Twilight Eyes Page 11

In spite of its twentieth-century industry—the steel mill from which gray smoke and white steam plumed up in the distance, the busy rail yards—Yontsdown looked and felt medieval. Under a summer sky that was swiftly plating over with iron-colored clouds, we drove on narrow streets, a couple of which were actually cobblestoned. Even with the empty mountains all around and much land available, the houses were crowded together, each looming over the other, most half mummified with a funereal skin of grayish-yellow dust, at least a third of them in need of paint or new roofs or new floorboards for their sagging front porches. The shops, grocery stores, and offices all had an air of bleakness, and there were few, if any, signs of prosperity. A black, Depression-era iron bridge linked the shores of the muddy river that split the town in two, and the Cadillac’s tires sang a somber, mournful, one-note tune as we drove across that metal-floored span. The few tall buildings were no higher than six or eight stories, brick and granite structures that contributed to the medieval atmosphere because, to me at least, they resembled small-scale castles: blank windows that seemed as defensively narrow as arrow loops; recessed doorways with massive granite lintels of unnecessary size for the modest weight they had to carry, doorways so guarded and unwelcoming in appearance that I would not have been surprised to see the pointed tips of a raised portcullis above one of them; here and there the flat roofs had crenelated brows quite like a castle’s battlements.

I did not like the place.

We passed a rambling, two-story brick building, one wing of which had been gutted by fire. Portions of the slate roof had caved in, and most of the windows had been blown out by the heat, and the brick—long ago discolored by years of accumulated pollutants from the mill, mines, and rail yards—was marked by anthracite fans of soot above each of the gaping windows. Restoration had begun, and construction workers were on the site when we drove by.

“That there’s the only elementary school in town,” Jelly said from the backseat. “Was a big explosion in the heating-oil tank last April, even though it was a warm day and the furnace was turned off. Don’t know if they ever did figure out what went wrong. Terrible thing. I read about it in the papers. It was national news. Seven little kids burned to death, horrible thing, but it would’ve been a whole lot worse if there hadn’t been a couple of heroes among the teachers. It’s an absolute miracle they didn’t lose forty or fifty kids, even a hundred.”

“J-J-J-Jesus, th-that’s awful,” Luke Bendingo said. “Little k-k-kids.” He shook his head. “S-sometimes it’s a hard w-w-w-world.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” Jelly said.

I turned to look back at the school after we had passed it. I was getting very bad vibrations from that burned-out structure, and I had the unshakable feeling that more tragedy lay in its future.

We stopped at a red traffic light, beside a coffee shop, in front of which stood a newspaper vending machine. From the car I could read the headline on the Yontsdown Register: BOTULISM KILLS FOUR AT CHURCH PICNIC.

Jelly must have seen the headline, too, for he said, “This sorry, damned town needs a carnival even more than usual.”

We drove two more blocks, parked in the lot behind the municipal building, near several black-and-white patrol cars, and got out of the Cadillac. That four-story pile of sandstone and granite, which housed both the city government and police headquarters, was the most medieval building of them all. Iron bars shielded its narrow, deeply recessed windows. Its flat roof was encircled by a low wall that looked even more like a castle’s battlements than anything I had seen thus far, complete with regularly spaced embrasures and squared-off merlons; the merlons—which were the high segments of the stone crenelations that alternated with the open embrasures—boasted arrow loops and putlog holes, and they were even topped with pointed stone finials.

The Yontsdown Municipal Building was not merely architecturally forbidding; there was, as well, a feeling of malevolent life in the structure. I had the disquieting notion that this agglomeration of stone and mortar and steel had somehow acquired consciousness, that it was watching us as we got out of the car, and that going inside would be like blithely walking between the teeth and into the gaping mouth of a dragon.

I did not know if this somber impression was psychic in nature or whether my imagination was galloping away with me; sometimes it is not easy to be sure which is the case. Perhaps I was experiencing a seizure of paranoia. Perhaps I was seeing danger, pain, and death where they did not really exist. I am subject to spells of paranoia. I admit it. You would be paranoid, too, if you could see the things that I see, the unhuman creatures that walk disguised among us. . . .

“Slim?” Jelly said. “What’s wrong?”

“Uh . . . nothing.”

“You look kinda pasty.”

“I’m okay.”

“They won’t jump us here.”

“I’m not worried about that,” I said.

“I told you . . . there ain’t never any trouble in town.”

“I know. I’m not afraid of the fight. Don’t worry about me. I never ran from a fight in my whole life, and I sure won’t run from this one.”

Frowning, Jelly said, “Didn’t think you would.”

“Let’s go see Kelsko,” I said.

We entered the building through the rear because, on a mission of bribery, you do not walk in the front door, announce yourself to the receptionist, and state your business. Jelly went in first, and Luke was right behind him, and I went last, holding the door and pausing a moment to look back at the yellow Cadillac, which was by far the brightest object in that dreary cityscape. In fact, it was too bright to suit me. I thought of brilliantly colored butterflies that, because of their dazzling finery, attract predatory birds and are devoured in a final flutter of multihued wings; the Caddy suddenly seemed like a symbol of our naïveté, haplessness, and vulnerability.

The rear door opened on a service corridor, and to the right were stairs leading up. Jelly started climbing, and we followed.

It was two minutes past noon, and we had an appointment with Chief Lisle Kelsko for the lunch hour, though not for lunch itself, because we were carnies, and most straight folks preferred not to break bread with the likes of us. Especially straight folks whose pockets we were surreptitiously lining with payoffs.

The jail and the police station itself were on the ground floor in this wing, but Kelsko’s office was a place apart. We went up six flights of concrete steps, through a fire door, into the third-floor hall, all without seeing anyone. The corridor was floored with dark green vinyl tiles, buffed to a high polish, and the air smelled of a mildly unpleasant disinfectant. Three doors down the hall from the rear stairwell, we came to the private office of the chief of police. The top half of the door was opaque glass with his name and title stenciled in black letters, and it was standing open. We went inside.

My palms were damp.

My heart was drumming.

I did not know why.

Regardless of what Jelly said, I was wary of an ambush, but that was not what frightened me now.

Something else. Something . . . elusive . . .

No lamp burned in the outer office, and there was only one barred window by a watercooler. Since the once blue summer sky outside had almost entirely surrendered to the advancing armada of dark clouds, and since the slats of the venetian blinds were tipped halfway between the vertical and the horizontal, the mealy light was barely sufficient to reveal the metal filing cabinets, worktable bearing hot plate and coffeepot, empty coatrack, enormous wall map of the county, and three wooden chairs with their backs against one wall. The secretary’s desk was a shadowy hulk, neatly kept, currently untenanted.

Lisle Kelsko had probably sent his secretary off for an early lunch to eliminate the possibility that she would overhear something.

The door to the inner office was ajar. Beyond it were light and, presumably, life. Unhesitantly Jelly moved across the unlighted room, toward the inner door, and we followed.

Pressure was building in my chest.

My mouth was so dry that I felt as if I had been eating dust.

Jelly rapped lightly on the inner door.

A voice issued through the narrow opening: “Come in, come in.” It was a baritone voice, and even in those four short words it conveyed calm authority and smug superiority.

Jelly went in, and Luke was right behind him, and I heard Jelly saying, “Hello, hello, Chief Kelsko, what a pleasure to see you again,” and when I entered, last of all, I saw a surprisingly simple room—gray walls, white venetian blinds, utilitarian furniture, no photographs or paintings on the walls, almost as drab as a cell—and then I saw Kelsko behind a big metal desk, regarding us with undisguised contempt, and my breath caught in my throat, for the identity of Kelsko was a sham, and within that human form, beyond the human glaze, was the most vicious-looking goblin I had ever seen.

Perhaps I should have suspected that in a place like Yontsdown the authorities might be goblins. But the thought of people living under the malevolent rule of such creatures was so terrible that I had blocked it.

I will never know how I managed to conceal my shock, my disgust, and my awareness of Kelsko’s evil secret. As I stood there stupidly beside Luke, hands fisted at my sides, immobilized but also made spring-tense by fear, I felt as obvious as a cat with its back arched and its ears flattened, and I was certain that Kelsko would see my repulsion and immediately perceive the reason for it. But he did not. He hardly glanced at either me or Luke, his attention fixed on Jelly.

Kelsko was in his early fifties, about five-nine, stocky, forty pounds overweight. He wore a khaki uniform but carried no revolver. Under brush-cut hair the shade of gunmetal, he had a square, hard, rough-looking face. His bushy eyebrows met over eyes bracketed by thick bone, and his mouth was a mean slash.

The goblin within Kelsko was no visual treat, either. I have never seen one of the beasts that was less than hideous, although some are slightly less hideous than others. Some have eyes not quite so fierce. Some have teeth less sharp than others. Some have faces a degree less predatory than their miscreant brethren. (To me this slight variety in the appearances of the goblins seemed to prove they were real and not just phantoms of a diseased mind; for if I had been imagining them, if they were only figments of a madman’s primal fear, they would all look alike. Would they not?) The demonic creature in Kelsko had red eyes that not only burned with hatred but were the very molten essence of hatred, more penetrating than those of any goblin I had encountered prior to this. The beetle-green skin around its eyes was webbed with cracks and thickened with what might have been scar tissue. The obscene fleshiness of its quivering pig-snout was made even more repellent by the addition of wattled skin around its nostrils, pale wrinkled lobes that fluttered (and glistened wetly) when it drew or expelled breath and that might have been the result of extreme age. Indeed the psychic emanations pouring forth from this monster gave an impression of incredibly ancient evil, an evil of such antiquity that by comparison it made the pyramids seem modern; it was a poisonous stew of malevolent emotions and wicked intentions, cooked at high heat for ages, until any possibility of a charitable or innocent thought had been boiled away long ago.

Jelly played the role of the ingratiating patch with enthusiasm and enormous skill, and Lisle Kelsko pretended to be nothing more than a hopelessly hard-nosed, hard-assed, narrow-minded, amoral, authoritarian, coal-country cop. Jelly was convincing, but the thing that impersonated Kelsko deserved an Oscar. At times its performance was so perfect that even to my eyes its human glaze became opaque, the goblin fading until it was just an amorphous shadow within the human flesh, forcing me to strain to bring it back into focus.

From my point of view, our situation became even more intolerable when, a minute after we entered Kelsko’s office, a uniformed officer came in behind us and closed the door. He, too, was a goblin. This man-shell was about thirty, tall, lean, with thick brown hair combed straight back from a good-looking, Italian face. The goblin at the core was frightening but noticeably less repulsive than the beast in Kelsko.

When the door closed behind us with a thump, I jumped. From his chair, out of which he had not deigned to rise upon our entry and from which he dispensed only steely-eyed glares and flat unfriendly responses to Jelly’s friendly patter, Chief Lisle Kelsko flicked a glance at me. My expression must have been odd, for Luke Bendingo gave me an odd one of his own, then winked to indicate everything was copacetic. When the young cop went to a corner and stood with his arms crossed on his chest, where I could see him, I relaxed a bit, though not much.

I had never before been in a room with two goblins at the same time, let alone two goblins posing as cops and one carrying a loaded sidearm. I wanted to lunge at them; I wanted to pound their hateful faces; I wanted to run; I wanted to pull the knife from my boot and plant it in Kelsko’s throat; I wanted to scream; I wanted to puke; I wanted to grab the young cop’s revolver and blow his head off, pump a few shots into Kelsko’s chest as well. But all I could do was stand there beside Luke, keep the fear out of my eyes and off my face, and strive to appear intimidating.

The meeting lasted less than ten minutes and was not a fraction as bad as Jelly had led me to believe it would be. Kelsko did not taunt or humiliate or challenge us as much as I had been told he would. He was not as demanding, sarcastic, rude, foulmouthed, quarrelsome, or threatening as the Kelsko in Jelly’s colorful stories. He was icy, yes, arrogant, yes, and filled with unconcealed loathing for us. No doubt about that. He was supercharged with violence, like a high-tension power line, and if we cut through his insulation, either by insulting him or talking back or giving the slightest indication that we thought ourselves superior to him, he would deliver a mega-volt assault that we would never forget. But we remained docile and subservient and eager to please, and he restrained himself. Jelly put the envelope of money on the desk and passed along booklets of free tickets, all the while telling jokes and inquiring after the chief’s family, and in short order we did what we had come to do, and we were dismissed.

We returned to the third-floor corridor, went to the rear stairs again, climbed to the fourth floor, which was deserted now that the lunch hour was well begun, and went from one dreary hall to another to another, until we had reached the wing where the mayor had his office. As we walked, our footsteps clicking on the dark vinyl tiles, Jelly looked increasingly worried.

At one point, relieved to be out of the goblins’ company and remembering what Jelly had told me in the car, I said, “Well, that wasn’t so bad.”

“Yeah. That’s what worries me,” Jelly said.

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