“All of which,” I said, “makes me want to drink.”
“Here I go.” Sir Robert stepped through one of his Louis the Fourteenth portals. “To find the last and final and most awful door in all my life. You will follow.”
Damn, yes! I followed.
The sun had set, the rain was gone, and the clouds cleared off to show a cold and troubled moon. We moved in our own silence and the silence of the exhausted paths and glades while Sir Robert handed me a small silver pistol.
“Not that that would help. Killing an outsize arachnid is sticky. Hard to know where to fire the first shot. If you miss, there’ll be no time for a second. Damned things, large or small, move in the instant!”
“Thanks.” I took the weapon. “I need a drink.”
“Done.” Sir Robert handed me a silver brandy flask. “Drink as needed.”
I drank. “What about you?”
“I have my own special flask.” Sir Robert lifted it. “For the right time.”
“I must surprise the beast and mustn’t be drunk at the encounter. Four seconds before the thing grabs me, I will imbibe of this dear Napoleon stuff, spiced with a rude surprise.
“Ah, wait. You’ll see. So will this dark thief of life. Now, dear sir, here we part company. I this way, you yonder. Do you mind?”
“Mind when I’m scared gutless? What’s that?”
“Here. If I should vanish.” He handed me a sealed letter. “Read it aloud to the constabulary. It will help them locate me and Finnegan, lost and found.”
“Please, no details. I feel like a damned fool following you while Finnegan, if he exists, is underfoot snug and warm, saying, ‘Ah, those idiots above running about, freezing. I think I’ll let them freeze.’ “
“One hopes not. Get away now. If we walk together, he won’t jump up. Alone, he’ll peer out the merest crack, glom the scene with a huge bright eye, flip down again, ssst, and one of us gone to darkness.”
“Not me, please. Not me.”
We walked on about sixty feet apart and beginning to lose one another in the half moonlight.
“Are you there?” called Sir Robert from half the world away in leafy dark.
“I wish I weren’t,” I yelled back.
“Onward!” cried Sir Robert. “Don’t lose sight of me. Move closer. We’re near on the site. I can intuit, I almost feel-“
As a final cloud shifted, moonlight glowed brilliantly to show Sir Robert waving his arms about like antennae, eyes half shut, gasping with expectation.
“Closer, closer,” I heard him exhale. “Near on. Be still. Perhaps . .
He froze in place. There’ was something in his aspect that made me want to leap, race, and yank him off the turf he had chosen.
“Sir Robert, oh, God!” I cried. “Run!”
He froze. One hand and arm orchestrated the air, feeling, probing, while his other hand delved, brought forth his silver-coated flask of brandy. He held it high in the moonlight, a toast to doom. Then, afflicted with need, he took one, two, three, my God, four incredible swigs!
Arms out, balancing the wind, tilting his head back, laughing like a boy, he swigged the last of his mysterious drink.
“All right, Finnegan, below and beneath!” he cried. “Come get me!”
He stomped his foot.
Cried out victorious.
It was all over in a second.
A flicker, a blur, a dark bush had grown up from the earth with a whisper, a suction, and the thud of a body dropped and a door shut.
The glade was empty.
“Sir Robert. Quick!”
But there was no one to quicken.
Not thinking that I might be snatched and vanished, I lurched to the spot where Sir Robert had drunk his wild toast.
I stood staring down at earth and leaves with not a sound save my heart beating while the leaves blew away to reveal only pebbles, dry grass, and earth.
I must have lifted my head and bayed to the moon like a dog, then fell to my knees, fearless, to dig for lids, for tunneled tombs where a voiceless tangle of legs wove themselves, binding and mummifying a thing that had been my friend. This is his final door, I thought insanely, crying the name of my friend.