Bobby slipped two fingers under Toregard’s wrist, feeling for a pulse. He shook his head: nothing.
Batwing shadows swooped along one wall, across the ceiling.
Sasha spun toward the movement.
I reached under my jacket, but there was no shoulder holster, no gun.
The shadows were only shadows, sent flying through the room by a sudden flurry of action on the television screen.
The third corpse was slumped in a huge armchair, legs propped on a matching footstool, arms on the chair arms. Bobby stripped away the silk hood, I flashed the light on and off, and Roosevelt whispered, “Colonel Ellway.”
Colonel Eaton Ellway had been second in command of Fort Wyvern and had retired to Moonlight Bay after the base was closed. Retired. Or engaged in a clandestine assignment in civilian clothes.
With no additional dead men to investigate, I finally registered what was on the television. It was tuned to a cable channel that was running an animated feature film, Disney’s The Lion King.
We stood for a moment, listening to the house.
Other music and other voices came from other rooms.
Neither the music nor the voices were made by the living.
Death lives here.
From the living room—a chamber grossly misnamed—we cautiously crossed the front hall to the study. Sasha and Roosevelt halted at the doorway.
A tambour door was open on an entertainment center incorporated into a wall of bookshelves, and The Lion King was on the television, with the volume low. Nathan Lane and company were singing “Hakuna Matata.”
Inside, Bobby and I found two more members of this suicide club with squares of black silk over their heads. A man sat at the desk, and a woman was slumped in a Morris chair, empty drinking glasses near each of them.
I no longer had the heart to strip away their veils. The black silk might have been cult paraphernalia with a symbolic meaning that was comprehensible only to those who had come together in this ritual of self-destruction. I thought, however, that at least in part, it might be meant to express their guilt at being involved in work that had brought humanity to these straits. If they felt remorse, then their deaths had a degree of dignity, and disturbing them seemed disrespectful.
Before we had left the living room, I had once more covered the faces of Sparkman, Toregard, and Ellway.
Bobby seemed to understand the reason for my hesitancy, and he lifted the veil on the man at the desk, while I used the flashlight with the hope of making an identification. This was no one that either of us knew, a handsome man with a small, well-trimmed gray mustache. Bobby replaced the silk.
The woman reclining in the Morris chair was also a stranger, but when I directed the light at her face, I didn’t immediately switch it off.
With a soft whistle, Bobby sucked air between his teeth, and I muttered, “God.”
I had to struggle to keep my hand from shaking, to keep the light steady.
Sensing bad news, Sasha and Roosevelt came in from the hall, and though neither of them spoke a word, their faces revealed all that needed to be said about their shock and revulsion.
The dead woman’s eyes were open. The left was a normal brown eye. The right was green, and not remotely normal. There was almost no white in it. The iris was huge and golden, the lens a gold-green. The black pupil was not round but elliptical—like the pupil in the eye of a snake.
The socket encircling that terrifying eye was badly misshapen. Indeed, there were subtle but fearsome deformities in the entire bone structure along the right side of her once lovely face: brow, temple, cheek, jaw.
Her mouth hung open in a silent cry. Her lips were peeled back in a rictus, revealing her teeth, which for the most part appeared normal. A few on the right side, however, were sharply pointed, and one eyetooth seemed to have been in the process of reshaping itself into a fang.
I moved the beam of the flashlight down her body, to her hands, which were in her lap. I expected to see more mutation, but both her hands were normal. They were folded tightly together, and clasped in them was a rosary: black beads, silver chain, an exquisite little silver crucifix.
Such desperation was apparent in the posture of her pale hands, such pathos, that I switched off the light, overcome by pity. To stare at this grim evidence of her final distress seemed invasive, indecent.
Upon finding the first body in the living room, in spite of the black silk veils, I’d known that these people had not committed suicide solely out of guilt over their involvement in the research at Wyvern. Perhaps some felt guilty, perhaps all of them did, but they participated in this chemical hara-kiri primarily because they were becoming and because they were deeply fearful of what they were becoming.
To date, as the rogue retrovirus has transferred other species’ DNA into human cells, the effects have been limited. They manifest, if at all, only psychologically, except for telltale animal eyeshine in the most seriously afflicted.
Some of the big brains have been confident that physical change is impossible. They believe that as the cells of the body wear out and are routinely replaced, new cells will not contain the sequences of animal DNA that contaminated the previous generation—not even if stem cells, which control growth throughout the human body, are infected.
This disfigured woman in the Morris chair proved that they were woefully wrong. Hideous physical change clearly can accompany mental deterioration.
Each infected individual receives a load of alien DNA different from the one that anybody else receives, which means that the effect is singular in every case. Some of the infected may not undergo any perceptible change, mentally or physically, because they receive DNA fragments from so many sources that there is no focused cumulative effect other than a general destabilization of the system, resulting in rapidly metastasizing cancers and deadly autoimmune disorders. Others may go mad, psychologically devolve into a subhuman condition, driven by murderous rages, unspeakable needs. Those who, in addition, suffer physical metamorphosis will be radically different from one another: a nightmare zoo.
My mouth seemed to be choked with dust. My throat felt tight and parched. Even my cardiac muscle seemed to have withered, for in my own ears, my heartbeat was juiceless, dry, and strange.
The singing and comic antics of the characters in The Lion King failed to fill me with magic-kingdom joy.
I hoped Manuel knew what he was talking about when he predicted the imminent availability of a vaccine, a cure.
Bobby gently draped the square of silk over the woman’s face, concealing her tortured features.
As Bobby’s hands came close to her, I tensed and found myself repositioning my grip on the extinguished flashlight, as if I might use it as a weapon. I half expected to see the woman’s eyes shift, to hear her snarl, to see those pointed teeth flash and blood spurt, even as she looped the rosary around his neck and pulled him down into a deadly embrace.
I am not the only one with a hyperactive imagination. I saw a wariness in Bobby’s face. His hands twitched nervously as he replaced the silk.
And after we left the study, Sasha hesitated and then returned to the open door to check the room once more. She no longer gripped the .38 in both hands but nonetheless held it at the ready, as though she wouldn’t have been surprised to discover that even a glassful of the Jonestown punch, their version of a Heaven’s Gate cocktail, was not poisonous enough to put down the creature in the Morris chair.
Also on the ground floor were a sewing room and a laundry room, but both were deserted.
In the hallway, Roosevelt whispered Mungojerrie’s name, because we had yet to see the cat since we’d entered the house.
A soft answering meow followed by two more, audible above the competing sound tracks of the Disney movie, drew us forward along the hall.
Mungojerrie was sitting on the newel post at the bottom of the stairs. In the gloom, his radiant green eyes fixed on Roosevelt, then shifted to Sasha when she quietly but urgently suggested that we get the hell out of here.
Without the cat, we had little chance of conducting a successful search of Wyvern. We were hostage to his curiosity—or to whatever it was that motivated him to turn his back to us on the newel post, sprint agilely up the handrail, spring to the stairs, and disappear into the darkness of the upper floor.
“What’s he doing?” I asked Roosevelt.
“Wish I knew. It takes two to communicate,” he murmured.
As before, Sasha took the point position as we ascended the stairs. I brought up the rear. The carpeted treads creaked a little underfoot, more than a little under Roosevelt’s feet, but the movie sound track drifting up from the living room and study—and similar sounds coming from upstairs—effectively masked the noises we made.
At the top of the stairs, I turned and looked down. There weren’t any dead people standing in the foyer, with their heads concealed under black silk. Not even one. I had expected five.
Six doors led off the upstairs hall. Five were open, and pulsing light came from three rooms. Competing sound tracks indicated that The Lion King was not the universal choice of entertainment for these condemned.
Unwilling to pass an unexplored room and possibly leave an assailant behind us, Sasha went to the first door, which was closed. I stood with my back to the wall at the hinged edge of the door, and she put her back to the wall on the other side. I reached across, gripped the knob, and turned it. When I pushed the door open, Sasha went through fast and low, the gun in her right hand, feeling for the light switch with her left.
A bathroom. Nobody there.
She backed into the hall, switching off the light but leaving the door open.
Beside the bathroom was a linen closet.
Four rooms remained. Doors open. Light and voices and music coming from three of them.
I emphatically am not a gun lover, having fired one for the first time only a month previously. I still worry about shooting myself in the foot, and would rather shoot myself in the foot than be forced ever again to kill another human being. But now I was seized by a desire for a gun that was probably only slightly down the scale of desperation from the urgency with which a half-starved man craves food, because I couldn’t bear to see Sasha taking all the risks.
At the next room, she cleared the doorway quickly. When there was not an immediate outburst of gunfire, Bobby and I followed her inside, while Roosevelt watched the hall from the threshold.
A bedside lamp glowed softly. On the television was a Nature Channel documentary that might have been soothing, even elegiac, when it had been turned on to provide a distraction for the doomed as they drank their spiked fruit punch; but at the moment a fox was chewing the guts out of a quail.
This was the master bedroom, with an attached bath, and though it was a large chamber, with brighter colors than those downstairs, I felt suffocated by the determined, slathered-on, high-Victorian cheerfulness. The walls, the drapes, the spread, and the canopy on the four-poster bed were all of the same fabric: a cream background heavily patterned with roses and ribbons, explosions of pink, green, and yellow. The carpet featured yellow chrysanthemums, pink roses, and blue ribbons, lots of blue ribbons, so many blue ribbons that I couldn’t help but think of veins and unraveling intestines. The painted and parcel-gilt furniture was no less oppressive than the darker pieces downstairs, and the room contained so many crystal paperweights, porcelains, small bronzes, silver-framed photographs, and other bibelots that, if considered ammunition, they could have been used to stone to death an entire mob of malcontents.
On the bed, atop the g*y spread and fully dressed, lay a man and a woman with the de rigueur black silk face coverings, which now began to seem neither cultish nor symbolic but quite Victorian and proper, draped across the awful faces of the dead to spare the sensitivities of those who might discover them. I was sure that these two—on their backs, side by side, holding hands—were Roger and Marie Stanwyk, and when Bobby and Sasha pulled aside the veils, I was proved correct.
For some reason, I surveyed the ceiling, half expecting to see five-inch-long, fat cocoons spun in the corners. None hung over us, of course. I was getting my waking nightmares confused.
Struggling to resist a potentially crippling claustrophobia, I left the room ahead of Bobby and Sasha, joining Roosevelt in the hallway, where I was pleased—though surprised—to find there were still no walking dead people with black silk hoods covering their cold white faces.
The next bedroom was no less gonzo Victorian than the rest of the house, but the two bodies—in the carved mahogany half-tester bed with white muslin and lace hangings—were in a more modern pose than Roger and Marie, lying on their sides, face-to-face, embracing during their last moments on this earth. We studied their alabaster profiles, but none of us recognized them, and Bobby and I replaced the silks.
There was a television set in this room, too. The Stanwyks, for all their love of distant and more genteel times, were typical TV-crazed Americans, for which they were certainly dumber than they otherwise would have been, as it is well known and probably proven that for every television set in a house, each member of the family suffers a loss of five IQ points. The embracing couple on the bed had chosen to expire to a thousandth rerun of an ancient Star Trek episode. At the moment, Captain Kirk was solemnly expounding upon his belief that compassion and tolerance were as important to the evolution and survival of an intelligent species as were eyesight and opposable thumbs, so I had to resist the urge to switch the damn TV to the Nature Channel, where the fox was eating the guts of a quail.
I didn’t want to judge these poor people, because I couldn’t know the angst and physical suffering that had brought them to this end point; but if I were becoming and so distraught as to believe that suicide was the only answer, I would want to expire not while watching the products of Empire Disney, not to an earnest documentary about the beauty of nature’s bloodlust, not to the adventures of the starship Enterprise, but to the eternal music of Beethoven, Johann Sebastian Bach, perhaps Brahms, Mozart; or the rock of Chris Isaak would do, and do handsomely.
As you may perceive from my baroque ranting, by the time I returned to the upstairs hall, with the body count currently at nine, my claustrophobia was getting rapidly worse, my imagination was in full-on hyperdrive, my longing for a handgun had intensified until it was almost a sexual need, and my testicles had retracted into my groin.
I knew that we weren’t all going to get out of this house alive.
Christopher Snow knows things.
The next room was dark, and a quick check revealed that it was used to store excess Victorian furniture and art objects. In two or three seconds of light, I saw paintings, chairs and more chairs, a column-front cellarette, terra-cotta figures, urns, a Chippendale-style satinwood desk, a breakfront—as if the Stanwyks’ ultimate intention had been to wedge every room of the house so full that no human being could fit inside, until the density and weight of the furnishings distorted the very fabric of space-time, causing the house to implode out of our century and into the more comforting age of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Lord Chesterfield.
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