Apparently Phu saw something ascending from the stairwell below him, for he wailed in terror and clambered up the steps.
Hearing him approach, I leaned hard against the door.
He pounded on the other side. "Please. Please, no. Please, for God's sake, no, for God's sake, please!"
I had heard my army buddies begging with that same desperation when the merciless torture master had forced rusty needles under their fingernails. I dwelt on those images of horror, which once I had thought I'd put behind me, and they gave me the will to resist Phu's pathetic pleas.
In addition to his voice, I heard the sludge-thick darkness rising behind him, cold lava flowing uphill: wet sounds, and that sinister; whispering.
The torture master stopped pounding on the door and let out a scream that told me the darkness had seized him.
A great weight fell against the door for a moment, then was withdrawn.
The torture master's shrill cries rose and fell and rose again, and with each bloodcurdling cycle of screams, his terror was more acute. From the sound of his voice, from the hollow booming of his feet striking the steps and kicking the walls, I could tell that he was being dragged down.
I had broken into a sweat.
I could not get my breath.
Suddenly I tore open the door and plunged across the threshold; onto the landing. I think that I genuinely intended to pull him into the kitchen and save him after all. I can't say for sure. What I saw in the stairwell, only a few steps below, was so shocking that I froze—and did nothing.
The torture master hadn't been seized by the darkness itself but by two skeletally thin men who reached out of that ceaselessly churning mass of blackness. Dead men. I recognized them. They were American . soldiers who had died in the camp at the hands of the torture master while I had been there. Neither of them had been friends of mine, and in fact they had both been hard cases themselves, bad men who had enjoyed the war before they had been captured and imprisoned by the Vietcong, the rare and hateful kind who liked killing and who engaged in black-market profiteering during their off-duty hours. Their eyes were icy, opaque. When they opened their mouths to speak to me, no words came forth, only a soft hissing and a faraway whimpering that led me to believe that those noises were coming not from their bodies but from their souls—souls chained in the cellar far below. They were straining out of the oozing distillate of darkness, unable to escape it entirely, revealed only to the extent required to grasp Nguyen Quang Phu by both arms and legs.
As I watched, they drew him screaming into that thick decoction of night that had become their eternal home. When the three of them vanished into the throbbing gloom, that rippling tarry mass flowed backward, away from me. Steps came into sight like swards of a beach appearing as the tide withdraws.
I stumbled out of the stairwell, across the kitchen to the sink. I hung my head and vomited. Ran the water. Splashed my face. Rinsed my mouth. Leaned against the counter, gasping.
When at last I turned, I saw that the cellar door had vanished. The darkness had wanted the torture master. That's why the door had appeared, why a way had opened into ... into the place below. It had wanted the torture master so badly that it couldn't wait to claim him in the natural course of events, upon his predestined death, so it had opened a door into this world and had swallowed him. Now it had him, and my encounter with the supernatural was surely at an end.
That's what I thought.
I simply did not understand.
God help me, I did not understand.
NGUYEN QUANG PHU'S CAR—A NEW WHITE MERCEDES—WAS PARKED in the driveway, which is rather secluded. I got in without being observed and drove the car away, abandoning it in a parking lot that served a public beach. I walked the few miles back to the house, and later, when Phu's disappearance became a matter for the police, I claimed that he had never kept our appointment. I was believed. They were not suspicious of me, for I am a leading citizen, a man of some accomplishment, and in possession of a fine reputation.
During the next three weeks, the cellar door did not reappear. I didn't expect ever to be entirely comfortable in our new dream house, but gradually the worst of my dread faded and I no longer avoided entering the kitchen.
I'd had a head-on collision with the supernatural, but there was little or no chance of another encounter. A lot of people see one ghost sometime in their lives, are caught up in one paranormal event that leaves them shaken and in doubt about the true nature of reality, but they have no further occult experiences. I was sure that I would never see the cellar door again.
Then, Horace Dalcoe, holder of our restaurant's lease and loud complainer about albondigas soup, discovered that I was negotiating secretly to buy the property that he had leased for his shopping center, and he struck back. Hard. He has political connections. I suppose he encountered little difficulty getting the health inspector to slap us with citations for nonexistent violations of the public code. We have always run an immaculate restaurant; our own standards for food handling and cleanliness have always exceeded those of the health department. Therefore, Carmen and I decided to take the matter to court rather than pay the fines—which was when we got hit with a citation for fire-code violations. And when we announced our intention of seeking a retraction of those unjust charges, someone broke in to the restaurant at three o'clock on a Thursday morning and vandalized the place, doing over fifty thousand dollars worth of damage.
I realized that I might win one or all of these battles but still lose the war. If I had been able to adopt Horace Dalcoe's scurrilous tactics, if I had been able to resort to bribing public officials and hiring thugs, I could have fought back in a way that he would have understood, and he might have called a truce. Though I wasn't without the stain of sin on my soul, I was nonetheless unable to lower myself to Dalcoe's level.
Maybe my reluctance to play rough and dirty was more a matter of pride than of genuine honesty or honor, though I would prefer to believe better of myself.
Yesterday morning (as I write this in the diary of damnation that I have begun to keep), I went to see Dalcoe at his plush office. I humbled myself before him and agreed to abandon my efforts to buy the leased property on which his small shopping center stands. I also agreed to pay him three thousand in cash, under the table, for being permitted to erect a larger, more attractive sign for the restaurant.
He was smug, condescending, infuriating. He kept me there for more than an hour, though our business could have been concluded in ten minutes, because he relished my humiliation.
Last night, I could not sleep. The bed was comfortable, and the house was silent, and the air was pleasantly cool—all conditions for easy, deep sleep—but I could not stop brooding about Horace Dalcoe. The thought of being under his thumb for the foreseeable future was more than I could bear. I repeatedly turned the situation over in my mind, searching for a handle, for a way to obtain an advantage over him before he realized what I was doing, but no brilliant ploys occurred to me.
Finally, I slipped out of bed without waking Carmen, and I went downstairs to get a glass of milk, hopeful that a calcium fix would sedate me. When I entered the kitchen, still thinking of Dalcoe, the cellar door was there again.
Staring at it, I was very afraid, for I knew what its timely reappearance meant. I needed to deal with Horace Dalcoe, and I was being provided with a final solution to the problem. Invite Dalcoe to the house on one pretext or another. Show him the cellar. And let the darkness have him.
I opened the door.
I peered down the steps at the blackness below.
Long-dead prisoners, victims of torture, had been waiting for Nguyen Quang Phu. What would be waiting down there to seize Dalcoe?
Not for Dalcoe.
I shuddered for me.
Suddenly I understood that the darkness below wanted me more than it wanted Phu the torture master or Horace Dalcoe. Neither of those men was much of a prize. They were destined for Hell anyway. If I had not escorted Phu into the cellar, the darkness would have had him sooner or later, when at last death visited him. Likewise, Dalcoe would wind up in the depths of Gehenna upon his own death. But by hurrying them along to their ultimate destination, I would be surrendering to the dark impulses within me and would, thereby, by putting my own soul in jeopardy.
Staring down the cellar stairs, I heard the darkness calling my name, welcoming me, offering me eternal communion. Its whispery voice was seductive. Its promises were sweet. The fate of my soul was still undecided, and the darkness saw the possibility of a small triumph in claiming me.
I sensed that I was not yet sufficiently corrupted to belong down in the darkness. What I had done to Phu might be seen as the mere enactment of long-overdue justice, for he was a man who deserved no rewards in either this world or the next. And allowing Dalcoe to proceed to his predestined doom ahead of schedule would probably not condemn me to Perdition.
But whom might I be tempted to lure to the cellar after Horace Dalcoe? How many and how often? Each time, the option would get easier to take. Sooner or later, I would find myself using the cellar to rid myself of people who were only minor nuisances. Some of them a might be borderline cases, people deserving of Hell but with a chance of salvation, and by hurrying them along, I would be denying them the opportunity to mend their ways and remake their lives. Their damnation would be partly my responsibility. Then I too would be lost ... and the darkness would rise up the stairs and come into the house and take me when it wished.
Below, that sludge-thick distillation of a billion moonless nights whispered to me, whispered.
I stepped back and closed the door.
It did not vanish.
Dalcoe, I thought desperately, why have you been such a bastard? Why have you made me hate you?
Darkness dwells within even the best of us. In the worst of us, darkness not only dwells but reigns.
I am a good man. A hard worker. A loving and faithful husband. A stern but doting father. A good man.
Yet I have human failings—not the least of which is a taste for vengeance. Part of the price that I have paid is the death of my innocence in Vietnam. There, I learned that great evil exists in the world, not in the abstract but in the flesh, and when evil men tortured me, I was contaminated by the contact. I developed a thirst for vengeance.
I tell myself that I dare not succumb to the easy solutions offered by the cellar. Where would it stop? Someday, after sending a score of men and women into the lightless chamber below, I would be so thoroughly corrupted that it would be easy to use the cellar for what had previously seemed unthinkable. For instance, what if Carmen and I had an argument? Would I devolve to the point where I could ask her to explore those lower regions with me? What if my children displeased me as, God knows, children frequently do? Where would I draw the line? And would the line be constantly redrawn?
I am a good man.
Although occasionally providing darkness with a habitat, I have never provided it with a kingdom.
I am a good man.
But the temptation is great.
I have begun to prepare a list of people who have, at one time or another, made my life difficult. I don't intend to do anything about them, of course. The list is merely a game. I will make it and then tear it to pieces and flush the pieces down the toilet.
I am a good man.
This list means nothing.
The cellar door will stay closed forever.
I will not open it again.
I swear by all that's holy.
I am a good man.
The list is longer than I had expected.
THE JULY NIGHT WAS HOT. THE AIR AGAINST OLLIE'S PALMS MADE HIM aware of the discomfort of the city's sweltering residents: millions of people wishing for winter.
Even in the cruelest weather, however, even on a bitterly cold night filled with dry January wind, Ollie's hands would have been soft, moist, warm—and sensitive. His thin fingers were tapered in an extraordinary manner. When he gripped anything, his fingers seemed to fuse with the surface of the object. When he let it go, the release was like a sigh.
Every night, regardless of the season, Ollie visited the unlighted alleyway behind Staznik's Restaurant, where he searched for the accidentally discarded silverware in the three large overflowing garbage bins. Because Staznik himself believed in quality, and because his prices were high, the tableware was expensive enough to make Ollie's undignified rooting worthwhile. Every two weeks, he managed to sense out enough pieces to constitute a matched set, which he sold to one of several used-furniture stores in exchange for wine money.
Recovered tableware was only one source of his funds. In his own way, Ollie was a clever man.
On that Tuesday night early in July, his cleverness was tested to its limits. When he made his nightly trip into the alley to sense out the knives, forks, and spoons, he found instead the unconscious girl.
She was lying against the last Dumpster, face toward the brick wall, eyes closed, hands drawn across her small br**sts as if she were a sleeping child. Her cheap, tight, short dress revealed that she was no child; her pale flesh glimmered like a soft flame viewed through smoked glass. Otherwise, Ollie could not see much of her.
"Miss?" he asked, leaning toward her.
She didn't respond. She didn't move.
He knelt beside her, shook her, but was unable to wake her. When he rolled her onto her back to look at her face, something rattled. Striking a match, he discovered that she had been curled against the paraphernalia of a junkie's habit: syringe, charred spoon, metal cup, half-used candle, several packets of white powder wrapped in plastic and then in foil.
He might have left her and continued searching for spoons—he didn't like or understand snowbirds, being strictly a man of spirits himself—but the match flame revealed her face and thereby ensured his concern. She had a broad forehead, well-set eyes, a pert and freckled nose, full lips that somehow promised both erotic pleasure and childlike innocence. When the match went out and the darkness rushed in again, Ollie knew that he could not leave her there, for she was the most beautiful person he had ever seen.
"Miss?" he asked, shaking her shoulder again.
She did not respond.
He looked toward both ends of the alleyway, but he did not see anyone who might misinterpret his intentions. Thus assured, he bent close to her and felt for a heartbeat, found a weak one, held his moist palm close to her nostrils, and detected the barest exhalation of warm breath. She was alive.
He stood and wiped his palms on his rumpled, dirty trousers, cast one mournful glance at the unplumbed bins of waste, then lifted her. She weighed little, and he carried her in his arms like a groom crossing the threshold with his bride, although he gave no thought to the carnal aspect of the ritual. Heart pounding with the unaccustomed exertion, he took her to the far end of the alley, hurried across the deserted avenue, and disappeared into the mouth of another unlighted back-street.