Read Darkness Online

Authors: John Saul

Tags: #Horror

Darkness (10 page)

Templar turned to Judd Duval. “The Dark Man?” he repeated. “What’s she talking about?”

Duval shook his head. “Nothin’,” he grunted. “Just an old story—been around the swamp forever. But there ain’t nothin’ to it. Just a crazy story. Seems like it just about dies out, and then somethin’ like this turns up. Someone wanders out in the swamp an’ gets themselves killed, an’ no one wants to believe it was just one of the critters.”

“Then what do they believe?” Templar pressed when Duval seemed reluctant to go on. When the answer came, it wasn’t from Judd Duval. It was Amelie Coulton who spoke.

“The Dark Man,” she repeated. “Don’t matter what Judd says. I seen him, and he be real. Him, and his kids, too.”

Marty Templar stared at her, but she said no more.

5

B
arbara Sheffield glanced pointedly at the clock as Michael came through the back door, but his lateness was immediately overridden by both his appearance and the scent that wafted into the kitchen from his clothes. “Stop!” she commanded before he’d crossed the threshold between the kitchen and the laundry room. “If you track through this kitchen in those clothes, I swear, you’ll mop the floor yourself. And you smell like something that died last month! What on earth have you been doing?”

Michael gazed down at his filthy pants, covered to the knees with mud and slime. His sneakers, which he always wore over bare feet when he went into the swamp, were stained dark brown. He grinned crookedly at his mother, “Well, at least I get paid for messing up my clothes now,” he offered. “I was out collecting frogs.”

Barbara uttered an exasperated sigh. “Did it occur to you at all to call and say you’d be late? Supper’s ready,
and your father and sister are already at the table.” She glanced toward the open door to the dining room and her voice dropped. “And your father says the next time something like this happens, you can fix your own supper.”

Michael stripped off his pants and shoes, dumping them into the washing machine. Without measuring, he poured some detergent over the heap of dirty clothes and started the machine. “Is he really mad?” he asked.

Barbara hesitated. It wasn’t just Craig who was annoyed—she was, too. In fact, she’d had an angry speech all prepared, and had been ready to deliver it when her irritation had dissolved in the face of Michael’s grin. But wasn’t that the way it had always been? Ever since he’d been a baby, he’d always been able to melt her with his dimpled smile and his bright blue eyes. Nor had he ever been in any real trouble.

Except for the strange empty look she’d noticed in his eyes sometimes, when he thought he was unobserved. That had troubled her, as had his refusal to cry, even when he was an infant.

From the first moment he had been put into her arms, Michael had always been an easy child to deal with. Even now, as he watched her warily, she couldn’t see that there was any real reason to be angry with him—after all, he’d done nothing more than to work late, and he’d done that every single night since he’d gotten the job at the swamp tour. Nor had he left his filthy pants and sneakers for her to clean up. “No, I guess he’s not really mad,” she finally replied to his question. “But couldn’t you call us if you’re going to be late?”

“But I’m always late,” Michael reminded her. “You know how it is. I get involved in something, and I just lose track of time.”

Barbara shook her head helplessly. “Just go get a fast shower, and be at the table in ten minutes. Okay?”

Michael nodded, darting out through the dining room, calling a quick hello to his father and sister as he
passed. He saw his father’s mouth open, but decided that whatever his father was going to say to him could wait—besides, by the time he got back downstairs, his mother would have straightened the whole thing out.

He paused at the bathroom to start the hot water running in the shower, then went on to his own room, stripped off the rest of his clothes, wrapped himself in a towel, and went back to the bathroom. Steam was pouring from the shower stall, and the mirror was already fogged with condensation. Still, as Michael glanced at the misted glass, the memory of what he’d seen there before leaped once more into his mind.

But why tonight?

He got into the shower, shampooed his hair, then soaped the washcloth and began scrubbing the perspiration off his body. Suddenly he froze, his skin crawling with the feeling that he was being watched. He shut off the water and listened for a few seconds, finally pulling the curtain open.

The bathroom was empty.

Feeling ridiculous, he turned the shower back on, letting the stream flow full force over his soapy body.

Less than a minute later he was done, but as he stepped out of the stall and grabbed his towel, he once more had the sensation of unseen eyes fixed on him. He dried himself quickly, trying to rid himself of the eerie feeling, telling himself it was all taking place in his imagination.

He started out of the bathroom, then paused, his eyes fastened on the clouded mirror.

There was something there.

He could feel it.

Reaching across the sink with the towel, he wiped away the moisture on the glass.

It disappeared almost as quickly as he saw it, but the image stuck in his mind.

A face.

An old man’s face, staring at him.

The face of a dead man, with empty eyes.

Michael stood rooted in front of the mirror, his mind numb. Where had the image come from? Had it even been real?

It couldn’t have been, for when he’d seen it, his own reflection hadn’t been there at all. It had been replaced by the grotesque image of the old man.

No, it had to have been some kind of strange refraction caused by the wetness on the mirror. He’d seen only himself, distorted by the steam in the room.

Yet as he hurriedly dressed and joined his family at the supper table, he found himself unable to rid himself of the dark image he’d glimpsed in the mirror, and when he finally went to bed that night, he stayed awake a long time, the reading light on, a book propped in his lap.

But the book remained unread, for no matter how hard he tried, the memory of what he’d seen in the mirror refused to ease its grip on him. Twice he went back to the bathroom, closed the door, and stood in front of the mirror, not only searching the glass for any remnant of the vision, but studying his own reflection as well, trying to see the old man’s face in his own features, trying to envision himself as a wizened relic of what he was now.

But all he could see were his own familiar features, his clear blue eyes and strong jaw, the hints of dimples in his cheeks, which deepened when he smiled, and his unruly blond hair, rumpled from the pillow.

What he’d seen that night—and the other times, too—had to be nothing more than tricks of his own mind.

At last, back in his bed once again, he put the book aside, switched off the light, and pulled the sheet over his body.

Outside, the moon still shone brightly, and the insects and frogs filled the night with their music.

It was a music that Michael had always before found soothing, but tonight he tossed restlessly, resisting sleep.

When sleep finally came, the face dominated his
dreams, looming up at him out of the darkness, leering at him, reaching for him with gnarled clawlike hands.

Three times during the night he awakened, his body sweating, his muscles tense, still caught in the nightmare.

The fourth time he awakened, it was dawn, and the morning light finally seemed to drive the night specter away.

Clarey Lambert hadn’t slept at all that night. Clarey was past ninety, she was sure of that, but how much past she no longer bothered to reckon. After all, it didn’t matter. All that really mattered was that she was still alive.

Still alive, and still looking after things.

Clarey lived alone, five miles from Villejeune. Five miles as the crow flew, anyway. A lot farther when you went by boat. You had to wind through the bayous, watching all the landmarks, or you’d never find the place. And, in fact, very few people ever did find Clarey’s house. Often weeks would go by without Clarey seeing anyone, but always, just when she was running low on food, someone would show up and her stores of flour and rice, or whatever else she needed, would be replenished. For vegetables, she’d long ago cleared out a little patch on the island behind her house, where she raised okra and beans, and some sweet potatoes. Not enough to sell for money, but enough for herself, with a little left over to trade with the other swamp rats for whatever else she needed.

As the gray light of dawn began to brighten, Clarey stirred in the chair on her porch and stretched her bones. There were a few aches, but not too bad, all things considered. She heaved herself out of her chair, went into the shack she’d lived in most of her life—the shack in which she’d borne her children, and raised the only one who’d survived—and poked at the dying coals
in the stove she used for cooking. She added a chunk of cypress to the fire, then put on a kettle of water.

Coffee—thick and black, well-laced with chicory—would drive the arthritis out of her bones.

She was still standing at the stove when she sensed someone approaching and she moved stiffly back out onto her porch, her still-sharp eyes scanning the bayous.

Sure enough, less than a minute later a rowboat emerged from the reeds and slid across the water. There were two boys in the boat, both of them in their late teens, both wearing dirty overalls held up by a single strap. Quint Millard feathered the oars, and the boat turned, drifting to a stop a few feet from Clarey’s sagging porch. From the bench in the stern, Jonas Cox gazed up at Clarey through eyes that barely seemed to focus. But though his expression revealed nothing, Clarey knew exactly what was in his mind.

George Coulton.

“It warn’t your fault, Jonas,” she told him. “You didn’t have no choice. You understand that?”

Jonas’s brow furrowed slightly. “Me and George was friends. I didn’t—”

“You done what the Dark Man made you do,” the old woman declared. “Ain’t nothin’ anyone can do about that. So you just remember that you didn’t do nothin’! You hear me?”

Jonas nodded mutely, and Clarey turned to Quint Millard. “You got somethin’ to tell me, too?”

“Saw someone new last night,” Quint replied.

Clarey’s body tensed. “New?” she repeated. “Where?”

“By the canals, where they’s buildin’ all them houses.”

The old woman’s countenance darkened at the mention of the development. She knew who the developer was—she knew who everyone in Villejeune was—and she didn’t like Carl Anderson. And it wasn’t just for what he was doing to the swamp, chipping away at it, draining a few acres here, a few acres there, ruining it for all the
people and animals who’d lived in it peacefully for hundreds and hundreds of years. No, she had other reasons for hating Carl Anderson. His name had gone on her list years ago, long before he’d started encroaching on her beloved marshes.

“Who was the person?” Clarey asked, though after last night, she was almost certain she knew.

The children had been out last night, prowling through the swamp, guarding their master as the Dark Man went about his punishment of George Coulton. And Clarey, though she’d never left her house, had been there, too, her mind reaching out, sensing their wanderings, tracking their movements. Last night, though, she had felt a new presence in the swamp, felt the vibrations of someone seeking her out.

Other books

Honeymoon from Hell III by R.L. Mathewson
The Water Nymph by Michele Jaffe
The Sword of Damascus by Blake, Richard
Dead Money by Grant McCrea
Crossed Bones by Carolyn Haines
Driver's Education by Grant Ginder