Black House Chapter Twenty-three

Black House Chapter Twenty-three

23

“ONE MORE !” says the guy from ESPN.

It sounds more like an order than a request, and although Henry can’t see the fellow, he knows this particular homeboy never played a sport in his life, pro or otherwise. He has the lardy, slightly oily aroma of someone who has been overweight almost from the jump. Sports is perhaps his compensation, with the power to still memories of clothes bought in the Husky section at Sears and all those childhood rhymes like “Fatty-fatty, two-by-four, had to do it on the floor, couldn’t get through the bathroom door.”

His name is Penniman. “Just like Little Richard!” he told Henry when they shook hands at the radio station. “Famous rock ‘n’ roller from back in the fifties? Maybe you remember him.”

“Vaguely,” Henry said, as if he hadn’t at one time owned every single Little Richard had ever put out. “I believe he was one of the Founding Fathers.” Penniman laughed uproariously, and in that laugh Henry glimpsed a possible future for himself. But was it a future he wanted? People laughed at Howard Stern, too, and Howard Stern was a dork.

“One more drink!” Penniman repeats now. They are in the bar of the Oak Tree Inn, where Penniman has tipped the bartender five bucks to switch the TV from bowling on ABC to ESPN, even though there’s nothing on at this hour of the day except golf tips and bass fishing. “One more drink, just to seal the deal!”

But they don’t have a deal, and Henry isn’t sure he wants to make one. Going national with George Rathbun as part of the ESPN radio package should be attractive, and he doesn’t have any serious problem with changing the name of the show from Badger Barrage to ESPN Sports Barrage ?? it would still focus primarily on the central and northern areas of the country ?? but . . .

But what?

Before he can even get to work on the question, he smells it again: My Sin, the perfume his wife used to wear on certain evenings, when she wanted to send a certain signal. Lark was what he used to call her on those certain evenings, when the room was dark and they were both blind to everything but scents and textures and each other.

Lark.

“You know, I think I’m going to pass on that drink,” Henry says. “Got some work to do at home. But I’m going to think over your offer. And I mean seriously.”

“Ah-ah-ah,” Penniman says, and Henry can tell from certain minute disturbances in the air that the man is shaking a finger beneath his nose. Henry wonders how Penniman would react if Henry suddenly darted his head forward and bit off the offending digit at the second knuckle. If Henry showed him a little Coulee Country hospitality Fisherman-style. How loud would Penniman yell? As loud as Little Richard before the instrumental break of “Tutti Frutti,” perhaps? Or not quite as loud as that?

“Can’t go till I’m ready to take you,” Mr. I’m Fat But It No Longer Matters tells him. “I’m your ride, y’know.” He’s on his fourth gimlet, and his words are slightly slurred. My friend, Henry thinks, I’d poke a ferret up my ass before I’d get into a car with you at the wheel.

“Actually, I can,” Henry says pleasantly. Nick Avery, the bartender, is having a kick-ass afternoon: the fat guy slipped him five to change the TV channel, and the blind guy slipped him five to call Skeeter’s Taxi while the fat guy was in the bathroom, making a little room.

“Huh?”

“I said, ?®Actually, I can.’ Bartender?”

“He’s outside, sir,” Avery tells him. “Pulled up two minutes ago.”

There is a hefty creak as Penniman turns on his bar stool. Henry can’t see the man’s frown as he takes in the taxi now idling in the hotel turnaround, but he can sense it.

“Listen, Henry,” Penniman says. “I think you may lack a certain understanding of your current situation. There are stars in the firmament of sports radio, damned right there are ?? people like the Fabulous Sports Babe and Tony Kornheiser make six figures a year just in speaking fees, six figures easy ?? but you ain’t there yet. That door is currently closed to you. But I, my friend, am one helluva doorman. The upshot is that if I say we ought to have one more drink, then ?? “

“Bartender,” Henry says quietly, then shakes his head. “I can’t just call you bartender; it might work for Humphrey Bogart but it doesn’t work for me. What’s your name?”

“Nick Avery, sir.” The last word comes out automatically, but Avery never would have used it when speaking to the other one, never in a million years. Both guys tipped him five, but the one in the dark glasses is the gent. It’s got nothing to do with him being blind, it’s just something he is.

“Nick, who else is at the bar?”

Avery looks around. In one of the back booths, two men are drinking beer. In the hall, a bellman is on the phone. At the bar itself, no one at all except for these two guys ?? one slim, cool, and blind, the other fat, sweaty, and starting to be pissed off.

“No one, sir.”

“There’s not a . . . lady?” Lark, he’s almost said. There’s not a lark?

“No.”

“Listen here,” Penniman says, and Henry thinks he’s never heard anyone so unlike “Little Richard” Penniman in his entire life. This guy is whiter than Moby Dick . . . and probably about the same size. “We’ve got a lot more to discuss here.” Loh more t’dishcush is how it comes out. “Unless, that is” ?? Unlesh ?? “you’re trying to let me know you’re not interested.” Never in a million years, Penniman’s voice says to Henry Leyden’s educated ears. We’re talking about putting a money machine in your living room, sweetheart, your very own private ATM, and there ain’t no way in hell you’re going to turn that down.

“Nick, you don’t smell perfume? Something very light and old-fashioned? My Sin, perhaps?”

A flabby hand falls on Henry’s shoulder like a hot-water bottle. “The sin, old buddy, would be for you to refuse to have another drink with me. Even a blindman could see th ?? “

“Suggest you get your hand off him,” Avery says, and perhaps Penniman’s ears aren’t entirely deaf to nuance, because the hand leaves Henry’s shoulder at once.

Then another hand comes in its place, higher up. It touches the back of Henry’s neck in a cold caress that’s there and then gone. Henry draws in breath. The smell of perfume comes with it. Usually scents fade after a period of exposure, as the receptors that caught them temporarily deaden. Not this time, though. Not this smell.

“No perfume?” Henry almost pleads. The touch of her hand on his neck he can dismiss as a tactile hallucination. But his nose never betrays him.

Never until now, anyway.

“I’m sorry,” Avery says. “I can smell beer . . . peanuts . . . this man’s gin and his aftershave . . .”

Henry nods. The lights above the backbar slide across the dark lenses of his shades as he slips gracefully off his stool.

“I think you want another drink, my friend,” Penniman says in what he no doubt believes to be a tone of polite menace. “One more drink, just to celebrate, and then I’ll take you home in my Lexus.”

Henry smells his wife’s perfume. He’s sure of it. And he seemed to feel the touch of his wife’s hand on the back of his neck. Yet suddenly it’s skinny little Morris Rosen he finds himself thinking about ?? Morris, who wanted him to listen to “Where Did Our Love Go” as done by Dirtysperm. And of course for Henry to play it in his Wisconsin Rat persona. Morris Rosen, who has more integrity in one of his nail-chewed little fingers than this bozo has got in his entire body.

He puts a hand on Penniman’s forearm. He smiles into Penniman’s unseen face, and feels the muscles beneath his palm relax. Penniman has decided he’s going to get his way. Again.

“You take my drink,” Henry says pleasantly, “add it to your drink, and then stick them both up your fat and bepimpled ass. If you need something to hold them in place, why, you can stick your job up there right after them.”

Henry turns and walks briskly toward the door, orienting himself with his usual neat precision and holding one hand out in front of him as an insurance policy. Nick Avery has broken into spontaneous applause, but Henry barely hears this and Penniman he has already dismissed from his mind. What occupies him is the smell of My Sin perfume. It fades a little as he steps out into the afternoon heat . . . but is that not an amorous sigh he hears beside his left ear? The sort of sigh his wife sometimes made just before falling asleep after love? His Rhoda? His Lark?

“Hello, the taxi!” he calls from the curb beneath the awning.

“Right here, buddy ?? what’re you, blind?”

“As a bat,” Henry agrees, and walks toward the sound of the voice. He’ll go home, he’ll put his feet up, he’ll have a glass of tea, and then he’ll listen to the damned 911 tape. That as yet unperformed chore may be what’s causing his current case of the heebie-jeebies and shaky-shivers, knowing that he must sit in darkness and listen to the voice of a child-killing cannibal. Surely that must be it, because there’s no reason to be afraid of his Lark, is there? If she were to return ?? to return and haunt him ?? she would surely haunt with love.

Wouldn’t she?

Yes, he thinks, and lowers himself into the taxi’s stifling back seat.

“Where to, buddy?”

“Norway Valley Road,” Henry says. “It’s a white house with blue trim, standing back from the road. You’ll see it not long after you cross the creek.”

Henry settles back in the seat and turns his troubled face toward the open window. French Landing feels strange to him today . . . fraught. Like something that has slipped and slipped until it is now on the verge of simply falling off the table and smashing to pieces on the floor.

Say that she has come back. Say that she has. If it’s love she’s come with, why does the smell of her perfume make me so uneasy? So almost revolted? And why was her touch (her imagined touch, he assures himself) so unpleasant?

Why was her touch so cold?

After the dazzle of the day, the living room of Beezer’s crib is so dark that at first Jack can’t make out anything. Then, when his eyes adjust a little, he sees why: blankets ?? a double thickness, from the look ?? have been hung over both of the living-room windows, and the door to the other downstairs room, almost certainly the kitchen, has been closed.

“He can’t stand the light,” Beezer says. He keeps his voice low so it won’t carry across to the far side of the room, where the shape of a man lies on a couch. Another man is kneeling beside him.

“Maybe the dog that bit him was rabid,” Jack says. He doesn’t believe it.

Beezer shakes his head decisively. “It isn’t a phobic reaction. Doc says it’s physiological. Where light falls on him, his skin starts to melt. You ever hear of anything like that?”

“No.” And Jack has never smelled anything like the stench in this room, either. There’s the buzz of not one but two table fans, and he can feel the cross-draft, but that stink is too gluey to move. There’s the reek of spoiled meat ?? of gangrene in torn flesh ?? but Jack has smelled that before. It’s the other smell that’s getting to him, something like blood and funeral flowers and feces all mixed up together. He makes a gagging noise, can’t help it, and Beezer looks at him with a certain impatient sympathy.

“Bad, yeah, I know. But it’s like the monkey house at the zoo, man ?? you get used to it after a while.”

The swing door to the other room opens, and a trim little woman with shoulder-length blond hair comes through. She’s carrying a bowl. When the light strikes the figure lying on the couch, Mouse screams. It’s a horribly thick sound, as if the man’s lungs have begun to liquefy. Something ?? maybe smoke, maybe steam ?? starts to rise up from the skin of his forehead.

“Hold on, Mouse,” the kneeling man says. It’s Doc. Before the kitchen door swings all the way shut again, Jack is able to read what’s pasted to his battered black bag. Somewhere in America there may be another medical man sporting a STEPPENWOLF RULES bumper sticker on the side of his physician’s bag, but probably not in Wisconsin.

The woman kneels beside Doc, who takes a cloth from the basin, wrings it out, and places it on Mouse’s forehead. Mouse gives a shaky groan and begins to shiver all over. Water runs down his cheeks and into his beard. The beard seems to be coming out in mangy patches.

Jack steps forward, telling himself he will get used to the smell, sure he will. Maybe it’s even true. In the meantime he wishes for a little of the Vicks VapoRub most LAPD homicide detectives carry in their glove compartments as a matter of course. A dab under each nostril would be very welcome right now.

There’s a sound system (scruffy) and a pair of speakers in the corners of the room (huge), but no television. Stacked wooden crates filled with books line every wall without a door or a window in it, making the space seem even smaller than it is, almost cryptlike. Jack has a touch of claustrophobia in his makeup, and now this circuit warms up, increasing his discomfort. Most of the books seem to deal with religion and philosophy ?? he sees Descartes, C. S. Lewis, the Bhagavad-Gita, Steven Avery’s Tenets of Existence ?? but there’s also a lot of fiction, books on beer making, and (on top of one giant speaker) Albert Goldman’s trash tome about Elvis Presley. On the other speaker is a photograph of a young girl with a splendid smile, freckles, and oceans of reddish-blond hair. Seeing the child who drew the hopscotch grid out front makes Jack Sawyer feel sick with anger and sorrow. Otherworldly beings and causes there may be, but there’s also a sick old fuck prowling around who needs to be stopped. He’d do well to remember that.

Bear Girl makes a space for Jack in front of the couch, moving gracefully even though she’s on her knees and still holding the bowl. Jack sees that in it are two more wet cloths and a heap of melting ice cubes. The sight of them makes him thirstier than ever. He takes one and pops it into his mouth. Then he turns his attention to Mouse.

A plaid blanket has been pulled up to his neck. His forehead and upper cheeks ?? the places not covered by his decaying beard ?? are pasty. His eyes are closed. His lips are drawn back to show teeth of startling whiteness.

“Is he ?? ” Jack begins, and then Mouse’s eyes open. Whatever Jack meant to ask leaves his head entirely. Around the hazel irises, Mouse’s eyes have gone an uneasy, shifting scarlet. It’s as if the man is looking into a terrible radioactive sunset. From the inner corners of his eyes, some sort of black scum is oozing.

“The Book of Philosophical Transformation addresses most current dialectics,” Mouse says, speaking mellowly and lucidly, “and Machiavelli also speaks to these questions.” Jack can almost picture him in a lecture hall. Until his teeth begin to chatter, that is.

“Mouse, it’s Jack Sawyer.” No recognition in those weird red-and-hazel eyes. The black gunk at the corners of them seems to twitch, however, as if it is somehow sentient. Listening to him.

“It’s Hollywood,” Beezer murmurs. “The cop. Remember?”

One of Mouse’s hands lies on the plaid blanket. Jack takes it, and stifles a cry of surprise when it closes over his with amazing strength. It’s hot, too. As hot as a biscuit just out of the oven. Mouse lets out a long, gasping sigh, and the stench is fetid ?? bad meat, decayed flowers. He’s rotting, Jack thinks. Rotting from the inside out. Oh Christ, help me through this.

Christ may not, but the memory of Sophie might. Jack tries to fix her eyes in his memory, that lovely, level, clear blue gaze.

“Listen,” Mouse says.

“I’m listening.”

Mouse seems to gather himself. Beneath the blanket, his body shivers in a loose, uncoordinated way that Jack guesses is next door to a seizure. Somewhere a clock is ticking. Somewhere a dog is barking. A boat hoots on the Mississippi. Other than these sounds, all is silence. Jack can remember only one other such suspension of the world’s business in his entire life, and that was when he was in a Beverly Hills hospital, waiting for his mother to finish the long business of dying. Somewhere Ty Marshall is waiting to be rescued. Hoping to be rescued, at least. Somewhere there are Breakers hard at work, trying to destroy the axle upon which all existence spins. Here is only this eternal room with its feeble fans and noxious vapors.

Mouse’s eyes close, then open again. They fix upon the newcomer, and Jack is suddenly sure some great truth is going to be confided. The ice cube is gone from his mouth; Jack supposes he crunched it up and swallowed it without even realizing, but he doesn’t dare take another.

“Go on, buddy,” Doc says. “You get it out and then I’ll load you up with another hypo of dope. The good stuff. Maybe you’ll sleep.”

Mouse pays no heed. His mutating eyes hold Jack’s. His hand holds Jack’s, tightening still more. Jack can almost feel the bones of his fingers grinding together.

“Don’t . . . go out and buy top-of-the-line equipment,” Mouse says, and sighs out another excruciatingly foul breath from his rotting lungs.

“Don’t . . . ?”

“Most people give up brewing after . . . a year or two. Even dedicated . . . dedicated hobbyists. Making beer is not . . . is not for pussies.”

Jack looks around at Beezer, who looks back impassively. “He’s in and out. Be patient. Wait on him.”

Mouse’s grip tightens yet more, then loosens just as Jack is deciding he can take it no longer.

“Get a big pot,” Mouse advises him. His eyes bulge. The reddish shadows come and go, come and go, fleeting across the curved landscape of his corneas, and Jack thinks, That’s its shadow. The shadow of the Crimson King. Mouse has already got one foot in its court. “Five gallons . . . at least. You find the best ones are in . . . seafood supply stores. And for a fermentation vessel . . . plastic water-cooler jugs are good . . . they’re lighter than glass, and . . . I’m burning up. Christ, Beez, I’m burning up!”

“Fuck this, I’m going to shoot it to him,” Doc says, and snaps open his bag.

Beezer grabs his arm. “Not yet.”

Bloody tears begin to slip out of Mouse’s eyes. The black goo seems to be forming into tiny tendrils. These reach greedily downward, as if trying to catch the moisture and drink it.

“Fermentation lock and stopper,” Mouse whispers. “Thomas Merton is shit, never let anyone tell you different. No real thought there. You have to let the gases escape while keeping dust out. Jerry Garcia wasn’t God. Kurt Cobain wasn’t God. The perfume he smells is not that of his dead wife. He’s caught the eye of the King. Gorg-ten-abbalah, ee-lee-lee. The opopanax is dead, long live the opopanax.”

Jack leans more deeply into Mouse’s smell. “Who’s smelling perfume? Who’s caught the eye of the King?”

“The mad King, the bad King, the sad King. Ring-a-ding-ding, all hail the King.”

“Mouse, who’s caught the eye of the King?”

Doc says, “I thought you wanted to know about ?? “

“Who?” Jack has no idea why this seems important to him, but it does. Is it something someone has said to him recently? Was it Dale? Tansy? Was it, God save us, Wendell Green?

“Racking cane and hose,” Mouse says confidentially. “That’s what you need when the fermentation’s done! And you can’t put beer in screw-top bottles! You ?? “

Mouse turns his head away from Jack, nestles it cozily in the hollow of his shoulder, opens his mouth, and vomits. Bear Girl screams. The vomit is pus-yellow and speckled with moving black bits like the crud in the corners of Mouse’s eyes. It is alive.

Beezer leaves the room in a hurry, not quite running, and Jack shades Mouse from the brief glare of kitchen sunlight as best he can. The hand clamped on Jack’s loosens a little more.

Jack turns to Doc. “Do you think he’s going?”

Doc shakes his head. “Passed out again. Poor old Mousie ain’t getting off that easy.” He gives Jack a grim, haunted look. “This better be worth it, Mr. Policeman. ‘Cause if it ain’t, I’m gonna replumb your sink.”

Beezer comes back with a huge bundle of rags, and he’s put on a pair of green kitchen gloves. Not speaking, he mops up the pool of vomit between Mouse’s shoulder and the backrest of the couch. The black specks have ceased moving, and that’s good. To have not seen them moving in the first place would have been even better. The vomit, Jack notices with dismay, has eaten into the couch’s worn fabric like acid.

“I’m going to pull the blanket down for a second or two,” Doc says, and Bear Girl gets up at once, still holding the bowl with the melting ice. She goes to one of the bookshelves and stands there with her back turned, trembling.

“Doc, is this something I really need to see?”

I think maybe it is. I don’t think you know what you’re dealing with, even now.” Doc takes hold of the blanket and eases it out from beneath Mouse’s limp hand. Jack sees that more of the black stuff has begun to ooze from beneath the dying man’s fingernails. “Remember that this happened only a couple of hours ago, Mr. Policeman.”

He pulls the blanket down. Standing with her back to them, Susan “Bear Girl” Osgood faces the great works of Western philosophy and begins to cry silently. Jack tries to hold back his scream and cannot.

Henry pays off the taxi, goes into his house, takes a deep and soothing breath of the air-conditioned cool. There is a faint aroma ?? sweet ?? and he tells himself it’s just fresh-cut flowers, one of Mrs. Morton’s specialties. He knows better, but wants no more to do with ghosts just now. He is actually feeling better, and he supposes he knows why: it was telling the ESPN guy to take his job and shove it. Nothing more apt to make a fellow’s day, especially when the fellow in question is gainfully employed, possessed of two credit cards that are nowhere near the max-out point, and has a pitcher of cold iced tea in the fridge.

Henry heads kitchenward now, making his way down the hall with one hand held out before him, testing the air for obstacles and displacements. There’s no sound but the whisper of the air conditioner, the hum of the fridge, the clack of his heels on the hardwood . . .

. . . and a sigh.

An amorous sigh.

Henry stands where he is for a moment, then turns cautiously. Is the sweet aroma a little stronger now, especially facing back in this direction, toward the living room and the front door? He thinks yes. And it’s not flowers; no sense fooling himself about that. As always, the nose knows. That’s the aroma of My Sin.

“Rhoda?” he says, and then, lower: “Lark?”

No answer. Of course not. He’s just having the heebie-jeebies, that’s all; those world-famous shaky-shivers, and why not?

“Because I’m the sheik, baby,” Henry says. “The Sheik, the Shake, the Shook.”

No smells. No sexy sighs. And yet he’s haunted by the idea of his wife back in the living room, standing there in perfumed cerements of the grave, watching him silently as he came in and passed blindly before her. His Lark, come back from Noggin Mound Cemetery for a little visit. Maybe to listen to the latest Slobberbone CD.

“Quit it,” he says softly. “Quit it, you dope.”

He goes into his big, well-organized kitchen. On his way through the door he slaps a button on the panel there without even thinking about it. Mrs. Morton’s voice comes from the overhead speaker, which is so high-tech she might almost be in the room.

“Jack Sawyer was by, and he dropped off another tape he wants you to listen to. He said it was . . . you know, that man. That bad man.”

“Bad man, right,” Henry murmurs, opening the refrigerator and enjoying the blast of cold air. His hand goes unerringly to one of three cans of Kingsland Lager stored inside the door. Never mind the iced tea.

“Both of the tapes are in your studio, by the soundboard. Also, Jack wanted you to call him on his cell phone.” Mrs. Morton’s voice takes on a faintly lecturing tone. “If you do speak to him, I hope you tell him to be careful. And be careful yourself.” A pause. “Also, don’t forget to eat supper. It’s all ready to go. Second shelf of the fridge, on your left.”

“Nag, nag, nag,” Henry says, but he’s smiling as he opens his beer. He goes to the telephone and dials Jack’s number.

On the seat of the Dodge Ram parked in front of 1 Nailhouse Row, Jack’s cell phone comes to life. This time there’s no one in the cab to be annoyed by its tiny but penetrating tweet.

“The cellular customer you are trying to reach is currently not answering. Please try your call again later.”

Henry hangs up, goes back to the doorway, and pushes another button on the panel there. The voices that deliver the time and temperature are all versions of his own, but he’s programmed a random shuffle pattern into the gadget, so he never knows which one he’s going to get. This time it’s the Wisconsin Rat, screaming crazily into the sunny air-conditioned silence of his house, which has never felt so far from town as it does today:

“Time’s four twenty-two P.M.! Outside temperature’s eighty-two! Inside temperature’s seventy! What the hell do you care? What the hell does anyone care? Chew it up, eat it up, wash it down, it aaall ?? “

?? comes out the same place. Right. Henry thumbs the button again, silencing the Rat’s trademark cry. How did it get late so fast? God, wasn’t it just noon? For that matter, wasn’t he just young, twenty years old and so full of spunk it was practically coming out of his ears? What ??

That sigh comes again, derailing his mostly self-mocking train of thought. A sigh? Really? More likely just the air conditioner’s compressor, cutting off. He can tell himself that, anyway.

He can tell himself that if he wants to.

“Is anyone here?” Henry asks. There is a tremble in his voice that he hates, an old man’s palsied quaver. “Is anyone in the house with me?”

For a terrible second he is almost afraid something will answer. Nothing does ?? of course nothing does ?? and he swallows half the can of beer in three long gulps. He decides he’ll go back into the living room and read for a little while. Maybe Jack will call. Maybe he’ll get himself a little more under control once he has a little fresh alcohol in his system.

And maybe the world will end in the next five minutes, he thinks. That way you’ll never have to deal with the voice on those damned tapes waiting in the studio. Those damned tapes lying there on the soundboard like unexploded bombs.

Henry walks slowly back down the hall to the living room with one hand held out before him, telling himself he’s not afraid, not a bit afraid of touching his wife’s dead face.

Jack Sawyer has seen a lot, he’s traveled to places where you can’t rent from Avis and the water tastes like wine, but he’s never encountered anything like Mouse Baumann’s leg. Or, rather, the pestilential, apocalyptic horror show that was Mouse Baumann’s leg. Jack’s first impulse once he’s got himself back under something like control is to upbraid Doc for taking off Mouse’s pants. Jack keeps thinking of sausages, and how the casing forces them to keep their shape even after the fry pan’s sizzling on a red-hot burner. This is an undoubtedly stupid comparison, primo stupido, but the human mind under pressure puts on some pretty odd jinks and jumps.

There’s still the shape of a leg there ?? sort of ?? but the flesh has spread away from the bone. The skin is almost completely gone, melted to a runny substance that looks like a mixture of milk and bacon fat. The interwoven mat of muscle beneath what remains of the skin is sagging and undergoing the same cataclysmic metamorphosis. The infected leg is in a kind of undisciplined motion as the solid becomes liquid and the liquid sizzles relentlessly into the couch upon which Mouse is lying. Along with the almost insupportable stench of decay, Jack can smell scorching cloth and melting fabric.

Poking out of this spreading, vaguely leglike mess is a foot that looks remarkably undamaged. If I wanted to, I could pull it right off . . . just like a squash off a vine. The thought gets to him in a way the sight of the grievously wounded leg hasn’t quite been able to, and for a moment Jack can only bow his head, gagging and trying not to vomit down the front of his shirt.

What perhaps saves him is a hand on his back. It’s Beezer, offering what comfort he can. The rowdy color has completely left the Beez’s face. He looks like a motorcyclist come back from the grave in an urban myth.

“You see?” Doc is asking, and his voice seems to come from a great distance. “This ain’t the chicken pox, my friend, although it looked a little like that while it was still getting cranked up. He’s already exhibiting red spots on his left leg . . . his belly . . . his balls. That’s pretty much what the skin around the bite looked like when we first got him back here, just some redness and swelling. I thought, ?®Shit, ain’t nothin’ to this, I got enough Zithromax to put this on the run before sundown.’ Well, you see what good the Zithro did. You see what good anything did. It’s eating through the couch, and I’m guessing that when it finishes with the couch, it’ll go right to work on the floor. This shit is hungry. So was it worth it, Hollywood? I guess only you and Mouse know the answer to that.”

“He still knows where the house is,” Beezer says. “Me, I don’t have a clue, even though we just came from there. You, either. Do you?”

Doc shakes his head.

“But Mouse, he knows.”

“Susie, honey,” Doc says to Bear Girl. “Bring another blanket, would you? This one’s damn near et through.”

Bear Girl goes willingly enough. Jack gets to his feet. His legs are rubbery, but they hold him. “Shield him,” he tells Doc. “I’m going out to the kitchen. If I don’t get a drink, I’m going to die.”

Jack takes on water directly from the sink, swallowing until a spike plants itself in the center of his forehead and he belches like a horse. Then he just stands there, looking out into Beezer and Bear Girl’s backyard. A neat little swing set has been planted there in the weedy desolation. It hurts Jack to look at it, but he looks anyway. After the lunacy of Mouse’s leg, it seems important to remind himself that he’s here for a reason. If the reminder hurts, so much the better.

The sun, now turning gold as it eases itself down toward the Missis-sippi, glares in his eyes. Time hasn’t been standing still after all, it seems. Not outside this little house, anyway. Outside 1 Nailhouse Row, time actually seems to have sped up. He’s haunted by the idea that coming here was as pointless as detouring to Henry’s house; tormented by the thought that Mr. Munshun and his boss, the abbalah, are running him around like a windup toy with a key in its back while they do their work. He can follow that buzz in his head to Black House, so why the hell doesn’t he just get back in his truck and do it?

The perfume he smells is not that of his dead wife.

What does that mean? Why does the idea of someone smelling perfume make him so crazy and afraid?

Beezer knocks on the kitchen door, making him jump. Jack’s eye fixes on a sampler hung over the kitchen table. Instead of GOD BLESS OUR HOME, it reads HEAVY METAL THUNDER. With a carefully stitched HARLEY-DAVIDSON beneath.

“Get back in here, man,” the Beez says. “He’s awake again.”

Henry’s on a path in the woods ?? or maybe it’s a lane ?? and something is behind him. Each time he turns to see ?? in this dream he can see, but seeing is no blessing ?? there’s a little more of that something back there. It appears to be a man in evening dress, but the man is frightfully elongated, with spike teeth that jut over a smiling red lower lip. And he seems ?? is it possible? ?? to have only one eye.

The first time Henry looks back, the shape is only a milky blur amid the trees. The next time he can make out the uneasy dark swim of its coat and a floating red blotch that might be a tie or an ascot. Up ahead of him is this thing’s den, a stinking hole that only coincidentally looks like a house. Its presence buzzes in Henry’s head. Instead of pine, the woods pressing in on either side smell of heavy, cloying perfume: My Sin.

It’s driving me, he thinks with dismay. Whatever that thing back there is, it’s driving me like a steer toward the slaughterhouse.

He thinks of cutting off the lane to his left or right, of using the miracle of his new sight to escape through the woods. Only there are things there, too. Dark, floating shapes like sooty scarves. He can almost see the closest. It’s some sort of gigantic dog with a long tongue as red as the apparition’s tie and bulging eyes.

Can’t let it drive me to the house, he thinks. I have to get out of this before it can get me there . . . but how? How?

It comes to him with startling simplicity. All he has to do is wake up. Because this is a dream. This is just a ??

“It’s a dream!” Henry cries out, and jerks forward. He’s not walking, he’s sitting, sitting in his very own easy chair, and pretty soon he’s going to have a very wet crotch because he fell asleep with a can of Kingsland Lager balanced there, and ??

But there’s no spill, because there’s no can of beer. He feels cautiously to his right and yep, there it is, on the table with his book, a braille edition of Reflections in a Golden Eye. He must have put it there before first falling asleep and then falling into that horrible nightmare.

Except Henry’s pretty sure he didn’t do any such thing. He was holding the book and the beer was between his legs, freeing his hands to touch the little upraised dots that tell the story. Something very considerately took both the book and the can after he dropped off, and put them on the table. Something that smells of My Sin perfume.

The air reeks of it.

Henry takes a long, slow breath with his nostrils flared and mouth tightly sealed shut.

“No,” he says, speaking very clearly. “I can smell flowers . . . and rug shampoo . . . and fried onions from last night. Very faint but still there. The nose knows.”

All true enough. But the smell had been there. It’s gone now because she’s gone, but she will be back. And suddenly he wants her to come. If he’s frightened, surely it’s the unknown he’s frightened of, right? Only that and nothing more. He doesn’t want to be alone here, with nothing for company but the memory of that rancid dream.

And the tapes.

He has to listen to the tapes. He promised Jack.

Henry gets shakily to his feet and makes his way to the living-room control panel. This time he’s greeted by the voice of Henry Shake, a mellow fellow if ever there was one.

“Hey there, all you hoppin’ cats and boppin’ kitties, at the tone it’s seven-fourteen P.M., Bulova Watch Time. Outside the temp is a very cool seventy-five degrees, and here in the Make-Believe Ballroom it’s a very nifty seventy degrees. So why not get off your money, grab your honey, and make a little magic?”

Seven-fourteen! When was the last time he fell asleep for almost three hours in the daytime? For that matter, when was the last time he had a dream in which he could see? The answer to that second question, so far as he can remember, is never.

Where was that lane?

What was the thing behind him?

What was the place ahead of him, for that matter?

“Doesn’t matter,” Henry tells the empty room ?? if it is empty. “It was a dream, that’s all. The tapes, on the other hand . . .”

He doesn’t want to listen to them, has never wanted to listen to anything any less in his life (with the possible exception of Chicago singing “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?”), but he has to. If it might save Ty Marshall’s life, or the life of even one other child, he must.

Slowly, dreading every step, Henry Leyden makes his blind way to his studio, where two cassettes wait for him on the soundboard.

“In heaven there is no beer,” Mouse sings in a toneless, droning voice.

His cheeks are now covered with ugly red patches, and his nose seems to be sinking sideways into his face, like an atoll after an undersea earthquake.

“That’s why we drink it here. And when . . . we’re gone . . . from here . . . our friends will be drinking all the beer.”

It’s been like this for hours now: philosophical nuggets, instructions for the beginning beer-making enthusiast, snatches of song. The light coming through the blankets over the windows has dimmed appreciably.

Mouse pauses, his eyes closed. Then he starts another ditty.

“Hundred bottles of beer on the wall, one hundred bottles of beer . . . if one of those bottles should happen to fall . . .”

“I have to go,” Jack says. He’s hung in there as well as he can, convinced that Mouse is going to give him something, but he can wait no longer. Somewhere, Ty Marshall is waiting for him.

“Hold on,” Doc says. He rummages in his bag and comes out with a hypodermic needle. He raises it in the dimness and taps the glass barrel with a fingernail.

“What’s that?”

Doc gives Jack and Beezer a brief, grim smile. “Speed,” he says, and injects it into Mouse’s arm.

For a moment there’s nothing. Then, as Jack is opening his mouth again to tell them he has to go, Mouse’s eyes snap wide. They are now entirely red ?? a bright and bleeding red. Yet when they turn in his direction, Jack knows that Mouse is seeing him. Maybe really seeing him for the first time since he got here.

Bear Girl flees the room, trailing a single diminishing phrase behind her: “No more no more no more no more ?? “

“Fuck,” Mouse says in a rusty voice. “Fuck, I’m fucked. Ain’t I?”

Beezer touches the top of his friend’s head briefly but tenderly. “Yeah, man. I think you are. Can you help us out?”

“Bit me once. Just once, and now . . . now . . .” His hideous red gaze turns to Doc. “Can barely see you. Fuckin’ eyes are all weird.”

“You’re going down,” Doc says. “Ain’t gonna lie to you, man.”

“Not yet I ain’t,” Mouse says. “Gimme something to write on. To draw a map on. Quick. Dunno what you shot me with, Doc, but the stuff from the dog’s stronger. I ain’t gonna be compos long. Quick!”

Beezer feels around at the foot of the couch and comes up with a trade-sized paperback. Given the heavy shit on the bookcases, Jack could almost laugh ?? the book is The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Beezer tears off the back cover and hands it to Mouse with the blank side up.

“Pencil,” Mouse croaks. “Hurry up. I got it all, man. I got it . . . up here.” He touches his forehead. A patch of skin the size of a quarter sloughs off at his touch. Mouse wipes it on the blanket as if it were a booger.

Beezer pulls a gnawed stub of pencil from an inside pocket of his vest. Mouse takes it and makes a pathetic effort to smile. The black stuff oozing from the corners of his eyes has continued to build up, and now it lies on his cheeks like smears of decayed jelly. More of it is springing out of the pores on his forehead in minute black dots that remind Jack of Henry’s braille books. When Mouse bites his lower lip in concentration, the tender flesh splits open at once. Blood begins dribbling into his beard. Jack supposes the rotted-meat smell is still there, but Beezer had been right: he’s gotten used to it.

Mouse turns the book cover sideways, then draws a series of quick squiggles. “Lookit,” he says to Jack. “This the Mississippi, right?”

“Right,” Jack says. When he leans in, he starts getting the smell again. Up close it’s not even a stench; it’s a miasma trying to crawl down his throat. But Jack doesn’t move away. He knows what an effort Mouse is making. The least he can do is play his part.

“Here’s downtown ?? the Nelson, Lucky’s, the Agincourt Theater, the Taproom . . . here’s where Chase Street turns into Lyall Road, then Route 35 . . . here’s Libertyville . . . the VFW . . . Goltz’s . . . ah, Christ ?? “

Mouse begins to thrash on the couch. Sores on his face and upper body burst open and begin leaking. He screams with pain. The hand not holding the pencil goes to his face and paws at it ineffectually.

Something inside Jack speaks up, then ?? speaks in a shining, imperative voice he remembers from his time on the road all those years ago. He supposes it’s the voice of the Talisman, or whatever remains of it in his mind and soul.

It doesn’t want him to talk, it’s trying to kill him before he can talk, it’s in the black stuff, maybe it is the black stuff, you’ve got to get rid of it ??

Some things can only be done without the mind’s prudish interference; when the work is nasty, instinct is often best. So it is without thinking that Jack reaches out, grasps the black slime oozing from Mouse’s eyes between his fingers, and pulls. At first the stuff only stretches, as if made of rubber. At the same time Jack can feel it squirming and writhing in his grip, perhaps trying to pinch or bite him. Then it lets go with a twang sound. Jack throws the convulsing black tissue onto the floor with a cry.

The stuff tries to slither beneath the couch ?? Jack sees this even as he wipes his hands on his shirt, frantic with revulsion. Doc slams his bag down on one piece. Beezer squashes the other with the heel of a motorcycle boot. It makes a squittering sound.

“What the fuck is that shit?” Doc asks. His voice, ordinarily husky, has gone up into a near-falsetto range. “What the fuck ?? “

“Nothing from here,” Jack says, “and never mind. Look at him! Look at Mouse!”

The red glare in Mouse’s eyes has retreated; for the moment he looks almost normal. Certainly he’s seeing them, and the pain seems gone. “Thanks,” he breathes. “I only wish you could get it all that way, but man, it’s already coming back. Pay attention.”

“I’m listening,” Jack says.

“You better,” Mouse replies. “You think you know. You think you can find the place again even if these two can’t, and maybe you can, but maybe you don’t know quite so much as you . . . ah, fuck.” From somewhere beneath the blanket there is a ghastly bursting sound as something gives way. Sweat runs down Mouse’s face, mixing with the black poison venting from his pores and turning his beard a damp and dirty gray. His eyes roll up to Jack’s, and Jack can see that red glare starting to haze over them again.

“This sucks,” Mouse pants. “Never thought I’d go out this way. Lookit, Hollywood . . .” The dying man draws a small rectangle on his makeshift scribble of map. “This ?? “

“Ed’s Eats, where we found Irma,” Jack says. “I know.”

“All right,” Mouse whispers. “Good. Now look . . . over on the other side . . . the Schubert and Gale side . . . and to the west . . .”

Mouse draws a line going north from Highway 35. He puts little circles on either side of it. Jack takes these to be representations of trees. And, across the front of the line like a gate: NO TRESPASSING.

“Yeah,” Doc breathes. “That’s where it was, all right. Black House.”

Mouse takes no notice. His dimming gaze is fixed solely on Jack. “Listen to me, cop. Are you listening?”

“Yes.”

“Christ, you better be,” Mouse tells him.

As it always has, the work captures Henry, absorbs him, takes him away. Boredom and sorrow have never been able to stand against this old captivation with sound from the sighted world. Apparently fear can’t stand against it, either. The hardest moment isn’t listening to the tapes but mustering the courage to stick the first one in the big TEAC audio deck. In that moment of hesitation he’s sure he can smell his wife’s perfume even in the soundproofed and air-filtered environment of the studio. In that moment of hesitation he is positive he isn’t alone, that someone (or something) is standing just outside the studio door, looking in at him through the glass upper half. And that is, in fact, the absolute truth. Blessed with sight as we are, we can see what Henry cannot. We want to tell him what’s out there, to lock the studio door, for the love of God lock it now, but we can only watch.

Henry reaches for the PLAY button on the tape deck. Then his finger changes course and hits the intercom toggle instead.

“Hello? Is anyone out there?”

The figure standing in Henry’s living room, looking in at him the way someone might look into an aquarium at a single exotic fish, makes no sound. The last of the sun’s on the other side of the house and the living room is becoming quite dark, Henry being understandably forgetful when it comes to turning on the lights. Elmer Jesperson’s amusing bee slippers (not that they amuse us much under these circumstances) are just about the brightest things out there.

“Hello? Anyone?”

The figure looking in through the glass half of the studio door is grinning. In one hand it is holding the hedge clippers from Henry’s garage.

“Last chance,” Henry says, and when there’s still no response, he becomes the Wisconsin Rat, shrieking into the intercom, trying to startle whatever’s out there into revealing itself: “Come on now, honey, come on now, you muthafukkah, talk to Ratty!”

The figure peering in at Henry recoils ?? as a snake might recoil when its prey makes a feint ?? but it utters no sound. From between the grinning teeth comes a leathery old tongue, wagging and poking in derision. This creature has been into the perfume that Mrs. Morton has never had the heart to remove from the vanity in the little powder room adjacent to the master bedroom, and now Henry’s visitor reeks of My Sin.

Henry decides it’s all just his imagination playing him up again ?? oy, such a mistake, Morris Rosen would have told him, had Morris been there ?? and hits PLAY with the tip of his finger.

He hears a throat-clearing sound, and then Arnold Hrabowski identifies himself. The Fisherman interrupts him before he can even finish: Hello, asswipe.

Henry rewinds, listens again: Hello, asswipe. Rewinds and listens yet again: Hello, asswipe. Yes, he has heard this voice before. He’s sure of it. But where? The answer will come, answers of this sort always do ?? eventually ?? and getting there is half the fun. Henry listens, enrapt. His fingers dance back and forth over the tape deck’s buttons like the fingers of a concert pianist over the keys of a Steinway. The feeling of being watched slips from him, although the figure outside the studio door ?? the thing wearing the bee slippers and holding the hedge clippers ?? never moves. Its smile has faded somewhat. A sulky expression is growing on its aged face. There is confusion in that look, and perhaps the first faint trace of fear. The old monster doesn’t like it that the blind fish in the aquarium should have captured its voice. Of course it doesn’t matter; maybe it’s even part of the fun, but if it is, it’s Mr. Munshun’s fun, not its fun. And their fun should be the same . . . shouldn’t it?

You have an emergency. Not me. You.

“Not me, you,” Henry says. The mimicry is so good it’s weird. “A little bit of sauerkraut in your salad, mein friend, ja?”

Your worst nightmare . . . worst nightmare.

Abbalah.

I’m the Fisherman.

Henry listening, intent. He lets the tape run awhile, then listens to the same phrase four times over: Kiss my scrote, you monkey . . . kiss my scrote, you monkey . . . you monkey . . . monkey . . .

No, not monkey. The voice is actually saying munggey. MUNG-ghee.

“I don’t know where you are now, but you grew up in Chicago,” Henry murmurs. “South Side. And . . .”

Warmth on his face. Suddenly he remembers warmth on his face. Why is that, friends and neighbors? Why is that, O great wise ones?

You’re no better’n a monkey on a stick.

Monkey on a stick.

Monkey ??

“Monkey,” Henry says. He’s rubbing his temples with the tips of his fingers now. “Monkey on a stick. MUNG-ghee on a stigg. Who said that?”

He plays the 911: Kiss my scrote, you monkey.

He plays his memory: You’re no better’n a monkey on a stick.

Warmth on his face.

Heat? Light?

Both?

Henry pops out the 911 tape and sticks in the one Jack brought today.

Hello, Judy. Are you Judy today, or are you Sophie? The abbalah sends his best, and Gorg says “Caw-caw-caw!” [Husky, phlegmy laughter.] Ty says hello, too. Your little boy is very lonely . . .

When Tyler Marshall’s weeping, terrified voice booms through the speakers, Henry winces and fast-forwards.

Derr vill be morrr mur-derts.

The accent much thicker now, a burlesque, a joke, Katzenjammer Kids Meet the Wolfman, but somehow even more revealing because of that.

Der liddul chull-drun . . . havv-uz-ted like wheed. Like wheed. Havv-uz-ted like . . .

“Harvested like a monkey on a stick,” Henry says. “MUNG-ghee. HAVV-us-ted. Who are you, you son of a bitch?”

Back to the 911 tape.

There are whips in hell and chains in Sheol. But it’s almost vips in hell, almost chenz in Shayol.

Vips. Chenz. MUNG-ghee on a stick. A stigg.

“You’re no better’n ?? ” Henry begins, and then, all at once, another line comes to him.

“Lady Magowan’s Nightmare.” That one’s good.

A bad nightmare of what? Vips in hell? Chenz in Shayol? Mung-ghees on sticks?

“My God,” Henry says softly. “Oh . . . my . . . God. The dance. He was at the dance.”

Now it all begins to fall into place. How stupid they have been! How criminally stupid! The boy’s bike . . . it had been right there. Right there, for Christ’s sake! They were all blind men, make them all umps.

“But he was so old,” Henry whispers. “And senile! How were we supposed to guess such a man could be the Fisherman?”

Other questions follow this one. If the Fisherman is a resident at Maxton Elder Care, for instance, where in God’s name could he have stashed Ty Marshall? And how is the bastard getting around French Landing? Does he have a car somewhere?

“Doesn’t matter,” Henry murmurs. “Not now, anyway. Who is he and where is he? Those are the things that matter.”

The warmth on his face ?? his mind’s first effort to locate the Fisherman’s voice in time and place ?? had been the spotlight, of course, Symphonic Stan’s spotlight, the pink of ripening berries. And some woman, some nice old woman ??

Mr. Stan, yoo-hoo, Mr. Stan?

?? had asked him if he took requests. Only, before Stan could reply, a voice as flat and hard as two stones grinding together ??

I was here first, old woman.

?? had interrupted. Flat . . . and hard . . . and with that faint Germanic harshness that said South Side Chicago, probably second or even third generation. Not vass here first, not old vumman, but those telltale v’s had been lurking, hadn’t they? Ah yes.

“Mung-ghee,” Henry says, looking straight ahead. Looking straight at Charles Burnside, had he only known it. “Stigg. Havv-us-ted. Hasta la vista . . . baby.”

Was that what it came down to, in the end? A dotty old maniac who sounded a bit like Arnold Schwarzenegger?

Who was the woman? If he can remember her name, he can call Jack . . . or Dale, if Jack’s still not answering his phone . . . and put an end to French Landing’s bad dream.

Lady Magowan’s Nightmare. That one’s good.

“Nightmare,” Henry says, then adjusting his voice: “Nahht-mare.” Once again the mimicry is good. Certainly too good for the old codger standing outside the studio door. He is now scowling bitterly and gnashing the hedge clippers in front of the glass. How can the blindman in there sound so much like him? It’s not right; it’s completely improper. The old monster longs to cut the vocal cords right out of Henry Leyden’s throat. Soon, he promises himself, he will do that.

And eat them.

Sitting in the swivel chair, drumming his fingers nervously on the gleaming oak in front of him, Henry recalls the brief encounter at the bandstand. Not long into the Strawberry Fest dance, this had been.

Tell me your name and what you’d like to hear.

I am Alice Weathers, and ?? . “Moonglow,” please. By Benny Goodman.

“Alice Weathers,” Henry says. “That was her name, and if she doesn’t know your name, my homicidal friend, then I’m a monkey on a stick.”

He starts to get up, and that is when someone ?? something ?? begins to knock, very softly, on the glass upper half of the door.

Bear Girl has drawn close, almost against her will, and now she, Jack, Doc, and the Beez are gathered around the sofa. Mouse has sunk halfway into it. He looks like a person dying badly in quicksand.

Well, Jack thinks, there’s no quicksand, but he’s dying badly, all right. Guess there’s no question about that.

“Listen up,” Mouse tells them. The black goo is forming at the corners of his eyes again. Worse, it’s trickling from the corners of his mouth. The stench of decay is stronger than ever as Mouse’s inner workings give up the struggle. Jack is frankly amazed that they’ve lasted as long as they have.

“You talk,” Beezer says. “We’ll listen.”

Mouse looks at Doc. “When I finish, give me the fireworks. The Cadillac dope. Understand?”

“You want to get out ahead of whatever it is you’ve got.”

Mouse nods.

“I’m down with that,” Doc agrees. “You’ll go out with a smile on your face.”

“Doubt that, bro, but I’ll give it a try.”

Mouse shifts his reddening gaze to Beezer. “When it’s done, wrap me up in one of the nylon tents that’re in the garage. Stick me in the tub. I’m betting that by midnight, you’ll be able to wash me down the drain like . . . like so much beer foam. I’d be careful, though. Don’t . . . touch what’s left.”

Bear Girl bursts into tears.

“Don’t cry, darlin’,” Mouse says. “I’m gonna get out ahead. Doc promised. Beez?”

“Right here, buddy.”

“You have a little service for me. Okay? Read a poem . . . the one by Auden . . . the one that always used to frost your balls . . .”

” ?®Thou shalt not read the Bible for its prose,’ ” Beezer says. He’s crying. “You got it, Mousie.”

“Play some Dead . . . ?®Ripple,’ maybe . . . and make sure you’re full enough of Kingsland to christen me good and proper into the next life. Guess there won’t . . . be any grave for you to piss on, but . . . do the best you can.”

Jack laughs at that. He can’t help it. And this time it’s his turn to catch the full force of Mouse’s crimson eyes.

“Promise me you’ll wait until tomorrow to go out there, cop.”

“Mouse, I’m not sure I can do that.”

“You gotta. Go out there tonight, you won’t have to worry about the devil dog . . . the other things in the woods around that house . . . the other things . . .” The red eyes roll horribly. Black stuff trickles into Mouse’s beard like tar. Then he somehow forces himself to go on. “The other things in those woods will eat you like candy.”

“I think that’s a chance I’ll have to take,” Jack says, frowning. “There’s a little boy somewhere ?? “

“Safe,” Mouse whispers.

Jack raises his eyebrows, unsure if he’s heard Mouse right. And even if he has, can he trust what he’s heard? Mouse has some powerful, evil poison working in him. So far he’s been able to withstand it, to communicate in spite of it, but ??

“Safe for a little while,” Mouse says. “Not from everything . . . there’s things that might still get him, I suppose . . . but for the time being he’s safe from Mr. Munching. Is that his name? Munching?”

“Munshun, I think. How do you know it?”

Mouse favors Jack with a smile of surpassing eeriness. It is the smile of a dying sibyl. Once more he manages to touch his forehead, and Jack notes with horror that the man’s fingers are now melting into one another and turning black from the nails down. “Got it up here, man. Got it alll up here. Told you that. And listen: it’s better the kid should get eaten by some giant bug or rock crab over there . . . where he is . . . than that you should die trying to rescue him. If you do that, the abbalah will wind up with the kid for sure. That’s what your . . . your friend says.”

“What friend?” Doc asks suspiciously.

“Never mind,” Mouse says. “Hollywood knows. Don’tcha, Holly-wood?”

Jack nods reluctantly. It’s Speedy, of course. Or Parkus, if you prefer.

“Wait until tomorrow,” Mouse says. “High noon, when the sun’s strongest in both worlds. Promise.”

At first Jack can say nothing. He’s torn, in something close to agony.

“It’d be almost full dark before you could get back out Highway 35 anyway,” Bear Girl says quietly.

“And there’s bad shit in those woods, all right,” Doc says. “Makes the stuff in that Blair Witch Project look fuckin’ tame. I don’t think you want to try it in the dark. Not unless you got a death wish, that is.”

“When you’re done . . .” Mouse whispers. “When you’re done . . . if any of you are left . . . burn the place to the ground. That hole. That tomb. Burn it to the ground, do you hear me? Close the door.”

“Yeah,” Beezer says. “Heard and understood, buddy.”

“Last thing,” Mouse says. He’s speaking directly to Jack now. “You may be able to find it . . . but I think I got something else you need. It’s a word. It’s powerful to you because of something you . . . you touched. Once a long time ago. I don’t understand that part, but . . .”

“It’s all right,” Jack tells him. “I do. What’s the word, Mouse?”

For a moment he doesn’t think Mouse will, in the end, be able to tell him. Something is clearly struggling to keep him from saying the word, but in this struggle, Mouse comes out on top. It is, Jack thinks, very likely his life’s last W.

“D’yamba,” Mouse says. “Now you, Hollywood. You say it.”

“D’yamba,” Jack says, and a row of weighty paperbacks slides from one of the makeshift shelves at the foot of the couch. They hang there in the dimming air . . . hang . . . hang . . . and then drop to the floor with a crash.

Bear Girl voices a little scream.

“Don’t forget it,” Mouse says. “You’re gonna need it.”

“How? How am I going to need it?”

Mouse shakes his head wearily. “Don’t . . . know.”

Beezer reaches over Jack’s shoulder and takes the pitiful little scribble of map. “You’re going to meet us tomorrow morning at the Sand Bar,” he tells Jack. “Get there by eleven-thirty, and we should be turning into that goddamned lane right around noon. In the meantime, maybe I’ll just hold on to this. A little insurance policy to make sure you do things Mouse’s way.”

“Okay,” Jack says. He doesn’t need the map to find Chummy Burn-side’s Black House, but Mouse is almost certainly right: it’s probably not the sort of place you want to tackle after dark. He hates to leave Ty Marshall in the furance-lands ?? it feels wrong in a way that’s almost sinful ?? but he has to remember that there’s more at stake here than one little boy lost.

“Beezer, are you sure you want to go back there?”

“Hell no, I don’t want to go back,” Beezer says, almost indignantly. “But something killed my daughter ?? my daughter! ?? and it got here from there! You want to tell me you don’t know that’s true?”

Jack makes no reply. Of course it’s true. And of course he wants Doc and the Beez with him when he turns up the lane to Black House. If they can bear to come, that is.

D’yamba, he thinks. D’yamba. Don’t forget.

He turns back to the couch. “Mouse, do you ?? “

“No,” Doc says. “Guess he won’t need the Cadillac dope, after all.”

“Huh?” Jack peers at the big brewer-biker stupidly. He feels stupid.

Stupid and exhausted.

“Nothin’ tickin’ but his watch,” Doc says, and then he begins to sing. After a moment Beezer joins in, then Bear Girl. Jack steps away from the couch with a thought queerly similar to Henry’s: How did it get late so early? Just how in hell did that happen?

“In heaven, there is no beer . . . that’s why we drink it here . . . and when . . . we’re gone . . . from here . . .”

Jack tiptoes across the room. On the far side, there’s a lighted Kingsland Premium Golden Pale Ale bar clock. Our old friend ?? who is finally looking every year of his age and not quite so lucky ?? peers at the time with disbelief, not accepting it until he has compared it to his own watch. Almost eight. He has been here for hours.

Almost dark, and the Fisherman still out there someplace. Not to mention his otherworldly playmates.

D’yamba, he thinks again as he opens the door. And, as he steps out onto the splintery porch and closes the door behind him, he speaks aloud with great sincerity into the darkening day: “Speedy, I’d like to wring your neck.”