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Authors: Thomas Perry

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Shadow Woman

BOOK: Shadow Woman
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SHADOW
WOMAN
Thomas
Perry

 

 

Copyright
© 1997 by Thomas Perry

 

For my mother my sister

my wife
my daughters

Any person, whether old
or young, male or female, might become possessed of an evil spirit,
and be transformed into a witch. A person thus possessed could
assume, at pleasure, the form of any animal, bird or reptile, and
having executed his nefarious purpose, could resume his original
form, or, if necessary to escape pursuit, could transmute himself
into an inanimate object.

Lewis Henry Morgan,
League of the Iroquois,
1851

1

Pete
Hatcher pushed through the warm, dry night air that was trapped
between the tall hotels and casinos, feeling the stored heat from the
sun still rising from the concrete to his ankles. He had tightened
his back muscles to keep his spine straight and his shoulders back,
but it felt like a pose, so he tried to lose his self-consciousness
and slouch a little. It was hard to do anything for so many days
without ruminating on the way it must look, what they must think
about it. He had tried to look formidable and alert, as though he
would be hard to kill. The idea was worse than childish. It was the
reaction of an animal trying to convince a predator that he wasn’t
weak enough to take down just yet.

The part of Las Vegas that he
loved was the Strip, with the exaggerated shapes of its giant
buildings lit up in candy colors that burned against the blue-black
desert sky, but being downtown like this was different. The carnival
neons and incandescents glared from all sides and bounced off asphalt
and concrete, then washed across the faces of the people walking with
him as a dead yellow-gray that cast deep shadows in their wrinkles
and sunken eyes.

He followed a couple who seemed
to sense it. Each eyed the other and the woman became uncomfortably
aware that the ghastly light that had skinned the life from her
beloved’s cheek must have done the same to her own. She bravely
forced a smile that only gave her face deeper hollows and the bared
teeth of a skull. The pair reached the roofed-over mall, retreated to
the nearest glass door, and escaped into the soft blue of a bar lit
with the twinkle of tiny star-white bulbs. When they had taken a few
steps into the cool, machine-made air, Pete saw them both give a
little shrug-and-shudder to be sure none of the leftover street magic
was clinging to them.

Hatcher followed them through
the bar into the big casino, then skirted the margin of the gaming
floor, ignoring the din of the bells on the slots and the rattle of
coins in the collection pans that bounced off the walls above his
head to excite the customers. He moved deeper, staying far from the
blackjack tables and crap tables, where bright overhead lights shone
on the green felt and turned the dealers’ starched white shirts
into semaphores. He stepped to the little window in the wall a few
feet apart from the cashiers’ cages.

He said to the middle-aged woman
behind the glass, “There was supposed to be a ticket for the
midnight show left for me.”

“Your name, sir?” He
had somehow assumed she would know his face, but her expression was
only attentive.

“Pete Hatcher.”

Hatcher took the ticket and read
the seat number while he was still in the light, then handed it to
the girl in the fishnet tights and frock coat at the door and let her
lead him into the show. Hatcher never looked back to see whether the
two men were still following. They were.

The round walls of the room were
lined with big plush booths in three tiers, and the space in front of
the stage crowded with rows of long, narrow tables arranged like the
spokes of a wheel so nobody in the cheap stackable chairs along them
could see better than anybody else.

The woman he had been told to
call Jane was already seated in the dark booth when he got there. She
was thin, with gleaming black hair braided behind her head, a long,
graceful neck, and bare shoulders that showed no trace of a line in
the tan and made him want to believe that she was in the habit of
sunbathing naked. He felt an unexpected, tearing pain when he looked
at her, so he glanced at the stage. This was what he was about to
lose – not the money or the fancy office or the clean, hot
desert air. It was the women, ones like her. They weren’t ever
from here, but this was where Pete had always found them. It was as
though they were the winners of some quiet beauty contest, judged not
by a bunch of potbellied Chamber of Commerce types but by the women
themselves, before they were even women. They seemed to take one look
in the mirror and know that the creature looking back at them didn’t
belong in Biloxi or Minneapolis.

The woman said, “Pete?”

“Yes?”

“Kiss me.” He turned
in surprise and she was offering him her cheek in that strange way
the best of them did, so he could press his lips against that
incredibly smooth place just in front of her ear and smell the
fragrance of her hair. He lingered there for a moment to whisper, “I
thought we were blending in. You mean beautiful is the worst you can
do?”

She ignored the question, drew
back to end the kiss, and said, “Good enough. Dates want you to
kiss them; hookers don’t. If the management thinks I’m in
business, they’ll have their own people watching me. Did you
know you’re not alone?”

“I haven’t been
alone in two weeks,” he said. “My phones are bugged, my
apartment, even my car. When I’m asleep they switch on a camera
with an infrared lens that’s above the smoke detector in my
ceiling.”

“That’s a very good
sign,” said the woman. “If the bugs and cameras had
disappeared, that would be a very bad sign. It would mean they
expected that pretty soon the police would be taking a close look at
everything you used to own.”

“It’s not the sort
of sign that makes me want to rush out and buy next year’s
calendar.”

“Don’t worry about
what didn’t happen,” said the woman. “Worry about
what you have to make happen.”

“What?”

“The instant that the box
opens – ”

“What box?”

“Just listen. When the box
opens, you get out and walk – do not run – to the exit
door that’s facing you. Go outside, get into the black Ford
that’s parked in the reserved space at the end of the lot.
Drive north on Route 15. It will take you to St. George, Utah. That’s
about all the time I can buy you. You’ll still be an hour from
Cedar City. Don’t stop to pee or something, just keep driving.
There’s a small airport in Cedar City, and your ticket is
reserved at the Southwest Airlines desk under the name David Keller.
From now on, that’s you. The papers I promised you are in the
wallet under the seat of the car. There’s a suitcase in the
trunk. You’ll just make your flight, and you’ll be in
Denver before daylight.”

“What about the other
stuff?”

“Everything you’ll
need at first is in the suitcase. The diplomas, honorable discharge,
bank books, and so on are in your new apartment.”

“And?”

“And what?”

“That gets me out, but
what about you? They’ve seen you with me. They’ll have
nobody to take it out on but you.”

Her eyes settled on him in
puzzled curiosity, studied his face for a moment as though they had
found something rare and unfamiliar there, then drifted toward the
stage. “I’m good at this, and you couldn’t help me
anyway. Don’t think about me. Think about what you have to do.”

“Anything else you haven’t
told me?”

“Volumes,” she said.
“I like to spend more time with my runners before I set them
free, but you don’t have it to spare. All you really need to
know is that if you never make a mistake you’ll live forever.
Right now, just concentrate on tonight. If you live through this,
you’ll catch on.”

“What if they’ve got
somebody waiting at the back door for me?”

She placed her long, thin
fingers on his hand, and her voice went soft and low, like a mother
talking to her child. “Then hit him fast, and hurt him as badly
as you can. He won’t have the stomach for a one-on-one fight
for keeps. It takes much more courage to spend two weeks pretending
you don’t know you’re in trouble than it does to join a
pack stalking a lone man. I’ve been watching you, and I’ve
been watching them. You can do this.”

He sighed, but his lungs had
taken in so little air it came out in a shallow puff. “I sure
hope you’re right. I assume you took your fee out of the money
when you took it to Denver?”

She shook her head. “It
doesn’t work that way. A year from now, maybe two, you’ll
think about the way your life is. And you’ll remember how you
felt tonight. And then you’ll send me a present.”

He raised his eyebrows. “How
do you know that?”

“I don’t. But over
the years I’ve gotten a lot of presents.”

As the house lights dimmed, Pete
raised his eyes to see where tonight’s shadows were. He found
them in the tier above, seated in a booth where they could catch a
glimpse of him in profile whenever they wished. He leaned back,
hiding his face from them, but the woman gently leaned on his back
and pushed him forward as she whispered in his ear, “Let them
see you. Keep your face where they can see it.”

A small projectile spitting
sparks like a comet streaked over their heads. It exploded at center
stage in a loud bang and a billow of lighter-fluid flame six feet
high, followed by a fog of dry-ice smoke that quickly spread from
curtain to curtain and drifted over the footlights into the audience.

A bright spotlight beam appeared
and frantically swept across the wall of smoke, trying to penetrate
it and find some solid object. In a moment a few wisps seemed to
congeal and resolve themselves into the shape of an old, bent,
wizened woman in bulky rags, leaning on a cane. She hobbled forward
out of the fog haltingly, then seemed to notice the audience for the
first time. Pete looked at the people around him. They were hushed
with surprise, as though they had forgotten that they had bought
tickets and sat here sipping watered drinks waiting for this.

The old woman glared at them,
then gave a low unearthly cackle and lifted the cane into the air. As
it reached the height of her shoulder it shortened and narrowed, and
as it went over her head it was clearly a wand.

She tapped herself on the top of
the head and the rags instantly incinerated in a flash of sparks and
smoke. The spotlight fought its way through the smoke and found in
her place a young, shapely woman who stood erect and wore a sparkling
gold spandex skin that seemed little brighter than her mane of
honey-blond hair. The deep, resonant voice of the announcer shouted,
“Ladies and gentlemen… Miranda!” and then was
drowned in music and applause.

Pete leaned to the side and
said, “She’s got my attention. I hope she’s got
theirs.”

The woman beside him watched his
eyes. “If she doesn’t yet, she will. She used to strip.”

Miranda paced the empty, dim
stage like a cat, doing the impossible for the willfully gullible,
receptive crowd. First she reached into the air and began plucking
things out of it: white doves that couldn’t have been hidden in
her brief costume and flew out over the audience, then returned to a
perch at the back of the stage; a single rose that she tossed over
her shoulder onto the floor; then, one after another, four rabbits.
It was as though she were completing the compulsory round of a
conjurers’ competition, executing a sampling of the standard
tricks.

Only slowly did it occur to the
audience that something strange and unplanned was happening. The rose
she had thrown behind her was changing. It grew longer and longer,
then arched upward a little. Then it began to writhe and slither.
Miranda produced a magician’s top hat, put it on her head, then
took it off and held it before her stomach. The rabbits, one by one,
ran toward her, leapt into the hat, and disappeared inside it. She
collapsed the hat and flicked it offstage like a Frisbee.

The audience was distracted. The
rabbit trick was a bit out of the ordinary, but the audience was
captured by that rose. It was now seven or eight feet long. The
petals had fallen off, and now it arched its back, slowly raising its
head behind Miranda, and spread its hood. It was a king cobra, its
green-black skin looking oily in the lights. As she took her bow, it
coiled to strike. Miranda seemed to sense something was bothering her
audience. She frowned at them, then reached up into the dark air
again, produced a pearl-handled revolver, pivoted gracefully, and
shot the serpent through the eye. It jerked spasmodically, then fell.
A wind passed across the stage, swirling the smoke in little eddies.
The snake crumbled into dry flakes that blew away, leaving only a
new, fresh rose in its place. Miranda squeezed the pistol in her
hands until it became a ball the color of mercury, threw it into the
air, and watched it explode.

BOOK: Shadow Woman
12.95Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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