THINGS IN THE NIGHT
by M.D. Bloemker
(previously published in Shadow Chasers Express #4)
"Couldn't we have discussed this first?" Holding on for dear life, Jonathan MacKensie swallowed hard, sure that his stomach was about to leap into his throat. "Benedek, for pity's sake, slow down!"
His last word ended in a yelp as his companion slammed on the brakes. Stunned, he clung to the dashboard until the breath knocked out of him by his seatbelt returned in a gasp. Chuckling, Edgar Benedek swung out of the front seat of the jeep, crossing in back to open the rear doors.
"I should have known." Mindful of his various strained muscles and bruised joints, Jonathan exited the vehicle, giving it a distrustful look as he joined Benny, just in time to have a box shoved into his hands. "I should have known you'd pull a stunt like this."
"Stunt?" Benny mocked indignation as he sorted through the contents of a large paper bag. "This is the next logical step in an ongoing investigation. You said that, I heard you say that."
He grimaced, remembering how he'd been manipulated into that traitorous quote. "I didn't necessarily mean that we had to rush right out..."
"No time like the present, Jonny," Benny said with irritating serenity, setting the bag onto the ground and selecting two high-powered flashlights from the contents.
"And don't go throwing cliches in my face, either. My point still stands. We should have discussed this. We are supposed to be working together. Together, Benedek. Does that word mean anything to you?"
With a patient smile, Benny flicked back the battery compartment cover and shone the beam into Jonathan's face. "Seize the moment, as they say. Look, what's to talk about? We either do it or we don't, right? If we do it, well, we do it. At least this way we've got six good hours of daylight left. And if we don't do it..." He leveled a pointed look at Jonathan. "You're going to explain to the boss that everyone we talked to says that this cave is the center of all the weirdness, and you didn't investigate it?"
MacKensie deflated with a sigh. Why did all the logic have to be in Benny's favor? If Dr. Moorhouse did indeed get wind of this cave's significance in local folklore, and he was forced to confess he hadn't checked it out personally, he'd be on the next plane back to Wyoming.
"Everyone we talked to also warned us quite specifically not to go anywhere near this cave," Jonathan protested stubbornly.
Benny gave him an odd, smiling look, as though he knew they'd finally touched on the real cause of MacKensie's unease. "That's right, they did," he agreed solemnly. "Doesn't that suggest something to you?"
"Yes. It suggests that this cave is dangerous."
"Come on, Jonny," Benny chided, setting aside both flashlights and pulling out a set of walkie-talkies. "Where's your sense of adventure?"
"Safely behind my common sense, where it belongs." He pulled back mentally, realizing how dangerously close he was coming to a full-fledged sulk. It still irked him that Benny hadn't told him what he was up to until it was too late to bail out of the speeding vehicle. What irked him more was that the sudden appearance of a 4-wheel drive landrover in place of the more sedate rental, and suspicious parcels stashed in the back had failed to give Jonathan a clue to what Benny was planning. "We haven't given any real thought to what we're doing, Benedek."
"What's to think about?" Rising from his crouch, Benny shoved a flashlight into Jonathan's reluctant hand. "We go in, we poke around, we check things out..."
"Do you have any spelunking experience?"
Benny blinked, a sure sign that the next words out of his mouth were going to be blatant lies. "Yeah. Sure I have. Lots."
Caught, the man jumped back a step. "Sewers, caves, what's the difference? Look, we're both big boys, right? We can take care of ourselves, right?"
"You expect me to agree to that?"
"Trust me, it's gonna be cake. You got your flashlight, here's your walkie-talkie. Fresh batteries, my personal guarantee. We're gonna be together the whole time, so this is just in case. That's the 'on' switch, that's it."
Jonathan frowned down at the unit in his hand. "How much did this cost?"
"This is the really great part. If we get split up, this thing here will home in on the other unit. And we keep the base unit in the jeep, so when you flip this here, both units will key in on that signal. Neat, huh?"
Jonathan's wary gaze went from the confusing l.e.d. displays to Benny's grin. Seeing no comprehension on his friend's face, Benny clapped Jonathan's shoulder confidently. "You'll pick it up. Come on, the boogie man's waiting for us."
He made a disparaging sound, but conviction drained away as he glanced over in the direction of the cave mouth. It nestled innocuously behind a veil of vines and tangled tree branches. The parent mountain twisted up and away sharply, ending in a tumble of clouds high above them. Where they stood, on a kind of natural plateau, the ground swept gently back into thick woods, obscuring even the flattened dirt road which had brought them here. The view was breathtaking; he could only wish it was soothing, because the more he stared in the direction of the cave, the uneasier he felt.
"Wait a minute, wait a minute. Do we have any, ah...well, weapons?"
Turning mid-step, Benny eyed him strangely. "Weapons?"
"Haven't you stopped to consider that there's the remote possibility that the sheriff could be right?"
"What, about a wacko on the loose?"
"Yes, about a wacko on the loose," he insisted, affronted by the jeer in Benny's voice. "How far-fetched can it be to believe that a deranged person committed those mutilations?"
"Oh, right," Benny nodded sagely. "A deranged person has been slicing and dicing the local livestock for over 600 years. You think maybe he knows something we don't?"
"In the first place, the mutilations have only been confirmed for the past century or so. Everything else is mere hearsay or old Indian legend. And in the second place, it's possible that these--these killings could be...what do they call it?"
"Copycat," Benny supplied readily. "Tell me something, did you actually look at those photos while we were at the sheriff's office?"
He nodded, confident in a half-truth. Actually, he'd only managed to look at the first two before he turned away, letting Benny revel in the lurid and gory details he cajoled out of the tight-lipped sheriff.
"So we're talking about some kind of family legacy now?" Benny scoffed. "Get real, willya?"
Jonathan made an agitated erasing motion with his hand. "Whether a wild animal or a demented human is behind this most recent rash of mutilations is beside the point, Benedek. The point is that who or whatever it is could very well be using that cave right now."
"Oh, I get it," Benny agreed almost cheerfully. "You're afraid we'll trip over him and he'll wake up grouchy. Well, I gotcha covered, buds."
"You do?" Jonathan said dubiously.
"Yeah. It's real simple. If something growls at you in the dark, turn around and run like hell. No problem."
"No problem?" He cringed at the slight squeak in his voice. "Benedek, it occurs to me that you're taking this entire situation far too lightly."
"Look." With a look of infinite patience, Benny came forward to put a hand on Jonathan's shoulder, leaning in confidentially. "This thing, whatever it is--human, animal, talking carrot, who knows? It never shows up in the daylight, okay? Maybe it hibernates, maybe it's afraid of light, maybe it's snoozing in its coffin, the point is that we've got the element of surprise on our side."
"I'm not particularly comforted by that," Jonathan admitted uneasily.
"Well, check this one out, then. There haven't been any new reports for at least, oh--six weeks, right? Now, wouldn't it seem logical to you that that means our Mad Slasher decided to go Club Med for the summer?"
"This is your peculiar way of telling me that you didn't bother packing any weapons, isn't it?"
Benny sighed, shaking his head. "If it makes you feel any better, I'll lend you my penknife. You wanna maybe get this show on the road?"
Following Benedek's brisk lead, Jonathan managed to hold his temper until he crossed the threshold of the cave, uncertain whether to track his friend or his own path with his flashlight beam. "That's all this is to you, isn't it?" he grumbled, warding off a shower of grit loosened by his stumble against the narrow cave walls. "A show. You don't even make a pretense at a serious investigation, do you? Will you slow down?"
"Shoulda brought my heavy jacket," Benny muttered aloud, completely ignoring Jonathan as he hopped down a natural grade. "Forgot how cold these places can get. Watch that there, it's loose gravel."
Gritting his teeth, MacKensie cautiously followed Benedek's lead. The passage was low and narrow, forcing them both into a painful crouch. Steadying himself with one hand against the rough cave wall, Jonathan continued muttering, "I still fail to see why Dr. Moorhouse assigned this case to the Paranormal Unit. This is a police matter, pure and simple."
"Pure and simple, huh?" Benny snorted mildly. "You don't think there's anything weird about somebody--or something--performing meatball surgery on sheep and cattle, not to mention occasional wild dogs and horses, for well over a century?"
"Grotesque, yes. Weird, no. And certainly not paranormal."
"You really haven't gotten into the spirit of the chase yet, have you?" Benny cackled at his own joke. "And you're the one who's always so hot on research. Didn't you do any reading?"
"On animal mutilations, yes," he said reluctantly. "And I will admit, the documented case histories are quite...baffling. But these local mutilations don't fit any of those parameters."
"Exactly," Benny crowed. "And that's why we're here. To find out why it doesn't fit."
He started to speak, his first attempt choked off by exasperation. "Do you ever listen to yourself, Benedek?" he chided harshly.
"Only when I can afford to be overwhelmed by sheer genius. Ah--we're in luck. I think it's widening out."
A few more yards proved Benny right, and they paused to stretch their aching muscles. Playing the flashlight farther down the passage, Benny peered intently into the blackness. "Uh-oh," he muttered, clicking his tongue against his teeth.
Jonathan froze, determined not to panic. "Uh-oh?" he repeated hollowly.
"You're not gonna like this," Benny said, shaking his head slowly as he continued exploring the passage ahead with the light.
"Can we get to the punchline?" he prodded uneasily. "I'm not going to like what?"
"The cave splits off a few yards up."
Jonathan waited, but Benny only gave him an expectant look in return. "So?" MacKensie prodded impatiently.
Making a disparaging sound in his throat, Benny said, "Think about it, Jonno. The cave splits, so do we."
"Oh, no." Laughing nervously, Jonathan held up the hand still clutching the walkie-talkie. "No, we agreed--"
"In for a penny, in for a pound," Benny overrode him firmly. "Come on, no more fooling around, okay?"
"I'm not--" Jonathan began heatedly, cut off by Benny's imperative gesture near his face.
"Let me put it to you this way. We cover twice as much ground, and we get out of here twice as fast. Right?"
The denial died in his throat, escaping as a heavy sigh. "Right," he agreed morosely. "But only if you agree to keep the transmission open at all times. And we go on by ourselves for no more than thirty minutes. After that, both of us turn around and meet back here. Understood?"
"An hour?" Benny suggested hopefully.
"Sold. Check ya in forty-five."
"Wait, wait." Jonathan's cry stopped him in mid-leap. He turned questioningly to see MacKensie frowning uncertainly at the walkie-talkie on which he held the flashlight beam. "How does this thing work?" Jonathan asked plaintively.
Jonathan's progress was cautious, made slower by numerous checks of his watch-face and his determination not to take another step until the visible part of the passage ahead revealed no suspicious moving shadows lurking in its dark depths. He'd survived two of Benny's facetitious check-ins with ill grace, and would have liked nothing more than to shut the walkie-talkie off if only to escape the man's needling remarks. But common sense sat hard on his childish irritation, and he pressed forward, mentally gritting his teeth, determined to see out the time limit he'd promised Benny and the next three scheduled check-ins.
A gentle breeze caressed him, strangely warm compared to the dank chill surrounding him. He sniffed speculatively, detecting a faint floral scent. Intrigued, he edged forward, flashing the beam over every inch of the cave before him.
Half-hidden by protruding rock, he found the opening. Here the scent was strong, almost inviting. Bending down, he peered into the blackness, into the depths of a massive rock chamber, its ceiling and far walls well beyond the reach of his probing flashlight beam. He could see nothing to account for the insistent breeze nor the compelling aroma.
Edging sideways through the cramped opening, he found that the cave wall shot up, allowing him to straighten almost immediately. Taking a moment to orient himself so as not to lose sight of his only means of exit, he stepped forward, sweeping his light in careful arcs. The chamber was larger than his first impression. Craggy walls sloped in, forming a kind of rough-cone shape high above him.
Something beneath his shoe gave way with a sharp snap. Jumping back, he dropped the flashlight beam down, squinting at what appeared to be a bundle of rags. He prodded the pile gingerly with his toe, lifting a corner to reveal dark, elongated objects beneath. Spurred on by a sudden dread suspicion, he trained the light a little farther up, again poking with his foot.
Recognition came with a gasp. He stumbled back, nearly losing his footing on the uneven ground. A panicked sweep of the area around revealed a ghastly sight. Heart firmly lodged in his throat, he backed away towards what he hoped was the exit. Benedek. I'll get Benedek and we'll sort this out together. It occurred to him vaguely that all he had to do was activate the walkie-talkie, but he wasn't entirely sure he was capable of coherent speech, and at the moment he wanted any excuse to get out of this place.
The waft of air taunted him again, and although the smell was rather pleasant, he cringed from it in sudden, deep apprehension. It wasn't right. The only visible source of air current was behind him. This breeze didn't belong here. He didn't belong here.
He stumbled back, again nearly taking a bad tumble in his haste. With no little effort he forced himself steady, swearing to himself that he would not give in to panic. One careful step, then another. Another step...
The scented swirl changed. Like invisible vines, it wound itself around his head, assaulting his senses with soft color and muted sound. The flashlight and walkie-talkie tumbled from his nerveless hands as he brought them up to claw at his face. Nothing but cold skin under his fingers, yet he felt the tendrils, like cords of icy steel, press against his skull, slicing in....
He fell. He must have fallen, yet there was no sensation save a kind of muffled sigh which he knew was supposed to be a gasp. A moment ago he'd been upright, now he lay in the darkness, his face pressed into the dank, rough ground, his fingers clawing in the loose dirt. Attacked. He was being attacked, yet there was nothing he could see, nothing he could push away or bite or kick, nothing he could do to vent his screaming panic. It immobilized him, pinned him to the ground with crushing strength.
With a single cry, half-whimper and half-curse, he stopped struggling. His captor relented slightly, allowing him to draw a shuddering breath into his depleted lungs. But the respite was short. Needles of ice penetrated him, spreading out in a throbbing, searing web just under his skin. His cry shattered into a broken gasp as numb fingers scrabbled futilely to halt the relentless growth. The cold net narrowed, steel-strong filaments weaving together faster and faster until the coldness became a shroud and the life within was still and silent.
Benny paused for breath, shining his flashlight frantically into the empty passage where the tunnels split off. "Damn," he hissed, checking the monitor on his handset. "Jonathan? Jonathan, come on, answer me, willya? No more games, okay?"
Please be playing games. I'll kill you, but at least I'll be smiling. "Jonathan, come on. Answer me!"
Nothing greeted his plea but the soft hiss of the open transmission.
"Damn, damn, damn," Benny muttered agitatedly. "This is a helluva way to prove yourself right, buds." Drawing a deep breath to steady his shaking hand, he studied the directional signal, weak but steady. His thin hope that Jonathan had slipped out and was waiting smugly by the landrover died. According to this, MacKensie was still somewhere in the depths of the cave.
He set off at as fast a pace as he dared, hugging the cave wall for support as he frantically scoured the passage ahead for any sign of his friend or his fate.
Nothing save his own echo answered his calls. Fighting back panic at the thought of finding MacKensie unconscious or worse, he pressed on, stopping only once to make sure the directional signal was still working.
Finally, the searching flashlight beam glanced off a dark form huddled against the cave wall. Heart in his throat, Benny leaped, dropping to a crouch by Jonathan's side.
"Hey. Hey, Jack," he ventured, setting aside the handset to grip the man's raised shoulder. "Jonathan, you okay? Jonny?"
There was movement in response to his voice or the touch on the shoulder, and perhaps a semi-coherent reply that disintegrated into a low moan. Encouraged, Benny switched the flashlight to his other hand, turning Jonathan's face to the light to check for injuries. His forehead looked scratched and mildly bruised, and grit covered his chin and jawline, but there were no wounds suggesting an attack by something that usually preferred placid sheep and cows. He did a quick check of MacKensie's hands and clothes, determining that everything appeared intact and unbloodied. Jonathan's only response to Benny's hurried inventory was another, vaguely irritated sound deep in his throat.
"Your head, is that it?" Incongruous relief flooded him to latch onto such a mundane explanation. "Misjudged the roof, I'll bet. Can you walk or did you mess up your ankle, too? Jonathan? Can you hear me?"
MacKensie's eyes were half-open, not responding to the light his friend shone in his face. "Bad news," Benny sighed. "Looks like a nasty concussion. You never do anything halfway, do you?"
Jonathan resisted with surprising strength as Benny attempted to maneuver the man's arm around his shoulder. "Whoa, whoa!" he cried, pulled off balance by the fingers twisting into his shirt collar. "Easy there, easy. Me friend. Remember? Friend?"
In the half-light cast by the askew flashlight, he saw something flicker in Jonathan's staring eyes, something he hoped was cognizance. Then MacKensie's grip on his shirt eased as he slumped back against the cave wall. "Friend?" he whispered, a barely audible sigh.
"You catch on quick," Benny said, pushing back his growing panic as he scooped up his handset, slinging the strap on his arm before urging Jonathan to let him help him to his feet. "That's it. That's it, just take it slow and easy. You can walk, right? Lean on me, that's it. Where's your stuff? Where--?"
An awkward sweep of his flashlight, impeded by his supportive grip on Jonathan, turned up no sign of the other handset and flashlight. His confusion and frown disintegrated as Jonathan's legs buckled, nearly taking both of them to the ground.
Gasping, Benny gritted his teeth to pull himself upright, anchoring Jonathan's arm more securely around his neck. There'd be time enough to come back for the equipment; he had more urgent business at hand. "Come on, Jonny," he wheezed. "One step, then another. You can do it. You'd better do it, 'cause I sure as hell can't carry you."
A tremor briefly wracked Jonathan's body, and seemed to bring with it a burst of strength; the man's weight eased off Benny's side and shoulders as he took a shaky step on his own.
"That's it," Benny breathed his relief. "Just keep going like that, and we'll be out of here in no time. We'll do things your way next time, I swear. And I'll make this up to you, I will, I promise. Anything you want--ice cream, a new car, my head on platter, just name it. It's yours, my solemn word. Just keep going. That's it. That's it."
His patter sounded false in the silence, barely masking the raspy, labored breathing of his friend as they made careful and painfully slow progress. But as he spoke, it seemed that Jonathan's step grew steadier, as though the sound of Benny's voice calmed him, or the facetitious promises actually had the desired effect. Encouraged, Benny kept talking, a steady, repetitive drone of encouragement. As he spoke, Jonathan's grip on his arm and shoulder eased, his breathing steadied out, and the brittle tenseness eased out of his body.
By the time he spied the inviting spill of light heralding the cave entrance, every bone in his body ached to the marrow. Maneuvering Jonathan up the narrowed passage and steep grade, he stifled his first impulse to relieve himself of his burden the moment they stepped out into the late afternoon sunlight. Gritting his teeth, he guided MacKensie towards the waiting landrover.
His strength gave out at the same moment he realized he couldn't lift the man into the vehicle. With a gasp, he fell against the jeep, unable to keep Jonathan's arm from slipping from his shoulders as he clung to the door frame for support. To his vast relief, neither of them fell to the ground; Jonathan slumped against the car hood, barely keeping himself upright.
Two deep breaths helped Benny recoup, enough to put a two-handed grip on Jonathan's upper arm. "Come on, buds. Time for you to check out the local nurses' union constituency."
"No," Jonathan grated as he pulled away from Benny, nearly losing his balance in the process.
"No?" Benny echoed incredulously. "Excuse me, but that wasn't a choice I just offered you, okay? Hospital or bust, Dr. J--kapeesh?"
"No hospital," he insisted, blinking vaguely in the direction of Benny's voice, still straining in the man's tightened grip. "No...no people."
"Huh?" Confusion cost him a second of reaction time. Jonathan broke free, his attempt to back away ending in a hard tumble to the ground.
"Dammit!" Benny hissed, a curse for himself and his stupidity as he bent over his friend. "Don't get mule-headed on me now. Let's do things my way just one more time, and then I promise, I swear to you, you can hold this over my head for the rest of my natural life. Okay? Is it a deal?"
Jonathan allowed himself to be helped into a sitting position, but stiffened at Benny's plea, shaking his head tersely. "No," he said, his voice thin but firm. "No hospital. No hospital."
"Yeah, yeah, I heard you the first time," Benny muttered bleakly. "Look, what happened to you in there? Did you fall down and break your crown?"
He tensed, almost pulling back when Benny reached out to probe his head for injuries, but submitted with a sigh when his friend, with a warning growl, persisted. "Just scream if it hurts," Benny said, taking a moment to check the man's eyes. The pupils shrank on cue upon exposure to the sunlight. He frowned, trying to recall his emergency first aid. Did reflex response improve of its own accord or not in concussion cases?
"Not...my head," Jonathan murmured as Benny continued his tentative search. "Nothing wrong with my head."
"Physically, maybe," he growled, strangely unpleased to discover that the man was right. "Come on, give. What dropped you? Those greasy tamales we had for lunch?"
Grimacing vaguely, Jonathan touched a shaking hand to his forehead. "I...I'm not sure. There was this...this smell."
"Smell?" Intrigued, Benny leaned forward in his crouch, keeping a steadying hand on Jonathan's shoulder as the man rubbed harder at his own temple. "What kind of smell?"
Blinking, he sought for an answer, finding it with great difficulty. "Flowers."
"Flowers?" he echoed hollowly. "Ah...well, what kind of flowers? Roses, daisies, petunias, what?"
He shook his head quickly, almost irritably. "Just...flowers."
"Right, I forgot that you and the green stuff aren't on a first name basis. But you aren't allergic to it, and this isn't hay fever season, so..." He stopped, glancing back at the cave with a deepening frown. "Wait a minute," he breathed. "Flowers?"
Under his hand, Jonathan moved suddenly, nearly sending him off balance. "I want to get out of here," he said weakly, trying to get to his feet and failing miserably. "I want to get out of here."
"Okay, easy, easy," Benny soothed, puzzled by the man's sudden agitation. "I'll get you out of here. Can we negotiate this hospital thing?"
His last word became a gasp as Jonathan reacted violently to the mention of the hospital, trying to pull away from Benny's helpful grasp when he was only halfway to his feet. "Okay, okay, you win!" he cried, holding on for dear life until MacKensie stopped struggling. "No hospital, you win! Motel room--does that sound reasonable? Nice long nap, maybe a dip in the jacuzzi cum duck pond?" He broke into a relieved smile when Jonathan finally meekly submitted to being helped into the passenger side of the landrover.
"You drive a hard bargain, buds," he murmured himself as he dragged himself wearily around to the other side of the jeep, levering himself into the front seat. Hand on the ignition key, he took a moment to study MacKensie, huddled against the door. Pale and ill-looking, his heavy-lidded eyes suggested half-consciousness. Shaking his head grimly, Benny revved the engine, pulling the vehicle into a tight turn as he muttered under his breath, "You sure as hell better not make me regret this, either."
"No, I can't do that. No, it's..." Benny switched the phone receiver to his other ear, using the moment to draw a steadying breath. "It's a little difficult to explain, but I really can't get him over to your office. I just need to know if there's anything I should be watching for. Yes, I understand all that, but...look, doc. Can you at least give me some idea whether I should be stuffing him into an ambulance?" He glanced over at the far bed, where Jonathan lay exactly as Benny had deposited him fifteen minutes before. He hadn't moved so much as a muscle, seemingly in deep, exhausted sleep.
"I checked that, yeah. Doesn't seem to be any head injury at all. No, no trouble breathing. No fever, no chills, and he doesn't seem to be in pain. Confused, yeah. Uh-huh, that too. Look, he complained about some kind of strange smell. Chemical inhalation, maybe? You think so?" He bit his tongue; too late. "Yes," he said with forced patience. "Yes, I...I'll try. I really will try to get him in to see you. Okay, okay, I'll do more than try. I'll...I'll call you back. Soon, right. Oh, and, ah...thanks, doc."
Chewing his lip apprehensively, Benedek cradled the phone. Normally the pedantic lecture he'd just received would have rankled, but this time it was well-deserved. He really was playing around with someone's life here. And why? Just because it was too much effort to knock some sense into Jonathan's disoriented head?
The empty bed near him called to his bone-weary body, but he willfully ignored it, crossing over to Jonathan's side for another close inspection. Still no overt sign of illness. On the one hand, he felt compelled to leave the man alone, and hope that all he needed was to sleep off whatever had felled him, but on the other hand, this kind of deep, still repose looked vaguely dangerous, especially if he couldn't completely discount the possibility of concussion. Only Jonathan knew what had happened to him, and therefore only Jonathan could give him the answers he needed for his own peace of mind. "Hey, Jonny," he called tentatively. "Jonathan, come on, talk to me. Wake up, come on."
Jonathan started violently at Benny's touch on his shoulder. With a hoarse, snarling gasp, his hands flew up, fingers gouging at Benny's shirt collar. Choking, Benny grabbed the man's flailing hands, holding them away from his own throat. "Whoa, easy, easy! It's me. It's me, Benny, remember me? Come on, relax, it's okay. It's okay," he soothed, over and over, until the feral light dimmed in MacKensie's unfocused eyes, and the man sank back, exhausted, against the bed. Benny waited until Jonathan's clawed fingers relaxed before releasing the man's hands. Drawing a shaky breath, he did a quick check of pulse and skin temperature. The latter seemed normal and the former rapid but strong. Leaning over the bed, he checked the eyes again, flinching back when Jonathan reacted by jerking one hand up as though to ward off the unwelcome touch. But this time he faltered, his arm falling back against Benny's as he slipped again into half-consciousness. Satisfied that the pupils were still reacting normally, Benny took a moment to replace his friend's arm at his side before straightening, shaking his head in frustration. No fever. No respiratory distress. No discernible injury or pain. Just this bizarre lassitude and panicked confusion, as though he were...
Drugged? The thought struck him hard, bringing a puzzled frown to his face. Underneath his confusion, he felt a hard stirring and took a moment to identify it. Anger, that was it. Anger towards all those wary, hostile people they'd unsuccessfully interviewed, all those unhelpful men and women who had tersely warned them about the cave above Mills Field, but went deliberately vague when pressed for specifics of the 'danger' Hogg's Hole allegedly presented. They must have known about this...this...whatever it was. Bad air? Poisonous gas? He complained about a strange smell. Damn them. Why couldn't they have given me a straight answer to begin with?
A floral scent. Flowers, he said. Cyanide? No, that's almonds. I think. Who can I call? Theo, of course! Oh, wait, this is his roller derby night. Damn. I'll leave a message on his machine. Do I have time for that? Does Jonathan have time for that?
His musing cut short at the sound of a thin moan. Poised to defend himself against another disoriented attack, he bent forward cautiously. "Jonathan? You coming through, buds?"
Another moan, less pain then irritation, followed Jonathan's trembling hand to his forehead. "I don't feel well," he rasped weakly.
"First normal thing I've heard you say in too long," he said, relief easing his tense muscles. "If you're up to it, I need an inventory of where it hurts and your best guess why."
Finers pressed to his temple, Jonathan turned his head, staring up at Benny as he spoke. Benny faltered to see the strangely hostile narrowing of MacKensie's eyes, almost as though...
...he doesn't know me.
"Hey," he said, forcing life into his voice. "You're okay, aren't you? I mean...you're feeling better, right?"
He made an unconscious gesture, a slight sweep of his hand from which Jonathan unexpectedly shied. In the moment before he averted his head, Benny saw the flash of violent fear in the man's eyes.
"Come on, Jack, talk to me," he pleaded, unable to keep growing fear out of his voice as he pulled insistently at MacKensie's raised shoulder. Fast losing patience as well as confidence in his ability to handle the situation, he sought for some magic words of reassurance, or a simple sure-fire threat...
"Okay, that does it. You either talk to me now or you can do your explaining to the EMTS on your way to the hospital. Comprende, kemosabe?"
"No." He jerked as though struck, turning his head to give Benny a wild-eyed stare. "No..."
"...hospital," he finished in chorus. "Remind me to get you a new tape for Christmas. Come on, Jack, that's the deal. Talk to me. You gotta tell me what happened, okay?"
And why the mere mention of the hospital threw him into such an intense panic. What kind of fumes or poisonous gas could trigger this kind of obsessive pathological fear? A fear that was closer to insanity, if the uncontrolled violence of MacKensie's resistance was any indication. And, judging by the odd light in Jonathan's eyes, the hospital wasn't the only thing frightening him.
You're scared to death of me. The realization tied his stomach in knots. Dammit, what's wrong with you? How am I suppose to help you if I don't understand what's happening?
Jonathan was still staring at him, almost a plea to be spared. When Benny silently denied him with a stiff shake of his head, he swallowed hard. "I don't remember," he said, a hoarse whisper.
"No good," Benny said brusquely. "Take it from the top this time. You were fine for the first ten-fifteen minutes after we separated. Then what?"
He tried to turn away, but Benny pinned him with a hard look and he visibly quailed under its demand. "I don't...remember," he insisted weakly.
"You said something about flowers. You smelled flowers?"
He nodded awkwardly. "Flowers."
"And?" he pressed, careful to keep agitation from marring his modulated voice. "You tracked down the scent? Did you start getting dizzy? Nauseous? Did you find out where the smell was coming from?"
"I..." Jonathan visibly flinched from the sound of Benny's voice, shaking his head tersely. "I don't remember."
"Okay, okay," he sighed. "Just tell me this, then. Did you fall? Are you sure you didn't hit your head? Jonathan?"
Shaking his head again, MacKensie pulled away, folding trembling hands over his face. "I want to sleep," he groaned. "Let me sleep."
"Only after you tell me if you cracked your noggin," Benny told him, more harshly than he meant.
"No. I didn't hit my head." The words were clear, free of the slur previously marking MacKensie's voice. Drawing a long breath behind the hands still covering his face, he added thinly, "Please. Let me sleep."
"Okay," he agreed reluctantly. "Okay, you...you get some sleep. I'm just gonna camp out here on the other bed for tonight. Anything happens, or you need anything, I'll be right here. Okay? Jonathan?"
He stopped short of shaking the man for a response, his hand hovering indecisively in mid-air. This better be the right thing I'm doing, he mused bleakly as he stumbled over to the other bed, collapsing full-length with a heartfelt sigh. If I come up short this time, it'll be your funeral, MacKensie.
The bitter thought followed him like some vengeful Greek chorus as he drifted off into exhausted sleep. It'll be your funeral.
"My mom's a big fan of yours." Peter Farnan half-turned in the seat, anxious to impress his celebrity passenger, yet conscious of the rough terrain he was navigating. The official vehicles of the county sheriff's office were rugged, well-traveled four wheel drive jeeps and as Benny was fast discovering, with good reason. They'd left the main road a good ten minutes ago, bouncing determinedly through a grassy meadow. Benny sent up a quick prayer that his kidneys were insured as the young deputy continued, "She gets the National Register every week with the groceries. And she's got all your books. 'Fact, she's got a couple autographed. I drove her all the way to Laramie when she heard you'd be signing at the new mall. Maybe you remember her?"
"Maybe. How much farther?"
"Oh..." He shrugged casually. "Just a little ways. My mom, she's kinda tall like me, used to have blonde hair like me, only it's kinda grey now..."
Settling back in the seat, Benedek kept half an ear on the youth's cheerful natter, confident that he had nothing more of importance to say. He's traveled enough of these country miles in pursuit of a hot story to know that Deputy Farnan's 'just a little ways' could mean five or fifty minutes, enough time to tune Peter out and set his mind on sorting out the tangle of the last thirty-six hours.
That dream. It haunted him still, occasionally stabbing him in the gut with ice-tipped fingers. He couldn't remember the last time he'd had a dream quite so unsettling. In fact, he wasn't sure he'd ever had a dream like that before in his life.
Then again, he'd never slept for a solid twelve hours and wakened feeling so unrested. It was as though the nightmare itself had sapped his strength, yet surely it had been nothing more than a reflection of his depleted physical and emotional condition.
He hunched, seeking the warmth of his jacket against the dank chill of early morning, and wondered why Peter, in only his uniform shirt, seemed oblivious to the cold. Or was it just him? Maybe he'd been sideswiped by whatever had laid Jonathan low in the cave.
Tentatively, he sought the dream, confident he could control the fragments and hold them at arm's length for detached and clinical study. He had enough respect for the workings of his own unconscious mind not to ignore those too-vivid images. If this were some kind of answer or warning, he wanted to know what it was. At the very least, by dissecting the images into segments he could with luck diffuse the cold stranglehold it still had on his heart.
He remembered a sense of drifting apart from his body, a kind of distaste for physical constraints tinged by a longing to soar free, out of the clinging grayness into the light he was certain waited to greet him. He felt anesthetized, both body and spirit; no feeling at all. Just silence and peace.
Until a shadow, black on black, disturbed his soft reverie. It loomed over him, a blur in the gloom. Benedek waited for it to go away, but when it didn't, he summoned up a few faint dregs of strength to squint into the darkness, seeking more detail. Some light filtered through in strangely shaped red-hued streaks, revealing a well-known face.
Jonathan? The name came to him with difficulty, shattering in the confusion of his befogged mind. He struuggled to understand why he felt a wrongness about the dimly-lit face above him. As he stared in vague bewilderment, the form above him distorted, its outlines dissolving, melting, reforming, becoming...
Benedek's hand curled tightly around the jeep's door handle as the memory clawed him again. He shot a look at Peter to see if the young man noticed his lack of attention, but the deputy was still chattering away about the shopping malls of Laramie in a voice approaching awe. Taking a deep breath to erect a kind of mental shield, Benny touched the dream images again, again seeing what had been Jonathan MacKensie's face turning into the visage of...
...a monster. The word lacked descriptive power, but it was the only word which suited. Benny sifted through his mental thesaurus, trying to find the words he would have used to commit the horrific image to paper, but they eluded him, leaving only that vivid memory, the accompanying sickness deep in the pit of his stomach, and no way to physically describe it. It was almost as though there had been no nightmare face staring down at him, only Jonathan's face distorted by a mad-house mirror passing between them. And the feeling of helpless terror that filled Benny as the thing raised a clawed hand, leaning down to rip him apart.
He couldn't move, couldn't even close his eyes as his nightmare bent over him. Struggling to break free of his strange, imprisoning lassitude, he managed no more than a single sound as the taloned hands reached for his throat.
The claws paused, quivering, inches from his neck. Above him, the ravaged face changed again, and for a few brief moments he glimpsed Jonathan's face in the fast-moving whirl. The face of a friend, his eyes filled with horror.
And then the thing drifted back, into the surrounding darkness. The rest of the dream was nothing but vague fragments of sound and...smell. As he'd tumbled back into the safety of dreamless sleep, he'd detected the fading scent of flowers.
I'm losing it. Benny straightened in his seat, giving Peter another nod, encouraging the young man to continue with his dissertation on the Wyoming State highway system. Shape up, Benedek. You didn't get to where you are now fretting like this. It's the cave. It's something about the cave, some kind of gas that induces hallucinations, that's all it is. Once Jonny's back on his feet, we'll rustle up some gas masks and check it out again.
Jonathan had been as good as on his feet this morning. When Benny finally prodded himself out of his heavy sleep, he'd found the other bed empty and heard the shower running. It had been all he could do to sit up, let alone put one foot in front of the other, but he'd finally managed, after a good five minutes of bleary fumbling, to put a call through to Theo Goldberg. Enduring another two-minute blast from his alchemist friend about calling during important experiments, he'd finally gotten Theo to listen to his story. As usual, Theo's indignation evaporated instantly as he pressed for details.
"I shall have to get back to you on this one," Theo told him after a ruminating silence. "This calls for some outside research. Flowers, you say? Most peculiar. Any particular genus? No, never mind, that's not important yet. Where can I reach you?"
"I, uh..." He glanced up at the closed bathroom door; the water had stopped running. "I'd better call you back. How long?"
"After nine tonight would be best. I should have something for you then."
Benny mentally calculated the time difference. "Great. Thanks, Theo, you're a pal. You know where to send the bill, right?"
"We'll discuss that after I turn up something for you," Theo said in a voice slightly less cold than usual. "And I must be off. If you need to reach me, I'll be at the Museum of Esoterica doing your research. You have the phone number, of course?"
"In the little red book, right next to Vanna White's press agent. Theo--thanks again."
The call lifted his spirits slightly, but his body still felt like it had been rode hard and put up wet. He stopped himself from stretching out on the bed again, not entirely sure he'd be able to get up once down. In the midst of debating whether he had enough energy to return to his own room for a long shower, the phone rang. After a six-week hiatus, the animal mutilations had begun once more. Remembering the 'famous' Edgar Benedek's visit to the sheriff's office and his marked interest in the history of animal mutilations in the surrounding ara, Deputy Farnan had wasted no time getting to the phone to let Benny know it was all starting again.
Jonathan had emerged from the bathroom during the call, and Benny was hard pressed to follow Peter's excited description and covertly study MacKensie as his friend silently finished dressing. He'd barely glanced at Benedek in greeting, moving slowly but with no marked unsteadiness from closet to dresser and back to his still-made bed. Hastily arranging to meet Peter for a trip up to the site, he hung up, turning back with a forced smile. "Guess you heard most of that. So. Looks like the Slasher's back in town. Maybe you and me, we can get the goods on him this time, eh? I'll get front page exclusives for a month and you'll get a kiss from your boss lady?"
His light-hearted attempt fell flat in the silence. Jonathan glanced at him, then fixed his attention on his shirt, which he was laboriously buttoning.
Benny leaned forward, inclining his head to study MacKensie critically. "You okay? I mean--you're not giving yourself a blood pressure attack, are you?"
Jonathan looked up, blinking in mild confusion.
"If you're going to fume, at least have the good grace to do it loudly, okay? I do a lot better when I know where I stand."
"I'm not..." He glanced down, fumbling with the last, strangely stubborn button. "I'm not fuming."
"Well, whatever you erudite types like to call it." Steadying himself with one hand, he pushed to his feet, still straining for a better look at Jonathan's face. He was pale-looking, but the muscles around his jaw weren't hardened as he would have expected if MacKensie were indeed giving him the cold-shoulder routine. That left only one option--aftereffects. And Theo wouldn't have an answer for him for hours.
"Do me a favor, then," he said, venturing a step closer to Jonathan, whose only reaction was to pause, almost glancing up. "Let's take it from the top. Do you have a headache? Does anything hurt? The stomach still in one piece?"
Jonathan's hand flashed up, then stopped halfway, fading back to the recalcitrant button, leaving Benny unsure whether the aborted gesture had been irritation or something more defensive. "I feel all right," he said, rising to arrange his shirt more neatly. "Just a little tired, that's all."
That much at least rang true. Benny glanced at MacKensie's bed, at the rumple in the spread which told him Jonathan hadn't moved all night. "Look, there's no rush here. I'm meeting with Farnan to check out this new thing. Why don't you stay here and grab some more z's? Before I go, I'll swing by the local hash house and pick up a doggie bag or two. You take your cafe noir, right? You like eggs in the morning, or maybe a couple of doughnuts?"
Jonathan turned away, ostensibly to shut the already-closed dresser drawers, but not before Benedek caught the grimace of revulsion on his friend's face. "I'm...not hungry," he mumbled.
Benny squinted at him. "Your last solid meal was a chicken salad sandwich at lunch yesterday. Are you sure you're feeling all right?"
"I'm..." He glanced at Benny, and whatever he'd been about to say in a sharp-edged voice dissolved in a swallow. "I'm just tired," he repeated stubbornly. "I think I will stay here. I can finish up my research at the library while you're gone."
And that was where they'd left it. By the time Benny raced through his shower, Peter was already at the motel room door, raring to go.
The jeep jerked to a halt, throwing Benny against his seatbelt and out of his reverie. Peter gestured outward as he scrambled from the vehicle. "Just over here a little ways."
This time 'a little ways' proved to be less than 100 feet over a slight rise in the otherwise flat and grassy meadow. A thin fringe of trees in the near distance heralded the beginning of foothills which would, in a few miles time, become the mountains, one of which harbored Hogg's Hole.
The sight which greeted them pushed out the vague apprehensions the thought of Hogg's Hole summoned up. Peter bounded up, gingerly pulling aside an expanse of plastic obviously put down by either himself or the sheriff when they'd been called out to investigate earlier that morning. He glanced back at Benny with a nod. "Like I was telling you, we got the call about six this morning. Mr. Lowery--he owns this spread here--Mr. Lowery put his horses out this morning, and he noticed they were acting real funny, all skittish and jumpy, running around in circles, so he came out here to check it out. Him and his daddy and his daddy before him had this place, and they all lost some of their best stock to whatever this thing is, so he wasn't too happy to find this."
He had only Peter's word that 'this' had once been a coyote. In the course of his life and career, he thought himself innured to death and its many manifestations, so he surprised himself when he had to quell a wince. Gruesome would have been the kind description. The corpse, or what remained of it, was in several scattered, blood-soaked pieces, horribly torn and mutilated. "There's the skull," Farnan pointed out matter-of-factedly, either incredibly cold-blooded or making a brave attempt to appear unfazed in front of his mother's hero. "The torso's there, with one of the front legs."
Benny squatted down by what appeared to have been the site of the attack, since most of the blood seemed to have soaked into the soft ground there. "So what's the story here? You've seen the other attacks, right? What's the same and what's different?"
"Well..." Peter gestured with a shrug. "Last time it was a couple of sheep, a cow and Mrs. Schroeder's champion retriever."
"All domestic," Benny nodded. His critical eye studied every detail, determining that there were no other animal prints save that of the unfortunate coyote in the soft ground. And no sign of a chase, which meant that the animal had been slain without warning on the spot. That left an easy guess as to the owners of the two sets of human prints surrounding the area--the sheriff and Deputy Farnan, after the fact. "Same M.O.?"
Peter laughed shortly. "If you can call it that. Ripped apart, most of the innards missing or in shreds--and no footprints to or from the scene."
"Near as we can figure, short claws, or..." He shrugged uneasily. "Bare hands?"
"What self-respecting coyote would let a human within half a mile of him?" Benny murmured under his breath as he rose, pacing the perimeter of the site in a vain search for some telltale clue the sheriff might have missed. "The last attacks--they started about two months ago, right?"
"Oh, lessee..." Peter squinted up into the morning sky, thinking hard. "Yeah, right around my sister's birthday."
"And the last attack was six weeks ago. Two weeks, four attacks, and then nothing until now. How about the time before last?"
"That was a few years ago," Peter said slowly, searching his memory. "I was still in school then. Couple of cows from a spread farther south, one of Mr. Winston's ponies, and I think later on they found a wild horse they figured must have been killed around the same time." He glanced down at the carnage with a shrug. "Who knows how many coyotes? We'd never have found this one if he hadn't wandered so close in."
"How long a period were the attacks spread over?"
"Couple of weeks, I guess. They never last longer than that."
"How about the spacing?" Intent on gathering as much information as he could, Benny descended on Peter earnestly. "What's the norm? Six weeks, a couple of years, what?"
"The sheriff did a chart on that once," Farnan offered brightly. "Took it all the way back to the first official case. He's been in office for years, before I was born, in fact. Been trying to pin this thing down for a long time."
"Yeah, I can imagine his reputation's suffering a little. Can you get me copy of the chart?"
"Well, I guess I could. If you promise not to tell the sheriff. He's, ah...not too happy about you and your professor friend poking around. I'm kinda pushing things bringing you out here."
"Don't worry, kid, I'll cover for you," Benny said, cracking a smile. "The first official case, you said. That was back at the turn of the century?"
"A couple of years after the first settlers arrived, yeah. It's all in the chart."
"Great. I, uh..." He glanced back at the plastic-covered corpse, more confused than awed by the thought of what could have reduced a wild animal to such a state and leave no evidence of its physical existence. "I think I've seen enough here. Let's get back so I can take a look at that chart."
Peter agreed with a ready nod and they headed back to the jeep. Halfway there, Benny spoke suddenly, struck by another unsettling thought. "Does this thing ever attack people?"
"That's the weird thing," Peter said with a frown. "I've heard that it does, or at least it did, but...well, I can't find anything in the official records. You'd think that with something that can do that..." He glanced over his shoulder, "...on the loose, people would be packing up and moving out, but it's as though they know that this thing only goes after animals, so they don't really worry or get scared. They know that in a couple of weeks the attacks will probably stop as sudden as they started, so they just get angry and upset when it starts up all over again."
"And the sheriff's office catches hell, right?" Benny guessed shrewdly. Peter's tired shrug gave him tacit affirmation.
At the jeep, Peter paused, another slight frown crossing his face. "Something that happened the last two times around the same time as the attacks is a little strange, though. I mean, this is a big county and it's hard enough to keep track of people coming and going at the best of times, but...well, a couple years ago, Verna Shepherd's oldest boy Tommy up and disappeared right about the same time that the attacks stopped. Some fellas who hung out with him at the bar said Tommy was going on about tracking down whatever was killing off his family's cows, and they say the last time they saw him was dead drunk with a gun in his hand, headed off for the hills. So talk has it that this thing got the drop on Tommy first. But they never found anything, one way or the other."
"What about the last time, six weeks ago?"
"A drifter was found floating belly up in the creek near the Logan farm."
Peter shook his head. "Coroner ruled death by misadventure. Looked more like suicide to me."
Intrigued, Benny leaned against the jeep. "How so?"
"His face." Peter gave him a grim look. "It was all clawed up, but the coroner said that he'd done it himself--something about skin under the fingernails. If he'd do that to himself, it'd be just one more short step to throwing himself into the creek, right?"
He agreed, his mind already racing to fit in the new, vaguely disturbing pieces. "The Logan farm," he mused aloud. "Wait a minute, I remember passing a sign..." Eyes widening, he stared at Peter for a blank second. "That's out by the foothills, isn't it? Near Hogg's Hole?"
"Yeah." Peter grimaced mildly, looking away for a moment. "That place."
Benny pointed a finger at the young man across the roof of the car. "What's the deal with Hogg's Hole? Where does it fit in?"
Glancing at his watch, Peter gestured nervously. "It's getting late. I gotta get back."
Benny hopped in, grabbing the man's hand as he reached for the ignition. "Drive and talk," he warned. "You've already proved you can do both."
When Peter nodded reluctantly, Benny released him, and allowed him to remain silent until the jeep was headed in a straight, albeit bumpy, line back to the main road. "Okay, give," Benny growled in his best no-nonsense voice. "Once and for all--what's the deal with Hogg's Hole?"
The rental jeep was parked in the same space in front of their respective motel room doors. Hands loaded with white paper bags, Benny slowed, then paused, frowning at the car. Shoving one bag under his arm, he placed his hand on the hood. Sun-warmed, nothing more. Maybe it wasn't his imagination that the car appeared to be in the exact same position he'd left it yesterday afternoon.
Apprehension mounting, he knocked sharply on the door of Jonathan's motel room then sidestepped to peer through the window. The blinds were closed, the drapes tightly pulled, which was definitely not the way he'd left them. Losing his grip on the paper bags, he kicked the door sharply. "Jonny? Come on, open up, it's chow-time."
He leaned in, hearing no movement from within. "Jonathan? It's your favorite--vanilla milkshake and jalapeno chicken wings. Specialty of the house at Lenny's Bar & Grill. Hurry up--one's getting hot and the other one's getting cold. And I'm getting steamed," he added under his breath, delivering a flat-handed blow to the door. "Come on, I know you're in there. If you brought the librarian back with you to continue your research, tell her I got plenty for three. Jonathan?"
His next call promised to be in a much higher decibel range, but a dull sound from somewhere inside the room cut him short. After a moment, there was a scrabbling at the door, which opened after another long moment, revealing Jonathan MacKensie looking somewhat dazed.
"About time," Benny growled, noting that the man was still completely dressed, which nixed the possibility that he had company stashed in the closet. His planned tirade died when Jonathan faltered, shielding his eyes from the bright early afternoon sunlight.
"Whoa, whoa." Catching Jonathan's arm, he edged into the room, kicking the door closed behind him. He dumped the bags unceremoniously, then used his free hand to guide MacKensie to the near bed, ignoring the fact that his friend seemed to be resisting the contact. "This isn't getting better, is it?" he muttered, stepping back as Jonathan, seated on the edge of the bed, rubbed at his forehead.
"I'm fine," the man murmured irritably, not looking up. "You woke me up, that's all."
"And how long have you been sleeping?" Benny accused, retrieving the leaking bags from the floor.
"Not...not long," he said weakly.
"Yeah? Don't kid a kidder, pal. You didn't go to the library, your briefcase is still in the closet, and the TV is stone cold. So what were you doing for the past five hours, playing a mean set of air guitar? Did you eat the stuff I dropped off this morning?"
"Yes," Jonathan sighed, both hands massaging his temples.
"All of it?"
"Okay, okay, okay," he muttered, not sure whether Jonathan's plea or his own growing sense of helplessness was the root cause of his growing irritation. "We gotta come to some sort of understanding here, buds," he said as he slowly unpacked the contents of the bags onto the dresser. "If you're still not hitting all eight cylinders by tomorrow morning, at the very latest--you're going in for an oil change and lube job."
"Don't..." He bit back the promising explosion, taking a breath to continue more calmly. "Don't waste your breath, pal. I'll hire guys to take you to the E.R. in wrap-around jacket if I have to, so don't press your luck, okay? Here--burger and fries. I'll get us a couple of cokes from the machine, and when I get back, I'll tell you what I got from Farnan." He grimaced down at his hands, slicked with hamburger grease. "Side trip first. Help yourself, there's plenty."
For a moment, he could have sworn that Jonathan was about to protest his use of the bathroom, but when he paused briefly in the doorway, the man had already turned his head away.
He frowned into the mirror as he scrubbed the offending grease from his hands. A familiar scent deepened his frown--coffee. Looking down, he saw tell-tale brownish droplets clinging to the sides of the sink. And in the waste-basket, not quite covered by paper-toweling, was the empty styrofoam cup, two hardened pieces of toast and two congealed eggs, sunny side up. Jonathan's entire breakfast from this morning.
So he lied. He finished toweling his hands dry, gripped by deep uneasiness. What does that mean? Would he have lied about going to the library if I hadn't caught that one out first? What else is he lying about? How he feels? Or what's really wrong with him? Or...what really happened to him in that cave?
He covertly studied Jonathan as he emerged from the bathroom, crossing to the dresser. MacKensie, still hunched over on the side of the bed, didn't look up even as Benny unwrapped the hamburgers with slightly more force than necessary. "It was a mess, all right," Benny said stiffly, rumpling the empty bags for a one-handed toss into the nearby wastebasket. "Coyote, or what was left of it, anyway. No footprints, corpse torn to shreds, missing internal parts, usual stuff. Finally got something useful from Farnan--kid became a regular local encyclopedia once I got him away from the sheriff. Seems that no one really knows why Hogg's Hole has such a bad rep. There are enough stories, sure, but nothing that would warm your scientific little heart, such as hard evidence." He paused, staring down at the suddenly unappetizing meal. "Number one on the local legend hit parade has something to do with an old Indian curse. Peter claims there's two versions of that story--one's cleaned up for public consumption and the other one's...not."
He finally glanced up to see if Jonathan had been listening at all. The man was still sitting in the same position, but his head had lifted and tilted slightly, as though the sound of Benny's voice drew him. Encouraged, Benny abandoned the cold food and made his way to the armchair near the window, stretching out with a sigh. MacKensie's eyes followed him without ever once meeting his gaze directly.
"According to Version A, once upon a time, there was a young Indian brave who had the misfortune to fall in love with the wrong Indian maiden, and for that miscalculation was cursed by the friendly neighborhood medicine man and beset by demons, who drove him into the depths of a cave known better to us as Hogg's Hole, where apparently he's been ever since. With the demons, no doubt." He paused, studying his fingers for a moment. "Version B, well...that's where it all gets interesting. Starts out with the same young Indian brave, but there was no young Indian maiden in the picture at all. Farnan was blushing too hard to be coherent, so my best guess is that the corespondent in that case was either another young Indian brave or the local buffalo herd."
He was sure he'd provoke a reaction from Jonathan with that one, but when he looked up, MacKensie hadn't moved so much as a muscle. Vaguely disappointed and more strongly distressed, he drew a breath and continued. "Apparently the enlightened medicine man consulted with the tribal chief and both decided they could cure this poor soul's aberration by forcing him to marry one of the chief's many nubile daughters. But the hero of our piece didn't quite see it that way, and killed her on their wedding night--literally tore her to pieces in an insane rage. Then he put on a big show, claiming that demons had done it while holding him back and making him watch. The chief didn't quite buy that story, and went to the medicine man for a real heavy-duty curse to lay on the guy. And he came up with a beauty. Together with most of the tribe, both of the head honchos hounded the offender into the hills, maneuvering it so that the prey finally had to take cover in Hogg's Hole. That's when the shaman swung into action. Three days and three nights he did his thing with fire and chanting and dancing, the whole nine yards. The kid cowering in the cave was yelling and hollering and pleading for his life, but the old geezer just kept dancing until the kid wasn't screaming anymore. Then he calmly packed up his stuff and everybody went back to the settlement. And, according to the rest of the story, ripped-up animals started dotting the landscape shortly after. The medicine man's curse kicked in strong--but backfired on the tribe."
"What..." Jonathan's thin voice startled the next words out of Benny's mouth. "What was the curse?"
Swallowing his surprise, Benny cleared his throat. "That he would dwell in darkness for eternity," he said, recalling Peter's solemn words. "That the blood staining his hands would never wash away and his memory would never fade. And that he would live forever, but die a thousand lonely deaths."
He stared, beyond confusion, as Jonathan lowered his face into his hands with what could have been a low moan.
"Don't let it get to you, Jack," he said cajolingly. "It's only a story. A pretty hairy story, but still..."
"No, I'm...I just have a headache, that's all."
"Probably lack of food," Benny said quietly.
Jonathan started guiltily, giving Benedek some small satisfaction. "I'm...I wasn't hungry, really."
"Then you must be ravenous now, right?" Benny watched him carefully, but Jonathan betrayed no other reaction save keeping his eyes carefully averted. Sighing in defeat, Benedek continued, "Take both hamburgers, I can pick up more when I check back with Peter this afternoon. Matter of fact, I should get a move on, see if he's made any progress. He's sneaking me a copy of some info the sheriff's compiled on the history of these attacks." Rising, he crossed to the door, turning back to gesture at the jumble of food and wrappers on the dresser. "Like I said, help yourself. Mine's a little on the pink side, if that doesn't bother you." He hesitated, scratching behind his ear as he sought for something else to say. "Want me to pick you up anything? Aspirin? Antacids?"
Jonathan shook his head tiredly. "No." And as an obvious afterthought: "Thank you."
"Well..." Benny eased the door open, still thinking. "You might as well forget about the library. Peter's got the local lore memorized, anyway. If I've got the time, I'm gonna visit the local paper, see what I can find in the old files--so I might be back late. So why don't you just...get some more rest, okay?"
He slipped out only after Jonathan gave him an answering nod and an almost grateful look. Two steps away from the door and something dragged him to a halt, turning his head around to stare apprehensively at the closed door. Damn you, anyway,, he thought bitterly. I'm confused. I'm really confused. Have I ever told you how much I really, really hate being confused?
He comforted himself with the fact that he'd at least delivered his ultimatum and fully intended to carry it through. His only regret was that he'd agreed to wait until tomorrow, when what he really wanted to do was drag MacKensie to the hospital by the heels right now and let the man confuse someone else for a change.
And then there was Theo, good old Theo, good old reliable Theo, who was bound to have something concrete for him by this evening, something to help ease this troubling burden off his mind. Something he could understand, something he could throw triumphantly in Jonathan's face or use to lever the man into the hands of medical professionals. At the very least, he could only hope that Theo would provide the one something he needed desperately at the moment--a simple, logical answer.
Thing were looking up. Jonathan answered on the first knock, and color was definitely returning to the man's face. He even managed a smile of greeting as he returned to the armchair, reaching for a discarded book. Benny's relief faded to see lunch still on the dresser, barely touched. Before he could say anything, Jonathan gestured with one hand while adjusting his glasses with the other. "By the time my appetite came back, that almost took it away again. I took a walk over to the diner and had lunch there. Minestrone soup and pork chops with peas and carrots," he added in response to Benny's doubtful look.
It sounded sincere, and Jonathan sounded almost normal, albeit still drawn and tired. Benny's frown deepened as, in the midst of clearing away the congealed debris, he saw that Jonathan must have attempted to eat at least one of the hamburgers. But not the bun, which lay to one side, untouched. The meat itself had been partially nibbled before being discarded.
"So, you're, ah...feeling better?" he ventured, shoving the last of the ill-fated meal into the wastebasket.
"Yes, thank you," Jonathan murmured, flipping a page of the book. "I told you, all I needed was sleep."
"Yeah," Benny sighed, wondering why the man's sudden disinterest in his own welfare irritated him so much. "Good thing I didn't worry."
MacKensie's eyes flicked up briefly, but he returned to the page before him without comment.
Flopping down on the edge of the bed near the armchair, Benny pulled some folded sheets of paper from his pocket. "If your brain is out of neutral, then take a look at this and tell me what you think."
Setting aside the book immediately, Jonathan took the papers, smoothing them out as he glanced through. "Farnan slipped these to me," Benny explained. "Looks like the sheriff's been holding out on us. That chart has names, dates, locations, everything he told us he had no records on."
"And this map?"
"Copied that from an atlas. Peter helped me out with the geography and we marked out all the locations from the chart. All that told us was what we already knew." Leaning over, he tapped large red circle inscribed on the sheet of paper Jonathan held. "Hogg's Hole, smack dab in the middle."
"That's not the middle," MacKensie frowned.
"Allowing for the mountains on this side, it might as well be," Benny returned defensively.
Shaking his head disparagingly, Jonathan returned to the other sheets, hastily xeroxed segments of a larger original. "It looks like this goes all the way back to 1904. That's when the area was first settled, wasn't it?"
"When they started keeping records, anyway. Peter says his boss kept to the hard evidence when he pulled this thing together."
Jonathan, his frown deepening, scanned through several sheets. "This is curious. Look--here. Three separate episodes in 1924, one in 1925, and then nothing until 1928."
"You want curious? Look at the duration periods. Anywhere from one week to a month and a half."
"No pattern," Jonathan agreed, deep in thought.
"We knew that going in," Benny said, buoyed by the light of genuine interest he glimpsed in MacKensie's otherwise puzzled expression. "All this does is cut out about a week of dusty book work, for which I owe Peter a rather large and very messy pizza. Cheap at half the price, wouldn't you say?"
"Then what's the question?" Jonathan asked, peering at him over the rim of his glasses.
"The question is, why isn't there a pattern?"
MacKensie blinked. "Excuse me?"
"No, think about it. If this were some kind of weird carnivorous bird--don't look at me, check out the last page, the sheriff circled option 3 in red--there'd be a pattern, right? If it were some strange Satanic rite--option 5, with the question mark--there'd be a pattern. Everything he's got down there just doesn't take the gaps into account. And nothing, except maybe the bird theory, explains the lack of footprints."
"What you're saying is that your investigation has gone exactly nowhere."
"Maybe not," Benny mocked a wise wink. "I prefer to think of it as having most of the dead-end work done for me. The sheriff did a bang-up job, but he's working with one very crucial handicap--he's looking for a physical, living, breathing culprit."
"And you're not," Jonathan ventured, regarding him askance.
"Not necessarily, no. I'm going in with an open mind."
"And where exactly are you going with this open mind?"
He hesitated, some of his returning enthusiasm doused by the vague fear that he was jumping back into the old flow a little too soon. But Jonathan seemed to be his old, disparaging self, and with that assurance, his smile sprang back, settling into a smug look. "Straight back to Hogg's Hole."
Something flickered behind Jonathan's eyes, hidden when he glanced down at the papers in his hands. "I see," he murmured.
"I'm not asking you to go back with me," he faltered, unnerved by the strange non-reaction. "But if you do decide to come..."
"No." He brought his head up, giving Benny a calm, steady look. "I'm not going back there, I'm sorry. And neither are you."
He managed only a bewildered sound as Jonathan shot out of the chair, scattering the papers on the floor. "Wait a minute!" he choked out on the second try, missing MacKensie's arm by inches. "What--?"
Pulling up short, Jonathan half-turned, lifting a hand as though to capture a nebulous thought. "I'll only say this once, and please--don't ask me to explain it, because I can't," he said, his voice holding an odd, emotional quaver. Don't go near that cave. They were right, everyone was right. It's too dangerous, it's..."
"It's where the answer is," Benny said quietly when Jonathan broke off with a frustrated sigh.
The look MacKensie gave him was indescribable; a strange amalgam of fear and confusion that froze Benedek's breath in his chest. "You believe that?" Jonathan said, almost a whisper.
"Yeah," he said, surprised at how difficult it was for him to speak. "I do. And I think you do, too. And we came here to find the answer, remember?"
"Not there." He shook his head once, with finality. "If the answer is there, then this investigation is closed, as of right now. I'm not going back, and you're not going, either."
"Says you?" Benny challenged belligerently.
He expected a tirade against his childish stubbornness, which left him unprepared for the quiet, heartfelt, "Benny, please. Don't go back there."
Finally pushed past his confusion threshold, Benny sat heavily on the side of the bed, pressing a hand to his spinning head. "Yeah," he found himself saying. "Yeah, sure. Don't sweat it, okay?"
His vision and mind cleared a few long moments later, and his head snapped up. "Wait a minute. I'm not promising anything until--"
Too late; the bathroom door closed with a firm click.
"You bastard," he muttered darkly, checking his watch, then grabbing the phone. "Theo, be home. Be helpful."
The alchemist was indeed home, but not at all helpful. He'd even contacted the Museum of Natural History in his quest for information about floral-scented natural hallucinogens, with no result. Benny listened, shoulders sagging with the weight of frustration. "In other words, nothing, right?"
"I didn't say that," Theo's voice huffed over the long-distance line. "I'm merely saying that the information you gave me was too general to be of much use in my research endeavors. However, I did find several volumes of regional folklore, in specific--ancient Indian legends. Were you aware that you're currently sitting in the midst of a veritable hotbed of--?"
"Yeah, Theo, I already got the local tour, thanks," he said tiredly.
"Fascinating reading," Theo exulted. "Quite useless as far as your situation is concerned, of course. So sorry, dear boy."
"Thanks anyway, Theo. I owe you one."
"Several, actually, but all will be itemized, I assure you. Ta."
As Benedek finished scooping up the last of the scattered papers, Jonathan emerged from the bathroom, avoiding Benny's searching look as he crossed to settle on the edge of his still-made bed. When the growing silence made it clear that MacKensie would not make the first move, Benny snagged the upended book, holding it up. "Looking for this?"
"No, thank you," came the thin, barely audible reply.
"So," Benedek said non-committally, his whole attention ostensibly on putting the page order to right. "Do we consider the investigation still open or do I go solo from this point on?"
"Do we have to discuss that right now?" he sighed, a weary plea in his voice.
"Not right now, no." He carefully piled the papers on the armchair before finally looking over at MacKensie. "But we do have to discuss it. Okay?"
He seemed about to refuse, but Benny's stern look stopped him cold. "Okay," he agreed reluctantly. "Tomorrow. Please."
"Tomorrow," he nodded. "It's getting late--you hungry?"
For the first time, Jonathan's head came up, but his eyes didn't seem quite focused as he answered readily, "Yes. I am, actually."
"The diner might still be open..." He hesitated, sizing up MacKensie's condition in the weak light from the reading lamp. "I'll play room service one more time, but after this you're back to foraging for your own grub. What else did they have on the menu?"
He spotted the room key on the dresser and scooped it up as he spoke. At the door, he turned back when there was no immediate answer, and saw that Jonathan had his forehead cradled in one hand. "Jack? What do you want to eat?"
He looked up vaguely, seemed to rouse his thoughts with a effort. "Anything, thanks," he murmured, sinking his head back into his hand.
Benny made the short hike to the diner plagued by doubts which refused to crystallize. At the diner, spurred on by one of the more insistent questions, he determined very quickly that no one remembered serving lunch to an articulate, accented stranger, and that pork chops were not even on the menu.
Anger carried him back to the motel room, whitening his knuckles on the brown paper bags contained two dinner specials. He opened the door onto darkness; in the pale light cast by the parking lot lights, he saw Jonathan curled up on the far bed, still fully dressed and sound asleep.
"Coward," he snarled under his breath, slamming and chain-locking the door before making his way through the gloom to the other bed and switching on the bedside lamp. "Hey, Jack. Meals on Wheels is here. You own me four-fifty plus tip."
Neither his intentional clamor nor his raised voice provoked a reaction. Grumbling, he dug into one of the bags and noisily unwrapped one portion of broiled chicken. "This is it, buds. I've had it, up to here. You've been yanking my chain too long. You..."
He broke off his own tirade with a frustrated, overwhelmed by a sense of wrongness. It didn't make sense, none of it made any sense. The illness, the lies--the fear....
The broiled chicken half, so appetizing to his empty stomach when the waitress was foil-wrapping it, suddenly turned his stomach. Wincing, he chided himself for letting his frayed emotional state get in the way of his appetite, and freed a drumstick. It wasn't the sight of the meat so much as the smell, which had taken on a slightly sweet edge, almost cloying, like...
The aroma surged up, filling his sinuses. Gagging, he dropped the drumstick, barely keeping the contents of his stomach in place with a well-timed swallow. Tightly rewrapping the meat and shoving it back into the bag didn't diminish the smell, which continued to assault him in lazy waves. Gasping, he clutched at his roiling stomach, confused by the strong aroma which didn't seem to come from anywhere, but was there, all around him, in his head and his throat and his lungs....
Air. I need air. He tried to stand up, intending to seek the clean air of a Wyoming night, but his legs wouldn't work. The thick smell filled his head, shrouding his brain, muddying his thoughts, weighing his head down until his chin touched his chest. Sleep. I need sleep...
Sleep came, surprising him with its soft and swift attack. With barely a sound, he toppled back, his tired sigh drowning in the deep gray cushion swirling up to embrace him.
Even his thoughts broke apart in the turgid, faintly scented swirl. He made an attempt to chase them down, but it proved too much effort. It was all he could do to draw breath, and for a few moments he wasn't sure he could do even that. But it didn't matter, because nothing mattered. Everything existed in the tight grip of this dark nothingness, squeezed dry until nothing existed at all. No light, no sound, no feeling. Nothing. Nothing at all.
There was light suffusing the grayness, and he stared at it, considered it with the brief flashes of cognizance which plagued his lassitude until finally he understood that he was staring at the ceiling, mottled by the pale illumination from the bedside lamp. But was he then awake, and if so why not get up, change and crawl under the covers for a proper sleep? Or was this merely a part of a dream? But why would he dream of being awake yet not aware, and why would that dream have him staring mindlessly at a cracked ceiling splashed by yellow light?
Too much thinking. Nothing made sense, and nothing would ever make sense again. A thought startlingly clear in the muffled darkness of his mind, fading quickly but leaving its sonorous echo behind. Nothing will ever make sense again...
There was a sound, a kind of rustling, muffled in the shroud imprisoning his mind, and he could barely feel curiosity let alone surprise. But mustering every bit of strength he could find within him, he turned his head to see towards the source of the intrusive noise.
The dark form on the other bed stirred, langorously rising up to float...float...into the light, approaching to hover over him speculatively. His dream of the previous night revisited, save that the vaguely defined thing more closely resembled Jonathan MacKensie, or at least seemed to hold his features in the fast-moving swirl a little longer. Dream. Just a dream. The soft chorus in his mind held back any fear he might have at the sight of this chilling specter, so he only stared at the grey and yellow patterns above him, dimly struck by the feeling that he was watching a silent battle. A war for...control? Yes, there was strain in what he could see of Jonathan's blurred visage, perhaps lines of exhaustion, and something else in his eyes. Not the horror of the night before, not fear, but--resignation, perhaps. As though he fought because he had to, not because he had any real hope of winning in the end.
Perhaps if he could reach up, he could find what was left of Jonathan MacKensie in the midst of that swirling cloud and pull him free. But his arm was useless, hardly even a part of him, and the thought faded even as he tried. The specter trembled slightly before vanishing like a wisp of smoke from the light and from his mind, but not before he sensed that the part of the phantom which was still Jonathan thanked him for trying.
He relaxed back into the blessed void, free of puzzling visions and even more bewildering thoughts and slept again...again?...until, an eternity later, sound and scent roused him again.
The specter had returned. Where before it had been soft and blurred, strangely benevolent, it now stood in a circle of light, a raw golden illumination pulsing from itself, calling every detail of the vision into sharp, glaring focus. Benny stared, unable to breathe as horror filled him, both head and heart. There was no gray shroud blurring the outline now; this was Jonathan MacKensie, a vision straight from hell. His skin glowed with that unearthly light, marred by huge dark splashes smeared across his naked torso, covering his legs and arm, dripping from the trembling hands it raised as it lifted its head to reveal a face harshened by silent, violent pain.
The hands lowered before Benny could sort out whether it had been a warning or a plea for help. Not that he could do either; he could do nothing but stare as the horrible specter folded its blood-soaked hands over its face and wept.
The dream shattered; the soft sounds of wracking sobs faded with his consciousness, leaving him once more adrift in the void. Safe, silent, but no longer at peace.
When he struggled awake at last, the void had absorbed enough of the memory that he had to take a moment to orient himself. Tentatively, he lifted his hands. Both came up easily, and he illuminated his watch dial. 4:32 am. I've been lying here, fully dressed, half on and half off this bed, for how long?
And then the dream memory surged back, sending him bolt upright with his heart pounding hard in his chest. In the pale light cast by the bedside lamp, he saw Jonathan MacKensie, curled up on his side on the other bed, fast asleep.
It was a dream, dammit. Just a dream. So why wouldn't his heart calm down, why couldn't he breathe? Jonathan was there, not glowing, snoring peacefully, still fully dressed; there were no pools of blood on the floor where the phantom had stood....
I'm cracking.. He was also sick to his stomach. Stumbling to the bathroom, he leaned against the sink until the worst of the roiling knots eased. I've let this thing get to me. Why? I've seen worse than coyote chop suey before, I've heard worse than that Indian legend. Why this? Why now? Why...?
Thinking just made him more nauseous, and he deliberately swallowed back both the illness and the treacherous thoughts. And in his self-imposed mindlessness, he undressed, made his way back to the bed and crawled under the cover, falling immediately into an exhausted, blessedly dreamless sleep.
He awoke to the harsh sound of the ringing telephone. His vision refused to clear, so he groped blindly for the receiver, pulling it under the blanket to his ear. "Yeah."
"Mr. Benedek? This is Peter. Peter Farnan?"
"Yeah, I remember," he yawned. "What's up, kid?"
"We had another one last night. Two, actually. A couple of ewes from a spread farther north."
The news gave him the adrenalin rush he needed to move, shoving off the covers to sit up on the edge of the bed. "I'm listening."
"Not much to tell, really. Same business as all the times before. No tracks, nothing to go on."
Benny sighed, rubbing the crust out of his burning eyes. "From coyotes to sheep," he muttered. "This thing is pretty indiscriminate, whatever it is."
"Did you want a ride out to look?"
"Nah, I'll take your word that there's nothing new to see and pass on this one. Thanks, kid. I'll be sure and spell your name right in my article."
"Don't mention it," the young man breathed, obviously awestruck at the thought of seeing his name in print in his mother's favorite tabloid. "Oh, there's something else."
In the midst of forming a quick goodbye, Benny paused. "Yeah? What?"
"Got a call real early this morning, from Mrs Shepherd? I was telling you about her son Tommy?"
He sifted through the fog of sleep still shrouding his his brain until the names struck a familiar note. "Yeah. Yeah, something about the guy turning up missing a few years ago?"
"Yeah, him. Well, Mrs. Shepherd, she was asking some strange questions. About Hogg's Hole and whether I knew if anyone'd been poking around it lately."
A strange chill played up and down his spine. "Uh-huh," he replied non-committally, unsure whether he'd let slip to Farnan about their excursion of two days before. "And?"
"Well, I told her I didn't know about that, but I mentioned you were interested in the cave, the legend and everything. She said she'd like to talk to you about it, says she might be able to tell you a few things, you know, help you out with your story?"
There was a puzzled note in Peter's voice, giving Benny the hint that the woman had been insistent without explanation. His first inclination was to dismiss the woman as someone who wanted to grab a piece of the limelight, but the specific mention of Hogg's Hole nagged at him. "What's her number?" he heard himself saying.
"Oh, she's not in right now. She's been running her spread pretty much single-handed since Tommy took off. But she said if you'd stop by around eleven, she'll have lunch for you."
Benny felt his frown deepen. That had the distinct sound of a woman who was sure her bait would be taken. And she was right; there was no way he could rest easy until he'd spoken with her and found out why she'd connected the renewed animal mutilations with Hogg's Hole. Scribbling out directions to the Shepherd ranch on the pad of hotel stationery, he thanked the young deputy again, and continued frowning at the phone for long moments after he'd hung up. Hogg's Hole. Everything led back to that damned cave. Everything...
He glanced up, and had a moment of panic to see the rumpled, empty bed opposite. A quick check of the room brought his breath back in an irritated snort; Jonathan MacKensie was sitting in the armchair by the window, his head bowed over an open book. Terrific. Couldn't be bothered to answer the phone, could you? Angrily he slammed into the bathroom. It wasn't until he'd shut the shower off and reached for a towel that his irritation faded enough to realize what had been wrong with the picture. Jonathan hadn't been wearing his reading glasses.
And still wasn't. Seemingly intent on the pages before him, he didn't react as Benny emerged from the bathroom.
Benny finished dressing, his anger and frustration growing with every moment that passed in cold silence. This is a game, isn't it? he decided suddenly. A silly little game you invented to rub my nose in it for that fiasco in the cave. Of course. It makes sense now. A game.
He looked around for a playing piece and found one. Snatching up one of the brown paper bags containing last night's dinner, he stalked up to where Jonathan sat and tossed the bag into the man's lap. Starting, Jonathan let his book tumble to the floor as he grabbed the bundle, giving Benny a look of genuine surprise.
"Last call, Jonny," he growled, eyes flashing. "Cold chicken for breakfast. Nothing quite like it. Go ahead--chow down."
Jonathan stared down at the crumpled bag in his hands, a flash of unmistakable fear crossing his face. Nodding grimly, Benny gestured with mock nonchalance. "Well, if that doesn't do it for you, then you got two, count 'em, two choices. We either trot over to the diner right now or you get door-to-door service to someplace very white and very antiseptic."
A faint tremor marked his hands as he carefully opened the bag, withdrawing a foil-wrapped object. Pausing, his fingers twitched on one corner of the foil, then jerked back as though resolve failed them. Closing his eyes tightly, he shook his head once, fumbling the unwrapped food back into the bag.
"Okay," Benny nodded stiffly. "That's pretty clear. Get your jacket."
Expecting a more vehement protest, Benny hesitated at the fearful, almost pleading note in Jonathan's voice. "Benedek...don't."
"Don't?" More unnerved that he could admit even to himself, Benny clung to his rising ire. "Don't what? Jerk when you yank my chain? Damn you, anyway. I'm tired of this crap. I'm sick and tired of this stupid game of yours. I've had it, up to here. This is it." He paused, stepping hard on the quaver of hysteria threatening his voice. "I mean it. This is where I call the game. You don't like either of those choices? Fine. I'll give you one more. I'll drive you to the airport, right now, and pack you off on the first flight back to D.C. Let Dr. Moorhouse deal with you, because I'm through. All of it, I'm finished with all of it, especially you--you and your stupid, asinine games. I'll drop you a card at Christmas, we'll do lunch sometime. But that's it, Jonny. That's it."
His angry voice faded from a promised shout to quiet fury and trailed off as he turned his back, struggling to breathe past the tightness in his chest and throat. He barely heard Jonathan's quiet voice past the pounding in his head:
"I think that would probably be for the best."
The chilling sensation of his heart dropping in his chest told him that this was not the answer he expected, or even wanted to hear. "Okay," he forced himself to say calmly, without turning around. "Okay, fine. If that's the way you want it. How long will it take you to pack?"
"You'll miss your appointment."
Surprised that Jonathan had paid even that much attention, he turned around, but MacKensie was gazing out the window, averting his face from Benny's searching look. "So I'll miss my appointment," he muttered. "What's it to you?"
"I'll wait here," Jonathan said quietly. "There are later flights..."
"Damn you, don't start," Benny snapped, and MacKensie looked away again, fueling his anger. "You're not going to tell me, are you?" he said, inches from an explosion. "I'll bet you were having a real laugh watching me squirm, weren't you, Jocko? You probably had a cache of Twinkies stashed somewhere the whole time. Well, fine. You had your laugh. And if you want to keep on sulking, that's fine, too. And you're right--there's no reason I should miss my appointment because of you. But you're not staying here. I'm not letting you out of my sight, pal, not until you're on that plane and off my back, once and for all." He glanced at his watch, wincing to see how late he'd slept. "We've got ourselves a lunch date. Get your jacket. Now."
His growling stomach banished any hope of holding out until Verna Shepherd's promised lunch; while Jonathan rose to retrieve his suitcoat, Benny made short work of one of the pieces of cold chicken. An inelegant beginning to the day, but it was food, and as such induced the desired effect, clearing away the last of the fog plaguing his mind. As he shoved the remnants into the wastebasket, he noted again how MacKensie, waiting for him by the door, kept his eyes averted the entire time. A part of him selfishly hoped that guilt was what bowed his head, but the brief glimpses he'd gotten of Jonathan's face showed more pain than anything else, as though he fought against a fierce headache. Benny ruthlessly pushed back a flicker of concern. Just more of the game, he assured himself, brusquely gesturing for Jonathan to proceed him out of the room. And I'm not jumping through your hoops anymore.
The bitter silence held between them as Benny headed the jeep out of the motel parking lot. Damn it. Why won't you give it up? he fumed, sneaking a glance at the silent man next to him in the front seat. The game is over, pal. I called your bluff, didn't I?
Grip tightening on the wheel, he ignored the nagging doubt in favor of remustering his determination. What bothered him the most was being forced into an ultimatum by MacKensie's ongoing stubbornness. He hated ultimatums. Whether delivering or receiving, it didn't matter; the net effect was the same. It narrowed options, impeded flexibility and absolutely destroyed spontaneity. Even if he wanted to, he couldn't back down now. All he needed was one word, just one word from MacKensie to reopen renegotiations. But Jonathan remained silent, staring out the window at the passing landscape.
Just as well. You turned into somebody I don't even want to know, let alone deal with. Ever since... The thought brought a wince of confusion stabbing through his anger. Ever since I pulled you out of Hogg's Hole. That's when everything stopped making sense.
Words from a dream added a ghostly chorus: Nothing will ever make sense again.
It's just a cave. It's just a cave with a nasty boogie-man story some tribal mother concocted to scare her naughty papooses. With a rude start, he recognized the 180 degree turn his thinking had taken over the past two days. Then he'd been looking for the boogie-man, wherever and however he could find it. Now he was so desperate to find an answer he could understand that if the boogie-man came up right now and introduced itself, he'd start looking for the zipper in the back. Just as if he were Jonathan MacKensie or something.
He snuck another look over; the man still hadn't moved, eyes fixed blankly out the window. If I'm you, then who the hell are you? Benny mused bitterly.
A deep rut in the road slapped him for the rude thought, and his concentration went back to keeping the vehicle from sliding onto the shoulder. We're not so different after all, he decided with a rueful shake of his head. We attack a question with both hands, don't we? The only difference is the kind of answer we're looking for. You got logic and criteria, and I got hopes, and we both keep digging until something fits. That's fine, it works for me--except you're the question now, and nothing fits. And it bugs the hell out of me that you're sitting there with the answers and you won't give them to me. Fine. If that's your way of saying it doesn't work for you anymore, then adios, pal. Who needs it? Who needs you? Dammit, why don't you say something?
"You missed the turn."
Startled by the unexpected comment beside him, Benny slammed on the brakes, gaping at Jonathan for the five seconds it took him to regain the breath knocked out of him by his seat belt. "I did what?"
"The turn. Back there."
Mouth still hanging agape, Benny fumbled the folded piece of paper out of his shirt pocket. A right turn onto an unmarked dirt track just past a sign for the Glenmar Kennels.... He squinted into the rear-view mirror, saw the back of a large wooden sign and an intersecting dirt road. He'd been so wrapped up in his silent grousing that he hadn't been paying attention to Peter's meticulous directions.
"How did you know that?" Benny demanded, anger coloring his astonished voice. Jonathan glanced at him from under the hand he had pressed to his forehead, then looked away again.
Still no answers, huh? He kicked the gears into reverse with choppy, anger-driven jerks, surging the jeep around and into the dirt road. You probably overheard Peter on the phone and decided to get in one more zinger for good luck. Big laugh, Jocko. This'll be a real scream at the next G.I. faculty luncheon, won't it? Yeah. Real funny.
With a sigh, he glanced over one more time at Jonathan, leaning against the window with his eyes half-closed. Yeah, real funny. So why the hell do you look so miserable, anyway?
Answers. Answers, dammit. I need them, where are they?
The next two turnings were more direct, dead ends where he already knew enough to steer to the right. A long curve around a gently sloping hill took them into a cul de sac formed by a cluster of buildings. All save one were fashioned of unvarnished, weather-stained wood, plain and workaday. Benny drew the jeep up to the exception, a neat two story house painted white with delicate yellow trim. Parking next to the battered pickup truck which gave him tacit assurance that another human being was around somewhere, Benny descended from the jeep, slamming the door, then peering in through the open window when Jonathan didn't move. "You can forget about waiting out here, buds," he growled. "Hop to."
MacKensie complied, moving slowly as though distracted. By what, Benny couldn't fathom, except that it had something to do with the narrow-eyed stares Jonathan kept directing at the house and then just as quickly pulling away. Satisfied that the man was following him, Benny mounted the porch, opening the screen door to rap resoundingly on the inner door.
It opened as he was preparing another knock, revealing a strongly-built woman well into her middle years, grey-streak dark hair pulled severely back from her lined face. She studied Benny speculatively as he extended his hand and an introduction. "I'm Verna Shepherd," she said, returning the handshake as some of the suspicion left her eyes. "You got my message from Peter, then."
"Yeah, I did," Benny replied carefully. "He says you wouldn't mind answering some questions for me."
"Depends on the questions," she said, eyes narrowing again as she looked past him. Benny turned with a gesture. "My colleague, Dr. Jonathan MacKensie of the Georgetown Institute."
Jonathan reached past Benny to take Verna's proffered hand, and as her hand closed on his, he started, his smile of greeting vanishing into a stunned blankness. Between them, Benny caught the jump, and as he stared questioningly at Jonathan, he heard Verna emit a sharp, almost inaudible gasp. His head snapped around, but the woman had already broken the contact, turning away. "Please," she said quietly. "Come in."
Jonathan didn't move, still staring after her. Benny put his hand on the man's arm to urge him forward, but MacKensie flinched away, uncertainly stepping into the house as though it were a less distressing option than having Benny touch him again.
Verna stood in the middle of the small, sparsely furnished living room, gazing towards a photo-cluttered mantle with a shaking hand pressed lightly against her mouth. She turned to them with a forced smile, gesturing for them to be seated. Benny slid into a wing chair next to the horsehair sofa Jonathan chose, while Verna glanced once at the nearby rocking chair and remained standing. "You said you had some questions," she began, her palms pressed together in a gesture Benny knew too well. She was nervous, yes, but something else was pulling her muscles taut. Strain--and fear.
"I was under the impression that you did," Benny said, letting his heightened suspicions guide him as he met her darting gaze directly. "You asked Peter about Hogg's Hole. Why?"
She started to answer sharply, but for a moment her eyes met Jonathan's and whatever she'd been about to say dissolved away. "You went there," she said, looking back to Benny. "Why?"
"How do you know that?" he shot back, straightening in his seat.
She seemed to crumple a little, drawing a hand across her face tiredly. "I didn't," she said lowly. "Not really. Not until...just now. Damn."
Her voice was thin, almost plaintive and it pulled him to his feet as she turned away from them, shoulders trembling. Something inside him wanted to yank her around and force her to face him, because that something was sure she held the answers he wanted. But even as one foot when forward, she leaned over and pulled a framed photo from the mantle.
"My son Tommy," she said, moving forward to place the frame in Benny's hand. Leaning against a tree, the burly bearded thirty-ish man grinned staticly at him from beneath polished glass as Verna continued in a strained voice. "Did Peter tell you about him?"
"Just that he disappeared a few years back," he said, confident in an uncomplicated half-truth. "He went out hunting and never came back?"
She gave him a long look, reading his lie with a satisfied nod. "The folks around here have a lot of names for this...this thing," she said, turning back to replace the photo on the mantle. "Mostly they don't call it anything at all. That would be admitting too much. When the killings start all over again they always pretend like it's never happened before, and when the killings stop, they pretend like it never happened at all. It's only wild animals, happens all the time. Never explains anything, but explains everything it needs to explain so that no one has to think about it." She stopped abruptly, pressing her lips together tightly as though aware that she was beginning to ramble. "People lose some livestock, a little money, but nothing more personal than that. So they don't think about it any more than they have to. Except Tommy." Lost in a far memory, she focused on Benedek, giving him a taut smile. "About twenty years ago, he brought home a stray. Wasn't much of anything, you know, just a mutt. But it was his, one of the few things he didn't have to share with his brothers or his sister. He really loved that dog. And when we found it..." She broke off, gesturing vaguely for the rest of her meaning. "Well, we thought Tommy got over it in time, but he never did. Never did," she sighed, closing her eyes. "He swore he'd get even. Just a broken-hearted ten-year-old's promise, that's what we thought. But he never forgot, and he never gave up."
"What do you mean?" Benny pressed when her gaze drifted off to stare into the depths of the memory, shaking her head ruefully. As she looked up at him again, mildly startled as though she'd forgotten why she'd embarked on the explanation, Benny remembered why she'd asked him to come and something clicked into place. "Your son--he went hunting in Hogg's Hole, didn't he?"
She nodded, almost painfully, turning away to stand by the sofa, ostensibly staring down at the hands she twisted together, but Benny saw the odd, darting glances she gave Jonathan, who sat listening in silence, his eyes fixed on the hands he folded between his knees. "A couple of times when he was younger, but he never got very far--he hated the dark and closed spaces scared him silly," she said quietly. "A couple more times when he got older, but after his father passed on there never was any time for him to brood. I thought he'd given it up. Hoped he had, anyway. Then while he was hunting in the hills, one of his prize hounds lost an ear to a coyote, and it was like...like a slow fuse got lit. For weeks, all he could do was think about that dog he'd lost all those years ago, and how he'd never got his revenge like he did on that coyote that mauled his hound. From what they told me, he spent about two hours getting drunk enough to go, and...well, that's the last time anyone saw him--alive."
Her voice trailed off oddly as she turned, gazed down at the top of Jonathan's bowed head. Benny glanced at MacKensie, then stared in confusion as the man stiffened, lifting a trembling hand as though pleading for her to stop. With a bitter smile, she reached over, folding her fingers firmly around his hand. He jerked, gasping as he clutched with his free hand, and for a moment it looked as though he were trying to tear from her grasp. But with a low sound, either a sigh or a thin moan, he sagged, bowing his head.
"I'm sorry," she whispered, eyes shut tightly as she leaned over to lightly cradle his head with her free hand. "I'm sorry, I tried to tell them but they wouldn't listen, but I should have tried harder, I'm sorry, please..."
"It's not..." He raised his head with the same effort that went into keeping his hoarsened voice steady. "It's not your fault. No one ever believed. Not even me, not really."
Verna looked up into Benny's cold, shock-whitened face as he took an unsteady step towards them. Stunned beyond all feeling, he made a vague gesture. "What's happening?" he pleaded.
"You went into the cave with him, didn't you?" she asked, openly confused. "Don't you know?"
"I wasn't with him when..." Memory punched the breath out of his lungs; he sat hard on the edge of the coffee table when his legs gave out under him. "I...I found him, he was..." He swallowed hard. "He was sick. At least I thought...I thought...what's happening?"
Her harsh face softened a little at his open distress, and she looked down at Jonathan who huddled miserably in her light embrace. "I'm not sure why you're still alive, then," she said grimly, giving him a quick glance. "Tommy told me the first few days were the worst. And the nights...." She trailed off, closing her eyes in remembered pain once more.
Benny leaned forward, unable to breathe past the rapid pounding of his heart. "Tommy...told you?"
She nodded awkwardly over Jonathan's bowed head, and when she spoke, her voice was a bare whisper. "When he came back."
He stared at her. A thousand questions sprang instantly to mind, and he rocked slightly as each question dashed to pieces against a cold wall of shock. And suddenly, when he realized that all the answers were here within his grasp, he didn't want them anymore. A part of him wished her silent, because he didn't want to know the secret which put so much pain in her eyes. Or why Jonathan clung to her with a whitened, trembling hand.
She gathered her courage with a deep breath. "He came back. About a week later, in the middle of the night. I hadn't been sleeping right since he turned up missing, so I was in the kitchen, or I'd never have heard him. He was...I don't know how to describe it. I didn't then and I still don't, except that I knew he was in trouble even before he..."
She met Benny's eyes and sighed, realizing she didn't have to explain, not to him. "At first I thought he was drunk or raving sick from a fever," she continued, her voice held together with an effort. "But not for long. Took me nearly an hour to get him calmed down enough to tell me...what happened to him. In the cave and--afterward."
Again his reporter's instincts kicked in, shoving questions into his throat, and again they failed to get past the cold constriction there. But the questions must have flickered in his eyes because her brow furrowed as she glanced at him again. "He hasn't told you anything?"
"No." Jonathan answered when Benny couldn't even manage to shake his head. "I...I haven't. I...couldn't."
She nodded, shoulders slumping in resignation. "I'm so sorry," she sighed.
"What are you saying?" Benny managed weakly, beyond feeling anything save the ice forming around his heart.
Jonathan lifted his head, meeting Benny's gaze with unexpected directness. "She's saying that I'm responsible for the killings," he said quietly. "I'm the monster."
His head moved in instinctive denial, but Jonathan held his eyes calmly, tacitly chiding him not to waste his time hiding from the truth.
The truth. "Those weren't...dreams," he realized, voice lost in growing horror. "Were they?"
Jonathan's head moved in reply, a barely perceptible movement which screamed the answer into the silence.
"Why didn't you tell me?" Rising anger layered false color into his voice. "You knew, you must have known--why did you keep lying to me?"
"I wasn't lying to you," Jonathan sighed bleakly. "I was lying to myself. I...wanted to believe those were only bad dreams, too. I had to believe. I had to..."
"And how did you know?" Benny turned his anger on Verna, who didn't flinch from his burning glare. "You took one look at him, and you knew. How?"
She gave him an odd, almost sad look. "How could a mother not know her own son?"
As Benny stared blankly at her, Jonathan reached up with his free hand, grasping her fingers where they rested against his shoulder. "This isn't the first time," she continued quietly. "About two months ago, I think. The killings started again. It brought back everything, I...I couldn't sleep. Then I heard the noise at the back door, just like--" She paused, drew a breath. "It was a stranger, I didn't know him, but--I did. Know him, that is. He called me by name, he begged me to help him just like I did...before. But he panicked and ran before I could stop him." She glanced at Benny, shaking her head in frustration at the open bewilderment in his eyes. "Tommy brought him to me, don't you see? Just like he would have brought your friend in time."
"Are you saying Tommy's still alive?" he ventured.
"She's saying that...I am Tommy," Jonathan said softly, raising his head once more. "Or that he is me. But what we really are is something else entirely. Something that kills in the night. Something--" Releasing himself from Verna's grip, he held up a hand sharply to forestall Benny's reflexive protest. "Please. You still don't understand. Neither do I, not...not entirely. But I can't lie to myself any more, and neither can you. I don't know why you're still alive, either. I think...I hope it was because there was enough of me still in control. But I...it...was ready to kill you. It wanted..." His hand reached up, fingers closing into a fist, holding there until he consciously relaxed, drawing in a deep breath. "It almost won," he finished with a sigh.
"But it didn't." Benny leaned forward, desperate to clutch at any straw. "You're still in control, maybe you can beat this thing yet."
"No." Brief panic flashed in his eyes, fading into grey resignation. "You don't understand. It's not part of me--I'm part of it, just as Tommy is and all the others before me." He touched his forehead with shaking fingers. "They're all here, Benedek. I...remember with their memories. Two months ago, the stranger at her door--his name is James Thomas Hallorhan, he was born in Spokane, Washington, his parents' names were Doris and Patrick, he was exempt from the war draft because of a back injury from a bicycle mishap when he was twelve--" His voice cracked on the flood of words, bordering on hysteria; Verna tightened her embrace as he bowed his head with a low moan. "All of them," he groaned as he leaned against her, like a forlorn child seeking comfort.
"I don't care about them," Benny said numbly. "I want to know what it is. How it did this, why it did this? How did it get you? What did you see?"
Jonathan remained still a moment, struggling with the memory. "I only remember the smell of flowers," he said at length, calmer. "When I went to investigate--" He shook his head helplessly. "Then we were outside and you were helping me into the jeep. All I knew was that...something had happened, but I couldn't tell you because I just...I just didn't know."
"But you knew enough to resist going to the hospital," Benny recalled, his eyes narrowing. "Why?"
He shook his head uncertainly. "Instinct. It just felt...wrong." His eyes came up briefly. "I know now why it would have been a disaster. If they'd tried to keep me there, overnight--Benny, it would have killed anyone who tried to stop it from leaving."
"No, wait a minute," he protested desperately. "Peter told me that this thing doesn't attack humans."
"He's wrong." Jonathan met his stunned look calmly. "I'm...it's not unlike a wild animal. It fears people, perhaps because so many memories are a part of it. Even half-mad from hunger, it will choose run from human scent. But if cornered or attacked--it will kill. Just as it would have killed you if--"
"If? Come on, you might as well tell me." He swallowed back the tiny quaver in his voice threatening to give him away. "What held you--it back? It had me dead to rights, at least twice. That flower scent--that's a lure, isn't it? Anesthesia? That's how it can rip apart unsuspecting coyotes without so much as a startled yelp? It had me, it wasn't going to run off and hide, I...I remember that. But it didn't. What stopped it? Who stopped it? Tommy? James Thomas Hallorhan?"
"Stop it," Jonathan said wearily, cradling his forehead in his hand. "There's no point."
"The point is that I think you've got more control over this than it's willing to let you believe. It had you on the ropes, sure, you were in shock, but now--now you can fight it, you can--"
He didn't realize how sharply his voice had risen until Verna reached out to firmly grasp the hand he'd been gesturing wildly with, willing him to look at her. Reluctantly, he met her gaze and felt the heat drain from him, bringing his threatened reason back.
"Tommy stayed with me," she said, her quiet voice thickened by suppressed grief. "That night and most of the next day. I thought...I prayed that it had let him go, or he'd fought it off somehow, but..." She trailed off, shaking her head slightly. "Please, trust me. Don't make it more difficult than it has to be."
"Has to be?" He yanked free, fighting a surge of panic. "What do you mean, has to be? I already know what happened to Hallorhan. They found him face down in the creek, right? Is that what you mean by 'has to be', lady?"
"Benedek," Jonathan pleaded.
"No, I want to know." He stood, stepping back stiffly. "Both of you, you're sitting there like...like..." He stopped, hand dropping helplessly to his side. "There's got to be a way out," he said, half declaration and half desperate plea. "There's got to be."
For a moment, Jonathan looked at him almost pityingly, but then turned his head to fix Verna with a searching stare. Pressing her lips together, she averted her face for a moment before reaching into the pocket of her worn plaid workshirt, removing a small capped bottle. Jonathan reached for it, but she held it back with a firm shake of her head. "No. It was different then, we talked about this. Now you've got to talk to him. I can't do this for you. You've got to make him understand."
Jonathan stiffened when she rose, almost reaching out to bring her back to her side. He watched in open confusion as she approached Benny, pressing the bottle into his reluctant hand.
"We talked, Tommy and me," she told him. "It was our decision. I didn't force anything on him and he waited to make sure that I wouldn't...change my mind, either." She looked down, folding Benny's fingers tighter around the bottle as she held his hand in both of hers. "I had this waiting, yes. When I heard the killings had started up, I guess I knew that Tommy would bring them to me so that I could show them--his way out."
She didn't have to tell him what the clear liquid inside the bottle was; he could see that in Jonathan's pale face and anxious eyes as he watched them from the sofa. "Why are you giving this to me?" Benny managed, genuinely bewildered.
"Because he's already made his decision," she told him gently. "But you have to talk first. In a way, it has to be your decision, too." Her eyes softened, filling with tears. "He has the easy part. You're the one who has to walk away."
And with that, she turned and left the room, closing the passageway door behind her.
"She shouldn't have done that." Jonathan's quiet voice broke the cloying silence. "I'm sorry."
"You're sorry?" Benny looked up from his detached study of the small bottle. "Who's sorry? Jonathan MacKensie? Tommy? James Thomas Hallorhan? You know, it's getting so that talking to you is kinda like jawing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir."
"Come to think of it, I saw this movie already. 'The Three Faces of Eve', that's it--or maybe it was 'The Hills Have Eyes', parts one and two."
"Then again, maybe it wasn't either one. Maybe it was one of those Japanese things, you know--the kind where a guy in a rubber suit does the two-step on a cardboard city or three?"
"What?" He stared at the bottle in his white-knuckled grip. "Benny, what?"
"Are we...are we friends?"
His head snapped up. "You got amnesia now?"
"No, I mean..." He composed himself behind closed eyes for a moment. "Apart from this sort of antipathetical working relationship we managed to hammer out--do you consider us to be friends?"
"Why? Don't you?"
He shook his head, giving Benny an intent look. "That's not what I'm asking."
"And I'm not giving you an answer until I know why you're asking," he said, backing off a step to emphasize his stubbornness.
A strange light grew within the depths of Jonathan's searching eyes. "I'm asking because...because if you are a friend, you'll give me that bottle, without hesitation, without questions...listen to me!" His sharp cry hung in the air, physically stabbing at Benny as he turned away. "I'm just trying to make this easier..."
"No. For you."
He forced himself to turn back and face the plea he'd already heard in Jonathan's quiet voice. "And when have you ever seen me take the easy way out?" he managed, shoving his hand and the bottle he held deep into his pocket. "You heard the lady. You gotta talk to me. Make me understand. You want this? You sweat for it, pal. You can start by telling me why."
The last word trembled in the silence as Jonathan lowered his gaze to his clasped hands. "Don't do this," he pleaded softly.
"I know what happened to Hallorhan. I can pretty much figure what happened to Tommy. What about the others?"
"What about the others?" Benny moved forward, taking a stance in front of the seated man to back up the steel in his voice. "Are you telling me that nobody's ever beaten this thing?"
Jonathan stared at his twisted hands as he carefully composed his reply. "I...we...it hunts at night. In the daytime it's normally dormant, and usually returns to the cave to rest. Most of the others, when it came to...this point, chose to stay in the cave; others took more drastic measures. It's easy to make a false step in that rough terrain; accidents happen, wild animals and vultures do the rest."
The matter-of-fact tone of MacKensie's delivery sent a fierce chill shuddering through Benedek, and he suppressed it willfully. "This point?" he echoed, inclining his head. "What do mean, this point?"
"I mean that in the aftermath of...what happened in the cave, I wasn't really aware of what I had...become. That came slowly, a little like waking up from a heavy sleep. I suppose that I could have stayed in the fog a little longer, but coming here--" He glanced up, his eyes wistfully scanning the room without once meeting Benny's searching gaze. "Coming here was like a rude shock to the system. I woke up and found that the nightmare was real. That's what happens. It happened to all of them; Tommy, Hallorhan--all of them. They wake up and find that they can't live with what they've become--and what they do in the night."
Benny nodded slowly, mentally holding Jonathan's quiet words at arm's length so that he could understand them without risking being overwhelmed by the images they evoked. "What is this thing?" he said when he could speak again.
"A curse," Jonathan said after a relective silence, and an unexpected smile, edged with bitterness, crossed his face. "At least it's as real and as unreal as any curse can be. I'm not sure. I told you--I'm only part of it, and not the part that fully understands. It could be something trapped in the cave, it could be part of the cave itself, it could be...anything. I don't think it has an intelligence, but it does have instincts. Very powerful instincts: hunger, fear, anger...and a fierce desire to be free." He unfolded his hands, staring down into the palms as if he could read the answer there. "It's been there, in the darkness, for centuries. The only way it can free itself is to latch on to some poor soul who's gone far enough into the cave for it to reach, become part of that person and...." Trailing off, he closed his hands, entwining the fingers until his knuckles showed white. "Don't ask me any more," he sighed, closing his eyes.
Benny drew a breath, staring blindly at the far wall until his desperate scramble to find something to say struck gold. "Why won't you even consider the possibility that you just picked up on some kind of airborne virus, or a natural gas that's just scrambled up your brain cells a little?"
Eyes wide with incredulity, Jonathan stared at him until Benny realized the full depth of the insanity he suggested. "Do you believe that?" he challenged softly.
Everything inside him wanted desperately to say yes, but the word refused to form. If this were some kind of mental aberration, then his dreams of the past two nights meant that he and Verna somehow shared the same madness. And he'd seen that coyote with his own eyes. Jonathan MacKensie in the grip of some viral or gas-induced frenzy couldn't have destroyed that animal without leaving a trace of his passing. But Jonathan MacKensie in the captive grip of something beyond human ken....
Jonathan saw the defeat in Benny's eyes and nodded, holding out his hand, palm up. "Now do you understand?"
Almost of its own volition, Benny's hand went to his pocket, fingers curling around the bottle. "Why does it have to be now?" he managed. "Why can't you hold off until..."
He couldn't think of an alternative, and the plea died with a frustrated sigh. Jonathan spoke in the silence, his voice still calm and strangely assured. "If I wait, if I hold off for any reason, what little sanity I have left will be put in serious jeopardy. Tonight, I'll lose what little control I have and it will go out and...and it will feed and I can't--" He drew a sharp breath against the quaver in his voice. "I just can't live with that. And you won't be able to stop it, because if you try, it will kill you. It has to end here, or it will end...somewhere else. Let me do it this way. Please."
Lost in the sounds of the battle raging in his mind, Benny started at the touch on his sleeve. Jonathan leaned forward, his fingers lightly resting near Benedek's wrist, a mute plea reflected in his eyes. Fighting the impulse to jump back, and an even stronger impulse to smash the bottle against the wall in a screaming rage, Benny took his hand from his pocket, and stared down at the gentle swish of the clear liquid inside the glass as it rested in his palm. "What is this?"
"An animal tranquilizer in a liquid sucrose base. It's...painless."
That's what you think, pal. "This isn't fair," he heard himself say. "This just isn't fair."
"I know," Jonathan replied quietly. "And I'm sorry."
Benny lifted his head to deliver a mildly disparaging look at the man. "I wasn't talking about me."
A faint smile of gratitude flickered across MacKensie's face as he held up his hand again. "Please."
Even his muscles protested the movement as he reached out, offering the bottle. As Jonathan took it, Benny deftly shifted his hand, closing his fingers around MacKensie's palm. At first startled, Jonathan returned the warm handshake with a genuine smile that faded as something flickered across his face. "You could do me a favor," he ventured, looking up at Benny as though unsure the man would agree.
"Name it," Benny said as calmly as he could manage.
His first try dissolved; he cleared his throat, but his voice still came out thin and strained. "Make sure that this doesn't happen again."
Benny tightened his grip on Jonathan's hand, trying not to feel the coldness of the glass pressed between their palms. "Count on it," he promised.
With both quiet gratitude and deep regret shining in his eyes, Jonathan extricated his hand from Benny's grasp, curling his fingers tightly around the bottle as though to hide it from sight for as long as possible. Benny fell back a step, inexplicably staggered by the realization that he had literally allowed control of the situation to pass from his hands. There really was no alternative save that which Jonathan so eloquently pleaded. How could that be possible? How did they get to this point? Where could he have turned off the road which had brought them here?
Why weren't there any answers?
Jonathan was staring down at his clenched hands, mouth pressed tight in deep thought. "I should call the Institute, talk to Dr. Moorhouse..."
His eyes flicked up in mild surprise for the sharpness of Benny's tone. "I have a responsibility..."
"You just took your last one, pal." Worn out, he stumbled back to the wingchair, sinking down into its upholstered depths. "Forget G.I., forget Dr. M, okay? I'll take care of everything."
He stared at the floor from under the hand pressed to his forehead, and from the corner of his eye saw Jonathan staring incredulously at him. "How will you explain this?" he challenged quietly.
"I'll think of something," Benny replied stiffly. "I'm real good that way, remember?"
"No." Jonathan shook his head stubbornly. "I can't leave it like this."
"Did I say I was giving you a choice?" Dropping his hand, he stared long and hard at the other man. "Look. You made your decision, and damn it, you made me agree to it, so you owe me this one. I told you--I'll handle it. So forget it. Forget all of it. Just do what you have to do, and...." He sighed, shaking his head. "Get it over with," he finished wearily.
He couldn't bring himself to look up in the silence, not certain he was strong enough to face what he might see. But then Jonathan spoke, his voice calm and steady. "It's not your fault."
"I mean it."
"So do I. I told you to forget it, all of it."
A pause, then, softly: "Surely not all of it."
Part of him wanted to laugh and another part was ready to put his nomination for Macho Man Of The Year in serious jeopardy. He rubbed at his eyes, an attempt to relieve the harsh stinging which threatened to become something more embarrassing. "I thought you said something about making this easier for me," he growled, the harsh edge fading from his voice with every word.
"I did, didn't I?" Another silence. "Verna will know what to do. Trust her. She'll...she'll help you."
Verna. A twist in his gut chided him for his selfishness. He hadn't given a thought for the woman who'd had to live this, not once, but twice. After all, what would he feel if, a few years down the road, he were to be confronted by a complete stranger who held the memories of Jonathan MacKensie's life and, more disturbingly, his death?
But that wasn't going to happen, was it? Because this, quite simply, was never going to happen again.
Jonathan must have seen his fist clench against the chair arm, because his voice held a note of alarm. "Benedek?"
"Trust Verna, I got it," he nodded tersely, still without daring to look up. The roaring in his ears increased geometrically with every second that passed in this kind of terse hold-off, and he caught a stray thought wishing that Jonathan would stop talking and get everything over with; all this talking was only stalling and hell on his nerves. In the midst of sternly chiding himself for what his rational mind recognized as a selfish indulgence, he heard a small, muffled sound and went ice cold.
Bringing his eyes up took every scrap of strength he could muster. He'd been right when he'd identified the sound as that of an empty glass bottle dropping to the carpeted floor. It lay at Jonathan's feet, discarded and forgotten as the man leaned forward, bowing his head over the hands clasped tightly to his knees.
Damn. Damn. The curse echoed in his head as he stared, his mouth falling in helpless incredulity. He did it. He really did it. And I let it happen. I let it happen.
The fragments of a thousand thoughts pounded his senses. Call an ambulance. The police. Poison control. The smilers with the big nets, because we've all gone around the bend.
He watched, numb, as Jonathan slid his hands from his knees, wrapping his arms slowly, tightly across his midriff. Why can't I move? Why can't I do anything? I can't watch this, I can't let it happen.
I can't stop it.
A single sound from Jonathan, either a muffled sigh or suppressed groan, broke Benedek's paralysis. Out of the chair in one bound, he reached Jonathan's side, taking the man's arm. "Lie down."
Swallowing hard, Jonathan managed hoarsely, "Benedek..."
"I said lie down, damn it." He pulled until the man's resistance faded with a sigh. With a mild grimace, Jonathan submitted to a brief fuss, allowing Benny to help him stretch out on the sofa, a needleworked cushion propped beneath his head. He drew the line when Benny reached over for the afghan spread on the couch back. "Don't do that," he chided mildly, catching Benny's arm. "Please."
Straightening, Benny nodded stiffly. "That constitute a last request?" he muttered, unable to keep the bitterness out of his voice.
Jonathan turned his head, giving him a steady look. "Don't do that, either."
The color was already draining from MacKensie's face. Benny tried to turn from it, but Jonathan shifted his grip, holding him still. Panic surged up in him. It was only sheer force of will that kept him from ripping away from Jonathan's grasp as he realized, He wants to tell me something, and I don't want to hear it. I don't want to hear it, I don't...
"Don't." His muscles strained away again, but Jonathan's hand on his arm remained undisturbed. "Do me a favor and just...don't. Don't say anything else, okay?"
Regret flickered briefly in his eyes; regret that the need to speak overwhelmed his respect for Benny's heartfelt plea. "You never answered my question. Are we friends?"
He glanced away briefly, consciously tightening the muscles of his face against the sharp stinging behind his eyes. "I guess some things don't change," he managed only after clearly his throat slightly. "You always did have lousy timing."
"I need to know."
"Why?" A part of him mentally detached from the numbness taking possession of his mind, and wrapped itself in steel and ice. "What's the answer going to mean to you five minutes from now?"
"Benny, I need to know," he insisted, his grip tightening slightly.
"Look." The steel-clad part of himself removed Jonathan's hand from his arm, holding it still when MacKensie tried to re-establish his hold with all the urgency etched into his paling face. "It doesn't matter, okay?"
Jonathan stiffened, almost as though the words had physically struck him. Watching the man's expression crumble into bleak dejection, Benny only then realized what he'd said had been grossly misunderstood. He'd only meant to spare himself the difficulty of answering the question, but Jonathan had heard only cold hostility for making the decision that was even now costing him his life.
"I don't blame you," MacKensie said tiredly. "Not after what I've done."
This time it was Benny who clung when Jonathan tried to withdraw his hand. "What the hell are you talking about? You mean--the attacks?"
The mute affirmation in MacKensie's watery eyes sent anger shooting through the steel and ice fortress. "That wasn't you."
"It was me. It is me."
Again Benny held fast when Jonathan, his thinning voice choked by despair, tried to pull free. Determinedly, he shifted his grip until his palm crossed MacKensie's, a fierce clasp of mute support. "No. This is you," he said firmly. That monster is something for the night, for a darkness that might own you, but it isn't you. Listen to me! This is you. This is the hand of a human being, not a monster, not a ghoul--just a normal, everyday schmoe who...got in the way. It was just bad luck, an accident. That's all." He shook Jonathan's hand slightly for emphasis as he drew breath for the most painful and truthful admission of his life. "Some things change; some things don't. This is the hand of a very good friend, someone it's been a real...experience to have known. And nothing has, can or will ever change that."
Jonathan regarded him in silence for a time, and Benny submitted quietly to the study, fighting the knot in his throat to feel warmth leaving MacKensie's hand as color drained from the skin. Then, in a voice barely more than the rustle of leaves in the wind: "Thank you."
His eyes closed as his head bowed under a growing weight. Thank you? For what? Four days ago you were a cranky anthropology professor whose only dream in life was to achieve academic immortality one paper brick at a time. Four days ago you were holed up in your office, picking at some ancient ancestor's incisors with a caliper in one hand and a magnifying glass in the other. Four days ago your dear department chairwoman actually conspired with me to pack you off onto an airplane to go chasing after monsters in caves in Wyoming. You should be cursing in five languages. But you're thanking me. You're thanking me, and for what? For providing some kind of pale postscript to the life that I'm responsible for ending? What am I supposed to say to that? What the hell am I supposed to say?
He opened his eyes to the silent, cold realization that it was too late to say anything.
For a time he stood, unable to look at anything except the hand he still held in a tight grasp. An irrational part of him willed warmth into the cooling flesh, movement into the still muscles. The hand of a human being. The hand...of a very good friend.
He leaned down, carefully arranging Jonathan's limp arm next to him on the sofa. As he straightened, he faltered under the force of the sudden, sharp thought: What happens now?
The answer wasn't in the floor, or on the far wall, or in his hands, which shook as he raised them for inspection. The answer wasn't anywhere in this room, not even in the strangely peaceful face resting against the needlepoint pillow. He glanced away quickly, struggling to breathe again. The answer wasn't here. He had to find it.
Maybe she was in the kitchen.
The passageway from the living room led to a spacious kitchen, polished wood and porcelain, full of carefully tended potted and hanging plants. Seated at a small breakfast table, Verna looked up as Benny entered the room. He paused in the doorway, meeting her searching gaze. She drew a breath, nodded once and pushed an cup and saucer across the table. "Coffee's fresh. There's cream if you take it, sugar's in the bowl."
He blinked, not sure what lay behind her controlled, stony exterior. But then something broke through his confusion and made the decision for him. "Black, thanks."
Even as he slid into the chair across from her and watched as she poured from a steaming pot, he recognized her gambit and why he had responded to it. There was no place for emotion, not here. Not yet. He had to cling to some semblance of normality, no matter how artificially, no matter how much it took out of him in the end. In her deceptively calm demeanor, he recognized that the worst was yet to come.
"My sons will be back in about three-four hours. My daughter-in-law is running some errands in Garrett, and probably won't be back until five at the earliest." She pushed back her half-empty cup and crossed her arms against the table. "I had my youngest prune the fruit trees we keep out back. The pile's ready, I told him I'd take care of the burning. No one will question it."
He stared at her, mouth open, until he could force a word to form. "Why?"
A flicker of regret crossed her face for the genuinely horrified note in his hoarse voice. "Tommy wasn't sure if...if this thing could revive if the host body was still intact," she said with great difficulty. "He didn't want to take chances."
It made perfect sense and made him sick to his stomach. He barely heard her next quiet words. "You don't have to stay. I'll take care of everything."
Like you did before. He opened his eyes to see that she had not made a faint-hearted offer; the set lines in her face left no question that she was fully prepared to go on alone. To spare me? After I brought this nightmare back to your doorstep?
"No," he heard himself say. "I'll stay. Just...just tell me what you want me to do."
She studied him a long moment, as though trying gauge the depth of his resolve. At length, she nodded, satisfied that he would not quail from the task to come. "There's time yet," she told him in a softened voice. "Finish your coffee."
He huddled over the cup, forcing down a few gulps with the same effort he gave to sorting out the confusion in his mind. Why the hell am I doing this to myself? Why don't I sneak away and let her do clean up? Why don't I cut my losses and run?
He caught himself staring at his hand, and finally saw the answer there. He owed something to a man who'd allowed him to justify his own existence with words meant to ease the pain of a senseless death. For the first time he realized that the words Jonathan had forced out of him had not been for solely for MacKensie's benefit.
Closing the fingers of his hand tightly, he studied his fist with detachment, feeling a strange smile tug at his lips as he finally found the right words to say. You're welcome.
For a time he lay in the darkness, unwilling to sleep and unable to stop the fierce kaleidoscope of memory images plaguing his every waking moment. A fierce coldness lay on him, yet he lacked the strength to crawl under the covers, knowing it to be a futile exercise. The first touch of ice had been when he'd left Verna's side only a few hours earlier. She'd sent him to a guest bedroom shortly before her family was due to return, almost literally tucking him in despite his weak protests that he wasn't tired, couldn't sleep. But he must have slept, because his next clear memory was of moonlight streaming into the darkened room, and of a gentle movement by his side. For a moment he'd panicked, expecting to look up into the face of a fearsome specter weighed down like Marley's ghost by chains forged by his own lingering guilt. But the face above him was Verna's, the tears on her cheeks silvered by moonlight. She'd flinched back when his eyes opened, pressing a shaking hand to her face in a gesture of acute embarrassment. But courage returned when he responded to the haunted look in her eyes by reaching out a hand to her. She took it as well the silent comfort he offered her within his embrace. A faint scent of wood smoke clung to them both, a bitter memory both shared and forever separate. She'd held her secret, alone, for two years, unable to shed an open tear. Here in the silver-limed darkness she could, for the first time, weep freely and unashamed, held tightly by someone who understood the pain without words. And she in turn allowed him the same release.
He'd awakened, hours later, still in the sleeping woman's maternal embrace. Carefully extricating himself, he'd risen, located his shoes in the semi-darkness, then had covered her with the afghan from a nearby armchair. He couldn't be there when she woke. This ended where both nightmares and dreams ended--in the night, without a sound--and that knowledge turned him towards the door. But he'd given into an insistent twinge, padding back to the bed to place a gentle kiss on the sleeping woman's forehead.
He had no memory of returning to the motel room but here he was, chilled by the raw ache that had started when he'd left the warmth of Verna's side. Part of him wished he could hate the woman, or hate Jonathan or even himself. Anything to distract him from the hate that he could feel growing inside him like a cancer, destroying everything of reason it touched.
Hogg's Hole. A litany, an evil chant that grew in intensity the more he tried to shut it out of his fevered mind. Jonathan's voice, drawn by despair, joined the chorus. It's been there, in the darkness, for centuries. The only way it can free itself....
The only way it can free itself....
You could do me a favor. Make sure this doesn't happen again.
He heard a gentle murmur, the memory of Verna's quiet voice as bright flames had leaped into the afternoon sky, telling him that her operation had a blasting license, and that she'd illegally held back a quantity of blasting caps with the intention of herself putting an end to that accursed cave. But Tommy had forced a promise from her that she would never go near Hogg's Hole, begging her to place the vendetta in someone else's hands. Her eyes had beseeched Benny to understand how she'd felt compelled to honor her vow and how she had tried in vain to persuade someone to dynamite the cave entrance without being able to give them a coherent reason why. He didn't want to understand, but he did, relieving her guilt with a single nod as the sharp-scented smoke swirled around them in the light afternoon breeze.
There was nothing else to say. Together they'd carefully doused the smoldering fire, scattering the ashes with a cold detachment born of forced mindlessness. Then she'd beckoned him to follow, leading him to a shed set far back from the main buildings, from which she'd produced two boxes of dynamite and the hoarded blasting caps. The vendetta was, without words, now in his hands, secured by the readiness with which he took the boxes from her.
The boxes were still there, covered by a blanket, in the back of the vehicle parked just outside the motel room door. Waiting for dawn. Waiting for him.
And when the dawn came, it brought fire with its growing light. The flames were everywhere: in his head, in his hands, in every part of his body except his heart. There, deep within his chest, the ice remained unthawed, and he willed it to remain that way. Without that crucial bit of artificial control, he knew he could not have functioned with the steady precision which raised him from the bed, took him through ritual ablutions and a change of clothing and carried him through the motel room door. He faltered for a moment, hand on the landrover's door handle. Perhaps he should have given thought to packing up the room, and officially checking out, because it was bound to be easier to do now than when he returned in a few hours' time--if he bothered coming back at all. The thought startled him only briefly. Why not just keep on going? North, south, sideways, who cares? There's no reason to come back here. No reason at all.
His jaw stiffened as he hastily shored up the thawing barrier around his heart. Cart before the horse. He hopped into the front seat of the landrover, revving the engine with all the ferocity of the fire and ice burning inside him. A grim smile stretched across his face as he spurred the accelerator, wheeling out onto the main road in a shower of gravel. And a hearty 'hi-ho, Silver, away'....
Wish to hell I knew what I was doing. He finished packing a bundle of dynamite into the hole he'd dug out in the side of the cave, then tilted the booklet of instructions towards the sunlight streaming in through the opening. Silently thanking Verna, not for the first time, for remembering to pack the pamphlet in one of the boxes, he carefully attached the caps, then stood back to contemplate a good hour's work. Six bundles all told, at strategic points within the mouth of the cave, and some held in reserve in the event that the first blast didn't do the trick. If that doesn't do it...
Something will. He searched through the nearly empty box at his side, frowning to realize that it held no wire with which to connect the caps to the detonator. Since Verna couldn't have slipped up on something so basic, the roll of wire had to be in the second box, which he'd left in the back of the landrover, parked a safe quarter-mile down the grade. Under any other circumstances, the wasted time and motion would have irritated him enough to at least mutter darkly under his breath. But here, with a serenity that would have frightened him if he'd allowed himself any emotion at all, he merely shrugged and started off down the incline.
Rummaging in the back of the landrover, he unearthed his walkie-talkie and the base unit. He stared at it, not understanding why he suddenly couldn't think, or why he felt compelled to pick up the hand unit and regard it with a frown. Or why he switched it on, studying the directional signal indicator.
Damned good batteries. The signal was weak but it was there, telling him what he already knew--the second unit was within a mile of his position. It was undoubtedly lying, undisturbed, exactly where Jonathan MacKensie had fallen. Exactly there.
He closed the landrover door and headed back up the slope, wire roll in one hand and walkie-talkie in the other. Exactly there. Exactly...where?
Inside the mouth of the cave, he bent down to free his hand. But the roll of wire was what hit the ground; the walkie-talkie stayed in a tight grip. His confused frown deepened even as his empty hand scooped up the lantern flashlight.
Hold it. Hold it. Think about this. The voice in his head rose to a shout, bringing his first steps deeper into the cave to a faltering halt. Don't be a fool. You know what's in there, he told you what's in there. You saw what it did to him. You saw how it ended. If you go one step farther, you're crazy. You're crazy.
I have to...know.
Know what? You already know everything you need to know, you saw it with your own eyes, you already know everything you need to know...
Except why. I don't know why.
What kind of reason is that to commit suicide?
No. One foot went forward, then the other. That's what I've always hated about having a conscience. That's why I've never listened to you, don't you realize that? You never make any sense. You never realize what it means to me not to know. You always want me to take the safe way out and turn my back, and you never understand that I can't do that. I can't do that and continue to live with myself. I can't.
But there's not one single, sane or logical reason for you to go in there.
Yes, there is. He glanced down at the directional signal, weak but steady. There's a very expensive piece of equipment still in there.
That's absolutely the stupidest, most asinine reason I've ever heard.
I know. But it'll do. Now--shut up. You're beginning to sound like Jonathan MacKensie.
The little voice ended in an enraged squawk as he shut a mental door with the same resolve which marked his plunge into the depths of the cave.
The signal, which had been growing stronger with every step he took down the branching tunnel, now waned until he stopped, fighting back a flash of fear that the batteries had finally given out. But when he backtracked, the signal surged up again. I passed it? Where? He slowed his pace, carefully playing the strong lantern beam over every inch of the call wall and floor. This time he found the opening, half-hidden by a protrusion of rock, and squatted down to peer into the depths. In there? But I found him out here, in the passage. How...?
The light from his flashlight weakened in the depths of the cavern beyond, but it caught something in the middle distance, an irregular shape, odd, out-of-place...
No. His sane, logical conscience had somehow gotten past the barred door in his mind, quashing the insane thought even before he was fully aware of what exactly he was refusing to believe. Annoyed by the unwelcome intrusion of rationality, he stubbornly set his jaw, shoved reason back into a dusty corner and edged his way into the cavern for a closer look.
He didn't dare put the lantern beam full on the mysterious object until he had drawn close enough to squat down, almost within arm's length. And when he finally mustered the courage to open his eyes....
His low groan reverberated hollowly in the enclosed space. Someone else had stumbled into this place and fallen into the trap. This monster's last victim had only hours ago escaped its touch and already it had some other luckless soul in its clutches.
Not if I can help it. With sudden determination, he set the lantern down and went to his knees at the huddled form's side, pushing on one raised shoulder. I hope it's not too late. Don't let it be too late. Don't...
All thought and feeling dashed against a solid wall of cold shock as he stared into the pale, dirt-streaked face of Jonathan MacKensie.
He blinked, twice, three times and more, but the vision didn't fade; the features didn't melt into those of a stranger. This wasn't merely a momentary guilt-driven hallucination. But it has to be. It has to be. I saw him die. I saw him die, I saw....
He watched as his hand, completely outside of his control, touched the side of the man's exposed neck, seeking a pulse point. At his trembling touch, the body jerked and a low moan escaped in a sigh.
No. His hand snapped back with the flash of panic his resurgent conscience shot through him. You can't accept this. If this is real, you're insane. That's the only possible explanation. You saw him die. You saw him burn.
The voice in his mind ranted, growing shriller and more discordant as the eyes of his hallucination opened slowly, squinting painfully up at him against the harsh light of the lantern. The mouth worked futilely for a moment; then: "Benedek?"
Don't accept this. His conscience held him immobile. He's dead, you saw him die. This is an hallucination. Don't accept this. Leave, go, run, run....
The mental screams pushed him, hard, until his muscles jumped involuntarily, almost taking him backwards, up, to his feet, away from this....this....
The watery eyes focused as his hallucination raised a shaking hand out to him and spoke again, a stronger rasp tinged with disbelief. "Benedek?"
Run! Before it's too late!
The hand couldn't reach far enough and started to fade along with the hope flaring in the pale eyes. And from the depths of Benny's confusion and torment, a decision pushed front and forward, sealed by the readiness with which he reached out, grasping the cold hand tightly.
What are you doing, what are you doing, what...?
Shut up, damn it. He felt a giddy smile grow as the hand in his tightened and clung in silent, desperate gratitude. If this is an hallucination, I choose it. If this is madness--I want it.
It's a trick, the voice of reason wailed desperately. A trick, a lure, this isn't real, it can't be real, it's a trick....
It made too much sense for him to ignore and he stared at the hand clinging to his and at the pale, shadowed face bearing Jonathan MacKensie's features. I saw you die. I saw you...burn....
Benny started out of his moment of shock to realize that Jonathan was repeating the same thing over and over again in a thin, incredulous voice. "Why are you here? Why are you here?"
"Take it easy, buds," he heard himself say determinedly. "We'll have a nice long chat about that once we get you out of here."
"No." He pushed away Benny's attempt to get a grip on his arm. "No, you have...you have to leave, you have to go...."
"I'm not arguing with that. So the sooner you get on your feet, the sooner we'll get out of here, okay?"
"No," he gasped, almost a wail. "You don't understand, you...you don't...you have to leave." He had little strength to speak and none to fight, so it took only minor physical exertion for Benny to pull the man into a sitting position. "You don't understand," Jonathan insisted, his voice cracking under the weight of desperation. "It's here. It's here."
"I know," Benny said grimly, maneuvering MacKensie's arm around his shoulder. You told me, remember? You...oh, god, what the hell is happening? What the hell am I doing?
"You don't understand," he groaned. "It won't let me leave. It won't let you, it won't...Benny, please, don't...."
His plea broke off in a gasp as Benedek successfully levered him up, taking MacKensie's full weight against his side. "What's it going to be, buds?" he managed with what little air remained in his crushed lungs. "Self-ambulatory or full fireman's carry? Your choice."
MacKensie clung to him, his labored breathing disintegrating his attempts to speak, leaving him able only to shake his head. He stiffened with a cry and almost toppled them both with a weak attempt to pull away at the same moment Benny detected the reason for MacKensie's panic.
The cavern was filling with the sweet, gentle scent of flowers.
"No. Oh, no." Benny surprised even himself with the hard edge in his bitter laugh. "Not this time. I don't know what the hell you are, but you came up short this time, pal. You don't get a second chance, not if I can help it."
Jonathan emitted a sharp cry, and only a determined shift of weight kept him from flinching out of Benny's grasp. But Benny had felt it, too: a touch, like the scrabbling of cold fingers against his mind.
"Benny." Jonathan's voice was quiet, oddly steady near his ear. "Benny, please. Leave. There's still time. It's...it's confused...."
"It's not the only one." His automatic comeback faded under the weight of dawning realization. Confusion. That accounted for the uncertain waft of floral scent around him, the weakness of the half-hearted probe against his conscious mind. "Why is it confused? Jonathan, come on. If you know, tell me. Why is it confused?"
"Because I'm still alive." MacKensie's head drooped. "It doesn't understand why it's back here and I'm still alive. Benny..."
"I gotcha," he said, hastily shifting once more to compensate for Jonathan's sudden stumble. I gotcha, all right. I might even understand all this someday. Then again--maybe I'm better off not knowing.
"You have to leave," Jonathan insisted weakly. "If it finally realizes that it can't use me anymore, it will go after you..."
"Then we got plenty of time," Benny growled, urging the man to take some of his own weight as he half-dragged him towards the opening. He sent up a quick, silent prayer that he could find the way back without the lantern he was being forced to abandon. "I may not know what the hell is going on around here, but I do know that this thing is real short on brains. It's still going to be trying to figure itself out by the turn of the century. Come on, that's it."
Jonathan's resistance faded with each step they took towards the cavern opening. His muscles were stiff under Benny's supportive embrace, and it didn't take much more than a wild guess why; any moment Jonathan expected to be dragged back into whatever his existence had been for these past three days. MacKensie's breath escaped in a burst as Benny eased him down to help him through the cramped opening, and only then Benny realized that the man hadn't dared to breathe.
With Jonathan gulping air to ease the ache in his strained lungs, Benny took a moment to do the same for his muscles. "It's not going to get you back," Benny said, a firm declaration to himself and to the man he wasn't sure could hear him. "And it's not going to get me. It's not going to get anybody, ever again."
His voice faded in the echoing silence as he saw, by the diffused light of the lantern still set in the middle of the space, evidence of disaster both recent and ancient. What had looked like scattered rock to his disinterested eye now took on a new, more grotesque shape and for a moment his vision blurred with a single thought: Verna. What am I going to tell Verna?
The resurgent floral scent distracted him. "No," he snapped irritably, gathering up what little strength was left in his aching muscles to prod Jonathan MacKensie through the narrow opening. "Not us, not now--not ever."
He tumbled out into the main cave passage, twisting away at the last minute to avoid landing atop Jonathan's sprawled body. Fumbling in the darkness, he found the man's arms and shoulders and, getting a good grip, hauled up. To his relief, MacKensie responded with a sharp groan and movement, stumbling to his feet while clinging to Benny's unflinching support. Mid-step, he crumpled with a thin whimper as a sickeningly-sweet scent dashed against them like a tempest-driven wave. Head swirling under the assault, Benny gritted his teeth and kept them both from falling over with every bit of strength he could muster. For a moment he panicked, as the sweetness permeated his brain, urging him to relax, to give up, to give in. But the aroma abated before his resolve disintegrated and his relieved laugh echoed in the darkness. "Nice try," he muttered almost cheerfully as he re-shifted MacKensie's sagging weight. "And your last. You hear me? Your last."
And as he led the way through the pich-black passage in what he hoped was the right direction towards light and safety, he felt the floral scent die, like so much soft cloth sloughing from his shoulders, and with it sensed the briefest touch of grief and regret from something doomed to live an eternity in darkness.
He willfully shut out the memory of the sharp, deep emotion, concentrating on maneuvering through the narrow passageway. Every time he was sure he couldn't take another step, he flashed on his last glimpse of the cavern interior and hatred sent another shot of adrenalin surging through his aching muscles. And then the interior brightened with every step, heralding the cave entrance.
"We're almost there, Jonny," he managed without breath as he carefully guided the stumbling man up a tricky slope in the cave floor. "We're almost out. That's it. Just a little ways, just a little ways more."
Jonathan's head lifted, his eyes blinking painfully against the bright light filtering around a bend in the passageway. His weight eased off Benny's shoulder as he climbed the grade almost totally under his own power, as though desperate to reach the sunlight before the darkness could pull him back again.
Benny guided him past the debris he'd left scattered within the mouth of the cave and resisted Jonathan's attempt to collapse to the ground the moment they emerged into full sunlight. "Not here. It's not safe here."
Jonathan groaned, shaking his head. "No more, I can't..."
"Just a little farther, that's all," Benny urged, determined to carry him if he had to and fairly sure he'd never make it if it came to that. "It's not safe yet. Come on, this way."
He groaned again, a weak protest, but he moved with dragging steps in the direction Benny pulled him. He half-fell down the short incline and Benny, taking the impact on his shoulder, tumbled painfully against projecting rock. As he let MacKensie slide to the ground, he eyed the surrounding area, debating whether he'd taken them far enough away, or whether this small outcropping of rock would afford them enough protection from the force of the blast. He leaned against the largest boulder and waited for strength to return to his wobbling legs as he glanced down at Jonathan, who lay gasping for breath where he'd fallen. Who are you? The sudden, unwelcome thought sent a jolt through him. Was this a mistake? A trick? Did I just take the real monster out with me?
"Jonathan?" His voice sounded unnaturally shrill to his own ears. "Jonno--can you hear me?"
He didn't expect an answer, and so was surprised when Jonathan moved his head slightly, an affirmative nod. "You think you're gonna be okay here for a few minutes? There's something I gotta finish up. I'll only be gone for a few, I swear."
"Don't..." Jonathan struggled to open his eyes, but failed in his attempt to raise himself up. "Don't go back in there, please, don't go back..."
"Easy, take it easy, okay?" he soothed, crouching down to hold his hand on MacKensie's shoulder until the man's panic subsided in a long, weary sigh. "I'm not going back in, I promise. No one's ever going in there again."
Jonathan's hand sought and found Benny's arm and for a moment gripped fiercely as though reassuring himself that it was real. Then, with another quiet sigh, his hand slipped back to the ground.
Benny spared a moment to reassure himself that Jonathan's respiration remained unlabored before climbing back up the short, steep incline. Forcing himself to remain calm, and his hands to stop shaking, he completed his task within the mouth of the cave, then, gathering up the detonator and the tool box, retraced his steps back to the outcropping, carefully playing out the wires in his wake. To his relief, Jonathan stirred when he jumped back down into the small hollow, and watched in exhausted confusion as Benny, with one eye on the battered pamphlet, set up the detonator and meticulously stripped the wire ends to attach to the device. He paused, hand on the crossbar as he met Jonathan's steady gaze. Was that fear he detected in MacKensie's eyes? No, it was more urgent, a kind of desperate impatience...to be free? Or do you hate this thing so much that you want it to be forever trapped in darkness?
Like I do.
He craned his head up for a look over the protecting rock, one last glance at the mouth of Hogg's Hole, and again the bitter thought assailed him: What do I tell Verna? She was wrong, we were both wrong--no one was right. No one ever knew the truth. His hand tightened on the bar in response to the stiffening of his jaw. And no one ever will.
He slammed the plunger down. For a second, nothing happened. Then a two-pronged blast split his ear drums and the ground beneath him trembled, sending him sprawling into the hard brush. Over the growing rumble of sliding, grinding rock, he heard Jonathan's sharp cry. Scrambling up, he saw his friend, face contorted in agony, curl up in a painfully tight ball. A rain of debris and fist-sized rocks pummeled him and he cowered with crossed arms protecting his head until both the roar and the deluge subsided. He looked up cautiously in the sudden quiet, trying to identify the soft sound partially obscured by the shrill ringing in his ears. The strange choking gasps came from where Jonathan lay huddled and trembling on the ground.
Alarmed, Benny scrambled up, going to his knees by MacKensie's side. "Jonathan? Jonathan, are you okay?"
He took the man's violently shaking shoulders in a firm grip, turning him over. And stared in blank astonishment to see that MacKensie, with tears streaming freely down his face, was convulsed in helpless laughter.
"What the hell's so funny?" Benny blurted as Jonathan's laugh burst out audibly at the stunned look on Benedek's face.
His first two attempts to speak dissolved in spasms of uncontrolled laughter. He managed to gasp, "I'm alive," before another gale took his voice again. And when that subsided, he added hastily, "Benedek, I'm alive. I'm alive, I'm...I'm...."
"I heard you the first time," Benny chided, feeling the first threatening sign of a laughing fit taking root inside his own chest. "Glad to see you're taking it so well."
Wiping his eyes, Jonathan held his other hand tightly against his chest which trembled with a volley of low chortles. "Oh, god, it hurts," he chuckled, subsiding into a low moan.
Breaking out of his frozen shock, Benny bent over the man, looking for any signs of overt injury. "Look, if you can hang on here for a few minutes, I'll get the car. Jonathan?"
Eyes closed tightly in faint pain, Jonathan nodded tautly. "I'll wait here," he murmured.
Benny made the distance at a fast sprint. It hit him like a sledgehammer to the side of his head just as he was opening the landrover's door and only a fast grab at the steering wheel kept him on his feet. Staggered by the blow, he clung tightly while helplessly watching the world tilt around him. So. Is this what insanity feels like? Not even knowing which way is up? Funny, it feels just like being falling down drunk.. He dragged himself up, collapsing in a heap on the front seat. Or like being exhausted; like crashing from an adrenalin high. That even makes a whole lot of sense. I wish everything else would..
From his awkward position half-slumped against the steering wheel, he stared out the window at the crystal blue sky above him, too tired to move let alone focus his confused thoughts. He died. We burned the body. That was real--wasn't it? It hurt too much not to be real. But this is real, too. I don't understand. I just don't understand.
His hand fumbled, sorting out the car keys and starting up the engine even before his mind fully cleared. Hell, he sighed, taking a depth breath to refocus his attention and flagging energies. Not understanding is nothing new for you, Benny, old man. You've spent most of your life in a fuddle, and no one's called you crazy for it before. What was it Grandma always used to say, usually at the top of her lungs? The only thing to do is to do and leave the rest to sort itself out. He edged the car forward, up the rugged path leading to the plateau in front of what was once the entrance to Hogg's Hole. Thanks, Grandma. I think I finally understand..
A magazine lay open on his lap, but he hadn't attempted to read it for over an hour, maybe more. Everytime he tried, he would nod off only to be roused by a dull clatter or an augmented voice paging the same three doctors over and over again. Leaning back in the armchair, he decided, not for the first time, that waiting was his least favorite thing in the entire world.
Another terse page over the loudspeaker just outside the door started him out of his drowse again. Yawning, he glanced over at the bed, expecting to see Jonathan still peacefully snoozing away.
But MacKensie was awake, turned on his side and staring at him with almost detached interest.
Benny straightened with a snap, uneasily wondering just how long Jonathan had been studying him as he dozed in the chair. "Yo, Jack," he said, grimacing when residual hoarseness marred his attempt at a graceful greeting. Clearing his throat, he mustered an amicable smile. "How're you feeling?"
Jonathan blinked, considering the question. "Warm."
"Warm? Too many blankets? Maybe I can get someone to adjust the thermostat. You're not running a temperature, are you? I'd better call a nurse...."
"No..." Jonathan's sleepy chuckle stopped him as he rose from the chair. "No, I mean...warm. It's nice."
"Oh." He eased back, weighed down by understanding. All that time lying helpless in the chilly darkness of Hogg's Hole--of course he'd be reveling in the simple warmth and comfort of a bed, even a hospital bed.
"I guess I'm ready whenever you are."
"What?" Startled out of his reverie, Benny stared blankly at him. "Ready for what?"
Jonathan's eyes moved slightly, and with chagrin Benny realized that his fists were tightly clenched against the chair arm. "To answer your questions," he replied quietly, sliding his gaze back. "That's what you've been sitting here waiting for, isn't it? Answers?"
Caught, he sought for something with which to bat the potentially embarrassing question aside, and came up short with a frustrated sigh. "Well...yeah," he admitted reluctantly. "But I figured you'd have some, too and...." Shaking his head, he closed his eyes in an effort to compose himself. "Okay. Before we get any farther with this, I guess what I really want...what I really need to know is how you got back in that cave."
He bit his lip quickly, hoping that he'd successfully kept the true desperation he felt out of his voice. The answer wasn't merely important, it was downright critical. This he had to understand. He had to. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Jonathan blink in mild surprise. When MacKensie finally spoke, it was in a mild 'surely that's obvious' tone of voice. "I never left it."
Nodding, Benny released his pent-up breath slowly. "I had a feeling you were going to say that," he muttered as he lowered his head into his hand. "Now I really don't understand. Who...what did I bring out of there two days ago? It looked like you, it sounded like you, it had your memory and god help me, it had your personality, such as it was." He stopped short, swallowing to reduce the rising pitch of his voice. "I don't understand," he finished wearily.
"Maybe it's better left that way," Jonathan suggested in the taut silence.
Benny shook his head in immediate denial. "No. You wouldn't say that if you knew what I'd been going through over the past few days."
"But I do know. I remember...most of it."
He raised his head, feeling his heart drop in his chest. "And I was afraid you were going to say that, too."
"You must have figured most of it out already, then."
"No." He shook his head tersely. "Not really. Not the part that really counts, anyway. If you're here and you never left the cave...what was it that I brought out with me the first time?"
Jonathan didn't answer immediately. He studied Benny expressionlessly, as though gauging whether the answer would do more harm than good. Then, gathering a deep breath: "You and Verna assumed that both I and her son had, by some twist of ill luck, turned into a monster. In reality--it was the other way around. The monster...became us."
"Then...you're saying that what I took out of the cave was the monster--who thought it was you?"
Jonathan nodded, a flicker of concern crossing his face for the harsh incredulity in Benny's voice. "Wait a minute," Benny protested, making a weak erasing motion in the air. "I'm...I'm not sure I get this. It thought it was you. I mean, it really thought it was you, but you were really...you weren't...." His thoughts threatened to disintegrate along with his speech. He shot out of the chair, pacing a few steps in an attempt to refocus. A sudden revelation struck him, stopping him dead in his tracks. "Holy cow," he whispered, eyes widening in disbelief. "That's it. That's the reason, isn't it?"
"What?" Jonathan prodded, frowning his confusion.
"This...this thing, whatever it is, recreates itself from from its latest victim. It uses everything, right down to the brain wave pattern, I'll bet." He turned, leveling a shaking finger at Jonathan. "I'm right, aren't I? No one's ever really left that cave. It's always been...it in new packaging."
Jonathan closed his eyes briefly; yes. Grimly, Benny nodded. "That's the reason, then," he repeated, almost to himself. "That's the reason it always ends up back in the cave, waiting for some other poor soul to stumble in. Because it becomes human. And its...its new humanity can't co-exist with its true self..." He faltered with a frown, turning to Jonathan for help. "That's right, isn't it?"
"I suppose so," he answered non-committally, but Benny already had his answer in the way Jonathan averted his eyes briefly, his forehead creasing in slight pain. He paused, another revelation adding a sickening twist to his gut. "You...you remember all of it? Don't you?"
"Most of it," Jonathan admitted reluctantly, easing further back against the pillow. His expression softened to see the faint horror in Benny's stare. "Like a movie, mostly. The images are there, but it's...it's one step removed. As though it happened in front of me, but not to me."
Benny's head shifted slightly, speculatively. "You wouldn't kid a kidder, would you?" he challenged softly.
"No." Jonathan unsuccessfully stifled a smile. "I wouldn't do that."
Somewhat mollified, Benny made his way back to the armchair, easing down with a sigh. He gestured helplessly, dropping his hands with a sigh. "This is really bizarre. How the hell did you come out of three days in a damp cave without so much as a bad case of the sniffles?"
"Do I really have to get into that?"
"You sure as hell do," Benny growled. "You owe me for embarrassing the hell out of me in front of the triage nurse."
"I did what?"
"I was trying to tell them what bad shape you should've been in because you were lost in the woods for three days, and you kept giggling."
"I did not."
"You certainly did," Benny huffed back. "They were ready to lock me away in a nice soft room."
"I don't giggle," Jonathan insisted firmly.
"You weren't suffering from exposure, either. Don't tell me that cavern came with extra blankets and room service, okay? I was there, I saw...." He stopped and swallowed, flashing back on his last image of that cursed place. "I saw what was there," he continued in a lower voice. "Tommy was there, wasn't he? And James Thomas Hallorhan. And...all the others. They were all there." He leaned forward, one hand fisted tightly against the chair arm. "Did they last as long as you did?"
Jonathan nodded after a long moment of silence. "Longer," he said, gazing steadily down at his fingers loosely clutching the blanket. "Normally..." His voice caught on the word; he continued after clearing his throat. "Normally it takes nearly a week before it...absorbs enough to allow it to leave the cavern on its own. It has some way of preserving the life functions of the host long enough for that to...to happen. A kind of stasis, I suppose. I'm not...I'm not really sure. All I know is that I'm still alive because you took it out of the cave before it was strong enough to leave on its own. And because..." He paused, looking up with a puzzled frown. "Benedek--why did you come back?"
He laughed shortly, pretending interest in his fingertips. "We'll have to let that one slide for now. But believe me, as soon as I figure that one out for myself, you'll be the next one to know." Maybe, he qualified hastily to himself. Maybe when hell freezes over.
Jonathan's concerned voice woke him to the realization that he'd spent too much time in reflective silence. "What's wrong?"
It was no use denying he was troubled; he could feel the frown digging permanent lines into his face, and cursed himself for not keeping better control. He shrugged uneasily. "I was just trying to figure out what to tell Verna, that's all."
"It might be a kindness not to tell her anything," MacKensie said, both meaningfully and pleadingly.
"Won't work," Benny informed him with a stiff shake of his head. "What happens when the time comes for the Nobel Committee to tap you on the shoulder? Were you planning to accept wearing a mask and an assumed name?"
His instinctive protest against Benny's absurd scenario died in a sigh. "All right, point taken."
"I'll call her later."
"Benny, no. Not on the phone."
"Cut me some slack, willya?" Benny chided mildly. "I'm just gonna tell her I'll be over tonight to talk to her about...something."
"If you wanted to wait until tomorrow, I could go with you...."
Benny gave him a sharp look. "Ah...no," he said meaningfully. "Not a good idea."
"Oh. Right," Jonathan murmured, abashed. "I guess I'm still not thinking too clearly."
"Maybe clearly enough to help me figure out how I'm going to explain to her that it wasn't her son who came back to her?" Benny ventured hopefully.
Jonathan started to speak, then, eyes lowering to search his memory, he paused. "In a sense...he did come back. By the time it turned up at her back door, it was Tommy in every way that counted. There was nothing she could have done even if she had known the truth. Her son, or at least his corporeal self, was already beyond help at that point. She did everything she could have possible done--and more besides. Don't you realize? I wouldn't be alive right now if it weren't for her." He waited for Benny to look up before adding quietly, "And you."
The simple sincerity in Jonathan's voice felt like a slap to the face; he turned away to mask a wince of real pain. On the one hand, he now felt a little more confident about facing Verna, but on the other hand--the last thing he felt he deserved from Jonathan MacKensie, or anyone else for that matter, was gratitude. Too much of this was his fault to begin with.
He realized that Jonathan was still speaking, rescuing from a promising attack of self-pity. "You could tell her..." He hesitated, chewing lightly on his lower lip in troubled thought. "If you think she might like to...to talk. If she wants to...if she wants to--"
Benny inclined his head, trying to follow the line of thought MacKensie seemed to be having so much trouble expressing. "Are you sure?" he ventured, eyes narrowing.
He nodded without hesitation, but the words still came with difficulty. "There's a lot that Tommy never told her. Personal things, I mean; things he couldn't bring himself to say and..." Drawing a deep breath, he continued, "I don't think he'd mind. In fact, I know he wouldn't mind. I owe both of them my life and I think I'd like to...do this for him; for both of them. She has a lot to be proud of, I want her to know that. But only if you think she'd want to talk to me. I wouldn't want to make it worse for her...."
His faltering speech was fast becoming a babble. "Okay, okay," Benny held up his free hand with an amused smile. "I get the picture. And I'll give you a call here tonight and let you know how it goes. But are you sure you're going to be able to handle it?"
"I'm sure." Resolve shone in his eyes. "I told you--I owe him. And this is one debt I want to pay."
Well...the words sound right, at least. But you've always been a tough one to read, buds. The only thing for it is a direct question, I guess. And all I can say is, you'd better make the right noises, because I don't do this for just any schmoe off the street, you know.
"You gonna be okay?" Benny asked, surprising even himself with the level of genuine concern that came out with the question.
"Well, apparently I passed all the tests. The doctor said I could be leaving here as early as tomorrow morning..."
"That's not what I meant."
"I know." Jonathan met his searching gaze with difficulty. "Do you think there's a possibility that we could...well, that we could forget this ever happened?"
Benny drew a deep breath, an artificial ploy to gain enough time to compose his reply. "I guess that's up to you," he decided. "Could you? Can you?"
He nodded after only a few moments of deep introspection. "I can. It already feels like nothing more than a bad dream. But...."
"But you need me to treat it the same way," Benny finished, lowering his head in an understanding nod. "Don't sweat it, okay? 'The Legend of Hogg's Hole' as related by Edgar Benedek in the pages of the National Register won't contain a word of truth--as usual. And as far as Dr. Moorhouse and your assignment are concerned, an old rockslide blocked the entrance and we couldn't check the place out personally. Case closed, no conclusion."
Jonathan nodded, relief bringing color to his pale face. "Thank you again," he said quietly.
"Listen, I think I'll go make that phone call and let you get some more rest..."
He winced inwardly as he turned back in midstep. So much for neat and painless escapes. "Hm?" he forced himself to nonchalance.
"Are we still friends?"
Hoping that he rightly detected a smile in Jonathan's quiet voice, Benny forced an easy chuckle. "I think we covered this ground already."
The intent look in Jonathan's eyes put an end to Benny's forlorn hope that the subject would die a quick, unlamented death. "Under somewhat bizarre circumstances, yes--we did. But I'm talking about now."
"Why should now be any different..." He put the brakes on fast, annoyed at his own blindness. "Right. I didn't have this discussion with you, did I? I was talking to some thing with one hell of an identity crisis."
"I heard every word," Jonathan reminded him quietly. "Even when I wasn't sure who or what or where I was, or whether I was alive or.... It made a difference, Benny. It made a difference to me when it mattered most. And I think what I need to know now is whether you were saying those things because you thought it was expected of you, or whether...whether you actually meant what you said."
He knew the answer to that one. It was right there, in his mind as well as his heart, and just the sheer certainty of it closed his throat. Long ago he'd vowed never again to tread the direct path to or from the truth, especially when it came to delineating nebulous commodities like friendship. It only led to averted glances and embarrassed coughs and ultimately to silences the pain of which could only be alleviated by distance--and permanent silence. But a direct lie in this situation was useless; too much had happened, too much time and emotion had been expended to make even a half-truth believable. And there'd been an edge to Jonathan's voice, a kind of desperation that was impossible to ignore or to treat lightly. He'd been unable to 'die' without being assured that he'd meant something to someone before his life came to an abrupt, ignominious end. He was now unable to accept life without knowing if that assurance had been the truth or only so many words cribbed from a lifetime of mawkish pre-printed greeting cards.
Why me? He stared down at his hand, and forced himself to keep it from forming a fist. What did I do to deserve this?
A tiny voice in his head laughed, startling him. You blundered back into that cave looking for an expensive piece of equipment, remember? His conscience burst out in a gale of chiding laughter. The joke's on you--you lost both walkie-talkies and a flashlight in the bargain. For that kind of stupidity, pal, you deserve everything you got.
A smile edged onto his face as he contemplated the thought. I guess that means I deserve everything I didn't lose, he realized, barely stifling an outright laugh behind his hand.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Jonathan incline his head quizzically. Clearing his throat, he composed himself enough to deliver a believably earnest look in the man's direction. "In my entire life," he said solemnly, "I have never said anything I didn't mean. Not to anyone under any circumstances. Do you need it in writing, or can we just shake on it?"
Jonathan regarded him expressionlessly for a long moment, and this time Benny met the silent study with a confident smile. Then, slowly, MacKensie lifted his right hand.
Benny reached out, but hesitated inches from MacKensie's outstretched hand. "You realize, of course, that all I've admitted is the possibility that I might be a very sincere liar," he said, eyebrow arched.
Jonathan smiled wryly as he bridged the distance, taking Benny's hand in a fierce, warm clasp. "I guess," he said confidently, "As always--I'll have to take my chances."
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