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Black House Chapter Twenty-eight

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28

BUT AT FIRST there is nothing.

The four of them get out and stand in front of Dale’s cruiser, looking for all the world like men posing for the kind of group photo that will eventually show up on someone’s den wall. Only the photographer would be on Black House’s porch ?? that’s the way they’re facing ?? and the porch is empty except for the second NO TRESPASSING sign, which leans against a peeling newel post.

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Someone has drawn a skull on it with a Magic Marker or grease pencil. Burny? Some intrepid teenager who came all the way up to the house on a dare? Dale did some crazy things when he was seventeen, risked his life with a spray-paint can more than once, but he still finds that hard to believe.

The air is sullen and silent, as if before a thunderstorm. It stinks, too, but the honey seems to filter the worst of that out. In the woods, something makes a thick sound Dale has never heard before. Groo-oooo.

“What’s that?” he asks Jack.

“I don’t know,” Jack replies.

Doc says, “I’ve heard bull gators. That’s what they sound like when they’re feeling horny.”

“This isn’t the Everglades,” Dale says.

Doc gives him a thin smile. “It ain’t Wisconsin anymore, either, Toto. Or maybe you didn’t notice.”

Dale has noticed plenty. There’s the way the house won’t hold its shape, for one thing ?? the way it sometimes seems enormous, as if it is many houses somehow all overlaid. A city perhaps the size of London folded under a single weird roof. And then there are the trees. There are old oaks and pines, there are birches like skinny ghosts, there are red maples ?? all of them indigenous to the area ?? but he also sees twisted, rooty growths that look like mutated banyan trees. And are these moving? Christ, Dale hopes not. But whether they are or not, they’re whispering. He’s almost sure of that. He can hear their words slithering through the buzzing in his head, and they’re not encouraging words, not by a longshot.

Killyew . . . eatchew . . . hatechew . . .

“Where’s the dog?” Beezer asks. He’s holding his 9mm in one hand. “Here, doggy! Got something yummy for you! Hurry and get it!”

Instead, that guttural growl drifts out of the woods again, this time closer: GROO-OOOOO! And the trees whisper. Dale looks up at the house, watches it suddenly stack floors into a sky that has gone white and cold, and vertigo rolls through his head like a wave of warm grease. He has a faint sensation of Jack grabbing his elbow to steady him. A little help there, but not enough; French Landing’s chief of police twists to the left and vomits.

“Good,” Jack says. “Get it out. Get rid of it. What about you, Doc? Beez?”

The Thunder Two tell him they’re okay. For now it’s true, but Beezer doesn’t know how long equilibrium is going to last. His stomach is churning, low and slow. Well, so what if I blow my groceries in there? he thinks. According to Jack, Burnside’s dead, he won’t mind.

Jack leads them up the porch steps, pausing to boot the rusted NO TRESPASSING sign with its death’s-head graffiti over the side and into a clutch of weeds that close over it at once, like a greedy hand. Dale is reminded of how Jack spit on the crow. His friend seems different now, younger and stronger. “But we are going to trespass,” Jack says. “We’re going to trespass our asses off.”

At first, however, it seems they will not. The front door of Black House isn’t just locked. There’s no crack at all between the door and the jamb. In fact, once they’re close up, the door looks painted on, a trompe l’oeil.

Behind them, in the woods, something screams. Dale jumps. The scream rises to an excruciating high note, breaks into a peal of maniacal laughter, and is suddenly gone.

“Natives are fuckin’ restless,” Doc comments.

“Want to try a window?” Beezer asks Jack.

“Nope. We’re going in the front way.”

Jack has been raising the Richie Sexson bat as he speaks. Now he lowers it, looking puzzled. There is a droning sound from behind them, quickly growing louder. And the daylight, thin already in this strange forest dell, seems to be weakening even further.

“What now?” Beezer asks, turning back toward the drive and the parked cruiser. He’s holding the 9mm up by his right ear. “What the ?? ” And then he falls silent. The gun sags outward and downward. His mouth drops open.

“Holy shit,” Doc says quietly.

Dale, even more quietly: “Is this your doing, Jack? If it is, you really have been hiding your light under a bushel.”

The light has dimmed because the clearing in front of Black House has now acquired a canopy of bees. More are streaming in from the lane, a brownish-gold comet tail. They give off a sleepy, benevolent droning sound that drowns out the harsh fire-alarm buzz of the house entirely. The hoarse gator thing in the woods falls silent, and the flickering shapes in the trees disappear.

Jack’s mind is suddenly filled with thoughts and images of his mother: Lily dancing, Lily pacing around behind one of the cameras before a big scene with a cigarette clamped between her teeth, Lily sitting at the living-room window and looking out as Patsy Cline sings “Crazy Arms.”

In another world, of course, she’d been another kind of queen, and what is a queen without a loyal retinue?

Jack Sawyer looks at the vast cloud of bees ?? millions of them, perhaps billions; every hive in the Midwest must be empty this afternoon ?? and he smiles. This changes the shape of his eyes and the tears that have been growing there spill down his cheeks. Hello, he thinks. Hello there, boys.

The low pleasant hum of the bees seems to change slightly, as if in answer. Perhaps it’s only his imagination.

“What are they for, Jack?” Beezer asks. His voice is resonant with awe.

“I don’t exactly know,” Jack says. He turns back to the door, raises the bat, and knocks it once, hard, against the wood. “Open!” he cries. “I demand it in the name of Queen Laura DeLoessian! And in the name of my mother!”

There is a high-pitched crack, so loud and piercing that Dale and Beez both draw back, wincing. Beezer actually covers his ears. A gap appears at the top of the door and races along it left to right. At the door’s upper right corner, the gap pivots and plunges straight down, creating a crack through which a musty draft blows. Jack catches a whiff of something both sour and familiar: the deathsmell they first encountered at Ed’s Eats.

Jack reaches for the knob and tries it. It turns freely in his hand. He opens the way to Black House.

But before he can invite them in, Doc Amberson begins to scream.

Someone ?? maybe it’s Ebbie, maybe T.J., maybe goofy old Ronnie Metzger ?? is yanking Ty’s arm. It hurts like a son of a gun, but that’s not the worst. The arm yanker is also making this weird humming noise that seems to vibrate deep inside his head. There’s a clanking noise as well

(the Big Combination, that’s the Big Combination)

but that humming . . . ! Man, that humming hurts.

“Quit it,” Ty mumbles. “Quit it, Ebbie or I’ll ?? “

Faint screams seep through that electric buzzing sound, and Ty Marshall opens his eyes. There’s no merciful period of grace when he’s unsure about where he is or what’s happened to him. It all comes back with the force of some terrible picture ?? a car accident with dead people lying around, say ?? that is shoved into your face before you can look away.

He’d held on until the old man was dead; had obeyed the voice of his mother and kept his head. But once he started shouting for help, panic had come back and swallowed him. Or maybe it was shock. Or both. In any case, he’d passed out while still screaming for help. How long has he hung here by his shackled left arm, unconscious? It’s impossible to tell from the light spilling through the shed door; that seems unchanged. So do the various clankings and groanings of the huge machine, and Ty understands that it goes on forever, along with the screams of the children and the crack of the whips as the unspeakable guards press the work ever onward. The Big Combination never shuts down. It runs on blood and terror and never takes a day off.

But that buzzing ?? that juicy electric buzzing, like the world’s biggest Norelco razor ?? what the hell is that?

Mr. Munshun’s gone to get the mono. Burny’s voice in his head. A vile whisper. The End-World mono.

A terrible dismay steals into Ty’s heart. He has no doubt at all that what he hears is that very monorail, even now pulling under the canopy at the end of Station House Road. Mr. Munshun will look for his boy, his sbecial bouy, and when he doesn’t see him (nor Burn-Burn, either), will he come searching?

“Course he will,” Ty croaks. “Oh boy. Suck an elf.”

He looks up at his left hand. It would be so easy to yank it back through the oversized shackle if not for the handcuff. He yanks downward several times anyway, but the cuff only clashes against the shackle. The other cuff, the one Burny was reaching for when Ty grabbed his balls, dangles and twitches, making the boy think of the gibbet at this end of Station House Road.

That eye-watering, tooth-rattling buzz suddenly cuts out.

He’s shut it down. Now he’s looking for me in the station, making sure I’m not there. And when he is sure, what then? Does he know about this place? Sure he does.

Ty’s dismay is turning into an icy chill of horror. Burny would deny it. Burny would say that the shack down here in this dry wash was his secret, a place special to him. In his lunatic arrogance, it would never have occurred to him how well that mistaken idea might serve his supposed friend’s purpose.

His mother speaks in Ty’s head again, and this time he’s reasonably sure it really is his mother. You can’t depend on anyone else. They might come in time, but they might not. You have to assume they won’t. You have to get out of this yourself.

But how?

Ty looks at the twisted body of the old man, lying on the bloody dirt with his head almost out the door. The thought of Mr. Munshun tries to intrude, Burny’s friend hurrying down Station House Road even now (or maybe driving in his own E-Z-Go golf cart), wanting to scoop him up and take him to the abbalah. Tyler pushes the image away. It will lead him back to panic, and he can’t afford any more of that. He’s all out of time.

“I can’t reach him,” Ty says. “If the key’s in his pocket, I’m finished. Case closed, game over, zip up your f ?? “

His eye happens on something lying on the floor. It’s the sack the old man was carrying. The one with the cap in it. And the handcuffs.

If the handcuffs were in it, maybe the key’s in there, too.

Ty reaches forward with his left foot, stretching as far as he can. It’s no good. He can’t quite reach the bag. He’s at least four inches short. Four inches short and Mr. Munshun is coming, coming.

Ty can almost smell him.

Doc shrieks and shrieks, distantly aware that the others are shouting at him to stop, it’s all right, there’s nothing to be afraid of, distantly aware that he is hurting his throat, probably making it bleed. Those things don’t matter. What matters is that when Hollywood swung open the front door of Black House, he exposed the official greeter.

The official greeter is Daisy Temperly, Doc’s brown-eyed girl. She’s wearing a pretty pink dress. Her skin is pale as paper, except on the right side of her forehead, where a flap of skin falls down, exposing the red skull beneath.

“Come in, Doc,” Daisy says. “We can talk about how you killed me. And you can sing. You can sing to me.” She smiles. The smile becomes a grin. The grin exposes a mouthful of bulging vampire teeth. “You can sing to me forever.”

Doc takes a blunder-step backward, turns to flee, and that is when Jack grabs him and shakes him. Doc Amberson is a hefty fellow ?? two-sixty out of the shower, more like two-eighty when dressed in full Road Warrior regalia as he is now ?? but Jack shakes him easily, snapping the big man’s head back and forth. Doc’s long hair flops and flies.

“They’re all illusions,” Jack says. “Picture-shows designed to keep out unwanted guests like us. I don’t know what you saw, Doc, but it’s not there.”

Doc looks cautiously past Jack’s shoulder. For a moment he sees a pink, diminishing whirl ?? it’s like the coming of the devil dog, only backward ?? and then it’s gone. He looks up at Jack. Tears are rolling slowly down his sunburned face.

“I didn’t mean to kill her,” he says. “I loved her. But I was tired that night. Very tired. Do you know about being tired, Hollywood?”

“Yes,” Jack says. “And if we get out of this, I intend to sleep for a week. But for now . . .” He looks from Doc to Beezer. From Beezer to Dale. “We’re going to see more stuff. The house will use your worst memories against you: the things you did wrong, the people you hurt. But on the whole, I’m encouraged. I think a lot of the poison went out of this place when Burny died. All we have to do is find our way through to the other side.”

“Jack,” Dale says. He is standing in the doorway, in the very spot where Daisy greeted her old physician. His eyes are very large.

“What?”

“Finding our way through . . . that might be easier said than done.” They gather around him. Beyond the door is a gigantic circular foyer, a place so big it makes Jack think fleetingly of St. Peter’s Basilica. On the floor is an acre of poison-green carpet entwined with scenes of torture and blasphemy. Doors open off this room everywhere. In addition, Jack counts four sets of crisscrossing stairways. He blinks and there are six. Blinks again and there are a dozen, as bewildering to the eye as an Escher drawing.

He can hear the deep idiot drone that is the voice of Black House. He can hear something else, as well: laughter.

Come in, Black House is telling them. Come in and wander these rooms forever.

Jack blinks and sees a thousand stairways, some moving, bulging in and out. Doors stand open on galleries of paintings, galleries of sculpture, on whirling vortexes, on emptiness.

“What do we do now?” Dale asks bleakly. “What the hell do we do now?”

Ty has never seen Burny’s friend, but as he hangs from the shackle, he finds he can imagine him quite easily. In this world, Mr. Munshun is a real creature . . . but not a human being. Ty sees a shuffling, busy figure in a black suit and a flowing red tie bustling down Station House Road. This creature has a vast white face dominated by a red mouth and a single blurry eye. The abbalah’s emissary and chief deputy looks, in the gaze of Ty’s imagination, like Humpty-Dumpty gone bad. It wears a vest buttoned with bones.

Got to get out of here. Got to get that bag . . . but how?

He looks at Burny again. At the hideous tangle of Burny’s spilled guts. And suddenly the answer comes. He stretches his foot out again, but this time not toward the bag. He hooks the toe of his sneaker under a dirt-smeared loop of Burny’s intestines, instead. He lifts it, pivots, and then kicks softly. The loop of gut leaves the toe of his sneaker.

And loops over the leather bag.

So far, so good. Now if he can only drag it close enough to get his foot on it.

Trying not to think of the stocky, hurrying figure with the grotesquely long face, Ty gropes out with his foot again. He gets it under the dirty snarl of intestine and begins to pull, slowly and with infinite care.

“It’s impossible,” Beezer says flatly. “Nothing can be this big. You know that, don’t you?”

Jack takes a deep breath, lets it out, takes another, and speaks a single word in a low, firm voice.

“Dee-yamber?” Beez asks suspiciously. “What the hell’s dee-yamber?”

Jack doesn’t bother answering. From the vast dark cloud of droning bees hanging over the clearing (Dale’s cruiser is now nothing but a furry black-gold lump in front of the porch), a single bee emerges. It ?? she, for this is undoubtedly a queen bee ?? flies between Dale and Doc, pauses for a moment in front of Beezer, as if considering him (or considering the honey with which he has generously lathered himself ), and then hovers in front of Jack. She is plump and aerodynamically unsound and ludicrous and somehow absolutely wonderful. Jack lifts a finger like a professor about to make a point or a bandleader about to deliver the downbeat. The bee lights on the end of it.

“Are you from her?” He asks this question in a low voice ?? too low for the others to hear, even Beezer, who is standing right next to him. Jack isn’t quite sure who he means. His mother? Laura DeLoessian? Judy? Sophie? Or is there some other She, a counterbalancing force to the Crimson King? This somehow feels right, but he supposes he’ll never know for sure.

In any case, the bee only looks at him with her wide black eyes, wings blurring. And Jack realizes that these are questions to which he needs no answer. He has been a sleepyhead, but now he’s up, he’s out of bed. This house is huge and deep, a place stacked with vileness and layered with secrets, but what of that? He has Ty’s prize bat, he has friends, he has d’yamba, and here is the Queen of the Bees. Those things are enough. He’s good to go. Better ?? perhaps best of all ?? he’s glad to go.

Jack raises the tip of his finger to his mouth and blows the bee gently into Black House’s foyer. She circles aimlessly for a moment, and then zips off to the left and through a door with an oddly bloated, obese shape.

“Come on,” Jack says. “We’re in business.”

The other three exchange uneasy glances, then follow him into what has clearly been their destiny all along.

It is impossible to say how long the Sawyer Gang spends in Black House, that hole which spewed the slippery stuff into French Landing and the surrounding towns. It is likewise impossible to say with any clarity what they see there. In a very real sense, touring Black House is like touring the brain of a deranged madman, and in such a mental framework we can expect to find no plan for the future or memory of the past. In the brain of a madman only the fuming present exists, with its endless shouting urges, paranoid speculations, and grandiose assumptions. So it is not surprising that the things they see in Black House should fade from their minds almost as soon as they are gone from their eyes, leaving behind only vague whispers of unease that might be the distant cry of the opopanax. This amnesia is merciful.

The queen bee leads them, and the other bees follow in a swarm that discolors the air with its vastness and shivers through rooms that have been silent for centuries (for surely we understand ?? intuitively if not logically ?? that Black House existed long before Burny built its most recent node in French Landing). At one point the quartet descends a staircase of green glass. In the abyss below the steps, they see circling birds like vultures with the white, screaming faces of lost babies. In a long, narrow room like a Pullman car, living cartoons ?? two rabbits, a fox, and a stoned-looking frog wearing white gloves ?? sit around a table catching and eating what appear to be fleas. They are cartoons, 1940s-era black-and-white cartoons, and it hurts Jack’s eyes to look at them because they are also real. The rabbit tips him a knowing wink as the Sawyer Gang goes by, and in the eye that doesn’t close Jack sees flat murder. There is an empty salon filled with voices shouting in some foreign language that sounds like French but isn’t. There is a room filled with vomitous green jungle and lit by a sizzling tropical sun. Hanging from one of the trees is a vast cocoon that appears to hold a baby dragon still wrapped in its own wings. “That can’t be a dragon,” Doc Amberson says in a weirdly reasonable voice. “They either come from eggs or the teeth of other dragons. Maybe both.” They walk down a long corridor that slowly rounds itself off, becomes a tunnel, and then drops them down a long and greasy slide as crazy percussion beats from unseen speakers. To Jack it sounds like Cozy Cole, or maybe Gene Krupa. The sides fall away, and for a moment they are sliding over a chasm that literally seems to have no bottom. “Steer with your hands and feet!” Beezer shouts. “If you don’t want to go over the side, STEER!” They are finally spilled off in what Dale calls the Dirt Room. They struggle over vast piles of filth-smelling earth under a rusty tin ceiling festooned with bare light bulbs. Platoons of tiny greenish-white spiders school back and forth like fish. By the time they reach the far side, they’re all panting and out of breath, their shoes muddy, their clothes filthy. There are three doors here. Their leader is buzzing and doing Immelmann turns in front of the one in the middle. “No way,” Dale says. “I want to trade for what’s behind the curtain.”

Jack tells him he’s got a future in stand-up comedy, no doubt about it, and then opens the door the bee has chosen for them. Behind it is a huge automated laundry, which Beezer immediately dubs the Hall of Cleanliness. Bunched together, they follow the bee down a humid corridor lined with sudsing washers and humming, shuddering dryers. The air smells like baked bread. The washers ?? each with a single glaring portholed eye ?? are stacked up to a height of fifty feet or more. Above them, in an ocean of dusty air, pigeons flock in restless currents. Every now and then they pass piles of bones, or some other sign that human beings came (or were brought) this way. In a hallway they find a scooter overgrown with cobwebs. Farther on, a pair of girl’s in-line skates, thick with dust. In a vast library room, the word LAUGH has been formed with human bones on a mahogany table. In a richly appointed (if obviously neglected) parlor through which the bee leads them in a no-nonsense straight line, Dale and Doc observe that the art on one wall appears to consist of human faces that have been cut off, cured, and then stretched on squares of wood. Huge bewildered eyes have been painted into the empty sockets. Dale thinks he recognizes at least one of the faces: Mil-ton Wanderly, a schoolteacher who dropped out of sight three or four years back. Everyone had assumed that Don Wanderly’s kid brother had simply left town. Well, Dale thinks, he left, all right. Halfway down a stone-throated corridor lined with cells, the bee darts into a squalid little chamber and circles above a ragged futon. At first none of them speak. They don’t need to. Ty was here, and not that long ago. They can almost smell him ?? his fear. Then Beezer turns to Jack. The blue eyes above the lush red-brown beard are narrowed in fury.

“The old bastard burned him with something. Or zapped him.”

Jack nods. He can smell that, too, although whether he does so with his nose or his mind he neither knows nor cares. “Burnside won’t be zapping anyone else,” he says.

The queen bee zips between them and whirls impatiently in the corridor. To the left, back the way they came, the corridor is black with bees. They turn to the right instead, and soon the bee is leading them down another seemingly endless stairway. At one point they walk through a brief, drippy drizzle ?? somewhere above this part of the stairs, a pipe in Black House’s unimaginable guts has perhaps let go. Half a dozen of the risers are wet, and they all see tracks there. They’re too blurry to do a forensics team much good (both Jack and Dale have the same thought), but the Sawyer Gang is encouraged: there’s a big set and a little set, and both sets are relatively fresh. Now they are getting somewhere, by God! They begin to move faster, and behind them the bees descend in a vast humming cloud, like some plague out of the Old Testament.

Time may have ceased to exist for the Sawyer Gang, but for Ty Marshall it has become an agonizing presence. He can’t be sure if his sense of Mr. Munshun’s approach is imagination or precognition, but he’s terribly afraid it’s the latter. He has to get out of this shed, has to, but the damned bag keeps eluding him. He managed to pull it close to him with the loop of intestines; ironically, that was the easy part. The hard part is actually getting hold of the damned thing.

He can’t reach it; no matter how he stretches or how cruelly he tests his left shoulder and shackled left wrist, he comes up at least two feet short. Tears of pain roll down his cheeks. Any moisture lost that way is quickly replaced by the sweat that runs stinging into his eyes from his greasy forehead.

“Foot it,” he says. “Just like soccer.” He looks at the disfigured sprawl in the doorway ?? his erstwhile tormentor. “Just like soccer, right, Burn-Burn?”

He gets the side of his foot against the bag, pushes it to the wall, and then begins to slide it up the bloodstained wood. At the same time he reaches down . . . now fourteen inches . . . now only a foot . . . reaching . . .

. . . and the leather bag tumbles off the toe of his sneaker and onto the dirt. Plop.

“You’re watching out for him, aren’t you, Burny?” Ty pants. “You have to, you know, my back’s turned. You’re the lookout, right? You’re ?? Fuck!” This time the bag has tumbled off his foot before he can even begin to raise it. Ty slams his free hand against the wall.

Why do you do that? a voice inquires coolly. This is the one who sounds like his mother but isn’t his mother, not quite. Will that help you?

“No,” Ty says resentfully, “but it makes me feel better.”

Getting free will make you feel better. Now try again.

Ty once more rolls the leather bag against the wall. He presses his foot against it, feeling for anything else that might be inside ?? a key, for instance ?? but he can’t tell. Not through his sneaker. He begins to slide the bag up the wall again. Carefully . . . not too fast . . . like footing the ball toward the goal . . .

“Don’t let him in, Burny,” he pants to the dead man behind him. “You owe me that. I don’t want to go on the mono. I don’t want to go to End-World. And I don’t want to be a Breaker. Whatever it is, I don’t want to be it. I want to be an explorer . . . maybe underwater, like Jacques Cousteau . . . or a flier in the Air Force . . . or maybe . . . FUCK!” This time it’s not irritation when the bag falls off his foot but rage and near panic.

Mr. Munshun, hustling and bustling. Getting closer. Meaning to take him away. Din-tah. Abbalah-doon. For ever and ever.

“Damn old key’s probably not in there, anyway.” His voice wavering, close to a sob. “Is it, Burny?”

“Chummy” Burnside offers no opinion.

“I bet there’s nothing in there at all. Except maybe . . . I don’t know . . . a roll of Tums, or something. Eating people’s got to give you indigestion.”

Nonetheless, Ty captures the bag with his foot again, and again begins the laborious job of sliding it up the wall far enough so that perhaps his stretching fingers can grasp it.

Dale Gilbertson has lived in the Coulee Country his entire life, and he’s used to greenery. To him trees and lawns and fields that roll all the way to the horizon are the norm. Perhaps this is why he looks at the charred and smoking lands that surround Conger Road with such distaste and growing dismay.

“What is this place?” he asks Jack. The words come out in little puffs. The Sawyer Gang has no golf cart and must hoof it. In fact, Jack has set a pace quite a bit faster than Ty drove the E-Z-Go.

“I don’t exactly know,” Jack says. “I saw a place like it a long time ago. It was called the Blasted Lands. It ?? “

A greenish man with plated skin suddenly leaps at them from behind a tumble of huge boulders. In one hand he holds a stumpy whip ?? what Jack believes is actually called a quirt. “Bahhrrr!” this apparition cries, sounding weirdly like Richard Sloat when Richard laughs.

Jack raises Ty’s bat and looks at the apparition questioningly ?? Did you want some of this? Apparently the apparition does not. It stands where it is for a moment, then turns and flees. As it disappears back into the maze of boulders, Jack sees that twisted thorns grow in a ragged line down both of its Achilles tendons.

“They don’t like Wonderboy,” Beezer says, looking appreciatively at the bat. It is still a bat, just as the 9mm’s and .357 Rugers are still pistols and they are still they: Jack, Dale, Beezer, Doc. And Jack decides he isn’t much surprised by that. Parkus told him that this wasn’t about Twinners, told him that during their palaver near the hospital tent. This place may be adjacent to the Territories, but it’s not the Territories. Jack had forgotten that.

Well, yes ?? but I’ve had a few other things on my mind.

“I don’t know if you boys have taken a close look at the wall on the far side of this charming country lane,” Doc says, “but those large white stones actually appear to be skulls.”

Beezer gives the wall of skulls a cursory glance, then looks ahead again. “What worries me is that thing,” he says. Over the broken teeth of the horizon rises a great complication of steel, glass, and machinery. It disappears into the clouds. They can see the tiny figures who surge and struggle there, can hear the crack of the whips. From this distance they sound like the pop of .22 rifles. “What’s that, Jack?”

Jack’s first thought is that he’s looking at the Crimson King’s Breakers, but no ?? there are too many of them. Yonder building is some sort of factory or power plant, powered by slaves. By children not talented enough to qualify as Breakers. A vast outrage rises in his heart. As if sensing it, the drone of the bees grows louder behind him.

Speedy’s voice, whispering in his head: Save your anger, Jack ?? your first job is that little boy. And time has grown very, very short.

“Oh Christ,” Dale says, and points. “Is that what I think it is?”

The gibbet hangs like a skeleton over the slanting road.

Doc says, “If you’re thinking gallows, I believe you win the stainless steel flatware and get to go on to the next round.”

“Look at all the shoes,” Dale says. “Why would they pile the shoes up like that?”

“God knows,” Beezer says. “Just the custom of the country, I guess. How close are we, Jack? Do you have any idea at all?”

Jack looks at the road ahead of them, then at the road leading away to the left, the one with the ancient gallows on its corner. “Close,” he says. “I think we’re ?? “

Then, from ahead of them, the shrieks begin. They are the cries of a child who has been pushed to the edge of madness. Or perhaps over it.

Ty Marshall can hear the approaching drone of the bees but believes it is only in his head, that it is no more than the sound of his own growing anxiety. He doesn’t know how many times he’s tried to slide Burny’s leather bag up the side of the shed; he’s lost count. It does not occur to him that removing the odd cap ?? the one that looks like cloth and feels like metal ?? might improve his coordination, for he’s forgotten all about the cap. All he knows is that he’s tired and sweating and trembling, probably in shock, and if he doesn’t manage to snag the bag this time, he’ll probably just give up.

I’d probably go with Mr. Munshun if he just promised me a glass of water, Ty thinks. But he does have Judy’s toughness bred in his bones, and some of Sophie’s regal insistence, as well. And, ignoring the ache in his thigh, he again begins sliding the bag up the wall, at the same time stretching down with his right hand.

Ten inches . . . eight . . . the closest he’s gotten so far . . .

The bag slips to the left. It’s going to fall off his foot. Again.

“No,” Ty says softly. “Not this time.”

He presses his sneaker harder against the wood, then begins to raise it again.

Six inches . . . four inches . . . three and the bag starts to tilt farther and farther to the left, it’s going to fall off ??

“No!” Ty yells, and bends forward in a strenuous bow. His back creaks. So does his tortured left shoulder. But his fingers graze across the bag . . . and then snag it. He brings it toward him and then damned near drops it after all!

“No way, Burny,” he pants, first juggling the leather sack and then clutching it against his chest. “You don’t fool me with that old trick, no way in hell do you fool me with that one.” He bites the corner of the bag with his teeth. The stink of it is awful, rotten ?? eau de Burnside. He ignores it and pulls the bag open. At first he thinks it’s empty, and lets out a low, sobbing cry. Then he sees a single silver gleam. Crying through his clenched teeth, Ty reaches into the dangling bag with his right hand and brings the key out.

Can’t drop it, he thinks. If I drop it, I’ll lose my mind. I really will.

He doesn’t drop it. He raises it above his head, sticks it in the little hole on the side of the cuff holding his left wrist, and turns it. The cuff springs open.

Slowly, slowly, Ty draws his hand through the shackle. The handcuffs fall to the shed’s dirt floor. As he stands there, a queerly persuasive idea occurs to Ty: he’s really still back in Black House, asleep on the ragged futon with the slop bucket in one corner of his cell and the dish of re-heated Dinty Moore beef stew in the other. This is just his exhausted mind giving him a little hope. A last vacation before he goes into the stewpot himself.

From outside comes the clank of the Big Combination and the screams of the children who march, march, march on their bleeding footsies, running it. Somewhere is Mr. Munshun, who wants to take him someplace even worse than this.

It’s no dream. Ty doesn’t know where he’ll go from here or how he’ll ever get back to his own world, but the first step is getting out of this shed and this general vicinity. Moving on trembling legs, like an accident victim getting out of bed for the first time after a long stay, Ty Marshall steps over Burny’s sprawled corpse and out of the shed. The day is overcast, the landscape sterile, and even here that rickety skyscraper of pain and toil dominates the view, but still Ty feels an immense gladness just to be in the light again. To be free. It is not until he stands with the shed behind him that he truly realizes how completely he expected to die there. For a moment Ty closes his eyes and turns his face up to the gray sky. Thus he never sees the figure that has been standing to one side of the shed, prudently waiting to make sure Ty is still wearing the cap when he comes out. Once he’s sure he is, Lord Malshun ?? this is as close to his real name as we can come ?? steps forward. His grotesque face is like the bowl of a huge serving spoon upholstered in skin. The one eye bulges freakishly. The red lips grin. When he drops his arms around the boy, Ty begins to shriek ?? not just in fear and surprise, but in outrage. He has worked so hard to be free, so dreadfully hard.

“Hush,” Lord Malshun whispers, and when Ty continues to loose his wild screams (on the upper levels of the Big Combination, some of the children turn toward those cries until the brutish ogres who serve as foremen whip them back to business), the abbalah’s lord speaks again, a single word in the Dark Speech. “Pnung.”

Ty goes limp. Had Lord Malshun not been hugging him from behind, he would have fallen. Guttural moans of protest continue to issue from the child’s drooling, slack mouth, but the screams have ceased. Lord Malshun cocks his long, spoon-shaped face toward the Big Combination, and grins. Life is good! Then he peers into the shed ?? briefly, but with great interest.

“Did for him,” Lord Malshun says. “And with the cap on, too. Amazing boy! The King wants to meet you in person before you go to Din-tah, you know. He may give you cake and coffee. Imagine, young Tyler! Cake and coffee with the abbalah! Cake and coffee with the King!”

“. . . don’t want go . . . want to go home . . . my maaaa . . .” These words spill out loose and low, like blood from a mortal wound.

Lord Malshun draws a finger across Ty’s lips, and they press together behind his touch. “Hush,” says the abbalah’s talent scout again. “Few things in life are more annoying than a noisy traveling companion. And we have a long trip ahead of us. Far from your home and friends and family . . . ah, but don’t cry.” For Malshun has observed the tears that have begun to leak from the corners of the limp boy’s eyes and roll down the planes of his cheeks. “Don’t cry, little Ty. You’ll make new friends. The Chief Breaker, for instance. All the boys like the Chief Breaker. His name is Mr. Brautigan. Perhaps he’ll tell you tales of his many escapes. How funny they are! Perfectly killing! And now we must go! Cake and coffee with the King! Hold that thought!”

Lord Malshun is stout and rather bowlegged (his legs are, in fact, a good deal shorter than his grotesquely long face), but he is strong. He tucks Ty under his arm as if the boy weighed no more than two or three sheets bundled together. He looks back at Burny one last time, without much regret ?? there’s a young fellow in upstate New York who shows great promise, and Burny was pretty well played out, anyway.

Lord Malshun cocks his head sideways and utters his almost soundless chuffing laugh. Then he sets out, not neglecting to give the boy’s cap a good hard yank. The boy is not just a Breaker; he’s perhaps the most powerful one to ever live. Luckily, he doesn’t realize his own powers yet. Probably nothing would happen if the cap did fall off, yet it’s best not to take chances.

Bustling ?? even humming a bit under his breath ?? Lord Malshun reaches the end of the draw, turns left onto Conger Road for the half-mile stroll back to Station House Road, and stops dead in his tracks. Standing in his way are four men from what Lord Malshun thinks of as Ter-tah. This is a slang term, and not a flattering one. In the Book of Good Farming, Ter is that period of Full-Earth in which breeding stock is serviced. Lord Malshun sees the world beyond the front door of Black House as a kind of vast caldo largo, a living soup into which he may dip his ladle ?? always on the abbalah’s behalf, of course! ?? whenever he likes.

Four men from the Ter? Malshun’s lip twists in contempt, causing upheavals all along the length of his face. What are they doing here? Whatever can they hope to accomplish here?

The smile begins to falter when he sees the stick one of them carries. It’s glowing with a shifting light that is many colors but somehow always white at its core. A blinding light. Lord Malshun knows only one thing that has ever glowed with such light and that is the Globe of Forever, known by at least one small, wandering boy as the Talisman. That boy once touched it, and as Laura DeLoessian could have told him ?? as Jack himself now knows ?? the touch of the Talisman never completely fades.

The smile drops away entirely when Lord Malshun realizes that the man with the club was that boy. He has come again to annoy them, but if he thinks he will take back the prize of prizes, he’s quite mistaken. It’s only a stick, after all, not the Globe itself; perhaps a little of the Globe’s residual power still lives within the man, but surely not much. Surely there can be no more than dust, after all the intervening years.

And dust is what my life would be worth if I let them take this boy from me, Lord Malshun thinks. I must ??

His single eye is drawn to the black thunderhead hanging behind the men from the Ter. It gives off a vast, sleepy drone. Bees? Bees with stingers? Bees with stingers between him and Station House Road?

Well, he will deal with them. In time. First is the business of these annoying men.

“Good day, gentlemen,” Lord Malshun says in his most pleasant voice. The bogus German accent is gone; now he sounds like a bogus English aristocrat in a West End stage comedy from the 1950s. Or perhaps the World War II Nazi propagandist Lord Haw-Haw. “It’s wonderful that you should come so far to visit, perfectly wonderful, and on such a rotten day, too. Yet I’m afraid most days are rotten here, the Dins of End-World were simply made for the pathetic fallacy, you know, and ?? dash it all ?? I can’t stay. I’m afraid these are time-delivery goods, here.”

Lord Malshun raises Ty and shakes him. Although Ty’s eyes are open and he’s obviously aware, his arms and legs flop as bonelessly as those of a rag doll.

“Put him down, Munshun,” says the one with the club, and Lord Malshun realizes with growing dismay that he could have trouble with this one. He really could. Yet his smile widens, exposing the full, ghoulish range of his teeth. They are pointed and tip inward. Anything bitten by them would tear itself to shreds trying to pull free of that bony trap.

“Munshun? Munshun? No one here by that name. Or Mr. Monday either, for that matter. All gone, cheerio, ta-ta, toodle-oo. As for putting down the lad, couldn’t do that, dear boy, simply couldn’t. I’ve made commitments, you know. And really, you fellows should count yourselves fortunate. Your local reign of terror is over! Huzzah! The Fisherman is dead ?? dispatched by this boy right here, in fact, this perfectly admirable boy.” He gives Ty another shake, always being careful to keep the head raised. Wouldn’t want that cap falling off, oh no.

The bees trouble him.

Who has sent the bees?

“The boy’s mother is in an insane asylum,” says the man with the stick. That stick is glowing more fiercely than ever, Lord Malshun realizes with deepening fear. He now feels very afraid, and with fear comes anger. Is it possible they could take him? Really take the boy? “She’s in an asylum, and she wants her son back.”

If so, it’s a corpse they’ll have for their trouble.

Afraid or not, Lord Malshun’s grin widens even further. (Dale Gilbertson has a sudden, nightmarish vision: William F. Buckley, Jr., with one eye and a face five feet long.) He lifts Ty’s limp body close to his mouth and bites a series of needly little nips in the air less than an inch from the exposed neck.

“Have her husband stick his prick in her and make another ‘un, old son ?? I’m sure he can do it. They live in Ter-tah, after all. Women get pregnant in Ter-tah just walking down the street.”

One of the bearded men says, “She’s partial to this one.”

“But so am I, dear boy. So am I.” Lord Malshun actually nips Ty’s skin this time and blood flows, as if from a shaving cut. Behind them, the Big Combination grinds on and on, but the screams have ceased. It’s as if the children driving the machine realize that something has changed or might change; that the world has come to a balancing point.

The man with the glowing stick takes a step forward. Lord Malshun cringes back in spite of himself. It’s a mistake to show weakness and fear, he knows this but can’t help it. For this is no ordinary tah. This is someone like one of the old gunslingers, those warriors of the High.

“Take another step and I’ll tear his throat open, dear boy. I’d hate doing that, would hate it awfully, but never doubt that I’ll do it.”

“You’d be dead yourself two seconds later,” the man with the stick says. He seems completely unafraid, either for himself or for Ty. “Is that what you want?”

Actually, given the choice between dying and going back to the Crimson King empty-handed, death is what Lord Malshun would choose, yes. But it may not come to that. The quieting word worked on the boy, and it will work on at least three of these ?? the ordinary three. With them lying open-eyed and insensible on the road, Lord Malshun can deal with the fourth. It’s Sawyer, of course. That’s his name. As for the bees, surely he has enough protective words to get him up Station House Road to the mono. And if he’s stung a few times, what of that?

“Is it what you want?” Sawyer asks.

Lord Malshun smiles. “Pnung!” he cries, and behind Jack Sawyer, Dale, Beezer, and Doc fall still.

Lord Malshun’s smile widens into a grin. “Now what are you going to do, my meddling friend? What are you going to do with no friends to back you u ?? “

Armand “Beezer” St. Pierre steps forward. The first step is an effort, but after that it’s easy. His own cold little smile exposes the teeth inside his beard. “You’re responsible for the death of my daughter,” he says. “Maybe you didn’t do it yourself, but you egged Burnside on to it. Didn’t you? I’m her father, asshole. You think you can stop me with a single word?”

Doc lurches to his friend’s side.

“You fucked up my town,” Dale Gilbertson growls. He also moves forward.

Lord Malshun stares at them in disbelief. The Dark Speech hasn’t stopped them. Not any of them. They are blocking the road! They dare to block his proposed route of progress!

“I’ll kill him!” he growls at Jack. “I’ll kill him. So what do you say, sunshine? What’s it going to be?”

And so here it is, at long last: the showdown. We cannot watch it from above, alas, as the crow with whom we have hitched so many rides (all unknown by Gorg, we assure you) is dead, but even standing off to one side, we recognize this archetypal scene from ten thousand movies ?? at least a dozen of them starring Lily Cavanaugh.

Jack levels the bat, the one even Beezer has recognized as Wonderboy. He holds it with the knob pressing into the underside of his forearm and the barrel pointing directly at Lord Malshun’s head.

“Put him down,” he says. “Last chance, my friend.”

Lord Malshun lifts the boy higher. “Go on!” he shouts. “Shoot a bolt of energy out of that thing! I know you can do it! But you’ll hit the boy, too! You’ll hit the boy, t ?? “

A line of pure white fire jumps from the head of the Richie Sexson bat; it is as thin as the lead of a pencil. It strikes Lord Malshun’s single eye and cooks it in its socket. The thing utters a shriek ?? it never thought Jack would call its bluff, not a creature from the ter, no matter how temporarily elevated ?? and it jerks forward, opening its jaws to bite, even in death.

Before it can, another bolt of white light, this one from the beaten silver commitment ring on Beezer St. Pierre’s left hand, shoots out and strikes the abbalah’s emissary square in the mouth. The red plush of Lord Malshun’s red lips bursts into flame . . . and still he staggers upright in the road, the Big Combination a skeletal skyscraper behind him, trying to bite, trying to end the life of Judy Marshall’s gifted son.

Dale leaps forward, grabs the boy around the waist and the shoulders, and yanks him away, reeling toward the side of the road. His honest face is pale and grim and set. “Finish him, Jack!” Dale bawls. “Finish the sonofabitch!”

Jack steps forward to where the blinded, howling, charred thing reels back and forth in the Conger Road, his bony vest smoking, his long white hands groping. Jack cocks the bat back on his right shoulder and sets his grip all the way down to the knob. No choking up this afternoon; this afternoon he’s wielding a bat that blazes with glowing white fire, and he’d be a fool not to swing for the fences.

“Batter up, sweetheart,” he says, and uncoils a swing that would have done credit to Richie Sexson himself. Or Big Mac. There is a punky, fleshy sound as the bat, still accelerating, connects with the side of Lord Malshun’s huge head. It caves in like the rind of a rotted watermelon, and a spray of bright crimson flies out. A moment later the head simply explodes, spattering them all with its gore.

“Looks like the King’s gonna have to find a new boy,” Beezer says softly. He wipes his face, looks at a handful of blood and shriveling tissue, then wipes it casually on his faded jeans. “Home run, Jack. Even a blind man could see that.”

Dale, cradling Tyler, says: “Game over, case closed, zip up your fly.”

French Landing’s police chief sets Ty carefully on his feet. The boy looks up at him, then at Jack. A bleary sort of light is dawning in his eyes. It might be relief; it might be actual comprehension.

“Bat,” he says. His voice is husky and hoarse, almost impossible for them to understand. He clears his throat and tries again. “Bat. Dreamed about it.”

“Did you?” Jack kneels in front of the boy and holds the bat out. Ty shows no inclination to actually take possession of the Richie Sexson wonder bat, but he touches it with one hand. Strokes the bat’s gore-spattered barrel. His eyes look only at Jack. It’s as if he’s trying to get the sense of him. The truth of him. To understand that he has, after all, been rescued.

“George,” the boy says. “George. Rathbun. Really is blind.”

“Yes,” Jack says. “But sometimes blind isn’t blind. Do you know that, Tyler?”

The boy nods. Jack has never in his life seen anyone who looks so fundamentally exhausted, so shocked and lost, so completely worn out.

“Want,” the boy says. He licks his lips and clears his throat again. “Want . . . drink. Water. Want mother. See my mother.”

“Sounds like a plan to me,” Doc says. He is looking uneasily at the splattered remains of the creature they still think of as Mr. Munshun. “Let’s get this young fellow back to Wisconsin before some of Old One Eye’s friends show up.”

“Right,” Beezer says. “Burning Black House to the ground is also on my personal agenda. I’ll throw the first match. Or maybe I can shoot fire out of my ring again. I’d like that. First thing, though, is to make tracks.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Dale says. “I don’t think Ty’s going to be able to walk either very far or very fast, but we can take turns giving him piggyb ?? “

“No,” Jack says.

They look at him with varying degrees of surprise and consternation. “Jack,” Beezer says. He speaks with an odd gentleness. “There’s such a thing as overstaying your welcome, man.”

“We aren’t finished,” Jack tells him. Then he shakes his head and corrects himself. “Ty’s not finished.”

Jack Sawyer kneels in Conger Road, thinking: I wasn’t much older than this kid when I took off across America ?? and the Territories ?? to save my mother’s life. He knows this is true and at the same time absolutely can’t believe it. Can’t remember what it was to be twelve and never anything else, to be small and terrified, mostly below the world’s notice and running just ahead of all the world’s shadows. It should be over; Ty has been through nine kinds of hell, and he deserves to go home.

Unfortunately, it’s not over. There’s one more thing to do.

“Ty.”

“Want. Home.”

If there was light in the boy’s eyes, it has gone out now. He wears the dull shockface of refugees at border checkpoints and the gates of death-camps. His is the emptied visage of someone who has spent too long in the slippery opopanax landscape of slippage. And he is a child, damnit, only a child. He deserves better than what Jack Sawyer is about to serve out. But then, Jack Sawyer once deserved better than what he got and lived to tell the tale. That justifies nothing, of course, but it does give him the courage to be a bastard.

“Ty.” He grasps the boy’s shoulder.

“Water. Mother. Home.”

“No,” Jack says. “Not yet.” He pivots the boy. The spatters of Lord Malshun’s blood on his face are very bright. Jack can sense the men he came with ?? men who have risked their lives and sanity for him ?? beginning to frown. Never mind. He has a job to do. He is a coppice-man, and there’s still a crime in progress here.

“Ty.”

Nothing. The boy stands slumped. He’s trying to turn himself into meat that does nothing but breathe.

Jack points at the ugly complication of struts and belts and girders and smoking chimneys. He points at the straining ants. The Big Combination disappears up into the clouds and down into the dead ground. How far in each direction? A mile? Two? Are there children above the clouds, shivering in oxygen masks as they trudge the treadmills and yank the levers and turn the cranks? Children below who bake in the heat of underground fires? Down there in the foxholes and the ratholes where the sun never shines?

“What is it?” Jack asks him. “What do you call it? What did Burny call it?”

Nothing from Ty.

Jack gives the boy a shake. Not a gentle one, either. “What do you call it?”

“Hey, man,” Doc says. His voice is heavy with disapproval. “There’s no need of that.”

“Shut up,” Jack says without looking at him. He’s looking at Ty. Trying to see anything in those blue eyes but shocked vacancy. He needs for Ty to see the gigantic, groaning machine that stands yonder. To really see it. For until he does, how can he abominate it? “What is it?”

After a long pause, Ty says: “Big. The Big. The Big Combination.” The words come out slowly and dreamily, as if he’s talking in his sleep.

“The Big Combination, yes,” Jack says. “Now stop it.”

Beezer gasps. Dale says, “Jack, have you gone ?? ” and then falls silent.

“I. Can’t.” Ty gives him a wounded look, as if to say Jack should know that.

“You can,” Jack says. “You can and you will. What do you think, Ty? That we’re going to just turn our backs on them and take you back to your mother and she’ll make you Ovaltine and put you to bed and everyone will live happily ever after?” His voice is rising, and he makes no attempt to stop it, even when he sees that Tyler is crying. He shakes the boy again. Tyler cringes, but makes no actual attempt to get away. “Do you think there’s going to be any happily ever after for you while those children go on and on, until they drop and get replaced with new ones? You’ll see their faces in your dreams, Tyler. You’ll see their faces and their dirty little hands and their bleeding feet in your fucking dreams.”

“Stop it!” Beezer says sharply. “Stop it right now or I’ll kick your ass.”

Jack turns, and Beezer steps back from the ferocious blaze in his eyes. Looking at Jack Sawyer in this state is like looking into din-tah itself.

“Tyler.”

Tyler’s mouth trembles. Tears roll down his dirty, bloody cheeks. “Stop it. I want to go home!”

“Once you make the Big Combination quit. Then you go home. Not before.”

“I can’t!”

“Yes, Tyler. You can.”

Tyler looks at the Big Combination, and Jack can feel the boy making some puny, faltering effort. Nothing happens. The belts continue to run; the whips continue to pop; the occasional screaming dot tumbles (or jumps) from the rust-ragged south side of the building.

Tyler looks back at him, and Jack hates the vacant stupidity in the kid’s eyes, loathes it. “I caann’t,” Tyler whines, and Jack wonders how such a puler ever managed to survive over here in the first place. Did he use up all his ability in one mad, willful effort to escape? Is that it? He won’t accept it. Anger blazes up in him and he slaps Tyler. Hard. Dale gasps. Ty’s head rocks to the side, his eyes widening in surprise.

And the cap flies off his head.

Jack has been kneeling in front of the boy. Now he is knocked back, sprawling on his ass in the middle of Conger Road. The kid has . . . what?

Pushed me. Pushed me with his mind.

Yes. And Jack is suddenly aware of a new bright force in this dull place, a blazing bundle of light to rival the one that illuminated the Richie Sexson bat.

“Whoa, shit, what happened?” Doc cries.

The bees feel it too, perhaps more than the men. Their sleepy drone rises to a strident cry, and the cloud darkens as they pull together. Now it looks like a gigantic dark fist below the pendulous, swag-bellied clouds.

“Why did you hit me?” Ty shouts at Jack, and Jack is suddenly aware that the boy could kill him at a stroke, if he wanted to. In Wisconsin, this power has been hidden (except from eyes trained to see it). Here, though . . . here . . .

“To wake you up!” Jack shouts back. He pushes himself up. “Was it that?” he points at the cap.

Ty looks at it, then nods. Yes. The cap. But you didn’t know, couldn’t know, how much the cap was stealing from you until you took it off. Or someone knocked it off your forgetful head. He returns his gaze to Jack. His eyes are wide and level. There is no shock in them now, no dullness. He doesn’t glow, exactly, but he blazes with an inner light they all feel ?? with a power that dwarfs Lord Malshun’s.

“What do you want me to do?” he asks. Tyler Marshall: the lioness’s cub.

Once more Jack points at the Big Combination. “You’re what all this has been about, Ty. You’re a Breaker.” He takes a deep breath and then whispers into the pink cup of the boy’s ear.

“Break it.”

Tyler Marshall turns his head and gazes deep into Jack’s eyes. He says, “Break it?”

Jack nods his head, and Ty looks back at the Big Combination.

“Okay,” he says, speaking not to Jack but to himself. He blinks, settles his feet, clasps his hands in front of his waist. A tiny wrinkle appears between his eyebrows, and the corners of his mouth lift in the suggestion of a smile. “Okay,” Ty whispers.

For a second, nothing happens.

Then a rumble emerges from the bowels of the Big Combination. Its upper portion wavers like a heat mirage. The guards hesitate, and the screams of tortured metal rip through the air. Visibly confused, the toiling children look up, look in all directions. The mechanical screaming intensifies, then divides into a hundred different versions of torture. Gears reverse. Cogs jam smoking to a halt; cogs accelerate and strip their teeth. The whole of the Big Combination shivers and quakes. Deep in the earth, boilers detonate, and columns of fire and steam shoot upward, halting, sometimes shredding belts that have run for thousands of years, powered by billions of bleeding footsies.

It is as if an enormous metal jug has sprung a hundred leaks at once. Jack watches children leap from the lower levels and climb down the exterior of the structure in long, continuous lines. Children pour from the trembling building in dozens of unbroken streams.

Before the green-skinned whipslingers can make an organized attempt to stop their slaves from escaping, the bees assemble massively around the great foundry. When the guards begin to turn on the children, the bees descend in a furious tide of buzzing wings and needling stings. Some of Ty’s power has passed into them, and their stings are fatal. Guards topple and fall from the unmoving belts and trembling girders. Others turn maddened on their own, whipping and being whipped until they tumble through the dark air.

The Sawyer Gang does not linger to see the end of the slaughter. The queen bee sails toward them out of the swarming chaos, floats above their upturned heads, and leads them back toward Black House.

In world upon world ?? in worlds strung side by side in multiple dimensions throughout infinity ?? evils shrivel and disperse: despots choke to death on chicken bones; tyrants fall before assassins’ bullets, before the poisoned sweetmeats arrayed by their treacherous mistresses; hooded torturers collapse dying on bloody stone floors. Ty’s deed reverberates through the great, numberless string of universes, revenging evil as it spreads. Three worlds over from ours and in the great city there known as Londinorium, Turner Topham, for two decades a respected member of Parliament and for three a sadistic pedophile, bursts abruptly into flame as he strides along the crowded avenue known as Pick-a-Derry. Two worlds down, a nice-looking young welder named Freddy Garver from the Isle of Irse, another, less seasoned member of Topham’s clan, turns his torch upon his own left hand and incinerates every particle of flesh off his bones.

Up, up in his high, faraway confinement, the Crimson King feels a deep pain in his gut and drops into a chair, grimacing. Something, he knows, something fundamental, has changed in his dreary fiefdom.

In the wake of the queen bee, Tyler Marshall, his eyes alight and his face without fear, sits astride Jack’s shoulders like a boy king. Behind Jack and his friends, hundreds upon hundreds of children who are fleeing from the disintegrating structure of the Big Combination come streaming on to Conger Road and the desolate fields beside it. Some of these children are from our world; many are not. Children move across the dark, empty plains in ragged armies, advancing toward the entrances to their own universes. Limping battalions of children stagger off like columns of drunken ants.

The children following the Sawyer Gang are no less ragged than the rest. Half of them are naked, or as good as naked. These children have faces we have seen on milk cartons and flyers headed MISSING and on child-find Web sites, faces from the dreams of heartbroken mothers and desolate fathers. Some of them are laughing, some are weeping, some are doing both. The stronger ones help the weaker ones along. They do not know where they are going, and they do not care. That they are going is enough for them. All they know is that they are free. The great machine that had stolen their strength and their joy and their hope is behind them, and a silken, protective canopy of bees is above them, and they are free.

At exactly 4:16 P.M., the Sawyer Gang steps out through the front door of Black House. Tyler is now riding on Beezer’s burly shoulders. They descend the steps and stand in front of Dale Gilbertson’s cruiser (there’s a litter of dead bees on the hood and in the well where the windshield wipers hide).

“Look at the house, Hollywood,” Doc murmurs.

Jack does. It’s only a house, now ?? a three-story job that might once have been a respectable ranch but has fallen into disrepair over the years. To make matters worse, someone has slopped it with black paint from top to bottom and stem to stern ?? even the windows have been blurred with swipes of that paint. The overall effect is sad and eccentric, but by no means sinister. The house’s slippery shifting shape has solidified, and with the abbalah’s glammer departed, what remains is only the abandoned home of an old fellow who was pretty crazy and extremely dangerous. An old fellow to put beside such human monsters as Dahmer, Haarman, and Albert Fish. The leering, rampant evil that once inhabited this building has been dissipated, blown away, and what remains is as mundane as an old man mumbling in a cell on Death Row. There is something Jack must do to this wretched place ?? something the dying Mouse made him promise to do.

“Doc,” Beezer says. “Look yonder.”

A large dog ?? large but not monstrous ?? staggers slowly down the lane that leads back to Highway 35. It looks like a cross between a boxer and a Great Dane. The side of its head and one of its rear paws have been blown away.

“It’s your devil dog,” the Beez says.

Doc gapes. “What, that?”

“That,” Beezer confirms. He draws his 9mm, meaning to put the thing out of its misery, but before he can, it collapses on its side, takes a single deep, shuddering breath, and then lies still. Beezer turns to Jack and Dale. “It’s all a lot smaller with the machine turned off, isn’t it?”

“I want to see my mother,” Ty says quietly. “Please, may I?”

“Yes,” Jack says. “Do you mind swinging by your house and picking up your father? I think he might like to go, too.”

Tyler breaks into a tired grin. “Yes,” he says. “Let’s do that.”

“You got it,” Jack tells him.

Dale swings the car carefully around the yard and has reached the beginning of the lane when Ty calls out, “Look! Look, you guys! Here they come!”

Dale stops, peers in the rearview mirror, and whispers: “Oh, Jack. Holy Mother of God.” He puts the cruiser in park and gets out. They all get out, looking back at Black House. Its shape remains ordinary, but it has not quite given up all of its magic after all, it seems. Somewhere a door ?? perhaps in the cellar or a bedroom or a dirty and neglected but otherwise perfectly ordinary kitchen ?? remains open. On this side is the Coulee Country; on the other is Conger Road, the smoking, newly stopped hulk of the Big Combination, and the Din-tah.

Bees are coming out onto the porch of Black House. Bees, and the children the bees are leading. They come in droves, laughing and crying and holding hands. Jack Sawyer has a brief, brilliant image of animals leaving Noah’s Ark after the flood.

“Holy Mary, Mother of God,” Dale whispers again. The yard is filling with laughing, crying, murmuring children.

Jack walks up to Beezer, who turns to him with a brilliant smile.

“After all the children come through, we have to close the door,” Jack says. “For good.”

“I know we do,” says Beezer.

“You happen to have any brilliant ideas?”

“Well,” Beezer says, “let me put it this way. If you promise me, and I mean promise me, not to ask any awkward questions or say anything about it later, before midnight tonight I might find it possible to lay my hands on a substantial quantity of something pretty damn effective.”

“What? Dynamite?”

“Please,” Beezer says. “Didn’t I say effective?”

“You mean . . . ?”

Beezer smiles, and his eyes become slits.

“I’m glad you’re on my side,” Jack says. “See you back on the road before midnight. We’ll have to sneak in, but I don’t think we’ll have any trouble.”

“Sure won’t have any on the way out,” Beezer says.

Doc claps Dale on the shoulder. “I hope you’ve got some on-the-ball child-welfare organizations in this part of the world, Chiefy. I think you’re going to need them.”

“Holy . . .” Dale turns stricken eyes to Jack. “What am I going to do?”

Jack grins. “I think you better make a call to . . . what does Sarah call them? The Color Posse?”

A gleam of hope dawns in Dale Gilbertson’s eyes. Or maybe it’s incipient triumph. John P. Redding of the FBI, officers Perry Brown and Jeffrey Black of the Wisconsin State Police. He imagines this trio of bungholes faced with the appearance of a medieval children’s crusade in western Wisconsin. Imagines the Dickensian piles of paperwork such an unheard-of event must certainly generate. It will keep them occupied for months or years. It may generate nervous breakdowns. Certainly it will give them something to think about other than Chief Dale Gilbert-son of French Landing.

“Jack,” he says. “What exactly do you suggest?”

“In broad strokes,” Jack says, “I suggest that they should get stuck with all the work and you should hog all the credit. How does that sound to you?”

Dale thinks about it. “Very fair,” he says. “What do you say we get this kiddo to his dad, then both of them up to Arden to see his mom?”

“Good,” Jack says. “I only wish Henry was here, too.”

“That makes us a pair,” Dale says, and slides back behind the wheel. A moment later, they are rolling up the lane.

“What about all those kids?” Ty asks, looking out through the back window. “Are you just going to leave them?”

“I’ll call WSP as soon as we’re back on the highway,” Dale says. “I think they should get on this right away, don’t you guys? And the Feebs, of course.”

“Right,” Beezer says.

“Fuckin’ A,” Doc says.

“An excellent administrative call,” Jack says, and sits Tyler down on his lap. “In the meantime they’ll be fine,” he says in the boy’s ear. “They’ve seen a lot worse than Wisconsin.”

Let us slip now from the driver’s window like the breeze we are and watch them go ?? four brave men and one brave child who will never be so young (or so innocent) again. Behind them, the now harmless and un-magicked yard of Black House is alive with children, their faces dirty, their eyes wide with wonder. English is a minority tongue here, and some of the languages being spoken will puzzle the world’s best linguists in the years ahead. This is the beginning of a worldwide sensation (Time’s cover story the following week will be “The Miracle Children from Nowhere”) and, as Dale has already surmised, a bureaucratic nightmare.

Still, they are safe. And our guys are safe, too. All of them came back in one piece from the other side, and surely we did not expect that; most quests of this type usually demand at least one sacrifice (a relatively minor character like Doc, for instance). All’s well that ends well. And this can be the end, if you want it to be; neither of the scribbling fellows who have brought you this far would deny you that. If you do choose to go on, never say you weren’t warned: you’re not going to like what happens next.

XXXXX DRUDGE REPORT XXXXX

FRENCH LANDING PD CHIEF REFUSES TO CANCEL PRESS CONFERENCE, CITES SUPPORT OF TOWN OFFICIALS; SOURCES CONFIRM CELEB L.A. COP WILL ATTEND; FBI, WISC S.P. EXPRESS STRONG DISAPPROVAL

* * Exclusive * *

One of them, Tyler Marshall, is from French Landing itself. Another, Josella Rakine, is from Bating, a small village in the south of England. A third is from Baghdad. All told, 17 of the so-called Miracle Children have been identified in the week since they were discovered walking along a rural highway (Rte 35) in western Wisconsin.

Yet these 17 are only the tip of the iceberg.

Sources close to the joint FBI/WSP (and now CIA?) investigation tell the Drudge Report that there are at least 750 children, far more than have been reported in the mainstream press. Who are they? Who took them, and to where? How did they get to the town of French Landing, which has been plagued by a serial killer (now reported deceased) in recent weeks? What part was played by Jack Sawyer, the Los Angeles detective who rose to stardom only to retire at age 31? And who was responsible for the massive explosion that destroyed a mysterious dwelling in the woods, reputedly central to the Fisherman case?

Some of these questions may be answered tomorrow in French Landing’s La Follette Park, when P.D. Chief Dale Gilbertson holds a press conference. His longtime friend Jack Sawyer ?? reputed to have broken the Fisherman case singlehandedly ?? will be standing next to him when he takes the podium. Also expected to be present are two deputies, Armand St. Pierre and Reginald Amberson, who participated in last week’s rescue mission.

The press conference will take place over the strong ?? almost strident ?? objections of an FBI/WSP task force headed by FBI agent John P. Redding and Wis-consin State Police Detective Jeffrey Black. “They [task force leaders] believe this is nothing but a last-ditch effort on the part of Gilbertson to save his job,” a source said. “He botched everything, but luckily has a friend who knows a lot about public relations.”

French Landing town officials sing a different tune. “This summer has been a nightmare for the people of French Landing,” says town treasurer Beth Warren. “Chief Gilbertson wants to assure the people that the nightmare is over. If he can give us some answers about the children in the process of doing that, so much the better.”

Interest focuses on Jack “Hollywood” Sawyer, who got to know Chief Gilbert-son and the town of French Landing during the case of Thornberg Kinderling, the so-called Prostitute Killer. Sawyer was urged by Gilbertson to take an active role in the Fisherman case, and apparently played a large part in the events that followed.

What events, exactly, were they? That is what the world is waiting to find out. The first answers may come tomorrow, in La Follette Park, on the banks of the mighty Mississippi.

Developing . . .

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