It is a pain in the ass waiting around for someone to try to kill you. But it was April 30, and of course it would happen as it always did. It had taken me a while to catch on, but now I at least knew when it was coming. In the past, I'd bin too busy to do anything about it. But my job was finished now. I'd only stayed around for this. I felt that I really ought to clear the matter up before I departed.I got out of bed, visited the bathroom,showered, brushed my teeth, et cetera. I'd grown a beard again, so I didn't have to shave. I was not jangling with strange apprehensions, as I had been on that April 30 three years ago when I'd awakened with a headache and a premonition, thrown open the windows, and gone to the kitchen to discover all of the gas burners turned on and flameless. No. It wasn't even like the April 30 two years ago in the other apartment when I awoke before dawn to a faint smell of smoke to learn that the place was on fire. Still, I stayed out of direct line of the light fixtures in case the bulbs were filled with something flammable, and I flipped all of the switches rather than pushing them. Nothing untoward followed these actions.
Usually, I set up the coffee maker the night before with a timer. This morning, though, I didn'.t want coffee that had been produced out of my sight. I set a fresh pot going and checked my packing while I waited for it to brew. Everything I valued in this place resided in two medium-sized cratesclothing, books, paintings, some instruments, a few souvenirss, and so forth. I sealed the cases. A change of clothing, a sweatshirt, a good paperback, and a wad of traveler's checks went into the backpack. I'd drop my key off at the manager's on the way out, so he could let the movers in. The crates would go into storage.
No jogging for me this morning.
As I sipped my coffee, passing from window to window and pausing beside each for sidelong surveys of the streets below and the buildings across the way (last year's attempt had been - by someone with a rifle}, I thought back to the first time it had happened, seven years ago. I had simply been walking down the street on a bright spring afternoon when an oncoming truck had swerved, jumped the curb, and nearly combined me with portions of a brick wall. I was able to dive out of the way and roll. The driver never regained consciousness. It had seemed one of those freak occurrences that occasionally invade the lives of us all.
The following year to the day, however, I was walking home from my lady friend's place late in the evening when three men attacked me-one with a knife, the other two with lengths of pipe-without even the courtesy of first asking for my wallet.
I left the remains in the doorway of a nearby record store, and while I thought about it on the way home it did not strike me until the following day that it had been the anniversary of the truck crash. Even then, I dismissed it as an odd coincidence. The matter of the mail bomb that had destroyed half of another apartment the following year did cause me to begin wondering whether the statistical nature of reality might not be under a strain in my vicinity at that season. And the events of subsequent years served to turn this into a conviction.
Someone enjoyed trying to kill me once a year, it was as simple as that. The effort failing, there would be another year's pause before an attempt was made again. It seemed almost a game.
But this year I wanted to play, too. My main concern was that he, she, or it seemed never to be present when the event occurred, favoring stealth and gimmicks or agents. I will 'refer to this person as S (which sometimes stands for "sneak" and sometimes for "shithead" in my private cosmology), because X has been overworked and because I do not like to screw around with pronouns with disputable antecedents.
I rinsed my coffee cup and the pot and set them in the rack. Then I picked up my bag and departed. Mr. Mulligan wasn't in, or was sleeping, so I left my key in his mailbox before heading up the street to take my breakfast at a nearby diner.
Traffic was light, and all of the vehicles well behaved. I walked slowly, listening and looking. It was a pleasant morning, promising a beautiful day. I hoped to settle things quickly, so I could enjoy it at my leisure.
I reached the diner unmolested. I took a seat beside the window. Just as the waiter came to take my order I saw a familiar figure swinging along the street - a former classmate and later fellow employee Lucas Raynard: six feet tall, red-haired, handsome in spite, or perhaps because, of an artistically broken nose, with the voice and manner of the salesman he was.
I knocked on the window and he saw me, waved, turned and entered.
"Merle, I was right," he said, coming up to the table, clasping my shoulder briefly, seating himself and taking the menu out of my hands. "Missed you at your place and guessed you might be here."
He lowered his eyes and began :reading the menu.
"Why?" I asked.
"If' you need more time to consider, I'll come back," the waiter said.
"No," Luke answered and read off an enormous order.
I added my own.
Then: "Because you're a creature of habit."
"Habit?" I replied. "I hardly eat here anymore."
"I know," he answered, "but you usually did when the pressure was on. Like, right before exams - or if something was bothering you."
"Hm," I said: There did seem to be something to that, though I had never before realized it. I spun the ashtray with its imprint of a unicorn's head, a smaller version of the stained-glass one that stood as part of a partition beside the doorway: "I can't say why," I finally stated. "Besides, what makes you think something's bothering me?"
"I remembered that paranoid thing you have about April 30, because of a couple of accidents."
"More than a couple. I never told you about all of them."
"So you still believe it?"
He shrugged. The waiter came by and filled our coffee cups.
"Okay," he finally agreed. "Have you had it yet today?"
"Too bad. I hope it doesn't pall your thinking."
I took a sip of coffee.
"No problem," I told him.
"Good." He sighed and stretched. "Listen, I just got back to town yesterday ..."
"Have a good trip?"
"Set a new sales record."
"Anyhow ... I just learned when I checked in that you'd left."
"Yeah. I quit about a month ago."
"Miller's been trying to reach you. But with your phone disconnected he couldn't call. He even stopped by a couple of times, but you were out."
"He wants you back."
"I'm finished there."
"Wait'll you hear the proposition, huh? Brady gets kicked upstairs and you're the new head of Design-for a twenty percent pay hike: That's what he told me to tell you."
I chuckled softly.
"Actually..it doesn't sound bad at all. But, like I said, I'm finished."
"Oh." His eyes glistened as he gave me a sly smile. "You do have something lined up someplace else. He was wondering. Okay, if that's the case he told me to tell you to bring him whatever the other guys offer. He'll try like hell to top it."
I shook my head.
"I guess I' m not getting through," I said: "I' m finished. Period. I don't want to go back. I'm not going to work for anyone else either. I' m done with this sort of thing. I' m `tired of computers."
"But you're really good. Say, you going to teach?"
"Well, hell! You've got to do something. Did you come into some money?"
"No. I believe I'll do some traveling. I've been in one place too long."
He raised his coffee cup and drained it. Then he leaned back, clasped his hands across his stomach, and lowered his eyelids slightly: He was silent for a time.
Finally: "You said you were finished. Did you just mean the job and your life here, or something else as well?"
"I don't follow you."
"You had a way of disappearing - back in college, too. You'd be gone for a while and then just as suddenly turn up again. You always were vague about it, too. Seemed like you were leading some sort of double life. That have anything to do with it?"
"I don't know what you mean." He smiled.
"Sure you do," he said. When I did not reply; he added: "Well, good luck with it -whatever."
Always moving, seldom at rest, he fidgeted with a key ring while we had a second cup of coffee, bouncing and jangling keys and a bhp shone pendant. Our breakfasts finally arrived and we ate is silence for a while.
Then he asked, "You still have the Starburst?"
"No. Sold her last fall," I told him. "I'd been so busy I just didn't have time to sail. Hated to see her idle."
"`That's too bad," he said. "We had a lot of fun with her, back in school. Later, too. I'd have liked to take her out once more, for old times' sake."
"Say, you haven't seen Julia recently."
"No, not since we broke up. I think she's still going with some guy named Rick. Have you?"
"Yeah. I stopped by last night."
"She was one of the gang-and we've all been drifting apart.
"How was she?"
"Still looking good. She asked about you. Gave me this ...to give to you, too."
He withdrew a sealed envelope from inside his jacket and passed it to me. It bore my name, in her handwriting. I tore it open and read:
Merle, I. was wrong: I know who you are and there is danger. I have to see you. I have something you will nod. It is very important. Please call or come by as soon as you can.
˙˙˙˙˙ Love, Julia
"Thanks," I said, opening my pack and filing it.
It was puzzling as well as unsettling. In the extreme. I'd have to decide what to do about it later. I still liked her more than I cared to think about, but I wasn't sure I wanted to see her again. But what did she mean about knowing who I am?
I pushed her out of my mind, again.
I watched the traffic for a time and drank coffee and thought about how I'd first met Luke, in our freshman year, in the Fencing Club. He was unbelievably good.
"Still fence?" I asked him.
"Sometimes. How about you?"
"We never really did find out who was better."
"No time now," I said.
He chuckled and poked his knife at me a few times. "I guess not. When are you leaving?"
"Probably tomorrow. I' m just cleaning up a few odds and ends. When that's done I'll go."
"Where are you heading?"
"Here and there. Haven't decided on everything yet."
"Um-hm. Wanderjahr is what they used to call it. I missed out on mine and I want it now."
"Actually it does sound pretty nice. Maybe I ought to try it myself sometime."
"Maybe so. I thought you took your in installments, though."
"What do you mean?"
"I wasn't the only one who used to take off a lot."
"Oh, that." He dismissed it with the wave, of a hand. "that was business, not pleasure. Had to do some deals to pay the bills. You going to see your folks?"
Strange question. Neither of us had ever spoken of our parents before, except in the most general terms.
"I don't think so," I said. "How're yours?"
He caught my gaze and held it, his chronic smile widening slightly.
"Hard to say," he replied. "We're kind of out of touch."
I smiled, too.
"I know the feeling."
We finished our food, had a final coffee. .
"So you won't be talking to Miller?" he asked.
He shrugged again. The check came by and he picked it up:
"This one's on me," he said. "After all, I'm working."
"Thanks. Maybe I can get back at you for dinner. Where're you staying?"
"Wait." He reached into his shirt pocket, took out a matchbook, tossed it to me. "There. New Line Motel," he said.
"Say I come by about six?"
He settled up and we parted on the street.
"See you," he said.
"Yeah." Bye-bye, Luke Raynard. Strange man. We'd known each other for almost eight years. Had some good times. Competed in a number of sports. Used to jog together almost every day We'd both been on the track team. Dated the same girls sometimes. I wondered about him again--strong, smart, and as private a person as myself. There was a bond between us, one that I didn't fully understand.
I walked back to my apartment's parking lot and checked under my car's hood and frame before I tossed my pack inside and started the engine. I drove slowly, looking at things that had been fresh and new eight years before, saying good-bye to them now. During the past week I had said it to all of the people who had mattered to me. Except for Julia.
It was one of those things I felt like putting off, but there was no time. It was either now or not at all, and my curiosity had been piqued. I pulled into a shopping mall's lot and located a pay phone, but there was no answer when I rang her number. I supposed she could be working full-time on a dayshift again, but she could also be taking a shower or be out shopping. I decided to drive on over to her place and see. It wasn't that far. And whatever it was that she had for me, picking it up would be a good excuse for seeing her this one last time.
I cruised the neighborhood for several minutes. before I located a parking space. I locked the car, walked back to the corner, and turned right. The day had grown slightly warmer. Somewhere, dogs were barking.
I strolled on up the block to that huge Victorian house that had been converted into apartments. I couldn't see her windows from the front. She was on the top floor; to the rear. I tried to suppress memories as I passed on up the front walk, but it was no good. Thoughts of our times together came rushing back along with a gang of old feelings. I halted.. It was silly coming here. Why bother, for something I hadn't even missed. Still ...
Hell. I wanted to see her one more time. I wasn't going ' to back out now. I mounted the steps and crossed the porch. The door was open a crack so I walked in.
Same foyer. Same tired-looking potted violet, dust on its leaves, on the chest before the gilt-framed mirror-the mirror that had reflected our embrace, slightly warped, many times. My face rippled as I went by.
I climbed the green-™arpeted stairs. A dog began howling somewhere out back.
The first landing was unchanged. I walked the short hallway, past the drab etchings and the old end table, turned 'and mounted the second staircase. Halfway up I heard a scratching noise from overhead and a sound like a bottle or a vase rolling on a hardwood floor. Then silence again, save for a few gusts of wind about the eaves. A faint apprehension stirred within me and I quickened my pace. I halted at the head of the stairway and nothing looked to be out of order, but with my next inhalation a peculiar odor came to me. I couldn't place it-sweat, must, damp dirt perhaps-certainly something organic.
I moved then to Julia's door and waited for several moments. The odor seemed stronger there, but I heard no new sounds.
I rapped softly on the dark wood. For a moment it seemed that I heard someone stirring within, but only for a moment. I knocked again.
"Julia?" I called out. "It's me Merle."
I knocked louder.
Something fell with a crash. I tried the doorknob. Locked.
I twisted and jerked and tore the doorknob, the lock plate, and the entire locking mechanism free. I moved immidiately to my left then, past the hinged edge of the door and the frame. I extended my left hand and applied gentle pressure to the upper panel with my fingertips.
I moved the door a few inches inward and paused. No new sounds ensued, and nothing but a slice of wall and floor came into view, with narrow glimpses of a watercolor, the red sofa, the green rug. I eased the door open a little farther. More of the same. And the odor was even stronger.
I took a half step to my right and applied a steady pressure.
I snatched my hand away when she came into view. Lying there. Across the room. Bloody ...
There was blood on tie floor, the rug, a bloody disarray near the corner off to my left. Upset furniture, torn cushions ...
I suppressed an impulse to rush forward.
I took one slow step and then another, all of my senses alert. I crossed the threshold. There was nothing else/no one else in the room. Frakir tightened about my wrist. I should have said something then, but my mind was elsewhere.
I approached and knelt at her side. I felt sick. From the doorway I had not been able to see that half of her face and her right arm were missing. She was not breathing and her carotid was silent. She had on a torn and bloodied peachcolored robe; there was a blue pendant about her neck.
The blood that had spilled beyond the rug onto the hardwood floor was smeared and tracked. They were not human footprints, however, but large, elongated, three-toed things, well padded, clawed.
A draft of which I had been only half-consciously aware-' coming from the opened bedroom door at my back-was suddenly diminished, as the- odor intensified. There came another quick pulsing at my wrist. There was no sound, though. It was absolutely silent, but I knew that it was there.
I spun up out of my kneeling position into a crouch, turning
I saw a large mouthful of big teeth, bloody lips curled back around them. They lined the muzzle belonging to several hundred pounds of doglike creature covered with coarse, moldy-looking yellow fur. Its ears were like clump of fungi, its yellow-orange eyes wide and feral.
As I had no doubt whatever concerning its intentions I hurled the doorknob, which I had been clutching half consciously for the past minute. It glanced off the bony ridge above its left eye without noticeable effect. Still soundlessy the thing sprang at me.
Not even time for a word to Frakir ...
People who work in slaughterhouses know that there is a spot on an animal's forehead to be found by drawing an imaginary line from the right ear to the left eye and another from the left ear to the right eye. They aim the killing blow , an inch or two above the junction of this X. My uncle taught me that. He didn't work in a slaughterhouse, though. Ire just knew how to kill things.
So I spun forward and to the side as it sprang, and I struck a hammer blow at the death spot: It moved even faster than I'd anticipated, however, and when my fist struck it, it was already rushing by Its neck muscles helped it to absorb the force of my blow.
This drew the first sound from it, though-a yelp. It shook its head and turned with great speed then, and it was at me again. Now a low, rumbling growl came up from its chest and its leap was high. I knew that I was not going to be able to sidestep this one.
My uncle had also taught me how to grab a dog by the flesh on the sides of its neck and under the jaws. You need a good grip if it's a big one, and you've got to get it just right. I had no real choice at the moment. If I tried a kick and missed it would probably take off my foot.
My hands shot forward and snaked upward and I braced myself when we met. I was sure it outweighed me and I had to meet its momentum as well.
I'd had visions of losing fingers or a hand, but I got in under the jaw, caught hold and squeezed. I kept my arms extended and leaned into the impact. I was shaken by the force of its lunge, but I was able to maintain my grip and absorb it.
As I listened to the growls and regarded the slavering muzzle a foot or so away from my face I realized that I hadn't thought much beyond this point. With a dog, you might be able to bash its head against anything hard and handy; its carotids are too deeply buried to rely on direct pressure to take it out. But this thing was strong and my grip was already beginning to slip against its frantic twisting. As I held its jaws away from me and kept pushing it upward, I also realized that it was taller than I was when extended along the vertical. I could try for a kick at its soft underside, but I would probably go off balance as well as lose my grip, and then my groin would be exposed to its teeth.
But it twisted free of my left hand, and I had no choice but to use my right or lose it. So I pushed as hard as I could and retreated again. I had been looking. for a weapon, any weapon, but there was nothing handy that would serve.
It Lunged again, coming for my throat, coming too fast and high for me to manage a kick to its head. I couldn't get out of its way either.
Its forelegs were level with my midriff, and I hoped that my uncle had been right about this one too, as I seized them and twisted backward and inward with all of my strength, dropping to one knee to avoid those jaws, chin lowered to protect my throat, my head drawn back. Bones popped and crunched as I twisted and its head lowered almost immediately to attack my wrists. But by then I was already rising, thrusting forward, springing up.
It went over backward, twisted, and almost caught itself. When its paws struck the floor, however, it made a sound halfway between a whimper and a snarl and collapsed forward.
I was about to try for another blow to the skull when it recovered its footing, moving faster than I'd thought it could. It raised its right foreleg immediately upon standing and balanced itself on three legs, still growling, eyes fixed on my own, saliva dampening its lower jaw. I moved slightly to my left, certain that it was about to- rush me yet again, angling my bay, positioning myself in a way that no one had taught me, because I do occasionally have original thoughts.
It was a little slower when it came for me this time. Maybe I could have gone for the skull and gotten it. I don't know because I didn't try. I seized it once more by the neck, and this time it was familiar territory. It would not pull away as it had before in the few moments I needed. Without breaking its momentum I turned and dropped low and thrust and pulled, adding some guidance to its trajectory:
It turned in midair, its back striking the window. With a shattering, splintering sound it passed through, taking most of the frame, the curtain and the curtain rod along with it.
I heard it hit three stories below. When I rose and looked out I saw it twitch a few times and grow still, there on the concrete patio where Julia and I had often had a midnight beer.
I returned to Julia's side and held her hand. I began to realize my anger. Someone had to be behind this. Could it be S again? Was this my April 30 present for this year? I'd a feeling that it was and I wanted to do unto S as I had just done unto the creature that had performed the act. There had to be a reason. There ought to be a clue.
I rose, went to the bedroom, fetched a blanket, and covered Julia with it. Mechanically, I wiped my fingerprints from the fallen doorknob as I began my search of the apartment.
I found them on the mantelpiece between the clock and a stack of paperbacks dealing with the occult. The moment I touched them and felt their coldness I realized that this was even more serious than I had thought. They had to be the thing of mine she'd had that I would be needing-only they were not really mine, though as I riffled through I recognized them on one level and was puzzled by them on another. They were cards, Trumps, like yet unlike any I had ever seen before.
It was not a complete deck. Just a few cards, actually, and strange. I slipped them into my side pocket quickly when I heard the siren. Time for solitaire later.
I tore down the stairs and out the back door, encountering no one. Fido still lay where he had fallen and all the neighborhood dogs were discussing it. I vaulted fences and tram
pled flowerbeds, cutting through backyards on my way over to the side street where I was parked.
Minutes later I was miles away, trying to scrub the bloody pawprints from my memory.,