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Authors: John Skipp,Craig Spector

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The Light at the End (7 page)

BOOK: The Light at the End
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“Not that I know of… but it’s an awfully big city.”

“I know.” She looked wistful. “I hope he isn’t.”

“Isn’t what?”

“Gone,” she said. “I hope he didn’t pick up and leave.”


Why?
” He gaped at her with honest incredulity.

“I’ve always wanted to meet a vampire,” she answered, matter-of-factly. Then, with a cryptic little half-smile, “I think they’re sexy.”

“And you think
I’m
crazy!” He smacked the flat of his right hand against his receding hairline. She put on a mock-pouting expression. “This is not a
nice
vampire, Claire. It feeds people to its pets.”

“Well, you know how monsters are.” Grinning.

“Yeah, but…” he started, and then grinned back. It was too ludicrous a situation to get all worked up about. Danny threw up his hands, conceding, and then thought of an even more ludicrous twist to throw in.

“How do we know,” he asked, “that it’s even a
he
?” She looked up, startled. He smiled triumphantly and continued. “How do we know that it’s not some withered, two-thousand-year-old bag with warts all over her?”

“No, no, no,” she insisted, repressing a giggle. “Vampires are eternally young and eternally beautiful.”

“Oh, yeah? What about Nosferatu? He wasn’t so cute.”

“That was only a movie.”

“Oh. Right.”

By now, they were almost across Astor Place, the small plaza that splits Park Avenue South into Fourth Avenue and Lafayette Street, and 8
th
Street into St. Mark’s Place. In the center of the plaza, an enormous cube was balanced on one of its corners. A bunch of enterprising young punks were spinning it around and around: in a sense, that was what it was there for. Participation Art.

On one side of the cube, the word IMAGINE was rendered in large, spray-painted letters. It happened shortly after John Lennon’s senseless, pathetic murder. Nobody had seen fit to paint over it.

New York City loves its graffiti artists.

They crossed in silence, watching out for the cars that blasted by with little or no regard for pedestrian safety. There was one singularly deranged taxi driver who must have been doing 60 mph; he seemed to be deliberately bearing down on them. Danny took Claire’s hand and took off running. She followed, not resisting. The cab missed them by less than two feet.

“CRAZY BASTARD!” Claire yelled from the safety of the curb. The cabbie shouted something back, swallowed by the sound of his own squealing tires. She flipped him the bird as he raced into the night, then laughed and turned to face her companion.

Danny let go of her hand, feeling suddenly awkward… presumptuous, even. It took a second before he realized that she hadn’t minded; by then, it was too late to just grab it back again.
You putz
, he informed himself silently, and hoped for a lot of traffic when they hit Broadway.

They resumed their pace, heading down 8
th
Street toward Greenwich Village. For the moment, they remained silent, immersed in their own internal dialogues. Neither was sure as to what the other one was thinking. If they’d known, they would have been amazed by how strong their psychic link actually was.

Because they were both thinking about the same two things: the vampire in the tunnels, and what it would be like to sleep together. For Danny, the priorities were reversed, but that hardly mattered.

But since neither of them knew for sure, neither one dared or cared to say anything. Then, because he sensed that the silence had become overlong, Danny cut off his train of thought and cleared his throat loudly.

But before he could think of something ridiculous to say, they heard the voice shouting from down the block, near the subway entrances. The words were drunken, slurred, more than slightly hysterical. As they drew nearer, they listened carefully to what the voice was trying to say.

“…DOWN THERE! IZ’WUZ DOWN THERE, AN’ IT GOT FRED! OMMA… OMMAGOD, IT WAS. HE WAS SCREAMIN’, AN’ I… OH, LORDY, SUMPIN’S
DOWN THERE!

They stopped dead, turned to stare at each other apprehensively. Claire asked him quietly if he heard that. He nodded, mute.

And though it was a warm night, they shivered, as though a cold hand had reached up from Hell to take the two of them in its grip.

 

CHAPTER 8

 

In her dream, she was standing over Glen’s open grave again. A thin wet mist descended from the sunless heavens of a chill gray autumn sky. Josalyn was smoking a cigarette, cupping it in her hand protectively as she stand down at the coffin in its hole of mud and formless shadow, watching the scattered clods of dirt on the fiberglass lid lose form themselves as the rain slowly, painfully, broke them down.

Inside, she felt cold: cold as the rain, as the sky, as the grave. No tears. No sorrow. Nothing but a sense of flat stupid finality: life as a series of elaborate, meaningless figures on a mathematician’s blackboard, rendered in chalk and wiped away by a clumsy block of wood and felt and padding.

It’s so stupid, she thought, staring down at the muddy pools on the coffin’s lid. So stupid, and pointless, and cruel. She’d have liked to know what she’d done to deserve this, what crime so heinous that it demanded this smack in the face, this deliberate blow of her belief that life was good and sensible and fair.

But she knew the answer, no sooner than the question was posed. Nothing. She’d done nothing, short of being born in a world that had long before lost its bearings and gone cartwheeling off toward madness and oblivion — perhaps at the time of the Apple, perhaps even earlier than that.

She mused, sight unfocusing, turning inward. She was only dimly aware, in the back of her mind, of something stirring in the hole at her feet. It didn’t fully register until, with a loud snap of splintering wood, something burst through the lid of the coffin.

Josalyn stared down at the grave in horror, frozen. The cigarette slipped from between her fingers and tumbled downward, a slow-motion spinning that seemed to go on forever.

From the grave, a rotting skeletal arm projected upward, clawing at the air as if to rip bleeding holes in the sky. A tiny cry escaped her throat, and the mouldering hand froze, clenched like the talon of a great winged bird. Then slowly, slowly, it twisted itself around so that the back of the hand was facing her. The index finger, it’s broken end dangling from a few strands of greenish flesh, straightened and then curled back toward the palm. Repeated the gesture. Repeated it again.

It beckoned to her.

NO!
she cried silently, no wind in her lungs.
NO!
She spun, eyes snapping shut reflexively, and something was there: something warm and comforting, wrapping itself around her arm, holding her tightly. She shivered, blind and terrified; she whimpered, deep in her throat; she nestled against the figure that held her and understood, though foggily, that it was a man. A good man. She let herself go, and huge gut-wrenching sobs escaped from her mouth, smothered in the warmth of her protector.

It’s alright,
a kind, soft voice assured her.
It can’t touch you now. It can’t hurt you.
And though she could still feel that skeletal arm, trying by its sheer presence to claw through the back of her skull and take her, consume her, she also knew that the dead thing was losing its power. That the voice wasn’t lying. That she was, in fact, safe.

Oh, thank you, she whispered, pulling her face away from the man’s chest and opening her eyes to see him…

…and suddenly she was alone, in her apartment, with the typewriter quietly humming on the desk before her as she jotted down something in her notebook with a finely sharpened No. 2 pencil.
Life is good,
she rendered in tight, elegant longhand.
Life is sensible. Life is fair…

The phone rang. She jumped, and the pencil went flying out of her hand. She watched it spin through the air like her cigarette on its way to the grave, with the same slack-jawed expression of horror on her face.

She watched the pencil imbed itself point-first in the hard wooden floor, sticking straight up like the needle of a compass pointing north. Trembling for a moment. And then standing completely still…

…as a dark pool of blood began to spread across the floor, slowly at first, then more and more quickly…

…as a mocking, sneering, inhuman voice from somewhere in the room breathed the words
you were expecting company?
into her ear and began, horribly, to laugh and laugh and…

Josalyn awakened, screaming, into the otherwise silent darkness of her bedroom, alone.

It was the first, and the mildest, of the dreams.

 

CHAPTER 9

 

At 11:08 the following morning, by the company time clock, Allan took the call from Rosa, the woman who lived downstairs from Joseph and watched his mother during the day. Rosa’s English was poor, and the fact that she was crying and lapsing sporadically into Spanish didn’t help, but Allan got the message loud and clear.

He hung up the phone, feeling like he’d aged a hundred years in the last three minutes. His breakfast started to churn sickly in his stomach; sweat covered his forehead like a thin sheet of ice; he reached for his pouch of Captain Black tobacco with a trembling hand, tamped it into his pipe, and just stared at it for a long unhappy moment.

Jerome was the first to notice that something was wrong. He’d just been clowning with Allan a few moments before, and everything’d been hunky-dory. He could only think of one thing that could bring a dispatcher down that fast.

“Did somebody get hit?” he asked, remembering the squealing taxi brakes that had brought his own career as Ace Bike Messenger to an inglorious end.

Allan turned quickly, disorientation stamped on his features. “What?” he said, and then the statement registered. He grinned vaguely and shook his head. “No, no. It was… well, nobody got hit, exactly, but… uh, beep Hunter for me, will you?”

“Joseph?” Jerome didn’t get it “What…”

“Beep him.” Allan lit the pipe and made every attempt to steady his voice. “His mother just died. I’ve got to tell him.”

 

Joseph Hunter was standing in a phone booth on the corner of 8
th
Avenue and 42
nd
Street, the dead receiver still clutched in his hand. He stared out through the glass, seeing nothing. His mind was elsewhere.

When his beeper had gone off, he’d been cruising up 8
th
with a vanload of prints for some European film festival. His mind had been riveted on his environment at that point; like most cities, New York demands that you drive like a ruthless maniac with metal teeth and eyes on all four sides of your head. Joseph was accommodating: cutting people off, swerving madly from lane to lane in an effort to pass everybody on the road, shouting at people when they didn’t get out of his way. Death had been the farthest thing from his mind.

When his beeper had gone off, he’d suspected that the guys in dispatch had something else for him to pick up.

He’d had no idea that it would be this heavy.

She’s dead
, said a voice in his head that sounded like it must be somebody else’s. He felt detached from the thought, from the very idea of it.
She’s dead
. It had to be somebody else’s life that he’d just been listening in on.

Automatically, his free hand dug into the pocket of his jean jacket for a cigarette; he spent about thirty seconds trying to light the filter before he realized what he was doing.

“Aarrgh!” he bellowed, tossing the useless smoke to the floor. He looked at the receiver as if it were a pigeon turd that had landed on his sleeve, slammed it down onto the hook, and stormed out of the booth.

Back on the sidewalk, surrounded by the gaudy sleaze of West 42
nd
Street… peep shows on top of live sex acts on top of $1.99 porno triple bills, all flashing their multi-colored marquees to sucker in the scum of the earth… Joseph was overwhelmed by the urge to just reach out and smash something. It didn’t much matter what: a wider selection of eminently smashable things could not have been assembled for love nor money. All he had to do was wait for a little provocation.

Normally, he wouldn’t have had long to wait. There was something daunting, however, about a gigantic bearded young man who looked like he was about to explode. The danger light went on. Con men who would ordinarily try to sell him bad drugs, pictures of naked harlots, the naked harlots themselves, and other hot items gave him a wide berth, some actually stepping off the curb and into the street to get around him.

“Yeah, that’s right,” he said, too quietly for anyone to hear. “Back off.” But as he spoke, the tears began to well up in his eyes. The shuddering seemed to start in his chest and radiate outward, like shock waves from a depth charge that somebody just set off in his heart. Before he fully realized it, he was practically doubled over by the force of his own massive sobbing.

And the same voice in his head came back, speaking like a stranger with a clearer view of the situation than anyone involved.
She’s dead
, it repeated.
But that’s what you wanted, isn’t it? You wanted to be free of her. To live your own life. To get the hell out of this grimy insane asylum.

Isn’t that what you wanted?
the voice insisted, point-blank, and suddenly it sounded like some cheap prick D. A. that the State had sent in to break him down. It was the voice of his conscience being a cruel bitch, trying to make him squirm over crimes never even committed.

Isn’t that what you wanted?
the voice repeated, jabbing his chest with a long, bony finger. By then, he’d had just about enough.

“No,” he growled through gritted teeth. He wiped the tears from his eyes with a painfully clenched fist and repeated the word. “No.” It played over and over in his head, as though he’d spoken into an echo machine and then kept slowly turning up the speed and intensity so that it gradually rose in pitch, faster and faster, the word blurring into itself, a maddening cacophony that pounded against the insides of his skull…

Until something inside of him snapped.

Joseph Hunter turned then, shutting his mind off with an audible click. He began to move east on 42
nd
, toward his parked and waiting van, with a chill and deliberate gait. Once again, the crowd parted before him with extreme caution in their sidelong glances.

About thirty yards ahead, an argument was brewing on the sidewalk in front of an adult novelty store. Out of the hundred-odd conversations going on within earshot, this one singled itself out for Joseph’s attention. He moved closer.

“I WANT MY MONEY!” A white guy. Young. Very hip-looking, like he just got off the plane from California. Except that he was sweating, and his face was red.

“Hey, blood… you wanna try an’ double it, doncha?” A black dude. Young. Very cool. In shades, so you couldn’t see his eyes as he reached down to scoop up three cards.

Between them was an improvised Three Card Monty table: an open cardboard box on a trash can. Around them was the usual crowd of suckers and rubbernecks out on a lunch break, taking turns gawking and losing more of their paychecks than they could reasonably afford. There was easily three hundred dollars riding on this game, most of it California’s.

“NO, MAN! I WON!” California was howling, pointing at the cards. Evidently, he’d picked the right one anyway.

“Yo, man. Chill out. Don’t…” Monty began He was starting to get nervous now. He took a short step backward: the cards in one hand, the money in the other.

“GIMME MY MONEY!” California yelled, making a grab for it. Two large black dudes started to converge on them from the gathering crowd.

“Cops,” Monty said, kicking over the trash can and turning quickly away. The money was halfway to his pocket: his face was still half-turned, looking over his shoulder He took one step, his head swinging back around, and walked face-first into something large and solid.

He looked up.

“How much money did you steal today, cocksucker?” Joseph inquired. A pair of tiny Joseph Hunter’s stared back at him, reflected in the mirrored shades. Monty smiled, innocent as dumplings, and started to back away. Joseph smiled and punched him in the head.

Large white teeth and dark sunglasses went flying through the air. The stack of twenties blossomed and dispersed like a bright green fireworks display, dancing in the breeze. California rushed forward. Monty dropped at his feet.

Joseph whipped around quickly. The dealers two buddies were stunned, for the moment;
they
were the ones who were supposed to appear from out of nowhere when trouble arose. By the time one of them got it together to go for his knife, a large fist was already on the way.

The knife never left its sheath. Its owner’s nose broke with a resounding crack, twin crimson geysers streaming from the wide, flaring nostrils. The man wasn’t out, but he was hurtin’ for certain; he dropped to his knees, clutched his face, and moaned into his blood-spattered hands.

The sporting thing to do would have been to leave him there for a moment, then come back to disarm him. Joseph kicked him in the stomach first, then turned to deal with the other one. It took just a second too long.

He didn’t see the excited crowd, fanning out in a wide semi-circle. He didn’t see California drop to his knees, scooping up the fallen dollars. He didn’t see the fourth dude that was coming up behind him, or the two cops that were running to the scene.

What he saw was a shiny, black, metallic blur, racing toward the side of his head. He brought one arm up reflexively to block it, and searing pain shot through his forearm. Before he could cry out, the pipe completed its swing, striking him just above the temple. His vision started to gray out, like a bad picture on an old black-and-white TV.

Then something hit him hard between the shoulder blades from behind, and he went over. He heard the shouting and commotion above him as if from a great distance: then it faded out altogether.

 

“He’s just lashing out.” Ian sighed wearily “It’s so obvious.”

“I know,” Alan agreed. “But what are we going to do?”

Ian shrugged, eyes downcast, and took a listless drag off his cigarette. They were sitting around the coffee table at Ian’s one-room studio apartment. It was 1:30 in the morning, and Joseph Hunter had finally passed out on the couch, having drunk himself into his second oblivion of the day.

Allan set down his tobacco pipe and reached across the table for his brass dope-smoking bowl. “There’s still a little bit in here,” he said. “You want some?” Ian looked at it for a moment, then nodded and smiled wanly. “It’s the most constructive thing I can think of to do at the moment,” Allan concluded, passing the pipe.

Ian brought the stem to his lips and wrapped them silently around it. Allan was there with the lighter, flicking it on, and for a few seconds their faces were all highlights and shadow, like two characters making a deal by candlelight in an old
Prince Valiant
comic strip: Ian, with his wild blond hair and heavy mustache, struck an almost barbaric figure; Allan, with his dark hair cut evenly at the shoulders, his thin mustache and goatee, could have been a moneyed merchant of old, striking up an offer that no red-blooded mercenary could refuse.

Then Ian had the pipe lit, and Allan withdrew the lighter. The illusion ended: they were two young men in the twentieth century, half-stoned out of their minds, agonizing over somebody else’s problems.

Ian took a hit and passed the pipe back to Allan. He sucked in sharply, holding back the cough that threatened to wrack him, and somberly shook his head.

“What?” Allan asked, taking his toke. The other paused for a moment, blew out a great cloud of smoke and then leaned forward.

“Five hundred dollars,” he said finally. “That’s what.”

Allan rolled his eyes and nodded solemn agreement. It had taken $500 to get Joseph out of jail this afternoon on charges of assault and battery. Because California had vanished after Joseph helped him out, there were virtually no witnesses who weren’t either friends of, or afraid of, Three Card Monty and his boys. The cops had no choice but to book him, though they informed him confidentially that the charges would be dropped. It still cost him five big ones to get out.

“Thank God he had it,” Ian continued. “I couldn’t have helped him.”

“Me either… He makes more in a week than both of us put together!” They laughed, a welcome development. “Last week, I think he took home about eight hundred.”

“Christ.” That figure looked like the Holy Grail from where Ian was sitting.

“Yeah, But he has all kinds of expenses that we don’t; gas, tires, repairs on his van, insurance…”

“And funerals,” Ian added. “Don’t forget that.”

“No. Christ.” Allan looked over at Joseph’s limp form, sprawled out on the couch. “I don’t think I could forget that. I was the one who had to tell him.”

“I bet that was fun.”

“A joy unbounded.”

“I’ll bet.”

“A regular barrel of monkeys.”

“Oh, God.” They laughed again, the way one laughs at dead baby jokes: nervously, guiltily, and helplessly. “Jesus Christ, I can’t stand it,” Ian concluded, when he regained his voice, then staggered over to the fridge for two more 16-ounce Buds.

“Thanks,” Allan said, receiving his. They spritzed the cans open simultaneously, took identically long swigs off of them, then turned to stare at each other with grim smiles.

For almost a minute, there was no sound but the faint rumble of Joseph’s drunken snoring. Ian took another swig off his beer and spoke.

“You know what I think?”

“What?”

“I think he should pack up his gear and get the hell out of New York, as soon as he can. I’d hate like crazy to see him go, but I think he’d be a lot happier almost anywhere else.”

“Yeah.” Short pause. “I think you’re right. There’s nothing, short of our smiling faces, to really keep him here, is there?”

“Nope.” Another short pause. “Not that I can think of.”

Another pause, longer.

“Do you think he will?”

“God, I hope so.” Ian snubbed his butt out in the ashtray. “Before something else happens.”

“What do you mean?” Allan’s dark eyes were hidden in shadow, but Ian felt the bright glint of them just the same.

“I don’t know,” Ian answered. He was staring at the ashes, as if for a clue. Then, turning to meet Allan’s shrouded gaze, “I really don’t know.”

BOOK: The Light at the End
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