We spent an uneventful night aboard the Icarus, but everyone’s sleep was thin and reedy, interrupted by dreams of impossible fables, of vampires, which everyone knows are real only in myths.
The next morning I stood on the observation deck watching the sun come up. Nina came up behind me, as silent as smoke. Together we watched the rapture of the sunrise turn the mist to burnished gold. The dark smudges of the forest began to take on substance, losing their fantasy shapes, and adding details to the new day.
Nina ran her fingers down my bare back and I felt the sensuous ripple of goose bumps follow her tracings. Desire swept over me, and to counter it I thought of the night before, when we had withstood my father, the vampire Namer.
It was like a bad dream, but Nina was no dream, nor was the quest we were starting on.
We’d gone to check on Michael last night, but his body was gone, just as we surmised. He was now one of the undead, a part of the nightmare we meant to combat.
I wondered how much of what we were doing was a part of Namer’s plotting. Had I really surprised him, and had he fled, or was he simply manipulating us as part of some inexplicable scheme?
Was it really possible that such a creature was my father? Was it really possible that a beautiful Amazon and I were going to hunt him and his kind down and kill them?
Somehow it all seemed too…contrived.
“Tell me about yourself,” Nina whispered, brushing against me so that she could speak softly in my ear. “Are you really the son of a vampire?”
I turned to her. She stood bathed in the soft pastel dawn, with too much leg showing in her robe, her eyes large and mysterious. I looked away, into the past.
I had been trying to hold back the flood of memories, but the dam was breaking. I thought about it and was swept back, helplessly back.
To Dark Hollow.
He was a strange and silent man, but he was my father and I thought him wondrous in the way that all nine-year-old boys do, or should. His eyes were always far away, as if he saw something that I could never see. It was what the Vietnam vets called the forty-yard stare. I asked him once what he was seeing. We were sitting side by side on the front porch swing, watching the rain patter softly down to pour off the eaves. The occasional capful of wind swept misty rain in and caused me to shiver and snuggle closer to him. I smelled his private smells: The hint of moonshine on his breath like the fog that crept about, softening the greenery that was everywhere I looked, the slight odor of sweat, and the ubiquitous smell of daddy strength.
I had never known my mother, who had died in my infancy, but I had four grandparents and three great-grandparents, and numerous uncles and aunts and cousins, whom I saw on the occasional Sunday. Long before the term ‘latch key kid’ came into vogue, I looked after myself. There was nothing for a nine-year-old boy to fear in the backwoods of Kentucky. My father was the strongest and fiercest man in the world, and as long as he was alive, I felt invulnerable.
But even I, in my childhood fantasies, never realized just how deadly he was.
“What do you see?” he asked, turning to smile down at me. The smile softened his demeanor and crinkled the skin around his eyes, reminding me of a sunflower somehow.
I saw the curtains of rain and drifts of fog that filled me with a shivery feeling, and the mysterious forest that rose up all around the house. Many times, when he was gone, my eyes had sought those hidden glades where I knew that he roamed, sangin’ and hunting and doing the things mountain men do. I saw the rose bushes that grew around the corners of the simple, weather-beaten gray house that was the only home I’d ever known. I saw the shapes of a million unknowns lurking in the shadows.
I shrugged, suddenly too shy to speak my mind. Wonderful and terrible things dwelt there, and sometimes they frightened me, those deep feelings.
He pulled me close against the corduroy of his jacket. “I see green shade and cool hollows--”he pronounced it hollers in that spooky mountain way--“ginseng flowers and freedom, son,” he said at last. “But I also see a jungle far away, across the ocean, where I did bad things, but for good reasons. Do you understand?”
On the spot, I started to shake my head, then nodded, not wanting to be questioned about those feelings of fright and love and unspeakable vastness I saw when I looked at the forest.
His mood darkened as the memories of those terrible things played out behind his eyes. He leaned forward, suddenly restless. Then, with a sigh, he leaned back and pulled me close to him again. “I see a fine young man, my son, growing tall before me.” He smiled down at me and said, for the first and only time ever, “I love you, son.”
Even now, decades later, the memory of those words make me feel strange.
Not knowing how to respond, I said, “Do you like the rain?”
“Yes,” he said softly. “It’s like a cloak, hiding me from the world. When the forest is wet and rainy, I can move as silent as a ghost; I can creep up on a deer, so close I could cut its throat without having to shoot it. When I am wet, I feel more alive in the woods, more akin to the earth, which is our mother.
“Do you like the rain?”
He didn’t look at me this time, and I didn’t feel so uncomfortable. I nodded vigorously. I recalled the time, on a rainy day just like that one, when I had wondered where he was in all that vast misty green. I watched the rain murmuring down, and wondered if he had gone around the ridge to where Rosie, our neighbor, lived, and I whispered, “round Rosie’s,” and felt a warm, quilted feeling wash over me. The rambling roses twining up the porch posts were nodding in the rain, and I had looked at them, and felt an odd detachment, a sort of vertigo, which, like most everything else to a nine-year-old, was strange and wonderful. Even now, all I have to do is whisper the words round roses and recapture that rainy day feeling, so far away.
“I like the way it sounds,” I said, being unable to articulate the feelings the rain conjured up in me.
He nodded, as if he understood the sentiment exactly, and I had never felt closer to him than I did then. No did I have any way of knowing that everything was going to change.
That rainy summer moved on to the brilliant splendor of autumn. Indian summer came and Mamaw, my father’s mother, died in some freak accident. In her passage my father became even more strange and silent.
Mamaw’s was the first funeral I ever attended, and though the memory of it, like most everything else about my youth, was repressed with the years, it was to have an everlasting impression. I rarely attended a funeral in my adulthood without a fleeting memory of that hillside church, and my uncle, a polio victim, nearly falling off the church porch. It wasn’t until later that I realized it wasn’t grief that overcame him but whiskey.
Still, the church, righteous and white against an ominous gray sky, the bleak hillside cemetery, the silent throng of people in dark clothing, and the feeling of grief like a suffocating hand over me, were to lurk in the dark corners of my memory, and taint everything I did afterwards.
Autumn turned to winter, as dead and white as old bones.
Then my father fell sick, and my horror began.
On that fateful day I was in school, which had the noble name of Dark Hollow Elementary, but which everyone called ‘Red Hill School.’ We had our morning recess, and milled about restlessly, our eyes on the sky rather than on the playground, with that breathless anticipation that only children can achieve. Someone yelled, “Books!” and we all hurried back inside, from apple-cheeked leisure to boring lessons. The day was as still as death, overcast and dreary, almost smelling of snow.
And snow it did, softly at first, and then heavier and heavier until we couldn’t even see the mountains that rimmed Dark Holler.
(Unconsciously I began to fall back into the old patois as I remembered it to Nina).
Our teacher, Mrs. Cobb, kept looking nervously out the big window that dominated the west side of the red brick, two-room school. We were at a fairly high elevation, and the roads grew slippery quickly. Finally, to her vast relief, Mr. Cooper, the principal, who taught grades five through eight, came in to tell her to dismiss us, much to our delight. It was a Friday and the prospect of a three-day weekend (possibly more if the snow kept up) was intoxicating.
Rather than ride the bus, which took the long, circuitous route around Dark Holler and ended up at my house last, I took the old logging road shortcut through the forest. Two other kids, Jenny and Julie, walked with me, but theirs was but a short walk to their home at the edge of the woods.
And then I was alone.
The snow was falling heavily as I entered the forest. The winter dark trees formed a canopy overhead, and the snow sifted down through the intertwined branches. It was so still and silent that I could almost hear the soft tick of the flakes caressing the world, riming it in ash. Mine were the first tracks to disturb the thin coverlet of white, and I imagined myself to be Daniel Boone or Simon Kenton, exploring a strange new land, while danger lurked all around me. I turned to survey my tracks in that virgin expanse, but the snow was already softening their edges, filling them in, covering my trail.
It was a wonderful walk through the snowy forest, and I had no way of knowing that it would be my last. I approached the house and looked down on it from the cleared slope, seeing the sinuous twist of smoke from the chimney, sensing something wrong in its frailty against the snowy sky, when it should have been a dark chugging. I stopped, my breath whispery puffs of white in the still, frosty air, my heart suddenly cold. I stood there in the fading light, gazing down the white slope, the forest a silent witness to my uncertainty, and thought, round roses. But the words failed to conjure up the old familiar feeling of quilted warmth. Instead I felt a thread of unease.
Something wasn’t right. There should have been a steady onslaught of dark coal smoke pouring out of the chimney, welcoming me home. Instead, there was an anemic pencil line tracing ambiguity into the cold vault of sky.
My breath came short. Puffs of white vapor vanished into the gathering gray. It was early afternoon, but the gloaming was approaching, suggesting in wintry language that a major storm was settling in.
My dreamlike paralysis broke. I hurried down the snowy slope, my feet sure and nimble, like a mountain goat’s. I reached the bottom and trotted across the driveway, beneath the catalpa tree’s skeletal branches. The snow whispered around me, a sinister voice.
On the steps leading up to the front porch I stamped the snow off my boots, then stomped again on the doormat.
The front door stood ajar. I hesitated as the implications of that struck me. Then I eased it open, wincing at the unnatural creak that seemed to jar the still wintry air.
Dread filled me as I entered the cool house and shut the door behind me. The living room was draped in gloom. Haloes of wan light surrounded the windows; beyond them the snow fell in thickening clots. Home should have been a warm haven in a magical day, but now I felt snowbound, trapped.
“Daddy?” I said. My voice was mouse-like, afraid.
I cleared my throat.
My breath caught as my gaze plummeted down to fall upon my father’s galoshes sitting in puddles of dirty water on the hardwood floor. We never pulled off our boots in the house, where the melting snow would wet the rugs.
I stood there in the silent house, listening, my heartbeat heavy.
An alien sound caused the hair on the back of my neck to stiffen.
Then again. A voice, coming from my father’s bedroom, uttering strange, unintelligible words.
The living room was suddenly claustrophobic.
I felt like I was in a bad dream as I walked down the short hallway toward the room at the far end, the room my parents had conceived me in.
That door too was ajar.
The muttering continued, a cadence of nonsense.
My dread increased as I walked on leaden feet and pushed aside the door.
I peeked inside. My nose wrinkled at some noisome odor.
The room was shadowy, cold. I could barely make out the shape of my father lying under the bedcovers.
“Daddy?” I said in a quavering voice that I barely recognized.
He turned restlessly and muttered words that caused goose bumps to rise on my arms. Guttural, animal like syllables, almost growls, but I was relieved to see that he was only sick, probably with the flu. From my own experience I knew that high fever could bring on hallucinations (it was a word I had recently learned and was proud to finally have use of, even under the circumstances).
Emboldened by my premature prognosis, I walked over to the bed, intending to feel his forehead, the way he had mine on many occasions.
He was lying on his back, tangled in the covers, and his face was pale and shiny with sweat, in spite of the chill of the room. His eyes were closed, but fluttered under the lids. His lips moved in silent conversation, revealing teeth that looked alarmingly white and pointed. Wolf-like.
The better to eat you with, my dear.
My composure faltered as the thought flitted through my mind like a dark bird.
“Daddy, you’re sick,” I managed to say. “But I’ll fix you some soup, okay?” My voice only shook a little. “But first I’m gonna build up the fire, and fill the coal buckets.”
I started to go, but he had fallen so silent that I was frightened anew by the thought that he had just died. His face had gone still and quiet, even his breathing seemed to have stopped.
I reached out to touch him.
He turned toward me and his eyes flew open.
Fear like cold quicksilver leaped up in me at the sight of those red, insane eyes. I had looked in the eyes of a rabid dog once, and been afraid, but this was much worse. There was no recognition in the windows to his soul, only a terrible malevolence, but they also held a strange fascination; I suddenly found myself unable to look away. I swam endlessly across infrared galaxies, in pursuit of something beyond the rim of reason, something that was a hunger beyond belief, almost a lusting.
And then he turned his face away to begin his restless tossing, and I was free.
I felt vast relief tinged with unutterable regret.
He muttered, “Gotta get over this ridge, son, it’s getting dark, gotta get home,” and I felt a fresh tremor, for he spoke of the stuff of my darkest dreams.
Chilled to the bone, I fled the room and tended to the fire, emptying the last of the coal into the stove and opening the grates at the bottom. With a poker I stirred the sullen red coals until the fire was blazing hungrily at the coal. Taking up the buckets, I went back out into the wintry day, resisting the panicky need to run as fast and as far as I could. I went to the coal pile and filled the buckets with snowy coal, carried them back inside, put more in the stove, and then went about checking the doors and windows, making sure they were all secure, unconsciously avoiding going back to check on my father.
When I finally did, he was gone, and I never saw him again.
But I did see Namer. I saw him many times.
Milo Castle interrupted my tale, and I pulled reluctantly from the past, like a child being torn from the womb to face an unfriendly world.
“What are your plans?” he asked, his gaze going from me to Nina and back again. He looked slightly hollow eyed this morning, as if his sleep hadn’t been any better than ours. Luther stood inconspicuously in the background, which he did with amazing skill, considering his size.
“Well,” I said, blinking away the collage of memories that I’d inadvertently called up. “I thought I--we--would hike to the nearest town, Marlton, and rent a vehicle there.”
“Nonsense,” Castle said brusquely. “Take The Chariot, or the Minuscule Blue, whichever. There’s no need of hiking. Or we can drop you at the nearest airport, or field or open road, for that matter.”
“The Chariot?” I asked, puzzled.
“It’s sort of an ATV, with legs and tracks, part robot, part armored jeep,” Nina explained. “We named it after that vehicle on the old Lost In Space TV series. And the Minuscule Blue is a small, two-man helicopter; very fast, very maneuverable.
“And heavily armed,” she added.
I thought about how to say it, that I didn’t want to be burdened down with twenty-first century technology, that vampire hunting was an ancient warfare, with ancient weapons, not scientific finery. I wanted us to slip into Marlton unobserved, a couple of hunters, and rent an unobtrusive something or other that would get us to Dark Hollow without attracting any more attention than possible.
Nina knew what I was thinking. “No, Dad, we want to go in quietly, undercover like.
I nodded wordlessly, my respect for Nina Castle growing. And my fear.
“Well, at least take the satellite phone with you. If you get in trouble, just call and we’ll come in a flash,” he said reluctantly. He wanted badly to forbid Nina to accompany me, but that was a struggle neither of us would ever win, and he knew it.
“And have a good breakfast before you leave.”
He turned to go.
“Sir?” I said.
He stopped and stood there, not wanting to turn around, wanting to be through with this business of goodbye. “Yes?”
“Did your father come from this part of the world?”
He turned to face me, warily.
“What are you talking about?” he asked.
“Did your father make his first millions in strip mining?”
He studied me for a moment, puzzled. “No, son,” he said at last. “My father inherited his money, same as I did. He was in the importing business.”
“Sir, with all due respect, I have to ask this question, so please don’t be offended. It’s of the utmost importance.”
He nodded. “Of course.”
“Can you show me proof of how your father died?”
He turned toward Luther. “Bring me my laptop, will you, Luther?”
“Of course, sir.”
A few moments later Luther returned and wordlessly handed the computer to Castle, who in turn tapped a few keys and brought up a web page, which he handed to me.
It was an obituary for billionaire Trevor Castle, who had died at the age of ninety-six of complications of pneumonia. Dignitaries from around the world, as well as celebrities, politicians, and sports figure, had attended his funeral.
I nodded and handed it back to Castle. “Thank you, sir. That’s all I needed to know.
“We’ll be on our way as soon as possible.”
I looked at Nina. She nodded, all business again. “I’ll shower and get dressed and meet you in the galley,” she said. She strode off and I had to force myself not to watch her sinuous, tiger like walk.
“Sir?” I said, as Castle turned away.
“Be very careful, will you?”
His eyes narrowed. “I think we’ll continue on ahead of the sun, at least until we hear from you.”
“Take care of her, Talon.”
“I will, sir.”
He strode off without another word.
We picked at breakfast in the galley of the Icarus, and then disembarked from the enormous craft. I wondered if we would ever see it again through human eyes.
The sun was topping the ridges now and burning off the mist, adding autumn revelry to the day. The air was crisp and cool; the skein of frost that had decorated the world was vanishing in the warmth, almost as we watched. It promised to be a beautiful day.
We paused underneath the eaves of the forest to watch the Icarus master the sky. When the thunder had died away, we were awash in silence, surrounded by a vast tract of wilderness.
Or so it seemed. Nina had downloaded us a map (though I didn’t think we would need it) and we knew that Marlton was only a three or four hour hike down a hollow and across a ridge or two.
I removed my backpack.
“Take this,” I said, offering her a large, intricately carved crucifix. “It’s been blessed by a true man of God, so it should prove effective.”
She held it reverently, then slipped it around her neck and tucked it into her shirt. She managed to look regal even in hiking boots and khaki shorts, and though I couldn’t see any weapons, I knew she was armed to the teeth.
“You’re not so sure this will work, though, are you?” she asked, as perceptive as always. Her dark eyes bored into mine.
I shrugged. “No, to be honest with you, I’m not sure about anything. But I believe faith works.”
She thought about it. “So, if I believe this will work, then it will?”
“Something like that,” I smiled, shrugging back into my backpack, feeling the warmth of the morning sun on my shoulders. I was reminded of the old John Denver song.
“One other thing,” she said, still scrutinizing my face. “What was that about Grandfather?”
I sighed at her annoying perception, not to mention her persistence. “Namer told me that your grandfather’s name was really Hacker, and that he had raped these mountains of their coal, which is where he got his start. He also claimed your grandfather killed his mother, my grandmother, to get her land, and that he had gotten his revenge. Which is, according to that obit, a lie. So, what else has he lied about? What’s he up to?”
She frowned. “What do you mean?”
I shrugged helplessly, not wanting to tell her of my suspicions, but perhaps it was best to tell her everything. “This all seems too…easy, somehow. Too arranged, as if he is manipulating us like a couple of puppets.”
“I’ve felt something of the same thing,” she confessed. “I feel as if we’re walking into a clever trap, set by a cunning animal.”
I was relieved to know that it wasn’t just me.
But I was also more worried than ever.
The sun was tall in the sky by the time we crested a ridge and looked down on the town of Marlton, Kentucky. It was located in the bend of a river, hemmed in by hazy evergreen peaks. The way down was steep, thickly brushed, making the going difficult, but it was an obstacle we welcomed. By noon we were crossing a bridge and entering the outskirts of town. No one paid us any attention as far as I could tell, other than the few covert looks Nina attracted. Nothing unusual there.
We found a rental agency in no time and rented a jeep; the fact that it had a winch to go along with the four-wheel-drive made it suitable for the places we might have to go. Nina put the jeep and insurance on her charge card and we headed out.
I took 25E a short distance south and turned off on Hwy. 190 East, which wound its southerly way along several mountain ridges before flattening out and undulating gently through a long valley.
Everything was eerie familiar, just as I remembered it, and a little unsettling with the odd sense of going back in time. I turned on the radio and wasn’t even surprised to hear a song from that bygone era called Love Is Like Oxygen. In spite of the heat of the day I felt my skin break out in chill bumps as I was catapulted down through the years. I half expected to see longhaired teens in baggies and platform shoes drag racing along the straights, but we mostly saw nothing or no one.
“How much farther do we have to go?” Nina asked after we’d been on the road almost an hour. She was squinting up at the sun, and I didn’t have to ask what she was thinking. Already the sun was beginning its descent, and we wanted to be through with this business before it slipped below the western mountain range.
“Not far,” I said. “Don’t worry,” I added, giving her knee a reassuring squeeze. “We have plenty of time.”
No sooner were the words out of my mouth than the jeep quit.
I shifted into neutral and tried the starter; the engine turned but wouldn’t catch.
I pulled to the side of the road.
Nina had her phone out. “I’ll call the agency. Where’s that number? Here it is. Rats. No signal.” She hopped from the jeep and began to walk around.
I got out as well, suddenly conscious of the growing length of the shadows of the surrounding trees as the sun slid inexorably down the sky. There were no houses around; the last one we’d seen was a mile or better back. Nina was walking through a shower of golden leaves being serenaded by a slight autumn breeze, and I was struck by the beauty of the moment: It was one that I hoped I would have with me for a long time. From the frustrated way she kept putting the phone to her ear and then walking farther along I knew that she was having no luck getting a signal. Odd.
I recalled thinking that vampire hunting was a primitive art, and how modern conveniences were practically useless.
I opened the hood of the jeep and checked out the engine, having been a fair shade tree mechanic in my time. I checked wires and cables and vacuum lines, but nothing seemed out of place.
Nina came back up to me, shaking her head in aggravation. “What now?”
Dark Hollow was probably ten miles away, a couple of hours of good hard walking. We’d still have some time, but if Namer wasn’t where I expected him to be…
The thought of spending the night there gave me the creeps. It was called Dark Hollow for a reason, and there’d be no moon tonight.
But Nina was looking at me for an answer. I tried the jeep again, with the same result.
Not being one for indecision, I shrugged. “We walk. Perhaps someone will take a liking to that beautiful butt of yours and offer us a ride.”
She glared at me, but her eyes said something different.
We gathered our packs and started hoofing it, something both of us were used to. Perhaps it was my suggestion, or my imagination, but Nina seemed to have more of a swagger in walk than before. I smiled and hurried to walk beside her. The poplar trees lining the road were littering the shoulder with their golden leaves; their shadows were beginning to stretch out like dark bars across the road, reminding me that time was fleeting. It was almost as if the air here was too thick, slowing us down, while the sun was speeding up.
“You haven’t finished telling me about your past,” Nina said, rustling the leaves with her boots.
I tried to remember where I’d left off. The memories, called up so vividly that morning, as if the telling had reinforced their reality, were fading away like dreams exposed to morning light.
Before I could reply a car sounded behind us.
“Thumb him,” I said to Nina, turning to watch the approach of a beautifully restored red and white ‘61 Chevy. Cherry bomb mufflers amplified the high performance engine, which didn’t sound original.
Nina stepped forward and struck a provocative pose, her thumb jutting out. The guy behind the wheel saw her, gawked, and braked to a hurried stop.
With another glance up at the westering sun, which seemed to have sunk lower in a matter of seconds, I levered the seat forward and motioned Nina in. She slid deftly into the back and I climbed into the front. The driver looked just as I expected him to: Tall and bony and a little too old for the long, gray streaked hair and thin beard. He wore round glasses and bib overalls. A .45 semiautomatic pistol lay on the seat between his legs.
“Whar ye headed?” he asked when I’d eased the door shut, figuring him for the type who would cringe if I slammed it. He babied the Hurst four-speed shifter into low gear and took off.
“Dark Holler,” I said, checking out the neatly reupholstered interior of the car. I appreciated the labor of love he’d put into it; he probably cherished it more than he did his family.
The man looked at me, startled, and I saw a fleeting glimpse of superstitious fear in his eyes. “Dark Holler?”
“Yeah, you know it?”
He looked at me as if I’d lost my mind. “Course I know it. Just surprised that anybody’d be goin thar. That yore jeep back yonder?”
“Sure is,” I said. “Just up and quit.”
“You don’t want to leave it thar after dark,” he advised. I noticed his eyes kept darting furtively to the rearview mirror, coveting Nina.
“Why wouldn’t we want to go there?” Nina asked politely.
He shrugged. “Nothin thar, that’s all. Hain’t been anybody livin thar for fifty years.”
Fifty years! That couldn’t be, could it?
I looked at him disbelievingly, and then at Nina, whose eyebrows were raised.
“The road’s so grown up a car won’t go down it,” the driver volunteered. “Maybe a four wheel drive like that jeep ye had.
“If yer goin into Dark Holler, ye’ll have to walk.”
He looked at me as if he expected an argument.
I shrugged. “Whatever.”
We rode in silence for several minutes, down through autumnal corridors of the past, conjuring up long forgotten memories and teenage angst.
“Folks say Dark Holler is hainted,” the driver spoke up at last, turning off on a pocked and patched road that would, if memory served, take us to the road into Dark Holler.
“Haunted?” Nina asked, leaning forward against the front seat. “How so?”
The driver shrugged, seemingly unnerved at her close proximity. “My granny says everybody in Dark Holler just up and disappeared back when she was a girl, and whenever anybody is stupid enough to go there, specially after dark, they never come back. Even now.”
So it was true. I looked at Nina and saw the final conviction in her eyes as well.
The Chevy idled up a series of hills on a road that was increasingly turning to dirt, with frostbitten, dying weeds crowding up close on either side. The forest loomed over it, dappling the sunlight, which was slanting in at an alarming angle, deepening the shadowy interior.
“Here’s as far as I go,” the driver said, slowing at the top of a long incline, where the road leveled out in large clearing. The remnants of several ancient roads ran off like broken spokes of a wheel and petered out in the thick undergrowth. He made a large loop and stopped only after the car was pointing back the direction we’d come from.
After we were both out and the driver had gotten a last look at Nina’s posterior, I gently shut the door and leaned in the window. “Thanks for the ride. We really appreciate it.”
The man shook his head. “Ye got any sense, ye’ll git back in and get the hell outta here.”
“Thanks again,” I said, straightening up.
He drove off without comment and we stood listening to the sound of the motor dying into the distance.
Then we were alone in a thick, suffocating silence. There were no birdcalls, no drone of distant planes, no conversation between wind and trees.
“Which way?” Nina asked, looking around uneasily. She too could feel the oppressive weight of evil enshrouding the clearing. The sun was now touching the distant tall ridge, which we glimpsed through the screen of trees beneath which the faint trails of Dark Hollow road crept downward.
I nodded at the overgrown road. “That’s it, or what’s left of it.”
“Wow,” she murmured. “He wasn’t kidding, was he.”
“Nope. I slipped on my backpack. “Time’s wasting; let’s get going.”
The road was little more than a cleared pair of trails slippery with autumn leaves, canopied by trees. Here and there a blur of red sunlight fell through, but mostly we were in shadow, which gave the impression that it was later than it really was. But it added anxiety to our steps, and we hurried down the winding road toward the valley.
In a short time the road leveled out and followed the contour of the valley. I stopped at the foot of a slight incline that blocked our view.
“The house is just over that rise,” I said, pointing. “But rather than walk right in, I’d prefer we climb to the top of this ridge--” I nodded up at the steep, wooded slope--”and scout the place out first.”
I clambered up the leaf-slippery slope and gained the trees. “Assuming that it’s still there,” I finished as she climbed up beside me and studied the surroundings. She gave the impression of having spent a lot of time in the forest.
It took only a few minutes to make it to the top of the spur and pick our way to the once cleared slope where I’d looked down upon the house so many long years ago.
The house was still there, just as I remembered, only the forest had encroached on it. The yard was overgrown and unkempt, with only a trace of the driveway left.
Gazing down on it, I felt strange. Everything looked smaller, more crowded, than it had in the smallness of youth, and the house, once a safe haven, now had a malevolence about it that started my heart beating heavily.
The slope was mostly occupied by sumacs and dogwoods, and gave us some cover as we crept downward through the false gloaming. The treetops were sunny and cheerful, but we were in the dark shadows of evening. There was still plenty of daylight left, but the sun was a merciless voyager that wouldn't wait on us.
At the edge of the driveway we studied the house. It hulked there in the cool shadows, seeming to exude hostility. There were no signs of life or recent visitation. The silence was palpable, cloying.
As we approached the front porch my trepidation grew.
The steps were warped and creaky, long unused, as was the porch. The windows were grimy and opaque, reflecting smudgy images with reluctance.
A hasp and large padlock on the front door, both looking much newer than the rest of the place, discouraged entrance. I tried to peek into the windows, feeling like an interloper, but they gave no secrets away.
My mind’s eye pictured Namer lying as I had last seen my father lying, on his sick bed in my parent’s bedroom. But more likely he would be in the cellar, or in the crawl space above the attic, somewhere very difficult to get to.
If he was even here at all.
“Let’s try the back door,” I suggested, my voice an unconscious whisper. “We’ll have a quick look around, see if we can find him. If not, we leave. Half an hour, tops.”
Nina had been peeking into the window alongside the door. Suddenly she gasped and stepped back, her hand going to the crucifix around her neck.
What’s wrong, I started to ask.
The words froze in my mouth.
Namer was suddenly standing in front of the window, a pale ghost in the gathering gloom.
I stepped back involuntarily, my hand going to my gun.
Namer smiled his toothy, ivory smile.
“Welcome. I’ve been expecting you.”
And just like that, before I could even blink, Nina was his captive.