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He couldn’t see it on the cream-coloured carpet, although the glossy black head should have made it easy to spot. The vacuum cleaner would get it the next time he swept.


From the refrigerator in the kitchen, he retrieved a bottle of beer. Coors. Brewed high in the Colourado Rockies.


With the beer in one hand and the doll in the other, he went upstairs to his office once more. He switched on the desk lamp and propped the doll against it.


He sat in his comfortable chocolate-brown, leather-upholstered office armchair, turned on the computer, and printed out the most recently completed chapter of the new Chip Nguyen adventure. It was twenty pages long.


Sipping the Coors from the bottle, he worked on the manuscript with a red pencil, marking changes.


At first the house was deathly silent. Then the incom¬ing storm clouds finally pulled some ground-level tur¬bulence with them, and the wind began to sough in the eaves. An overgrown branch on one of the melaleucas rubbed against an outside wall a dry-bone scraping sound. From downstairs in the family room came the faint but distinctive creaking of the damper hinge in the fireplace as the wind reached down the flue to play with it.


From time to time, Tommy glanced at the doll. It sat in the fall of amber light from the desk lamp against which it was propped, arms at its sides, mitten-like hands turned palms up as if in supplication.


By the time he finished editing the chapter, he had also drunk the last of the beer. Before entering the red-lined changes in the computer, he went to the guest bathroom off the upstairs hall.


When he returned to his office a few minutes later, Tommy half expected to discover that the doll had toppled onto its side again. But it was sitting upright, as he had left it.


He shook his head and smiled in embarrassment at his insistence on drama.


Then, lowering himself into his chair, he saw four words on the previously blank computer screen: THE


DEADLINE IS DAWN.


‘What the hell. . .


As he settled all of the way into the chair, a hot sharp pain stabbed through his right thigh. Startled, he shot to his feet, pushing the wheeled armchair away from himself.


He clutched his thigh, felt the tiny lance that had pierced his blue jeans, and plucked it out of both the denim and his flesh. He was holding the straight pin with the black enamel head as large as a pea.


Astonished, Tommy turned the pin between thumb and forefinger, his eyes on the glinting point.


Over the soughing of the wind in the eaves and over the humming of the laser printer in its stand-by mode, he heard a new sound: a soft pop. . . and then again. Like threads breaking.


He looked at the doll in the fall of light from the desk lamp. It was sitting as before — but the pair of crossed stitches over the spot where a person’s heart would be had snapped and now hung loose on its white cotton breast.


Tommy Phan didn’t realize that he had dropped the pin until he heard it strike — tink, tink — the hard plastic mat under his office chair.


Paralyzed, he stared at the doll for what seemed like an hour but must have been less than a minute. When he could move again, he found himself reaching for the damn thing, and he checked himself when his hand was still ten or twelve inches from it.


His mouth was so dry that his tongue had stuck to his palate. He worked up some saliva, but his tongue never¬theless peeled loose as reluctantly as a Velcro fastener.


His frantic heart hammered so hard that his vision blurred at the edges with each beat, as blood surged


through him in artery-stretching quantities. He felt as though he was on the verge of a stroke.


In the better and more vivid world that he inhab¬ited, Chip Nguyen would have seized the doll without hesitation and examined it to determine what device it contained. Perhaps a miniature bomb? Perhaps a fiendishly clever clockwork mechanism that would eject a poisoned dart?


Tommy wasn’t half the man that Chip Nguyen was, but he wasn’t a complete coward, damn it. Although he was reluctant to pick up the doll, he gingerly extended one index finger and experimentally pressed it against the pair of snapped sutures on the white cotton breast.


Inside the dreadful little manlike figure, directly under Tommy’s finger, something twitched, throbbed, and throbbed again. Not as though it were a clockwork mechanism, but as though it were something alive.


He snatched his hand back.


At first, what he had felt made him think of a squirming insect: an obscenely fat spider or a frenzied cockroach. Or perhaps a tiny rodent: some god awful pale and hairless pink mouse like nothing that anyone had ever seen before.


Abruptly the dangling black threads unraveled into the needle holes through which they had been sewn, disappearing into the doll’s chest as if something had pulled them from inside.


‘Jesus!’


Tommy stumbled backward a step and nearly fell into his office chair. He clutched the arm of it and kept his balance.


Pop-pop-pop.


The stitches over the thing’s right eye broke as the cloth under them bulged with internal pressure. Then they, too, raveled into the doll like strands of spaghetti sucked into a child’s mouth.


Tommy was shaking his head in denial. He had to be dreaming.


Where the broken sutures had disappeared into the face, the fabric split with a discrete tearing sound.


Dreaming.


The rent in the small blank-white face opened to half an inch, like a gaping wound.


Definitely dreaming. Big dinner, two cheeseburgers, French fries, onion rings, enough cholesterol to kill a horse — and then a bottle of beer. Dozed off at my desk. Dreaming.


From behind the split fabric came a flash of colour. Green. A fierce radiant green.


The cotton cloth curled away from the hole, and a small eye appeared in the soft round head. It wasn’t the shiny glass eye of a doll, not merely a painted plastic disc, either, but as real as Tommy’s own eyes (although infinitely stranger), full of soft eerie light, hateful and watchful, with an elliptical black pupil as in the eye of a snake.


Tommy made the sign of the cross. He had been raised as a Roman Catholic, and although he had only rarely attended Mass over the past five years, he was suddenly devout again.


‘Holy Mary, Mother of God, hear my plea. ..‘


Tommy was prepared to spend — happy to spend


— the rest of his life between a confessional and a sacristy railing, subsisting solely on the Eucharist and faith, with no entertainment except organ music and church bingo.


...in this my hour of need…


The doll twitched. Its head turned slightly toward Tommy. Its green eye fixed on him.


He felt his gorge rising, tasted a bitter vileness in the back of his throat, swallowed hard, choked it down, and knew beyond doubt that he was not dreaming. He had never before nearly puked in a dream. Dreams weren’t this intense.


On the computer screen, the four words began to flash:


THE DEADLINE IS DAWN.


The stitches over the doll’s second eye popped and raveled into its head. The fabric bulged and began to split again.


The creature’s stubby arms twitched. Its small mitten hands flexed. It pushed away from the desk lamp and rose stiffly to its feet, all of ten inches tall but nonetheless terrifying for its diminutive stature.


Even Chip Nguyen — toughest of all private detectives, master of Tae Kwon Do, fearless fighter for truth and justice — would have done precisely what Tommy Phan did then: run. Neither the author nor his creation was a complete fool.


Recognizing that skepticism in this case could get him killed, Tommy spun away from the impossible thing that was emerging from the rag doll. Pushing aside the wheeled office chair, he crashed against the corner of the desk, stumbled over his own feet, maintained his balance, and staggered out of the room.


He slammed the office door behind him so hard that the house — and his own bones — reverberated with the impact. There was no lock on it. Frantically he considered fetching a suitable chair from the master bedroom and bracing it under the knob, but then he realized that the door opened into the office beyond and, therefore, could not be wedged shut from the hallway.


He started toward the stairs, but on second thought he dashed into his bedroom, switching on the lights as he went.


The bed was neatly made. The white chenille spread was as taut as a drum skin.


He kept a neat house, and he was distressed to think of it all splattered with blood, especially his own.


What was that damn thing? And what did it want?


The rosewood nightstand gleamed darkly from furni¬ture polish and diligent care, and in the top drawer, next to a box of Kleenex, was a pistol that had been equally well maintained.


TWO


The gun that Tommy took from the nightstand drawer was a Heckler & Koch P7 M13. He had purchased it years ago, after the Los Angeles riots that had been sparked by the Rodney King case.


In those days, his merciless imagination had plagued him with vivid nightmares of the violent collapse of civilization. His fear had not been limited to dreams, however. He’d been anxiety-stricken for a month or two and uneasy for at least a year, expecting social chaos to erupt at any moment, and for the first time in a decade, he had flashed back to childhood memories of the bloody carnage that had followed the fall of Saigon in the weeks immediately before he and his family had escaped to sea. Having once lived through an apocalypse, he knew that it could happen again.


Orange County had not been besieged by the rampag¬ing mobs that had chased Tommy through his dreams, however, and even Los Angeles had soon returned to normal, although normal couldn’t accurately be called civility in the City of Angels these days. He had never needed the pistol.


Until this minute.


Now he desperately needed the weapon not to hold at bay the expected band of looters, not even to defend his home from a single burglar, but to protect himself from a rag doll. Or from whatever was hidden within the rag doll.


As he hurried out of the bedroom and into the second-floor hallway again, Tommy Phan wondered if he might be losing his mind.


Then he wondered why he was wondering. Of course he was losing his mind. He was already past the edge of rationality, plunging off the cliff, on the bobsled of insanity and rocketing down a huge chute that would take him into the cold dark depths of total lunacy.


Rag dolls couldn’t become animate.


Ten-inch-tall humanoid creatures with radiant green snake eyes didn’t exist.


A blood vessel had popped in his brain. Or maybe a cancerous tumour had grown to that critical stage at which it exerted disabling pressure on the brain cells around


it. He was hallucinating. That was the only credible explanation.


The door to his office was closed, as he had left it.


The house was as silent as a monastery full of sleeping monks, without even the murmur of whispered prayers. No wind in the eaves. No tick of clock or creak of floorboards.


Trembling, sweating, Tommy sidled along the car¬peted hall, approaching the office door with extreme caution.


The pistol shook in his hand. Fully loaded, it weighed only about two and three-quarter pounds, but under the circumstances it felt enormously heavy. It was a squeeze cocker, as safe as any double-action piece on the market, but he pointed the muzzle only at the ceiling and kept his finger lightly on the trigger. Chambered for a .40 Smith & Wesson cartridge, the gun could do serious damage.


He reached the closed door, halted, and hesitated.


The doll — or whatever was hiding in the doll — was far too small to reach the knob. Even if it could climb up to the knob, it would not have sufficient strength — or be


able to apply enough leverage — to open the door. The thing was trapped in there.


On the other hand, how could he be so confident that it wouldn’t have the requisite strength or the leverage? This creature was an impossibility to begin with, some¬thing out of a science-fiction film, and logic applied to this situation no more than it applied in movies or in dreams.


Tommy stared at the knob, half expecting to see it turn. The polished brass gleamed with a reflection of the hall light overhead. If he peered closely enough, he could discern a weirdly distorted reflection of his own sweat-damp face in the shiny metal: He looked scarier than the thing inside the rag doll.


After a while he put one ear to the door. No sound came from the room beyond — at least none that he could hear over the runaway thudding of his heart.


His legs felt rubbery, and the perceived weight of the Heckler & Koch — more important than its real weight


— was now twenty pounds, maybe twenty-five, so heavy that his arm was beginning to ache with the burden of it.


What was the creature doing in there? Was it still ripping out of the cotton fabric, like a waking mummy unwinding its burial wrappings?


He tried again to assure himself that this whole incident was an hallucination brought on by a stroke.


His mother had been right. The cheeseburgers, the French fries, the onion rings, the double-thick choc¬olate milkshakes — those were the culprits that had done him in. Although he was only thirty, his abused circulatory system had collapsed under the massive freight of cholesterol that he forced it to carry. When this terminal episode was finished and the pathologists performed an autopsy on him, they would discover that his arteries and veins were clogged with enough greasy


fat to lubricate the wheels on all the trains in America. Standing over his coffin, his weeping but quietly smug mother would say, Tuong, I try tell you but you not listen, never listen. Too many cheeseburgers, soon you look like big fat cheeseburger, start seeing little snake-eyed monsters, fall dead of shock in upstairs hall with gun in your hand like dumb whiskey-drinking detective in books. Stupid boy, eating like crazy Americans, and now look what happen.


Inside the office, something rattled softly.


Tommy pressed his ear lighter to the paper-thin crack between the door and the jamb. He heard nothing more, but he was certain that he hadn’t imagined the first sound. The silence in that room now had a menacing quality.


On one level, he was frustrated and angry with himself for continuing to behave as though the snake-eyed mini-kin was actually inside the office, standing on his desk, shedding its white cotton chrysalis.


But, at the same time, instinctively he knew that he was not truly insane, no matter how much he might wish that he were. And he knew that, in fact, he also was not suffering from a stroke or a cerebral haemorrhage, no matter how much more comforting such a condition might be compared with admitting the reality of the rag doll from Hell.


Or wherever it was from. Certainly not from Toys R Us. Not from one of the shops at Disneyland.


No delusion. No figment of imagination. It’s in there.


Well, all right, if it was in the office, then it couldn’t open the door to get out, so the smartest thing to do was leave it alone, go downstairs or even get out of the house altogether, and call the police. Find help.

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