Lowering the monster’s hand to the floor, she returns again to the study of its face, in particular the large sockets at the bottoms of which lie the mottled and furred tissue that is what remains of its eyes, like the once flourishing but now fossilized mold at the bottom of a long-dry well. Again the cove lighting flutters, does not go out this time, but summons throbs of shadow from those bony orbits, so that it seems a pair of eyes repeatedly roll left to right and back again, entirely black eyes like those of Death might be when he shows up on a doorstep with an eviction notice.
“I’m not beautiful. That’s not the reason he’s getting ready to kill me. During the past few months, there are times when he seeks me and can’t find me because I’m here. And later, when he takes me and reads me, in my memories it seems I was always somewhere ordinary where he should have found me. For a while he thought the fault was in him, but he now suspects I’ve learned how to hide a thing or two that I don’t want him to know.”
The power to shut out the puppeteer from even a small part of her memory should be a hopeful development, but she seems to take no hope from it.
“And is he right? Have you learned to hide a thing or two?”
“They say you should study languages when you’re just a kid, because you get them a lot faster than when you’re grown up. I think it’s that way with figuring how to fake out Hiskott. I can’t hide much, but a little more month by month, including this place, where I go to escape him. I don’t believe any of the adults have been able to do that, but I think Maxy might have been about where I am now when he was killed. Maybe Hiskott suspected Maxy. Maybe he was afraid Maxy might learn to resist being taken, so he murdered him.”
“You think you could learn to keep him out, deny him control?”
“No. Not for years if ever. And he won’t let me live that long. But there’s another thing I did.”
She lightly taps a forefinger against the points of Orc’s lower teeth, moving left to right along the cadaver’s sharkish grin.
If Orc’s hand can abruptly drum fingers against the floor, its jaws, which seem to be locked open by withered tendons and shrunken muscles, might snap shut on her tender fingertips.
I consider warning her. But she surely has thought of the same danger, and she will ignore me. Something about this moment suggests that it is neither Orc’s existence nor its origins that intrigues Jolie, nor any particular feature of its demonic face. Instead, brow furrowed, testing the cutting edges of her teeth with her tongue as she assesses Orc’s array of daggers with her finger, she seems to be contemplating a question that worries her.
And then she puts her concern into words: “Does a monster know it’s a monster?”
Her question appears simple, and some might find it ridiculous because, as modern thinkers know, psychology and theories of social injustice can explain the motives of all who ever commit an evil act, revealing them to be in fact victims themselves; therefore such things as monsters do not exist—no Minotaurs, no werewolves, no orcs, and likewise no Hitlers, no Mao Tse-tungs. But I can guess why she is asking the question, and in this context it is a complex inquiry of profound importance to her.
Jolie deserves a thoughtful and nuanced answer, although in our current circumstances, a textured reply will only encourage in her further self-doubt. We don’t have time for such uncertainty because it reliably breeds indecision, and indecision is one of the mothers of failure.
“Yes,” I assure her. “A monster knows it’s a monster.”
“Always and everywhere?”
“Yes. A monster not only knows that it’s a monster, but it also enjoys being a monster.”
She meets my eyes. “How do you know?”
Indicating Orc, I say, “This isn’t my first monster. I’ve had experience with all kinds of them. Mostly the human kind. And the human kind especially revel in their evil.”
Returning her attention to the teeth, the girl seems to consider what I have said. To my relief, she stops risking a bite and touches instead the creature’s large, bulbous brow, where the crinkled skin sheds a few flakes under her forefinger.
“Anyway,” she says, wiping her finger on her jeans, “there’s another thing I did, besides keeping from him the place I go when he can’t find me. I imagined this secret cave, hidden by brush, high in the hills, as far from the culvert on the beach as you can get and still be in the Corner. And yesterday, when he took me for a while, I let him see the cave in my memory, as if it were real, but not where it’s supposed to be. So now that he’s ready to kill me, maybe he’ll waste time using some of the family to search for the cave.”
“How can you be sure he’s ready … for that?”
“Too much is slipping out of his control. You know about him, so he’s got to kill you. Then he’ll kill the lady with you because he can’t control her. He was going to kill me in a day or two, before you showed up, so he’ll just go ahead and do it as soon as he’s finished with you two.”
Annamaria seems to have uncanny knowledge superior to mine. She says she’s safe in the Corner. Maybe. Maybe not. I wish I could be in two places at once.
“I’ll get him first.”
“I think you might. But if you don’t … the three of us will be buried in the meadow beside Maxy, with no coffins and no headstones.”
She gets to her feet once more and stands with her hands on her hips. In her skull T-shirt and rivet-decorated jacket, she looks both defiant and vulnerable.
“If Hiskott gets you first,” she says, “what I need is a little extra time while he’s looking for the cave that doesn’t exist, just a little extra time to get ready to be killed. I don’t want to beg or scream. I don’t want to cry if I can help it. When he uses my family to kill me, I want to be able to keep telling them how much I love them, that I don’t blame them, that I’ll pray for them.”
This is not one of the easiest things I have ever done: leaving Jolie alone with the mummified remains in the yellow yet nonetheless dreary corridor, which could as likely be the path to Hell or, worse, one of those airport passageways that leads inevitably to a coven of transportation-agency employees eager to strip-search Grandma, anal-probe a nun, and invite one and all to submit to a body scan that will trigger either bone cancer or the growth of a third eye in an inconvenient place. My ghost dog isn’t even here to watch over her.
On the other hand, she has been alone in this hallway on many previous occasions. She is most likely safer here than anywhere in the Corner. Besides, although she is a girl and a child, she has as much hair on her chest, figuratively speaking, as I do.
With the mini flashlight in one hand and the pistol in the other, I retrace the route along which she led me: through pried-open doors, across two spacious air locks or decontamination chambers. In the stainless-steel walls, holes like the muzzles of rifles take aim at me.
When I arrive at the concrete culvert that previously we passed through in absolute darkness, I pause to sweep the narrow beam over the walls. I am reminded of a maze of such drains about which I wrote in the second volume of these memoirs; in that place I was almost killed more than once. Of course, I can’t allow myself to be wary of one place merely because it reminds me of another place where I almost died, because just about every place reminds me of another place where I almost died, whether it’s a police station or a church, or a monastery, or a casino, or an ice-cream shop. I’ve never almost died in a laundromat or a McDonald’s, or a sushi bar, but then I’m not yet quite twenty-two, and with luck, I’ll have a lot more years in which to almost die in all kinds of venues.
I start along the inclined drain, recalling the original version of Invaders from Mars, 1953, in which evil scheming Martians secretly establish a subterranean fortress under a quiet American town, and actors wearing costumes with visible zippers up the back pretend to be otherworldly monsters, lumbering through tunnels on one nefarious mission or another. In spite of the zippers, it’s an eerie flick, a minor science-fiction classic, but there’s nothing in it as scary as half the people on any Sunday-morning episode of Meet the Press.
Before I’ve gone far, I come to the first tributary drain on the right, which is as Jolie described it: about five feet in diameter, navigable only in a stoop. Because the girl previously explored this branch of the drains and knows that the end is sealed, I have no intention of taking a side trip.
As I’m passing the opening, however, a noise halts me. Issuing from a distance, echoing along that smaller tunnel, arises a low rumbling-grinding sound as though some heavy metal object is moving across concrete. The flashlight beam doesn’t reach far, and just as I wonder if I’m hearing an immense iron ball rolling toward me, set loose by a malevolent alien with a zipper up its back, the sound stops.
At once a draft springs up, smelling faintly of aged concrete. This is not the stale air of sluggish circulation through lightless realms. It’s fresh and clean, whispering against my face, ever so slightly stirring my hair, as pleasantly cool as morning air should be on a January day along the central California coast.
If the upper end of this drain was previously sealed, it is evidently not sealed now. Who opened it and why are of immediate importance, because the timing is unlikely to be coincidental.
No further noise ensues, no slightest sound of anyone descending.
Although no one is likely to have seen Jolie and me fleeing to the beach in the moonless dark, though the girl has misdirected Hiskott—and therefore everyone else—to the nonexistent cave, I am not enthusiastic about returning to the shore. Any other exit from this system might offer advantages over the vine-draped terminus of the main culvert.
With the frequently but not always reliable intuition of a clairvoyant fry cook, I sense that this alternate route might be safe and that whoever unsealed this side drain might possibly be my friend or at least might prefer that Norris Hiskott die rather than that I die, or might rather see both of us dead instead of just me.
I decide to act without delay on this unnervingly qualified perception. After all, the worst that can happen is that I will be killed.
Proceeding in a stoop, darkness ahead and behind, gripping the pistol and the flashlight, almost dragging my knuckles on the floor, I feel like a troll except that of course I don’t eat children, more like Gollum than a troll, Gollum leading Frodo the Hobbit into the lair of the giant, spiderlike Shelob, except that I’m more like Frodo than Gollum, being led rather than leading, which means I’m the one that will get stung, restrained by spun silken threads as tough as wire, and put aside so that later, at my captor’s leisure, I can be eaten alive.
Somewhat to my surprise, there is no Shelob, and after it seems that I’ve gone nearly all the way to Mordor, my calves aching from the strain of walking in this gorilla posture, I arrive at the end of the tunnel. An iron ladder leads up to an open manhole through which falls the first pink light of morning.
When I lever myself out of the drain, I’m standing in a four-foot-wide concrete swale. Behind me, to the east, a long slope leads up to guardrails and the coast highway. In front of me is the county road that leads to Harmony Corner, which lies perhaps two hundred yards to my left. As night spills away to the western horizon and the flamingo dawn flocks more of the sky, I can see the quaint service station, the diner where several vehicles are parked as the breakfast rush begins, but not the cottages in their haven of trees.
If one of the Harmonys happens to see me, I’m at such a distance that he won’t know who I am.
The hum of a motor draws my attention to the open manhole, where a series of stainless-steel wedges suddenly iris inward from its rim and lock together to form what must be a watertight seal. I’d like to believe that somewhere I have a friend. But instead I am troubled by the feeling that I’m being manipulated rather than assisted.
Every member of the Harmony family is a prisoner but also a weapon that can be used against me by Hiskott. I’m one. They’re many. During the morning shift, perhaps a third of them have to work the family business, but the others are available to search for me and to protect Hiskott, which they have no choice but to do; especially in a crisis like this, if they dare to resist, he will use them to slaughter a few of their own.
I don’t want to hurt any of them. Under current circumstances, I can’t slip past so many and make my way to the house in which Norris Hiskott resides. Therefore, it’s necessary to change the circumstances.
To the north lies the intersection between the county road and the exit ramp from the coast highway. As I walk toward it, I pocket the mini flashlight and tuck the pistol under my belt, against my abdomen, between my T-shirt and sweatshirt.
A hundred yards short of the intersection, I stop, drop to one knee, and wait on the shoulder of the roadway.
Within a minute, a Ford Explorer appears at the head of the exit ramp.
I pick up a small stone and pretend to be examining it as if it fascinates me. Maybe it’s a nugget of gold or maybe nature has weathered into it a miraculously detailed portrait of Jesus.
The Explorer slows at the stop sign, glides through the intersection without making a full stop, turns left, and accelerates past me.
A couple of minutes later, when an eighteen-wheeler looms at the top of the ramp, I drop the stone and get to my feet.
What I’m about to do is bad. It’s not as terrible as embezzling a billion dollars from the investment firm you run. It’s not as bad as being a public servant who gets rich over a lifetime of taking bribes. But it’s a lot worse than tearing the DO NOT REMOVE UNDER PENALTY OF LAW tag from the cushions of your new sofa. It’s bad. Bad. I don’t endorse my own actions. If my guardian angel is watching, he is no doubt appalled. If any young people read this memoir someday, I hope they are not inspired by my offense to commit similar offenses of their own. The same applies to elderly readers. We don’t need a bunch of badly behaved retirees any more than we need young hoodlums. I can explain why I have to do what I’m about to do, but I’m acutely aware that an explanation is not a righteous justification. What’s bad is bad even if necessary. This is bad. I’m sorry. Okay, here we go.
Right there, right then, when he leaves me with Orc to try to get Hiskott, I think I love him. I never thought I could. Love some guy, I mean. Or maybe what I mean is that I never thought I should. Not after what happened these past five years. Not after the awful thing that happened to Maxy. My expectation, if you want to know, has been that I’ll go away and be a nun. I mean, if something were to happen to Hiskott and we were free again. A nun or a missionary in the worst slum in the world, where the cockroaches are as big as dachshunds and people are covered in festering sores and desperately need help. I know what it’s like to desperately need help, and what I think is it would feel really good to be on the other side, to be able to give help to people who need it, desperately or otherwise. If you’re going to be a nun or a missionary or even one of those doctors who work for nothing in countries that are so poor the people have no money, so they trade with one another using bricks of dry animal dung they can burn to heat their hovels and a few diseased chickens and maybe some edible tubers that they dig out of the floor of a snake-infested jungle … Well, what I mean is, if you’re going to be any of those things, there’s no time in your life for dating or romance or marriage, or anything. So what would be the point of loving a guy? Anyway, nuns aren’t allowed to marry.