Albert Rosenfield worked like he lived: direct and to the point. There were no apologies in his life and no remorse. He was twenty-four and the best forensic pathologist employed by the FBI. And no son-of-a-bitch field agent was going to forget how valuable he was. He knew he wasn’t well liked, and he knew the sorts of rumors that circulated amongst the departments about the reedy, arrogant bastard who had taken up residence in autopsy suite number seven, too young for his position not to have done a few favors for someone in high places. Morons. Albert had earned every square inch of his suite and then some. He could do an autopsy in his sleep without missing a single line of protocol, and he didn’t mind telling anyone who challenged his right to his position just that.
There was a body on the slab: a Jane Doe found twenty feet off a country highway in rural Virginia. Twenty feet was classic. Twenty feet was far enough from the road to conceal, but not far enough that the risk of being caught with a body outweighed the gain of hiding it. It was cost-benefit analysis at work in the criminal mind. Albert didn’t concern himself overmuch with motive—the human mind was a messy, frustrating place fit only for psychologists and other fluffy, soft-science hacks—but when behavior became quantifiable it made him sit up and take notice.
He started with the external exam and corresponding photography. Everything about her would get recorded on the microphone hanging over the table to be typed out by the steno pool later. He would check the report—he didn’t trust a bunch of half-educated typewriter monkeys to know how to spell simple words, let alone complex medical terminology—and then pass it on to whatever agent got his sorry ass put in charge of this little lady.
She was blonde, but not naturally. It was that particular shade of orange-yellow produced by a bad home bleach kit. The perm, thought, that looked professional. He figured she’d gotten herself the perm first and then tried to make herself Farrah Fawcett. She had a tattoo of a butterfly over the infra-spinatous fossa of her scapula, a surgical scar right above the prominence of her calcaneum, and bad teeth. She’d had access to medical coverage—and likely non-life threatening medical coverage at that—but not dental.
She was wearing a white, lacy off-the-shoulder blouse and a pair of white A-line shorts. No shoes. All that white fabric showed blood nicely.
He took pictures of her body, focusing in on identifying features, trauma, and clothing. Then he checked her eyes. They had been brown, but they were already filming over. He stuck both eyeballs with a hypodermic to take vitreous fluid for testing, used a long, heavy-gauge needle to first find the bladder for a urine sample, and then a few rapid stabs at the inguinal crease found the femoral artery and coaxed out a decent blood sample. All the necessary samples having been collected, he stripped her. Every step got catalogued. It appealed to his meticulous nature.
“Excuse me,” someone said. “Dr. Rosenfield?”
He didn’t look up from his Jane Doe. He didn’t employ assistants, nurses, or dieners—he didn’t have the disposition and he really didn’t have the time—so it had to be some wayward special agent who had more meat in his forearm than brains in his skull. If Albert didn’t have time for dieners, he sure as hell didn’t have time for that.
“In case it slipped your notice, this isn’t McDonald’s, this isn’t Macy’s, and this girl isn’t getting any fresher. So unless you’ve brought me the remarkably well preserved body of Jimmy Hoffa, you can get the hell out of my autopsy suite until such time as you have a case, or hell freezes over.”
“I do need to speak with you, so I’ll wait here. And I don’t think Mr. Hoffa is legally dead yet.”
“He will be in a few months. I was hoping you took the initiative.” Albert returned to the business of stripping Jane Doe down. “No underwear present,” he said.
“Was that intentional on her part, or did the killer remove them?” the visitor asked. Albert couldn’t tell if he was being asked or not.
Did it really matter? “I report facts. I leave wild speculation to the agents.” A shadow fell across Miss Doe’s body and Albert looked up with a jerk. The agent was even younger than he was, if physical traits were a reliable indicator: a soft, wholesome, attractive sort of face with dark hair parted and shellacked down to his head. The most noticeable feature was a pair of large, dark eyes that possessed a disquieting sort of intensity. His suit was gray and his tie was burgundy paisley. He looked like an overgrown twelve-year-old who’d gotten into his dad’s clothing, but there was some quality about him that belied the wholesome appearance. There was something ever-so-slightly off-kilter about his amiable smile.
And that was wild speculation if ever there was any. Albert was disgusted with his own lack of professionalism. Smiles weren’t nearly as out of place in morgues as people might think, and that off-kilter feeling was likely caused by some asymmetry in this mystery agent’s features. If Albert allowed himself to be fascinated by the living they would inevitably turn out to be shallower and less interesting than he had hoped. He knew exactly what to expect from the dead.
Albert lifted a scalpel. “You’re in my light.”
“Special Agent Dale Cooper.”
Albert, poised with his scalpel just parting the skin of one shoulder to expose yellow, cottage-cheese-like adipose tissue, had a hand thrust under his nose. He jerked back, and the scalpel clattered to the table.
“Are you insane?” he spluttered. “You’re lucky I didn’t take your finger off, you scatter-brained, ham-fisted moron!”
The off-kilter was back in full force as Cooper stood with his hand still extended and a smile on his face.
Albert bristled at the ludicrous presumption. “I am not a psychiatrist, I am not going to be your friend, and I am not interested in buying Boy Scout candy. Go find someone else to bother.”
The hand and the smile didn’t waver.
When he realized that, despite his insistence, Cooper wasn’t going anywhere, Albert muttered, “Oh, for God’s sake,” and shook hands with the idiot. He hoped that the rubber of his gloves and the slight moisture left from sample collection was properly unpleasant.
Cooper’s smile could have powered all of Philly for a week. “Are you Jewish?” he asked.
“‘For God’s sake’ is a term used mostly by those of the Judeo-Christian persuasion. And while the name Rosenfield is not universally a Jewish name, it is more often than not associated with those of that faith.”
He was insane. It was the only explanation. Albert didn’t believe in tiptoeing around a subject when brutal honesty could do just as well, but he didn’t ask personal questions like that either. Mostly because he didn’t care, but still. “Are you some kind of anti-Semite?”
Cooper considered for several seconds. “I really don’t think so. I hold no animosity toward any religion, although I am often disappointed by the actions people take because of their belief structures. Still, I can understand the impulse. Ever since a dream I had a few weeks ago I have begun to consider whether or not Buddhism might be my true path.” The dreamy, dippy look on his face was suddenly gone and he looked down at the girl. “This is Agent Shelby’s case, isn’t it?”
Albert was taken aback by the abrupt shift, upgrading his opinion from crazy to certifiable. Nevertheless he checked her file. “Yes.” He regained some of his composure. “You’ll notice he’s not here and you are. Does this seem somewhat peculiar to you, Agent Cooper?”
“I do find it somewhat curious that Shelby isn’t here for this procedure. I never thought of him as a squeamish man.” Cooper stared at Albert. “I have a crime scene two hours away, and I believe I’ll need your help. Will you come?”
“Have you missed my Jane Doe? Every minute you waste, evidence decays beyond use. I have an autopsy to perform, Agent Cooper. I don’t have time to play in your sandbox.”
“How long does an autopsy take, approximately? Two hours?” Cooper asked. And didn’t leave.
“An hour and a half,” Albert said. “I’m not some slack-jawed yokel.”
That smile was back, but it had secrets this time. Albert felt unsettled. “No, you’re not.” Cooper went over to the rack and shrugged into a lab coat and grabbed two pairs of rubber gloves. “I believe my scene will keep for a few additional hours, Dr. Rosenfield, and I was told in no uncertain terms that you are the man to help me in this.”
Albert cut a swift Y-incision, and the tang of blood and the sour smell of autolysed intestines permeated the room. He started to flay back the skin of her chest so he could access her abdominal cavity and see the internal damage done by a multiple stabbing to the gut. He took more care with the skin of her abdomen, but beyond pictures there wasn’t much to be done. Abdominal knife wounds were terrible when one wanted to describe the weapon. The wound was inevitably deeper and wider than the actual blade, given the elasticity of the tissue, and the slight hourglass shape of the stabs indicated that the perpetrator had twisted the knife on the way out. Even more obscured. Didn’t the bastards who went around killing young women have any consideration?
“I’m not a field agent,” he said. “I follow a strict policy of non-violence that precludes field work. There are plenty of other pathologists who work here, and they’re willing to pack heat.”
“Your pacifist vow won’t be a problem, Dr. Rosenfield,” Cooper said, “and I think it makes me like you quite a bit more.” He finished double-gloving. “What do you want me to do?”
Albert felt thwarted and more than a little vindictive. He clamped the intestines below the stomach and above the rectum and then sliced them off. Perimortem blood poured over his gloves as he pulled them out, breaking or slicing off the mesenteries. He pooled the mess into a large metal bowl and pressed it into Cooper’s hands, along with a pair of scissors. “Start at one end,” he said, “and slice your way to the other. Look for damage.”
Cooper’s enthusiasm was undiminished in the face of intestines. “All right.”
oOo oOo oOo oOo
Two hours later found Albert Rosenfield stuffed into a 1979 Lincoln and wondering how the hell Cooper had gotten him there. He fidgeted, then pulled out his pack of cigarettes and lit up. He rolled down the window, too. He was inconsiderate, but not a cretin. What he did with his lungs was his business and no one else’s.
“How old are you?” Cooper asked, apropos of nothing. Albert was beginning to suspect that was the usual way he went about asking things.
“Old enough to do my job,” he said. It was his usual answer.
“Your file says you’re twenty-four.”
“Then why ask me?”
“Because I think it’s very rude to read people’s files without their permission when not investigating a crime.” His gaze moved over to Albert. “And I wanted to know what you would say.”
“How old are you?” Albert shot back, feeling exposed and hating it.
“How are you in the Bureau? Shouldn’t you be in college?”
“The same method, I’d imagine, that you employed: early graduation and an irresistible drive to come here and do this.” Cooper’s gaze was intent on Albert, but he didn’t drift or miss a turn as he drove. “I may be wrong, but I believe that we have both come to the same conclusion about this world through very different means.”
“And what is that?”
“That there is evil in the world. That girl on the table today knew it, and in turn you know it. And if there is evil, there is good. Barring such blatant evidence of good as there is of evil, there must be people willing to stand up and volunteer themselves for the cause. We take vows of non-violence or we learn to fire a gun, but it’s all done for the same reason. We have to be a force for good, Dr. Rosenfield, or what’s the point?”
Something wrenched in Albert’s chest, and he turned away from Cooper. Albert accepted nothing less than perfection in his goodness, just like everything else. He didn’t have to be nice and he didn’t have to be polite, but he had to be good. It never made sense when he tried to explain it, but goodness stood apart from niceties. It was something very pure and very necessary and very lacking in the world as he saw it. It was practicality that demanded he become good if no one else was going to, and pride that made him believe he could succeed at it where simpletons failed, but it had nothing to do with irresistible drives or being a force for anything. It was about balance. He wasn’t about to start being someone’s hero just because his most pathetic of dearly held beliefs had been laid bare.
“I went into this job because the dead are more tolerable than the living,” he said, and flicked the ashes of his cigarette out the open window.
They were silent for quite some time. Cooper seemed content, but Albert was in turmoil. He was becoming more and more convinced that he’d made the worst decision of his life accompanying this nut-job to some unknown crime scene.
The shadows grew deeper and the sun began to set as they kept driving. Albert worried they were either lost, or Cooper had lied about the distance to this particular scene. If there was a scene at all. The more he knew Cooper the stranger he seemed. Was it possible this was some sort of abduction?
“What’s the case?” he asked.
“People have been found dead over the past decade in the area around an abandoned house,” Cooper’s contentment vanished, “far away from the road, murdered in many different fashions. They were all violent deaths, but I must admit that the local coroner’s report is light on detail. He describes the cause of death—several stabbings, one shooting, one strangulation, and several more brutal beatings—but he included no information about the manner of death. One could assume a homicide, but some of the wounds could have been self-inflicted. Another body has just been found.”
“Is that why you want me there?” Albert asked. “To get an autopsy done the right way?”
Cooper asked, “Do you know much about the early Arctic explorations?”
“What?” And because he hated it when people made him repeat anything, he corrected himself by saying, “Some. History wasn’t my area of interest.”
“In 1916 Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance was frozen and never recovered,” Cooper said. “His crew set out over the ice to escape. One by one they died, and they began to count off in the morning to see how many of them were left. Eventually there were only three walking across the ice. Every morning they would count off, and every morning they would reach three and that was that. But when asked about the expedition after their rescue, questioned separately, every one of them swore there was a fourth man who traveled with them. A man wrapped in brown, with his face hidden.”
Albert didn’t know what to make of that, or the irrational, stupid fear that stole through him. “Is that supposed to be some sort of Jesus-walks-with-me thing?” he asked, and sounded strained.
“Do you believe in things unseen, Albert?” Cooper asked.
Albert was too rattled to really take in the unexpected use of his first name. “No. Do you?”
“I believe the world is a very large place.”
They fell silent again, with Albert feeling even more unsettled than he had been, and even Cooper appearing grim in the fading light. The trees stretched all around them, and the headlights on the town car sliced through a gathering fog. Albert flicked his cigarette away and rolled up the window. He wasn’t afraid; he just didn’t want the inside of the car getting damp. He had cigarettes to preserve.
They drove in silence for almost another hour before Cooper turned onto a dirt road that, after fifteen minutes, led to a house. It was the sort of place that would put a more imaginative man in mind of axe-murderers, but Albert didn’t have that sort of mind. He wasn’t afraid of an abandoned building. The most frightening thing in a place like that was likely a colony of bats in the attic or raccoons under the floorboards.
The fog had settled in swirls around the area, and the sun was fully set. “I don’t know how you expect me to find anything significant in this fog, Cooper,” he said.
“We won’t have to worry about the fog,” Cooper said, “we’re going into that house.”
“You said the body was found near the house.”
“Why is it in the house now?”
Cooper’s eyes were alight with something that Albert didn’t want to define. “I’m afraid I’ve allowed you to persist under a misapprehension, Dr. Rosenfield. The body of Susan Shenfield is in the morgue ten miles from here. The local coroner autopsied her two days ago.”
Albert’s heart started to pound, his breathing grew shallow, and fury rose up, almost closing his throat up. This bastard had dragged Albert to the middle of nowhere and scared the hell out of him for kicks. Or a bet. It must have been one of those water-cooler bets. Cooper was put up to dragging the pacifist into the field, maybe roughing him up a bit. Albert cast about for some way to defend himself.
He came up empty and turned his gaze back to Cooper. The agent hadn’t moved since he’d last spoken, but was staring at Albert with that burning intensity that had suddenly taken on dangerous overtones.
Albert’s voice was shaking a little when he demanded, “If there’s no body, why the hell are we here?”
Cooper leaned in a little, and Albert leaned back. The window-crank dug into his back. Cooper’s voice was pitched low. “Susan Shenfield had crossed state lines. I came here three days ago with my partner. Have you met Agent Earle?”
He had indeed met Agent Earle one week ago that day. In Earle had sauntered, cocky and needing to be taken down a peg. Albert was more than willing to oblige.
He hadn’t expected to be grabbed from behind with an arm around his throat tight enough for his vision to begin to white out around the edges. Nor had he expected Earle to whisper in his ear, “I had heard that you had quite a mouth. Word travels fast. Now, the others may tolerate you, but I demand respect, Dr. Rosenfield, and if I don’t get it I’m told I can be very unpleasant company. I would ask you to remember that when addressing me in the future.”
Albert had pulled at the arm, but his hands were like lead and by the end of this little speech they were hanging at his sides and his knees were about to go. For a wild moment he thought that Earle would kill him outright, but then Earle gave him a hard shove that landed him sprawling on the linoleum, and Earle’s polished shoes strode past on his way out.
And now Earle’s pint-sized partner had him all alone in a car in the middle of the woods. Albert’s life flashed before his eyes. All that bullshit about working for the cause of good had been some sort of lure. Cooper had read it in him somehow, knew what to say to earn his cooperation.
“I’ve met your partner, but I suspect you knew that already.” He forced himself to sit out away from the door. “I won’t stop you from doing whatever your partner sent you to do to me. You can beat the hell out of me. You can leave me here. I don’t care. But if you expect me to scream or if you expect me to cry you’ve got another thing coming.”
The perplexed look on Cooper’s face wasn’t one he’d expected. “Albert, I am aware that my partner has something of an odd sense of humor, and may well have said something you misconstrued as a threat—”
“It’s very hard to misconstrue being choked nearly to unconsciousness, Agent Cooper.”
Cooper looked disturbed, and he turned his head a little and stared out into the darkness. “Dr. Rosenfield,” he said. “Albert, you must believe that I have no intention of harming you.”
Emboldened by the sudden lack of threat, Albert leaned in this time. “Then you had better tell me what I’m doing here, and you’d better do it quick. Because I can’t do an autopsy twice, and I can’t undo stupidity. And even if that was the case we’re out here in the middle of nowhere while the body’s in a morgue, and I don’t do field operations.”
Cooper looked back to him, and the intensity was banked now. Cooper was treating him with kid gloves, Albert realized with no little disgust. “I was here three days ago. Agent Earle and I were here. We secured the scene, we loaded the body into the van and then we went into the house. Albert, I walked into that house and I knew with every fiber of my being that something was very, very, very wrong in there. It coated the back of my throat, and I could hear things at the edge of the audible range. Agent Earle noticed none of this, and in fact said that the house was surprisingly homey. I knew he was wrong, and I knew he couldn’t help me here. Inexplicable things happen to me, Dr. Rosenfield. It is a fact of my life that I have come to accept over the years, but I have never felt anything that forbidding.” He leaned a little closer, and though Albert couldn’t believe what he was hearing he didn’t move away. Cooper’s voice dropped to whisper. “Last night Susan Shenfield appeared to me in a dream. She told me that you were the one. I checked your movements, and you were logged in your autopsy suite the night of the murder. More than that, I watched your reactions as we drove here, and I believe you’ve never been to this house before. So if you aren’t the killer, Susan was telling me that you were the man to help me. Agent Earle can’t help me, and I can’t face what’s in that house on my own. Don’t you see? She was pointing me in the right direction. Henry David Thoreau said that there are a thousand men hacking at the branches of evil for every one who is striking at the root. This is an opportunity to strike at that root, Albert, and we cannot allow it to pass us by.”
Albert couldn’t believe his ears. “A murder victim came to you in a dream, and that’s the reason you dragged me to the ass end of nowhere? That’s it. I’m not putting up with this, and I’m not staying here with you. I don’t care if I have to walk back to Philadelphia.” He grabbed the door handle and started to pull it when Cooper’s hand shot across his field of vision and clamped over the handle and his fingers. “What the hell do you—” he started to say, whirling on Cooper. He saw the rigid, white expression on Cooper’s face as he stared out of the windshield and his hand slowly lifted off Albert’s. With an unwilling fascination, Albert turned slowly to see. His breath caught in his throat.
Standing among the trees, nearly a tree itself, was the unmistakable form of a man.
Albert knew physiology and he knew proportion, and he knew that this man had a neck that was far too long, and a strange distended belly. He was scarcely more than a silhouette between two thin, arching trees, but somehow more present than anything else in the forest. The car was turned off, with no illumination reaching his position.
“The house is abandoned,” Albert said.
“Not a sign of life,” Cooper confirmed. He reached very slowly for the headlight control. Then, with a quick flick of Cooper’s wrist, the woods were thrown into light. The two arching trees stood as they had expected, but there was nothing between them, either immediately or in the distance. In a split second the man had been there, and then gone.
A strange, unaccustomed sense of panic rose up in Albert’s throat. It didn’t escape in any sort of embarrassing noise, but it was a near thing. He forced his thoughts to order themselves. They were in a wooded area, full of shadows and awkwardly shaped plant life. What they had seen was an illusion, and no more supernatural than Albert’s microscope.
But when Cooper said, “I don’t think you should leave the car yet,” Albert stayed put.
Then Cooper reached into the back of the car and pulled out a pair of flashlights and a piñata that looked like the devil. It was enough to snap Albert out of that uncomfortable fear. He looked at the little red guy made of papier-mâché and little strips of colorful tissue, his paper pitchfork drooping sadly. “If we hit him with a stick,” Albert said, “does candy come out?”
Cooper looked at his ridiculous devil, and for the first time since Albert had met him he looked embarrassed. “It was the best I could find on very short notice.”
“Okay,” Albert said. “For what, dare I ask?”
“It’s a symbolic effigy of evil. We’re going to burn it. There’s a fireplace inside.”
Albert couldn’t resist. “Is it stuffed with popcorn?”
Cooper straightened. “Albert, get your mind off snack food. This is a ritual to focus us to the task at hand, not a ten-year-old’s birthday party.” It was delivered with such dignity and conviction that Albert had to, for once, stifle his snickers of derision. They just didn’t seem appropriate, which was a first. Derision was the new black: it was always in style.
Cooper’s look shifted to the house and he reached for the door handle. He pushed it open, and Albert hurried to join him. The mist clung around his ankles and choked him with cold. He looked back at the car in longing, and the breath caught in his throat. “Cooper,” he snapped.
Cooper turned to see what Albert had already seen, and they both stared at the windows of the car, misted over with the moisture of the fog, but each and every one of them was covered in a multitude of handprints, with overlong fingers stretched out from them.
“Please explain how that happened, Cooper, because I can honestly say I don’t know.” Albert refused to believe the shaking beam of the flashlight was caused by a tremble in his hand. It had to be a fault in the flashlight itself. Piece of junk.
“I can’t explain it, but to say that the world is indeed a very large place. And that I believe we should get into the house immediately, and out of this fog.”
Albert nodded, and they turned to make for the house. Albert ignored the creeping feeling that there were people in the fog, just beyond his range of sight. Cooper’s arm slipped through his, bundling Albert close by his side. Albert didn’t even think to object to the proprietary, presumptive treatment. After all, it wasn’t a terrible precaution to take. It would be so easy to get separated.
The porch of the house looked like it was in danger of falling into itself with the slightest breeze, let alone the weight of two grown men, even if neither of them was going for heavyweight champion. The boards creaked under Albert’s feet, and the unexpected sound shocked a laugh out of him that was dizzying in its honesty. Albert wasn’t the type to laugh often, and it usually only happened if he thought he could get a rise out of someone particularly annoying. This time there was no one there to show up, only Cooper who stood at his side with a slow answering grin. The devil piñata, peeking out from under Cooper’s arm, grinned too.
“Albert?” Cooper asked.
“I think we’ve walked into a cliché,” Albert said. “Do you think we’ll find Mrs. Bates down in the basement?”
“I will admit,” Cooper said, “the front door does creak.”
“It would. Come on, Cooper. Let’s get in there before we get ourselves chainsaw massacred.”
The front door did indeed creak, and the inside of the house was every inch the junk heap Albert had thought it would be. Everything was choked in dust. If there had been some psychopath living in this house, there would have been footprints, and there were. Albert crouched down and pulled his camera from his bag.
He was about to take a picture when Cooper cleared his throat. Albert frowned. “Let me guess. Yourself and Agent Earle?”
“Not the right psychopath, then. I don’t suppose you bothered to look before stepping.”
He looked back, and Cooper met his gaze with a steady, unwavering attention. “There were no footprints,” he said. “The dust had not been disturbed in any way until Agent Earle and I came here, and we didn’t go farther than a cross-through: in the front door and out the back. There were no footprints at either entrance.”
“Indicative, but not conclusive.”
There was that. Try as he might, Albert was unable to classify Cooper as an idiot. He could call him insane or over-credulous, certainly, but not an idiot. They moved into the living room, and Albert kept scanning for any signs of human habitation. Something struck him as odd, but he wasn’t able to place it.
Cooper crossed to the fireplace and settled his little devil on the old iron grate. Albert let him do what he wanted, ignoring the muttering he heard from that direction. Yes, there was something off about this house. Albert stood in the middle of the room and cast his flashlight over the area. He heard the scratch and smelled the sulfur of a match being struck.
The glow from the burning devil cast the room in a flickering light, throwing the whole of the floor into visibility, as well as the ceiling and the dilapidated furniture. With the big picture available Albert saw immediately what he had missed.
“No animal activity,” he said, more to himself than because he thought Cooper was paying any attention. He checked the corners. Without humans present the commensals should have come out into the open to get into the furniture and eat anything they could and use the rest for nesting. There should be thinner patches of dust where mice moved frequently, perhaps the tracks of a raccoon family or seven, and definitely the occasional scat pile. Nothing. He cast his light on the ceiling as well and saw with an even deeper disquiet that there were no cobwebs. The dust had fallen, the plaster was disintegrating, the wallpaper peeling, and the wood rotting, but there were none of the living signs of abandonment. Not even termite holes in the boards.
He ran a finger across the dust collected on an old mirror, having half an idea that the dust had been planted to cover recent habitation, but it certainly wasn’t sawdust or theatrical dust. It felt real between his fingers.
In the stripe he’d wiped clear he saw the distorted figures of an old woman and a boy standing behind Cooper.
Albert spun around, and his light startled Cooper, who looked up. There was no one behind him, and no footprints small enough to be either a woman or a boy. Albert looked in the mirror again but saw nothing beyond Cooper’s wobbly reflection. He shook his head.
“Did you find something?” Cooper asked.
Albert shrugged and decided not to mention his momentary hallucination. Firelight playing hell with an old, streaked mirror, most likely. “There’s none of the usual animal or insect activity here. Every other indication that this place hasn’t seen any action for a long time.”
“No animal or insect activity?” Cooper asked. “That is odd in the deep woods, isn’t it?”
“There could be environmental factors at work,” Albert said, but he wasn’t convinced. Even in climates that were toxic to mammal life certain insect species thrived. This complete absence was disquieting.
Cooper stepped away from the fireplace, where his devil was no more than a pile of ash. If either of them had expected fireworks they were very much mistaken.
Albert asked, “Are you centered yet?”
Cooper’s look was sharp, and Albert felt strangely chastened. “Why is everything a joke to you, Albert?” he asked.
“Because this is crazy. We’re in an old abandoned house with no living activity in it, which is frankly impossible, as you well know. Add to that our vanishing friend in the night, plus granny and the kid on top, and I think I’m handling this very well.”
“I didn’t ask for names from the people who weren’t there, Cooper.”
“When did you see them, Albert?” That soft voice and the kid gloves were back. Wasn’t it obvious to Cooper that he wasn’t losing it this time?
Albert was doing exactly what he had been trained and was getting paid to do: observe and think in a logical, scientific manner. “I saw them while you were busy burning Mr. Toasty over there. I saw them in a badly streaked mirror, in the light of a flashlight, backlit by fire. They’re nothing.”
“And yet you are convinced you saw an old woman and a boy?”
“I’m not convinced of anything. Guttering light is hell on a fatigued optic nerve. People see all sorts of strange things.” Albert crossed his arms over his chest.
“People,” Cooper said, “but not you. You are a detail-oriented man, Dr. Rosenfield. It strains credulity that your eyes should play such a convincing trick that you could tell that one of the figures was an old woman, and one a boy. Not an old man, or a small girl, both of whom could have similar silhouettes. To determine the identities of these people with such specificity, your vision must have been clear enough for general detail. I don’t think a guttering fire could create that, even on a fatigued optic nerve.”
“There aren’t any footprints, so unless they sprouted wings and flew away my eyesight wasn’t firing on all cylinders.”
“Do you really think footprints are necessary?”
Albert gave Cooper a hard look, and realized he was being serious. All this time he’d been quietly convinced that Cooper would reveal a vital clue and point them on some earthly track at any moment. And yet there he was, cool and confident after having said that.
Albert couldn’t let that stand. “Let’s get this perfectly clear, Agent Cooper. Maybe your dream girl told you to drag me out here to the boonies and maybe she didn’t. But I’m not going to play this game. I don’t believe in ghosts, goblins, ghoulies, spirits, sprites, shades, phantoms, or poltergeists. If it doesn’t have scientific backing it doesn’t get mine. Now, I apologize if I’ve shattered any of your illusions, but Little Miss Dreamscape got it wrong. I can’t do this.”
Albert turned to go. He wasn’t sure where he would go, but he was sure as hell not staying in a house that had vanishing people and didn’t feel like the rules of nature applied to it. Cooper grabbed his arm, and for a second Albert thought he’d stepped over some line and would get himself decked before he could make it out the door.
Overhead, the sound of heavy footsteps scraped across the floor. Dust filtered out from between warped boards, and a light shifted above them. He was disconcerted to realize that the footsteps were scraping in one direction and the light was headed in another.
Albert backed up against Cooper without thinking about it. He heard a snap being undone and then the soft slide of metal against leather. He glanced down and saw that Cooper held the pistol with an easy assurance.
“You and Agent Earle must have missed the third entrance,” Albert whispered. His gaze returned to the boards. The light passed out of view.
Cooper’s smile was tight. “Or they sprouted wings, Albert. Should we go and find out?”
“I’m not armed,” Albert hissed with all the pent-up fear and anger that had been building up inside his chest. “What do you expect me to do up there, whittle you a wooden whistle?”
“I always wanted one of those.” Before Albert could lose his temper completely, Cooper went on. “You were meant to be here, Albert, whether you believe it or not. And you were meant to go up there.”
“Can I add fate to the list of things I don’t believe in?”
Cooper made for the door and Albert followed. He thought about bringing his medical bag, but the state of the floorboards above their heads told him that the less weight he brought along the better off he’d be. The microscope alone might be enough to send him plummeting to a splintery death.
He set down the bag next to the couch and hurried after Cooper. Separation would be a bad idea with an unknown number of individuals wandering around the house, wouldn’t it? This was practicality at its most basic, and the light and the footsteps only confirmed that the people upstairs were just that. Everything else could be explained away. Their purview was the flesh and blood of the real world.
Cooper opened door after door in the hallway stretching to the back door. They discovered an old kitchen, an empty pantry or closet, and a small dining room. Cooper shone his light into each and flashed his gun. Each door creaked softly on its hinges, and each sound drew some answering, muffled noise from above. Albert tensed in apprehension. There was no way their presence was going unnoticed.
Next to the back door was a particularly dusty, particularly unloved door. Cooper pulled it open, which was in itself an aberration. Every other door had opened into the room, but this pulled out into the hall.
It opened onto a dark stairway upward. “Did you and Agent Earle do anything while you were here?” Albert demanded, not quite believing they hadn’t checked out such an obvious upper level.
“Agent Earle ordered us to leave after we found no footsteps. He believed the house to be irrelevant to the investigation.”
“Whereas you got the creeping willies and decided to drag in a forensic pathologist introduced to you in a dream.”
A faint light illuminated the stairwell from above, although Albert couldn’t see any source. The wallpaper had been torn away from the wall planks, and a word looked like it had been burned into the woodwork, but only partially. The burn had been unevenly applied so that letters at one end were dark and deep, and those at the other were barely visible.
Cooper covered the stairs with his gun while Albert leaned in closely to the brand. He spelled out the word slowly, getting more and more uncertain near the end. “G-A-R-M-O-N-B-O-Z . . . and two other letters rendered completely illegible. It almost looks like someone traced them on with chalk.” He brushed a finger in the burned groove of the ‘A’ but jerked back when the indentation felt oily and slimy.
“What is it?” Cooper asked. He didn’t look, but kept his eyes and gun trained upward.
“Nothing. The planks must be rotting.” He looked at the inscription again. “So, garmonboz blank blank. Unless there were more letters chalked in that got washed away. Ring any bells?”
“No, I don’t think so.” Cooper cocked his head, and Albert knew before he spoke that an idea had hit him. “Albert, how many letters are burned in and how many are chalked?”
Albert made a quick count. “Nine burned, two chalked.”
Cooper gave a jerky sort of nod. “Nine victims have been recovered. Some alone, some two or even three at a time. There is no pattern in age, race, sex, or background, but there were nine of them, and there are nine letters written in fire on the wall.”
“You think it’s some sort of tally,” Albert said. He didn’t need to ask. Should he be disturbed that he had followed Cooper’s thought processes?
“I think I’d like to know what’s supposed to happen when those two final letters are burned in.”
Albert huffed. “The killer does the hokey pokey and he turns himself around. Who cares? If this is the work of a serial killer, he’s not going to stop just because he spelled out ‘garbanzo’ on the wall.”
Cooper didn’t seem convinced, but he started to move up the stairs all the same. Albert followed.
The upstairs of the house was, if it was possible, even more decrepit than the downstairs had been. The floorboards were warped, and many gaped open to give glimpses of the dark rooms on the floor below. So much for dual layering or insulation. Albert wondered how the hell anyone walked on a floor in such bad condition without falling through. Probably blind, dumb luck.
The warped boards also made for the sort of through-draft that could freeze a well digger’s ass in the Klondike. Albert shivered and wished he’d brought along more than an autumn-weight trench coat, but it wasn’t as though he’d thought he’d be spending the evening in la casa Bates. The wind moaned a little when it blew between the boards, just to piss him off.
Again, he noticed that there was no sign of life. There were no cobwebs, no slug trails, not even a dead roach along the baseboard. He looked away so he didn’t have to see such an obvious discrepancy in the natural order of things.
There was a hallway that ran almost the length of the upstairs, with two doors on each side and one at the end. They opened the first two quickly, and then froze and listened. When Albert didn’t hear footsteps or the telltale roar of a chainsaw motor he decided they hadn’t been detected. That or they were being played with.
These first two rooms looked empty and disused, but Cooper eyed them with interest. He leaned in close to Albert and whispered, “I believe we should investigate all the rooms. There is a possibility, however slim, that they might contain information vital to our success. Are you comfortable taking one while I take the other, or would you prefer we stay together?”
Well, that was the question, wasn’t it? On the one hand, if they each took one of the obviously uninhabited rooms they moved quicker and had less chance of being caught in the act. On the other hand, splitting up felt less like a clever way of saving time in the abandoned rooms and more like a one-way ticket to getting axe-murdered. That was, if they were in a movie and not in a real house in the middle of the real boonies freezing their real asses off. And if Albert were far younger, far blonder, and far prettier than he was. Something told him he wasn’t cut out to be a horror movie heroine.
“Let’s get this done with quickly,” he said. “I’ll go left, you go right.”
“Be sure to look for anything out of the ordinary, no matter how small.”
Albert shot Cooper a glare. “Would you like to remind me to remember to breathe and blink while you’re at it?”
Cooper gave him one of his sunniest grins and then walked off. The nut. Albert picked his way through the door and into the room on the left. It was small, barely furnished, but a bedroom. Dust bunnies had long since planted their flag on the bed, and the rickety chair in the corner had seen better days. Or at least Albert thought it had from what he could see. He couldn’t think why anyone would turn the one chair in the room toward the corner unless they had a thing for ninety-degree angles. Or eighty-five degree angles, as the case may be.
The door slammed closed behind him, and Albert whirled around with his flashlight at the ready and his heart in his throat. Standing in front of the door was a small boy in a tuxedo, and clasped in his arms was Cooper’s devil piñata.
Albert knew the kid was the same kid he’d seen in the mirror, but seeing him so solid—standing there holding something that was ashes in the fireplace grate—was a bit much. His logical mind was ready to run screaming from the impossibility of that vision.
His mouth carried on when all other faculties deserted him. “In some parts of the country it’s considered rude to sneak up on someone and then slam the door.”
The boy had a smile that was flat and cold as a mirror. He didn’t say anything.
“I didn’t think you concerned yourself with manners,” a quavering voice said behind him.
Albert had peerless observational abilities. He could spot a contact lens on the carpet from across the room. He would have seen if there had been anyone else in that room. Of course, he would have noticed a little boy there as well. He turned to find that the chair in the corner was occupied, but still turned away. The old woman was curled on herself with kyphosis, and her hair obscured her face with a halo of white. Albert had the hysterical notion that if he turned her around it would be the end of “Psycho” all over again, but dismissed it out of hand. Corpses didn’t talk, and they definitely didn’t smell like freesia.
And again, his mouth didn’t fail him. “Well hail, hail, the gang’s all here.”
The old woman asked, “What’s your name, young man?” Her head turned a little, and he saw that faint trembling shook her in a steady current. Her eyes were wide and frightened, but intense. They reminded him of Cooper’s eyes, though he couldn’t say why.
“Dr. Albert Rosenfield,” he said. “Can I have your name?”
The old woman looked over his shoulder at the boy. He turned to see the boy giving him that same sphinx smile.
“Fine, let’s try this another way: are you real?”
“That is the question, isn’t it?” the boy asked, his words over-slow and precise. It almost sounded as though he didn’t understand English, and was sounding the words out phonetically with none of the intonation.
The old woman’s tremulous whisper broke in at his back. “We’re more real than you are here. You shouldn’t be in this place, Dr. Rosenfield. Not right now.”
A creak from the room next to them caused Albert to back toward the door, but the creepy kid and his grinning devil blocked the exit. He looked to the old woman, whose eyes moved away from the wall only reluctantly. “He’s on the threshold now. Eleven steps to the gate.” She brought her hands together and began rubbing them. Albert heard a strange ringing sound in his ears like some persistent tinnitus.
He turned to see that the devil piñata was doing the same, rubbing its paper hands together and grinning at him. The boy stood with that same chill serenity. “The real question is this: how does a pacifist fight?” the boy asked.
Then he stepped aside and the door opened. Albert hurried through and didn’t look back. He hurried so recklessly, in fact, that he slammed into Cooper in the hallway and gave into the urge to cling for a second.
“Albert?” he heard that worried whisper in his ear, and he’d never been happier for the questionable sanity of Dale Cooper at his side.
“I met the old woman and the boy I saw,” he said. “The kid had that damn devil you just had to torch, and granny was facing the corner.”
Cooper led the way back into the room. Albert knew before he looked that there was no sign of them, and that his footprints were the only ones there. Cooper looked at him, and Albert despised being stared at like the village freak.
“Do I look like the sort of man who would make this up, Cooper?” he growled. “I am far too intelligent to subject myself to humiliation just to get a rise out of you.”
“Tell me everything you saw,” Cooper said, and Albert knew he would take it seriously.
He kept to the facts: smells, sights, exact wording if he could manage it. He didn’t stray into interpretation or explanation. He was there to provide raw data, wasn’t he? The kid’s last words rattled around his head: how does a pacifist fight? Words, maybe, or proficiency. Or maybe the kid was some sort of hallucination brought on by the same gas in the air that had killed all the other animals. It wasn’t exactly the most comforting of thoughts.
When he was done, Cooper had a serious expression and a hard look in his eyes. “Albert,” he whispered, “I don’t know why these beings appeared to you, but it is clear they came with a message. A message specifically aimed at you.”
“Well, whoop-de-doo for that.”
It didn’t mean he’d be leaving Cooper’s side again to see if he’d get any more visitations. One impossible encounter met his quota for the year. They made their way to the next set of doors, and took the right-hand door first. The room was still and close, but it looked more recently dusted. There were a few end tables and a chest of drawers. A much more complete sort of bedroom than the half-assed attempt in which the old lady and the kid had showed up. Cooper began to go through the chest of drawers, so Albert tackled the end tables. The dust was greasy under his hands and he smelled it carefully. “Cooper,” he said, “this table has some sort of oil on it.”
“Orange oil is a common cleaner for wooden furniture.”
Albert shot Cooper a look that lost a lot of its power getting directed to the back of Cooper’s head. “I know what orange oil smells like, Cooper. If there had been orange oil on this table, I would have said there was orange oil on the table. I’m not sloppy when I work and I’m not sloppy when I talk about work.”
And, damn him, Albert could hear the smile Cooper wore. “If it isn’t orange oil, what is it?”
At least he didn’t say anything dippy. “I’m not certain, but it smells industrial. More machine than maple.”
Cooper came over to join him and ran his own fingers through the greasy dust. He smelled it and nodded. “I see what you mean. There’s a certain metallic tang to it.” He looked at Albert. “Motor oil, do you think?”
Albert shrugged. He pulled out a q-tip and a baggie from the inside pocket of his coat and took a sample. “Questions like that are why we have science.”
They didn’t find anything else in the room, so they moved on to the room across the hall. This one looked even better looked-after, with barely any dust and a candle at the bedside that looked recently used.
Albert nodded toward it and said, “I think we’ve found the light source.”
Cooper nodded and pressed his finger into the wax at the top of the candle. It was still soft, and apparently still hot under the surface. Cooper pulled back quickly and sucked on his finger. He shuddered for a second, and Albert had to wonder at the low pain tolerance. Before he could ask, Cooper’s hand dropped to his side and he acted as though nothing had happened.
His voice was steady when he said, “Very recently burned.”
Albert rolled his eyes. It wasn’t the time to get macho. Cooper didn’t seem that dumb, but that was the nature of human beings throughout Albert’s life. They were always stupider than he thought they would be.
“Let me see your finger,” he said.
Cooper looked at him like he’d grown another head.
“You’re right-handed, one assumes you fire your weapon with your dominant hand, and you’ve burned your index finger—colloquially known in the Bureau and elsewhere as your trigger finger. Now, if you can’t fire your weapon we’re both in trouble. Let me see your hand, Agent Cooper.” When Cooper hesitated a bit more, Albert barked, “It’s not an idle suggestion.”
Cooper offered his hand, and Albert took it up, examining the index finger with as much care as he afforded his corpses, though he did try to handle the living with a bit more gentleness. He took the Hippocratic oath very seriously, even if it rarely applied to his line of work.
The pad of Cooper’s index finger was red, but didn’t look more damaged than that. The inner side of the finger, where it had likely pressed up against the wick, sported an angry looking burn in the straight line of the wick, but there was also an odd branching pattern off it. It wasn’t normal for burns to spread like that, certainly. No more normal than the absence of commensal activity in the house.
He brushed a finger against the injury to get a rough estimate of the damage done. Cooper’s hand flinched against his. Albert sighed. “You have a first degree burn across the pad of your finger, which is going to be painful but shouldn’t cause nerve damage. The burn on the side of your finger is a little strange. Given what you burned yourself on I’d expect a little blistering at the site, but this looks more serious. If I hadn’t seen you acquire it, I’d say this was a chemical burn.”
Cooper nodded. “How serious do you estimate it to be, Dr. Rosenfield?”
Albert shrugged. “Nothing a little alcohol, burn ointment, and a band-aid shouldn’t fix, but then who knows in this place? Someone could have steeped that wick in hydrochloric acid for just such an occasion. Either way you look at it, this needs to be treated sooner rather than later. I left my bag downstairs, so I’ll have to run down to get any supplies. Don’t leave this room. I don’t want to have to go looking for you.”
“Don’t worry, Dr. Rosenfield. I’ve got more than enough to investigate here while you get the first aid kit.” Cooper was already busy going through drawers with his left hand when Albert made his exit.
The trip downstairs would have been uneventful if Albert was calmer, but with his nerves strung so taut every creak of the house and whistle of the wind became some psycho out to kill him. The descent down the stairs and past that weird inscription was particularly nerve-wracking, and Albert could have sworn that the creaking and the wind changed into a low, excited whispering.
Albert hurried to his bag and glanced at the fireplace. The ashes and scraps of half-burned red paper were still there, though the grate was cool by now. Albert shook his head and heard the boy’s words again: how does a pacifist fight?
Albert hated weird philosophical questions. He opened his bag and opted for only bringing up the necessary supplies. He put the tin of band-aids in his pocket, along with burn salve, alcohol pads, and a syringe of antibiotics just in case. If Cooper’s injury was a chemical burn he’d need to flush it with alcohol quickly, as he was lacking water he would trust.
He headed back up the stairs two at a time and refused to look at the inscription. He just needed to get treatment for Cooper, investigate the last room in the hall, and then they could leave. It wasn’t that he was opposed to solving the case, but he didn’t like being there with so little backup.
The hallway was as dark as he remembered and he hurried into the room where he’d left Cooper, fumbling an alcohol pad out of his pocket. He looked up and fell very still. Cooper wasn’t there.
Hoping Cooper was checking behind the bed or was otherwise unseen but there, Albert hissed, “Cooper?”
There was no response. Albert could hear his heartbeat in his ears and could feel it under his tongue. His arms and legs felt weak from the rush of fear that took him. He knew about physiological reactions to terror, and had even felt them when Agent Earle decided to show off his manly prowess on an unarmed forensic pathologist, but there was something heightened about this sensation.
“Cooper?!” he tried again, and checked every corner he could think of. What if there had been some sort of chemical contaminant on the candle? He could think of several compounds that would mix well enough with wax and could be absorbed through the skin that would incapacitate a man of Cooper’s size in minutes. None of them had good prognoses.
And where the hell was the candle? It wasn’t on the table, or the floor, or anywhere Albert could see. Had Cooper’s flashlight gone out and he’d turned to the candle for light? Not a good idea if the wick was coated in something acidic.
Cooper and his candle were nowhere to be found. While it was a relief to know he wasn’t unconscious on the floor, the fact that he’d gone off on his own riled Albert more than a little. Maybe his dream girl had showed up again and led him off on some sort of vision quest, but he had dragged an unarmed man along with him. Running off to follow some sort of crackpot lead meant that Albert was alone and little more than helpless.
How does a pacifist fight? Not very well.
He eased back into the hall and saw that the door at the end was cracked open, with light spilling through. Since he’d seen nothing of the sort minutes before, it meant that either Cooper was inside or Albert was about to have a very short, unpleasant confrontation. He made for the door with every instinct demanding he run, but for that crazy voice that said he had to help Cooper. Where the hell had that voice come from?
Cooper must have heard some movement in the next room and had gone to face off with whatever bastard was in the house. Not a bad plan, since Albert wasn’t the useful guy to have in an armed standoff. He was much more the man you wanted after the guns had been fired, whatever the outcome.
The door let out an alarming creak as he pushed it open, and Albert’s teeth were set on edge by the danger a sound like that presented. When he wasn’t shot he continued.
The door swung open without sound after the initial creak. Albert shone his flashlight into the corners and then focused the beam in the center of the room. Cooper’s flashlight lay on the floor and was shining at him, creating the illumination he’d seen. Cooper himself was kneeling on the floor, his coat pooled around him and his body hunched over the guttering light of the candle. There was no one else in the room.
“Cooper?” he asked, because for some reason that terror wasn’t going away. “Cooper, are you all right? If that damned candle had something on it that burned your hand I’m going to need to know symptoms and I’m going to need to know them now.” Nothing. Cooper didn’t so much as twitch. “Come on, Cooper,” he said. “I don’t know what sort of timeline we’re working to here, but some compounds work very quickly, and I really don’t think that sitting there inhaling the fumes is going to help.” Still nothing. “But hey, don’t mind me. I’m just offering my professional medical opinion.”
There was movement in the corner of Albert’s eye, and he swung around to face it only to find nothing there when his flashlight landed on the area. It was the candlelight. All the shadows were moving in the candlelight. And the furniture in this room looked like it had been warped by many years of water damage. The chairs and the tables were twisted and barely standing.
Albert stepped forward, intent on getting to Cooper and getting him to a hospital. He hadn’t seen or heard any sign of the psycho who was supposed to be up here. For all Albert knew he’d jumped out a window. And Albert couldn’t do anything about armed lunatics anyway. What he could do was get Cooper some immediate medical attention and try to stem the spread of whatever poison had leeched into his bloodstream.
“Cooper, come on,” he muttered, stooping down to reach, “let me see your hand. I need to see how bad it’s gotten.”
“Dr. Rosenfield?” Cooper asked. “Albert?”
“I hope you weren’t expecting anyone else to ride to the rescue.” He managed to snag Cooper’s wrist where it drooped on the floor and pull it to him, kneeling as he did so. He saw Cooper in profile, pale in the candlelight. His eyes were squeezed closed and his breathing was erratic. As Albert looked for the burn he checked Cooper’s pulse. It was rapid.
The burn itself was an angry red and had spread from wisps to something that looked like a raging fire emanating from the wound itself. Albert had left the tourniquets downstairs, not thinking it could spread so quickly.
“I’m going to have to swab this out with alcohol, Cooper, and then we’ll need to go back to the car and get you to a hospital.”
Cooper was muttering to himself now. God knew if he’d heard a word Albert had said. While he was distracted Albert held his hand still, tore open the alcohol swab with his teeth, and then moved to apply it. Alcohol wouldn’t help a lot, but treating the initial site of infection couldn’t hurt, and it might buy them time to get Cooper to a proper emergency room where they could run proper tests in a sterile environment.
Cooper’s head suddenly jerked up and his eyes opened wide. “Albert?” he asked in a tiny, strained voice.
“Right here,” Albert said, his own voice hushed. “Where else do you expect me to be?”
Cooper shook his head. “You shouldn’t be here.”
“I’ve only been telling you that all night.”
“Albert, the candle—”
“Had an infectious agent on it. Yeah, I know. I’ve got alcohol swabs to treat the site of the infection, but after that you’re going to need hospital care to determine what the agent might be and how fast it’s spreading through your bloodstream. Trust me on this one, Cooper, I’m a—”
“Will you shut up and listen to me?”
The harsh tone was so unlike Cooper that it killed all the sound in Albert’s throat except a quiet, “Okay.”
“Albert, they will not find the infection because it is not for them to find. There are no tests and no methods known to science for finding this particular malady.”
“Cooper, that’s just—”
“I know what killed all those people over the years.”
Albert’s eyes moved about the room, but they were very much alone. However Cooper had got his knowledge, it was as esoteric as his dream girl. That or granny and the kid decided to pay him a visit too so he didn’t feel left out. “Who?” Albert asked.
For a second it looked like Cooper wouldn’t or couldn’t answer. He drew in on himself, shuddering and struggling against some horrible pain. It was bad enough that Albert took him by the arms to keep him from falling over. When it passed Cooper was panting and shivering and leaning up against Albert in an awkward embrace.
Albert felt Cooper’s head move against his throat. “Cooper?”
And in a flash Albert was flat on his back and Cooper sitting on his stomach pinning him. A smile that didn’t look a thing like his usual dippy, wholesome grin planted itself on Cooper’s face. “It was me,” he said.
When Albert realized what he was saying there was a second of terror followed by disbelief. “Yeah, Coop, sure it was you. Killings spaced over a decade? You were one mean twelve-year-old.”
He heard the metallic rasp and clack of the safety being taken off a gun, and then the sensation of cold metal tracing his cheekbone. The realization that Cooper had a gun to his head was possibly the biggest shock of the night, and he’d had a few.
“Cooper?” he asked, his voice shaking.
Cooper sat up a little straighter and shook his head, his smile growing. “Not Cooper,” he said. His voice was strange, the intonation alternately droning and whispering, as though he couldn’t quite remember how to work his own vocal cords. And there was some strange sound under the words, like metal grating on metal. “Not Cooper at all.”
The gun pressed between Albert’s eyes. There was no flash of his life, no great white light, only the pure thrill of fear and a stuttering halt to his thoughts as they focused on the gun. There weren’t even famous last words, because his throat had closed up. It was a shame, really. Albert would have hoped he’d die saying something very clever.
And then Cooper wrenched away from him. Albert pushed himself up on his elbows to see him huddled over the candle again, shaking like a man with a seizure. “Albert,” he said, “you have to run. I don’t think I can control my actions much longer, and you must go while I can give you a head start.”
“What the hell is happening here, Cooper?”
“I’m not exactly in a position to answer questions right now, Albert. Run!”
Albert jerked himself to his feet. His medical instincts told him he couldn’t leave a man who might be having a psychotic break, but his other instincts—the ones that were busy keeping him from swimming in shark-infested waters or jumping off cliffs—were screaming at him to do what Cooper said. That it didn’t matter if this was demonic possession or a psychotic episode brought on by whatever had been on that candle; the result was the same. It wasn’t often that set of instincts felt the need to chime in, and Albert wasn’t stupid enough not to listen.
He ran. He was halfway down the hall when he heard a wheezing, creaking giggle behind him. Sounded like Cooper was losing the battle.
Albert skidded down the stairs and over to his bag. He wasn’t exactly well prepared for the event of fleeing for his life, but he had a scalpel. It was better than nothing. How did a pacifist fight? As best he could manage under the circumstances. That answer still didn’t feel quite right, but he was willing to run with it until he thought of something better.
He hesitated a minute to consider his options. They could be boiled down to hiding in one of the rooms in the house and waiting to get cornered, or running out into the woods where Cooper couldn’t see him, but he sure as hell couldn’t see Cooper. He heard the first footfall on the landing above and went for option B.
The front door creaked when he left, so Cooper would know he was outdoors. There went the element of surprise. Albert clattered across the porch and almost fell when his foot went through a plank. He pulled it free as quickly as he could, but as soon as he put weight on it he knew he’d strained something.
But, since the situation seemed to be of the run-or-die variation, he didn’t have much time to stand around contemplating his navel and working through his pain. Albert gritted his teeth and got moving again, a little bit slower but as quickly as he could push himself to go.
He headed into the woods. It was late autumn, and the scrub and other ground flora were twisted sticks and tangled knots that caught at him as he tried to run through. He was leaving a path a blind fool could follow, but it wasn’t as though he knew about covering these things up. He’d just have to hope that the mist delayed Cooper long enough that he could get clear.
He could try to find a place to hide and wait, but that seemed equivalent to hiding in a room and waiting for Cooper to find him. The car wasn’t an option because Cooper had the keys and Albert’s education hadn’t involved hotwiring. He’d have to rectify that omission if he survived the night.
He settled on the road. It was a good distance, but it was the most likely place to encounter a helpful passerby who could get him to the nearest town and their very helpful police force. At this point, Albert would even try to hold his tongue with whatever would-be rescuer he encountered.
He turned when he heard a quiet crunch nearby. Albert froze, the scalpel gripped tightly in a hand that started to sweat. Trying to move silently, he headed away from the noise. Somehow creeping was far worse than the blind dash had been. He felt like some dumb underground animal, not certain at which turn it would find a snake.
The soft crunching noises seemed to come from all around him at random: sometimes in front, sometimes behind, sometimes to one side. A strange smell hung in the air, and he realized it was the same oil he’d smelled on the furniture in the upstairs bedroom. It was stronger now: harsh and industrial with a hint of something scorched. He could hear rustling above him like birds were flying close by, but he couldn’t see anything.
Then, quite suddenly, the woods gave way to a mowed lawn and the house standing before him. Albert couldn’t believe his eyes. He couldn’t have got so turned around. There was no way. He turned back to the tree line and saw three owls perched in the trees. Was that what he had heard whirling overhead?
Mustering courage through anger, he growled, “Find someone else to follow, you stupid birds. You don’t even eat prey my size.”
Three birds blinked as one, as if to tell him that they did indeed eat prey his size, and often. He squared his shoulders and moved to try again. Anything was better than standing there in front of the house.
The woods before him erupted in a flurry of movement and Albert shouted as he was knocked flat. The scalpel was sent skidding off into the mist, well out of his straining reach. Cooper was leaning over him, his eyes white and the same cruel smile playing over his lips. He slapped Albert hard enough that his ears rang.
Over the tone, which acquired that same sound he’d heard in the stairwell and in the room upstairs, Cooper’s voice whispered in his ear, “Fight me.”
Well, that was the crux of the matter, wasn’t it? It was what the kid had tried to tell him; the one puzzle Albert seemed incapable of solving. How does a pacifist fight? How did he fight whatever influence was infecting Cooper? Snide remarks? They’d been his de facto answer to any other problem he’d encountered through the years, but he was pretty sure that wit would only get him killed at this point.
In the end, Albert did what he always did in the face of the unknown. He stuck to the facts. “How did you lead me back here?” he asked.
“The owls led you back, Dr. Rosenfield.”
“Friends of yours?”
Cooper didn’t answer, but he smiled up at the owls posted like sentinels above them.
“So what do you do now?” Albert asked.
“I kill you.”
“Oh.” He should have seen that coming, shouldn’t he? His thoughts chased themselves in circles. If Cooper was telling the truth—if this was some sort of possession by the thing that had killed all those people—then why were there no survivors? Was the murderer driven to suicide after he or she was done offing the rest of the party? Damn backwater coroners. The guy probably wasn’t even a real doctor, but rather some funeral director drafted for the job by idiot bureaucrats who wouldn’t know autopsy procedure from their left ass cheeks.
But what was the point of the possession and the murders? Was there a point? Albert swallowed. He was spending too much time thinking about the same ridiculous metaphysics for which he mocked others. There was no reason to assume that this was a spiritual problem; it could be psychological. He’d seen the burn mark. This was some hallucinogenic, mind-altering substance put on that candle for God only knew what reason. Maybe to drive people to this. To see what they would do. Cooper had been right about one thing: Albert did believe in evil, and believed whoever had laid this trap qualified.
Cooper stroked his hair back from his face. “If you want to survive, you need to fight me for it.”
“Yeah, sure. You’ve got a gun, I’ve got a witty riposte. Words beat bullets all the time.” He fell silent. Wasn’t that what he believed? Was that what the kid meant? A pacifist didn’t fight with his hands. It defeated the purpose. A pacifist fought with words, with his example. Albert had to be good, because he had to show the pathetic schlubs around him how it was done. Cooper had said he’d learned to fight with a gun, and now it was being turned on Albert. Wasn’t that the inherent problem with weapons? They inevitably got used against people who didn’t deserve the pain and the suffering and the death. He’d seen enough children on his slab to know that.
Cooper seemed to take his silence as hesitation, because he slapped Albert again. The ringing increased, and he felt the press of the gun under his chin, guiding his face back up to look at Cooper.
In the face of all the world’s evil, how does a pacifist fight? In the face of this specific evil, how did Dr. Albert Rosenfield fight? The answer had to be the same.
“I’ll let you say something before I kill you,” Cooper said. “Maybe if you beg, I won’t do it.”
Why did he keep goading? Everything Cooper had done since he’d been taken over by this infection was to goad Albert into one of two reactions: fear or violence. Was that what this was all about? They were two emotions that would always live together, but the violence here and the need to frighten . . . they were different. This was pure: devoid of all the other trappings that made human violence so human. Cooper had said that a thousand men strike at the branches of evil for every one who strikes at its root. Was this thing before him a root? Had someone created a compound that, when applied to a human being, brought out only violent and frightening impulses? The sort of understanding of neurochemistry that implied was impossible, but for the living proof in front of him.
And how did a pacifist fight that evil? It wanted fear and violence in return, but Albert was certain he couldn’t give it what it wanted. How did a pacifist fight?
And then it came to him suddenly. It lacked the wash of epiphany because somewhere in him, Albert had always known the answer to this question: a pacifist fought with love.
It was somehow much harder to reach up without violent intent when every instinct Albert had screamed at him to do anything but surrender. His rational mind and his contrary nature silenced instinct, because this thing, be it natural or un-, wanted his fear. Denying it fear or violence was the only right thing to do.
He laid his hand on the junction between Cooper’s neck and shoulder. The words came easily enough. “I love you, Agent Cooper.” At first they were just words, but they were enough to elicit a response, swift and angry.
He knew the slap had split his lip, but he wasn’t dead yet. Was that Cooper fighting the infection, or was that the desire to get the proper reaction? Didn’t matter. He focused his thoughts on the face. He focused his thoughts on the things Cooper had said on the trip: those words that had struck a little close to home for his tastes. Were they in the same fight on the same side? Yes. And would there come a time where his tactics would fail and he’d need Cooper as much as Cooper needed him now? Yes.
The realization was horrible. Albert Rosenfield was beholden to and dependent on no one. He’d worked his ass off to be as alone as he was, but now that he’d met Cooper he couldn’t imagine not coming when Cooper called. Cooper seemed like he had a knack for finding evil where it lived, and Albert didn’t want to read further into that. But he would need to help, now and in the future.
The years stretched out before him in an instant, different than he could have ever imagined if indeed he imagined such things. Because a partnership, no matter how occasional and irregular, was not what he wanted. But he would do it. It was the right thing to do. And he wouldn’t trust the job to some slack-jawed imbecile.
“I love you, Agent Cooper.”
The words were painful this time. His realization tore the syllables out of him. A goddamn pledge was what it was, and he was far too intelligent not to know it.
The gun forced his chin up. The ground under his head was softened by the fog that swirled around him, and the back of his head dug into it.
“Fight me,” it was an inhuman voice, metal on metal underlain by the roar of an inferno. It was the most terrible thing Albert had ever heard.
He narrowed his eyes and looked down his nose. “I love you, Agent Cooper.” Accepting now, and defiant. He had always mocked his father when he said that something was in God’s hands, viewing it as the worst of defeatist, escapist attitudes. Was this what it felt like? Passing through the rage and the fear and the tumult to find that the only thing you could control in your helplessness was your own reaction?
That ship had already sailed, hadn’t it? The owls knew. They looked down at the tableau, shuffled on their branches, and then flew away. Cooper’s head jerked up to follow them and then he turned back to Rosenfield. The slap this time came from the butt of his pistol, and Rosenfield’s vision slewed to white for a second before his head cleared. The pain in his cheek made him feel nauseous, and he was certain he had fractured the zygomatic bone. And, given the warmth and wetness spreading across his cheek, had also broken the skin. Which was great. Just great, really. No risk of infection when covered in mud, now was there?
It wasn’t like he could do anything but follow his plan through to the end.
He reached up with his other hand and grasped the back of Cooper’s neck. “I love you, Agent Cooper,” he said.
Cooper let out a scream like stripped brakes and machines tearing themselves apart, and boiling kettles, and forest fires out of control. The body that collapsed against Albert heaved in convulsions. Albert repeated the mantra over and over again, wrapped his arm around Cooper and prayed to the God his father so believed in that he’d come up with the right answer to the boy’s riddle.
Over the veil of the mist, Albert watched in shock as the whole house erupted in flames. The candle must have fallen over. The old wood, along with the oil on the furniture, would have created a very flammable environment. The timing was more than likely coincidence. Albert almost believed that too.
The convulsions weakened after a time, and then ceased. Albert felt for Cooper’s pulse, and was relieved to feel it under his fingers. It seemed slow, like he was sleeping, but no amount of shaking woke him.
Albert checked Cooper’s hand. The burn on his finger was gone, and the lines of infection that had stretched from the injury were also gone. Albert didn’t question his luck. He’d had enough for one day, and it was time for him to be the responsible doctor and get Cooper to proper care.
He rolled Cooper off him, and Cooper didn’t so much as stir from his sleep. Albert worried about the possibility of coma. He would definitely need a hospital, and soon.
Albert fished in Cooper’s pockets until he found the keys, then dragged Cooper to the car and, with a heave born of slinging the dead around when necessary, shoved him into the passenger seat. With the belt on, he didn’t slump so badly.
Albert turned the key in the ignition, and after a sputter and a cough the engine turned over. He turned on the lights and jumped for the second he thought that a pair of trees was granny and the kid looking on as the house burned. But they were just trees. And that damned house was just a house, soon to be just a heap of charred wood and ash.
And as for the rest of it, well, Albert was a man of science. What he couldn’t explain with science he wasn’t interested in explaining. He’d go back to the labs, and when Cooper asked him on another case he’d go. Because he was also a good man. And striking at the root of evil was strangely addictive. If also terrifying.
He pulled out and headed back toward civilization. The sun was starting to creep up over the trees when Cooper raised his head. There was no stirring and no grumbling. He was asleep one minute and awake the next.
“Albert?” he asked. He didn’t even have the decency to sound groggy.
“Welcome back to the land of the living, Cooper,” Albert said. He stared at the road. “I think you cracked my cheekbone when you pistol whipped me. You will be paying that hospital bill.”
“I’m sorry,” Cooper said. “I didn’t realize what was happening until it had already won. I never considered the possibility that the entity we were pursuing might have been a disembodied spirit.”
“Well, if the autopsies hadn’t been conducted by apes with magnifying glasses I think they might well have found that several of the deaths were suicides. But your apology is accepted. And appreciated.” Cooper smiled. It was a little ragged around the edges, but it was definitely Cooper’s sunny grin. “You’re still paying my hospital bill.”
“I will, Albert,” Cooper said. “How did you . . .”
“I answered the kid’s question. And then the house burned down, which wasn’t my fault.”
Cooper fell silent for a while. He looked troubled, and Albert figured he deserved a good wallow in guilt after everything that had happened. Albert, on the other hand, deserved a cigarette. He pulled out his pack and lit up.
Then Cooper stole a look at Albert, a sly little smile on his face. “You love me?”
Of course he remembered that. “I’ll buy you flowers.”
Cooper’s grin grew. “Susan was right about you.”
“I wouldn’t have been any use to you if the kid hadn’t pointed me in the right direction, Cooper, so don’t get sappy on me.”
“And if I asked you on another case?”
“I would do the professional thing and help you as a professional colleague.”
“So you would come with me again?”
“What? You think that I’d let you go out with someone like Carson? Or Klein? You’re relatively intelligent, and you’re a good man. I’m not wasting you on idiots.”
Cooper’s hand gripped his shoulder. Albert rolled his eyes. “I’m glad you’re with me, Albert. I’m going to need the very best.”
And that, Albert decided, was how inevitability worked: a sunny smile and the certainty that Albert had a friend for life. Whether he wanted one or not. Cooper didn’t remove his hand from Albert’s shoulder, and, God help him, Albert didn’t shrug it off. That was inevitability. It felt vaguely like a broken cheekbone.