That’s what we called the half finished and subsequently abandoned Undisclosed Shopping Centre. The city sank forty million dollars’ worth of tax breaks and infrastructure into getting the thing built before three of the five investors disappeared (I always imagined that all three simultaneously shot each other, like in the movie Reservoir Dogs). Now, three years and thirty lawsuits later, raccoons nested in the one hundred and fifty empty store slots and rainwater puddled in the halls.
It lay there in the darkness, broken and rotting like a decomposing animal carcass that was slowly picked apart by scavengers.
Molly zipped off toward the building and was swallowed by the darkness.
Krissy said, “Do we follow her in there?”
The radio kicked on, mandolin plucking the intro to an early ’90s song by REM called “Losing My Religion.” John and I reacted, Krissy didn’t. It only took a few seconds for me to realize this was not the song as Michael Stipe had written it.
Equals you, and Jews are dead meat . . .”
“I know people around here,” John said, “who would like the song better that way.”
“You can hear it?”
Krissy said, “Hear what?”
“Never mind. Look over by those Dumpsters,” John said. “Wexler’s car.”
“Well,” I said. “Nothing to do now but wander the fuck into that abandoned building, totally unarmed.”
John opened the satchel and drew out a long, metal flashlight, clicked on the beam to confirm that it still worked. Then he pulled out a wadded-up hand towel and handed it to me.
I unwrapped it and found myself holding the stainless-steel automatic pistol I had stolen from the pickup during the Las Vegas thing. I had planned to ditch it, to throw it into the river or something. Not only was the weapon stolen, but for all I knew it had been used to hold up four liquor stores and shoot two policemen before I got hold of it.
“Why do you still have this? I thought you were gonna make it disappear.”
John shrugged. “Never got around to it. I keep it hidden. And I scratched off the serial numbers there. Should be safe.”
I ejected the magazine.
“What? Why is it loaded?”
“Oh, Head bought bullets for it. He borrowed it a month ago, I think he had to threaten a dude with it. Brought it right back though.”
Krissy said, “You’re not going to shoot Danny, are you? If he’s possessed or whatever, you know that’s not his fault.”
“You belong to a church, right?” I asked. “You know anything about performing exorcisms? That sort of thing?”
She shook her head.
“You know your Bible?” John asked. “You could show us the part that’s got the spells and incantations and stuff and read them right from there.”
She just stared at him. She heard the chorus as the bastardized song continued. Chorus now.
“That’s me in the porno
That’s me in the spotlight
Losing my religion
Tryin’ to beat a tight-assed Jew . . .”
Krissy dug into her purse and pulled out a little black plastic thing that I thought was a flashlight but when she pressed the button a blue spark jumped across the end.
“It’s a Taser. A, uh, stun gun. I don’t think I’ve got anything else in here.” She sifted around in the purse. “Nail file . . .”
“No, let’s go.”
Our hearts hammering, the three of us approached the sprawling building, none of us making a sound other than the crunching of gravel under our shoes.
I made my way to Wexler’s car, edged toward the window with the gun.
Ahead was the tall, rusted metal framework that I supposed was going to be a fancy awning for the main entrance. Beneath it was a row of huge windows and a bank of doors, all boarded over with plywood.
Among the graffiti, something had been painted in bold letters two feet high. On closer inspection we saw the letters were twitching, moving ever so slightly.
A couple hundred of them had slimed their way up the boards to spell out a phrase that I was certain was right from “Korrok,” whoever he was:
His spelling, not mine.
One panel of plywood had been pulled partially off its frame, presumably by Mr. Wexler.
John said, “Dave, you got the gun. You should go in first.”
“You got the stereo! Besides, if I go in and get killed right off the bat, you’re all fucked. But if you get attacked I can rescue you with the gun.”
“Maybe Krissy should go, like as a decoy.”
She moved toward the opening but I shouldered her aside.
The stink hit me one foot inside the place. Rot and mildew and dead rodents.
The empty storefronts were boarded up, giving us a single, impossibly long corridor. The floor was littered with paper cups and candy wrappers and cigarette butts and other teenager droppings. I saw a used condom under my shoe.
Our only light was from a huge skylight running down the length of the building. Parts of it had been boarded over, other sections were spiderwebbed with breaks and clouded with mounds of accumulated dead leaves. When we walked under the boarded-over sections of the glass we found ourselves in pools of absolute blackness.
John lit the flashlight. He fired up the stereo.
“Home Sweet Home” by Mötley Crüe.
We plunged ahead, a creeping pool of light and music in the dead space.
Shoes scraping on floor tile.
I raised the gun.
We reached a bend in the mall, the hall taking a ninety-degree turn to the right. Blood was pumping in my ears. Palm sweat greased the handle of the gun.
Ahead of us, shoes scraping tile.
A shadowy shape.
It was as tall as a man. It passed into a shaft of moonlight.
John screamed a profanity.
I squeezed the trigger.
Gunshots hammered the air.
Yellow flashes from the gun barrel. Glimpses of brown fur and antlers in the darkness. A deer?
Maybe it had been one, once. This creature had grown several new sets of eyes. Each of its antlers ended in a snapping set of lobsterish claws. It looked like it had a novelty chandelier from a seafood restaurant on its head. Looking back, I have to say it was the stupidest-looking thing I had ever seen.
It stumbled as it got close and my wild shots started to land, blossoms of red opening up on the beast’s chest and neck.
It tried to turn away, showing me its rib cage and taking several broadside shots for its trouble. The mutated deer collapsed, thrashing on the dirty floor tiles and leaving red smears like a child’s finger painting.
It twitched one last time, and was still.
My hands were shaking. The gun looked broken, the top half of it pushed an inch from the rest of the mechanism. After fiddling with it for a few minutes I realized this is what the gun naturally did when it was empty. I pushed in the button to release the empty magazine. Great job conserving ammo so far.
We approached the fallen was-a-deer, kicking brass casings as we went. I pushed at its furry hide with my foot. As solid as a dead deer. I turned to Krissy, asked, “You see it?”
She nodded, eyes still wide.
“Oh, look!” yelped John. “Look at its ass!”
The deer’s ass was melting, puddling on the floor like candle wax. In less than a minute the entire hindquarters were a brown pool on the floor, the ribs quickly caving in like a punctured balloon at a Thanksgiving Day parade. As the front legs and head flattened, the liquid residue from the hindquarters dissolved before our eyes, leaving dry floor behind.
There was one part that didn’t melt, a section in the middle of the animal that protruded from the pink and brown slime. Square. A box about six inches to a side.
I scooted it away with my foot. Heavy. When the goo dissolved from it, I saw that it was a green-and-yellow box marked . . .
“Shotgun shells,” John said. “Too bad we don’t have a . . .”
His voice trailed off as his gaze shifted to a lone wooden crate over by the wall, presumably full of floor tile or coils of electrical wiring and other mall fixin’s.
John delivered a series of hard kicks to the side of the crate, cracking and splintering the boards. He plunged his hands into the opening and pulled out a dark length of plastic and metal that I had already guessed was a shotgun.
Growls emerged from the darkness, followed by the scratches of claws. Many claws.
I clenched the empty gun in my hand, pointing it stupidly into the darkness. John frantically loaded the shotgun.
“WHOA, LOOK AT the time!” said Arnie, standing to leave. “Mr. Wong, it’s been a hell of a lot of fun talkin’ to you. But I should start my drive back; I got six hours ahead of me. The piece may not run next month, but soon. They may want to run it on Halloween, you know.”
“Arnie, please. You came all this way. Don’t walk away thinking what you’re thinking.”
He dug his car keys from his pocket. “I’m not here to judge, I said that already. The shotgun, hey, the roofers could have left that behind. And maybe that deer got fed up with the local hunters and ate one of them, including the shotgun shells the poor guy had in his pocket.”
He pulled out a cigar from an inside pocket and jammed it into his mouth.
“No, it’s nothing like that. The thing in Wexler, it had the power to call up on these things I guess, to try to kill us. But I think Wexler was still inside there, too, and he was working from the other end, helping us out. He was on the sauce, you know, and he used it.”
“After you told me the part about Las Vegas, you know how I said it was the stupidest story I had ever heard?”
“You didn’t say that.”
“Well, I was thinkin’ it. But I’ve decided I owe that Las Vegas story an apology because this last thing made that one look like The Grapes of Wrath. I’ll see ya around.”