home, but also that it is, as before, not in residence at this time. Once more, she detects two presences, the first producing both the bitter odor of a soul in despair and the pheromonal stench of a spirit profoundly corrupted. The second is one who, having so long endured fear, is steeped in chronic anxiety, although utterly free of despair.

Curtis infers that the fear-troubled heart is that of the girl whom earlier he saw through the windshield.

The corrupted presence is so unappealing that the dog skins her teeth back from her lips, producing an expression as close to one of disgust as the form of her face allows. If sister-become could pucker her muzzle sufficiently to spit, she would do so.

Curtis can't be certain if the object of this disgust poses a threat. Perhaps it is revealing, however, that this person seems not to be troubled by any of the fear that is a yoke upon the girl.

While the twins, bracketing him, keep a watch on the surrounding campground, Curtis places both hands on the door of the motor home. On the micro level, where will can prevail over matter, he senses a low-voltage electrical circuit and recognizes that it is similar to the alarm-system circuit on the Fleetwood, which the twins engage each night.

Every circuit has a switch. The low-voltage flow is energy, but the switch is mechanical and therefore vulnerable to the power of the will. Curtis has a strong will. The alarm is engaged-and then not.

The door is securely locked. And then unlocked. Quietly, he opens it and peers into the cockpit, which is deserted.

Two steps up, and in.

He hears one of the twins hiss in disapproval, but he doesn't turn back.

A single lamp lights the lounge. One of the sofas has been folded out to form a bed.

She is sitting on the bed, writing rapidly in a journal. One leg is bent, the other stuck straight out in the grip of a steel brace.

The radiant girl.

Intently focused on her composition, she doesn't hear the door open and doesn't at first realize that someone has entered and is standing at the head of the steps.

Sister-become follows Curtis, pushes halfway between his legs to get a clear look at this steel-braced vision.

This movement attracts the girl's attention, and she looks up.

Curtis says, "You shine."

Chapter 66

AFTER REVERSING the Camaro into the cover of the trees, Micky stood for a while, leaning against the car, watching the turnoff to the Teelroy farm from a distance of about seventy yards. Three vehicles passed during the next ten minutes, giving her a chance to determine that from this far away she wouldn't be able to discern if Maddoc had come alone in the Durango, even if she could positively identify the vehicle itself. She moved fifty yards farther west.

Less than twenty minutes later, positioned behind a tree, she saw the Durango approaching from the direction of Nun's Lake. When the SUV slowed for the right turn into the Teelroy driveway, Micky could see that the driver was alone: Preston Maddoc.

She hurried east, back the way that she had come, and took up a new position in the shelter of a pine near the Camaro. From here, she couldn't see the front porch of the farmhouse clearly enough to watch Leonard Teelroy greet Maddoc. She was able to see the parked Durango, however; and when it began to move again, she would have time to get into her car, ease out from among the trees, and follow him back to Nun's Lake at such a distance that she wouldn't raise his suspicion.

Her irrational hope had been that he might bring Leilani with him, in which case she would have crept to the farmhouse with the intention of disabling the Durango and with the hope that in the subsequent confusion, she might have an opportunity to spirit the girl away, before Maddoc could know that she had gone.

The irrational hope had not been fulfilled. She could choose between waiting here to follow Maddoc or returning to Nun's Lake to inquire after him-or Jordan Banks-at all three campgrounds.

She feared that if she returned to town, she might not receive accurate information at the campground offices. Or Maddoc could have used a name that she didn't know. Or perhaps he never registered his motor home at any campground, but temporarily parked it in a public place, having no intention of staying in this place overnight. Then, as she went from one registration clerk to the next, in search of him, he might cut short his pursuit of extraterrestrials at the Teelroy farm, hook the Durango to the Prevost, and hit the highway. Returning to Nun's Lake ahead of Maddoc, Micky risked losing him, and even if the risk might be small, she didn't intend to take it.

Given her own brief encounter with Leonard Teelroy, Micky didn't expect Maddoc to spend much time with him. Teelroy was an eccentric, a transparent fraud looking to make a buck, and more than a few slices short of a full loaf. His tale of alien healers wasn't likely to beguile the doom doctor for any length of time, regardless of what had motivated Maddoc to start following the UFO trail more than four and a half years ago.

Yet five minutes passed, then five more, and the SUV remained at the farmhouse.

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