Bobby said, “My kidneys will probably implode, my hair’ll fall out, my nose’ll drop off. I’m doomed.”
“You are if you don’t shut up.”
“Even if I don’t die, what wahine is going to want to date a bald, noseless guy with imploded kidneys?”
The engine noise, the headlights, and the spotlight might have brought us unwanted attention if anyone or anything hostile was in the neighborhood. The troop had hidden at the sound of the Jeep when Bobby had first driven into Wyvern, but perhaps they had done some reconnaissance since then; in which case they were aware that we were only two and that even with guns we were not necessarily a match for a horde of peevish primates. Worse, maybe they realized that one of us was Christopher Snow, son of Wisteria Snow, who perhaps was known to them as Wisteria von Frankenstein.
Bobby zipped up and returned safely to the Jeep. “That’s the first time anyone’s been prepared to lay down covering fire for me while I peed.”
“You feeling better, bro?”
He knew me well enough to understand that my apparent attack of hypochondria was actually unexpressed anxiety for Orson.
I said, “Sorry for acting like a wanker.”
Releasing the hand brake, shifting the Jeep into drive, he said, “To wank is human, to forgive is the essence of Bobbyness.”
As we rolled slowly forward, I put down the shotgun and picked up the spotlight again. “We’re not going to find them like this.”
Before I could respond, something screamed. The cry was eerie but not entirely alien; worse, it was a disturbing hybrid of the familiar and the unknown. It seemed to be the wail of an animal, yet it had a too-human quality, a forlorn note full of loss and yearning.
Bobby braked again. “Where?”
I had already switched on the spotlight and aimed it across the street, toward where I thought the scream had originated.
The shadows of balusters and roof posts stretched to follow the beam of light, creating the illusion of movement across the front porch of a bungalow. The shadows of bare tree limbs crawled up a clapboard wall.
“Geek alert,” Bobby said, and pointed.
I swung the spotlight where he indicated, just in time to catch something racing through tall grass and disappearing behind a long, four-foot-high boxwood hedge that separated the front lawns of four bungalows from the street.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Maybe—what I told you about.”
During long hot months without water, the hedge had died, and the quenching rains of the recent winter had not been able to revive it. Although not a lick of green could be seen, a dense snarl of brittle branching remained, with wads of brown leaves lodged here and there like bits of half-masticated meat.
Bobby kept the Jeep in the middle of the street but drove slowly forward, parallel to the hedge.
Even stripped of new growth, the dead boxwood was so mature that its spiny skeleton effectively screened the creature crouched beyond it. I didn’t think I was going to be able to pick out the beast at all, but then I spotted it because, although it was a shade of brown similar to the woody veil in front of it, the softer lines of its body contrasted with the jagged patterns of the bare hedge. Through the interstices in the many layers of boxwood bones, I fixed the beam on our quarry, revealing no details but getting a glimpse of eyeshine as green as that of certain cats.
This thing was too big to be any cat other than a mountain lion.
It was no mountain lion.
Found, the creature bleated again and raced along the shielding deadwood with such speed that I couldn’t keep the light trained on it. A break in the hedgerow allowed a walkway to connect a bungalow with the street, but Big Head—or Big Foot, or the wolfman, or the Loch Ness monster in drag, or whatever the hell this was—crossed the gap fast, an instant ahead of the light. I didn’t get a look at anything but its shaggy ass, and not even a clear view of that, though a clear view of its ass might not have been either informative or gratifying.
All I had were vague impressions. The impression that it ran half erect like a monkey, shoulders sloped forward and head low, the knuckles of its hands almost dragging the ground. That it was a lot bigger than a rhesus. That it might have been even taller than Bobby had guessed, and that if it rose to its full height, it would be able to peer at us over the top of the four-foot hedge and stick its tongue out at us.
I swept the spotlight back and forth but couldn’t locate the critter along the next section of boxwood.
“Running for it,” Bobby said, braking to a full stop, rising half out of his seat, pointing.
When I shifted my focus beyond the hedgerow, I saw a shapeless figure loping across the yard, away from the street, toward the corner of the bungalow.
Even when I held the spotlight high, I couldn’t get an angle on the fast-moving beast, whose disappearing act was abetted by the intervening branches of a laurel and by tall grass.
Bobby dropped back into his seat, swung toward the hedgerow, threw the Jeep into four-wheel drive, and tramped on the accelerator.
“Geek chase,” he said.
Because Bobby lives for the moment and because he expects ultimately to be mulched by something more immediate than melanoma, he maintains the deepest tan this side of a skin-cancer ward. By contrast, his teeth and his eyes glow as white as the plutonium-soaked bones of Chernobyl wildlife, which usually make him look dashing and exotic and full of Gypsy spirit, but which now made him look more than a little like a grinning madman.
“Way stupid,” I protested.
“Geek, geek, geek chase,” he insisted, leaning into the steering wheel.
The Jeep jumped the curb, flashed under the low-hanging branches of two flanking laurels, and crashed through the boxwood hard enough to rattle the bottles of beer in the slush-filled cooler, spitting broken hedge branches behind it. As we crossed the lawn, a raw, sweet, green odor rose from the crushed grass under the tires, which was lush from the winter rains.
The creature had disappeared around the side of the bungalow even as we were blasting through the hedge.
Bobby went after it.
“This has nothing to do with Orson or Jimmy,” I shouted over the engine roar.
“How do you know?”
He was right. I didn’t know. Maybe there was a connection. Anyway, we didn’t have any better leads to follow.
As he swung the Jeep between two bungalows, he said, “Carpe noctem, remember?”
I had recently told him my new motto. Already, I regretted having revealed it. I had the feeling that it was going to be quoted to me, at inopportune moments, until it had less appeal than a mutton milkshake.
About fifteen feet separated the bungalows, and there were no shrubs in this narrow sward. The headlights would have revealed the critter if it was here; but it was gone.
This vanishment didn’t give Bobby second thoughts. Instead, he pressed harder on the accelerator.
We rocketed into the backyard in time to see our own private Sasquatch as it sprang across a picket fence and disappeared into the next property, once more revealing no more of itself than a fleeting glimpse of its hirsute buttocks.
Bobby wasn’t any more intimidated by the line of spindly wooden pickets than he had been by the hedgerow. Speeding toward it, he laughed and said, “Skeggin’,” meaning having big-time fun, which most likely comes from skeg, the name for the rudderlike fin on the underside of a surfboard, which allows you to steer and do cool maneuvers.
Although Bobby is laid back and tranquility-loving, ranking as high in the annals of slackerhood as Saddam Hussein ranks in the Insane Dictator Hall of Fame, he’s another dude altogether, a huge macking tsunami, once he’s committed himself to a line of action. He will sit on a beach for hours, studying wave conditions, looking for sets that will push him to and maybe past his personal threshold, oblivious even to the passing contents of bun-floss bikinis, so focused and patient that he makes one of those Easter Island stone heads seem positively jittery, but when he sees what he needs and paddles his board out to the lineup, he doesn’t wallow there like a buoy; he becomes a true raging slashmaster, ripping the waves, domesticating even the hugest thunder crushers, going for it so totally that if any shark mistook him for chum, he’d flip it upside down and ride it like a longboard.
“Skeggin’, my ass,” I said as we hit the fence.
Weathered white pickets exploded over the hood of the Jeep, rattled across the windshield, clattered against the roll bar, and I was sure that one of them would ricochet at precisely the right angle to skewer one of my eyes and make brain shish kebab, but that didn’t happen. Then we were crossing the rear lawn of the house that faced out on the next street in the grid.
The yard we had left behind was smooth, but this one was full of troughs and mounds and chuckholes, over which we rollicked with such exuberance that I had to clamp one hand on my cap to keep it from flying off.
In spite of the serious risk of biting all the way through my tongue if we suddenly bottomed out too hard, I said, in a stutter worthy of Porky Pig, “You see it?”
“On it!” he assured me, though the headlights were arcing up and down so radically with the wildly bucking Jeep that I didn’t believe he could see anything smaller than the house around which he was steering us.
I’d switched off the spotlight, because I wasn’t illuminating anything except my knees and various galactic nebulae, and if I threw up in my lap, I didn’t care to scrutinize the mess under a high beam.
The terrain between bungalows was as rugged as the backyard, and the ground in front of the house proved to be no better. If someone hadn’t been burying dead cows on this property, then the gophers must be as big as Holsteins.
We rocked to a halt before reaching the street. There were no hedgerows to hide behind, and the trunks of the Indian laurels weren’t thick enough to entirely conceal a bulimic supermodel, let alone Sasquatch.
I switched on the spotlight and swept it left and right along the street. Deserted.
“I thought you were on it,” I said.
“New plan,” he said.
“You’re the planning dude,” Bobby said, shifting the Jeep into park.
Another weird scream—like fingernails scraping on a chalkboard, the dying wail of a cat, and the sob of a terrified child all woven together and re-created on a malfunctioning synthesizer by a musician whacked on crystal meth—brought us out of our seats, not merely because it was eerie enough to snap our veins like rubber bands, but because it came from behind us.
I was not aware of pulling my legs up, swiveling, gripping the roll bar, and standing on my seat. I must have done so, and with the swift grace of an Olympic gymnast, because that was where I found myself as the scream reached a crescendo and abruptly cut off.
Likewise, I wasn’t consciously aware of Bobby grabbing the shotgun, flinging open his door, and leaping out of the Jeep, but there he was, holding the 12-gauge Mossberg, facing back the way we had come.
“Light,” he said.
The spotlight was still in my hand. I clicked it on even as he spoke.
No missing link loomed behind the Jeep.
The knee-deep grass swooned as a bare whisper of wind romanced it. If any predator had been trying to squirm toward us, using the grass as cover, it would have disturbed the courtly patterns drawn by the gentle caress of the breeze, and it would have been easy to spot.
The bungalow was one of those that lacked a porch, fronted only by two steps and a stoop, and the door was closed. The three windows were intact, and no boogeyman glowered at us from behind any of those dusty panes.
Bobby said, “It sounded right here.”
“Like right under my butt.”
He had a solid grip on the shotgun. Looking around at the night, as creeped out as I was by the deceptive peacefulness of it, he said, “This sucks.”
“It sucketh,” I agreed.
A look of high suspicion crimped his face, and he backed slowly away from the Jeep.
I didn’t know if he had glimpsed something under the vehicle or if he was just operating on a hunch.
Dead Town was even more silent than its name implied. The faint breeze was expressive but mute.
Still standing on the passenger seat, I glanced down along the side of the Jeep, at the lazily undulating blades of grass. If some foul-tempered freak erupted from beneath the vehicle, it could climb the door and be at my neck before I would be able to locate either a crucifix or an even halfway attractive necklace of garlic.
I needed only one hand for the spotlight. I slipped the Glock out of my shoulder holster.
When Bobby had backed off three or four steps from the Jeep, he knelt on one knee.
To throw a little light where he needed to peek, I held the spotlight out of the Jeep and directed the beam toward the undercarriage on my side, hoping to backlight whatever might be hiding there.
In the classic, wary half-kneel of the experienced monster hunter, Bobby tilted his head and slowly lowered it to peer under the Jeep.
“Nada,” he said.
“I was stoked,” I said.
“I was pumped.”
“Ready to kick ass.”
We were lying.
As Bobby rose to his feet, another scream tore the night: the same scraping-fingernails-dying-cat-sobbing-child-mal-functioning-synthesizer wail that had made us jump like lightning-struck cats only moments ago.
This time I had a better fix on the source of the scream, and I shifted my attention to the bungalow roof, where the spotlight revealed Big Head. There was no question now: This was the creature that Bobby had called Big Head, because its head was undeniably big.
It was crouched at one end of the roof, right on the peak, maybe sixteen feet above us, like Kong on the Empire State Building but re-created in a direct-to-video flick that lacked the budget for a larger set, fighter planes, or even a damsel in peril. With its arms covering its face as though the sight of us hideous human beings frightened and disgusted it, Big Head studied Bobby and me with radiant green eyes, which we could see through the gap between its crossed arms.
Even though the beast’s face was covered, I could discern that the head was disproportionately large for the body. I also suspected that it was malformed. Malformed not just by human standards but surely by the standards of monkey beauty, as well.
I couldn’t determine whether it had been spawned primarily from a rhesus or from another primate. It was covered in matted fur not unlike that of a rhesus, with long arms and hunched shoulders that were definitely simian, although it appeared to be stronger than any mere monkey, as formidable as a gorilla though otherwise nothing like one. You wouldn’t have required my hyperactive imagination to wonder if, in certain aspects of the creature, you were glimpsing a spectrum of species so broad that the genetic sampling had extended beyond the warm-blooded classes of vertebrates to include reptilian traits—and worse.
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