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This Rage of Echoes
By Simon Clark
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 2007 Simon Clark
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWhen he becomes you, then who are you?
Say again, what's the question? Okay, listen to this: It's in us. We make it happen. Somehow.
Does that make sense? Not that I'd believe for one minute that you'd understand from the start what was happening to us. After all, the mechanics of it are a mystery to us as much as anyone else. But I can't stress this enough: it is important you do understand, because if the kind of trouble I'm facing now comes your way, then what I write here might help you not only make sense of it, but fight it. And stay alive.
I guess this isn't clear, what I'm telling you. But I'm going to try as hard as I can to make it understandable. Damn, this feels like I'm sitting on my stupid butt and lecturing you. As if I'm just about to say, "Take out your textbook, turn to page thirty-one, and compare and contrast the merits of killing with a knife or a shotgun...." And that's a bunch of balls-big, hairy balls with fucking bells on. No. Your life-and whether you keep it or not, or whether you spill your hot, steamy blood all over the damn floor-just might depend on what you read in the next five pages. So I'm going to dive right in and describe one occasion when they tried to take us by surprise; then I'm going to tell you how we killed them; then I aim to describe what they are. And why they are dangerous. Not just dangerous to me but to you, too. After all, deep down, you know they're out there, don't you?
So, picture this. We're living in a house that isn't ours. The owners are on vacation-it says so on the calendar in the hallway, so no mystery there how I uncovered that fact. I'm baking frozen pizza. Here in the kitchen with me are four people in their twenties. Two men, two women. Casually dressed. I'm the guy in the black T-shirt and jeans. There's that hot-oven smell, a mixture of hot oil, meat juices, herbs-the ghost of a thousand roasts. This conversation might not have taken place word for word: it's an edited mix of conversations we've had before. Oh, and by the way, this is where I change tense from present to past. It reads better like that. Parts of this are story; parts are a bit like the commentaries you get on DVD. That's where I try to explain "this happened because ..." Okay? And, yeah, this seems like a dollop of muddle because life's like that-a muddle of events, of intimacy, fear, anticipation, blood, bacon wraps eaten too fast because you're late for the bus, answering e-mails, washing clothes, bedtimes, broken nails, the dog whizzing on the rug-all that stuff you deal with. You try to weave it into a pattern that you hope not only makes sense but is meaningful as you go along. So, even if this isn't as clear as the glass in your living room window, one thing is rock-solid certain: this is the start.
As I fed pizza into the smoky mouth of the oven, Ulric said, "Why couldn't they have been vampires? These days who's frightened of vampires? You throw garlic at them, then nail them down dead with a stake." Ulric's Norwegian, a Viking warrior of a man with blond hair and the kind of face that seldom hosts a smile. Even when he speaks in a friendly way there's never a grin; his ice-blue eyes are always hard, but then, they need to be.
Ruth, on the other hand, smiles a lot. I even saw her smile when she threw an Echoman's head down a well with, "If you can get out of that we'll call you Houdini." At the moment she was rattling bottles of beer out of the refrigerator. Smiling. Of course she was smiling; she always smiles: her eyes twinkled, her face was framed with short black hair, and at that moment she joined in with: "Or why couldn't it have been werewolves? They only appear when the moon is full."
"Then we could zap them with silver bullets," Ulric added.
Dianna matched her classical name. Tall, slim, long blond hair, athletic body. Do all Diannas in the world look like that? Blond goddesses one and all. She set out plates on the kitchen table. "After guzzling out of paper bags for the last three weeks we'll be civilized for once and eat off proper plates."
Ulric was stone-faced as he watched her. "Or why couldn't it have been zombies?"
Paddy leaned against the door frame to the hall, keeping guard. "Because vampires don't exist. Neither do werewolves, gorgons, demons, or leprechauns."
"You're Irish," I told him. "You have leprechauns in your blood."
"My grandmother was Irish. I know squat about Ireland apart from one thing: the Irish are sick of tourists with their leprechaun jokes." Paddy is a big man with plenty of muscle and bushy dark hair that gives him a grizzly-bear look. Above his eyes are a pair of black eyebrows that are as bristly as those caterpillars that you sometimes find creeping into your house in early spring. Paddy enjoys comfort and food. It doesn't have to be good food, but he likes plenty of it. Right at that moment he eyed me peeling a plastic membrane off another pizza.
"How many of those things are there?" he asked.
"Might as well cook them all," he said. "We don't know when we'll get to taste another."
"Paddy?" Ruth raised an eyebrow. "You do realize that's two pizzas each?"
"There's five of us," Ulric said.
"No," Ruth insisted. "I hate pizza. It's all I can do to bear the smell."
"That's the garlic," Paddy told us. "Ruth is a vampire."
Ulric didn't smile. "There's no such thing as vampires. Remember?"
"No, but there's something else that's following us. So that's why I'm standing here at the door." Paddy nodded as he recalled the mayhem. "The danger's still out there."
I warned you earlier that this conversation didn't happen exactly like this. I've cut words; I've added a phrase or two. Paddy didn't actually utter "the danger's still out there," but it sort of captures the essence of similar conversations while we've been on the run.
And we have pizza. This would be the first real sit-down hot meal in ages. For the last couple of weeks I craved pizza. I drifted away to sleep in the back of the truck thinking about pizza. I imagined how the world's best pizza would smell. In truth, I'm not even a pizza addict, but, my God, I developed a craving for it. Perhaps it's because I couldn't have it. At home when I opened my freezer door those dough wheels all covered in cheese, pepperoni, onions, bacon, chicken, spicy beef, teriyaki turkey would come tumbling out. I'd curse those pizzas because I wanted chicken fillets at the back, or frozen peas. But like the devil himself had willed it, I'd be engulfed with pizzas every time I flipped open the door. And just two floors beneath my apartment was a pizza restaurant. I breathed pizza vapor from noon until past midnight. Pizza-delivery folk would tramp the apartment corridor with arms full of steaming, aromatic pizza. It was only when I was cut off from a world seemingly engulfed with those Frisbee-shaped circles of bread topped with bubbling cheese, tomato sauce, and toppings galore that I craved pizza. Now I had pizza. After the fifteen minutes' required baking time I would sit at the table with my gang and stuff my gullet with it until I felt like bursting.
Ulric watched me slide another pizza into the oven. "You might find this ironic, but the pizza we eat isn't like the native Italian dish. It doesn't look or taste the same. The product we eat has stolen the identity of the genuine item. It's not really pizza. We only think it is pizza because we've grown up with a product that pretends to be the real thing." Yeah, Ulric really does intone things like that.
Paddy shook his head. "If that's supposed to spoil my enjoyment of eating them, then you're mistaken."
"Ah, but did you enjoy the irony of the situation? The entire world is becoming counterfeit." Yup, he can get blood out a stone the way he riffs on a subject that fascinates him.
Ruth glanced through the window as the sun dipped behind the mountains. "More important, did you know that there's someone's in the tree?"
"Echoman?" Paddy picked up the shotgun from where it reclined against the wall.
Ruth nodded. "There's just the one, as far as I can tell."
Ulric gazed through the window. "The garden's full of trees. There might be more of them."
"No worries," Paddy said. "I'll take care of them."
"We'll give you a hand." Dianna drew a handgun from a leather satchel she carried everywhere. "Mason, make sure the pizzas don't burn."
They still think of me as the newcomer, I told myself. They'd been together six months when I joined them three weeks ago. I'm still the outsider. They don't see me as part of the team. I slid the pizza out. Its three-cheese topping had started to blister.
"You've got ten minutes until this one's done."
"This should only take five." Ulric turned to Ruth. "Bring a carving knife. I want to see what's under this one's skin."
They talked in whispers as they headed for the back door of the house. They'd circle around the building, then take the Echoman in the tree by surprise. I'd seen this happen-or something very much like it-a dozen times by now. So I concentrated on baking pizza. If anything, it irked me that they still treated me as a stranger who just happened to tag along with them rather than an integral part of the gang. I positioned myself so I could see through the window without being noticed by the Echoman in the tree. Not that I could see much of him-or her-either. A branch flicked as he climbed about twenty feet off of the ground. A few chestnut leaves spiraled lazily down where the intruder had dislodged some greenery.
What if it's just some kid? And they're just climbing a tree for fun? In thirty seconds Paddy and the rest are going to hit that tree with a lot of hot metal. But who else could it be? This place is at least two miles from the nearest house. It has to be an Echoman.
"Stupid Echoman," I murmured as I found a pizza cutter. "Don't you shit-wits ever learn?"
The roasting cheese, spicy meats, and herbs smelled wonderful. People talk about "making your mouth water." It had never happened to me before, but mine was suddenly awash. I was just aching to sink my teeth into a slice of savory heaven.
At that moment I caught sight of a dark shape moving on the periphery of my eye. Quick, no noise, more shadow than solid figure. It vanished by the time I turned to get a better look. Whatever it was had passed by the open doorway, along the hall in the direction of the stairs. Okay, so I was armed with nothing more formidable than a pizza cutter, a little steel wheel at the end of a rubber-coated handle. Nevertheless I needed to check what was there.
Gunfire rattled the windowpanes. Outside, Ulric, Ruth, Dianna, and Paddy exploded the tree. The blast of shotgun, handguns, and rifle made the branches billow. Cascades of leaves fell, a green rain that covered the lawn. From the smell of the pizza it must have been almost done. This was time to move quickly, before the crust burned. Did I tell you I have an addiction to pizza these days? Any will do. Any but tuna, that is. I can't stomach tuna. Tuna smells like dead people.
I stepped into the hall as I hunted the invader. Immediately I saw it-him?-sitting on the third stair from the bottom. A gaunt figure with dark red skin. Its eyelids were closed. There was no hair on its head. The scalp was a mess of cracks with holes that revealed a bare skull of dull brown bone.
Even though his eyes were closed as he sat there on the stairs, I knew he watched me. One leg was straight so it lay flat against the risers. The other was crooked so the knee was raised toward his bandaged chest. One hand rested on his lap so it resembled a spider lying on its back, only one with red skin; the fingers were partly curled inward. Despite the body being a ruin the fingernails were perfect ovals the color of pearls. The man didn't move.
"I haven't seen you since I was sixteen years old," I told him. It surprised me that my voice was so matter-of-fact. "What brings you back?"
I didn't wait for a reply. The pizza would burn if I didn't get it out of the oven now. As I recrossed the kitchen to the stove I saw that Paddy and the others had killed the Echoman. His legs must have caught in a branch of the tree. He dangled headfirst with his arms straight down. He was my age, my build. Ruth had already started to cut away his face with the carving knife.
Once I had the pizza safely out of the oven. I checked the hallway again. The figure had gone. Okay, I realize I could have described him better, but why use a bunch of words when I can say: you've all seen an Egyptian mummy on TV, haven't you? Well, that's what had sat on the stairs. Listen, when I was a kid that same ancient Egyptian mummy turned up nearly every night, this three-thousand-year-old priest, officially known as Natsaf-Ty, keeper of the sacred crocodiles. He'd gone all crusty as a pizza base on the outside-all hollow on the inside. Having an ancient dead man chat to you on a regular basis tends to kill the fear. If any other monsters come your way they aren't so hard on the nerves. So, you see, I have a lot to thank Natsaf-Ty for.
I told you from the start that these events were perplexing to all of us. But it's a case of dealing with them. If we didn't the consequences would be lethal. So, please bear with me. After this I'll explain the mystery of the talking mummy and something about what the Echomen are.
A tap sounded on the window. I looked out to see Ruth standing there. She held the Echoman's chopped-off head by the hair. She'd carved away the face to reveal the muscle structure beneath. Blood hung down in sticky red strings from the neck. Its open eyes stared back at me.
Brightly, she sang out, "Hey, Mason! This one's you!"
Excerpted from This Rage of Echoes by Simon Clark Copyright © 2007 by Simon Clark . Excerpted by permission.
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