The whisperers, p.35
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       The Whisperers, p.35

           John Connolly
 

  If he lets me leave, she thought. If it stops at just hitting when he finds out what I’ve been up to. Her mind went back to the weapons in his closet, and the bayonet in particular. Joel had shown it to her once before when she found him slumped in the corner of the room, his eyes red from weeping for his lost comrade, Brett Harlan. It was an M9 bayonet, just like the one Harlan had used on his wife before cutting his own throat.

  Because the box made him do it.

  She shuddered at the imaginative leap that she had just made, even as she strained to peer into the darkness before remembering the flashlight. She grasped it and pointed its beam at the corner. Shadows moved: the outline of garden tools and stacked bottles, the frames of the shelves, and one other, a figure that danced away from the light, melting into the blackness beneath the stairs; a deformed shape, distorted by the action of the beam but also, she knew, unnatural in its essence, contorted in its physicality. She could almost smell it: musty and aged with an acrid edge, like old cloth burning.

  This was not Joel: this was not even human.

  She tried to follow its progress with the flashlight. Her hands were shaking, so she gripped the Maglite with both hands, holding it close to her body. She shone it under the stairs, and the shape danced away again, a shadow without a form to cast it, like smoke rising from an unseen flame. Now there was movement to her right as well. She swung the beam, and briefly a figure was framed against the wall, its body hunched, its arms and legs too long for its torso, the crown of its skull misshapen by outgrowths of bone. It was both real and unreal, the shadow seeming to stretch from the box itself, as though the essence of whatever was contained within it were seeping out like a bad smell.

  And the whispering had started again: the voices were speaking about her. They were disturbed, angry. She should not have touched the box. They did not want her desecrating it with her fingers, with her woman’s hands. Filthy. Unclean.

  Blood.

  She was having her period. It had started that morning.

  Blood.

  Tainted.

  Blood.

  They knew. They smelled it on her. She retreated, trying to get to the stairs, aware now of three figures circling her like wolves, moving to stay out of the reach of her light even as they closed upon her. She waved the flashlight like a flaming torch, using it to probe at the darkness, to keep them at bay, her back to the shelves, then the wall, until at last she was facing the basement and her foot was on the first step. Slowly she ascended, not wanting to turn her back. Halfway up, the bulb above her head flickered and went dark, and then her flashlight too gave up the ghost.

  They’re doing it. They like the darkness.

  Now she turned, stumbling up the final steps, and as she reached the door and slammed it closed she caught a final glimpse of them ascending toward her: shapes without substance, bad dreams conjured from old bones. She turned the key and pulled it from the lock, tripping as she did so and falling painfully on her coccyx. She watched the handle of the door, expecting it to turn like it did in those old horror movies, but it did not. There was only the sound of her breathing, and the beating of her heart, and the rustle of her robe against her skin as she pushed herself along the floor and came to rest against an armchair.

  The doorbell rang. The shock of it made her squeal. She saw the figure of a man outlined against it by the night light. She looked at the clock on the wall. It was after three. Where had the hours gone? Rubbing the base of her spine where she had landed so awkwardly, she walked to the door and pulled the drape to one side so that she could see who was there. A man in his sixties stood in profile on the step. He wore a black hat, which he raised politely, revealing a bald cone misted by wisps of gray hair. She opened the door, relieved at the presence of another human being, even a stranger, but she still kept the security chain on.

  ‘Hello,’ said the man. ‘We’re looking for Karen Emory.’ He still had not turned toward her, so she could see only one side of his face.

  ‘She’s not here,’ said Karen, the words emerging before she even realized that she had spoken them. ‘I don’t know when she’ll be back. It’s late, so she probably won’t be home until morning.’

  She didn’t know why she was lying, and was conscious of the weakness of the falsehoods she was uttering. The man looked unthreatening, but her survival instincts had been shocked into action by what she had seen in the basement, and he was making her skin crawl. She had been wrong to open the door to him, and now it was crucial that she lock it against him as soon as possible. She wanted to scream: she was trapped between this man and the entities in the basement. She willed Joel to return, even as she understood that this was his fault, that the man was here because of him and what was stored in the basement, because why else would such an individual be on their doorstep at three in the morning. Joel would know what to do. She’d take her chances with his anger if he’d only return to help her.

  ‘We can wait,’ said the man.

  ‘I’m sorry. That won’t be possible. Anyway, I have company.’ Lies were piling up on lies, and she sounded unconvincing even to her own ears. Then she thought about what the man on the doorstep had just said. We’re looking for Karen Emory. We can wait.

  ‘No,’ said the man. ‘We don’t think you have company at all. We think you’re alone.’

  Now she looked around to see if there was anyone else outside, but there was only this odd, creepy man with his hat in his hand. And she had left the gun in the basement.

  ‘Go away,’ she said. ‘Go away, or I’ll call the police.’

  Now his head turned, and she saw how ruined he was, how damaged, and she felt that this was as much a spiritual as a physical decay. She tried to close the door, but his foot was already jammed in the gap.

  ‘Nice earrings,’ said Herod. ‘Old, and too good for one such as you.’

  He reached through the gap, his hand a white blur, and ripped out one of the earrings, tearing the lobe. Blood sprayed on her robe and she tried to scream, but his hand was on her throat, his nails digging into her skin. His shoulder struck the door with massive force, and the chain came away from the frame. She fought against him, scratching at him with her fingers, until he slammed her head against the wall.

  Once: ‘Don’t . . .’

  Twice: ‘. . . tell . . .’

  The third time, she hardly felt it at all.

  ‘. . . lies!’

  35

  Karen did not lose consciousness, not entirely, so she was aware of being dragged by her hair across the floor and thrown in a corner. Her ruined earlobe burned with pain, and she felt blood dripping from the wound. She heard the door locking, and saw the drapes being partially drawn on the windows, but she felt nauseated, and she was having trouble with her vision because, when the man walked to the window, she thought that she saw two reflections in the glass. One was the intruder, and the other—

  The other was Clarence Buttle. There was something about his gait and posture that had ingrained itself upon her memory, even had the reflected figure not been wearing the shabby dark jacket that Clarence had been wearing that night in her bedroom, with the red-and-black checked shirt beneath it tucked into baggy jeans that looked like they belonged more properly on a fatter person. Clarence’s jeans had been held up with a brown leather belt, its battered silver buckle shaped like a cowboy hat. That was how she remembered him, because that was how he looked in the photographs that were taken of him as his true nature was revealed by the police investigation.

  But Clarence Buttle was dead. He had died in prison, taken by stomach cancer that had eaten away at his insides. The reflected Clarence certainly looked like someone who’d been eaten away, except it was his face that had been consumed, because the Clarence that she glimpsed in the glass before the drapes closed had holes where his eyes should have been, and his lips were gone, revealing black gums and the stumps of rotted teeth. But in those final seconds, his lipless mouth had moved, and she heard the words, and smell
ed the foulness of his insides polluting the room.

  ‘I’ve been a bad, bad boy,’ said the reflection, both Clarence and Not-Clarence, and Karen, struggling to hold back her bile, knew, deep down in the special hidden place where she kept all that was truly herself, that what she was seeing was the entity that had made Clarence Buttle what he was, the voice that had spoken to him of the pleasures of playing with little girls in old storm drains, the malign visitor that had put Karen Emory’s name into Clarence’s mind.

  ‘She’ll play with you, Clarence. She likes boys, and she likes dark places. And she won’t scream. She won’t scream no matter what you do to her, because she’s a good, good girl, and a good, good girl needs a bad, bad boy to bring out the best in her. . . .’

  The intruder was looking at her in amusement, and she knew that he had seen something of what she had glimpsed, because he was rotting too, inside and out, and she wondered if the entity brought the cancer with it, if that degree of spiritual and mental decay somehow had to find a physical expression. After all, evil was a kind of poison, an infection of the soul, and other poisons, if absorbed slowly over time, brought changes to the body: nicotine yellowed the skin and blackened the lungs; alcohol damaged the liver and the kidneys, and scoured the face; radiation made your hair fall out; lead, asbestos, heroin, they all affected the body, bringing it closer to its final ruination. Was it not possible that evil in its purest form, the quintessence of it, might do the same? Because the sickness had been in Clarence, just as it was in the man who now held her in his power.

  ‘What was his name?’ he asked, and she felt compelled to reply.

  ‘Clarence,’ she said. ‘His name was Clarence.’

  ‘Did he hurt you?’

  She shook her head.

  But he wanted to. Oh yes, Clarence had wanted to play, and Clarence played rough when it came to little girls.

  Karen drew her knees up beneath her chin, and wrapped her arms around them. Although the reflection was no longer visible, she was afraid of what had created it. It was in here. She could feel it. She could feel it because there was a connection between her and Clarence Buttle. She was the one that escaped him. Worse, she was the one who got him caught, and he would never forgive her for that, never forgive her for leaving him to rot painfully in a prison hospital with nobody to visit him, no one to care about him, when all he’d wanted to do was play.

  The intruder approached her, and she shrank from him.

  ‘My name is Herod,’ he said. ‘You don’t have to be afraid of me. I’m not going to hurt you again, not as long as you answer my questions honestly.’

  But she was looking past him, her eyes flicking around the room, her nostrils twitching, alert for the approach of Not-Clarence, and his cancerous breath, and his filthy, probing fingers. The old man peered at her curiously.

  ‘But you’re not frightened of me, are you?’ he said. ‘Because you’ve seen him, and that’s quite the thing, quite the thing. Oh, you can call him Clarence, if you like, but he has lots of names. To me, he’s the Captain.’

  He put a hand on her head and stroked her hair, and she trembled at his touch, because whatever had been in Clarence was also in him. ‘Though you don’t have to be scared of the Captain either, not unless you’ve done something wrong, something very, very wrong.’

  He shifted his hand from her head to her shoulder and dug his nails in hard, causing her to wince and look him in the face, her eyes drawn to the arrow-shaped decay in his upper lip, and the virulence of its infection.

  ‘But I suspect that even a little whore like you, all warm breath and hot britches, has no cause to worry, because the Captain has more pressing concerns. You’re inconsequential, girly, and as long as you stay that way then the Captain will mind his distance. And if you don’t, well . . .’

  He cocked his head, as though listening to a voice that only he could hear, then grinned unpleasantly. ‘The Captain says to tell you that there’s a storm drain with your name on it, and a friend there who’s just aching for someone to join him.’ He winked. ‘The Captain says that old Clarence always did like warm, wet places, and the Captain saw him right on that score, because the Captain always keeps his word. Clarence now has a deep, dark, damp hole all to himself where he waits for the girl that got away. But that’s the thing about the Captain’s promises: you have to read the small print before you sign on the dotted line. Clarence didn’t understand that, which is why he’s been alone for so long, but I do. The Captain and I, we’re real close. We speak with one voice, you might say.’

  He stood, his grip still tight upon her so that she was forced to her feet.

  ‘Now I have some bad news for you, but you’re going to take it like a trooper: your boyfriend, Joel Tobias, isn’t going to be the meat in your bun again anytime soon. He and I, we tried to have a talk, but he was a reluctant conversationalist, and I was forced to exert a little pressure on him.’

  He placed his left hand upon her cheek, and pinched it gently. His skin was chill to the touch, and she let out a little animal whine.

  ‘I think you know what I’m talking about. To be honest, it was a blessing for him when the end came.’

  Her legs went weak. She would have fallen had Herod not held on to her. She tried to push him away, but he was stronger than her. She began to weep, but suddenly his hand was in her hair again, pulling her head back so far that she heard her neck crack.

  ‘None of that,’ said Herod. ‘No time to grieve now. I’m a busy man, and time isn’t on my side. We have things to do, and then you can mourn him all you like.’

  He led her to the basement door. He reached out his right hand and placed it against the wood.

  ‘You know what’s down there?’

  Karen shook her head. She was still crying, but there was a numbness to her grief, like pain fighting to break through the diminishing effect of an anesthetic.

  ‘You’re lying again,’ said Herod, ‘but in a way you’re also telling the truth, because I don’t think that you do know what’s down there, not really. But you and I, we’re going to find out together. Where’s the key?’

  Slowly, she reached into the pocket of her robe and handed the key to him.

  ‘I don’t want to go back in the basement,’ she said. She thought that she sounded like a little girl, sobbing and wheedling.

  ‘Well, missy, I can’t very well leave you up here all alone, can I?’ he replied. He spoke reasonably, even kindly, but this was the same man who had called her a whore earlier; who had left marks in her skin where his fingers had dug into her shoulder; who had torn her earlobe; who had killed Joel and left her alone again. ‘But you don’t need to worry, not when you’ve got me to take care of you.’ He handed the key back to her. ‘Now go ahead and open it. I’ll be right behind you.’

  To encourage her further, he showed her his gun, and she did as she was told, her hand trembling only slightly as she inserted the key in the lock. He stepped back as she opened the door, revealing the darkness beyond.

  ‘Where’s the light?’ he asked.

  ‘It doesn’t work,’ she said. ‘It broke when I was down there.’ They broke it, she almost added. They wanted me to trip and fall, so that I’d be forced to stay down there with them.

  Herod looked around, and saw the flashlight lying on the floor. He bent to retrieve it, and as he did so she kicked him hard on the side of the head, sending him to his knees. She ran for the front door, but she was still fumbling for the latch when he was on her. She cried out, and he covered her mouth with his hand and pulled her backward, then tossed her to the floor. She landed on her back, and before she could raise herself up he was kneeling on her chest. His hand reached into her mouth and grabbed her tongue so hard she thought that he was going to rip it out. She couldn’t speak, but her eyes begged him not to do it.

  ‘Last warning,’ he said. The wound on his lip had torn and was starting to bleed. ‘I don’t cause pain without reason, and I have no desire to hurt you more
than I have already, but if you make me do it, then I will. Cross me again and I’ll feed your tongue to the rats, then leave you to choke on your own blood. Do you understand?’

  Karen gave the faintest of nods, fearful of moving her head too much and tearing her tongue. He released his grip, and she tasted him in her mouth, sharp and chemical. She got to her feet, and he turned on the flashlight. ‘Seems to be working fine now,’ he said and gestured for her to go ahead of him.

  ‘You first,’ he said. ‘Keep your hands away from your body. Don’t touch anything but the stair rail. If you make any sudden moves while we’re down there, it will go hard on you.’

  Reluctantly, she moved forward. The beam of the flashlight illuminated the stairs. Herod let her get three steps ahead of him, then followed. When she got halfway down she paused and looked to her left, where the darkness was deepest and the gold box rested on its shelf.

  ‘Why have you stopped?’ asked Herod.

  ‘It’s back there,’ she said.

  ‘What is?’

  ‘The gold box. That’s what you’re looking for, isn’t it: the gold box?’

  ‘You’re going to show me exactly where it is.’

  ‘There are things down there,’ she said. ‘I saw them.’

  ‘I told you: you’re in no danger. Keep going.’

  She continued descending until she reached floor level. Herod joined her, the flashlight searching the corners of the basement. Shadows jumped, but they were caused by the beam, and she might almost have been persuaded that she had imagined the earlier forms were it not for the fact that the whispering had returned. This time, it sounded different: puzzled, perhaps, but expectant.

  She led him to where the treasures lay, but he showed no interest in the exposed seals, or the beautiful marble head. He had eyes only for the box. He allowed the light to play upon it for a time, tutting softly at some of the damage that it had incurred, the small dents and scuffs that marred the decoration on its sides, then pointed to a canvas bag that lay on top of some old suitcases stacked beside the shelf.

 
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