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Though the Malcolm malfeasance may seem a little too overemphatic and generously distributed, it's the real thing at last—and so is Bo's fifth case (Moonbird Boy, p. 337, etc.), which ratchets Padgett's imaginative grasp of evil, and the unrelenting tension it spawns, to dizzy new heights.
Weird dreams were nothing unusual. She'd had them since childhood, a manageable aspect of the volatile brain chemistry bequeathed her by generations of mad Irish poets, musicians, artists, and lesser eccentrics. Manic-depressive illness. But the dreams were corralled by medication now, as well as by the long experience of their forty-one-year-old dreamer. So where, she pondered shakily, had this eerie horror come from?
The view from one cautiously opened eye confirmed the assessment performed by her leg. The familiar walls and furniture were there, solid beneath a scrim of darkness. From a lambswool bed on the floor Molly, Bo's dachshund puppy, snored softly. Everything was as expected. Except the dream.
It had been one of those Bo recognized as alien, not arising from the symbol system organized by her brain for its own amusement from the countless details of her experience. This dream, she acknowledged as she searched with her left foot on the floor for the armadillo house slippers she'd kicked off hours earlier, had come from somewhere else. It wasn't hers. Nothing about it felt familiar. Not even its near-maniacal sense of dread.
The dream had been of a cold, windowless room filled with breathy clicking sounds. Mechanical sounds. Repetitive and devoid of meaning. And the room was some kind of trap, or prison, or place of exile filled with grief and anger and a terrible sense of waiting. It felt like a long-abandoned subway station where no train has come in years, although one more is expected. And that train will be the last, and will carry nothing alive.
"In the Station of the Dead," Bo named a painting her brain was busily creating from the receding mental image. All gray angles with patches of fungus, an industrial sense, hopelessness. And across the bottom, empty tracks and a single red light feeble in shadows. She hoped she'd forget the painting by morning, when the urge to mix egg tempera might become irresistible.
In the apartment's miniature kitchen Bo shuddered at the dream-image and then focused on the coffee grinder atop a stack of catalogues on the counter. A wall of cottony vapor swirled against the window over the sink. Coffee would be good, she thought. Just the thing to take the edge off an unusually frightening psychic event that had drifted in on the fog. Except the grinder would wake Molly, and then it would be necessary to get dressed and take the little dog outside. A potty-run in dense December fog at two-thirty in the morning.
"No way," Bo whispered to the coffee grinder. "I'm not going out in that!"
From her purse on the countertop she grabbed a cigarette lighter and held its flame aloft in the darkened kitchen. 'I know ye're out there, Cally,' she announced in her grandmother's brogue to a Celtic myth named Caillech Beara, the embodiment of death and madness. 'It's your season we're havin', your feast that's a-comin', but here's light for me and the wee dog. It's far out you'll be stayin' now, Cally. And keepin' your dead dreams there in the fog, away!'
The ad-libbed exorcism was a compilation of facts learned from one Bridget Mairead O'Reilly, who brought satchels of peat to Cape Cod from Ireland every summer so that first one granddaughter and ten years later the next might know the meaning of light.
"Old Cally'll skitter from the flame," she told a wide-eyed four-year-old Bo. "It's to keep her moanin' far outside, the fire is, and to keep the livin' safe and warm. Always remember the flame's the heart of the livin', the light of it is, and Cally won't have none of it!"
Bo held the lighter aloft in her kitchen until her thumb began to burn, then watched as a violet oval with neon green edges floated across her retinas where the flame had etched its shape. The little ritual was reassuring, but did nothing to assuage the dream's hangover. The eerie painting, Bo understood with a sigh, was no distortion flung into consciousness by aberrant brain synapses or Scots-Irish bogeys. The image was simply real. She would never know what it was or where it had come from, but it was real.
"Shit!" she exhaled as the phone's abrupt ringing made her jump.
"What in hell?" she pronounced tersely into its beige plastic receiver.
"Bradley, you're up," the familiar, booming voice of Police Detective Dar Reinert informed her. "That's good. Got a favor to ask, and you people will get the case in the morning anyway, so you'll be ahead of the game, right."
Bo groped for a way to define the complete absence of information in whatever he'd just said. Only the word, "favor," was clear, and she owed the burly child abuse detective several of those. He'd helped her on a number of the cases which landed on her desk at San Diego County's Child Protective Services where she worked as a child abuse investigator.
"Dar, what are you talking about?" she asked, scuffing the toe of one armadillo slipper against the tile floor. "Do you know it's two-thirty in the morning." From her bedroom the flapping of hound ears signaled that Molly was shaking herself into wakefulness. Bo pondered for the thousandth time a canine evolution which precluded the use of litter boxes. She was going to have to get dressed and escort Molly through the fog to some carefully chosen patch of grass.
"Just got a call at home from the dispatcher," he said, yawning. "A couple of uniforms are down there, but they're spooked. The kid's going to St. Mary's in an ambulance, unless St. Mary's won't take her. Guess she'll have to go to County Psychiatric then. Friend said she was fifteen. Does a children's hospital take 'em when they're that old? And when they're psycho? The uniforms don't know what to do, and the vampire crap's freakin' 'em out. Thought you could boogie on over there and save me a trip across town since this thing's going to land over in Social Services an hour from now. Okay."
Molly had waddled into the kitchen and was wagging her tail happily at Bo.
"Dar, I have to take the dog out, so tell me a few things in this order. The uniforms are down where, what kid is going to St. Mary's or County Psychiatric, when will you stop using the term "psycho" to describe everything from drug addiction to hairstyles you don't like, and since when do you believe in vampires."
His laugh reminded Bo of logs steaming in a roaring fire. That sense of warmth and safety. "I don't," he said, "and what's happened is some kid who calls herself Fianna has gone catatonic at a club two blocks from your place. They thought she was dead. Manager called nine one one, uniforms were there in six minutes, but it's a mess. The club's called Goblin Market. It's a hangout for kids who think They're vampires or something. Dispatcher says we haven't had any calls from there before this. Uniforms say it doesn't look like drugs, and a kid in a Robin Hood suit told them this girl lives in a foster home. It's going to be CPS's baby, and the damn fog's so thick it'll take me an hour to get down there. How about it?"
"I've never seen a club called Goblin Market in Ocean Beach," Bo told him, puzzled. "Are you sure it's here and not Mission Beach or Pacific Beach or La Jolla?" The list of San Diego's beach communities, each with its own civic personality, routinely confused newcomers to the city. But Dar Reinert was no newcomer.
"Place is a restaurant called Delaney's, right on the beach. Delaney rents the space nights to this guy who runs the vampire club. You need to get out more at night."
"I'm going to," Bo agreed. "But only as a favor to you and the dog."
"Fax me your report from the office."
Five minutes later Bo tucked the wiggling dachshund under her left arm and opened the apartment door to a world made ominous by its lack of visual reference. Holding the stair rail, she edged her way down through swirling vapor to the street. Her corner. The terminus of both Naragansett Street and the continent of North America. The drama of the locale with its end-of-the-line geography had captured her imagination four years in the past, when she'd left St. Louis to take the job which continued to pay her rent. And which was about to draw her into a nest of vampires.
Grinning at the peach-colored globe of mist blooming around a streetlight, she acknowledged that she wouldn't have it any other way. Vampires would be interesting. They'd provide a diversion from the strange dream, she mused. The vampires would become allies in the daily battle with boredom her brain fought despite its harnessing medications. After a two-block stroll Molly tugged at her yellow leash, scampering toward the flashing red and blue lights of an SDPD patrol car parked in the public lot abutting the beach restaurant Bo knew only in its daylight persona. At night, she saw, it was something else entirely.
Over Delaney's sign a black plywood silhouette of castle turrets stretched toward the sky. Unlit, the prop looked real in the drifting fog. Bo crossed the parking lot beside the now-abandoned lifeguard station and felt Molly balk as they stepped onto the beach. The little dog had never liked sand. Bo picked her up and approached the eerily lit scene ahead with caution.
The uniformed officers Dar had mentioned stood in a partially enclosed patio attached to the small restaurant, illuminating with flashlights a pale girl dressed in black. She was sitting upright on a bench, her gaze transecting the posturing young cops as if they weren't there. Beside her a boy in a doublet and lacy shirt repeatedly offered a steaming metal tankard Bo presumed was coffee, but the girl didn't respond. Some forty other figures, all dressed in black, milled about, watching somberly. Bo had expected theatrics, but when a blond young man in a cape bowed and smiled at her, she instinctively pulled Molly closer and regretted an absence of pointed wooden stakes among the debris she carried in her purse. The fangs revealed by his smile weren't the peppermint-flavored paraffin variety Bo remembered from childhood Halloweens. They were real.
"I've misplaced my rope of garlic," she told him casually. "But trust me, my blood would taste like boiled tomato juice. Medication. You know how it is. By the way, does this run in your family."
"A dentist in L.A. does them for seventy bucks," the caped figure explained, beaming. "They're a birthday present from my wife."
"Happy birthday," Bo smiled, nodding toward the scene on the patio. "Do you know anything about this?"
"Maybe she came to the end of the hunt," he suggested.
"The hunt for what?"
With that he swirled his cape, drew its hem with one hand across his chest, and retreated into the fog. Bo harbored a conviction that she'd just wandered into an avant-garde play understood by everyone except her. From inside she could hear a guitar strumming four chords over and over beneath electronic effects and a male voice intoning something in a British accent. It had to do with rust. Under Bo's arm, Molly began to howl tentatively.
"I'm Bo Bradley from Child Protective Services," she explained to the police, displaying the ID badge clipped to her sweatshirt. "Detective Reinert phoned me. I live near here, and he thinks this case will wind up with CPS in a matter of hours, anyway. What's going on?"
"Umm," the younger of the pair began, "is there something the matter with your dog?"
"She sings," Bo answered. "When she hears music, she sings. Now, what's happened to this girl?"
"Somebody's coming from County Psychiatric to get her. She's flipped out. Nuts. We have to stay here until they take her away. Creepy, huh."
"What about St. Mary's, Dar said they were going to check that out first."
The crewcut young cop shrugged. "Dunno. The dispatcher just said County Psychiatric, and we're supposed to wait. Now that you're here maybe we can leave. I'll call in and see. God, this place is sick!"
Bo looked around. Nobody's eyes had pupils the size of quarters, nobody was staggering drunk, and despite their chalky makeup and black-ringed eyes, the denizens of Goblin Market appeared uniformly healthy. And possessed of sufficient disposable income to purchase expensive props for which there would be little workday use. Leather boots with silver skull buckles, capes and lace collars, studded armbands and wrist restraints, black vests and corsets and bustiers worn decorously over silk blouses.
"You don't know sick," she told the young cop. "You don't have a clue. Who runs this place?"
"Guy behind the bar with the hood over his head."
"Ah, the hangman," Bo noted. "What did he say happened to the girl?"
"He doesn't know anything, says she's been a regular, hangs with a guy named Bran who's some kind of computer geek and hasn't showed up tonight. Apparently she got here just before midnight, stood around on the patio for an hour or so, and then went mental. Nobody talked to her. Did you get a load of the doll?"
Bo looked at the seated girl. She was holding something, but it was obscured by folds of black lace.
"Mega-creep shit." The cop sighed, heading for the patrol car. "Check it out."
Approaching slowly, Bo kept her eyes on the girl's feet. If this were a psychotic episode of some kind, Bo knew, an aggressive attitude and direct eye contact would only increase the girl's terror.
"Who're you?" asked the boy with the coffee.
"Bo Bradley. I work for Child Protective Services, the agency that handles foster care, among other things. I've been told that Fianna is in a foster care placement."
Looking up very slowly, Bo addressed the girl.
"Is that right, Fianna? Could you tell me the name of your foster parents?"
The girl called Fianna looked straight through Bo's forehead at a point lost in two hundred yards of fog. Her breathing, Bo noted, was fast and shallow, and she was trembling.
"I need to feel your pulse," Bo told her quietly. "I'm going to touch your left arm now, your wrist. If you'd rather I didn't touch you, I won't, but you'll have to let me know."
When there was no response, Bo set Molly on the bench beside the girl and reached for a pale arm hidden beneath wrinkled black lace.
Excerpted from The Dollmaker's Daughters by Abigail Padgett Excerpted by permission.
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