/ Language: English / Genre:antique

Ghouls

Edward Lee

DARK TOWN The murders were only the beginning. No one knew what went on in the sullen, dark house on the hill, but town cop Kurt Morris intended to find out. The sleepy town of Tylersville, Maryland was being stalked by an unimaginable evil, it had become the haunting-ground for horrors too grisly to be described. Young girls had vanished without a trace. Graves had been opened, corpses unearthed and carried away. Quiet moonlit nights gave way to a mindless slaughter, and to the sounds of hysterical screams... DARK HORIZONS Time was running out. How many more would be dragged off into an endless night, and for what hideous purpose? Fear led to wild speculations about psychopaths, crazed animals, vampires, and werewolves. But Kurt knew better. Deep in the fog-shrouded woods, he had seen the nightmare figures. And the truth was much, much worse... GHOULS! A novel of unrelenting horror in the tradition of Dean Koontz.

GHOULS

by Edward Lee

GHOULS

© 1988 by Edward Lee

For this edition, I’d like to acknowledge the following for their invaluable input which led to this book being published and for essentially beginning my career as a novelist: Amy Stout, Wendy McCurdy, Pesha Finkelstein, Adele Leone (RIP) and Roberta Grossman (RIP). I am unendingly grateful to you all.

E.L.

Dedication:

For (my) Betsey

-hypnagogically

and

f o r e v e r.

— | — | —

PROLOGUE

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia 1978

The colonel measured time with cigarettes.

He smoked one every fifteen minutes, so by the accumulation of butts on the step panel, an hour and a half had passed.

An hour and a half?

His mouth opened slowly and he blinked, touched by the faceless reality. It seemed he’d been sitting here in the Jeep for days, waiting for them to come back. Dementatus proximus, he thought. Only an hour and a half. He felt caught on the grapnel of a convulsive, tilting nightmare, where time ticked backward and the world revolved in reverse.

He tried not to think about the screams.

By his watch it was 0314 hrs. Had the battery run out? He was sure he’d replaced it recently; Sanders had made him replace it, had made them all. Still, something warped the colonel’s perceptions of time and proximity. The night and so much waiting had wrung his senses to distortion, leaving nothing real. The moon pulled at his brain. He looked down at the submachine gun across his legs and wondered what the old Army levermen must’ve felt while tying thirteen perfect knots into the hanging noose. The gun lay in his lap like something stillborn; he scarcely touched it. “M3A1,” Sanders had earlier explained to him. “Simple, sensible, few moving parts. It’s the least expensive weapon in the Army inventory, and the most reliable.” To the colonel, though, it seemed flimsy, cheap; its finish looked and felt like dull gray wax. “And it never jams,” Sanders had added. “Dent it, bury it, piss in it, pour sand in the chamber, but it never jams.” The colonel hoped he didn’t get the chance to test the validity of that particular claim.

He wondered if Sanders and his men were dead.

There had been sounds of battle, not twenty minutes before. The slow, pathetic sputterings of their greaseguns, anguished shouts in the distance, and then the grenades (six of them, the colonel had counted) exploding through the dead night air amid a trail of fracturing echoes. Had everything gone as planned? He was to consider the grenades a signal, a certain cue to be ready to move. “If you hear the grenades,” Sanders had said, “then you’ll know we’ve made it out of there. But if you don’t hear them, don’t wait for us. We won’t be coming out.”

The grenades were a good sign, an indication of success; but only minutes later there had been more sounds, more heated gunfire. And then the screams.

Screams of pain, of terror—human screams, but in unison with screams that were significantly less than human.

The colonel knew then that something had gone wrong.

He thought about starting up the Jeep and driving out of there while he still had time. Maybe the plan had failed. Maybe he was sitting there waiting for dead men to return. Or worse, maybe—

A gunshot rang out. (A pistol, he thought. Sanders took a pistol, too.) It was something, anyway, a shred of promise. The shot meant that at least one of Sanders’s team was still alive.

The colonel decided to wait ten minutes more.

He lit another cigarette and nearly smiled, remembering how Sanders had warned him not to smoke. Some nonsense about light discipline. Always wear a watch with a cover. Never wear a watch that ticks. Bury all garbage and empty C’s. Anything that shines, paint it black. Paint your face black. Paint your hands black. When you pull your dick out to piss, paint it. Then cover the piss. And never, ever smoke at night.

Was Sanders really just a fanatic, an Army nut? The colonel thought about that. He’d seen Sanders’s credits, though: embassy armorer with a classified MOS suffix, training schools he couldn’t even talk about, combat service stripes to the elbow. Once, he’d shown the colonel what he amusedly referred to as his “junk.” “Take a look at my junk,” Sanders had offered. DoD training certificates, boxes of them. Qualification braids, aiguillettes, a year’s worth of Soldier of the Month awards. Expert badges for weapons no one had heard of. Commendations from generals, division and group commanders, and even a letter of recognition for outscoring the rest of NATO at some Redeye range in Germany. The name signed at the bottom was Bernard W. Rogers.

Next, he’d shown the colonel a shoebox full of medals from Vietnam. Sanders had always displayed a neutral embarrassment toward that particular war, and the contents of the shoebox. “A lot of fruit salad and chicken shit this is. They shouldn’t give medals for wars we don’t win. All this shit you hear about delayed stress and torture and how bad Vietnam was. Tell that to the guys who went to Korea and Stalingrad. Tell that to the guys who had to fight the Waffen SS on D-Day. Makes me want to throw up. Better to melt all this shit down for bullets.” He’d tossed the boxes back into his locker. “Junk.” Purple Heart. DSC. Silver Star.

No, Sanders was the best he could find. But was that good enough for this? The colonel wondered.

Just wait. It’s no use worrying about it now.

Through the steel-frame windshield, he viewed a stretch of the night’s zenith. The desolation of this place always left him slightly on edge; he’d never seen nights so clear and infinite. The moon was egg-shaped, a pallid, misshapen face in the sky, backed by a depthless void of stars. To his right, the Tuwwaiq Ridges broke the line of the horizon like the rim of an endless crater. These were the hills, Arabian hills, crestlike hillocks thrust forth from the earth’s crust, barren, dead. Yet the Saudis called them hills. They didn’t know what hills were. This sacred Islamic world of theirs was little more than a wasteland, plain after plain of scorched volcanic rock and a sea of sand. February now, midwinter, and the temperature was about sixty. The average summer day brought heat that sometimes reached 125 degrees.

He tilted his head out of the Jeep’s canopy, squinting into the night, straining for the sight of a cloud, if just a wisp, but there was nothing. He hadn’t seen a decent cloud formation in three years. Here, the yearly average of precipitation was about four inches. Some areas of the Great Empty Quarter, the Rub’ Al Khali, had rainfall every three to five years. It struck him then that this place was not of his world at all, as remote as another planet, and he thought that if it weren’t for the oil pools, the Saudis could take their heat-baked living hell of a home and shrivel in it. Yes, the earth could crack open right here and suck everything down…

The clap of more pistol shots gave him a start like a bolt of current. Someone was coming. The shots had been closer this time, much closer. He pitched his cigarette out, touched his weapon.

He listened.

A scuffling to his right. Panting. Boots scraping over the jagged stone ruts of the ridge. He jerked at the crack of still another pistol shot, and automatically he turned over the Jeep’s engine. Leaning out, he raised a pair of IR monoculars to his eyes, focused, then combed the strange green field across the slopes through which Sanders and his men would make their escape.

Top of the ridge, a tiny, desperate figure appeared, at first just an insect-shape in the IR’s circle. It was a man scuttling down the incline.

Then came a scream, bestial, hell-bent. A howl of rage.

The figure coming down the ridge was Sanders, his automatic pistol in one hand, a green metal ammo box in the other. He was scrambling, then leaping into the Jeep a blurred instant later, yelling, “Go! Go! Move!” and as the colonel ineptly jammed the Jeep into gear, Sanders snapped another clip into his pistol, hung out off the roll bar, and began firing more shots behind them. The colonel sped down the crude road, slammed back and forth in his seat; he prayed they didn’t lose a wheel or break an axle over this trench of a road. Brass flew as Sanders pumped off his remaining shots. The colonel locked his eyes ahead; he was grateful not to have to see what Sanders was shooting at.

Five miles later, the colonel stopped the Jeep, parked with the motor running. The headlamps dimmed in the sudden deceleration. He gasped when he turned. Limned in moonlight, Sanders sat back stonily in the passenger seat, face staring up. His chest heaved to take in air. He’d lost his steel pot, lost his submachine gun, his clip satchel, and his light. He let the empty Colt .45 clatter to the floor. Lashed to his calf was a Fairbairn-Sykes commando knife, and one WP grenade still hung from his web belt like a powder-gray cola can with white stencil letters. From a gash in his arm, blood soaked blackly into his field shirt. Bright-yellow earplugs stuck out of his ears, a ludicrous contrast to his eyes, which were rimmed by the white of trauma.

The colonel’s gaze flicked from Sanders’s face to the metal box on the floor.

“Bastard,” Sanders breathed. He stared up, not at the colonel.

“What?”

“Goddamn bastard. You said there’d only be three or four.”

“So?”

“There were a dozen.”

Silence. The colonel gulped as if swallowing gravel. Fatal misinformation. “O’Brien, Kinnet. What hap—”

“They’re dead,” Sanders’s voice leaped, a suppressed shriek.

“How can you be sure? Maybe they’re still back there waiting for us.”

“They’re dead,” Sanders said, breath returning. He spoke like a man just saved from drowning. “Both dead. I saw them. Ripped apart.”

The colonel looked away, feeling the inert cold of the M3 submachine gun still cradled in his lap. These men, he knew, were Sanders’s friends. “Sergeant, I’m sorry. I didn’t think there would be more than three or four… A dozen, you say?”

“At least.”

The colonel found this hard to believe. “But the guns, the grenades—you had enough to wipe out a company of men.”

“They’re not men,” Sanders said. “And the guns, the grenades…all useless. We’re lucky if we killed five of them.” Sanders patted at his wound, unconcerned at the amount of blood. “And they’re fast. My God, they’re fast. I think—I think they were actually dodging the bullets. When we finally got out of there, I lobbed in enough willy-peter to stop a convoy… A wall of fire, and they still came. They were on us again in minutes… Everything went wrong. I still don’t know how I got away.”

The colonel could say nothing. He diddled unconsciously with the bolt-flap on his M3.

“I don’t know what the fuck’s going to happen now,” Sanders said. “I can explain the missing weapons to the CO. I’ll say some ’Rabs busted into the gun vault or something.”

“And the rounds? The grenades?”

“I’ll list them as expended for training. It’s easy, no questions asked.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

“O’Brien and Kinnet. Sooner or later someone’ll find their bodies. What then?”

Sanders obviously had not yet surfaced from the aftermath of his panic; he’d forgotten the fine (and the excruciating) details. “Sergeant,” the colonel said. “Evidently it’s slipped your mind.”

“What has?”

“The bodies will never be found.”

Sanders looked abstractedly into the windshield, thinking. Then, he said, “Oh…right.”

“So you can see, we have nothing to worry about; it will look like O’Brien and Kinnet went AWOL. There’s nothing to tie us to them; no one will suspect us of having anything to do with their disappearance.” Again the colonel stole a glance at the ammo box on the floor. He couldn’t stand another second not knowing. “The box,” he said. “Did you get—”

Sanders nodded, closed his eyes. “I got ’em.”

The colonel clenched his teeth—the world stood still for him. His very life stood still.

Sanders reached down and picked up the box, stiff from the pain in his arm. “This is all that would fit; take ’em or leave ’em,” he said. “It’s better than nothing which is what you almost got—” and then he passed the box to the colonel.

Could this really be? The box felt heavy and unevenly weighted. Blood slickened the handle. The colonel unsnapped the lid. No, no, he thought. It’s a dream, it’s a dream. When he raised the lid and looked in, his mind effused a thousand visions. He saw the glory of kings in the box, the power of alchemists, wisdom, fortune, greatness: all his, and more. In the box he saw history.

“You got what you wanted,” Sanders said.

Still aglow in the vision, the colonel said, “Yes,” in a voice that was dry and long as the desert. Trembling, unbelieving, he resecured the lid and gently placed the box in the back. “You did it, Sergeant. You pulled it off. Outstanding.”

“So you got something for me now, right?”

The colonel reached again to the back. “It’s unfortunate, of course, about O’Brien and Kinnet. Your grief is mine… But at least you won’t have to split any of this with them.” He passed Sanders a brown, scuffed briefcase with frayed corners. “As promised, Sergeant. Twenty-five thousand.”

A grin like a cut tightened Sanders’s face. Had he forgotten his dead friends this easily? He placed the briefcase across his knees, opened it—

—and turned, glaring. “What’s this shit, you motherfucker? I stuck my neck out a mile for you back there, and now you’re gonna shaft me?”

The briefcase contained not money but old copies of the Army Times, some Arabic newspapers, and several recent issues of British Penthouse.

Now the colonel was holding his M3 chest level, pointing the dull, eight-inch barrel at Sanders’s heart. “I’m sorry, Sergeant,” he said. “I’m very, very sorry. But for this to work, no one can know. Not even you.”

And before Sanders could plead or even move, the colonel squeezed the trigger, and ten .45 hardball rounds slammed into the middle of Sanders’s chest and literally blew him out of the Jeep.

Gun smoke eddied up, unfurling. The colonel coughed. He was surprised at the weapon’s sluggish cyclic rate and imprecise action. The air around him was hot and filled with grit.

He waved the smoke away vigorously, then slotted the vehicle into gear and drove off.

— | — | —

PART ONE

ghoul (gōōl) noun [Ar. ghāla, also ghūl ]

-roughly from the verb transitive to seize, more accurately to take up suddenly

-feminine form ghalan, also ghalen (though this is an erroneous usage since by most mythological sources the ghāla is sexless)

-plural form unclear

-VARIATIONS: (chiefly European) goule, ghoule, and ghool; also (rare) ghowl

-SOURCE: pre-Islamic

—from “Rudiments of Terms,”

The Morakis Dictionary of World Myth

Go to sleep you whining, fat brat, or else,

tonight, you’ll be eaten by rats.

There’s a vampire in the basement,

There’re goblins in the walls,

a werewolf in the closet,

and ghouls in the hall.

—from “The Babysitter” by PHILIP STRAKER

— | — | —

CHAPTER ONE

“Yeah, Chief. This is Kurt.”

“Hot damn. I’d never have fucking guessed.”

“The dispatcher just radioed me. Told me to give you a landline.”

“Uh huh. That was a half hour ago.”

“It’s not my fault they wait a half hour to relay their calls.”

Bard’s words were suddenly garbled, smacking. He was often known to engage in conversation with his mouth full. In fact, he was often known to have his mouth full on any occasion. “I’m not saying it’s your fault. That’s the price we pay for being on the county commo band. What good’s a police department without its own communications system, will you tell me that? Maybe one day this tight-fisted pockmark of a town’ll cough up the funds for our own dispatcher and frequency. Fucking county acts like our business isn’t important.”

“Okay. So what’s so important?”

“On your way back to the station, I need to you to pick me up a box of doughnuts. The chocolate-covered kind, the big ones.”

“Now that’s what I call important police business, yes, sir.”

“Well, it is. I’m hungry. I haven’t eaten all day.”

“But you’re eating now. I can hear you.”

“Just shut up and get the doughnuts. And grab this month’s Hustler while you’re at it.”

“I’m not going to buy a skin magazine in uniform.”

“You will unless you’d like to wear the uniform of some other department. Baltimore City’s hiring, if you don’t mind the lowest starting pay in the state and the highest murder statistics. Or, hell, I’m sure a guy with your experience could walk right into a nice cushy foot beat in Southeast D.C.”

“I hear you, Chief.”

“Good. If they don’t have Hustler, get High Society.”

Kurt wished he had the—testicular fortitude?—to tell Bard exactly where he could put the doughnuts and magazine. Three months in the police academy for this? Dad would be proud. “That’s all I am, Chief? An armed errand boy?”

“Yeah, but before you do any of that, I’ll let you go play police officer for a change. I’ve got a resident complaint for you, possible signal 7P. That’s trespassers on private property, in case you’ve forgotten your code sheet.”

“I know what a 7P is, Chief. I’m the only one around here who bothers to answer them. So what’s the 20 for these trespassers?”

“Belleau Wood. The prop-owner’s wife made the complaint. Glen doesn’t come in for a couple of hours, so she phoned us.”

“That’s the rich guy’s land, right? Dr. Willard? I didn’t know he was married.”

“Well now you do. She said somebody popped the chain on one of their entrance gates. Probably a bunch of kids back there cornholing or something.”

“You want me to bust them?”

“I don’t give a fuck, use your police officer’s discretion. You can kick their dicks off for all I care. Just get a move on.”

“Okay, Chief. I’m on my way.”

“And don’t forget. The chocolate-covered kind, the big ones.”

PFC Kurt Morris hung up the Liquor Mart pay phone and went back to the town car, a dulling, white Dodge Diplomat with a banged-in rear bumper and one of the high lights missing from the visibar. The car looked like it hadn’t been washed since the day it rolled off the assembly line, which may well have been true; it wore a sheen of dirt. Recently, Glen Rodz had asked him, “Don’t you think it’s about time you washed the cruiser?” and Kurt had replied, quite logically, “Why? I don’t ride on the outside.”

Kurt squealed out of the lot, not because he was in a hurry, but because the cruiser’s bald tires made more noise than purchase. The call to Belleau Wood was no great event; he’d answered many such calls over the years, when the property’s security guard, Glen Rodz, was not on duty. Belleau Wood seemed to attract Tylersville’s youth “like flies to a shit-bucket,” Chief Bard was fond of saying. Lots of teenage beer drinking, but mostly kids making out. Kurt had witnessed many flesh shows thanks to signal 7P’s. What he’d seen in the backseats of some of those cars would make John C. Holmes himself keel over.

April was bowing out now. For the first time this season, Kurt noticed that everything around him pulsated in life and vibrancy. The unsightly black-flecked snow had melted away, leaving the winding asphalt of Route 154 a cleansed, black shimmer. Trees, barren a month ago, stood straight and heavy in prominent greens. To the left, the vast square of Merkel’s cornfield glowed coppery, fecund brown, showing newly turned soil, and would soon glow green as a scape of hardy man-tall corn rows. Colors seemed sharper, more intense, the air rich with the scents of life. It was more than just the shift of nature; it was an overhaul of his soul—spring fever, and the nearing of long days, endless skies, and the warmth he feared might never come. The end of another gray Maryland winter.

Backward and hard-minded, Tylersville wasn’t a town at all, really; it was a road—State Route 154—and all on either side of that road was called Tylersville. Route 154 cut a twisting dozen-mile path through the worst of Maryland’s woods and hills and swamps, and joined the city of Bowie to the south with an extremity of Annapolis to the north. The small, sparse homes and trailers which stretched along the Route, as it was called, did not total more than one hundred, and were it not for the shopping center and the apartment complexes at the south end, there wouldn’t be population enough to even constitute a town. Tylersville had its own police force only because it happened to exist along this sensitive access as a municipality between two sizable cities. The department itself was small, yet crime was barely evident at all save for the drunks and the rednecks and the motorheads who liked to think of Route 154 as a testing track for their hot rods.

Kurt worked the four-to-midnight shift, and he assumed he’d continue to do so for the rest of his life. The work was tedious, the environment less than edifying, and the pay had never been known to urge him to jump up and down; but he supposed that the job suited him. Beyond his boredom, he found a redeeming function, slight but there. It was a job that had to be done, a job that even offered the chance to help people, and that at least seemed favorable to standing in line at the unemployment office.

Sometimes it felt as though whole shifts were spent driving the Route back and forth, from one end to the other. He had done this hundreds or perhaps thousands of times, traveling the same miles and looking at the same unremarkable scenery over and over. The bulk of police work in Tylersville wound down mainly to traffic. Speeders ran rampant along the Route, its snake-twisted turns and clean, long straightaways a pronounced challenge for the droves of fast cars which inhabited Prince George’s County; running radar was Kurt’s favorite recreational therapy. The only nontraffic-oriented crimes to occur with any regularity were the weekly weekend fights which erupted at the Anvil (a topless roadside bar) and an occasional domestic flare-up, drunk husbands beating the piss out of drunk wives, though Kurt had known it to be the other way around once or twice.

I wonder which access? he thought. He scratched absently at the back of his neck, smoothed down dark-blond hair, and then frowned because he knew Chief Bard would soon be yammering at him about a haircut. “The Soul Talk Center’s that’a way,” and “When are you going in for the rest of the sex change?” were two of Bard’s more amusing hints. “Cut your fucking hair or I’ll fucking fire you” was one not so amusing. The sideburns, too, were longer than they should be, but Kurt would put the blade to those without needing to be told; wild, bushing sideburns were consistent traits of all Tylersville’s redneck klan. The very last thing he wanted to look like off duty was a rube.

The farther north he drove, the poorer the roadside residents appeared to be—their cars older, rustier, their homes more dilapidated, a few probably worth condemning. There were some trailer homes, he knew, recessed deep off the road and in the hills, where the people didn’t even have electricity. Poor white trash...

The road darkened toward this end, the fir and pine and poplar forest denser here and so tall that the heavy, reaching branches cut off the daylight as the sun moved steadily off. Here there were no homes on the right side of the road, the trees spireing over swamps rather than hills. A glance to the left after another mile, and Kurt saw the wildly overgrown confines of Beall Cemetery occupying a short clearing in the midst of the wood. (It struck him oddly then that so many Maryland cemeteries and funeral homes bore the cryptic name Beall.) He’d always thought the cemetery to be forgotten, but as he looked now he made out a line of cars at the shoulder, and a cluster of somberly dressed mourners standing round an open grave. And he remembered then the Drucker tragedy of a few days ago. Town drunk and crank Cody Drucker had stepped inadvertently on a croquet ball, whereupon he’d fallen down the stairs, clunking and cussing and breaking his neck in the process. No one could deduce exactly what the croquet ball had been doing on the landing, nor could anyone explain why Cody had been wearing black socks and black shoes and nothing more. It was unimportant, though; the town wouldn’t likely miss old Cody. The thin turnout at the funeral seemed an accurate reflection of his popularity.

There’s the mutha. Kurt slowed, then stopped on the shoulder. As reported, the chain across the first Belleau Wood entrance gate was down. He cut the wheel and nosed into the entranceway. Closer inspection of the chain told all—the case-hard master padlock on the post was still secure; the chain itself had been severed. Boltcutters, he thought. Damn things should be outlawed. He idled through and followed the old miner’s track, penetrating the legal boundaries of the property.

What the town referred to as Belleau Wood consisted of several hundred acres of undisturbed woods, some ignored farmland, and a half dozen mineshafts which had been closed since the late forties. The property had deteriorated to an unimpressive estate centered around the Belleau Wood mansion, possibly the least impressive feature of all. Abruptly right, built atop the tallest hill, the “mansion” stood brooding and disconsolate, a large pillar-porched colonial farmhouse, distinctive only in its constant state of disrepair. The house and all of the Belleau Wood property was owned by one Dr. Charles Willard. No one knew what kind of doctor he was; few knew him at all, and fewer cared. Kurt supposed that years ago Belleau Wood had made a striking piece of land. Now, though, after so much neglect, it looked like real estate in hell.

This road, one of four chained entrances to the property, formed the entire length of the acreage’s southern boundary. When Kurt had followed it to the very end, he saw Lenny Stokes’s primer-gray Chevelle parked near the mouth of the first mine. This was the only shaft that had not caved in. Kurt swore, irritation slipping up; he grabbed his Kel-Lite (a twenty-two-inch metal flashlight), got out, and entered the manway of the mine.

Darkness came in stages as he stepped cautiously in. The air was stale here, and heavy with fetors of stone dust and decomposed talc. Revealed around the flashlight beam was a maze of wooden stulls, splintering, rotted, that supported the mine’s roof. Kurt realized the danger, knew that it was just a matter of time before the stulls gave way and sealed the mine shut forever.

The flashlight blazed ahead, puncturing the black void. Streaks of talc ran through the walls like abscesses in the stone. Rubble filled ancient trackbeds, overflowing; trolley rails bent up to form twisted, skeletal shapes, caution: watch for trolleys, one sign warned. In the light, others floated up: keep left, haulage line, and main shaft ahead. Hard hats lay about like empty skulls, some dented, some crushed. Kurt felt pressed down by a sudden, haunted despair; this place tilled up ghosts of his childhood. His father had worked twenty years in coalmines. “Good, hard work with a pension a man can live on, the kind of work that makes this country strong.” Twenty years in the stopes. His father had collected only a few months of pension before dying from a combination of emphysema, black lung, and cancer.

Kurt shivered out of the fading oppression, stepping on, and then he perceived hints of female laughter and unintelligible male talk. This, he knew, would be Lenny Stokes and one of his entourage of sexual accomplices. Lenny Stokes and Kurt went back a long way, enemies since grade school, polar opposites; all they had in common was their age, twenty-six. In a town full of bad-asses, Stokes held the number-one position, and he truly looked the part. Face pitted by an adolescent war with acne. Weasel eyes. Lumberjack shirt and shitkicker boots. He wore his hair long and slicked back, and had Elvis sideburns and a satanic goatee. He poached and dealt drugs for money, ran around with any available girl for fun, and beat his wife when he had nothing better to do.

Kurt came around a slant in the manway and was detected at once. Two shock-white faces peered up into the beam. Lenny Stokes stood with his jeans down to his knees; what hung out began to dwindle. Kneeling before him was Joanne Sulley, a slim, vampiric brunette. Stokes had been “dating” her, behind his wife’s back, since last fall. At this particular moment, Joanne appropriately lacked blouse and bra.

“Party’s over,” Kurt said. Stokes and the girl became glimpses of flesh and shadow. The flashlight roved over chiaroscuro faces dispossessed of color by the effect of being so grandly caught in the act. Stokes yanked up his pants, muttering in his mysterious Deep-South twang, “Goddamn son of a horse’s ass. I shouldn’ve fuckin’ known some cop’d come walkin’ in.” Joanne groped frantically on hands and knees, in search of her blouse. To Kurt’s amusement, she didn’t seem to be having much luck.

“Lenny,” she squealed, “who is it?” and Kurt realized they couldn’t see his face, just the bright-white circle of his baton-light. “Morris,” Stokes snarled, shielding his eyes. “It’s got to be Morris.”

“That’s right,” Kurt said. “Good old all American love in the afternoon. Making sure her tonsils are still there, huh, Lenny?”

Stokes grimaced in the fierce, white beam. “Goddamn candyass. Get that fuckin’ light out of my eyes.”

Kurt did not comply with the request. “I ought to haul your tail in for chopping that chain.”

“You ain’t haulin’ shit, chump, ’cause that chain was down. Somebody else cut it.”

“Sure, Stokes, and water runs uphill, too, right? One of these days I’ll catch you with those boltcutters of yours and wrap them around your thieving hillbilly neck.”

Rage pinkened Stokes’s face. “Them’s some pretty rough words from a pussy. Just ’cause you got a gun and a badge, that don’t mean you can go fucking people around all you please. I ain’t scared of you, Morris, and one day I’m gonna kick your ass so bad you’ll think you died and come back as a soccer ball.”

“Talk is cheap, Stokes, and I can tell you talk a lot. Why don’t you just kick my ass right now?”

“No, not now, pussyman. When the time is right.”

Joanne was still groveling on the ground, her voice a shrill echo. “Oh, Lenny, I can’t find my shirt. Help me find my shirt.”

“Ditz,” Stokes replied. “It’s in the car. You took it off ’fore we came in.”

“I didn’t think you owned a shirt,” Kurt said to her. (Joanne was one of the more popular topless dancers at the Anvil, and commonly spent more time without a shirt than with one.) “Why bother owning things you never use?”

Blushing hot red, she stood up, but before she could cover her breasts, Kurt’s light scanned her upper body, purely by accident, of course. In the gritty glow, her flesh gleamed fish-belly white, starkly diverse against large, pink nipples. She quickly crisscrossed her arms and shouted, “You’re doin’ that on purpose! Stop shining that light on me, you pervert!”

Kurt laughed out loud. “Here you are half nude and going down on a guy in a mine shaft, and you call me a pervert. That’s the best joke I’ve heard all week. Don’t worry about it, Joanne. I’ve seen your tits before. Everyone has.”

Joanne held her arms tighter to her chest, radiating anger and embarrassment. Stokes said, “Why don’t you lay off, jack? We weren’t hurting no one.”

“You’re trespassing, which is against the law, for your information, and I know damn well you cut that chain. And did it ever enter that cement-filled head of yours that coming in here could get you killed? This place was due for a cave-in about fifty years ago… Get out of here, both of you. Find someplace else to make whoopee. I’ve got more important things to do than waste time arresting you two airheads.”

Stokes leered in the brittle light. “You’re just a fuckin’ pig, that’s all you are.”

“Yeah, and let this pig give you some sound advice. The next time I catch you in here, you’ll be in the county jail faster than you can say sodomy”—he turned to the girl—“and that goes for you too, Miss Nude America. See what kind of tips you get doing your striptease in the dyke tank.”

“You can’t talk to me like that!” she shrieked at him. “Lenny, he can’t talk to me like that!”

“Don’t worry, babe,” Stokes said, and turned to leave. “He’ll get his. Come on.”

“Oh, Lenny?” Kurt said. “I haven’t seen your wife lately. Did you beat her into a coma again, or did she finally walk out on you?”

“Vicky knows better than to walk out on me. But then that’s none of your goddamned business, is it?”

“Sure it is, Stokes. And get this—the next time I hear of you beating up on that girl, I’ll personally shove this flashlight so far up your ass you’ll be able to flick the switch with your tongue.”

“We’ll see about that, pig. Oink, oink.”

In the narrow light, Kurt watched Stokes and the girl stumble away toward the mine opening until he could no longer see them.

He remained in the manway for some time, standing detached and odd. He thought about Stokes and Joanne Sulley, tasting the acrid secret guilt of being pleased that Stokes was still openly cheating on his wife. How much longer could Vicky last with him? She must know of his adultery. That aside, Kurt’s behavior had been inexcusable. Police officers were to treat all people with professional objectivity, but by now he would not even bother lying to himself, or trying to rationalize his unacceptable conduct. When it came to Lenny Stokes, Kurt was simply not a respectable police officer. He knew this now; he’d known it for years. Stokes was more than just a typical town rowdy; it was a personal thing. Kurt hated Lenny Stokes. Hated his guts.

More thoughts then, ugly, hurting thoughts of Vicky Stokes, and the things Lenny did to her, and must do to her, the beatings, the puffed eyes, bruises turning sallow-black, and the time at the Anvil when Stokes had hit her so hard that blood came out of her ear. It all made him sick, sick at the moving parts of this world, sick at himself. Too many times the daydream spilled round his brain like some rancid, luminous liquid, the vision of his own revolver pressed hard against Stokes’s temple. The hammer dropping…

He closed his eyes, shook his head till the craze of edging thoughts and scenes had spun away. He continued to stand there, inexplicably, in this absurd mine. Darkness smoked over him from the right, the left, and behind. It chilled a hollow, lonely place in his heart, the silence thickening. He turned the flashlight on and off several times in rapid succession, eyes acclimating indecisively from the strobic exposures of white to black, white to black, and he dared himself, in the childish way, to leave the flashlight off and just stand there, but didn’t for the equally childish fear that something black, half seen, and hideous would reach out, snatch the light away, and crackle laughter.

Still more thoughts came, weird, disconnected, impossible thoughts.

The flash back on, he pointed its piercing beam ahead into the mine. From somewhere beyond, water dripped ticking clocklike; dust floated finely across the light. The shaft passage descended deeper and deeper, an endless bore into the earth. Abruptly he turned and began to walk out, the walk becoming a trot, and by the time he’d made it back outside, he actually had been running, because during that last second before breaking away, a final thought had come—the macabre notion that something within the depths of the shaft had been watching him the whole time.

— | — | —

CHAPTER TWO

The corpse lay at her feet.

Vicky Stokes was leaning forward on the couch, knees touching, her head in her hands. She had been crying for an hour.

It was only a dog, a pet, yet in secret she confessed that this current sense of loss affected her harder than any she had known. She remembered the grief she’d felt, several years back, when learning that her parents’ house had burned down with them in it—nothing compared to this. They’d never cared about her, they’d thrown her out of the house at eighteen; still they were her parents, but she mourned the loss of her dog more.

You know you’re a loser when the only friend you have left is a dog.

And she was beginning to realize now that that’s what she was—a loser, who waitressed at a carnal, seedy tavern in a nowhere town with a degenerate tyrant for a husband.

She’d been married to Stokes for a year and a half. The biggest mistake of her life, but she couldn’t blame herself completely because she’d learned of Lenny’s true character only after they’d been married. It was a hard consolation to swallow, though, and she would always hate a small part of herself for ever having gotten involved with him. It might be different if he loved her, as she’d once thought, but Lenny Stokes was not capable of anything close to love. Vicky had learned this the hard way, the painful way. As far as Lenny was concerned, a wife was a commodity, someone to cook his food, clean his house, and earn money. All Lenny had was this house his father had left him; he didn’t have a real job, though he did make a lot of money selling pot and PCP to all the hippie kids in Bowie, and burglarizing homes in Crofton and some of the other wealthier area communities. The weekly check Vicky brought home from the Anvil was used for groceries and bills.

So this was her lot, the rewards of wedlock—to cook, to clean, and to work forty hours a week.

And one other thing, too. The worst part of all. The sex.

She knew Lenny had been cheating on her since their first week as husband and wife, but there was nothing she could do about it, and by now their relationship had corroded to the point that she no longer cared. She was grateful for Lenny’s extramarital affairs. It was that much easier on her when Lenny came home spent; otherwise, he would vent his sexual quirks on Vicky that much more. To Lenny, the ultimate sexual experience had to revolve around pain; that was the turn-on for him, the pain, the hurting, the force. She could get sick just thinking about some of the thing’s he’d done to her. And Lenny did not limit his brutality to the bedroom. Sometimes he would slap her around for no reason at all. Other times it was more than just slapping around—it was beating. She could more easily measure the last eighteen months in bruises and the metal taste of blood in her mouth. Twice he had sent her to the hospital with concussions. She remembered the time last summer when Lenny and his friends had barreled into the Anvil, drunker than usual, and stoned. It had been a Wednesday night, amateur night. Lenny had ordered her to get up on the stage and remove her shirt. “My buddies all wanna see your tits,” he’d said. “I told them what a fine set you had. So get up there, girl. Off with it. Let’s see ’em.” Of course, Vicky had refused, and not in the lexicon of kings. Being a waitress at the Anvil was humiliating enough; one thing she would never do was exhibit her body like the dancers. Lenny had beaten the daylights out of her in the parking lot later. “Don’t you evah make a fool of me in front of my friends, girl!” he’d raged, popping her in the head and abdomen with his hard, knuckly fist. “Don’t you evah! When I tell you to do somethin’, you do it!” He’d left her lying broken on the gravel, bruised ribs, a few loose teeth. Kurt Morris had driven her to South County General, where she’d had to have X-rays, an EEG, and a spinal tap. She could still hear that mammoth silver needle slipping between two vertebrae. Kurt had pleaded with her, begged her to press charges, but she didn’t dare. Instead she’d told the doctors that she’d stumbled and hit her head.

She couldn’t divorce Lenny, not now. She was convinced of the logic of her reasons.

The house was very quiet now. All she could hear was the steady tick of the glass and gold carriage clock on the mantelpiece. Nine o’clock and all’s well. At least until my dearest hubby gets home. Just then it dawned on her that she was sitting in the dark. Night had bloomed fully without her ever realizing it. It was nice like that, dark and quiet and nice, and she hoped to God that Lenny didn’t come home all boned up and drunk, and destroy it all for her.

Just as the tears were beginning to dry, she inched her foot forward and touched something furry with her toe.

Brutus. Oh, Brutus, why can’t you just be sleeping?

She stood up, stepped over the dead animal, and felt her way across the room to the kitchen. She flinched at the sudden, disrupting whiteness when she opened the refrigerator and took out a bottle of soda. She went back to the couch and sat staring. The still carcass on the floor reminded her that she’d soon have to take care of things. She supposed there was some county office she could call, but she couldn’t bear the thought. They would probably incinerate the collie and use him for bone meal or something. No, she would tend to it herself.

Her whole body jerked when the kitchen door to the garage opened. The lights flicked on, an intruding block of glare. Lenny set his big Eveready spotlight down on the counter, and didn’t even notice Vicky sitting there until he was three steps into the living room. He stopped, squinting, and said, “How come you ain’t at work?”

“It’s my day off.”

“Oh,” he said. “That’s right, I forgot.” He fixed his eyes on her and threw his head back to get the hair off his brow. “You got something going with Morris?”

“Who?”

“Morris, that pencilneck cop.”

Vicky frowned and reached for her cigarettes. “No.”

“Tell me the truth, girl.”

“I haven’t seen Kurt in weeks. What makes you think I ‘got something going’ with him?”

“I ran into him today, and he was givin’ me a hard time, as usual, the weed. He’s always askin’ shit about you.”

Vicky smiled within herself. “Well, I told you. I haven’t seen him.” She lit a cigarette, leaned back on the couch, and drew. “Where have you been all day?”

“Huntin’, with Jory and Mac.” This, of course, was a lie. He’d only been hunting for the last hour or so. Lenny did all his hunting at night.

“One day you’ll go too far, Lenny,” she said. “Deer season ended in December. And besides, there’s a difference between hunting and poaching.”

”Aw, it’s a dipshit law, anyway. This way, we save a bundle on food expenses. Wait’ll you see the ten-point buck I got. I’ll bet that sucker weighs close to two hundred. We just got done dressing it.”

Lenny smirked. It was obvious that Vicky didn’t share in his delight over bringing home a deer. He stood still, and was squinting at her again in the white, cold light from the kitchen. He noticed, finally, the dried tears that streaked her cheeks. “What you been cryin’ about?”

She looked away from him and swallowed. “Brutus died.”

She expected a fake response from him at least. Lenny had always been indifferent about the collie; he’d never gone out of his way to be nice to Brutus, but then he’d never been mean to the animal, either. He said nothing. He looked at the shape of the animal’s corpse at Vicky’s feet, then reached down to pick the dog up.

“What are you going to do?”

“Gotta get him outa here,” he said. “I’ll take him behind the bowling alley and leave him in the dumpster.”

“You will not. That dog’s been with me for fifteen years, and if you think you’re going to toss him into some damn garbage dumpster, then you better think again.” More tears began to fill her eyes, and she felt a rare kind of rage that was dangerous in that house. “Sometimes I just can’t believe you, Lenny. You’re a miserable, insensitive bastard.”

“You better watch that mouth, girl,” he said, and pointed a finger at her. “I got a mind to clout you upside the head.”

“Well, do it then, I don’t give a shit!” she shouted at him, and the tears were flowing freely now, her words hollow and stilted. She knew he would hit her under any other circumstance but wouldn’t now because her defiance and grief had reduced the threat to something feeble. “I’ll get rid of him myself,” she heard herself say a few seconds later.

He remained there a while longer, perhaps puzzled that anyone could harbor such feelings for a dog. “Now I’m sorry your dog died, but you gotta be re-listic about all this. You take care of it soon; we don’t want the house full up with flies. You hear?”

Her head between her knees, Vicky nodded.

“Okay, then,” he said. He disappeared up the stairs.

Vicky continued to sob faintly. Her face was swollen and red around the eyes, and she realized she was crying not only for the loss of her pet, but also for the graceless plummet her life had taken. She picked the dog up heavily in her arms and pushed through the screen door to the backyard. The night air was cool and crisp, the darkness, again, comforting. The grass underfoot felt strangely moist, like cool oil. She took the animal to the limits of the yard and continued a few steps into the woods itself, where she laid the dog down on the forest ground. She took a moment to breathe in the night scents of the woods. Then she plodded back toward the toolshed to search for the shovel.

— | — | —

CHAPTER THREE

One good thing about the four-to-midnight shift was the luxury of sleeping late. Generally, Kurt turned in at one in the morning and got up at eight or nine, so the luxury was more or less false; but he enjoyed the principle. He simply got up when he’d had sufficient rest, eliminating any need for alarm clocks—things he’d been known to demolish back in his college days. Once he’d winged a Baby Ben out of his dorm window, a six-story trip onto cement. A week later his roommate had retrieved it, and it still worked.

Kurt got out of bed and stood up, stretching, wearing only briefs. At the height of his stretch, the door opened, and his twelve-year-old cousin, Melissa, leaned in, grinning like an evil kewpie doll. “Brad Pitt you ain’t,” she said.

“Roachface! Get out of here!” he yelled. “Can’t a guy even stand around in his underwear without being eyeballed by little stinkbugs like you? Next time knock…and then don’t come in. I could’ve been nude.”

“Too bad you weren’t. Then I could take pictures with Daddy’s camera and blackmail you.”

“Blackmail, hell. With my terrific body, you’d be able to sell them for a hundred bucks apiece.”

“Yeah, in Monopoly money.”

Kurt wished for a can of whipped cream. That would teach her. “Now that you’ve successfully invaded my privacy, what do you want?”

“I just came to tell you that breakfast is ready. Pardon me.”

Kurt brightened; never before had Melissa cooked him breakfast. “Oh, okay,” he said. “I’ll be right down.”

After a shower and shave, he put on his traditional off-duty garb—bleach-spotted jeans, jogging shoes (though he never jogged), and a golf shirt from Crofton Country Club (though he’d quit golf years ago when it became apparent he’d never break 110; he broke a lot of clubs, at any rate).

He rented the north bedroom of his uncle Roy’s house, an old, big ramshackle place with gables and ivy trellises, situated down on the south end of the Route. Right now, Uncle Roy was away for two weeks, bear hunting in Canada. Uncle Roy went bear hunting in Canada every spring, for as long as Kurt could recall, and not once had he ever shot or even seen a bear. Kurt wondered if they even had bears in Canada, and was by now seriously doubting that they did.

The room cost him $350 a month, which he paid more out of charity than obligation. The floor creaked wherever he stepped, like a witch’s laugh; and the plumbing made very rude noises at night that reminded him of someone with gastrointestinal problems. It wasn’t exactly the London Metropol, but at least he didn’t have to listen to the orgies and baby wails of the south end apartments. He’d arranged the room with a stamp-metal desk (fifteen big ones at a garage sale in Bowie), an eternally unmade bed (why go to the trouble of making your bed just to mess it up again a few hours later? was Kurt’s philosophy), and a large exhaust-blue dresser Uncle Roy had given him after being turned away with it at Goodwill Industries. Kurt had no stereo; music today seemed chic, sexist ripoffs of older music that sounded better. Nor did he own a television set, which dumbfounded everyone he knew; but he was certain he could live quite nicely without The World’s Biggest Losers and Cupcake Wars.

Goading aromas of fried eggs and bacon lured him downstairs. Melissa sat up at the kitchen counter, seemingly entranced by a picture of Brad Pitt in People. Melissa was Uncle Roy’s only offspring, a fact Kurt thanked God for on a regular basis. She’d been raised by Roy himself (her mother had run off with a tall, blond meter man from the gas company over a decade ago. This Uncle Roy had reacted to as no great loss. (“Some knockers,” he’d often commented to Kurt, “but less smarts than your average ten-pound bag of fertilizer.”) which caused a few to wonder. Roy was the kind of guy who put pine bark mulch in the coffeepot for laughs. Melissa was worse. She was a catty, tomboyish little horror with an infuriating sense of humor and who managed to keep out of mischief only when she was asleep. A genuine million laughs. Once she’d been sent home from school for putting frogs’ eggs on the homeroom teacher’s chair. The teacher had had the viscid misfortune of discovering this after he sat down. Another time she had actually been suspended for throwing a Dolly Madison blueberry pie clear across the cafeteria. Quite an arm for a little girl. The pie had splattered spectacularly over the vice principal’s right breast.

Kurt stopped halfway into the kitchen. Were his eyes deceiving him? It must be a joke. Melissa was smoking a cigarette as she read her magazine. Without looking up, she reached forward and tapped an ash. In a flash of rage, he snatched it from her and crushed it out.

“Hey, you pud!” she protested.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“Reading about Brad,” she replied.

“I mean this,” Kurt growled. He held the stubbed butt up to her face.

“It’s a cigarette. So what.”

This was too much. “So what? Did I hear you right? Did you say so what? Don’t you know that cigarettes kill people?” Unconsciously, Kurt lit a cigarette of his own and continued to scold her. “Only fools smoke, Melissa. Only people out of their minds.”

“That much I can believe.”

“Now, if you were an adult, that’d be different. Adults can smoke if they want; it’s their choice. Men and women can smoke. But not kids, not twelve-year-olds.”

“How old were you when you first started smoking?”

Kurt didn’t answer. He’d been twelve. Eventually he said, “Until you’re old enough, you’ll do as you’re told. That’s just the way it is. When I was a kid, I had to do as I was told, whether I liked it or not. The same goes for you. My God, Melissa Morris smoking… Uncle Roy would go through the roof. Young lady, if I ever catch you smoking again, I’ll push your face in a cow cake, a nice, big ripe one. Green inside.”

“Aw, go shove off,” she said, turning back to the magazine.

“I’ll shove you off, smart mouth. Right off the Eastport water tower.” He stopped again, tilting his head, suddenly aware of something not right. He leered at her suspiciously, his voice thick as clay. “Hey, wait a minute. Why aren’t you in school?”

“It’s spring break, Einstein. I’d look pretty stupid sitting in class all by myself.”

Oh, no. It couldn’t be. A solid week with this public threat, and Uncle Roy away, too. This was the worst news since the Redskins lost the Super Bowl.

Melissa smiled.

“Okay,” he said. He guessed he could live with it. Maybe. He stepped around the corner and for the third time was stopped in his tracks. Dirty dishes lay stacked in the sink, the frying pan full of suds. The stove was empty. “I thought you said breakfast was ready.”

“I do remember saying that, yes.”

Kurt looked around, temper raging. “Then where’s the goddamned food?”

Melissa calmly turned the page, a second shot of Stallone pretending not to be flexing his pectorals. “I didn’t say your breakfast was ready. I just said breakfast was ready, and it was. And it was very good. Happy trails, sucker.”

Kurt stormed out, awash in mental images of murder. He wondered how Uncle Roy had stayed sane this long, saddled for twelve years with that little Beelzebub incarnate. She should be locked in an outhouse for life.

As always before leaving the house off duty, he strapped on his De-Santis speed scabbard, one of the lesser known ”pancake’’-type holsters, stuffed full by a Smith & Wesson model 65. Over this he wore an old blue Peters jacket, which sufficiently concealed the Smith and De-Santis. In summertime, when jackets weren’t feasible, he sacrificed firepower for comfort and carried a small Beretta .22. He didn’t argue with what they all referred to as “The Nix”; he always carried off duty, knowing that he would never need to. He also knew that the day he didn’t carry would be the day they’d knock over Bank of America with him in it.

Outside waited Kurt’s version of man’s best friend (he hated dogs; they made him sneeze and left odd things in the yard for him to step in). It was a blue-white ’64 Fairlane two-door. The Ford was the one possession he treated with respect, always tuned and well maintained, always shining. It had long since achieved bonafide antique status; he got offers for it all the time, some preposterously high, but the thought of selling it seemed obscene, like selling part of himself. It hummed, glittering, as he sped down 154. First thing’s first, he thought. He pulled into the local Jiffy-Stop, favoring it over the town High’s and 7-Eleven because the Jiffy offered free coffee to police officers. (Judging by the taste, however, sometimes even this price was no bargain.) Immediately he bought two packs of Marlboro Box and breakfast, a microwaved burrito. He frowned lighting up, even as the nicotine rushed happily to his brain. If he had three wishes, one would be to quit. Hypnosis was a farce, sixty bucks per session to wonder how long he could contain laughter. Once he’d tried those smoking suppressant tablets, but they only helped because it was impossible to smoke and throw up at the same time. He’d also gone through every brand of water filter; they hadn’t helped him quit smoking, but they sure came in handy when he was low on golf tees. He’d tried virtually everything, every fad, every gimmick, and after so many years now and two packs a day, he could admit the reality of his addiction. He could no more quit smoking than quit pissing. He’d worry about payback when the time came.

As Kurt headed back to the Ford, Glen Rodz’s blue-and-mud Pinto wheeled in to the other end of the parking lot. Glen was a human stick, blackish-brown hair always too long, permanent dark circles under his eyes, and so thin as to almost be alarming. Five or six years of nightshifts as Belleau Wood’s security guard had rewarded Glen with a starved physique and the skin tone of a peeled potato. He and Glen had been close friends for about twenty years.

Kurt waved him over to the Ford.

“Hey, Kurt,” Glen greeted, fine hair falling into his eyes. “How’s my favorite town clown?”

“Great, but I’m still trying to figure out who swiped my rubber nose… Say, I didn’t get a chance to talk to you last night at work, but I guess you’re wondering who chopped your chain.”

“Damn right. Willard went on the rampage when I told him about it; he goes nuts whenever someone’s been trespassing. Do you know who did it?”

“I’m positive it was Stokes. I caught him on your property late yesterday afternoon.”

Glen swore. “It figures. He’s always coming out there at night to poach deer, goddamn redneck buttocks. What did he need so bad that he had to go and cut my chain?”

Kurt chuckled. “He and a lady friend decided to check out one of those old talc mines. A little henry job with a new twist.”

“Must’ve found a new wood pile. Who’s he running around with this week?”

“What’s-her-tits, that girl from the Anvil. Joanne Sulley.”

“Oh,” Glen said, pulling the acknowledgment. “Now I understand. What else can you expect from a girl whose only goal in life is to suck tennis balls through a garden hose. I’d like to give her a sewer pipe to suck on, the fickle shit. She blows every guy in this town but me.”

“And me,” Kurt added, “though I think I’d sooner put my junk in a Le Chef… Come on, let’s go shoot some pool at Hillside.”

Glen fidgeted, as if off guard. “Like to, but I gotta go home and get some sleep. You forget, I’ve been working all night.”

Past his friend’s shoulder, Kurt noticed someone sitting in the passenger side of Glen’s Pinto. He didn’t recognize the figure, couldn’t even make out any details; he was only sure that the person was female. This needled Kurt’s curiosity; Glen didn’t exactly have girls chasing him down the street, and when he did manage to find a date, Kurt was always the first to know. “Hey,” Kurt said, “you keeping secrets? Who’s the chick?”

Glen’s expression hardened. “Oh, her? Just someone I picked up, no big thing… If you got time before the end of your shift tonight, stop by Belleau Wood.”

“Yeah, I will.”

Kurt watched Glen hurry into the store, then glanced again to the Pinto. Eventually he shrugged and got back into the Ford. Now that was odd. Why doesn’t he want me to know who the girl is? he thought. Is he embarrassed? Maybe that’s it, maybe she’s got a face like the backside of a baboon, and he doesn’t want to be seen with her.

Kurt let it go; Glen’s romantic pursuits were his own concern, but Kurt still somehow felt cheated. The Jiffy-Stop behind him, he headed north up the Route, letting the fresh air pour over his face. But scarcely out of the bend, he made out a second, less pleasant, reminder of spring, a field day for slaughter. He couldn’t help but notice all the dead animals in the road. It happened this way every spring; animals lay heaped and crushed along the shoulder and at the yellow line, heads flattened, spines snapped, bodies squashed to almost comedic misshape. Squirrels, rabbits, dogs, but mostly possums, which Kurt thought of as not only the ugliest creatures on earth, but also the least intelligent. The fat-bodied things would waddle into the road as they pleased, oblivious to any oncoming car. At night they would just stand there staring into the headlights, too stupid to even consider getting out of the way. Then, thud, crunch, and splat, another candidate for possum heaven. Kurt had seen so many mangled, rotting possums that he now harbored a deep, psychological aversion to the things. He would have to call animal disposal at first opportunity. Now there’s a good job, he thought.

Annapolis seemed as good a place as any to kill time, but just as he began to open up on 154, the Stokes house appeared at the height of the next bend. Lenny’s big ’66 Chevelle wasn’t there. Aw, why not? he thought. He hadn’t seen Vicky in weeks. And since Lenny wasn’t here… He parked in the driveway and got out.

Stokes’s house always seemed odd to him, something about the design and the way the trees kept it out of the sun. It was a small house, but so narrow that it appeared taller than it should, as if it had once been a normal house compressed at both sides. Slim, clean, white shutters and trim made the overall dull green paint seem duller and the small, queer windows darker. The word lonely came to mind—the house was lonely, sitting there tall and strange on its own little lot, dwarfed by the Nordman firs and scrub pines of the forest wall beyond.

He mounted the front porch, paused a second, then knocked on the door. A dangling, uncomfortable moment passed, a feeling that he shouldn’t be here, but then a slice of Vicky’s face appeared when she opened the door a crack. “Kurt,” she said.

“Hi. Haven’t seen you in awhile, so I thought I’d stop by.”

She looked at him with one eye through the gap; then her lips turned to a half smile. She took off the chain and showed him into the living room, which was dark in the shaded daylight and very quiet. “Lenny’d have a fit if he knew you were here,” she said. “You and him never did see eye to eye, I guess.”

“That’s putting it mildly. Had a bit of a run-in with him yesterday, as a matter of fact.”

Vicky closed the door behind her, the light smile turning higher. “You know, last night he actually suspected that you and I were having an affair.”

Baby, don’t I wish. He sat down lazily on the sofa. She wasn’t stupid; she must’ve known that Lenny was seeing other women, but he decided it best not to relate to her the details of yesterday’s fanfare at the mine. Instead, he began with an original, deeply introspective question. “So how have you been?”

“Okay… Brutus died, though.”

Then it hit him why the place was so quiet and still. The dog was gone, and he hated to think of the blow it must’ve been to her. For most of the years he had known her, Vicky and the big, droopy collie had been inseparable. The dog’s death came as a true shock. “Jesus, Vicky. I’m sorry.”

“Brutus was old,” she said. “You know that. I’m lucky to have had him this long. No dog lives forever.” She squinted at the wall, lightly teething her lower lip. “I buried him in the backyard.” He knew how terrible she must feel; she was just trying not to show it. “Let me get us something to drink,” she said, scooting away.

He took a few seconds then to think back, unfocused memories began to shift. As with Glen, he and Vicky had been friends since elementary school, best friends for a considerable segment of that time. But Kurt, more than anything else in the world, had always wanted it, and still wanted it, to be more than that, not friends but lovers. It never happened, though, and it obviously never would as long as she was married to Stokes. His fondness for her was more than just rampant fascination, more than a particularly insistent crush. To this day he would go out with other girls and it was never any good because in every case he wished, even pretended, that the other girl was Vicky. A quirk of repression perhaps, or a defect on his part, but somehow the friendship thing had obstructed the truth—that for all these years and even now he loved her, but had never known how to tell her. In their friendship, they’d come no closer than dancers.

After high school, the friendship began to fog. Kurt went on to college for an Associates degree in law enforcement, while Vicky lapsed slowly but certainly into the wrong crowd, the hard-knocking, hard-drinking T-ville crowd. Stokes’s crowd. A year and a half ago she’d become Stokes’s wife, and Kurt was lost to all the things he’d never said.

His eyes were bright and as she came back from the kitchen with two bottles of beer, he could’ve melted. She was the sweetest, cutest, prettiest girl he’d ever known. That was the word. Not sultry, and not beautiful, but pretty. Even dressed as she was now, in old jeans and a dingy white blouse, he could feel that prettiness she projected to him so completely. She was slender and compact. Trim, long legs. Sleek curves of her hips and waist subtle yet striking. Satin blond hair shined clean and mysteriously, perfectly female. When she looked at him with her big, luminous gray eyes, he felt helpless.

“I know it’s a little early for alcohol, but what’s the harm? Besides, it’s all I’ve got at the moment.”

He wondered at the marvel of her breasts, her body, and her soul, the feminine mystery spanning further, touching him like a ray of sun.

“Hey, Morris, remember me?” She waved her hand across his eyes, smile turning crooked. “Or have I lost you to the twilight zone?”

“Huh?”

“You look spaced.”

“Oh, yeah. I was just thinking.”

Now the smile grew blatant. She handed him the beer, then sat down and reached for her cigarettes without taking her eyes off him. “Thinking about what?”

About how much I love you and what I wouldn’t do for you and all that and, Jesus Christ, Vicky, why did you have to ruin everything by marrying that grimy, ass-faced son of a bitch? “Just things. Like the time when we were real little and we went on a field trip to Hershey Park. Remember that? I made you get on the roller coaster with me and you screamed and held onto me for dear life, and then threw up all over the both of us.”

“Me!” she nearly shouted. “What a liar! You’re the one who screamed and cried and upchucked!”

Kurt sat back in the cushions and laughed. “I know. I just wanted to see if you remembered.”

“How could I forget that? It’s the only time in my life I’ve had to wear somebody’s breakfast. And, remember? Glen was laughing so much you punched him in the nose.”

“Well, I didn’t see anything funny about it,” he said, the recollection sharpening. “Speaking of Glen, I just saw him a few minutes ago. Want to hear something strange? He was with a girl, and he didn’t want to tell me who she was.”

“Now that is strange. I don’t think I’ve seen him with a girl more than two or three times in my whole life.”

“Yeah, Glen never was much of a ladies’ man. I’m beginning to wonder how much he had to pay her.”

“I don’t think he’s that hard up, a little weird maybe, but that’s all. I’m sure the right girl will come along for him one day. Glen’s all right, I just think that maybe all that night work has bent him a bit. Sometimes he comes into the Anvil for a beer looking like the walking dead. A normal job with normal hours would work wonders for him.”

“That’s what I keep telling him,” Kurt said. He guzzled down a third of his beer, belly shriveling. Nothing like a cold tall one first thing in the morning. “Chief Bard offered him the morning shift on the police department a couple of times. Told me he just didn’t want to be a cop. I guess that Willard guy pays him well.”

“Who?”

“Charles Willard, the guy who owns Belleau Wood. Glen tells me he’s really touchy about trespassers on his land. Why I don’t know. There’s nothing out there but woods and hills and a couple of wasted mines. Must be pretty boring for Glen to drive around there all night long.”

“Pretty spooky, too.”

They both lit cigarettes, partners in habituation. Kurt swigged more of his beer, ashamed to be drinking this early. Next I’ll be carrying a flask, he thought. Vicky’s eyes seemed to lose some of their shine. “To get on to more interesting things,” she said, “who was Lenny with?”

“What do you mean?”

“You said you saw him yesterday. He told me he was hunting all day, but you and I both know he only hunts beaver before dark, if you get my meaning. I don’t even have to wonder if he’s cheating on me; the problem is guessing who. So, out with it. Who?”

“Joanne Sulley,” he confessed, because there was no way around it except to lie.

Vicky seemed nauseated at the name. “Of all the whores and tramps at the Anvil, she’s positively the worst. Some of the stuff I’ve heard about her—”

“I’m sure I’ve gotten all the same stories.”

“And it figures Lenny would go for her. The kinkier the better.”

Kurt could see that the conversation was turning rapidly sour. It would be better just to leave. He cringed for a polite way to suggest the most obvious solution to her marital problems—to divorce Stokes, or to just pack up and walk out. He couldn’t guess why she hadn’t done it months ago, and he didn’t dare bring up the other matter—the beatings. All he could hope for was that one day she would leave him.

“I better take off,” he said, and stood up. “Got some errands to run.”

She led him to the front door, looked at him in a way that might have been forlorn. “Thanks for stopping by, Kurt. Come by the Anvil some time for a beer.”

“Sure will,” and just as he had opened the door, Vicky’s face seemed to go flat with dread. Kurt turned. Lenny Stokes came through the doorway, looking Kurt straight in the eye.

“What the fuck are you doin’ here?” Stokes said.

“Just saying hello to your wife.”

“Yeah, well now you can say good-bye to my wife, ’cause I don’t want you in my house, I don’t want you near my house.” Stokes turned his poison glare to Vicky. “If I evah catch you lettin’ this puss in here again, I’ll—”

“I’m going, Stokes,” Kurt said. “You don’t have to make a federal case out of it.”

“No, I don’t guess I do, so get in your fuckin’ jalopy and get the fuck out. Hell of a thing to come home and find Porky Pig parked in my driveway.”

“Lenny!” Vicky snapped.

“Shut up,” Stokes said back to her. Then, to Kurt, “Instead of sittin’ here makin’ time with my wife and drinkin’ my beer, how come you ain’t up at Beall Cemetery with the rest of the pigs?”

“What’s going on at Beall?”

“Bunch of cops up there right now, your bunk buddy Higgins, and that fat no-balls walking feedbag Bard, county fuzz, too. So get your police ass out of here and go earn your pay.”

Kurt stepped out to the porch and turned to say good-bye to Vicky, but the door had already slammed shut. He got in the Ford and backed out, annoyed with himself for coming here in the first place, causing a scene. Hillbilly scroat, he thought. One hand on the wheel, he opened the already cold burrito and took a bite, which he promptly spat out. He let the burrito fall out the window and was delighted when he glanced in the rearview and saw the car behind him run over it. But what had Stokes been babbling about? He hadn’t heard of any other deaths in the area, and he couldn’t imagine what the county police would be doing at Beall.

Another mile north on the Route, and he saw what Stokes had meant. Parked on the left-hand shoulder, all in a line, were five police cruisers, four of them P.G. County cars, and the mud-sprayed town cruiser. There was another car there too, Chief Bard’s mahogany-brown Thunderbird. A cluster of uniforms stood round the spiked, black-iron fence which encompassed the small cemetery. Kurt parked the Ford behind the town squad car and got out just in time to see the four county officers part. Chief Bard and Mark Higgins, the morning-shift cop, stood facing each other at the gate. As the departing county men made their way back to their cruisers, Kurt was able to pick up random bits of talk. “What in blue blazes would anyone—” ”—weirdest fucking thing I’ve ever seen.” “No tire tracks, though, Frank, so without a vehicle, how—” ”—the hell do you expect out here in the goddamned boonies?” The car doors slammed in a barrage, engines started, and the four cruisers pulled off the shoulder one at a time and drove away.

Kurt didn’t bother trying to figure it out; he couldn’t even imagine. Chief Bard and Mark Higgins turned their heads quickly when Kurt’s own car door slammed. Their faces seemed pinched together, like calculative rodents, yet their eyes were wide and dull. Was it just fatigue? Or shock? Kurt had never seen the two men look so strange.

“So this is where you meet the county to pay them off,” Kurt said.

Bard didn’t laugh. Instead he hitched his belt up over a belly that made Kurt think unhesitatingly of beach balls. Sweat glistened on the chief’s balding head; his mustache twitched. “What do you know about Cody Drucker?” he spat out to Kurt.

“Not much besides the common fact that he was a cantankerous old prick.”

“You know anyone who didn’t like him?”

“Yeah, about half the town. What happened? Did someone take a dump on his stone?”

Bard looked abruptly back to Higgins. “But how the fucking damn… Where the fuck would they—”

“Hey, Chief,” Kurt interrupted. “Are you going to tell me what’s going on, or am I supposed to guess?”

“Show him,” Bard said.

Higgins led Kurt through the cemetery gate. There was no path, just a foot-trodden trail showing exposed roots. From grave vases rotting flowers drooped forward like heads before the blade.

Unease itched up Kurt’s back. What was wrong with Higgins? It was more than just the place. Higgins was thought of by most as simply the coolest guy in the world, easygoing, laid-back, quick to joke even on the worst days. He was the kind of guy who’d turn the dullest shifts into a breeze, just by being himself, just by being Higgins. He carried an aura of good humor and high spirits anywhere he went, and never a trace of the trade nihilism that eventually got to most cops. Today, though—now—he seemed as pallid as the air, robbed of his attractive vitality by some worldly grimness, his spirit crushed. He walked ahead like a man betrayed—by insight or self-concept, by faith in his fellow man? It scarcely mattered. He merely led on, saying nothing.

And for the first time then, Kurt felt afraid.

The cemetery lay back, sinking slightly: an odd divide amongst trees which stood deformed and immense. Nets of pale, sickly weeds grew riotous up through the rungs of the surrounding rusted fence. Gray, dead light shifted overhead through laden branches and boughs. Many of the tombstones stood tilted; some had fallen flat. Farther back a number of the inscriptions were too old to be read.

“Hey, Mark. What gives?”

“I wish I knew,” Higgins said. “Or at least I think I do. Sometimes…sometimes you just don’t want to know. It makes you wonder about people. It makes you stop and think. Know what I mean?”

“I’m not quite reading you.”

Higgins looked straight ahead as he guided on, his trimmed mustache a morose line. “All I can say is someone in this town has a lame sense of humor.”

Underfoot, the ground between the graves crackled and sank; Kurt wondered how many faces he was walking on. Beyond, the interior woods grayed further, to the point of appearing unreal.

Then Higgins stopped. He pointed to the plot. Kurt didn’t need an explanation.

The new granite stone reflected like a mirror, spelling DRUCKER in fine, crisp chiselwork. Before it stretched an oblong hole. Loose soil and clumps of sod lay scattered in a wide curve.

Kurt stared into the open grave. The liner was wrenched off, its top cracked, and the coffin, planted there only yesterday, was gone. It had been unearthed and carried away.

— | — | —

CHAPTER FOUR

“Go on,” Glen said. “You’re shitting me.”

“No lie. Someone dug up Cody Drucker and ran off with him, coffin and all. I swear, it’s the truth.”

It was ten o’clock at night now, a full twelve hours since the disturbing discovery at Beall Cemetery; but for some reason, it seemed much later. Through the woods came the hush of the dead, abandonment and fathomless silence like 4:00 a.m. Glen’s head tilted curiously out the window of his truck, a white and blue-rocker Toyota pickup, diesel, with a yellow revolving light on the roof, and an off-brand shotgun displayed in the rear window. White adhesive letters on the rocker panels read SECURITY, but several of the letters had come off. This was the vehicle Glen used to make his security patrols of Belleau Wood. Glen himself wore a semblance of a uniform—dark brown summer-weight jacket, khaki pants and shirt, steel-shank snakeproof boots, and his reaction to what Kurt had just told him was one of chin-dropping astonishment. The town cruiser was parked outside the entrance chain, and Kurt leaned against the truck’s front fender as he reported the town’s latest, and weirdest, news.

Glen poked his head further out the window. “Who would steal a corpse out of a graveyard?”

“I don’t know, but I’d sure like to find out. Bard’s pulling his hair out over this, what little he has.”

“I can’t believe it.”

“I’m thinking maybe Drucker had some valuables on him when they put him in the ground, jewelry or something.”

“Cody Drucker?” Glen emphasized. “The only valuables he owned are in the pawn shop on West Street; that old sod would sell anything for a bottle. And even if he did have something on him, how come they didn’t just open the coffin right there instead of carrying the whole thing away?”

“Maybe they couldn’t open it right there,” Kurt said, hunting for a cigarette. “Coffins are built to last these days. Getting into one takes more than a screwdriver and a little elbow grease. I was just reading the other day, D.C. Police had to exhume a body for an old murder case and they needed a damn acetylene rig to get it open. Said the lid had locking pins… Anyway, who knows? Any possibility is ridiculous.”

Kurt lit his cigarette and shivered; spring fever had helped him forget that the nights would still be chilly for a while. Nipping air cut through the fabric of his shirt and made him break out in gooseflesh. The night was crisp and lavender. Stars winked keenly, as if vacillating, and the wind slipped like a whisper through the great shadow of the access road. Toward the north end of the property, atop the high hill, Belleau Wood mansion stood still and clear, the moon cutting its shape sharp as cracked glass against the sky.

Kurt stared at the far-off house. He could see a window lit. “Tell me about your boss,” he said, and even as he smoked and flicked ashes, he did not move his eyes away from the mansion’s black, cut-out shape.

“Dr. Willard? Not much to tell. Average guy, I guess—for rich. Well, maybe a little stuck up. I don’t see him much, nobody does.”

“What the hell does the guy do with his time?”

Glen shrugged. “He doesn’t work, if that’s what you mean. I guess he just sits around and counts his money. He’s no skinflint, though. Pays twenty an hour, double time for anything over forty. Last year he slipped me a five-hundred-dollar bill for Christmas.”

“A five-century note? I didn’t know they made them. Who’s on it?”

“I don’t know. McKinley, I think, or Grover Cleveland— some no-dick, shithouse president like that. All I saw was the numbers. Willard’s one generous son of a bitch. Maybe he’ll give me a G-note this year.”

“What kind of doctor is he?”

“Retired, and I don’t know much beyond that. About the only time I see him is when I gotta report some security violation, trespassers, poachers, that kind of shit, which is only about once every couple of weeks. His wife usually gives me my paychecks.”

Kurt expertly jettisoned his cigarette to the middle of the road, where it burst into a spatter of orange sparks. “Any kids?”

“Nope. Willard hates kids, calls them the spawn of hell.”

“What’s his wife look like?”

“Brunette, cute, decent bod. You’ve probably seen her around. He married her when he moved into the mansion, right after he hired me, as a matter of fact. I was the only one who went to the wedding; they needed a witness. I think she’s around mainly for the squeeze, you tell me. She’s thirty, and he’s just over fifty. She spends most of her time going on trips by herself, Ocean City, Virginia Beach, Vegas.”

“And Willard doesn’t go with her?”

“Nope. He doesn’t like to travel that much.”

“But he’s rich. He must take a vacation sometime.”

Glen shook his head. “His idea of fun is reading the New England Journal of Medicine and watching Discovery Channel. Since he’s been at Belleau Wood, I seriously doubt that he’s even crossed the state line. Oh, sure, he goes out to eat a lot with Nancy—that’s his wife—and every week or so, he’ll drive out to McKeldin Library or the public research place at N.I.H.”

The more Kurt was told, the less he understood. “Wait a minute. If he’s not a practicing doctor, why does he go to medical libraries?”

“I don’t know. I guess he just likes to keep up with the trade.”

Whetted, Kurt fired up another smoke, leaned closer to the truck window. “And you’ve known him…since he bought Belleau Wood?”

“He didn’t buy Belleau Wood; it was his to begin with. He’s the last of a loaded family—the Willard holdings include property all over Maryland and Virginia, lots of logging land and raw materials. His father supposedly hit the jackpot in ore round about World War II, bit the hoagie six or seven years ago. That’s when Willard moved back to Belleau Wood.”

“Where did he live before that?”

“Got no idea. You’d have to ask his wife.”

“Speaking of his wife,” Kurt said, unable now to stop with questions that didn’t concern him, “how did he get involved with her in the first place? You said he married her shortly after he moved here.”

“That’s right. In fact, I’ve known Dr. Willard a little bit longer than she has. She was a research technician at N.I.H.; that’s where he met her. He’d only known her about a month before they got hitched.”

“That sure sounds pretty screwy,” Kurt said. He glanced quickly over his shoulder at the house. “I’ve heard of love at first sight, but that’s a bit much.”

“Well, I admit Willard’s not what you’d call every girl’s summer dream, more like a well-educated stick in the mud. I think his bank account had more to do with it than anything else.”

“Yeah, yeah, but even so, don’t you smell a rat in there somewhere?”

Glen touched his lower lip, searching. “No. Should I?”

“Look, here’s what we got,” Kurt said, spreading his hands out in front of him. “First we got this eightball doctor who nobody knows or even sees. Next we got this girl who practically marries him before she learns his name, and who used to be into medical research. Lastly we got a fucking hole in the ground where Cody Drucker’s body is supposed to be.”

Glen grinned openmouthed within the darkness of the cab. “Are you trying to say… You mean, you think…”

“Well, what the hell? Maybe he’s got some kooky experiment going, and he needed a cadaver.”

Glen broke out laughing. “Jesus, Kurt. His name is Willard, not Frankenstein. Yeah, I can just see it, him and Nancy sneaking onto Beall with picks and shovels. If I didn’t know you better, I’d think you’ve been drinking some of that panther piss they make back in the hills. That’s about the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard you say.”

“Well,” Kurt said, “it was just a thought.”

««—»»

At midnight, Kurt’s shift came to an official end. He parked at the town police station, a converted white-stucco cottage at the end of a quarter-mile gravel road which neared Tylersville’s southernmost boundary. There, he turned over the cruiser, keys, and portable radio to Doug Swaggert, the midnight-to-eight man. Swaggert was the most seasoned officer on the force, having learned the ropes walking a beat in Baltimore for years. Kurt wasn’t sure why Doug had transferred to T-ville, but he guessed that bad timing might be a factor. “It’s hard to really get into police work when you’re on administrative leave six months out of the year,” Swaggert had told him once. “But don’t worry, they were all good shoots.” Swaggert was a hard cop, with hard rules, and also respected by the populace more than any of the others. Kurt didn’t know whether this was good or bad; at times it seemed that when Swaggert didn’t have trouble to tend to, he’d go looking for it, and when he couldn’t find any, he’d make some of his own. He fit the mold almost too well; short, dark hair, a face that belonged on a recruiting poster, and a look in his eyes that could make a pack of pissed-off mountain gorillas turn around and jog on home. The G. Gordon Liddy mustache didn’t help, and neither did the unbroken string of pistol championships and the fact that he could do more one-armed pull-ups than anyone else could do two-armed. In the long and short of it, Doug Swaggert was the kind of guy who carried his balls around in a bushel basket.

“I guess you’ve heard the latest,” Kurt said, when he stepped into the front office.

Swaggert turned away from his wall locker, snapping on the last leather belt spacer. “Yeah, Bard told me about it over the phone. I’ll tell ya, I’ve seen some weird hobnobbing in my days, but I’ve never heard of anyone stealing a dead man out of a graveyard.”

”A lot of strange folks in this world,” Kurt conceded, “and nine out of every ten of them probably live in Maryland.”

“Put ’em all on a boat and send them to the Bermuda Triangle, I say. But getting on to far more crucial things, what happened to the coffee machine? If Bard thinks I’m gonna work night shifts without coffee, he better get his head examined.”

“The coil burned out, there’s a new machine on order. So, friend, for the next seven to ten days we’ll have to settle for coffee at the Jiffy-Stop.”

Swaggert made a face. “Jeez, that’s worse than drinking out of a crankcase.”

Kurt placed the big key ring and Motorola portable on the desk, then scribbled his IN mileage in the DOR and signed out. “Say, Doug, do me a favor and tell Higgins to call county animal control in the morning. I forgot to do it today. All kinds of dead possums and shit on 154.”

Swaggert jotted down the reminder in a pocket pad, said, “Gotcha,” and hooked the keys on his belt. Then he went back to the wall locker and took out his pair of Kale knuckle saps— black leather gloves with sand in the knuckles. The index finger of the right sap was nylon, so that he could fire his pistol without having to remove the sap. “Almost forgot my mitts,” he said. “I never know when I’m gonna have to punch through somebody’s front door.”

“Or somebody’s face,” Kurt added. He’d always regarded knuckle saps as cruel and unusual, something for the Mafia, not the town police. “Three cheers for our favorite sadist. Have you ever actually hit anyone with those things?”

“Couple of times. They do the job, and let me tell you, if you’d ever busted your hand open on some rube’s jaw, you’d own a pair yourself.”

Swaggert’s matter-of-fact view of mayhem sometimes made Kurt shudder. “Let me ask you something, Doug. A guy like you I figure’s been in a lot of fights.”

“Sure. Dozens.”

“Have you ever gotten your ass whipped in any of them?”

“No.”

Kurt believed him. “Aren’t you afraid you’ll meet your match one of these days?”

“My only match is Clark Kent, and as far as I know, he doesn’t live in this town.”

Kurt left the station, smiling and shaking his head. That was one thing he’d always admired about Swaggert, that clear and overwhelming sense of confidence. That’s what it all boiled down to, Kurt knew. That’s what made Swaggert tick—confidence.

But what Kurt didn’t know was that all the confidence in the world wouldn’t help Swaggert that night. Nor could he have known that he had just spoken to Swaggert for the last time.

— | — | —

CHAPTER FIVE

Vicky could never decide what she hated most about the Anvil. Poor tips, terrible, infantile music, or lights that flashed hot and mad and drove lancets of pain through your head. But she supposed it was the heart of the place more than anything else. She was only a waitress, but that did not justify that she worked in a strip joint.

The night groaned on, waning. She performed her duties as if recently summoned from the crypt. Running tabs, dumping out heaped ashtrays, clearing empties away by the armful. She’d done it a million times in the past, waiting on derelicts in this derelict place; it was routine now. When it got busy, the din often rose to crush her, a maelstrom of noise—she couldn’t think. Faces melted into lumps of sameness, drinking, smoking, staring without expression. She felt her force of life being wrested out and wasted as she hurried back and forth, night after night, toting beer and an apron heavy with change. Sometimes she would work her tables for hours and not even know it, days and weeks passing slowly as grueling dreams.

Overhead hung rows of multicolored spotlights that aimed down and lit up the dance stage like an inferno. The stage floor was raised three feet off the ground and covered with Plexiglas under which more lights throbbed. Ceiling-high mirrors formed the front and rear walls, creating an illusion of space that transformed the Anvil into a dark, endless gallery full of doppelgangers. Vicky knew that one day she would see her reflections marching about independently, and that would be the end.

Tables and chairs faced the stage from three sides; there were some padded booths along the far wall, but no one ever sat in them. Red candle orbs glowed eerily on each table—these Vicky especially detested because it was her job to light them every day, only to have a bunch of fat saps immediately blow them out and fill them with peanut shells and cigarette butts. The jukebox blared hard rock and country and western, exclusively, and was wired to an absolutely terrifying sound system that made the Anvil shake like a seismic tremor. Often Vicky worked with cotton balls in her ears, but even they did not block out the landslide of sound.

Weekdays were her relief; there were only ten or twelve customers just then. She took another round to a group of construction deadbeats sitting front and center. “Hey, hon,” one of them said. He had road tar on his arms and shirt. “Wanna go home with the man of your dreams?”

“If you’re the man of my dreams, then all my dreams must be nightmares.” She smirked at the junk-stuffed candle orb and noticed tobacco juice in some of the empties, which she gathered up with great care. “My oh my, what fine tailfeathers,” another one said. Vicky told him that he must be an expert on tailfeathers, since he smelled like a henhouse.

She took a break after a few more orders. Ah, the good life, she thought. She sat down on the end barstool by the halfboard and shook out a cigarette. The music beat in her ears, a downpour of grinding heavy metal. On stage, the current dancer was stepping it out, trying her best to be erotic, but getting more laughs than applause. Vicky doubted she was much older than eighteen. Any girl with a body could get a job here; they came and went like birds, and seemed as smart. At the song’s climax, the dancer attempted a full spin, but halfway through, the heel snapped off her sandal, and she hit the dance floor butt-first with a great slapping thud. Laughter sailed up from the audience like a breaking wave.

The song played itself out, the juke thumped off. Blushing scarlet, the dancer grabbed her gown and rushed offstage to the dressing room. Vicky immersed herself in the joyous, blissful silence, wishing she could ride away in it. Cigarette smoke hung frozen in the aura of stagelight, glasses clinked. She touched her mouth and was immediately aware of the dull ache behind her lower lip. Lenny had smacked her in the mouth that morning, one of his better smacks. When she shifted slightly on the stool, the throb of pain between her legs reminded her of what he’d done after he’d hit her. She doubted that he’d planned it that way, to have her right there on the living-room floor; perhaps the blood on her chin had sparked his lust. He’d used Kurt’s appearance to punish her both ways. The inside of her mouth felt ragged and tasted faintly of rust. At least he hadn’t hit her in the eye this time; the manager always bitched at her when she came in with a black eye.

Hoots shot up, startling her. Customers began to whistle as the next dancer emerged from the dressing room. Joanne Sulley stepped coolly onto the stage, silent and lithe in high heels, black nylons, and a black transparent dress. The juke thumped back on, and Joanne went into her six-song dance set before a grating, pulsating assault of still more heavy metal. Her flesh glowed beneath the dress; she flew into the opener with wild precision, gyrating gymnastically, twirling, and dropping splits that hurt just to watch. The crowd grew riled.

Vicky looked on through a wave of disgust. Her hatred for Joanne was no secret, and the hatred was mutual. She wasn’t sure when their dislike for each other had begun; she wasn’t even sure what had caused it. Vicky knew now that Joanne was on Lenny’s regular list, but even that had nothing to do with it. She deplored Joanne simply because of the kind of person she was: a self-centered, egotistical sexpot with no regard for morality and no measure of discipline whatsoever. The average topless dancer came in, did her thing, and left, all an act. But with Joanne it was much more, it was a total, overt willingness to exploit herself via her body in order to gain the worship of weak, lonely men. She was an insult to herself and to all of womanhood, a cunning, predatory outrage.

Joanne dominated the stage, reined the focus of the audience. She spun once, perfectly, completely, and her hair and the hem of her dress flew up and down at the same time, as if by will. Another twirl, another rise of the dress, and she skimmed it over her head and off her body in one fluid movement, letting it float to the floor. Now, all she had on from the nylons, mid-thigh, to the black choker around her throat was a tiny powder-blue G-string. Something obscene and deep lurked behind her eyes, all but hidden by unabashed nakedness and a physique very close to perfect. The lights pulsed on her from above and below, tinting her flesh luridly in a meld of obscure shades. The crowd seemed breathless now, their hoots and hollers replaced by the silence of complete attentiveness. They were in awe, fixed on her as if preconditioned. Her body moved with the music, moved with the lights. Every step she took, every movement, breath, and gesture, seemed an act of precision so honed it was no longer even conscious. For every second she danced, Joanne ruled the crowd.

When the song ended, the audience exploded with applause. Joanne stood center stage, hands on bare hips, feet apart, and received her applause without so much as a bow or even a smile. Slowly, she panned her head, and the subtle obscenity behind her eyes raged.

Finally she broke and came off the stage to instruct the barkeep to boost the lights and volume. She grinned brassily at Vicky, as if to denote superiority. Vicky shook her head and mouthed something which could not be described as complimentary. Still grinning, Joanne pointed to her own crotch and said, “Eat me.”

“I’m probably the only one in town who hasn’t,” Vicky commented.

“Tell that to Lenny. He does it all the time, and lots of other things, too.” Joanne traced the top of her G-string with her finger. “Doesn’t that bother you, to know that you can’t even turn on your own husband? To know that he’s gotta come to me when he wants someone to do it right?”

“It doesn’t bother me at all. You two are made for each other—you’re both screwed up in the head.”

“You know, if I told him you said that, he’d probably beat the shit out of you again.”

“I know, and if he does, I’m going to beat the shit out of you,” Vicky told her. “You’ll have a hard time giving blow jobs with your jaw wired shut.”

Joanne laughed and gave Vicky the finger. She started to go back to the stage, but paused suddenly and said over her shoulder, “I’m glad your dog died.” Then she hurried back into the harsh blossom of stagelight.

The next song came on, thundering. For an instant, Vicky had almost lost control; she could see herself dragging Joanne off the stage by her hair and mopping the floor with her. It was an exciting fantasy; perhaps one day she would.

««—»»

At a quarter past one, only a few customers remained. Vicky could taste closing time; the thought of bed and sleep titillated her. She went to the farthest corner and began wiping the tables down, a scurrying shape in the dark. Someone touched her shoulder then, and she cringed before turning, suspecting a late visit from Lenny; but the dread lifted when she saw Kurt standing behind her.

“Did I miss last call?”

“No, no, we’re open till two,” she said. “Sit. I’ll get you something.” She got him a beer from the bar, returning in seconds. She was surprised at how happy she was to see him.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve been in here,” he said. “I remember once when I was about sixteen, Glen and I made fake mustaches out of our own hair and tried to get a seat. We thought it would make us look older. We weren’t two steps into the place before the bouncer threw us out. He told us to come back when we could grow real ones.”

“The curiosity of youth, right?”

“Oh, sure. Nothing wrong with that.” Kurt glanced across to the dark, empty stage. “What happened to the ‘speculative’ dancers?”

“They usually knock off at one. That’s when everyone starts going home.” She thought that he looked almost vulnerable in normal street clothes, and younger. The candlelight brought his face out in relief, flickering softly. She caught herself wondering what it would be like to kiss him. “What brings you out so late?” she asked.

“Wasn’t tired when I got off work, nothing but kung fu movies on the tube. That’s what I hate about four-to-twelves, it’s always too late to do anything when the shift’s over.” He sipped his beer and seemed to experience a childish rush.

“What’s the latest on Cody Drucker?”

Kurt couldn’t help but smile. “We still haven’t found the old coot. I just can’t figure out what anyone would want with a dead body, especially his dead body.”

Vicky grinned at the grim hilarity of it all. She reached into her apron for a cigarette. “It’s weird, even for this town.”

He reached across the table and lit her cigarette, but he held the flame up, suddenly staring at her.

“What’s wrong?” she said.

He strained his eyes on her face. “Your— You look like you have cotton in your mouth. What—”

Vicky looked down at the table, frowning.

“He hit you again, didn’t he? He punched you in the mouth.”

Reluctantly, she nodded. She trained her gaze on the orb. “So what else is new?”

He gripped the table edge, his face suddenly ugly with anger in the reddish light.

“Lenny got pissed this morning when you came over. He thinks I’m cheating on him, I guess, and he smacked me.”

Kurt closed his eyes and winced. “Christ, I’m sorry. If I hadn’t come over, it never would have—”

“It’s not your fault, it’s just… It’s nothing.”

“What do you mean nothing?” he said, leaning over and trying not to raise his voice. “Every time I see you, you have new bruises on your face from that guy.”

“Forget it.”

“He shouldn’t hit you. ”

“I know, but he does, and there’s nothing I can do.”

“There’s plenty you can do.”

“Look, Kurt, you don’t understand.” She was trying hard not to be mad at him, and herself. “You worrying about it only makes it worse—”

“Hey, Vik” came the coarse, boisterous voice of the barkeep. “you gonna blab all night or maybe think about getting the rest of these tables done so we can get out of here?”

Fat tool, she thought. Clean them yourself. She glanced back and saw that the Anvil was empty. “I have to go now,” she told Kurt. “Got a lot to do.”

“I’ll hang around and drive you home when you’re done.”

“No, that’s okay. If Lenny saw us…well, you know. Thanks anyway. And thanks for coming by.”

Kurt smiled at her, warmly now. He grabbed his beer and left.

The closing chores were rushed, frenzied; she needed to get out. Her back aching now, she mopped the floor, wiped down the rest of the tables, but the task she hated most of all was cleaning the stage mirror. It wasn’t easy getting all those butt-prints and fingermarks off the glass without leaving streaks. At last, haunted by the smell of Windex, she grabbed her jacket and slipped out, deliberately avoiding the barkeep’s endless offer to drive her home; he had black teeth and was always trying to peer down her blouse. Outside, she zipped up her jacket—the temperature surprised her—and when she was a dozen steps across the empty gravel parking lot, the electric ANVIL sign winked off, and she was submerged in darkness. She walked off the lot faster than she would have, never used to this sightless ritual. The Route was strangely lacking streetlights; she could barely see. Perhaps the state had a mandatory quota of nighttime traffic fatalities and sexual assaults before they could spend the money. From the woods, the rustling of animals mocked her. What if they weren’t animals? She could scream all night and who would hear? The moon watched her from treetops. She drew her collar close and quickened her pace.

The road stretched on, silent, vacant. She hurried without knowing why, stoked by phantom thoughts. It made the short walk home seem miles long, but then the house loomed into view, its traits reduced to a growth of shadow, an extension of the forest’s blackness. Lenny wasn’t home yet—at least the night might end on one good note. She had to slide her way up the front walk to the porch, had to feel for the proper key, and by the time she’d gotten inside, her actions had grown frantic. The deadbolt clicked heavily, and she sighed.

Safe again, she thought, and put aside her purse and coat. Dim light accompanied her as she went through the house and up the stairs, each light flicking on in turn, her hand sliding blindly along the walls for the next switch.

Safe.

She rushed to get ready for bed, leaving her clothes where they fell as she stripped them off. An old white nightgown slid over her body; it tickled her breasts and abdomen, and made her aware of a draft. She crawled under the bedcovers and buried herself.

Safe?

She turned off the bedside lamp. The click of the switch was bizarrely loud, like the snap of a stick or a small bone. Darkness filled the room, throbbing.

From what?

She couldn’t escape the moon. It peered in on her now from the north window, a white, hapless shape in the sky. A minute and her eyes adjusted. Could she actually see the moon moving? Objects in the room began to surface, like apparitions, and the walls looked uneven and seemed to breathe in the faint, radiating moonlight. She tried to figure what it was about this night that frightened her so.

She pushed the thoughts away, forced herself to think of relative things. Lenny was probably on another of his binges; otherwise he’d have been home by now. Sometimes he would disappear for two or three days at a time, for a festival of sex and dope. She guessed he was at Joanne Sulley’s right now, feeding his head in any number of ways. Better her than me, Vicky thought. Another cruel fact of her life, that her only moments of peace came when her husband was with another woman. At least she didn’t care anymore.

Her heart was thumping. She could feel the moon touching her face; it seemed to want to slither down her chest like hands. She gave up trying to divert her thoughts—there was no point. She was afraid and she didn’t know why.

But then she heard sounds.

It was a faint, crisp, faltering sound, like someone walking through the woods very cautiously, so as not to be heard. She lay there for a long time, eyes open in the dark, and she listened. The more she tried to convince herself that it was her imagination, the more apparent the sound became. Someone was in the backyard.

She drew in long, thin breaths. Her feet touched the floor, tensely, reluctantly; the covers poured off her body, and she got up. She stood perfectly still beside the bed, hands poised absurdly in front of her, as if waiting for the dark to lead her away.

Walking almost on her toes, she went to the window. A feeble breeze pushed the drapes out from the wall; the window was open about six inches. She stooped stiffly, then went down to her knees. Her fingers gripped the bottom of the casement, and she looked out.

Darkness flooded the backyard. Trees were ebon streaks, bushes lumps without shape, and the wood line a high black wall. Night had turned the grass to the hue of dark slate. The backyard was nothing but a confinement of shadows, all different shades of black.

The sound came again, but hurried this time—a frenetic snuffling that whispered through the merged shadows of the yard. Then one of the shadows stepped forward and looked up at her.

Vicky’s heart seemed to rise to her throat. Her fingers dug into the casement, whitening the tips. She stared.

There was a figure on the back lawn, an inklike blur with only one feature—it bore the shape of a man. It stood still for several seconds, very still, then shifted its position, took one step back.

And was gone.

— | — | —

CHAPTER SIX

At first, Kurt thought he was dreaming about burglar alarms. That’s what the noise reminded him of—a loud, jarring bell-sound that screamed in his ear and through his head. But then he turned, senseless; his eyes fluttered, and as he gradually came awake, he realized it was only the telephone.

One eye opened on the clock, focusing, and unmentionable phrases came to mind when he saw the time—5:00 a.m. His hand crawled out and took up the receiver.

“Yeah.”

“Kurt, it’s me. We got trouble out at Merkel’s cornfield.”

Kurt rubbed his brow, trying to make his brain work. It took several seconds to figure out that me was Chief Bard. His answer came thick as mud. “Merkel’s, huh? Someone ripped off the scarecrow again, right? Want me to call the FBI?”

“No, funny boy. I want you to get your hand out of your shorts, your ass out of bed, and meet me there in fifteen minutes,” Bard cracked. “I gotta be around when the tow truck arrives.”

Kurt nodded groggily, said, “Right, Merkel’s in fifteen—” But then he thought: What did he…tow truck? “Wait a minute, Chief. Did you say—”

“Just shut up and be there as soon as you can,” Bard cut in. “No time to explain now, Higgins is here. Gotta go.”

Click.

Kurt dropped the phone back in its cradle. He sat up and shook his head, mystified as the edges of sleep drifted off. What do they need a tow truck for at Merkel`s cornfield? For a dumb, misted moment, he wondered if he had dreamed the phone call from Bard.

Getting dressed, he felt like something risen from a lime pit. He staggered out to the Ford, buttoning up one of his father’s old coal shirts. The fresh air cleared his senses, and the cogs turned at last. It must’ve been a car wreck out at Merkel’s, and Bard needed him to help direct traffic. But when he started up and pulled out onto 154, his cop’s curiosity turned dark. His mind flashed a tumult of glaring images, like scenes from a driver’s training film, only these images he had witnessed for real. Cars crushed to twisted hulks, some tipped over, some burning greedily. Windshields spiderwebbed, blown out, safety glass spread across the road like halite. Bloodless faces agape in death, or worse, crisped black, and the endless pools of blood turning brown on the asphalt. Kurt had seen it all before, and he steeled himself as he drove on, knowing that he’d probably see it all again in a few minutes.

The road curved gently but steadily each way; trees passed in a whoosh of morning-dark green. The dead possums he’d noticed yesterday no longer littered the shoulder. There would be more, he knew—people would be running them down and smashing them flat for the next five months, but at least the first wave had been cleaned up. It was odd, though. The sun was just now peeking over the horizon; he’d never known the animal control crew to come through at night.

Another few bends in the road, and he could see Merkel’s field in the gray morning darkness. The cornfield had always baffled them; there was no one in town named Merkel, and nobody really knew who owned or worked the field. The corn would grow heartily all summer, then would suddenly be gone, as if harvested overnight, all without a single sign of farmers. Every so often kids would steal or dismember the scarecrow, but there would always be a new one up the next day.

Kurt stopped on the shoulder just past the farthest boundary of the field, where the break in the forest ended and the trees began again. Parked directly ahead of him was Bard’s T-bird, the hazard flashers blinking rhythmically on and off. Bard and Mark Higgins stood off to the side, arms crossed contemplatively, their figures pale in the gray light. Swaggert and the town cruiser were not to be seen, nor was there any sign of the mangling car crash he’d envisioned earlier.

Bard greeted him with his usual inexplicable question. “Was Swaggert fucked up last night at shift change?”

“No,” Kurt said, and arched a brow. It was a question without pretense; Doug Swaggert was straight and everyone knew it. “Swaggert doesn’t drink, and he doesn’t do dope, either. That’s common knowledge.”

Bard glared at Kurt, then at Higgins. His face seemed to be giving off heat. Kurt could tell he was fired up about something.

Higgins said, “Christ.”

“If he wasn’t shitfaced, then he must’ve fallen asleep at the wheel, the dumb fuck. Take a look at that.” Bard pointed down into the narrow gulch that descended off the shoulder.

The town patrol car was settled there at the bottom, as if dropped. Kurt could see that the entire left of it was crumpled in; the car lay on its side so that the two right wheels hung aloft in the air. Dew beaded on the shiny metal and glass, sparkling. The passenger door was cocked open, precariously defying gravity.

“Holy shit,” Kurt said. “Where’s Swaggert?”

“That’s what I’m trying to figure out.”

“There’s no blood inside,” Higgins told him. “Whatever happened, he walked away from it.”

“Did you call South County General?”

Higgins nodded. “Not admitted. And the dispatcher says she didn’t hear from him all night.”

“He must’ve bolted,” Bard said. “Probably thought I’d hold him responsible for the car, so he just took off and left town.”

“No way, Chief,” Kurt said. “If Swaggert wrecked the car through his own negligence, he’d own up to it. He’s not the kind of guy to head for the hills just because of one departmental.”

They all turned their heads then, exactly at the same time. The sudden whine of an engine tore through the dawn silence, and a tow truck from DeHenzel’s Texaco appeared from around the bend. Gears ground as it jerked to a halt. The driver got out and looked into the gulley; he was young, lanky, frighteningly tall, and had freckles and bright blond hair. Frowning, he nodded dumbly, then hitched the cruiser up and hauled it out of the ditch. Bard’s distress shone plainly on his face; he nearly fell over when he got full view of the cruiser’s damage—body work alone would kill the emergency fund, in addition to the cost of a new front end, a new visibar, and probably a new radiator. Damn crying shame, Kurt thought; it had been a good cruiser. But it was better the car than Swaggert, wherever he was.

“I’ll probably have to buy a whole new cruiser,” Bard said after the tow truck had left. “The mayor’s gonna shit bowling pins… Wait’ll I get my hands on that fuckin’ Swaggert. I’ll murder him.”

Higgins was leaning back on Bard’s fender; he ran a tiny comb through his mustache. “I have to agree with Kurt, Chief. Swaggert didn’t do this and run off. We all know him better than that.”

Bard and Higgins began to bicker back and forth, making liberal use of four-letter words. Kurt wandered out to the yellow line ten or fifteen yards back. Two even black slashes streaked diagonally across the line; they led toward the gulley where the cruiser had been. cruiserOver here,” he called out.

They walked over sullenly. Bard stooped and put his hands on his knees, a physical act that Kurt could scarcely believe.

“Skidmarks,” Bard said. “How did I miss them?”

Try opening your eyes, Kurt thought. “Swaggert didn’t nod at the wheel. Something made him slam on his brakes and cross the yellow line. Then he lost control.”

“We can guess all we want,” Higgins said, “but the only way we’re going to know for sure is to ask Swaggert.”

Bard’s heavy face now glittered an amazing shade of pink. “Yeah, but first we have to find the son of a bitch.”

Birds chirped around them, reveling in the joy of a new day. As the sun cleared the edge of the earth, pouring light, the three men faced each other, suddenly unable to speak. Kurt felt a spark of dread in his gut; next to Cody Drucker’s disentombment, he couldn’t imagine anything so wrong. Doug Swaggert, it seemed, had simply vanished.

««—»»

Kurt hadn’t been to Glen’s for so long that he nearly forgot the way. Glen lived in a drab little bungalow just beyond town limits, in Annapolis. When he finally found the place, he parked the new cruiser next to Glen’s Pinto. Six bungalows formed a horseshoe shape around a communal parking oval. They all looked the same—gray and squat and forsaken, windows blank in afternoon shadow. Heaps of leaves lay still between the bungalows, crabgrass crawled out through cracks in sidewalks. Another car was parked two spaces down, a black, nameless foreign make; its sleek curves, tinted glass, and sharp-sloped front end reminded Kurt of a shark. He thought he heard its engine ticking as he walked across the cul-de-sac.

He fastened his portable to his belt, then rapped gently on Glen’s storm door. Glen appeared almost instantly, as if he’d been waiting all along, and instead of inviting Kurt in, he stepped outside and walked straight to the new cruiser.

“So here’s the new patrol car,” Glen said. He looked at it appraisingly. “What a beaut.”

“How did you know about it?” Kurt asked.

“Higgins told me this morning when I got off.”

“When Bard found out how much it would cost to repair the old one, he decided to just go for it all. The old one was breaking down anyway. I’d sure like to know how he wrangled the extra cash out of the town council.”

“Probably had to spend some time on his knees.”

Kurt smiled at the insinuation, but then he darkened at the next thought. “I guess Higgins told you the rest, too.”

Glen was peeking in at the dash, shading his eyes with his hand. “Huh? Oh, yeah—about Swaggert. That’s spread all over town by now. What do you think happened to him?”

“That’s what I came to ask you. Did you see him last night?”

“Nope, and that’s strange because he usually stops by Belleau Wood to bullshit for a few minutes. But not last night, I didn’t see hide nor hair of the guy. Could he have been thrown clear when he wrecked the car, or maybe crawled away?”

“No,” Kurt said, “no way. He climbed out the passenger door. Besides, we checked the whole area right up to the Belleau Wood property line. If he was hurt, he wouldn’t have crawled into the woods.”

Glen was standing now, leaning against the car door. He slipped his hands in his jeans pockets and looked thoughtfully into the trees behind the bungalows. “You think he bolted?”

“Not me. That’s the last thing Swaggert would do.”

“Well let me tell you what I think happened. I think he went after poachers and maybe got lost in the woods, or worse, got himself shot.”

“How would that explain the wrecked cruiser?” Kurt asked.

“Maybe one of the poachers was crossing the road same time Swaggert came around the bend; Swaggert can either dump the cruiser or run the guy down, so he dumps the cruiser. Then the guy takes off into the woods and Swaggert takes off after him, fixing to kick his ass and haul him in.”

Kurt gave the idea some thought. “Merkel’s field isn’t too far from Belleau Wood. Did you hear any shots?”

“No, but that doesn’t mean anything; Belleau Wood is huge, and I spend most of my time up near the house. I wouldn’t necessarily be able to hear shots as far down as Merkel’s field.”

“Yeah, but I just can’t see Swaggert getting lost in the woods. He’s a born pathfinder.”

“I don’t care if he’s Daniel Boone back from the dead. Without a compass, a guy can get lost quick as shit back there. Some of the thickest, hairiest woods in the state. And there’s always the quicksand on the other side of the Route.”

“Quicksand?”

“Hell, yes. The marsh is full of it. Animals sinking in the stuff all the time. Once I saw this beautiful ten- or fifteen-point buck go down in the shit. Funniest damn thing I ever saw—two big old antlers sticking up out of the marsh.”

Kurt pictured a different image, a hand sticking up out of the marsh.

“Anyway,” Glen said, “that’s my two-cents’ worth. Swaggert chasing poachers.”

“Probably Stokes or one of his friends,” Kurt considered. “Jacking deer’s his bread and butter, next to dealing.”

“Might be a good idea to ask Vicky if he was home last night. Wouldn’t mean anything if he wasn’t, but it sure couldn’t hurt.”

Kurt nodded, trapped by a meld of thoughts. Just as he was about to ask Glen who owned the black sports car, the portable radio on his hip crackled and spat: “Two-zero-seven.”

Oh, hell, he thought. Bard probably wants more doughnuts. He keyed the radio. “Two-zero-seven, go ahead.”

“Two-zero-seven, go to 2-8-1-9, MSR 154; citizen reports possible signal 85.”

“Ten-four.”

“What’s a signal 85?” Glen queried.

“Missing person. We seem to be having a lot of those all of a sudden.”

“Yeah, a cop and a corpse. What next?”

“I’ll let you know,” Kurt said, and slipped into the new car.

Glen waved and went back into the bungalow. Kurt popped the portable back into the dash-charger, then started the engine and cut the wheel. He looked up then, turning a hard circle around the parking court. A quick slither at Glen’s front window caught his eye; the drapes pulled back from the inside, and he could now see a face behind the pane. It wasn’t Glen’s face, it was a woman’s. He stopped and stared, almost rudely. In the gap between the curtains he also could see a tapered slice of the woman’s breast, abdomen, and thigh; she was nude. But in less time than it took to frown, the drapes fell back across the glass, and the figure was gone.

Kurt drove away to his call, duped by what he’d just seen. This was the second time he’d caught a glimpse of the girl, and the second time Glen had failed to acknowledge her. He wondered what it was Glen didn’t want him to know.

Back on 154, he slowed to a crawl, driving on the shoulder and craning his neck to read the addresses on the postboxes. Finally he found it, 2819 stenciled across the body of a very large mailbox corroded by rust. He turned and drove at least fifty yards into the woods, along a typical tree-walled dirt road, until he came to the house. What else could I expect? he thought. The house was not a house, but a long, white trailer set up on a foundation of cinderblocks—the crudest of dwellings, yet so familiar to him. Like many of the secret homes off the Route, this was surrounded by heaps of refuse and at least eight ancient automobiles, all in varying states of dilapidation. A fat-bellied cat chased famished chickens across the front yard, and faded articles of laundry flapped at him from a makeshift clothesline, like a string of lunatic signal flags. He heard dogs barking nearby as he got out, hand on his mace, but there were no dogs that he could see, just the chickens clucking and tracking circles around the yard in sheer terror. When he was halfway to what he presumed to be the front door, a voice carried out from the side, “Hey there.”

A man had just turned the corner of the trailer and was approaching in strange, quick strides.

“You reported a missing person?” Kurt asked.

“That’s right. Name’s Harley Fitzwater, an’ my daughta, Donna…she been kidnapped.”

He’d heard this before. A second look at Fitzwater showed a man who was probably not old—he just looked that way, weathered, taut, with skin like canvas. He wore a T-shirt and overalls, and looked starved in them. His eyes were squinting slits; his face reminded Kurt of the bottom of a deformed foot. Like lots of the poor in this part of Maryland, Fitzwater was one who lived off the land and water, who made cash selling skins and meat, who shivered in the winter and dripped sweat in the summer. A survivor.

“Kidnapped, you say?”

“That’s right. When I came back from the lake, she was gone.”

“Does your wife—”

“Ain’t got no wife, she been dead years. Jus me an’ Donna.”

Parents, no matter how destitute, could never be reasoned with about such things. “Perhaps it’s hasty to suspect kidnapping at this point, Mr. Fitzwater. How old is Donna?”

Fitzwater’s face seemed to pucker as he thought. “Twunee-two, I think… That’s right, twunee-two.”

“Have you talked to any of her friends, a boyfriend, maybe?”

“Donna ain’t got no friends. Sure’s hell got no boyfriend.”

“Well, isn’t it likely that she just went off for a walk someplace?”

“No,” Fitzwater said. His answer was icy, unhesitant. His eyes looked more like an animal’s than a man’s. “No,” he said again.

“How can you be sure?”

“’Cos Donna’s got no feelin’ from the waist down. Can’t walk, been that way since she was little.”

Kurt tensed. He felt like he’d just been hit in the head with a box of nails.

“Her chair’s still inside. Right ‘side the bed. Somebody took her outa her bed while I was gone.”

“Where were you?” Kurt asked, grateful Fitzwater had cut in again.

“I went out to the lake ‘bout an hour ‘fore sunup, stringin’ fer white perch and cat. I got back a little while ago an’ Donna was gone.”

Kurt took out a missing person card, the first he’d ever used, and began to fill it out with data provided by Fitzwater. Later, the information would be transferred to Maryland State Police Form MPD A-1A. Fitzwater answered the series of questions sharply and with primitive reserve. There was no display of grief here, nothing chipped away by emotions. Very clearly Kurt sensed the focus in Fitzwater’s existential reaction; he wanted something done now, with as little time wasted as possible.

“You find my Donna,” Fitzwater said.

“We’ll do everything we can, sir. I’ll forward this report to the county and state police right away. Do you have a photograph of Donna, preferably a recent one?”

“No,” Fitzwater said. “None.”

“We’ll need your phone number so we can contact you.”

“Ain’t got no phone. I hitchhiked to the Liquor Mart and back, used the pay phone there to call y’awl. Got no need for a phone.”

Kurt clapped his metal report book shut. “I’ll come back when things start to develop.”

It was almost scary the way Fitzwater looked at him then— a deserted, definitive gaze, like being evaluated by a statue. “I don’t care,” Fitzwater said. “You just find my Donna.”

««—»»

Four a.m. crept up with the stealth of a snake. His first twelve-hour shift in years, yet it seemed to have passed in a handful of hours. Earlier he’d processed the missing persons report through the county and state, glad that the unusual aspects of Donna Fitzwater’s disappearance would expedite the 85. The remainder of his shift had elapsed in a black lament; his mind forced thoughts of Cody Drucker, of Swaggert, of the paralyzed girl. The Fitzwater case pushed Drucker to a back burner; it was abduction, Kurt knew, not kidnapping. No one would kidnap the daughter of a man who had no money to forfeit for ransom. Kurt suspected darker motives here, motives that made him sick; the possibility was heinously typical—Donna Fitzwater would probably turn up in a few days, murdered, sexually mauled. Cheap tabloid headlines stretched across his mind: CRIPPLED GIRL FOUND DEAD IN CULVERT, or something hackishly similar. TORTURED WITH COAT HANGERS AND RAPED FOR DAYS. And of course Swaggert, more than likely lying dead somewhere in the dripping woods. Kurt couldn’t escape the sinister hint; whatever had happened to Swaggert could just as easily happen to him.

His headlights swept across the house. He pulled up and parked the Ford, expecting to find the house dark; but then he saw the familiar dull orange light filling one of the downstairs windows. So far his attempts to break Melissa of television addiction had failed utterly. He knew she was up right now, no doubt transfixed by the all-night horror movies on cable.

He used his flashlight to show him the way up the porch steps. Melissa must’ve heard him park; she opened the door and let him in before he even had his keys out. The TV muttered from the family room, throwing slants of ghostly, shifting color onto the walls.

Melissa locked the door at once. She seemed distracted by some complex worry; her face had lost the mischievous smirk he was so used to. Her long ink-black hair shivered as she turned, her thin body moving wraithlike under a dreary white nightgown. The flickering light from the other room lit points in her eyes like sparks.

“What are you doing up?” Kurt demanded, trying to sound harsh. He felt obligated to scold her with her father away. His only chance to play big brother.

Her face looked tiny in the half-light, her hair more like black silk draped over her head. “I think I figured it out,” she said, lips barely moving as though she spoke through a mask.

“Figured out what?”

“Vampires.”

Kurt stared a moment, then wearily rubbed his eyes. “Damn it, Melissa. You’ve been into your father’s liquor cabinet again, haven’t you?”

“I’m serious, Kurt. That’s how come Swaggert disappeared. Vampires got him.”

“Sure, vampires. I suppose they dug up Cody Drucker’s body, too, right? Just what every vampire needs.”

“Dummy,” she said. “They didn’t want his body; they wanted his coffin. Vampires sleep in coffins—everybody knows that. If I were you, I’d get some protection fast.” From under the top of her nightgown she slipped out a small, chained crucifix and let it swing from her fingers. “See? I got nothing to worry about, ’cause vampires can’t face the sign of the cross.”

“What did I tell you about those horror movies you watch?” he said. “They’re making you retarded.”

“You think I’m joking, but just you wait. This time tomorrow I’ll bet you have yourself a mouthful of fangs.”

He turned for the stairs, waving her away like a bad joke. “Go to bed before you become a battered child.”

“Not so fast, you have a visitor. In the den.”

At this hour? “Who?”

An impish grin suddenly darkened Melissa’s face. “That girl you have a crush on. She’s been here almost two hours, said she’d wait. She seemed kind of uptight about something.”

Kurt stood on the first step, puzzled. “It’s four in the morning. I wonder what she wants.”

“You’re never going to find out unless you ask her, putz.”

Kurt stepped for the door to the den, but Melissa grabbed his arm first, tugging him back. “Be careful,” she said.

“Why?”

Melissa lowered her voice to an exasperated whisper. “She might be one of the vampires, stupid.”

“I’ll vampire you if you don’t get your butt in bed,” he had to restrain from shouting. “And I mean now.”

In the den, dark yellow incandescence filled most of the room from a single shaded lamp in the corner. Uncle Roy’s Carpathian Elm grandfather clock ticked softly opposite. Vicky was sitting in the recliner beside the lamp, a book opened in her lap, and her head nodding forward. She was asleep.

Kurt gently prodded her shoulder, certain he would see new bruises on her face, but when she opened her eyes and looked up, he found none.

“Kurt,” she said. “I must’ve dozed off.” She winced and tried to blink the sleep from her eyes.

“Is everything all right?”

“Yes…well, no. Something…”

He took the book out of her lap and put it aside. “Lenny didn’t—”

“No, no,” she said, now finally coming awake. “It’s not Lenny. I haven’t seen him in a day and a half, thank God.”

“What then?”

“I really shouldn’t even be bothering you about something dumb,” she said, and nervously pushed a strand of hair behind her ear.

“Never mind about bothering me. What happened?”

Vicky took a heavy breath, her eyes fixed bleakly on the window. “It must’ve happened last night… After I’d gone to bed, I heard noises in the backyard, so I got up and looked out—and I saw someone back there standing just in front of the trees. I was really scared at first, but whoever it was left a second later, and I figured it was just some kids or something.” She was tying her jacket cord into useless knots; she scarcely blinked. “Remember I told you Brutus died the other day? Well, I buried him in the backyard, about the same place I saw this person.”

“Yeah?”

“Kurt, somebody dug up my dog.”

— | — | —

CHAPTER SEVEN

By 7:00 a.m. the sun radiated as a huge orb of molten light; it nudged its way into the sky, tinting the fringes of the horizon with what seemed like layers of orange and pink liquid. Glen downshifted a gear, then took the security truck up the narrow gravel lane toward the mansion. He could feel the gearbox straining against the deceptive incline. From the bottom, the hill didn’t seem very steep, but then it was a funny hill; it reminded him of a bald spot, a vast risen clearing in the center of Belleau Wood’s surrounding forest belt. Atop, the house sat sentinel-like in the new morning light, as if put there to watch over the property.

Nearing the top, the hill’s cant leveled. Through the bug-spotted windshield, he watched the mansion grow to ominous size. It seemed to defy the morning’s calm, its front shadowed by the blaze of sun which crept up from behind. It wasn’t really a mansion—though townspeople often called it that—but an ugly oversized farmhouse with a bare wood wraparound porch, two protruding bay windows on the lower level that clashed achingly with its design, and a roof which seemed to slope unevenly. Dr. Willard’s restoration was no more impressive than a bad facelift; its oldness strained beneath new paint and trim. The house looked fake, atrophied. Glen decided that if he had Willard’s money, he’d have the whole thing knocked down and replaced with a real mansion.

The road joined to a circular drive which fronted the house. Left of the circle was a separate four-car garage; Willard had had it built when he’d come to Belleau Wood, since the mansion originally had no garage of its own. Glen parked the truck in its space beside the garage and got out, suddenly realizing a joyous fatigue. Like a god, he gazed down at the reposing woodland—its beauty lay out before him, unflawed, the steady expanse of lush dark green and quiet which rolled all the way back to the ridgerise, where the old mining site was. The land must be worth millions. He turned then and approached the house.

At the front door, his hand locked in midair. That doorknocker always rasped his eye, like junk on the road. It was a small oval of old dull brass which took the shape of a face. But the face was bereft of features, save for two wide, empty eyes. There was no mouth, no nose, no jawline really—just the eyes, like a work of sculpture abandoned by its creator. The knocker was one of many things that made him feel wrong about the house. He wondered why Willard would adorn his front door with something so tasteless.

And he wondered, seriously now, when Willard would catch on.

He rapped three times with the knocker’s brass ring. It made a weak, tinny sound; he doubted that anyone had even heard it. From the jackplate beside the door, a tiny red light blinked at him three times per second. He glanced at it distrustfully; the new Arrowhead alarm system made him feel obsolete, a walking half-measure. Was Willard getting ready to lay him off? As he raised his fist again to knock, a voice came out of the intercom.

“Glen, is that you?”

It was Mrs. Willard; at least someone was up. Aside, the red light continued to blip insolently. He pressed the talk button and said, “Yeah. I’ve come to pick up my paycheck.”

“Wait till I turn off the system, then come on in.”

Rigmarole, he thought. So far there’d already been several false alarms, and the system was only days old. At least my contacts don’t rust. The old light slowed to one blip per second. He unlocked the door with his own key and went in.

It was dark enough inside to have been nighttime, and the lack of daylight only made the cramped interior seem more cramped. Past the foyer, the hall followed down like a tunnel. He stood at the bottom of the stairs, waiting for Willard or his wife to acknowledge him. It was stuffy where he stood; violating odors of tobacco and old wood exuded from the walls. The paneling looked like sheets of paraffin in the hall’s dimness. He strained his vision to examine the foyer paintings but made out only dark blotches and streaks.

“Be down in a sec,” Mrs. Willard’s voice called from upstairs. The darkness soaked it up. “I’m just getting out of the shower.”

Her voice startled him and made his heart pick up. He wondered where Willard was, expecting to catch a glimpse of him crossing the landing. Perhaps he was standing down the hall, hidden by grainy dark, face set in an unseen scowl of hate. But that was silly—he and Willard were friends, and that fact made him feel gritty with guilt. With friends like me, he thought, who needs

He wandered dreamily down the hall and back, calling his own bluff. Come, young man, step into my parlor. Next, obliviously, he found himself standing in the middle of the darkened study.

It was a small, oblong room, walled around by bookshelves all different heights and styles. More evidence of Willard’s decorative ineptitude—some of the shelves were obviously high-priced antiques, while others looked like the do-it-yourself kind they sold in Dart Drug. Carpet tiles vapidly covered the floor in what seemed the worst possible choice of colors—green and brown. Sunlight strained through heavy drapes; he flicked on a lamp and slid his finger through a layer of dust on the shade. The room felt unbalanced, desk and chairs and bar table all in the wrong places. He went to the shelves nearest the light: mostly medical texts arranged in no particular order, alphabetically or otherwise. Fine gray lines of dust had settled vertically between some of the spines, and crammed at the end were several faded manila folders. Glen took the liberty of sliding one out. He leafed through it, dust pouring off the edges like sand. The folder held medical papers, which he stared at through a vertigo of incomprehension. One of the titles read:

Proposed Mechanisms Detailing Dopaminergic Inhibition of Prolactin-Releasing Hormone (PRH) Production in Cultured Rat Hypothalamic Neurons

And another:

Purified Nerve-Growth-Factor Effect on Membrane-Receptor Aggregation in in vitro Chick Neuroblasts Pretreated with Triiodothyronine (T3)

The titles warped his vision; he couldn’t even pronounce the words. What is this shit? he thought. The last title came from the American Journal of Neuropharmacology. It read:

Role of Vasoactive-Intestinal-Peptide (VIP) Andrenergic Release of Norepinephrine by Cat Dorsal-Root-Ganglia (DRG) Cells

Now it made sense. The byline was: S. Howard, Andrew M. Freeman, and Nancy King.

King was Nancy Willard’s maiden name. These must be research papers she’d done while working at N.I.H. before she got married. Must’ve been a lot of fun, he thought. Jesus. He jammed the folder back into its slot.

Then he noticed the door in the darkest corner.

It caught his attention only because it added to the room’s imbalance. He supposed it was a closet, but why would there be a closet in here? He opened the door to face a rectangle of absolute darkness, which seemed long yet somehow devoid of depth. Warm air rushed his face, and a faintly unsettling redolence, like tar.

“Don’t go in there.”

Glen whirled at the sound of Nancy Willard’s command. Her voice rang with a thin underpinning of panic. She was standing just inside the study doorway, cloaked in a robe of dark gold terry. Her hair glistened slickly from the shower, and she had combed it out in straight, shiny lines. Her looks had always deceived him; she was plain and bookwormish, yet he found something opaquely sensuous about that, more so now without her glasses. The lamplight drew a line on her, shadowing one half of her body and bringing out the other half to a fresh, wet crispness. Droplets of water clung to her neck and bare calves, as though she’d dried herself in haste.

“Sorry,” he said, and closed the door. “Just curious. Seemed odd to have a closet in a study.”

Her eyes widened, concentrating speculatively on his face as she spoke. “It’s not a closet; it’s the stairwell to the cellar. I keep telling Charles to nail it shut, since we never use it. One of these days someone’ll go down there and wind up with a cracked skull.”

He couldn’t stand it when she made him guess. She was doing it on purpose, he knew she was. Her sadistic streak ran deep. He went closer to her, and elevated himself an inch off his heels to look past her shoulder into the hall.

She smiled and handed him an envelope. “Here’s your paycheck.”

“Thanks, Mrs. Willard,” he said, projecting his voice. He tilted his head to get a better look behind her. “Hope I didn’t disturb you, coming so early.”

“Cut,” she said, and laughed. “We can stop with the ‘Mrs. Willard’ for now. I get such a kick out of watching you peek around to see if it’s safe.”

Glen released a hard, allaying breath. He noticed now that her eyes were fixed on his crotch, and that her robe had come unsashed. It seemed her breasts were keeping the robe open, luring his gaze to her exposed flesh. She wore her nakedness obscenely and without a thought. One foot parted; he thought again of that sadistic streak.

They embraced immediately. Kissing, he reached into the gap of the robe, sliding his hand to her shoulder blades, then slowly down the length of her back. His palms pressed against her rump, squeezing their hips together. Her head lolled back at a soft angle; he tracked a damp, warm line along her throat in kisses.

“Charles went to the library in Bethesda,” she said. She closed her eyes. Around his waist her arms tightened, drawing slack. “He won’t be home for hours.”

“Good,” he managed to say, and his kisses went back to her mouth, long, hot, penetrating kisses. He breathed in the soapy fragrance of her hair; it roused him, made him feel light in the head. His hands continued feeling her beneath the robe.

“I thought about you…” he whispered, “…all night. I couldn’t wait to see you, couldn’t stop thinking about how much I love you.”

“Show me,” she said back. “Show me how much.”

“I’ll show you. I’ll…” His hands were already out from behind her, his fingers delicately touching her breasts. Then he watched her eyes and touched her lower.

She gave a little hiss, his touch sending up a spike of pleasure. Her words grew heavy with heat and love. “Not here, darling. Oh. We have lots of time. We can go upstairs.”

“Here,” he said. He could feel a warm current moving in his gut, and he could feel her heat. Urgency pulled them slowly and carefully to the floor like a sudden swell of gravity. Now she lay before him on her back, soft and spraddled and legs trustingly open. Shadows emphasized her shape; her skin shone darkly in the downreaching light. Their eyes locked—he was looking at her. Searching. Kneeling up between her white, open legs. He loved her so much, another man’s wife. Her abdomen seemed to be quivering, her flesh tense in wait, and he was kissing circles lightly around her navel, while his hands smoothed over her breasts and down to her warm, bare hips. She breathed jaggedly through her teeth, as if exerted. His kisses roamed harder, lower, more direct. So close now, he began kissing the inside of her thighs, inching up, and was at last working on the vital spot. Her mouth opened. Her eyes reduced to slits. She stared off into dim space, sighing her bliss.

She tasted sharp and lovely. Glen felt her body under him squirm. Though the room was deadened with silence, he could hear her sounds as though they had been excessively amplified. He could hear her lungs working, her heart, her pulse. He could hear the tiny whimpers that came with every breath she let out. He could hear her lips part, her hands in his hair, and the wet sounds of her throat as she swallowed. But he was so lost in his love for her that he didn’t hear the strange, faint shuffling from the cellar.

««—»»

The voice rocketed through his sleep.

“Kurt! Kurt! There’s something awful in the backyard! Kurt! Wake up, wake up!”

Small hands attached to his shoulders and shook him around, roughly, violently, lifting his head off the bed, shaking shaking shaking.

“Oh, wake up, you poop!”

Kurt thought he was being shocked out of a coma. His eyes peeled open, and they took a long time focusing on Melissa’s terrified face, which seemed to hover over him like a demon spirit. She continued shaking him, continued shouting in his ear.

His eyes bored into her. “Damn it, Melissa. If you weren’t a girl, I’d punch the stuffing out of you. Now just what the f— What are you doing waking me up at—” a hard glance to the clock—“at eight-thirty in the morning when you know I didn’t get to bed till after four?”

She spoke, panting, as some sheer terror made gibberish of her words. “I went outside to put water in the birdbath out back, you know where the birdbath is—something between the trees like guts or hair or something in a pile. Kurt, you’ve got to do something, it’s awful—”

He tried to be mad at her, but found he couldn’t. She was a menace, yes, a gadfly, a prank, and pain in the ass, but still, she was only a little girl. “If this is another one of your jokes—”

“It’s not, Kurt. I swear, it’s not,” she assured him, rhythmically shaking her head. “I wouldn’t kid about something like this.”

Like the time she’d said she’d heard someone in the attic. Kurt had grabbed his revolver and pulled down the attic stairs. A bucket containing cold three-day-old barbecue sauce had tipped over on his head. “Go downstairs and make me coffee,” he told her. “I’ll be down in a minute.”

Melissa’s face was stark. She nodded and dashed out of the room. Kurt couldn’t remember ever seeing her this unstrung.

He pulled on old clothes, every movement of his body sluggish from being cheated out of sufficient sleep. When he went down the steps, his feet thumped like blocks of concrete. Instinct made him fumble in his top pocket for a cigarette; he groaned audibly when he found none. The sunlight in the kitchen seemed like an energy field designed to repel. Melissa had her back to him; she was staring intently out the sliding-glass door into the backyard, her fingertips pressed against the glass. She wore red sneakers, striped socks, a bright yellow T-shirt, and brand-new denim overalls. Looks like a children’s wear mannequin, he thought. The pack of cigarettes in her back pocket was shamefully obvious. He stiffened, sneaked up on her then, and had slipped the cigarettes out just as she began to spin around.

“Thief!” she shouted, grabbing. “Gimme ’em back!”

eld Not a chance,” he replied. He held the pack up, just out of her reach. “I told you the other day, you’re forbidden to smoke. Period. I’m only doing this for your own good. You’ll thank me ten years from now.”

“Sit on it,” she said. “Homo.”

Kurt lit a cigarette immediately, savoring the first-puff rush. “Ah, see, it all works for the best, since I just happen to be all out of cigarettes. Ironic that you should buy my brand.”

Melissa grinned now, triumphantly. “They ought to be your brand. I took ’em out of your car.”

“You little klepto,” he said when he realized it was true. “If you were my kid, I’d paddle your backside.”

“Yeah, well, I’m not your kid, and instead of worrying about my backside, what are you going to do about that thing in the backyard?”

The quick switch to seriousness in her expression jogged his memory. “Oh, yes, I almost forgot the reason you so rudely got me out of bed. So what’s so terrible in the backyard?”

“I can’t tell what it is, just that it’s dead. It’s…it’s big and it’s gross.”

Occupational conditioning forced him to muse the very worst possibility. “Melissa, let’s be serious for just one minute. This thing in the backyard—it’s not a, uh, you know… It’s not a human being, is it?”

“No, but it’s big and it’s gross.”

“So you’ve told me.” He opened the sliding door. “Well, come on.”

“Uh uh,” she said. “Not me. One look per customer. Just go to the birdbath. You’ll see.”

He stepped out onto the patio and walked diagonally across the yard. The air revitalized him, a mainline to his brain. He noticed the birdbath at the edge of the yard, and noticed also an indistinguishable heap at its base. As he neared, a bird squalled at him from above. He looked up and saw a large crow hiding behind a splay of leaves in the tallest oak. It reminded him of a vulture waiting to scavenge.

He came to a stop at the birdbath and just stared. The heap before him was the remains of a large buck. He knew it was a deer only by the head, which had been twisted around several times on the neck, producing a corkscrew effect. The tongue lolled slackly from the frozen mouth, a bloodless tubule that seemed much longer than it should’ve been. The animal had been ripped apart. The antlers weren’t to be seen, just cracked knots where they’d been snapped off the skull. Its belly lay torn open, the rib cage pried apart, spilled entrails gleaming. He looked once more to the head; the visible eye looked back at him like a shiny black button.

Mutilated, he thought. He walked back toward the house in a hot daze. This wasn’t the work of a poacher or a predator. He sensed instead pure malice, as though the animal had been ripped apart for sport.

“What is it?” Melissa asked when he’d come back in.

“A deer. And you’re right, it is awful.”

“How did it get so…torn up?”

“Dogs, probably. It’s not uncommon for a pack of wild curs to do something like that.” Kurt sat down at the kitchen counter and yawned.

Melissa was gaping at him. “You’re not just gonna sit there and let that thing rot in the backyard, are you?”

He picked up the phone. “No, I’ll call the county. They’ll send someone out to take it away. In the meantime, you can fix my breakfast.”

Melissa’s eyes now shined with hilarity. “Don’t hold your breath. You can fix your own damn breakfast.”

“Nothing fancy. Orange juice, couple of strips of bacon, couple of eggs over hard.”

“Oh, is that all?”

“Hell, why not? Fry up some hash browns, too.”

Melissa put her hands on her hips and laughed openly at him. “You really think I’m gonna cook your breakfast.”

“I know you will, Melissa,” he said. He started to dial the county animal control office. “Because if you don’t, I’ll tell Uncle Roy you’ve been smoking. He’ll ground you till the end of the next school year.”

“You’re bluffing. You would never do that… Would you?”

Kurt grinned at her and brought the phone to his ear. Melissa stood aside, scowling, hesitant. Then she yanked open the refrigerator door and reached in for the eggs.

««—»»

“Still no word on Cody Drucker,” Bard was saying fatly from behind his desk. “Still no word on the Fitzwater girl. And still no word on Swaggert.”

It was 4:00 p.m. now, the beginning of Kurt’s shift. He’d relieved Higgins only to find Chief Bard still hanging around the station drinking coffee and faking paperwork.

Kurt slouched in his seat. “Last night somebody dug up Vicky Stokes’s dog.”

Bard stared at him. “Huh?”

“Two days ago Vicky’s old collie died. So she buried it in the backyard. The next morning she goes out back to put some clothes on the line, and there’s just a big hole in the ground. And the dead dog is gone. Sound familiar?”

Bard’s eyes swelled to rifts. “What the fuck is going on in this town, anyway? Who the fuck would steal a dead dog?”

“Who the fuck would steal a dead man? Who the fuck would steal a girl who can’t walk? Who the—”

“You think these things are related?”

“No, but I do think a lot of freaky stuff is happening in this town all at once.”

Bard cupped his chin in his hand, elbow on the desk. It made his face look lopsided.

“And another thing,” Kurt said. “This morning Uncle Roy’s kid found a dead deer in the woods behind our house. Wild dogs is my guess; it was torn to shreds. Anyway, I called animal control and had them take it away, and as the driver’s bagging the deer, he mentions that it’s the first time this season that animal control’s been through Tylersville.”

“So?”

“Two days ago 154 was heaped with all kinds of run-down animals. Coons, possums, rabbits.”

“Road pizza. Big deal.”

“Yeah, big deal, but this was two days ago. Yesterday I drive the Route and notice that most of the dead animals are gone. The road’s clean. But today the county tells me that no one’s been out yet to pick them up. Since when does the good fairy clean up animal carcasses?”

“It’s a mistake,” Bard said. “It has to be. The guy didn’t know what he was talking about, that’s all. You know those county public safety employees, they’re all one step off the drug train.”

Kurt nodded absently but said nothing.

Bard went home a few minutes later, leaving Kurt alone in the dim office. He remained there a while, stuck in the metal seat and staring at the window without seeing past the pane. It wasn’t lethargy, or fatigue from too little sleep. His awareness seemed altered, caught in a rare mode, and his eyes slowly widened then, because he thought he knew what was happening. It was that frozen, falling feeling, a sense of black foreshadow he’d known many times in the past. Most police officers acknowledged this at one time or another—a strange, inexplicable warning sign, the warning from the gut.

Later he found himself making town rounds beneath the same weighing dread. He felt locked up in the new patrol car, isolated as a man in an iron lung. His senses tuned in irrelevant impressions. He seemed to view the oncoming road from a low vantage point, for the first time noticing how long the hood of the car seemed to be, like a slalom of white ice. Familiar scenes and images now accosted him in a vaguely threatening way. The rushing squad car seemed to be dividing space, the scope of the road passing above and below and around the car. Trees on either side made the bends with the Route, unbroken in their course and dense as smoke. The outer trunks tilted inward, boughs burdened with new green life. Some of the older branches reached out over the road, as if trying to touch the trees on the other side, or trying to smother him. By now the sky was overrun with clouds; the bright vivid colors of the forest dulled in the spoiled light. Kurt waved to a couple of old men holding bagged bottles in front of the Liquor Mart, but they only gaped at him with stubbled, wizened faces, stickmen in tattered clothes.

Afternoon pressed on, the light graying in increments. He wasn’t aware of the time, he wasn’t aware of anything more complex than the scenes which faced him through the windshield. He thought about Vicky, but only for a moment, as if his sudden detachment forbade warm thoughts. Mentally he struggled to regain some sense of purpose, but his observations only made him more disgruntled. He remembered what the animal control man had told him, and he scanned both sides of the Route, hoping to see that he was mistaken. Come on, road pizza, he thought, flexing his vision. Come on let’s see some of that possum pie. But the road was clean.

His brain felt like a blob of lead, fighting to drag him down into the seat. The radio spat something that nicked at his failing attention. Had he received a call and missed it? He listened again. The dispatcher’s voice sounded irritated.

“Two-zero-seven, are you 10-8?”

“Ten-four,” he said into the hand mike. “Forgot to call in. Sorry.” Apologizing to a radio. What a day.

“Signal 5 with watchman at Belleau Wood entrance number 2.”

“Ten-four.” He put up the mike and glanced at the dash clock. It was just past eight now. He wondered what Glen would be doing at Belleau Wood two hours before his shift began.

Nighttime settled ponderously on the road. The power steering shimmied as he pulled a quick, clumsy U-turn, the new car handling like a barge. He evened out and accelerated north.

Belleau Wood entrance number 2, he recited in his mind, and when he was there, he couldn’t remember passing the first entrance. The chain was still up, he saw, and the security truck was idling on the other side of the line. Kurt grabbed his flashlight—unconscious reflex—and got out, cutting the engine and leaving on the hazard flashers. A stitch in his pants crotch popped when he stepped over the chain to approach the truck.

Glen was in the driver’s seat, evidently unaware that Kurt had arrived. Staring into the access road, he clenched the outside rearview with his fingers, strangely, as if testing the strength of the chrome.

“How goes it?” Kurt said, and slapped his friend’s shoulder. Glen flinched, taken by surprise. Relief ran back into his face when he looked up. “Ah, Kurt. I phoned in the 82 with the dispatcher. Hope you don’t mind the interruption.”

“Well, today I’m not exactly the busiest guy in the world.”

“I’ve got something to show you. Get in.”

Kurt walked around and slid into the passenger seat. “Say, how come you’re out here so early? Thought you didn’t start work till nine or so.”

Glen seemed distracted. He didn’t answer at first. “Huh? Oh, yeah. Willard asked me to come in a few hours early for a while. He didn’t tell me why, I guess he’s worried about poachers.”

Kurt expected him to put the truck in gear and go. Instead, Glen just sat there, one hand on the wheel, the other still diddling with the outside mirror. He seemed preoccupied, barely conscious of Kurt at all.

“Hey,” Kurt said. “You blitzed or something? You don’t look too good.”

Glen slowly turned his head. His face was paler than usual, drawn. His hand shook perceptibly when he let it come off the wheel. Very flatly he said: “I found Cody Drucker.”

The significance of those words hit Kurt like a sudden kick to the face. His stomach flip-flopped. “Let’s go” was all he could think to say; questions now would be useless.

The truck lurched when Glen let up the clutch. Ahead, deep ruts gouged the road. Glen gripped the wheel high and steered on edge to keep the bottom out of the gullies. Kurt braced himself against the dash.

“I don’t usually drive this road,” Glen said, glancing at Kurt intermittently, “’cause it’s in such bad shape. But tonight I decided to have a look, and… Jesus. You just gotta see it for yourself.”

The woods absorbed their sounds—the truck seemed to be moving with the engine off. Behind them the last of the sun shown metallic red light through the trees, like a distant city flame. Kurt felt a tremor trace his bones.

The truck began to decelerate. As if steeling himself, Glen sat up rigid behind the wheel, veins standing out on his hands like thin, blue worms. His eyes sought something up ahead.

“It should be… There—” Glen said. “There.”

The truck stopped.

“What?”

“There.” Glen pointed off to the right.

Kurt squinted through the glass; he shook his head. Then he leaned out the window.

What he saw could’ve made him laugh—a bizarre arrangement of dark, polished wood, which he momentarily realized was a demolished coffin. He saw, too, a dark slender heap lying in front of some trees.

They both came out of the truck as if summoned. Kurt’s mouth froze open in macabre astonishment; he neared the scene the way dared children might approach a sinister house. The coffin looked exploded; it lay in large pieces, collapsed. Kurt envisioned something huge slamming it against the trees to break it apart.

“I don’t believe this,” he heard himself say, but the words sounded as though someone else had said them. The other thing—the dark, slender heap—was the embalmed corpse of Cody Judson Drucker. Looking at it, Kurt thought of a dressed dummy with broken limbs. The corpse’s face seemed stretched and very white, and though the eyes were still closed, the mouth had somehow come open to reveal a mysterious wad of cotton. Kurt found he could no longer think of this as a person. What lay before him was simply an it. Its left hand sagged flaccidly from the cuff, as though the bones had been removed. He noted stubble on its chin, and lastly that it lacked shoes, just white socks over stiff feet. It was a travesty.

Glen was standing at a distance now, “Look at the arm,” he said. “Look at the right arm.”

Kurt looked. There was no right arm. Kurt studied the perplexing empty sleeve and wondered with undue detachment where the arm could be. Where’s the arm? People just don’t steal arms. They steal wallets and hubcaps and color television sets. Not arms. So where’s the goddamned guy’s arm?’

As if telepathic, Glen said, “It’s next to the mushrooms.”

Kurt spied a small sassafras tree a few feet off the road, and at its base a cluster of fat, pale mushrooms. Amongst them lay the arm. It was bent at the elbow, and torn off at the shoulder. Where the old man’s withered bicep had been was now a dry, ragged indentation.

Kurt’s eyes were held to it. “You know what I think this is?”

“It’s a bite-mark,” Glen said behind him. “I’d bet money.”

From a low branch, sassafras leaves hung over the arm like groping mittens. What bothered Kurt most was that the color of the arm and the color of the mushrooms were exactly the same. “This is a joke,” he said, a concluding verdict. Confusion overflowed in his head, and disgust. “I’ve never seen anything so fucked up in my entire life.”

“There’s one more thing,” Glen said. “Over here.” He took Kurt to the other side of the road. Glen pointed. At their feet was something small and black.

“A glove,” Glen said. “It’s the last thing I noticed.” Kurt stared down, as if into a pit. Recognition of the object rocked him. “It’s more than a glove. It’s a knuckle sap.”

“You mean one of those mitts with sand in the knuckles?”

“Yeah, you don’t see them around much anymore. Like wearing a blackjack on your fist… Good Christ, this beats all.”

“You sound like it’s important.”

“Damn right it is.”

“Why?”

“Swaggert’s the only guy I know who owned a pair.”

Kurt bent down and with a clean handkerchief picked the sap up by an edge. And in nearly the same instant a blade of nausea twirled in his belly and rose to his head. His face turned white. He dropped the sap and stepped back.

“What’s wrong?” Glen asked.

Kurt could hardly speak, unable to forget the sickening weight. “The glove,” he murmured. “There’s a hand still in it.”

— | — | —

CHAPTER EIGHT

“I don’t know, Chad. I mean, I appreciate the offer and everything…”

“But it’s pourin’ down rain,” the bartender insisted, reeking. “You can’t walk home in this, you’ll catch yer death of cold.”

Vicky felt cornered. He was right, but she’d rather take her chances. “All right, Chad,” she said. “You can drive me home. I’ll finish spotting the floor, and you finish the stock. Then we’ll go.”

Delight lit the bartender’s swollen, shiny face. She could see that he’d stuffed his pants with something. My God, she thought. Where do we get them from? His clothes smelled of sweat and old beer.

Vicky hurried for the mop room, appalled by the bartender’s obscene, black grin. The lies came off her tongue these days too easily; it depressed her, but she had no choice. She found she was soothed by the sharp pine scents of the mop room.

Most of the Anvil lay dark now; the last customer had stumbled out an hour before. Outside, the storm raged. Steady drumming sheets of rain pounded the roof and leaked in through window cracks like a discarnate entity trying to get in.

Vicky peered around, waiting for the optimum moment; the hulk shape of the bartender disappeared into the stock room. Quickly she snapped herself into a bright yellow raincoat and pulled up the hood. April showers, she thought. Shit. The storm wailed. She sneaked out the side door and ran.

The rain seemed to sense her presence; it fell on her in focused blasts, as if to beat her into the parking lot. Seconds later there was no reason to run—she was drenched to the skin, but she ran anyway. Rain blew through the oval of her hood and crept down her chest and across her back. It slithered up her cuffs like worms. She shot home in a senseless dash, and only when she was safely in the house did she realize she’d been running not so much from the rain but from the neurotic image of something unspeakable chasing her along the road.

Inside, a breath lodged in her throat when she flicked on the light switch. Glasses and crushed beer cans littered the floor. Cupboards hung open. A pile of smeared dishes sat insolently in the kitchen sink. It all meant that Lenny was home, for the first time in days. She crossed the kitchen, hoping that maybe he’d gone back out, but the sight of his Chevelle in the garage made her wilt. The roar of the storm rose to a mocking laugh; she felt herself snap. She kicked her shoes off and let them thud against the hamper. She tore off the stiff, dripping coat. She peeled off her waterlogged jeans and sent them flying. It happened this way sometimes, a mental moment out of control, when she was caught off guard by the truth. The truth was she’d gotten on the wrong boat and was sinking in it. Each morning she would look in the mirror and glimpse a vision of hell. She’d be lying to blame Lenny; she could only blame herself. She’d consigned herself to slavery, to a life which was disintegrating rapidly toward the center. Getting mad wouldn’t fix any of it—she’d have to find her own way out.

She closed her eyes, held herself still for a moment until she was calm again.

Lenny must be upstairs, drained into a deep sleep from drugs and sex. She frowned within the wreck of the kitchen; cleaning it up would have to wait till morning. Hunger squeezed her stomach like a shrinking band. She opened the refrigerator but found only a six-pack of beer, two bottles of relish, and some wine.

Moments later she was sitting on the couch. The kitchen was black, and she’d turned off all the lights in the living room but one. Her fingers gripped a glass of wine laxly, as if daring it to spill. She let the wine slide down her throat; the first glass went down smoothly and all at once. The second glass fizzed in her head. She knew it was stupid to pour wine on an empty stomach, but by the third glass she didn’t care.

She would not go up to bed. The couch would do, she decided. Better that than accidentally stirring Lenny awake.

Soon the alcohol was making her glow; she became finely aware of the room’s details. The stench of pot smoke lingered in the air, and in the center of the coffee table rested a small square of glass dusted with low-grade cocaine. A white cotton bra dangled from the corner of the table. This was no surprise; Joanne Sulley had been off tonight, and it figured she’d come here to screw around with Lenny, while Vicky hustled tables at the Anvil. Vicky remembered Joanne’s comments about her dog’s death, and then she thought of what had happened to the animal’s grave. The idea burned her. In her mind she could see the hole in the backyard filling with rain like a sump. Something foolish yet very agreeable suggested that Joanne was behind it, but Vicky couldn’t quite picture Joanne digging up a dead animal just to spite her. Foolish, yes, yet the idea nagged on.

The wine made the room tilt. Darkness seemed to siphon around the single yellow-glowing lamp. The walls began to warp and shadows growing like stains. Suddenly the house was haunted, not by ghosts, but by memories. Past dialogues echoed in her head, fragments of a marriage turned to wreckage.

— “Cunt.” —

— “Don’t call me that.” —           

— “I’ll call you what I please, cunt. You seem ta forget who’s boss around here.” —       

— “Fuck off.” —

— Slap. —

— “You’re my wife. You’ll do as I say. And when you get too big fer your boots, I’ll knock you out of ’em.” —

Swirling servile images, by the dozen, all legal variations of perversion and rape.

“No. Don’t touch me.”

— “Aw, you love it, you juss don’t want ta admit it. My little rube piece of tush. You’re beggin’ fer it, I can tell.”

— “Damn it! Stop! I’m having my period.”

— “That’s okay. You don’t bleed out of your mouth.”

And threats, droves of them. And violence.

— “See what happens when you get smart. Fuckin’ little jerk water girls never learn. Ain’t that right?”

“Asshole I’m calling the cops”

“Go ahead. And while they’re takin’ me to jail, they’ll be takin’you to the hospital. I’ll be out before you will.”

“You could’ve broken my teeth, you prick.”

“That’s right, and next time I will. And maybe your arms and legs, too. Well, go on, ain’t you gonna call the cops?”

— Silence.

— “Guess you got some brains after all, huh? See, ol’ Lenny boy means business. Can’t be takin’ any more shit off you, girl. That’s juss the way things are around here. And get this in yer head, cunt. Don’t you evah run out on me, ’cos if you do…” —

“If I do, what?” —       

“If you do… I’ll kill you.” —

Drunk now, she felt afloat in sickness. The wine exhumed memories she didn’t want; she slid the glass away. A headache flared from temple to temple, like a skewer through her brain. Gradually, the light was making her feel watched; she scanned the walls for holes, the window for faces. When the feeling became unbearable, she snapped off the lamp and let the darkness bury her.

She could hear the storm’s furor thrash the house. She sensed hostility in the rain, a destructive purpose. Again she thought of something formless trying to get in.

Wine and bile merged in her stomach, twisting it to a raw knot. She closed her eyes and saw green, throbbing heads, and when she opened them, the heads remained. Never again, she thought. Never another drop. But she’d made the promise before. Suddenly, the room felt airless; she got up and went to the window as if walking a line for a sobriety test. The ache in her head reared. She knelt before the window, and with a pained whine pushed it open. Raindrops sprayed her cheeks; others trickled down her bare legs like insects. Clean fresh wet air poured into the room.

She listened now, very closely, to the sound of the rain—a sharp, unwavering hiss, like loud static. Next, she looked, homed her eyes on the obscure mass that was the backyard. The rain swarmed. She was bewitched by this teeming darkness; she was drunk. She continued to stare, seduced, almost as if she expected to see something.

But then she did see something.

Two vaguely manlike figures were trudging through the yard, mere etches within the blur of rain; they were barely visible. One of the figures seemed to have something slung over its back.

Vicky slammed the window down and crawled back to the couch. The panic lasted just seconds. As her awareness failed, she convinced herself that she hadn’t really seen anything at all. The figures hadn’t been there, they couldn’t have been. They were simply tricks of vision; it was the wine that had made her see them. The wine, she told herself, it’s the wine. Her senses slipped away then, and she passed out.

Outside, the figures lumbered on.

— | — | —

CHAPTER NINE

Earlier, before the storm and about an hour after Kurt Morris had properly reported Glen Rodz’s findings, a white Dodge panel wagon passed through Belleau Wood entrance number 2. This vehicle was unusually long; its doors bore small, familiar seals and the words PRINCE GEORGE’S COUNTY POLICE TECHNICAL SERVICES.

The crime scene had been promptly designated; stoic county uniforms waited like wraiths as the wagon pulled to a stop. From the vehicle two men emerged, one in street clothes, the other in dark utilities. Their faces were both white, and seemed as bereft of life as masks. The uniforms parted, insensate. The man in street clothes had cameras around his neck. He complained palely about the light and asked for case numbers. Then, with a black Nikon F3T, he snapped innumerable photographs of the coffin, the corpse, and the glove which contained Officer Douglas P. Swaggert’s right hand.

The sky rumbled. The man in utilities looked up in horror. He hastily doled out evidence gloves, and then everyone began moving. The smaller objects (the hand and the arm) were sealed in translucent carriers, carded with the tech’s signature, and placed in cold cans. As the coffin parts were loaded into the wagon, a county ambulance arrived, and from it stepped a young, overly muscled man dressed in jeans and a T-shirt that read ARE WE NOT MEN? WE ARE DEVO. He was the deputy medical examiner; no corpus delicti could be moved, touched, or transported without his authorization. He laughed mightily when he inspected the corpse; his laughter shook the woods. He laughed harder as the corpse was put into the ambulance, and he continued to laugh, to wail, really, even after he got back in himself and rode away.

The sky rumbled once more; the man in utilities seemed hyper. Contact zones were tarp-covered and staked with black 10-mil plastic sheet. The area was cordoned. Then the sky cracked open and poured rain. Uniformed officers flipped coins to see who would take the first watch.

At eight o’clock the next morning, fifteen more county officers gathered at Belleau Wood entrance number 2. They stood closely around the gate. They swapped revolting sexual jokes, and some complained with great hostility about being forbidden to smoke on a crime scene, until Bard and a county lieutenant from Hyattsville took charge. Mark Higgins joined moments later, and then the crowd of blue and gray uniforms was led into the woods to the place where Glen Rodz had found Cody Drucker and Doug Swaggert’s gloved hand. From there they made a systematic grid search of the crime scene, standing in a line one arm’s length apart and scanning the forest ground in a westerly direction to a depth of one hundred yards. Then they repeated this procedure northerly, but turned up no material clues to help explain the events which broke apart a coffin and removed an arm from a corpse and a hand from a living man. Chief Bard swore at no one in particular. The county field commander, Lieutenant Choate, extended the limits of the search perimeter identically on three sides. They searched this way all morning and well into the afternoon and found nothing.

In the meantime, at 3:00 p.m., Kurt Morris put on his uniform and drove directly to the city of Forestville, where he received the preliminary evidence report at the criminalistics facility. Then he returned to Tylersville to relieve Higgins of his shift.

A strange scene awaited him when he arrived at Belleau Wood. County police cars crowded both shoulders of the road. Radio noise filled the air, empty distant voices merged with static. Bruised colors lurked in the sky, an unbroken swath of very low clouds and the promise of more rain very soon. Bard was standing by the open gate, staring at a phone pole on the other side of the road. He stood perfectly still, like an artifact in a museum. Kurt was just a few feet away when Bard finally broke his gaze and noticed him.

The report drooped in Kurt’s hand when he held it out. “How’s the search? Found anything?”

“Don’t make me laugh,” Bard said. He took the report and riffled through it, frowning. “How am I supposed to understand this shit? I’m a police chief, not a medical dictionary. What did the M.E. say?”

“The M.E. hasn’t looked at anything yet; this report’s just a preliminary. But one of the evidence technicians told me that Swaggert’s hand was bitten off.”

“Bitten? Fuck. What about Drucker’s arm? Don’t tell me that was bitten off, too.”

“No, no it wasn’t. It was pulled off.”

Bard’s face seemed to stretch like rubber.

Kurt continued. “He also said that the incisor marks on Swaggert’s hand are probably the same as the bite mark on Drucker’s arm. But he’s got no idea what kind of animal did it.”

“Figures… What about prints? What about the coffin? There must’ve been prints on the fucking coffin.”

“Sure,” Kurt said. “Lots of prints. Pallbearers, funeral staff, the backhoe crew. It’ll take some time to sort them out and see what’s left over. The odd smudges are what get me.”

“Odd smudges?”

“It’s all in the report,” Kurt reminded him. “‘Odd smudges.’ The tech said he’s never seen anything like it on lacquered wood before. Could be a reaction to condensation and direct sunlight, but he doubts it. The coffin wasn’t there long enough.”

“Those dickbrains,” Bard said. “They’re probably just old latents.”

“Nope.”

“What do you mean nope?”

“The tech said they weren’t old latents; I asked him. And he doesn’t think they’re glove prints, either. We’ll just have to give them time.”

Bard uttered an unbecoming remark and scanned again through the report. Kurt looked questioningly into the woods. He caught movement in his direct line of vision—a series of gray blurs which seemed to hover between the trees; they were barely moving if at all. In a moment Kurt realized that the blurs were county police officers searching the woods.

“So I guess we can all use this report to wipe our dicks with,” Bard said with lowering disgust. “A fucking sheaf of shit. It tells us nothing.”

“Well, like I said, it’s not official till the M.E. has a look. But nine times out of ten—”

“Yeah, yeah.”

Now the blurs seemed to be congregating, their shapes merged together as a shadowed, gray mass.

A voice cracked out of the woods like a pistol shot. “Chief Bard! Over here!”

“They’ve found something,” Bard muttered. “Come on.”

Kurt followed Bard about ten yards down the access road. Then they turned and marched directly into the forest, wending a long, irregular path through the trees. Gray shirts and faces turned as they approached. The search assignment formed a rough circle around a red-haired, red-mustached officer who knelt before a bare spot on the ground. Behind him stood Lieutenant D. Choate, the county F.O.D., a lean, melancholic figure with graying short hair. His shirt was white, not gray, and he wore a hat with gold gilding on the brim, while the others wore no hats at all. He looked down as if viewing something long dead.

“What is it?” Bard asked, shouldering in.

Choate handed Bard a plastic envelope sealed with yellow evidence tape. Inside was a black plastic cylinder an inch wide, with a silver knob on it.

Bard looked at it crookedly. “A fucking speed loader.” Then, to Kurt: “Did Swaggert use speed loaders?”

Kurt answered with a dejected nod. “I’m not sure what brand, but he did use them. He was always complaining about the release. Said it’d probably get him killed someday.”

“Maybe it did.”

“And, Chief,” Choate said, pointing down. “Dead brass.”

“How many?” Kurt asked.

“Six.”

Kurt looked down. By the red-haired man’s right foot were six empty pistol cartridges. The red-haired man (R. Elliot TSD, according to his poorly aligned name tag) picked up one of the cartridges very carefully with forceps and passed it to Bard.

“Plus P’s,” Elliot said.

Then Choate: “Is that the kind of ammo Swaggert loaded?”

Both Kurt and Bard squinted at the silver casing. On the flanged end, stamped in tiny letters around the dented cap, they saw: …S&W…38SPL + P.

“Yeah,” Bard answered. “These are his loads, for sure. Semijacketed hollow points. We all carry them.”

The search team exchanged vapid looks and silence. Someone coughed. Elliot took the forceps from Bard, then one by one dropped each cartridge into a separate plastic envelope. He said, “It’s about fifty yards from here to the spot where the hand was found.”

“And we have to assume,” said the lieutenant, “that Officer Swaggert was moving into the woods.”

“Swaggert was right-handed,” Kurt said.

The lieutenant adjusted his hat. “Of course. And it was his right hand that was found in the road.”

“Then unless someone jerked it from him,” Bard edged in, “Swaggert’s piece has to be somewhere between here and the road. It fucking has to be.”

“Line up” came the lieutenant’s next order. “I want it tight, shoulder to shoulder. We’ll find this thing or else.”

Now the search had direction. The men formed a wall of gray, standing so close that the sides of their arms touched. They stooped down and advanced slowly toward the point where the hand was found, parting only to skirt trees. An inch at a time they combed the forest floor in a lateral line. Eyes held fast to the ground. Fingers pushed through wet leaves and pine needles and mulched soil. Some of the men actually crawled along on hands and knees.

In a minute, Kurt and the cop next to him shouted “Here!” at the same time. Instantly the men broke from the search line and drew together into another huddled circle.

The pistol lay half covered by leaves, and it seemed partly pushed into the ground, as if stepped on. It was a Smith & Wesson model 10, with a four-inch barrel and worn walnut grips. Swaggert’s service revolver.

Kurt stepped back to make way. Elliot squeezed through the crowd, slipping his hands into a pair of acetate gloves. He picked up the weapon carefully by the top of its frame.

“Open it,” the lieutenant said.

Elliot pushed the gridded cylinder latch with the eraser end of a pencil. The cylinder slid open with an oiled click, and out fell six more cartridges, all of which had been fired.

««—»»

“It still tells us nothing,” Bard was saying several hours later at the station. Kurt sat opposite him, in his favorite fold-down metal chair, next to the burned-out coffeepot. Shortly after they’d found Swaggert’s pistol, the county lieutenant had terminated the search. He’d concluded that Swaggert was dead, and that his body had been transported out of the vicinity. Extending the search limits, he deduced, would’ve been a waste of county time and money.

Kurt was staring out the window, only half listening to Bard. “What’s that, Chief?”

“I said, it still tells us nothing, at least nothing important. We find the motherfucker’s hand, and we find his piece, and we find some loads. What’s all that tell us? Not a goddamned thing, that’s what… We can only guess what happened.”

Kurt lounged back against the chair. “Okay, what’s your guess?

“My guess…shit. All right, here’s what I think happened. Swaggert’s driving down the Route and he spots a suspicious vehicle—probably a pickup truck full of hippies or something— and it’s got something big and bulky in the back, like maybe a coffin. Whatever it is, there’s just something not right about the vehicle, so Swaggert chases the fuckers, pedal to the metal, and he winds up losing control and dumps the cruiser in the gulch, okay? He climbs out of the car and sees the pickup turning into entrance number 2—hell, it’s only a couple hundred yards from where he crashed; he could see taillights turning at that distance, easy. Anyway, Swaggert’s a hellion, and he’s hot, so he runs into the woods, hoping to cut the truck off at the access road. He opens fire on the dudes in the truck, and they fire back and they kill him. They get scared ’cause they just smoked a cop, so they dump the coffin and scram. Later a dog or something comes along and fucks with Drucker’s corpse, bites Swaggert’s hand off, and drags him away. So there’s my guess.”

Kurt immediately bent over in his chair, honking laughter. “Sounds like you’ve got it all figured out, huh, Chief? Yes, sir, ‘dudes’ in a pickup truck. I’ll bet you went to school for years to think of that.”

“Well, fuck you then, smart boy. You got all the brains, you tell me what happened.”

“We’ll never know unless we find Swaggert’s body, and we’ll never find his body unless we search.”

Bard scowled. “You heard the duck. The search is over.”

“Belleau Wood has got to be searched. Not just some of it. All of it. Merkel’s field, too.”

Bombast lightened Bard’s eyes, his turn to laugh. “Do you know how big Belleau Wood is? Do you know how long it would take to cover it all? Hell, some of the woods back there are so thick you probably couldn’t get through them with a machete. If the county doesn’t think a second search is practical, then there ain’t gonna be a second search.”

“Fine,” Kurt said. “So I guess we can just sit back and forget it ever happened. Somebody out there means business, Chief. Digging up coffins, abducting crippled girls, and wasting veteran cops isn’t my idea of Friday night out with the boys.”

“You bitch like my fucking mother.”

Kurt was pricked by a sudden chill, the one facet of all this that bothered him most. “And you’re not even considering the scariest part. If this was some greenhorn fresh out of the academy I’d almost understand. But we’re not talking about green. We’re talking about Swaggert.

“Big deal. Any cop can fuck up.”

“Swaggert was the best pistol shot I ever saw. You tell me how he managed to pop twelve caps at something and miss twelve times.”

“It was night,">“It Bard said.

“So what? Swaggert ate night-fire ranges for breakfast, and any other kind of pistol range you can name—the guy’s won enough shooting trophies to fill the back of a dump truck. Every year for as long as I’ve known him he’s outshot the best shooters in the state. No one could touch him, day or night.”

“But he was also wearing knuckle saps,” Bard countered. “That’s bound to off his aim.”

“Not Swaggert’s, not twelve times. His saps had nylon trigger fingers; they’re made so you can shoot with them on, and he practiced with them half the time, anyway. So I don’t care if he was wearing boxing gloves that night—Swaggert was an expert. I’ve seen him blow the 10x circles out of competition targets at fifty feet, groups the size of a quarter, Chief, firing double-action. You know it as well as I do. Swaggert was just too goddamned good to get blown away by punks.”

Bard’s lips puckered as if he’d just bitten into a lime. He began to bend back the shiny corners of his desk blotter, unconsciously ruining it. “I ain’t gonna argue with you, ‘cause you’re probably right. So fuck it. I’m gonna go home and eat and worry about it tomorrow.”

Kurt stood up, keys jingling. “I’ll stick close to Belleau Wood till Glen comes on.”

“Good idea… One thing, though. For God’s sake keep on your toes. I’ve already lost one officer, I sure as hell don’t need to lose two.”

“Calm yourself, boss,” Kurt assured. “There’s no way anyone’s going to kill me this close to payday.” He exited the office, just as Bard began to tear pieces off the blotter.

««—»»

On patrol, Kurt faltered at the look of the sky; it reminded him of El Greco’s view of Toledo. Purpled, pregnant clouds piled up on the horizon as a limitless mass. A breeze blew dead and tepid, and dusk continued to slide overhead. He could feel another storm coming, a storm worse than yesterday’s.

The headlights glared out before him, bringing out peripheral trees and bushes and high weeds in crisp-white relief. Shadows clung to the woodline, a hulking ebon wall to the left and right. Several white-faced possums congregated at the shoulder, watching incuriously as he passed. A baby marsh rabbit froze in the headlight glare, then dashed across the road like a bullet.

Kurt took the frequent bends of 154 easily, almost enjoying the ride. He lit a cigarette and let the breeze sift his hair and billow his shirt. The radio hissed mutely, not even the dispatcher’s voice to break the calm. Listlessly he wondered what he would do with the rest of his shift.

He glimpsed a far-off glare, and a quick blink of luminous red dots. Without having to think, he looked high down the road, then he tromped the gas and snapped on the revolving blue fireball on the cruiser’s roof. Less than a quarter mile ahead, a vehicle turned out of Belleau Wood entrance number 2.

Thirty-five. Forty. Then fifty miles per hour. Now the wood-line was soaring past on both sides, the blue globe sweeping feverish arcs of light as he sped on. The vehicle vanished around another bend, but reappeared a moment later when he screeched through the turn, breaking sixty. Kurt was closing in, like a pilot on a slow target. He squinted to make the vehicle type (car, truck, van?) and maybe a partial tag. Now that the flashing blue light was obvious, he wondered if the driver would pull over or go for it. With a touch of shame, Kurt hoped for the latter.

The vehicle pulled over. Kurt braked, then came to a full stop. He parked directly behind the vehicle, and three feet into the road, leaving what was known as a proper “sideswipe margin.” Then he “held” the tag number with the dispatcher, grabbed his flashlight, and got out.

The vehicle was a new Chrysler New Yorker, liquid-black, with an atrocious red pinstripe along the side. Kurt’s hopes melted at once. This would be just another routine traffic stop, a drunk or some joker out for a drive, who didn’t realize Belleau Wood was private property.

Kurt took himself through the expected motions, walking up to the car in a slow, gauged stride, and letting his face fall into the typical expression of affect. He popped the thumbsnap on his holster and stood immediately behind the open driver’s window. The occupant was just a face to him in the beam of his flash; Kurt noted refinement, and something perhaps scholarly. Curly dark gray hair, gold wire rims, and a short, meticulously trimmed beard with the same salt-pepperishness of the hair. The face looked up at Kurt, almost amused in wonder, and there was a grin so subtle it may have been mocking.

“Driver’s license and registration, please,” Kurt said, cold monotone.

“Yes, of course.” The bearded face turned into darkness, then reappeared. A similarly intangible hand offered a Maryland operator’s license and a pink MVA registration certificate. “You must be one of the town policemen,” the driver commented. “Those county fellows all seem to be quite stout about the waist. Terribly fat, some of them… Have I done something wrong?”

Kurt managed not to smile at the crack about the county. He took the cards and said, “That road you just pulled off of, are you aware that it’s private property?”

“Why, yes,” the driver said.

“Then how come you were on it?”

“Because I own it. I own the road, the gate posts, the trees, and the accommodating acres, which number in the hundreds.”

Kurt read the tiny laminated license, then matched it to the registration. CHRY 4DR CHARLES RICHARD WILLARD. Kurt handed the cards back instantly. “Sorry, Dr. Willard. I didn’t mean to hassle you. I’m not familiar with your vehicle, and since I’ve never actually met you, I had to check.”

Now Willard’s smile seemed approving. “I understand, Officer, especially with all the nastiness that’s popped up on or around my property as of late. Actually I’m pleased to see that the local police are keeping an eye on Belleau Wood’s outer reaches when my guard isn’t on duty. You may know him— Glen Rodz.”

“Yeah, Glen and I have been friends for a long time. I’m Kurt Morris, by the way. I was with Glen yesterday when he found Officer Swaggert’s…hand.”

“Strange business, I’ll tell you,” Willard said, the smile dissolving. “I wish you luck in tracking them down. Why they chose to do their dirty work on my land I’ll never know. I can understand the poaching and beer drinking. That’s gone on for years, I expect it. But this…” Willard shook his head. “Anyway, in case you’re wondering what I’m doing driving around on dirt roads at this hour—my dog seems to have gotten out, a treacherous white French poodle. I’ve been looking for him for several days now, but so far not a trace. I suspect he’s answered the call of the wild. Ah, well. In any case, if you happen to see the little bugger, grab him for me, will you? There’s a reward. He answers to the name Vladimir.”

“Vladimir. Right,” Kurt said, but to him Willard seemed the very last person to tolerate pets, particularly a poodle. “If I spot him, I’ll pick him up for you.”

A mounting roar came up behind them, and the sudden flash of headlights crossed with the bright blue throb from Kurt’s cruiser. A car had whipped around the bend, well past the posted speed limit, and was gone down the road before Kurt could blink. He had only time to make the passing vehicle as a dark (probably black) foreign sports car. One he’d seen before. In the corner of his eye, though, he saw Willard wave.

“My wife,” Willard said.

“Pardon?”

“That thoughtful, law-abiding person who just flew by like some winged thing out of Hades was my wife. I must apologize for her driving habits, and I’ll speak to her directly when I get home. One day she’ll learn that Route 154 isn’t her own personal autobahn.”

Kurt didn’t care. “What kind of car was that? A foreign make?”

“Yes,” Willard droned. “A Porsche. Last year’s Christmas present. She whines like the devil at the mere thought of driving an automobile that costs less than forty thousand dollars. But it was what she wanted, so I gave in. Six months from now she’ll be wanting something else.”

“That’s one nice set of wheels,” Kurt remarked as he watched the Porsche’s taillights fade.

“Not quite so nice when you consider the price of a tune-up,” Willard laughed. “Well, I should be going. It was good to meet you, Officer Morris. Have a nice evening.”

“You, too.”

Kurt stood there thinking to himself as Willard drove away. The revolving light on his roof pulsed eerie silent blue into the night, intensifying what he knew now must be fact. He was sure he’d seen the same Porsche parked at Glen’s bungalow the day they’d gotten the new cruiser. Now he knew why Glen had refused to explain his mysterious girlfriend, because she was another man’s wife.

Another set of headlights appeared, this time from the oncoming lane. A vehicle slowed and stopped on the opposite shoulder. Glen Rodz got out of his security truck and hustled across the street just as Kurt reached into the cruiser and turned off the light.

“Love that wicked blue light,” Glen said. “You just finish writing someone up?”

Kurt shook his head and stuck a cigarette in his mouth. “I saw some guy turn out of the access road, so I pulled him over. It turned out to be Dr. Willard.”

“No shit? I’ll bet he loved that, getting pulled over for driving on his own land.”

“Yeah, it’s not every day I get to make a dick out of myself in front of one of the richest men in the county.”

“What did you think of him?”

“Seems like an all right guy. Shifty, though. Something shifty about him, but then everybody’s shifty to me nowadays.” Kurt’s face turned orange when he lighted his cigarette. He wanted to mention seeing Willard’s wife pass by, to catch Glen’s reaction, but decided it was none of his business.

“I wonder why Willard was cruising around out here this late,” Glen said.

“He was looking for his dog. Said it got away a couple days back.”

“That’s funny.”

“Why?” Kurt asked.

“Willard doesn’t have a dog. He hasn’t owned a pet since he had Vladimir put to sleep four years ago.”

— | — | —

CHAPTER TEN

Vicky was beginning to think that nature had cursed her. She kept her fingers crossed all night at work, and as closing time approached, she caught herself peeking out the Anvil’s front door every few minutes, to see if the rain had started yet. The sky churned in wait, a black caul, but there was no rain as of 1:59 a.m.

The storm broke at exactly 2 a.m., the precise instant Vicky stepped out the front door.

Windblown rain swept her in gales, and for the second night in a row she had to run home through the teeming, wild dark. She swore aloud the entire way, using words that would make even Chief Bard recoil. Splashing along 154, she decided that of all the things she hated, she hated rain the most. By the time she was back at the house, she looked like she’d just been through a car wash, but without a car.

Inside now, she closed the front door like a vault cover, and sealed out the splattering, hissing rain. She turned drippingly in darkness, and when she turned on the nearest lamp, she saw that the living room was a repeat of last night, perhaps worse. Drained beer cans lay crushed about the floor. Roach ends filled an ashtray like droppings, and pot smoke lingered stalely everywhere. None of this surprised her, not even the garment she then saw at her feet. Last night it had been a bra, and tonight a pair of evenly faded designer jeans lay in the middle of the floor, like shed skin. At the Anvil, Joanne Sulley had spun her last dance at half past midnight, and had grinned leeringly at Vicky before leaving. Again, she’d come here, while Vicky was at work, and the jeans proved that Joanne was still in the house.

Vicky listened then, to verify what she already knew. Her head began to hurt from forced hearing, at the muffled sounds which filtered down from upstairs. She heard dull, intermittent thumps. The faint but viciously rapid rocking of bedsprings. A cry, a groan, a heated murmur. They were upstairs right now.

Vicky struggled to organize her outrage. Not the outrage of adultery, but the galling fact that Lenny would have his women in the same bed that Vicky had to sleep in. She decided then that she’d sleep on the ironing board before she’d ever sleep in that bed again.

She leaned back against the door, brought a hand to her forehead, and looked up without seeing. Somehow a smile came to her lips, and the relieving thought: Not much longer. The unnoticed shavings from her weekly pay were now beginning to grow to something substantial. Soon, another couple of months perhaps, and she’d have enough to take her far away.

The orgy of commotion upstairs finally maxed itself out. There was only silence in the resultant minutes. Then she listened for and eventually heard the quiet footfalls moving across the upstairs hall, over the landing, and at last down the stairs. A whisper came with their descent—“Shit, I hope she ain’t home yet”—but why would Lenny bother even to whisper? Why should he care? Vicky held her eyes on the oblong, black maw that was the bottom of the stairwell. She stood very still, her face a sketch of cold lines. She waited.

In time, two figures stepped out from the darkness, Lenny in Levi’s, naked from the waist up; and Joanne in a tight, pink tube top, naked from the waist down. Joanne’s hair hung in tousled strings; her bare, slim hips seemed even slimmer, more like an adolescent’s, as if the shadows stole substance. Her face was sharply dark and light in the dim lamp-glow. Mascara and liner made sockets of her eyes, and the harsh lipstick shone dark as blood. All that kept her from exposing herself was a tiny, pink G-string, a triangle of cupped flesh between her legs.

Both of them stopped when they noticed Vicky by the door. Silence stretched between them like putty, adding distance. Vicky felt ablaze in rage.

Finally Lenny stepped into the light. He was smiling. “What happened ta you? You get inta the shower and forgit ta take off yer clothes?”

“No,” Vicky said. “Since my fine husband was too busy, he couldn’t pick me up, so I had to walk home from work in the rain.”

Joanne stood up next to Lenny now, showing a wet, red grin. “Well, gee, Vicky, you know how it is. Sometimes people just lose track of time.”

“Then I’ll tell you what time it is,” Vicky said. “It’s time for you to get out. Go fuck your brains out someplace else.”

Joanne brought her hands to her mouth, and she looked over at Lenny with theatrical compassion. “Oh, no, Lenny. Look what we’ve gone and done. We’ve upset your sweet little wife, shame on us. Isn’t there anything we can do to make her feel better?”

“Oh, I think a little liberation might do her a whole lotta good,” Lenny said. His grin increased to match Joanne’s’. “What do you think?”

“I think that’s a fantastic idea!” Joanne exclaimed. She flounced boldly toward Vicky, speaking as she moved. “I say we all go upstairs, get you out of those icky wet clothes, and have a threesome. Ever been banged and eaten at the same time? It’ll blow your mind. Come on, Vicky, let’s go.”

Vicky was pleased at her ability to deflect their mockery, and to regulate what was now easily hatred; her response to the proposition came cool and undaunted. “I’d cut my throat first,” she said, “and yours in the same swipe”; then her gaze turned robotically from Joanne to Lenny. “I want this whore out of here, Lenny. Now. I don’t want her in my house, my bed, or my sight.”

“Your house? Your bed?” Lenny said. “You don’t have ta look at her if you don’t want, I’ll give you that. But you seem ta be forgittin’ it’s my house and my bed, and I’ll have anyone I want in either.”

Vicky turned to Joanne, who now stood right in front of her. “Leave on your own, or I’ll throw you out.”

Joanne threw her head back and laughed. But only for a second. Vicky punched her loudly in the chin, making a ridiculous smear of the lipstick; the laughter ceased at once. Then Vicky spun Joanne around and shoved her hard toward the door. The shove sent Joanne a dozen feet across the room, where she soon enough tripped over some beer cans and hit the floor flat on her chest. Dazed, Joanne yipped, “You little dipshit!” and just as she attempted to get up, Vicky assisted her by grabbing a handful of her hair and lifting; Joanne squealed through the entire process. With her free hand Vicky opened the front door and then pushed the girl out onto the porch. This time Joanne landed directly on her buttocks. A yelp like a hiccup jerked out of her throat when she hit.

“Start walking, asshole,” Vicky said from the doorway.

Wincing and holding her bottom, Joanne dragged herself to her feet. “Little bitch,” she mumbled. “Just wait’ll I—”

“You heard me. Start walking.”

“I can’t walk home like this! At least gimme my pants!”

“You can pick them out of the garbage can in the morning. Now shove off, or I’ll kick your ass from here to the next county.”

Joanne was steaming, a five-foot-eight joke with red-smeared lips and no pants. She huffed and clenched her fists at her sides. Then, after a final seething, grimacing pause, she turned and walked down the porch steps, where the storm devoured her.

Vicky watched till Joanne could no longer be seen within the blowing layers of rain. Ass, she thought. Try that on for size.

She came back in and slammed the door so hard the house shook. Lenny remained in the half-lit corner, his face still warped by a drunk grin. He was clapping. “That’s really sockin’ it to her,” he said. “A real hardass little chick—that’s what I’ve always liked about you.”

“And you know what I’ve always liked about you, Lenny?”

“What, babe?”

“Nothing.”

At this, Lenny seemed to contemplate the air. She knew she would have to be very careful now. If she threw too many insults at him, he would just start throwing his fists. She would have liked to tell him everything just then, everything she thought of him—to release with words the disgust that had built up in her since the beginning of their marriage. She knew, though, that she would have to control herself, or suffer the inevitable consequences.

“You’re just jealous, that’s all,” he said after a time. “Jealous that other girls get turned on by me.”

“It’s got nothing to do with jealousy. If you think I haven’t known about your affairs all along, then you’re even dumber than I thought.” She paused abruptly, to force back the acid that seemed to be crawling up her throat. Then, “No, I’ve known all about it, and I don’t care anymore. I haven’t cared in a year. I tried. I waited. I used to think—” but she pulled the words back when she felt tears wanting to come out. She couldn’t let herself cry in front of Lenny. That would be the worst defeat.

“See, I know you, Vicky,” he said, grinning sharper now. “You think I don’t, but I know you real good. You say things, but you mean jus’ the opposite. I’ve lived round rubes all my life; it’s jus’ like a rube chick to go apeshit when she finds her man with another girl. You cain’t stand the thought of another girl puttin’ her hands on me.”

“I welcome it,” she said with no hesitation. “It’s my relief. Because when you’re with another woman, I don’t have to be around you. That’s my relief, Lenny. That’s all I live for anymore, to come home from work every night and hope that you’re not here.”

Lenny laughed hoarsely. “You’re really puttin’ on some show, ain’t ya? Girl, you’d go crazy without me. Remember ‘fore we got married? You begged for it, you couldn’t get enough. You were nuts about me, and you still are, you jus’ don’t wanna show it. You get your kicks this way, tryin’ ta make me think I don’t excite you no more.”

“You excite me about as much as the bottom of a garbage can. I don’t know where you get your ideas, Lenny. Must be all that dope and beer, it’s pickled your brain. You’ve got enough shit in your head to fill a horse trough.”

“Look,” he said, and took a step forward. “I screw around a little, all right? All guys do. So you don’t gotta give me a load of crap jus’ ’cause I bring a chick back to the house. That ain’t a crime.”

“It’s a crime to marry someone and make no attempt to fulfill your obligations as a husband.”

“Shit, girl, you been watchin’ too many soaps. You got more than most girls in this town. What more do you want? You got a roof over your head, don’t ya? You got food in your stomach every day. You have everything you need, and you still complain.”

“All I have is a two-bit job at a strip joint and a lazy dishonest cockhound for a husband. And like I said, I don’t care what you do anymore. You can blow your load all over this whole town”—now she even dared to point a finger at him—“but at least have the decency to keep your little honeypots out of the same bed I have to sleep in.”

Lenny’s expression began to flatten. He took two more steps toward the center of the room, then stood and looked at her with a raised eye. “You don’t have ta sleep in it,” he said. “Maybe you’d rather sleep in the street.”

“With pleasure.”

Vicky turned at once, yanked open the front door, and began walking out across the porch. Lenny stormed after her. She was just about to step into the rain when he grabbed her by the belt and jerked her back onto the porch. She shrieked, but the sound was absorbed by the rain.

“You ain’t goin’ nowhere now, babe,” he said, pulling her back toward the door. ”A little therapy’s all you need. A little nut up the love hole’ll fix things up real nice.”

She yanked away from him completely, amazed at the sudden burst of strength. But she was cut off; Lenny blocked the porch steps. He began to back her into the house.

“Keep away from me,” she said, walking in reverse. Her voice broke like a child’s. Her hands trembled. “Don’t touch me. Please, don’t touch me.”

“But you want me to touch you. I know you do.”

He stepped forward mechanically, edging her further into the room. Before she knew it, he’d backed her up against the wall along the stairs.

There was no place she could go now, no escape. His shadow grew huge and rose over her as he approached. A tight pain spread across her chest; she felt sweat trickle down her sides. At that moment she wished she were a ghost, she wished she could vanish into the wall.

The distance between them drew in, step by step. Lenny faced her now, just inches away, blackened to a silhouette-shape from the light behind him. Her eyes darted left and right; she needed a weapon. A large, cornered glass ashtray glimmered from the coffee table. But it was just too far away.

Lenny’s silhouette spoke. “Upstairs, girl. Right now.”

She knew how close she was to another beating; a single word of protest now would set him off. She gulped thickly, and shuddered when his hands touched her breasts. She turned her head to one side, cheek to wall, shivering. Then one hand moved around to cup her buttocks. The other hand spread over her crotch and squeezed.

“See, baby?” he said. “That’s all you need. You just need a good fucking.”

Vicky felt the certainty explode in her head. She could save herself, by submitting. But now she knew she would not submit to him, not now, not ever again. She’d debased herself for the last time; she’d had enough. It was time for an end to living like this, even if it meant an end to living.

“Stop,” she said.

“No, you don’t want me ta stop. You wanna get fucked.”

Her hand hooked around in a swift arc, and she slapped the side of his face. The sound, however, was disappointingly thin, like slapping water; Lenny’s head barely flinched at all. His hands came off her slowly. He didn’t strike back as she expected. He only stood there, staring, staking her to the wall with his gaze.

Her words came out wearily, without bite, without emotion. “I hate you,” she told him. “I hate you so much. You’re the lowest, Lenny, the absolute lowest. You make me so sick I could vomit.”

“You got exactly one second to take that back, or I’ll give you somethin’ to vomit about.”

“You’re a thief, a liar, and a wretch. I could shoot myself for marrying you, I must have been out of my mind. All you’ll ever be is a punk, Lenny, a grade-A number-one asshole. You’re the sorriest excuse for a man I ever saw.”

He cocked a hip, looking down. “Cunt,” he said calmly. “Rube trash. When I’m through with you, you ain’t gonna be able ta walk fer a week. I’m gonna rake you over the coals.”

“I don’t care,” she said. Then she spat in his face.

She could feel it coming. She ducked in time to miss the blow, then dove to her knees. A dull hollow boom sounded— she looked up and saw that Lenny had knocked a hole in the wall with his fist.

She lunged across the floor, reaching out toward the coffee table. Her fingers fell on the ashtray. Grabbed it. Picked it up.

And dropped it when Lenny’s second strike connected. Like a lump of granite, his fist sailed down and slammed into the back of her head. The impact flattened her; her vision blanked. She could see nothing for seconds, and only dull fuzz for seconds more.

Lenny was laughing. “You always gotta have things the hard way, huh? Well, that’s jus’ fine with me.”

He stepped on her hand. Vicky shrieked. Then he came down on her back with his knee. His laughter deepened; he grabbed her hair and banged her head against the floor several times. Vicky couldn’t breathe.

He flipped her over and mauled her breasts, buttons flying off her blouse. He pushed up her bra. She glimpsed his face through dizzy spangles of light—he was grinning at her, chortling like a pig. Suddenly pain wound through her chest; he began twisting her nipples as if to twist them off. He seemed to enjoy the way her shrieks rose the harder he twisted.

“Gettin’ hot, baby?” he said. “Ain’t this really the way you like it?”

She squirmed under his weight. Each time she tried to thrash away, he punched her in the stomach. Only terror kept her conscious now; her vision cleared unmercifully and showed her his intent, evil face. When he shoved his hand down her pants, her arm flew up blindly, and she poked him in the eye with her thumb.

Lenny fell off her, both hands over his eye. Vicky slipped away from him, too aware that he’d only been stunned—she’d never make it out of the house.

The big glass ashtray lay off to the right.

She sprang forward, on hands and knees, in a sudden ignition of energy. Behind her she sensed movement, Lenny regaining his wits. Her knees and palms burned across the carpet. She fell on the ashtray and picked it up.

Lenny had already risen to his feet. Vicky got up on her knees, pulled back, and threw the ashtray as hard as she could. It seemed a wild, misguided throw; nonetheless, it flew through the air like a missile and struck Lenny solidly in the middle of his forehead. She didn’t hear the sound of the blow, just the ashtray clunking to the carpet afterward. She felt triumph, delight, victory, when Lenny fell hard on his back.

She felt horror when he got back up again.

There was blood on his face now, the gash in his head glistening and running red. The scariest part wasn’t that the blow hadn’t knocked him out. It was the way he looked at her then, bloodied but unhurt, with eyes of ice.

She wondered if he would kill her.

“So you want out, is that it?” he said, standing still. “You wanna walk out on ol’ Lenny boy.” Blood pulsed down his face as he spoke. “And where’re you gonna go? Tell me that? Who’s gonna take you in, huh? Pretty Boy Morris? Even he’s got more class than ta take in a rube little piece of trash like you.” Then he paused, his wet red grin widening. A line of blood slid quickly down his chest.

Vicky tried to plead with him, but the words swelled in her throat. She tried to move, tried to get up and get away, yet her wrists and ankles seemed manacled to the floor.

“But wherever you go,” he continued, “I hope you ain’t gonna have ta rely on your looks ta get you there, ‘cause I’m gonna ugly you up real good.”

Finally she spat out broken words. “Please let me go. Please just let me get out of here.”

“Sure, baby. If you wanna leave, I won’t stop you. But you ain’t goin’ nowhere till I give you somethin’ ta remember me by.”

He broke from where he stood, and took long, quick steps across the room. The last thing she saw as she screamed was his hands opening and closing as he reached down for her.

««—»»

Kurt could barely see anything at all through the rain. The windshield wipers were on high, but they did little more than swipe the water around to make room for more. He leaned forward, chin nearly touching the steering wheel, and he had to squint just to make out the double yellow line on the asphalt. The road seemed to be splattering before him, breaking up. The headlights didn’t improve visibility as much as articulate the density of the rain. Several times he almost went off the road, even at just a few miles per hour. At this rate it would take half an hour just to get back to the station.

As he made the next bend, the headlights reflected off something on the shoulder, something erect and raw-white with a band of pink. He slowed nearly to a halt.

“What the hell?” he mouthed aloud. It was a person walking along the right-hand shoulder. The figure stopped when he did. He leaned over and rolled down the passenger window a few inches. A face almost touched the glass; two wild eyes looked at him through the gap. Only a complete jackass would be walking the Route this late, in this weather, he thought. And it didn’t surprise him the least to see that the face belonged to Joanne Sulley. The temptation was there, of course, to roll the window up and drive on without a word; he couldn’t think of anything more fulfilling. Instead, he said, “What the hell are you doing?”

“I’m walking home,” she said, her defiance pathetic in the rain. “It’s not against the law to walk home.”

“No, but it’s against the law to walk home with no pants on.”

“Well, I’m wearing my G-string.”

“Thank God. I was beginning to think you were uninhibited.”

Her hands pressed the window, fingers curling over the lip. “Will you drive me home?”

“This is a police car, not a Checker cab.”

“Come on, you’re a cop,” she whined. “You can’t let me walk—I could get raped.”

“That’s right, you could. And walking the streets at three in the morning with no pants on probably won’t reduce that possibility.”

“Gimme a break,” she not quite pleaded. “I don’t want to walk home in this shit.”

“The solution is quite simple, really. Buy a car.”

“Oh, come on. You’re not busy right now. You can drive me home.”

“Only if you say please.”

She glared at him. “Please!”

“Pretty please.”

“Goddamn it!”

Kurt shrugged and reached to roll up the window.

“Pretty please!” she shouted.

“All right.”

She got into the car as if fleeing killers, and she slammed the door so hard he thought the window might break. Kurt could’ve laughed at the sight of her, so he did. Rain beaded every inch of her exposed skin, of which there was a lot. Her tube-top was water-logged, her hair a tangled brunette mop.

“You know,” he said, “just because you dance at the Anvil in a G-string doesn’t mean you can parade around town in one.”

“If you must know,” she said without looking at him, “I didn’t have time to get dressed. Don’t ask me to explain.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” he said. “Jesus Christ, you’re dripping on my seat.” He let the cruiser resume its slow crawl through the rain, wipers thudding. The car rocked in the wind.

Joanne was pushing droplets off her thighs; it made a sound like a squeegee. “Got a cigarette?” she asked.

“Sure, but none for you.”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake! Give me a goddamned cigarette.”

“Plenty of butts in the ashtray. Help yourself.”

Her lips pressed into a smirk. “It’s obvious that you don’t think highly of me—”

Kurt laughed out loud.

“—but you don’t have to be rude.” She paused, focusing on him. “Why, I bet if you gave me a chance, you’d like me a lot.”

“I doubt it.”

She slid over closer to him. “Just because you and Lenny don’t get along, you don’t have to take it out on me.”

“Lenny’s got nothing to do with it,” he said, eyes on the road. “I can’t stand either of you.”

“You don’t really mean that,” she said. Her voice was very soft, very unlike her. He could smell the rain-scent in her hair; in fact, he found it pleasant. She moved over a little more. “We ought to go out sometime, you and me,” she said.

“Sorry. I don’t go out with Kirby vacuum cleaners.”

She began to run her finger along the rim of her tube-top, unaffected by his insults. The rim crept lower, showing the edge of a nipple. “You know, I could make you feel real good if you let me… Why don’t you let me?” Then she leaned very close and placed a hand on his leg.

He flung her hand away immediately. “One more word like that and this free ride home turns into a free ride in the county detention center. One more word.”

“Well,” she cooed, “there’s no reason why we can’t at least be friends.”

“There’re plenty of reasons, Joanne, the first of which is I don’t have assholes for friends.”

She shoved herself back against the door, and glowered. Kurt could see her fuming in the dash-glow; he expected to see steam come out of her ears. Shutting her up so abruptly almost made driving her home worth it.

He eyed the guardrail around the next bend, using it to guide him through the rain. He seemed to be getting the hang of this now, and he let his speed pick up. He put a cigarette in his mouth and briefly took his eyes off the road to push in the dash lighter. At that exact moment, Joanne lurched forward and shouted, “Look out!”

Reflex made Kurt stomp the brakes. The car fishtailed into the bend, and by the time it had stopped completely, it had nearly revolved 180 degrees. The rear fender missed the guardrail by an inch.

“What!” Kurt barked. He pulled the car safely to the shoulder. The near miss made his hands shake.

Joanne sank back, her hand to her heart. “You almost hit that guy.”

“What guy?”

“While you were busy lighting your cigarette, some guy jumped over the rail and ran across the road into the woods.”

Kurt turned on the remote-control spotlight and turned it into the forest. The two hundred thousand candle-power lamp scanned back and forth across the trees, and revealed nothing unusual.

“You’re stoned,” he said.

“No, I’m not! A guy ran across the road, and you would’ve hit him if I hadn’t yelled.”

Kurt clicked the light back off. “A guy, huh? Well, what did this guy look like?”

Joanne’s hair dripped water onto her legs and the seat. “He was running so fast, Jesus… I didn’t see him too good. Looked skinny, though. Looked like he was wearing gray clothes, maybe overalls.”

Kurt thought about it, then threw the possibility out the window when he considered its source. “It was probably just a deer.”

“Deers don’t walk on two legs.”

“That’s right, and guys don’t dash in front of cars during a monsoon at 3:00 a.m., either. You better lay off the booze, Joanne; you’re starting to get the DT’s.”

“I’m not drunk… I admit, I had a few beers tonight—”

“Yeah, a few as in eight or ten, and God knows how many bong hits of that homegrown horseshit Stokes sells.”

Now she was almost shouting at him. “I’m not a lush, Morris, and I ain Mort no pothead, either! I’m a lot straighter than you think.”

“Straight as a U-bolt,” Kurt replied. He righted the car and continued. “I can just see me wrecking this three-day-old cruiser because you’re having hallucinations.”

Shortly afterwards, Kurt turned around in the parking lot of one of Tylersville’s monolithic apartments. He stopped, looked at her, and said, “Bye-bye time.”

Joanne got out. Rain pelted her back as she leaned over. “Thanks for the ride…prick.”

“It was a pleasure. It’s not every day I get to be so close to the town sperm bank.”

She showed him her middle finger, slammed the door, and walked off.

So much for her, he thought, turning back onto the Route. Next time she can ride in the trunk.

He’d had enough patrol in this weather; he may as well have been driving blindfolded. A coffee break now seemed well deserved. He headed for the Jiffy-Stop, to park till the storm let up; he only hoped the road didn’t wash out before he got there.

Around the next bend, Uncle Roy’s house appeared only as a ghost of itself in the pouring, black rain. Kurt checked the TV-room windows for lights, hoping to see Melissa up past her bedtime so he could yell at her in the morning. The windows were black, but at the same time, he noticed a dark, ragged heap at the end of the driveway. This did not yet strike him as odd; after all, it could be garbage, though that in itself seemed odd because Melissa didn’t generally put the garbage out two days early, if she put it out at all, and Kurt certainly hadn’t...

Then he slammed on his brakes, skidding to an angled halt.

The heap, whatever it was, had moved.

He backed the cruiser up and then pulled the front end into the drive. The heap seemed to be doggedly crawling toward the house, like a tortoise. By then Kurt knew the heap was a person, probably a drunk, or an accident victim. He jumped out of the car and trotted up.

The rain crashed against him in heavy, irritating layers, drenching him. Kurt knelt before the collapsed figure. His hands touched sodden fabric and cool flesh. He carefully raised the figure’s head and shoulders into the glare.

The head lolled; the face was a swollen, blue mask of bruises and blood. It was Vicky.

Kurt’s heart shouted at him to move, but the clout of shock left him helpless for many seconds; all he could do was stare, as if into the lamp of an oncoming train. Her blouse was an eerie, pale pink from blood thinned by rain; she’d bled a lot. Red crust sealed one eye shut, the other eye twitched. She’d been beaten so severely he thought she must be dead. But then her hands clenched his shirt; she was trying to lift herself up.

“Don’t say anything, don’t move,” he stammered. She squealed when he picked her up; he doubted he could touch her at all without hurting her. The rain laughed at him, blowing harder. Twice he almost slipped carrying her to the car. He slid her into the front seat as gently as he could, then got in behind the wheel and turned on the dome light. She was only part conscious. She moaned with her mouth closed, touching things around her shakily, as if blind. Her body jerked once very hard as she held back a cough. She opened her mouth to speak, but drooled blood instead.

Kurt flicked on his siren and the blue revolving light. His tires whined on the slick road, and as he raced south on 154 he begged God and the universe one wish—that he get her to the hospital alive.

— | — | —

CHAPTER ELEVEN

John stepped out of his room for the last time. Pure instinct made him pull the door to behind him, but it was useless; it never clicked shut. It had no lock and no bolt. None of the doors did, except the one at the med station, and the wing door.

The hall lights seemed brighter today, and more artificial. His footsteps sounded annoyingly loud, like someone clapping stones. It was the meaning of the moment, he knew, and nothing more. From doorways, other ”in-pats” looked at him with blank envy. Some of them nodded, some waved, but most recoiled into their rooms as he passed, still unused to his facial features.

Someone had erased the precaution roster and drawn a warped face; John thought of a comic reflection, which it probably was, though he’d made no enemies here. He walked by a closed door on which had been plaqued PSYCHO-NEUROLOGY, ECT. He’d heard it could break bones from reactive muscle contractions, and his social worker had once told him that it worked by effectuating minor brain cell death. Great therapy. At least he’d never had to go in.

Nurse Dallion stood waiting at the end of the wing. Beside her, two men in starched green work clothes were busy installing a Scanray metal detector. Better late than never, he thought sarcastically but with real remorse. A day ago a Class III patient had smuggled in a bottle cap and cut his wrists.

On the wing door was a sign that read: PREVENTION OF ELOPEMENT IS EVERYBODY’S JOB. John regarded the power housing automatically. Electromagnetic surface blank, he thought. Twelve-hundred-pound hold, 3-watt running differential at 24 volts, cadmium strike plate. Takes all of a minute and a half to defeat.

Nurse Dallion smiled frailly and waved to a face in the med station. There was a metal clack, then the door chunked open like a bank vault.

“All ready?” she said.

“Are you kidding?”

Nurse Dallion laughed brokenly, a cracked whisper; he followed her out. The door hummed and sucked shut. Down an empty corridor and to the left, three avocado-colored elevators stood like portals to a pale void.

Nurse Dallion pressed the Down button. She handed John his checklist. “You only have three more stations to go.”

John took the list. Only three more fucking stations.

The nurse unconsciously fingered a tiny American flag pinned to her collar. She was a ghost in her white dress, her white shoes, and her white stockings. She had pale freckles on very white skin, and seemed as thin as the anorectics. John had always liked her, and her weird, nervous aura—he could easily picture her an in-pat.

She looked just past him, as if leery of muggers. “The first floor is kind of confusing, especially at this hour. If you get lost, just look for a directory board, they’re all over… Any questions?”

John surveyed the last three marks on the sheet.

14 MHC- Dr. Herman

15 Travel Unit

16 Baggage Claim/Housekeeping

“Who’s Dr. Herman?” he asked. “I’ve never heard of him.”

“He’s chief of the psychiatric division; his office is downstairs in the mental hygiene clinic.”

“Not another staff board—”

“No, nothing like that; it’s just him. He likes to talk to all restored patients before they leave.”

Restored, he thought. What terminology.

A muffled bell chimed, and the middle elevator yawned open. John stepped in and turned around; its closeness made him think of a coffin on end.

Nurse Dallion’s smile ran slits down her cheeks. Without realizing it she had turned the flag pin upside-down. “Take care of yourself, John,” she said. “And God bless.”

“I won’t miss this place, but I will miss you—” and before he could say anything more, the doors had closed, leaving him to face painted metal.

The elevator droned, lowering. He’d had a fear as a child that one day he’d take an elevator down and it would open into hell. His mother, with seared-red flesh and horns in her head, would reach in and take his hand.

The elevator faltered open to show him a deceptively large lobby. He slipped into a throng of people who moved chaotically through the main junction: patients, janitors, technicians, doctors in white tunics, and unshaved medical residents with stethoscopes slung over their shoulders. At the right moment he squeezed out of the stream and sat down in a very uncomfortable chair made of chrome wires. This was the waiting area. Waiting for what? he thought. Here, patients stood or sat in perfect stillness. They were all very old. No women, just men bent and cracked by age; they made the area a sea of wizened faces, sunken heads, and jaundice-darkened eyes. Some straggled on canes, tipped walkers, and prosthetic limbs. One tall, thin man shuffled through the aisle in blue pajamas and robe and squeaky sponge slippers, pulling with him a wheeled plasma stand; an IV line drooped like an umbilical from an upturned bottle of clear liquid and disappeared under his robe sleeve. A man in a battery-powered wheelchair rolled by; the motor made a sound like a toy car. Another man in a manual chair passed in the opposite direction; his right leg was gone below the knee, leaving only a bald knob of flesh to jut from his rolled pajama cuff. John noticed lots of men in wheelchairs—lined up in front of windows, clogged in the aisles, parked by tulip-like ashtrays, all displaying different variations of dismemberment. This limbo seemed the fortune they’d inherited for fighting the Germans. To finish the glimpse of despair, John saw two techs pushing a gurney into the freight elevator. The gurney contained a man who had no arms or legs at all.

Oppressed, he got up and followed a long L-shaped corridor away from the lobby. This hall, too, was flooded with people moving in both directions. Some stopped to talk, and this particularly infuriated him. He wanted to shove them out of the way. A female security officer eyed him suspiciously; then he realized that most of those he passed were staring. The preceding years on the ward had helped him forget about the condition of his face. He would have to prepare himself now to be stared at for the rest of his life.

His journey through the hospital led him past a canteen, a jammed cafeteria, and a noxious-smelling automat. A black directory at the end of the hall read MHC with an arrow pointing right. In another moment he faced the bizarre room number 1D122.

The clinic was an odd network of short corridors and closed doors. Only a third of the overhead fluorescents seemed to be working. John approached a lexan-fronted reception partition, and withdrew his VA ID card. It was a pretty card, a white square with a purple triangle and the letters SERVICE-CONNECTED. He handed his card over the halfboard to a reed-thin receptionist with green eye makeup and metallic-blond hair. He wondered how she could sit up straight; her breasts each were clearly the size of a baby’s head. “I have an appointment to see Dr. Herman at eleven,” he said.

Her green eyelids slivered. She took the card, stiffening at the sight of his face. “You’re the one out-processing today?”

“Yes.”

“Fine,” she said. Her cleavage blared; he envisioned nipples with the circumference of coffee cups. As she began scribbling in a green log book, more signs harassed him. NO SMOKING PLEASE, MEDICATION BY APPOINTMENT ONLY, ARMED ESCORTS MUST SIGN IN WEAPON SERIAL NUMBERS HERE. Facing him was a Day-Glo poster which read GOOD MORNING, SUNSHINE, and under it a trade calendar advertising McNeil anti-depressants. The contradiction was so outrageous he could’ve laughed.

“You can wait in the office,” the receptionist said. Her breasts rose slightly, like balloons, when she handed back the card. “Second door on the right. Dr. Herman will be with you shortly.”

The office was dark and cramped and vaultlike. It had no windows. One painting adorned the front wall, a perverse swirl of dark colors, some patient’s OT project, no doubt; John had seen them everywhere, and even painted a few himself. There was no couch here; he’d been in dozens of psychiatrists’ offices over the years, but never had he seen a proverbial couch. An industrial-gray desk sat hugely off to one corner; heaps of books and papers threatened to overrun its top. The desk was a show-place for psycho-paraphernalia. A dark blue paperweight shaped like a Stelazine pill; a haloperidol thermometer; pens and pencil cups bearing names of numerous trade drugs; a flier: What every doctor should know about extrapyramidity; a plastic Xanax calendar; and a blotter advertising Mellaril. In one corner stood a coat stand draped with white lab coats, and still another was occupied by an old Royal 440 typewriter. Bookshelves seemed divided between psychiatric texts and anthologies of American literature and poetry.

John took a cane chair right of the desk. Beside him was a table on which rested a queer aluminum ashtray stuffed with butts. His nostrils constricted at the tinge of tar.

The psychiatric chief seemed to materialize rather than enter. Dr. Herman stood slender and statuesque and too striking to be a man of this trade. Fine lines composed his face; his hair was dark, modestly styled, and only traceably gray. He reminded John of someone who might be in a Shakespearean troupe, or a historical society.

“Ah,” Dr. Herman said. “You must be John, from upstairs.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Please bear with us. I realize how anxious you must be, but I’m afraid it’s hospital policy that you be interviewed by me before release. I suppose that might seem odd, that such a requirement be meted out by a doctor you’ve never met.”

“Yes, sir,” John said.

“Though my main function here revolves around the out-patient clinic, ward-patient release requires my final authorization, since I am also the administrative chief of the psychiatric branch.”

John didn’t care. He watched Herman sit down and thought how out of place the doctor appeared behind the cluttered desk. It was almost as if the office didn’t belong to Herman at all, but to another doctor.

Dr. Herman placed a hand on a closed folder of papers, what John presumed were his own medical records and psychiatric history. The folder was very thick. “I read over your case earlier,” Herman said. He was sitting erect in the chair, as if uncomfortable. John suspected his face was what made the doctor uneasy. Herman went on. “Most extraordinary. How do you plan to deal with it?”

From afar he heard a sudden, heavy pounding, construction workers on the roof. “Sir?”

“I mean, now that it’s over, how are you going to commence with your life?”

“I’m going to forget it all now,” John lied. “Leave it all behind.”

“Pretend it never happened, in other words.”

“Yes.” It amused John how hard Herman tried not to look at him.

The doctor let a pause hang in the air. “You’re cured now, John. I admit that’s a crude term in this instance, but we view psychiatric illness the way a dermatologist might view a rash. Treatments are applied, and the rash clears. Hence, the original affliction is no longer evident. Many patients pending release hesitate to be honest with me because they believe that I have the power to detain them at the last minute, should my opinion differ with those of the ward doctors. This is not at all true, please understand that. You can get up and run out of this hospital right now, and there’s nothing I could do to stop you. My final authorization is simply to make sure you’ve been out-processed properly. Therefore, you can speak honestly with me. You will do that, won’t you?”

“Of course,” John said. He had to smile; Herman’s entire monologue seemed painfully rehearsed.

“Tell me then, the incident which brought you here is a very strange account.” He glanced briefly at the folder. “Do you agree?”

“Yes.”

The pounding from the roof grew louder, pile-driving thuds that seemed to rock the superstructure of the building. Neither of them acknowledged it. Herman said, “Yet, it is your account. It’s something that you, at one time, believed most persistently, am I right?”

“Yes…”

Another pause. This time Herman looked John directly in the eye, and asked, “John, do you believe any of it now?”

“No,” John lied. He’d learned the futility of this truth, he’d learned well. “No,” he said again.

“Not even a little bit of it?”

John shook his head. He felt interrogated, but now it was his turn to deliver rehearsed lines. “When I think about that period of my life, I… I can’t believe it happened to me. What’s more, I can’t believe that I believed it, if you know what I mean. It’s more like a dream. Or recalling a dream you once had long ago. It’s a well-engineered dream, but it’s distanced enough to see through, to detect the parts that don’t fit. It’s like having a fever for a week, and when you think about it later, the whole week seems unreal.”

“What we in the business colloquially refer to as the inverted telescope syndrome… But the fever, in your case, was a bit longer than a week.”

“Right.”

Now Dr. Herman relaxed. He folded his hands in his lap and actually leaned back in the chair. “I’m sure you’ll do well on the outside, John. No discipline problems, no memos, you went through the acclimation program with flying colors. Almost like…”

Almost like there was nothing wrong with me to begin with, John finished in thought. “It was a milk run.”

“So then, what are your plans for the future?”

“It’s weird, but I really haven’t given it that much thought. Won’t have to worry about money, at least, but I don’t plan on just sitting around living off my disability, if that’s what you mean. I’ll take a few weeks to get settled, then start looking for work.”

Herman nodded approvingly. “And how do you feel? How do you feel right now as we speak?”

“Pretty good,” John said. He felt numb. “I know it’ll take some adjusting, with my face the way it is, but I don’t anticipate any problems. I’ve always been pretty much on my own; my face doesn’t bother me. If I’d lost an arm or a leg, then I guess that’d be different. The way I see it, I’m lucky to be alive. So my face got screwed up? Sure, it would be nice to have it back, but I’d rather be ugly and on the street than good-looking in a pine box.”

“An admirable attitude. And how do you feel about your release? Generally speaking, I mean.”

“Great. No offense to your setup here, but I’m happy as hell to be finally getting out.”

Herman leaned forward to raise a finger. “Not just that you’re getting out, but that you’re getting out healthy. That’s the important thing.”

“Right.”

“What about medication?” the doctor asked. “Your chart says—”

“Imipramine, four times a day,” John answered. From his pocket he withdrew a container of tiny off-orange pills and held them up for Herman to see; they made a sound like a baby rattle. He’d been spitting them out in the ward toilet for two years now, what universal psych-ward idiom knew as “dogging the meds.” “But, really, the depression hasn’t been a problem for the last year or so.”

“I understand that, but to ensure that it doesn’t become a problem in the future, you must continue taking them, and you must continue out-patient check-ups at least a couple of times per year. Now, your ward doctor has indicated that you’ll be going to Florida, to your original hometown.”

“I feel strange calling it my hometown, since I haven’t actually been there in a long time—probably ten years. But it seems as good a place as any to settle. I may hang around the area for a few weeks to look up some old friends. Eventually, though, I think I will be heading south.”

“Just remember that wherever you do settle, check into the nearest VA hospital and establish out-patient status; that way you’ll be able to continue with your medication free of charge. If you have any problems, any doubts whatsoever, don’t hesitate to come in.”

“Right,” John said. But it was more whimsy. The last thing he’d ever do was come back.

Herman initialed the checklist and the VA Routing Form 10-2875-2; smiling, he said, “I won’t keep you any longer; I’m sure you’re itching to leave. Just follow the directories to travel and baggage claim.”

They both stood up and shook hands.

“The best of luck to you, John,” Herman said.

“Thank you, sir.”

John left. Moments later he was back amid the confusion of the corridors. This time he passed the automat quickly and with caution, holding his breath to avoid the stench of microwaved plastic. The travel unit waiting room was packed; everyone looked irritable and very tired. John hated waiting. He decided he’d pay his own bus fare rather than stand jammed like a canned mackerel.

He took the elevator to the basement. Behind the caged counter in the baggage unit a lean black man with short hair and beard sat atop a stool. He was reading a book called Night-lust and seemed electrified.

John flashed him his VA card.

“Out-process?”

“Right.”

Next, John handed him the claim stub. The man disappeared for less than a minute, and returned shouldering an OD-green air-freight bag with a brass lock on its clasps. Apparently the bag had been fluoroscoped and sniffed, not opened. John was sure, though, that the additional string bag tied to the top had been opened and searched by MAC MP’s. But it didn’t matter; if they wanted it that bad, they could have it.

The man took out a ledger and said, “I need some info before I can turn over your stuff.”

“Sure,” John said. “Just don’t ask about my sex life.”

The man chuckled. “What ward are you coming off?”

“2D West.”

“And that’s the—”

“The psychiatric ward.”

The man nodded, disinterested. He paid no mind to John’s disfigured face. “Pay grade at time of separation?”

“E-7.”

“MOS?”

“I have ten.”

“Give me the two highest.”

“11 Echo 40, 45 Bravo, Lima, and Zebra.”

“Hey, how do you like that,” the black man said, at once enthused. “I was 11 Echo, too. ‘Clank, clank, I’m a tank.’”

“Hell on fucking wheels, man. We ride in style.”

This time the black man laughed hard. “Give me your C number. I got to make sure it matches the stub.”

“C29541313.”

“Legal first name?”

“John,” John said.

“Not Jonathan?”

“Not Jonathan. John.”

“Middle name?”

“Victor.”

“Last name?”

“Sanders.”

— | — | —

CHAPTER TWELVE

He punched the radio buttons one after another. On one station was a talk show hosted by a botanist. “Root stimulants, such as indolebutyic preparations, exist to increase root-to-soil area ratios, to reduce production time of roots, and to extend the overall mass of the root system itself.” The next station played music that sounded like a sawmill. The next station played reggae. And the next—hip hop. Kurt switched the radio off with a vengeance.

He drove through Annapolis directionlessly. At least the rain had stopped, but the weatherman promised clear skies for the next two or three days, which meant that it would rain again in a few hours. Last night when he’d taken Vicky to the hospital, the doctor had been vague and had not disclosed the seriousness of her injuries. Kurt would return today before his shift, and he hoped he’d get some answers. He hoped she would be all right. And he hoped this time she would press charges.

Meanwhile, he drove dizzily through strange streets. He lit cigarettes and let them burn down in the ashtray. Several times at traffic signals he found himself stopped at green lights. He’d driven first to the Anvil, and informed the manager that Vicky had had an accident and would be out for at least a week but probably more. The manager had muttered some dissatisfaction, to the effect of: “I got a business to run, you know? If she misses more than two days, I’ll fire her.” Kurt had smiled then, assuring that Vicky’s excuse for missing work was legitimate, and he’d raised the possibility that if Vicky lost her job, the Anvil might very well lose their liquor license through some entirely unrelated quirk of fate. After that, Kurt had gone to Glen’s, for what purpose he didn’t quite know. But Glen hadn’t been home.

Lenny Stokes hadn’t been home, either.

The midday sun made him squint. Downtown Annapolis had become a maze, and he was the rat seeking a way out. Buildings and old shops seemed to lean inward at incongruous angles. Streets were very narrow and paved in cobblestone, which made the car ride like a trolley on bad tracks. He turned left on Cornhill Street, passed Harbor Square and the Market House, and suddenly the entire city smelled of salt and fish. Jagged fragments of sunlight lay flat and cold on the Chesapeake as he glimpsed the City Dock in the rearview. As his concentration lapsed further, the city appeared more grim, more abandoned. A girl in a pink shirt stood on a corner selling flowers; she was deathly thin and gazed ahead glassily, as if drugged. Another girl stood mannequin-like in the window of a shop; she stared at him as he drove by, her features bled of color through the glass, but when he looked again, she was gone. Four midshipmen in summer whites loped surreally slow along the sidewalk, their faces bright by nefarious, sun-diced grins. It was all a freeze-frame from a Dali print, to mirror Kurt’s despair. He thought that if there were such things as ghosts, this city was full of them.

He’d frittered enough time here. The drive was only upsetting him, fraying his nerves. He’d hoped a leisurely drive might take his mind off Vicky, but the city’s drear only made her easier to see. Last night’s final glimpse of her made him cringe now, as though lanced in the neck by a needle. She’d been placed immediately on a stretcher and covered to the chin with a shiny white sheet on which warped splotches of scarlet quickly formed and grew. He could picture her face, which somehow seemed very small despite the swelling. One eye remained shut by a seam of black matter; it looked daubed with tar. Her hair lay in strands, caked by blood, and a bruise on her forehead had swelled to the size of an oyster. He knew how foolish he might seem, and how presumptuous, to fend for her now. He was in no position to enact himself as anything more than a concerned friend—but still, he would not allow this to happen again. She had suffered enough. And that reminded him, the Ford now cruising on West Street, toward 154—before checking on her at the hospital, he had something to do first, something he’d wanted for years.

Two cigarettes later, most of 154 was behind him; he’d arrived at his destination unconsciously. Lenny Stokes’s flat-gray Chevelle was now parked in the drive like a dumb, bulky pet.

With dissolving awareness, he walked coolly up the steps to Stokes’s porch, a cigarette stuck between his lips. He gave the front door four solid raps, then lowered his arm.

He waited, as if bored. He could hear his watch tick.

Four more raps, and now his knuckles ached dully. Just as he prepared to knock again, the door opened.

Lenny glared from the open doorway, clad only in jeans. His eyes were fierce and bloodshot; lint flecked his hair. There was a crescent of scabbed blood on his forehead. Somehow, Lenny looked at home with it.

Kurt didn’t waste time. He said, “Hi, Lenny. How ya doin’?” and then slammed his fist squarely into the middle of Lenny’s face. Kurt reveled at the sound of the blow, like the snap of wet leather, and grinned as the transfer of impact sent Stokes reeling backward toward the center of the living room. At the end of the comic journey, he fell and landed on his back, where he lay splayed like a flabbergasted gingerbread man.

Kurt flicked his cigarette over the porch rail; he went casually back to his car. It had been better than he’d hoped, a near-perfect punch in the mouth.

He made a quick stop at the Jiffy for more cigarettes, and was again on his way. Maryland Route 3 appeared as a smooth, tedious stretch of highway, bisected by a treed, unusually wide median. Endless acres of farmland breezed by to the right and left, quartered fields aching to push forth corn, wheat, and tobacco.

The highway wound away, trafficless, silent. Kurt blew past periodic roadside taverns, produce stands, and general stores, all with such speed that he barely noticed them. Farther on, the median widened, elevating to a series of green, brushed hills.

Last night, he’d risked the extra few minutes on the road, and had taken Vicky to Parkview Hospital rather than South County General. The county hospital was a meat house, where cut-it-off-first-ask-questions-later was the medical order of the day. Parkview appeared sparkling and immaculate, just past the turnoff. Kurt parked illegally in a reserved staff space. Inside, he found the charge nurse and conned her into amending visitors’ hours. “Five minutes,” she told him, as if issuing a death threat. “She’s just coming off pain killers. And don’t give her any cigarettes, no matter how much she begs.”

Kurt smiled, thanked the nurse, and stepped into Vicky’s room.

She didn’t look nearly as bad as he’d feared, not when compared to last night. She was lost beneath blankets, her form diminished by a bed which threatened to devour her. Much of her forehead was padded by a thick, white bandage. At first he thought she might be asleep, which probably would’ve been all for the best, but next her head turned lazily in the pillow. She looked at him for a distended moment, then managed a small smile.

“Hi,” she said.

“I guess this is a dumb question, but how are you feeling?”

She laughed out loud. “My head feels three times its normal size, my wrist feels like it’s in a grape press, and my whole body hurts like hell, but other than that, I’ve never felt better.”

“Sorry I asked. What’s the damage report?”

“Minor concussion, minor blood loss, an interesting assortment of scrapes and bruises, and one fractured tubercle, whatever that is.” She raised a plaster-cast wrist.

“It could be worse, I guess. At least it’s not as serious as I thought it would be.”

She shook her head. “No, they don’t make Vickies like this one anymore.”

Kurt turned, hands in pockets, and faced the wall. “I’m glad you’re feeling well enough to joke about it. But last night, when I found you in the driveway, I thought…”

“That I was gonna die? Well you’re not the only one.”

Kurt’s voice was deliberately soft, as if loud talk might make her rattle. “All you have to do is give me the word, and—”

“Forget it, Kurt. I’m not going to press charges.”

“Shit, Vicky! Goddamn!” he exploded. It was an invitation to tirade. “I don’t fucking believe you. I suppose you enjoy getting the crap kicked out of you every other day. That guy almost killed you last night, and you act like you couldn’t care less.”

Her words came out enfeebled. “Kurt, don’t worry about it.”

“Don’t worry about it,” he recited. “Don’t worry about it.” He quickly crossed the room and aimed his finger at her. “How much longer are you going to let this go on? You won’t be able to press charges if you’re in a coffin, and it’s a miracle you’re not being measured for one right now. Last night you were lucky, and all the other times, too. But you might not be so lucky next time.”

“There won’t be a next time,” she said. “I’m not going back to him, and he knows it. This was my going-away present; if you ask me, it was worth it. I’m free of him now, Kurt. Forever. Last night was the last time. So there’s no point in pressing charges. I’m just going to forget about him once and for all. It’s better this way, and a hell of a lot easier.”

Kurt went tinglingly rigid. He fell silent. Is she just saying that to shut me up? he thought. Or is it true? This was good news, so good he didn’t trust himself to believe it. When he finally got around to speaking again, all he could say was, “Are you kidding? You’re really not going back?”

“I may be a glutton for punishment and a diehard, but enough is enough. If I didn’t leave him after this, then I’d deserve another beating.”

Kurt smirked sourly. “That makes sense, so how come you didn’t leave him a year ago?”

“Various reasons. Reasons I’d rather not go in to. Just take my word for it, you don’t have to worry about finding me in your driveway anymore. I wouldn’t go back to that house for a mil— Oh, no, that reminds me. I do have to go back at least once. To get my money.”

“What do you mean?”

“For the past year I’ve been putting away little bits of my Anvil pay. Now I’ve got about five hundred dollars stashed, and I’m going to use it to get away.”

“Get away where?”

“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “I’ve lived in Tylersville for twenty-six years. I figure I can spend the next twenty-six as far away from the place as possible.”

The words sank hooks into his brain. “You mean you’re going to leave town?

“You act like I’ve just said something crazy. I’ve had my fill of that dumb, backward, redneck turd of a city. Just as soon as I get the divorce papers rolling, I’m gone.”

Now Kurt stalled. He wanted her to leave Stokes, but not Tylersville altogether. Of course, he had no way of telling her that, and could imagine how he’d sound if he tried. In that moment of quiet, he admitted the facts. Tylersville was nothing. Only a jackass would want to live in Tylersville, and that idea made him think very hard about himself. There was no reason for Vicky to stay; in fantasy, though, he wished he could be the reason.

“So when’s the doctor letting you leave?”

“Maybe tomorrow, maybe the next day.” She gave an achy shrug. “He says he’ll see.”

“In the meantime I guess you can file your entry blank for the Miss Battered Wife Pageant.”

“Don’t make me laugh, Kurt. It’s not easy when you’ve got a mouth full of cotton.”

This time Kurt’s smile was forced. “Give me a call if you need anything.”

“Sure, Kurt… And thanks for last night.”

“Don’t mention it. Who knows? Maybe someday you’ll find me in your driveway. Then you can return the favor. See ya.”

Kurt exited the hospital as if pressed for time. He drove home sullen and a little bit sick, yet he knew full well that it was childish to feel this way. He just couldn’t help it.

Later, at work, he sensed something awry the instant he stepped into the station. Mark Higgins, whose shift had just ended, sat back behind the report desk as though fatigued or exasperated or both. There was something reviling about the way he looked at Kurt.

“I’m not late, am I?”

“No,” Higgins replied. “Ten minutes early as a matter of fact.”

“What’s wrong, then?”

“Chief wants to see you.”

Kurt stopped what he was doing. He eyed Higgins suspiciously. “What about?”

“I don’t know,” Higgins said in a way that indicated he did. “But he’s pissed, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Kurt said shit under his breath. Then he walked into Bard’s office. The chief glanced up in a single, abrupt movement. He appeared squat, munchkinlike behind the desk, and his face was pink, the way it always got when formidably angry. Before Kurt even had time to shut the door, Bard said, “What, no ten-gallon hat?”

“Huh?”

“Everybody’s got to be a cowboy, ain’t that right. That’s just what I need—another cowboy.”

Kurt’s expression turned jagged. “You mind telling me what’s going on? I don’t know wha—”

“Did you punch Lenny Stokes in the face today?”

Shit, he thought. Shit. All he could muster to say was, “Who, me?”

Bard slammed an open palm on the desk, so hard Kurt’s heels came an inch off the floor. “Damn it!” Bard yelled. “I fucking knew it! What’s the matter, didn’t God give you a brain like the rest of us? You’re supposed to be a police officer, and police officers don’t go around bashing citizens in the chops.”

Kurt slumped standing up. “Relax, Chief. Stokes won’t file a complaint.”

“Stokes did file a complaint. He called the Maryland Police Grievance Board, and they called the fucking state attorney’s office, and the fucking state attorney’s office called me, and those sons of bitches would just as soon put you on a ball crusher as say hello to you.” Bard grimaced as if he’d sipped flat beer; he waved circles in the air with his hand. “So that’s all that matters, smart boy. You and I know that Stokes is a liar and a thief and an asshole, but MPGB doesn’t know that, and they don’t care. All they care about is cops guilty of brutality.”

Somehow, Kurt produced some anger of his own. “Break it off in my ass then, huh, Chief? You don’t seem the least bit interested in hearing the other side of the coin. Don’t you want to know what Stokes did?”

“No!” Bard replied, his voice held to a sharp, spittling shout. “I don’t care if he pissed off the water tower. I don’t care if he dropped his drawers and shit in the street. I don’t care if he wagged his pecker in front of nuns! You don’t assault a guy just for being a fuck-up!”

“Chief, last night Stokes broke his wife’s wrist, gave her a concussion, bloodied her face like holy hell, and then kicked her out into the rain. When I found her, she looked like a glossy out of a textbook on violent crime.”

“Oh, I see,” Bard said, softening. He liked to pile on the sarcasm at timely moments. “Now I understand completely, please forgive me. Lenny Stokes beats up his wife, but model officer Kurt Morris decides to do things a little different this time. Instead of making an arrest, as the laws of this great country provide, what does model officer Kurt Morris do?” Bard jumped up from his seat, like a fat jack-in-the-box, and directly into Kurt’s face, he shouted, “He goes to Lenny Stokes’s house, knocks on his front door, and punches him in the fucking face!

Kurt feared the velocity of Bard’s rant might actually bowl him over. “All right, Chief,” he said. “You don’t have to blow a vessel just because I made an error in judgment. I admit it, I fucked up, okay? It won’t happen again.”

“Good.” Bard sat back down, the pink in his face dropping. His mustache looked like a bore brush in a pistol-cleaning kit. When he’d finally settled down, he said, “I made a deal with the state attorney’s office. They acted really reluctant about a nolle pross; I managed to talk them into it anyway, but there’s one condition, see? You only get the proseque if you demonstrate a ‘sincere motive.’ In other words, they know you’re guilty, but due to the questionable reliability of the plaintiff, Stokes, they’d rather not proceed with charges. Instead they want you to voluntarily submit yourself to disciplinary action. Of course, you don’t have to; you can take your chances in court. But if you decide not to take the disciplinary action, you can bet the back of your balls they’ll forget about the nolle pross.

“What happens then?”

“Stokes sues you for everything right down to the last hair on your dick, for one thing. Plus, you’ll face state charges of police harassment, police brutality, dereliction of duty, and premeditated assault and battery.”

Blackmail, Kurt thought “All right, all right.”

“I knew you’d see things my way.”

“So it looks like Stokes gets off scot free.”

Bard glared incredulously. “Instead of dicking around and punching him in the face, why didn’t you arrest him?”

“It was domestic assault. I couldn’t arrest him for a misdemeanor not committed in my presence.”

“What did you do in the police academy, anyway? Circle jerk? All his wife’s gotta do is swear out a warrant request in Hyattsville. Then the county’ll bust him, charge him, and give him a court date.”

“She won’t press charges,” Kurt said.

“Why the fuck not?”

“I don’t know. I guess she doesn’t want to make a scene.”

“Then fuck the misdemeanor. If she wouldn’t swear a warrant, you should’ve snapped a few Polaroids and tried to get your own—for a felony assault. Any magistrate would go along with attempted murder if she was bashed up bad enough.”

“Chief, if I did that, she’d never speak to me again. She just wants to forget about it.”

Now Bard’s frown was squeezing his face. “Then that’s her problem, not yours. What’s the first thing I told you when you came onto the force? Never take your job personally. You do the same for your mother as you would for a schmuck you’ve never seen before. Otherwise you get in trouble, like the kind you’re in now… Shit, I’m already a man short ’cause of Swaggert, and now you gotta go fucking with local skillet-heads.”

Kurt felt like a high-schooler caught smoking in the lavatory. “So what’s the disciplinary action?”

“Five days suspension without pay, effective immediately. That’s the easiest I can let you off. Anything less and the state attorney’s office’ll be jumping in my shit for preferential treatment.”

Kurt felt disgusted, shafted, but most of all, embarrassed.

“And since you all of a sudden got some free time on your hands,” Bard said, “make yourself useful and run some errands for me. The county crime lab sent those fucked-up latents to state for further analysis. Tomorrow I want you to go to Pikesville and see what they have.”

Kurt nodded and turned, head bowed, but before he could leave, Bard added, “And look, Kurt. We’ve been friends for a good while, right?”

“Yeah, sure.”

“You have to keep in mind, I have a police department to run, and I got rules I have to follow. If you go stirring up any more shit with Stokes, I’ll have to fuckin’ fire you, friends or not.”

“I hear you, Chief. Loud and clear. I won’t go near the guy.”

“Make damn sure you don’t.”

— | — | —

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

John Sanders looked in the mirror for the first time in a year. Deep gouges channeled most of the left side of his face; the effect made him think of tooled wax. It was as though this part of his face had been sluiced away by a spade bit, and his identity as well. The largest scar ran wormlike from the corner of his lip to the back of his jaw. He could still make out the tiny ladders of stitches which formed crescents under his eye; it was makeshift repairwork, but at least he could still blink normally. That’s all that mattered. He supposed he just as easily could have lost the eye.

By most people’s standards, his face was hideous, though John Sanders did not ordinarily regard anyone’s standards but his own. This was not reactive rationalization (he had felt this way even when the bandages had come off), and now, staring at the damage seven years later, he clearly recognized how lucky he’d been. It was luck that he hadn’t bled to death in minutes, and to this day he found it miraculous that he’d even made it off the ridge alive. O’Brien and Kinnet hadn’t been so lucky. He’d watched them die. He remembered.

Sanders didn’t care about his face; he didn’t need a face to live. He needed a brain, eyes, arms and legs, and he had all of those things. His face was unimportant. So what if people stared at him? He didn’t need people. So what if the sight of his face caused women to shudder. He didn’t need women. He didn’t need anybody.

Soon after his Med Evac from Riyadh, oro-facial surgeons at Walter Reed Army Medical Center had scheduled a dozen corrective operations, but had stopped after the first. They’d told him then that his was not a case of routine plastic surgery—to embark on a succession of operations this serious might prove more experiment than improvement as an end result. Tissue damage had been extensive. Some of the facial muscle groups had been routed from their seats; while other tracts had been not just severed, but removed, ripped away completely.

It had been Sanders’s decision then to decline on the option of corrective surgery.

Suddenly the mirror held him; it took him back. Fragments of the dim past assailed him, like scenes and images lost in faded films. Tactility. Sound. Hectic motion. A million sensations fogged by time and tricyclic drugs.

He could still feel the elastic snap, when it had hooked its alien hand onto his face and tugged.

Could still hear the slunking pop as he’d thrust his knife into its coarse, sinuous abdomen.

The night-piercing shriek of its pain.

The vision of his own life before his eyes.

And the fat, dull explosion of white phosphorus.

Thinking back now it all seemed too bizarre, such that he could barely believe it himself—but he knew it had happened. He knew. The doctors had offered countless linear explanations, matched with bland faces and treacherous eyes. Their list of speculation rolled on like the mutterings of a language from another world. Ideas of reference asserted through reversed monomania. Neuroleptic toxicity, undifferentiated hallucinotic schizophrenia. Myxedema, right cerebral dysfunction. Involutional depression and paranoid features. Unsystematized delusional insanity.

These were Sanders’s rewards for the truth, a psychological profile that would make Charles Manson seem straight. And the doctors had laughed at him, too. Silently. The way all psychiatrists laughed.

Further reward had been expeditious medical discharge, free air fare home care of an Air Force C-141 MED EVAC flight, and seven years of restricted psychiatric environment.

That’s about enough, he commanded himself. He turned from the mirror and faced the room he’d rented. Room 6. $37.50 per day. Reduced rates for five days or more. The deal of the century, for sure.

Room 6 was a compressed pit. It came complete with a sagging bed, a fiberboard desk, two shaded lamps, and a bathroom the size of a broom closet. All the comforts of home. The floor was bare wood, and the white-painted walls had begun to tint yellow from age, neglect, and cigarette smoke. Behind him stood a squat dresser enameled a hundred times over. Dust clung to the baseboards, and formed clotted balls which lurked beneath the bed. In the wastebasket he noticed several bloody napkins, a pair of torn panties, and no less than four prophylactics, used, he had to presume. Pressed into the wall just over the bed were two smudged handprints.

His duffelbag hung empty in the closet; he’d already unpacked his things, and had arranged them in the dresser. He’d been fortunate that the Uniformed Code of Military Justice did not restrict private ownership of bullet-proof vests, though such items could never be worn on duty unless they were general issue. This was not general issue. The Bristol grade-25 protective vest lay in the drawer like a black, perverse girdle. It was British-made, with front, back, and pelvic panels composed of Kevlar and a fiber-reinforced plastics composite that would stop up to a 9mm submachine gun round at 75 feet. He’d won it in a card game in Germany. The half-dozen dents in the ballistic material were barely evident, and he thought again of how lucky he’d been.

From the drawer he removed his set of ancient HPC lock picks. His MOS qualifications for armorer and lock technician had protected these from customs. He opened the black, zippered case, which was approximately the size of a prayer book, and surveyed the assortment of black, spring-steel implements. These tools might prove vital in the next few days. He would have to brush up on his technique, though; it had been a while since he’d last practiced.

Last was his stash belt, his portable bank. It sat in the drawer like a dead snake. Within its zippered lining he stored his current funds, a thousand dollars in traveler’s checks. Florida was still his legal place of residence, even though he hadn’t actually been there in years. During his hospitalization, then, his VA disability checks had been sent to a bank in Sarasota, via direct deposit. The thousand in the belt, plus his ready cash, was the remainder of his TDRL pay from the Army, which he’d kept in an account at the patients’ funds office until his release.

Officially, only sixty-six pounds of on-carry freight per man were allowed on any MAC flight, though an additional ten pounds were allowed to slip by if properly tied to the duffel in a standard G.I. string bag. It was from this that customs had confiscated the only things from Sanders’s air baggage: deodorant, shaving cream (aerosol cans were not permitted in any military air freight compartment), a lizard-skin wallet, and his set of Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knives. All lost without consequence.

Bored, Sanders opened the door and stood wide within its frame, looking out. The night air rushed him and seemed heavy with dank, sweet scents. From all around came the anapestic calls of crickets. Darkness had settled fully now, a murky deceptive dark which he’d noticed frequently since coming back to the World. The moon was smeared by clouds to just a faint blur overhead; he could hardly tell the sky from the woodline on the other side of the highway. The sign at the end of the parking lot burned GEIN’S MOTEL in hot blue neon. He peered at the sign strangely, as if someone might be hiding behind it.

The danger was easy to see. At least he hadn’t lost all his operational foresight. He would need a good weapon before he began, and that might require a favor. There were many favors owed, though, and Sanders thought of May 1968, Delaware Offensive, Quang Tri Province, and a good, good friend named Jack Wilson. It was time to cash that favor in. He remembered well the whoosh-tick-bam of Soviet-made wire-guided rockets as they impacted Detroit steelplate.

Inexplicably, the word ghala came to mind, and with it a chill bolted up Sanders’s back to his brain. He yielded to the dark thoughts and wondered just what he might be getting himself into for the sake of curiosity and an uncollected debt.

— | — | —

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Kurt walked cheerily into the kitchen, for once at grips with his “five days suspension without pay.” He’d get over it. Bright morning light blazed in through the sliding door. Melissa was seated on a stool at the counter, talking on the phone. As she spoke, though, she spun smoothly on the stool and watched Kurt advance toward the coffeepot.

“Just make sure you’re in the house by sunset,” she was saying. There was a pause, a matter-of-fact nod, then she continued. “Oh, sure, tent stakes will work. Broom handles, pool sticks—anything, just as long as it’s made of wood.”

Kurt poured coffee into a Styrofoam cup and reluctantly held it to his nose.

”Uh huh,” Melissa went on. “Just hold a mirror up to her face. If there’s no reflection, then you’ve got one… Okay, yeah. Garlic works, too, but not as good as a cross… Sure, sure, I’ll see if I can.” Then she hung up and stared widely at Kurt.

“Is this coffee fresh?” he asked.

“Yep. Just made it”

Kurt took a sip and immediately spat it into the sink.

“Fooled you.” She giggled impishly. “Some people will believe anything.”

“Buttbrain,” he said. “Who was that on the phone?”

“Jenny. She thinks her sister is one.”

“One what?”

“One of the vampires.”

“And I suppose she’s gonna drive a tent stake through her sister’s heart.”

“Only if she doesn’t pass the mirror test.” Melissa turned again on her stool as Kurt went to get his keys off the kitchen table. Grinning, she said, “I guess you’re gonna go do some job-hunting today, huh?”

“What?”

“Job hunting,” she repeated. “Everybody’s heard.”

“Melissa, what the fu— What the heck are you talking about? Why would I need to go job hunting?”

Her grin widened to the extent of perversion. “Well, I heard that you got kicked off the police department for crushing Lenny Stokes’s head with a croquet mallet.”

Kurt looked at her, his eyes drooping. “Who told you that?”

“Jenny. The whole town’s talking about it.”

“I can always count on the Tylersville grapevine to get the story straight. Jesus.”

“It’s true, isn’t it?”

“No, it’s not true,” he said, trying unsuccessfully to mimic her voice. “I was suspended for five days, not fired. And I didn’t crush his head with a croquet mallet, I punched him in the face.”

“Why?”

Kurt’s cheeks were beginning to redden. “Because he’s a pri— he’s a coc— Because I felt like it, that’s why.”

Melissa seemed disappointed. “You mean he’s not in critical condition?”

He shoved the question away with a groan, the conversation now thoroughly corroded. Melissa continued to revolve on the stool, her arms crisscrossed between her legs. “Wanna do me a favor?” she asked.

“No.”

“Drive me and Jenny to Foos Fun?”

“No.”

“Come on, please…”

“No, Iy">

“Where are you going?”

“Out.”

“Out where?”

“Out of range of your mouth!”

Kurt blew out of the kitchen, feeling unbearably cramped. Melissa pouted at him from her stool, probably aching to release cuss words. Kurt left the house as if yanked by an invisible tether.

The little that remained of his mood collapsed completely once he was outside. The sky dulled to a wash of gray, clouds mounting suddenly, and he shivered at an even more sudden chill; he was beginning to think that God had decided to extend winter at the last minute, for laughs. Starting the Ford, he pictured Vicky pale and battered in her hospital bed. He wanted to go there now and see her—Shit on Bard and his busy work, I’m not even getting paid—but that would be more irresponsibility, and he’d been irresponsible enough lately. Had belting Stokes in the face really been worth it? He rubbed his knuckles and smiled.

The beltway clicked by in a long, empty blur. He hoped the radio might disengage his thoughts, but the stations drifted maddeningly in and out of static until he was forced to click it off. In stages, the day seemed to darken as he drew closer to Reisterstown Road. This town depressed him, worse than Baltimore. Soon he spotted the sign PIKESVILLE BARRACKS and the immense lot filled with the new flesh-colored cruisers. Kurt had liked the old pale yellow state cars; this new color, designated supposedly to make the cars less conspicuous, stepped well past the bounds of ridiculousness. Perhaps next they’d change to flesh-colored uniforms, too—a nude police force.

Maryland State Police Headquarters reminded him more of a college campus than anything else. It was a condensed quadrant of land surrounded by buildings of varying style and age. He spotted the helipad, the fuel unit, and a steel skeletal radio tower whose peak was lost in the sky’s murk. Mist and rain clung to his face, deepening his annoyance. From one facade to the next, he found himself wandering, until he noticed a transom plate which read CRIMINALISTICS.

Inside, a preposterously large state trooper stared at him from behind bulletproof glass. Kurt’s street clothes made him feel uneasy in this regimented, spotless place; the trooper continued to glare until Kurt produced a badge and ID and stated his business.

Baritone instructions led him to an echoic far wing and a door of lacteal glass labeled POROSCOPY. Kurt entered, balking, and at once detected sharp chemical scents and something sooty. Ranks of glassware racks divided the room into sections; it brought back memories of tenth-grade biology class, and a teacher whose nickname had been “sweetlegs,” with good reason. High shelves of graduates, Erlenmeyer flasks, and Pyrex beakers glinted immaculately. To the right, a flank of cabinets and more signs: XYLENE, ANTHRACENE, SILVER NITRATE, LAMPBLACK. Mysterious machines on dollies crowded the other side of the room; the hatch of a Mosler arc furnace hung open like a mindless, obscene mouth. Through the room’s two meshed windows, dumpsters hulked en masse, and a tall, brick incinerator slowly oozed black smoke. Kurt lit a cigarette in the blue flame of an unattended Bunsen burner.

“There’s no smoking here” came a reedy, toneless voice behind him. Startled, Kurt turned to face a deviantly thin woman in a lab coat which seemed large enough for someone twice her size. Her hair was flat ashen brown and hung nearly to her waist; he doubted that she weighed a hundred pounds. In one hand she held a polycarbonate clipboard, and in the other a fat camel’s hair brush.

“But that’s all right, I won’t tell. I don’t trust a cop who doesn’t smoke.” Her voice droned, vaguely sexless, like a minister with sinus trouble; her brittle smile somehow intimated a subtle depravity. She set the clipboard down carefully and donned a pair of unbecoming glasses. “You’re the guy from— what?—Tylersville, is it?”

“Right. Kurt Morris.”

She extended her hand, which Kurt shook. It was like shaking hands with a glove full of ice water. “I’m Jan Beck,” she said. “Pleased to meet you.”

Let’s not be hasty, he thought. “I came to pick up the evidence report on the stuff the county sent you.”

She gave a vacant chuckle that made Kurt’s scalp shrink. He sensed something abstrusely disturbing about this woman—her benign appearance and manner seemed a camouflage net for something atrocious. She made Kurt wonder about Melissa’s obsession with vampires. “Yes, the evidence report,” she said. “Let’s just hope you have a versatile sense of humor.”

“Why? Problems?”

She grinned, and Kurt found himself contemplating the length of her cuspids. “I’ve seen funny things in this business,” she said, “but I’ll let you be the judge.” Absently, she coiled a tress of hair around her finger; the finger was white, like bone. “I’ll give you the dull stuff first… Whenever we get something that involves a missing police officer, we tend to suspect the very worst, and spend a little extra time on the preliminaries. Fortunately, the level of decomposition on the hand wasn’t severe—the primary friction ridges were still in great shape—”

Kurt found it easy to picture her inking up Swaggert’s severed hand. “It was Swaggert’s hand, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, and all the partials on the brass, the speedloader, and the Smith were Swaggert’s, too. No one else handled any of that stuff before or after he put on the sand gloves.” She pointed placidly to the black-topped counter where she’d set the clipboard. Beside a suds-filled sink lay a plastic bag containing wads of cotton stained with something orange, like Mercuro-chrome. She went on to explain. “Neutron-activation analysis on the glove itself found heavy traces of fresh antimony.”

Kurt was puzzled. “Why bother? Isn’t it assumed—”

“We don’t assume anything here,” she almost snapped. “Leave that to the other departments, the three-ring circuses. The first step was to determine that Swaggert had definitely discharged the weapon. This state is famous for police officers shot with their own guns. Shades of Terrence Johnson.”

“But that still doesn’t prove he wasn’t wasted by his own piece.”

“Theoretically, no. But statistically it does, almost without a doubt. Once a cop gets his hands on his weapon, no one ever takes it away. It’s not the cops that are the problem, it’s the holsters. All this quick-draw nonsense, open-tops, friction holsters, thumb-snaps. Dead meat. Cops should have their guns handcuffed to their wrists at the start of every shift. What kind of holster do you use?”

Kurt looked to the floor. “Uh, thumb-snap.”

“Then I guess you also carry around a banner that says TAKE MY GUN AND KILL ME WITH IT,” Jan Beck said, and scowled. “But to get back on track, next I tried to get a type and an Rh from the bitemark on Drucker’s arm, but the saliva had oxidized by the time I got to it. County ding-dongs don’t know how to preserve evidence. Antigen test was no-go, so was the antihuman serum test. And no chance for a good dental print. It was a lousy bite, not at all pronounced.”

Kurt couldn’t believe his ears. “We had assumed that the bitemark was from an animal after the fact. You think it was human?

“I’m not paid to think. I run tests, and anything with a bodily secretion in it I check. You’d be surprised at the number of human bitemarks we get in here, and you’d be even more surprised at how many autopsies and stomach pumps bring up human tissue. We check every angle, every imaginable possibility, no matter how remote.”

Suddenly the lights went out, and Kurt shuddered when this woman actually took his arm and guided him across the room.

“Now the fun begins.” She took him to a viewing partition, where sat a Sirchie slide comparator. There was a sliding click; the twin screens flashed white, then darkened, bearing odd shapes. In the left block was a single enlarged fingerprint. The right block contained a dark oval. Jan Beck hovered over the screen, pointing the camel’s hair brush in the fashion of a knife.

“In the left box, we have a normal lampblack fingerprint, and in the right a tape-lift of one of the latents on the coffin. As you can see, they’re quite different from each other. The image in the right box possesses none of the qualities associated with latent fingerprints. No loops, no whorls, no bifurcations—no ridge patterns whatsoever.”

Kurt pinched his chin, thinking. Jan Beck stared at him as if in wait of a natural response. Finally, he said, “Porous glove smear?”

“No. It’s a fingerprint.”

“But you just said—”

She grinned in the uplit darkness, to a hideous effect. The comparator hummed. “It’s a fingerprint devoid of most normal, expected characteristics. In other words, what you’re seeing is a photograph of an actual latent deposit.”

“I don’t understand.”

Unconsciously, she caressed the brush handle, in a way that made Kurt think of his first date at Palmer’s Drive-in. She went on, “A latent fingerprint is composed of a bunch of things, perspiration, sebaceous and fatty secretions, chloride ions, residual alpha amino acids. It’s these substances that form the actual latent ridge patterns we use for comparison and identification. What I’m saying is that the image in the right box is a normal deposit of common fingerprint residue, yet there is no observable ridge pattern.”

“How often does this happen?” Kurt asked.

“Never.”

The screens glowed. He dragged his cigarette and muttered an inconclusive “Shit.”

”Uh huh,” she replied. She turned off the left screen; a new slide popped into the right—a luminous blue oval. “Here’s a fluorescent dust job under ultraviolet. Still no ridge pattern.”

The screen changed again, now a pink blob on a gray background. “This one’s a Neohydrin-acetone treatment. Nothing.”

The next slide showed a glistening, brownish splotch on a white background. “When I got really desperate, I did this silver nitrate transfer, also under UV light. The silver chloride reaction barely even showed up.”

Kurt flicked ashes on the floor when she wasn’t looking. “Maybe the guy did something to his fingertips.”

Her face seemed to tweak, as though he’d insulted her. “Only idiots do that; it happens more in the movies than anywhere else. Sure, there have been a fair number of bozos who’ve cut off their fingerprints, or burned them off, but what they’re too stupid to realize is that fingerprints are genetically unalterable; the ridge patterns always come back after healing, along with scars which are even more identifiable. Besides, if these were mutilated fingerprints, then the pore patterns would be obviously deformed. And they aren’t. Look.”

The next slide was completely filled with an orange smear and darker orange spots. “At least the coffin was jet lacquered,” she said. “The ideal surface for pore schemes, next to glass. Here’s an iodine fume, a perfect sebaceous print.” Next slide. “And a mercuric oxide blow. Perfect.” Now her eyes were large and off focus. She turned to him and said, “Everyone who touched the surface of this coffin left perfect pore patterns but no ridges. Why?”

Kurt squashed his cigarette out under his Adidas, dismayed. “The coffin was sitting in the woods for at least twenty-four hours,” he reminded her.

“Big deal,” she said. “Granted, sodium chloride residuum will diffuse after a short time. But the point is the sebaceous secretions are still wholly intact, and amino acid deposits have been known to last for years, decades in some instances. And it doesn’t make a poop streak’s worth of difference anyway”—she tapped the screen rapidly with her brush—“because the pore patterns are still there.”

She seemed winded now, all at once having worked herself into a delicate frenzy. Aggravation brought color to her face, and she continued to fondle the brush handle as though it were a penis. A leak of sexual repression? Kurt thought. Or just wishful thinking?

“I’ve done everything I know,” she said, looking off in a fog. “You’re missing the gist of what I’m telling you. I know I’m not the most imposing person in the world, and I suppose it might be hard for you to take me seriously; but if I didn’t know what I was doing, then I wouldn’t be here. I’m an evidence technician by design, and a poroscopist by specialty. I do good work, and I know what I’m talking about, and let me tell you, quite professionally—it’s goddamned fucking impossible to leave perfect pore configurations with no ridge patterns.”

Kurt let out a slow breath. He thought he was beginning to understand. “Like pushing a penny into clay and getting the date, but not a trace of Lincoln’s face.”

“Exactly.”

“Isn’t there anything you can do with just the pore patterns?”

“No. Not in this situation anyway. As a rule, pore schemes are used to link good ridge patterns with bad. By themselves, they’re almost never admissible in court—you can run fingerprints, but you can’t run pore patterns. Without any suspects, these things are useless.”

Neither of them spoke for a time, but when their silence became edgy, she punched the slide button again. She seemed to be squeezing the brush handle as hard as she could. “Here’s another dust job with anthracene. I upped the UV to 380 nanometers, to make it pretty.”

Kurt’s face screwed up in confusion. The screen captured a bright, glowing blue outline against a flat gray background, like a phosphorescent inkblot of a man with one arm and no head.

“How do you like it?” she asked. Her face was beaming now in the fragmented darkness. She brought the tip of the brush handle to her mouth and bit down, delighted at Kurt’s bewilderment.

“What is it?”

“A palm print,” she said. “I found six complete palm prints on the coffin. I treated and photographed two of them. Here’s the second one.” The comparator churned and spat the last slide into the slot. Now the screen held a similar outline, but with reversed polarity.

Kurt stared at her. It couldn’t be what he was thinking. “Tell me,” he said.

“The first slide was a right hand, the second a left. You know what that means, don’t you?”

“Only three fingers on each hand?”

“Uh huh. And if that’s not balled up enough, consider the physical measurements. The average handspread of an adult Caucasian male, that is minimus to opposable thumb, is roughly nine and a half inches. The same measurement on this print is over twelve.”

Kurt looked at his own hand and tried to envision the difference. He gulped.

“Which means,” she went on, “that this person is big, real big.”

Kurt’s eyes darted from her to the screen, then back to her again. “But this is crazy.”

“And there’s no way that an accident can account for the missing fingers on each hand. The palmer outlines are too natural, the spaces between the metacarpals too wide, too even. It’s got to be some kind of birth defect or something.” She jammed the brush into the hole of a test-tube rack, and left it there. “I’m going to send some of this stuff to the bureau, see what they say about it. Count on a six-week wait. In the meantime…” She extended a white, tiny hand to the screen.

Kurt stared at the illumined, blue image. It seemed to waver in space, as if three dimensional. “At least I got a good lead.”

“Yeah, knock yourself out. How hard can it be to spot a guy with three fingers on each hand and a notable case of acromegaly?” Laughter fluttered up between Jan Beck’s words. “It’s either that, or spacemen have landed in Tylersville.”

««—»»

Bard seemed to have grown into his office chair; its confines were filled by the sheer girth of his body, his buttocks and belly handles settling there like a big bag of mud. Kurt thought if the chief didn’t get out of that chair soon, he’d have to have it surgically removed. It was no wonder the man had a bad heart and blood pressure high enough to spin a turbine.

Seated, Kurt faced him. He reached shakily for a cigarette and almost broke it getting it out of the pack. All the while Bard’s face filled with hot blood as he scanned the forensic findings from Pikesville. Severe dissatisfaction raised a nearly palpable blockade across the desk, and with excruciating slowness, Bard’s eyes tracked up from the report and found Kurt’s, like a pair of ice picks.

“What is this shit you bring me?”

Kurt shrugged, trying to pretend nonchalance. He felt strangely as though the evidence findings were his fault, much the same as the aide must’ve felt who had waked Hitler to tell him that Europe was being invaded. Kurt pointed his finger like a gun. “Don’t blame me, boss. You told me to pick up the evidence report, so that’s what I did.”

“This isn’t an evidence report.” Bard wagged the sheaf of papers vigorously in the air. “This is science fiction; it’s worse than the one from the county. I can’t do anything with this except wrap fish. These people were supposed to give us a set of professional, scientific conclusions, from which we can take proper investigative action. Instead they give us shit.”

“I wouldn’t call it shit,” Kurt dared to say. “Her conclusions are pretty clear under the circumstances, with a great lead. We shouldn’t have a whole lot of trouble finding a guy with acromegaly.”

Bard’s face creased, an image of slits in clay. “What the fuck is that?”

“Some kind of pituitary disease. Makes you grow more than you’re supposed to. Real tall, real long bones, big face. Like that guy Lurch on the Addams Family.

Bard rubbed his face and let out a pained chuckle. “Jesus, I knew I should’ve stayed in the pool-cleaning business. I got a dug-up coffin, a missing officer, an abducted crippled girl, and if that’s not enough, now I got a guy who looks like fucking Lurch on the Addams Family.”

Kurt stood up quickly, struggling to remove his car keys. He sensed the approach of one of Bard’s outbursts; he didn’t want to be around when it happened. “Time for me to book, Chief. I might as well earn my pay, even though I’m not getting any.”

“What are you gonna do?”

“Start looking for Lurch. What else?”

««—»»

Kurt drove north on 154. He didn’t put much stock in the “Lurch” angle, but any lead was better than none; giants with three fingers on each hand weren’t easily forgotten, though in this town who could tell? It was something to ask around about, and he decided he’d start asking at the first logical place.

All but one of Belleau Wood’s chain gates was open. Kurt entered cautiously, puzzled that a millionaire couldn’t provide a smoother access to his own house. This particular road led straight into the forest. Bloodroot blossoms and Queen Anne’s lace bowed aside from the brush. As he passed, animals watched from safe distances, then meandered away, uninterested. The woods seemed to compress as he went on. It made him feel strange, it made him feel alone (but he knew he was alone) and still there was something threatening and utterly present about the forest’s depth. The dark day, perhaps, or the silence. If something happened to him (Something. What?) it might be hours or even days before he’d be found. (Found? Found. Like Drucker. Like Swaggert. “Chief Bard? Yeah, this is Glen. I just found Kurt.”) His hands tightened on the wheel. Against his will he glanced inadvertently into the rearview. Ahead of him he swore he could see shapes peering back from between the trees, configurations suspiciously human, and when he strained to focus his eyes they were gone. It was easy now to perceive the forest as something more than that. It was a maze of shadows and brooding light and paths which twisted away into nowhere. This was not a forest, but an interstice where men were not wanted, a hunting ground for ghosts.

He sighed at his own self-conscious reflections. His grip loosened on the wheel, and he relaxed. Daylight broke on his face. While he’d been busy speculating the woods and the horrors of the mind’s eye, the road had led him out.

He saw now how nature had made a fortress of Belleau Wood. Hills broke within the dense, surrounding forest, and through the center a cramped, almost perfectly square clearing sloped unevenly to the east. The property past the tree belt glowed in the light as a spread of thickets and waist-tall rye. At the summit of the fattest hill, the mansion could be seen.

A gravel-scratch road wound up the rise. Crookedly, a single row of telephone poles led to the mansion, each looming like a crucifix as he passed. He saw birds perched high and still on the power lines, like sentinels on a rampart. When he’d finally gained the hill, he felt let down. The house looked awkward to him, and rather small now that he was so close. It seemed built as two separate layers. The upper story rose bare in the stealing, gray light, yet the lower level spanned fat and dark under the overhang of shadow cast by the eaved wraparound porch. Kurt parked by the four-car garage, next to Willard’s glinting black Chrysler and the black Porsche. He felt a doubtless, straining urge to hesitate as he got out of the Ford, an invitation, he considered, to turn around and go home. In the yard a congregation of squirrels disbanded into opposite directions. A herring gull floated overhead, its wings completely still. Mounting the steps, the porch shadow overwhelmed him, and he felt an odd tingle at the back of his neck, as though a beetle crawled there.

He held off knocking. He heard voices from somewhere, but his attention was drawn first to the door knocker—an arcane, pallid face of stained metal. The face seemed to be masked, for only the eyes were visible, and they looked back at him in sheer, abyssal blankness. What an ugly piece of shit to hang on a door, he thought.

He looked left and noticed an intercom by the doorframe, and a tubular keyplate for a burglar alarm. The manufacturer of the alarm was one of the better companies. Further along the wall was an open window. The voices persisted, begged him to listen in:

“—an’t believe you could be that stupid, Charles. Do you have any idea what kind—” It was a woman’s voice, clearly infuriated. “—idiot. How could you be such an idiot?”

Now a man’s voice. Willard’s. “What else could I expect from you? Something goes wrong and you pass the buck, that’s just what I need. I’m standing in the middle of a crisis, and all you do is sit upstairs with those ridiculous dumbbells and exercise your breasts. Excellent. Superb. We have to do something about this, and the longer we wait, the worse it will get.”

Kurt leaned sideways, and froze to pick up more bits of conversation. At the same instant, though, a stiff wind gusted up the hill through the porch, reducing most of the next few sentences to gibberish.

“Owlong ‘ve oo in itting…iss?”

“Outtaeek, I pose.”

“Oopid ick! An oo dit ‘av…ucking ense oooell ee oudit ill ow?”

Kurt strained against the wall, trying to decipher the words. If only Dad could see me now, he thought.

“—ifference does it ake?” Willard muttered. “I ought I ould andle it i-self without larming you.”

The voices seemed to slide closer to the window. The wind died.

“You sure you didn’t lose your brains the last time you blew your goddamn nose? All this time I thought you knew what you were doing… Jesus, Charles, what are we going to do?”

Willard’s voice drifted in and out. Kurt ground his teeth at the words he missed.

“—nation, maybe. Laying it out would be easy.”

“Yes, but will it work?”

“It should. I hate to take the loss, though.”

The woman’s voice grew inflamed. “Fuck the loss, Charles. My God, I can’t believe you. We can take the loss…” Then, softer: “What are we going to use?”

“Something reputable. I was thinking of tee tee exx.”

Now the woman’s voice smoothed out. “Good idea. And I still know some people in Bethesda.”

“Yes, you’ve told me all about them, remember? The cucumber-and-Crisco contests, oral-sex poker, and the one young fellow whose nickname was ‘Hang Ten.’ A fine bunch.”

The woman was laughing. “I meant I still have contacts. People in the trade.”

“You’ll have to be careful. You can’t just walk in there and ask for it.”

Wearily now: “I know, Charles. I’m not stupid.”

Tee tee exx? Kurt thought. What was going on? He jotted the letters TTX on a piece of paper and stuck it in his jacket. Next, the woman’s voice was going on: “—about the meantime? There’s got to be something we can tell the—”

“And you call me an idiot.”

“We have to at least tell Glen. Something, anyway.”

“He’s a bright boy, and always very careful. We’ll tell him nothing.”

A quick rustling of trees obscured most of the next line. Kurt was able to decipher only one word.

“—killed.”

There was a brief impasse. Then Willard said, “This inordinate concern for Glen surprises me. I wonder about that.”

“And just what the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“Oh, nothing. I’m just not overly pleased by the way he looks at you on occasion. Like a big, sad-eyed mongrel.”

Kurt shook his head. This seemed as good a time as any to make himself known, now that the conversation had wilted. He rapped vigorously on the door with the knocker handle. The sound was puny and weak.

Only silence now from the window. Several seconds unwound, then the door opened.

Willard stood darkened by the foyer; he looked at Kurt with a lowered brow, as if searching for something minute, and then he brightened as recognition was made. “Ah, Officer Morris,” Willard said through too broad a smile. “I didn’t recognize you without your uniform.”

Kurt didn’t care to explain the reason he was not in uniform. “Sorry to bother you,” he said. “I’d just like to ask you a few things, if you’ve got the time.”

“Certainly, come on in,” Willard offered, and stepped back. Kurt entered a cramped, poorly lit foyer. Before him stretched a hallway he could not see the end of. This guy must be allergic to daylight, he thought, reacting to the hall’s drastic darkness. And fresh air, too. The air reeked heavily of fetid scents.

Willard wore casual, neat gray slacks, suede loafers, and a western-cut shirt with pens stuffed in the top pocket. Hair the color of lead spilled out the open V of the shirt.

“Can I get you a drink?” Willard closed the door. He seemed to be in a hurry to shut out the light. “A beer or something? I have Kirin, Old Peculier, and Iron City.”

Before he could answer, Kurt was caught off guard by one of many paintings on the wall. It was a large, age-tinted portrait of an old man whose head was bald as a light bulb, and who wore a tuxedo like something out of the gangbuster era. The old man’s face sagged around a tight, disapproving scowl. Uriah Heep on a bad day, Kurt reflected. You have a good one, too, you old plucked buzzard.

Willard was smiling, as if secretly bemused. Was he? The strangeness of the house made Kurt feel detached, while the ghastly portrait had sidetracked him further. Suddenly he wanted very much to leave.

“Kind of lost my train of thought,” he said, not soon enough. “That painting caught my eye.”

Willard’s smile peaked to sarcastic crispness. “Yes, that’s my late great father, Richard Harcourt Willard. I’m sorry to say that what he lacked in looks was not compensated for in kindness. He was as friendly as a mad dog…” Cracks formed around Willard’s eyes; the thought of his father seemed aggravating. Had Kurt struck a nerve by mentioning the portrait? Willard continued. “He inherited a fortune and increased it tenfold by the time he died. His rivals and associates alike referred to him as ‘The Castrator.’” Willard then tossed his head back and laughed.

What am I doing here? Kurt thought. For a moment he forgot why he’d come. In the portrait he now detected a ruined likeness, and Dorian Gray came to mind.

“You haven’t met my wife,” Willard was saying next. With a jolt, Kurt noticed a figure standing in a doorless, black entry to the left. Had the figure been standing there all along?

“Nancy, this is Officer Morris. He works for the local police department here in town.”

Kurt’s jaw nearly hit the floor. The figure came through a block of shadow and revealed itself as a taller than average woman with very dark, lank hair cut in a perfect line at the base of her neck. She was shocking to look at, a robust, athletic physique made lascivious by the bizarre light and an equally bizarre outfit. She wore a white leather skirt, net stockings, and a strange tabard-style waistcoat joined only by a single black button at the navel. The waistcoat was bright red, and its opened flare exposed so much of her chest that Kurt wondered what kept her breasts from popping out at any given moment. Alternative fashion is one thing, he thought, but this is exhibitionism.

“Pleased to know you,” she said. The voice from the porch. She raised a fine, red-nailed hand. “Have we met?”

Not really, Kurt thought. Not unless you consider me seeing you nude in Glen’s window an introduction. Lady, I never forget a cleavage. “No, I don’t think so. I only just met your husband the other day, as a matter of fact.” He shook her hand and found it curiously moist. Why should she be nervous?

“I was just telling Officer Morris about my father,” Willard said, indicating the portrait. He took his wife’s side, an act which seemed thoroughly incongruous. This was a hard couple for Kurt to picture married. They went together like a new wave cycle slut and a professor of geology.

Nancy Willard smiled, but the smile gave way to a tic. “That’s one subject worth avoiding in this house. The stories my husband tells about his father make Ivan the Terrible seem like Mister Rogers.”

“Sorry I never got to meet him,” Kurt said, thinking: Jesus, have I died and gone to a hell of small talk?

Willard glanced at his wife’s chest and frowned. “You mentioned wanting to ask us a few things?”

“That’s right,” Kurt said. “I’m sure you remember that recently a casket was stolen from Beall Cemetery and later found on your property—”

“Any leads?” Willard cut in. The universal question.

“Well, kind of. See, they found some fingerprints on it, but they were very unusual fingerprints, so unusual that we believe one of the persons involved probably has some physical problems that would be easily noticed.”

Nancy Willard’s voice turned limp, something which Kurt found very interesting. “What do you mean?” she said. “There was something wrong with the fingerprints?”

More curiosity. Willard’s eyes thinned, and his smile grew tight. Had his wife’s response displeased him?

“What I mean,” Kurt continued, now paying deliberate attention to their faces, “is that the size and nature of the fingerprints suggests a person who is physically abnormal, even deformed, at least by way of the extremities. For instance, unless we’re grossly mistaken, this person only has three fingers on each hand.”

“Very strange,” Willard commented. “By means of some accident?”

“No, we don’t think so. I’m not an expert, I’m just telling you what I was told. But the state police are sure it’s a deformity from birth, and they also think it’s an individual of great physical size, like someone with a pituitary disorder.”

Kurt paused for further comment, and to watch their faces, but this ploy failed as his eyes were repeatedly lured to Nancy Willard’s near-bare chest. The red waistcoat was obscene. Either button the goddamned thing up, or take it off. he wished he could say. Glinting, a ruby and diamond heart on a necklace lay in the cleft of her breasts.

The Willards remained silent; a sudden stiffness made them both seem taller. Kurt went on. “I just thought that if either of you have seen anyone like this, you might let us know. It’s a reasonable bet that whoever took that coffin is at least slightly familiar with the layout of your property. Loggers, or something. Hunters, maybe.”

“Well, I don’t allow any logging,” Willard said. “And I’m afraid the only hunting that goes on is entirely without my permission—poaching has always been a problem. The resource police come out whenever we report gunshots, though they’ve yet to catch a poacher. Once in a while a tree will go down near one of the access roads, and I’ll hire someone to cut it up and take it away. But in all that I certainly don’t recall anyone with the physical characteristics you’ve mentioned.” Willard looked up contemplatively, thinking through a squint. He stroked his trimmed beard. “The only contractors I’ve had out here were the people who constructed my garage, but that was years ago.”

“What about groundskeepers, lawn care?”

“Town boys mow the grass and keep up the yard around the house as needed. But we’re quite familiar with them.” Willard glanced to his wife. “Can you think of anything, dear?”

“No,” she said. “If I’d seen someone like that, I’m sure I’d have taken notice.”

“Well, anyway,” Kurt told them. “I just wanted to let you know. If you do see anyone meeting a description like that, or anyone suspicious for any reason, let us know. And of course any time you spot a vehicle other than Glen’s truck on your land, give us a call quick.”

“We certainly will,” Willard assured him. “Anything we can do to help. We’ll all rest easier when these people are found. It’s quite frightening to know that as we sleep there’s a troop of weirdos milling around my property.”

By now Kurt’s vision had partly adjusted to the poor light. Just past where Willard stood was a heavily banistered staircase. Crowded into the upper corner of the second-floor landing, Kurt recognized three things: a motion-detection alarm, a bracket-mounted sealed-beam floodlight, and a pan/tilt RCA CCTV camera. Then he noticed an identical motion detector at the end of the hallway.

“Well, I better take off now.”

“We’re grateful you took the time to come out,” Willard added.

He managed to resist a final glance at Nancy Willard’s chest. “It was my pleasure. You all have a good day, and it was nice meeting you, Mrs. Willard.” Brother, don’t I know it.

When Kurt was at last out of the house, he felt the relief of a claustrophobe just freed from a footlocker. He looked up when crossing the front porch and noticed still another motion detector. That irked him, as he paced back to the Ford. True, there was nothing out of the ordinary about home burglar alarms, but this bordered on paranoia. He’d seen at least three thousand dollars’ worth of security equipment in the space of thirty seconds.

The Ford started eagerly, as if it, too, wished to get away from the macabre house. Kurt lit a cigarette and stared straight ahead as he drew the first puff. He saw two squat objects protruding from Willard’s side yard. They seemed to be large cylinders with teepee-like crowns of weathered metal. They reminded him of ventilators, but the notion was lost at once as he wound down the high hill and away, back toward home.

— | — | —

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Voices. Reduced now, by time, to the discourse of ghosts. Your voice.

It’s true. I swear to God it’s true. —

— Of course it is, Sergeant. —

You think I’m schizzing out, you think I’m crazy. You don’t believe me.

— Of course we believe you, Sergeant. We believe that you’ve been under a tremendous amount of stress, and while doing your duty

— No, no, don’t hand me that shit again. It’s the truth. I’m not crazy, goddamn it. It’s the truth.

You’re disillusioned, Sergeant. You’re upset, and you’re hurt. We know what happened.

Bullfuckingshit! I know what I saw. And it wasn’t any goddamned…whatever the fucking hell you called it.

Hypnagogic delirium. Your symptomatology is classic, we’ve no doubts. And let me assure you that hypnagogic hallucinations are by no means synonymous with any mode of psychosis. It can happen to anyone, Sergeant. And it’s what happened to you.

Aside then. Doctor to Doctor. What with the delusions and of course the shock reaction to his physical injuries, the unipolar manifestation comes as no real surprise.

The other doctor nods. Then we both agree, at least from a rudimentary standpoint, on a typical dysfunction of biogenic amines?

— Certainly. But that’s just scratching the surface.

What of the rest, then? —

— Could be a lot of things, could be right under our noses. I’ve ordered basic bloodwork already, scanning for nutritional imbalances seems a good place to start. It could be something as simple as low folic acid, or excess levels of B12. Statistically, most service-related cases of pellagra are attributed to a high rate of C-ration consumption… Sergeant, do you eat a lot of C-rations?

You frown. Your face itches. No. I haven’t had any c’s since the last Reforger years ago. They’re all MRE’s now.

— And where was that?

— Erlangen. Germany. Alpha 2/37, 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division. You know, my last duty station before I came here. Don’t you fucking people have records?

No C-rations in years, then?

— No! —

The doctors turn to one another again, like children trying to be discreet. Supplemental nicontinamide can’t hurt. They say most of the West is deficient to begin with.

The other doctor nods. But that wouldn’t explain the rest of it. —

— Porphyria, maybe? Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome?

The other doctor nods. He seems well-practiced at nodding, as though such an acknowledgment is proof of diagnostic competence. I hadn’t even considered alcoholic hallucinosis. That might account for the obvious confabulation. —

Sergeant, do you drink?

No, but if this keeps up, I’m gonna start.

You don’t drink at all?

Your face is beginning to hurt from frowning. Look, Major, it’s all in my records. I had a drinking problem a long time ago, when I got transferred from 1st Cav to 716th MP’s. But when I came back to the World I beat it.

The doctors seem delighted at this, and you sense they don’t believe you’ve stopped drinking. You look at them hard. One is in khakis, a dorkish, fat 0-4 with crumpled pants and corfam shoes. His hair is longer than regulation, and his sideburns well past the bottom of the opening of his ear. Wimp, you think. A fat, out-of-shape turd wearing the uniform of a soldier. It makes you sick. The other doctor, the nodder, is the scary one. His fatigues shine from starch, though his boots, too, are patent leather, the trademark of all medical officers. He has a stiff, thick mustache and very short hair. He reminds you of Shakespeare’s description of Cassius.

I’d love to see what he’d do with a TAT and an MMPI.

Due time, Captain. Due time. The next MED EVAC is Wednesday; we’ll let Forest Glen worry about a diagnosis. Did you look at his DD service file? I’d hate to see a TDRL at this point in his military career, but I suppose separation is indicated.

The captain turns back to you. Sergeant, I want you to think hard about what we’re telling you. We’re not here to steer you wrong. There’s no need to be so implacable.

You guys sound like Oxford dictionaries. Implacable. What the hell does that mean?

It means stubborn, Sergeant. You’re being stubborn. And if you don’t calm down and collect your thoughts, you may find yourself in a very unpleasant situation. And don’t think you can hide behind your Silver Star and Distinguished Service Cross.

You snap. You fucking guys think you can walk all over people just because you wear brass. Having a degree makes you superior, right? Well I’ve seen trainee washouts who’re better men than you. You’ve got no right to even wear the uniform. I was fighting North Vietnamese Regulars when I was eighteen, and you were in diapers playing with your own poop. You don’t know the difference between a HEAT round and a round of golf, you couldn’t operate a field radio to save your life, and you probably think CBN is a television network. And now you’ve got the balls to imply that I’m using my commendations as a shield. I’ll kick you in the dick so hard you’ll have to open your mouth every time you want to piss.

Now the major. You’re on thin ice, Sergeant. Talk like that can get you an AR 635-100. I don’t care if you fought in the Revolution, we’re officers, and you will afford us proper military courtesy as per regulations.

— My God. Regulations? You’re fat, you’re weak, you couldn’t pass a PT test if your life depended on it. Your belt buckle’s misaligned, your pockets are unbuttoned, your hair’s too long, and your pants look like you pressed them with a tank track. Don’t tell me about regulations, Major. You’re in violation of at least a dozen just standing there. I could have you written up in less time than it takes to eat your next pack of Twinkies. And if you want to file a 635-100 against me, go ahead. You’ll be able to hear the Adjutant General laughing all the way from the Pentagon. He happens to be a good friend of mine.

The major backs off, like the pussy he is. His face glows pink from embarrassment. Really, Sergeant, this is getting us nowhere. We understand how you must feel, and how angry you must be. You just don’t remember, that’s all, and loss of memory and disorientation are common in a situation like this. We’re here to help you, Sergeant, we’re on your side. Please try and realize that this story of yours is fantasy.

All you can do is look back at them. You detect a strange heaviness over your face, the dull ache in your chest. You notice then that you are viewing the doctors through one eye. The other eye is overlapped by a thick bandage.

There, excellent… Now, as I was saying. We know all about O’Brien and Kinnet, CID gave us all the details. And we know all about the black market collaboration. No one’s saying you were part of it, quite the contrary. You knew that O’Brien and Kinnet were stealing from the armory, so you followed them to their pick-up point. The men who brought you in tonight have already given their statements.

— Van? —

Yes. Tech Sergeant Van Holtz. He and an airman were on perimeter patrols; they’re the ones who found you and brought you in. Van Holtz said that yesterday you told him you had found out about the plan to rob the armory, and that since it was your armory, you wanted to take care of it on your own. So you armed yourself and followed the two Marines, O’Brien and Kinnet, after they’d stolen the weapons from the vault. Unfortunately, a gunfight ensued, and the two Marines escaped along with their middlemen.

No, no, Van was bullshitting. I didn’t even talk to him yesterday. He could see I was in deep shit, so he made up the story about the armory bust to protect me. I was the one who took the weapons and ammunition out of the armory.

Please, Sergeant, please. That’s ridiculous. The SP’s have testified to what happened. Van Holtz has verified everything.

The captain is smirking, Don’t argue with him, he’s delusional. He doesn’t know what really happened. Retrograde amnesia. He’s filling the blank spot with a nightmare.

Frustration and rage make your throat swell. Your face is burning beneath the gauze. Why don’t they believe you? Would you people listen for one fucking second. Van Holtz lied, to cover me. O’Brien and Kinnet weren’t selling guns. It was the colonel’s idea! Get the colonel!

Sergeant, this colonel is no longer even in the service. He ETS’d weeks ago.

I know, I know, but he stayed behind without telling anyone. We arranged it that way, he stayed behind for this. He said he was going to pay us if we helped him, a hundred K split four ways between me, O’Brien, Kinnet, and Van. Van chickened out at the last minute, so it was just the three of us. O’Brien and Kinnet are dead. Can’t I get that through your thick heads?

I repeat, Sergeant. Your colonel left this country weeks ago. His signature is on all his TA-50 turn in, supply, the clinic, and also on the departure logs at the CQ and the airport. As for O’Brien and Kinnet, they are AWOL· and being sought for collusion with a terrorist faction and theft of government property.

The pain in your face is cutting down like blades. You don’t even bother to shout anymore. I already told you. They didn’t go AWOL, they didn’t steal guns. They were killed helping me. Go look. Send the SP’s. Their bodies might still be there. Some evidence, at least.

We’ve already sent some men, Sergeant, hours ago. Van Holtz took an armed squad to the exact location you specified. There were no bodies, no…limbs. All they found were several discharged grenade canisters, some guns, and a lot of empty bullet casings.

Look, I know it sounds crazy, but it’s true. They exist. I saw them. Van Holtz is lying .

Don’t worry, Sergeant. A little relaxation, a little of the right kind of treatment, and you’ll be as good as new. You’ve been through quite a lot in your career. A multitude of combat tours, duty stations all over the world, extensive training. A soldier can only do so much before the pressure and the memories get the best of him. —

Suddenly you don’t care anymore about the bandages, the damage, or the pain. Something in you, the structure of your sense of reason, perhaps, detonates. You think I’m nuts, but I don’t give a shit! Fuck you! Fuck you both! How many times do I have to tell you goddamned asses! It’s the ghala! The ghala!

Not this again. Get the duty nurse!

The ghala! The ghala!

Sergeant, you’re going to tear out your stitches if you don’t stop. Captain, I’ll need something to put him out. Hurry.

The ghala! The ghala!

««—»»

“The ghala,” he whispered to himself. Behind him a long, pitchless car horn blared. In the rearview he saw a fat black woman mouthing obscenities in the windshield of her car. Traffic was moving again, but Sanders hadn’t noticed. He’d been immersed in the daydream, forced to recall a scene he’d hoped was forgotten entirely. The black woman was leaning on her horn now. It brayed at him like a beast caught in a trap.

Sanders accelerated, for all the good it did. Less than a minute later, another stoplight turned red, and the traffic on West Pratt Street stopped again. It was one thing he’d taken for granted in the military; Army bases didn’t have traffic jams. He wondered if he’d ever get to East Baltimore Street.

He’d had an involving day, though little to show for it thus far. First thing that morning he’d taken a bus to BWI Airport. There, he’d crossed the LONG-TERM lot, as if heading for the terminal, when a beige Plymouth station wagon—the car which he now drove—parked and discharged its sole occupant, a well-dressed, stoic-faced lawyer type. Sanders knew that the minimum parking time in the long-term lot was three days. He hoped that would be enough time to do what he had to do, and if so, he wasn’t really stealing the car, but annexing it temporarily. He had every intention of returning it; he’d chosen the long-term lot because it gave him a minimum seventy-two hour head start before the vehicle would be reported stolen. When he was through with it, he’d simply park it somewhere reasonably safe. An anonymous letter would then be mailed to the owner, containing a just amount of cash, as compensation for any inconvenience, plus the location of the vehicle.

Sanders had followed the owner into the terminal; he’d managed to overhear the flight number, and eventually the owner had boarded. Five minutes after the flight’s departure time, Sanders had then walked back out to the long-term lot. He approached the car as if he owned it, his tension wrench and favorite “hook” already concealed in the proper hands. He preferred picking pre-88 Plymouths, not because there was a significant difference in lock design, but because over the years, as a locksmith, he’d simply developed a knack for them.

He opened the car door as quickly as if he’d had the key, and he did the same with the ignition. He’d already noted that the entrance gate was unmanned; therefore, the guard at the exit booth would not know that Sanders wasn’t the same person who’d driven this car onto the lot just minutes before. He’d handed out the ticket stub, claiming he’d forgotten his luggage and would return shortly. He paid the minimal fare and drove away.

He would memorize the owner’s name and address off the registration; if stopped he could more than likely stonewall an excuse of borrowing the car from a friend, since it would not yet be listed as stolen in the police computers. While in the Army, he’d never let his Florida driver’s license expire. He would just have to be very careful, but then that was a natural trait. And since his fingerprints were on federal file, he’d wipe the car down with isopropanol when he was done with it.

Next he drove to an NTW in Laurel and had four new steel-belted radials put on the Plymouth. At the nearest service station, he topped the tank, and got a complete tune-up, oil change and lube, and brake inspection. He also purchased and filled two five-gallon jerry cans.

And after all that, he’d driven to the heart of Baltimore and gotten stuck in the worst traffic jam he’d ever seen.

Potholes here were as large as grenade sumps. On some streets he couldn’t avoid them no matter how expertly he zigzagged. He sensed in Baltimore a vast, graying state of decomposition, spiritual as well as physical. The city offended every angle of perception. Traffic noise clawed his nerves. Streets melded into a labyrinth of compressed gloom. Boarded, gutted row houses stood decrepitly, left to collapse. All around him were abandoned road repairs; packs of scavenging, gut-sucked dogs; garbage-filled alleys; and columns of high, drab buildings streaked by rust. Street people stared into space, swaddled in rotting clothes. Pedestrians traversed the sidewalks in a parade of leering, unfriendly faces. The city stank. Sanders had smelled better open sewers; it was even worse than Paris. Something vile and membranous filmed the inside of his mouth. He could actually taste the carbon monoxide, the trash vapor, and the overall rot in the air. He could taste it. They ought to nuke this place, he thought. Then just fill the crater with toxic sludge. This isn’t a city. It’s an ass-crack.

Midday now, though it could’ve been rush hour. South Gay Street didn’t proceed—it crawled. Half the stoplights were malfunctioning, others seemed to remain red forever. Constantly he was forced to stop again and wait to shift lanes for road repairs. MEN WORKING, the fluorescent orange signs warned. Pile drivers and barricades boxed him in. Grime-coated Blaw Knox road pavers sat aside, unused, like squashed tanks. He looked dismayed at a city ad, SUPPORT BALTIMORE’S ADOPT A POTHOLE PROGRAM, and then heard his own teeth clack from the jolt of still another pothole. What killed him was that, in spite of so many work crews, no one seemed to be working. Men just stood there in overalls and tar boots, leaning on shovels, smoking and chewing, pissing away time. It seemed criminal that millions could be unemployed while these lazy, sluffing shammers earned top dollar for doing nothing. MEN NOT WORKING, the signs should say, Sanders thought. Even better, MEN JERKING OFF.

He threaded a maze of side roads and at last turned right onto East Baltimore Street. Here he was dumbstruck; the street was a vanishing point of adult bookstores and bottomless bars, colored lights in every window flashing insanely like Christmas in Babylon. PEEPS 25¢, one sign buzzed. HOLMES, SCAT, FISTING, THE HOT WET BEST OF SHAUNA GRANT. Fisting? Sanders thought. Thin teenage prostitutes strode back and forth, waxen-fleshed. One smiled as if to beckon, a mouth full of cracked teeth. At the corner a potbellied door hustler barked, “Tits, clits, and ice-cold Schlitz!”

“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” Sanders recited, amused. But he’d seen much worse. “What a garbage heap.”

Baltimore Police Headquarters occupied the end of the block, the entire end. It shadowed the whole street, a huge Bauhaus square of polished granite and gun-slit windows. This was the ultimate irony, that the city’s nerve center for law enforcement existed on the same block as the porno-tenderloin drag. Sanders stretched the irony further, by parking his stolen car in the police visitors’ lot.

In the lobby a female admin cop smiled up from the other side of a long, curved counter. The grip of her sidearm had a notch.

“I’m looking for a guy named Jack Wilson.” He positioned himself so to hide his bad side. “He still works here, doesn’t he?”

“Sergeant Wilson runs the property office. He’s on duty till three o’clock.”

“I’d like to see him, if it’s all right.”

“Is this police business?”

“Well, no. We’re friends from the Army. I haven’t seen him in a long time.”

She picked up a phone. “Name?”

“John Sanders.”

Vivid, brightly colored paintings caught his eye; they were mural-sized, huge. She hung up the phone. Had she spoken to Wilson directly? He produced two articles of identification, then she signed him in and pinned a visitor’s pass to his collar. Her smile turned crooked when she saw the left side of his face.

He descended to the basement in an Otis elevator with a security camera in it. Caged light bulbs led him through several angles of corridors. Block letters over an arrow on the wall read, PROPERTY DISPOSAL. When he turned, he saw a figure in a doorway at the end of the corridor. The figure stood at parade rest.

It was a chilling, emotional moment.

“Somebody tell me I’m dreaming,” echoed a wiry, nasal voice. “I must be seein’ things.”

They shook hands in the darkness. Sanders said, “Good to see you, Jack. It’s been too long.”

“Yeah, it has. I thought maybe you’d bitten it. Come on in, check out my new PDY.”

Sanders saw that the years had not touched his friend. Wilson’s compactness still held the same scary qualities; Sanders had never known the man to be afraid, even the day he’d saved his life. Wilson’s hair was shiny dark blond and still service-short. His mustache, as it had always been, was much darker than his hair.

“Some things never change,” Sanders said. He seated himself on two banded cardboard cartons. “When are you going to shave off that soldier-of-fortune mustache?”

“When my harelip goes away. At least I can grow one. Haw, haw. Say, you still off the joy juice?”

“Not a drop since TuDo Street. Throwing up gets old fast. But I’ll rip the shit out of a case of soda water.”

Wilson sat behind a surprisingly clear desk. “Coffee’s my new deal. You know, I just read somewhere that the Vietnamese used formaldehyde to keep their beer from rotting. Fifty p a glass. We drank enough of that shit to fill a fuel gore.”

“At least we won’t have to be embalmed when we die.”

“You know it… So how long’s it been?”

Sanders looked to the ceiling lights. “Shit, I don’t know. ’75? ’76?”

“That’s it!” Wilson exclaimed and slapped the desk. “’76. Beautiful beautiful Bamberg in the snow. That was my last FTX.”

“Yeah, I remember now. The Canadians beat the shit out of everybody, 1st AD included. I couldn’t hit an elephant’s ass with a bass fiddle that day. Some war games they turned out to be.”

“Haw haw,” Wilson erupted. “And those crazy German pilots in their F-105’s; they’d fly so low they’d knock the balls off our antennas. You got it, some things never change . . . After that, I went to Aberdeen Proving Grounds, and you went to…bumfuck Saudi Arabia?”

“That’s right. And bumfuck’s the word.”

“You’re not still in the pickle, are you?”

“With a haircut like this, are you kidding? I was medically retired, a couple shy of twenty.”

“Medical, huh? What for?”

“Bad back,” Sanders lied. Only because the truth wouldn’t work.

“Yeah, me, I put in my twenty and blew. Battalion CO at Aberdeen offered me E-9 to re-up for four more, but I said fuck no. When the Army went from starch to permanent press, I figured it wasn’t worth being in anymore. My record and MOS got me this job. Between my retired pay and the bread they give me here, I’m sitting on a fair pile. Got myself a house in Glen Burnie, too. Paid for.”

“Sounds like you’re doing all right,” Sanders said. Finally, “Aren’t you going to ask what happened to my face?”

Wilson squinted at him, then shrugged. “Hell, you and me always were a pair of ugly sons of bitches. Let me guess. You blew a cherry-juice line in an M60? Or did that C-4 get the best of you?”

Again he had to lie. It bothered him to lie to a friend. He couldn’t very well tell Wilson about the ghala. “Neither,” he said. “Though I did know a guy who got his lower lip sheared off on a 105 breechblock. No, I got mugged by some ’Rabs in Riyadh. When they took my wallet, I told them Saudi Arabians were proof that humans fuck camels. Guess the fellas couldn’t take a joke, ’cause then they gave me a little quick cosmetic surgery. With switchblades.”

“Yeah? But if I know this John Sanders, a couple of ’em went home minus cock and balls.”

Wilson poured two cups of coffee from a thermos that had Smurfs on it. “Police coffee’s the worst,” he said. “You’ll love it. Now if I remember right, your hometown is somewhere in Florida. I can’t believe you came all the way to Maryland to trade old times with me.”

Sanders looked down at open hands. “You’re right, Jack… I need a favor.”

“Name it. Money?”

“No, no. I’ve got five years of fifty-percent base pay in the bank, and I’m drawing more from VA than I would from straight retirement.” He paused. His face felt tight. “I need a weapon.”

Wilson understood instantly. Weapon here didn’t mean pistol, gun, cannon, or knife. It was the universal code to anyone who’d been in the Army. This is your weapon, the senior drill instructors would say on day one. This is an M16A1. You will know it, you will love it. You will be able to take it apart and put it back together, blind. It will be part of you, as vital to you as your brain. It is not a rifle. It is not a gun. It is your weapon.

Wilson appeared disappointed. “That’s all?”

“You have one?”

“I have plenty. You used to be an armorer, John. You know what kind of shit we can get away with. At Aberdeen, I was NCOIC of one of the largest gun vaults and ammo points in the U.S.” Wilson hunched forward and lowered his voice. “I do the same thing here. Permanent disposal of seized evidence is my 706. You name it, I see it. Everything from homemade blackjacks to factory-packed submachine guns. I’m not telling you anything new. When you get a chance at something, you pluck it. Armorers are the best-armed men in the world.”

“I know. That’s why I came.”

Wilson chuckled without a trace of guilt. “I’ll be honest with you, most of what I get in here is pretty dull, lots of brass knuckles, butterfly knives, SNS’s. But it gets hot once in a while. Summer of ’78, I think, narcotics seized a moving van full of Uzis and MAC’s. Colombians, you know? Sent them to the federal can for a thousand years. And two winters ago they caught some fence with an M2 and tripod in his garage. Can you believe it?”

“And you sent it to the crusher?”

“Not on your life,” Wilson said. ”A little monkeying around with the paperwork and presto—the fucker’s buried in my backyard along with 1,500 rounds of caliber-fifty. I’ve got enough guns and ordnance to rearm the Wehrmacht. Parts, too. Upper receivers, lower receivers, gas lines, bolts, barrels, clips, auto sears. Enough to fill a couple of bussel racks. Shit, John, my backyard would blow the top off a metal detector.”

“But why?” Sanders asked. “You’re not selling?”

“Oh, hell no. I’m no criminal, I’m just a thief. I’d never give or sell guns to the wrong people. I save ’em. Got a fortune invested in bury boxes, and I’m even thinking about a shelter. You just wait till World War III hits the fans. Be damned if I’m gonna get caught holding my lizard. I’m gonna live. And I’ll have the firepower to do it.”

Now it all made sense. Sanders was aware of the current survivalist movement, a legitimate school of thought were it not subverted by so many of today’s idiots. Nevertheless, the idea of living in the aftermath of nuclear devastation seemed pointless to him. Wilson’s fanaticism, though, had just become Sanders’s good fortune.

“So that’s all you need?” Wilson asked. ”A 16A1?”

“Or a facsimile.”

“I wouldn’t give a buddy anything but the real McCoy. That would be like asking for Coors and getting a nonalcoholic malt beverage.”

“I’ll also need rounds. I understand you can’t buy ammunition in Maryland without signing your name.”

“That’s a fact. Every punk in high school would be making guns out of mousetraps and car aerials. Don’t worry about rounds, I’ve got rounds.”

“And maybe some bangballs, or Hoffmann charges, if you happen to have any. Something good for some racket, that won’t do much damage.”

Wilson grinned, nodding. “Bangballs, then. I pinched a case at Aberdeen.”

Is there anything he doesn’t have? Sanders thought. He cleared his throat. “One thing, though… How cold is this stuff?”

“Colder than a bag lady in K-Town. Remember Use’s cooze? That cold.”

“I don’t want you to think I’m going to go out and snipe people,” Sanders said. “The only reason I ask is because if something, you know, goes wrong, I don’t want the shit coming back to you. On the off chance I have to dump the stuff. Or—”

“Kill someone,” Wilson finished. “Yeah, sure. But don’t fret. Ain’t no acid test in the world could get the serial numbers off my guns. Clean and cold as ice. Of course, I don’t have to tell you the rest. If you smoke someone and lose the stuff, my fingerprints ain’t gonna be on any of it. Yours will.”

“I’m careful, you know that. And if I get caught, I’ll take the wrap.”

Wilson kicked back and placed his heels on the desk. He looked at Sanders speculatively. “If you don’t mind my asking, what exactly are you up to?”

“I haven’t gone bad, if that’s what you mean,” Sanders said. At least I hope not. “A guy owes me money and an explanation for something that happened a long time ago. I don’t even care about the money, if you want to know the truth. I just want to see what this fella’s been up to for the last seven or so years, and he’s always been good in the way of surprises, so I don’t want to go in there without some decent heat. I swear to you, it’s just to be on the safe side, just in case I have to defend myself. I doubt that I’ll have to fire a single shot.”

“Why does he owe you money?”

“I can’t tell you that—just trust me. If I told you, you’d never believe me. It’s the kind of thing you’d have to see for yourself, which you’re welcome to do. If you want to cammie up and come along, I’ll split the money with you. It might be a lot.”

“Sounds like some party. But I’ll have to pass on the action. The hill’s way behind me now, and I’m going down fast.”

“Me, too, but what the hell? Just tell me how much you want. Like I said, I got cash.”

“Cash?” Wilson said. “Don’t insult me. You pulled my dick out of the fire once, or have you forgotten? It takes some kind of balls to go into a burning 88 and haul your buddy out. Everyone else left me to sizzle like bacon.”

“You’d have done the same for me.”

“At least I’d like to think so,” Wilson said, and laughed. “The fact remains—thanks to you, I’m the only man alive who knows what a direct hit from a Sagger sounds like from the inside. Any time you need something, you come to me. What’s mine is yours.”

“Thanks,” Sanders said.

“Now, here’s what we’ll do,” Wilson went on. “Meet me in the lobby at three; that’s when I get off. If you’re in no big hurry, we’ll grab a couple of Pollacks for dinner, and maybe stop by the 408 Club to belt down a few 7-Ups and gander the pussy. Then we’ll go back to my place, and I’ll fix you up with all the hardware you need.”

— | — | —

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

“Did you hear that?” she whispered.

“Hear what?” Glen said, but he was too busy kissing her to hear anything. The inside of the truck was cramped and nearly lightless; she relaxed in his arms, as if mildly tranquilized, and succumbed to his petting. Glen kissed her assiduously, dizzied by the scent of her perfume. His free hand crept up and down her side, a directionless gesture prompted only by his need to touch her. She began to unbutton her blouse.

The entire notion was silly, even absurd—two adults parked in the woods and necking like high school sweethearts. In Willard’s security truck no less. Glen might’ve laughed had he not been so intent on her. When her blouse was open, he pressed a hand between her breasts and smiled at the simple thump of her heart.

It was midnight now. A light breeze traced over them through the open cab window. Night sounds throbbed in from the forest. It had all been Nancy’s idea; generally they went to a motel, or to Glen’s, but lately she’d seemed bothered about her age. “Let’s be eighteen again,” she’d insisted. “Let’s park in the woods.” He wouldn’t have cared if they’d parked in a landfill, so long as he could be with her. But she was only thirty; why should she be depressed about her age?

They’d parked north of Belleau Wood’s largest interior ridge, a vast, rising slope of serried woods, and faced a small clearing which extended to the end of the property. Despite the clearing’s openness, Glen could see almost nothing ahead of him. Clouds expunged the moonlight, laying a caul through the forest. He could feel her more than see her.

Nancy had forgotten her question; she turned in his embrace and went into one of her long hot penetrating kisses. During moments like this, moments of complete abstraction, Glen thought this was all he lived for—to be kissed by this woman. Through her kisses came a vital element, the final, necessary amalgam of a system which avouched his spirit and legitimized his love. Without it, he’d feel stained black by guilt, or at least he would have at one time. He didn’t know now. Or care. He realized how vulnerable he was. How pussy-whipped. He loved her. He would do anything for her. If he saw another man kissing her, or even looking at her closely, he’d fight before he had time to think twice. And if anyone ever hurt her…

The truth held no consolation, though. The futility of this relationship beat in the back of his skull like a headache, and he doubted he was anything more to her than a fleck of spice in a particularly dull life. She would leave Willard for him only after they started serving Hawaiian Punch in hell.

“Let me,” she said. “Right here, in the truck.”

He knew what she meant, of course, one of the many mysteries of femininity. He could see her eyes in the dark; he could see the desire in them. But that only made him more morose. It was just desire, and nothing more.

“Not yet,” he said.

Her skin felt like warm silk. He touched her breasts alternately in smooth, pressing motions, until her nipples filled. She leaned tighter against him, her tongue slipping insistently over his. She moaned in his mouth, and then her hand slithered over his cheek and down his chest like fluid. She moaned again; her fingers closed on his crotch, caging it, and seemed to oscillate there.

“Yet?” she said.

Glen couldn’t answer.

Just as she prepared to unfasten his belt, a loud quick crunching sound came at them from the rim of the woods.

Nancy swallowed a shriek, jerking back into the seat. Glen felt his heart slam in his chest. “Don’t tell me you didn’t hear that,” she whispered.

“I heard it,” Glen said. But he didn’t say he’d been hearing sounds like that a lot lately. The scare wore down when he considered the possibilities. “No need to lose our minds,” he said. “It’s probably just some deranged murderer sneaking around. Either that, or Cody Drucker hunting for his cufflinks.”

“Goddamn it, Glen!” she said, her whisper now fiercely sharp. She locked her door and rolled up her window, then leaned forward, holding her blouse closed. “This is no time for jokes! Turn on the lights, for God’s sake!”

Glen grinned. Oh, honey, you turn me on when you’re pissed. He started the engine and turned on the high beams. A wall of severe white glare sprang up, lighting the trees beside them, and the clearing. A hardy ten-point buck stood about ten yards ahead of the truck. It stared back at them intently, craning its furred neck as if to look past the lights. It made no attempt to flee, but instead seemed more annoyed by their presence than frightened.

“There’s your culprit,” Glen said. “A four-legged Peeping Tom.”

Nancy seemed to deflate from relief. “You don’t know how close I came to wetting my pants.”

“Thank God for vinyl seat covers.”

“I don’t know how you stand working out here,” she said, and looked around nervously. She began to button her blouse, concealing her unflawed breasts notch by notch. “It’s so dark. Doesn’t this job ever get on your nerves?”

“No,” but that was not an honest response.

“Well, it’s got to be dull, at least.”

“Not really. I get my share of action—hunters, trespassers, dumpers. And lots of parkers, especially this time of year.”

“What are parkers?”

“You know, kids parking in the woods to make out. Like what we’re doing. Belleau Wood is a regular Trojan Alley. Every teenager with a car tries to bring his girlfriend here.”

“But how do they get past the gates?”

“Sometimes they cut them, sometimes they come in before the gates are locked. Lots of them slip through the old haulage lanes at the back of your husband’s property. There aren’t any gates on those, the trick is finding them. But it doesn’t matter. You could put the Great Wall of China around Belleau Wood, and these kids would still find a way to get in. Hell, tonight I ran off three sets of parkers before I’d even been on duty an hour.”

Nancy’s fascination seemed to spread across her face. “You mean, you catch them…doing it?”

“Yeah.”

“You see them screwing?”

“Sure, lots of times. What’s the big deal?”

“I don’t think I like the idea of you roaming around out here, watching people screw.”

Was she jealous? He felt delighted. “Well, it’s not like I stand there and watch. I run them off. They could even be prosecuted for trespassing, but that’d mean your husband would have to file the complaint, since he’s the property owner. He doesn’t want the hassle, he just tells me to run them off.”

“That figures,” she said. “And speaking of my husband, you better take me back now.”

“But it’s only—”

“It’s late, Glen. And sooner or later, Charles is going to start to wonder about all these ‘movies’ I go to at night.”

Glen laughed, but it sifted away when he realized there was little to laugh about. He didn’t want her to go just yet; he didn’t want to be alone. But she was right, as always—these late-night rendezvous would have to end. It seemed preposterous that Willard didn’t suspect.

“We’ll have to be more careful from now on,” she said, as though she’d probed his mind. “A lot more careful than this.”

Glen was staring at the deer. “I know.” Then, after a pause, “Do you think he’s caught on?”

Nancy shrugged in a very unconvincing way.

He U-turned and drove back toward the access road. The truck rattled over rough earth, and neither of them spoke. Nancy looked blankly out the side window, seemingly lost in secret thoughts. Glen wondered if the thoughts involved him. They’d been seeing each other, intimately, for months now—Glen suspected that the awkwardness of their relationship was beginning to grate on her. He loved her genuinely, while her love for him seemed stilted, not real love at all, but something doomed and inferior. He couldn’t blame her, though. She’d be an idiot to dream the same dreams he did. The night coaxed truth from him, and he felt more useless than he ever had. In his most resplendent moments, he pictured her in his future, but now, through the gaps in the fantasy, he saw the lie. There was nothing he could do but wait for their bond to disintegrate altogether.

He stopped at the road entrance. Nancy’s black Porsche was parked behind some trees on the other side of the chain. She leaned over and kissed him a last time, and for an imperceptible moment, he would not have let go of her hand even if told to do so at gunpoint. He wondered how much longer he could wear his despair so well.

“I won’t be able to see you tomorrow,” she said, looking away. “I have to go to Bethesda with Charles and help him with some things.”

Glen wilted, as if lanced. He was tired of these “things” that were so often popping up now. It hadn’t always been like that. Sometimes whole weeks would go by and she wouldn’t even mention her husband. She’d only seemed concerned with Glen. But even that had changed now. She’d been “busy,” with “things.”

“Okay,” he said. “Day after tomorrow then?”

“Sure. I’ll think of an excuse to get out of the house.” Her smile was bright; she touched his cheek, then scurried away to her car. Glen stared as the black Porsche drove off.

He remained there and listened to the truck rumble. Originally, he hadn’t been pleased with himself for sleeping with another man’s wife. But now it didn’t bother him because he knew that Willard didn’t love her. He pictured Willard in bed with her, moving over her beneath the sheets. It made Glen burn; it made him too conscious of the line between fucking and making love. He contemplated the Willard who lurked behind that astute, easy veneer, and he sensed a man who revolved solely around himself. Glen stared at the trees, now sick from the idea. Fucking, he thought. Fuck. Fucked. Fucking. The consequences stabbed his heart with ice. Fuck was a cruel word, perhaps the ugliest ever devised. Willard didn’t make love to his wife—he fucked her. He regarded her as an arrangement of sexual parts which existed to be done to, to be emptied into, to be fucked. Yes, he could picture Willard fucking her. And the saddest part was that Nancy didn’t seem to mind.

The thoughts churned further in his head. His guts constricted. He knew this secret relationship was the limit to his own corruption. Still, he often mused of how nice it would be if Willard were to just up and die. Stroke, car wreck, heart failure—any would do. Sometimes Glen even dared to fantasize of breaking into the mansion himself, killing Willard, and then rearranging the scene to look like a slipshod burglary. He actually asked himself if he could commit murder for the sake of his love and was disturbed at the time it took to decide he couldn’t.

In the rearview he glimpsed something tiny and red. Tail-lights? He made a quick three-point turn and drove out to the first clearing. Half a mile off, twin glowing red dots moved slowly through the trees, then intensified, then disappeared.

Glen cut the headlights. He pulled off slow, feeling for the ruts in the access road, and stopped before the first turn. Flashlight in one hand and shotgun in the other, he got out and ventured into the black woods. Was someone talking? He heard a noise, perhaps laughter, floating up, deflected by the trees. It sounded like a girl. Parkers, he thought. More parkers. But he remained watchful, just in case, for sight of a single-beam light, the poacher’s mark of trade. He’d been shot at more than once. “Here the deer shoot back!” was his favorite line, and then he’d always pump a few rounds into the air. That generally sent them packing.

More words issued up, verifying the gender. A girl said, “Well, come on. We haven’t got all night.”

Great, Glen thought. He’d give them a scare.

Past the first turn, he saw a car parked in the road. He leaned low, walking lightly, and soon details of the vehicle grew more precise. It was a big Lincoln, silver or light gray, and it was new. He inched right up to the passenger side and listened.

“That feels good,” the girl said. “I like that.”

Hope you like this, too, he thought. He aimed his flashlight at the open passenger window and turned it on.

Both of the people in the car were girls. They both screamed.

Glen couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

The girl on the driver’s side withdrew her hand from the other girl’s pants. One was blonde, the other brunette. Frantic, the blonde pulled her shirttail down over her open jeans.

He stared a moment more. He blinked steadily, daring this scene to be a mirage that might disappear between blinks.

The two girls stopped screaming. Glen could tell by the looks on their faces that they weren’t exactly happy to see him.

“I told you we shouldn’t have come here,” the blonde said.

“Oh, shut up,” the brunette said back to her.

Frowning, the blonde dared to look up at Glen. “Well, you’ve scared the shit out of us,” she said. “What happens now?”

From the driver’s side, the brunette leaned over, her lips sealed in a similar, defiant smirk. She wore a black T-shirt with the white letters DISCHORD RECORDS centered breast level. “Are you gonna arrest us, or what?” she inquired of him.

Neither of them could’ve been more than eighteen.

“What the hell is this?” he was eventually able to say.

“We’re parking,” said the blonde.

“You’re both girls!”

“Clever of you to notice,” said the brunette.

Glen shined the light in back. “Girls don’t go parking without guys. Where are the guys?”

“We’re not into guys,” the brunette answered. This she stated quite solidly. There was no shame, no embarrassment.

“We’re into each other,” the blonde said.

No, no, come on. I can’t be expected to believe this. I just…can’t…believe

“Why are you staring at us like that?” the blonde asked. “It’s not polite to stare.”

The brunette: “Yeah, what’s the matter? Haven’t you ever seen two girls make it before?”

“No,” he said. “This is Maryland, not California.”

“We’re gay. We admit it.”

Glen squinted at them. He was thrown over. “How can you not admit it? I just saw you take your hand out of that girl’s pants!”

“That’s no reason to treat us like criminals!” the brunette shouted back. Her voice echoed through the forest. “We haven’t done anything wrong, so instead of staring at us like we’re a pair of midgets, why don’t you give us a break? If our parents find out about this, they’d make us go see shrinks.”

Finally, the shock began to rise. “How did you get in here?” he demanded. “Are you the people who’ve been cutting my chains?”

The blonde’s frown drew to a grimace. “We didn’t cut any damn chains.”

“We used one of those back roads on the town line,” the brunette added. “We didn’t mean any harm.”

“Yeah, I can see that,” he said. “Look, what you do with each other is your business, but when you do it here, it becomes my business. This is private property, and there’re signs posted all over the place, and did you ever stop to think that maybe the guy who owns this land doesn’t want you two coming out here to feel each other up? How would you like it if I parked my car in your yard and dorked my girlfriend there?”

“You don’t have to insult us,” the brunette snapped back. “It’s not against the law to be gay, you know.”

“Fine, I realize that. Just go be gay somewhere else.”

Excitement sparkled in the blonde’s eyes. “You mean you’re not going to squeal on us? You’re not going to report us?”

“No, I’m not going to report you. Just leave. Go out the way you came.”

“You mean that?” prodded the brunette. “You won’t tell our parents?”

“I won’t even tell your parents. Go away now. Beat it. Scram. Be like a hockey player and get the puck out of here.”

Seconds later, they were gone, the roar of their engine immense in the night. Glen made a small note of the incident in his daily log, then glanced up in time to see their taillights fade.

This was a first in his career. Crunching back through the woods to the truck, he could still scarcely believe it had even happened. Two girls, he thought. The new age has dawned before my very eyes. Wait’ll Kurt hears about this.

Vague light shifted in the trees. Overhead, the moon glared through a rive in the clouds. Glen marched on, stepping high instinctively to avoid unseen branches and stumps. Too many times this forest’s bag of tricks had landed him on his face.

He promptly tripped and fell. He landed on his face.

Stupid clod. He’d dropped the shotgun and flashlight, failing, though, to break his fall. But what had he tripped on? Fallen branches? A rotten log? When he moved to get back up, his hand pressed against something slimy and stiff.

“Jesus.”

There was an odor, faint but awful. His hand was wet. “What the hell is this?” he said, for the second time that night.

He found the flashlight, and pointed it, and—

— | — | —

PART TWO

In your love is my death;

feel my dead heart beat stronger.

This goes on forever,

but I can wait longer.

It kills me when he touches you,

every whisper, every kiss.

But your years are my seconds,

and your miserymy bliss.

—from “Three” by RODERICK BYERS

You’ll never know where,

and you’ll never know when.

“Murder,” it whispers.

“The mirror. “ Again.

You’ll never know how,

and you’ll never know who.

It’s coming, though, and it’s coming for you.

—from “Double” by L. EDWARD S.

they are neither man nor woman,

they are neither brute nor human;

they are ghouls.

—E. A. POE

— | — | —

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

THUNK, THUNK, THUNK

Kurt looked up and frowned. He was reading in the den, the floorlamp glowing softly behind his chair. In his lap he held a book entitled The Red Confession, but its pages were all blank.

At once the house fell silent again, though he was certain he’d heard a heavy, loud thunking sound only a moment ago. Perhaps he had imagined it.

He looked around the room, on edge, as if suspicious of something. A thin but very icy draft nagged at the back of his neck; when he turned, it seemed to follow him. And what was wrong with the furniture? It all seemed slightly out of place, as though someone had moved each piece an inch or two. The curtains hung open to reveal a window full of blackness. When he looked down, he noticed thick black-red carpet on the floor, but he could’ve sworn it had always been brown. Next, he put away The Red Confession, only to be left to gaze speechlessly at the bookshelves. His books were gone, replaced by titles he’d never seen. The King in Yellow, The Lair of the White Worm, The Book of Dead Names. Just what kind of books were these? There weren’t even authors listed on the spines, except for one on the end, / Have Seen the Inside, by the Duke of Clarence, whoever he was. Someone had taken the old books out, and switched them with these.

He sensed it was very late. Soon he became aware of a soft, rapid ticking sound. The clock? he thought. But it was much too fast and erratic to be a clock of any kind. Likewise, the corner which had always been occupied by Uncle Roy’s grandfather clock was now curiously vacant. Someone had taken the clock also. He would have to ask Melissa what had happened to the books and the clock and the carpet.

THUNK, THUNK, THUNK

There it was again; he hadn’t imagined it after all.

Someone was at the door.

He walked across the room with alarming effort. He felt sluggish, dragged, as if all his pockets had been filled with lead shot. Then he realized he was dressed in his police uniform, and about the same time he knew something was wrong. Too much strangeness had piled up at once. He couldn’t figure it. The books, the carpet, the clock, and now himself in uniform at some wan hour when only the other day he’d been suspended from work.

THUNK, THUNK, THUNK

But the strangest part was that he felt extremely averse to answering the door. He couldn’t explain it. He just didn’t want to do it.

He stuck his head into the foyer, refusing to even look at the front door. What did he sense waiting for him behind it? “Melissa, be a sport and get the door for me, will you? I’m…busy.”

He waited, but she made no reply.

And again—

THUNK, THUNK, THUNK

It was much louder this time, driven by insistence; Kurt actually felt the frame of the house vibrate. He pictured Conan pounding on the door with a giant wooden mallet.

“Melissa!” He paused, waited. “Melissa! Get the door!”

“Get it yourself!” her small, pointed voice shot back. Hostility gave a crack to the words.

THUNK, THUNK, THUNK

“Come on, Melissa,” he pleaded. “Someone’s at the door, and I don’t feel like getting it.”

From deep in the house, Melissa’s voice unwound as an enraged squeal: “Go fuck yourself! Lazy do-nothing son of a bitch! FUCK yourself!”

Kurt’s face darkened. Melissa had been brought up liberally, he knew and understood, but now her precocity had slipped too far. It was fine for him to swear, he was an adult. He would not, however, tolerate language like that from a twelve-year-old.

THUNK, THUNK, THUNK

“No one’s home!” he spat at the door. To hell with whoever was knocking. Kurt crossed the foyer, the TV room, then marched purposefully into the long hall. It was hot, a dense wet ensliming sensation; the darkness seemed to bleed out of the walls and drip. He breathed the dark, he could feel it fill his chest. But he paid no attention to the incompatibilities he’d observed since finding himself in the den.

He pushed open Melissa’s bedroom door.

Moonlight flooded the room; it was dark, yet he could see everything in the cool, phosphoric glow. The room had been emptied out, save for a bed which he noticed only through the corner of his eye. The floor and walls were stripped. Dust lay stoutly, in clumps, along the baseboards. Opposite him, a single bare window framed the moon.

Kurt’s eyelids felt sewn open.

Melissa sat cross-legged on the floor, in a limp, white nightdress. An ashtray clogged with butts rested beside her knee. She seemed very thin. A cigarette tilted out of her mouth, its tip glowing orange like a fox’s eye. She hadn’t even noticed that he’d entered, but instead seemed fixed on something across the room.

“Melissa, what’s going on?” He stood off balance in the doorway, paralyzed. “What happened to your things? Where’s your furniture? How come your posters aren’t on the wall?”

“Get out!” she shouted, but it sounded more like an animal’s bark. She still had not bothered to look his way. “Little goodie-two-shoes runt. Faggot. Pussy… Get out. Go find a clam hole to fuck.”

Kurt reeled in his own furor, blood thumping at his temples. “How’d you like to chow down on a box of Tide? Sounds to me like your mouth needs a good cleaning.”

She laughed, cackled at him. “Put your cock in a rat trap, faggot. And trip it with your balls, if you got any.”

“That’s telling him, baby,” a third voice oozed. “Ask him to take it out. Let’s see how big it is.”

Kurt’s senses sank—he recognized the third voice at once. Of its own volition, his head turned slowly toward the other side of the room.

“Not you,” he heard his own voice rattle. “Anyone but you.”

Joanne Sulley was sitting on the edge of a coverless bed. All she wore was a moth-eaten black satin blouse open down the front. It revealed nearly all of her. Like Melissa, she seemed much thinner than usual, as though she’d not eaten in weeks. Her hipbones jutted, and he could see the slats of her ribs. Shadows pooled in her body’s hollows. She looked like a whore from the death camp joy divisions.

He tried to sound infuriated, but the sight of her like this made his voice quaver. “What the goddamned hell are you doing? What are you doing in my house?”

Joanne leaned her upper body back on her arms. “Melissa invited me,” she said, and parted her legs obscenely wide. “She’s my friend. We both like each other a lot. Isn’t that right, baby?”

“Uh huh,” Melissa said.

Kurt squeezed his eyes closed till his entire head throbbed. This can’t be happening, he thought. It’s impossible, none of this can be real. It must be a

“Well, what did you think?” Joanne said. She flexed her cadaverous calves, black-nailed toes pointing to the wall. She spread her legs wide. “This is all a dream.”

He blinked. His mouth went dry from being open so long.

Joanne smiled like a waxen mask, her face little more than a skull thinly covered by sheet-white flesh. “Watch, Kurt,” she said. “Watch this,” and from nowhere she produced a foot-long vibrator. It hummed softly and glimmered in the moonlight; it looked like a bullet. She inserted it into herself, let her head loll and her jaw sag. Kurt stared as the humming object disappeared further. Her hips shifted, her legs tensed to cords. She pushed it in some more and moaned.

“Stop!” he yelled.

“Doesn’t turn you on?” the stripper said. “Maybe this will then.” She took the vibrator out, and jammed it into her mouth. Her lips stretched blue and thin against the girth of the shining, white cylinder. Soon its pressure at the back of her throat caused her eyes to swell forward in their sockets, as if they might eject altogether.

“Stop it!” he shouted. “Please, stop it! You’re crazy to do this in front of a little girl! You’re crazy!”

Suddenly the vibrator was gone. He supposed she had swallowed it.

“How can I be crazy, Kurt?” Joanne said. “It’s your dream.”

“Yeah,” he agreed, “and since it’s my dream, I guess that means I can do anything I want. It wouldn’t matter because it wouldn’t be real. Why, I could even—”

“Kill me?” Joanne finished. “You don’t want to kill me, Kurt. You want to fuck me.”

A heavy tingling, like a rash, crawled over his face. He seethed. He hated this girl—not that he could kill her, even in a dream. But, still, the thoughts which filled his mind turned utterly black.

Joanne was drooling now, profusely. Saliva glazed her chin like glycerin. “Come on, admit it. You want to fuck me, don’t you?”

“No.”

“Don’t you?”

“No!”

She bent forward, her ribs moving beneath her skin. She breathed expansively as she fondled her own tiny, emaciated breasts. He noticed a fierce glimmer between her legs. It revolted him. Then, with both hands, she cupped the lean, grooved pubis and rubbed it desperately.

Dream or not, this would have to cease. It was time for a little wagon fixing—he hoped she wouldn’t mind being thrown out the window.

But when he lurched forward, nothing happened. He felt instantly encased in cement, with only a hole left for his face to peer through. He couldn’t move. He could only look as the nausea pulsed up his throat.

He heard lewd, slick sounds, like clicking.

“Come on, Kurt,” Joanne whined, and her tongue traced her upper lip. The tongue was black. “Let’s give our little friend here a lesson in biology.”

Melissa’s cheeks drew in to black pits when she sucked her cigarette; the tip burned furiously for a second, increasing the orange tint on her tiny, starving face. Then she said, “Fuck her, Kurt. Fuck her.”

“Shut up!” he shouted.

“Fuck her, fuck her, fuck her! I wanna watch!”

Joanne’s grin seemed on the verge of splitting her face. She slithered off the bed and began to crawl toward Melissa.

“Stop! No, please!” he bellowed. “I’m begging you to stop!”

Joanne continued to grovel forward, the insides of her thighs slick with shine. She had something in her hand. “Forget him, honey,” she said to the girl. “Let’s do like we did before. Remember what we did before?”

“Uh huh,” Melissa answered.

“You liked that, didn’t you?”

“Uh huh.”

“It felt good, didn’t it?”

“Uh huh.”

Joanne knelt upright, looking down. Her eyes were black now, and the irises white. The thing in her hand was a massive black rubber phallus with hip straps.

The black eyes glittered; she fastened on the straps. The mock penis stuck out at an angle, hideously veined.

She continued toward Melissa.

Kurt’s shouting brought blood to his face, and heat. His throat felt scorched raw. In the dream, he wished he could die, anything to avoid witnessing this.

Melissa lay back then, frail and shiny-eyed. She began to lift her nightdress!

“And it won’t hurt at first this time,” Joanne promised. But as she spoke, her voice lowered to an unearthly suboctave, phlegm rattling deep in her chest. “Now we can see how far it’ll go in.”

Kurt’s bones bent against the wall of his paralysis. He felt a tendon pop.

But next his feet came off the floor, as some abrupt, snapping force yanked him out of the room and into the hall. The sudden inertia made him shriek. He landed on the floor.

Melissa’s door slammed shut on its own. Squeals rose and fell from within the room, like a tape on fast forward. Then the final scream burst forth.

And the door was gone.

Kurt struggled to stand, every muscle in his body fat with pain. He walked back down the black hall, toward the light.

“It’s only a dream,” he said to himself. “Why should I care? It’s only a dream.”

Cold air whipped circles through the hall. It hadn’t been there before. Sparked, he dashed to the foyer and saw that the front door had been smashed apart from the outside.

Footsteps padded quickly along the upstairs carpet. Kurt turned, slowly, grimly. Looked up. And saw a gaunt, sticklike figure walk across the landing. It moved stiffly but with great speed. It seemed to be carrying something in its arms.

The house lights dimmed, turning red. The figure went into Kurt’s bedroom.

“Wake up, you son of a bitch,” Kurt muttered to himself. “This dream’s got to end soon.”

A second later the figure came back out, its stick feet hushing over the rug. A hinge keened, the door snapped shut. Then, arms straight at its side, the thing on the landing walked rigidly to the top step. It stood very still and looked down at him with no face.

“Up yours,” Kurt said to it. “You’re wasting your time. I’m not afraid of a dream.”

“What if it’s not a dream?” the figure croaked. Its voice was shredded and bubbly, yet strangely familiar. “What if you’re wrong? What if this is real?”

“Fuck you.”

“See? You are afraid. You’re afraid to even go and see what I’ve left. It’s very important, but you’re too afraid.”

“Why should I be afraid? Whatever it is, it can’t be any uglier than you.”

The figure began to shiver, then convulse. It laughed fadingly and dissolved amidst the red, dark light.

The nerve of some people, Kurt thought. I guess this won’t end till I see what the fucker put in my room. He resigned to it. He walked up the stairs and opened his bedroom door.

A damp, meaty smell blew into his face. He traced his hand up the wall to find the light switch but found instead a worm-filled hole where the light switch used to be. He gagged, wanting to vomit. But even in the pale moonlight, he could see the long, bulky object lying on his bed.

It looked like—

“Oh, Christ.”

Behind the window, clouds lowered. More moonlight spilled into the room, and Kurt’s vision became acute. The object on the bed was a body bag, obviously complete with a body.

Kurt knew what the dream meant for him to do. “I’m not opening it!” he yelled aloud. “I’m not!”

The phone on the nightstand rang, as loud as a blast from his siren. It rang again, and again.

He knew he would not wake up until he had at least answered it. But when he went infuriated to the nightstand, he noticed that the phone was dusted over by some faint, white powder. It reminded him of chalk. Or talc.

He picked up the phone. “Pizza Wheel. May I help you?”

There was no answer at first, just layers of muttering. But then a voice said: “Who were they? I didn’t know them. Why did they do those things to me?” The voice was a young woman’s. She was sobbing.

“Who is this?” Kurt demanded.

“They did…awful things.”

“Who are you?”

The muttering rose, enlaced by moans and a sound like people marching through dense woods. Then the young woman’s voice answered, “You know me, I know you do. I’m…”

“Who are you!”

“I’m dead.”

Kurt’s blood lost all its heat at once; he couldn’t move. Why did the voice, or what it stood for, affect him so gravely? He felt sure he didn’t know the person. Had he forgotten that this was still just a dream?

“Open the bag,” the voice said.

“No.”

“Open it.”

“I’m not opening a goddamned body bag!” Kurt shouted.

“Open it,” the voice repeated, but now it was fading away. “Open it. Open the bag.”

Suddenly Kurt’s hand and ear and chin were wet. The phone was oozing blood. He threw it down in disgust, frantic to wipe off his face.

The dream had seeped into him now. He knew what he must do. He turned to the bed and looked down at what lay there.

“It’s Vicky,” he whispered to the dark. “I know it is. Stokes has murdered her.”

Trembling, his fingers touched the zipper’s metal tab. Again he was aware of the mad, rapid ticking he’d heard earlier in the den. With a gentle rasp, the zipper parted smoothly, and the sides of the bag fell away.

“Please don’t be Vicky,” he said. He shone his flashlight into the bag.

But it wasn’t Vicky at all. The gray, dead face which looked back at him was his own.

««—»»

Kurt felt blasted through layers of another dimension. The soaring motion shook him, threatened to shake him apart; but then as the velocity increased, his consciousness emerged, as if from a lake of sludge.

Gaseously, a face formed. It was small. He heard: “Kurt! Kurt!” and knew that the face belonged to Melissa. The real Melissa. At last, the nightmare was over.

“You can stop shaking me now,” he said. He didn’t know whether to hug her or kick her in the behind. He lay in the bed as if dropped from a great height. “I’m awake, or at least I better be.”

“What happened?”

“A real brain-broiler of a nightmare, that’s all.”

Melissa crouched by the bed. He felt relieved; she wore a dumpy pair of pajamas rather than the nightdress of the dream. And he was pleased to see she didn’t have a cigarette in her mouth.

“I’ll bet they heard you all the way from here to Bowie,” she told him.

“What?”

“You were screaming.”

“Come on, I was not.”

“You were screaming bloody murder. I was almost afraid to come in. It sounded like someone was doing a number on you with a blowtorch.”

Kurt refused to believe it. “I wasn’t screaming—men don’t scream. You’re lying, as usual.”

“Believe what you like.” Now she was giggling at him. “I told you those Mexican TV dinners give you bad dreams. But do you listen?”

“What time is it?”

“Way past two.” Grimacing, she looked at her hands and wiped them on her pajamas. “Gross. You’re all icky.”

“I probably lost ten pounds in sweat.”

THUNK, THUNK, THUNK

Kurt and Melissa looked at each other.

“Someone’s at the door,” she whispered.

This was too much, too soon. The thunking was the same. “Be a sport and—” but he stopped short. He would not recite the dream verbatim. “Go see who it is,” he said.

“No way. I’m not answering the door in my pajamas.”

“Please. As a personal favor to me, just go answer the door. I’ll give you a dollar.”

“Forget it. Only nuts knock on doors at this hour. It could be some escapee from St. Elizabeth’s… It could be Hinkley.”

“You’re the nut,” he concluded. “I hope it’s the stork, coming to take you back.”

She gripped his shoulder, fretting. “But it could be one of the vampires!”

Kurt got out of bed. “Do they make corks big enough to fit your mouth?” He headed for the hall.

“You’re not going to answer the door in your boxers, are you?”

“Why shouldn’t I? It’s not the pope or the President. They came last week, didn’t they?”

“What are you taking that for?”

“Taking what?” he said. He was holding his service revolver; he’d taken it off the nightstand without even realizing it. “Impulse, my dear. If you’d had the dream I just had, you’d understand.”

Kurt went out and down the staircase, thinking that the only thing funnier than a man walking down the stairs in his underwear was a man walking down the stairs in his underwear with a gun.

In the foyer, he held the pistol behind him. He could feel the steel’s cold through his shorts. He opened the door a crack and wilted.

Chief Bard walked in. He held a large carry-out coffee and wore clothes that looked slept in. “Don’t dress up on my account,” he said.

“Sorry, Chief. If I’d known it was you, I would have put on my polka dots.”

“Quit yammering and get your suspended ass in gear. We’ve got to hustle.”

“Hustle?” Kurt said. “To where?”

“South County General. We’re meeting Glen at the body shop.”

“What the hell for?”

“I don’t know. The prick called me up a little while ago, said he found something at Belleau Wood.”

“Shit, Chief. I don’t want to go the morgue.”

“Well you’re going anyway,” Bard said. It had already been decided. “I’ll be damned if I’m going there alone at this hour.”

Kurt realized he had no choice. Defying Bard was equivalent to defying King Neptune. “Let me put some clothes on.”

“You can go nude for all I care. Just hurry the fuck up.”

Kurt trudged back upstairs. Melissa stood tensely in wait. “Let me go, too, Kurt,” she pleaded. “Please.”

“The only place you’re going is to bed.”

“Oh, come on.”

“Get out of my way, Roachface.”

“I wanna go to the morgue!”

“You’re a morbid little animal,” he informed her. He pushed the door to and pulled on his clothes. “I’ll stuff you in the toilet tank if you don’t shut up and go to bed!” That was that, but would she really fit? He slipped his off-duty 22 into his pants pocket, then went back down and left with Bard. Melissa did her twelve-year-old best to slam the door behind them as hard as she could.

They drove in Bard’s big T-bird. A light rain began as they turned off 154. It misted the windshield and made Route 50 shine like oil.

“Where’s Higgins?” Kurt asked.

Bard scowled at him. “Working your shift, remember?”

“Oh. Right.”

Kurt told the chief about his dream, hoping to exorcise it from his mind. Bard laughed uproariously at him, which lessened the severity of its effect, and that helped. “Don’t feel bad,” Bard said, as if to offer solace. “Nightmares are an occupational hazard for cops; it’s a curse that comes with the tin. One time I dreamed I was in bed with the best-looking blonde I’d ever seen. I mean, this girl was so beautiful she’d make Marilyn Monroe look like pimples on a gorilla’s dick. And this broad’s begging for it, right? She’s begging me to let her have it with the hoagie, but in the course of things, I come to find out that she’s got two vaginas. One was too small for me to get my hose in, and the other was full of gravel. I’d love to hear what a head doctor’d have to say about that one.”

Kurt winced.

“So who was the chick on the phone?” Bard asked.

“Beats me.”

“How about the skinny dude who left the body bag on the bed?”

Kurt’s throat tightened. “Swaggert, I think.”

That brought silence. Bard rolled down the window and spat, perhaps not wanting to reveal that the topic of Doug Swaggert inspired unease. Down the road, he said, “It’s fear.”

“What is?”

“The dream you had. The nightmare. It’s job-related fear, fear of violent death, fear of the unknown. That’s what a head doctor would tell you.”

Kurt smiled. “Since when are you a head doctor?”

“Hey, I took a psychology class in high school once. I know about these things. Fear is nothing to be ashamed of, it’s normal for those in our line. These days, a cop’d be crazy not to be afraid.”

“I’m not afraid of death,” Kurt said. “Simply because I’ve got no intention of dying anytime soon.”

“Consciously, you’re not. But dreams are unconscious. It’s clear as day, I’m not blaming you. You’re afraid that you’re going to find out what happened to Swaggert, and you’re afraid that when you do, it’ll be too late.”

“You’re right, I am afraid,” Kurt said. It was a sudden, otherworldly response. “I’m scared shitless.”

“You and me both.”

Kurt lit a cigarette. Smoke gushed out of his mouth like an escaping spirit. “So level with me, then. Are you convinced that Doug’s dead?”

“Dead and buried. Murdered by stoners for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And ten to one his body’ll never be found, so we’ll never know exactly what went down. That’s the worst part, if you ask me. Never knowing.”

Kurt pictured Swaggert being buried in the woods by faceless men. He could hear the bite of the shovel.

“But what can you expect in this world?” Bard blabbed on. “The shit we see is nothing, it’s like a lunger in the ocean. We’ve got heroin rings in elementary schools now, child-pornography clubs, cyanide in your Halloween candy, and snuff films in New York for a hundred bucks a show. We’ve got day care centers in California where they sodomize four-year-olds, and we’ve got people in Texas digging up corpses for death orgies. So you tell me, what can you expect?”

“You should write inspirational books, Chief.”

“It’s a freak show.” Bard chuckled abruptly. “The whole fucking world is a fucking freak show.”

««—»»

They parked on the emergency-room side of the hospital. The front lot was scant with police cruisers and EMT trucks. The atmosphere here induced slow steps; they approached the high, lit building as though it were a slaughterhouse. Rain dotted their shoulders and heads. Out front, a county cop was arguing with a younger municipal officer. “It’s your 81, punk,” county said. “The potato chip factory is your jurisdiction.”

“Yeah, but you hogged the call,” the young cop accused. “You county crotch-heads are all the same. Always punting the work to someone else.”

“Town clown.”

“Fish sticks for brains.”

“Get fucked, punk.”

“I get fucked every night. Don’t believe me? Ask your mother.”

Kurt and Bard laughed. They’d heard it all before.

Double doors opened at the touch of their feet. A track line of exploded drops of blood veered right, toward the ER. The light in a candy machine flickered irregularly on and off, on and off. Glen Rodz rose from his seat in a small lobby on the left. He looked shell-shocked.

“Thought you’d never get here,” he said. “The M.E.’s waiting for us. County’s already been called.”

“Fuck the county,” Bard said. “Explain.”

Glen began to mouth a response, but words never materialized. He led them down a shiny, vacant hall to a black door with a chicken-wire window. Hovering on the glass were the words, OFFICE OF THE PRINCE GEORGE’S COUNTY MEDICAL EXAMINER. Glen entered without knocking.

In the anteroom, they found themselves hemmed in by dented file cabinets, bookshelves, and data processing equipment. Kurt stood unnaturally stiff, pinned to the wall by shadows. On a cork bulletin board ragged with crinkled notes and memos he noticed several misaligned bumper stickers. YES NUKES. GET IN THE SWIM. WARNING: I DON’T BRAKE FOR ANIMALS. Above the desk hung a framed eight-by-ten glossy of Moe, Larry, and Shemp.

“This place looks like a pawn shop,” Bard said. “Where’s the fucking M.E.?”

“Assistant M.E.,” a stocky shadow across the room corrected. “Only assistants get stuck with night duty.”

Glen introduced the shadow to Kurt and Bard as Dr. Greene.

At last moving into the light, Greene more resembled a college student torn between academics and barbells. Very short blond hair and thick glasses created in him a serious if not unfeeling outer cast, yet he dressed shoddily in jeans and desert boots, the kind with the seam down the middle. Beneath his open lab coat he wore an old gray T-shirt centered with the face of Eddie Haskell. Kurt detected an awkward prominence about him—Greene was shorter than average but stood firm as a fire hydrant, with a physique that could’ve been sculpted out of rock, massive shoulders and back tapering to a trim waist. Kurt could easily see this man bending tire irons during periods of extended boredom.

“You guys are cops,” Greene said. “So I assume you’ve been to morgues.”

Kurt and Bard nodded, neither admitting that it had been years.

“The only reason I ask is because I’ve seen it happen too many times.” Greene opened a pint carton of chocolate milk and sipped. “The county morgue isn’t exactly fun for the whole family, I realize that. But I’m always getting these county hot dogs coming in here thinking it’s going to be a lot of laughs. Next thing I know, they’re throwing up like gushers. One time I had a state sergeant come in. Big guy, macho, ‘Death Before Dishonor’ tattoo on his arm. He took one look around and just let ’er rip, running circles around the room with his hand over his mouth, vomit shooting out between his fingers, a regular volcano. He threw up on my lunch, my instruments, and a cadaver’s face.” Quickly, Greene doled to each of them a plastic-lined paper bag. “So that’s the rule of the house—nobody throws up in my morgue. I don’t throw up in your police station, so don’t throw up in my morgue.”

Greene walked to the other side of the room and opened a large gray metal door which no one had noticed in the anteroom’s slabs of shadows. Its doorknob was in the middle, and it bore a sign that read, KEEP THIS DOOR CLOSED, AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY. Greene disappeared into a slant of white blaze. “The doorman to hell,” Bard whispered. “Get a load of this guy.” They followed reluctantly, single file.

A high fluorescent fixture veiled them all in flat light. Fumes in the air chafed Kurt’s eyes and reamed his sinuses; he thought of the hot sausages they sold in jars at the Jiffy. “Sorry about the horrible smell,” Greene apologized. “It’s fixation fluid. Trade hazard.”

Kurt felt the blood empty out of his face. The slightly cooler air made his skin tighten. There were no metal drawers here as he’d seen on TV. The room had a bare cement floor potted with crusty drains, and was walled all around by slate-gray tile. Metal shelves occupied one entire wall; they seemed bowed under the weight of countless white five-gallon buckets each taped with various labels as JORES’, ZENKER’S SOLUTION, PHENOL, FORMALIN 20%. A tin tray marked AMYLOID/FAT NECROSIS PREP held several bottles of iodine and copper sulfate. A large sink and heat-sealing iron hung on one wall, and at the opposite wall was another door. Kurt didn’t care to see what was behind it.

“Chief Bard, Officer Morris, Mr. Rodz,” Greene said, extending a hand, “I’d like you to meet Ollie, Nick, and Christine.”

Kurt didn’t get it at first, then it occurred to him that Dr. Greene’s sense of humor kept in line with his job. He’d been introducing them to cadavers which lay on three trough-like tables. All three corpses had been macabrely wrapped in white plastic bags from crotch to head, so that only bare legs were visible. They made Kurt think of bundled meat.

In the middle of the room was the autopsy table, brushed aluminum, with a total scale, inclination and height adjustment, suction lines, and a removable filter trap. “Here she is,” Greene said. He gestured toward the table’s slatted platform.

Kurt felt as though he were standing on someone’s roof when he looked. A skeleton lay stretched across the table—a skeleton for the most part at least, because the frail arrangement of bones seemed flecked and hanging with an indescribable matter which reminded him of creek scum. It was not a clean skeleton. Parts of it glistened wetly in the light.

“This is what I found tonight,” Glen said in a parched tone.

“Where?” Kurt asked. He contemplated his vomit bag.

“Right next to one of the back access roads. Less than a mile from where I found Drucker.”

Greene set his milk down on top of a compact cassette tape recorder. He looked at them, indifferent but speculative. “This could be the missing person you reported.”

“The Fitzwater girl’s only been missing a couple of days,” Kurt told him.

“There’s almost nothing left of it,” Bard added. “It’d take a lot longer than a few days to do this.”

“Not true,” Greene asserted. “This body’s been almost stripped to the bone. It would take weeks for it to rot to this state; putrefaction just doesn’t happen that fast… This body was devoured by animals, which isn’t all that strange in a heavily wooded area. It’s just a little surprising that it could happen so quickly, provided that this is the Fitzwater girl.” Lazily, Greene turned his head, immune to this environment of death. He pointed to the skull with unsettling detachment, and brought to light a rough hole at the back. Kurt felt his stomach flutter when he absorbed the implication. The skull had been bitten open, its contents evacuated.

Greene continued. “This is the only part that really bugs me—no brain. Very clean job, almost like it was scooped out through that hole. At least I’ve never seen a head trauma like this before; and don’t get me wrong, I’m not a zoological expert, but I couldn’t tell you what kind of animal could bite a hole like this in the cranial vault and then get the brain out so cleanly.” He arched a shoulder, unimpressed at even his own grisly revelations. “We’ll see what the boss says in the morning. If he doesn’t know, he’ll find someone who does.”

Kurt winced one last time at the opened skull. It conjured an image of huge, snapping jaws and teeth. “If this person died more than two days ago, then we know it can’t be Donna Fitzwater. Are you going to be able to give us a time of death?”

Greene leaned casually against a bracketed tray cluttered with clamps, scissors, and smudged scalpels. The light reflected off his glasses in opaque white discs and made him look like a misanthropic cartoon character. “This 81 of yours lacks all of the normal major factors by which we determine time of death. We can’t make muscle pH and glycogen readings because there’s not enough muscle left. No way to measure the extent of gas formation in the blood, no way to measure fixation, temperature, or rigor. We can usually narrow TOD down to two or three hours by graphing the potassium levels in the ocular fluids of the eyes. But as you can see—”

“No eyes,” Kurt said.

“No nothing,” Bard said.

“All I can tell you now is that she hasn’t been dead long. One thing we could measure was the state of H2O retention in the ligaments and tendon ends, plus the absence of sufficient peroxidation—”

“Wait a minute,” Bard interrupted. “You said she. It’s a fucking skeleton. How do you know it’s a she?”

“Sex-chromatin test?” Kurt ventured.

“No,” Greene said. “What little tissue material is left has already turned karyolytic. But that’s all beside the point. You don’t need any of that for a complete skeleton. Basic osteology proves this is a woman. Broad os coxae. Improminent supercilliary ridge. Wide pelvic inlet… She’s a woman, all right. No bout a doubt it.”

No one laughed at Greene’s quip. Kurt could only stare at the twiglike thing on the table. It had been hollowed out, its bones gnawed. “What about age?” he asked. “Dead end?”

Greene seemed to be losing interest fast; he looked ready to fall asleep. “From this, exact age’ll be impossible to determine. We’ve only got guidelines. The fusion state of the epiphyseal plates indicates she’s older than eighteen, while the marginal fusion of the coronal and sagittal sutures in her orbital dome points out that she’s younger than, say, forty.” He picked up a long bivalving knife and tapped the stripped jaw, as if to test its solidity. “Most important of all is that her back row of molars are coming in, so unless she was subject to several superincumbent nutritional deficiencies, she’s more than likely in her early twenties.”

Kurt glanced glumly to Bard. “The Fitzwater girl was twenty-two.”

“Piss,” Bard said. He was a fat, angry mannequin in the ghastly light. “Piss. Cock.” Then, to Greene: “You’re sure of all this?”

“Sure I’m sure,” Greene said. He seemed amused that his competence had been questioned. “Now for the clincher. The most obvious atypical aspect of this 81 was the definite osteoporosis of the lower extremities. So I ordered some X rays and found positive evidence of complete spinal transection. Severe displacement of the upper lumbar group. Fractured neural arch.”

“In other words,” Kurt said, “she was crippled?”

Greene adjusted his glasses. His biceps made his sleeves look stuffed. “Exactly,” he verified. “But it wasn’t a recent fracture. This back injury occurred years ago, maybe many years. Was Donna Fitzwater paraplegic?”

“Yes,” Kurt droned. By now the fumes were making his eyes water. “Her father said she’d been crippled since she was young.”

“Then there’s no doubt that this is Donna Fitzwater,” Bard concluded, bile in his words.

“Unless you’ve got another missing person who’s a girl in her early twenties with a broken back,” Greene said in a long, laborious breath. “Bring in her dental records for positive ID. The M.E. will examine everything in the morning, but he won’t tell you any different.”

Bard glanced around, then looked into his vomit bag and gulped. “Let’s get the hell out of here,” he said, pawing his gut. “My belly’s doing cartwheels.”

“Thanks for your time, Doc,” Kurt said. “We’ll give you a call tomorrow for the preliminary.”

Greene smiled faintly, shaking his head as Kurt, Bard, and Glen made a swift exit. They took long, nearly ludicrous strides until they were in the darkened lobby, a comfortable distance from Green’s facility.

“Fucking place is like a goddamned lab at Auschwitz.” Bard collapsed into a seat. “And how do you like that meat rack in there? You need a Ph.D. in anatomy just to understand the guy. He might as well be talking fucking Swedish.”

“Yeah, but that meat rack saved us a hell of a lot of time,” Kurt said. “At least we don’t have to rush being confused.” The light in the candy machine continued to flicker and buzz. Kurt couldn’t believe they’d put one this close to the morgue, of all places. He blinked rapidly till the sting in his eyes began to subside. He relished air that was free of fixators, and shortly the sick wooziness cleared from his head.

Bard looked like a limp sack in the seat. “For two days straight I’ve been praying that girl would turn up.” Then his voice roughened. “I should’ve known she’d turn up like that.”

“And how are we going to find out what happened to her?” Kurt drew on the complaint. “Unless we find something at Belleau Wood. We don’t even know the cause of death. How can we get a line on who’s responsible?”

Glen spoke for the first time since they’d entered the morgue. Dark circles under his eyes looked like smudges of soot. His voice was dull as wax. “What makes you think there was even a crime committed? Looks to me like she just got dragged off by some dogs or something. A crippled girl wouldn’t stand a chance against wild dogs, even in front of her own home.”

“Yeah, but she wasn’t in front of her own house,” Kurt reminded him. “She wasn’t even outside. Harley Fitzwater said her wheelchair was still by her bed, so even if she wanted to go outside for some fresh air or something, she would have been in the chair. There’s no way this is an accident. Someone entered that trailer and physically removed her.”

Bard and Glen finally surrendered to the conclusion. A drape of silence followed them down the corridor and out into the abandoned parking lot. They walked tilted, like drunks, still slightly warped by the state of affairs in Greene’s shop of horrors.

“I’ll have to call Choate, give him a complete report,” Bard complained. “The fucker’ll have county shirts all over my town.”

Emptiness amplified Glen’s otherwise subdued voice. “Somebody’s going to have to tell Harley Fitzwater that that skeleton back there is probably his daughter.”

“We’ll wait till positive ID is official,” Bard said. “And you’ll have to do some writing for this. County, too.”

“I know,” Glen said, and pulled open his Pinto’s door.

“You log trespassers at Belleau Wood, don’t you?” Kurt interjected.

“Sure.”

“Anything out of the ordinary last night?”

“No. No one on foot, at least.”

“Any smoochers?”

“A few, but that’s not out of the ordinary. I’ll give you the plate numbers tomorrow, and all my logs for the last couple of weeks.”

Kurt and Bard slid into the T-bird. Bard made no attempt to turn the ignition. Instead, he stared past Kurt, out the passenger window. He seemed to be staring at Glen.

“Something’s really starting to smell like a can of shit around here,” the chief said as Glen weaved off the lot.

“Elaborate, huh?”

“You know what I’m talking about.” Bard singled out the ignition key in the dark. “A dug-up coffin, a missing cop, and a crippled girl stripped down to the bones. And look what they all have in common.”

“Maybe I’m just naturally stupid this time of the morning,” Kurt said. “So how about telling me what you’re driving at.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake, Kurt. Open your fucking eyes. All this shit’s gone down at Belleau Wood. And Glen just happens to work there, and he just happens to be the one finding it all of a fucking sudden.”

“Unless I’m reading you wrong, you’re saying Glen’s got something to do with it, aren’t you? Look, Chief, I’ve known the guy for damn near my whole life; he’s practically a brother, and he’s straight. I don’t know what you’ve got in mind, but whatever it is, the idea that Glen’s involved is ridiculous.”

“Ridiculous?” Bard retorted, finally starting the car. “Just ’cause we’re friends with the guy doesn’t mean he can’t drop a few bolts. Now, I don’t know what he might be up to, and I’m not saying he’s the perper or anything. But one thing’s certain. Glen sure as hell knows something he’s not telling us.”

— | — | —

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

Dawn broke faultily, changing the spectacle of first light into a blunder. Low and gray, storm clouds massed in the sky and crawled like swollen tumorous creatures ready to burst. Fog hung adhesively between the trees, and a chill breeze made the forest shiver, while animals hid from the certainty of rain.

By 5:30 a.m., Kurt had traveled the length of Route 154 several times. He’d gone back to bed after Bard had dropped him off, but found sleep impossible, thanks to the residual images of Greene’s morgue. Next, after a steaming, nearly painful shower (he felt sure the formalin fumes had seeped into his pores as well as his clothes) he paced the front porch, smoking, thinking, and staring across into the fog-filled woods until his solitude and the silence chased him out. He got into his car and drove, randomly and quite conscious now that the Ford had become a sanctuary against the private paranoias which seemed to be circling him over the past week. He lost track of time. He drove. And thought.

He thought about Vicky. He thought that he should be happy, since she was getting out of the hospital today. Instead, he felt cold and dry inside. For years his inhibitions had kept his feelings for her safely distant. But with her release from the hospital—and her departure from Lenny—Kurt knew that this was his last opportunity to confront her with the truth. It would be the first positive move he’d made with her, yet the prospect filled him with a sudden, certain dread.

Then he thought about Bard’s suspicions of Glen. Kurt knew both men well but knew Glen better. Glen was a loner, he’d always been. He’d once told Kurt that he preferred just a few friends, choosing them carefully to maintain quality friendships rather than superfluous ones. Lots of people misinterpreted this idea—along with his preference to work at night—and tended to dismiss Glen as peculiar. “I’ll always work at night,” he’d once laughed to Kurt. “No traffic jams, no rush hour, no hot sun to make your upholstery simmer and your ass burn. And at night I don’t have to be around lots of people and catch their colds”—an antisocial notion perhaps, though Kurt could not remember Glen ever being sick.

No, Glen wasn’t a flake, he was just set in his ways. And despite a few flukes, he was the most honest person Kurt had ever known. He was the kind of guy who returned lost dogs and declined the reward, and who left other’s forgotten change in pay phones. If he found money in the parking lot and was unable to locate the owner, he would drop it in the Jerry Lewis bottle at 7-Eleven, because the idea of spending money he did not earn seemed as bad as stealing.

So why did Bard link Glen with Belleau Wood’s recent mysteries? Bard had always been a fussbudget, a walking case of anxiety; he lived to worry and to suspect. Kurt acceded almost immediately that a progression of mishaps had piled up against Glen’s favor, had made him victim to coincidence. It was a rational conclusion, but Bard, though, had never been one to demonstrate rationality. And exactly what did Bard suspect? That Glen was a closet sociopath? A necrophile? A murderer? Outlandish.

Kurt turned around at the Liquor Mart, the very end of Route 154. Left of him, at the intersection that marked Tylersville’s boundary, intermittent vehicles blew through the traffic light, barreling away down West Street, strangely silent in the queer darkness of early morning. This was the secret pre-rush hour of Annapolis, pickup trucks mostly, or watermen on their way toward the docks center of town. Kurt parked here for a time, the Ford’s headlights stressing the fog which blurred 154’s most northern end. Just yards ahead, the road descended like a narrow tunnel, or a maw. Mist grew on the windshield. The fog seemed to be moving toward the car, thickening, as if the maw were expelling breath on him.

It was an eerie passage of minutes. With the rumbling of the Ford’s engine, he tensed at his own perceptions and sensed something ominous in the fog, as though some malignant entity had slipped into his town unnoticed and was pulsing there now, steady and content.

It was not a coincidence, nor a series of inexplicable events. Conspiracy thrived within the fog, a subtle corruption waiting to devour the town he’d lived in all his life.

It was there. He could feel it quite clearly now. Somehow, he knew. There was something in Tylersville that had never been there before. Something vile. Something atrocious.

««—»»

“No,” Vicky said. She looked peevishly into her lap. Did she really mean no? Or could there be something appealing about the idea? “No, I couldn’t. I don’t want to intrude.”

“Who’s intruding?” Kurt argued, one eye on the road and one on her. “Uncle Roy won’t be back for another week, and he wouldn’t mind anyway. Besides, where else can you go?”

She didn’t answer, still contemplating her knees.

Kurt drove steadily down 301, heading back to Tylersville. It was past noon now; he’d picked Vicky up at the hospital as soon as the doctor had authorized her release. But that presented a problem, as it had not yet been established exactly where she was going. Waiting in the left-turn lane at the junction of 301 and 154, he decided to change the subject rather than press her further. “You look a lot better,” he said.

She flipped down the visor mirror and frowned. “Liar. My hair looks like a rat’s nest, and my face looks like someone used it for karate practice.”

Kurt accelerated through the light when the green arrow finally appeared. But it was true, she did look better. She had her color back, and though the frightfully large bandage was still on her forehead, the bruises and overall swelling in her face had receded dramatically. Kurt had the privilege of being the very first to sign her cast. She could look forward to taking showers with a plastic garbage bag over her forearm for the next six to eight weeks.

“But at least I feel better,” she went on. “And thank God that son of a bitch didn’t break any of my teeth.”

Kurt would not comment on Lenny Stokes, even if she did. Earlier, he’d told her how he came to be suspended. Busting Stokes in the jaw made the knight in him expect her to be delighted, but she’d reacted with disappointment, and a touch of anger, instead. He realized now that in punching Stokes he’d resorted to the least mature, least responsible motives available, and Vicky’s disappointment made him feel like he belonged on a playground rather than a police department.

He wheeled into Uncle Roy’s cracked driveway, parked, and rushed Vicky into the house to keep the drizzle off her. Inside, she said, “I don’t care how much you like this town—that’s one thing you can’t deny.”

“What?”

“Maryland weather sucks.”

“Nonsense,” Kurt replied, hanging up her coat. He would not admit that Maryland weather did indeed suck, and that right now it was sucking voraciously. “Spring’s just off to a lazy start. Another week or two and it will be warm and sunny— you’ll see.”

“Now I get it. You must be drunk.”

They went into the family room, where Melissa lay on the floor in front of the TV, her usual position of worship. She gave a careless “hello” to Vicky without parting her attention from the screen on which a young couple was arguing heatedly in bed. The woman’s nipples could be seen very plainly through the bedsheet.

“What is this?” he remarked, faintly nettled. “Since when do they show sex movies on TV?”

“It’s not sex movies,” Melissa said. “It’s Search for Tomorrow. Isn’t Mark Goddard a dream?”

Kurt shook his head. She should be doing homework or something. “Well?” he said to Vicky.

“I don’t know,” she said.

“Then it’s settled. You’ll stay with us till you figure out what you’re going to do.”

“All right,” she agreed. “But only if you’re sure I won’t be in the way.”

Kurt flouted. “How can you be in the way? Melissa doesn’t mind sleeping in the laundry hamper.”

Melissa’s head snapped around.

“Only kidding,” he assured her, though it was a nice thought. “Just wanted to see if you were still with us; you can go back to the wasteland now.” To Vicky, he said, “I’ll drum something up before tonight—”

But before he could finish, Melissa interrupted, “I forgot to tell you. Fat man called a little while ago.”

“Who?”

“Who do you think?”

“You mean Chief Bard.”

“Yeah, Chief Lard. He said Higgins will be by to pick you up.”

“Pick me up for what?” The now-common annoyance prickled him. Melissa’s messages were always like this—incomplete.

“How should I know?” she said, face still glued to the TV screen. “I don’t work for the police department.” She stopped to giggle. “But then neither do you, for that matter.”

“Funny,” he said. He could strangle her. It was one subject he didn’t want mentioned in front of Vicky. He heard tires pull up outside and spied the town cruiser through the window.

“Your ride’s here,” Vicky said. “How’s that for perfect timing?”

“I shouldn’t be too long.”

Vicky smiled. “I can watch Mark Goddard with Melissa. We’ll fix you something good for dinner.”

“Yeah, Mexican TV dinners,” Melissa said.

“Remind me to strangle you later.” He half-trotted out of the house and got into the passenger side. Despite the extra load of hours he’d been forced into, Higgins appeared fresh and in good humor, which made Kurt feel even more negligent.

“You know, Mark, I’m really sorry about all these long shifts you have to work because of me. When my suspension ends, I’ll make it up to you.”

Higgins pulled back onto 154, checking the rearview as a formality. “Not necessary,” he said. “Been short on money this week anyway. The extra time and a half I’m getting for your hours is a godsend, if you want to know the truth.”

Kurt hoped he wasn’t just saying that to be a nice guy. “Where are we going, by the way?”

“Didn’t the chief call you?”

“Yeah, but I only got part of it.”

Higgins waited for some radio crackle to pass. “South County hasn’t been able to make positive ID on that body Glen found.”

“Body is a pretty lenient term,” Kurt said, fingering his top pocket for a cigarette.

“So I heard, but it could’ve been worse. It could’ve been a bloater or a spatula special. Anyway, Bard wanted to call this Harley Fitzwater to find out the name of his dentist and the hospital his daughter went to when she broke her back, but there was no phone number listed on your 85 report.”

“That’s because Fitzwater doesn’t have a phone. He uses the pay phone at the liquor store. But then I thought I’d made that clear.”

Higgins cracked a smile. “Well, you know how the chief gets when things turn hairy. In one ear and out the other. He wants us to get the info from Fitzwater himself.”

“Fitzwater’s a hermit,” Kurt warned. “He lives like a Cajun. I wouldn’t be surprised if he never took his daughter to a dentist. Let’s not get our hopes up about a quick ID from dental records.”

“Sure, but he must’ve taken her to a hospital when she busted her spine. South County needs those X rays to match with the ones they made last night.” Higgins slowed through one of the road’s more unmanageable bends. “Bard said you know where this place is.”

“Just a little bit past the marsh.” Kurt strained his eyes looking for Fitzwater’s ravaged mailbox. “Here,” he said, and pointed. “Turn here.”

Higgins cut left. They crept down the ruined road, clunking over holes and branches. Fitzwater’s ramshackle trailer faced them sullenly, squalid in the pillared shadows of the woods.

Kurt lit a cigarette and let it hang from his lips, speechless. The trailer looked demolished; one side of it had come off the cinderblocks that formed its foundation, which caused the trailer to sit lopsided. Rain-sodden garments weighed the clothesline to the ground like scraps of raw meat. Amid bald tires and stray auto parts, several bizarre white piles of fluff dotted the front yard, and Kurt remembered the chickens he’d seen when writing up the initial report. The same cat he’d also seen disappeared behind the trailer, significantly more plump.

But that was not what the two men gaped at.

The front door of the trailer lay yards out to the left, as if thrown there. It had been torn off its hinges.

“What the fuck’s this?” Higgins asked.

“Wahoos,” was Kurt’s answer. “A bunch of wahoos having some fun with a man who never bothered anyone.”

“Fitzwater’s dirt poor—he’s got nothing of value. Why would burglars waste time sacking his place?”

“This is the worst county in the state for crime,” Kurt said. “Shitheads don’t need a reason to tear the shit out of things and kill people.” He took the Remington 870P out of the cruiser’s ready rack and pumped a round into the chamber. “Check the back. I’ll go inside.”

They fanned out, trotting across the yard. Higgins peeled off to the right around the trailer, his revolver tipped forward. Kurt approached more slowly, the shotgun muzzle pointing down, crossing his left knee. He clicked off the safety with his right index finger.

A puddle of flat rainwater shone dully beyond the torn-open doorway, suggesting that whoever did this had come and gone hours or even days ago. He suspected he’d find Fitzwater dead inside or somewhere nearby. Why else wouldn’t he have contacted the police?

Kurt stood a few yards back from the doorway, looking in at an angle. He held his breath and listened. His finger parallel against the trigger guard, he raised the gun barrel and stepped into the trailer.

He crossed the threshold in a swift, diagonal movement, making a complete circle, like a three-point turn, and after a quick visual sweep of the inside, he stood still again and listened. There was an odd, acrid smell that reminded him of the qualification range, but mixed with another far more nameless odor.

The trailer’s tiny windows and the dark day made it difficult to see. There’d be no lights; Fitzwater had no electricity. Kurt waited, shotgun poised, and as his eyes grew used to the poor light, he discerned that no one else was in the trailer, hostile or dead.

He opened the curtains—old towels tacked over the minuscule windows—careful not to touch any surface that would take a good print. Gray light streamed in and revealed a shambles. Long crescents of glass sparkled on the floor. Makeshift furniture lay in pieces, splintered like tinder. Overall, the interior of the trailer looked as though it had been grenaded.

He tiptoed through the wreckage, searched more closely. Two ragged concentric holes had been punched into the far left wall, and verified the tinge he knew must be gunpowder. He was not shocked to find the antique side-by-side on the floor by the baseboard. What shocked him, though, was the condition of the old shotgun—its long, twin barrels had been bent nearly in half.

Still, there was the smell. Not the combusted nitrates, but something else.

Then he noticed the great dark shape opposite the pocked wall, the position from which Fitzwater must’ve discharged the old double barrel. First he thought it must be a shadow, but then his own shadow darkened it as he stepped closer. It was a vast wash of blood.

The reality of what he saw hit him with the impact of a shout. So much blood, he thought. So much. The stain engulfed the entire corner walls, like deformed wings. The floor glistened, slippery with blood, as though it had been dumped there in buckets. Kurt convinced himself that Fitzwater had wounded several of his attackers—surely a single human being could not contain so much blood.

There was one last thing, the finishing mark of the rampage.

Kurt’s foot brushed something light as he moved back. He froze and looked down. Glared. Focused.

He thought it was an animal skin. Many of this county’s poor sold hides for extra cash. A possum hide, for example, brought about a dollar and a half from local tanners, and a racoon skin went for up to forty dollars, depending upon the season.

Higgins came into the trailer. “Nothing out back except—” but he stopped to look around in obtuse dismay. “Judas J. Priest.”

Kurt backed up, his guts crawling.

“I better call this in,” Higgins said. “I take it Fitzwater’s not here.”

“You be the judge.” Kurt pointed to the floor.

Higgins squatted before it. He examined the thing with a tiny Tekna micro-lith light he kept on his belt. He poked at it apprehensively. “Holy Mother—” he said, not looking at Kurt. “What is this thing?”

”A scalp,” Kurt replied. “I think it’s Fitzwater’s scalp.”

— | — | —

CHAPTER NINETEEN

Time had escaped him. He was aware only of the weapon.

Night fell on the sedate motel, the sun stealing away without Sanders ever realizing it. Inside, shadows expanded and eventually filled Room 6, save for the nebulous trapezoid of lamplight ablaze over the desk. He sat quite still, quite transfixed. Soft light touched his face, and he looked at the weapon.

Veneration, or perhaps an abstract kind of loyalty, made his eyes shine. Sanders trusted his relationship with guns. It was not a false one. There were many people today who regarded weapons erroneously. There were the gun shop commandos, the underground Nazis, and all these civilian jungle troopers who pursued an interest in guns because guns were cool, guns were power, guns were things of men. They wore camouflage jackets on the weekends, DEATH FROM ABOVE T-shirts, and caps and belt buckles embossed with names of their favorite gun companies; yet they knew nothing of the military, of killing, and of the reality of guns. These were the people on which the gun industry flourished, the very people who should not have guns. Never mind the right to bear arms—what good were guns when wielded by jackasses? Guns were the stilts of this lot, making little men tall. To them, guns were proof of masculinity, but they never saw the falseness of their ideals. They worshipped guns behind the sheer lack of faith in their own penises.

Sanders knew guns in an honest way, and he had business with them. There was still much he didn’t know about his potential enemy.

The weapon lay before him on the desktop. He appraised it in reverent silence. M16A1 Colt Firearms Mfg. Co., Hartford, Conn. How did the classic saying go? Be a man large or small in size, Samuel Colt will equalize? The weapon’s black anodized finish shone dully in the lampglow. It was long, lithe, light— the dominatrix of assault rifles. The simple look of it stifled him. He felt the puzzling beauty of this weapon, a structural beauty derived from functional ugliness.

He was pleased that he had not forgotten how to do the field strip; within a minute, he had reduced the rifle to a layout of parts, each of which he examined and found free of defects and dirt. He checked the gasline for dents, the select switch for play, the buffer spring, the bolt-carrier, and everything else within the 11 Bravo maintenance echelon. No pits, no stress marks. He raised the upper receiver to the light and peered down the barrel, glimpsing what idiom had dubbed the flower of death.

The weapon was immaculate and in close to mint condition, as Wilson had said. After lightly lubricating the bolt-runner with LSA-medium and wiping the parts down, Sanders reassembled everything.

In addition to three 30-round clips and four percussion grenades, Wilson had also supplied five 20-round boxes of 5.56mm tracer, bullets which traveled at a rate in excess of 3,000 feet per second. If they didn’t work, nothing would.

He pushed the many statistical question marks from his mind. He knew that before he made his move, he needed to familiarize himself with the target area, and maybe drop a few questions on some of the locals. It was almost nine o’clock.

He hid the weapon, the ammunition and grenades, and his vest in the box spring of his bed. Though he was sure no one had seen him bring it in, he didn’t like the idea of leaving such sensitive items here unguarded, but driving around with them in a stolen car wasn’t much in the way of brains, either. All he brought with him then was a compact Almar folding knife with a three-inch blade, which was about all that might conform to Maryland’s foggy, uninterpretable knife laws.

Outside, he locked the door, looking quickly left and right. He closed the glass-louvered storm door and affixed a piece of Scotch tape across the gap, a simple but proven tactic. He didn’t like unexpected guests.

He had only general knowledge of where he was going, though it couldn’t be far, according to the signs. He drove steadily but unhurried. A county police cruiser screamed past on the right with its light flashing. It gave Sanders a momentary, thrilling jolt. Must be on his way to a fletch party, he thought. That’s what the Saigon prostitutes had called it. “Fletch for extra dorra, G.I.!” Animals. He watched the cruiser’s taillights go tiny and vanish over the slow rise of the highway. It reminded him that he would have to be careful on all accounts.

It reminded him of the spontaneity he’d known all his life. Spontaneity such as this. He’d always loved a gamble, and he was always hearing how gamblers were all looking for the same thing—they were looking to lose. On a moment’s notice he could pull a U at the next light, return the weapons and the station wagon, and be on the next 707 to Florida. It would be easy.

His life had been a string of gambles, and he’d always won. Was this really so different? He was blind, he was conspicuous, he didn’t know for the life of him what he was walking into. Maybe I am looking to lose. He didn’t care about the money, or evening the score. He didn’t care about what had happened to his face, the restless memories, or how he had spent the last seven years.

He didn’t care about any of that.

So why go?

But he was going to do it. He just had to know.

Route 301 rolled on, barren and perfectly straight. The only other vehicles he saw were a couple of refrigerated semi rigs. They roared up out of the dark, huge and unheeding, oblivious to the 50 mph speed limit, and were gone as fast the police car. A traffic light twinkled from far up the road, and then a big green sign: TYLERSVILLE, NEXT LEFT.

He made the turn and crossed town limits on an incline. The cant of the road made him feel as though he were ascending. He passed an old muddy-colored restaurant, a shopping plaza and several apartment complexes, all glowing murkily within the perimeter of vapor lamps. Then a quarter mile of darkness until a road sign: MD RT 154. From what he made of his map, Tylersville existed entirely along this queer forested lane, where it all but isolated the town. There was very little open land, just some clearings and some cramped cornfields. For the most part though, Route 154 seemed to plow through woods. He wondered where the population lived.

Clouds lolled overhead, blotching the twilight. Way off and up in the distance, he saw the flashing red aerial lights of a television tower, though it seemed peculiar to him that such a thing would be located so remotely. The road continued its steady rise, then at last began to even out and bend and turn. Now he noticed houses set back in the woods, quite a few of them, made discernible by porch lights and softly lit windows. It seemed that the trees were gradually growing around the houses, as if to keep them out of sight.

Originally he wanted his first exposure to Tylersville to be under the cover of darkness, but now he was beginning to think he’d made a mistake. This “town” was dead, just sullen houses screened by trees and this long twisting stretch of misplaced highway.

But around the next bend he found what he was looking for. Hard, pounding music drifted into the car, rapidly increasing in volume as he cleared the turn. A giant sign on posts loomed straight up, and red neon letters buzzed and quivered like blurred vision, THE ANVIL, BEER TO GO, TOPLESS DANCING NOON TIL 2.

Sanders grinned and touched the brakes. He pulled in.

Jacked-up cars and pickup trucks filled the gravel lot. Two derelict youths stumbled between the cars, their faces drained by inebriation. Pitiless, Sanders shook his head, remembering years ago when he must’ve looked the same. He squeezed the station wagon between an old blue Ford and a van with things like portholes on the sides.

In the bar, rock music assaulted him. It pounded and beat and blew into his face like a gust of wind. Cigarette smoke crept toward the ceiling; from all sides rose the smell of old beer, dust, and tobacco. Sanders’s brow hardened. A fat, bearded bouncer stared at him from a stool by the door.

Standing in place, Sanders looked over the interior, facing a swarm of backs. There must’ve been a hundred people stuffed into the place. Waitresses had to squeeze between tables, like acrobats on balance beams. The clientele consisted mainly of rambunctious youths and dour, calloused working-class types. They whooped, chortled, and shouted at each other over the awful music.

Sanders felt tempted to leave. This was just a frowzy Maryland strip joint. The walls were white-painted brick, which flaked like shedding scales. Elevated against the rearmost wall was the dance stage, drowned in throbbing light and occupied now by a skinny coif haired brunette. There was something obscene about the girl’s nakedness; she was nearly breastless, her body smooth, inchoate, only vaguely female. She danced off balance and guessing her steps, like a girl just off a roller coaster.

“Sit down or split,” the bouncer said behind him.

Sanders turned. He didn’t like civilians telling him what to do. “Eat much?” he said. “Christ, buddy, you’ve got enough lard on you to sink the Nimitz.”

“Find a seat or get out,” the bouncer said.

“I’ll find a seat when I’m ready, creamcake. You’re welcome to throw me out, if you think you can. If not, then shut your fat face. Or I’ll shut it for you.”

Sanders waited to be “bounced,” but it didn’t happen. The bouncer just sneered from his perch atop the stool. Sanders wouldn’t have cared either way.

Taking his time, then, he wended into the crowd. Most of the tables were full, but in a far corner he spotted a guy who’d managed to get one to himself.

“Mind if I sit here?”

“Feel free,” the guy said. He smiled and halfheartedly raising a bottle of Stroh’s. Sanders felt discomposed by this man’s eyes, they were tired and weary and didn’t look right on his face. He slid into the seat and said, “I’m surprised they don’t make you take a number here.”

“This is about as busy as the Anvil gets,” the guy told him. “Not that I make a habit of coming here—it’s the only place in town where you can get a cold beer. Not a bad hang-out, actually, if you don’t mind hourly brawls, sky-high prices, and the atmosphere of a cockfight arena.” He sipped his beer soberly and went on. “You from around here? I don’t recall seeing you before.”

Could you forget a face like this? Sanders thought. The guy’s foresight amused him. “I’m just passing through… Name’s John.”

“Kurt Morris,” the guy said, and extended a hand over the table. “I’m a Tylersville original.”

This guy seemed amiable enough, and much different from the rest of the rabble. It bothered Sanders, though; Morris seemed ostracized here, shunned, yet content to sit by himself in this wreck of a bar. Perhaps it was his “oneness,” like Sartre’s protagonist in Nausea, or who the hell knew? But Sanders decided he liked Kurt Morris.

He ordered a Coke from a plump, boat-hipped waitress. He hoped she wouldn’t accidentally hit him in the head with her breasts, which were enormous. “Teetotaler,” he said to Kurt.

“It doesn’t matter what you order here,” Kurt informed, lighting a cigarette and speaking at the same time. “Beer, Coke, glass of water. It’ll still cost you three bucks a toss.”

“Pirates.”

“They figure they can charge so much on account of the ‘erotic dancing.’”

Sanders jerked around and comically craned his neck. The amorphous dancer was plodding narcoleptically across the stage, preparing to spin. She reminded Sanders of the Thorazine patients on the ward. Sweat glued her hair down as though she’d dunked her head in a tub of molasses.

“If that’s erotic dancing,” Sanders commented, “then my name’s Dick. She must have some zombie in her blood. Christ, I’ve seen better looking tractor seats.”

Kurt Morris chuckled smoke.

When the waitress reappeared, Sanders paid for his drink, frowning. He looked up then and saw a ruddy vandyked character coming toward the table. The guy’s face looked like a bombed airfield, and he had sagacious slits for eyes. A girl in a black tube top and G-string followed him up like an exotic mascot.

“Hey, Morris,” the guy said, sniggering. “How come you ain’t in uniform these days?”

“Short vacation, thanks to you,” Kurt told the guy. “But I can’t say it wasn’t worth it. By the way, Lenny, how’s your jaw?”

“My jaw’s fine. It’ll take more than one sucka punch ta hurt me, an’ if I was you I’d be watchin’ out fer my own jaw.”

“Sure, Lenny,” Kurt said, a dismissive drone. “Why don’t you go haunt a shit pit or something. You’re scaring the bubbles out of my beer.”

The guy guffawed, then shot Sanders a cold, funky look. He walked away, tugging his nearly nude girlfriend with him.

“Who’s the Rhodes scholar?” Sanders asked.

Kurt tapped out another cigarette, a mixture of disgust and amusement working on his face. “Lenny Stokes,” he answered. “Dirtball, dropout, town pain in the ass. The crab queen with him is Joanne Sulley, one of the dancers here. Certain parts of her are quite well known to the male population… I got five days’ suspension for punching Stokes in the mouth.”

“You’re a cop?”

Kurt nodded. “Local. Been on the force about five years.”

That was good. Sanders generally got along well with police, civilian or military. Even the worst police officers seemed more in touch with reality than the average sap.

Suddenly the Anvil’s din of harsh music and palaver gave way to a cannonade of hoots. “Class act, huh?” Kurt said. He pointed to the stage. “This is her grand finale before the next dancer.”

Sanders turned again. The dancer was now on her back, with her legs straight up in a wide V. She had a hand in her G-string, while the other hand rubbed her breasts alternately, bringing the nipples up like beads.

“Piss-poorest floor show I ever seen,” Sanders remarked. What a joke. This was nothing compared to some of the things he’d witnessed. Like the whore/waitresses in Nürnberg who could actually puff cigarettes with their vaginas, or pick up empty beer bottles off the floor for a couple of deutschemarks. During his TDY tour at Fort Hamilton, he’d often gone to clubs on 8th Avenue and seen strippers insert eggs or tomatoes into themselves and then splatter them out by contracting their pelvic muscles. And in Mexican border towns such as Acuna, dancers would routinely fellate and have intercourse with dogs and mules.

The juke tune faded out abruptly; the current dancer got up and, with not much eloquence, left the stage. The next song thumped on directly, filling the Anvil with waves of razor-edged guitar and percussives like pistol shots in an empty parking garage. The crowd flew into a tangled uproar as Joanne Sulley set foot on stage. She went into her number smooth as velvet, the gyrations of her trim physique almost too well done. She danced with a balletic ferocity, an easy intricacy of timing and motion. Sanders was impressed in spite of himself.

“At least she knows what she’s doing.”

Kurt conceded, a reluctant nod. “As much as she curdles my stomach, I have to admit she can dance. And wait’ll you see her floor show. She sticks matches on her nipples and lights them.” Kurt put his hands on the table and stood up. “Funny, though, every time I see her up there I get this sudden urge to go to the John. Be right back,” and then he weaved away toward the men’s room.

Sanders continued to watch, half fascinated and sipping his Coke. Then he glanced left; he saw Lenny Stokes conversing with the bouncer by the door. Sanders could smell trouble. They were both glaring at him.

Stokes parted and began walking toward the table.

“Hey, man. My buddy ova there tells me you were givin’ him a hard time.”

“That’s right,” Sanders said. He was looking at the dancer. His hands were in his lap.

“How come you wanna give my buddy ova there a hard time?”

“’Cause he’s an asshole.”

“That so?”

“Yeah, an asshole. Just like you.”

Stokes stood casually, arms akimbo. He grinned. “Hey, man. What happened ta yer face? Looks lak ya tried ta shave with a boat motor.” Then he reached over and took Kurt’s half-smoked cigarette out of the ashtray. He held it up, watched the smoke coil toward the rafters, and then flicked an inch of ash in Sanders’s lap.

Expressionless, Sanders stood up. “That was a mistake.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Stokes came back, sharpening his grin. “See, I thought ya were an ashtray, on account of the fact that it looks lak folks’ve been puttin’ out butts in yer face fer years.”

Sanders spat on Stokes’s right shoe. He must make Stokes throw the first punch.

“You must wanna wheelchair ta go along with that fucked-up face of yers, pal.”

“Outside, or right here,” Sanders said. “It’s your choice.”

“Okay, Frankenstein. Outside.”

The two men waded through tables and went out the front door.

Sanders had killed men with his bare hands before, he’d been trained to. The average person would be surprised at how easy it was. Less than thirty pounds of pressure on the proper vertebra could snap a neck. A palm-heel upthrust at a specific angle could shatter the pre-sphenoid bone table, behind the sinuses, and drive the fragments into the brain. A single, precise blow six inches under the armpit could penetrate a lung with broken pieces of ribs. Tracheas could be crushed with a modicum of physical force, and eighty percent of the blood supply to the brain could be occluded by two well-placed fingers. Sanders’s sole fear in a fight was maintaining the necessary level of restraint, which was harder than one might think, since he’d never been taught to fight halfway—he’d been taught to kill. He knew he’d have to be careful here. No man, Stokes included, deserved to spend a year in traction just for being a shithead.

“You are one ugly muthafucka,” Stokes reflected. “And I am personally gonna make you uglier.”

Outside, Sanders procured immediate tactical advantage; he stood with the light over the door behind him, and in Stokes’s face. He didn’t expect Stokes to fight fair—life had taught him to always keep an eye to the rear. He was ready when the bouncer slipped out and sneaked up from behind.

When Sanders felt the bouncer’s hand on his shoulder, he said, “Here’s one for your mother,” simultaneously driving the tip of his elbow into the bouncer’s solar plexus and then flattening his nose with a quick upward back fist to the face. Sanders did this without turning, without taking his eyes off Stokes.

The bouncer collapsed, one hand clutched at his gut, the other to his face. His nose dripped out blood like a leaking faucet.

Stokes sprang forward, the element of surprise ruined. He was very fast. He fired a fist, but Sanders’s forearm swerved up firm as a steel rod and blocked the punch. Flustered, Stokes shot out his other fist. Sanders caught it and held it in his palm, as if he’d just caught a line drive. He smiled traceably at Stokes, then shoved him backward.

“I hope you can do better than that,” Sanders said. “I know women who can fight better than that.”

Stokes stared him down, shifted his footing, which he’d barely been able to keep. Sanders waited. Behind him he heard a small crowd gathering round to watch.

Careful, he thought.

Now, it seemed, Stokes had the advantage.

With a heavy thud, an unopened bottle of beer smacked Sanders square in the middle of the spine. Someone in the crowd had thrown it, behind his back. And it was a good throw.

He gritted his teeth, tried to will off the thudding spread of pain, but Stokes was on him before he knew it. Back-stepping, Sanders could only block some of the strikes. Stokes’s fists marauded him, and blurred his line of sight.

He continued to retreat, to bide time to clear his head. Then he planted his feet and quickly jabbed Stokes with a good, hard knife-hand to the armpit. Stokes dropped his fists, tilting.

Now Sanders had time. A fast web-chop under the jaw and a clean, solid shot to the mouth sent Stokes flying backward over two parked motorcycles.

Sanders turned to face the crowd. “Who threw the bottle?” he asked. “Come on, step right up.” But the smirking cluster had already begun to disband. The bouncer glowered at him, then staggered back inside with the others. Blood made his beard glisten red.

In groggy, cautious movements, Stokes picked himself up to his feet, his mouth a bloody smear. “Ugly cock-sure muthafucka,” he said, but it sounded like he was talking through a mouthful of beans. “You’ll get what’s comin’, jus wait an’ see.”

Sanders had to frown. “What’s wrong with your brain, son? Don’t you know when you’re beat? Your daddy must’ve had shit on his dick when he knocked your mama up with you. Go on home, or else I might have to kick your ass.”

Stokes stumbled away for his car.

A moment later, Kurt came outside. “Someone said Stokes was mixing it up. You?”

“Yeah,” Sanders said. He was disappointed with himself. “Not much of a fight. He asked for it, and he started it. Couldn’t really back down, you know? Sometimes you just have to break bad on these kids—how else will they learn to act civilized?” He glanced at his knuckle, checking for damage. “Anyway, I sent him down the road.”

Kurt seemed secretly pleased. He watched Stokes’s Chevelle rumble out of the parking lot and squeal off.

Sanders said, “I’m looking for a guy named Willard.”

“Dr. Willard?” Kurt returned. “Early fifties thereabouts, beard, and a bank account like Andrew Carnegie’s?”

“Yeah, you got it. We’re definitely talking about the same guy.” Though Sanders couldn’t quite picture the man with a beard. “We’re old friends from way back. You know where I can find him?”

More luck. Without even pausing, Kurt gave him a current address.

“That’s great, thanks,” Sanders said. “But do me a favor, okay? If you should run into him, don’t let on that I’m in town. We haven’t seen each other in years. I’d like it to be a surprise.”

“Sure,” Kurt said. “I won’t mention it, not that I see him much myself… Say, we better get back inside before some stoner walks off with our drinks.”

Sanders smiled.

««—»»

Midnight.

“Hurry,” Cathy said.

“I am,” Lisa insisted.

“Are you sure we’re not lost?”

“I’m sure.”

“Then hurry.”

Lisa steered her father’s big silver Lincoln with a kind of naive confidence. It was a plush, comfortable car, and had a stereo better than the one in her room. Too bad all the decent FM went off the air—nothing but shit-music on the radio these days. Of course, she’d never say that to Cathy, whose favorite band was Culture Club. Lisa’s favorites were Black Flag, Sex Gang Children, and 9353. Greaseman, my ass, she thought. Not while I’m driving.

Lisa and Cathy were seniors at Bowie High. Graduation was coming up, and U of M soon after. It was an exciting time.

They both possessed an unstrained, pedestrian attractiveness, had dark, simple, shoulder-length hair, bright eyes, and a propensity for faded jeans; they could’ve been sisters. They’d been vague friends since tenth grade, better friends for a year, and special friends for a month, since the Senior-Skip party at that wimp Art Cado’s, when someone had suggested a mass late-night skinny dip in Artie’s indoor pool. It had begun uncertainly, first with shared, knowing glances, then accidental touching, then the rest.

“Where are we, anyway?” Cathy asked, and reached down into the bag to pull up a second bottle of Amstel. Tonight had been Lisa’s turn to buy the beer; she always bought the high-priced imported brands, which generally tasted no better than whatever was on special. But Lisa’s pop was loaded, so it didn’t matter.

“Governor Bridge Road,” Lisa answered. She wore a beige T-shirt that said MINOR THREAT across the chest. Her modest bosom made the letters look crooked. “The other side of Tylersville.”

Cathy gaped. “Tylersville! That’s where we went last time and got caught by that creepy-looking security guard.”

“Relax,” Lisa assured her. “That was private property. We’re miles away from that guy.”

“So what. The farther we are from Tylersville, the better I’ll feel. All kinds of crazy stuff happening out there.”

“What stuff?”

“Don’t you read the Blade?” Cathy couldn’t believe it. “First somebody dug up a grave, then a cop disappeared in the woods, and after that some hick crippled girl got abducted. It’s probably one of those southern death cults. Satanists, or something. Using ’em for human sacrifice.”

Lisa giggled. She felt a gentle heat between her legs. “Don’t worry. I won’t let the satanists get you.”

Cathy looked around impatiently, one hand resting her beer on her knee, the other squeezed under her leg. Through the passenger window she saw a high water sign punctured by a single silver-rimmed hole from a deerslug. It seemed to hover postless from the trees, a pallid, one-eyed face in the dark.

“You always pick spooky places,” she said.

Lisa grinned in the dashboard’s dim green glow. She drove more slowly as the road narrowed. She liked to make Cathy wait. For some reason it was always better when Cathy was annoyed with her.

They drove through a gnarled catacomb of trees. More signs drifted past, all bent and peppered by shotgun holes. Farther on, they crossed the tilted one-lane truss bridge, which was canopied by a framework of girders crawling with lovers’ graffiti. This was known as “Screaming Baby Bridge” to everyone at school. On nights when the moon was full, you could supposedly hear a baby screaming from the black water, because years ago a crazy woman had thrown her kid over the side. Lisa, of course, knew that this was pure bullshit. But she liked the bridge, she liked the graffiti. One night she would come out here by herself and spray-paint LISA LOVES CATHY on one of the beams.

A mile past the bridge, she stopped and backed into an un-paved road entry. She drove backward till she was sure the car couldn’t be seen from the main road. It was safe here; she knew this road was no longer in use. It led to some talc mines way, way back that hadn’t been open since before she was born.

Cathy lowered her power window. Lisa put the lights out and turned off the engine. They let the dark eddy in. Lisa kicked her shoes off and curled her toes in the carpet.

Nightsounds grew more distinct, a quiet cacophony of peepers and cricket trills. The flood of moonlight palely lit them up and painted shimmering white tails on the hood.

Lisa crawled across the bench seat on hands and knees, and kissed Cathy’s hair once very gently. Cathy took another sip of beer. She pretended not to notice.

It was the game they played—a complex, imperative game rooted in a bizarre and very special fondness. Their hearts fluttered for each other, and their eyes sparkled. It was always the same. It was always perfect.

Lisa had to do before she could be done to. She continued to dot Cathy with little kisses. Cathy continued to ignore her. The tiny slit of heat between Lisa’s legs began to pulsate; she pressed a finger there, against her pants, and felt a welling, shivery sensation. She nuzzled Cathy’s cheek, still touching herself, and let a small, pleading whine leak out from her throat.

Eventually, Cathy put her beer down and gave in. They grinned at each other in the tinseled dark. They embraced.

The air inside grew warm, and was full of the sounds of crickets. Time was fragile now; rushing would lay rents in their passion. They kissed as if sipping from cups, barely moving, holding time back to examine the proximity of each kiss. Their mouths became the cynosures of their souls—they were attached to each other by their mouths, were joined as one like pretty Siamese twins in a transport of exhilaration and dark delight.

At that moment Lisa thought she would die to be kissed. A gentle delirium took them over, made them sway; they drew close, as if held together by slowly shrinking bonds. Their kisses grew more insistent, more precise. It was a system of subverbal demands, teeth clicking, tongues plunging. Cathy kissed with particular verve; she seemed intent on sucking Lisa’s tongue right out of her mouth. But Lisa liked it when she did that. She liked the suction.

Cathy began to slither down until she was prone on the bench seat. She relaxed cozily. Eyes locked, Lisa started to unbutton her lover’s shirt, revealing the soft, flawless skin one notch at a time. When the shirt came open fully, she traced Cathy’s breasts with her fingers, nervously at first, then more steadily, and harder. The feeling made Cathy close her eyes and sigh.

Lisa loved Cathy’s breasts. They were large and beautiful in the etching light. She longed for a way to tell her this, and many other things too, but she didn’t know how without sounding stupid. Oh, Cathy, I love your tits? No. She would just show her.

Holding her hair to one side, Lisa lowered her head and delicately planted kisses on each of Cathy’s breasts. They seemed to swell as she kissed them. The dark, pink nipples began to distend like little cones of flesh. Lisa kissed them and sucked them out until she knew they must be deliciously sore.

Next, she pulled her T-shirt up over her own breasts and lay down on Cathy, nipple to nipple. She could feel Cathy’s heat reaching up, and was delighted by the way her lover squirmed, trapped. She began to slide down then, licking a wet line from Cathy’s throat to her beltline. Cathy continued to fidget, her breasts and stomach glittering under a light sweat.

Lisa lingered down there; she hugged Cathy’s hips, cupped her bottom, nagged at the belt with her teeth. She pressed her mouth against Cathy’s crotch and breathed forcefully through the denim.

Cathy moaned.

With her teeth, Lisa unfastened Cathy’s belt; she popped the rivetlike button out of its eyelet, and tugged down the zipper. The jeans came off in a heartbeat. Cathy grinned again, eyes barely open, and she stretched luxuriously, placing one bare foot behind the driver’s headrest, and the other on the steering column, and she just lay there all soft and hot and waiting.

Lisa was on her knees, between her lover’s parted legs. She felt light-headed looking down, gazing at Cathy’s taut stomach, cool white thighs, and pale, quivering breasts. I love you, Lisa thought euphorically. She felt hot, heavy rushes of love. Her blood pulsed with love. Her eyes were damp and teary with love. Invidiously, her mind flashed desperate, horrid images. She pictured Cathy here with another girl. Or worse, with a guy. Yes, the vision of Cathy lying like this with some hairy, sweating male made Lisa want to clench her fists and howl. She would cry for a month if that happened. It must never happen. Cathy wasn’t like the other girls. Cathy was precious.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Lisa said. “Nothing,” and she crouched down on her elbows and knees, as if about to push a peanut with her nose. She nuzzled and kissed and licked. She went down on Cathy for a long time.

They didn’t know they were being watched.

Whimpers and little noises of delight began to slip from Cathy’s throat. She couldn’t control it. Her legs stiffened with the mounting pleasure. She curled her toes in the air and held Lisa’s head.

Outside, a figure leaned over the car on the driver’s side, and in the upper left corner of the windshield, a small circle of fog formed. Another figure stood on the passenger side, leaning over, peering in.

Cathy squeezed her lower lip between her teeth, moaning, whipping her head back and forth. She breathed in short, rapid pants. Legs straining, breasts and tummy now aglow with sweat, she flexed her ass and sucked in her stomach and pressed the back of Lisa’s head to make her do it harder.

“I love you,” Lisa stopped long enough to say.

“I love you,” Cathy panted back.

Lisa’s mouth worked furiously but with special precision. She knew exactly how to make her lover come good. Every muscle in Cathy’s body seemed to tighten. She let herself go, hissing, and gave in to the steady, deep jolt of orgasm.

The moment passed in a great sigh. The backup of excited tension went out of her like a fleeing demon, and Cathy was swept by a fluid wave of laziness. Every nerve, every muscle, every cubic inch of her flesh felt at peace.

Lisa sat up, shiny around the mouth. She ran her hands up and down Cathy’s thighs and listened to her purr.

“I love you,” Lisa said.

“I love you,” Cathy said.

The end came with maniacal speed.

Cathy’s eyes bulged open. Consternation drained her face. She pointed past Lisa. She began to sit up, began to shout, There’s someone outsi—”

Then Cathy was gone.

She’d been pulled out of the car, as easily as smoke sucked through a vent-slat.

Confusion and panic burst in Lisa’s brain. She didn’t know what had happened. She didn’t know what to do. She only knew she was alone in the car, when just a second before she’d been with Cathy.

She looked at the empty seat, the open window, the blackness outside, and all at once a long, grinding scream shot out through the night. Lisa could not imagine a scream so piercing, so real and full of terror. It made static tremors race up her spine, and lanced her ears like ice picks.

Then the scream wound down to a rasping sputter and was followed by a series of short, spasmodic shrieks, and finally an awful wet plunging sound, like someone pulling apart watermelons bare-handed.

Then silence, utter silence.

Lisa broke out of the grip of her fear. She reached for the ignition …

The driver’s window thumped once, twice, then exploded inward, showering her with tiny chunks of glass.

She tried to scramble out the other window, but too late. A hand shot in out of the dark, a long clawlike hand with only three fingers. It snatched onto her hair and abruptly yanked her out of the car.

Lisa fought to get off the ground, she fought to get up. She flailed her arms, kicking, clawing leaves, but was regardless dragged to the middle of the road. Humid breath gusted against her face, a mouth like a suction cup brushing up her cheek toward her eye.

The hand hooked under her jaw, like a pincer. She was lifted up. The other hand touched between her legs. The scream that then erupted from Lisa’s lungs bore an uncanny resemblance to the sound of screeching tires.

The lips funneled to a salivating O shape over her eye socket, and—

POP

—sucked the left eyeball out of her skull.

The eyeball was swallowed whole, and then the other eye was removed much in the same way.

Her pants were ripped open and torn off. She was raped by a long, twisting forearm that routed her insides amid that same wet, plunging sound. The arm thrust in and out like a piston rod, quickly extracting organs through the vaginal pass.

When the abdominal cavity had been sufficiently emptied, the arm withdrew. Lisa twitched jerkily on the ground, as if lying in electrified water. She died gargling blood.

The hand clasped her ankle. From atop a sixty-foot mocker-nut tree, two grackles watched as she was dragged away into the woods.

— | — | —

CHAPTER TWENTY

“A what?” Kurt said. But he’d been paying little attention anyway. The gentleness of the morning air distracted him. He stood at the rim of the back patio and looked out over the trees, hopeful that it wouldn’t rain.

“A werewolf,” Melissa repeated. She was scattering her breakfast’s leftover bread crusts into the backyard. “You know, like Lon Chaney.”

“Damn. Why didn’t I think of that? Now all I have to do is go down to Schiller’s Gun Shop and order a box of silver wad-cutters for my .357.”

“I’m not joking,” she warned, flicking a last crust. “It was a full moon the night Harley Fitzwater disappeared.”

Had it been? So what. Somehow she’d found out about Fitzwater’s disappearance, and the skeleton, too. At times he thought that the Tylersville grapevine must be as intricate as an NSA telenet. “You should eat your bread crusts,” he said. “Grows hair on your chest.”

“If you’re not careful, you’re gonna be the one growing hair, and I mean lots of hair. And teeth, and claws. And don’t always change the subject.”

“Okay. I thought you said it was vampires.”

“Well, even I make a mistake every now and then,” she said with her usual cockiness. “Just look at the facts. Vampires only drink blood; they’d never eat a body down to the bones… But werewolves would.”

“Are you sure you’re not smoking grass with those oddball friends of yours? I know I wasn’t as screwy as you when I was your age.”

“Go ahead and laugh,” she said. “They laughed at Brahe, too, you know.”

Who’s Brahe? he thought. He would not admit ignorance. “Sure, Melissa, and if I tell Chief Bard that werewolves ate Swaggert and Fitzwater, he’ll laugh me right off the force.”

“All it takes is one bite, remember that, kiddo. I don’t want to have to be chaining you up in the basement every full moon.”

Sometimes Melissa’s imagination worried him. Did she really believe these things? Probably. He left her to watch sparrows pick at the bread.

For some reason, he felt anxious. He went upstairs and looked in on Vicky, who was still sleeping peacefully, in his room, in his bed. It was something he’d insisted on. He’d consigned himself to the couch in the den, which wasn’t bad once he learned where the hard spots were. He just wanted Vicky to be as comfortable as possible.

She turned once under the sheet, as if resisting a dream, and then fell still again. Probably the first decent night’s sleep she’s had in two years, he thought bitterly. He’d never seen her so at peace before, so at ease, even with the bandage on her head, and the cast.

He stayed a moment more to gaze at her in her sleep. He felt like a voyeur, secure to watch in secret. He wondered if he would ever sleep with her, reproved himself for the thought, then closed the door.

His suspension was moving along. Not much longer now, he thought, leaving the house and starting the Ford. He hated not working; he hadn’t taken a vacation since Carter was in office, because anything more than two days off per week interrupted the routine he needed. Being forced not to work was now close to driving him to claw at the paneling.

Before he had time to back out of the drive, six or eight county cruisers flew by one after another, followed by a big, flat-white bus that roared unmercifully. Kurt turned after them and saw that he’d guessed right when all the county vehicles parked at the roadside near the lane which led to Fitzwater’s trailer. There were at least a half dozen more county cars there already. Kurt parked behind the last one, close to disbelief at what he saw beyond his windshield. Fitzwater’s cul-de-sac was crawling with police, and when the bus released several dozen more patrolmen, the scene became pandemonic. They must’ve called in a fifth of their day shift.

In the rearview, Kurt saw Bard’s T-bird pull up behind him and stop. Kurt got out and waited at the shoulder as Bard lumbered up, precariously balancing a pack of Hostess Ho Ho’s on a cup of take-out coffee.

“What’s this, the county clambake?” Kurt asked.

“You got your wish,” Bard said. “Choate shit his county trousers when he got word about yesterday. Ordered all available men out here for a class-A inside-out, and he emptied the county training academy for a full day. They’ll search here till noon, then spend the rest of the day on Belleau Wood.”

“Should’ve been done days ago. And they should have state out here, too.”

“Don’t look a gift headqueen in the mouth. A freebie’s a freebie, so what more do you want? The national fucking guard? And who needs the state? They’re too busy painting their cruisers the color of my dick; you think they got money to lend us some troopers for something as trivial as a murder investigation? Bugger them.” Bard pressed both of the Ho Ho’s together and ate them as one, in a single bite. “Besides, if these muzzleheads can’t find anything with this kind of manpower, there’s probably nothing to find.”

They cut into the woods until stopped by a familiar yellow ribbon. POLICE LINE, DO NOT CROSS. Past the cordon, several sergeants were lining up rows and rows of patrolmen for what seemed the most massive grid search in the history of law enforcement. The men appeared fidgety; the forest bubbled with nervous chatter. Lieutenant Choate and a pair of TSD technicians looked on immobilely from a stand of trees beside the trailer. At their feet were things that resembled small black suitcases.

Kurt glanced closer at the trailer. The door no longer lay where it had yesterday; it and parts of the trailer body itself had been removed to the county criminalistics lab. Footprints had been photographed and cast, leaving fringes of plaster in the yard. A tech plugged a portable UV set into a powerbox; the element glowed like neon. Another tech fumed siding with uranyl phosphate, which left stains that reminded Kurt of washed-out blood.

“What about the blood?”

Bard sipped the coffee as if it might bite him in the face. “Forestville grouped it down to AB-duffy-positive, which matched the blood in the scalp. According to some dog tags they found inside, Fitzwater was AB, so they’re satisfied it’s all his. And no word on prints yet, just that they’re punting them all to state, like last time.”

One county sergeant, with an irate, cherry-pink face, stepped before the rows of men. His voice crackled like splitting wood. “Shut up,” he ordered. “No talking, no jokes, no cocking around. Anyone lights a cigarette, I shove my thermos up his ass. And I don’t want to see any of you guys putting any of that chewing tobacco shit in your mouths. This is a crime scene—don’t fuck it up. I want it nice and slow, hear? If you see something, don’t touch it, just shout it out.” He scowled one last time and then moved his hands forward, toward himself, as if ground-guiding a tractor. The line of men crouched and began to advance evenly along the forest ground. “That’s it, greendicks. Nice and slow.”

Bard looked out past the search party. His voice gave a hint of despair. “I remember when the only things that went on around here were kids laying wheel and throwing beer bottles in the road. A downed powerline or fallen tree was hot news. Now look what we got… My whole fucking town’s gone right down the pooper in the space of a week.”

Kurt kept silent. He was thinking.

Bard let out a black chuckle. “You know, this job’s making me numb. Somebody’s ripping the shit out of people, and I haven’t even actually realized it until today. You know what I mean? It’s just now sinking in what’s honest to God going on. People are being murdered.”

Kurt nodded, half aware. He looked at the doorway of the trailer and remembered all the blood he’d seen inside. My God, he thought. The blood. So much blood.

He touched his chin, staring. He was trying to remember the last full moon.

««—»»

Kurt went back home when the search at Fitzwater’s had been wrapped up. Nothing had been found in the way of evidence, nothing left behind. He had a feeling that the search at Belleau Wood would yield similar results.

The house was empty. Vicky had left a note stuck to the refrigerator by a plastic parrot magnet, WENT TO BANK, BE BACK SOON, and Melissa had vanished. He began to fry up some canned hash for lunch, but flopped it all into the garbage when he decided he wasn’t hungry. He hadn’t eaten much in the last few days. He didn’t want to; it just didn’t seem worth bothering with. He needed to get back to work. He needed to do something. Even directing traffic or writing SRO’s was better than this.

The emptiness of the house closed in; he could feel it follow him shapelessly up the stairs and into his room, the ghost of himself. The glare of sunlight made him grit his teeth. At least a suggestion of decent weather, but still it depressed him. The onstart of a classic headache pulsed behind his eyes.

As he went to close the shades, the phone rang.

“Hello—”

“I’d like to speak to Officer Morris, please.” A woman’s voice, and one he’d heard somewhere before.

“That’s me.”

A pause, as if hesitant, as if the caller were tempted to hang up. “This is Nancy Willard. We met at the house the other day…”

“Oh, yes. What can I do for you, Mrs. Willard?”

“I, uh—” She paused again, this time to lower her voice. “I’d like to talk to you about something. You may be quite interested.”

“Okay.”

“Oh, not over the phone. I mean someplace private.”

“Sure,” Kurt said. “I’ll be over in ten minutes.”

“No, no,” she said. She seemed to speak with great care, holding her voice down. “Not at the house, either, if you don’t mind. It’s kind of involved, and I’d—”

Kurt frowned.

“—just rather it be someplace else, someplace out of the way, if that’s all right with you.”

“Of course it is, Mrs. Willard,” he said. “Name a place.”

“Oh, it really doesn’t matter to me,” she hedged. “Whatever’s convenient, I guess… Oh, how about…”

Jesus, he thought. A little early in the day to be drinking, isn’t it, lady?

“How about Squidd McGuffy’s?” she said.

“What McGuffy’s?”

“Squidd. Squidd McGuffy’s. You’ve never heard of it?”

“Sorry, no. What is it, a fish store or something?”

She laughed shortly. “No, no, it’s a club, a tavern type of place.”

“Okay. Where is it?”

“At Hilltop Plaza, in Bowie, where the bookstore used to be. You can’t miss it. There’s a big sign in front with a squid on it.”

Bowie? He shook his head, bewildered. “Okay, Mrs. Willard. I’ll find it. What time?”

“Oh, say…six-thirty? Is that all right?”

“No problem at all. Squidd McGuffy’s at six-thirty.”

“Yes, yes. I’ll see you then.”

The line went dead.

— | — | —

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

Willard measured time with cigarettes; he smoked one every fifteen minutes, so by the accumulation of butts in the ashtray, an hour and a half had passed since Nancy had put down the phone.

The tiny light on the jackplate glowed green, indicating LINE CLEAR. In the top drawer of his desk was a UT-55A full-function extension monitor, similar to an answering machine, only quite a bit more complicated and costly. It monitored all incoming and outgoing calls on either extension, and recorded them on an Akai reel-to-reel tape recorder also in the desk. The recorder was activated whenever any phone in the house was picked up.

He’d heard Nancy’s entire conversation with Kurt Morris.

She was upstairs now. She was probably packing her bags, planning to slip out tonight after she’d spoiled everything. She was probably masturbating, eyes closed and her head full of thoughts of the security guard. He’d seen her do this many times.

The study was quiet and comfortably dark, his place of peace. The air-conditioning hummed hypnotically.

Willard lit another cigarette. He realized the obscenity of smoking, but was hooked to it. Nicotine had proved as psychologically addicting as heroin, and cigarettes were the number one preventable cause of premature death in America. Worldwide, 50 million smokers per year contracted a chronic obstructive lung disease; in the United States alone, 14 billion dollars were spent yearly to treat smoking-related ailments. The gas and particulate phases of cigarette smoke contained more than twenty toxic chemicals, carcinogens, ganglionic stimulators, tumor accelerators. Ciliotoxins wiped out the body’s primary system for foreign-matter expulsion, clearing the way for myriad pneumoconioses. Carbon monoxide interceded oxygen transport and utilization to the brain, causing excess production of hemoglobin and actually dropping the smoker’s intelligence quotient, while nicotine traumatized the cardiovascular system and unnaturally released catecholamines in the brain. Cigarettes even contained trace metals and radioactive substances. These were cold, objective facts. It perplexed him then why the government continued to subsidize the tobacco crop and thus corrupt health-care costs to levels unaffordable to the average workingman. Certainly an extended life expectancy and millions saved in health benefits was worth the jobs of an insignificant number of tobacco farmers. Perhaps the tobacco industry was really just a government plot to generate revenue and kill off the elderly before they could collect much Social Security. Monstrous, Willard thought. Monstrous to smoke. He drew deep and found harsh bliss in the smoke that filled his lungs. Ah, well.

He held one of the small amber bottles up to the desk light. TTX, the label read. FDA CONTROL 4B639, RESEARCH USE ONLY, DO NOT HANDLE, DO NOT FREEZE, AVOID DIRECT SUNLIGHT AND EXCESSIVE HEAT. Doubtfully now, he wondered. God knew he’d tried enough things in his tests. It stunned him, the metabolic tolerance to toxic substances. Tricothene, ricin, triopental sodium, tubocurarme chloride—all of them totally ineffective. A 200,000-parts-per-million carbon monoxide breathing mixture hadn’t even caused unconsciousness. A massive intracardial injection of epinephrine had only negligibly increased systolic blood pressure and respiratory expansion. Symptoms had vanished within minutes.

But those had been tests. This was something crucial and called for severe, deliberate measures, now that retrieval seemed hopeless.

The thought of Nancy interrupted his deductions. She was infuriating. It amazed him how she could be so smart and so stupid at the same time. She was scared, she lacked control, she’d left herself open to panic. Willard hadn’t panicked. No, there was no need. He was in control. But Nancy couldn’t think enough ahead to preserve the importance of the situation.

Bitch, he thought. Bitch.

She was ready to run to the police, ready to ruin everything, all he’d worked for, all his dreams. The phone call to Officer Morris was proof. Not that he’d believe a word she’d say. How could he?

Still, though …

Good Lord, I wonder what she’s told Glen.

He hadn’t even considered that.

His own doubts came in a riot of questions. What if they relocate? Surely they’re intelligent enough. Worse, what if they’re found, and… Pictures, my God, what if someone photographs them or shoots one? What if a poacher shoots one? And what am I going to do if the TTX doesn’t work?

He heard a door upstairs open and close. A floorboard creaked. Footsteps.

He sat and listened. As predicted, he heard her come downstairs, go into the kitchen, and come back out again.

“Charles,” she called from the hall, exasperated. “What happened to the Cokes I put in the refrigerator?”

“I gave one apiece to the boys from Lawn-King, dear. They thatched and fertilized the yard today.”

“Shit. You gave away my Cokes.”

“Well, it was hot out, dear. And thatching’s hard work.”

Gripes, he thought. God, how she loves to gripe. The goddamned house could be on fire, and she’d be more concerned about her Cokes. “There’s fresh lemonade,” he said.

He went into the kitchen, following her footsteps.

She was bending over as she reached into the refrigerator. Willard frowned. Her dress clung to her ass like tissue. She did it on purpose, he knew. Tight, low-cut dresses. Pants that made her vulva protrude. Crotchless undergarments, when she wore them at all. She’d walk the streets nude if it were legal. But that’s what he got for marrying an erotopath. Could it be she’d been born with two libidinal systems?

“Want some?” she asked.

“Yes, please.”

She poured two glasses from a plastic pitcher.

“The Lawn-King people say we have chinch bugs,” he told her, setting his glass on the counter. “That’s what caused the brown spots. They want to come back in a few weeks, to spray.”

Nancy half emptied her glass of lemonade. Her gulping throat reminded Willard of a toad. He wondered if she gulped Glen like that.

“Charles,” she said, “don’t you think we have more important things to worry about than the lawn?”

“Yes, I suppose you’re right.” He watched her finish her drink and refill the glass. “So tell me,” he went on. “How long have you been fucking Glen behind my back?”

Nancy nearly spat out her drink.

“All ways and always?” Willard suggested. “I’ll bet you ride that poor boy like a horse…and I suspect he’s hung like one, too. Otherwise, why would you bother with him?” Willard grinned. “Does he put it up your ass?”

“You’re sick!” she said, having finally swallowed her shock. “Jesus, Charles, you really do have a problem. Jealousy’s one thing, but I don’t deserve this kind of shit. Name one time when I’ve given you reason to believe I’ve been unfaithful?”

Willard exploded with laughter. “Please, dear, spare me. I can’t stand to see a woman put her foot in her mouth… I’ve been listening to your phone conversations with Glen for months now. My extension monitor records them all on tape. It’s a remarkable little machine.”

She stood still, thinking, challenging him with her silence. He could almost hear her little brain ticking away. Abruptly, she said, “You’re lying. You don’t have any extension monitor.”

“Oh, but I must, dear. How else would I know about your chat with Kurt Morris just a while ago? Really, Squidd McGuffy’s?”

Nancy’s face turned white.

“You were going to tell him everything,” he said. “You were going to destroy it all for me without so much as blinking an eye. And I’m sure you’ve already told Glen, haven’t you? Haven’t you?”

“Yes!” she shouted. She let it all run out of her now. “Yes, I told him! Somebody had to do something, Charles. It’s dangerous for him out there every night. I’m not going to let him get killed while you just sit back and do nothing.”

“Did he believe you?”

Nancy didn’t answer.

“I can almost forgive you telling Glen; he is after all quite vulnerable. I’m sure I could pay him off. But Officer Morris— that’s a very different matter indeed.” His voice shifted. “You’ve betrayed me, Nancy, in a way that can’t be tolerated.”

He was certain the sudden change in his tone terrified her. She picked up a mahogany breadboard by the handle and feebly raised it up. “Don’t try anything, Charles. I’ll flatten your head with this if you do,” but her warning issued out in wavers, verifying her fear. “You can’t admit your failures, you never could. The plan backfired, Charles. Face it. It’s out of our hands now. Sooner or later we’d have to go to the police.”

He didn’t like being told he’d failed; it reminded him of his father. How did she know, anyway? The plan could still be salvaged.

“Yes, sooner or later,” he said. “So you decided sooner.”

“That’s right. I’ve got no choice, seeing how you’ve lost all touch with reality. Tonight, I’m telling Morris everything. And you can’t stop me.”

Willard smiled a great, proud, tight-lipped smile, like the smile of a child who’d outfoxed an adult. “Unfortunately, my love, I can stop you. As a matter of perfect fact, I already have.” His eyes beamed at her, his smile glowed. “Any tingling yet? Numbness of the lips, perhaps? Excess salivation?”

Her voice coyly turned up. “What are you blabbering about?”

“I don’t suppose you’ve wondered why I haven’t had any of the lemonade.”

“Why?”

“I put enough TTX in it to kill the Jolly Green Giant.”

She smiled back at him. “Now I know you’re full of shit, Charles,” she said, firmly confident. “TTX isn’t soluble in water. Unless…”

“Unless what, dear?” It felt so good. So good to fool her so completely. “Unless it’s mixed with a citrate buffer. Like, for instance, citric acid. A chief ingredient in lemonade.”

She dropped the breadboard and bolted out of the kitchen. She dashed crazily down the hall, around the foyer, into the study, stumbling, bumping into walls, propelling herself blindly forward. Willard followed her like a manic shadow. He was chuckling, moving perhaps as desperately as she, so not to miss a single detail of her death. He stayed right on her heels as she flew into the basement doorway and down the stairs.

The overhead lights flashed on. Willard casually propped himself up on the dissection table. He lit a cigarette and watched Nancy root through one of the storage cabinets.

“I know there’s a bottle of ipecac in there somewhere,” he offered. “Good luck finding it, though. But you know as well as I that emesis at this point is useless.”

She ignored him. From a small, square bottle she poured a heap of copper sulfate into a beaker, then filled the beaker with water and guzzled it down. Halfway into repeating the process, she fell to her knees and began to vomit violently on the floor.

“Told you so,” Willard said.

She continued to spasm and retch. It was an awful croaking sound, and very unbecoming in a woman.

“Please, dear,” he said, unable to keep from wincing. “Try and die with some eloquence. This is really very distasteful.”

He knew the TTX would take about twenty minutes to kill, her. But why waste time? She wouldn’t feel much.

First, he pulled on gloves. He knew all about the state police lasers and crystal-resin treatments that could detect fingerprints on human skin. It amazed him—the level to which forensic technology had advanced. Soon, electroporetic techniques would make semen as identifiable as a latent fingerprint. They were convicting rapists with hair-root cells, and getting blood subtypes off cigarette butts. Willard knew he’d have to be extremely cautious.

He spread a heavy, brand-new plastic drop cloth over the table, then lifted her up and laid her on it. He removed her rings, a bracelet, and a silver necklace, and dropped them into a bag. With scissors, he cut off her dress, bra, and panties, pulling each piece out from under her, and then he pulled off her shoes. South River here we come, he thought. It all went into the bag.

She quivered on the table, still alive. Her feet twitched nervously. The flat of her abdomen continued to suck in and out from the vomitive, her empty stomach still pumping away.

He put packaged S, K, & F tourniquets on her wrists and ankles. Then he buzzed off her hands and feet with a 7 1/4-inch circular saw. It was much more difficult than he had imagined, and the racket was revolting.

He extracted her teeth with pliers.

He fizzled her face away with potassium hydroxide.

Now the tricky part. He fixed a 16-gauge biopsy needle to a 100-cc syringe. Then from a previously prepared solution of TTX, citric acid, and water—a concentration many times stronger than the lemonade—he took to the task of filling the syringe and displacing its roughly three-ounce contents into various areas of her body. Two shots into the pericardial sac, four into each lung, ten into the peritoneal cavity. A bead of very dark blood filled each needle hole, and reminded him of carnelian studs he’d seen on cheap jewelry.

The needle made a crunching sound when he punched it through her brain stem. He emptied the syringe forcefully into the middle of her brain.

Oh, dear, he thought. The sphincter was beginning to dilate. Hastily, he stuffed a large rag into it with the snapped-off end of a broomstick. Then he jammed another rag similarly into her mouth, trying to shove it as far down her throat with the stick as possible.

At last. Finished.

He wrapped her up quite carefully in the plastic.

The rest would have to wait till dark.

— | — | —

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

Squidd McGuffy’s stank oddly of a zoo or a stable; he would have thought they had animals on the premises, from the smell. The dank place was a pit, literally; it had been built several feet below the street. Inside, two leather-jacketed bikers played darts at the corner, while two more shot-gunned beers to see who could belch more creatively. But the establishment as a whole was devoted to six Brunswick billiards tables, around which congregated a mess of local “skel”—dropouts, punks, rednecks, and not-very-petite high school girls who must be below drinking age. Foul language was not scarce here, and there seemed no great abundance of intellectual discourse. Pretty, blue-jeaned girls wearing pewter skull rings watched in awe as tattooed boyfriends calmly dropped impossible two- and three-ball shots.

Kurt stepped down the short stairs, wondering if he’d ever get back out in one piece. What a dive, he thought. I’ll bet they shoot sex loops in the back room. He thanked God he’d brought his off-duty gun, for all the good it would do against these behemoths. Up front, a tall man with slicked-back hair and a pencil-line mustache leaned against the bar—he glanced quickly and suspiciously to the door, as if expecting a raid. The man had “the eye”; he’d made Kurt as police with one look. Another man disappeared into the back with a tray of sandwiches.

This was ridiculous. A goddamned pool hall. Why had Nancy Willard insisted they meet in this forsaken hole in the ground? Anonymity, of course, a place where they wouldn’t likely be seen by someone they knew. But why? Why the secrecy? Perhaps she was going to make a play for him. Yeah, sure, he thought. Next joke. It all went back to the phone call. I’d like to talk to you about something, she’d said. You may be quite interested.

A breary figure at the bar turned and waved.

Glen Rodz.

What the…but Kurt didn’t waste time finishing the thought. He pulled up the stool next to Glen.

“What the hell are you doing here?” Glen asked.

Kurt wasn’t sure how to respond. Had Nancy Willard intended for Glen to be here, too? Or was it just coincidence? “The Anvil’s beginning to give me Freudian nightmares; every time I look at a bottle of beer, I’m forced to think of tits. Thought I’d try a new place for a change. And to think I’ve been missing out on this all these years.”

“Yeah. Class joint.”

They both turned at a strange sound. Behind them, two bikers appeared to be urinating into empty beer cans.

“And a discerning clientele,” Kurt added. “I’m surprised they let me in without my tie.” Then he noticed the circlet of empty bottles arranged before Glen. “You always get a load on before work?”

“Willard gave me the night off,” Glen revealed. “With pay. Couldn’t tell you why, though. With all the shit that’s been going on, you’d think he’d want me working round the clock.”

Glen didn’t have to say much to let on that he was in the bag, or at least getting there. His eyes were dark and very bloodshot, and he looked like he hadn’t slept in days.

“You gonna tell me what’s bothering you?” Kurt said.

Glen frowned. He began slowly, so as not to let his words smear. “There’s this girl I know,” he said. “This girl I’ve been seeing for a while. And—”

The barkeep set two beers down, and at the same time a brief commotion rose from what must’ve been the back room. Men were shouting, then came a loud thud, a quick clang of metal, and a sound like pots hitting the floor. Glen and Kurt seemed to be the only ones who’d noticed.

“Sounds like they got a gorilla back there,” Glen said.

Kurt began to think he might be dreaming again. This place was getting weirder by the minute. “You were saying something about a girl?”

Glen paused, staring into the bottom of his beer. “It’s, uh…it’s not the sort of thing I’d want getting around.”

“Jesus Christ, Glen. We’ve been friends for twenty goddamned years. You ought to trust me enough by now to know I’m not going to run off and tell your business to the CIA.”

Glen smiled. The contrast with his eyes was not pleasant. “I know, sorry. I’m just a little off the ball right now. Too much drinking, too much thinking.”

“So tell me about the girl.”

Glen was staring ahead into the mirror on the bar wall. He didn’t seem pleased by what he saw. “I love her,” he said.

“You love her, that’s good. So why are you sitting here depressed as shit and drinking yourself into the outer limits?”

“Fuck. It’s…awkward. She’s a little older than me, and a lot smarter, but that’s never seemed to make any difference. All that matters is that I know her real well. And, and—”

“Oh, I get it,” Kurt said. “She dumped you. Well, let me tell you something. No girl’s worth hitting the skids for, I don’t care who she is.”

Glen smiled again, brittlely. “I’m not on the skids yet,” he said. “And, no, she didn’t dump me. I know she will soon—I’d bet money on it—but that’s not the point. Shit, I’ve been dumped before, plenty of times. Things are gray for a little while, a little low, but you always pull out of it eventually, you always ride it out. Sometimes I think men were put on earth just to be shit on by women. It goes with the territory. Women, goddamn women, they’re all devils on the inside, but you love them just the same.

“Your enthusiasm is illuminating,” Kurt said. But that was unfair. The beer was obviously swaying Glen way off the post. “If she didn’t dump you,” Kurt said, “then what’s wrong?”

“I’m in a bind. I don’t know what to do.”

“About what, exactly?”

“What I need to know,” Glen said, “is how do you tell a girl you love that she needs to see a psychiatrist?”

Now Kurt was totally thrown. “That’s tough, I gotta admit. But what makes you think she needs that kind of help?”

“I love this girl, I know her inside and out. I can’t tell you who she is—you’ll just have to take my word for it. She’s probably the most rational person I’ve ever met, and she’s very, very smart… And this morning she told me the nuttiest thing I ever heard in my life.”

“Well, what? What did she tell you?”

Suddenly Glen looked as though he were staring a thousand yards into the distance. “Something crazy,” he said. “Something impossible. And the worst part of it is I’m beginning to believe it myself.”

— | — | —

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

a grin like a cut tightens your face, have you forgotten your dead friends this easily? you place the briefcase across your knees, open it—

—and turn, glaring, caustic glimmers in your eyes, “what’s this shit, you motherfucker? i stick my neck out a mile for you back there, and now you’re gonna shaft me?”

the briefcase contains not money but old copies of the army times, some arabic newspapers, and several recent issues of british penthouse.

now the colonel is holding his M3 chest level, pointing the dull, eight-inch barrel at your heart. “i’m sorry, sergeant,” he says. “i’m very, very sorry, but for this to work, no one can know, absolutely no one. not even you.”

and before you can plead or even move, the colonel squeezes the trigger, and ten .45 hardball rounds slam into the middle of your chest and literally blow you out of the Jeep, the impact crushes the air from your lungs, as if you’ve just been struck in the chest by a railroad tie. you hear your ribs crack, and a drone like a tuning fork, distant at first but then suddenly so loud you feel your head might split, on your back now, legs jackknifed and arms aslant, you raise your head to see the Jeep pulling off into the cool, crystal night, next, you are a tiny figure plummeting through a dozen stratas of black at hellish speed, like a nightmare of being thrown off an airplane with no chute. you feel yourself fading, fading—drifting across the blind terrain of dust and smoke and nihility. you lose consciousness

time passes, but how much you cannot know, your only measure is the hard, silent black

it occurs to you, at some point, that you have died

but then sentience sifts back in notchlike stages, and you sit up and find yourself whole and alive, your chest is a flaring plot of pain; the blunt trauma of the bullets makes it hurt just to breathe, but you smile in spite of it, grateful to have deceived death so totally, the vest— you owe your life to the vest, if you hadn’t worn it, you’d be dead.

you pick yourself up and start to walk, grindingly at first, but then with increasing confidence, eventually your stride falls into a steady rhythm; the shock of being shot and living soon recedes, and your pain shrinks to almost nothing when you begin to realize the depth of your rage.

you can only think of the colonel now.

the colonel.

he’d intended to kill you all along, and the marines too, if they’d survived, somehow you find that harder to believe than the scheme itself, the ghala were real, a myth forged by centuries, but you don’t care, you don’t care about anything now, except the colonel.

you can’t wait to see his face.

the idea of murder doesn’t set well with you. though you’ve killed many men in war, you’ve never committed murder, but you won’t kill the colonel, no matter how much he deserves it. though you may well make him wish he was dead.

heading him off at the airport should be easy, but you must hurry, you walk faster, harder—soon you are trotting along the desolate road, your senses focus only on vengeance, and you are so swept by rancor that the prospect of being followed never crosses your mind, and why is that? how could you let one man make you forget all you’ve learned?

but you are being followed.

being stalked.

and when your stalker strikes, it is with such speed that you have no time to react.

a blur flutters behind you there is no sound suddenly you are jerked backward and pinned to the ground by a figure that is only vaguely human a cold slick hand presses your face as if to flatten your skull against the road between the fingers you glimpse the features of a monstrosity features made mercifully unclear by shock and darkness your pistol is in the Jeep you recall and you draw your knife but not before the thing’s other forklike hand is ripping at you with quickness beyond that of any man then the fingers sink popping into skin and begin to separate the flesh from your face like someone tearing strips of wallpaper you scream through a well of blood one eye seeing red and bury your knife hilt-deep into the thing’s furrowed abdomen.

its blood is black and pumps out in a rill of glistening ichor, but the man-animal’s hand holds fast to your face, still tearing, you thrust the knife again, deeper, twisting, then jerk the pin of your last grenade, the spoon flies, the thing’s jaws draw open impossibly wide—it howls its pain high into the night, and with the last trickling of your strength, you stuff the grenade canister into its maw.

you run faster than you’ve ever run. four to five seconds later the grenade goes off and engulfs the thing in a splattering burst of white phosphorus.

you stagger forward, delirious now from blood loss, you pull off your fatigue shirt and press it to your face in an effort to control the bleeding, your progress grinds to an off-balanced shuffle, you sense only faint, fragmentary things, the road beneath your feet, the sputtering heat behind you, and the necessity to keep moving, the vision in your good eye begins to melt, rimmed with black dots and spangles like shavings of steel, but through this you see twin spheres of intense white light which seem to be advancing toward you, swelling in size, a deafening roar-fills your head, and you must shield your eyes.

the twin spheres stop, they stare back at you, blazing; they hover like disembodied eyes, headlights? you stand before the glare and dumbly clutch the shirt to your face.

two sharp silhouettes emerge from the blaze, curious stick-men backed by light.

voices switch back and forth.

“check this shit out. is he one of ours?”

“looks like a jarine.”

“no, his belt is black, jarheads have tan belts, this guy’s army, from the support garrison.”

“look at him. he’s hurt.”

“probably fucked over by ‘rabs.”

’rabs? this far out? this is no-man’s-land.”

“it’s those fuckin’ bedo tribes, goddamn animals, they’re always ripping our people off and cutting them up. come on, we’ve gotta get him back to the caz.”

timid, the figures move in. are they afraid of you, or just unsettled by all the blood? they lead you forward, into the light, one is an E-2, the other a tech sergeant, both are air force security police.

“hey, this grunt’s bleeding buckets, serious.”

“holy shit, it’s sanders.”

this voice you recognize, van holtz, the fourth man.

“you know this bullet-stopper?” the E-deuce says.

“he’s a friend, a good friend,” van holtz answers, “he won DSC and a bunch of other shit in Vietnam, i owe him bigtime.”

“the guy’s obviously into some deep shit.”

“I don sizost care, we’re gonna have to stand for him.”

“I ain’t covering for this grunt, he could be a dope mule for all i know, or running guns.”

van holtz is adamant, “you’ll cover, asshole, you’ll back up every word i say to the brass, unless you want to walk a pipeline in alaska for the next six years, understand?”

“yeah, i guess i fucking do.”

they help you into the Jeep, the E-deuce pulls a mad u-turn and barrels away down the rutted road, toward the caserne, van holtz breaks out his field kit.

“van,” you say.

“be quiet, don’t talk, play dumb when we get back, tell them you can’t remember anything, i’ll take care of the rest.”

“van,” you say. “it’s all true, it’s all true.”

he tells you to shut up as he prepares a gauze, the Jeep’s rocking lulls you. you’re safe, and that seems odd. you’re home free and alive, but in the back of your mind you can still see the narrow, doglike face of the ghala…

««—»»

Sanders’s eyes snapped open.

He lay stunned in bed, sheets twisted about his waist like writhing snakes. Darkness threatened to smother him, to squash him into the mattress. He sensed people, or things, in the room, killers, madmen, VC throat-runners hidden and grinning, their black blades poised. But then reality reformed, the edges slipped back into place, and he remembered the dream.

Those SP’s had saved his life, Van Holtz and the E-2; he probably would’ve bled to death without them. Van Holtz had bailed him out with a well-devised lie, and the E·2 had corroborated. Sanders had never seen Van Holtz again, had never had the chance to even thank him.

< font size="3">He reached up and touched his face, very slowly, as if he weren’t sure it was there at all. The runneled network of scars reminded him of what the thing had done. He’d tried to blot it out, for years, but somehow the darkness of the motel room fostered a dozen suggestions of the ghala. Closing his eyes didn’t help; he could still see the stark, corded body; the jammed mouth full of protracting teeth; that hideous three-fingered hand reaching out to tear away more of his face.

The moment noosed him, hauled him back further. He remembered the two Marines who’d gone in with him. Kinnet and O’Brien—they’d been finished in seconds, jerked apart like clay dolls. At least they hadn’t suffered much.

Could’ve been me, Sanders thought. Maybe that would have been better.

It was very late, yet he felt no urge to sleep now. The dream had jolted him awake, as quickly as the touch of an electric prod. He slipped out of bed and moved through the room’s murk, toward the dim shape of the desk.

A breath froze in his throat when he turned on the lamp. Opened newspapers covered the desktop; he focused on the two articles, each circled in red, as though they were obituaries.

From the Metrosection of yesterday’s Washington Post:

BODY FOUND IN WOODS

TYLERSVILLE, MD—Prince George’s County Police officials today announced the discovery of the skeleton of an unidentified woman in a wooded area of privately owned land within Tylersville city limits. Security guard Glen Rodz, 26, told reporters that he found the skeleton near an out-of·service access lane at approximately 1 A.M. Rodz contacted authorities at once, after which the skeleton was transported to South County General Hospital for examination. Deputy medical examiner Ronald T. Greene stated that the skeleton was of a female in her early twenties. “She hadn’t been there long,” Greene said to reporters. “The condition of ligaments and bone marrow made that quite plain. Topical soil analysis of the area around the discovery site indicates that she probably died right where she was, more than likely an animal attack.” Positive identification has not yet been ascertained, though an undisclosed local source of high reliability speculates that the skeleton may be that of one Donna Fitzwater, 22, who was reported missing earlier this week. Both Greene and P.G. County homicide lieutenant D. Choate refused to comment on that possibility.

And a more recent article on page 1 of the Bowie Blade read:

BOWIE GIRLS MISSING,

VIOLENCE SUSPECTED

This morning a county police officer on routine patrol discovered an abandoned automobile in the woods just off of Governor Bridge Road, the tentative Bowie-Tylersville boundary line. At about the same time, Stuart Lazernik, of the Whitehall area in Bowie, reported that his daughter, Lisa, had not returned home last night with the family car, after an outing with a school friend. Lazernik later identified the vehicle found abandoned as the same vehicle he’d loaned his daughter. Further investigation verified that the friend who had accompanied Miss Lazernik, Catherine Bathory, also of Bowie, never returned home last night either. Both girls are 18 and seniors at Bowie High; neither has been seen or heard from since last evening at approximately 8 P.M. “Each family has been prepared for the likelihood of a tragedy,” County Lt Dennis Choate told Blade reporters this afternoon. “We have no choice but to suspect foul play. It’s the county’s presumption that at least one of the girls is dead or in need of prompt emergency medical treatment The preliminary examination of the crime scene revealed much evidence of sexually motivated violence.” Choate declined to relate details of this evidence, though P.G. County Sgt. Timothy McGinnis, the officer who originally discovered the abandoned auto, told reporters in Hyattsville that he noticed “large stains on the hood and fenders, plus torn articles of clothing to the front and right of the vehicle. There were some other things, too. Things I’m not authorized to say.” A full investigation is in progress. Anyone with information regarding either of the two missing girls is asked to phone Prince George’s County Police at 336-8800.

Sanders stared. The articles confirmed everything; they were proof. What he feared the most was already taking place. How many? he thought. He must be crazy. Or maybe he’s dead himself by now. It didn’t matter.

He switched off the light and let himself be enshrouded again by the dark. He stared pensively at nothing.

The station wagon would be reported stolen soon, if it hadn’t been already. There was nothing more to do, that much he could see. Now he was just wasting time, and increasing the risk of being caught with a hot car. He should have gone by now. Or perhaps—

He wondered if he had lost his nerve and had just not admitted it yet. He felt lashed to opposing forces, being pulled both ways. “Partly my fault,” he whispered aloud, to the wall. He thought again of the newspaper articles. “All my fault.”

But blaming himself lacked any purpose at all. His compulsion was simply this: He would not go home until he had seen the full truth. He had to know.

He had to know what the colonel had done.

Oppression seeped mistlike up into his mind, and mulled his movements like a dropped net; he felt his head grow heavy with guilt. The darkness turned to a mass of clots, the walls seemed to swell inward, to crush him. He went back to bed and soon lapsed into a mute, suffocating sleep, his mind’s visions dragged repeatedly in and out of a chasm of nightmares.

««—»»

At about the same time, Kurt Morris slipped into a similar chasm.

Again he dreamed he was sitting in the den beneath a canopy of amber lamplight. Night filled the windows like darkly stained ice, as a sprawl of wisteria ticked against the glass. He thought he heard a faint sliding sound behind him. Was someone running a hand along the wall of the next room? Opened in his lap was a book he’d never heard of. You Are What You Eat, by Albert Fish, the binding read.

Almost immediately, this time, he knew he was dreaming. He heard:

THUNK THUNK, THUNK

He pretended to ignore it. He tried to read but saw that the book contained only black and white photographs of great age. The picture on the first page showed a thin, old man leading a little girl into a cottage.

THUNK, THUNK, THUNK

Only a dream, Kurt thought in the dream, though he felt little assurance in the thought. On the second page was a picture of a vat of stew. In the third picture the same old man was serving the stew to a group of children seated around a table, but the little girl from the first picture wasn’t there.

THUNK, THUNK, THUNK

“Goddamn!” Kurt shouted. “Go away! I’m not gonna go through this shit again!” He stood and slammed the book shut, half noticing that in the last photograph the old man was strapped to a wooden electric chair, and on his face was a malignant grin.

Kurt was furious. He wished he could wake up and not have to answer the door. Impulsively, he started to call out for Melissa, but decided not to bother when he recalled the last time he’d done that.

He stepped broadly into the foyer. The pounding continued, like a roofer driving nails.

THUNK, THUNK, THUNK

Kurt flung the door open wide.

Fog swirled in the doorway, misting over the figure of a man who stood tilted at an angle, as though one leg were too short The visitor’s outline seemed to vibrate as it stood.

Kurt stepped back, stunned by a rushing stench. This was too real for a dream, details too concise. He detected a jagged twitter—breathing?—and a sharp, steady drip.

The figure remained still, its features hidden in the mist. It stood bowed slightly forward, neck crooked and shoulders hunched, as if hung from a meat hook. Something metallic flashed on its chest.

“Well?” Kurt said. “I know you’re not the paper boy, so let’s get this over with. Goddamned dreams.”

The figure shifted once, but did not come forward. Fog began to spill in through the doorway, minutely darkening the foyer. Kurt could feel the temperature drop.

“Come on, fucker,” he said. “You’re pissing me off. Who are you?”

From the fog came a wet chuckling sound.

And the figure stepped inside, into the light.

Doug Swaggert was barely recognizable as anything more than an upright corpse; decomposition sculpted him down to bones and slabs of green, perforated flesh. His uniform hung in strips, and he looked back at Kurt through a face held together by rot. One eye showed only white, the other was an empty socket. It raised its right arm, which was without a hand, and Kurt realized then that Swaggert had been knocking on the door with his stump.

“Jesus,” Kurt mouthed. “Jesus God.”

The door slid shut, as if the fog had sucked it closed. Swaggert smiled liplessly. A bubble of black fluid formed in his ear, then broke. He moved toward Kurt quickly then, but jerkily, like some hideous marionette. Through his progress crackled a sound akin to trudging through mud.

Kurt’s stomach roiled. He back-stepped a third of the way up the stairs. Disgust and horror made him forget this was a dream, and he hit his thumb-snap and withdrew his revolver. “Get out of my house, you grosser,” he said. “I’ll blow your rotten head right off your shoulders.”

Swaggert began to grovel up the staircase, teetering on each step like a palsied man.

“Oh, shit,” Kurt said. In a secure, two-handed grip, he aimed his pistol, cocking it. He took a deep breath, let half of it out, and when Swaggert’s moldering face appeared in the sight-line, he let the hammer fall—

click.

“Son of a bitch!”

Kurt flipped open the cylinder—there were no bullets in the chambers. The dump pouch for his speed-strips was empty.

He threw the gun as hard as he could. It smacked solidly into Swaggert’s head, denting the skull, then clunked down the stairs. Swaggert stopped, paused for a senseless moment, then continued to mount the steps.

Kurt spun and raced up the steps himself—only to collide with a scalped, bilge-faced Harley Fitzwater on the landing.

Kurt was trapped on the stairs.

A fat, squishy hand plopped on his head. It slid wetly down his hair, grabbed his ear, and pulled.

“Where’s my Donna?” came Fitzwater’s ruined, liquid voice. The grip tightened. Kurt’s ear was twisted half off.

“Hey, you walking shithouse! That’s my ear!”

“Where’s my Donna?” Fitzwater gurgled again, spewing dark slime. “You find my Donna.”

Swaggert converged, twitching and dripping muck. Kurt could feel the blood pulsing out of his ear. Fitzwater held him by pinned elbows, lifting him up. Swaggert prodded him with his stump, jabbed him, and clubbed him with it. He pawed Kurt’s face with a gnawed hand, smearing his chin with some vile-smelling ooze. When Kurt parted his lips to yell, Swaggert’s rotting fingers popped into his mouth and wriggled.

Life’s a bitch, Kurt thought. He wedged his foot against Swaggert’s chest, as if on a leg press. Then he shoved. The corpse thunked noisily down the steps, where it broke apart and collapsed to a pile of rot.

Next, Kurt socked a hard elbow jab behind him, and felt bones give way beneath the blow. He jerked himself free and turned, then slammed his fist into Fitzwater’s lopsided head. Something crunched, as apples might when stepped on. One of Fitzwater’s eyes burst like a blister.

“I’m kicking your ass, you dead piece of shit,” Kurt said. He beat the thing to the floor with his fists, then kicked viciously until the gas-bloated body split open and spilled a slew of maggots and putrefactive slop onto the carpet.

Kurt leaned back, exhausted. He watched Fitzwater’s body deflate where it lay. It percolated, head lolling, arms and legs draining flat. Soon it had sunken completely in on itself, like a punctured blow-up doll.

His face long with loathing, Kurt descended the stairs. He held his breath as he stepped over Swaggert’s heaped remains. He could actually see the stink wafting up from the pile, like heat waves on hot asphalt.

Only a dream, he thought in the dream. He laughed and went into the den. Blood was streaked all down his shirt, his ear barked with pain, and he could still smell the charnel stench. But he’d won, he’d beaten the things. At least until the next nightmare.

The den’s soft light comforted him, made him feel at home. He opened a window and leaned out. Fresh air at last—he breathed in deeply, gratefully. The sinister fog was gone, of course, and so was the wisteria. Quiet and sanity returned to the house. He looked out into a calm, commodious black, which didn’t seem right after all he’d been through. The obtuseness of dreams never failed to confound him. He smiled and thought of pleasant things.

The window slammed down on him, like a guillotine.

His shoulders and head were trapped outside; he was pinned to the sill. Fog rose in seconds—the window bit down harder on his back. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t free himself.

And he couldn’t escape the sight of Donna Fitzwater’s flesh-specked skeleton as it limped hastily toward him, out of the fog.

Her skeleton arm shot out. Fingers of bone hooked into his eyes, and his scream spiraled away up into the dense, windless night.

««—»»

Kurt woke on the shatter of vertigo. The couch seemed as cramped as a casket. Had all his nerves dissolved? The dream had sapped him, left him to feel as though his head had been shoveled out.

He needed light. He turned on the lamp, the same lamp in the den of his dream, and then the room was draped with unnerving shadows. His makeshift bed was a wreck, pillow squashed, sheets routed; no doubt he’d tossed and turned during the nightmare, like a blind man being flogged.

He lit a cigarette and walked about the room, hair tousled. He tugged his briefs up, as though someone might be spying on him, then he slipped on his robe. When he noticed the window standing open, he rushed to it and slammed it shut.

Had the dream meant something? Perhaps his subconscious was trying to drive something home, rub his face in an idea. It wasn’t hard to figure. Some believed that dreams functioned thematically—people, objects, and events were really symbols that served to relate something abstract and psychological. In that case, then, some hidden part of himself felt responsible for Swaggert and the Fitzwaters.

Others believed in dreams as vehicles of portent, each a train of images which forewarned the dreamer of impending danger.

Nonsense.

The cigarette tasted rancid, compounding for him the all-too-familiar acridity of smoker’s sleep. He stubbed it out and moments later lit another without being aware of it.

As the promise of further sleep became more and more a lie, he remembered what had happened at Squidd McGuffy’s earlier that evening. Glen’s behavior there had been explicitly odd, but then Kurt had to admit noticing a certain oddness about Glen lately. Nancy Willard, of course, was the girl Glen had meant—and refused to identify—in their conversation at McGuffy’s. And, of course, he hadn’t revealed to Kurt what Nancy had said, just that it was “Something crazy.” “Something impossible.” After that, Glen had withdrawn into a blank-faced haze. Perhaps it had been the alcohol—Glen had tossed back quite a few—but Kurt sensed a more complicated root. All he knew was that something had Glen worried nearly to the point of panic, and that suddenly he wished not to speak of it. Instead, Glen had finished his beer and had left, muttering the intention to go home, pass out, and start all over again tomorrow.

Kurt had waited at McGuffy’s another hour. Nancy Willard had never shown up.

He sat down and jumped back up again when he heard tapping at the door. It was going on 4:00 a.m. The door creaked open a few inches; Vicky peered in with apprehensive eyes.

“I saw your door opened a crack,” she said, “and the light on.”

Kurt sat back down, relieved. “Come on in. I need the company.”

“I couldn’t sleep,” she said, coming in. She wore a shiny lavender-tinted slipgown with a flowered pocket on the hip. “I kept having these really scary dreams, you know. The kind that make you afraid to try and go back to sleep.”

“Well, don’t feel bad,” Kurt said. “Nightmares seem to be contagious around here these days. The one I just had would make a great script for Tales from the Crypt.”

She looked down at the floor, as if sorry for something. “I dreamed that something bad happened to Lenny,” she said, fiddling with the fringe of her pocket. “At least I think it was Lenny, because Joanne was in the dream, too, and…”

“Forget about it,” Kurt cut in. He didn’t like to see her distressed; she’d had more than her share in her life. “It’s a load of crap—all this stuff about how dreams reflect our inner selves. Christ, I’d be on a nut ward if that were true.”

“I guess I just feel bad about what happened to our marriage. Sometimes I think it’s my fault, that things went the way they did because I was a crummy wife.”

“Horseshit,” Kurt said. “You’re a thousand times the wife he ever deserved, the shit—” but he cut himself off. He was meddling again.

“Oh, Kurt,” she said in a frivolous, sing-songy voice, “you’re always so supportive. Maybe I should’ve married you.”

“Well I sure as hell didn’t twist your arm to marry Lenny.”

The bite of his response seemed to amuse her. Was she playing with him? Did she know how badly he felt for her? Perhaps not; women were often stupid that way. Or perhaps she just didn’t care.

She wandered to the window, disheveled in her nightgown, groggy and kicked out of sleep by dreams as he had been. He felt magnetized by her; he always had. Her prettiness poured over him like fluid. Her hair was disarranged, her nightgown crooked and creased, but she was even pretty when she was a mess. He smiled to himself, wishing he could kiss her, and wondering what she might do if he did.

Quite abruptly, she opened the window and stuck her head out. Kurt sank in his seat, still haunted by the undertow of his dream—he wanted to push her away. Had she seen something? Shut up, he shouted at himself. Don’t be an ass. But he couldn’t help asking, “It’s not foggy out by any chance, is it?”

“No, it’s beautiful. Crystal clear and so still. You can see every single star.”

Her voice sailed away in a fading echo. Suddenly dimensions seemed to extend, the room stretching a hundred feet long, and she was tiny at the end of it. He imagined himself walking the entire length of the room, summoned by a foreign yet curiously unsurprising impulse. She would turn, sensing his approach, a soft and knowing smile on her lips. Their eyes would meet, and they would embrace in desperate happiness. His fingers would slide through her hair and down her shoulders, connecting her to him by touch. They would be carried through an interstice of timeless avowal, where feelings transcended words, and love reduced all the flaws of the world to grains of sand. / love you, he would think. “Yes,” she would say back, and they would kiss, and it would be perfect. Everything would be perfect.

“Those people are all dead, aren’t they?”

“What?” he said. The muse fell to bits, a seductive lie. Nothing was perfect.

She had turned and was facing him now. The lamplight reached out wanly, barely surfacing her from the shadows. “Doug Swaggert, that man and his daughter who lived in the trailer, those two high school girls. Are they dead?”

“Probably.”

“Murdered, in other words.”

His nod was grim, pauseless.

Silence unfurled around them, like smoke. Something solemn seemed to descend on her; the empty incomprehension of innocence filled her eyes. “When do you think the killers will be caught?”

“Maybe tomorrow, maybe next week. Maybe never. So far there’s no traceable evidence. There’s nothing we can use to maintain an investigation. All we can hope for is some luck, at least for the time being.”

“The time being? You mean until someone else gets killed.”

Kurt didn’t comment. Her words hissed cynicism, even ridicule. Was she accusing the police of inaction? Was she blaming him? No, she just didn’t understand. “Bard thinks that Glen has something to do with it,” he said.

“Glen? For God’s sake, why?”

“Every time something’s happened, he’s been around.”

“Not those two girls,” Vicky countered. “It said in the paper that their car was found in Bowie.”

“Sure, but what you’re forgetting is that Bowie is right alongside us; actually, the car was discov