By Shane Ivey, (c) 1998
“‘How am I doing,’ he says.” Officer John Vitelle, hefty and dark, chuckled derisively and tossed a newspaper to the floorboards.
“What,” said his partner, a thin balding man named Douglas Nee, turning the wheel of their squad car to take an illegal right on red. “You don’t think he done a good job on Times Square?”
“Oh,” exaggerated Vitelle, “Times Square is lovely. It’s thirty years since I could drive down Broadway without seeing a junky whore. And you KNOW how I love to see junky whores.”
“Yeah, you’re giving, that way.”
“I am very giving.”
“I wouldn’t brag so much, myself. But it’s good to know my kindness and cheer don’t go unnoticed.”
“Never in a million years.”
They turned again and drove slowly along Saint Marks Street, passing cement stoops with neon signs that flashed advertisements for tattoos and portraits and palm-reading and massage.
Nee asked, “How’s little Jessie?”
“Little Jessie has a new little boyfriend.”
“What, she dumped Superman?”
“She did. I told her she was being shallow, but she just would not put the Underoos incident behind her. So she’s got this new guy, Mister Smartmouth, always grinning and whispering.”
“Uh-huh,” said Nee. “What is this one, nine?”
“Ten. Who knew a ten-year old could be such a weasel?” Vitelle stared out the windshield at a small crowd walking along the sidewalk. “Oh, this is sweet,” he said.
“Look at this guy! Pink hair and a nose-ring like a bull.”
“Fuckin’ foreigner,” Vitelle observed.
“I think we got plenty of El Toro there without importing them, Johnny.”
“I mean the hair, the music, the sissy attitude, all that crap.”
“All right,” said Nee. “Simmer down, Archie Bunker.”
“Archie Bunker was a saint! I bet El Toro back there never even heard of Archie Bunker.”
“I doubt he’s a fan.”
“Uh-huh.” Nee frowned and looked up at a woman’s figure on the steps of a red-brick apartment building, long abandoned. “What the hell is this?”
The figure was hooded and swathed in shapeless thin yellow cloth, stained with red and brown. She stood at an odd angle with her head craned up and to one side as if staring at the starless night sky. One hand was outstretched and dripped what could only be blood onto the cement steps below. Above the figure the building was dark but for a dim amber light which flickered in the windows of a high loft.
Nee pulled the car to the curb and picked up the radio handset to report. Vitelle opened the door and stepped up out of the car, securing his nightstick in the loop at his belt as he walked up the steps. “Excuse me,” he said with a squint. “Are you all right up there?”
The bleeding figure turned its head slowly toward him. Vitelle thought he saw further stains of blood under the wrappings, then he saw her face.
The figure’s face was fleshless, a bleeding mass of meat and bone covered in white pustules. The face twisted into a smile. Vitelle could not discern emotion in the bloody countenance, but the smile felt cold.
He turned to his partner. “Doug, get Emergency Services out here.” The figure turned and stepped into the darkness of the building again.
“Jesus,” whispered Vitelle. He hesitated a second before moving up the steps after the figure. He drew the service revolver and the flashlight from his belt. In the car, Nee spoke quickly into his radio, then he unlocked the car’s shotgun from its cradle and jogged up after his partner.
The figure was gone when they stepped into the building. Vitelle shone his flashlight around the hall and the splintered stairs. They heard a rustling of cloth above them, then the creak of old wood and high soft laughter.
“What the hell is wrong with her?” Nee breathed.
“Did you get ESU?”
“Yeah, they’re on the way. You want to wait?”
Vitelle thought about it for a moment, then shook his head. “No. Whatever she’s hopped up on, it ain’t gonna keep her from bleeding to death.”
Nee nodded. Both men moved up the stairs at a trot, the buckles of their uniforms rattling with each step on the creaking stairs. Vitelle went first with the light. They passed the lower floors quickly, shining the light in each hall before they moved up again. When they reached the upper floor both men were sweating and breathing heavily.
Amber light flickered from an open doorway. Vitelle turned his light first to the other doorways on the floor. He saw nothing. Then he slid the flashlight into a loop in his belt and stepped close to the lit doorway. Nee walked along the stairwell railing, across from Vitelle and the door. They turned the corner and aimed revolver and shotgun inside.
The figure danced in yellow firelight with three others dressed the same, each of them casting their stained cloth to drift across the others as they passed by. There was no music, though Vitelle thought he could sense a strange pulsing rhythm, like an alien heartbeat, marking time for the dance. The dance itself seemed random; under other circumstances he would have jeered at it with gusto, but seeing the blood and bone of these men and women he only felt nauseous. The room was empty but for the fire, like a campfire burning bright, and the dancers. The walls and floors were cracked and broken and stained.
Vitelle stepped inside. “All right,” he said. “That’s enough! All of you, sit down! We have an ambulance coming for you.” Nee walked in after him and stared at the gory dancers nervously.
One of the dancers stepped closer to the officers, still keeping time to that subaudible pulse.
“I said, that’s enough,” Vitelle said roughly. “Now–“
The dancer spun, and a fold of cloth drifted up and across Vitelle’s head and hands. At the touch of the cloth his flesh blistered and broke. He felt his skin weaken and dissolve, and he saw streaks of white fluid rise angrily along the suddenly bare crimson of blood and muscle. Vitelle shrieked in agony.
Nee stared agape for an instant before he brought his shotgun up. The other dancers swirled nearer. “ON THE FLOOR NOW!” He shouted and aimed the shotgun from one of them to the next. All of them swirled nearer. The shotgun blast erupted like thunder in the soft-lit room, splattering the blood of a dancer across the floor. Strangely, only in that instant did Nee notice the strange yellow pattern that was painted on the flaking wood, barely visible in the nearly identical yellow light of the fire. The wounded dancer did not react at all to the gunshot. Their cloth wrappings drifted across Nee even as he pumped the shotgun for another blast. The gun fell heavily to the floor as he gasped and howled in pain. Across his face and head and hands and beneath his shirt and pants his flesh dissolved and bled away.
The dancers spun in seemingly random time, casting their cloth across the fallen officers again and again. Slowly, the corruption deepened. The screaming men never died.
* * *
Michael Larson and Elise Thomas lived in a small apartment on the twentieth floor of a modest building four blocks from Times Square. Elise, sandy-haired and tanned, lay in the half-dark of a city midnight, insomniac again. She lay on her side, resting her head on one hand while the other touched the skin of her fiancé. He was nearly forty years old, barely keeping himself in shape with weights and running, his black hair already turning grey. She smiled. He always called her his fiancee, and she did likewise. For eight years he had been asking her to marry him, and for eight years she had been accepting. She supposed in common law they were already man and wife; why bother with a priest? He shifted slightly at her touch, but his breathing remained even. She listened to the city’s whispers: on the floor below a window-mounted air conditioner rattled to life; farther below something set a car alarm to warbling, and its noise set off another; a distant car-horn honked; a delivery truck rumbled past, its hydraulic gears hissing and spitting.
The shade of light changed slightly in the room as the digital clock flipped from 01:59 to 02:00, and almost in that instant the beeper buzzed from the nightstand on Mike’s side of the bed. It was set to “quiet” mode, but it always woke him; no matter how late, no matter how little sleep he had obtained, the buzzing of his pager awoke him every time. Still half-asleep, he blinked rapidly and reached for it. He inspected the numbers, blinked again, then picked up the phone and dialed. His voice was clear by the time the other party answered.
“Larson,” he said. He listened for a long moment. “Yeah. I’m coming. Just keep it clean, all right?” He replaced the phone, then he sat up with a sigh. He saw Elise watching him. He managed a smile, but it was grim. “When are we getting married?”
She smiled easily. “Say the word, kid.” She was eight years younger.
“Not tonight,” he said. “Gotta go look at a crime.”
She grimaced. “It’s not that . . . disease again, is it?”
“I don’t know. Sounds like it.” He yawned. “If it is a disease. Hell, we don’t know what it is. I guess we might soon, though. Ving says the feds want in.” He stood, yawned again, and struggled into pants, kevlar vest, shirt, and his hip-holstered revolver.
“Maybe that’s good,” said Elise. “I mean, they might be able to help.”
“Yeah. Look, I’ll be the first to cheer if the feds can figure this crap out. But if it’s all just a pissing contest, they might as well stay at home.”
“Be careful,” said Elise.
He kissed her. “You got it, junior.”
* * *
Less than an hour later, Mike Larson stood in the dark hall just outside the loft and stared for a long minute at the mysteries inside. Blood coated the floor in the scuffing marks of dancers’ footsteps. In one location, more blood had been loosed upon the floor in the droplets of a sudden spray, and he saw tiny chunks of flesh there, too. The air smelled of blood, certainly, and very faintly of gunpowder, and more strongly of some strange scent, sharp and dry and nearly fungal, unidentifiable but easily recognized from prior scenes of such destruction: he still suspected it came from whatever they burned in the fire, despite the technicians’ inability to culture anything useful from the residue.
He found himself lost in thought as he stared at the pattern on the floor, painted beneath the dabs and droplets of blood, barely visible in the FBI evidence technicians’ stage-lights, a baffling sign in yellow. Meaningless yet filled with portent, a sigil that belonged to none of the pictographic scripts of human memory, it seemed here to shift and writhe in the edges of sight. Where he stared Larson saw curving yellow lines painted still and mundane in the wood, but always there was the sense that in the dim peripheral blur the lines moved and changed of their own inscrutable design. It stretched the breadth and length of the blood-stained room.
Nearer to him, close to the hallway door, Larson could see the remnants which had brought him here: the uniforms and weapons of patrol officers Nee and Vitelle lay in rough heaps on the floor, coated in dark blood.
An unknown voice interrupted his thoughts. “Is it the same as the last time?”
Larson looked at the stranger in irritation. He saw an old man; no, he thought, not really an old man. He was perhaps fifty-five years old, certainly still young enough to work the streets if he had not obtained a supervisory desk job. But his hair was white, and his eyes were old, old and tired but strikingly alert. His skin was wrinkled and rough. He was lean and he wore a pressed grey woolen suit.
“More or less,” said Larson. “Who’s asking?”
“Special Agent Harold Esson. We’re ready for the meeting.”
“I’ve been following these cases,” said Larson. “Whatever angle you–“
Esson nodded. His eyes glanced up and into the room. “Yes,” he interrupted. “I know. We’ll discuss that fully in the meeting, Detective.”
Larson took an angry breath and winced as he held back his next comment. “After you,” he said.
Esson drove him to the federal building, a massive grey rectangle of a building adjacent to the federal courts and city hall. Larson shook his head silently, irritated at the waste of time, but he said nothing. The NYPD and the FBI had been playing politics and fighting over turf since the Bureau’s earliest days. If they had some stake in these strange deaths, he would hear them out. But he was not ready to fold it up. At the bottom of his thoughts, he realized, was the fact that he did not trust the Feebs to work a street case the way it had to be worked.
From the garage Esson led him past a pair of armed guards and into a small elevator marked “Official Use Only.” They rose silently to the fourteenth floor. A single security agent was on duty in the lobby, who nodded to Esson as the older man led Larson past the expansive receptionist’s desk and into a long carpeted hallway. Finally he pushed open a plain brown door and stepped into a conference room, a peach-walled room with grey carpet and cabinets of incongruously dark wood.
Larson guessed that he was the last to arrive. He recognized Ed Giancana, a balding and hawk-faced attorney from the Legal Bureau, at one end of a long table. He recognized Clara Greene, a pale and slim woman with long dark hair and dark eyes, about thirty years old. She was CIA, and he had no idea what her business here might be or whether the federal cops in the room knew that he knew her. Harold Esson closed the door behind them and sat next to another older man who wore the badge of the U.S. Attorney’s office. Across from them sat a lean old man in a simple dark suit with crewcut grey hair who wore no identification card.
The lawyer from the U.S. Attorney’s office spoke first. “Detective Larson, thank you for meeting with us. My name is Ronald Baswell, and I’m with the Department of Justice. You’ve met Special Agent Esson. This is Colonel Theodore McKay from the Army. His division specializes in chemical weapons. Have a seat.”
Larson sat slowly and digested that last fact.
Baswell continued without a pause. “Detective, you have been investigating a series of similar incidents which have occurred over the past few months, scenes where blood and debris were found but no bodies. What have you concluded about these incidents?”
Larson looked at the other faces of the room, then at the Department lawyer. Giancana remained silent. “I’ve concluded that they may or may not have been violent attacks, and that they have not involved facts which would offer federal jurisdiction.”
Baswell smiled slightly, and only for an instant. “We’ve come to a somewhat different conclusion. As of right now, these incidents are being exclusively investigated by a task force of the FBI, the CIA, and the U.S. Army. We would like to keep the New York Police Department in the loop, if you will cooperate with us.”
Larson leaned forward incredulously. “‘As of right now?’ I hope you have a court order to that effect.”
Giancana nodded beside him. “We’ve been through it, Mike. They’re calling it a terrorist investigation.”
Larson laughed. “Terrorism? What, are you kidding? These are the first terrorists in history who haven’t tried to get anything out of it.”
Baswell did not smile again. “Detective, this is a serious matter. Preliminary examinations of these incidents have verified that these incidents involve extremely rare and extremely dangerous compounds, compounds which are used solely to conduct chemical warfare.”
Larson narrowed his eyes and thought.
“Detective,” continued Baswell, “Have the victims in these incidents had anything in common?”
“The victims? No. Nothing except their deaths.”
“What about tonight’s incident? The missing patrol officers reported seeing an injured woman on the street, then they requested a SWAT team.”
Larson grinned. “We call them Emergency Services. And what about it?”
“Has an injured bystander or other victim been seen in previous incidents?”
“Look,” said Larson impatiently, “you already have my files, right? I mean, I don’t figure you folks would go to the trouble of–“
“Yes, yes,” nodded Baswell, “We have your file. What we want are your impressions, your thoughts on the case which you might not have included in your reports.”
“What thoughts? I’m just a grunt, right? I’m just a street cop. You guys look like the Ivy League types.”
Giancana sighed. “Mike, listen–“
“Listen? This is a snow-job, Ed. You know it, I know it, and these guys know we know it.”
“Detective Larson,” said Baswell, “this is a sensitive case. This–“
“Right. Fine. Look, you dipshits have my file. Everything’s there. If you think that’s enough to make me think I’m in the loop, you’re kidding yourself. Don’t bother. So, I need to keep quiet, right?”
“As a matter of fact, yes.”
“No problem. I don’t want to run into any unofficial CIA ‘advisors,’ right?” He stood. “I’m not gonna blow your cover. Do we have anything else to discuss?”
Baswell leaned back and regarded him coolly. “You’re free to go, Detective. We’ll be in touch.”
“Sure,” said Larson, smiling sarcastically as he opened the door. “I’ll bring the bagels.”
* * *
Clara Greene fidgeted unhappily in her seat. Esson had left to escort the NYPD lawyer, Giancana, to the lobby. Colonel McKay read notes from a thin police folder. Baswell unclipped his false Justice Department identification tag and tossed it to the table. A cabinet was open nearby, revealing a bank of tape players and sound equipment. One tape ran at a low volume as they waited.
“It’s censorship,” said a woman’s voice, thick with outrage, “and that’s all it is!”
“What did you expect?” This voice was Clara’s. “This is the Gimme Decade.”
“I won’t stand for it,” said the first voice, chewing on something. “I can’t–we can’t stand for it! Where would this country be without the arts? Every civilization in history has been built on the common framework of truths revealed in its art. Art is the backbone of culture. Somebody needs to tell that prick Marsters that he has a responsibility to uphold–“
“Shit,” said Baswell. “How long did you have to listen to her rant?”
Clara shrugged. “Part of the job, right? In Berlin I sat in on all-nighters with the local college socialists for two years and change.” She glanced at him for a breath, then looked at the table again.
“Yeah, I know the drill. I was in Berlin for seventeen years. Crazy times. It sounds like you have the art crowd in hand here, though.”
“They’re easy enough. It hasn’t been that long since I was in school. If they thought I was CIA, they’d be screaming bloody murder.”
“Look,” said the other woman’s voice. “You worked in the Smithsonian, right? How long was it, three years? I bet you have some names you could drop.”
“These are the Reagan years. Washington is no place for art.”
“You don’t have to tell me. But you still have some contacts, right? Your clients–“
“Sure. Absolutely. But . . . .”
“Well, was Eddie’s work good enough for all that?”
“It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! This is a principle. Who is Marsters to decide that? Who are those right-wing creeps he answers to, who are they to decide it? It has to be there, it has to be experienced, for us to know. I mean, what else have those assholes suppressed? Who knows what we might lose forever because a genius, an artist, gave up and surrendered to the assembly line and the minimum wage?”
Baswell shook his head again, but he watched Clara with careful eyes. “What’s the problem?”
McKay looked up for a second, then returned to the folder.
Clara sighed. “Nothing. We’ve been through it. ‘Interests of National Security’ and all that.”
“You make it sound like that’s just a joke.”
“No. It’s not. But I . . . But isn’t there another way?”
Baswell nodded soberly. “I know. I wish there was. These attacks have stepped up, Clara. We don’t know what they’re leading to. After Colombia–we had a lot of people die down there.” He looked away and scowled. “I wouldn’t ask you to do it if there was another way.”
The door opened, and Esson stepped in again. “I don’t think the Department will interfere much,” he said without preamble. He looked at Clara. “Can you keep Larson in line?”
She frowned again. “I think so. We have a good rapport. He knows what I do, but I’ve pulled strings for him before. He won’t stop investigating this thing, but I can give him enough disinformation to distract him when he asks for my help.”
“Good. And the other?”
She looked up bitterly. “What about it?”
“Can you handle it?”
Baswell looked up at Esson for a moment, then he looked at Clara.
She stared at Esson icily. “If you’re wondering about it–“
Esson interrupted her bluntly. “Good intentions snap quick when it comes time for sacrifice, Case Officer Greene. If you can handle it, say ‘Yes’ and I and your country will thank you later, when it’s done.”
Baswell said quietly, “Harry, we’re asking her to–“
“I know what we’re asking, Ron. Only she can say if she can do it.”
“I can hack it,” said Clara. “I wouldn’t have volunteered otherwise.”
Esson nodded slowly. “Good. Greene, we would–“
She looked down again. “I can handle it, damn you.”
* * *
The clock read 03:37 when Larson tossed his coat onto the desk and sat in the straight-backed chair on the guest’s side of Ving’s desk. The pathologist’s office was little more than a cubicle, with only the badly-spaced lettering on the door to indicate that the occupant might be a respected physician. The desk was piled high with reports and photographs and files, and overstuffed bookshelves seemed to fill the rest of the space, allowing only a narrow corridor in which to slide chairs back and forth or walk gingerly around the desk. He leaned back heavily in the chair, grimaced and cursed at its distinctly uncomfortable design, and regarded his friend.
Ving Minh had immigrated with his parents from Vietnam in 1960. He had been not quite ten years old; old enough to remember the dead in his family; old enough to sense his father’s rage and helplessness at oppressors of every stripe. He inherited his father’s independence and very personal sense of justice, and his mother’s Catholic drive for charity. Brilliant performance in school and college had opened the way to medicine, and an early contact in medical school led to his position with the city.
Despite all that he knew–he and Ving had been friends for most of Ving’s ten years with the city–Larson still could not say that he knew what made Ving tick. The men were close in age; Ving was more conservative, both in religion and in politics, but that was common enough in law enforcement. Really, Larson thought, it was that Ving did not seem to have or desire much else. As far as he could tell, the pathologist worked most of his waking life, and he occupied the remainder with books and occasional family visits. Still, he never seemed lonely. That made the man baffling even after so many years.
“It’s the same thing,” said Ving. His voice had never quite lost the accent of his birthplace. “Decay is in the remains like months have passed, but no big bugs. I have it culturing now to see if the same . . . bacteriological condition is present.” He coughed nervously.
“Yeah,” said Larson with a grimace. “Yeah. Christ. Tell the boys to stay out of empty buildings, right?”
“Might as well. Did CDC really take over?”
“Apparently it’s classified.”
Ving shook his head. “Not for long. What if this thing mutates or spreads? They think they can keep it quiet?”
“‘Rot-Plague Stalks Manhattan.’ This thing could be a fucking disaster.”
“And they took over before we could get trace evidence. Except that sign.”
Larson nodded silently.
“Is your CIA friend going to tell you who did it this time?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. But not if her bosses know about it.”
“Check the art galleries again?”
“That’s about it. Not that I’m on the case any more.” He smiled grimly.
“They’re not going to drop that angle, are they? That’s the only thing that made any sense in this mess.”
“I don’t know what they’re going to do. They have all my files, so they know what I’ve reported.”
Ving leaned forward and smiled conspiratorially. “Still, you could ask your girlfriend about it.”
“That’s funny. You should be a comedian, Ving, you’re so funny.”
“Touchy. I think you want to sleep with her.”
“What? Jesus–I’m taken, you–“
“You got no wedding ring!” He laughed. “You got no ring on that finger! Sounds like Eddie Murphy, right?”
“I do not want to sleep with her,” said Larson, “so shut-the-fuck-up-you-Oriental-pervert. If anybody else hears that crap it’ll go back to the station overnight.”
“So why do you meet her like that? That place gives me the creeps.”
“She says it’s safe there.”
“Safe? It’s owned by–“
“I know. But she says the spies don’t care about it, and cops can’t get in unless they’re wanted.”
“So how do you get in? You friends with Stephen Alzis, now?”
“Maybe she is.”
“You be careful who you say that to. He owns a lot of cops. Maybe he’ll own you if you’re not careful.”
Larson frowned. “Now you do need to shut up,” he said seriously. “I’m going to meet a confidential informant, that’s all. No raghead gangster has anything to do with it.”
He looked down at his belt as his pager buzzed. He grunted and leaned across Ving’s desk to make the call.
“Larson. Yeah.” He looked at Ving and nodded. “All right,” he said warily into the phone. Then he closed his eyes in concentration. “Yeah. Got it.” He opened his eyes and hung up.
“Well?” Ving asked.
Larson picked up his coat. “She said that federal attorney was full of shit. I have to check something out, then I’ll meet her.”
Ving scowled. “She said the Club Apocalypse again, right?”
“Like I said, I’m going to get information. The rest of it’s bullshit.”
* * *
He stepped out of his car and looked to either side down a barren street. The place was old. The place is the dumps, he thought. Squat tenements arose on either side, projects which had been shut down a decade before and had been left to go to seed. One street lamp shone a block away. He heard the glassy rattle of a bottle someplace high in one of the buildings. Nobody here but us rats, he thought.
He drew his revolver, just in case, and walked slowly into a gaping doorway. “They won’t connect the same dots that you will,” she had said to him on the phone. “2110 Wessex Avenue, Bronx. That’s where they came from, in the end. I can’t tell you more, now.”
Sure thing, he thought. I’ll just check out home-sweet-home, here, and then you can tell me what the hell is going on when I get to the Club. Swell.
Some distant part of him wanted backup, told him that he was probably breaking department policy to go into this situation alone, but that part was quiet and less urgent than the need to learn the truth behind all the bizarre deaths and the equally bizarre reaction of the government. He walked slowly into the front hall, allowing his eyes several interminable minutes to adjust. All was deathly silent. Deathly silent, he thought, there’s the way to keep from spooking. He shook his head and walked further along. He shone his flashlight in brief arcs in each new area, catching the afterimage to remember as he ducked, each time, into a different position. Still, nothing was there but garbage.
He found stairs and went higher in the tenement, flashing light into each empty room on each rubble-strewn floor. He shone his light for an instant, and as he stepped away he considered what he had seen. Trash; mildewy cloths piled high and never moved; tumbled and rotted sheetrock.
Then he came to another room on the fourth floor. He flashed the light, stepped aside, and his eyes went wide with the afterimage: a disheveled-looking man stood there in the black silence, looking back at him, waiting for him among utterly incongruous statuary and ornamentation. What-the-fuck-was-that? Larson blinked. “Police,” he called around the corner, in as forceful a voice as he could muster. “Put your hands up high and don’t fucking move.”
“They’re gone now,” said a reedy voice in reply. “They’re gone, but they’re waiting, waiting for you. They want you, Mister Detective.”
Larson remained still against the wall and winced at the chills which clung to his spine. “Who are–“
“They say they know Him. They say, He is a King whom emperors have served. I know. I know that He is among us now, among us in another guise, without the Pallid Mask. He has walked among us for nigh upon two thousand years, and great holy emperors have indeed fallen on bended knee for His wisdom. I know, for I’ve walked under black velvet skies at His side and I have heard them gibbering that He holds hungry in the power of His fist. I have walked as a Lord among the blind idiot herd upon whom he fed, body and soul nourishing one to the other, one to the other, and you come now to find His secret and to know the other side of the Flesh of the Unspeakable! That Flesh is the world, oh man, and that Flesh is the word, and the word is life, and all you know will die to know its truth.
“I’ll show you that truth, Detective Larson, I’m gonna show you that truth and He won’t get any of it, He’ll only take her when you don’t come, He’ll only take her and it’ll all be half-done.”
Larson listened as if mesmerized; then the man paused, and he heard a grunt and heavy footsteps. He blinked and flashed the light again, and in the strobe he saw an afterimage of the man standing wild hardly three feet away with a broken cinder block held high overhead, ready to be hurled.
“Shit!” He brought up the revolver and his thumb cocked the hammer and he lurched away. He trained the light on the crazed man. “Drop that fucking thing!”
The man staggered on, oblivious, muttering and gasping under the weight of the block. The gun fired at the slightest trigger-pressure, and the gunshot deafened and blinded Larson for a moment.
The man lay on the floor. Blood soaked into the moldy carpet beneath his chest; the cinderblock lay atop his immobile left arm. The man’s mouth twitched and worked in silence, only gurgling as fluid filled his throat and chest. Larson began to pant heavily. He concentrated on his breath, slowing it. Don’t hyperventilate, he thought. Find out what the hell this place is all about–find out what this poor bastard is dying for.
He stepped past the bleeding man and shone his light into the strange room. Gold and silver tracery ran serpent-like around leaden bars and plates, and grotesque frescoes leered out, monstrosities, tentacles or worms writhing upon bloated faces and beneath hooded masks. Mexico, he thought at once, and then he recalled the designs of ancient temples seen on curious days in college. But none of them had been so gruesome in detail or so hideous in design. He stepped closer, and he saw that a great central plate was traced in unknown sigils of gold and silver. They may have been similar to the unsettling design which decorated the scenes of the recent dead, but they were not identical. Have to get a team in here to inspect this shit, he thought. Then: He’ll only take her, and it’ll be half-done.
“Clara,” he muttered shakily, and he left the monstrosities and the dying man behind.
* * *
Harold Esson stood alone in a room of death. That was how he had thought of it, from the beginning; it was how he thought of all of them, all the rooms where pain and rage and madness had their finality. The sense of death overwhelmed every other thought or perception, for a time. As a young man he had thought with grim wonder that the stench of death was not so much a physical thing as metaphysical, a chill of realization, the ultimate horror of cessation. But he came to the room to understand, and after a time the deadness of it faded to a dull peripheral nausea, and he could look and think and remember.
His memories were always strongest, it seemed, when he came alone before death. There was never the cliched flash of life’s scenes, but the rising sound of voices long silent, the afterimage of faces long gone, the scent of smells long dissipated. When he grappled with death and sought to know the mind of the killer, he always began in himself. It was not by design, but a natural progression; like an artist, he supposed, he would always begin with what he knew.
In the bloodstained room of dancers and the Yellow Sign, he incongruously recalled his entrance to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, some thirty years before. It had been 1955, and, like all new Special Agents, he had been conducted to shake the hand of the Director. Even now, in the midst of shock and dread, the thought elicited a smile. Esson had always thought Hoover baffling, an enigma, comprised of all the endless contradictions of a great man. The diminutive and pudgy Director of the FBI expected his agents to be tall and ramrod-straight, and behind his desk he stood on a soap-box to look in their eyes, to shake their hands, to take their measure in an instant. He had demanded personal habits and morality to match his own teetotaling public persona. Every agent knew how he (never she, until after Hoover’s death) must look and behave: neatness of image was paramount at the most insignificant level; across the nation, agents left the office even to drink a cup of coffee. Esson knew many men (and women) who had learned well lessons learned from J. Edgar Hoover; his dedication to secrecy and his zealous pursuit of certain evils (even if others were inevitably ignored) lended well to a very private, very secret quest into which Esson was inducted as a still-youthful man. Their quest had become a mean conspiracy in the years since, it seemed–Esson himself now demanded sacrifices too grim to ponder from a girl young enough to be his daughter, and he could offer no guarantees that he would take the fruit of it to any solution–but enough of them had remembered the value of silence that they could still fight the war, shadowy and scornful though the field would always be. Others could claim success for salvaging so much of the plan, but Esson, privately, would always credit Hoover with the lesson that some secrets could save what others would savagely destroy.
He took a slow and deliberate step into the room, and he cast his gaze about him. Fatigue gnawed at the edges of concentration, but it would be ignored. The death was more pressing, and the need to understand it was more urgent still.
He recalled the Candlewood Piercer slayings of 1962 and 1963. Before they had a name and a Hollywood mystique, serial killers were simply murderers, more brutal and deranged than others, more disturbing only for the intimate nature of their crimes; there was no money sought, no revenge for half-imagined slights, at most vague associations with the terrors and hatreds of childhood cruelties and betrayals. The Piercer had haunted Candlewood, Wisconsin, for three years, while police and federal agents alike followed the usual leads and grew uncomfortably accustomed to failure. Until I came along. Esson smiled.
Esson had gone further than the patterns of broken glass and the hunt for fingerprints in fine talcum dust. He wanted to know the killer. Not for its own sake–he was acutely conscious from the start of the disgust that might await when he felt he knew the Piercer–but he wanted to know what the Piercer did and why, and he wanted to see the patterns that the killer followed in his mind. Years later, Esson and a handful of others would be called upon as scientific advisors in the investigation of mass murder, but Esson had only followed an instinct to apply intuition and psychology to the hard details; in a deep sense it was more art than science, and few cops would ever take it seriously. But he had pursued his mission, his art, largely alone. He talked to victims’ relatives and neighbors who were sick of the whole gruesome business and wanted only to return to their safe and clean lives. He found old records of other such killers, few though they were. He corresponded with psychiatrists of every stripe, and months wore on in frustration and the dubious questions of his peers. Then came the Diamond.
That was how he had thought of it from the start, that spark of intuition or conclusion of logic, small and cold and hard and priceless, his own little piece of the Piercer’s deaths. It had come as he idly studied black-and-white photographs of corpses, each for the thousandth or ten thousandth time, as night insects chirped in the woods outside and the moon vanished and the clock ticked resolutely toward dawn. The dead had bled out slowly from ice-pick punctures of their wrists, eyes, and genitals, while they had been tied down with simple boating twine. The genital injuries had never seemed to fit, Esson had thought: what was the parabola of pain that would require revenge upon not only the hands which harmed and the eyes which watched, but upon the genitalia? He had discounted rape early-on; no victim had been violated in that way, and neither marks nor residue indicated that the killer used his victims for that purpose. That the Piercer obtained sexual satisfaction from the acts, Esson was quite certain; but not directly, some instinct had convinced him, only in the knowledge of their completion. That same instinct, perhaps, had given him the Diamond, as he regarded the holes pierced into a man’s penis and testes. The medical examiner had seen two distinct stab wounds, but suddenly Esson saw it more clearly: mentally turning the photographed member to get a sense of the wounds, he saw the screaming victim’s genitalia held carefully, firmly, as the pick was driven through penis, urethra, and scrotum all in one well-aimed thrust, and he all but heard the man’s screams turn to uncontrolled shrieks as he surrendered to despair. One stroke, Esson had thought to himself, already feeling the light-headed rush of impending discovery. He blocked the tract with it–the killer had been violated there. No single piece of the puzzle offered that glimpse, but the realization lay in his thought as cold and perfect as a gem. He returned at once to the suspects’ files and he sought those with medical training, with nursing, with injuries or medical conditions in their families; and late in the day after John F. Kennedy was murdered, Harold Esson led a squad of detectives to the house of Anselm Cardiff, bookseller and decorated veteran, who had suffered throughout childhood for the wound which had shattered his father’s mind and groin in the trenches of Verdun and left him catheterized for the rest of his cold life. Esson kept the Diamond with him for years to follow, and he knew to seek it again and again over the years.
He paused in the room and looked down at a blurry scuff-mark of blood, and after a moment he found its match, the next step of the victim. He saw deliberate movement, there, deliberate but random. What were they seeking? He frowned with deepening unease.
In all the endless catalog of evil which had been Esson’s duty to explore, the Piercers were thankfully rare; but that meant only that the greater lot of human evils were not spectacular or ingenious but mundane, dull in all but their horrific impact. A tired woman who killed at last to express a life of hatred and fear inflicted the same loss as did the Piercer on each mourner of his victims. Only as the work of an individual were the Piercer’s evils so great; but the petty murders and torments of the world far outweighed the harm done by such a lone man. That realization, it sometimes seemed, had been the beginning of Harold Esson’s own death. He felt that he had become Quixotic, to seek a means to stem the most grotesque evils while the lesser evils of thousands ran unchecked and hardly seen. He had felt another step toward his own fall not long after, when he learned that the gravest threats to humanity were not, in fact, each other. The evils of the human world grew in scope every day, but every banal wrong was a transient flicker of shadow in a cosmos filled with malignancy. He held the day, that was all; he and those with him could only hold the day and pray that the daily evils of humanity would be the worst to see light on the world. Even now, in sight of death and the Yellow Sign, he could not bear to think on it further; the shrieks and suckling teeth of life more vital than the Earth would fill his memory and thought if he allowed them. He closed his eyes tight and listened for a moment to his breath and pushed the truth into safe shadows in his mind.
The dead were much alike, he thought in the room of the Yellow Sign, and the words came slowly and deliberately; the dead were much alike, here and in the scenes before. Nearly all were passionate artists or lovers of art, obsessive in their search for the momentary truth of beauty. Real right-brainers, he thought slowly, all intuition and scattershot enthusiasm. He took a careful step to place his shoe atop one clearly-marked footprint of blood; he turned to align his toes perfectly and looked for the next that matched it. What did they seek in this–dance? He closed his eyes again and took the next step, his foot reaching out at random. He found himself standing perfectly within the next bloody print. He paused and waited and listened; his breath was slow and his heartbeat was light and quick, and in his shuddering soul he felt the growing lead weight of decades of futility and half-acknowledged terror. What did they seek? He demanded of himself, What did they seek to see, to understand?
Who has known the mind of the living God?
He saw them stepping as if at random, then, a turn, a drifting bow, unveiled for the pleasure of the lord of all masks. Esson felt heavy and weak. His feet took the next step. He recalled the eyes of madness, seen once, long ago, the eyes of a woman who claimed she had seen the universe in sum and knew all that it offered of time and space; but she would only speak of those truths in numbers, and after her suicide a man in a dark suit had burned the notes of two mathematicians who had barely begun to explore them. Esson had caught a glimpse of it, then, but the veils of truth and life remained.
Did they succeed? What was their creation or perception, in the end? His own life was marked only by portraits of death and fear and the vague and unsatisfying sense that, when a killer was caught, perhaps the last victim to die would indeed be the last. But there was always another means to die; there was always an end; only time and degrees of pain separated one corpse from another. Was that his accomplishment, his legacy, to rail uselessly against the only fate and meaning that all would share? He paused and breathed. “Oh, God . . . .” He sought the hope that always inhered when the world was rendered safer by one less evil; but now he felt only the weight of inevitability. They felt it, too, he thought. They felt the weight, and they turned to it, they faced it and they trembled before the person of hateful eternity.
Who has known the mind of the living God?
“Oh, God . . . .” He fell to his knees and he felt tears stain his cheek. He knew. He heard the pulsing rhythm of reality. He felt the gaze of that which waited behind the mask. He asked meaning of the Yellow Sign, and meaning he received. He looked down, and then release was in his hand, swollen with fiery violence, and its steel felt as cold and hard and endless as truth.
* * *
“Just get over there, Ving,” Mike Larson said roughly into the phone. He stood in a half-lit booth of cracked glass and thick graffiti on the upper East Side, a block and a half from anything that looked awake or alive. He shook his head and interrupted again. “I couldn’t stay. It’s an emergency. Look, I’ll fill out the God-damned paperwork when I get back to the office–you just check out that dead perpetrator and his little shrine, and I’ll take care of my source.” He hung up the phone.
He scowled as he stepped out of the booth and looked again up and down the street. A cab sped by, a block away. He took a breath and walked quickly along the sidewalk, glancing up at the white-amber glare of streetlights and the darkness of empty windows and doorways. An air conditioner whirred to life somewhere behind him. He crossed the street and walked past the brilliantly-lit windows of upscale shops, long-since closed for the night. There never are any bums around here, he thought. They must be doing something right. He turned into an alley and took a long flight of black-painted stairs beneath the street level, their steel frame rattling with every hurried step down and ill-lit by bare light bulbs. The stone seemed to close around him as he descended; it rose higher overhead until the midnight city sky was but a rectangular strip of cloudy indigo framed by sheer blackness and flickering light bulbs. The stairs ended at a narrow alcove and an unmarked steel door. He heard music thumping dully within, as always. He pulled the door open and stepped inside.
The bouncer was a tall Hispanic with short, wavy black hair and supermodel features and eyes filled with easy contempt. He looked at Larson and sneered– This punk, Larson thought incredulously, is sneering at me!–and folded his massive arms against his black-shirted chest. Larson stepped past him with a wink. The place was crowded, as always, buzzing with tightly-packed young urban professionals and the pounding music of the house band and the smells of sex and intoxication. He pushed slowly through the nervous fringes of the crowd and looked, carefully, across the scattered tables and the dance floor and the bar. He saw no sign of her.
“You don’t know him,” said a strange voice. Larson turned angrily to see an agitated man with frayed grey hair and wide eyes, tall and lanky in tweed and khaki that needed to be pressed. The old man leaned closer.
“You don’t know him,” he repeated, “but he knows you! He knows more than you can guess!”
Larson shook his head. “You’re looking for somebody else,” he called over the music.
“No! That’s the thing! He knows you, and I know you. But I know his truth! Look to the numbers of his life and name! His number is two hundred thirty-three, the number of the Tree of Life, Etz ha-Chayim. Is the Tree of Life not but a tree? Etz ayin tzaddi, one hundred sixty, samech, yod, mem, nun: Simon! Hear the name of his youth, and understand! He learned at the feet of the apostles who became his enemies, and he took form of the emperors of old in his trickery, and he saw to his enemies’ destruction, and he took prominence in the courts of the depths of Earth! The scavenging spirits of the depths of earth still serve him!”
Larson shook his head, baffled and impatient. He already noticed the bouncer and a couple of his friends coming for the old man.
“He took form of the emperors of old!” The old man nodded emphatically. “What does he want of you?”
The bouncers laid hands on him. The Hispanic nodded to Larson. “We apologize for the disturbance,” he said, as they hauled the old man to the door.
Undeterred, the old man cried out once more: “Think on the price demanded by Stephen Alzis!” Then he was flung outside and the door shut behind him.
Larson shook his head again. He scanned the crowd once more; he walked a slow circuit around the place. He saw no sign of her. Then he passed a door, propped open a crack, and he saw stairs leading down. He pushed the door just far enough to slip past.
The stairs led down to a landing, decorated only with another door. He saw that the stairs continued far beneath the club before they twisted out of sight, below, but he pushed the door open. He saw another club, smaller, much dimmer, less crowded, though just as noisy: another band played here on a smaller stage, playing a pulsing, bass-heavy song, visceral and feral. Larson stepped in warily. He could make out little of the clientele, but they looked different than those above. Attitude, he thought at once. These are players, or else they sure as hell think they are. What is this place? He had not taken his third step when he saw Clara.
She stood alone against a thin pillar of iron at the edge of the dance floor, watching the band, watching the crowd, watching the bar, watching the door, her gaze as alert and tense as any predator turned prey. A clean-looking young man at a table nearby watched her with a dangerous smile as he conversed quietly with a friend; Clara kept a warning eye on him, too. She saw Larson and she nodded once, quickly, and he thought he saw a touch of relief as he approached her.
“Things are strange,” she said at once, leaning up close to be heard without shouting over the pulsing music. “Did you find the–“
“Somebody tried to kill me,” he interrupted. She looked up, startled.
“I was told the place was abandoned,” she said. “What happened?”
He shook his head. “What happened is, too many people seem to know my business. It was a set-up.”
“Are you all right?”
He nodded. She smiled; then she looked at the band and sighed. “It’s safer down here,” she said softly, barely heard. “For a while, at least. Not as many can get this far.”
He leaned closer. “What is this about, Clara?”
She looked at him again and she smiled again, sad and impatient and beautiful and young, and suddenly he felt the breath catch in his throat. Ving was full of shit, he told himself, feeling like a liar. She’s a C.I., nothing more!
Clara said, “Not here. We’re okay, here, but not that much. Wait until I get us to the house; then we can figure it out.”
Larson licked his lip for an instant. The music pounded around him, throbbing with the pulse of blood swelling in his tongue, his gut, his groin. His breath felt hot, his vision unsteady. She watched him, and he found himself thinking only of the hard curve of her hip, the softness of her mouth, her flesh, the taste of electric ash and sweat; his mind recoiled in shock and lust and treachery, but Oh, God, he thought, she was soft and dark and pale, and everything was a dizzy promise of chiaroscuro sex in the howling of strange music and the pulsing of unheard songs.
“Come on,” she said with that smile. “Let’s get to the house. We’ll figure it out.”
He nodded roughly and turned for the door. He coughed; his voice felt thick and clumsy. Things were confused; even his instict, always reliable in the past, was unfocused. “Stay close,” he said. “I don’t know who it is, but someone’s after you.”
He pushed the door open and walked up the stairs at a trot. He looked across the upper room slowly as he emerged. She stepped past him and they kept near the wall, moving around toward the steel exit.
“Hey, wait,” he heard a voice say, close-by. He glanced back, and he saw that the man, greasy and pale in a light suit, was talking to him. A bigger man nearby watched them.
“Later,” said Larson. Clara glanced back, then the pale man moved in.
“Not so fast,” he hissed. “You’re wanted!”
Larson grunted and shoved the pale man’s hand aside and took a quick, darting knife-hand into his stomach. He gasped and cursed, then he hit fast as the man moved in again; he stunned the man with two hard punches and then he sent his knee into the man’s groin. The pale man staggered slumping to the wall. Not far off, three other men in cheap suits moved toward them. Larson felt Clara touch his arm, and even then the touch was a shock of heat.
“Not here,” she said. “Hurry.” They jogged past the oblivious bouncers and took to the stairs. Only when they reached the top did he see the strangers emerge at the base of the stairs and begin to climb. “Around the corner,” she said quietly. “Let’s just leave these idiots behind, Mike, and we’ll figure it out. Please.”
“Yeah,” he said. His breath was still hot; his mind hummed with confused passions, barely cognizant of any of them. What the hell is happening? His fleeting, wondering thought found no answer. He followed her to the car.
* * *
Clara drove fast out of the city, past the tree-lined United Nations plaza and upscale apartments and then across the Manhattan Bridge into Queens. Every red-light halt was an interminable fragment of fear and hyperalertness, with Larson always expectant of some new pursuit to show itself, but nothing did. She spoke a little on the way, but he hardly heard; his mind seemed to hum with dry-mouthed impatience, perception without comprehension, every sight and sound and smell processed as if solely for the threat of hunters or relief. He did not think, and he did not want to think; he only felt, and when the car pulled into a driveway in a dark and isolated house near the endless quiet of the graveyards he felt only the resurgent pulsing heat of the club and the shallow breath of senseless desire. When she turned habitually to look out the windows a last time before stepping out of the car their heads nearly touched, and he lifted a hand to her face and kissed her. She did not pull away. Some quiet, distant part of his mind found that strange, but she leaned into him with no more resistance than a surprised whimper, and her mouth was willing and her teeth tasted of salt and hot smoke as his hand brushed her hair and her silky blouse. Larson was consumed in the rushing blood and heat of that instant, and then he was surprised when she pulled away. “Inside,” she said shakily. He only nodded and glanced around as he stepped into the clear heat of the night.
Every nerve seemed tense and achingly clear as he walked quickly to the door of the house. The stars were jagged pinpoints of white fire singing with the grating ultrasonic hum of a tuning fork; the shadows swallowed the sound and returned only silence across the street, in the rolling hills of grass and trees and stony monuments and grave-markers. He shook his head, suddenly disliking the place, but then he heard the door open. He stepped inside after her, and when she turned to him he forgot everything else. The door slammed shut behind him, leaving them in darkness as they kissed and clutched again. He felt her own breath as quick and deep as his own, her tongue as urgent, pressing against him, drawing him closer. They moved, clumsily, further into the house, but she hit the wall of the hallway and he touched her breast, and her touch became even more urgent, almost frantic, as if desperate against inevitable time. Then she stopped and looked away. His mouth found her neck and her hair, and her blouse slipped open. She pushed weakly against him. “No,” she breathed.
He pushed back. Her impact against the wall seemed to startle her, but he did not even notice it, he only touched her and held her in place and sought her flesh, every sharp-honed nerve and instinct driving him, metallic, molten but utterly intransigent, beyond the reach of will or thought even if the thought to stop had occured to him. She said it again, louder, “No.”
Still, he did not listen. As she tried to turn away he held her arm and pulled her roughly back. Instinctively she pushed and twisted, turning his grip aside and shoving him violently away, and then he snarled and hurled a fist at her. His fist slammed into her forehead, and she grunted in shock and pain and staggered to the floor. He stepped closer, standing over her, glaring, hungry, hateful, again all but consumed. His tongue was high and hot in his throat. Every extremity of flesh throbbed with blood and expectation. Then his eyes wavered. He looked around for a second and blinked. Jesus, he thought. Then he stepped hurriedly back and fell to his knees and vomited.
Clara sat up and looked at him. She pulled her blouse closer together and leaned back against the wall. Larson did not look directly at her; he stared at the moonlit stain of his vomit on the carpet and felt sick again. Elise, he thought to himself, suddenly remembering the woman who had shaped his life for eight years. God, what is happening to me? He tried to speak. “I. . .” he began, but his voice was thick and he felt nausea rising even stronger, nausea and baffled horror at the lust that still struggled to surface within him.
“Don’t,” she said, interrupting, and somehow he heard guilt in her voice. In the periphery of his sight he saw her lean fully back against the wall. “I can’t,” she whispered. She inhaled sharply.
Larson stood, slowly, clumsily. “I have to go,” he said.
She watched him. He still did not look at her, but he paused in the hall, glancing at the door, glancing vaguely toward her, confused and stricken. She was silent for a moment, and he did not see the emotions that played fleetingly across her features, pain and terror and helplessness. He started to stumble for the front door. “You can’t,” she said. “It’s. . . . We need the all-clear signal before we’ll know if anyone followed us here.”
He stopped and looked back into the darkness toward her. “How long?”
She was silent for a long pause. “I don’t know,” she said softly. “Not long.”
He nodded. He saw a bathroom nearby and he shuffled into it. The light was harsh when he turned it on, and his visage in the mirror was worse, flushed but pale and wide-eyed. He felt cold and shaky even as he tried to wash the stink from his face. Have to call Elise, he thought to himself, just check on her. It’s morning pretty soon.
He dried his face with a towel and looked into the mirror again, asking hard questions. Was it sex to which he had returned in his meetings with Clara, all these months? He imagined Ving laughing cynically, but only had he known the briefest facts. You were going to rape her, Larson thought. He recoiled at it. No other way about it. You knocked her down, and you were going to take her then and there like a fucking animal. And you’d still do it if you had the chance. He was sick again, and then he slumped shakily for a time with his head cradled on the icy marble of the sink.
When he emerged from the bathroom he saw that the rest of the house was still dark. She stood in the hallway, leaning against the wall, staring in silence out past the living room to the front door, with her hands folded against her chest as if warding the cold. She said nothing.
“Well?” he asked. But still she remained silent, as if dazed. He could faintly see the swelling of flesh on her forehead, and he knew it would be an angry bruise for days. He sighed softly.
The sound of wood rattled faintly from beyond another door.
He turned slowly and looked at the door. Basement, he thought. He pulled the revolver from its holster at his belt. “Clara,” he said. “Is this place secure?”
She looked at him, wide-eyed, with a strange expression of fear and. . . something else, something less identifiable. She said nothing. He stepped across the carpet of the living room and glanced through the window.
Shapes moved out there, dark shapes, low and quick and large. He lurched away from the window in surprise. He heard another noise from the hall door. “Someone’s out there,” he said to Clara. “Call for help and watch the front door.”
He stepped into the hall and threw the door open, leaning close against the frame as he did so. In ambient moonlight reflected from the front room he saw the outline of a light switch. He flipped it and looked down above the sights of his revolver.
The intruder was on the stairs, halfway up, hardly ten feet away. It was not human; no stretch of denial could call it human. It was a hunched shape of vaguely human outline, but leathery and moldy and malformed, with shadowy flesh and gleaming, putrescent eyes. Rotten lips peeled from distended fangs in a snarl, and it crouched on canine hind legs for a leap. Larson shouted and fired, pulling the trigger as fast as his strength would allow, and sparks blazed in deafening noise from the gun. The monstrous form leapt forward but then collapsed bloodily atop the uppermost stair.
Then the light winked off again. Larson looked back again and he saw Clara thumbing the receiver of the kitchen phone in growing panic. “It’s off,” she said, “the phone’s dead, everything’s dead!”
Larson grimaced and shoved the grotesque body down the stairs with his foot and slammed the door after it. He fumbled at his belt for his speed-loader, a leather holster for a ring of six cartridges to fit neatly into the revolver’s cylinder. He kept his voice even as he called out to her, “Your friends will come, right?”
She did not respond. He glanced up, and his fingers began to shake as he struggled to push the spent rounds from the gun and slip the speed-loader in place.
Clara sat in a crouch on the kitchen floor, a pistol held uselessly in her hands as she covered her head and stared at her feet and rocked quickly, briefly, back and forth. The front door stood open wide. Four of the shapes lumbered within the living room, staring at him, feral and wary. One of them coughed in a disconcertingly high sound, almost a squeak. Another padded closer to Larson. Another uttered a meeping cough toward Larson himself. He felt a strange dizziness or vertigo. The bullets slipped finally into place within the cylinder, and by long habit he twisted the speed loader away and snapped the cylinder shut: the revolver snapped to with a click that seemed to echo for seconds or hours in his mind. The echo seemed to become his only sensation. He was distantly aware that murderous, impossible things were nearby, that he was lost if he did nothing, but his arm moved the barest inch, and every image in his sight seemed to move one to another in frozen moments to the echoes of the snap of his revolver and the meeping coughs of the putrid monsters.
Another man stepped slowly through the front door. The creatures crouched behind and before him, and they moved away from him in strange deference. His features were fine and dark, and his grey suit was neat and rich, and his eyes were endless black wells of cold contempt and irony as they regarded Clara Greene, weeping and seized with despair, and Michael Larson, all but insensate and immobile in the gaze of a monster out of old tales.
“This nearly was undone,” said Stephen Alzis, not unsatisfied. His voice was calm, conversational, hinting at casual amusement. “An old servant sought to betray me, you see. But, Detective Larson, you were good enough to shoot him in the heart. That hollow-tipped bullet tore a tidy hole in his aorta. And it gave him much to ponder in his last seconds.”
He looked down at Clara. “And you,” he said. “You came close, in your little treachery. You came so close, but too late. His first choice was the important one.”
She pressed her head deeper into her arms and shivered. The four loping, stinking things padded closer to Larson’s staring form. One of them touched Larson’s chest with a long clawlike finger. Another uttered a meeping cough. Another took the detective’s ear and cheek between its teeth and tore them savagely away. Still, Larson did nothing: the shattering agony of mutilation and raw blood and bone filled his senses, melding with the staccato clicks of his revolver’s action, the meeping gibberish of the monsters, the wracking cries of Clara, and the voice, itself a strange blur in Larson’s hearing, one word indistinct from the next, of Stephen Alzis.
“Is it not intriguing?” mused Alzis, with a smile. “In their need, they say that I am the lesser darkness.”
The ghouls hauled Larson’s still-living body to the floor. One of them, but only one, began the slow task of consuming him.
“You may take your masters the answers they demanded,” said Alzis to Clara. “Those they sought in my city are no more. They knew the Yellow Sign, and they walked in the flesh of a Living God, taught them by one who knew the old ways from secret masters in the miry jungles and holes of Bogota. The song to which they danced can still be heard, there. And many now seek to hear it. Look within your own halls for those who seek it; the ones they serve know nothing.” He glanced at the gory feast of the ghouls, then back to Clara. “I suppose you have earned that much,” he added.
She could not look up. She remained crouched, shivering, crying, every breath harsh and sick, every thought twisted in guilt and fear and nausea, every moment filled with the wet noises of Michael Larson’s death. Her eyes remained shut tight, pressed into the sleeve of her arm where she crouched still on the floor. She tried not to think of him, of his life, but she could think of nothing else.
Stephen Alzis smiled. “The power of sacrifice is in the loss, you see.”