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Authors: Brad Strickland

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BOOK: Tracked by Terror
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He squinted and saw a dim figure in the gloom ahead. It looked like Betsy, or anyway, it looked like a girl. He held the candle high, but its feeble light didn't reach far enough. “Betsy?” he asked in a louder voice.
“Betsy.” The word came back in a sighing, whispery tone that made goose bumps pop up on Jarvey's arms. The figure seemed to beckon. It turned and walked away to the left, into the darkness.
“Wait!” Jarvey hurried after her, and behind him the concealed door silently swung shut. He could barely see in this darkness, but the girl's figure glided away from him, and he followed. It occurred to him that his footsteps were silent now, and glancing down, he saw in the faint circle of light from the candle a carpet of an intricate pattern, red and white, yellow and black, pale blue and deep maroon.
Jarvey heard something ahead and looked up, and his heart leaped. Betsy had stopped just ahead of him. He could see the gleam of her hair and the drab darkness of her servant's dress. “Where did you go?” he demanded, coming up behind her.
She turned, and Jarvey almost dropped the candle. It wasn't Betsy. It wasn't even human.
The face looked like that of an ancient porcelain doll, crisscrossed with lines, with white plastery patches where the surface had flaked away. One eye socket was empty and hollow, with spiderwebs inside, and the other eye was bleary and glazed. Half the nose was gone, broken off, and a big chunk of the left cheek had chipped away, leaving a hole the size of a playing card. Jarvey could see teeth inside.
“Welcome, sir,” the thing said in that whispery voice. “My name is Betsy. My name is Linda. My name is Mary. My name is Molly. My name is—” The head jerked, and the thing took a step closer. “May I take take take your hat your coat your stick your your may I thank you you've been a won wonderful aud aud—”
It stumbled, then fell forward. Jarvey jumped backward, and the creature landed flat on its face. It made a sickening crackling sound, and when it tried to push itself up, both of its arms broke at the elbow. Its wobbling head raised up. “Oh sir sir sir I seem to have fallen you are so kind thank thank thank you.” No expression in the voice at all, just a crazy whisper, and the remaining eye had fallen out. As the thing jabbered, its bottom jaw flopped wildly and fell off, leaving it looking like a horrible kind of mummy, still trying to talk: “faah haaa awww faah ... ” It tried to drag itself forward on its stumps of arms.
Jarvey couldn't stand it. He turned and ran back into the dark, ran as hard as he could. He turned a corner and stepped onto nothing, rolled, and tumbled down a short carpeted stair.
He scrambled up, frantically reaching for the candle he had dropped, the weird candle that kept on burning. The second he gripped it, he heard something: a distant sound, rising and falling, like waves breaking on a beach.
Jarvey got up, his knees shaking, and saw that he stood in a kind of alcove, curtained off at the opposite side. It was difficult to tell, but in the light of his candle Jarvey thought the curtains looked like rich black velvet, gathered into many draped layers. The sound came from somewhere beyond them. Jarvey started forward and yelped in alarm when a firm hand touched his shoulder.
“No lights in the auditorium,” a whispery voice said, and a slim white hand plucked the candle from his grip. The man who had stepped from the darkness might have been made of darkness himself, except for his pale thin face and hands. His features were vaguely aristocratic, a long straight nose and firm chin, but he looked
Like the girl, he had skin crackled into a thousand zigzag pieces, and his eyes, a cloudy blue-gray, stared straight ahead in their sockets without moving. He had no chunks missing from his face, but his lips were so white, they looked bloodless. The man's left hand, holding the candle, seemed to be mostly bones, barely covered by a parchment-thin layer of bleached skin.
“This way, sir.” With his free hand, the man reached out and parted the black curtains, and Jarvey hurried through the opening.
It wasn't quite as dark, and now he could hear a man's voice trembling in a kind of wail: “Oh, I have lost my love and life! Adieu, my fair, my darling wife. Report how my sad tale ends, report me true, I beg, my friends, that the world at large may know of poor Iacchalus and his tale ... of woe!”
Then another man's voice: “Alas, he is dead, his spirit fled. His gallant heart has burst from sorrow. Friends, bear him away; we shall pause to judge and say what punishment to give his direst foe tomorrow.”
Jarvey came to what felt like a metal railing, and looking ahead he realized that far below him, shrunk to postage-stamp size by distance, a stage lay bathed in light. On it actors who seemed no bigger than ants moved slowly. The light faded as a curtain came down, and then an unseen audience, thousands and thousands of people, began to applaud, crying out, “Bravo!” and “Author!”
“It's a theater!” Jarvey said, feeling both relieved and surprised.
Because it was certainly the largest theater he had ever been in, the largest he could imagine. He stood at the back of an enormous horseshoe-shaped auditorium, with curving banks of seats falling away before him, down to that far-off stage.
The curtain rose again, and in the spill of light from it Jarvey could just make out the actors, bowing to the applause. That was what had sounded like surf! They took bow after bow, and then one stepped forward to an ovation like thunder. The sound very gradually died down, and then the man who had been acting the part of Iacchalus said, “Thank you, kind friends, thank you. Now that we have given you a tale of sadness and tragedy, we shall lift your spirits next time with a comedy. Our next performance, I am pleased to say, will be one of your old favorites, the happy story of the four foolish lovers and their equally foolish families, newly augmented with striking original scenes and three new songs. Please return to see our humble offering of
The Lovers' Stratagem, or, Two Couples Uncoupled.
Good night!”
The curtain fell for the last time on the stage, but now chandeliers dangling on long chains were creaking down from high openings in the ceiling, and a warm yellow wash of candlelight streamed from them, illuminating the crowd below. Jarvey had never seen so many people assembled in one place in his whole life, not at football games, not anywhere. The men all wore dark evening clothes, long black coats, white shirts, white ties, and top hats, and the women wore a rainbow of old-fashioned evening gowns, shimmering blues and reds. The men and women alike murmured as they turned to leave, all of them sounding very pleased with the play they had just seen. Jarvey caught fragments of their comments:
Splendid voice . . . moved to tears
another triumph ... glorious, glorious.
Jarvey dodged aside as a torrent of people made their way up the slanting aisles toward the passages he had just left. Nobody seemed to notice him as he stared up at the passing throng. All around the auditorium, crowds of men and women poured into the aisles. Jarvey gawped at them because he felt vaguely bothered by something. Lots of the people looked very much alike. There were about half a dozen different models of men, half a dozen models of women. All the men with dark mustaches looked enough alike to be brothers, if not twins. All the blond women in dark dresses were nearly identical, and so it was with the other models as well. And the conversations repeated themselves too. For twenty or thirty times, Jarvey heard identical-looking men tell identical-looking women, “We must come back for the comedy. I know you'll enjoy it.”
Finally the last few straggling people walked past him, and as they left through the black velvet curtains and stepped into the dark passageway, a sudden silence fell. Jarvey brought up the rear of the group. He ducked through the curtain and stopped in his tracks, feeling the hairs on his arms prickling.
The old man who had taken his candle stood alone, like a statue. No one else was in the passageway. But it should have been jammed! The audience members hadn't had time to go anywhere.
They had vanished the same way Betsy had disappeared, seemingly into thin air. They seemed to have faded away, like—well, like ghosts.
Jarvey somehow didn't want to follow them out into the darkness. He turned back and reentered the auditorium. In the helpful light of the chandeliers, he found a long aisle and walked down it, toward the stage. The auditorium was so huge that, looking up, he couldn't even see the ceiling at its highest point. The chandeliers seemed to be dangling down from infinity.
As he passed row after row of seats, Jarvey noticed something else. The carpeted floor and aisles lay clean, cleaner than any theater he had ever seen. No scrap of litter lay anywhere, and the seats all had been neatly folded up. After walking for what felt like a mile, he reached the front of the theater and only then did he realize how large the stage actually was. It was a lot bigger than his front yard back home, and the set on it looked gigantic. It represented a street in some city, vaguely reminding Jarvey of pictures he had seen of ancient Rome. Substantial three-storied marble-fronted houses, their fronts decorated with stone columns, formed the backdrop. A fountain in the center of the stage featured mermaids and soldiers in armor, and from a central column it jetted real water in a gurgling spray.
Separating the stage from the auditorium was a deep U-shaped pit with chairs arranged in orderly rows. It might have been the orchestra pit, Jarvey supposed, though he hadn't heard any music accompanying the play. No steps led down into the pit from the auditorium, but the drop wasn't all that great. He clambered over the low brass railing, let himself down until he dangled a few feet off the ground, and then released his grip, falling the last little distance.
His landing made a sharp thump, but no one seemed to be around to hear it. He found a metal ladder fixed to the back wall of the pit, and it allowed him to climb up onto the stage.
Jarvey stood blinking for a moment. Bright light streamed in from somewhere, though he couldn't spot its source. The radiance bathed everything on stage, though. He walked to the center of the platform and to his surprise saw that the realistic fountain was simply a flat cardboard cutout. Pale blue streamers blew in a jet of air. He had thought it was real water, but from up close he could see that it was not only fake, but sort of shabby-looking too. How had something like that fooled him?
And now he could see that the three-dimensional street of Romanesque houses was simply a flat painting as well. It didn't look convincing at all from here, although from far away he would have sworn that it was real.
Jarvey cautiously explored the left side of the stage, stepping into the wings. A wilderness of taut ropes and stacked weights cluttered the wall there, and a curtained-off doorway led to what seemed to be a row of a dozen dressing rooms, all of them empty. Long tables stood against walls lined with mirrors. Empty chairs had been thrust back away from the tables. A faint scent a little like the waxy aroma of crayons hung in the air.
The last dressing room, and the grandest, was a little different, though. A table in the center of this one held a silver bowl, and the bowl held some withered fruit, pears and apples. They weren't fresh and they certainly weren't crisp, but Jarvey devoured every bite of them.
He drank too, from an old-fashioned sink in that room. He noticed a long rack hung with a couple of dozen costumes, wrinkling his nose at the smell of stale sweat hanging over the outfits. On the long tables before the mirrors, wig stands without faces gazed at him balefully. When he moved up and down the length of the makeup table, he had the sense that the wig stands silently turned to keep him in sight.
Rummaging around on the cluttered tabletop, he found cakes of theatrical makeup, sponges, bottles of lotions and jars of creams, and a few stubby pencils—eyebrow pencils, he supposed. He took one of these, and he took one of those ever-burning candles from a wall sconce outside the dressing room.
In its pale yellow light, he could see a bulletin board hung over with hundreds of pieces of paper. Inspecting them, Jarvey found lists of actors and parts for hundreds of plays. He didn't recognize a single title:
The Roman's Revenge; Hearts in Conflict; Rollo's Seaside Holiday; The Sorrowful History of King Harold; The Play of Ghosts and Shadows;
others by the dozen. Some of the papers looked fresh and crisp, but many others had curled and yellowed with age.
Jarvey pulled four or five of the playbills down from the board, choosing ones that had been concealed by layers of later ones. The backs of the lists were blank. He had a pencil, and now he had paper. Maybe he could leave notes for Betsy. Maybe she would find them and then find Jarvey again.
After all, if she had stumbled into a doorway opening off that maddening corridor, she just might wind up here. Come to that, Jarvey thought, she might even have found her way out of this odd theater, if it had a way out.
He shivered, remembering how the crowd of people had abruptly, impossibly, evaporated into thin air. How the doll-creature had shattered and yet had tried to drag itself after him with its crumbling arms, crawling over its own fallen jaw.
Jarvey's imagination was racing again. What if the theater wasn't real at all? What if the people were spirits, what if...
What if it was all just a theater of ghosts and shadows?
Merely Players
ours of searching led Jarvey to only one discovery. He opened a door backstage and found himself in the same corridor he and Betsy had started in. There was the door to the loo, just opposite. If Betsy had stumbled onto this doorway, she had stepped right into the shadows behind the stage. And what had happened to her?
Jarvey knew she was resourceful, quick and smart. He told himself she could get out of any trouble, that she could handle danger. He couldn't help smiling when he remembered how, back in Lunnon, Betsy was such an expert thief that she could steal food right off the table without anyone's noticing. She'd be all right on her own. She didn't really need him to help her survive. Still, he needed her, and he didn't know what he would do if he couldn't find her again.
BOOK: Tracked by Terror
9.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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