The pain came first, a throbbing in his arms and along his spine. Peter tried to open his eyes but saw nothing. Black. He tried again and felt himself blink. Nothing.
I’m blind, he thought. The panic crashed over him like a monster wave from the surfing days of his youth. He tried to move and the ache in his arms became a searing pain. He felt something dig into his wrists, threatening to tear off his skin.
He was hanging, feet barely able to touch what felt like a concrete floor, his arms taut overhead.
“Help!” The shout was pathetic, hardly a whisper escaped his lips. He was thirsty, God so thirsty. He was aware now that even breathing made him feel like he was swallowing razor blades.
“Hey!” His second attempt to be heard was more worthless than the first. Worse, his head had begun to spin. He felt his pulse throbbing behind his eyes and knew that he was about to lose consciousness again.
Just as darkness gave way to oblivion, he realized he was naked.
“Peter, I asked if you were all right?” Jack’s words shook him out of his memories.
“Oh. Fine,” he said. He turned away from the highway map he was studying and looked out the windows, into the growing gloom of street beyond.
“You seem, distant.”
Peter didn’t turn to look at his friend. He didn’t have to. It wouldn’t be difficult for his partner to guess where his mind had been.
“I understand,” Jack said. Peter had no doubt about that. He’d told Jack everything about the three days he’d spent with the Sandman, things he’d withheld from the Bureau, his shrink, even his first wife. Not just the raw facts, but how he’d felt, what had gone on in his mind during that long nightmare. Peter shook his head.
“Not the best time to be nostalgic,” he said.
“Given the circumstances, it’s not surprising.” Jack leaned on the counter and Peter finally turned to look at him. His friend’s face was solemn, thoughtful. And kind.
“This isn’t Jonesville,” Jack said. “And you’re not alone.”
“I know.” Peter looked down at the map and traced his finger along the various routes. The hotel kept a number of maps on file, to assist guests in navigating the area. He’d procured this one from Todd and was trying to get the lay of the land.
“Where’s the road Joe took?” Jack asked.
“He seems adamant that we not refer to him as a deputy.”
“He’s ashamed,” Jack said. “He thinks he abandoned his duties and was just trying to get out like everyone else.”
“No. He didn’t leave the woman or his partner behind. And from what I understand, the woman was in no place to evacuate herself.”
“He said she was out of it, catatonic.”
Jack pursed his lips. “After hearing something on the phone.” He looked back at the map. “He was possessed by the same panic we all felt, but he had enough control to get the others he was with to safety.”
Peter didn’t want to debate Joe’s reaction further. A little shame of his own had been worrying his heart, like rats gnawing through the walls. He hadn’t been in his own mind either when he and Jack made their run for the hotel. His mind kept returning to a single question. What if someone, anyone, had stood between him and that small promise of safety? He didn’t like the answers he taunted himself with.
He pointed at a thin black line on the map, changing the subject. “This is Culver Road. There’s a fork here, one branch hitting the highway in less than a mile, the other runs almost parallel to it before connecting up four or five miles outside the city limits.”
“And he took the road less traveled.”
“Based on what he told me, this is about where the road went nowhere.”
“Do we believe him?”
“Do you?” Peter looked at Jack and watched as his friend’s shoulders sagged. Jack seemed willing to accept everything going on around them without the slightest hesitation, and Peter was hating that acceptance more and more.
On their way into town, he had felt frustrated, even jealous of how easily his friend fell into a groove. As things became more and more surreal, Jack hadn’t lost his balance even once and Peter’s sense of being left behind had only grown.
“What’s on your mind, Peter?”
“I need to know what I’m dealing with before I can even think straight.”
“And you think I know more than I’ve told you.” Jack’s words weren’t a question.
“It feels that way.”
“I don’t know anything more than you do. I’m just-”
“Feeling it out as you go along.” Peter’s left hand had taken up a corner of the map and he realized he’d been squeezing it tightly, his fingers curled in a fist. He loosened his grip on the paper and tried to fight against the tide of his frustration.
“On the way from the airport, you told me you never thought that what I do, how I do it, was easy for me,” Jack said. “It is and it isn’t. Sometimes, things just sort of get laid out for me, all the ducks in a neat little row. Other times, it’s just images, hunches.”
“Which prove out correct.”
“Not always,” Jack insisted. “I’m wrong more than I’m right.”
“That’s not my experience, Jack.”
“Because I don’t spout off every little theory.” Jack raised his hand, gesturing to the lobby, the hotel, maybe the whole town. “This is completely beyond my experience. We’re in the middle of a supernatural event.”
“So we’re going there?” Peter shook his head. He couldn’t swallow it, even as the better part of his brain was telling him that no rational explanation existed.
“If we take everything we’ve seen at face value, there’s nothing else,” Jack said. “So yes, I’m feeling it out as I go. If what we are seeing now contradicts our previous experiences, then we can’t come at it with any expectations. I’m accepting what I see, because there’s no alternative.”
“So what do you see?”
“I see two people in this hotel who do know more than they should,” Jack said. Peter was quiet for a moment.
“Jenny and David,” he said at last.
“Jenny and David.”
Peter woke up, the throbbing in his arms and back replaced by numbness, at least for the moment. He shifted slowly this time, letting his feet take the weight from his arms. His head was hanging limply and he had the presence of mind to bring it up with care. His mind was thick with fog and confusion.
He blinked twice and forced himself to stare into the nothing. Almost immediately he felt fear begin to stir his guts. The idea of blindness terrified him, lacking sight, he wanted to scream but he held his breath.
He saw shapes. At first they might have only been his imagination, but after an unknown number of minutes, his eyes adjusted to the gloom. He was in the dark, not the absolute darkness of a cave he’d once explored in California, but the darkness of a cellar without a light bulb.
I’m in a basement.
Peter carefully turned his head to the left, feeling the muscles in his neck and shoulders beginning to rise up in protests of pain. He slowed his movement even more, until his eyes found a window.
It was near the ceiling, only six or eight inches high and a foot and a half wide. A cellar window, the panes of glass painted black, yet the paint job wasn’t perfect. Slivers of light hung suspended at the edges, not the full bright of mid-day, but a shade brighter than twilight. Mid-morning or late afternoon.
How long have I been here? Peter wondered.
With the first question asked, the floodgates opened wide. His mind was wracked by an endless series of questions. Where was he? Why was he there? What was the last thing he could remember?
He shook his head to clear it. A mistake. What little of the room he could see began to spin away. He closed his eyes, hard enough to cause pain.
Stay here! Stay awake!
Peter opened his eyes again, greeting the gloom with new swirls of color. The feeling of lightheadedness passed. He forced a deep breath, his throat still stinging from dehydration. The air smelled musty, damp and forgotten. The scent of the cellar made it easy to believe that he’d never leave that place. Fear crept out of the shadows and threatened to devour him like an unseen predator. He forced himself to focus.
What’s the last thing I can remember?
The answer didn’t come. He stood, stared into the imperfect dark and thought. That first piece had to be there. Where was he?
My car. I was in my car.
He’d pulled another late night at the Bureau. Janet was going to be pissed. She’d given him an ultimatum, he’d given her a promise and he’d broken his word.
“I’m tired of competing,” she’d said. “You’re having an affair with these killers and rapists and-“
“This is my job, Janet! It’s how I support us!”
“You think I care about a fucking paycheck? You’re not here, Peter! You’re never here!”
The memory stung, but not as much as the thought that he might not ever see his wife again. His marriage was in tatters, his wife was probably packing her bags even as he hung in that awful place and he wanted nothing more than to be there, begging her to stay.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.
He heard something.
Peter stared ahead into the darkness. He’d heard something. A thud, soft, almost silent. Another thing that could have been his imagination but wasn’t. It was the sound of a door closing.
“Hello?” Silence. Then what might have been the faintest sound his ears had ever heard. A quiet rustle of fabric that conjured up images of ghosts. He was no longer alone in the darkness.
Ahead and just to his left, he saw a new shape. It looked like the outline of a person. It moved closer to him, slow, quiet. The darkness played tricks with his eyes, making it impossible for him to judge the distance but he lashed out with his bare foot anyway, filled with a terror beyond description.
He screamed out of fear and out of the shocking pain that erupted from his arms and wrists. He was gripped with the mad certainty that the shadow coming toward him wasn’t that of a human at all. It was the shadow of thing that wore the appearance of a human like a suit of ill-fitting clothes.
His foot found nothing but air and the kick set him off balance. He spun, his bonds cutting his wrists and twisting him about. Pain.
“Hello, Peter.” The voice in the dark was like the rustling of dead leaves. Hideous and not at all sane.
“Who are you?” Peter’s throat tore at the effort those three small words demanded.
Peter heard a squeaking sound, then a sound like a whisper. An instant later he felt water hit him in the face. His captor was using a spray bottle, watering him like a plant. Peter was beyond caring, his survival instincts kicking in. He opened his mouth wide, tongue flashing out to lick and suck at the water being offered. He grunted and realized with shame that he would beg for more if his captor demanded it.
When he had slaked his thirst, the man with the bottle somehow sensed it. He stopped and the cellar fell silent again, save for Peter’s breathing. He panted like a dog, with water dripping from his face and already thinning hair.
“Who are you?” Peter asked again, his voice coming more easily, the pain gone from his throat.
“Hush now, Peter. We’ll talk tomorrow.”
“What? No!” Peter saw the shadow move away.
“No! Jesus no! Don’t leave me here!”
He heard the sound of the door again.
“He’s acting weird,” Sam said.
Peter and Jack had chosen to bring her into their circle of trust. Peter had his reservations, having cultivated a well-reasoned dislike of journalists, but Jack had convinced him. Apart from them, she was the only one who seemed to be thinking critically about their situation, not just reacting to it. Her, and the two others they were speaking of.
“How well do you know David?” Jack asked.
“I’ve exchanged a few messages with him online and we had breakfast together this morning.”
“Are you dating?” Peter asked.
“He’s a source,” she said, giving him a look. “I don’t fuck my sources.”
“What do you think he knows?”
Sam shrugged. “Whatever was learned at the autopsy, plus your conversation with the medical examiner.”
“He wasn’t in the room for that,” Peter said.
“He knows,” she said. “Let’s just leave it at that.” She turned and looked around the lobby. David and Jenny had left the room a while ago and still hadn’t returned. “Where is he, anyway?”
“He and the redhead snuck off to the kitchen for some privacy,” Peter said. Sam cocked an eyebrow at that.
“What? You mean to have sex?”
“That appeared to be their intention.”
“With a dead body less than twenty feet away?”
“I don’t know that would have bothered either of them,” Peter said, though the moment he said it, he was struck by the absurdity of the idea. Doubt shattered his previous certainty, replaced it with the embarrassment of a man who’d been taken in a confidence game.
“But you’re right,” he said. “I think I swallowed a line.”
“Are they even still in the hotel?” Jack asked. The three of them looked at each other. Peter sighed. He felt like an idiot. The second Jenny flashed him, he’d lost his senses, all doubt as to what she’d said had left him in an instant.
“Fuck,” he said. “Let’s go see.”
“How long are these emergency lights going to last?” Sam asked. “It’s going to be pitch dark outside in about ten minutes.”
“Have no fear,” Peter said. He walked around the counter and lifted a canvas tote bag he’d taken from the drug store. It was heavy. He set it on the counter and opened it, revealing the batteries, flashlights and six pairs of walkie-talkies he’d taken from the store.
“Shit, I didn’t even think about that when we were there,” Sam said. He smiled at her. For the first time since he’d arrived in Cedar Mills, he felt like he’d been on top of something. Thinking to grab some flashlights was a small prize in the grand scheme of things, but he clung to it anyway.
“We should pass these out,” Peter said, waving two sets of walkie-talkies. “They’re for kids, mainly, but these claim to have a decent range.
“Think we’ll get anything?” Sam asked.
“Don’t know until we try. Joe said the radio in his van was dead, but who knows. Maybe short range will work.” Peter set the walkie-talkies off to the side and began to set up one of the flashlights. Jack and Sam followed suit.
“Let’s just stick together for now and see if we can find the doctor and his girlfriend,” Peter said. For an instant, he thought Sam’s expression stiffened. He wondered what the depth of her relationship to David really was.
“You said David was acting weird,” he said. “What did you mean?”
“He’s…distant. Like he’s holding himself back. It seems out of character.”
“But you don’t know him that well.”
“No,” she said. “But I’m good at reading people.”
“I bet that comes in handy.” Peter felt himself relax. He’d begun to get his bearings somehow. Maybe he was still riding the unreasonable high Sam’s remark had given him, but he began to think he was getting his footing. He didn’t know what was going on or what the night would bring, but he felt more certain of his ability to handle it.
“Go with the flow,” he said. Sam looked at him puzzled, but Jack smiled.
“Go with the flow,” his friend echoed.
“Hey, Todd.” The hotel manager walked over to Peter at once. “We seem to have misplaced our doctor and his lady friend. Jack, Sam and I are going to take a look for them.”
“Flashlights,” Todd said, picking one of them up.
“I grabbed six of them,” Peter said. “We’ll take three now, can you set the others up and see if you can get these working?” Peter pointed to the walkie-talkies and Todd nodded.
“Sure,” he said. “What are we going to do about sleep?”
Peter shrugged. “We haven’t thought that far ahead yet.”
“I could have Rosalie fetch some blankets and pillows from the closets down here, set something up in the dining room.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
“Hey!” Derrick’s voice rang out. Peter looked over and saw he’d risen to his feet. “There’s a light out there!” The group turned as one and looked out the window.
A streetlight had come on across from the hotel, the only light in the night which had at last descended upon them.
“Streetlights with battery backups?” Jack wondered.
“No,” Todd said. “We don’t have anything like that here.”
“It’s just the one,” Sam said. Peter took a step forward, an act which seemed to take more courage than it should have. They all began to creep closer to the windows and the front door. The light outside winked out and they stopped.
“Is it some kind of short?” Someone asked.
The light came on again. It was brighter now, brighter than any streetlight Peter had seen before.
“What the fuck?” Derrick whispered. They began to move again, taking slow steps, as if they were trying to sneak up on the light.
At the window, they saw the streetlight clearly. No other lights were in view, not even a single star at least some of which should be visible by then. The lamp mounted on the pole across the street cast an almost perfect circle of light onto the pavement below. The street was empty, still.
The light winked off, taking their view away, the emergency lights in the hotel lobby turning the front windows into mirrors which showed only their reflections. Peter didn’t like the expressions he saw, least of all his own.
The streetlight blazed again, the glow pouring down onto the street.
A blood curdling scream filled the night outside.
“Someone’s out there,” Curtis whispered.
He was exhausted but sleep was no longer an option. Peter understood that he’d been drugged before. Drugged. Somehow his abductor had sedated him when he brought him to that place. The chemical turned his memories into fog and he knew nothing concrete between that moment when he’d gotten into his car to go home, and the moment he woke up in the dark hell that surrounded him.
Peter had slipped the drug’s hold, the only sign of its touch a faint lightheadedness that dimmed in comparison to the fear he felt. He was trapped, naked and hanging from a thick wooden beam. His surroundings were more visible now, his eyes having fully adjusted to the absence of light, but the objects he saw were of little help in solving the mysteries before him.
Why he’d been taken, who had taken him and where he was were all unanswered questions. He was in a cellar, that much was clear. A few boxes, a shelf with jars set against the wall to his right, a wooden door straight ahead of him. These were the sentinels that shared his darkness.
I’m going to die here.
His wrists were secured above his head with a pair of handcuffs which might even be his own. Looking up sent waves of pain through his shoulders and neck, but he studied his bonds just the same. He’d once read a book about prisoners of war and a quote from that text had been rolling through his head for what must have been an hour.
The first duty of the prisoner is to escape.
A large bolt had been driven through the wooden beam above his head. One end was bent into a closed loop of metal, at least half an inch thick. The shackle of a heavy duty padlock had been slipped through it and locked around the chain of the handcuffs. It was a simple arrangement and looked secure enough that Peter felt his slight hope begin to fade.
He stood on the tips of his toes, bent his elbows and flexed his shoulders. He stretched, trying to work his strained muscles. The ache in his left shoulder had worried him almost as much as the raw-meat feeling in his wrists. When his joints moved without much pain, he breathed a sigh of relief. It wasn’t dislocated, just abused.
Peter began to turn then, slowly moving to his left in an almost-circle until he felt the handcuff chain start to twist.
That might work, he thought. The chain’s the weakest part.
He might be able to twist the chain and snap it, if he could find enough leverage and his wrists didn’t break first. He grimaced at the cramp forming between his shoulder blades, but he’d found “Option One” and it brought a little hope with it.
Peter began to turn back to his right, letting his eyes wander from one shadow to the next. The window looked no more secure than any other he’d seen. They weren’t barred or locked and the panes of glass didn’t show any obvious sign that they were thicker or resistant to breakage. It was hard to tell with so little light and the window being so far away, but it looked enough like a way out to satisfy him for the moment.
As he rotated as far to the right as his bonds willingly allowed, he became convinced that he was in the basement of a house. A relatively large home, judging by the foundation, but not an office building or factory.
I could be in a residential neighborhood.
He might be able to shout his way to freedom. As soon as the thought came to him, he put it aside. He hadn’t been gagged and there was no sign his abductor had soundproofed the cellar. There couldn’t be any hope that he’d be heard by anyone other than the man who’d brought him there.
Is it a man?
Peter thought so, but admitted he didn’t know even that with any certainty. His captor’s shadow had been just that, a shadow. And the voice was too inhuman, too awful for him to assign it a gender.
As he considered the little he knew, a more urgent thought crept in. He had to piss. Peter sighed, a lonely, desperate sound to his ears. He shuffled as far to his left as he could, leaned his hips painfully forward and let loose. The stream flowed mercifully away from him as he felt tears spill down his cheeks. He was terrified and humiliated.
He’d been an agent for five years and had seen many victims, too many to count and far more than any compassionate God should have allowed. Images of their faces flooded his mind, a torrent of sadness, confusion and misery. He knew his own face in that dark place must hold the same expression as theirs.
And cruel God or not, he prayed to Him.
Curtis began to move toward the door.
“Don’t,” Sam said, a moment before Peter could open his mouth.
The light winked out and another scream shattered the night.
“Help me! Jesus!”
“There’s no way this is right,” Sam said, shaking her head.
“Jesus Christ,” Derrick whispered. It was an old woman’s scream, filled with agony and terror.
“Dear Jesus, somebody help me!”
“Listen to her!” Curtis shouted. “She needs help!”
“Not a chance,” Jack said. “She’s bait.”
“Bait?” Curtis ran a hand through his hair, gritting his teeth. He took another step toward the door.
“Use your head! That light? Unseen damsel in distress?” Sam pressed. “It’s a trick!”
The light came on, blinding now, impossibly bright. Peter raised his hand to shield his eyes, but he saw the movement anyway.
An old woman lay in the middle of the road, gripping her chest as she tried to crawl toward the hotel. Peter saw splotches of blood on the woman’s pale blue sweater, saw the agony that twisted her face in a pathetic expression of misery.
“It hurts! It hurts!”
Peter felt doubt tickling his nerves, his instincts to help the woman had begun to overload the circuits of his better judgement. He knew Sam was right, that nothing about the scene in front of him was to be believed. He smelled the trap, recognized its scent, but still the bait tugged savagely at his heart.
“Listen to her!” Terri cried out. “We can’t just leave her out there!”
“It’s a fucking trick!” Sam screamed.
Curtis broke, moving forward before Peter could react, even though he was expecting it intended to stop him. He barely had a chance to shift his weight before Curtis’s hand hit the handle on the front door and had it open.
“No!” The shout came from behind them. Peter turned and saw that David had just come through the door from the stairwell. Jenny stood next to him. Her hand leapt up and grabbed the doctor’s shoulder as he tried to run forward.
Peter turned and saw Curtis. He’d opened the front door and stood half in and half out of the lobby, his head turned toward David’s sudden cry. Movement drew away his attention. Peter watched as Curtis turned back to the street outside.
Peter saw a flash above Curtis’s head. In the blink of an eye, the man rose up, yanked off his feet and out of sight with a shriek of horror unlike anything Peter could have imagined. The sound cut out as quickly as Curtis had made it.
The light across the street went dark again.
Peter’s head snapped up. A voice, faint and far away.
It was full dark now, the sun had gone down outside, painting the cellar in a black so absolute it was worse than the blindness he had feared before.
“Hello?” The voice was louder now, a woman’s voice. Or a girl’s.
“Hey!” He shouted, bringing a slight sting back to his throat. He was thirsty again.
“Oh my god! Who are you?” She was screaming now.
“It’s okay!” Peter shouted back, though he knew the thought of anything being “okay” in that place was ridiculous. “My name is Peter Driscoll!”
“Why are you doing this to me?”
Doing this to her? He wondered. Then it hit him. She must have been abducted too, held in another room in the cellar. She thought he was her captor.
“No,” he shouted. “I’m trapped here too! What’s your name!”
“Please, god, let me go!”
“Hey, what’s your name?”
“No! Oh Jesus no! No! No!” Her screams filled his head, pierced his ears like daggers.
He’s torturing her!
“Leave her alone!”
Peter struggled against his bonds, turning to his left. He felt the chain of the handcuffs begin to twist upon itself and he kept going. The metal cuffs dug into his wrists, but he gritted his teeth and kept going, balling his hands into fists.
“No! God! No! Please, no!”
“Fucking bastard!” Peter screamed as he felt fresh blood begin to pour from his already wounded wrists. He had to break free, get to the girl who couldn’t be more than fifteen by the sound of her frantic cries. His feet slipped on the floor. He couldn’t get leverage, couldn’t twist the chain any more. He shrugged off his doubts and pushed with everything he had.
He screamed again as bright light flooded his eyes. He lost his footing and spun, falling, his full weight coming down on his wrists. He howled again in pain and fear as he struggled to regain his balance. Someone was there, standing close enough to touch him.
Peter looked up, his eyes casting wildly about, half-blind from the sudden light. A flashlight, shining in his face. The direction of the beam shifted, illuminating another face.
Standing in front of him he saw someone, though a man or a woman he couldn’t say. All he saw was the mask. White, with flashes of color. A clown mask with a tragic frown painted in red. It looked at him and Peter gasped, kicking away, trying to get distance between himself and the thing before him.
It took two steps back and Peter heard the young girl scream again. Peter’s senses came back to him and he moved to kick the masked monster in front of him. The clown was too far away by then and his foot met only air.
“Please, stop, oh God please!”
“What have you done to her?” Peter kept lashing out, thrusting himself forward. There was only five feet of distance between them, but it might as well have been a mile.
The clown mask tilted then, as the one wearing it cocked his or her head. Peter watched as the thing in front of him raised its right hand, its left still holding the flashlight up like kids might while telling ghost stories at camp.
His captor held a tape recorder.
“Please! No! God! N-“
The clown clicked off the tape and the screams were silenced. Peter stood and stared. The flashlight winked out, leaving him in darkness once more.
Peter began to yell again, though the sounds he made were not words.