He heard someone approaching. Heavy footsteps. A faint limp: one foot scraping lightly against the pavement. He knew that tread.
He began to tremble. He kept his head down and closed his eyes, willing the footsteps to grow fainter and recede into silence. But they grew louder, nearer... then stopped directly in front of him.
“You figured it out yet?”
It was the deep, gravelly voice that had recently begun to haunt Sammy's nightmares. But he was not asleep now. This was not the monster of his turbulent dreams. This was the real creature that inspired the nightmares.
Reluctantly Sammy opened his grainy eyes, and looked up.
The ratman stood over him, grinning.
a “You figured it out yet?”
Tall, burly, his mane of hair disordered, his tangled beard flecked with unidentifiable bits and chunks of matter too disgusting to contemplate, the ratman was a terrifying figure. Where his beard did not conceal it, his face was gnarled by scars, as if he had been poked and slashed with a whitehot soldering iron. His large nose was hooked and crooked, his lips spotted with weeping sores. Upon his dark and diseased gums, his teeth perched like broken, age yellowed marble tombstones.
The gravelly voice grew louder. “Maybe you're already dead.”
The only ordinary thing about the ratman was his clothes: tennis shoes, charityshop khakis, cotton shirt, and a badly weathered black raincoat, all stained and heavily wrinkled. It was the uniform of a lot of street people who, some by their own fault and some not, had fallen through the cracks in the floorboards of modern society into the shadowy crawlspace beneath.
The voice softened dramatically as the ratman bent forward, leaned closer. “Already dead and in Hell? Could it be?”
Of all the extraordinary things about the ratman, his eyes were the most disturbing. They were intensely green, unusually green, but the queerest thing was that the black pupils were elliptical like the pupils of a cat or reptile. The eyes made the ratman's body seem like merely a disguise, a rubber suit, as if something unspeakable peered out of a costume at a world on which it had not been born but which it coveted.
The ratman lowered his voice even further to a raspy whisper: “Dead, in Hell, and me the demon assigned to torture you?”
Knowing what was coming, having endured it before, Sammy tried to scramble to his feet. But the ratman, quick as wind, kicked him before he could get out of the way. The kick caught him in the left shoulder, just missing his face, and it didn't feel like a sneaker but like a jackboot, as if the foot inside was entirely of bone or horn or the stuff of which a beetle's carapace was formed. Sammy curled into the fetal position, protecting his head with his folded arms as best he could. The ratman kicked him again, again, left foot, right foot, left foot, almost as if doing a little dance, a sort of jig, onekickanduhtwokickanduhonekickanduhtwo, not making a sound, neither snarling in rage nor laughing scornfully not breathing hard in spite of the exertion.
The kicking stopped.
Sammy drew into an even tighter ball, like a pill bug, curling around his pains.
The alleyway was unnaturally silent except for Sammy's soft weeping, for which he loathed himself. The traffic noise from the nearby streets had completely faded. The oleander bush behind him no longer rustled in the breeze. When Sammy angrily told himself to be a man, when he swallowed his sobs, the quietude was death perfect.
He dared to open his eyes and peek between his arms, looking toward the far end of the alley. Blinking to clear his tearveiled vision, he was able to see two cars halted in the street beyond. The drivers, visible only as shadowy shapes, waited motionlessly.
Closer, directly in front of his face, an inchlong wingless earwig, strangely out of its environment of rotting wood and dark places, was frozen in the process of crossing the alley. The twin prongs on the insect's back end appeared wicked, dangerous, and were curled up like the stinging tail of a scorpion, though in reality it was harmless.
Some of its six legs touched the pavement, and others were lifted in midstride. It didn't move even one of its segmented antennae, as if frozen by fear or poised to attach Sammy shifted his gaze to the end of the alley Out in the street, the same cars were stalled in the same spots as before. The people in them sat like mannequins.
The insect again. Unmoving. As still as if dead and pinned to an entomologist's specimen board.
Warily Sammy lowered his crossed arms from his head. Groaning, he rolled onto his back and looked up reluctantly at his assailant.
Looming, the ratman seemed a hundred feet tall. He studied Sammy with solemn interest. “Do you want to live?” he asked.
Sammy was surprised not by the question but by his inability to answer it. He was caught between the fear of death and the need to die. Each morning he was disappointed when he woke and found that he was still among the living, and each night when he curled up in his ragandpaper bedding, he hoped for endless sleep. Yet day after day he struggled to obtain sufficient food, to find a warm place on those rare cold nights when California's climatic grace deserted it, to stay dry when it rained so as to avoid pneumonia, and he looked both ways before crossing a street.
Perhaps he did not want to live, but wanted only the punishment of living.
“I'd like it better if you wanted to live,” the ratman said quietly “More fun for me.”
Sammy's heart was beating too thunderously Each pulse throbbed hardest in the bruised flesh that marked the impact points of the ratman's ferocious kicks.
“You've got thirtysix hours to live. Better do something, don't you think? Hmmmm? The clock is running. Ticktock, ticktock.”
“Why are you doing this to me?” Sammy asked plaintively.
Instead of replying, the ratinan said, “Midnight tomorrow the rats will come for you.”
“I've never done anything to you.”
The scars on the tormentor's brutal face grew livid. .... chew out your eyes..."
His pale lips tightened as he spoke, revealing more of his rotting teeth: '6.. strip away your lips while you scream, nibble your tongue..."
As the ratman grew increasingly agitated, his demeanor became not more feverish but cold. His reptilian eyes seemed' to radiate a chill that found its way into Sammy's flesh and into the deepest reaches of his mind.
“Who are you?” Sammy asked, not for the first time.
The ratman did not answer. He swelled with rage. His thick, filthy fingers curled to form fists, uncurled, curled, uncurled. He kneaded the air as if he hoped to squeeze blood from it.
What are you? Sammy wondered but dared not ask.
“Rats,” hissed the ratman.
Afraid of what was about to happen, although it had happened before, Sammy scooted backward on his butt, toward the oleander bush that half concealed his packing crate, trying to put some distance between himself and the towering hobo.
“Rats,” the ratman repeated, and he began to tremble.
It was starting.
Sammy froze, too terrified to move.
The ratman's trembling became a shudder. The shudder escalated into violent shaking. His oily hair whipped about his head, his arms jerked, his legs jigged, and his black raincoat flapped as if he were in a cyclone, but no wind huffed or howled. The March air was as preternaturally still as it had been since the hulking vagrant's appearance, as if the world were but a painted stage and the two of them the only actors upon it.
Becalmed on reefs of blacktop, Sammy Shamroe finally stood. He was driven to his feet by fear of the roiling tide of claws, sharp teeth, and red eyes that would soon rise around him.
Beneath his clothes, the ratraan's body churned like a burlap sack full of angry rattlesnakes. He was ... changing. His face melted and reformed as if he stood in a forge controlled by some mad deity intent on molding a series of monstrosities, each of which would be more terrible than the one before it. Gone were the livid scars, gone were the reptilian eyes, gone the wild beard and tangled hair, gone the cruel mouth. For a moment his head was nothing but a mass of undifferentiated flesh, a lump of oozing mush, red with blood, then redbrown and darker, glistening, like something that had been poured out of a dogfood can. Abruptly the tissue solidified, and his head was composed of rats clinging to one another, a ball of rats, tails drooping like Rastafarian dreadlocks, fierce eyes as scarlet as drops of radiant blood. Where hands should have hung from his sleeves, rats bristled out of frayed cuffs.
The heads of other rodents began to poke from between the buttons of his bulging shirt.
Though he had seen all of this before, Sammy tried to scream. His swollen tongue stuck to the roof of his dry mouth, so he made only a panicky muffled sound in the back of his throat. A scream wouldn't help anyway He had screamed before, during other encounters with his tormentor, and no one had responded.
The ratman came apart as if he were a rickety scarecrow in a sundering storm, pieces of his body dropping away When each part hit the pavement, it was an individual rat. Whiskered, wetnosed, sharptoothed, squealing, the repellent creatures swarmed over one another, long tails lashing left and right. More rats poured out of his shirt and from under the cuffs of his trousers, far more than his clothes could possibly have contained: a score of them, two score, eighty more than a hundred.
Like a deflating balloon that had been crafted in the form of a man, his clothes settled slowly to the pavement. Then each garment was transformed as well. The wrinkled lumps of cloth sprouted heads and limbs and produced more rodents, until both the ratman and his reeking wardrobe had been replaced by a seething mound of vermin squirming over and under one another with the boneless agility that made their kind so repulsive.
Sammy could not get his breath. The air grew even more leaden than it had been. Whereas the wind had died earlier, an unnatural stillness now seemed to settle over deeper levels of the natural world, until the fluidity of oxygen and nitrogen molecules declined drastically, as if the atmosphere had begun to thicken into a liquid, which he could draw into his lungs only with the greatest effort.
Now that the ratman's body had disintegrated into scores of squirming beasts, the transformed corpus abruptly dispersed. The fat, sleek rats erupted out of the mound, fleeing in all directions, scuttling away from Sammy but also swarming around him, over his shoes and between his legs. That hateful, living tide spilled into the shadows along the buildings and into the vacant lot, where it either drained into holes in the building walls and in the earthholes that Sammy could not seer simply vanished.
A sudden breeze harried crisp dead leaves and scraps of paper ahead of it. The swish of tires and the rumble of engines arose as cars on the main street moved past the mouth of the alley A bee buzzed by Sammy's face.
He was able to breathe again. He stood for a moment in the bright noon light, gasping.
The worst thing was that it had all happened in sunshine, in the open air, without smoke and mirrors and clever lighting and silk threads and trapdoors and the standard tools of a magician's craft.
Sammy had crawled out of his crate with the good intention of starting his day in spite of his hangover, maybe look for discarded aluminum cans to redeem at a recycling center, maybe do a little panhandling along the boardwalk. Now the hangover was gone, but he still didn't feel like facing the world.
On unsteady legs, he returned to the oleander bush. The boughs were heavily laden with red flowers. He pushed them aside and stared at the large wooden crate under them.
He picked up a stick and poked at the rags and newspapers inside the big box, expecting a couple of rats to erupt from hiding. But they had gone elsewhere.
Sammy dropped to his knees and crawled into his haven, letting the draperies of oleander fall shut behind him.
From his pile of meager possessions in the back of the crate, he removed an unopened bottle of cheap burgundy and unscrewed the cap. He took a long pull of the warmish wine.
Sitting with his back against the wooden wall, clutching the bottle in both hands, he tried to forget what he had seen. As far as he could see, forgetting was his only hope of coping. He could not manage the problems of everyday life any more. So how could he expect to deal with something as extraordinary as the ratman?
A brain steeped in too many grams of cocaine, peppered with too many other drugs, and marinated in alcohol could produce the most amazing zoo of hallucinated creatures. And when his conscience got the better of him and he struggled to fulfill one of his periodic pledges of sobriety, withdrawal led to delirium tremens, which was populated by an even more colorful and threatening phantasmagoria of beasts. But none of them was as memorable and as deeply disturbing as the ratman.
He took another generous swallow of wine and leaned his head back against the wall of the crate, holding fast to the bottle with both hands.
Year by year, day by day, Sammy had found it increasingly difficult to distinguish between reality and fantasy He had long ago ceased to trust his perceptions. Yet of one thing he was dismayingly certain: the ratman was real. Impossible, fantastical, inexplicablebut real.
Sammy expected to find no answers to the questions that haunted him.
But he could not stop asking: what was this creature; where did it come from; why did it want to torment and kill a grizzled, beaten down street person whose deathor continued existencewas of little or no consequence to the world?
He drank more wine.
Things Bun Tickt. Tickt.
When the citizen in the gray cords, white shirt, and darkgray jacket entered the restaurant, Connie noticed him and knew he was bent in some way When she saw that Harry had also noticed, her interest in the guy increased dramatically because Harry had a nose that would make a bloodhoand envious.
Cop instinct is less instinct than a sharply honed talent for observation and the good sense to correctly interpret whatever is observed. With Connie it was more a subconscious awareness than a calculated monitoring of everyone who crossed her line of sight.
The suspect stood just inside the door, near the cash register, waiting while the hostess seated a young couple at a table near one of the big front windows.
He appeared ordinary at first glance, even harmless. But on closer inspection, Connie could identify the incongruities that had caused her subconscious to recommend a closer look at the man. No signs of tension were visible in his rather bland face, and his posture was relaxedbut his hands were fisted tightly at his sides, as if he could barely control an urgent need to strike at someone. His vague smile reinforced the air of absentmindedness that clung to himbut the smile kept coming and going, flickering uncertainly, a subtle testament to inner turmoil. His sportcoat was buttoned, which was odd because he wasn't wearing a tie and because the day was warm. More important, the coat did not hang properly; its outer and inner pockets seemed filled with something heavy that pulled it out of shape, and it bulged over his belt buckleas if concealing a handgun jammed under the waistband of his pants.