Madhouse, page 23
Finally stopping beside a Japanese screen, I gave in to the inevitable and called out, “Wahanket.”
I tried again, louder this time. “Wahanket!”
This time there was a rustling and there was a sense of motion in the corner of my eye. I turned, gun in hand. Sangrida had left one of her guards’ 9mms for me at the basement entrance I’d used, under the stairs. It wasn’t the Viking broadsword I’d expected, which was fine by me. They were heavy as hell. During the museum’s working hours, getting my own gun through security wasn’t feasible, but this one would do.
The motion and flicker I’d seen materialized into a small figure. It was cat-sized, no doubt because it was a cat. It sat and stared at me with black-and-white eyes. Painted eyes. The rest of it was a deep tarnished bronze with the glimmer of gold around its neck. It stared for a few more seconds, then stood and disappeared smoothly into the shadows with the clink of metal paws against the floor. It was an invitation and I accepted it.
An animated metal cat. It was bizarre and then some. How could it move? Was it alive or some sort of ancient Egyptian sorcerer’s mind trick? I didn’t know, although I was leaning toward the latter. I believed in monsters—hell, yeah. But magic? If there wasn’t some form of flesh or bone behind it, I had a hard time buying into it. I did know that I preferred the walking statue idea to the thought that it was some dried-up cat mummy.
Fake magic or real, it led me to Wahanket. With his preoccupation with technology, I should’ve pictured him surfing the Net or watching cable, but I couldn’t. The mental image was too incongruous. It was much easier to imagine him plunging an ancient dagger into the chest of some poor schmuck writhing on an altar. Or maybe dragging his foot and moaning as he shambled toward his prey. Shamble, drag. Very shambolic. Was that even a word?
Probably not, but I was right about one thing: He wasn’t surfing the Net. He was…dissecting something—a rat, I thought. A really big rat. Huge. I made a face and drawled, “Supper?”
“You, uneducated baboon, should not mock the ways of your betters.” The curdled shadows instead of a sickly glow in his eye sockets must have meant he was feeling mellow. “Which would be everyone inhabiting this infested world, including my new pet.” He indicated the rodent with the flourish of an antique scalpel.
Pet? And I realized he wasn’t taking it apart; he was putting it back together. I wasn’t sure if that was less disturbing or more so, and I decided to ignore it altogether. Shifting my gaze slightly away from the bloodstained crate doubling as an operating table, I said, “I’m here about Goodfellow.”
“The puck.” The scalpel was discarded for a needle threaded with a fine silver wire that gleamed between hard black fingers. “His tongue is impertinent, but his gifts are acceptable. What have you brought me?”
Fortunately I’d thought of that. Unfortunately that early in the morning the street vendor supplies had been skimpy. “Yeah, about that…” I looked down at the gun in my hand. Normally I didn’t make a habit of giving up a weapon to a creature I barely knew and didn’t trust, but I’d be fooling myself to think Wahanket would need a gun to try to kill me. Or to take me apart and put me back together in some sort of hideous parody of Cal Leandros. “Here.”
The dark hand curled around the grip, and I felt the brush of skin harder than horn. “Ahhh, such a pretty toy. The modern equivalent of the flintlock.” He abandoned the rat for a closer examination. “I have seen many images, but there are no examples of such recent firearms down here in my domain.” The teeth gnashed in a grin. “Man’s enthusiasm for killing his own kind still pleases me, even after all this time.”
As my eyes drifted back reluctantly, behind him I thought I saw the rat twitch. No, I was sure of it…with belly still gaping half open and eyes blankly empty, it twitched. I looked away again and decided breakfast wasn’t the way to go today. “Great. I’m glad you’re happy. Sorry there’s no bow and ribbon. Now can we talk about Robin?”
“Baboons were never one for patience.” He pulled out the clip as if he’d done it a thousand times. “Interesting.”
The rat squeaked. It was faint and raspy and nowhere near being on my list of latest frigging greatest hits. “Goodfellow,” I emphasized sharply. Hearing my own voice was better than hearing the alternative. “Someone’s trying to kill him. You know anything about that? You know who might be gunning for him?”
The clip was slammed back home and a tongue as weathered as beef jerky clicked against the teeth. “You ask much of me. I hold the secrets of Osiris, the knowledge of Thoth, the death rolls of Anubis, but a list so long? You request the impossible.”
That was the standard line. Your poor, your hungry, your huddled masses yearning to kill me, that was Robin’s motto. “How about you narrow it down to the top twenty or so? Think you could do that?” There was the scrabbling of paws and the moist thump of what I hoped was a tail against wood. “Come on, Hank. I gave. Now you give, and you can get back to your Franken-rat, okay?” Poor damned trash muncher. I was no rodent fan, but Jesus.
“Twenty?” The weapon was placed carefully, almost lovingly, on top of a glass case containing a stuffed baboon, which, by the way, did not look like me. “As I have said, impossible. You ask me to separate twenty grains of sand from the desert’s mighty stretch. Such a task cannot be done.” There was a hole in his chest. I hadn’t noticed that before. A sunken hole and the shine of gold and turquoise deep within. “Perhaps I could thin the wheat from the chaff and give you a hundred creatures who wish death upon the puck.” Arms of bones and ropy flesh wrapped with brown wrappings crossed. “Go. Return in seven days and I will have the information you seek.”
“Seven days…” I started to protest as there was a louder thump, wet and horrible, and then the skitter of racing paws. I looked down; I couldn’t help it. Hurriedly, I looked back up, tasted bile, and hoped I never saw a rat, dead or undead, again as long as I lived.
“Go.” The glow was returning to Wahanket’s hollows of bone.
A week…I only hoped Robin lived that long.
I went back into the maze, wandered far enough away from Wahanket that I felt a little more comfortable, and then I did it again…once more doing what I’d told Nik I wouldn’t. I sat on the dusty floor, cross-legged, and held out my hand. I focused, twisted that focus, and it came. I kept it smaller than a full-sized gate as I had before, but went for just a little bigger this time. From the size of an orange to that of a basketball. And I then focused harder. The gate, nothing but the gate. No thoughts of Tumulus or the Auphe. No thoughts of feeding someone to them. No thoughts that weren’t mine. It wasn’t going to happen. I wouldn’t let it. Maybe I wouldn’t even admit to having them in the first place.
The gray light swirled and eddied like a particularly dangerous riptide and it glowed like flesh-melting radioactivity. It was still ugly as hell and clamped down on the base of my brain like a vise. It hurt, it felt cold and wrong, and here I was doing it anyway.
Why? Because like I’d thought before, it could save my life someday. It could save Niko’s life. That made it worth doing. It made the pain, the blood, and the sense of teetering on a chasm hungry for just one misstep worthwhile. The Auphe had never given me a damn thing I wanted to have or know, but if some genetic trick of theirs could ever save my brother or anyone else I cared about, then some good would come out of the horror show they had tried to make of me and the world.
I really wanted that bit of good. I’d saved Robin and myself before. I wanted to be able to do that again if push came to shove. Niko lived a life of monsters and madness because of who I’d been born. And he held his own—we both did, but if I could have that emergency exit available, I’d feel better. I’d feel maybe a fraction less responsible for the mess the Auphe had made of both our lives.
If only I could get a little goddamn better at it.
Despite my determination, the chasm whispered at me. It said things…bad thin
With a massive effort, I shut them out. They were gone and I felt a slight sense of satisfaction…a very wary satisfaction. I wasn’t stupid.
The pain spiked and with a hiss at the sharp ache, I closed the doorway. The light faded away and I wiped my nose with the dish towel I’d brought for the occasion. It worked better than the paper towels had. As I did, I thought it was nothing. Just things I imagined the Auphe thought and felt. I was in a creepy as hell basement doing an even creepier thing and who wouldn’t imagine some crap in that situation? It was a fluke the first time and my imagination this time.
The blood kept coming and I wadded the cloth and held it against the flow for nearly ten minutes before it stopped. My ears were okay. Only that big gate I’d made to escape the sirrush had set them off. Wiping my face thoroughly, I fished the Tylenol out of my pocket and swallowed two. The headache, the blood, it was all still there. Practice didn’t seem to be making perfect. That super gate I’d opened while fighting the Hob months ago had definitely gotten down and dirty with whatever I used to open those rips in reality. I could almost feel the blockage in my brain. Like a damaged area, hardened…thickened like scar tissue. I’d have to get around it or push through it.
Or, as Niko had said, my brain would come oozing out my ears. Either or. If he found out what I was doing, that might just be the least of my concerns.
I made my way back upstairs, getting lost about as many times as I expected. Once there I kept my head ducked down and made my way to the nearest bathroom to check for any leftover blood on my face. Ever try to check your reflection without actually looking into a mirror? Not so easy. I took some paper towels and soap and scrubbed first, then took a look that lasted about a fraction of a second before quickly turning my head away.
It was nearly as huge an accomplishment as shredding a hole in space itself. Phobias are tricky things. I knew a demon wasn’t going to come out of a mirror and take me. I knew because I’d killed that demon, but that was the first glimpse I’d had of myself in a mirror since Darkling had crawled out of one to gobble me up.
How did I look?
Guilty as hell. Niko was so going to kick my ass.
When I showed up at Promise’s apartment twenty minutes later, I’d tucked the guilt far out of sight with the natural acting skills Sophia had shown her marks over the years. In other words, I pasted a big fat lie on my face. If I was half as good as she’d been, I might just pass. At the apartment door I pulled up half a step behind Robin’s housekeeper, Seraglio. She took one look up at me, shook her head, and fished in the pocket of her coat to hand me crackers and peanut butter in machine-wrapped cellophane. “A stiff wind would blow you over, sugar, and we’re about to face a big gusty hot one now. Eat up.” She had a small suitcase with her. Some of Robin’s things, I thought, but…
I opened the crackers eagerly, took a bite, and said around it, “Where are the rest?”
“The taxi driver is bringing them up, all five of them,” she sighed as she knocked on the door. “And for one mess of change, you’d better believe. God forbid he should help a lady out of the goodness of his tiny shriveled heart.” Shaking her head impatiently, she had lifted a small fist to knock again when the door was flung open and out came Ishiah in one hell of a temper. That wasn’t the surprise. He was always in a temper, a hot-blooded guy to look as if he should be sporting a halo. The surprise was that he was there—that Robin had opened the door for him. Wings out of sight, he moved between Seraglio and me, didn’t look at either of us, and strode down the hall toward the elevator.
Shrugging, I took the suitcase from Robin’s housekeeper and followed her into the apartment. Robin was in a robe, probably one that had belonged to one of Promise’s past husbands, eating breakfast. “Your crap, sir.” I flopped the suitcase on the dining room table. “Tips are appreciated, you cheap bastard.”
Fork suspended halfway between mouth and plate, he looked at the case and demanded instantly, “That’s just the hair care products. Where’s the rest?”
Seraglio was already leaving, preferring to meet the cabdriver halfway rather than to deal with her employer. I didn’t much blame her. Changing my mind about breakfast, I sat at the table and snatched a honey-dribbled croissant from his plate and ate it. “I saw Ish in the hall.” He’d been trying to talk sense into Robin, have him tell us what was going on, I knew. Ishiah wouldn’t tell us himself, but he could use his time to endlessly prod Robin into telling us himself. “He seemed pissed. Even more pissed than usual.” Which meant Robin hadn’t cooperated.
I licked my fingers clean of the sticky sweetness from the bun. “He also seemed worried about you. Seriously, Robin, who is he? He knows you, and I mean really knows you, the good and the bad. Not many people can say that.” Niko and I couldn’t, not entirely—not with Robin holding back on us.
He hesitated, pushed the food around on his plate, then exhaled. “What is he would be more appropriate. A recruiter for the good and noble life, you could say, one with a moral code even more stringent than that of your brother.” He gave a mock shudder at the thought. “It’s uncanny. Unhinging might be the better word. Far too many Boy Scouts in the world.” The mild annoyance deepened to something darker. “We have a history, Ishiah and I do. One of him pushing and pushing and utterly pissing me off. He’d have me give up everything that makes me the magnificent specimen I am.”
“The lying, the cheating, the screwing everything in sight?” I asked with a grin.
“Exactly.” He took a bite of eggs, outraged at the thought.
It was hard to imagine the guy with the balls to try and recruit Robin Goodfellow to the straight and narrow. Even harder to imagine why. “He really did seem worried as hell about you,” I said again. He’d been angry, but controlled because I hadn’t seen his wings as he’d stalked off. There’d been only a pale gray leather jacket, blue shirt, and faded jeans. His blond hair had covered the scar, so it didn’t give anything away. Blond hair…but pale, not the more familiar darker shade I’d seen every day of my life. Overcast blue-gray eyes in contrast to pure winter sky, fair skin to Rom olive, an inch or two taller, but…
The realization prickled in the back of my brain, not quite made but worming its way up. Robin liked Niko, a helluva lot. He had chased him relentlessly in the past before Promise showed up. Hell, chased him a little bit after that too. And Ishiah…Ishiah looked like Niko.
No. No, that wasn’t it at all. Niko looked like Ishiah.
Robin, already gathering in the creaky workings of my brain, looked me up and down and took in my rumpled clothing for a quick change of subject before I could open my mouth. “Again…in one year? How can you bear the exertion?” he drawled. “Just remember, once you go furry, you never have to worry. Well, technically that’s not true. She could transform halfway through and eat you…have a cookie with her nookie. Or worse yet, have you seen those nature channels? Romulus’s hairy sac. You could be stuck for hours. Next time be sure to take the crossword, just in case. Or a crowbar and some WD-40.”
That effectively ruined my appetite. “I hope your ribs hurt like hell,” I grumbled as Niko and Promise appeared in the room. The Ishiah matter wasn’t forgotten, but I shoved it on the back burner as Niko had something on his mind. I figured that out when he shoved me in the bathroom, slapped a bar of soap in my hand, a towel over the mirror, and bought that big lie I was still wearing. After the quick shower, he was pushing me out the door past a sweating and swearing cabbie toting what had to be a one-hundred-and-fifty-pound steamer trunk. Poor bastard. Better him than me.
By the time we hit the street, Niko finally spoke. “We need to check on Boggle.”
I was actually rather relieved to hear it. I felt…hell, I wasn’t sure what I felt. Boggle was a killer and a predator, but we’d gotten her into that mess. If she died because of it…it wasn’t a good thought. “Ok
“And,” he added, ignoring the wiseass remark,
“Promise and I have verified Sawney’s new ‘cave.’”
“Yeah?” I said with grim interest. “Is it in that building?”
“More or less. Under it would be more precise. It was what I’d forgotten reading after all. That building is Buell Hall, the last remaining structure of a former insane asylum as they called it back then.”
Oh, Jesus. It made sense. It made perfect sense. The slaughter at the mental institute, his fondness for the more psychologically damaged homeless, his fascination with the taste of Auphe craziness that he was so sure was in me. Sawney was all about insanity…twenty-four-seven. It made absolute goddamn sense he’d hole up in the ruins of an old asylum—as much as I didn’t want it to.
But that neat, quaint brick building? It looked like the house of someone’s grandmother. Cookies and milk, not electroshock and straitjackets. “You’re kidding. Tell me you’re kidding,” I demanded.
He wasn’t kidding. Where Columbia now stood had once been the New York Lunatic Asylum, renamed the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum years later. From 1808 to 1894, it had stood before moving to the New York Hospital in White Plains.
It wasn’t creepy enough that the revenants were ravaging the campus; they and Sawney were also roaming the underremnants of an insane asylum from the eighteen hundreds. In addition to Buell Hall, there was the asylum tunnel system, once used for steam or coal transport, that ran beneath the campus. Tunnel upon tunnel. It would be perfect for getting around the place and popping up like a hellish jack-in-the-box without being seen in transit.
It was the perfect cave.
“It was said to have been quite a beautiful sight in its day. Lovely grounds,” Niko said as we walked. I wasn’t sure if he was yanking my chain or not, but either way, I didn’t bother to hide a shudder.
by Rob Thurman / Science Fiction & Fantasy / Mystery & Thrillers / Horror have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes