The creature lifts its hung head, the cowl peels away to settle around its neck like a rolled collar, and the face appears more human than not. Female. Greasy coils of dark hair. Features that might have been lovely before the skull elongated and the bones thickened during whatever transformation she endured at Hiskott’s hand.
Here is one of the motor-court guests who was so alone in the world that she would not be missed, now a human-alien hybrid that perhaps exists for no reason but to protect and serve her master. If any of her former personality remains, any slightest degree of self-awareness and memory, what a horror her current existence must be, and how insane that kernel of her true self must have become in this monstrous prison of strange flesh and bone.
Although the beast’s eyes are milky as if with cataracts, I am sure that it can see, perhaps as well in the dark as in the light. I can’t look away from those eyes, and suddenly I know intuitively what the thing is about to do.
I drop and roll and spring up as, in a slithery scissoring of long and knuckled limbs, the creature crosses the distance that I have put between us and lands in the precise spot that I vacated, quicker than a cat.
As it turns to face me, I see that something extraordinary has happened to its forehead. Protruding from the center of its brow is what appears to be a tapered horn about four inches long, half an inch wide at the base but as pointed as a nail. No, not a horn, but a hollow probe of some kind from which depends a single drop of fluid as red as blood. The droplet falls, and the segmented horn collapses into itself, backward into the skull. At the point where it retracted is a small puckered pouch of skin that I had not previously noticed.
The creature doesn’t mean to kill me. I am to be converted, as was the woman, into a servant and defender of whatever Norris Hiskott has become.
Again I know, I move, duck, clamber across a club chair, and the creature is where I was an instant earlier, turning toward me with a hiss of anger and frustration.
I continue moving, circling the pool table, keeping it between us, as the few remaining moths take flight again and caper about the chandelier, their distorted shadows chasing silverfish across the green felt.
Following his hybrid rebirth, Hiskott has become arguably psychic, in the sense that he can have out-of-body experiences and invade the minds of others; therefore, this beast that serves him may have some such ability to a lesser degree. In fact, the compulsion that I feel to stare into those milky eyes suggests that an attempt is being made to cast a sort of spell and render me incapable of flight or self-defense.
Because of my gifts, this creature has no more power over me than does Norris Hiskott. But maybe its attempt to fix me in place with a psychic skewer, like a lepidopterist pinning a butterfly to a specimen board, opens a channel between us that transmits the beast’s intentions to me.
Then I realize that I’ve missed more than one opportunity to kill the thing. Worse, I no longer have the pistol in a two-hand grip. I’ve allowed the muzzle to drift off target. To a degree, I’m susceptible to the creature’s unspoken suggestions, after all.
Bringing the gun up, both hands on the grip, I fail to move when my adversary does, and abruptly it looms over me, seizing my head in both bony hands, to hold me steady for the sting. It stinks of burnt matches, rotting roses. The milky eyes are two chalices of steaming anesthetic and bitter venom. A strong supple scaly tail, previously unnoticed, whips around my legs. The capelike mass of loose skin billows out and then forward to enwrap my body, as if I am soon to be a monk of its satanic order, robed and cowled and moon-eyed alike to it.
The first shot takes the beast point-blank in the chest.
Its grip on my skull only tightens. The dripping hornlike probe extrudes from its brow. It rears back its Gorgon head, the better to slam the horn through my skull, linking brain to brain.
Trapped between us, angled upward, the gun discharges, gouging a gout of flesh and splintered wedge of jawbone from the fiend’s face, instantly collapsing its grin of triumph.
The hideous cape of skin slips away from me, the tail unwinds from my legs, one calloused clammy hand slides along my face, but yet the creature’s head darts down to gore my brow.
Fired into that red-toothed and howling mouth, the third bullet spares me by coring the brain, shattering through the back of the head, and drilling into the ceiling. The curiously articulated legs fold this way and that, the hooked hands seem to seek a grip upon the air, and the beast drops, falls back, faceup, no luster any longer in its eyes, the cape of skin, like a mortuary shroud, draping its body.
It lies still except for the rolled collar of excess skin around its neck. Perhaps in some postmortem reflex, that dark-gray rouleau unspools, insinuates itself between the carpet and the broken skull, and creeps across the top of the head, over the brow, and down the face, whereupon it quivers and becomes as lifeless as the visage that it covers, as though the creature had been given license to walk the Earth on the condition that in both life and death it recognize the shame of its appearance and its purpose.
From the cellar rises an inhuman cry that might be an expression of rage, although to me it is more like a lamentation, a sorrowing, woven through with bright threads of sharp anxiety. This is a cry of madness, as well, of melancholy alienation from all that might give comfort.
I could pity what mourns and cowers in the darkness below, if I didn’t expect that it was another like the one I just killed and that, given the chance, it would induct me into their hive.
As the plaintive cries subside, I consider sitting and waiting for Hiskott and the third of his guards to come looking for me rather than risk searching further, when behind every closed door might wait a thief of minds and a collector of souls. But the insect-infested furniture isn’t appealing, and the deeply unwholesome atmosphere will corrode courage if I linger too long.
The stench of burnt matches and rotten roses clings to me, and I feel soiled by the touch of those hands and the embrace of that cape. I would like nothing more than to wash my hands and face, but even if I dare to delay to scrub away the smell, I don’t trust even the water in this place to be safe and pure.
In the foyer once more, I stand listening to the house. A pool of silence, fathoms deep, it is not stirred by any current, with not a ripple to disturb its surface.
As I climb the stairs, the treads softly complain, marking my position step by step. But retreat is no more an option than was standing still.
Four rounds left in the pistol. Six in the revolver, which rides uncomfortably in the small of my back, cylinder pressing hard against my spine.
Even now, as I ascend from the first floor to the second, I feel as if I am descending, as if there is no up in this house, no forward or back, no sideways, only down. The strict laws of nature have not been suspended here. The strong perception of ascent as descent is either an illusion, a psychological reaction to the singular threat I face, or something similar to that condition called synesthesia, when a certain sound will be perceived as a color and a certain odor as a sound. Or maybe this phenomenon is related to Hiskott and what he has become, an effect of some aura that surrounds him. The feeling is so unsettling that I need one hand for the railing.
I reach the landing. Nothing waits on the second flight or, as far as I can see, at the head of the stairs.
Ascending, I am no longer able to look at the treads before me, because they actually appear to lead back to the first floor, even though I can tell from the flex and strain of calves and thighs that I am climbing.
Off the stairs, forward along the corridor, the floor seems to have a steep downward slope, although I know that it does not. The ceiling appears to lower, the walls tilt at queer angles, and the architecture, at least as I perceive it, becomes that of a carnival funhouse.
The purpose of this illusion, projected upon me by my psychic quarry, is not merely to confuse me and make me more vulnerable, but also to funnel me directly toward the room in which he waits. Ahead, the ceiling bends to meet the floor and block further progress, the wall to my left shifts toward me, pressing me sharply to the right, to a threshold. Beyond an open door, the ruler of Harmony Corner lies abed in a four-poster, attended by his third servant.
The creature standing is much like the one that I encountered in the library, though what human features remain of the original motor-court guest are those of a man. The mottled-gray cloak of loose skin writhes around it as if stirred by a strong draft, though I suspect that billowing expresses its anger and anxiety.
My anxiety is no less acute. My heart beats like a stallion’s hooves, my breast filled with the sound of iron shoes pounding hard-packed earth. Pouring sweat renews the stench of burnt matches and rotten roses in the alien oils on my skin and in my hair.
Hiskott, hybrid of man and monster, lies in glistening greasy knots of self-affection, in sloppy spills of slowly writhing coils that crush the mattress, a great pale snake with a man’s features in an oversized head that is elongated like a serpent’s skull. Of his six arms and six hands, four are clearly coextensive with the sinuous convolutions of the life form from another world that he once dissected and with the stem cells of which he hoped to much improve himself. The middle pair of arms are human, but those two hands are ceaselessly grasping, while the alien hands move languidly, stroking the air as if conducting an unseen orchestra through a song in a slow tempo.
My perception of devolution and degeneracy, which overcame me in the kitchen following the discovery of the rat skeletons, is confirmed here. This thing in the bed is neither a creature capable of traveling between stars nor the brilliant scientist who was a key figure in Project Polaris. This is genetic chaos, perhaps the worst of both species: Hiskott’s troubled mind intact but further twisted by alien perspectives, cold alien desires, and alien powers; the body largely one best suited to another planet, perhaps grown freakishly immense and grotesque because the needs and hungers of two species have rendered it insatiable.
The bedroom reeks worse than the cellar in which I locked the other servant thing. Piled in far corners are cascades of bones from all manner of animals, and the floor around the bed is littered with fresh and spoiled meat, upon both of which this Hiskott seems content to dine. The butchered beef and pork and veal, the prepared chickens and plastic trays of fish fillets were obviously provided through the family’s restaurant, although nothing seems to have been cooked, as what is still not consumed is raw.
Among this disgusting buffet are also the carcasses of animals, some partly eaten: a coyote stiff and sneering, rabbits as limp as rag piles, ground squirrels, rats. Perhaps in the night, especially when the moon is waning and no one at the distant motor court is likely to glimpse a fleet nightmarish figure in the rolling meadows, the thing I killed in the library or this one here, or the one in the cellar, goes hunting for its master. I wonder that there haven’t been more feasts of human flesh than only Maxy—but perhaps there have been. No one could know what hobo or coastal hiker, or what itinerant homeless person camping for the night on the beach, might have been overcome, paralyzed with venom or by a brain spiking, and dragged secretly to this chamber not to serve but to be served.
Upon catching sight of me, as I stand trembling on the threshold of this abattoir, Hiskott lifts his huge head, which must be at least three times the size of any man’s head, yet is recognizably human. He opens his wide greedy mouth of ragged teeth in what appears to be a silent scream but is instead a call. The call is psychic, a command—Feed me—and I feel it pulling at me as a riptide pulls a swimmer under, into drowning depths.
Hiskott’s confidence is palpable, the kind of self-assurance that is a vicious courage, arrogance born of absolute power and of endless abuses never punished. I discover that I have moved off the threshold, into the room. After two or three steps, I halt as a great rustling noise arises and quickly swells louder behind me, and I am suddenly afraid that the servant in the cellar has gotten free and rises now at my back, to fold me in its cape.
Before I can look over my shoulder to glimpse my fate, the source of the loud rustling noise becomes manifest as hundreds of moths swarm into the bedroom from the hallway, seething past me, buffeting the back of my neck, my face, questing at the corners of my mouth, at my nostrils, dusting my eyelashes with their powdery substance, fluttering through my hair and away, a surging river of soft wings.
In this house, one horror breeds another, and the swarm flies straight into Hiskott’s silent scream, down into his long throat, so tender that he has no need to shred them with his teeth. Still they come, hundreds more—the house is a moth farm, their grazing among the mildewed books perhaps encouraged—and I hunch my neck to prevent them from crawling under my collar. They feed the beast on the bed, and although their numbers would seem great enough to choke it, a peristaltic pulsing in the sinuous coils suggests that the insects are easily accommodated, crushed and pushed along into the winding catacombs of the serpent’s stomach.
This vile spectacle so stuns me that, as the last of the swarm answers the call, I break free of Hiskott’s psychic grip, and raise the pistol. The servant thing springs toward me, horn extruding from its brow. I cut it down with the last four rounds in the magazine and throw the gun aside.
Hiskott seems unfazed that I have dispatched two of his three defenders. Having swallowed all that came to him, he preens the moth powder from his lips, from his six hands, watching me as he licks and licks. Were his tongue forked and thin, like that of a snake, it would be much less repulsive than the large, long, but human tongue that instead journeys through his many supple fingers and cleans his upturned palms.
The six arms remind me of deities like the Indian goddess Kali. Although he is wingless, there is something about him that suggests a dragon as much as a serpent. The ragged mouth of wicked teeth might give Beowulf pause. The myths and legends of many ages and kingdoms seem here combined in a single threat, a thing as self-satisfied and vain as the first of all evils that lies curled in the pit of the world.
When I draw the revolver from the small of my back, he stops licking his hands, but he does not seem alarmed. His lack of fear is unnerving, and I wish at least that he would, in all his coils, recoil. He is such a grotesque mass of thick undulations of pale scaly flesh, such a slowly writhing tanglement of involutions and convolutions, spiraled and helixed, kinked and twisted, that he appears incapable of any but the most ponderous movement, surely not a fraction as quick as any ordinary snake. Therefore, his calm seems to indicate either that he is too comfortable in his long-uncontested power or that he is more lithe than I assume.
When I raise the weapon, he proves not quick but cunning. Each time that he has invaded my mind, I have at once thrown him out. For a while, the psychic call with which he attracted the moths was also effective with me, but I somehow know—as he seems to know as well—that it will not work again.