Throwing aside his uniform shirt, kicking off his shoes, frantic to strip out of all his clothes and complete his regression, Barry Sholnick ignored Loman.
"Barry, stop, for God's sake, don't let this happen," Penniworth said urgently. He was pale and shaking. He glanced from Sholnick to Peyser and back again, and Loman suspected that Penniworth felt the same degenerate urge to which Sholnick had surrendered himself.
"… run free, hunt, blood, blood, need …"
Peyser's insidious chant was like a spike through Loman's head, and he wanted it to stop. No, truthfully, it wasn't like a spike splitting his skull, because it wasn't at all painful and was, in fact, thrilling and strangely melodic, reaching deep into him, piercing him not like a shaft of steel but like music. That was why he wanted it to stop because it appealed to him, enticed him; it made him want to shed his responsibilities and concerns, retreat from the too-complex life of the intellect to an existence based strictly on feelings, on physical pleasures, a world whose boundaries were defined by sex and food and the thrill of the hunt, a world where disputes were settled and needs were met strictly by the application of muscle, where he'd never have to think again or worry or care.
"… need, need, need, need, need, kill …"
Sholnick's body bent forward as his spine re-formed. His back lost the concave curvature distinctive of the human form. His skin appeared to be giving way to scales—
"come, quick, quick, the hunt, blood, blood."
—and as Sholnick's face was reshaped, his mouth split impossibly wide, opening nearly to each ear, like the mouth of some ever-grinning reptile.
The pressure in Loman's chest was growing greater by the second. He was hot, sweltering, but the heat came from within him, as if his metabolism was racing at a thousand times ordinary speed, readying him for transformation. "No." Sweat streamed from him. "No!" He felt as if the room were a cauldron in which he would be reduced to his essence; he could almost feel his flesh beginning to melt.
Penniworth was saying, "I want, I want, I want, want," but he was vigorously shaking his head, trying to deny what he wanted. He was crying and trembling and sheet-white.
Peyser rose from his crouch and stepped away from the wall. He moved sinuously, swiftly, and although he could not stand entirely erect in his altered state, he was taller than Loman, simultaneously a frightening and seductive figure.
Peyser bared his fierce teeth and hissed at Loman as if to say, Either join us or die.
With a cry composed partly of despair and partly of joy, Neil Penniworth dropped his 20-gauge and put his hands to his face. As if that contact had exerted an alchemical reaction, both his hands and face began to change.
Heat exploded in Loman, and he shouted wordlessly, but without the joy that Penniworth had expressed and without Sholnick's orgasmic cry. While he still had control of himself, he raised the shotgun and squeezed off a round point-blank at Peyser.
The blast took the regressive in the chest, blowing him backward against the bedroom wall in a tremendous spray of blood. Peyser went down, squealing, gasping for breath, wriggling on the floor like a half-stomped bug, but he was not dead. Maybe his heart and lungs had not sustained sufficient damage. If oxygen was still being conveyed to his blood and if blood was still being pumped throughout his body, he was already repairing the damage; his invulnerability was in some ways even greater than the SUPERNATURAL imperviousness of a werewolf, for he could not be easily killed even with a silver bullet; in a moment he would be up, strong as ever.
Wave after wave of heat, each markedly hotter than the one before it washed through Loman. He felt pressure from within, not only in his chest but in every part of his body now. He had only seconds left in which his mind would be clear enough for him to act and his will strong enough to resist. He scuttled to Peyser, shoved the muzzle of the shotgun against the writhing regressive's chest, and pumped another round into him.
The heart had to have been pulverized by that round. The body leaped off the floor as the load tore through it. Peyser's monstrous face contorted, then froze with his eyes open and sightless, his lips peeled back from his inhumanly large, sharp, hooked teeth.
Someone screamed behind Loman.
Turning, he saw the Sholnick-thing coming for him. He fired a third round, then a fourth, hitting Sholnick in the chest and stomach.
The deputy went down hard, and began to crawl toward the hall, away from Loman.
Neil Penniworth was curled in the fetal position on the floor by the foot of the bed. He was chanting but not about blood and needs and being free; he was chanting his mother's name, over and over, as if it were a verbal talisman to protect him from the evil that wanted to claim him.
Loman's heart was pounding so hard that the sound of it seemed to have an external source, as if someone were thumping timpani in another room of the house. He was half-convinced that he could feel his entire body throbbing with his pulse, and that with each throb he was changing in some subtle yet hideous way.
Stepping in behind Sholnick, standing over him, Loman rammed the muzzle of the shotgun against the regressive's back, about where he thought the heart would be, and pulled the trigger. Sholnick let out a shrill scream when he felt the muzzle touch him, but he was too weak to roll over and grab the gun away from Loman. The scream was cut off forever by the blast.
The room steamed with blood. That complex scent was so sweet and compelling that it took the place of Peyser's seductive chanting, inducing Loman to regress.
He leaned against the dresser and squeezed his eyes shut, trying to establish a firmer grip on himself. He clung to the shotgun with both hands, clasping it tightly, not for its defensive value—it held no more rounds—but because it was an expertly crafted weapon, which was to say that it was a tool, an artifact of civilization, a reminder that he was a man, at the pinnacle of evolution, and that he must not succumb to the temptation to cast away all his tools and knowledge in exchange for the more primal pleasures and satisfactions of a beast.
But the blood smell was strong and so alluring… .
Desperately trying to impress himself with all that would be lost in this surrender, he thought of Grace, his wife, and remembered how much he once had loved her. But he was beyond love now, as were all of the New People. Thoughts of Grace could not save him. Indeed, images of their recent, bestial rutting flashed through his mind, and she was not Grace to him any more; she was simply female, and the recollection of their savage coupling excited him and drew him closer to the vortex of regression.
The intense desire to degenerate made him feel as though he were in a whirlpool, being sucked down, down, and he thought that this was how the nascent werewolf was supposed to feel when he looked up into the night sky and saw, ascending at the horizon, a full moon. The conflict raged within him:
… blood …
… freedom …
—no. Mind, knowledge—
… hunt …
… kill …
—no. Explore, learn—
… eat …
… run …
… hunt …
… f*ck …
… kill …
—no, no! Music, art, language—
His turmoil grew.
He was trying to resist the siren call of savagery with reason, but that did not seem to be working, so he thought of Denny, his son. He must hold fast to his humanity if only for Denny's sake. He tried to summon the love he had once known for his boy, tried to let that love rebuild in him until he could shout of it, but there was only a whisper of remembered emotion deep in the darkness of his mind. His ability to love had receded from him in much the way that matter had receded from the center of existence following the Big Bang that created the universe; his love for Denny was now so far away and long ago that it was like a star at the outer edge of the universe, its light only dimly perceived, with little power to illuminate and no power to warm. Yet even that glimmer of feeling was something around which to build an image of himself as human, human, first and always a man, not some thing that ran on all fours or with its knuckles dragging on the ground, but a man, a man.
His stentorian breathing slowed a little. His heartbeat fell from an impossibly rapid dubdubdubdubdubdubdub to perhaps a hundred or a hundred and twenty beats a minute, still fast, as if he were running, but better. His head cleared, too, though not entirely, because the scent of blood was an inescapable perfume.
He pushed away from the dresser and staggered to Penniworth.
The deputy was still curled in the tightest fetal position that a grown man could achieve. Traces of the beast were in his hands and face, but he was considerably more human than not. The chanting of his mother's name seemed to be working nearly as well as the thread-thin lifeline of love had worked for Loman.
Letting go of his shotgun with one cramped hand, Loman reached down to Penniworth and took him by the arm. "Come on, let's get out of here, boy, let's get away from this smell."
Penniworth understood and got laboriously to his feet. He leaned against Loman and allowed himself to be led out of the room, away from the two dead regressives, along the hallway into the living room.
Here, the stink of urine completely smothered what trace of the blood scent might have ridden the currents of air outward from the bedroom. That was better. It was not a foul odor at all, as it had seemed previously, but acidic and cleansing.
Loman settled Penniworth in an armchair, the only upholstered item in the room that had not been torn to pieces.
"You going to be okay?"
Penniworth looked up at him, hesitated, then nodded. All signs of the beast had vanished from his hands and countenance, though his flesh was strangely lumpy, still in transition. His face appeared to be swollen with a disabling case of the hives, large round lumps from forehead to chin and ear to ear, and there were long, diagonal welts, too, that burned an angry red against his pale skin. However, even as Loman watched, those phenomena faded, and Neil Penniworth laid full claim to his humanity. To his physical humanity, at least.
"You sure?" Loman asked.
"Stay right there."
Loman went into the foyer and opened the front door. The deputy standing guard outside was so tense because of all the shooting and screaming in the house that he almost fired on his chief before he realized who it was.
"What the hell?" the deputy said.
"Get on the computer link to Shaddack," Loman said. "He has to come out here now. Right now. I have to see him now."
Sam drew the heavy blue drapes, and Harry turned on one bedside lamp. Soft as it was, too dim to chase away more than half the shadows, the light nevertheless stung Tessa's eyes, which were already tired and bloodshot.
For the first time she actually saw the room. It was sparely furnished: the stool; the tall table beside the stool; the telescope; a long, modern-oriental, black lacquered dresser; a pair of matching nightstands; a small refrigerator in one corner; and an adjustable hospital-type bed, queen-size, without a spread but with plenty of pillows and brightly colored sheets patterned with splashes and streaks and spots of red, orange, purple, green, yellow, blue, and black, like a giant canvas painted by a demented and color-blind abstract artist.
Harry saw her and Sam's reaction to the sheets and said, "Now, that's a story, but first you've got to know the background. My housekeeper, Mrs. Hunsbok, comes in once a week, and she does most of my shopping for me. But I send Moose on errands every day, if only to pick up a newspaper. He wears this set of … well, sort of saddlebags strapped around him, one hanging on each side. I put a note and some money in the bags, and he goes to the local convenience store—it's the only place he'll go when he's wearing the bags, unless I'm with him. The clerk at the little grocery, Jimmy Ramis, knows me real well. Jimmy reads the note, puts a quart of milk or some candy bars or whatever I want in the saddlebags, puts the change in there, too, and Moose brings it all back to me. He's a good, reliable service dog, the best. They train them real well at Canine Companions for Independence. Moose never chases after a cat with my newspaper and fresh milk in his backpack."
The dog raised his head off Tessa's lap, panted and grinned, as if acknowledging the praise.
"One day he came home with a few items I'd sent him for, and he also had a set of these sheets and pillow cases. I call up jimmy Ramis, see, and ask him what's the idea, and Jimmy says he doesn't know what I'm talking about, says he never saw any such sheets. Now, Jimmy's dad owns the convenience store, and he also owns Surplus Outlet, out on the county road. He gets all kinds of discontinued merchandise and stuff that didn't sell as well as the manufacturers expected, picks it up at ten cents on the dollar sometimes, and I figure these sheets were something he was having trouble unloading even at Surplus Outlet. Jimmy no doubt saw them, thought they were pretty silly, and decided to have some fun with me. But on the phone Jimmy says, 'Harry, if I knew anything about the sheets, I'd tell you, but I don't. And I says, 'You trying to make me believe Moose went and bought them all on his own, with his own moneys' And Jimmy says, 'Well, no, I'd guess he shoplifted them somewhere,' and I says, 'And just how did he manage to stuff them in his own backpack so neat,' and Jimmy says, 'I don't know, Harry, but that there is one hell of a clever dog—though it sounds like he doesn't have good taste."
Tessa saw how Harry relished the story, and she also saw why he was so pleased by it. For one thing the dog was child and brother and friend, all rolled into one, and Harry was proud that people thought of Moose as clever. More important, Jimmy's little joke made Harry a part of his community, not just a homebound invalid but a participant in the life of his town. His lonely days were marked by too few such incidents.
"And you are a clever dog," Tessa told Moose.
Harry said, "Anyway, I decided to have Mrs. Hunsbok put them on the bed next time she came, as a joke, but then I sort of liked them."
After drawing the drapes at the second window, Sam returned to the stool, sat down, swiveled to face Harry, and said, "They're the loudest sheets I've ever seen. Don't they keep you awake at night?"
Harry smiled. "Nothing can keep me awake. I sleep like a baby. What keeps people awake is worry about the future, about what might happen to them. But the worst has already happened to me. Or they lie awake thinking about the past, about what might have been, but I don't do that because I just don't dare." His smile faded as he spoke. "So now what? What do we do next?"