The three-hundred-ring circus of my imagination abruptly set up its tent, and I became convinced that John Joseph Randolph was at the dining-room window, staring at me this very moment. I spun around. The pleated shade was down. I crossed the room, grabbed the pull cord, yanked the shade up. Johnny wasn’t there.
I listened to a little more of the tape. The eighteenth name on Delacroix’s list was Conrad Gensel. No doubt he was the stocky bastard with the cropped black hair, yellow-brown eyes, and doll’s teeth. Perhaps he was one of the temponauts who had traveled to the other side, one of the few who had come back alive. Maybe he had glimpsed a destiny of his own in that world of the red sky, or had been driven quietly mad by what he’d seen and had found himself self-destructively drawn to that nightmare place. In any case, he and Randolph hadn’t met at a church supper or a strawberry festival.
The skin was still crawling on the nape of my neck. Although the Mystery Train building had been deconstructed down to the last chip of concrete and the final scrap of steel, I didn’t feel that we’d reached closure in this matter.
John Joseph Randolph hadn’t been at the window; however, now I was sure Conrad Gensel had his nose pressed to the pane. Because I had lowered the blind after checking for mad Johnny, I crossed the room again. Hesitated. Yanked up the shade. No Conrad.
The dog and the cat were watching me with interest, as if they were being highly entertained.
“The big question,” I said to Mungojerrie and Orson, as I led them into the kitchen, “is whether the door Johnny opened was really a door into Hell or a door to somewhere else.”
He wouldn’t have submitted a grant application with the promise of building a bridge to Beelzebub. He’d have been more discreet. I’m sure the cloak-and-dagger financiers believed that they were funding research and experiments in time travel; and because they are all comfortable in their lunacy, that seemed rational.
As I took a package of frankfurters out of the freezer, I said, “And from what he was ranting in that copper room, I guess it must have been time travel of a sort. Forward, back—but mostly what he called sideways.”
I stood pondering the problem, holding the frozen hot dogs.
Orson started pacing in circles around me.
“Suppose there are worlds out there in time streams that flow beside ours, parallel worlds. According to quantum physics, an infinite number of shadow universes exist simultaneously with ours, as real as ours. We can’t see them. They can’t see us. Realities never intersect. Except maybe at Wyvern. Where the Mystery Train, like a giant blender, whipped realities together for a while.”
Mungojerrie was now pacing around me, too, following Orson.
“Isn’t it possible that one of those shadow universes is so terrible that it might as well be Hell? For that matter, maybe there’s a parallel world so glorious we couldn’t distinguish it from Heaven.”
The pacing pooch and the pacing cat were so focused on the hot dogs, in such a solid trance, that if Orson had suddenly stopped, Mungojerrie would have walked halfway up his butt before realizing where he was.
I cut open the package of frankfurters, spread the sausages on a plate, headed for the microwave oven, but stopped in the middle of the room, pondering the imponderable.
“In fact,” I said, “isn’t it possible that some people—genuine psychics, mystics—have actually at times looked through the barrier between time streams? Had visions of these parallel worlds? Maybe that’s where our concepts of the afterlife come from.”
Bobby had entered the kitchen from the garage as I’d launched into my latest monologue. He listened to me for a moment, but then he fell in behind Mungojerrie and Orson, pacing circles around me.
“And what if we do move on from this world when we die, sideways into one of those parallel to us? Are we talking religion or science here?”
“We’re not talking anything,” Bobby said. “You’re talking your head off about religion and science and pseudoscience, but we’re just thinking hot dogs.”
Taking the hint, I put the plate in the microwave. When the hot dogs were warm, I gave two to Mungojerrie. I gave six to Orson, because when I had lifted the cut chain-link and urged him to enter Wyvern the previous night, I had promised him frankfurters, and I always keep my promises to my friends, just as they always keep their promises to me.
I didn’t give any to Bobby, because he’d been a smartass.
“Look what I found,” he said, as I was washing the frankfurter grease from my hands.
My fingers were dripping when he gave me the Mystery Train cap.
“This can’t exist,” I said.
If the entire building that housed the project had unraveled from existence, why would the cap have been made in the first place?
“It doesn’t exist,” he said. “But something else does.”
Baffled, I turned the cap in my hands, to look at the words above the bill. The ruby-red stitching didn’t form Mystery Train anymore. Instead, the two words were Tornado Alley.
“What’s Tornado Alley?” I asked.
“You find it a little…”
“Maximo weird,” I said.
Maybe Randolph and Conrad and others were out there in Wyvern or some other part of the world, working on the same project, which now had a different name. No closure.
“Gonna wear it?” Bobby asked.
“Another thing,” he said. “What did happen to the dead me?”
“Here we go again. He ceased to exist, that’s all.”
“Because I didn’t die.”
“I’m no Einstein.”
He frowned. “What if I wake up some morning, and beside me in bed is that dead me, all rotting and oozing slime?”
“You’ll have to buy new sheets.”
When we were packed and ready to party, we drove out to the point of the southern horn of the bay, on which Bobby’s cottage—a beautiful structure of weathered teak and glass—is the only residence.
On the way, Sasha stopped at a pay phone, disguised her voice by doing a Mickey Mouse imitation—God knows why Mickey Mouse, when any of the characters from The Lion King would have been more apt—and tipped the police to the scene at the Stanwyk house.
When we were on the move again, Bobby said, “Bro?”
“Who left that Mystery Train cap for you in the first place? And who slipped Delacroix’s security badge under the windshield wiper on the Jeep last night?”
“But a suspicion?”
“I think it’s way smarter than it looks.”
“It’s some mutant freak,” Bobby insisted.
“So am I.”
At Bobby’s place, we changed from street clothes into wet suits, then loaded a cooler full of beer and a variety of snacks into the Explorer.
Before we could party, however, we needed to resolve one issue—so we could stop glancing nervously at the windows, looking for the crazy conductor of the Mystery Train.
The oversize video displays at the computer workstations in Bobby’s home office were ablaze with colorful maps, bar graphs, photos of the earth taken from orbit only minutes ago, and flow charts of dynamic weather conditions worldwide. Here—and with the help of his employees in the Moonlight Bay offices of Surfcast—Bobby predicted surf conditions for subscribers in over twenty countries.
As I am not computer compatible, I stood back while Bobby settled into one of the workstations, rattled his fingers across the keyboard, went on-line, and searched a database listing all the leading American scientists of our time. Logic insisted that a mad genius obsessed with the possibility of time travel, determined to prove that parallel worlds existed alongside our own and that these lands could be reached by a lateral movement across time, would have to become a physicist, and a damned good one, enormously well funded, if he had any hope of applying his theories effectively.
Bobby found Dr. Randolph Josephson in three minutes. He was associated with a university in Nevada, and he lived in Reno.
Mungojerrie sprang onto the workstation to peer intently at the data on the screen. There was even a photo. It was our mad scientist, all right.
In spite of the widespread base closures that had followed the end of the Cold War, Nevada had been left with a few sprawling facilities. It was reasonable to assume that on at least one of them, top-secret research projects in the Wyvern vein were still being undertaken.
“He might have moved up there to Reno after Wyvern closed,” Sasha said. “That doesn’t mean he’s still alive. He could have come back here to snatch these kids—and died when that building…came apart.”
“But maybe he never worked at Wyvern at all. If the Mystery Train never happened, then maybe he’s been up there in Reno all along—building Tornado Alley or something else.”
Bobby called directory assistance in Reno and obtained a listed number for Dr. Randolph Josephson. With a felt-tip pen, he jotted it on a notepad.
Though I knew my imagination was to blame, the ten digits seemed to have an evil aura, as if this was the phone number at which soul-selling politicians could reach Satan twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, holidays included, collect calls accepted.
“You’re the only one of us who’s heard his voice,” Bobby said. He rolled his chair aside, so I could reach the telephone at the workstation. “I’ve got caller-ID block and trace-call block, so if you make him curious, he can’t find us.”
When I picked up the handset, Orson put his forepaws on the workstation and gently clamped his jaws around my wrist, as if to suggest that I should put the phone down without making the call.
“Got to do it, bro.”
“Duty,” I told him.
He understood duty, and so he released me.
Although the fine hairs on the back of my neck were dueling with one another, I keyed in the number. As I listened to it ring, I told myself that Randolph was dead, buried alive in the hole where that copper-lined room had been.
He answered on the third ring. I recognized his voice at once, from the single word hello.
“Dr. Randolph Josephson?” I asked.
My mouth was so dry that my tongue stuck to my palate almost as securely as Velcro to Velcro.
“Hello? Are you there?” he asked.
“Is this the Randolph Josephson formerly known as John Joseph Randolph?”
He did not answer. I could hear him breathing.
I said, “Did you think your juvenile record was expunged? Did you really think you could kill your parents and have the facts erased forever?”
I hung up, dropping the handset so fast that it rattled in the cradle.
“Now what?” Sasha asked.
Getting up from the workstation chair, Bobby said, “Maybe in this version of his life, the kook didn’t get funding for his project as quickly as he found it at Wyvern, or maybe not enough funding. He might not yet have started up another model of the Mystery Train.”
“But if that’s true,” Sasha said, “how do we stop him? Drive over to Reno and put a bullet in his brain?”
“Not if we can avoid it,” I said. “I tore some clippings off the wall of his murder gallery, in that tunnel under the egg room. They were still in my pockets when I got home. They hadn’t just vanished like…Bobby’s corpse. Which must mean those are killings Randolph’s still committed. His annual thrill. Maybe tomorrow I should make anonymous calls to the police, accusing him of the murders. If they look into it, they might find his scrapbook or other mementos.”
“Even if they nail him,” Sasha said, “his research could go on without him. The new version of the Mystery Train might be built, and the door between realities might be opened.”
I looked at Mungojerrie. Mungojerrie looked at Orson. Orson looked at Sasha. Sasha looked at Bobby. Bobby looked at me and said, “Then we’re doomed.”
“I’ll tip the cops tomorrow,” I said. “It’s the best we can do. And if the cops can’t convict him…”
Sasha said, “Then Doogie and I will drive over to Reno one day and waste the creep.”
“You have a way about you, woman,” Bobby said.
Time to party.
Sasha drove the Explorer across the dunes, through shore grass silvered with moonlight, and down a long embankment, parking on the beach of the southern horn, just above the tideline. Driving this far onto the strand isn’t legal, but we had been to Hell and back, so we figured we could survive virtually any punishment meted out for this violation.
We spread blankets on the sand, near the Explorer, and fired up a single Coleman lantern.
A large ship was stationed just beyond the mouth of the bay, north and west of us. Although the night shrouded it, and though the porthole lights were not sufficient to entirely define the vessel, I was sure that I had never seen anything quite like it in these parts. It made me uneasy, though not uneasy enough to go home and hide under my bed.
The waves were tasty, six to eight feet from trough to crest. The offshore flow was just strong enough to carve them into modest barrels, and in the moonlight, the foam glimmered like mermaids’ pearl necklaces.
Sasha and Bobby paddled out to the break line, and I took the first watch on shore, with Orson and Mungojerrie and two shotguns. Though the Mystery Train might not exist any longer, my mom’s clever retrovirus was still at work. Perhaps the promised vaccine and cure were on the way, but people in Moonlight Bay were still becoming. The coyotes couldn’t have crunched up the entire troop; a few Wyvern monkeys, at least, were out there somewhere, and not feeling kindly about us.
Using the first-aid kit that Sasha had brought, I gently cleaned Orson’s abraded pasterns with antiseptic and then coated the shallow cuts with Neosporin. The laceration on his left cushion, near his nose, was not as bad as it had first looked, but his ear was a mess. In the morning, I would have to try to get a vet to come to the house and give us an opinion about the possibility of repairing the broken cartilage.
Although the antiseptic must have stung, Orson never complained. He is a good dog and an even better person.
“I love you, bro,” I told him.
He licked my face.
I realized that, from time to time, I was looking left and right along the beach, half expecting monkeys but even more prepared for the sight of Johnny Randolph strolling toward me. Or Hodgson in his spacesuit, face churning with parasites. After reality had been so thoroughly cut to pieces, perhaps it could never again be stitched back together in the old, comfortable pattern. I couldn’t shake the feeling that, from now on, anything could happen.