They quickly tired of rolling the manhole cover. Then three individuals worked together to spin it, as if in fact it were a coin, and with considerable coordinated effort they eventually set it in a blur of motion.
The troop fell silent again. They gathered in a wide circle around the whirling disc, giving it space to move but watching it with great interest.
Periodically, the three who had spun the cover darted to it, one by one, judiciously applying enough force to keep it balanced and in steady motion. Their timing revealed at least a rudimentary understanding of the laws of physics and a mechanical skill that belied their ordinary appearance.
The tightly rotating disc sang roughly, its iron edge grinding against the concrete pavement. This low metallic song had become the sole sound in the night: nearly a one-note drone, oscillating only faintly over a half-tone range.
The spinning manhole cover didn’t seem to provide sufficient spectacle to explain the intensity of the troop’s attention. They were rapt. Almost in a trance. I found it difficult to believe that the disc, merely by chance, could have achieved the precise rotational velocity that, combined with exactly these oscillating tones, was hypnotic to monkeys.
Perhaps this wasn’t a game that I was witnessing, not play but ritual, a ceremony with a symbolic significance that was clear to these rhesuses but was an impenetrable mystery to me. Ritual and symbol not only implied abstract thinking but raised the possibility that these monkeys’ lives had a spiritual dimension, that they were not just smart but capable of brooding about the origin of all things and the purpose of their existence.
This idea disconcerted me so much that I almost turned away from the window.
In spite of their hostility toward humanity and their enthusiasm for violence, I already had sympathy for these pathetic creatures, was moved by their status as outcasts with no rightful place in nature. If they indeed possess the capacity to wonder about God and about the design of the cosmos, then they may know the exquisite pain that humanity knows too well: the yearning to understand why our Creator allows us to suffer so much, the terrible unfulfilled longing to find Him, to see His face, to touch Him, and to know that He is real. If they share this quiet but profound agony with us, then I sympathize with their plight, but I also pity them.
And while pitying them, how can I kill them without hesitation if another confrontation requires me to do so in order to save my life or that of a friend? In one previous encounter, I’ve had to meet their ferocious assault with gunfire. Lethal force is easy to use when your adversary is as mindless as a shark. And you can pull the trigger without remorse when you are able to match your enemy’s hatred with pure hatred of your own. Pity engenders second thoughts, hesitation. Pity may be the key to the door of Heaven, if Heaven exists, but it is not an advantage when you are fighting for your life against a pitiless opponent.
From the street came a change in the sound of the spinning iron, a greater oscillation between tones. The manhole cover had begun to lose rotational velocity.
None in the troop rushed forward to stabilize the whirligig. They watched with curious fascination as it wobbled, as its song changed to a steadily slowing wah-waah-waaah-waaaah.
The disc clattered to a halt, flat on the pavement, and at the same instant the monkeys froze. A final note rang across the night, followed by silence and stillness so absolute that Dead Town might have been sealed inside a gigantic Lucite paperweight. As far as I could tell, every member of the troop gazed with magnetized eyes at the iron manhole cover.
After a while, as though waking from a deep sleep, they drifted dreamily toward the disc. They slowly circled it, hunched low with the knuckles of their forepaws grazing the pavement, examining the iron with the pensive attitude of Gypsies analyzing wet tea leaves to read the future.
A few hung back, either because something about the disc made them uneasy or because they were waiting their turn. These hesitant individuals conspicuously directed their attention toward anything but the manhole cover: on the pavement, on the trees that lined the street, on the star-stippled sky.
One of the beasts glanced at the bungalow in which I had taken refuge.
I didn’t hold my breath or tense up, because I was confident that nothing about this structure lent it a character different from the shabby and desolate appearance of hundreds of others throughout the neighborhood. Even the open front door was not remarkable; most of these buildings were exposed to the elements.
After dwelling on the house for only a few seconds, the monkey raised its face toward the gibbous moon. Either its posture conveyed a deep melancholy—or I was overcome by sentimentality, attributing more human qualities to these rhesuses than made sense.
Then, although I hadn’t moved or made a sound, the wiry beast twitched, sprang erect, lost interest in the sky, and looked again at the bungalow.
“Don’t monkey with me,” I murmured.
In a slow rolling gait, it moved out of the street, over the curb, and onto a sidewalk dappled with the moonshadows of laurel branches, where it halted.
I resisted the urge to back away from the window. The darkness around me was as perfect as that in Dracula’s coffin with the lid closed, and I felt invisible. The overhanging porch roof prevented moonlight from directly touching my face.
The miserable little geek appeared to be studying not just the window at which I stood but every aspect of the small house, as though it intended to locate a Realtor and make an offer for the property.
I am excruciatingly aware of the interplay of light and shadow, which, for me, is more sensuous than any woman’s body. I am not forbidden to know the comfort of a woman, but I am denied all but the most meager light. Therefore, every form of illumination is imbued with a shimmering erotic quality, and I’m acutely aware of the caress of every beam. Here in the bungalow, I was confident that I was untouched, beyond anyone’s ken, as much a part of the blackness as the wing is part of the bat.
The monkey advanced a few steps, onto the walkway that bisected the front yard and led to the porch steps. It was no more than twenty feet from me.
As it turned its head, I caught a glimpse of its gleaming eyes. Usually muddy yellow and as baleful as the eyes of a tax collector, they were now fiery orange and even more menacing in this poor light. They were filled with that luminosity exhibited by the eyes of most nocturnal animals.
I could barely see the creature in the laurel shadows, but the restless movement of its jack-o’-lantern eyes indicated that it was curious about something and that it still hadn’t fixated specifically on my window. Maybe it had heard the peep or rustle of a mouse in the grass—or one of the tarantulas native to this region—and was hoping only to snare a tasty treat.
In the street, the other members of the troop were still engaged by the manhole cover.
Ordinary rhesuses, which live primarily by day, do not exhibit eyeshine in darkness. Members of the Wyvern troop have better night vision than other monkeys, but in my experience they aren’t remotely as gifted as owls or cats. Their visual acuity is only fractionally—not geometrically—better than that of the common primates from which they were engineered. In an utterly lightless place, they are nearly as helpless as I am.
The inquisitive monkey—my own Curious George—scampered three steps closer, out of the tree shadow and into moonlight again. When it halted, it was less than fifteen feet away, within five feet of the porch.
The marginal improvement in their nocturnal sight is probably an unexpected side effect of the intelligence-enhancement experiment that spawned them, but as far as I have been able to discern, it isn’t matched by improvement in their other senses. Ordinary monkeys aren’t spoor-tracking animals with keen olfactory powers, like dogs, and neither are these. They would be able to sniff me out from no greater distance than I would be able to smell them, which meant from no farther than a foot or two, even though they were unquestionably a fragrant bunch. Likewise, these long-tailed terrorists don’t benefit from paranormal hearing, and they are not able to fly like their screeching brethren who do dirty work for the Wicked Witch of the West. Although they are fearsome, especially when encountered in significant numbers, they aren’t so formidable that only silver bullets or kryptonite will kill them.
On the sidewalk, Curious George sat on his haunches, wrapped his long arms around his torso as if comforting himself, and peered up at the moon once more. He gazed heavenward so long that he seemed to have forgotten the bungalow.
After a while, I consulted my wristwatch. I was worried that I would be trapped here, unable to meet Bobby at the movie theater.
He was also in danger of blundering into the troop. Even a man as resourceful as Bobby Halloway would not prevail if he had to face them alone.
If the monkeys didn’t move on soon, I’d have to risk a call to Bobby’s mobile number to warn him. I wasn’t happy about the electronic tone that would sound when I switched on my cell phone. In the hush of Dead Town, that pure note would resonate like a monk breaking wind in a monastery where everyone had taken a vow of silence.
Finally, Curious George finished contemplating the medallion moon, lowered his face, and rose to his feet. He stretched his shaggy arms, shook his head, and scampered back toward the street.
Just as I let out a sigh of relief, the little freak squealed, and his shrill cry could have been interpreted only as a shriek of alarm.
As one, the troop responded, raising their heads, springing away from the iron disc that had preoccupied them, craning their necks to see what was happening.
Bleating, shrieking, scolding, gibbering, Curious George leaped into the air, leaped and leaped, tumbled and flipped and twirled and capered, beat upon the sidewalk with his fists, hissed and screeched, clawed at the air as if it were cloth that could be rended, contorted himself until he seemed to be looking up his own butt, rolled, sprang to his feet, slapped his chest with his hands, hissed and spat and sputtered, rocked and jigged, raced toward the bungalow, but exploded away from it and scurried back toward the street, keening at a pitch that ought to have cracked the concrete under him.
Regardless of how primitive their language might be, I was pretty sure I got the message.
Even though most of the troop was forty feet from the bungalow, I could see their beady shining eyes like a swarm of fat fireflies.
A few of them began to croon and hoot. Their voices were lower and softer than Curious George’s caterwauling, but they didn’t sound like a hospitality committee welcoming a visitor.
I drew the Glock from my shoulder holster.
Eight rounds remained in the gun.
I had the spare ten-round magazine in the holster.
Eighteen bullets. Thirty monkeys.
I had done the calculations before. I did them again. Poetry, after all, is of more interest to me than math, so there was reason to double-check my figures. They still sucked.
Curious George raced toward the house again. This time he kept coming.
Behind him, the entire troop erupted out of the street, across the lawn, straight at the bungalow. Simultaneously, as they came, they all fell into a silence that implied organization, discipline, and deadly purpose.
I still didn’t believe the troop could have seen me, heard me, or smelled me, but they must have detected me somehow, because obviously they were not merely expressing their distaste for the undistinguished architecture of the bungalow. They were in a rage of a kind that I had seen before, a fury they reserved for humanity.
Furthermore, by their schedule, dinnertime had probably arrived. In lieu of a mouse or juicy spider, I was the meat dish, a refreshing change from their usual fare of fruits, nuts, seeds, leaves, flowers, and birds’ eggs.
I turned a hundred eighty degrees from the window and headed across the living room, hands out in front of me. I was moving fast, blindly trusting in my familiarity with these houses. My shoulder clipped the casing on a doorway, and I pushed through a half-open door into the dining room.
Although the monkeys continued to restrain themselves, operating in attack-status silence, I heard the hollow thumping of their paws on the wooden floor of the porch. I hoped they would hesitate at the front entrance, tempering their rancor with caution long enough for me to put a little ground between us.
A tattered blind, though askew, covered most of the single window in the small dining room. Too little light penetrated to bring meaningful relief from the gloom.
I kept moving, because I knew that the door to the kitchen was directly in line with the living-room door through which I had just entered. This time, passing from room to room, I didn’t even knock my shoulder against the jamb.
No blinds or curtains covered the pair of windows over the sink in the kitchen. Painted with a thin wash of moonlight, they had that ghostly phosphorous glow of television screens just after you switch them off.
Under my feet, the aging linoleum popped and cracked. If any members of the troop had entered the house behind me, I couldn’t hear them above the noise that I was making.
The air was thick with a foul miasma that made me want to retch. A rat or some wild animal must have died in a corner of the kitchen or in one of the cabinets, where it was now decomposing.
Holding my breath, I hurried to the back door, which featured a large pane of glass in the upper half. It was locked.
When this was a military base, personal security had been assured, and no one who lived inside the fence had reason to fear crime. Consequently, the locks were simple, keyed only from the outside.
I felt for the doorknob, which would have a lock-release button in the center. Found it. I would have turned it and torn open the door—except that the shadow of a leaping monkey flew up across the glass and fell away just as my hand closed on the cold brass.
I quietly released the knob and retreated two steps, considering my options. I could open the door and, pistol blazing, stride boldly through the murderous monkey multitudes as though I were Indiana Jones minus bullwhip and fedora, relying on sheer panache to survive. The only alternative was to remain in the kitchen and wait to see what happened next.
A monkey leaped onto the sill of one of the windows above the sink. Gripping the casing to keep its balance, it pressed against the glass, peering into the kitchen.
Because this mangy gremlin was silhouetted against moonlight, I could see no details of its face. Just its hot-ember eyes. The faint white crescent of its humorless grin.
Turning its head left and right and left again, it rolled its eyes, squinted, then went wide-eyed once more. By following its questing gaze, which roamed the kitchen, I deduced that it couldn’t see me in the darkness.
Options. Stay here and be trapped. Plunge into the night only to be dragged down and savaged under the mad moon.
These weren’t options, because either choice guaranteed an identical outcome. The worst kook surfer knows that whether you get sucked over the falls on a fully macking shore break or just get pitched off the board and do a faceplant in some seaweed soup, the result is the same: wipeout.
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