Page 26

Yet apparently no guns had been fired.


Silence pooled fathoms deep. She held her breath, listened, but her ears might as well have been stoppled by a mile of ocean.


She kicked gently at some buttons. They rattled away from her shoe, across the floor planks, proving that she had not been struck deaf.


Wristwatches had been cast away. Sparkling on tables and across the floor were the warmth of gold, the chill of silver: necklaces, lockets, bracelets, rings.


Mystified as to what had happened, Molly could only suppose that the thirty to forty missing people had been forced to strip against their will. Because she had known several of them and because those she’d known had been people of common modesty, she couldn’t conceive of any situation in which they would have disrobed willingly.


Yet no guns had been fired.


So…perhaps a shared madness had seized them, resulting from the unwitting intake of a psychosis-inducing toxin.


Certain rarely encountered exotic molds, including one that made its home in corn, could cause visual and auditory hallucinations, and an entire community could be swept up in the resultant mass hysteria. Some believe this—and not merely religious fanaticism—to be the root cause of the Salem witch trials, for they occurred in the season of the mold.


Molds were a class of fungi, and fungi appeared to constitute a more significant phylum of the invading extraterrestrial ecology than they did in Earth’s natural order.


Toxins produced by alien fungi might induce delusions, shared hallucinations, and mass hysteria of a kind and an intensity new to human experience. Temporary psychosis. Enduring madness. Perhaps even homicidal frenzy.


On the tables and on the floor were broken beer bottles. Corona. Heineken. Dos Equis.


Some appeared to have been broken not by accident but with the intent to create weapons. The long neck of a Corona made a serviceable hilt, while the broken body of the bottle provided multiple jagged blades.


On one of these lacerating weapons, Molly found blood. Then on another. And a third. Still wet.


Arterial spatters stained a few articles of discarded clothing, though the modest volume didn’t indicate wholesale slaughter or even much of a battle.


As many as forty people were missing. Evidently naked. But…alive? Dead? Where?


Once more Molly held her breath, willed herself to listen through the adamant knocking of her heart, but again she heard nothing.


At the back of the large public room, past all the tables, lay the hallway to the men’s and women’s lavatories. To the right of the hallway, in the back wall of this main chamber, waited a door marked EMPLOYEES ONLY.


The candlelight in this forward area of the tavern, where the townspeople had been gathered, did not much relieve the shadows at the back of the big room. Yet because of flickering light beyond it, she could see that the door, which had previously been closed, stood a quarter open.


She didn’t relish further exploration alone, accompanied by only a host of horrific expectations.


Considering that the rest of her days were likely to be lived in a tangle of enigmas and unfathomables, she could live without knowing the answer to this one mystery. Although she was an inquiring person by nature, it seemed clear that the price of curiosity in this case would be the same for her as for the fabled cat.


One thing kept her from retreating. Cassie.


If the girl still lived, she was somewhere in peril and great distress. She could not be abandoned.


Perhaps coincidence accounted for the fact that Cassie’s hair was blond, as had been Rebecca Rose’s hair, that her eyes were blue, as had been Rebecca Rose’s eyes.


All of her life, however, Molly had believed that there were no coincidences. She was not going to start believing in them now.


In all things, she saw design, though often the meaning of it was difficult to discern. Sometimes it was damn near impossible. As here, as now.


During the writing of a novel, when she came to trust in the reality of her characters, they began to act of their own volition, doing things that charmed, intrigued, and appalled her. Allowing them free will, she rejoiced in their wise choices and in their triumphs, was saddened by their stupidities, meannesses, and often grieved when they suffered or died. In the interest of their self-determination, she chronicled rather than created the events of their lives, seldom pulled their strings, and generally offered them only gentle guidance through signs and portents that they either understood and acted upon or, to their misfortune, refused to recognize.


Here, alone under the roof of the Tail of the Wolf, she hoped for gentle guidance, and if she failed to recognize it when it was given to her, or misinterpreted it, she hoped for some vigorous pulling of strings on her behalf.


The issue was not whether she should retreat or go forward. She could not retreat. She knew her role. She rescued children; she did not abandon them.


If Cassie had been a brunette, with no resemblance to Rebecca Rose, Molly still could not have walked away from her. The question wasn’t whether or not to rescue the girl but how best to find her and extract her from this place.


At the back of the public area, the EMPLOYEES ONLY door stood ajar. In the room beyond, flickering light seemed to beckon her.


Maybe this was guidance. Maybe it was a trap.


46


BROODING ABOUT THE DOOR, KEEPING A watch on it, Molly walked to the end of the bar. She opened the gate and peered into the narrow service area where Russell Tewkes had worked the taps and mixed the cocktails.


She probed with her flashlight. No one crouched there among the brittle, bristling ruins of the shattered back-bar mirror.


A sludge of darkness filled the hall that led to the lavatories. Her beam washed it away, revealing no one.


She considered investigating the rest rooms. The prospect didn’t thrill her.


She worried about what size the black fungus had achieved. What capabilities might it possess?


In the women’s room, she had never closed the window following Render’s departure. Anything might have crept in from this goblin night. In that tight space, the three closed stall doors would offer the challenge of three spring-loaded lids on jack-in-the-boxes packed with surprises designed in Hell.


Besides, the two lavatories together could not have accommodated forty people. She didn’t expect to find them in small groups, whether dead or alive, but in one place.


Here again she felt the truth of being at the still point of the turning world, with past and future gathered in the moment.


Although she had resisted this knowledge all her life, had lived determinedly in the future, focused there by ambition, she understood at last that this was the real condition of humanity: The dance of life occurred not yesterday or tomorrow, but only here at the still point that was the present. This truth is simple, self-evident, but difficult to accept, for we sentimentalize the past and wallow in it, while we endure the moment and in every waking hour dream of the future.


What Molly had done thus far in her life was the history of her soul, unalterable, ineradicable. What she hoped to do in the future was of no meaning if she failed to do the wise thing, the good thing, moment by moment by moment, here at the still point, here in the dance of life.


Cassie. Finding Cassie. Moment by moment by moment, finding Cassie, the past would be made, and the future.


With pistol, with flashlight, with trepidation, she cautiously approached the door.


Through the open wedge, she saw six or eight candles in glass globes, deposited on the floor. Salamanders of apricot light crawled the walls.


She nudged the door with one foot, and it swung smoothly inward on well-oiled hinges.


Candlelight revealed no occupants. Neither did the flashlight when, from the threshold, she swept the space with it.


Beyond lay what appeared to be a receiving room measuring approximately twelve by fifteen feet. Windowless. Gray tile floor with a drain in the center. Bare concrete walls.


A wide steel door directly opposite the one in which she stood would open to the alleyway behind the tavern. Cases of beer, liquor, wine, and other supplies had been delivered through it.


In the wall to her right, reflections of candle flames purled in the brushed stainless-steel doors of an elevator.


The tavern didn’t have a second floor. The elevator transported supplies down to the basement.


In the wall to her left stood another door, ajar. Logic insisted that she would find basement stairs beyond it.


Between the doorway in which she stood and the basement door, the flashlight beam detailed a trail of wet blood on gray concrete: not a river of gore, just patterns of droplets intact and droplets smeared.


With no electrical service, they had not taken the elevator down to whatever madness waited to be discovered below. Whether under duress or of their own accord, though in either case surely in the grip of unimaginable terror, they had descended the narrow passage in single file, na*ed and bleeding.


A chill walked the stairs of Molly’s spine as she considered that strange procession and wondered what ceremony or savagery had occupied those people in the cellar.


She glanced back into the deserted tavern. Nothing had changed.


Trying to avoid as much of the blood as possible, she stepped off the threshold and followed the beam of her flashlight along the trail that her neighbors had so recently marked with sanguinary clarity.


The brass doorknob, once shiny, was patinaed with blood from uncounted trembling hands. She toed the door open toward her, into the receiving room.


Beyond this threshold lay a small landing, pale wood stippled with crimson. She hesitated to set foot upon it, leaned through the doorway instead.


A cold draft rose past her, redolent of a scent that she had never before encountered and that she would have been hard-pressed to describe. It was not a foul smell, in fact not even unpleasant, and yet disturbing.


A cramped flight of steep wooden steps descended to a lower landing, from which a second and shorter flight turned left into the cellar.


Apparently, they had taken no candles beyond the receiving room. Only the flashlight brightened the stairs.


The thought of her neighbors’ blind descent struck such pity in Molly that her knees weakened.


O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark.


She could not see the last few treads of the lower flight. The cellar lay entirely beyond her view, and she could not angle the beam in any way to illuminate that space.


Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.


Easier said than done. Fear half throttled Molly, and she had not yet entered the walled and stepped valley before her.


To learn the fate of those who had marked this route with their blood, to discover if Cassie was alive—and the whereabouts of her three guardian dogs—Molly would have to go down at least as far as the lower landing. Once there, she could stoop to the best vantage and with her flashlight pierce the darkness in the lower chamber.


She couldn’t decide whether this was a test of her courage or of her wisdom. Under the circumstances, prudence might be the good thing, the right thing; but how difficult it was, in the quick, to tell the difference between prudence and cowardice.


Not the faintest murmur rose with the curiously scented draft. Not a sigh. Not a cough. Not a whimper. Not a word of whispered prayer.


With forty people pressed into a cold storeroom, a sound or two of discomfort might be expected, an agitated movement motivated by distress.


Although the thunder of forty fearful hearts might be entirely contained in forty breasts, surely the frightened breathing of so many would raise a betraying susurration. Not all of them would be holding their breath simultaneously, waiting for Molly to stop holding hers.


Yet, coiled in a stillness deeper than mere silence, the tavern cellar waited in a hush.


Her mouth seemed too dry for speech, but she worked up a simple question: “Cassie?”


The cellar took in the name and gave nothing back.


Sweat as cold as ice water trickled along her right temple and curled around her ear.


She raised her voice because she had previously spoken in little more than a whisper: “Cassie?”


A response came not from the girl, not from the realm below, but from the receiving room behind Molly: “I can bite, but I can’t cut.”


47


CROUCH, PIVOT, POINT, SQUEEZE, ALL IN ONE fluid action: Molly did the first three, checked herself halfway through the trigger squeeze, and did not shoot the woman.


Clarinetist, lover of swing music, waitress at Benson’s Good Eats, twentysomething, dark-haired, gray-eyed, Angie Boteen stood in the receiving room, naked, holding a broken Corona bottle by the neck.


“Always been squeamish, especially about knives, razor blades…broken glass,” Angie said.


She sounded like herself, yet didn’t. She looked like herself, yet wasn’t. Anxiety in her voice made it real, but at the same time she seemed to be dreaming on her feet, detached.


“I need to be cut, I want to be cut, I want to obey, I really do, but I’ve always been afraid of sharpness more than anything.”


Relying on the candles, Molly shoved her flashlight under her waistband, in the small of her back, freeing both hands for the gun.


“Angie, what the hell happened here?”


Ignoring the question, as if she didn’t hear it, Angie Boteen appeared to have stepped out of the dance of life, out of the still point, and stood in the past:


“When I was six, Uncle Carl, he cut Aunt Veda ’cause she cheated on him, slit her throat. I was there, saw it.”


“Angie—”


“She lived, croaked when she talked, scar on her throat. He went to prison, and when he got out, she took him back.”


Molly felt as na*ed as Angie, exposed, standing in this doorway with the basement stairs at her back.


“After prison, people treated Uncle Carl different. Not worse. More careful, more respectful.”


Reluctant to look away from Angie Boteen, Molly nevertheless glanced back, to her left, and down. No one on the stairs.


Refocusing on Angie and on the jagged bottle, she discovered that during this moment of distraction, the woman had taken a step toward her.


“No closer,” Molly warned, thrusting the pistol at arm’s length, in a two-hand grip.


In the globes on the floor, inconstant candle flames leaped, languished, and leaped, fattened and thinned, so upward across the woman’s face flowed light, flowed shadow, continuously distorting, making it difficult for Molly to read her expression.


“So then what happened,” Angie said, “is I hook up with Billy Marek, he’s been in trouble with knives, cut some people, done time.”


Under the appearance of a trance, repressed emotions tore at the woman and could be detected in her voice. Anguish. Anxiety. Wild terror on a choke chain. But what other sensibilities did the fluctuant candle flames disguise? Psychotic needs? Anger? Homicidal rage? Hard to tell.

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