Nearby was a severed head, but it was the one that had been on the center neck between the coyotes. It looked nothing like Curtis Hobart in the driver’s-license photo.
Using his satellite phone, Tommy Cloudwalker called the sheriff. Shimmering like mirages in the spring heat, the authorities arrived both overland and by helicopter.
Later, the coroner declared that the head and the body did not belong together. They never located Curtis Hobart’s head, and no body was ever found to go with the discarded head that had been dropped on the sand near Hobart’s corpse.
As I hurried after Boo, along the passageway toward the cooling tower, I did not know why Tommy’s unlikely story should rise out of my memory swamp at this time. It didn’t seem germane to my current situation.
Later, all would clarify. Even on those occasions when I am as dumb as a duck run down by a truck, my busy subconscious is laboring overtime to save my butt.
Boo went to the cooling tower, and after unlocking the fire door with my universal key, I followed him inside, where the fluorescent lights were on.
We were at the bottom of the structure. It looked like a movie set through which James Bond would pursue a villain who had steel teeth and wore a double-barreled 12-gauge hat.
A pair of thirty-foot-high sheet-metal towers rose above us. They were linked by horizontal ducts, accessed at different levels by a series of red catwalks.
Inside the towers and perhaps in some of the smaller ducts, things were turning with loud thrumming and whisking noises, perhaps huge fan blades. Driven air hissed like peevish cats and whistled like catcalls.
The walls were lined with at least forty large gray metal boxes, similar to junction boxes, except that each featured a large ON/OFF lever and two signal lights, one red and one green. Only green lights glowed at the moment.
All green. A-OK. Good to go. Hunky-dory.
The machinery offered numerous places where someone could hide; and the noise would make even the most lumbering assailant difficult to hear until he was on top of me; but I chose to take the green lights as a good omen.
Had I been aboard the Titanic, I would have been standing on the listing deck, leaning against a railing, gazing at a falling star and wishing for a puppy for Christmas even as the band played “Nearer My God to Thee.”
Although much that was precious has been taken from me in this life, I have reason to remain an optimist. After the numerous tight scrapes I’ve been through, by now I should have lost one leg, three fingers, one buttock, most of my teeth, an ear, my spleen, and my sense of fun. But here I am.
Both Boo and psychic magnetism had drawn me here, and when I proceeded warily into the big room, I discovered the attractant.
Between two more banks of gray metal boxes, on a clear section of wall, hung Brother Timothy.
BROTHER TIM’S SHOD FEET DANGLED EIGHTEEN inches off the floor. Six feet above him at its apex, a 180 degree arc of thirteen peculiar white pegs had been driven into the concrete wall. From these pegs stretched white fibrous bands, like inch-wide lengths of cloth, by which he was suspended.
One of the thirteen lines ended in his mussed hair. Two others terminated in the rolled-down hood bunched at the back of his neck, and the remaining ten disappeared into small rents in the shoulders, sleeves, and flanks of his tunic.
The manner in which those lines had been fixed to him remained at every point concealed.
With his head hung forward, with his arms spread out and angled up from his body, the intention to mock the crucifixion could not have been clearer.
Although lacking visible wounds, he appeared to be dead. Famous for his blush, he was now whiter than pale, gray under the eyes. His slack facial muscles responded to no emotion, only to gravity.
Nevertheless, all of the indicator lights on the surrounding breaker boxes — or whatever they were — remained green, so in a spirit of optimism bordering on lunacy, I said, “Brother Timothy,” dismayed to hear my voice so whispery and thin.
The whoosh-whirr-thrum-throb of machinery covered the breathing of the three-headed cigarette fiend behind me, but I refused to turn and confront it. Irrational fear. Nothing loomed at my back. Not a coyote-human Indian demigod, not my mother with her gun.
Raising my voice, I repeated, “Brother Tim?”
Although smooth, his skin appeared to be as juiceless as dust, grainy like paper, as if life had not merely been taken from him but had been sucked out to the last drop.
An open spiral staircase led to the catwalks above and to the high door in the portion of the cooling tower that rose above ground. The police would have entered by that door to search the vault below.
Either they had overlooked this place or the dead monk had not been here when they had swept through.
He had been a good man, and kind to me. He should not be left to hang there, his cadaver employed to mock the God to whom he had devoted his life.
Maybe I could cut him down.
I lightly pinched one of the fibrous white bands, slid my thumb and forefinger up and down that taut ribbon. Not ribbon, though, nor cotton cloth, nor anything that I had felt before.
Glass-smooth, as dry as talcum, yet flexible.
And remarkably cold for such a thin filament, so icy that my fingers began to grow numb from even a brief inspection.
The thirteen white pins were wedges, somehow driven into the concrete as a rock climber drives pitons into cracks with a hammer. Yet the concrete presented not one crack.
The nearest of the thirteen bristled from the wall perhaps eighteen inches above my head.
It resembled bleached bone.
I couldn’t see how the point of the piton had been embedded in the wall. It seemed to grow from — or to be fused with — the concrete.
Likewise, I wasn’t able to discern how the fibrous band had been fixed to the piton. Each suspending line and its anchor appeared to be part of a single unit.
Because he was a thief of heads, the Trickster behind me would have a formidable knife of some kind, perhaps a machete, with which I could cut down Brother Timothy. He wouldn’t harm me if I explained that Tommy Cloudwalker and I were friends. I didn’t have cigarettes to offer him, but I did have gum, a few sticks of Black Jack.
When I plucked one of the lines from which the dead monk hung, to determine its toughness, it proved more taut than I expected, as tight with tension as a violin string.
The fibrous material produced an ugly note. I had plucked only one, but after a beat, the other twelve lines vibrated, too, and from them arose eerie music reminiscent of a theremin.
My scalp crawled, I felt a hot breath on the nape of my neck, I detected a foul smell, I knew this was irrational fear, a reaction to the creepy condition of Brother Timothy and to the disturbing strains of theremin-like sound, but I turned anyway, I turned, chagrined that I was so easily suckered by my imagination, I turned boldly to the looming Trickster.
He wasn’t behind me. Nothing waited behind me except Boo, who regarded me with a baffled expression that hardened my embarrassment into a diamond-bright luster.
As the cold sound from the thirteen tethers faded, I returned my attention to Brother Timothy, and looked up into his face just as his eyes opened.
MORE ACCURATELY: BROTHER TIMOTHY’S eyelids lifted, but he could not open his eyes because he didn’t possess eyes any longer. In his sockets were matching kaleidoscopic patterns of tiny bonelike forms. The pattern in the left socket irised into new shapes; the pattern in the right did likewise; then both changed in perfect synchronization.
I felt well advised to take a step back from him.
Tongueless and toothless, his mouth sagged open. In the wideness of his silent scream, a layered construct of bony forms, jointed in ways that defied analysis and description, flexed and rotated and thrust forward only to fold inward, as if he were trying to swallow a colony of hard-shelled arachnids that were alive and reluctant to be consumed.
The skin split from the corners of his mouth to his ears. With not one bead of blood, his upper lip peeled toward his scalp, the way the lid of a sardine can rolls back with the twist of a key, and the lower part of his face peeled down over his chin.
While the intention had been to mock the crucifixion of Christ, Brother Timothy’s body had also been a chrysalis from which something less charming than a butterfly strove to emerge.
Beneath the veneer of a face lay the fullness of what I had only glimpsed in the eye sockets, in the yawning mouth: a phantasmagoria of bony forms linked by hinge joints, by pivot joints, by ellipsoidal joints, by ball-and-socket joints, and by joints for which no names existed, and which were not natural to this world.
The apparition appeared to be a solid mass of bones combined so intimately that they must be fused, compacted so completely that they could have no room to rotate or flex. Yet they did rotate and flex and pivot and more, seemed to move not merely in three dimensions but in four, in an unceasing exhibition of dexterity that astonished and amazed.
Imagine that all the universe and all of time are together kept in right motion and in perfect balance by an infinite gearbox, and in your mind look down into that intricate mechanism, and you will have a sense of my incomprehension, awe, and terror as I stood before the uberskeleton that churned and ticked and flexed and clicked, peeling the gossamer remnants of Brother Tim away from itself.
Something moved vigorously under the dead monk’s tunic.
If popcorn, Pepsi, and a comfortable chair had been available, I might have stayed. But the cooling tower was an inhospitable place, dusty and drafty, offering no refreshments.
Besides, I had an appointment with the Hoosier librarian cake-baker in the school garage. I am loath to be late for an engagement. Tardiness is rude.
A piton popped out of the wall. The fibrous tether reeled that wedge into the kaleidoscopic boneworks, incorporating it in a wink. Another piton came loose, raveled back to Papa.
This rough beast, its hour come ’round at last, didn’t need to slouch to Bethlehem to be born. Sharp white blades slashed through the tunic from within, shredding it. No need for Rosemary; no need to waste years as a baby.
The time had come either to light the black candles and start chanting in admiration — or blow this dump.
Boo had already scrammed. I vamoosed.
I pulled the door shut between the cooling tower and the service passage and fumbled with my key for a moment before I realized that the lock only kept people out; I couldn’t lock anyone inside.
The four hundred feet to the school appeared to be immeasurable miles, the ceiling lights receding to Pittsburgh and beyond.
Boo was already out of sight. Maybe he had taken a shortcut through another dimension to the school boiler room.
I wished I’d been hanging on to his tail.
WHEN I HAD SPRINTED ABOUT A HUNDRED feet, I heard the cooling-tower door slam open. The crash boomed like a shotgun blast through the service passageway.
Tommy Cloudwalker’s Mojave pal, the three-headed poster boy for the evils of smoking, seemed more likely to exist than did the skeletonized boogeyman that now coveted my bones. But fear of this thing was a rational fear.
Brother Timothy had been sweet, kind, and devout; yet look what happened to him. A shiftless, unemployed, smart-ass specimen like me, who had never exercised his precious American right to vote, who had accepted a compliment at the expense of the late James Dean, ought to expect a fate even more gruesome than Tim’s, though I couldn’t imagine one.
I glanced over my shoulder.
As it advanced through alternating pools of shadow and light, my pursuer’s method of locomotion could not clearly be discerned, though these were not steps that it had learned at a dance studio. It seemed to be marshaling some of its numerous bones into stubby legs, but not all were legs of the same design, and they moved independently of one another, foiling one another and causing the eager creature to lurch.
I was still moving, repeatedly glancing back, not standing in thoughtful contemplation and making notes of my impressions of the beast, but in retrospect I think that I was most alarmed to see it progressing not on the floor but along the junction of the ceiling and the right-hand wall. It was a climber, which meant the children’s quarters on the second floor would be more difficult to defend than I had hoped.
Furthermore, as it came, the entire structure of it appeared to turn ceaselessly, as if it were drilling forward like an auger boring through wood. The word machine came to mind, as it had when I watched another of these things flexing itself into one elaborate new pattern after another, against the reception-lounge window.
Tripping again, my pursuer lost its perch and clattered down the wall to the floor. Scissoring jacks of bone cranked it erect, and it came forward, eager but uncertain.
Perhaps it was learning its capabilities, as does any newborn. Maybe this was a Kodak moment, baby’s first steps.
By the time I reached the intersection with the passageway that evidently led to the new abbey, I felt confident that I would be able to outrun the thing — unless its learning curve was very steep.
Glancing back again, I saw that it was not just clumsy but also had become translucent. The light from the overhead fixtures did not play across its contours any longer, but seemed to pass through it, as if it were made of milky glass.
For a moment, as it faltered to a halt, I thought it was going to dematerialize, not at all like a machine but like a spirit. Then the translucency passed from it, and it became solid again, and it surged forward.
A familiar keening drew my attention toward the intersecting passage. Far uphill, in the voice that I had heard earlier in the storm, another of these things expressed its sincere desire to have a tête-à-tête with me.
From this distance, I couldn’t be certain of its size, but I suspected that it was considerably larger than the lovely that had come out of the chrysalis. It moved with confidence, too, with grace, glissading without benefit of snow, legs churning in a faultless rhythm, with centipede swiftness.
So I did one of the things that I do best: I ran like a sonofabitch.
I only had two legs instead of a hundred, and I was wearing ski boots when I should have been in athletic shoes with air-cushioned insoles, but I had the benefit of wild desperation and the energy provided by Sister Regina Marie’s superb beef sandwich. I almost made it to the boiler room safely ahead of Satan and Satan Junior, or whatever they were.
Then something tangled around my feet. I cried out, fell, and scrambled up at once, flailing at my assailant until I realized that it was the quilted thermal jacket I had shucked off earlier because of the whistling noise it made.
As if a chorus line of frenzied skeletons were tapping out the final bars of the show’s big number, the clickety-clack of my pursuer rose to a crescendo.
I turned, and it was right there.
As one, the regimented legs, different from but as hideous as those of a Jerusalem cricket, clattered to a halt. Although knuckled, knobbed, ribbed, and bristling, the forward half of the twelve-foot apparition rose off the floor with serpentine elegance.