Black House - Chapter Nineteen



JACK FOLLOWS THE Thunder Five out of the parking lot, and for the moment we will let him go alone on his northward way on Highway 93 toward Judy Marshall's lookout and Judy Marshall's locked ward. Like Jack, the bikers are headed toward the unknown, but their unknown lies westward on Highway 35, into the land of the steadily accumulating past, and we want to know what they will find there. These men do not appear to be nervous; they still project the massive confidence with which they burst into the Sand Bar. In truth, they never really display nervousness, for situations that would make other people worried or anxious generally make them get physical. Fear affects them differently than it does other people, too: in the rare moments when they have experienced fear, they've tended on the whole to enjoy it. In their eyes, fear represents a God-given opportunity for focusing their collective concentration. Due to their remarkable solidarity, that concentration is formidable. For those of us who are not members of a biker gang or the Marine Corps, solidarity means little more than the compassionate impulse that leads us to comfort a bereft friend; for Beezer and his merry band, solidarity is the assurance that someone's always got your back. They are on each other's hands, and they know it. For the Thunder Five, safety really is in numbers.

Yet the encounter toward which they are flying has no precedents or analogues in their experience. Black House is something new, and its newness ¡ª the sheer strangeness of Mouse's story ¡ª sinks tendrils down into their guts, one and all.

Eight miles west of Centralia, where the flatland around Potsie's thirty-year-old development yields to the long stretch of woods that runs all the way to Maxton's, Mouse and Beezer ride side by side in front of the others. Beezer occasionally looks to his friend, asking a wordless question. The third time that Mouse shakes his head, he follows the gesture with a backward wave of his hand that says Stop bugging me, I'll tell you when we're there. Beezer drops back; Sonny, Kaiser Bill, and Doc automatically assume Beezer is giving them a signal, and they string out in a single line.

At the head of the column, Mouse keeps taking his eyes off the highway to inspect the right-hand side of the road. The little road is hard to see, Mouse knows, and by now it will be more overgrown than it was two years ago. He is trying to spot the white of the battered NO TRESPASSING sign. It, too, may be partially hidden by new growth. He slows down to thirty-five. The four men behind him match his change in pace with the smoothness of long practice.

Alone of the Thunder Five, Mouse has already seen their destination, and in the deepest places of his soul he can scarcely believe that he is going there again. At first, the ease and rapidity with which his memories had flown out of their dark vault had pleased him; now, instead of feeling that he has effortlessly reclaimed a lost part of his life, he has the sense of being at the mercy of that lost afternoon. A grave danger then ¡ª and he does not doubt that some great and dangerous force had brushed him with a warning hand ¡ª is an increased danger now. Memory has returned a miserable conclusion he thrust away long ago: that the hideous structure Jack Sawyer called Black House had killed Little Nancy Hale as surely as if its rafters had fallen in on her. Moral more than physical, Black House's ugliness exhaled toxic fumes. Little Nancy had been killed by the invisible poisons carried on the warning hand; now Mouse had to look at that knowledge without blinking. He can feel her hands on his shoulders, and their thin bones are covered with rotting flesh.

If I'd been five foot three and weighed one hundred and five pounds instead of being six-two and two hundred and ninety, by now I'd be rotting, too, he thinks.

Mouse may look for the narrow road and the sign beside it with the eyes of a fighter pilot, but someone else has to see them, because he never will. His unconscious has taken a vote, and the decision was unanimous.

Each of the other men, Sonny, Doc, the Kaiser, and even Beezer, have also connected Little Nancy's death with Black House, and the same speculations about comparative size and weight have passed through their minds. However, Sonny Cantinaro, Doc Amberson, Kaiser Bill Strassner, and especially Beezer St. Pierre assume that whatever poison surrounded Black House had been concocted in a laboratory by human beings who knew what they were doing. These four men derive the old, primitive reassurance from one another's company that they have enjoyed since college; if anything makes them feel a touch uneasy, it is that Mouse Baumann, not Beezer, leads their column. Even though Beezer let Mouse wave him back, Mouse's position contains a hint of insurrection, of mutiny: the universe has been subtly disordered.

Twenty yards from the back end of the Maxton property, Sonny decides to put an end to this farce, guns his Softail, roars past his friends, and moves up parallel to Mouse. Mouse glances at him with a trace of worry, and Sonny motions to the side of the road.

When they have all pulled over, Mouse says, "What's your problem, Sonny?"

"You are," Sonny says. "Either you missed the turnoff, or your whole story's all fucked up."

"I said I wasn't sure where it is." He notices with nearly immeasurable relief that Little Nancy's dead hands no longer grip his shoulders.

"Of course not. You were ripped on acid!"

"Good acid."

"Well, there's no road up ahead, I know that much. It's just trees all the way to the old fucks' home."

Mouse ponders the stretch of road ahead as if the road just might be up there, after all, although he knows it is not.

"Shit, Mouse, we're practically in town. I can see Queen Street from here."

"Yeah," Mouse says. "Okay." If he can get to Queen Street, he thinks, those hands will never fasten on him again.

Beezer walks his Electra Glide up to them and says, "Okay what, Mouse? You agree it's farther back, or is the road somewhere else?"

Frowning, Mouse turns his head to look back down the highway. "Goddamn. I think it's along here somewhere, unless I got totally turned around that day."

"Gee, how could that have happened?" says Sonny. "I looked at every inch of ground we passed, and I sure as hell didn't see a road. Did you, Beezer? How about a NO TRESPASSING sign, you happen to see one of those?"

"You don't get it," Mouse says. "This shit doesn't want to be seen."

"Maybe you shoulda gone to Ward D with Sawyer," Sonny says. "People in there appreciate visionaries."

"Can it, Sonny," Beezer says.

"I was there before, and you weren't," Mouse says. "Which one of us knows what he's talking about?"

"I've heard enough out of both of you guys," Beezer says. "Do you still think it's along here somewhere, Mouse?"

"As far as I can recollect, yeah."

"Then we missed it. We'll go back and check again, and if we don't find it, we'll look somewhere else. If it's not here, it's between two of the valleys along 93, or in the woods on the hill leading up to the lookout. We have plenty of time."

"What makes you so sure?" Sonny asks. Mild anxiety about what they might come across is making him belligerent. He would just as soon go back to the Sand Bar and down a pitcher of Kingsland while messing with Stinky's head as waste his time goofing along the highways.

Beezer looks at him, and his eyes crackle. "You know anywhere else there's enough trees to call it a woods?"

Sonny backs down immediately. Beezer is never going to give up and go back to the Sand Bar. Beezer is in this for keeps. Most of that has to do with Amy, but some of it relates to Jack Sawyer. Sawyer impressed the shit out of Beezer the other night, that's what happened, and now Beezer thinks everything the guy says is golden. To Sonny, this makes no sense at all, but Beezer's the one who calls the shots, so for now, Sonny guesses, they will all run around like junior G-men for a while. If this adopt-a-cop program goes on for more than a couple of days, Sonny plans to have a little chat with Mouse and the Kaiser. Doc will always side with Beezer no matter what, but the other two are capable of listening to reason.

"All right, then," Beezer says. "Scratch from here to Queen Street. We know there's no fuckin' road along that stretch. We'll go back the way we came, give it one more shot. Single file the whole way. Mouse, you're point man again."

Mouse nods and prepares himself to feel those hands on his shoulders again. Gunning his Fat Boy, he rolls forward and takes his place at the head of the line. Beezer moves in behind him, and Sonny follows Beezer, with Doc and the Kaiser in the last two slots.

Five pairs of eyes, Sonny thinks. If we don't see it this time, we never will. And we won't, because that damned road is halfway across the state. When Mouse and his old lady got buzzed on the Ultimate, they could go for hundreds of miles and think they'd taken a spin around the block.

Everybody scans the opposite side of the road and the edge of the woods. Five pairs of eyes, as Sonny puts it, register an unbroken line of oaks and pine trees. Mouse has set a pace somewhere between a fast walk and a medium jog, and the trees crawl by. At this speed, they can notice the moss blistering the trunks of the oaks and the bright smears of sunlight on the forest's floor, which is brownish gray and resembles a layer of rumpled felt. A hidden world of upright trees, shafts of light, and deadfalls extends backward from the first, sentinel row. Within that world, paths that are not paths wind mazelike between the thick trunks and lead to mysterious clearings. Sonny becomes suddenly aware of a tribe of squirrels doing squirrel gymnastics in the map of branches that lace into an intermittent canopy. And with the squirrels, an aviary of birds pops into view.

All of this reminds him of the deep Pennsylvania woods he had explored as a boy, before his parents sold their house and moved to Illinois. Those woods had contained a rapture he had found nowhere else. Sonny's conviction that Mouse got things wrong and they are looking in the wrong place takes on greater inner density. Earlier, Sonny had spoken about bad places, of which he has seen at least one he was absolutely certain about. In Sonny's experience, bad places, the ones that let you know you were not welcome, tended to be on or near borders.

During the summer after his high school graduation, he and his two best buddies, all of them motorcycle freaks, had taken their bikes to Rice Lake, Wisconsin, where he had two cousins cute enough to show off to his friends. Sal and Harry were thrilled with the girls, and the girls thought the bikers were sexy and exotic. After a couple of days spent as a literal fifth wheel (or fifth and sixth wheel, depending on what you are counting), Sonny proposed extending their trip by a week and, in the interest of expanding their educations, ballin' the jack down to Chicago and spending the rest of their money on beer and hookers until they had to go home. Sal and Harry loved the whole idea, and on their third evening in Rice Lake, they packed their rolls on their bikes and roared south, making as much noise as possible. By 10:00 they had managed to get completely lost.

It might have been the beer, it might have been inattention, but for one reason or another they had wandered off the highway and, in the deep black of a rural night, found themselves on the edge of an almost nonexistent town named Harko. Harko could not be found on their gas-station road map, but it had to be close to the Illinois border, on either one side or the other. Harko seemed to consist of an abandoned motel, a collapsing general store, and an empty grain mill. When the boys reached the mill, Sal and Harry groused about being exhausted and hungry and wanted to turn back to spend the night in the motel.

Sonny, who was no less worn out, rode back with them; the second they rolled into the dark forecourt of the motel, he had a bad feeling about the place. The air seemed heavier, the darkness darker than they should have been. To Sonny, it seemed that malign, invisible presences haunted the place. He could all but make them out as they flitted between the cabins. Sal and Harry jeered at his reservations: he was a coward, a fairy, a girl. They broke down a door and unrolled their sleeping bags in a bare, dusty rectangular room. He carried his across the street and slept in a field.

Dawn awakened him, and his face was wet with dew. He jumped up, pissed into the high grass, and checked for the motorcycles on the other side of the road. There they were, all three of them, listing over their stands outside a broken door. The dead neon sign at the entrance of the forecourt read HONEYMOONER'S BOWER. He walked across the narrow road and swept a hand over the moisture shining black on the seats of the motorcycles. A funny sound came from the room where his friends were sleeping. Already tasting dread, Sonny pushed open the broken door. If he had not initially refused to make sense of what was before him, what he saw in the room would have made him pass out.

His face streaked with blood and tears, Sal Turso was sitting on the floor. Harry Reilly's severed head rested in his lap, and an ocean of blood soaked the floor and daubed the walls. Harry's body lay loose and disjointed on top of his blood-soaked sleeping bag. The body was naked; Sal wore only a blood-red T-shirt. Sal raised both his hands ¡ª the one holding his prize long-bladed knife and the one holding only a palmful of blood ¡ª and lifted his contorted face to Sonny's frozen gaze. I don't know what happened. His voice was high and screechy, not his. I don't remember doing this, how could I have done this? Help me, Sonny. I don't know what happened.

Unable to speak, Sonny had backed out and flown away on his cycle. He'd had no clear idea of where he was going except that it was out of Harko. Two miles down the road, he came to a little town, a real one, with people in it, and someone finally took him to the sheriff's office.

Harko: there was a bad place. In a way, both of his high school friends had died there, because Sal Turso hanged himself six months after being committed to a state penitentiary for life on a second-degree murder charge. In Harko, you saw no red-winged blackbirds or woodpeckers. Even sparrows steered clear of Harko.

This little stretch of 35? Nothing but a nice, comfortable woodland. Let me tell you, Senator, Sonny Cantinaro has seen Harko, and this ain't no Harko. This don't even come close. It might as well be in another world. What meets Sonny's appraising eye and increasingly impatient spirit is about a mile and a quarter of beautiful wooded landscape. You could call it a mini-forest. He thinks it would be cool to come out here by himself one day, tuck the Harley out of sight, and just walk around through the great oaks and pines, that big pad of felt beneath his feet, digging the birds and the crazy squirrels.

Sonny gazes at and through the sentinel trees on the far side of the road, enjoying his anticipation of the pleasure to come, and a flash of white jumps out at him from the darkness beside a huge oak tree. Caught up in the vision of walking alone under that green canopy, he almost dismisses it as a trick of the light, a brief illusion. Then he remembers what he is supposed to be looking for, and he slows down and leans sideways and sees, emerging from the tangle of underbrush at the base of the oak, a rusty bullet hole and a large, black letter N. Sonny swerves across the road, and the N expands into NO. He doesn't believe it, but there it is, Mouse's goddamn sign. He rolls ahead another foot, and the entire phrase comes into view.

Sonny puts the bike in neutral and plants one foot on the ground. The darkness next to the oak stretches like a web to the next tree at the side of the road, which is also an oak, though not as huge. Behind him, Doc and the Kaiser cross the road and come to a halt. He ignores them and looks at Beezer and Mouse, who are already some thirty feet up the road, intently scanning the trees.

"Hey," he shouts. Beezer and Mouse do not hear him. "Hey! Stop!"

"You got it?" Doc calls out.

"Go up to those assholes and bring them back," Sonny says.

"It's here?" Doc asks, peering into the trees.

"What, you think I found a body? Of course it's here."

Doc speeds up, stops just behind Sonny, and stares at the woods.

"Doc, you see it?" Kaiser Bill shouts, and he speeds up, too.

"Nope," Doc says.

"You can't see it from there," Sonny tells him. "Will you please get your ass in gear and tell Beezer to come back here?"

"Why don't you do it, instead?" Doc says.

"Because if I leave this spot, I might not ever be able to fucking find it again," Sonny says.

Mouse and Beezer, now about sixty feet up the road, continue blithely on their way.

"Well, I still don't see it," Doc says.

Sonny sighs. "Come up alongside me." Doc walks his Fat Boy to a point parallel with Sonny's bike, then moves a couple of inches ahead. "There," Sonny says, pointing at the sign.

Doc squints and leans over, putting his head above Sonny's handle-bars. "Where? Oh, I see it now. It's all beat to hell."

The top half of the sign curls over and shades the bottom half. Some antisocial lad has happened along and creased the sign with his baseball bat. His older brothers, more advanced in the ways of crime, had tried to kill it with their .22 rifles, and he was just delivering the coup de grace.

"Where's the road supposed to be?" Doc asks.

Sonny, who is a little troubled about this point, indicates the flat sheet of darkness to the right of the sign and extending to the next, smaller oak tree. As he looks at it, the darkness loses its two-dimensionality and deepens backward like a cave, or a black hole softly punched through the air. The cave, the black hole, melts and widens into the earthen road, about five and a half feet wide, that it must have been all along.

"That sure as hell is it," says Kaiser Bill. "I don't know how all of us could have missed it the first time."

Sonny and Doc glance at each other, realizing that the Kaiser came along too late to watch the road seem to materialize out of a black wall with the thickness of a sheet of paper.

"It's kind of tricky," Sonny says. "Your eyes have to adjust," Doc says.

"Okay," says Kaiser Bill, "but if you two want to argue about who tells Mouse and the Beeze, let me put you out of your misery." He jams his bike into gear and tears off like a World War I messenger with a hot dispatch from the front. By now a long way up the road, Mouse and Beezer come to a halt and look back, having apparently heard the sound of his bike.

"I guess that's it," Sonny says, with an uneasy glance at Doc. "Our eyes had to adjust."

"Couldn't be anything else."

Less convinced than they would like to be, both men let it drop in favor of watching Kaiser Bill conversing with Beezer and Mouse. The Kaiser points at Sonny and Doc, Beezer points. Then Mouse points at them, and the Kaiser points again. It looks like a discussion in an extremely unevolved version of sign language. When everybody has gotten the point, Kaiser Bill spins his bike around and comes roaring back down the road with Beezer and Mouse on his tail.

There is always that feeling of disorder, of misrule, when Beezer is not in the lead.

The Kaiser stops on the side of the narrow road. Beezer and Mouse halt beside him, and Mouse winds up stationed directly in front of the opening in the woods.

"Shouldn't have been that hard to see," Beezer says. "But there she is, anyhow. I was beginning to have my doubts, Mousie."

"Uh-huh," says Mouse. His customary manner, that of an intellectual roughneck with a playful take on the world, has lost all of its buoyancy. Beneath his biker's fair-weather sunburn, his skin looks pale and curdlike.

"I want to tell you guys the truth," Beezer says. "If Sawyer is right about this place, the creepy fuck who built it could have set up booby traps and all sorts of surprises. It was a long time ago, but if he really is the Fisherman, he has more reason than ever to keep people away from his crib. So we gotta watch our backs. The best way to do that is to go in strong, and go in ready. Put your weapons where you can reach them in a hurry, all right?"

Beezer opens one of his saddlebags and draws out a Colt 9mm pistol with ivory grips and a blue-steel barrel. He chambers a round and unlocks the safety. Under his gaze, Sonny pulls his massive .357 Magnum from his bag, Doc a Colt identical to Beezer's, and Kaiser Bill an old S&W .38 Special he has owned since the late seventies. They shove the weapons, which until this moment have seen use only on firing ranges, into the pockets of their leather jackets. Mouse, who does not own a gun, pats the various knives he has secreted in the small of his back, in the hip and front pockets of his jeans, and sheathed within both of his boots.

"Okay," Beezer says. "Anybody in there is going to hear us coming no matter what we do, and maybe already has heard us, so there's no point in being sneaky about this. I want a fast, aggressive entrance ¡ª just what you guys are good at. We can use speed to our advantage. Depending on what happens, we get as close to the house as possible."

"What if nothing happens?" asks the Kaiser. "Like, if we roll on in there and just keep going until we get to the house? I mean, I don't see any particular reason to be spooked here. Okay, something bad happened to Mouse, but . . . you know. Doesn't mean it's going to happen all over again."

"Then we enjoy the ride," Beezer says.

"Don't you want to take a look inside?" the Kaiser asks. "He might have kids in there."

"He might be in there," Beezer tells him. "If he is, no matter what I said to Sawyer, we're bringing him out. Alive would be better than dead, but I wouldn't mind putting him in a serious state of bad health."

He gets a rumble of approval. Mouse does not contribute to this wordless, but otherwise universal agreement; he lowers his head and tightens his hands on the grips of his bike.

"Because Mouse has been here before, he goes in on point. Doc and I'll be right behind him, with Sonny and the Kaiser covering our asses." Beezer glances at them and says, "Stay about six, eight feet back, all right?"

Don't put Mouse on point; you have to go in first, speaks in Sonny's mind, but he says, "All right, Beeze."

"Line up," Beezer says.

They move their bikes into the positions Beezer has specified. Anyone driving fast along Highway 35 would have to hit his brakes to avoid running into at least two beefy men on motorcycles, but the road stays empty. Everyone, including Mouse, guns his engine and prepares to move. Sonny slaps his fist against the Kaiser's and looks back at that dark tunnel into the woods.

A big crow flaps onto a low-hanging branch, cocks its head, and seems to fix Sonny's eyes with its own. The crow must be looking at all of them, Sonny knows, but he cannot shake the illusion that the crow is staring directly at him, and that its black insatiable eyes are dancing with malice. The uncomfortable feeling that the crow is amused by the sight of him bent over his bike makes Sonny think of his Magnum.

Turn you into a mess of bloody feathers, baby.

Without unfolding its wings, the crow hops backward and disappears into the oak leaves.

"GO!" Beezer shouts.

The moment Mouse charges in, Little Nancy's rotting hands clamp down on his shoulders. Her thin bones press down on the leather hard enough to leave bruises on his skin. Although he knows this is impossible ¡ª you cannot get rid of what does not exist ¡ª the sudden flare of pain causes him to try to shake her off. He twitches his shoulders and wiggles the handlebars, and the bike wobbles. As the bike dips, Little Nancy digs in harder. When Mouse rights himself, she pulls herself forward, wraps her bony arms around his chest, and flattens her body against his back. Her skull grinds against the nape of his neck; her teeth bite down on his skin.

It is too much. Mouse had known she would reappear, but not that she would put him in a vise. And despite his speed, he has the feeling that he is traveling through a substance heavier and more viscous than air, a kind of syrup that slows him down, holds him back. Both he and the bike seem unnaturally dense, as if gravity exerts a stronger pull on the little road than anywhere else. His head pounds, and already he can hear that dog growling in the woods off to his right. He could take all of that, he supposes, if it were not for what stopped him the last time he drove up this path: a dead woman. Then she was Kiz Martin; now the dead woman is Little Nancy, and she is riding him like a dervish, slapping his head, punching him in the side, battering his ears. He feels her teeth leave his neck and sink into the left shoulder of his jacket. One of her arms whips in front of him, and he enters a deeper level of shock and horror when he realizes that this arm is visible. Rags of skin flutter over long bones; he glimpses white maggots wriggling into the few remaining knots of flesh.

A hand that feels both spongelike and bony flaps onto his cheek and crawls up his face. Mouse cannot keep it together anymore: his mind fills with white panic, and he loses control of the bike. When he heads into the curve that leads to Black House, the wheels are already tilting dangerously, and Mouse's sideways jerk of revulsion pushes them over beyond the possibility of correction.

As the bike topples, he hears the dog snarling from only a few yards away. The Harley smashes down on his left leg, then skids ahead, and he and his ghastly passenger slide after it. When Mouse sees Black House looming from its dark bower amid the trees, a rotting hand flattens over his eyes. His scream is a bright, thin thread of sound against the fury of the dog.

A few seconds after going in, Beezer feels the air thicken and congeal around him. It's some trick, he tells himself, an illusion produced by the Fisherman's mind-fuck toxins. Trusting that the others will not be suckered by this illusion, he raises his head and looks over Mouse's broad back and cornrowed head to see the road curve to the left about fifty feet ahead. The thick air seems to weigh down on his arms and shoulders, and he feels the onset of the mother and father of all headaches, a dull, insistent pain that begins as a sharp twinge behind his eyes and moves thudding deeper into his brain. Beezer gives Doc a half second of attention, and from what he sees, Doc is taking care of business. A glance at the speedometer tells him that he is traveling at thirty-five miles per hour and gathering steam, so they should be doing sixty by the time they come into the curve.

Off to his left, a dog growls. Beezer hauls his pistol out of his pocket and listens to the growling keep pace with them as they speed toward the curve. The band of pain in his head widens and intensifies; it seems to push at his eyes from the inside, making them bulge in their sockets. The big dog ¡ª it has to be a dog, what else could it be? ¡ª is getting closer, and the fury of its noises makes Beezer see a giant, tossing head with blazing red eyes and ropes of slather whipping from a gaping mouth filled with shark's teeth.

Two separate things destroy his concentration: the first is that he sees Mouse slamming himself back and forth on his bike as he goes into the curve, as if he is trying to scratch his back on the thickening air; the second is that the pressure behind his eyes triples in force, and immediately after he sees Mouse going into what is surely a fall, the blood vessels in his eyes explode. From deep red, his vision shifts rapidly to absolute black. An ugly voice starts up in his head, saying, Amy zadt in my lap an huggedt mee. I made opp my mindt to eed hurr. How she dud, dud, dud kick an scrutch. I chokked hurr do deff ¡ª

"No!" Beezer shouts, and the voice that is pushing at his eyes drops into a rasping chuckle. For less than a second, he gets a vision of a tall, shadowy creature and a single eye, a flash of teeth beneath a hat or a hood ¡ª

¡ª and the world abruptly revolves around him, and he ends up flat on his back with the bike weighing on his chest. Everything he sees is stained a dark, seething red. Mouse is screaming, and when Beezer turns his head in the direction of the screams, he sees a red Mouse lying on a red road with a huge red dog barreling toward him. Beezer cannot find his pistol; it went sailing into the woods. Shouts, screams, and the roar of motorcycles fill his ears. He scrambles out from under the bike yelling he knows not what. A red Doc flashes by on his red bike and almost knocks him down again. He hears a gunshot, then another.

Doc sees Beezer glance at him and tries not to show how sick he feels. Dishwater boils in his stomach, and his guts are writhing. It feels like he is going about five miles an hour, the air is so thick and rancid. For some reason, his head weighs thirty or forty pounds, damnedest thing; it would almost be interesting if he could stop the disaster happening inside him. The air seems to concentrate itself, to solidify, and then boom, his head turns into a superheavyweight bowling ball that wants to drop onto his chest. A giant growling sound comes from out of the woods beside him, and Doc almost yields to the impulse to puke. He is dimly aware that Beezer is pulling out his gun, and he supposes he should do the same, but part of his problem is that the memory of a child named Daisy Temperly has moved into his mind, and the memory of Daisy Temperly paralyzes his will.

As a resident in surgery at the university hospital in Urbana, Doc had performed, under supervision, nearly a hundred operations of every sort and assisted at as many. Until Daisy Temperly was wheeled into the O.R., all of them had gone well. Complicated but not especially difficult or life-threatening, her case involved bone grafts and other repair work. Daisy was being put back together again after a serious auto accident, and she had already endured two previous surgeries. Two hours after the start of the procedure, the head of the department, Doc's supervisor, was called away for an emergency operation, and Doc was left in charge. Partly because he had been sleep-deprived for forty-eight hours, partly because in his exhaustion he had pictured himself cruising along the highway with Beezer, Mouse, and his other new friends, he made a mistake ¡ª not during the operation, but after it. While writing a prescription for medication, he miscalculated the dosage, and two hours later, Daisy Temperly was dead. There were things he could have done to rescue his career, but he did none of them. He was allowed to finish his residency, and then he left medicine for good. Talking to Jack Sawyer, he had vastly simplified his motives.

The uproar in the middle of his body can no longer be contained. Doc turns his head and vomits as he races forward. It is not the first time he has puked while riding, but it is the messiest and the most painful. The weight of his bowling-ball head means that he cannot extend his neck, so vomit spatters against his right shoulder and right arm; and what comes leaping out of him feels alive and equipped with teeth and claws. He is not surprised to see blood mixed with the vomit erupting from his mouth. His stomach doubles in on itself with pain.

Without meaning to, Doc has slowed down, and when he accelerates and faces forward again, he sees Mouse topple over sideways and skid behind his bike into the curve up ahead. His ears report a rushing sound, like that of a distant waterfall. Dimly, Mouse screams; equally dimly, Beezer shouts "No!" Right after that, the Beeze runs headlong into a big rock or some other obstruction, because his Electra Glide leaves the ground, flips completely over in the compacted air, and comes down on top of him. It occurs to Doc that this mission is totally FUBAR. The whole world has hung a left, and now they are in deep shit. He does the only sensible thing: he yanks his trusty 9mm out of his pocket and tries to figure out what to shoot first.

His ears pop, and the sounds around him surge into life. Mouse is still screeching. Doc cannot figure out how he missed hearing the noise of the dog before, because even with the roaring of the cycles and Mouse's screams, that moving growl is the loudest sound in the woods. The fucking Hound of the Baskervilles is racing toward them, and both Mouse and Beezer are out of commission. From the noise it makes, the thing must be the size of a bear. Doc aims the pistol straight ahead and steers with one hand as he blasts by Beezer, who is wriggling out from beneath his bike. That enormous sound ¡ª Doc imagines a bear-sized dog widening its chops around Mouse's head, and instantly erases the image. Things are happening too fast, and if he doesn't pay attention, those jaws could close on him.

He has just time enough to think, That's no ordinary dog, not even a huge one ¡ª

¡ª when something enormous and black comes charging out of the woods to his right and cuts on a diagonal toward Mouse. Doc pulls the trigger, and at the sound of the pistol the animal whirls halfway around and snarls at him. All Doc can see clearly are two red eyes and an open red mouth with a long tongue and a lot of sharp canine teeth. Everything else is smudgy and indistinct, with no more definition than if it were covered in a swirling cape. A lightning bolt of pure terror that tastes as clean and sharp as cheap vodka pierces Doc from gullet to testicles, and his bike slews its rear end around and comes to a halt ¡ª he has stopped it out of sheer reflex. Suddenly it feels like deep night. Of course he can't see it ¡ª how could you see a black dog in the middle of the night?

The creature whirls around again and streaks toward Mouse.

It doesn't want to charge me because of the gun and because the other two guys are right behind me, Doc thinks. His head and arms seem to have gained another forty pounds apiece, but he fights against the weight of his muscles and straightens his arms and fires again. This time he knows he hits that thing, but its only reaction is to shudder off-course for a moment. The big smudge of its head swings toward Doc. The growling gets even louder, and long, silvery streamers of dog drool fly from its open mouth. Something that suggests a tail switches back and forth.

When Doc looks into the open red gash, his resolve weakens, his arms get heavier, and he is scarcely capable of holding his head upright. He feels as though he is falling down into that red maw; his pistol dangles from his limp hand. In a moment suspended throughout eternity, the same hand scribbles a post-op prescription for Daisy Temperly. The creature trots toward Mouse. Doc can hear Sonny's voice, cursing furiously. A loud explosion on his right side seals both of his ears, and the world falls perfectly silent. Here we are, Doc says to himself. Darkness at noon.

For Sonny, the darkness strikes at the same time as the searing pain in his head and his stomach. A single band of agony rips right down through his body, a phenomenon so unparalleled and extreme that he assumes it has also erased the daylight. He and Kaiser Bill are eight feet behind Beezer and Doc, and about fifteen feet up the narrow dirt road. The Kaiser lets go of his handlebars and grips the sides of his head. Sonny understands exactly how he feels: a four-foot section of red-hot iron pipe has been thrust through the top of his head and pushed down into his guts, burning everything it touches. "Hey, man," he says, in his misery noticing that the air has turned sludgy, as though individual atoms of oxygen and carbon dioxide are gummy enough to stick to his skin. Then Sonny notices that the Kaiser's eyes are swimming up toward the back of his head, and he realizes that the man is passing out right next to him. Sick as he is, he has to do something to protect the Kaiser. Sonny reaches out for the other man's bike, watching as well as he can the disappearance of the Kaiser's irises beneath his upper eyelids. Blood explodes out of his nostrils, and his body slumps backward on the seat and rolls over the side. For a couple of seconds, he is dragged along by a boot caught in the handlebars, but the boot slips off, and the cycle drifts to a halt.

The red-hot iron bar seems to rupture his stomach, and Sonny has no choice; he lets the other bike fall and utters a groan and bends sideways and vomits out what feels like every meal he has ever eaten. When nothing is left inside him, his stomach feels better, but John Henry has decided to drive giant rail spikes through his skull. His arms and legs are made of rubber. Sonny focuses on his bike. It seems to be standing still. He does not understand how he can go forward, but he watches a blood-spattered hand gun his bike and manages to stay upright when it takes off. Is that my blood? he wonders, and remembers two long red flags unfurling from the Kaiser's nose.

A noise that had been gathering strength in the background turns into the sound of a 747 coming in for a landing. Sonny thinks that the last thing he wants to do today is get a look at the animal capable of making that sound. Mouse was right on the money: this is a bad, bad place, right up there with the charming town of Harko, Illinois. Sonny wishes to encounter no more Harkos, okay? One was enough. So why is he moving forward instead of turning around and running for the sunny peace of Highway 35? Why is he pulling that massive gun out of his pocket? It's simple. He is not about to let that jet-airplane-dog mess up his homeys, no matter how much his head hurts.

John Henry keeps pounding in those five-dollar spikes while Sonny picks up speed and squints at the road ahead, trying to figure out what is going on. Someone screams, he cannot identify who. Through the growling, he hears the unmistakable sound of a motorcycle hitting the ground after a flip, and his heart shivers. Beezer should always be point man, he thinks, otherwise we're asking for punishment. A gun goes off with a loud explosion. Sonny forces himself to press through the gluey atoms in the air, and after another five or six seconds he spots Beezer, who is painfully pushing himself upward beside his toppled bike. A few feet beyond Beezer, Doc's bulky figure comes into view, sitting astride his bike and aiming his 9 at something in the road ahead of him. Doc fires, and red flame bursts from the barrel of his pistol.

Feeling more beat-up and useless than ever before in his life, Sonny jumps from his moving bike and runs toward Doc, trying to look past him. The first thing he sees is a flash of light off Mouse's bike, which comes into view flat on its side about twenty feet down the road, at the top of the curve. Then he finds Mouse, on his ass and scrambling backward from some animal Sonny can barely make out, except for its eyes and teeth. Unconscious of the stream of obscenities that pour from his mouth, Sonny levels his pistol at the creature and fires just as he runs past Doc.

Doc just stands there; Doc is out for the count. The weird animal up on the road closes its jaws on Mouse's leg. It is going to rip away a hamburger-sized chunk of muscle, but Sonny hits it with a fucking hollow-point missile from his Magnum, a bit show-offy for target practice but under the circumstances no more than prudent, thank you very much. Contrary to all expectations and the laws of physics, Sonny's amazing wonderbullet does not knock a hole the size of a football in the creature's hide. The wonderbullet pushes the animal sideways and distracts it from Mouse's leg; it does not even knock it down. Mouse sends up a howl of pain.

The dog whips around and glares at Sonny with red eyes the size of baseballs. Its mouth opens on jagged white teeth, and it snaps the air. Ropes of slime shoot out of its jaws. The creature lowers its shoulders and steps forward. Amazingly, its snarling grows in volume and ferocity. Sonny is being warned: if he does not turn and run, he is next on the menu.

"Fuck that," Sonny says, and fires straight at the animal's mouth. Its whole head should fly apart in bloody rags, but for a second after the Magnum goes off, nothing changes.

Oh, shit, Sonny thinks.

The dog-thing's eyes blaze, and its feral, wedge-shaped head seems to assemble itself out of the darkness in the air and emerge into view. As though an inky robe had been partially twitched aside, Sonny can see a thick neck descending to meaty shoulders and strong front legs. Maybe the tide is turning here, maybe this monster will turn out to be vulnerable after all. Sonny braces his right wrist with his left hand, aims at the dog-thing's chest, and squeezes off another round. The explosion seems to stuff his ears with cotton. All the railroad spikes in his head heat up like electric coils, and bright pain sings between his temples.

Dark blood gouts from the creature's brisket. At the center of Sonny Cantinaro's being, a pure, primitive triumph bursts into life. More of the monster melts into visibility, the wide back and a suggestion of its rear legs. Of no recognizable breed and four and a half feet high, the dog-thing is approximately the size of a gigantic wolf. When it moves toward him, Sonny fires again. Like an echo, the sound of his gun repeats from somewhere close behind; a bullet like a supercharged wasp zings past his chest.

The creature staggers back, limping on an injured leg. Its enraged eyes bore into Sonny's. He risks glancing over his shoulder and sees Beezer braced in the middle of the narrow road.

"Don't look at me, shoot!" Beezer yells.

His voice seems to awaken Doc, who raises his arm and takes aim. Then all three of them are pulling their triggers, and the little road sounds like the firing range on a busy day. The dog-thing (hell hound, Sonny thinks) limps back a step and opens wide its terrible mouth to howl in rage and frustration. Before the howl ends, the creature gathers its rear legs beneath its body, springs across the road, and vanishes into the woods.

Sonny fights off the impulse to collapse under a wave of relief and fatigue. Doc swivels his body and keeps firing into the darkness behind the trees until Beezer puts a hand on his arm and orders him to stop. The air stinks of cordite and some animal odor that is musky and disgustingly sweet. Pale gray smoke shimmers almost white as it filters upward through the darker air.

Beezer's haggard face turns to Sonny, and the whites of his eyes are crimson. "You hit that fucking animal, didn't you?" Through the wads of cotton in his ears, Beezer's voice sounds small and tinny.

"Shit, yes. At least twice, probably three times."

"And Doc and I hit it once apiece. What the hell is that thing?"

" 'What the hell' is right," Sonny says.

Weeping with pain, Mouse a third time repeats his cry of "Help me!" and the others hear him at last. Moving slowly and pressing their hands over whatever parts of their bodies hurt the most, they hobble up the road and kneel in front of Mouse. The right leg of his jeans is ripped and soaked with blood, and his face is contorted.

"Are you assholes deaf ?"

"Pretty near," Doc says. "Tell me you didn't take a bullet in your leg."

"No, but it must be some kind of miracle." He winces and inhales sharply. Air hisses between his teeth. "Way you guys were shooting. Too bad you couldn't draw a bead before it bit my leg."

"I did," Sonny says. "Reason you still got a leg."

Mouse peers at him, then shakes his head. "What happened to the Kaiser?"

"He lost about a liter of blood through his nose and passed out," Sonny tells him.

Mouse sighs as if at the frailty of the human species. "I believe we might try to get out of this crazy shithole."

"Is your leg all right?" Beezer asks.

"It's not broken, if that's what you mean. But it's not all right, either."

"What?" Doc asks.

"I can't say," Mouse tells him. "I don't answer medical questions from guys all covered in puke."

"Can you ride?"

"Fuck yes, Beezer ¡ª you ever know me when I couldn't ride?"

Beezer and Sonny each take a side and, with excruciating effort, lift Mouse to his feet. When they release his arms, Mouse lumbers sideways a few steps. "This is not right," he says.

"That's brilliant," says Beezer.

"Beeze, old buddy, you know your eyes are, like, bright red? You look like fuckin' Dracula."

To the extent that hurry is possible, they are hurrying. Doc wants to get a look at Mouse's leg; Beezer wants to make sure that Kaiser Bill is still alive; and all of them want to get out of this place and back into normal air and sunlight. Their heads pound, and their muscles ache from strain. None of them can be sure that the dog-thing is not preparing for another charge.

As they speak, Sonny has been picking up Mouse's Fat Boy and rolling it toward its owner. Mouse takes the handles and pushes his machine forward, wincing as he goes. Beezer and Doc rescue their bikes, and six feet along Sonny pulls his upright out of a snarl of weeds.

Beezer realizes that when he was at the curve in the road, he failed to look for Black House. He remembers Mouse saying, This shit doesn't want to be seen, and he thinks Mouse got it just about right: the Fisherman did not want them there, and the Fisherman did not want his house to be seen. Everything else was spinning around in his head the way his Electra Glide had spun over after that ugly voice spoke up in his mind. Beezer is certain of one thing, however: Jack Sawyer is not going to hold out on him any longer.

Then a terrible thought strikes him, and he asks, "Did anything funny ¡ª anything really strange ¡ª happen to you guys before the dog from hell jumped out of the woods? Besides the physical stuff, I mean."

He looks at Doc, and Doc blushes. Hello? Beezer thinks.

Mouse says, "Go fuck yourself. I'm not gonna talk about that."

"I'm with Mouse," Sonny says.

"I guess the answer is yes," Beezer says.

Kaiser Bill is lying by the side of the road with his eyes closed and the front of his body wet with blood from mouth to waist. The air is still gray and sticky; their bodies seem to weigh a thousand pounds, the bikes to roll on leaden wheels. Sonny walks his bike up beside the Kaiser's supine body and kicks him, not all that gently, in the ribs.

The Kaiser opens his eyes and groans. "Fuck, Sonny," he says. "You kicked me." His eyelids flutter, and he lifts his head off the ground and notices the blood soaking into his clothing. "What happened? Am I shot?"

"You conducted yourself like a hero," Sonny says. "How do you feel?"

"Lousy. Where was I hit?"

"How am I supposed to know?" Sonny says. "Come on, we're getting out of here."

The others file past. Kaiser Bill manages to get to his feet and, after another epic struggle, hauls his bike upright beside him. He pushes it down the track after the others, marveling at the pain in his head and the quantity of blood on his body. When he comes out through the last of the trees and joins his friends on Highway 35, the sudden brightness stabs his eyes, his body feels light enough to float away, and he nearly passes out all over again. "I don't think I did get shot," he says.

No one pays any attention to the Kaiser. Doc is asking Mouse if he wants to go to the hospital.

"No hospital, man. Hospitals kill people."

"At least let me take a look at your leg."

"Fine, look."

Doc kneels at the side of the road and tugs the cuff of Mouse's jeans up to the bottom of his knee. He probes with surprisingly delicate fingers, and Mouse winces.

"Mouse," he says, "I've never seen a dog bite like this before."

"Never saw a dog like that before, either."

The Kaiser says, "What dog?"

"There's something funny about this wound," Doc says. "You need antibiotics, and you need them right away."

"Don't you have antibiotics?"

"Sure, I do."

"Then let's go back to Beezer's place, and you can stick me full of needles."

"Whatever you say," says Doc.

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