Page 9 of Tick Tock

The mini-kin wasn’t in sight.


Tommy descended the steps two at a time. He almost fell at the landing, grabbed the newel post to keep his bal¬ance, and saw that the lower steps were deserted too.


Movement drew his attention. The mini-kin streaked across the small foyer and vanished into the living room.


Tommy realized that he should have gone to the master bedroom for the flashlight in his nightstand drawer. It was too late to go back for it. If he didn’t move fast, he was going to be in an increasingly untenable position: either trapped in a pitch-black house where all the electrical circuits were disabled or driven on foot into the storm where the mini-kin could repeatedly attack and retreat with the cover of darkness and rain.


Though the thing was only a tiny fraction as strong as he was, its supernatural resilience and maniacal relentlessness compensated for its comparative physical weakness. It was not merely pretending to be fearless, as Tommy had pretended to be while talking his way out of his office. Though the creature was of Lilliputian dimen¬sions, its reckless confidence was genuine; it expected to win, to chase him down, to get him.


Cursing, Tommy raced down the last flight. As he came off the bottom step, he heard a hard crackle¬snap, and the lights went out in the living room and the foyer.


He turned right, into the dining room. The brass and milk-glass chandelier shed a pleasant light on the highly polished top of the maple table.


He glimpsed himself in the ornately framed mirror above the sideboard. His hair was disarranged. His eyes were wide, whites showing all the way around. He looked demented.


As Tommy pushed through the swinging door into the kitchen, the mini-kin squealed behind him. The familiar sound of an electric arc snapped again, and the dining-room lights went out.


Fortunately the kitchen lights were on a different circuit from those in the dining room. The overhead fluorescent tubes were still bright.


He snatched the car keys off the pegboard. They jangled, and though their ringing was flat and unmusical and utterly unlike bells, Tommy was reminded of the bells that were rung in church during Mass. Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault. For an instant he felt not like the potential victim that he was but, instead, felt a terrible weight of guilt, as though the extraordinary trouble that had befallen him this night was of his own making and was merely what he deserved.


The easy-action pivot hinges on the door to the dining room swung so smoothly that even the ten-inch mini-kin was able to squeeze into the kitchen close behind Tommy. With the keys ringing in his hand, with the remembered scent of incense as strong and sweet as it had ever been when he had served as an altar boy, he didn’t dare pause to look back, but he could hear the thing’s tiny clawed feet click-click-clicking against the tile floor.


He stepped into the laundry room and slammed the door behind him before the creature could follow.


No lock. Didn’t matter. The mini-kin wouldn’t be able to climb up and turn the knob on the other side. It couldn’t follow him any farther.


Even as Tommy turned away from the door, the lights failed in the laundry room. They must be on the same circuit with those in the kitchen, which the creature evidently had just shorted. He groped forward through the blackness.


At the end of this small rectangular space, past the washer and dryer, opposite the door that he had just closed, was the connecting door to the garage. It featured a dead-bolt lock with a thumb-turn on this side.


In the garage, the lights still functioned.


On this side, the deadbolt on the laundry-room door could be engaged only with a key. He didn’t see any point in taking time to lock it.


The big overhead door began to rumble upward when Tommy tapped the wall switch, and storm wind chuffed like a pack of dogs at the widening space at the bottom.


He hurriedly circled the Corvette to the driver’s side. The garage lights blinked out, and the roll-up door stopped ascending when it was still half blocking the exit.


No.


The mini-kin could not have gotten through two closed doors and into the garage to cause a short circuit. And


there hadn’t been time for it to race out of the house, find the electric-service panel, climb the conduit on the wall, open the fuse box, and trip a breaker.


Yet the garage was as black as the darkest hemisphere of some strange moon never touched by the sun. And the roll-up door was only half open.


Maybe power had been lost throughout the neighbourhood because of the storm.


Frantically Tommy pawed at the darkness overhead until he located the dangling release chain that dis¬connected the garage door from the electric motor that operated it. Still clutching the pistol, he rushed to the door and manually pushed it up, all the way open.


A noisy burst of November wind threw shatters of cold rain in his face. The balminess of the afternoon was gone. The temperature had plummeted at least twenty degrees since he had left the Corvette dealership in his new car and headed south along the coast.


He expected to see the mini-kin in the driveway, green eyes glaring, but the sodium-yellow drizzle from a nearby streetlamp revealed that the thing was not there.


Across the street, warm welcoming lights shone in the windows of other houses. The same was true at the homes to the left and right of his own.


The loss of power in his garage had nothing to do with the storm. He had never really believed that it did.


Although he was convinced he would be attacked before he reached the Corvette, he got behind the steering wheel and slammed the door without encountering the mini-kin.


He put the pistol on the passenger seat, within easy reach. He had been gripping the weapon so desperately and for so long that his right hand remained curled to the shape of it. He was forced to concentrate on flexing his half-numb fingers in order to relax them and regain use of them.


The engine started with no hesitation.


The headlights splashed against the back wall of the garage, revealing a workbench, neatly racked tools, a cool forty-year-old sign from a Shell service station, and a framed poster of Jimmy Dean leaning against the 1949 Mercury that he had driven in Rebel Without a Cause.


Backing out of the garage, Tommy expected the mini-kin to ravel down from the rafters on a web of its own making, directly onto the windshield. Still largely concealed by the increasingly soiled and ragged fabric that had been the skin of its doll phase, the creature had appeared to be partly reptilian, with the scales and the eyes of a serpent, but Tommy had perceived insectile qualities to it as well, features and capabilities not yet fully revealed.


He reversed into the driveway, into torrents of rain, switched on the windshield wipers, and continued into the street, leaving the garage door open, other doors unlocked.


At worst, what might get into the house during his absence? A stray cat or dog? Maybe a burglar? A couple of dim-witted, doped-up kids with a can of red spray paint and vandalism on their minds?


After escaping from the devil doll, Tommy was ready and able to deal with any number of ordinary uninvited guests.


But as he shifted the Corvette out of reverse and drove away from his house, he was stricken by an unsettling premonition: I’ll never see this place again.


He was driving too fast for a residential neighbourhood, almost flying, casting up ten-foot high wings of white water as he raced through a flooded intersection, but he was unwilling to slow down. He felt that the gates of Hell had been flung open and that each creature among the legion of monstrosities seething out of those portals was intent on the same prey: Tommy Phan.


Maybe it was foolish to believe that demons existed, and it was certainly foolish to believe — if they did exist


- that he could outrun them by virtue of owning a sports car with three hundred horsepower. Nevertheless, he drove as if pursued by Satan.


A few minutes later, on University Drive, passing the Irvine campus of the University of California, Tommy realized that he was squinting at the rear-view mirror every few seconds — as if one of the cars far behind him on the rain-washed, tree-lined avenue might be driven by the mini-kin. The absurdity of that thought was like a hammer that broke some of the chains of his anxiety, and he finally eased up on the accelerator.


Still damp with cold sweat and with the slanting rain that had blown through the open garage door, Tommy shivered violently. He switched on the car heater.


He was half dazed, as though the dose of terror he had taken was a potent drug with a lingering narcotic effect. His thinking was cloudy. He couldn’t focus on what needed to be done next, on deciding where — and to whom - he should turn.


He wanted to be Chip Nguyen and live in the world of detective fiction, where blazing guns and hard fists and sardonic wit always led to satisfactory resolutions. Where the motives of adversaries were simple greed, envy, and jealousy. Where angst was fun, and where amused misanthropy was a sure sign of a private investigator’s superior moral character. Where bouts of alcoholic mel¬ancholy were comforting rather than dispiriting. Where the villains, by God, never had serpent eyes, or sharp little yellow teeth, or rat like tails.


Living in Chip’s world was impossible, however, so Tommy was willing to settle for a nap. He wanted to pull


off the road, lie down, curl into the foetal position, and go to sleep for a few hours. He was exhausted. His limbs felt weak. As though the earth was suddenly rotating at a much higher speed than before, a heavier gravity oppressed his mind and heart.


In spite of the hot air streaming from the heater vents, he was not getting warmer. The chill that afflicted him didn’t come from the November night or from the rain; it arose from deep within him.


The metronomic thump of the windshield wipers lulled him, and more than once he came out of a sort of waking dream to find that he was in a different neighbourhood from the one he last remembered. He relentlessly cruised residential streets, as if searching for the address of a friend, although every time that he ascended from his strange daze, he was never on a street where anyone of his acquaintance had ever lived.


He understood what was wrong. He was a well-educated man with an unshakably rational viewpoint; he had always assumed that he could clearly read the big map of life and that he had both hands firmly on the controls of his destiny as he cruised confidently into the future. From the moment that the two black sutures had popped and the green eye had glared at him out of the doll’s torn face, however, his world began to collapse. It was collapsing still. Forget the great laws of physics, the logic of mathematics, the dissectible truths of biology that, as a student, he had struggled so hard to grasp. They might still apply, but they didn’t explain enough, not any more. Once he had thought that they explained everything, but everything that he believed was proving to be only half the story. He was confused, lost, and dispirited, as only a rationalist of utter conviction could be upon encountering irrefutable evidence that something supernatural was at play in the universe.


He might have accepted the devil doll with greater equanimity if he had still been in Vietnam, the Land of Seagull and Fox, where his mother’s folk tales were set. In that Asian world of jungles, limpid waters, and blue mountains like mirages, it was easier to believe in the fantastic, such as the story of the mandarin named Tu Thuc, who had climbed Mount Phi Lai and, at the top, had found the Land of Bliss where the immortals lived in perfect happiness and harmony. On humid nights along the banks of the Mekong River or on the shores of the South China Sea, the air seemed thickened by magic, which Tommy could remember even after twenty-two years, and in that far place, one could give some credit to the tale of the good genie of medicine, Tien Thai, and his flying mountain, or to the story of beautiful Nhan Diep, the faithless wife who, after her death, returned to earth in the form of the first buzzing cloud of mosquitoes ever seen, initially to afflict her husband and then all of humankind. If Tommy were in Vietnam again — and returned to childhood — he might be able to believe in devil dolls too, although Vietnamese folk tales were generally gentle in nature and featured no monsters like the shrieking, sharp-toothed mini-kin.


But this was the United States of America, the land of the free and the brave, the land of Big Business and Big Science, from which men had gone to the moon and back, where movies and television had been invented, where the atom had first been split, where scientists were rapidly mapping the human genome and devel¬oping nanotechnology and shining light into the deepest mysteries of existence — where eighty-five percent of the citizenry declared themselves deeply religious, yes, but where fewer than three in ten attended church. This was America, damn it, where you could solve any problem with a screwdriver and a wrench, or with a computer, or with fists and a handgun, or at worst with the help of a


therapist and a twelve-step program to effect personal enlightenment and change.


Screwdrivers, wrenches, computers, fists, guns, and therapists weren’t going to help him cope with the mini-kin if he returned to his house and found the creature still in residence. And it would be there; he had no doubt about that.


It would be waiting.


It had a job to finish.


It had been sent to kill him.


Tommy didn’t know how he could be so sure of the mini-kin’s ultimate purpose, but he knew that what he intuited was true. Little assassin.


He could still feel a vaguely sore spot on his tongue where he had been pricked by the wind-blown melaleuca leaf when he had opened the front door of his house and discovered the doll lying on the porch.


Holding the steering wheel with only his left hand, he pressed his right hand to his thigh. He had no difficulty locating the spot where the pin with the black enamel head had pierced his flesh.


Two wounds. Both small but clearly symbolic.


Now, Tommy cruised Spyglass Drive, piloting the Cor¬vette along ridges stippled with million-dollar houses that overlooked Newport Beach, past graceful California ¬pepper trees thrashing in the wind, and his thoughts were as chaotic as his driving was aimless. Cold drowning tides of rain came off the black Pacific and, although the torrents couldn’t touch him now, they seemed to wash confidence and reason out of him, leaving him limp with doubt and feverish with superstitious speculations.


He wanted to go to his parents’ cosy house in Huntington Beach, take refuge in the bosom of his


family. His mother was the person most likely to believe his story. Mothers were required by law — not the law of men, but natural law — to be able to discern the truth when their children told it to them, to be quick to defend them against the disbelief of others. If he stared directly into his mother’s eyes and explained about the devil doll, she would know that he was not lying. Then he would no longer be alone in his terror.


His mother would convince his father that the threat, although outlandish, was real, whereupon his father would convince Tommy’s two brothers and his sister. Then there would be six of them — an entire family —standing against the unnatural power that had sent the hateful mini-kin to him. Together they could triumph as they had triumphed so long ago against the communists in Vietnam and against the Thai pirates on the South China Sea.

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