Michael Dibdin - Dark Specter
And Tharmas calld to the Dark Spectre who upon the shores
With dislocated limbs had falln. The Spectre rose in pain
A Shadow blue obscure amp; dismal.William Blake: Vala, or the Four Zoas
Jamie shot Ronnie Ho four times. Once in the head, twice in the chest, and once in the gut, where he’d heard it hurt real bad. Two shots went wide.
“Jamie!” yelled his mom from the porch. She’d been talking to Marsha Dawson for about an hour, and had gone outside, still talking, to pick up the mail.
“What?” he yelled back.
His mother appeared in the doorway, portable in one hand, her blue bathrobe billowing around her, sorting through the mail.
“What’d I tell you about using that thing in here?”
“But, Mom …”
“Junk, junk, bill, junk. How come no one ever sends me a real letter?”
Jamie sulkily unpopped the suction caps of the darts from the mirror. Two misses wasn’t bad, and if it’d really been Ronnie Ho he’d have got in closer before he squeezed the trigger.
“I bet Wayne gave you that darn thing, just to bug me.”
“I bought it with my allowance.”
“Get him to pay a dime in child support, no way. But any crap guaranteed to drive me crazy, no problem.”
“I’m bored, Mom!”
His mother sashayed through to the kitchen, pushing buttons on the phone.
“Do your homework.”
“I’ve done it.”
“I have too!”
He knew she knew he was lying, but if she called him on it he’d ask her to help him out, and she didn’t know diddly about math. They’d changed it all since she was at school. Plus he was getting OK grades-she’d back off.
“Did you get new batteries for my Game Boy?” he said, following her down the hall into the kitchen.
“Hi, Kelly!” his mom said in the chirpy voice she used for leaving a message. “Friday’s our girls’ night out? I was wondering if I could catch a ride with you. Call me, OK?”
“Mom? Did you get those new …”
“Why don’t you go downstairs and play with Kevin and Ronnie?”
“They won’t let me. They keep saying I’m too little.”
“Well, they’ll just have to …”
The phone rang. His mother drifted around the corner, through the dining area and back into the living room.
“Hello? Oh hi, honey. You are? Is it OK with her mom and dad? Uh huh. Sure, as long as they don’t mind. What time’ll you be home? OK. See you.”
“Who was that?” demanded Jamie.
“Megan. She’s spending the day with Nicole.”
Just then the Accident started up in the next room. Dawn sighed loudly and went to stick a pacifier in its face. Jamie threw himself down on the sofa, feeling sulkier than ever. Megan was fourteen and got to go to sleepovers and goof off for the whole day with her friends, but what was he supposed to do? Once he and Kevin had taken care of themselves, tearing around the basement, staging fights, gradually stepping up the noise level until Mom had to come and tell them to shut up. But since Ronnie Ho came along, his brother had no time for him. Ronnie Ho was five and a half months older than Kevin and smart and his parents were Chinese and took their shoes off at the door and ate wonton soup the whole time and neat stuff like that. Kevin thought he was the best thing since microwavable popcorn. As for Jamie, he was just a kid. No one was interested in him.
His mom reappeared, the baby in one arm, its bottle and the portable in the other.
“What am I supposed to do?” Jamie exploded.
His mom heaved another sigh. She set the Accident down on the sofa, where it started to howl again, and jabbed at the phone. She’d got Kevin and Megan their own private line, so they could firm up their social lives without bothering her.
“Kevin? Listen, I’ve got to take care of the baby and I want you and Ronnie to do something with Jamie. He’s driving me nuts with that dart gun his dad bought him.”
Jamie lifted the pistol and took aim at the Accident, blew its head apart with a single shot.
“Well, you better, you want your allowance this week,” his mom snapped.
She switched off the phone, picked up the baby and the remote control and channel surfed until she stuck on some cheesy old black-and-white movie. Typical, thought Jamie. He loved his mom, but she had no class.
Nothing stirred downstairs in the basement. Kevin and Ronnie were staying put, hoping Mom would forget about the whole deal. Jamie’d have done the same thing. Ever since Dad walked out, Mom had been like a hard-pressed pitcher facing a lineup full of gritty hitters. At the moment she was o-and-one on Kevin, but she still had a long way to go if she wanted to strike him out. Jamie reloaded his gun and took careful aim.
He snuck over to the TV, giggling, and pulled the dart off the screen.
It worked. She hit redial on the portable.
“What’d I just tell you, Kevin? I don’t care if you’re … Well, how long is …? Just finish and get your butt up here is all.”
She looked at the gun in Jamie’s hand.
“Get that thing outta here!”
“It’s only a toy, Mom!”
“Go clean your room.”
“What did Kevin say?”
“He’ll be up as soon as he’s died.”
Jamie let his body slump in an expression of despair. If Kevin and Ronnie were playing Mortal Kombat, they’d be at it all afternoon. Mom thought that when you died it was like the power went off or something, like it was something real, but on the video you could die over and over again, as many times as you wanted. It was so frustrating! There was so much parents didn’t understand. They should make them take a test or something. It wasn’t fair, putting people like that in charge of kids. It meant that nerds like Ronnie Ho ended up getting away with murder.
He rolled up off the sofa, leaped over the coffee table and froze up against the window. Mr. Valdez across the road was flat on his back on the drive under his Pontiac, “giving head to her front end” as Kevin had said to Ronnie. Jamie wasn’t sure exactly what that meant, but he could tell by the way they laughed that it had something to do with sex. That was a whole world he wasn’t looking forward to. It sounded like going to high school. You had to leave all your old friends and routines and get bused across town to some new place where they were all bigger than you and everything was for real.
Some guy on a bike cruised past, turning to look at the house, holding Jamie’s eyes for a moment. Cool ATB, Cannondale or Bridgestone, he couldn’t be certain, but eighteen gears for sure, the seat high and the bars wide, like bucking a bronco. Jamie had seen stuff like that in the catalogs, and downtown you saw guys riding them, but he couldn’t imagine who’d have one around here. People had that kind of money, they’d trade in their car. Still, Jamie made an effort to keep up on product availability, even though all he had was the hand-me-down BMX Kevin had stopped using when Dad gave him a nearly new Giant for his birthday.
A muffled, whumping beat started up downstairs, making the floorboards shake. Jamie turned around, eyeballing his mom. She sat holding the baby like a sack of groceries, gazing moodily at the TV, where some guy in a suit and hat and mustache was talking to a woman having a weird hair day. For a moment, Jamie thought his mom wasn’t going to get it. It wasn’t like the music was loud enough to drown out the TV or anything. Then she looked up, caught his intent stare. He didn’t need to say anything. She reached for the phone.
“If you’re not up here in fifteen seconds, Kevin, I’m phoning Viacom and canceling cable.”
She tossed the portable down on the sofa dismissively. Snoop Doggy Dogg’s punchy rap immediately faded to a murmur. Jamie turned back to the window to hide his smile. Kevin would sooner have his wiener cut off than TV. He’d won. It wasn’t so much that he wanted to play with Kevin and Ronnie, but they sure didn’t want to play with him, and now they were going to have to.
Another bicyclist passed the house, going the other way this time. A different bike, nothing fancy, one of those old-fashioned drop-handlebar numbers. The guy was different too, older looking, with a beard and kind of long greasy hair, like that boyfriend of Mom’s who hadn’t worked out. The only thing the same was that as he passed, he turned to look at Jamie, as though he’d known all along he was standing there. It was kind of weird.
Footsteps clomped heavily up the narrow stairs from the basement. Jamie’s smile grew, then disappeared as he turned around to watch the payoff. Kevin slunk moodily into the living room, shoulders hunched, scowling at his mom, ignoring his younger brother. Three paces behind came Ronnie Ho, looking polite and concerned as always. What a jerk!
“I’m so sorry we didn’t come right away,” Ronnie said in his smarmy voice. “We were kind of locked into the game.”
Jamie’s mom smiled. She thought Ronnie Ho was “so polite.”
“That’s fine, Ronald. But listen, I need some quality time with the baby and Jamie is driving me up the wall. Can’t you guys do something with him?”
“Like what?” snarled Kevin.
After Ronnie’s smarm, Kevin sounded even more in-your-face than usual.
“Oh gee, I don’t know!” his mother exclaimed girlishly. “Whatever you guys do.”
“He’s just a kid!”
“So are you,” snapped his mom. Her voice had hardened right up. No more buddy-buddy stuff if he wasn’t going to buy into it. Kevin stared back at her angrily. Ronnie Ho stood looking on with an embarrassed smile, pretending that nothing was going on, or if it was then he hadn’t noticed. Jamie bet Chinese people would rather commit hara-kiri or whatever it was than throw a scene like this in front of guests. Well, screw ’em, bunch of F.O.B.s! This is America. Deal with it.
“Come on, guys!” their mother exclaimed wearily. “Go chase each other around in back or something.”
“It’s too cold.”
She stood up, cradling the Accident.
“There’s nothing on but a bunch of dumb shows and crappy movies,” said Kevin, looking pointedly at the glowing screen in the corner.
“Well, let Jamie play your video game,” Mom suggested.
“He’s no good.”
“That’s because you never let me play,” Jamie protested loudly.
“Listen, I don’t care what you do, just get outta here, all right?” snapped their mom. “What’s the matter with you kids? Play hide-and-seek or something.”
She disappeared into the bedroom with the baby. Kevin looked at Ronnie Ho, rolling his eyes and shaking his head. Hide-and-seek! What planet did this woman live on? Kevin had long since moved on to sardines, where one person hid and everyone had to find them and then hide in the same place, which gave you a chance to kind of rub up against some of the good-looking babes. Hide-and-seek was for little kids.
“Or maybe you’d rather clean that room of yours?” his mother yelled threateningly from the next room.
Kevin leaned over and whispered something to Ronnie, who nodded.
“OK, we’ll play hide-and-seek,” he called back.
“You won’t play fair!” retorted Jamie. “You’ll make me be it and then goof off somewhere I can’t find you!”
“OK, you hide,” Kevin replied.
He beamed innocently at Jamie. Too innocently.
“You won’t come looking for me!” Jamie protested loudly.
He knew there had to be a catch, and he was determined not to be suckered by the older boys.
“Yes, we will,” replied Kevin. “And I bet we find you right away.”
“Oh yeah? How much?”
Jamie thought furiously. He was still sure it was a scam, the way they’d whispered to each other, but he couldn’t figure it out. And a dollar was a dollar.
“How long have you got to find me?” he demanded suspiciously.
“Shoot, you can search the whole house in fifteen.”
“That’s the deal,” his brother said. “Take it or leave it.”
Jamie reflected for a moment. Then he nodded.
Kevin smiled swaggeringly at Ronnie Ho.
“We’ll be downstairs in my room,” he told Jamie. “We’ll give you a couple of minutes to get hid. C’mon, Ronnie.”
They disappeared. A few moments later the rap was up to strength again, making the floorboards quiver underfoot. Jamie set a fifteen-minute timer on the el-cheapo digital watch his dad had got free at some gas station and passed on to him. Then he headed for the stairs. Through the open bedroom door, he could hear his mom cooing and murmuring to the baby. The way she carried on, you’d have thought she’d wanted the damn thing.
Jamie started down the cramped, twisting stairs leading to the basement. He was careful to avoid the second and fifth steps, which creaked. When he was far enough down he checked the door to Kevin’s room. It was closed. He carried on down to the bare concrete floor of the basement. To his right, a door lay open into a utility room housing the washing machine, dryer and freezer. Straight ahead was the rec room containing the half-finished bar his dad had been building as part of a project to turn it into a den, even though he’d never even got around to carpeting the basement. Empty liquor bottles gathered dust on flimsy glass shelving. To the left was Jamie’s room, and next to it Kevin’s. They had the music on again in there, a strident twangy thumping beat that would cover any noises Jamie might make.
The center of the floor was occupied by the furnace, screened off with plywood paneling. Jamie walked slowly around it, inspecting the housing intently with eyes and fingers. A couple of months earlier the furnace had failed to light and they’d had to call the repairman. Jamie had been home from school with a sore throat the day he’d come. He’d watched from his bed as the guy removed a section of paneling and fiddled around with a vast array of cool-looking gadgets from his toolbox. Jamie had known about the hatch which gave access to the controls at the front of the furnace, but he had never suspected the existence of a removable panel at the side, used for servicing the jets. The joint ran right along one of the beveled black lines cut into the plywood to make it look like real planking. You’d never guess it was there, unless you knew. After the guy had gone, Jamie had taken it off himself and looked inside. The space was pretty small, but so was Jamie. Kevin would never find him there, not in a million years.