But when the door opened and Walt saw the look on the poor, stricken woman's face, he forgot all about the coffee. He searched for a word in his own mind, some way to describe the pale face and hollow eyes, the lost and searching gaze. And then he found it. Emily Randall looked haunted. As if all the ghosts of her life had visited her in the night, and now she could barely face the day without expecting a new specter to arise.
"Mrs. Randall, do you remember me?" Walt asked her. "Detective Sarbacker?"
Her eyes cleared a moment, and she opened the door further. "Yes, Detective. Thanks for coming so early. I . . . I need to speak with you."
She glanced momentarily down at the Dunkin' Donuts bag, and Walt felt suddenly very self-conscious, almost stupid, for having it in his hand. He held it up, almost as an offering.
"I brought us coffee," he said lamely. "After the shock you had last night, I thought you might need a cup."
Mrs. Randall gamely attempted a smile then and failed miserably. "I think I'm long past coffee, Detective. But thanks for the thought."
Then she turned and walked into her home, her vulnerable and violated home, and left Walt to shut the door behind them and follow her in. In the living room, she sat on a sofa and gestured for him to take a chair opposite her.
"I think my ex-husband was right," she said, without preamble. "I think there is a stalker, someone obsessed somehow with Strangewood, and I think he's the one responsible for what's been done to Nathan and to Thomas."
Walt felt a sadness overtake him, and he struggled not to let it show.
"Before we get into that, Mrs. Randall . . "
"Call me Emily."
"Emily. Before we get to that, I know you've already given a statement about last night, but I'd like to hear it directly from you, if you don't mind. Everything you can think of."
She blinked, paused, and then told him, beginning to end, her version of the events of the early hours of that morning. The part Walt hadn't heard already was the episode of the previous morning, at the apartment of the man she was seeing. Her tone of voice indicated she expected him to be judgmental about that relationship, but Walt kept silent. Then there was her certainty that someone had been following her.
"I sound paranoid, I know," she said. "And maybe I am. Maybe I should go see someone. But it's all too coincidental."
Walt agreed. But he had to wonder if some of the coincidences might not be imaginary. He didn't voice this possibility, though. No need to agitate the woman.
"Well?" she demanded. "What do you think?"
After a long sip of his coffee, Walt sat forward and forced the woman to meet his eyes.
"I'm going to be frank with you, Emily," he told her. But he was lying. He was only going to be as frank as he thought she could handle.
"Please do," she replied, somewhat defensively.
"Our investigative team that was here this morning picked up hair and blood samples, and some fingerprints as well. If this guy has ever been picked up for anything, anywhere in the free world, we should be able to identify him. If he hasn't, we don't stand a chance in hell if he just goes away."
Emily chuckled darkly. "He isn't going away, Detective."
"Call me Walt," Sarbacker offered. "All we can do, at this point, is have a prowl car make regular passes by your house and notify hospital security that you might be in danger so that when you're there, we have extra eyes looking after you."
The misery in Emily's face was obvious. Walt felt it echoed somewhat in himself. After what this poor woman had been through recently, he began to feel very profoundly that he needed to do something to keep her from suffering any further.
Walt Sarbacker was not a man who got personal with his cases. In fact, until now, it wasn't really much of a case. But he was a human being, and this woman had already lost so much.
"As to your theory," he told her, "I've talked to the doctors about your ex and your son. Neither of their medical conditions indicates foul play of any kind. More than likely, this was all just a simple burglary, and the guy won't be back. But if there is some kind of stalker out there with a thing for your ex-husband's work, it doesn't have anything to do with what's happened to Mr. Randall, or to Nathan.
"If that makes all of this more difficult for you, I'm sorry. But there's just no connection. On the other hand . . ." Walt paused, realized he was straying, and shook his head.
"What?" Emily asked.
"Nothing. No relation to the case."
"What?" she repeated, this time as a demand.
Walt shrugged. "Well, according to Dr. Gershmann, there has apparently been some kind of connection between Thomas and Nathan's conditions. Something to do with brainwaves."
The woman's eyes went wide. "But . . . they told me there was no similarity. They . . ." she stared at Walt. "Look, Detective, the doctors obviously don't know their asses from their elbows. Something's going on here. They don't know why Nathan hasn't woken up. Now there's some kind of relationship to what's happened to Thomas . . ."
"Your ex-husband tried to kill himself, Emily," Walt said bluntly.
When the woman winced, he felt nauseous.
"I'm sorry," he said. "But it's true."
"Maybe," she said. "But in his whole life, Thomas Randall never did anything halfway. I can't imagine he'd fuck up something as simple as suicide."
"The medical oddities you'll have to take up with Dr. Cardiff or Dr. Gershmann," Walt said, trying to rein the conversation in. "I'm here to tell you that, whatever they are, they have no correlation to what happened here this morning."
Emily stared at him a long moment before dropping her head and sighing. "I know you're probably right. No. I know you are right. But it's just . . . all the logic in the world can't take away how weird this all is. I feel like, even with all the terrible things that have happened, it's all just a part of something else. Like something really horrible is going to happen, and there isn't anything I can do about it."
Walt opened his mouth, then closed it again. He didn't have a response for that.
* * * * *
In the cold, drafty stone of the fortress of the Jackal Lantern, Grumbler stood in the corridor outside Nathan's cell. Even from out here, he could hear the boy's soft snoring. As gently as he was able, he unbarred the door and opened it. The dwarf in the pinstriped suit noted an odd new weight to the guns he wore under his arms as he stepped into Nathan's room. Instruments of death, they were. Always had been. But now, for some reason, they felt foreign to him.
Atop the filthy blanket, shivering in the deep chill of the seeping stone, Nathan lay sleeping. His naked body was covered with deep, angry purple and black bruises. Blood was caked beneath his nose and there was a recent splash of red on the blanket beneath him that Grumbler could not see the source of. The boy began to hack and cough in his sleep, and a bit of blood dribbled out of his mouth and down across his cheek.
His gut and his heart as cold as the fortress tone, Grumbler stepped back into the hall and retrieved a heavy fur blanket he had carried from his own chambers. With a quick glance about him to be certain he was not watched, he re-entered the boy's cell and draped the fur over him.
Grumbler's stomach churned as he noted the stench coming off the boy. Blood and filth and illness — all were part of that odor. But there was something else there. Something darker. Something coming very soon, coming to take the boy away from here, to save him in a way that Grumbler himself could not.
The dwarf looked at him, at the sweet, jaundiced, pained face of a boy not yet six years old. He was just a boy.
"I'm sorry, Nathan," he whispered. "It wasn't supposed to be like this."
In his sleep, Nathan's entire body spasmed once, and a ripple of awareness passed over his features.
"Daddy," the boy whimpered. Then his face went slack once more and sleep claimed him again.
Grumbler watched him another moment, unable to speak another word. After a time, he left Nathan to his illness, and his cell.
But, he thought, at least the boy wasn't cold anymore.
The forest thinned out as Thomas and his traveling companions approached the Up-River. Here, in the northeast region of Strangewood, the river was bordered with a wide expanse of glittering sandy shore, and the water moved more leisurely than in other areas in its meandering circle around the wood.
Tinklebum didn't like the sand. He complained vociferously about the manner in which it slid from beneath his feet and pushed between his toes. Brownie was unhappy about it as well. The shifting sand was a poor surface should he be inspired to dance. Thomas ignored their complaints. The bell-bottom wasn't quite sane, and the bear hadn't been in much of a dancing mood, at least since Thomas had arrived in Strangewood.
They had other problems to deal with. Saying as much, Thomas had set off up the shoreline toward the Bald Mountains in the distance, and the others had followed, in spite of the shifting sands. Far off to the south, the sky above the wood began to lighten. It would be dawn soon. Thomas would be glad for the sunshine.
The sky was a textured azure today, with streaks of yellow and green that might have been shifting strings of cloud, or merely the whimsy of the air. The breeze off the river was a bit chilly and Thomas shivered a little. It made him recall the many trips he had taken here in the past, both awake, as he was now, and in dreams, as he had done for so many years. He didn't recall ever being cold before. Not in Strangewood. It wasn't a place where discomfort — real discomfort — had ever been particularly welcome. All of that had changed now. Possibly forever.
Thomas knew, in any case, that it wasn't really all that cold. Where he had come from, where he belonged, it was still a steamy, scalding July. In Strangewood, it seemed to be perpetually autumn. Early autumn, but just at that moment where, as beautiful as everything was, the air shimmered with the foreknowledge of the moment, coming too soon, when everything would begin to wither and die; a fleeting moment, preserved forever. Or so he had thought, once upon a time. Forever, it seemed, was not as eternal a concept as he had always believed.
They walked westward for several hours, along the sandy banks of the wide river as it curled at the outer edges of Strangewood. Though Thomas had expected Mr. Tinklebum to be a constant source of whining complaints, the bell-bottom was — save for the bonging of his tummy — oddly silent. Perhaps, Thomas thought, the gravity of their situation had finally reached him, a creature who had lost his entire race in a single blaze.
To a single enemy.
With that thought, Thomas glanced over at Tinklebum's face, saw a cold glint in his eye, and realized that there might be more sanity in the little lavender man than he'd thought. A lust for vengeance did not expressly dictate insanity after all. He began to think of Tinklebum differently after that.
They reached a stretch of shore that was quite rocky. A small jetty had been built thrusting out into the river, but there was no sign of any vessel. Nor, Thomas found as he glanced into the wood off to their left, was there any sign of a dwelling. No sign of life at all, save for that jetty.
A curious thing, he thought.
After the span of rocky bank, they rounded a corner, and there above them, though still far ahead, were the Bald Mountains. Thomas paused a moment, staring up at the windswept peaks with an overwhelming mixture of emotions: fear, anger, anticipation. And a deep, abiding sadness, as he wondered once again how it had all come down to this.
"There it is, then," said Brownie, and halfheartedly danced a little jig. There was a certain cynicism, even sarcasm, to the dance that Thomas could not respond to.
"Perhaps we ought to rest a few minutes before continuing on?" he suggested.
"True enough," Tinklebum chimed in. "I could use a washout, and a drink, for that matter."
The bell-bottom waddled, clapper bonging all the way down to the river's edge. Without preamble, he simply leaped from the river bank into the water, and sank like a stone. A large air bubble gurgled to the surface, displaced, perhaps, by the open bell shape of his body.
"I suppose I could use a drink," Brownie agreed, but as he moved to the water's edge, his eyes kept returning to the forbidding peaks of the Bald Mountains.
A silent communication seemed to pass between them. A desperate sense of imminent destiny that brought Thomas up short and had him staring at the grizzly. From the expression on the bear's face, Thomas was certain that he felt it too.
"It won't be long," Brownie said grimly.
"No. Tomorrow morning, I should think," Thomas observed.
Neither of them said a word after that. Brownie crouched at the edge of the river and dipped his huge head down to drink. Thomas removed his shoes and rolled up the legs of his pants and tentatively put one foot into the chilly water. It was cold, but it felt good, the current sweeping over the fine hairs on his leg and his foot sinking into the sand beneath the water. The sand would give way to real silt only a few more inches into the river, he knew. The sand itself should not have been there, but Thomas never questioned anything in Strangewood. There were certain things, such as that sand, that had seemed out of place to him even the first time he'd visited this odd, other place.
But there it was. Beneath his feet and real as every nerve and synapse knew it to be. For all that it could not be, Strangewood was as real as the world Thomas had been born into. In many ways, he'd often thought, it was more real. More . . . the word escaped him a moment, but eventually seemed to flutter back into his mind. It was even more normal than the world of his birth.
Several minutes had passed since Tinklebum had dropped beneath the surface, but Thomas and Brownie were not terribly concerned for him. The bell bottom was not going to float, and he was most certainly not going to be able to swim. So it was with no surprise at all that Brownie and Thomas heard a cling-clang clatter from down along the shore — admittedly somewhat muted as Tinklebum was a bit waterlogged as yet — and looked up to see the bell bottom moving toward them once more. Despite his girth, the hollowness of his body had naturally caused the current to drag him a short way downstream, back the way they'd come.