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In A Half World Of Terror

Stephen King

  In A Half World Of Terror

  Stephen King


  It was like a nightmare. Like some unreal dream that you wake up from the next morning. Only this nightmare was happening. Ahead of me I could see Rankin’s flashlight; a large yellow eye in the sultry summer darkness. I tripped over a gravestone and almost went sprawling. Rankin whirled on me with a hissed oath.

  "Do you want to wake up the caretaker, you fool?"

  I muttered a reply and we crept forward. Finally, Rankin stopped and shone the flashlight’s beam on a freshly chiseled gravestone. On it, it read:


  1899 – 19622

  He has joined his beloved wife in a better land.

  I felt a shovel thrust into my hands and suddenly I was sure that I couldn’t go through with it. But I remembered the bursar shaking his head and saying, "I’m afraid we can’t give you any more time, Dan. You’ll have to leave today. If I could help in any way, I would, believe me …"

  I dug into the still soft earth and lifted it over my shoulder. Perhaps fifteen minutes later my shovel came in contact with wood. The two of us quickly excavated the hole until the coffin stood revealed under Rankin’s flashlight. We jumped down and heaved the coffin up.

  Numbed, I watched Rankin swing the spade at the locks and seals. After a few blows it gave and we lifted the lid. The body of Daniel Wheatherby looked up at us with glazed eyes. I felt horror gently wash over me. I had always thought that the eyes closed when one died.

  "Don’t just stand there," Rankin whispered, "it’s almost four. We’ve got to get out of here!"

  We wrapped the body in a sheet and lowered the coffin back into the earth. We shoveled rapidly and carefully replaced the sod. The dirt we had missed was scattered.

  By the time we picked up the white-sheeted body, the first traces of dawn were beginning to lighten the sky in the east. We went through the hedge that skirted the cemetery and entered the woods that fronted it on the west. Rankin expertly picked his way through it for a quarter of a mile until we came to the car, parked where we had left it on an overgrown and unused wagon track that had once been a road. The body was put into the trunk. Shortly thereafter, we joined the stream of commuters hurrying for the 6.00 train.

  I looked at my hands as if I had never seen them before. The dirt under my fingernails had been piled up on top of a man’s final resting place not twenty-four hours ago. It felt unclean.

  Rankin’s attention was directed entirely on his driving. I looked at him and realized that he didn’t mind the repulsive act that we had just performed. To him it was just another job. We turned off the main road and began to climb the twisting, narrow dirt road. And then we came out into the open and I could see it, the huge rambling Victorian mansion that sat on the summit of the steep grade. Rankin drove around back and wordlessly up to the steep rock face of a bluff that rose another forty feet upward, slightly to the right of the house.

  There was a hideous grinding noise and a portion of the hill large enough to carve an entrance for the car slid open. Rankin drove in and killed the engine. We were in a small, cube-like room that served as a hidden garage. Just then, a door at the far end slid open and a tall, rigid man approached us.

  Steffen Weinbaum’s face was much like a skull; his eyes were deep-set and the skin was stretched so tautly over his cheekbones that his flesh was almost transparent.

  "Where is it?" His voice was deep, ominous.

  Wordlessly, Rankin got out and I followed his lead. Rankin opened the trunk and we pulled the sheet-swaddled figure out.

  Weinbaum nodded slowly.

  "Good, very good. Bring him into the lab."


  When I was thirteen, my parents were killed in an automobile crash. It left me an orphan and should have landed me in an orphan’s home. But my father’s will disclosed the fact that he had left me a substantial sum of money and I was self-reliant. The welfare people never came around and I was left in the somewhat bizarre role as the sole tenant of my own house at thirteen. I paid the mortgage out of the bank account and tried to stretch a dollar as far as possible.

  By the time I was eighteen and was out of school, the money was low, but I wanted to go to college. I sold the house for $10,000.00 through a real estate buyer. In early September, the roof fell in. I received a very nice letter from Erwin, Erwin and Bradstreet, attorneys at law. To put it in layman’s language, it said that the department store at which my father had been employed had just got around to a general audit of their books. It seemed that there was $15,000.00 missing and that they had proof that my father had stolen it. The rest of the letter merely stated that if I didn’t pay up the $15,000.00 we’d got to court and they would try to get double the amount.

  It shook me up and a few questions that should have stood out in my mind just didn’t register as a result. Why didn’t they uncover the error earlier? Why were they offering to settle out of court?

  I went down to the office of Erwin, Erwin, & Bradstreet and talked the matter over. To make a long story short, I paid the sum there were asking, I had no more money.

  The next day I looked up the firm of Erwin, Erwin & Bradstreet in the phone book. It wasn’t listed. I went down to their office and found a For Rent sign on the door. It was then that I realized that I had been conned like gullible kid – which, I reflected miserably was what I was.

  I bluffed my way through the first for months of college but finally they discovered that I hadn’t been properly registered.

  That same day I met Rankin at a bar. It was my first experience in a tavern. I had a forged driver’s license and I bough enough whiskey to get drunk. I figured that it would take about two straight whiskeys since I had never had anything but a bottle of beer now and then prior to that night.

  One felt good, two made my trouble seem rather inconsequential. I was nursing my third when Rankin entered the bar.

  He sat on the stool next to me and looked attentively at me.

  "You got troubles?" I asked rudely.

  Rankin smiled. "Yes, I’m out to find a helper."

  "Oh, yeah?" I asked, becoming interested. "You mean you want to hire somebody?"


  ""Well, I’m your man."

  He started to say something and then changed his mind.

  "Let’s go over to a booth and talk it over, shall we?"

  We walked over to a booth and I realized that I was listing slightly. Rankin pulled the curtain.

  "That’s better. Now, you want a job?"

  I nodded.

  "Do you care what it is?"

  "No. Just how much does it pay?"

  "Five hundred a job."

  I lost a little bit of the rosy fog that encased me. Something was wrong here. I didn’t like the way he used the word "job".

  "Who do I have to kill?" I asked with a humorless smile.

  "You don’t’. But before I can tell you what it is, you’ll have to talk with Mister Weinbaum."

  "Who’s he?"

  "A – scientist."

  More fog evaporated. I got up.

  "Uh-uh. No making a human guinea pig out of yours truly. Get yourself another boy."

  "Don’t be silly," he said, "No harm will come to you."

  Against my better judgement, I said, "Okay, let’s go."


  Weinbaum approached the subject of my duties after a tour of the house, including the laboratory. He wore a white smock and there was something about him that made me crawl inside. He sat down in the living room and motioned me into a seat. Rankin had disappeared. Weinbaum stared at me with fixed eyes and once again I felt a blast of icy coldness sweep over me.<
br />
  "I’ll put it to you bluntly," he said, "my experiments are too complicated to explain in any detail, but they concern human flesh. Dead human flesh."

  I was becoming intensely aware that his eyes burnt with flickering fires. He looked like a spider ready to engulf a fly, and this whole house was his web. The sun was striking fire to the west and deep pools of shadows were spreading across the room, hiding his face, but leaving the glittering eyes as they shifted in the creeping darkness.

  He was still speaking. "Often, people bequeath their bodies to scientific institutes for study. Unfortunately, I’m only one man, so I have to resort to other methods."

  Horror leapt grinning from the shadows and across my mind there flitted the black picture of two men digging by the light of an uncertain moon. A shovel struck wood – the noise chilled my soul. I rose quickly.

  "I think I can find my own way out, Mr. Weinbaum."

  He laughed softly. "Did Rankin tell you how much this job pays?"

  "I’m not interested."

  "Too bad. I was hoping you could see it my way. It wouldn’t take a year before you would make enough money to return to college."

  I started, and got the uncanny feeling that this man was searching my soul.

  "How much do you know about me? How did you find out?"

  "I have my ways." He chuckled again. "Will you reconsider?"

  I hesitated.

  "Shall we put it on a trial basis?" he asked softly. "I'm quite sure that we can both reach a mutual satisfaction."

  I got the eerie feeling that I was talking to the devil himself, that somehow I had been tricked into selling my soul.

  "Be here at 8.00 sharp, the night after next," he said.

  That was how it started.

  As Rankin and I laid the sheeted body of Daniel Whetherby on the lab table, lights flashed on behind sheeted oblongs that looked like glass tanks.

  "Weinbaum –" I had dropped the title, Mister, without thinking, "I think –"

  "Did you say something?" he asked, his eyes boring into mine. The laboratory seemed far away. There were only the two of us, sliding through a half-world peopled with horrors beyond the imagination.

  Rankin entered in a white smock coat and broke the spell by saying, "All ready, professor."

  At the door, Rankin stopped me. "Friday, at eight."

  A shudder, cold and terrible raced up my spine as I looked back. Weinbaum had produced a scalpel and the body was unsheeted. They looked at me strangely and I hurried out.

  I took the car and quickly drove down the narrow dirt road. I didn’t look back. The air was fresh and warm with a promise of budding summer. The sky was blue with fluffy white clouds fleeting along in the warm summer breeze. The night before seemed like a nightmare, a vague dream, that, as all nightmares, is unreal and transparent when the bright light of day shines upon it. But as I drove past the wrought iron gates of the Crestwood Cemetery I realized that this was no dream. Four hours ago my shovel had removed the dirt that covered the grave of Daniel Wheatherby.

  For the first time a new thought occurred to me. What was the body of Daniel Wheatherby being used for at that moment? I shoved the thought into a deep corner of my mind and let out onto the go-pedal. The care screamed ahead I put my thoughts into driving, glad to put the terrible thing I had done out of my mind, for a short time, anyway.


  The California countryside blurred by as I tried for the maximum speed. The tyres sang on the curve and, as I came out of it, several things happened in rapid succession.

  I saw a panel truck crazily parked right on the broken white line, a girl of about eighteen running right toward my car, an older man running after her. I slammed on the brakes and they exploded like bombs. I jockeyed the wheel and the California sky was suddenly under me. Then everything was right-side up and I realized that I had flipped right over and up. For a moment I was dazed, then a scream, shrill and high, piercing, slit my head.

  I opened the door and sprinted toward the road. The man had the girl and was yanking her toward the panel truck. He was stronger than her and winning, but she was taking an inch of skin for every foot he made.

  He saw me.

  "You stay out of this, buddy. I’m her legal guardian."

  I halted and shook the cobwebs out of my brain. It was exactly what he had been waiting for. He let go with a haymaker that got me on the corner of the chin and knocked me sprawling. He grabbed the girl and practically threw her into the cab.

  By the time that I was on me feet he was around to the driver’s side and peeling out. I took a flying leap and made the roof just as he took off. I was almost thrown off, but I clawed through about five layers of paint to stay on. Then I reached through the open window and got him by the neck. He cursed and grabbed my hand. He yanked, the truck spun crazily off the ledge of a steep embankment.

  The last thing I remember is the nose of the truck pointing straight down. Then my enemy saved my life by viciously yanking my arm. I tumbled off just as the truck plunged over the cliff.

  I landed hard, but the rock I landed on was harder. Everything slid away.

  Something cool touched my brow as I cam to. The first thing I saw was the flashing red light on top of the official looking car parked by the embankment. I sat bolt upright and soft hands pushed me down. Nice hands, the hands of the girl who had landed me into this mess.

  Then there was a Highway Patrolman over me and an official voice said, "The ambulance is coming. How do you feel?"

  "Bruised," I said and sat up again. "But tell the ambulance to go away. I’m all right."

  I tried to sound flippant. The last thing I needed after last nights ‘job’ was the police.

  "How about telling me about it?" the policeman said, producing a notebook. Before I answered, I walked over to the embankment. My stomach flipped over backwards. The panel truck was nose-deep in California dirt and my sparring partner was turning that good California soil into a reddish mud with his own blood. He lay grotesquely, sprawled half in, half out of the cab. The photographers were getting their pictures. He was dead.

  I turned back. The patrolman looked at me as if he expected me to throw up, but, after my new job, my stomach was admirably strong.

  "I was driving out of the Belwood district,"I said, "I came around that curve …"

  I told the rest of the story with the girl’s help. Just as I finished the ambulance came to a halt. Despite my protestations and those of my still-unnamed girl friend, we were hustled into the back.

  Two hours later we had a clean bill of health from the patrolman and the doctors and we were requested to be witnesses at the inquest set for the next week.

  I saw my car at the curb. It was a little worse for wear, but the flats had been replaced. There was a witnessed bill on the dash for a wrecker, tires, and clean-up squad! It came to about $250.00 – half of the last night’s pay-check.

  "You look preoccupied," the girl said.

  I turned to her. "Um, yeah. Well, we almost got killed together this morning, how about telling me your name and having lunch together?"

  "Okay," she said. "The name’s Vicki Pickford. Yours?"

  "Danny," I said unemotionally as we pulled away from the curb. I switched the subject rapidly. "What was going on this morning? Did I hear that guy say that he was your legal guardian?"

  "Yes" she replied.

  I laughed. "The name is Danny Gerad. You’ll get that out of the afternoon papers."

  She smiled gravely. "All right. He was my guardian. He was also a drunkard and an all-around crumb."

  Her cheeks flamed red. The smile was gone. "I hated him and I’m glad he’s dead."

  She gave me a sharp glance and for a moment I saw fear shine wetly in her eyes; then she recovered her self-control. We parked and ate lunch.

  Forty minutes later I paid the check out of my newly acquired cash and walked back out to the car.

  "Where to?" I asked.

  "Bonaventure Mot
el," she said. "That’s where I’m staying."

  She saw curiosity jump into my eyes and sighed, "All right, I was running away. My Uncle David caught up with me and tried to drag me back to the house. When I told him I wouldn’t go, he dragged me out to the truck. We were going around that curve when I wrenched the wheel out of his hands. Then you came along."

  She closed up like a clam and I didn’t try to get any more out of her. There was something wrong about her story. I didn’t press her. I drove her into the parking lot and killed the engine.

  "When can I see you again?" I asked. "A movie tomorrow?"

  "Sure ," she replied.

  "I’ll pick you up at 7.30," I said and drove out, thoughtfully pondering the events that had befallen me in the last twenty-four hours.


  When I entered the apartment the phone was ringing. I picked it up and Vicki, accident and the bright workaday world of suburban California faded into the half-world of phantom-people shadows. The voice that whispered coldly out of the receiver was Weinbaum’s

  "Troubles?" He spoke softly, but there was an ominous tone in his voice.

  "I had an accident," I replied.

  "I read about it in the paper …" Weinbaum’s voice trailed off. Silence hung between us for a moment and then I said, "Does this mean you’re canning me?"

  I hoped that he would say yes; I didn’t have the guts to resign.

  "No," he said softly, "I just wanted to make sure that you didn’t reveal anything about the – work – you’re doing for me."

  "Well, I didn’t" I told him curtly.

  "The night after this," he reminded me, "At eight."

  There was a click and then the dial tone. I shivered and hung up the receiver. I had the oddest feeling that I had just broken connection with the grave.

  The next morning at 7.30 sharp, I picked up Vicki at the Bonaventure Motel. She was all decked out in an outfit that made her look stunning. I made a low whistle; she flushed prettily. We didn’t talk about the accident.

  The movie was good and we held hands part of the time, ate popcorn part of the time and kissed once or twice. All in all, a pleasant evening.