Maybe I'm flattering myself, but right away, I noticed things that weren't right. The scene was like a drawing in a kid's magazine: Find six things that are wrong in this picture.
For one thing, everything was too perfect. The flowers that Jackie had put in the room three days ago and that were ready to be thrown out, were fresh again-and they were perfect. There were no leaves half eaten by bugs, no brown spots on the petals. The faded chintz on the secondhand couch that Jackie had bought was now bright and new.
And, oh, yeah, even though it was about three A.M., the room was full of sunlight. And the sunlight was not coming from the windows.
I wanted to run away and hide, but I couldn't. I don't know if it was him pulling me to him or my own curious nature, but I couldn't stop myself from entering that room.
He lit a cigarette, one of those little gold-tipped black ones that look like elegant cigars, and gazed at me through a haze of smoke.
"I think you have some questions for me," he said in a beautiful voice.
G.o.d help me, but I could see why Jackie had believed herself to be in love with him. And I could even understand why she'd spent three days in a daze after she'd met him.
"A few," I said, then cleared my throat because my voice was breaking.
Surely he hadn't shown up just to answer my questions about a murder?
"Why," he said. "You always want to know why." He smiled, letting me know that he knew all there was to know about me. "I liked that woman, that Amarisa," he said after a while. "Did anyone tell you that she had visions? Just now and then, nothing of importance, but she did manage to stop a few of my projects. But what really made Jackie's mother angry was the fact that her husband helped Amarisa when she had visions."
"Like Jackie and me," I said.
I was scared, true, but also, inside, I was jumping up and down. I was talking to the devil. The real, honest-to-gosh devil. Fumbling about as though I were blind, I found a chair and sat down facing him. I didn't want to blink. I might not live through tonight, but if I did, I wanted to be able to record every word, every look, every nuance of what I was seeing, hearing, feeling.
Instead of answering me, he smiled. "Amarisa could see me and she saw me as handsome. And little Jackie saw me as Santa Claus. You can't imagine how tired I get of being depicted as red with a tail. How ba.n.a.l."
The chapter heading flashed across my mind: "The Angst of the Devil."
Or should it be "Life from the Devil's Point of View"?
"Amarisa used to talk with me. Did they tell you that the preacher put the first stone on her? He's in my house now." He smiled sweetly. "I have many so-called holy men with me."
I quit being flippant, because what he was saying sent a little shiver down my spine.
"But Amarisa was different. She wasn't afraid of me. She-"
"You were in love with her," I heard myself say, astonished at my bravery-or stupidity-for saying it.
That smile again. "Love? Perhaps, for even I have feelings. Let's just say that there are some people I want more than others."
That gave me more chills and I wanted to ask what my rank was on his "want" list. Top? Bottom?
"Her mother"-he nodded upward toward Jackie's room-"was jealous of Amarisa because she was good. She was... inside good. I don't see that much."
While he was talking, behind him, beautiful colored smoke floated up from the floor to the ceiling. I couldn't seem to look away from it as it wove in and out, around and about. It was only gradually that I realized the smoke was forming itself into a scene.
Slowly, I began to see scenes of my life with Pat. I saw Pat with her parents. The three of them were laughing together, glancing at each other now and then. Then, I saw Pat's father fishing. The scene changed, and I saw him on his front porch with his tools, with Pat's mother in the kitchen cooking.
She was baking her special cookies, the ones that were made of a combination of spices and raisins that used to fill the house with fragrance.
Right now, yet again, I could smell them. For a moment I closed my eyes and inhaled. When I opened my eyes, Pat's mother was in front of me and she was holding out a plate full of them.
Instinctively, I reached for one. But it was just a vision and my hand went through the plate.
"Sure?" he said to me, as he took a cookie off the plate and began to nibble at it. "Very good. Now where was I?"
I guess he was used to people being too dumbfounded to answer him, because he continued without my saying a word. But I wasn't thinking about him. I was remembering Pat. The smell of the cookies hung in the air, and as he talked, he was waving one of those precious cookies around. One bite, I thought. Let me have one bite and let me remember clearly. Truly remember.
"Ah, yes," he said, "you want more information. Let's see. Where should I begin?" He got up from his chair and walked about the room. He was a very elegant man, beautifully dressed. "I was surprised you never guessed that I was the one who threw the rock over the wall. You were becoming much too complacent for my taste and I was a little concerned that you might stop searching altogether. And if that had happened, well..." He shrugged to let me know that he and I were here now because of his planning.
He pointed the cookie at me, then looked at it in surprise. "Does this bother you?" In an instant the cookie was gone and he gave me that winning smile of his. "I want to make it clear that I have a very, very easy job.
People think I go around whispering in their ears, enticing them to do evil.
But I don't. I just leave them to their own devices and they do all the evil that I could never even think of. Humans are much more imaginative than I am. You've heard of the people who get their ideas for their crimes from novels, haven't you?"
I nodded but since I don't write horror novels, I knew he wasn't talking about me.
He read my mind.
"You think your books haven't caused anything bad because they're so sweet? Back in... oh, well, I'm not good with years. 1283, 1501, they're all the same to me. But you remember how you wrote about your cousin Ronny drowning and how all of you were glad?"
He didn't wait for me to answer.
"A boy in California killed his cousin. He drowned him because he didn't like the kid. Got the idea from your book."
I slumped back against the chair at that one.
"So, now, where was I? Oh, yes, Amarisa. She didn't have an affair with me like people later said. I find it interesting what people make up to justify their actions, don't you? You see, what only two people on earth knew was that Amarisa was going to have a baby. Remember the preacher?"
Wide-eyed, I stared at him. "Was it his child?"
"Yes. But it wasn't a so-called 'love child.' The man met her on the trail late one afternoon and he raped her. Amarisa never told anyone because she knew that the information would hurt people, such as the minister's wife.
When Amarisa found out she was pregnant, you know what she did? She thanked..."
He didn't say the word, just pointed upward, smiled at me in conspiracy, then continued. "Of course that guy had nothing to do with it, but I find that people often tend to give Him credit for whatever good happens to them.
You see, Amarisa thought she was barren. Silly woman, she'd been totally faithful to her late husband, and he'd told her that their not having children was her fault." Again he smiled in a way that made the hairs on the back of my neck rise. "Her husband came straight to me from his deathbed."
Behind him, the smoke video began to play again. But this time it was just Pat, and she was sitting at our dining table blue penciling one of my ma.n.u.scripts. I used to stand in the doorway and watch her, partly out of vanity, but partly just for the joy of looking at her.
The sight of Pat was making me remember her so vividly that I could think of nothing else. I needed to distract myself. Don't look at it, I told myself. "The minister was afraid of exposure for what he'd done so he placed the first stone and the others followed him."
Russell Dunne-for want of a better name-got up again and for a few moments he looked at the scene of Pat. She was in the kitchen now, pouring canned soup into a pan. Such ordinary scenes, but they pulled at my heart until I was sure it was bleeding.
Turning, he smiled at me again, and behind him, the scene changed. But this time there was a young man at a party. I was confused. Who was he?
"When Harriet saw Amarisa talking to no one, she was delighted because she saw a way to get rid of the woman. She didn't think of murder then; that came later. Of course I knew all of them were hiding in the bushes when Amarisa arrived that day, but I didn't let on. I wanted to see what they'd do.
I know I'm not supposed to have a sense of humor, but I do. It's just that my humor is..."
"Black?" I asked.
"Exactly. Things that don't make other people laugh, amuse me to no end."
"They saw you." When I realized who the boy in the vision behind him was, I thought I was going to be sick. It was the boy who'd killed Pat's mother. In the smoke-surrounded scene, the boy was drinking and partying, having a good time, but I knew that in just minutes he was going to end the lives of several people. One life he'd take with his vehicle, but he'd destroy others with grief.
"Yes," Mr. Dunne went on. "They rushed out of their hiding places and told Amarisa that she was talking to no one. And you know what? She didn't care. She really wasn't a bigot. Most of the time when someone finds out they've been talking to me, they panic. Or they"-he smiled-"start thinking how they can use me. Can you imagine that? They think they can use me to get them what they want, which is always one of those seven deadlies." He rolled his eyes as though trying to express his extreme boredom at people's lack of imagination.
The seven deadly sins, I thought. I was listening to him, but I couldn't take my eyes off the scene behind him. The boy was about to get into his car. It was an expensive car, paid for by his father.
"But Amarisa didn't do what other people have done," I said. The scene changed and I saw Pat's mother getting into her car. I wanted to jump into the vision and stop her. Please don't, I wanted to scream. Please, please don't go.
"No," he said, as though there was nothing going on in the room besides our very civilized conversation. "Amarisa believed that everyone deserved kindness."
"Even the devil," I said, trying to pull my eyes away from the sight of Pat's mother starting her car. The last time, I thought. The last time she'll go anywhere. Had I said goodbye to her? How long had it been since I'd told her I loved her?
"Yes. She was kind even to me. But they wouldn't listen to her. Instead, they acted like those people in... where was that in your country? Those little girls? Made into plays and movies?"
"Salem," I said.
"Right. Salem. They told her she was a witch. Of course Jackie's mother and the preacher had ulterior motives."
Pat's mother was sitting at a stoplight. When it turned green, I knew that she was going to die. The scene changed to show the kid in his car drinking a beer, and taking a deep drag on a joint. Marijuana hadn't been in the police report. How much had it cost the kid's father to keep that hidden?
"So I showed myself to them. Not in the way the books love to depict me but as I am. As you see me now. When that didn't work, for an instant, I let them see what they expected to see."
I watched as Pat's mother took her foot off the brake, and the car moved forward. The kid didn't so much as glance at the traffic light. He was looking in the back for another beer.
As I watched Pat's mother approach the center of the intersection, my heart nearly stopped. I put my hand out as though I could stop her.
In the next second, I saw Pat's mother's face in the instant before the crash. She knew she was going to be hit, knew she was going to die.
He freeze-framed it. He stopped the scene on Pat's mother's face, then enlarged it. That look of horror on the face of a woman I had loved so much was frozen there for me to see.
I used every ounce of willpower I had and pulled my eyes away to look at him, concentrating so that I didn't see her face. "And how is that?" I asked.
"Oh, the usual. Lots of red. Forked tail. Shall I show you?
"No, thank you."
Laughing, he waved his hand and Pat's mother's face was gone. I had to blink to keep from crying in relief. "So they knew then that she was talking to..."
"You can say it. The devil. Although I have a few other names. They were afraid and would have run away, but two of the people believed that Amarisa was the cause of their problems, so they didn't run. When Amarisa saw murder in their eyes, she backed away from them. But she caught her foot on one of the stones that had been used for the chimney of the old cabin." He shrugged in a way that made me sure that he'd made her fall- and he had pinned her foot so she couldn't move. "I was still there and I could have stopped them but I didn't. You know why?"
"No," I said. My heart was pounding in my throat. I was looking into the beautiful face of pure evil.
"Come on, you're a writer. Make a guess."
"I have no idea."
His handsome face lost its humor. "If you ever want to write again, I would suggest that you make an effort."
I swallowed. "You wanted her."
The smile was back, encouraging me.
Maybe he was putting things into my head because, suddenly, I knew the answer. "If Amarisa had died in hatred, she would have been yours."
"You are good. Very good. Yes, exactly. I hoped she'd denounce them, hate them, and if she did, I could have her. She could live with me."
Behind him, the smoky visions had returned, and this time they were again of everyday things. Pat and her parents were at the dining table, laughing. They're waiting for me to come home, I thought. I could see that Pat's mother had baked a cake and it had my name on it. Which birthday was it for? I wondered. Which precious birthday was it?
"Don't you have enough people with you?" I asked, trying to sound- dare I say it?-devil-may-care.
"No. I'll tell you a little secret. I'd like to have everyone. I'd like for every person on earth to come live with me."
"Based on the news reports, you're making a lot of headway with that."
"Oh, yes, I am," he said proudly. "Large scale and small. The Internet is helping me a lot. People can do bad in private now. Evil likes privacy."
Pat and her mother were wrapping a gift for me. It was an expensive piece of software. Something to help me write The Great American Novel.
But I wouldn't be able to do that as long as I had all of them. It would take death before I could write. I cleared my throat. "Did you get Amarisa?"
"No, I didn't." He sighed. "She didn't denounce them. Not even at the end when she was in great pain did she curse them. Her true feeling was regret about her child. She wanted that child, no matter who the father was."
He said this with wonder in his voice.
"But you had your revenge on them."
"Oh, yes. That I did. One by one, I took her killers off the earth. They're all with me now. Every one of them. I get to keep them forever."
I drew in my breath, trying to calm myself. "And what about Jackie?"
"Oh, she was there, hiding in the bushes, and she saw it all. At the end, she even tried to save her aunt. You see, I gave Amarisa lots of time to hate the people who'd killed her. Jackie loved her aunt, really loved her. Which is what caused all of it. Harriet couldn't stand that her daughter loved her aunt much more than she loved her, so she looked for a way to get rid of Amarisa, and she found it."
"You didn't get Amarisa so you killed her murderers and wouldn't let their descendants leave Cole Creek. You..." I trailed off because the screen had changed again. Only this time I could see myself-younger, thinner, but me. I was in bed with Pat. She ran her hand down my naked thigh and, oh, Lord, I could feel it. I could feel her touch. When I closed my eyes, I could smell her breath, her hair. I had forgotten so much.
"... have it back..."
I didn't hear the first or the last part of his sentence. Pat was sliding down under the sheet now. In all the years since I'd lost Pat, I'd not allowed myself to remember how fabulous the s.e.x with her had been. It was "complete" s.e.x. Not just physical, but mental and emotional as well. Not just my body but also my mind. "What?" I said through a closed throat.
"You can have them back," he said softly.
It took all my strength of will to pull my mind away from what I was feeling and seeing on the screen to be able to listen to him. I looked at him, blinking. Even if I wasn't looking at Pat and me, I could feel her. Her mouth was on my ear now. I concentrated hard, trying to give my attention back to him.
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