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They blew into town on a Halloween wind.
The Mulatto drove the big roadster, and the Sage sat beside him, snickering into his yellow beard. Telephone poles whipped by one after the other, and Zasha made a joke about them looking like crosses waiting for saviors. They all laughed and laughed, except for Doctor Nine who always smiled but never, ever laughed.
The car tore through the veils of shadow that draped like sackcloth between the distant lampposts. The night was in no way larger than the car, though it tried--and failed--to loom around the vehicle. The car was really the darkness of that night; it was far more a part of the night than the shadows. You couldn't imagine what that car would look like in daylight. It wasn't that kind of car.
Flocks of shapeless nightbirds flew on ahead of the car, and whenever the roadster stopped the birds wheeled and circled beneath the hungry stars. Against the fierce glow of the sneering moon the birds were tatters of feather and bone. Their call was more mocking than plaintive. The birds were always there; as long as Doctor Nine was there, they were there. It was in the manner of things, and both the birds and Doctor Nine accepted the arrangement. It suited them both.
The Mulatto never spoke when he drove. He never spoke at all. He could but he chose not to, and his throat had gone dry and dusty over the years. When he laughed it was the whisper of rat feet over old floorboards. Knuckly hands clutched the wheel and bare feet pressed gas and brakes and sometimes clawed the carpeted floor. Around his neck he wore a medicine pouch he'd taken from a Navajo crystal gazer, and some parts of the crystal gazer were in there, too. Hewore jeans and a faded Dead Kennedys T-shirt, a stolen wristwatch and seven wedding rings, one on almost every finger. He was working on a complete set. Little sparks of light flickered from his hands as he wheeled hand-over-hand around bends in the highway.
Beside him, the Sage ate chicken from a metal bucket. The bucket was smeared with chicken blood, and feathers drifted lazily to the floor. He offered a wing to Zasha, who declined with a wicked smile, but Spike bent forward from the back seat and plucked the wing out of the Sage's fingers. In the brief exchange their hands were contrasted in a display-counter spill of light from a passing streetlamp: the faintly yellow, faintly reptilian mottling on the Sage's fingers, the thin webbing which had begun to grow between his thumb and index finger; and the overly-long, startlingly delicate fingers of Spike, dusted now with a haze of brown hairs, nails as long as a fashion model's though much sharper. The wing vanished into the back and Spike bent forward to eat it. He shot a quick, inquiring glance at Doctor Nine, who nodded permission and looked away out into the night. Spike ate with as little noise as he could manage, the bones crunching softly between his serrated teeth.
Doctor Nine looked dreamily at the passing cars, imagining lives and hearts and souls contained within those fragile metal shells like caviar in tins. In the hum of the car's engine he could hear the hum of life itself, the palpable field of human energy. As subtle as chi, as definite as arterial pumping. In the whisk of cars passing one another he heard gasps and soft cries, the stuff of nighttime encounters, expected and unexpected.
"Take the next exit," he said to the Mulatto, and the big roadster followed a line of cars angling toward a city that glowed like embers under a cloud of carbon smutch.
Doctor Nine smiled and smiled, knowing that something wonderful was about to happen.
Bethy sat awake nearly all night watching Millie die. She thought it was quite beautiful. In the way spiders are beautiful. The way a mantis is beautiful when it mates and feeds. If her sister thought it was something else ... well, so what? Bethy and Millie had never seen eye-to-eye, not once unless Bethy was lying about it. Bethy was a very good liar. All it took was practice. It was a game they had started playing a couple of hours after they all got home from camping. Mom and Dad were already asleep in their room, and Bethy had convinced Millie that it would be fun to stay up and pretend that they were still camping, still lost in the big, dark woods.
Millie thought that would be fun, too. Millie was easy to lead, though truly Millie had a completely different sense of what was fun.
Millie thought Pokeman was fun. Millie liked her Barbies unscarred and her Ken dolls unmelted. Millie liked live puppies. Millie was blind to the sound of blood, the song of blood.
Bethy said that they could pretend that Doctor Nine was going to come and tell them spooky campfire stories. Dad's big flashlight was their campfire.
Millie, sweet and pretty in her flannel robe with the cornflower pattern and her fuzzy slippers, agreed to the game even though she thought that Doctor Nine was a dumb name for an imaginary friend. Well, to be fair, she truly did think that Doctor Nine was imaginary and that Bethy had no actual friends.
The clock on the wall was a big black cartoon cat with eyes that moved back and forth and a tail that swished in time. Millie loved that, too. She called it Mr. Whiskers and would tell time according to what the cat said. "Mr. Whiskers says it's half-past six!"
Mr. Whiskers was counting out the remaining minutes of Millie's life, and wasn't that fun, too?
Bethy looked at the clock and saw that nearly an hour had gone by since Millie had drunk her warm milk. Plenty of time for the Vicodin to enter her bloodstream through the lining of her stomach wall. If Millie was going to get sick and throw them up it would have happened already, but ... nothing, and that was good. It kept this tidy. Getting her to take the pills had been so easy. Once mashed with a hammer from the cellar the powder was easy to dissolve. If it made the milk a little lumpy, it was no matter as Bethy had brought big cookies upstairs as well. Cookies to dunk in the warm milk. Mmm, perfect. Millie had swallowed all of it.
Now it was time to watch and learn. Bethy took out her diary and her pen and sat cross-legged on the floor and watched.
Doctor Nine smiled as the car whisked down the ramp and entered the city. He stretched out with his senses, with perceptions grown old and precise and indefatigable with long, good use. Hearts pumped for him alone of all the creatures on the window-black streets; minds thought for him, stomachs ached and rumbled with hunger for him, hands groped with lust for him. Eyes searched the shadows for delicious glimpses of him. Tongues tasted waiting lips and flesh ached to be touched. All by him, for him, with him. He knew that; just as he knew that these hearts and minds were few--fewer than in years before, but still there. Still strong and waiting and wanting.
Doctor Nine knew all of this, knew it without the dizzying rush of ego that might taint another creature of less cultured understanding. He licked his lips with a pink tongue-tip.
An SUV came abreast of their car, and Doctor Nine turned in his seat to examine it. The Mulatto sensed his desire and shifted lanes occasionally so that Doctor Nine could see each passenger in turn. It was a family car burdened with a roof rack heavy with suitcases and camping tents. Each window of the car was like a picture frame that contained a separate portrait. One showed a wife, a pale creature defined by that label. Merely 'wife'. If there had ever been a more definite and individual personality it had been leeched out of her along with the color of her skin, or she had put it away in some forgotten closet, perhaps with some thought that a life spent in sacrifice and servitude was a life well spent. Doctor Nine fought the urge to yawn.
The driver's window framed the father. Haggard, bored, distracted, and bitter. A jock-type with a soft jaw and receding hairline. Of no interest at all to Doctor Nine. This one wouldn't even have fantasies dark enough to be interesting.
The window behind the driver showed the profile of a pretty little girl with pigtails and pink cheeks who was bent over the piss-colored glow of a Game Boy screen, her face screwed up in concentration and her mind distressingly empty.
But then, as the Mulatto slowed the car, Doctor Nine came abreast with the rear window, back where the luggage was usually stored, and there, with her face and hands pressed against the smoked glass, was a pale figure that stirred something old and deep in the Doctor's heart. She was the same age as the other girl, perhaps nine, but as unlike her twin as two creatures can be who were born in the same spill of shared blood. Dark unkempt hair and luminous brown eyes, large in the small, pale mask of her face.
Doctor Nine looked at her, totally aware of her. He could feel the intensity of her mind, the sharpness of it, the need of it. Just as he could feel the ache and the pain as she rode through the night surrounded by these meat sacks that pretended to love her and pretended to care for her when in reality they probably feared her.
As they should. He smiled at the thought and tested his senses against the razor sharpness of her need, knowing that she could and would cut, given the chance, given some direction.
Doctor Nine moved his consciousness deeper into the young mind and found that, though young in years, the hunger he encountered was every bit as old as that which coiled and waited within his own soul. Her darkness was too lovely, too profound to be trapped in the cage of meaningless flesh which contained it. Her soul was a screaming thing, locked by circumstance in the fragile shell of the human form. It shrieked for release.
Doctor Nine felt her fear and her need and measured them against each other. He would not come to her to relieve her fears; nor would he come to satisfy her needs. He might come, however, if her need was strongest of all, stronger than all of the other splintered and badly formed emotions because to him, need was the only true emotion.
He exerted a fraction more of his will, and the little girl lifted her sad eyes toward his window. He made her see him through the dark glass, and as she turned toward him she saw him and she knew him.
From dreams she knew him. From dreams that her parents and her sister would have called nightmares; dreams that, had they been unlucky enough to share them, would have sent them shuddering and screaming into the nearest patch of light. As if light could protect them. He knew--could feel and sense and taste--that this little girl had dreamed of him, that she knew his name as well as she knew her own pain. As well as she knew her own need. Doctor Nine looked into her mind and knew that there were no Gods in her dreaming world, just as there were none in her waking hell. When she looked into darkness, whether behind closed eyes or under the bed or into the moonless sky, she saw only him. He was always there for her kind. Always.
Doctor Nine smiled at her.
The little girl looked at him for a long time with her owl-brown eyes. When she finally smiled it was a real smile. A smile as hot as blood and as sweet as pain. Her small mouth opened, and she spoke a single, silent word, shaping it with her need and her love for him.
The SUV veered suddenly and turned onto a boulevard and headed south toward the smutch and gloom that was clamped down around the heart of this city. It vanished from sight in a moment, and the Mulatto rolled to a slow stop at the next corner. Everyone in the car stopped and quietly turned toward him.
Above them the nightbirds wheeled in the sky. Then one by one they peeled off and followed the SUV down the boulevard. Soon only the big roadster was left, alone and waiting.
Without haste Doctor Nine reached forward and touched the Mulatto's shoulder.
"Follow," he murmured.
The Mulatto nodded and turned the car around and then turned again to enter the boulevard. Spike and Zasha exchanged a glance.
"Something..." Zasha asked casually, hiding the interest that brightened her eyes.
Doctor Nine nodded.
"What?" Spike asked, "that car we just passed?"
"Too late, Boss," muttered the Sage. "We'll never find it again." But Zasha jabbed his shoulder with a long fingernail.
"Of course we will," she said, looking to Doctor Nine for approval.
They all looked at Doctor Nine, and he endured their stares mildly. After a long while he said, "We've been invited to a coming-out party."
He smiled at them.
Soon, all of the others laughed.
The night followed them like a pack of dogs.
Bethy wondered how it felt for Millie to die. It was something she thought about, even when she was killing a cat or a dog. Poison sometimes hurt, and so she stopped using it. Not because she wanted to spare pain--that was a silly thought--no, it was because pain was such a distraction. Medicine was so much easier. No pain, only a fuzziness and a sleepy feeling that was warm and a little fluttery, like moth wings in the head. Bethy knew because she had tried the pills herself. First one of them, then two. The most she'd ever taken at once was six.