Screaming, he tried to run. He slipped on the wriggling carpet of serpents and fell among them.
Snakes thin as whips, snakes thick and muscular, black snakes and green, yellow and brown, plain and patterned, redeyed, yelloweyed, some hooded like cobras, watchful and grinning, supple tongues fluttering, hissing, hissing. Had to be dreaming. Hallucinating. A big blacksnake, at least four feet long, bit him, oh Jesus, struck at the back of his left hand, sinking its fangs deep, blood brimming, and still it might have been a dream, nightmare, except for the pain.
He had never felt pain in a dream, and certainly not like this. A sharp stinging filled his left hand, and then a sharper stabbing agony shot like an electrical charge through his wrist and all the way along his forearm to his elbow.
Not a dream. This was happening. Somehow. But where had they come from? Wleee?
They were all over him, sixty or eighty of them, slithering.
Another one struck at him, sank fangs through his shirt sleeve and pierced his left forearm, tripling the pain in it. Another bit through his sock, raked teeth down his ankle.
He scrambled to his feet, and the snake that had bitten his arm fell away, as did the one at his ankle, but the one with its fangs through his left hand hung fast, as if it had stapled itself to him. He grabbed it, tried to jerk it loose. The flash of pain was so intense, whitehot, that he almost passed out, and still the snake was clamped tight to his bleeding hand.
A turmoil of snakes hissed and coiled around him. He didn't see any rattlers at a glance, or hear them. He had too little knowledge to identify the other species, wasn't sure which were poisonous, or even if any of them were, including the ones that had already bitten him.
Poisonous or not, more of them were going to bite if he didn't move fast.
He snatched a meat cleaver from a wall rack of knives. When he slammed his left arm down on the nearest counter, the relentless blacksnake flopped fulllength across the tile counter top. Ricky swung the cleaver high, brought it down, chopped through the snake, and the steel blade rang off the ceramic surface underneath.
The hatefullooking head still held fast to his hand, trailing only a few inches of the black body, and the glittering eyes seemed to be watching him, alive. Ricky dropped the cleaver and attempted to pry open the serpent's mouth, spring its long curved teeth out of his flesh. He shouted and cursed, furious with pain, kept prying, but it was no use.
The snakes on the floor were agitated by his shouting.
He plunged toward the archway between the kitchen and the hall, kicking snakes out of his way before they could coil and spring at him. Some were already coiled, and they struck, but his heavy, loosefitting khaki pants foiled them.
He was afraid they would slither over his shoes, under a pants cuff, up and under one of the legs of his khakis. But he reached the hall safely.
The snakes were behind him and not pursuing. Two tarantulas had fallen out of the snack cabinet intoøthe herpetological nightmare on the floor, and the snakes were fighting over them. Frantically kicking arachnid legs vanished under rippling scales.
Ricky jumped in surprise.
Until now he hadn't associated the strange noise, which had plagued him earlier in the evening, with the spiders and snakes.
Someone had been playing games with him then, but this was not a game any more. This was deadly serious. Impossible, as fantastic as anything in a dream, but serious.
Ricky couldn't pinpoint the source of the pounding or even tell for sure if it came from above or below him. Windows reverberated, and echoes of each blow vibrated hollowly in the walls. He sensed that something was coming, worse than spiders or snakes, something he did not want to encounter.
Gasping, with the head of the blacksnake still dangling from his left hand, Ricky turned away from the kitchen toward the front door at the end of the hall.
His twicebitten arm throbbed horribly with each beat of his triphammering heart. No good, dear Jesus, a racing heart spread the poison faster, if there was any poison. What he had to do was calm down, take deep slow breaths, walk instead of run, go to a neighbor's house, call 911, and get emergency medical attention.
He could have used the telephone in his bedroom, but he didn't want to go in there. He didn't trust his own house any more, which was nuts, yes, crazy, but he felt the place had come alive and turned against him.
THUMP THUMP THUMP!
The house shook as if riding the back of a bucking earthquake, almost knocking him down. He staggered sideways, bounced against the wall.
The ceramic statue of the Holy Virgin toppled off the hall table that he had set up as a shrine like all of the shrines his mother had kept in her home. Since being gutshot, he had been reduced by fear to his mother's choice of armor against the cruelties of the world.
The statue crashed to the floor, shattered at his feet.
The heavy redglass container with the votive candle bounced on the table, causing goblin shadows to dance across the wall and ceiling.
Ricky was two steps from the front door when the oak flooring creaked ominously, pushed upward, and cracked almost as loudly as a thunderclap. He stumbled backward.
Something smashed out of the crawlspace under the bungalow, shattering the floor as if it were an eggshell. For a moment the blizzard of dust and splinters and jagged boards made it impossible to glimpse what had been born into the hallway.
Then Ricky saw a man in the hole, feet planted in the earth about eighteen inches under the floor of the house. In spite of standing below Ricky, the guy loomed, immense and threatening. His untamed hair and beard were tangled and dirty, and the visible portions of his face were grossly scarred. His black raincoat billowed like a cape around him as a draft whistled out of the crawlspace and up through the broken boards.
Ricky knew he was looking at the vagrant who had appeared to Harry out of a whirlwind. Everything about him fit the description except his eyes.
When he glimpsed those grotesque eyes, Ricky froze amidst the fragments of the Holy Virgin, paralyzed by fear and by the certainty that he had gone mad. Even if he had kept backing away or had turned and tried to run for the rear door, he would not have escaped, for the vagrant clambered out of the hole and into the hall as lightningquick as any striking serpent. He seized Ricky, swept him off the floor with such unhuman power that any resistance was pointless, and slammed him against the wall hard enough to crack the plaster and his spine.
Face to face, washed by the vagrant's foul breath, Ricky gazed into those eyes and was too terrified to scream. They were not the pools of blood that Harry had described. They were not really eyes at all.
Nestled in the deep sockets were two snake heads, two small yellow eyes in each, forked tongues fluttering.
Why me? Ricky wondered.
As if they were a pair of jackinthebox fright figures, the snakes sprang from the vagrant's sockets and bit Ricky's face.
Between Laguna Beach and Dana Point, Harry drove so fast that even Connie, lover of speed and risktaking, braced herself and made wordless noises of dismay when he took some of the turns too sharply.
They were in his own car, not a department sedan, so he didn't have a detachable emergency beacon to stick on the roof. He didn't have a siren either; however, the coast highway was not heavily used at tenthirty on a Tuesday night, and by pounding the horn and flashing the headlights, he was able to clear a way through what little obstructive traffic he encountered.
“Maybe we should call Ricky, warn him,” she said, when they were still in south Laguna.
“Don't have a car phone.”
“Stop at a service station, convenience store, somewhere.”
“Can't waste the time. I figure his phone won't work anyway.”
“Why won't it?”
“Not unless Ticktock wants it to work.”
They shot up a hill, rounded a curve too fast. The rear tires dug up gravel from the shoulder of the highway, sprayed it against the undercarriage and fuel tank. The right rear bumper kissed a metal guardrail, and then they were back on the pavement, rocketing onward without having braked.
“So let's call Dana Point Police,” she said.
“The way we're moving, if we don't stop to call, we'll be there before they could make it.”
“We might be able to use the backup.”
“Won't need backup if we're too damned late and Ricky's dead when we get there.”
Harry was sick with apprehension and furious with himself. He had endangered Ricky by going to him earlier in the day. He couldn't have known the heap of trouble he was bringing down on his old friend at the time, but later he should have realized Ricky was a target when Ticktock had promisedfirrt everything and everyone you love.
Sometimes it was hard for a man to admit he loved another man, even in a brotherly way. He and Ricky Estefan had been partners, through some tight scrapes together. They were still friends, and Harry loved him.
It was that simple. But the American tradition of macho selfreliance mitigated against admitting as much.
Bullshit, Harry thought angrily.
The truth was, he found it difficult to admit he loved anyone, male or female, even his parents, because love was so damned messy. It entailed obligations, commitments, entanglements, the sharing of emotions. When you admitted to loving people, you had to let them into your life in a more major way, and they brought with them all of their untidy habits, indiscrimanate tastes, muddled opinions, and disorganized attitudes.
As they roared across the Dana Point city line, the muffler clanging against a bump in the road, Harry said, “Jesus, sometimes I'm an idiot.”
“Tell me something I don't know,” Connie said.
“A really screwedup specimen.”
“We're still in familiar territory.”
He had only one excuse for not realizing that Ricky would become a target: since the fire at his condo less than three hours ago, he had been reacting instead of acting. He'd had no other option.
Events had moved so fast, and were so weird, one piece of strangeness piled atop another, that he hadn't time to think. A poor excuse, but he clung to it.
He didn't even know what to think about bizarre crap like this.
Deductive reasoning, every detective's most useful tool, was not adequate to deal with the supernatural. He'd been trying inductive reasoning, which was how he'd come up with the theory of a sociopath with paranormal powers. But he wasn't good at it because inductive reasoning seemed, to him, the next thing to intuition, and intuition was so illogical. He liked hard evidence, sound premises, logical deductions, and neat conclusions tied up in ribbons and bows.
As they turned the corner into Ricky's street, Connie said, “What the hell?”
Harry glanced at her.
She was staring into her cupped hand.
“What?” he asked.
Something was cradled in her palm. Voice quavering, she said, “I didn't have this a second ago, where the hell did it come from?”
“What is it?”
She held it up for him to see as he pulled under the streetlamp in front of Ricky's house. The head of a ceramic figurine. Broken off at the neck.
Scraping the tires against the curb, he braked to a hard stop, and his safety harness jerked tight across his chest.
She said, “It was like my hand snapped shut, spasmed shut, and this was in it, out of nowhere, for God's sake.”
Harry recognized it. The head of the Virgin Mary that had been at the center of the shrine on Ricky Estefan's hall table.
Overcome by dark expectations, Harry threw open the door and got out of the car. He pulled his gun.
The street was peaceful. Lights glowed warmly in most of the houses, including Ricky's. Music from a neighbor's stereo drifted on the cool air, so faint he could not quite identify the tune. The breeze whispered and softly clattered in the fronds of the big date palms in Ricky's front yard.
Nothing to worry about, the breeze seemed to say, all is calm here, all is right with this place.
Nevertheless, he kept his revolver in hand.
He hurried up the front walk, through the night shadows of the palm trees, onto the bougainvillaeadraped porch. He was aware that Connie was wright behind him and that she also had drawn her weapon.
Let Ricky be alive, he thought fervently, please let him be alive.
That was as close to prayer as he had gotten in many years.
Behind the screen door, the front door was ajar. A narrow wedge of light projected the pattern of the screen onto the porch floor.
Although he thought no one noticed and would have been mortified to know it was obvious, Ricky had been obsessive about security ever since he'd been shot. He kept everything locked tight. A door standing open even an inch or two was a bad sign.
Harry tried to survey the foyer through the gap between the door and the jamb. With the screen door in the way, he couldn't get close enough to the crack to see anything.
Drapes blocked the windows flanking the door. They were tightly drawn, overlapping at the center.
Harry glanced at Connie.
With her revolver she indicated the front entrance.
Ordinarily they might have split up, Connie going around to cover the back while Harry took the front. But they weren't trying to keep the perp from getting away, because this was one bastard who couldn't be cornered, subdued, and cuffed. They were just trying to stay alive, and to keep Ricky alive if it was not already too late for him.
Harry nodded and cautiously eased open the screen door. Hinges squeaked. The closure spring sang a long, low swampinsect note.
He hoped to be silent, but when the outer door defeated him, he put one hand on the inner door and pushed it, intending to go in low and fast.
It swung to the right, and he shouldered through the widening gap. The door bumped against something' and stopped before there was enough of an opening. He shoved it. Cracking.
Scraping. A hard clatter. The door swung all the way open, pushing.
debris of some nature out of the way, and Harry burst inside so aggressively that he almost plunged through the hole in the hallway floor.
He was reminded of the shattered corridor in the building in Laguna, above the restaurant. If a grenade had done this damage, however, it had exploded in the crawlspace under the bungalow. The blast had driven joists, insulation, and floorboards upward into the hallway.
But he could detect none of the charred, chemical odor of a bomb.
The overhead foyer light shone down onto the bare earth below the smashed oak flooring and subflooring. Standing perilously near the edge of the shrine table, the votive candle in the squat red glass threw off fluttering pennants of light and shadow.
Halfway back the hall, the lefthand wall was spattered with blood, not buckets of it but enough to signify mortal combat. On the floor under the bloodstains, close against the wall, lay the body of a man, twisted into such an unnatural posture that the fact of death was grimly obvious at a glance.