Fort Wyvern has been closed only nineteen months, so I haven’t had time to learn each niche of it as thoroughly as I’ve acquainted myself with every cranny of Moonlight Bay. Thus far, I’ve confined most of my explorations to the more mysterious precincts of the base, where I’m most likely to encounter strange and intriguing sights. Of this warehouse, I knew only that it was like the others in this cluster: three stories high, with an open-beam ceiling, and composed of four spaces—the main room, in which we stood, one office in the far right corner, a matching room in the far left corner, and an open loft above those offices. I was sure that neither the sudden noise nor the voice had come from any of those places.
I turned in a circle, frustrated by the impenetrable darkness. It was as pitiless and unremitting as the black pall that will fall over me if, one day, cumulative light damage plants the seeds of tumors in my eyes.
A louder noise than the first, a resounding crash of metal against metal, boomed through the building, giving rise to echoes that rolled like a distant cannonade. This time I felt vibrations in the concrete floor, suggesting that the source of the disturbance might be below the main level of the warehouse.
Under certain buildings on the base lie secret realms that were apparently unknown to the vast majority of the soldiers who conducted the ordinary, reputable army business of Wyvern. Doors, once cunningly disguised, led from basements down to subbasements, to deeper cellars, to vaults far below the cellars. Many of these subterranean structures are linked to others throughout the base by staircases, elevators, and tunnels that would have been far less easy to detect before the facility, prior to abandonment, was stripped of all supplies and equipment.
Indeed, even with some of Wyvern’s secrets left exposed by its departing stewards, my best discoveries would not have been possible without the aid of my clever canine companion. His ability to detect even the faintest fragrant drafts wafting through cracks from hidden rooms is as impressive as his talent for riding a surfboard, though perhaps not as impressive as his knack for occasionally wheedling a second beer from his friends, like me, who know full well that he is incapable of handling more than one.
Without question, this sprawling base harbors more installations that remain well hidden, waiting to be revealed; nevertheless, as interesting as my explorations have been, I’ve periodically refrained from them. When I spend too much time in the shadowland under Fort Wyvern, its disturbing atmosphere grows oppressive. I have seen enough to know that this netherworld was the site of wide-ranging clandestine operations of dubious wisdom, that numerous and diverse “black-budget” research projects were surely conducted here, and that some of those projects were so ambitious and exotic as to defy understanding based on the few enigmatic clues that were left behind.
This knowledge alone, however, isn’t what makes me uncomfortable in Wyvern’s underworld. More distressing is a perception—little more than an intuition but nonetheless powerful—that some of what happened here was not merely well-intentioned foolishness of a high order, not merely science in the service of mad politics, but pure wickedness. When I spend more than a couple of nights in a row under Wyvern, I’m overcome by the conviction that unknown evils were loosed in its buried warrens and that some still roam those byways, waiting to be encountered. Then it isn’t fear that drives me to the surface. Rather, it’s a sense of moral and spiritual suffocation—as though, by remaining too long in those realms, I will acquire an ineradicable stain on my soul.
I hadn’t expected these ordinary warehouses to be so directly linked to the hobgoblin neighborhoods below ground. In Fort Wyvern, however, nothing is as simple as it first appears to be.
Now I switched on the flashlight, reasonably confident that the kidnapper—if that’s who I was following—was not on this level of the building.
It seemed odd that a psychopath would bring his small victim here rather than to a more personal and private place, where he would be entirely comfortable while he fulfilled whatever perverse needs motivated him. On the other hand, Wyvern had a mysterious allure akin to that of Stonehenge, to that of the great pyramid at Giza, to that of the Mayan ruins at Chichén Itzá. Its malevolent magnetism would surely appeal to a deranged man who, as was frequently true in these cases, got his purest thrill not from molesting the innocent but from torturing and then brutally murdering them. These strange grounds would draw him as surely as would a deconsecrated church or a crumbling old house on the outskirts of town where, fifty years ago, a madman had chopped up his family with an ax.
Of course, there was always the possibility that this kidnapper was not insane at all, not a pervert, but a man working in a bizarre but nonetheless official capacity in regions of Wyvern that perhaps remained secretly active. This base, even shuttered, is a breeding ground of paranoia.
With Orson remaining close at my side, I hurried toward the offices at the far end of the main room.
The first of them proved to be what I expected. A barren space. Four plain walls. A hole in the ceiling where the fluorescent lighting fixture had once been mounted.
In the second, the infamous Darth Vader lay on the floor: a molded-plastic action figure about three inches tall, black and silver.
I recalled the collection of similar Star Wars toys that I’d glimpsed on the bookshelves in Jimmy’s bedroom.
Orson sniffed at Vader.
“Come to the Dark Side, Luke,” I murmured.
A large rectangular opening gaped in the back wall, from which a pair of elevator doors had been stripped by an army salvage crew. As a half-baked safety measure, a single two-by-six was bolted across the gap at waist height. Several elaborate steel fittings, still dangling from the wall, suggested that in the days when Fort Wyvern had served the national defense, the elevator had been concealed behind something—perhaps a slide-aside or swing-away bookcase or cabinet.
The elevator cab and lift mechanism were gone, too, and a quick use of the flashlight revealed a three-story drop. Sole access was by a maintenance ladder fixed to the shaft wall.
My quarry was probably too busy elsewhere to see the ghostly glow in the shaft. The beam soaked into the gray concrete until it was barely brighter than a séance-summoned cloud of spirit matter hovering above a knocking table.
Nevertheless, I switched off the light and jammed the flashlight under my belt once more. Reluctantly, I returned the Glock to the holster under my coat.
Dropping to one knee, I reached tentatively into the inkiness that surrounded me, which seemed as though it could be either the dimensions of the warehouse office or billions of light-years deep, a black hole linking our odd universe to one even stranger. For a moment my heart rattled against my ribs, but then my hand found good Orson, and by smoothing his fur, I was calmed.
He put his blocky head on my raised knee, encouraging me to stroke him and to scratch his ears, one of which was pricked, the other limp.
We have been through a lot together. We have lost too many people we loved. With equal emotion, we dread being left to face life alone. We have our friends—Bobby Halloway, Sasha Goodall, a few others—and we cherish them, but the two of us share something beyond the deepest friendship, a unique relationship without which neither of us would be quite whole.
“Bro,” I whispered.
He licked my hand.
“Gotta go,” I whispered, and I didn’t need to say that where I had to go was down.
Neither did I have to note that Orson’s myriad abilities didn’t include the extraordinary balance required to descend a perfectly vertical ladder, paw over paw. He has a talent for tracking, a great good heart, unlimited courage, loyalty as reliable as the departure of the sun at dusk, a bottomless capacity for love, a cold nose, a tail that can wag energetically enough to produce more electricity than a small nuclear reactor—but like every one of us, he has his limitations.
In the blackness, I moved to the hole in the wall. Blindly gripping one of the steel fittings that had secured the missing bookcase to a wall-mounted track, I pulled myself up until I was crouching with both feet on the sturdy two-by-six bolted across the opening. I reached into the shaft, fumbled for a steel rung, snared one, and swung off the two-by-six onto the service ladder.
Admittedly, I am less quiet than a cat, but by a degree that only a mouse would appreciate. I don’t mean to imply that I have a paranormal ability to race across a carpet of crisp autumn leaves without raising a crackle. My stealth is largely a consequence of three things: first, the profound patience that XP has taught me; second, the confidence with which I have learned to move through the bleakest night; third, and not least important, decades spent observing the nocturnal animals and birds and other creatures with whom I share my world. Every one of them is a master of silence when it needs to be, and more often than not it desperately needs to be, because the night is a kingdom of predators, in which every hunter is also the hunted.
I descended from darkness into darkness distilled, wishing that I didn’t need both hands for the ladder and could, instead, swing downward like an ape, swift and nimble, gripping with my left hand and both feet, holding the pistol ready. But then if I were an ape, I would have been too wise to put myself in this precarious position.
Before I reached the first basement, I began to wonder how my quarry had gone down the ladder while encumbered with the boy. Across his shoulder in a fireman’s carry? Jimmy would have to have been bound at ankles and wrists to prevent him from making a movement, either intentionally or out of panic, that might dislodge his abductor. Even then, although the boy was small, he’d have been a considerable burden and a relentless backward drag that had to be diligently resisted every time the kidnapper moved a hand from one rung to the next.
I decided that the man I was pursuing must be as strong, agile, and confident as he was psychotic. So much for my fond hope that I was chasing a soft-bellied librarian who, dazed and confused, had been driven to this insane act by the stress of converting from the Dewey decimal system to a new computerized inventory.
Even in the lightless murk, I knew when I had reached the gap in the shaft where the basement elevator doors had once been, one floor below the warehouse office. I can’t explain how I could know, any more than I can explain the plotline of the average Jackie Chan movie, though I love Jackie Chan movies. Perhaps there was a draft or a scent or a resonance so subtle that I was only subconsciously aware of it.
I couldn’t be sure this was the level to which the kidnapper had taken the boy. He might have gone farther down.
Listening intently, hoping to hear again the troll-deep voice or another sound that would guide me, I hung like a spider on an obsessively well-organized web. I had no intention of gobbling up unwary flies and moths, but the longer I remained suspended in the gloom, the more I felt that I was not the spider, after all, not the diner but the dinner, and that a mutant tarantula as big as an elevator cab was ascending from the pit below, its sharp mandibles silently scissoring.
My dad was a professor of poetry, and throughout my childhood, he read to me from the entire history of verse, Homer to Dr. Seuss, Donald Justice to Ogden Nash, which makes him partly responsible for my baroque imagination. Blame the rest of it on that aforementioned snack of cheese, onion bread, and jalapeños.
Or blame it on the eerie atmosphere and the realities of Fort Wyvern, for here even a rational man might have legitimate reasons to entertain thoughts of giant ravenous spiders. The impossible was once made possible in this place. If the hideous arachnid in my mind’s eye was the fault of just my dad and my diet, then my imagination would have conjured not a simple spider but an image of the grinning Grinch climbing toward me.
As I hung motionless on the ladder, the grinning Grinch rapidly became an inexpressibly more terrifying image than any spider could have been, until another hard crash boomed through the building, shaking me back to reality. It was identical to the first crash, which had drawn me this far: a steel door slamming in a steel frame.
The sound had come from one of the two levels below me.
Daring the maw of spider or Grinch, I went down one more story, to the next opening in the shaft.
Even as I arrived at this second subterranean floor, I heard the grumbling voice, less distinct and even less comprehensible than it had been before. Unquestionably, however, it issued from this level rather than from the final floor, at the base of the pit.
I peered toward the top of the ladder. Orson must be gazing down, as blinded to the sight of me as I was to the sight of him, sniffing my reassuring scent. Reassuring and soon ripe: I was sweating, partly from exertion and partly from anticipation of the pending confrontation.
Clinging to the ladder with one hand, I felt for the shaft opening, found it, reached around the corner, and discovered a metal handgrip on the face of the jamb, which facilitated the transition from the ladder to the threshold. No two-by-six safety barricade had been bolted across the gap at this level, and I passed easily out of the elevator shaft into the subbasement.
Out of a distillate of darkness into a reduction of darkness.
Drawing the Glock, I sidled away from the open shaft, keeping my back against the wall. The concrete felt cold even through the insulating layers of my coat and cotton pullover.
I was overcome by a prideful little flush of accomplishment, a curious if short-lived pleasure to have made it this far without detection. The flush almost at once gave way to a chill as a more rational part of me demanded to know what the hell I was doing here.
I seemed insanely compelled, driven, to travel into ever darker—impossibly bleak—conditions, to the heart of all blackness, where the darkness was as condensed as matter had been the instant before the Big Bang spewed forth the universe, and once there, beyond all hope of light, to be crushed until my shrieking spirit was pressed from my mind and from my mortal flesh like juice from a grape.
Man, I needed a beer.
Hadn’t brought one. Couldn’t get one.
I tried taking slow deep breaths instead. Through my mouth, to minimize the noise. Just in case the hateful troll, armed with a chain saw, was creeping closer, one gnarled finger poised over the starter button.
I am my own worst enemy. This, more than any other trait, proves my fundamental humanity.
The air didn’t taste remotely as good as a cool Corona or a Heineken. It had a faintly bitter tang.
Next time I went chasing after bad guys, I’d have to bring a cooler full of ice and a six-pack.
For a while I conned myself with thoughts of all the eight-foot glassy waves waiting to be surfed, all the icy beers and the tacos and the lovemaking with Sasha that lay ahead of me, until the feeling of oppression and the claustrophobic panic gradually lifted.
I didn’t fully calm down until I was able to summon a mental picture of Sasha’s face. Her gray eyes as clear as rainwater. Her lush mahogany hair. The shape of her mouth curved by laughter. Her radiance.
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