“I know he’ll never cut me ’cause I’ll never cheat, but people respect him, so they respect me.”
Although Molly had a moment ago checked the stairs, already she imagined an ascending presence. Maybe it wasn’t imagined. Maybe it would be real this time.
“He cut someone for me once,” said Angie. “I wanted it done, and Billy did it. I felt bad later. I was sorry later. But he did it. And he would’ve done it again if I asked, and that made me feel safe.”
Molly eased out of the doorway, to the left, her back against the wall, putting distance between herself and the na*ed woman but also between herself and the stairs.
“If he was here,” Angie said, “I’d ask him, and he’d cut me, Billy would, he’d cut me just right, not too deep, so I wouldn’t have to do it myself.”
Molly could almost believe madness was in the air: contagious, carried on dust mites, easily inhaled, following a path of infection straight from lungs to heart to brain.
Reminding herself of her purpose, trying to get control of the situation, she said, “Listen, there was a little girl here earlier. Her name was Cassie.”
“I want to obey, I really do, I want to obey and satisfy like the others. Will you cut me?”
“Obey who? Angie, I want to help you, but I don’t understand what’s going on here.”
“The cuts are an invitation. They cluster at the cuts. They come in through the blood by invitation.”
Fungus, Molly thought. Spores.
“Thousands of them,” Angie said, “coming through the blood. They want to be in the flesh, in the live flesh for a little while, before I’m dead.”
Even if the bolero of shadows and candlelight had not flung distortions across Angie’s features, the woman’s dementia would have prevented Molly from reading her emotions and inferring her intentions.
“Angie, honey, you’ve got to put down the bottle and let me help you.” Molly didn’t have to fake compassion. In spite of her fear, she was shaken by sympathy for this distraught and confused woman. “Let me take you out of here.”
This offer was met with agitation, anxiety. “Don’t bullshit me, you bitch. That’s not possible, you know it’s not. There’s nowhere for me to go, nowhere to hide, nowhere, ever. Or you, either. You’ll be told what to do, you’ll be told, and you’ll do it or suffer.”
The cold concrete wall against Molly’s back pressed its chill through her clothes and into her flesh, her bones, brought winter to her spirit. She was shivering and couldn’t stop.
“I’ve got to obey.” A long harrowing groan came from her, and she struck her br**sts with one fist. “Obey or suffer.”
With growing desperation, Molly tried again: “Cassie. A nine-year-old girl. Blond hair. Blue eyes. Where is she?”
Angie glanced toward the basement stairs. Her voice was sharp, urgent: “They’re all below, they made the invitation, they cut, they cut, they opened their blood.”
“What’s happening down there?” Molly demanded. “Where will I find the girl if I go down there?”
Holding out her left hand, palm up, Angie said, “I bit. I bit so hard, and there’s blood.”
Even in the shimmering deceptions of candlelight, the teeth marks were clearly visible in the meaty part of the woman’s hand, and thick clotted blood.
“I can bite, but I can’t cut. I can bite, and there’s blood, but that’s not acceptable, because I was told to cut.”
Stepping between the candle globes, she moved toward Molly, and Molly backed off, circled away.
Offering the broken bottle, the jagged end still first, Angie said insistently, angrily, “Take this and cut me.”
“No. Put the bottle down.”
Sorrow welled in those mad eyes. A warm salty tide brimmed, spilled. Anger instantly became despair and self-pity. “I’m running out of time. He’s going to come up those stairs, he’s going to come back for me.”
Her eyes burned red in scalding tears. “Him. It. The thing.”
“What thing?” Molly asked.
Hot tears washed years off Angie Boteen’s face, and rendered it the countenance of a terrified child. “The thing. The thing with faces in its hands.”
THE HOSPITAL OF ST. MARY OF BETHLEHEM, which opened its doors in London in the fifteenth century, served as an asylum for the insane, was known as Bedlam, and closed its doors to that purpose in an age distant to this one, but now Bedlam existed again, and it was the entire world, pole to pole.
Maybe a creature with faces in its hands stalked the tavern cellar, something that Goya might have imagined and painted in his darkest hours, or maybe this menace existed only in Angie Boteen’s mind. Whether real or not, it was real to her.
“Afraid of sharpness. I’m weak,” she said. “Always been weak. I want to obey, they expect obedience, but I can’t cut myself. I can bite, but I can’t cut.”
Molly retreated, circled, stepping cautiously among the candles, like a conjurer trying to stay within her protective pentagram.
Circling, advancing, holding out the broken bottle, Angie said, “Take this. Do me, slash me. Before he comes back.” A glance at the stairs. Then at Molly. “Slash me, before he comes back angry.”
Molly shook her head. “No. Put it down.”
Simultaneously imploring and furious, Angie advanced: “Whatever you hate, see that in me. Whoever you envy, everything you fear, see all that in me—then cut, cut me, CUT ME!”
Tough as she was, tough as she always had been, boiled in terror at a young age, Molly nonetheless felt something cracking in herself, a barrier that must hold if she was ever to find Cassie, if she was to be the rescuer of children that so many children needed her to be.
Incipient tears welled in her eyes. She blinked them back, fearful that they would blur her vision. In the blur, she would be vulnerable to Angie, to whatever had driven the forty people into the basement, to the thing with faces in its hands if it existed.
“Angie…” Molly’s voice broke, speaking to the wounded child at the heart of this woman. “What’ve they done to you?”
Even in her madness, Angie Boteen recognized the tenderness that wrung tears from Molly. Understanding the finality of those words, she threw the bottle aside. It shattered on the elevator doors.
“Wish I was dead already.” Angie began to shake as though she’d only now become aware of being na*ed in a cold room. “Wish I was.”
Lowering the pistol, Molly said, “Let me take you out of here.”
Angie stared with dread toward the cellar stairs. “It’s coming.”
Edging closer to the door to the tavern, Molly also aligned herself with the cellar door and raised the pistol once more.
The woman cared nothing for Cassie, only for her own plight, but Molly persisted: “A nine-year-old girl. You must have seen her. She was the only child left here.”
Angie Boteen began to sink into the floor as if she were standing in quicksand.
AN EXTRATERRESTRIAL SPECIES, HUNDREDS OR thousands of years more advanced than us, would possess technology that would appear to us to be not the result of applied science but entirely supernatural, pure magic.
That was what Neil had said, quoting some science-fiction writer after the events at the Corrigan house.
In the hours since, Molly had seen ample evidence of the truth in that contention, not least of all the transit of Angie Boteen through the receiving-room floor.
Concrete is what concrete means. Real. Actual. Solid—as in “an artificial stonelike material made by mixing cement with various aggregates.”
Yet this slab of steel-reinforced, poured-in-place concrete, the stuff of bomb shelters and ammunition bunkers, seemed to adjust its billions of atoms to precisely fit the interstices between the atoms of the woman’s body. The floor did not appear to soften. It did not part like the jaws of a shark eager to swallow. It did not blossom outward in concentric circles as does water that has accommodated a dropped stone. What it did do was accept Angie Boteen as if she were a spirit—less than ectoplasmic vapor, the merest apparition—and pass her through in smooth descent from the receiving room to the cellar.
Angie was not a ghost. Her flesh was as solid and as vulnerable as Molly’s. She had thrown the Corona bottle, which had shattered on the elevator doors. Her bare feet had left prints in the blood trail leading to the basement stairs. Her tears had dripped from her jaw line, leaving tiny dark spots of moisture on the concrete, each more of a mark on the floor than she had made by passing through it.
She didn’t vanish as instantly as a message cylinder sucked down a pneumatic tube; neither did she offer any resistance nor meet with any. Perhaps she took six seconds to precipitate from ground floor to the lower realm, beginning with the soles of her feet and concluding with a final wisp of trailing hair.
Considering how frightened she had been of the thing with faces in its hands, and assuming that this entity must have had something to do with drawing her through the cement and various aggregates, Angie made surprisingly little noise during her departure. She didn’t scream. She didn’t cry out to God for help or to well-respected Billy Marek with his knives.
She said softly, “Oh,” not in surprise but in recognition—of what, Molly could not guess—and looked down at her legs vanishing through concrete. Her eyes widened, but she appeared less afraid than at any moment since she had stepped into the receiving room.
When Molly held out a hand, Angie reached for it, saying, “Sauvez-moi, sauvez-moi”—which was what the astronaut Emily Lapeer had cried out aboard the International Space Station when coming face to face with the uninvited visitors. “Save me, save me,” Angie repeated in French, in the very voice of Emily Lapeer, and something in her eyes was different than before, hostile and mocking.
She wasn’t afraid, because she wasn’t Angie anymore. Angie was a powerless prisoner under the rule of whatever had entered into her and now used her body.
Snatching her hand back, Molly watched the na*ed woman sink to chin, to nose, to brow, as though drowning in hardened concrete. Gone.
If Molly had taken the hand, maybe she would have been dragged along with Angie, slipping through concrete and rebar as easily as mist through moonlight.
This possibility briefly paralyzed her. She hesitated to move a foot, for fear that the surface tension of the floor might prove to be as fragile as that of a summer pond.
Then she remembered a salient detail from the radio report about the space station. Inboard of the airlock, before Arturo had started screaming, Lapeer had said that something was entering through the closed hatch: “—just phasing through it, materializing right out of the steel.”
The risk of being taken down into the cellar through the floor might be exceeded by the danger of some menace rising out of there and into this receiving room.
Floors, walls, and bank-vault doors offered no protection. No fortress could stand against this enemy. No place on this new Earth could provide security, peace, or even privacy.
Reality isn’t what it used to be.
That had been a favorite aphorism of the dopers who tended to gravitate to the liberal-arts programs and literature courses when Molly had been a student at Berkeley. They were the ones in the writing program who rejected the traditional values of literature in favor of “intellectual freedom through emotional and linguistic anarchy,” whatever that meant.
Reality wasn’t what it used to be. This afternoon it might not be what it was this morning.
Lewis Carroll meet H. P. Lovecraft.
The inmates of Bedlam, so misunderstood and unable to cope in their own time, might find these new circumstances more in line with their experience and their view of life.
Molly, on the other hand, felt as though her sanity was in the precarious position of a runaway train rollicking down a mountain on loose tracks.
If the ET with faces in its hands was master of a technology that allowed it to rise through the floor as easily as Angie had been taken below, if there were no barriers to its movements, then descending the basement stairs now, in search of Cassie, would be no more dangerous than standing here or being out in the street with Neil. Caution had no merit, and prudence no reward. Fortune would favor the bold, even the reckless.
Again, by candlelight, she followed the blood trail to the cellar door. She was almost to that threshold when movement, glimpsed peripherally, made her halt, turn.
A dog. The golden retriever—one of the three dogs that stayed behind with Cassie—stood in the doorway to the tavern. Posture tense. Eyes solemn. Then a wag of the tail.
THE TWITCH OF THE DOG’S TAIL CONVINCED Molly to follow it by flashlight out of the receiving room, to the women’s lavatory. No dog would wag if he had lost a child entrusted to his care, and especially not one of these dogs, in which seemed to be vested an uncommon intelligence plus a loyalty even greater than their four-footed kind usually exhibited.
Cassie stood in the rest room, her back pressed in a corner, guarded by the two mixed breeds. Just for a moment, these mutts presented bared teeth to Molly, surely not because they mistook her for a threat but perhaps because they wanted her to see—and to be reassured by—their diligence.
Someone had closed the window through which Render had escaped. The floor at that end of the room was still puddled with rain, but nothing grew in it.
Distraught, Cassie came at once into Molly’s arms, buried her face against Molly’s throat, and trembled uncontrollably.
Molly comforted the girl, stroked her hair, and determined that she had not been harmed.
Under the logic of the old reality, getting out of the tavern would have been a priority. Flee first, counsel the child later.
In the new reality, the world outside would be as dangerous as any room in the tavern, including the cellar.
Any outdoor place was in fact more dangerous than the tavern. In spite of the resident of the janitorial closet and regardless of what spores might be fruiting in the self-mutilated congregation in the cellar, the grotesque and hostile life forms of another planet roamed open places in increasing numbers.
The masters of this magical-seeming alien technology were able to extract their prey from any sanctuary, through walls or floors or ceilings, and surely they themselves could pass through solid matter in the same fashion. The lower life forms, however—the equivalent of Earth’s mammals, reptiles, insects—had no such ability; walls were barriers to them.
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