Seize the Night
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Under certain buildings on the base lie secret realms that were apparently unknown to the vast majority of the soldiers who conducted the ordinary, reputable army business of Wyvern. Doors, once cunningly disguised, led from basements down to subbasements, to deeper cellars, to vaults far below the cellars. Many of these subterranean structures are linked to others throughout the base by staircases, elevators, and tunnels that would have been far less easy to detect before the facility, prior to abandonment, was stripped of all supplies and equipment.
Indeed, even with some of Wyvern’s secrets left exposed by its departing stewards, my best discoveries would not have been possible without the aid of my clever canine companion. His ability to detect even the faintest fragrant drafts wafting through cracks from hidden rooms is as impressive as his talent for riding a surfboard, though perhaps not as impressive as his knack for occasionally wheedling a second beer from his friends, like me, who know full well that he is incapable of handling more than one.
Without question, this sprawling base harbors more installations that remain well hidden, waiting to be revealed; nevertheless, as interesting as my explorations have been, I’ve periodically refrained from them. When I spend too much time in the shadowland under Fort Wyvern, its disturbing atmosphere grows oppressive. I have seen enough to know that this netherworld was the site of wide-ranging clandestine operations of dubious wisdom, that numerous and diverse “black-budget” research projects were surely conducted here, and that some of those projects were so ambitious and exotic as to defy understanding based on the few enigmatic clues that were left behind.
This knowledge alone, however, isn’t what makes me uncomfortable in Wyvern’s underworld. More distressing is a perception — little more than an intuition but nonetheless powerful — that some of what happened here was not merely well-intentioned foolishness of a high order, not merely science in the service of mad politics, but pure wickedness. When I spend more than a couple of nights in a row under Wyvern, I’m overcome by the conviction that unknown evils were loosed in its buried warrens and that some still roam those byways, waiting to be encountered. Then it isn’t fear that drives me to the surface. Rather, it’s a sense of moral and spiritual suffocation — as though, by remaining too long in those realms, I will acquire an ineradicable stain on my soul.
I hadn’t expected these ordinary warehouses to be so directly linked to the hobgoblin neighborhoods below ground. In Fort Wyvern, however, nothing is as simple as it first appears to be.
Now I switched on the flashlight, reasonably confident that the kidnapper — if that’s who I was following — was not on this level of the building.
It seemed odd that a psychopath would bring his small victim here rather than to a more personal and private place, where he would be entirely comfortable while he fulfilled whatever perverse needs motivated him. On the other hand, Wyvern had a mysterious allure akin to that of Stonehenge, to that of the great pyramid at Giza, to that of the Mayan ruins at Chichén Itzá. Its malevolent magnetism would surely appeal to a deranged man who, as was frequently true in these cases, got his purest thrill not from molesting the innocent but from torturing and then brutally murdering them. These strange grounds would draw him as surely as would a deconsecrated church or a crumbling old house on the outskirts of town where, fifty years ago, a madman had chopped up his family with an ax.
Of course, there was always the possibility that this kidnapper was not insane at all, not a pervert, but a man working in a bizarre but nonetheless official capacity in regions of Wyvern that perhaps remained secretly active. This base, even shuttered, is a breeding ground of paranoia.
With Orson remaining close at my side, I hurried toward the offices at the far end of the main room.
The first of them proved to be what I expected. A barren space. Four plain walls. A hole in the ceiling where the fluorescent lighting fixture had once been mounted.
In the second, the infamous Darth Vader lay on the floor: a molded-plastic action figure about three inches tall, black and silver.
I recalled the collection of similar Star Wars toys that I’d glimpsed on the bookshelves in Jimmy’s bedroom.
Orson sniffed at Vader.
“Come to the Dark Side, Luke,” I murmured.
A large rectangular opening gaped in the back wall, from which a pair of elevator doors had been stripped by an army salvage crew. As a half-baked safety measure, a single two-by-six was bolted across the gap at waist height. Several elaborate steel fittings, still dangling from the wall, suggested that in the days when Fort Wyvern had served the national defense, the elevator had been concealed behind something — perhaps a slide-aside or swing-away bookcase or cabinet.
The elevator cab and lift mechanism were gone, too, and a quick use of the flashlight revealed a three-story drop. Sole access was by a maintenance ladder fixed to the shaft wall.
My quarry was probably too busy elsewhere to see the ghostly glow in the shaft. The beam soaked into the gray concrete until it was barely brighter than a séance-summoned cloud of spirit matter hovering above a knocking table.
Nevertheless, I switched off the light and jammed the flashlight under my belt once more. Reluctantly, I returned the Glock to the holster under my coat.
Dropping to one knee, I reached tentatively into the inkiness that surrounded me, which seemed as though it could be either the dimensions of the warehouse office or billions of light-years deep, a black hole linking our odd universe to one even stranger. For a moment my heart rattled against my ribs, but then my hand found good Orson, and by smoothing his fur, I was calmed.
He put his blocky head on my raised knee, encouraging me to stroke him and to scratch his ears, one of which was pricked, the other limp.
We have been through a lot together. We have lost too many people we loved. With equal emotion, we dread being left to face life alone. We have our friends — Bobby Halloway, Sasha Goodall, a few others — and we cherish them, but the two of us share something beyond the deepest friendship, a unique relationship without which neither of us would be quite whole.
“Bro,” I whispered.
He licked my hand.
“Gotta go,” I whispered, and I didn’t need to say that where I had to go was down.
Neither did I have to note that Orson’s myriad abilities didn’t include the extraordinary balance required to descend a perfectly vertical ladder, paw over paw. He has a talent for tracking, a great good heart, unlimited courage, loyalty as reliable as the departure of the sun at dusk, a bottomless capacity for love, a cold nose, a tail that can wag energetically enough to produce more electricity than a small nuclear reactor — but like every one of us, he has his limitations.
In the blackness, I moved to the hole in the wall. Blindly gripping one of the steel fittings that had secured the missing bookcase to a wall-mounted track, I pulled myself up until I was crouching with both feet on the sturdy two-by-six bolted across the opening. I reached into the shaft, fumbled for a steel rung, snared one, and swung off the two-by-six onto the service ladder.
Admittedly, I am less quiet than a cat, but by a degree that only a mouse would appreciate. I don’t mean to imply that I have a paranormal ability to race across a carpet of crisp autumn leaves without raising a crackle. My stealth is largely a consequence of three things: first, the profound patience that XP has taught me; second, the confidence with which I have learned to move through the bleakest night; third, and not least important, decades spent observing the nocturnal animals and birds and other creatures with whom I share my world. Every one of them is a master of silence when it needs to be, and more often than not it desperately needs to be, because the night is a kingdom of predators, in which every hunter is also the hunted.
I descended from darkness into darkness distilled, wishing that I didn’t need both hands for the ladder and could, instead, swing downward like an ape, swift and nimble, gripping with my left hand and both feet, holding the pistol ready. But then if I were an ape, I would have been too wise to put myself in this precarious position.
Before I reached the first basement, I began to wonder how my quarry had gone down the ladder while encumbered with the boy. Across his shoulder in a fireman’s carry? Jimmy would have to have been bound at ankles and wrists to prevent him from making a movement, either intentionally or out of panic, that might dislodge his abductor. Even then, although the boy was small, he’d have been a considerable burden and a relentless backward drag that had to be diligently resisted every time the kidnapper moved a hand from one rung to the next.
I decided that the man I was pursuing must be as strong, agile, and confident as he was psychotic. So much for my fond hope that I was chasing a soft-bellied librarian who, dazed and confused, had been driven to this insane act by the stress of converting from the Dewey decimal system to a new computerized inventory.
Even in the lightless murk, I knew when I had reached the gap in the shaft where the basement elevator doors had once been, one floor below the warehouse office. I can’t explain how I could know, any more than I can explain the plotline of the average Jackie Chan movie, though I love Jackie Chan movies. Perhaps there was a draft or a scent or a resonance so subtle that I was only subconsciously aware of it.
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