When the lights came on in the theater, first one, then two, then a rapidly growing mob of screams clapped like thunder through the sudden light as it was revealed that Harold Green—prominent banker and philanthropist—while sitting among his family in the middle of a crowded auditorium, had been quietly torn apart and partially eaten—apparently by a large animal.
Shortly thereafter, in the lobby, an expectant throng of officers and reporters had gathered, watching the procession of attendees exiting the auditorium—each of whom was taken aside by detectives and questioned; each of whom elicited from the jostling crowd of observers the same, vague disappointment—lacking, as each did, the primal energy one would think necessary to coincide in space and time with such a potent, catastrophic force (though it was still unclear what exactly that force had been). In point of fact, these well-dressed sophisticates slipped each in turn through the doors like paper dolls; and the impression they made was one of dull chance. Each had been dealt from a stale deck, tedious as a game of poker—two-dimensional costumes filled with skin, they stayed where they were dealt till they were collected again and shuffled away. From the quality of their attire and the blankness of their stares, it was clear that the dullness with which they afflicted the room was both habitual and rewarding, and that their collective lives had been abstracted in the greatest part to a financial wager, useless and offensive in the present crisis. The blandness of the audience was even such that the police, and as well the journalists, began to forget the likely presence of some unidentified, savage animal; and after twenty or so people had given the same several, droning answers to his questions, one officer mentioned to his partner his suspicion that Green had torn himself apart out of intense boredom.
And then the tedium broke apart like so much fog. She emerged through the doors held open by officers on either side—Judith Green—and the room stood still and held its breath. An officer to her left, in answer to his sergeant's question, said her name—but with a voice so unnaturally loud—and turning back toward her, so that he spoke to the center of the room—that he seemed to be announcing her. The cause of the excitement—which made to grow from the initial silence a crescendo of murmurs—was the impression the widow gave of being possessed at that moment of an unnatural beauty. Precipitous grief for her husband's condition seemed to have engendered in her a sympathetic dismemberment; the things of her grew apart and perfect and alone. While at the same time, her form seemed coalesced within the cold gravity of her shock to the potent solidity of a statue—draped as it was in the austere elegance of her evening gown and string of pearls; and yet, to each adoring gaze, it seemed that each slight twitch of arm or eye betrayed, buried in her skin, the subdued energies of an unperformed ballet. The few words she gave in answer to official questions rang like sonnets, or drove like bullets through the heart of each policeman who questioned her as she passed; and when they glanced at her, the blood raced up and spun and tumbled in their eyes, so that there was no difference between looking at her and being in love.
Each man's muscles softened, and he leaned slightly toward her without realizing it; however it was Detective Edmund LeGrand, striding confidently toward her, who bowed and took her hand, and—a waltz having just begun to play over the lobby's speakers, the whole crowd watching in mixed envy and respect—led her dancing around the room. He questioned her as they went—though none about them could hear her replies, she spoke so quietly. They drifted on soft pulses of their mingling thighs through gentle turns like eaten candy in a drowsy child's blood, the rising and falling of his form blending qualities of liquid and solid, while the grace with which she moved expressed twin extremities of sadness and pride. Another waltz played, and they continued to weave among the crowd, which opened about them wherever they moved.
It was at this point, however, that the body was removed from the auditorium and carried through the lobby toward the ambulance. Perhaps by accident, a reporter stepped on the corner of the sheet that hid Mr. Green's impossibly disfigured remains; and as it slid to the floor, it revealed the couple's two small children, huddled and clinging to the remains, one's feet above the other's head—cherubs stunned and dormant on a broken ladder.
They looked at her and shrieked a high-pitched scream, and their voices snapped against each other in the air like a hypnotist's fingers. She pushed away from the detective like one raising herself suddenly and panicked from a deep sleep. She walked swiftly to the children and took their hands in hers—at which point they stepped down from the gurney and walked on either side of her to the door and out into the night. An officer who had been clearing the theater brought the detective a white glove that belonged to the widow, and the detective ran after her into the parking lot with the glove clutched in his fist—but she and the children were gone; and he walked back into the building, blind and deaf to the officers who addressed him as he passed, in a daze of indistinct despair and hope.
The next morning, in the captain's office, LeGrand explained his theory like a man possessed of an erratic genius, at times defiant, at times with the buttery gestures of exultant magnanimity. The captain listened like a little child. LeGrand's partner, Dresden Blake, was drinking the captain's scotch, slumped into some or other private oblivion on the couch. LeGrand drew a circle on the wall.
"The remains were presented this morning to Professor Hidalgo Falkonbridge, our region's foremost veterinary authority. He's confirmed the presence of lion scent."
The captain's eyes grew wide.
"We've got a man absolutely darling in the hearts of each and all. Even his enemies love him. For any type of murder you can think of, there's just no motive makes sense, or any way to explain how it happened." LeGrand paused. "Now, Green was a killer—we know that. Big game—in his prime—shot up every jungle he could squeeze a gun into. The house looks like a zoological holocaust.
"So you've got a guy is killed, and nobody could have killed him. And you've got the same guy, and it stands to reason that just about every living creature in the globe's most forsaken wastes hate him with all their savage hearts."
The captain's eyes were narrowed in confusion, but he smiled and nodded as if he understood.
"It's simple captain—it's gotta be the only one it can be—" and in the circle, like a police sketch MGM logo, he drew a lion.
"Aaaah!" said the captain, nodding, at last sincerely.
"I don't know how they did it—the ducts, the sewer…they could've come in with the others—dressed like people. It was dark, the glare on the window of the ticket booth—the collar turned up high, looking down, a large hat—they could've done it…by God, they could've done it."
From the couch a voice hissed up through drunken lips that slowly began to sag and clench about a string of slurred, disordered words: "The captain's ass a cat dressed up. And I bet it stuffed its furry nuts in a pair of your crap-stained drawers. Or did it just tape them to its leg? You fucking schmuck—it was the kids, plain as the captain's ass."
The captain growled—"That scotch is coming out of your paycheck, Blake."
Blake fumbled his gun out of its holster and pointed it at the captain, who grew quiet.
"Don't have kittens." He dropped the gun in his lap and went back to sleep. The captain got up from his desk and snatched the gun from Blake's lap, unloaded it, and shut it up pettishly in his desk.
"Can I have some breathing room on this one, Captain?" LeGrand asked.
"You can have as much as you want. Don't worry about the mess on the couch— he can stagger after his own tail for a while. How long do you think you'll need?"
"A week or two."
"Make us proud."
LeGrand spent a great deal of time questioning Judith Green, and they quickly became inseparable. Waking in her arms, he would pace through the moonlight of her bedroom, and she watched him, half grieving, half adoring, offering what help she could.
They grew closer still, and the impossibility became quickly apparent to them both of ever again living apart from one another. He gave her a ring, which she placed above her first; and at the funeral, as she lay the flowers on the casket, she slipped her old ring around a stem and turned back to her seat. While the children noticed this, they said nothing; and though they did not seem remarkably affectionate toward LeGrand, neither did they demonstrate a perceptible aversion, and it was felt by both LeGrand and Judith that the children should be given time.
Meanwhile, Blake had been pursuing his own lines of inquiry. He had woken up on the couch in the captain's office after LeGrand and the captain had left. He was alone and the lights were off, though the room was made bright enough by the blur of muted, reflected sunlight. He rummaged his gun from the desk and went out into the lounge, where he pawed like a dog at the coffee machine until it began to brew. When it was finished, he took a mug with him down to the auto pool, signed out a cruiser, and drove to the children's elementary school.
He drifted like an empty boat down successive halls from room to room, peering in the glass, a barren hulk propelled on lazy ricochets from door to door by the air-conditioned breeze. Failing to find them in any of the rooms he'd passed, Blake continued into the cafeteria to get a drink—where he found the Green children, sitting quietly in the middle of the room, looking at each other. There was no one else in the cafeteria, and Blake walked over to their table. They looked up at him. He sat down and, after an extended moment's silence, pulled out his badge and tossed it on the table between them. The sister reached up and touched the badge, then pulled her hand slowly away. The brother reached up and covered the badge with his hand, then removed it from the table into his lap. Blake drew his gun and set it down between the children and himself. The boy put the badge back on the table and looked up at Blake with mild curiosity.
"I don't know how or why you did it; but when I find out, they're gonna tie you both to a set of rails."
The principal came in and screamed when she saw the gun. She demanded that Blake leave immediately, and when he showed her his badge she only grew more insistent. Blake went to the lavatory, and as he was washing his hands he drank some water from the sink. On his way out, he saw a hall monitor, and he handed the boy his gun. The boy looked confused.
"You know the Green children?"
The boy nodded.
"Well, if you need it, use it."
The boy looked more confused; then, after brief reflection, snapped back into that disengaged reverie of play that is unwelcoming to confusion, and serves as the general domain of the intelligent or young.
The boy ran down the hall, pointing the pistol at classroom windows and making machine gun sounds. Blake went outside and, leaving the cruiser where it was, walked down the street to the bar.
It was still two days before the funeral. The theater was closed, as even the stoutest of the city's populace lacked strength of nerve to sit exposed and blinding themselves with florescent ghosts—while beneath the images, like thick, shimmering leaves, unimaginable beasts were stalking. Blake borrowed a gun from the bar owner and went back to the cruiser. School had long since let out. He drove up to the theater, where the two officers on duty saluted him as he entered. They closed the door behind him and remained outside. He walked across the lobby and scooped out a bag of stale popcorn from the concession stand, got a large root beer, and went upstairs. He opened every door he saw, until he found the theater's only projection room. There was film loaded on the projector nearest the door, so he flipped switches until it began to play. He went back down to the seating area and sat in the middle of the auditorium—one row back and two seats to the left from where Green had been discovered.
The film was a Disney re-release, full of rollicking creatures with wide-flung arms emitting human sounds through smiles that hummed and flickered like radio speakers. Blake was too drunk to follow what was going on, but he ate his popcorn and drifted in and out of sleep, and the things were laughing and singing to him. At some point he either fell or lay down, because he woke up on the floor in the dark, the movie no longer playing. He was lying on his face. When he raised his head, he was surprised to see how well his eyes had adapted to the dark; then he realized that the reel had run out, and the bare light was glaring on the screen. He rolled over on his side to look at his watch, and an unusual shape on the floor caught his eye. He moved his head closer. It was a child's bloody handprint. He rolled back onto his stomach and went to sleep.
He woke again and the projector light was on; and some time later, he woke again in darkness. The bulb, for whatever reason, was no longer shining. His immediate impression, however, was not that the bulb had gone out, but that the screen had moved forward, like a fine-meshed net, and he was now compressed within its web at a depth to which the light could not penetrate.
He saw himself as an insectile thing pressed flat within the screen: liquescent flesh burst through the crackled, bone-like skin, and all the spurted meat still warm and alive and lapping against him like pulses of a breathing, hungry sea. A lion walked toward him, though instead of paws at the ends of its legs it had children's hands. Blake screamed and closed his eyes, and when he opened them, he saw the Green children in the dim light of the exit signs. Behind them were LeGrand and the widow Green. Disconcerted, Blake pointed angrily at the handprint while looking at the boy. The boy attempted to wipe it away, but Blake slapped his hand, and he began to cry. Judith comforted the boy and sent him to wait with his sister in the lobby.
Blake showed the handprint to LeGrand and Judith; but LeGrand said there was no telling how long the print had been there, and Judith agreed. They invited him to the funeral, but Blake remained sullenly quiet; and when they invited him to lunch—for it was now the day before the funeral—he still refused to speak. LeGrand shook his head and laughed as he stood to go, and Judith laid her hand against Blake's cheek to comfort him. Then they left; and when they were gone, Blake raised himself into a seat, got sick between his legs, and left as well.
His partner and the widow had looked at him with eyes like doubled pairs of drowned swans when he'd said that he had other things to do the following day, and he knew that they'd be trying to drag him to dinner or some similar nonsense that night or the next. He avoided his regular bar. He drove to a hole-in-the-wall dive that he reserved for emergencies; but when he went inside, he sat down at the bar next to a man who turned to him and was LeGrand.
In LeGrand's dining room, Blake listened distractedly to Judith Green while she spoke to him within the collapsing wave of gold and lapis lazuli, roses and granite and ebony, which the convergence of walls in LeGrand's old home always seemed on verge to be—though it all had been but a part of the vast inheritance of LeGrand. His state was such that heiresses from all regions of the globe had sought to bend his affections to their hearts, though utterly without success; and there were some already who had said, even accounting for his age, that the young detective would never marry. In point of fact, it was generally held that the one thing stranger than LeGrand's persistent, voluntary solitude was his affection for Blake, which was as sincere as it was enduring; and it was therefore Blake to whom—however unfairly—the fault of LeGrand's singleness was commonly attributed, owing to his unabashed callousness to children and women alike. Blake drained his glass. Near his hand, repulsive and intriguing, a curving tureen of pink, opalescent mineral let bathe in its curling, creamy depths the fur-soft flames of ensconced multitudes of nearby candles. He realized by an ensuing silence that Judith's last remark had been something like a question, and that she was awaiting his response.
"We want you to feel that you'll always have a home with us," Judith repeated. Blake nodded. Beyond her, reflected in profile on the black field of the window's glass, her face was a simultaneous projection—somewhat transparent and mixed with the void against which it seemed to have been counterposed as a lovely, if imperfect, screen. He watched the mouth upon the glass flicker as its sound came to him from some other, nearer place. He noticed that his food was almost gone, though he couldn't remember eating it, and he suspected the children. They made no sound, but he could see them reflected in the glass of another window. Their reflections were staring directly at him.
"Blake, you bloody mystic, quit looking out the window before you levitate my garage. I've got news—wonderful news."
Blake's food was entirely gone. He grabbed the boy, because he was closest, and shook him by his ankles over the plate, in an attempt to retrieve some portion of his dinner. Judith and LeGrand succeeded in making Blake return him to his seat, though the boy was now red with laughter. His sister was laughing, too, and Blake reached over to LeGrand's plate and took a dinner roll; which, more to make a point than as an act of actual hunger, he gloomily ate, staring fixedly at the table.
"Blake, idiocy aside, you're the most honest person I know; which says more about me than it does about you. Judith and I are getting married—a week from tomorrow—and I'd like you to be the best man."
Blake nodded his assent and put the rest of the roll back on LeGrand's plate. He walked to the windowsill at the far end of the room, where an assortment of bottles and glasses comprised an impromptu bar. He made himself a drink and sat back down.
LeGrand began telling him about the lion he had heard.
"We were in Judith's room last night, and I had fallen asleep. Judith was sleeping, too, when I woke up—I'd heard a noise. I sat up in bed and listened—then I heard it again. It was a roar. Judith begged me not to go. I grabbed my pistol and ran out of the house, but it was gone. I searched around in the bushes for it, but no luck. But that proves we're getting closer. The damn thing's coming to the house and calling us out. Listen, Blake, I don't want you going to the theater alone, anymore. You've seen what this thing can do."
Blake raised his gaze from the table with a blank expression, then suddenly burst out in a loud and protracted fit of laughter. When its first wave was beginning to ebb, he turned and gestured to the children sitting next to him, as if they were a game show prize display, and lapsed into even more unrestrained gales. The time being what it was, when he had settled down again, goodbyes were said. Blake waved off the offer of a ride without a coherent word, and something like bowed in the direction of Judith and LeGrand as he slowly spun outward onto the porch and down the stairs.
Night had long since fallen—all things splashed backward into their shadows. Walking home, he swam upon a lake of black and silent voices. Come day they would evaporate into birdsong and hands clapped with joy in the shock of sun; for now, though, words hid from his jagged mumbling that hunted them through unspeakably quiet leaves, deep in the jungles mashed into the sleepy custard of his skull.
Blake woke in his clothes halfway through the night and walked to the theater. The officers on guard slept slumped against each other and the wall. Trembling drop of a man, the building at his softest touch sipped him into its lattice like a black and architected sugar cube. In the upper room, a reel was loaded on the projector adjacent to the first, and he fumbled it on and went downstairs. Walking through the lobby, he stopped at the bank of pay phones and picked up a receiver. Without a thought as to why, he began dialing a number; and when it began to ring, he realized that he had called his ex-fiancée.
The night was well advanced beyond its few civil hours, but the woman's voice that answered seemed wide-awake. She asked who was there, but Blake remained silent. She asked again, and after another pause she said his name.
Blake pressed the receiver down as quietly as he was able and went into the theater. He sat in Green's seat and nipped from a fifth he'd brought along. The animals were singing, and some were looking at him, and then more, and more, and he was horrified by this and tottered rashly up the aisle. He went to the bathroom; and whereas while he urinated he saw nothing, when he knelt his head into the bowl he saw a fleck of blue. When he was done, he plucked the fleck into his hand and examined it: a small isosceles snip of plastic bag smeared red on one side. Standing again, though more attentive, now, he saw a louver bowed lateral on the vent just up the wall from where he stood, and he climbed on the seat and pressed his face against the white metal of the grille. With his knife he fished from inside a pair of scissors, the blades mucked up and welded shut with blood. Rust-red prints on the handle were too smeared to be of use, but remarkably small, in any case.
He slid the scissors back inside the vent. He sat on the tile floor beside the sinks and tried to think awhile—though nothing came. At some point he realized where he was, and that he shouldn't be there. He stood up and went into the lobby to make a call. When he got there, though, he saw the immense room flooded with daylight—and so walked past the phones out into the parking lot. He walked past the guards without looking at them, and they watched him go, though did not speak.
Judith Green's home loomed, a large, delicate, suburban jewel—though lacking the titanic irreality of LeGrand's estate, and thus, in comparison, a bit mundane—above Blake's finger as he rang the bell. No one came. Remembering they were at the funeral, Blake went inside. Even in the foyer, the relics of her former husband's travels were enough to overwhelm—frozen eyes that peered from all manner of savage form conveyed Blake's image into empty skulls. He stepped through to the kitchen and up the stairs, nabbing a bottle as he went, and found the children's beds in a single room. He emptied out the dresser drawers, but found nothing that might serve as evidence. He looked under the beds and in the closet, then turned over the mattresses, and then slashed them and all the pillows inside out. Not a thing to his purposes was there. He clambered up into the attic and threw things around, knocked things over, and looked inside everything he could squeeze his eyes into, until at last he drooped gasping in the center of the wreckage. He curled into what space there was about his feet and went to sleep, the bottle clutched defensively in his hand, like a gun.
He awoke at some point hearing children crying through the floor and LeGrand shouting his name. He closed his eyes. When he opened them again, the murky gray light through the window suggested either dawn or dusk. Creeping to the glass, he took from the stillness of the street, and from a certain sharpness that infected its colors, that the hour was not quite dawn. He tied a string of Christmas lights to a rusted bed frame and clambered down the lights to the lawn in a series of ataxic spasms. Halfway down, his pant leg snagged on an up-curled bit of siding, and he swung precariously for some minutes, his arms wrapped in the wire, trying quietly to kick free. The sun cracked the horizon's edge as he finally managed to tear the fabric and swing his leg loose, and he continued to the end of the lights—then dropped the few feet left between him and the earth, collapsing in a bed of flowers. He walked to the theater and pulled the scissors from the vent. He put them in a popcorn box; then filled another box with what was left of the popcorn in the bin and ate it as he walked to the station.
When he arrived outside the station, he saw the captain walking toward him, eyes aimed menacingly at his own. "I've heard what you've done," the captain growled. Blake stopped walking and looked at the captain, slowly eating his popcorn. A car pulled in on the other side of the lot. It was LeGrand. They both walked over to meet him, the captain never taking his eyes from Blake. "Even he won't help you this time. Even he's sick of your temper tantrums, now."
The day being already bright and warm, LeGrand had pulled into a shaded spot around the building's corner. When they reached the car, the captain stepped around a decorative hedge and opened the door for him, at which point they both saw his condition: hands on the wheel, torn apart, some of him gone.
The captain returned within the hour from Judith Green's house, having wanted to deliver the news in person. The door being open, and no one to answer his repeated calls, he had found her on her bed—dazed, silent, and unresponsive, even when he told her that LeGrand had died.
"She must have known—the bond between them was so strong—" and he melted into tears. Blake asked if he had told the children, but the captain said that they hadn't been at home.
"I'm sure they were hiding. Children have a sense for these things, you know. It does terrible things to them."
Forensics was drawing its examination to a close. Blake moved LeGrand to the passenger seat and drove him home. He buried LeGrand in the east garden, overlooking the pond, and on his way out he passed through the house, turning things off and locking the doors behind him.
The moon dragged its gown of ink about the globe and then returned. Tigers and gazelles of black liquid leapt and purred in the tender void; Blake walked smeared with the dancing paint of long and reeling throbs of shadow thrown by passing cars. The lights were off in the Green house, and when he turned the handle, the door opened. He drew his gun and went inside.
He climbed up to the children's room, but they weren't there. He went to Judith's room, which was also empty; and the other rooms being as barren as the first, he went downstairs—through the kitchen, the dining room, the living room—herds and flocks and prides above him on the walls howling in silence from the remaining shreds of their destructed flesh. He followed his gun through the avenues of a dismembered zoo, back to the kitchen, down the basement stairs. As he made his way down, he heard people talking and occasional laughter. The basement was partitioned into several rooms. All but one, and the hallway, were unlit; however, in a room at the end of the hall, a light was on, and a television was playing.
Blake crept toward the room. He passed an open door to his right and looked inside. It was empty except for a large, vacant cage. He moved up behind the door of the room at the end of the hall and peered in through the gap between the hinges. Judith sat without a shirt upon an extremely large, leather couch. A full-grown lion sprawled lengthwise on her lap—one paw stretched behind her back, one across her legs—licking milk from her breasts. She was caressing its head, while the two children knelt on the floor, petting it, and looking at the lion and their mother with expressions of deep concern. Judith also wore a troubled expression, staring at the lion, which was clearly slack and emaciated. Its head craned weakly and lapped with limp, pathetic motions the milk she squeezed for it.
In Blake's thoughts, in the muddled haze that drank the light inward from his eyes, incoherent ideas flashed like pictures in the turning pages of a book: bloodstains on the floor where Green and LeGrand had died; little hands pressing pedals and turning a wheel; Green, assembled in his theater seat, unpacked from plastic bags; children ducking under chairs, hunching over a toilet, snipping up evidence—and this because the lion was just a dangerous child that they loved, and that loved them back as it built its flesh from whatever flesh of theirs it took.
Blake whipped from behind the door in a convulsion of disgust, shooting as he staggered into the room. Bullets smacked into the couch or ricocheted off the back wall to God knows where. The last round hit the lion in the head, and it fell limp. Judith pleaded with Blake, screaming to him between the shots, "It's not his fault—he loved his Harold—he's just been sick—we raised him from a kitten—"
At the mention of their father's name, the children howled out for him. With the last shot, Blake stumbled and tried to catch himself, falling half-sprawled backward onto the lion. Drunk and confused, he thought the screaming that he heard was coming from the television, which was captivating for its immensity, and so bright he could feel the characters dancing across his skin. They were figures from a domestic scene—father, mother, and children—and they seemed to be singing…voices of things they'd killed echoing from their open mouths: out of each calm, loving smile rang a multitude of screams, voices crying to him from within the filmy wilderness of light, calling him "father".