On the third floor the Khaa turned down a hallway, moving fast, and Eliot
didnt see it again until he was approaching the room that housed Mr.
Chatterjis collection. It was standing beside the door, flapping its
arms, apparently indicating that he should enter. Eliot remembered the crate.
No, thanks, he said. A drop of sweat slid down his ribcage, and he
realized that it was unusually warm next to the door.
The Khaas hand flowed over the doorknob, enveloping it, and when the hand
pulled back, it was bulging, oddly deformed, and there was a hole through the
wood where the lock mechanism had been. The door swung open a couple of inches.
Darkness leaked out of the room, adding an oily essence to the air. Eliot took
a backward step. The Khaa dropped the lock mechanismit materialized from
beneath the black formless hand and clattered to the floorand latched
onto Eliots arm. Once again he heard the whining, the plea for help, and
since he did not jump away, he had a clearer understanding of the process of
translation. He could feel the whining as a cold fluid coursing through his
brain, and as the whining died, the message simply appearedthe way an
image might appear in a crystal ball. There was an undertone of reassurance to
the Khaas fear, and though Eliot knew this was the mistake people in
horror movies were always making, he reached inside the room and fumbled for
the wall switch, half-expecting to be snatched up and savaged. He flicked on
the light and pushed the door open with his foot.
And wished that he hadnt.
The crates had exploded. Splinters and shards of wood were scattered
everywhere, and the bricks had been heaped at the center of the room. They were
dark red, friable bricks like crumbling cakes of dried blood, and each was
marked with black letters and numbers that signified its original position in
the fireplace. But none were in their proper position now, though they were
quite artfully arranged. They had been piled into the shape of a mountain, one
thatdespite the crudity of its building blocksduplicated the sheer
faces and chimneys and gentle slopes of a real mountain. Eliot recognized it
from its photograph. The Eiger. It towered to the ceiling, and under the glare
of the lights, it gave off a radiation of ugliness and barbarity. It seemed
alive, a fang of dark red meat, and the charred smell of the bricks was like a
hum in Eliots nostrils.
Ignoring the Khaa, who was again flapping its arms, Eliot broke for the
landing; there he paused, and after a brief struggle between fear and
conscience, he sprinted up the stairs to the bedroom, taking them three at a
time. Michaela was gone! He stared at the starlit billows of the sheets. Where
the Hell . . . her room! He hurtled down the stairs and fell
sprawling on the second-floor landing. Pain lanced through his kneecap, but he
came to his feet running, certain that something was behind him.
A seam of reddish orange lightnot lamplightedged the bottom of
Michaelas door, and he heard a crispy chuckling noise like a fire
crackling in a hearth. The wood was warm to the touch. Eliots hand
hovered over the doorknob. His heart seemed to have swelled to the size of a
basketball and was doing a fancy dribble against his chest wall. The sensible
thing to do would be to get out quick, because whatever lay beyond the door was
bound to be too much for him to handle. But instead he did the stupid thing and
burst into the room.
His first impression was that the room was burning, but then he saw that though
the fire looked real, it did not spread; the flames clung to the outlines of
things that were themselves unreal, that had no substance of their own and were
made of the ghostly fire: belted drapes, an overstuffed chair and sofa, a
carved mantelpiece, all of antique design. The actual
furnitureproduction-line junkwas undamaged. Intense reddish orange
light glowed around the bed, and at its heart lay Michaela. Naked, her back
arched. Lengths of her hair lifted into the air and tangled, floating in an
invisible current; the muscles of her legs and abdomen were coiling, bunching,
as if she were shedding her skin. The crackling grew louder, and the light
began to rise from the bed, to form into a column of even brighter light; it
narrowed at the midpoint, bulged in an approximation of hips and breasts,
gradually assuming the shape of a burning woman. She was faceless, a fiery
silhouette. Her flickering gown shifted as with the movements of walking, and
flames leaped out behind her head like windblown hair.
Eliot was pumped full of terror, too afraid to scream or run. Her aura of heat
and power wrapped around him. Though she was within arms length, she
seemed a long way off, inset into a great distance and walking toward him down
a tunnel that conformed exactly to her shape. She stretched out a hand,
brushing his cheek with a finger. The touch brought more pain than he had ever
known. It was luminous, lighting every circuit of his body. He could feel his
skin crisping, cracking, fluids leaking forth and sizzling. He heard himself
moan: a gush of rotten sound like something trapped in a drain.
Then she jerked back her hand, as if he had burned her.
Dazed, his nerves screaming, Eliot slumped to the floor andthrough
blurred eyescaught sight of a blackness rippling by the door. The Khaa.
The burning woman stood facing it a few feet away. It was such an uncanny
scene, this confrontation of fire and darkness, of two supernatural systems,
that Eliot was shocked to alertness. He had the idea that neither of them knew
what to do. Surrounded by its patch of disturbed air, the Khaa undulated; the
burning woman crackled and flickered, embedded in her eerie distance.
Tentatively, she lifted her hand; but before she could complete the gesture,
the Khaa reached with blinding swiftness, and its hand enveloped hers.
A shriek like tortured metal issued from them, as if some ironclad principle
had been breached. Dark tendrils wound through the burning womans arm,
seams of fire striped the Khaa, and there was a high-pitched humming, a
vibration that jarred Eliots teeth. For a moment he was afraid that
spiritual versions of antimatter and matter had been brought into conjunction,
that the room would explode. But the hum was sheared off as the Khaa snatched
back its hand: A scrap of reddish orange flame glimmered within it. The Khaa
melted downward and went rolling out the door. The burning womanand every
bit of flame in the roomshrank to an incandescent point and vanished.
Still dazed, Eliot touched his face. It felt burned, but there was no apparent
damage. He hauled himself to his feet, staggered to the bed, and collapsed next
to Michaela. She was breathing deeply, unconscious. Michaela! He
shook her. She moaned, her head rolled from side to side. He heaved her over
his shoulder in a firemans lift and crept out into the hall. Moving
stealthily, he eased along the hall to the balcony overlooking the courtyard
and peered over the edge . . . and bit his lip to stifle a cry.
Clearly visible in the electric blue air of the predawn darkness, standing in
the middle of the courtyard, was a tall, pale woman wearing a white nightgown.
Her black hair fanned across her back. She snapped her head around to stare at
him, her cameo features twisted by a gloating smile, and that smile told Eliot
everything he had wanted to know about the possibility of escape. Just try to
leave, Aim�e Cousineau was saying. Go ahead and try. Id like that. A
shadow sprang erect about a dozen feet away from her, and she turned to it.
Suddenly there was a wind in the courtyard: a violent whirling wind of which
she was the calm center. Plants went flapping up into the well like leathery
birds; pots shattered, and the shards flew toward the Khaa. Slowed by
Michaelas weight, wanting to get as far as he could from the battle,
Eliot headed up the stairs toward Mr. Chatterjis bedroom.
* * *
It was an hour later, an hour of peeking down into the courtyard, watching the
game of hide-and-seek that the Khaa was playing with Aim�e Cousineau, realizing
that the Khaa was protecting them by keeping her busy . . . it
was then that Eliot remembered the book. He retrieved it from the shelf and
began to skim through it, hoping to learn something helpful. There was nothing
else to do. He picked up at the point of Aim�es rap about her marriage to
Happiness, passed over the transformation of Ginny Whitcomb into a teenage
monster, and found a second section dealing with Aim�e.
In 1895 a wealthy Swiss-American named Armand Cousineau had returned to St.
Berenicehis birthplacefor a visit. He was smitten with Aim�e
Vuillemont, and her family, seizing the opportunity to be rid of her, allowed
Cousineau to marry Aim�e and sail her off to his home in Carversville, New
Hampshire. Aim�es taste for seduction had not been curbed by the move.
Lawyers, deacons, merchants, farmers: they were all grist for her mill. But in
the winter of 1905, she fell in loveobsessively, passionately in
lovewith a young schoolmaster. She believed that the schoolmaster had
saved her from her unholy marriage, and her gratitude knew no bounds.
Unfortunately, when the schoolmaster fell in love with another woman, neither
did her fury. One night while passing the Cousineau mansion, the town doctor
spotted a woman walking the grounds: . . . a woman of
flame, not burning but composed of flame, her every particular a fiery
construct. . . . Smoke was curling from a window; the
doctor rushed inside and discovered the schoolmaster wrapped in chains, burning
like a log in the vast fireplace. He put out the small blaze spreading from the
hearth, and on going back onto the grounds, he stumbled over Aim�es
It was not clear whether Aim�es death had been accidental, a stray spark
catching on her nightgown, or the result of suicide; but it was clear
that thereafter the mansion had been haunted by a spirit who delighted in
possessing women and driving them to kill their men. The spirits
supernatural powers were limited by the flesh but were augmented by immense
physical strength. Ginny Whitcomb, for example, had killed her brother Tim by
twisting off his arm, and then had gone after her other brother and her father,
a harrowing chase that had lasted a day and a night: While in possession of a
body, the spirit was not limited to nocturnal activity. . . .
The light coming through the skylight was gray.
They were safe!
Eliot went to the bed and began shaking Michaela. She moaned, her eyes blinked
open. Wake up! he said. Weve got to get out!
What? She batted at his hands. What are you talking
Dont you remember?
Remember what? She swung her legs onto the floor, sitting with her
head down, stunned by wakefulness; she stood, swayed, and said, God, what
did you do to me? I feel . . . A dull, suspicious
expression washed over her face.
We have to leave. He walked around the bed to her. Ranjeesh
hit the jackpot. Those crates of his had an honest-to-God spirit packed in with
the bricks. Last night it tried to possess you. He saw her disbelief.
You must have blanked out. Here. He offered the book.
Thisll explain . . .
Oh, God! she shouted. What did you do? Im all raw
inside! She backed away, eyes wide with fright.
I didnt do anything. He held out his palms as if to prove he
had no weapons.
You raped me! While I was asleep! She looked left, right, in a
You must have drugged me or something! Oh, God! Go away!
I wont argue, he said. We have to get out. After that
you can turn me in for rape or whatever. But were leaving, even if I have
to drag you.
Some of her desperation evaporated, her shoulders sagged.
Look, he said, moving closer. I didnt rape you. What
youre feeling is something that goddamn spirit did to you. It
was . . .
She brought her knee up into his groin.
As he writhed on the floor, curled up around the pain, Eliot heard the door
open and her footsteps receding. He caught at the edge of the bed, hauled
himself to his knees, and vomited all over the sheets. He fell back and lay
there for several minutes until the pain had dwindled to a powerful throbbing,
a throbbing that jolted his heart into the same rhythm; then, gingerly, he
stood and shuffled out into the hall. Leaning on the railing, he eased down the
stairs to Michaelas room and lowered himself into a sitting position. He
let out a shuddering sigh. Actinic flashes burst in front of his eyes.
Michaela, he said. Listen to me. His voice sounded
feeble: the voice of an old, old man.
Ive got a knife, she said from just behind the door.
Ill use it if you try to break in.
I wouldnt worry about that, he said. And I sure as Hell
wouldnt worry about being raped. Now will you listen?
He told her everything, and when he was done, she said, Youre
insane. You raped me.
I wouldnt hurt you. I . . . He had been on the
verge of telling her he loved her, but decided it probably wasnt true. He
probably just wished that he had a good, clean truth like love. The pain was
making him nauseated again, as if the blackish purple stain of his bruises were
seeping up into his stomach and filling him with bad gases. He struggled to his
feet and leaned against the wall. There was no point in arguing, and there was
not much hope that she would leave the house on her own, not if she reacted to
Aim�e like Ginny Whitcomb. The only solution was to go to the police, accuse
her of some crime. Assault. She would accuse him of rape, but with luck they
would both be held overnight. And he would have time to wire Mr.
Chatterji . . . Who would believe him. Mr. Chatterji was by
nature a believer: It simply hadnt fit his notion of sophistication to
give credence to his native spirits. Hed be on the first flight from
Delhi, eager to document the Terror.
Himself eager to get it over, Eliot negotiated the stairs and hobbled across
the courtyard; but the Khaa was waiting, flapping its arms in the shadowed
alcove that led to the street. Whether it was an effect of the light or of its
battle with Aim�e, or, specifically, of the pale scrap of fire visible within
its hand, the Khaa looked less substantial. Its blackness was somewhat opaque,
and the air around it was blurred, smeary, like waves washing over a lens: It
was as if the Khaa were being submerged more deeply in its own medium. Eliot
felt no compunction about allowing it to touch him; he was grateful to it, and
his relaxed attitude seemed to intensify the communication. He began to see
images in his minds eye: Michaelas face, Aim�es, and then the
two faces were superimposed. He was shown this over and over, and he understood
from it that the Khaa wanted the possession to take place. But he didnt
understand why. More images. Himself running, Michaela running, Durbar Square,
the mask of White Bhairab, the Khaa. Lots of Khaa. Like black hieroglyphs.
These images were repeated, too, and after each sequence the Khaa would hold
its hand up to his face and display the glimmering scrap of Aim�es fire.
Eliot thought he understood, but whenever he tried to convey that he
wasnt sure, the Khaa merely repeated the images.
At last, realizing that the Khaa had reached the limits of its ability to
communicate, Eliot headed for the street. The Khaa melted down, reared up in
the doorway to block his path, and flapped its arms desperately. Once again
Eliot had a sense of its weird-old-man-ness. It went against logic to put his
trust in such an erratic creature, especially in such a dangerous plan; but
logic had little hold on him, and this was a permanent solution. If it worked.
If he hadnt misread it. He laughed. The Hell with it!
Take it easy, Bongo, he said. Ill be back as soon as I
get my shootin iron fixed.
* * *
2 Part 3 Part
4 Part 5