In the Night Room Online - Peter Straub

PART ONE

1

About 9:45 on a Wednesday morning early in a rain-drenched September, a novelist named Timothy Underhill gave up, in more distress than he cared to acknowledge, on his ruined breakfast and the New York Times crossword puzzle and returned, far behind schedule, to his third-floor loft at 55 Grand Street. Closing his door behind him did nothing to calm his troubled heart. He clanked his streaming umbrella into an upright metal stand, transported a fresh cup of decaffeinated coffee to his desk, parked himself in a flexible mesh chair bristling with controls, double-clicked on Outlook Express’s arrow-swathed envelope, and, with the sense of finally putting most of his problem behind him, called to the surface of his screen the day’s first catch of e-mails, ten in all. Two of them were completely inexplicable. Because the messages seemed to come from strangers (with names unattached to specific domains, he would notice later), bore empty subject lines, and consisted of no more than a couple of disconnected words each, he promptly deleted them.

As soon as he had done so, he remembered dumping a couple of similar e-mails two days earlier. For a moment, what he had seen from the sidewalk outside the Fireside Diner flared again before him, wrapped in every bit of its old urgency and dread.

2

In a sudden shaft of brightness that fell some twenty miles northwest of Grand Street, a woman named Willy Bryce Patrick (soon to be Faber) was turning her slightly dinged little Mercedes away from the Pathmark store on the north side of Hendersonia, having succumbed to the compulsion, not that she had much choice, to drive two and two-tenths miles along Union Street’s increasingly vacant blocks instead of proceeding directly home. When she reached a vast parking lot with two sedans trickling through its exit, she checked her rearview mirror and looked around before driving in. Irregular slicks of water gleamed on the black surface of the lot. The men waiting to drive out of the lot took in the blond, shaggy-haired woman moving through their field of vision at the wheel of a sleek, snub-nosed car; one of them thought he was looking at a teenaged boy.

Willy drifted along past the penitentiary-like building that dominated the far end of the parking lot. Her shoulders rode high and tight, and her upper arms seemed taut as cords. Like all serious compulsions, hers seemed both a necessary part of her character and to have been wished upon her by some indifferent deity. Willy pulled in to an empty space and, now at the heart of her problem, regarded what was before her: a long, shabby-looking brick structure, three stories high, with wide metal doors and ranks of filthy windows concealed behind cobwebs of mesh. Around the back, she knew, the dock that led into the loading bays protruded outward, like a pier over the surface of a lake. A row of grimy letters over the topmost row of windows spelled out MICHIGAN PRODUCE.

Somehow, that had been the start of her difficulties: MICHIGAN PRODUCE, the words, not the building, which appeared to be a wholesale fruit-and-vegetable warehouse. Two days earlier, driving along inattentively, in fact in one of her “dazes,” her “trances”—Mitchell Faber’s words—Willy had found herself here, on this desolate section of Union Street, and the two words atop the big grimy structure had all but peeled themselves off the warehouse, set themselves on fire, and floated aflame toward her through the slate-colored air.

Willy had the feeling that she had been led here, that her “trance” had been charged with purpose, and that she had been all along meant to come across this building.

She wondered if this kind of thing ever happened to someone else. Almost instantly, Willy dismissed the strange little vision that blazed abruptly in her mind, of a beautiful, dark-haired teenaged boy, skateboard in one hand, standing dumbstruck on a sunlit street before an empty, ordinary-looking building. Her imagination had always been far too willing to leap into service, whether or not at the time imagination was actually useful. That sometimes it had been supremely useful to Willy did not diminish her awareness that her imaginative faculty could also turn on her, savagely. Oh, yes. You never knew which was the case, either, until the dread began to crawl up your arms.

The image of a teenaged boy and an empty house added to the sum of disorder at large in the universe, and she sent it back to the mysterious realm from which