Hideaway Page 7


Finishing with the eyedrops, Gina checked her watch. “Sixty-eight minutes.”


Jonas had the crazy urge to tell her to shut up, as though time would halt as long as she was not calling it out, minute by minute.


Blood pumped in and out of the bypass machine.


“Sixty-two degrees.” Helga spoke so sternly that she might have been chastising the dead man for the laggardly pace of his reheating.


Flat lines on the EKG.


Flat lines on the EEG.


“Come on,” Jonas urged. “Come on, come on.”


4


He entered the museum of the dead not through one of its upper doors but through the waterless lagoon. In that shallow depression, three gondolas still lay on the cracked concrete. They were ten-passenger models that had long ago been tipped off the heavy chain-drive track along which they'd once carried their happy passengers. Even at night, wearing sunglasses, he could see they did not have the swan-neck prows of real gondolas in Venice, but sported leering gargoyles as figureheads, hand-carved from wood, garishly painted, perhaps fearsome at one time but now cracked, weathered, and peeling. The lagoon doors, which in better days had swung smoothly out of the way at the approach of each gondola, were no longer motorized. One of them was frozen open;


the other was closed, but it was hanging from only two of its four corroded hinges. He walked through the open door into a passageway that was far blacker than the night behind him.


He took off the sunglasses. He didn't need them in that gloom.


Neither did he require a flashlight. Where an ordinary man would have been blind, he could see.


The concrete sluiceway, along which the gondolas had once moved, was three feet deep and eight feet wide. A much narrower channel in the sluiceway floor contained the rusted chain-drive mechanism—a long series of blunt, curved, six-inch-high hooks that had pulled the boats forward by engaging the steel loops on the bottoms of their hulls. When the ride had been in operation, those hooks had been concealed by water, contributing to the illusion that the gondolas were actually adrift. Now, dwindling into the dreary realm ahead, they looked like a row of stubby spines on the back of an immense prehistoric reptile.


The world of the living, he thought, is always fraught with deception. Beneath the placid surface, ugly mechanisms grind away at secret tasks.


He walked deeper into the building. The gradual downward slope of the sluiceway was at first barely perceptible, but he was aware of it because he had passed that way many times before.


Above him, to either side of the channel, were concrete service walks, about four feet wide. Beyond them were the tunnel walls, which had been painted black to serve as a non-reflective backdrop for the moments of half-baked theater performed in front of them.


The walkways widened occasionally to form niches, in some places even whole rooms. When the ride had been in operation, the niches had been filled with tableaus meant to amuse or horrify or both: ghosts and goblins, ghouls and monsters, ax-wielding madmen standing over the prostrate bodies of their beheaded victims. In one of the room-sized areas, there had been an elaborate graveyard filled with stalking zombies; in another, a large and convincing flying saucer had disgorged blood-thirsty aliens with a shark's profusion of teeth in their huge heads. The robotic figures had moved, grimaced, reared up, and threatened all passersby with tape-recorded voices, eternally repeating the same brief programmed dramas with the same menacing words and snarls.


No, not eternally. They were gone now, carted away by the official salvagers, by agents of the creditors, or by scavengers.


Nothing was eternal.


Except death.


A hundred feet beyond the entrance doors, he reached the end of the first section of the chain-drive. The tunnel floor, which had been sloping imperceptibly, now tilted down sharply, at about a thirty-five-degree angle, falling away into flawless blackness. Here, the gondolas had slipped free of the blunt hooks in the channel floor and, with a stomach-wrenching lurch, sailed down a hundred-and-fifty-foot incline, knifing into the pool below with a colossal splash that drenched the passengers up front, much to the delight of those fortunate—or smart—enough to get a seat in the back.


Because he was not like ordinary men and possessed certain special powers, he could see part of the way down the incline, even in that utterly lightless environment, although his perception did not extend to the very bottom. His catlike night vision was limited: within a radius of ten or fifteen feet, he could see as clearly as if he stood in daylight; thereafter, objects grew blurry, steadily less distinct, shadowy, until darkness swallowed everything at a distance of perhaps forty or fifty feet.


Leaning backward to retain his balance on the steep slope, he headed down into the bowels of the abandoned funhouse. He was not afraid of what might wait below. Nothing could frighten him any more. After all, he was deadlier and more savage than anything with which this world could threaten him.


Before he descended half the distance to the lower chamber, he detected the odor of death. It rose to him on currents of cool dry air. The stench excited him. No perfume, regardless of how exquisite, even if applied to the tender throat of a lovely woman, could ever thrill him as profoundly as the singular, sweet fragrance of corrupted flesh.


5


Under the halogen lamps, the stainless-steel and white-enameled surfaces of the operating room were a little hard on the eyes, like the geometric configurations of an arctic landscape polished by the glare of a winter sun. The room seemed to have gotten chillier, as if the heat flowing into the dead man was pushing the cold out of him, thereby lowering the air temperature. Jonas Nyebern shivered.


Helga checked the digital thermometer that was patched to Harrison. “Body temperature's up to seventy degrees.”


“Seventy-two minutes,” Gina said.


“We're going for the brass ring now,” Ken said. “Medical history, the Guinness Book of World Records, TV appearances, books, movies, T-shirts with our faces on 'em, novelty hats, plastic lawn ornaments in our images.”


“Some dogs have been brought back after ninety minutes,” Kari reminded him.


“Yeah,” Ken said, “but they were dogs. Besides, they were so screwed up, they chased bones and buried cars.”


Gina and Kari laughed softly, and the joke seemed to break the tension for everyone except Jonas. He could never relax for a moment in the process of a resuscitation, although he knew that it was possible for a physician to get so tightly wound that he was no longer performing at his peak. Ken's ability to vent a little nervous energy was admirable, and in the service of the patient; however, Jonas was incapable of doing likewise in the midst of a battle.


“Seventy-two degrees, seventy-three.”


It was a battle. Death was the adversary: clever, mighty, and relentless. To Jonas, death was not just a pathological state, not merely the inevitable fate of all living things, but actually an entity that walked the world, perhaps not always the robed figure of myth with its skeletal face hidden in the shadows of a cowl, but a very real presence nonetheless, Death with a capital D.


“Seventy-four degrees,” Helga said.


Gina said, “Seventy-three minutes.”


Jonas introduced more free-radical scavengers into the blood that surged through the IV line.


He supposed that his belief in Death as a supernatural force with a will and consciousness of its own, his certainty that it sometimes walked the earth in an embodied form, his awareness of its presence right now in this room in a cloak of invisibility, would seem like silly superstition to his colleagues. It might even be regarded as a sign of mental imbalance or incipient madness. But Jonas was confident of his sanity. After all, his belief in Death was based on empirical evidence. He had seen the hated enemy when he was only seven years old, had heard it speak, had looked into its eyes and smelled its fetid breath and felt its icy touch upon his face.


“Seventy-five degrees.”


“Get ready,” Jonas said.


The patient's body temperature was nearing a threshold beyond which reanimation might begin at any moment. Kari finished filling a hypodermic syringe with epinephrine, and Ken activated the defibrillation machine to let it build up a charge. Gina opened the flow valve on a tank containing an oxygen-carbon dioxide mixture that had been formulated to the special considerations of resuscitation procedures, and picked up the mask of the pulmonary machine to make sure it was functioning.


“Seventy-six degrees,” Helga said, “seventy-seven.”


Gina checked her watch. “Coming up on … seventy-four minutes.”


6


At the bottom of the long incline, he entered a cavernous room as large as an airplane hangar. Hell had once been re-created there, according to the unimaginative vision of an amusement-park designer, complete with gas-jet fires lapping at formed-concrete rocks around the perimeter.


The gas had been turned off long ago. Hell was tar-black now. But not to him, of course.


He moved slowly across the concrete floor, which was bisected by a serpentine channel housing another chain-drive. There, the gondolas had moved through a lake of water made to look like a lake of fire by clever lighting and bubbling air hoses that simulated boiling oil. As he walked, he savored the stench of decay, which grew more exquisitely pungent by the second.


A dozen mechanical demons had once stood on higher formations, spreading immense bat wings, peering down with glowing eyes that periodically raked the passing gondolas with harmless crimson laser beams. Eleven of the demons had been hauled away, peddled to some competing park or sold for scrap. For unknown reasons, one devil remained—a silent and unmoving agglomeration of rusted metal, moth-eaten fabric, torn plastic, and grease-caked hydraulic mechanisms. It was still perched on a rocky spire two-thirds of the way toward the high ceiling, pathetic rather than frightening.


As he passed beneath that sorry funhouse figure, he thought, I am the only real demon this place has ever known or ever will, and that pleased him.


Months ago he stopped thinking of himself by his Christian name. He adopted the name of a fiend that he had read about in a book on Satanism. Vassago. One of the three most powerful demon princes of Hell, who answered only to His Satanic Majesty. Vassago. He liked the sound of it. When he said it aloud, the name rolled from his tongue so easily that it seemed as if he'd never answered to anything else.


“Vassago.”


In the heavy subterranean silence, it echoed back to him from the concrete rocks: “Vassago. ”


7


“Eighty degrees.”


“It should be happening,” Ken said. Surveying the monitors, Kari said, “Flat lines, just flat lines.”


Her long, swanlike neck was so slender that Jonas could see her pulse pounding rapidly in her carotid artery.


He looked down at the dead man's neck. No pulse there.


“Seventy-five minutes,” Gina announced.


“If he comes around, it's officially a record now,” Ken said. “We'll be obligated to celebrate, get drunk, puke on our shoes, and make fools of ourselves.”


“Eighty-one degrees.”


Jonas was so frustrated that he could not speak—for fear of uttering an obscenity or a low, savage snarl of anger. They had made all the right moves, but they were losing. He hated losing. He hated Death. He hated the limitations of modern medicine, all circumscriptions of human knowledge, and his own inadequacies.


“Eighty-two degrees.”


Suddenly the dead man gasped.


Jonas twitched and looked at the monitors.


The EKG showed spastic movement in the patient's heart.


“Here we go,” Kari said.


8


The robotic figures of the damned, more than a hundred in Hell's heyday, were gone with eleven of the twelve demons; gone, as well, were the wails of agony and the lamentations that had been broadcast through their speaker-grille mouths. The desolate chamber, however, was not without lost souls. But now it housed something more appropriate than robots, more like the real thing: Vassago's collection.


At the center of the room, Satan waited in all his majesty, fierce and colossal. A circular pit in the floor, sixteen to eighteen feet in diameter, housed a massive statue of the Prince of Darkness himself. He was not shown from the waist down; but from his navel to the tips of his segmented horns, he measured thirty feet. When the funhouse had been in operation, the monstrous sculpture waited in a thirty-five-foot pit, hidden beneath the lake, then periodically surged up out of its lair, water cascading from it, huge eyes afire, monstrous jaws working, sharp teeth gnashing, forked tongue flickering, thundering a warning—“Abandon hope all ye who enter here!”—and then laughing malevolently.


Vassago had ridden the gondolas several times as a boy, when he had been one of the wholly alive, before he had become a citizen of the borderland, and in those days he had been spooked by the handcrafted devil, affected especially by its hideous laugh. If the machinery had overcome years of corrosion and suddenly brought the cackling monster to life again, Vassago would not have been impressed, for he was now old enough and sufficiently experienced to know that Satan was incapable of laughter.


He halted near the base of the towering Lucifer and studied it with a mixture of scorn and admiration. It was corny, yes, a funhouse fake meant to test the bladders of small children and give teenage girls a reason to squeal and cuddle for protection in the arms of their smirking boyfriends. But he had to admit that it was also an inspired creation, because the designer had not opted for the traditional image of Satan as a lean-faced, sharp-nosed, thin-lipped Lothario of troubled souls, hair slicked back from a widow's peak, goatee sprouting absurdly from a pointed chin. Instead, this was a Beast worthy of the title: part reptile, part insect, part humanoid, repulsive enough to command respect, just familiar enough to seem real, alien enough to be awesome. Several years of dust, moisture, and mold had contributed a patina that softened the garish carnival colors and lent it the authority of one of those gigantic stone statues of Egyptian gods found in ancient sand-covered temples, far beneath the desert dunes.


Although he didn't know what Lucifer actually looked like, and though he assumed that the Father of Lies would be far more heart-chilling and formidable than this funhouse version, Vassago found the plastic and polyfoam behemoth sufficiently impressive to make it the center of the secret existence that he led within his hideaway. At the base of it, on the dry concrete floor of the drained lake, he had arranged his collection partly for his own pleasure and amusement but also as an offering to the god of terror and pain.


The na*ed and decaying bodies of seven women and three men were displayed to their best advantage, as if they were ten exquisite sculptures by some perverse Michelangelo in a museum of death.


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