If that was the case, I wondered what had suddenly triggered my mental collapse. Was it that we had bought a house from a Vietnamese refugee? That seemed too small a thing to have been the trigger. I couldn't see how the seller's original nationality alone could have caused wires to cross in my subconscious, shorting out the system, blowing fuses. On the other hand, if my peace with the memories of Vietnam and my sanity were only as stable as a house of cards, the barest breath might demolish me.
Damn it, I didn't feel insane. I felt stable—frightened but firmly in control. The most reasonable explanation for the cellar was hallucination. But I was largely convinced that the impossible subterranean staircases were real and that the disconnection from reality was external rather than internal.
At eight o'clock, Horace Dalcoe arrived for dinner with a party of seven, which almost took my mind off the cellar. As holder of our lease, he believes that he should never pay a cent for dinner in our establishment. If we didn't comp him and his friends, he would find ways to make us miserable, so we oblige. He never says thank you, and he usually finds something to complain about.
That Tuesday night, he complained about the margaritas—not enough tequila, he said. He fussed about the corn chips—not crisp enough, he said. And he groused about the albondigas soup—not nearly enough meatballs, he said.
I wanted to throttle the bastard. Instead, I brought margaritas with more tequila—enough to burn an alarming number of brain cells per minute and new corn chips, and a bowl of meatballs to supplement the already meat-rich soup.
That night, in bed, thinking about Dalcoe, I wondered what would happen to him if I invited him to our new house, pushed him into the cellar, closed and latched the door, and left him down there for a while. I had the bizarre but unshakable feeling that something lived deep in the basement ... something that had been only a few feet from me in the impenetrable darkness that had devoured the flashlight beam. If something was down there, it would climb the stairs to get Dalcoe. Then he would be no more trouble to us.
I did not sleep well that night.
WEDNESDAY MORNING, MAY FOURTEENTH, I RETURNED TO THE HOUSE to walk through it with the former owner, Nguyen Quang Phu. I arrived an hour ahead of our appointment, in case the cellar door was visible again.
Suddenly I felt that I should turn my back on the door, walk away, ignore it. I sensed that I could make it go away forever if only I refused to open it. And I knew—without knowing how I knew—that not only my body but my soul was at risk if I couldn't resist the temptation to explore those lower realms.
I braced the door open with the two-by-four.
I went down into the darkness with the flashlight.
More than ten stories underground, I stopped on the landing with the flanking archways. The stink of rotting vegetables came from the branching stairwell to the left; the foul aroma of rancid fish heads arose from the right.
I pressed on and found that the peculiarly substantive darkness did not thicken as quickly as it had done yesterday. I was able to go deeper than before, as if the darkness knew me better now and welcomed me into more intimate regions of its domain.
After an additional fifty or sixty steps, I came to another landing. As at the landing above, on each side an archway offered a change of direction.
On the left, I found another short hall leading to another set of stairs that descended into pulsing, shifting, malignant blackness as impervious to light as a pool of oil. Indeed, the beam of my flash did not fade into that dense gloom but actually terminated in a circle of reflected light, as if it had fallen on a wall, and the churning blackness glistened slightly like molten tar. It was a thing of great power, enormously repulsive. Yet I knew that it was not merely oil or any other liquid, but was instead the essence of all darkness: a syrupy distillation of a million nights, a billion shadows. Darkness is a condition, not a substance, and therefore cannot be distilled. Yet here was that impossible extract, ancient and pure: concentrate of night, the vast blackness of interstellar space decocted until it had been rendered into an oozing sludge. And it was evil.
I backed away and returned to the main stairwell. I did not inspect the branching stairs beyond the archway on the right, because I knew that I would find the same malevolent distillate waiting down there, slowly churning, churning.
In the main stairwell, I descended only a little farther before encountering the same foul presence. It rose like a wall in front of me, or like a frozen tide. I stood two steps from it, shaking uncontrollably with fear.
I reached forward.
I put a hand against the pulsing mass of blackness.
It was cold.
I reached forward a bit farther. My hand disappeared to the wrist. The darkness was so solid, so clearly defined, that my wrist looked like an amputee's stump; a sharp line marked the point at which my hand vanished into the tar-dense mass.
Panicked, I jerked back. My hand had not been amputated after all. It was still attached to my arm. I wiggled my fingers.
Looking up from my hand, straight into the gelid darkness before me, I suddenly knew that it was aware of me. I had sensed that it was evil, yet somehow I had not thought of it as conscious, Staring into its featureless countenance, I felt that it was welcoming me to the cellar that I had not yet quite reached, to the chambers below, which were still countless steps beneath me. I was being invited to embrace darkness, to step entirely across the threshold into the gloom where my hand had gone, and for a moment I was overcome with a longing to do precisely that, to move out of the light, down, down.
Then I thought of Carmen. And my daughters—Heather and Stacy. My son, Joe. All of the people I loved and who loved me. The spell was instantly broken. The mesmeric attraction of the darkness lost its hold on me, and I turned and ran up to the bright kitchen, my footsteps booming in the narrow stairwell.
Sun streamed through the big windows.
I pulled the two-by-four out of the way, slammed the cellar door. I willed it to vanish, but it remained.
"I'm nuts," I said aloud. "Stark raving crazy."
But I knew that I was sane.
It was the world that had gone mad, not I.
Twenty minutes later, Nguyen Quang Phu arrived, as scheduled, to explain all the peculiarities of the house that we had bought from him. I met him at the front door, and the moment that I saw him, I knew why the impossible cellar had appeared and what purpose it was meant to serve.
"Mr. Gonzalez?" he asked.
"I am Nguyen Quang Phu."
He was not merely Nguyen Quang Phu. He was also the torture master.
In Vietnam, he had ordered me strapped to a bench and had, for more than an hour, beaten the soles of my feet with a wooden baton until each blow jarred through the bones of my legs and hips, through my rib cage, up my spine, to the top of my skull, which felt as if it might explode. He had ordered me bound hand and foot and submerged me in a tank of water fouled with urine from other prisoners who had been subjected to the ordeal before me; just when I thought I could hold my breath no longer, when my lungs were burning, when my ears were ringing, when my heart was thundering, when every fiber of my being strained toward death, I was hoisted into the air and allowed a few breaths before being plunged beneath the surface again. He had ordered that wires be attached to my gen**als, and he had given me countless jolts of electricity. Helpless, I had watched him beat a friend of mine to death, and I'd seen him tear out another friend's eye with a stiletto merely for cursing the soldier who had served him yet another bowl of weevil-infested rice.
I had absolutely no doubt of his identity. The memory of the torture master's face was branded forever in my mind, burned into the very tissue of my brain by the worst heat of all—hatred. And he had aged much better than I had. He looked only two or three years older than when I'd last seen him.
"Pleased to meet you," I said.
"Likewise," he said as I ushered him into the house.
His voice was as memorable as his face: soft, low, and somehow cold—the voice a snake might have if serpents could speak.
We shook hands.
He was five ten, tall for a Vietnamese. He had a long face with
prominent cheekbones, a sharp nose, a thin mouth, and a delicate jaw. His eyes were deeply set—and as strange as they had been in Nam.
In that prison camp, I had not known his name. Perhaps it had been Nguyen Quang Phu. Or perhaps that was a false identity that he had assumed when he sought asylum in the United States.
"You have bought a wonderful house," he said.
"We like it very much," I said.
"I was happy here," he said, smiling, nodding, looking around at the empty living room. "Very happy."
Why had he left Nam? He had been on the winning side. Well, maybe he'd fallen out with some of his comrades. Or perhaps the state had assigned him to hard farm labor or to the mines or to some other task that he knew would destroy his health and kill him before his time. Perhaps he had gone to sea in a small boat when the state no longer chose to give him a position of high authority.
The reason for his emigration was of no importance to me. All that mattered was that he was here.
The moment I saw him and realized who he was, I knew that he would not leave the house alive. I would never permit his escape.
"There's not much to point out," he said. "There's one drawer in the master-bathroom cabinets that runs off the track now and then. And the pull-down attic stairs in the closet have a small problem sometimes, but that's easily remedied. I'll show you."
"I'd appreciate that."
He did not recognize me.
I suppose he'd tortured too many men to be able to recall any single victim of his sadistic urges. All prisoners who suffered and died at his hands had probably blurred into one faceless target. The torturer had cared nothing about the individual to whom he'd given an advance taste of Hell. To Nguyen Quang Phu, each man on the rack was the same as the one before, prized not for his unique qualities but for his ability to scream and bleed, for his eagerness to grovel at the feet of his tormentor.
As he led me through the house, he also gave me the names of reliable plumbers and electricians and air-conditioner repairmen in the neighborhood, plus the name of the artisan who had created the stained-glass windows in two rooms. "If one should be badly damaged, you'll want it repaired by the man who made it."
I will never know how I restrained myself from attacking him with my bare hands. More incredible still: Neither my face nor my voice revealed my inner tension. He was utterly unaware of the danger into which he had stepped.
In the kitchen, after he had shown me the unusual placement of the restart switch on the garbage disposal beneath the sink, I asked him if, during rainstorms, there was a problem with seepage in the cellar.
He blinked at me. His soft, cold voice rose slightly: "Cellar? Oh, but there is no cellar."
Pretending surprise, I said, "Well, there sure enough is. Right over there's the door."
He stared in disbelief.
He saw it too.
I interpreted his ability to see the door as a sign that destiny was being served here and that I would be doing nothing wrong if I simply assisted fate.
Retrieving the flashlight from the counter, I opened the door.
Protesting that no such door had existed while he had lived in the house, the torture master moved past me in a state of high astonishment and curiosity. He went through the door, onto the upper landing.
"Light switch doesn't work," I said, crowding in behind him, pointing the flashlight down past him. "But we'll see well enough with this."
"But ... where ... how ... ?"
"You don't really mean you never noticed the cellar?" I said, forcing a laugh. "Come now. Are you joking with me or what?"
As if weightless with amazement, he drifted downward from one step to the next.
I followed close behind.
Soon, he knew that something was terribly wrong, for the steps went on too far without any sign of the cellar floor. He stopped, began to turn, and said, "This is strange. What's going on here? What on earth are you—"
"Go on," I said harshly. "Down. Go down, you bastard."
He tried to push past me toward the open door above.
I knocked him backward down the stairs. Screaming, he tumbled all the way to the first landing and the flanking archways. When I reached him, I saw that he was dazed and suffering considerable pain. He keened in misery. His lower lip had split; blood trickled down his chin. He'd skinned the palm of his right hand. I think his arm was broken.
Weeping, cradling his arm, he looked up at me—pain racked, afraid, confused.
I hated myself for what I was doing.
But I hated him more.
"In the camp," I said, "we called you The Snake. I know you. Oh, yes, I know you. You were the torture master."
"Oh, God," he said.
He neither asked what I was talking about nor attempted to deny it. He knew who he was, what he was, and he knew what would become of him.
"Those eyes," I said, shaking with fury now. "That voice. The Snake. A repulsive, belly-crawling snake. Contemptible. But very, very dangerous."
Briefly we were silent. In my case, at least, I was temporarily speechless, because I stood in awe of the profound machinery of fate which, in its slow-working and laborious fashion, had brought us together at this time and place.
From down in the darkness, a noise arose: sibilant whispers, a wet oozing sound that made me shudder. Millennial darkness was on the move, surging upward, the embodiment of endless night, cold and deep—and hungry.
The torture master, reduced to the role of victim, gazed around in fear and bewilderment, through one archway and the other, then down the stairs that continued from the landing on which he sprawled. His anxiety was so great that it drove out his pain; he no longer wept or made the keening noise. "What ... what is this place?"
"It's where you belong," I said.
I turned from him and climbed the steps. I did not stop or look back. I left the flashlight with him because I wanted him to see the thing that came for him.
(Darkness dwells within us all.)
"Wait!" he called after me.
I did not pause.
"What's that sound?" he asked.
I kept climbing.
"What's going to happen to me?"
"I don't know," I told him. "But whatever it is ... it'll be what you deserve."
Anger finally stirred in him. "You're not my judge!"
"Oh yes I am."
At the top, I stepped into the kitchen and closed the door behind me. It had no lock. I leaned against it, trembling.