Page 6 of Tick Tock

Right away he saw one serious problem with that sce¬nario: The Irvine Police Department didn’t have a doll ¬from Hell SWAT team that it customarily dispatched upon request. They didn’t have an anti-werewolf strike

force, either, or a vampire-vice squad. This was southern California, after all, not darkest Transylvania or New York City.

The authorities would probably write him off as a crackpot akin to those people who reported being raped by Bigfoot or who wore homemade aluminium-foil hats to defeat the sinister extraterrestrials who were supposedly attempting to enslave them with microwave beams broadcast from the mother ship. The cops wouldn’t bother to send anyone in answer to his call.

Or worse, no matter how calmly he described the encounter with the doll, the police might decide that he was suffering a psychotic episode and was a danger to himself and to others. Then he could be committed to a hospital psychiatric ward for observation.

Usually a young writer, struggling to build a reader¬ship, needed all the publicity he could get. But Tommy wasn’t able to imagine how his publisher’s promotion of his future novels could be enhanced by a press kit filled with stories about his vacation in a psycho ward and photographs of him in a chic straitjacket. That wasn’t exactly a John Grisham image.

His head was pressed so hard against the door that his ear began to ache, but still he heard no further noises.

Moving back one step, he put his left hand on the brass knob. It was cool against his palm.

The pistol in his right hand now seemed to weigh forty pounds. The weapon looked powerful. With its thirteen-round magazine, it should have given him confidence, but he continued to tremble.

Although he would have liked to walk out and never return, he couldn’t do that. He was a homeowner. The house was an investment that he couldn’t afford to abandon, and bankers seldom cancelled mortgages as a result of devil-doll infestations.

He was virtually immobilized, and his indecisiveness

deeply shamed him. Chip Nguyen, the hardboiled detective whose fictional adventures Tommy chronicled, was seldom troubled by doubt. Chip always knew the best thing to do in the most precarious situations. Usually his solutions involved his fists, or a gun, or any blunt instrument close at hand, or a knife wrenched away from his crazed assailant.

Tommy had a gun, a really good gun, a first-rate gun, and his potential assailant was only ten inches tall, but he could not force himself to open the damn door. Chip Nguyen’s assailants were usually well over six feet tall (except for the demented nun in Murder Is a Bad Habit), and frequently they were virtual giants, usually steroid-pumped bodybuilders with massive biceps that made Schwarzenegger look like a sissy.

Wondering how he could ever again write about a man of action if he failed to act decisively in his own moment of crisis, Tommy finally threw off the chains of paralysis and slowly turned the doorknob. The well-lubricated mechanism didn’t squeak — but if the doll was watching, it would see the knob rotate, and it might leap at him the moment that he entered the room.

Just as Tommy had turned the doorknob as far as it would go, a thunderous crash shook the house, rattling window panes. He gasped, let go of the knob, backed across the hall, and assumed a shooter’s stance with the Heckler & Koch gripped in both hands and aimed at the office door.

Then he realized that the crash was thunderous pre¬cisely because it was thunder.

When the first peal faded to a soft rumble in a distant corner of the sky, he glanced toward the end of the hallway, where pale flickers of lightning played across the window as a second hard explosion shook the night.

He recalled watching the sable-black clouds roll in

from the sea and shroud the moon a little earlier in the evening. Soon the rain would come.

Embarrassed by his overreaction to the thunder, Tommy returned boldly to the office door. He opened it.

Nothing leaped at him.

The only light issued from the desk lamp, leaving deep and dangerous shadows throughout the room. Nevertheless, Tommy was able to see that the mini-kin was not on the floor immediately beyond the doorway.

He stepped across the threshold, fumbled for the wall switch, and turned on the ceiling light. Quicker than a litter of black cats, shadows fled behind and under the furniture.

In the sudden brightness, the mini-kin was not revealed. The creature was no longer on the desk — unless it was crouched against the far side of the computer monitor, waiting for him to venture closer.

When he had entered the office, Tommy had intended to leave the door open behind him, so he could get out fast should a hasty retreat seem wise. Now, however, he realized that were the doll to escape this room, he would have little chance of locating it when required to search the entire house.

He closed the door and stood with his back against it.

Prudence required that he proceed as though on a rat hunt. Keep the little beast confined to one room. Search methodically under the desk. Under the sofa. Behind the pair of filing cabinets. Search in every cranny where the vermin might be hiding until, at last, it was flushed into the open.

The pistol wasn’t the most desirable weapon for a rat hunt. A shovel might have been better. He could have beaten the creature to death with a shovel, but hitting a small target with a round from a pistol might not be easy, even though he was a good marksman.

For one thing, he wouldn’t have the leisure to aim carefully and squeeze off a well-calculated shot as he did on the target range. Instead, he would have to conduct himself in the manner of a soldier at war, relying on instinct and quick reflexes, and he wasn’t sure that he was adequately equipped with either.

‘I am no Chip Nguyen,’ he admitted softly.

Besides, he suspected that the doll-thing was capable of moving fast. Very fast. Even quicker than a rat.

He briefly considered going down to the garage for a shovel but decided that the pistol would have to be good enough. If he left now, he wasn’t confident that he would have the courage to return to the office a second time.

A sudden patter, as of small swift feet, alarmed Tommy. He swung the pistol left, right, left — but then realized that he was hearing only the first fat drops of rain snapping against the clay-tile roof.

His stomach churned with an acidic tide that seemed sufficiently corrosive to dissolve steel nails in an instant if he ate them. Indeed, he felt as though he had eaten about a pound of nails. He wished that he’d had com tay cam for dinner instead of cheeseburgers, stir-fried vegetables with Nuoc Mam sauce instead of onion rings.

Hesitantly he edged across the room and around the desk. The red-pencilled chapter of the latest book and the empty bottle of beer were where he had left them, undisturbed.

The snake-eyed mini-kin was not hiding on the far side of the computer monitor. It wasn’t lurking behind the laser printer, either.

Under the gooseneck desk lamp were two ragged scraps of white cotton fabric. Although somewhat shred¬ded, they had a recognizable mitten like shape — obvi¬ously the cloth that had covered the thing’s hands. They appeared to have been torn off — perhaps chewed off

— at the wrists to free the creature’s real hands from confinement.

Tommy didn’t understand how there could have been any living creature in the doll when he had first handled it and brought it upstairs. The soft cloth casing had seemed to be filled with sand. He had detected no hard edges whatsoever inside the damn thing, no indication of a bone structure, no cranium, no cartilage, none of the firmness of flesh, merely a limpness, a loose shifting, an amorphous quality.

THE DEADLINE IS DAWN no longer glowed on the video display terminal. In the place of that cryp¬tic yet ominous message was a single word: TICK¬TOCK.

Tommy felt as if he had tumbled like poor Alice into a weird alternate world — not down a rabbit hole, however, but into a video game.

He pushed the wheeled office chair out of the way. Holding the pistol in his right hand and thrusting it in front of him, he cautiously stooped to peer into the kneehole in the desk. Banks of drawers flanked that space, and a dark privacy panel shielded the front of it, yet enough light seeped in for him to be sure that the doll-thing was not there.

The banks of drawers were supported on stubby legs, and Tommy had to lower his face all the way to the floor to squint under them as well. He found nothing, and he rose to his feet once more.

To the left of the knee space were one box drawer and a file drawer. To the right was a stack of three box drawers. He eased them open, one at a time, expecting the mini-kin to explode at his face, but he discovered only his usual business supplies, stapler, cellophane-tape dispenser, scissors, pencils, and files.

Outside, driven by a suddenly fierce wind, rain pounded across the roof, roaring like the marching

feet of armies. Raindrops rattled against the windows with a sound as hard as distant gunfire.

The din of the storm would mask the furtive scuttling of the doll-thing if it circled the room to evade him. Or if it crept up behind him.

He glanced over his shoulder, but he wasn’t under imminent attack.

As he searched, he strove to persuade himself that the creature was too small to pose a serious threat to him. A rat was a thoroughly disgusting and frightening little beast too, but it was no match for a grown man and could be dispatched without ever having a chance to inflict a bite. Furthermore, there was no reason to assume that this strange creature’s intention was to harm him any more than he could have had reason to assume that a rat possessed the strength and power and will to plot the murder of a human being.

Nevertheless, he couldn’t convince himself that the threat was less than mortal. His heart continued to race, and his chest was almost painfully tight with apprehension.

He recalled too clearly the radiant green eyes with elliptical black pupils, which had fixed him so threat¬eningly from within the rag face. They were the fierce eyes of a predator.

The brass wastebasket was half filled with crumpled sheets of typing paper and pages from a yellow legal pad. He kicked it to see if he could elicit an alarmed response from anything hiding at the bottom of the trash.

The papers rustled when he kicked the can, but at once they settled again into a silent heap.

From the shallow pencil drawer in the desk, Tommy withdrew a ruler and used it to stir the papers in the wastebasket. He poked it violently down into the trash a few times, but nothing squealed or tried to wrest the ruler from his hand.

Chain lightning flared outside, and with arachnid frenzy, the turbulent black shadows of wind-shaken trees thrashed across the glass. Thunder boomed, thunder roared, and thunder tumbled down the coal chute of the night.

Across the room from the desk, a sofa stood against the wall, under framed reproductions of movie posters advertising two of his favourite films. Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward C. Robinson in James

M. Cain’s Double Indemnity. Bogart and Bacall in Dark Passage.

Occasionally, when his writing wasn’t going well, especially when he was stuck for an engaging plot twist, Tommy stretched out on the sofa, his head elevated on the two decorative red pillows, did some deep-breathing exercises, let his mind drift, and gave his imagination a chance to work. Often he solved the problem within an hour and went back to work. More often he fell asleep

— and woke with a flush of shame at his laziness, sticky with perspiration and excessive guilt.

Now Tommy gingerly moved the two red throw pillows. The mini-kin wasn’t hiding behind either of them.

The sofa was built to the floor rather than sup¬ported on legs. Consequently, nothing could be hiding under it.

The doll-thing might be behind the sofa, however, and to move such a heavy piece away from the wall, Tommy needed both hands. He would have to put aside the pistol; but he was reluctant to let go of it.

He worriedly surveyed the room.

The only movement was the vaguely phosphorescent wriggle of the rain streaming down the windows.

He placed the gun on a sofa cushion, within easy reach, and he dragged that heavy piece of furniture away from the wall, sure that something hideous, half clothed in

torn cotton rags, would come at him, shrieking.

He was uneasily aware of how vulnerable his ankles were to sharp little teeth.

Furthermore, he should have tucked the legs of his jeans into his socks or clamped them shut with rubber bands, as he would have done in an actual rat hunt. He shuddered at the thought of something squirming up the inside of a pants leg, clawing and biting him as it ascended.

The mini-kin had not taken refuge behind the sofa.

Relieved but also frustrated, Tommy left the cumber¬some piece standing away from the wall, and he picked up the pistol.

He carefully lifted each of the three square sofa cushions. Nothing waited under them.

Perspiration stung the comer of his right eye. He blotted his face on the sleeve of his flannel shirt and blinked frantically to clear his vision.

The only place left to search was a mahogany credenza to the right of the door, in which he stored reams of typing paper and other supplies. By standing to one side of the cabinet, he was able to peer into the narrow space behind it and satisfy himself that nothing lurked between it and the wall.

The credenza had two pair of doors. He considered firing a few rounds through them before he dared to look inside, but at last he opened them and poked among the supplies without finding the tiny intruder.

Standing in the middle of the office, Tommy turned slowly in a circle, trying to spot the hiding place that he had overlooked. After making a three hundred sixty degree sweep, he was as baffled as ever. He seemed to have searched everywhere.

Yet he was certain that the doll-thing was still in this room. It could not have escaped during the short time that he had been gone to fetch the pistol. Besides, he

sensed its hateful presence, the coiled energy of its predatory patience.

He felt something watching him even now.

But watching from where?

‘Come on, damn you, show yourself,’ he said.

In spite of the perspiration that sheathed him and the tremor that periodically fluttered through his belly, Tommy was gaining confidence by the minute. He felt that he was handling this bizarre situation with remarkable aplomb, conducting himself with sufficient courage and calculation to impress even Chip Nguyen.

‘Come on. Where? Where?’

Lightning flashed at the windows, and tree shadows ran spider-quick over glass and streaming rain, and like a warning voice, the tolling thunder seemed to call Tommy’s attention to the drapes.

The drapes. They didn’t extend all the way to the floor, hung only an inch or two below the bottoms of the windows, so he hadn’t thought that the mini-kin could be hiding behind them. But perhaps somehow it had climbed two and a half feet of wall — or had leaped high enough — to snare one of the drapes, and then had pulled itself upward into concealment.