/ Language: English / Genre:sf_horror,

Slippin into Darkness

Norman Partridge


Slippin' Into Darkness

Norman Partridge

ONE

APRIL 8, 1994

DARK

April is the cruelest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

- T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

12:03 A.M.

There’s the windup, and here’s the pitch: a beer bottle flew through the night air and exploded against a granite cross. Shards of broken glass knifed the soft earth. Cold liquor rained down on clipped blades of cemetery grass, shivered, and formed fat tears.

The pitcher stood on the mounded grave of an insurance salesman who had expired in 1992, exactly sixty feet, six inches from the granite cross. He smiled, appreciating his skill. Half in the bag, but he was still putting them over straight and hard with a strong arm. Dead solid strikes, one after another, each bottle shattering against the center of the granite crosspiece…the cold hard strike zone.

Graveyard baseball was the name of the game. No men on base. Rounded mounds for first, second, and third; the graves of a telephone solicitor, a war hero, and an infant born without a brain. Not exactly a million-dollar infield, but the infield didn’t matter when the pitches were flying straight and true. Every bottle right on target. A cancer-serious no-hitter.

The pitcher sighed, concentrating on the cross. He was alone. No men anywhere, but that was to be expected. This was a pitcher’s game, a hurler’s midnight solitaire. Graveyard baseball was a game that disallowed self-deception and required a certain amount of imagination. After all, a granite cross couldn’t really swing a bat, so imagination was truly a necessity.

Unless the pitches were flying straight and true. Unless the bases remained empty, as they were now. Then the game didn’t require any imagination at all.

Sweat beaded on the pitcher’s forehead, soaking the band of a Hogan Spartans baseball cap that had spent eighteen years lost in one closet or another. His arm would ache like hell tomorrow. Eighteen years had passed since he had last held a beer bottle in his hand and faced an implacable granite batter. But tomorrow’s pain didn’t matter. Tomorrow didn’t matter at all, because tonight it was April, and it was opening day, and the pitcher’s mind was deep in the pit of memory.

Memories that had brought him to this place.

Memories of a girl.

The pitcher opened another bottle-the dry hiss of released pressure was as cold as the stunted stone forest that surrounded him-and he drank deeply.

The windup. The pitch.

The crackle of exploding glass. The smell of beer and a distant ocean breeze and an unseasonably warm April night and clipped cemetery grass.

A gentle rain of alcohol brewed from pure Rocky Mountain spring water.

A wet granite cross reflecting the gleam of the moon.

APRIL L OUISE DESTINO

APRIL 1, 1958- APRIL 1, 1994

I ’LL SEE YOU IN YOUR DREAMS

April Destino had brought the pitcher here tonight. She was dead, and he was one of her boys. He wasn’t one of the boys of summer, even though he wore a baseball glove. No, he was one of the boys of April.

Toeing the mound, the pitcher imagined carrion worms doing their work on the dead insurance man six feet beneath his battered cleats. He slammed another bottle into the webbing of his glove. A puff of dust rose from cracked leather. He twisted off the cap and drank. The windup.

A flashlight beam cut at the pitcher’s eyes. He turned away quickly, as if acid had been flung at his face, but the tattered bill of his baseball cap couldn’t protect him from the unyielding glare.

The pitch.

The sight: the flashlight beam too bright, too strong, somehow able to pull the bottle off course so that it sailed low and outside under the left arm of the cross that bore April’s name. The sound: bottle skidding over grass; brewed Rocky Mountain spring water sloshing, spattering alcohol tears.

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

The pitcher didn’t answer. The flashlight beam was dry ice on his face, and his eyes burned and his pupils shut down to nothing, and then his eyes screamed.

A muscle twitched in the pitcher’s neck. He started to get a little angry. He bit his lower lip, and then his tongue went to his upper lip and licked at a trickle of sweat.

“Goddammit! You can’t sneak into the cemetery in the middle of the night and do this shit! You’re in trouble, asshole! Big trouble!”

The shouting man was close now. Short and fat and staring up from under the pitcher’s chin, his little fatman voice too loud and incredibly self-righteous.

The man was an umpire ready to argue balls and strikes.

The pitcher didn’t say a word.

The umpire bumped his chest against the pitcher’s.

The windup…but this time the pitcher’s hand was empty and balled into a fist.

The pitch: knuckles cracked against the umpire’s jaw, and he shut up, and he fell down.

The pitcher turned off the man’s flashlight and welcomed the darkness. In a moment his eyes adjusted, and he picked up the thing he had brought with him in place of a bat. He stood over the umpire, not looking down, looking instead at the playing field, the mounded bases, the baselines that were nothing but fugitive shards of moonlight. A marble Christ waved at him from centerfield, daring him. It was an unseasonably warm April evening, but in the pitcher’s mind it was an April afternoon and the ghost of a morning fog born on Pacific tides could still be tasted in the air.

A thousand echoes of a thousand lives haunted this place. Crashing waves washed the silence. Foghorns sang baritone and time-clocks clicked a staccato rhythm and a shipyard quitting whistle played sharp counterpoint. Blue-collar fathers shouted encouragement to boys in dirty uniforms. Worn cleats bit into dusty earth.

And then came the single echo the pitcher wanted to hear: the musical voice of a cheerleader begging him to put one over the fence.

It was not a bat that he held in his big hands, but in his mind he imagined that it was.

The crack of the bat. He wanted to hear it.

The roar of the crowd. He could hear it still.

April was here, asleep in the ground.

And it was opening day.

1:12 A.M.

Marvis Hanks, Junior, climbed the stairs that led from the basement to the foyer of his house. His long fingers were interlocked so that his hands made a shelf at crotch level; a stack of videotapes was scissored between his hands and the point of his chin, and consequently his eyes were trained on the ceiling instead of the stairs. Normally Marvis would have eschewed such daredevil activity, but he had been climbing these stairs for thirty-four of his thirty-five years. Each step was completely familiar.

He breathed a short sigh of relief as he left the staircase. The heels of his expensive Bally loafers clacked smartly against the white pine floor in the foyer. Marvis had lived alone since the death of his parents, both of whom had succumbed while he was in college, so the whisper of his sigh and the tapping of his heels were the only sounds in the house.

The only sounds, until he passed the living room.

A subdued giggle jolted Marvis mid-step. The crowning tape in his carefully balanced stack twisted under his chin. The videos toppled from his grasp like so many oversized dominos and clattered to the floor.

The giggling sound came again. Moonlight washed the living room from an Anderson bay window, the sash bars casting a dark net over the brass-and-mahogany pool table that dominated the room.

And lying on the pool table…something, or someone.

Marvis squinted. His green eyes zeroed in on a tangle of crisp blonde hair framed by a square of black shadow. The giggles spilled into full laughter. A pair of lips were trapped in the black shadow frame.

But these lips couldn’t laugh. It was impossible.

Stiff fingers entered the shadow-frame and caressed the waiting lips, twisting them into a dull purple smile. Marvis didn’t breathe. The girl’s long legs were beautiful, her fingers slim and eager, her skin as pale as a winter moon. A naked foot traveled her smooth calf as her fingers danced. Two perfect knees came together, then parted. And then she laughed again, her firm belly shuddering as she sat up. Straight, long hair swept a face that seemed nothing more than shadow. But Marvis didn’t need to see this face to recognize it. It was locked in his memory.

Blonde cobweb strands tickled her hardening nipples. The net of shadows embraced her, slicing her arms and legs at the joints, turning her torso into a complex jigsaw. The shadows were only a trick of moonlight and window sashes. Marvis knew that, just as he knew that the shadows had transformed the girl into something both obscene and pathetic-a living, breathing butcher’s diagram.

But she wasn’t living. Not this girl. She wasn’t breathing.

Her face was nothing more than a shadow.

He was seeing-

Her laughter was the only thing that lurked in the shadows.

He was hearing-

She was a ghost.

Somehow, Marvis managed to choke back his scream. But it stayed with him, a secret locked in his chest, even when she turned on the lights.

***

She closed the drapes, still laughing. “Well, it’s what you get for leaving your front door unlocked. Anybody could have wandered in.”

Something witty. Marvis knew that he was supposed to say something witty. That was the game. But he couldn’t think of anything to say.

“You should have seen yourself,” she said.

He was still frightened. She wasn’t a ghost. That’s what he kept telling himself. She wasn’t a dead girl. She was only Shelly Desmond, a fifteen-year-old piece of meat who stood naked in his living room, thinking that she was funny.

“I mean it, Marvis.” She giggled. “Oh, man, the look on your face.”

He glanced away sharply. At the ebony videocassettes on the white pine floor. At his whiteboy loafers, his faded black jeans. At his black hands hanging there before him, long fingers still trembling.

Negro hands. African-American hands.

No. Not quite. His hands were the sweet color of butterscotch. Come August, any redneck had darker skin than his.

“And your eyes.” Shelly wiped away tears of laughter. “Your eyes were as big as saucers.”

Marvis glared at the girl. “As big as saucers.” The words were ice on his tongue. “Like a spook butler in some old movie. Is that what you mean. Shelly?”

She crossed her arms over her breasts, as if exasperated. “I didn’t mean… Geez, Marvis, why do you say things like that? It’s the nineties. Wake up. All that stuff happened a long time ago. Do you think I’d even be here if I was like that?”

“There’s the money.”

“That hurts, Marvis.”

She pouted, and, of course, that made her a magnet. Marvis came to her. His fingers encircled her tiny wrists. Gently, he moved her arms to her sides, forced her hands against the cold brass rail of the pool table. “You can’t imagine, Shelly.”

She didn’t look away, and that struck him as particularly brave. “It doesn’t matter anymore,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what color-”

His grip tightened. “But you like my color, don’t you. Shell? You’re the one who told me that I’m the man with the sweet butterscotch skin.” She giggled, and for a moment her arms relaxed. “But what if my skin was darker? And what if my eyes weren’t green? What if they were as brown as dirt? What if my skin was black as unsweetened chocolate? Would you still want a taste of me?”

The muscles in Shelly’s arms became knots of nervous tension. The pool table shuddered, and Marvis caught sight of the eight ball teetering on the edge of the corner pocket nearest him.

Teetering there, on the edge of a pit of shadow. An ebony sphere on the brink of a pit. A bottomless pit like the shadow-face he’d imagined seeing earlier…

No, that face belonged to Shelly. Shelly, and a few shadows. And now the shadows were gone and Shelly wasn’t so frightening. Or brave. She looked away-not daring to struggle, actually blushing if that could be believed-and it was Marvis’s turn to laugh. He released her wrists and stroked her rosy cheeks with his sweet butterscotch fingers.

“You’re red, Shell,” he said. “You’re a little Indian.”

“A little Native American,” she corrected, and they both laughed.

***

His fingers left her cheeks, traveling more familiar territory.

“Don’t you want to get the camera?” she asked.

“Maybe we’ll do this just for us.”

“You want to do it here? On the pool table?”

He thought of the dead girl as he looked into Shelly’s eyes, and he had to laugh at the misplaced fear that he’d felt just a few moments before. “Yeah.” His fingers smoothed the cool green felt that surrounded the eight ball, never quite touching the ball itself. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”

“I don’t know…” Shelly was looking over his shoulder now, not looking at him at all.

He sensed someone behind him, watching. In an instant the fear was back with him. There were plenty of self-righteous cops in the world and there were plenty of people in his business who were much more dangerous than any self-righteous cop.

He turned quickly, confronting nothing more dangerous than an old hand-tinted wedding photo of his father and mother that hung on the wall.

Marvis smiled. So this was the source of Shelly’s unease. He had always thought the photo told the truth. His father’s skin so black, his mother’s so white. In the wedding photo, Marvis’s mother was almost as white as her dress. In reality, his mother’s skin had been the color of a honeycomb still slick with sweetness. Marvis was nearly that light, though his hair was darker than his mother’s.

“It’s like they’re watching us,” Shelly whispered. “And your father looks so angry.”

“Of course he looks angry,” Marvis said flatly. “He was a cop. Cops always look angry, especially when they’re off duty.”

“Oh, Jesus.” She giggled. “You’re kidding, right?”

Marvis shook his head.

“Did he know? I mean, did he know what you do? How you make your money?”

“He died when I was in college. A junkie slit his throat three months before he was due to retire. My mother’s heart gave out a few weeks later. All they knew was that I wanted to open a camera shop.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. Marvis knew that she wanted to say more, so he didn’t say anything. “That must make it so hard for you. Knowing what they’d think.” She stared at the picture, trying to find something of Marvis in his father’s face. “If he knew that someone like me was in his house…I mean, he’d hate me.”

Marvis stroked her pale breasts, inhaled her perfume. God, she even smelled white. “No, he wouldn’t hate you.” The conclusion was simple, logical. “Not my father.”

Marvis turned the photograph to the wall, but Shelly couldn’t bring herself to look away. “Maybe we could use a little something to take the edge off,” she suggested.

Marvis nodded. Shelly slipped from the table and started toward the hallway, but he stopped her with a single glance.

“I know where it is,” she said. “Remember? You showed me-the very first time, when we did it in the bedroom.”

“I’ll get it,” he said.

***

His girls were waiting for him in the bedroom.

Marvis winked at them. “I guess I haven’t lost my touch,” he said, and his voice held genuine surprise rather than the hollow ring of braggadocio.

Marvis always felt like a teenage boy when he entered his bedroom. It didn’t really seem like an adult’s room at all, not with his girls there. It would forever belong to a nervous teenager that everyone had known as Shutterbug.

Marvis stared at his girls, trying to see them as he once had, with Shutterbug eyes. To his younger eye they had been perfection. Now he could see their flaws. A nose that was just a little too large. Teenage breasts that would never swell to desired dimensions. A smile that would be eternally crooked, because orthodontia wasn’t covered on blue-collar health plans.

And here they were, eighteen years later, still locked in his bedroom. Each one of them trapped in an eight-by-ten inch frame, sealed behind a slab of clear glass. Untouched and untouchable.

Their smiles glowed. Girls were different back in the seventies. At least these girls were different. A little more innocent. Not much, but just enough. They weren’t like the knowing nineties girls with caked-on vampire makeup who visited Marvis’s camera shop to pose for their senior portraits. And they weren’t at all like Shelly Desmond, who dressed like an MTV exec’s idea of a bad girl. When she wore any clothes at all, that is. No, Shutterbug’s girls would have died of shame in Shelly Desmond’s skin. They were daddy’s princesses, and they behaved as such. In Shutterbug’s photographs they wore princess smiles untouched by the cold hand of life.

At eighteen, Marvis had believed that his camera was the only thing that could get him close to that kind of girl. His tongue was more tin than silver, and he certainly wasn’t a jock. His father despised athletics, believing that too many promising black youths crippled themselves playing stupid games that didn’t mean anything. Chess club was as exciting as it got for Marvis.

But the kid everyone called Shutterbug could make wonderful pictures. He told his girls that he was going to grow up to be a fashion photographer. And they believed him, just as they believed that they were going to find careers as models or actresses. Marvis snapped some of them so often that he memorized their entire wardrobes, learning which blouses went with which skirts, which sweaters or T-shirts were acceptable with bell-bottomed Levi’s. Even now he could remember their shoes-mostly those awful cork platform things that girls had worn in the days of disco-though recalling the range of a girl’s footwear after all this time seemed a little sick, even to Marvis.

But he was never Marvis to those girls. He was Shutterbug. It was a whitebread name he could hide behind, a nickname that would have fit a friend of Marcia or Jan on The Brady Bunch, a name that got him past the vigilant mother or father who answered the kitchen phone, securing passage to the ear of the girl who lay on her bed with a pink Princess extension balanced on her flat white stomach.

Even now, eighteen years later, he had to smile at his ingenuity. A whitebread princess’s parents would have been naturally suspicious if their daughter had received a call from someone named Marvis. The kid everyone called Shutterbug couldn’t believe that his father hadn’t recognized that simple fact. The old man had certainly considered Marvis’s voice and diction, because he had taken the time to beat the neighborhood street talk out of his only son. But he’d missed the name- Marvis – a real tip-off to any bigot.

Marvis grinned at the very idea of his father making a mistake. Maybe the old man had been human after all.

Marvis still used his voice to make business contacts on the telephone, just as he still used his camera to make social connections.

The camera had brought Shelly here tonight.

No, it wasn’t the camera. The money brought her here.

Marvis laughed. “Shut up, Shutterbug.”

He opened the bedroom closet. Two shoeboxes were shoved toward the back of the middle shelf. He opened the box on the right, razored a couple of lines onto a cosmetic mirror for Shelly, then did a few discreet toots of his own with a gold coke spoon that he kept in the box.

The rush caught him and his eyelids fluttered. He was nowhere for a brief instant, and then he was staring down at a bent photo jammed in a box of high school junk. It was a shot of the cheerleading squad that he’d snapped in his senior year. Five beauties in the foreground, in the background-barely visible through a biology lab window made nearly opaque by hard afternoon sunlight-a young man’s silhouette. Faceless, but anyone who looked closely enough to see the solitary figure knew instinctively what the young man was watching.

Voyeurism. Some things you didn’t have to see clearly to know what they were. Or more simply put, Marvis thought, it takes one to know one.

Not that anyone would notice the young man’s silhouette now. The photo had been ruined long ago at the direction of the editor of the 1976 yearbook, a real ice princess named Amelia Peyton. Well, the order had come from the vice principal himself, but Amy Peyton had obviously enjoyed passing it on. Shutterbug had been forced to excise-that was the vice principal’s word-the face of the cheerleader who’d been kicked off the squad. He had backed the hole with some black mounting paper, and once that was done the viewer’s attention was invariably drawn to the stark nothingness of the black pit.

Minutes ago, in the living room, Shutterbug’s eyes had been drawn to the ebony eight ball and the pocket of shadow on the pool table in just the same way. And before that, an equally strong, nearly magnetic pull had drawn his gaze to a face lost in shadow behind a curtain of blonde hair.

The face of a ghost.

No. Only the face of Shelly Desmond.

Marvis closed the closet.

The faceless ghost was gone. Hidden away.

Shelly was in the living room.

Suddenly, Marvis wanted to be with her.

***

Barefoot now, wearing only a black silk robe, Marvis returned to the living room, and Shelly.

The girl had stacked the scattered videos, save one, on a shelf above Marvis’s stereo. The other cassette was playing in the VCR. Shelly lay on a throw rug in front of the 32” Sony television, a video remote held in her hand, studying her mirror image. The two Shellys moaned in unison. Marvis had to smile. To think that, even in shadow, he hadn’t recognized Shelly’s busy fingers.

Shelly hadn’t noticed his presence. He set the coke-lined mirror on the edge of the pool table and watched her. There was almost something innocent about her unconscious nudity.

But there was nothing innocent about the girl on the screen.

And he’d never feel the same way about her, anyway. He knew that. He’d never desire her in that crazy, unquenchable way. That was the hell of it. Shelly’s eyes were wrong. They were green, not gray. And her hair was wrong. It was straight and uniformly pale, not curled and frosted, as the girl’s hair had been on that night in 1976. That girl, whose face had been excised from the 1976 Lance amp; Shield, she’d had a wonderful smile, too, one of those Mona Lisa smiles that were as good as a whispered secret you could never forget even if you wanted to.

The girl with the excised face had been the main attraction in the first erotica Shutterbug photographed (Shutterbug never called it porno – that was declasse, one of the first words you learned to avoid when you got involved in the industry). A little 16mm job he had done at eighteen. It had been a complete surprise, that film. Nothing he had ever planned to do, but those fifty feet of 16mm had started him on the road to fortune, if not fame.

And now that girl was dead. April Destino was gone from this vale of tears. Shutterbug had read about it in the paper. OD’d, or a suicide, or something.

But tonight he’d seen her ghost.

A shiver of excitement sizzled the length of Shutterbug’s spine. He smiled, amazed that he was actually old enough for nostalgia. He hadn’t watched that loop of film in quite a while. He used video these days, but he still had the 16mm equipment around. The old Bell amp; Howell projector was in a closet upstairs. The screen was in the basement. And the film itself, where the hell was it?

Shutterbug grinned. Amazing. He had a hard-on, and Shelly hadn’t even touched him.

Amazing. He’d take care of Shelly, just the way he wanted to. Do her right there on the pool table. Then he’d get rid of her, make a little popcorn, and have a retrospective of the early works of Marvis Hanks, Junior. That’s exactly what he would do.

He ran a finger along a stack of CDs until he found the one he was looking for. Some good old seventies whitebread music, the kind they used to play on KFRC. Forgotten names like K.C. amp; the Sunshine Band, England Dan and John Ford Coley, and Janis Ian.

The CD rack whirred open at the touch of a button. He studied the selections listed on the silver face of the disc. “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight.” That’s what he’d play, just for the irony.

Something thumped against the bay window.

The CD box slipped from Marvis’s fingers, cracked against the floor.

Outside, someone laughed.

Marvis glanced at the closed drapes. Stared at Shelly

Her eyes were as big as saucers. “I didn’t tell anyone,” she said. “No one knows that I’m here… Not my parents. Not my boyfriend. I… I did just like you said, Marvis. I didn’t tell- “

All he had to do was twist his head. Shelly grabbed her little backpack, unzipped the bottom compartment, pulled out a top and a pair of shorts, all the time moving across the room and into the kitchen.

Shelly was moving fast, but Marvis was moving way too slow.

Again, something thumped against the window. Again, someone laughed.

Marvis turned off the television. He summoned his courage and opened the drapes.

The slamming sound startled him, and he glanced toward the kitchen. The door to the side patio didn’t catch, swung open again.

Shelly was gone.

Had someone come in the side door and snatched her? Or had she been so frightened that she ran off? Did she know something?

Had she told someone? Had she sold him out?

Time would tell. It was very quiet. Marvis stood before the window, waiting for some answers. The front lawn was a sloping slab of blackness in the still night. His Jaguar sat in the driveway, a sleek silhouette. He framed the shot through the wood-bordered pane of the Anderson window without consciously knowing he was doing it. Second nature, and natural as could be-a picture, a rectangle of glass, and a wooden frame. The light behind him was just strong enough so that his reflection was visible on the glass in the foreground, the ghost vision of the living room sharper than the world outside.

And then it was there-in the background on the other side of the nearly opaque window, on the lawn of slate-a man’s silhouette.

Someone was out there. Someone who laughed.

Marvis couldn’t see eyes, but he knew the stranger was watching him.

Some things you didn’t have to see clearly to know what they were.

No still photo, this. No frozen frame. This figure moved, but Marvis couldn’t. He stood rooted in front of the expensive window, watching the dark man advance through his reflection.

Suddenly, Marvis’s reflection became a black hole as deep and empty as the missing face of April Louise Destino in that old photo.

A ghost’s face flew at Marvis from out of the blackness, coming fast. Coming so very fast.

But this face was not a black shadow. It was dead white.

White as a negative image of the black hole that had replaced April Destino’s face in the old photograph.

White as a negative image of an eight ball.

1:31 A.M.

The ghost thumped against the window and fell away.

Marvis staggered backward, gasping.

Now there were other figures on the lawn. Four dark silhouettes. Ghosts sailed above their unseen faces, trailing ectoplasm through spidery branches.

The night opened and another ghost flew toward the window.

Thumped against the pane.

Marvis blinked.

Impossible.

Impossible! It thumped against the pane!

The ghost was nothing but a roll of toilet paper!

Outside, laughter broke the silence. The sharp sound, still familiar after all these years, touched Marvis in a secret place that even the saddest songs of his youth couldn’t reach. He hadn’t been this frightened in a long, long time. Fear was peeling his confidence layer by layer, like the skin of an onion, searching for the nervous kid that was still locked in his heart.

Four ghosts from the past stood on his front lawn. Above their heads, hanging from the limbs of fruitless mulberries planted by Shutterbug’s father, toilet-paper streamers danced on the warm April breeze.

Tonight the star of Shutterbug’s first 16mm short lay six feet under, and he knew with sickening certainty that this visit had something to do with her death. “Hey, Shutterbug, wanna go to the movies?” Once more, fugitive laughter chain-sawed Shutterbug’s confidence. These idiots were going to get him into trouble. Real trouble. Raising hell in the middle of the night. Talking about movies. Screaming about movies so everyone was sure to hear-

“C’mon, Shutterbug. We ain’t got no projector. We ain’t even got no movie. We knew your ass has got ’em both.”

“And popcorn! I bet you’ve got some gooood popcorn in there, too, and some goddamn real butter! C’mon, Shutterbug! Let’s go to the drive-in!”

“Yeah! Let’s go to the drive-in! Let’s have a world-fucking premiere!”

“C’mon, ’bug. We already got the beer!” Drunken cheers followed the last comment. Shutterbug’s fingers were frozen on the drape cord. Porch lights flared across the street. First at the Hamners’. Then at the Irbys’. Finally, at Mrs. Prater’s.

“Lights! Camera! Action!” came the cry from the front yard.

An empty bottle shattered on the cement driveway, just short of Shutterbug’s prized Jaguar. Shutterbug backed away from the window and bumped into the pool table. The cold brass frame was like dry ice on his palms. He turned quickly and caught the eight ball just as it was about to drop into the side pocket. He squeezed it, and it was so cold and so perfectly round and smooth in his hand that he had to drop it before he surrendered to the temptation to throw it through the window, at the men outside.

Anger had eclipsed his fear. And suddenly he was standing in the kitchen, hovering over the telephone without even remembering the trip from the living room. Jesus, he was frazzled. 911. That’s what he needed to do. Just dial it. Let someone else handle this. The cops. People like his father would know how to handle-

The doorbell chimed. Once. Twice. And then did nothing but chime.

“Ding dong the bitch is dead! C’mon! Let’s celebrate! Open up, Shutterbug!”

No, he couldn’t call the cops. They might want to enter the house. Once inside, they had the right to look around, didn’t they? That could spell disaster. And besides, Shutterbug’s uninvited visitors were drunk. They might tell the cops about the old 16mm loop. Or worse, they might make real trouble-insult the cops, force them to bust some ass or make some arrests. Shutterbug shook his head. He couldn’t let that happen. If he did, the idiots on the front lawn would be ticked at him for real.

And then they would most assuredly return on another night.

Shutterbug’s anger subsided. The forgotten fears of his youth resurfaced. He remembered the way the men on the lawn had treated him when they were boys. The bullying and the taunts he had endured, and all the rest of it. And now these same bullies were older, probably- most certainly- meaner. Now they were men, capable of so much more.

But Marvis had changed, too. He wasn’t a skinny punk anymore. He might still think of himself as Shutterbug, but now he was truly Big Marvis Hanks’s son. He had grown since high school. Put on some muscle. Health club membership and Bay to Breakers every year and all that.

The guys on the lawn had spent the intervening years drinking beer, going to seed.

Marvis weighed the situation, but he couldn’t convince himself that anything had really changed. The old fears were too strong. Besides, there were four of them. He reached for the phone. It rang before he could touch it, and he hated the terrified little gasp that escaped his Nautilus-constructed chest as he snatched up the receiver.

Mrs. Prater’s voice came at him in a trembling whisper. “Mr. Hanks? Are you all right over there?”

Shutterbug wanted to say, No, I’m not, but he I couldn’t do it. He couldn’t start the ball rolling. The last thing he needed was a cop on his doorstep when the video decks were whizzing busily in the basement, making copy after copy of Shelly Desmond’s latest porno sampler.

Erotica, dammit! Shutterbug corrected himself, only barely trapping the words inside, sparing old Mrs. Prater’s tender ears.

“Mr. Hanks. You there, Mr. Hanks? You want me to call the cops?”

The men were pounding on the front door now.

“ Babalu! Babalu ay yaaayyyy!”

“ C’mon, ’bug! Fuckin’Ayyyyyyy!”

“No, Mrs. Prater. Don’t call anyone.” Shutterbug barely whispered the words. “But thank you. And I’m sorry to wake you. This is all some kind of joke. Some old friends are a little drunk and they’re having a good time and… Well, I’m sorry the party got out of hand.”

Shutterbug hung up before Mrs. Prater could say another word.

He reached the front door in four long strides. Opened it. Recognized their sagging heavy faces, not at all like the faces he had photographed in 1976. Griz Cody. Todd Gould. Derwin MacAskill. Joaquin “Bat” Bautista. Members of the A-Squad Four jocks, each chosen as the best in his particular sport during Shutterbug’s senior year. One from football, one from track, one from basketball, and one from baseball. Shutterbug remembered the yearbook picture-four young guys, glowing grins, letterman jackets heavy with patches and medals, thumbs locked in frayed Levi’s belt loops. Bell-bottom jeans and shiny black boots.

“Hey, ’bug!” Griz Cody raised a fat hand, and Shutterbug was slapped five for the first time in eighteen long years. The simple slap was a one-way ticket to 1976.

Cody’s fingers curled, as if he were ready to grip an eight ball. “It’s showtime!” he laughed.

“Hanks!” The voice came from the other side of the street, and the men on the porch turned as one, “Hey, Hanks! You got trouble over there?”

The thick-shouldered black man who had spoken was dressed in his pajamas. He stood in the amber glow of a streetlight, a Louisville Slugger grasped in his big black hands.

Marvis recognized his neighbor, Joe Hamner.

“No trouble, man,” Derwin MacAskill said. “We just comin’ to visit our old homeboy here, is all.”

“That’s right.” Shutterbug tried to sound a little drunk but couldn’t pull it off. “No trouble, Joe. Sorry to bother you… We didn’t mean for the party to get out of hand.” The excuse now seemed welded to his lips. It just kept popping up, and it made him feel as if he were a little doll. Someone was pulling his string and the same words kept spilling out. The Shutterbug doll. It apologizes. It wimps out. It sweats. Smell its fear.

But the lousy excuse didn’t matter, because Joe Hamner was already heading for his front door. “Shit,” he began, tossing a string of curses over his shoulder. “I got to be on the yard at six. Get those assholes off your lawn. Hanks, or I’ll call the law.”

Todd Gould, the one-time track star, edged past Shutterbug. The yellow porch light reflected dully on Gould’s balding pate. “Man, you need to move to a better neighborhood,” Gould said through a smirk. “I couldn’t take having the black Charles Bronson for a neighbor.”

“Charles Bronson?” Derwin MacAskill followed Gould. “ Shee-it. You mean John Fuckin’ Shaft. He’s one bad mother-”

“Shut your mouth!” Griz Cody laughed, shouldering through the doorway.

And Joaquin “Bat” Bautista, bringing up the rear with six-packs of Bud Dry cradled in his big arms, added, “Well we can dig it!”

1:35 A.M.

Ice cubes crackled as The Six Million Dollar Man poured three fingers of Jack Daniel’s into his glass, the brittle sound playing sharp and hard off the cement walls of his fortress of solitude. Echoes, he thought, staring at the door that separated him from the world. Damn straight. I’ll tell you about echoes, friends.

The man holding the glass of JD wasn’t really The Six Million Dollar Man, the once-popular 1970s television hero, but that didn’t bother him. He’d had several identities in his lifetime. When he was a kid, everyone called him Ozzy Austin. Even his mother had called him that, and she was the one who had placed another name on his birth certificate. That name was Steve Austin, and, as any trivia buff worth his salt was sure to know, Steve Austin was also The Six Million Dollar Man’s real name. It was the kind of puzzle that the man who was-and at the same time was not-The Six Million Dollar Man often explored during the hours when the world was lost in sleep. Two men could share a name, but that didn’t make them the same.

Slowly, he rotated his wrist, a tight grip on the cold glass of Tennessee’s finest sipping whiskey. Little trickles of moisture dripped between his big fingers. The liquor reflected dim fluorescent light from above, little waves rippling over ice with a magical glow.

Two fluorescent tubes were cold and dead. The other clung to life, buzzing unevenly, so that the room was one moment a simple basement with bad lighting, the next a fortress of solitude choked with shadows. First the live tube shone white as a neon bone, whispering an electric itch, then it dimmed to the color of an October sky, casting shadows without rhyme or reason, making no sound at all. Distracting, that, because it sent Steve Austin’s mind in search of some odd connection, and tonight he didn’t want to be distracted by the silly imaginings that annoyed him the way crazy dreams annoyed most people.

Broken and battered, The Six Million Dollar Man was locked away in Dr. Rudy Wells’s Six Million Dollar Man Repair Shop. Oscar Goldman had decided that his buddy’s brain wasn’t working quite right. Maybe that long-ago crash had done more damage than Dr. Wells had believed, or maybe the computer enhancements that connected Colonel Austin’s brain to his mechanical limbs were changing the cyborg hero into something dangerous.

But The Six Million Dollar Man wasn’t ready for the scrap heap. He waited for Oscar or Rudy, leeching electricity from the light, feeding on it until he was ready to wreak vengeance upon the unfeeling humans who had knitted his bones with metal, his brain with computer chips.

Steve Austin could see it all from the comfort of his La-Z-Boy recliner, his own handsome features replacing the pre-bloat charms of Lee Majors. Rubber skin over metal bone. Steel fingers wrapped around a NASA bureaucrat’s neck… The Six Million Dollar Man sipped whiskey, poured his thoughts into the hard hand of reality, and recognized the waking dream for what it was.

A picture of undisguised inadequacy.

Christ. Dredge up an example and you’re left with a nightmare pulsating in your brain. The kind of weird thoughts that flashed through other people’s dreams managed to stay with Steve Austin until they became haunting images. And thinking about this one-even though the idea was repulsively silly-Austin could almost make it as real as anything else in a life that seemed too much like a dream.

The Six Million Dollar Man considered his hands. He tried to decide which one had the rubber skin, the metal bones. But they were just hands, two things held before him. Hard hands of reality. Hands with dirty fingernails, and too-pale skin that could be cut, and bones that could be broken.

Fortunately, one of the hands held a glass filled with JD. Tiny ice cubes tinkled against the glass and the sound was oddly comforting, like wind-chimes on a lazy afternoon. It was a sound Steve Austin had always liked. He bought the tiny cubes at Safeway in blue bags, expressly for their music. Some people said that buying ice was a waste of money when you could make your own cubes in plastic trays in the refrigerator or buy a refrigerator that made the cubes. But Steve didn’t like those cubes; they were too fat to chew and too thick to make pleasant sounds in a glass.

The cubes danced, and, watching them The Million Dollar Man knew that he was missing something. Like those magazine ads that were supposed to have sex or tits or pussy written on the ice cubes that you saw the words without even knowing you were seeing them. Or saw subliminal images-naked women masturbating beneath sheets of beaded sweat on a vodka bottle, whole orgies taking place on the Camel cigarette pyramid. And then there was the famous flaccid cock face of Joe Camel himself, an image Steve Austin was more than familiar with but still couldn’t quite see. So it was like most things in his life-he had read about it, maybe even done it, but he had never experienced it, felt it really happening, recognition of action sliding under his skin and racing through his brain.

He didn’t feel things that way. Often he thought that he was like a machine that was missing an essential cog or wheel. That was why sharing a name with a cyborg frightened him. It was a weird kind of distance that separated him from his life, and he hated himself for it.

The Six Million Dollar Man considered the problem a great and tragic character flaw. Long ago, in his own way, he’d set about finding an answer to the problem. He had found his answer in a woman.

A woman who was now dead.

He remembered the girl who had so intimidated him in 1976. He closed his eyes and found her gray gaze and lingered on it before traveling the length of her cool, generous smile. But, as always, his memory returned to her eyes, twin pools beneath eyebrows that arced in a gentle curve which was somehow both intelligent and just a little bit wary

Farrah Fawcett curls that trapped the light and held it, and eyes that did the same. April’s hair had always smelled like flowers, like a perfect meadow.

Steve Austin remembered that.

But the memory lacked immediacy and, as always, it did nothing for him. He opened his eyes and stared down at the photo of the cheerleading squad in his old high school yearbook. Sure, April’s face had been blacked out in the photo, but there was that body, eighteen and perfect. That short skirt with the sharp pleats and those smooth, firm legs, and the sweater that would have been much too loose on most eighteen-year-old girls but hugged every of April Louise Destino’s magnificent upper body.

The man who did-and at the same time did not-have a brain enhanced by the latest computer technology closed his eyes, retrieving other pictures of April that he stored in his mind’s eye. Not images from high school; not those familiar pictures snapped by that wormy little yearbook photographer called Shutterbug…these pictures weren’t that old, and they were private.

He saw the shitty RV park in American Canyon that April called home. Blue Rock Estates-a name like a smirk. April moving around the hot tin box of a house, naked, her body not as firm as it had been when she was eighteen, but not bad at all for thirty-five.

April dancing to music that was twenty years old.

Third-rate romance. Low-rent rendezvous.

And he could hear her still, laughing at the stupid way he wandered through life, explaining things to him as if he were some inexperienced kid, her gray eyes bright in a way he knew was rare for her. It was corny. Steve Austin and April Destino. The Six Million Dollar Man and the girl he called his dreamweaver. A princess after the fall living in reduced circumstances furnished by K-Mart and Target and the store where America was said to shop, and a guy who still kept her on a pedestal after an ocean of water had flowed under that ubiquitous bridge.

And he remembered how much he had wanted to want the woman that April had become in the lizard brain manner of subliminal magazine advertisements and how he never once had. Even when they lay together in bed-their sweaty bodies molding faded cotton sheets to dead bedsprings, neither of them saying anything, clear gray eye to clear green eye beneath a rattling air-conditioned breeze-even under those circumstances he had not desired her in the way of other men.

That living, breathing April had understood the world, though. She had believed strongly in a set of widely unrecognized laws of nature, and those laws had guided her actions. Steve had tried to understand her beliefs, but they were intangibles, requiring faith, a commodity which his robot brain refused to transmit. He couldn’t understand them any more than be could see the real Joe Camel.

April thought her faith alone would be enough to get them through. Sometimes her inner confidence surprised him. She always seemed to know just what to do. She knew when to sit next to him on the couch, and when to sit in the chair opposite. She knew when to take his hand and lead him into the bedroom, when to leave his hand alone. She knew when it was right to say something, and when it was best to say nothing. And she never touched the money that he left on the pressed-wood coffee table until he was gone, because she wasn’t a whore when she was with him. She had enough hurt stored up inside her to be sensitive to things like that.

And suddenly The Six Million Dollar Man knew that he was thinking . Eyes closed, just thinking. Memories filled his mind, jockeying for position with fragments of old TV shows and stupid images of himself as a cyborg avenger and every melancholy ballad he had heard in his youth. It was all comic book stuff. If only things were that easy. All of those images were stuck in his head, all those neat plots and resolutions, and he was forever flipping between them like competing TV shows, searching for a perfect fit he couldn’t find.

And he couldn’t turn it off. It wasn’t going to work, despite the Jack Daniel’s and all that had gone before it. He wasn’t going to sleep. He wasn’t going to dream. Not tonight. It wasn’t going to happen.

April Louise Destino was dead.

The dreamweaver was gone.

Steve Austin opened his eyes and found himself in his fortress of solitude. Hidden away from prying eyes. Head bowed, eyes on the dead bulge in his Levi’s. (“Hey, Joe Camel,” he whispered, and laughed.) Eyes moving, focusing on the yearbook photograph: the young, perfect, pre-downfall body of April Destino. (April cheering him on in that practiced little roar of hers- “Our spirit is SKY HIGH! Your spirit is SO LOW!”) He tried to feel something. He wanted to feel something more than anything else. His eyes locked on the black hole where April’s head should have been. (Black holes…and worm holes…and five-year missions that never seemed to end…too many sleepless nights spent with his ass planted in front of a TV set, enjoying the familiar company of Kirk and Spock and McCoy, each character more familiar to him than any of his neighbors.) Eyes locked on the shadowy figure peering through a biology lab window behind the cheerleaders. (A memory from the last gasp of AM radio: I like dreamin’, ‘cause dreamin’ can make you mine… ). Steve Austin’s eyes on Steve Austin’s silhouette, eighteen years old and watching April Destino and never dreaming that life would turn her beautiful face into a black hole and her beautiful body into a cavern for graveyard worms.

Eighteen years old and wanting to feel something while he was awake.

Eighteen years old and wanting to sleep with April Destino in a way that no one else could understand.

Eighteen years old and wanting to dream.

Even now, even with all that water under the ubiquitous bridge he felt that everything would be different if only he could see that yearbook picture, and April Louise Destino, in just the right way. If only he could see the missing pieces that eluded him in those ads with the hidden messages.

If only that asshole Rudy Wells had designed a better computer chip for his wounded brain…

…he could be like everyone else if he could learn that one simple skill. He could…

Suddenly, Steve Austin could see that something else was there in the picture, hiding just above April in the shadows that climbed the wall of the biology lab. Dull black ink on slate shadow. Open, looping letters. Words that he hadn’t noticed when he opened the book earlier in the evening and looked at the picture for the first time in years.

Dream a little dream of me!

Love, April

The tiny ice cubes that came from Safeway rattled in his empty glass. The sound was not at all pleasant, but The Six Million Dollar Man couldn’t stop it because he couldn’t stop his big hand from shaking.

He couldn’t stop shaking, but there was something he could do.

He twisted open a prescription bottle, and he swallowed several of April Destino’s Halcion tablets.

Five pills, right down his gullet.

And then he drank.

He closed the yearbook and put it away. The fluorescent tube buzzed overhead. Neon white faded to storm-shadow gray. The room was a basement, and then it was a fortress of solitude.

The man with the brain of a machine didn’t move from the La-Z-Boy

But neither did he sleep.

1:38 A.M.

The sex was great. Amy Peyton-Price was sure of that.

Ethan Russell lay at her side, so enamored of her that he couldn’t even blink. “I know men aren’t supposed to say this kind of thing anymore,” he began, “but you’ve got the greatest body…you really drive me nuts…you’re perfect.”

“I weigh the same as the day I graduated high school.” Amy took Ethan’s hand, guided it over her flat belly. “Women aren’t supposed to brag about that kind of thing anymore, either, but I’m proud of it. So I guess we’re even on the political incorrectness scale.”

Amy laughed as Ethan’s hand drifted lower, tickling now. She wasn’t lying about her weight. But she wasn’t going to tell Ethan that she had graduated from high school eighteen years ago. He was only twenty-two, and she didn’t want to scare him off. Half of those eighteen years didn’t show, anyway. On a good day-or in the afterglow of good sex, as tonight-a few more years could be subtracted.

And sex with Ethan was more than good. It was great. Amy was sure of that. She snatched his fingers, stopped his tickling. A smile played at the corners of her lips. She knew her smile meant everything to him.

“You could do a lot better than me, you know,” he said. “I mean, sometimes I wonder what you see in me. I’m just a guy who sells ties.”

“No you’re not.” Her smile turned evil. “You’re a tie salesman who happens to be outstanding between the sheets.”

It was the wrong thing to say. He pulled away.

Amy almost laughed. And men thought that they were so tough.

“I’m sorry.” She chose another tack. “I wish I could explain how much you mean to me, Ethan. God, even your name is wonderful. Ethan. You’re a world away from all those Bill’s and Bob’s and Danny’s and Doug’s I dated when I was younger. And you want to do all the things I used to dream of doing. You want to visit Paris, live in New York. I’d almost forgotten those dreams. You’re young, but you’re not like the young men I used to know who wanted me just because I was blonde and pretty and would look good on their arm while they grew old. You want to do more than fill your father’s shoes at the shipyard. You don’t talk about the NFL or Playboy centerfolds or multi-barreled carburetors.” She took his hand in hers. “I know what this town can do to people. How it can steal their dreams, make them feel so small. That’s what happened to me before I met you. I’d fallen into a life that made me wonder what I was doing, and why. You gave me back my dreams.”

Ethan shook his head. “I gave you the dreams of a tie salesman.”

Want to hear a confession?” Amy asked, and he nodded. “When I was twenty-two, I was a bank teller.”

He laughed. “I can’t picture that. Not the way you spend money.

“Oh, that’s why I took the job. See, my first husband was all talk. He sold cars, if you can believe that. Well, he sold Jaguars, but when you come right down to it a car salesman is a car salesman. You should have seen him. Always grinning while he gave me the details: what a shark he’d been selling this Jag, the pound of flesh he’d sliced low-balling that Triumph trade-in, how he’d jack the price on said pound of flesh the next time a wannabe Brit wearing one of those little tweed touring caps came into the showroom. He was full of big plans and clever patter, but it never amounted to much.”

“So you got the bank job to make some extra money?”

“No. I divorced husband number one. I got the job to pick out husband number two. I know it sounds awful and calculating and all that, but I was scared of having nothing. I want to snag a guy who was more than hot air, and I wanted a look at his bank statements to make sure I was getting what I bargained for. You know what I got.”

Ethan didn’t say anything. Neither did Amy. She’d told him all about husband number two. He was a corporate lawyer who spoke the same language as husband number one, but his bank account backed it up. He had everything squared away in that department. But there were just some things a sixty-four-year-old man couldn’t square away for a thirty-five-year-old woman. Not a woman like Amy, anyway. No matter how hard he tried, husband number two couldn’t make her feel young the way that Ethan Russell, stud-puppy tie salesman, could.

She hugged Ethan, hoping he knew how much he meant to her, hoping her confession had proven that he was the man she’d waited so long to possess.

Ethan didn’t return her hug. His eyes were wary, brimming with tears.

“Tell me the truth. Amy.” His voice shook. “I’m going to be more to you than husband number three, right?”

***

It took some time to straighten things out with Ethan, but Amy managed it. They talked about love and money, and how the two things could get mixed up. They didn’t talk about power, or control, and Amy was just as glad to have left those subjects alone.

She circled behind the apartment building, fishing her keys from her purse. Husband number two was out of town on a trial. In the last few days she had enjoyed plenty of quality time with Ethan in his little apartment. It wasn’t the most romantic love nest, but, after all, Ethan had the bank account of a tie salesman. Still, it was great to catch a break from the usual running around-snatching an hour here or there when her husband was home, playing little telephone games behind his back, praying that he’d spend more time on the golf course. It was a real luxury to watch the hours flow one into another without concern for the time.

And the sex was great. She wanted it to last forever. Lately, talk of retirement was turning up in husband number two’s conversation. That worried Amy. She couldn’t imagine dealing with him twenty-four hours a day.

No sense worrying about that. After all, she already had her options lined up.

The keys were cold in Amy’s hands, but it was a good and solid kind of cold because they belonged to a Mercedes. In a moment she’d be behind the wheel, singing along with a Sade tape, and in a half hour or so she’d be alone in her own bed, the smell of her lover still on her, remembering Ethan’s kisses and Ethan’s hands as she drifted off to dreamland.

Amy’s heels clicked lightly over the parking lot blacktop, marking a completely confident rhythm that came to an abrupt end the moment she noticed the man sitting on the front bumper of her Mercedes.

***

Cautiously, Amy moved forward. She threaded the keys between her fingers and made a fist around the key ring, a tip she’d gleaned from a rape-prevention video.

Political correctness aside, Amy generally believed in non-racial stereotypes. The guy sitting on the Mercedes was fat. Not just a little tubby. He was gross. The Mercedes actually leaned to one side under his bulk.

Amy concluded that the man was perfect rapist material.

He glanced up at Amy as if she’d spoken. There was something familiar about his blue eyes, which were somehow scheming and innocent at the same time.

The fat man was the first to look away. Amy had won the stare-down. The blob had recognized her strength, just in that glance. Maybe he would shuffle off, knowing that she would put up a fight.

Okay. Maybe he knew that. But, very suddenly, even with the sharp keys fisted in her grip. Amy wasn’t so sure that she knew-

The fat man removed his left shoe.

He held it up, at arm’s length, well away from his nose.

He shook out a pebble.

Amy almost laughed. Sighing, the man slipped on his shoe and rose from the bumper. The Mercedes suspension groaned in perfect harmony.

Amy hurried by, unlocked the door, and got in. Didn’t bother to lock the door. Keyed the engine. Shoved the Sade tape into the cassette deck.

A sphere of light exploded before her eyes. She blinked. Glowing white spots danced around the fat man. The spots faded. The fat man didn’t.

Sade was singing about a finger on a trigger. Amy was shaking. There was a camera in the fat man’s hands, and that was bad.

His hauntingly blue eyes were all over her.

That was worse.

***

The fat man grinned, leaning on the hood, the fingers of his big hands tapping as if he could crumple the metal.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. This couldn’t be happening. Amy had been so careful. Her husband hadn’t shown the slightest indication of suspicion.

The fat man came around the driver’s side of the car.

Amy was tempted to floor the gas pedal, speed away.

But nothing could be wrong. There had to be a mistake. She’d been careful. Her husband called every evening at seven. She’d never missed a single call. There was nothing to worry-

The fat man tapped on the window, his grin holding firm.

The camera lens glinted. Impulsively, Amy lowered the window. “I don’t know what my husband is paying you,” she began, “but I’m willing to pay more for your silence.”

The fat man’s eyes narrowed. His doughy face seemed to sag.

His big voice trembled with sudden disappointment.

“You don’t remember me,” he said.

1:42 A.M.

The scene was a perennial favorite in the Elizabeth Montgomery TV movies that dominated the airwaves in the seventies. Elizabeth-she of the perky WASP nose and voluptuous WASP body and honey-blonde WASP hair-is alone in the house, and suddenly there’s a home invasion by four dangerous men. Peril, beer commercial. Titillation, tampon commercial. An ABC-TV Movie of the Week. Only Shutterbug wasn’t Elizabeth Montgomery. His hair was ginger-brown and kinky, his nose was flat and wide…and he couldn’t thumb a remote and escape this scenario.

A beer can whizzed past Shutterbug’s head. He jerked backward reflexively, a jumpy batter knocked easily out of the box.

Resembling a spacecraft from a very small planet, the beer can entered the living room. It soared across the pool table and then did a neat little dip, avoiding Griz Cody’s flailing hands as if they were deadly asteroids. Griz missed the catch by a good two inches. The beer continued on until it hit a wall as solid as the shields of the Starship Enterprise. By some measure of physics that no one in the room could begin to understand, the tab burst and suds showered Shutterbug’s stereo, which was pounding out the rhythm of some ersatz Beach Boys’ paean to beach babies in old L.A.

From the kitchen, Bat Bautista laughed.

“High and outside,” Griz Cody grunted, embarrassment coloring his face.

Bat sneered. “It caught the corner, easy. I haven’t lost my touch. Haven’t lost a second since high school. Still have an arm like Nolan Ryan’s.”

“C’mon, Bat. I’m thirsty.”

“Shit. You catch your beer like Derwin and Todd did, then. Bare-hand that little fucker. Or else you admit that the last one was a strike, and I’ll go easy with the next one, you wuss.”

“Like I said: high and out-”

Another can whizzed past Shutterbug’s head. Griz Cody made a pathetic dive for it. The sound of his knees popping was unfortunate percussion to the twangy surfer beat. Cody missed the catch by a mile. The house shook as he hit the floor. The beer can smacked against the CD player, and suddenly the ersatz Beach Boys were history.

There was a brief moment of silence.

“Hey!” Shutterbug’s voice quavered. “C’mon, now! This is my house!”

Nobody noticed Shutterbug’s dismay. Nobody even heard him. In fact, Todd Gould was still listening to the music even though the CD player had died. He was laughing at his own joke, singing “Breach baby breach baby” to the accompaniment of a nonexistent Fender beat.

Wild laughter erupted from the kitchen. Another beer sailed past Shutterbug and hit Griz Cody in the back, burrowing into the former football lineman’s flabby love handles, bouncing free as if launched from a sentient trampoline.

A startled yelp escaped from the human trampoline’s lips. He jiggled on the floor, his nearly feminine breasts seizing up. Then he swore and tried to rise, but his knees popped again and that only made him swear some more. But he kept at it, cartilage grinding audibly, one chubby hand on the floor, the other on a stereo shelf and- “Hey!” Shutterbug said. “Watch it!”-the shelf tore loose from the wall and sent a seven hundred and fifty dollar German turntable crashing onto the hardwood floor.

As Shutterbug watched, horrified, the tone-arm kicked off and swept to one side, leaving a long white scratch on the white pine floorboards.

Dead needle, too. The turntable had cost seven-fifty, but the needle itself was priced at-

“Think fast, ’bug!”

The words came from the kitchen. Shutterbug whirled, but the beer can was already there, a hard metal punch collapsing his solar plexus. Shutterbug caved in. He couldn’t breathe. He bumped the pool table. The eight ball tumbled into the side pocket as Shutterbug went down hard, cracking his head on the floor. He was out for a second or two, but just a second or two, because the first thing he was aware of when he came to was Todd Gould shouting, “Three Mississippi…four Mississippi…”

Shutterbug didn’t move. He had the wild idea that if he moved his head he would leave a big scratch on the floor and ruin his needle. Then he realized that idea was just plain crazy and he tried to move and found that he couldn’t. He lay there on the floor, prone and helpless as a bug turned on its back, Todd Gould’s face hanging over his like a big white moon.

Like a cue ball, Shutterbug thought. Todd was a cue ball and Shutterbug was a big black-

No. That was crazy, too. Shutterbug blinked back tears. Man, how it hurt. Not his gut, but his head. A divot of pain throbbed on his skull. The spot where his head had smacked the floorboards was-

“Five motherfucker!” Derwin MacAskill picked up the count. “Six motherfucker!”

– not floorboards, cement. That was right. It was a cement floor. And it wasn’t a beer can that had hit him, it was Joaquin “Bat” Bautista’s fist.

It had happened in Todd Gould’s basement. January, 1976. Blowout party to cap the end of football season. Todd’s parents gone. Bat Bautista’s spiked punch flowing freely. Everyone blitzed to the max. The basement door locked, the six of them there in a room that smelled like old newspapers and unspoken secrets.

The basement was split into two sections. The back half was a tangle of shadows and castoffs from the furniture store owned by Todd’s dad, and the other half, the section nearest the stairs, was a game room equipped with a pool table and old pinball machines that had been restored by Todd’s brother.

April lay on the pool table, so wasted on spiked punch that Shutterbug didn’t know if she was conscious or not. He was filming the things the guys did to her, one after another. They wanted him to film it. Hell, they probably would have kicked his ass had he had mustered the nerve to refuse. But he didn’t refuse. He had a hard-on and that particular six-inch portion of his anatomy was doing his thinking for him. He was excited about filming April. He had never been able to photograph her-apart from the shot of the cheerleader squad for the yearbook-and it was just too much to believe that he was actually getting her like this, forever, right down on film. First Bat, then Todd, then Derwin, then Griz, and maybe, if they were in a good mood, maybe they would let him…

It didn’t happen that way. Things never got that far. Griz Cody was too fucked up to get it up. His little dick hid under a fold of fat, because he was too fat even then. And he tried to make a joke out of it, slapping his dick against April’s thigh. And when no one laughed at that he pinched her, again and again, so hard that his fingers left red welts on her tanned flesh, so hard that her eyes came open and they were the color of a storm and she was suddenly with them in the basement, back from whatever hazy dreamland she had been visiting.

“Seven motherfucker!”

Griz’s fingers pinching the milky flesh of April’s breasts, almost as if he were jealous. The violent sound of his teeth clacking menacingly as his face moved over her nipples.

Shutterbug stepped forward.

The bank of movie lights playing over the shadows at the back of the basement as the camera falls to the pool table.

Shutterbug grabbing Griz Cody. “No!”

Bat Bautista’s fist smacking Shutterbug’s jaw.

The cold taste of cement floor.

“Eight motherfucker!”

April fully conscious, screaming bloody murder. Shutterbug swimming breathlessly through a deep underwater haze, the awful sound of April’s protests tearing over his skull like a hacksaw blade.

Trying to get up. Falling. Griz Cody’s face floating over his (like a big white moon like a cue ball), a little trickle of blood on Griz’s fat lips and an eight ball locked in his chubby grip. “C’mon, Shutterbug, it’s showtime! Get your ass off the ground. We want this in living color.” Shoving the eight ball in Shutterbug’s face. “I’m hitting the pocket, ‘bug!”

Hands on Shutterbug, pulling him to his feet. The heavy Kodak jammed in his hands and Shutterbug not even able to stand. Movie lights bleaching shadows, bouncing off the walls and broken furniture masked with dust. Shutterbug leaning against a pinball machine for support, the metal frame cool against the throbbing divot on the side of his head.

Todd and Derwin and Bat and Griz had been laughing then.

They were laughing now.

Laughing at him.

Shutterbug lay on the floor, his silk robe hanging open.

“Look at that bratwurst.” “Looks like a smoked bratwurst.”

“Shit. Looks more like a shriveled-up breakfast link to me.”

“Nine mother-”

There were no hands on Shutterbug now.

He was in his own house, and the year was 1994.

“ -fucker! Hey, Shutterbug’s gettin’ up!”

He was up. And Bat Bautista was in the kitchen, Shutterbug’s kitchen, not paying his host the slightest bit of attention. Bat was too busy chugging a Bud Dry, his head tipped back like a fucking-A tough guy.

Bautista’s white T-shirt barely contained his gone-to-seed belly.

Marvis’s muscles danced like snakes under his black silk robe. He looked like a boxer ready to go to war.

Bautista’s Adam’s apple ceased its bobbing. The beer can was empty. Bat crushed the can and started to lower it. His eyelids were fleshy hoods and there was a smile on his face.

He belched magnificently.

Three steps and Marvis was there. His left fist sank into that big belly, and Bat’s eyes popped open, a couple of eggs ready to do a Humpty Dumpty-nothing but startled whites. And then Marvis’s right fist came across, clipping the big man’s jaw.

Marvis felt the punch all the way up to his shoulder, and he found that the sensation was completely satisfying.

When the sensation faded, he saw that Bautista was down.

Griz Cody was passed out on the floor and made no comment, but Todd Gould-who had dispensed with the surf music in the heat of the moment-screeched a rebel yell.

“One motherfucker!” Derwin MacAskill chanted. “Two motherfucker!”

Bat Bautista didn’t rise. He lay on the floor, resembling nothing so much as a great heaving fish gasping its last on a bone-dry pier. He retched. Bits of cheeseburger and warm beer spilled out of his mouth and puddled on the gleaming tile in Marvis Hanks’s kitchen.

Marvis frowned. Ten bucks per square, that tile.

And then Derwin MacAskill slapped Marvis five, and it was the second time that he had been slapped five in eighteen long years.

“Ten motherfucker!” Derwin shouted. “Damn, Shutterbug! Damn!”

1:51 A.M.

“C’mon, Doug, of course I recognized you,” Amy lied, staring at the steering wheel instead of the fat man sitting in the Mercedes’ passenger seat. “It’s just been so long…”

Doug Douglas sulked. “Darlin’,” he said, “you can’t hide your lyin’ eyes.”

Amy suppressed a sigh. Doug still had the insufferably whiney voice of a wounded teenager, but now it was so…well, it was so completely and utterly insulated. “That’s a little melodramatic, Doug,” she said.

“No,” he said. “It’s a song by The Eagles. I guess you don’t remember it, either.”

Amy’s cheeks flushed with sudden anger. “Oh, I remember plenty. I remember that there was a time when you didn’t recognize me. I haven’t forgotten-”

“That’s enough!” He shoved the camera in her face. “Remember this! I’m in charge here!”

Amy took a deep breath and regrouped. “Doug, I…I don’t want this to go the wrong way. No matter what you think, I don’t want to hurt you or make you angry. I did enough of that, and I’ve always felt bad about it.” Amy reached out, almost touching the camera slung around the set of double chins that eclipsed Doug Douglas’s neck. “We have to talk about this. We have to talk about my husband. He’s not a nice man. He hired you because-”

Doug Douglas swatted Amy’s hand. “That’s what you want to talk about,” he said, every inch the petulant teenager. “ I was talking about a song. You interrupted me. The song is about a lonely woman who drifts between a young lover and an older husband. The song is about the woman’s problems, not her husband’s.”

“Then my husband didn’t hire you?”

Well, duh. You’re pretty slow. Amy.” Snorting, Doug sized her up with a cutting glance. “Pardon me. Ms. Amelia Peyton-Price. What a mouthful. I should have guessed you’d end up with one of those hyphenated names.” He chuckled, and his chins did a little dance. “Let me ask you, Ms. Amelia Peyton-Price. What happens when a kid with a hyphenated name grows up to marry another kid with a hyphenated name? Not that I expect you to have kids, you understand. Not with old Pricey anyway. But what happens? Do little Miss Peyton-Price and Little Mister Destino-Douglas end up Mr. and Mrs. Peyton-Price-Destino-Douglas?”

Amy jumped at the sliver of information. “Are you married, Doug?”

Sharply, he shook his head.

“Are you divorced? Were you and April-”

“April Destino is dead. She killed herself.”

Amy’s breath caught in her throat.

So it was over. Finally. Literally buried in the ground.

Still, Amy needed to know. Her voice was little more than a whisper, and she hadn’t quite framed her next question before the words spilled from her lips. “But were you and April…”

Doug Douglas grabbed Amy’s hand. For a fat man his speed was surprising. He held her slim fingers in his soft, damp grasp. “April knew how to treat people. She didn’t forget about them. She knew how to make a man feel special.” Gently, Doug slid Amy’s wedding ring back and forth, almost taking it off her finger, then sliding it back on.

“This could have been my ring,” he said.

“That was a long time ago, Doug.”

“Yeah. And you’ve forgotten all about it. You didn’t even remember me. The guy whose life you ruined. There hasn’t been a day go by that I haven’t thought of you.”

“Doug-”

“No. I remember you. I remembered everything, snapping away with my camera outside that kid’s window. You haven’t changed a bit.” He smiled. “You still do that little biting thing. I remember how you used to do that when we parked out on Lake Herman Road, or when we went to the drive-in. It used to drive me nuts.”

Amy didn’t say anything. She didn’t like the direction the conversation was taking. Maybe Doug Douglas wasn’t the complete slob that she had taken him for when she first saw him sitting on the bumper of her Mercedes. After all, he had a fresh haircut, was clean-shaven and smelled of Irish Spring, and his clothes were cheap but new.

So he wasn’t a slob, but he wasn’t the hard-bodied athlete she’d dated in high school, either. Amy guessed that Doug weighed in excess of three hundred pounds. The Mercedes leaned to one side under his weight. He was a lump.

And his eyes wouldn’t let her go. “I liked you better when you had long hair, though,” he said. “I used to knot my fingers in it. Pull it, just a little bit. You liked the way I pulled it, didn’t you?”

The prospect was revolting. Amy loathed herself for even considering it.

“Those were the good old days, right Amy? Both of us workin’ on our night moves.”

“Bob Seger,” Amy whispered. The prospect was revolting. But…

“You remember some things, all right.”

Amy exhaled, slowly, so it would mean something. “Some things you never forget.”

Doug massaged her palm. “Christ, you’ve taken good care of yourself. I followed you to that health club one day. The one by your house. I even got a picture of you in that sexy leotard. The black and purple one, you know? But, Christ, I never dreamed what was underneath it. You’re solid. You look better today than you did in ’76.” He loosened his grip on her hand, as if he were sure that she wouldn’t pull away. “But it’s not going to work. Amy.”

“Why not?”

“I know how fat I am. It’s embarrassing. I’m into video. I’m into watching.”

Amy held her breath, dreading what Doug Douglas might say next.

“See? You’re disgusted. You’d probably have an easier time fucking that old prune-faced husband of yours than you’d have doing me. I guess even a snake can have a little pride.”

The condescending hand-pat that followed the last remark was more than Amy could stand. “I’ve had about enough of this,” she said, adopting the same icy tone she’d used to shame Doug Douglas when they were both eighteen. “Poor little Dougy. I’m into watching. You were into watching then, but I guess you’d rather forget about that.”

“Hey-”

“Why don’t you grow up? I never could stand your little persecution complex. Why don’t you stop whining and tell me what you want?”

Without warning, Doug drove Amy’s wedding ring the length of her finger. She gasped in pain as he twisted it back and forth while trapping her fingers in his massive grasp. A one-carat diamond bit into her pinky and her middle finger, drawing thin lines of blood, and she blinked back tears.

“Don’t you talk to me like that,” Doug Douglas said. “ I’m in charge here.” He laughed. “This time the shoe is on the other foot.”

“Okay…okay.”

“You remember what this is, then?” Doug asked. Amy didn’t answer. Doug twisted the ring. The big diamond tore flesh. “You remember?”

Amy answered through clenched teeth. “Blackmail.”

Doug Douglas shoved her hand away with such undisguised disgust that he might as well have thrown a piece of garbage at her. “It might have been different if you’d come to April’s funeral,” he said. “She didn’t even have any family left. I was the only one there. I know she had other guys. I know that. But I was the only one who had the guts to show up. If it wasn’t for me, she wouldn’t have even had a headstone or a decent burial. It cost me my savings to do that for her.”

“I didn’t even know she was dead,” Amy said.

“Like you would have come anyway.”

“She was a whore, Doug.”

“Yeah? And why was that? We all know who did that to her. But who helped them do it?” Silence hung between them.

“April used to come to my place. A couple of mornings, every week. She fixed me breakfast… Eggs and pancakes and sausage and hash-browns and toast and fresh-squeezed orange juice. The works…I know she had other guys…but…she used to just kiss me. She kept her eyes closed, just for me. That was all we did. Just kiss.”

“You told her everything, didn’t you?”

“Not everything. Only the things she hadn’t figured out for herself. April wasn’t stupid, you know.” He laughed. “You make it sound like I should have been loyal to you or something.”

Amy grinned. “I’ll bet there were some things you didn’t tell her. I’ll bet you left a few things out.”

Doug actually blushed.

“So, what happens now? What am I going to have to do to get that film?” Amy looked at the camera, not at Doug. “Answer me, Doug!”

“I don’t like your tone of voice. What now, Doug? Answer my question, Doug! It’s just the way you used to talk to me. Like it didn’t matter at all what I said unless it was what you wanted to hear.”

“Deal with it, Doug. Maybe I’m not going to roll over so easily, like you did eighteen years ago.”

“Okay, then. If that’s the way you want it, I think we’ll do it the hard way. First off, I think we’ll try a little B amp;E. That’s cop talk for breaking and entering, in case you didn’t know.” Doug Douglas dug into his pocket and slapped a key onto the dashboard. “I’ll make it easy for you. This will take care of the ‘breaking’ part. You can take care of the ‘entering.’ ”

Amy stared at the key. Her adrenalin surge had run its course. A wildfire of anger had burned through her body, leaving only charred remains behind.

With great effort, Doug Douglas pulled himself out of the Mercedes. “You remember breaking and entering, don’t you. Amy? You remember the thrill you used to get by invading someone’s privacy?”

Amy didn’t move. She was tapped out. All her smart remarks were gone.

“C’mon. I know that underneath that fancy name you’re still the same old Amy. I’ll bet that you end up enjoying this. See, April left something for you.” He tossed a hand-drawn map onto the passenger seat. “And don’t be afraid. April hasn’t been dead that long. I don’t figure her place is haunted.”

Doug laughed, walking into the darkness.

“Not yet, anyway.”

2:15 A.M.

It wasn’t a matter of record, not with The Six Million Dollar Man’s doctors, not with his employers. April Destino was the only person who shared his secret. But April was dead, and The Six Million Dollar Man wasn’t making any new confidences. So no one knew that his conscious mind fired like an eternal machine, twenty-four hours a day.

Simply put, Steve Austin had stopped sleeping when he was seventeen years old. And, like so many paths in Steve’s life, this one led back to a certain dead cheerleader.

Steve had had an art class in his junior year. April Destino was in it. The class had been doing watercolors on a September day that sang of Indian summer. Simmering heat broken only by an occasional sea breeze that slipped over the dry, weed-choked hills to the northwest. Venetian blinds rattling with each breath that whispered through the open window, the sound of a playing card tickled by bicycle spokes.

Each student wore an old shirt-something loose and sloppy enough to ruin with paint. That meant, in most cases, a shirt dad had grown tired of wearing. April’s dad worked at the shipyard, and her shirt was one of those dark Ben Davis numbers that had been the uniform of blue-collar guys back in the sixties. Steve’s dad worked on the docks in nearby Oakland, and he was more than familiar with the uniform. But it had never looked as good on anyone as it looked on April. Once seventeen-year-old Steve Austin saw April Destino in that Ben Davis work shirt, he couldn’t take his eyes off of her. Her blonde hair overflowed the worn collar, the perfectly curled strands a brilliant white-yellow against the dark, olive-colored cotton, her hair still holding the highlights that came from a summer spent in the sun. Her skin was golden and alive, and her perfect fingers were wrapped around a paintbrush.

There were other memories, too. The flash of embarrassment in April’s eyes as she laughed at her awful painting of the Destino family dog. The little smudge of white paint slick and wet on her cheek. The way she turned to Steve with a friendly sigh as if to say oh well, the empty working-man shirt’s shoulders sagging over her small frame in a way that made her seem completely vulnerable.

The big pocket of that Ben Davis shirt empty and gaping.

The images laced Steve’s dreams that September night in 1974, the last night he really slept. April Destino. Her dad’s shirt. Her dog. But in his dream they weren’t in a classroom. They stood in a meadow ringed with black pines. Doves nested in the deep shadows of the trees, their cooing music riding the warm breeze. April’s dog burrowed through stands of wild cosmos. The dog’s name was Homer, after Homer Price. But in Steve’s dream the mutt was a crazy-quilt version of a dog, just as it had been in April’s painting-out of whack, legs too short, head too big, impossibly yellow eyes crossed. A weird dog-clown, but not at all scary.

Slobbering, Homer charged through a net of poppies and cosmos. April laughed. The little smudge on her cheek bloomed, and when Steve worked up enough courage to move closer he smelled honeysuckle and felt the cool petals brush his cheek as he buried his face in April’s perfect curls.

Then came the longest wait in the world, in dream or in reality. Standing there with his arms around April’s waist, trying not to shake, trying to breathe.

Her golden hands settled on his shoulders. Her grip tightened as she moved closer. He kissed her and she kissed him. And he knew, instantly, in that way that only seventeen-year-olds can know, that April Louise Destino was the only girl for him. That this was a wonderful thing, and that it meant they would be together forever.

The meadow was their bed. April wore no pants, no skirt. Only the Ben Davis work shirt. No bra, no T-shirt. She undid the small green-black buttons and slipped the shirt over her shoulders while Steve took off his clothes. They lay together, the bright sun looming overhead, and it wasn’t like a meadow would be in real life because there weren’t any bugs and the wild grass beneath them didn’t make their skin itch and it wasn’t too hot or too cold.

Everything was perfect.

It was a dream.

Steve was still a virgin at seventeen. The result of an almost terminal case of shyness. But he dreamed what it would be like to enter April. To be inside April Louise Destino while his breath tickled her neck and his fingers danced over her dark nipples, lightly, the way the Playboy Advisor instructed. His hips moved slowly when he really wanted to move fast-more advice from the World’s Most Eligible Bachelor-and he didn’t surrender to the impulse to move faster until he couldn’t hold back any longer. April moved with him, her flat belly heaving against his. She sighed in a way he had never heard but accurately imagined.

She kissed him in a way no one ever had, with her mouth open, her tongue dancing with his. She didn’t talk dirty or wear leather or have a whip or any crap like that. This was a dream, but the girl in the dream was still April Destino at seventeen, not some weird doppelganger.

For Steve, in the dream, she was the real April.

As real as real could be.

***

Steve awoke from the dream spent but with a numb hard-on, wanting nothing more than to have the dream again. He stumbled through the next day in a daze. When he saw April in the hallway at school he stared at her until their eyes met, and then he almost lost himself in her open gray irises. Shaken, he blushed and hurried away, books and Pee-Chee folder held over his stiffening cock.

Home after school. Geometry. Biology. TV Dinner. Early bed. Lying in the dark, in his single bed, he couldn’t slow his thoughts. His heart thumped a frightening rhythm. He jacked off thinking of April, but it wasn’t as good as the dream. It didn’t seem real. And it seemed stupid, like something a kid would settle for, because even though he could recall every second of the dream in minute detail-the meadow, the dog, and, most especially, April-even though he could play it back in his mind, it wasn’t real the way it had been when he was asleep.

He started to worry that having the dream had been wrong. This feeling wasn’t new- it was the way Steve felt sometimes after imagining a certain girl while he masturbated. But the fact that his encounter with April had happened in a dream seemed to make it worse, uncontrolled somehow. It was as if he had slipped into April’s room and raped her while sleepwalking or something.

It was sick.

Wasn’t it?

Was it? Maybe that was the proper question. Because in the dream, April enjoyed it. In the dream she was with him.

It had all seemed so real.

Lying in his single bed, legs wrapped in tangled sheets, the evening breeze dying just short of the open window. Sweating. Frightened. All alone inside himself. The old joke playing over and over in his head: The first time I had sex I was terrified.

The punch line: I was all alone.

But maybe he hadn’t been alone in the dream.

He wondered if April had dreamt with him. He lay there that night, running the thought down, searching desperately for a solution that was as elusive as sleep. There was a simple way to find an answer, but Steve couldn’t imagine asking April. He would never approach April Destino and say, “Uh, April, did you dream that we…uh, that we, uh…made love in this meadow…while your dog Homer was running around?”

He would never talk to April Destino like that. He would never talk to April Destino at all. Christ, what could he say to her? Him, Steve Austin, the farthest thing in the world from The Six Million Dollar Man, who didn’t even know what to say to himself in the privacy of his own stupid head?

But maybe April had shared the dream. It was the kind of thing that would happen on Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, sure, but maybe it could happen in the real world, too. And maybe he could make it happen again.

If only he could get to sleep.

But that Steve Austin could not do. Not that night, and not on the many nights that followed. At first he dragged ass and his mom threatened to take him to the doctor, but he was sure a doctor would pronounce him insane once he discovered that the insomnia was connected to the dream. He would end up in a nut ward at Napa State Hospital, spending his days with the other perverts engaged in a life of round-robin slobbering and one endless circle jerk.

His fears made him more introverted than usual, in the wake of the dream they grew to almost unbearable proportions. The only thing that got him through was thinking of April, and the meadow, and the dog named Homer Price. And imagining that maybe, just maybe, April had actually been there him in the dream.

Junior year passed. Watercolors gave way to pencil sketches, followed in short order by sculpture and portrait work. April’s shirt was dappled with paint and smears of gray clay and Steve knew that charcoal shadows would soon be added to the blend. Once in a while Steve would intercept a probing glance-April’s face without expression but her eyes somehow hungry-and he would wonder if she was mad at him for not sleeping, for not sharing the dream. When she looked at him that way, he was certain that she knew.

April never said anything, but that was what Steve imagined.

And that made it all the harder when he tried to sleep.

Intercepted glances. Steve was good at catching things like that, but he couldn’t figure out what they meant. He couldn’t see them the way other people did, and that bothered him. It made him feel like he really was some kind of machine.

So, ultimately, he fumbled the ball. But he adjusted, at least to the sleep disorder. He read some scientific articles in the library but they didn’t help. And then he ran across a series of stories in a trashy tabloid that detailed the lives of people who didn’t sleep at all and who got along just fine.

His body adjusted. Or, perhaps, he adjusted to his body. He lay in bed each night, thinking about the dream, and April. Or the cheerleading squad, and April. Or art class, and April. But always April, in one way or another. Not really trying to get to sleep anymore. Not in the dream, but still with April.

That was how Steve Austin, teenage cyborg, passed his nights. In careful concentration, while his days faded. And the things he did, and the things he said, became unimportant when measured against that one cherished dream.

But he went on.

Life went on.

***

Years later, Steve got to know April. He was older and not so afraid anymore, and she wasn’t as imposing as she had once been.

He told her about the dream after their first time together. “It was the weirdest thing,” he said, lying in her arms. “I never forgot it. I’ve thought about it…a lot. I mean, it was so powerful that I thought maybe we’d actually been together somehow. That we shared the dream.”

April only smiled. Over the years, her eyes had lost that special shine. They had come to resemble silver coins that had passed through too many hands. “I had a crush on you in eleventh grade,” she admitted. “Junior year. Remember Mr. Parker’s art class? You were cute, wearing that shirt with your dad’s name stitched above the pocket. Cute and quiet…real quiet. Maybe I had a dream about you. I dreamed about a lot of guys. But you know-good girls, we were never supposed do more than dream.”

Her eyes darkened to a gunpowder gray and her smile became as thin as a fuse. “I wish I could remember my dreams. I wish I could tell you about them, because I know that’s what you want to hear. But I don’t have dreams anymore. I only have nightmares.”

That was all she would tell him that first time. But he didn’t need to hear any more, because he still noticed little things, and sometimes he could even figure out what they meant. April’s bookshelves made an interesting study, for instance. Worn paperbacks on sleep and dreams wedged in with books about psychic phenomenon and ghosts and UFOs.

Months passed before he found the strength to tell April that the dream still seemed real to him, and that life didn’t seem real at all. He didn’t want to hurt her, so he kept that to himself until she pulled it out of him. Even so, he hated himself for telling her. After all, what could someone say if you told them that you had made love to them in a dream when you were seventeen years old, and doing it in that dream was more meaningful than doing it at thirty-something, in real life? How could you say that to a woman without cutting out a piece of her heart?

The whole thing was more than a little crazy, but Steve had decided long ago that he was more than a little crazy. Many years had passed since high school. It seemed forever since he had struggled with a test, or caged beer from a 7-Eleven clerk, or sweated over the numbers posted on a baseball scoreboard. But his mind still worked the same way. He knew that he was still crazy after all these years, if functionally so, and it was just too damn bad you couldn’t get something useful for that, a license plate that would allow you to park in handicapped zones or something.

But April was a little crazy, too, and that made it okay. She had horrible nightmares. Her nightmares, like Steve’s dreams, gave way to insomnia. One of her Johns was a doctor, and he settled his account with downers and uppers and birth control pills and whatever else she wanted.

She shared the sleeping pills with Steve. Most of them didn’t work. One kind, Halcion, did. A little white wonder, that pill. Steve swallowed one for the first time on a December afternoon, and he dreamed his first dream in nineteen years. He dreamed in April Destino’s bed, on a long winter afternoon, locked in April Destino’s arms. It was a drug dream, not a natural dream, but it was real.

He returned to the meadow ringed with black pines, and April. He dreamed away a season of afternoons in the arms of April Louise Destino. The April who lived in a cramped little trailer became his dreamweaver, leading him to the girl he loved with a trail of little white pills, lying with him in a bed with dead springs.

Even through the white Halcion haze, he knew that. Living and breathing, April Destino was there with him, searching for safety in the comfort of his arms.

Asleep.

Searching for his dream. Running from her nightmare.

2:49 A.M.

They were in Shutterbug’s bedroom.

Griz Cody stood before the dresser mirror. He raised his sweatshirt, exposing a startlingly white roll of fat dappled with a red welt that was roughly the same configuration as a beer can. Griz squirted a gob of Sportscreme into one large paw and massaged his jiggling flesh, moaning with pleasure.

Bat Bautista sat on Shutterbug’s bed, twisting his head from side to side, wincing at the little popping sounds made by sore vertebra. “Damn,” he said, “now I’m going to have to go to the chiropractor for sure.”

Leaning against the doorjamb with a beer in one hand, Todd Gould laughed. “Shit, you did okay when Shutterbug hit you in the head. It was the punch to the belly that gave you trouble. That cheeseburger wasn’t any prettier coming up than it was going down. You should try chewing sometime, Bat.”

“Cheeseburger ain’t what did it.” Derwin MacAskill pointed a thick finger at Bat. “You Filipino boys just can’t take it in the belly. Eat too much of that lumpia and shit, all those veggies that look like little worms.”

Bat Bautista only twisted his head in reply, listening to a private chorus of firecracker pops.

And Shutterbug drank it all in, thinking just a little wryly. So, this is what I was missing all those years. This is what it’s like to be one of the boys.

Shutterbug sat on the floor. He’d changed from the black silk robe to jeans and a Perry Ellis shirt and his comfortable loafers, and he was busy digging through some boxes in the bottom of his closet. He reached for his beer, tipped it up, and allowed a quarter of the can’s contents to tickle over his throat like cold fingers of satisfaction. He had downed four brews in less than twenty minutes, and that was a personal best. Usually he required at least twenty minutes to drain a single beer, and his choice was certainly never a beer brewed in the United States of America, let alone a beer that came out of a can. But after having his home invaded by four drunks, after watching a volley of beer cans destroy his stereo, after downing Bat Bautista with two punches, and after realizing that he was actually going to live to tell the tale of this night, Shutterbug felt that he deserved a little something that would take the edge off.

One by one, Shutterbug uncoiled the headers of a dozen old 16mm loops. He held each spool to the light and examined the first few frames while the patter continued behind him. The voices of the four men were slow and easy and the subject matter was unrestrained, as if Shutterbug were a regular part of their conversations.

And Shutterbug found that he was actually enjoying the conversation. Some of that could be blamed on the beer, but not all of it. Even the rude jokes brought quiet laughter to his lips.

Amazing. The A-Squad was actually in his house. In his room, staring up at the wall of eighteen-year-old faces that Shutterbug had maintained since high school.

Griz Cody unbuttoned his pants, dropped them, and sank into a small chair that creaked as it accepted his bulk. He went to work on his hairy knees with the Sportscreme, but his movements were automatic-his attention was really focused on the young faces mounted on the wall. “Man,” he said, “those sure bring back some memories.”

Derwin gave a low chuckle. “Damn straight. It appears old Shutterbug had hisself a taste for the white girls.”

There it was, blunt and honest and right out in the open. And they all laughed about it. Horny, dark laughter followed by an awkward silence, which was finally broken by a question from Todd Gould. “How come you did it, Shutterbug? I mean, how come you kept those pictures up there, all these years?”

Shutterbug stared at a frame of film. The light muted behind it, the colors not what they should be. A class picnic in the Berkeley hills, girls wearing bikinis, the scene locked in murky twilight instead of summertime brightness. He twisted the film onto the spool and snapped the plastic lid over it, the sound as sharp as the crack of Bat Bautista’s vertebra. “I don’t know why I kept them,” Shutterbug said, answering honestly. “Maybe I left them up there because I couldn’t bring myself to take them down.”

Todd scratched his forehead, which had been much too low at eighteen. His receding hairline actually made him look more intelligent. But looks were deceiving. Shutterbug knew that. He tipped back his beer, let another generous swallow slide down his throat. He felt like an ass. Certainly, he had said the wrong thing.

Then Derwin spoke up. “Yeah, I know what you mean, man. It’s the shits gettin’ old. Lost my job at the shipyard last year. Now I’m living in a shack behind somebody’s house-probably used to be some kid’s playhouse. Me and a lawn mower that I make the rounds with every day. Shit, I even got me a kid’s job.” He laughed bitterly, killed his beer, and crumpled the can. “And you know what I got on the shelf above my bed?”

“What?” Shutterbug asked.

“Fuckin’ basketball trophies. They ain’t worth a damn. Every one of ’em peelin’ those thin gold coats. Either that or they’re gettin’ tarnished. But I keep ’em, all the same. Like they tell me I did something once.”

Bat laughed at that. “You got that one right. A couple of months ago, me and the wife got into a real pisser of a fight. Woman couldn’t even understand what made me mad. See, she took one of my baseballs and played catch with the kids. The only problem was that it was the ball I used to pitch that no-hitter when I went all-city in our senior year. It was autographed by everyone who was on the team. And my wife and the kids scuffed up the damn thing, throwing it around the street. Man, I went ballistic, and she just didn’t get it.”

“No doubt about it,” Griz Cody said. “Definite grounds for a D-I-V-O-R-C-E.” He spelled the last word out with a nasal twang in his voice, the way a country singer would, and everyone laughed.

“Yeah…well…”Shutterbug wondered how far he should go with this. “I guess these pictures were my trophies.”

“They’re one hell of a lot better lookin’ than a pot-metal football player,” Griz said, doing a stiff imitation of the running back straight-arm pose that most trophies portrayed.

Derwin struck a frozen basketball free-throw pose. Bat followed with a pitcher’s windup. Todd puffed out his chest, straining toward an imaginary finish line. Everyone laughed, including Shutterbug, who suddenly felt that he was in the company of a bunch of gone-to-seed mimes.

Todd asked, “Who wants another beer?” and the jocks nodded as one.

Shutterbug unspooled another roll of film.

“Marvis, how about you?”

The man with the reel of film in his hands came up short. Marvis. That’s what Todd had said. Marvis. Not Shutterbug.

“Yeah,” Marvis said, smiling. “That would great.”

***

They were having a real big, macho, male-bonding time of it. Marvis was wondering if he should invite them into the back yard, where they could strip naked and pound drums and howl at the moon like a bunch of crazy yupsters.

He resisted the temptation. Instead, he continued sorting through the 16mm loops, but finding the right one didn’t seem to matter much anymore.

“Y’know,” Bat said, still staring at Marvis’s gallery, “those were some good times, back then. Shit, I wish you wouldn’t have broken that CD player, Griz. It would have been good to listen to some of those old tunes.”

“Not that white boy music, though,” Derwin said. “I couldn’t take hearin’ that nonsense again.”

“Man,” Griz said, “you’re about the biggest racist I know.”

“Oh yeah? I s’pose you liked listenin’ to all the songs about white girls and dead horses named Wildfire and shit.”

“Well, it was better than ‘Jungle Boogie.’ ”

“Shit if it was. That wasn’t nothin’ compared to ‘You Light Up My Life.’ ”

Griz sang, “I’m gonna boogie-oogie-oogie’ til I jes can’t boogie no more…”

“You’re havin’ mah baybeeeee -”

Griz laughed, spitting beer. “Okay…okay…Igive up…”

Derwin wasn’t done yet. “-what a lovely way of say in’ how much you luuuvvv meeeeeeeee…”

“Okay! Okay!”

It was quiet for a few seconds.

“Damn,” Todd said. “I wish the CD player wasn’t broken.”

“Yeah,” Derwin agreed.

Griz Cody nodded.

***

One by one, they rated the girls on the wall. Both Bat and Marvis had attended the fifteen year reunion, and they took turns detailing what had happened to each girl as she grew older. Plenty of positive and negative adjectives were thrown around. Speculation was made concerning the possibility of breast enhancement and liposuction. It was decided, in general terms, that there was a desperate need for electrolysis professionals in this day and age, and for a time the conversation turned to the outstanding prospects a seasoned professional could expect in a seemingly competition-free environment.

Bat finally grew weary of that line of conversation and returned to the original subject. “That Amelia Peyton, now she was fine. I never even noticed her in high school. Back then she was trying too hard to be like everyone else. Just another April Destino clone. But now…I got one look at her at the reunion and my wife got mad, told me she thought she’d need a winch to get my tongue back in my mouth.”

Marvis eyed Bat-his little-old-man gut, his dirty fingernails. The very idea of Bat Bautista with Amy Peyton was ludicrous. A guy like Bautista wouldn’t have idea one of how to get with her.

The words came out of Marvis’s mouth automatically. “Amy isn’t bad.”

“Whoa!” Derwin said. “Is this the voice of experience, Marv?”

Marvis didn’t answer directly. “It wasn’t as if we had a big affair or anything. I only saw her twice, when she was between husbands. She worked at the bank across the street from my camera shop, and we kind of hit it off. I took her out to dinner one time. A real nice place up in the Napa Valley. I picked the right wines, ordered for her. She liked that. Then the other time I took her to a photography exhibit over in San Francisco. I knew the photographer, and we went to a private party at the Mark Hopkins afterward and-”

“Yeah,” Griz said. “Okay. I don’t want to hear about silverware and place settings. What I want to know is… did you chop her beef?”

Marvis laughed. Did you chop her beef? How delicate. “That’s why you guys would never get a woman like Amy.”

The four jocks were speechless. Marvis felt wonderful. Every one of them was dying for a little taste of Amy Peyton. Every one of them was dying for something he’d had. They were envious, and it showed. Serious salivation-it was practically dripping off of them.

Derwin, who lived in a shack and mowed lawns for a living, stared at Marvis’s bedroom furnishings as if he were calculating the cost of every stick of furniture. Griz Cody sat there, too fat and too ugly and too crude to attract any woman. Todd Gould, with his perpetually wrinkled brow, thumbed through Marvis’s photography books as if they were written in hieroglyphics-just another anonymous balding guy who didn’t have much upstairs in more ways than one. And Bat Bautista, who spent his evenings with a fat wife and kids who irritated him, was the perfect picture of a guy who would never get a taste of a woman like Amy Peyton in this lifetime. They were flat-out, locked-jaw envious. And it was wonderful. Marvis grinned at them, thinking, Oh, how the mighty have fallen. He didn’t pass up the opportunity to rub it in. “Amy is a high-strung lady,” he concluded somewhat mysteriously. “Okay-in every way-but not someone I wanted to get involved with long-term.”

Amazing, those words spilling from his lips. Marvis had never before thought of himself as a master of understatement. In truth. Amy Peyton had three topics of discussion: money, Amy Peyton, and money. It had taken Marvis all of two dates to figure that out, after which he stopped returning her calls.

But he wasn’t going to share that information with the A-Squad. He preferred to allow their filthy imaginations to take the ball and run with it. He grinned.

“Just look at this shit-eater,” Derwin said.

Well fuck me.” Bat Bautista shook his head. “Marvis Hanks. Man, you’ve changed. I mean, I always knew you had some guts, deep down inside you. It took some guts not to give up that film of April when we came looking for it. And it took some guts not to spill your guts about what happened that night in Todd’s basement. I mean, you could have sunk all of us if you’d ever turned over that film to anyone. Even to your father-he was a cop, right? You could have given it to him, knowing that he would have found a way to protect you. You could have screwed us, big time.”

Marvis smiled at Bat’s misguided worries. He never would have turned over the film. If he’d done that, it would have been gone forever.

Bautista’s eyes were red with beer and fatigue. Words spilled from his lips in a thick blur. “And now you’re screwin’ fine women like Amelia Peyton. Drivin’ a Jaguar. Got your own business-”

Marvis shrugged. “It’s just the breaks of the game. I got lucky.” But he didn’t mean what he said. What he really wanted to say was. Take a long look at what I’ve got. See what idiots you’ve been. See how miserably you’ve screwed up, while old punk Shutterbug, old skinny Shutterbug who you used to bodyslam on cement floors, little old faggot Shutterbug who couldn’t book a ride on April Destino’s train, look what’s become of him.

Suddenly Marvis was ready to tell them everything. How much money he had, and how he earned it, and how much of it he didn’t dare show. Forget the Jag-he longed to brag that he could easily afford a Testarossa. He ached to tell them about the teenage girls; he wanted to describe in great detail how Shelly Desmond peeled off her clothes in front of his video cameras, and how she did each and everything that he told her to do.

What would they say if he spoke of those things? How would they react if he told them about the leather mask scarred over with silver zippers that he wore on the dangerous nights when he joined Shelly in front of the camera?

He wanted to find out in the absolute worst way. He stood staring into the closet, his gaze aimed at two shoeboxes shoved toward the back of the middle shelf. His hand went to the one on the left, the one that held several neatly sorted stacks of twenties and fifties. But ultimately his fingers settled on the box on the right.

Yes. The statement would be just as clear. He opened the box and tossed a Ziploc bag heavy with cocaine to Bat Bautista. “You fellows brought the beer. Here’s dessert.”

To a man, the A-Squad whooped and hollered, just as Marvis had expected. Derwin ran to the kitchen, returned with a spoon, carefully dipped it into white powder, and snorted. A stupid grin spread on his face, his black nose powdered white. “This,” he said, “is living.”

Derwin passed the Ziploc to Marvis, and he took a taste. Then he handed it to Griz Cody and returned his attention to the large cardboard box that lay on the floor.

One last roll of film waited for inspection. Marvis uncoiled the leader. Raised the first frame to the dim light, saw dull green felt and parchment-yellow flesh.

“This is the one,” Marvis announced. “April Destino.”

“All right!” Griz shouted. “Memory fuckin’ lane!”

Marvis grinned as the drug sizzled through him. He was almost ready to share another secret. The words stumbled on the tip of his tongue. He almost said, There’s a sequel to this, you know. April, Part II. It’s on video. Let’s go down to the basement. I’ll cue it up…”

But the Ziploc returned to his hands. Another toot and his mind raced forward. And when he passed the coke to Bat he saw that the moment had passed, anyway, because Todd Gould had turned his attention from the photography books to an old high school yearbook, the 1976 edition, to be exact.

“Check this out!” Todd shoved the book under Derwin’s dusted nose. “Check out what April wrote!”

Derwin’s lips formed silent words, snaking into a leer that spoke volumes.

“Give me that,” Marvis demanded.

Derwin tossed the book to Griz. Marvis grabbed for it, but Griz dodged sloppily and stumbled into the hallway.

Reading. Laughing.

“Showtime!” Griz yelled, slapping the dusty blue covers closed. “Let’s roll. It’s showtime!”

Marvis made another grab for the yearbook, but Griz flipped a blind toss over his head and the book landed in the hands of Bat Bautista, who charged past Marvis and didn’t stop until he hit the front lawn.

Marvis hurried after him.

A pair of headlights bloomed across the street.

“Shit!” Squinting, Bat shielded his bloodshot eyes with the yearbook. Harsh white light played over the glossy pages. The car didn’t move. Marvis did. As he walked toward Bat Bautista, the headlights washed his black face, his white, coke-smeared nose.

The car sat in Joe Hamner’s driveway, but it didn’t belong to Joe. It rolled slowly across the sidewalk, onto the street, and passed under a streetlight. One person sat behind the wheel. Small shoulders, long hair. A woman. Had to be. Marvis could see that, but that was all he could see.

The car paused. The window on the passenger side was down. A single sound broke the night. Each man heard it, but only Marvis recognized it as the rasping percussion of a speed-winder, the device used by professional photographers to take a quick sequence of photos.

The car spit exhaust and disappeared around the comer.

And Bat Bautista’s words filled Marvis’s ears: “Click. Click. Click. You missed the best shot, Shutterbug. But that’s okay. I’m still waiting for you, and this time…I’m ready!”

The words danced in Shutterbug’s head. He was still thinking about the car and the sound of the speed-winder. It was difficult to split his concentration after the beer and the coke. A minute passed before Bat’s statement coalesced in his brain.

Bautista slapped the yearbook against Shutterbug’s Nautilus-constructed chest. “It’s what she wrote in your yearbook, numbnuts,” he said.

Shutterbug stared at a glowing streetlight. In his mind it was a big flashbulb that was taking an inordinate amount of time to die. And suddenly the words April had written were with him in that strange afterglow between unforgiving brightness and complete darkness, forcing every other thought from his head, and he could almost hear her whisper riding the warm April breeze.

2:55 A.M.

They could call the place a mobile home park if they wanted to. That was okay with Amy. The name game was as old as advertising itself. But she knew what kind of people lived in places like this, and she didn’t think of them as “mobile home” trash.

Trailer trash. That was what you called people who ended their lives as April Destino had, holed up with a broken air-conditioner in a tin prison that could have passed for the hotbox in Cool Hand Luke.

Amy snatched a cushion from the worn sofa, unzipped it, and found nothing inside but a hunk of foam rubber that smelled like a whore’s sour sweat. Businesslike blonde bangs tickled her eyebrows as she shook her head. Unbelievable. She didn’t even know what she was looking for, but here she was, on a treasure hunt, ripping apart April Destino’s place.

Not that she had gotten very far. She’d only searched the coat closet in the living room, but already she was sweating like common trailer- No. She wouldn’t start thinking like that. She didn’t have anything in common with April Destino.

And that had to be the understatement of the year. Amy had to laugh at April’s place. A velvet Hendrix hung on the wall, next to a faded picture of Amy with the cheerleading squad. A pressed-wood coffee table sat before a tattered couch. Several tabloids were scattered on the scarred table. Movie star tabloids, not the space alien kind-doodled whiskers on Di’s chinny-chin-chin, sagging saddlebags drooping under Liz Taylor’s eyes, Michael Jackson needing no doodles to look like the Phantom of the Opera. Imitation oak bookcases stocked by the Trailer Trash Psychic Library lined one wall; books on dreams and reincarnation and Elvis’s undying spirit and numerology were wedged between plastic plants and the components of an ancient Panasonic stereo.

Amy was tempted to remove the foam speaker covers. It was possible that April might have hidden her legacy between the barker and tweeter, or whatever the hell those things were called. Certainly such useless facts would have clogged her mind if she were a man. But she was a woman. Her mind was thankfully free of any esoteric knowledge concerning stereos or automobiles or long-dead baseball players.

That kind of info undoubtedly filled Doug Douglas’s brain. Just thinking about him annoyed her. Doug Douglas was actually ordering her around. Doug Douglas. If she had only begun exploring the divorce a year ago, instead of today, it wouldn’t have mattered that Doug had caught her with Ethan. But she had wanted to make it look as if she’d really made a go of the marriage in hopes of gaining a better settlement. Earlier today-yesterday actually, since it was now well past midnight-she’d talked to a lawyer for the first time. The meeting had gone extraordinarily well, so well that the trip to Ethan’s apartment was to have been a celebration.

If Doug did anything with his photos now… Well, the results would be disastrous. She had to do as he said. She had to do what April wanted.

And that meant looking around this damn trailer, not sitting on her butt, because she had to have those photos.

Amy searched the lower shelves of the bookcase, shaking her head over some genuine relics-an eight-track tape player and a leaning stack of tapes, each roughly the size of a sandwich. Starland Vocal Band. War. Earth, Wind, amp; Fire. Bay City Rollers. The Bee Gees. Talk about your moldy oldies. Amy wouldn’t listen to that kind of stuff. Not tonight, not ever. Not even during one of her most perverse, depressed, self-loathing PMS attacks.

Maybe April had left a taped message for her. Amy flipped open a little black door and peered inside the eight-track.

Caught herself lying there on the floor.

Pictured herself as she would look to someone entering the room.

Unbelievable. April Destino wasn’t going to pull any Mission: Impossible stuff. She wasn’t that smart.

Amy sighed. It was late, and the air conditioner in April Destino’s trailer was broken. Amy was hungry and tired. She aimed a long breath through pursed lips at her sweaty forehead, but the businesslike bangs that were plastered there didn’t even move. Maybe she’d just cash it in. Let her husband see the pictures. Maybe they’d turn him on. Nothing else seemed to-

The phone rang.

***

“Are we having fun yet?”

“No, Doug. We’re not.”

“Oh, come on. You used to have so much fun going through other people’s stuff.”

“Look…why don’t you just tell me what I’m looking for, and where it is?” Amy’s voice softened. “I’m tired. And I really wish you’d think about my offer. We’ve got some time. My husband won’t be back for another week. I have money, Doug, and I’m prepared to be generous if you’ll meet me half-”

“C’mon, Amy. You’re not getting into the spirit of things. Don’t you remember the day that April quit school? I remember it…the night after the day, anyway. You and me were at the drive-in. I think we were sitting through The Exorcist for the millionth rime. Not that we watched the movie. God, you were horny that night. Breaking into April’s locker really got you all hot and bothered. I thought it was weird, you getting turned on by something like that. But, hey, I wasn’t going to complain.”

“This isn’t like that at all, Doug.”

“Oh, I think it is. You just don’t know it yet. You haven’t seen what April left for you.”

Amy was tired of talking. She didn’t say anything.

“Amy?”

“Yes?”

“Did you ever imagine what it was like for April when she opened that locker?”

No answer.

“For one thing, she said she never forgot the smell. Greasy-sweet. And then one of the condoms you’d glued to the inside of the door dropped onto her wrist and stuck there like a slimy worm. She looked into the locker and saw the white stuff smeared all over her cheerleading sweater, and the eight ball lying there in the middle of it, and she gagged on that greasy-sweet smell…even though by then she realized it was only mayonnaise. And then the fear hit her for real. She almost threw up. She never forgot that feeling. She never forgot how it was to walk out of that school knowing that every person she saw might have been the one who hated her enough to trash her locker and hurt her like that. Like they say, that was the straw that broke-”

“Look, I’m sure you’ve memorized a veritable cornucopia of cliches that April requested you share with me. I’m especially fond of the one about the whore with the heart of gold. But much as I’d love to sit here and chat, I’ve got to go.”

“You just listen to me. You’re gonna hear every word I have to say. And then you’re gonna do exactly what I tell you-”

“I’m hanging up, Doug.”

“Goddammit! You listen to me!”

“One dial tone, coming right up, hold the mayo and macho bullshit.”

“Okay! We need to speed things up, anyway. Go to the bedroom. Pull out the bottom right-hand dresser drawer…”

Doug Douglas heard bells. “Hey, what’s that sound?”

“It’s why I’ve got to go, Doug; it’s the doorbell.” Amy hung up.

She realized that she was completely alone. Again, the doorbell chimed.

And she found herself missing the oddly reassuring sound of Doug Douglas’s voice.

***

Amy moved to the door, tugging the top button of her silk blouse. The white material was heavy with sweat and clung to her skin in a way she didn’t like. She released the button and the silk found her breasts with the practiced ease of a lover’s eager hand, revealing firm, large nipples that she hated because they made her perfectly average breasts look small.

A quick glance at her watch told her it was 3:07 A.M. She was in April Destino’s trailer, and she had no legal reason to be here.

And someone was going to catch her. The doorbell chimed again. She took a deep breath. Okay. It was plain that she was here. Her car was parked outside, and the lights were on inside.

No running out. Face up to it. Whatever it is, deal with it. The front door was dark plastic with painted black cracks that were supposed to make it resemble aged walnut. Like the door of some Bavarian beer hall, she thought, smoothing her hair automatically.

She swept the bangs across her forehead, wet her lips, and reached for the doorknob. But the knob moved before her hand found it-twisting back and forth, making staccato clicking sounds as it fought the lock.

The door was locked, but someone was testing it.

Amy pulled away from the knob as if she’d nearly burned her hand. Just as quickly, she reached out again. Don’t be an idiot, she told herself. Maybe it’s nothing. Someone with a wrong address. A nosy neighbor. A drunk coming home to the wrong trailer The damn things all look the same, anyway-

A key ratcheted into the lock. The sound was distinct and unmistakable. The knob twisted, made a slight metallic pop, and extended a fraction of an inch toward Amy.

The door swung open. An old man squinted at Amy from behind thick lenses that were crosshatched with little scratches. He rested a protective hand over his heart and said, “Oh, lordy lordy.”

He was starring directly at Amy’s nipples, and he wasn’t blinking.

***

“Jesus H. Christ, you scared me.” The little old man laughed, sinking deeper into the ratty couch in April’s living room. “I thought I seen a ghost. Coulda sworn you were Ms. Destino…until I seen your hair, that is.”

The old man wasn’t looking at Amy’s hair, though. His eyes were still aimed with sharpshooter precision at her large nipples. “Yep, Ms. Destino had long, pretty hair. Not that your hair ain’t pretty understand. It’s just different, is all. But otherwise, you and Ms. Destino are pretty much twins. Or you were pretty much twins, I guess.”

Amy attempted a smile, and when she couldn’t quite bring it off she crossed her legs instead. That redirected the old man’s gaze, but Amy could almost hear him thinking. Those silver dollars might give April’s a run for their money, but the titties themselves ain’t gonna knock no man silly…

The lot manager squinted at the business card Amy had given him. She figured that he might have been able to make it out if his arms had been a foot or two longer. She was lucky that they weren’t. “I guess you got a reason to be here,” he said. “Wish you would have called me first, though.”

“You’re right.” The manager rose and Amy steered him toward the door. “Next time I’ll be sure to let you know when I’m coming by.” She opened the plastic door and thought of a surefire way to improve the manager’s opinion of her. “I don’t think it will take long to settle the estate. You be sure to send me a bill for any rent incurred while we’re in process.”

“Thanks. Y’know, I thought managing this place was going to be a nice, relaxing retirement job, but you wouldn’t believe what goes on around here. I spend half my time talking to cops. Especially this week. First the sheriff’s boys and the ambulance. Then the sheriff himself.”

“Well, I certainly don’t want to bother you further. And if I need to make another visit, I promise that I’ll give you full warning.”

The manager went on as if he hadn’t heard a word. “First the sheriff. Tonight you. Tomorrow another cop.”

Amy raised an eyebrow. “Another cop?”

“Yeah…can’t quite remember what arm of the law this one was hanging off of. Had a flashy ID card, though. Fancy little leather wallet for it and everything.” He shook his head. “Anyway, what a character. Threatened to come back with a fine-tooth comb. Said I’d have to give up Ms. Destino’s cleaning deposit to the government, ’cause that fine-tooth comb does a crackerjack job.”

Amy tried to laugh, but the gasping exhalation that escaped her was a match for her failed smile.

“Yeah, a card all right, that one. Say, you aren’t gonna take any of April’s stuff with you, are you?”

“No. I’m just doing an inventory, Mr. Davis.”

The old man like the Mr. Davis part. Amy could tell, because he straightened up so that the top of his head actually came even with her shoulders. “Good enough then,” he said. “I’ll be seein’ ya.”

Mr. Davis stepped through the doorway and started down the stairs, waving as he went. Amy thought of the cop who was such a card, and more than anything else she wanted to snatch away the little card that she’d given to the lot manager.

But there it was, grasped tightly between his gnarled fingers, waving at her in the darkness, stiff as a lottery ticket that only a clever cop could cash.

Amy smiled. She couldn’t help wondering how quickly Mr. Davis would call his optometrist after he extended his arms to full-length and read the words WENDY WONG, DIVORCE amp; FAMILY LAW printed on a card handed him by a blonde with nipples the size of silver dollars.

3:17 A.M.

Darkness waited in April’s bedroom, a room choked with musty smells that Amy didn’t want to put names to.

She flicked the light switch. The closet door stood open, revealing a treasure-trove of what kids these days called “vintage clothing.” Bell-bottom pants patched with bits from red handkerchiefs hung next to long dresses of equal vintage, and hot pants and tube tops were heaped on the shelf above. Wigs on Styrofoam heads stared down from the same shelf-a frosted Farrah Fawcett flip, a blazing red Charro number, a short black do that somehow spoke of B amp;D routines. Shoes beyond number lay in a jumble on the closet floor along with a tampon box that naturally held a stash of marijuana and cheap jewelry-cubic zirconia rings, awful silver bracelets inlaid with pale turquoise, ear cuffs sprouting faded feathers, even an old mood ring that shone oily black as its permanent color.

On April’s night stand, a company of sex toys waited like elite commandos ready for the most desperate missions. A half-used tube of lubricant lay open next to the toys; a clear tear that had spilled onto the shelf the last time April used the stuff was now hard and rubbery.

And there was the dresser. Amy knelt in front of the drawer Doug had mentioned. Her blouse was soaked through, sticking to her like a second skin. Reflexively, she pulled the material away from her perfectly average breasts.

She yanked open the bottom right-hand drawer and confronted April Destino’s bra collection, a veritable rainbow of generous cups. If Amy had possessed a sense of humor, or irony, she might have laughed. Instead, she only blushed. The half-open drawer was stuck at an odd angle. Amy took hold of the imitation brass knobs and pulled a little harder. The drawer slipped out easily and thudded on the shag carpet.

In the dead space between the floor and the drawer’s runner, Amy found a box wrapped in yellow paper. A box with her name on it.

The smell of April’s favorite perfume burned in Amy’s nostrils as she tore through the paper and removed the lid. April’s cheerleading sweater lay before her, the dark wool still bearing stains from the mayonnaise Amy had smeared there in 1976. A withered condom clung stubbornly to one sleeve. Amy took the sweater out of the box, uncovering a dark blue cheerleading skirt with pleats as sharp as long knives.

A wave of emptiness washed over her, and she couldn’t stand it. She buried her face in blue wool. When the first sob wracked her chest, an eight ball, heavy and black, spilled from the wool folds and smacked the edge of the drawer, the sharp sound an unmistakable twin to the harsh crack of a judge’s gavel.

***

Amy sat on the bedroom floor for a long time. And then she found herself standing in the kitchen with the phone in her hands, and she couldn’t remember it ringing any more than she could recall answering it.

“You listening?” Doug Douglas asked.

Of course she was listening. She had heard every word. She had known that those words were coming as soon as she opened the box, but that didn’t mean she had to find an answer to them.

“I know you heard me. Now you do like I said, and don’t waste time. When you’re done, you’ll find April’s ’76 yearbook in a bookcase in the living room, third shelf from the bottom, next to those books out reincarnation. Turn to page 131. You’ll find another map and another key.”

“I’m not going to do this, Doug. You can forget it. You’re sick. You’ll have to keep your fantasies to yourself.”

“I was afraid you’d say that. Listen to this.”

Another voice came on the line. “I’m sorry Amy. He got me while I was in the shower… What does want? Why is he-”

“Ethan?” Amy’s voice was desperate. “Is that you? Are you okay?”

But Ethan was gone. Only Doug’s laughter remained. “Don’t fret. He’s okay…for now. I told you that you’d do what I said. Now remember: third shelf from the bottom in the living room bookcase, page 131 of the ’76 Lance amp; Shield. You do like I said, and then you get in your little Mercedes and…” He laughed. “Well, you get in that fancy car of yours and you follow the yellow brick road.”

“Then it will be over?”

“Yeah. Then it will be over.”

3:23 A.M.

Evening was just as it should be. Whiskey in his belly, mixing with pills. Jack Daniel’s and Halcion-any idiot would realize that it was a deadly combination, but it wasn’t doing much for the man with the brain of a machine.

Ensconced in his fortress of solitude, medicated big-time, and Steve Austin felt that he was in the throws of a caffeine rush. He didn’t want to be known as The Six Million Dollar Man, but he had to face the fact that he shared the cyborg gentleman’s steel-belted constitution.

Shit. Nothing was happening, and April’s pills were nearly gone. Since her death he had gobbled Halcion like candy, and he hadn’t slept once. Not one night, not one minute. And how long had he been on the pills before that? Since January, maybe December. Yeah, December, because he remembered that Christmas lights had been blinking on April’s fake tree the first time he took the pills. He remembered the sparkling eruptions of light and color flashing before his eyes like broken circuits misfiring in a self-destructive machine, remembered watching green electrical cords garrote fake tree branches while he fell asleep for the first time in nineteen years, for the first time in April Destino’s arms.

The pills were little miracles in December. The Six Million Dollar Man was on them steady, three or four each time he visited April’s trailer. The pills, and April’s arms, had delivered him to the land of dreams.

That wasn’t quite right. Singular, not plural. The land of dream. His dream of April Louise Destino, the girl who had become his own private dreamweaver. But now the pills weren’t working anymore, and The Six Million Dollar Man couldn’t sleep. It was a simple proposition: if he couldn’t sleep, he couldn’t dream.

He knew about placebos, but this was ridiculous. Because if the Halcion wasn’t working now, what did hat mean?

Steve knew about the special bonds some people hared. Even though he had never experienced those things the way other people did, he could recognize he signs. A clear gleam of eye shared by lovers, words spoken with nothing more than a simple glance, thoughts shared in the silence of a held breath. Steve had felt those things when he lay sleeping in his dreamweaver’s arms, lost in his dream. Only there. And now, despite his best efforts, he worried that it was all over. Full system shutdown. Access blocked, big-time. Maybe his crazy speculation was right on target. Maybe Halcion couldn’t crack the sleep barrier. Maybe, instead, it had been the combination of Halcion and the comfort of April’s arms, her mind fogged with the drug, her brain in tune with his, that had allowed him to find his way into the dream.

But now his dreamweaver was dead. Dead and cold on a warm April night. Brain waves flat on a gray ocean, cerebrospinal fluid making jelly of her brain.

The link had dissolved.

Steve stared at the yearbook that lay open on his lap. April’s message- Dream a little dream of me! – was still on the page. In all honesty, he couldn’t remember if it had been there before tonight.

Sure, he hadn’t looked at his yearbook in a long time. And, sure, he had to admit that he’d forgotten most of the messages written on those slick pages. And, sure, April had a key to his house, and she might have written the message during one of her visits. But maybe, just maybe…

Dream a little dream of me. It was such a simple instruction. The Six Million Dollar Man threw his head back and laughed the mirthless laugh of a machine. April might as well have asked him to find a cure for cancer.

He couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t dream.

But if there was something left of April, even after death…if there was anything left…and if this message was physical proof of it…

Tonight’s topic: messages from the dead. Steve Austin supposed that weirder things happened. Most people laughed at them, and some people pimped them with little concern for the truth-new-age spiritualists pulling tricks that had been old in the days of the table knockers, writers who scribbled for newspaper tabloids, and those who traveled the tabloid TV circuit claiming that they had been kidnapped by space aliens. There existed, in this land of dreams, a great number of preachers who claimed to heal every malady from hemorrhoids to cancer with a single touch. They coexisted with those who had seen Elvis at Burger King, and those who knew who really assassinated JFK (and why), and those who said that Walt Disney lay in cryogenic sleep beneath the Matterhorn in Anaheim, California, the joyous screams of generation upon generation of American children ringing in his dead ears.

Such claims made a ghost story seem just a tad ordinary.

A ghost story. Maybe that was what this was shaping up to be. The Six Million Dollar Man was tired. His battery was worn down. He longed to step from his cold mechanical world into the realm of shadow and faith that his dreamweaver had inhabited. He was so hungry for a dream that he prayed it was possible. Because if this wasn’t a ghost story, if what he had shared with the adult April Destino was nothing more than a pathetic drug habit, then his brain was truly fried.

If that were the case, the scribbles in his old yearbook had it right.

Forever, and always.

3:26 A.M.

Doug Douglas was certain of one thing: he was hungry. He’d had a quick bite at Mickey D’s around seven, but he’d been too nervous to have his usual order. No way he could confront Amy with four Big Macs, three orders of fries, two apple turnovers, and a chocolate shake (cut with a cup of double-sweet coffee to provide a little caffeine kick) stewing in his guts. The flat little cheeseburger he’d settled on was now a blob of mush that had given up residence in his stomach for a one way trip through his intestines. The meal, if it could be thought of as such, was little more than a distant memory.

Worse than that, there wasn’t anything appetizing in the kid’s refrigerator-no ice cream in the freezer, nothing but fruits and vegetables and whole wheat bread in the regular fridge. Doug couldn’t make anything out of that. He couldn’t even make a mayonnaise sandwich because the kid didn’t own a jar of mayonnaise. And the kitchen cupboards made Mother Hubbard look like a survivalist stocked up for Armageddon. The kid didn’t have any potato chips. No microwave popcorn, no pretzels, no peanuts, no cookies. There wasn’t even any of that healthy crap, like granola bars or trail mix. The only snack food Doug could find was a bag of those awful rice cake things that tasted like Styrofoam.

The pale little cakes looked kind of like flat marshmallows. Doug tried to get used to the idea, because his gut was complaining like a monster truck with a bad muffler. But then he spotted that despised word on the wrapper. “Unsalted,” he whispered, shoving the package back into the cupboard. “I’m not eating unsalted Styrofoam.”

It was probably better that he didn’t eat anything, anyway. Fear had a way of flushing his system, and he couldn’t stand to spend valuable time malingering on the porcelain throne tonight. Not until it was over with Amy. Not until he could forget about her trying to cross him up.

But the kid didn’t have to know that. “No wonder you’re so skinny,” Doug said. “There isn’t enough in this kitchen to keep an anorexic rat alive.”

The kid wasn’t skinny, though. There was muscle on him, muscle that reminded Doug of the days when he was a one hundred and seventy-five pound gung-ho high school jock who practically lived on the baseball field. Doug had been something to see, back then.

Amy’s lover was something to see, now. He looked pretty funny even with the muscles-naked, dripping wet, tied to a chair and all.

After pulling the kid out of the shower and punching him a few times so he’d stop screaming, Doug had tied him to an armchair in the living room using a bunch of neckties that he found in a briefcase by the front door.

Doug had wondered what the kid did with all those ties. He had imagined all kinds of things. The kid tying up Amy. Amy tying up the kid. He began to think that maybe he’d missed photographing something really interesting.

But then he’d found the kid’s business card in the briefcase. Ethan Russell was the kid’s name. He was a tie salesman at a department store. Kind of a stupid job. But, hey, Doug was a bricklayer. That wasn’t much better. And right now he was a bricklayer on workman’s comp.

The kid grunted, trying to say something through a wadded Armani that was held in his mouth by a wide Serica knotted behind his neck. His arms were tied to the arms of the chair with a couple psychedelic paisley numbers that might have been cut from a dead hippie’s miniskirt. His legs were secured by gray ties shot through with little dribbles of metal-flake orange. Doug thought the latter combination of colors was particularly revolting. He had pissed that same bright orange just weeks ago, when he’d been gobbling antibiotics for a kidney infection.

The kid strained against the ties. Doug wished he wouldn’t do that. The knots were plenty tight, probably cutting off the kid’s circulation. Sure it was uncomfortable. But if the kid kept on struggling, it would mean that he wanted to put up a fight.

“I never learned to tie a tie,” Doug said. “Sorry about my knots-they’re not very good either. Anyway, with ties I always use those clip-on things. Amy used to give me a hard time about it. I remember at the senior prom…”

Doug let it go at that. He didn’t like the disgusted look that had bloomed on the kid’s face at the mention of Amy’s name. Doug knew the kid couldn’t imagine Amy with a fat slob, and he didn’t want to tell the kid his life story.

He didn’t have the time. His life story wasn’t worth the time, anyway.

And it was all Amy’s fault. Not just his life, but the damn kid. April had figured that a richy like Amy would crumble at the very mention of blackmail, but Doug had known better. Amy wasn’t like that. She wouldn’t give up without a fight. Just like in the old days, she would go along, buying time, looking to weasel her way out of trouble.

Like she was doing now. Threatening to walk out on the whole thing. Pulling little tricks. Doug wondered if the lot manager at April’s place had really bothered Amy, or if she’d made the whole thing up. April had one of those portable phones. He could imagine Amy leaning through the doorway with the phone in her hand, pressing the doorbell so he’d hear it. He could imagine that very easily.

Doug’s stomach complained. He pulled open a couple of drawers. Nothing. Herb tea and vitamins and silverware. An ice-cream scoop and a pie cutter. Jesus. What did the kid need with an ice-cream scoop when he didn’t have any ice cream? Why did he have a pie cutter when he probably never ate any pie?

Ethan Russell grunted. The necktie that secured his right wrist started to give. The chair rocked back and forth.

The bricks in the kid’s belly were flexed for serious business. Bulging veins road-mapped his arms. Doug Douglas had once had arms like that. Once upon a time, he’d had bricks in his belly, too.

“It’s not that I hate you or anything,” Doug said. “It’s just Amy. I know she’s not going to do what I tell her. I know she’s going to try to screw it up. I’m really sorry, but I can’t let that happen. I can’t let her walk all over me like that.” He laughed, short and hard. “You understand. I bet you know how she is. You tell her to do something, she does something else.” He shook his head. “I mean, she’s not going to do what I want her to do, so why should I do what she wants me to do?”

Doug felt funny with the pie cutter in his hands. It was silver and had little roses on the handle. It kind of reminded him of the trowel he used when laying bricks, except the edges were very dull and it was way too small. And there were those faggy roses, too.

The kid struggled.

Doug’s stomach rumbled. He wasn’t happy. He was hungry, and his belly was a beach ball that had been scarred by a couple of hernia operations, and he hadn’t been one hundred and seventy-five pounds of base-running muscle in a long, long time.

The bricks in Ethan Russell’s belly heaved.

The pie cutter caught the light. The silver roses gleamed between Doug’s big fingers.

Doug blushed, making a tight fist around the roses.

He found a whetstone in the silverware drawer.

Metal whispered against stone in the quiet apartment.

Doug’s stomach growled. He went to work.

3:31 A.M.

The old piece-of-shit Ford truck takes the turn too hard and everyone yells-Griz Cody behind the wheel, Bat Bautista riding shotgun, Todd and Derwin and Marvis slouching in the back. Twelve-packs of screamin’ cold Bud Dry slide across the scarred bed toward the rear of the truck and Marvis is afraid that the tailgate is going to disintegrate because it’s pockmarked with rust and looks like it is suffering the advanced stages of leprosy. But the tailgate doesn’t have leprosy and it doesn’t disintegrate because it was made in Detroit by real American working men with union jobs and that means it is made of sterner stuff and can stand up to whole kegs of beer let alone miniscule and nearly powerless cans. So the twelve-packs slam against the tailgate and ricochet toward Marvis and Todd and Derwin just as the truck makes another sharp turn, this time onto a gravel road. Marvis is so drunk and high his teeth are numb and he can’t even feel the wind whipping his face or the itchy flakes of white powder under his nose- drunk as a house nigger on the day the massa died his daddy says-and the truck shudders out of the turn and he loses hold of the projector and it skids across the bed and threatens to batter the tailgate just like the beer did but a renegade twelve-pack heads it off, ramming the projector with all the intensity of a particularly vicious defensive lineman in a Bud Bowl commercial, stopping it cold in its tracks.

And those beers will never amount to anything, Marvis knows it, because his daddy says that sports ruin young beers and rob them of bright futures and hardly any of them ever get to be in a Bud Bowl. Derwin MacAskill doesn’t know that, Marvis’s daddy says, became he’s a Stepin Fetchit lawn-mowing kind of Negro who makes the rest of us ashamed. Marvis worries that his daddy spoke through his lips but it doesn’t seem likely because Derwin is laughing high and long at the Bud Bowl lineman caroming around the truck and Marvis would laugh like Derwin but Marvis’s father is in his head saying that lawn-mowing black idiot laughs like a baboon and someone should teach him some manners because he is an embarrassment. Marvis chuckles at that assessment because he is nothing like a baboon and certainly wouldn’t be mistaken for one under any circumstances but he can see that Derwin does kind of resemble an ape if you look at him the right way. He is not like butterscotch Marvis he is really black. Black as unsweetened chocolate and black as Guinness Stout. And then Marvis’s chuckling ends because it tickles his numb lips and he notices that Derwin’s laughter is gone because Griz Cody has put the pedal to the metal and the truck is roaring and Griz is roaring a rebel yell, damned ignorant cracker, Marvis’s father shouts, damned stupid redneck doesn’t he know that grit-eating cracker army was stomped into the ground back in 1865? And Todd chimes in with a rebel yell and even Derwin chimes in because he’s a lawn-mowing baboon, that stupid burrhead doesn’t even know what he’s doing that nigger needs to be taught a lesson! Marvis even thinks about shouting but his daddy is in his head and his lips are numb and he only manages a squeak like a little church mouse, like a little insectile shutterbug.

And even the horrible percussion of gravel battering the wheel wells is more joyous than Marvis’s impotent laughter. The gravelmetal sound is like the brittle rattle of gunfire and it scares Marvis and his balls shrivel up and hide inside his belly and then the next sound really scares him because it is the unmistakable sound of ancient Detroit-manufactured truck bumper smacking chain-link gate. The gate doesn’t give because it is American made just like the truck and the lock doesn’t give because it is a Masterlock and also known for purebred American toughness that cannot be challenged by a wide array of weapons with impressive calibers but the chain that secures lock to gate was unfortunately manufactured in Mexico and it pops as easy as a Tijuana wetback’s cherry. Marvis finds himself whispering, “God those people mess around with that Spanish Fly and they have too many kids and they put every damn one of them to work in some foundry turning out mile upon mile of inferior chain.” And his father agrees. It’s because they’re Catholics and you know about the Catholics with guns in their basements and orders from Rome to drive the rest of us straight into the gutters through overpopulation and they’ll all end up in this country every one of them with our jobs because they can break right through every chain at every border crossing and they know it because they planned it that way and that’s why they made the links weak.

And the truck races through a narrow gauntlet of pine-green trees dripping spicy scent, rusty trees sighing in the breeze breathing their last breaths, black dead trees ready to burn heavy with the smell of dirt and dust and Marvis sees them all racing away from him, the living and the dying and the dead running away from him and everything that runs is shadowed in demon red from the glowing taillights. And no one cuts the running trees because no one comes here anymore. All those trees surround this place and hide it from view but now the trees are running away even the dead ones.

And tonight it is important that they stay. Tonight an audience is a necessity. Marvis knows that because he holds one cold metal reason in his hands and another reason made of plastic is spooled and waiting in his pocket. The sky opens up above him and the gauntlet is gone and now the trees rimming the perimeter are so far away that they are lost in the shadows and their scent has been eclipsed by the smell of the salt air that rides the night, rolling from the black Pacific over low hills, and Marvis would turn and see where they are going but now the truck is airborne, climbing slight mounds, launching itself, landing, climbing again, launching again, and cold steel poles wait in the darkness, a line of them crossing each mound waiting to spear the truck and trap it like an unwary bug on an entomologist’s pin board. But Griz Cody is not willing to be pinned and the truck escapes danger and the passengers escape danger because they are so willing to challenge it, all of them except Marvis that is, and the only wounded are a few beer cans that jump and land and rupture open, leaking cool clean refreshment onto rusted metal and again Derwin laughs high and long and Marvis’s father starts up but Marvis is suddenly willing to challenge danger and tells his father to SHUT UP.

All is silent. Marvis’s father says nothing. The truck is dead on a mound under the cold moon, under a looming wall that is an empty white expanse of the gigantic variety pockmarked with gray, diseased with ashy barnacles that are killing it like Marvis imagines the rust is killing Griz Cody’s truck, like the rusty black blight that is killing the pine trees.

Doors slam. Someone helps Marvis to his feet. He stares at the drive-in screen. It is gray and almost dead but it is what he has always wanted always needed and he knew that he would have it some day. And now someday is here and he forgets everything.

He forgets the photo shop. He forgets Shelly Desmond and the other young girls who pose before his cameras. He forgets his nosy neighbors and the money hidden in his bedroom closet and the video recorders whirring in his basement. And he forgets the mysterious car in Joe Hamner’s driveway and the mysterious woman behind its wheel and he forgets the whirring rasp of a speed-winder and he forgets.

He forgets everything but the thing he dreamed about when he came to this place as a teenager. The pristine white screen looming above him and the movie painting it with color, his name up there so big that no one could ignore it so big that no one could forget it.

WORLD PREMIERE! A MARVIS HANKS, JR. PRODUCTION!

And it’s really going to happen. Griz sets the projector on the hood of the truck. Todd is saying something about the bulb, how it can’t be strong enough, but Griz says that’s why he parked so close idiot, that’s why he practically parked in the playground under the screen. And Todd gets mad and says, well, if you’re such a fucking genius how are you going to plug it in and Griz doesn’t say anything, he just unlocks the plastic storage box behind the truck cab and fires up a portable gas-powered generator and plugs in the projector cord and a small white square appears on the big screen and Derwin laughs high and loud.

Marvis’s dad doesn’t say anything. Marvis says, “It’s a world premiere.”

“Let’s celebrate, then!” Derwin says, and he does a line right off the hood of the truck, snorting Detroit rust and cocaine, and then he pops a beer. Todd does the same and Griz does the same. Bat is rooted in the shotgun position and looks dead but for the smile on his face and Marvis sees that and says uh-uh not me I don’t want no more.

Because Marvis doesn’t need it. He hands Griz Cody the loop of film. Derwin is running around, jumping dead speaker poles, and finally he jumps the fence and climbs a decaying jungle gym and hoots at the bright white square of light. Marvis joins him, climbing the monkey bars, wrapping his arms and legs around them until he’s not quite sure he’ll remember how to untangle himself. He watches as the white square becomes a blot of color and he hears Derwin scream, “FOCUS. FOCUS!” Focus comes switchblade quick and Marvis is surprised when he doesn’t see his name he sees Todd Gould’s basement and April Destino on that pool table and the colors have faded over the years as old 16mm is wont to do and April’s skin is almost parchment yellow and her young gray eyes are tired and defeated but still as gray as gun powder as cold as granite, and the pool table felt is almost brown, almost the color of a sick man’s shit.

Marvis looks away. Sees the hard circle of light pouring from the projector. Sees the truck with Todd and Griz leaning against the grille, gone-to-seed asses planted on the bumper. Can’t see Bat Bautista rooted in the shotgun position but can imagine him there, imagine his frozen smile as he watches himself rape April Louise Destino.

“Bat’s up!” Derwin yells. “All right! Go man go!” But Shutterbug doesn’t turn to see. He has his eye on the truck, on the projector, on the hard circle of light spilling from the lens, on the cold slivers of ghostly ectoplasm steaming from the vent grille mounted next to the collection wheel. And behind it he can see forever, forever in the cold slivers of light. “Look at Todd! Fool used to have hair on his head! Get ’er, Todd boy, get ’er!” Shutterbug sees the silhouettes of Chevy if-this-vehicle’s-rockin-don’t-bother-knockin vans and muscle cars-Cougars and Mustangs and Barracudas and Trans-Ams. And silhouettes inside the cars, he sees them, too. Passion-wrapped shadows and it ain’t just a concept he can see them clearly. The girls from his wall are in those cars. He can smell the scents they wear, scents he has memorized so thoroughly that he can pick them out over the smells of fresh motor oil and stale popcorn and the electric sizzle of car heaters. And those beautiful girls are watching the world premiere of his film while eager hands explore their bodies, eager tongues and lips brush their young skin.

Derwin screams. “Yeah man! Look at me! Man! Hard-body! Eighteen and ready! Oh man the bitch is in trouble now!”

“What kind of trouble?” Todd wants to know. “She need a lawn mowed or something?”

“Shut up, asshole! Just you shut up your motherfucking bald self! You watch close and see what a real man got!”

Shutterbug wants to know how to be a real man but he doesn’t turn to look. He can’t take his eyes off the cars, all the dark passionshadows staring at him from behind half-fogged windshields dappled with dead bugs. He knows they aren’t real. Not the muscle cars, not the tangled bodies, not the crushed yellow jackets and broken moths. Wrapped in the monkey bars, he tells himself that they are only illusions. They are ghosts from 1976 and they would never come here again because the part of them that loved this place is dead. But Shutterbug also knows that he sees them, and he sees what his film is doing to them even if they are only shadows he sees how they react to the freak show on the big screen. He sees how it drives them wild in their big cars, how they tear at each other in the hard light of April’s torment, how they kiss with shadow lips and bite with shadow teeth.

He can almost hear their joyous screams and the name of the film must be April Destino Goes to Hell.

Four men. A beautiful girl. A brown felt hell with pockets full of brimstone.

And then Shutterbug does hear a scream and it comes from Griz Cody and it rides over Derwin’s laughter and Todd’s howls of derision. “The bitch!” Griz screams. “The bitch!” And it is as if he actually forgot what happened, actually convinced himself over the years that he had shoved his limp cock into April Destino and she had loved it and loved him, convinced himself that he had not ended up slapping her with his limp dick and pinching her like a sick fuck until his self-loathing rose to a point he couldn’t control and his fat fist closed around an eight ball.

“What a man!” bald Todd chides.

“Ain’t another like him!” lawn-mowing Derwin says.

Griz Cody’s fist slams against the projector. It tumbles. Crashes. A metal arm snaps off and is caught in a tangle of skunk cabbage and the smell is pure licorice, pure black because the projector’s light is gone and the shadows are gone behind it. Gone. The cars and the vans and the ghosts of 1976 are torn to bits and gone.

But the scream remains, though it doesn’t belong Griz Cody. Shutterbug thinks that it is April screaming her lungs out in the dark basement because she is trapped there and wrecked on spiked punch and now they are raping her with an eight ball. But the truck lights bloom and he realizes that he is screaming because he can’t squirm free from the cold grip of the monkey bars. The shadows are gone but they won’t let him go. And Derwin helps him, laughing at first but then with genuine concern in his voice he helps Shutterbug back to the truck, Shutterbug scrambling there on hands and knees, tearing his palms on hard gravel tears that spill from

April’s granite eyes.

“The bitch,” Griz Cody mutters. “The bitch.”

Todd and Derwin trade Sonny Liston stares and Shutterbug is sure they are going to tear into each other for the cracks they made about being bald and mowing lawns. But Bat Bautista steps down from the shotgun position. “It’s okay,” he says, his lips hardly moving, the grin still frozen on his face. He keeps saying that it is okay and Shutterbug doesn’t know if he is talking to Todd and Derwin or to Griz or to all of them. “This wasn’t any fun,” Bat says. “The bitch is dead and she ruined it for us. But we’ll get her. She wasn’t ever anything. We’ll go to the graveyard. Piss right on her grave.”

Griz laughs. “Hell no. We’ll do better than that. We’ll dig the bitch up. We’ll-”

“You sick cracker,” Derwin says. “You always was sick and you always will be.”

“No,” Griz goes on. “Remember the big fiberglass cow on top of that dairy on Springs Road? Remember how we used to steal it every year and put it up on the top of the high school?”

“Yeah,” Todd says, scratching his bald head. “Yeah?”

“We’ll put her coffin right up on top of the high school,” Griz says. “Prop her up like Jack-in-the-fuckin’-Box. Right up there for God and everybody to see”

“Yeah!” Todd says. “Yeah!”

“I don’t know,” Derwin whispers. “I’m all for pissing on her grave, but I don’t know if I’m up for this digging her up shit.”

Shutterbug can’t believe someone actually spoke those words in the world he has known. He can’t believe it. He bends to the one-armed projector and takes the reel. The old film slaps against his wrist in the warm breeze. And then he finds himself saying, “No… No.”

But they are already at the cemetery when he says it.

The four jocks stand a good distance away. From Shutterbug’s perspective they look like the shadow people of 1976. But he knows they are not shadow people or ghosts because he can feel their fright.

Derwin says, “Somebody already did it, man. Some sick fuck already dug her up.”

“Who?” Todd wants to know.

“Too weird.” Griz Cody’s knees pop as he bends down. He hands something to Bat Bautista. Gingerly.

“Broken beer bottle,” Bat says. “Somebody’s been out here playing graveyard baseball.”

“They still play that?” Derwin asks.

“Somebody does,” Bat says.

Shutterbug wants to ask who it was. He wants to know what graveyard baseball is. He wants to know why there is a hole in the ground where April should be. He wants to ask these questions, and he wants to join the four men who brought him to this place, but he realizes that he can’t, because he can’t move. He looks down.

Shadows pool at his feet like thick snakes, pouring, spilling, twining around his ankles.

The shadows gasp and exhale and the sound is a low whistle. Shutterbug screams. Truck lights flare. The thick snakes collapse, but the shadows remain in the light.

Not snakes. Human arms.

The wounded man with arms like snakes draws a heavy breath and doesn’t move again. He is on his back and his thick arms extend from his sides and his palms are open to the night sky above. He exhales and the sound is a low whistle. A bandana of blood circles his forehead, coursing from his scalp and filling the hard wrinkles above his white eyebrows.

The others are talking but Shutterbug cannot take his eyes off the wounded man. He watches the man’s chest rise and fall rise and fall and soon no one is talking to him, they are only talking to each other.

“Somebody bashed that old dude but good.”

“Man, we better call the cops.”

“An ambulance.”

“You’re crazy. How are we going to explain the grave?”

“I don’t want any trouble. I don’t need any trouble.”

“I’m not losing my job over this. I got a family.”

“Shutterbug,” they say. Then with some urgency, “C’mon, Shutterbug!”

Then it is quiet once again and dark once again. The truck is gone. Bat and Griz and Todd and Derwin are gone.

The man on the ground is still there.

And the shadows are back, spilling from April Destino’s grave. A slow black surf washes around Shutterbug’s ankles and it smells like the cold blood of the earth. He runs from it but it shoots from the ground, splashing his heels, cold and wet and gushing like a reptile’s blood like the cold blood of the earth and he can never run fast enough to escape it.

4:00 A.M.

Amy Peyton stared into the mirror and saw April Destino staring back at her. In the dim light of the bedroom, the illusion was almost perfect. April at eighteen, before her trip to Todd Gould’s basement. A frosted mane styled in a Farrah flip, just enough blush on her cheeks to accent the gentle curve of her cheekbones, and blue eye shadow that wasn’t at all gaudy because the school colors were blue and white.

Amy smiled. Anger flared in her eyes with a hard, flat intensity that was the antithesis of the secretive, liquid mystery of April’s eyes.

Like Doug had said. You can’t hide your lyin’ eyes.

Unless you were someone like April Destino, someone who could bury anger deep in the pit of her heart. If she sat in front of April’s mirror for a million years. Amy would never understand that kind of restraint.

She straightened April’s cheerleading sweater, smoothed her short blue skirt, and daubed her wrists with April’s perfume before rising from the little chair that sat in front of the dresser. Even in the dim light of a whore’s bedroom, the one thing Amy had overlooked was obvious. Two things, actually. Things that even red lamp shades and deep shadows couldn’t hide.

Amy grabbed a box of Kleenex from the dresser. Each tissue escaped the box with a tired whisper, and with each whisper Amy blushed a little deeper because she knew she needed several tissues and at the same time didn’t want to know the exact number.

Doug’s words rang in her memory: “You do a good job of it. You make it real, right down to the tits. If it isn’t real, the deal’s off. And believe me when I tell you that I want to see two full scoops…”

Amy raised the heavy sweater and stuffed April Louise Destino’s blue bra, molding breasts that were generous and voluptuous. The experience was both humiliating and ridiculous and she knew it.

She reached for another Kleenex.

The box hadn’t been full when she started- Amy realized that even as humiliation burnt a hole in her very core-but now it was empty.

***

Lipstick. She’d forgotten lipstick.

She searched the dresser but found none.

She opened April’s nightstand drawer. Dug through a pile of tubes until her fingers brushed something cold.

A pistol. Amy shivered. Her stomach rolled. Just seeing a pistol made everything seem so much more dangerous. And touching it… touching it was like touching something that was dead.

She could do without lipstick.

She closed the drawer.

***

Amy tidied up as best she could. She returned April’s cosmetics to a dresser drawer. She ruffled the shag rug in the dresser’s dead space, erasing the indentation marks left by the box that had held the cheerleading outfit. That done, she replaced the drawer that held April’s bras. Finally, she hid the empty box in a garment bag in the closet and returned to the living room.

Amy knew that such a simple clean-up wouldn’t keep a determined-or lucky-cop from learning of her visit. After all, there was the matter of her little run-in with the lot manager, a man who obviously enjoyed the sound of his own voice. She had given the manager her attorney’s card. A cop who had both luck and determination might make something of it, but that was extremely doubtful. A first-class attorney like Wendy Wong probably handed out ten or twenty cards a day.

Even if a cop tracked Amy down, what could he do? She certainly hadn’t murdered April Destino. April had done that to herself.

Amy didn’t think she had much to worry about. Not on that score, anyway. But before tonight she hadn’t been worried about April Destino, or Doug Douglas, or any of the ghosts from her past. Now, facing a row of cheap paperbacks filled with crazy, impossible ideas, she had to admit that there was something about being involved with April that frightened her, even if April was dead.

The idea that she had unfinished business with a dead woman circled Amy’s thoughts like a buzzard closing in on fresh carrion. Spooky stories had always frightened her. The man with the hook hand, the hitchhiking ghost, the woman with the golden arm-she still shivered just thinking of those stories. They stirred completely irrational fears, but these were fears that she could overcome.

Just as she would overcome her fear of April. Doug Douglas was another matter entirely. He wasn’t dead. He was very much alive. She had seen raw hatred burning in his eyes. Fearing Doug was not irrational. Doug was unstable. Hell, Doug was loony.

She wasn’t accomplishing anything by standing here. The old yearbook was on the third shelf from the bottom, nestled among April’s reincarnation books, just as Doug had promised. Amy pulled it free and turned to page 131. A map-this one with a key taped to it-slipped from between the pages and fell to the floor, but Amy hardly noticed it. Her gaze had locked on one of twenty or thirty portraits on the page.

Peyton, Amelia. Yearbook Editor. I want it all!

But Amy couldn’t see her portrait. A heavy black circle eclipsed it, and there was a message above the circle.

I’ll always be with you.

Love, April

“No you won’t.” Amy glared at all the silly books about reincarnation and ghosts and psychic phenomenon. “You’re dead in the ground, April. You been boxed and buried and I’m closing your account.”

Amy bent low and collected the map and the key. She was tired of thinking, tired of being scared. She returned to the bedroom. Dumped the nightstand drawer onto the dead whore’s bed. Most of the lipsticks didn’t have caps. Amy hated sloppy women. She batted the lipsticks aside, leaving bloody streaks on the bedspread.

Amy’s fingers brushed cool metal. The pistol small and silver. She didn’t know much about guns, but it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure the thing out, check that it was loaded.

She replaced the yearbook. Her anger receded, making room for fear, and she nearly replaced the gun. Maybe it was part of April’s plan. Maybe April wanted her to have the gun. Maybe- No. April really was playing with her mind, and that was going to stop right now. Amy was going to keep the gun. Playtime was over. Spooky stories, all forgotten. This was the real world.

In the real world, April Destino was dead. And Doug Douglas was insane.

And Amy Peyton, for the first time in well over an hour, was in control.

***

Amy exited the trailer park and turned onto the old highway. The shadows were deep and the road was narrow-there wasn’t much development this far from town-but Amy felt secure behind the sturdy steering wheel of her Mercedes. She tried to concentrate on the things she would say to Doug, but shouldn’t seem to plan the confrontation. Excitement was burning a hole straight through her. Maybe things were going to get a little more dangerous, a little scarier. The idea didn’t frighten Amy. She had disassembled her fear rather than giving in to it. She had channeled her anger, just as the pop psych books advised. That empowered her. That, and the gun. She was ready for anything.

Amy passed through town-Mercedes tires hissing cool and quiet over the empty road, waxed hood reflecting streetlights and the dull dead neon glow that spilled from the windows of closed businesses. She almost laughed at the idea of Doug Douglas trying to pull her strings. She intended to scare him with the gun. She would do a good job of it. And then Doug, being Doug, would cave. She’d get the film and some answers. About the nature of a man’s fear, and about April Destino.

Amy ran a red light. Annoyed at herself, she shook her head. Farrah Fawcett curls tickled her eyebrows and she brushed them away. This was no time for stupid mistakes. She had made her stupid mistake of the night by giving her attorney’s card to the lot manager, and she wasn’t going to make another.

She tried to concentrate on the big steering wheel, on the road and on the rhythm of the shifting gears, but her thoughts returned to April Destino, playing with the edges of the idea that maybe there were more surprises in store. Maybe April had only been toying with her tonight. Maybe she had only wanted to prove that she wasn’t such a sad little loser. Or maybe April was playing her like a puppet, driving her forward, driving her into a dangerous- Christ! The man stood frozen in the middle of the road, twenty feet from the Mercedes’ front bumper, staring at the headlights with the uncomprehending expression of a trapped animal. Amy mashed the brake pedal and simultaneously twisted the wheel. She tried to gear down but her foot slipped off the clutch and the engine died with a jolt. The car slipped into a slow spin. Icy headlight beams revealed the frightened whites of the man’s eyes and then the car spun sideways and he was swallowed by the darkness.

The Mercedes shuddered to a stop, its diesel engine quiet except for a few idle pings. Amy glanced through the driver’s side window and saw the yellow divider line running under her door, bisecting the big German car.

Unbelievable. She had almost lost it. If traffic had been heavy, if this had happened at any time other than four o’clock in the morning, she might very well have been hit from both sides while the car spun.

Unbelievable. Amy peered into the night but saw no sign of the man. She didn’t think she had hit him. NO. She hadn’t hit him; she was sure. Jesus. She wasn’t sure of anything. Beneath the heavy wig, Amy’s scalp was itchy with sweat. “Just relax,” she whispered. “Get it together.” She keyed the engine and it started right up, and that was a relief. She backed to the side of the road. Tires crunched over gravel.

The emergency brake made a comfortable ratcheting sound as she secured it. She put the car in neutral and pulled a Kleenex from the walnut box between the bucket seats. She was still shaking. A single tear had spilled from her right eye. She forced her trembling hand to her face and daubed at the tear, removing it without smearing her eye shadow. Her left eye was still brimming; she opened it wide, pressed the tissue against the white flesh of her eye, and the tear beaded into the paper.

“Okay,” Amy whispered. “Better.” She tugged at the heavy sweater, trying to get some air beneath it. The damn thing was too hot. She ended up flipping on the air conditioner. Soon the cool breeze worked through the wool. The engine idled comfortably. All was quiet on the gravel shoulder. The Mercedes’ headlights bathed the road, illuminating the wild skid marks left by the car.

Two angry question marks tattooed in burnt rubber.

There was no sign of the man. Amy hoped she hadn’t hit him. She couldn’t imagine actually killing anyone.

She hit the brights and the spectrum of light widened. Pine trees appeared to her right, overhanging the gravel shoulder, rimming the old drive-in theater. To her left, on the other side of the road, was a steep slope of dull brown earth, thick clumps of grass hanging at the crest, and above the grass the cool gleam of a chain-link fence.

The cemetery.

April was up there somewhere, buried in that dull brown soil, calling to her like the dead woman who lost her golden arm in that well-remembered ghost story.

No…it was only the wind. Shaking, Amy released the emergency brake. The Mercedes rolled forward, but Amy’s eyes were locked on the sloping wall of dirt, searching every inch of it as if she might see the end of April’s coffin jutting from the earth.

A dead pine shivered to her right, but Amy didn’t see it. The branches closed behind the man. He approached the car. The man from the road. His palms were bloody and his face was scratched because he had dived into the trees. He made greeting with a wet, red wave, squinting into the bright headlights.

“Help,” was the single word that spilled from his lips.

Amy saw him at the last moment. Gasping, she hit the brakes and brought the car to an instant stop.

A few more inches and she would have hit him.

“Help,” the man said again. His bleeding fingers closed over the hood ornament, as if he couldn’t understand what the big car could do to him.

Amy’s fear evaporated. She knew this guy. She shifted into neutral, set the brake, got out of the car. “Marvis?” she said. “Is that you?”

Marvis smiled as he came forward. He was soaked from head to foot, as if he’d been running through the sprinklers. Then Amy heard the sound of sprinklers tick-tick-ticking from the cemetery across the road, and she knew that was exactly what Marvis Hanks had been doing. He stepped past the headlights and for the first time saw more than her silhouette. His face became like nothing Amy had ever seen. A sound came from him that could only be described as a wail and he wobbled in a surprisingly comical way before diving back into the pine trees.

There was a short moment of silence. Then the wail resumed, and dead branches popped and cracked as Marvis Hanks hurried along the fence of the old drive-in.

Amy found herself laughing.

She slipped behind the wheel of the Mercedes and drove on.

God, it was fun being a ghost.

God, it was fun being April Destino.

4:33 A.M.

For a guy who’d blown his life savings burying a dead whore, Doug Douglas was doing better than Amy had expected. His neighborhood was solidly middle class. New cars were parked in most of the driveways; well-maintained yards with clipped grass and pruned bushes fronted split-level houses that aspired to a Spanish look but actually resembled something that a Taco Bell architect might create.

Amy double-checked the address and parked her Mercedes in the driveway. The muffled slam of the car door was like a thunderclap on the quiet street. She stood by the car for a moment, staring at the dark windows of the house, listening to the even sound of her own breathing. She was going to be okay. She was going to give Doug Douglas a lesson about the power of will and the value of a good memory, and she was going to get Doug’s film, and she was going to be okay.

She checked the address a third time. She checked the pistol and tucked it under the waistband of April’s cheerleading skirt. She tore the key from the map.

She was going to put this behind her.

The pistol was cold against her stomach.

She imagined warmth. The gentle hand of Ethan Russell resting on her belly. The passion they would share. All the wonderful places they would visit once her divorce came through. The smell of him, and the taste of him, and the pure magic of his lips. She would put this business behind her, tonight, because what lay ahead was pure perfection.

Tonight it would end. No matter the cost. No matter the risk.

***

Doug Douglas waited in the shadows.

Amy was here. He heard the front door open and close. He heard Amy’s footfalls on the staircase.

April hadn’t wanted this to happen. Not this way. She had wanted something different. But Doug wanted something, too. And he needed what he wanted just as badly as April needed her revenge.

April never understood that. No one understood. People always told him what to do. First his parents, then his baseball coaches, then Amy, then a string of lousy bosses, and finally April. Nobody cared what he wanted. Everyone pushed him, prodded him, made him submit.

Submit. He hated that word. He wouldn’t hear it tonight. Tonight, everything would go his way. He was calling the shots.

Calling the shots. Funny, thinking that, with a gun in his hand.

***

Amy glanced at the note scrawled on the bottom of the map. It directed her to a room under the main part of the house, a room that adjoined the garage.

Some people might call such a room a basement.

Amy Peyton wasn’t going to let a simple word frighten her. She wasn’t April Destino. She wasn’t weak. Doug Douglas was the one who was weak. Amy was here to remind him of that. She was here to remind him of Todd Gould’s party, and Todd Gould’s basement, and the things that had happened there on a cold night in the winter of 1976. She was here to put Doug in touch with the hard-bodied eighteen-year-old he had once been.

She was sure that easily manipulated coward still lurked under all that flab. Tonight she would shut his mouth once and for all. She thought she had done that job in 1976. She hadn’t. But it would happen, tonight, any moment now.

She smoothed the sweater over the pistol, thinking it through. There had to be something Doug was afraid of losing, even if it was only his miserable life. She smiled. Life. That would be enough. For anyone.

Amy opened the door to the room that adjoined the garage.

And with that one simple action, everything went wrong.

***

The fluorescent tube flickered above, threatening to go out, but even in the dim light he could see that it was her. She stood in the doorway, a beautiful girl in a cheerleader’s sweater. A sizzle of dying light revealed frosted curls resting on blue wool. But it was her eyes that trapped him. The hard iron irises caught the flickering light and held it, and he realized that someone had clamped a vise around his heart.

She stepped into the room, one hand on the door, one hand close to her belly. The Six Million Dollar Man backed away instinctively. For the first time he realized that he was well beyond fear. He was terrified.

“Let me wake up, April. This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.”

She smiled, moving into shadow, but her eyes were still hard and bright and unyielding. “I’ll admit that this isn’t what I expected. But I’m not here to play I games.”

“You mean I’m not dreaming?”

“Do I look like a dream?” She glanced around. “C’mon. I know you’re not alone. Olly olly oxen free! Let’s get everyone out in the open.”

Something inside Steve crumbled. “You promised that we’d be together, and I didn’t believe you,” he said, trying to sound calm and controlled. “I couldn’t, because I was so scared. When you died, I thought I’d screwed everything up because I couldn’t I believe. I thought I’d be all alone. But now you’re here…”

He stepped toward her. He had to explain. Because he knew now that what he had done was insane.

“Don’t be crazy!” She was reading his mind, and her anger was as palpable as a knife. “You know what’s going on. You’re not scaring me.”

“Calm down, April.” He took another step forward, angling toward the door, and she reacted instinctively, backing away from the door, into the darkest corner of the room.

***

Amy’s legs weren’t working right. Everything was wrong. This wasn’t Doug’s house. But it had to be. It didn’t make sense any other way.

But it wasn’t Doug’s house. Amy could see that. It was Steve Austin’s house. His pictures hung on the wall. Even in the dim light, she could see pictures of Steve on the baseball field in high school, posing with Bat Bautista and Doug. Other pictures showed Steve in uniform. And there was a diploma with his name on it.

And he was coming closer, and she couldn’t move. Her strength was slipping away.

She couldn’t allow that to happen. She reached under the sweater. Her fingers closed over the gun.

An icy buzz sounded above her, and the light brightened suddenly. For the first time she saw past Steve Austin’s shoulder, past the La-Z-Boy chair, into the shadows that draped the far side of the room.

Amy couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t. But she had to breathe, because she had to scream. April was screaming, and Steve knew that she had seen that thing propped in the far corner. He held out his hands. Open, conciliatory. “I didn’t understand. I didn’t know that you could come back to me. I wanted to believe, but you know how my head works. A + B = C. Simple, right? I thought I had to be with her to be with you.” He sighed. “You’ve got to try to understand that I love you. I only felt sorry for her. She was so sad. That woman you became. The dreamweaver. She was so alone…she was like your ghost.”

He wanted to touch her more than anything because touching her would prove that she was indeed real. But she wedged herself into the cement corner, pulling away from him, and her mouth remained an open red scream.

“No,” Steve begged. “Don’t be upset. I didn’t understand.” Again, he held out his hand. “I can explain. It’s not as crazy as it looks.”

But he knew that it was. His big hands pawed the air. He was afraid to touch her, afraid to do anything that might be wrong. He watched his fingers dancing in midair, unsure, his hands damned by pink fingernails rimmed with little halfmoons of black dirt. Graveyard dirt.

“She died and I couldn’t sleep. I thought that without her I couldn’t have you anymore. So I went to the graveyard…and I got her…and then I brought her here…”

***

Doug moved from his hiding place in the garage. Things weren’t going right. Amy was screaming, and Austin was babbling some crazy stuff that Doug couldn’t quite make out.

He had told April. He had told her that it wouldn’t work. Christ, she hadn’t even wanted him to be here. At least that was what she’d said. But with April you could never be sure. Just like with her suicide. Doug had wondered if she’d really go through with it. She had talked about it for so long; he had to admit that he’d been really surprised when she actually did it.

And now, here he was, going through with April’s crazy scheme. He hadn’t been sure if he’d do that, not even when he saw April lying dead in the coffin he bought for her, but the thought of getting to Amy had been enough to make his mouth water.

After all these years, to really get her. He couldn’t miss that. He had to be here. He had to see it happen. And maybe April secretly wanted that. After all, she had given him Austin’s key when she wanted the duplicate made. That was like telling him to make one for himself, wasn’t it?

Maybe. He couldn’t be certain, but it was a possibility. The one thing he was sure of was that April didn’t understand Amy. Amy wouldn’t keep quiet while a nut like Steve Austin tried to paw her. Amy wouldn’t go along because she didn’t scare-

God, how that woman could scream! Doug hurried to the doorway. This would be better than watching from the shadows. Standing there with a gun in his hands, telling them what to do. Watching them do it. He wouldn’t hide, either, not like he’d hidden in Todd Gould’s basement on that night back in ’76, peeking at Bat and Todd and Derwin and Griz and April, oh sweet April from behind that old furniture.

God, he’d been blitzed that night. Completely out of control. This time it would be different. And when it was over it would be like it was with the kid, Ethan. Doug wouldn’t feel bad about it. He had never liked Austin, never liked sharing April. He’d feel strong, decisive.

In control. Doug stepped into the room. Austin’s back was turned, but Amy saw him coming.

Doug followed her gaze. For the first time he saw the corpse leaning in the far corner, parallel with the doorway.

For the first time in his life, Doug Douglas acted without thought, without worry.

He aimed his gun.

***

Steve Austin froze as April drew the pistol from the waistband of her cheerleading skirt, and then he heard the voice behind him.

“You bastard! I told April you were sick! I told her to stay away from you!”

Steve whirled. There was something familiar about the man, but this wasn’t the time to put names to faces.

The man pulled the trigger.

Steve dived out of the way. The bullet hit concrete.

April fired.

Petals of flesh opened on the big man’s neck. Blood geysered across the door and across the room, masking Amy’s face with a ribbon of blood.

Doug’s body toppled to the cement floor.

Amy stared at Doug. She couldn’t think. Numbness overcame her.

She knew she shouldn’t allow Steve Austin to touch her. Smelling the sour stench of April Destino’s corpse and the hot stink of gunpowder, she knew that with overpowering certainty. But he did touch her. He took the gun from her numb fingers. His hands were on her, as if he couldn’t believe that she was real, and a startled gasp escaped Steve as his fingers brushed the heavy letter stitched to her sweater. His fingers sank into a thick fold of wool, pressed warm flesh.

She was real!

The gun was warm in his hands. It was April’s gun, the one he had given her for protection. He couldn’t contain his happiness. “You’re real. Jesus! You’re real! ”

He turned and scooped up the fat man’s gun. Two quick steps and he was in the garage, closing the oak door behind him. April had stepped from a dream, but she could also fire a gun. She was real! He closed the hasp-the one he had installed only a few hours ago, when he was certain that April’s corpse was going to be a permanent resident in his basement-and threaded a Masterlock through it. The lock made a satisfying click as he snapped it closed. He stood back and stared at the door and the lock.

He pinched himself, and he had to laugh at that.

Sure he felt it. He was awake. But she was a dream.

Her fists beat a steady rhythm against the door, and he retreated, afraid that he might lose her again.

Would a locked door keep a dream?

The door rattled under her fists. The Masterlock jumped and slapped against cherry-stained oak, scratching the finish. She screamed, and the sound was sharp and clear.

“It’s going to be okay,” he said, and his soul was wrapped up in every word. He knew that she was frightened. She couldn’t understand what was happening. Not yet. “Believe me, April, I’ll make it okay.”

He had to explain things to her.

He had to make her understand.

But first, he had to understand.

Then everything would be okay.

They would be together.

As they were in his dreams.

***

Hot blood spurted black and sticky, sluicing over his neck.

Doug stared at Amy. She was jammed in a corner, crying. He couldn’t hate her. He wanted to, but he couldn’t. He wasn’t a spiteful person. Not really. He was a good person. But life had put the knocks to him. Starting that night in Todd Gould’s basement, ending this night in Steve Austin’s. Most people got through life without facing such tough decisions. Most people didn’t have everyone tugging and pulling at them like that. They just didn’t know.

He wasn’t spiteful. Not Doug Douglas. Seeing Amy like this…Amy crying…he wouldn’t have killed the kid, Ethan Russell, not if he had it to do all over again…if only people could stop hiding…the kid would still be alive if Amy had ever once cried and showed him…that she had tears inside her if they had come out just once… His eyes weren’t focusing right… All he wanted to do was make things right for April. He knew she was tired of living. She suffered. He knew she had to go. He let her go; he didn’t even try to stop her, and now he just wanted to make things right for her. He was tired of living, too. But he had to make things right, finish the job. For him, for her, once and for…

A girl stood in the corner, wearing a cheerleading outfit.

April Destino. April wasn’t dead after all. Really stupid, imagining something like that. Getting shot over his imagination. Imagining that he’d seen April’s corpse when April was here.

And it was April. It was the eighth of April. It was morning. He ate breakfast in the morning. He eighth breakfast and the date was April ate…

April made his breakfast. She cooked eggs and sausage and hash browns and toast…and she squeezed ripe oranges into juice. And she kissed him. She always kissed him when breakfast was over. Doug dosed his eyes. He kept them closed. He didn’t know why April was pouring warm syrup over his neck, but it was kind of funny. Everything was dark.

He smelled the syrup. It was red syrup, a red smell. It was sluicing over his neck. Cherry, or strawberry or… He waited for April’s kiss.

TWO

APRIL 8, 1994

LIGHT

And all my days are trances, and all my nightly dreams

Are where thy gray eye glances

And where thy footstep gleams-

In what ethereal dances

By what eternal streams.

- Edgar Allen Poe, To One in Paradise

6:06 P.M.

Bat Bautista stepped from the Jeep Wrangler, gripping his nightstick so tightly that his hand seemed as heavy as concrete. His son Carlos romped on the front lawn, equal distance between Bat and Ozzy Austin.

“Come here, Carlos,” Bat said, his voice low and even.

The boy turned-a big grin shining on his face, a softball held in his hands. “Watch, Daddy!” Giggling, Carlos tossed the ball, and Ozzy Austin took two fast steps forward and caught it.

Austin slapped the softball from one hand to the other. “Want a little pepper, Bat?”

Bat ignored him. His attention was focused on his son. “Go inside, Carlos. It’s almost dinnertime.”

“Watch, Daddy! I’ll catch the pepper!” Carlos ran toward Austin. The big man wound up, his face a mask of bulldog determination, and then he tossed the ball nice and easy.

Carlos made a hobbling breadbasket catch. “See, Daddy, see!”

Bat said, “Do like I told you.”

Carlos held on to the ball. “Okay.” The boy looked at Austin. “Are you from Texas, Mr. Austin?”

Austin pushed his hat high on his forehead and looped his thumbs over his leather gun-belt. “No, I’m not, pardner.”

“I just ask because Austin is the capital of Texas. Did you know that, Mr. Austin?”

“I sure did. But only my name is from Texas. I’m from right here, just like your dad.”

“And you’re a policeman just like my dad, too.”

Austin glanced at Bat’s prison guard uniform, which was somewhere between washed-out brown and mustard, the unfortunate color of baby shit. “Well, I’m a different kind of policeman than your daddy.” He grinned. “Do you want to be a policeman when you grow up, Carlos?”

Bat’s fingers were going numb around the nightstick, and Austin’s words were burning his ears deep red. Enough was enough. “Carlos…go inside.”

“Yes,” Carlos said, but he was answering Austin’s question. “I want to be a policeman. My daddy says I can be one, too. Just like him. If I’m good.”

“Well, that means you have to do like your dad says. If you do that, your dad and me will swear you in and make you a li’l deputy.”

The boy’s eyes were wide, astonished. “You can do that?”

“Sure.”

“All right!” Carlos caught hold of the screen door and threw it open. He was halfway through the doorway before he turned and asked, “Daddy, is Officer Austin going to stay for dinner?”

Bat shook his head, glowering at Ozzy Austin’s dark blue uniform. He glanced to the street, but he saw no sign of a police cruiser. There was only a beat-up sedan pulled close to the concrete curb in front of his house. It had to be Austin’s car.

The cop wasn’t here in any official capacity, that much was plain.

Bat’s son had his answer; he sighed and closed the door. The two men stood on the lawn, separated by clumps of grass that were losing the battle to bindweed and clover. Both men wore gun belts. Both had clubs. Austin’s tonfa hung from his belt; Bat Bautista’s nightstick filled his concrete hand, and now the chipped black wood was slick with sweat.

“The boy’s smart,” Steve Austin said. “Knows his state capitals. How old is he?”

Bat studied Austin as he would study an insane person. “I’m only going to say this once. I want you to stay away from my family, and I want you to stay away from me.”

Austin snorted. “Jesus. I just dropped by for a friendly little chat. No need to get tense, Bat.” He took a step forward, one hand motioning toward the nightstick. “And why don’t you put that thing away? You never could hit worth a damn, you know. That was plain twenty-five years ago on the sandlot, and it’s plain here… Just look at the way you’re sweating.” He laughed, short and low. “I always thought it was funny, you being called ‘Bat’ when you had about as much chance of getting a piece of a pitch with a little old toothpick as you had with one of those aluminum cannons we used to swing.”

“Shut up, asshole.”

Austin stiffened. “Well, now. I can see this isn’t going to be very friendly, after all.”

“I don’t have any interest in being friendly with you. Why don’t we just leave it at that.”

Austin pushed his dark glasses high on his nose, and Bat glimpsed himself in the mirrored lenses. “That would be just fine,” Austin said. “But unfortunately I have an interest in you.”

“Oh? And what’s that?”

“I want you to leave April alone.”

“What?”

“You heard me.”

“Austin, I hate to be the one to break this to you, but April’s dead.”

Austin stared up at the sky and his mirrored sunglasses were masked with clouds. The clouds rolled and heaved as he shook his head, and his voice was the whisper of a cold spring rain. “You were at April’s grave last night. You and those other morons. I don’t want you going near her. You guys were her nightmare, and you tried to bring it back-”

“Wait a minute. You’re way out of line.”

“Don’t get jumpy. Bat.” Very slowly, Austin unbuttoned his pocket and produced a reel of film. “Y’know, Shutterbug handled this a little better than you.”

“Give me that.”

“Not likely”

“Shit.” Bat stepped toward his car. He turned and advanced onto the lawn. He slapped his nightstick into his other hand and pointed it at the coil of 16mm. “That’s nothing. Doesn’t mean a thing. Nobody says anything on it. It’s a goddamn silent movie. It’s just a party, everyone having a little fun on a choo choo ride, and you’re just pissed off after all these years because you weren’t in on it.”

“It’s not a party, Joaquin. I don’t have time to explain the difference, but what’s on this film is a rape. And it’s-”

“Come off it, Ozzy. I know you had the hots for her. You just never had the guts to-”

“-it’s a nightmare, and April is very tired of it.”

The two men stared at each other. Austin slipped the plastic reel into his pocket, and Bat almost laughed. “Are you trying to hit me up for money? Is that what this is about? Because if it is, do I have a surprise for you.”

“No. Not money, Joaquin. I just want you to leave April alone.” Austin shook his head. “You just don’t get it. We don’t have to lock horns on this. It’s real simple. April doesn’t want to be part of your nightmare anymore-she’s been stuck there too many years already. Now she wants to be with me.”

Bat exhaled, smelled beer on his own breath. So much for his plans to blackmail Austin. Jesus. The guy was pitching mental Nerf balls.

But Austin had the film. That could be dangerous. Bat had to play it cool, close to the vest. He could figure out the rest of it when he had a little more-

“I want an answer, Joaquin.”

“You’re nuts, Austin. Oh, man, you are loony.”

Austin ignored the comments. “I want you to pass the word to Derwin and Griz and Todd. If you don’t do that, there’s going to be trouble. And you don’t want trouble with me, because the movie will only be the start of it.”

Bautista flushed. He tossed the nightstick on the cement driveway, and it rang hollowly there, and his hands balled into fists, and he wanted to blurt it out: YOU DUG THE BITCH UP YOU SICK MOTHERFUCKER!

No, that wasn’t the way. That wasn’t smart. Austin had already turned and started for his car, but Bat caught up to him, walked with him from the weed patch that passed for a lawn to the broken cement curb.

Find a way to get under his skin. Punch the robot’s buttons. That was the thing to do. “Your problem is that you just can’t handle it,” Bat said. “That I was better than you. That I did everything you wanted to do. Won all-city. Fucked April Destino. She was just a whore-”

“Don’t call her that.” Steve whirled, and Bat saw his own wild eyes reflected in Austin’s mirrored sunglasses, and seeing his eyes hanging there on Austin’s face frightened him more than he could have imagined.

Bat stumbled backward.

Austin grinned. “I just knocked you out of the box, and I didn’t even have to throw a pitch,” he said. “Maybe you did win some ball games. Maybe you did that. But you raped April Destino, and you stole her dreams.” He took off the glasses, and his eyes were cold green things in a face too white.

Austin chuckled at Bat’s baby-shit brown prison guard uniform. Glanced up at the crummy house where Bautista lived with his wife and kids, understanding that Bautista’s glory days were the only memories that kept him going. “Maybe you were a winner when we were kids,” Austin said. “But you never won when it counted. Now did you. Bat?”

Bat fought for control, but his fingers slipped over the scored grip of his pistol. The house behind him was honeycombed with dry rot. Even with his back turned, he could hear his kids yelling in the living room because the TV was on the blink again, and he could smell Hamburger Helper and pepper oil coming from the kitchen, and he could feel the uneven weeds beneath the worn soles of his boots, and his burning gut screamed for Maalox.

“You get the hell out of here,” Bat whispered.

Austin nodded, opened the door of his car, slipped on his sunglasses. “Don’t make me come back.”

7:15 A.M.

This is what did the trick for Steve Austin: fifteen minutes under a cold pulsing shower, a close shave with a new blade, a couple slaps of Old Spice aftershave, and a pot of a potent espresso-Kona blend brewed courtesy of Mr. Coffee. Then down to the neighborhood coffee shop for eggs over easy and four link sausages and extra hash browns well done skip the toast and four more cups of coffee that were pretty strong for restaurant brew but paled in comparison to Steve’s double-barreled espresso-Kona blend. The morning ritual took a couple of hours. When it was complete, the alcohol and the Halcion were behind him.

Or so he told himself. He had always treated his body like a twitchy machine that ran out of whack or not at all. It made things easier, just as it sometimes was easier to think of himself as The Six Million Dollar Man. He couldn’t fix the machine, but he could keep it running. For a time the machine ran on nothing more than dreams, April Destino, and Halcion. Last night, when it was ready to blow its main circuit, it ran on April alone.

Today it needed food and coffee. There was work to be done. The girl of his dreams was alive, living in this moment. Everything would be okay if he could just hold on to her.

Sunlight glinted off the spotless windshield of the Dodge Diplomat patrol car. Steve stared at his big hands on the hard black wheel, at the perfect creases in the sleeves of his uniform shirt and the swollen knuckles that had KO’d an umpire. The whole damn thing seemed so unreal. A living, walking dream was locked in his basement. A living, screaming dream. Every passing minute that separated him from April created another little hole in the window of reality. Yet Steve was sure that everything had happened just as he remembered it.

It hadn’t been a dream.

April was back.

He’d dug her up. Her empty shell, at least. That was nuts. Full tilt loony tunes. But he had been certain that he needed the dead husk of April to get to the real April, the April of his dreams. The dead April, the dreamweaver he had known in that sad little trailer, had convinced him that she was the only one who could help him to dream, to find the April he loved. But something had gone terribly wrong when the dreamweaver killed herself.

That was the way it shook out. It had to be. Because the dreamweaver was dead, and the girl of his dreams was here.

Real. Touchable. Beautiful.

No, that wasn’t the way she was.

Frightened. Tortured. Screaming.

That was the April who was locked in his basement. She had killed someone. Doug Douglas. Doug had gained at least a hundred pounds since high school, but Steve was sure it had been Doug. He couldn’t escape the memory of the dying man’s eyes. He’d stared into those eyes for three long years when Doug was his catcher on the baseball team. He knew those eyes.

He also knew that the dreamweaver had seen Doug on occasion. She saw lots of guys. He had never let that bother him, because there was no changing the woman that the April of his dreams had become. But he also knew that Doug had been involved in the nightmare that was born in Todd Gould’s basement. The dreamweaver had told him that.

But Steve didn’t know how, or why, Doug had ended up in his house last night. He stared at his creased sleeves, at his big hands on the steering wheel, and at his swollen knuckles. A fugitive from a dream was locked in his basement, along with her own corpse, and the corpse of a man she had murdered. That was the way it was.

Unless he hadn’t gone to the graveyard. Unless he hadn’t unearthed April Louise Destino’s corpse and brought her home, unless a screaming dream hadn’t been locked in his basement.

Unless he had dreamed the whole thing.

No. That was crazy. He didn’t dream, not at home. He only dreamed in April Destino’s trailer.

And April was dead. The dreamweaver was gone. Jesus. He felt like a cat chasing its tail.

“I’m awake,” he said, and he kept repeating those two words.

He drove around, just cruising, but he didn’t go to the one place that could set things straight in his mind until the call came over the radio and sent him there.

***

The pinched female voice of Control betrayed not the slightest bit of interest or surprise as she broadcast the call. The location wasn’t on Steve’s beat, but the officer who would have normally handled the call was busy breaking up a fight between a couple who had spent the evening gearing up for a drunken battle of epic proportions. Steve was working the adjoining beat, so the duty fell to him.

He had never handled a call like this one. Grave desecration wasn’t a top tenner on the criminal hit parade. Still, hearing the call on the radio put his mind at ease.

But hearing was one thing, and seeing was yet another. Seeing was believing, and Steve needed to believe. He didn’t hit the siren-no need for that-but he didn’t spare the horses, either. In less than three minutes he wheeled the gold-and-white Dodge Diplomat onto the grounds of Skyview Memorial Lawn, a cemetery that overlooked housing tracts to the east and north, another cemetery to the south, and a closed drive-in theater to the west.

Steve knew where to find the grave, and he drove to it.

Saw the lip of the open hole and the dirt piled high around it.

Knew for certain that he hadn’t dreamed the events of the previous night.

Knew that was true, unless he was dreaming still.

***

The elderly man appeared from behind the cemetery office and headed across the grass toward the patrol car. He wore a black suit, a white shirt, a black tie, and yellow galoshes. That might have seemed odd had the lawn not been a slick, muddy mire.

The man hurried toward Steve with careful steps, as if he were afraid that his rubber boots might turn into water skis at any moment. Steve ignored him, concentrating his attention on a set of muddy tire ruts that led up the hill, stopping at April’s grave. The ruts seemed completely out of place, simply because Steve knew that he hadn’t made them. He hadn’t driven his car over the grass. And it wasn’t that he had forgotten doing it-judging from the size of the ruts, the tires that had done the damage were those huge, balloon-like things that kids mounted on their trucks.

Steve drove a ’66 Dodge Monaco. He couldn’t have made the tracks.

Mystery number one. There it was, but Steve didn’t let it rattle him. The ruts were mostly filled with water, but in a few places they were dry. Maybe the lab boys could get some plaster casts. That would certainly turn attention in another direction, away from him. If this investigation ever threatened to turn in his direction, which was something Steve doubted with the self-assurance of a man who had seen his share of unsolved crimes and then some.

Steve heard slick little rubber footsteps. Sharp little gasps. He raised his head and found that the man in black clothes and yellow boots was holding out a very white hand. A rictus grin was plastered on the undertaker’s face. The grin became an embarrassed smile. “Good morning, officer. I appreciate your prompt attention. This is all so awful.”

“Yeah, my boots are going to be a mess,” Steve said, knowing full well that wasn’t anything close to the undertaker’s definition of awful.

The man flushed. “I’m sorry about the water. The sprinklers come on at four. Last night we watered the Eternal Garden-that’s what we call this section. On at four and off at six-thirty. We rotate our watering schedule. For instance, we left the sprinklers off last night in the Meditation Garden, as we’re having a service there this morning. It doesn’t do to have wet grass during a service.” The man paused as if expecting a reply. Steve rewarded him with nothing more than a long moment of silence. It could have been an eternal moment in the Eternal Garden for all he cared. He was enjoying the hysterical picture of himself hip-deep in the dreamweaver’s grave, and the sprinklers coming on. It was a good thing he hadn’t lingered over his work.

The undertaker glanced discreetly at Steve’s patrol car, then studied his gold wristwatch. He spoke without making eye contact. “Officer? Would it be possible for you to park behind the office? As I said, the Meditation Garden is just across from us. We’re having a graveside service in about an hour. It might be upsetting if-”

“I don’t see how this is going to take an hour.”

“Very well, then.” The undertaker strained to maintain the pleasant, chirpy tone of the professionally unflappable. His gaze traveled to the wrought-iron gates at the end of the curling drive as if he expected a hearse and a line of rented Caddys to appear early because the family had other things to do today and they were real eager to plant Uncle Bob. “I just don’t want to upset anyone unnecessarily,” he explained.

“No problem. I’ll move this along as best I can. And don’t worry about upsetting me-my boots will clean right up.”

Steve stared at his reflection in the milky water that filled the tire ruts, stared at the emerald grass. “Beautiful lawn.” He spied cleat marks on a nearby grave. He hadn’t been dreaming. Damn. That meant he’d really had a no-hitter going when the little umpire interrupted his game. “Y’know, I wish I could get my lawn to look like this. What do you do to it? You use some special fertilizer?”

The undertaker blanched.

“Oh, Jeez.” Steve chuckled. “I didn’t mean that. Special fertilizer. Oh, Jeez. I wasn’t trying to make a bad joke or anything.”

“I understand.” The undertaker straightened his black coat, seemingly oblivious to the comical way his pants cuffs gathered at the tops of his yellow boots.

Steve dipped his thumbs under his gun belt. The hand-tooled leather creaked, and his keys jangled. “Okay,” he said, taking a little notebook from his perfectly creased pocket. “Let’s you and me try to figure out what happened here.”

***

It took nearly five minutes to get the undertaker’s story. His name was Ernest Kellogg, and he had arrived at work shortly after seven. Usually he was an on-the-dot kind of guy, but this morning his dog had done a nasty on the living room carpet, something Ernest hadn’t noticed until he put his foot in it on his way out the door.

Steve figured that the open grave was in the same league as the dog’s nasty. It upset Ernest, but it wasn’t something he wanted to deal with. After spotting the tire tracks and the open grave from the safety of his office window, Ernest had called the cops, because, unlike the dog shit, he figured that he could get a lawman to clean up this mess for him.

“Is there a caretaker?” Steve asked.

“We’ve got three men. Two work during the day. Gravediggers.” He pointed in the direction of the Meditation Garden. “They arrived shortly after I did. As you can see, I’ve already put them to work in preparation for this morning’s activities. Our other works at night-he’s an old fellow, more of a watchman than anything else.”

Steve almost asked, What’s the umpire’s name? But he kept that one to himself. “What’s the night man’s name?”

“Lewis…Royce Lewis.”

“Did he work last night?”

“I…I don’t know. I mean, I think so. He was scheduled. But he wasn’t here when I arrived this morning.”

“Is that unusual?”

“Yes. Royce and I almost always have a cup of coffee before he goes home. I believe in maintaining good relations with my employees, no matter how humble their position.” Ernest Kellogg paused. “Wait a minute. The coffeepot was on in my office. I smelled the coffee when I was on the phone. Royce must have made it. He must have been here last night.”

“Is his car around? I mean, where does he park?”

“Royce lives not far from here. He walks to work. Likes to take the air, he says.”

Steve pointed at the tire tracks. “Know anything about these?”

“No.” Once again, the undertaker glanced at his watch. “The tracks were here when I arrived.”

Steve glanced at his watch, too. Two more minutes had passed. Probably warming up the old hearse right this minute, he thought. Getting old Uncle Bob battened down for his last ride, yessiree.

Yessiree, Bob.

“Look,” Ernest Kellogg said, “is there any possibility that we could do this in my office?”

“Only if you’ve got another open grave in there.” Steve remembered the heft of the shovel and the crazy cartoon clang it made when it bashed Royce Lewis’s head, remembered how the handle had vibrated in his hands for a short second upon impact. He looked again at the tire tracks and his grin held, but he began to wonder why he hadn’t seen Royce Lewis lying dead on the ground where he’d left him, between the headstone that had served as second base and the grave that had been the pitcher’s mound.

Okay. The tire tracks. Someone else had been here.

And the night man was missing.

Maybe I don’t have anything to smile about, Steve thought. But he kept smiling. “Have you looked at the grave?”

“No. I thought it would be prudent to wait for you. I…I wasn’t sure about disturbing the evidence.”

Steve grinned. “You’re not squeamish, are you?”

***

“Jesus!” Ernest Kellogg leaned heavily against the granite cross that bore April Louise Destino’s name. “Sweet blessed Jesus!”

Steve didn’t hear any of it. He was already halfway into the hole, bringing a cliff of mud with him as he slid into the open grave.

The grave should have been empty, dammit. The dreamweaver was locked in his fortress of solitude with the dream. Both Aprils were there. They were locked in the basement, dammit, and the hole should have been empty!

But it wasn’t. It was full, at least by half. Full of water from a sprinkler head Steve had damaged while digging the grave.

But the sprinklers hadn’t been on then. They had come on later. At four o’clock in the morning. And then the water had turned the grave into a swimming pool.

“Royce!” the undertaker exclaimed. “Oh my God! Royce!”

Floating in the dirty brown water, facedown with a pink silk shroud bubbling up around his shoulders, was a fat little man dressed in Ben Davis work clothes.

The umpire. Steve got a grip on the man, flipped him over, and checked his pupils. Jesus. The umpire must have managed to crawl over here just a few minutes before Kellogg’s arrival. Crawling blind with his head bashed in and he had slipped down the muddy embankment and then couldn’t escape because the walls of the grave were slick mud and he was little and round and operating with a bashed-in skull.

What a tough little bastard. He must have been floundering in the grave while Steve questioned Kellogg. All the time trying to get out. It was a wonder they hadn’t heard him splashing around, doing the Australian Crawl.

I should have let the jerk take me up to his office, Steve thought. I should have moved the patrol car. A few more minutes and nature would have taken care of everything for me.

The thought hit him hard, like a slap. Steve was suddenly shivering, and it wasn’t just from the cold water in the grave.

He glanced at Kellogg. The man’s eyes were big and round, like the shiny face of his gold wristwatch.

“Is he going to be all right?” Kellogg asked.

As if on cue, Royce Lewis coughed and a thin trickle of water spilled over his fluttering purple lips.

7:46 A.M.

“Control, this is 66Lincoln3,” Steve said, thumbing the extender mike on his handpack radio. “I’ve got a 10-53 at Skyview Memorial Lawn. Request fire and ambulance. Code 3. We’ve got a white male down, approximately sixty-five years of age.”

Control acknowledged the call. Three minutes later, Steve heard the siren. Knowing that the cool wail was the calm before the real storm, Steve radioed Control and asked that the sergeant on duty roll by; he wanted to do everything by the numbers, just in case something nasty came up later.

Another minute passed before the ambulance arrived, screaming down the twisting blacktop that snaked through the cemetery, wig-wag lights blinking in steady rhythm. Steve thumbed the extender mike. “Control. 66Lincoln3. Ambulance is on scene. Cancel fire.”

The ambulance screeched to a halt as Steve finished speaking. One of the paramedics headed for Royce Lewis, and the other came to Steve. “What you got for us?” the paramedic asked, but the words didn’t catch Steve’s attention. He was watching the other paramedic work on Royce Lewis. The caretaker had vomited up a bellyful of water before the ambulance arrived, and now he wasn’t doing much at all. But he was breathing, and that simple fact made Steve uneasy.

“Steve? You okay, Steve?”

The sound of his name brought him around. “Yeah…I’m okay Gary,” Steve said, thankful that he remembered the young paramedic’s name. “We’ve got a weird one.”

A few feet away, the other paramedic went about his business, checking Royce Lewis’s pulse and respiration. Gary’s partner was named Bob. Now Steve remembered. Bob…his last name something that started with a Z, something you didn’t hear every day.

Gary clicked a ballpoint pen, oblivious to his partner, intent on his own duties. “What can you tell me?”

“Guy was facedown in that grave over there,” Steve explained. “Grave’s full of water and he wasn’t practicing the backstroke. I got him out. Just in time, I think. He vomited a bunch of water, and then he seemed to breathe okay, but he never really came around.”

“Never a lifeguard around when you need one, right?” Gary grinned. “You got a name for me?”

“Royce Lewis. He’s the night man here at the cemetery.”

Gary scribbled the name. “Date of birth? Social security number?”

“I just found the guy, Gary. I just hauled him out of the grave a couple minutes ago.”

“Okay Steve. We’ll handle it.”

“No problem at all,” Bob called. “His wallet’s in his pocket.”

“Voila,” Gary said.

“Thank God for little miracles,” Steve added.

The young paramedic shot a glance at his partner. “How we doing?”

“Got a head wound, for starters,”‘ Bob said. “Respiration’s shallow.”“ He fastened a blood-pressure cuff around Royce Lewis’s arm.

“Oh my,” Ernest Kellogg said. “This is horrible.” The paramedic noticed the man in yellow boots for the first time and gave Steve the old nudge-nudge wink-wink. “You’re the employer?” Gary asked, and Kellogg nodded. “Can you tell me if Mr. Lewis has any medical conditions?”

“No medic alert bracelet,” Bob volunteered.

Kellogg’s eyes glazed over. “I don’t know… We must have Royce’s employment application around here somewhere. And there is a question on the application about medical conditions; I do know that much. Insurance rates aren’t what they used to be, you understand.” Kellogg hesitated, and then his eyes sparkled as if he’d had the greatest idea in the world. “We could call Royce’s wife! She would know!”

“That’s what we’ll do,” Gary said, taking the phone number. “But first we’re going to get Mr. Lewis out of here.”

The two paramedics took a backboard from the ambulance. Bob put a neck brace on Royce Lewis to prevent further damage from any neck injuries he might have incurred. Steve got a camera from his patrol car and moved in for a few quick snaps of the tough little umpire, including a close-up of the head wound.

Standard investigative procedure was what it was called. But looking through the lens at Royce Lewis, Steve felt an unfamiliar shiver climb his back. It scrabbled over his shoulders, down his arms, and settled in his hands.

His hands were shaking. Something was happening, something that hadn’t happened before. Steve fought the feeling, forcing himself to concentrate on the little umpire’s wound. Beneath the man’s white hair, the skin was the color of steak gone bad. Even through the thick lens, the wound looked horrible. Just seeing it made Steve’s head throb.

The click of the camera brought Steve out of it. He realized that he hadn’t been breathing, and he gasped deeply. No one noticed, because they were concentrating on the umpire.

The paramedics taped the wounded man to the backboard, stowed him in the back of the ambulance, and took off for the hospital. Steve wandered over to the grave. Brown water lapped gently against the muddy walls; he couldn’t see the coffin.

The dreamweaver’s coffin was a sunken treasure in a tiny sea.

No. He had no time for waking dreams or silly imaginings. He needed to get back on track. There weren’t any prints on the coffin to worry about. But there wouldn’t have been any prints even if the grave had remained dry.

Steve had worn gloves during that part of the operation. He was sure of that.

Steve hadn’t worn gloves while he was pitching, though. He skirted the mound of dirt that he had shoveled from the grave and wandered over to the granite cross with April’s name on it. A little pile of broken glass glittered beneath the cross, the morning sunlight dancing off the remains of the beer bottle he had shattered during his game of graveyard baseball. The shards of glass were wet, thanks to the sprinkler system. Most likely, the spray from the aged pipe would have eliminated his fingerprints as thoroughly as any dishwasher.

Still, Steve wished that he had removed the broken glass. Jesus, he had remembered to collect his tools, baseball glove, Royce Lewis’s flashlight, even the beer bottle that had missed the tombstone when the umpire surprised him. Why hadn’t he remembered the broken glass? It could be a real problem. Graveyard baseball wasn’t in vogue anymore, and he had been the main proponent of the game back in high school. There were no official records of that, of course. He had never been caught by night watchmen cops, but there were more than a few people who might remember his passion for a good game under the moon.

Bat Bautista, for one. But Bat Bautista wasn’t a policeman. He couldn’t connect Steve to this scene. He wouldn’t even hear about it, because any details pertaining to the case would be kept out of the newspapers.

Brakes screeched on the twisting drive. Another patrol car. Kellogg hurried toward it, yellow boots squealing over the slick grass. Sergeant Mick Chestney stepped from the patrol car, his lips quivering into a smile at the sight of Kellogg’s yellow boots.

Steve leaned on the broken glass with the heel of his boot, quietly crushing the shards into smaller bits. Pleasant pops and crunches filled the air. He thought of breakfast cereal. Snap, crackle, pop. Yeah. This was the way to get the morning started. Soon the shards were little brown pebbles. Wet pebbles reflecting a brown sky, a brown sun. Wet, sharp pebbles reflecting Steve’s face, chopping his features into weird sections. Steve confronted his smile, dissected there at his feet, as brown as a faded photograph. His twisted lips were trembling, and he imagined that they were a picture of his guts. Ground glass cutting through him, freeing something that had been asleep for a long time, something he couldn’t deal with. Something-

He bit off an uneasy laugh. Hell, there was nothing to worry about. Sergeant Chestney hated baseball. He was a football nut who had come to the department from New England because he was tired of shoveling snow. He had only been in town for a year. He wouldn’t know graveyard baseball from surfing. He didn’t even know that Steve had played high school ball.

But Chestney and Kellogg were heading in his direction, and Steve couldn’t hear what they were saying. He moved away from the glass, keeping his eye on the ground, as if intently searching for clues.

“Is there any way that we can conduct our business in my office?”

Chestney looked at the undertaker as if he were the stupidest creature on earth. “This is a crime scene,” he said simply.

The sergeant took a few moments to get the story from Steve. They talked it over, ignoring Ernest Kellogg as best they could, and then they went into clean-up mode. First Chestney got on the radio and sent another unit to the hospital with instructions to interview Royce Lewis should he regain consciousness. Then he returned to the grave and photographed the crime scene. Meanwhile, Steve popped the trunk of his cruiser and grabbed a fuchsia-colored roll of plastic tape.

The rule of thumb with a crime scene was always go too big. Later you could shrink the scene if necessary, but you couldn’t make it bigger since evidence outside the original line might have been disturbed in the interim. Steve knotted the tape around the base of a tree. He made his way from the tree to a tombstone that had served as first base in last night’s game. He circled the tombstone with tape, blindfolding a couple of marble cherubs.

“Officer Austin?” It was Ernest Kellogg’s voice. “A moment, please? Have you forgotten the service that I mentioned?”

“No. I haven’t forgotten, Mr. Kellogg.”

“Well, in light of this morning’s events…this is difficult situation. Might we forego the tape until…oh, say nine-thirty or so?” Steve graced Kellogg with Chestney’s patented stupidest creature on earth glare. “This is a crime scene,” he said, echoing the sergeant’s words, and he continued on with the tape. Ran it to the marble Christ out in centerfield, did a little mummy-wrap job on the son of God. Snaked it around a simple cross that had been third base, drawing the tape taught. Tied off behind home plate-April’s grave.

Turned and saw Kellogg frozen between first and second-too much of a leadoff for any base runner. An easy pick-off play. It was stupid, daydreaming like that. Steve knew it. He wasn’t Walter Mitty. He had to concentrate. Take care of business.

Be careful.

Chestney called him over. Together they asked Kellogg a few more questions, but the undertaker didn’t have anything to add to his initial statement. “Nothing like this has ever happened before,” was the general tone of his comments.

Chestney walked Steve back to his patrol car. He took a towel from the trunk and tossed it to Steve, and Steve started cleaning the mud from his boots and his uniform. “We’ll get someone out to do some plaster work on the tire tracks,” Chestney said. “That might give us something. The rest of it-well, who the hell knows.”

Steve nodded.

“What do you think?”

“Satanists.” The word popped out of Steve’ mouth like an answer in a word association test.

“Yeah.” Chestney shook his head. “Shit. You’re’ probably right.” He gave Steve a long, cool look which was interrupted when a white hearse turned slowly onto the snaking drive.

A line of cars followed suit. A short beat passed before Ernest Kellogg noticed the hearse. The two cops exchanged smirks as the undertaker ran toward it, yellow boots pumping like muddy pistons in some kid’s toy, black tie flying over his shoulder.

Chestney laughed. “Now that’s something you don’t see everyday.”

The hearse passed by. Steve’s gaze didn’t follow it. He was staring at a stand of eucalyptus trees a hundred yards away. A garden of granite and marble lay between him and the trees.

Something yellow darted from behind a tombstone on the edge of the cemetery and raced into the dark shadows that pooled beneath the eucalyptus trees.

Steve’s heart raced as if he himself were running. Chestney hadn’t noticed a thing. He eased into his car and started the engine. He said, “You mind doing the paper on this one, Steve?”

“No. Not at all.” Steve pointed at the grove of eucalyptus. “Maybe I’ll take a look around, though. Check for signs of satanic worship. See if I can turn up something a little more tangible than a hole in the ground.”

“Sure. We’ll cover your beat. You take your time and do it up right. You know that’s the way I like it.”

“Sure,” Steve said.

***

Steve climbed behind the wheel of his cruiser. So far, so good. He was still a little shaky, but as far as he was concerned the scene was clean. The tire tracks were a mystery, and they would probably remain as such.

Someone else had visited April’s grave. So what. Maybe just some kids on a joyride. Or maybe Doug Douglas had been there. Steve thought about it. Maybe Doug had seen him at the grave, followed him to the house.

Maybe not.

Steve started the engine and cruised past the funeral. The mourners were clustered around another hole in the green grass, this one lined with Astroturf that hid the naked soil from view. Steve passed a sea of gray faces inclined in grief. One face rode the gray wave, as white as cresting foam. Ernest Kellogg stood among the mourners in his big yellow boots, oblivious to everything but the embarrassment of having the law on his premises.

Steve was tempted to wave at the man. Shoot him the old thumbs up or something. But he didn’t. He eased past the Meditation Garden and the funeral service, and then he made a lazy cut to the left and followed a narrow dirt road to the stand of eucalyptus.

He parked and stepped out of the cruiser. A warm wind ruffled his hair and tumbled dry eucalyptus leaves, and the leaves were a hundred tiny kites rattling against a breeze that promised summer. The breeze came from behind, from the cemetery, and carried with it the harsh smell of incense. Steve didn’t need another look at the funeral to tell that it was a Catholic service. Instead, he glanced at the sun. Warm, and it was still early. It was going to be a hot one. Rare for April, but not unwelcome.

Okay. There’s the weather report. Satisfied now? Going to stop stalling for time? Going to take a few steps and find out if you’re seeing things?

The shadows pooled before him. Thick tree trunks leaned at odd angles, scabbed with loose hunks of bark that threatened to flake away at the slightest touch. The ground was matted with dead leaves the color of old bones.

Steve stepped into the grove. The leaves crackled under his heavy boots. The dry, minty smell of eucalyptus drew him forward, into the cool shadows. The smell was soothing, more appealing than the harsh odor of incense or the stink of water standing in a grave.

Okay, this is silly. This is just seriously insane, and I’m not going to open my mouth.

But he did. He couldn’t help it. “Homer,” he whispered, and he was instantly embarrassed.

He stood motionless for a couple seconds, not making a sound, hearing nothing but a faint whisper of Latin.

“Homer,” he called, and then he whistled. “C’mon, boy. Homer! You here, boy?”

The wind rose behind him. Scabs of bark tore loose and skittered across the ground. The sound masked a series of short, sharp noises.

A dog barking?

“Homer? C’mon, boy. Don’t be afraid. You remember me, dontcha, boy? April’s waiting for you, boy. C’mere, and I’ll take you to her.”

Leaves rattled in the shadows. Steve moved forward, kicking up dust motes that swirled in rare shards of sunlight.

“C’mon, Homer! C’mon, boy!”

He stopped again. Stood still. Listened.

A short, sharp sound. Yes. It was a dog’s bark.

And it had come from his left.

Steve turned and hurried down a narrow path. The trees grew close here, crowding him, and his shoulders ripped loose scabs of eucalyptus bark as he ran. Up ahead, he saw something moving in the shadows, speared now and then by a gauntlet of hard, sharp shafts of sunlight. Little stubby legs, like broken branches, pumped within a dust devil that swirled down the path. Sunlight glinted off an eye that was nothing more than a blot of yellow paint without an iris.

An eye that was looking back at him.

“Homer!” Steve hurried down the path. “C’mon, boy. It’s me!”

But the sticklegs were charging now, driven by a wind that pushed dry leaves in curtains that rose and fell, rose and fell, moving away in an awkward jog that belied the reality of their speed.

Steve tried to catch up. A fallen tree lay just ahead, blocking the path.

The tree would slow Homer’s progress…

Up ahead, a little startled yelp. Dead leaves rattled over a papery coat. Tumbling sticks scratched against the dead tree. Steve raced ahead, his gun belt jangling, his breath catching in his throat.

A pile of broken branches and torn leaves lay at the base of the fallen tree. Steve almost lost control, but then he noticed the slight indentation that tunneled beneath the tree.

A hole. Just enough room for a dog to squeeze under. Steve leaned against the trunk and looked on the other side. The small tunnel opened onto a ditch. The ditch ran downhill and became a gully.

There was no sign of the dog.

“Homer!” Steve called. “Homer!”‘

But it was no use. April’s dog had gone.

Steve climbed over the tree and knelt in the dry ditch.

His fingers explored the underside of the tree.

He found leaves that were the color of old paper. Or maybe they were the color of faded yellow paint. But there were other things under the tree. Bits of dried roots, twisted from fighting the hard earth, roots as hard as petrified bone. Steve held these things in his hand, closed his fist around them. They were roots, they were leaves.

Or they were the bones of a dog born in a dream, and skin from the back of a painted ghost.

Steve’s grip tightened.

He opened his hand.

The bones fell away.

And he blew the yellow dust into the cool mint shadows.

8:13 A.M.

Amy had long since stopped screaming, but she hadn’t moved from the corner of the basement. Her shoulder muscles cramped. Earthen cold leeched from the concrete walls and chilled her bones.

It could have been worse. She could have been Doug Douglas, dead on the floor, with skin fading to arctic white.

Doug. He’d held his silence for nearly eighteen years. If he had kept his mouth shut another eighteen, he might still be alive.

The thought gave Amy no relief, and she turned away from the dead man. April Destino’s corpse stood unmoving in the far corner. Mud stains dappled the hem of her red dress; her long blonde hair was twisted in a dry, almost fashionable tangle; her skin was oyster gray and slack. April’s blue lips were swollen in a half pout, half pucker, as if she were awaiting a final kiss from an uncertain lover.

Amy drew a shallow breath. Her chest was so tight with fear that it seemed she was breathing through a straw. She had come here intending to give Doug a good scare. She had come here to teach April how an expert played the game.

And she realized that she hadn’t even known where she was. This wasn’t Doug’s house. It was Steve Austin’s. Ozzy Austin’s. Doug’s words came back to her: You get in that fancy car of yours and you follow the yellow brick road. She was the one who was learning. She had thought that she was the smart one, the unflappable one, but now here she was, huddled in a corner, hiding in the shadows, worrying that her body would shatter if she so much as moved an inch.

But she had to move. She eased away from the cool concrete wall. Dank air stirred behind her, and her naked legs grew gooseflesh under the short cheerleader’s skirt. She moved forward slowly, a wary prizefighter answering a final bell, but April’s corpse didn’t advance from the opposite corner. Thank God, Amy thought. This isn’t turning into a horror movie after all.

The doorknob twisted easily in her grip, and the lock popped free. Her heart jumped. She tugged the knob and the door gave a fraction of an inch, but then it held tight. Frustrated, she pulled harder. Something slapped against the wood, and she realized that there was another lock on the opposite side of the door.

Shit. Amy’s fists thudded against varnished oak, and the sound told her the door was solid. She backed off, eyeing it. Expensive knob. Brass hinges.

The basement air seemed suddenly colder, heavy with the earthy stink of the grave. An icy whisper filled Amy’s ears. She whirled, instinctively retreating toward the corner, her eyes trained on April’s pouting blue lips, but April’s corpse hadn’t moved. It still leaned at a crazy angle against the far wall-half hidden in shadow, half bathed in flickering light.

Light that created the illusion of movement.

It’s just an illusion.

The hem of the corpse’s dress was a curtain made of stone.

There’s the proof. She’s not moving. She’s not breathing. She’s dead.

Once again, Amy’s throat was nothing but a straw, only now someone was pinching it. The light brightened and April’s face became a pool of milk in a bone-china bowl, and then shadows poured over April’s forehead and dripped down her face, transforming the blue pout into a sagging frown.

An icy buzz redirected Amy’s attention to the bank of fluorescent tubes in the lone ceiling fixture. There were three tubes, and only one of them was working. It didn’t look like it would be working for long.

The tube buzzed, then flickered.

Shadows seemed to pour from the corners.

Now you see it, now you don’t.

Now you hear it, now you don’t.

The light was the source of the sound that had startled her. Her back had been turned while she examined the door, and she had heard the fluorescent light buzzing.

No. She had heard a whisper.

Don’t be an idiot. Stay cool and you’ll get out of this. Start imagining things and you’ll be swimming in dangerous waters.

The door. It was the only thing keeping her here. Maybe she could get the hinges off. If she had a screwdriver and a hammer, she could pop the pins easily enough. But a quick search told her that there weren’t any tools in the room. She tried to loosen the pins but couldn’t get a grip on them. They were lodged tight. And her purse was in the Mercedes. She kept a Swiss army knife, a gift from Ethan, in the zipper pocket. If she had that…

But she didn’t. Her car was parked out front.

Unless Steve Austin had moved it.

There had to be something she could use.

Doug Douglas lay at her feet. There was no other choice. She bent low, close to him. She could smell soap, deodorant, and blood…and she knew instantly that Doug had fouled himself in death.

But her hand was like a snake that had been charmed. Her fingers burrowed into the dead man’s pockets. A tangle of wet Kleenex was the first thing she found. She threw it into the shadows and wiped her fingers on Doug’s pants, gagging in disgust. She tried again. Found only his wallet. Then came a cheeseburger wrapper from MacDonald’s. Just one.

Empty. She was coming up empty.

Doug lay on his side. There was one pocket left, and she couldn’t get to it without rolling him over. She nudged his shoulder with the heel of her hand. He wobbled for a moment before collapsing onto his back, the sound like a huge blob of Jell-O dropping to the floor.

Doug’s chest sagged. He sighed, and his teeth clacked together sharply. Amy drew back in horror, but not fast enough to escape the cold breath of death that tickled over her cheek.

Just that one breath. That was all that was left in him. He was dead. He lay there, his lips peeled back in a sick little grin, a sliver of lettuce stuck between his teeth. Amy thought of the pathetic little cheeseburger wrapper and had to look away.

To his pocket. The one pocket that remained. The pocket which masked a bulge that was completely meaningless in death.

No. That was a lie. She wouldn’t reach into that pocket. She wouldn’t touch that thing, no matter how brief the contact was… He was dead…

But she had to. Unless…

Quickly, she tugged at the exposed corner of the pocket and pulled it inside out. The roll of film hit the floor. It had to be the roll that Doug had shot outside Ethan’s window, but Amy didn’t even smile, didn’t even take the time to destroy it, because the real treasure came next.

Doug’s keys. She snatched them up and went to work on the door a second time, trying to loosen the pins, the molding, anything. She worked until her fingers began to ache, with no success.

She bent three keys before she gave up. There were others, but Amy doubted that they were any stronger. She sighed, long and low. And when she drew another breath through pursed lips, the sigh seemed to continue.

She turned, confronting pouting lips twisted into an expression that was just this side of amused.

Amy’s hands curled into fists at the sight of April’s corpse. Okay. Things were getting just a little bit out of hand. She was upset and she was scared. But she had every right to be. She’d spent the better part of the evening playing games with a fat slug who thought that he was clever. Said slug had directed her to the home of a man who kept a dead bimbette in not-so-cold storage, a man who mistook her for some kind of reincarnation of the heretofore mentioned bimbette. She’d watched the man become most distressed when he realized that she wasn’t exactly eager to step back into his life for round two. So he’d locked her up along with the expired object of his affections in said not-so-cold storage before going off to work like it was just another day.

Oh, and there was a little matter of murder in there somewhere, too-she’d sent said slug to the big flower-bed in the sky.

Amy laughed. The whole thing was David Lynch weird. If she wanted to appear on Geraldo when she got out of this, or sell her tale to the tabloids, sky would be the limit.

I WAS A GHOST IN THE CELLAR OF HORROR!

Hell, maybe this could even be a TV movie.

AMELIA, AND NECROPHILIA.

The slim bone of light flickered above. If it out…

God, she didn’t want to think about that.

She searched the room again. April’s corpse was there, of course. And there was a fancy La-Z-Boy that looked like it came from the nearest Grandpa Standard Equipment outlet. But there was nothing she could use to free herself.

A pair of muddy baseball cleats lay on the floor in front of the chair. A Jack Daniel’s bottle sat on a small table next to it. The bottle was half empty, or half full, depending on your perspective. A prescription bottle sat next to the JD bottle, two bullets remaining.

Amy examined the pills. Halcion. Sleeping pills. Amy had read about them. Critics claimed they could be dangerous. Lawsuits were flying back and forth. She seemed to remember something about psychotic episodes brought on by the drug. The pharmaceutical industry was denying everything, but the standard-issue skepticism of a corporate attorney’s wife told Amy that this stuff was bad news.

No wonder Steve thought that she was April. He was whacked out of his head on a world-class mindbender.

A bookcase stood to one side of the door. One of those teak Scandinavian Designs things that weren’t much more than coated fiberboard. Amy examined the spines of the books. Most were worn paperbacks. She wasn’t really surprised by what she found. April’s library had prepared her for it.

She ran a finger over the cracked spines of a half-dozen books that dealt with the mysteries of dreams. The dream section was bracketed by sections concerning numerology and reincarnation, and there were also books on ghosts and hauntings and out-of-body travel. The library was a near twin to April’s own, though much smaller. Amy studied the titles, trying to remember what Steve had said about April.

She sighed, brushing Farrah Fawcett curls away from her eyes. She really should take off the wig. She really should get out of the cheerleader’s outfit. But what else would she wear? There wasn’t anything else here in the basement, unless she wanted to swap outfits with a corpse. So she opted for the books. Reincarnation. Ghosts. With enough time, she could read each one and decipher the demons that had invaded Steve’s brain. Certainly, that would happen in her TV movie, AMELIA, AND NECROPHILIA. Plucky heroine Amelia Peyton-portrayed by Morgan Fairchild, no doubt-would do some heavy-duty speed-reading while the bad guy was away, earn a degree from the plucky heroine school of reverse psychology, outwit the nut and get him to deliver her straight to the cops. And if that wasn’t enough plot for two hours of prime time, maybe old Morgan could do some therapeutic role-playing and straighten out the poor confused villain. A happy ending would probably boost the ratings.

But Amy didn’t need to read anything. She was certain that she already knew the scoop. April Destino and Steve Austin. A match made in eternal-misery heaven. Reincarnation books. Ghost stories. Brought to you by the Trailer Trash Psychic Library.

April bites the big one, self-induced. Maybe she’s hoping things will be better on the other side of the fence. Steve goes nuts. Drinks too much and drugs too much. And he begins to hope that all the self-diverting nonsense April believed is really true. He stews in these juices good and proper, and then he digs her up. And what happens? Why, he’s real disturbed to discover that April is stone cold, eviscerated, sewn-up dead.

And then she shows up. Young, thanks to plenty of makeup and subdued lighting. Bouncy, thanks to plenty of tissue. Dressed in a cheerleader’s outfit. Steve is whacked out of his head and just a little confused. So he locks up his best girl together-both of them-and he does what any man would do. He goes to work and figures he’ll worry about the whole thing later, because it’s a little much to expect that something as simple as a man can handle all this stuff at once. After all, a man can’t work and think at the same time. But maybe he’ll have some free time on the weekend or something, between ball games and pay-per-view bikini contests. Get down to brass tacks then.

In the meantime, he’ll just let his little problem keep.

Both of her.

Together in not-so-cold storage.

Men. They were like little robots. Wind ’em up and watch ’em go. Want to figure them out? Open them up and look at the gears. Metal and wire. The schematic hadn’t changed in several thousand years.

But April Destino was another story entirely. Amy realized that. April had some part in this, too. She had set Doug Douglas in motion. She had left the cheerleading outfit. And while Amy recognized that her own anger had brought her here, she also knew that her anger had been stoked by April Destino. Her strings had been pulled by an expert, and now she was walking in April Destino’s shoes. Quite literally.

Amy returned to the corner. The room seemed very small. It didn’t seem like Steve Austin’s room at all. April’s books were here, and April was here. Nothing seemed as amusing as it had just a minute or two before. Amy stared at her feet, resisting the fear that churned in her belly.

She stared at April’s corpse.

She saw what April had become.

“You brought me here,” Amy said. “You made me come.”

Silence. Blue lips pursed as if to speak, but now Amy’s hard eyes discerned the dark slivers of thread on those lips. The pursed expression was a result of an undertaker’s shaking hand, a needle worked too fast through flesh that had always been much too pliant. A task performed too quickly, as if fearful that something dangerous might spill from those cold lips.

“Why did you do it, April?”

The question was simple. Amy waited for an answer, but none came.

No words would spill from April Destino’s lips ever again.

The fluorescent light refused to whisper. The stitched silence was as impenetrable as a locked room.

8:28 A.M.

In the dream Shutterbug is standing before the big drive-in screen during the world premiere of his first movie. Rows of cars stretch into the darkness, each car wedged in tight like a bullet in a full clip, each windshield dappled with a summer’s worth of dead bugs that won’t wash away until fall brings the first heavy rain. And all those eyes behind all those windshields watch Shutterbug. All those eyes see his face through mosaics of dead bugs.

His cricket eyes are as black and round as camera lenses. His yellow-jacket grin is lined with teeth like razors. Cracked antennae warp his perceptions, but that is a natural state of affairs. He is a Shutterbug and he is smiling, and all eyes are trained on him.

It’s wonderful, all that attention.

Until Shutterbug realizes that he is naked.

He’s embarrassed, of course, but not too embarrassed because he can see that the people in the can are naked, too. And April Destino is naked, lying on a pool table parked between a Nova and a Barracuda. She’s naked, smiling a lazy spiked-punch smile and her teeth are little white squares that couldn’t hurt anyone, and Bat and Todd and Derwin and Griz are standing there, dirty jeans swimming around their ankles, and they are smiling but their smiles aren’t at all lazy, and Shutterbug hears April’s tinny moans spilling from the corroded speaker that hangs from one of the corner pockets.

And Shutterbug knows what’s happening up on the screen because he can hear what’s spilling from the speaker. But now it seems that everyone is watching him instead of the movie, staring at his cricket eyes and yellow-jacket teeth and cracked Shutterbug antennae.

Let them watch, he thinks. They’re only ghosts. Their bodies are skinned with shadow, each one as light as the breeze that rides the night air. Shutterbug doesn’t fear them. He sees gravel through the waxed bodies of muscle cars, hot oil settling in black engines. He sees vodka bottles and six-packs of beer hidden in locked trunks, along with guys who snuck in for nothing and who won’t get out for any price.

If he really looks hard, he can see through that Chevy van in the first row. He sees two teenagers locked in a passionate embrace, sees through their skin, their jaws. If he really looks hard, he can see their tongues dancing behind the dead butterfly on the windshield.

They are only ghosts. Shadows. They can’t do anything to him.

And then the first one laughs.

It’s April, sitting up on the pool table, pointing at him, awful laughter rippling over her little white teeth, over lips stained with spiked cherry punch, the sound amplified through two hundred iron speakers.

And then it’s more horrible than Shutterbug imagined because he was so sure that the things in the cars couldn’t harm him. But each chuckle is like a little knife. He can’t stand up to it and neither can his film.

The film breaks, and Shutterbug is bathed in white light. Car horns bleat. Rows of headlights switch on as one, and Shutterbug has to close his eyes and he can see red veins and his eyelids are nothing but dark filters throbbing with blood because the light is so bright.

Just for an instant he can see himself through their eyes. He’s so very black against the very white screen, and his face isn’t insectile at all. It is a face just like Derwin MacAskill’s.

Everyone can see it.

His father yells, “Marvis! Cover yourself!”

But he can’t do that. The light is too bright, so bright that he begins to see through his eyelids. Everything is red and spider-webbed with tiny veins. He sees round bugging eyes in caverns of bone. Ghosts wearing transparent grins, the rows of teeth behind each set of lips sharp and twisted and wolfish.

And April Destino wears the worst grin of all, though her teeth are little and white and square, and Shutterbug recognizes in an instant that she has been hungry for a very long time. April points at him, and he sees the blood racing through her veins, he sees her heart pounding and knows it is a muscle and it is very, very strong stronger than he ever imagined.

April says. You missed the best shot, Shutterbug. But that’s okay. I’m still waiting for you, and this time…I’m ready!

***

Bright light burned a flat line across Shutterbug’s face. The sound of his own gasp filled the room, and, hiding behind it, he imagined that he heard the dull echo of April’s damning words.

He opened his eyes, squinting at the shaft of morning sunlight that knifed through a crack between the bedroom drapes. His head ached intensely. It didn’t seem possible that sharp rocks had been shoved into his skull in place of his eyes, but that was the way he felt.

He made the mistake of rubbing his eyelids and the pain intensified.

Amazing. An amazing colossal hangover. This was all he needed on top of last night. His feet hit the floor-a dull, rubbery sound-and he realized for the first time that he had slept in his shoes and clothes. He had dreamt that he stood naked before his high school class while he’d really been sleeping fully dressed. There was a healthy measure of irony in there somewhere, but Shutterbug wasn’t quite up to finding it.

He made it to the window and fiddled with the drapes, eliminating the nasty slice of light that had tormented him. The last threads of the dream unraveled, and he began to forget about it. He let himself do that; he didn’t want to spend another second in the company of the laughing ghosts.

It wasn’t a dream, anyway. It was a goddamn nightmare.

Every bit the equal of last night. Man, oh man. Last night had been the mother of all nightmares. First those idiots invading his house. And as if that hadn’t been bad enough, he had actually buddied up with them. Now if that wasn’t the ultimate in bad judgment, what was?

What had been wrong with him back in high school, anyway? He had actually wanted to hang out with guys like Bat Bautista and Derwin MacAskill. He’d thought that they were cool. They certainly weren’t cool now. It was a dead solid given that last night was just a glimpse of the crazy things they liked to do. For Shutterbug, that little glimpse was as damning and ugly as the blinding sliver of light that had spilled through his window and given him a nightmare.

Well, he had learned his lesson, and not a moment too soon. He yawned and licked at the rusty tang that had set up housekeeping in his mouth while he slept. He still couldn’t quite believe what Bat and company had done. His memory wasn’t completely clear, but it was clear enough. Going to a busted-down drive-in and projecting your old home movies. Weird enough. Even weirder when your old home movies featured rape and torture.

Just your usual high school hi-jinks.

Amazing.

It had gone that far-and that was too far for Shutterbug-and then it had gone some more. He couldn’t remember what had happened after the visit to the drive-in, and for that he was thankful. The beer had been bad news, and the cocaine had been worse. He had lost all sense of moderation with the stuff, and now he was suffering the consequences. Everything was off just a click; even the smallest movement had an edgy, mechanical feel. He didn’t much like it-puzzling over how to get moving, and what he was going to think of next, and why he was trying to move at all.

Like the ad said: this is your brain on drugs.

Well, a hair of the dog was in order. Shutterbug opened the closet and took a shoebox from the middle shelf.

Opened it.

The wrong box. His money stash box.

He returned the money box to the proper place and found the box that housed his cocaine.

There was nothing in it but a little gold coke spoon.

Where was the coke? He checked his pockets.

Found the Ziploc-its contents considerably reduced in the shadow of the previous evening’s escapades.

Carefully, Shutterbug dipped the spoon into the bag. He didn’t like doing coke in lines. Macho bullshit, that. He thought a coke spoon was much more gentlemanly. It spoke of moderation, of hungers controlled.

One little spoonful for each nostril. He blinked, hardrock eyes smoothing into cool river pebbles. His mind fired.

Let’s get moving, boy.

***

In the kitchen Shutterbug ground some coffee beans, and that wasn’t a very pleasant task. Even under the best circumstances the whirring Melitta grinder made a sound not unlike a screeching mouse scrabbling against the glass walls of an electric blender. But he managed the task, poured the grounds into a filter, got the pot filled and running without incident. And when the aroma of brewing coffee filled the room, he was convinced that it was indeed the finest smell in the world.

He opened the refrigerator and was glad to see that the A-Squad hadn’t left any beer behind. The Diet Coke he took from the bottom shelf was pleasantly frigid. He halved a lemon and squirted juice into a thick glass. Then he added ice and Coke. A few deep swallows and the rusty tang was evicted from his mouth.

Nothing better for a hangover than a lemon Coke.

Shutterbug felt that he was slowly reclaiming his humanity. Routine of the morning rolling right along. Coffee brewing, a croissant with some butter in a few minutes, maybe an orange if he felt that his stomach could stand more acid on top of the lemon and coffee.

Morning routine, part B: while the coffee brewed, check the video decks in the basement.

Eight VCRs-lights glowing, digital clocks flashing-greeted Shutterbug as he descended the stairs. Each unit was manufactured by RCA. Just like his father, Shutterbug believed in buying American.

He hit the rewind button on a remote. The machines went to work. A few moments later he ejected the tapes and set them on a bench. He would label them later. He had hoped to turn out some serious product last night, but that hadn’t happened. Tonight he’d have to get busy. His distributor in San Francisco was breathing down his neck.

Maybe he would stop off at Blockbuster and rent a couple machines-he enjoyed doing that because Blockbuster refused to rent X-rated movies, and it was a kick to turn out his product on their equipment. But Shutterbug decided against it. Not because he didn’t want to spend the money, but because the quality of his tapes would suffer-Blockbuster’s machines didn’t hold a candle to his own.

Shutterbug believed in quality control. It was the single principle that set him apart from his competitors. Most of the other guys who operated on the fringes of the erotica industry were just cheapjack jokers. They didn’t have the talent to do straight fuck movies, so they did the dangerous stuff because it was their only ticket to the big bucks. With Shutterbug it was different. Sure, he was in it for the money. But there was that old familiar thrill, too, the one that came from ignoring the rules.

He broke open a new brick of blank tapes, peeled the plastic wrappers, and fed the hungry duping decks. Cued up the master tape. Sent the mechanical beasts to work with the press of a single button.

Talk about your easy money. But even as he thought it, he knew it wasn’t true. This was just one end of the deal. The other end, that was the tough part. He turned from the dingy metal table and the metal shelves stacked with VCRs and photographic chemicals that never seemed to make the short trip to his shop, and he stared at the other end of the room.

The plush carpet started halfway across the cement floor. Red carpet, and a bed covered with black silk sheets, because white skin looked magnificent against black sheets. Nice rattan furniture for an exotic look. An open picture window on the false wall that stood a few feet short of the cement wall of the basement, which was covered with a mural-sized photo that pictured a beach scene on the isle of Maui.

That was Shutterbug’s set, at least the one he was using now. He had previously used an Aspen ski chalet scene and a New York penthouse scene. He had even built a prison set for some teenybopper-in-the-pen stuff early on in his career.

Now it was Maui, and it was almost real. The bed, the window, the beach. The air would be warm and the sand would be soft and the trades would be gentle.

Shutterbug grinned. He needed a vacation.

He glanced at the VCR and monitor, saw the black wires spreading out from the master machine like the tentacles of a big octopus, saw his latest teeny-bopper protege on the octopus’s black face. Shelly Desmond was wearing one of April Destino’s cheerleading sweaters and nothing else. She was playing with herself. Dressed in the sweater, wearing just a touch of makeup, she looked just right, almost as good as one of the teen queens mounted on his bedroom wall.

The cheerleader’s sweater had been a good deal. It added that little touch of authenticity that his customers appreciated. Fifty bucks in April Destino’s hand, and the sweater was his. He was only sorry that with April dead he wouldn’t have a chance to add some of her other cheerleading outfits to Shelly’s wardrobe.

Damn. Shutterbug stared at the teendream, at the VCRs, and he thought about the money stowed in the upstairs closet. He had almost told those four idiots about his operation; he’d almost started bragging. Christ, that would have been a mistake. Tell some mouths like that, and before he knew it the FBI would be pounding on his door.

Four idiot jocks. Shutterbug was glad that he had outgrown such morons.

He had come a long, long way.

From doing what others wanted to doing things his own way.

From Todd Gould’s basement to his own.

From 16mm to the age of video.

With the last thought, Shutterbug’s grin faded and was replaced by a thin frown. He hurried upstairs. Frantically, he searched the house. He opened the front door and checked the porch, the driveway, even the bushes.

Where was the 16mm projector?

And, more importantly, where was the little loop of film?

***

Shutterbug tapped his shirt pocket. Jesus. There it was. Right there. Laughing, he fished the plastic reel from his pocket, and a shard of film whipped against his wrist.

The laughter died in his throat. He shouldn’t be looking at the film itself. He should be looking at the white leader. Hurriedly, he unspooled a coil of 16mm and held it up to the light.

He saw Griz Cody leaning over April. But that wasn’t the beginning of the film. He pinched the first frame of film and let the reel drop. It slipped free of the film and rolled across the floor. The film unspooled in a straight line, a line that was less than five feet long.

Shutterbug swore. He’d made the mistake of an amateur. All that damn beer and cocaine had muddled his thoughts. They hadn’t watched the whole movie. The film had broken when Griz Cody tossed the projector. Not realizing that the film was split into two parts on two reels, Shutterbug had grabbed only one. He had less than five feet of a fifty foot film. The rest was on the collection reel.

Shutterbug paced. In the living room, he stepped over the turntable that Griz Cody had destroyed. He stepped on the white scratch left on the pine floor by the stereo needle and reversed direction. The heavy aroma of fresh-brewed coffee in the kitchen did not cheer him, and the buttery smell of warmed croissant wafting from the oven did not stir his hunger.

He remembered the drive-in. Standing there in front of all those people. Seeing through his eyelids. Seeing through their flesh.

No. That was the nightmare. Get it straight.

Okay. They watched the movie. Griz tossed the projector. And he picked up one of two reels. He didn’t pick up the broken projector itself, but maybe someone else did. And then after that…after that-

• they visited the cemetery. Right. That wasn’t part of the dream. They visited the cemetery- • and found a hole in the goddamn ground! An empty grave! It was April’s grave, and someone had stolen her body. Shutterbug wanted to hide from that, but the memory came flooding back, bringing with it a horror which frightened him in a way that no mere nightmare ever could.

He had stared into an empty grave. April’s corpse was gone. But someone had grabbed him, a man…a man who was-

– dead?

No. Not dead. This wasn’t a dream.

Bleeding, then. A man who was injured, perhaps on the brink of death…

Jesus. It really had happened. It hadn’t been part of his crazy nightmare.

But the projector, and the reel that held the rest of the movie.

Maybe they were in Griz Cody’s truck.

And maybe they weren’t. Maybe they were still at the drive-in, lying there on a gravel mound like so much junk.

Or maybe they were at the cemetery. Lying next to an open grave.

Lying next to the body of a dead man.

***

Shutterbug sat in his Jaguar, staring at the fuchsia-colored police tape twisting and flexing in the warm morning breeze. The projector wasn’t here. There was nothing here but a hole in the ground and a sea of tombstones. He could see that, even from the car. But even if the film had been here, it certainly wouldn’t still be here in the wake of a police search.

So, the projector wasn’t at the cemetery, and Griz Cody wasn’t answering his telephone. Maybe… hopefully…Griz had the film. But if Griz didn’t have the film, and the police didn’t have it, it was most likely at the drive-in, which was conveniently located just across the road.

Shutterbug keyed the old Jaguar’s engine. He could have driven a brand-new Testarossa, but he didn’t. He could have lived in a big city, but he didn’t. He could have lived an entirely different life, but that too was something he hadn’t done.

He had no time to spare for regrets. He pulled from the well-maintained cemetery drive onto the pitted road that separated Skyview Memorial Lawn from the old drive-in. He made the sharp turn onto the gravel road that Griz Cody had followed the night before. Ahead, the chain-link gate stood open, the top section of the right gate hanging unhinged and ready to collapse.

Cody’s truck had done a thorough job.

Shutterbug drove into shadow. Tall pines overhung the road, their branches scraping the car doors. Shutterbug glanced at the rearview to make sure that no one had followed him.

No one behind him.

Branches whispered against Jaguar fenders. He saw himself in the mirror for the first time since getting out of bed, saw the red scratches scoring his butterscotch skin. The window of the car was rolled down just an inch, and the sour, licorice smell of skunk cabbage and the dry scent of dead pine filled his nostrils. He suddenly remembered the ghost that had sent him screaming into a tangle of dead pines.

April Destino’s ghost.

No. The ghost…the trees had been in his dream.

But there were scratches on his face.

It was just another part of the dream. That was all. Nothing more.

Forget it, he told himself. Just get through this, and worry about the rest of it later.

Gravel spit from under the Jaguar’s wheels. Shutterbug advanced through the gate and made a quick left. The Jaguar climbed the first gravel hump and passed the first line of leaning, speakerless poles.

A gold-and-white police car was parked beneath the huge screen. The contrast made the car look small, but not at all insignificant.

Shutterbug’s foot mashed the brake pedal. The policeman stood near the trunk of his cruiser. Dark blue clothes and mirrored sunglasses.

And there, at the cop’s feet, lay the projector.

The cop was staring at it.

Shutterbug slammed the gearshift into reverse. He backed up, stirring a hail of gravel and a thin cloud of dust. The cop looked his way. Couldn’t possibly see him, but had to see the car, the license plate…

No, the cop couldn’t have seen that. Not from such a distance. Not with the morning sunlight filtering through the dead trees behind the Jaguar. Not with the dust rising.

A heavier cloud mushroomed behind the Jaguar as Shutterbug shifted into second and passed through the drive-in gates.

Pine boughs whipped the Jaguar.

9:45 A.M.

The dust cloud hung in the wake of the Jaguar, a severed shadow drifting slowly toward the dead pines.

Steve watched it go. He hadn’t meant to come to the old drive-in. Leaving the cemetery, he had only wanted to find a quiet place where he could think things through. He had seen the pines from the other side of the road. They had reminded him of the trees in his dream, of the meadow where Homer Price romped with the girl who had once painted his portrait.

Those memories drew him to this lonely place. He drove up the gravel road and found the gates to the abandoned drive-in standing open. After checking the bashed gates and the broken chain that had secured them-stray paint chips on the gates and a sprinkling of broken glass on the ground told him that the gates had been damaged by a blue vehicle which lost a headlight in the process-he investigated the drive-in grounds.

Near the playground, he found several crushed beer cans. Most of the cans contained a final swallow of Bud Dry. Someone had visited the drive-in as recently as last night. In addition to the beer cans, Steve found a broken 16mm projector and a spool of film. He raised the film to the light, and he didn’t need to see more than a few frames to know that he was looking at April Destino’s nightmare.

Right there. In his hands. On film.

April’s nightmare.

Steve shivered, recalling his initial shock, the reel still gripped in his hand. The film ensnared his fingers, a series of coils that were as dark and slick the scales of a Black Mamba. But he didn’t concentrate on that image. Instead, he watched the morning breeze worry the dust cloud that looked so much like a Jaguar’s severed shadow, forcing it against the dead pines. The cloud was speared by a thousand rust needles, and then it was gone.

The needles remained, blanketing the trees, thrusting at the blue sky above. Whispering coos spilled from the shadows, and Steve recognized the music of doves.

He looped the film onto the reel. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Doves were nesting in the tree just as they nested in his dream. Across the road Homer Price ran wild in a dark Hansel and Gretel forest. He wasn’t supposed to be here, standing alone with a nightmare in his hands.

He was supposed to be with April, with the doves, and Homer Price, in dreams.

***

The last time they talked, Steve didn’t even realize that April was saying goodbye.

“We should have been the all-American couple,” she said, “but other people got in our way.”

He tried to apologize for the hundredth time. “I might have changed that. I never believed the things they said about you, but I couldn’t bring myself do anything about it. I was afraid that I might make things worse, but I was just plain afraid, too. Bat and Derwin and Griz, even Todd, they were king shit back then. I was scared to go up against them alone. But we could have stood up to them together. When you quit school, I should have gone after you. I should have done something to let you know how I felt. But I didn’t. I guess, deep down, I was more afraid of you than I was of them.”

“Maybe it would have worked,” she said. “But maybe it would have made things worse. Facing them… I just don’t know. I couldn’t give them another shot at me. The knives were out. I was terrified. It was my word against theirs. They were good boys from good families.” She smiled. “Except for Derwin, that is, but everyone thought he was some Horatio Alger character, the way those sportswriters wrote about him in the newspaper. I was the poor girl who’d gotten a little too big-headed for my own good, the girl following in the footsteps of a divorced mother, if you believed the stories. A little too ambitious and a little too certain about my future. Everyone wanted to believe that I was really what those guys tried to make me. Just because I got wasted at that party. Just because I did that, they were willing to buy the rest of it. I wasn’t a good girl anymore.” She ruffled the stack of tabloids lying on the table, smiling wryly. “It’s all very American-we love to build people up, and we love to tear them down. There were lots of people in that school who enjoyed tearing me down.”

Tears welled in April’s eyes, like rain on a slate sky. “That was the worst thing. It was bad enough, the things people said, the way they spread the lies once word got out. Bad enough that I was too scared to talk to anyone.” She wiped her tears. “But I couldn’t get away from that night. I was stuck in that nightmare. Every night I’d wake up in a cold sweat, sure that I was sleeping on a pool table instead of in my own bed. Every night I’d see the faces of those assholes. And some nights, when it was really bad, I’d wake up and find welts on my body. It was so bad…you understand, my nightmare was so bad and so real that I was pinching myself, doing that asshole’s dirty work for him.

“And I couldn’t escape it. I’d set my alarm clock, wake up every hour and set it again so I wouldn’t sink into a deep sleep. But it didn’t work. Sooner or later I always slept. And sooner or later I always found my way into the nightmare. I didn’t know anyone who could help me find my way out. After a while, I figured out why-it was because everyone thought I belonged there. Even my own mother…the way she looked at me…I knew she believed it, too.” She shook her head, refusing to cry anymore. “Like I’d ever done anything to any of them. Some of those people will have to settle up.”

“Who? What are you going to do, April?”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll handle it.” The iron caste melted from her eyes as she turned to the soft light that spilled through the trailer window. “Things haven’t worked out for us. We’ve learned some things. With the Halcion, you’ve learned how to find your dream, and I’ve learned how to hide from my nightmare. But there are things we haven’t learned. I haven’t learned how to enter your dream and find that girl I used to be, and you haven’t learned how to enter my nightmare and put an end to it. Maybe we can’t learn those things. Maybe it’s impossible.”

Steve reached across the bed and took April’s hand. His heart was literally heavy; it pumped guilt instead of blood. April believed in psychic phenomenon. She had read somewhere about people sharing dreams. Something about people who were tuned in to the same psychic frequency gaining the ability to enter each other’s dreams. She was convinced that she shared such a bond with him. He wanted to believe in it more than anything else. He wanted to enter her nightmare and save her from her demons, but he’d never found a way.

And he knew, deep down, that his damned mechanical brain was to blame for his failure. It was missing a little something. A component called faith.

If only he could find some faith. He rubbed her hands- cold hands, warm heart – and he looked into her eyes and saw the dream April hiding there.

“We’ll find a way,” he said.

But she didn’t smile. “And if we do, what will happen then? You’ll have her. That seventeen-year-old who shares your dreams. You won’t want me anymore. I might not even exist. That scares me more than anything else.”

“But you’ll have your Six Million Dollar Man,” Steve said. “Your knight in shining armor. What will you need with a guy like me?”

That made April laugh. “It’s never as easy as it should be, is it?”

They made love. Steve closed his eyes and tried to imagine his dream, but he couldn’t quite get there. He felt guilty, even looking for it.

April gasped and dug her nails into his back, but he didn’t feel it the way another man would. He pictured her at seventeen, and the image brought him to climax and made him feel miserable.

He left without a word.

He returned late that night, because he needed her.

But April was gone. She lay on the bed with the dead springs, cold and dead, her eyes open but colorless, pill bottles scattered on the floor. A note scrawled on pink paper lay on his pillow:

I’ll see you in your dreams.

“Don’t go.” Steve said it over and over, standing all alone in April’s bedroom, but he knew that it too late. Pleading, begging-none of it would make a difference. April was gone, and he had been left behind. This moment together was going to end. Maybe they would never share another. Not in dreams, not in nightmares.

He hoped that he was wrong. He just didn’t know. April wasn’t there to tell him.

There was only one way to find an answer. In the living room, he sorted through April’s books and tossed several into a paper bag. All he needed was enough time to think things through. That was all. The books would tell him what he needed to know.

In the bedroom, he set the alarm on April’s clock radio. He opened the bedroom window and dangled the Sony outside by its cord, which easily bore the radio’s weight without coming unplugged. He eased the window closed and left as he always did-quickly, quietly, without drawing attention to himself. Just another John leaving a whore’s trailer.

The radio blared alive at six-thirty the following morning, tuned to a station specializing in soft sounds from the seventies. Elton John sang “The Crocodile Rock.”

At six-fifty, one of April’s neighbors turned on his hearing aid, heard some woman singing about muskrat love, and immediately called the lot manager, who contacted the authorities a few minutes later.

Fortunately, the call was well beyond Steve’s beat, well beyond the city limits. The county sheriff’s department responded quickly, performing their duties with businesslike efficiency. No fuss, no bother. The entire procedure was as simple as shoveling a dead dog off the highway.

To them, April Louise Destino was nothing more than a dead whore.

***

But April wasn’t dead. Not really. Steve knew that now. She was locked in his basement.

He clutched the reel of 16mm film. He kicked the mashed beer cans into a stand of skunk cabbage. And then he picked up the projector with the broken lens and heaved the big hunk of metal as far as he could.

It crashed, kicked up gravel, and tumbled against a twisted speaker-pole. Something was happening. It had started here last night. Steve could feel it. And it was something that he hadn’t caused, something that April hadn’t caused.

He didn’t know the cause, but he recognized the effect. Even his imagination-impoverished brain could process the clues he’d been given. His dream was becoming real. Doves nested in the dead pines that surrounded the drive-in. April’s dog, Homer Price, had been hiding in a eucalyptus grove near the cemetery, a cartoon eye trained on his mistress’s grave. And April Destino had stepped alive and whole from Steve’s dream into his fortress of solitude.

A sliver of film hung from the plastic reel, fluttering in the warm breeze. Some people said that movies were like dreams. Steve had never quite seen the analogy. Dreams, to him, were a rare commodity. Movies were a dime a dozen. But the 16mm loop was something different. It was the nightmare that April had suffered night after night in the dungeon of sleep.

Steve coiled the film and slipped the reel into his pocket. He tapped it; he felt the slight weight suspended in his pocket; it was very real.

And suddenly everything was very clear, and he realized how wrong he had been. Oh, he was in a dream all right. Slipping into a dream, one image at a time. His mechanical brain was correct in making that assumption.

But where was April?

April had stepped into Steve’s basement.

Doug Douglas had followed her.

But Doug wasn’t part of Steve’s dream.

Doug was part of April’s nightmare.

When April saw Doug, she started screaming.

Even a mechanical brain could sort it out.

April hadn’t stepped into Steve’s dream…

She had stumbled into her own nightmare.

10:57 A.M.

The quiet order of the camera shop calmed Shutterbug. Familiar tasks distanced him from the events of the last ten hours. Totaling the receipts from the previous day, getting the money ready for the register, alphabetizing the prints that had arrived from the developer-these small tasks convinced him that he was nothing more than the owner of a successful retail business, shadowed by no other concerns than those shared by a dozen other businessmen whose stores were located in the same thriving mini-mall.

Then the phone rang. Not the number that was listed in the phone book-that line was connected to an answering machine which informed customers that the store would open promptly at eleven. The private line was ringing. Shutterbug lifted the handset. “Yes?”

“Hanks? That you?”

Shutterbug sidestepped the question. “Who’s calling, please?”

“One of your buddies from San Francisco. I’m in the photography business, too. We’ve worked together, but it’s been a while.”

Okay, this was strictly business. Shutterbug breathed a sigh of relief. “Don’t worry. This line is clean. You don’t need to-”

“Don’t be so sure, Hanks.”

“What do you mean?”

“You ask a lot of questions, Hanks. Just shut up for a minute. People are asking questions about you. People are going to be asking you questions.”

“What? Who are you talking about?”

“Two words for you. Hanks: shut up. Whatever they hit you with, don’t say a word. That’s what we’re doing, that’s what you should do.”

The line went dead.

A gentle rapping sounded on the glass door.

Shutterbug whirled, nearly dropping the phone. The man stood on the wide sidewalk, peering into the store from the other side of the smoked glass wall that protected Shutterbug’s wares from the harsh afternoon sunlight. But it wasn’t afternoon-it was morning, and the large panes seemed darker than they should have, and the man on the other side of the glass wall was only a silhouette.

Again, the man’s knuckles struck the glass, ever so gently. Shutterbug’s mouth opened but no words came out. The man pointed at his wrist and tapped again, but he was only pretending to tap now, and instead of the tapping sound Shutterbug heard the little clock ticking steadily on the wall above the cash register.

An electronic chime sounded the hour.

Eleven o’clock. Opening time.

Shutterbug unlocked the smoked glass door. The silhouette didn’t move, didn’t step forward, even when the door was opened.

The policeman grinned, his eyes lost behind mirrored sunglasses.

***

The sunglasses came off. Steve Austin stood rooted to the sidewalk by a pair of heavy black boots. His uniform was a study in dark creases and his eyes were narrow slits.

“Steve!” Shutterbug said, as if pleasantly surprised. “I haven’t seen you in…well, since forever.”

Steve said nothing.

Shutterbug recognized what might have been a cop’s trick-don’t commit to anything, get the nervous suspect to talk his way into trouble. He wasn’t going to fall for it, even if his hesitation spoke of paranoia.

Paranoia, hell. Shutterbug hadn’t recognized the cop at the drive-in. That cop might have been Steve Austin. And there was the phone call, too. The warning. If this had something to do with Shutterbug’s real business…that would be different.

But the call had come from San Francisco, more than thirty miles away. The two incidents couldn’t be connected. It was impossible.

Austin’s grin was patient, implacable.

“Well, don’t just stand there,” Shutterbug said. “C’mon in. What can I do for you?” He stepped behind the counter, separating himself from the big policeman. A little distance made him feel safer. “When was the last time we had a chance to talk? A couple years back? Fifteenth reunion?”

Austin’s grin was welded in place. “I never go to reunions.”

The cop was as forthcoming as a brick wall. Shutterbug prattled on with a fresh line of questions that were answered with a series of nods and shrugs. The cop’s silence didn’t matter, because the voice from the phone was still fresh in Shutterbug’s memory. “You ask a lot of questions. Hanks. Just shut up for a minute. People are asking questions about you. People at going to be asking you questions.”

“Y’know,” Steve said finally, “your dad was my training officer. I don’t like too many people, but I liked your dad. We got along. I always felt like I owed him something, and I never got a chance to square things up with him before that junkie knifed him.”

Marvis wondered if Austin had a point. He certainly couldn’t believe that the cop had come here to reminisce.

“Before today, I never really thought about how awful it must have been to lose your dad like that.” Austin pursed his lips as if he had made a stunning revelation which moved him deeply. “So I feel like I missed my opportunity with your old man. But maybe I can square things up with you, Marvis. If you’ll let me.”

“Sure.” Marvis nodded and found that in his eagerness he couldn’t stop nodding. “Sure.” His head bobbed some more. “And call me Shutterbug. Everyone does…still.” He laughed. “Do they still call you Ozzy? I remember that’s what everyone called you in grammar school. Then in high school they started calling you The Six Million Dollar-”

“You just stick to Steve. I’ll stick to Marvis. I think I’ll like it a little better that way. We’ll know just who we are.”

Austin reached into the left-hand pocket of his uniform shirt, produced a reel of 16mm film, and placed it on the counter. “I would have brought the projector, too, but it was all busted up. Good thing you had your name stenciled on it, though. I guess that was your daddy’s training. Lord how that man hated handling B amp;E’s. Hated fences, too. Anyway, the stenciling made my job real easy. God knows I’ve never made detective, and I’ve been working this job for quite a while.”

Jesus. Austin was playing with him. An uneasy grin tugged at the corners of Shutterbug’s lips. He wanted to grab the reel of film, burn it in the metal garbage can under the counter. But he didn’t. He couldn’t. His legs were fence posts, because Steve Austin was standing there with a smile on his face and his thick fingers were tapping, rapping on a cool leather holster that contained a. 38 police special.

Shutterbug recognized the weapon. It was the same model his father had carried, the same model that rested on the shelf under the cash register, just inches away.

No. Reaching for the gun would be a big mistake.

“I never knew there was film of this.” Austin’s grin evaporated as he spoke the words. “April never told me. I guess what happened to her was bad enough. Anyway, it doesn’t matter now. I realize that…but this film might have made a big difference, a long time ago.”

“It was crazy.” The words tumbled from Shutterbug’s mouth. “They made me do it. The A-Squad. They beat me up. And then, last night, they came to my house. The only reason they left me alone all these years was because I kept the film as security. I’m sure of that. They would have killed me if I’d given it up, because I was the only one who really knew what happened. But then April died, and they got drunk, and they came to my house last night-”

“And you gave it to them.”

“It wasn’t like that. They came to the house and they made me go with them to the drive-in-”

Steve Austin’s hand came up fast, waving off Shutterbug’s words. “Calm down. You’re getting too excited. I told you that I owed your dad, and I meant it. Nothing bad is going to happen here.”

Shutterbug reached for the film, but Austin’s hand slammed over it.

Shutterbug recoiled as if his fingers had been burnt. He smelled his own sweat. Humiliation punched a hole in his heart. He wasn’t handling things the way a man should. First the A-Squad and their crazy hi-jinks, then the phone call, now this. Everything was caving in. There was too much trouble to shore up.

“Look, Steve…this whole thing was a mistake.” Shutterbug sounded truly remorseful now, because cops were big on remorse. “I should have stood up years ago. I wish I could now. Believe me, I would if I thought it would do April any good.”

The cop’s eyes flared at the mention of April, “Leave her out of this.”

“Okay…okay.” Looking for another opening. “Look, I appreciate you bringing this to me. I hope you won’t be upset if I say I want to make it worth your while. I’m sure my dad would have wanted me to show my appreciation.”

The cop sighed. “You just don’t get it. Nothing bad is going to happen to you. I’m not a shakedown kind of cop.”

“Okay…but- “

“No. Not okay. No buts. You’re in the clear, as long as you keep quiet.”

The words on the phone were ice in Shutterbug’s memory: Two words for you, Hanks: shut up. Whatever they hit you with, don’t say a word. That’s what we’re doing, that’s what you should do. 9

Shutterbug stepped back, bumping the camera that stood behind him. He didn’t say a word because the. 38 was in Steve Austin’s hand, and the barrel was aimed at his skull.

“Understand this,” Austin said. “I’m not going to kill you. You can thank your father for that. But you have to promise me one thing if you want to keep living.”

“What’s that?”

“You have to leave April alone. You have to promise me that.”

Shutterbug didn’t know what to say. He nodded furiously.

“No. I want to hear you say it.”

“Look…whatever happened at the cemetery, it wasn’t us. The grave was open when we got there. I was pretty wasted-so were the others. But you have my word that we didn’t touch that grave.”

Austin’s eyes showed nothing. “So,” he said, “you’re going to leave her alone. I still need to hear you say it.”

“Yes…of course. I’ll leave April alone. Whatever you say.”

“As long as we have that straight, I’ll keep you out of this. But go back on your word and you’ll find that all bets are off. I’m not used to people disappointing me, and I don’t know how I’ll handle that. Don’t make me find out.” And then it was as if something uncontrollable rose in Austin and he had to look away to smash it into submission. “I don’t want you to think about her.”

The gun slipped back into the holster. Austin returned the film to his pocket.

Shutterbug couldn’t help himself. “Look, why don’t we get rid of that film once and for all? Why don’t we burn it?”

Steve shook his head. “You used it for a long time. Now I’m going to use it. It’s the only thing I’ve got that can protect April from the guys who did this to her.” He tapped his pocket. “The guys in her nightmare.”

Nightmare. There was the word. Images from the previous night filled Shutterbug’s head. Bat and Todd and Derwin and Griz busting up his house. “You won’t tell them, will you?” Shutterbug’s humiliation was now a hot flame, but the words kept coming. “I mean, you won’t say anything to Bat or the others about our talk?”

Steve reached across the counter and patted Shutterbug’s shoulder. “C’mon. Stop worrying. Like I told you: you’re in the clear as long as you keep your word. As long as you don’t disappoint me.”

“Don’t worry about that.”

“Good. I’m glad this worked out.”

The big cop turned and was through the door in an instant. Shutterbug swallowed hard. His clerk would be here any minute now. He would feign sickness, go home-

A harsh tapping rattled over the glass door.

Shutterbug saw the cop’s tonfa drumming the smoked glass, saw Austin’s silhouette behind it.

Austin’s silhouette.

The yearbook photograph of April and the cheerleading squad froze in Shutterbug’s memory. The picture he was forced to mangle. The silhouetted figure standing in the biology lab, watching April through a wall of glass.

Steve Austin.

The black shadow didn’t move. Words penetrated heavy glass. “If you know what’s good for you, steer clear of the nightmare.”

And then the man, and the shadow, were gone.

11:15 A.M.-6:05 P.M.

First, Shutterbug ripped toilet-paper streamers from the trees in front of his house, cursing the A-Squad as he worked. Then he went inside and unplugged the telephones. One in the kitchen. One in his bedroom. One in the basement. Then he sat down and thought things over. He thought about what Ozzy-what Steve Austin – had said to him. Austin, still stuck on April Destino after all these years. The quiet bastard had always been a loner in high school, and now Shutterbug knew why. The guy was a nut, worshipping the memory of a dead whore like that.

Obviously, Austin hadn’t known the real April, the pitiful woman with lines on her face and a body that was going to seed after years of dope and booze and various less pleasant forms of abuse. That particular piece of meat wasn’t exactly a candidate for pedestal treatment.

She lived in a trailer park, for christsakes. Shutterbug wasn’t the only one who knew that April. She got around. A couple of his business associates over in the City had their own April Destino stories. She had done her share of hardcore before her body started to go. Shutterbug had actually seen the stuff without putting two and two together-

April wore wigs in the movies, and he hadn’t recognized her until they got reacquainted.

The big reunion occurred at a wild wrap party over in Marin. A Friday the 13th rip-off with a guy in a hockey mask who wielded a hard twelve-incher instead of a machete. Big house and bigger egos. Too much coke and too many bores, and he had stepped onto the deck for some air, big redwood deck with plenty of ferns and Tarzan shrubbery.

And there was April Destino. Red leather pants. Sequined halter top barely containing breasts that were fuller, heavier than when she was a teenager. Bare feet and painted toenails, a gold ring on one little toe.

Running into April scared him, sure, but things turned out okay. She made a joke of it-laughed and thanked him for giving her a start in the business. And then it was his turn to laugh and thank her for the very same thing. They did some coke together. They left the party together. He almost proposed that they go looking for a pool table, that’s how raunched-out he was that night.

Restraint won out and they ended up at her trailer. It was mounted on a cement foundation and sported aluminum siding and all, but it was still a trailer. April gave him a naughty smile and whispered that he was going to pay. And he laughed and said that if he was going to pay, they were going to get it on film and it was going to be good. She assented to that particular proposal. All very mysterious about it, grabbing her coat and a few things from her bedroom, stuffing everything into a small backpack.

And then they were at his place. That was when he still had the prison set in the basement. Many moons ago. She got off on it-or pretended to-stripped off her leather pants, white snake legs shedding blood-red skin, white ass pumping. She laughed and said that the fumes from the photo chemicals he stored in the basement were giving her high a nice edge.

With April it was all business, and it was just his luck that her business was pleasure. She gave him a good look and let him get the focus right. She hadn’t shaved her legs in maybe four days, but he still got hot peeping at those crisp blond hairs. Then she took off the sequined halter-there wasn’t much of it-and slipped into the old blue-and-white cheerleading sweater that she’d brought in her backpack.

She stepped out of the jail and strode across the basement floor, the little gold ring on her toe clicking with every other step. Her fingers snapped for cash. He didn’t have any, so he wrote her a check on the camera shop account and marked it “refund.” April thought that was really funny. She laughed and laughed, her naked shoulders shaking so violently that he imagined he heard her bones rattling.

Then she got serious. Put on the horny jailbird act. Really went to town. So horny and stuck in a cell with no men around at all, that’s how horny she was. She was a high school princess and used to getting what she wanted, after all.

And suddenly the eight ball was in her hands, and a pair of eyes the color of prison bars locked on Shutterbug’s lens.

Yeah. That was the real April Destino, the girl a blind nutcase like Steve Austin had never seen. Shutterbug drew the living room drapes, lay down on the overstuffed couch, remembering that night with April. He connected a few dots. Coke at the party, more coke at April’s. Drinks at his place.

Sure. He had been wrecked when April visited his house. That explained her weird message in his yearbook. No wonder he hadn’t remembered it. April must have found the book and scribbled the inscription on the night they’d done April, Part II. Simple. And he had discovered it years later, believing it to be some supernatural message from a dead woman.

Mystery solved. Dead was dead.

And if dead was dead, if April was truly gone, he sure as hell hadn’t seen a ghost last night. Unless ghosts were made of too much beer and too much coke.

Too much of a good thing was indeed too much of a good thing. It was that simple. Like the spiked punch April had guzzled at Todd Gould’s party back in 1976. But now it seemed funny. Seeing things. Getting scared. Imagining nightmares under the bed, in the closet, or on a lonely road.

Shutterbug’s mind continued to drift. His memory replayed the phone call he’d taken at the shop, the car parked in Joe Hamner’s driveway. Puzzling mysteries, not as easy to explain away as a ghost story. He searched for connections, and his thoughts turned to April Destino, and to Steve Austin.

He lay there, hoping that everything would come to an end, and knowing somehow that he had plenty of time to think before that was going to happen.

***

Derwin MacAskill wanted to lie down, but he too damn busy mowing lawns.

Six lawns mowed in one hot April afternoon. Shit. Sweat on his back and itchy grass sticking to him like stink on shit. Damn. If April was this hot, there no telling what kind of misery May and June would bring. He didn’t even want to think about July, let alone motherfuckin’ August.

So he mowed lawns. Smelled gasoline. Scooped and bagged countless dog turds. Listened to James Brown get real funky on the Walkman with the duct-taped cassette door. Good old seventies Superfly kind of riff called “The Payback.”

Get down Soul Brother Number One. James was indeed one crazy mother. Did his time cool and clean after runnin’ up against the Man. A real-life wildman.

Oh, there were others out there like James. Derwin knew that, and he also knew that most wildmen weren’t even famous. He should know. He ran with three of them. Crazy rat-soup eatin’ motherfuckers, always doing weird shit. Like last night at the drive-in.

And then that other shit at the cemetery. He didn’t even want to think about that insanity. Except for the sight of old Marvis Hanks screaming like some nutty bitch when that downed caretaker grabbed his legs, that shit wasn’t funny at all.

That shit was plain weird. Someone digging up a dead body, taking it who knows where. Doing who knows what with it.

Weird.

James Brown screeched, and so did Derwin. Clapped his hands, spun, caught the lawn mower on the return.

A mystery man bustin’ up some caretaker who caught him in the act, right there in the cemetery. Bashin’ in the old honky’s head with a shovel or something, just bashin’ and bashin’…

Derwin knew that was wildman kind of shit.

Especially fine wildman kind of shit.

***

The cop who robbed graves and busted up caretakers had a slow, fairly uninteresting afternoon. Tires slashed down on Bergwall. A fist fight at a grocery store on Springs Road-shoplifter versus checkout girl, and the checkout girl was a bruiser with an undefeated record of eight and oh. And don’t forget the piece de resistance, a hit-and-run driver taking out three front yards on Rollingwood. Uprooted trees of various description and value, bashed mailboxes. Two victims-a ceramic troll and a cast-iron jockey.

Steve felt more empathy for the troll and the jockey than for the people he interviewed in conjunction with each call.

At least, that was what he told himself.

***

Griz Cody wished that the whole world were dark, because his hangover had him closed down good.

First off, he called in sick. No hassle there. But then his wife started bitching, and she was a pro. She made a special trip out to the garage just to check out his truck. She said that he better do something about it if he was going to stay home, cheesin’ off his job, because he wasn’t going to use her car. Not this time.

He didn’t mind her bitching. Not really. It meant he could spend the day in the garage. Nice and quiet out there. Cool cement and the greasy smell of tools. There was even a six-pack waiting in the old fridge.

He made the trip, had a couple brews. But he couldn’t shake his surly mood.

Damn truck. A big scratch zigzagged across the blue hood. Shutterbug’s projector did that. Busted headlight to go along with the scratch. Front left. The drive-in gate did that when he bashed through it.

But it wasn’t the truck that pissed Griz off. And it wasn’t his wife harping at him. The memory of last night ate at his guts. The damn movie ran through his brain, an ugly, unvarnished record of his impotence. A cold picture of him pinching that damn cheerleader while the other guys laughed looped through his thoughts like a snake crawling over one of those figure eight things.

A Moses strip, that’s what those things were called. And like that was part of the problem. On top of everything else, everybody thought that he was stupid. An egghead like Shutterbug probably thought that he didn’t even know what a Moses strip was.

Shit. All this stuff ruining his day. A hangover. The scratch on his truck, and the busted headlight. The guys laughing at him and his limp little dick. The Moses strip.

Him having an ugly wife-that was the Destino bitch’s fault, too. Once word got out about his limp dick and the pinching and everything, all the babes had avoided him like he was a fag or something. It was all that bitch’s fault. Him having an ugly wife and everything else. Every little bit of it.

***

Todd Gould woke up feeling just fine. He ate a big breakfast and went to work at his father’s furniture store. He thought about selling furniture.

***

For a few hours, Amy thought about doors, and how much trouble they could be. She decided that locksmithing would have made for a rewarding career path, and she wondered why her high school counselor had never suggested such an option. Add one more to the list of male-dominated professions requiring attention.

Finally, she couldn’t stand to look at the door anymore. The scored grain spoke of the wood’s age, and she began to think that she might be trapped in Steve Austin’s basement for a very long time, indeed.

So she stared at April’s corpse instead. The oddest scenario formed in her head, and she knew it was a result of reading too many Barbara Michaels novels. She imagined herself as an archaeologist trapped beneath a pyramid by a sudden cave-in, pushing forward in the face of danger, undaunted, discovering the burial vault of a forgotten Egyptian princess.

And then everything came together for her imagined alter ego in a sudden epiphany, the kind that only occurred in fiction. The beauty of the dead princess, captured for the ages on the carved wooden sarcophagus-a quiet beauty that was a twin to her own. This impression crossing with her memory of the strange, silent attentions of her Egyptian lover, his cold interest in her work, his fascination with the forgotten mysteries that only he recognized in a pair of beautiful eyes that gleamed like the Nile at sunset…

A dozen film-clips flickered in Amy’s memory Little bits of old mummy movies. Kharis the mummy-he of the gamey leg, severed tongue, and digit-less right paw-dragging his reincarnated love into a quicksand bog. And she could almost see herself, the beautiful archaeologist, lifting the sarcophagus lid that wore her own face, confronting the decayed corpse.

Knowing that in a thousand years she would be its twin.

Just as she would soon be April Destino’s twin in death.

Amy shook the image away, fighting to control her imagination. The task was impossible. She saw Steve Austin hauling April Destino out of the grave.

And she was left with one irrefutable impression-Austin, charged with the same unquenchable desire that had spanned the centuries in a dozen-plus works of fiction, was much more dangerous than a walking band-aid with a compulsive attitude.

***

Bat Bautista didn’t waste his time thinking about dead Egyptians.

He didn’t think much about April Destino, either.

He spent his day at a dusty state prison thirty miles north of town, just praying that some idiot con would give him some lip. He wanted nothing more than to bash some face while imagining that he was beating on Griz Cody, or Derwin MacAskill, or Todd Gould, or that smarmy asshole Shutterbug.

Those guys were so damn stupid. You could rattle their cages without even trying. Bat had to smile at the memory-Shutterbug screeching like goddamn Stepin Fetchit while Todd and Derwin and Griz tried to figure out who stole April Destino’s corpse.

Like you had to be a detective to figure it out.

Bat figured that he should have been a detective. He was the smartest guy he knew. If he had managed to pass the damn police tests, if he’d done better in the interviews…hell, he’d be chief of police by now if he’d only had a little luck.

Shit. The cops wouldn’t have him. Him-the guy who could solve the whole damn mystery.

Clue number one: a hole in the ground where April’s body should be. Clue number two: busted beer bottles beneath the granite cross that bore her name. There was only one guy in the world who had the hots for April Destino and played graveyard baseball. Just add clue number one to clue number two, end of story. Ozzy Austin balances the equation.

Good old Ozzy Austin. The Six Million Dollar Robot. Many moons had passed since Bat last crossed swords with that weird asshole. They had played baseball together as kids-little league. Pony, high school-but even then he had thought Austin was screwy. Norman Bates on the mound. Hecklers always got to Austin. They knew how to push his buttons. Calling him a robot was one way to do it-the guy was a robot, throwing that same damn fastball over and over. Austin was just lucky that most guys couldn’t hit it, but that didn’t change the fact that he pitched like some damn Iron Mike.

The truth fuckin’ hurt, and that was that. Hecklers never got to Bat Bautista. He just kept cool, maybe pictured himself bashing their heads with a claw hammer, and things were fine and dandy.

Bat twirled his nightstick, clattered it against the bars, imagined waving it in Austin’s face. He wondered if it was still easy to get under Ozzy Austin’s skin. He could almost see Austin squirming. He could almost smell his sweat. He whistled low and smooth as the idea took hold. He wondered how much money Ozzy Austin had, and how much peace and quiet he was going to let good old Ozzy buy with it.

Bat wondered about other stuff, too. He was one hell of a detective. He noticed things other people missed. Like last night, in the movie. He’d spotted the two shadowy figures hiding behind the old furniture in the basement, watching the A-Squad and April. He figured Shutterbug had never noticed them before because maybe the film had to be projected really big to see them. And Todd and those other morons hadn’t noticed last night because they were too busy watching themselves with April.

No one had noticed them the night the A-Squad did April, of course. But Bat had noticed last night. There they were, on Candid Camera. In 1976, Shutterbug’s primitive movie lights had cut the shadows for a second or maybe two…just long enough for Bat to spot the two of them up there on the big screen, peeking from behind that old furniture, in 1994.

Amy Peyton and Doug Douglas. Just a quick glimpse, but he’d caught it.

He wondered what he’d do about the two of them, and Shutterbug. He’d have to do something about them. He’d have to get hold of that film. For keeps. After he took care of The Six Million Dollar Robot, of course.

He wondered about the whole mess while he sipped a beer after work.

He wondered about it while he drove home.

He was still wondering when he pulled into his driveway.

And spotted Ozzy Austin standing on his front lawn.

THREE

APRIL 8, 1994

TWILIGHT

Things said or done long years ago,

Or things I did not do or say

But thought that I might say or do,

Weigh me down, and not a day

But something is recalled,

My conscience or my vanity appalled.

- William Butler Yeats, Vacillation

7:28 P.M.

The Six Million Dollar Man sat behind the wheel of the car he had owned since high school, waiting for a red light to turn green.

He had done it all for April. He had covered up at the cemetery, masking his insane mistake as best he could, knowing all the while that the tilting house of cards he had constructed to protect the two of them couldn’t survive the mildest breeze. And then he had found April’s nightmare at the old drive-in, and that was a sheer stroke of luck. He had dived into the nightmare, hoping to set things right, because it was a real nightmare and he could hold it in his hands.

Success or failure couldn’t be measured. Not yet. Steve knew that Shutterbug had gotten the message, but he didn’t think Bat Bautista had seen the light. Things might get messy with Bat, and that kind of trouble could send the house of cards into a dizzy sway. Forget a mild breeze. An attack from Bat Bautista would be launched with the fury of a full-force hurricane.

Steve had to avoid trouble. If he could. Maybe he could leave town. Pack up, take April, and go.

No. Not with her screaming. Not with her trapped in the nightmare.

The light turned green and Steve hit the gas pedal. The old Dodge roared over the crest of Georgia Street, past closed department stores, past the post office, to the empty street that paralleled the cold channel which separated the shipyard from the city.

Steve pulled to a stop in the public park behind the main library. He stepped from the car, unblinking eyes behind his silver shades staring at the channel. Choppy black waves lapped against the concrete walls of the pier. The sunset arced above the metal buildings across the water. The salt wind was as steady as time. It pushed clouds across the copper sky. Copper to pink to purple and iron while he stood there. Shipyard steel painted by advancing shadows as the sun melted into the horizon.

No. He couldn’t leave. This was his home. Always had been, always would be. His home, and April’s home, too.

Home. That was where he should be now. Not driving around, a scared kid wearing a cop’s uniform.

But Steve was afraid. He was afraid to face April. He didn’t want to find her screaming her head off in his fortress of solitude, still trapped in her nightmare. Because if she wasn’t free after everything he had done, what more could he do?

He didn’t have an answer for that. He slipped behind the wheel and decided that it was time to find one. He came to a red light at the foot of Georgia, sat there waiting with a picture of himself locked in his house, listening to April’s tortured screams for years to come.

The Six Million Dollar Man watched the light. It was as red and dangerous as the cherry on his police cruiser. A warning. The streets were empty. Downtown was deserted. He didn’t move when the light turned green. The old engine idled, missing the occasional beat. April’s nightmare was real enough to hold in his hand, real enough to hide in the pocket of his uniform. But his dream was real, too, wasn’t it?

Parts of it were. The doves nesting in the dying pines that ringed the drive-in. April’s dog, Homer Price, racing through the eucalyptus grove near the cemetery. But he hadn’t found the meadow. It wasn’t real. Not yet.

Steve had wanted April to step into his dream, alive and young, just as she had wanted him to enter her nightmare as a living, breathing avenger. They had tried to make it happen with drugs and paperback wisdom. But neither thing had happened, not really.

Something else had happened, something that they hadn’t anticipated. April’s nightmare had slipped into Steve’s dream, and now one reality was tearing at the other. But the tempest was only beginning. The winds were rising, just now, and Steve felt that in the end only one of the two realities could survive.

The dream, or the nightmare.

Seagulls drifted on dirty wings over the empty streets, rooting for fast food scraps. Steve felt the house of cards tilting. Maybe he could save it. He didn’t know if he was up to the task. The way he was feeling today…everything was out of sync.

Behind him, a car horn sounded.

Steve jerked in his seat as if he’d been stabbed in the back. His brain kicked into gear. He made a right turn and drove to the hospital.

***

Emptiness burned a hole in his gut as he stepped into the elevator. The caretaker was still alive. Steve was certain of that, because the receptionist on the first floor had informed him that Royce Lewis was on the third floor in room 303.

Steve waited for the elevator doors to close. Maybe everything would end while he was in this small metal box. Royce Lewis would release his last breath as Steve drew his next, and when the elevator doors opened Steve would step into his basement and find April waiting there in the cool, screamless silence.

Jesus, that was silly, almost as bad as his dream of being an avenging cyborg. Stupid.

The elevator doors were rattling closed. An older woman hurried toward the diminishing gap, her heels clicking on the polished white floor in the hospital foyer. Steve closed his eyes, willing the doors to close, but a bell sounded above his head and he knew that he was trapped.

The doors whispered open.

“Oh my,” the woman said. “I’m glad I caught this one.”

Steve nodded. The woman had gray curls, glasses, and a grin that seemed to waver, as if it were about to collapse into a frown at any moment. The doors closed. Steve was standing next to the controls, but the woman didn’t ask him to push a button for her.

The elevator rose. The woman was heading for the third floor.

Maybe she was Royce Lewis’s wife.

Christ. Stop it. But he couldn’t. He was in an elevator with the caretaker’s wife. He was sure of it. He started sweating, and he leaned against the wall as the elevator came to a jarring stop on the second floor.

A man pushing a shopping cart filled with patient records entered the elevator, taking the space between Steve and the woman. Steve’s thumbs closed over his fingers. Dull cracks echoed in the elevator as he popped his knuckles. He wasn’t an avenging cyborg, but he felt like one. What he had done to the caretaker was inhuman. Going after the old guy with a shovel. Just brutal. The guy couldn’t have seen him well enough to make a positive identification. The confrontation had taken place after midnight, the only light from the moon and a flashlight.

But Royce Lewis had seen him. Steve was sure of that. He remembered the man’s unforgiving eyes.

Steve stared at the woman. Beneath heavy bifocals, her eyes were wet, tortured.

The hospital attendant punched a button. The doors closed. The elevator jerked. And then Steve wasn’t a cop, and he wasn’t a cyborg. He was a hit man in some bad movie. He was here to murder a South American dictator who was in the hospital for brain surgery. Steve would smother the bastard with a pillow if necessary, but he was going to get the job done, no matter the cost.

The doors slid open. The attendant pushed the cart into the foyer.

The woman glanced at Steve. Her grin faltered. Steve shored it up with one of his own, and she stepped onto the third floor.

No. He wasn’t going to do it. He couldn’t do it now, anyway. He was in uniform, for christsakes. He couldn’t just walk in, pull out his revolver and fire away like a shootist in a Clint Eastwood-

“Austin! Hey, what are you doing here?”

Steve recognized another cop, Pete Rojas.

“And what’s with the uniform?” Rojas asked, not waiting for an answer to his first question. “I’ve heard of heavy overtime, but this…”

Steve stepped from the elevator. “I haven’t made it home yet. That thing this morning at the cemetery…I don’t know if you heard about it, but it really got under my skin.” Steve said that, and he knew it was no bluff.

“That’s why I’m here,” Rojas said. “You can stop worrying. Lewis came around about two hours ago. Guy’s a diabetic. He faded out bad at the cemetery Blood sugar crashed big time. Getting whacked on the head and practically drowning didn’t help him any. I just finished questioning him.”

“Get anything?”

“The old guy doesn’t remember much. He knows it was a man who hit him, but he can’t recall if the guy said anything. And he couldn’t give me much of a description, apart from the fact that the guy was big…and white.” Rojas grinned. “Hell…that could be you, Austin.”

Steve managed a sick little smile. “Yeah. Put me on the list of suspects.”

Rojas slapped Steve’s shoulder. “I guess I saved you a trip. How about a cup of coffee before I hit the streets?”

“No thanks,” Steve said. “I think I’ll look in on Mr. Lewis.”

“Sure.” Rojas stepped into the elevator. “Like they say-seeing is believing.”

***

The corridor was too white and there were no shadows. Steve had no place to hide. He stood near the nurse’s station, just across from Room 303. Inside the room, the woman from the elevator held the hand of the gray little man who lay in the hospital bed. A bandage masked the man’s forehead and his eyes were closed, but the steady rise and fall of his chest was apparent, even from Steve’s distant position.

The knot in Steve’s stomach uncoiled just a little bit. The old guy had been through hell, but he was going to be okay. And he didn’t know anything. Steve turned and started for the elevator. And then it hit him. Royce Lewis. The woman in the elevator-Lewis’s wife. Steve realized that he was actually feeling something for them. He shared their pain. He desperately wanted things to be okay with them. They had broken through the distance that separated him from the world.

They were real. Steve cared about them. The way he cared about the nesting doves, and the crazy cartoon dog, and April. The way he cared, in his dreams.

8:13 P.M.

Amy kicked the balled-up cheeseburger wrapper. It ricocheted off of April’s foot and spun away at a weird angle.

“Hey, nifty shot,” Amy said. “Not bad for a corpse. Score’s only ninety-seven to one, now.”

Amy didn’t retrieve the wrapper. She was tired of kicking it. Instead, she sank into the La-Z-Boy. The cool leather smelled like Steve Austin, and his undeniably male scent stirred primitive feelings of safety and protection in Amy. That was too weird, considering that Austin-the owner of glands that produced the manful odor of hearth and home-had locked her in his basement.

False imprisonment was what most people called it.

So here she was, snuggled up in the big guy’s favorite chair, just like Goldilocks in the bears’ house. Wondering what was going to happen when Papa Bear came home. She leaned back, reclining comfortably, and found that the end table was now within reach. On it sat the Halcion bottle, the bottle of Jack Daniel’s, a glass, and an ice bucket.

Why the hell not?

She grabbed the glass. It was fairly clean. She scooped some cubes from the ice bucket. They were the little hollow cubes you bought at the grocery store. Ice for midgets, she called it. She tipped the bottle, filled the glass. The first swallow sparked a fire in her empty belly. The second swallow warmed her and she found that she needed to be warm.

The chair creaked as she settled into the soft leather.

She closed her eyes and listened to the fluorescent flight buzz.

She sipped Jack Daniel’s.

***

Two drinks improved Amy’s demeanor. It was high time that she and April had a little talk.

“Y’know,” Amy said, imagining what she looked like wearing a cheerleader’s outfit and holding a glass of whiskey in her hand, “you never did this kind of thing when you were a good girl.”

April didn’t reply. Her face remained slack, her closed eyes puffy, as with sleep.

“I’ll bet there were lots of things you never did back then,” Amy continued. “But, on the other hand, I’ll bet you ended up doing lots of things that you never imagined you’d do.”

Amy smirked at that last dig and took another sip of whiskey. That’s telling her, she thought. That’ll hit her where it hurts. But then the voice inside her added. But you did lots of things you never imagined you’d do, too. You played all those little get-ahead games you thought you’d never play. You always thought that you were different, better, but you weren’t different. Not really. Maybe a little smarter Maybe a little tougher. But nobody ever took you on. Nobody ever came at you when you weren’t expecting it and tried to break you into little pieces. Not until tonight. Not until you met up with Doug Douglas and his sidekick, Miss Mortuary Science of 1994. So we don’t know how tough you really are, do we?

“I’m sure,” Amy said aloud. “Give me a break!” She stared at the stupid little sliver of lettuce stuck between Doug’s teeth and buried her laughter. “I’ve been in a basement with Doug before. I guess he told you about that. If you’ll remember, I ended up calling the shots back then. I’ll end up calling them this time, too. Just you watch.” She sat up in the chair. “You have to learn to fight if you want to survive. You don’t just give in and let someone beat you. You don’t curl up in some trailer park somewhere and kill yourself with drugs.”

No, the voice inside her said. You take your club membership seriously. You count every fucking calorie and you worry about every little wrinkle. You worry about skin cancer so you stay out of the sun. You mummify yourself without even recognizing-

“Okay, I worry. But it’s a matter of pride. I care about myself. That’s what it is.”

Is it?

“Sure it is. Believe me, April, insecurity isn’t my problem.” The words seemed to hang in the air, and it was as if Amy could see them floating before her eyes. She set the glass aside. Okay. That was enough. When you start talking to yourself, when you hear corpses arguing with you in your head… Okay. That’s enough.

Amy tipped the bottle. Whiskey spattered over the cement floor. She rose and kept her balance very nicely, considering the drinks sloshing in her very empty stomach. She dropped the empty bottle onto the chair.

“Maybe you had me figured out,” she said. “Maybe you wanted to hurt me because you found out that I’d hurt you. Hell, maybe you even planned this crazy reunion. I know you were pushing Doug’s buttons, and it looks like you were pushing Ozzy Austin’s, too. Making me come here dressed like this…that was for him, wasn’t it? Did you want to drive him over the edge? Did you want to give him what he really wanted? Or did you just want to hurt me?” She shook her head; she’d never know the answers to those questions, not with Doug and April dead. “But I’ll tell you one thing: whatever happens, I’ll make it through. Whether you planned it or not. You were never as strong as I am. I mean, just look at us. I’m a survivor. You’re a corpse, and I hope you rot in hell.”

Amy rammed the door with her shoulder, then stepped back and kicked it several times. Nothing. No good.

Damn. Tears welled in her eyes, but she didn’t want to cry in front of April. Christ, that was so stupid. “Let me tell you something, April,” she said. “There was a time when I really wanted to be you. I would have given anything. But I don’t want to trade places now, and it’s not going to happen, no matter what your fucking books say.”

Amy raised the hem of the cheerleading sweater to her shoulders. The toilet paper stuffed in April Destino’s bra chafed her nipples as her palms passed over them. An invisible wave of cold raised gooseflesh on her bare skin. She held the wool hem just under her nose, smelling her own scent and the lingering ghost of April Destino’s favorite perfume. Both scents mixed together in the sweater.

Amy’s grip tightened on the hem. “I wanted to be you,” she whispered.

At first, she had been nothing. Just another high school nobody. And Amy couldn’t understand that, because April Destino was somebody, and they looked so much alike. They were both pretty. They were both smart, though Amy didn’t like to admit that April had a brain. But April was somebody, and Amy was nothing.

Until April’s rape. After that. Amy became somebody. She found something in herself, something rooted deep within her, and she nurtured it, and it made her somebody. She found it in Todd Gould’s basement. April wasn’t the only one who had her share of spiked punch at Todd’s party. Amy got drunk, too. She and Doug were the first to make use of the basement. They found some old blankets down there. Amy took Doug by the hand and led him into the darkness, stumbling through a tangled maze of old furniture until they found a spot between a couple of old desks that was large enough to accommodate the blankets.

But Doug was blitzed. She couldn’t get him interested. She almost cried, because she thought that it was her fault somehow. She kept on trying-kissing him, whispering dirty things in his ear, doing everything she knew-but none of it worked.

Until Doug saw April. Until he saw what the A-Squad did to her. Watching from the shadows, his breaths coming rapid and eager, pushing her away from him. Then, when it was over, he was very interested. He wouldn’t let her go.

He was drunk. Sure, he was drunk. Sweating over her. Leering at her, but not recognizing her. Touching her, but feeling someone else.

Calling her April. Whispering the name in her ear, over and over.

More than anything. Amy hated April for that.

But it freed something in her. Something evil. She never let Doug forget the things he saw in the basement, or what they did to him. When word got out about the A-Squad and April, Doug had a serious attack of conscience and wanted to tell what he’d seen. But Amy didn’t want that to happen. She wasn’t going to allow Doug to forget any more than she was going to furnish April with a knight in shining armor.

Amy promised Doug that if he said one word, she’d tell her story, too.

Doug knew that story. A day wasn’t complete without Amy reminding him what he had done-and not done-in Todd’s basement. He kept quiet.

Amy didn’t get what she wanted, of course. She eventually broke up with Doug. He just wasn’t the guy she wanted anymore. But she knew that she was the winner. Doug was broken, and she wasn’t. Doug fell apart. She went on.

She went through other men the same way. She came out the winner every time. She always showed her men that she was the strong one. Husband number one learned the lesson. Husband number two was going to learn it.

And Ethan. Would she do the same thing to him?

No. She cared about Ethan. She…she loved Ethan.

But would that last? Could she trust him? And even if she did, what if he got tired of her? What if he looked for a younger woman?

No. She had to show him, just like the others. She had to teach him before it was too late. She had to be in control. She had to be the winner.

And then what would she be?

Alone again, naturally.

Suddenly, the pattern was clear. Here she was, locked in another basement with Doug and April, only now she was wondering if she really wanted to be the person she had become eighteen years ago. She held April’s sweater at her shoulders and she wondered who she would be if she took it off, wondered if her hard core would shatter without it.

April was dead and had no answers for her. Still, Amy couldn’t stop herself from asking, “Did you know? Did you understand?”

And then she heard the footsteps.

Upstairs. Then descending, entering the garage.

Papa Bear was home. Amy lowered the sweater. Smoothed it. She grabbed the empty Jack Daniel’s bottle, imagining the sound it would make as she broke it against the wall, visualizing a spray of blood geysering from Steve Austin’s face as she slashed him with the jagged edges.

She waited for the sound of a key sliding into a lock.

Something hard hit the door, and it exploded inward, and a man came tumbling after it. Amy broke the bottle and lunged. And Bat Bautista’s eyes widened in terror.

8:31 P.M.

Shutterbug’s brain was a dog run, and his worries were the dogs. They raced back and forth, chasing after answers. Getting tired, slowing down. Then running some more, too stupid to stop when they hit the same old walls. Amazing. Countless years of evolution, and all the human race had to show for it was a three pound mass of nerve tissue that thrived on processing misery.

Eventually, Shutterbug’s worries decreased. The threats against him seemed to grow weaker with each passing moment. Like the song said, time was on his side. Steve Austin had threatened him, and nothing had come of it. The anonymous telephone warning was becoming a distant memory. Maybe the call was just an outgrowth of someone else’s paranoia. Or maybe it was a joke. Maybe a competitor was trying to get under his skin. Maybe-

Shutterbug sighed. God, he needed some sleep. If only his worries would leave him alone for a while.

He closed his eyes. Pictured a dog, sleeping. Let sleeping dogs lie, he thought. And he slept.

***

The doorbell woke Shutterbug at 8:45 P.M. He rolled off the couch too fast and almost lost his balance. He headed into the entry hall, not even sure he wanted to answer the door. It had been a less-than-spectacular day. Perhaps he was due some good news. Publisher’s Clearing House with a big check or something.

The bell rang again just as he opened the door.

“Hiiiii, Marvisssss,” Shelly said, breathing each word as if she were Marilyn Monroe. “Did everything calm down around here? What happened last night, anyway?” She gasped. “God! What happened to your face?”

“Just some old friends having fun.” Shutterbug ran a hand over his scratched forehead. “We went on a little nature hike.”

“Suuuure,” she said. “Sorry I jammed, but they scared me.”

Shutterbug nodded. “I didn’t think we had anything on for tonight.”

“Well, if you want me to go…” She winked coyly, a trick she had mastered in front of Shutterbug’s camera. “But I don’t have anything else to do. I mean, I don’t want to stay at home, because my father’s drunk… again. And I know you said that you wanted to see me this weekend. But my boyfriend’s out with his buds. And I figured, well, maybe I could see you tonight, and then I could see Joey this weekend, and then Joey wouldn’t get mad at me. Because if Joey gets mad at me, I might not be able to see you at all this weekend.”

“We wouldn’t want that,” Shutterbug said.

“Shit no we wouldn’t.” Shelly smiled, entering the house, dropping her backpack on the floor. “You don’t know Joey.”

***

In the basement, Shutterbug set up his camera while Shelly rattled on with tales of her boyfriend, her latest escapades in school, and her semi-tragic home life. Her stories entered Shutterbug’s left ear and exited his right. He figured it wouldn’t be bad to do some work tonight. Get his mind off his problems, spend some time with a pretty young thing. Maybe he would do some coke with Shelly. They could unwind. Together. God knew he needed to relax.

No. Shutterbug didn’t feel right about Shelly. Something about the panic in her eyes when the toilet paper hit the window last night didn’t sit right with him. She’d been awfully quick to claim that she had nothing to do with it. He had to be careful. Business was business, and his business danced outside the bounds of the law’s idea of moral decency.

That was a laugh. What difference did it make if a girl was eighteen? Did that birthday automatically make her an adult? Christ, some of his fifteen-year-olds looked twenty; he had to do the old soft focus bit to make them look younger. And on the flip side, he had once picked up a fresh-faced fourteen-year-old drinking at a bar with a fake ID. The bartender hadn’t even checked it, but the kicker was that some college kid hadn’t checked it either. The kidlet had one annulled marriage under her belt, and that night she was out celebrating with hush money supplied by the preppie boy’s wealthy parents.

But justifications aside, there was only one reason Shutterbug operated outside the law-that’s where the money was. If the law said eighteen, an independent producer couldn’t make a dime with a room full of eighteen-year-olds. Not on a shoestring budget. But if the law said eighteen, and an enterprising indy found a sixteen-year-old, or a fifteen-year-old who was willing to do some really inventive things…

Dollar signs. Big green ones.

Shutterbug adjusted the lights while Shelly stripped. She jawed about her boyfriend and the things they did together. “He gave me these books on acting,” she said. “He knows I want to be an actress and…” She slipped off her jeans. Flat belly, cleft between her legs so enticing because her legs were young and slim. The soft tangle of blonde pubic hair, a nest for an old lecher’s head. “…Marlon Brando. And Montgomery Clift. He was pretty crazy. But I guess I like the one about Marilyn the best. She was so…” Hot. Shutterbug licked his lips. Shelly undid her blouse, button by button. She wore no bra, and her breasts were full and the cool basement air caressed her nipples and they hardened and gooseflesh rose on her puckered aureoles and she reached for her costume. She stretched, turning, and Shutterbug marveled at her slicing ribs and flat belly, and his eyes were once again trapped by the generous swell of her sweet little. “…method actors. It really makes sense to me. I want to be…” April Destino’s cheerleader sweater filled her hands, and she slipped it over her head. It was a little loose on her. It didn’t hug her breasts the way it had once hugged April’s, but it looked good. And, besides, styles were looser these days.

April…Jesus, no. Shelly lay on the bed stretching, staring through the fake window at the beach mural on the basement wall as if she had never noticed it before. “Where is this beach, anyway?” she asked. “I mean, I know you said it was in Hawaii, but where?”

“Maui.”

“Oh, yes. Maui,” Shelly said, trying to sound as if she spent her vacations at Kapalua Bay when the truth was that she generally summered in Moab, Utah, cleaning rooms in the cheap motel owned by a lecherous uncle who had popped her cherry when she was thirteen. “And what am I doing here?”

“Just a solo tonight. You know the routine. First you look at yourself in the mirror, then you take off the sweater and play with your nipples, and then you open the dresser drawer and take out the-”

Her laughter cut him off. “Geez, you haven’t been listening to me at all.”

“Sure I was.”

She raised her eyebrows so wickedly that he couldn’t help but feel guilty. “You’re a liar, Marvis. But I’ll allow you that simple failing, because you’re my most wonderful director.”

Shutterbug wondered what movie she had stolen that line from. He certainly didn’t have a snappy comeback, so he tried to get things back on track. “Okay, now if you just step over to the mirror.”

“No. Not until you explain my motivation.”

“What?”

“That’s the method. Brando, Clift, Monroe. Jesus! I thought you knew something about the movies!”

Shutterbug sighed. “C’mon, Shelly. This is just a little silly.”

It was the wrong thing to say. She pouted.

“Okay,” he said. “Maybe I was a little too harsh.”

“Marvis…I can’t make it real for you unless you make it real for me.”

He smiled, but he was thinking that it was time to find a new girl.

“Make it real for me, Marvis,” she said.

“Okay.” He hesitated. “You’re a young girl…very innocent. You’re in Hawaii. You see a guy you like and you can’t stop thinking about him. So you go back to your hotel room, and your parents aren’t around, and you-”

“Flick my clit.” She shook her head. “That’s all this is to you, isn’t it? Little Shelly flicking her clit. And then you’ll want me to go at it with that kinky stuff you keep in the drawer.” She turned away. “I thought you could do better than that, Marvis.”

“Okay,” he said, surprised to find that the conversation was actually making him feel inadequate. “Give me a second chance, Shelly. Maybe we can work on this together. Maybe we can create a character.”

“That would be great!” Shelly’s face lit up, but the light faded fairly quickly. “Now, who am I?”

“Like I said, you’re a girl on vacation-”

“And?”

“And you see this guy-”

“C’mon, Marvis. If I’m on vacation, and if I’m in Hawaii, what am I doing wearing a cheerleading sweater?”

Marvis had to admit that it was a good question. “Okay…you’re not on vacation. You’re in Hawaii for the national cheerleader championships.”

“I am? That’s great!”

“Yes it is. And even better than that, your cheerleading squad just won the championship!”

Shelly shook her pompoms.

“But there’s bad news, too.” Shutterbug wrinkled his brow. “When you get back to your room, you get a phone call. It’s your boyfriend’s mother. You find out that he was just killed in a drag race.”

“Ohmygod!”

“And you’re very sad. But you miss him. So you get in bed and-”

“And I think about how much I miss him while I flick my clit!”

“Sure!”

“And that isn’t as good as he was, so then I have to do the other stuff, because I miss him really bad!”

Shutterbug smiled expansively, thinking bimbo sapiens, right here before my lens, live and in living color.

“This is great,” Shelly said. “This is wonderful!”

“Okay, let’s get to it.”

Shelly looked a little worried. “Before we get started, can I go upstairs for a minute? Just to be alone and think. Just for a minute. That way I can get into character.”

Shutterbug kept the smile on his face, but only by the greatest force of effort.

“Sure, Shelly, sure.”

***

More than a few minutes passed. Shutterbug waited like a bump on a log. His equipment was ready to roll, and he didn’t have anything else to fiddle with.

Amazing. Shelly Desmond the method actress. Getting into character seemed to take a lot longer than the trips to the bathroom that usually interrupted shooting, and sometimes those trips seemed equal in length to Ben Hur or The Ten Commandments.

But what could he do? Shelly would be pissed if he went upstairs and knocked on the bathroom door. And Shutterbug knew there was nothing worse than a pissed-off fifteen-year-old erotica diva. Especially one who had discovered the method.

He knew that, but right now he didn’t much care. He had taken enough shit for one day.

Enough was enough.

***

Shutterbug quietly mounted the stairs, a talent he had developed early in life because his father was a stickler for quiet. He passed the kitchen and entered the hallway. The bathroom was the first door on the left.

The door was open. The light was off.

Shutterbug stopped cold. He glanced over his shoulder at the front door and saw that Shelly’s backpack wasn’t there.

The little bitch had run out on him. But why? And without her pants? Wearing only a sweater? It didn’t make sense.

Twin terrors struck simultaneously. Shutterbug froze, remembering the warning on the phone, remembering Steve Austin’s warning.

And he had thought that he was in the clear. Just because a few hours had ticked off on the clock. Amazing. How could he be so-

A squealing whisper sounded further down the hallway. It was a sound that Shutterbug recognized.

The sound of the closet door in his bedroom sliding over a worn track.

Shutterbug was moving before he could think. There was only room enough for one word in his head, and that word was money.

He stepped into the bedroom. Shelly was there on the floor, zipping her backpack, just as he had expected. She tried a coy little smile, as if nothing was wrong, and then she saw his wild eyes and her face went slack.

His hands closed on April’s sweater and he jerked Shelly to her feet and she seemed so small to him.

He threw her onto the bed and watched her bounce.

“You’ve been stealing from me. Shelly.”

“No,” she said. “No! I just wanted some coke before we got started, but I was afraid to ask- “

“Okay.” He took hold of her jaw and pulled her face close to his. “I don’t see any powder on your nose, Shelly.” He laughed, pushed her back on the bed, straddled her and sloppily licked her nose. “Don’t taste anything, either.”

He was off of her in a flash. He snatched up her backpack and slammed it onto the bed with such force that her buck knife-a present from Joey-shattered a bottle of perfume.

“Don’t hurt me,” she said.

Tears spilled from her eyes. The zipper moaned as Shutterbug unzipped her backpack. He saw a flash of green. Six fifties were jammed inside along with her makeup and lipstick, each bill soaked with Liz Taylor’s signature perfume. “I’m surprised,” Shutterbug said. “And disappointed-Liz isn’t a method actress, Shell.”

“I didn’t mean-”

“At least you’re not greedy. Shell. Of course, if you’d been greedy, I guess I would have noticed. And I was beginning to worry about all those trips to the bathroom. I thought you had a little infection or something.”

She tried to smile, but it didn’t take. “It was my boyfriend. I know I talk too much…I told Joey about the money, and how you showed it to me when we did the coke. Well…he made me take it. He said he’d hurt me if I didn’t.”

Shutterbug grinned. Shelly crying on his bed in April’s big sweater. He watched her naked legs draw together, watched her shrink into a ball as she tried to hide.

Reflex. What a wonderful thing. As if she could really survive by rolling up like a sow bug. Shutterbug chuckled. The whole response was just another failure of human evolution.

“Let’s try a different scenario,” he said, doubting she knew what the word meant. “Let’s forget about Hawaii. Let’s make this bed our set.”

“Stop, Marvis. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”

“Only you have to use your imagination. Shelly. See, you’re a nice girl named April Destino. You’re a very popular cheerleader. And you’ve been drinking nasty bad spiked punch all night long, and you’re drunk. And then some big strapping manly lads invite you into a very quiet room.”

“You’re scaring me.”

“Good,” Shutterbug said. “That’s in character. And here’s our setting-not a bedroom, but a basement. And it’s not now, it’s 1976. And you’re not lying on a bed-picture, if you will, a pool table with green felt. And-”

“Marvis, stop! I’m sorry! It won’t happen ag-” He made to slap her, and her complaints died in her throat.

Everyone was watching. All those teendreams mounted on Shutterbug’s bedroom wall. Each pair of eyes burning holes in his back.

His hand shook in midair, balled into a fist.

“And this isn’t a fist,” he said softly, staring at his bulging knuckles. “It’s an eight ball.”

9:42 P.M.

Steve sat at a table in a waterfront bar, sipping a beer, waiting for some food. He was completely anonymous now-he had changed out of uniform in a service station restroom. Dressed in a white T-shirt, jeans, and a loose denim jacket, he didn’t look much different from anyone else in the bar.

He stared at the window opposite his table but couldn’t see further than his own reflection, which was haloed by the image of a neon BUDWEISER sign that hung behind the bar. His other senses painted a picture for him-he heard waves lapping against the pier outside, and the sound calmed him. He could almost feel cold saltwater pumping through his veins.

Relief. That’s what this feeling was. Royce Lewis was going to be okay. The tough little umpire had survived a beating, a near-drowning, and insulin shock. And, when it came to his run-in with Steve, Lewis’s mind was pure tabula rasa. Blank slate, for all intents and purposes.

The waitress brought his cheeseburger and another beer. Someone fed a quarter into the jukebox. The sound of a bass guitar vibrated across uneven floorboards. An old song from the fifties. A guy singing softly about a black night, and rain falling down, and his baby who wasn’t around.

Steve smiled, sure that his baby was around. She waited for him at home. And, after his visit to the hospital, he was ready to see her, because it was April who had taught him to believe in portents, both good and bad. And the news concerning Royce Lewis was definitely a good portent.

The cheeseburger was rare and juicy, with plenty of mustard. Steve enjoyed it. Food had never meant anything to him. Tonight the cheeseburger and the beer felt good inside him, and he had a little buzz going. He stared at his dark image on the barroom window, and suddenly he could see outside. Just a few inches into the black night.

Three moths danced over his reflection, ash-colored wings fluttering, attracted to the glass by the light inside the bar. Steve grinned, because he had once been just like the moths. His window had been the distance inside him, the mechanical brain that kept him from touching the light, but now that window in his soul was broken forever.

April had broken it.

The jukebox song ended, and it was a happy ending.

Steve sipped his beer, set the glass on the table. A dry crack exploded behind him-the distinct sound of a cue ball smacking a full rack of billiard balls-and Steve exploded out of his chair, barely catching his glass of beer before it toppled off the table.

Behind him, the sound of laughter was a cold black wave inside the barroom. Steve didn’t turn. He glanced at the mirror above the bar, saw the reflection on dirty glass.

A pool table. Four young guys leaning on four well-abused cues.

“Good break, Joey,” someone said. “Good my ass,” came the answer. “Just watch this.” It wasn’t April’s nightmare. It wasn’t. It was just four kids playing pool.

The door to the bar swung open, and a girl stepped inside. She was young and blonde. Her wild hair dangled across her face in sweaty ropes. Steve spotted a welt on her left eye, recent and stark red. She hurried past his table, and the overpowering smell of her perfume surprised him until he noticed the fresh stain on her backpack.

His eyes had to follow her. One of the pool players dropped his cue and hurried toward her. Steve was wearing a pistol in a shoulder holster beneath his baggy denim jacket, and his hand drifted…

No. Not here. The nightmare wasn’t going to bloom right in front of him. He wouldn’t let it happen, not in the real world, not to someone else.

“Shelly!” The kid’s arms opened wide. “Jesus Christ!” The girl fell into the kid’s arms, sobbing. Brief whispers were exchanged, and the kid grabbed his coat. His buddies did the same, and they started toward the door as one.

Worry swelled in Steve’s gut. Was this what it was going to be like from now on? Was this how people felt? He didn’t even know these kids, and yet he could feel their pain as if they were- What? His friends?

One of the boys slapped open the door. The others started through. “Hey,” Steve said. “Just a minute.” The girl stared at him. Her eyes were wary. Her boyfriend stepped in front of her, and his eyes were dark and hard.

Steve said, “Maybe there’s something I can help you with.”

The kid waved him off. “I can handle it.”

“I’m sure you can.” Steve was looking at the girl; he pointed at her eye. “But how about you? That eye looks pretty nasty.”

Her fingers went to her face. She hadn’t realized how bad the swelling looked. She didn’t say anything for a moment. Then she said, “I ran into a door.”

“Yeah,” the boyfriend said. “I can fix the problem. I’m a carpenter.”

“You sure you’ve got the right tools?” Steve asked, knowing full well that he was way out of bounds.

“Yeah.” The boyfriend turned and started through the door.

The girl smiled at Steve before following. “Thanks.”

It was a word Steve heard a dozen times a day, but this time it meant something to him.

9:55 P.M.

Shutterbug lathered his hands with Ivory dishwashing liquid, whistling “Tiny Bubbles” as if he were Don Ho. He rinsed under the running tap in the kitchen sink and then lathered again, because he didn’t want the stink of Shelly Desmond on his fingers.

The little whore. Thinking she could put one over on him like that. And the pure hell of it was that she had succeeded. God knew how much money she had skimmed during her little excursions to the bedroom. All that time he had spent waiting for her down in the basement. All those evenings. And what an actress. She had remembered to flush the toilet, every time. He could still hear the sound of the pipes rattling over his head as he shouted, “Quiet on the set!”

Shutterbug rinsed, shot creamy white soap into his palms, lathered again. He had shown Shelly Desmond, all right. Damn little method actress. She wasn’t going to forget his method. She wasn’t going to forget his warning either. He had told her that she could expect worse from the organization that bought his films if she ever talked, but that was only threat number one. Threat number two was less violent but no less frightening-he had promised to spread Shelly’s videos all over town if she gave him any trouble. If necessary, he would shove them into her neighbor’s mailboxes, and he would personally stuff a copy into every locker in her high school.

The tap water was getting really hot. It felt good, purifying. Shutterbug smiled at the memory Shelly’s expression-the sick little dribble of tears that had smeared her makeup as he worked her over, the ditches of pain dug in her forehead as he shoved her naked into his front yard, tossing her clothes and backpack after her, not caring anymore what the neighbors thought.

The filthy names he had shouted after her still rang in his ears. Daddy must be rolling in his grave, Shutterbug thought. Just hearing those words spill my mouth must have him screaming bloody murder on Devil’s big rotisserie.

But every word had fit Shelly Desmond like a fucking glove. She wouldn’t dare come back. She wouldn’t say one goddamn word to-

The doorbell rang.

Amazing… Shutterbug strode to the front door, not bothering to grab a hand towel, white suds dripping from his fingers. It was definitely quick kiss-off time. He didn’t have the time or inclination for other visitor. His fingers slipped off the doorknob but he got it open, caught the door with his foot; swung it wide.

The woman who stood on the front porch wasn’t bad looking. Young, but not too young. Straight dark hair and lips that betrayed nothing. A black coat that was a little too big and a white cotton shirt that looked to be buttoned tight all the way to her damn chin. New black jeans, a belt with a silver buckle, and black shoes that weren’t much more than tennies but showed a little style.

Enough with the fashion report. Get on with it. “Look,” Shutterbug said. “Whatever you’re selling…I’m just not buying tonight. Don’t think less of me for it. I gave a hundred bucks to save the whales last time Greenpeace knocked on my door, and I don’t like nuclear power, and I hope that every spotted owl in California has a tree to roost in.”

The woman smiled, but the smile didn’t reveal any more than the blank expression it replaced. Her hand came up. “Tia Foster,” she said, and her voice was like fresh frost. She held an expensive leather wallet in her raised hand. The wallet dropped open and revealed a photo ID card. Her face, sans smile. “FBI,” she finished.

“I bet you love this part,” Shutterbug said. “I mean, the surprise.”

For a cop, she showed amazing restraint. She didn’t even say, “It works for me.”

Shutterbug grinned, his fingers dripping soapy water. He almost wiped his hands on his shirt but decided that would look stupid. “So,” he said, “it’s late. I’ve got business hours at my shop. Maybe we can do this tomorrow.”

“I don’t punch a time clock, Mr. Hanks. I don’t think you do, either. Not really.” Again, the smile, this time a wry version. “You were up pretty late last night, for instance. Wild party, right here at your house. I would have spoken to you then, but I’m not a wet blanket. I figured our business could keep one more day.”

“What’s that supposed to mean, Miss…” Shutterbug lost it for a moment, remembering the car pulling away from Joe Hamner’s driveway just as he and the A-Squad were leaving the house, remembering the rasping sound of a speedwinder. “Miss…” he picked it up. “What was your name?”

“Special Agent Foster.”

“Okay, Ms. Foster. Maybe tomorrow.”

Now her smile took an amused turn, one corner of her mouth darting up sharply. She slid the wallet into a pocket and crossed her arms, as if she held all the cards. “Are you sure you want to wait, Mr. Hanks? Do you really want to spend a sleepless night wondering what I’m after?”

Shutterbug wanted to wipe that smile off her face. The thing to do was shut the door. Wipe his hands and get hold of the knob and slam it right in her self-assured-

“I’m investigating the death of April Destino,” she said. “Ms. Destino had been in contact with our office prior to her demise. She seemed to know quite a lot about a certain porno organization that exploits minors. Before her death, she directed us to you. She said that you could corroborate her story.”

“Ms. Foster, do you have a search warrant?”

“Are you sure that you want an answer to that question? Because if you do, things might get really uncomfortable for you. Really public.”

“Bad for business.”

“I thought you’d see it my way.”

“You’re wrong about that.” Shutterbug sucked a deep breath. “Look…April Destino committed suicide.”

“That’s the rumor. I don’t know that it’s the fact.”

“You didn’t know April. I knew her since high school, and she was one sick little puppy.”

“I understand that she was a cheerleader in those days, a real goody two-shoes.”

“ In those days is right,” Shutterbug said, and a voice inside him said. Whatever they hit you with, don’t say a word. That’s what we’re doing, that’s what you should do.

But he couldn’t do it. Agent Foster was staring at him, her eyes stripping his skin and peering underneath like the ghosts that had tortured him at the drive-in. There was no expression on her lips, but judgment was there.

“Today I searched April Destino’s mobile home,” Foster said. “I didn’t find much in it. I thought maybe she had left some of her possessions with you.”

“With me? C’mon, now. I knew her, but I didn’t know her. We weren’t together in any way shape or-”

“Ms. Destino made it sound like much more than that. At the bare minimum, we know you both worked in porno.”

Bare minimum. Shutterbug smirked at her inadvertent pun. “You think you know a lot. A lot of what you know seems to be wrong.”

“Do you know any female Caucasians?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Do you know any female Caucasian lawyers?”

“Maybe. But I don’t see-”

She flashed a business card. “Do you know any female Caucasian lawyers named Wendy Wong?”

“Huh?”

“I know you had someone search April’s mobile home last night. A gray-eyed blonde. What I don’t know is what you two were looking for, and if you found it.”

“You’ve got the wrong guy. This is a waste of my time.”

Agent Foster took a step back. “No, Mr. Hanks. This is a waste of my time. I thought you might understand that we could do this the easy way instead of the hard way. We know what you’ve been up to over the years. Exactly and precisely. We’ve checked through the books of your more legitimate employers in the business, and we’ve checked your tax records.

I’m stunned to report that there seems to be a disparity in the figures. But maybe you simply forgot to report a few things.”

Again, the amused little smirk.

Shutterbug wanted to bash it in.

“You’re not a player, Mr. Hanks. You’re a pinball. But if you want to keep rolling, you’ve got a decision to make.”

“Okay It won’t hurt to talk. There are a few things you need to understand.”

“I might understand a little better if I could sit down.”

“Sure.” Shutterbug stepped aside and allowed her to enter, but she never took her eyes off him.

He closed the door. “Nice place,” she said, with just enough sarcasm in her voice. “Tres Sharper Image.”

Shutterbug ignored the dig. “The living room’s to the right.” He held up his hands, still slick with soap. “Just let me clean up.”

“Okay.” She stood in the living room, watching him as he entered the kitchen.

Shutterbug glanced over his shoulder. “You can sit down.”

She shook a finger at him. “That wouldn’t be polite. I’ll wait for you.”

They both froze for a second with stupid little I’m-smarter-than-you-are grins on their faces.

A pair of headlights played over the living room window. She turned toward the street. “Are you expecting-”

The pool cue shattered Agent Foster’s Kabuki grin. She collapsed on the hardwood floor. Shutterbug was on top of her in an instant, trapping her arms under his knees. She screamed. Something round and black was in his hand. He slammed it against her face and shattered her front teeth, grinding it into her mouth. She didn’t scream anymore.

And then he was off her, gone, just as quietly as he’d come. But she heard him. In the kitchen. Gentle metallic sounds, rustling tableware.

He was selecting a knife.

She wanted the thing out of her mouth. But it was big; she couldn’t open her jaw another millimeter. She couldn’t spit it out. She couldn’t breathe around it. She wanted to breathe, needed to breathe, but the cue stick had broken her nose. She couldn’t fill her lungs. She was panting, her nose was swelling closed, her nose was bleeding.

She didn’t have much time.

She had broken her right wrist in the fall, but she managed to toss open her coat.

Her service revolver was gone.

No. There it was. Over there by the drapes. He’d pulled it from her holster, and he’d thrown it over there because shooting her would make a lot of noise.

And this slime didn’t like noise. He could move without making a sound.

She rolled onto her side. Started to crawl, drawing shallow breaths through her nose. Crawling quietly.

In the kitchen, the subtle music of sharp knives.

Her fingers closed around her service revolver.

She steadied the weapon, steadied it. He didn’t even see her. His back was turned. He was playing with his knives.

She never got the chance to put a bullet in his back.

The bricks that shattered the window-and the Molotov cocktails that followed them-saw to that.

FOUR

APRIL 8, 1994

DARK

We are such stuff

As dreams are made on and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.

- Shakespeare, The Tempest

10:39 P.M.

After the pool players cleared out of the bar with their maiden-in-distress in tow, Steve had another beer and thought about portents.

The doves and the dog, Homer Price, had been portents of his dream. The screaming girl in his basement was a portent of April’s nightmare. Those signs seemed plain enough, but there were other portents that he couldn’t decipher. The tightness in his gut when he saw Royce Lewis lying there in a hospital bed. The shaky feeling of pain and anger that surged through him when he noticed the blonde girl’s swollen eye.

Perhaps these were nothing more than reactions. Emotions he hadn’t previously experienced, except when it came to April. Simple responses which he had studied, year after year, but never duplicated before now.

And here they were, surging inside him. A riot of strange feelings, breaking through the robot precision of his thoughts. Maybe they were portents of the dream, too. Steve tipped back the glass, and the last gulp of beer slid down his throat while the last curl of foam tickled his lip.

Portents. They were lining up in his favor. The dream was a little closer with every passing moment. And the nightmare, buttoned up in his pocket, was wasting away to nothing. Suddenly he wanted rid of it. He wanted to drown it in the black waves outside.

No. He would take the film home to April. He would destroy it before her eyes, proving to her that it was nothing anymore.

That would be a portent of their future.

That would stop her screaming.

Steve paid his bill, leaving a sizable tip for the waitress. She looked like she needed the money.

Reactions. Damn. Even a little thing like leaving a big tip stirred new feelings inside him. He stepped outside. The night air was turning crisp. The white scent of salt rode the ocean breeze, mingled with another scent that Steve recognized instantly.

The black stink of smoke.

Salt air and smoke burned Steve’s eyes.

An unfamiliar shiver tickled over his scalp, sinking its fangs at the base of his skull.

***

Steve’s old Dodge complained as he drove through Marvis’s neighborhood. He paused at a red light, skipped it because traffic was light and he was in a hurry.

Before today, this neighborhood hadn’t existed for him. It wasn’t on his beat. But he had come here before his trip to the camera shop, searching for Marvis Hanks. At the time he hadn’t noticed anything besides the simple fact that Marvis wasn’t at home. But he had been another man then, more machine than human. Now he recognized how lifeless and depressing these streets were.

The Dodge’s muffler rattled as he came around the corner. Just ahead, lights flashed on the roofs of police cars and fire trucks, and Steve’s pupils shut down. The emergency vehicles were parked in front the third house on the left side of the street. Marvis Hanks’s house.

Steve pulled to the curb. Thin curls of smoke rose from the roof line. The firemen ignored them, busily connecting their hoses from a fire hydrant near the house. Their work was finished. Maybe Marvis Hanks was finished, too. Steve found himself hoping that were the case. He wasn’t ashamed of the thought. He had felt something for Marvis’s father, not Marvis. It would suit him fine if every bit of April’s nightmare was transformed into charred rubble this very night. The larger of the two fire trucks pulled away. A couple of firemen sagged on the rear bumper of the other, talking and sharing a cigarette, while two others entered the house with flashlights and axes. Steve turned his attention from the fire crew to the policemen. Three cars were on the scene, but it was a little hard to see what his brother officers were up to because everyone who lived on the street was in the street, watching the action. He picked out a uniform who was standing on a small rectangular lawn across the street from Hanks’s house. A heavyset black man was talking to the cop. The man held a baseball bat in his right hand. The cop took the bat away from him. The black guy pointed across the street, and Steve glanced over. As people moved away from the fire truck, and Steve saw another cop talking to a kid in a black leather jacket.

The kid from the bar. Steve was out of his car in an instant, skirting the big black guy and the cop holding the ball bat. “Damn right, I hit him,” the black guy said. “I’m sitting in my living room, and I see this guy and a couple of other…maybe three others…run up and throw bricks through my neighbor’s window. And then I saw that one of ’em had some bottles that was burning, and he tossed them through the window before I could even blink.” He shook his head. “Explosion came too fast. Screams didn’t even last a second. But those boys didn’t get away fast. They stood there watching the damn fire like they was proud of what they’d done, and I was all over one of ’em…the one you got over there. I would have had the others but…”

Steve walked away, not wanting to hear the rest of it. He crossed the street, avoiding the kid in the leather jacket. He didn’t want the kid to point him out, or mention anything about the offer he’d made in the bar.

He wanted to find out about Marvis Hanks.

Christ. It didn’t take a genius to figure it out. Hanks was playing around with the pretty young thing that came to the bar. He got too rough with her. Maybe he always did that, or maybe he’d had a particularly bad day.

Steve smiled sourly. Another emotion added to his repertoire. Welcome, compassion. He pushed the feeling away. Even though he was a rookie in matters of emotion, he knew that his compassion, in this case, was badly misplaced.

Okay, Hanks had a bad day. Well, he was probably due more than a couple. And then he made the mistake of taking his bad temper out on someone who knew how to play rough.

Steve crossed Marvis’s lawn, which was now a muddy swamp. He wished that he had Ernest Kellogg’s bright yellow galoshes. A fireman tried to stop him, but Steve flashed his badge.

“He’s okay,” came a voice from the garage.

Steve recognized Sergeant Rafer Williams’s rasping baritone. The previous winter, he had worked swing shift under Williams. Rafer smiled and they shook hands.

“Johnny-on-the-spot, huh, Austin? I just got here myself. Don’t tell me you’re turning into one of those nuts with a police radio.”

“No. I was just passing by. I went to high school with the guy who lived here.”

“No shit?”

“Yeah…he okay?”

Rafer shrugged. “The boys tell me that there’s a body in the house. Crispy critter. Right in the living room. Poor sucker didn’t know what hit him. Molotov cocktails we think.” He pointed. “Anyway if the corpse is your man, he ain’t close to okay. Punks threw the cocktails right through the front window there. Fire boys say that things got going quick-the basement was full of chemicals and stuff.”

“Marvis Hanks ran a photo shop.”

“That’s the story huh?” Williams paused a beat.

“ Marvis Hanks? You don’t mean the guy was Marvis Hanks’s boy?”

“Yeah.”

“Damn. Me and his daddy went back some. There was a time when we were the only two black guys on the force. Hanks was kind of a cold fish, not a social guy at all, but he was a helluva cop.”

“Yeah,” Steve agreed. “He was my training officer.”

They stood there for a minute. Rafer lit a cigarette, and Steve was surprised to find that the stink of the little cancer stick bothered him more than the raw odor of burnt wood.

Across the street, the black guy laughed and the cop who was interviewing him smiled. The kid in the leather jacket was cuffed and shoved into a police car. For the first time, Steve noticed the girl with the swollen eye sitting in another car, all alone.

The ambulance that had been on scene pulled away from the curb, empty. Flecks of granite-colored ash danced off the vehicle as it picked up speed, drifting to the street like dirty snowflakes, but a few hung in the air long enough to hit the windshield of a black sedan that pulled smoothly into the driveway.

The guy who exited the sedan wore jeans, tennis shoes, and an old Grateful Dead T-shirt.

“Here’s the coroner,” Williams said. “Let’s get this over with.”

***

The three men entered the house. Williams and the coroner, whose name was Vince Ching, held flashlights. Puddles of oily, wet soot pooled on the floor. “Damn,” Ching said. “Here goes another forty bucks. I’m still stupid enough to answer a call wearing white tennies. You’d think I hadn’t been doing this shit for fifteen years.”

“What you guys need is a uniform,” Rafer said.

Ching nodded. “Maybe we could get black cloaks and skull masks. Scythes, too. A whole squad of grim reapers.”

Rafer laughed. “Well, anything would be better than that tie-dyed shit.”

“Don’t start.” The coroner pinned his flashlight between his arm and ribs while he slipped on a pair of rubber gloves. The gloves made snapping sounds, like giant rubber bands.

Rafer’s light swept the floor. It was a small room, and he found the body soon enough. “I’ll never get used to this,” he said.

Steve stared at the body. It lay in a pool of water.

Calling the thing a crispy critter was an understatement. The corpse was slick black from head to foot, and it looked like it would flake away to nothing if anyone tried to move it. Worst of all, the arms were drawn up, as if the corpse had been trying to ward off an attack at the moment of death.

“Jesus,” Steve whispered. “Look at the arms…you think he saw it coming?”

The coroner shook his head. He was on his knees, next to the corpse. “No. It’s called pugilistic attitude. Flesh burns and muscles tighten. The arms curl up. It’s a completely natural reaction.” He paused. “And it’s not a he. It’s a she. And yes, she probably did see it coming. Death by fire isn’t instantaneous, and neither is it pleasant.”

Words spilled from Steve’s mouth. “I knew the guy who lived here. His name was Marvis Hanks. Single guy… Are you sure this isn’t him?”

The coroner’s smiling face bobbed in a circle of illumination cast by Rafer Williams’s flashlight. Ching said, simply, “This isn’t Marvis Hanks, pal. I can tell a boy from a girl.”

Steve’s knees wobbled, but neither flashlight was aimed in his direction and no one noticed. He recovered enough to ask, “Anyone else in the house, Rafer?”

“No,” the sergeant said. “Not that we saw. The basement’s a swamp though. The chemicals were really burning down there, and the fire boys sluiced it down pretty well. Water heater was down there, too, and it was spilling water until we got the main turned off. We’ll have to check again but-”

“Damn,” Ching said. “Will you look at this.”

Rafer Williams redirected his flashlight beam. “Sweet Jesus. Who…what kind of a man would do something like that?”

The corpse’s jaws were drawn wide, locked, straining around a billiard ball. The cheeks had split like jerky and curled up, receding to eye level like slashed window shades. The billiard ball was singed and slightly melted, but the number eight was still visible between two rows of stark white molars that were bordered by blackened gums.

Ching whispered, “I’ve seen things, but…”

“My God,” Williams said. “The things that happen on a quiet little street like this one. After all these years, I still hate havin’ my nose rubbed in it. What do you think, Austin? What kind of a guy was Marvis Hanks’s boy, anyhow?”

Suddenly, Rafer Williams realized that he was talking to himself. “Steve?” he called. “Hey, Austin, where’d you go?”

Two flashlight beams swept the room.

Steve Austin was gone.

***

Steve swore at himself. At his hesitation. Paying attention to the stupid questions that danced in his head had done this to him. If he had lost everything because of that… If he had lost April…

He couldn’t believe it. Life had given him a second chance, and now-

Steve threw open the garage door and flicked on the light. The door to his fortress of solitude hung open. The top hinge was broken. The varnished oak was scarred, splintered. Steve stepped into the room.

Life had given him a second chance, and now it was gone. All his life he had wanted to break the distance. He had longed to feel the way other people felt, see things the way they saw them. He had wanted to smash the barrier that separated him from those simple emotions. But he had never imagined that the distance that cut him off from others also protected him from the world. It kept him from trusting. Kept him from believing lies and false promises.

And Hanks had promised him. Marvis had sworn to stay away from April. But he hadn’t done that.

Steve stepped over Doug Douglas’s corpse. The girl from the land of dreams and nightmares was gone. The empty husk of April Destino leaned at an odd angle in the far corner. It didn’t look like something broken; it just looked like something dead.

There was a note pinned to the dreamweaver’s cheek:

ONE CHEERLEADER FOR ONE MOVIE SEE YOU AT SKYVIEW

Skyview. The cemetery. For the first time since childhood, tears filled Steve’s eyes.

“You lying bastards,” he whispered.

To have seen April like that, in Marvis Hanks’s house. Burned down to nothing. Pugilistic Attitude… shit, he didn’t care what the coroner had called it. He knew that April had died shrinking from her nightmare, just as he knew that he would forever picture her lying there in a filthy puddle of her own oily ashes, an eight ball jammed in her mouth.

To have seen her there, like that. To see her here, like this.

To see her dead twice.

It was all his fault. Things had really gotten away from him. He should have shot Marvis Hanks dead behind the counter at the camera shop. He should have broken every bone in Bat Bautista’s body with his tonfa. Instead, he had worked his mouth. He might as well have told Marvis that April was in his basement. He might as well have told Bat Bautista, too.

And now the girl from his dreams was dead. Marvis was probably dead, too. But Steve guessed that Bat Bautista didn’t know that. Bat was busy setting traps at Skyview Memorial Lawn. He probably figured both April and Marvis were safe, well hidden until things blew over.

The note pinned to April’s cheek was the biggest lie yet. Steve was sure that Bat Bautista wanted to kill him. He stripped off his coat and shirt, put on the lightweight Kevlar vest he wore under his police uniform, and dressed again. Then he grabbed a shotgun from a cabinet in the garage. Sawed-off, double-barreled, loaded with number 0 buckshot-each pellet as lethal as a. 32-caliber bullet. He took some extra shells from another drawer and filled the pockets of his denim coat.

Something was wrong. There should have been a box of. 45-caliber ammunition next to the shotgun shells. Steve closed the drawer, opened another. His. 45 was missing, too.

Bat Fucking Bautista. And Steve had hoped to stop him with a friendly little warning.

Well, naivete was a bitch, wasn’t it?

Steve slammed the drawer, breaking the wooden knob. The missing gun didn’t matter. His. 38 police special was already in the Dodge.

In a matter of seconds, so was he.

He didn’t bother to close the garage door.

He was never coming back.

He gunned the sputtering engine and drove into the night.

He went to kill a nightmare.

11:30 P.M.

Lying in the bottom of April’s grave, trussed up like a Thanksgiving turkey, Amelia Peyton sure as shit didn’t look like she was worth anything.

Griz Cody steadied the flashlight, and the murky beam filled her startled gray eyes. Griz had taped her mouth shut so she couldn’t scream, but her eyes were doаa pretty good job of it.

Jesus. Who wouldn’t want to scream? Lying in a grave, in an open coffin half filled with muddy water. Who wouldn’t be terrified?

The water part was almost funny. Before Griz could find the flashlight, Derwin and Todd had tossed Amelia into the grave. The splash had surprised everyone. Playing the light over the grave, Griz had noticed the bent sprinkler head, which was still dripping a tired trickle. Most of the water had leeched into the soil, but the coffin was still pretty full, like some weird steel bathtub. And the guys had tossed Miss Priss Amelia Peyton into it, dead center.

Derwin said, “Turn off the light. Her eyes are givin’ me the creeps.”

“Sure.” Griz thumbed the flashlight switch. He knew what Derwin meant. Amelia Peyton had given them a good scare, and it was hard to shake it.

Christ, this whole night was going to be hard to shake. First Bat coming over, telling him that Ozzy Austin, who was a goddamn cop for christsakes, had the film and was going to start trouble with it. That hadn’t sounded so bad at first. How much trouble could Austin cause? After all, April was dead, and dead bitches couldn’t testify about anything.

Then Griz had remembered what was on the film. What it showed him doing. He didn’t want anyone to see that. He had kids, for christsakes.

That was when Bat dropped the kicker, saying that Ozzy Austin was the one who had stolen April’s corpse. It seemed obvious once Bat explained it-the shattered beer bottles at the cemetery, and Ozzy being the guy who had practically invented graveyard baseball. And then there was the way Austin had always mooned over April, scared to talk to her and all that shit. And when Bat said that Austin had actually jumped in his face that very afternoon, acting all weird and everything…well, that was just the icing on the fruitcake.

So they went to Austin’s house, Derwin and Todd in tow, planning to kick the shit out of him and get the film. Or maybe even kill him, but nobody actually said anything about that. But Austin wasn’t there, and it didn’t seem very smart sitting around the place waiting for him.

So they decided to snatch April’s corpse and go somewhere else. Somewhere a little quieter, where they could ambush Austin without any trouble.

***

Derwin stared into the grave, saw nothing. It was almost worse with the flashlight off, knowing those terrified eyes were swimming in the bottom of that black hole.

Shit. Terrified eyes. He had a picture of that. Bautista’s fuckin’ eyes bugging out when he kicked his way into Ozzy Austin’s basement and April Destino came at him with a busted bottle.

Wasn’t April, though. Was that bitch. Amy Peyton, dressed in April’s fuckin’ cheerleading outfit. Wearin’ a wig that made her look dead like April in high school. Sure, Amy Peyton wasn’t no eighteen year old, but she had taken care of herself. Hell, she looked pretty damn good. Except for the barmaid’s kiss that she held in her hand.

Funny thing was her expression. After Bat got the bottle away from her, that is. Saying that Ozzy was nuts, when she was the one dressed up like April.

Austin was nuts, though. Had to be. Lockin’ the Peyton bitch up with a corpse. Hell, two corpses. Fuckin’ dead fat guy lyin’ there on the floor. It turned out it was Dougy Douglas. Man had that asshole gone to seed.

Shit. The whole mess of ’em had to be buttfuck loony. And about that time the real deal dawned on the Peyton bitch. Derwin could see it in those gray eyes of hers. They turned wary all of a sudden, the color of a sharpened lawnmower blade. And he knew what was going on behind those eyes. Here I am, she was thinking. Here they are. But they’re not here to rescue me.

They’re the motherfuckers who raped April Destino.

They’re here to rape me.

Bitch tried to run, but there was no place for her to go. Not with four of them to stop her. Shit, bitch tried to scream, and he got hold of her and made her stop. She felt nice and warm against him, squirming around in her cute little cheerleading outfit. Brought back some memories and made his blood rise.

And then he tried to cop a feel and got nothing but a handful of paper hankies. Shit. This bitch wasn’t no April Destino.

Still…it seemed like a waste. They could still have some fun. Nice quiet basement. No one would hear her scream. Even Limp Dick Cody could have his fun.

Bat snuffed the candles on that particular cake. PDQ. Boy was getting even more paranoid than usual. Said they would leave evidence if they even did the slightest little thing to her. Said sperm was just like fingerprints, and boy did that strike Todd funny. He just laughed and laughed until he could hardly breathe. Then he stared at his fingertips and whispered to himself and started up laughing all over again.

Bat wasn’t laughing, though. Said let’s pack her up and go.

Get that nut and get the film.

Derwin didn’t care nothing about the film. He just wanted a piece of the nut. Rockin’ a cop-now that might make him feel pretty good.

He felt pretty good right now. Pistol jammed in his belt, blood pumpin’ through his veins, some bitch making sounds like a sick cat down in a hole in the ground.

This shit was a hell of a lot more interesting than mowing lawns.

***

Amelia Peyton’s moans turned Bat’s stomach. His kids had whined that way when they were babies. It was one of the main reasons he’d had the vasectomy.

Christ. If this night would just end. He glanced at Derwin and Griz and Todd, and they didn’t make him feel any better. The only thing that would have eased his worries was if his mama had given birth to quadruplets, and the other three were with him tonight.

These boys were nuts. Derwin wanting to pull a train with Amy Peyton, as if riding April’s choo choo way back when hadn’t caused them enough misery. And Griz, that boy was a sick puppy, pinning a ransom note to the cheek of a corpse. Austin was nuts, sure, digging her up and all. But at least he hadn’t done any weird shit to her after he got her home.

And Todd. Fuckin’ Todd Gould. If you jammed his thumb up his ass and told him he was Little Jack Horner, the fool would try to eat himself.

Jesus. Bat spit into the grave, but the bitch didn’t shut up. If it wasn’t for that little spool of film, and the knowledge of what it could do to him and his family, he wouldn’t be here at all. These guys weren’t worth it. Tonight was the last night. He was quits with these idiots. Guys like these…shit, guys like these had been holding him back his whole life. Wasting his time, getting him into trouble with his old lady. Maybe there was something to Ozzy Austin’s loner routine, after all. Austin had done all right by it, and he was certifiable.

“C’mon, Austin,” Bat whispered. “Let’s get on with it.” The only good thing that had happened was Austin doing Doug Douglas. That would save Bat some work down the road. If things went right at the cemetery, he’d only have Shutterbug to worry about. And that particular worry wasn’t any bigger than Griz Cody’s dick.

But it would be a miracle if this thing worked. What a plan. Grab Austin when he got here, take him out with the. 45 they had stolen from his gun cabinet. It had to be a head shot. Then, when he was dead, wrap his fingers around the pistol and drill the coffin, so that traces of powder would show on his hand. It would look like he had killed Amelia Peyton, and then killed his nutty self. Bat couldn’t sort out the crazy shit that was going on between the two of them. He didn’t have a clue about the games they were playing. And that was good, because he figured the cops wouldn’t see it any clearer.

Bat sighed. Someone would have to go back to Austin’s house, too. Get the note off April’s cheek. Shit. This was too damn complicated. Bat hoped he had thought of everything.

Amelia Peyton sloshed around in a couple three inches of muddy water, and Bat almost said. Hush hush, you little brat, or daddy’s gonna make you hush.

But he didn’t say that. He didn’t say anything.

He jumped into the hole and closed the coffin.

Slammed it closed.

***

Todd Gould yawned.

It was a nice night, that was for sure. A little colder than last night, but nice. It was quiet. Nice and quiet.

Sometimes it was real quiet at the furniture store. That was nice.

But this place wasn’t like the furniture store. There wasn’t any furniture here at all.

11:38 P.M.

The coffin lid slammed closed, and Amy was trapped in borderless darkness.

April’s coffin, however, was not without borders. Amy’s heels pressed against the bottom wall. She couldn’t move them because her legs were bound at the ankles and the coffin lid pressed against her knees. Her wrists were bound as well, and another rope secured her forearms to her waist so she couldn’t get enough distance to lift the coffin lid. The tight bonds cut off her circulation, and she couldn’t fight the numbness that bloomed in her feet and hands. She could only lie there, the icy water soaking April’s clothes, cold fear snaking through her veins.

A whimper rose inside Amy, but it couldn’t go anywhere. The strip of duct tape that masked her mouth locked the sound inside her. She dipped her face to the side, into the cold water, but the tape didn’t loosen.

And she felt that she would explode. Her breaths came too fast through pinched nostrils, but she refused to surrender to the fear. That was what they wanted. They wanted her weak, beaten.

It’s a little late in the game to start fighting, don’t you think?

The coffin lining sagged above Amy’s face. Dank silk rubbed her nose. Cold drops of water struck her eyes, and she blinked them away. She moved her head, but the droplets only increased.

She closed her eyes and kept them closed.

People did this for fun. Amy had read about it. Sensory deprivation tanks. Floating around in saltwater, getting in touch with one’s innermost concerns. It was said to be very relaxing, but then again Amy was pretty sure that there weren’t too many sensory deprivation tanks that had once been coffins, and no one climbed into one of the things bound up like Harry Houdini.

And no one left four lunatics in charge of the keys.

But all this could change. She had overheard Bautista’s master plan. He wanted Steve Austin, the ex-Six Million Dollar Man who had become an unstoppable mummy in Amy’s own private mythology. Austin had something Bautista wanted. From what she had heard, Amy guessed that something had to be Marvis Hanks’s movie.

Austin cared about April. That much was certain. And, in his mind, at this moment. Amy was April.

The Six Million Dollar Psychotic would get her out of this.

And where would he take her? Back to his basement?

God. What would happen when he realized that she had tricked him? He didn’t want her. He wanted April Destino. He wanted her so desperately that he was willing to chase after her in death. Wanted her bad enough to push himself to the limits, until he found a way to believe that she could still be with him.

Amy struggled against her bonds. Stale water sloshed against the sides of the cramped coffin. Her wig slipped off. It lay beneath her head like the pelt of a dead animal, scratching her neck. She drew a sharp, frightened breath through her nostrils. Air. The word came to her in an instant. There was only so much air in a coffin. She couldn’t afford to waste it.

She lay very still, as still as the dead. Her fingers were completely numb. They were strangers, and her hands would soon be as well. She could no longer feel the gooseflesh dotting her legs. Only the damp cold penetrated her bones. She was dying a millimeter at a time.

This had been April’s fate. Lying in a trailer, a dozen drugs pumping through her veins as she waited for the end. Alone. Then cold in the ground, lying in a tight box in the borderless darkness. Alone.

Amy tried not to breathe.

She wasn’t alone. April was here in the darkness, but the darkness didn’t frighten her. She was dead. She didn’t need to breathe anymore.

For April, the coffin was a suit of armor. She welcomed it.

And suddenly Amy understood April Destino. April didn’t mind being alone in the darkness, because no rapists waited there. April couldn’t see fingers pointing when she masked her pain with drugs, and she couldn’t hear her name spit through laughing lips when she was alone.

Amy’s thoughts were foggy with cold, but her inner vision was clearing. She opened her eyes and stared into the void, blinking as cold droplets rained down from the silk liner.

The void was complete, perfect. It was the only thing there.

Help me, April, Amy thought. I’m scared.

How scared April must have been. Four jocks raping her. Half the people in school thinking she was some dumb bimbo anyway. Maybe someone would have believed her story, if she had mustered the strength to tell it. But she would have had to keep telling it, and then she would have had to face Griz and Derwin and Todd and Bat, and go on facing them until it was over.

Win or lose, she could never be the same.

Win or lose… There were four of them, and only one April. It was that simple, and it was still happening today. Some things never changed, because people never changed.

Bat and Griz and Todd and Derwin hadn’t changed.

But Amy had changed. She had grown up. People like Amy…

…tormented people like April. And they went on to torment husbands and lovers and friends, bending them to their own personal agendas. They leeched on misery, ripped up bright futures and stole the best of the scraps. They laughed and whispered and trashed lockers and trashed lives, driving the April Destinos of the world into trailer parks. People like Amy hated people like April, hated them for the things they had gained so easily, and the things they surrendered without a fight.

Suddenly, it seemed so simple.

April in a hot metal trailer.

Amy in a cold metal coffin.

That was the truth of it.

When you hit us, we bruise, every one of us… When you cut us, we all bleed.

April, I’m so scared.

Welcome to the club. Try living like this for eighteen years.

A c hill wracked Amy’s chest. April’s sweater was heavy with water. Amy knew there was no way to get warm. I never took any hits, Amy thought. Not really. I never knew what it was like, April. I swear to God, I never saw what it was like to be so alone. I never knew it could be so cold.

The darkness was waiting. The still water opened a welcoming hand.

April had been her teacher, leaving the sweater and the eight ball, leaving her Doug Douglas and Steve Austin. But the lesson had gone on from there, into what seemed another world, a place where the dead and the living existed on the same plane, a place where the same battles were fought again and again.

I can’t do it alone, April.

The cheerleader’s sweater was heavy with darkness. The wet Kleenex stuffed inside April’s bra cupped Amy’s small breasts, molding to her skin like the marble hands of the dead.

I don’t want to be alone, April.

April’s hands were on her, like stones.

Strong hands which had never become fists.

April, I…

The cold rushed in, and something froze deep inside Amy. The darkness blinded her. Icy hands increased pressure on her chest until her ribs threatened to snap, and violent tremors tore through her, and she rode the spasm until the frozen thing shattered within.

11:44 P.M.

The Colonial Chapel Mortuary was a study in glowing green-white. The energy-efficient halogen lights appealed to the bottom-line instincts of the proprietors, while the Barnum in them appreciated the mystical, otherworldly aura that the lights lent to the colonial-courthouse-style structure in the late hours.

Steve extinguished his headlights as he approached the mortuary. He pulled into the rear area where the hearses-one black and one white-were parked. Steve’s Dodge drifted to a stop between them.

Bat Bautista wanted to lure him to the cemetery. Wanted him to drive up, lights blazing, and park on the winding road near April’s grave. Wanted to blow his ass away from behind a tombstone.

No way that was going to happen. No way Steve was going to play their game, because he knew that they didn’t have anything that he wanted. Bat Bautista was a liar.

Steve glanced in the rearview and saw the guy who had tried to corral Bat Bautista with words sneering back at him. How had he ever imagined that he could tell Bat that April was back, and then expect him to leave her alone? Stupid, to have thought that he could scare Bat and the others, when they were the bastards who had trapped April in the nightmare in the first place. They were too stupid to fear anything.

They took April, all right. The A-Squad and that little bastard Shutterbug. They didn’t even bother with her dead husk, except to make it into a billboard.

Steve’s hands shook on the steering wheel as he remembered the note safety-pinned to the corpse’s cheek. That minor atrocity didn’t slow the A-Squad’s progress one second. They left April with Shutterbug, hoping to play out their hand, hoping to get the film, wanting everything, because that’s what guys like Bat and Derwin and Griz and Todd always wanted, and too many years had passed since any of them had gotten even a little piece of everything.

Steve slipped his gun belt around his waist and fastened the buckle. Leather creaked, and the familiar sound put him at ease. Hopefully he would manage to surprise them. Hit the A-Squad before they knew he was even there. Come out of the darkness like a boogieman.

Steve snatched up his shotgun.

He opened the car door quietly, stepped out soundlessly.

And the morons thought that he was stupid enough to drive up to the grave, lights blazing.

The 16mm loop was in Steve’s pocket. He knew what he was going to do with it. He was going to shoot Bat Bautista, but not kill him through. And then he was going to put the film in Bat’s pocket and light it on fire.

Steve closed the car door and turned, shaking his head, grinning…

…and he stepped into a nightmare.

11:47 P.M.

“You hear that?” Derwin asked.

“Yeah,” Griz said.

“Sounded like gunshots.”

“Yeah,” Griz agreed.

“Or a car backfiring,” Todd put in.

“Shut up,” Bat said. “Whatever it is, it’s got nothing to do with us.”

“But if someone calls the cops,” Todd offered.

“No one’s gonna call the cops.” Bat sighed. “Think about it. There’s a closed drive-in on the other side of the road. This cemetery is as big as the fucking Oakland Coliseum. If anyone heard anything, they’ll just ignore it. And even if they don’t, you think the cops come running every time someone fires a gun? In this town?”

“But Bat- “

“Shut the fuck up! If Austin hears us, this whole thing will go bad. Now stake out this place like I told you. Together we’re sitting ducks.” Bat whirled, moped off, and hid behind a tombstone. He was sweating now, and his heart pounded like a little bongo drum locked in his chest. And his stomach…man oh man, his stomach.

Bat lay Ozzy Austin’s. 45 on the grass and fished a roll of Tums from his pocket. Crunched three of the things. Vague fruit flavors masked the sour taste in his mouth.

Jesus, sitting here in the dark with three morons. Hiding behind tombstones, waiting for Austin’s car to show.

Maybe Austin would be smarter than that. Bat was counting on pissing him off, forcing him to rush after them like a wildman on a mission. If Austin stopped long enough to think things through- No way. Ozzy Austin wouldn’t do that. The guy was a lunatic. He would want his bitch back. He would want Amelia Peyton right now, so he could get on with whatever crazy game they were-

A whisper next to his ear: “Hey…Bat.”

Bat spit flecks of Tums. Todd was standing there, his silhouette barely discernible. Had to be Todd because the silhouette was too short for Derwin and too skinny for Griz. “Don’t go sneaking around like that,” Bat whispered. “Everyone’s jumpy. You’ll get your ass shot. Now get back to that tombstone and keep your eyes peeled.”

Two metal circles pressed against Bat’s left cheek.

Tight circles, a cold figure-eight.

Bat smelled gun oil. Jesus! A double-barreled shotgun!

He made a grab for Austin’s pistol. His hand closed over the scored grip. His finger found the trigger.

But by the time he pulled it he was already dead, and the shot he fired was little more than a reflex.

The bullet dug its own grave in the green grass.

***

The bucking shotgun had punched a hot knife of pain through his shoulder, but he hardly noticed it; he had seen what the shotgun did to Bat Bautista and that image was much more powerful than the pain.

The white marble tombstone was now slick and black. A gory river flowed where Bat Bautista’s head had been. Damned impressive. Bat Bautista down so easy. The hot metal smell of the weapon drifted to his nostrils, along with the aroma of blood and singed meat.

The night surrounded him. The sky was masked with concrete clouds. The clouds wiped at the moon, and in an instant all was black.

It was as if he were nowhere.

But he wasn’t alone. The others were coming. He could hear them.

He moved, rolling low, staying quiet.

A sharp click. The sound of a revolver cocking.

“Oh shit!” someone said.

“Austin’s here,” came another voice, a voice he recognized as Derwin MacAskill’s. “Be careful, Griz.”

“Damn right…where’s Todd?”

“Who the fuck knows?”

He smiled from his hiding place. They couldn’t see him. They had walked right past him, one on each side. He was with them in the dark, and they couldn’t find him.

The coffin lid was slick, but he held tight to the shotgun and kept his balance, his arms rising slowly over the lip of the grave. He propped his right elbow on the grass while his left index finger lay steady on the trigger. Griz and Derwin stared at him, but they didn’t see him. He pressed the smooth wooden butt of the gun to his shoulder, smelled furniture polish, and almost laughed.

“You check over there,” Derwin said.

“Uh-uh,” Griz said. “I don’t think that we should split up.”

Down in the grave, he thought about making the obvious joke. He didn’t.

But he did fire the shotgun, and twin loads of number 0 buckshot split them in half.

***

The green halogen light was the light of heaven. No it wasn’t.

Steve came to in the mortuary parking lot.

The son of a bitch. Waiting for him like that. Waiting until he got out of the car.

The memory sizzled through Steve’s brain: Turning from the Dodge, seeing the gun in the unreal green-white light, and the man holding it… Too late… The first bullet clips his left shoulder as he makes a grab for his own revolver, and his arm goes dead before he can get it out of the holster… Reaching across his body with his right hand, anything to get his gun, but the revolver is thundering in the mystical light of heaven, bullets slamming him… And he’s lying on the trunk of the Dodge just that fast, and Frankie Valli in his incarnation as a disco superstar is in his head singing about feelin’ the rush like the rollin’ of the thunder, spinnin’ his head around and takin’ his body under… Oh what a night, didn’t even have time to blink and there’s no air in his lungs and the gunman is leaning over him now, digging through his pockets, grabbing the 16mm loop and the shotgun shells while he can only wheeze… He tries to make his left arm move, tries to push the man away, but the man is already gone and…

And The Six Million Dollar Man is now fully conscious. But he is not quite right beneath his Kevlar vest, and hot transmission fluid leaks from the hole in his mechanical shoulder. I’ll have to pay a visit to Dr. Rudy Wells down at The Six Million Dollar Man Repair Shop when this is over, he tells himself.

He grabs his revolver with his right hand and it feels like an alien thing, because he is left-handed.

He tells himself that tonight he will be right-handed. He is a Six Million Dollar Man, a cyborg, and his brain can control every muscle in his body.

He moves forward.

And barely avoids falling flat on his face.

***

Shutterbug climbed out of April’s grave-clothes muddy, the shotgun warm in his hands-and saw Todd Gould running like the track star he once was.

Clouds slid away from the moon. The night sky powdered from charcoal to bleached ash, and then Todd noticed Shutterbug and realized in one horrible instant that he was running in the wrong direction.

An awful little shriek escaped Todd Gould’s lips. His hands were empty. He had lost his gun, so he turned and reversed course, slipping on the grass.

Todd was still fast. His arms pumped in the smooth rhythm of a natural athlete. His feet were flying.

And he was bearing down on the fuchsia-colored police tape.

Shutterbug laughed. He laughed so hard that he couldn’t shoulder the shotgun. Todd broke the tape. Shutterbug cheered.

A pistol crack sounded in the distance. Todd Gould collapsed, his corpse skidding across the damp grass like a kid riding a water slide.

***

Shutterbug’s laughter caught in his throat. The shotgun was suddenly very heavy in his hands.

The A-Squad had four members. They were all dead. It was supposed to be over.

“I warned you. I told you not to cross me. I’m coming.”

It was Steve Austin’s voice, but it couldn’t be. Shutterbug had gunned him down in back of the mortuary.

The sound of thunder erupted behind him. Shutterbug whirled, gasping. Not thunder. The sound came from the grave. From April Destino’s coffin. Something was in there, pounding to get out.

Shutterbug backed away, gripping the shotgun. He couldn’t see Austin. It was so dark, and he didn’t know where to look, and-

“You’ve really disappointed me,” Austin said, his voice no more than a whisper.

A sharp click sounded as Austin readied his revolver. Hollow thumps rippled from April’s grave as Shutterbug passed by. He was going to unravel. He knew it. Right there in the cemetery, he was going to unravel.

No.

Jumping through the French doors in his kitchen, Shutterbug hadn’t received a single cut. Not bad, when he considered the fate of the FBI agent. He hadn’t been wounded in his war with the A-Squad, either, and that was equally amazing in light of the firepower he had faced.

But there was only so much he could stand. Gone-to-seed jocks invading his house. Cops bullying him at his store. FBI agents smiling at him. Shelly Desmond stealing his money. Her pyromaniac boyfriend torching his house.

Barely escaping through the damn French doors.

Twelve hundred bucks worth of doors broken, then burned. Running all the way to the camera shop, just so he could get his old man’s service revolver and the van he used for business.

The FBI agent was dead; Shutterbug had watched her basic black outfit ignite. She was toast. But, driving around in the van, Shutterbug had realized that his other enemies still lived. And all of them were within striking distance.

He had gone to Steve Austin’s house, determined to silence him for good, only to find Austin leaving via his rattletrap Dodge.

So Shutterbug followed Austin to the mortuary. Cut him down, and he wasn’t so nervous anymore. And then he heard those morons yelling at each other over in the cemetery. He slaughtered three of them and felt that he had dropped a hundred pounds of worry.

And now Austin had eliminated the fourth.

But Shutterbug had eliminated Austin.

This was impossib-

An icy squeal rose from April’s grave-sharp fingernails scoring smooth metal.

“I’m Steve Austin, and I’m coming for you. I’m The Six Million Dollar Man. And I’m Ozzy Austin.” Austin laughed. “I’m Oz…I am The Great amp; Powerful Oz. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”

The shotgun was slippery with Shutterbug’s sweat. He wasn’t a shotgun kind of fellow. He knew that. Just as he knew that this was impossible, unreal, like a dream.

Austin chasing him down, an avenging invisible man.

Something trapped in April’s coffin, trying to get out, when he knew that April was dead.

But last night, on the road, April had nearly run him down.

Impossible. This wasn’t a dream, it was a-Shutterbug dropped the shotgun. His fingers scrabbled into his shirt pocket. The old 16mm movie was still there.

Austin had said that the movie was April’s nightmare.

“If you just leave me alone…” Shutterbug said.

He couldn’t think of anything else to say. He dropped the movie into April’s grave, heard it ring against the metal casket, and then he turned and ran into the night.

He ran like a frightened boy in a ghost story.

As fast as his feet could carry him.

He kept running.

11:59 P.M.

Steve Austin pushed Bat Bautista’s corpse out of the way and leaned against the bloodstained tombstone.

He was finished. He couldn’t take another step. He wasn’t The Six Million Dollar Man, after all. Blood leaked from his shoulder, not transmission fluid, and he had lost a lot of it. The blood that was left in him seemed to be pounding in his temples, and he couldn’t stand the racket. And while Shutterbug’s slugs hadn’t penetrated his Kevlar vest, they had busted him up pretty thoroughly. Every time he moved, one of a couple dozen fishhooks caught in his ribs ripped at his insides.

At least that was the way it felt. Certainly several ribs were broken. If Todd Gould hadn’t come right to him, practically running into his revolver… That had been lucky. Still, the trip from the mortuary to the cemetery hadn’t done him any good. Broken ribs could cut like knives. He knew full well the damage they could do.

But he had gone ahead anyway.

He was past that now. Thank God. He was just going to sit here for a while. He wasn’t a superhero. He wasn’t The Six Million Dollar Man.

But he was The Great and Powerful Oz. A great and powerful humbug. A ghost. He had to laugh at that. “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”

Marvis Hanks dropping his shotgun and running into the night.

That was funny.

And that was that. The end of his career as a humbug. Steve Austin only wanted to sit here and rest. The night would pass soon enough. When they found him tomorrow, they would look at his driver’s license and see that his name was Steve Austin. Just some guy with a brain locked in his skull that had never worked quite right.

Thought patterns running on a scale outside acceptable parameters.

That was him, all right.

They’ll find me, he told himself. And then Ernest Kellogg can drag my body through the mud, tumble me into a grave, and stand there in his yellow boots watching Royce Lewis shovel mud in my face.

Steve’s pulse slowed. He wasn’t sweating anymore.

The bloodstained tombstone didn’t make a half-bad bed.

If only it was warmer.

Steve wished that the tombstone was warmer. He wished the drums in his head would stop pounding. The graveyard wasn’t a bad place, really. Take away the drums, warm up the tombstone, and it would be fine. It was empty, for one thing. And it was green. The flowers that sprouted from the grass were plastic and ugly, but the stone monuments were beautiful.

Steve could see across the road, to the drive-in. The silhouettes of the dying pines that rimmed the theatre pressed into view above the cemetery fence. He knew he was looking at the crowns of the trees, but he stuck with the illusion that persisted in his imagination, that these were young trees, green, reaching for the heavens.

The trees. The grass. The stone flowers. This was so like the place he had always wanted to visit-the meadow in his dreams.

If only his head would stop pounding. If only the tombstone was warmer.

He sucked a deep breath and smelled the minty fragrance of the eucalyptus grove a few hundred feet away.

And then he knew very suddenly that it wasn’t the grove that he was smelling, because something sat at his side.

A paw made of twigs scratched his right arm. Homer Price licked Steve’s face with a tongue as rough as eucalyptus bark.

Homer barked, the sound of boards clapping together. Ran to the open grave. Whimpered at the precipice like Rin Tin Tin, like Lassie.

Steve realized that the pounding wasn’t in his head.

It was in April’s coffin.

***

He slid through the mud, his ribs on fire, tasting his own blood as it streamed inside him.

The coffin lid shuddered. Anguished thumps cascaded through the air.

Steve whispered, “If this is a dream, I don’t want to wake up.” His left arm wouldn’t work, but his right arm worked just fine as long as he didn’t bang his ribs with his elbow. He reached out, fingers clearing gritty soil, and the cold water that pooled in the bottom of the grave felt good in his boots.

He opened the coffin.

April was there.

He said, “If this is a dream…”

Her hands were bound, thumbs black and bloody from pounding the lid. He took a knife from his pocket and sliced the ropes. In the dim light he saw that her forehead was bruised, as well.

She had pounded the coffin with her skull.

His fingers caressed her bruises.

Something was wrong. Her hair was short. His fingers traveled the length of her eyebrows. He moved closer. Green eyes found gray eyes in the darkness.

“April,” he said, suddenly pulling away. “April?”

Her fingers covered his lips. He tried to say something else, but she gently pinched his mouth closed. And when her fingers moved away, it was only to peel the duct tape from her mouth.

She did not scream.

His voice trembled. “A-April?”

And now her lips were on his. And when her lips pulled away, she whispered, “Shhhh…be quiet. Shhh.”

She pulled him to her breast in the cold hole that was the last bed April Destino had ever known. She held him close. He fell asleep in her arms. And he dreamed.