Prologue - November 2, 1990
"How are you feeling today, Joan?" Dr. Morton Ayles smiled and tried to look politely interested, but Joan knew that he didn't care. He was just the latest in a long line of psychologists and psychiatrists and other head-shrinkers, none of whom ever seemed to do her any good.
She forced a smile and replied, "I'm all right, I guess. Can't sleep again."
"Bad dreams? Or just a touch of insomnia?" He scribbled down a few notes on his lemon-yellow legal pad.
"Insomnia. I think it might be the medication."
"All right; we'll adjust the dosage, and if that doesn't solve the problem we'll try another med." He settled back into his chair and Joan knew that he was going on auto-pilot, asking the requisite questions for which she would give the expected replies. She knew that she would not tell him the truth, that she dared not. He might think she was crazy.
After an hour or so she left the offce and stepped onto the busy streets of downtown Chicago, no more assured of her sanity than she had been when she had arrived. Trotting up the steps to the elevated train station, she almost ran into a young black man dressed in a pullover sweatshirt. He rushed past her without a word, but then turned to look at her for the briefest of moments... and Joan Kelleigh fainted dead away.
The man's eyes had turned jet black.
When she came to there was a crowd of concerned people gathered around her. A blue-shirted police officer was kneeling over her, saying, "Miss? Are you okay?"
"Oh, God... not again," she mumbled as her eyes focused on the man's face. "Did I faint?"
"Looks that way, miss. Do you need a doctor?"
"No, I'm okay. Really. It's just the medication I'm on, sometimes it does funny things. That's why I don't drive." She avoided his eyes, not wanting to lie but having no choice.
He looked at her for a moment before nodding and helping her to her feet. "All right, but you should probably see a doctor. Sounds like whatever medicine you're on doesn't work real well."
Joan thanked him and turned to one of the open doors on the train, her legs unsteady as a newborn deer's, her mind unable to extinguish what she had seen in the man's eyes. Hatred. Fear. Murder.
Later that night, she was utterly unsurprised when she saw the man's face on a news bulletin. The man - one James Hulbert - was suspected in the murders of his ex-wife and their eleven-month-old daughter. And then, for the umpteenth night in a row, she cried herself to sleep with the voices of the dead screaming in her ears and lancing through her brain.
The New Neighbor - November 4, 1990
Micki Foster could not stop pacing.
She walked over the same six-foot stretch of floor countless times as morning had turned to afternoon, and afternoon to evening, rarely varying her steps as worry consumed her mind. Jack and Johnny had been gone since six o'clock in the morning, following up on a lead regarding a cursed bellows that Lewis had sold in 1982. It had passed through dozens of owners since then and had been nearly impossible to track, but they had gotten lucky when Jack had found some of Lewis' research files hidden away in the Vault. It turned out that the bellows allowed a small fire to become a huge one without any damning evidence... so long as someone died in the blaze.
Micki turned around and looked at the storefront windows in disgust, watching the snow outside rush angrily past. The weather was miserable, and she hoped that the Mercedes had not gotten stuck somewhere. Taking a few steps off her trodden path, she flipped on the television set that Johnny had lugged down from the kitchen and waited for the local news to come on. Unconsciously she raised a hand to her mouth and began chewing her fingernail, something she had not done since grade school.
Johnny had been back for only two weeks, and this was the first time that he and Jack had gone out alone to recover one of the antiques since that horrible night almost a month before. Johnny had pointed out that a series of mysterious fires had taken place down in the warehouse district, and all had involved at least one person's death. Most of the buildings burned were owned by Douglas Giles, a business tycoon who had recently fallen on hard times; the insurance payoffs were enough to keep his corporate empire afloat, Jack figured, and to a businessman the loss of a few lives was of little importance.
Micki looked at the clock; 6:24 p.m. She had turned to resume her pacing when she heard a car door slam outside, and then saw Jack and Johnny rush through the front door, a large black item cradled in Jack's arms. Both men were winded but looked grimly satisfied.
Jack sat down at the desk and opened the Manifest, then carefully crossed out an entry near the beginning of the book. "One more out of circulation," he mumbled as Johnny went downstairs to put the bellows in the Vault.
Micki sat down across from him. "How did things go out there?"
"Giles never knew we were there. We managed to get the bellows out of his office after everyone left for the day; that's why it took so long. I would have called but there was no telephone nearby." Jack pulled off his heavy coat and exhaled heavily.
"You know what I mean, Jack."
A look of annoyance - and maybe a touch of guilt - crept into Jack's eyes. "Johnny and I didn't have any problems cooped up in a car together all day, if that's what you mean. Lord, I'm getting too old for this."
Johnny's footsteps echoed toward them as he returned from the basement. "Hey, Mick. How was your day?"
"Less productive than yours. Only had two customers, nothing important in the mail; pretty boring, actually." Micki started up the stairs. "I'll get dinner started."
"Hey, do you know whose car is parked in front of Fiorno's place?" Johnny asked as he followed her, itching to make a hot cup of tea for himself.
"No. I didn't even know one was there."
"Maybe someone's gonna buy the place." Neither of them heard the door chimes as they headed up the second flight of stairs engaged in conversation, but Jack turned to the source of the sound.
A young woman was standing in the doorway, maybe in her late twenties or early thirties, looking around the store carefully. "Are you open, sir?" she asked.
"Yes - of course!" Jack stood up and hoped that he looked semi-presentable. "Feel free to look around."
The woman slowly walked up the steps to the main part of the store, looking at the various knickknacks that lined the shelves. "Are you looking for anything in particular?" Jack asked.
"Hm? No, not really. I'm just kind of... oh, hell, I just wanted to say hello." She looked him firmly in the eye and stuck out her right hand. "So, hello."
Then she crashed to the floor, unconscious.
Sound returned first, then sensation; there were voices talking quietly near her, and she was laying on something soft and padded. It felt like a very comfortable couch.
Joan opened her eyes and saw that, indeed, it was a comfortable couch. There were three people standing several feet away, conferring quietly on the far side of a desk. One was the man she had met earlier, but the other two must have been upstairs when she had come into the store. The young man glanced in her direction and said, "She's awake."
"Ma'am? Are you all right?" The older man walked over and knelt beside the couch. "You took quite a spill."
"I'm okay. It's just my medication." She carefully got to her feet and said, "I'm sorry if I scared you. Look, I really should go." Without another word she brushed past all three of them and walked quickly toward the front door, not even slowing down as she bolted outside. A minute later, they could see the outline of a white car drive past the windows and off into the night.
"What the hell was that all about?" Johnny asked, making no attempt to hide his bewilderment.
Joan drove through the snow at unsafe speeds, almost colliding with other cars several times on the way back to her apartment. "I knew this was a bad idea," she kept muttering to herself as she peered through the fogged windshield, hoping like hell that she wouldn't kill anybody.
This one had been the worst by far. Whatever had happened to that man in the store had been so bad that it had marked his soul for eternity, far more openly than anyone else she had ever encountered. As she pulled to a stop, for just a moment she wished that she had stayed and tried to explain what had happened... but that was a silly, irrational thought, and nobody would ever believe her, anyway.
She rushed into her tiny apartment and flipped on all the lights, then switched on the radio and television, embracing the cacophany as she put a pot of coffee on to brew. Strong coffee.
It was going to be a long night.
Second Sight - November 5, 1990
Johnny woke to the sound of gentle applause... and, more importantly, the aroma of coffee. He had slept on the couch at Curious Goods; the storm had turned into a full-blown blizzard, and his Thunderbird wasn't up to the task of getting him home the night before. Pushing the covers off, he looked up from his place on the couch to see Micki hunched over the desk, flipping through the Manifest with a pad of paper held in her left hand. As he stood and yawned, she turned around and started pouring a cup for him. "Good morning."
"Morning, Mick. What's up?" He gestured at the pad as he gratefully accepted the cup from her.
"Just updating our files, trying to narrow down the objects that are still out there, revising last known owners, that sort of thing."
Johnny glanced at the clock on the wall. "It's not even seven yet. Can't sleep, huh?"
"Not a wink." Micki stifled a yawn with the back of her hand. "Johnny, how did everything go yesterday?"
"Fine, if you're asking if Jack and I got into a shouting match. We didn't."
"I'm sorry to bring it up like this, Johnny, but I've been worried about you both. What happened... was nothing any of us could have foreseen."
Johnny set his cup down with a thud, signaling clearly that this topic of conversation was over. "Micki, this isn't the time or the place. I'll deal with it... but only when I'm damn good and ready. I'm sorry, but that's just the way it is." He looked down at the floor, forcing his mouth to stay closed as things he really wanted to say came bubbling up again... but he just emptied his cup and sat down, scribbling a few story ideas on a pad of paper.
Almost two hours passed in near-silence before Jack Marshak walked up the basement steps, seemingly too small to fit his tweed jacket. He poured a cup of coffee and sipped at it, startling both of his friends (who had seen him drink coffee only once before) as he leaned on the desk. "I see we've been busy."
"Yes, I've managed to dig up a few leads on the coin bank and chalice. I was planning on following them up today."
"Good. Johnny, how about you stay here and mind the store; today shouldn't be too busy, hmm?" Jack patted Johnny on his shoulder, but the sign of reassurance was less than enthusiastic.
"Right. No problem." Johnny looked on silently as Jack and Micki bundled up and trodded out into the cold, his mind numb with the thought of spending another day in the store alone. He hated the place, always had... but this was something he had to endure. It won't last forever, he thought grimly as the Mercedes pulled away from the curb, leaving him alone with the dust and the various antiques lining the shelves.
Yeah... we'll all probably end up dead.
It was just after noon when the front door swung open and a blizzard stumbled inside, followed by a slender figure bundled up in a white parka. The figure shoved the door closed and then pushed its hood back, revealing the face of the previous night's visitor. "Damn, it's a mess out there," she said, walking up the steps toward Johnny as she unzipped her coat.
"No kidding, Miss - ?"
"Kelleigh. Joan Kelleigh." She extended her hand but did not look at him, instead sending her gaze roving across the shelves. "Nice place you've got here."
"Whatever you say, Miss Kelleigh. I don't want to pry, but are you okay? I mean, you ran out of here awfully fast last night."
"Yeah, I'm fine. I'm on medication that screws up my equilibrium; sometimes it fluctuates enough to make me pass out." The woman draped her coat over the back of the chair and sat down. "Do you mind? I've been on my feet all morning. Introducing myself to the neighborhood."
"Sure." Johnny sat down opposite her and studied her face; the guarded expression, the dark patches under her eyes, the way she turned her gaze to anything in the store except him. "Introducing yourself? What, like you just moved in?"
"Yeah, I bought the store next door last week. I'm planning on opening a little bookstore. You know, rare, out-of-print, one-of-a-kind items." She allowed a small smile to slip onto her face. "I've wanted to do something like this for a long time."
"Cool. I'm a writer myself."
"Really?" The woman's gaze turned to him for the first time, wandering up and down his lanky form. A bemused tone had crept into her voice when she said, "I thought you'd be more of the blue-collar type. You know, construction worker, mechanic, something like that when you're not here."
"What makes you say that?" Johnny replied, slightly annoyed by the assumption.
A reddish tinge touched her cheeks. "I don't know... I guess you just remind me of the people my father used to work with. He worked on a lot of buildings all over the city. I'm sorry if I offended you."
"No problem. I used to be a mechanic full-time; I still do a little auto work when money gets tight, but now I work here most of the time. It's... pretty quiet, and I get a lot of time to practice my writing."
"What have you been published in?"
"Uh... nothing yet, actually." The two of them shared a chuckle before he continued. "I'm still shipping my stories around and crossing my fingers. It'll happen someday."
Joan picked up one of the oddest items in the store, an authentic shrunken head on a wooden post. "You should certainly have enough inspiration with this stuff... if you write horror stories. This place could give Stephen King nightmares."
You have no idea... he thought. "Hey, you want something to drink?"
By the time Micki and Jack returned it was after dark, and Johnny was beginning to feel as if he had just rediscovered an old friend he had lost touch with many years ago. He and Miss Kelleigh had both grown up on the South Side, both were from religious families (hers Irish, his Italian, both Catholic) who had long traditions of blue-collar work. Johnny was about a year younger than Joan; they had actually attended St. Thomas High School at the same time, but had never met (which surprised neither of them because the school had almost six hundred students). They were on their second pot of tea when the door chimes rang and Micki rushed inside, followed a moment later by Jack. "It's still miserable out there," Micki said, shaking her shoulders as she removed her heavy parka.
"Weatherman says that it's supposed to clear up by tomorrow afternoon," Johnny said, standing up to take Micki's coat. "Micki, Jack, I'd like you to meet Joan Kelleigh. She's our new neighbor."
Micki walked over and shook the younger woman's hand. "It's a pleasure."
"Joan, these are my bosses - Micki Foster, and Jack Marshak." Jack stepped up and shook Joan's outstretched hand, carefully holding a paper sack closed in his other hand.
"Are you feeling better, Miss? You gave us something of a scare yesterday," Jack said, settling his bulk down onto the other chair and laying the bag on the desk for a moment..
"I'm fine, just a bad reaction to..." Joan's voice trailed off as her gaze was drawn to the bag. Tiny wisps of black smoke were crawling past where it had been closed, and the sides had begun to pulse slowly inward and outward as if the sack were breathing. She slammed her eyes closed, trying to will away the vision, thinking desperately, This isn't real, not now, come on, girl, keep it together, at least for a few more minutes. "... to the medicine. I'm okay now."
None of the other people in the room seemed to notice, even when the stench of whatever was inside the sack crawled into her nostrils. "Well, that's good to know. What are you going to do with Fiorno's old place?" Micki asked, blissfully unaware that a tendril of blackness was clinging to her chin and crawling into her mouth.
"I... uh, I'm opening a bookstore. Used, out-of-print..." Joan saw the tendril sprout a mouth with savagely jagged teeth, a mouth impossibly wide that sank its fangs into Micki's tongue just as she took a drink of tea. Her knees went watery as she slid back into her chair, her eyes fixed on the clear patch of desk in front of her.
"Joan? Hey, are you okay?" Johnny knelt beside her, but she didn't even notice he was there; all she knew was that the visions had never been like this before, and she wanted them to go away. He snapped his fingers in front of her eyes, but she didn't even blink. "Jesus, Jack, I think we'd better call a doctor or something -"
"NO!" Joan pushed Johnny away savagely, sending him to the floor along with half of the stuff on the desk... including the sack, which tore open and disgorged its prize: a small coin bank that had a dog jumping through a hoop to deposit each coin. As her gaze came to it, Joan found herself looking not at the bank itself, but at the void that surrounded it in a sort of black aura.
It was the worst thing she had ever seen, even more horrible than the misery in the eyes of Jack Marshak. It was as if the very fabric of reality was being corrupted, tainted, by the very presence of the coin bank. Wisps of blackness streamed across the floor, covering the desk and rug in inky tendrils that clung to everything.
Then they started moving toward her.
Johnny watched Joan's eyes roll back in her head as she went limp in the chair. He lowered her gently to the floor as Jack dialed 911, not understanding anything that had just happened... until his gaze came to rest on the bank. Then some part of him - the writer, the creative area that makes all the odd connections in the mind - had an idea of what had happened. "Jack, hang up. She'll be okay. Micki, take the bank down to the Vault."
Wordlessly Micki complied, hurrying down the steps with the antique and returning a minute later; by that time, Jack had set down the handset without a word of argument and was kneeling by the young woman, gently patting her cheeks. "She knows, Jack," Johnny said as Micki sat down.
"Knows what?" Jack replied, a weary sigh in his voice.
"She knows there's something evil here, something wrong. She can sense it - see it, maybe smell or taste it, I don't know - and she can react to it. She sure as hell knew there was something wrong with the coin bank."
"That's impossible," Micki said, taking a long swallow of tea.
"If I've learned anything here, it's that nothing is impossible. Help me get her to the couch, Jack."
Sounds again - gentle whispering, more as if to keep from being overheard than just to be quiet. Joan turned her head slightly and saw three figures in the dim light provided by the chandelier, the three people who worked at this place called Curious Goods -
The memories returned and she sat up quickly, her head pivoting, her eyes looking for the black tendrils. Gone, she thought with relief. They're gone.
Johnny saw that she was awake and walked over to her. "Joan? You okay?"
"It happened again, didn't it? I'm sorry to have scared you. Look, I should really be going -"
Johnny gently laid his hand on her shoulder. "It's not your medication, is it? You fainted because you saw something that terrified you."
Shs shook her head, pulling away from his grasp. "No, I'm just having trouble with the dosage. It's like I told you already -"
"You knew there was something with whatever was in the sack before you set eyes upon it. You can feel that there's something wrong here, but you just don't want to admit it. You'll think we'll say you're crazy, that you need help." Johnny stood up and walked a few steps toward the back of the store. "We all need help. I've thought I was going crazy a lot of times, mostly since I started working here.
"I've seen things that you wouldn't believe. I've seen things that would drive most people crazy, done things that are impossible. I've been working here a year and a half and I've seen dozens of people killed, maybe hundreds, and all because somebody made a mistake and ended up doing the wrong thing. I've travelled back in time - twice - and made it back. I've brought my own father back from the dead and then killed him again. All three of us have seen these things... because we're trying to stop them from happening.
"Now, do you think that I could tell that to anyone? I'd be committed, locked up until my hair was gone and I only had a marble or two left rolling around upstairs. Jesus, I haven't been able to talk to anybody but Jack and Micki... and lately, not even them. I feel like I'm losing my mind sometimes. Anyone I actually told all this to would think I'm crazy... but I know it happened. I know it's real."
"He's telling the truth," Micki said, coming up beside Joan. "It's crazy, but we deal with the impossible every day."
Joan was quiet for a long few minutes. "I haven't told anyone about this in a long time. The only time I did, I was put in a psychiatric ward for ten weeks. I was sixteen, and my dad had just bought me a car; it was a beat-up piece of shit, a Pinto, but it ran good and he'd put a lot of work into it. I'd only had it for a few months when I was driving to Calumet City to meet a friend and was sideswiped by a Mack truck. The car went up and over a railing, then down a forty-foot drop and into a concrete support.
"It's a miracle I wasn't killed instantly. They had to cut the car apart to get me out, and I almost died of shock by the time they did. I was in a coma for thirteen days, and the doctors thought I might have severe brain damage. A splinter of bone was forced deep into my left frontal lobe; there was no way they could get it out, so all anyone could do was hope and pray that I'd be all right. After I woke up I was in the hospital for almost three more months as my other injuries healed.
"Brain injuries are funny because there's no set pattern as to what will happen. Some people are barely affected by trauma to the brain, but some can't even move, they're so sick. I was that second type; I puked for weeks after the accident, and the headaches were blinding. I could hardly move, let alone walk or talk coherently, but after a while the pain and nausea went away and I got to feeling almost normal." She took a deep breath before she went on, shuddering slightly as she exhaled. "The first time it happened was at my high school graduation. I walked up onto the stage, went over to the principal... and I saw something moving in the pupils of his eyes. Like worms, but more fluid, more sinuous. I passed out right there and woke up in the hospital. I never mentioned what I'd seen, not even when I found out the next year that the principal had a history of touching little boys and girls in places that nobody should.
"It started happening more and more frequently after that, and by my junior year of college I had to be committed. I tried telling the doctors about what I saw, but none of them ever believed me; they just put me on medication. According to them, I've had depression, manic-depression, schizophrenia, and a dozen other mental diseases... but nothing the doctors ever did has helped me. So I quit telling them the truth and told them what they wanted to hear. They called me cured and sent me on my merry way with a smile and a bottle of Prozac or whatever and I was at the same place as before.
"It's that bone splinter, that's what did it. It was driven like a nail deep into the left frontal lobe of my brain -" she tapped her head "- and has been there ever since. That region of the brain is believed to control perception and vision, and whatever else the splinter did, it changed how I see things. I... can see evil."
She looked into the faces of the three people near her, a lost look etched on her face. "It's the only thing I've ever been able to come up with for an explanation. It only happens sometimes, and not even with the same people from day to day... but it always happens. It usually shows up in their eyes, either the evil they've already done or what they're going to do or the evil that's been done to them, and it terrifies me. I can't sleep, I can hardly eat... I'm falling apart because of it.
"The only thing that makes it better is when I read. Doesn't matter what, so long as I haven't read it before. That's why I wanted a bookstore in this area, you see; I didn't want to be bothered with a lot of customers, and if I'm always getting new stock in, I'd never run out of things to read. My dad left me a pretty big insurance policy when he died, and I've been saving for this for a few years."
"So... do you think I'm crazy?"
Jack answered quietly, "No more than we are," and then began to tell her the long and sordid history of Curious Goods, formerly known as Vendredi's Antiques. He told her about the curse, about their efforts to recover all of the objects and the price they had paid. Occasionally Micki or Johnny would pick up the tale for a few minutes, but it always came back to Jack. "... and that's why we're all still here. There are still many antiques out there, but we can't stop until we get them all back."
"And you've... been fighting Satan? For almost four years?"
Jack nodded as Micki piped up, "Sometimes it feels like a lifetime."
"If you're crazy, so are we." Johnny sat down next to Joan and placed a fresh cup of tea into her hands. "I can see why you passed out earlier." Joan drank deeply, welcoming the hot liquid. "It's gone now. I saw it earlier, coming out of the sack. That was one of the... cursed items?" she said unsteadily.
"Yes. We don't think it was ever used for evil... but we'll never really know. We're not even sure what its curse is. Lewis only kept records on some of the objects, and we've never figured out what many of them give their owners." Jack set down his own cup and looked gravely at Joan. "Miss Kelleigh, I have to ask you not to say anything about what we do here to anyone you know. It's dangerous enough work as it is, and we've had too many close calls in the past."
"Sure... no problem. Same goes for what I told you, though." I can't believe this is happening. Someone actually believes me... and they've got a stranger tale than anything I could ever dream up, she thought. Her watch beeped, and automatically she dug into her pocket to take her medication.
Jack looked at the bottle for a moment before asking, "Have you ever tried herbal remedies for your condition?"
"No... but I've never been into that New Age stuff. Dad always thought it was a load of crap." She tipped two pills into her mouth and swallowed them with a mouthful of tea.
"It might be able to help more than you think. I have a friend who runs a little shop; he might be able to whip something up that might lessen the intensity and frequency of your visions. He's very good, and besides, I've been meaning to talk to him for a month. Now's as good a time as any. I'll give him a call tomorrow, maybe drop in on him." Jack opened his mouth to speak, but a bone-cracking yawn crept out instead. He looked at one of the many clocks that adorned the walls and said, "Oh my, it's getting rather late. We should probably continue this conversation tomorrow, seeing as how I'm off to bed."
Joan shook the outstretched hand and watched as Jack trundled downstairs. "He's had a lot of sorrow in his life, hasn't he?" she asked.
"Yes, very much. More than anyone deserves, especially after..." Micki's cheeks flushed red as she abruptly looked away. "We've all been through a lot over the past three years."
"I can believe that." Joan yawned widely, then slowly stood up and stretched. "I think Jack had the right idea. I'd better be going."
"Hold on. It's probably safer if you stayed here for the night," Johnny said. "The storm's nowhere close to blowing itself out, and there's a pretty comfortable bed upstairs in the kitchen." Johnny looked to Micki for her approval, and she responded with the faintest nod.
Joan looked at him carefully, and fatigue won out over comfort. "You're probably right. Thank you, Johnny."
The Man Who Owns Sleep - November 6, 1990
Joan was running through a field in the dark, her way lit only by a sliver of moonlight. Surrounding her, part of the black, were waving shapes that were not grass, were not any known living thing... but that were alive with their own power. Sometimes one came a little closer, tried to ensnare her with icy black tentacles, but she always pulled away and kept running toward the only thing visible in the field: a large set of iron doors that would be far more appropriate on some sort of demonic bank than in this darkness.
As she approached them the shadows seemed to melt into the background, leaving only her and the doors. They were made of some coarse metal, not iron or steel but very tough nonetheless. As she ran her hand over the doors images of a thousand lives and deaths flashed through her mind, a cacophany of tactile and emotional sensations that had all been caused by whatever was behind them. Her hand reached out to pull them open when a voice rang out from behind her.
"I wouldn't do that."
The voice was deep and resonant, with just a hint of an accent that she could not place (Scottish? English?). "There are things behind those doors, very dangerous things that pretty young women have no business knowing about."
Joan turned around and saw a man standing a few feet away, a man in his early fifties with wavy black hair that was just beginning to gray and a book held in his left hand. "Who are you? What is this place?"
"Somewhere that doesn't exist, except in the mind. Anybody can get here if they truly desire it... but so very few ever leave. It's rather ironic, actually." The man stepped closer and moved his hand through the air, gesturing as if he were grabbing something before holding out the closed hand to her. "I believe this is yours."
Without thinking Joan reached out and felt something drop into her palm, something warm and sticky and tiny. As she looked down she saw a tiny splinter of bone lying in the center of her palm... and she realized that the constant buzz that she felt tickling the edges of her mind was gone, the companion she'd had ever since the accident. "As for me... well, I think you can guess who I am. You're a bright young woman."
"Yes, I think I know," she whispered, clasping her hand around the splinter. The shapes moving in the darkness had gone, as had the sensations coming form the doors, leaving her alone with her thoughts for the first time in many years. "What do you want from me?"
"Nothing. I never want anything; it's everyone else who wants something from me. They want to be beautiful, they want to be rich, they want to be famous... but they never want to pay the price. And there's always a price, no matter how small the service." He gestured back toward the doors, and Joan saw that they had begun to swing inward. "I know what you want, Joan Kelleigh. I know how awful the visions and the voices are, how terrible it is to live with the ability to see what you see. I know you would give almost anything to be rid of them.
"I can make them go away, forever."
"And for what price?" she asked, her hands wrapped around her chest as she backed away from the man. "My soul? Isn't that the usual?"
"Nothing so drastic in this case. Not at all; in fact, all I ask is that, as soon as you awake, you leave. Leave and never return to that place, and the visions will never return to you."
"If I say no?"
He smiled but the gesture was coldly empty, as if it were just the body performing it and not the soul within, and a cold wind blew across her face, making her squint as he continued. "Then you say no, and the visions remain your companions. That's all."
She looked away from him, out into the still blackness that until moments ago had been teeming with undulating shapes. To live without the visions, without the tiny black tentacles that crawled across everything was so very tempting... but she finally looked the man in the eye and said, "I... I can't. I won't."
"That is your choice." The wind grew stronger, and tiny shards of ice battered her body as the man was consumed by a howling whirlwind. "Know this: I don't want you, but if you interfere... I will have you." Light exploded around her as the man's form changed into something that human eyes could not see, that a human mind could not possibly comprehend, and in a voice that human ears dare not hear, he said:
"Now, wake up."
Joan's eyes flew open as a scream tore form her throat. She was in the center of a cloud of feathers, a ruptured pillowcase clutched to her chest. Micki came out of her room and knelt in front of her, asking if she was all right, but Joan could not hear her... all she could hear was that voice saying, over and over again, I will have you.
Micki gently closed the door several hours later and sat down at the table with Jack and Johnny. "She's asleep."
"Good," Johnny grunted. "Do you believe her?"
"I don't know... her story would seem farfetched at best to anyone else. But with us, I don't think we have a choice," Jack said. "It's not unheard of in myths for demons to offer rewards for seemingly small actions, actions that later lead to ruin for many others. If she believes so strongly that who she dreamed of was actually the Devil... I think we should take this very seriously. He obviously does," he added darkly.
Micki could sense that Jack wasn't telling them something, and one look at Johnny told her he was thinking the same thing. "What do you mean?"
"I mean... we've been lucky. Incredibly so, in fact, until recently." Jack stood and walked downstairs with Micki and Johnny trailing behind, both of them wearing confused looks. He pulled out the Manifest from its place on the shelf and opened it, his hands trailing over the weathered pages and the entries they held. "Lucifer has only directly interfered once with us, in over three years of recovering the antiques. Lewis has interfered more times than I want to remember, but the Devil... only that once. With all the power he holds, especially over the people using the antiques, he could and should have done so many more times."
Micki and Johnny waited patiently for Jack to continue. "But now, instead of coming after the three of us... Lucifer came to her, and offered a deal. Why would he do that?"
"She represents a threat to him," Micki said, a look of comprehension spreading across her face.
"Not to him, but his work. She can help us, possibly more than any of us realize. I'm sure of it. Her presence, her ability to see evil, was something that was never anticipated. She might be able to find a way to end this whole damn mess, and that scares Lucifer. Whatever scares the Devil, we can use against him." Jack set the Manifest down and started walking back up the steps. "I'll talk to her when she wakes up. She needs to know everything that happened here, and I guess I'm... best qualified. I'll want both of you here, of course."
Johnny nodded silently, as did Micki, but there was a great deal that he wanted to say. I volunteered for this, I chose to be here. I'll stay until it's over. But Joan... she was never supposed to get involved. And I don't want to see anyone else I know - or that I might get to know - die because of this. I don't want her hurt.
But he held his tongue as Jack trundled back upstairs to wait for Joan to awake. Instead of talking or writing he walked to the door and watched the sun finally emerge from behind the wall of clouds that had obscured it for days, thinking about what Joan might mean... and what might become of her if Jack was wrong.
Or, even worse, if he was right.
Epilogue The man stood up from the bench and it slowly dissolved back into the raw fabric of reality as he walked away, the book clutched in his left hand smoking furiously but not catching fire. That had always been his problem, it seemed; on the really important matters, he always gave people a choice. Most of them took the easy way out, most of them never even realized what had just transpired between them and him... but he knew, and that was all that mattered.
But this girl, this frail creature, had denied his offer... just like the others. So weak, but so very strong inside. And the girl's strength had made them four instead of three. This would be a challenge, and in the end... well, even the Devil could not say for sure what would happen. But he did know this:
More direct action was required.
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This page was created on June 20, 2000.
Last modified on February 10, 2005.