At the head of the stairs, as I hear Mr. Harmony thundering up the two flights behind me, I discover that the hallway leads right and left. I turn left, trusting my intuition, which unfortunately isn’t 100 percent reliable.
Out of a room to my right, a boy of about fifteen, bare-chested and barefoot, wearing pajama bottoms, erupts as if catapulted, slams into me, drives me into the wall, and reveals himself to be possessed when he says, “Shitface.”
Although the impact knocks the wind out of me, although I drop the pistol, although the boy’s sour breath reeks of garlic from the previous night’s dinner, and although I am beginning to be offended by the unnecessary repetition of that insult to my appearance, I am nevertheless impressed by the puppeteer’s ability to switch from host to host in what seems like the blink of an eye. Cool. Terrifying, yes, but definitely cool.
As I drive one knee hard into the boy’s crotch, I say, “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” which I mean even more sincerely than the regret I expressed for violating the sanctity of their second floor. He collapses into the fetal position with a wordless groan that would most accurately be pronounced “urrrrlll,” and I assure him that although he feels that he is dying, he will live.
Mr. Harmony is standing at the head of the stairs, looking confused. But then his face hardens into a gargoyle snarl as the Presence invades him.
After scooping up the pistol, I bolt across the hall, into the room out of which the boy attacked me. I slam the door. In the knob is a button that engages the latch, but there’s no deadbolt.
Mr. Harmony tries the door, violently rattling the knob, just as I brace it with a straight-backed chair snared from a nearby desk. Even though the animal that Mr. Harmony most reminds me of is a rhinoceros, this trick should hold him off for a couple of minutes.
At the double-hung eight-pane window, I pull open the draperies, see a porch roof beyond, and disengage the latch. I can’t raise the inner sash, and I can’t lower the outer sash, because the window has been painted shut.
If I were Mr. Daniel Craig, the most recent James Bond, I would quickly kick out the wooden muntins separating the panes in the lower sash, squeeze through the sash without raising it, and be gone. But I am only me, and I’ve no doubt that a backspray of shattering glass would blind me, while the bristling end of a broken muntin would pierce one calf or the other, gouge open the peroneal artery, and bleed me dry in 2.1 minutes. Another famous film character, Kermit the Frog, sings a song about how “It’s not easy being green,” and as true as that might be, it’s even less easy being a man who isn’t James Bond.
Meanwhile, at the door, Mr. Harmony doesn’t bellow like some beast from the African veldt, but he slams his shoulder against the door or kicks it with rhinocerosian fury.
Perhaps sixteen years have passed since I last tried to hide under a bed; and even then I was easily found.
Two additional doors offer the only possibilities. The first leads to a closet in which Mr. Harmony could beat me half to death with his humongous fists and then garrote me with a wire clothes hanger.
The second opens into a bathroom. This door does have a deadbolt on the inside. The bathroom features a large frosted-glass window directly above the toilet.
The Victorian tilework offers a field of pale green with here and there hand-painted white baskets overflowing with roses, all set off with white-and-yellow-checkered trim. It strikes me as too busy, even garish, but in the interest of staying alive, I enter the bath anyway and lock the door behind me.
I put the pistol on the counter beside the sink, disengage the well-lubricated window latch, and find to my surprise that the window is not painted shut. The lower sash slides up easily and stays there without need of a prop. Beyond lies the same porch roof I had seen from the other room.
As events have unfolded since I first went snooping, this has seemed like a night when I would be well-advised not to buy a lottery ticket or play Russian roulette. Although now my luck seems to have changed, I’m still not in a mood to sing Kermit the Frog’s other hit song, “Rainbow Connection.”
Whether it is the sight of the loo or the excitement of the chase, I am suddenly aware that this evening I have drunk a beer, a can of Mountain Dew, and a bottle of water. Mr. Harmony has not quite yet broken down the bedroom door, so it seems wise to take the time to pee here rather than hurry onward and soon be hampered in my flight by having to run with my thighs pressed together.
With the personal-hygiene vigilance of a responsible short-order cook, I’m washing my hands as the bedroom door at last crashes open. I blot them on my sweatshirt, snatch up the pistol, stand on the closed lid of the toilet, and hastily exit the window onto the roof of the porch.
This is the front-porch roof, under which I sat with Ardys. That was only minutes earlier, but it seems like an hour has passed since she first began to talk to me.
The blush of dawn has not yet touched the eastern horizon. In the west, the moon discreetly retreats beyond the curve of the earth, and it almost seems that the stars, as well, are receding. Second by second, the dark night grows yet darker.
As the demon-ridden Mr. Harmony begins trying to kick down the bathroom door, I cross the sloped roof toward its lowest edge. I leap off, land on the lawn nine feet below without fracturing my ankles, drop, roll, and spring to my feet.
For an instant, I feel like a prince of derring-do, swashbuckler sans sword. Honest pride can slide quickly into vanity, however, and then into vainglory, and when in the manner of a musketeer you take a bow with a flourish of your feathered hat, you’re likely to raise your head into the downswing of a villain’s hatchet.
I need to get away from the house, but following the blacktop lane up through the hills and vales will surely lead to encounters with possessed members of the Harmony family. I have learned much less about the Presence than I need to know, but I have learned too much to be allowed to live. Through one surrogate or another, it will pursue me relentlessly.
It doesn’t have to possess these people to force them to do what it wants. However many Harmonys there might be—six big houses full of them, surely no fewer than thirty, most likely forty or more—the puppeteer can alert them that they are required to guard against my escape. They will obey out of fear that it will flip from one to another of them, disfiguring or killing at random to punish the slightest thought of rebellion. If they love one another, none will flee and allow an unknown number of others to be killed as revenge for he who escapes. Freedom at that price isn’t freedom at all, but instead an endless highway of guilt from which perhaps there is no exit but suicide.
They will hunt me down, and I will have to escape with Annamaria or kill them all. I can’t bear to kill so many, or even one of them. The ten-round magazine of my pistol contains only seven cartridges. But the shortage of ammunition isn’t what prevents me from shooting my way out of the Corner. My past and my future constrain me. By past I mean my losses, and by future I mean the hope of regaining what has been lost.
With dawn mere minutes away, I can imagine no certain hiding place once morning light floods down through the hills. I need to hide because I need time to think. Before I know what I’m doing, I find myself running across the dark lawn and to the rutted track littered with broken shells.
In the absence of the moon, the ocean is as black as oil and the foam in the breaking surf is now the fungal gray of soap suds in which dirty hands have been washed and washed again. The beach lies starlit, and although the galactic whorls overhead contain as many suns as any shore has grains of sand, this strand is as dim as badly tarnished silver, for our Earth is remote, rotating far from the stars and farther every night.
As I reach the end of the unpaved track, underfoot the shell fragments slide with a sound like the scattered coins of a pirate treasure, and suddenly she rushes past me, having followed me from the house. Without the moon to honor it, her flag of hair is less bright than before, but she is certainly the blond child whom I glimpsed previously, Jolie, daughter of Ardys. If earlier she followed me to the house and then listened to my conversation with her mother on the porch, that explains why, as she passes, she speaks to me as if I am her confirmed conspirator: “Follow me! Hurry!”
Jolie is a shadow but as quick as light, and although she gets well ahead of me, she stops to wait at the mouth of the big culvert.
As I arrive there, I hear a man shout not from the beach behind me but perhaps from the houses that stand ten feet above the sea, and another man answers him. Their words are distorted by distance and by being filtered through the sounds of my drumming heart and my rapid breathing, but the meaning of them is nonetheless clear. Those men are in the hunt.
I hear also the engine of some vehicle, perhaps an SUV or a large pickup. From somewhere above and inland, light flares, fades, swells again, and sweeps across the top of the embankment, over our heads, moving north to south. A searchlight. Mounted on a vehicle.
The puppetmaster can marshal its army with shocking speed, because it needs no telephone. And perhaps it doesn’t have to possess its subjects one by one to convey the threat that I pose. Maybe it is able to broadcast an instruction to all of them simultaneously, which they are not compelled to obey—as they are compelled when their oppressor enters intimately into one of them—but which they obey nevertheless because the consequences of disobedience are so dire.
Jolie says, “Hold tight to me. We can’t risk a light for a while, and the way is very dark.”
Her hand is small and delicate in mine, but strong.
We push through the overhanging vines. They are cold ropy creepers that conjure in my mind the strange image of dead snakes dangling from the head of a lifeless Medusa.
As before, the drainage tunnel is as dark as any blind man’s world, and it is almost as quiet as a deaf man’s life. The rubber soles of our shoes extract little sound from the concrete pipe. The floor is not puddled with water through which we might splash, and no debris has washed here that might crackle underfoot. If vermin share this darkness with us, they are as silent as the rats that slink through dreams.
The air is cool and smells clean. In a drain, even one of this size, especially in the rainy season, which is now, I expect at least the faint scents of mold and spooring fungi, the fetor of occasional stagnant pools skinned with slimy algae, a whiff of lime efflorescing from the concrete. The odorless condition of this realm is no less disorienting than the blackness all around.
We stay to the center, the low point of the curving passage, which means the girl can’t be feeling her way along the wall. Yet she proceeds with confidence, never hesitating, walking at an ordinary pace, as if she knows that no obstruction lies ahead, as if all she needs to find her way is the cant of the floor under her feet and a draft so faint that only she can feel it.
I have in the past been in lightless places that were less welcoming than this and fraught with dangers, forced to crawl and explore blindly with my hands. Although this great pipe smells clean and seems to harbor no mortal threats, I find it immeasurably more disturbing than any previous dark place I have known.
Step by step, my nerves become more raw, abraded by the silken darkness, pinched by the silence, and what flutters in my stomach also creeps up and down my spine.
Halting, holding fast to the girl’s hand, I ask, “Where are we going?”
She whispers, “Shhhh. Voices carry in the pipe. If they listen at the outlet, maybe they’ll hear. Besides, I’m counting steps, so don’t confuse me.”
I glance back, but the moonless night is still awaiting dawn. Unable to see the vine-straggled outlet, I can’t judge how far we might have come.
Jolie continues forward, and I follow.
From the moment we entered, the floor has sloped upward. Now the angle of ascent increases. Soon I sense that this tunnel is curving to the left.
Three disturbing things happen in the next few minutes, two of them in that perfect gloom and the third in weak but welcome light.
First my singular intuition, which if it could smell and see would have the nose of a hunting dog and the eyes of a hawk, tells me with steadily increasing insistence that this tunnel is not what it seems to be. I assume that it must have been constructed to channel torrents of rain from the shoulders of the four-lane highway high above or from a network of open gullies, with the intention of preventing erosion of the coastal hills. But this is not a drain, not a piece of common infrastructure with a public purpose.
Being guided by the girl through the blind and odorless quiet, I perceive a pair of truths about this tunnel, the first being that it proceeds to something other than manholes and drainage grates. Ahead will be found peculiar features, and at some far terminus lies an immense facility of mysterious purpose. These perceptions don’t pour into me as a flood of images but as feelings. I am not able to feel them more vividly by concentrating on them, nor can I translate these feelings into clear details. In all its aspects, my psychic gift has always been more powerful than I can comfortably manage but weaker than I wish it were.
The associated truth is that the place to which this passageway ultimately leads is thought to be abandoned but is not entirely so. I have a vague impression of colossal structures, vast rooms that stand empty and others that house exotic machines long unused and corroded. But somewhere in those monumental installations, cocooned by rings of derelict buildings in which nothing moves except fitful drafts and ghosts that are nothing more than bestirred forms of dust, there is a hub of activity. That hub might seem small by comparison to the forsaken architectures that surround it, but my sense is that this secret core is itself large and bunkered, staffed by men and women as busy as the population of any hive.
The second of the three disturbing things that happen in this black passageway, subsequent to the pair of clairvoyantly received truths, is an ominous perception that something pernicious beyond comprehension lies ahead, something unwholesome exceeding all my previous experience of wickedness. A flood tide of apprehension wells and swiftly builds into an almost incapacitating fright, a shrinking, anxious fear that some pure evil looms with all the power of a mile-high tsunami.
I believe—I know—that the unknown thing I sense and fear is not here now, but instead waits far ahead, in that fortified hub of which I can feel the existence though I cannot see it. This perfect blackness oppresses me, however, and because the girl seems quite at home in it, I am increasingly troubled by the thought that she is so comfortable in the dark because she is of the dark, never was the innocent child that I have assumed, but is one with the distant threat toward which she seems to lead me.
She whispers, “We’re coming to a threshold, don’t trip,” and squeezes my hand as if to reassure me.