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Authors: Daryl Gregory

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BOOK: Pandemonium
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* * *

The Harmonia Lake Motel and Shu’garath Museum and Gift Shop was a Victorian stack of narrow windows and peaked roofs disappearing into black sky. A long, slope-roofed porch wrapped the house in a shadow mouth, toothed by gray posts. The windows were dark except for two narrow, faintly glowing panes on either side of the front door.
A light high on a telephone pole shone weakly on the empty parking lot. Two gravel roads, not much wider than walking paths, led from each end of the lot and disappeared into the woods; signs pointed toward cabins 1–2 and 3–5.
On the lawn in front of the house, a man-size wooden cutout of the Shug held its own rectangular sign, white letters dimly visible: BAIT.
Lew put the Audi in park. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”
“Come on, you want to sleep in the car?” I got out and crunched toward the house, hands in my armpits, shivering. Lew reluctantly followed me. The air smelled faintly of rotting fish; the lake was somewhere behind the hotel.
I patted the plywood shoulder of the Shug as I passed and went up the front steps. The porch creaked, naturally. Next to the door were a pair of broad-backed rocking chairs, a wicker table between them, and farther down, a porch swing on metal chains.
The front door was a two-part affair, a screen door in front of a wooden one. Nailed to the face of the wooden door, where the knocker would be, was a glossy hunk of driftwood, vaguely squidlike: bulbous and shiny on top, multiple twisting limbs below, each limb turning up at the end into a sharpened point like a fish hook. The black wood gleamed like it was still in water.
The screen door was ajar. I opened it, tried the knob of the wooden door, and found it locked.
Lew cupped his hands to one of the narrow windows beside the door. “Can’t see a thing through these curtains,” he said. “But I think the night clerk’s been laid off.”
I touched the driftwood and ran my finger along the bulb and down one limb. It wasn’t wet, exactly, but the wood seemed oily and slightly gritty. I delicately touched the tip of the tentacle, dimpling the skin of my finger, and the porch light came on.
I jumped, Lew jerked upright—and then we looked at each other and cracked up.
The lock clacked significantly and we stifled ourselves. The door opened six inches on a chain. A small white-haired woman glared up at me, mouth agape. She was seventy, seventy-five years old, a small bony face on a striated, skinny neck: bright eyes, sharp nose, and skin intricately webbed from too much sun or wind or cigarettes. She looked like one of those orphaned baby condors that has to be fed by puppets.
“What are you, drunk?” she said. Her voice was surprisingly low and sharp.
“No! No ma’am.” I glanced at Lew, daring him to laugh. “You just startled us.”
Lew sidled up behind me, raised a hand. “Hi.”
“Do you know what time it is?” she said. “You shouldn’t be out at this time of night.”
“We’d like rooms,” I said.
“Or cabins,” Lew said.
“I don’t check in people after eleven,” she said. “I can’t put you into cabins that aren’t prepared.”
“Please,” I said. “We’ll take anything you have. You don’t have to do anything to the cabins.”
She stared at me for a second, blinked. “You’re the boy who called.”
“That’s true,” I said, politely allowing the “boy” comment to slide. Last night we’d searched for every Harmonia Lake number we could find. The town had no chamber of commerce, no police station, not even a gas station. We came up with six phone numbers, five of them residential, none of them O’Connell’s. The remaining number was for the motel.
“I told you I’d give her your message,” the old woman said.
“I know, I just thought we’d—”
“She hasn’t stopped in yet.”
“That’s fine, I understand,” I said. “For tonight, though, we’d just like to—”
“She hasn’t got a phone.”
“You mentioned that, yeah.”
Her eyes looked past me, and then she seemed to come to a decision. She shook her head, disgusted.
I said, “Listen—”
She shut the door. A chain slid back, then she opened it again a few inches. “All right, then. It’s almost morning. I suppose I can check you in. Besides, I’m already awake.”
She disappeared from the doorway. I looked at Lew, then pushed open the door. The old woman was already in the next room, walking away from us. Her silver hair, I could see now, was waist-length, and braided. She wore a pink bathrobe over red sweatpants.
The front of the old house was divided into three sections. The middle area was taken up by a picnic table covered by a red-and-white checked vinyl tablecloth. To the right was a dark room illuminated only by a red Coca-Cola sign over the beverage cooler in the corner: the gift shop? Shadows suggested many shelves stocked with cheap crap. The old woman went left, into what I supposed was the hotel lobby, crossing the room to step behind a pressboard-and-veneer front desk. If not for the desk, the room would have passed for any homey cottage circa 1972: oval braided throw rug, a cockeyed green cloth swivel chair, and a plaid couch-and-loveseat combo. Covering the dark paneled walls were dozens of small framed photographs, interspersed with mounted, waxy fish of alarming size, nailed to the wall in midgasp.
“You should have told me you were coming,” she said. “You could have made reservations.”
“You’re full?” Lew asked incredulously.
“Cash or credit?” she said.
I reached for my back pocket, not looking at Lew. The bastard let me pull the wallet all the way out before he said, “Credit.”
“And we need two rooms,” I said. Lew shook his head but didn’t press me on it. Maybe he wanted his privacy as much as I did.
She laid his credit card on a hand machine, racked it like a shotgun. I picked up one of the brochures on the desk, a photocopied tri-fold, black print on 30-pound yellow paper. The front had the same picture and logo as the billboard. Had I seen the Shug?! Yes, and too many times. These people could use a graphic designer.
“You don’t have Internet access, do you?” Lew said. “It doesn’t have to be high speed.”
She squinted at him. People either got Lew or they didn’t.
She handed his card back to him. “You’re in three, he’s in four, next to the washhouse. Breakfast starts at five-thirty.”
Lew looked at me, one eyebrow raised. Washhouse?
The old woman escorted us outside, pointed down the gravel trail to the left, and waited on the porch while Lew and I got in the car and rolled slowly in the correct direction. The first cabin, barely visible in the dark, was only a dozen yards from the parking lot. Lew pulled in at the next gap in the trees. The Audi’s headlights revealed a miniature peak-roofed house, maybe twenty-five feet long and fifteen wide, set on cinder blocks, surrounded by trees except for the grassy parking space out front.
Lew sighed. “You so fucking owe me.”
He kept the headlights on as we got our bags out of the trunk. The lake was a faint gleam through the trees behind the cabin.
He handed me my key, wired to a wooden block big enough to be used as either a flotation device or mace, depending on the emergency.
Lew glanced at the duffel and said, “You going to be okay?” Talking about the chains. Last night in their house Lew had watched, aghast, as I looped the chains through the bed frame, adjusting the slack.
“I’ll be fine,” I said. “Listen, thanks for coming with me. I know you hate to take off work.”
He waved me toward my cabin and turned away from me. “Go to bed.”
“Fair enough,” I said. I was tired enough to fall over.
My cabin was only fifty feet from Lew’s, connected by a stone path through the trees, but a few steps away from the headlights I could barely see a thing. I kept my eyes wide and one hand out to stop me from ramming into trees. I eventually recognized the outline of a small porch, went up the three short steps, and nearly impaled myself: hanging on the door was another one of those squid-shaped driftwood eye-stabbers. My hand moved lower, found the knob, turned.
The door was unlocked. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that.
I found the switch inside the room, and an overhead light came on. Something small and long-tailed darted into a hole in the wall.
The room was floored with specked linoleum, and some of the specks were dubious. A double bed took up most of the room, its brown-and-yellow polyester bedspread nicely complementing, in both style and time period, a small yellow Formica table with aluminum legs and a couple of matching chairs padded in split vinyl. A small square window opposite the door mirrored the light. There was no bathroom: no bath, no room, not even room for a bath. From the smell, the walls were insulated with old fish wrap.
“You in?” Lew called.
“Does yours have a Jacuzzi too?” I shouted back.
“Sleep tight, now.”
Outside, the headlights switched off (Lew’s magical remote control). I shut the door and dropped my duffel bag on the floor. It clanked.
Oh. Sleep tight. Very funny.

* * *

I could hear the lake creeping toward the cabin. The longer I sat in the little room, the clearer I could hear it, until it seemed to be lapping at the floorboards beneath my bed.
Bloop. Blurp. Blu-doop.
I sat on the bed, propped up and staring at the dead flies in the bowl of the overhead light. My rodent roommate stayed demurely out of sight.
The Hellion banged around inside my head like a drunk in a dark room.
On the ride today I’d realized that I’d been going about this all wrong. Knocking myself out with Nembutal obviously wasn’t the answer, because the demon was busting out anyway at irregular intervals. Besides, I was almost out of pills. And alcohol seemed to have no effect, because after infusing my gray matter with Coors Light I’d managed to not only black out but go rock-’n’-roll on a hotel.
No, the only way to ensure a demon-free night was to stay awake.
The question, then, was how long could a human being stay awake? Keith Richards could party for three days straight, but I wasn’t sure if he counted as a human being. I kept myself alert for a good hour by peeling off my bandages and poking at my poor beat-up hands. I re-covered the bigger cuts with fresh bits of gauze taped down with Band-Aids, and left the smaller abrasions to air out.
The pain was useful, but for any long-term attempt at uninterrupted consciousness I needed chemical assistance. At the Ohio oasis I’d stocked up on packages of NoDoz and chased a few pills with my latté. I’d dry-swallowed a few more after getting into the cabin, but sooner or later I’d need to find something with a bit more oomph. Addiction didn’t scare me. That was like worrying about tetanus after a bullet to the head. I just needed to stay awake long enough to convince Mother Mariette to cure me. NoDoz wouldn’t cut it for long, though. If we didn’t find the exorcist quick, I’d have to build my own crystal meth lab.
Mother Mariette O’Connell, we’d learned (thank you, Google), was an Irish citizen and a priest in the Latin Tridentine Church, an Irish splinter group of the Church of Palmar de Troya in Spain, which itself (thanks again, Big G) was an apocalyptic cult that had broken away from mainstream Catholicism.
The Palmarians were run by “Bishop” Clemente Gómez who, upon the death of Pope Paul VI, declared himself to be Pope Gregory XVII of the Holy Palmarian Church. Gómez, a gay priest with abstinence problems, had been known in Seville as El Voltio—“too much voltage”—before a vision of Mary in the nearby village of Palmar de Troya triggered his religious conversion. He’d invented the Palmarian Catechism, which taught, among other things, that somewhere in space was the Planet of Mary—home to Elijah, Moses, and Saint John—where human sin had not yet reached, and that elsewhere was the Planet of the Anti-Christ, where salvation was impossible and demons from the fourth dimension were readying for Armageddon. Gómez lost his sight in a car accident in 1976, then declared that Mary would heal him, which she declined to do before he died.
O’Connell had appeared in the United States sometime in the late eighties or early nineties. A
San Jose Mercury News
article from 1992 said that she’d performed a successful exorcism on a young girl who’d been possessed by the Little Angel, and that the priest had performed several other exorcisms in the States. Over the next few years she racked up a series of wins, saving two other girls from the Angel, but also casting out demons as various as the Pirate King and the Painter. After 1999 she’d dropped out of sight—or at least, out of sight of the media and the web. We could find no phone number or e-mail address in the directories. The last known address came from a mention in the Spring, 1998, issue of the C. G. Jung Psychological Club of Philadelphia newsletter, which said that she was Mariette O’Connell “of” Harmonia Lake, New York.
That’s when I found the hotel phone number. After the failed conversation with the old lady clerk, I told Lew that I had to go there, I had to find O’Connell. Lew looked at me, shook his head, and shuffled off to bed. To Amra. He came out ten minutes later, said we should leave in the morning before rush hour, and went back to the bedroom.
The overhead light suddenly flared bright, making me wince.
I sat up, heart pounding. I’d been dead asleep. Shit.
I lurched out of bed before I could fall asleep again. The room was freezing. The little window had grown more translucent; the sky had grown marginally lighter.
I pulled on my shoes, tugged a sweatshirt out of my duffel, and opened the door to damp gray chill. A thick fog soaked up the light spilling past me, absorbed the feeble predawn glow forcing its way into the sky. I could see only the porch’s wooden steps and the suggestion of tree limbs—everything else was gray milk. I walked around the open space in front of the cabin, working my arms and flexing my neck like a boxer, as the grass wet my shins and the air lightened around me. Next to the cabin I found a path of stepping stones and followed them around the shack to a wooden dock that jutted into cloud. I walked down the creaking dock, hands jammed in my pockets.
A slap and splash as something hit the water.
The Shug!
That was my first thought. I stood there, heart racing—and then got a mental image of me standing there shaking like Don Knotts, and laughed. Wait till I tell Lew.
Ripples tocked against the pilings. I could see only a few feet into the fog. The ripples died. The narrow patch of water visible at the end of the dock smoothed, turned glossy black.
“Oooh-kay,” I said to myself. “Time to—”
Something big moved under the water, a pale expanse of flesh twice the size of a man, gliding just under the surface…and abruptly nosed down, diving, a smooth hump like a whale’s back barely breaking the surface.
I screamed, fell back on my ass. Scrambled backward like a crab. I twisted sideways, somehow got my feet under me, and ran.
The dock did not quite meet the shore; my foot fell into the gap, a drop of six inches, and I plunged headlong into the rocky dirt. Somehow I managed to tuck my bandaged hands into my midriff and hit with my right shoulder and cheek, a two-point landing that left me stunned and stupid.
A handful of seconds. I rolled onto my back and pushed myself up on my elbows. I scanned left, right, left, watching for movement in the shifting fog, ears straining. I heard nothing but the rasp of my own breath. The water lapped against the shore. I got up, backed my butt against a tree, and hunched there, panting.
Jesus Christ. Jesus Fucking Christ.
I eventually realized I was saying that out loud, and shut up. The sun had finally edged over the surface of the lake, and trees emerged from the fog. My breathing slowed to the point where I could stand up straight. To my left, behind the clump of trees where Lew’s cabin sat, another dock became visible. The expanse of water between the docks was smooth and empty.
I shook my head, and a low chuckle started in my chest. I couldn’t stop it. Oh Jesus. Wait till I tell Lew.
Still laughing, I turned toward the path back to the cabin. Twenty yards down the shoreline, the Shug waded out of the water.

BOOK: Pandemonium
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