IN THIS TWILIGHT
More Than Rain
Al Bruno III
When it started raining he pulled over to the side of the road, well out of the sight of other travelers. He switched off the engine and the headlights and waited for the downpour to pass.
Hours rolled by. Shivering with the cold Noah pulled the blanket from the rear of the car and cocooned himself in it. He leaned the driver's seat back as far as it could go and tried to clear his mind. If he cleared his mind he could keep it free of dreams.
When he woke it was even colder, it left his extremities tingling. A thick layer of condensation coated his windshield, he could hear the cars growling and whispering past him. Fumbling for the seat controls he raised himself up to a ninety-degree angle. His spine cracked in protest.
A twist of the chilly keys and the car's engine coughed and spluttered to life; the radio hissed static. Noah looked up to find the Hierophant's sigil was scrawled onto the glass of the windshield.
Sobbing with terror he yanked the sawed off shotgun from beneath the driver's seat and tumbled from the car.
Where is he? Where is he?
The interstate wove through the mountains, sheer walls stone bordered on one side, thick clusters of trees on the other. Noah circled the battered black Escort, looking for footprints or tire treads in the mud. He found nothing.
Of course. What did you suspect?
The realization he was being toyed with made him shiver. Noah understood how vulnerable he was, especially now that he was traveling alone.
Maybe Zeth and Rio were right. Maybe I am going crazy.
A semi thundered past, jarring him from his thoughts. He was half-hidden by the woods but he darned not risk catching the attention of some sharp-eyed cop. He wondered how long he had been standing out there.
Spitting onto his hand he smeared the dark, viscous ink until the sigil was unrecognizable. Noah got into the Escort and started driving. With any luck he could stay ahead of the clouds and the rain. The radio was broken but he listened to the static.
Instinct and exhaustion led him to a motel that was practically empty; the pool was covered, the ice machine broken. From his room Noah could hear the neon VACANCY sign hum. He was starving but too drained to run across the street for a burger and fries.
Fully dressed he laid atop the starched sheets, feeling himself drop off to sleep bit by bit. The blanket was carefully laid over the bureau mirror.
Even though he tried to keep his mind clear he could hear Rio's voice.
"I think you need help..." she said with that raspy drawl he'd always found so sexy, "We followed you far enough."
In his dream he tried to turn away from her only to find himself looking at Zeth. "If he was real we would have found him by now," he had said, his expression cool and cat-like, "It's a new decade man, time to move on."
Fools! Noah thought Fools!
…he's a boy again and dressed in rags. Trapped in the Hierophant's manor where the hallways twist and lean and never end. The air is rank with the smell of mildew and rot. The wallpaper bubbles, hanging loose from the walls. The thick puddles make the hallway carpet a veritable quagmire.
Sometimes he slows and investigates the rooms. Most are empty but some are clean and warm, and there were tables piled high with fresh food. Some rooms are depositories for ruined piles of wet clothing. In one sterile chamber he spies dark shapes bent over a squirming figure. He runs away before he can see more, before he can hear the skinned lips pleading.
Some time later- it might be moments it might be hours, he can never be certain- he hears a thick squeal make its way up along the walls. The sprinklers hiss in protest and then burst to life, soaking him to the skin. Before he can get to hiding the black clad hands are upon him. They claw at him, they draw him up towards…
The telephone jangled to on his nightstand. Noah sat up in bed looking uncertainly around the room. The dream was fading, every ring of his 8 AM wake up call pushed it further away. The blanket had fallen away from the mirror and he stared with disbelief at the haggard figure looking back at him. He let the telephone ring four more times before he answered it. Noah thanked the desk clerk and mentioned he would be staying for another day.
The Hierophant was near, he could feel it. The dreams were just another way of gloating. Noah carefully went though his remaining roadmaps, fake Ids and cash.
After replacing the blanket he took a quick shower but made certain to drape a towel over the bathroom mirror.
Now he knew he was being followed. There was a car parked in the motel parking lot, a silver Lexus- he'd seen it in the last town he'd stopped at.
Across the street from the motel was a diner named Dewey's, he made his way there. Dewey’s was cramped and smelled of old grease and cigarette smoke. The floor and the counter tops were all scuffed and faded.
Noah took a booth near the corner and sat with his back to the wall. The stock of his sawed-off shotgun jabbed his ribs reassuringly. He ordered coffee and eggs and bacon. He also got a newspaper and skimmed the headlines for some sign of his adversary's passing. The entire front section of the paper is taken up with articles about the invasion of Kuwait. He had to flip all the way to the middle before he found anything promising. A local businessman had gone missing- a Reginald Myarten. Vanished without a trace over a week ago. There had been no ransom demand and no sign of foul play or mid life crisis. The police were asking for anyone with information to step forward.
Promising. He sipped his coffee and watched the silver Lexus pull into the diner's parking lot, Very promising.
A man got out of the car, his suit was wrinkled but expensive, his hair and mustache were in bad need of a trim. His gaze flickered from one window to the next before settling on Noah.
It was no surprise to Noah when he entered the diner and made his way to his table. Noah chewed on his bacon and made a show of reading the paper. His other hand rested on the sawed-off; brutal experience had taught him that assassins came in all manners of guises.
For all the uneasiness in his bearing and posture, the man's voice was cool, practiced; like a doctor or a politician. "Are you Benjamin Zachary?"
In a heartbeat he knew what the man was after. Noah groaned inwardly, he almost would have preferred an attack to this. "I don't go by that name anymore.”
"But are you?"
"Maybe I was. It's hard to remember," Noah poked at his scrambled eggs with his fork, turning them end over end.
"Look I have a serious proposition."
The waitress was heading over with a menu Noah pointed to the opposite end of the booth, "Sit down."
The stranger sat down and Noah let him place an order before he spoke again, "So tell me, who have you lost?"
"How did you-" He froze in place and then relaxed "Oh yeah of course you'd know."
Noah bristled at that, "Be warned Mr-"
"French. Peter French," He offered a hand to shake.
Noah let it hang there, preferring to carefully fold his newspaper back up, "Well as I was saying Mr. French, if you've come here believing the stories told about me you're going to be very disappointed."
"I just want to find my daughter, I have some friends who work in law enforcement… they said you might be able to help me."
"Do you have a picture?"
"Here." He pulled a worn photo from his pocket and slid it across the table. The waitress brought his food and topped off Noah's coffee.
Noah stared at the picture, at the girl’s Asian features, “Adopted I take it?”
“She’s still my daughter.”
"What is her name?" Noah asked. There was something familiar about the face in the photograph. Had he seen her before or had it been on a dream?
"Thelma named after my grandmother."
Noah tapped the photo on the table, "How recent is this?"
"It was taken almost ten years ago."
“That long? What happened?"
"I'm not sure, she was doing great in school, then one of her friends died. I had a heart attack and she just disappeared."
"That’s it? That’s all?"
He wiped the orange juice from his mustache before he spoke again. "She was seen years later leaving the remains of a house that had burned when she had first gone missing. When I heard that I had an ordinary private investigator look for her and the trail went cold here, in the middle of nowhere. They said I could find you here too, that you lived in places like this now.”
"Look, Mr. French… your daughter is an adult. I can't make her come to you."
"Could you try? Could you please try?" he slid an envelope across the table, it was thick with currency.
"Understand," Noah licked his lips, "I can't make any promises, I can try and find her, try and speak to her. I can't do much more than that."
Peter French patted his hand, "They told me you were the best. Just do what you can."
"They told me you were the best."
The words rattled around in Noah's mind, goading him to play at being the detective once more. First, he bought a pack of cigarettes and locked himself in his non-smoking motel room. He stared at the photograph of Thelma French; half-hearing the voices from the young woman's life, the small victories, and the angry confrontations. Noah made a list of places Thelma might have been- gas stations, supermarkets, clothing stores, even the diner. Most of it was legwork the girl's father could have done himself.
But he doesn't want to. He's afraid of what he might find. He thinks she’s turning tricks or something worse.
No. He doesn’t know what worse is.
But there was still a chance wasn't there? Still a chance to play the hero one last time?
Maybe. Noah knew it was trouble to hope and guess; all he could do was let his instincts guide him. Hours had passed already, the pack had been smoked down to a single cigarette and a layer of pale smoke hung in the air above him. Stubbing out the ashes he stretched out on the bed and closed his eyes. Better to start searching in the morning.
"They told me you were the best."
Noah wondered who was left that would be telling stories about him. He wondered why they would say anything at all.
'They' said I was the best. 'They' also said I was dangerous, 'They' also said I was not to be trusted. I wonder if 'They' told him Peter French that.
The front door of the house hung open so Noah stepped cautiously inside. There were no curtains on the windows and the rooms smelled slightly of old sweat and sawdust. The first room he wandered into was wide, the carpets had been pulled up and the furniture was gone. There were mats and old plates scattered around the floor. Crumbs and rice had gotten wedged between the floorboards. There was an abandoned hot plate in one corner, scorched black from overuse. Noah nudged it experimentally with the tip of his shoe.
The trail had led him here. There had been no luck at the gas station or supermarket, but his instincts drawn him to the local hardware store.
And his instincts had not disappointed him. The owner of the hardware store had recognized Thelma French from the photograph. Apparently she and several others spent a great deal of time and money here. The only other business in town they had seemed more interested in was the Army Surplus outlet- the man from the hardware store had taken them to be survivalists of some sort. But the odd thing was they were all women.
“Lesbian survivalists.” The man from the hardware store had said the words with a mixture of fear and wonder.
Noah paced the room. Strange symbols had been scratched into the walls, gouged through layers of paint, plaster and wood. Most of the glyphs were unfamiliar to him, but the Hierophant's sigil was prominently displayed. Noah could almost see the women hard at work; their bodies stooped with exhaustion, their faces beatific in their concentration. In his mind Noah could just make out Thelma French watching over it all. Her face ragged beyond its years.
"Who the Hell are you?"
The vision fell away, Noah found an old woman standing inches from him. Her white hair was anchored under a stocking cap, the coat she wore was too heavy for the season and she was sweating profusely. "Ah," Noah took a stumbling step backwards, "Hello."
"Who the Hell are you and what are you doing in here?"
I'm a friend.
I'm a reporter.
I'm a real estate agent.
I'm a private detective.
I'm a vagabond and I may either be precognitive or insane. It depends on who you ask.
He said, "The door was open."
"You came in because the door was open? You retarded or something?"
"Uh, no," he said with a nervous smile, "I'm looking for someone."
"Are you one of those fruitcakes?"
"That lived here?"
"No. No. But I'm looking for one of the people that did live here," he pulled the photograph from his pocket and showed it to her. Peter French had written his mobile phone number on the back of the picture. It stared accusingly at Noah.
"If it’s who I think it is that’s an old picture.”
“It’s all I’ve got.”
“What is she to you?"
"I'm a friend of her father, he's very worried."
"I'd be worried to if my daughter was a whacko living with a bunch of other whackos.”
"Why do you call them that?"
"Why? They were all living together. None of them had jobs or a TV or a radio… and just look at what they did to the walls! It's like this in every room- every damn room!"
"I guess you'll be keeping the security deposit then."
"Security deposit? They owe me two months back rent."
"I should have known better, their boss guy- he looked a lot like you but smarter- he told me they were an artists' collective," she snorted with contempt, "Artists' collective! I should have known."
"Boss? A lot like me you say?"
"You could have been brothers, maybe cousins."
So close… nipping at my heels…
"I take it they didn't leave any kind of forwarding address?"
The landlord laughed bitterly at that, "Please, they didn't even pack up their shit. They just up and left. Now I have to drag all their furniture and devil cards out to the trash by myself. And at my age!"
Noah reached into his pocket and drew out the thick envelope "I'm very sorry to hear that, a woman your age shouldn't be bothered with such nonsense. I tell you what, why don't you let me look around here and I'll pay off the back rent on the place. I'll take whatever I think might aid my investigation and drag everything else out to the curb."
She snatched grabbed the bills and slipped them under her coat, "Be sure to close and lock the door behind you."
Then he was alone, he let the silence set in around him. It was not a perfect silence; the open door creaked slightly, cars passed on the street outside, alone and in clusters. But there was more than that; it was the echo of footsteps, the rasp of brushes on heavy paper and the fearful whispers of voices uncertain in their faith.
Where have she go Hierophant? He wondered. And did she go willingly like all the others?
In one of the rooms he found paint, brushes and blank cards. What better way for the Hierophant’s acolytes to contemplate the gospels of the dark gods then to put them to work painting a deck? There was nothing of else of interest here, so Noah bundled it all up and brought it out to the curb.
The dark gods, we called them that because they lived in men’s hearts.
Moving from room to empty room Noah searched for some crumb of evocation. In the corner near the wall he felt time ebb away, he find himself staring through of a stranger’s eyes.
Through her eyes.
…the map and the cards, the cards and the map. It doesn’t take her long to find the hidden place…
The directions brought Noah three hours out of town and he had to wonder if he would have found his way to this place regardless of what he had done.
Did I ever really have a choice? He thought as he examined the back of a nearby yield sign. A familiar sigil had been scratched onto the back. This was how the Hierophant marked the way for his followers… and for those that didn't know any better. Did Thelma French ever really have a choice?
The sunlight was beginning to wane, he lost much of the day to moving furniture. Noah ran his hand over the sigil, feeling the jagged edges nip at his fingertips. Zeth had been a big believer that people affected the universe simply by observing it, that there was no such thing as an 'innocent bystander.' The very idea always bothered Noah, even before he was Noah.
The yield sign marked the spot where a private road branched off from the main highway and led to a massive rectangular building topped with three smokestacks. The main gate and the parking lot were empty, the windows were dark and the doors padlocked.
It was a factory.
Of course it's a factory. He thought.
Warning signs and tall chain link fences told him the property was long condemned.
Of course it's condemned.
Over the years he had encountered many buildings like this, rotted carcasses that had become nests for carrion of the highest order, so many that his memory had begun to play tricks on him. As he walked down the private road he made certain not to stare at the building for too long.
The padlocks were merely for show. It was a simple matter to get past them. He left the broken chain and the lock dangling limply from the door.
From the moment he stepped into the building and felt the darkness congeal around him Noah realized he'd made a mistake. It wasn't a factory, it was a slaughterhouse. It had been abandoned for decades and abandoned pretty quickly by the look of things. The original equipment was all still in place, the killing machines, the bandsaws, the suspended hooks and treadmills. They were all cocooned under layers of rust and cobwebs. He let his vision adjust to the dark before moving on.
One of these days I have to buy a flashlight and then remember to bring it with me.
But he hadn’t forgotten his sawed off shotgun and a pack of fresh smokes. Both were safe under his coat.
Memories that were not quite memories led him forward. Rio had once commented that he knew the future but kept the details to himself out of spite. That had been near the end of their relationship and had only served to show Noah that she had never really understood him. Rio only saw what she wanted to see and only heard what she wanted to hear.
Her heart was so broken that she couldn't be bothered to try and save the world. His face clouded at the thought. He had warned her there could never be anything serious between them. That what they had was to ease the tensions of the road, nothing more, nothing less. He had told her there was someone else for him, his perfect match, his soul mate. Even now Noah didn't know who that girl was, at least not yet but she was somewhere in his future.
Just like the Hierophant.
Gloomy corridors led to wide chambers that still had the mildest whiff of blood in the air. Noah wondered if he was following the same route the cattle had all those years ago. If he stood perfectly still he could almost see the activity from long ago-
…Blood running in rivulets along the sloping floor to a clogged steel drain. The empty stare of the workers as they performed their duties with dull efficiency. The line that never seemed to end…
The vision passed, he found himself deep in the slaughterhouse and the sigils were everywhere; forbidden names, cruel hints and profane nonsense bled down the walls. Up ahead there was a misshapen figure slumped in a folding chair. Noah approached with caution; the Hierophant rarely let anything pleasant in his wake.
Something brushed up against the edge of his shoe, he stumbled back with a choked gasp. There was a dark shape on the floor, small wet and round. The smell of blood was more than a memory here.
The taste of bile rising up in his throat, Noah moved closer. Rope had been used to tie Peter French upright in the chair, Noah wondered if Thelma had been the one that cut out his heart or had she just stood by and watched?
I could leave now. He thought as he stared at the body, started into the gaping socket. I could be on my way. There’s no reason to stay now.
Noah started walking again, following a sense that was part instinct and part déjà vu. Death would be preferable to retreat, better he stared the future down.
At the far end of the room a doorway whispered open. Why hadn’t he seen it before? Light filtered in through the doorway. Noah walked towards it to find himself in a smaller room with freshly scrubbed floors and walls. There was a card table in the middle of the room and atop it a kerosene lantern.
He paused at the table; a tarot card spread had been laid down. All the familiar arcana were in place. Noah studied the cards, wondering at their stylized images. Some of the faces depicted were eerily familiar to him.
The eleventh card… is that her? He picked up the card and examined it closely. The edges were strained with blood.
The twelfth card… is this me? The figure on the card was hung upside-down from a wooden scaffold; one arm was tied behind his back, the other dangled limply. Noah stared long and hard at the inverted face, the features were contorted with pain and unrecognizable. The image sent fragments of dream and memory swirling through Noah’s mind. He couldn't move. He couldn't look away.
"You have the manner of man that has come in at the conclusion of a drama he scarcely comprehends." a voice rasped.
Noah spun around his hands fumbling for the sawed off shotgun. A figure stood at the other end of the folding table, The Heirophant’s dark gray uniform that was as tailored and spotless, the cloak that covered it was filthy and torn. The Heirophant wore a mask that was bone-colored and snout-like, only the eyepieces were clear.
"Is that it? After all this you're merely going to shoot me? How anti-climactic."
"Where is Thelma French?"
“Closer than you can imagine."
A sour taste rose up in Noah's mouth, “Even her. You even sacrifice your followers when it suits you.”
“How alike we are, like brothers.”
"I can stop you right now."
"No, no you cannot. You can only wait your turn."
Noah fired, the blast from the sawed-off shotgun sent the Hierophant tumbling.
You never understood what I was capable of. Noah thought as he watched gloved hands claw at torn fabric and spurting gore. You misjudged everything right from the start.
"Now," Noah approached. He had dreamed of this moment for so long, "Let me get a look at you."
A final tug and the mask came free. A choke caught in Noah's throat. The sawed-off slipped from his hand.
"You misjudged everything right from the start." Blood oozed from the slight curl of a smile on Thelma French's lips, "You never understood what I was capable of."
The Escort screeched onto the Interstate and merged with the heavy traffic. Noah ignored the chorus of angry horns as he drove faster. He inhaled on his cigarette and shuddered smoke. He had no memory of his flight from the condemned building, no memory of finding his car again and no idea where he was going now. He didn’t see the road, all he saw was that final mocking grin.
Their final conversation swirled through his mind, over and over again until the words lost all meaning. Finally he had to turn the radio on, it was broken but he listened to the static.
Thirty hours later he pulled over, well out of sight of the other travelers. It was raining and dark, his fingers ached from gripping the steering wheel. He switched off the engine and the headlights. He leaned the driver's seat back as far as it could go and tried to clear his mind. If he cleared his mind he could keep it free of dreams.