They stood in the center of an elaborate pentagram drawn in salt. Whatever was happening around them sucked the air from Julia's lungs.
Ochoa had brought them down the wooden staircase into the basement. Her mind was already on fire as she tried to make sense of what the two men had said about her son.
She was so worried that she wanted to scream, but was beginning to suspect that her troubles may have just begun. She was tempted to leave the house and wait in the car until Mr. Doyle was finished, but an insane curiosity had kept her here.
She'd kept her mouth shut, biting her tongue as they'd stepped into the basement room. It looked as though it might have once been a playroom, but now it was empty and dark, the one window painted black, and a single bare bulb providing the only illumination.
Ochoa hadn't wasted any time getting started. He'd taken two jars of salt from a wooden box in the corner and set to work drawing an elaborate star in the center of the room. When he was finished, he'd commanded Julia and Doyle to stand within it, while he connected each of the star's points with a line drawn in thick white chalk.
Then he'd joined them in the center of the circle and shed his sweat suit. Julia had gasped aloud at the sight of his pale, naked body covered with a multitude of scars, and he had turned around, being sure to give her a full view of his withered genitalia.
Still leering, Ochoa had held out a dagger to her. The knife was very old, its metal almost black from the passage of time. He had turned it ever so gently as to make sure that she could see the dried, crusting blood on the blade. Then, seemingly satisfied, the old man had dropped to his boney knees and brought the knife to his chest. She found herself moving closer to Doyle, tempted to hide her face behind his shoulder. Instead, she had watched as Ochoa cut himself with the dagger, the dirty blade digging into the pale, hairy flesh just below his left nipple. He'd cut himself again and again, blood dripping from each new wound, and she'd understood the scars that adorned his body.
Ochoa had spread his arms, turning his face up to the ceiling and begun to sing a strange song that sounded more like somebody choking on a piece of food than any tune Julia had ever heard.
At first she had blamed the dimming lights on her own eyes, but the light was indeed receding. Then she'd noticed the blood, lifting from Ochoa's pale flesh, snaking in the air like the tendrils on some strange underwater life-form. The tendrils of blood entwined together to form a single, snake-like mass that left the confines of the star to swim within the increasing darkness outside.
"Whatever you see, whatever you hear, whatever you do," Mr. Doyle had calmly instructed her. "Do not leave the center of the star."
Soon there was nothing but the darkness and Ochoa's insane chanting, and Julia thought that she just might suffocate. It was as if the gloom, having fed on the light, had moved on to the air inside her lungs.
She brought a hand to her chest, gasping aloud, feeling Mr. Doyle's hand upon her back, silently coaxing her lungs to function again. And just as she thought she might lose consciousness, tiny explosions of color appearing before her eyes, they did indeed start to work again, and huge draughts of oxygen filled her lungs. By then the stench that permeated the air made her wish that she had indeed passed out.
Something moved in the darkness.
Instinctively she grabbed Doyle's arm. "What's happening?" she gasped, watching as her breath billowed from her mouth. The temperature had dropped precipitously. It was freezing cold down there.
Ochoa continued his song as the terror built within her.
"He's established our connection," Doyle explained, softly. "Think of him and his blood as a kind of key. That key has been inserted in the lock and -"
"It's been opened," Julia finished, her eyes riveted to a particular section of darkness where something seemed to be moving, ready to emerge.
A child bounded from the shadows, a high-pitched scream upon his lips, and Julia recoiled, almost falling out of the pentagram.
"Careful," Mr. Doyle said, firmly gripping her elbow and helping her to regain her balance.
Her eyes were riveted to the filthy child. He looked to be about ten years of age, naked and covered in a thick layer of filth. He was gnawing on the body of a dove, its white feathers stained red with its own blood. There was a thick, leather collar around the child's scrawny neck, and the chain attached to it led back into the ocean of darkness behind him.
"Come forward, Hellion," Doyle commanded, his voice booming in the room. "Matters of importance limit my time."
Julia heard a wet, dragging sound, like a heavy bag of laundry being pulled over loose stone, and she watched the boy's chain grow slack. A voice came from the darkness, so thick and rasping with mucous that she nearly retched, even as it made her want to run and hide.
"Is that Conan Doyle, I hear?" it asked.
Doyle must have sensed her urge to flee, and he turned to her again. "Do not leave the star," he said, forcefully.
"Who is with you, Arthur?" the horrible voice asked, closer now, just about to peek from the all-encompassing shadow. "Someone new - someone not familiar with the ways of parley?"
The speaker emerged then, and the small child threw back his bloody face and howled like a dog. Thing was the only way her brain could describe it. It was like nothing she had ever seen before. It had no real shape, its massive bulk composed of limbs and other parts of what appeared to be living things. Looped around its neck was a thick muscular tentacle, its undersurface covered in hundreds of red suckers, each filled with tiny, razor-sharp teeth. Below that it wore a delicate gold chain, and at the end of the chain dangled a little girl's head.
The thing spoke again, and Julia was repulsed to see that the voice came from the head of the girl-child, its dead eyes opening, the tiny mouth moving.
"She looks as though she just might run," it gurgled. "Wouldn't that be fun?"
The thing seemed to grow taller, as if showing off its body composed of all things dead. Julia wanted to be sick, but held it together, believing that all this would help get her son back.
The little boy had finished consuming the white bird, feathers sticking to the drying blood that smeared his feral features. The child saw that she was looking at him, and he lunged with a growl. The chain snapped tight, held in the grip of a hand and arm that had been stripped of all flesh by hundreds of maggots writhing upon the deep red surface.
"With whom am I speaking?" Conan Doyle's voice boomed again.
The demonic entity undulated. "You wound me, Arthur," the little girl's head said. "Have I changed so much since last we spoke?"
"Yidhara-Thoth," Mr. Doyle said, and the creature bowed, or at least, that's what Julia believed it did.
"You do recognize me," it said excitedly.
The beastly boy strained upon his leash, trying to pull himself to the star, but the monster, this Yidhara-Thoth, kept it back.
"Not at first," Mr. Doyle responded. "Pit-spawn tend to blend together in my mind."
The entity laughed wetly. "Oh, we are each unique in our way. Perhaps when you meet my brothers and sisters you will realize that."
"When I meet your brothers and sisters, Yidhara?" Doyle asked. "Why would I meet them at all, unless a breach of trust has occurred."
The demon was silent, its body writhing as if something were attempting to escape from within.
"Just as I suspected," Mr. Doyle said indignantly. "An oath forged upon the field of battle has been broken."
"Pfaah!" the monstrosity spat, a thick wad of phlegm flying through the air to land upon the child's back. "What does it matter, Arthur?"
The little boy started to screech in pain as the substance boiled his flesh. It thrashed upon the ground, and Julia felt her motherly instincts kick in as her feet began to take her forward.
Mr. Doyle reached out quickly and clutched her arm roughly, pulling her back beside him.
"You dare much, Hellion!" he snarled.
"Come now, Arthur," Yidhara said softly. "Pit spawn, as you call us, have always crossed over from time to time, even after the treaty was signed. It's never bothered you before."
Julia could sense Mr. Doyle's growing anger, and then could see it, as his fingertips crackled with a blue electrical energy.
"There is something hidden in your tone, thing-from-the-pit," Doyle said. He lifted his hand, the energy forming a crackling sphere, and the hell-beast recoiled farther into the darkness. "Do not force my hand."
"You know as much as I that it is unraveling, that soon this plane of existence will be no more."
"Blasphemy!" Doyle roared, the ball of blue light growing all the brighter in his grasp.
"The Devourer is coming, and it will satiate its all-encompassing hunger on the sons and daughters of Adam."
With those words from its master, the beast child squatted and defecated, chattering wildly, eyes rolled back in its filthy head.
Julia thought she was going to be sick.
"You think this world already dead?" Doyle roared. "That your filthy kind can come and go as they please . . .that humanity's guardians will stand for it? That I will stand for it?"
Everything in the basement room was suddenly deathly quiet, and Julia focused her gaze upon the swirling ball of magic.
"In the amount of time it would take for me to send you hurling back to the bowels of Hell that spat you out, I have the ability to marshal the forces of a dozen dimensions: from Faerie to Paradise, to the most ancient, primeval chaos, I will call upon them to punish you and your kind for their assumption."
Yidhara yanked violently back on the chain it held, pulling its pet closer to its side. "I did not come to hear a declaration of war," the creature grumbled. "You have asked a question of me, and I have answered it. We of the hellish planes know of the Demogorgon's inexorable approach and seek to enjoy what will soon be no more."
Mr. Doyle seemed to calm slightly, closing his hand on the glowing orb of power. "Go back to your place in the darkness, Hellion. Go back and tell them that we shall be dealing with this devourer, that the earthly plane will not fall victim to its insatiable hunger. And until that time, and beyond, this world is off-limits to their kind."
Yidhara chuckled, reaching out with a rotting tentacle to stroke the head of the filthy child squatting by its side.
"Such confidence," the demon said. "I will tell them, and hopefully, it will deter any future visitations, but you know how difficult they can be. Now, as is the right of ritual, I require payment for my time."
"The indignities that your kind have perpetrated upon this world of late, and you require payment?" Doyle seemed annoyed although the crackling energies had dissipated.
"You command us to obey the rules of tradition, and yet refuse to do so yourself?"
Doyle sighed. "Take your payment, then. A single memory. One moment only."
"Not from you," Yidhara said. "From her." The demon pointed another maggot covered hand at Julia.
Julia shuddered in horror and looked to Mr. Doyle in desperation.
"She has nothing to do with this, take one of my memories or none at all," Doyle insisted.
"She participated in the parlay. She stands within the star. She is most certainly a part of this."
The child had begun to play with himself, yanking at his penis, and Julia looked away. She knew nothing of this world into which she had been catapulted. But the demon was right, she had participated, she did listen. And who would benefit more than she would?
Now it demanded its payment.
"Let him take it," she said, her voice barely a whisper.
"I'm not sure you understand," Doyle said, eyes narrowing with fear for her. "To have something like that even momentarily a part of your thoughts, in your mind, could prove quite devastating."
"I promise to be gentle," the demon whispered, laughing throatily. "Just a single human memory to take back to the pit. It is cold there, and this will be just the thing to keep me warm."
Mr. Doyle looked at her hard. "Are you sure about this?"
Julia nodded, even though she wasn't.
"One memory," Doyle instructed, holding up a single finger.
"Do you grant me permission to enter the pentagram?" it asked politely.
"I grant permission for you to enter and to remove a single memory from her, without causing her any harm and without touching me or the priest," Doyle said. "And I promise you pain unimaginable if you should attempt to take anything more."
A thin, dripping tentacle emerged from a brown, stained orifice, crossing the distance between them. It paused at the edge of a star's point, and passed within the confines.
"Are you sure?" Doyle asked again, and this time Julia knew that there would be no turning back.
She did not answer him, stepping from his side to approach the appendage that writhed in the air, waiting for her.
"One memory," she said to Yidhara-Thoth, and the child's head around its neck responded in kind.
The tentacle darted forward, its tip entering one nostril and slithering up into her nasal cavity. She could feel it go higher, up into her skull, and was surprised at how little the violation hurt her. Nausea churned in her gut.
The pain didn't begin until it stroked her brain.
Julia gasped as she felt the probe stimulate her memories. It was like being beneath an avalanche, the remembrances of her life tumbling from the storage closets within her mind. And the tentacle touched each and every one, sorting through them, careful to find the special moment it could claim as its own.
Before she knew, it found what it was searching for. She had been enjoying the recollection, the memory of holding her son in her arms for the very first time. Tears welled in her eyes as she recalled the weight of him, his very special baby smell. "Oh, Danny," she whispered, all her love transferred to him as a bond between mother and son was forged.
Then it was gone, as if it had never happened. The tentacle withdrew from her skull, sliding the precious memory out of her mind.
A memory of love lost to her.
On its way to Hell.
The investigation into the murder of Dr. Graves had been an exercise in frustration. Clay felt more confused than he was willing to admit to the ghost, but he could see Graves felt the same. Each inquiry seemed to open up entirely new avenues of mystery. But his frustration had made him all the more determined. If they had to travel to Italy for answers, then that was precisely what they would do.
The flight from New York to Florence had a layover in London. Clay sat on a bench in Heathrow Airport, reading the newspaper and enjoying the whole feel of the place. He enjoyed the United Kingdom and its people. Every region of the world had its own texture, and the pleasant atmosphere of London had always made him comfortable. In the late twentieth century and into the twenty-first, the British had managed to combine a certain cultural propriety with a calm that defied the stuffy stereotype.
It was a phenomenon Clay had seen before.
This is what happens when an Empire falls to entropy instead of conquest. The people of Great Britain had, over time, grown content to let someone else worry about holding the reins of the world.
He sat at his gate with the newspaper and a heavy paperback he'd bought at Waterstone's. A young mother played with her toddler a few feet away, tickling her so the girl giggled wildly. It was a beautiful sound. The television that hung above the waiting room showed a news report, but the sound was turned down and words scrolled across the bottom of the screen.
And the ghost of Dr. Graves hovered nearby.
Traveling with him had become maddening. Clay got along quite well with Graves and was pleased to be helping him. But the hours they had spent on the plane and now in the airport were torture. The ghost wandered the plane, and now the terminal, and whenever the whim took him he would come back and speak to Clay, even attempt to begin a conversation, though he knew quite well that Clay could not respond without seeming like a lunatic, talking to someone nobody else could see.
Driving around the northeastern United States had been no trouble. Graves had been an ideal companion. But traveling in public presented a challenge that set Clay to grinding his teeth and sighing.
Fortunately, it seemed the ghost had at last realized how difficult his attempts at discussion had been for Clay. For the past half hour he had stood by the broad windows that looked out at the tarmac and watched planes taking off, his spectral form like a strange, transparent human veil draped upon the glass.
"Ooops," the young mother said.
Clay lowered his paper to find that the toddler - a little girl no more than three - had fallen just inches from his feet. She looked up at him, face filled with the shock of her fall, and he smiled at her.
"You all right, princess?" the mother asked, hoisting the little one into the air.
Reminded of her tumble, the girl began to cry. The mother held her, whispering assurances in her ear and rocking her. The woman glanced past her daughter's head and saw Clay watching her. She smiled sweetly, acknowledging her motherly indulgence. Clay returned the smile and watched as the two walked around together.
Moments later, they were running around together again.
Clay lifted his paper and tried to find his place in the article he'd been reading. Even as he did so, the cell phone in his jacket pocket issued a familiar trill.
He plucked it out and glanced at the screen to find that the incoming call came from a blocked number. Clay frowned as he thumbed the TALK button.
"Joe, it's Kovalik."
"Al. I'm usually a good judge of tone, but I can't read yours. You've got information for me, but is it good news or bad?"
"It's information, Joe. Good or bad, that's up to you. I can tell you it's odd."
Clay gave a soft, humorless laugh. "Yeah. There's a lot of that going around. You retrieved the remains of Doctor Graves, I take it?"
"We did, yes," Kovalik replied.
The line went quiet, and for a moment Clay thought he might have lost the connection.
"Examination shows no evidence of a gunshot wound to the back. 'Course, it's possible the bullet didn't hit bone, so - '
"It did. At least, the way he remembers it."
Again, Kovalik went silent. Clay figured he didn't like to be reminded of his visit from the ghost of Dr. Graves.
"What else?" Clay prodded.
"DNA comparisons are a match. These are the bones of Leonard Graves, but as I said, no evidence that he died the way all of the reports indicated."
Kovalik cleared his throat. Clay heard the scratch of a match being lit and then the old man taking a drag on a cigarette and exhaling.
"You shouldn't smoke," Clay told him.
"I quit twenty-seven years ago. I took it up again this week. Indulge an old man."
"So, how did he die?"
"Fractures at the top of his spine lead my gravediggers to believe the cause of death was strangulation."
The toddler raced past him. Clay pulled his feet out of the way so the kid wouldn't take another tumble, and the mother gave him a coquettish glance in thanks as she pursued her little tornado.
Clay stood, phone against his ear, and glanced around for Graves. The ghost had wandered away from the window. Apparently he'd lost interest in the planes taking off and landing. Clay spotted him crouched beside an old couple who sat together, lost in their ruminations and yet still with their hands intertwined. They were so ancient by human standards that they were nearly mummified, but Clay understood why Graves was drawn to them. There was an air of satisfaction and contentment that surrounded them.
"I find that hard to believe," Clay said as he approached the ghost. "He was a formidable man."
"I'm just giving you the report," Kovalik said, a bit testy.
The ghost seemed to be studying the lines on the old couple's faces and did not notice his approach. Clay was forced to speak.
"Len," he said.
The old couple looked up. The wife seemed a bit put off and nervous, but the husband only raised an eyebrow.
"I know you, son?" he asked, Scottish accent thick.
"No, sir. My mistake."
Graves had glanced up at the sound of his voice. Now that Clay had his attention he started back toward his seat.
"You're sure about this?" he asked Kovalik.
The cell signal flickered. "...as I can be. It's impossible to confirm."
"What is it?" the ghost asked. Even as nothing more than a wandering spirit, a faded, transparent outline hanging in the air, Graves still had an air of power and command.
"Strangulation," he said.
The ghost shook his head. "I have no recollection of that. I told you how I died."
"Hold on, Al," Clay said into the phone, then he stared at Graves's ghost. "You told me how you remember it. But it's pretty obvious now that isn't how it happened."
Graves opened his mouth, spectral form wavering as though a ghostly breeze had blown through the spirit world. But he said nothing.
"There's more," Kovalik said.
He listened as the FBI agent gave him the rest of the details his forensics specialists had discovered. Clay put a hand to his head and massaged his temples. Twice he told Kovalik to repeat himself. Finally, he thanked the man and said he would get back to him. The last thing he wanted to do was have a conversation with Graves while Kovalik was still on the line.
"What?" the ghost said, shifting anxiously through the air.
A crackling voice came over the intercom announcing final boarding for a flight to Athens. The little girl who had been so entertaining to Clay raced by, passing right through the ghost of Dr. Graves. The child stopped running, glanced around a bit frightfully, and went to sit down.
"Katherine?" her mother said, the worry plain in her voice. She went to sit beside her daughter and also passed through Dr. Graves. She shivered, and the flirtatious smile she'd begun to turn toward Clay vanished from her lips.
The presence of ghosts could be disconcerting. To Clay, they were most disconcerting when they were staring at him from inches away.
"Joe, what did he say?" Graves asked.
Clay had closed his phone. Now, even as the ghost prodded him urgently, he flipped the phone open again and pretended to dial. Then he held the phone against his ear so that anyone watching would think he was talking to someone on the other end of the line instead of to himself.
"According to Kovalik's people, your . . ." he glanced around and lowered his voice. "The skull shows signs of surgery. It was opened up at some point prior to death."
The ghost flickered like a candle flame and faded quickly, so that even Clay could not see him. Slowly the specter manifested again, and the expression on Graves's face said it all.
"That's impossible. How could that have happened, and I be unaware?" the ghost said, barely looking at Clay. "It can't be. They must have the wrong body."
Clay shook his head, still pretending to talk into his cell phone. "DNA comparison is a match."
Graves shook his head in confusion, eyes searching for something, though Clay could not tell if he was looking now into the shadows of the solid world, or the mists of the spirit realm.
"Something very odd," Clay went on. "There's discoloration on the inside of the skull consistent with exposure to certain chemicals, and residue of mercury . . ."
He let his words trail off. The sudden dawning awareness in the ghost's eyes told him all he needed to know. Graves stared at him, then began to shake his head again.
"No," he said. "That never happened. Not to me. He never -"
"What, Leonard? What aren't you telling me? This is all familiar to you, isn't it?" Slowly, Graves nodded. The ghost drifted away, not bothering to mimic the walk of the living. Clay watched him, there amid a throng of people moving to and from their destinations, going about their lives in this beehive of activity, all of them full of life and excitement and purpose.
And then there was Graves, alone and isolated and invisible to them all, just a trace. A memory.
"The Whisper," Graves said, turning back toward Clay.
"What are you -"
The ghost slid his hands into his pockets and leaned as though against a wall or post. "The Whisper."
Votive candles burn and flicker in the darkness of St. Patrick's Cathedral. Dr. Graves stands in the shadows of the transept near the entrance from 51st Street, watching the nave. An enormous man moves through the pews, raising the kneelers and picking missals up from the seats, slipping them into the holders on the back of each pew.
The sheer size of the man is unsettling. Hank Reinhardt stands a hair below seven feet tall and has shoulders so broad that he must turn sideways to pass through certain doorways. He spent years as a bone-breaker for a loan shark in Hell's Kitchen before he learned that there was more money in being the shark himself. When Hank became his own boss, and people didn't pay on time, he turned to murder.
He never killed his clients. Then he would have never gotten his money. Instead he murdered their wives or mothers, girlfriends or little brothers.
And now he cleans up after Mass at St. Pat's.
Graves watches as Reinhardt goes to the mop and metal, wheeled bucket he'd rolled out moments earlier. Once the man had been cruel and cunning, and now he is a slow-witted giant, going through the motions he has been taught. He crosses himself and kneels before the altar, then begins to mop the floor in long, powerful swipes.
For several years, the Whisper has operated in New York as a vigilante, tracking and capturing criminals the police cannot seem to locate, or to hold. Yet when the Whisper turns them over to the police, these killers and thieves are docile, even helpful, wishing to make amends. The Whisper has sent many letters to The New York Times explaining that these men could now be useful members of society, that he had mesmerized them and they will never hurt another soul. Upon much research and testing, his claims had been confirmed. Prominent attorneys argued that these men should not serve prison time, but rather be allowed to pay society back in other ways, since they could no longer harm anyone else.
At least two dozen hardened criminals were irrevocably altered by the Whisper before Dr. Graves discovered the truth and revealed it to the world.
Reinhardt is the last of them. The only survivor among the Whisper's triumphs. All of the others have been murdered.
So when a shape rises in the vestibule, a silhouette in the wan golden illumination of the candles and the few lights still burning in the cathedral, Graves is not at all surprised. This is what he has been waiting for. He does not even shift, hidden deep in his own pocket of shadows, for he dares not give his presence away yet.
The figure moves silently along the central aisle, ominous in the heavy black coat that hangs on his thin, powerful frame like a cloak. A wide-brimmed hat and black scarf hide his features, but his eyes gleam in the candlelight as he seems to glide toward Reinhardt.
The massive killer, now a simple servant of the church, senses his presence and turns. A smile blossoms on the ugly, brutal face as he recognizes his benefactor.
"Hullo, Mister Whisper," Reinhardt says in his guttural, accented voice.
Perhaps the Whisper replies, but all Graves can hear is a low murmur, like the wind in the eaves.
He steps out from the shadows of the transept, drawing his two pistols from the holsters under his arms. Graves cocks both weapons, and the sound freezes the Whisper in place. Soft laughter fills the cathedral as though it comes from everywhere and nowhere at once.
"Well, Doctor Graves," the Whisper says, without turning, "it appears you will hound me 'till death."
"You have brought it upon yourself, Broderick."
"I was a hero, and now the city thinks of me as no better than the criminals I removed from the streets."
Graves takes several steps toward the Whisper. Beneath his wide-brimmed hat, the man did not so much as twitch.
"You are no better than they are, Broderick. In fact, you're far worse. You held yourself up to a higher standard, let the people think you were decent and noble, when you were nothing but another lunatic. You made them think you were a hero, and instead you were the worst kind of fraud."
The giant, Reinhardt, frowns and glares at Graves. "This fella bothering you, Mister Whisper?"
"I served society, Graves!" the Whisper says, and now, slowly, he turns.
"You cut into their brains," Dr. Graves says through gritted teeth. "You soaked their minds in chemicals, burned their brain cells, performed surgery."
"For the betterment of those men and for the world," the Whisper says, but his voice is dull and emotionless. He sounds tired.
"Mister Whisper?" Reinhardt asks, and comes to stand beside the dark figure whose features are hidden beneath the brim of his hat, even from the candlelight.
"You're a barbarian and a lunatic, sir. I thought exposing you would end with you in a prison cell. Instead, it's made you a murderer."
The Whisper laughs. "There's just no pleasing you, is there? You humiliated me in front of the world, Graves. Mayor Bennett excoriated me in every newspaper in the city, holding you up as a hero, and me as a fraud. I've been forced to admit that you and Bennett are right. Men like Reinhardt can't be helped."
Graves aims his pistols at the Whisper, trying to focus on the man's chest, though his eyes gleam in the shadow of his hat-brim.
"So you killed them all. Strangled every last one of them."
"Merely correcting my error," the Whisper says, the words dry and cold, as though they come not from his lips but from the shadows of the cathedral itself.
"You're coming with me, Broderick," Dr. Graves says, pausing in the aisle now, careful not to get too close.
"So you can humiliate me further? I'd rather not."
"Mister Whisper?" Reinhardt asks, glancing quizzically from one man to the other. "What should I do?"
The Whisper tilts his head slightly back to glance up at the giant. In the candlelight, his features are grizzled, gray stubble grows on his chin, and there are dark circles under his mad eyes.
"Protect me, Reinhardt. The black man wants to hurt me."
"Don't listen, Hank -" Graves begins.
But he sees it is already too late. Hate lights up Reinhardt's eyes as the giant starts toward him.
He lumbers in between Graves and the Whisper. The very moment he blocks Graves's aim, Reinhardt cries out in pain and confusion and staggers forward. He drops to his knees and tumbles toward Dr. Graves, who is forced to catch him.
"No!" Graves shouts.
Reinhardt is so huge that he cannot hold the man up. Twitching, gape-mouthed and wide-eyed with shock, he slips to the ground. The black handle of a hunting knife juts from his back. The copper stink of blood fills St. Patrick's cathedral from door to altar.
Graves extricates himself from the dying man and looks up, both guns ready. A shadow disappears behind the altar, into that intimate place meant only for priests and other servants of God. But, of course, Leonard Graves has not believed in God for many years. He believes in science, and he believes in justice. The world needs nothing more.
Pistols gripped firmly in his hands, he races past the altar and slips through an open door beside a heavy tapestry. It is all darkness in the rear of the church, shadow upon shadow. He pauses, listening to the dark for any sign of footsteps. Up ahead he can hear the Whisper moving, hear him breathing. For all of his vaunted stealth, he is making no attempt to disguise his exit route.
Gunshots echo through the cathedral, and Graves drops into a crouch, peering into the corridor ahead for the flash of a muzzle. But the shots come from around a corner. It makes no sense. What is the Whisper firing at if not at him? There comes the cracking of wood and the slam of a door crashing open.
Again, Graves pursues the savage, hating the twist that things have taken. For several years it seemed a kind of golden age of heroism was growing in New York, and in America. The courage of the soldiers going off to war, the valiant efforts of the United States to stop the march of Hitler's killers across Europe, and in Manhattan, Graves had fought injustice with the grudging approval of the authorities and the blessing of the people. The Whisper had joined the fight, and then Joe Falcon. Only recently, several new adventurers have appeared, including a mysterious masked woman the papers were calling the Siren.
But if there ever had been a golden age, to Dr. Graves, it is over now. The Whisper has tainted it forever.
Windows along the corridor allow just enough light from the street and the moon so that he can see the door hanging open as he rounds the corner. Graves throws himself against the wall and slides quickly along, guns at the ready. He expects some attack. In his black coat, hat, and scarf, the Whisper could hide well enough in those shadows, but there is no sign of him.
Graves lunges through the door, pistols out ahead of him, fingers twitching on the triggers.
The only thing behind the door is a staircase leading upward. He hears only the faintest footfall above, but that is enough. The Whisper is running for the roof. It makes no sense. There is no escape up there. But Graves reminds himself that the Whisper is no ordinary man. He might well have rigged up some way to glide down.
Stairs lead to a metal-runged ladder, and the ladder leads to a hatch, which yawns open above, moonlight streaming in. No silhouette appears above, ready to put a bullet through him while he climbs, but still he holsters one pistol and points the other upward, climbing one-handed.
His heart hammers as he emerges onto the steeply canted roof. Small spires rise all along each side, and at the front, above the vestibule, two enormous towers stab at the night sky. The lights of the city surround him, but it is the glow of the moon that makes the roof of the cathedral seem to glow a ghostly gray.
The Whisper is there. He walks swiftly but carefully along the peak of the roof toward the front of the church on Fifth Avenue. The wind blows his coat back behind him and for a moment it seems he will be blown right off the roof, and perhaps this is how he will glide away to make his escape across the night sky.
But that is pure fancy, and unlike Graves. Not even the Whisper can fly.
Graves sights along the top of his pistol, but he is too far away. It would be hard to make the shot from here. Instead he crouches low and scrambles up the slanted roof to the peak. For a moment he stands exposed and vulnerable atop this Gothic masterpiece, catching his breath, surrounded by the echo of the medieval and the lights of Manhattan.
Then he runs.
Leonard Graves has honed his body over a lifetime. He is no ordinary man. Balance, even with the wind, is second nature to him, and he races along the rooftop without hesitation, trusting to his training and his instincts. In a flash of insight, he recognizes for the first time that the entire Gothic cathedral is a single enormous crucifix, the whole building formed in the shape of the cross. The entire design is a symbol of sacrifice.
The Whisper is slower, more cautious. Graves is catching up to him.
"Broderick, you're not going to get away!" he calls over the wind. "I won't rest until justice is done."
Laughter erupts from the night sky and carries to him on the night wind. The Whisper reaches the edge of the roof and steps up onto a low stone ledge there, steadying himself on a stone cross that crowns the apex. Below, on Fifth Avenue, cars rumble by.
"Justice, is it?" the Whisper calls, and the way he hangs back and cries the words to the sky, Graves thinks perhaps the question is not meant for him, but for some higher power. "I had faith! I only wanted to save them, redeem them!"
"You destroyed their minds, and then you took their lives!" Graves shouts.
Balanced upon the roof he draws his other pistol again and points both muzzles at the madman.
The wind snatches the wide-brimmed hat from the Whisper's head and carries it away into the night, flipping end over end as it gusts across Fifth Avenue. Emotion ravages the man's face. There is fear there, and regret, confusion and madness.
In his right hand he holds a custom-made black pistol with a long, thin barrel.
"Throw the gun down!"
With a sickly laugh, mouth twisted into a grin of comic absurdity, the Whisper tosses the gun off the roof. It disappears into the abyss of Fifth Avenue that yaws just behind him. Now he clutches the cross on the roof's peak with both hands, and his expression turns to one of anguish.
"You win, Graves," the Whisper says. "There is no redemption, after all. Not for killers like Reinhardt. Or like me."
He throws his arms wide, head tilted, mouth twisted into a sardonic grin. Then he turns and, coat fluttering behind him in the wind, plummets from the edge of the roof.
"No!" Dr. Graves shouts, but the word is stolen away by the wind.
He races to the edge of the roof, holstering his weapons. He grips the same cross that the Whisper had held on to moments before. Quick as he is, Graves makes it to the edge just in time to see the man hit the street far below. The impact is silent at this height. A car swerves down on Fifth Avenue to avoid running over the twisted, shattered corpse of the broken hero. The fallen idol.
For long minutes, Dr. Graves stands there staring down at the small, pitiful figure of that dead man, and he reminds himself of his own beliefs. Whether there is a God or not, Leonard Graves believes in redemption. He must believe in it, or he could not believe in justice.
But for the Whisper, both justice and redemption are now forever out of reach.
"Sir, can I get you anything to drink?"
Clay had been staring out the window of the plane, watching the clouds sweep by as the flight from London made its way toward Florence. The flight attendant was a fortysomething British woman who looked every bit her age yet looked the type who might get more beautiful with each passing year. Clay appreciated the wisdom in a woman's eyes, and the elegance with which some of them grew older.
He smiled at her.
"A glass of red wine would put me forever in your debt."
The flight attendant laughed, more than used to being flirted with by passengers. "That's all right, love. Just the cash will do."
As she served him, Clay glanced up and down the aisle. He found the ghost of Dr. Graves hovering behind a pair of pretty teenaged girls who were curled together in their seats, wrapped in one another's arms like lovers. And perhaps they were. Clay had spent enough time watching Graves watch people that by now he knew it was their peacefulness that fascinated the ghost. Their contentment.
"Thank you," he told the flight attendant.
She winked at him playfully and then moved on to the next row.
After the call from Kovalik, Clay had spent the rest of the layover listening to Graves talk about the New York of his era. He had painted a picture with his words of what he called a golden age of heroism, and the notoriety achieved by certain men and women who had risked their lives to fight crime in ways and with methods beyond the capacity of the police.
The story of the Whisper was one of tragedy, and it had left Clay feeling melancholy and cynical. The man had been brilliant and courageous, according to Graves, but also, quite obviously, demented. Barbaric, the ghost had said, and Clay could not agree more.
Clay sipped his wine and glanced back at the ghost again. The connection between Kovalik's new information, the autopsy on Graves's remains, and the murder of Mayor Bennett, was obvious to both of them now. The chemical stains, mercury residue, and evidence of brain surgery on Graves's skull made it clear someone had performed the same operation on him that the Whisper had performed on the criminals he'd "rehabilitated." It had to have been a more complicated procedure for Graves not to have become as docile as the others. None of the Whisper's victims had remembered their surgery, so that was not a surprise, but then why did Graves have memories of the events leading to his own death that were obviously wrong?
All of these questions niggled at the back of Clay's mind as the plane flew toward Florence. But as he took another sip of wine, two questions bothered him more than any of the others.
If the Whisper had killed himself that night on the roof of St. Patrick's, then who had performed the surgery on Graves? And who, if not the Whisper, had murdered Graves and Roger Alton Bennett?
The planes engines hummed.
Clay took another sip of blood-red wine and glanced out the window at the clouds, but he found no answers there.