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The room had two windows, both facing east. Each window was flanked by panels of heavy fabric, a faux brocade in shades of gold and red, probably polyester, backed by a white lining, which hung from simple brass rods without concealing valances. All four drapery panels hung in neat folds. None appeared to be pulled out of shape by a rat-size creature clinging to the back. The fabric was heavy, however, and the doll-thing might have to weigh even more than a rat before it noticeably distorted the gathered pleats of the drapes. With the pistol cocked and his finger taut on the trigger, Tommy approached the first of the two windows. Using his left hand, he took hold of one of the drapery panels, hesitated, and then shook it vigorously. Nothing fell to the floor. Nothing snarled or scrambled for a tighter hold on the fabric. Although he spread the short drape and lifted it away from the wall, Tommy had to lean behind it to inspect the liner to which the intruder might be clinging. He found nothing. He repeated the process with the next drapery panel, but no snake-eyed mini-kin hung from the back of it, either. At the second window, his colourless reflection in the rain-sheathed glass caught his attention, but he averted his gaze when he glimpsed such a stark fear in his own eyes that it belied the confidence and courage on which he had so recently congratulated himself. He didn’t feel as terrified as he looked — but maybe he was successfully repressing his terror in the urgent interest of getting the job done. He didn’t want to think too much about it, because if he acknowledged the truth of what he saw in his eyes, he might be paralysed again by indecision. Cautious inspection revealed that nothing unnatural was behind the drape to the left of the second window. One panel of faux brocade remained. Cold and red. Hanging heavy and straight. He shook it without effect. It felt no different from the other three panels. Spreading the material, lifting it away from the wall and the window, Tommy leaned in, looked up, and immediately saw the mini-kin hanging above him, not from the liner of the drape, but from the brass rod, sus¬pended upside-down by an obscenely glistening black tail that had sprouted from the white cotton fabric, which had once seemed to contain nothing other than the inert filler of a doll. The thing’s two hands, no longer like mittens, sprouting from ragged white cotton sleeves, were mottled black and sour yellow, curled tightly against its cotton-covered chest: four bony fingers and an opposable thumb, as well defined as the hands of a human being, but also exhibiting a reptilian quality, each digit tipped with tiny but wickedly pointed claws. During two or three eerily and impossibly attenuated seconds of stunned immobility, when it seemed as though the very flow of time had nearly come to a stop, Tommy had an impression of hot green eyes glaring from a loose white sack rather like the headgear worn by the Elephant Man in the old David Lynch movie, numerous small yellow teeth that evidently had chewed open the five sets of crossed black sutures with which the mouth had been sewn shut, and even a pebbled black tongue with a flickering forked tip. Then a blaze of lightning thawed that moment of heart-freezing confrontation. Time had crept as ponderously as a glacier, but suddenly it was a floodtide surge. The mini-kin hissed. Its tail unwound from the brass rod. It dropped straight at Tommy’s face. He ducked his head, pulled back. As thunder crashed in the wake of the lightning, he fired the pistol. But he had squeezed the trigger in blind panic. The bullet must have torn harmlessly through the top of the drape and lodged in the ceiling. Hissing fiercely, the doll-thing landed on Tommy’s head. Its tiny claws scrabbled determinedly through his thick hair and pierced his scalp. Howling, he swiped at the creature with his left hand. The mini-kin held fast. Tommy clutched it by the back of the neck and, mercilessly squeezing its throat, tore it off his head. The beast squirmed ferociously in his grip. It was stronger and more supple than any rat could have been, writhing and flexing and twisting with such shocking power that he could barely hold it. He was caught in the drape. Tangled somehow. Jesus. The front sight on the Heckler & Koch was not prominent, barely more than a nubbin, but it was snagged in the liner, caught as securely as a fishhook. A wet guttural snarl issued from the mini-kin, and it gnashed its teeth, trying to bite his fingers, striving to sink its claws into him again. With a zipper like sound, the liner material tore away from the gun sight. The creature’s cold, slick tail slithered around Tom¬my’s wrist, and the feel of it was so singularly repulsive that he gagged with disgust. Frantically he flailed out from beneath the entangling drape, and with all of his might, he threw the beast as though firing off a killer pitch in a baseball game. He heard the damn thing shrieking as it was hurled across the room, and then heard the shriek cut off abruptly as it thudded hard against the far wall, perhaps hard enough to snap its spine. But he didn’t see it hit the plaster, because in the process of freeing himself from the drape, he pulled the brass rod out of its supports, and the entire assemblage — rod and two panels of material, trailing cords — fell on him. Cursing, he tossed the blinding cowl of faux brocade off his head and thrashed loose of the drapery cords, feeling like Gulliver resisting capture in the land of Lilliput. The hideous mini-kin was crumpled on the carpet against the baseboard at the far side of the room, near the door. For an instant Tommy thought the thing was dead or at least badly stunned. But then it shook itself, moved. Thrusting the pistol in front of him, Tommy took a step toward the intruder, intending to finish it off. The mound of fallen drapes snared his feet. He stumbled, lost his balance, and slammed to the floor. With his left cheek flat against the carpet, he now shared the murderous mini-kin’s plane of view, though from a tilted perspective. His vision blurred for a second when his head hit the floor, but it cleared at once. He was staring at his diminutive adversary, which had risen to its feet. The creature stood as erect as a man, trailing its six-inch black tail, still dressed in — and mostly concealed by — the rags of the doll’s skin in which it had hidden. Outside, the storm was reaching a crescendo, ham¬mering the night with a greater barrage of lightning and thunder than it had produced thus far. The ceiling light and the desk lamp flickered but did not go out. The creature sprinted toward Tommy, white cotton cloth flapping like tattered banners. Tommy’s right arm was stretched out in front of him, and the pistol was still firmly in his grip. He raised the weapon perhaps four inches off the floor, squeeze-cocked it, and fired two shots in quick succession. One of the rounds must have hit the mini-kin, because it flew off its feet. It tumbled backward all the way to the wall against which Tommy had thrown it earlier. Proportionately, the slug from the .40 Smith & Wesson cartridge was to this beast what a shell from a major piece of battlefield artillery would be to a human being; the damn thing should have been as devastated — as stone dead — as any man would have been after taking a massive mortar round in the chest. It should have been smashed, shattered, blown to bits. Instead, the small figure appeared to be intact. Sprawled in a tangle of limbs and scorched white cotton cloth. Racked by spasms. Tail slithering spasmodically back and forth on the floor. Wisps of smoke rising from it. But intact. Tommy raised his throbbing head for a better view. He didn’t see any splatters of blood on the carpet or on the wall. Not one drop. The beast stopped shuddering and rolled onto its back. Then it sat up and sighed. The sigh wasn’t one of weariness but of pleasure, as though being shot point-blank in the chest had been an interesting and gratifying experience. Tommy pushed up onto his knees. Across the office, the mini-kin put its black-and-yellow-mottled hands on its scorched, smoking abdomen. No it actually reached into its abdomen, digging with its claws, and wrenched something out of itself. Even from a distance of fifteen feet, Tommy was pretty sure that the lumpish object in the beast’s hands was the misshapen slug from the .40-caliber cartridge. The mini-kin tossed the chunk of lead aside. Shaky, weak-kneed, slightly nauseous, Tommy got to his feet. He felt his scalp, where the puncture wounds from the beast’s claws still stung. When he checked his fingertips, he saw only tiny dots of blood. He hadn’t been seriously hurt. Yet. His adversary rose to its feet as well. Although he was seven times taller than the mini-kin and perhaps thirty times its weight, Tommy was so terrified that he felt as though he might pee in his pants. Chip Nguyen, hardboiled detective, would never lose control of himself in that fashion, humiliate himself to that extent, but Tommy Phan no longer gave a damn what Chip Nguyen would do. Chip Nguyen was an idiot, a whiskey-drinking fool who put too much faith in guns, martial arts, and tough talk. The most precisely executed and powerfully delivered Tae Kwan Do kick wouldn’t stop a supernaturally animated devil doll that could take a 40-caliber round in its guts and keep on ticking. Now there was an indisputable truth. Not the kind of truth you would hear on the evening news or read in the newspaper. Not a truth they taught in school or church. Not a truth that would be acclaimed by Carl Sagan or the scientific establishment. Truth nonetheless, from Tommy’s point of view, truth even if the only forum that might report it was a rag like the National Enquirer in a story about the ominous rise of demonic presences in our apocalyptic age and the inevitable forthcoming battle between Satan Incarnate and Saint Elvis on the eve of the new millennium. Pointing the P7 at the mini-kin, Tommy felt a mad laugh swelling in him, but he choked it down. He wasn’t insane. He had gotten past that fear. It was God Himself who must be mad — and the universe a lunatic asylum — if He made room in Creation for something like this predatory gremlin in a rag-doll disguise. If the mini-kin was a supernatural presence, as it seemed to be, resistance to it might be stupid and pointless, but Tommy couldn’t very well throw the gun aside, bare his throat, and wait for the killing bite. At least the round from the pistol had knocked the thing down and temporarily stunned it. He might not be able to kill it with the gun, but at least he could fend it off. Until he ran out of ammunition. He had fired three rounds. One when the thing had dropped from the drapery rod onto his head. Two more when he had been lying on the floor. Ten rounds remained in the thirteen-shot magazine. And in his bedroom closet was a box of ammunition, which would buy more time if he could get to it. The doll-thing cocked its rag-swaddled head and regarded him with a fierce green-eyed hunger. The strips of cotton hanging over its face looked like white dreadlocks. Thus far the gunfire had probably been pretty much masked by the peals of thunder. Eventually, however, the neighbours in this peaceful city of Irvine would realize that a battle was being waged next door, and they would call the cops. The doll-thing hissed at him. God in heaven, what is this — Showdown at the Twilight Zone Corral? When the police arrived, he would have to tell them what was happening, even though he would sound like a poster boy for paranoid dementia. Then the mini-kin would either brazenly reveal itself, and the rest of the world would plummet into this nightmare with Tommy - or the cunning little demon would hide and let the police transfer their raving ward to a windowless but well-lighted room with rubber wallpaper. At this moment, Tommy almost didn’t care which of the two scenarios played out. In either case, the immedi¬ate terror would be over, and he would be able to avoid peeing in his pants. He’d have time to catch his breath, think about this, maybe even puzzle out an explanation for what had happened here — although that seemed no more likely than his arriving at an understanding of the meaning of life. The fiend hissed again. A new possibility occurred to Tommy, and it wasn’t a good one. Maybe the hateful little thing would secretly follow him to the psychiatric ward and continue to torment him there for the rest of his tortured life, cleverly avoiding being seen by the physicians and attendants. Instead of charging again, the mini-kin abruptly darted toward the sofa, which still stood away from the wall where Tommy had left it during the search. With the pistol sight, Tommy followed the creature, but he wasn’t able to track it closely enough to justify squeezing off one of his remaining shots. The thing disappeared behind the sofa. Buoyed slightly by his adversary’s retreat, Tommy dared to hope that the .40-caliber round had done some damage after all, at least enough to make the little beast cautious. Seeing the mini-kin run from him, he regained a degree perspective regarding the indisputable advantage of size that he enjoyed. A modest measure of his lost confidence returned to him. Tommy eased across the room to peer around that big piece of furniture. The far end of the sofa still touched the wall, and it was built to the floor, so the space behind it was a V-shaped dead end, yet the mini-kin wasn’t there. Then he saw the torn flaps of fabric and the ragged hole in the upholstery. The creature had burrowed into the sofa and was now hiding inside it. Why? Why ask why? From the moment the stitches had pulled out of the doll’s face and the first monstrous eye had blinked at him through the tear in the cloth, Tommy had been beyond all the why questions. They were more suitable for a sane universe where logic ruled, not for this place in which he currently found himself. The main issue now was how — how could he stop the beast, how could he save himself? And he also had to ask what next? Even if the utter irrationality of these events made it impossible to anticipate where the night would lead before dawn, he had to try to puzzle out the purpose behind the doll, the course of the plot. THE DEADLINE IS DAWN. He didn’t understand that message at all. What dead¬line, for God’s sake? Who had established it? What did he have to do to meet the deadline? TICKTOCK. Oh, he understood that message well enough. Time was running out. The night was passing as fast as the rain was falling outside, and if he didn’t get his act together, then he was going to be toast before sunrise. TICKTOCK. Toast for the hungry mini-kin. TICKTOCK. Munch, munch. Crunch, crunch. His head was spinning — and not simply because he had thumped it hard against the floor when he’d fallen. He circled the sofa, studying it as he moved. Fire. Maybe a roaring fire could achieve better results than a bullet.
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