Richard was troubled. He’d fallen into a dark place and, like a child stranded at the bottom of a well, knew not how to save himself. He clawed in vain at the walls of his prison and wept openly when he realized how utterly lost and desolate he was. Until moments ago, his soul had been, for the most part, smooth and clear. Like any man his age, there were a few blemishes. He consoled himself with the belief that no one could live a completely blemish-free life.

A lie to his father about who’d broken a window here. A neglected dinner appointment there. Over time, Richard had built up more than a few dark acts on the rap sheet of his conscience, but they were nothing compared with what had happened. In a moment of passion, he’d opened his palette to a darkness so consuming that he’d lost his sense of right and wrong. In a moment, his conscience was completely squelched by his thirst for vengeance.

He’d reached out and ended the life of another. He’d thought himself God and taken a life as his own. Even as the last flicker of life had begun to fade in the other, he’d tried to take it back. Just as Richard had willed the man dead, he tried to will him back to life. His memories flashed back to a childhood friend’s broken arm and how he’d tried to will it back to some semblance of whole.

“It’ll be OK. Just don’t tell your Mom.”

In the here and now he had done more than just harm another, though. He’d wholly and completely destroyed them. Consumed their body with fire and ended its ability to go on living. As a last act of selflessness he’d opened himself. Trying to take back the act and unwittingly opening his own body as a host for the other’s cast aside soul.

The other had been happy to oblige, though it had done so unknowlingly.

In a heartbeat Richard had killed and then, in a moment of naivety, invited another killer into his body and mind. His previously white soul was caked with a blackening soot by the act, and had begun to blend with the surrounding darkness of the other’s. The border between his sense of right and the other’s total disregard for it had blurred. As the seconds ticked away, the line blurred further and Richard was faced with a horrifying, resounding truth.

Over time, the border would dissipate completely. His soul would be given to darkness as the other seemed to be borne of it. His knowledge of the meadow, the library, and the wealth of information contained would be opened to an evil so absolute the world would better have ended. Richard fought to hold on to his concept of right, justice, and conscience, but his grip was slowly beginning to fade.

For a moment, the other’s desires had overcome his tight grip on reality and Richard found himself clutching a scalpel. He looked down at the bound and bleeding woman and realized the horror his own hands had wrought. It took less than a second for Richard to make his decision; he put down the knife, reached out, and snapped her neck.

The realization of murder once again coursed through his veins and coated his gloomy gray sheet a darker shade of evil. Richard shivered with the sensation and, for only a moment, grinned at the feeling. His wavering conscience caught and crushed the feeling, but too late. The other rousted and went back to its dark work with the body.

Richard cowered in a corner of his own mind, trying to wash the darkness away by convincing himself the killing had been out of mercy. She would have suffered a far worse fate – and his soul a much darker palette – if he had failed to end the bloody ritual.

Still, the darkness continued to creep unabated and Richard found himself slipping farther and farther from the light. Dark thoughts from the other began to find their way into Richard’s mind and he shut them out with all the strength he could muster. It was difficult work, and Richard surrendered all control of his body to focus on the battle. As the minutes turned into hours he realized how futile a battle it was.

The reality of the man he’d become – the murderer he’d become – was slowly eating away at him. Richard’s once vivid white sheet had become an asphalt gray, mottled with spots of darkness so deep they threatened to consume Richard’s whole world. He felt himself drift more towards the other, finding a sort of dark kinship – almost a oneness – with the one he was fighting so hard to distance himself from.

Another of the other’s thoughts passed into Richard’s mind. Of a new victim. A young man alone on the street, out far too late after work and on the wrong side of town. Richard felt himself smile in anticipation and squeezed off the foreign thrill before it took too much of his being. The other felt thrilled and riled up, waiting for a quick kill. It had been robbed the earlier kill of the woman, and it was hungry for satisfaction.

Richard could see the unblemished ray of light shooting from the young man in no direction and suddenly realized what he had to do. He had to take it. He had to take this man’s whiter sheet to bolster his own defenses from the darkness.

He loosed the other to its work and closed his eyes against the dark images and feelings of gratification that drifted out of the darkness and permeated his own sheet, darkening it once more as he felt the blood on his hands. When the time was right, just before the light went out in the man’s eyes, Richard reached out and grabbed up his sheet, latching on to its purity and binding the man’s fading ray of light with his own.

Not a moment too soon. As the darkness fully consumed Richard he clung to the white sheet, the new element of his mind. The remaining edges of his own sheet – of his own soul, self, and conscience – drifted down into the darkness and was consumed completely into the other. But Richard was not lost. He grasped the new, whiter sheet, with everything he could muster, distancing himself from the darkness once more.

And every part of the sheet he touched took on a darker hue, growing grayer and blurring the lines with the darkness once again. Richard had bought himself time. The other would not benefit from his knowledge of the library just yet. Richard lept with joy, knowing the horror he had prevented and rejoicing in the little time he had managed to gain.

Richard also sensed the library. Stronger now, his sense of its existence strengthened by the addition of the young man’s ray to his own. It was unsettling for the library to feel so strong, yet its proximity gave him strength to carry on and reminded him of why he’d continued further in the first place.

His new clarity gave him the strength to push the darkness to a remote corner of his mind, returning control of his faculties to their rightful place. Once again, Richard felt the world through his own senses. He saw the sky through his own eyes. He smelled the night air with his own breath. The other writhed in its cage, not understanding where it had been banished to or why, only knowing the sudden disconnect between its icy touch and the hard edges of the world.

Richard smiled and breathed deep of the cool night air. Then he caught a strange scent. Almost metallic, yet sweet at the same time. He looked down and saw the body, laid and a strange angle on the concrete of the alley, with its limbs and organs strewn about haphazardly as if ripped apart by an animal. Richard felt something slick and warm on his own hands and looked down at the sheen of blood covering most of his body.

He realized what he’d done. To save himself from darkness, he’d given into it. Like an addict who needed to get a fix to function normally, he’d given himself to the dark thing in his mind and, once again, darkened himself.

Richard looked inward at the white sheet he’d stolen from the man whose body now lay at his feet. For the most part, it was still clean. But the tiniest part of Richard’s conscience that had surv
ived was slowly eating it. He wrapped the sheet around himself, trying to wipe off the darkness of his acts. It only sullied the sheet further, but could not remove the metaphorical blood from his conscience’s hands.

He’d sinned to keep from turning himself over to sin. The other laughed at the mortal irony and clanked its shackles. Richard looked back to the body in fear, not of what he’d done, but out of the knowledge that this likely would not be the last.

Then he reached out with his mind and touched the library. With a thought and a breath he was standing back in his home in the shower, washing the blood and the darkness of the night off his skin, wishing the shower would penetrate deeper and relive him of his newfound dark burden.

The dark one crouched, sensing the walls of ITs prison weakening. While it wouldn’t happen tomorrow, IT knew it would be freed again. IT waited.

Out of pure curiosity, Alan responded to the second call on the radio. The forensics team was still going over the warehouse – they’d likely be there all night – so it was either lend a hand to the locals or head to his hotel room. Considering whose prints they’d discovered on the tools, Alan knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep for a long time.

He tagged along for the call, knowing this body was only a few blocks from the warehouse and suspecting, albeit for reasons he couldn’t explain, that he might find some connection. After coming across the scene, Alan knew sleep would become a distant memory.

The body of a young man was flayed open in an alley. He’d been quite literally ripped to pieces right there on the ground. At a first glance, the coroner suspected a large animal. Then he noted the bloody handprints, the finger-shaped defensive wounds, and the blood-covered footprints leading away down the alley.

Alan gave the scene a once-over and decided it would be better for his sanity to leave it to the locals. Deep down he already knew they’d find a connection. Not because of the manner of death or the display of the body, but for the inexplicable end in the blood trail. After killing the man, the killer had walked down the alley and paused. Then, for reasons no one could explain or begin to hypothesize, the trail vanished.

Their suspect had just up and disappeared.

Just like Rick did from his house earlier, Alan pulled out his cell phone can called the unit he had watching Rick’s house.

“What do you mean he’s taking a shower?”

Karen was already late. She’d taken the bait and stayed up late the night before to indulge in one of her many guilty pleasures – she stayed up late to watch reality TV after the kids had gone to bed. An immunity challenge quickly evolved into a roadblock. Then it shifted directions and turned into a judge’s save. By the time she realized it, Karen had watched a 6-hour marathon of various reality shows and the clock had started its hourly count over again.

So, six hours after she should have been in bed, Karen finally turned off the TV set and closed her eyes. Almost as quickly, the alarm clock started squacking. She rolled over and batted it silent out of habitual reflex, absently hitting “reset” when she had intended on hitting “snooze.”

The sun peeked through her curtains a few hours later, heralding the dawn and yet another morning absent her enforcing presence. The kids had managed to get up and out the door, but Karen could only hope it had been on time. Not that she had set any kind of example this morning for timeliness. She wandered into the kitchen and grimaced at the pile of dirty dishes in the sink.

You’d expect teenagers could clean up after themselves every once in a while. Instead, they had merely added their breakfast bowls to the already mountainous pile of junk in front of the window. Karen shook the sleep out of her eyes and got to work, first emptying the dishwasher and then loading as many dishes as she dared squeeze into the tight space.

All she had left was a pan, three plates, an assortment of silverware, and her sons’ breakfast bowls. Karen started the dishwasher and let it get a few minutes’ head start before turning on the sink to finish the job. About five minutes later, she dried her hands before pulling her eldest’s laundry out of the machine, folding it carefully, and placing it in his dresser.

She really should have ironed his khakis, but she was still too groggy to really care about his wrinkles. Besides, he’d wear them ironed or not. It almost defeated the purpose of all her effort. Clothing with wrinkles was in style these days, after all.

Karen checked the clock on the wall before grabbing her gym bag and car keys. Only two hours behind, she thought to herself. Thank God for small miracles. If she shaved a half hour off her workout, she might still be able to do everything on today’s list. Sure, she could have skipped the entire visit, but she’d made a promise to get into shape before the holidays. You don’t keep a promise to someone else by giving yourself too much room to cheat.

But shaving off a half hour? Certainly acceptable. She still had to make cookies for tonight and pick up a roast – buying a pre-cooked entre would save even more time than slaving to prepare something fresh. Besides, they’d never know the difference any way. If her father even noticed the roast, that is.

Unlike most days, the street in front of the parking garage was barren this morning. Rather than fight her way around tight corners and avoid too-quickly moving cars in the garage, Karen could snag a 2-hour parking spot outside. It was convenient, meant less walking on her part, and would allow for a speedier exit when she finished. Karen danced a little as she backed her car in parallel into the first spot in the row, right in front of the van that never seemed to move, despite the two hour limit.

She grabbed her bag, locked the door, and hopped across the street to the gym. It was starting to get cloudy, and Karen was hoping to be finished with her workout and back to the car before any kind of rain started. She’d brought a jacket, but there was no reason to take it inside. She’d be warm enough after the shower that she wouldn’t want it, anyway.

Just like the street out front, the gym was relatively bare today as well. There were the typical groupies around the ESPN TVs – the overweight, middle-aged men who fantasized about being on the other side of the set. Ironically, they were all walking on their treadmills, probably burning more calories thinking about the show they were watching than actually working out. A few college students – freshmen, probably, judging by their age – were flirting with the trainers at the check-in desk. It was always a distraction, and Karen felt bad for the woman sitting in the reception area, obviously waiting to be noticed by the young men at the front desk.

They waved her over, swiped her card, and nodded as she walked off towards the locker rooms. Karen threw her back into her usual locker, putting her keys and cell phone safely inside before locking the door. She used an old luggage lock in the gym – Karen had better things to spend her money on than a new combination lock. Since she couldn’t use this one on her luggage anymore because of the new rules, might as well get some kind of use out of it. Besides, who would want to steal her sweaty gym clothes?

Karen left the locker room and picked an elliptical machine with a clear view of the TV showing Oprah and set her workout. An hour of cardio followed by 15 minutes of weights was what the trainer recommended for “rest days” on her schedule. She looked around quickly to make sure he wasn’t working today. It was his day off, but she wanted to make sure he wasn’t stalking her and didn’t want him to see how late she’d come in today.

An hour and twenty minutes later, Karen was drenched
in sweat and ready to go home. Her legs were sore from the elliptical –she’d gotten too into the TV show and hadn’t kept an eye on her speed, gradually working her way up to a frantic sprint before she caught herself. Her arms were sore from the weights and she wanted nothing more than to take a long shower before heading home for an even longer bath.

Still, she had a lot to do to finish getting ready for her parents’ anniversary dinner tonight. The kids had agreed that grandma and grandpa should spend the weekend in town this year. While she admired the love they showed for their grandparents, she cursed it out of the other side of her mouth. Yeah, it’s a great idea, but I have to do everything!

Karen massaged her aching shoulder as she walked into the locker room, moving to her neck and craning it backwards in a stretch when she reached her locker. She paused for just a moment, enjoying the warm aftereffects of her workout for just a second longer before opening her eyes and returning to the here and now.

A confused wrinkle stood out on Karen’s forehead as she stared at her locker. It was standing open, the lock hanging unshackled from the door. Her bag was inside, but empty. Someone had taken her clothes!

Karen lunged forward and searched for her wallet, phone, and keys. She found the phone rather quickly, but her wallet and keys were another manner. Karen dropped her bag and sprinted for the front desk, her legs complaining with every step. She pushed aside the flirty groupies and shouted at the attendant, “Someone stole my stuff!”

Over his shoulder, Karen watched as her car pulled away from the curb and drove down the street.

Cari smiled at her luck. Who knew a woman exactly her size would come by today? It was fate, and now she had a fresh change of clothes, a credit card she could get one good purchase off, and a new set of wheels. She turned her new car down another street and made her way for the interstate.

“Now time to find a new gig.”

Alan had been right. For reasons he couldn’t explain, they’d found Rick’s finger prints all over the second body. Two victims, brutally murdered, by a person in an impossible situation. He’d tried to ask Rick about it, but Rick kept dodging his questions. Odder still, he seemed entirely disinterested in the case now. As if he’d stopped caring whether or not they caught the couple who’d killed his wife.

Alan scrawled a disturbed note on the whiteboard by his desk and doubled the 24-hour detail watching Rick. If he’d actually done it, Alan would be sure not to lose him. If, somehow, they proved his innocence later on, Alan still wanted to know he was safe. If another killer had somehow planted Rick’s finger prints at the scene, Alan would prove it.

But to be so sick as to frame another man for this crime … the thought boggled Alan. The Feds were working the scene as if Rick had been set up to take the fall. They liked Cari for both crimes – she was the only other person on scene and, outside law enforcement, the only one who could connect anything back to Rick. The coroner had announced yesterday that the charred corpse was indeed the body of John Durram.

Cause of death, comically, was most likely spontaneous combustion. His entire body, exterior and interior had been burned to a cinder. From all appearances, he had been alive at the time. But they found no evidence of smoke inhalation. So he’d been alive, burned simultaneously on the outside and inside of his body, but hadn’t inhaled any of the smoke from his burning body. It was as if he had been burned so hotly and so quickly that the fire had burned itself out before he could take a breath.

Outside of science fiction, though, that was impossible. Another on Alan’s growing list of impossibilities relating to this case. He also thought it was impossible for Cari to have killed John and Agent Brooks without leaving a trace of evidence inside the warehouse. Sure, there were signs of her all over the office, but they couldn’t place her anywhere inside the rest of the building.

They also had zero evidence to tie her to the second killing – the third killing, really. Alan threw down the case file and massaged the bridge of his nose. As much as he despised the man, he had to think of John now as a victim. From the looks of things, the first victim of the night. It was sickening to move the deranged killer they’d all been tracking for so long into the “victim” category on the board.

It was almost as hard as having to list Rick in the “suspects” category.

Alan leaned forward and picked the file back up. It was going to be a long series of sleepless nights before he’d be able to stop thinking about this case. His wife claimed she understood, but he saw in her eyes how much she wished he’d be done with this already. Alan apologized and promised it’d all be over soon – more of a lie to himself than to her. Wishful thinking that, deep down, Alan knew would never reach fruition. Still, he wanted to go home. He wanted to sleep at night. More than anything, he wanted to make sure the right man went to prison for what had happened not just to several women in the past, but to a fellow law enforcement officer.

Agent Brooks’ death made the already personal case even more so for Alan. He wouldn’t let this drop.

Cari spent the next few weeks sleeping out of her new car. It was a nice ride, good fuel economy, comfortable seats. It had been two days since she’d swiped it from in front of the gym, and she’d already changed the plates twice.

It was easy to keep a stolen car from getting too hot, so long as you swapped the plates within the first two hours and kept swapping them at least once a week. You could get a few states away before having to worry about getting pulled over. But you had to be smart about it.

Drive for an hour until you find a car with a similar make, model, and color as the hot one. Strip the plates of and swap them out. Nursing homes were good spots to go plate shopping – the old farts only drove about once a week, and their feeble minds lost their grasp on plate numbers easily enough. She could swipe a set and the poor old guy wouldn’t even know the difference. That is, until he got pulled over for driving a stolen vehicle.

It would take a day or so for the cops to sort things out, meanwhile the old guy would stew in the tank and Cari would keep on trucking for another day. She always changed plates on Monday, hoping the old guys wouldn’t venture out again until Sunday. It gave her at least a week of clean plates and easy driving.

Even longer if she made it across the state lines before the weekend. The cops were never as coordinated as in the movies. They’d wait a few weeks before calling in help from the neighbors. Some misplaced sense of pride, but it worked in her favor.

She’d managed to take this vehicle through three states in the past two weeks and guess she’d have at least three days of smooth riding left. She pulled up behind a 7-11 to park for the night and pulled a cold one – well, a room temperature one – out of the glove box to unwind.

Sleeping in the car was convenient – no hotel check-ins, no strange beds, no questions – but it was cramped, too. She’d knock herself out with a relaxing beer tonight, then lift a cup of coffee from the market in the morning before hitting the road. At this rate, she might even make the coast before she had to go plate shopping again.

Cari leaned her seat back and closed her eyes, letting the alcohol soak in and begin to numb her mind. She was too much a lightweight for the hard stuff – one beer had her more than tipsy enough. She felt her way to the already molding cup holder and wedged the bottle in between some candy wrappers so it wouldn’t spill. Then she let herself fall asleep, watching lights dance over her eyelids
and her consciousness began to fade.

“Dispatch, I have eyes on the plate from this morning’s APB. Yes, I’m positive. One suspect, female, mid to late thirties. Yes, just the one. No, of course I’ll wait for backup,” the officer unbuckled his seatbelt then unholstered his weapon, just in case. He’d already turned the lights on, but the woman wasn’t making a move to start the car or bolt. This would be the easiest arrest he’d ever made.

Alan was ready to quit. They’d managed to track down Cari, finally, but due to a stupid bureaucratic process couldn’t actually touch her yet. She’d gotten pulled over and arrested for grand theft auto in Oregon, just inside the city limits of Bend. But because he still had no way to tie her to the crimes back here, he couldn’t pull jurisdiction.

He had managed to prove she’d stolen another woman’s car. But judging from the mountain of paperwork he still had left to fill out it would be at least a month before he’d be able to call her up on those charges.

Add to that the colossal cluster jam that was the murder investigation. Rick’s prints were everywhere. On the knives, on the body, on the door. They were all over the second victim, too. Who could deny a thumbprint on a liver as proof you were at a scene. Still, he knew it was impossible that Rick had been there. Alan was Rick’s alibi! He knew exactly where Rick had been 2 hours before the crime, making it improbable that he had committed at least the first murder. But they had rock solid evidence of his location within 15 minutes of the second crime, too! Unless the man was a magician there was no way he could have committed either murder.

Alan threw the case file on the desk in disgust and cradled his head in his hands. Nope, definitely not a good month for sleep. He’d been forced to pull Rick’s protective detail last week by the Feds. They agreed with the assertion that Rick couldn’t have committed the crimes and could no longer justify the expense of extra men. Alan had insisted that at least one person in his department keep an eye out, though. Impossible or no, Rick was still their only suspect. At least until he could get a hold of Cari and place her at both murder scenes.

Richard no longer slept. He let his body rest and rejuvenate, but he couldn’t sleep any more. Just letting his mind begin to drift off would begin to unlock IT from ITs dark prison. He’d instead let his body sleep and carry IT along for the ride. Meanwhile, he’d play in the darkness, imagining new worlds and refreshing himself with the bounty of his imagination.

It had been almost three weeks since he’d killed John, three weeks since he’d mistakenly welcomed IT into his mind, and Richard would almost kill to have a good night’s sleep. He hadn’t felt the typical signs of exhaustion, but then again his physical brain was getting plenty of rest. It was the thinking part – his mind – that was restless.

Tonight, Richard decided to recline once again in the meadow, basking in the glow of the library at its center. When he’d first killed the young man that night, he’d almost been able to tell the difference between their twin beams of light. Now the separation was lost completely, but the single beam he had was stronger than he’d ever seen it.

It was unsettling to understand what was happening. Richard possessed a knowledge that would aid IT in wreaking unimaginable damage on the world. To prevent IT from harvesting this knowledge, he had to keep his own mind – his conscious – as separate from IT as possible. Ironically, the only way to do so was to delve deeper into darkness and indulge ITs dark hunger for death. When he killed that man, he’d felt himself giving way to IT. Felt himself enjoying the kinship, the oneness.

Then he latched on to the man’s pure conscience and drug himself back up from the depths into blessed isolation.

Killing the man had saved Richard from certain death into the essence of IT. At the same time, it doomed him. By committing the mortal act, Richard became more like IT than he had been before. The very act that would condemn him was the only act that could save him.

Worse yet, by merging his essence with that of the man he had strengthened his connection with the library. He had made more present the very thing that had placed him in this situation. Remaining distinct from the other was more vital now that the link was stronger than it had been when it was more transitory.

Richard reflected on the differences. In any other circumstances, a closer connection with the collective knowledge of mankind would be an intriguing thing.

Three weeks ago, he had only begun to understand the magnitude of his discovery. The library had been just an idea on the edge of his mind. He’d sensed it in a dream, almost as if someone were calling him to it. When he’d first found his way to the meadow, his mind had been flooded with knowledge. In a flash he learned everything there was to know about a young boy he’d found here.

No. That’s not the right description.

He knew everything there was to know – first hand. In a single moment he had lived the boy’s life as his own. He knew everything the boy knew, from the boy’s own perspective. He’d also lived the lives of every person the boy’s life touched. That of his parents. That of his friends. That of his lovers. In the span of a single moment of human thought, Richard had been everyone in and around the boy’s life, understanding their thoughts, hopes, fears, and passions as if they were his own.

Then it was gone.

A sudden flood of the awareness of a countless number of lifetimes. Too much information for any one person’s mind to ever process, yet Richard had seen it all. It was painful the first time. Unbearable.

After taking John, and later the man in the alley – Richard refused to acknowledge his name. It was easier that way – things were different. He no longer had to force his mind to calm to sense the beckoning of the library; the call was ever present. He needed only to reach out and state the truth and experience he needed.

Richard compared this to the way Jeopardy was played. Answer in the form of a question. In the case of the library, he’d ask a question in the form of an answer. He’d begin to pose a statement of fact and open his mind to the library, letting the statement complete on autopilot.

“This wall is not a wall. It is a curtain of fog. I step forward through the wall by …”

And the thought would come, entering Richard’s mind as if it had always been and gifting him with the sudden impossible knowledge not of how to walk through a wall, but how to realize the wall really was just a curtain of fog. Afterwards, the knowledge was gone. Richard had done the impossible, and the sweet aftertaste of infinite knowledge clung to the back of his mind.

It was intoxicating.

Every time Richard used this knowledge, though, he sensed his connection to the library weaken. It now made sense why the boy’s thread seemed thinner and less brilliant after the flood of the mindfire. Every time Richard called it up, he felt it singe away the tiniest remnants of his sinewy connection.

And with every inch he lost, he felt himself fall an inch closer to the shadow. He felt the door to ITs prison open just a crack wider. Every step he took brought him closer to the fading line between his knowledge of good and evil and ITs unquenchable thirst for dark gratification.

Richard avoided touching the library as much as he could, but there were times where it had become necessary.

As he let his body drift off to sleep, he’d sometimes feel IT watching. Waiting for him to drift off along with it. Waiting for ITs change to strike and seize control. It was during these times when Richard would click to the fraying thread and let the min
dfire course through him. He could sleep without sleeping, refreshing his mind and strengthening his resolve to win the day against IT.

Slowly, IT would give up and slumber as well, leaving Richard a few tense hours with which to relax with his thoughts.

He’d win each battle, but knew he was slowly losing ground. It would not be long before either he finally succumbed to IT through fatigue or released IT to its dark motivations in hopes of grasping another pure soul.

Neither was a pleasant outcome, and Richard regarded both with an absolute sense of dread and fear.