Our Lady of Darkness

Chapter 25

Franz found himself standing in the hall facing his closed door. His body was trembling very slightly all over - a general fine tremor. Then he realized why he had come out here. It was to check the number on the door, the small dark oblong on which was incised in pale gray, "607." He wanted to see it actually and to see his room from the outside (and incidentally dissociate himself from the curse, get off the target). He got the feeling that if he knocked just now (as Clark Smith must have knocked so many times on this same door) Thibaut de Castries would open it, his sunk-cheeked face a webwork of fine gray wrinkles as if it has been powdered with fine ashes. If he went back in without knocking, it would be as he'd left it. But if he knocked, then the old spider would wake... He felt vertigo, as if the building were beginning to lean over with him inside it, to rotate ever so slowly, at least at first. The feeling was like earthquake panic. He had to orient himself at once, he told himself, to keep himself from falling over with 811. He went down the dark hall (the bulb inside the globe over the elevator door was still out) past the black broom closet, the black-painted window of the airshaft, the elevator itself, and softly up the stairs two flights, gripping the banister to keep his balance, and under the peaked skylight of the stairwell into the sinister black room that housed under a larger skylight the elevator's motor and relays, the Green Dwarf and the Spider, and so out onto the tarred and graveled roof. The stars were in the sky where they should be, though naturally dimmed somewhat by the glare of the gibbous moon, which was in the top of the sky a little to the south. Orion and Aldebaran climbed the east. Polaris was at his unchanging spot. All round about stretched the angular horizon, crenellated with high rises and skyscrapers marked rather sparsely with red warning and yellow window lights, as if somewhat aware of the need to conserve energy. A moderate wind was from the west. His dizziness gone at least, Franz moved toward the back of the roof, past the mouths of the air shafts that were like walled square wells, and watchful for the low vent pipes covered with heavy wire netting that were so easy to trip over, until he stood at the roof's west edge above his room and Cal's. One of his hands rested on the low wall. Off a short way behind him was the airshaft that dropped straight down by the black window he'd passed in the hall and the corresponding ones above and below it on the other floors. Opening on the same shaft, he recalled, were the bathroom windows of another set of apartments and also a vertical row of quite small windows that could only let into the disused broom closets, originally to give them some light, he supposed. He looked west at the flashing reds of the Tower and at the irregularly rounded darkness of the Heights. The wind freshened a little. He thought at last, this is the Rhodes Hotel. I live at 607 Rhodes, the place I've hunted for everywhere else. There's really no mystery at all about it. Behind me is the Transamerica Pyramid (5). (He looked over his shoulder at it where its single red light flashed bright and its lighted windows were as narrow as the holes in a business-machine card.) In front of me (he turned back) are the TV tower (4) and the crowned and hunchbacked eminence (1) where the old spider king's ashes lie buried, as they say. And I am at the fulcrum (0) of the curse. As he fatalistically told himself that, the stars seemed to grow dimmer still, a sickly pallor, and he felt a sickness and a heaviness within himself and all around, as if the freshening wind had blown something malignant out of the west to this dark roof, as if some universal disease or cosmic pollution were spiraling from Corona Heights to the whole cityscape and so up to the stars, infecting even Orion and the Shield - as if with the stars' help he'd been getting things in place and now something was refusing to stay in its appointed spot, refusing to stay buried and forgotten, like Daisy's cancer, and interfering with the rule of number and order in the universe. He heard a sudden scuffing and a scuttling sound behind him and he spun around. Nothing there, nothing that he could see, and yet - . He moved to the nearest airshaft and looked down. Moonlight penetrated it as far as his floor, where the little window to the broom closet was open. Below that, it was very dimly lit from two of the bathroom windows - indirect light seeping from the living rooms of those apartments. He heard a sound as of an animal snuffing, or was that his own heavy breathing reflected by the echoing sheet-iron? And he fancied he saw (but it was very dim) something with rather too many limbs moving about, rapidly down and up. He jerked his head back and then up, as if looking to the stars for help, but they seemed as lonely and uncaring as the very distant windows a lone man sees who is about to be murdered on a moor or sink into the Great Grimpen Marsh at dead of night. Panic seized him and he rushed back the way he'd come. As he passed through the black room of the elevator, the big copper switches snapped loudly and the relay arms clashed grindingly, hurrying his flight as if there were a monster Spider snapping at his heels at a Green Dwarf's groaning commands. He got some control of himself going down the stairs, but on his own floor as he passed the black-painted window (near the dark ceiling globe) he got the feeling there was something supremely agile crouched against the other side of it, clinging in the airshaft, something midway between a black panther and a spider monkey, but perhaps as many-limbed as a spider and perhaps with the creviced, ashen face of Thibaut de Castries, about to burst in through the wire-toughened glass . And as he passed the black door of the broom closet, he remembered the small window opening from it into the shaft, that would not be too small for such a creature. And how the broom closet itself was right up against the wall that ran along the inside of his couch. How many of us in a big city, he asked himself, know anything about what lies in or just on the other side of the outer walls of our apartments - often the very wall against which we sleep? - as hidden and unreachable as our internal organs. We can't even trust the walls that guard us. In the hall, the broom closet door seemed suddenly to bulge. For a frantic moment he thought he'd left his keys in his room, then he found them in his pocket and located the right one on the ring and got the door open and himself inside and the door double-locked behind him against whatever might have followed him from the roof. But could he trust his room with its open window? No matter how unreachable the latter was in theory. He searched the place again, this time finding himself impelled to view each volume of space. Even pulling the file drawers out and peering behind the folders did not make him feel embarrassed. He searched his clothes cabinet last and so thoroughly that he discovered on its floor against the wall behind some boots an unopened bottle of kirschwasser he must have squirreled away there over a year ago when he was still drinking. He glanced toward the window with its crumbles of ancient paper and found himself picturing de Castries when he'd lived here. The old spider had doubtless sat before the window for long hours, viewing his grave-to-be on Corona Heights with forested Mount Sutro beyond. And had he previsioned the tower that would rise there? The old spiritualists and occultists believed that the astral remains, the odic dust, of a person lingered on in rooms where he'd lived. What else had the old spider dreamed about there? rocking his body in the chair a little. His days of glory in pre-Earthquake Frisco? The men and women he had teased to suicide, or tucked under various fulcrums to be crushed? His father (Afric adventurer or hayseed printer), his black panther (if he'd ever had one, let alone several) his young Polish mistress (or slim girl-Anima), his Veiled Lady? If only there were someone to talk to and free him from these morbid thoughts! If only Cal and the others would get back from the concert. But his wristwatch indicated that it was only a few minutes past nine. Hard to believe his room searches and roof visit had taken so little time, but the second hand of his wristwatch was sweeping around steadily in almost imperceptibly tiny jerks. The thought of the lonely hours ahead made him feel desperate and the bottle in his hand with its white promise of oblivion tempted him, but the dread of what might happen when he had made himself unarousable was still greater. He set the cherry brandy down beside yesterday's mail, also still unopened, and his prisms and slate. He'd thought the last was blank, but now he fancied he saw faint marks on it. He took it and the chalk and prisms lying on it over to the lamp at the head of his couch. He'd thought of switching on the 200-watt ceiling light, but somehow he didn't like the idea of having his window stand out that glaringly bright, perhaps for a watcher on Corona Heights. There were spidery chalk marks on the slate - a half dozen faint triangles that narrowed toward the downward corner, as if someone or some force had been lightly outlining (the chalk perhaps moving like the planchette of a ouija board) the snouted face of his paramental. And now the chalk and one of the prisms were jumping about like planchettes, his hands holding the slate were shaking so. His mind was almost paralyzed - almost blanked - by sudden fear, but a free corner of it was thinking how a white five-pointed star with one point directed upward (or outward) is supposed in witchcraft to protect a room from the entry of evil spirits as if the invading entity would be spiked on the star's upward (or outward) point, and so he was hardly surprised when he found that he'd put down the slate on the end of his piled coffee table and was chalking such stars on the sills of his windows, the open one and the locked one in the bathroom, and above his door. He felt distantly ridiculous, but didn't even consider not completing the stars. In fact, his imagination ran on to the possibility of even more secret passageways and hiding places in the building than the airshafts and broom closets (there would have been a dumbwaiter and a laundry chute in the Rhodes Hotel and who knows what auxiliary doors) and he became bothered that he couldn't inspect the back walls of the closet and clothes cabinet more clearly, and in the end he closed the doors of both and chalked a star above them - and a small star above the transom. He was considering chalking one more star on the wall by his couch where it abutted the broom closet in the hall, when there sounded at his door a sharp knock-knock. He put on the chain before he opened it the two inches which that allowed.

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