Gary A. Braunbeck has published over 160 short stories in a variety of magazines and anthologies. His stories have been reprinted three times in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, as well as receiving over twenty Honorable Mentions.
He is the author of the acclaimed collection Things Left Behind, as well as co-author (along with Steve Perry) of Time Was: Isaac Asimov's I-Bots. His next novel, entitled In Hollow Houses, will launch the new Dark Matter series of books from Wizards of the Coast/TSR Books later this year.
His work has been nominated for both The Horror Writers' Association's Bram Stoker Award and the International Horror Guild Award. He lives in Dayton, Ohio.
All materials copyright 1996-2001 by their respective creators. No stories, articles, poems or images from this webzine may be posted or published without the written consent of their creator(s).
This story originally appeared in Cemetery Dance and is an excerpt from Gary's new CD-ROM collection, Sorties, Cathexes, and Personal Effects.
To His Children In Darkness
by Gary A. Braunbeck
The rains came very hard to Cedar Hill that fall and brought with them screams. A few were heard, many were not.
Part TwoThe road shimmered and blurred as if seen through tears. Cletus Johnson squinted as the wipers whipped heavy streams of water across the windshield. He shook his head and blinked. Four years and it was happening again. Three boys this time. His hands were shaking. He was starting to see double. He took a deep breath to steady himself, thinking, It could be a mistake. But he hoped not. He slowed the car, rounded a curve, and glanced down at the thick file on the seat next to him.
Photographs, coroner's reports, newspaper articles, sworn statements. He spat out a derisive laugh, then fumbled a cigarette into his mouth. His hands no longer shook. He pressed down on the accelerator, ran a red light, and cast another quick glance at the file.
It contained documentation of a monster's killing spree, that much was easy to discern, but hidden in every shred of evidence were echoes of Cletus's greatest failure in life, one that had haunted him for nearly four years. He'd never found the killer, even with the small army of outside help the governor had called in.
That failure had cost him everything -- the election, his wife, his happiness, and a good portion of his self-respect.
The rain eased as he turned onto Cedar Hill's main street and drove toward the sheriff's office. He remembered the nightmares he'd had about the two little boys. Thought about the drinking that he'd hoped would make them go away. Recalled in vivid detail the night Esther had packed up her things and walked out of the house.
"The only thing you got left inside you, Cletus, is blame. Blame for yourself. I've tried to make it better but you don't want to forgive yourself. So don't. I hope you and your blame will be very happy."
He parked the car in front of the station, picked up the file, and climbed out. After four years the place felt no different to him than when he'd been sheriff.
Joe McGuire was waiting for him outside, as promised.
"Cletus," he said, smiling. Cletus couldn't help but smile in return. Joe cut a dashing figure with that smile, a feature that had helped him to win the election. Cletus was glad that Joe had been the man to step in; he'd been Cletus's best deputy.
"I know. We got guys out all over town helping the state police. Accidents, vandalism, you know the routine."
"Backward and forward," replied Cletus. He came up next to McGuire and dropped his voice to a whisper. "Is it him?"
That smile again. "It's him."
"Enough that I called you. I figure you'll remember more of the specifics from last time than I do." He cast a glance at the file Cletus was holding. "Well, lookee there. I've had guys looking all over Hell's Half Acre for that thing."
"Must've fallen in a box the day I cleaned out my office."
McGuire laughed as theywent inside, then pointed toward the conference room. "After you, sheriff."
"Still honing that snappy wit of yours, I see."
"Mayor just hates it."
"So did I."
The two men marched into the room, closed the door behind them--
--and locked it.
Part ThreeHelen Winston never knew a day without a physical pain, never knew a night that didn't bring a trip to the medicine chest for pills, never knew what it felt like to glance in a mirror and not wince at the sight of the misshapen thing that stared back at her.
Not that she didn't like herself, far from it; there were many qualities about herself that she admired.
But there were four things she hated.
One hung from her left shoulder where an arm was supposed to be, twisting down toward her ribcage and ending in a mass of mummified worms that looked more like a claw than five fingers;
Another was attached to the left side below her waist, coming up three inches short of a normal leg's length with a foot that pointed in the wrong direction, making it necessary for her to wear a special platform held in place by a metal brace;
The third was strapped to her back in the form of an ugly, off-center hump that made her stoop to the right and put the majority of her weight on her good leg, causing it to cramp at least three times a day;
But the worst of them, the thing she despised most about herself, was her face.
Helen Winston's face was remarkably lovely. Whenever she found herself sitting in a bar or restaurant alone (which was often), she would inevitably attract the eyes of some man who would smile at her, perhaps nod, and eventually come over to join her. Then they'd catch sight of that arm and its claw, that leg and its brace, that back and its hump, blink a few times, stumble over their words, and quickly fabricate an excuse to leave her. "Sorry, I thought you were someone else" was rapidly becoming the most popular.
Then with a click, a shuffle, and a thump, Helen would totter off into her own special world of night's loneliness, going through the same tired motions of grading test papers, watching some television programs, and climbing into an empty bed -- but sometimes there was a number she would call, a very special number, that would help take care of this last.
A day in the life.
Helen Winston: woman, grade school teacher.
Helen Winston: fate-ordained human monstrosity.
Helen Winston: lonely.
She was just waking from a brief nap. She had no idea that she had been chosen.
A few of them had crawled up from their hiding place and marked the spot where she lay. Their blood grew hot and excited as each wondered if theirs would be the seed her fertile womb would receive.
Her perfect, fertile womb.
In the darkness, as she stirred, they shuddered.
The note had read:
It was the first thing Cletus took from the file as he sat down across the table from the suspect. It had been pinned to the body of the first boy.
The table was an 8'x 3' pinewood job. Cletus, McGuire, and the still nameless suspect were at the end farthest from the door. At the other end stood two burly deputies, each holding a sawed-off 20-gauge pump-action shotgun. In the center of the table were all the items found in the suspect's possession at the time of the arrest: a torn Bugs Bunny t-shirt, a yo-yo, a bag of marbles, a baseball cap, a small pair of glasses--
--and a twenty-four inch sickle.
"Most of this stuff belonged to the three boys killed recently," said McGuire. "But look here -- this t-shirt belonged to the Simpson boy and the glasses are Danny Wilson's -- see here? The frame's taped together in the middle, and--"
"--I know," said Cletus. "His father told us how he'd fixed them just that day." He turned toward the suspect. "Where'd you get all these?"
The man didn't respond, only sat hugging himself and rocking back and forth. He was small and very well groomed. He wore an expensive three-piece suit, though the rains had left their mark on the material. He didn't look like a serial killer, more like the vice-president of a bank. But wasn't that always the way? Four years ago this man had butchered two little boys, then disappeared. Now he'd come back for more, and three new boys were dead.
It ended here. Tonight.
Cletus picked up the sickle, examined it under the light. It looked ancient but felt solid. The handle was marble with detailed carvings of mythological figures. Cletus felt a sense of power in the weapon, almost like an electrical charge. It ran up his arm, snaked through his neck, and flooded his brain with the urge to swing out and take this guy's head off. The sickle would give him the strength. He put it down.
"Outside," he said to McGuire. The sheriff followed him.
"What is it?"
Cletus closed the door. "Let me ask you something, Joe. Doesn't all this strike you as just a little too convenient?"
"I don't follow."
"You got yourself this guy who's carrying stuff that can be linked to all five of the dead boys. He's also got a sickle, which had to be the murder weapon."
" ... yeah?"
"How'd you find him?"
"Anonymous phone tip."
Cletus shook his head. "Something's not right. Has he said much?"
"Hardly a word. What're you thinking?"
Cletus raised a finger. "Not just yet. C'mon."
They went back in and found the suspect -- Cletus had decided to think of him as QuietGuy -- looking at the note. He was smiling.
Cletus snatched the paper from the man and sat down. "Something funny you care to share with the rest of us?"
"Maybe," said QuietGuy. Then he hugged himself and began rocking again.
Cletus looked at McGuire. "You read him his rights?"
"Whatta you think?"
"Always the eloquent one." He turned his atten'tion back to QuietGuy. "You feel like chatting now?"
QuietGuy rocked back and forth.
Cletus leaned forward, pounded his finger against the note. "You know what this is from, don't you?"
"Well, just in case you forgot, it's from The Odyssey by Homer."
QuietGuy stopped rocking. His eyes locked on Cletus's face.
"You surprised a hick like me would know Homer? I read, yessir. All the classics. Modern stuff too. You caught the new William Goldman yet? Hot stuff." He could feel something rising in his gut. His hands gripped the edge of the table. Cletus knew; as soon as QuietGuy's eyes met his own, he knew. The old instincts hadn't faded with time and empty bottles.
QuietGuy wasn't in this alone.
There was more to this than Joe McGuire suspected.
"I'm gonna say three names," whispered Cletus to QuietGuy, "and I want you to tell me if you know who I'm talking about."
QuietGuy sat frozen, eyes unblinking.
"Alecto," said Cletus--
--and QuietGuy swallowed hard--
--started shaking a little bit--
QuietGuy's shaking grew more violent but he didn't utter a sound.
Cletus sat back in his chair and lit a cigarette.
QuietGuy shook his head and giggled.
"Who the hell?" asked McGuire.
"What is it, Joe? Not up on your Greek mythology? Those are the three Furies. Alecto the Endless, Tisiphone the Retaliator, and Megaera the Envious Rager."
"I don't understand what--"
Cletus slammed his fist on the table and jumped to his feet, nearly knocking over his chair. "Goddammit! I told them, didn't I, Joe? When the governor called in the Feds, I told them this guy had some kinda hard-on for Greek mythology, didn't I? Everyone thought I was just goin' off the deep end 'cause Esther had just left me, thought I was grabbing at straws so I wouldn't lose the election."
"They followed up on that, Cletus, they--.
"--they sent one guy to the library for a couple of hours and decided I was full of shit. For a long time I thought maybe I was, but I've had a lot of time these past four years, time to do some reading of my own, some thinking." He spun around and pointed a finger at QuietGuy. "And you know what I'm talking about, don't you?"
McGuire grabbed his arm. "Cletus, this isn't the place to--"
"--yeah, yeah, I know. Your office, right?" He stormed over to the door, unlocked then opened it. "Let's go."
As McGuire came over to Cletus, QuietGuy picked up the note, shook his head, and whispered, "Paris."
"What?" said McGuire.
"Paris," repeated Cletus.
"Is this guy French or something?"
"No. Paris is someone's name."
"Care to tell me whose?"
"Not until you've had a drink. You'll need it."
Part FiveHelen rolled over in bed and groaned. Her back was throbbing but she refused to let that stop her. She had mythology reports to grade as soon as the agency man left. Her students were always pleased when she handed back papers on time. One of the few pleasures in her life was being treated with respect and not pity by her students. Of course, one shouldn't expect any less when teaching at a grade school for gifted children. They needed her and Helen liked being needed. If only for her mind.
A glass shattered in the kitchen and Helen snapped her eyes open.
"Dammit!" came a male voice. She blinked, trying to remember the man's name. Young fellow, blond hair, gray eyes, twenty-five or so, terrific body ... what did the agency say his name was?
She couldn't remember. After a while they all got to be the same, especially after the lights went out; then they were nothing more than a hot, sweaty body touching her where she needed to be touched, kissing her in places no freewilled lover ever would, slowly and patiently enduring the obstacle course of her body long enough to bring her home. And sometimes, like this guy, themselves.
She reached over to the bedside table, turned on the light, and picked up her purse. "What's your name again?" she called.
"Just call me Paris," said the voice from the kitchen. "Everyone does."
"Would you stop messing around and come here, please?" A few moments later he was standing by the bed, still naked. God, what a beauty he was!
"Usual agency fee," said Paris.
Helen sighed and began counting out the cash. "You were very nice. Most of the men they've sent me aren't usually so ... considerate."
To her surprise, he knelt on the bed, bent down, and kissed her; a long, warm, deep kiss.
He pulled away. "You have the most beautiful face I've ever seen."
Her defensiveness kicked in, telling her that she'd just been patronized. She sat up and covered herself with the sheet. "Thank you. You've got your money, please go now."
"Because we're finished, that's why. Because I have to get dressed and it's a little awkward with--"
"Then I'll just go in the kitchen and finish making our dinner, how's that?"
She stared at him. "Do you always make dinner for your, uh, your ... ?"
"No, but you're ... special."
"I've been making my own meals for almost thirty years, thank you. You may not believe it, but I don't call to have a nurse sent here. I don't want your pity and I don't want any false sympathy. I'll tell the agency that you were nice. There. Now you don't have to suck up any more."
"Don't get nasty with me, Helen. I like you. I loved being with you."
She shot him an angry glance, not sure how to take that. "What is it with you?"
"Let's just say that the traditional female body does nothing for me and leave it at that." There was genuine admiration in his eyes. "Scrambled eggs and bacon, all right?"
He kissed her again. "I really do love your face." Then he went to the kitchen.
Helen was surprised at how quickly she was able to dress. Usually the leg brace gave her trouble but tonight it snapped into place without the slightest discomfort. It wasn't until she was buttoning her blouse and looked across the room that she saw it.
The wall around the bedroom window was cracked. Not the paint, the wall.
And not only was it cracked, it seemed to be bulging inward as if the outside of the house had warped.
But there were other things.
like the chipped plaster on the carpet
like the odd angle of the window
and the gaping, half-inch space between the wall and window sill where a draft sliced through.
The gap ran the entire length of the window as if something had been used to saw through. She reached out with her good arm and touched the window, gasping when she saw it ever-so-slightly swing -- not much but enough to let her know this section of wall was on the verge of collapsing. She stepped back and shook her head.
Not once in thirteen years had there been a problem with the house. This was an old house, they were supposed to be built better, weren't they? Three thousand dollars away from paying off the mortgage and now the place decides to fall apart! She nearly cursed out loud--
--then saw the odd substance that leaked from the gap and ran down the wall. Thick and gummy, white yet almost clear. She wondered if something hadn't gone wrong with the wiring, perhaps causing something in there to melt--
--which would be fine if this house was built with plastic and glue.
She reached out and touched the substance, shivered when her fingers made contact. She looked down and saw it pooling on the floor. There seemed to be quarts of the stuff. She shook her head and wiped her fingers on the skin of her malformed arm.
Part SixNo one ever figured out the semen.
The three bodies they'd found had been drenched in it. Tests later showed it was animal semen but exactly what kind of animal no one would even speculate.
Of all the evidence, that was the one piece Cletus could never make fit into his theories.
He decided not to mention it as he entered McGuire's office. He started to sit behind the sheriff's desk, remembered who and what he was now, and took a chair on the other side. McGuire took off his hat, sat down, and pulled a small bottle of Scotch from the bottom drawer.
"Care for a snort?"
"Yeah," said Cletus. "And that's exactly why I'm not gonna have one. I left too much of me in bottles like that. Got any coffee?"
"Machine's right over there."
As Cletus was dumping the fifth spoonful of sugar into the cup, McGuire asked: "So what's all this about the Furies?"
"Follow me on this," said Cletus, sipping his coffee, deciding it wasn't sweet enough. "According to Greek mythology, when Father Heaven and Mother Earth were married at the beginning of time, They had children. Monsters. Horribly deformed and dangerous things. Mother Earth couldn't stand the sight of them so She asked Father Heaven to kill them but He didn't have the heart so instead He hid them away in the bowels of Mother Earth in places She wouldn't be able to find them. Great plan, huh?
"By this time, She and Father Heaven had had Themselves a bunch more children. This batch turned out a lot better than the first. The Titans and Cyclops and such. They ruled over all life on the planet. Anyway, Mother Earth found out that Father Heaven didn't kill the frst batch and got real pissed off. She persuaded Cronus, Her youngest son, to attack his father."
Cletus sat down across from McGuire and, without thinking, put his feet up on the desk.
"Here's where it gets interesting. Cronus took a sickle and -- the legend is real specific about this -- with an upward swing, castrated Father Heaven. The blood from His genitals fell on the Earth and soaked into the ground and gave birth to the Furies. Howling, gargoylelike barking bitches, hellbent on shedding blood. The legend says -- depending on whether you follow the Greek or Roman version -- that the Furies will one day lead the first batch of children up to take possession of the world once again. It's said that the sound of thunder is the Furies cracking their whips against the sky and that lightning is the flash of the whip's metal spikes."
McGuire gave a long, low whistle. "That's pretty wild."
"I thought you might say something like that."
"So what's this guy trying to do?"
"According to the Greeks, the Furies could be summoned by the scent of blood from a virgin boy's testicles. Don't you get it? This guy you got in there has a buddy, and the two of them are trying to summon the Furies."
"So what happened with them?"
"How the hell am I supposed to know? Maybe him and his buddy had a lover's spat. One of 'em sure ratted on the other."
"You're forgetting one thing."
"The animal semen."
Cletus looked at McGuire and nodded his head. "I was hoping you wouldn't bring that up."
"And why now? They've managed to hide for over four years. Christ! We had almost a hundred guys working on this and we still couldn't track 'em down..
"And?" said Cletus, prompting.
"C'mon, Joe! You go duck hunting! Think about it."
" ... a decoy ..."
"I knew you were the man for the job."
McGuire's face suddenly drained of color. "Do you think this whole thing was set up? That his buddy turned him in just to keep us busy while he--?"
"It's quite possible."
McGuire jumped up, spilled his drink, and sprinted toward the door. "Jesus! I gotta call everyone in, get some extra men, organize--"
Cletus grabbed his arm. "Take it easy. They've already killed three boys, one for each Fury. They don't need any more. Besides, if any kids were missing, someone would have called by now, don't you think?"
"Maybe, but I'd still--"
"When you were my deputy, Joe, the one bad habit you always had was acting just a little too fast. Not that quick relfexes aren't good, nosir, it's just you were always prone to jump before you looked. Now sit your ass down and get yourself calm, okay?"
"Don't order me around. I have this problem with authority figures." He took his seat behind the desk. "Would you mind telling me how Paris fits into all this?.
"Paris was mortal, a Greek soldier who was asked by Zeus to pick the most beautiful of the goddesses. It was said that no one had Paris's eye for beauty. He later fell in love with Helen of Troy. A war was started over her, you might recall."
"The Trojan War. I remember that much from high school." McGuire lit a cigarette and smiled at Cletus. "That's some reading you've done."
"I couldn't stop thinking about it, Joe. I had no idea how far apart Esther and me had grown. I just assumed that whatever interested me would interest her. I thought about them two boys so much, what they'd been put through, how they musta ..." He shivered. "I thought about it so much I just stopped talking. Then I stopped sleeping because of the dreams. Then I couldn't stop draining bottles. Poor Esther. Worked all her life to give me a good home. She loved me, was true to me, put up with my moods and cheered me when I was down, and I deserted her. We should've gone on to a nice time, the two of us, but somewhere in there I just lost whatever it was about me that she fell in love with. Couldn't much expect her to stick around and watch me commit suicide on the installment plan, now could I? So she left and I dived into my reading, my thinking. Every time I looked in the mirror I saw the faces of those little boys. Lost myself." His eyes met the sheriff's. "No more, Joe, hear me? We're gonna nail both these bastards, tonight! He's gonna tell us where his buddy is if I have to beat it out of him."
"Can't let you do that."
Cletus smiled. "If you do it, it's excessive force, police brutality, all that good bullshit that a lawyer can use to get the case thrown out of court. If I do it, well, then, that makes things a little different."
"I never thought of it that way."
Their eyes met.
"I want 'em, Joe. Goddamnit, I want 'em." He felt one hot tear slip from his eye and course down his cheek.
"So do I," replied McGuire.
When they returned from the conference room, McGuire told the two deputies to leave. They looked at Cletus, smiled, and did as they were told. McGuire stood at the door, staring at QuietGuy but speaking to Cletus.
"Rain's stopped. It's a nice, cool night and it's getting a bit stuffy in here. Think I'll take all the guys outside for some fresh air. You mind keeping an eye on our pal here for, say, ten minutes?"
"Not at all," said Cletus, closing the door behind McGuire. Then he reached under the back of his jacket, pulled out a Colt Commander 9mm Parabellum, and turned to QuietGuy.
"Tell me about Paris," he said.
Part SevenHelen sat on the bed and stared at the window, then looked at the substance on her arm.
For some odd reason she thought of all the nights she'd lain alone with dreams of having a body that matched the beauty of her face. They were laughable fantasies, always with a handsome hero. She smiled bitterly to herself, wondering if she'd ever find a man to play Perseus to her Andromeda, Pygmalion to her Galatea, Pyramus to her Thisbe--
--or Paris to her Helen.
She turned and looked toward the kitchen.
Paris to her Helen.
Why hadn't that registered with her before?
She went into the kitchen and looked at the young man standing near the stove.
"What's your name?"
"I told you once," he replied.
"Yeah, I know. Paris, right?"
"Right. Sit down, this is almost ready."
She took her seat at the table, wincing from the pain in her back. She could tell already it was going to be a lousy weekend; first the wall, now this smartass kid trying to keep a straight face while inside -- she knew as surely as she was sitting there -- he was laughing at her.
"So," she said, deciding to beat him at his own game, "do you like your work?"
"I love it. Do you like yours?"
"I have fine students."
"And I'll bet they find this stuff as fascinating as you do, huh?"
She stared at his back, made no reply.
"It must be something, exposing all those bright, young minds to this ancient knowledge. I mean, I know that mythology is only one of the courses you teach, but it must be the most interesting." He laughed. "Tell me, do your fantasies about Perseus and Pygmalion keep your bed warm at night?"
"How dare you--"
He whirled around and set her plate down. "Here we go. For The Face That Bounced A Thousand Hips." He laughed again.
Helen didn't stop to think and didn't want to. She pushed up from her chair as quickly as she could and slapped him across the face so hard that he reeled back against the sink, dropping his own plate and falling to the floor just as the plate shattered, spitting sharp slivers over his exposed chest. The fury which had propelled Helen to strike out ebbed away immediately, leaving a dull aching blush on her face. Even though he'd infuriated her, even though he'd deserved to be slapped, Helen was at once sorry she'd done it.
And then she realized that she'd slapped him with her left hand. A powerful, dizzying sensation sent her back down into her chair. She blinked her eyes several times and looked at her left hand. Watched as one finger--
--then all of its fingers--
--fingers that hadn't moved since the day she was born, fingers that were supposed to be useless, started moving for chrissakes. She opened her mouth and gasped, gulping down air as she realized her arm, her useless, mangled arm, had become long and slender and beautiful, with a perfect, delicate hand at its end. She blinked again, tried to clear away the image because it wasn't true, it couldn't be, dead limbs didn't just come to life and now, now her fingers were flexing and she shrieked, feeling her arm tingle into full life, fingers wiggling as if saying to the world, hello, yes we've been asleep but now we're back and it's kind of nice here, don't you think and didn't we have a grand time slapping that little shit's face?
She felt something slip from her eye and course down her cheek. She opened the fingers of her left hand, closed them, made a fist, opened them again, snapped with her thumb and middle fnger, a wide and radiant smile crossing her face as the sound reverberated within the small confines of her kitchen. She felt the blood rushing to her temples, took a deep breath, and -- for the first time in her life, for the first time in thirty-nine years -- wiped the tears from her eyes with both hands, forgetting about Paris, forgetting about the wall, the window, and the awful substance that dripped--
"What's the matter with your arm?" asked Paris.
"Uh ...I don't really ... the window, there was some stuff and I wiped it ..."
Paris looked in the bedroom, saw the window, the wall. "They know," he whispered. "They know."
"Who knows? What are you talking about?" She was suddenly very frightened.
"Tell me," said Paris, "do you and your students really know what you're dealing with?"
He knelt and took her face in his hands. "All these precious, gifted children that you teach. Do they have any idea of the true nature of these myths?"
Helen shook her head; not so much in answer to his question as to clear her mind and calm herself. She didn't know what was happening but she knew her head needed to be clear. Needed. Feeling needed.
Paris gripped her face harder. "Answer me."
She looked into his face. Her heart skipped a beat.
His eyes were wide and solid black. Dark, pupilless marbles.
He quickly stood, seeming larger now, so much taller, angrier--
--so much more dangerous.
"Poor, pathetic people," he whispered, stomping back and forth across the kitchen like a caged animal. He seemed to be getting bigger by the second. His chest heaved with fury and fear.
"You've always been fascinated by these myths, haven't you? But none so much as the ones about monsters. And why do you spend your nights reading about them? Because even with all the books, all this glorious human knowledge, you can't find one reason for any of it, can you? You can't find one reason why people like you are born deformed, why there are freaks and retards. Oh sure, you can find theories about extra chromosomes and why cells mutate, but in all the words you can't find one explanation as to why they exist in the first place!" His face was red and swollen with the heat of his anger.
Helen looked quickly at her arm -- her lovely, rejuvenated arm -- and saw that it was shaking.
Paris whirled around, yanked open the utensil drawer, and snatched up the silverware tray. He quickly rummaged through the pieces until he found what he was looking for.
A long, sharp, gleaming carving knife.
Helen shifted in her chair and eyed the back door a few feet away. Even with the leg brace she thought she might be able to make it. Just get there before him, yank open the door, and scream bloody murder. This wasn't a rough neighborhood, people around here called the police at the slightest sign of--
--then she saw the small chain lock, ever in its place. That would take precious time away but she had two arms now, two hands -- she couldn't deny that any more, the feeling was too real -- and she might pull it off in time but--
She could heave a chair between them, run into the bathroom, lock the door, and scream out the window.
For the first time she was glad that her bathroom window faced the street.
Paris stood looking at her, twisting the knife around, admiring the glistening metal of the blade the same way he'd admired her body. "Well, Helen," he said, " I can tell you why those things exist. I can tell you where they came from."
He took a few steps away from her, half-turning toward the window over the sink. "I told Danny Wilson and the other boy all about it. I can show you what I showed them, things you never imagined,"--
--his grip tightened around the knife's handle--
-- "things no human being has ever seen before. And lived."
Helen swallowed hard. Danny Wilson. She remembered him. Well-behaved boy, very bright, always had tape holding his glasses together. Butchered along with Jim Simpson four years ago. He'd only been her student for a month when he was killed. Oh, God! And now the killings had started again.
Paris stood over her, his eyes still wide black marbles.
She craned back to see him.
She hadn't been imagining things. He was getting larger. She didn't know why and didn't care; all she wanted was to please God get away from this madman alive.
"I have to tell you a story, Helen, so you'll understand what's going to happen to you. To us." His voice was different now, deeper, more powerful, an echo from ancient caves.
He smiled. "When Father Heaven and Mother Earth were married at the beginning of time, They had many children. monsters. Horribly deformed and dangerous things ...."
Part EightAn ashen-faced Cletus opened the station door and said, "Joe, would you come here, please?" He was drenched in a clear, thick substance.
McGuire followed Cletus in. "Well?"
Cletus, shaking, replied, "He's dead, Joe. I swear to God I didn't -- he -- c'mon, see for yourself."
The two men stepped into the conference room.
The walls and ceiling were covered in the same thick substance as Cletus's dothing. The table had been split in half. The contents of the file were scattered everywhere.
"What the fuck did you do, Cletus?"
"I only hit him a few times, I swear to you, Joe."
McGuire pressed his hands against his eyes and swallowed. "Christ! Where is he?"
Cletus took him by the arm and stepped around a section of table.
The sickle's blade was buried in the wall almost to the handle. Hanging from the exposed portion of blade was a suit of skin, split open from the center. There was no blood anywhere.
McGuire took a deep breath and leaned against the wall.
At his feet were the shredded remains of the suspect's clothing.
A few feet away from that was something out of a nightmare.
"God, Cletus," said McGuire, "what is it?"
"That's him, Joe. That's what he really looked liked underneath his skin."
McGuire turned and emptied the contents of his stomach into a nearby wastebasket.
"Listen to me, Joe," said Cletus. "When you left I took out my gun and knocked him across the jaw. I tried to get him to tell me where his buddy was."
"You brought a gun into my station?"
McGuire was shuddering but managed to keep his composure. "You know damn well I can't present this ... thing as a suspect. We had a human being in here fifteen minutes ago, Cletus, a human being who's been skinned alive. Oh, God." He pinched the bridge of his nose. "I'm gonna lose my job because of this, you dumb bastard."
Cletus grabbed McGuire's arm. "No, you're not, because the guy who killed the first two boys is still out there and we can get him!"
McGuire looked up. "Where?"
"I'm not sure, but--"
"Oh, that's just great! You're not sure! That'll go over big with the mayor."
"Then look at this," said Cletus, shoving some damp papers into McGuire's hand.
"What is it?"
McGuire uncrumpled the pages, wiped them off. "Yeah, so?"
Cletus got right up in his face. "When Zeus asked Paris to choose the most beautiful of the goddesses, He expected him to pick Aphrodite, but Paris didn't -- he chose Helen, a mortal woman. The Gods were divided over this. Zeus sided with Paris and the other Gods were angered. So they found a Trojan soldier who was rumored to have an equal eye for beauty. His name was Menelaus. But he fell in love with Helen and fought Paris for her love. It was one of the things that started the Trojan War."
McGuire slammed his fist against a chair. "So what? I don't need a goddamn history lesson, Cletus, I need a suspect. A living suspect!"
Cletus pointed toward the conference room. "He told me his name, Joe. He was Menelaus."
"So you were right. These guys had some kinda thing for Greek mythology."
Cletus raised a finger and smiled. "The first two murdered boys went to the same school. The Anderson Institute For Gifted children."
"We knew that last time. It was one of the first things the FBI checked out."
"Right. But they had no teacher in common so the Feds dropped it. Big mistake."
McGuire looked at the pages. "I don't--"
"I feel like a moron for not seein' this sooner. There are three teachers at Anderson named Helen. One teaches science, another teaches math, but the third teaches three courses: English, Appreciation of the Modern Novel, and Mythology."
McGuire's eyes widened. "Holy shit."
"That's not all," said Cletus, sorting through the pages until he came to the teacher's list. "Look where she's from."
McGuire took the page and read. "Troy, Ohio."
"Paris, Menelaus, and Helen of Troy," said Cletus.
"This list her current address?"
"At the bottom."
Their eyes met.
"He told me his name," said Cletus. "Then he said that Paris had been given his chance and failed, that's why he'd been sent. But Paris had tricked him, he said. The 'others' would soon know and would kill him and Paris. What 'others' I don't know, but he was scared. Said he was dead regardless of what he did now, so he took the sickle and split himself open. Took off his disguise. Asked me to kill him before the 'others' got him. Then he came at me and I shot the thing." Cletus wiped something from his eye.
"I'm sorry but I was scared! I'm scared right now, more than I've ever been."
"Let's go," said McGuire, jumping to his feet.
"Just you and me, Deputy?" said Cletus.
McGuire smiled. "Just you and me, Sheriff."
Part Nine" ... the Furies would return and lead the First Children up from darkness to take possession of the world once again."
Paris smiled, a smile that was almost tender--
--Helen took a breath--
--and made her move.
She slammed shut the mythology text book and flung it at his head with all the strength she could find; it should have struck him at the base of his left temple because no human was fast enough to dodge something like that but he cocked his wide, monstrous hand up in front of his face, caught the book with three fingers, and crumpled it like a piece of tissue paper. He breathed heavily as he continued to grow, his head almost touching the ceiling. The clothes on his body shredded apart.
He stood naked and hunched over, a good three feet taller.
That was the moment Helen realized she was in the presence of something not human.
She tried to turn and run toward the bathroom but the damn leg brace--
--tripped her up. She lost her balance and shrieked, her arms pinwheeling as she toppled into the chair and fell across it like an animal across an altar. All she could do for a moment was lie there and try to breathe, try to stop the pain and get some balance. Plaster dropped from the ceiling in large chunks and struck the back of her head as Paris started to move toward her. She reached down and gripped the legs of the chair, pulled in a breath, then rolled over and jerked the chair up in front of her, holding it over her head. The pain in her back shot into her belly and cramped her. Hot, angry tears burst from her eyes as she gritted her teeth and vowed to fight him until she was dead. The kitchen lights shattered from the pressure of Paris's back. A shower of sparks fell over his shoulder and rolled down his arms.
He tore the chair from her hands, then knelt down next to her legs.
"I'm not going to hurt you, my love."
Helen tried to move away but he gripped her braced leg and pulled her toward him.
He inserted one of his fingers under the first clamp of the brace and snapped it apart.
"You won't be needing this," he said.
Then he snapped the second clamp.
"Story's not finished yet. You see, Father Heaven forgot about the First Children for a very long time. Many of them died waiting for His return. But not all of them."
He tightened his grip on her leg and snapped the third clamp.
"A few survived. He saw how much they wanted to live and was touched. After all, they had outlived the Cyclops and Titans and Kraken. They deserved to go on."
The fourth clamp went. Rivulets of sweat dripped off Helen's forehead and into her eyes.
"So He sent them mates. But these mates were human women. From their wombs sprang forth the sick and deformed, the damaged, the retarded. And these offspring made their way to the surface and intermingled with humankind, producing others that were like themselves. Father Heaven tried to gather up these new offspring but by the time He realized what had happened, the seeds of the First Children had spread so widely He could no longer recognize the new generation. What had marked them, what had made them special had been distilled, filtered down, if you will, by combining with human blood. So He gathered what he could and returned them to the bowels of Mother Earth, promising to release them when one was born who was clearly marked as both human and not. Only then could He allow the Furies to be summoned."
The last clamp went and Paris yanked away the leg brace. "But this woman had to be very special, very beautiful, very wise."
"W-why me?" choked Helen.
"Your face was the answer, my love. Measureless time ago, a great war was fought over the woman whose lingering seed gave you that face." He leaned closer. "Father Heaven returned to us many nights ago. He returned to His children in darkness and told us it was time to summon the Furies. Then He told us of you. And we chose you." He touched her face with more gentleness than Helen had ever known.
"But I wanted you for myself, Helen. I was denied you once before. Never again. I was the first to be sent up. Father Heaven gave me the sickle Cronus used to castrate Him. I had only a few days to find three boys, three untouched, virginal boys, and bleed them. The Three Furies must be summoned together. One boy for each. But I failed. I saw you and all thought of my mission fled. I would not be allowed to rejoin the others below but I didn't care."
Helen struggled and tried to pull away from him.
"Do you realize the price I've paid for your love? After the Great War I was punished for my sin of choosing you over the goddesses. I was turned into one of the creatures Father Heaven had hidden away. I was forced to live down among the darkness. My only comfort was that my enemy, Menelaus, was made unhuman, also. But the memory of your loveliness kept my seed strong." He released her and stood.
"I waited for the moment to come to you. But Father Heaven sent Menelaus to the surface. I had to pass the sickle to him so he could make the necessary sacrifices. But that's not all I passed to him. You see, my love, whoever sacrifices a young boy to the Furies must keep something that belonged to that child to use as a talisman, a controlling charm. I gave the two I had to Menelaus. The fool actually thanked me. He seemed to think that the creatures had erased my hatred for him and what he did to us during the Trojan War. But I have no affection for him. Father Heaven made us both unhuman, yes, but that did not make us brothers. Once he'd taken the talismen I made a phone call to the authorities. I imagine they have him by now."
He raised the knife.
" ... p-please," whispered Helen.
"Not to worry, my love. I won't harm you. But since I've revealed part of my soul to you, it's only fitting that you see the rest."
He smiled. "Look from what you sprang."
With a powerful downward arc he thrust the knife deep into his stomach and dragged the blade across.
Part TenMcGuire asked: "You got anything besides the Colt?"
Cletus pressed down on the accelerator and ran a stop sign. "Look under the blanket on the back seat."
McGuire did and found one Mossholder handlegrip twelve-gauge shotgun and one Uzi. "These look new."
"They are," replied Cletus, squinting at the road. It was starting to rain again; not much, just a light drizzle, but he knew it would get worse.
Things always got worse.
He cast a quick glance at McGuire who was loading a clip into a .357 Magnum Auto-Mag. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think that's a standard issue gun, is it?"
McGuire grunted then said: "Did I hassle you about that monster you're carrying?"
"Forget I said anything."
They were now five miles from Helen Winston's house. Cletus could feel his pulse racing. Both he and McGuire knew that Paris would be there. They had only their gut instincts, but between them there was almost fifty years of experience and they both knew enough not to question those instincts.
The rain was coming down harder. Thunder, a flash of lightning. Cletus thought he heard the sound of a whip being snapped.
He cast a glance at McGuire. "What?"
"We have to take him alive, Cletus."
"If possible." It was tough talk, but that's all it was -- talk. Cletus was so scared he almost couldn't breathe.
"If he's like his buddy," said McGuire, "then I'll need living proof. I'm gonna have to prove that they ... ain't human."
Cletus looked up as the rain began pinging against the roof of the car. It was almost hypnotic, that sound.
"I'm sorry about Esther," said McGuire. "And I'm sorry no one believed you before."
"Not your fault, Joe. You came through for me, that's all that's important."
They both stared out into the night.
"I'm scared, Cletus."
"Welcome to the club." He slid the Mossholder within his reach. "How do you want to do this?"
"You go through the front and I'll take the back."
"When do the guys at the station expect you to call in?"
"I told them thirty minutes. If they don't hear from me, we're gonna have lots of company."
The car hit a puddle and started to fishtail but Cletus managed to keep it on the road.
thunder. A flash of lightning.
Was it just his imagination or was the rain--
--tappity-tap-tap ... tappity-tap-tap--
--sounding a little too rhythmic?
The car seemed to shift despite his efforts, as if something were throwing it off-balance.
The rain pelted across the windshield. A chill crept down Cletus's spine as he suddenly remembered something from his readings over the years.
The Furies always appeared during storms. Their whips brought the thunder and lightning, and the rains gave them cover.
He slowed as he rounded a corner, felt the car lurch, and looked over at McGuire--
--who was looking up.
He never finished.
--tappity-tap-tap -scrape -scrape -SCRAAAAAAPE--
The roof buckled in from the center. The dome light exploded into McGuire's face and he fell forward, hands clutching at his eyes. It would only be a matter of moments before the thing on the roof broke through, so in both panic and anger, Cletus reached up and began beating against the bulge with his fist. His eyes weren't on the road, they were looking at the growing bulge but then McGuire screamed and Cletus turned, saw--
--the talon, the goddamned corded talon ram through the opening, sharp and glistening, jerking back and forth, opening and closing, trying to latch onto flesh and rend it to shreds and Cletus didntcouldntwouldnt panic, he was too goddamn angry now because McGuire was bleeding and howling in pain and this thing wasn't finshed yet--
--he glanced at the road, pressed down on the accelerator, pulled out the Colt, and fired three shots through the roof but the talon kept coming. Cletus screamed as one of its points gouged his cheek. The pain burst through him like fire as he looked in the windshield and saw the reflection of three little boys staring back so he took a deep breath, gripped the wheel--
--and slammed on the brakes.
The car jerked to a halt as the talon vanished through the hole and something huge whalloped against the hood and bounced off onto the road.
Cletus put the car into drive, then roared forward and drove over the thing. Bits and pieces of it flew up and splattered against the side windows as Cletus backed up again, pushing the car back and forth; loud, agonized shrieks broke through the night as the thing was crushed under the wheels.
Cletus backed up one more time, tires screaming; the stench of burning rubber filled the interior of the car, the gears scraped as he pressed on the accelerator and brought the car forward again, one last time, holding steady, spinning the tires, grinding the thing under the treads, watching slimy chunks of it fly in every direction, hearing its cries fade into whimpers and then a choke and then nothing. Nothing at all.
Cletus kept the car still, his breathing hard and painful, his head throbbing, his heart hammering against his ribs. McGuire fumbled around until he was sure the car wasn't moving anymore, then reached over and clamped onto Cletus's arm, pulling himself up. His face was bleeding from the shards of dome light glass and one eye was swollen shut. Cletus backed up one more time and heard the engine cough, sputter, then die.
"How bad are you hurt?"
"Not ... not too bad," said McGuire, pulling out a handkerchief and wiping blood from his face. "What in God's name was that?"
Cletus tried to start the car. Nothing but a click. He tried again with the same results, cursed, then flung open the door, happy to fill his lungs with the cold dampness. The exhaust in the car was choking him. The rain spit into the car, an icy and welcome reminder that there was still a world out there, a world with wind and cold and life-giving rain.
Cletus sat still for a moment, letting the chill soak in. It felt good, this cold. His senses became more attuned. He took several deep breaths to steady himself and thought again of Esther. He'd never really believed her when she told him how proud she was of the work he'd done. No. She was just trying to -- ah, the hell with it.
He gripped the Mossholder, pumped a round into the chamber, and climbed out. His legs were shaking as he stepped toward the front of the car.
He hoped the thing was dead.
He hoped the rain let up.
And he hoped that he and McGuire had the strength to make it to Helen Winston's house on foot.
Paris flipped the costume of flesh and muscle over his head.