By S. J. Hinton
I've seen too many men die in my life. Some deserved it - at least I'm
sure some of them did - but others didn't. That's what hurts, is that
some of them don't.
We take them to trial, when we catch them, and make them sit through
all the accusations and burden of proof and the stares of the jury.
Then we make them wait while those peers go away to deliberate and
decide what terrible thing they'll do to the accused to make him suffer
and pay for what he did.
And when that's all said and done, we'll strap him to a chair and
electrocute him, or inject him with poisons while witnesses watch. It's
not the coliseum in Rome, but it provides some morbid entertainment for
a few discerning people.
There's a problem with that, I think. You see, we can torture the
people accused of those horrifying crimes. We can roast them, or put
bullets in them or pump enough chemicals in them to drop an elephant in
its tracks. But what we can't do is destroy the evil inside them that
really did the hateful thing. I've seen it often enough: Once the deed
was done what you had on your hands was just a man. Probably not the
kind of man who'd ever do the thing he was arrested and found guilty of
doing, either. They'd always be real sorry for what was done, and maybe
even cry a lot over it.
But you'd never kill the thing really responsible. It'd just drop off
like some shed piece of clothing and jump right onto the next man that
came along. Next thing you knew, that completely normal man had drowned
his wife in her tub or thrown a pot of boiling water on his dog.
It's like the man wasn't responsible. Some other alien thing was, and
when it had had enough it vanished. When you looked into the man's eyes
later, that killer thing was gone. Like it never existed.
And it was never brought to justice for what it did...
No, I'd never really seen a man die. The worse I'd been witness to,
aside from on television, was when the young woman outside my store
stepped in front of a moving car. She was just strolling along, minding
her own business (which wasn't looking where she was going,
apparently), when the car ran into her. The car wasn't moving very
fast, by the way, but it was amazing all the same. She didn't get run
over, but the car bumped into her legs and she sort of fell into the
hood of the car. She rolled up until she touched the windshield, by
which time the driver had noticed her and stopped, and then rolled
right back down, onto her feet.
She was shaken, but not really harmed. The paramedics said she'd have
a bruise on her leg about where her knee was from the bumper, but that
was all. Not quite on a par with actually seeing a man die.
So, I suppose you could say that what I wrote at the beginning of this
is so much bullshit. Except that, since the time I saw the young woman
make the acquaintance of that car, I have seen a man die. More than
one, as a matter of fact.
And it's never a pretty sight.
I might as well say this now and get it all over with. If you're going
to read this and judge that I'm about a paddle short of a rowboat, then
that's what you're going to do. Regardless of what I might say
afterward, that's what you're going to think. So here it is.
I've seen a whole lot more than a man die. A lot more than an army of
I've caught a glimpse - just the barest, most tiny thing - of what the
world really looks like. And it can be scarier than hell.
They say that the best place to begin is the beginning, and I suppose
that must be true. Every story I've ever read and enjoyed began there.
But before I do that, I need to get some things off my chest.
I'm not a storyteller. Oh, I can spin a few lies, once I get a couple
of beers in me, which I don't do very often. But the Tall Tale has
always been an art form in which I am sorely lacking, and I can't tell
any joke with more than five lines in it to save my life. In spite of
those facts, I have to write all this down, if for no other reason than
to purge it from my system. I wouldn't ever dare show it to another
living soul or somebody would have me committed.
What I am is a Retail Manager. Let that title sort of roll off your
tongue. It takes a little practice, but you really can convince
yourself eventually that the name means something. In small towns it
actually can be fairly impressive.
I'm the general manager of a Quicky's Express Superstore in Sigil,
Texas, which isn't a very small town. Brooke Quicky is the CEO and
daughter of John Quicky, the founder of Quicky's Books, Video and
Quicky's has several different store layouts, from the Mall music
stores right up to the Superstore formats. The express part is a play
on words: They like to push customer service and fast checkouts down
the throats of every customer.
I hate the company. They call customers guests, which I despise, and
insist on an operating labor percentage of under ten percent, which is
Since I take my job seriously, I take offense at those things, which
disrupt a smooth operation. I know it doesn't sound very glamorous, and
not nearly as exciting as protecting democracy from the evil communist
forces. I retired from the military and served on nuclear submarines
before becoming a retail manager, so I know.
Okay, so the beginning was when the police showed up at Quicky's
looking for me, and that pretty much was how I eventually lost my
Well, not exactly. You see, I've been a manager for a few years now,
and I'm aware that there's always a bit of a turnover whenever a new
manager takes over.
Everyone has a different way of doing things, and not all employees
like that change.
Keep in mind, especially if you're an employee, that the manager is
just that and it doesn't really matter whether the employees like the
changes in style or not. The question should always be whether the
store makes its goals and budget. Minimum wage slave labor is plentiful
in nearly every market.
From experience, I know I'm a good manager and a great boss, and
nearly everyone who's worked under me has come to respect and like me.
But after I'd been promoted and given the Sigil superstore, I found a
very experienced staff who just didn't like change. Their previous
manager had been successful because she allowed the department managers
to run the store and essentially worked for them. That isn't my style.
As a consequence, they didn't like me very much as a manager, and took
every opportunity to mark anything they didn't like. If it could be
made to look questionable, they'd shoot it off to my District Manager.
My DM would try to keep the peace among trusted long-term employees
(them) by chastising the new Manager (me).
So that was the situation when the police came to find me. It just
blew up all out of proportion after that.
I'd gone home because my wife had been sick. Frankly, I was tired of
fifty-hour weeks at the store and I used her illness as an excuse to
take a few hours off. I intended to use it to pick up the kids from
school, too, but that's not the point.
So I wasn't there at four o'clock when my DM, Marion, showed up at the
store. That might have been bad enough, although the store was doing
well and there was no reason I shouldn't take off for personal reasons.
But then the police showed up.
I always understood that police matters are supposed to be
confidential, and are only discussed with the people directly involved.
Later, I found out that Officer Connely told Marion the reason for his
Just a couple of months before, I got stopped for an expired
registration and ticketed. It was no big thing, really. Just plain
stupidity. I'd not been driving that car for a while because of a lot
of little repairs. Then I'd gotten the offer to go to Sigil, and I
couldn't leave my family with no car. I planned to call up local
insurance companies and get the car registered in Sigil once I'd gotten
there, but I got stopped within ten minutes inside of the city
The policeman was very polite and understanding, but he wouldn't budge
on any single point of the ticket. Since I would be in Sigil this trip
only two days, I forgot about it until my next time in town.
Three trips later and two months after I'd gotten the damn thing, an
officer showed up at my door to ask me to come with him to the circuit
"I won't cuff you until we've driven around the corner, so the
neighbors won't see," he said. "But I've got to take you to the
It upset my wife more than me. Actually, it was sort of interesting
and not at all a very bad experience. No reading of rights or actual
arrest. No mug shots. I was taken into an office, asked some questions
to prove I was who I was supposed to be, then told I could pay the
lesser of the fines and walk or plead not guilty and spend some time in
a cell to see a judge.
The money sounded like a better idea, especially since I had
definitely done what he said I did. So I paid and was allowed to
That was the basic part. That was the part I told Alice, and later
told people at work. It wasn't that simple, though.
Because Alice needed to pick up the kids with the car whose only set
of keys were in my pocket, she called a neighbor to pick them up for
us. That left me walking the five miles back to our house. That was the
part I left off from the story I told people at work.
I didn't tell Alice about the man I saw die. That was the other part I
After I paid and was told I could go, the officer told me I could go
out through the front of the building or out through the back entrance,
where we'd entered. I decided on the front, and walked in the direction
they'd pointed me. Since no one was actually paying much attention to
me at this time, I made it through one set of doors before I realized I
must be headed in the wrong direction.
I may not be too bright, but I learn pretty fast. I found myself in a
long hallway lined with doors and a couple of windows like you see in
doctor's offices and check cashing places - sort of fortified customer
service windows. There were occasional benches along the walls, and
occasional people sitting in them. Most of the people didn't look very
happy. People in a hallway leading out of a courthouse should look
happier, so I decided I must have gone the wrong way somehow.
About the time I decided this, an elevator next to me in the right
hand wall popped open, and three men walked out.
The first man looked even unhappier than the people in the hall did.
He was about my height, heavier in build, with a crew cut and hair so
blonde it looked white. His eyes pierced me as he stepped free of the
elevator car, and I shuddered. Nothing recognizably human looked at
another person that way. My dog used to look at pork chops that way,
but people don't look at other people with that expression in their
The other two men were police officers. They were both beefy men, and
they had a hard readiness to their whole carriage that said they knew
just exactly how their prisoner looked at other people. The fact that
the first man wore handcuffs proved it.
I breathed a sigh of relief as they ushered their charge right past me
and walked up to one of the windows. Now I really wanted to find my way
out of here, and I didn't think now was the time to ask the nice
prisoner escorts. I decided to go back the way I came.
That was when it happened...
I've heard it said that people in general aren't prepared for
violence. Violence just happens so quickly and leaves things so tossed
up that most people aren't equipped to deal with it. You have to become
acclimated to it, with practice, and then you can do what you have to
when it happens. Ordinary people freeze up and just don't function, and
that's why people die.
Of course, most of the people who've said that I know about were
writers, and writers of fiction, as a rule, frequently haven't
experienced everything they write about. I've always taken most of what
I've read with a grain of salt, and it just happened that the thing
about violence freezing most people in their tracks stood out.
My back was turned, but I heard the evil-looking prisoner explode into
motion. I don't know what he did, but by the time I turned enough to
see him the broken chains of the handcuffs were dangling from each
wrist, blood seeping from beneath the cuff on his left hand, and a
policeman was flat on his back on the floor. The policeman's eyes were
rolled up so all I could see were the whites. His face was purplish,
and there was blood all over his mouth. For all I knew, he might be
His partner was very much alive, and clawed for his gun. From the look
on their faces earlier, I would've thought they'd be better prepared
for something like this from the prisoner. I guess not. He got his gun
about halfway up out of his holster when he looked up. He should've
been looking at the other man the entire time, but no points for
The prisoner had a gun. He's gotten it from the other policeman when
he jumped him. Now he was holding it one-handed and pointing it at the
second cop. He grinned, and his lips moved. I think he said:
The report of the weapon was terribly loud in the hall. I blinked, and
the second policeman was sliding down the wall, leaving a wet smear as
he went. In movies, a person hit by a bullet will just grab the bullet
hole and wince. In real life, even something like a .38 caliber bullet
will spin you around like you were hit with a baseball bat. There's
also a lot more blood in the human body than you might think, and an
awful lot of that flows out when the body experiences a trauma like a
gunshot. I didn't know any of that before, but I do now. There was just
a whole lot of blood suddenly everywhere.
That was when I realized the former prisoner was looking at me. He was
That was also when I experienced that shock the writers were talking
about. I should have been doing something - anything - while all this
was going on, but I hadn't. I'd just stood there, gawking. Now I was
going to die.
He looked at me with those expressionless eyes - no, not
expressionless. They held a kind of sick hunger. He smiled, then raised
And there were explosions, screams, and yells. The hallway burst at
the seams, and people were everywhere.
I blinked back tears, both of fear and the irritation of smoke and
cordite. There were police everywhere, like ants climbing up a
chocolate cake, and people in white. I leaned back against the wall and
felt it move as I slid down to the floor, my legs refusing to work
anymore. The prisoner lay facedown, which was good because I didn't
want to see what was left of his face. There was an awful lot of
stickiness and blood pooling around it, and his head didn't seem to
look the right shape anymore. There was blood spray and what looked
like tissue splattered over the wall behind where he'd been
It was about then that I threw up.
Mostly, people left me alone after they were sure I wasn't hurt. I
didn't think they'd do that: leave witnesses to a murder sitting right
in the middle of the uproar at the scene. But I suppose it had
something to do with the person in white who said I was in shock and
that they should immediately secure the crime scene. I guess shock
means you'll stay put and behave yourself.
After several minutes, things started to calm down. After the
excitement of just what had happened settled, after the policemen had
been removed from the scene, things started to happen in a very
controlled sort of way.
The man in white came back and spoke to me. I don't remember exactly
what he said, but he told me they'd take me someplace quiet soon. I
nodded, staring at the white sheet they'd draped over the prisoner's
body. I didn't see any other sheets, and found out later both the cops
That was when the weirdest thing happened. I didn't really think it
was happening at the time, and filed it under shock. It was a lot
easier to accept that way.
The sopping white sheet covering the prisoner moved.
I knew he was dead. Aside from what the men in white had done, I'd
gotten a fair glance at his head. He wasn't going anywhere. But the
sheet had moved, I swear.
Not much. Not the body trying to sit up, but more like something was
crawling out from under the sheet. Whatever it was moved carefully, and
I'm sure the people all around would've done something had they
It climbed out from under the sheets and seemed to take stock of what
was going on.
It was about the size of my fist, and looked sleek and black. Oily
looking jet-black skin, a body like a coiled snake, and beady little
eyes. My mind didn't really register an opinion at the time, but my
heart thudded in my chest.
It looked at me, and I'd seen that look before: in the eyes of the
prisoner when he decided to kill me in the hall. This thing was sizing
me up and deciding whether I should be classified as appetizer or
I tried to scream, or at least the thought flickered in my mind. My
body wasn't being cooperative. All I could do was watch that thing as
it watched me.
Then, with a playful looking flip, it skittered away from the body and
off to my right. It was out of sight, and I didn't have the ability to
even turn my head to see where it'd gone.
That little flip it did: kind of a show-off thing, like making mock
clawing motions at a child and saying "booga-booga." It wanted to
startle me. It wanted me to know it saw me looking at it. It wanted me
to be afraid, and to know it wasn't afraid of me.
Damn. It worked.
Not long after that, the guys in white came back to get me. They
checked me out again; brought me to a waiting room to get an idea of
what I saw, then sent me along to a hospital. I wasn't there very
I played along with the doctors when they suggested that shock made
anything I said about what I'd seen suspect. I thought that might speed
things along nicely and let me get out of there faster, and I was
Eventually, a detective gave me an embossed business card and asked
that I call him after I felt a little better. Then he offered me a ride
I didn't say a thing about the little black creature I saw sneaking
out from under the sheet.
Alice was fuming when I got home. She wouldn't even look up.
"I covered your ass a little while ago," she said. "Marion called and
said you'd left work because I was sick. I played along."
"Marion's at the store?" I didn't feel like dealing with this.
"Not anymore. She stopped by on her way back to Denton, and you
weren't there. Your book department manager told her you had to take me
to the emergency room."
I sighed. "That's not what I said. I told Marsha that you'd been sick
and I might have to take you to a doctor. Marsha suggested it might be
quicker to go to the emergency room."
Alice nodded. "Doesn't matter. It's what they told Marion. I told her
I'd called and the doctor wouldn't be able to see me today, and I was
feeling better anyway." She paused. "I don't think she believed it. I
think she knew you'd been arrested."
"Great!" I mumbled.
"Better still. She wanted you to call her when you got back."
I thought about that one. I didn't want to have to deal with it right
now, after what I'd been through. Then again, things would be a lot
worse if I didn't call Marion back. I could say that Alice forgot to
tell me. Nah.
"Okay. I'll call her." I fumbled through my planner looking for her
number. I'd forgotten to write down her cell phone number, so I'd have
to leave a message on her home phone. She would've had to really speed
to make it back to Denton this fast.
I was wrong. When I started speaking to the answering machine, Marion
picked up the phone. " Hi, Ben." She sounded almost cheerful.
"Hi," I replied. "I got your message."
Silence for a heartbeat. "How's Alice?"
"She'll be fine," I said. I decided on the truth. "Marsha got what she
told you wrong. Alice didn't feel well, so I decided to check on her
this afternoon. If she wasn't feeling better I said I was going to take
her to the doctor."
"That's okay," she said. It didn't sound okay. "What was up with the
That didn't deserve an answer. Frankly, I didn't think it was any of
her business, and I wanted to tell her so. From what Alice had said,
Marion might not have really known about the arrest, so I decided on a
half-truth, instead. "An officer stopped by my house to ask some
questions about a shoplifter we had last week."
"There was a policeman at your store today."
"Maybe the same one," I said.
"I've never heard of the police paying a visit to ask about
shoplifters," she said thoughtfully. "You're sure that's it? Do you
have a name?"
"The name of the thief?" I thought fast and gave her a name. The guy
had been seen stealing at the store about a week before, and had been
issued a written warning of our intent to prosecute. The police had
been called, but showed up much too late to help.
There was silence for a while, presumably while Marion wrote it down.
"Ben, I spoke to the police officer at the store, and he told me why he
was there. He had a warrant for your arrest."
That was it. I didn't think the police could volunteer that sort of
information. It occurred to me later that perhaps he didn't share any
such thing, and that everything Marion said was based on what she got
from Marsha and Alice - supposition and assumption. That part didn't
occur to me right then. Too bad.
"I don't know about that," I explained lamely.
A sigh. "Are you sure? Is there anything you'd like to tell me?"
"No." On that much I was sure.
"Okay," she said. "I wish you'd reconsider, but okay. That's all there
was. Anything else going on I should know about?"
She was still trying to give me a chance to come clean, but I was
still positive it was none of her concern. "Nope."
And that was that. Later, I'd regret the conversation. But for the
time being, I was just glad to get off the phone. I hung up and went to
get a coke from the fridge.
"Everything all right?" asked Alice. She didn't sound much like she
really cared. She'd get over it.
"Okay, I guess. Is it wrong to think that what went on with the police
was my personal business and none of hers?" I didn't expect an
"I don't think the police would say anything about it to her," replied
"Apparently, they did," I said. "At least Marion says so."
Alice looked me right in the eyes. "Marion will say anything to make
you do what she wants. I wouldn't trust her as far as I could throw
I wasn't entirely convinced, but Alice had a point. "You're probably
We usually didn't get a newspaper, trusting television and the
Internet to provide for us. I went out for milk that evening and bought
a local paper. As soon as I got home, I went through it
I found it on page two. Local police officers wounded in escape
attempt, it read.
Nothing about me, which was good. I was just one of several witnesses
on the scene. The first officer had lost some teeth and had a
concussion, but was already home watching TV. The second officer had a
punctured lung and was in surgery, but was expected to survive.
Not surprisingly, the bad guy was pronounced dead on the scene, a
single gunshot wound to the head.
But the article caught my eye mostly because of the story about the
prisoner, Daryl Arnosh. According to the story, he had never been
involved in anything worse than speeding until three weeks ago.
That, according to the report, was when his family had noticed he'd
been acting strangely. They surmised that he'd been affected
psychologically by seeing one of his friends killed during a fight in a
Apparently, Daryl's worse habit had been going out for some cold ones
after work with his buddies. There had been a fight, the friend had
been stabbed, and the bad guy had somehow been killed, too. There had
been no marks on the body or obvious cause of death, except some
indication that he might have been hit in the face.
After the death, Daryl had taken to drinking a little too much and
raising some hell almost every night. It was mostly harmless, although
noisy, and most of his neighbors chalked it up to blowing off some
steam. Just a way to express his grief.
Then he'd attacked another friend one night for suggesting that Daryl
might have had enough to drink. Later the same night, Daryl was stopped
for speeding down the highway without headlights. The friend with the
black eye didn't press charges, and the police dropped the
Then he'd hit his wife. No real reason for it. It was the first time,
but it was also the last. Nancy Arnosh didn't take being hit very well,
and she left. That also landed Daryl in jail overnight. That had been a
When he got out, he went straight to his house and closed the door. He
wouldn't come to work, or talk to his friends or family. When he came
out, he drove directly to a One Stop three miles away and shot the
woman behind the counter in the face. Then he shot her twice more just
to be sure. He didn't try to run, and he made no excuses. The police
had him cold, probably insane and homicidal.
He lasted six hours in custody. Then he broke his handcuffs, assaulted
his escort and shot one of them, then tried to shoot his way out of the
That was mostly how I remember it, too. But something was wrong.
His eyes. That was what bothered me the most. When he looked at me, it
wasn't escape he wanted. He wanted mayhem, blood and death. It wasn't
that he wanted to be killed, it was that he just didn't care.
And that scared the hell out of me. A lot more than Marion and the
threat of not being on her good side, knowing that I'd probably
I called the police, even if I didn't really know what I wanted them
to do. I wasn't prepared to answer questions about what I'd seen after
Daryl had died, and I wasn't sure whom I needed to talk to. They
shuffled me around a lot, and I got frustrated and hung up.
I looked up Arnosh in the phone book and found Daryl and Nancy right
where they should have been. Their phone rang fifteen times without an
answer, so I gave up.
I sat in front of the television and watched without a bit of it
sinking in. Alice was on the other couch, eating a chocolate. She was
still mad, so there wasn't much conversation. I dozed off.
Alice shook me awake. "You're snoring," she said.
Alice doesn't like it when I snore. She says I do it all the time, and
that it keeps her awake. I don't know if I do it all the time or not,
but when I do she elbows me or wakes me in some way.
For the record, she snores, too. I can't help it sometimes but think
that she wakes herself then blames me.
"What time is it?" I asked, rubbing my eyes.
"Jeez..." I sat up. "I've got to get some sleep. You coming to
Alice shook her head. "I already tried, but I'm not sleepy. Besides,
that movie I wanted to see is coming on in ten minutes."
I gave her a perfunctory peck on the cheek and trudged into the
bedroom. I didn't bother taking a shower or even washing my face, but
undressed and set the alarm for six-thirty. Then I climbed into
I was just dozing when I heard it. Little sounds like low music or a
television in another room, bother me when I'm trying to sleep. That's
why Alice can't watch television in the bedroom late at night. Water
dripping will drive me apeshit.
This was a little noise. It was as small at the tapping of water drops
from a leaky faucet, and just as annoying. It was a tiny regular
tapping, a lot like but not precisely the same as a clock
I lay there for the longest time trying to decide where it came from.
After discarding nearly every obvious answer, I finally decided it must
be coming from outside. It was regular when it sounded, but not
constant. Maybe a branch or something was brushing the glass.
I stood up and walked around the room, finally choosing the patio
doors as the most likely source. The vertical blinds were pulled, so I
opened them and looked.
I turned on the light, but the bulb didn't respond. It blew out about
once a month, and more often in inclement weather. I looked out again,
and saw nothing.
Then the tapping came.
I looked down. That was where it came from.
Something black and oily-looking did a little backwards flip then
skittered away to my left.
I stood there for about three heartbeats, staring at where it had
Then I screamed like my clothes were on fire, scrambling backwards
toward the bed.
I'm not proud of it, but instinct took over. Instinct told me if the
thing I was afraid of was at floor level, then I should climb on
Waterbeds, by nature, aren't the best thing for climbing on. I
succeeded in bumping my head on the hanging light - twice - then I fell
off the bed and stumbled into a wall.
Alice came in just as I struggled to catch my balance. She took a
single look at me and the angry things she started to say died in her
throat. She ran to my side.
"What happened?" she asked, genuinely concerned.
Now, how could I answer that? By the way, Honey, while I was arrested
I saw a man killed, and then a little black thing came out from under
the sheet where they put his body and ran away. Now it's followed me
home and is hiding outside in the bushes.
Right. That'd get me pretty far tonight.
"Ben?" she asked. She deserved an answer.
I took a deep breath. "I heard something outside," I said. "I was half
asleep, and I looked out. I don't know what it was, but it just popped
up in the dark and ran off."
A pause. "And you screamed?"
I smiled a sickly little smile. "Like a little girl," I replied. "It
scared the bejesus out of me, Alice."
She shook her head, looking toward the patio. "Did you make it
"No. It was dark and fast." I swallowed a little too hard. "I don't
think it can make it inside."
She shook her head again. Poor, suffering Alice. "Don't scream like
that. I thought you were being torn apart or something."
In a few minutes she left. I quickly closed the blinds and snuggled
deeply into the blankets. They say monsters can't touch blankets.
Morning came a lot quicker than I was prepared for. The alarm sounded
too insistent, the sunshine was a little too bright and the air was hot
and thick. Blankets don't work to well when it's unseasonably warm
I got up and got moving, but somehow misplaced about twenty minutes of
time. I got to work just a little late, but enough.
"Marion called, but you weren't in yet."
She'd called at eight-ten. I arrived about two minutes after. Not real
late, but what did that matter? I called her in Denton once I got
"You having your department manager meeting today?" Marion
"In about thirty minutes," I answered. She knew we held it every
"Running a little late today?"
I sighed silently. "I couldn't sleep last night," I said.
"I'm concerned you aren't spending as much time in the store as you
should," she replied. "It's important that you're there when your
people know you should be. Are you keeping to a schedule?"
"I'm working about fifty hours a week," I said.
"That's not what your people think," she replied. "I'm getting
complaints that you're never there. I wouldn't believe that, but I've
heard that other managers have a hard time getting in touch with
And the only reason they'd call the newest manager on the block would
be if the District Manager told them to, I thought. "If they're
calling, I'm not getting the messages. Or being told when I'm
"I'm not accusing you," said Marion carefully. "But hearing things
like this about you is disturbing."
I blinked. "I'd really like to know who's been telling you
She sighed audibly. "I can't. I've been told you said that someone was
'tattling' on you to me, and that you'd get back at them for it."
"You know that isn't true."
"I thought it wasn't. Things can change." She paused. "I want you to
know that no one will feel any repercussions from you about anything
told to me. That's the bottom line."
Anger welled up. "That's a line you're drawing," I said. "You're
saying that you'll always accept something said by one of my employees
over something I've said. Hearing it out is one thing; accepting it on
faith is something else."
"You know I wouldn't feel this way if you'd been honest about the
"That's a matter which is really none of your business, if what you
think happened is true. Otherwise, you're assuming I'm lying about it."
My anger was on the verge of making me say something irreversible.
"I'll stick by what I've said. And I've worked the hours my timeclock
report. And I've never threatened an employee."
There was an uncomfortable silence, then: "Well, that's all I've got
for now. I'll talk to you later in the week."
The line went dead. Chicken.
Now I was both scared and angry. Marion didn't scare me, although I
didn't need to be looking for a new job this close to Christmas. But
she did annoy me and make me mad enough to spit nails. Meanwhile, I was
trying to decide if that little visitor last night was real or
All in all, it wasn't turning out to be a great morning. The rest of
the day was pretty bad, too. I was very glad when I was able to go
Alice was out for the day, and she hadn't returned by six. The little
light on the answering machine told me I had a message.
"Mister Selleck, this is Detective Leftwich. I believe I gave you my
card at the circuit court yesterday. If you could give me a call when
you get home, I'd appreciate it. I'll be in until late tonight." Nice
enough voice. I barely remembered a face.
I'd called the police the previous day, hoping something would offer
itself as a way out. I really wanted to tell someone about what I'd
seen, but who? Maybe the detective?
Stupid, but it was a chance. I called.
He answered. I don't know why but I expected a secretary, or at least
a receptionist. "I'm glad you returned my call," he said affably.
"Last time I checked, you returned calls from the police," I replied.
I was immediately sorry. Anger and fear made me babble.
He ignored the comment. "I hadn't heard from you, so I decided to
call. I wondered if you remembered anything else about what happened
"Honestly, I barely remember what I told you," I said. "I don't think
I remember anything more of importance about how that man was
"Okay. That's about what I thought," he replied.
I paused. "But there was something else. I don't know how important it
is, but it's been bothering me. It may have even been
Leftwich remained silent for a heartbeat, then: "Go on, Mister
I took a shaky breath. "Did anyone see anything strange around the -
crime scene. After the man was killed, I mean."
Hardly a pause. "Like what, Mister Selleck?"
"I thought -" I swallowed. "An animal, a thing."
A much longer pause. "Mister Selleck, I wonder if we could meet
someplace. Maybe have a cup of coffee? I'd really like to talk to you
I thought. Did he think I was crazy? Probably too soon to tell. He
didn't know enough about what I thought I saw. He'd either think I was
crazy or help me after we spoke, and anything was better than no help
"How about the coffee shop in the University Bookstore? It's usually
not too crowded this time of day."
"Sure," he replied. "In an hour?"
I agreed, and we both hung up. That was easy. Now I'd have to convince
a police detective that I wasn't insane.
The University Bookstore was actually not. The University of Texas
didn't own it, and it was located several blocks from the campus. It
was on University Avenue, however.
It was at the very end of a small strip mall overpowered by the local
Computer Town Superstation at the other end. There was also a Pet
Central, Dollars R Less, and a Learning Tree. The bookstore was in
brown brick, and the inside was all wood paneling, dark bookcases and
studded leather chairs. It was cozy, which was why I liked it. It was
also busy mostly during lunch and immediately after work, and much less
so at night.
I was drinking a double mocha latte, and Leftwich had opted for a tall
plain coffee, two sugars. He didn't look like the type who had sugar
with his coffee. We'd gotten past the pleasantries and through a recap
of what had happened when Arnosh had been killed, and I hadn't added
anything to the story Leftwich wasn't already familiar with. I realized
we were nearing the end of forty minutes and our coffees without
The detective must have thought the same thing. He swirled his coffee
in its cup before sipping. "So, Mister Selleck. Anything else to add?"
He looked at me over the rim of his cup.
He knew there was. I'd mentioned I'd seen something strange when we
spoke over the phone, but he didn't want to push. He'd just assured
himself I had nothing of importance to add to what had happened at the
circuit court, and now he was getting to the less important thing. It
almost made me mad.
"There's the matter I mentioned over the phone," I prompted.
He nodded. "Yeah, that. You said something about an animal?" His eyes
grew very focused. "What exactly did you see?"
There was some point to this, I felt. It didn't seem like he was just
idly curious. He wanted something specific. I gulped air, then made the
"I'm not sure it was an animal," I said. "I didn't get a very good
look at it as it came out from under the sheet where the body lay. It
was black and shiny, like it was wet, and it seemed to --know I was
watching it. It wanted me to know it saw me, too."
Leftwich interrupted at this point and asked a series of very specific
questions. I had worried that he wouldn't believe me. Now I was worried
that he did. He was very intense as he questioned me, and our coffees
got cold before we finished.
"What bothers me is that I saw it last night, just outside my bedroom
patio door. It did that backflip thing again, like it was saying
hello." I swallowed coffee long cold. "What's going on? What is
Leftwich shook his head, looking at his big hands folded on top of the
dinky little table. Bob Leftwich was a big man sandwiched into a
Sears's suit. It didn't fit him very well. He had a plain, honest face
and short hair turning grizzled a little along the sides. I didn't say
anything else, but waited for him to make the next move.
He looked up with very dark eyes. "I almost hoped no one would ever
see it, or them, again. I wish it was just a hallucination."
"What?" I asked softly.
"I don't really know. Gremlins of a kind, maybe. But they're pure
evil, as far as I can tell." He sighed deeply and slumped a little in
his chair. "I heard about them the first time from my dad. He'd been a
guard on Death Row back in the depression. He used to tell me that the
people he saw go through there, for the most part, were just plain
people. He couldn't understand how they'd do what they were in prison
for. It was like they'd been possessed when they did whatever they did.
And when it came time for them to die for it, it was like the thing
that had possessed them was gone."
I made a connection. "Like the newspaper report on Arnosh said that
he'd never really been in trouble before."
Leftwich nodded. "Exactly. My dad told me that one time they got a guy
in Death Row who was really evil. They were glad when the time came for
him: most of the time they tried to make it easy on the inmates, and
got real friendly with them. Not McGee.
"When McGee's time came and he was electrocuted, my dad was there with
the body in the room underneath the cell block, getting it ready to go
to the morgue. He told me he saw something there that convinced him
there was a devil, and he never took part in an execution again."
I wanted to say something, to make this easier for the detective, but
there was nothing I could say. I waited.
"McGee had been pronounced dead
by the county medical examiner," continued Leftwich. "And my father was
with the body, alone. He says that everything was quiet until he heard
a squelching sound, like something wet climbing out of the mud. When he
turned around-" Leftwich swallowed, then licked his lips. "There was
this thing just kind of squatting on McGee's chest. There was a little
blood, around the edge of the sheet, but there shouldn't have been. Dad
said the thing just sat there for several seconds, then scampered off.
It jumped on the floor and was gone."
"Did he describe it?"
Leftwich nodded. "He didn't see much. It was just a black, wet-looking
thing as big as his hand." He paused again and tried to sip from his
cup, but it was empty. He shrugged and put it on the table. "No one
believed him. He hardly believed it, himself. Right in the middle of
the depression, he quit his job at the prison.
"He kept in touch, though. Another guard by the name of Henry Jenkins
claimed he saw something black and fast down in the storerooms about a
week later. No one believed him, either. Dad heard that Henry went
crazy and killed a prisoner sometime after that, then blew his own
I waited, but Leftwich seemed to be off in another world. "What do you
think is going on?" I asked.
He roused. "Dad thought these things were little demons or something
that made people do awful things, just for fun. They got inside of you
somehow, made you do these things, then jumped off before you died -
sometimes after. Then they'd just hitch a ride on someone else." He
shook his head. "McGee went on a rampage, and was caught and executed.
After he died, this thing jumped off and hid down in the storerooms and
waited until it jumped onto Henry. I supposed it left Henry when he
"A man named Calvin Simms was in a holding cell after trying to cut
his brother's throat after Cal lost a football bet. He managed to
commit suicide in his cell by slitting his wrists with a piece of
broken beer bottle he'd hidden. In the cell next door was a man named
John Pearle, who'd been arrested for being drunk in public. Pearle got
out, and the next day and stabbed another man to death. That other man
was a close friend of Daryl Arnosh, and Daryl saw it happen. Then
Pearle just seemed to drop dead, no real reason. Almost immediately,
Arnosh began to act violently. When he was killed in the courthouse,
you saw a strange black thing run away from the body."
"You talk like violence was a communicable disease," I said.
"More like a parasitic infection," he corrected.
"Parasites don't stand up and wave hello to you just to watch you shit
a brick," I replied. "They don't follow you home and let you know
they're interested in you." I said the last in a heated rush, and I
could feel the blood pounding in my temples.
"Shit, I didn't bring the damn thing to you. I didn't point you out in
a crowd," replied Leftwich, trying to keep his grumbling voice low. "It
isn't my fault. Don't blame me for it."
I took a shaky breath. "I'm sorry. You're right, it wasn't your fault.
If anything, you're trying to help."
He relaxed a little. "I'm not sure I can do anything," he said. "My
dad just tried to forget about it. It didn't work, but the thing didn't
come after him, either." He saw the look in my eyes. "I'm sure there's
got to be something, but I just don't know what, yet."
I laughed a little, a trifle
hysterically. "Maybe an exterminator..."
"Don't think I didn't consider it," he countered. "There was a group
of people in town, years ago. Most of us thought they were a little
crazy. A man and a woman who specialized in helping people out with the
He shrugged. "I hear the woman still occasionally does it. I haven't
heard anything at all about the man in years." He shook his head. "I
don't even know how to get in touch with them. I'll try, but for now I
think we'd be better off thinking of something else."
We didn't really think of anything else better. Leftwich asked if I
had a gun, which I didn't. He said he'd stop by later with one.
"If this thing's just some kind of animal, it'll bleed when you shoot
it," he said. "If it's not, then maybe this crucifix will stop it. It
was blessed by the Pope, my mother claims." He handed me a small
jewelry bag. "I'll be by your house in an hour with the gun. If you
want, I'll stick around tonight."
"We're sounding like a couple of superstitious old men," I said.
"Better that than what might happen," he replied.
Damn him, but I had to agree.
Alice was home when I got back. She glanced at the clock and said:
"Where have you been?"
I shrugged. "Giving a statement to a police officer about something
that happened at the circuit court yesterday."
I went on into the kitchen, avoiding anything further. Let her chew on
that a while and see what happened.
Eventually, over dinner, we did talk. I gave her a condensed version
of what happened at my meeting, and referred her to the newspaper
article. I didn't say anything about the little black creature. I mean:
"Gee, Honey. Did you know I'm being stalked by a parasite that makes
you go berserk? Don't worry, a policeman will be bringing a gun by for
me a little later." Right.
Alice accepted it all fairly calmly. She did seem a little more
concerned about me after we spoke, so I suppose you could say the
experience was doing us some good.
"I've got to go to my club meeting at eight," she said. "Are you sure
you'll be okay?"
She was the secretary for the Sigil Computer Society. Her meetings
were twice a month, and she edited their newsletter.
"I'll be fine," I said. She left long before Bob Leftwich came
"This is my personal weapon," he said. He handed me the gun, and it
was heavier than I thought it would be. I'd handled .45 caliber pistols
in the Navy, but I was long out of practice. His gun was a .38 on a
highway patrol .357 magnum frame, made by Taurus Firearms. It was too
big for a .38, but that was okay.
"You know how to use one?" he asked. I nodded. "I don't want to upset
your wife, so I'll park across the street and keep an eye on things.
You still have my card? My cell phone number is on it. Program it into
your phone before I go out."
He was gone and relatively invisible by the time Alice got back. I
don't think she noticed.
Three in the morning.
Things that ruin your night never happen at a reasonable time, one
where you could go back to sleep. They always happen about three in the
morning, so your whole night's shot. After what I'd been through, I was
getting to be what they called hard as nails. I wasn't always like
Alice was sound asleep. When Alice was really asleep, it'd take a
tornado to wake her, and I'd even lay odds against the twister. On the
other hand, I wasn't asleep, and it didn't seem like I was going to
fall asleep soon.
Finally, I kicked back the sheets and went to find something to nibble
on while I channel surfed. The stew was still in the plastic container,
but even it seemed too much like work. I settled on Ritz crackers and
peanut butter with a glass of milk.
I was watching Battlestar Galactica when the cool breeze blew across
the back of my neck. It took two seconds for me to recover from the
goosebumps, then five more to realize there shouldn't have been a
I washed the crackers and peanut butter down my throat as best I could
and carefully got up from the loveseat. I felt danger like an electric
current in the air, but it still wouldn't do to spill cracker crumbs
and milk on the carpet.
I felt it more than saw it: the patio door in the kitchen was slightly
ajar. Not enough - for a man. Was it enough for the creature to squeeze
through? God, I hoped not.
I could feel my heart pounding in my throat, and it was very hard to
think clearly. Okay, the gun was tucked safely under the nightstand in
the master bedroom. That was bad. Detective Leftwich was across the
street in his car and his cell phone number was programmed in my phone,
but the phone was in the kitchen right next to that open door.
Who had opened the door? Alice was paranoid, I thought I'd checked the
doors and windows before bed, and that thing was a little short to get
to the handle, much less open a locked door.
Something moved, at floor level, just off to the right. Under the edge
of the curtains it went, very fast, and I wasn't sure I'd really seen
I was cursing under my breath. This was very bad. I really wished I'd
remembered that gun, or had checked the doors a little more carefully
A flash of movement, and something black and slick touched my right
foot. I reacted, kicking out and I was gratified when whatever it was
thumped into the wall across the room. No sound, though. I wondered if
it felt pain.
There was no time to think this through. I sprinted for the bedroom,
clawing for the gun under the table. I got it, then turned to face the
door, the .38 in a teacup grip. I wasn't used to this, but I swung the
gun easily back and forth to cover the door and hallway.
I'd almost forgotten the thing I was looking for was about the size of
Something landed on my shoulder, and I whirled around trying to shake
it off. It didn't work, and the thing clamped down with its hands, feet
or whatever and squeezed. It hurt, like a very big person was grinding
fingers into my shoulder.
Alice was stirring. I didn't want her to get hurt, so I tried to get
out of the bedroom.
Meanwhile, something thumped in the living room. It sounded like the
I made it to the hallway and managed to get a hand on the thing
crushing my shoulder. I banged myself twice into the wall, then grabbed
something slimy and threw it down the hall. It hit, flipped over and
came scuttling across the floor.
I shot at it. The flash blinded me, the smoke choked me, and I lost
sight of the creature. I didn't think I'd hit it.
Alice was screaming now. There was definitely something pounding
against the front door, and whatever this thing was, it was between
that door and me.
The door crashed in, broken down by a large man. Bob Leftwich came in
with a huge gun in his hands. I felt like I'd seen the Calvary riding
down the hill. He stepped three paces down the hall and looked down at
something on the floor. When he looked up, he said: "Go see to your
There was a small black something lying still on the hallway
I went to Alice, sure that I couldn't explain what had happened to her
in any coherent way. She had calmed down a little now, realizing that
she wasn't being murdered in her bed. That wasn't going to make it any
I was almost in the bedroom when I heard a sound behind me. It was a
little choked sound, almost like gagging.
I turned, and Leftwich was standing relaxed where I had left him, gun
held carelessly in his hand, head down.
The thing on the floor was gone.
"Bob?" I tried, but my voice was hardly a whisper.
Leftwich lifted his head, a slight smile on his lips. There was
nothing behind the blank stare of his eyes.
"No," I said. I was frozen.
Leftwich smiled more broadly, lifting his gun.
"No!" I yelled.
He winked at me, the surrogate for a little backflip I suppose, and
placed the muzzle of the gun to his temple. The shot was deafening in
the hallway, and Alice began screaming again. Leftwich's body stiffened
spasming as it died, and he slumped against the wall. One leg kicked,
then he was still.
I was going to be sick. Waves of nausea went through me, and I
collapsed against the wall, holding on and waiting for it to
There was a sick little slurping noise, and I was afraid to look. I
did, though, and saw the disgusting black thing detach itself from
Leftwich and plop onto the carpet next to the body. It just lay there,
studying me, I think.
"Come on," I hissed at it. "If that's what you want, then come
It gathered itself, as if my coaxing goaded it on. Then it scuttled
rapidly toward me and flung itself through the air.
I caught it. It was dry, in spite of how it looked, and it felt very
strong in my hands. It didn't seem to have a mouth, but it shrieked as
the crucifix began to eat into its flesh like acid.
It was like a hot spoon in Jell-O. The crucifix glowed in a gentle
bluish light, giving off wisps of foul-smelling smoke as it burned
through the creature. The thing dissolved in my hands in gouts of thick
In seconds, it had vanished. There was a smell like roasted meat in
the air, and some rapidly drying stickiness to my hands.
Everything proving the existence of the thing was gone when the police
I don't know what happened. I never believed much in God, but I didn't
believe in evil before all this happened, either. I suppose to have
pure evil you have to also have pure good. It's just a good thing that
I didn't have to have faith in the crucifix for it to work.
Alice left that night. I haven't heard from her, but I wish her well.
Maybe someday she'll give me the chance to try to explain what
Marion had it out with me a few days later for taking too much time
from work. Too bad it was for giving statements to the police and
attending the funeral of a friend. She didn't think it was appropriate.
That's her loss, though. I found a job at Computer Town within a week.
I'm a lot happier there.
What do I think about all this? Well, there's a lot more to the
universe than you've personally seen, Horatio. Keep that in mind, and
maybe you'll be happier and live longer. Me? I don't doubt anything
anymore. It's safer that way.