Shadow Dance by Michael Prescott by Michael Prescott - Read Online

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From New York Times and USA Today bestseller Michael Prescott, author of Cold Around the Heart and Blood in the Water, comes Shadow Dance, a chilling tale of nightmarish suspense.

Little Timothy Cutter has a secret. He knows the truth behind his parents' inexplicable deaths. He knows about the runa: ageless, bodiless, a shadow thing that invades a human host and steals its victim's soul with a kiss ...

Robert Thorn, too, has a secret. Twelve years ago he unleashed the runa on the world. Ever since, he has been stalking it across two continents, following a trail of corpses that cast no shadows. He has sworn to stop the runa ... and Timothy is the key.

Only one thing stands in Thorn's way—Dr. Rachel Weiss, the therapist assigned to help the traumatized boy.

In the concrete canyons and shadowed hilltops of Los Angeles, Timothy, Rachel, and Thorn find themselves locked in a deadly dance, as mankind's oldest enemy inexorably closes in ...

Out of print for two decades, Shadow Dance is now avalable, newly revised, in this special ebook edition.

Published: Michael Prescott on
ISBN: 9781502224644
List price: $2.99
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Shadow Dance - Michael Prescott

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SHADOW DANCE

MICHAEL PRESCOTT

WRITING AS DOUGLAS BORTON

www.michaelprescott.net

Shadow Dance, by Michael Prescott

Revised edition copyright 2014 by Douglas Borton

All rights reserved

Originally published in a slightly different form as Shadow Dance, by Douglas Borton (Signet Books, 1991)

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Cover photo Skull With Smoke Demons © Ponytail1414 | Dreamstime.com

1

Timothy Cutter lay in darkness, huddled beneath layers of sheets and blankets, listening to the slow click-clack of claws under his bed.

At least it sure sounded like claws, sharp claws scratching on the carpetless oak floor. Claws or long fingernails, maybe, like the ones his homeroom teacher Mrs. Andrews had—long, curved nails painted the color of grape sherbet. When Mrs. Andrews clicked her nails, they made a noise just like the noise he was hearing now.

Maybe Mrs. Andrews is under my bed, Timothy thought. He almost giggled at the idea.

He wasn’t afraid. Whatever was under there was harmless, he was sure. A mouse, maybe. This house wasn’t old—hardly anyplace in Los Angeles or its suburbs was really old, not like, say, Europe or anything—but even so, it had mice. He knew because his dad had set a trap for one, and he’d gotten it, too, although he hadn’t wanted Timothy to see; but later Timothy had peeked in the trash can outside and yes, there it was, a small dead thing, its eyes wide and glassy, its tiny paws drawn up close to its body in a frozen pose of shock. Timothy had thought it was neat, though he was disappointed there wasn’t any blood.

But the thing under his bed ... It sounded too big to be a mouse. So maybe it was a rat. That would be even better. Boy, would his mom ever throw a fit if she thought there were rats in the house.

He listened more closely. He still couldn’t tell what it was. But one thing was for sure. It wasn’t a monster. Because there were no monsters. His mom and dad had assured him and reassured him on that point. There were no dark things that dwelled in shadows, no werewolves and vampires haunting the night. All that stuff, they’d explained, was imagination. It was make-believe, like the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus—fun to pretend about, but not to be taken seriously. If you took it seriously, you’d get bad dreams and wake up screaming. Timothy knew about that. He’d had plenty of those nights back when he was a little kid.

Well, he wasn’t little anymore. He was eight years old. Old enough to know his parents were right. There were no monsters, not in real life, and certainly none that would hide under his bed.

Still, something was under there.

Or had been, anyway. Now it seemed to be gone. The clicking had stopped. He listened. The slow, dismal November rain pelted the windowpane, the droplets hard and ringing like hailstones. Somewhere a clock ticked. That was all.

Gone, he decided.

He plumped up his pillow, buried his face in it, and shut his eyes. He had nearly drifted off on waves of sleep when he heard it again.

Click-clack. Click-clack.

He rolled over on his back and lay still, listening, while the rain beat down and an endless minute crawled by. There was something about that slow, steady clicking he didn’t like. Something that almost scared him. Almost. Of course, he was too big to be scared by a funny noise, even if it was coming from under his bed and the bedroom was pitch-dark and Halloween goblins had roamed the night less than three weeks ago, and even if the noise was getting louder, closer.

No, he wasn’t scared. Still, the night was chilly and damp, and maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea to pull the blankets up higher. Not that he wanted to hide under the covers like a baby. But he supposed it wouldn’t hurt to raise the blankets a little bit more ...

Then from under the bed came a new sound—a soft, insistent mewling, like a cat’s sibilant meow. A cat ... or maybe not quite a cat. Maybe ...

Timothy shut his eyes. Suddenly he knew what it was. He knew, even though it was impossible, because there were no monsters. He knew; and he was afraid.

A long time ago, when Timothy was no more than five, a babysitter named Lizbeth had come to take care of him while his parents went to a dinner party. Lizbeth was a bored blond girl who wore granny glasses and talked on the phone a lot to someone named Gary. Past nine o’clock Lizbeth had tucked Timothy into bed—this very bed with the very same bedspread decorated with pictures of Snoopy and his little bird friend Woodstock. And Timothy had made a mistake. He’d asked Lizbeth if she knew any stories, and if she did, would she please tell him one, because his mommy always read him a bedtime story.

Lizbeth knew a story. She knelt by his bedside and whispered in the darkness, her voice low and close to his ear. She told the story well, playing all the parts, and the role she seemed to like best was that of the main character, a terribly old and wicked woman who wanted to live forever. I must never die, Lizbeth said in an old crone’s voice, a voice that crackled like the dry newspaper Timothy’s dad kept by the fireplace to use as kindling. I must find the secret of immortality.

She found the secret. She had to murder a kindly old man to get it, then rob his bookstore of its most valued item, a sacred book of spells and mystic incantations passed down from time immemorial. And in this book, in the thirteenth line on the thirteenth page, it was written that whosoever drank the blood of a cat at midnight would live nine times ninety years, because, as everyone knows, cats have nine lives.

The wicked woman tracked down an alley cat and killed it. Lizbeth described the killing in vivid detail—the cat’s frenzied squalling, the knife that glittered in the woman’s hand like a sliver of moonlight, and how that knife plunged into the belly of the cat and slit it open like a paper bag—and all the while Timothy lay shivering in his bed, his breathing shallow, his eyes too wide and too dry.

And then, Lizbeth whispered, "as the clock tolled midnight, the evil old woman drank that poor kitty’s blood. Drank it right down, like chocolate milk. It tasted bitter, but she didn’t mind. ‘I’m changing,’ she cackled. ‘I can feel it. I can feel it!’

"And she was right. She was changing. But not quite the way she believed or hoped. For when she looked down at her hand, do you know what she saw? She saw fur sprouting on her palm. She saw her fingernails lengthening and sharpening into claws. She saw her hand becoming a paw. A cat’s paw.

"Because the spell hadn’t told the whole story, you see. If you drink a cat’s blood, you do indeed live nine times ninety years—but you live as a cat. A cat with a human soul. A damned, tortured soul.

"‘No!’ the evil woman cried as she realized what she’d done. ‘No, not like this. I don’t want to live like this!’"

And then Lizbeth, who was not at all a bad actress, began to alter the voice she had used for the wicked old woman, raising its pitch, injecting hisses and meows, and as Timothy listened, staring into the dark, he could see the woman changing into something not-human, sinking down on all fours as the last remnants of human shape dissolved away.

‘Help me! I don’t want to be like this ...!’ The last word became a drawn-out hiss. ‘I ... I ...’ The single syllable was stretched into an alley-cat whine. "‘I’m afraid. What’s happening to me? To me ... meeee ... meowwww ...’" And now the human voice was gone, replaced by an awful hissing and screeching and mewling.

Timothy had started to cry; and Lizbeth, who hadn’t meant to upset him—well, not quite that badly anyway—had done her best to comfort him, but it was no use. He was still crying when his parents came home, and that was the last time Lizbeth babysat for them.

Ever since that night, Timothy had been afraid of cats. In the green depths of their eyes, he imagined he saw the hint of something that had once been human. In their midnight cries, he could almost hear a plea for help that echoed unanswered down moonless streets. And for months after the night when he’d heard Lizbeth’s bedtime story, his dreams had been haunted by the catwoman, a creature half-human, half-animal, frozen somehow at the midpoint of the transformation. Her lambent eyes drifted like fireflies; her mocking voice called his name. He would run from her, streaking through a night without end, but always she was faster, and at the climax of every dream her claws would find his heart.

That was when he would awaken to the echo of his own scream and the sound of his parents’ racing footsteps in the hallway. Things had gone on that way until finally his mom and dad had made him believe there was nothing to fear. And he did believe it. Sure he did.

Or he had anyway. Until tonight.

Timothy lay rigid on his back, his heart pounding like a metronome, each separate beat throbbing at his temples and eardrums. He could feel the pulse of blood in his wrists and forearms and in the veins of his neck. He swallowed once and his head moved on the pillow in time with the hard snap of his Adam’s apple.

He listened to the thing under his bed. He heard its high-pitched, oddly feminine crying. It was a sound he’d heard before. The sound—no, it couldn’t be, but it was, it was—the sound Lizbeth had made. The cry of the catwoman.

The claws still clicked and clacked, louder now, drawing nearer, and in his mind he could picture the catwoman slinking forward inch by inch, her black-panther body rippling like velvet moonlight, green eyes glowing, talons extended, poised to rip out his heart.

Hey, come on, he told himself. Get real. There’s no monster under the bed. It’s another one of those nightmares. A bad dream. So wake up already. Come on, wake up!

But he knew he would not wake up, because this was no dream.

So maybe it was his imagination, then. Everybody always said he had a great imagination. He was scaring himself silly, that’s all.

But then ... why was the bed moving?

It was. He could feel it. He pressed his palms to the mattress and felt the springs shift and shiver. As if ... as if something were bumping up against the springs from below as it moved. Something like the catwoman. Crawling forward, her arched back and pointy ears brushing the bottom of the bed and making the mattress ripple like gelatin.

A low moan escaped Timothy’s lips.

Go away, he whispered. I don’t want you here.

A giggle rose out of the darkness, followed by a voice he recognized only too well.

No, Timothy, the voice—the lisping feminine meow-voice—whispered. I won’t go away. Not this time.

His heart stuttered, skipping a beat.

In that moment Timothy knew that his parents had been wrong, that all the grown-ups in the world were wrong. There were monsters after all. The catwoman was real. She always had been. And now at last she had come, in the middle of the night, at the witching hour, in a November rain.

He peered over the covers at the darkness around him, trying to hold on to the reality of his room, with its books and toys and model—all the familiar things that ringed him in and made him feel safe, like a circle of fire lit to ward off demons. But now there was something inside that mystic circle, something that had crept in out of the night on panther feet.

I hate you, Timothy said softly to the blackness around him. You ... you bitch.

Disembodied laughter, shrill and feline, rose in answer, then dissolved into mewing and purring. Timothy felt a slow shiver travel up his spine.

The mattress creaked again. Then the skirt of the bed rustled, its cotton folds shifting, and he knew she was coming out.

He shut his eyes, not to see her lantern eyes gazing at him, as he was sure they were. From his bedside came an evil hiss and the scuttling of her claws. Click-clack. Click-clack. And then—oh, God—a cold touch on his hand. The touch of a gleaming talon, a polished knife-blade talon that would sink into his flesh ...

There was one hope. He had to call for help. Had to let his parents know what was happening. If he didn’t, the catwoman would get him. She would eat him alive, hissing laughter through fangs stained red with his blood. And the darkness around him, the darkness which hid secrets even his mom and dad didn’t know, would claim him as its victim and swallow him forever.

He opened his mouth and screamed.

- — -

Michael Cutter was pulled out of sleep by a sound he hadn’t heard in over a year and had never expected to hear again—the sound of Timothy crying out in the night.

Jesus, he muttered, while Wendy stirred beside him and came awake, blinking.

What is it? she asked, her voice groggy.

Three guesses.

Michael swung out of bed and hurried down the hall with Wendy two steps behind, her nightgown rustling. He stepped into Timothy’s bedroom, found the wall switch, and flipped it up. The ceiling light came on, flooding the room with a harsh yellow glare.

Timothy lay in bed, shaking, the covers pulled up nearly over his head.

Dad, he moaned. Mom ... There’s something under the bed.

Michael looked at his wife and shared her thought: The catwoman is back.

He crossed the room, sat on the edge of the bed, and took his son’s hand, stroking the knuckles and fingers. A random memory came to him, the memory of taking Timothy, three years old, to a place that specialized in clay impressions of children’s hands. The mold had been made, then spray-painted bronze; now it hung on a hook on the kitchen wall. Michael looked at it often. The hand captured there was so tiny, less than half the size of this one. The boy was growing up fast.

Timothy pulled down the covers and sat up in bed. His tousled blond hair, ropy with sweat, clung to his forehead in matted curlicues. His eyes, sky-blue, looked huge in his face. His mouth was shut tight, the lips squeezed to a bloodless line.

It’s okay, Tim, Michael said gently. It’s okay now.

No, it’s not, Timothy whispered, his voice as soft as the patter of rain on the window. "I swear to God I heard her. I swear!"

Timothy, listen to me. There is nothing under your bed.

How do you know? Timothy sniffed back a tear. You haven’t even looked.

Michael glanced at his wife. She shook her head. He knew what she was telling him: Don’t humor the boy.

He understood her reasoning; she’d explained it to him many times in that crisp, slightly bored, lecturing voice she always used. If he looked under the bed, he would be sending Timothy the wrong signal, suggesting that something might be there after all. By playing along with the fantasy, he would be legitimizing it.

And she was right. Her logic, as usual, was faultless. Only, unless somebody did what Timothy asked, Michael didn’t think the boy would go back to sleep for the rest of the night. From the look of him, he might not sleep ever again.

Dad ...

Okay, okay. Michael sighed. I’m looking. See? I’m taking a look.

Wendy made one of her little noises that signified frustration and, probably, disgust. Michael ignored her. He had developed a real talent for ignoring her lately.

He got down on hands and knees, lifted the skirt of the bed, and stuck his head underneath. He saw only darkness. Darkness which was oddly ... thick. Like a physical thing, like yards of black velvet shimmering softly. He reached out with one hand, not knowing quite why, and felt a coldness there, a chill that made the short hairs at the nape of his neck stand up. For a moment he had the crazy thought that something really was there, hiding under the bed.

Then he frowned. Talk about letting your imagination run away with you.

He looked more closely and satisfied himself that nothing was there, nothing but the dark. Then a funny thought struck him. From the beginning of time, human beings had been afraid of the dark. They lit campfires, torches, candles, electric light bulbs, sodium-vapor streetlamps, anything to ward off the night. They huddled in lighted caves, in rushlit castles, in apartments and houses flickering with the phosphorescence of TV screens. A windowless, lightless cell was a torture chamber, and the prisoner locked within it was quickly reduced to hallucinations and screams. A fear that strong, a fear both universal and timeless, must have some survival value, some basis in fact. He wondered if children were right, if there were monsters in the dark. He wondered ...

Michael Cutter smiled at himself, the slow, wise smile of an adult at a child, or at the child within himself. He withdrew his head and let the skirt fall back into place.

Nothing, he said with a fraction more confidence than he felt.

But she was there, Timothy whispered. She was ...!

Wendy spoke up. All right, Timmy. She insisted on calling him that, even though Michael knew it drove the kid crazy. Come on, now. We’ve been over this a million times.

I know, Mom.

There are no monsters and things. We know that, don’t we?

Yes.

The catwoman was something Lizbeth made up to scare you. There never was a creature like that. Wendy spread her hands as if in demonstration of the obvious. A person can’t turn into a cat.

Michael pursed his lips. To his wife it really was obvious. Simple logic. A person can’t turn into a cat. Therefore there is no catwoman. Therefore there is nothing to fear. QED. Yes, it made good sense, all right. Except there were times when fear wasn’t persuaded by logic and nightmares wouldn’t yield to good sense. Michael knew that. His wife did not. It was one of many differences between them which he had once found exciting and challenging, a source of the friction that made colorful sparks fly. But that was years ago—a thousand years, it sometimes seemed. The sparks were long since gone, and now only the friction remained.

I know all that, Mom, Timothy said with quietly stubborn conviction. I’m not five years old anymore. I don’t believe in monsters and stuff. Except ... except I heard her. She was talking. And meowing. And her claws ... They clicked.

He shivered, his teeth chattering.

Wow, Michael thought, the poor little guy really is spooked.

You only thought you heard all that, Wendy told him. The flatness in her voice said she was only going through the motions now. Like the other times.

Huh-uh. I remember all the other times, and they were different. They were bad dreams. This wasn’t. This was real.

Wendy turned away, giving up the pretense of wanting to talk the thing through. In her world, the world of a computer programmer in Marina del Rey, there was no place for childish fantasies and nighttime fears. Hers was a mind that could understand and appreciate the bright logic of a properly designed software system, but not the corkscrew twists a child’s imagination could take.

Look, Timothy, Michael said quietly. I’ve checked under the bed. Nothing’s there. You believe me, don’t you?

Yes, Timothy said reluctantly.

Okay. Is there anyplace else she might be?

Timothy thought about it. In the closet? he wondered aloud.

Michael went to the closet, opened the door, and switched on the light. He poked around inside, sliding the plastic coat hangers back and forth.

Nope, he said, Not there. Any other place?

Timothy turned his head in a slow arc, searching the room. Finally he sighed. Guess not.

So nothing’s here. Okay?

’Kay.

You do believe me, right? You’re not just saying so?

I believe you.

It was only—

I know. Only a dream. Or my imagination. Something like that. He managed a smile. Guess I woke you guys up for nothing. Sorry.

Michael frowned. He didn’t think Timothy was really convinced. The kid was putting on an act.

But the act, it seemed, was good enough for Wendy. Well, I’m glad that’s settled, she said. Let me tuck you in.

Timothy lay in bed, calmer now, while his mother carefully adjusted the covers and gave him a good-night kiss.

Okay, honey, she said. Sleep tight.

Don’t let the bedbugs bite, Michael added, forcing a smile.

Timothy nodded, his face grave. ’Night, Mom. ’Night, Dad.

There was a coolness in the words that bothered Michael, bothered the hell out of him. But he didn’t know what more he could do.

He followed his wife to the bedroom door. Wendy put her hand on the wall switch.

Mom, Timothy said with sudden urgency. With that one word, he was a trembling little boy again, a boy with chattering teeth. Don’t turn out the light. Please.

Wendy sighed. Timmy, there is nothing in your room. Dad looked, didn’t he? You said you believed him.

I do. Really. The words were a lie; Michael knew it, and he knew Wendy knew it, too. But ... but leave the light on anyway. Okay?

Michael gave his wife a look, wordlessly pleading. Come on, leave the light on, what harm could it do? But he knew what she would think of that. To humor the child was to legitimize the fantasy and so forth.

Timmy, Wendy said with that starched note of firmness in her voice Michael knew so well, I am not leaving the light on. And that’s final.

Mom ...

Good night, she said, and flipped the switch down.

In his bed Timothy let out a whimper. Wendy ignored it. She turned and walked away. Michael hesitated in the doorway.

You going to be all right, pal?

A small voice answered him out of the dark. I guess.

You don’t sound too sure.

A breath. Then