“I see them, too, Verena.”
Her eyes were celadon saucers but bottomless, of such great depth that she could take in the knowledge of whole worlds and have room in that gaze for still more.
I said, “You’re not afraid of the dead people.”
“No. They’re just … sad mostly.”
“You’re a strong girl, I know. It’s made you stronger.”
She looked away from me, as though praise embarrassed her, but then she met my eyes again. “Mister, I sure have a lot of stuff to ask you.”
“That will have to wait, Verena.”
She nodded and glanced at Boo, who had joined our huddle. “I’ve never seen an animal ghost before.”
“I suspect he’s been hanging around me these past few months just for this night. What this means, I think, is that something will happen to keep me from leading you out of this place, and the dog will be your guide.”
My words alarmed her. “No, we need you.”
“Maybe not if you have Boo. That’s his name.”
“No, you,” she said, and clutched my arm with her free hand.
“You’ve been given a gift, Verena, and it will never fail you. You can fail the gift, but not the other way around. You understand?”
After a hesitation, she nodded.
I said, “You have to do what you have to do, always and without complaint. I know you can. I know you will.”
Boo licked the hand with which she gripped me.
“We have to go,” I said. “Lead the other kids behind me. And if something happens … follow the dog. Wherever he takes you, don’t be afraid. He won’t fail you.”
The girl let go of my arm and quickly kissed my cheek before I could stand up.
I knew what she must be thinking, the very thing that she had earlier said to the others to calm them: If he has to, he’ll die for us.
“I will, if it comes to that,” I assured her, and saw that she understood the promise.
Into the hall, Boo first, then me, and then the seventeen with Verena in the lead. I turned right, toward the back stairs that I had climbed earlier.
From the crowd gathered on the cantilevered deck outside, cries of excitement rose, a swelling wave of sound that was partly a shriek of cold, savage delight and partly a wail of adulation, of veneration. Never before had I heard human voices devoted to such an expression, and in spite of its source, the roar was so inhuman that I shuddered as if I were as boneless as a sea medusa.
With a backward glance, I saw that several of the children were all but paralyzed by the deranged chorus. But Verena encouraged them, and pulled them, and with the urging of some of the more stalwart, the reluctant ones came along.
Before I was halfway to the stairs, the volume of the demented crowd subsided but swelled again, louder, louder and markedly more belligerent, more infernal, and more eerily ecstatic than it had been the first time.
The pandemonium inspired in me two feelings that I didn’t recall having previously been afflicted by simultaneously, stark terror and sorrow, terror at the prospect of falling into the hands of such people, sorrow at the realization of what they had lost—or thrown away—in their enthusiasm for the thrill of license, for the rewards of absolute corruption, and for the comfort of being in bondage to a master who would, for all their days in this world, provide for them anything they wanted, without admonition or rebuke.
As Boo passed through the stairwell door and as I opened it after him, the cacophony briefly subsided only to increase a third time, crescendoing to a Bedlam pitch. But then, as if an orchestra conductor had slashed his baton down to command a full stop, the roar abruptly became a silence.
Two seconds later, when Verena reached me at the stairwell door, the gong was struck. I could not conceive of its size, because the note was so low and so powerful that it echoed bong-ong-ong-ong-ong through my bones as if it would disjoint me, and the building around me rattled and shimmied as it would have done in an earthquake.
At the farther end of the third-floor hallway, one of the modern ceiling lights morphed into a chain-hung lamp with a conical shade. Over there, too, a smooth gray blandness spread across the plastered ceiling, across the wallpaper, across the wooden floor and carpet runner, creeping toward us.
Boo waited on the landing. I urged Verena to follow the dog, and promised to provide protection at the end of the procession. “Hurry, girl. Hurry!”
As the children hustled past me into the stairwell, I watched what they could not see behind them: another of the nine low-profile ceiling fixtures transforming into a crude hanging lamp, and then a third, the grayness seeping rapidly toward me.
The last of the children entered the stairs as the sixth hanging lamp appeared, and I would have followed them if a door hadn’t opened at the farther end of the hallway, perhaps the door to another set of stairs. The figure who stepped through that door was at too great a distance for me to see his face in fine detail, but by his height and weight and body type, by the way that he moved, I at once recognized myself, the Other Odd. When he drew nearer, I would surely see that he was my twin but for one detail: If Mr. Hitchcock could be believed, the lesser demon known as a senoculus would have three eyes clustered on each side of its head.
Although the cultists wanted the seventeen captives for the cruel sacrifices they had gathered here to celebrate, the senoculus wanted only me. If I followed the children, I would draw this thing to them; and I couldn’t guess what would happen then. I couldn’t risk that instead of providing them with protection, I would bring upon them their destruction with mine.
I stood my ground in the open stairwell door, watching the hallway in my world morph into a hallway in Elsewhere, the senoculus approaching just behind the transformation.
By the power of its will, the demon was causing that in-between realm to emerge and my reality to recede. In the stable in Elsewhere with its collection of heads, when I wanted to leave, I had brought my world to the fore and caused this one to submerge by a similar act of will.
In spite of my gift and the weird life that I live, I am not an expert in the occult. I have always thought it wise not to study that subject, for the same reason that it isn’t wise to make a party game of a Ouija board. Don’t knock on a door if you don’t know what might open it.
Nevertheless, I thought I understood enough about the way of such things to safely assume that the senoculus was native to the lightless wasteland and could also prowl the in-between world that I named Elsewhere. But it could not come at will into the world of the living, my world, unless conjured either by true believers and kept restrained in a pentagram by proper rituals, or unless it was drawn to take residence in one of the living by whatever action or weakness might be an invitation to possession.
Likewise, I was native to this world of ours and could, when I encountered a way station, move about in Elsewhere. But I could not go from Elsewhere into the wasteland. I was not Orpheus, the figure of Greek legend, who was able to enter Hell to try to rescue his beloved wife, Eurydice. Anyway, Stormy Llewellyn was not in Hell; I had no need to rescue her.
And so this entire residence was a way station. With acts of will, both I and the senoculus could make it emerge from beneath—or submerge below—the world of the living, to which I currently belonged, though perhaps not for much longer. In a contest between me and this creature, I suspected that its ability to summon Elsewhere around us was much more powerful than my ability to make that realm recede. We fry cooks can be a stubborn bunch, but demons have a reputation for obstinacy that way exceeds ours.
The seventh ceiling light remade itself into a chain-hung lamp, and my pursuer drew close enough in the sullen light for me to see his wealth of eyes, my face grotesquely ornamented, and I recalled both the cold, soft feel of this thing and its inhuman strength.
The only advice that Mr. Hitchcock had had for me regarding the senoculus was Run, Mr. Thomas. Run. Even if he was not my guardian angel, which he had denied being, he was playing for the right team, and his advice should no doubt be heeded.
I intended to delay as long as necessary before stepping out of the hall and slamming the door. I hoped that good Boo would have led Verena and the other captives all the way down to the mudroom before I followed them. Although the senoculus apparently wanted me above all others, there was every reason to suppose that if it saw the children or smelled them—all that delicious innocence—it would be compelled to fall upon them.
In our previous encounter, this thing had not passed through walls as a spirit could, and it had not floated along swiftly above the floor as Mr. Hitchcock had done. I assumed that in Elsewhere, if not in its native wasteland, its means of getting from Point A to Point B were no more sophisticated than mine, an assumption that, if wrong, might lead to a hideous, cold kiss and to something worse than possession.
The eighth of nine ceiling lights metamorphosed into a lamp on a chain, the gray of faux concrete crawled closer, and the senoculus spoke in my voice as he strode forward. “Give me your breath, piglet. I want it now.”
I crossed the threshold, slammed the door, and descended only ten steps, two at a time, before I heard the door crash into the upper-landing wall behind me.
Even if the kids were out of the stairwell, they surely had not already left the mudroom. If I managed to plunge to the bottom of the stairs without being snared by the senoculus, I would bring it with me, and it would be upon those innocents before all of them could escape the house, where—according to my theory—it could not pursue them.
I hit the landing and flew pell-mell off it as the walls turned gray around me. The stairs were treacherous at high speed, my balance never that of a circus aerialist, and I caromed off the walls as I dove into that waterless well.
From behind me, with an intimacy that made the skin crawl on the nape of my neck, the thing said, “Let me suck your tongue, piglet.”
QUICK THROUGH THE DOOR AT THE LANDING, OUT of the stairwell, onto the second floor, I heeded the advice of baseball great Satchel Paige, who said about life in general, “Don’t look back. Something may be gaining on you.” I ran as I had never run while on my high-school baseball team, because in baseball, happily, no rule allows the opposing team to bring in a supernatural soul-stealer to chase down the runner between bases.
A short hall led to a pair of open French doors and a wider hall beyond. There were rooms behind closed doors to the right and open archways to the left, beyond which lay an enormous chamber lined with leatherbound books and furnished as a grand drawing room that offered numerous elegant seating areas on richly patterned Persian carpets. In the farther wall were sets of French doors standing open to the deep deck on which the crowd of cultists, their backs to me, waited for the Kens to appear with the children on the terrace below.
Ahead of me, on the right, elevator doors opened. A man sporting Oscar the Grouch eyebrows and a Snidely Whiplash mustache, with a chin beard unsuitable for any cartoon character or Muppet, appeared with a bottle of champagne in each hand, the wire coiffes having already been removed and the corks popped, a thin vapor rising from the open necks. His expression told me that six-eyed death was on my heels, that Satchel Paige was a man of deep insight, as usual.
I threw myself against the wall on my right, gracelessly slid-dropped-rolled-scrambled past the guy with all the facial hair, who found himself in the direct path of the senoculus. In that instant, my theory that the demon must be interested only in me proved to be woefully wrong. The thing leaped upon him, driving him to the floor, champagne bottles rolling away in gouts of foam and sparkling pale-gold wine. With savage violence, the senoculus slammed a knee into its victim’s crotch, then a second time even more violently, which seemed to be bad sportsmanship even for a demon. It seized the man’s throat and pressed down upon him, lowering its face toward his.
Having slid-dropped-rolled-scrambled to the elevator just as the senoculus took down the party guy, I was alarmed to see the doors already sliding shut. The demon probably wouldn’t be distracted more than a few seconds by this appetizer, not long enough for me to get out of sight into a stairwell. I thrust one arm between the doors and had the disturbing thought that it would be amputated below the elbow when they proved to be as sharp as guillotine blades. I knew I should never have watched that Wes Craven movie. Instead, the electric eye triggered the safety mechanism, the doors glided open. I rolled into the elevator, thrust to my feet, pressed the 1 on the floor-selection panel, then pressed the CLOSE DOOR button.
On the floor beyond the doors, the guy on his back was trying to scream, probably not because of the spilled champagne, but the hand of the demon at his throat choked off his cry, so that he was able to make, inappropriate to the moment, a sound more like Donald Duck in a fit of pique. In addition to having six eyes in clusters of three, the senoculus proved to be somewhat less than my identical twin when it opened its mouth and a long forked tongue fluttered out. It licked teasingly at the lips of the luckless guy who had only wanted to have a little bubbly while he watched children being tortured and murdered.
Making urgent sounds as if I needed to go to the bathroom, which fortunately I did not, I pressed the CLOSE DOOR button again. Again.
Past the struggling pair, beyond the open archways, everything changed in the grand drawing room, carpets and furniture and books vanishing left to right as a bland gray wave remade the building in my world into a building in Elsewhere. The chamber wasn’t entirely empty. I saw pallets on which were stacked what appeared to be gold bars, hundreds of them, which suggested that the cult used that room in Elsewhere as a secret vault and that they knew something about the future of the U.S. monetary system that might be of interest to The Wall Street Journal. The crowd on the deck, waiting impatiently for the spectacle on the terrace, had vanished, apparently remaining on the deck in the world they shared with me. Mr. Champagne, already in the clutches of the senoculus, had the misfortune to be trapped here, which suddenly made me wonder why I was still trapped in this realm, why I had not remained in the building in my world when the senoculus willed us into Elsewhere.
The demon forced its mouth onto the open mouth of Mr. Champagne, which must have been an unpleasant kiss for both of them, complicated as it was by the forked tongue and the elaborate and now disarranged mustache.
Although I had done nothing—nothing—to the elevator, it seemed to be holding a grudge against me, like a really pissed-off machine in one of those movies about killer cars, which I had mocked earlier but now regretted mocking.
CLOSE DOOR, CLOSE DOOR, CLOSE DOOR, CLOSE DOOR.
My thumb was wearing out.
The dying man thrashed helplessly under his assailant. His eyes bulged in their sockets. His meaty face flushed red, and then purple, and then began to fade to gray as his thrashing subsided. Throughout this good-bye kiss, the senoculus made a series of greedy, disgusting noises that might have been like the groans of pleasure issuing from a ménage à trois that included Hannibal Lecter, the nest queen from Aliens, and Gumby.
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