Book: Black Wings

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Laird Barron

 

Laird Barron is the author of the acclaimed short story collection The Imago Sequence and Other Stories (Night Shade, 2007). His stories have appeared in Sci Fiction and Fantasy & Science Fiction and have been reprinted in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, The Year's Best Fantasy, and Best New Fantasy 2005. He is now at work on his first novel.

 
 
ately, Pershing dreamed of his long lost friend Terry Walker. Terry himself was seldom actually present; the dreams were soundless and gray as surveillance videos, and devoid of actors. There were trees and fog, and moving shapes like shadow puppets against a wall. On several occasions he'd surfaced from these fitful dreams to muted whispering—he momentarily formed the odd notion a figure stood in the shadows of the doorway. And in that moment his addled brain gave the form substance: his father, his brother, his dead wife, but none of them, of course, for as the fog cleared from his mind, the shadows were erased by morning light, and the whispers receded into the rush and hum of the laboring fan. He wondered if these visions were a sign of impending heat stroke, or worse.

  September had proved killingly hot. The air conditioning went offline and would remain so for God knew how long. This was announced by Superintendent Frame after a small mob of irate tenants finally cornered him sneaking from his office, hat in hand. He claimed ignorance of the root cause of their misery. "I've men working on it!" he said as he made his escape; for that day, at least. By the more sour observers' best estimates, "men working on it" meant Hopkins the sole custodian. Hopkins was even better than Superintendent Frame at finding a dark hole and pulling it in after himself. Nobody had seen him in days.

  Pershing Dennard did what all veteran tenants of the Broadsword Hotel had done over the years to survive these toofrequent travails: he effected emergency adaptations to his habitat. Out came the made-in-China box fan across which he draped damp wash cloths. He shuttered the windows and snugged heavy drapes to keep his apartment dim. Of course he maintained a ready supply of vodka in the freezer. The sweltering hours of daylight were for hibernation; dozing on the sofa, a chilled pitcher of lemonade and booze at his elbow. These maneuvers rendered the insufferable slightly bearable, but only by inches.

  He wilted in his recliner and stared at the blades of the ceiling fan cutting through the blue-streaked shadows while television static beamed between the toes of his propped-up feet. He listened. Mice scratched behind plaster. Water knocked through the pipes with deep-sea groans and soundings. Vents whistled, transferring dim clangs and screeches from the lower floors, the basement, and lower still, the subterranean depths beneath the building itself.

  The hissing ducts occasionally lulled him into a state of semihypnosis. He imagined lost caverns and inverted forests of roosting bats, a primordial river that tumbled through midnight grottos until it plunged so deep the stygian black acquired a red nimbus, a vast throbbing heart of brimstone and magma. Beyond the falls, abyssal winds howled and shrieked and called his name. Such images inevitably gave him more of a chill than he preferred and he shook them off, concentrated on baseball scores, the creak and grind of his joints. He'd shoveled plenty of dirt and jogged over many a hill in his career as a state surveyor. Every swing of the spade, every machete chop through temperate jungle had left its mark on muscle and bone.

  Mostly, and with an intensity of grief he'd not felt in thirty-six years, more than half his lifetime, he thought about Terry Walker. It probably wasn't healthy to brood. That's what the grief counselor had said. The books said that, too. Yet how could a man not gnaw on that bone sometimes?

  Anyone who's lived beyond the walls of a cloister has had at least one bad moment, an experience that becomes the proverbial dark secret. In this Pershing was the same as everyone. His own dark moment had occurred many years prior; a tragic event he'd dwelled upon for weeks and months with manic obsession, until he learned to let go, to acknowledge his survivor's guilt and move on with his life. He'd done well to box the memory, to shove it in a dusty corner of his subconscious. He distanced himself from the event until it seemed like a cautionary tale based on a stranger's experiences.

  He was an aging agnostic and it occurred to him that, as he marched ever closer to his personal gloaming, the ghosts of Christmases Past had queued up to take him to task, that this heat wave had fostered a delirium appropriate to second-guessing his dismissal of ecclesiastical concerns, and penitence.

  In 1973 he and Walker got lost during a remote surveying operation and wound up spending thirty-six hours wandering the wilderness. He'd been doing field work for six or seven years and should have known better than to hike away from the base camp that morning.

  At first they'd only gone far enough to relieve themselves. Then, he'd seen something—someone—watching him from the shadow of a tree and thought it was one of the guys screwing around. This was an isolated stretch of high country in the wilds of the Olympic Peninsula. There were homesteads and ranches along its fringes, but not within ten miles. The person, apparently a man, judging from his build, was half-crouched, studying the ground. He waved to Pershing; a casual, friendly gesture. The man's features were indistinct, but at that moment Pershing convinced himself it was Morris Miller or Pete Cabellos, both of whom were rabid outdoorsmen and constantly nattering on about the ecological wonderland in which the crew currently labored. The man straightened and beckoned, sweeping his hand in a come-on gesture. He walked into the trees.

  Terry zipped up, shook his head and trudged that direction. Pershing thought nothing of it and tagged along. They went to where the man had stood and discovered what he'd been staring at—an expensive backpack of the variety popular with suburbanite campers. The pack was battered, its shiny yellow and green material shredded. Pershing got the bad feeling it was brand new.

  Oh, shit, Terry said. Maybe a bear got somebody. We better get back to camp and tell Higgins. Higgins was the crew leader; surely he'd put together a search and rescue operation to find the missing owner of the pack. That would have been the sensible course, except, exactly as they turned to go, Pete Cabellos called to them from the woods. His voice echoed and bounced from the cliffs and boulders. Immediately, the men headed in the direction of the yell.

  They soon got thoroughly lost. Every tree is the same tree in a forest. Clouds rolled in and it became impossible to navigate by sun or stars. Pershing's compass was back at camp with the rest of his gear, and Terry's was malfunctioning—condensation clouded the glass internally, rendered the needle useless. After a few hours of stumbling around yelling for their colleagues, they decided to follow the downhill slope of the land and promptly found themselves in mysterious hollows and thickets. It was a grave situation, although, that evening as the two camped in a steady downpour, embarrassment figured more prominently than fear of imminent peril.

  Terry brought out some jerky and Pershing always carried waterproof matches in his vest pocket, so they got a fire going from the dried moss and dead twigs beneath the boughs of a massive old fir, munched on jerky, and lamented their predica ment. The two argued halfheartedly about whether they'd actually heard Pete or Morris calling that morning, or a mysterious third party.

  Pershing fell asleep with his back against the mossy bole and was plunged into nightmares of stumbling through the foggy woods. A malevolent presence lurked in the mist and shadows. Figures emerged from behind trees and stood silently. Their wickedness and malice were palpable. He knew with the inexplicable logic of dreams that these phantoms delighted in his terror, that they were eager to inflict unimaginable torments upon him.

  Terry woke him and said he'd seen someone moving around just beyond the light of the dying fire. Rain pattering on the leaves made it impossible to hear if anyone was moving around in the bushes, so Terry threw more branches on the fire and they warmed their hands and theorized that the person who'd beckoned them into the woods was the owner of the pack. Terry, ever the pragmatist, suspected the man had struck his head and was now in a raving delirium, possibly even circling their camp.

  Meanwhile, Pershing was preoccupied with more unpleasant possibilities. Suppose the person they'd seen had actually killed a hiker and successfully lured them into the wild? Another thought insinuated itself; his grandmother had belonged to a long line of superstitious Appalachian folk. She'd told him and his brother ghost stories and of legends such as the Manitou, and lesserknown tales about creatures who haunted the woods and spied on men and disappeared when a person spun to catch them. He'd thrilled to her stories while snug before the family hearth with a mug of cocoa and the company of loved ones. The stories took on a different note here in the tall trees.

  It rained hard all the next day and the clouds descended into the forest. Emergency protocol dictated staying put and awaiting the inevitable rescue, rather than blindly groping in circles through the fog. About midday, Terry went to get a drink from a spring roughly fifty feet from their campsite. Pershing never saw him again. Well, not quite true: he saw him twice more.

 
 
ershing moved into the Broadsword Hotel in 1979, a few months after his first wife, Ethel, unexpectedly passed away. He met second wife, Constance, at a hotel mixer. They were married in 1983, had Lisa Anne and Jimmy within two years, and were divorced by 1989. She said the relationship was been doomed from the start because he'd never really finished mourning Ethel. Connie grew impatient of his mooning over old dusty photo albums and playing old moldy tunes on the antique record player he stashed in the closet along with several illconcealed bottles of scotch. Despite his fondness for liquor, Pershing didn't consider himself a heavy drinker, but rather a steady one.

   During their courtship, Pershing talked often of leaving the Broadsword. Oh, she was queenly in her time, a seven-floor art deco complex on the West Side of Olympia on a wooded hill with a view of the water, the marina, and downtown. No one living knew how she'd acquired her bellicose name. She was built in 1918 as a posh hotel, complete with a four-star restaurant, swanky nightclub-cum-gambling hall, and a grand ballroom; the kind of place that attracted not only the local gentry, but visiting Hollywood celebrities, sports figures, and politicians. After passing through the hands of several owners, the Broadsword was purchased by a Midwest corporation and converted to a middleincome apartment complex in 1958. The old girl suffered a number of renovations to wedge in more rooms, but she maintained a fair bit of charm and historical gravitas even five decades and several facelifts later.

  Nonetheless, Pershing and Connie had always agreed the cramped quarters were no substitute for a real house with a yard and a fence. Definitely a tough place to raise children—unfortunately, the recession had killed the geophysical company he'd worked for in those days and money was tight.

  Connie was the one who eventually got out—she moved to Cleveland and married a banker. The last Pershing heard, she lived in a three-story mansion and had metamorphosed into a white-gloved, garden party–throwing socialite who routinely got her name in the lifestyle section of the papers. He was happy for her and the kids, and a little relieved for himself. That tiny single bedroom flat had been crowded!

  He moved up as well. Up to the sixth floor into 119; what the old superintendent (in those days it was Anderson Heck) sardonically referred to as an executive suite. According to the super, only two other people had ever occupied the apartment—the so-called executive suites were spacious enough that tenants held onto them until they died. The previous resident was a bibliophile who'd retired from a post at the Smithsonian. The fellow left many books and photographs when he died and his heirs hadn't seen fit to come around and pack up his estate. As it happened, the freight elevator was usually on the fritz in those days and the regular elevator wasn't particularly reliable either. So the superintendent offered Pershing three months' free rent if he personally dealt with the daunting task of organizing and then lugging crates of books and assorted memorabilia down six steep flights to the curb.

  Pershing put his muscles to good use. It took him three days' hard labor to clear out the apartment and roughly three hours to move his embarrassingly meager belongings in. The rest, as they say, was history.

 
 
ershing would turn sixty-seven in October. Wanda Blankenship, his current girlfriend of nine months and counting, was forty-something—she played it coy, careful not to say, and he hadn't managed a peek at her driver license. He guessed she was pushing fifty, although she took care of herself, hit the Pilates circuit with her chums, and thus passed for a few years on the uphill side. "Grave robber!" he said when she goosed him, or made a half-hearted swipe at his testicles, which was often, and usually in public. She was a librarian too; a fantasy cliché ironically fulfilled during this, his second or third boyhood when he needed regular doses of the little blue pill to do either of them any justice.

  Nine months meant their relationship had edged from the danger zone and perilously near the edge of no return. He'd gotten comfortable with her sleeping over a couple of nights a week, like a lobster getting cozy in a kettle of warm water. He'd casually mentioned her to Lisa Anne and Jimmy during one of their monthly phone conferences, which was information he usually kept close to his vest. More danger signals: she installed a toothbrush in the medicine cabinet and shampoo in the bath. He couldn't find his extra key one night after coming home late from the Red Room and realized he'd given it to her weeks before in a moment of weakness. As the robot used to say, Danger, Will Robinson! Danger! Danger! He was cooked, all right, which was apropos, considering the weather.

  "Oh, ye gods! Like hell I'm coming up there!" she said during their latest phone conversation. "My air conditioner is tip top. You come over here." She paused to snicker. "Where I can get my hands on you!"

  He wanted to argue, to resist, but was too busy melting into the couch, and knew if he refused she'd come flying on her broom to chivvy him away most unceremoniously. Defeated, he put on one of his classier ties, all of which Constance had chosen, and made the pilgrimage—on foot in the savage glare of late afternoon because he walked everywhere, hadn't owned a car since he sold his El Camino in 1982. Walking generally suited him; he'd acquired a taste for it during his years of toil in the wilderness. He took a meager bit of pride in noting that his comfortable "trav eling" pace left most men a quarter his age gasping and winded after a short distance.

  He disliked visiting her place, a small cottage-style house in a quiet neighborhood near downtown. Not that there was anything wrong with the house itself, aside from the fact it was too tidy, too orderly, and she insisted on china dishes for breakfast, lunch, supper, and tea. He lived in constant fear of dropping something, spilling something, breaking something with his large, clumsy hands. She cheerily dismissed such concerns, remarking that her cups and dishes were relics passed down through the generations—"They gotta go sometime. Don't be so uptight." Obviously, this served to heighten his paranoia.

  Wanda made dinner; fried chicken and honeydew, and wine for dessert. Wine disagreed with his insides and gave him a headache. When she broke out the after-dinner merlot, he smiled and drank up like a good soldier. It was the gentlemanly course—also, he was loath to give her any inkling regarding his penchant for the hard stuff. Her husband had drunk himself to death. Pershing figured he could save his own incipient alcoholism as an escape route. If things got too heavy, he could simply crack a bottle of Absolut and guzzle it like soda pop, which would doubtless give him a heart attack. Freedom either way! Meanwhile, the deceit must perforce continue.

  They were snuggling on the loveseat, buzzed by wine and luxuriating in the blessed coolness of her living room, when she casually said, "So, who's the girl?"

  Pershing's heart fluttered, his skin went clammy. Such questions never boded well. He affected nonchalance. "Ah, sweetie, I'm a dashing fellow. Which girl are you talking about?" That heart attack he sometimes dreamt of seemed a real possibility.

  Wanda smiled. "The girl I saw leaving your apartment the other morning, silly."

  The fact he didn't know any girls besides a few cocktail waitresses didn't make him feel any better. He certainly was guilty of looking at lots of girls and couldn't help but wonder if that was enough to bury him. Then, instead of reassuring her that no such person existed, or that there must be some innocent mistake, he idiotically said, "Oh. What were you doing coming over in the morning?" In short order, he found himself on the porch. The sky was purple and orange with sunset. It was a long, sticky walk back to the hotel.

 
 
he next day he asked around the Broadsword. Nobody had seen a girl and nobody cared. Nobody had seen Hopkins either. Him they cared about. Even Bobby Silver— Sly to his friends—didn't seem interested in the girl, and Sly was the worst lecher Pershing had ever met. Sly managed a dry cackle and a nudge to the ribs when Pershing described the mystery girl who'd allegedly come from his apartment. Young (relatively speaking), dark-haired, voluptuous, short black dress, lipstick.

  "Heard anything about when they're gonna fix the cooling system? It's hotter than the hobs of Hell in here!" Sly sprawled on a bench just off the columned hotel entrance. He fanned himself with a crinkled Panama hat.

  Mark Ordbecker, a high school math teacher who lived in the apartment directly below Pershing's with his wife Harriet and two children, suggested a call to the police. "Maybe one of them should come over and look around." They made this exchange at Ordbecker's door. The teacher leaned against the doorframe, trying in vain to feed the shrieking baby a bottle of milk. His face was red and sweaty. He remarked that the start of the school year would actually be a relief from acting as a househusband. His wife had gone east for a funeral. "The wife flies out and all hell breaks loose. She's going to come home to my funeral if the weather doesn't change."

  Ordbecker's other child, a five-year-old boy named Eric, stood behind his father. His hair was matted with sweat and his face gleamed, but it was too pale.

  "Hi, Eric," Pershing said. "I didn't see you there. How you doing, kiddo?"

  Little Eric was normally rambunctious or, as Wanda put it, obstreperous, as in an obstreperous hellion. Today he shrank farther back and wrapped an arm around his father's leg.

  "Don't mind him. Misses his mom." Mark leaned closer and murmured, "Separation anxiety. He won't sleep by himself while she's gone. You know how kids are." He reached down awkwardly and ruffled the boy's hair. "About your weirdo visitor—call the cops. At least file a report so if this woman's crazy and she comes at you with a pair of shears in the middle of the night and you clock her with a golf club, there's a prior record."

  Pershing thanked him. He remained unconvinced this was anything other than a coincidence or possibly Wanda's imagination, what with her sudden attack of jealousy. He almost knocked on Phil Wesley's door across the hall. The fellow moved in a few years back; a former stage magician, or so went the tales, and a decade Pershing's senior. Well-dressed and amiable, Wesley nonetheless possessed a certain aloofness; also, he conducted a psychic medium service out of his apartment. Tarot readings, hypnosis, séances, all kinds of crackpot business. They said hello in passing, had waited outside Superintendent Frame's office, and that was the extent of their relationship. Pershing preferred the status quo in this case.

  "Cripes, this is all nonsense anyway." He always locked his apartment with a deadbolt; he'd become security-conscious in his advancing years, not at all sure he could handle a robber, what with his bad knees and weak back. Thankfully, there'd been no sign of forced entry, no one other than his girlfriend had seen anything, thus he suspected his time schlepping about the hotel in this beastly heat playing amateur investigator was a colossal waste of energy.

  Wanda didn't call, which wasn't surprising considering her stubbornness. Dignity prohibited him ringing her. Nonetheless, her silence rankled; his constant clock watching annoyed him, too. It wasn't like him to fret over a woman, which meant he missed her more than he'd have guessed.

  As the sun became an orange blob in the west, the temperature peaked. The apartment was suffocating. He dragged himself to the refrigerator and stood before its open door, straddle-legged in his boxers, bathed in the stark white glow. Tepid relief was better than nothing.

  Someone whispered behind him and giggled. He turned quickly. The laughter originated in the living area, between the coffee table and a bookshelf. Because the curtains were tightly closed the room lay in a blue-tinged gloom that played tricks on his eyes. He sidled to the sink and swept his arm around until he flicked the switch for the overhead light. This illuminated a sufficient area that he felt confident to venture forth. Frankie Walton's suite abutted his own—and old Frankie's hearing was shot. He had to crank the volume on his radio for the ballgames. Once in a while Pershing heard the tinny exclamations of the play-by-play guys, the roar of the crowd. This, however, sounded like a person was almost on top of him, sneering behind his back.

  What, you think someone's hiding under the table? Don't be a fool, Percy. Good thing your girl isn't here to see you shaking in the knees like a wimp.

  Closer inspection revealed the sounds had emanated from a vent near the window. He chuckled ruefully as his muscles relaxed. Ordbecker was talking to the baby and the sound carried upstairs. Not unusual; the hotel's acoustics were peculiar, as he well knew. He knelt and cocked his head toward the vent, slightly guilty at eavesdropping, yet in the full grip of curiosity. People were definitely in conversation, yet, he gradually realized, not the Ordbeckers. These voices were strange and breathy, and came from farther off, fading in and out with a static susurration.

  Intestines. Kidneys.

  Ohh, either is delectable.

  And sweetbreads. As long as they're from a young one.

  Ganglia, for me. Or brain. Scoop it out quivering.

  Enough! Let's start tonight. We'll take one from—

  They tittered and their words degenerated into garble, then stopped.

  Shh, shh! Wait! . . . Someone's listening.

  Don't be foolish.

  They are. There's a spy hanging on our every word.

  How can you tell?

  I can hear them breathing.

  He clapped his hand over his mouth. His hair stood on end.

  I hear you, spy. Which room could you be in? First floor? No, no. The fifth or the sixth.

  His heart labored. What was this?

  We'll figure it out where you are, dear listener. Pay you a visit. While you sleep. Whoever it was laughed like a child, or someone pretending to be one. You could always come down here where the mome wraths outgrabe . . . . Deep in the bowels of the building, the furnace rumbled to life as it did every four hours to push air circulation through the vents. The hiss muffled the crooning threats, which ceased altogether a few minutes later when the system shut down.

  Pershing was stunned and nauseated. Kidneys? Sweetbreads? He picked up the phone to punch in 911 before he got hold of his senses. What on earth would he say to the dispatcher? He could guess what they'd tell him: Stop watching so many late night thrillers, Mr. Dennard. He waited, eyeing the vent as if a snake might slither forth, but nothing happened. First the phantom girl, now this. Pretty soon he'd be jumping at his own shadow. First stage dementia, just like dear old Dad. Mom and Uncle Mike put Ernest Dennard in a home for his seventieth birthday. He'd become paranoid and delusional prior to that step. At the home Pop's faculties degenerated until he didn't know if he was coming or going. He hallucinated his sons were the ghosts of war buddies and screamed and tried to leap through his window when they visited. Thankfully, long before this turn of events Mom had the foresight to hide the forty-five caliber pistol he kept in the dresser drawer. Allegedly Grandma went through a similar experience with Gramps. Pershing didn't find his own prospects very cheery.

  But you don't have dementia yet, and you don't knock back enough booze to be hallucinating. You heard them, clear as day. Jeezus C., who are they?

  Pershing walked around the apartment and flicked on some lights; he checked his watch and decided getting the hell out for a few hours might be the best remedy for his jangled nerves. He put on a suit—nothing fancy, just a habit he'd acquired from his uncle who'd worked as a professor—and felt hat and left. He managed to catch the last bus going downtown. The bus was an oven; empty except for himself, a pair of teens, and the driver. Even so, it reeked from the day's accumulation; a miasma of sweat and armpit stench.

  The depot had attracted its customary throng of weary seniors and the younger working poor, and a smattering of fancifully coiffed, tattooed, and pierced students from Evergreen; the former headed home or to the late shift, the latter off to house parties, or bonfires along the inlet beaches. Then there were the human barnacles—a half-dozen toughs decked out in parkas and baggy sports warmup suits despite the crushing heat; the hard, edgy kind who watched everyone else, who appraised the herd. Olympia was by no means a big town, but it hosted more than its share of beatings and stabbings, especially in the northerly quarter inward from the marina and docks. One didn't hang around the old cannery district at night unless one wanted to get mugged.

  Tonight none of the ruffians paid him any heed. From the depot he quickly walked through several blocks of semi-deserted industrial buildings and warehouses, made a right and continued past darkened sporting good stores, bookshops, and tattoo parlors until he hooked onto a narrow side lane and reached the subtly lighted wooden shingle of the Manticore Lounge. The Manticore was a hole in the wall that catered to a slightly more reserved set of clientele than was typical of the nightclubs and sports bars on the main thoroughfares. Inside was an oasis of coolness, scents of lemon and beer.

  Weeknights were slow—two young couples occupied tables near the darkened dais that served as a stage for the four-piece bands that played on weekends; two beefy gentlemen in tailored suits sat at the bar. Lobbyists in town to siege the legislature; one could tell by their Rolexes and how the soft lighting from the bar made their power haircuts glisten.

  Mel Clayton and Elgin Bane waved him over to their window booth. Mel, an engineering consultant who favored blue buttonup shirts, heavy on the starch, and Elgin, a social worker who dressed in black turtlenecks and wore Buddy Holly–style glasses and sometimes lied to women at parties by pretending to be a beat poet; he even stashed a ratty pack of cloves in his pocket for such occasions. He quoted Kerouac and Ginsberg chapter and verse regardless how many rounds of Johnny Walker he'd put away. Pershing figured his friend's jaded posturing, his affected cynicism, was influenced by the depressing nature of his job: he dealt with emotional basket cases, battered wives, and abused children sixty to seventy hours a week. What did they say? At the heart of every cynic lurked an idealist. That fit Elgin quite neatly.

  Elgin owned a house in Yelm, and Mel lived on the second floor of the Broadsword—they and Pershing and three or four other guys from the neighborhood got together for drinks at the Manticore or The Red Room at least once a month; more frequently now as the others slipped closer to retirement and their kids grad uated college. Truth be told, he was much closer to these two than he was to his younger brother Carl, who lived in Denver and whom he hadn't spoken with in several months.

  Every autumn, the three of them, sometimes with their significant others, drove up into the Black Hills outside Olympia to a hunting cabin Elgin's grandfather owned. None of them hunted; they enjoyed lounging on the rustic porch, roasting marshmallows, and sipping hot rum around the campfire. Pershing enjoyed these excursions—no one ever wanted to go hiking or wander far from the cabin, and thus his suppressed dread of wilderness perils remained quiescent, except for the occasional stab of nervousness when the coyotes barked, or the wind crashed in the trees, or his unease at how perfectly dark the woods became at night.

  Mel bought him a whiskey sour—Mel invariably insisted on covering the tab. It's you boys or my ex-wife, so drink up! Pershing had never met the infamous Nancy Clayton; she was the inimitable force behind Mel's unceremonious arrival at the Broadsword fifteen years back, although judging from his flirtatious behavior with the ladies, his ouster was doubtless warranted. Nancy lived in Seattle with her new husband in the Lake Washington townhouse Mel toiled through many a late night and weekend to secure. He'd done better with Regina, his second wife. Regina owned a bakery in Tumwater and she routinely made cookies for Pershing and company. A kindly woman and largehearted; she'd immediately adopted Mel's cast of misfit friends and associates.

  After the trio had chatted for a few minutes, griping about the "damnable" weather, mainly, Elgin said, "What's eating you? You haven't touched your drink."

  Pershing winced at eating. He hesitated, then chided himself. What sense to play coy? Obviously he wished to talk about what happened. Why else had he come scuttling in from the dark, tail between his legs? "I . . . heard something at home earlier tonight. People whispering in the vent. Weird, I know. But it really scared me. The stuff they said . . . "

  Mel and Elgin exchanged glances. Elgin said, "Like what?"

  Pershing told them. Then he briefly described what Wanda said about the mystery girl. "The other thing that bothers me is. . . this isn't the first time. The last couple of weeks I've been hearing stuff. Whispers. I wrote those off. Now, I'm not so sure."

   Mel stared into his glass. Elgin frowned and set his palm against his chin in apparently unconscious imitation of The Thinker. He said, "Hmm. That's bizarre. Kinda screwed up, in fact. It almost makes me wonderd—"

  "—if your place is bugged," Mel said.

  "Bugged?"

  "This from the man with a lifetime subscription to the Fortean Times," Elgin said. "Damn, but sometimes I think you and Freeman would make a great couple." Randy Freeman being an old school radical who'd done too much Purple Haze in the '60s and dialed into the diatribes of a few too many Che Guevara–loving hippie chicks for his own good. He was another of The Red Room set.

  Mel took Elgin's needling in stride. "Hey, I'm dead serious. Two and two, baby. I'll lay odds somebody miked Percy's apartment."

  "For the love of—" Elgin waved him off, settling into his mode of dismissive impatience. "Who on God's green earth would do something crazy like that? No-freaking-body, that's who."

  "It is a bit farfetched," Pershing said. "On the other hand, if you'd heard this crap. I dunno."

  "Oh, hell." Elgin took a sip of his drink, patently incredulous.

  "Jeez, guys—I'm not saying Homeland Security wired it for sound . . . maybe another tenant is playing games. People do wacko things."

  "No forced entry." Pershing pointed at Mel. "And don't even say it might be Wanda. I'll have to slug you."

  "Nah, Wanda's not sneaky. Who else has got a key?"

  Elgin said, "The super would have one. I mean, if you're determined to go there, then that's the most reasonable suspect. Gotta tell you, though—you're going to feel like how Mel looks when it turns out to be television noise—which is to say, an idiot."

  "Ha, ha. Question is, what to do?"

  "Elgin's right. Let's not make a bigger deal of this than it is . . . I got spooked."

  "And the light of reason shines through. I'm going to the head." Elgin stood and made his way across the room and disappeared around a big potted fern.

  Pershing said, "Do you mind if I sleep on your couch? If I'm not intruding, that is."

  Mel smiled. "No problem. Gina doesn't care. Just be warned she goes to work at four in the morning, so she'll be stumbling around the apartment." He glanced over to make certain Elgin was still safely out of sight. "Tomorrow I'll come up and help you scope your pad. A while back Freeman introduced me to a guy in Tacoma who runs one of those spy shops with the mini-cameras and microphones. I'll get some tools and we'll see what's what."

  After another round Elgin drove them back to the Broadsword. Just before he pulled away, he stuck his head out the window and called, "Don't do anything crazy."

  "Which one of us is he talking to?" Mel said, glaring over his shoulder.

  "I'm talking to both of you," Elgin said. He gunned the engine and zipped into the night.

 
 
egina had already gone to bed. Mel tiptoed around his darkened apartment getting a blanket and a pillow for Pershing, cursing softly as he bumped into furniture. Two box fans blasted, but the room was muggy as a greenhouse. Once the sleeping arrangements were made, he got a six-pack of Heineken from the refrigerator and handed one to Pershing. They kicked back and watched a repeat of the Mariners game with the volume turned most of the way down. The seventh-inning stretch did Mel in. His face had a droopy, hangdog quality that meant he was loaded and ready to crash. He said goodnight and sneaked unsteadily toward the bedroom.

  Pershing watched the rest of the game, too lethargic to reach for the remote. Eventually he killed the television and lay on the coach, sweat molding his clothes to him like a second skin. His heart felt sluggish. A night light in the kitchen cast ghostly radiance upon the wall, illuminating bits of Regina's Ansel Adams prints, the glittery mica eyes of her menagerie of animal figurines on the mantel. Despite his misery, he fell asleep right away.

  A woman gasped in pleasure. That brought him up from the depths. The cry repeated, muffled by the wall of Mel and Gina's bedroom. He stared at the ceiling, mortified, thinking that Mel certainly was one hell of a randy bastard after he got a few drinks under his belt. Then someone whispered, perhaps five feet to his left where the light didn't penetrate. The voice chanted: This old man, this old man . . .

  The syrupy tone wicked away the heat as if he'd fallen into a cold, black lake. He sat upright so quickly pains sparked in his neck and back. His only consolation lay in the recognition of the slight echoing quality, which suggested the person was elsewhere. Whistling emanated from the shadows, its falsetto muted by the background noise. He clumsily sprang from the couch, his fear transformed to a more useful sense of anger, and crab-walked until he reached the proper vent. "Hey, jerk!" he said, placing his face within kissing distance of the grill. "I'm gonna break your knees with my baseball bat if you don't shut your damn mouth!" His bravado was thin—he did keep a Louisville slugger, signed by Ken Griffey Jr., no less, in the bedroom closet in case a burglar broke in at night. Whether he'd be able to break anyone's knees was open to question.

  The whistling broke off mid-tune. Silence followed. Pershing listened so hard his skull ached. He said to himself with grudging satisfaction, "That's right, creepos, you better stuff a sock in it. His sense of accomplishment was marred by the creeping dread that the reason his tormentors (or was it Mel's since this was his place?) had desisted was because they even now prowled the stairwells and halls of the old building, patiently searching for him.

  He finally went and poured a glass of water and huddled at the kitchen table until dawn lighted the windows and Gina stumbled in to make coffee.

 
 
he temperature spiked to one hundred and three degrees by two p.m. the following afternoon. He bought Wanda two dozen roses with a card and chocolates, and arranged to have them delivered to her house. Mission accomplished, he went directly to an air-conditioned coffee shop, found a dark corner, and ordered half a dozen consecutive frozen frappucinos. That killed time until his rendezvous with Mel at the Broadsword.

  Mel grinned like a mischievous schoolboy when he showed off his fiber-optic snooper cable, a meter for measuring electromagnetic fluctuations, and his battered steel toolbox. Pershing asked if he'd done this before and Mel replied that he'd learned a trick or two in the Navy.

  "Just don't destroy anything," Pershing said. At least a dozen times he'd started to tell Mel about the previous night's visitation, the laughter; after all, if this was occurring in different apartments on separate floors, the scope of such a prank would be improbable. He couldn't devise a way to break it to his friend and still remain credible, and so kept his peace, miserably observing the operation unfold.

  After lugging the equipment upstairs, Mel spread a dropcloth to protect the hardwood floor and arrayed his various tools with the affected studiousness of a surgeon preparing to perform openheart surgery. Within five minutes he'd unscrewed the antique brass grillwork plate and was rooting around inside the guts of the duct with a flashlight and a big screwdriver. Next, he took a reading with the voltmeter, then, finding nothing suspicious, made a laborious circuit of the entire apartment, running the meter over the other vents, the molding, and outlets. Pershing supplied him with glasses of lemonade to diffuse his own sense of helplessness.

  Mel switched off the meter, wiping his face and neck with a damp cloth. He gulped the remainder of the pitcher of lemonade and shook his head with disappointment. "Damn. Place is clean. Well, except for some roaches."

  "I'll make Frame gas them later. So, nothing, eh? It's funny acoustics. Or my imagination."

  "Yeah, could be. Ask your neighbors if they heard anything odd lately."

  "I dunno. They already gave me the fishy eye after I made the rounds checking on Wanda's girl. Maybe I should leave it alone for now. See what happens."

  "That's fine as long as whatever happens isn't bad." Mel packed his tools with a disconsolate expression.

  The phone rang. "I love you, baby," Wanda said on the other end.

  "Me too," Pershing said. "I hope you liked the flowers." Meanwhile, Mel gave him a thumbs up and let himself out. Wanda asked if he wanted to come over and it was all Pershing could do to sound composed. "It's a date. I'll stop and grab a bottle of vino."

  "No way, Jose; you don't know Jack about wine. I'll take care of that—you just bring yourself on over."

  After they disconnected he said, "Thank God." Partly because a peace treaty with Wanda was a relief. The other portion, the much larger portion, frankly, was that he could spend the night well away from the Broadsword. Yeah, that's fine, girly man. How about tomorrow night? How about the one after that?

  For twenty years he'd chewed on the idea of moving; every time the furnace broke in the winter, the cooling system died in the summer, or when the elevators went offline sans explanation from management for weeks on end, he'd joined the crowd of malcontents who wrote letters to the absentee landlord, threatened to call the state, to sue, to breach the rental contract and disappear. Maybe the moment had come to make good on that. Yet in his heart he despaired of escaping; he was a part of the hotel now. It surrounded him like a living tomb.

 
 
e dreamed that he woke and dressed and returned to the Broadsword. In this dream he was a passenger inside his own body, an automaton following its clockwork track. The apartment smelled stale from days of neglect. Something was wrong, however; off kilter, almost as if it wasn't his home at all, but a clever recreation, a stage set. Certain objects assumed hyper-reality, while others submerged into a murky background. The sugar in the glass bowl glowed and dimmed and brightened, like a pulse. Through the window, leaden clouds scraped the tops of buildings and radio antennas vibrated, transmitting a signal that he felt in his skull, his teeth fillings, as a squeal of metal on metal. His nose bled.

  He opened the bathroom door and stopped, confronted by a cavern. The darkness roiled humid and rank, as if the cave was an abscess in the heart of some organic mass. Waves of purple radiation undulated at a distance of feet, or miles, and from those depths resonated the metallic clash of titanic ice flows colliding.

  "It's not a cave," Bobby Silver said. He stood inside the door, surrounded by shadows so that his wrinkled face shone like the sugar bowl. It was suspended in the blackness. "This is the surface. And it's around noon, local time. We do, however, spend most of our lives underground. We like the dark."

  "Where?" He couldn't manage more than a dry whisper.

  "Oh, you know," Sly said, and laughed. "C'mon, bucko—we've been beaming this into your brain for months—"

  "No. Not possible. I've worn my tinfoil hat every day."

  "—our system orbits a brown star, and it's cold, so we nestle in heaps and mounds that rise in ziggurats and pyramids. We swim in blood to stay warm, wring it from the weak the way you might squeeze juice from an orange."

  Pershing recognized the voice from the vent. "You're a fake. Why are you pretending to be Bobby Silver?"

  "Oh. If I didn't wear this, you wouldn't comprehend me. Should I remove it?" Sly grinned, seized his own cheek, and pulled. His flesh stretched like taffy accompanied by a squelching sound. He winked and allowed it to deform to a human shape. "It's what's underneath that counts. You'll see. When we come to stay with you."

  Pershing said, "I don't want to see anything." He tried to flee, to run shrieking, but this being a dream, he was rooted, trapped, unable to do more than mumble protestations.

  "Yes, Percy, you do," Ethel said from behind him. "We love you." As he twisted his head to gape at her, she gave him the soft, tender smile he remembered, the one that haunted his waking dreams, and then put her hand against his face and shoved him into the dark.

 
 
e stayed over at her place for a week—hid out, like a criminal seeking sanctuary from the Church. Unhappily, this doubtless gave Wanda the wrong impression (although at this point even Pershing wasn't certain what impression she should have), but at all costs he needed a vacation from his suddenly creep-infested heat trap of an apartment. Prior to this he'd stayed overnight fewer than a dozen times. His encampment at her house was noted without comment.

  Jimmy's twenty-sixth birthday fell on a Sunday. After morning services at Wanda's Lutheran church, a handsome brick building only five minutes from the Broadsword, Pershing went outside to the quiet employee parking lot and called him. Jimmy had wanted to be an architect since elementary school. He went into construction, which Pershing thought was close enough despite the nagging suspicion his son wouldn't agree. Jimmy lived in California at the moment—he migrated seasonally along the West Coast, chasing jobs. Pershing wished him a happy birthday and explained a card was in the mail. He hoped the kid wouldn't check the postmark as he'd only remembered yesterday and rushed to get it sent before the post office closed.

  Normally he was on top of the family things: the cards, the phone calls, the occasional visit to Lisa Anne when she attended Berkeley. Her stepfather, Barton Ingles III, funded college, which simultaneously indebted and infuriated Pershing, whose fixed income allowed little more than his periodic visits and a small check here and there. Now graduated, she worked for a temp agency in San Francisco and, embarrassingly, her meager base salary surpassed his retirement.

  Toward the end of their conversation, after Pershing's best wishes and obligatory questions about the fine California weather and the job, Jimmy said, "Well, Pop, I hate to ask this . . . "

  "Uh, oh. What have I done now? Don't tell me you need money."

  Jimmy chuckled uneasily. "Nah, if I needed cash I'd ask Bart. He's a tightwad, but he'll do anything to impress Mom, you know? No, it's . . . how do I put this? Are you, um, drinking? Or smoking the ganja, or something? I hate to be rude, but I gotta ask."

  "Are you kidding?"

  There was a long, long pause. "Okay. Maybe I'm . . . Pop, you called me at like two in the morning. Wednesday. You tried to disguise your voice—"

  "Wha-a-t?" Pershing couldn't wrap his mind around what he was hearing. "I did no such thing, James." He breathed heavily, perspiring more than even the weather called for.

  "Pop, calm down, you're hyperventilating. Look, I'm not pissed—I just figured you got hammered and hit the speed dial. It would've been kinda funny if it hadn't been so creepy. Singing, no less."

  "But it wasn't me! I've been with Wanda all week. She sure as hell would've noticed if I got drunk and started prank calling my family. I'll get her on the phone—"

  "Really? Then is somebody sharing your pad? This is the twenty-first century, Pop. I got star sixty-nine. Your number."

  "Oh." Pershing's blood drained into his belly. He covered his eyes with his free hand because the glare from the sidewalk made him dizzy. "What did I—this person—sing, exactly?"

  "'This Old Man,' or whatever it's called. Although you, or they, added some unpleasant lyrics. They slurred . . . falsetto. When I called back, whoever it was answered. I asked what gave and they laughed. Pretty nasty laugh, too. I admit, I can't recall you ever making that kinda sound."

  "It wasn't me. Sober, drunk, whatever. Better believe I'm going to find the bastard. There's been an incident or three around here. Wanda saw a prowler."

  "All right, all right. If that's true, then maybe you should get the cops involved."

  "Yeah."

  "And Pop—let me explain it to Mom and Lisa before you get on the horn with them. Better yet, don't even bother with Mom. She's pretty much freaked outta her mind."

  "They were called."

  "Yeah. Same night. A real spree."

  Pershing could only stammer and mumble when his son said he had to run, and then the line was dead. Wanda appeared from nowhere and touched his arm and he nearly swung on her. She looked shocked and her gaze fastened on his fist. He said, "Jesus, honey, you scared me."

  "I noticed," she said. She remained stiff when he hugged her. The tension was purely reflexive, or so he hoped. His batting average with her just kept sinking. He couldn't do a much better job of damaging their relationship if he tried.

  "I am so, so sorry," he said, and it was true. He hadn't told her about the trouble at the Broadsword. It was one thing to confide in his male friends, and quite another to reveal the source of his anxiety to a girlfriend, or any vulnerability for that matter. He'd inherited his secretiveness from Pop who in turn had hidden his own fears behind a mask of stoicism; this personality trait was simply a fact of life for Dennard men.

  She relented and kissed his cheek. "You're jumpy. Is everything all right?"

  "Sure, sure. I saw a couple of the choir kids flashing gang signs and thought one of the little jerks was sneaking up on me to go for my wallet."

  Thankfully, she accepted this and held his hand as they walked to her car.

 
 
storm rolled in. He and Wanda sat on her back porch, which commanded a view of the distant Black Hills. Clouds swallowed the mountains. A damp breeze fluttered the cocktail napkins under their half-empty Corona bottles, rattled the burnt yellow leaves of the maple tree branches overhead.

  "Oh, my," Wanda said. "There goes the drought."

  "We better hurry and clear the table." Pershing estimated at the rate the front was coming they'd be slammed inside of five minutes. He helped her grab the dishes and table settings. Between trips the breeze stiffened dramatically. Leaves tore from the maple, from trees in neighboring yards, went swirling in small technicolor cyclones. He dashed in with the salad bowl as the vanguard of rain pelted the deck. Lightning flared somewhere over the Waddel Valley; the boom came eight seconds later. The next thunderclap was five seconds. They stood in her window, watching the show until he snapped out his daze and suggested they retreat to the middle of the living room to be safe.

  They cuddled on the sofa, half watching the news while the lights flickered. Wind roared around the house and shook its frame as if a freight train slammed along tracks within spitting distance of the window, or a passenger jet winding its turbines for takeoff. The weather signaled a change in their static routine of the past week. Each knew without saying it that Pershing would return to the Broadsword in the morning, and their relationship would revert to its more nebulous aspect. Pershing also understood from her melancholy glance, the measured casualness in her acceptance, that matters between them would remain undefined, that a line had been crossed.

  He thought about this in the deepest, blackest hours of night while they lay in bed, she lying gently snoring, her arm draped across his chest. How much easier his life would be if his mock comment to Elgin and Mel proved true—that Wanda was a lunatic; a split personality type who was behind the stalking incidents. God, I miss you, Ethel.

 
 
"ouston, we have a problem," Mel said. He'd brought ham sandwiches and coffee to Pershing's apartment for an early supper. He was rattled. "I checked around. Not just you hearing things. Odd, odd stuff going on, man."

  Pershing didn't want to hear, not after the normalcy of staying with Wanda. And the dreams . . . . "You don't say." He really wished Mel wouldn't.

  "The cops have been by a couple of times. Turns out other tenants have seen that chick prowling the halls, trying doorknobs. There's a strange dude, as well—dresses in a robe, like a priest. Betsy Tremblay says the pair knocked on her door one night. The man asked if he could borrow a cup of sugar. Betsy was watching them through the peephole—she says the lady snickered and the man grinned and shushed her by putting his finger over his lips. Scared the hell out of Betsy; she told them to scram and called the cops."

  "A cup of sugar," Pershing said. He glanced out at the clouds. It was raining.

  "Yeah, the old meet-your-cute-neighbor standby. Then I was talking to Fred Nilson; he's pissed because somebody below him is talking all night. 'Whispering,' he said. Only problem is, the apartment below his belongs to a guy named Brad Cox. Cox is overseas. His kids come by every few days to water the plants and feed the guppies. Anyway, no matter how you slice it, something peculiar is going on around here. Doncha feel better?"

  "I never thought I was insane."

  Mel chuckled uneasily. "I was chatting with Gina about the whole thing, and she said she'd heard someone singing while she was in the bath. It came up through the vent. Another time, somebody giggled in the closet while she dressed. She screamed and threw her shoe. This was broad daylight, mind you—no one in there, of course."

  "Why would there be?"

  "Right. Gina thought she was imagining things; she didn't want to tell me in case I decided she was a nut. Makes me wonder how many other people are having these . . . experiences and just keeping it to themselves."

  The thought should have given Pershing comfort, but it didn't. His feelings of dread only intensified. I'm almost seventy, damn it. I've lived in the woods, surrounded by grizzlies and wolves; spent months hiking the ass end of nowhere with a compass and an entrenchment spade. What the hell do I have to be scared of after all that? And the little voice in the back of his mind was quick to supply Sly's answer from the nightmare, Oh, you know. He said, "Food for thought. I guess the police will sort through it."

  "Sure they will. Maybe if somebody gets their throat slashed, or is beaten to death in a home invasion. Otherwise, I bet they just write us off as a bunch of kooks and go back to staking out the doughnut shop. Looks like a police convention some mornings at Gina's store."

  "Wanda wants me to move in with her. I mean, I think she does."

  "That's a sign. You should get while the getting's good."

  They finished the sandwiches and the beer. Mel left to meet Gina when she got home from work. Pershing shut the door and slipped the bolt. The story about the strange couple had gotten to him. He needed a stiff drink.

  The lights blinked rapidly and failed. The room darkened to a cloudy twilight and the windows became opaque smudges. Sounds of rain and wind dwindled and ceased. "Gracious, I thought he'd never leave." Terry Walker peeked at him from the upper jamb of the bedroom door, attached by unknown means, neck extended with a contortionist's ease so his body remained obscured. His face was very white. He slurred as if he hadn't used his vocal chords in a while, as if he spoke through a mouthful of mush. Then Pershing saw why. Black yolks of blood spooled from his lips in strands and splattered on the carpet. "Hello, Percy."

  "You're alive," Pershing said, amazed at the calmness of his own voice. Meanwhile, his brain churned with full-blown panic, reminding him he was talking to an apparition or an imposter.

  "So it seems." Terry was unchanged from youth—cleanshaven, red hair curling below his ears, and impressive mutton chop sideburns in the style that had been vogue during the '70s.

  "It was you in the vents?" Then, as an afterthought, "How could you terrorize my family?"

  "I got bored waiting all week for you to come back. Don't be mad—none of them ever cared for you anyway. Who knows— perhaps we'll get a chance to visit each and every one; make them understand what a special person you are." Terry grinned an unpleasant, puckered grin and dropped to the floor, limber as an eel. He dressed in a cassock the color of blackened rust.

  "Holy crap. You look like you've come from a black mass." He chuckled nervously, skating along the fine line of hysteria. There was something wrong with his friend's appearance—his fingers and wrists had too many joints and his neck was slightly overlong by a vertebra or two. This wasn't quite the Terry Walker he knew, and yet, to some degree it was, and thus intensified Pershing's fear, his sense of utter dislocation from reality. "Why are you here? Why have you come back?" he said, and regretted it when Terry's smile bloomed with Satanic joy.

  "Surveying."

  "Surveying?" Pershing felt a new appreciation for the depths of meaning in that word, the inherent coldness. Surveying preceded the destruction of one order to make way for another, stronger, more adaptable order.

  "What else would I do? A man's got to have a niche in the universe."

  "Who are you working for?" Oh Lord, let it be the FBI, Homeland Security, anybody. Still trying for levity, he said, "Fairly sure I paid my taxes, and I don't subscribe to American Jihadist. You're not here to ship me to Guantánamo, or wherever, are you? Trust me, I don't know jack squat about anything."

  "There's a migration in progress. A diaspora, if you will. It's been going on . . . well, when numbers grow to a certain proportion, they lose relevance. We creep like mold." Terry's grin showed that the inside of his mouth was composed of blackened ridges, and indeed toothless. His tongue pulsed; a sundew expanding and contracting in its puddle of gore. "Don't worry, though, Earthman. We come in peace." He laughed and his timbre ascended to the sickly-sweet tones of a demented child. "Besides, we're happy to live in the cracks; your sun is too bright for now. Maybe after it burns down a bit . . . "

  The bathroom door creaked open and the woman in the black dress emerged. She said, "Hullo there, love. I'm Gloria. A pleasure to meet you." Her flesh glowed like milk in a glass, like the sugar bowl in his visions. To Terry, she said, "He's older than I thought."

  "But younger than he appears." Terry studied Pershing, his eyes inscrutable. "City life hasn't softened you, has it, pal?" He nodded at the woman. "I'm going to take him. It's my turn to choose."

  "Okay, dear." The woman leaned her hip against the counter. She appeared exquisitely bored. "At least there'll be screaming."

  "Isn't there always?"

  Pershing said, "Terry . . . I'm sorry. There was a massive search. I spent two weeks scouring the hills. Two hundred men and dogs. You should've seen it." The secret wound opened in him and all the buried guilt and shame spilled forth. "Man, I wanted to save you. It destroyed me."

  "You think I'm a ghost? That's depressingly provincial of you, friend."

  "I don't know what to think. Maybe I'm not even awake." He was nearly in tears.

  "Rest assured, you will soon make amazing discoveries," Terry said. "Your mind will shatter if we aren't careful. In any event, I haven't come to exact vengeance upon you for abandoning me in the mountains."

  The woman smirked. "He'll wish you were here for that, won't he?"

  "Damn you, you're not my friend," Pershing said. "And lady, you aren't Gloria, whoever she was—poor girl's probably on a milk carton. You wear faces so we will understand, so you can blend in, isn't that right? Who are you people, really?"

  "Who are you people?" Gloria mimicked. "The Children of Old Leech. Your betters."

  "Us?" Terry said. "Why, we're kin. Older and wiser, of course. Our tastes are more refined. We prefer the dark, but you will too. I promise." He moved to a shelf of Pershing's keepsakes—snapshots from the field, family photos in silver frames, and odd pieces of bric-a-brac—and picked up Ethel's rosary and rattled it. "As I recall, you weren't a man of any particular faith. I don't blame you, really. The New Testament God is so nebulous, so much of the ether. You'll find my civilization's gods to be quite tangible. One of them, a minor deity, dwells in this very system in the caverns of an outer moon. Spiritual life is infinitely more satisfying when you can meet the great ones, touch them, and, if you're fortunate, be touched . . . ."

  Pershing decided to go through the woman and get a knife from the butcher block. He didn't relish the notion of punching a girl, but Terry was bigger than him, had played safety for his high school football team. He gathered himself to move—

  Gloria said, "Percy, want me to show you something? You should see what Terry saw. . . when you left him alone with us." She bowed her neck and cupped her face. There came the cracking as of an eggshell; blood oozed through her fingers as she lifted the hemisphere of her face away from its bed. It made a viscid, sucking sound; the sound of bones scraping together through jelly. Something writhed in the hollow. While Pershing was transfixed in sublime horror, Terry slid over and patted his shoulder.

  "She's got a cruel sense of humor. Maybe you better not watch the rest." He smiled paternally and raised what appeared to be a bouquet of mushrooms, except these were crystalline and twinkled like Christmas lights.

  Violet fire lashed Pershing.

 

...

 

n UFO abduction stories, hapless victims are usually paralyzed and then sucked up in a beam of bright light. Pershing was taken through a hole in the sub-basement foundation into darkness so thick and sticky it flowed across his skin. They did use tools on him, and, as the woman predicted, he screamed, although not much came through his lips, which had been sealed with epoxy.

  An eternal purple-black night ruled the fleshy coomb of an alien realm. Gargantuan tendrils slithered in the dark, coiling and uncoiling, and the denizens of the underworld arrived in an interminable procession through vermiculate tubes and tunnels, and gathered, chuckling and sighing, in appreciation of his agonies. In the great and abiding darkness, a sea of dead white faces brightened and glimmered like porcelain masks at a grotesque ball. He couldn't discern their forms, only the luminescent faces, their plastic, drooling joy.

  We love you, Percy, the Terry-creature whispered right before he rammed a needle into Pershing's left eye.

 
 
is captors dug in his brain for memories and made him relive them. The one they enjoyed best was the day of Pershing's greatest anguish:

  When Terry hadn't returned to their impromptu campsite after ten minutes, Pershing went looking for him. The rain slashed through the woods, accompanied by gusts that snapped the foliage, caused treetops to clash. He tramped around the spring and saw Terry's hat pinned and flapping in some bushes. Pershing began to panic. Night came early in the mountains, and if sundown found him alone and isolated . . . Now he was drenched as well. Hypothermia was a real danger.

  He caught movement from the corner of his eye. A figure walked across a small clearing a few yards away and vanished into the underbrush. Pershing's heart thrilled and he shouted Terry's name, actually took several steps toward the clearing, then stopped. What if it wasn't his friend? The gait had seemed wrong. Cripes, what if, what if? What if someone truly was stalking them? Farfetched; the stuff of late-night fright movies. But the primeval ruled in this place. His senses were tuned to a much older frequency than he'd ever encountered. The ape in him, the lizard, hissed warnings until his hackles rose. He lifted a stone from the muck and hefted it, and moved forward.

  He tracked a set of muddy footprints into a narrow ravine. Rock outcroppings and brush interlaced to give the ravine a roof. Toadstools and fungi grew in clusters among beds of moss and mold. Water dripped steadily and formed shallow pools of primordial slime. There was Terry's jacket in a wad; and ten yards further in, his pants and shirt hanging from a dead tree that had uprooted and tumbled down into the gulley. A left hiking shoe had been dropped nearby. The trail ended in a jumble of rocks piled some four or five yards high. A stream, orange and alkaline, dribbled over shale and granite. There was something about this wall of stone that accentuated his fear; this was a timeless grotto, and it radiated an ineffable aura of wickedness, of malign sentience. Pershing stood there in its presence, feeling like a Neanderthal with a torch in hand, trembling at the threshold of the lair of a nameless beast.

  Two figures in filthy robes stood over a third, mostly naked man, his body caked in mud and leaves. The moment elongated, stretched from its bloom in September 1973 across three and a half decades, embedded like a cyst in Pershing's brain. The strangers grasped Terry's ankles with hands so pale they shone in the gloom. They wore deep cowls that hid their faces . . . yet, in Pershing's nightmares, that inner darkness squirmed with vile intent.

  The robed figures regarded him; one crooked a long, oddly jointed finger and beckoned him. Then the strangers laughed— that sickening, diabolic laughter of a man mimicking a child—and dragged Terry away. Terry lay supine, eyes open, mouth slack, head softly bumping over the slimy rocks, arms trailing, limp, an inverted Jesus hauled toward his gruesome fate. They walked into the shadows, through a sudden fissure in the rocks, and were gone forever.

 
 
he one that imitated Terry released him from the rack and carried him, drifting with the ungainly coordination of a punctured float, through a stygian wasteland. This one murmured to him in the fashion of a physician, a historian, a tour guide, the histories and customs of its race. His captor tittered, hideously amused at Pershing's perception of having been cast into a subterranean hell.

  Not hell or any of its pits. You have crossed the axis of time and space by means of technologies that were old when your kind yet oozed in brine. You, sweet man, are in the black forest of cosmic night.

  Pershing imagined passing over a colossal reef of flesh and bone, its coils and ridges populated by incalculable numbers of horridly intelligent beings that had flown from their original planets, long since gone cold and dead, and spread implacably across the infinite cosmos. This people traveled in a cloud of seeping darkness. Their living darkness was a cancerous thing, a mindless, organic suspension fluid that protected them from the noxious light of foreign stars and magnified their psychic screams of murder and lust. It was their oxygen and their blood. They suckled upon it, and in turn, it fed upon them.

  We eat our children, Terry had said. Immortals have no need for offspring. We're gourmands, you see; and we do love our sport. We devour the children of every sentient race we metastasize to . . . we've quite enjoyed our visit here. The amenities are exquisite.

  He also learned their true forms, while humanoid, were soft and wet and squirming. The human physiognomies they preferred for brief field excursions were organic shells grown in vats, exoskeletons that served as temporary camouflage and insulation from the hostile environments of terrestrial worlds. In their own starless demesne they hopped and crawled and slithered as was traditional.

  Without warning, he was dropped from a great height into a body of water that bore him to its surface and buoyed him with its density, its syrupy thickness. He was overcome with the searing stench of rot and sewage. From above, someone grasped his hair and dragged him to an invisible shore.

  There came a long, blind crawl through what felt like a tunnel of raw meat, an endless loop of intestine that squeezed him along its tract. He went forward, chivvied by unseen devils who whispered obscenities in his ear and caressed him with pincers and stinging tendrils, who dripped acid on the back of his neck and laughed as he screamed and thrashed in the amniotic soup, the quaking entrails. Eventually, a light appeared and he wormed his way to it, gibbering mindless prayers to whatever gods might be interested.

  "It is always hot as hell down here," Hopkins the custodian said. He perched on a tall box, his grimy coveralls and grimy face lighted by the red glow that flared from the furnace window. "There's a metaphor for ya. Me stoking the boiler in Hell."

  Pershing realized the custodian had been chatting at him for a while. He was wedged in the corner of the concrete wall. His clothes stuck to him with sweat, the drying juices of a slaughterhouse. He smelled his own rank ammonia odor. Hopkins grinned and struck a match and lighted a cigarette. The brief illumination revealed a nearly done-in bottle of Wild Turkey leaning against his thigh. Pershing croaked and held out his hand. Hopkins chuckled. He jumped down and gave Pershing the bottle.

  "Finish it off. I've got three more hid in my crib, yonder." He gestured into the gloom. "Mr. 119, isn't it? Yeah, Mr. 119. You been to hell, now ain't you? You're hurtin' for certain."

  Pershing drank, choking as the liquor burned away the rust and foulness. He gasped and managed to ask, "What day is it?"

  Hopkins held his arm near the furnace grate and checked his watch. "Thursday, 2:15 p.m., and all is well. Not really, but nobody knows the trouble we see, do they?"

  Thursday afternoon? He'd been with them for seventy-two hours, give or take. Had anyone noticed? He dropped the bottle and it clinked and rolled away. He gained his feet and followed the sooty wall toward the stairs. Behind him, Hopkins started singing "Black Hole Sun."

 
 
s it happened, he spent the rest of the afternoon and much of the evening in an interrogation room at the police station on Perry Street. When he reached his apartment, he found Superintendent Frame had left a note on the door saying he was to contact the authorities immediately. There were frantic messages from Mel and Wanda on the answering machine wondering where he'd gone, and one from an Officer Klecko politely asking that he report to the precinct as soon as possible.

  He stripped his ruined clothes and stared at his soft, wrinkled body in the mirror. There were no marks, but the memory of unspeakable indignities caused his hands to shake, his gorge to rise. Recalling the savagery and pain visited upon him, it was inconceivable his skin, albeit soiled with dirt and unidentifiable stains, showed no bruises or blemishes. He showered in water so hot it nearly scalded him. Finally, he dressed in a fresh suit and fixed a drink. Halfway through the glass he dialed the police and told his name to the lady who answered and that he'd be coming in shortly. He called Wanda's house and left a message informing her of his situation.

  The station was largely deserted. An officer on the opposite side of bulletproof glass recorded his information and asked him to take a seat. Pershing slumped in a plastic chair near a pair of soda machines. There were a few empty desks and cubicles in a large room to his left. Periodically a uniformed officer passed by and gave him an uninterested glance.

  Eventually, Detective Klecko appeared and shook his hand and ushered him into a small office. The office was papered with memos and photographs of wanted criminals. Brown water stains marred the ceiling tiles and the room smelled moldy. Detective Klecko poured orange soda into a Styrofoam cup and gave it to Pershing and left the can on the edge of the desk. The detective was a large man, with a bushy mustache and powerful hands. He dressed in a white shirt and black suspenders, and his bulk caused the swivel chair to wobble precariously. He smiled broadly and asked if it was all right to turn on a tape recorder—Pershing wasn't being charged, wasn't a suspect, this was just department policy.

  They exchanged pleasantries regarding the cooler weather, the Seattle Mariners' disappointing season, and how the city police department was woefully understaffed due to the recession, and segued right into questions about Pershing's tenancy at the Broadsword. How long had he lived there? Who did he know? Who were his friends? Was he friendly with the Ordbeckers, their children? Especially little Eric. Eric was missing, and Mr. Dennard could you please tell me where you've been the last three days?

  Pershing couldn't. He sat across from the detective and stared at the recorder and sweated. At last he said, "I drink. I blacked out."

  Detective Klecko said, "Really? That might come as a surprise to your friends. They described you as a moderate drinker."

  "I'm not saying I'm a lush, only that I down a bit more in private than anybody knows. I hit it pretty hard Monday night and sort of recovered this afternoon."

  "That happen often?"

  "No."

  Detective Klecko nodded and scribbled on a notepad. "Did you happen to see Eric Ordbecker on Monday. . . before you became inebriated?"

  "No, sir. I spent the day in my apartment. You can talk to Melvin Clayton. He lives in 93. We had dinner about five p.m. or so."

  The phone on the desk rang. Detective Klecko shut off the recorder and listened, then told whoever was on the other end the interview was almost concluded. "Your wife, Wanda. She's waiting outside. We'll be done in a minute."

  "Oh, she's not my wife—"

  Detective Klecko started the recorder again. "Continuing interview with Mr. Pershing Dennard . . . . So, Mr. Dennard, you claim not to have seen Eric Ordbecker on Monday, September 24? When was the last time you did see Eric?"

  "I'm not claiming anything. I didn't see the kid that day. Last time I saw him? I don't know—two weeks ago, maybe. I was talking to his dad. Let me tell you, you're questioning the wrong person. Don't you have the reports we've made about weirdoes sneaking around the building? You should be chatting them up. The weirdoes, I mean."

  "Well, let's not worry about them. Let's talk about you a bit more, shall we?"

  And so it went for another two hours. Finally, the detective killed the recorder and thanked him for his cooperation. He didn't think there would be any more questions. Wanda met Pershing in the reception area. She wore one of her serious work dresses and no glasses; her eyes were puffy from crying. Wrestling with his irritation at seeing her before he'd prepared his explanations, he hugged her and inhaled the perfume in her hair. He noted how dark the station had become. Illumination came from the vending machines and a reading lamp at the desk sergeant's post. The sergeant himself was absent.

  "Mr. Dennard?" Detective Klecko stood silhouetted in the office doorway, backlit by his flickering computer monitor.

  "Yes, Detective?" What now? Here come the cuffs, I bet.

  "Thank you again. Don't worry yourself over . . . what we discussed. We'll take care of everything." His face was hidden, but his eyes gleamed.

  The detective's words didn't fully hit Pershing until he'd climbed into Wanda's car and they were driving to Anthony's, an expensive restaurant near the marina. She declared a couple of glasses of wine and a fancy lobster dinner were called for. Not to celebrate, but to restore some semblance of order, some measure of normalcy. She seemed equally, if not more, shaken than he was. That she hadn't summoned the courage to demand where he'd been for three days told him everything about her state of mind.

  We'll take care of everything.

 
 
anda parked in the side lot of a darkened bank and went to withdraw cash from the ATM. Pershing watched her from the car, keeping an eye out for lurking muggers. The thought of dinner made his stomach tighten. He didn't feel well. His head ached and chills knotted the muscles along his spine. Exhaustion caused his eyelids to droop.

  "Know what I ask myself?" Terry whispered from the vent under the dash. "I ask myself why you never told the cops about the two 'men' who took me away. In all these years, you've not told the whole truth to anyone."

  Pershing put his hand over his mouth. "Jesus!"

  "Don't weasel. Answer the question."

  In a gesture he dimly acknowledged as absurd, he almost broke the lever in his haste to close the vent. "Because they didn't exist," he said, more to convince himself. "When the search parties got to me, I was half dead from exposure, ranting and raving. You got lost. You just got lost and we couldn't find you." He wiped his eyes and breathed heavily.

  "You think your visit with us was unpleasant? It was a gift. Pull yourself together. We kept the bad parts from you, Percy my boy. For now, at least. No sniveling; it's unbecoming in a man your age."

  Pershing composed himself sufficiently to say, "That kid! What did you bastards do? Are you trying to hang me? Haven't I suffered enough to please you sickos?"

  "Like I said; you don't know the first thing about suffering. Your little friend Eric does, though."

  Wanda faced the car, folding money into her wallet. A shadow detached from the bushes at the edge of the building. Terry rose behind her, his bone-white hand spread like a catcher's mitt above her head. His fingers tapered to needles. He grinned evilly at Pershing, and made a shushing gesture. From the vent by some diabolical ventriloquism: "We'll be around. If you need us. Be good."

  Wanda slung open the door and climbed in. She started the engine and kissed Pershing's cheek. He scarcely noticed; his attention was riveted upon Terry waving as he melted into the shrubbery.

  He didn't touch a thing at dinner. His nerves were shot—a child cried, a couple bickered with a waiter, and boisterous laughter from a neighboring table set his teeth on edge. The dim lighting was provided by candles in bowls and lamps in sconces. He couldn't even see his own feet through the shadows when he glanced under the table while Wanda had her head turned. The bottle of wine came in handy. She watched in wordless amazement as he downed several consecutive glasses.

  That night his dreams were smooth and black as the void.

 
 
he calendar ticked over into October. Elgin proposed a long weekend at his grandfather's cabin. He'd bring his latest girlfriend, an Evergreen graduate student named Sarah; Mel and Gina, and Pershing and Wanda would round out the expedition. "We all could use a day or two away from the bright lights," Elgin said. "Drink some booze, play some cards, tell a few tales around the bonfire. It'll be a hoot."

  Pershing would have happily begged off. He was irritable as a badger. More than ever he wanted to curl into a ball and make his apartment a den, no trespassers allowed. On the other hand, he'd grown twitchier by the day. Shadows spooked him. Being alone spooked him. There'd been no news about the missing child and he constantly waited for the other shoe to drop. The idea of running into Mark Ordbecker gave him acid. He prayed the Ordbeckers had focused their suspicion on the real culprits and would continue to leave him in peace.

  Ultimately he consented to the getaway for Wanda's sake. She'd lit up at the mention of being included on this most sacred of annual events. It made her feel that she'd been accepted as a member of the inner circle.

  Late Friday afternoon, the six of them loaded food, extra clothes, and sleeping bags into two cars and headed for the hills. It was an hour's drive that wound from Olympia through the nearby pastureland of the Waddell Valley toward the Black Hills. Elgin paced them as they climbed a series of gravel and dirt access roads into the high country. Even after all these years, Pershing was impressed how quickly the trappings of civilization were erased as the forest closed in. Few people came this far—mainly hunters and hikers passing through. Several logging camps were located in the region, but none within earshot.

  Elgin's cabin lay at the end of an overgrown track atop a ridge. Below, the valley spread in a misty gulf. At night, Olympia's skyline burned orange in the middle distance. No phone, no television, no electricity. Water came from a hand pump. There was an outhouse in the woods behind the cabin. While everyone else unpacked the cars, Pershing and Mel fetched wood from the shed and made a big fire in the pit near the porch, and a second fire in the massive stone hearth inside the cabin. By then it was dark.

  Wanda and Gina turned the tables on the men and demonstrated their superior barbequing skills. Everyone ate hot dogs and drank Löwenbräu and avoided gloomy conversation until Elgin's girlfriend Sarah commented that his cabin would be "a great place to wait out the apocalypse" and received nervous chuckles in response.

  Pershing smiled to cover the prickle along the back of his neck. He stared into the night and wondered what kind of apocalypse a kid like Sarah imagined when she used that word. Probably she visualized the polar icecaps melting, or the world as a desert. Pershing's generation had lived in fear of the Reds, nuclear holocaust, and being invaded by little green men from Mars.

  Wind sighed in the trees and sent a swirl of sparks tumbling skyward. He trembled. God, I hate the woods. Who thought the day would come? Star fields twinkled across the millions of light years. He didn't like the looks of them either. Wanda patted his arm and laid her head against his shoulder while Elgin told an old story about the time he and his college dorm mates replaced the school flag with a pair of giant pink bloomers.

  Pershing didn't find the story amusing this time. The laughter sounded canned and made him consider the artificiality of the entire situation, man's supposed mastery of nature and darkness. Beyond this feeble bubble of light yawned a chasm. He'd drunk more than his share these past few days; had helped himself to Wanda's Valium. None of these measures did the trick of allowing him to forget where he'd gone or what he'd seen; it hadn't convinced him that his worst memories were the products of nightmare. Wanda's touch repulsed him, confined him. He wanted nothing more than to crawl into bed and hide beneath the covers until everything bad went away.

  It grew chilly and the bonfire died to coals. The others drifted off to sleep. The cabin had two bedrooms—Elgin claimed one, and as the other married couple, Mel and Gina were awarded the second. Pershing and Wanda settled for an air mattress near the fireplace. When the last of the beer was gone, he extricated himself from her and rose to stretch. "I'm going inside," he said. She smiled and said she'd be along soon. She wanted to watch the stars a bit longer.

  Pershing stripped to his boxers and lay on the air mattress. He pulled the blanket to his chin and stared blankly at the rafters. His skin was clammy and it itched fiercely. Sharp, throbbing pains radiated from his knees and shoulders. Tears formed in the corners of his eyes. He remembered the day he'd talked to Mark Ordbecker, the incredible heat, young Eric's terrified expression as he skulked behind his father. Little pitchers and big ears. The boy heard the voices crooning from below, hadn't he?

  A purple ring of light flickered on the rough-hewn beam directly overhead. It pulsed and blurred with each thud of his heart. The ring shivered like water and changed. His face was damp, but not from tears, not from sweat. He felt his knuckle joints split, the skin and meat popping and peeling like an overripe banana. What had Terry said about eating the young and immortality?

  How does our species propagate, you may ask. Cultural assimilation, my friend. We chop out the things that make you lesser life forms weak and then pump you full of love. You'll be part of the family soon; you'll understand everything.

  A mental switch clicked and he smiled at the memory of creeping into Eric's room and plucking him from his bed; later, the child's hands fluttering, nerveless, the approving croaks and cries of his new kin. He shuddered in ecstasy and burst crude seams in a dozen places. He threw off the blanket and stood, swaying, drunk with revelation. His flesh was a chrysalis, leaking gore.

  Terry and Gloria watched him from the doorways of the bedrooms—naked and ghostly, and smiling like devils. Behind them, the rooms were silent. He looked at their bodies, contemptuous that anyone could be fooled for two seconds by these distorted forms, or by his own.

Then he was outside under the cold, cold stars.

  Wanda huddled in her shawl, wan and small in the firelight. Finally she noticed him, tilting her head so she could meet his eyes. "Sweetie, are you waiting for me?" She gave him a concerned smile. The recent days of worry and doubt had deepened the lines of her brow.

  He regarded her from the shadows, speechless as his mouth filled with blood. He touched his face, probing a moist delineation just beneath the hairline; a fissure, a fleshy zipper. Near his elbow, Terry said, "The first time, it's easier if you just snatch it off."

  Pershing gripped a flap of skin. He swept his hand down and ripped away all the frailties of humanity.

 
 

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