viernes, 2 de febrero de 2018

THE ROMM 5



 

CHAPTER FIVE: THE CASSANDRA LOCK

1.
If Frank had any sense, he would have headed to Sean's. Sean lived within walking distance, he lived alone, and—best of all—Sean would take him in no questions asked. But Frank wasn't going to Sean's.
The other option was to head for the edge of town, just step over the town line and let the Unfeathered have him. The board of selectmen weirdos wanted him to find Jake, and he was starting to think maybe that was exactly what happened to his brother. Why not join Jake? But that wasn't where he was going, either.
As he walked, the spaces between homes grew larger and larger until the road was flanked with pine trees and there was not a house in sight. He stepped off the gravel and felt the pleasant crunch of pine needles under his feet. He would approach the cabins from the back and hope for the element of surprise. He didn't know exactly what he was looking for and he didn't know exactly where to look. All he knew was that Will and Christine were hiding something out here. Whatever it was, it had to be important. They had allowed the most feared family in town to live there, which – Frank had to admit – was a pretty ingenious tactic to keep people away. Frank had a terrible, growing suspicion that Will and Christine knew more about Jake’s disappearance than they were admitting.
The beginnings a plan were forming in Frank's head. To call it a plan was probably too grand—call it an approach. Combined with a little luck and his reputation as a convicted killer, it might be enough to get him through the night. Frank knew that he would have to take out Ty first. His best bet was to deal with the big man rather than to leave him running around to muck things up later.
Frank paused when he came within sight of the dull light of the cabins. He crouched behind a tree and scanned the yard until he found what he was looking for. A thick dog chain staked to the ground. The chain would serve nicely in the dual role of weapon and potential tool of restraint. The presence of a dog was a little worrisome. The Hansens didn’t seem like the type of family who would have a dog that was prone to licking strangers rather than biting them. It hadn’t started barking yet, which was a good sign. Frank hoped the dog wasn’t in Ty’s cabin.
He waited, shrouded in the darkness and security of the familiar pine trees, until the lights clicked off in each of three occupied cabins—first the one on the left, then the right, then the middle. He stayed in his spot for what felt like an hour after that, then made his move.
Frank ran to the chain and unhooked it from the stake. He shuffled to his old cabin and crouched in front of it, his eyes an inch above the level of the porch floorboards. There were two rickety old wooden chairs on the porch, and a small table with a mason jar half full of an unidentified liquid. It might have been tea, whiskey, or tobacco spit—it was too dark to tell.
His approach was a bit juvenile, but he was beyond trying to cook up cool plans. He was flying solely on instinct. He crept up the porch steps and paused at the door. He stood up to his full height and brought the chain to his chest. He took a deep breath and rapped on the door hard three times—rat tat tat. He turned and pressed his back against the wall next to the door.
Frank heard the heavy thud of footsteps inside. A light switched on. Its glow flowed out of the windows into the night, fading a few feet to Frank’s left.
Good, thought Frank. Let him ruin his night vision.
The cabin door creaked open, and a huge shadow spilled out onto the porch. Frank stood statue still, trying not to breathe.
“Who’s out here?”
Conflicting waves of excitement and terror crashed through Frank. The voice was low, slow, and relatively youthful. It was Ty’s voice.
“You hear me? Who’s out here?”
The door opened a bit further, and the hulking form appeared in the doorway. Frank saw the big man’s hands and grew the tiniest bit calmer. Ty’s hands were empty. His uncle and father would have answered the door with a shotgun in hand, but Ty was used to his physical size being enough to dominate most situations.
Moment of truth. Frank gripped the chain in both hands and waited to see what would happen next. Either Ty would step inside and Frank would have to knock again, or Ty would step out a little further. Frank allowed himself a long slow breath. He would need all the oxygen he could get in just a moment.
“I know you’re out here.” Ty took one step forward. “Better speak up before—”
Frank moved in fast, swinging the chain like a jump rope up and over Ty’s head. He pulled both ends as hard as he could, and Ty staggered toward him.
Frank cursed. He had meant for the chain to wrap around Ty’s neck, but he had underestimated the size of the man. The chain had caught Ty around the shoulders. Still, Frank had knocked him off balance. Frank kept pulling, and the big man tumbled to the ground with a shout.
Frank pounced on the downed man’s back. He pulled both ends of the chain hard, tightening it across Ty’s chest. Ty groaned in surprise and pain. Frank held his grip. Ty’s hand closed around Frank’s ankle and he pulled, sending Frank spinning to the ground. Frank hit the ground hard and lost both his wind and his grip on the chain.
He rolled onto his side and dragged himself to his feet, straining to force enough air into his lungs. Ty rose much faster. The big man was up while Frank still struggled to get his feet under him. Ty grabbed Frank by the collar and slammed his back against the wall of the cabin. The big man held Frank there, Frank’s feet dangling off the ground.
Ty squinted at him in the darkness. “Who are you?”
Frank tried to speak, but only a cough escaped. Ty slammed him against the wall again, and the cabin rattled.
“Who are you? Talk!”
“I—I—” Frank tried to speak, but he wasn’t having much luck. He wasn’t sure what he would have said anyway.
“Do you know who I am?” Ty asked. “Do you have any idea how bad you just screwed up?”
“I—” Frank said, and he slammed his knee into Ty’s crotch. The big man released Frank and doubled over. Frank landed and staggered, putting one hand on the wall for balance. Ty raised his head and started to straighten. His face looked an impossible shade of red in the light coming through the cabin window.
Frank threw three quick jabs into Ty’s face. He aimed for the nose and connected solidly on two of the three punches. He heard something snap on the last punch. Ty moaned and staggered backwards.
Frank reached down and snatched the chain off the ground. He spun it over his head, getting its speed up until it whistled through the air, then he flicked his wrist and the end of the chain slammed into the side of Ty’s head with a crack.
Frank pulled back the chain, once again holding each of the ends in one hand.
Ty raised his bloodied face, let out a howl of fury, and charged. The big man ran on pure rage. His eyes had to be filled with tears from that busted nose. Frank ducked under Ty’s outstretched arms, got behind him, and threw the chain over his head. This time, he didn’t miss the neck.
He put his knee against Ty’s back and pulled on the chain until the big man sank to his knees. Frank eased the pressure on the chain a little. He didn’t want Ty to pass out, but he couldn’t have him getting loose either.
“Jerry sends his regards,” Frank said. “I spent the last few years with him inside. Nice guy. We all called him the Newg. Doesn’t like you much, though.”
“I’ll…rip...your...head…”
Frank tightened the chains, cutting off Ty’s words. “Sorry, I didn’t catch that. Anyway, I’m here about something else.” Frank couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for Ty. One minute the guy is asleep in his bed; the next he has a broken nose and is being choked with a chain. Frank couldn’t work up too much sympathy, though. According to the Newg, Ty Hansen had done worse than this to less deserving folk. Much worse.
Ty uttered another frustrated groan.
Frank glanced toward the two cabins to the north, wondering if they had heard the fight. He knew from personal experience how well sound carried here, how thin the walls of the cabins were. He had heard more than he wanted to of Christine and Jake carrying on back in the day.
Frank said, “Let’s go inside. This is going to be a little awkward, but I think we can do it. Get up.”
Frank eased the tension on the chain a little, allowing Ty to stand. Frank’s comfort level dropped as Ty straightened to his full height. He was one big guy. Frank was six feet tall, and Ty had a good six inches on him. He was solid too, built like a big NFL linebacker. It was a miracle the guy hadn’t crushed him already.
Frank steered Ty, using the chain like a horse’s bridle. The big man shuffled forward and awkwardly opened the screen door.
“Easy,” Frank said. They walked through the door, and Frank guided him to the kitchen. “Kneel down there. By the radiator.”
“You...gonna…kill me?” croaked Ty.
“No, not unless you make me. I have some questions for you. And I can’t have you punching me while I’m asking. Put your arms by your side.” He took a deep breath and slid the chain off Ty’s neck and down around his midsection. He pulled chain tight, pinning Ty’s arms to his sides.
Before Frank had gotten into locks, he had been fascinated by knots, and he knew some good ones. He threaded the chain around the radiator and tied a constrictor knot. There was no way Ty would get out of that one. Frank wasn’t even sure how he would release Ty when this was over.
With the pressure off his neck, Ty fell forward and coughed violently.
“Take all the time you need,” Frank said. “Get some air. Let me know when you’re ready.” Frank walked over to wall and flipped off the light switch. It was better to do this kind of thing in the dark.
Ty’s coughing fit subsided. “You stupid piece of shit. You broke my nose. I’m gonna kill you.”
“Not today,” Frank said. “Today you are gonna answer my questions, or I’m gonna to beat you even bloodier.”
Ty’s big silhouette quiver, either with anger or the strain of trying to catch his breath, Frank didn’t know which.
“Good answer,” Frank said. “I know Christine Hinkle is hiding something out here. What is it?”
Ty smiled. “Osmond.”
“What?”
“It’s Christine Osmond now. She hooked up with that teacher pretty quick after your brother lit out, didn’t she?” Ty spit some blood onto the floor. “Didn’t I beat up you and your brother after a football game once?”
“Thanks for reminding me. I was starting to think I might have been too hard on you. Let’s get back on topic. What’s Christine hiding?”
“Sorry, man. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Frank kicked Ty, connecting with the big man’s side, and Ty screamed in pain and rage. Frank’s eyes flickered toward the window, toward the other cabins. They remained dark.
That kick had probably been a little too hard. He might have done some real damage. Frank was hoping the harder he kicked, the fewer times he would need to do it. That was the theory anyway.
Part of Frank, a distant rational part, was shocked that he was once again hurting someone. But the rest of him, the part that was sick to death of the secrets and the Regulations and Christine and Will dancing around topics, that part was all too happy with what was happening. Maybe he couldn’t get his old life back. Maybe he couldn’t get his brother back. But he sure as hell was going to try.
“Tell me,” Frank said.
“Okay, man, relax. But you can’t tell Christine I talked. She lets us stay here for free, but we aren’t supposed to ask any questions about what she does out here. And we can’t mess with her things.”
“What things?”
“In that shed down the path. She’s got a freezer chest in there and she keeps it locked. Every time she comes out here she spends some time in that shed. Your guitar case is down there too.”
Frank sighed. “Okay. Is the shed locked?”
“Yeah.”
“Where’s the key?”
“My keys are in a bowl near the door. I don’t have a key to the freezer, though, just the shed.”
Frank walked to the door and grabbed the keys. “Fantastic,” Frank said. He walked into the bedroom and rummaged around in the dark until he found a t-shirt.
“Listen up. I’m going out to the shed. If everything is as you say, I’ll come back and untie you in a few minutes. But I can’t have you screaming your head off and waking up the family while I’m gone, so I’m going to have to gag you.”
Ty didn’t say anything, so Frank brought the t-shirt over and wrapped it around his head, stuffing it deep into his mouth. Frank made sure it was tight enough that Ty wouldn’t be able to move his tongue much, but not so tight that he wouldn’t be able to breathe.
“Look,” Frank said, “I know you’re not too comfortable, but we’re almost done. Five minutes in the shed and then I’ll let you go.”
Ty moaned weakly.
Frank walked out the door and headed for the tree line. The path was more overgrown than it had been when he lived here, but even in the dark Frank had no trouble finding the shed. It was locked with a standard-issue hardware store padlock—the cheap kind. Frank clucked with disapproval. Hadn’t he told Christine and Will a thousand times how easily one of these could be picked? He pulled out Ty’s keys and unlocked the door.
It was pitch black inside the shed. He wished he had thought to bring a flashlight from Ty’s cabin. He groped along the wall until his hand found the light switch. With the light on, he quickly slid the door shut.
At the back of the shed, he saw the guitar case leaning in the corner. The breath caught in his throat at the sight of it. He hurried over and ran his hand across the hard plastic exterior. All the trouble his stupid locks had caused. Maybe he should have let Brett take them. Maybe he should have forgotten about locks altogether and done something useful with his life.
He opened the case and saw them, his creations, his babies, his locks. The Yeti, The Horse Collar, The 51st Star, and twenty-seven other models. He loved them all, but it was the one he had never completed that he loved the most. The Cassandra lock didn’t look like the rest of them. It was a silver hoop which hooked into a metal square. There was no key hole and there were no perceptible seams on the lock. It was a brilliant design, Frank wasn’t afraid to admit. He just couldn’t get it to work.
Was this what Jake wanted Frank to bring to their mysterious meeting? Or was he supposed to finish it first? He picked up the unfinished Cassandra lock and put it in his jacket pocket.
Frank saw the freezer in the back of the shed, exactly as Ty had described. The lock on it made Frank smile. Maybe Christine and Will weren’t so dumb after all. It was the Gazelle, one of his best models. Opening it required a key and a bit of pressure in the right spot. The freezer would be safe from anyone. Anyone but Frank.
He reached into the guitar case and found the Gazelle master key. He had the lock off in five seconds. He opened the lid of the freezer, and the first thing he saw was a head.
He took an involuntary step backward and put his hand to his mouth. It was one of those things. The Birdies. The Unfeathered. Ice hung from its long beak and its open eyelids. The head was a cool bluish color.
What were Christine and Will into? Had they killed this thing? Why keep the head?
He pushed aside the revulsion and moved back to the freezer. There were other things in there too. A key. A knife. A lighter. A cane. A mirror. Each item had the broken clock symbol. Seeing the symbol again took him back to that day. The day he had killed Brett. A shudder went through him and the familiar feeling of guilt washed over him.
Frank removed the objects, holding each item in his hand for a long moment. This was it. This freezer was Will and Christine’s big secret.
Frank had no idea what the items might signify, but he knew they must have some importance. Becky Raymond had called them dangerous. She’d said that Jake had been obsessed with finding them. What was the connection to the coin he had seen on the terrible day so many years ago?
He put the lighter, key, the mirror, and the cane back into the freezer. He picked up the knife, paused, and then slid it into his pocket. He was going to take one of the items with him, and a knife could always come in handy. He picked up the guitar case and left the shed.
When he got back to the cabin, he stopped and stood on the porch, unsure of what to do next. He got what he came for, but what good had it done him? He needed help. He needed to talk to someone who knew the town and might understand the significance of the items in the freezer. He wasn’t sure he trusted Christine and Will anymore, and, more importantly, he knew they didn’t trust him.
He had to go to the guy with no reason to lie. The guy who had told him the truth about the Regulations. He didn’t much like the idea of walking all the way there, though. He reached into his pocket and pulled out Ty’s keys.
He opened the door to the cabin and stuck his head inside. Ty’s large dark shape was still crouching on the floor next to the radiator.
“Hey man,” Frank said. “I’m really sorry, but I’m not going to be able to untie you. I’m gonna need to borrow your truck for a while.”
Ty emitted a low groan that he probably had meant to be a scream.
“Yeah, I know the feeling.” Frank shut the door and walked out. The truck was parked in the driveway. He got in, took a deep breath, and started the engine.
The lights were on in both of the other two cabins by the time he had pulled out of the driveway.

2.
Frank had been knocking for almost three minutes before a blurry-eyed Sean answered the door. Sean squinted out into the darkness. He turned on the porch light.
“Frank? Is that you?”
“Yeah, sorry to wake you, man. Can I come in?”
Sean blinked hard a few times and then nodded. “Yeah, of course. Come in.”
“I’m really sorry, man, but I didn’t have anywhere else to go.”
“What—what about Will and Christine?”
“We had a bit of a fight.”
“Oh.”
Sean shut the door and ran a hand through his hair. He wasn’t all there yet, Frank could see. Maybe that was for the best. Honesty came easier to the weary mind.
“Well,” Sean said. “You're welcome to stay here. The guest bed is all made up. Hasn’t been used in about five years, so I guess I’m due.”
“Thanks. That’s not why I’m here, though.”
Sean crossed his arms and stared at Frank like he was looking at a difficult crossword puzzle. “Okay. What’s up?”
“I need your help. You ever see anything with a symbol of a broken clock on it?”
Sean’s face darkened. He suddenly looked a few degrees more alert. “Where did you see that?”
“I—I can’t tell you right now. I take it you've seen it?”
Sean nodded. “Yeah. I’ve seen it. Frank, if you saw something with that symbol on it, you have to turn it over to the police or board of selectmen.”
“Why?”
“That’s Regulation 2.”
Frank paused. “What does the symbol mean?”
“I’m not sure. But it’s tangled up with Zed somehow.”
“What do you mean?”
“The first time I met Zed, when he was wandering around naked, he was holding a pocket watch with that symbol on it.”
Frank felt his heart speed up. He reached into his pocket and felt the knife, and he thought about Sean’s words. “What’s the penalty for breaking Regulation 2?”
Sean looked him square in the eye. “Death.” He turned away and sighed. “There’s something I need to tell you about your brother.”
Frank waited.
“Jake found an object with the broken clock symbol. He showed it to a small group of us. Me, Wendy, Will, Todd, and Christine. Jake believed that we needed to keep these objects away from Zed. That Zed needed them for something. Together we started looking for more of these objects, and we found a few of them. Not long after that, Jake disappeared and they blamed those killings on him. I believe that Zed went after Jake because of the objects we found.”
“So why didn’t Zed go after the rest of you?” Frank asked.
“We don’t know.”
“I do,” Frank said. “It’s because you gave up. You’ve been living in fear of him. But I’m not afraid.”
Frank thought about Will, Christine, and Trevor. He thought about Jake, and his message to Sally Badwater. Frank took the Cassandra lock out of his pocket and looked at it. What could Jake want with a non-functioning lock?
“What’s that?” Sean asked.
Frank instinctively closed his hand. “It’s a lock I was working on before I went to prison. Never did finish it.”
Sean frowned. “I’ve seen it before.”
Frank shook his head. “No. This is the only one.”
“I’m sure of it,” Sean said. “It was on the box Zed showed the town on Regulation Day. The box he used to keep the Unfeathered outside of town.”
Frank’s knees felt like water. It wasn’t possible. “Sean, that room at City Hall where Zed took the box… I need you to tell me exactly where it is.”
Ten minutes later, Frank parked Ty Hansen’s truck three blocks away from City Hall. The building was dark, which was a relief to Frank—he had been afraid there might be a night watchman on duty.
Sean had tried to talk Frank out of going, but there had been no chance. Frank had to see that box. He picked the lock on one of the side doors and headed toward the darkness inside.
Frank counted the doors as he passed them. He stopped in front of the sixth door on the left. In the dim hallway, it looked unremarkable, just like all the rest, but this was the door to the room Zed had locked himself in the day he stopped the Unfeathered. This door had been shut later that day and not opened since.
Frank pulled out his lock picking kit. The darkness didn’t bother him. This kind of work was mostly done by feel. He gave the doorknob a jiggle and to his surprise it turned freely. His heart was thumping fast, as fast as it had when he was fighting Ty. Something was very wrong. Frank eased the door open.
A small desk lamp illuminated the room with a yellow glow. After the darkness of the hallway, the light hurt Frank’s eyes, and he had to squint. The first thing Frank noticed was the wooden box on the desk. The second thing he noticed was the man sitting behind the desk. The man was smiling, and the light from the desk lamp reflected off his teeth and his bald head.
“Hello Frank,” Zed said. “Please, come in.”

3.
Christine hung up the phone and turned to Will. “Frank’s been out at the cabins.”
The color drained from Will’s face. “The shed?”
Christine nodded. “They don’t know if he got in the freezer. If he did he locked it back up before he left.”
“If he got in the shed, he got in the freezer.”
“Yeah,” Christine said.
Will ran a hand through his hair. “Okay, let’s think about this. Worst case scenario. Let’s say he emptied the freezer and he knows everything he could possibly know. Let’s say he’s leaping into action. Where would he go?”
“There are only two possibilities,” Christine said. “Zed’s house or City Hall.”
Will stood up from the chair. “We have to find him and stop him. Maybe if we explain things, he’ll listen to reason.”
“Maybe we should have explained things that very first night.”
“The smart thing to do is to split up. I’ll take City Hall.”
“No, I’ll take City Hall. At least if I get caught I have an excuse. I can say I needed to check some medical records.”
“I could say I need to get some research materials for a Certification class.”
Christine held up her keys. “I have keys. I have a City ID badge. It makes more sense for me to be there.”
Will looked at her for a long moment before realizing he wasn’t going to win. “Fine. Will you call the Strauss’s and ask if Trevor can stay over?”
Christine nodded. “Meet back here at first light?”
Will gave her a quick kiss and turned to go.
“Don’t shoot anybody unless you have to,” Christine said.
“You either.”
Christine drove the three miles to City Hall in about four minutes. She circled the block a few times looking for Ty Hansen’s truck, but she didn’t see it. The building was dark and none of the doors or windows appeared to have been forced open. Of course, Frank probably would have been able to pick the locks on the doors. Jake used to say that the only reason Frank hadn’t broken out of jail was that he was too stubborn to live life as a fugitive.
She parked her car across the street and waited, trying to decide what to do. If Frank wasn’t here yet, she would be better off waiting and catching him before he went inside. But if he was already inside he was in trouble and needed her help. She decided to take one look around inside and then come back out to wait.
She grabbed her keys and her purse. She couldn’t help but stick her hand in the purse and feel the cold comforting metal of the gun. She left the purse unzipped for easier access.
Christine went into City Hall through the front door. If she was caught it would look better to have gone in as if she had nothing to hide. It reminded her of one of Will’s favorite old Lutheran sayings: sin boldly.
The halls were dark and there was no sign that anyone was there. She walked quickly toward her destination, her shoes clicking loudly on the linoleum and echoing through the empty halls. When she reached the sixth door on the left, she froze. For the first time in eight years, the door was open.

4.
Zed gestured to the chair in front of the desk. “Sit down.”
“I’ll stand,” Frank said.
Zed’s smile didn’t waver. “That’s fine. You know, I’m impressed. Your brother killed three people to get to me, and he never made it this far.”
Frank thought about pulling the knife out of his pocket. But what would he do with it? Stab the man? Would that even help anyone? “I guess Sean told you I was coming?”
Zed nodded. “He called me the moment you left his house.”
Frank imagined introducing Sean to his old friend the tire iron.
“Don’t be too hard on him. With your history, and your brother’s, can you blame him for erring on the side of law and order?”
“Law and order. Is that what you call it?”
“Yes,” Zed said. “What would you call it?”
“I’d call it trapping a whole town. You show up and suddenly we are cut off from the world. You’ve got your friends out there guarding the town, tearing apart anyone who tries to leave.”
“The Unfeathered? They are no friends of mine. I promise you that. I was in town almost a year before they showed up. Besides, correlation does not equal causation. That is a basic principle of science, my friend.”
Frank felt his temper rising in a way it hadn’t for a long time. “What did you do?”
Zed spread out his hands like a magician before a trick. Nothing up his sleeves. “Didn’t you hear? I saved the town!”
“That’s not all you did. It was you, wasn’t it? You paid Brett to steal my locks.”
Zed grimaced. “Come on, you came all the way here to ask me that?”
“What do you know about what happened to Jake? Did he really kill those people?”
“Okay,” Zed said. “I’ll make you a deal. If you answer one question for me, I’ll answer the one for you.”
“What’s your question?” Frank asked.
“Where did you see the broken clock symbol?”
Frank thought of Christine. And Will. And Trevor. He said nothing.
“That’s what I thought,” Zed said.
“How about this?” Frank asked. “Why did you come to Rook Mountain? Were you planning for all this to happen?”
“Ah,” Zed said. “That’s a better question. And I’ll answer it out of respect for the fact that you of all people made it into this room. I’m on vacation.”
Frank blinked hard. “What?”
“Haven’t you ever had one of those days at work? Well, maybe you haven’t, being self-employed and then a guest of the State. But trust me, those of us who work for a living sometimes need to get away. I stumbled across Rook Mountain and thought it might be a good place to relax for a couple of centuries. And if I happen to get a little business done too, all the better.”
Frank was trying hard to keep up with the conversation, but something about this room and the way Zed was talking made it hard to concentrate. “Vacation from what?”
Zed sighed. “Do me a favor, Frank. Look into my eyes.”
In spite of himself, Frank did.
It was just like the first time, the time when Zed knocked on his door. He felt Zed’s gaze claw its way into his mind, into those deepest parts of himself that he kept hidden from the world. It was like being punched in the stomach and standing naked in front of a laughing crowd at the same time.
“Interesting,” Zed said. He looked away, and Frank staggered backward, gasping for air even though it had only been a few seconds. “I’ll tell you what. I like what I see in you, and what’s a vacation without a certain element of spontaneity?”
He grabbed the wooden box in front of him and spun it around so the front faced Frank. Then he waited, watching Frank.
Frank looked at the box for a long moment before realizing what he was seeing. The box was held shut with a metal hoop that passed through a square. It had no discernible seams or openings. The Cassandra lock.
The Cassandra lock had come to him in a dream years ago. Creating it was his ultimate goal as a locksmith. He had tried a dozen times, but he had never gotten it exactly right. It was too technical, too complicated. He'd always felt like his skills were a few steps away from where they needed to be to finish his masterpiece. He’d never even spoken of it to anyone but Jake. Frank always imagined that the Cassandra lock, named after his mother, would be his life’s work.
And yet, there was a completed Cassandra lock on the table in front of him. It looked exactly as it had in his dreams.
“How?” Frank asked. “Can you read my mind?”
Zed shifted his head back and forth as if he was unsure how to answer. “Not in the way you’re thinking. It’s not like reading a book. But when I look into your eyes I do see certain images and feelings. That day at your cabin this lock was right at the front your mind. I got a crystal clear picture. I saw it in ways your conscious mind hadn’t. I liked what I saw.”
“But how did you build it?”
Zed smiled wide. “I’m a man of many talents, Frank.”
Frank felt his breath growing heavy. The back of his t-shirt was wet with sweat. “Why are you showing me this?”
Frank reached for the box, but Zed slid it back, away from him.
“I won’t let you open it,” Zed said. “This box saved the town, you know. I closed this box and locked it tight, and now the Unfeathered can’t come here anymore. It has to stay shut.”
Frank’s head was spinning, and he felt a wave of nausea. His life’s work was sitting on the desk in front of him. “Maybe everything would go back to normal. Maybe those bird creatures would go away and the cell phones would start working again.”
Zed ran his finger over the lock. “Or maybe the Unfeathered would come crashing in and kill us all. You’ll never know.”
Frank reached into his pocket and found the knife.
“It’s interesting, though,” Zed said. “Only two people in the world know how to open that lock, and they are both in this room.”
Frank pulled out the knife and opened it. He held it up toward Zed.
The smile stayed frozen on Zed’s face, but the joy left his eyes. Frank saw something frightening in its place.
“You are full of surprises,” Zed said.
Frank motioned toward the box with the knife. “Give it to me.”
“Where did you get that?”
Frank shook his head. “I’m done answering your questions. Give me the box.”
Zed licked his lips. “Give me the knife and I’ll give you the box.”
Frank looked hard at Zed. He saw something new on Zed’s face. “You’re scared of this thing, aren’t you?”
“It’s mine.” Zed’s voice was low and scratchy like he suddenly had a bad cold. “You could hurt someone with that. It’s not a tire iron. It can do some real damage.”
Frank took two steps to the right, coming around the edge of the desk. “Give me the box or I will start cutting.”
Zed shook his head violently. “It’s not right. That isn’t yours.”
Frank leaned forward, reaching toward Zed with the blade. Suddenly he heard footsteps behind him. He spun around fast, holding out the knife in front of him.
Christine stood in the doorway, a pistol in her hand. “Frank, we need to go.”
Frank shook his head. “No. Christine, he’s got it. My lock. The one from my head.”
“Frank, you’re not making sense.”
Zed seemed to have regained some of his composure. “Hello, Dr. Osmond. Would you please remind Frank that he is out of jail temporarily and that waving a knife at a Regulation-abiding citizen will not help his case for permanent release?”
Christine held out her hand to Frank. There was no color in her face. Frank realized she was terrified. “Come on, Frank.”
Frank turned back to the desk. He grabbed the box, pulling it out of Zed’s hands. He set it on the table. The Cassandra lock looked perfect, the way it always had in his head.
Frank moved the knife toward Zed. “What happens if I open it?”
“What?” Christine asked. “Frank, don’t open it. We don’t know what will happen.”
“Yeah. That’s why I’m asking. So how about it, Zed? What happens if I open it?”
It was a long time before Zed answered. “If you open that box, I leave. You are on your own. I’ll leave this town to the Unfeathered.”
Frank looked at Zed, tried looking into his eyes the way Zed had looked into Frank’s, but all he saw was emptiness. Even the fear he had seen before was gone.
“That’s all I get?” Frank asked.
“That’s all you get.”
“How about if I start cutting you?”
Zed shrugged. “I might say a few more things, but would you believe them? You already know the important stuff. That box keeps the Unfeathered away. What else do you need to know?”
Frank didn’t believe him, at least not fully. He knew Zed was lying, but he wasn’t sure about which part. Frank really wanted to try the Cassandra lock.
He picked up the box and held it to his ear. It made a soft ticking sound.
“Frank, no,” Christine said.
Frank reached for the lock and twisted it, squeezing in exactly the right place and pulling at just the right angle. The lock snapped open, and joy sprang up within Frank. The lock worked the way he had always imagined it would.
He removed the lock and opened the latch. He lifted the box’s wooden lid.
The four sides of the box collapsed outward onto the desk. The box was empty.
“That will be very difficult to replace,” Zed said.
The room was silent for a long moment. Then, in the distance, Frank heard a noise that sounded a bit like singing.
Christine put a hand to her mouth. “Oh, Frank. What have you done?”
“He’s killed you all,” Zed said.






 

THE BAD THING THAT HAPPENED


1.
On the night the world changed, Christine was lying awake in bed trying not to look at the clock. She had struggled with insomnia all her life and that night she hadn’t slept for a moment. She knew what all the experts said, the strategies to fight it. But the experts weren’t there, lying in bed hour after hour with their minds racing, growing more stressed, more worried about how tired they would be the next day. Christine had been, and she was bored and worried and tired of the experts. She picked up her iPad to queue up an old episode of Alias. If she couldn’t sleep, at least she could have some vicarious excitement with Sydney Bristow.
Jake was fast asleep and snoring. The man could sleep through anything. When there was a thunderstorm, Christine would toss and turn all night, waking up anew at each thunderclap. In the morning, Jake would look out the window and say, “Oh look, it rained.” It hardly seemed fair.
A little circle icon on her iPad spun as it attempted to connect to the Internet. The connection had been down when Christine went to bed four hours ago, but she was hoping it would be working by now. No such luck. It wasn’t a surprise, really. Internet outages were all too common there in the mountains. She got up and walked toward the bathroom.
That was when she heard it.
The sound came from outside. It wasn’t a human noise or a machine noise. It was an animal noise, but unlike anything Christine had ever heard before. It was like a cross between a bird and a bear. Most disturbing of all, it wasn’t a constant tone. The noise fluctuated. It sounded almost like singing.
Christine froze in the middle of the bedroom, halfway between the bed and the bathroom door. Damn, that thing was loud. It had to be right under the window. She rubbed her arms. That noise, it wasn’t right. It wasn’t natural. She turned back toward the bed and said in a loud whisper, “Jake.”
To her surprise, the response came immediately. “I hear it.”
In a way, that frightened her more than the noise itself. The noise had woken up Jake, and nothing woke up Jake.
“What is that?” Jake asked.
“I don’t know. Some kind of bird or something.”
Jake pushed off the covers and stepped out of bed. He was dressed in only his boxers. “Whatever it is, it’s right outside the window.” He crossed the room to the window and opened the blinds. He craned his neck back and forth. The noise continued. “Well, I don’t see anything.”
“Do you think it could be in the house?”
“What? No. God, no.” But he didn’t look completely convinced.
“I’m going to check on Trevor.”
Jake nodded. “I’m going to go outside and see if I can see anything.”
Christine nodded and left the bedroom. The noise was almost as loud out here. The longer it continued, the more pronounced the melody became. It hurt her head to listen. It was like no song she had ever heard. She couldn’t quite tell if it was one creature making that sound or dozens of them.
She opened the door to Trevor’s bedroom. The boy was sitting up in his bed.
“Hey,” she said. “You okay?”
“Mommy, there’s singing.”
“I know honey. You want to go back to sleep?”
He shook his head. “No, Mommy. I’m scared. Can I come with you?”
Christine paused. She rarely let him sleep in their bed, but this was different. Christine didn’t want Trevor out of her sight.
“Okay,” she said. “You can sleep with me. Bring your pillow.”
Trevor visibly relaxed at this unexpected boon. He grabbed his pillow, his favorite stuffed animal, Mr. Bear, and climbed out of bed. Christine took him by the hand.
“What’s that singing, Mommy?”
“I don’t know. Daddy is checking it out.”
When they reached the bedroom, Trevor hopped onto the bed. He sat on top of the covers, his legs crossed. The moonlight through the window illuminated the Phineas and Ferb logo on his pajamas.
Christine gave him her best mother glare. “This isn’t a party. Climb under the covers and go to sleep.”
“But they’re still singing. I can’t sleep when they're singing.”
“Maybe not, but you can try.”
Trevor, resigned to his fate, slid under the covers.
Christine moved to the window and looked out. The streetlights gave her a pretty good view of what was happening below. To her surprise, Jake wasn’t standing under the window looking up at the house. He was close to the road, looking straight into the sky. And he wasn’t alone. The neighbors on both sides were out in their yards too, all of them looking up.
What was going on out there?
Christine looked across the street and saw that neighbor, too, was standing at the end of his driveway. All Christine knew about the man was his name, although they had been neighbors for almost two years. Ed Snell. He was in his late-sixties by Christine’s estimation, and he lived alone. The man kept to himself.
How much more scary must it be, she wondered, to wake up to that noise and not have anyone else in the house? Fear was like a weight, Christine thought. When there were multiple people in the house, you could spread the fear, lessening each person’s load. But if you lived alone you would have to keep all that fear for yourself.
While Christine was still considering that thought, a white shape fell from the sky onto Ed Snell. No, Christine realized. It wasn’t falling. It was flying. The shape swooped down, grabbed Ed, and turned back skyward, taking the man with it.
Christine put her hand to her mouth, stifling a scream.
“What is it, Mommy?” Trevor asked.
Christine didn’t answer.
The white shape circled through the air, once, twice, three times, and released Ed. He landed in the Hinkle’s front yard, thirty feet from Jake.
Jake ran toward Snell’s unmoving form. He was almost to the man when the white shape appeared again, swooping toward the ground. Christine put a hand to the window pane. She wanted to scream to Jake, but he was too far away.
Jake saw the shape too, and he stopped, stumbling backwards.
The white creature landed on top of Snell, its feet on his chest, and it raised its head to the sky and sang. Christine saw the creature clearly for the first time and terror shot through her heart.
It was like a bird, a giant featherless bird. The creature was so white it almost glowed under the streetlights. Its wings were big fleshy things like the wings of a bat. It was unnatural. It was terrifying.
Christine felt a tiny hand slip into her own. She hadn’t realized Trevor was standing beside her.
“What is it?” he asked.
Christine tried for a moment to think of something comforting to say, something that would make the boy feel safe, but nothing came to mind. She squeezed his hand, hoping that would help a little. “I don’t know,” she said.
Another white shape shot down from the sky. It landed next to the first. Then another joined it. And another. Soon there were six of them all gathered around Ed Snell’s body. They stood in a circle around him, their beaks open and pointed to the sky in a terrible song.
Then the song stopped, and they struck.
Trevor screamed as the first beak sank into Snell’s neck. Christine put her hand over his eyes.
The creatures moved with uncanny speed, stabbing at Snell’s body with their long thin beaks and then pulling them back, covered in blood, bits of flesh and intestines. The creatures feasted for a long time on the man, their mouths hungrily thrusting into him again and again.
“They’re eating that man, Mommy. Is Daddy going to save him?”
Christine still had her hand over her son’s eyes, but it was too late. He had already seen what he had seen.
“Trev, the man’s already dead. They aren’t hurting him.” She wasn’t sure if that would comfort the boy. She had said it partly to convince herself that it was true.
She turned her gaze to Jake. He sat on the ground, unmoving, staring at the bird creatures. Christine wanted to knock on the window, or maybe open it and yell down to him, but she also didn’t want to do anything that might call attention to Jake. The bird creatures still might be hungry when they finished with Snell.
There was only one thing to do. She would go downstairs, go outside, and get her man. She’d drag him in if she had to. There was no other option. Trevor would be fine. She’d have to make sure he understood to keep the doors and windows shut and not open them no matter what.
She opened her mouth to speak, but no words came. Jake was moving.
He stood up slowly and took a step forward.
“No,” Christine said.
Jake was walking the wrong direction. He was moving toward the creatures.
“No,” Christine said again, far too quietly for anyone but Trevor to hear.
Jake moved slowly and deliberately. Christine saw the gun in his arms. Jake stopped fifteen feet from his downed neighbor. He raised his rifle and took careful aim.
“Daddy’s going to save that man. I knew it!”
Christine realized she was no longer covering her son’s eyes. She was too afraid to move. Her eyes were glued to her husband.
Jake held his rifle pointed at the creatures for what seemed an eternity. He shifted his feet a little, corrected his aim, and fired.
The shot echoed through the neighborhood. The closest bird creature’s head exploded, raining brains and blood on its flock mates behind it as it collapsed.
Jake stood frozen. Christine willed him to move, to run. But he stood firm. The other creatures didn’t seem to notice. They continued their feast.
“Get out of there,” Christine whispered.
Jake cocked his rifle and fired again, dropping another one of the creatures. Again none of the others seemed to notice.
Jake fired again. And again. Now there were only two left.
The one closest to Jake had its back to him. Jake raised his rifle and took aim. Before he could fire, the creature lifted its head and turned to him.
Christine gasped.
It tilted its head as if trying to interpret what this man and his rifle meant. Then it lifted its bloody beak to the sky and began to sing. The other remaining bird creature stopped feeding and looked at its singing compatriot. Another white shape appeared in the sky, and then another.
Jake fired, silencing the bird creature and its song. Then he turned and bolted for the house.
As Christine watched, the remaining bird creature returned to its meal. It picked apart poor Mr. Ed Snell until there was nothing left but bones.

2.
Four days later the killings had stopped, the Regulations had been put in place, and Rook Mountain had been changed forever.
Christine knocked on the door of a large conference room in City Hall. They were calling the room the Command Center. It was a place for Zed and his inner circle to meet and do whatever it was they were doing since the town had been saved.
A short, thin man Christine didn’t recognize opened the door wide enough to stick his head through. He didn’t speak—he just waited.
“Hi,” Christine said. “I was wondering if I could talk to Zed for a minute. I have some information I think he might like to hear.”
The man looked Christine in the eye, and Christine felt a quick jolt, like a bolt of electricity running through her brain.
The man nodded. “Come in.” He led her through the large room to a desk in one corner. Zed sat behind the desk, furiously writing on a form of some sort. That seemed odd to Christine. What kind of paperwork could there really be at this point?
The short, thin man cleared his throat and Zed looked up. He saw Christine and smiled.
Christine was a little shocked at the sight of him. She had been at City Hall the day the Regulations were voted into law, but she had been near the back. She hadn’t gotten a clear look at Zed. The last time she had seen him up close had been when he was knocking on doors a couple of years ago. Then he had been subservient, odd but polite. Now he looked like a man transformed. He wore a blue turtleneck tight enough to show off his muscular physique. He looked tired, which was understandable, Christine supposed, but he also had a charismatic glow about him. He oozed confidence.
“Hi,” Christine said, holding out her hand. “I’m Christine Hinkle.”
Zed took her hand, and his smile grew even wider. “Yes. You’re a doctor, right?”
Christine nodded.
“We are going to need you, I promise you that. Not many doctors in town.” Zed held her hand a moment too long before finally releasing it. “But we can talk about that later. What brings you by today?”
“Well, first of all, thank you for what you did for our town.”
Zed waved her thanks away. “My pleasure. It’s my town too, you know.”
Christine smiled. “Yes, of course. The reason I came down here is that I think I might have something useful.”
Zed tilted his head. “Oh? What’s that?”
“The first night those creatures attacked, my husband managed to shoot a couple of them. Five, actually.”
Zed laughed out loud. “Good Lord! That’s incredible. Did you hear that, Jack?”
“I did,” the short, thin man said. “That’s mighty impressive.”
“Absolutely,” Zed said. “Tell your husband I said that’s some great shooting.”
“I will. The thing is we still have the bodies.”
The smile fell from Zed’s face. “What do you mean?”
“The creatures' bodies. You know Maria’s Pizzeria downtown? They recently closed, but their walk-in freezer is still functional. We’ve been keeping them there.”
Zed folded his hands. “Why on earth would you do that?”
Christine paused. This wasn’t the reaction she had been expecting. “We were attacked by a species never seen before. We have to study them.”
Zed chuckled and leaned back in his chair. “Doctor Hinkle, I understand your impulse, and I think your heart is in the right place. You are a person of science, and thank God for that. We are going to need you. But in this case, your instinct is incorrect.”
“We need to learn everything we can about these creatures. Studying their anatomy could be the key to stopping them if they ever get through your barrier.”
“Let me explain, doctor,” Zed said. “I haven’t put up a barrier. I’ve managed to make us invisible to these creatures, these… let’s call them the Unfeathered. There is nothing stopping the Unfeathered from coming into town except that they can’t tell it exists. If I’ve done my job, and I think I have, they will feel a slight discomfort, a natural aversion to this place.”
Christine’s eyes narrowed. That wasn’t quite how he had explained it that day at City Hall. Truth be told, he hadn’t explained it much at all. He had just said that he could stop them.
“The only way the Unfeathered will come into the town,” Zed continued, “is if they have a reason stronger than the natural aversion I’ve put in place. The most likely reason would be a person going out of town. Once they have attacked a person, they will keep on attacking and, if the person fled back to town, the Unfeathered would follow. Hence the Regulations. What might be some other reasons? We don’t know.”
“That’s why we need to study them. There is so much we don’t know.”
“Or maybe having those bodies, the bodies of their fallen brothers, could draw them here.”
“That’s a big leap,” Christine said. “We have no reason to think that.”
Zed sighed. “Doctor Hinkle, we’ve put this town back on track. Keeping those bodies is too big a risk. We have to burn them immediately.”
“Maybe we should let the town know we have them. Let the people decide.”
Zed pulled out a pocket watch and opened it. Christine saw a symbol on the watch—a broken clock. “That won’t be necessary. Jack, can you send someone over to Maria’s to pick up the bodies right away?”
Jack nodded. “I’ll send Russ over there. He’s got that pickup.”
“Good,” Zed said. He looked up at Christine, that glowing, confident smile back on his face. “Doctor, I appreciate you bringing this to me. I hope you trust that I know what I’m doing. My friends and I have a little saying: trust is a must. It’s truer now than ever before.”
Christine didn’t know what to say, so she nodded.
“Goodbye, doctor. We’ll talk soon. I have big plans for you. We need your help to keep this town running.”

Christine turned to go. As she left, she heard Zed call after her, “And say hello to your husband for me. I have big plans for him, too.”

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