MY NAME IS WILLIAM ROYDON. IN OCTOBER OF 2005, I WAS CHECKING THE LOCAL PAPER FOR JOB LISTINGS, LOOKING TO MAKE A FEW EXTRA DOLLARS WITH MY VIDEO CAMERA BETWEEN WEDDING GIGS, WHEN I CAME ACROSS AN AD FROM A MAN LOOKING FOR A VIDEOGRAPHER FOR A DAY. HE WAS OFFERING FIVE HUNDRED DOLLARS TO ANYONE WITH A HIGH QUALITY CAMERA WHO WAS WILLING TO SIGN A CONFIDENTIALITY AGREEMENT ABOUT THE JOB. I SENT AN E-MAIL EXPLAINING WHY I WAS SUITABLE FOR THIS TASK, AND TWO DAYS LATER I GOT A RESPONSE. I WAS TO MEET THIS MAN, WHO SAID HIS NAME WAS FORSCH CORDING, IN THE TOWN OF ROBIN SONG, VIRGINIA, WHERE I WAS BORN AND LIVED UNTIL I WAS TWELVE YEARS OLD. IT IS A SMALL SUBURB FIFTEEN MILES NORTH OF RICHMOND MADE UP OF A FEW MIDDLE-CLASS HOUSING COMMUNITIES AND SMALL BUSINESSES. IT HAS A POPULATION OF ABOUT ELEVEN THOUSAND. I RETURN THERE FROM MY HOME IN ANNAPOLIS TWO OR THREE TIMES A YEAR TO VISIT MY GRANDFATHER. ACCORDING TO CORDING’S DEAL, I WOULD BE PAID IN CASH AND I WOULD BE ASKED TO TURN OVER THE TAPES I HAD MADE AT THE END OF THE DAY, NEVER SPEAKING OF THEM AGAIN. ANOTHER E-MAIL ASSURED ME THAT THERE WAS NOTHING ILLEGAL OR DISTASTEFUL ABOUT THE JOB, AND I WAS INTRIGUED. BEFORE THE DAY I MET CORDING, HE ASKED ME TO CALL HIM SO HE COULD EXPLAIN WHAT WE WOULD BE SHOOTING. I DIALED A NUMBER WITH A PENNSYLVANIA AREA CODE AND WHEN HE ANSWERED THE PHONE WITH A CURT ‘YES?' HE TOLD ME VERY LITTLE, OTHER THAN THAT WE WOULD BE ON OUR FEET ALL DAY LONG, AND I WOULD BE EXPECTED TO KEEP THE CAMERA ROLLING CONTINUOUSLY. THE FOOTAGE HE NEEDED TO ACQUIRE WAS FOR A PERSONAL RESEARCH PROJECT ABOUT THE AREA. MOSTLY WHAT HE WANTED TO KNOW ON THE PHONE WAS MY HISTORY WITH THE TOWN OF ROBIN SONG, AND IF I HAD BEEN AWARE GROWING UP OF JUST HOW MANY UNEXPLAINED CRIMES AND DISAPPEARANCES THERE HAD BEEN IN THE TOWN. I TRULY WAS NOT. HE TOLD ME I MIGHT THINK OF IT VERY DIFFERENTLY AFTER THE NINTH OF OCTOBER, AND HE DID NOT WANT ME TO DO THE JOB IF WHAT I SAW AND HEARD THERE COULD IRREVERSIBLY DAMAGE RELATIONS WITH ANYONE THERE OR MY CHILDHOOD MEMORIES OF BEING RAISED IN ROBIN SONG, WHICH WERE ALL HAPPY ONES. I DIDN’T UNDERSTAND WHAT HE MEANT, BUT I SAID I DIDN’T THINK IT WOULD BE A PROBLEM. WHEN I GOT OFF THE PHONE, I LOOKED UP THE NAME ‘FORSCH CORDING’ ONLINE TO MAKE SURE I WOULDN’T DISCOVER ANY INFORMATION WHICH WOULD KEEP ME AWAY FROM THE JOB, WHICH AS DESCRIBED LEFT THE DOOR OPEN TO ANY NUMBER OF TROUBLING SCENARIOS. I COULD FIND OUT VERY LITTLE ABOUT MY EMPLOYER OTHER THAN THAT HE HAD APPARENTLY BEEN A PROFESSOR IN THE ANCIENT STUDIES DEPARTMENT AT THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO WITHIN THE PAST FIVE YEARS. HIS NAME ALSO CAME UP IN VAGUE RELATION TO SOMETHING CALLED THE PROJET DU MÉRIDIONAL. THIS WAS MENTIONED ON THREE DIFFERENT ACADEMIC SITES HAVING TO DO WITH THE STUDY OF ANTHROPOLOGY, ALL OF THEM MOSTLY INACCESSIBLE EXCEPT THROUGH AN ACCOUNT PASSWORD. THE PHRASE CAME UP A FOURTH TIME ON A DUBIOUS-LOOKING SITE DEALING WITH THE PARANORMAL. IT DESCRIBED THE PROJET DU MÉRIDIONAL AS AN URBAN LEGEND AMONG FRINGE ACADEMICS HAVING TO DO WITH A PRIVATELY FUNDED GROUP OF FIVE MEN, ONE OF WHOM WAS NAMED FORSCH CORDING, WHO HAD TRAVELED THE WORLD FOR TWO YEARS RESEARCHING A SUPPOSED CURSE THAT HAD STRICKEN AN IRISH FAMILY. THE DETAILS WERE SPARSE. <> ON THE MORNING OF THE NINTH, I TOOK THE TRAIN FROM MARYLAND TO THE WESTERN EDGE OF ROBIN SONG AND WALKED FROM THERE TO MY GRANDFATHER’S HOUSE AT THE END OF BRIAN LANE, CARRYING THE SONY DIGITAL 8 CAMERA I HAD USED TO EKE OUT A LIVING FOR THE PAST THREE YEARS. IN FACT, I HAD BEEN IN TOWN WITH IT TEN MONTHS BEFORE, SHOOTING SOME PRELIMINARY LOCATION SHOTS FOR A VERY FRIENDLY INDEPENDENT MOVIE PRODUCER NAMED TRENT. I HAD MET HIM THROUGH A FRIEND OF A FRIEND OF MINE, AND FOR SEVERAL HOURS WE HAD DRIVEN AROUND TOWN AS HE LOOKED FOR LOCATIONS TO FILM PART OF A LOW-BUDGET HORROR MOVIE. THAT DAY’S CASUAL SHOOTING OF CHURCHES, PARKS, AND CEMETERIES HAD TURNED INTO MORE OF A PRIVATE DOCUMENTARY FOR TRENT. HE HAD GROWN UP NEARBY IN HASHAM, AND HE HAD ME GET SHOT AFTER SHOT OF THE NICEST PARTS OF ROBIN SONG IN ORDER TO CONVINCE HIS WIFE TO MOVE THERE SO THEY COULD RAISE THEIR CHILDREN IN A PLEASANT SUBURB. <> THE NINTH OF OCTOBER WAS THE DAY AFTER MY GRANDFATHER’S EIGHTY-FIFTH BIRTHDAY. I SPENT A COUPLE OF HOURS WITH HIM BEFORE I WAS TO MEET CORDING. HE HAD GOTTEN VISIBLY MORE FRAIL SINCE I HAD SEEN HIM IN MARCH. WE SAT ON HIS FRONT PORCH ON THE QUIET NINE ACRES WHERE I HAD SPENT MUCH OF THE FIFTH THROUGH THIRTEENTH YEARS OF MY LIFE. WITHOUT MENTIONING WHAT I WOULD BE DOING THE REST OF THE DAY, I ASKED HIM IF HE REGRETTED NEVER REALLY LEAVING THE TOWN DURING HIS LIFE EXCEPT TO FIGHT IN WORLD WAR TWO, WHERE HE HAD BEEN SEVERELY WOUNDED BY A JAPANESE BAYONET IN THE PACIFIC. HE TOLD ME HE LOVED THIS PLACE, AND THE ONLY TIME HE HAD ANY DOUBTS ABOUT IT WAS DURING A PERIOD OF FIVE YEARS IN THE NINETEEN SEVENTIES WHEN HE SAID THINGS HAD GOTTEN ‘VERY SAD, AND VERY PAINFUL.’ WHEN I ASKED HIM WHAT HE MEANT, HE SHOOK HIS HEAD AND SAID HE WAS SORRY, HE DIDN’T WANT TO EXPLAIN IT. I LEFT HIM AT ABOUT TEN A.M. <> I MET MY EMPLOYER FOR THE DAY, CORDING, AT THE ROBIN SONG COMMUTER TRAIN STATION. I DIDN’T KNOW WHERE HE HAD COME FROM. HE WAS YOUNGER THAN HE SOUNDED ON THE PHONE, COULDN’T HAVE BEEN MORE THAN THIRTY-FIVE. HE WAS TALL AND GAUNT AND HIS JEANS HAD HOLES IN THEM. I EXPECTED A EUROPEAN ACCENT BUT HE SOUNDED COMPLETELY MIDWESTERN. HE SHOOK MY HAND WITHOUT A SMILE AND IMMEDIATELY TOOK ME ASIDE TO HAND ME THE MONEY I HAD BEEN PROMISED, IN TWENTY DOLLAR BILLS. HE PRESSED THE CONFIDENTIALITY AGREEMENT AGAINST A FARE CARD MACHINE SO I COULD SIGN IT ON THE SPOT. IT WAS ONLY A FEW SENTENCES LONG. HE TOOK THE ONLY COPY. AFTER ASKING ME A FEW TECHNICAL QUESTIONS ABOUT THE SPECS OF MY CAMERA AND THE DURATION OF THE BLANK TAPES I HAD BROUGHT, WE WALKED OUT OF THE STATION INTO A VERY LIGHT DRIZZLE. THEN HE BEGAN TO GIVE ME SOME INSTRUCTIONS. I WAS TO TAPE CORDING AND OUR SURROUNDINGS CONSTANTLY WHEREVER WE WALKED, WHICH WOULD PROBABLY BE ALL OVER TOWN, OFTEN DOUBLING BACK IF WE HAD TO. HE ASKED ME IF MY TENNIS SHOES WERE GOOD ONES AND I SAID YES. IF I BEGAN TO COME CLOSE TO RUNNING OUT OF TAPE, I WAS TO ALERT HIM AND WE WOULD STOP FOR A MOMENT. THERE WOULD BE A SHORT BREAK IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DAY SO THAT I COULD RECHARGE THE CAMERA BATTERY. WE WOULD PROBABLY BE DONE BY FOUR O’CLOCK OR SO. HE HAD NEVER TAPED IN ROBIN SONG BEFORE. THOUGH WE WOULDN’T BE TALKING TO ANYONE SPECIFIC OR VENTURING INTO ANY PLACES THAT WERE ILLEGAL OR DANGEROUS, HE SAID I WOULD MOST LIKELY SEE OR HEAR THINGS THAT UNSETTLED ME. ALL OUR LIVES, HE EXPLAINED TO ME, WE ARE CONDITIONED TO FEAR CERTAIN IMAGERY, SIGHTS AND SOUNDS THAT OUR MINDS NATURALLY PERCEIVE AS FOREIGN AND DISTURBING. THE IMPORTANT FACT FOR ME TO REMEMBER, HE SAID, WAS THAT THESE THINGS ABSOLUTELY COULD NOT TOUCH ME. IT WASN’T POSSIBLE. SO WHATEVER MY FEARS WERE, I WAS TO JUST KEEP GOING AND RECORDING. I SAID I UNDERSTOOD, THOUGH INWARDLY I WAS QUITE CONFUSED. <> CORDING SPOKE ALMOST NOT A WORD TO ME AFTER OUR INITIAL MEETING AT THE TRAIN STATION. HE WALKED ALONG IN SILENCE. I HUNG BACK A FEW STEPS AND TRAINED THE CAMERA ON THE WIDEST SHOT I COULD IN ORDER TO GET AS MUCH OF THE SURROUNDINGS AS POSSIBLE. HAVING GROWN UP IN ROBIN SONG, I WAS CLUELESS AS TO WHAT CORDING WAS POSSIBLY HOPING TO SEE. HE SEEMED UNFAMILIAR WITH THE LAYOUT OF THE TOWN, AND IT BECAME OBVIOUS HE HAD NOT BEEN THERE OFTEN. HE WOULD WALK IN ONE DIRECTION FOR A QUARTER MILE OR A HALF MILE, THEN STOP TO THINK FOR A MOMENT AND GO IN ANOTHER DIRECTION, SEEMINGLY AT RANDOM. HE TURNED AGAIN AND AGAIN, NEVER TELLING ME WHY WE WERE GOING TOWARD ANY PARTICULAR PLACE. HE WALKED QUICKLY AND I HAD SOME TROUBLE FOLLOWING HIM WHILE KEEPING HIM IN THE CAMERA FRAME. HE SEEMED TO BE LOOKING FOR SOMETHING, BUT I COULDN’T TELL WHAT. OCCASIONALLY WE WOULD PASS SOMEONE WHO WOULD GIVE US A FUNNY LOOK. THEY MUST HAVE THOUGHT I WAS MAKING A DOCUMENTARY ABOUT THIS MAN. HE DID NOT ENTER ANY STORES OR GO ONTO ANYONE’S PROPERTY, OR SEEM VERY INTERESTED IN THE FACES OR THE TRAFFIC THAT WENT BY US. FROM SCHUYKILL ROAD I REMEMBER WE WENT TOWARD ALLEN STREET, THEN ROSANDA, CUTTING ACROSS MABRY ROAD TO DOVETAIL LANE. I REMEMBER THINKING THAT NO MATTER HOW LITTLE THERE ACTUALLY WAS TO SEE HERE, AT LEAST I WAS GOING TO GET A VERY GOOD WORKOUT THAT DAY. AFTER FIVE MINUTES OR SO ON THE COTTON BRANCH TRAIL, WHICH IS A BIKE AND FOOT PATH THAT RUNS FOR EIGHT MILES TOWARD RICHMOND, CORDING LEFT IT AND WALKED OVER INTO A SMALL THATCH OF TREES WHICH SEEMED TO HAVE NO PARTICULAR MEANING. AT FIRST I THOUGHT HE MEANT TO RELIEVE HIMSELF. HE STOOD THERE, SEEMING TO CONCENTRATE, FOR SUCH A LONG TIME THAT I WAS ABOUT TO ASK HIM WHY WE HAD STOPPED COMPLETELY. BEFORE I COULD, HE SAID, SORT OF TESTILY, ‘I NEED TO JUST LISTEN, I NEED TO JUST LISTEN,’ AND HE CLOSED HIS EYES FOR A FULL TWO MINUTES. I POINTED THE CAMERA UP THE TRAIL, HAVING NOTHING BETTER TO SHOOT. WHEN HE OPENED HIS EYES AGAIN, HE SHOOK HIS HEAD, ANGRY FOR SOME REASON. HE MUTTERED SOMETHING UNDER HIS BREATH WHICH SOUNDED LIKE, ‘WE’LL NEVER FIND HER TODAY, I KNOW IT.’ HE HAD ME STOP TAPING FOR A MOMENT, ROLL BACK THE LAST TWO MINUTES, AND PLAY THEM ON THE DISPLAY SCREEN WHILE THE SOUND CAME THROUGH A TINY SPEAKER ON THE SIDE OF THE CAMERA. I WONDERED WHY HE WOULD WANT TO WATCH HIMSELF STANDING THERE WITH HIS EYES CLOSED. BUT WHILE THE VIDEO SHOWED NOTHING BUT THAT AND MY OCCASIONAL BORED PANNING SHOTS, THE AUDIO WAS DIFFERENT. THE SOUNDS OF THE BREEZE AND FARAWAY TRAFFIC WERE STILL THERE, BUT SOMETHING ELSE WAS ON THE AUDIO TRACK TOO. IT WAS COMPLETELY CLEAR. IT WAS THE VOICE OF AN OLD WOMAN, SINGING WHAT SOUNDED TO ME LIKE A SAD FOLK SONG, IN A THICK AFRICAN DIALECT. SHE SANG WEAKLY AND FAINTLY. IT SOUNDED LIKE SHE WAS STANDING ONLY ABOUT TEN FEET AWAY FROM THE MICROPHONE. THIS WENT ON FOR ALMOST SIXTY SECONDS. I WAS BAFFLED. I HAD HEARD NOTHING AS I WAS RECORDING, AND THERE HAD CERTAINLY BEEN NO ONE AROUND US. WHEN THE CAMERA PANNED, THE VOICE WAS HEARD MORE FAINTLY, SUGGESTING THE SINGER WAS STANDING VERY CLOSE TO CORDING AND WAS BRIEFLY ABANDONED BY THE UNIDIRECTIONAL MICROPHONE. ON THE VIDEO SCREEN, I COULD SEE CORDING TURN HIS HEAD SLIGHTLY IN THE MIDDLE OF THE SONG WHEN THERE WAS AN UNUSUALLY LONG PAUSE BETWEEN WORDS. HE DIDN’T SEEM SURPRISED AS HE WATCHED THE TAPE. HE TOLD ME TO START RECORDING AGAIN FROM THAT POINT AND WE MOVED ON. I WANTED TO PLAY THE TAPE AGAIN AND AGAIN TO FIGURE OUT JUST WHAT HAD HAPPENED. IT WAS UNEXPLAINABLE. BUT IT WAS OBVIOUS THAT CORDING HAD NOT COME HERE TO ENTERTAIN MY QUESTIONS. <> IN ROBIN SONG THERE IS A SMALL MUDDY CREEK CALLED RACHEL’S ARM, WHICH FLOWS OUT OF THE BELOIT RIVER. SOMETIME AROUND ELEVEN, I FOLLOWED CORDING ALONG ITS BANK, LAZILY SHOOTING VIDEO. THE DRIZZLE HAD STOPPED COMPLETELY AND THE SKY ABOVE US WAS THICK WITH CLOUDS BUT DRY. HE STOPPED NEAR THE CREEK’S ENDPOINT AND TURNED TO ME. HE APPEARED TO BE APPRAISING ME SOMEHOW, CONSIDERING HOW TO PROCEED WITH ME. THEN HE BEGAN TO SPEAK. I SUPPOSE HE SUDDENLY FELT THE NEED TO START TO SLOWLY EXPLAIN THINGS. BUT HE GAVE ME NO BACKGROUND ABOUT HIMSELF OR HIS TASK. INSTEAD HE TOLD ME A FRIGHTENING STORY, ONE WHICH I WAS ALREADY SOMEWHAT FAMILIAR WITH, BUT I DIDN’T REVEAL THIS TO HIM. HE SAID THAT ABOUT FIFTEEN YEARS AGO, A COUPLE OF KIDS HAD BEEN PLAYING BESIDE THIS CREEK WHEN ONE OF THEM NOTICED A HAND STICKING OUT OF THE WATER. WHEN THEY PULLED ON IT, A MANNEQUIN CAME OUT, STREAKED WITH MUD. IT WAS DRESSED CLUMSILY IN A SUIT, AND ITS FACE WAS VERY CAREFULLY PAINTED TO LOOK LIKE SOMEONE SPECIFIC, RIGHT DOWN TO THE BROWN EYES. THE MANNEQUIN’S PINK PLASTIC SKIN HAD BEEN PAINTED OVER, FROM HEAD TO TOE, WITH A MORE REALISTIC BEIGE COLOR. CLUMPS OF HUMAN HAIR, REAL HUMAN HAIR, HAD BEEN VERY CAREFULLY FASTENED TO THE HEAD. INSIDE THE SUIT WAS A WALLET, AND IT BELONGED TO A PSYCHIATRIST WHO HAD GONE MISSING THE MONTH BEFORE WHILE ON HIS WAY TO SEE SOME RELATIVES IN WASHINGTON, D.C. HIS NAME WAS STEEN. THE FACE OF THE MANNEQUIN LOOKED JUST LIKE STEEN DID ON THE DRIVER’S LICENSE PHOTO INSIDE THE WALLET. THE RESEMBLANCE WAS UNCANNY. THE POLICE HAD ALREADY TALKED TO ALL OF HIS PATIENTS SINCE HIS DISAPPEARANCE AND GONE THROUGH HIS PRIVATE NOTEBOOKS LOOKING FOR ANY CLUES ABOUT WHO MIGHT HAVE POSSIBLY ABDUCTED HIM, BUT THEN THEY REALIZED THAT THE CREEK CALLED RACHEL’S ARM WAS ONLY ABOUT FIVE HUNDRED YARDS AWAY FROM THE HOME OF A PATIENT OF HIS, WHO WAS NAMED IRWIN SETTLE. ONE OF THE LEAD DETECTIVES IN THE CASE HAD ALREADY ENTERTAINED THE NOTION THAT SETTLE WAS POSSIBLY THE KILLER BECAUSE HE’D BEEN ORDERED INTO TREATMENT AS PART OF A PREVIOUS ASSAULT CASE AND BECAUSE STEEN’S NOTEBOOKS HAD MADE NOTE THAT SETTLE’S HOBBY IN LIFE WAS MODEL TRAINS, WHICH HE PAINTED IN DETAIL, INCREDIBLY CAREFUL DETAIL. HE’D HAD NO PERFECT ALIBI FOR THE NIGHT THAT STEEN HAD GONE MISSING BUT OTHERWISE THERE WAS NO HARD EVIDENCE ON WHICH TO ARREST HIM. THEY WENT UP AGAIN TO TALK TO HIM, THIS TIME WITH A SEARCH WARRANT. WHEN THEY GOT TO HIS LITTLE WHITE HOUSE WHICH SAT ON THE TOP OF A HILL LOOKING DOWN TOWARDS THE CREEK, SOMETHING WAS WRONG WITH IT. IT LOOKED LIKE SOMEONE HAD STARTED TO PAINT THE FRONT OF IT BROWN, AND THEN SUDDENLY STOPPED. IT WAS JUST A BUNCH OF MESSY WANDERING STRIPES THAT WENT NOWHERE. IRWIN SETTLE WAS NOT THERE TO LET THEM IN. THEY DETECTED A STRONG SMELL RIGHT AWAY. INSIDE THE HOUSE THEY FOUND THE BODY OF HIS PSYCHIATRIST ROTTING ON THE LIVING ROOM FLOOR. STEEN HAD BEEN BEATEN UNTIL HE WAS SQUASHED ALMOST FLAT. IT BECAME OBVIOUS THAT SETTLE HAD TRIED TO PAINT THE FRONT OF HIS HOUSE WITH STEEN’S BLOOD, AND AT HIS TRIAL IT CAME OUT HE HAD DONE IT TO LAUGH AT HIS NEIGHBORS, WHO HAD NO IDEA WHAT WAS HAPPENING. THEY JUST WENT PAST IT DAY BY DAY AS IT DRIED THERE. THE POLICE FOUND OUT FROM SETTLE’S DIARY THAT HIS HATRED FOR STEEN WAS SO INTENSE THAT HE’D PAINTED MANNEQUIN AFTER MANNEQUIN TO LOOK LIKE HIM, AND THEN HE’D PRETEND TO KILL THEM IN VARIOUS WAYS, BY BURNING THEM, STABBING THEM, HANGING THEM. HE WAS TRYING TO STOP HIMSELF FROM DOING THE REAL THING, BUT FINALLY, AFTER SEVERAL HOSTILE PSYCHIATRIC SESSIONS WITH STEEN IN WHICH HE GOT SETTLE TO ADMIT TO A HISTORY OF NECROPHILIA, HE SNAPPED AND ABDUCTED THE MAN. BEFORE THAT NIGHT, HE’D DOLLED UP AND PAINTED SO MANY MANNEQUINS TO LOOK LIKE STEEN THAT THEY KEPT ACCIDENTALLY DIGGING THEM UP ALL OVER ROBIN SONG FOR ANOTHER TWO YEARS. CORDING TOLD ME THEY EXECUTED SETTLE IN 1997. ONE OF THE LAST THINGS HE SAID IN COURT, SUPPOSEDLY, WAS THAT HE WISHED HE WAS DIFFERENT, BUT THE TOWN HAD MADE HIM SICK. CORDING POINTED UP THE HILL TOWARD SETTLE’S HOUSE. I COULD ACTUALLY SEE THE EDGE OF IT THROUGH THE TREES, WHICH DURING THE PRIOR TWO WEEKS HAD LOST MOST OF THEIR LEAVES. I KNEW THE STORY OF WHAT SETTLE HAD DONE. AS A TWELVE YEAR OLD, I HAD ONCE GONE WITH SOME FRIENDS TO THE PROPERTY AND DARED THEM TO GO INSIDE THE HOUSE, WHICH HAD BEEN ABANDONED SINCE HE’D BEEN PUT IN JAIL. WE NEVER SET FOOT INSIDE. WE HAD BEEN TOO SCARED. AND I KNEW ALSO THAT OVER THE FOLLOWING YEARS, A LEGEND HAD GROWN ABOUT THE HOUSE. IT WAS SAID THAT NO MATTER HOW DECREPIT ITS EXTERIOR BECAME, THE INSIDE WAS STILL PERFECTLY CLEAN AND FLAWLESS, BECAUSE NO VANDALS WOULD EVER DARE ENTER IT. NO ONE HAD EVER BOUGHT THE HOUSE. IT HAD NEVER BEEN TORN DOWN. WHEN THE MOVIE PRODUCER I HAD WORKED FOR THAT SINGLE DAY HAD BEEN LOOKING FOR A HAUNTED HOUSE TYPE OF LOCATION FOR SOME EXTERIOR SHOTS, I HAD RECOMMENDED THE SETTLE HOUSE. TRENT KNEW ABOUT IT TOO, BUT IT WASN’T BIG ENOUGH FOR HIS PURPOSES. HE HIMSELF HAD NEVER GONE NEAR IT. HIS UNCLE HAD ACTUALLY ONCE BRIEFLY EMPLOYED IRWIN SETTLE AT HIS KITE SHOP. <> WHEN CORDING WAS FINISHED SPEAKING, GIVING ME NO CONTEXT FOR THE STORY, HE TURNED AND WALKED ON. WE WENT FOR ANOTHER TWENTY MINUTES OR SO UNTIL WE CAME TO MOUNT HALCYON CEMETERY ON RIDGE ROAD. IT’S A SPRAWLING PLACE, ONE OF THE BIGGEST CEMETERIES IN SOUTHERN VIRGINIA. IT SLOPES GENTLY UP A LONG HILL AND IS BORDERED BY A CREMATION GARDEN. CORDING WALKED VERY SLOWLY THROUGH IT, LOOKING MORE AT THE SKY THAN THE HEADSTONES WHICH SURROUNDED US. I GOT THE SENSE THAT HE WAS HEADED TOWARD A CERTAIN GRAVE. WE WENT ON A LONG STRAIGHT LINE TOWARD THE VERY OPPOSITE EDGE OF THE CEMETERY. IT TOOK QUITE SOME TIME TO REACH OUR DESTINATION. THERE, THE ACREAGE PETERED OUT INTO A QUIET FIELD SCREENED BY TREES FROM BOWLER AVENUE. THE GRAVES BECAME MORE SCATTERED AND MORE UNDERSTATED. CORDING WALKED UP TO ONE OF THEM. THE HEADSTONE WAS NOT EVEN MARKED WITH A LAST NAME, JUST A FIRST NAME AND A DATE: SARAH, DECEMBER 7, 1985. HE STOOD OVER THE GRAVE FOR A MINUTE WITH HIS EYES CLOSED. HE TOLD ME THAT HE HAD BEEN BESIDE THIS GRAVE TWICE BEFORE IN THE PAST, AND IT HAD GIVEN HIM A FEELING HE COULD NOT EXPLAIN. NOW, AS HE STOOD OVER IT AGAIN, HE SAID THE FEELING WAS THE SAME. HE DID NOT ELABORATE. HE KNEW NOTHING ABOUT WHO WAS BURIED HERE, ONLY THAT HE SUSPECTED IT WAS AN INFANT. I KEPT SILENT. FINALLY HE MOVED AWAY. HE KEPT STARING AT THAT ONE NAME ON THE STONE, AS IF HE WERE UNABLE TO MAKE SENSE OF THE LETTERS. AS WE LEFT THE CEMETERY THE WIND PICKED UP AND IT BECAME NOTICEABLY COLDER, AND THAT SIMPLE AND NATURAL AUTUMNAL CHANGE IN TEMPERATURE MADE ME FOR SOME REASON VERY AFRAID. I THINK WHAT BEGAN TO MAKE THE FEAR SINK IN AND STAY THERE WAS THAT CORDING DID NOT SEEM AT ALL INSANE OR EVEN REMOTELY DISTURBED. IT WAS BECOMING OBVIOUS THAT HE KNEW AND FELT THINGS THAT HAD CHANGED HIM SOMEHOW. I VERY MUCH WANTED TO BE AWAY FROM TOWN, OR AT LEAST BACK AT MY GRANDFATHER’S HOUSE, HAVING NEVER MET THIS MAN OR TAKEN HIS MONEY. WE WALKED FROM THE CEMETERY ALL THE WAY TO COTTON ELEMENTARY SCHOOL ON CEDAR ROAD. BY THAT TIME, ABOUT 12:15, WE HAD ALREADY COVERED UPWARDS OF SIX MILES. CORDING NEVER TOLD ME THE REASONING FOR HIS CHANGES IN DIRECTION. HE WOULD WAIT UNTIL HE HAD A SENSE OF WHERE HE WANTED TO GO AND THEN JUST GO. TRAFFIC AND PEOPLE PASSED US WITHOUT NOTICING US. CORDING VERY INTENTIONALLY NEVER MADE EYE CONTACT WITH A SINGLE PERSON. HE RESTLESSLY ENCIRCLED COTTON ELEMENTARY, WHICH I ATTENDED FROM GRADES ONE THROUGH SIX. THERE WAS NO ONE ELSE ON THE GROUNDS. THE PLAYGROUND WAS ALMOST EXACTLY AS I REMEMBERED IT. NOTHING HAD BEEN ADDED. THE RED DOORS ON THE FRONT OF THE SCHOOL WERE NOW PAINTED BLUE, BUT OTHERWISE I MAY HAVE WELL STEPPED BACK INTO 1988. THEN CORDING TOLD ME ANOTHER STORY. I WISHED HE WOULD NOT SPEAK TO ME AT ALL, BUT HE DID. HE SEEMED TO BECOME MORE AND MORE DETERMINED AS HE SPOKE TO MAKE ME UNDERSTAND WHAT HE WAS DEALING WITH. UNLIKE THE STORY OF THE MURDERER IRWIN SETTLE, THIS WAS ONE I HAD NEVER HEARD. VERY EARLY ON A SNOWY DECEMBER SUNDAY IN 1999, THE LOCAL AIRFIELD HAD RECEIVED A DISTRESS SIGNAL FROM A CESSNA 182 COMING FROM THE NORTH INTO TESSA, THE TOWN JUST SOUTH OF ROBIN SONG. THE TRAFFIC CONTROLLER HEARD ONLY THE WORDS ‘MAYDAY, MAYDAY’ AND THEN THE SCREAMS OF A MAN AND A WOMAN INSIDE THE COCKPIT. THE PLANE CAME IN OVER THE TREES ON THE EAST SIDE OF THE SCHOOL GROUNDS AND CRASHED LESS THAN TWO HUNDRED FEET FROM THE PLAYGROUND. IT CARTWHEELED ALONG THE GROUND AND WENT INTO THE WOODS, REMAINING MOSTLY INTACT. THERE WERE THREE INCHES OF SNOW COVERING THE GRASS AT THE TIME AFTER A HEAVY FALL EARLY ON SATURDAY NIGHT. SEVERAL PEOPLE IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD HEARD THE CRASH, BUT THE POLICE AND AMBULANCE RESPONSE WAS SLOWER THAN NORMAL BECAUSE OF THE SNOW. THE FIRST PERSON TO GET TO THE CRASH SITE WAS ACTUALLY AN EIGHT YEAR OLD BOY. HE HAD DASHED OUT OF HIS HOUSE THROUGH A NEW ROUND OF FLURRIES AGAINST HIS PARENTS’ COMMANDS. HE RAN IN HIS SLIPPERS TO THE PLANE. THE SUN HAD JUST BARELY RISEN OVER THE TREES. WHEN THE AUTHORITIES ARRIVED ON THE SCENE, THE BOY TOLD THEM WHAT HE HAD SEEN, BUT THEY DID NOT BELIEVE HIM AND HAD HIS PARENTS TAKE HIM AWAY. HE CLAIMED THAT WHEN HE GOT TO WITHIN VIEW OF THE PLANE’S COCKPIT, SOMETHING ENORMOUS HAD SLITHERED OUT OF IT. TO HIM IT LOOKED LIKE A GIGANTIC CROCODILE, EXCEPT ITS SKIN WAS A PERFECT WHITE, ITS HEAD WAS QUITE SMALL, AND IT SEEMED TO HAVE DOZENS OF SMALL LEGS ON EACH SIDE OF ITS BODY, LEGS WHICH GRASPED THE SIDE OF THE PLANE AND HELD TIGHT AS IT MOVED. ITS BREATHING WAS VERY LOUD AND SOUNDED LIKE A MAN’S SNORING BUT WAS MUCH DEEPER. THE BOY SAID THE CREATURE HAD MOVED QUICKLY, GOING DEEPER INTO THE WOODS AND DISAPPEARING. INSIDE THE COCKPIT, THE AUTHORITIES FOUND THE REMAINS OF TWO PEOPLE, A MAN AND A WOMAN. THEY HAD BEEN COMPLETELY RIPPED APART, THEIR HEADS, ARMS, AND LEGS TORN OFF THEIR TORSOS. THERE WAS NO POSSIBLE WAY THE CRASH COULD HAVE DONE THAT SORT OF DAMAGE TO THEM. THE COCKPIT WAS ALMOST ENTIRELY INTACT. A POLICEMAN NOTED IN THE REPORT THAT THERE WAS A LONG, WINDING INDENTATION IN THE SNOW STARTING FROM THE GROUND OUTSIDE THE COCKPIT AND MOVING INTO THE TREES. BUT NO ONE ELSE WAS FOUND. CORDING TOLD ME THAT SEVERAL MONTHS AFTER THE CRASH, HE WAS FINALLY ALLOWED, THROUGH A SECRET CONTACT IN THE STATE POLICE, TO SEARCH AN ARCHIVE OF THE MAN AND WOMAN’S POSSESSIONS. THEY HAD MARRIED EACH OTHER IN 1987 AND HAD LIVED MOSTLY IN EGYPT. CORDING SAID HE BELIEVED THEY HAD BEEN COMING TO THIS PLACE ON THAT DAY IN ORDER TO CONFRONT SOMEONE, BUT ‘SHE GOT THEM FIRST.’ ONCE AGAIN, HE LEFT ME WITH QUESTIONS I DIDN’T FEEL READY TO ASK. I PUT A NEW TAPE INTO THE CAMERA AND WE MOVED ON. MY LEGS WERE GETTING TIRED. CORDING NEVER SLOWED HIS STEP. <> THE DAY WAS UNEXPECTEDLY DIVIDED IN TWO AFTER A BIZARRE INCIDENT. AS WE CROSSED THROUGH A SMALL PARK OFF LORDS STREET CONSISTING OF NOTHING BUT A COUPLE OF BASKETBALL COURTS AND A WIDE PATCH OF GRASS, CORDING SUDDENLY STOPPED AND SWORE ANGRILY UNDER HIS BREATH. HE WAS LOOKING TO THE EDGE OF THE PARK, WHERE A MAN WAS SITTING SLUMPED AWKWARDLY AGAINST A BENCH AS IF HIS BODY WERE COMPLETELY BROKEN. CORDING STARTED TO WALK TOWARD HIM, AND I FOLLOWED, BUT HE TURNED AND TOLD ME TO STAY WHERE I WAS. CORDING WENT OVER TO THE MAN AND CROUCHED BEFORE HIM. I COULD TELL HE WAS SPEAKING TO HIM BUT I COULDN'T HEAR ANYTHING. THE MAN WAS DRESSED ONLY IN TORN SWEATPANTS AND AN OLD DOMINO’S PIZZA T-SHIRT, AND HE WORE NOTHING ON HIS FEET AT ALL. HE HAD PULLED WHAT LOOKED LIKE A WHITE SHEET AROUND HIS NECK, FOR WARMTH. IT BUNCHED AWKWARDLY AROUND HIM AND DRAPED DOWN ALMOST TO THE GROUND. HE MOVED ONLY HIS HEAD, TURNING IT VERY VERY SLOWLY TOWARD THE SOUND OF CORDING’S VOICE. HE LOOKED TO BE ONLY IN HIS EARLY TWENTIES WITH LONG, UNWASHED HAIR. CORDING SPOKE TO HIM FOR ALMOST FIVE MINUTES. MORE AND MORE I NOTICED HOW AWFULLY PALE THE MAN’S SKIN WAS, DRAINED OF ALL COLOR, ALMOST A LIGHT GRAY HUE. WHEN CORDING STOOD AND WALKED BACK TOWARDS ME AND THE CAMERA, LEAVING THE MAN TO SIT UNDISTURBED, HE SEEMED FURIOUS. HE SAID NOTHING TO ME AS HE PASSED ME. I GOT ONE LAST SHOT OF THE MAN ON THE BENCH AND THEN KEPT UP WITH CORDING. THE MAN’S HEAD WAS COCKED BACK AND HE GAZED AT THE SKY. WHETHER HIS EYES WERE OPEN OR CLOSED, I COULDN’T TELL. <> CORDING WENT ONLY AS FAR AS THE CLOSEST BUS STOP. HE SAID HE HAD SOMETHING TO DO. A BUS CAME QUICKLY AND WE GOT ON BOARD. CORDING ASKED THE DRIVER IF IT WENT STRAIGHT DOWN LORDS STREET. I COULD HAVE TOLD HIM THAT IT DID. THIS WAS THE SAME BUS, THE A3, THAT I HAD TAKEN HOME FROM SCHOOL SOMETIMES WHEN I WAS GROWING UP. WE TRAVELED ABOUT A MILE, AND THEN GOT OFF THE BUS IN A LOWER-INCOME RESIDENTIAL NEIGHBORHOOD CALLED GLENDYN. WE WALKED DEEP INTO IT, PAST MODULAR HOUSES AND A FEW TRAILER HOMES, UNTIL THE ROAD SIMPLY RAN OUT. THERE WAS A SMALL GREEN HOUSE BESIDE THE DEAD END. ITS LAWN WAS OVERGROWN AND NO ONE HAD YET MADE ANY ATTEMPT TO RAKE THE FALL LEAVES OUT OF IT. INSTEAD OF A DRIVEWAY, A SINGLE CAR WAS PARKED ON AN IMPROVISED DIRT AREA BESIDE SOME TRASH CANS. CORDING CROSSED THE LAWN QUICKLY AND STRODE UP TO THE FRONT DOOR. HE HAD OBVIOUSLY BEEN THERE BEFORE. HE MOVED SO QUICKLY THAT I ALMOST HAD TO TROT TO KEEP UP. CORDING BANGED ON THE FRONT DOOR. AT FIRST THERE WAS NO ANSWER, SO CORDING BEGAN CALLING OUT LOUDLY AGAIN AND AGAIN FOR SOMEONE NAMED MR. COAKLIN. EVENTUALLY HE GOT A RESPONSE, AND WE HEARD A WEAK, GRAVELLY, DRUNK-SOUNDING VOICE FROM BEHIND THE DOOR. THE MAN WOULD NOT OPEN IT, THOUGH. CORDING DEMANDED THAT MR. COAKLIN TELL HIM WHY WE HAD JUST SEEN HIS SON IN THE PARK. THE ANSWER CAME BACK AFTER A LONG PAUSE: ‘I DON’T KNOW.’ THIS UPSET CORDING EVEN MORE. HE INFORMED MR. COAKLIN THAT HIS SON WAS STILL ‘HOLDING THE SHEET YOU WRAPPED HIM IN.’ HE ASKED COAKLIN WHAT HE INTENDED TO DO ABOUT IT. AGAIN, THE ANSWER CAME IN A SAD, TIRED VOICE: ‘I DON’T KNOW.’ CORDING ASKED HIM IF HE INTENDED TO TAKE CARE OF THE SITUATION OR IF HE HIMSELF HAD TO DO IT. AT FIRST THERE WAS NO ANSWER AT ALL. CORDING WAS ABOUT TO REPEAT THE QUESTION BUT FINALLY COAKLIN SAID, ‘YOU DO IT.’ CORDING YELLED AT COAKLIN THROUGH THE DOOR, SAYING THAT THIS WAS ABSOLUTELY THE LAST TIME ANYTHING LIKE THIS WAS GOING TO HAPPEN, AND THAT NOW COAKLIN WOULD EITHER LET THE BOY REST OR CORDING WOULD TAKE PERMANENT ACTION. COAKLIN DIDN’T RESPOND. THE LAST THING CORDING SAID TO HIM WAS TO ASK IF HE HAD A SHOVEL IN HIS SHED. CORDING WALKED AROUND THE SIDE OF THE HOUSE, PAST A FORGOTTEN TOMATO GARDEN, TO THE DILAPIDATED SHED. HE RUMMAGED THROUGH IT FOR A MOMENT AND CAME OUT WITH A RUSTY SHOVEL. WITH IT, WE WALKED BACK TO THE BUS STOP. AS WE WAITED FOR THE BUS TO PICK US UP GOING IN THE OPPOSITE DIRECTION, CORDING SAID THAT WHAT HE NEEDED TO DO MIGHT TAKE A WHILE, AND THAT HE MIGHT NEED MY HELP. THIS SENT A SHUDDER DOWN MY SPINE. WE RODE BACK TO THE PARK. WHEN WE GOT OFF THE BUS, CORDING SAW RIGHT AWAY THAT MR. COAKLIN’S SON WAS NO LONGER ON THE PARK BENCH. CORDING TURNED TO ME, LOOKING ILL, AND SAID HE THOUGHT HE KNEW WHERE HE HAD GONE. HE CHANGED HIS MIND ON THE SPOT AND SAID HE DIDN’T WANT WHAT WAS TO COME NEXT RECORDED ON VIDEOTAPE. HE INSTRUCTED ME TO RECHARGE MY CAMERA BATTERY AND MEET HIM IN TWO HOURS ON THE FAR SIDE OF THE PARK. THEN HE LEFT ME, WALKING TOWARD RUDWICK ROAD WITH THE SHOVEL. IN A DAZE, I SHUT OFF THE CAMERA. I TRIED TO THINK OF WHERE I MIGHT RE-CHARGE MY CAMERA BATTERY, AND WALKED DOWN THE ROAD THREE QUARTERS OF A MILE INTO CHELTENBROOK, THE NEIGHBORHOOD WHERE MY BEST CHILDHOOD FRIEND HAD LIVED. HE STILL LIVED THERE, AS FAR AS I KNEW, WITH HIS PARENTS. I WENT TO HIS HOUSE, NEEDING TO SIT DOWN AND RELAX. I CONVINCED MYSELF AS I WALKED THAT IF STEVE WERE HOME, I WOULD NOT TELL HIM WHAT I HAD SEEN OR WHAT I WAS DOING. ONLY LATER, IF I WAS ABLE TO TELL HIM WITHOUT ANYONE ELSE EVER FINDING OUT, WOULD I DO THAT. <> STEVE WAS HOME AND HAD JUST GOTTEN OUT OF BED. HE WAS HAPPY TO SEE ME, AND I TOLD HIM I HAD BEEN IN THE AREA TAPING A WEDDING RECEPTION. WE SAT IN HIS BASEMENT AND TALKED ABOUT OLD TIMES. HE NOTICED THAT I LOOKED A LITTLE SICK, BUT I TOLD HIM I WAS JUST GETTING OVER THE FLU. I TURNED OUR TALK TO WHAT ROBIN SONG WAS LIKE AFTER MY PARENTS HAD MOVED US TO ANNAPOLIS AT THE AGE OF THIRTEEN. STEVE HAD NEVER REALLY LIKED THE TOWN THAT MUCH, BUT HE DIDN'T SEEM ABLE TO LEAVE, NEVER HAVING FOUND HIS LIFE’S PURPOSE. IN HIS EARLY TWENTIES, JUST A FEW YEARS BEFORE, HE’D HAD A BREAKDOWN AND SPENT SOME TIME IN THE HOSPITAL. I WASN’T SURE IF HE HAD EVEN WORKED SINCE THEN. HE REMINDED ME OF THE HALLOWEEN NIGHT WHEN WE WERE EIGHTEEN WHEN HE HAD DRIVEN ALL THE WAY TO ANNAPOLIS UNEXPECTEDLY TO SEE ME AFTER HE’D GOTTEN A BAD SCARE IN ROBIN SONG WHICH HE’D FELT FOOLISH ABOUT LATER. HE WAS A LITTLE DRUNK AND HIGH AND SEARCHING ON FOOT FOR A PARTY HE KNEW ABOUT, AND HE GOT LOST IN A NEIGHBORHOOD HE’D BEEN IN MANY TIMES. HE HAD STARTED THINKING ABOUT A MURDER WHICH HAD TAKEN PLACE IN ROBIN SONG A FEW MONTHS BEFORE. A BLIND GIRL WHO HAD ONCE ATTENDED HIS HIGH SCHOOL WAS ABDUCTED FROM A LOCAL PHARMACY AND KILLED. HER CAPTORS HADN’T BELIEVED SHE WAS BLIND, SO THEY HAD ACTUALLY TAPED UP HER EYES BEFORE THEY KILLED HER. AFTER THAT, PEOPLE SAID THAT WHENEVER ANYTHING WAS BROKEN OR DAMAGED AROUND TOWN, IT WAS THE GIRL’S GHOST BLUNDERING AROUND SIGHTLESS. STEVE SAID THAT THERE REALLY WERE ALL SORTS OF POLICE REPORTS AT THAT TIME OF STATUES, TRASH CANS, AND STREET SIGNS BEING KNOCKED OVER WITH NO APPARENT PURPOSE. EARLY ON HALLOWEEN NIGHT HE HAD MADE THE MISTAKE OF GOING ON THE INTERNET AND FINDING A PICTURE OF WHAT THE GIRL’S FACE HAD LOOKED LIKE WHEN SHE WAS FOUND, AND THAT NIGHT AS HE WALKED ALONE THROUGH THE STREETS HE GOT VERY FRIGHTENED, SO FRIGHTENED HE GOT IT INTO HIS HEAD TO GET IN HIS CAR AND DRIVE ALL THE WAY TO MY HOUSE NON-STOP. SOMEHOW HE GOT THERE OKAY. I REMEMBERED THAT NIGHT WELL. I ASKED HIM IF ROBIN SONG SEEMED LIKE A PLACE WHERE STRANGE THINGS OFTEN HAPPENED. HE SAID, ‘OH, GOD, OF COURSE.’ THERE HAD BEEN A COUPLE OF DISAPPEARANCES THAT VERY WEEK. HE TRIED IN VAIN TO REMEMBER THE DETAILS OF ANOTHER RUMOR THAT HAD FLOATED AROUND ROBIN SONG, ONE FROM OUR ELEMENTARY SCHOOL DAYS, SOMETHING ABOUT A BABY THAT HAD BEEN FOUND BURNED BEYOND RECOGNITION AT ST. MARTIN’S CHURCH AND BURIED IN TOWN NEVER HAVING BEEN ACCURATELY IDENTIFIED. I VAGUELY REMEMBERED WHAT HE WAS TALKING ABOUT. I SUDDENLY FELT SO INCREDIBLY TIRED TALKING TO STEVE THAT I TOLD HIM I NEEDED TO LIE DOWN. WITHIN TWO MINUTES, I HAD FALLEN ASLEEP. WHEN I WOKE UP, I APOLOGIZED PROFUSELY. I IMMEDIATELY ASSUMED I HAD BEEN OUT FOR HOURS. BUT IT HAD ONLY BEEN A FEW MINUTES. I WAS COMPLETELY DISORIENTED. I LEFT STEVE’S HOUSE EVENTUALLY AFTER ASKING HIM TO VISIT ME SOON. ON THE WAY DOWN THE STREET, HIS PARENTS PASSED ME IN THEIR CAR COMING HOME. THEY GOT OUT TO SPEAK TO ME. THEY HAD SEEMED VERY OLD WHEN I KNEW THEM AS A TEENAGER, AND NOW THEY WERE QUITE ELDERLY. THEY TOLD ME THAT JUST A FEW WEEKS AGO, STEVE HAD BEEN FOUND WANDERING IN MOUNT HALCYON CEMETERY, HAVING HEARD VOICES RECENTLY, STRANGE FEMALE VOICES, EVERY DAY AT ABOUT DAWN, TELLING HIM TO GO THERE AND MAKE SURE THAT CERTAIN GRAVES WEREN’T VISITED, OR EVEN TOUCHED. THEY HAD BEGUN TO WORRY ABOUT HIM AGAIN. THEY WEREN’T SURE WHAT SORT OF TREATMENT HE WAS GOING TO NEED NEXT. I LEFT THEM AND WENT SLOWLY BACK TO THE PARK ON LORDS STREET. THERE I FOUND CORDING SITTING ON THE GROUND, LEGS CROSSED, SMOKING AND LOOKING OUT OVER THE ROAD. HE APPEARED EXHAUSTED. HIS CLOTHES WERE STREAKED WITH DIRT, AND THERE WAS A NASTY SCRATCH ON THE BACK OF HIS RIGHT HAND. THE SHOVEL WAS GONE, BUT IN ONE HAND HE NOW HELD THE DIRTY WHITE SHEET THAT MR. COAKLIN'S SON HAD WITH HIM ON THE BENCH. WITHOUT A WORD TO ME, HE GESTURED FOR ME TO START THE CAMERA AGAIN. HE GOT TO HIS FEET, AND THE SECOND PART OF OUR DAY IN ROBIN SONG BEGAN. THINGS WENT FROM BAD TO NIGHTMARISH VERY QUICKLY. <> WE WALKED. I REMEMBER GOING PAST ALL THE MINOR LANDMARKS OF ROBIN SONG WHICH I USED TO THINK NOTHING OF BUT NOW SEEMED SINISTER TO ME. WE WALKED SEEMINGLY WITHOUT PURPOSE, SLOWLY MAKING OUR WAY BACK TOWARD MOUNT HALCYON. CORDING KEPT RUBBING HIS FOREHEAD, A HEADACHE MAKING HIM SICK. HE SEEMED FRUSTRATED BY OUR LACK OF PROGRESS. AFTER ALMOST A FULL HOUR OF WANDERING, WE CAME TO AN ANONYMOUS LITTLE FORESTED AREA BESIDE A SELF-STORAGE RENTAL FACILITY WHERE A STEADY TRICKLE OF WATER FLOWED THROUGH THE MUD BETWEEN TWO UNDERGROUND PIPES AS TALL AS WE WERE. THERE, CORDING TOLD ME HE NEEDED TO 'ATTRACT.’ IT WAS GOING TO MAKE HIM INCREDIBLY WEAK, HE SAID, BUT IT NEEDED TO BE DONE BEFORE THE ENTIRE DAY WAS LOST. HE MIGHT NEED MY HELP WALKING AT FIRST WHEN HE FINISHED. HE DESCENDED THE SMALL BANK BESIDE THE TINY STREAM WITH THAT WHITE SHEET IN HIS HAND, STEADYING HIMSELF BY GRABBING ONTO WEAK TREE BRANCHES, AS I AND THE CAMERA WATCHED HIM. HE CROUCHED AND DIPPED THE SHEET INTO THE SLOWLY RUNNING WATER, THEN HE PUSHED IT DEEPER, INTO THE MUD BELOW. HE HELD HIS HANDS THERE, EYES CLOSED, FOR A FULL MINUTE. WHEN HE BROUGHT THEM ABOVE THE SURFACE AGAIN, THE SHEET WAS BLACK WITH MUD. WATER DRIPPED STEADILY FROM IT. HE ASCENDED THE BANK AGAIN. HE MOVED AWAY ALMOST AS IF HE HAD FORGOTTEN I WAS THERE, AND I HAD TO CATCH UP. IN TEN MINUTES WE WERE BACK IN THE CEMETERY. CORDING WALKED ALL THE WAY THERE WITH HIS HANDS AND THE SHEET COVERED IN MUD. PEOPLE HAD NOTICED, BUT THEY SAID NOTHING. MOST WERE TOO BUSY SHRINKING AGAINST THE COLD WIND THAT WAS GETTING STRONGER AND STRONGER, BLOWING DEAD LEAVES EVERYWHERE. CORDING WENT TOWARD THE EASTERN EDGE OF THE CEMETERY, TOWARD THE GRAVE HE HAD STOOD AT BEFORE. FRIGHTENED, I HUNG BACK AS MUCH AS I COULD. NO ONE ELSE WAS AROUND IN THE ENTIRE CEMETERY. I WATCHED CORDING CROUCH DEEPLY AT THE KNEES AND FOLD THE WET FILTHY SHEET SEVERAL TIMES UNTIL IT WAS AN ALMOST PERFECT SQUARE. THEN HE PLACED IT SOFTLY ON THE PATCH OF EARTH IN FRONT OF THE INFANT’S GRAVE. I FELT LESS SCARED SOMEHOW WHEN I WATCHED HIM ONLY THROUGH THE VIEWFINDER, WHICH MADE HIM SMALL. HE SAID SOMETHING TO ME I COULDN’T HEAR, SO I MOVED CLOSER. HE WAS ASKING ME TO HELP HIM UP. I PUT THE CAMERA DOWN FOR JUST A MOMENT AND PUT MY HANDS UNDER HIS SHOULDERS AND LIFTED HIM. WHEN HE WAS ON HIS FEET AGAIN HE SEEMED ALL RIGHT, JUST VERY WEAK AND TIRED, LIKE AN OLD MAN. HE TOLD ME TO PICK UP THE CAMERA AGAIN AND WAIT WITH HIM ON A BENCH IN THE CREMATION GARDEN A FEW HUNDRED FEET AWAY. HE AND I SAT THERE FOR AT LEAST A HALF HOUR. WE SAW NO ONE. AT ONE POINT IT ALMOST LOOKED LIKE CORDING HAD FALLEN ASLEEP SITTING UP, BUT NO. HE HAD JUST GONE INTO A LIGHT MEDITATIVE STATE. I SMOKED SEVERAL CIGARETTES AND WAITED FOR CORDING TO TELL ME WHAT OUR NEXT MOVE WAS. EVENTUALLY WE ROSE AGAIN AND WALKED BACK TO THE GRAVE. CORDING PICKED UP THE SHEET, OR MAYBE I SHOULD CALL IT A SHROUD, AND THEN HAD ME FOLLOW HIM AGAIN AS HE CARRIED IT AWAY. WE WENT PAST THE CREMATION GARDEN AND INTO A SMALL GROVE OF BUSHES. THERE, CORDING SET THE SHROUD ON THE GROUND ONE LAST TIME AND UNFOLDED IT LITTLE BY LITTLE UNTIL IT WAS BACK TO ITS FULL SIZE. HE TOLD ME TO GET A CLOSE SHOT OF IT. THERE WERE ACTUALLY LETTERS ON IT, TWELVE INCHES HIGH, SOMEHOW ETCHED FROM THE MUD THAT HAD CAKED ONTO IT, AS IF SMALL FINGERS HAD USED IT AS PAINT. THE WRITING WAS VERY CLEAR, THOUGH THE LETTERS WERE SPIKY AND SHAKY. THE WORDS WERE GYORA EL. THAT WAS IT, NOTHING MORE. CORDING STARED AT THEM FOR A TIME, SEEMING A LITTLE CONFUSED, BUT NOT SCARED, LIKE I WAS. THEN SUDDENLY, HE SEEMED MUCH MORE CERTAIN ABOUT WHERE WE WERE TO WALK. HE GATHERED UP THE SHEET AND DUMPED IT INTO THE NEAREST TRASH CAN. <> FROM MOUNT HALCYON, WE WENT DOWN BOWLER AVENUE, THEN HEADED SOUTH. AS WE WALKED AND I VIDEOTAPED, I STARTED TO FEEL VERY DEEPLY CONCERNED FOR MY OWN WELL-BEING.AND I DIDN’T LIKE WHERE WE WERE GOING. THE SIGHTS WERE BECOMING EVEN MORE FAMILIAR. THE PATH WE TOOK MIMICKED TOO MANY OF THE ONES I TOOK IN MY YOUTH TO NAVIGATE THE TOWN, WHICH SEEMED SO BIG TO ME BACK THEN. CORDING STOPPED EVERY QUARTER MILE OR SO AND THOUGHT FOR A MOMENT, TRYING TO SENSE SOMETHING, BUT ALWAYS MOVING IN MORE OR LESS A STRAIGHT LINE. THEN THERE CAME A SERIES OF TURNS HE TOOK WHICH EXACTLY DUPLICATED THE WAY I USED TO WALK FROM A SEVEN-ELEVEN TO MY GRANDFATHER’S HOUSE. I WATCHED IN DISBELIEF AS HE EVEN VEERED OFF THE SIDEWALK BESIDE THE HOUSE WHERE A FAMILY CALLED THE VHEATYS USED TO LIVE. THE GIANT OAK TREE ON THE EDGE OF THEIR FRONT LAWN WAS SPLIT NEATLY IN TWO AT THE TRUNK AND CORDING STEPPED ONTO THE LAWN AND BISECTED THAT TREE THE WAY I USED TO EVERY SINGLE TIME I ENCOUNTERED IT FROM THE AGE OF SIX. HE KEPT GOING WITHOUT LOOKING BACK, JOINING THE SIDEWALK AGAIN. IT WAS A MOVE COMPLETELY OUT OF CHARACTER FOR CORDING AND MADE NO EARTHLY SENSE AT ALL. THE MOMENT WHEN WE REACHED BRIAN LANE WAS THE REAL TURNING POINT FOR ME, THE TIME WHEN I MOST CONSIDERED DROPPING THE CAMERA AND JUST RUNNING AWAY FROM THIS AWFUL TASK. BUT I KEPT UP, UNABLE TO NOT LOOK, TO NOT FIND OUT WHAT WOULD HAPPEN NEXT. I WAS SURE CORDING KNEW EXACTLY WHAT I WAS FEELING AND KNEW THAT I WOULDN’T STOP. CORDING FINALLY BEGAN TO WALK MORE SLOWLY. WE LEFT BRIAN LANE AND STARTED TO WALK UP A LONG, WINDING PATH ONTO PRIVATE PROPERTY. THE PATH LED BETWEEN REEDS AND TREES STARTING TO SHOWER LEAVES ONTO US UNDER THE WEIGHT OF THE WIND. I KEPT FAR BACK. CORDING WAS SMALL IN THE CAMERA FRAME. HE STOPPED ENTIRELY FOR A MINUTE, LOOKING AROUND. THEN HE GESTURED FOR ME TO COME CLOSER. BREATHING HARD WITH FRIGHT, I DID SO. HE SAID TO ME: ‘IT’S HERE. SOMETHING’S HERE. SOMETHING’S HERE. BE VERY QUIET.’ WITH THAT, HE CONTINUED TO MOVE UP THE DIRT PATH, WHICH BENT SLIGHTLY TO THE RIGHT, AND WHICH IN ABOUT A HUNDRED FEET WOULD LEAD DIRECTLY TO MY GRANDFATHER’S BACK YARD. WHEN GRANDPA’S HOUSE CAME INTO VIEW, I COULDN’T MOVE ANY FURTHER. I SAID NOTHING. I WOULD TELL CORDING WHERE WE WERE, AND WHY IT WAS SO RIDICULOUS THAT WE SHOULD BE HERE, ONLY AFTER HE HAD COMPLETED WHATEVER TASK HE HAD IN MIND. I WANTED TO HURT HIM SOMEHOW, TO MAKE HIM FEEL UTTERLY FOOLISH. I WOULD LET HIM LOOK AROUND AND THEN I WOULD EXPLAIN TO HIM THAT HIS INSTINCTS WERE COMPLETELY WRONG. I FINALLY HAD A REASON TO ABANDON HIM. I WOULD EVEN KEEP TAPING SO I COULD DOCUMENT HIS WRONG TURN. BUT DEEP DOWN, I FEARED THAT SOMETHING VERY AWFUL HAD GOTTEN TOO CLOSE TO GRANDPA’S HOUSE, AND THAT CORDING HAD TRACKED IT DOWN. GRANDPA’S OLD TRUCK WAS GONE, AND THE HOUSE WAS OBVIOUSLY EMPTY. HE HAD PROBABLY GONE OUT FOR GROCERIES, OR TO VISIT A FRIEND. HE STILL WENT OUT A COUPLE OF TIMES A WEEK DESPITE HIS OLD AGE. AFTER LOOKING AT THE HOUSE BRIEFLY, AND AT THE WIDE ACREAGE SURROUNDING IT, WHICH WAS BORDERED ON ALL SIDES BY WOODS, CORDING TURNED HIS ATTENTION TO THE OLD HORSE STABLE MY GRANDFATHER HAD ESSENTIALLY LEFT TO ROT DECADES AGO. CORDING OPENED THE RUSTING GATE THAT SEPARATED THE BACK YARD FROM THE GRASSY LOT ON WHICH THE STABLE SAT AND WENT THROUGH IT. I FOLLOWED HIM. IT WAS AS IF HE WAS BEING LED BY A SCENT OR A SOUND THAT ONLY HE WAS ABLE TO EXPERIENCE. CORDING WENT INTO THE HORSE STABLE, WHICH WAS DIVIDED IN HALVES, THE TWO SIDES SEPARATED BY A SHORT WALL. HE LIFTED THE LID OF AN ANCIENT WOODEN STORAGE BIN AND HESITANTLY LOOKED INSIDE IT. THERE WAS NOTHING IN THERE. THEN HE MOVED TO THE OTHER SIDE OF THE SHORT WALL. I SAW SOME OLD FURNITURE LEFT SITTING IN THE DIRT FOR YEARS, NOTHING MORE THAN A HOME FOR SPIDERS, AND THEN NOTICED, EVEN BEFORE CORDING DID, A TALL WOODEN STICK RISING OUT OF THE DIRT TO WAIST HEIGHT, HAVING BEEN JAMMED INTO IT, STANDING FREELY. A SMALL PHOTOGRAPH HAD BEEN TAPED TO THE TOP OF THE STICK. IT WAS A COLOR PHOTO OF A YOUNG BOY OF ABOUT EIGHT WHO I HAD NEVER SEEN. THE BOY WAS WEARING A HOODED SWEATSHIRT AND SMILING AT THE CAMERA AS IT PHOTOGRAPHED HIM STANDING IN FRONT OF A MOVIE THEATER. BECAUSE OF THE EXPOSURE TO THE ELEMENTS, THE PHOTO HAD FADED SOMEWHAT, BUT WAS PROBABLY NO MORE THAN A FEW MONTHS OLD. I TOUCHED IT AS I MOVED THE CAMERA IN TO GET A SHOT OF IT. I GOT THE FEELING THAT CORDING KNEW RIGHT AWAY WHAT THE STICK AND THE PHOTO ATTACHED TO IT SIGNIFIED. TO ME IT WAS A COMPLETE MYSTERY. THE PROPERTY SEEMED HIDEOUSLY SILENT. THE SILENCE WAS THEN BROKEN BY THE SOUND OF AN ENGINE APPROACHING. MY GRANDFATHER WAS COMING BACK HOME. MY FIRST INSTINCT WAS TO WALK OUT OF THE STABLE AND GREET HIM, BUT CORDING REACHED A HAND OUT AND CLASPED MY FOREARM. HE PUT A FINGER TO HIS LIPS TO TELL ME TO KEEP QUIET. IT WAS THEN I REALIZED THAT WHAT HE FEARED WAS NOT SOMETHING NAMELESS THAT HAD INFESTED MY GRANDFATHER’S PROPERTY, BUT MY GRANDFATHER HIMSELF. I DID AS I WAS INSTRUCTED. AS MY GRANDPA’S TRUCK GOT CLOSER, THE SOUND OF THE ENGINE GOT LOUDER, AND CORDING STEPPED DEEPER INTO THE MUSTY STABLE TO KEEP WELL OUT OF SIGHT. SOON WE COULD HEAR THE TRUCK LESS THAN A HUNDRED FEET BEYOND THE STABLE, COMING UP THE PATH AND BUMPING OVER THE GRASS OF THE BACK YARD. LITTLE BY LITTLE, CORDING CREPT TOWARD THE EDGE OF THE STABLE SO THAT HE COULD LEAN AROUND THE CORNER IN A SUBTLE WAY AND WATCH TO SEE WHAT HAPPENED. I HEARD THE SOUND OF THE ENGINE CUT OFF AND THE TRUCK’S DOOR OPEN. CORDING TOOK A FEW MORE STEPS FORWARD AND PRESSED HIS BODY FLAT AGAINST THE SIDE OF THE STABLE, HIDING BEHIND THE VINES THAT GREW THERE. OVER HIS SHOULDER, I COULD SEE MY GRANDFATHER MAKING HIS WAY UP TO HIS FRONT DOOR, HAVING NO IDEA WE WERE THERE. HE WALKED ARTHRITICALLY UP THE THREE STEPS I MYSELF HAD CLIMBED SO MANY TIMES BEFORE, AND THEN HE DISAPPEARED INSIDE. WHEN HE WAS GONE, CORDING TURNED TO ME. I REMEMBER HIS HAIR BLOWING CRAZILY IN THE WIND. HE WHISPERED THAT WE WOULD COME BACK LATER, TO SEE IF THE MAN HAD LEFT AGAIN. HE SAID HE NEEDED TO GET INSIDE THE HOUSE. WE CREPT OFF THE PROPERTY, KEEPING WELL OUT OF SIGHT. WHEN WE ENCOUNTERED A FIFTY-FOOT STRETCH WHERE WE COULD PROBABLY HAVE BEEN SEEN THROUGH ONE OF THE HOUSE’S FRONT WINDOWS, WE QUICKENED OUR PACE LIKE BURGLARS. THEN WE WENT BACK DOWN THE LONG DIRT PATH TOWARD BRIAN LANE. EVEN BEFORE WE GOT TO IT, CORDING HAD TO STOP, BEND ON ONE KNEE, AND REST, BREATHING HEAVILY. ALL HIS ENERGY WAS GONE. I MYSELF FELT LIKE I WAS DEVELOPING A FEVER. THAT WAS WHEN I TOLD HIM THAT THE MAN WE HAD JUST SEEN WAS MY GRANDFATHER. CORDING LOOKED AT ME WITH ABSOLUTELY NO EXPRESSION. HIS EYES WERE BLANK, DEAD. HE SAID TO ME, ‘THEN TONIGHT YOU’LL CALL HIM AND GET HIM OUT OF THE HOUSE, AND WE’LL GO IN.’ <> AFTER THAT, CORDING WALKED THROUGH ROBIN SONG WITH LESS DETERMINATION, HAVING TO SIT SEVERAL TIMES ON BENCHES AND SIDEWALKS TO REST AND CATCH HIS BREATH. I KEPT UP MY END OF THE BARGAIN BY CONTINUING TO VIDEOTAPE HIM, THOUGH MY MIND WAS IN A FOG. I GOT THE SENSE THAT HE KEPT GOING ON FOOT JUST TO DISTRACT ME FROM THE FACT THAT HE REALLY ONLY HAD ONE DESTINATION IN MIND NOW. IT WAS MY GRANDFATHER’S HOUSE, UNDER COVER OF NIGHT. <> IT WAS ABOUT THREE O’CLOCK AND STARTING TO DRIZZLE LIGHTLY AGAIN WHEN I WAS ATTACKED. IT HAPPENED IN A SMALL PUBLIC OVERFLOW PARKING LOT TUCKED BEHIND A STRIP MALL WHICH FACED ROSANDA ROAD. I WAS ABOUT FIFTEEN FEET BEHIND CORDING AS WE CROSSED THE LOT TOWARDS IT. THERE WERE ABOUT TEN CARS PARKED IN THE LOT, AND NO HUMAN ACTIVITY. WE WERE NEAR THE REAR ENTRANCES OF A USED BOOKSTORE, A LAUNDROMAT, AND A LOCAL HARDWARE STORE WHICH WAS THE FIRST BUSINESS EVER TO SET UP SHOP IN ROBIN SONG. CORDING WAS SAYING SOMETHING TO ME AND I HAD TO STRAIN TO LISTEN. HE WAS ASKING ME IF I WANTED TO STOP SOMEWHERE AND GET A WINDBREAKER OR SOMETHING BECAUSE OF THE DROPPING TEMPERATURE. I SAID I THOUGHT I’D BE FINE FOR A WHILE, AND THEN HE STARTED TO ASK ME IF THERE WAS ANY CHANCE THE CAMERA COULD BE DAMAGED IF IT RAINED AGAIN. HALFWAY THROUGH HIS SENTENCE, HE TURNED TO ME AND KEPT SPEAKING, BUT RIGHT AWAY I FROZE AND HE STOPPED AND ASKED ME WHAT WAS WRONG. CORDING’S EYES WERE TAPED OVER COMPLETELY, RENDERING HIM BLIND. IT LOOKED LIKE TWO FRAYED PIECES OF CARDBOARD HAD BEEN PUT OVER THEM AND SEALED THERE CLUMSILY WITH SEVERAL SHORT STRIPS OF BLACK TAPE. THERE WAS A THICK SMEAR OF DRIED BLOOD ON THE SIDE OF HIS FACE, ALMOST ENTIRELY OBSCURING ONE CHEEK. I REMEMBER POINTING AT HIS FACE AND BEING UNABLE TO FORM THE RIGHT WORDS TO TELL HIM WHAT I WAS SEEING. HE PUT A HAND TO HIS EYES TO FEEL THE TAPE WHEN SOMETHING STRUCK ME HARD ON MY RIGHT SIDE, SO HARD THAT I AND MY CAMERA WENT FLYING. MY WIND WAS KNOCKED RIGHT OUT OF ME AND I FELL TO THE CEMENT. IT FELT LIKE A LIGHT HUMAN BODY HAD COLLIDED WITH ME AT TOP RUNNING SPEED, AND FOR THE BRIEFEST INSTANT, I KNOW I FELT HUMAN HAIR, LONG HUMAN HAIR, GRAZE MY FACE, AND I DETECTED THE SCENT OF PERFUME. THE BACK OF MY HAND WAS SCRAPED AND THERE WAS A LOT OF PAIN BUT I MANAGED TO QUICKLY GRAB THE CAMERA AND WHIP IT ALL AROUND ME, TRYING TO PICK UP A PHYSICAL IMAGE OF WHAT HAD STRUCK ME. THERE WAS NOTHING. WHEN THE CAMERA CAUGHT CORDING IN THE FRAME AGAIN, NO MORE THAN SEVEN OR EIGHT SECONDS AFTER I SEEN HIM WITH HIS EYES TAPED. THE TAPE WAS GONE, AND SO WAS THE BLOOD SMEARING HIS CHEEK. HE TRIED TO HELP ME TO MY FEET BUT I PUSHED HIM AWAY. I LAY THERE FOR A FEW MINUTES, TRYING NOT TO CRY. ALMOST TOO PERFECTLY, NO ONE HAD SEEN WHAT HAD HAPPENED TO US. THE PARKING LOT WAS QUIET AND UNPOPULATED, EVEN THOUGH THERE WERE ALMOST A DOZEN BUSINESSES WITHIN FIFTY YARDS OF US. THE PEOPLE WHO ENTERED THEM AND EXITED THEM DID SO FROM THE FRONT SIDEWALK ON ROSANDA ROAD AND COULDN'T SEE US. FINALLY I STOOD UP. CORDING AND I EXCHANGED NO WORDS. I CHECKED THE CAMERA AND IT WAS ALL RIGHT. WHEN I STARTED TO REWIND THE TAPE TO WATCH THE LAST MINUTE OF IT, CORDING ASSURED ME I WOULD SEE NOTHING THAT EXPLAINED WHAT HAD HAPPENED. AND IT WAS TRUE. BUT THE CAMERA HAD AT LEAST CAUGHT, INCONTROVERTIBLY, THE BLACK TAPE ON HIS EYES, HIS CONFUSED REACTION TO MY SHOCK, AND THE SOUND OF A BODY SLAMMING INTO MINE AS I LOST ALL CONTROL OF THE FRAME AND THE PICTURE WENT ASKEW. THE SOUND OF THE AIR BEING KNOCKED FROM MY LUNGS HAD BEEN DELIVERED DIRECTLY INTO THE MICROPHONE WHEN THE CAMERA TWISTED TOWARD MY FACE. IT HAD ALL BEEN REAL. THERE WAS JUST NO SIGN AT ALL OF THE CAUSE. I REMEMBERED HOW CORDING HAD TOLD ME THAT NOTHING COULD TOUCH ME HERE. I WATCHED HIS FACE FOR ANY SIGN OF REAL SHOCK, VISIBLE EVIDENCE THAT HE FELT HE WAS DEALING WITH SOMETHING HERE THAT HE COULD NOT FATHOM. BUT HE REMAINED A CYPHER. <> FOR A TIME, CORDING AND I DID NOTHING BUT SIT ON ROSANDA AND WATCH THE ANNUAL AUTUMN FESTIVAL WHICH WAS TAKING PLACE THAT WEEKEND. ROBIN SONG’S MAIN STREET HAD BEEN CLOSED TO TRAFFIC, AND TOWNSPEOPLE SWIRLED ALL AROUND US, SMILING, LAUGHING, DOING ALL SORTS OF THINGS. DOZENS OF SMALL BOOTHS AND TABLES WERE SET UP, SELLING EVERYTHING FROM HOMEMADE JEWELRY TO OLD BOOKS TO ETHNIC FOOD. TWO DIFFERENT BANDS PLAYED. CORDING DRANK A CUP OF ESPRESSO HE’D BOUGHT FROM A CHURCH GROUP ON THE CORNER AND I TRIED TO EAT SOMETHING. WE JUST WATCHED ALL THE PEOPLE WHO WERE SO UNAWARE OF WHAT SORT OF PLACE THEY REALLY LIVED IN. I SPOTTED A FACE I INSTANTLY RECOGNIZED AS I STOOD TO STRETCH. ACROSS THE STREET WAS THE INDEPENDENT MOVIE PRODUCER WHOM I HAD SHOT TAPE FOR TEN MONTHS BEFORE. I TOLD CORDING I WOULD BE BACK IN A FEW MINUTES AND WALKED OVER TO TALK TO TRENT. WE SHOOK HANDS AND I ASKED HIM IF HE HAD WOUND UP MOVING TO ROBIN SONG, AS HAD BEEN HIS PLAN. HE SAID THAT HE HAD, HIS WIFE HAD BEEN CONVINCED BY THE TOWN’S CHARM WHEN HE’D DRIVEN HER THROUGH IT, AND THEY’D BOUGHT A SMALL HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF TOWN NEAR THE TRAIN STATION. I ASKED HIM IF HE STILL LIKED THE AREA AS MUCH, AND HE SAID THAT HE DID. HE HAD BEEN TRYING TO GET SOME TIME OFF TO TAKE A LONG VACATION, THOUGH, BECAUSE OF A PROBLEM THAT HAD ARISEN WITH HIS EIGHT YEAR OLD SON. THE BOY HAD ONE DAY DEVELOPED A SEVERE CASE OF AGORAPHOBIA. HE NOT ONLY COULDN’T BRING HIMSELF TO GO TO SCHOOL, BUT EVEN GOING SHOPPING WITH HIS MOTHER OR BEYOND THE FRONT YARD MADE HIM FEEL AFRAID AND SICK. IT HAD HAPPENED OVERNIGHT, AND HE WASN’T ABLE TO TELL ANYONE WHAT HAD CAUSED IT. HE’D MISSED A WEEK OF SCHOOL BEFORE HE OVERCAME HIS FEAR AND WENT BACK TO NORMAL, BUT BOTH HIS MOTHER AND FATHER WANTED HIM TO SEE A THERAPIST SOON. WHETHER IT WAS A REAL PSYCHOLOGICAL PROBLEM OR JUST BULLY-RELATED, OR MAYBE JUST A REACTION TO SOMETHING HIS TEACHER HAD DONE, THEY HAD NO IDEA. THE POSSIBILITY OF MOLESTATION WAS VERY REAL AS WELL. ASIDE FROM THAT, THEIR TIME IN ROBIN SONG WAS GOING ALONG WELL. WE PARTED AND I NEVER SAW TRENT AGAIN. I HAD WANTED TO TELL HIM WHY I WAS THERE THAT DAY AND WHAT I HAD SEEN, BUT EVEN MORE, I WANTED TO TELL HIM THAT I UNDERSTOOD WHAT HIS SON WAS GOING THROUGH, BECAUSE THE SAME THING HAD HAPPENED TO ME, WHEN I WAS TEN YEARS OLD. IT WAS SOMETHING I HAD NEVER REVEALED TO ANYONE. I WAS IN FOURTH GRADE AT THE TIME. I HAD AWOKEN IN THE MIDDLE OF NIGHT TO THE SOUND OF SOMETHING STRIKING MY WINDOWPANE AGAIN AND AGAIN. THERE WAS NOTHING TO BE SEEN, BUT THE NEXT MORNING I WAS AFRAID TO GET OUT OF MY BED. I MADE MYSELF GET UP AND WALK TO THE BUS STOP, BUT EVERY STEP I TOOK I WAS AFRAID SOMETHING WAS COMING TO GET ME. IN SCHOOL, I COULDN’T CONCENTRATE, AND WHEN THE BUS LET ME OFF AT THE END OF THE DAY, I RAN AS FAST AS I COULD BACK TO THE HOUSE. FOR TWO DAYS, I TOLD MY MOTHER I WAS SICK WITH A STOMACH ACHE, BUT ON THE THIRD DAY MY EXCUSES DRIED UP AND I HAD TO GO. OVER THE WEEKEND IT GOT WORSE AND WORSE. I DID NOT GO OUT AND PLAY. I COULD ONLY SLEEP IN FITS AND STARTS. ON MONDAY, I SHOOK WHEN IT CAME TIME TO WALK TO THE BUS STOP. I CRIED SILENTLY AS THE BUS TOOK ME HOME, KNOWING THAT I WOULD HAVE TO RUN HARD AS SOON AS IT LEFT ME BEHIND. EVERY SOUND MADE ME FLINCH. FOR SOME BIZARRE REASON, I COULD NOT LOOK AT ANIMALS, MORE SPECIFICALLY THEIR EYES, THE EYES OF DOGS, CATS, EVEN BIRDS AND SQUIRRELS. WHEN I DID, THEY SEEMED TO POSSESS A LOOK OF AGONIZING PAIN, NEAR-DEATH PAIN. ANOTHER STRANGE SYMPTOM OF MY SICKNESS WAS THAT I BECAME OBSESSED WITH THE FACT THAT OUTSIDE OF MY SCHOOL, EVERY GIRL OR WOMAN I SAW IN ROBIN SONG HAD STRAIGHT BLACK HAIR. TO THIS DAY I THINK IT WAS TRUE THAT FOR A WHOLE WEEK THERE WERE NO EXCEPTIONS TO THIS. IT WAS AS IF SOME SECRET COVEN HAD APPEARED IN MY TOWN, AND THOUGH THEY SEEMED TO PAY NO ATTENTION TO ME, EVERY TIME I SAW A FEMALE APPROACHING ME, I WOULD SEE THE INEVITABLE BLACK HAIR AND RUN IN ANOTHER DIRECTION. I NEVER WALKED ANYWHERE THAT WEEK, ONLY RAN. IT WAS THE SORT OF IRRATIONAL TERROR ONLY A CHILD CAN FEEL, AND IT SUNK DEEP INTO ME FOR A TIME, AND THEN, JUST AS MYSTERIOUSLY, IT LEFT ME. THINGS WENT BACK TO NORMAL. MY WORST MOMENT DURING MY TIME OF FEAR WAS ON A SNOW DAY WHEN SCHOOL OPENED TWO HOURS LATE. A NEIGHBOR’S MOTHER DROVE TWO KIDS AND ME TO SCHOOL THAT DAY IN A TRUCK. WHEN I GOT IN THE TRUCK AND SAW HER STRAIGHT BLACK HAIR, I STARTED TO CRY. I SWEAR SHE TOOK NO NOTICE AT ALL, NEVER EVEN GLANCED AT ME IN THE REAR VIEW MIRROR, EVEN AS HER TWO SONS MADE FUN OF ME. I SAID I HAD HURT MY KNEE SOMEHOW. THE WOMAN WAS TOTALLY SILENT THROUGHOUT THE TRIP. I STARED AT THE FLOOR SO AS NOT TO LOOK OUT THE WINDOWS AND SEE ANY MORE BLACK HAIR, JUST AS I DID WHEN I WAS ON THE BUS. WHEN WE WERE DROPPED OFF, THE WOMAN DIDN’T EVEN RESPOND TO HER SONS’ GOODBYES. SHE LOOKED THROUGH THE FRONT WINDSHIELD AND NEVER TURNED HER HEAD. I THOUGHT SHE WAS SCARED OF ME, THAT SHE KNEW I WAS AWARE OF HER SECRET. IF I HAD SPENT ONE MORE MINUTE IN THAT CAR, I WOULD HAVE STARTED TO SHRIEK AND NEVER STOP. <> AT FOUR O’CLOCK, CORDING AND I GOT MOVING AGAIN. HE SAID HE WANTED TO WALK AROUND A DIFFERENT PART OF TOWN, THOUGH HE DIDN’T SEEM ABLE TO COVER LONG DISTANCES ANYMORE. THE ENERGY HAD BEEN DRAINED FROM HIM AND HIS HEADACHE WAS WORSE. HE FLINCHED AT THE SLIGHTEST NOISE. I TOLD HIM IF HE WANTED TO LOOK AT SOMETHING DIFFERENT WE SHOULD GO ACROSS ROSANDA TO MARQUETTE STREET. FROM WHERE WE WERE, ALL WE HAD TO DO WAS CUT THROUGH A THIN STRAND OF TREES TO GET THERE. WE STARTED TO GO THROUGH THEM, AND I EXPECTED WE WOULD BE ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THEM IN LESS THAN A MINUTE. INSTINCTIVELY I STARTED VIDEOTAPING AGAIN, AS CORDING WANTED ME TO. IT DIDN’T TAKE ANY THOUGHT OR EFFORT. I MERELY RESTED THE CAMERA ON MY SHOULDER AT A CERTAIN ANGLE, NO LONGER BOTHERING TO FRAME THE SHOT THROUGH THE VIEWFINDER, OR KEEP MY EYE ON THE MINIATURE SCREEN TO MAINTAIN IT. <> SOMETHING HAPPENED. THE TREES KEPT GOING AND GOING AND FOR A SECOND I THOUGHT I HAD MADE A MISTAKE, BUT I COULDN’T HAVE. I HAD TAKEN THIS SHORTCUT DOZENS AND DOZENS OF TIMES AS A KID. I DIDN’T REMEMBER A PATH LEADING INTO THE WOODS, BUT THERE WAS ONE, AND WE JUST NATURALLY FOUND OURSELVES ON IT. SINCE I HADN’T BEEN IN THAT SPOT IN MANY YEARS, I ASSUMED THE PATH HAD BEEN SOMEHOW FORMED IN THE INTERIM. BUT FINALLY I CALLED OUT FOR CORDING TO STOP WALKING. HE TURNED AROUND AND ASKED ME WHAT WAS WRONG. I WASN’T SURE. THE WOODS WENT IN ALL DIRECTIONS, SEEMING THICKER THAN I EVER REMEMBERED. THE PATH SPLIT THEM PERFECTLY. SOMEHOW WE HAD GOTTEN LOST, OR CONSTRUCTION OVER THE YEARS HAD MOVED THINGS, BUT CONSTRUCTION ONLY TOOK FOREST AWAY, NEVER ADDED IT. CORDING ASKED, ‘ARE THE WOODS BIGGER THAN YOU THOUGHT?’ I SAID YES, AND THAT WE SHOULD TURN AROUND. WE STARTED WALKING BACK IN THE OTHER DIRECTION. AFTER ONLY FIFTY YARDS, THE PATH BEGAN TO BEND DRAMATICALLY TO THE RIGHT. IT HADN’T BEEN CURVED BEFORE, NOT EVEN AN INCH. NOTHING COULD BE SEEN THROUGH THE TREES. THEY MARCHED BACK INFINITELY. I STOPPED AND STARED AT THE PATH, MY EYES WIDE. CORDING LOOKED AT ME AND DID NOT SEEM SURPRISED AT MY CONFUSION. HE TOLD ME IF THE PATH WAS NOT WHAT IT SEEMED, IT WOULD DO NO GOOD TO TRY TO GO BACK THE WAY WE CAME. WE WOULD WALK, AND THAT WAS ALL WE COULD DO. I PROTESTED, BUT HE ONLY SAID AGAIN, ‘THERE’S NOTHING WE CAN DO BUT WALK.’ SO WE WENT. EVERY STEP WE TOOK FRIGHTENED ME BADLY. EVERY STEP WAS UNNATURAL, SURREAL. THE TREES SURROUNDING US WERE LIKE ANY OTHERS, AND THE PATH WAS NOTHING MORE THAN A NEATLY BEATEN LINE THROUGH THE GRASS. WE COULD HEAR BIRDS OVERHEAD, BUT NO TRAFFIC IN THE DISTANCE. THE WIND WAS HIGHER THAN IT HAD BEEN. AFTER CURVING TO THE RIGHT, THE PATH STRAIGHTENED FOR A TIME, GOING TO THE WEST. I REMEMBER THE POSITION OF THE SUN, WHICH WAS ALMOST ENTIRELY HIDDEN BY THE CLOUDS. THE PATH CONTINUED AND DID NOT VEER FROM ITS WESTERLY DIRECTION. IT STAYED THAT WAY FOR WHAT FELT LIKE ALMOST A HALF HOUR BEFORE IT CHANGED IN ANY WAY. I DON’T RECALL THE VARIOUS TURNS IT TOOK. THEY WERE MEANINGLESS. CORDING WALKED WITH HIS HEAD DOWN, RESIGNED. HE MOVED AT A STEADY PACE DESPITE THE FACT THAT HIS BREATHING WAS BECOMING RAGGED. IF I HAD BEEN ALONE, I WOULD NEVER HAVE KEPT GOING IN A RELATIVELY STRAIGHT LINE. BUT CORDING HAD THE AIR OF A MAN WHO HAD BEEN THROUGH SOMETHING LIKE THIS BEFORE, AND KNEW THAT PLUNGING INTO THE WOODS WOULD BE A MISTAKE. THE RUGGED TERRAIN WAS CONSTANT. WE WERE LOST IN THE MIDDLE OF A FOREST WHERE NO FOREST HAD EVER BEEN. IT WOULD HAVE BEEN IMPOSSIBLE TO WALK THROUGH ROBIN SONG AT SUCH A STEADY RATE AND NOT EMERGE ONTO A STREET, OR A LAWN, OR ANYTHING AT ALL. THERE WERE NO SIGNS OF HUMAN INHABITANCE, NO LITTER, NO FOOTPRINTS OTHER THAN OURS. I THOUGHT OF STOPPING, BUT I WAS TOO PARALYZED WITH FRIGHT TO DO ANYTHING DIFFERENT FROM WHAT CORDING DID. IT FELT SO MUCH SAFER TO PUT ONE FOOT IN FRONT OF THE OTHER, OVER AND OVER AND OVER AGAIN, THAN TO SPEAK OR MAKE ANY COMPLAINT OR SUGGEST ANY OTHER COURSE OF ACTION. TIME PASSED. THE SUN BEGAN TO SET. THE THOUGHT OF BEING TRAPPED IN THE WOODS IN THE DARK SENT ME INTO A PANIC. I WOULD RATHER HAVE DIED FIRST. IF THE SUN DISAPPEARED OVER THE HORIZON, I WOULD SCREAM FOR HELP. I WOULD NOT BE ABLE TO CONTROL MYSELF. <> ABOUT FORTY-FIVE MINUTES INTO THE JOURNEY DOWN THE TRAIL, SOMETHING APPEARED AROUND A BEND. IN A SMALL GRASSY CLEARING SAT A HOUSE, A SINGLE-STORY WHITE HOUSE, OVERGROWN WITH WEEDS AND VINES, LOOKING DECREPIT AND ROTTED. CORDING SLOWED HIS STEP AND SO DID I. WE APPROACHED IT BUT STOPPED FAR FROM IT. IT DID NOT TAKE ME LONG TO RECOGNIZE THE HOUSE. IT HAD ONCE BELONGED TO IRWIN SETTLE, THE MAN WHO HAD MURDERED HIS PSYCHIATRIST IN 1991. THIS WAS NOT WHERE HIS HOUSE SHOULD HAVE BEEN. HE LIVED ON COTTLER ROAD. BUT HERE IT WAS. THE BROWN STREAKS OF HIS DOCTOR’S BLOOD WERE GONE, BUT STILL THE PLACE WAS SURROUNDED BY AN AURA OF DREAD AND SICKNESS. TWO OF THE WINDOWS WERE BOARDED WHILE THE OTHERS WERE STILL EXPOSED AND OPEN. WE WALKED AROUND IT, CHECKING OUT EVERY ANGLE. I’M NOT SURE WHAT CORDING WAS LOOKING FOR. HE ASKED ME IN AN ALMOST APOLOGETIC VOICE TO PLEASE MAKE SURE I WAS VIDEOTAPING. INSTINCTIVELY, I BEGAN TO FRAME THE SHOTS MORE CAREFULLY. CORDING NOTICED SOMETHING ON THE SIDE OF THE HOUSE. WHEN WE GOT CLOSER, WE SAW THAT IT WAS A PAPER FLYER, TAPED HAPHAZARDLY TO A DRAIN PIPE AND FORGOTTEN. IT SHOWED A CHILD WHO HAD GONE MISSING FROM ROBIN SONG. THE PAPER HAD BEEN POSTED BY THE STATE POLICE AND PROVIDED A NUMBER TO CALL WITH INFORMATION, AS WELL AS THE DATE THE BOY HAD LAST BEEN SEEN. THE CHILD’S NAME WAS DANIEL KATRELL, AGE NINE. THE PHOTOGRAPH WAS IDENTICAL, ABSOLUTELY IDENTICAL, TO THE ONE FASTENED TO THE END OF THE WOODEN STICK INSIDE MY GRANDFATHER’S HORSE STABLE. BECAUSE THE SIZE OF THE PHOTO WAS ALSO THE SAME, ONE COULD EASILY SURMISE THAT THE ONE TAPED TO THE WOODEN STICK HAD, FOR WHATEVER REASON, BEEN CUT CAREFULLY FROM ONE OF THE STATE POLICE FLYERS. <> WALKING CLOSER TO THE HOUSE, WE COULD BEGIN TO SEE INTO THE WINDOWS. THE GLASS HAD LONG SINCE BEEN BROKEN AND REMOVED. STANDING ON MY TOES, I COULD SEE THAT WHILE THE EXTERIOR OF THE HOUSE HAD GONE TO SEED, IT WAS TRUE WHAT THEY SAID ABOUT THE INSIDE: IT WAS CLEAN AND UNTOUCHED. ALL OF IRWIN SETTLE’S POSSESSIONS HAD OF COURSE BEEN REMOVED YEARS AGO, BUT THERE WAS NO GRAFFITI, NO VANDALISM. THE WALLS AND FLOORS WERE BARE OF EVEN COBWEBS. IT SEEMED LIKE NO ONE HAD EVER DARED ENTER. I HAD TO REMIND MYSELF THAT THIS WAS NOT A REAL HOUSE, BUT THE PROP OF SOME FORCE BEYOND MY UNDERSTANDING WHICH HAD PUT IT HERE TO TAUNT US. BUT I KNEW SOMEHOW THAT THE REAL THING WAS JUST LIKE IT. WE MIGHT HAVE FINALLY MOVED PAST THE HOUSE AND KEPT WALKING, EXCEPT TOWARD THE END OF OUR INSPECTION OF THE PROPERTY, I SPOTTED SOMETHING INSIDE ONE OF THE ROOMS, SOMETHING TAPED TO THE WALL OF WHAT WAS PROBABLY IRWIN SETTLE’S BEDROOM. THE LAYOUT OF THE HOUSE SUGGESTED IT. THE DUSK SHADOWS OBSCURED THIS SECOND EXHIBIT AND MY EYES COULD NOT MAKE OUT WHAT IT WAS. THE CAMERA FAILED TO DO SO AS WELL NO MATTER HOW I ZOOMED IN PAST THE WINDOW PANE AND INTO THE ROOM. KNOWING THAT NO ONE, NOT EVEN THE POLICE, WOULD EVER PUT A FLYER OR NOTICE UP INSIDE THE HOUSE WITHOUT A DEEPLY STRANGE REASON, I WAS OVERCOME WITH THE NEED TO KNOW WHAT IT WAS. WHILE CORDING STOOD OFF TO THE SIDE, EYEING THE TRAIL AND HAVING LOST HIS FASCINATION WITH THE HOUSE, OR MAYBE JUST TRYING TO CONCEAL IT, I GOT UP ON THE AIR CONDITIONING UNIT OUTSIDE THE BEDROOM WINDOW. STANDING ON IT, I HAD TO LEAN WAY OVER TO MY LEFT, BALANCING MYSELF CAREFULLY, TO GET CLOSE ENOUGH TO THE WINDOW TO SET ONE ELBOW ON IT AND PUSH THE CAMERA INTO THE ROOM. I GOT A VERY SHAKY SHOT OF THE OBJECT ON THE WALL AND THEN JUMPED DOWN. CORDING ASKED ME WHAT I HAD BEEN LOOKING AT AND I TOLD HIM IT WASN’T IMPORTANT. HE WAS SATISFIED WITH THAT AND GESTURED FOR ME TO START WALKING AGAIN. AND I DID. BUT WHEN CORDING THOUGHT I HIT THE RECORD BUTTON TO START TAPING AGAIN, I ACTUALLY CUED UP THE PLAYBACK TO SEE WHAT I COULD SEE. IT TOOK ME SEVERAL VIEWINGS OF THOSE LAST TEN SECONDS TO MAKE ANYTHING OUT, SO CLUMSY WAS MY ATTEMPT AT FRAMING AND SO INEXACT WAS THE FOCUSING. FINALLY I PIECED THE IMAGE TOGETHER ENOUGH TO REALIZE THAT WHAT WAS ON THE WALL WAS ANOTHER MISSING PERSON FLYER, IDENTICAL IN FORMAT TO THE ONE PLEADING FOR HELP FOR THE MISSING CHILD, EXCEPT THAT THIS ONE SHOWED FORSCH CORDING. THE PHOTOGRAPH DEPICTING HIS THIN, HAGGARD FACE APPEARED TO BE A STILL FRAME FROM THE VERY VIDEOTAPE I HAD BEEN SHOOTING THAT AFTERNOON. THE ‘LAST SEEN ON’ DATE ON THE FLYER REGISTERED ON THE TAPE VERY CLEARLY. IT WAS THE CURRENT DAY: OCTOBER 9, 2005. <> THERE WAS ANOTHER FIFTEEN TO TWENTY MINUTES OF WALKING ON THE TRAIL. THE SOUNDS OF ANIMALS SCAMPERING IN THE LEAVES AND THE LEAVES THEMSELVES SKITTERING ACROSS THE GROUND DWINDLED TO ALMOST NOTHING. THE SUN GOT LOW BEHIND THE TREES, AND THEN THE PATH SIMPLY ENDED. MY HEART LEAPT INTO MY THROAT WHEN I NOTICED THIS, BUT THEN I HEARD CORDING SAY SIMPLY, ‘LOOK.’ WE WERE IN FRONT OF A THIN SCREEN OF TREES AND SOMETHING COULD BE SEEN THROUGH THEM: HOUSES. WE WENT THROUGH THE TREES AND CAME OUT ROUGHLY WHERE WE HAD INTENDED TO GO HOURS BEFORE. WE WERE ON MARQUETTE STREET. IT WAS AS IF WE HAD MERELY BEEN DISPLACED BY A FEW HUNDRED YARDS. IT WAS TWILIGHT AND WE WERE BOTH EXHAUSTED BEYOND WORDS. LOOKING BACK, THE PATH WAS STILL THERE, WAITING FOR US TO RETURN IF WE WERE INSANE ENOUGH TO DO IT. <> AT THE SAM AND MAM DINER, WE SAT AND DRANK STRONG COFFEE AS NIGHT CAME. THERE IN OUR BOOTH IN THE CORNER, CORDING DOWNED CUP AFTER CUP, EATING APPLE PIE JUST TO GET SOME OF HIS STRENGTH BACK EVEN THOUGH HE HAD NO APPETITE. HE SPOKE FOR A FULL HOUR, TELLING ME THINGS I WILL NEVER BE ABLE TO FORGET. ONCE HE OPENED HIS MOUTH, IT ALL FINALLY CAME OUT UNINTERRUPTED IN A VERY CALM MONOTONE, AS IF HE WERE DELIVERING A LECTURE TO A CLASS OF ONE. HE TOLD ME OF A TEN YEAR OLD GIRL WHO LIVED IN ROBIN SONG TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, AND OF THE FREAKISH TWIST OF FATE THAT HAD BEFALLEN HER TO TURN HER INTO SOMETHING THAT WAS LESS THAN HUMAN. HE TOLD ME HOW HIS MENTOR HAD TRAVELED ACROSS THE WORLD TO ROBIN SONG IN ORDER TO KILL THE GIRL AND REMOVE HER HORRIBLE INFLUENCE FROM THE TOWN. BUT OVER THE PAST FEW YEARS, CORDING HAD COME TO DOUBT ENTIRELY THAT THE TASK HAD TRULY BEEN COMPLETED. HE BELIEVED THAT THE GIRL NAMED GRETCHEN PLAUSER HAD SURVIVED SOMEHOW, AND HAD BEEN SHELTERED IN ROBIN SONG SINCE THAT TIME BY PEOPLE WHO SURELY KNEW HOW DESTRUCTIVE SHE WAS. CORDING TOLD ME HOW EVERY ACT OF MADNESS, EVERY UNNATURAL EMERGENCE, AND EVERY CORRUPTION OF REALITY IN ROBIN SONG WAS DUE TO PLAUSER'S PRESENCE, AND HOW SHE HAD TO BE FOUND AT ALL COSTS. HE NEEDED HELP FROM PEOPLE HE WOULD NOT TELL ME ABOUT, BUT WITHOUT DOCUMENTATION OF HER EFFECTS ON THE TOWN, HE WOULD NOT GET IT. HE TOLD ME NOT JUST ABOUT GRETCHEN PLAUSER AND ROBIN SONG BUT OF TWO OTHER SMALL, UNNOTICED AREAS IN THIS WORLD WHERE A SIMILAR SICKNESS HAD DESCENDED OVER PEOPLE WHO WERE UNAWARE THAT ANYTHING WAS TRULY WRONG. THE TERMS HE SOMETIMES USED AS HE SPOKE WERE FOREIGN TO ME, AND SEEMED FOREIGN TO ANY LANGUAGE I HAD EVER BEEN AWARE OF. IT WAS OBVIOUS THAT CORDING COULD NOT REST AS LONG AS THESE PLACES CONTINUED TO FESTER. I BELIEVE THE ONLY TIME CORDING EVER SPENT IN THE UNITED STATES WAS SPENT IN ROBIN SONG, TWO OR THREE TIMES A YEAR IF HE HAD TO. HE WAS AN OLD MAN WITH THE BODY OF SOMEONE IN HIS THIRTIES. HE REMINDED ME TO KEEP TO THE CONFIDENTIALITY AGREEMENT I HAD SIGNED AT THE BEGINNING OF THE DAY, AND THAT WAS WHEN I KNEW THAT HE MIGHT NOT BE LONG FOR THIS WORLD. IF HE WAS SO DELUDED INTO THINKING THAT I, OR ANYONE, COULD POSSIBLY GO TO MY GRAVE WITHOUT CONFESSING THE EVENTS OF THAT DAY TO A SINGLE PERSON, HIS MIND WAS NOT OPERATING LOGICALLY. I WONDERED HOW MANY OTHER PEOPLE HE HAD UNWITTINGLY BROUGHT INTO HIS SECRETS, AND HOW MANY OF THEM HAD EVEN BEEN ABLE TO MAKE OTHERS BELIEVE IN THEIR EXPERIENCES. MAYBE THEY HAD ALL MIRACULOUSLY REMAINED SILENT. MAYBE THAT DECISION HAD SOMEHOW BEEN MADE FOR THEM. OR MAYBE I WAS THE ONLY UNFORTUNATE PERSON OUTSIDE CORDING’S OBSCURE REALM OF ACADEMIA WHOM HE HAD EVER EXPOSED TO THE TRUTH. I REALIZED WHAT I HAD TO DO TO BRING THE NIGHT TO AN END, AND SO I DID IT. I USED THE PAY PHONE INSIDE THE RESTAURANT TO CALL MY GRANDFATHER. WHEN HE ANSWERED, I CONCOCTED THE MOST PLAUSIBLE LIE I COULD TO GET HIM OUT OF THE HOUSE. I ASKED HIM TO DRIVE WELL OUTSIDE OF TOWN TO RESCUE ME FROM CAR TROUBLE. OF COURSE HE OFFERED TO HELP ME. WHEN IT WAS DONE, I WENT BACK TO THE TABLE WHERE CORDING WAS WAITING. HE SAID, ‘LET’S GO.’ <> WITH NIGHT CAME TEMPERATURES IN THE FORTIES. WE WALKED THROUGH THE EMPTYING STREETS, AND PASSED ONLY A SINGLE PERSON ON THE WAY TO OUR DESTINATION, A YOUNG GIRL WALKING HER DOG. FOR THE FIRST AND ONLY TIME, CORDING SPOKE TO A REGULAR CITIZEN OF ROBIN SONG. HE PAUSED TO TELL THE GIRL IT WASN’T SAFE TO BE OUTSIDE ALONE THIS LATE, BUT SHE ASSURED HIM THAT SHE LIVED IN THE HOUSE RIGHT IN FRONT OF US AND HER PARENTS HAD SAID IT WAS OKAY. CORDING’S MANNER WITH HER WAS SO GENTLE THAT I COULD ALMOST SEE THE TRUE HUMAN BEING INSIDE HIM INSTEAD OF THE AUTOMATON HE HAD BECOME. WE STOPPED ONLY ONCE AFTER THAT, TO BUY A FLASHLIGHT. CORDING HADN’T EXPECTED TO BE IN TOWN THIS LATE. I GOT THE IMPRESSION THAT ITS ATMOSPHERE WEAKENED HIM SO GREATLY THAT HIS BODY COULD ONLY TOLERATE A LIMITED AMOUNT OF TIME THERE, LIKE A DIVER NEEDING EVENTUALLY TO COME UP FOR AIR. BUT WHERE A DIVER COULD RETURN TO THE SURFACE RIGHT AWAY, CORDING NEEDED WEEKS, EVEN MONTHS, TO DECOMPRESS AFTER A DAY IN ROBIN SONG. <> I’M NOT EXACTLY SURE WHEN WE GOT TO THE EDGE OF MY GRANDFATHER’S PROPERTY, BUT I THINK IT WAS A LITTLE BEFORE NINE O’CLOCK. WE WALKED UP THE WINDING PATH THAT LED TO THE HOUSE THROUGH TOTAL DARKNESS. CORDING TRAINED THE FLASHLIGHT AHEAD OF US. HE DID NOT TRUST FULLY THAT MY GRANDFATHER HAD LEFT, AND SO HE MOVED WITH GREAT CARE, TRYING TO SPOT THE PLACE WHERE THE TRUCK HAD BEEN PARKED BEFORE WE COULD BE SEEN. THE TRUCK REALLY WAS GONE. WE HAD THE PROPERTY TO OURSELVES. AS SCARED AS I WAS, LOOKING AT ALL THE TREES SURROUNDING THE ACREAGE MADE IT EVEN WORSE. THEY HID EXPANSES OF WOODS DEEP ENOUGH TO BECOME LOST IN. <> I KNEW THAT MY GRANDFATHER ALWAYS KEPT HIS DOORS UNLOCKED. IN ALL THE TIME I HAD LIVED WITH HIM, NO ONE HAD EVER ENTERED HIS HOUSE UNWANTED. BUT NOW IT WAS DIFFERENT. THE FRONT AND BACK DOORS WOULD NOT OPEN. CORDING PULLED ON THEM VERY GENTLY, NOT WANTING TO MAKE ANY SOUND. TO ASK ME IF THERE WERE SOME OTHER WAY INTO THE PLACE, HE HAD TO GET VERY CLOSE TO ME AND WHISPER ALMOST IN MY EAR. I SHUDDERED TO HAVE HIM ALMOST TOUCH ME. AT THE BACK OF THE HOUSE THERE WAS A WINDOW INTO THE CELLAR, SET INTO THE CEMENT FOUNDATION. IT WAS THE BEST WAY IN. ITS LOCK HAD RUSTED AWAY YEARS BEFORE AND I THOUGHT IT MIGHT JUST SLIDE OPEN. ONCE AGAIN WE WERE THWARTED. THE LOCK HAD AT SOME POINT BEEN REPLACED. THIS TIME, CORDING DIDN’T HESISTATE. HE TOOK HIS SHIRT OFF AND WRAPPED IT AROUND HIS FOOT. THEN, HAVING NO OTHER CHOICE OF ACTION, HE BROKE THE WINDOW IN WITH A SINGLE KICK. THE SOUND WAS MUCH SMALLER THAN I THOUGHT IT WOULD BE. HE PUT HIS SHIRT BACK ON AND SHIVERED A LITTLE IN THE COLD. WE CLIMBED CAREFULLY DOWN INTO THE CELLAR. THE WINDOW WAS JUST BARELY LARGE ENOUGH FOR US. IF EITHER ONE OF US HAD BEEN EVEN SLIGHTLY BIGGER, IT WOULDN’T HAVE BEEN POSSIBLE. WHEN MY FEET TOUCHED THE CEMENT FLOOR AND I LET MYSELF DROP FULLY IN, I FELT CRIMINAL AND UNCLEAN. THE FIRST THING CORDING DID WAS REACH BACK UP THROUGH THE WINDOW AND PULL THE VIDEO CAMERA DOWN TO US. THE DARKNESS WAS TOTAL AND HE HAD TO HOLD THE FLASHLIGHT ON THE CAMERA SO I COULD FIND THE RECORD BUTTON. THEN HE POINTED THE FLASHLIGHT IN FRONT OF US. THE FIRST THING WE SAW WAS A CLOTHESLINE RUNNING DIAGONALLY ACROSS THE CELLAR. ON IT HUNG A BEDSHEET AND A SINGLE ARTICLE OF CLOTHING, A WRINKLED RED T-SHIRT. IN ONE CORNER OF THE ROOM, THERE WAS A WATER HEATER AND THE OLD BUREAU I REMEMBERED DRAGGING DOWN THE STEPS FIVE YEARS BEFORE. BESIDE THE BUREAU WAS SOMETHING ODD. IT WAS A PAIR OF SHOES SITTING ON THE CEMENT FLOOR, SNEAKERS, VERY SMALL ONES, BEATEN AND DIRTY. WE MOVED CLOSER TO THEM AND I SAW THAT THEY MUST HAVE BELONGED TO A CHILD. BEFORE I COULD DWELL ON THEM, CORDING HAD MOVED THE FLASHLIGHT TO THE WALL OPPOSITE. THERE, DRAWN IN VERY LARGE, BLOCKY, CHALK LETTERS, WERE FOUR WORDS: HANTAINOS KRIC GYORA EL. CORDING MOVED THE RAY OF THE FLASHLIGHT PAST THEM SO QUICKLY THAT HE MUST HAVE EXPECTED THOSE LETTERS TO BE THERE. THEIR IMAGE WAS IN MY MIND ONE SECOND AND GONE THE NEXT, BURNED THERE. IT MUST HAVE TAKEN QUITE SOME TIME TO ETCH THEM ONTO THE CEMENT BRICKS. EACH LETTER WAS MORE THAN A FOOT HIGH AND DONE WITH GREAT CARE. CORDING MOVED CLOSER TO THE WALL AND TRAINED THE LIGHT ON A ROW OF INDEX CARDS THAT HAD BEEN TAPED THERE AT EYE LEVEL. THE INDEX CARDS WERE OLD AND YELLOWED, AND ON EACH HAD BEEN DRAWN A SIMPLE, FEATURELESS HUMAN STICK FIGURE, ONE PER CARD. THEY WERE LINED UP IN A ROW, SIX OF THEM, BEGINNING AT THE FAR RIGHT EDGE OF THE STRANGE WORDS ON THE CEMENT. A CARD TABLE HAD BEEN SET UP ON THE SIDE OF THE BASEMENT OPPOSITE WHERE THE BUREAU WAS. WE STEPPED OVER TO IT. NOW I COULD NO LONGER FEEL THE COLD AIR OUTSIDE THE CELLAR TOUCHING MY BACK. ON TOP OF THE CARD TABLE WAS AN OLD CASSETTE TAPE RECORDER. AS WE WATCHED, THE RECORDING WHEELS MOVED SLOWLY AROUND. THE SOUND INSIDE THE CELLAR WAS BEING TAPED, BUT NO EFFORT HAD BEEN MADE TO HIDE THE RECORDER. BESIDE IT WAS A SHOEBOX FULL OF CASSETTES. CORDING LIFTED A COUPLE OF THEM UP TO MY CAMERA. ONE SAID ‘STAGE ONE’ AND ANOTHER JUST HAD A DATE ON IT FROM A PREVIOUS YEAR. HE SET THE TAPES BACK IN THE BOX VERY GENTLY. WHEN WE HAD SEEN ALL THERE WAS TO SEE IN THE CELLAR, THERE WAS A NOISE FROM ABOVE US. IT WAS VERY DISTINCT. IT WAS A SHIFTING SOUND, LIKE SOMETHING BEING MOVED ACROSS A FLOOR, AND THEN FOOTSTEPS. WE FROZE WHERE WE WERE STANDING, BOTH OF US. WE HAD NOT HEARD THE SOUND OF AN ENGINE, NOR ANY DOOR OPENING OR CLOSING. IT WOULD HAVE BEEN IMPOSSIBLE TO MISS. AFTER A MOMENT, WE HEARD THE FOOTSTEPS AGAIN, CREAKING IN THE CEILING, MOVING THREE STEPS AND STOPPING. WE REMAINED PERFECTLY STILL. I HAD BEGUN TO SWEAT. FINALLY, CORDING MOVED TOWARD THE OLD WOODEN STAIRWELL THAT LED UP TO THE FIRST FLOOR OF THE HOUSE. HE PUT HIS HAND ON THE RAILING AND STOPPED, LISTENING. THERE CAME TO US THE SOUND OF A FEMALE HUMAN VOICE, SINGING SOFTLY, IN AN AFRICAN DIALECT, THE ELDERLY VOICE I HAD HEARD ON VIDEOTAPE BACK ON COTTON BRANCH TRAIL. IT WAS MUFFLED BY DISTANCE AND THE FLOORBOARDS ABOVE OUR HEADS, BUT WE COULD HEAR IT ALL THE SAME. WE LISTENED AND DID NOT MOVE. IT SANG FOR ABOUT THIRTY SECONDS, SEEMING TO BECKON US, AND THEN STOPPED. THERE WAS ONLY THE SOUND OF THE WIND OUTSIDE. ALMOST IMMEDIATELY AFTER THAT, THERE WAS A DIFFERENT, VERY DISTINCT, DEEP, SHARP FEMALE VOICE FROM JUST BEYOND THE TOP OF THE STAIRS, BEHIND THE CLOSED DOOR THAT SEPARATED THE TWO FLOORS. IT SAID JUST ONE WORD IN AN ACCUSING, ANGRY VOICE: ‘LIAR!’ I JERKED BACK SO SEVERELY THAT THE CAMERA LOST ITS FOCUS, AND A SPUTTERING SOUND OF COMPLETE TERROR ESCAPED MY THROAT. TEARS BEGAN TO CRAWL DOWN MY CHEEKS. I HAD REACHED MY BREAKING POINT AND WAS IN SHOCK, ALL RATIONAL THOUGHTS SUSPENDED. THAT ONE WORD WAS MEANT FOR CORDING. I KNEW IT. THERE WAS NOTHING FOR A FULL MINUTE. AND THEN CORDING STARTED TO CLIMB THE STAIRS. HE GOT UP THE FIRST THREE WITH UNBEARABLE SLOWNESS, PLACING HIS FEET RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF THE STEPS SO AS NOT TO MAKE THEM CREAK. HE TURNED TO ME IN THE DARK, AND WHISPERED TWO WORDS: ‘STAY HERE.’ CARRYING THE FLASHLIGHT AND LEAVING ME BEHIND, CORDING WENT UP THE STAIRS. I WAITED AND WAITED FOR MORE SOUNDS OF MOVEMENT FROM ABOVE, BUT THERE WERE NONE. I STARTED TO BACK INSTINCTIVELY AWAY FROM THE STAIRCASE WHEN CORDING REACHED THE TOP OF IT. HE TURNED THE FLASHLIGHT OFF AND I COULD JUST BARELY SEE HIS SILHOUETTE ABOVE ME. I SHUT DOWN THE CAMERA AND SET IT ON THE FLOOR BESIDE ME. I’M NOT SURE HOW I WAS CONSCIOUS ENOUGH TO MAKE THAT DECISION. I HEARD THE DOOR OPENING AND BEING PUSHED OUTWARD. CORDING MOVED A FEW STEPS FORWARD, AND THEN HE WAS OUT OF SIGHT ENTIRELY. IN MY FEAR I MOVED BACKWARDS ACROSS THE CELLAR TO STAND BENEATH THE WINDOW WE HAD COME THROUGH. AT LEAST THERE WAS AIR AND THE FAINT SOUNDS OF THE WIND IN THE TREES OUTSIDE. BENEATH THE WINDOW WAS WHERE I WOULD WAIT FOR CORDING TO RETURN. KEEPING MY HEAD TURNED TOWARD THE STAIRS, I PUSHED MY CAMERA UP AND OUT INTO THE GRASS, THEN STOOD RIGID IN THE DARK, TRYING NOT TO SEE THE FAINT SHAPES OF A CHILD’S SHOES ON THE FLOOR, A TAPE RECORDER WORKING STRANGELY IN THE BLACKNESS, OR THE OUTLINES OF WHITE CHALK LETTERS SPELLING OUT UNKNOWABLE WORDS, TWO OF WHICH I’D SO RECENTLY SEEN ETCHED ON A DEATH SHROUD. WHAT HAPPENED TWO MINUTES LATER AS I COWERED IN THE BASEMENT IS SOMETHING I CAN’T, AND WON’T, DESCRIBE. I’VE USED THESE PAGES TO TELL OF WHAT I COULD, BUT SOME WORDS CAN’T LEAVE MY FINGERTIPS BECAUSE THEY ARE SO HIDEOUS AND SO UNBELIEVABLE. NO HUMAN IMAGINATION COULD CONCEIVE OF THE IMAGES I SAW OF THE TERRIBLE STRUGGLE THAT CORDING ENGAGED IN INSIDE MY GRANDFATHER’S HOUSE. I WILL ONLY SAY THAT THE FIGHT CAME DOWN THE STAIRS AS CORDING EITHER TRIED TO ESCAPE OR TRIED TO LURE HIS ENEMY DOWN TO A PLACE WHERE I MIGHT BE ABLE TO HELP HIM. BUT I COULDN’T. MY NERVE FAILED ME AS SOON AS I HEARD THE DOOR CRASH OPEN ABOVE AND TWO SETS OF FOOTSTEPS RUSH DOWN THE WOODEN STAIRS. WHEN I CAUGHT JUST A GLIMPSE OF SOMEONE OR SOMETHING LARGER THAN CORDING THROUGH THE GLOOM, I LEAPT UP TO THE WINDOW DESPERATELY AND DRAGGED MYSELF OUT OF THE HOUSE, SCRAPING MY STOMACH AND MY ARMS BADLY IN MY SHRIEKING EFFORT TO GET AWAY. WHEN MY HIPS GOT CAUGHT IN THE WINDOW, I WRENCHED THEM FREE AND FELT GLASS RIP THROUGH THE WAIST OF MY JEANS, TEARING MY FLESH. ONCE FULLY OUTSIDE, I GRABBED MY CAMERA OFF THE GROUND. I RAN TOWARD THE WOODS TWENTY YARDS BEHIND MY GRANDFATHER’S PROPERTY, THE THOUGHT THAT THOSE WOODS MIGHT MUTATE AND CHANGE TO ENGULF ME NEVER ENTERING MY FRENZIED MIND. I DIDN’T LOOK BACK. I HEARD ONE LAST SOUND OF SOMETHING HEAVY, A BODY, SLAMMING INTO A CEMENT WALL. THEN I WAS GONE, RUNNING BLINDLY THROUGH THE TREES, BRANCHES CUTTING MY FACE. THE GEOGRAPHY OF ROBIN SONG REMAINED RATIONAL FOR ME AS I FLED. WITHIN THREE MINUTES I REACHED THE ROAD AND KEPT RUNNING. IT WASN’T FAR TO THE COMMUTER TRAIN STATION, WHICH WAS UNATTENDED AND DIMLY LIT. I GOT ONTO A WAITING TRAIN CAR WITH MY RETURN TICKET AND COLLAPSED ALONE INSIDE. TEARS AND SWEAT WERE POURING DOWN MY FACE. I WAS BLEEDING FROM DOZENS OF SMALL CUTS BUT I FELT NO PAIN. BLESSEDLY, THE TRAIN LEFT ALMOST IMMEDIATELY, TAKING ME FAR AWAY, BUT JUST BEFORE IT BEGAN TO MOVE, I CAUGHT SIGHT OF A SOLITARY FIGURE ON THE TILED PLATFORM, A WOMAN WALKING ALONG VERY SLOWLY AND WITH SEEMINGLY NO THOUGHT TOWARD BOARDING THE TRAIN. SHE WAS HOLDING ONE ARM AS IF INJURED. AS THE REAR CAR I WAS IN ROLLED SLOWLY PAST HER, I SAW THAT SHE HAD LONG, STRAIGHT BLACK HAIR. I JERKED MY HEAD AWAY FROM THE WINDOW BEFORE SHE COULD SEE ME. I SPENT THE REST OF THAT TRIP TRYING TO BIND MY WOUNDS WITH THE SLEEVES I RIPPED FROM MY SHIRT. <> I’VE TRIED SEVERAL TIMES TO WRITE DOWN WHAT I THINK I SAW IN THAT CELLAR, BUT THE WORDS ALWAYS FAIL ME. WHATEVER IT TRULY WAS, NO MAN OR WOMAN SHOULD EVER GO BACK TO DISCOVER. ROBIN SONG, VIRGINIA IS A FOUL, HAUNTED PLACE, A SISTER CITY TO OTHER CORRUPTED LOCATIONS WHICH FORSCH CORDING DESCRIBED TO ME. I COUNT MYSELF INCREDIBLY LUCKY TO BE AWAY FROM IT FOREVER. I WILL NEVER RETURN. THE TAPES I SHOT THAT DAY HAVE STAYED IN A BOTTOM DRAWER, UNWATCHED. ONCE, I DIALED CORDING’S PHONE NUMBER, BUT IT HAD BEEN DISCONNECTED. I’VE BEGUN TO SUBSCRIBE TO ROBIN SONG’S LOCAL NEWSPAPER. EVERY NIGHT BEFORE I GO TO BED I SCAN IT BRIEFLY TO TAKE NOTE OF THE MISSING PERSONS CASES THAT SPRING UP, AND EVERY OTHER UNUSUAL OCCURRENCE THAT IS WRITTEN OFF AS VANDALISM, WEATHER DAMAGE, FREAK BEHAVIOR FROM SOMEONE PASSING THROUGH FROM OUT OF TOWN, OR ISOLATED AND FORGETTABLE INCIDENTS OF VIOLENCE. LAST WEEK THE FRONT PAGE CARRIED A STORY THAT RIVETED ROBIN SONG FOR SEVERAL DAYS. AN INDEPENDENT FILM PRODUCER NAMED TRENT WHO HAD NOT SO LONG AGO SUPERVISED THE SHOOTING OF A HORROR MOVIE IN ROBIN SONG, AND THEN MOVED INTO TOWN WITH HIS FAMILY, STABBED HIS WIFE TO DEATH AS SHE SLEPT. THE POLICE FOUND HIM SLEEPING NAKED IN THE WOODS. NO MOTIVE FOR THE KILLING COULD BE GLEANED.