- Text Font:
- Text Size:
- Line Height:
- Line Break Height:
WE HAVE HAD our little conversation about slippage, and it's too late in the game to belabor the point more than a little, but wouldn't you say that most houses are an attempt to hold slippage back? To impose at least the illusion of normality and sanity on the world? Think of Libertyville, with its corny but endearing street names ¡ª Camelot and Avalon and Maid Marian Way. And think of that sweet little honey of a home in Libertyville where Fred, Judy, and Tyler Marshall once lived together. What else would you call 16 Robin Hood Lane but an ode to the everyday, a paean to the prosaic? We could say the same thing about Dale Gilbertson's home, or Jack's, or Henry's, couldn't we? Most of the homes in the vicinity of French Landing, really. The destructive hurricane that has blown through the town doesn't change the fact that the homes stand as brave bulwarks against slippage, as noble as they are humble. They are places of sanity.
Black House ¡ª like Shirley Jackson's Hill House, like the turn-of-the-century monstrosity in Seattle known as Rose Red ¡ª is not sane. It is not entirely of this world. It's hard to look at from the outside ¡ª the eyes play continual tricks ¡ª but if one can hold it steady for a few seconds, one sees a three-story dwelling of perfectly ordinary size. The color is unusual, yes ¡ª that dead black exterior, even the windows swabbed black ¡ª and it has a crouching, leaning aspect that would raise uneasy thoughts about its structural integrity, but if one could appraise it with the glammer of those other worlds stripped away, it would look almost as ordinary as Fred and Judy's place . . . if not so well maintained.
Inside, however, it is different.
Inside, Black House is large.
Black House is, in fact, almost infinite.
Certainly it is no place to get lost, although from time to time people have ¡ª hoboes and the occasional unfortunate runaway child, as well as Charles Burnside/Carl Bierstone's victims ¡ª and relics here and there mark their passing: bits of clothing, pitiful scratchings on the walls of gigantic rooms with strange dimensions, the occasional heap of bones. Here and there the visitor may see a skull, such as the ones that washed up on the banks of the Hanover River during Fritz Haarman's reign of terror in the early 1920s.
This is not a place where you want to get lost.
Let us pass through rooms and nooks and corridors and crannies, safe in the knowledge that we can return to the outside world, the sane anti-slippage world, anytime we want (and yet we are still uneasy as we pass down flights of stairs that seem all but endless and along corridors that dwindle to a point in the distance). We hear an eternal low humming and the faint clash of weird machinery. We hear the idiot whistle of a constant wind either outside or on the floors above and below us. Sometimes we hear a faint, houndly barking that is undoubtedly the abbalah's devil dog, the one that did for poor old Mouse. Sometimes we hear the sardonic caw of a crow and understand that Gorg is here, too ¡ª somewhere.
We pass through rooms of ruin and rooms that are still furnished with a pale and rotten grandeur. Many of these are surely bigger than the whole house in which they hide. And eventually we come to a humble sitting room furnished with an elderly horsehair sofa and chairs of fading red velvet. There is a smell of noisome cooking in the air. (Somewhere close by is a kitchen we must never visit . . . not, that is, if we ever wish to sleep without nightmares again.) The electrical fixtures in here are at least seventy years old. How can that be, we ask, if Black House was built in the 1970s? The answer is simple: much of Black House ¡ª most of Black House ¡ª has been here much longer. The draperies in this room are heavy and faded. Except for the yellowed news clippings that have been taped to the ugly green wallpaper, it is a room that would not be out of place on the ground floor of the Nelson Hotel. It's a place that is simultaneously sinister and oddly banal, a fitting mirror for the imagination of the old monster who has gone to earth here, who lies sleeping on the horsehair sofa with the front of his shirt turning a sinister red. Black House is not his, although in his pathological grandiosity he believes differently (and Mr. Munshun has not disabused him of this belief ). This one room, however, is.
The clippings around him tell us all we need to know of Charles "Chummy" Burnside's lethal fascinations.
YES, I ATE HER, FISH DECLARES: New York Herald Tribune
BILLY GAFFNEY PLAYMATE AVERS "IT WAS THE GRAY MAN TOOK BILLY, IT WAS THE BOGEYMAN": New York World Telegram
GRACE BUDD HORROR CONTINUES: FISH CONFESSES!: Long Island Star
FISH ADMITS "ROASTING, EATING" WM GAFFNEY: New York American
FRITZ HAARMAN, SO-CALLED "BUTCHER OF HANOVER," EXECUTED FOR MURDER OF 24: New York World
WEREWOLF DECLARES: "I WAS DRIVEN BY LOVE, NOT LUST." HAARMAN DIES
UNREPENTANT: The Guardian
CANNIBAL OF HANOVER'S LAST LETTER: "YOU CANNOT KILL ME, I SHALL BE
AMONG YOU FOR ETERNITY": New York World
Wendell Green would love this stuff, would he not?
And there are more. God help us, there are so many more. Even Jeffrey Dahmer is here, declaring I WANTED ZOMBIES.
The figure on the couch begins to groan and stir.
"Way-gup, Burny!" This seems to come from thin air, not his mouth . . . although his lips move, like those of a second-rate ventriloquist.
Burny groans. His head turns to the left. "No . . . need to sleep. Everything . . . hurts."
The head turns to the right in a gesture of negation and Mr. Munshun speaks again. "Way-gup, dey vill be gummink. You must move der buu-uoy."
The head switches back the other way. Sleeping, Burny thinks Mr. Munshun is still safe inside his head. He has forgotten things are different here in Black House. Foolish Burny, now nearing the end of his usefulness! But not quite there yet.
"Can't . . . lea' me 'lone . . . stomach hurts . . . the blind man . . . fucking blind man hurt my stomach . . ."
But the head turns back the other way and the voice speaks again from the air beside Burny's right ear. Burny fights it, not wanting to wake and face the full ferocious impact of the pain. The blind man has hurt him much worse than he thought at the time, in the heat of the moment. Burny insists to the nagging voice that the boy is safe where he is, that they'll never find him even if they can gain access to Black House, that they will become lost in its unknown depth of rooms and hallways and wander until they first go mad and then die. Mr. Munshun, however, knows that one of them is different from any of the others who have happened on this place. Jack Sawyer is acquainted with the infinite, and that makes him a problem. The boy must be taken out the back way and into End-World, into the very shadow of Din-tah, the great furnace. Mr. Munshun tells Burny that he may still be able to have some of the boy before turning him over to the abbalah, but not here. Too dangerous. Sorry.
Burny continues to protest, but this is a battle he will not win, and we know it. Already the stale, cooked-meat air of the room has begun to shift and swirl as the owner of the voice arrives. We see first a whirlpool of black, then a splotch of red ¡ª an ascot ¡ª and then the beginnings of an impossibly long white face, which is dominated by a single black shark's eye. This is the real Mr. Munshun, the creature who can only live in Burny's head outside of Black House and its enchanted environs. Soon he will be entirely here, he will pull Burny into wakefulness (torture him into wakefulness, if necessary), and he will put Burny to use while there is still use to be gotten from him. For Mr. Munshun cannot move Ty from his cell in the Black House.
Once he is in End-World ¡ª Burny's Sheol ¡ª things will be different.
At last Burny's eyes open. His gnarled hands, which have spilled so much blood, now reach down to feel the dampness of his own blood seeping through his shirt. He looks, sees what has bloomed there, and lets out a scream of horror and cowardice. It does not strike him as just that, after murdering so many children, he should have been mortally wounded by a blind man; it strikes him as hideous, unfair.
For the first time he is visited by an extremely unpleasant idea: What if there's more to pay for the things he has done over the course of his long career? He has seen End-World; he has seen Conger Road, which winds through it to Din-tah. The blasted, burning landscape surrounding Conger Road is like hell, and surely An-tak, the Big Combination, is hell itself. What if such a place waits for him? What if ¡ª
There's a horrible, paralyzing pain in his guts. Mr. Munshun, now almost fully materialized, has reached out and twisted one smoky, not-quite-transparent hand in the wound Henry inflicted with his switchblade knife.
Burny squeals. Tears run down the old child-murderer's cheeks. "Don't hurt me!"
"Zen do ass I zay."
"I can't," Burny snivels. "I'm dying. Look at all the blood! Do you think I can get past something like this? I'm eighty-five fucking years old!"
"Duff brayyg, Burn-Burn . . . but dere are zose on z'osser zide who could hill you off your wunds." Mr. Munshun, like Black House itself, is hard to look at. He shivers in and out of focus. Sometimes that hideously long face (it obscures most of his body, like the bloated head of a caricature on some newspaper's op-ed page) has two eyes, sometimes just one. Sometimes there seem to be tufted snarls of orange hair leaping up from his distended skull, and sometimes Mr. Munshun appears to be as bald as Yul Brynner. Only the red lips and the fangy pointed teeth that lurk inside them remain fairly constant.
Burny eyes his accomplice with a degree of hope. His hands, meanwhile, continue to explore his stomach, which is now hard and bloated with lumps. He suspects the lumps are clots. Oh, that someone should have hurt him so badly! That wasn't supposed to happen! That was never supposed to happen! He was supposed to be protected! He was supposed to ¡ª
"It iss not even peeyond ze realm of bossibility," Mr. Munshun says, "zat ze yearz could be rawled avey vrum you jusst as ze stunn vas rawled avey from ze mouse of Cheezus Chrizze's doom."
"To be young again," Burny says, and exhales a low, harsh sigh. His breath stinks of blood and spoilage. "Yes, I'd like that."
"Of gorse! And soch zings are bossible," Mr. Munshun says, nodding his grotesquely unstable face. "Soch gifts are ze abbalah's to giff. But zey are not bromised, Charles, my liddle munching munchkin. But I can make you one bromise."
The creature in the black evening suit and red ascot leaps forward with dreadful agility. His long-fingered hand darts again into Chummy Burnside's shirt, this time clenches into a fist, and produces a pain beyond any the old monster has ever dreamed of in his own life . . . although he has inflicted this and more on the innocent.
Mr. Munshun's reeking countenance pushes up to Burny's. The single eye glares. "Do you feel dat, Burny? Do you, you mizz-er-a-ble old bag of dirt and zorrow? Ho-ho, ha-ha, of gorse you do! It iss your in-destines I haff in my hand! Und if you do not mooff now, schweinhund, I vill rip dem from your bledding body, ho-ho, ha-ha, und vrap dem arund your neg! You vill die knowing you are choking on your own gudz! A trick I learned from Fritz himzelf, Fritz Haarman, who vas so yunk und loff-ly! Now! Vat do you say? Vill you brink him, or vill you choke?"
"I'll bring him!" Burny screams. "I'll bring him, only stop, stop, you're tearing me apart!"
"Brink him to ze station. Ze station, Burn-Burn. Dis one iz nodd for ze radhulls, de fogzhulls ¡ª not for ze Com-bin-ay-shun. No bledding foodzies for Dyler; he works for his abbalah vid dis." A long finger tipped with a brutal black nail goes to the huge forehead and taps it above the eyes (for the moment Burny sees two of them, and then the second is once more gone). "Understand?"
"Yes! Yes!" His guts are on fire. And still the hand in his shirt twists and twists.
The terrible highway of Mr. Munshun's face hangs before him. "Ze station ¡ª where you brought the other sbecial ones."
Mr. Munshun lets go. He steps back. Mercifully for Burny, he is beginning to grow insubstantial again, to discorporate. Yellowed clippings swim into view not behind him but through him. Yet the single eye hangs in the air above the paling blotch of the ascot.
"Mayg zure he vears za cab. Ziss one ezbeshully must wear za cab."
Burnside nods eagerly. He still smells faintly of My Sin perfume. "The cap, yes, I have the cap."
"Be gare-ful, Burny. You are old und hurt. Ze bouy is young und desberate. Flitt of foot. If you let him get avey ¡ª "
In spite of the pain, Burny smiles. One of the children getting away from him! Even one of the special ones! What an idea! "Don't worry," he says. "Just . . . if you speak to him . . . to Abbalah-doon . . . tell him I'm not past it yet. If he makes me better, he won't regret it. And if he makes me young again, I'll bring him a thousand young. A thousand Breakers."
Fading and fading. Now Mr. Munshun is again just a glow, a milky disturbance on the air of Burny's sitting room deep in the house he abandoned only when he realized he really did need someone to take care of him in his sunset years.
"Bring him just dis vun, Burn-Burn. Bring him just dis vun, und you vill be revarded."
Mr. Munshun is gone. Burny stands and bends over the horsehair sofa. Doing it squeezes his belly, and the resulting pain makes him scream, but he doesn't stop. He reaches into the darkness and pulls out a battered black leather sack. He grasps its top and leaves the room, limping and clutching at his bleeding, distended belly.
And what of Tyler Marshall, who has existed through most of these many pages as little more than a rumor? How badly has he been hurt? How frightened is he? Has he managed to retain his sanity?
As to his physical condition, he's got a concussion, but that's already healing. The Fisherman has otherwise done no more than stroke his arm and his buttocks (a creepy touch that made Tyler think of the witch in "Hansel and Gretel"). Mentally . . . would you be shocked to hear that, while Mr. Munshun is goading Burny onward, Fred and Judy's boy is happy?
He is. He is happy. And why not? He's at Miller Park.
The Milwaukee Brewers have confounded all the pundits this year, all the doomsayers who proclaimed they'd be in the cellar by July Fourth. Well, it's still relatively early, but the Fourth has come and gone and the Brew Crew has returned to Miller tied for first place with Cincinnati. They are in the hunt, in large part due to the bat of Richie Sexson, who came over to Milwaukee from the Cleveland Indians and who has been "really pickin' taters," in the pungent terminology of George Rathbun.
They are in the hunt, and Ty is at the game! EXCELLENT! Not only is he there, he's got a front-row seat. Next to him ¡ª big, sweating, red-faced, a Kingsland beer in one hand and another tucked away beneath his seat for emergencies ¡ª is the Gorgeous George himself, bellowing at the top of his leather lungs. Jeromy Burnitz of the Crew has just been called out at first on a bang-bang play, and while there can be no doubt that the Cincinnati shortstop handled the ball well and got rid of it fast, there can also be no doubt (at least not in George Rathbun's mind) that Burnitz was safe! He rises in the twilight, his sweaty bald pate glowing beneath a sweetly lavender sky, a foamy rill of beer rolling up one cocked forearm, his blue eyes twinkling (you can tell he sees a lot with those eyes, just about everything), and Ty waits for it, they all wait for it, and here it is, that avatar of summer in the Coulee Country, that wonderful bray that means everything is okay, terror has been denied, and slippage has been canceled.
"COME ON, UMP, GIVE US A BREAK! GIVE US A FREEEEAKIN' BRAYYYYK! EVEN A BLIND MAN COULD SEE HE WAS SAFE!"
The crowd on the first-base side goes wild at the sound of that cry, none wilder than the fourteen or so people sitting behind the banner reading MILLER PARK WELCOMES GEORGE RATHBUN AND THE WINNERS OF THIS YEAR'S KDCU BREWER BASH. Ty is jumping up and down, laughing, waving his Brew Crew hat. What makes this doubly boss is that he thought he forgot to enter the contest this year. He guesses his father (or perhaps his mother) entered it for him . . . and he won! Not the grand prize, which was getting to be the Brew Crew's batboy for the entire Cincinnati series, but what he got (besides this excellent seat with the other winners, that is) is, in his opinion, even better. Of course Richie Sexson isn't Mark McGwire ¡ª nobody can hit the tar out of the ball like Big Mac ¡ª but Sexson has been awesome for the Brewers this year, just awesome, and Tyler Marshall has won ¡ª
Someone is shaking his foot.
Ty attempts to pull away, not wanting to lose this dream (this most excellent refuge from the horror that has befallen him), but the hand is relentless. It shakes. It shakes and shakes.
"Way-gup," a voice snarls, and the dream begins to darken.
George Rathbun turns to Ty, and the boy sees an amazing thing: the eyes that were such a shrewd, sharp blue only a few seconds ago have gone dull and milky. Cripe, he's blind, Ty thinks. George Rathbun really is a ¡ª
"Way-gup," the growling voice says. It's closer now. In a moment the dream will wink out entirely.
Before it does, George speaks to him. The voice is quiet, totally unlike the sportscaster's usual brash bellow. "Help's on the way," he says. "So be cool, you little cat. Be ¡ª "
"Way-GUP, you shit!"
The grip on his ankle is crushing, paralyzing. With a cry of protest, Ty opens his eyes. This is how he rejoins the world, and our tale.
He remembers where he is immediately. It's a cell with reddish-gray iron bars halfway along a stone corridor lit with cobwebby electric bulbs. There's a dish of some sort of stew in one corner. In the other is a bucket in which he is supposed to pee (or take a dump if he has to ¡ª so far he hasn't, thank goodness). The only other thing in the room is a raggedy old futon from which Burny has just dragged him.
"All right," Burny says. "Awake at last. That's good. Now get up. On your feet, asswipe. I don't have time to fuck with you."
Tyler gets up. A wave of dizziness rolls through him and he puts his hand to the top of his head. There is a spongy, crusted place there. Touching it sends a bolt of pain all the way down to his jaws, which clench. But it also drives the dizziness away. He looks at his hand. There are flakes of scab and dried blood on his palm. That's where he hit me with his damned rock. Any harder, and I would have been playing a harp.
But the old man has been hurt somehow, too. His shirt is covered with blood; his wrinkled ogre's face is waxy and pallid. Behind him, the cell door is open. Ty measures the distance to the hallway, hoping he's not being too obvious about it. But Burny has been in this game a long time. He has had more than one liddle one dry to esscabe on hiz bledding foodzies, oh ho.
He reaches into his bag and brings out a black gadget with a pistol grip and a stainless steel nozzle at the tip.
"Know what this is, Tyler?" Burny asks.
"Taser," Ty says. "Isn't it?"
Burny grins, revealing the stumps of his teeth. "Smart boy! A TV-watching boy, I'll be bound. It's a Taser, yes. But a special type ¡ª it'll drop a cow at thirty yards. Understand? You try to run, boy, I'll bring you down like a ton of bricks. Come out here."
Ty steps out of the cell. He has no idea where this horrible old man means to take him, but there's a certain relief just in being free of the cell. The futon was the worst. He knows, somehow, that he hasn't been the only kid to cry himself to sleep on it with an aching heart and an aching, lumpy head, nor the tenth.
Nor, probably, the fiftieth.
"Turn to your left."
Ty does. Now the old man is behind him. A moment later, he feels the bony fingers grip the right cheek of his bottom. It's not the first time the old man has done this (each time it happens he's reminded again of the witch in "Hansel and Gretel," asking the lost children to stick their arms out of their cage), but this time his touch is different. Weaker.
Die soon, Ty thinks, and the thought ¡ª its cold collectedness ¡ª is very, very Judy. Die soon, old man, so I don't have to.
"This one is mine," the old man says . . . but he sounds out of breath, no longer quite sure of himself. "I'll bake half, fry the rest. With bacon."
"I don't think you'll be able to eat much," Ty says, surprised at the calmness of his own voice. "Looks like somebody ventilated your stomach pretty g ¡ª "
There is a crackling, accompanied by a hideous, jittery burning sensation in his left shoulder. Ty screams and staggers against the wall across the corridor from his cell, trying to clutch the wounded place, trying not to cry, trying to hold on to just a little of his beautiful dream about being at the game with George Rathbun and the other KDCU Brewer Bash winners. He knows he actually did forget to enter this year, but in dreams such things don't matter. That's what's so beautiful about them.
Oh, but it hurts so bad. And despite all his efforts ¡ª all the Judy Marshall in him ¡ª the tears begin to flow.
"You want another un?" the old man gasps. He sounds both sick and hysterical, and even a kid Ty's age knows that's a dangerous combination. "You want another un, just for good luck?"
"No," Ty gasps. "Don't zap me again, please don't."
"Then start walkin'! And no more smart goddamn remarks!"
Ty starts to walk. Somewhere he can hear water dripping. Somewhere, very faint, he can hear the laughing caw of a crow ¡ª probably the same one that tricked him, and how he'd like to have Ebbie's .22 and blow its evil shiny black feathers off. The outside world seems light-years away. But George Rathbun told him help was on the way, and sometimes the things you heard in dreams came true. His very own mother told him that once, and long before she started to go all wonky in the head, too.
They come to a stairway that seems to circle down forever. Up from the depths comes a smell of sulfur and a roast of heat. Faintly he can hear what might be screams and moans. The clank of machinery is louder. There are ominous creaking sounds that might be belts and chains.
Ty pauses, thinking the old guy won't zap him again unless he absolutely has to. Because Ty might fall down this long circular staircase. Might hit the place on his head the old guy already clipped with the rock, or break his neck, or tumble right off the side. And the old guy wants him alive, at least for now. Ty doesn't know why, but he knows this intuition is true.
"Where are we going, mister?"
"You'll find out," Burny says in his tight, out-of-breath voice. "And if you think I don't dare zap you while we're on the stairs, my little friend, you're very mistaken. Now get walking."
Tyler Marshall starts down the stairs, descending past vast galleries and balconies, around and down, around and down. Sometimes the air smells of putrid cabbage. Sometimes it smells of burned candles. Sometimes of wet rot. He counts a hundred and fifty steps, then stops counting. His thighs are burning. Behind him, the old man is gasping, and twice he stumbles, cursing and holding the ancient banister.
Fall, old man, Ty chants inside his head. Fall and die, fall and die.
But at last they are at the bottom. They arrive in a circular room with a dirty glass ceiling. Above them, gray sky hangs down like a filthy bag. There are plants oozing out of broken pots, sending greedy feelers across a floor of broken orange bricks. Ahead of them, two doors ¡ª French doors, Ty thinks they are called ¡ª stand open. Beyond them is a crumbling patio surrounded by ancient trees. Some are palms. Some ¡ª the ones with the hanging, ropy vines ¡ª might be banyans. Others he doesn't know. One thing he's sure of: they are no longer in Wisconsin.
Standing on the patio is an object he knows very well. Something from his own world. Tyler Marshall's eyes well up again at the sight of it, which is almost like the sight of a face from home in a hopelessly foreign place.
"Stop, monkey-boy." The old man sounds out of breath. "Turn around."
When Tyler does, he's pleased to see that the blotch on the old man's shirt has spread even farther. Fingers of blood now stretch all the way to his shoulders, and the waistband of his baggy old blue jeans has gone a muddy black. But the hand holding the Taser is rock-steady.
God damn you, Tyler thinks. God damn you to hell.
The old man has put his bag on a little table. He simply stands where he is for a moment, getting his breath. Then he rummages in the bag (something in there utters a faint metallic clink) and brings out a soft brown cap. It's the kind guys like Sean Connery sometimes wear in the movies. The old man holds it out.
"Put it on. And if you try to grab my hand, I'll zap you."
Tyler takes the cap. His fingers, expecting the texture of suede, are surprised by something metallic, almost like tinfoil. He feels an unpleasant buzzing in his hand, like a mild version of the Taser's jolt. He looks at the old man pleadingly. "Do I have to?"
Burny raises the Taser and bares his teeth in a silent grin.
Reluctantly, Ty puts the cap on.
This time the buzzing fills his head. For a moment he can't think . . . and then the feeling passes, leaving him with an odd sense of weakness in his muscles and a throbbing at his temples.
"Special boys need special toys," Burny says, and it comes out sbecial boyz, sbecial toyz. As always, Mr. Munshun's ridiculous accent has rubbed off a little, thickening that touch of South Chicago Henry detected on the 911 tape. "Now we can go out."
Because with the cap on, I'm safe, Ty thinks, but the idea breaks up and drifts away almost as soon as it comes. He tries to think of his middle name and realizes he can't. He tries to think of the bad crow's name and can't get that, either ¡ª was it something like Corgi? No, that's a kind of dog. The cap is messing him up, he realizes, and that's what it's supposed to do.
Now they pass through the open doors and onto the patio. The air is redolent with the smell of the trees and bushes that surround the back side of Black House, a smell that is heavy and cloying. Fleshy, somehow. The gray sky seems almost low enough to touch. Ty can smell sulfur and something bitter and electric and juicy. The sound of machinery is much louder out here.
The thing Ty recognized sitting on the broken bricks is an E-Z-Go golf cart. The Tiger Woods model.
"My dad sells these," Ty says. "At Goltz's, where he works."
"Where do you think it came from, asswipe? Get in. Behind the wheel."
Ty looks at him, amazed. His blue eyes, perhaps thanks to the effects of the cap, have grown bloodshot and rather confused. "I'm not old enough to drive."
"Oh, you'll be fine. A baby could drive this baby. Behind the wheel."
Ty does as he is told. In truth, he has driven one of these in the lot at Goltz's, with his father sitting watchfully beside him in the passenger seat. Now the hideous old man is easing himself into that same place, groaning and holding his perforated midsection. The Taser is in the other hand, however, and the steel tip remains pointed at Ty.
The key is in the ignition. Ty turns it. There's a click from the battery beneath them. The dashboard light reading CHARGE glows bright green. Now all he has to do is push the accelerator pedal. And steer, of course.
"Good so far," the old man says. He takes his right hand off his middle and points with a bloodstained finger. Ty sees a path of discolored gravel ¡ª once, before the trees and underbrush encroached, it was probably a driveway ¡ª leading away from the house. "Now go. And go slow. Speed and I'll zap you. Try to crash us and I'll break your wrist for you. Then you can drive one-handed."
Ty pushes down on the accelerator. The golf cart jerks forward. The old man lurches, curses, and waves the Taser threateningly.
"It would be easier if I could take off the cap," Ty says. "Please, I'm pretty sure that if you'd just let me ¡ª "
"No! Cap stays! Drive!"
Ty pushes down gently on the accelerator. The E-Z-Go rolls across the patio, its brand-new rubber tires crunching on broken shards of brick. There's a bump as they leave the pavement and go rolling up the driveway. Heavy fronds ¡ª they feel damp, sweaty ¡ª brush Tyler's arms. He cringes. The golf cart swerves. Burny jabs the Taser at the boy, snarling.
"Next time you get the juice! It's a promise!"
A snake goes writhing across the overgrown gravel up ahead, and Ty utters a little scream through his clenched teeth. He doesn't like snakes, didn't even want to touch the harmless little corn snake Mrs. Locher brought to school, and this thing is the size of a python, with ruby eyes and fangs that prop its mouth open in a perpetual snarl.
"Go! Drive!" The Taser, waving in his face. The cap, buzzing faintly in his ears. Behind his ears.
The drive curves to the left. Some sort of tree burdened with what look like tentacles leans over them. The tips of the tentacles tickle across Ty's shoulders and the goose-prickled, hair-on-end nape of his neck.
Ourr boyy . . .
He hears this in his head in spite of the cap. It's faint, it's distant, but it's there.
Ourrrrr boyyyyy . . . yesssss . . . ourrrrs . . .
Burny is grinning. "Hear 'em, don'tcha? They like you. So do I. We're all friends here, don't you see?" The grin becomes a grimace. He clutches his bloody middle again. "Goddamned blind old fool!" he gasps.
Then, suddenly, the trees are gone. The golf cart rolls out onto a sullen, crumbling plain. The bushes dwindle and Ty sees that farther along they give way entirely to a crumbled, rocky scree: hills rise and fall beneath that sullen gray sky. A few birds of enormous size wheel lazily. A shaggy, slump-shouldered creature staggers down a narrow defile and is gone from sight before Ty can see exactly what it is . . . not that he wanted to. The thud and pound of machinery is stronger, shaking the earth. The crump of pile drivers; the clash of ancient gears; the squall of cogs. Tyler can feel the golf cart's steering wheel thrumming in his hands. Ahead of them the driveway ends in a wide road of beaten earth. Along the far side of it is a wall of round white stones.
"That thing you hear, that's the Crimson King's power plant," Burny says. He speaks with pride, but there is more than a tinge of fear beneath it. "The Big Combination. A million children have died on its belts, and a zillion more to come, for all I know. But that's not for you, Tyler. You might have a future after all. First, though, I'll have my piece of you. Yes indeed."
His blood-streaked hand reaches out and caresses the top of Ty's buttock.
"A good agent's entitled to ten percent. Even an old buzzard like me knows that."
The hand draws back. Good thing. Ty has been on the verge of screaming, holding the sound back only by thinking of sitting at Miller Park with good old George Rathbun. If I'd really entered the Brewer Bash, he thinks, none of this would have happened.
But he thinks that may not actually be true. Some things are meant to be, that's all. Meant.
He just hopes that what this horrible old creature wants is not one of them.
"Turn left," Burny grunts, settling back. "Three miles. Give or take." And, as Tyler makes the turn, he realizes the ribbons of mist rising from the ground aren't mist at all. They're ribbons of smoke.
"Sheol," Burny says, as if reading his mind. "And this is the only way through it ¡ª Conger Road. Get off it and there are things out there that'd pull you to pieces just to hear you scream. My friend told me where to take you, but there might be just a leedle change of plan." His pain-wracked face takes on a sulky cast. Ty thinks it makes him look extraordinarily stupid. "He hurt me. Pulled my guts. I don't trust him." And, in a horrible child's singsong: "Carl Bierstone don't trust Mr. Munshun! Not no more! Not no more!"
Ty says nothing. He concentrates on keeping the golf cart in the middle of Conger Road. He risks one look back, but the house, in its ephemeral wallow of tropical greenery, is gone, blocked from view by the first of the eroded hills.
"He'll have what's his, but I'll have what's mine. Do you hear me, boy?" When Ty says nothing, Burny brandishes the Taser. "Do you hear me, you asswipe monkey?"
"Yeah," Ty says. "Yeah, sure." Why don't you die? God, if You're there, why don't You just reach down and put Your finger on his rotten heart and stop it from beating?
When Burny speaks again, his voice is sly. "You looked at the wall on t'other side, but I don't think you looked close enough. Better take another gander."
Tyler looks past the slumped old man. For a moment he doesn't understand . . . and then he does. The big white stones stretching endlessly away along the far side of Conger Road aren't stones at all. They're skulls.
What is this place? Oh God, how he wants his mother! How he wants to go home!
Beginning to cry again, his brain numbed and buzzing beneath the cap that looks like cloth but isn't, Ty pilots the golf cart deeper and deeper into the furnace-lands. Into Sheol.
Rescue ¡ª help of any kind ¡ª has never seemed so far away.