Ushers passing, p.1
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       Ushers Passing, p.1
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           Robert McCammon
Ushers Passing
Prologue

 

  I

  THUNDER ECHOED LIKE AN IRON BELL ABOVE THE SPRAWL OF NEW York City. In the heavy air, lightning crackled and thrust at the earth, striking the high Gothic steeple of James Renwick's new Grace Church on East Tenth Street, then sizzling to death a half-blind drayhorse on the squatters' flatlands north of Fourteenth. The horse's owner bleated in terror and leaped for his life as his cart overturned, sinking its load of potatoes into eight inches of mud.

  It was the twenty-second of March, 1847, and the New York Tribune's weather scholar had predicted a night of "dire storms, fit for neither man nor beast. " His prediction, for once, was entirely accurate. Sparks exploded into the sky on Market Street, where the cast-iron stovepipe chimney of a hardware store had been lightning-struck. The clapboard building burned fiercely while a crowd gawked and grinned in its merry heat. Steam-spouting fire engines were delayed, wooden wheels and horses' hooves mired in Bowery ooze. Packs of dogs, rats, and pigs scuttled through the alleys, where gangs like the Dover Boys, the Plug Uglies, and the Moan Stickers shadowed their victims along the constricted, cobblestoned streets. Policemen stayed alive by standing like statues under gas lamps.

  A young city, New York was already bursting her seams. It was a riotous spectacle, as full of danger in the hoodlum's blackjack as of opportunity in a spilled purse of gold coins. The confusion of streets led from dockyard to theater, ballroom to bawdyhouse, Murder Bend to City Hall, with equal impartiality, though some avenues of progress were impassable due to swamps of debris and garbage.

  Thunder rang out again, and the troubled sky split open in a torrent. It soaked dandies and damsels strolling out the doors of Delmonico's, slammed against the lofty windows on Colonnade Row, and leaked down black with soot through the roofs of squatters' shanties. The rain dampened fires, broke up fights, sped indecent propositions or murderous attacks, and cleared the streets in a sluggish tide of filth that rolled for the river. At least for the moment, the nightly farrago of humanity was interrupted.

  Two chestnut Barbary horses, their heads bowed against the downpour, pulled a black landau coach along Broadway Avenue, heading south toward the harbor. The Irish coachman huddled within a soggy brown coat, water streaming from the brim of his low-slung hat, and cursed the decision he'd made early that afternoon to trot his team around to the De Peyser Hotel on Canal Street. If he hadn't picked up that passenger, he thought gloomily, he might now be home warming his feet in front of a fire with a mug of stout at his side. At least he had a gold eagle in his pocket - but what good would a gold eagle be when he was dead with the wet shivers? He flicked a halfhearted whipstrike at the flank of one of his horses, though he knew they would move no faster. Hell's bells! he thought. What was the passenger lookin' for?

  The gentleman had boarded in front of the De Peyser, laid a gold eagle on the driver's palm, and told the driver to make all possible haste to the Tribune office. Instructed to wait, he'd held the horses until the black-garbed gentleman had reappeared fifteen minutes later with a new destination. It was a long trek into the country, up near Fordham in the shadow of the Long Island hills, while purple-veined storm clouds began to gather and thunder throbbed in the distance. At a rather dismal-looking little cottage, a rotund middle-aged woman with gray hair and large, frightened eyes admitted the gentleman - very reluctantly, it had seemed to the coachman. After another half hour in which a downpour of chilly rain had promised the driver an acquaintance with hot salve and oil of wintergreen, the gentleman in black came out with yet another series of directions: back to New York, as quickly as possible, to a number of tawdry taverns in the most unsavory section of the city. South into the Triangle at night! the coachman thought grimly. The gentleman either wanted a cheap trollop or a brush with death.

  As they moved deeper into the lawless southern streets, the coachman was relieved to see that the heavy rain was keeping most of the thugs under wraps. Saints be praised! he thought - and at that instant two young boys in rags came running out of an alleyway toward the coach. One of them, the driver saw with horror, held a brick intended to smash the spokes of a wheel - the better to beat and rob both himself and his passenger. He swung his whip with crazed abandon, shouting, "Go on! Go on!" And the team, sensing imminent danger, surged ahead across the slick stones. The brick was thrown, and crashed against the coach's side with the noise of splintering wood. "Go on!" the coachman cried out again, and kept the horses trotting until they'd left the murderous little beggars two streets behind.

  The sliding partition behind the coachman's seat opened. "Driver," the passenger inquired, "what was that?" His voice was calm and steady - accustomed to giving orders, the driver thought.

  "Beggin' your pardon, sir, but . . . " He glanced back over his shoulder through the partition, and saw in the dim interior lamplight the man's gaunt, pallid face, distinguished by a silvery, neatly trimmed beard and mustache. The gentleman's eyes were deepset, the color of burnished pewter, they fixed upon the coachman with the power of aristocracy. He appeared oddly ageless, his face free of any telltale wrinkles, and his flesh marble white. He was dressed in a black suit and a glossy black top hat, and his long-fingered hands in black leather gloves toyed with an ebony cane topped by a handsome sterling silver head of a cat - a lion, the coachman had seen - with gleaming emerald eyes.

  "But what?" the man asked. The driver couldn't peg his accent.

  "Sir . . . it's not too very safe in this neck o' town. You look to be a refined, respectable gentleman, sir, and it's not too many of those they gets down here in this part o' - "

  "Just concern yourself with your driving," the man advised. "You're wasting time. " He slid the partition shut.

  The coachman muttered, his beard heavy with rain, and urged the team onward. There was just so much a man would do for a gold eagle! he thought. Then again, it sure would buy some fine times at the bar rail.

  Sandy Welsh's Cellar, a bar on Ann Street, was the first stop. The gentleman went in, stayed only a few moments, and then they were off again. He stayed barely a minute in the Peacock, on Sullivan Street. Gent's Pinch, two blocks west, was worth only a brief visit as well. On narrow Pell Street, where a dead pig attracted a pack of scavenger dogs, the coachman reined his team up in front of a rundown tavern called the Muleskinner. As the gentleman in black went inside, the coachman pulled his hat low and pondered a return to the potato fields.

  Within the Muleskinner, a motley assemblage of drunkards, gamblers, and rowdies pursued their interests in the hazy yellow lamplight. Smoke hung in layers across the room, and the gentleman in black wrinkled his finely shaped nose at the mingled aromas of bad whiskey, cheap cigars, and rain-soaked clothes. A few men glanced in his direction, sizing him up as a profitable victim; but the strong set of his shoulders and the force of his gaze told them to look elsewhere. The rain and humidity had put a damper on even the most eager killer's energies.

  He approached the Muleskinner's bar, where a swarthy gent in buckskin was drawing a mug of greenish beer from a keg, and spoke a single name.

  The bartender smiled thinly and shrugged. A gold coin was slid across the rough pinewood bar, and greed flickered in the man's small black eyes. He reached out for the coin - and a cane topped by a silver lion's head pressed his hand to the wood. The gentleman in black spoke the name again, calmly and quietly.

  "In the corner. " The bartender nodded toward a man sitting alone, absorbed in scribbling something by the light of a smoking whale-oil lamp. "You ain't the law, are you?"

  "No. "

  "Wouldn't want to get him in no trouble. He's the Shakespeare of America, y'know. "

  "I wouldn't know. " He lifted his cane, and the other man's hand crawled like a spider upon
the coin.

  The gentleman in black strode purposefully to the solitary man writing by lamplight. On a scarred plank table before the writer were an inkpot, a scatter of cheap pale blue foolscap, a half-drained bottle of sherry, and a dirty glass. Wads of discarded paper littered the floor. The writer, a pale, slight man with watery gray eyes, was scribbling on a piece of paper with a quill pen gripped by a slender, nervous hand. He stopped writing to press his fist against his forehead, and then he sat without moving for a moment, as if his brain had gone blank. With a scowl and a bitter oath, he crumpled the paper and flung it to the floor, where it bounced off the toe of the gentleman's boot.

  The writer looked up into the other man's face; he blinked, puzzled, the sheen of fever-sweat glistening on his cheeks and forehead.

  "Mr. Edgar Poe?" the gentleman in black asked quietly.

  "Yes," the writer replied, his voice slurred from sickness and sherry. "Who're you?"

  "I've looked forward to meeting you for some time . . . sir. May I sit down?"

  Poe shrugged and motioned toward a chair. There were dark blue hollows beneath his eyes, his lips were gray and slack, and the cheap brown suit he wore was blotched with mud and mildew. The front of his white linen shirt and his tattered black ascot were dappled with sherry stains; his frayed cuffs shot out of the coat like a poor schoolboy's. He radiated the heat of fever, and as he shivered in a sudden chill he lay down his pen and put a trembling hand to his brow; his dark hair was damp with sweat, and tiny beads of moisture in his thin dark mustache glinted with yellow lamplight. Poe gave a deep, rattling cough. "Forgive me," he said. "I've been ill. "

  The man put his cane on the table, careful not to disturb papers or inkpot, and sat down. At once a corpulent barmaid waddled over to ask him what his pleasure might be, but he waved her away with a flick of his hand.

  "You should try the amontillado here, sir," Poe told him. "It fans the flames of the intellect. At the very least it provides warmth in the stomach on a wet night. Excuse my condition, sir; I've been working, you see. " He narrowed his eyes to try to keep the gentleman in focus. "What did you say your name was?"

  "My name," the gentleman in black said, "is Hudson Usher. Roderick Usher was my brother. "

  Poe sat very still for a moment, his mouth hanging half open; a small sigh escaped it, followed by a chuckle squeezed through a moan. He let out a high burst of laughter, and laughed until his eyes teared, laughed until he began coughing, until he knew he was in danger of choking and his hand clutched the black cloth of his ascot.

  When he could control himself again, Poe wiped his eyes, caught back another spasm of coughing, and poured more sherry into his glass. "That's a fine joke! I commend you, sir! Now you may return your plumage to the costume shop and tell my dear friend Reverend Griswold that his attempt to give me a lung seizure very nearly succeeded! Tell him I won't forget his kind efforts!" He swallowed a mouthful of sherry, and his gray eyes gleamed in the sickly, pallid face. "Oh, no - wait! I've more to let you share with Reverend Griswold! Do you know what I'm writing here, my good 'Mr. Usher'?" He grinned drunkenly and tapped the few pages he'd finished. "My masterpiece, sir! An insight into the very nature of God! It's all here, all here . . . " He gripped the pages in one hand and brought them to his chest, a crooked grin on his mouth. "With this work, Edgar Poe will stand alongside Dickens and Hawthorne! Of course, we may all be eclipsed by that literary solaristarian, Reverend Griswold - but I think not!"

  Poe waved the pages in front of the other man's face. They appeared to be a mess of ink blotches and sherry stains. "Wouldn't he pay you a pretty penny to see this for him? To spy for him, and help his plagiarizing pen along its confused course? Begone, sir! I've nothing more to say to you!"

  The gentleman in black hadn't moved during Edgar Poe's tirade; he held the other man with a hard, steely stare. "Are you as hard of hearing as you are drunk?" he asked in his strange, melodious accent. "I said my name is Hudson Usher, and Roderick was my brother - a man you maligned with poisonous gall. I am in this American bedlam on business, and I chose to take a day to locate you. I first went to the Tribune, where I learned of your country cottage from a Mr. Horace Greeley. Your mother-in-law provided me with a list of - "

  "Muddy?" Poe gasped. A page of his work slipped to the floor and lay in a puddle of spilled beer. "You went to see my Muddy?"

  " - a list of taverns in which you might be found," Hudson Usher continued. He placed his black-gloved hands on the table and folded his fingers together. "I understand I just missed you at Sandy Welsh's Cellar. "

  "You're a liar!" Poe whispered, his eyes wide with shock. "You're not . . . you can't be who you say you are!"

  "Can't I be? Well, then, shall we explore the facts? In 1837 my anguished older brother was drowned in a flood that destroyed our home in Pennsylvania. My wife and I were in London at the time, and my sister Madeline had recently ran off with a traveling actor, leaving Roderick alone. We salvaged what we could, and we now reside in North Carolina. " Usher's ageless face seemed drawn as tightly as a mask, his eyes glittering with long-repressed rage. "Now imagine my discomfiture, Mr. Poe, when five years later I happen to be shown a volume of despicable little figments called Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. Grotesque, indeed. Particularly the tale entitled - But you're well aware of the title, I'm sure. In it you make my brother out to be a madman and my sister a walking corpse! Oh, I've looked forward to meeting you finally, Mr. Poe; the Tribune mentions you frequently, I understand, and you were the literary lion of a few seasons past, weren't you? But now . . . well, fame's a tenuous commodity, isn't it?"

  "What do you want of me?" Poe asked, stunned. "If you've come to demand money of me, or to drag my name through the dirt in a libel case, you're wasting your time, sir. I have very little money, and before God I never intentionally libeled your family's name or honor. There are hundreds of people named Usher in this country!"

  "Perhaps there are," Usher agreed, "but there is only one drowned Roderick, and only one maligned Madeline. " He spent a silent moment examining Poe's face and clothes. Then he smiled thinly, a humorless smile that showed the even white points of his teeth. "No, I don't want your money; I don't believe blood can be squeezed from a stone, but if I could, I'd confiscate every copy of that ridiculous tale and set them all blazing. No, I wanted to see what kind of man you were, and I wanted you to know what kind of man I am. The House of Usher still stands, Mr. Poe, and it shall stand long after you and I are dust in the earth. " Usher produced a silver cigar case, from which he took a prime Havana; he lit it at the lamp and put the cigar case away. Then he blew gray smoke in Poe's face. "I should have your skin stretched and nailed to a tree for besmirching my family name. You should at the least be confined to a lunatic asylum. "

  "I swear I . . . I wrote that tale as fiction! It mirrored . . . things that were in my mind and soul!"

  "Then, sir, I pity your soul in the hereafter. " Usher pulled at the cigar and leaked smoke through his nostrils, his eyes narrowing to slits. "But let me try to guess how you stumbled onto this foul idea. It was never a secret that my brother was mentally and physically tormented; he'd been unbalanced since our father died in a mine cave-in before we came to this country from Wales. When Madeline left the house he must've felt totally deserted.

  "In any event, Roderick's mental state - and the deterioration of the house I'd left him to protect - was not unnoticed by simpletons who lived in the villages around us. Small wonder, then, that his death and the ruin of our house in a flood should be the source of all kinds of vicious rumors! I suggest, Mr. Poe, that the seed of your tale came from some establishment like this one, where drink loosens the tongue and inflames the imagination. Perhaps you heard mention of Roderick Usher in a tavern between Pittsburgh and New York, and your own besotted brain invented the details. I blame myself for leaving Roderick alone at a crucial point in his sanity; thus you must see how your dirty little tale stabs me like a spike t
hrough the heart!"

  Poe lowered his pages to the table and caressed them as if they were living flesh. He gave a soft whimper when he noticed the page lying in filth on the floor, and when he carefully picked it up he wiped the residue on his sleeve. He spent a moment trying, with shaking hands, to put the edges of the pages in true. "I . . . haven't been well for a while, Mr. Usher," he said softly. "My wife . . . recently passed away. Her name was Virginia. I . . . I know very well the pain of separation from a loved one. I vow to you before God, sir, that I never set out to sully your family's name. Perhaps I . . . did hear mention of your brother's name somewhere, or I read about the circumstances in a newspaper article; it's been so long now, I forget. But I am a writer, sir! And a writer has the defense of curiosity! I beg your forgiveness, Mr. Usher, but I must also say that as a writer I am compelled to view the world through my own eyes!"

  "Then," the other man said coldly, "it seems the world would've been the better if you had been born blind. "

  "I've said all I possibly can. " Poe reached for his glass of sherry again. "Is your business with me finished, sir?"

  "Yes. I've had my look at you, and one look is all I can bear. " Usher submerged his cigar in Poe's inkpot. There was a quick hiss as it went out, and Poe stared blandly at Usher with the glass of sherry at his lips. Usher took his cane and rose to his feet; he dropped a coin upon the table. "Have another bottle, Mr. Poe," he said. "It seems your brain thrives on such inspiration. " He waited, watching, until Poe had picked up the coin.

  "I . . . wish you and your family a long and profitable existence," Poe said.

  "And may your fortunes continue their course. " Usher touched the brim of his hat with his cane, then stalked out of the Muleskinner Bar. "The De Peyser Hotel," he told the soggy coachman as he slipped into the coach's black satin interior.

  As the coach rumbled away from the curb, Usher lowered the interior lamp's wick to rest his eyes, and took off his top hat. From a widow's peak on his high forehead, his hair was luxuriant and glossy silver. He was satisfied with the day's events. He would have the deed to the De Peyser Hotel tomorrow afternoon, and his curiosity about Edgar Poe had been slaked. The man was obviously indigent, a madman with one foot in the grave. Poe knew nothing of any significance about the Usher family; the tale had been simply fiction that carved a bit too close. Within five years, Usher assured himself, Edgar Poe would be bones in a box and the tale he'd written would blow away in yellow dust like all other minor attempts at "literature. " And that would be the end of it.

  Rain hammered at the coach's roof. Usher closed his eyes, his hands gripped around the cane.

  Oh, he thought, if Edgar Poe only knew the rest of the story! If he only knew the real nature of the madness that brother Roderick had harbored! But Roderick had always been weak; it was he, Hudson, who'd inherited the brute strength and determination of his father, the sense of survival that had passed down through the ages from the ancient Welsh clan of Ushaars. An Usher walks where he pleases, he mused, and takes what he wants.

  The Usher name would be seared into the tapestry of the future. Hudson Usher would make certain of it. And God help those, he thought, who tried to resist the force of the Usher will.

  The coach's team clattered across slick cobblestones. Hudson Usher, who at the age of fifty-three looked barely thirty, smiled like a lizard.

  II

  "THE DE PEYSER HOTEL, PLEASE," THE TALL, BLOND MAN IN A brown tweed suit said as he climbed into a Yellow Cab on East Sixtieth Street, less than three blocks from Central Park.

  "Huh?" The cabbie frowned. He was a Rastafarian with red dreadlocks and amber eyes. "Where's that, mon?"

  "Canal Street. On the corner of Greene. "

  "You got it, mon. " He slammed the cab into gear, pressed his palm against the horn, and nosed into the afternoon traffic, letting out a curse when a Bloomingdale's delivery truck almost sideswiped him. He fought his way to Fifth Avenue and headed south through a sea of taxis, trucks, cars, and buses.

  The man in the back seat loosened his tie and unfastened his collar button. He realized numbly that his hands were trembling. The sound of a curbside jackhammer pierced his brain, and he wished he'd had one more bourbon at La Cocotte, the small French restaurant where he'd just eaten lunch. One more might have smoothed out the kinks in his head. But he was going to be all right, he decided. He was a survivor, and he could take the bad news that had just been dished out to him.

  The blast of a truck's horn behind the cab almost startled him out of his skin. His head had started throbbing like the raw ache of a rotten tooth. A bad sign. He gripped his thighs and sat stiff-spined, trying to concentrate on the steady tick of the cab's meter. He found himself staring fixedly at an earring the cabbie wore - a tiny skeleton wearing a top hat, dangling from the Rasta's left lobe. It danced back and forth with the cab's jerky motion.

  I'm getting worse, the man told himself.

  "You're a professional, Rix," Joan Rutherford had told him less than an hour before at La Cocotte. "And it's not the end of the world, anyway. " She was a sturdy woman with dyed black hair, and she chain-smoked Kools through a discolored ivory cigarette holder. One of the foremost literary agents in the business, she had handled his three previous horror novels and had just delivered the jarring truth about his fourth effort. "I can't see any future for Bedlam, not the way it's constructed now. It's too episodic, there are too many characters, and it's hard as hell to follow what's happening. Stratford House likes you, Rix, and they want to publish your next book, but I don't think it's going to be this one. "

  "What do you propose I do? Toss the book into the trashcan after I've spent over sixteen months working on it? The damned thing is almost six hundred pages long!" He had heard the note of pleading in his voice, and stopped until he could control himself again. "I've done four rewrites on it, Joan. I can't just throw it away!"

  "Bedlam isn't the best you can do, Rix. " Joan Rutherford looked at him with her level blue gaze, and he felt a trickle of sweat under his left armpit. "You've got characters crawling out of the woodwork, a little psychic blind boy who can see into the past or something, and a crazy doctor who carves people up in an apartment house basement. I still can't figure out what was going on. You've got a six-hundred-page novel that reads like a telephone directory, Rix. "

  The food he'd eaten lay like sawdust in the pit of his stomach. Sixteen months. Four agonizing rewrites. His last book, a moderate best-seller titled Fire Fingers, had been published by Stratford House three years before. The money he'd made from it was all gone. The movie deals had dried up and blown away. An iron band of pressure had settled across the back of his neck, and he'd begun having nightmares in which his father's voice told him with relish that he had been born to fail.

  "Okay," Rix had said, staring into his second bourbon. "What am I supposed to do now?"

  "You put Bedlam away and start on another book. "

  "Easily said. "

  "Oh, come on!" Joan stabbed out her cigarette in the little ceramic ashtray. "You're a big boy now, you can take it! If pros run into problems, they just backtrack and start again. "

  Rix had nodded and smiled grimly. His soul felt like a graveyard.

  In the three years since his best-seller, he'd tried writing several different books - had even gone to Wales to do research on an idea that hadn't panned out - but the plots had collapsed like houses of cards. When he'd found himself sitting in an Atlanta bar, pondering a Fire Fingers sequel, he'd known he was in trouble. The idea for Bedlam had come to him in a nightmare of shadowy corridors, distorted faces, and corpses hanging on hooks. Halfway into the writing, it had come apart like so much flimsy cloth. But to give it up after all this time! To strike the scenes and sets like tawdry cardboard, to cut the characters off from the umbilical of his imagination and let them perish! It seemed as cold as murder. Joan Rutherford had said "start on another book" as if it were as simple as changing clothes
. He was afraid he could never finish another book. He felt wrung out by useless exercises of the mind, and he could no longer rely on his instinct to plot out decent stories. His health was continuing to weaken, and in him now was a fear he'd never experienced before - fear of success, fear of failure, fear of simply taking a chance. Over the tumult that raged within him he could hear the mocking note of his father's laughter.

  "Why don't you try some short pieces?" Joan had asked as she signaled for the check. "I might be able to get something placed in Playboy or Penthouse. And you know I've said many times that using your real name might be a help, too,"

  "I thought you agreed Jonathan Strange was a good pen name. "

  "It is, but why not capitalize on your family name, Rix? There's no harm in letting people know you're descended from the Ushers that Poe wrote about. I think it'd be a plus, particularly in the horror genre. "

  "You know I don't like to do short stories. They don't interest me. "

  "Does your career interest you?" Joan had asked, too sharply. "If you want to be a writer, you write. " She'd produced an American Express card and given it to the waiter after carefully going over the check. Then she'd narrowed her eyes as if looking at Rix Usher for the first time. "You didn't eat very much of your lunch. You look like you've lost some weight since the last time I saw you. Aren't you feeling well?"

  "I'm okay," he'd lied.

  When the check was paid, Joan had said she'd mail the manuscript back to him in Atlanta. He stayed behind, nursing his drink, as she left the restaurant. The slash of light that came in when she opened the door stung his eyes, though the mid-October day was heavily overcast.

  One more drink. Down the hatch. Time to go.

  Near Washington Square, the cabbie said, "Shit, looka that!"

  A maniac was playing a violin in the middle of Fifth Avenue.

  The Rasta leaned on his horn, and Rix Usher felt its treble scream like sandpaper on his spine.

  The mad violinist - a stoop-shouldered elderly man in a long black coat - continued to saw at his instrument, snarling traffic in the intersection.

  "Hey, freak!" the cabbie yelled from his window. "Get outta the way, mon!" He slammed his hand against the horn and sank his foot to the floor. The cab jerked forward, inches away from the violinist, who closed his eyes and kept right on playing.

  Another cab suddenly spurted into the intersection, swerved to avoid the madman, and was sides wiped by a Times delivery van. The second cab, with a shouting Italian at the wheel, missed the violinist by less than a foot and plowed into the Rastafarian's left front fender.

  Both cabbies leaped from their vehicles and began screaming at each other and at the lunatic. Rix sat frozen, his nerves jangling. His headache had turned vicious; the voices of the drivers, the blare of horns, and the violin's dissonant wail were for him a symphony of pain. His fists clenched so tightly that his fingernails cut into the flesh of his palms. I'll be all right, he told himself. Just need to stay calm. Stay calm. Stay -

  There was a noise like a sizzle of grease, followed by the sound of a fingernail drawn slowly down a blackboard. The sounds repeated twice more before Rix realized what it was.

  Rain.

  Rain hitting the windshield, rolling down the glass.

  His pores began leaking oily sweat.

  "You crazy old fart!" the Italian shouted as the violinist played on. Rain started peppering down, plunking off roofs and hoods and windshields of vehicles caught at the intersection.

  Hey, you! I'm talkin' to you!"

  "Who's payin' for my cab, mon!" the Rastafarian demanded from the other driver. "You hit my cab, you pay for it!"

  Rix heard raindrops strike the roof above him like cannon-balls. Every blast of a horn felt like an icepick inserted more deeply into his ear. His heart throbbed mercilessly, and as the rain popped and sizzled along the windshield, he knew he would lose his mind if he stayed in this maelstrom of noise. Beyond the drumming thunder of the rain he heard another sound - a deep, basso booming that was getting louder and louder, more terribly out of control. Rix put his hands to his ears, his eyes burning with tears of pain, but the booming noise was like a hammer striking the top of his head. A chorus of car horns pierced him. The razor-blade siren of an approaching police car slashed at his nerves. He realized the booming noise was his own heartbeat, and he was one breath away from panic's edge.

  With a moan of pain and terror, Rix leaped out of the cab and started running through the rain toward the sidewalk. "Hey!" the Rastafarian shouted, in a voice that gripped the back of Rix's neck like a steel claw. "What about my goddamn fare, mon!"

  Rix ran on, his head pounding, the sound of his runaway heartbeat dogging his steps. Rain on awnings along the sidewalks sounded like artillery explosions. He slipped on the remnants of a Danish and went down against a wire-mesh trash container, tipping it and spilling its contents all over the curb. Black motes spun before his eyes, and suddenly the dim gray light was so harsh he had to squint to see; gray buildings shimmered with light, the wet gray sidewalk glistened like a reflecting mirror. He tried to rise and skidded in trash, blinded by the riotous colors of cars, signs, people's clothing and skin. An orange scrawl of graffiti on the side of a city bus dazzled him senseless, like something from an alien world; a multicolored umbrella opened in the steady drizzle radiated laser beams of pain; the electric-white WALK at the corner seared into his eyes. When some well-meaning pedestrian tried to help Rix to his feet, Rix shrieked and pulled away; the man's hand on his shoulder had seemed to burn right down through the tweed to his flesh.

  The Quiet Room - he had to get to the Quiet Room!

  Bombarded from all sides by light, color, and noise, Rix struggled up and ran like a wild animal; he felt the pulse of human body heat as if the people around him were walking furnaces, and added to his own tumultuous heartbeat were theirs - a universe of heartbeats, functioning at different rhythms and intensities. When he screamed, his voice repeated itself in his he over and over again, like a crazy taped echo-loop. He ran across the street as blinding yellow, red, green, and blue shapes wailed around him, snorting at his heels. Tripping over a curb, he ripped his sleeve and scraped his knee, and as a vague glowing figure with a thundering heartbeat paused over him, he screamed not to be touched.

  The rain fell harder, hitting the pavement around him with the sound of crashing boulders flung from a catapult. Each drop that hit his face, hair, or hands seemed to blister his skin like caustic acid. He had no choice but to keep running, half-blinded, south toward the safety of the De Peyser Hotel.

  Finally, against the white glare of the pulsing sky loomed the Gothic spire of the De Peyser Hotel; its windows streamed and seethed with reflected light, and the tattered red awning above the hotel's Greene Street entrance shouted at Rix's ravaged senses. As he ran across the street, the screech of brakes and the horrendous cacophony of horns brought another scream of anguish from him, but he dared not slow his pace. His hands clasped to his ears, he threw himself into the De Peyser's revolving door and then across the long, moldy-smelling lobby with its garish carpet of red and gold interlocking circles. Heedless of whoever might be watching, Rix punched the button for the single elevator again and again, each contact of flesh and plastic bringing a scorch of pain. He could hear gears turning far above, the thick slapping of cables as the elevator descended. When it came, Rix stepped inside and punched the door shut before anyone else could enter. He depressed the button for the eighth floor, the De Peyser's highest level.

  The elevator ascended with excruciating slowness. As it rose, Rix heard water gushing through pipes, televisions and radios blasting game shows, rock music, and disco; human voices filtered through the old walls like dialogue from nightmares, heard but impossible to understand. Rix crouched on the floor in a corner, his head tucked forward between his knees, his eyes tightly shut.

  The door slid open. Rix ran for his room at the end of the dan
k, dimly lit corridor, fishing frantically for his door key. He burst into the suite, which had a window - now fortunately curtained - overlooking Greene Street. The light that leaked in around the cheap fabric was painfully incandescent. From another pocket Rix produced an antique brass key that had turned a greenish brown over the years; he plunged it into the lock of a white door near the bathroom, twisted it, and pulled open the heavy, rubber-coated door to the windowless Quiet Room.

  With an involuntary cry of relief, Rix started to step across the threshold.

  And a skeletal thing with bleeding eyesockets suddenly swung down into the doorway to block his path. Its bony arms were reaching out for him, and as Rix staggered backward he thought wildly that the Pumpkin Man had finally found him.

  A familiar burst of laughter echoed through the suite. Rix fell to his knees, shaking and covered with sweat, and looked up into the face of his brother, Boone.

  III

  BOONE WAS GRINNING. IN THE SMEARY LIGHT OF RIX'S TORTURED vision, Boone's long white teeth and craggy, rough-hewn face gave him the appearance of a predatory beast.

  "Gotcha, Rixy!" he said in a harsh, booming voice that made Rix shudder. He started to laugh again, but then he realized his younger brother was enduring an attack and the grin froze solid on his face. "Rix? Are . . . are you okay?"

  "Sick," Rix whispered, huddled on the floor at the Quiet Room's threshold. The cheap plastic life-sized skeleton dangled before him, held in place by a hook above the door. "Hit me out there . . . I didn't have time to . . . get to a quiet place . . . "

  "Jesus!" Boone backed away from him a few steps, fearing that his brother was about to vomit. "Wait a minute, hold on!" He opened the door to the bathroom, where he'd been sitting and reading a Rolling Stone when Rix had come crashing into the suite, and drew Rix a plastic glass of tap water. It held a tint of rust that was hidden when Boone poured in some of the Canadian Club he'd bought from the liquor store around the corner. "No ice," he said, as he bent to offer Rix the drink. "Sorry. "

  Rix drank it down. The Scotch and bourbon in his system waged war in his stomach for a moment, and Rix squeezed his eyes shut so tightly that tears oozed out. When he opened his eyes again, the light was dimmer; Boone's expensive-looking dark blue suit didn't glow at him like a sapphire-painted lightbulb anymore, and even the wattage of his brother's teeth had ebbed. The noises of the hotel were quieting, as was the thump of his heartbeat. His head still throbbed savagely, and his eye sockets felt as if they'd been gouged, but he knew he was coming out of it. Another minute or two. Calm down, he told himself. Breath deeply. Take it easy. Breathe deeply again. Christ Almighty that was a bad one! He shook his head slowly from side to side his fine sandy blond hair plastered down with rain and sweat "It's almost over," he told Boone. "Wait a minute. " He sat on his haunches, waiting for the low hum of overworked brain circuits to die down. "I'm better now," he rasped. "Help me up, okay?"

  "You're not gonna puke, are you?"

  "Just help me up, damn you!"

  Boone took Rix's outstretched hand and pulled him to his feet. When he was standing, Rix punched his brother in the face with all the strength he could summon.

  It was no more than a weak slap to the jaw. Boone stepped back, his grin returning with full force as he recognized the look of black rage on Rix's face.

  "You dumb bastard!" Rix seethed. He started to rip the plastic skeleton with the bloody eyeholes - red paint, poorly applied - from its hook and throw it to the floor, but his hand stopped in midair. For some reason, he couldn't bear to touch it. He let his hand fall. "What's the idea of that?"

  "A joke, that's all. Thought you'd enjoy it, seein' as how it's right up your alley. " He shrugged and took the skeleton down, sitting it upright in a chair across the room. "There we go. Looks pretty real, huh?"

  "Why did you hang it inside the Quiet Room? Why not in the bathroom, or a closet? You knew there'd be only one reason I'd open this door!"

  "Oh. " Boone frowned. "You're right, Rixy. I didn't think of that. Seemed to be a good place to hang it, is all. Well, it all turned out fine, didn't it? Shit, yes! That damned thing probably scared the attack right out of you!" He let out a braying laugh and pointed at Rix's crotch. "Ha! There you go, Rixy! Peed your pants, didn't you!"

  Rix went to the chest of drawers for another pair of trousers and a clean shirt.

  Boone sprawled his six-foot-two frame in an overstuffed easy chair and put his feet up on an Art Deco coffee table with blue glass legs. He massaged the side of his jaw where Rix's fist had stung him. He'd rubbed his brother's face in the North Carolina mud for much less an offense. "Smells like a wet dog in this hotel. Don't they ever shampoo the rugs?"

  "How'd you get in here?" Rix asked as he changed clothes. He was still shaking.

  "Everybody jumps around here when you tell 'em your name's Usher," Boone said. He crossed his ankles. He was wearing beige lizardskin cowboy boots that clashed with his conservative suit. "Know what I've heard about this place? That some of the bellboys have seen a man dressed in black, wearing a black top hat and a white beard, and carrying a cane. Sounds like old Hudson himself, don't it? Poor bastard's probably doomed to spend eternity walking the corridors of the De Peyser. They say his presence makes the air freezin' cold. Hell of a place to spend your afterlife, huh, Rixy?"

  "I've asked you not to call me that. "

  "Oh. Beggin' your pardon. Shall I call you Jonathan Strange? Or what's your name this week, Mr. Famous Author?"

  Rix ignored the barb. "How'd you get into the Quiet Room?"

  "Asked for the key. They've got a whole boxful in a safe downstairs. Old green things that look like they open mausoleums. Some of 'em have got black fingerprints on the metal. I wonder how many Ushers used 'em? Me, I wouldn't spend one damned night in this old crypt. Jesus, why don't we get some light in here!"

  Boone stood up and walked across the room to the window; he pulled aside the curtain, allowing in dim gray light through the rain-specked glass. He stood for a moment looking down at the traffic. His broad, handsome face was almost free of lines, though he was only three months shy of his thirty-seventh birthday; he might easily have passed for twenty-five. His full, wavy hair was a darker shade of brown than his brother's, and his clear, deepset eyes were amber with dark green flecks. He was husky and broad-shouldered, and he looked in the prime of health. "Sorry about your attack," he told Rix. "I wouldn't have pulled such a stupid trick if I'd been thinkin' right. I saw the thing hangin' in a magic shop's window on the way over here, and I thought. . . I don't know, I thought you might get a kick out of it. Do you know I haven't had an attack for over six months? And the last one wasn't too bad - it was over in about three or four minutes. Maybe I've forgotten how bad they can be. " He turned away from the window to look at his brother - and froze.

  It was almost a year since he'd last seen Rix, and he was stunned at the way his brother had changed. In the light, all the fine wrinkles and lines on Rix's face resembled cracks in porcelain. Rix's pewter-colored eyes were red-rimmed and weary, his high forehead deeply furrowed. Though Rix was four years younger than Boone, he appeared to be at least forty-five. He looked emaciated and sickly, and Boone saw that gray was spreading at his temples. "Rix," he whispered. "God Almighty! What's happened to you?"

  "I've been sick," Rix replied, but he knew that wasn't all of it. In truth, he didn't exactly know what was happening to him - other than that his attacks were vicious and unpredictable, his sleep was continually jarred by nightmares, and he felt seventy years old. "I guess I've been working too hard. " He eased himself down into a chair - carefully, because his bones were still throbbing.

  "Listen. You need to start eatin' steaks to build up your blood. " Boone puffed out his chest. "I eat a steak a day, and look at me! Healthy as a stud hoss. "

  "Great," Rix said. "How'd you know I was here?"

  "You called Katt and told her you were flying up from Atlanta to meet with
your agent today, didn't you? Where else would you stay but this old dump when you're visiting New York?"

  Rix nodded. The De Peyser Hotel had been purchased in 1847 by Hudson Usher, when it was a magnificent Gothic showplace towering over the rough harbor city. As Rix understood it, Hudson Usher's gunpowder company, based near Asheville, North Carolina, shipped tremendous quantities of powder and lead bullets to Europe through New York City; Hudson had wanted to keep an eye on the middlemen, and had outfitted this suite with a rubber-walled Quiet Room, in case he was stricken with an attack. The Quiet Room had remained virtually unchanged, used by generations of Ushers, as the suite gradually became more tawdry. Rix surmised that his father, Walen, was only holding on to the De Peyser until he got a good offer from a co-op builder. The family rarely left Usherland, their rambling estate twenty miles north of Asheville.

  "You shouldn't work so hard. When's your next book coming out?" Boone poured himself another drink of Scotch and sat down again. When he lifted the glass to his mouth, light sparkled off the large diamond pinky ring he wore. "It's been a long time since Fire Fingers, hasn't it?"

  "I've just finished a new book. "

  "Oh yeah? When's it comin' out?"

  "Maybe next summer. " He was amazed that the lie came so easily.

  Boone propped his feet up again. "You ought to write a real book, Rix. You know, something that could really happen. That horror shit is junk. Why don't you write a book you'd be proud to sign your real name to?"

  "Let's don't get into that again, okay?" Every time he got near Boone, he wound up defending his choice of subject matter.

  Boone shrugged. "Suits me. Just seems to me there must be somethin' a little wrong with people who write shit like that. "

  "I know you didn't come here to discuss my literary career," Rix said. "What's going on?"

  Boone paused to take a swallow of his drink. Then he said quietly, "Momma wants you to come home. Daddy's taken a turn for the worse. "

  "Why the hell won't he go to a hospital?"

  "You know what Daddy's always said. "An Usher can't live past the gates of Usherland. " And lookin' at you, brother Rix, makes me think he's been right about that. There must be somethin' in that North Carolina air, because you've broken down pretty badly ever since you left it. "

  "I don't like the estate. I don't like the Lodge. My home is in Atlanta. Besides, I've got work to do. "

  "Oh? I thought you said you'd just finished another book. Hell, if it's anything like those other three, no amount of work can save it!"

  Rix smiled grimly. "Thank you for the encouragement. "

  "Daddy's dying," Boone said, a quick flicker of anger like lightning behind his eyes. "I've tried to do all I could for him. I've tried to be what he wanted, all these years. But now he's askin' to see you. I don't know why, especially since you turned your back on the family. But I think he's holdin' on because he wants you at his side when he dies. "

  "Then if I don't come," Rix told him flatly, "maybe he won't die. Maybe he'll get up out of that bed and start making deals for laser guns and germ-warfare bombs again, huh?"

  "Oh Christ!" Boone rose angrily from his seat. "Don't play that worn-out, holier-than-thou routine with me, Rix! The business brought you up on the finest estate in this country, fed you and clothed you and sent you to the best business school in America! Not that it did a damned bit of good! And who says you have to go to the Lodge if you come home? You always were scared shitless of the Lodge, weren't you? When you got yourself lost in there and Edwin had to bring you out, your face looked like green cheese for about a - " He stopped speaking abruptly, because Rix looked for a second as if he might leap across the table at his brother.

  "That's not how I remember it," Rix said, his voice strained with tension.

  They stared at each other for a few seconds. The image came to Rix of his brother tackling him from behind when they were children, planting a knee in the small of his back so the breath was squeezed out of him and his face was pressed into Usherland dirt. Get up, Rixy, Boone had taunted. Get up, why can't you get up, Rixy?

  "Well. " Boone reached inside his coat and brought out a first-class Delta ticket to Asheville. He dropped it onto the table. "I've seen you and said what I was supposed to. That's from Momma. She thought just maybe you'd have enough heart to come see Daddy on his deathbed. If you don't, I guess that's your little red wagon. " He walked to the door, then stopped and turned back. The hot light had returned to his eyes, and there was a curl to his mouth. "Yeah, you run on back to Atlanta, Rixy," he said. "Go on back to that fantasy world of yours. Shit, you're even startin' to look like somethin' out of the grave. I'll tell Momma not to expect you. " He left the room and closed the door behind him. His lizardskin boots clumped away along the corridor.

  Rix sat staring at the plastic skeleton across the room. It grinned at him like an old friend, the familiar symbol of death from a thousand horror movies Rix had seen. The skeleton in a closet. Bones buried under the floor. A skull in a hatbox. A skeletal hand reaching out from beneath a bed. Uneasy bones, digging free from the grave.

  My father's dying, he thought. No, no; Walen Usher was too stubborn to give in to death. He and death were friends of long standing. They had a gentlemen's agreement. "The business" kept death's stomach swollen - why should it bite its feeder's hand?

  Rix picked up the airline ticket. It was for a flight leaving around one the next afternoon. Walen dying? He'd known his father's condition had been deteriorating for the past six months, but dying? He felt numbed, stranded between a shout and a sob. He'd never gotten along with his father; they'd been strangers to each other for years. Walen Usher was the kind of man who insisted that his children make appointments to see him. He had kept his sons and daughter on short leashes - until Rix gnawed himself loose, earning his father's undying hatred.

  He wasn't even sure if he loved his father, wasn't sure if he even knew what love felt like anymore.

  Rix knew that Boone had always been a great practical joker. "Dad's not dying," he told the skeleton. "It's just a story to get me back there. " The plastic bones offered a grin, but no advice. As he stared at the thing, he saw the cab driver's skeleton earring swinging back and forth in his mind. His skin crawled, and he had to call maid service to get the thing out because he couldn't force himself to touch it.

  He made a second call, to Usherland's Gatehouse in North Carolina.

  Four hundred miles away, a maid answered, "Usher residence. "

  "Edwin Bodane. Tell him it's Rix. "

  "Yes sir. Just a minute, please. "

  Rix waited. He was feeling better now. He'd been overdue for an attack; the last one had hit him in the middle of the night a week ago, when he was listening to a record from his collection of jazz albums in his Atlanta apartment. After it was over and he could move again, he'd broken the record to fragments, thinking that the music might have helped trigger it. He'd read somewhere that certain chord progressions, tones, and vibrations could cause a physical response.

  The attacks, he knew, were symptoms of a condition called - in several medical journals - Usher's Malady. There was no cure. If his father was dying, it was the advanced stage of Usher's Malady that was killing him.

  "Master Rix!" the warm, refined, slightly sandpapery voice said from North Carolina. "Where are you?"

  "In New York. At the De Peyser. " Hearing Edwin's voice had released a bounty of good memories for Rix. He visualized the man standing tall in his Usher uniform of gray blazer and dark blue slacks with creases so sharp you could slice your hand on them. He'd always felt closer to Edwin and Cass Bodane than to his own parents.

  "Do you want to speak to your - "

  "No. I don't want to talk to anybody else. Edwin, Boone was here a little while ago. He told me Dad's condition is worse. Is that true?"

  "Your father's health is deteriorating rapidly," Edwin said. "I'm sure Boone told you how much your mother
wants you to come home. "

  "I don't want to come. You know why. "

  There was a pause. Then, "Mr. Usher asks for you every day. " He lowered his voice. "I wish you'd come home, Rix. He needs you. "

  Rix couldn't suppress a strangled, nervous laugh. "He's never needed me before now!"

  "No. You're wrong. Your father's always needed you, and now more than ever. "

  Rix paused, torn by emotional crosscurrents. He'd fought for a life of his own, apart from the Usher clan. Why should he expose himself to the mental games that would now be in motion within Usherland's gates?

  "He needs you, Rix," Edwin said softly. "Don't turn your back on your family. "

  The truth sank in before he could block it out: Walen Usher, patriarch of the powerful Usher clan and perhaps the wealthiest man in America, was on his deathbed. Even though his feelings about the man were tied into tormented knots, Rix knew he should attend his father's passing. He asked Edwin to meet him at the airport when his flight arrived, then hung up before he could change his mind. He would stay at Usherland for a few days, he told himself. No longer. Then he had to get back to Atlanta, to get his own life in order, somehow come up with another idea and get to work on it before his entire writing career collapsed under the weight of lethargy.

  A Hispanic maintenance man with bags under his eyes came up to the room. He was expecting another dead rat, and was relieved when Rix told him to take the plastic skeleton away.

  Rix lay down and tried to sleep. His mind was disturbed by images of Usherland: the dark forests of his childhood, where nightmarish creatures were said to stalk through the undergrowth; the looming mountains black against an orange-streaked sky, clouds snagged like gray pennants on their rocky peaks; and the Lodge - it always came back to the Lodge - immense and dark and silent, holding its secrets like a closed fist.

  A skeleton with bleeding eye sockets swung slowly through his mind's eye, and he sat up in the leaden light.

  A recurring idea had snapped on in his brain again. It was the same idea that had sent him to Wales, the same idea that had made him enter genealogy rooms in libraries from New York to Atlanta, in search of the Usher name in half-forgotten record books. Sometimes he thought he could do it, if he really wanted to; at other times he realized it would be a hell of a lot of work, probably for nothing.

  Maybe now is the time, he told himself. Yes. He certainly needed a project, and he was going back to Usherland anyway. A smile flickered across his mouth; he could hear Walen's shout of outrage over four hundred miles.

  Rix went into the bathroom for a glass of water, then picked up the copy of Rolling Stone that Boone had folded and left on the tiles. When he took it back to bed to read, the fist-sized tarantula that Boone had carefully wrapped up within it dropped onto his chest, scuttling wildly across his shoulder.

  Rix leaped out of bed, trying to get the thing off him. The attack that crashed over him like a black tidal wave drove him into the protection of the Quiet Room. With the door closed, no one could hear him scream.

  Boone had always been a great practical joker.

 
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