“I want you to know, you need to know, that I had a long conversation with the Sheriff last night,” Pete Corelli said.
“Is that right?” Saint’s face remained unchanged but his eyes hardened.
“I figured, once we were down in the cave, that’d be the perfect opportunity for you to kill me. Or Mr. Roth. Give either of us a little shove, maybe both of us, make it look like an accident. Then it’s just you and Arly down there, alone together.”
Saint only stared.
“Now, if that happens, if Mr. Roth or I were to have any sort of ‘accident,’ it’s all documented. The Sheriff will know what happened and you’ll be on the hook for it.”
Pete wouldn’t let himself break Saint’s gaze. The look in Saint’s eyes at that moment convinced Pete that he’d been spot-on with his suspicions. Saint had been planning to kill him.
“I figured you should know that,” Pete said.
Saint stared another two seconds. The longest two seconds Pete could ever remember experiencing.
“Guess you an’ the boss had better not have any accidents, then,” Saint replied at last, and turned away.
Pete’s palms were sweaty. *How can Arly not see this man for what he is? She’s seen monsters before.*
Last night, in his hotel room, she’d told him all about the time she saw Makah’kahu.
“I was little,” she’d said, sitting on the couch that came with the room. “Third grade. I didn’t have any business being there, but I’d gone with my cousin, Lisa. I followed her around like a puppy back then. The teenagers would all go down to the cave and dare each other to go inside. The old haunted house game, except with a country twist.”
Pete had sat on the bed, listening. The thought had occurred to him that, with any woman other than Arly, the situation would have been improper. It would have looked improper to anyone who didn’t know them or their situation, a married man with a pretty young woman in his hotel room. But they wouldn’t have known that, minutes before, Pete had been on the telephone with his wife, Laurie, with Arly right there in the room. “Tell her I said hi,” Arly had said. And Laurie, knowing about the thing with Saint, had cautioned her husband: “You take care of her, Petey.”
He’d known Arly since she’d been a beanpole-skinny kid with knobby knees and braces. He’d been ersatz big brother, mentor and friend for so long that she really did feel like family. (Toby and Ella, his twins, even called her “Aunt Arly.”) And even though she had grown (“blossomed”—wasn’t that the word?) into a beautiful woman, a striking one, the idea of engaging in any type of romantic or sexual behavior with her—(Saint had asked him earlier that day: “Tell the truth now, homme. You had a little taste a’ that?” Pete had ignored him.)—would have felt downright incestuous. (“Don’ see how you could’n have at least tried, you bein’ a man.” Then he’d added: “You are a man, right?”)
Yes, Pete was a man. And sure he’d thought about it. Any man would have thought about it. But any man with standards would know, there are some lines that you just don’t cross.
“It was Halloween,” Arly had said, continuing to relate her experience at the cave. “I remember it had just gotten dark. We were all scared. It was me and Lisa and three other girls. Everybody was scared so we were all whispering. Looking back on it, I think that’s what saved us. That and the fact we were downwind from it. It didn’t hear us or smell us.”
As she’d told the story, it had been obvious that, all these years later, it still frightened her. She’d hugged herself and shivered.
“We heard it, though. We all froze. Then it came dragging this dead deer, a big buck, by the antlers. It went into the cave. We sure didn’t wait to see if it came back out.”
“What did it look like?” Pete had asked. Seeing her reaction, he’d wished he hadn’t.
“It was awful. It was so tall, I bet it was twelve feet tall, and so thin. It looked almost comical, it was so tall and yet so skinny; cartoonish, you could say. Just skin over bones, like one of those concentration camp survivors you see in pictures. Yellow skin, almost white, with patches of long white hair. Its hands, I remember they were too big, like, oversized, and it walked all hunched over. I didn’t see its face, thank God.”
“And you think it was, what’s the name?”
“I know it was Makah’kahu.”
Now here they were, at that same cave, about to go down into that cave. Pete Corelli didn’t like guns. But he wished he had one. Saint had one. That fact didn’t make Pete feel any better.
“I was stupid,” Arly had answered, when Pete had asked her about the second time she’d gone to the cave, gone inside it that time. “I was dating this guy, thought he was Billy Bad Ass. He knew that I’d always had nightmares after that sighting. Not all the time, but every once in a while. I’d had one with him, woke up screaming. He’d decided that the only way for me to ‘cure’ myself was to face my fear. He talked me into going with him to explore the cave. Either we’d stumble on Makah’kahu and he’d kill it—like I said, Billy Bad Ass—or we wouldn’t find anything. Either way, I’d never be afraid anymore. We didn’t find anything, but it didn’t work, either. I still had the occasional nightmare.”
“Which explains what you’re doing now, with Saint,” Pete had said. “Found yourself another bad ass to help you face down your fear.”
“Maybe I’m still stupid.”
“What you’re doing is stupid. What makes you think it’ll work this time? It didn’t before.”
“I feel like I need to try. And it’s not like we’re gonna find anything down there, anyway.”
She’d repeated to him then what she’d told him and the others yesterday afternoon: “The cave goes back several hundred feet, going downwards at a slight incline. More or less in a straight line. Then there’s this drop off, maybe thirty feet. It’s real steep. The floor at the bottom is jagged, made up of broken rocks. The space down there is shaped like a kidney. Two rooms, connected. I’d say one is as big around as a, um, a baseball diamond, more or less. The other is smaller. That’s it, though. No entrances or exits. If an animal did manage somehow to get down there it’d have nowhere to go. But if you want to see the cave, I can show you where it is.”
They’d seen the cave, and Saint had announced that he needed to explore inside it. Since they hadn’t had the necessary equipment they’d called it a day and Pete, thinking how that thirty-foot drop would offer such a fine chance for Saint to push him over it, had gone back to his hotel room and telephoned the Sheriff.
They’d left out early that morning. The day had grown hot and uncomfortable by ten o’clock when they’d arrived back at the cave. Saint was now unloading the equipment from the back of the Land Rover: rope; hardhats for the four of them; harnesses; flashlights.
And Saint had a damn .357 in a holster on his belt. He had a rifle, too, a big bolt-action number, but he left that in the vehicle.
“I’ve still got half a mind ta’ put you over my knee,” Saint said to Arly, “for not tellin’ me ’bout this here cave ta’ begin with. Think I’ll save that spankin’ for when we can be alone, though.”
“I told you, it’s a dead end in there. I didn’t think it was important.”
“I still think we need a professional,” Roth said.
“I told you, boss, you go on an’ hire as many damn ‘professionals’ as you wan’ pay for. But I’ve got experience cavin’ an’ I’m not waitin’. Besides—” He looked at Pete. “—there’s no reason for anybody ta’ go in with me.”
“I had a dream last night,” Roth replied. “Kiersten was at the bottom of a dark hole and she was hurt. I’m going.”
Pete had tried, the night before, to talk Arly out of going back to the cave with them, but she’d insisted.
“That last time I went there didn’t cure me of my fears,” she’d said. “Maybe second time’s the charm.”
Technically, Pete thought, this is the third time you’ve been here, and you’re one for two on monster sightings. Pete didn’t even know if he believed in this monster, despite Arly’s encounter. (People hallucinate, he reminded himself.) But going into the cave made him nervous, and not just because of Saint.
“Alright, then,” Saint said, passing around the helmets. “Let’s do this thing.” He gave Arly the smallest one. “You stick close ta’ me, chere. Stay snuggled up real close, now.”
Over my dead body, Pete thought, then regretted it.