Page 26


She didn’t want to die.


However, although the odds of her leaving the house alive were, at best, only fifty-fifty, she couldn’t stay in the bedroom indefinitely. She had no water, no food. Besides, if she didn’t get out of’ here in the next few minutes, she might be too late to be of any help to Carol.


If Carol is killed simply because I lack the courage to face that damned cat, she thought, then I might as well be dead anyway.


She switched off the two safeties on the pistol.


She got up and went to the door.


For nearly a minute she stood with one ear pressed to the door, listening for scratching noises or other indications that Aristophanes was nearby. She heard nothing.


Holding the pistol in her right hand, she used her bloody, claw-torn left hand to turn the knob. She opened the door with the utmost caution, half an inch at a time, expecting the cat to dart through the opening the instant it was wide enough to admit him. But he didn’t.


Finally, reluctantly, she poked her head out into the hall. Looked left. Right.


The cat wasn’t anywhere in sight.


She stepped into the hail and paused, afraid to move away from the bedroom door.


Go! she told herself angrily. Move your ass, Gracie!


She took a step toward the head of the stairs. Then another step. Trying to be quiet.


The stairs appeared to be a mile away.


She looked behind her.


Still no Aristophanes.


Another step.


This was going to be the longest walk she had ever taken.


Paul latched his suitcase, picked it up, turned away from the bed—and jumped, startled, when the entire house shook as if a wrecker’s ball had struck the side of it.


THUNK!


He looked up at the ceiling.


THUNK! THUNK! THUNK!


During the past five days there had been no hammering to disturb the peace. He hadn’t entirely forgotten about it, of course; he still occasionally wondered where that mysterious sound had come from. For the most part, however, he had put it out of his mind; there had been other things to worry about. But now— THUNK! THUNK! THUNK!


The nerve-fraying noise reverberated in the windows and bounced off the walls. It seemed to vibrate in Paul’s teeth and bones, too.


THUNK!


After spending days trying to identify the source of that sound, understanding came to him unexpectedly, in a flash. It was an ax. It was not a hammering, which was how he had been thinking of it. No. There was a sharp edge to it, a brittle, cracking quality at the end of each blow. It was a chopping sound.


THUNK!


Being able to identify the noise did absolutely nothing to help him understand where it was coming from.


So it was an ax instead of a hammer. So what? He still couldn’t make sense of it. Why were the blows shaking the entire house? It would have to be the mythical Paul Bunyan’s ax to have such a tremendous impact. And regardless of whether it was a hammer or an ax or even, for Christ’s sake, a salami, how could the sound of it issue from thin air?


Suddenly, inexplicably, he thought of the meat cleaver that Louise Parker had buried in the throat of her maniacal daughter back in 1905. He thought about the freakish lightning strikes at Alfred O’Brian’s office; the strange intruder he had seen on the rear lawn during the thunderstorm that evening; the Scrabble game two nights ago (BLADE, BLOOD, DEATH, TOMB, KILL, CAROL); Grace’s two prophetic dreams. And he knew beyond doubt—without understanding how he knew—that the sound of the ax was the thread that sewed together all these recent extraordinary events. Intuitively, he knew that an ax would be the instrument by which Carol’s life would be endangered. He didn’t know how. He didn’t know why. But he knew.


THUNK! THUNK!


A painting popped off its wall hook and clattered to the floor.


The river of blood in Paul’s veins turned winter-cold.


He had to get to the cabin. Fast.


He started toward the bedroom door, and it slammed shut in front of him. No one had touched it. There had been no sudden draft that might have moved it. One moment the door was standing wide Open, and the next instant it was flung shut as if it had been shoved hard by an invisible hand.


Out of the corner of his eye, Paul saw something move. Heart banging, breath trapped in his constricted throat, he twisted around toward the movement and instinctively raised his suitcase to partially shield himself.


One of the two heavy, mirrored closet doors was sliding open. He expected someone to step out of the closet, but when the door was all the way open, he could see nothing in there except clothes on hangers.


Then it slid shut, and the other door slid open. Then both of them started sliding at the same time, one crossing behind the other, back and forth, back and forth on their silent plastic wheels.


THUNK! THUNK!


A lamp crashed over on one of the nightstands.


Another painting fell off the wall.


THUNK!


On the dresser, two porcelain figurines—a ballerina and her male dancing partner—began to circle one another, almost as if they had come to life and were performing for Paul. They moved slowly at first, then faster, faster, until they were swept into the air and tossed halfway across the room and dashed to the floor.


***


The cabin was constructed of logs and was nestled in the cool shadows beneath the trees. it had a long, covered, screened porch out front and an excellent view of the lake.


It was one of ninety vacation cabins tucked into the scenic mountain valley, each on an acre or half-acre of its own. They were all built along the south shore of the lake and were reachable only by way of a private, gated, gravel-surfaced road that curved around the water. Some of the cabins were made of logs, like the one Paul and Carol had bought, but there were also white clapboard New England models, modern A-frames, and a few that resembled small Swiss chalets.


At the end of her own graveled drive, which branched off the community road, Carol parked the car near the front door of the cabin. She and Jane got out and stood for a moment in companionable silence, listening to the stillness, breathing the wonderfully fresh air.


“It’s lovely,” Jane said at last.


“Isn’t it, though?”


“So quiet.”


“It isn’t always. Not when most of the cabins are in use. But right now there’s probably no one here except Peg and Vince Gervis.”


“Who’re they?” Jane asked.


“The caretakers. The homeowner’s association pays their salaries. They live year-round in the last cabin, out at the end of the lake. In the off season, they run a couple of inspection tours every day, just keeping a lookout for fire and vandals and whatnot. Nice people.”


Above the distant north shore of the lake, lightning blazed across the malevolent sky. A clap of thunder fell from the clouds and rolled across the water.


“We better get the suitcases and the food out of the car before we have to unload everything in the rain,” Carol said.


Grace expected to be attacked on the stairs, for that was where she would find it most difficult to defend herself. If the cat frightened her and caused her to lose her balance, she might fall. If she fell, she would probably break a leg or a hip, and while she was temporarily stunned by the shock and pain of the fall, the cat would be all over her, tearing, biting. Therefore, she descended the stairs sideways, with her back against the wail, so she could look both ahead and behind.


But Aristophanes did not show up. Grace reached the downstairs hail without incident.


She looked both ways along the hail.


To reach the front door, she had to pass the open door of the study and the archway that led to the living room. The cat could bolt out of either place as she was passing by and could leap for her face before she would have time to spot him, aim the pistol, and pull the trigger.


To reach the other door, the one at the back of the house, she had to go right, along the hallway, past the open dining room door, into the kitchen. That route didn’t look any less dangerous.


The rock and the hard place, she thought unhappily. The devil and the deep blue sea.


Then she remembered that her car keys were in the kitchen, hanging on the pegboard beside the back door, and that settled it. She would have to leave through the kitchen.


She moved cautiously along the hall until she came to a wall mirror, beneath which stood a narrow, decorative table. There were two tail vases on the table, bracketing the mirror. She picked up one of them in her injured left hand and sidled toward the open dining room door.


She paused before reaching the doorway, listened.


Silence.


She leaned forward and risked her eyes by peering into the dining room. She could not see any sign of the cat. That didn’t mean it wasn’t in there, The drapes were half drawn, and the day was gloomy; there were lots of shadows, many places where a cat could hide.


For the purpose of creating a diversion in the- event that Aristophanes was in one of those shadows, Grace pitched the vase inside. As it landed with a loud crash, she stepped across the threshold just far enough to grasp the doorknob, then pulled the door shut as she backed quickly into the hallway again. Now, if the cat was in there, it would bloody well have to stay in there.


She heard no noise from the dining room, which probably meant she hadn’t managed to trap the elusive beast. If he’d been in there, he would have been squealing with rage and scratching at the inside of the closed door by now. Most likely, she had only wasted time and energy with her little trick. But at least there was now one downstairs room to which she could turn her back with impunity.


Repeatedly glancing left and right, forward and back, she crept to the kitchen door, hesitated, then stepped through it, the gun thrust out in front of her. She looked the room over slowly, thoroughly, before venturing farther. The small table and chairs. The humming refrigerator. The dangling, cat-chewed phone cord. The gleaming chrome fixtures on the oven. The double sinks. The white countertops. The small countertop wine rack. The cookie jar and the breadbox lined up beside the wine.


Nothing moved.


The refrigerator motor shut off, and the subsequent quiet was deep, unbroken.


Okay, she thought. Grit your teeth and move, Gracie.


She walked silently across the room, her eyes sweeping every niche, every nook: the opening under the built-in writing desk, the narrow space beside the refrigerator, the blind spot beyond the end of one row of cabinets. No cat.


Maybe I hurt him worse than I thought I did, she told herself hopefully. Maybe I didn’t just lame the bastard. Maybe he crawled away and died.


She reached the back door.


She didn’t dare breathe for fear her own breathing would mask whatever furtive sounds the cat might make.


A ring of keys, including those for the car, hung on a small oval pegboard beside the door. She slipped it off the hook.


She reached for the doorknob.


The cat hissed.


Grace cried out involuntarily and swung her head to the right, in the direction of the sound.


She was standing at one end of the long row of cabinets. At the far end, the wine rack and the bread-box and the cookie jar were lined up side by side; she had seen them from a front-on angle when she had first come into the room. Now she had a side view. From this angle she saw something she couldn’t have seen from in front: The cookie jar and breadbox, which usually rested snug against the wall behind the counter, had been moved out a few inches. The cat had squeezed in behind those two objects, muscling them slowly out of its way. It had crouched in that hiding place, its butt against the wine rack, facing out toward the kitchen door. It was approximately twelve feet from her, and then it wasn’t even that far away because it launched itself across the counter, hissing.


The confrontation was over in a few seconds, but during those seconds, time seemed to slow to a crawl, and Grace felt as if she were trapped in a slow-motion film. She stumbled backwards, away from the counter and the cat, but she didn’t get far before she collided with a wall; as she moved, she raised the gun and fired two rounds in quick succession. The cookie jar exploded, and wood chips flew off one of the cabinet doors. But the cat kept coming, coming, in slow-motion strides across the slippery tile countertop, its mouth gaping and its fangs bared. She realized that hitting such a small, quick target was not easy, even at such short range as this. She fired again, but she knew the gun was wavering in her hand, and she wasn’t surprised when she heard the bullet ricochet— making a high, piercing eeeee—off something wide of the mark. To her terror-heightened perceptions, the echoes of the ricochet continued to infinity: eeeee, eeeee, eeeee, eeeee, eeeee.... Then the cat reached the end of the counter and leapt into the air, and Grace flied again. This time she hit the mark. The cat yelped. The bullet had sufficient impact to deflect the animal only an instant before it would have landed, scratching and biting, on her face. It was pitched back and to the left as if it were a bundle of rags. It slammed into the kitchen door and dropped stonelike to the floor, where it lay silent and motionless


***


Paul couldn’t decide what the poltergeist intended to accomplish by its impressive displays of power. He didn’t know whether or not he had anything to fear


from it. Was it trying to delay him, trying to keep him here until it was too late for him to help Carol? Or perhaps it was urging him on, trying its best to convince him that he must go to the cabin immediately.


Still holding the suitcase in one hand, he approached the bedroom door that had been flung shut by the unseen presence. As he reached for the knob, the door began to rattle in its frame—gently at first, then fiercely.


Thunk... thunk.. . thunk... TRUNK!


He jerked his hand back, unsure what he ought to do.


THUNK!


The sound of the ax was coming from the door now, not from overhead, as it had been. Although the solid-core, raised-panel, fir door was a formidable barrier rather than just a flimsy Masonite model, it shook violently and then cracked down the middle as if it were constructed of balsa wood.


Paul backed away from it.


Another crack appeared, parallel to the first, and chips of wood flew into the room.


Sliding closet doors and flying porcelain figurines might be the work of a poltergeist, but this was something else again. Surely no spirit could chop apart a heavy door like this. There had to be someone swinging a very real ax against the other side.


Paul felt defenseless. He scanned the room for makeshift weapons, but he saw nothing useful.


The .38 revolver was in the suitcase. He wouldn’t be able to get to it in time to defend himself with it, and he wished fervently that he had kept the gun in his hand.


THUNKTHUNKTHUNKTHUNK!


The bedroom door exploded inward in half a dozen large pieces and countless smaller chunks and scraps.


He threw one arm over his face to protect his eyes. Wood rained down on all sides of him.


***

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