The stink of gasoline was stronger than ever.
Pushing onto his feet, swaying unsteadily, he saw that the car had tumbled across a parcel of bare land that was the site of a future shopping centre at the highly desirable corner of MacArthur Boulevard and Pacific Coast Highway. In recent years, this field had been used as a Christmas-tree lot every December, sometimes as a pumpkin patch at Halloween, but had served no substantial commercial purpose. He was damn lucky that it was early November and that he had rolled the car through an empty field instead of through happily chattering families in a holiday mood.
Because the Corvette was turned on its side, he was standing next to the undercarriage. From out of the mechanical guts of the machine, the mini-kin issued a shriek of rage and need.
Tommy stumbled back from the car, splashing through another puddle, and nearly fell on his ass.
As the bone-piercing shriek trailed into a snarl and then into an industrious grumble, Tommy heard the demon pounding-straining-clawing, and metal creaked against metal. He couldn’t see into the dark undercarriage, but he sensed that the mini-kin was temporarily trapped in
the tangled wreckage and struggling furiously to pry itself free.
The fibreglass body of the Corvette was a mess. His dream car was a total loss.
He was fortunate to have gotten out unscathed. In the morning, of course, he would be crippled by whiplash and a thousand smaller pains — if he lived through the night.
The deadline is dawn.
Crazily, he wondered what the per-hour cost of his brief ownership had been. Seven thousand dollars. Eight thousand? He looked at his watch, trying to calculate the number of hours since he had made the purchase and been handed the keys, but then he realized that it didn’t matter. It was only money.
What mattered was survival.
When he circled around the front of the tipped car, passing through the beam of the sole functioning head¬light, he couldn’t see the engine compartment, either, for the hood had compacted into it. But he could hear the demon battering frantically against the walls of its prison.
‘Die, damn you,’ Tommy demanded.
In the distance, someone shouted.
Shaking his head to cast off his remaining dizziness, blinking through the rain, Tommy saw that two cars had stopped along MacArthur Boulevard to the south, near the place where he had run the Corvette off the roadway.
A man with a flashlight was standing at the top of the low embankment about eighty yards away. The guy called again, but the meaning of his words was swallowed by the wind.
Traffic had slowed and a few vehicles were even stopped on Pacific Coast Highway, as well, although no one had gotten out of them yet.
The guy with the flashlight started to descend the embankment, coming to offer assistance.
Tommy raised one arm and waved vigorously, encour¬aging the good Samaritan to hurry, to come hear the squawking demon trapped in the smashed machinery, to see the impossible doll-thing with his own eyes if it managed to break loose, to marvel at its existence, to be a witness.
Gasoline, which was evidently pooled under the length of the Corvette, ignited. Blue and orange flames geysered high into the night, vaporizing the falling rain.
The great hot hand of the fire slapped Tommy with such fury that his face stung, and he was staggered backward by the force of the blow. There had been no explosion, but the heat was so intense that he surely would have been set afire in that instant if his hair and his clothes had not been thoroughly soaked.
An unearthly squealing rose from the trapped mini-kin.
At the foot of the embankment, the good Samaritan had halted, startled by the fire.
‘Hurry! Hurry!’ Tommy shouted, although he knew that the roar of rain and wind prevented the man with the flashlight from hearing either him or the demon.
With a boom and a splintery crack like bone breaking, the battered and burning hood exploded off the engine compartment and tumbled past Tommy, spewing sparks and smoke as it clattered toward the stand of phoe¬nix palms.
Like a malevolent genie freed from a lamp, the mini-kin flung itself out of the inferno and landed upright in the mud, no more than ten feet from Tommy. It was ablaze, but the streaming cloaks of fire that had
replaced its white fabric shroud did not seem to dis¬turb it.
Indeed, the creature was no longer shrieking in mind¬less rage but appeared to be exhilarated by the blaze. Raising its arms over its head as if joyfully exclaiming hallelujah, swaying almost as if in a state of rapture, it fixed its attention not on Tommy but on its own hands which, like tallow tapers on some dark altar, streamed blue fire.
‘Bigger,’ Tommy gasped in disbelief.
Incredibly, the thing had grown. The doll on his doorstep had been about ten inches long. This demon swaying rapturously before him was approximately eighteen inches tall, nearly twice the size that it had been when he had last seen it streaking across his foyer into the living room to short-circuit the lights. Furthermore, its legs and arms were thicker and its body heavier than they had been earlier.
Because of the masking fire, Tommy could not see details of the creature’s form, although he thought he detected wickedly spiky protrusions extending the length of its spine, which had not been there before. Its back seemed to be more hunched than it had been previously, and perhaps its hands were becoming disproportionately large for the length of its arms. Whether he perceived these details correctly or not, Tommy was certain that he could not be mistaken about the beast’s greater size.
Having expected the mini-kin to wither and collapse in the consuming flames, Tommy was dangerously mes¬merized by the sight of it thriving instead.
‘This is nuts,’ he muttered.
The falling rain captured the light of the wildly leaping fire, carrying it into puddles on the ground, which glim¬mered like pools of melting doubloons and flickered with the shadow of the capering mini-kin.
How could it possibly have grown so fast? And to
add this much body weight, it would have required nourishment, fuel to feed the feverish growth.
What had it eaten?
The good Samaritan was approaching again, behind the bobbling beam of his flashlight, but he was still more than sixty yards away. The burning Corvette was between him and the demon, which he wouldn’t be able to see until he had come virtually to Tommy’s side.
What had it eaten?
Impossibly, the rhapsodic mini-kin appeared to swell larger even as the flames seethed from it.
Tommy began to back slowly away, overcome by the urgent need to flee but reluctant to turn and run. Any too-sudden movement on his part might shatter the demon’s ecstatic fascination with the fire and remind it that its prey was nearby.
The guy with the flashlight was forty yards away. He was a heavyset man in a hooded raincoat that flared behind him. Lumbering through the puddles, slipping in the mud, he resembled a cowled monk.
Suddenly Tommy was afraid for the Samaritan’s life. At first he had wanted a witness; but that was when he thought the mini-kin would perish in the flames. Now he sensed that it wouldn’t allow a witness.
He would have shouted at the stranger to stay away, even at the risk of drawing the mini-kin’s attention, but fate intervened when a gunshot cracked through the rainy night, then a second and a third.
Evidently recognizing the distinctive sound, the heavy¬set stranger skidded to a halt in the mud. He was still thirty yards away, with the mined car interven¬ing, so he couldn’t possibly have seen the blazing demon.
A fourth shot boomed, a fifth.
In the scramble to get out of the Corvette after the crash, Tommy had not remembered the pistol. He wouldn’t
have been able to locate it anyway. Now the intense heat was detonating the ammunition.
Reminded that he lacked even the inadequate protec¬tion of the Heckler & Koch, Tommy stopped backing away from the demon and stood in tremulous indecision. Although he was drenched by the storm, his mouth was as dry as the sun-scorched sand on an August beach.
The rain washed parching panic through him, and his fear was like a fever burning in his brow, in his eyes, in his joints.
He turned and ran for his life.
He didn’t know where he was going, didn’t know if he had any hope of escaping, but he was propelled by sheer survival instinct. Maybe he could outrun the mini-kin in the short term, but he didn’t have high expectations of being able to stay beyond its reach for the next six or seven hours, until dawn.
It was growing.
Becoming a more formidable predator.
Mud sucked at Tommy’s athletic shoes. Tangles of dead grass and creeping lantana vines almost snared him, almost brought him down. A palm frond like the feather from a giant bird, torn loose by the wind, spun out of the night and lashed his face as it flew past him. Nature herself seemed to be joined in a conspiracy with the mini-kin.
Tommy glanced over his shoulder and saw that the flames at the Corvette, although brightly whipping the night, were subsiding. The smaller conflagration that marked the burning demon was fading much faster than the blaze at the car, but the beast continued to be entranced and was not yet giving chase.
The deadline is dawn.
Tomorrow’s sunrise hung out there just a few minutes this side of eternity.
Almost to the street Tommy dared to glance back again through the obscuring grey curtains of rain. Flames still sputtered from the mini-kin, but only fitfully. Appar¬ently, most of the gasoline saturating the creature had burned off. Too little fire remained — mere wisps of yellow — to allow Tommy to see the thing well: just well enough to be certain that it was on the move again and coming after him.
It was not pursuing as fast as it had been before, maybe because it was still inebriated from its infatuation with the flames. But it was coming nonetheless.
Having crossed the empty lot on the diagonal, Tommy reached the corner of Pacific Coast Highway and Avo¬cado Street skidded across the last stretch of mud like an ice-skater on a frozen pond, and plunged off the curb into the calf-deep water that overflowed the gutters at the intersection.
A car horn blared. Brakes screeched.
He hadn’t checked oncoming traffic because he had been looking over his shoulder and then watching the treacherous ground ahead of him. When he snapped his head up in surprise, an astonishingly colourful Ford van was there, blazing yellow-red-gold-orange-black-green, as if appearing magically — poof! — from another dimen¬sion. The dazzling van stopped an instant before Tommy reached it rocking on its springs, but he couldn’t prevent himself from running into it full tilt. He bounced off the fender, spun around to the front of the vehicle, and fell to the pavement.
Clutching the van, he immediately pulled himself up from the blacktop.
The extravagant paint job wasn’t psychedelic, as it had appeared on first impression, but rather an attempt to transform the van into an Art Deco jukebox: images of
leaping gazelles amidst stylised palm fronds, streams of luminous silver bubbles in bands of glossy black, and more luminous gold bubbles in bands of Chinese-red lacquer. As the driver’s door opened, the night swung with Benny Goodman’s big-band classic, ‘One O’clock Jump.’
As Tommy regained his feet again, the driver appeared at his side. She was a young woman in white shoes, what might have been a nurse’s white uniform, and a black leather jacket. ‘Hey, are you all right?’
‘Yeah, okay,’ Tommy wheezed.
‘You’re really okay?’
‘Yeah, sure, leave me alone.’
He squinted at the rain-swept vacant lot.
The mini-kin was no longer afire, and the flashing red emergency lights at the back of the van didn’t penetrate far into the gloom. Tommy couldn’t see where the crea¬ture was, but he knew it was closing the gap between them, perhaps moving sluggishly but closing the gap.
‘Go,’ he told her, waving her away with one hand.
The woman insisted, ‘You must be—’
‘—hurt. I can’t—’
‘Get out of here!’ he said frantically, not wanting to trap her between him and the demon.
He pushed away from her, intending to continue across all six lanes of Pacific Coast Highway. At the moment, there was no traffic except for a few vehicles that had stopped half a block to the south, where their drivers were watching the burning Corvette.
The woman clutched tenaciously. ‘Was that your car back there?’
‘Jesus, lady, it’s coming!’
‘It!’ He tried to wrench loose of her.
She said, ‘Was that your new Corvette?’
He realized that he knew her. The blond waitress. She had served cheeseburgers and fries to him earlier this evening. The restaurant was across this highway.
The place had closed for the night. She was on her way home.
Again Tommy had the queer sensation that he was riding the bobsled of fate, rocketing down a huge chute toward some destiny he could not begin to understand.
‘You should see a doctor,’ she persisted.
He wasn’t going to be able to shake her loose. When the mini-kin arrived, it wouldn’t want a wit¬ness.
Eighteen inches tall and growing. A spiky crest along the length of its spine. Bigger claws, bigger teeth. It would rip her throat out tear her face off.
Her slender throat.
Her lovely face.
Tommy didn’t have time to argue with her. ‘Okay, a doctor, okay, get me out of here.’
Holding his arm as if he were a doddering old man, she started to walk him around to the passenger door, which was the side of the van closest to the vacant lot.
‘Drive the fu**ing thing!’ he demanded, and at last he tore loose of her.
Tommy went to the passenger door and yanked it open, but the waitress was still standing in front of her jukebox van, stupefied by his outburst.
‘Move or we’ll both die!’ he shouted in frustration. He glanced back into the vacant lot, expecting the mini-kin to spring at him out of the darkness and rain, but it wasn’t here yet, so he clambered into the Ford.
The woman slid into the driver’s seat and slammed her door an instant after Tommy slammed his.
Switching off ‘One O’clock Jump,’ she said, ‘What happened back there? I saw you come shooting off MacArthur Boulevard—’
‘Are you stupid or deaf or both?’ he demanded, his voice shrill and cracking. ‘We gotta get out of here now!’
‘You’ve no right to talk to me that way,’ she said quietly but with visible anger in her crystalline-blue eyes.