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9


A single shallow gasp, one brief spasm of the heart muscles, and an involuntary nerve reaction that made his right arm twitch and his fingers open and close like the curling legs of a dying spider—those were the only signs of life the patient exhibited before settling once more into the still and silent posture of the dead.


“Eighty-three degrees,” Helga said.


Ken Nakamura wondered: “Defibrillation?”


Jonas shook his head. “His heart's not in fibrillation. It's not beating at all. Just wait.”


Kari was holding a syringe. “More epinephrine?”


Jonas stared intently at the monitors. “Wait. We don't want to bring him back only to overmedicate him and precipitate a heart attack.”


“Seventy-six minutes,” Gina said, her voice as youthful and breathless and perkily excited as if she were announcing the score in a game of beach volleyball.


“Eighty-four degrees.”


Harrison gasped again. His heart stuttered, sending a series of spikes across the screen of the electrocardiograph. His whole body shuddered. Then he went flatline again.


Grabbing the handles on the positive and negative pads of the defibrillation machine, Ken looked expectantly at Jonas.


“Eighty-five degrees,” Helga announced. “He's in the right thermal territory, and he wants to come back.”


Jonas felt a bead of sweat trickle with centipede swiftness down his right temple and along his jaw line. The hardest part was waiting, giving the patient a chance to kick-start himself before risking more punishing techniques of forced reanimation.


A third spasm of heart activity registered as a shorter burst of spikes than the previous one, and it was not accompanied by a pulmonary response as before. No muscle contractions were visible, either. Harrison lay slack and cold.


“He's not able to make the leap,” Kari Dovell said.


Ken agreed. “We're gonna lose him.”


“Seventy-seven minutes,” Gina said.


Not four days in the tomb, like Lazarus, before Jesus had called him forth, Jonas thought, but a long time dead nevertheless.


“Epinephrine,” Jonas said.


Kari handed the hypodermic syringe to Jonas, and he quickly administered the dosage through one of the same IV ports that he had used earlier to inject free-radical scavengers into the patient's blood.


Ken lifted the negative and positive pads of the defibrillation machine, and positioned himself over the patient, ready to give him a jolt if it came to that.


Then the massive charge of epinephrine, a powerful hormone extracted from the adrenal glands of sheep and cattle and referred to by some resuscitation specialists as “reanimator juice,” hit Harrison as hard as any electrical shock that Ken Nakamura was prepared to give him. The stale breath of the grave exploded from him, he gasped air as if he were still drowning in that icy river, he shuddered violently, and his heart began to beat like that of a rabbit with a fox close on its tail.


10


Vassago had arranged each piece in his macabre collection with more than casual contemplation. They were not simply ten corpses dumped unceremoniously on the concrete. He not only respected death but loved it with an ardor akin to Beethoven's passion for music or Rembrandt's fervent devotion to art. Death, after all, was the gift that Satan had brought to the inhabitants of the Garden, a gift disguised as something prettier; he was the Giver of Death, and his was the kingdom of death everlasting.


Any flesh that death had touched was to be regarded with all the reverence that a devout Catholic might reserve for the Eucharist. Just as their god was said to live within that thin wafer of unleavened bread, so the face of Vassago's unforgiving god could be seen everywhere in the patterns of decay and dissolution.


The first body at the base of the thirty-foot Satan was that of Jenny Purcell, a twenty-two-year-old waitress who had worked the evening shift in a re-creation of a 1950s diner, where the jukebox played Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, Lloyd Price and the Platters, Buddy Holly and Connie Francis and the Everly Brothers. When Vassago had gone in for a burger and a beer, Jenny thought he looked cool in his black clothes, wearing sunglasses indoors at night and making no move to take them off. With his baby-faced good looks given interest by a contrastingly firm set to his jaw and a slight cruel twist to his mouth, and with thick black hair falling across his forehead, he looked a little like a young Elvis. What's your name, she asked, and he said, Vassago, and she said, What's your first name, so he said, That's it, the whole thing, first and last, which must have intrigued her, got her imagination going, because she said, What, you mean like Cher only has one name or Madonna or Sting? He stared hard at her from behind his heavily tinted sunglasses and said, Yeah—you have a problem with that? She didn't have a problem. In fact she was attracted to him. She said he was “different,” but only later did she discover just how different he really was.


Everything about Jenny marked her as a slut in his eyes, so after killing her with an eight-inch stiletto that he drove under her rib cage and into her heart, he arranged her in a posture suitable for a sexually profligate woman. Once he had stripped her naked, he braced her in a sitting position with her thighs spread wide and knees drawn up. He bound her slender wrists to her shins to keep her upright. Then he used strong lengths of cord to pull her head forward and down farther than she could have managed to do while alive, brutally compressing her midriff; he anchored the cords around her thighs, so she was left eternally looking up the cleft between her legs, contemplating her sins.


Jenny had been the first piece in his collection. Dead for about nine months, trussed up like a ham in a curing barn, she was withered now, a mummified husk, no longer of interest to worms or other agents of decomposition. She did not stink as she had once stunk.


Indeed, in her peculiar posture, having contracted into a ball as she had decayed and dried out, she resembled a human being so little that it was difficult to think of her as ever having been a living person, therefore equally difficult to think of her as a dead person. Consequently, death seemed no longer to reside in her remains. To Vassago, she had ceased to be a corpse and had become merely a curious object, an impersonal thing that might always have been inanimate. As a result, although she was the start of his collection, she was now of minimal interest to him.


He was fascinated solely with death and the dead. The living were of interest to him only insofar as they carried the ripe promise of death within them.


11


The patient's heart oscillated between mild and severe tachycardia, from a hundred and twenty to over two hundred and thirty beats per minute, a transient condition resulting from the epinephrine and hypothermia. Except it wasn't acting like a transient condition. Each time the pulse rate declined, it did not subside as far as it had previously, and with each new acceleration, the EKG showed escalating arrhythmia that could lead only to cardiac arrest.


No longer sweating, calmer now that the decision to fight Death had been made and was being acted upon, Jonas said, “Better hit him with it.”


No one doubted to whom he was speaking, and Ken Nakamura pressed the cold pads of the defibrillation machine to Harrison's chest, bracketing his heart. The electrical discharge caused the patient to bounce violently against the table, and a sound like an iron mallet striking a leather sofa—wham!—slammed through the room.


Jonas looked at the electrocardiograph just as Kari read the meaning of the spikes of light moving across the display: “Still two hundred a minute but the rhythm's there now … steady … steady.”


Similarly, the electroencephalograph showed alpha and beta brain waves within normal parameters for an unconscious man.


“There's self-sustained pulmonary activity,” Ken said.


“Okay,” Jonas decided, “let's respirate him and make sure he's getting enough oxygen in those brain cells.”


Gina immediately put the oxygen mask on Harrison's face.


“Body temperature's at ninety degrees,” Helga reported.


The patient's lips were still somewhat blue, but that same deathly hue had faded from under his fingernails.


Likewise, his muscle tone was partially restored. His flesh no longer had the flaccidity of the dead. As feeling returned to Harrison's deep-chilled extremities, his punished nerve endings excited a host of tics and twitches.


His eyes rolled and jiggled under his closed lids, a sure sign of REM sleep. He was dreaming.


“One hundred and twenty beats a minute,” Kari said, “and declining … completely rhythmic now … very steady.”


Gina consulted her watch and let her breath out in a whoosh of amazement. “Eighty minutes.”


“Sonofabitch,” Ken said wonderingly, “that beats the record by ten.”


Jonas hesitated only a brief moment before checking the wall clock and making the formal announcement for the benefit of the tape recorder: “Patient successfully resuscitated as of nine-thirty-two Monday evening, March fourth.”


A murmur of mutual congratulations accompanied by smiles of relief was as close as they would get to a triumphant cheer of the sort that might have been heard on a real battleground. They were not restrained by modesty but by a keen awareness of Harrison's tenuous condition. They had won the battle with Death, but their patient had not yet regained consciousness. Until he was awake and his mental performance could be tested and evaluated, there was a chance that he had been reanimated only to live out a life of anguish and frustration, his potential tragically circumscribed by irreparable brain damage.


12


Enraptured by the spicy perfume of death, at home in the subterranean bleakness, Vassago walked admiringly past his collection. It encircled one-third of the colossal Lucifer.


Of the male specimens, one had been taken while changing a flat tire on a lonely section of the Ortega Highway at night. Another had been asleep in his car in a public-beach parking lot. The third had tried to pick up Vassago at a bar in Dana Point. The dive hadn't even been a g*y hangout; the guy had just been drunk, desperate, lonely—and careless.


Nothing enraged Vassago more than the sexual needs and excitement of others. He had no interest in sex any more, and he never raped any of the women he killed. But his disgust and anger, engendered by the mere perception of sexuality in others, were not a result of jealousy, and did not spring from any sense that his impotency was a curse or even an unfair burden. No, he was glad to be free of lust and longing. Since becoming a citizen of the borderland and accepting the promise of the grave, he did not regret the loss of desire. Though he was not entirely sure why the very thought of sex could sometimes throw him into a rage, why a flirtatious wink or a short skirt or a sweater stretched across a full bosom could incite him to torture and homicide, he suspected that it was because sex and life were inextricably entwined. Next to self-preservation, the sex drive was, they said, the most powerful human motivator. Through sex, life was created. Because he hated life in all its gaudy variety, hated it with such intensity, it was only natural that he would hate sex as well.


He preferred to kill women because society encouraged them, more than men, to flaunt their sexuality, which they did with the assistance of makeup, lipstick, alluring scents, revealing clothes, and coquettish behavior. Besides, from a woman's womb came new life, and Vassago was sworn to destroy life wherever he could. From women came the very thing he loathed in himself: the spark of life that still sputtered in him and prevented him from moving on to the land of the dead, where he belonged.


Of the remaining six female specimens in his collection, two had been housewives, one a young attorney, one a medical secretary, and two college students. Though he had arranged each corpse in a manner fitting the personality, spirit, and weaknesses of the person who had once inhabited it, and though he had considerable talent for cadaver art, making especially clever use of a variety of props, he was far more pleased by the effect he had achieved with one of the students than with all of the others combined.


He stopped walking when he reached her.


He regarded her in the darkness, pleased by his work.…


Margaret …


He first saw her during one of his restless late-night rambles, in a dimly lighted bar near the university campus, where she was sipping diet cola, either because she was not old enough to be served beer along with her friends or because she was not a drinker. He suspected the latter.


She looked singularly wholesome and uncomfortable in the smoke and din of the tavern. Even from halfway across the room, judging by her reactions to her friends and her body language, Vassago could see that she was a shy girl struggling hard to fit in with the crowd, even though in her heart she knew that she would never entirely belong. The roar of liquor-amplified conversation, the clink and clatter of glasses, the thunderous jukebox music of Madonna and Michael Jackson and Michael Bolton, the stink of cigarettes and stale beer, the moist heat of college boys on the make—none of that touched her. She sat in the bar but existed apart from it, unstained by it, filled with more secret energy than that entire roomful of young men and women combined.


She was so vital, she seemed to glow. Vassago found it hard to believe that the ordinary, sluggish blood of humanity moved through her veins. Surely, instead, her heart pumped the distilled essence of life itself.


Her vitality drew him. It would be enormously satisfying to snuff such a brightly burning flame of life.


To learn where she lived, he followed her home from the bar. For the next two days, he stalked the campus, gathering information about her as diligently as a real student might have researched a term paper.


Her name was Margaret Ann Campion. She was a senior, twenty years old, majoring in music. She could play the piano, flute, clarinet, guitar, and almost any other instrument she took a fancy to learn. Perhaps the best-known and most-admired student in the music program, she was also widely considered to possess an exceptional talent for composition. An essentially shy person, she made a point of forcing herself out of her shell, so music was not her only interest. She was on the track team, the second-fastest woman in their lineup, a spirited competitor; she wrote about music and movies for the student paper; and she was active in the Baptist church.


Her astonishing vitality was evident not merely in the joy with which she wrote and played music, not just in the almost spiritual aura that Vassago had seen in the bar, but also in her physical appearance. She was incomparably beautiful, with the body of a silver-screen sex goddess and the face of a saint. Clear skin. Perfect cheekbones. Full lips, a generous mouth, a beatific smile. Limpid blue eyes. She dressed modestly in an attempt to conceal the sweet fullness of her breasts, the contrasting narrowness of her waist, the firmness of her buttocks, and the long supple lines of her legs. But he was certain that when he stripped her, she would be revealed for what he had known her to be when he had first glimpsed her: a prodigious breeder, a hot furnace of life in which eventually other life of unparalleled brightness would be conceived and shaped.

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