I ditched the flivver about a mile out of town and took to the woods, heading west toward where I knew the city to be, but protected by the dense layer of trees.
Me and nature rarely get along, though. I'm not used to thick clusters of trees behind me, and lately, I trust shadows less and less. I know now that things can hide in them, and it's bad for the ego the number of times someone has managed to get the drop on me lately.
In all honesty, though, what was really on my mind was the last thing I'd heard Vivian say before leaving her bedroom. We need her...and remember, we cannot use it until the time is right. If the book is opened without her, all is lost...
Vivian had Betty Parkins. That much was clear. Where, though, was another story. Would she have let me in her home, and attempted to keep me there, if she had the very girl I was looking for locked in her basement, or somewhere else on the grounds?
My other theory was starting to develop as I moved from tree to tree, here slowing, there jogging, so that I didn't look too obvious from the road. Vivian Vanderhoff was in league with Frankie Three-Fingers. She had to be.
First, Three-Fingers kidnaps a young girl, hoping to use her in this ritual to thin the barriers of unreality and let through...whatever was coming through. Vivian is there to provide the book and the Claw of Hargon, and will gladly join him in his venture, assuming she gets a share of the power. I already knew enough about Vivian to know she enjoys power.
But then, problem; she loses the book when her ne'er-do-well ex-husband, probably driven mad by his desire to possess the book, steals it. So what does Three-Fingers do? He sends his accomplice straight to my office. What better way to distract me from the case of the missing girl than to send a high-class broad with pins that don't end through my door with a possibly well-paying case? If the case itself or the idea of money didn't distract me, those gams might have. And they did.
But now Three-Fingers was gone, and who knew where? I certainly wasn't going to get the answer out of Cicci, even assuming there was anything of Cicci left. His other goons were too scared to squeal, and activity in gangland was locked up tighter than a drum. I had left the only person who could tell me where Three-Fingers or the girl was in my dust.
Did something just move in between two trees up ahead? Now, I was definitely imagining things. I had to get out of these woods. But no, something definitely did move that time, and I wasn't imagining it. Had they found me? Was someone following me?
I slowed again, and took a look around. Nothing seemed to be moving now that I was still. I moved a hand to the holster under my flogger and kept my eyes sharp.
"I can tell you're here," I said. "Come on out."
Silence answered me. I stood in one spot, craning my neck one way and then the other, my hand on ol' Pappy.
A twig snapped to my left and I turned that direction; the direction of the road. I drew ol' Pappy and kept looking. It still seemed that no one was there. I began to relax a little.
And then one of the trees moved. Just enough movement that I could say it wasn't the wind, but little enough that if I had blinked, I would have missed it. I raised ol' Pappy and pointed it at the tree.
As my eyes adjusted, I began to see that whatever it was, it was no tree. It was tall, gaunt and covered in rags, but the thing, whatever it was, was man-shaped, if vaguely. One of those beings. It found me.
I stood rooted to the spot as the tall, gaunt thing took another step in my direction. Well, this is it. This is how the great Detective Zeddicker meets his end. Abyssinia, Zed.
Its face came into the light, or what passed for a face. It looked ruined, stretched beyond all boundaries of skin and getting ready to peel right off. My trigger finger flexed and I came close to pumping metal into the thing. It didn't seem to notice, and kept on coming, slowly, hesitantly.
I heard scraping noises coming from the thing. Was it growling? No, I realized a moment later, it was trying to clear its throat. The thing can barely speak.
"Yuuuhhh..." it groaned. "Yuuuh...you...yous..you zuh...you Zeddicker?
I almost dropped ol' Pappy in surprise, but I kept my grip and didn't back up.
"Yeah, that's me," I said.
"I...thought so...I went to...Vivian's."
Another pause, and the scraping sound came back. Finally the thing hawked up a huge ball of phlegm and spoke again, and I realized I recognized the voice.
"I saw you race for the garage, saw the hound chasing you. I can barely drive anymore, but I got in one of her cars and followed you as far as I could. I wanted to talk to her, find out what's happening. But I couldn't get close to her."
"Good lord," I said. "Probst. It's you."
"I used to be Arnie Probst," said the gaunt thing. "I don't know how much of him is left in me now. There's nobody else in here, though. The book won't listen to me anymore."
He had something in his arms, I noticed for the first time. Wrapped up in cloth, but shaped just like the book. And the claw was in the crook of his arm.
"You took it back there. You hoped it would listen to her again."
"Hoped she would...stop it. I thought...thought using this book would make me rich. Make it so I don't have to be a two-bit flim-flam artist. Such a loser. But look at me now. I probably won't even make it to morning."
"I can't argue with that, Arnie. So what changed? What made you see that you weren't gonna profit from this?"
"Something came into me when I used the book that night," he began. His voice still sounded hoarse and scratchy, but at least he could talk. "It filled me, showed me all the power and glory in the world. And it was glorious. I thought I was about to become master of everything. The presence and my mind seemed to be as one, unified in purpose and being. And then...it showed me that all of the power and glory belonged to it, and none of it to me, and that I would never see the glory it promised. And it left me. Left me like this."
"And you realized that it can do that to anyone," I broke in. "And that if more beings like that come through, then it's goodbye, humanity."
"I never bothered to stop and think about it," he said. "All I could think about was riches and power. And this is what it got me."
"Well, pally," I began. "If you're thinking of heading back to Vivian's to get her to stop it, you're barkin' up the wrong tree. Looks to me like she's drinkin' out of the same bottle as the guy who started all this."
"I know," he said. "I saw. When I went back. That's why I followed you when I saw you leaving. It feels like I can trust you."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"The book," he rasped. "And the Claw. Take them. Take them and make all this stop."
I shook my head as I felt an incredulous grin cross my mug.
"Hey, boyo," I said. "I'm just a private dick. What do you expect out of me?"
"I don't know," he wheezed. Speaking was getting difficult for him again. "But you're the only one I can trust. Take them, please!"
He dropped them on the ground before me. His arms dropped to his side like he couldn't hold them up anymore.
"I don't have much time," he said. "But you gotta take these and make sure Vivian don't get 'em back. Keep 'em away from Three-Fingers, but remember, don't use 'em without knowing what you're doing. Otherwise, you'll end up like me."
"Come back with me," I said. I remembered Elmebrigge, and his vast knowledge. "I know a guy who might be able to help you."
"There's no help for me," he whispered. He sank to his knees. "I know that, and I made my peace with the maker. I prolly still go to Hell...but at least...I'll fit in there..."
He collapsed in a heap of bones and skin. I looked at the items on the ground before me for a few seconds, making up my mind.
I could bury them here and no one would be the wiser...
No. I couldn't trust that Vivian Vanderhoff wouldn't be able to hunt them down. All I could do is be ready for her when she did. That, and get the girl away from her.
I picked up the book and staff and resumed running through the darkness.