Read Darkness Online

Authors: John Saul

Tags: #Horror

Darkness (9 page)

To her surprise, neither of her parents said anything, neither of them pointed out that she’d broken her promise to be back before nightfall. They simply accepted her words. In the silence that followed, Kelly found herself once again speaking with no forethought. “I like it here,” she said. “I’m glad we came.”

After Kelly went up to her room above the garage, Ted gazed questioningly at his wife. “Well, what do you think? Did we do the right thing?”

It was his father rather than his wife who answered him. “Of course you did,” the older man said. “Kelly’s exactly where she belongs. If you ask me, this is just what the doctor ordered.”

Michael Sheffield’s boat slipped silently around a bend in the bayou, gently bumping into the dock at the
tour headquarters. He dropped the mooring line over the cleat, but instead of getting out of the boat, remained where he was, staring at the bucket of frogs.

There were half a dozen of them in the bucket.

Half a dozen—all of them dead.

And he’d been gone almost an hour and a half.

It was fully dark now, and Michael gazed around, feeling puzzled. Puzzled, and frightened.

This had happened before.

There had been many times when he’d gone out into the wetlands, intent only on exploring, and lost track of time. Over and over, when he’d come home, his mother had been waiting for him, demanding to know what he’d been doing. “Just looking around,” he’d invariably told her. “I wasn’t lost or anything.”

“You said you’d only be gone an hour!” his mother would protest. “For heaven’s sake, Michael, you know how dangerous it is out there.”

“But I wasn’t in any trouble,” Michael would insist. “I always knew where I was.”

Which was almost the truth, for often, when the mysteries of the swamp would close around him and time would begin to telescope in upon itself, he would find himself sinking into a world of his own, only to come out of his reverie in a completely different place from where he had begun.

Never a strange place, never an unfamiliar place.

Simply a different place from where he’d started.

He’d never told his parents about that, certain that if they were aware of his unconscious wanderings in the swamp, they would forbid him to go into it again.

Besides, nothing had ever happened to him. He’d always come out of his daydreams, packed up whatever specimens he’d collected, and gone home.

And he’d certainly never killed anything he’d collected.

He got out of the boat, tied off the stern line, then, still uncertain about what had happened to the frogs,
emptied the bucket into the water. The dead frogs floated on the surface and slowly began drifting away.

The night was hot and humid, and a full moon flooded the clearing in which the tour headquarters lay. Still wondering about the frogs, and knowing he was already late getting home, he moved quickly through the darkness, checking the animal cages one last time.

The large terrarium containing the water moccasins was locked, and the other snake tanks were securely fastened shut.

In the alligator enclosure the three large reptiles that comprised the exhibit lay half out of the water, their eyes, glittering in the moonlight, fixed on him. As he approached the fence, two of them raised their heads, making tentative motions forward.

Michael shook his head. “Not tonight, guys. You’ve had plenty to eat. You don’t want to get fat, do you?”

The ’gators bobbed menacingly up and down, but as Michael turned away, they settled back down into the mud. A moment later one of them slithered into the pond, cruising silently just below the surface, only its nostrils and eyes disturbing the stillness of the water.

Michael came to the nutria cages, flicking on his flashlight to check the water and food containers. One of the females, the mother of the pups, whom Michael had named Martha, came over to sniff at him through the wire mesh. Switching the light off and sliding it into his hip pocket, Michael unlocked the cage door and picked the little creature up. She nestled into his hands, and he raised her up to rub her soft fur against his cheek.

“Not so bad, is it, Martha?” he whispered. “Plenty of food and water, and nobody to hurt you. A lot better than being turned into a coat, huh?”

Then, as he held the little rodent close, a new sound drifted out of the night.

A siren, rising in the distance, abruptly silenced the droning of the insects.

Michael froze, listening.

The scream of the siren rose, dropped, then rose again. His pulse quickening, Michael moved away from the nutria cages, closer to the road.

As the wailing grew, he could see the flashing red and blue lights of a police car coming toward him.

His body went rigid, an icy chill passing through him as the car approached.

He realized he was holding his breath, every muscle in his body growing more tense by the second.

The car passed.

The sirens began to fade away.

Slowly, the tension drained from Michael’s body. For the first time he became aware of the pounding in his chest.

Inexplicably, the approach of the police car had terrified him.

Why? He’d done nothing wrong—he’d never been in any trouble with the police in his life.

Yet just now, as the car drew closer, he’d had an unnerving feeling that it was coming for him.

He closed his eyes for a moment, willing the panic away. Slowly, his heartbeat returned to normal and the icy fingers that were clutching his chest retreated.

“Dumb,” he murmured, partly to himself and partly to the little animal he still held in his hands. “Who’d care about a bunch of dead frogs? It’s not like you need a license to hunt them.”

When his voice brought no responding movement from Martha, he looked down at her.

His hands were tight around her throat, and her body hung limp and still.

He stared at the dead animal, a lump rising in his throat. As the panic he’d just quelled rose back up, threatening to overwhelm him, he hurried back to the cage, deposited the nutria inside, and relocked the hasp of the enclosure.

A minute later he was on his motorcycle, racing homeward through the night.

Marty Templar brought the police car to a halt in front of the tiny house Judd Duval occupied on the fringes of the swamp. It was a couple of miles out of Villejeune, set back from the road, approachable from the land side only by a rotting wooden causeway whose planks threatened to collapse under Templar’s ample weight. Templar hated Duval’s house; hated it almost as much as the bogs that surrounded it. Every time he came out here, which was as rarely as possible, he felt as if he was strangling, as if the vines and trees that surrounded the shack were creeping up on him, reaching out to him. But tonight he’d had no choice.

“Dunno what’s goin’ on,” Judd had told him over the radio. “All’s I know is Amelie Coulton is here, and says there’s a body in the swamp.”

“Well how the hell are we supposed to find it tonight?” Marty had complained. He’d been sitting at the counter in Arlette’s, mopping up the last of some biscuits and gravy, when the radio on his hip had come to life. “Jeez, Judd—you can barely find anything out there in the daylight. At night …” He’d let the words trail off, knowing there was no use arguing with Judd Duval. He’d go into the swamp anytime, day or night. To him, as to the other swamp rats, it didn’t seem to make a difference. So when Judd had told him to “shut up and move his fat butt,” he’d stuffed the last of the biscuits in his mouth, dropped some money on the counter, and headed for the car. He supposed he hadn’t really needed to turn the siren on, but what the hell—at least it let him drive as fast as he wanted.

He picked his way across the glimmering muck to the back door of Judd’s place, banged on it, then let himself in. The cabin was only two rooms, and the door opened onto the larger of them, the one that served as both Judd’s living room and kitchen. A television glowed in one corner of the room, but its volume was turned down. Judd was sitting in his big reclining chair, and Amelie Coulton was seated heavily on a sagging sofa, her face pale, but her narrow features bloated only a
little by her advanced pregnancy. As Marty came inside, Judd rose from his chair and glared sourly at the other officer.

“Took you long enough,” he groused. “Time we get out there, there won’t be enough left of whoever it is to identify.”

Templar’s gaze shifted to Amelie. “You didn’t recognize him?”

“I didn’t hardly look long enough,” Amelie said nervously. Though her eyes met his, there was a veiled look to them that made Templar wonder if she was telling the truth. “All’s I know is whoever he is, he be dead. Lookin’ up at me outta the water. Like to give me a turn, I can tell you.”

“Let’s not sit here workin’ our jaws,” Duval broke in. “The longer we wait, the harder this’ll be.”

The three of them went out to the porch, and Templar stared with distaste at the tangle of foliage. Despite the heat, a shiver went through him. He could already imagine the snakes that lay coiled in the branches of the trees, waiting to drop out of the darkness.

“Nothin’s gonna get you,” Judd Duval mocked, easily reading the fear in Marty. “Maybe a ’gator or a moccasin, but nothin’ to worry about.” Chortling at his own joke, he stepped off the porch into the aluminum boat that was tied to the railing and started the outboard while Amelie Coulton and Marty Templar settled themselves onto the center bench.

“Move forward, Marty,” Judd ordered, knowing full well how much Templar hated both boats and the swamp. “You don’t give us some weight up there, we’re gonna foul the prop and have to wade home.”

Templar shifted his weight onto the small seat in the boat’s bow, but twisted himself around so he could see where they were going. Judd cast off the line, gunned the engine. The boat shot away from the house and a moment later was lost in the twisting courses of the waterways.

With Amelie pointing the way, they moved steadily
through the maze of islets. Then, signaling Duval to stop with her right hand, Amelie pointed ahead with her left, Judd cut the throttle, killed the engine, and let the boat drift silently ahead.

Amelie pointed into the water, and Marty Templar shined his light down into the darkness below the boat.

The face stared back at him.

An ancient face, so old and gnarled that had it not been for the expression of terror that contorted its features—and the gaping, ragged hole in the man’s chest—Marty’s first thought would have been that whoever it was had simply come out here and died of old age.

The mask of fear, and the wound, belied the notion.

“Let’s pull him out,” Duval said. Using an oar, he pushed the boat onto a small islet a few feet away, and Marty scrambled out to pull the dinghy higher out of the water. Despite hating the feel of the muck beneath his shoes, Marty waded in to help Judd pull the body out of the water.

When they had hauled the corpse onto the mud at the island’s edge, all three of them stared down into the twisted face. “Either of you know him?” Marty asked.

Amelie gazed at the body for nearly a minute, but finally shook her head. “Don’t look like anyone I ever seen.”

Marty glanced up at Judd Duval. “What do you think happened to him?”

Duval shook his head. “Some kind of animal. Don’t look like a ’gator, though. Maybe a panther. There’s still a few of ’em around here.”

Amelie Coulton’s eyes narrowed and her lips tightened. “Or mebbe it were somethin’ else.”

Though her words had barely been audible, they commanded Marty Templar’s full attention. “Something else?” he repeated. “Like what?”

Amelie’s gaze moved back to the corpse. When at last she replied to the deputy’s question, her voice was
uncertain. “I thought it was George,” she said. “When I heard ‘im scream, I was sure it was him.”

“George?”

“My husband,” Amelie went on, her eyes never leaving the body in the mud. “He came for George tonight, an’ took him away. I figured he kilt him.”

Templar’s brows knit into a deep frown. “Who?” he asked. “Who came?”

Amelie’s gaze finally shifted, her frightened eyes fixing on the deputy. “The Dark Man,” she said.

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