Because I’d been cautious, the kidnapper was surely unaware that I was present, which meant he would have no reason to conduct his business without benefit of a lamp. Being unable to see his victim’s terror would diminish his twisted pleasure. The absolute darkness seemed proof to me that he was not dangerously close but in another room, shut off from here but nearby.
The absence of screams must mean that the child had not yet been touched. To this predator, the pleasure of hearing would be equal to the pleasure of seeing; in the cries of his victims, he would perceive music.
If I couldn’t detect the dimmest trace of the lamp by which he worked, he wouldn’t be able to see mine. I fished the flashlight from under my belt and switched it on.
I was in an ordinary elevator alcove. To the right and around a corner, I found a corridor that was quite long and perhaps eight feet wide, with an ash-gray ceramic-tile floor and poured-in-place concrete walls painted pale, glossy blue. It led in one direction: under the length of the warehouse that I had recently traversed at ground level.
Not much dust had filtered down to this depth, where the air was as still and as cool as that in a morgue. The floor was too clean to reveal footprints.
The fluorescent bulbs and diffusion panels hadn’t been pulled out of the ceiling. They didn’t pose any danger to me, because power was no longer supplied to any of these buildings.
On other nights, I had found that the government’s salvage operation had stripped away items of value from only limited areas of the base. Perhaps, in the middle of the process, the Department of Defense accountants had decided that the effort was more expensive than the liquidation value of the salvaged goods.
To my left, the corridor wall was unbroken. Along the right side lay rooms waiting behind a series of unpainted, stainless-steel doors without markings of any kind.
Even though I was currently unable to consult with my clever canine brother, I was capable of deducing on my own that the slamming of two of these doors must have produced the crashes that had drawn me down here. The corridor was so long that my flashlight couldn’t reveal the end of it. I wasn’t able to see how many rooms it served, whether fewer than six or more than sixty, but I suspected that the boy and his abductor were in one of them.
The flashlight was beginning to feel hot in my hand, but I knew the heat wasn’t real. The beam was not intense, and it was directed away from me; I was keeping my fingers well back from the bright lens. Nevertheless, I was so accustomed to avoiding light that, by holding this source of it too long, I began to feel something of what hapless Icarus must have felt when, flying too near the sun, he’d detected the stink of burning feathers.
Instead of a knob, the first door featured a lever, and instead of a keyhole, there was a slot for the insertion of a magnetic card. Either the electronic locks would have been disabled when the base was abandoned or they would have disengaged automatically when the power was shut off.
I put one ear to the door. There was no sound whatsoever from within.
Gingerly, I pressed down on the lever. At best I expected a thin, betraying skreek and at worst the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah. Instead, the lever worked as noiselessly as if it had been installed and oiled only yesterday.
With my body, I pushed open the door, holding the Glock in one hand and the flashlight in the other.
The room was large, about forty feet wide by eighty feet long. I could only guess at the precise dimensions, because my small flashlight barely reached the width of the space and could not penetrate the entire depth.
As far as I could see, no machinery or furniture or supplies had been left behind. Most likely, everything had been hauled off to the fog-wreathed mountains of Transylvania to re-equip Victor Frankenstein’s laboratory.
Strewn across the vast gray tile floor were hundreds of small skeletons.
For an instant, perhaps because of the frail-looking rib cages, I thought these were the remains of birds—which made no sense, as there is no feathered species with a preference for subterranean flight. As I played the flashlight over a few calcimine skulls and as I registered both the size of them and then the lack of wing structures, I realized that these must be the skeletons of rats. Hundreds of rats.
The majority of the skeletons lay alone, each separate from all the others, but in places there were also piles of bones, as though a score of hallucinating rodents had suffocated one another while competing for the same imaginary hunk of cheese.
Strangest of all were the patterns of skulls and bones that I noted here and there. These remains appeared to be curiously arranged—not as though the rats had perished at random dropping points, but as though they had painstakingly positioned themselves with an intricacy similar to the elaborate lines in a Haitian priest’s voodoo veves.
I know all about veves because my friend Bobby Halloway once dated an awesomely beautiful surfer, Holly Keene, who was into voodoo. The relationship didn’t last.
A veve is a design that represents the figure and power of an astral force. The voodoo priest prepares five large copper bowls, each containing a different substance: white flour, cornmeal, red brick powder, powdered charcoal, and powdered tannis root. He makes the sacred designs on the floor with these substances, allowing each to dribble in a measured flow from his cupped hand. He must be able to draw hundreds of complex veves freehand, from memory. For even the least ambitious ritual, several veves are needed to force the attention of the gods to the Oumphor, the temple, where the rites are conducted.
Holly Keene was a practitioner of good magic, a self-proclaimed Hougnon, rather than a black-magic Bocor. She said it was maximum uncool to create zombies by reanimating the dead, cast curses that transformed her enemies’ beating hearts into rotting chicken heads, and stuff like that—even though, as she made clear, she could do those things by renouncing her Hougnon oath and getting a Bocor union card. She was basically a sweet person, if a little odd, and the only time she made me uneasy was when, with passionate advocacy, she declared that the greatest rock-’n’-roll band of all time was the Partridge Family.
Anyway, the rat bones. They must have been here a long time, because no flesh adhered to them—as far as I could see or cared to look. Some were white; others were stained yellow or rust red, or even black.
Except for a few scattered gray puffballs of hair, the rats’ pelts surprisingly had not survived decomposition. This led me to wonder briefly if the creatures’ bodies had been rendered elsewhere, their boiled bones later arranged here by someone with more sinister motives than those of Holly Keene, bikinied Bocor.
Then, under many of the skeletons, I saw that the tile floor was stained. This vile-looking residue appeared to be gummy but must have been brittle with age, because otherwise it would have lent an appalling odor to the cool dry air.
In a deeply hidden facility on these grounds, experiments in genetic engineering had been conducted—perhaps were still being conducted—with catastrophic results. Rats are widely used in medical research. I had no proof but plenty of reason to suppose that these rodents had been the subjects of one of those experiments, though I couldn’t imagine how they had wound up here, like this.
The mystery of the veve rats was only one more of Fort Wyvern’s virtually infinite supply of enigmas, and it had nothing to do with the more urgent mystery of Jimmy Wing’s disappearance. At least I hoped it didn’t. God forbid that I should open another door, farther along the hall, and discover the ritualistically arranged skeletons of five-year-old boys.
I stepped backward, out of the rodents’ equivalent of the legendary elephants’ graveyard, easing the door shut with a click so preternaturally soft that it could have been heard only by a cat on methamphetamines.
A quick arc of the flashlight, hotter than ever in my hand, revealed that the corridor was still deserted.
I moved to the next door. Stainless steel. Unmarked. Lever handle. Identical to the previous one.
Beyond was a room the size of the first, sans rat skeletons. The tile floor and painted walls gleamed as if they had been spit-polished.
I was relieved by the sight of the bare floor.
As I backed out of the second room and silently eased the door shut, the troll voice rose once more, nearer than before but still too muffled to be understood. The corridor remained deserted both ahead and behind me.
For a moment the voice grew louder and seemed to draw closer, as though the speaker was approaching a door, about to step into the hallway.
I thumbed off the flashlight.
The claustrophobic darkness closed around me again, as soft as Death’s hooded robe and with pockets almost as deep.
The voice continued grumbling for several seconds—but then abruptly broke off, seemingly in mid-sentence.
I didn’t hear a door open or any sound to indicate that the kidnapper had entered the hallway. Besides, light would betray him when at last he came. I was still the sole presence here—but instinct warned me that I would soon have company.
I was close to the wall, facing away from the direction I’d come, toward unexplored realms.
The extinguished flashlight was now cool in my hand, but the pistol felt hot.
The longer the quiet lasted, the more it seemed bottomless. Soon it was an abyss into which I imagined myself drifting down, down, like a deep-sea diver festooned with lead weights.
I listened so hard that I was half convinced I could feel the fine hairs vibrating in my ear canals. Yet I could hear only one sound, and it was strictly internal: the thick, liquid thud of my own heartbeat, faster than normal but not racing.
As time passed without a noise or a sudden wedge of light from an opening door farther along the corridor, the likelihood grew that in spite of what instinct told me, the troll voice had been receding rather than approaching. If the kidnapper and the boy were on the move and heading away from me, I might lose their trail if I didn’t stay close behind them.
I was about to switch on the flashlight again, when a shiver of superstitious dread passed through me. If I had been in a cemetery, I would have seen a ghost skating on the moon-iced grass between tombstones. If I had been in the Northwest woods, I would have seen Big Foot shagging among the trees. If I had been in front of any garage door, I would have seen the face of Jesus or the Holy Virgin in a weather stain, warning of the Apocalypse. I was in the bowels of Wyvern, however, and unable to see any damn thing at all, so I could only feel, and what I felt was a presence, an aura, like a pressure, hovering, looming, what a medium or a psychic would call an entity, a spiritual force that could not be denied, chilling my blood and marrow.
I was in face-to-face confrontation with it. My nose was only inches from its nose, assuming it had a nose. I couldn’t smell its breath, which was a good thing, as its breath must smell like rotting meat, burning sulfur, and swine manure.
Obviously, my nuclear imagination was nearing meltdown.
I told myself that this was no more real than my feverish vision of a gigantic spider in the elevator shaft.
Bobby Halloway says my imagination is a three-hundred-ring circus. Currently, I was in ring two hundred and ninety-nine, with elephants dancing and clowns cartwheeling and tigers leaping through rings of fire. The time had come to step back, leave the main tent, go buy some popcorn and a Coke, bliss out, cool down.
I was ashamed to realize that I didn’t have the guts to switch on the flashlight. I was constrained by a fear of what might be eye-to-eye with me.
Though part of me wanted to believe I was suffering a runaway chain reaction of imagination, and though I probably was just jerking my own chain, there was good reason to be afraid. Those aforementioned experiments in genetic engineering—some designed by my mother, who had been a theoretical geneticist—had ultimately not been controllable. In spite of a high degree of biological security, a designer strain of retrovirus had gotten out of the lab. Thanks to the remarkable talents of this new bug, the residents of Moonlight Bay—and, to a lesser extent, people and animals in the wider world beyond—have been…changing.
So far, the changes have been disturbing, sometimes terrifying, but, with a few notable exceptions, they have been subde enough that authorities have successfully concealed the truth about the catastrophe. Even in Moonlight Bay, at most a few hundred people know what is happening. I myself learned only a month before this April night; upon the death of my father, who knew all the dreadful details, and who revealed things to me that I now wish I didn’t know. The rest of the townspeople live in happy ignorance, but they may not be out of the loop much longer, because the mutations may not remain subtle.
This was the thought that had paralyzed me when, if instinct could be trusted, I found myself facing some presence in the blind-dark passageway.
Now my heart was racing.
I was disgusted. If I didn’t get control of myself, I would have to spend the rest of my life sleeping under my bed, just to be sure the boogeyman couldn’t slip beneath the box springs while I was dreaming.
Holding the unlit flashlight in a tight circlet of thumb and forefinger, with my other three fingers extended, intending to prove to myself that this superstitious dread enjoyed no basis in fact, I reached into the tomb-perfect darkness. And touched a face.
The side of a nose. The corner of a mouth. My little finger slid across a rubbery lip, wet teeth.
I cried out and recoiled. As I stumbled backward, I managed to click on the flashlight.
Although the beam was pointed at the floor, the backsplash of light revealed the entity before me. It had no fangs, no eyes full of crackling hellfire, but it was composed of a substance more solid than ectoplasm. It wore chinos, what appeared to be a yellow polo-style shirt, and a pecan-brown sports jacket. Indeed, it wasn’t something from beyond the grave but something from the Sears men’s department.
He was about thirty years old, maybe five feet eight, as stocky as a bull standing on its hind feet in a pair of Nikes. With close-cropped black hair, eyes as mad-yellow as those of a hyena, and thick red lips, he seemed too formidable to have glided soundlessly through the seamless dark. His teeth were as small as kernels of white corn, and his smile was a cold side dish, which he served in a generous portion as he swung the club that he was holding.
Fortunately, it was a length of two-by-four rather than an iron pipe, and he was too close to execute a bone-shattering arc. Instead of recoiling farther at the sight of the club, I stepped into the guy in an attempt to minimize the impact, simultaneously trying to bring the Glock to bear on him, figuring that the very sight of it would cause him to retreat.
He swung the two-by-four not from overhead, not like a woodsman wielding an ax, but low from his side, like a golfer teeing off. It grazed my left flank and caught me under the arm. The blow wasn’t devastating, but it was unquestionably more painful than Japanese-massage therapy. The flashlight flew out of my hand, tumbling end over end.