54

AS THEY LEFT THE MOTEL and walked quickly down the sidewalk toward the center of the small town of Westfield, Jax put her hand on his back in silent compassion. Neither of them spoke. Both of them were in a state of shock at the unexpected turn of events.

Radell Cain had just turned everything upside down. Before, Alex hadn’t known what to do, but the task had at least seemed straightforward. Now he felt a numb sense of paralyzing shock and dismay. It no longer simply seemed a matter of preventing Radell Cain from getting access to the gateway. In light of such chaos everything had just gotten far more complex.

The heavy overcast seemed to match their mood. It made the day feel quiet and somber.

“I’m ashamed that people from my world have come here and done this,” Jax said as they walked past a bakery.

Alex shifted the duffel bag to the other side so that he could take her hand as they hurried along the sidewalk.

“Don’t take on guilt for murders just because they came from where you live. You came here to stop these people. You’re risking your life to stop them. You have no reason to feel ashamed.”

She squeezed his hand in appreciation of his words. He could see another tear or two run down her face.

“I’m the one who should have done something,” he finally said into the silence. “From the beginning you’ve been trying to tell me how brutal these people are. You tried to do something; I didn’t listen. If I had believed you in the first place, acted sooner, maybe this wouldn’t be happening.”

“Don’t you now blame yourself, Alex. Radell Cain is responsible.”

“But maybe I could have—”

“No, you couldn’t. Don’t let him make you fall into the trap of second-guessing yourself. He’s been watching you and making his moves based on what you do, not when you did it. Had you acted sooner it would only have prompted him to make his move sooner.

“He’s sending us a message. There is nothing either of us could have done to stop him. If we had gotten here sooner he would have only carried out these attacks sooner.

“I’ve seen him do this sort of thing before. This is the way he thinks. He will kill as many people as he has to in order to get what he wants. It never occurred to me that he would bring his ruthless methods here, to this world. It was foolish of me not to realize he would.”

Alex raked his fingers back through his hair. “I don’t get it, though. I don’t get the reason for murders all over the world. He’s been trying to get his hands on us since the beginning. He left that note for me, so he obviously knew where we were. He could have stormed the place and had us last night while we were asleep. Why do this instead? What does he think this is going to accomplish?”

“I’m afraid that he’s changed his tactics.” Jax glanced over at him. “He gave you that note to let you know that he knew the fake name the Daggett Society had made up to protect you. He wanted you to know that you can’t hide from him, that there is nowhere safe where he can’t find you.

“He told you the places of the attacks so that you would know that he was responsible. He wanted you to know his reach.”

Alex scanned the tourist traffic and dump trucks making their way along the congested, narrow road through town, checking to make sure that none of them looked imminently threatening.

Alex heaved a sigh. “I guess you’re right. It was all an elaborate, bloody show just for me. We’ve slipped through his fingers in the past, like back at Mother of Roses. This is retribution for being able to avoid him. He’s telling me that if I don’t do as he wants, he can kill innocent people by the thousands.”

“I’m afraid so. Those killers he sends don’t have to worry about being captured and punished. They can kill innocent, helpless people while they have the advantage, and then if it looks like someone might stop them, they can activate their lifeline and vanish in a heartbeat.”

Alex shook his head in disgust. “But how can any human being do such things to innocent people — to children?”

“Their minds are poisoned by years of indoctrination. They believe what they’re told. They see it as doing good. I’m sure that when they get back, Radell Cain will give them rewards for their bravery and great work in advancing their cause. They will feel only pride, not revulsion, for what they’ve done. Cain likes giving awards for killing women and children because he knows that that kind of thing strikes mindless fear into his enemies.”

“Well, it’s working,” Alex said under his breath.

They fell silent with brooding thoughts as they made their way down the street. The town of Westfield was a typical small New England tourist town. All the clapboard buildings were old, crooked, and crowded together. The two-lane highway through the three-block-long center of town was slowed and backed up by tourists turning out of side streets and trying to find places to park. Small buildings had been converted to restaurants, gift shops, and art galleries. One picture window they hurried past had photos of houses and land for sale.

Alex and Jax went into one of the wilderness outfitters to pick up what they might need for hiking into the land and sleeping outside. Together they grimly went about the business of equipping themselves.

Jax knew exactly what was needed. Alex converted her list into what his world had to offer. When she said that they would probably need bedrolls, he showed her sleeping bags. They selected a small, compact tent for two that took up very little space strapped under a backpack. She was impressed with the quality and innovation of the backpacks and other equipment and was able to minimize what they would need.

All Alex could think about as they quickly went about selecting various equipment was all the people who had died such horrific deaths that morning and all the traumatized survivors and all the lives that would be forever altered. Everyone in the shop was talking about the terror attacks. A number of people thought it was the work of Islamic fundamentalists, while two older women argued that warring drug cartels had been responsible.

Everyone feared what it could mean. The mood was one of dread and expectancy that they were yet to see the true dimension of the coming shadow of a cataclysm. Some people seemed to think such violence would soon swoop in to visit even the little town of Westfield.

Everyone feared what would happen next.

Alex guessed that what happened next depended on him.

After they left with their purchases, they stopped in a small market and bought food to pack in, then went to see if the truck was done. The service writer told Alex that it was almost finished and suggested they wait in the lounge for a few minutes. The TV was on in the lounge, carrying details of the killings. Alex didn’t want to watch it. Besides, his mind was racing too fast for him to sit still. He needed to walk.

As they went outside, he spotted something hauntingly familiar in an art gallery directly across the street from the Jeep dealer. After two huge log trucks rumbled past, he took Jax by the hand and, in a break in the traffic, ran across the street.

On an easel, where it would show prominently through the front window of the gallery, was a large painting dominated by angry slashes of red paint. It reminded Alex of a frenzied, bloody, murderous temper tantrum.

He slowly approached the window, looking in at the painting on display as if it were something threatening, something deadly. He stood frozen, staring at it. He recognized the style.

The precisely made signature on the painting was R. C. Dillion.

“What is it?” Jax asked, frowning over at him.

He couldn’t find his voice. It suddenly all made sense.

“Alex. .” Jax called after him, hurrying to catch up as he swept into the gallery. “What’s the matter?”

Inside, Alex stopped in front of the painting. The random collection of red slashes dripped red paint down the face of the canvas.

“What?” Jax said.

Alex pulled out the piece of paper and handed it to her. “Look at the handwriting on the paper. Don’t read the cities, just look at the handwriting.”

She studied the list of cities for a moment, then looked up at him again. “What about it?”

“Look at the signature on this painting.”

Jax squinted at the muddy-white, precisely done R. C. Dillion.

“Dear spirits,” she whispered. “They’re the same hand.”

“R. C. Dillion,” Alex said as he finally looked over at her. “R.C. — Radell Cain. He’s been right under my nose the whole time. He’s been there watching me, playing with me.”

“Quite a stunning piece of work, isn’t it?” a woman in a tightly buttoned dark gray suit said as she came up to them, smiling, clasping her hands before herself.

“You can’t imagine,” Alex said.

“He’s an up-and-coming midwestern artist who is becoming a national figure at the forefront of a new reality in art.”

Alex recognized the words Mr. Martin, the gallery owner back home in Orden, had used to describe R. C. Dillion. He wondered if R.C. himself had given them that description.

“A new reality,” Alex repeated in a flat tone. “Yes, so I’ve heard. How much?”

She was a little taken aback that he so immediately demanded the price. She fingered the small white collar folded over the suit at her throat as she ran figures through her head.

“It’s well worth—”

“How much are you willing to sell it for? Cash. Right now.”

The woman smiled. “R. C. Dillion has recently arrived in town for a little rest and seclusion, he told me, and only just placed this with us. We’re honored he allowed us to offer one of his pieces. The price is twelve thousand dollars.”

Doing his best to contain his rage, Alex pulled one of the fat envelopes stuffed with cash from his pocket. He started counting out one-hundred-dollar bills as the woman stood in mute shock to see him paying cash on the spot.

It was the money from the settlement for the fire that had destroyed his grandfather’s house. Alex thought that Ben would have approved of what he was doing.

When he had handed over the whole twelve thousand dollars, he asked, “Do you have a black magic marker? The fat kind, with permanent ink?”

A little confused, she half turned and gestured toward an old oak desk sitting behind a furnace grate, back against the white plastered wall. “Why, yes, I believe I have one like you’re talking about. It’s the kind of marker we use to write signs for the window. Is that what you mean?”

“Yes. May I borrow it, please?”

The woman went to the desk and searched through a couple of drawers until she found the marker. She returned, her heel strikes echoing off the warped, wooden floor, and handed it over.

Alex picked up the painting he now owned and in big letters across it wrote “R.C. — I will be at the gateway. Come and get me.” He signed it “Lord Rahl.”

He handed the painting to the stunned woman. “Please give this to good old R.C. when he returns, will you? My treat.”

The woman stood slack-jawed and speechless as Jax and Alex walked out.

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