Black House - Chapter Eighteen



REMEMBER THOSE news vans that drove into the parking lot behind the police station? And Wendell Green's contribution to the excitement, before Officer Hrabowski's giant flashlight knocked him into the Land of Nod? Once the crews inside the vans took in the seeming inevitability of a riot, we can be sure they rose to the occasion, for the next morning their footage of the wild night dominates television screens across the state. By nine o'clock, people in Racine and Milwaukee, people in Madison and Delafield, and people who live so far north in the state that they need satellite dishes to get any television at all are looking up from their pancakes, their bowls of Special K, their fried eggs, and their buttered English muffins to watch a small, nervous-looking policeman finishing off a large, florid reporter's budding career as a demagogue by clocking him with a blunt instrument. And we may also be sure of one other matter: that nowhere is this footage watched as widely and compulsively as in French Landing and the neighboring communities of Centralia and Arden.

Thinking about several matters at once, Jack Sawyer watches it all on a little portable TV placed on his kitchen counter. He hopes that Dale Gilbertson will not revoke Arnold Hrabowski's suspension, although he strongly suspects that the Mad Hungarian will soon be back in uniform. Dale only thinks he wants him off the force for good: he is too soft-hearted to listen to Arnie's pleas ¡ª and after last night, even a blind man can see that Arnie is going to plead ¡ª without relenting. Jack also hopes that the awful Wendell Green will get fired or move away in disgrace. Reporters are not supposed to thrust themselves into their stories, and here is good old loudmouth Wendell, baying for blood like a werewolf. However, Jack has the depressing feeling that Wendell Green will talk his way out of his present difficulties (that is, lie his way out of them) and go on being a powerful nuisance. And Jack is pondering Andy Rails-back's description of the creepy old man trying the doorknobs on the third floor of the Nelson Hotel.

There he was, the Fisherman, given form at last. An old man in a blue robe and one slipper striped black and yellow, like a bumblebee. Andy Railsback had wondered if this unpleasant-looking old party had wandered away from the Maxton Elder Care Facility. That was an interesting notion, Jack thought. If "Chummy" Burnside is the man who planted the photographs in George Potter's room, Maxton's would be a perfect hidey-hole for him.

Wendell Green is watching the news on the Sony in his hotel room. He cannot take his eyes off the screen, although what he sees there afflicts him with a mixture of feelings ¡ª anger, shame, and humiliation ¡ª that makes his stomach boil. The knot on his head throbs, and every time he witnesses that poor excuse for a cop sneaking up behind him with his flashlight raised, he pushes his fingers into the thick, curly hair at the back of his head and gently palpates it. The damn thing feels about the size of a ripe tomato and just as ready to burst. He's lucky not to have a concussion. That pipsqueak could have killed him!

Okay, maybe he went a little bit over the edge, maybe he took a tiny step across a professional boundary; he never claimed to be perfect. The local news guys, they piss him off, all that guff about Jack Sawyer. Who is the top guy covering the Fisherman story? Who has been all over it from day one, telling the citizens what they need to know? Who's been putting himself on the line, day after crummy goddamn day? Who gave the guy his name? Not those blow-dried airheads Bucky and Stacey, those wanna-be news reporters and local anchors who smile into the camera to show off their capped teeth, that's for sure. Wendell Green is a legend around here, a star, the closest thing to a giant of journalism ever to come out of western Wisconsin. Even over in Madison, the name Wendell Green stands for . . . well, unquestioned excellence. And if the name Wendell Green is like the gold standard now, just wait until he rides the Fisherman's blood-spattered shoulders all the way to a Pulitzer Prize.

So Monday morning he has to go into the office and pacify his editor. Big deal. It isn't the first time, and it won't be the last. Good reporters make waves; nobody admits it, but that's the deal, that's the fine print nobody reads until it's too late. When he walks into his editor's office, he knows what he's going to say: Biggest story of the day, and did you see any other reporters there? And when he has the editor eating out of his hand again, which will take about ten minutes flat, he intends to drop in on a Goltz's salesman named Fred Marshall. One of Wendell's most valuable sources has suggested that Mr. Marshall has some interesting information about his special, special baby, the Fisherman case.

Arnold Hrabowski, now a hero to his darling wife, Paula, is watching the news in a postcoital glow and thinking that she is right: he really should call Chief Gilbertson and ask to be taken off suspension.

Wondering with half his mind where he might look for George Potter's old adversary, Dale Gilbertson watches Bucky and Stacey cut away yet again to the spectacle of the Mad Hungarian taking care of Wendell Green and thinks that he really should reinstate the little guy. Would you look at the beautiful swing Arnie took? Dale can't help it ¡ª that swing really brightens up his day. It's like watching Mark McGwire, like watching Tiger Woods.

Alone in her dark little house off the highway, Wanda Kinderling, to whom we have made passing mention from time to time, is listening to the radio. Why is she listening to the radio? Some months ago, she had to decide between paying her cable bill and buying another half gallon of Aristocrat vodka, and sorry, Bucky and Stacey, but Wanda followed her bliss, she went with her heart. Without cable service, her television set brings in little more than snow and a heavy dark line that scrolls up over her screen in an endless loop. Wanda always hated Bucky and Stacey anyhow, along with almost everyone else on television, especially if they looked content and well groomed. (She has a special loathing for the hosts of morning news programs and network anchors.) Wanda has not been content or well groomed since her husband, Thorny, was accused of terrible crimes he could never ever have committed by that high and mighty show-off Jack Sawyer. Jack Sawyer ruined her life, and Wanda is not about to forgive or forget.

That man trapped her husband. He set him up. He smeared Thorny's innocent name and packed him off to jail just to make himself look good. Wanda hopes they never catch the Fisherman, because the Fisherman is exactly what they deserve, those dirty bastards. Play dirty, you are dirty, and people like that can go straight to the deepest bowels of hell ¡ª that's what Wanda Kinderling thinks. The Fisherman is retribution ¡ª that's what Wanda thinks. Let him kill a hundred brats, let him kill a thousand, and after that he can start in on their parents. Thorny could not have killed those sluts down there in Los Angeles. Those were sex murders, and Thorny had no interest in sex, thank the Lord. The rest of him grew up, but his man-part never did; his thingie was about the size of his little finger. It was impossible for him to care about nasty women and sex things. But Jack Sawyer lived in Los Angeles, didn't he? So why couldn't he have killed those sluts, those whores, and blamed it all on Thorny?

The newscaster describes former Lieutenant Sawyer's actions of the previous night, and Wanda Kinderling spits up bile, grabs the glass from her bedside table, and douses the fire in her guts with three inches of vodka.

Gorg, who would seem a natural visitor to the likes of Wanda, pays no attention to the news, for he is far away in Faraway.

In his bed at Maxton's, Charles Burnside is enjoying dreams not precisely his, for they emanate from another being, from elsewhere, and depict a world he has never seen on his own. Ragged, enslaved children plod on their bleeding foodzies past leaping flames, turning giant wheels that turn yet larger wheels oho aha that power the beyoodiful engynes of destruction mounting mounting to the black-and-red sky. The Big Combination! An acrid stink of molten metal and something truly vile, something like dragon urine, perfumes the air, as does the leaden stench of despair. Lizard demons with thick, flickering tails whip the children along. A din of clattering and banging, of crashing and enormous thuds punishes the ears. These are the dreams of Burny's dearest friend and loving master, Mr. Munshun, a being of endless and perverse delight.

Down past the end of Daisy wing, across the handsome lobby, and through Rebecca Vilas's little cubicle, Chipper Maxton is concerned with matters considerably more mundane. The little TV on a shelf over the safe broadcasts the wondrous image of Mad Hungarian Hrabowski clobbering Wendell Green with a nice, clean sweep of his heavy-duty flashlight, but Chipper barely notices the splendid moment. He has to come up with the thirteen thousand dollars he owes his bookie, and he has only about half of that sum. Yesterday, lovely Rebecca drove to Miller to withdraw most of what he had stashed there, and he can use about two thousand dollars from his own account, as long as he replaces it before the end of the month. That leaves about six grand, an amount that will call for some seriously creative bookkeeping. Fortunately, creative bookkeeping is a speciality of Chipper's, and when he begins to think of his options, he sees his current difficulty as an opportunity.

After all, he went into business in the first place to steal as much money as possible, didn't he? Apart from being serviced by Ms. Vilas, stealing is about the only activity that makes him truly happy. The amount is almost irrelevant: as we have seen, Chipper derives as much pleasure from conning chump change out of the visiting relatives after the Strawberry Fest as from screwing the government out of ten or fifteen thousand dollars. The thrill lies in getting away with it. So he needs six thousand; why not take ten thousand? That way, he can leave his own account untouched and still have an extra two grand to play with. He has two sets of books on his computer, and he can easily draw the money from the company's bank account without setting off bells during his next state audit, which is coming up in about a month. Unless the auditors demand the bank records, and even then there are a couple of tricks he can use. It's too bad about the audit, though ¡ª Chipper would like to have a little more time to paper over the cracks. Losing the thirteen thousand wasn't the problem, he thinks. The problem was that he lost it at the wrong time.

In order to keep everything clear in his head, Chipper pulls his keyboard toward him and tells the computer to print out complete statements of both sets of books for the past month. By the time the auditors show up, baby, those pages will have been fed into the shredder and come out as macaroni.

Let us move from one form of insanity to another. After the owner of the Holiday Trailer Park has extended a trembling index finger to point out the Freneau residence, Jack drives toward it on the dusty path with gathering doubts. Tansy's Airstream is the last and least maintained of a row of four. Two of the others have flowers in a bright border around them, and the third has been dressed up with striped green awnings that make it look more like a house. The fourth trailer displays no signs of decoration or improvement. Dying flowers and skimpy weeds straggle in the beaten earth surrounding it. The shades are pulled down. An air of misery and waste hangs about it, along with a quality Jack might define, if he stopped to consider it, as slippage. In no obvious way, the trailer looks wrong. Unhappiness has distorted it, as it can distort a person, and when Jack gets out of his truck and walks toward the cinder blocks placed before the entrance, his doubts increase. He can no longer be sure why he has come to this place. It occurs to Jack that he can give Tansy Freneau nothing but his pity, and this thought makes him uneasy.

Then it occurs to him that these doubts mask his real feelings, which have to do with the discomfort the trailer arouses in him. He does not want to enter that thing. Everything else is a rationalization; he has no choice but to keep moving forward. His eyes find the welcome mat, a reassuring touch of the ordinary world he can feel already disappearing around him, and he steps up onto the topmost board and knocks on the door. Nothing happens. Maybe she really is still asleep and would prefer to stay that way. If he were Tansy, he would stay in bed as long as possible. If he were Tansy, he'd stay in bed for weeks. Once more pushing away his reluctance, Jack raps on the door again and says, "Tansy? Are you up?"

A little voice from within says, "Up where?"

Uh-oh, Jack thinks, and says, "Out of bed. I'm Jack Sawyer, Tansy. We met last night. I'm helping the police, and I told you I'd come over today."

He hears footsteps moving toward the door. "Are you the man who gave me the flowers? He was a nice man."

"That was me."

A lock clicks, and the knob revolves. The door cracks open. A sliver of a faintly olive-skinned face and a single eye shine out of the inner darkness. "It is you. Come in, fast. Fast." She steps back, opening the door just wide enough for him to pass through. As soon as he is inside, she slams it shut and locks it again.

The molten light burning at the edges of the curtains and the window shades deepens the darkness of the long trailer's interior. One soft lamp burns above the sink, and another, just as low, illuminates a little table otherwise occupied by a bottle of coffee brandy, a smeary glass decorated with a picture of a cartoon character, and a scrapbook. The circle of light cast by the lamp extends to take in half of a low, fabric-covered chair next to the table. Tansy Freneau pushes herself off the door and takes two light, delicate steps toward him. She tilts her head and folds her hands together beneath her chin. The eager, slightly glazed expression in her eyes dismays Jack. By even the widest, most comprehensive definition of sanity, this woman is not sane. He has no idea what to say to her.

"Would you care to . . . sit down?" With a hostessy wave of her hand, she indicates a high-backed wooden chair.

"If it's all right with you."

"Why wouldn't it be all right? I'm going to sit down in my chair, why shouldn't you sit down in that one?"

"Thank you," Jack says, and sits down, watching her glide back to the door to check the lock. Satisfied, Tansy gives him a brilliant smile and pads back to her chair, moving almost with the duck-waddle grace of a ballerina. When she lowers herself to the chair, he says, "Are you afraid of someone who might come here, Tansy? Is there someone you want to keep locked out?"

"Oh, yes," she says, and leans forward, pulling her eyebrows together in an exaggerated display of little-girl seriousness. "But it isn't a someone, it's a thing. And I'm never, never going to let him in my house again, not ever. But I'll let you in, because you're a very nice man and you gave me those beautiful flowers. And you're very handsome, too."

"Is Gorg the thing you want to keep out, Tansy? Are you afraid of Gorg?"

"Yes," she says, primly. "Would you care for a cup of tea?"

"No, thank you."

"Well, I'm going to have some. It's very, very good tea. It tastes sort of like coffee." She raises her eyebrows and gives him a bright, questioning look. He shakes his head. Without moving from her chair, Tansy pours two fingers of the brandy into her glass and sets the bottle back down on the table. The figure on her glass, Jack sees, is Scooby-Doo. Tansy sips from the glass. "Yummy. Do you have a girlfriend? I could be your girlfriend, you know, especially if you gave me more of those lovely flowers. I put them in a vase." She pronounces the word like a parody of a Boston matron: vahhhz. "See?"

On the kitchen counter, the lilies of the vale droop in a mason jar half-filled with water. Removed from the Territories, they do not have long to live. This world, Jack supposes, is poisoning them faster than they are able to deal with. Every ounce of goodness they yield to their surroundings subtracts from their essence. Tansy, he realizes, has been kept afloat on the residue of the Territories remaining in the lilies ¡ª when they die, her protective little-girl persona will crumble into dust, and her madness may engulf her. That madness came from Gorg; he'd bet his life on it.

"I do have a boyfriend, but he doesn't count. His name is Lester Moon. Beezer and his friends call him Stinky Cheese, but I don't know why. Lester isn't all that stinky, at least not when he's sober."

"Tell me about Gorg," Jack says.

Extending her little finger away from the Scooby-Doo glass, Tansy takes another sip of coffee brandy. She frowns. "Oh, that's a real icky thing to talk about."

"I want to know about him, Tansy. If you help me, I can make sure he never bothers you again."


"And you'd be helping me find the man who killed your daughter."

"I can't talk about that now. It's too upsetting." Tansy flutters her free hand over her lap as if sweeping off a crumb. Her face contracts, and a new expression moves into her eyes. For a second, the desperate, unprotected Tansy rises to the surface, threatening to explode in a madness of grief and rage.

"Does Gorg look like a person, or like something else?"

Tansy shakes her head from side to side with great slowness. She is composing herself again, reinstating a personality that can ignore her real emotions. "Gorg does not look like a person. Not at all."

"You said he gave you the feather you were wearing. Does he look like a bird?"

"Gorg doesn't look like a bird, he is a bird. And do you know what kind?" She leans forward again, and her face takes on the expression of a six-year-old girl about to tell the worst thing she knows. "A raven. That's what he is, a big, old raven. All black. But not shiny black." Her eyes widen with the seriousness of what she has to say. "He came from Night's Plutonian shore. That's from a poem Mrs. Normandie taught us in the sixth grade. 'The Raven,' by Edgar Allan Poe."

Tansy straightens up, having passed on this nugget of literary history. Jack guesses that Mrs. Normandie probably wore the same satisfied, pedagogic expression that is now on Tansy's face, but without the bright, unhealthy glaze in Tansy's eyes.

"Night's Plutonian shore is not part of this world," Tansy continues. "Did you know that? It's alongside this world, and outside it. You need to find a door, if you want to go there."

This is like talking to Judy Marshall, Jack abruptly realizes, but a Judy without the depth of soul and the unbelievable courage that rescued her from madness. The instant that Judy Marshall comes into his mind, he wants to see her again, so strongly that Judy feels like the one essential key to the puzzle all around him. And if she is the key, she is also the door the key opens. Jack wants to be out of the dark, warped atmosphere of Tansy's Airstream; he wants to put off the Thunder Five and speed up the highway and over the hill to Arden and the gloomy hospital where radiant Judy Marshall has found freedom in a locked mental ward.

"But I don't ever want to find that door, because I don't want to go there," Tansy says in a singsong voice. "Night's Plutonian shore is a bad world. Everything's on fire there."

"How do you know that?"

"Gorg told me," she whispers. Tansy's gaze skitters away from him and fastens on the Scooby-Doo glass. "Gorg likes fire. But not because it makes him warm. Because it burns things up, and that makes him happy. Gorg said . . ." She shakes her head and lifts the glass to her mouth. Instead of drinking from it, she tilts the liquid toward the lip of the glass and laps at it with her tongue. Her eyes slide up to meet his again. "I think my tea is magic."

I bet you do, Jack thinks, and his heart nearly bursts for delicate lost Tansy.

"You can't cry in here," she tells him. "You looked like you wanted to cry, but you can't. Mrs. Normandie doesn't allow it. You can kiss me, though. Do you want to kiss me?"

"Of course I do," he says. "But Mrs. Normandie doesn't allow kissing, either."

"Oh, well." Tansy laps again at her drink. "We can do it later, when she leaves the room. And you can put your arms around me, like Lester Moon. And everything Lester does, you can do. With me."

"Thank you," Jack says. "Tansy, can you tell me some of the other things Gorg said?"

She cants her head and pushes her lips in and out. "He said he came here through a burning hole. With folded-back edges. And he said I was a mother, and I had to help my daughter. In the poem, her name is Lenore, but her real name is Irma. And he said . . . he said a mean old man ate her leg, but there were worse things that could have happened to my Irma."

For a couple of seconds, Tansy seems to recede into herself, to vanish behind her stationary surface. Her mouth remains half open; she does not even blink. When she returns from where she has gone, it is like watching a statue slowly come to life. Her voice is almost too soft to be heard. "I was supposed to fix that old man, fix him but good. Only you gave me my beautiful lilies, and he wasn't the right man, was he?"

Jack feels like screaming.

"He said there were worse things," Tansy says in a whisper of disbelief. "But he didn't say what they were. He showed me, instead. And when I saw, I thought my eyes burned up. Even though I could still see."

"What did you see?"

"A big, big place all made of fire," Tansy says. "Going way high up." She falls silent, and an internal temblor runs through her, beginning in her face and moving down and out through her fingers. "Irma isn't there. No, she isn't. She got dead, and a mean old man ate her leg. He sent me a letter, but I never got it. So Gorg read it to me. I don't want to think about that letter." She sounds like a little girl describing something she has heard about thirdhand, or has invented. A thick curtain lies between Tansy and what she has seen and heard, and that curtain allows her to function. Jack again wonders what will happen to her when the lilies die.

"And now," she says, "if you're not going to kiss me, it's time you left. I want to be alone for a while."

Surprised by her decisiveness, Jack stands up and begins to say something polite and meaningless. Tansy waves him toward the door.

Outside, the air seems heavy with bad odors and unseen chemicals. The lilies from the Territories retained more power than Jack had imagined, enough to sweeten and purify Tansy's air. The ground beneath Jack's feet has been baked dry, and a parched sourness hangs in the atmosphere. Jack has nearly to force himself to breathe as he walks toward his truck, but the more he breathes, the more quickly he will readjust to the ordinary world. His world, though now it feels poisoned. He wants to do one thing only: drive up Highway 93 to Judy Marshall's lookout point and keep on going, through Arden and into the parking lot, past the hospital doors, past the barriers of Dr. Spiegleman and Warden Jane Bond, until he can find himself once again in the life-giving presence of Judy Marshall herself.

He almost thinks he loves Judy Marshall. Maybe he does love her. He knows he needs her: Judy is his door and his key. His door, his key. Whatever that means, it is the truth. All right, the woman he needs is married to the extremely nice Fred Marshall, but he doesn't want to marry her; in fact, he doesn't even want to sleep with her, not exactly ¡ª he just wants to stand before her and see what happens. Something will happen, that's for sure, but when he tries to picture it, all he sees is an explosion of tiny red feathers, hardly the image he was hoping for.

Feeling unsteady, Jack props himself on the cab of his truck with one hand while he grabs the door handle with the other. Both surfaces sear his hands, and he waves them in the air for a little while. When he gets into the cab, the seat is hot, too. He rolls down his window and, with a twinge of loss, notices that the world smells normal to him again. It smells fine. It smells like summer. Where is he going to go? That is an interesting question, he thinks, but after he gets back on the road and travels no more than a hundred feet, the low, gray wooden shape of the Sand Bar appears on his left, and without hesitating he turns into the absurdly extensive parking lot, as if he knew where he was going all along. Looking for a shady spot, Jack cruises around to the back of the building and sees the Bar's single hint of landscaping, a broad maple tree that rises out of the asphalt at the far end of the lot. He guides the Ram into the maple's shadow and gets out, leaving the windows cranked down. Waves of heat ripple upward from the only other two cars in the lot.

It is 11:20 A.M. He is getting hungry, too, since his breakfast consisted of a cup of coffee and a slice of toast smeared with marmalade, and that was three hours ago. Jack has the feeling that the afternoon is going to be a long one. He might as well have something to eat while he waits for the bikers.

The back door of the Sand Bar opens onto a narrow rest-room alcove that leads into a long, rectangular space with a gleaming bar at one side and a row of substantial wooden booths on the other. Two big pool tables occupy the middle of the room, and a jukebox stands set back against the wall between them. At the front of the room, a big television screen hangs where it can be seen by everyone, suspended eight or nine feet above the clean wooden floor. The sound has been muted on a commercial that never quite identifies the purpose of its product. After the glare of the parking lot, the Bar seems pleasantly dark, and while Jack's eyes adjust, the few low lamps appear to send out hazy beams of light.

The bartender, whom Jack takes to be the famous Lester "Stinky Cheese" Moon, looks up once as Jack enters, then returns to the copy of the Herald folded open on the bar. When Jack takes a stool a few feet to his right, he looks up again. Stinky Cheese is not as awful as Jack had expected. He is wearing a clean shirt only a few shades whiter than his round, small-featured face and his shaven head. Moon has the unmistakable air, half professional and half resentful, of someone who has taken over the family business and suspects he could have done better elsewhere. Jack's intuition tells him that this sense of weary frustration is the source of his nickname among the bikers, because it gives him the look of one who expects to encounter a nasty smell any minute now.

"Can I get something to eat here?" Jack asks him.

"It's all listed on the board." The bartender turns sideways and indicates a white board with movable letters that spell out the menu. Hamburger, cheeseburger, hot dog, bratwurst, kielbasa, sandwiches, french fries, onion rings. The man's gesture is intended to make Jack feel unobservant, and it works.

"Sorry, I didn't see the sign."

The bartender shrugs.

"Cheeseburger, medium, with fries, please."

"Lunch don't start until eleven-thirty, which it says on the board. See?" Another half-mocking gesture toward the sign. "But Mom is setting up in back. I could give her the order now, and she'll start in on it when she's ready."

Jack thanks him, and the bartender glances up at the television screen and walks down to the end of the bar and disappears around a corner. A few seconds later, he returns, looks up at the screen, and asks Jack what he would like to drink.

"Ginger ale," Jack says.

Watching the screen, Lester Moon squirts ginger ale from a nozzle into a beer glass and pushes the glass toward Jack. Then he slides his hand down the bar to pick up the remote control and says, "Hope you don't mind, but I was watching this old movie. Pretty funny." He punches a button on the remote, and from over his left shoulder Jack hears his mother's voice say, Looks like Smoky's coming in late today. I wish that little rascal would learn how to handle his liquor.

Before he can turn sideways to face the screen, Lester Moon is asking him if he remembers Lily Cavanaugh.

"Oh, yes."

"I always liked her when I was a kid."

"Same here," Jack says.

As Jack had known instantly, the movie is The Terror of Deadwood Gulch, a 1950 comic Western in which the then-famous and still fondly remembered Bill Towns, a sort of poor man's Bob Hope, played a cowardly gambler and cardsharp who arrives in the little Potemkin community of Deadwood Gulch, Arizona, and is soon mistaken for a notorious gunfighter. As the beautiful, quick-witted owner of a saloon called the Lazy 8, the lively center of village social life, Lily Cavanaugh is much appreciated by the crowd of cowpokes, loungers, ranchers, merchants, lawmen, and riffraff who fill her place every night. She makes her patrons check their revolvers at the door and mind their manners, which tend toward the opopanax. In the scene playing now, which is about half an hour into the movie, Lily is alone in her saloon, trying to get rid of a persistent bee.

A bee for the Queen of the B's, Jack thinks, and smiles.

At the buzzing nuisance, Lily flaps a cleaning rag, a flyswatter, a mop, a broom, a gun belt. The bee eludes her every effort, zooming here and there, from the bar to a card table, to the top of a whiskey bottle, the tops of three other bottles all in a row, the lid of the upright piano, often waiting while its adversary comes sneaking up by subtle indirection, then taking off a second before the latest weapon slams down. It is a lovely little sequence that verges on slapstick, and when Jacky was six, six, six, or maybe seven, half hysterical with laughter at the sight of his competent mother failing repeatedly to vanquish this flying annoyance and suddenly curious as to how the movie guys had made the insect do all these things, his mother had explained that it was not a real bee but an enchanted one produced by the special-effects department.

Lester Moon says, "I could never figure out how they got the bee to go where they wanted. Like, what did they do, train it?"

"First they filmed her alone on the set," Jack says, having concluded that, after all, Stinky Cheese is a pretty decent fellow with great taste in actresses. "Special effects put the bee in later. It isn't a real bee, it's a drawing ¡ª an animation. You really can't tell, can you?"

"No way. Are you sure? How do you know that, anyhow?"

"I read it in a book somewhere," Jack says, using his all-purpose response to such questions.

Resplendent in fancy cardsharp getup, Bill Towns saunters through the Lazy 8's swinging doors and leers at its proprietress without noticing that she is edging toward the bee now once again installed upon the shiny bar. He has romance in mind, and he swaggers when he walks.

I see you came back for more, hotshot, Lily says. You must like the place.

Baby, this is the sweetest joint west of the wide Missouri. Reminds me of the place where I beat Black Jack McGurk to the draw. Poor Black Jack. He never did know when to fold 'em.

With a noise like the revving of a B-52, the enchanted bee, a creature of fiction inside the fiction, launches itself at Bill Towns's slickly behat-ted head. The comedian's face turns rubbery with comic terror. He waves his arms, he jigs, he screeches. The enchanted bee performs aeronautic stunts around the panicky pseudogunfighter. Towns's splendid hat falls off; his hair disarranges itself. He edges toward a table and, with a final flurry of hand waving, dives under it and begs for help.

Eye fixed on the ambling bee, Lily walks to the bar and picks up a glass and a folded newspaper. She approaches the table, watching the bee walking around in circles. She jumps forward and lowers the glass, trapping the bee. It flies up and bumps the bottom of the glass. Lily tilts the glass, slides the folded paper underneath it, and raises her hands, holding the newspaper against the top of the glass.

The camera pulls back, and we see the cowardly gambler peeking out from under the table as Lily pushes the doors open and releases the bee.

Behind him, Lester Moon says, "Cheeseburger's ready, mister."

For the next half hour, Jack eats his burger and tries to lose himself in the movie. The burger is great, world-class, with that juicy taste you can get only from a greased-up griddle, and the fries are perfect, golden and crunchy on the outside, but his concentration keeps wandering from The Terror of Deadwood Gulch. The problem is not that he has seen the movie perhaps a dozen times; the problem is Tansy Freneau. Certain things she said trouble him. The more he thinks about them, the less he understands what is going on.

According to Tansy, the crow ¡ª the raven ¡ª named Gorg came from a world alongside and outside the world we know. She had to be talking about the Territories. Using a phrase from Poe's "The Raven," she called this other world "Night's Plutonian shore," which was pretty good for someone like Tansy, but did not seem in any way applicable to the magical Territories. Gorg had told Tansy that everything in his world was on fire, and not even the Blasted Lands met that description. Jack could remember the Blasted Lands and the odd train that had taken him and Rational Richard, then a sick, wasted Rational Richard, across that vast red desert. Strange creatures had lived there, alligator-men and birds with the faces of bearded monkeys, but it had certainly not been on fire. The Blasted Lands were the product of some past disaster, not the site of a present conflagration. What had Tansy said? A big, big place made all of fire . . . going way high up. What had she seen, to what landscape had Gorg opened her eyes? It sounded like a great burning tower, or a tall building consumed by fire. A burning tower, a burning building in a burning world ¡ª how could that world be the Territories?

Jack has been in the Territories twice in the past forty-eight hours, and what he has seen has been beautiful. More than beautiful ¡ª cleansing. The deepest truth Jack knows about the Territories is that they contain a kind of sacred magic: the magic he saw in Judy Marshall. Because of that magic, the Territories can confer a wondrous blessing on human beings. The life of that extraordinary tough beloved woman making fun of Bill Towns on the big screen before him was saved by an object from the Territories. Because Jack had been in the Territories ¡ª and maybe because he had held the Talisman ¡ª almost every horse he bets on comes in first, every stock he buys triples in value, ever poker hand he holds takes the pot.

So what world is Tansy talking about? And what's all this stuff about Gorg coming here through a burning hole?

When Jack flipped over yesterday, he had sensed something unhappy, something unhealthy, far off to the southwest, and he suspected that was where he would find the Fisherman's Twinner. Kill the Fisherman, kill the Twinner; it didn't matter which he did first, the other one would weaken. But . . .

It still didn't make sense. When you travel between worlds, you just flip ¡ª you don't set a fire at the world's edge and run through it into another one.

A few minutes before twelve, the rumble of motorcycles drowns the voices on the screen. "Um, mister, you might want to take off," says Moon. "That's the ¡ª "

"The Thunder Five," Jack says. "I know."

"Okay. It's just, they scare the shit out of some of my customers. But as long as you treat 'em right, they act okay."

"I know. There's nothing to worry about."

"I mean, if you buy 'em a beer or something, they'll think you're all right."

Jack gets off his stool and faces the bartender. "Lester, there is no reason to be nervous. They're coming here to meet me."

Lester blinks. For the first time, Jack notices that his eyebrows are thin, curved wisps, like those of a 1920s vamp. "I'd better start pourin' a pitcher of Kingsland." He grabs a pitcher from beneath the bar, sets it under the Kingsland Ale tap, and opens the valve. A thick stream of amber liquid rushes into the pitcher and turns to foam.

The sound of the motorcycles builds to an uproar at the front of the building, then cuts off. Beezer St. Pierre bangs through the door, closely followed by Doc, Mouse, Sonny, and Kaiser Bill. They look like Vikings, and Jack is overjoyed to see them.

"Stinky, turn that TV the fuck off," Beezer roars. "And we didn't come here to drink, so empty that pitcher into the drain. The way you pour, it's all head anyhow. And when you're done, get back in the kitchen with your momma. Our business with this man's got nothin' to do with you."

"Okay, Beezer," Moon says in a shaky voice. "All I need is a second."

"Then that's what you got," Beezer says.

Beezer and the others line up in front of the bar, some of them staring at Stinky Cheese, some, more kindly, at Jack. Mouse is still wearing his cornrows, and he has daubed some black antiglare substance beneath his eyes, like a football player. Kaiser Bill and Sonny have pulled their manes back into ponytails again. Ale and foam slide out of the pitcher and seep into the drain. "Okay, guys," Moon says. His footsteps retreat along the back of the bar. A door closes.

The members of the Thunder Five separate and spread out in front of Jack. Most of them have crossed their arms on their chests, and muscles bulge.

Jack pushes his plate to the back of the bar, stands up, and says, "Before last night, had any of you guys ever heard of George Potter?"

From his perch on the edge of the pool table nearest to the front door, Jack faces Beezer and Doc, who lean forward on their bar stools. Kaiser Bill, one finger against his lips and his head bowed, stands beside Beezer. Mouse lies stretched out on the second pool table, propping his head up with one hand. Banging his fists together and scowling, Sonny is pacing back and forth between the bar and the jukebox.

"You sure he didn't say 'Bleak House,' like the Dickens novel?" Mouse says.

"I'm sure," says Jack, reminding himself that he should not be surprised every time one of these guys demonstrates that he went to college. "It was 'Black House.' "

"Jeez, I almost think I . . ." Mouse shakes his head.

"What was the builder's name again?" asks Beezer.

"Burnside. First name probably Charles, sometimes known as 'Chummy.' A long time ago, he changed it from something like 'Beer Stein.' "

"Beerstein? Bernstein?"

"You got me," Jack says.

"And you think he's the Fisherman."

Jack nods. Beezer is staring at him as if trying to see the back of his head.

"How sure are you?"

"Ninety-nine percent. He planted the Polaroids in Potter's room."

"Damn." Beezer pushes himself off his stool and walks around to the back of the bar. "I want to make sure nobody forgets the obvious." He bends down and straightens up with a telephone book in one hand. "Know what I mean?" Beezer opens the directory on the bar, flips a few pages, flips back, and runs his thick finger down a column of names. "No Burnside. Too bad."

"Good idea, though," Jack says. "This morning, I tried the same thing myself."

Sonny pauses on his return journey from the jukebox and jabs a finger at Jack. "How long ago was this damn house built?"

"Nearly thirty years ago. During the seventies."

"Hell, we were all kids then, back in Illinois. How are we supposed to know about that house?"

"You guys get around. I thought there was a pretty good chance you might have seen it. And the place is spooky. People tend to talk about houses like that." They did in normal cases, at least, Jack thought. In normal cases, spooky houses got that way because they had been empty for a couple of years, or because something terrible had happened in them. In this case, he thought, the house itself was terrible, and the people who otherwise would have talked about it could barely remember seeing it. Judging by Dale's response, Black House had vanished into its own nonexistent shadow.

He says, "Think about this. Try to remember. In the years you've been living in French Landing, have you ever heard of a house that seemed to have a curse on it? Black House caused injuries to the people who built it. The workmen hated the place; they were afraid of it. They said you couldn't see your shadow when you got near it. They were claiming it was haunted while they worked on it! Eventually, they all quit, and Burnside had to finish the job himself."

"It's off by itself somewhere," Doc says. "Obviously, this thing isn't sitting around in plain view. It's not in some development like Libertyville. You're not going to find it on Robin Hood Lane."

"Right," Jack says. "I should have mentioned that before. Potter told me it was built a little way off what he called 'the road,' in a kind of clearing. So it's in the woods, Doc, you're right. It's isolated."

"Hey, hey, hey," Mouse says, swinging his legs over the side of the pool table and grunting himself upright.

His eyes are screwed shut, and he claps one meaty hand on his forehead. "If I could only remember . . ." He lets out a howl of frustration.

"What?" Beezer's voice is at twice its normal volume, and the word sounds like a paving stone hitting a cement sidewalk.

"I know I saw that fucking place," he says. "As soon as you started talking about it, I had this feeling it sounded kinda familiar. It kept hanging at the back of my mind, but it wouldn't come out. When I tried to think about it ¡ª you know, make myself remember ¡ª I kept seeing these sparkly lights. When Jack said it was back in the woods, I knew what he was talking about. I had a clear picture of the place. Surrounded by all these sparkling lights."

"That doesn't sound much like Black House," Jack says.

"Sure it does. The lights weren't really there, I just saw them." Mouse offers this observation as though it is completely rational.

Sonny utters a bark of laughter, and Beezer shakes his head and says, "Shit."

"I don't get it," Jack says.

Beezer looks at Jack, holds up one finger, and asks Mouse, "Are we talking about July, August, two years ago?"

"Naturally," Mouse says. "The summer of the Ultimate Acid." He looks at Jack and smiles. "Two years ago, we got this amazing, amazing acid. Drop a tab, you're in for five or six hours of the most unbelievable head games. Nobody ever had a bad experience with the stuff. It was all groove, know what I mean?"

"I suppose I can guess," Jack says.

"You could even do your job behind it. For sure, you could drive, man. Get on your hog, go anywhere you could think of. Doing anything normal was a piece of cake. You weren't fucked up, you were operating way beyond your max."

"Timothy Leary wasn't all wrong," Doc says.

"God, that was great stuff," Mouse says. "We did it until there was no more to do, and then the whole thing was over. The whole acid thing. If you couldn't get that stuff, there was no point in taking anything else. I never knew where it came from."

"You don't want to know where it came from," says Beezer. "Trust me."

"So you were doing this acid when you saw Black House," Jack says.

"Sure. That's why I saw the lights."

Very slowly, Beezer asks, "Where is it, Mouse?"

"I don't exactly know. But hold on, Beezer, let me talk. That was the summer I was tight with Little Nancy Hale, remember?"

"Sure," Beezer says. "That was a damn shame." He glances at Jack. "Little Nancy died right after that summer."

"Tore me apart," Mouse says. "It was like she turned allergic to air and sunlight, all of a sudden. Sick all the time. Rashes all over her body. She couldn't stand being outside, because the light hurt her eyes. Doc couldn't figure out what was wrong with her, so we took her to the big hospital in La Riviere, but they couldn't find what was wrong, either. We talked to a couple of guys at Mayo, but they weren't any help. She died hard, man. Broke your heart to see it happen. Broke mine, for sure."

He falls silent for a long moment, during which he stares down at his gut and his knees and no one else says a word. "All right," Mouse finally says, raising his head. "Here's what I remember. On this Saturday, Little Nancy and I were tripping on the Ultimate, just riding around to some places we liked. We went to the riverfront park in La Riviere, drove over to Dog Island and Lookout Point. We came back this direction and went up on the bluff ¡ª beautiful, man. After that, we didn't feel like going home, so we just wheeled around. Little Nancy noticed this NO TRESPASSING sign I must have passed about a thousand times before without seeing it."

He looks at Jack Sawyer. "I can't say for certain, but I think it was on 35."

Jack nods.

"If we hadn't been on the Ultimate, I don't think she ever would have seen that sign, either. Oh man, it's all coming back to me. 'What's that?' she says, and I swear, I had to look two or three times before I saw that sign ¡ª it was all beat-up and bent, with a couple rusty bullet holes in it. Sort of leaning back into the trees. 'Somebody wants to keep us off that road,' Little Nancy says. 'What are they hiding up there, anyhow?' Something like that. 'What road?' I ask, and then I see it. It's hardly even what you could call a road. About wide enough for a car to fit in, if you have a compact. Thick trees on both sides. Hell, I didn't think anything interesting was hidden up there, unless it was an old shack. Besides that, I didn't like the way it looked." He glances at Beezer.

"What do you mean, you didn't like the way it looked?" Beezer asks. "I've seen you go into places you damn well knew were no good. Or are you getting mystical on me, Mouse?"

"Call it what you fucking want, I'm telling you how it was. It was like that sign was saying KEEP OUT IF YOU KNOW WHAT'S GOOD FOR YOU. Gave me a bad feeling."

"On account of it was a bad place," Sonny interrupts. "I've seen some bad places. They don't want you there, and they let you know."

Beezer shoots him a measured look and says, "I don't care how evil this bad place is, if it's where the Fisherman lives, I'm going there."

"And I'm going with you," says Mouse, "but just listen. I wanted to bag it and get some fried chicken or something, which combined with the Ultimate would have been like eating the food of Paradise, or whatever Coleridge said, but Little Nancy wanted to go in because she had the same feeling I did. She was a game broad, man. Ornery, too. So I turned in, and Little Nancy's hanging on in back of me, and she's saying, 'Don't be a pussy, Mouse, let's haul ass,' so I gun it a little bit, and everything feels all weird and shit, but all I can see's this track curving away into the trees and the shit I know isn't there."

"Like what?" asks Sonny, in what sounds like the spirit of scientific inquiry.

"These dark shapes coming up to the edge of the road and looking out through the trees. A couple of them ran toward me, but I rolled right through them like smoke. I don't know, maybe they were smoke."

"Fuck that, it was the acid," Beezer says.

"Maybe, but it didn't feel that way. Besides, the Ultimate never turned on you, remember? It wasn't about darkness. Anyhow, right before the shit hit the fan, all of a sudden I was thinking about Kiz Martin. I can remember that, all right. It was like I could practically see her, right in front of me ¡ª the way she looked when they loaded her in the ambulance."

"Kiz Martin," Beezer says.

Mouse turns to Jack. "Kiz was a girl I went out with when we were all at the university. She used to beg us to let her ride with us, and one day the Kaiser said, okay, she could borrow his bike. Kiz was having a ball, man, she's diggin' it. And then she rolls over some damn little twig, I think it was ¡ª "

"Bigger than a twig," Doc says. "Little branch. Maybe two inches in diameter."

"Which is just enough to test your balance, especially if you're not used to hogs," Mouse says. "She rolls over this little branch, and the bike flops over, and Kiz flies off and hits the road. My heart damn near stopped, man."

"I knew she was gone the second I came up close enough to see the angle of her head," says Doc. "There wasn't even any point in trying CPR. We covered her with our jackets, and I rode off to call an ambulance. Ten minutes later, they were loading her in. One of the guys recognized me from my stint in the ER, or they might have given us some trouble."

"I wondered if you were really a doctor," Jack says.

"Completed my residency in surgery at U.I., walked away from the whole deal right there." Doc smiles at him. "Hanging around with these guys, getting into beer brewing, sounded like more fun than spending all day cutting people up."

"Mouse," Beezer says.

"Yeah. I was just getting to the curve in the little road, and it was like Kiz was standing right in front of me, it was so vivid. Her eyes closed, and her head hanging like a leaf about to fall. Oh man, I said to myself, this is not what I want to see at this particular moment. I could feel it all over again ¡ª the way I felt when Kiz hit the road. Sick dread. That's the word for it, sick dread.

"And we come around the curve, and I hear this dog growling somewhere off in the woods. Not just growling, growling. Like twenty big dogs are out there, and they're all mad as hell. My head starts feeling like it wants to explode. And I look up ahead of me to see if a pack of wolves or something is running toward us, and it takes me a while to realize that the weird shadowy stuff I see up ahead is a house. A black house.

"Little Nancy is hitting me on the back and rapping my head, screaming at me to stop. Believe me, I can get with the program, because the last thing I want to do is get any closer to that place. I stop the bike, and Little Nancy jumps off and pukes on the side of the road. She holds her head and she pukes some more. I'm feeling like my legs turned to rubber, like something heavy is pressing on my chest. That thing, whatever it is, is still going nuts in the woods, and it's getting closer. I take another look up at the end of the road, and that ugly damn house is stretching back into the woods, like it's crawling into them, only it's standing still. It gets bigger the more you look at it! Then I see the sparkly lights floating around it, and they look dangerous ¡ª Stay away, they're telling me, get out of here, Mouse. There's another NO TRESPASSING sign leaning against the porch, and that sign, man . . . that sign kind of flashed, like it was saying THIS TIME I MEAN IT, BUDDY.

"My head is splitting in half, but I get Little Nancy on the bike, and she sags against me, like pure dead weight except she's hanging on, and I kick the hog on and spin around and take off. When we get back to my place, she goes to bed and stays there for three days. To me, it seemed like I could hardly remember what happened. The whole thing went kind of dark. In my mind. I hardly had time to think about it anyhow, because Little Nancy got sick and I had to take care of her whenever I wasn't at work. Doc gave her some stuff to get her temperature down, and she got better, so we could drink beer and smoke shit and ride around, like before, but she was never really the same. End of August, she started getting bad again, and I had to put her in the hospital. Second week of September, hard as she was fighting, Little Nancy passed away."

"How big was Little Nancy?" Jack asks, picturing a woman roughly the size of Mouse.

"Little Nancy Hale was about the size and shape of Tansy Freneau," Mouse says, looking surprised by the question. "If she stood on my hand, I could lift her up with one arm."

"And you never talked about this with anyone," Jack says.

"How could I talk about it?" Mouse asks. "First, I was crazy with worry about Little Nancy, and then it went clean out of my head. Weird shit will do that to you, man. Instead of sticking in your head, it erases itself."

"I know exactly what you mean," Jack says.

"I guess I do, too," says Beezer, "but I'd say that the Ultimate kicked the shit out of your reality there for a while. You did see the place, though ¡ª Black House."

"Damn straight," says Mouse.

Beezer focuses on Jack. "And you say the Fisherman, this creep Burnside, built it."

Jack nods.

"So maybe he's living there, and he rigged up a bunch of gadgets to scare people away."

"Could be."

"Then I think we're gonna let Mouse take us over on Highway 35 and see if he can find that little road he was talking about. Are you coming with us?"

"I can't," Jack says. "I have to see someone in Arden first, someone who I think can also help us. She has another piece of the puzzle, but I can't explain it to you until I see her."

"This woman knows something?"

"Oh, yes," Jack says. "She knows something."

"All right," Beezer says, and stands up from his stool. "Your choice. We'll have to talk to you afterward."

"Beezer, I want to be with you when you go inside Black House. Whatever we have to do in there, whatever we see . . ." Jack pauses, trying to find the right words. Beezer is rocking on his heels, practically jumping out of his skin in his eagerness to hunt down the Fisherman's lair. "You're going to want me there. There's more to this business than you can imagine, Beezer. You're going to know what I'm talking about in a little while, and you'll be able to stand up to it ¡ª I think all of you will ¡ª but if I tried to describe it now, you wouldn't believe me. When the time comes, you'll need me to see you through, if we get through. You'll be glad I was there. We're at a dangerous point here, and none of us wants to mess it up."

"What makes you think I'll mess it up?" Beezer asks, with deceptive mildness.

"Anyone would mess it up, if they didn't have the last piece of the puzzle. Go out there. See if Mouse can find the house he saw two years ago. Check it out. Don't go in ¡ª to do that, you need me. After you check it out, come back here, and I'll see you as soon as I can. I should be back before two-thirty, three at the latest."

"Where are you going in Arden? Maybe I'll want to call you."

"French County Lutheran Hospital. Ward D. If you can't get me, leave a message with a Dr. Spiegleman."

"Ward D, huh?" Beezer says. "Okay, I guess everybody's crazy today. And I guess I can be satisfied with only a look at this house, as long as I know that sometime this afternoon, I can count on you to explain all these pieces I'm too stupid to understand."

"It'll be soon, Beezer. We're closing in. And the last thing I'd call you is stupid."

"I guess you must have been one hell of a cop," Beezer says. "Even though I think half the stuff you say is crap, I can't help but believe it." He turns around and brings his fists down on the bar. "Stinky Cheese! It's safe now. Drag your pale ass out of the kitchen."

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