“Are you gonna wear your sunglasses in the house?” Bill didn’t want to sound peevish – he hated the question seconds after he said it, but they’d seen through his thin scrim of authority and come barging in, and he was feeling underminded.
The man who was a little heavy, maybe 200, maybe 210 pounds, turned around and tipped his sunglasses up for Bill’s viewing, exposing the corneas hidden beneath them. The man’s eyes were yellow. Bill took a step back.
“The light hurts my eyes.”
Bill backed to the point where his rear thighs bumped into the edge of the bay window, almost sitting himself on the bench seat there, with its molding, faded cushions. He didn’t know what to say, but Bill, foolishly, felt he had to say something. Talking sometimes was a way of dispelling nervousness, though it often seemed to get him into hot water. Like with Gary, Francine’s man cock of the house, the guy who’d slugged him in the face after Bill laid into Francine about her smoking around Troy, the son they shared.
Bill remained silent, taking heed – hadn’t Lucy let him know a time or two, too? It didn’t matter. Bill asked, “You got some problem with your eyes?”
The man dropped his sunglasses back in place and turned and followed the other men, who were heading into the back kitchen. “Yeah,” he said. “They’re falling out.”
She was there, Bill figured, as if she’d been waiting for their arrival before appearing. The third element. The hetch.
Off the kitchen was the back door into the mudroom and tool shed attached to the rear of the house. They’d first stood around under the hood over the kitchen stove, Lepere explaining to them about the leftover, about the bird, smiling and looking at Bill as he relayed to the men how Bill and Lucy had handled the extraction with salad tongs and a canvas potato sack. Bill expected next that they would go up the stairs and likewise stand around and discuss the sphere, like doctors doing rounds, making notes on clipboards and nodding solemnly. They didn’t. What happened instead was Jean Lepere had looked out of the kitchen window and into the backyard and said, “She’s here.”
Bill followed the men out into the backyard. His blood was thrumming in his ears.
They formed ranks in front of him, and rather than take a position at either end, Bill stood behind the short Mancini and could see over the man’s head. It was clear this was something these men were accustomed to, to some extent, and he wasn’t prepared to join their phalanx. Call it professional courtesy, lack of proper sleep – call it brimming terror, Bill was happy at their backs.
She stood in the spring-like morning, barefoot in the melting snow. Behind her, water dripped from the branches of birch and hemlock. Droplets sparkled like jewels. The backwoods was south of the house, and the sun was low there as it started its mellow arc over the treetops, backlighting the forest, backlighting and partially obscuring the woman standing there naked.
“Jesus,” said Bill. He hadn’t meant to speak, and put a hand over his mouth. Now was the time not to worry about their special little group, of showing them courtesy, of touring their strange little world of curiously robotic moves and disintegrating eyes. All of that vanished for Bill and he started around Mancini. This was a naked girl in the backyard of an old country house.
Bill’s cop-self kicked in. She was someone in trouble. He’d seen kids on heroin, in these very parts, using their naked chests as surfboards in the snow, numb to everything, cracking into the ice of frozen ponds to join the scag-network’s version of the polar bear club. Kids that’d freezer-burned their nipples off. Kids that’d drowned in the icy shallows after their legs had ceased to hold them up in the gelid water. Babysitters high out of their gourds who don’t see trucks coming at them, don’t realize what’s in the backseat of the family’s car they’re driving, behind the little baby’s head…
Bill pushed the thought away as he walked around Mancini, headed for the girl, mouth opened to call out.
A hand hit his chest and Mancini, short but fiercely powerful said, “Don’t.”
Bill looked briefly at the hairy hand holding him back and then at the naked girl again. Though her features were hard to make out with the corona of rising sun sparkling almost exactly behind her, he put her age at about eighteen. Prime dope-using age, he thought, realizing dimly the pun made from his own name. It’d happened before, indeed.
He said to Mancini, in not quite a speaking voice, but not entirely a whisper, “She’s in trouble. It’s not that cold, but she could have been out all night.”
“She hasn’t,” he said. “She just got here.”
“How do you know?”
“Kimblak,” one of the other men called out so suddenly it made Bill jump around the shoulders, wincing as if about to be hit by a falling object. “Zeemen. Kimblak.” The way this one of the men spoke it sounded as though he had sinus congestion. Bill looked and saw that it was the heavyset man who’d revealed his yellow eyes. Quite an infection, Bill thought. He quickly returned his attention to the naked girl to see what, if any, reaction she had.
He couldn’t have been prepared for it.
What looked like smoke, sulfuric in its yellow hue, started to coalesce around her and rise, coming from out of thin air. Her arms drifted up to her sides.
A voice filled Bill Prime’s head. It was a soft, sensual voice, without echo, as if recorded in a sound-proof room and then rebroadcast to him over a headset. “Emblak,” said the voice, said the naked girl, if it was her. “Emblak care-wapon. Care-inseeya.”
Bill had only that moment to wonder if she was speaking some sort of Native American language when it changed to English, as if being translated for him – the tonality of the voice changed with the translation. It sounded, come to think of it, like the voice on the tape.
“I’m unbound,” said the soft, luminous voice. “I’m free and unbound. You could be, too.”
The heavyset man spoke again, this time sounding more like a normal man, one without a bad cold, and this time in English as well. “We thank you,” he said, “we have great plans for you, and bid that you stay around a little while longer.”
With that, the heavyset man with the yellow eyes hidden beneath his sunglasses (the same color yellow, Bill realized, as that smoke curling around her, lifting her up off of the ground, rising with her) stepped out of the group and took a few steps toward her. He had a hand in his pants pocket. He pulled his hand out in a fist and stopped only a few feet from her. Bill strained to see what he carried in that fist, but Mancini held him back with an arm like a two-by-four. Bill couldn’t see, but then the heavyset man in what might have been a Pierre Cardin suit (something you bought at Simms or K-mart, and not had tailor-made on Wall Street) reached into his open hand, and with the fingers of the other, lifted a coin from his palm. It was the color of pewter – or maybe it was silver and the backlight darkened it.
The heavyset man in the suit bent to one knee and placed the coin in the snow, and then another, and then another. Three coins in the snow. Each about the size of a fifty-cent piece. To Bill, it felt like watching something from a forgotten dream.
He turned his attention from this action to the end of the line of men, where the one in the Carhartt coat stood, the Icelander. Bill was compelled to see what he was doing, how he was reacting to all of this. As he looked over, Bill felt his cell phone vibrating from his inner breast pocket, and ignored it.
The Icelander was watching the rising girl, expressionless.
Back in the house, Bill noticed something about the man that’d first gotten out of the pick-up truck’s passenger side who had been previously unremarkable. Up close, in the kitchen, the four men standing in formation again, like a group of gunfighters instead of businessmen, this man had a distinct feature. His mouth was like a wound, festered and scabbed. The lips were beyond dry – they were nearly puckered. The man’s eyes too had yellowed around the irises, the kind of tint a lifetime smoker might develop. The irises were a colorless grey. He snuffed, like he had a bad cold. When the heavyset man had spoken to the girl in the backyard (the witch, Bill, the witch, for chrissakes she was floating) using that other language, he’d sounded congested too. They’ve all got the fucking flu, Bill thought. I’m going to get sick. Part of him knew he was focusing on these things because he couldn’t – or didn’t want to – see the whole picture. The real deal.
“Okay, Mr. Prime,” said Mancini.
Lepere had taken a different position now that these men were here – he sat on the kitchen counter where his legs dangled like a child.
“We thank you for your all your help. Now we ask you to leave.”
“I can’t leave,” said Bill. “I told you, this-”
He heard the cock of the firearm and wasn’t surprised when the heavyset man with the hidden yellow eyes leveled a pistol at him.
“We’re telling you,” the heavyset man said.
The girl, the hetch, was still in the backyard, hovering. The backyard was visible from the road that passed out in front, but only for a short distance. Once a car cleared the trees aligning the road and drove along side the beginning of Margaret Stender’s land, the tramped-down grass, bunched and knotted beneath the melting snow, there was a period of perhaps three seconds, driving at sixty (which most people did, though the posted limit was 40 through Ridgeview), when most of the yard behind the country house was visible.
It was a Sunday, the first of March, and there would be few travelers. Still, wouldn’t a driver be drawn to that ethereal light in the back of the house – more, the girl who was floating in its protean smoke?
“You won’t be left alone here,” Bill said, “whatever you’re doing. Whatever séance or ritual you think you’re going to hold. It’s quiet out here, but people see and hear everything. You’ll draw attention before long.”
“Walk out the front door, Primofski,” said Lepere from the counter. “We’ll take care of the house.”
“And whoever comes knocking,” said the heavyset man. The other man, the one with the wound-mouth, smiled. His teeth were the color of ash – and there were, Bill observed, far too many of them.
They paraded Bill through the house and out onto the front porch. As they walked, Bill pulled his cell phone out of his inner pocket. From behind him, the wound-mouth man grabbed Bill by the shoulder and jerked him around. Bill held up his hands, the cell phone in one. “Just a phone, just a phone. These things tend to go haywire at a time like this and not work.” The wound-mouth man let him go. In fact, the cell had been working. Sort of. There was a text from Lucy.
Round 2 @ ten?
It was their follow up. 24 hours after the gig, Lucy and Bill would return to the site, no crews this time. Another part of the tradition. Bill looked at the time on the face of the phone. It was 9:52. Having not gotten a response from him, Lucy was likely to come anyway. She was like that. Bill snapped the cell phone shut as they walked out the front door.
“I can’t let you guys stay here,” Bill tried again.
“Snuff it, Primofski,” said Lepere from somewhere toward the back of their line.
Bill thought of Lucy arriving and, tenacious like she was, giving these boys what for. He imagined they would make quick work of her, and pudgy, short-haired little Lucy would become another upstate statistic, one more domestic mishap in a century of domestic mishaps. Maybe they would take her upstairs, where the sphere hung in the air, immovable, and make her look like a suicide. Dress her up like a crazy lady who’d done herself in – with Lucy, it wouldn’t take much. And with these men, as Bill’s feeling went, they wouldn’t give doing her a second thought. Like they were probably going to do him, right here in broad daylight. Bill could sometimes be slow to catch on, but he wasn’t stupid. He wasn’t being led to his car to go peacefully on his way. This little caravan of men marching in their Pierre Cardin suits – half of them wearing sunglasses to conceal their yellow eyes – this was a march to his execution. They would put him in his car and kill him there. Less work – no need to drag the body out to the Subaru when they could kill him inside of it, easy-peasy, and have one of them drive it off somewhere, maybe into the woods.
The man leading the parade was the heavyset one, the one who’d spoken to the witch in that guttural language. (Guttural coming from him – sonorous and hypnotic from her.) He stepped down from the lip of the porch and onto the first step and Bill’s heart was beating now, his mind drawing a blank. Wasn’t a person supposed to enter into a kind of mental hyperspeed in times of survival? Shouldn’t he be rifling through various plans of escape? Nothing was coming to him, nothing at all. Only the dim sense that he was out-of-body, that he was helplessly watching this march unfold, floating above and beyond it, hovering like the naked girl in the backyard, aloft in a sour yellow light that had made Bill think of vicious perspiration.
There was a cracking noise, and a shout, and Bill watched as the heavyset man lurched forward with one leg, the other splayed back and straight. Not so deft after all, Bill thought. The heavy man’s foot had gone through the hole in the porch stairtread, and was caught there.
The man directly in front of Bill, between him and the heavyset, was Mancini, and Bill wasted no time. Bill shoved Mancini forward, and the short boss-man tumbled into him. Heavyset howled as Mancini hit him and bounced away, falling the rest of the distance to the slimy-iced front walk where he landed, instantly soaked. At the same time, Bill darted left, running the length of the porch in the direction and vaulting over the railing. At least, this last was part of the plan that’d finally formed at last. The wooden railing, weakened by years of weather and disrepair, gave way beneath his weight, splintering and dropping out beneath his arms. He fell the rest of the way to the ground at the end of the porch and landed in a heap.
Luckily, nothing felt broken or sprained. He was up a half a second later, mind finally sprinting ahead, having already determined that he was going to run to the back of the house, floating naked girl or not, and disappear into the woods. As he rose he heard the first shot crack off, and felt a burst of wind as the bullet slapped a groove by his ear.
He ducked and ran, like a man from a helicopter, waving his hands over his head as if to warn off a swarm of black flies.
The Icelander will double-back through the house, came the lightning thought. Lepere too, probably. Wound-mouth man will follow me around the house. I’ll be trapped in the middle. Still, he sprinted, hoping to outrun Workcoat and Lepere as they clamored back through the house. They had doorways to go through, after all, corners to turn – Bill had a straight shot to the woods, and had the jump start on them. But, then, there was the naked girl to consider, after all.
She floated higher than before, two man-lengths in the air, her arms straight out at her sides, her toes pointed down and feet overlapping. Bill could run right beneath her, there was plenty of room, but he opted to jag right, to go around her. As he did he heard a bang from the kitchen, as a cabinet or counter edge was slammed into by an overextended pursuer. Good, he thought. Bastards.
He neared the levitating witch-girl at his top speed, thankful to not have twisted anything in his fall from the porch, mindful of the odor of old cinnamon – like moldering leaves in October – as he approached her. He looked straight into the woods but could see, helpless, peripherally, as the floating woman looked down at his approach, her head tilting to the side, her chin dropping to her shoulder. Kimblak, he thought, Kimblak.
Something glimmered beneath her feet, resting in the snow. Her oblation; a trio of jewels sparkling. The coins.
He passed by them, passed by her. Nothing shot from her eyes. Nothing snaked out from her and coiled around him. No spell froze him in his run. He was beyond her and nearing the woods when the next bullet bit hot into the back of his leg, just above the knee, causing him to cry out, to stumble, to fall.
On the ground, he watched as Lucy approached in her silver Chevy Caprice. He didn’t know why, but Bill found himself noting the brown clumps of road gunk clinging to the underside of the chassis – he could see Lucy’s cat in the passenger seat, stretched up to see out the window. Bill felt the vibration of footfalls coming fast toward him over the backyard, the crunch of wingtips in crystalline, melting snow.
Get up, Primofski.
He pushed himself up with his arms, fingers digging into wet snow and hard long grass beneath. He shoved and got to his knees, and groaned and brought his unshod leg up under him, and was about to stand when he was punched in the shoulder – that was how it felt – by the next bullet, knocking him down onto his side.
He was a couple of yards from the woods. From the safety of the trees, the bracken of the forest floor, the sanctity of the bluish-grey erratic rocks. He could have run. He could have run to Canada, for that matter. But, Lucy.
Bill bent his neck to look at the driveway just as she pulled in and the first man to reach him – Lepere, not the workcoat man; Bill didn’t see him – dove on top of him. The blow of the man’s weight knocked the air out of Bill. Awwwufff he wheezed, and Lepere started hitting him, hitting him in the head and shoulder, punching the gunshot wound.
As Bill began to blackout from the pain he imagined the floating girl, the witch hovering amid those laces of turgid smoke, her head still tilted to look down at him, a look of sorrow on her face, like Christ on the cross.
Stay tuned! –Next week– Chapter Seven: You Don’t Breathe Because The Air is On Fire (10.12.11)
CHAPTER ONE: Lucy’s Perfect Pitch
CHAPTER TWO: The Audio Tape
CHAPTER THREE: Up The Stairs
CHAPTER FOUR: The Tall Man and the Four Elements
CHAPTER FIVE: The Zero Ring Men
CHAPTER SIX: Unbound
CHAPTER SEVEN: You Don’t Breathe Because The Air is On Fire
CHAPTER EIGHT: Buried Alive and The Demon Comes
CHAPTER NINE: The Dream