F. Paul Wilson was born and raised in New Jersey. He is the author of more than thirty books including the science fiction novels Healer, Wheels Within Wheels (which won the first Prometheus Award in 1979), An Enemy of the State, and SIMS, and the horror thrillers The Keep, The Tomb (both of which appeared on the New York Times Bestsellers List), The Touch, Reborn, Reprisal and Nightworld. His collections are Soft & Others and The Barrens & Others. The Keep was turned into a film in 1983 by Michael (Collateral) Mann and The Tomb is currently in development to be turned into a feature called Repairman Jack.
It started in Milo's right foot. He awoke in the dark of his bedroom with a pins-and-needles sensation from the lower part of his calf to the tips of his toes. He sat up, massaged it, walked around the bedroom. Nothing helped. Finally, he took a Darvocet and went back to bed. He managed to get to sleep but was awake again by dawn, this time with both feet tingling. In the wan light, he inspected his lower legs.
A thin, faintly red line around each leg about three inches up from the ankle. Milo snapped on the night table light for a closer look. He touched the line. It was more than a line — an indentation, actually, like something left after wearing a pair of socks too tight at the top. But it felt as if the constricting band were still there.
He got up and walked around. It felt a little funny to stand on partially numb feet but he couldn't worry about it now. In just a couple of hours he was doing a power breakfast at the Polo with Regenstein from TriStar and he had to be sharp. He padded into the kitchen to put on the coffee.
As he wove through L.A.'s morning commuter traffic, Milo envied the drivers with their tops down. He would have loved to have his 380 SL opened up to the bright early morning sun. Truthfully, he would have been glad for an open window. But for the sake of his hair he stayed bottled up with the a-c on. He couldn't afford to let the breeze blow his toupee around. It had been especially stubborn about blending in with his natural hair this morning and he didn't have any more time to fuss with it. And this was his good piece. His back-up had been stolen during a robbery of his house last week, an occurrence that still baffled the hell out of him. He wished he didn't have to worry about wearing a rug. He had heard about a new experimental lotion that was supposed to start hair growing again. If that ever panned out, he'd be first on line to —
His right hand started tingling. He removed it from the wheel and fluttered it in the air. Still it tingled. The sleeve of his sports coat slipped back and he saw a faint indentation running around his forearm, just above the wrist. For a few heartbeats he studied it in horrid fascination.
What's happening to me?
Then he glanced up and saw the looming rear of a truck rushing toward his windshield. He slammed on the brakes and slewed to a screeching stop inches from the tailgate. Gasping and sweating, Milo slumped in the seat and tried to get a grip. Bad enough he was developing mysterious little constricting bands on his legs and now his arm, he had almost wrecked the new Mercedes. This sucker cost more than his first house back in the seventies.
When traffic started up again, he drove cautiously, keeping his eyes on the road and working the fingers of his right hand. He had some weirdshit disease, he just knew it, but he couldn't let anything get between him and this breakfast with Regenstein.
‘Look, Milo,’ Howard Regenstein said through the smoke from his third cigarette in the last twenty minutes. ‘You know that if it was up to me the picture would be all yours. You know that, man.’
Milo nodded, not knowing that at all. He had used that same line himself a million times—maybe two million times. If it was up to me . . .
Yeah, right. The great cop-out: I'm a nice guy and I have all the faith in the world in you but those money guys, those faithless, faceless Philistines who hold the purse-strings won't let guys with vision like you and me get together and make a great film.
‘Well, what's the problem, Howie? I mean, give it to me straight.’
‘All right,’ Howie said, showing his chicklet caps between his thin lips. He was deeply tanned, wore thick horn-rimmed glasses; his close cropped curly hair was sandy-colored and lightly bleached. ‘Despite my strong — and, Milo, I do mean strong — recommendation, the money boys looked at the grosses for The Hut and got scared away.’
Well. That explained a lot of things, especially this crummy table half hidden in an inside corner. The real power players, the ones who wanted everybody else in the place to see who they were doing breakfast with, were out in the middle or along the windows. Regenstein probably had three breakfasts scheduled for this morning. Milo was wondering what tables had been reserved for the others when a sharp pain stabbed his right leg. He winced and reached down.
‘Something wrong?’ Regenstein said.
‘No. Just a muscle cramp.’
He lifted his trouser leg and saw that the indentation above his ankle was deeper. It was actually a cut now. Blood oozed slowly, seeping into his sock. He straightened up and forced a smile at Regenstein.
‘The Hut, Howie? Is that all?’ Milo said with a laugh. ‘Don't they know that project was a loser from the start? The book was a bad property, a piece of cliched garbage. Don't they know that?’
Howie smiled, too. ‘Afraid not, Milo. You know their kind. They look at the bottom line and see that Universal's going to be twenty mill in the hole on The Hut, and in their world that means something. And maybe they remember those PR pieces you did a month or so before it opened. You never even mentioned that the film was based on a book. Had me convinced the story was all yours, whole cloth.’
Milo clenched his teeth. That had been when he had thought the movie was going to be a smash.
‘I had a concept, Howie, one that cut through the bounds and limitations of the novel. I wanted to raise the level of the material but the producers stymied me at every turn.’
Actually, he had been pretty much on his own down there in Haiti. He had changed the book a lot, made loads of cuts and condensations. He had made it ‘A Milo Gherl Film.’
But somewhere along the way he had lost it. Unanimously hostile one-star reviews with leads like, ‘Shut The Hut’ and ‘New Gherl Pix the Pits’ hadn't helped. Twentieth had been pushing an offer in its television division and he had been holding them off — who wanted to do TV when you could do theatricals? But as the bad reviews piled up and the daily grosses plummeted, he grabbed the TV offer. It was good money, had plenty of prestige, but it was still television.
Milo wanted to do films, and very badly wanted in on the new package Regenstein was putting together for TriStar. Howie had Jack Nicholson, Bobby DeNiro, and Kathy Turner firm, and was looking for a director. More than anything else in his career, Milo wanted to be that director. But he wasn't going to be. He knew that now.
Well, at least he could use the job to pay the bills and keep his name before the public until The Hut was forgotten. That wouldn't be long. A year or two at most and he'd be back directing another theatrical. Not a package like Regenstein's, but something with a decent budget where he could do the screenplay and direct. That was the way he liked it — full control on paper and on film.
He shrugged at Regenstein and put on his best good-natured smile. ‘What can I say, Howie? The world wasn't ready for The Hut. Someday, they'll appreciate it.’
Yeah, right, he thought as Regenstein nodded noncommittally. At least Howie was letting him down easy, letting him keep his dignity here. That was important. All he had to do now was —
Milo screamed as pain tore into his left eye like a bolt of lightning. He lurched to his feet, upsetting the table as he clamped his hands over his eye in a vain attempt to stop the agony.
Pain! Oh Christ, pain as he had never known it was shooting from his eye straight into his brain. This had to be a stroke! What else could hurt like this?
Through his good eye he had a whirling glimpse of everybody in the dining room standing and staring at him as he staggered around. He pulled one hand away from his eye and reached out to steady himself. He saw a smear of blood on his fingers. He took the other hand away. His left eye was blind, but with his right he saw the dripping red on his palm. A woman screamed.
‘My God, Milo!’ Regenstein said, his chalky face swimming into view. ‘Your eye! What did you do to your eye?’ He turned to a gaping waiter. ‘Get a doctor! Get a fucking ambulance!’
Milo was groggy from the Demerol they had given him. In the blur of hours since breakfast he'd been wheeled in and out of the emergency room so many times, poked with so many needles, examined by so many doctors, x-rayed so many times, his head was spinning.
At least the pain had eased off.
‘I'm admitting you onto the vascular surgery service, Mr. Gherl,’ said the bearded doctor as he pushed back one of the white curtains that shielded Milo's gurney from the rest of the emergency room. His badge said, Edward Jansen, M.D., and he looked tired and irritable.
Milo struggled up the Demerol downgrade. ‘Vascular surgery? But my eye —!’
‘As Dr. Burch told you, Mr. Gherl, your eye can't be saved. It's ruined beyond repair. But maybe we can save your feet and your hand if it's not too late already.
‘If we're lucky. I don't know what kind of games you've been into, but getting yourself tied up with piano wire is about the dumbest thing I've ever heard of.’
Milo was growing more alert by the second now. Over Dr. Jansen's shoulder he saw the bustle of the emergency room personnel, saw an old black mopping the floor in slow, rhythmic strokes. But he was only seeing it with his right eye. He reached up to the bandage over his left. Ruined? He wanted to cry, but Dr. Jansen's piano wire remark suddenly filtered through to his consciousness.
‘Piano wire? What are you talking about?’
‘Don't play dumb. Look at your feet.’ Dr. Edwards pulled the sheet free from the far end of the gurney.
Milo looked. The nail beds were white and the skin below the indentations were a dusky blue. And the indentations had all become clean, straight, bloody cuts right through the skin and into the meat below. His right hand was the same.
‘See that color?’ Jansen was saying. ‘That means the tissues below the wire cuts aren't getting enough blood. You're going to have gangrene for sure if we don't restore circulation soon.’
Gangrene! Milo levered up on the gurney and felt his toes with his good hand. Cold! ‘No! That's impossible!’
‘I'd almost agree with you,’ Dr. Jansen said, his voice softening for a moment as he seemed to be talking to himself. Behind him, Milo noticed the old black moving closer with his mop. ‘When we did x-rays, I thought we'd see the wire embedded in the flesh there, but there was nothing. Tried Xero soft-tissue technique in case you had used fishing line or something, but that came up negative, too. Even probed the cuts myself but there's nothing in there. Yet the arteriograms clearly show that the arteries in your lower legs and right forearm are compressed to the point where very little blood is getting through. The tissues are starving. The vascular boys may have to do bypasses.’
‘I'm getting out of here!’ Milo said. ‘I'll see my own doctor!’
‘I'm afraid I can't allow that.’
‘You can't stop me! I can walk out of here anytime I want!’
‘I can keep you seventy-two hours for purposes of emergency psychiatric intervention.’
‘Yeah. Self-mutilation. Your mind worries me almost as much as your arteries, Mr. Gherl. I'd like to make sure you don't poke out your other eye before you get treatment.’
‘But I didn't —!’
‘Please, Mr. Gherl. There were witnesses. Your breakfast companion said he had just finished giving you some disappointing news when you screamed and rammed something into your eye.’
Milo touched the bandage over his eye again. How could they think he had done this to himself?
‘My God, I swear I didn't do this!’
‘That kind of trauma doesn't happen spontaneously, Mr. Gherl, and according to your companion, no one was within reach of you. So one way or the other, you're staying. Make it easy on both of us and do it voluntarily.’
Milo didn't see that he had a choice. ‘I'll stay,’ he said. ‘Just answer me one thing: You ever seen anything like this before?’
Jansen shook his head. ‘Never. Never heard of anything like it either.’ He took a sudden deep breath and smiled through his beard with what Milo guessed was supposed to be doctorly reassurance. ‘But, hey. I'm only an ER doc. The vascular boys will know what to do.’
With that, he turned and left, leaving Milo staring into the wide-eyed black face of the janitor.
‘What are you staring at?’ Milo said.
‘A man in big trouble,’ the janitor said in a deep, faintly accented voice. He was pudgy with a round face, watery eyes, and two days' worth of silvery growth on his jowls. With a front tooth missing on the top, he looked like Leon Spinks gone to seed for thirty years. ‘These doctors can't be helpin' what you got. You got a Bocor mad at you and only a Houngon can fix you.’
‘Get lost!’ Milo said.
He lay back on the gurney and closed his good eye to shut out the old man and the emergency room. He hunted for sleep as an escape from the pain and the gut-roiling terror, praying he'd wake up and learn that this was all just a horrible dream. But those words wouldn't go away. Bocor and Houngon . . . he knew them somehow. Where?
And then it hit him like a blow — The Hut! They were voodoo terms from the novel, The Hut! He hadn't used them in the film — he'd scoured all mention of voodoo from his screenplay — but the author had used them in the book. If Milo remembered correctly, a Bocor was an evil voodoo priest and a Houngon was a good one. Or was it the other way around? Didn't matter. They were all part of Bill Franklin's bullshit novel.
Franklin ! Wouldn't he like to see me now! Milo thought. Their last meeting had been anything but pleasant. Unforgettable, yes. His mind did a slow dissolve to his new office at Twentieth two weeks ago . . .
The angry voice startled Milo and he spilled hot coffee down the front of his shirt. He leaped up from behind his desk and bent forward, pulling the steaming fabric away from his chest. ‘Jesus H. —’
But then he looked up and saw Bill Franklin standing there and his anger cooled like fresh blood in an arctic breeze. Maggie's anxious face peered over Franklin's narrow shoulder.
‘I tried to stop him, Mr. Gherl, honest I did, but he wouldn't listen!’
‘You've been ducking me for a month, Gherl!’ Franklin said in his nasal voice. ‘No more tricks!’
Maggie said, ‘Shall I call security?’
‘I don't think that will be necessary, Maggs,’ he said quickly, grabbing a Kleenex from the oak tissue holder on his desk and blotting at his stained shirt front. Milo had moved into this office only a few weeks ago, and the last thing he needed today was an ugly scene with an irate writer. He could tell from Franklin's expression that he was ready to cause a doozy. Better to bite the bullet and get this over with. ‘I'll talk to Mr. Franklin. You can leave him here.’ She hesitated and he waved her toward the door. ‘Go ahead. It's all right.’
When she had closed the door behind her, he picked up the insulated brass coffee urn and looked at Franklin. ‘Coffee, Billy-boy?’
‘I don't want coffee, Gherl! I want to know why you've been ducking me!’
‘But I haven't been ducking you, Billy!’ he said, refreshing his own cup. He would have to change this shirt before he did lunch later. ‘I'm not with Universal anymore. I'm with Twentieth now, so naturally my offices are here.’ He swept an arm around him. ‘Not bad, ay?’
Milo sat down and tried his best to look confident, at ease. Inside, he was anything but. Right now he was a little afraid of the writer stalking back and forth before the desk like a caged tiger. Nothing about Franklin's physical appearance was the least bit intimidating. He was fair-haired and tall with big hands and feet attached to a slight, gangly frame. He had a big nose, a small chin, and a big Adam's apple — Milo had noticed on their first meeting two years ago that he could slant a perfectly straight line along the tips of those three protuberances. A moderate overbite did not help the picture. Milo's impression of Franklin had always been that of a patient, retiring, rational man who never raised his voice.
But today he was barging about with a wild look in his eyes, shouting, gesticulating, accusing. Milo remembered an old saying his father used to quote to him when he was a boy: Beware the wrath of a patient man.
Franklin had paused and was looking around the spacious room with its indirect lighting, its silver-gray floor-to-ceiling louvered blinds and matching carpet, the chrome and onyx wet bar, the free-form couches, the abstract sculptures on the Lucite coffee table and on Milo's oversized desk.
‘How did you ever rate this after perpetrating a turkey like The Hut?’
‘Twentieth recognizes talent when it sees it, Billy.’
‘My question stands,’ Franklin said.
Milo ignored the remark. ‘Sit down, Billy-boy. What's got you so upset?’
Franklin didn't sit. He resumed his stalking. ‘You know damn well what! My book!’
‘You've got a new one?’ Milo said, perfectly aware of which book he meant.
‘No! I mean the only book I've ever written — The Hut! — and the mess you made out of it!’
Milo had heard quite enough nasty criticism of that particular film to last him a lifetime. He felt his anger flare but suppressed it. Why get into a shouting match?
‘I'm sorry you feel that way, Billy, but let's face facts.’ He spread his hands in a consoling gesture. ‘It's a dead issue. There's nothing more to be done. The film has been shot, edited, released, and —’
‘— and withdrawn!’ Franklin shouted. ‘Two weeks in general release and the theater owners sent it back! It's not just a flop, it's a catastrophe!’
‘The critics — killed it.’
‘Bullshit! The critics blasted it, just like they blasted other 'flops' like Flashdance and Top Gun and Ernest Goes to Camp. What killed it, Gherl, was word of mouth. Now I know why you wouldn't screen it until a week before it opened: You knew you'd botched it!’
‘I had trouble with the final cut. I couldn't —’
‘You couldn't get it to make sense! As I walked out of that screening I kept telling myself that my negative feelings were due to all the things you'd cut out of my book, that maybe I was too close to it all and that the public would somehow find my story in your mass of pretensions. Then I heard a guy in his early twenties say, 'What the hell was that all about?' and his girlfriend say, 'What a boring waste of time!' and I knew it wasn't just me.’ Franklin's long bony finger stabbed through the air. ‘It was you! You raped my book!’
Milo had had just about enough of this. ‘You novelists are all alike!’ he said with genuine disdain. ‘You do fine on the printed page so you think you're experts at writing for the screen. But you're not. You don't know the first goddam thing about visual writing!’
‘You cut the heart out of my story! The Hut was about the nature of evil and how it can seduce even the strongest among us. The plot was like a house of cards, Gherl, built with my sweat. Your windbag script blew it all down! And after I saw the first draft of the script, you were suddenly unavailable for conference!’
Milo recalled Franklin's endless stream of nit-picking letters, his deluge of time-wasting phone calls. ‘I was busy, dammit! I was writer-director! The whole thing was on my shoulders!’
‘I warned you that the house of cards was falling due to the cuts you made. I mean, why did you remove all mention of voodoo and zombiism from the script? They were the two red herrings that held the plot together.’
‘Voodoo! Zombies! That's old hat! Nobody would pay to see a voodoo movie!’
‘Then why set the movie in Haiti, f'Christsake? Might as well have been in Pasadena! And that monster you threw in at the end? Where in hell did you come up with that? I looked like the Incredible Hulk in drag! I spent years in research. I slaved to fill that book with terror and dread — all you brought to the screen were cheap shocks!’
‘If that's your true opinion — and I disagree with it absolutely — you should be glad the film was a flop. No one will see it!’
Franklin nodded slowly. ‘That gave me comfort for a while, until I realized that the movie isn't dead. When it reaches the video stores and the cable services, tens of millions of people will see it — not because it's good, but simply because it's there and it's something they've never heard of before and certainly have never seen. And they'll be directing their rapt attention at your corruption of my story, and they'll see 'Based on the Novel by William Franklin' and think that the pretentious, incomprehensible mishmash they're watching represents my work. And that makes me mad, Gherl! Fucking-ay crazy mad!’
The ferocity that flashed across Franklin's face was truly frightening. Milo rushed to calm him. ‘Billy, look: Despite our artistic differences and despite the fact that The Hut will never turn a profit, you were paid well into six figures for the screen rights. What's you're beef?’
Franklin seemed to shrink a little. His shoulders slumped and his voice softened. ‘I didn't write it for money. I live off a trust fund that provides me with more than I can spend. The Hut was my first novel — maybe my only novel ever. I gave it everything. I don't think I have any more in me.’
‘Of course you do!’ Milo said, rising and moving around the desk toward the subdued writer. Here was his chance to ease Franklin out of here. ‘It's just that you've never had to suffer for your art! You've had it too soft, too cushy for too long. Things came too easy on that first book. First time at bat you got a major studio film offer that actually made it to the screen. That hardly ever happens. Now you've got to prove it wasn't just a fluke. You've got to get out there and slog away on that new book! Deprive yourself a little! Suffer!’
‘Suffer?’ Franklin said, a weird light starting to glow in his eyes. ‘I should suffer?’
‘Yes!’ Milo said, guiding him toward the office door. ‘All great artists suffer.’
‘You ever suffer, Milo Gherl?’
‘Of course.’ Especially this morning, listening to you!
‘Look at this office. You don't look like you're suffering for what you did to The Hut.’
‘I did my suffering years ago. The anger you feel about The Hut is small change compared to the dues I've had to pay.’ He finally had Franklin across the threshold. ‘I'm through suffering,’ he said as he slammed the door and locked it.
From the other side of the thick oak door he thought he heard Franklin say, ‘No, you're not.’
‘Missing any personal items lately, mister?’ said a voice.
Milo opened his good eye and saw the big black guy standing over him, leaning on his mop handle. What was wrong with this old fart? What was his angle?
‘If you don't leave me alone I'm gonna call —’ He paused. ‘What do you mean, 'personal items?' ‘
‘You know — clothing, nail clippings, a brush or comb that might hold some of your hair. That kinda stuff.’
A chill swept over Milo's skin like an icy breeze in July.
Such a bizarre thing — a pried-open window, a few cheap rings gone, his drawers and closets ransacked, an old pair of pajamas missing. And his toupee, the second-string hairpiece . . . gone. Who could figure it? But he had been shaken up enough to go out and buy a .38 for his night table.
Milo laughed. This was so ludicrous. ‘You're talking about a voodoo doll, aren't you?’
The old guy nodded. ‘It got other names, but that'll do.’
‘Who the hell are you?’
‘Name's Andre but folks call me Andy. I got connections you gonna need.’
‘You need your head examined!’
‘Maybe. But that doctor said he was lookin' for the wires that was cuttin' into your legs and your arm but he couldn't find them. That's because the wires are somewheres else. They around the legs and arm of a doll somebody made on you.’
Milo tried to laugh again but found he couldn't. He managed a weak, ‘Bullshit.’
‘You believe me soon enough. And when you do, I take you to a Houngon who can help you out.’
‘Yeah,’ Milo said. ‘Like you really care about me.’
The old black showed his gap-tooth smile. ‘Oh, I won't be doin' you a favor, and neither will the Houngon. He'll be wantin' money for pullin' you fat out the fire.’
‘And you'll get a finder's fee.’
The smile broadened. ‘Thas right.’
That made a little more sense to Milo, but still he wasn't buying. ‘Forget it!’
‘I be around till three. I keep checkin' up on you case you change you mind. I can get you out here when you want to go.’
‘Don't hold your breath.’
Milo rolled on his side and closed his eyes. The old fart had some nerve trying to run that corny scam on him, and in a hospital yet! He'd report him, have him fired. This was no joke. He'd lost his eye already. He could be losing his feet, his hand! He needed top medical-center level care, not some voodoo mumbo-jumbo . . .
. . . but no one seemed to know what was going on, and everyone seemed to think he'd put his own eye out. God, who could do something like that to himself? And his hand and his feet — the doc had said they were going to start rotting off if blood didn't get flowing back into them. What on earth was happening to him?
And what about that weird robbery last week? Only personal articles had been stolen. All the high ticket stereo and video stuff had been left untouched.
God, it couldn't be voodoo, could it? Who'd even —
Shit! Bill Franklin! He was an expert on it after all those years of research for The Hut. But he wouldn't . . . he couldn't . . .
Franklin 's faintly heard words echoed in Milo's brain: No, you're not.
Agony suddenly lanced through Milo's groin, doubling him over on the gurney. Gasping with the pain, he tore at the clumsy stupid nightshirt they'd dressed him in and pulled it up to his waist. He held back the scream that rose in his throat when he saw the thin red line running around the base of his penis. Instead, he called out a name.
Milo coughed and peered through the dim little room. It smelled of dust and sweat and charcoal smoke and something else — something rancid. He wondered what the hell he was doing here. He knew if he had any sense he'd get out now, but he didn't know where to go from here. He wasn't even sure he could find his way home from here.
The setting sun had been a bloody blob in Milo's rearview mirror as he'd hunched over the steering wheel of his Mercedes and followed Andy's rusty red pick-up into one of L.A.'s seamier districts. Andy had been true to his word: He'd spirited Milo out of the hospital, back to the house for some cash and some real clothes, then down to the garage near the Polo where his car was parked. After that it was on to Andy's Houngon and maybe end this agony.
It had to end soon. Milo's feet were so swollen he was wearing old slippers. He had barely been able to turn the ignition key with his right hand. And his dick — God, his dick felt like it was going to explode!
After what seemed like a ten-mile succession of left and right turns during which he saw not a single white face, they had pulled to a stop before a dilapidated storefront office. On the cracked glass was painted:
Andy had stayed outside with the car while Milo went in.
Milo started at the sound and turned toward the voice. A balding, wizened old black, six-two at least, stood next to him. His face was a mass of wrinkles. He was dressed in a black suit, white shirt, and thin black tie.
Milo heard his own voice quaver: ‘Yes. That's me.’
‘You are the victim of the Bocor?’ His voice was cultured, and accented in some strange way.
Milo pushed back the sleeve of his shirt to expose his right wrist. ‘I don't know what I'm the victim of, but Andy says you can help me. You've got to help me!’
He stared at the patch over Milo's eye. ‘May I see?’
Milo leaned away from him. ‘Don't touch that!’ It had finally stopped hurting. He held his arm higher.
M. Trieste examined Milo's hand, tracing a cool dry finger around the clotted circumferential cut at the wrist. ‘This is all?’
Milo showed him his legs, then reluctantly, opened his fly.
‘You have a powerful enemy in this Bocor,’ M. Trieste said, finally. ‘But I can reverse the effects of his doll. It will cost you five hundred dollars. Do you have it with you?’
Milo hesitated. ‘Let's not be too hasty here. I want to see some results before I fork over any money.’ He was hurting, but he wasn't going to be a sucker for this clown.
M. Trieste smiled. He had all his teeth. ‘I have no wish to steal from you, Mr. Gherl. I shall accept no money from you unless I can effect a cure. However, I do not wish to be cheated either. Do you have the money with you?’
Milo nodded. ‘Yes.’
‘Very well.’ M. Trieste struck a match and lit a candle on a table Milo hadn't realized was there. ‘Please be seated,’ he said and disappeared into the darkness.
Milo complied and looked around. The wan candlelight picked up an odd assortment of objects around the room: African ceremonial masks hung side by side with crucifixes on the wall; a long conga drum sat in a corner to the right while a statue of the Virgin Mary, her small plaster foot trodding a writhing snake, occupied the one on his left. He wondered when the drums would start and the dancers appear. When would they begin chanting and daubing him with paint and splattering him with chicken blood? God, he must have been crazy to come here. Maybe the pain was affecting his mind. If he had any smarts he'd —
‘Hold out your wrist,’ M. Trieste said, suddenly appearing in the candlelight opposite him. He held what looked like a plaster coffee mug in his hand. He was stirring its contents with a wooden stick.
Milo held back. ‘What are you going to do?’
‘Help you, Mr. Gherl. You are the victim of a very traditional and particularly nasty form of voodoo. You have greatly angered a Bocor and he is using a powerful loa, via a doll, to lop off your hands and your feet and your manhood.’
‘My left hand's okay,’ Milo said, gratefully working the fingers in the air.
‘So I have noticed,’ M. Trieste said with a frown. ‘It is odd for one extremity to be spared, but perhaps there is a certain symbolism at work here that we do not understand. No matter. The remedy is the same. Hold your arm out on the table.’
Milo did as he was told. His swollen hand looked black in the candlelight. ‘Is . . . is this going to hurt?’
‘When the pressure is released, there will be considerable pain as the fresh blood rushes into the starved tissues.’
That kind of pain Milo could handle. ‘Do it.’
M. Trieste stirred the contents of the cup and lifted the wooden handle. Instead of the spoon he had expected, Milo saw that the man was holding a brush. It gleamed redly.
Here comes the blood, he thought. But he didn't care what was in the cup as long as it worked.
‘Andre told me about your problem before he brought you here. I made this up in advance. I will paint it on the constrictions and it will nullify the influence of the loa of the doll. After that, it will be up to you to make peace with this Bocor before he visits other afflictions on you.’
‘Sure, sure,’ Milo said, thrusting his wrist toward M. Trieste. ‘Let's just get on with it!’
M. Trieste daubed the bloody solution onto the incision line. It beaded up like water on a freshly waxed car and slid off onto the table. Milo glanced up and saw a look of consternation flit across the wrinkled black face towering above him. He watched as the red stuff was applied again, only to run off as before.
‘Most unusual,’ M. Trieste muttered as he tried a third time with no better luck. ‘I've never . . . ‘ He put the cup down and began painting his own right hand with the solution. ‘This will do it. Hold up your hand.’
As Milo raised his arm, M. Trieste encircled the wrist with his long dripping fingers and squeezed. There was an instant of heat, and then M. Trieste cried out. He released Milo's wrist and dropped to his knees cradling his right hand against his breast.
‘The poisons!’ he cried. ‘Oh, the poisons!’
Milo trembled as he looked at his dusky hand. The bloody solution had run off as before. ‘What poisons?’
‘Between you and this Bocor! Get out of here!’
‘But the doll! You said you could —!’
‘There is no doll!’ M. Trieste said. He turned away and retched. ‘There is no doll!’
With his heart clattering against his chest wall, Milo pushed himself away from the table and staggered to the door. Andy was leaning on his truck at the curb.
‘Wassamatter?’ he said straightening off the fender as he saw Milo. ‘Didn't he —?’
‘He's a phony, just like you!’ Milo screamed, letting his rage and fear focus on the old Black. ‘Just another goddam phony!’
As Andy hurried into the store, Milo started up his Mercedes and roared down the street. He'd drive until he found a sign for one of the freeways. From there he could get home.
And from home, he knew where he wanted to go . . . where he had to go.
‘ Franklin! Where are you, Franklin?’
Milo had finally found Bill Franklin's home in the Hollywood Hills. Even though he knew the neighborhood fairly well, Milo had never been on this particular street, and so it had taken him a while to track it down. The lights had been on inside and the door had been unlocked. No one had answered his knocking, so he'd let himself in.
‘ Franklin, goddamit!’ he called, standing in the middle of the cathedral-ceilinged living room. His voice echoed off the stucco walls and hardwood floor. ‘Where are you?’
In the ensuing silence, he heard a faint voice say, ‘ Milo? Is that you?’
Milo tensed. Where had that come from? ‘Yeah, It's me! Where are you?’
Again, ever so faintly: ‘Down here . . . in the basement!’
Milo searched for the cellar door, found it, saw the lights ablaze from below, and began his descent. His slippered feet were completely numb now and he had to watch where he put them. It was as if his feet had been removed and replaced with giant sponges.
‘That you, Milo?’ said a voice from somewhere around the corner from the stairwell. It was Franklin's voice, but it sounded slurred, strained.
‘Yeah, it's me.’
As he neared the last step, he pulled the .38 from his pocket. He had picked it up t the house along with a pair of wirecutters on his way here. He had never fired it, and he didn't expect to have to tonight. But it was good to know it was loaded and ready if he needed it. He tried to transfer it to his right hand but his numb, swollen fingers couldn't keep hold of the grip. He kept it in his left and stepped onto the cellar floor —
— and felt his foot start to roll away from him. Only by throwing himself against the wall and hugging it did he save himself from falling. He looked around the unfinished cellar. Bright, reflective objects were scattered all along the naked concrete floor. He sucked in a breath as he saw the hundreds of sharp curved angles of green glass poking up at the exposed ceiling beams. The looked like shattered wine bottles — big, green, four-liter wine bottles smashed all over the place. And in among the shards were scattered thousands of marbles.
‘Be careful,’ said Franklin's voice. ‘The basement's mined.’ The voice was there, but Franklin was nowhere in sight.
‘Where the hell are you, Franklin?’
‘Back here in the bathroom. I thought you'd never get here.’
Milo began to move toward the rear of the cellar where brighter light poured from an open door. He slid his slippered feet slowly along the floor, pushing the green glass spears ahead of him, rolling the marbles out of the way.
‘I've come for the doll, Franklin.’
Milo heard a hollow laugh. ‘Doll? What doll, Milo? There's just me and you, ol' buddy.’
Milo shuffled around the corner into view of the bathroom. And froze. The gun dropped from his fingers and further shattered some of the glass at his feet. ‘Oh, my God, Franklin! Oh, my God!’
William Franklin sat on the toilet wearing Milo's rings, his old slippers, his stolen pajamas, and his other hairpiece. His left eye was patched and his feet and his right hand were as black and swollen as Milo's. There was a maniacal look in his remaining eye as he grinned drunkenly and sipped from a four-liter green-glass bottle of white wine. The cuts in his flesh were identical to Milo's except that a short length of twisted copper wire protruded from each. A screwdriver and a pair of pliers lay in his lap.
M. Trieste's parting words screamed through his brain: There is no doll!
‘See?’ Franklin said in a slurred voice. ‘You said I had to suffer.’
Milo wanted to be sick. ‘Christ! What have you done?’
‘I decided to suffer. But I didn't think I should suffer alone. So I brought you along for company. Sure took you long enough to figure it out.’
Milo bent and picked up the pistol. His left hand wavered and trembled as he pointed it at Franklin. ‘You . . . you . . . ‘ He couldn't think of anything to say.
Franklin casually tossed the wine bottle out onto the floor where it shattered and added to the spikes of glass. Then he pulled open the pajama top. ‘Right here, Milo, old buddy!’ he said, pointing to his heart. ‘Do you really think you want to put a slug into me?’
Milo Thought about that. It might be like putting a bullet into his own heart. He felt his arm drop. ‘Why . . . how . . . I don't deserve . . . ‘
Franklin closed his eye and grimaced. He looked as if he were about to cry. ‘I know,’ he said. ‘It's gone too far. Maybe you really don't deserve all this. I've always known I was a little bit crazy, but maybe I'm a lot crazier than I ever thought I was.’
‘Then for God's sake, man, loosen the wires!’
‘No!’ Franklin's eye snapped open. The madness was still there. ‘I entrusted my work to you. That's a sacred trust. You were responsible for The Hut's integrity when you took on the job of adapting it to the screen.’
‘But I'm an artist, too!’ Why was he arguing with this nut? He slipped the pistol into his front pocket and reached around back for the wire cutters.
‘All the more reason to respect another man's work! You didn't own it — it was only on loan to you!’
‘The contract —’
‘Means nothing! You had a moral obligation to protect my work, one artist to another.’
‘Am I? Imagine yourself a parent who has sent his only child to a reputable nursery school only to learn that the child has been raped by the faculty — then you will understand some of what I feel! I've come to see it as my sacred duty to see to it that you don't molest anyone else's work!’
Enough of this bullshit! If Franklin wouldn't loosen the wires, Milo would cut them off! He pulled the wire cutters from his rear pocket and began to shuffle toward Franklin, sweeping the marbles and daggers of glass ahead of him.
‘Stay back!’ Franklin cried. He grabbed the pliers and pushed them down toward his lap, grinning maliciously. ‘Didn't know I was left-handed, did you?’ He twisted something.
Searing pain knifed into Milo's groin. He doubled over but kept moving toward Franklin. Less than a dozen feet to go. If he could just —
He saw Franklin drop the pliers and pick up the screwdriver, saw him raise it toward his right eye, the good eye. Milo screamed,
And then agony exploded in his eye, in his head, robbing him of the light, sending him reeling back in sudden impenetrable blackness. As he felt his feet roll across the marbles, he reached out wildly. His legs slid from under him and despite the most desperate flailings and contortions, he found nothing to grasp on the way down but empty air.
(c) 1988 and 2006 by F. Paul Wilson; first published in SILVER SCREAM, edited by David J. Schow, Dark Harvest, 1988
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.