Tommy didn’t dare look back, for fear that the Samaritan was at his heels. In his mind’s eye, he could see five fat fingers, as pale and cold as those of a corpse, reaching toward him, inches from the nape of his neck.
Behind a three-story ultramodern house that was all angled glass and polished-limestone cladding, blinding banks of floodlights came on, evidently triggered by motion detectors in a security system that was more aggressive than anything protecting the other houses. The shock of this sudden glare caused Tommy to stum¬ble, but he kept his balance and maintained his grip on the shotgun. Gasping for breath, he plunged forward, with Del, across a massive cast-stone balustrade onto the unlighted patio of a Mediterranean-style house, where a TV glowed in the family room and where a startled old man peered out at them as they raced past.
The night seemed to be filled with uncountable barking dogs, all close but out of sight, as though they were falling with the rain, coming down through the black sky, soon to land in packs on all sides.
Three houses beyond the ultramodern pile with the floodlamps, the beam of a big flashlight suddenly speared out of the darkness and the rain, fixing on Del.
The man behind the light shouted, ‘Stop right there!’
Without any cry of warning, another guy erupted from the gloom and blindsided Tommy, as if they were pro¬fessional football players and this were the Superbowl.
They both skidded and went down on the slick concrete decking, and Tommy landed so hard that his breath was knocked out of him. He rolled into some patio chairs that tumbled over with a tubular-steel ringing. Stars swarmed behind his eyes, and he cracked his left elbow squarely on the ulnar nerve — the ill-named funny bone — sending a disabling painful tingle the length of his arm.
To the man with the flashlight, Del Payne said, ‘Back off, you as**ole, I’ve got a gun, back off, back off!’
Tommy realized that he had dropped the Mossberg. In spite of the numbing pain in his left arm, wheezing noisily as he struggled to get some air into his lungs, he pushed onto his hands and knees. He was desperate to find the weapon.
The foolhardy tackler was sprawled facedown, groan¬ing, apparently in even worse shape than Tommy. As far as Tommy was concerned, the stupid son of a bitch deserved to have a broken leg, two broken legs, and maybe a skull fracture for good measure. At first he had assumed that the men were cops, but they hadn’t identified themselves as policemen, and now he realized that they evidently lived here and fancied themselves to be natural-born heroes ready to take on a pair of fleeing burglars.
As Tommy crawled past the groaning man, he heard Del say, ‘Get that damn light out of my eyes right now, or I’ll shoot it out and take you with it.’
The other would-be hero’s courage wavered, and so did his flashlight.
By a stroke of luck, the nervous beam quivered across the patio, revealing the shotgun.
Tommy crawled to the Mossberg.
The man who’d tackled him had managed to sit up. He was spitting out something — possibly teeth — and cursing.
Clutching at another patio table, Tommy pulled him¬self to his feet just as Scootie began to bark loudly, urgently.
Tommy glanced to the east and saw the fat man two properties away, silhouetted against the bright backdrop of the floodlamps at the ultramodern house. As the Samaritan raced toward them, leaping a low fence into the property next door, he was no longer the least bit clumsy but as graceful as a panther in spite of his size, his raincoat billowing like a cape behind him.
Snarling fiercely, Scootie moved to intercept the fat man.
‘Scootie, no!’ Del shouted.
Assuming a shooter’s stance as naturally as if she had been born with a gun in her hands, she opened fire with the Desert Eagle when the Samaritan cleared a hedge and splashed onto this patio, where they were apparently going to be forced to make their last stand. She squeezed off three rounds with what seemed to be calm delibera¬tion. The evenly timed explosions were so thunderous that Tommy thought the recoil of the powerful handgun would knock her flat, but she stood tall.
She was an excellent shot, and all three rounds appeared to hit their target. With the first boom, the Samaritan stopped as if he’d run head-on into a brick wall, and with the second boom, he was half lifted off his feet and sent staggering backward, and with the third, he spun and swayed and almost fell.
The hero with the flashlight had thrown it aside and had fallen to the deck to get out of the line of fire.
The tooth-spitter was still sitting on the puddled con¬crete, legs splayed in an infantile posture, hands clasped to his head. He was apparently frozen in terror.
Edging away from the patio table, toward Del and Scootie, Tommy remained riveted by the wounded Samaritan who was turned half away from them, who
had taken three rounds from the .44 Magnum, who swayed but did not drop, did not drop.
Did. Not. Drop.
The hood was no longer over the fat man’s head, but the darkness still masked the side of his face. Then he slowly turned toward Tommy and Del, and though his features remained obscure, his extraordinary eyes fixed on them and on the growling Labrador. They were radiant, green, inhuman eyes.
Scootie’s growl degenerated into a whimper, and Tommy knew exactly how he felt.
With admirable calm, made of sterner stuff than either Tommy or Scootie, Del squeezed off shot after shot with the Desert Eagle. The explosions crashed across the harbour and echoed off the far shore, and they were still echoing back and forth after she had emptied the magazine.
Every round appeared to hit the fat man, because he jerked, twitched, doubled over but then snapped upright as if in response to the impact of another slug, executed a limb-flapping marionette-like spin, and at last went down. He landed on one side, knees drawn up in the foetal position, and the frosty beam of the would-be hero’s flashlight, which lay discarded on the patio, illuminated one of the Samaritan’s white, thick-fingered hands. He seemed to be dead, but certainly was not.
‘Let’s get out of here,’ Del said.
Scootie was already leaping across a hedge, into the backyard of the next house to the west.
The roar of the .44 Magnum had been so daunting that most of the barking dogs along the harbour had fallen silent, no longer eager to escape their pens.
In the silvery beam of the flashlight, the Samaritan’s plump white hand lay cupped, palm up, filling with rain. Then it spasmed, and the pale flesh grew mottled and dark.
‘Oh, shit,’ Tommy said.
Impossibly, the fingers metamorphosed into spatulate tentacles and then into spiky insectile digits with wicked chitinous hooks at each knuckle.
The entire shadowed mass of the fallen Samaritan seemed to be shifting, pulsating. Changing.
‘Seen enough, outta here,’ Del declared, and she hur¬ried after Scootie.
Tommy searched for the courage to approach the creature and fire the shotgun pointblank into its brain. By the time that he could reach the beast, however, it might have transformed itself so radically that it would have nothing that was recognizably a head. Besides, intuitively he knew that no number of rounds from the Mossberg —or any other gun — would destroy it.
‘Tommy!’ Del called frantically from the patio of the house next door.
‘Run, get out of here,’ Tommy advised the homeowner who was prone on the concrete deck.
The man seemed traumatized by all the gunfire, con¬fused. He started to push on to his knees, but then he must have glimpsed the shotgun, because he pleaded, ‘No, don’t, Jesus, don’t,’ and pressed flat to the deck again.
‘Run, for God’s sake, run, before it recovers from the shots,’ Tommy urged the second man, the tooth-spitter, who continued to sit in a daze. ‘Please, run.’
Heeding his own advice, he followed Del, grateful that he had not broken a leg when he’d been tackled.
In the distance, a siren wailed.
When Tommy, Del, and the dog were two proper¬ties away from the scene of the confrontation, one of the would-be heroes screamed in the night behind them.
Tommy skidded to a halt on a slate patio at a Tudor house and looked toward the cries.
Not much could be seen in the rain and murk. Shadows thrashed against the backdrop of security lights from the ultramodern house farther east. Some were decidedly strange shadows, huge and quick, jagged and jittering, but he would have been indulging his fevered imagina¬tion if he had claimed to see a monster in the night.
Now two men were screaming. Terrible screams. Blood-freezing. They shrieked as though they were being wrenched limb from limb, slit open, torn apart.
The demon would allow no witnesses.
Perhaps a sound reached Tommy of which he was only subliminally aware, a voracious chewing, or perhaps some quality of the two men’s soul-curdling screams spoke to him on a primitive level and inspired racial memories of a prehistoric age when human beings had been easy prey to larger beasts, but somehow he knew that they were not merely being slaughtered; they were being devoured.
When the police arrived, they might not find much left of the victims on that patio. Perhaps nothing other than a little blood — and not even blood after a few more minutes of cleansing rain. The two men would seem to have vanished.
Tommy’s stomach twisted with nausea.
If his arm hadn’t still been tingling from the blow to his funny bone, if his muscles and joints hadn’t ached from the fall and burned with fatigue, if he had not been shivering from the cold, he might have thought that he was in a nightmare. But he was suffering enough discomfort and pain that he had no need to pinch himself to determine if he were awake.
More than one siren cleaved the night, and they were rapidly drawing nearer.
Scootie ran, Del ran, Tommy ran once more, as one of the men stopped screaming, stopped being able to scream, and then the second man’s cries choked off as
well, and not a single dog was barking any more, all silenced by the scent of something otherworldly, while the harbour gradually filled with an incoming tide and the earth rotated inexorably toward dawn.
Under the roof of the silent and unmoving carousel among the herd of colourful horses frozen in mid-gallop, Tommy and Del found a two-person chariot with carved eagles on the sides. They were glad to be out of the rain and to have a chance, however brief, to rest.
Ordinarily the perimeter of the carousel was covered when it was not in use, but this night it stood open to the elements.
Scootie quietly prowled among the horses, circling the elevated platform, apparently on sentry duty, ready to warn them if the demon approached in either its Samaritan guise or any other.
The Balboa Fun Zone, arguably the heart of the pen¬insula’s important tourist business, extended for a few blocks along Edgewater Avenue, a pedestrian mall that did not admit vehicular traffic west of Main Street. Numerous gift shops, Pizza Pete’s, ice-cream stands, restaurants, Balboa Saloon, arcades offering video games and pinball and skee-ball, boat-rental operations, bumper cars, a Ferris wheel, the carousel on which Tommy and Del sat, Lazer Tag, docks for various companies offering guided-tour cruises, and other diversions lined Edgewater, with views of the dazzling harbour and its islands to be glimpsed between the attractions on the north side.
In spring, summer, and autumn — or on any warm
day in the winter — tourists and sun lovers strolled this promenade, taking a break from the Pacific surf and from the beaches on the opposite side of the narrow penin¬sula. Newlyweds, elderly couples, spectacular-looking young women in bikinis, lean and tanned young men in shorts, and children walked-skated-rollerbladed among veterans in wheelchairs and babies in strollers, enjoying the glitter of sunlight on water, eating ice cream cones, roasted corn from Kountry Corn, popsicles, cookies. Laughter and happy chatter mingled with the music from the carousel, the putter of boat engines, and the ceaseless ring-beep-pong-bop from the game arcades.
At two-thirty, on this stormy November morning, the Fun Zone was deserted. The only sounds were those made by the rain as it drummed hollowly on the carousel roof, pinged off the brass poles on the outer circle of horses, snapped against festoons of limp vinyl pennants, and drizzled through the fronds of the queen palms along the harbour side of the promenade. This was a lonely music, the forlorn and tuneless anthem of desolation.
The shops and other attractions were shuttered and dark but for an occasional security lantern. On summer evenings, when augmented by the neon and the spark¬ling Tivoli lights of the arcades and rides, the old bronze lampposts with frosted-glass globes — some round, most in the form of urns with finials — provided an appealing and romantic glow; then everything glimmered, includ¬ing the great mirror that was the harbour, and the world was scintillant, effervescent. But now the lamplight was strangely bleak, cold, too feeble to prevent the crushing weight of the November night from pressing low over the Fun Zone.
Extracting a shotgun shell from a pocket in her ski jacket, Del spoke in a murmur that would not carry beyond the carousel: ‘Here. You only fired one round, I think.’
‘Yeah,’ Tommy said, matching her soft tone.
‘Keep it fully loaded.’
‘Those poor damn guys,’ he lamented as he slid the shell into the magazine tube on the Mossberg. ‘What horrible deaths.’
‘It’s not your fault,’ she said.
‘They wouldn’t have been there, the thing wouldn’t have been there, if I hadn’t been there.’
‘It’s upsetting,’ she agreed. ‘But you were only trying to stay alive, running for your life, and they stepped in.’
‘Obviously, they were marked for an unnatural extrac¬tion.’
‘From this world. If the thing in the fat man hadn’t gotten them, then they would have been taken in some other unusual way. Like spontaneous combustion. Or an encounter with a lycanthrope.’
‘Lycanthrope? Werewolf?’ He wasn’t able to deal with her weirdness just now, so he changed the subject. ‘Where the hell did you learn to shoot like that? Your mother again?’
‘Daddy. He taught Mom and me, wanted us to be prepared for anything. Pistols, revolvers, rifles, shotguns. I can handle an Uzi as if I was born with it, and—’
‘Yeah. And when it comes to—’
‘—when it comes to knife throwing—’
‘Knife throwing?’ Tommy said, and realized that he had raised his voice.
‘—I’m good enough to put together a stage act and make a living with it in Vegas or even the circus, if I ever had to,’ Del continued in a murmur as she unzipped another pocket and took from it a handful of cartridges