Crouch End nad-17, Page 2Stephen King
‘No thanks to you,’ she mock-growled, and threw a light punch at his midsection.
‘Right,’ the cabby said. ‘Heigh-ho for Crouch End.’
It was late August, and a steady hot wind rattled the trash across the roads and whipped at the jackets and skirts of the men and women going home from work. The sun was settling, but when it shone between the buildings, Doris saw that it was beginning to take on the reddish cast of evening. The cabby hummed. She relaxed with Lonnie’s arm around her – she had seen more of him in the last six days than she had all year, it seemed, and she was very pleased to discover that she liked it. She had never been out of America before, either, and she had to keep reminding herself that she was in England, she was going to Barcelona, thousands should be so lucky. Then the sun disappeared behind a wall of buildings, and she lost her sense of direction almost immediately. Cab rides in London did that to you, she had discovered. The city was a great sprawling warren of Roads and Mews and Hills and Closes (even Inns), and she couldn’t understand how anyone could get around. When she had mentioned it to Lonnie the day before, he had replied that they got around very carefully… hadn’t she noticed that all the cabbies kept the London Streetfinder tucked cozily away beneath the dash?
This was the longest cab ride they had taken. The fashionable section of town dropped behind them (in spite of that perverse going-around-in-circles feeling). They passed through an area of monolithic housing developments that could have been utterly deserted for all the signs of life they showed (no, she corrected herself to Vetter and Farnham in the small white room; she had seen one small boy sitting on the curb, striking matches), then an area of small, rather tatty-looking shops and fruit stalls, and then – no wonder driving in London was so disorienting to out-of-towners – they seemed to have driven smack into the fashionable section again. ‘There was even a McDonald’s,’ she told Vetter and Farnham in a tone of voice usually reserved for references to the Sphinx and the Hanging Gardens. ‘Was there?’ Vetter replied, properly amazed and respectful – she had achieved a kind of total recall, and he wanted nothing to break the mood, at least until she had told them everything she could.
The fashionable section with the McDonald’s as its centerpiece dropped away. They came briefly into the clear and now the sun was a solid orange ball sitting above the horizon, washing the streets with a strange light that made all the pedestrians look as if they were about to burst into flame. ’It was then that things began to change,’ she said. Her voice had dropped a little. Her hands were trembling again.
Vetter leaned forward, intent. ‘Change? How? How did things change, Mrs. Freeman?’ They had passed a newsagent’s window, she said, and the signboard outside had read SIXTY LOST IN UNDERGROUND HORROR.
‘Lonnie, look at that!’
‘What?’ He craned around, but the newsagent’s was already behind them. ‘It said, “Sixty Lost in Underground Horror.’ Isn’t that what they call the subway? The Underground?’
‘Yes – that or the tube. Was it a crash?’
‘I don’t know.’ She leaned forward. ‘Driver, do you know what that was about? Was there a subway crash?’
‘A collision, madam? Not that I know of.’
‘Do you have a radio?’
‘Not in the cab, madam.’
But she could see that Lonnie had lost interest. He was going through his pockets again (and because he was wearing his three-piece suit, there were a lot of them to go through), having another hunt for the scrap of paper with John Squales’s address written on it.
The message chalked on the board played over and over in her mind, SIXTY KILLED IN TUBE CRASH, it should have read. But… SIXTY LOST IN UNDERGROUND HORROR. It made her uneasy. It didn’t say ‘killed,’ it said ‘lost,’ the way news reports in the old days had always referred to sailors who had been drowned at sea.
She didn’t like it. It made her think of graveyards, sewers, and flabby-pale, noisome things swarming suddenly out of the tubes themselves, wrapping their arms (tentacles, maybe) around the hapless commuters on the platforms, dragging them away to darkness…
They turned right. Standing on the corner beside their parked motorcycles were three boys in leathers. They looked up at the cab and for a moment – the setting sun was almost full in her face from this angle – it seemed that the bikers did not have human heads at all. For that one moment she was nastily sure that the sleek heads of rats sat atop those black leather jackets, rats with black eyes staring at the cab. Then the light shifted just a tiny bit and she saw of course she had been mistaken; there were only three young men smoking cigarettes in front of the British version of the American candy store.
‘Here we go,’ Lonnie said, giving up the search and pointing out the window. They were passing a sign, which read ‘Crouch Hill Road.’ Elderly brick houses like sleepy dowagers had closed in, seeming to look down at the cab from their blank windows. A few kids passed back and forth, riding bikes or trikes. Two others were trying to ride a skateboard with no notable success. Fathers home from work sat together, smoking and talking and watching the children. It all looked reassuringly normal.
The cab drew up in front of a dismal-looking restaurant with a small spotted sign in the window reading FULLY LICENSED and a much larger one in the center, which informed that within one, could purchase curries to take away. On the inner ledge there slept a gigantic gray cat. Beside the restaurant was a call box. ’Here you are, guv,’ the cabdriver said. ‘You find your friend’s address and I’ll track him down.’
‘Fair enough,’ Lonnie said, and got out.
Doris sat in the cab for a moment and then also emerged, deciding she felt like stretching her legs. The hot wind was still blowing. It whipped her skirt around her knees and then plastered an old ice-cream wrapper to her shin. She removed it with a grimace of disgust. When she looked up, she was staring directly through the plate-glass window at the big gray torn. It stared back at her, one-eyed and inscrutable. Half of its face had been all but clawed away in some long-ago battle. What remained was a twisted pinkish mass of scar tissue, one milky cataract, and a few tufts of fur.
It miaowed at her silently through the glass.
Feeling a surge of disgust, she went to the call box and peered in through one of the dirty panes. Lonnie made a circle at her with his thumb and forefinger and winked. Then he pushed ten-pence into the slot and talked with someone. He laughed – soundlessly through the glass. Like the cat. She looked over for it, but now the window was empty. In the dimness beyond she could see chairs up on tables and an old man pushing a broom. When she looked back, she saw that Lonnie was jotting something down. He put his pen away, held the paper in his hand – she could see an address was jotted on it – said one or two other things, then hung up and came out. He waggled the address at her in triumph. ‘Okay, that’s th…’ His eyes went past her shoulder and he frowned. ‘Where’s the stupid cab gone?’
She turned around. The taxi had vanished. Where it had stood there was only curbing and a few papers blowing lazily up the gutter. Across the street, two kids were clutching at each other and giggling. Doris noticed that one of them had a deformed hand – it looked more like a claw. She’d thought the National Health was supposed to take care of things like that. The children looked across the street, saw her observing them, and fell into each other’s arms, giggling again. ‘I don’t know,’ Doris said. She felt disoriented and a little stupid. The heat, the constant wind that seemed to blow with no gusts or drops, the almost painted quality of the light… ‘What time was it then?’ Farnham asked suddenly.
‘I don’t know,’ Doris Freeman said, startled out of her recital. ‘Six, I suppose. Maybe twenty past.’
‘I see, go on,’ Farnham said, knowing perfectly well that in August sunset would not have begun – even by the loosest standards – until well past seven. ‘Well, what did he do?’ Lonnie asked, st
ill looking around. It was almost as if he expected his irritation to cause the cab to pop back into view. ‘Just pick up and leave?’
‘Maybe when you put your hand up,’ Doris said, raising her own hand and making the thumb-and-forefinger circle Lonnie had made in the call box, ‘maybe when you did that he thought you were waving him on.’
‘I’d have to wave a long time to send him on with two-fifty on the meter,’ Lonnie grunted, and walked over to the curb. On the other side of Crouch Hill Road, the two small children were still giggling. ‘Hey!’ Lonnie called. ‘You kids!’
‘You an American, sir?’ the boy with the claw-hand called back.
‘Yes,’ Lonnie said, smiling. ‘Did you see the cab over here? Did you see where it went?’
The two children seemed to consider the question. The boy’s companion was a girl of about five with untidy brown braids sticking off in opposite directions. She stepped forward to the opposite curb, formed her hands into a megaphone, and still smiling – she screamed it through her megaphoned hands and her smile – she cried at them: ‘Bugger off, Joe!’
Lonnie’s mouth dropped open.
‘Sir! Sir! Sir!’ the boy screeched, saluting wildly with his deformed hand. Then the two of them took to their heels and fled around the corner and out of sight, leaving only their laughter to echo back.
Lonnie looked at Doris, dumbstruck.
‘I guess some of the kids in Crouch End aren’t too crazy about Americans,’ he said lamely.
She looked around nervously. The street now appeared deserted.
He slipped an arm around her. ‘Well, honey, looks like we hike.’
‘I’m not sure I want to. Those two kids might’ve gone to get their big brothers.’ She laughed to show it was a joke, but there was a shrill quality to the sound. The evening had taken on a surreal quality she didn’t much like. She wished they had stayed at the hotel.
‘Not much else we can do,’ he said. ‘The street’s not exactly overflowing with taxis, is it?’
‘Lonnie, why would the cabdriver leave us here like that? He seemed so nice.’ ‘Don’t have the slightest idea. But John gave me good directions. He lives in a street called Brass End, which is a very minor dead-end street, and he said it wasn’t in the Streetfinder.’ As he talked he was moving her away from the call box, from the restaurant that sold curries to take away, from the now-empty curb. They were walking up Crouch Hill Road again. ‘We take a right onto Hillfield Avenue, left halfway down, then our first right… or was it left? Anyway, onto Petrie Street. Second left is Brass End.’
‘And you remember all that?’
‘I’m a star witness,’ he said bravely, and she just had to laugh. Lonnie had a way of making things seem better.
There was a map of the Crouch End area on the wall of the police station lobby, one considerably more detailed than the one in the London Streetfinder. Farnham approached it and studied it with his hands stuffed into his pockets. The station seemed very quiet now. Vetter was still outside – clearing some of the witchmoss from his brains, one hoped – and Raymond had long since finished with the woman who’d had her purse nicked. Farnham put his finger on the spot where the cabby had most likely let them off (if anything about the woman’s story was to be believed, that was). The route to their friend’s house looked pretty straightforward. Crouch Hill Road to Hillfield Avenue, and then a left onto Vickers Lane followed by a left onto Petrie Street. Brass End, which stuck off from Petrie Street like somebody’s afterthought, was no more than six or eight houses long. About a mile, all told. Even Americans should have been able to walk that far without getting lost. ‘Raymond!’ he called. ‘You still here?’
Sergeant Raymond came in. He had changed into streets and was putting on a light poplin windcheater. ‘Only just, my beardless darling.’
‘Cut it,’ Farnham said, smiling all the same. Raymond frightened him a little. One look at the spooky sod was enough to tell you he was standing a little too close to the fence that ran between the yard of the good guys and that of the villains. There was a twisted white line of scar running like a fat string from the left corner of his mouth almost all the way to his Adam’s apple. He claimed a pickpocket had once nearly cut his throat with a jagged bit of bottle. Claimed that’s why he broke their fingers. Farnham thought that was the shit. He thought Raymond broke their fingers because he liked the sound they made, especially when they popped at the knuckles. ’Got a fag?’ Raymond asked.
Farnham sighed and gave him one. As he lit it he asked, ‘Is there a curry shop on Crouch Hill Road?’
‘Not to my knowledge, my dearest darling,’ Raymond said.
‘That’s what I thought.’
‘Got a problem, dear?’
‘No,’ Farnham said, a little too sharply, remembering Doris Freeman’s clotted hair and staring eyes.
Near the top of Crouch Hill Road, Doris and Lonnie Freeman turned onto Hillfield Avenue, which was lined with imposing and gracious-looking homes – nothing but shells, she thought, probably cut up with surgical precision into apartments and bed-sitters inside. ‘So far so good,’ Lonnie said.
‘Yes, it’s…’ she began, and that was when the low moaning arose. They both stopped. The moaning was coming almost directly from their right, where a high hedge ran around a small yard. Lonnie started toward the sound, and she grasped his arm. ‘Lonnie, no!’
‘What do you mean, no?’ he asked. ‘Someone’s hurt.’
She stepped after him nervously. The hedge was high but thin. He was able to brush it aside and reveal a small square of lawn outlined with flowers. The lawn was very green. In the center of it was a black, smoking patch – or at least that was her first impression. When she peered around Lonnie’s shoulder again – his shoulder was too high for her to peer over it – she saw it was a hole, vaguely man-shaped. The tendrils of smoke were emanating from it. SIXTY LOST IN UNDERGROUND HORROR, she thought abruptly. The moaning was coming from the hole, and Lonnie began to force himself through the hedge toward it.
‘Lonnie,’ she said, ‘please, don’t.’
‘Someone’s hurt,’ he repeated, and pushed himself the rest of the way through with a bristly tearing sound. She saw him going toward the hole, and then the hedge snapped back, leaving her nothing but a vague impression of his shape as he moved forward. She tried to push through after him and was scratched by the short, stiff branches of the hedge for her trouble. She was wearing a sleeveless blouse.
‘Lonnie!’ she called, suddenly very afraid. ‘Lonnie, come back!’
‘Just a minute, hon!’
The house looked at her impassively over the top of the hedge.
The moaning sounds continued, but now they sounded lower – guttural, somehow gleeful.
Couldn’t Lonnie hear that?
‘Hey, is somebody down there?’ she heard Lonnie ask. ‘Is there – oh! Hey! Jesus!’ And suddenly Lonnie screamed. She had never heard him scream before, and her legs seemed to turn to waterbags at the sound. She looked wildly for a break in the hedge, a path, and couldn’t see one anywhere. Images swirled before her eyes – the bikers who had looked like rats for a moment, the cat with the pink chewed face, the boy with the claw-hand. Lonnie! she tried to scream, but no words came out.
Now there were sounds of a struggle. The moaning had stopped. But there were wet, sloshing sounds from the other side of the hedge. Then, suddenly, Lonnie came flying back through the stiff dusty-green bristles as if he had been given a tremendous push. The left arm of his suit-coat was torn, and it was splattered with runnels of black stuff that seemed to be smoking, as the pit in the lawn had been smoking.
‘Run!’ His face pale as cheese.
Doris looked around wildly for a cop. For anyone. But Hillfield Avenue might have been a part of some great deserted city for all the life or movement she saw. Then she glanced back at the hedge and saw something else was moving behind there, something
that was more than black; it seemed ebony, the antithesis of light.
And it was sloshing.
A moment later, the short, stiff branches of the hedge began to rustle. She stared, hypnotized. She might have stood there forever (so she told Vetter and Farnham) if Lonnie hadn’t grabbed her arm roughly and shrieked at her – yes, Lonnie, who never even raised his voice at the kids, had shrieked – she might have been standing there yet. Standing there, or… But they ran.
Where? Farnham had asked, but she didn’t know. Lonnie was totally undone, in a hysteria of panic and revulsion – that was all she really knew. He clamped his fingers over her wrist like a handcuff and they ran from the house looming over the hedge, and from the smoking hole in the lawn. She knew those things for sure; all the rest was only a chain of vague impressions. At first it had been hard to run, and then it got easier because they were going downhill. They turned, and then turned again. Gray houses with high stoops and drawn green shades seemed to stare at them like blind pensioners. She remembered Lonnie pulling off his jacket, which had been splattered with that black goo, and throwing it away. At last they came to a wider street.
‘Stop,’ she panted. ‘Stop, I can’t keep up!’ Her free hand was pressed to her side, where a red-hot spike seemed to have been planted.
And he did stop. They had come out of the residential area and were standing at the corner of Crouch Lane and Morris Road. A sign on the far side of Morris Road proclaimed that they were but one mile from Slaughter Towen.
Town? Vetter suggested.
No, Doris Freeman said. Slaughter Towen, with an ‘e.’
Raymond crushed out the cigarette he had cadged from Farnham. ‘I’m off,’ he announced, and then looked more closely at Farnham. ‘My poppet should take better care of himself. He’s got big dark circles under his eyes. Any hair on your palms to go with it, my pet?’ He laughed uproariously.
‘Ever hear of a Crouch Lane?’ Farnham asked.
‘Crouch Hill Road, you mean.’
‘No, I mean Crouch Lane.’