Page 23 of Tick Tock

‘Let’s get out of here,’ Tommy whispered.


‘Wait.’


‘Why?’


‘I want to see it better,’ she said, indicating the three-globe streetlamp past which the fat man would have to come. Her words were almost as faint as exhalations.


‘I have no desire to see it better.’


‘Anyway, we have the guns. We can knock it down again.’


‘We might not be lucky this time.’


‘Scootie can try to misdirect it.’


‘You mean lead it away from us?’


Del didn’t reply.


Ears pricked, head held high, Scootie was clearly ready to do whatever his mistress demanded of him.


Maybe the dog could outrun the creature. Although the thing posing as the portly Samaritan apparently was a supernatural entity, immortal and ultimately unstoppable, it too seemed bound by some of the laws of physics, which was why the hard impact of high-calibre ammunition could halt it, knock it down, delay it; consequently, there was no reason to assume that it could move as fast as Scootie, who was smaller, lower to the ground, and designed by nature for speed.


‘But the thing won’t be lured away by the dog,’ Tommy whispered. ‘Del, it isn’t interested in the dog. It only wants me…  and maybe you now.’


‘Hush,’ she said.


In the wintry light from the frosted globes on the nearest lamp, the falling rain appeared to be sleet. The concrete walkway glistened as though coated with ice.


Beyond the light, the rain darkened to tarnished silver and then to ash grey, and out of the greyness came the fat man, walking slowly along the centre of the deserted promenade.


At Tommy’s side, Scootie twitched but made no sound. Holding the shotgun in both hands, Tommy hunched lower behind the carousel stallion. In the windless night, he stared out at the promenade past the perpetually wind-tossed tail of the carved horse.


At the other end of the leaping stallion, Del shrank herself too, watching the Samaritan from under the horse’s neck.


Like a dirigible easing along the ground toward its berth, the fat man advanced as if he were drifting rather than walking, making no splashing sounds on the puddled pavement.


Tommy felt the night grow chillier, as though the demon moved in clouds of cold sufficiently powerful to damp the effect of the harbour’s slow release of the day’s stored heat.


At first the Samaritan-thing was only a grey mass in the grey static of the rain, but then its image cleared as it came forth into the lamplight. It was slightly larger than before, but not as large as it should have been if, indeed, it had devoured two men, every scrap of flesh and splinter of bone.


Realizing how absurd it was to try to rationalize the biology of a supernatural entity, Tommy wondered again if his sanity had fled sometime earlier in the night.


The Samaritan-thing still wore the raincoat, though that garment was punctured and torn, apparently by gunfire. The hood lay rumpled at the back of its neck, and its head was exposed.


The thing’s face was human but inhumanly hard and perhaps no longer capable of gentler expressions, and at a distance the eyes seemed to be human, as well. Most likely this was the moon-round face of the fat man who had stopped to lend assistance at the scene of the Corvette crash. The mind and soul of the fat man were long gone, however, and the thing wearing his form was an entity of such pure hatred and savagery that it could not prevent its true nature from darkling through even the soft features of a face well suited to smiles and laughter.


As the thing moved more directly into the December-pale light, no more than forty feet away, Tommy saw that it cast three distinct shadows, when he might have expected that, like a vampire, it would cast none. For a moment he thought that the shadows were a freakish effect of the three globes on the old streetlamp, but then he noted that they stretched across the wet pavement at angles unrelated to the source of illumination.


When he returned his attention to the creature’s face, he saw its pudgy features change. A far leaner and utterly different face metamorphosed on the rotund body; the nose became more hawkish, the jawline jutted, and the ears flattened tighter to the skull. The rain-soaked mop of thick black hair crinkled into lank blond curls. Then a third countenance replaced the second: that of a slightly older man with brush-cut, iron-grey hair and the square features of the quintessential army drill sergeant.


As he watched the Samaritan’s moon-round visage reappear, Tommy suspected that the other two faces were those of the unlucky men whom the creature had slaughtered a short while ago on the patio behind that


Harbour side house. He shuddered — and feared that the demon would hear the chattering of his teeth even at a distance of forty feet, even through the screening tattoo of the rain.


The beast stepped to the centre of the light fall from the lamp, where it stopped. Its eyes were dark and human one moment, radiant green and unearthly the next.


Because Scootie’s flank was against Tommy’s left leg, he felt the dog shiver.


From the centre of the promenade, the creature sur¬veyed the Fun Zone around it, beginning with the carousel, which was elevated two feet above the public walkway and partially screened by a low, green wrought-iron fence. The terrible eyes, serpent bright and serpent mean, seemed to fix on Tommy, and he could sense the beast’s hellish hunger.


The old carousel was crowded with shadows that outnumbered the riders who, for decades, had mounted its tail-chasing steeds, so it seemed unlikely that Tommy and Del and Scootie could be seen in such blackish shelter, as long as they remained still. Yet the hateful demon looked upon the world through extraordinary eyes, and Tommy became convinced that it had spotted him as easily as it would have if he had been standing in noontime sun.


But the creature’s gaze slid away from him. The demon studied Bay Burger to the west, then looked north across the promenade to the dark Ferris wheel and the Fun Zone Boat Company.


It knows we’re nearby, Tommy thought.


Opposite the elevated carousel were lush palm trees gracing an open-air dining terrace with views of boat docks and the harbour beyond. Turning its back to the horses, the demon slowly surveyed the fixed tables, benches, trash containers, empty bicycle racks, and drip¬ping trees.


On the terrace, two additional three-globe lampposts shed more of the icy light that seemed, in this strange night, to reveal less than it should. The area was well enough illuminated, however, for the creature to ascer¬tain, at a glance, that its prey was not hiding there. Nevertheless, it spent an inordinate amount of time studying the terrace, as if doubting its own eyes, as if it thought that Tommy and Del were able, chameleon-like, to assume the visual character of any background and effectively disappear.


Finally the beast looked west again along the prom¬enade and then focused once more on the carousel. Its radiant gaze travelled over the shadowed horses only briefly before it turned to stare east, back the way that it had come, as if it suspected that it had passed their hiding place.


It seemed confused. Indeed, its frustration was almost palpable. The thing sensed that they were close, but it could not catch their scent — or whatever more exotic spoor it tracked.


Tommy realized that he was holding his breath. He let it out and inhaled slowly through his open mouth, half convinced that even a breath drawn too sharply would instantly attract the hunter’s attention.


Considering that the creature had tracked them many miles across the county to the New World Saigon Bakery and later had found them again at Del’s house, its current inability to detect them from only forty feet away was baffling.


The creature turned to the carousel.


Tommy held his breath again.


The serpent-eyed Samaritan raised its plump hands and moved its flattened palms in circles in the rain-filled air, as though wiping off a dirty pane of glass.


Seeking psychic impressions, some sign of us, trying to get a clearer view, Tommy thought.


He tightened his grip on the Mossberg.


Round and round, round and round, the pale hands moved, like radar dishes, seeking signals.


Tick.


Tock.


Tommy sensed that their time and luck were rapidly running out, that the demon’s inhuman senses would lock onto them at any second.


Sailing down from the night above the harbour, wings thrumming, as ethereal as an angel but as swift as a flash of light, a large seagull swooped past the demon’s pale hands and arced up into the darkness from which it had come.


The Samaritan-thing lowered its hands.


The gull plummeted once more, wings cleaving the chilled air and the rain in a breathtaking display of graceful aerobatics. As radiant as a haunting spirit in the frost-white light, it swept past the demon’s upraised hands again, and then rocketed heavenward in a spiral.


The Samaritan-thing peered up at the bird, turning to watch it as it wheeled across the sky.


Something important was happening, something mysterious and profound, which Tommy could not comprehend.


He glanced at Del for her reaction, but her attention remained riveted on the demon, and he could not see her face.


At Tommy’s side, flank pressed against his leg, the Labrador quivered.


The seagull circled back across the harbour and swooped down into the Fun Zone again. Flying only a few feet above the surface of the promenade, it sailed past the demon and disappeared between the shops and arcades to the east.


The serpent-eyed Samaritan stared intently after the gull, clearly intrigued. Its arms hung at its sides, and it


repeatedly flexed and fisted its plump hands as though working off the excess energy of rage and frustration.


From overhead and west near the stilled Ferris wheel came the thrumming of many wings, as eight or ten seagulls descended in a flock.


The demon swung around to face them. Breaking out of their steep dive only a few feet above the ground, the gulls streaked after the first bird, swarming straight toward the demon and then parting. into two groups that swept around it, disappearing east on Edgewater Avenue. None of them cawed or shrieked in their characteristic manner; but for the air-cutting whoosh of their wings, they passed in eerie silence,


Captivated, curious, the Samaritan-thing faced east to watch them depart.


It took a step after them, another step, but then halted.


Through the wintry lamplight fell sleet-white rain. The demon took another step east. Stopped. Stood swaying.


At the nearby docks, boats creaked on the rising tide, and a halyard clink-clink-clinked against a steel mast.


The Samaritan-thing directed its attention once more to the carousel.


Out of the west came a drumming different from — and louder than — the rain.


The beast turned toward the Ferris wheel, tilting its face up, peering into the bottomless black sky, raising its plump white hands, as though either seeking the source of the drumming or preparing to fend off an assault.


Out of the swarming darkness above the harbour, birds descended once more, not merely eight or ten, but a hundred birds, two hundred, three hundred, seagulls and pigeons and sparrows and blackbirds and crows and hawks, even several enormous and startlingly prehistoric-looking blue heron, beaks open but producing


no sound, a river of feathers and small shiny eyes, pour¬ing down over the Ferris wheel, along the promenade, splitting into two streams to pass the demon, and then rejoining in a single surging mass to disappear east between the shops and arcades, and still they came, a hundred more and then a hundred behind them, and hundreds arcing down after them, as though the sky would disgorge birds forever, the drumming of frantic pinions reverberating off every hard surface with such formidable volume that it was reminiscent of the freight-train rumble of a medium-magnitude earthquake.


On the carousel, Tommy felt the vibration of the wings, waves of pressure against his face and against his marvelling eyes, and his tympanic membranes began to flutter in sympathy, so that it felt as though the wings themselves, not merely the sound of them, were in his ears. The humid air carried the faint ammonia scent of damp feathers.


He remembered something that Del had said earlier in the night: The world is full of strange stuff Don’t you watch ‘The X Files’?


Although the spectacle of the birds left Tommy as clueless as he was wonderstruck, he suspected that Del understood what was happening, that what was deepest mystery to him was as clear as rainwater to her.


With the apparently infinite flock swooping around the demon, it turned away from the Ferris wheel, and stared east toward where the birds disappeared into the night past the Balboa Pavilion. It hesitated. Took a step in that direction. Stopped. Took another step.


As though finally interpreting the winged visitation as a sign that it could not ignore, the beast broke into a run, drawn by the birds in the night ahead of it, encouraged by the birds rocketing past on both sides of it, harried by the birds behind it. The torn raincoat flapped like great tattered wings, but the Samaritan-thing


remained earthbound, borne east by birds and bird shadows.


For perhaps a minute after the Samaritan-thing passed out of sight, the birds continued to descend from the stormy sky above the Ferris wheel to the west, sail along Edgewater Avenue past the carousel, and disappear to the east. Gradually the flock grew thinner, until it ended with a few blackbirds, two gulls, and a single blue heron at least three feet tall.


The blackbirds abruptly broke from their pell-mell eastward flight, spiralled over the dining terrace as if battling one another, and then fell to the promenade, where they fluttered on the wet concrete as though stunned.


The two seagulls landed on the pavement, stumbled forward, flopped on their sides, squawked in distress, sprang to their feet, and wobble-walked in circles, bob¬bing their heads, apparently dazed and confused.


Stalk-legged and ungainly in appearance, the giant blue heron was nevertheless a graceful creature — except in this instance. It tottered off the promenade onto the dining terrace, weaving around the boles of the palm trees, curling and bending its long neck as if the muscles were so loose that it couldn’t hold its head up, in general performing as if inebriated.


One by one the blackbirds stopped flopping on the con¬crete, hopped onto their feet, shook themselves, spread their wings, and soared into the air.


The pair of gulls regained their composure. They also took wing and disappeared into the deep black sky above the harbour.


Having regained its equilibrium, the heron sprang onto one of the tables on the dining terrace and stood erect, its head held high, surveying the night on all sides, as if surprised to find itself in this place. Then it, too, departed.


Tommy sucked in a deep cool breath and blew it out and said, ‘What the hell was that?’


‘Birds,’ Del said.


‘I know they were birds, even a blind man would know they were birds, but what were they doing?’

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