Page 8 of Tick Tock

While the creature was building a nest — or doing whatever the hell it was doing in there — Tommy might be able to sneak down to the garage, siphon a quart of gasoline out of the Corvette, grab a pack of matches from a drawer in the kitchen, and return to set the sofa on fire.


No. No, that would take too long. The repulsive little creepozoid would realize that he was gone, and when he came back, the thing probably wouldn’t be inside the sofa any more.


Now the mini-kin was quiet, which didn’t mean that it was taking a nap. It was scheming at something.


Tommy needed to scheme too. Desperately.


Think, think.


Because of the light-beige carpet, Tommy kept one can of spot remover downstairs and another upstairs in the master bathroom, so he would be able to attack an accidental spill of Pepsi — or whatever — before it became a permanent stain. The can contained approximately one


pint of fluid, and in bold red letters the label warned highly flammable.


Highly flammable. That had a pleasant ring to it. Highly flammable, hugely flammable, spectacularly flammable, explosively flammable — no words in the English language sounded sweeter than those.


And on the hearth of the small fireplace in the master bedroom was a battery-sparked butane match with which he could light the gas under the ceramic logs. He should be able to leave the office, grab the spot remover, pluck the match off the hearth, and return here in a minute, maybe less.


One minute. Even as clever as it seemed to be, the mini-kin probably wouldn’t realize that Tommy was out of the room for that brief time.


So now who’s going to be toast?


Tommy smiled at the thought.


From deep in the mysterious creature’s upholstered haven came a creaking and then a sharp twang.


Tommy flinched - and lost his smile.


The beast fell silent once more. It was up to something, all right. But what?


If Tommy retrieved the spot remover and set the sofa on fire, the flames would spread across the carpet and swiftly to the walls. The house might burn down, even if he telephoned the fire department immediately after setting the blaze.


He was fully insured, of course, but the insurance company would refuse to pay if arson was suspected. The fire marshal would probably investigate and discover traces of an accelerant — the spot remover — in the rubble. Tommy would never be able to convince them that he had set the fire as an act of self-defence.


Nevertheless, he was going to ease open the door, step quietly into the hallway, sprint for the can of spot remover, and take his chances with—


From the mini-kin’s lair came the sound of fabric ripping, and one of the seat cushions was dislodged by the beast as it tore out of the sofa directly in front of Tommy. In one dark bony hand it held a six-inch length of a broken seat spring: a spiral of gleaming eighth-inch steel wire.


Shrieking with rage and mindless hatred, its piercing voice as shrill as an electronic oscillation, the creature flung itself off the sofa and at Tommy with such force and velocity that it almost seemed to fly.


He scrambled out of its way, reflexively firing — and wasting — one more round from the P7.


The beast hadn’t been attacking, after all. The lunge had been a feint. It dropped to the carpet and streaked past Tommy, across the office, around the corner of the desk, and out of sight, moving at least as fast as a rat, although running on its hind feet as if it were a man.


Tommy went after it, hoping to comer it and jam the muzzle of the Heckler & Koch against its head and squeeze off one-two-three rounds at zero range, smash its brain if, indeed, it had a brain, because maybe that would devastate it as a single bullet in the guts had failed to do.


When Tommy followed the mini-kin around the desk, he discovered it at an electrical outlet, looking back and up at him. The creature appeared to be grinning through its mask of rags as it jammed the steel spring into the receptacle.


Power surged through bare steel — cracklesnap — and outside in the fuse box, a breaker tripped, and all the lights went out except for a shower of gold and blue sparks that cascaded over the mini-kin. Those fireworks lasted only an instant, however, and then darkness claimed the room.


THREE


Depleted by distance and filtered by trees, the yellowish glow of the streetlamps barely touched the windows. Rain shimmered down the glass, glimmering with a few dull-brass reflections, but none of that light penetrated to the room.


Tommy was frozen by shock, effectively blind, unable to see anything in the room and trying not to see the fearsome images that his imagination conjured in his mind.


The only sounds were the rataplan of rain on the roof and the moaning of wind in the eaves.


Undoubtedly the doll-thing was alive. The electricity hadn’t fazed it any more than a .40-caliber bullet in the midsection.


Tommy clutched the P7 as if it possessed magical power and could protect him from all the known and unknown terrors of the universe, whether physical or spiritual. In fact, the weapon was useless to him in this saturant darkness. He couldn’t stun the mini-kin with a well-placed shot if he couldn’t see it.


He supposed that by now it had dropped the twisted piece of steel spring and had turned away from the electrical outlet. It would be facing him in the gloom. Grinning through its mummy rags.


Maybe he should open fire, squeeze off all nine shots remaining in the magazine, aiming for the general area


where the creature had been when the lights went out. He was almost sure to get lucky with one or two rounds out of nine, for God’s sake, even if he wasn’t any Chip Nguyen. With the mini-kin stunned and twitching, Tommy could run into the second-floor hallway, slam the door between them, leap down the stairs two at a time, and get out of the house.


He didn’t know what the hell he would do after that, where he would go in this rain-swept night, to whom he would turn for help. All he knew was that to have any chance of survival whatsoever, he had to escape from this place.


He was loath to squeeze the trigger and empty the gun.


If he didn’t stun the mini-kin with a blind shot, he would never get to the door. It would catch him, climb his leg and his back with centipede-like quickness, bite the nape of his neck, slip around to his throat, and burrow-for-chew-at-tear-out his carotid artery while he flailed ineffectively — or it would scramble straight over his head, intent upon gouging out his eyes.


He wasn’t just letting his imagination carry him away this time. He could vividly sense the thing’s intentions, as though on some level he was in psychic contact with it.


If the attack came after the pistol magazine was empty, Tommy would panic, stumble, crash into furniture, fall. Once he fell, he would never have a chance to get to his feet again.


Better to conserve ammunition.


He backed up one step, two, but then he halted, overcome by the awful certainty that the little beast was not, after all, in front of him where it had been when the lights failed, but behind him. It had circled him as he had dithered; now it was creeping closer.


Spinning around a hundred and eighty degrees, he thrust the pistol toward the suspected threat.


He was facing into a portion of the room that was even blacker than the end with the windows. He might as well have been adrift at the farthest empty edge of the universe to which the matter and the energy of creation had not yet expanded.


He held his breath.


He listened but could not hear the mini-kin.


Only the rain.


The rain.


The rattling rain.


What scared him most about the intruder was not its monstrous and alien appearance, not its fierce hostility, not its physical spryness or speed, not its rodent-like size that triggered primal fears, and not even the fundamental mystery of its very existence. What sent chills up the hollow of Tommy’s spine and squeezed more cold sweat from him was the new realization that the thing was highly intelligent.


Initially he had assumed that he was dealing with an animal, an unknown and clever beast but a beast none¬theless. When it thrust the steel spiral into the electrical outlet, however, it revealed a complex and frightening nature. To be able to adapt a simple sofa spring into an essential tool, to understand the electrical system of the house well enough to disable the office circuit, the beast was not only able to think but was possessed of sophis¬ticated knowledge that no mere animal could acquire.


The worst thing Tommy could do was trust to his own animal instincts when his adversary was stalking him with the aid of cold reason and logical deliberation. Sometimes the deer did escape the rifleman by natural wiles, yes, but far more often than not, higher intelligence gave the human hunter an advantage that the deer could never hope to overcome.


So he must carefully think through each move before he made it. Otherwise he was doomed.


He might be doomed anyway.


This was no longer a rat hunt.


The mini-kin’s strategic imposition of darkness revealed that this was a contest between equals. Or at least Tommy hoped it was a contest between equals, because if they weren’t equals, then this was a rat hunt after all, and he was the rat.


By opting for darkness, had the creature merely been trying to minimize Tommy’s size advantage and the threat of the gun — or did it gain an advantage of its own from the darkness? Perhaps, like a cat, it could see as well — or better — at night as it could in daylight.


Or maybe, in the manner of a bloodhound, it could track him by his scent.


If the thing benefited from both the superior intelli¬gence of a human being and the more acute senses of an animal, Tommy was screwed.


‘What do you want?’ he asked aloud.


He would not have been surprised if a small whispery voice had responded. Indeed, he almost hoped it would speak to him. Whether it spoke or only hissed, its reply would reveal its location — maybe even clearly enough to allow him to open fire.


‘Why me?’ he asked.


The mini-kin made no sound.


Tommy would have been astonished if such a creature had crawled out of the woodwork one day or squirmed from a hole in the backyard. He might have assumed that the thing was extraterrestrial in nature or that it had escaped from a secret genetic-engineering laboratory where a scientist with a conscience deficit had been hard at work on biological weapons. He had seen all the appli¬cable scary movies: He had the requisite background for such speculation.


But how much more astonishing that this thing had been placed on his doorstep in the form of a nearly


featureless rag doll out of which it had either burst or swiftly metamorphosed. He had never seen any movie that could provide him with an adequate explanation for that.


Swinging the Heckler & Koch slowly from side to side, he tried again to elicit a telltale response from the tiny intruder: ‘What are you?’


The mini-kin, in its original white cotton skin, brought to mind voodoo, of course, but a voodoo doll was nothing like this creature. A voodoo doll was simply a crude fetish, believed to have magical potency, fashioned in the image of the person meant to be harmed, accessorized with a lock of his hair, or with a few of his nail clippings, or with a drop of his blood. Solemnly convinced that any damage done to the fetish would befall the real person as well, the torturer then stuck it full of pins, or burned it, or ‘drowned’ it in a bucket of water, but the doll was never actually animate. It never showed up on the doorstep of the intended victim to bedevil and assault him.


Nevertheless, into the gloom and the incessant drum¬ming of the rain, Tommy said, ‘Voodoo?’


Whether this was voodoo or not, the most important thing he had to learn was who had made the doll. Someone had scissored the cotton fabric and sewn it into the shape of a gingerbread man, and someone had stuffed the empty form with a substance that felt like sand but proved to be a hell of a lot stranger than sand. The doll maker was his ultimate enemy, not the critter that was stalking him.


He was never going to find the doll maker by waiting for the mini-kin to make the next move. Action, not reaction, was the source of solutions.


Because he had established a dialogue with the little beast, even if its every response was the choice not to respond, Tommy was more confident than at any time since he’d felt the insectoid squirming of the creature’s


heartbeat beneath his thumb. He was a writer, so using words gave him a comforting sense of control.


Perhaps the questions he tossed into the darkness diminished the mini-kin’s confidence in direct proportion to the degree that they increased his own. If phrased crisply and spoken with authority, his questions might convince the beast that its prey wasn’t afraid of it and wasn’t likely to be easily overpowered. Anyway, he was reassured to think this might be the case.


His strategy was akin to one he would have used if confronted by a growling dog: Show no fear.


Unfortunately, he had already shown more than a little fear, so he needed to rehabilitate his image. He wished he could stop sweating; he wondered if the thing could smell his perspiration.


Behind his armour of forcefully stated questions, he found the courage to move toward the centre of the wall opposite the windows, where the door should be: ‘What are you, dammit? What right do you have to come into my house? Who made you, left you on the porch, rang the bell?’


Tommy bumped into the door, fumbled for the knob, found it — and still the mini-kin did not attack.


When he yanked open the door, he discovered that the lights were also off in the upstairs hall, which shared a circuit with his office. Lamps were aglow on the first floor, and pale light rose at the stairs.


As Tommy crossed the threshold, leaving the office, the mini-kin shot between his legs. He didn’t see it at first, but he heard it hiss and felt it brush against his jeans.


He kicked, missed, kicked again.


A scuttling sound and a snarl revealed that the creature was moving away from him. Fast.


At the head of the stairs, it appeared in silhouette against the rising light. It turned and fixed him with its radiant green eyes.


Tommy squeeze-cocked the P7.


The rag-entwined mini-kin raised one gnarly fist, shook it, and shrieked defiantly. Its cry was small but shrill, piercing, and utterly unlike the voice of anything else on earth.


Tommy took aim.


The creature scrambled down the stairs and out of sight before Tommy could squeeze off a shot.


He was surprised that it was fleeing from him, and then he was relieved. The pistol and his new strategy of showing no fear seemed to have given the beast second thoughts.


As quickly as surprise had given way to relief, how¬ever, relief now turned to alarm. In the gloom and at a distance, he could not be certain, but he thought that the creature had still been holding the six-inch length of spring steel, not in the fist that it had raised but in the hand held at its side.


‘Oh, shit.’


His newfound confidence rapidly draining away, Tommy ran to the stairs.

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