Dragon Tears / Page 33

Page 33



As for Sammy, he appeared to be more of a threat than the dog. He was wasted from life on the street and from whatever had put him there, worse than skinny, spindly, Salvation Army giveaway clothes hanging so loosely on him that you expected to hear bones rattling together when he moved, but that didn't mean he was weak. He was twitchy with excess energy. His eyes were so wide open, the lids seemed to have been stretched back and pinned out of the way. His face was tight with tension lines, and his lips repeatedly skinned back from his bad teeth in a feral snarl that might have been meant to be an ingratiating smile but was alarming instead.


"The ratman, see, is what I call him, not what he calls himself.


Never heard him call himself anything. Don't know where the hell he comes from, where he's hiding his ship, he's just all of a sudden there, just there, the sadistic bastard, one scary son of a bitch-" In spite of how weak he appeared to be, Sammy might be like a robotic mechanism receiving too much power, circuits overloading, on the trembling verge of exploding, disintegrating into a shrapnel of gears and springs and burst pneumatic tubes that would kill everyone within a block. He might have a knife, knives, even a gun.


Harry had seen shaky little guys like this who looked as if a strong gust of wind would blow them all the way to China; then it turned out that they were stoned on PCP which could transform kittens into tigers, and three strong men were required to disarm and subdue them.


“-see, maybe I don't care if he kills me, maybe that would be a blessing, just get totally drunk and let him kill me, so wasted I'd hardly notice when he does me,” Sammy said, crowding them, moving to the left when they moved in that direction, to the right when they tried that way, insisting on a confrontation. “But then tonight, when I was deep in the bag, sucking down my second double liter, I realized who the ratman has to be, I mean what he has to be one of the aliens!”


“Aliens,” Connie said disgustedly “Aliens, always aliens with you dim bulbs. Get out' of here, you greasy hairball, or I swear to God I'm gonna-” "No, no, listen. We've always known they're coming, haven't we?


Always known, and now they're here, and they've come to me first, and if I don't warn the world, then everyone's going. to die."


As he took hold of Sammy's arm and tried to maneuver him out of their way, Harry was almost as leery of Connie as he was of the bum.


If Sammy was an overwound clockwork mechanism ready to explode, then Connie was a nuclear plant heading for a meltdown. She was frustrated that the vagrant was delaying them from getting to Nancy Quan, the police artist, acutely aware that dawn was rushing toward them from the East. Harry was frustrated, too, but with him, unlike with Connie, there was no danger that he might knee Sammy in the crotch and pitch him through one of the nearby restaurant windows.


“don't want to be responsible for aliens killing the whole world, I've already got too much on my conscience, too much, can't stand the idea of being responsible, I've let so many people down already-” If Connie thumped the guy, they would never get to Nancy Quan or have a chance to locate Ticktoc They would be tied up here for an hour or longer, arranging for Sammy's arrest, trying not to choke to death on his body odor, and struggling to deny police brutality (a few bar patrons were watching them, faces to the glass). Too many precious minutes would be lost.


Sammy grabbed at Connie's jacket sleeve. “Listen to me, woman, you listen to me!”


Connie jerked loose of him, cocked her fist.


“No!” Harry said.


Connie barely checked herself, almost threw the punch.


Sammy was spraying spittle as he ranted: "-it gave me thirtysix hours to live, the ratman, but now it must be twentyfour or less, not Harry tried to hold Connie back with one hand as she reached for Sammy again, while simultaneously pushing Sammy away with the other hand. Then the dog jumped up on him. Grinning, panting, its tail wagging. Harry twisted away shook his leg, and the dog dropped back onto the sidewalk on all fours.


Sammy was babbling frantically now clutching with both hands at Harry's sleeve and tugging for attention, as if he didn't have It already: “-his eyes like snake eyes, green and terrible, terrible, and he says I got thirtysix hours to live, ticktock, ticktock-” Fear and amazement quivered through Harry when he heard that word, and the breeze off the ocean seemed suddenly colder than it had been.


Startled, Connie stopped trying to get at Sammy. “Wait a minute, what'd you say?”


“Aliens! aliens!” Sammy shouted angrily. “You're not listening to me, damn it.”


“Not the aliens part,” Connie said. The dog jumped on her.


Patting its head and pushing it away she said, “Harry did he say what I think he said?”


“I'm a citizen, too,” Sammy shrieked. His need to give testimony had escalated into a frenzied determination. “I got a right to be listened to sometimes.”


“Ticktock,” Harry said.


“That's right,” Sammy confirmed. He was pulling on Harry's sleeve almost hard enough to tear it off. in 'Ticktock, ticktock, time is running out, you'll be dead by dawn tomorrow, Sammy' And then he just dissolves into a pack of rats, right before my eyes."


Or a whirlwind of trash, Harry thought, or a pillar of fire.


“All right, wait, let's talk,” Connie said. “Calm down, Sammy and let's discuss this. I'm sorry for what I said, I really am. Just get calm.”


Sammy must have thought she was insincere and merely trying to humor him into letting his guard down, because he didn't respond to the new respect and consideration she accorded him. He stamped his feet in frustration. His clothes flapped on his 'bony body and he looked like a scarecrow shaken by a Halloween wind. “Aliens, you stupid woman, aliens, aliens, aliens!”


Glancing at The Green House, Harry saw that half a dozen people were at the barroom windows Now, peering out at them.


He realized what a singular spectacle they were, all three of them bedraggled, tugging and pulling at each other, shouting about aliens.


He was probably in the last hours of his life, pursued by something paranormal and incredibly vicious, and his desperate fight for survival had been transformed, at least for a moment, into a piece of slapstick street theater.


Welcome to the '90s. America on the brink of the millennium.


Jesus.


Muffled music filtered to the street: the fourman combo was playing some West Coast swing now “Kansas City,” but with weird riffs.


The host in the Armani suit was one of those at the bar windows.


He was probably silently berating himself for being fooled by what he now surely believed were phony badges, and would go any second to call the real police.


A passing car slowed down, driver and passenger gawking.


“Stupid, stupid, stupid woman!” Sammy shouted at Connie.


The dog took hold of the right leg of Harry's trousers, nearly jerked him off his feet. He staggered, kept his balance, and managed to pull free of Sammy, though not the dog. It squirmed backward, striving with canine tenacity to drag Harry along with it. Harry resisted, then almost lost his balance again when the mutt abruptly let go of him.


Connie was still trying to soothe Sammy, and the bum was still telling her that she was stupid, but at least neither was trying to hit the other.


The dog ran south along the sidewalk for a few steps, skidded to a halt in the downfall of light from a streetlamp, looked back, and barked at them. The breeze ruffled its fur, fluffed its tail. It dashed a little farther south, halted in shadows this time, and barked again.


Seeing that Harry was distracted by the dog, Sammy became even more outraged at his inability to get serious consideration. His voice became mocking, sarcastic: "Oh, sure, that's it, pay more attention to a damn dog than to me! What am I, anyway, just some piece of street garbage, less than a dog, no reason to listen to trash like me.


Go on, Timmy, go on, see what Lassie wants, maybe Dad's trapped under an overturned tractor down on the fu**ing south forty!"


Harry couldn't help laughing. He would never have expected a remark like that out of someone like Sammy, and he wondered who the man had been before he'd wound up as he was now.


The dog squealed plaintively, cutting Harry's laugh short. Tucking its bushy tail between its legs, pricking up its ears, raising its head quizzically, it turned in a circle and sniffed at the night air.


“Something's wrong,” Connie said, worriedly looking around at the street.


Harry felt it, too. A change in the air. An odd pressure.


Something.


Cop instinct. Cop and dog instinct.


The mutt caught a scent that made it yelp in fear. It spun around on the sidewalk, biting at the air, then rushed back toward Harry.


For an instant he thought it was going to barrel into him and knock him on his ass, but then it angled toward the front of The Green House, plunged into a planting bed full of shrubbery, and lay flat on its belly hiding among azaleas, only its eyes and snout visible.


Taking his cue from the dog, Sammy turned and sprinted toward the nearby alleyway.


Connie said, “Hey, no, wait,” and started after him.


“Connie,” Harry said warningiy, not sure what he was warning her about, but sensing that it was not a good idea for them to separate just then.


She turned to him. “What?”


Beyond her, Sammy disappeared around the corner.


That was when everything stopped.


Growling uphill in the southbound lane of the coast highway, a tow truck, evidently on the way to help a stranded motorist, halted on the proverbial dime but without a squeal of brakes. Its laboring engine fell silent from one second to the next, without a lingering chug, cough, or sputter, though its headlights still shone.


Simultaneously a Volvo about a hundred feet behind the truck also stopped and fell mute.


In the same instant, the breeze died. It didn't wane gradually or sputter out, but ceased as quickly as if a cosmic fan had been switched off. Thousands upon thousands of leaves stopped rustling as one.


Precisely in time with the silencing of traffic and vegetation, the music from the bar cut off midnote.


Harry almost felt he had gone stone deaf He'd never known a silence as profound in a controlled interior environment, let alone outdoors where the life of a town and the myriad background noises of the natural world produced a ceaseless atonal symphony even in the comparative stillness between midnight and dawn. He could not hear himself breathe, then realized that his own contribution to the preternatural hush was voluntary; he was simply so stunned by the change. in the world that he was holding his breath.


In addition to sound, motion had been stolen from the night. The tow truck and Volvo were not the only things that had come to a complete standstill. The curbside trees and the shrubbery along the front of The Green House seemed to have been flashfrozen. The leaves had not merely stopped rustling, but had entirely ceased moving; they could not have been more still if sculpted from stone.


Overhanging the windows of The Green House, the scalloped valances on the canvas awnings had been fluttering in the breeze, but they had gone rigid in midflutter; now they were as stiff as if formed from sheet metal. Across the street, the blinking arrow on a neon sign had frozen in the ON position.


Connie said, “Harry?”


He started, as he would have at any sound except the intimate muffled thumping of his own racing heart.


He saw his own confusion and anxiety mirrored in her face.


Moving to his side, she said, “What's happening?”' Her voice, aside from having an uncharacteristic tremor, was vaguely different from what it had been, slightly flat in tone and marginally less inflective.


“Damned if I know,” he told her.


His voice sounded much like hers, as though it issued from a mechanical device that was extremely cleverbut not quite perfectat reproducing the speech of any human being.


"It's got to be him doing she said.


Harry agreed. “Somehow.”


“Ticl:'toc” “Yeah.”


“Shit, this is crazy.”


“No argument from me.”


She started to draw her revolver, then let the gun slide back into her shoulder holster. An ominous mood infused the scene, an air of fearful expectation. But for the moment, at least, there was nothing at which to shoot.


“Where is the creep?” she wondered.


“I have a hunch he'll show up.”


“No points for that one.” Indicating the tow truck out in the street, she said, “For God's sake . . . look at that.”


At first he thought Connie was just remarking on the fact that the vehicle had mysteriously halted like everything else, but then he realized what sight had pushed the needle higher on her astonishment meter. The air had been just cool enough to cause vehicle exhaust (but not their breath) to condense in pale plumes; those thin puffs of mist hung in midair behind the tow truck, neither dispersing nor evaporating as vapor should have done. He saw another but barely visible graywhite ghost suspended behind the tail pipe of the more distant Volvo.


Now that he was primed to look for them, similar wonders became evident on all sides, and he pointed them out to her. A few pieces of light debrisgum and candy wrappers, a splintered portion of a popsicle stick, dry brown leaves, a tangled length of red yarnhad been swept up by the breeze; although no draught remained to support the items, they were still aloft, as if the air had abruptly turned to purest crystal around them and had trapped them motionless for eternity. Within arm's reach and just a foot higher than his head, two latewinter moths as white as snowflakes hung immotive, their wings soft and pearlsmooth in the glow of the streetlamp.


Connie tapped her wristwatch, then showed it to Harry. It was a traditionalstyle Timer with a round dial and hands, including not only hour and minute hands but a red second hand. It was stopped at 1:29 plus sixteen seconds.


Harry checked his own watch, which had a digital readout. It also showed 1:29, and the tiny blinking dot that took the place of a second hand was burning steadily no longer counting off each sixtieth of a minute.


“Time has...” Connie was unable to finish the sentence.


She surveyed the silent street in amazement, swallowed hard, and finally found her voice: "Time has stopped ... just stopped.


Is that it? “ ”Say what?"


“Stopped for the rest of the world but not for us?”


“Time doesn't . . . it can't . . . just stop.”


“Then what?”


Physics had never been his favorite subject. And though he had some affinity for the sciences because of their ceaseless search for order in the universe, he was not as scientifically literate as he should have been in an age when science was king. However, he had retained enough of his teachers' lectures and had watched enough PBS specials and had read enough bestsellerlist books of popularized science to know that what Connie had said did not explain numerous aspects of what was happening to them.


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