Her apparent solicitude should steady my nerves a little, but it does not. The perception of some unknown but monumental evil waiting ahead does not relent, in fact intensifies. After hearing the story of young Maxwell’s murder by his possessed kin, after seeing lovely Ardys Harmony transformed into a homicidal puppet with a cleaver, I have no reason to dread this unknown menace more than I fear the Presence, the puppetmaster, but my intuition continues to insist.
The promised threshold is perhaps two inches high. My left shoulder brushes what might be a heavy sliding door, and my pistol, clutched in that hand, rings loudly off steel. Through the sole of one of my shoes, I feel a metal channel inset in the midpoint of the foot-wide threshold.
“The beach is so far away, we can risk it now,” Jolie says, letting go of my hand and switching on a small flashlight the size of a Magic Marker.
The flash is welcome although inadequate, the darkness flowing in again behind the beam as it moves, flowing like the cloak of something cowled and hostile, figures of dim light squirming in the stainless-steel walls, as though they are the tortured denizens of some parallel reality separated from ours by a thin, distorting membrane.
The narrow ray reveals that we have left the pipe behind and have entered a rectangular chamber approximately ten feet wide and twenty long. The floor seems to be white ceramic tiles separated not by grout lines but by thin spines of polished steel. All other surfaces are stainless steel.
With the beam, the girl indicates a crowbar and several wood wedges of different sizes, which lie together in a corner. “I had to pry open the doors, and it wasn’t easy, I about thought I’d blow out a carotid artery. They were pneumatic once, I think, but there’s no power to them now.”
The breached darkness is more disturbing than the blinding gloom that preceded it. Even in cramped quarters, absolute blackness allows the mind to imagine a generous space, but here the ceiling is hardly more than seven feet above the floor, and the sheen of the cold steel is sinister.
“What is this place?” I ask.
“Maybe the pipe behind us was just a storm drain a long time ago, before Grandpa even bought the Corner. But someone connected this system to it. Someone weird and up to no good, if you ask me.” She plays the light across the walls to the left and right, where the smooth steel is interrupted by double rows of inch-diameter holes. “I’ve thought about it a lot, and what I figure is this was first of all some kind of escape route. If people used it, they were decontaminated in these rooms—you know, maybe because of bacteria and viruses. Maybe. I don’t know. Feels right. But if you weren’t people, if you were anything else and you got this far, they trapped you here and instead of pumping in germ-killing mist or whatever, they instead pumped poison gas into the room.”
“ ‘If you were anything else’? What anything?”
Before the girl can respond, a rumbling arises, not unlike the subterranean roar of certain earthquakes. It seems to come from overhead, however, and as it grows louder, I look uneasily at the ceiling.
“Probably an eighteen-wheeler,” Jolie says. “We’re under the Coast Highway here, beyond the Corner.”
She leads the way to the end of the room, where four steps ascend to a second threshold. Here she has pried open another set of steel doors. Beyond lies a chamber identical to the first.
She plays the light over the architrave before stepping into that room. “You had to go through these two air locks to escape to the coast. They weren’t taking any chances.”
I follow her. “They who?”
“I’ve got some ideas,” she replies, but offers no more as she leads me across the chamber to another four steps that ascend to a third pried-open door.
Another big truck passes overhead, followed by lighter traffic, but the vibrations no longer disturb me. I am troubled now by an even stronger premonition that ahead waits an unequaled abomination, an evil so pure, so perfectly vicious and thoroughly unwholesome that it belongs in a deeper level of Hell than any Dante ever imagined.
Past that third door, Jolie says, “From here on, there’s power,” and she presses a wall switch.
Warm light springs from tubes hidden in coves along both sides of a corridor that is as long as a football field, about twelve feet wide, maybe eight feet high. Every surface is pale yellow, shiny, and seems to be seamlessly plasticized.
The air is warmer here, and it has an astringent chemical smell that isn’t unpleasant.
“When I first pried open that third set of doors,” she says, “it was a lot warmer in here than this, and the smell was a lot stronger. I first thought the air might be bad for me, like toxic or something, but it doesn’t irritate my throat or eyes, and if the stuff is gonna make me grow a second head, it hasn’t happened yet.”
Compared to the rooms preceding it, this space looks welcoming, but my presentiment of evil remains acute, and I’m glad that I have the pistol.
The girl says, “The next doors are powered-up and locked. Can’t be pried open. All these barriers. So maybe there’s a million bars of gold beyond it or the secret recipe for McDonald’s special sauce. This hallway is as far as we can go.”
About halfway to those distant doors, a figure lies on the hallway floor. At first it might be mistaken for a man, but then not.
As we approach the sprawled form, the girl says, “Whatever’s beyond those last doors, if they are the last ones, there must not be anyone left over there. If anyone was over there, they wouldn’t just leave the thing here so long. They’d take it away.”
I can’t tell for certain how tall the creature might have been in life or exactly what weight, because it appears to have mummified in the greater heat that she mentioned and in the chemical-laden air. As a guess, I would say it stood over seven feet and weighed short of three hundred pounds. But it is radically dehydrated, skin shrunken over its lanky body, over its long hands, and over the once-fearsome features of its huge head, skin as wrinkled as a gray linen suit worn hard and until threadbare and never once pressed.
What I can determine is that it is a primate, legs longer than its arms, more sophisticated than gorillas and other anthropoids, with a spinal curve like that of Homo sapiens, capable of standing fully erect. But there the similarity to a man ends, for this thing has long four-knuckled fingers, five per hand, and two three-knuckled thumbs per hand. Its toes are as long as its fingers, six per foot, with one thumblike toe in each half dozen.
“I call him Orc,” the girl says.
“Well, I had to call him something, and Bob didn’t seem right.”
I don’t know her yet, but I think I’m going to like her.
“Orc because he makes me think of the orcs in The Lord of the Rings.”
Its skull, to which the flesh of the face has been shriveled and shrink-wrapped by the heat, is nearly the size and shape of a watermelon. The eyes have collapsed back into the desiccated brain, but judging by the sockets, they must have been the size of large lemons, set not horizontally like human eyes, but vertically. The remaining nose cartilage and a mass of shriveled tissue draped over it suggest a proboscis like that of an anteater, though three hooked lengths of hornlike structures, each two inches long, bristle from that portion of the face, unlike anything an anteater can boast. The lips have shrunk from the teeth, which are reminiscent of a wolf’s oral weaponry. The mouth cracks uncommonly wide to allow the fullest use of that wickedly sharp and still-gleaming array of cutlery.
The presentiment of evil that has had its claws in me for most of the journey from the beach has not faded, but the reason for it is not this cadaver. Whatever alarms me is behind the closed doors at the end of this corridor, either living specimens related to this corpse or something worse.
One more thing strikes me as important. This carcass appears to be as dry as a mass of parchment, but no stains or time-hardened residue of decomposing tissues mars the floor under it. Where did the bodily fluids go, the dissolving and putrefying fats?
“I’ve been studying old Orc for a few months,” the girl says.
“I can learn something from him. Something that’ll help us. I’m sure I can.”
“But … studying him here alone?”
No more than six feet from the body are a few folded, quilted blue moving blankets that Jolie has apparently provided for her comfort. She sits on one and folds her legs Indian-style.
“Orc doesn’t scare me. Nothing much can scare me after five years of Dr. Hiskott.”
The girl spells it for me. “The creep lives in what used to be our house. We’re his animals to torment. Slaves, toys.”
“Talking to you on the porch, Mom couldn’t speak his name. He knows when it’s used. But here I’m beyond the bastard’s range. He can’t hear me say how much I hate him, how much I want to kill him really hard.”
I settle onto another folded moving blanket, facing her.
Jolie dresses to express the rebellion in which she dares not engage: dirty sneakers, jeans, a worn-denim jacket appliquéd with decorative copper rivets to suggest chain mail, and a black T-shirt on which a white skull grins.
In spite of that outfit and the settled anger that hardens her face, her tender beauty is greater than her mother has been able to convey. She is one of those girls who, though a tomboy, would always be chosen to play an angel in the church Christmas pageant and would be cast as the secular saint in any school play. Her beauty has no significant quality of nascent sexuality, but rather she is luminous and projects a goodness and an innocence that is a reflection of that profound grace we sometimes glimpse in nature and from which we take assurance that the world is a place of exquisite purpose.
“Dr. Hiskott. Where did he come from, Jolie?”
“He says Moonlight Bay. That’s a couple miles up the coast. But we think he really came from Fort Wyvern.”
“The army base?”
“Yeah. Just inland from Moonlight Bay—and from here. Humongous.”
“Like 134,000 acres. A small city. Civilian workers, military guys, their families—forty thousand people used to live there. Not counting.”
“Not counting what?”
“Things like Orc.”
The lighting in the cove flutters, dims, goes out, and comes back on before I can bolt to my feet.
“Don’t freak,” the girl says sweetly. “It happens now and then.”
“How many nows and how many thens?”
“It never stays dark more than a couple seconds. Besides, I’ve got a flashlight, you’ve got a gun.”
As I am not one to unnecessarily frighten children and as I wish not to further frighten myself, I refrain from suggesting that what comes for us in the dark might find my pistol as unimpressive as her mini flashlight.
“Anyway,” she says, “they closed Wyvern after the end of the Cold War, before I was born. People say there were secret projects at Wyvern, new weapons, experiments.”
Looking at the mummified creature, I ask, “What experiments?”
“No one knows for sure. Weird stuff. Maybe messing around with genes, crap like that. Some say there’s still something going on there, even though it’s officially closed.”
A bass electronic noise pulses along the hall, a whummm-whummm-whummm that seems to stir the marrow in my bones.
“That happens sometimes, too,” the girl says. “I don’t know what it is. Don’t worry about it. Nothing ever happens after it.”
I look toward the sealed doors she has been unable to open. “You think this connects with … someplace in Wyvern?”
“Well, I don’t think it’s a space-warp shortcut to Disney World. Anyway, Dr. Hiskott is sick when he checks into the motor court. He seems exhausted, confused, his hands shaking. My aunt Lois registers him. When he takes his driver’s license from his wallet, he scatters a bunch of cards on the counter. Aunt Lois helps gather them up. She says one was a photo ID for Fort Wyvern. Before she married my uncle Greg, back when Wyvern was still open, she worked there.”
“Why would he still carry a card years after the place closed?”
I don’t have to be a mentalist to read, in her direct green gaze, that we both know the answer to my question.
“Hiskott stays in his cottage three days, won’t let the maid change the linens or clean. And then he wasn’t just Dr. Hiskott anymore. He was … something else, and he took control.”
The electronic sound comes again, a longer series of notes than before: Whummm-whummm-whummm-whummm-whummm.…
Although shriveled, shrunken, mummified, and long dead, the bony fingers of Orc’s left hand tap the floor, making a rattle like dancing dice, and from its gaping mouth comes an eager keening.
The lights flutter and go out.