Lost Souls Page 13

When all were dead, the Builder’s work was less than half done. He was no longer anything as ordinary as a handsome young man, and the construction in which he engaged proved to be a spectacle that riveted Henry Lightner.

When eventually the job here was completed, they would move on to the imprisoned day-shift personnel in the next room. And sometime after visiting hours, the patients would be brought down one by one, throughout the evening and into the night.

Such relentless, swift rendering of flesh and bone.

Such a fever of creation.

Chapter 26

Shakily, Bryce Walker got to his feet and turned away from the return-air grille. Legs weak, he leaned against the wall. Then he moved to the toilet, put down the lid, and sat.

He had never been a superstitious man. Yet in the wake of this experience, a sense of the uncanny permeated him, as if he had spent his life marinating in occult pursuits and practices. He knew that he had not chanced upon an audio pipeline to the abattoirs of Hell, but he also knew that what he overheard wasn’t evidence of any ordinary crime committed by a mere psychopath. He had heard something more profound, more mysterious, and more terrifying even than mass murder.

And he didn’t know what he should do about it. If he recounted his experience to anyone, he most likely would not be believed. At seventy-two, his mind was as sharp as ever, but in this tyranny of youth that was the modern world, an old guy with a strange story would more often than not raise suspicions of Alzheimer’s. And when a long-married man became a childless widower, wasn’t he more likely, in his pitiable loneliness, to seek attention even with an implausible story of the voices of distant victims echoing to him through a maze of ductwork?

Bryce’s pride restrained him from rushing to share his story with a nurse or doctor who might patronize him, but more than pride fettered him. A primitive survival instinct, of which he’d had no need in decades, warned him that speaking of this to the wrong person would be the end of him and that the end would be swift.

His shakes subsided. He went to the sink and washed his hands. The haunted face in the mirror unsettled him, and he turned away from it.

When he stepped out of the lavatory, two nurses had nearly finished changing the sheets on his bed. The breakfast dishes were gone. A pill cup stood on his nightstand, and he suspected that the carafe was filled with ice water.

He thanked them.

They smiled and nodded, but there was none of the breezy chat with which most nurses put their patients at ease. He thought their smiles seemed forced. They had about them an air of urgency, not the bustle of women intent upon their work, but an eagerness to be done with the task at hand and to be off to another endeavor that was the true purpose and passion of their day. As they left the room, one of them glanced back at him, and he thought he saw hatred in her eyes and a fleeting triumphant sneer.

Paranoia. He needed to guard against paranoia. Or perhaps embrace it.

Chapter 27

From downtown to Nummy’s neighborhood, the big storm pipe led uphill. The rise never grew steep enough to make them breathe hard.

Nummy could walk as tall as he was. Mr. Lyss was a little too tall for the drain, but he always stooped anyway, even in the open, so he didn’t bump his head.

Because of the way he stooped, Mr. Lyss sometimes reminded Nummy of a witch he’d seen in a movie, bending over a giant iron pot as she mixed up some magic soup. At other times, Mr. Lyss made Nummy think of old Scrooge in a different movie, mean old Scrooge hunched over a pile of money, counting and counting.

Mr. Lyss never reminded Nummy of any nice people in the movies.

At any time, having a flashlight was a good idea when you used the storm-pipe shortcut, but you could get by without one during the day. Evenly spaced street drains overhead, covered with gratings, made waffles of sunshine on the floor.

Between the sunshine waffles, the dark was plenty dark enough for Nummy, but there was always another waffle ahead.

Smaller drain lines opened into the main one. Nummy couldn’t always see them, but he could hear his footsteps echoing off to the left or right when he passed another pipe. If Mr. Lyss cursed the dark just then, his words spun away, hollow and spooky, into other parts of town.

Sometimes when Nummy was in the storm pipe alone, he felt like something lived down here—something not someone—but he didn’t know what it might be, and he didn’t want to find out. When the feeling got really strong, he stayed out of the storm pipe for weeks.

A few times, when he had a flashlight, he saw a rat—once dead, three times alive. Never more than one, no packs of them. Anyway, rats weren’t the unknown thing that maybe lived down here. Each time Nummy saw a live rat, it seemed to be running scared from something, and not from him.

No rain in two weeks meant the pipe was dry. There wasn’t a bad odor right now, only the smell of concrete all around.

As he had done before, close behind Nummy, Mr. Lyss said, “Don’t try running away from me.”

“No, sir.”

“I’ve got a bloodhound’s nose.”

“Like you said before.”

“I’ll track you down by smell.”

“I know.”

“And tear your guts out.”

“I never would leave you here, sir.”

“I’ll wrap your guts around your neck and strangle you with them. Would you like that, Peaches?”


“I’ve done it before. I’ll do it again. I don’t live by any rules, and I have no pity.”

Nummy heard someone talk once about a pity party. He didn’t know what kind of party that was, but it sounded like Mr. Lyss couldn’t go to a pity party if someone asked him because he didn’t have any pity to bring. Maybe that was one of the reasons he was so angry all the time, because he wanted to go to parties but couldn’t.

Nummy felt sorry for Mr. Lyss.

Nummy was never asked to parties, either, but that was all right because he didn’t want to go. All he ever wanted was to stay home with Grandmama. Now that Grandmama was gone, all Nummy wanted was to stay home with his dog, Norman.

But if you wanted to go to parties and you couldn’t, that must be sad. Nummy tried always to choose happiness, like Grandmama told him he could and should do, but he saw how other people were lots of times sad, and he felt sorry for them.

Slowly the storm pipe curved, a long curve, and when they came all the way around to where it ran straight again, there was a big circle of light at the end.

A round grating covered the end of the pipe with crossbars to keep trash and junk wood from washing into the drain. The grating looked like it was fixed all the way around to the sides of the pipe, but it was really like a coin standing on edge. If you knew where the little hidden lever was, you could press it and turn the entire grating sideways to the opening.

“Pivot hinges,” said Mr. Lyss. “Who showed you that?”

“Nobody. Just found it one day.”

They came out of the pipe into a large but shallow concrete catch basin. Workers had cleared out the trash from the last storm. The concrete bowl was clean and dry.

A narrow road dead-ended at the catch basin. They followed it downhill a little way, then left the blacktop and crossed a field to the back of Nummy’s house.

“Sweet little place,” said Mr. Lyss. “Looks like freakin’ Snow White lives here with seven damn dwarfs.”

“No, sir. Just me and Grandmama. Now me and Norman.”

Nummy peeled back the doormat to get the key.

Mr. Lyss said, “You just hide the key under the doormat?”

“It’s a secret,” Nummy whispered.

“Haven’t you ever come home and found your place cleaned out wall to wall?”

“No, sir,” Nummy said as he unlocked the door. “I do all the cleaning my own self.”

In the kitchen, Mr. Lyss said, “Cozy.”

“Grandmama she liked cozy and so do I.”

“Where’s this dog that better well not bite me?”

Nummy led him into the living room and pointed to the sofa on which Norman sat.

Stamping his foot, slapping his hip, Mr. Lyss laughed. He had a laugh you wanted to run from.

“That’s no dog, you idiot.”

“He is too a dog,” Nummy said. “He’s a good dog.”

“He’s a stuffed-toy dog is what he is.”

“Well, you got to imagine good,” said Nummy.

“You have a brain the size of a chickpea. You want a dog, why don’t you get a real one?”

“Grandmama she said a real one might be too hard for me, after she was gone. I have to clean house, make food, take care of myself, and that there’s a big job, even without no dog.”

Mr. Lyss laughed again, and Nummy stepped away from him.

In a meaner than usual voice that reminded Nummy of how that movie witch cackled over her big iron pot, Mr. Lyss said, “You been able to teach old Norman some tricks? He looks so smart.”

“He’s got better tricks than some real dog,” Nummy said.

Just to prove that Norman was special and to make the old man sorry he laughed, Nummy went to the sofa and sat beside his dog.

Hidden behind one of Norman’s ears was a button. When Nummy pushed it, the dog said in a nice but growly voice, “Rub my tummy.”

“And you probably turn him upside down and rub it half the night,” Mr. Lyss said, and he started to laugh harder than ever.

Nummy pushed the button again, and in his nice growly voice, Norman said, “Can I have a treat?”

Mr. Lyss laughed so hard tears filled his eyes, and he sat down on a chair as if he might fall down if he didn’t sit.

Through his laughter, the old man said, “He must eat you out of house and home!”

Norman the dog said, “Let’s play ball.” He said, “I don’t like cats.” He said, “Time for a nap.”

Mr. Lyss continued to laugh but not as hard as before.

Norman the dog said, “You are very kind to me.”

Mr. Lyss wiped his eyes on his coat sleeve.

Nummy hugged Norman, and the dog said, “I love you.”

Beside the first button was a smaller one. If you pushed it, you didn’t hear the next thing the dog could say, but you heard again the thing it had just said.

“I love you,” the dog repeated.

Holding Norman close, Nummy said, “I love you, too.”

Norman’s fur was soft and silky. Nummy liked to pet him.

After a while, he pushed the smaller button again, and the dog said, “I love you.”

With the dog to hold and pet, Nummy almost forgot about Mr. Lyss. When he remembered him, the old man was still sitting in the chair, but he wasn’t laughing anymore. He looked different, too—not as much like a witch.

“How old are you, kid?”

“I’m told I’ll be thirty-one next March.”

“How long’s your grandma been gone?”

Nummy shrugged. “Not long. But too long.”

After a silence, Mr. Lyss said, “We can’t stay here. Whoever they are, whatever they are, they’ll come here looking for you.”

“Chief Jarmillo he’s my friend,” said Nummy.

“Not this Chief Jarmillo.” Mr. Lyss got to his feet. “Hey, kid, you have any money?”

“Sure. Grandmama left me money.”

“Where is it?”

“Most is in the bank. Mr. Leland Reese he pays bills and gives me pocket money.”

“But you have some here in the house?”


“Show me where it is. And I have to get out of this jail suit.”

Standing up with Norman in his arms, Nummy said, “You gonna steal from me?”

“Nobody said anything about stealing. I’m asking for a loan. I’ll pay it back.”

“A loan,” Nummy said. “Well … ”

“Kid, we don’t have time to negotiate an interest rate. We have to get out of here before those extraterrestrial sonsofbitches show up, rip our heads off, and do to us whatever the hell it was they did to those people in the next cell.”

Nummy remembered the good-looking young man in the gray pants and the sweater, and how he stopped being good-looking, stopped being a man, and got as ugly as anything could get.

He shivered and said, “Okay, a loan.”

Chapter 28

Chief Rafael Jarmillo followed Principal Melinda Raines down two flights of stairs to the basement of the Meriwether Lewis Elementary School.

The stairs brought them to a short hallway with a fire door at the end. Beyond the door lay a large furnace room.

Three high-efficiency gas-fired boilers heated the water that warmed the classrooms through a four-pipe fan-coil system. Stacks of chillers cooled the school in warmer weather. This room contained a maze of white PVC pipes, plus uncounted valves, gauges, and arcane pieces of equipment. Between the islands of boilers and chillers and machinery, the walkways were wide.

As Principal Raines led the chief along a winding path through the equipment, she said, “We’ll bring two classrooms of children down here at a time.”

“Under what pretense?” Jarmillo asked.

“We’ll call it an in-school field trip. So they can learn how all the mechanical systems of the school work, the many mysteries that have been under their feet all this time. We’ll sell it as an adventure. Elementary-school children love field trips, they love adventures.”

“Two classrooms at a time. How many classrooms are there?”


“How many students per class?”

“It varies from eighteen to twenty-two.”

“How many children altogether?”

“Four hundred and forty-two minus any who may be off sick.”

At the end of the mechanical room, they passed through another fire door into a long, spacious concrete-walled hallway. On the right were a series of doors, but on the left were only two sets of double doors with push-bar handles.

Each set of doors was chained together and secured with a heavy padlock. Melinda Raines fished a key out of her suit coat, opened the padlock, and let the length of chain rattle through the bar handles and spill into a puddle of links on the floor.

Beyond the threshold, she switched on the lights, revealing a gymnasium-sized chamber with a long rectangular depression in the center. “It was supposed to be a swimming pool. Never finished.”

Thirty years earlier, Rainbow Falls had thought itself on the brink of an economic boom. The discovery of large natural-gas fields and oil deposits in the surrounding county generated huge investments by the energy industry that, according to informed predictions, were modest compared to the investments still to come. The population of Rainbow Falls would double in a decade, experts said, and the average income of its citizens might double as well.

Source: www_Novel22_Net

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