As the last blue sky shrank northward, thunderheads towered as if they were mountains thrusting violently from the earth’s crust in a fierce seismic and volcanic age millions of years before any living thing yet crawled the planet.
I walked south, into the wind, retracing my route for a block and a half—noticing that other street drains lacked the lightning bolt—until I arrived at the mouth of a wide alleyway similarly lined with industrial buildings and warehouses. In some other pockets of this neighborhood, workers labored, deliveries were being made and shipments loaded. But here, in spite of wind-stirred power-company lines that softly whistled overhead, there lay a stillness more suited to a ghost town than to any place in a living city.
As I entered the alley, the sun abruptly submerged in clouds, and the bleak, black shadows of utility poles melted into the potholed pavement. On both sides were elevated loading docks, man-size doors, big roll-ups, and latticed windows of many small panes so filthy that they were all but opaque.
Past the middle of the block, I was drawn to a building narrower than the others, with a man door and three roll-ups large enough to admit trucks of any size. The windows were as blinded with dust as all the others, but lights inside lent the glass a silvery sheen.
Beyond doubt, the cowboy trucker was nearby. The image of him in my mind’s eye grew brighter and more colorful and so fearsome that, to prevent him from fulfilling his threat, I wished fervently that I had bought a Kevlar jockstrap.
At the man-size door, I stood with my head cocked, listening. When I heard nothing, I drew the pistol from my waistband. I tried the lever handle, and the unlocked door opened a crack. Emboldened by the enduring silence, I eased inside and closed the door quietly behind me.
I stood in a brick-walled garage brightened by overhead banks of fluorescent tubes. Only the middle of the three bays contained a vehicle, a white Ford van, one of those small delivery vans used by florists and caterers, although this one had no company name or logo emblazoned on it.
When I opened the van, the cargo area contained nothing, though perhaps soon it would imprison three bound, gagged, and terrified children meant for burning. For the sake of silence, I left the vehicle open.
In the back wall of the garage, opposite the roll-ups, two doors flanked a freight elevator. There is a classic short story in which a man must open one of two doors, aware that a beautiful lady waits behind one and a hungry tiger behind the other, but he doesn’t know which door is which. Given my luck, I expected to find tigers to the left and right. The freight route didn’t appeal, either.
Compelled to the door on the right, I found ascending stairs. They were concrete with glued-on rubber treads for safety, which also served to mute my footsteps. I eased the door shut behind me.
I had climbed halfway to the first landing when I heard two male voices above me in the stairwell. The words bounced between the brick wall on my right and the easy-clean glossy-yellow fiberboard on my left, and were distorted so that I couldn’t be certain that either speaker was the cowboy trucker.
With the pistol, I could intimidate them. But if my quarry was not one of the two, I would have no way of knowing whether or not I might be threatening innocent men.
I hurriedly descended the stairs, entered the garage—and found it changed. Instead of overhead fluorescents, three single-bulb lamps with cone-shaped shades hung on chains. The poor light shone just bright enough for me to see that the brick walls were gone and that bare concrete replaced them.
More startling than any of that was the red-and-black ProStar+ with sparkly silver striping and its long black trailer, which stood in the center bay where the white van had been only seconds earlier. In this enclosed space, the eighteen-wheeler looked even bigger than it had appeared to be on the open road, and although an inanimate object of any size, lacking consciousness and intention, cannot be malevolent, this truck seemed as malign as the Death Star with which Darth Vader atomized entire planets.
THE PROSTAR+ STOOD IN THE TRANSFORMED GARAGE as though it had eaten the Ford van. I wondered if I should reconsider my disdain for possessed-vehicle movies like The Car, Maximum Overdrive, and The Love Bug.
After a life of supernatural engagement, I was not paralyzed by this seeming impossibility. I scurried around the eighteen-wheeler to the side farther from the door that I left open behind me, sheltering there until I could get a glimpse, at an angle through the driver’s window and the windshield, of who followed me out of the stairwell. If one of them was the rhinestone cowboy, I might still get the drop on him. If that proved to be impossible—if, say, he appeared with the flamethrower that he intended to use on the children—I could retreat through the outer door by which I’d entered the building and hide elsewhere along the alley, at a position from which I could monitor events.
No one came out of the stairwell, but I heard two men talking. They seemed to be nearby, yet their voices were veiled. The words were distorted beyond understanding, as when the cowboy and the man with the battered-boxer face—semitransparent and unaware of me—had been in urgent angry conversation in the basement machine room at the truck stop.
This time, they did not appear even in phantom form. I had only their voices, by which I could not precisely place them. And then they fell silent.
I was concerned that they had become aware of me, as I had been aware of them in the machine room. Perhaps our circumstances had been reversed and I was semitransparent to them while they were invisible to me.
The next twenty or thirty seconds were as sharp as saw teeth, working on my taut-wire nerves, as I waited to feel the singular chill of one of these men passing through the space that I occupied.
Instead, I heard an engine turn over, not that of the ProStar+, but that of a much smaller truck, though it was muffled and hollow, filtered through some barrier just as the voices had been filtered. I could only assume that it was the white Ford van, which had become invisible to me.
A moment later, a rattling and low rumbling perplexed me for a moment. But then I realized that this was the distorted sound of a big segmented door rolling on its tracks.
I turned toward the alleyway, but none of the three roll-ups was in motion, all snugged down tight.
I listened to the unseen van reverse away from me, out of the garage. Following its departure came the rumble of the huge segmented door descending, although the door behind the ProStar+ and the two flanking it were already down and locked.
In high school, the spirit world frequently distracted me from science studies, and my interest in higher mathematics was no greater than my interest in self-immolation, but I scored well in English. I possessed the ability and the skills to write about the coexistent garages. But I sadly lacked the knowledge to intelligently express a theory explaining how such a thing could be—or, for that matter, why fire makes water boil.
If two garages existed in the same place, in different worlds or dimensions or whatever, I seemed to be, for the moment, in the world/dimension/whatever that was different from mine. And the two men whose voices I heard had evidently driven the Ford van away into the world from which I had come.
In Shower 5 at Star Truck, in the basement machine room of that same facility, and now in the garage of this industrial building, two realities crossed. Shower 5 Elsewhere had not been a shower room at all but a barren place, just as Basement Machine Room Elsewhere had been devoid of machinery, and this garage in Elsewhere was likewise a stark concrete box. I had been shot to death in the Elsewhere shower but remained alive in the real Shower 5. Now the rhinestone cowboy parked his truck in Elsewhere and, with some associate, drove away into my reality, perhaps fearing that authorities were looking for the ProStar+ because he had run me off the road with it—or for a reason I couldn’t fathom. This guy was able to do things that people failed to see, like shoot an innocent cantaloupe to bits, and he could step out of reality into Elsewhere when it suited him.
My skull hurt. My brain felt abused. I needed a plate of my own überfluffy pancakes to restore my full cognitive function.
The cowboy might have as many paranormal talents as I possessed, or even more. Maybe. Except … Well, it seemed to me that anyone with such astonishing abilities would not dress so ridiculously. Not that I’m saying that every superhumanly gifted person ought to wear jeans and sweatshirts or T-shirts, as I do, or all Ralph Lauren. But boots of carved leather with fancy snakeskin inlays? A black sports coat with red lapels and collar crusted with sequins, as if he was a Grand Ole Opry wannabe? The Joker, Bane, Lex Luthor, the Green Goblin: They all had better taste in clothing than this guy.
Besides, in the real world, as opposed to the worlds of comic books, a guy with paranormal powers would not want to draw attention to himself. Trust me.
Alone with the eighteen-wheeler, I decided to check it out. He had left a set of keys in the ignition, evidently certain that there were no thieves in Elsewhere. The driver’s compartment contained nothing of interest other than the string of red beads and little carved-bone skulls, which hung from the overhead CB radio.
On closer inspection than I had been able to do previously, I found that the long vertical latch bolts on the back of the trailer were secured by custom shackles. One of the keys released them.
When I opened the tall doors, a row of LED bulbs brightened along the center of the trailer ceiling, front to back. Immediately inside the doors, a two-panel stainless-steel gate blocked entrance. Into a series of vertical one-inch bars, a talented metalworker had incorporated three pentagrams, a Celtic cross, a Maltese cross, a Latin cross, an ankh, two swastikas, and perhaps a dozen symbols that I couldn’t name. Work by an artisan this masterful—not a weld showing, the steel regrained after construction, the dazzling design harmonious in spite of its disparate elements—would have cost many thousands of dollars.
Beyond the gate, the three walls, the floor, and the ceiling of the trailer were painted with the same symbols, sun-yellow forms on a black background. The lighting revealed no cargo.
In fact, it looked like a trailer that never carried freight, and if that should be the case, I wondered what purpose it served for the cowboy. Evidently, he wasn’t a true trucker after all, just a man who drove a truck. He must earn his living in some other way, though I doubted that, even in this transgressive age, anyone could sustain a paying career as a burner of defenseless children.
Although no lock was apparent, the halves of this gate were firmly secured to each other. I could neither pull nor push them apart.
Only as I began to close the doors did I suspect the trailer might not be as vacant as it appeared. Through the steel filigree issued a disturbing scent as sweet as incense and yet suggestive of decomposition, like nothing I’d ever smelled before. Perhaps it was an odor lingering from a previous cargo, but I had not detected it initially. With the malodor came a sudden chill, not internal to me, less than a draft, a mere breath, an icy effluence that, like spicules of sleet, prickled my face.
Convinced that whatever the cowboy hauled, he didn’t merely deal in loads of consumer electronics or goods for the Pottery Barn, I closed the trailer doors. Shot the long bolts. Engaged the shackles.
Although I can’t explain why, following exposure to the stink and the chill, I wanted to spend a couple of hours in a bathtub filled with Purell sanitizing gel, maybe take a few turns being irradiated on the carousel of a human-size microwave oven, spend an hour inhaling steam made with water from the shrine at Lourdes, and have my blood drained from my left arm, processed through a state-of-the-art filtration machine, and returned into my right arm free of all contaminants. Afterward, a lollipop would be nice.
I found myself backing away from the trailer and realized that my skittish heart was cantering again, as it had when I’d seen the drainage grate with the lightning bolt.
Suddenly the black-and-red eighteen-wheeler, with its sparkly silver striping, seemed as if it might be some kind of carnival truck, which had unpleasant associations for me. I know that most carnival folks are nothing like their public image. The majority are good people who just don’t fit in anywhere else, and they have a complex, charming social structure of their own. I read this book, Twilight Eyes, all about them. But I once had a bad experience with two carnies.
This guy named Pecker—I don’t think it was his baptismal name—operated a ring-toss concession. His woolly hair was teased precisely as high as the long beard that depended from his chin, so he almost looked like Siamese twins joined at the tops of their heads. He and his joyfully wicked friend Bucket, the owner-operator of cotton-candy and snow-cone machines, had hoped to establish an after-hours carnival concession, at 3:00 one summer morning, in which I would be gagged and lashed to a tree to serve as the target. The two of them intended to take turns throwing hatchets at me. I had done something that annoyed them. Fortunately, I am quick on my feet, tougher than I look (which I would have to be), and I was in the company of a friendly poltergeist that left them bewildered by beating them senseless with a hundred baseballs from the milk-bottle-pyramid concession.
Anyway, having at last gotten the peek into the trailer that I long had wanted, reasonably sure that my quarry had driven away in the white Ford van, I decided to leave this garage in Elsewhere. I intended to depart through the door by which I had entered, expecting that I would step back into my world as magically as I had previously stepped out of it.
Approaching that exit, however, I noticed for the first time that the only light came from the three overhead bulbs dangling in cone-shaped shades, none whatsoever from the three-foot-high bank of latticed windows above the man door and the three roll-ups. Only perfect blackness lay beyond those panes. I had arrived in the early afternoon, and no more than five minutes had passed since then. The coming storm couldn’t have seethed in so quickly; even if threatening clouds lowered over the city from horizon to horizon, no storm could have banished every last trace of sunlight. At the door, I paused, pistol in my right hand, left hand on the lever handle.
I sensed that opening this door would be as stupid as seeking the source of gas fumes in a dark basement by striking a match.
Intuition is the highest form of knowledge. What we learn from others can be mistaught by those not a fraction as knowledgeable as they pretend or by those who are propagandists with agendas. We are born with intuition, however, which includes the natural law, a sense of right and wrong. A lot of people rebel so continually against natural law that not only does that part of their intuition atrophy but also every other aspect of it. They strike the match, open the door, give their money to an investment adviser named Slick, and trust that if they are really nice to the thug with the switchblade, he’ll be nice to them.
Whatever waited outside this garage in Elsewhere would not be as easy to deal with as a psychopath with a knife.
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