When he first heard the distant snapping of twigs, he crept behind the trunk of a large spruce and stood there, waiting to see who would show up. They couldn't come out in the daytime, but that didn't mean they couldn't get people who could; giving them money was one way, but it wasn't that guy Straker in town, the only way. Mark had seen of a toad sunning itself on and his eyes were like the eyes a rock. He looked like he could break a baby's arm and smile while he did it.
He touched the heavy shape of his father's target pistol in his jacket pocket. Bullets were no good against them ?except maybe silver ones - but a shot between the eyes would punch that Straker's ticket, all right.
His eyes shifted downward momentarily to the roughly cylindrical shape propped against the tree, wrapped in an old piece of toweling. There was a woodpile behind his house, half a cord of yellow ash stove lengths which he and his father had cut with the McCulloch chain saw in July and August. Henry Petrie was methodical, and each length, Mark knew, would be within an inch of three feet, one way or the other. His father knew the proper length just as he knew that winter followed fall and that yellow ash would burn longer and cleaner in the living room fireplace.
His son, who knew other things, knew that ash was for men - things - like him. This morning, while his mother and father were out on their Sunday bird walk, he had taken one of the lengths and whacked one end into a rough point with his Boy Scout hatchet. It was rough, but it would serve.
He saw a flash of color and shrank back against the tree, peering around the rough bark with one eye. A moment later he got his first clear glimpse of the person climbing the hill. It was a girl. He felt a sense of relief mingled with disappointment. No henchman of the devil there; that was Mr Norton's daughter.
His gaze sharpened again. She was carrying a stake of her own! As she drew closer, he felt an urge to laugh bitterly - a piece of snow fence, that's what she had. Two swings with an ordinary tool box hammer would split it right in two.
She was going to pass his tree on the right. As she drew closer, he began to slide carefully around his tree to the left, avoiding any small twigs that might pop and give him away. At last the synchronized little movement was done; her back was to him as she went on up the hill toward the break in the trees. She was going very carefully, he noted with approval. That was good. In spite of the silly snow fence stake, she apparently had some idea of what she was getting into. Still, if she went much further, she was going to be in trouble. Straker was at home. Mark had been here since twelve-thirty, and he had seen Straker go out to the driveway and look down the road and then go back into the house. Mark had been trying to make up his mind on what to do himself when this girl had entered things, upsetting the equation.
Perhaps she was going to be all right. She had stopped behind a screen of bushes and was crouching there, just looking at the house. Mark turned it over in his mind. Obviously she knew. How didn't matter, but she would not have had even that pitiful stake with her if she didn't know. He supposed he would have to go up and warn her that Straker was still around, and on guard. She probably didn't have a gun, not even a little one like his.
He was pondering how to make his presence known to her without having her scream her head off when the motor of Straker's car roared into life. She jumped visibly, and at first he was afraid she was going to break and run, crashing through the woods and advertising her presence for a hundred miles. But then she hunkered down again, holding on to the ground like she was afraid it would fly away from her. She's got guts even if she is stupid, he thought, approvingly.
Straker's car backed down the driveway - she would have a much better view from where she was; he could only see the Packard's black roof - hesitated for a moment, and then went off down the road toward town.
He decided they had to team up. Anything would be better than going up to that house alone. He had already sampled the poison atmosphere that enveloped it. He had felt it from a half a mile away, and it thickened as you got closer.
Now he ran lightly up the carpeted incline and put his hand on her shoulder. He felt her body tense, knew she was going to scream, and said, 'Don't yell. It's all right. It's me.'
She didn't scream. What escaped was a terrified exha?lation of air. She turned around and looked at him, her face white. 'W-Who's me?'
He sat down beside her. 'My name is Mark Petrie. I know you; you're Sue Norton. My dad knows your dad.'
'Petrie . . . ? Henry Petrie?'
'Yes, that's my father.'
'What are you doing here?' Her eyes were moving continually over him, as if she hadn't been able to take in his actuality yet.
'The same thing you are. Only that stake won't work. It's too . . . He groped for a word that had checked into his vocabulary through sight and definition but not by use. 'It's too flimsy.'
She looked down at her piece of snow fence and actu?ally blushed. 'Oh, that. Well, I found that in the woods and . . . and thought someone might fall over it, so I just - '
He cut her adult temporizing short impatiently: 'You came to kill the vampire, didn't you?'
'Wherever did you get that idea? Vampires and things like that?'
He said somberly, 'A vampire tried to get me last night. It almost did, too.'
'That's absurd. A big boy like you should know better than to make up - '
'It was Danny Glick.'
She recoiled, her eyes wincing as if he had thrown a mock punch instead of words. She groped out, found his arm, and held it. Their eyes locked. 'Are you making this up, Mark?'
'No,' he said, and told his story in a few simple sentences.
'And you came here alone?' she asked when he had finished. 'You believed it and came up here alone?'
'Believed it?' He looked at her, honestly puzzled. 'Sure I believed it. I saw it, didn't I?'
There was no response to that, and suddenly she was ashamed of her instant doubt (no, doubt was too kind a word) of Matt's story and of Ben's tentative acceptance.
'How come you're here?'
She hesitated a moment and then said, 'There are some men in town who suspect that there is a man in that house whom no one has seen. That he might be a . . . a . . .' Still she could not say the word, but he nodded his understand?ing. Even on short acquaintance, he seemed quite an extraordinary little boy.
Abridging all that she might have added, she said simply, 'So I came to look and find out.'
He nodded at the stake. 'And brought that to pound through him?'
'I don't know if I could do that.'
'I could,' he said calmly. 'After what I saw last night. Danny was outside my window, holding on like a great big fly. And his teeth . . .' He shook his head, dismissing the nightmare as a businessman might dismiss a bankrupt client.
'Do your parents know you're here?' she asked, knowing they must not.
'No,' he said matter-of-factly. 'Sunday is their nature day. They go on bird walks in the mornings and do other things in the afternoon. Sometimes I go and sometimes I don't. Today they went for a ride up the coast.'
'You're quite a boy,' she said.
'No, I'm not,' he said, his composure unruffled by the praise. 'But I'm going to get rid of him.' He looked up at the house.
'Are you sure - '
'Sure I am. So're you. Can't you feel how bad he is? Doesn't that house make you afraid, just looking at it?'
'Yes,' she said simply, giving in to him. His logic was the logic of nerve endings, and unlike Ben's or Matt's, it was resistless.
'How are we going to do it?' she asked, automatically giving over the leadership of the venture to him.
'Just go up there and break in,' he said. 'Find him, pound the stake - my stake - through his heart, and get out again. He's probably down cellar. They like dark places. Did you bring a flashlight?'
'Damn it, neither did I.' He shuffled his sneakered feet aimlessly in the leaves for a moment. 'Probably didn't bring a cross either, did you?'
'Yes, I did,' Susan said. She pulled the link chain out of her blouse and showed him. He nodded and then pulled a chain out of his own shirt.
'I hope I can get this back before my folks come home,' he said gloomily. 'I crooked it from my mother's jewelry box. I'll catch hell if she finds out.' He looked around. The shadows had lengthened even as they talked, and they both felt an impulse to delay and delay.
'When we find him, don't look in his eyes,' Mark told her. 'He can't move out of his coffin, not until dark, but he can still book you with his eyes. Do you know anything religious by heart?'
They had started through the bushes between the woods and the unkempt lawn of the Marsten House.
'Well, the Lord's Prayer - '
'Sure, that's good. I know that one, too. We'll both say it while I pound the stake in.'
He saw her expression, revolted and half flagging, and he took her hand and squeezed it. His self-possession was disconcerting. 'Listen, we have to. I bet he's got half the town after last night. If we wait any longer, he'll have it all. It will go fast, now.'
'After last night?'
'I dreamed it,' Mark said. His voice was still calm, but his eyes were dark. 'I dreamed of them going to houses and calling on phones and begging to be let in. Some people knew, way down deep they knew, but they let them in just the same. Because it was easier to do that than to think something so bad might be real.'
'Just a dream,' she said uneasily.
'I bet there's a lot of people lying around in bed today with the curtains closed or the shades drawn, wondering if they've got a cold or the flu or something. They feel all weak and fuzzy-headed. They don't want to eat. The idea of eating makes them want to puke.'
'How do you know so much?'
'I read the monster magazines,' he said, 'and go to see the movies when I can. Usually I have to tell my mom I'm going to see Walt Disney. And you can't trust all of it. Sometimes they just make stuff up so the story will be bloodier.'
They were at the side of the house. Say, we're quite a crew, we believers, Susan thought. An old teacher half-?cracked with books, a writer obsessed with his childhood nightmares, a little boy who has taken a postgraduate course in vampire lore from the films and the modern penny-dreadfuls. And me? Do I really believe? Are para?noid fantasies catching?
As Mark had said, this close to the house it was just not possible to scoff. All the thought processes, the act of conversation itself, were overshadowed by a more funda?mental voice that was screaming danger! danger! in words that were not words at all. Her heart-beat and respiration were up, yet her skin was cold with the capillary-dilating effect of adrenaline, which keeps the blood hiding deep in the body's wells during moments of stress. Her kidneys were tight and heavy. Her eyes seemed preternaturally sharp, taking in every splinter and paint flake on the side of the house. And all of this had been triggered by no external stimuli at all: no men with guns, no large and snarling dogs, no smell of fire. A deeper watchman than her five senses had been wakened after a long season of sleep. And there was no ignoring it.
She peered through a break in the lower shutters. 'Why, they haven't done a thing to it,' she said almost angrily. 'It's a mess.'
'Let me see. Boost me up.'
She laced her fingers together so he could look through the broken slats and into the crumbling living room of the Marsten House. He saw a deserted, boxy parlor with a thick patina of dust on the floor (many footprints had been tracked through it), peeling wallpaper, two or three old easy chairs, a scarred table. There were cobwebs festooned in the room's upper corners, near the ceiling.
Before she could protest, he had rapped the hook-and?-eye combination that held the shutter closed with the blunt end of his stake. The lock fell to the ground in two rusty pieces, and the shutters creaked outward an inch or two.
'Hey!' she protested. 'You shouldn't - '
'What do you want to do? Ring the doorbell?'
He accordioned back the right-hand shutter and rapped one of the dusty, wavy panes of glass. It tinkled inward. The fear leaped up in her, hot and strong, making a coppery taste in her mouth.
'We can still run,' she said, almost to herself.
He looked down at her and there was no contempt in his glance - only an honesty and a fear that was as great as her own. 'You go if you have to,' he said.
'No. I don't have to.' She tried to swallow away the obstruction in her throat and succeeded not at all. 'Hurry it up. You're getting heavy.'
He knocked the protruding shards of glass out of the pane he had broken, switched the stake to his other hand, then reached through and unlatched the window. It moaned slightly as he pushed it up, and then the way was open.
She let him down and they looked wordlessly at the window for a moment. Then Susan stepped forward, pushed the right-hand shutter open all the way, and put her hands on the splintery windowsill preparatory to boosting herself up. The fear in her was sickening with its greatness, settled in her belly like a horrid pregnancy. At last, she understood how Matt Burke had felt as he had gone up the stairs to whatever waited in his guest room.
She had always consciously or unconsciously formed fear into a simple equation: fears = unknown. And to solve the equation, one simply reduced the problem to simple algebraic terms, thus: unknown = creaky board (or whatever), creaky board = nothing to be afraid of. In the modern world all terrors could be gutted by simple use of the transitive axiom of equality. Some fears were justified, of course (you don't drive when you're too plowed to see, don't extend the hand of friendship to snarling dogs, don't go parking with boys you don't know - how did the old joke go? Screw or walk?), but until now she had not believed that some fears were larger than comprehension, apocalyptic and nearly paralyzing. This equation was insol?uble. The act of moving forward at all became heroism.
She boosted herself with a smooth flex of muscles, swung one leg over the sill, and then dropped to the dusty parlor floor and looked around. There was a smell. It oozed out of the walls in an almost visible miasma. She tried to tell herself it was only plaster rot, or the accumulated damp guano of all the animals that had nested behind those broken lathings - woodchucks, rats, perhaps even a rac?coon or two. But it was more. The smell was deeper than animal-stink, more entrenched. It made her think of tears and vomit and blackness.
'Hey,' Mark called softly. His hands waved above the windowsill. 'A little help.'
She leaned out, caught him under the armpits, and dragged him up until he had caught a grip on the window?sill. Then he jackknifed himself in neatly. His sneakered feet thumped the carpet, and then the house was still again.
They found themselves listening to the silence, fasci?nated by it. There did not even seem to be the faint, high hum that comes in utter stillness, the sound of nerve endings idling in neutral. There was only a great dead soundlessness and the beat of blood in their own ears.
And yet they both knew, of course. They were not alone.
'Come on,' he said. 'Let's took around.' He clutched the stake very tightly and for just a moment looked longingly back at the window.
She moved slowly toward the hall and he came after her. Just outside the door there was a small end table with a book on it. Mark picked it up.
'Hey,' he said. 'Do you know Latin?'
'A little, from high school.'
'What's this mean?' He showed her the binding.
She sounded the words out, a frown creasing her fore?head. Then she shook her head. 'Don't know.'
He opened the book at random, and flinched. There was a picture of a naked man holding a child's gutted body toward something you couldn't see. He put the book down, glad to let go of it - the stretched binding felt uncomfortably familiar under his hand - and they went down the hallway toward the kitchen together. The shadows were more prominent here. The sun had gotten around to the other side of the house.
'Do you smell it?' he asked.
'It's worse back here, isn't it?'
He was remembering the cold-pantry his mother had kept in the other house, and how one year three bushel baskets of tomatoes had gone bad down there in the dark. This smell was like that, like the smell of tomatoes decaying into putrescence.
Susan whispered: 'God, I'm so scared.'
His hand groped out, found hers, and they locked tightly.
The kitchen linoleum was old and gritty and pocked, worn black in front of the old porcelain-tub sink. A large, scarred table stood in the middle of the floor, and on it was a yellow plate, a knife and fork, and a scrap of raw hamburger.
The cellar door was standing ajar.
'That's where we have to go,' he said.
'Oh,' she said weakly.
The door was open just a crack and the light did not penetrate at all. The tongue of darkness seemed to lick hungrily at the kitchen, waiting for night to come so it could swallow it whole. That quarter inch of darkness was hideous, unspeakable in its possibilities. She stood beside Mark, helpless and moveless.
Then he stepped forward and pulled the door open and stood for a moment, looking down. She saw a muscle jump beneath his jaw.
'I think - ' he began, and she heard something behind her and turned, suddenly feeling slow, feeling too late. It was Straker. He was grinning.
Mark turned, saw, and tried to dive around him. Straker's fist crashed into his chin and he knew no more.
When Mark came to, he was being carried up a flight of stairs - not the cellar stairs, though. There was not that feeling of stone enclosure, and the air was not so fetid. He allowed his eyelids to unclose themselves a tiny fraction, letting his head still loll limply on his neck. A stair landing coming up . . . the second floor. He could see quite clearly. The sun was not down yet. Thin hope, then.
They gained the landing, and suddenly the arms holding him were gone. He thumped heavily onto the floor, hitting his head.
'Do you not think I know when someone is playing the possum, young master?' Straker asked him. From the floor he seemed easily ten feet tall. His bald head glistened with a subdued elegance in the gathering gloom. Mark saw with growing terror that there was a coil of rope around his shoulder.
He grabbed for the pocket where the pistol had been.
Straker threw back his head and laughed. 'I have taken the liberty of removing the gun, young master. Boys should I not be allowed weapons they do not understand . . . any more than they should lead young ladies to houses where their commerce has not been invited.'
'What did you do with Susan Norton?'
Straker smiled. 'I have taken her where she wished to go, my boy. Into the cellar. Later, when the sun goes down, she will meet the man she came here to meet. You will meet him yourself, perhaps later tonight, perhaps tomorrow night. He may give you to the girl, of course . . . but I rather think he'll want to deal with you himself. The girl will have friends of her own, some of them perhaps meddlers like yourself.'
Mark lashed out with both feet at Straker's crotch, and Straker side-stepped liquidly, like a dancer. At the same moment he kicked his own foot out, connecting squarely with Mark's kidneys.
Mark bit his lips and writhed on the floor.
Straker chuckled. 'Come, young master. To your feet.'
'I . . . I can't.'
'Then crawl,' Straker said contemptuously. He kicked again, this time striking the large muscle of the thigh. The pain was dreadful, but Mark clenched his teeth together. He got to his knees, and then to his feet.
They progressed down the hall toward the door at the far end. The pain in his kidneys was subsiding to a dull ache. 'What are you going to do with me?'
'Truss you like a spring turkey, young master. Later, after my Master holds intercourse with you, you will be set free.'
'Like the others?'
As Mark pushed open -the door and stepped into the room where Hubert Marsten had committed suicide, some?thing odd seemed to happen in his mind. The fear did not fall away from it, but it seemed to stop acting as a brake on his thoughts, jamming all productive signals. His thoughts began to flicker past with amazing speed, not in words or precisely images, but in a kind of symbolic shorthand. He felt like a light bulb that has suddenly received a surge of power from no known source.
The room itself was utterly prosaic. The wallpaper hung in strips, showing the white plaster and sheet rock beneath. The floor was heavily dusted with time and plaster, but there was only one set of footprints in it, suggesting some?one had come up once, looked around, and left again. There were two stacks of magazines, a cast-iron cot with no spring or mattress, and a small tin plate with a faded Currier & Ives design that had once blocked the stove hole in the chimney. The window was shuttered, but enough light filtered dustily through the broken slats to make Mark think there might be an hour of daylight left. There was an aura of old nastiness about the room.
It took perhaps five seconds to open the door, see these things, and cross to the center of the room where Straker told him to stop. In that short period, his mind raced along three tracks and saw three possible outcomes to the situation he found himself in.
On one, he suddenly sprinted across the room toward the shuttered window and tried to crash through both glass and shutter like a Western movie hero, taking the drop to whatever lay below with blind hope. In one mental eye he saw himself crashing through only to fall onto a rusty pile of junked farm machinery, twitching away the last seconds of his life impaled on blunt harrow blades like a bug on a pin. In the other eye he saw himself crashing through the glass and into the shutter which trembled but did not break. He saw Straker pulling him back, his clothes torn, his body lacerated and bleeding in a dozen places.
On the second track, he saw Straker tie him up and leave. He saw himself trussed on the floor, saw the light fading, saw his struggles become more frenzied (but just as useless), and heard, finally, the steady tread on the stairs of one who was a million times worse than Straker.
On the third track, he saw himself using a trick he had read about last summer in a book on Houdini. Houdini had been a famous magician who had escaped jail cells, chained boxes, bank vaults, steamer trunks thrown into rivers. He could get out of ropes, police handcuffs, and Chinese finger-pullers. And one of the things the book said he did was hold his breath and tighten his hands into fists when a volunteer from the audience was tying him up. You bulged your thighs and forearms and neck muscles, too. If your muscles were big, you had a little slack when you relaxed them. The trick then was to relax completely, and go at your escape slowly and surely, never letting panic hurry you up. Little by little, your body would give you sweat for grease, and that helped, too. The book made it sound very easy.
'Turn around,' Straker said. 'I am going to tie you up. While I tie you up, you will not move. If you move, I take this' - he cocked his thumb before Mark like a hitchhiker - 'and pop your right eye out. Do you understand?'
Mark nodded. He took a deep breath, held it, and bunched all his muscles.
Straker threw his coil of rope over one of the beams.
'Lie down,' he said.
He crossed Mark's hands behind his back and bound them tightly with the rope. He made a loop, slipped it around Mark's neck, and tied it in a hangman's knot. 'You're made fast to the very beam my Master's friend and sponsor in this country hung himself from, young master. Are you flattered?'
Mark grunted, and Straker laughed. He passed the rope through Mark's crotch, and he groaned as Straker took up the slack with a brutal jerk.
He chuckled with monstrous good nature. 'So your jewels hurt? They will not for long. You are going to lead an ascetic's life, my boy - a long, long life.'
He banded the rope over Mark's taut thighs, made the knot tight, banded it again over his knees, and again over his ankles. Mark needed to breathe very badly now, but he held on stubbornly.
'You're trembling, young master,' Straker said mock?ingly. 'Your body is all in hard little knots. Your flesh is white - but it, will be whiter! Yet you need not be so afraid. My Master has the capacity for kindness. He is much loved, right here in your own town. There is only a little sting, like the doctor's needle, and then sweetness. And later on you will be let free. You will go see your mother and father, yes? You will see them after they sleep.'
He stood up and looked down at Mark benignly. 'I will say good-by for a bit now, young master. Your lovely consort is to be made comfortable. When we meet again, you will like me better.'
He left, slamming the door behind him. A key rattled in the lock. And as his feet descended the stairs, Mark Jet out his breath and relaxed his muscles with a great, whooping sigh.
The ropes holding him loosened - a little.
He lay moveless, collecting himself. His mind was still flying with that same unnatural, exhilarating speed. From his position, he looked across the swelled, uneven floor to the iron cot frame. He could see the wall beyond it. The wallpaper was peeled away from that section and lay beneath the cot frame like a discarded snake-skin. He focused on a small section of the wall and examined it closely. He flushed everything else from his mind. The book on Houdini said that concentration was all? important. No fear or taint of panic must be allowed in the mind. The body must be completely relaxed. And the escape must take place in the mind before a single finger did so much as twitch. Every step must exist concretely in the mind.
He looked at the wall, and minutes passed.
The wall was white and bumpy, like an old drive-i n movie screen. Eventually, as his body relaxed to its greatest degree, he began to see himself projected there, a small boy wearing a blue T-shirt and Levi's jeans. The boy was on his side, arms pulled behind him, wrists nestling the small of the back above the buttocks. A noose looped around his neck, and any hard struggling would tighten that running slipknot inexorably until enough air was cut off to black out the brain.
He looked at the wall.
The figure there had begun to move cautiously, although he himself lay perfectly still. He watched all the movements of the simulacrum raptly. He had achieved a level of concentration necessary to the Indian fakirs and yogis, who are able to contemplate their toes or the tips of their noses for days, the state of certain mediums who levitate tables in a state of unconsciousness or extrude long tendrils of teleplasm from the nose, the mouth, the fingertips. His state was close to sublime. He did not think of Straker or the fading daylight. He no longer saw the gritty floor, the cot frame, or even the wall. He only saw the boy, a perfect figure which went through a tiny dance of carefully controlled muscles.
He looked at the wall.
And at last he began to move his wrists in half circles toward each other. At the limit of each half circle, the thumb sides of his palms touched. No muscles moved but those in his lower forearms. He did not hurry. He looked at the wall.
As sweat rose through his pores, his wrists began to turn more freely. The half circles became three-quarters. At the limit of each, the backs of his hands pressed together. The loops holding them had loosened a tiny bit more.
After a moment had passed, he began to flex his thumbs against his palms and press his fingers together in a wrig?gling motion. His face was utterly expressionless, the plas?ter face of a department store dummy.
Five minutes passed. His hands were sweating freely now. The extreme level of his concentration had put him in partial control of his own sympathetic nervous system, another device of yogis and fakirs, and he had, unknow?ingly, gained some control over his body's involuntary functions. More sweat trickled from his pores than his careful movements could account for. His hands had be?come oily. Droplets fell from his forehead, darkening the white dust on the floor.
He began to move his arms in an up-and-down piston motion, using his biceps and back muscles now. The noose tightened a little, but he could feel one of the loops holding his hands beginning to drag lower on his right palm. It was sticking against the pad of the thumb now, and that was all. Excitement shot through him and he stopped at once until the emotion had passed away completely. When it had, he began again. Up-down. Up-down. Up-down. He gained an eighth of an inch at a time. And suddenly, shockingly, his right hand was free.
He left it where it was, flexing it. When he was sure it was limber, he eased the fingers under the loop holding the left wrist and tented them. The left hand slid free.
He brought both hands around and put them on the floor. He closed his eyes for a moment. The trick now was to not think he had it made. The trick was to move with great deliberation.
Supporting himself with his left hand, he let his right roam over the bumps and valleys of the knot which secured the noose at his neck. He saw immediately that he would have to nearly choke himself to free it - and he was going to tighten the pressure on his testicles, which already throbbed dully.
He took a deep breath and began to work on the knot. The rope tightened by steady degrees, pressing into his neck and crotch. Prickles of coarse hemp dug into his throat like miniature tattoo needles. The knot defied him for what seemed an endless time. His vision began to fade under the onslaught of large black flowers that burst into soundless bloom before his eyes. He refused to hurry. He wiggled the knot steadily, and at last felt new slack in it. For a moment the pressure on his groin tightened unbearably, and then with a convulsive jerk, he threw the noose over his head and the pain lessened.
He sat up and hung his head over, breathing raggedly, cradling his wounded testicles in both hands. The sharp pain became a dull, pervading ache that made him feel nauseated.
When it began to abate a little, he looked over at the shuttered window. The light coming through the broken slats had faded to a dull ocher - it was almost sundown. And the door was locked.
He pulled the loose loop of rope over the beam, and set to work on the knots that held his legs. They were maddeningly tight, and his concentration had begun to slip away from him as reaction set in.
He freed his thighs, the knees, and after a seemingly endless struggle, his ankles. He stood up weakly among the harmless loops of rope and staggered. He began to rub his thighs.
There was a noise from below: footsteps.
He looked up, panicky, nostrils dilating. He hobbled over to the window and tried to lift it. Nailed shut, with rusted tenpennies bent over the cheap wood of the half sill like staples.
The feet were coming up the stairs.
He wiped his mouth with his hand and stared wildly around the room. Two bundles of magazines. A small tin plate with a picture of an 1890s summer picnic on the back. The iron cot frame.
He went to it despairingly and pulled up one end. And some distant gods, perhaps seeing how much luck he had manufactured by himself, doled out a little of their own.
The steps had begun down the hall toward the door when he unscrewed the steel cot leg to its final thread and pulled it free.
When the door opened, Mark was standing behind it with the bed leg upraised, like a wooden Indian with a tomahawk.
'Young master, I've come to - '
He saw the empty coils of rope and froze for perhaps one full second in utter surprise. He was halfway through the door.
To Mark, things seemed to have slowed to the speed of a football maneuver seen in instant replay. He seemed to have minutes rather than bare seconds to aim at the one-quarter skull circumference visible beyond the edge of the door.
He brought the leg down with both hands, not as hard as he could - he sacrificed some force for better aim. It struck Straker just above the temple, as he started to turn to look behind the door. His eyes, open wide, squeezed shut in pain. Blood flew from the scalp in an amazing spray.
Straker's body recoiled and he stumbled backward into the room. His face was twisted into a terrifying grimace. He reached out and Mark hit him again. This time the pipe struck his bald skull just above the bulge of the forehead, and there was another gout of blood. ?He went down bonelessly, his eyes rolling up in his head. Mark skirted the body, looking at it with eyes that were bulging and wide. The end of the bed leg was painted with blood. It was darker than Technicolor movie blood. Looking at it made him feet sick, but looking at Straker made him feel nothing.
I killed him, he thought. And on the heels of that: Good. Good.
Straker's hand closed around his ankle.
Mark gasped and tried to pull his foot away. The hand held fast like a steel trap and now Straker was looking up at him, his eyes cold and bright through a dripping mask of blood. His lips were moving, but no sound came out. Mark pulled harder, to no avail. With a half groan, he began to hammer at Straker's clutching hand with the bed leg. Once, twice, three times, four. There was the awful pencil sound of snapping fingers. The hand loosened, and he pulled free with a yank that sent him stumbling out through the doorway and into the hall.
Straker's head had dropped to the floor again, but his mangled hand opened and closed on the air with tenebrous vitality, like the jerking of a dog's paws in dreams of cat-chasing.
The bed leg fell from his nerveless fingers and he backed away, trembling. Then panic took him and he turned and fled down the stairs, leaping two or three at a time on his numb legs, his hand skimming the splintered banister.
The front hall was shadow-struck, horribly dark.
He went into the kitchen, casting lunatic, shying glances at the open cellar door. The sun was going down in a blazing mullion of reds and yellows and purples. In a funeral parlor sixteen miles distant, Ben Mears was watching the clock as the hands hesitated between 7:01 and 7:02.
Mark knew nothing of that, but he knew the vampire's time was imminent. To stay longer meant confrontation on top of confrontation; to go back down into that cellar and try to save Susan meant induction into the ranks of the Undead.
Yet he went to the cellar door and actually walked down the first three steps before his fear wrapped him in almost physical bonds and would allow him to go no further. He was weeping, and his body was trembling wildly, as if with ague.
'Susan!' he screamed. 'Run!'
'M - Mark?' Her voice, sounding weak and dazed. 'I can't see. It's dark - '
There was a sudden booming noise, like a hollow gun?shot, followed by a profound and soulless chuckle.
Susan screamed . . . a sound that trailed away to a moan and then to silence.
Still he paused, on feather-feet that trembled to blow him away.
And from below came a friendly voice, amazingly like his father's: 'Come down, my boy. I admire you' '
The power in the voice alone was so great that he felt the fear ebbing from him, the feathers in his feet turning to lead. He actually began to grope down another step before he caught hold of himself - and the catching hold took all the ragged discipline he had left.
'Come down,' the voice said, closer now. It held, be?neath the friendly fatherliness, the smooth steel of com?mand.
Mark shouted down: 'I know your name! It's Barlow!'
By the time he reached the front hall the fear had come on him full again, and if the door had not been unlocked he might have burst straight through the center of it, leaving a cartoon cutout of himself behind.
He fled down the driveway (much like that long-ago boy Benjaman Mears) and then straight down the center of the Brooks Road toward town and dubious safety. Yet might not the king vampire come after him, even now?
He swerved off the road and made his way blunderingly through the woods, splashi ' ng through Taggart Stream and failing in a tangle of burdocks on the other side, and finally out into his own back yard.
He walked through the kitchen door and looked through the arch into the living room to where his mother, with worry written across her face in large letters, was talking into the telephone with the directory open on her lap.
She looked up and saw him, and relief spread across her face in a physical wave.
' - here he is - '
She set the phone into its cradle without waiting for a response and walked toward him. He saw with greater sorrow than she would have believed that she had been crying.
'Oh, Mark . . . where have you been?'
'He's home?' His father called from the den. His face, unseen, was filling with thunder.
'Where have you been?' She caught his shoulders and shook them.
'Out,' he said wanly. 'I fell down running home.'
There was nothing else to say. The essential and defining characteristic of childhood is not the effortless merging of dream and reality, but only alienation. There are no words for childhood's dark turns and exhalations. A wise child recognizes it and submits to the necessary consequences. A child who counts the cost is a child no longer.
He added: 'The time got away from me. It - '
Then his father, descending upon him.
Some time in the darkness before Monday's dawn.
Scratching at the window.
He came up from sleep with no pause, no intervening period of drowsiness or orientation. The insanities of sleep and waking had become remarkably similar.
The white face in the darkness outside the glass was Susan's.
'Mark . . . let me in.'
He got out of bed. The floor was cold under his bare feet. He was shivering.
'Go away,' he said tonelessly. He could see that she was still wearing the same blouse, the same slacks. I wonder if her folks are worried, he thought. If they've called the police.
'It's not so bad, Mark,' she said, and her eyes were flat and obsidian. She smiled, showing her teeth, which shone in sharp relief below her pale gums. 'It's ever so nice. Let me in, I'll show you. I'll kiss you, Mark. I'll kiss you all over like your mother never did.'
'Go away,' he repeated.
'One of us will get you sooner or later,' she said. 'There are lots more of us now. Let it be me, Mark. I'm . . . I'm hungry.' She tried to smile, but it turned into a nightshade grimace that made his bones cold.
He held up his cross and pressed it against the window.
She hissed, as if scalded, and let go of the window frame. For a moment she hung suspended in air, her body becoming misty and indistinct. Then, gone. But not before he saw (or thought he saw) a look of desperate unhappiness on her face.
The night was still and silent again.
There are lots more of us now.
His thoughts turned to his parents, sleeping in thought?less peril below him, and dread gripped his bowels.
Some men knew, she had said, or suspected.
The writer, of course. The one she dated. Mears, his name was. He lived at Eva's boardinghouse. Writers knew a lot. It would be him. And he would have to get to Mears before she did -
He stopped on his way back to bed.
If she hadn't already.