Our Lady of Darkness

Chapter 16

In his next instant of awareness, Franz heard a hollow chunk and a faint tinkling, and he was searching the dark sea of roofs with his naked eyes to try to locate anywhere a swift pale brown thing stalking him across them and taking advantage of every bit of cover: a chimney and its cap, a cupola, a water tank, a penthouse large or tiny, a thick standpipe, a wind scoop, a ventilator hood, hood of a garbage chute, a skylight, a roof's low walls, the low walls of an airshaft. His heart was pounding and his breathing fast. His frantic thoughts took another turn and he was scanning the slopes before and beside him, and the cover their rocks and dry bushes afforded. Who knew how fast a paramental traveled? as a cheetah? as sound? as light? It could well be back here on the heights already. He saw his binoculars below the rock against which he'd unintentionally hurled them when he'd thrust out his hands convulsively to keep the thing out of his eyes. He scrambled to the top. From the green field below the little girls were gone, and their chaperone and the other couple and the three animals. But even as he was noticing that, a large dog (one of the Dobermans? or something else?) loped across it toward him and disappeared behind a clump of rocks at the base of the slope. He'd thought of running down that way, but not if that dog (and what others? and what else?) were on the prowl. There was too much cover on this side of Corona Heights. He stepped quickly down and stood on his stone seat and made himself hold still and look out squintingly until he found the slot where his window was. It was full of darkness, so that even with his binoculars he wouldn't have been able to see anything. He dropped down to the path, taking advantage of handholds, and while shooting rapid looks around, picked up his broken binoculars and jammed them in his pocket, though he didn't like the way the loose glass in them tinkled a little - or the gravel grated under his careful feet, for that matter. Such small sounds could give away a person's whereabouts. One instant of awareness couldn't change your life this much, could it? But it had. He tried to straighten out his reality, while not letting down his guard. To begin with, there were no such things as paramental entities, they were just part of de Castries's 1890s pseudoscience. But he had seen one, and as Saul had said, there was no reality except an individual's immediate sensations - vision, hearing, pain, those were real. Deny your mind, deny your sensations, and you deny reality. Even to try to rationalize was to deny. But of course there were false sensations, optical and other illusions... Really, now! Try telling a tiger springing upon you he's an illusion. Which left exactly hallucination and, to be sure, insanity. Parts of inner reality... and who was to say how far inner reality went? As Saul had also said, "Who's going to believe a crazy if he says he's just seen a ghost? Inner or outer reality? Who's to tell then?" In any case, Franz told himself, he must keep firmly in mind that he might now be crazy - without letting down his guard one bit on that account either! All the while that he was thinking these thoughts, he was moving watchfully, carefully, and yet quite rapidly down the slope, keeping a little off the gravel path so as to make less noise, ready to leap aside if something rushed him. He kept darting glances to either side and over his shoulder, noting points of concealment and the distances to them. He got the impression that something of considerable size was following him, something that was wonderfully clever in making its swift moves from one bit of cover to the next, something of which he saw (or thought he saw) only the edges. One of the dogs? Or more than one? Perhaps urged on by rapt-faced, fleet-footed little girls. Or... ? He found himself picturing the dogs as spiders as furry and as big. Once in bed, her limbs and breasts pale in the dawn's first light, Cal had told him a dream in which two big borzois following her had changed into two equally large and elegant creamy-furred spiders. What if there were an earthquake now (he must be ready for anything) and the brown ground opened in smoking cracks and swallowed his pursuers up? And himself, too? He reached the foot of the crest and soon was circling past the Josephine Randall Junior Museum. His sense of being pursued grew less - or rather of being pursued at such close distance. It was good to be close to human habitations again, even if seemingly empty ones, and even though buildings were objects that things could hide behind. This was the place where they taught the boys and girls not to be afraid of rats and bats and giant tarantulas and other entities. Where were the children anyhow? Had some wise Pied Piper led them all away from this menaced locality? Or had they piled into the "Sidewalk Astronomer" panel truck and taken off for other stars? What with earthquakes and eruptions of large pale spiders and less wholesome entities, San Francisco was no longer very safe. Oh, you fool, watch! watch! As he left the low building behind him and descended the hillside ramp and went past the tennis courts and finally reached the short dead-end cross street that was the boundary of Corona Heights, his nerves quieted down somewhat and his whirling thoughts, too, though he got a dreadful start when he heard from somewhere a sharp squeal of rubber on asphalt and thought for a moment that the parked car at the other end of the cross street had started for him, steered by its two little tombstone headrests . Approaching Beaver Street by way of a narrow public stairway between two buildings, he had another quick vision of a local quake behind him and of Corona Heights convulsed but intact, and then lifting up its great brown shoulders and rocky head, and shaking the Josephine Randall Junior Museum off its back, preparatory to stalking down into the city. As he descended Beaver Street, he began to encounter people at last; not many, but a few. He remembered as if from another lifetime his intention to visit Byers (he'd even phoned) and debated whether to go through with it. He'd never been here before, his previous meetings in San Francisco with the man had been at a mutual friend's apartment in the Haight. Cal had said someone had told her it was a spooky place, but it didn't look that from the outside with its fresh olive-green paint and thin gold trim. His mind was made up for him when an ambulance on Castro, which he'd just crossed, let loose with its yelping siren on approaching Beaver, and the foul nerve-twanging sound growing suddenly unendurably loud as the vehicle crossed Beaver, fairly catapulted Franz up the steps to the faintly gold-arabesqued olive door and set him pounding the bronze knocker that was in the shape of a merman. He realized that the idea of going somewhere other than home appealed to him. Home was as dangerous as - perhaps more dangerous than - Corona Heights. After a maddeningly long pause the polished brass knob turned, the door began to open, and a voice grandiloquent as that of Vincent Price at his fruitiest said, "Here's a knocking indeed. Why, it's Franz Westen. Come in, come in. But you look shaken, my dear Franz, as if that ambulance had delivered you. What have the wicked, unpredictable streets done now?" As soon as Franz was reasonably sure that the neatly bearded, rather theatric visage was Byers's, he pressed past him, saying, "Shut the door. I am shaken," while he scanned the richly furnished entry and the large, glamorous room opening from it and the thickly carpeted stairs ahead going up to a landing mellow with light that had come through stained glass, and the dark hall beyond the stairs. Behind him, Byers was saying, "All in good time. There, it's locked, and I've even thrown a bolt, if that makes you feel better. And now some wine? Fortified, your condition would seem to call for. But tell me at once if I should call a doctor, so we won't have that fretting us." They were facing each other now. Jaime Donaldus Byers was about Franz's age, somewhere in the mid-forties, medium tall, with the easy, proud carriage of an actor. He wore a pale green Nehru jacket faintly embroidered in gold, similar trousers, leather sandals, and a long, pale violet dressing gown, open but belted with a narrow sash. His well-combed auburn hair hung to his shoulders. His Vandyke beard and narrow moustache were neatly trimmed. His palely sallow complexion, noble brow, and large liquid eyes were Elizabethan, suggesting Edmund Spenser. And he was clearly aware of all this. Franz, whose attention was still chiefly elsewhere, said, "No, no doctor. And no alcohol, this time, Donaldus. But if I could have some coffee, black..." "My dear Franz, at once. Just come with me into the living room. Everything's there. But what is it that has shaken you? What's chasing you?" "I am afraid," Franz said curtly and then added quickly, "of paramentals." "Oh, is that what they're calling the big menace these days?" Byers said lightly, but his eyes had narrowed sharply first. "I'd always thought it was the Mafia. Or the CIA? Or something from your own 'Weird Underground,' some novelty? And there's always reliable Russia. I am up to date only sporadically. I live firmly in the world of art, where reality and fantasy are one." And he turned and led the way into the living room, beckoning Franz to follow. As he stepped forward, Franz became aware of a melange of scents: freshly brewed coffee, wines and liqueurs, a heavy incense and some sharper perfume. He thought fleetingly of Saul's story of the Invisible Nurse and glanced toward the stairs and back hall, now behind him. Byers motioned Franz to select a seat, while he busied himself at a heavy table on which stood slender bottles and two small steaming silver urns. Franz recalled Peter Viereck's poetry line, "Art, like the bartender, is never drunk," and briefly recalled the years when bars had been places of refuge for him from the terrors and agonies of the outside world. But this time fear had come inside with him.

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