/ Language: English / Genre:sf_horror,

The Stake

Richard Laymon

A horror writer, Larry Dunbar uncovers the body of a high school girl, who had been sacrificed on the altar of a madman's obsession to rid the Earth of a vampire's curse. A world of horrors was born the day the stake was driven into the girl's heart, and Dunbar wants to pull it out.

Richard Laymon

The Stake

This book is dedicated to Frank, Kathy & Leah De Laratta

Great friends

Fellow explorers

&

Ghost town busters

Prologue

Charleston, Illinois

June 23, 1972

He had stalked the demon to her lair. Now he waited. Waited for dawn, when she would be most vulnerable.

The waiting was the worst part. Knowing what was to come. The legends, he’d learned, were not to be trusted. The legends were wrong in so many ways.

Vampires slept in beds, not coffins — a clever ruse to fool the unknowing. And although daylight sapped their powers, it did not render them helpless. Even after dawn they could wake from their sleep of the dead. They could fight him, hurt him.

He rubbed his cheek. His fingers trembled along crusty ridges of scab. She’d had sharp fingernails, the one in Urbana.

He shuddered with the memory.

He’d been lucky to save himself.

Maybe he’d used up his luck on that one. Maybe, this time, it wouldn’t be fingernails ripping his cheek. Maybe, this time, teeth would find his throat.

Ducking down against the steering wheel, he reached under the driver’s seat and pulled out a bottle of bourbon. He twisted off its cap. He drank. The liquor was lukewarm going down, but it spread soothing heat through his stomach. He wanted to drink more.

Later, he promised himself. No more until the task is done.

You must keep your wits about you, he thought. It was the liquor that almost got you killed last week. These monsters are clever.

Again he rubbed his scratched cheek.

He took one more drink, then forced himself to cap the bottle. He slid it under the seat. As he straightened up, a car turned the corner ahead. Its headlights were on, but the morning sky was light enough to show the rack on top. A patrol car.

He threw himself down across the passenger seat.

His mouth felt dry. His heart thundered.

It’s not right, he thought. I shouldn’t have to live like a fugitive. I’m as much a public servant as those police out there.

He held his breath as the patrol car cruised by. It passed so close that he could hear crackles, squawks, and a garbled voice from its radio. He regretted his decision to leave the windows down. They might find that suspicious. But his car would’ve been stifling if he’d kept it closed up.

He breathed again as the sounds faded.

He stayed low, counting slowly to one hundred. Then he sat up and peered out the rear window. The red taillights were mere specks.

Opening his door, he leaned out and studied the sky. It was still gray beyond the peaked roof of the vampire’s dwelling. He placed a foot on the curb, straightened up and peered over the roof of his car. To the east the sky was pale blue.

From long experience, he knew that the sun would soon appear above the horizon.

It would be up by the time he was in position.

He sank back into the car. His silver crucifix hung against his chest. He fingered its chain and pulled the cross out from under his shirt. Then he lifted a leather briefcase off the floor in front of the passenger seat. Reaching into the case, he pulled out a necklace of garlic cloves. He looped it over his head.

Briefcase in hand, he stepped out of the car.

The overgrown lawn was surrounded by a picket fence. He swung the gate wide, kicking its bottom past tufts of weed that were high enough to hold it open. Coming out this way, he would be carrying the body. He didn’t want the gate slowing him down.

The porch stairs creaked under his weight. The screen door groaned. Inside the porch he used a wicker chair to prop the door open.

Twisting the knob, he found that the front door wasn’t locked. That made it easy. He wouldn’t need his pry bar. He crept silently into the house, and didn’t shut the door.

He knew where to find her room. Shortly after she’d entered, last night, lights had appeared in the front windows to the right of the porch. She’d stepped up to each of the windows and lowered the shades.

The house was silent. The faint light that found its way into the living room cast a gray shroud over the old sofa, the rocking chair, the lamps and piano. The wallpaper looked faded and stained. Above the piano hung an oil painting of a forest clearing with a peaceful, running brook. In the gloom, it looked dim and somber, as if dawn hadn’t yet come to the forest scene.

At the far corner of the room was a wood-framed entrance to a hallway.

He crept to the hallway and followed it to the open door of the vampire’s bedroom.

His mouth went dry and his heart pounded as he gazed in at her. She lay on a bed between the two windows, curled on her side, facing away from him. The first rays of the morning sun glowed against the blinds, filling the room with an amber hue. She was covered only by a sheet. Her dark hair was spread against the pillow.

Crouching, he set his briefcase on the floor. He spread its top, reached in and lifted out the hammer.

A sledge with a heavy steel head and a foot-long haft.

With his other hand he took out a pointed stake of ash wood.

He clamped the stake in his teeth.

He stood up. Staring at the vampire, he willed her to roll over. Face up or down, it didn’t matter. He could pound the stake through her back as easily as her chest. But she had to be lying flat, not on her side.

Somehow, he’d known this would be a difficult kill.

Should he wait? Eventually she was bound to turn over.

The longer he waited, the more danger of being seen when he carried the body out. And he hadto do that. Take it far away in the trunk of his car and hide it where it would never be found.

People vanished all the time, and for many reasons. But to be discovered here with a stake in her heart...

The police would stupidly mistake it as the work of a homicidal maniac. The news would spread. The populace would panic. Worst of all, a legion of vampires would suddenly be put on guard that a hunter was in their midst.

And this morning’s efforts would be in vain, for the police or coroner were certain to pull the stake from her heart. She would live again to prowl the night.

No. She had to disappear.

A floorboard creaked as he stepped to the side of the bed. She moaned, squirmed a little beneath the sheet, but didn’t turn over.

The stake still held in his teeth, he reached out with his left hand. He pinched the sheet where its edge curled over her shoulder. As he eased it down she continued to take long, slow breaths. But his own breathing quickened.

The sliding sheet revealed her naked back, the smooth curves of her buttocks, her sleek legs.

She was a vampire, a vile, murdering demon. But her body was that of a slender young woman, and he felt a stir of heat in his groin as he studied her. He trembled with the familiar mingling of lust and terror — a sensation close to ecstasy, which always came upon him at such moments. He used to feel ashamed of his desire. Finally, however, he’d come to consider it a reward for his sacrifices. A payment, of sorts, bestowed upon him to balance out the risks.

Without it he would have lost the will, long ago, to continue his crusade. He knew this to be true. Confronting vampires of the male gender, he felt no such arousal. Only revulsion. As a result he had ceased to seek them out. He considered this to be his greatest failing, but often told himself that he was doing his share. He was one man against a horde. He couldn’t dispatch them all. He had to be selective. So he selected the women. Horrid as they were, they excited him.

Her left arm lay against her side, bent at the elbow, the rest out of sight. Its skin was pebbled with tiny bumps from the cool, morning air. Leaning forward, he peered over her upper arm at the swell of her breast. It had goose-flesh, like her arm. Her nipple stood erect. From this position he couldn’t see her other breast.

As he stared, saliva began to spill over his lip. He tried to shut his mouth, but the stake was in the way. He jerked his left hand up to catch the drool, but not in time.

A string of spit dribbled onto the vampire’s arm.

Mumbling, she slid a hand out from under her pillow, brushed the wetness, rolled onto her back and frowned as if perplexed. Still, her eyes were shut. She took the hand away. It fell onto the mattress beside her hip. It rubbed the sheet, then rose and came to rest on her thigh, the end of her thumb sinking into the thick nest of hair at her groin.

As he watched, full of dread that she might awaken, yet trembling with a fever of desire, he took the stake from his teeth. He knew he should wait no longer.

But he hesitated. His eyes roamed her sleeping form.

Though she might be centuries old, her face and body were those of a teenage girl. She looked no older than seventeen or eighteen. She looked lovely, innocent, delicious.

If only she were human, and not a foul, loathsome creature of the night.

He ached to kiss those lips which had sucked so much innocent blood. He ached to caress those breasts, to savor their velvety smoothness, to feel the soft rub of those nipples against his palms. He ached to spread those legs and slide deep into her heat.

If only she weren’t a vampire.

Such a shame. Such a waste.

Get it over with, he told himself.

He leaned farther forward, knees pressing against the side of the mattress, and raised his hammer high. His other hand twitched and fluttered as he lowered the tapered shaft toward her chest. The shaking point passed over her left breast, moved slightly higher, hovered half an inch above her skin.

There.

One strong blow and...

Her eyes leaped open. She gasped. She clutched his wrist, twisted it with all the might of her demonic powers. Crying out, he watched in horror as the stake dropped from his numb fingers and fell, blunt end first, toward her other breast.

A feeling of utter desolation swept through him like an icy flood.

Without the stake...

As it bounced off her breast he strained against her grip, praying to retrieve it. But her fierce hold was too powerful. The stake slid out of sight beyond her rib cage.

He knew, then, that all was lost.

Still, he swung the hammer down at her face. Crying out, she yanked his trapped wrist. She flung up her other arm, blocking the blow as he fell toward her.

He sprawled across her chest. An arm clamped tight against his back and she bucked beneath him, squirming and turning, tumbling him over her body. He no sooner hit the mattress than she scurried onto him and smashed a knee into his groin.

His breath blasted out. Stunned with agony, he saw the wooden shaft in her hand. Watched her raise it above his face. He tried to ward off the blow, but his stricken muscles failed to obey.

He had just enough breath to choke out a scream as the stake’s point punched through his eye.

Explorers

One

“How about a little detour on the way home?” Pete asked. He started his van moving. Its tires crunched over the gravel of the parking lot.

A detour. Sounded good to Larry. But he said nothing. He knew that Pete’s suggestion had been directed to those in the seats behind them. If the wives didn’t go for it, the matter was closed.

“You aren’t gonna get us lost again, are you?” Barbara asked.

“Who, me?”

“He gets us on those back roads, no telling where we’ll end up.”

“I always get us home, don’t I?”

“Eventually.”

Pete glanced at Larry. A corner of his mouth turned up, lifting that side of his mustache. “Why do I put up with this, I ask you?”

Before Larry could come up with an answer, Barbara leaned forward and hooked a tawny forearm across her husband’s throat. “Because you love me, right?” she asked. She nipped the ridge of his ear.

“Hey, hey, calm down. You want to run me off the road?”

She wore a sleeveless blouse. A sprinkling of freckles showed on her deeply tanned shoulder. Though the air conditioner was blowing cool air into the van, the skin above her lip gleamed with moisture under a fine, curly down. Larry didn’t want to be caught staring, so he looked away. Just ahead, an old-timer dressed like a prospector was leading a burro along the road’s dusty shoulder.

Larry wondered if the guy was for real. Silver Junction, the town they were leaving behind, was full of characters in old west getups. Some seemed like the real article, but he had no doubt that most were simply playing the role for the benefit of the tourists.

“So how about it?” Pete asked as Barbara released him. “Want to do some exploring?”

“I think it’d be fun,” Jean said. “You in a hurry to get home, Larry?”

“Me? No.”

“He always hates to lose a day,” she explained. “I have an awful time trying to drag him out of the house.”

“The day’s already shot,” he said.

“Same to you, fella,” Barbara said.

“Whoops. Didn’t mean it that way. It’s been great.” It hadbeen a nice change from his usual seven-day work schedule. Fun being out with Pete and Barbara, wandering the old town, watching the gunfight on Main Street, having a burger and a couple of beers in the picturesque saloon. “I need to get out more, anyway, or I’d run dry.”

“Everything we do ends up in his books,” Jean explained, “but he still hates to be dragged away from his almighty word processor.”

“That’s what keeps a roof over our heads.”

Pete tipped his head back as if to carom his voice off the top of the windshield, the better for Barbara to hear. “Let’s take him to that ghost town.”

A ghost town.

A warm, pleasant tightness came to Larry’s chest and throat.

“You think you can find it?” Barbara asked.

“No sweat.” He turned to Larry, grinning. “You’ll love it. Just your kind of place.”

“It’s pretty spooky, all right,” Barbara said.

“He’ll be in hog heaven.”

“I bet you get a book out of it,” Pete told him. “Call it ‘The Horror of Sagebrush Flat.’ Maybe have some weirdos lurking around, chopping up everyone.”

Larry could feel himself blushing a little with the stir of pride that came whenever people started referring to his grisly novels. “If I did,” he said, “you wouldn’t read it.”

Iwill,” Barbara assured him.

“I know you will. You’re my best fan.”

“I’ll wait for the movie,” Pete announced.

“You’ll have a long wait.”

“You’re gonna make it,” he said, nodding at Larry and narrowing one eye.

Barbara gave the back of his head a gentle whack. “He’s alreadymade it, dickhead.”

“Hey, hey, watch it with the hands.” He smoothed his mussed hair. The thick black hair was threaded with strands of gray. His mustache, with a lot more gray in it, looked as if it belonged on an older face.

“You’ll be a wizened, silver-haired old coot,” Larry said, “before they ever make a movie of one of my books.”

“Ah, bull. You’ll make it, mark my words.” He tilted his head. “ ‘The Beast of Sagebrush Flat.’ I can see it now. I’ve gotta be one of the characters, right?”

“Of course. You’re the guy driving.”

“Who’s gonna play me? Has to be someone suitably handsome and dashing.”

“Pee-wee Herman,” Barbara suggested.

“You about ready to die, honey?”

“De Niro,” Larry said. “He’d be perfect.”

Pete raised an eyebrow and stroked his mustache. “Think so? He’s kind of old.”

“You’re no spring chicken,” Barbara said.

“Hey. Thirty-nine. Hardly counts as one foot in the grave.”

“Before you start losing your eyesight, you’d better watch for the turnoff.”

“I know just where it is. Never fear. I’ve got a natural instinct for these things. De Niro, huh? Yeah, I like that.”

“You’d better slow down,” Barbara told him.

“Don’t get your shorts in a knot, huh? I know exactly where we’re going.”

The van swept around a curve of the two-lane blacktop and shot past a road that led off to the left.

“That was it, smart guy.”

He leaned against his door and watched the road recede in the side mirror. “Naw.”

“Oh yes it was.”

“They never listen to us,” Jean said.

“That wasn’t it,” Pete muttered, stepping on the brake. The van slowed. He pulled onto the gravel shoulder, stopped, cranked his window down and stared back. “You really think that’s it, honey?”

“If you don’t believe me, keeping going.”

“Shit.”

“Maybe we won’tbe visiting a ghost town today,” Jean said, sounding amused.

Larry turned in his seat and looked at her. Smiling, she rolled her eyes upward. That expression was as good as words. What’ve we gotten ourselves into? Like Larry, she always got a kick out of the good-natured bickering that went on between Pete and Barbara. But they’d seen the arguments turn nasty, and had occasionally overheard quarrels that sounded truly vicious coming from the couple’s next-door house.

“Why don’t we give that road a try?” Larry suggested.

“It’s not the one.”

“Prince Henry the Navigator,” Barbara muttered.

“Maybe we should flip a coin,” Jean said.

“Do you have a map?” Larry asked.

“Pete doesn’t believe in them,” Barbara told him, her voice pleasant. Amazing how she reserved the sarcasm for her husband. “It’s up to you, Peter. I’ve offered my opinion. Feel free to ignore it.”

“Oh, hell,” he muttered. He started to turn the van around, and Larry saw the look of relief on Jean’s face.

“If it’s the wrong road,” Larry told Barbara, “we hold you personally responsible.”

She bared her teeth at him, then laughed softly.

“That’s tellin‘ her, pal.” Pete turned the van onto the side road and stepped on the gas. He drove up the middle, ignoring the faded white line. There wasn’t enough left of the speed limit sign to read its numbers. The metal had been riddled with bullets. Some of the holes looked fresh, but many were fringed with rust. Pete pointed at the sign. “There’s some local color for you. Ol’ Barb’s reallygonna be in trouble if we not only take the wrong road, but get shot in the bargain.”

“We’ll duck if we see any bargain hunters,” Larry said.

“Ha! Good one! I hate to tell you, they’re in the backseat.”

“Can’t miss at this range,” Jean said.

“We’re dead meat.”

“You’ve got nothing to worry about, Petey. You’re no bargain.”

“I know. I’m priceless. I’m also smart enough to know this isn’t the road to Sagebrush Flat. But here we are anyway.”

“It was a good decision,” Larry assured him. “In my vast experience, I’ve found it always wiser to go along with female advice.”

“That’s because it’s usually right,” Jean said.

“Either way,” he told Pete, “you can’t lose. First, you make them happy by doing what they tell you. That’s the main thing. Let them think they’re in control. They love it. Then, if it turns out they were right, everything’s cool. If it turns out they were wrong...”

“Which is usually the case,” Pete added.

“Do they know what thin ice they’re on?” Jean asked.

“If they’re wrong,” Larry went on, “then you have the pleasure of basking in the glow of superiority.”

Pete grinned and nodded. “Hey, you oughta put that in one of your books.”

“It wasin one of his books,” Barbara said. “If I’m not mistaken, a redneck cop spoke pretty much those very words in Dead of Night.”

“Yeah?”

“No kidding?” Larry asked, amazed that she had remembered such a thing.

“Don’t you remember?”

He’d quoted one of his own characters without even realizing it? Odd, he thought. And a little disturbing. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “If you say so, I guess it’s there.”

“The philosophy at work,” Pete said.

“No, I mean it. I write so much... That book was a long time ago.”

“I have the advantage,” Barbara said. “I just read it last month.”

“Hey, maybe you’re becoming that guy. Turning into your redneck cop. There’s an idea for a story, huh? A writer starts turning into this character he made up.”

“Has possibilities.”

“Well, if you use it, remember where you got the idea.”

“Ah-ha!” Barbara said. “Over on the left.”

Looking across the road, Larry saw the ruins of an old structure. It no longer had a roof. The door and window-panes, if it ever had them, were gone. The upper portions of the walls had crumbled away, and some of the rocks that might once have formed the square enclosure now lay in rubble around it — returning to the desert from which they’d been taken.

“Well,” Pete said, “I guess this isthe right road.”

“Prince Henry.”

“Doesn’t look like much of a ghost town,” Jean remarked.

“That isn’t it,” Barbara told her. “But we stopped and had a look around before we got to Sagebrush Flat.”

“Nothing much there,” Pete said. “Wanta take a quick look?”

“I’d rather get on to the main attraction.”

In spite of Jean’s earlier comments about her difficulties in getting him out of the house, they’d taken several day trips during the past year to explore the region. Sometimes with Pete and Barbara, a few times by themselves or with Lane — when they could drag their seventeen-year-old daughter away from home. On those outings, Larry had seen plenty of ruins similar to the one they were leaving behind. But not a real ghost town.

“Don’t you always wonder who lived in places like that?” Jean asked.

“Prospectors, I should think,” Pete said.

“ ‘Dead guys,’ ” Larry quoted.

“Leave it to you. The morbid touch.”

“Actually, that was Lane’s comment. ‘Dead guys.’ Remember, hon?”

“She went back to the car and waited for us that time. She wanted nothing to do with it.”

“I know the feeling,” Barbara said. “I think this stuff’s interesting, but you gotta know that whoever lived there’s been pushing up daisies for a while.”

“Cactus,” Pete said.

“Whatever. Anyway, dead. Makes it kind of spooky.”

“All the better for Larry here.”

“Doesn’t bother me,” Jean said. “I just think it’s neat to see where they used to live, and, you know, imagine what it must’ve been like. It’s history.”

“Speaking of history,” Larry said, “what do you know about this ghost town of yours?”

“Not much,” Pete told him.

Hedoesn’t even know where it is.”

“It must be in some of those guidebooks,” Jean said.

“Nope. We checked.”

“I guess it’s nothing all that special,” Pete said. “Maybe it’s not an official ghost town, or whatever it takes to get noticed — just a wide spot in the road that got deserted.” He suddenly grinned at Larry. “Hey, suppose it’s just there for us? You know? Like a figment of our imaginations.”

“A ghostghost town.”

“Yeah! How about that? Another idea for you. You’re gonna have to start paying me a consultant’s fee.”

“You’d do better if you wrote the books yourself.”

“Hey, maybe I oughta give it a try. How long does it take you to knock out one of those things?”

“Six months, maybe, to write one. About twenty-five years to learn how.”

“You’d better just stick to repairing televisions,” Barbara said.

“We coming up on the turnoff?” he asked.

“I’ll let you know.”

“We didn’t get any chance to explore the place last time,” Pete said. “Spent too much time screwing around back at that pile of rocks.”

“Watch it, buster.”

“Anyway, we had to get home for some party you were having, so we just drove right on through Sagebrush.”

God, Larry thought, he’d meant it literally. Otherwise Barbara wouldn’t have reacted that way. They’d actually screwed in that old ruin. Inside those tumbledown walls. No door. No roof. Right out in the open, almost.

For just a moment he was there. On top of Barbara. Her eyes were half shut, her lips peeled back, her naked body writhing under him as he thrust.

He banished the image, ashamed of his minor betrayal and the desire it stirred. No harm in daydreaming, he told himself. He had such fantasies often, and not just about Barbara. But he’d never cheated on Jean. He planned to keep it that way.

“You’re coming up on it,” Barbara said.

Pete slowed nearly to a full stop by the time he made the right-hand turn. The road ahead looked as if it had gone ignored by a generation of repair crews. Only a few faint traces remained of its center line. The gray, sunbaked asphalt was cracked, crumbling, pocked with holes.

The van pitched and bounced, swerved to miss the worst of the potholes. Larry found himself hanging onto the armrest.

“You want to slow down?” Barbara suggested.

“You want to get there, don’t you?”

“In one piece, if that’s feasible.”

A bump rammed the seat against Larry’s rump. His teeth clashed.

“Goddamn it!” Barbara snapped.

“Okay, okay. Didn’t see that one coming.”

After he eased off the gas, the ride was still rough, but not punishing. Larry relaxed his grip on the armrest. Looking out his side window, he saw the rusted-out hulk of an overturned car. Its roof was mashed in and it had no wheels. It was well beyond the embankment bordering the road, surrounded by the desert’s litter of broken rock, by cactus and scrub brush. He couldn’t imagine how it had come to be belly-up. He considered mentioning the wreck, but decided to keep silent. The thing would probably inspire another story concept from Pete.

No doubt a perfectly mundane explanation for how it got there. Maybe it broke down and was abandoned by the roadside. People had come along later, pushed it out there for the hell of it, and flipped it over. Had nothing better to do. If someone wanted to salvage the tires, rolling the thing probably seemed more sensible than jacking it up one corner at a time.

Not just someone.

Larry felt a quick rush of joy.

A roving band of desert scavengers. A primitive, bloodthirsty pack.

Maybe they don’t just wait for breakdowns. Maybe they block the road or booby-trap it, then ambush the unlucky travelers. They slaughter the men. They take the women back to their lair — maybe an abandoned mine — for fun and games.

Not bad. Worth toying around with later to see if he could make it work. He needed a new idea. And soon.

“Just around the bend,” Barbara said.

Larry peered out the windshield, but the view ahead was blocked by low, rocky slopes. The road curved through a gap between the desolate rises.

Maybe I can work the ghost town into the scavenger idea, he thought as they entered the narrow pass.

“Thar she blows!” Pete announced.

Two

Along the road leading into Sagebrush Flat were the remains of shacks that had been picked apart by the desert winds. Houses of stone, adobe, and brick had fared better, but even those looked battered, their doors hanging open or gone, their windows smashed. Here and there boards lay scattered on the ground near doorways and windows. Larry supposed that the lumber had once been used to seal the dwellings.

The weathered walls of the old houses were pocked with bullet holes, scribbled with sketches and messages in spray paint. Contributions from visitors to this dead town, making a playground of its carcass.

Many of the yards were bordered by broken-down fences. Along with cactus and brush, Larry saw pieces of old furniture in front of some houses: a sofa, a couple of cane chairs, an aluminum lawn chair with its frame twisted crooked. One house had a bathtub off to the side. Another had an overturned bathroom toilet that looked as if it had been the subject of target practice. The rusted hood of a car was leaning against a porch. Nearby lay a couple of tires, and Larry recalled the abandoned, tireless car he’d seen a few minutes ago.

“Isn’t exactly Beverly Hills, huh?” Pete remarked.

“Love it,” Larry said.

“Gee, and we forgot our spray cans,” Jean said. “How can we properly deface the place without our paint?”

“We could shoot it up some.” Pete reached beneath his seat and came up with a revolver. It was sheathed in a beltless holster. Larry recognized it as the .357 Smith & Wesson that he’d fired a few times when they’d gone shooting last month. A beauty.

“Put that away,” Barbara said. “For godsake.”

“Just kidding around. Don’t get your balls in an uproar.”

As he concealed the handgun under his seat, Barbara said, “Men and their toys.”

Pete swung the van off the road and stopped beside a pair of gasoline pumps. He beeped the horn a couple of times as if signaling for service.

“God,” Barbara muttered.

“Hey, wouldn’t it be something if a guy showed up?”

Larry gazed past the pumps. The porch stairs led up to a country store with a screen door hanging by a single hinge. A faded wooden sign above the doorway identified the place as Holman’s. A row of windows faced the road. Not a single pane was still intact. The window openings looked like mouths with sharp glass teeth.

“Might as well start here,” Pete said.

“Great,” Larry said. He thought it might be interesting to go through some of the houses they’d passed on the way in, but those could wait for another day. He was more eager to explore the downtown area.

He climbed out of the van. The wind and heat hit him. Jean grimaced when she stepped down. The wind blew her hair back, made her blouse and skirt cling to the front of her slim body as if they were wet.

“Better lock up,” Pete called.

“There’s nobody around to steal anything,” Barbara said.

“Would you rather I take the magnum along?”

“Okay, okay, we’ll lock the doors.”

Larry took care of their side. They met Pete and Barbara in front of the van.

“I would feel better if we took the gun with us,” Pete said.

“Well, I wouldn’t.”

“You never know about a place like this.”

“If you think it’s dangerous, we shouldn’t be here.” Barbara tossed her head to clear her face of blowing blond hair. The wind parted her untucked blouse below the last button, and Larry glimpsed a triangle of tanned belly.

“Might be rattlers,” Pete said.

“We’ll watch our step,” Jean told him. Like Larry, she was no doubt eager to end the gun debate before it could escalate into a quarrel.

“Yeah,” Larry said. “And if we run into any bad guys, we’ll send you back here for the artillery.”

“Oh, thanks. While you guys hide.”

“You wouldn’t mind, would you, honey?”

He answered by clamping a hand on Barbara’s rump. The way she flinched and jumped away, he must’ve done it hard. She whirled toward him. “Just watch it, huh?”

“Let’s see what’s in Holman’s,” Jean said, and hurried toward the stairs.

Larry went after her. “Careful,” he said. The boards, bleached pale, were warped and threaded with splits. The one before the top was broken in the middle, half gone and half hanging down by rusty nails.

Jean held the railing, stepped over the demolished stair and made it safely across the porch. While she dragged the screen door open, Larry climbed the stairs. They creaked under his weight but held him.

“You better not try it,” Pete warned Barbara, looking back at her as he trotted up the old planks. “You’ll snap ‘em like matchsticks.”

“Give it a rest,” she said.

Larry admired her restraint. It seemed so damn stupid of Pete to poke fun at his wife’s size. She was big, probably a shade over six feet tall. Though not a beanpole, like many tall women, she certainly wasn’t overweight. Larry had seen her in all kinds of attire, including swimsuits and nightgowns, and considered her body terrific. He knew that Pete was proud of her appearance. Pete was compact and powerful, but lifting all the weights in the world wouldn’t give him the six inches of height he would need to meet Barbara eye to eye.

Instead of calling him “short stuff” or “pip-squeak,” she’d simply told him to give it a break. Admirable.

She climbed the stairs without bursting any of them.

Inside, Holman’s smelled of dry, ancient wood. Larry expected the place to be stifling, but the shade and the breeze from the broken windows kept it bearable. A thin layer of sand coated the hardwood floor. It had blown into small drifts against the walls, the foot of the L — shaped lunch counter, and the metal bases of the swivel stools along the counter.

The eating area occupied about a third of the room. There had probably once been tables between the counter and the wall, but they were long gone.

“Bet they served great cheeseburgers,” Jean said. She was very fond of diners with character. To Jean, dumpy old places that many people would disparage as “greasy spoons” promised delights unattainable in clean and modern fast-food chains.

“Shakes,” Barbara said. “I could go for one about now.”

“I could go for a beer,” Pete said.

“I think I saw a saloon up the road,” Jean told him.

“But they only serve Ghost-Light,” Larry said.

“Let’s break a few out of the van before we move on.”

“You’ve got a beer?” Larry could tasteit.

“Surely you jest. The desert’s one dry mother. You think I’d brave her without my survival stash?”

“All right!”

Pete headed for the door.

“Aren’t you going to look around?” Barbara asked.

“What’s to see?” He hurried outside.

“I guess he’s right,” Jean said, scanning the room.

“The rest of it must’ve been a general store,” Larry said. “I bet they carried everything.”

Nothing remained, not even shelves. Except for the lunch counter and stools, the room was bare. Behind the counter was a serving window. Farther down, Larry saw a closed door that probably connected with the kitchen. Past the end of the counter was an alcove. “That’s probably where the rest rooms were.”

“I think I’ll check out the ladies‘,” Barbara said.

“Lotsa luck,” Jean told her.

“Can’t hurt to have a look.”

She walked into the alcove, opened a door, and whirled away clutching her mouth.

“Apparently,” Larry said, “it did hurt to take a look.”

Barbara scrunched up her face.

“You’re a little green around the gills,” Jean told her.

She lowered her hand and took a deep breath. “Guess I’ll find a place around back.”

They left Holman’s. She followed the porch, jumped off, and disappeared around a corner of the building.

Larry and Jean went to the van. When Pete came out he had four bottles of beer clutched to his chest. “Where’s Barb?”

“Went behind the building.”

“Answering a call of nature,” Jean said.

He scowled. “She shouldn’t have gone off by herself.”

“She may not want an audience,” Jean explained.

“Damn it. Barb!” he yelled.

No answer. He called again, and Larry saw a trace of worry in his eyes.

“She probably can’t hear you,” Larry said. “The wind and everything.”

“Take these, okay? I’ve gotta make sure she’s okay.”

Jean and Larry each took two bottles from his arms. “She’s only been gone a couple of minutes.”

“Yeah, well...” He hurried away, jogging toward the far end of Holman’s.

“Hope he doesn’t tear her head off,” Jean said.

“At least he’s worried about her. That’s something, anyway.”

“I sure wish they’d quit bickering.”

“They must enjoy it.”

Jean wandered toward the road, and Larry stayed at her side. The bottles of beer felt cold and wet in his hands. He took a drink from the one in his right.

“You’ll be having to go yourself, if you don’t watch it.”

“Don’t let Pete come to my rescue,” he said, and turned his attention to the town.

The central road had broad, gravel shoulders for parking. The sidewalks were concrete, not the elevated planking common to such old west towns as Silver Junction, where they’d spent the morning. The citizens had made some modern improvements before leaving Sagebrush Flat to the desert.

“I wonder why they left,” Larry said.

“Wouldn’t you?”

“I wouldn’t live anywhere that doesn’t have movie theaters.”

“Well, I don’t see any.”

Neither did Larry. From his position in the middle of the road, he could see the entire town. Not one of the buildings had a movie marquee jutting over the sidewalk. He saw a barber pole in front of one small shop; a place on the left with a faded sign that proclaimed it to be Sam’s Saloon; about a dozen other enterprises altogether. He guessed that they’d once been hardware stores, cafes, possibly a bakery, clothing stores, maybe a pharmacy and a five-and-ten, a dentist’s and doctor’s office — and how about an optimistic realtor? — and certainly a sporting goods store. Not even the smallest back-country town in California was without a place to buy guns and ammo. Way at the far end of town, on the left, stood an adobe building with a pair of bay doors and service islands in front. Babe’s Garage.

The centerpiece of town appeared to be the three-story, wood-frame structure of the Sagebrush Flat Hotel, right next door to Sam’s Saloon.

“That’s the place I’d like to explore,” Larry said.

“Sam’s?”

“That, too. But the hotel. It looks like it’s been around for a while.”

“We’d better go there next, then. No telling how long this little expedition’s going to last, those two start fighting.”

“We’ll have to come back by ourselves, sometime, and really check the place out.”

“I don’t know.” She drank some beer. “I’m not sure I’d want to come here without some company.”

“Hey, what am I, chopped liver?”

“You know what I mean.”

He knew. Though he and Jean shared a desire for adventure, they were limited by a certain timidity. The presence of another couple seemed to erase that weakness.

They needed backup.

Backup like Pete and Barbara. In spite of the bickering, each was endowed with self-confidence and force. Led by that pair, Larry and Jean were willing to venture where they wouldn’t go on their own.

Even if we’d known about this place, Larry thought, we wouldn’t have dared to explore it by ourselves. The chance of a return trip, at least in the near future, was slim.

Jean turned around and looked toward the corner of Holman’s. “I wonder what’s keeping them.”

“Should we go find out?”

“I don’t think so.”

Larry took a swig of cold beer.

“Why don’t we get out of the sun?” Jean suggested.

They wandered back past the van, climbed the rickety stairs to Holman’s shaded porch and sat down. They rested the two extra beers on the wood between them. Jean crossed her legs. She rubbed her bare thighs with the base of her bottle. The wetness left slicks on her skin. She lifted the bottle to her face and slid it over her cheeks and forehead.

Larry imagined Jean opening her blouse, rolling the chilled, dripping bottle against her bare breasts. She wasn’t the kind of woman who would ever do that, though. Hell, she wouldn’t even step out of the house unless she had a bra on.

Too bad life can’t be more like fiction, he told himself, and drank some more beer. A gal in one of his books would have that wet bottle sliding over her chest in about two shakes. Then, of course, the guy would get in on the action.

That’d be a scene worth writing.

You’ll never get a chance to liveit, not in this lifetime, but...

“Larry, I’m starting to get worried.”

“They’ll be along.”

“Something must be wrong.”

“Maybe she has a problem.”

“Like the trots?”

“Who knows?”

“They’d be back by now if somethinghadn’t happened,” Jean said.

“Maybe Pete got lucky.”

“They wouldn’t do that.”

“Obviously they did it back at that old ruin we passed.”

“Sounded like it. But they were alone. They wouldn’t do that here with us waiting.”

“If you’re so sure, why don’t we go around back and look for them?”

“Go right on ahead.” She gave him an annoyed glance.

“Nah.” He put a hand on her back. Her blouse was damp. He untucked it and slipped his hand beneath it. She sat up straight, and sighed as he caressed her.

When he fingered the catches of her bra, she said, “Don’t get carried away. They could show up any second.”

“On the other hand, maybe they won’t show up at all.”

“Don’t kid around like that, okay?”

“I’m not entirely kidding.”

“Maybe they arescrewing around.”

“You said they wouldn’t.”

“Well, I don’t know, damn it.”

“Maybe we’d better go see.”

Jean wrinkled her nose.

“If they did run into trouble,” Larry said, “we aren’t making matters any better by procrastinating. They might need help.”

“Yeah, okay.”

“Besides, their beers are getting warm.”

He picked up the bottle for Pete, stood, and waited for Jean. Then they walked to the end of the porch. Larry peered around the corner. The area alongside the building was clear, so he leaped down. Jean covered the mouth of Barbara’s bottle with her thumb and jumped.

“I don’t know about this,” she said.

“They can’t expect us to wait forever.”

Larry led the way, wanting to be a few strides ahead of Jean in case there really was trouble.

At times like this he wished his imagination would take a holiday. But it never left him alone. It was always busy churning up possibilities — most of them grim.

He pictured Pete and Barbara dead, of course. Slaughtered by the same pack of desert scavengers he’d dreamed up when he saw the overturned car.

Maybe Pete had been killed, Barbara abducted.

We’d have to go looking for her. Run back to the van first and get Pete’s gun.

Maybe they both got killed by a criminal using the old town as a hideout.

Or by an old lunatic on the lookout for claim jumpers.

Maybe they’ll just be gone. Vanished without a trace.

Pete has the keys to the van. We’d have to walk out of here.

He supposed the nearest town was Silver Junction.

God, it’d take hours to get there. And maybe someone would be after them, hunting them down.

“Better warn ‘em we’re coming,” Jean said.

He stopped near the corner of the building, looked back at her and shook his head. “If they ran into someone...”

“Don’t even think it, okay?”

From the look on Jean’s face, he could see that she’d already considered the possibility.

“Just go ahead and call out,” she said. “We don’t want to barge in on something.”

Speak for yourself, he thought. If Pete was having at her, he wouldn’t mind a glimpse of it. Not at all. But he kept the thoughts to himself.

Without looking around the corner, he yelled, “Pete! Barbara! You all right?”

No answer came.

A second ago he’d pictured them rutting. Now he saw them sprawled dead, murderous savages hunched over their bodies, heads turning at the sound of his voice.

He gestured for Jean to wait, and stepped past the end of the building.

Three

“Where are they?” Jean whispered, pressing herself against his side.

Larry shook his head. He couldn’t believe the couple was actually gone. “They probably just wandered off somewhere,” he said. The idea that he would catch them fooling around had been the product of wishful thinking, and he knew that his worries about murder had been farfetched. But so had his worries that they’d disappeared.

“We’d better find them,” Jean said.

“Good plan.”

But all he saw were the rear facades of the other buildings, and the desert stretching away toward a ridge of mountains to the south.

“Maybe they’re playing some kind of trick on us,” Jean suggested.

“I don’t know. Pete was awfully eager for his beer.”

“People don’t go for a leak and vanish off the face of the earth.”

“Only on occasion.”

“It’s not funny.” Her voice was trembling.

“Look, they’ve got to be around.”

“Maybe we’d better go and get the gun.”

“It’s locked in the van. I don’t imagine Pete would be very happy about a broken window.”

Pete!” she suddenly shrieked. “Barb!”

A distant voice called, “Yo!”

Jean’s eyebrows flew up. Her head snapped sideways and she squinted out at the desert.

Some fifty yards off, Pete’s head and shoulders rose out of the wasteland. “Hey, y’gotta see this!” he shouted, and waved for them to approach.

Jean glanced at Larry, rolled her eyes and sagged as if her air had been let out.

He grinned.

“I think I may kill them myself,” Jean said.

“I’ll go get the gun.”

“Break allthe windows, while you’re at it.” Her voice sounded shaky.

“Come on, let’s see what they found.”

“It better be good.”

They walked over the hard, baked earth, moving carefully as they stepped on broken rocks, avoided clumps of cactus and greasewood. Near the place where Pete waited was an old smoke tree. Larry guessed that Barbara had wandered farther and farther away from Holman’s, looking for a suitably large bush or rock cluster, and had finally decided upon the tree. Its trunk was thick enough to afford privacy, and there was shade beneath its drooping branches.

Pete was standing some distance from the tree. At his back the ground dropped away.

“What’d you find?” Larry asked. “The Grand Canyon?”

“Hey, glad you brought the suds.” He lifted the front of his knit shirt and wiped his face. “It’s nastyout here.”

Larry handed the full bottle to him.

The depression behind Pete was a dry creek bed some fifteen or twenty feet lower than the surrounding flatlands. Barbara, sitting on a rock at the bottom, looked up and waved.

“Did you forget about us?” Jean asked Pete.

He finished taking a swig of beer, then shook his head. “I was just on my way to get you. Figured you might want to see this.” He started down the steep embankment, and they followed.

“We were getting a little worried,” Larry said, watching his feet as he descended the rocky slope. “Thought you might’ve fallen victim to a roving band of desert marauders.”

“Yeah? That’s a good one. Make a good story, huh?”

Barbara stood up and brushed off the seat of her white shorts. “God, it’s hot as a huncher down here,” she said, as they approached. Her blouse was unbuttoned, its front tied, leaving her midriff bare. The knot was loose enough to leave a gap. Her bra was black. Larry saw the pale sides of her breasts through its lace. “No breeze at all,” she added.

“What’s the big discovery?” Jean asked, handing a beer to her.

“It’s no big deal, if you ask me.” She tipped the bottle up. Larry saw a bead of sweat drop from her jaw, roll off her collarbone, and slide down her chest until it melted into the edge of her bra.

“Over here,” Pete said. “Come on.”

He led the way to a cut eroded into the wall of the embankment. There, lying in shadows and partly hidden by tangles of brush, was the demolished carcass of a jukebox. “Must’ve come from that cafe,” he said, nudging its side with his shoe.

“How’d it get all the way out here?” Jean asked.

“Who knows?”

“The thing’s no good, anyway,” Barbara said.

“It’s seen better days,” Larry said, feeling a touch of nostalgia as he pictured it standing fresh and bright near the lunch counter in Holman’s. He guessed that someone had dragged it out and used it for target practice. It would’ve made a tempting target, all decorated with bright chrome and plastic — if the shooter happened to be an asshole who took pleasure from destroying things of such beauty. After the box was blasted to smithereens, it had probably been shoved off the edge of the slope for the fun of watching it tumble and crash.

Larry crouched beside its shattered plastic top. The rows of record slots were empty. The tone arm dangled from its mount by a couple of wires.

“Probably worth a few of grand,” Pete said.

“Forget it,” Barbara told him. “He thinks we should take it with us.”

“She’s sure a beaut,” Pete said. “A Wurlitzer.”

“Think you could get it working?” Jean asked.

“Sure.”

He probably could, Larry thought. The guy’s house was a museum of resurrected junk: televisions, stereo components, a toaster oven, lamps, a dishwasher and vacuum cleaner, all once disgarded as useless, picked up by Pete and restored to working order.

“You might get it playing again,” he said, “but it’s too messed up to ever look like anything.” Its chrome trim was dented and rusty, one side of the cabinet was smashed in, the speaker grills looked as if they’d been hit by shotgun blasts, and bullets had torn away at least half the square plastic buttons used for selecting tunes. “You probably can’t even get replacement parts for a lot of this stuff,” he added.

“Sure would be neat, though.”

“Yeah.” Turning his head sideways, Larry blew dust and sand from its chart of selections. Bullets and shotgun pellets had ripped away some of the labels. Those that remained were faint, washed out by rainfall and years of pounding sunlight. Still, he could make out the names of many titles and artists. Jean crouched and peered over his shoulder.

“There’s ‘Hound Dog,’ ” he said. “ ‘I Fall to Pieces,’ ‘Stand by Your Man.’ ”

“God, I used to love that one,” Jean said.

“Sounds like it’s mostly shit-kicker stuff,” Pete said.

“Well, here’s the Beatles. ‘Hard Day’s Night.’ The Mamas and the Papas.”

“Oh, they were good,” Barbara said.

“This one’s ‘California Dreaming,’ ” Larry told her.

“Always makes me sad when I think about Mama Cass.”

“All right!” Larry grinned. “ ‘The Battle of New Orleans.’ Johnny Horton. Man, I must’ve been in junior high. I knew that sucker by heart.”

“There’s Haley Mills,” Jean said, her breath stirring the hair above Larry’s ear. “ ‘Let’s Get Together.’ And look, ‘Soldier Boy’ ”

“Here’s the Beach Boys, ‘Surfin’ U.S.A.‘ ”

“Now we’re talking,” Pete said.

“Dennis Wilson, too,” Barbara said. “So many of those people are dead. Mama Cass, Elvis, Lennon. Jesus, this is getting depressing.”

“Patsy Cline’s dead, too,” Jean told her.

“And Johnny Horton, I think,” Larry said.

“What do you guys expect?” Pete said. “This stuff’s all at least twenty, thirty years old.”

Barbara took a few steps backward, stumbled when her sneaker came down on a rock, but managed to stay up. Sweaty face grimacing, she said, “Why don’t we get out of this hellhole and look around town? That’s what we came here for, isn’t it?”

“Might as well.” Jean pushed against Larry’s shoulder and rose from her squat.

“Let’s see if we can lift this thing,” Pete muttered.

“Oh no you don’t!” Barbara snapped. “No way! You’re not carting that piece of trash home with us. Uh-uh.”

“Well, shit.”

“If you want an old jukebox so bad, go out and buy one, for godsake. Jesus, it’s probably got scorpions in it.”

“I think you’d better forget it,” Larry said, rising to his feet. “The thing’s beyond saving.”

“Yeah, I guess. Shit.” He gave his wife a sour look. “Thanks a heap, Barbara dear.”

She ignored his remark and started climbing the slope. Below her rucked-up blouse her back looked tawny and slick. The rear of her shorts was smudged with yellow dust from the rock where she’d sat. The fabric hugged her buttocks, and Larry could see the outline of her panties — a narrow band inches lower than the belt of her shorts, a skimpy triangle curving down from it. Jean, climbing behind her, was hunched over slightly. Her blouse was still untucked. It clung to her back, and the loose tail draped her rump.

Pete was watching, too.

“Couple of good-looking chicks,” he said.

“Not bad.”

“You ever get the feeling they run our fucking lives for us?”

“Only about ninety-nine percent of the time.”

Pete choked out a laugh, slapped Larry’s arm, and took a long drink of beer. “Guess we’d better be good little boys and go with them.” He glanced back at the jukebox. He sighed. He shrugged. “Adios. No more music for you, old pal.”

“So much for that,” Larry said when he saw the padlocked hasp across the double doors of the Sagebrush Flat Hotel.

Pete fingered the lock. “Doesn’t look very old.”

“Maybe someone’s living here,” Barbara said.

“Hey, Sherlock, it’s locked from the outside. What does that tell you?”

“Tells me we’d be trespassing.”

“Yeah,” Jean said. “The doors are locked, the windows are boarded. Somebody’s trying to keep people out.”

“Kind of sparks my curiosity. What about you, Lar?”

“Sparks mine, too. But I don’t know about breaking in.”

“Who’s gonna find out?” Pete turned away from the doors. He stepped off the sidewalk, bent over and swept his head slowly from side to side in a broad pantomime of scanning the town’s only road. “I don’t see anyone. Do you see anyone?”

“We get the point,” Barbara told him.

“I’ll just mosey on over to the van.” He started across the pavement, walking at an angle toward Holman’s.

“What’s he got in mind?” Jean asked.

“God knows. Maybe he’s planning to ram the doors open.”

“That’d be rather drastic,” Larry said.

“It’s a matter of pride, at this point. A challenge. Pete wouldn’t be Pete if he let a little thing like a lock keep him out.”

Jean rolled her eyes upward. “I guess this means we’re going to explore the hotel whether we want to or not.”

“Just consider it an adventure,” Larry suggested.

“Yeah, right. Jail would be an adventure, too.”

Pete climbed into the rear of the van. A few seconds later he jumped down, swung the door shut, and waved a lug wrench overhead. It had a pry bar at one end. In his other hand was a flashlight.

He’s really going to break in, Larry thought. Good Christ.

Barbara waited until he was closer, then called, “We’ve been having some second thoughts about this, Pete.”

“Hey, what’s life if you don’t take a little chance now and then. Right, Lar?”

“Right,” he answered, trying to sound game.

“You’re a lot of help,” Jean muttered.

Pete bounded onto the sidewalk, grinning and brandishing his tire iron. “Got my skeleton key right here,” he announced. “Fits any lock.”

“Anybody want to wait in the van?” Barbara asked.

“Ah, pussy.”

“Well, I guess I’d like to have a look around,” Larry said.

“Good man.”

Pete gave the flashlight to Larry. Then he rammed the wedge end of the bar behind the metal strap of the hasp. He yanked with both hands, throwing his weight backward. Wood groaned and split. With a sound like a small explosion the staple burst out of the door, bolts and all. “Well, that was a cinch.”

He shoved the bar under his belt, turned the knob on the right and pulled the door open.

“I suppose we could always say we found it like this,” Barbara muttered.

“You won’t have to sayanything. Half an hour or so, we’ll be long gone.”

“If we don’t get shot for trespassing.”

Ignoring her remark, Pete leaned into the doorway and called, “Yoo-hoo. Anybody home?”

Larry winced.

“Here we come, ready or not!”

“Cut it out,” Barbara whispered, slapping the back of his shoulder.

“Nobody home but us ghosts,” he said in a low, scratchy voice, and turned around grinning.

“Real cute.”

“So who’s coming in?”

“I think we should all go in or none of us,” Larry said, hoping Pete wouldn’t figure him for a pussy. “I don’t think we should split up. I’d be worried the whole time that something might happen to the gals while we’re in there looking around.”

“Good man,” Barbara said, and patted his back.

“Guess you’re right,” Pete admitted. “If they got themselves raped and murdered while we were in there, boy would we feel like a couple of heels.”

“Exactly.”

“Real cute,” Jean said, borrowing not only Barbara’s phrase but also her disdainful tone.

“What do you say?” Barbara asked her.

“They’ll hold it against us forever if they can’t go in on our account.”

“Admit it,” Pete said. “You’re dying to come with us.”

“Let’s get it over with,” Barbara said.

Larry gave the flashlight back to Pete and followed him into the hotel. In spite of the closed doors and boarded windows, sand had found its way into the lobby. It made soft scraping sounds under their shoes.

“We probably shouldn’t leave the door open,” Jean said. There was a tremor in her hushed voice. “In case someone comes by.” Without waiting for a reply, she closed the door, shutting out most of the daylight.

Light still came in around the doors, spilled through cracks and knotholes in the planks across the windows — pale, dusty streamers that slanted down to the floor. Pete turned his flashlight on, its beam pushing a tunnel of brightness into the gloom. He swept it from side to side.

“Boy, there’s a lot to see in here,” Barbara whispered. “What a find!”

The lobby was bare except for a registration counter. On the wall behind the counter were cubbyholes for mail or messages. Over to the left a wooden staircase rose steeply toward the upper floors.

“Should we check in before we have a look around?” Pete asked.

“Probably no vacancies,” Larry whispered.

“A couple of real comedians,” Jean muttered.

Pete led the way to the counter, pounded its top and said in a loud voice, “How does a guy get some service around here?”

“Creep. You want to hold it down?”

“What’s everybody whispering for?” He vaulted the counter, dropped into the space behind it and ducked out of sight. He reappeared, rising slowly, the flashlight at his chin to cast weird shadows up his face. Where the beam touched him, his skin gleamed with sweat.

Goofing off like a kid, Larry thought. But he sometimes pulled the same gag, especially around Halloween, more to amuse himself than to frighten Jean or Lane. They had come to expect such antics. The old flashlight-on-the-face routine hadn’t scared Lane since she was about two.

It did make Pete look strange and menacing. Larry knew that if he let his mind go with it, he wouldget a shiver. “Mmm-yes?” Pete asked, pitching his voice high. “May I help zee veary travelers?”

“God, it’s hot in here,” Jean whispered.

“A damn oven,” Barbara said.

“Anything back there?” Larry asked, carefully avoiding his friend’s face.

“Only me and zee spirit of zee night clerk, who hung himself many years ago.”

“If we’re going to look around,” Jean said, “why don’t we, and get out of here?”

“I’d like to have a look upstairs,” Larry said.

“Vait. Let me ring for zee bell captain.”

“Oh, the hell with him,” Barbara muttered. “Come on.” She turned around and headed for the stairs. Jean went after her, and Larry followed. Barbara’s legs and the bare part of her back were nearly invisible in the darkness. Her white shorts and blouse, pale blurs, seemed to float above the floor on their own. Jean, in darker clothes, was a faint smudge in front of him.

He heard Pete strike the floor and stride up behind him, sand crunching under his shoes. The flashlight beam flicked across the backs of the women, swung over to the staircase and swept upward, skimming past balusters, tossing their long shadows against the wall. Midway up was a small landing. The remaining stairs rose to the narrow opening of the second-floor corridor.

“You don’t want to go first, do you?” Pete asked in his normal voice as Barbara started to climb.

“If I wait for you, we’ll be here all day.”

The light moved downward, gliding just above the stair treads, and something touched by the low edge of its aura winked like gold. A small, questioning breath of surprise came from Pete. The light skittered backward and down. Its bright center came to rest on a crucifix. “Christ,” he whispered.

“That’s right,” Larry said.

The crucifix, directly below the landing, was attached to wood paneling that closed off the space beneath the staircase.

“What is it?” Barbara asked, leaning over the banister near the bottom of the stairs.

“Somebody left a crucifix on the wall,” Larry told her.

“Is that all?” She leaned farther out, then shook her head. “Big deal,” she said.

Jean stepped around the side of the staircase for a closer look.

“Anybody want a souvenir?” Pete asked. He strode toward the crucifix.

“No, don’t,” Larry warned.

“Hey, somebody just forgot it here. Finders keepers.”

“Leave it alone,” Barbara said from her perch on the stairs. “For godsake, you don’t go around stealing crosses. That’s sick.”

The cross was made of wood. The suspended figure of Jesus looked as if it might be gold-plated. Pete reached for it.

“Please don’t,” Jean said.

He looked at her. “Oh,” he said. “Oh, yeah.” Apparently he had just remembered that Jean was Catholic. He lowered his hand. “Sorry. I was just kidding around.”

“Reason prevails,” Barbara muttered. She pushed herself away from the banister and resumed climbing.

She got as far as the landing.

The wood creaked under her weight, then burst with a hard flat crack like a gunshot.

Barbara sucked in her breath. She flung her arms up as if trying to find a handhold in the dark air as she dropped straight down.

Four

“My God!” Pete shouted.

Jean, racing up the stairs, called out, “Hang on!”

“I’m slipping! Hurry!”

Larry dashed toward the foot of the stairs. He didn’t hear Pete coming. “Where areyou, man?”

“Get up there and grab her!” Pete snapped.

“Oh shit,” Barbara groaned.

Larry swung himself around the newel post. As he rushed up behind Jean he saw the hazy glow of Pete’s flashlight ahead and to the right of the stairs. Hadn’t the guy moved? Was he still down there in front of the crucifix?

Jean sank to her knees at the edge of the landing.

Barbara, her back to the lower stairs, looked like someone being swallowed by quicksand. She was hunched forward, pressing her chest against the remaining boards, bracing herself up with her elbows.

Jean crawled aside to make a space for Larry, then hooked an arm under Barbara’s left armpit. “Gotcha,” she gasped. “I gotcha. You’re not gonna fall.”

“Are you okay?” Pete called up.

“No, damn it!”

Larry dropped against the landing and stairs, looked down into a six-inch gap between the broken planks and the white of Barbara’s blouse. Blackness.

A bottomless pit, he thought. An abyss.

Ridiculous, he told himself. Probably no more than a six— or seven-foot drop, all told, from the landing to the lobby floor. She was already about halfway there.

What if the floor doesn’t extend under the staircase?

Or she breaks through that, too?

Even if she had only a four-foot fall, she would end up trapped under the staircase. And the broken boards might scrape her up pretty good on the way down.

He squirmed forward until his face met the hair on the back of Barbara’s head. He wrapped his arms around her. They squeezed her breasts. Muttering “Sorry,” he worked them lower and hugged her rib cage.

“Pete!” he yelled.

“You got her?” Pete’s voice still came from below.

“Just barely. If you’d give us a goddamn hand!”

He heard a crack of splitting wood. For a moment he thought that more of the landing was giving out. Nothing happened, though.

“Yah!” Barbara yelped, jerking in Larry’s embrace. “Something’s got me!”

“It’s just me, hon.”

For an instant a pale tongue of light licked the darkness beside Larry’s right shoulder. It had risen through the broken boards.

Pete’s under us, he realized.

“How’d you get down there?” Jean asked. She sounded amazed, relieved.

“Tire tool magic,” Pete said. “Okay, I’ve got you, hon. Let’s lower her gently.”

“No no no, don’t! I’ll fall.”

“We gotta get you down outa there.”

“Well, boost me up, okay?” Her voice was controlled, but tight with pain or fear. “If I try to go down, I’ll get wracked up even more.”

“All right. We’ll give it a try. You guys ready up there? On the count of three.”

“You gonna push her up by her legs?” Jean asked.

“That’s the idea. One. Two.”

“Take it easy,” Barbara urged him, “or I’ll end up with a bunch of wood in me.”

“Okay. One. Two. Three.”

Barbara came up slowly through the break as if she were standing on an elevator. Still hugging her chest, Larry struggled to his knees. She swayed back against him. He slid a hand down the slick, bare skin of her belly. She gasped and flinched. Then he grabbed her belt buckle, yanked upward, pulled her hard against him, and she came to rest sitting at the brink of the gap.

“Okay,” she gasped. “I’m okay. Give me a second to catch my breath.”

Larry and Jean held onto her arms.

“All right up there?” Pete asked. The beam of his flashlight swept back and forth through the break in front of Barbara’s knees.

Barbara didn’t answer.

“She’s safe,” Jean called down.

The beam slid away and only a faint glow drifted out of the opening.

“I want to go home,” Barbara muttered. Larry and Jean held her steady while she leaned back and drew her legs up. She planted her shoes against the rim of splintered wood at the gap’s far side.

Jesus!” Startled, scared.

Barbara went rigid. “Pete! What’s wrong!”

“Holy jumpin‘... Oh, man.” Not quite so scared now. Amazed. “Hey, you’re not gonna believe this. Honest to motherin’ God. Larry, get down here.”

“What?”

Barbara leaned forward and peered between her spread legs. “What is it?”

“You don’t want to know.”

“This is no time for games, Peter.”

“You’re just damn lucky you didn’t wind up down here.”

For a moment no one said anything.

Then Pete’s voice came up through the crevice. “You would’ve had company.”

Shivers ran up Larry’s back.

“There’s an old stiff in here.”

He’s kidding, Larry thought. But his body knew that Pete was telling the truth. His cheeks suddenly felt numb. He had trouble getting enough breath. His bowels went shaky. His scrotum shriveled up tight, as if someone had just grabbed it with a handful of ice.

“Oh jeez,” Barbara muttered. Jean and Larry got out of her way as she twisted around, grabbed the banister, and struggled to her feet. They followed her down the stairs. She held the railing and moved slowly, hunched over just a bit. Her blouse now hung all the way down her back.

“I knew I didn’t like this place,” Jean whispered.

Barbara went straight to the hotel door and threw it open. Daylight flooded in. She stopped in the doorway and turned sideways. She was squinting. Her teeth were bared. Though Larry was several feet away, he could see her trembling. Her hands shook as she pinched the edges of her blouse and spread its front wide. She gazed down at the raw band of skin across her belly.

Her breasts looked very white through the open patterns of her bra. Larry glimpsed the darker skin of her nipples. She was too hurt and dazed for modesty, and Larry felt like a cheap voyeur taking advantage of her carelessness. In spite of the guilt, he didn’t want to look away. There was a dead body under the stairs. Somehow, the sight of Barbara’s skin through the black lace bra eased his sick dread.

But he forced his eyes lower. The right leg of her shorts was rucked up higher than the left. Both thighs were scraped, her shins bleeding. The right was worse than the left, but both legs had been abraded in the fall.

Jean went to her. “You really didget wracked up.”

“You’re telling me.”

“Where is everyone?” Pete called. His voice sounded muffled.

“Barbara’s really banged up,” Larry answered. “Come on out of there and let’s go home.”

“You’ve gotta see this! It’ll just take a minute.”

I don’t want to see it.

“Man, your wife is hurt.”

“What’s one more minute or two? We’ve got a dead bodyhere. You’re a writer, for godsake. A horrorwriter. I’m telling you, this isn’t something you want to miss. Come on.”

“Go ahead if you want,” Jean told him. “We’ll start on over for the van.”

Larry wrinkled his nose.

Barbara nodded, still grimacing and shaking. Her face and chest were shiny with sweat. Larry found himself looking again at her breasts. “Go on,” she said. “It’ll make him happy.”

“You gals don’t want to see it?”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” Jean said.

“Just make it quick,” Barbara told him.

He turned away from the door. He walked slowly across the lobby floor. Glancing back, he saw Jean and Barbara step outside.

He felt abandoned.

I don’t have to be here, he thought. I could be out there with them.

He did not want to see a damn corpse.

But his weak legs kept moving him away from the sunlight.

Alongside the staircase a wide section of paneling had been ripped loose and gaped open a couple of feet. The glow of Pete’s flashlight showed through the space. Larry turned sideways and stepped into the enclosure.

“Thought you were going to chicken out on me,” Pete said.

“Can’t miss a chance like this.”

He found Pete standing on a couple of boards that had fallen from the landing. He looked frozen there, back rigid, his right arm straight out, aiming the flashlight almost as if it were a pistol. Aiming it at the coffin that was jammed headfirst against the underside of a low stair.

The body was covered, at least to the neck, by an old brown blanket. The blanket was rumpled as if it had been tossed into the coffin by someone who didn’t care to straighten it.

The corpse had long yellow hair. The skin of its face looked tight and leathery. Larry saw sunken eyelids, hollow cheeks, lips that were stretched back in a mad grin that exposed teeth and gums.

“You believe this?” Pete whispered.

Larry shook his head. “Maybe it isn’t real.”

“My ass. I know a stiff when I see one.”

“Looks almost mummified.”

“Yeah. Guess we oughta check it out, huh?”

Shoulder to shoulder, they moved slowly forward. Pete kept his light on the corpse.

Hideous, Larry thought. He’d never seen such a thing. His experience with bodies was limited to three open-casket funerals. Those people had looked almost good enough to sit up and shake hands with you.

This one looked as if it might want to sit up and take a bite out of you.

Don’t think that stuff, Larry told himself.

The underside of the stairway slanted down in front of them. They had to duck as they stepped to the foot of the coffin. Pete sank into a squat and waddled in farther. Larry started in, crouching. But after one step a sense of suffocation stopped him. The stairs seemed to be pressing down on him, wanting to shove him lower, to rub his face in the corpse. He dropped to his knees and reached out, ready to brace himself on the wooden edge of the coffin. Just before he touched it, he realized what he was about to do. He jerked his hands back and clutched his thighs.

The blanket piled on top of the corpse didn’t cover its ankles and feet. They were bare, the color of stained wood, and bones showed through the tight skin. The nails were so long that they curled over the tops of the toes. Larry recalled that hair and nails supposedly continued to grow after death. But he’d heard that that was just a myth; they only appearedto grow because the skin sank in around them.

“Bet it’s been here a long time,” Pete whispered. He reached over the side of the coffin. With his index finger he brushed the corpse’s forehead.

Larry moaned.

“What’s wrong?”

“How can you touchit?”

“No big deal. Try it. Feels like shoe leather.” He drew his finger across a blond eyebrow.

Larry imagined Pete’s finger sliding down the ridge of the eye socket, touching the lid, denting it, sinking in to the second knuckle.

“Go on and touch it,” Pete urged him. “How you going to write about this stuff if you don’t experience it?”

“Thanks, anyway. I’ll rely on my imagi...”

“We changed our minds.”

He flinched at the sound of Barbara’s voice. So did Pete. Pete’s head slammed the underside of a stair. He cried, “Ah!” ducked down close to the face of the corpse and grabbed the back of his head. “Shit! Damn it, Barb!”

“Sorry.”

Larry looked over his shoulder at the women and smiled. Though his startled heart was drumming, he was gladthey were here.

He felt as if some of the real world had come back.

“Guess you weren’t kidding,” Barbara whispered. “Jesus, look at that thing.”

“Yuck,” was all Jean said.

Barbara crouched over the end of the coffin. Jean stayed behind her and peered over her head.

“Didn’t want us to have all the fun?” Larry asked.

“That’s about the size of it,” Jean said, her voice hushed.

“Curiosity got the best of us,” Barbara added. Then she reached into the coffin and touched the foot of the corpse.

She’s just like Pete, Larry thought. Whatever their differences, they’re sure a set.

“I think I’m bleeding,” Pete muttered.

“That makes two of us,” Barbara said, still rubbing the dead foot. “It’s like the skin on a salami.”

“Salami’s oily,” Pete told her. “This is more like leather.”

“Okay, we’ve seen it,” Jean said. “Everyone ready to go?”

“Yeah, just about.” Pete stopped rubbing his head, reached one arm down over the covered torso and snatched off the blanket. Larry lurched backward on his knees, wishing to God he’d known this was coming. He’d already seen too much.

Now the corpse was stretched in front of his face.

It was naked.

It was female.

It had a wooden stake in its chest.

“Holy shit,” Barbara whispered.

“Let’s get out of here!” Jean gasped in a high, tight voice. She didn’t wait for a consensus. She bolted.

Pete threw the blanket down. It landed in a pile, covering the blunt top of the stake, the corpse’s flat breasts and the slats of its ribs. Barbara leaned forward, grabbed a bit of the blanket and jerked it down to cover the groin.

Blond pubic hair.

Larry groaned.

Then he was scurrying after Barbara. The white seat of her shorts was still smudged with yellow from the rock where she’d rested in the creek bed.

Seemed like a century ago.

Why did we do this?

Larry followed her through the open section of paneling. Jean was still in the lobby. Her fists were clenched at her sides and she was prancing as if she had to pee. “Let’s go, let’s go!” she gasped.

Larry waited for Pete.

Together they pushed the slab of wood into place.

Shutting the door of the tomb.

Pete backed away as if afraid to take his eyes off it.

In the beam of his flashlight the crucified body of Jesus gleamed.

Five

Pete floored it out of Sagebrush Flat, and Barbara didn’t say a word about the speed.

Nobody said a word about anything.

Larry slouched in the passenger seat, feeling dazed and exhausted. Though he stared out the windshield at the sun-bright road and desert, he kept seeing the corpse. And the stake in its chest. And the crucifix.

It’s behind us now, he told himself. We got away. We’re all right.

His body felt leaden. There was a shaky tightness in his chest and throat that seemed like a peculiar mix of terror — subsiding terror — and elation. He remembered experiencing similar sensations a few years earlier. On a flight to New York the 747 had hit an air pocket and dropped straight down for a couple of seconds. Some of the passengers struck the ceiling. He and Jean and Lane, strapped in their seats, had been unharmed. But he’d felt this way afterward.

Probably shock, he thought. Shock, combined with great relief.

He sensed that if he didn’t keep tight control of himself, he might start weeping or giggling.

This must be where they get the expression “scared silly.”

“How’s everybody doing?” Pete asked, breaking the long silence.

“I want a drink,” Barbara said.

“There’s more beer in the ice chest.”

“Not beer, a drink.”

“Yeah, I could go for one myself. Or three or four. We should be home in less than an hour.” He glanced at Larry. “You believethat back there? That was like right out of one of your books.”

“He hasn’t written any vampire books,” Barbara said. “You’d know that, if you ever read them.”

“Bet you will now, right?”

“I think I’d rather forget about it.”

“Same here,” Jean said. “God.”

“That babe had a stakein her heart.”

“We all saw it,” Barbara reminded him.

“And how about that crucifix? I’ll bet they put it there to keep her from getting out.” He nodded, squinting at the road. “You know? In case the stake fell out, or something. To keep her from breaking through the wall.”

“How would the damn stake fall out?” Barbara asked, sounding a little bit annoyed by his musings.

“Well, you know, a rat could get in there. A rat might pull it loose. Something like that.”

“Give me a break.”

“There’s no such thing as vampires,” Jean said. “Tell them, Larry.”

“I don’t know,” he said.

“What do you mean, you don’t know?”

“Well, there’s plenty of legends about them. It goes way back. Back in the Middle Ages a lot of poor jerks wound up buried at crossroads with their heads cut off and garlic stuffed in their mouths.”

“Guess ours got off lucky, huh?” Pete grinned at him. “All she got was the ol‘ stake-in-the-heart routine.”

“She’s not any vampire,” Jean insisted.

“Somebody sure wasted her, though,” Barbara said.

“That’s right,” Jean said. “Has it occurred to anyone that we found a dead body?”

Pete raised his hand like a school kid. “Me,” he said. “I caught that right off the bat.” He chuckled. “No pun intended.”

“No, I mean shouldn’t we tell the police?”

“She’s got a point,” Barbara admitted.

“So does our babe under the stairs,” Pete said, laughing some more. “A point right in her chest.”

“Give it a rest, would you? This is serious business. We can’t just find a body and pretend it never happened.”

“Right. We’ll just tell the cops we broke into a locked hotel.”

Youbroke into a locked hotel.”

“Hey, you want to be married to a jailbird?”

“We could make an anonymous call,” Jean suggested. “Just explain where the body is, so they can go out and get it. Really. I mean, whoever she is, she deserves a decent burial.”

“I wouldn’t want it on my conscience,” Pete said.

“What do you mean?”

“They won’t bury her with that stake in her chest. Some poor slob’ll pluck it right out. Next thing you know, he’s a vampire cocktail.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Jean muttered.

“Is it?” Making an evil laugh, he grinned over his shoulder at her.

“Watch where you’re driving,” Barbara said.

“I don’t think we should call the cops,” Larry said. “Even if we do it anonymously, there’s still a chance we might get dragged into the situation.”

“I don’t see how,” Jean told him.

“How do we know we weren’t seen? Somebody might’ve driven through town and spotted the van while we were admiring the jukebox.”

“Or the vampire,” Pete added.

“And might’ve noticed the license plate number.”

“Oh, there’s a pleasant thought,” Barbara muttered.

“You just never know. That’s all I’m saying.”

“Hey, somebody could’ve even been watching us from a window or something.”

“Thanks, Peter. I really needed to hear that.”

“Even if nobody did see us,” Larry went on, “we undoubtedly left physical evidence behind. Fingerprints, footprints, tire-tread marks where the van drove over dirt. The police would probably treat the whole area as a crime scene. There’s no telling what they might find. Next thing you know, they could be knocking on the door.”

“We didn’t kill her.”

“Have you got an alibi,” Pete asked, “for the night of September 3, 1901?”

“A pretty good one. I wasn’t bora yet. My parentsweren’t bom yet.”

“You think she’s been dead that long?” Barbara asked.

“Sure looked old to me.”

“I have no idea when she might’ve been killed,” Larry said, “but I bet she hasn’t been under the stairs there for much more than twenty years or so. I imagine she was put there afterthe hotel closed down.”

“Why’s that?” Pete asked.

“The guests would’ve smelled her.”

“Gross,” Jean muttered.

“Well, it’s true. Assuming she was put in there right after she was killed, people would’ve noticed the stink. She doesn’t smell now, but...”

“You’re making me sick, Larry.”

“Why do you say twenty years?” Barbara asked.

“The jukebox.”

“Ah-ha. The oldies-but-goodies.”

“I don’t think any of the songs I noticed were much later than the mid-sixties. That’s probably when Holman’s went out of business. I figure the hotel might’ve closed its doors around the same time as Holman’s.”

“Makes sense,” Barbara said. “So you think the body was put under the stairs sometime after, say, ‘sixty-five?”

“It’s just a guess. Of course, she could’ve been dead fifty years before somebody put her under the stairs. If that’s the way it went, there’s no telling how long she’s been there.”

“Yeah,” Pete said. “You eliminate the stink factor by having her someplace else while she’s ripe, you could stick her under the stairs and nobody’d be the wiser.”

“I don’t see how it matters,” Jean said. “The thing is, she’s dead. Who careshow long she’s been under the stairs?”

Pete again raised his hand. “I myself find it to be of more than passing interest.”

“So would the cops,” Larry added. “I think it’d make a big difference in the way they look at the situation. If she’s been dead half a century — and they have ways of figuring that stuff out — she’s almost like an historical artifact. If she was only killed twenty years ago, they might very well start an active homicide investigation.”

“That’s right,” Barbara said. “Whoever put the stake in her could still be alive and kicking.”

“Speaking of which,” Pete said. He glanced at Larry, arched an eyebrow and stroked his chin. “Wait’ll you hear this one.”

“We know,” Barbara said, “Youdid it.”

“Hey, I’m being serious here. Anybody happen to notice anything odd about the front doors of the hotel?”

“Aside from the fact that we were the first to break in?” Barbara asked.

“Very good, hon. That’s one thing. The place was still sealed when we got there. Just about every other joint in town was wide open. People’d busted in and done some exploring. But not the hotel. What else?”

“Are we playing Twenty Questions? Is it bigger than a bread box?”

“Here’s a clue. Bright and shiny and brand new.”

“The padlock,” Larry said. “The hasp.”

“Right! The way those suckers looked, I’ll bet they were sitting on the shelf of a hardware store a month ago.”

“So?” Jean asked.

“Who put them on the doors? Who wanted to keep intruders out of the hotel?”

“Could’ve been anyone,” Larry answered.

“Right. And it could’ve been someone who hid a body under the stairs. Someone who’s still around and trying to make sure nobody stumbles onto his little secret.”

“The same person who put the crucifix on the wall,” Larry added.

“Right.”

“Sort of a guardian, a keeper of the vampire.”

“It’s more likely,” Barbara said, “that whoever put the lock on the doors doesn’t know a thing about it.”

“More interesting if he does,” Pete told her.

“Maybe for you.”

“Any chance we might stop talking about it?” Jean suggested. “I wish we’d never set foot in that damn hotel.”

“You know,” Pete said, “we should’vepulled the stake. You know what I mean? Just to see what happens.”

“Nothing would’ve happened,” Jean said.

“Who knows?” He leered at Larry. “Hey, want to turn around and go back and do it?”

“No way.”

“Aren’t you curious?”

“Not that curious.”

“Just try turning the van around,” Barbara warned, “and I’llbite your neck.”

“Pussy.”

“Don’t push it, buster. It was your big idea that got me messed up like this.”

“You could’ve stayed outside. Nobody was holding a gun to your head.”

“Just shut up, okay?”

He cast a glance at Larry. His expression was somewhat amused. “Guess I’d better shut up before I get her riled, huh?”

“I would if I were you.”

“Whatever happened to freedom of speech?” Though the words were spoken quietly to Larry, they were aimed at Barbara.

“That freedom ends where my ears begin,” she said.

Pete grinned at Larry, but said no more. He drove in silence.

Larry looked out at the desert. He still felt a little lightheaded and nervous, but much better than before. He guessed that the discussion had helped. Putting words to it. Sharing their concerns. Especially the playful way Pete had turned the whole godawful experience into a vampire story. And the bickering between Pete and Barbara. Their nice, normal, everyday quarreling. It all helped a lot. Leached the horror out of their encounter with the corpse. Like throwing sunlight onto a nightmare.

But his anxiety started to grow when they came to Mulehead Bend. Not even the familiar sights along Shoreline Drive were enough to dispel the dread that seemed to be swelling inside him.

Pete drove slowly through the traffic — a few automobiles surrounded by the usual mix of off-road vehicles, campers, vans, pickup trucks, and motorcycles. The road was bordered by motels, service stations, banks, shopping centers, restaurants, bars, and fast-food joints. Larry saw the bakery where he’d bought a dozen doughnuts early that morning. He saw the supermarket where Jean did her grocery shopping, the computer store where he regularly bought floppy disks, paper, and printer ribbons for his word processor, the movie theater where they had attended a horror double feature Wednesday afternoon.

Every now and then he caught glimpses of the Colorado River just east of the business district. A few people were still out, water skiing. He saw a houseboat. A shuttle boat was carrying passengers toward the casinos on the Nevada side of the river.

All so familiar, so normal. Larry thought he ought to feel some relief in returning to home turf, leaving behind the strangeness and desolation of the back roads.

But he didn’t.

It’s splitting up with Pete and Barbara, he realized. He didn’t want to part with them. He was afraid. Like a kid who’d been telling spooky stories with his friends and now had to walk home alone in the dark.

I’m not a kid, he told himself. It’s not dark. We just live next door. And I won’t be going home alone, Jean will be with me and Lane’s probably back by now.

“Why don’t you guys stick around for a while?” Barbara suggested. “We’ll have some cocktails, get the dust out of our throats.”

“Great!” Larry told her, wondering if she, too, was reluctant for the group to break up.

“I’ll make my famous margaritas,” Pete said.

“Sounds good to me,” Jean said.

Larry felt blessed.

Pete left the traffic of Shoreline Drive behind and steered up the curving road to Palm Court. When he turned onto Palm, their houses came into view.

It wasgood to be getting home.

Lane appeared from beside the porch. She wore cutoff blue jeans and her white bikini top, and carried a plastic bucket. Apparently she was preparing to wash the Mustang.

Pete beeped the horn as they approached. Lane turned to them and waved.

“Let’s not say anything to her about the you-know-what,” Jean said.

“Mum’s the word,” Pete said. He pulled into his driveway and stopped. Climbing from the van, he called to Lane, “Feel free to do this one when you get through over there.”

“Hardy-har.”

“Have fun shopping?” Jean asked her.

“Yeah, it was okay.” She beamed at Larry as he stepped past the front of the van. “I spent all kindsof your money, Dad. You’re gonna have to stay home and write like a dog.”

“Thanks a lot, sweetheart.”

“Consider me a motivating force. So, how was the excursion?”

“Had a good time,” Jean told her. “We’ll be over here for a while.”

“Join us if you’d like,” Barbara said, appearing behind the van with the ice chest in her hand.

“Jeez!” Lane blurted. “What happened to you?”

“Had a little accident.”

“Are you okay?” she asked, frowning.

“Just some scrapes and bruises. I’ll live.”

“Wow.”

“Come on over, if you’d like. We’ll be having some drinks and snacks.”

“Thanks anyway. I want to wash the car.”

“Well, if you change your mind...”

“Sure. Thanks.”

They entered the house. The air-conditioning felt cool and good after the brief walk through the heat. Larry sat in his usual chair at the kitchen table. Jean sat across from him. Pete began to gather bottles from the liquor cupboard.

It was all very familiar, very comforting.

“I’m going to get cleaned up a bit,” Barbara said. “Back in a minute, then I’ll dig up some goodies.”

Pete sang a few lines of “Margaritaville” as he dumped tequila and Triple Sec into his blender. The blender was one of his finds. Someone had put it out for the trashmen. He’d spotted it while driving to work, picked it up and restored it to working order.

It reminded Larry of the jukebox down in the creek bed. He saw himself crouching over it, and then he was on his knees beside the coffin, staring in at the withered brown corpse.

He felt himself start to shrink inside.

It’s history, he told himself. We’re home. It’s all over. That damn thing is fifty, sixty miles away.

“Sure is good to be here,” he said.

“Better than a sharp stick in the eye. Or in the heart, as the case may be.”

Jean grimaced.

Pete split open a couple of limes and squeezed them into the blender, then tossed in some ice cubes. He took long-stemmed margarita glasses down from the cupboard, rubbed their rims with lime, then dipped them into a plastic tub of salt. “Okay, baby, do your stuff,” he told the blender as he capped it and pressed a button. After a few noisy seconds the machine went silent. Pete filled the glasses with his frothy concoction and carried them to the table.

As he sat down, Barbara returned.

“Are you okay?” Jean asked.

“Feeling a lot better.”

She looked a lot better, too.

She was barefoot, wearing red gym shorts and a loose gray T-shirt that was chopped off just below her breasts. Larry guessed that she had taken a washcloth to her legs and belly. The filth and blood were gone, leaving her skin ruddy around the abrasions. The wood had scratched her like an angry cat, and there were broad scuffs that looked as if she’d been given swipes with some heavy-duty sandpaper.

Larry watched as she put together a tray of cheese and crackers.

The back of her looked fine. Tanned, smooth, unblemished.

She brought the snacks to the table and sat down. Pushing out her lower lip, she huffed a breath that stirred the hair on her forehead. “At last,” she said.

Pete raised his glass. “May the vampire rest in peace and never come looking for our necks.”

“I’m gonna brain you,” Barbara said.

“I’ll help,” Jean said.

Pete grinned at Larry. “These gals, they’ve got no sense of humor.”

Six

Larry woke up shivering. The covers were off him, twisted around Jean as she thrashed and whimpered. He shook her gently by the shoulder. She flinched. Gasped, “What’s... what’s?..”

“You were having a nightmare,” Larry whispered.

“Huh? Oh. Okay.” She rolled onto her back. She was still panting for air. “Smothering,” she muttered, and struggled to free herself from the blankets. She shoved and kicked them down to the foot of the bed.

“I’m going to need some of that,” Larry said, sitting up.

“Huh? Oh. Sorry.”

“No problem. I’ll put some light on the subject,” he warned, and gave Jean a moment to shield her eyes before he reached to the nightstand and turned on the lamp.

“Wait. I’ll do it. You’ll mess it up.”

“Fine,” he said, and smiled. Seconds ago Jean had been in the grips of a terrible nightmare. Now she was concerned that he might foul up the job of arranging the sheet and blankets. He leaned back, bracing himself up with locked arms, and watched her climb off the bed.

She looked as if she’d just taken a shower with her nightgown on. Her short hair was matted down, wet ringlets clinging around her ears and the nape of her neck. The sleek white fabric of her nightie was glued to her back and rump.

“You’re drenched,” Larry said. “Must’ve been a real corker.”

“Probably. I don’t remember.” She bent over her side of the bed and pulled the top sheet out of the tangle. Her breasts swayed slightly inside the low-cut, lace bodice.

“You think it was about today?”

“Wouldn’t be surprised.” She swept the sheet high. As it fluttered down, Larry leaned forward and caught the edge. He drew it over his naked body and eased backward onto the mattress. The sheet was enough to block out the chill of the soft night breeze. But the lightweight blanket felt even better as Jean covered him with it. She smoothed it carefully over her side of the bed, then came around to his side. Bending over him, she straightened the blanket. He slipped his arm out and stroked her rump. The nightgown felt silken and damp. Her skin was smooth beneath it, and very warm. She glanced at him, eyebrows rising. He moved his hand down the back of her leg and slipped it under the hem of her nightgown.

Standing up straight, Jean reached out and turned off the lamp. Her gown, pale in the faint light from the windows, climbed her body and fell away. Larry swept aside the sheet and blanket that she had just finished arranging so neatly. But she didn’t protest.

She crawled onto the bed, straddled his legs and eased down on top of him. As they kissed, he caressed her back and her small, firm buttocks. She lifted her legs onto his. She pressed his growing penis between her thighs and squirmed against him. Her breasts were warm, slick cushions rubbing his chest, and though the feel of her writhing body made him ache with need, her hipbones felt as if they were grinding into him.

He rolled, tumbling her onto the mattress, covering her with his body. He pushed himself up with elbows and knees to keep his weight off her. She squirmed as he kissed the side of her neck, moaned as he moved lower and kissed one nipple, then the other.

He pushed himself back. Kneeling between her open legs, he whispered, “Just a second.”

Jean’s fingers curled lightly around him, slid the length of his shaft. “I don’t think you’ll need one tonight.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah.”

“Great. I hate those damn rubbers.”

“I know.” She smiled.

Bright teeth in a faint blur of face. Patches of darkness where her eyes should be.

Larry was suddenly under the stairway again, kneeling over the corpse. He felt himself go cold and tight.

Don’t think about it!

He realized that Jean was about the same size as the horrible, dried-up thing.

Stop it!

“What’s wrong, honey?”

“Nothing,” he said.

Her shadowed skin was dark, but not thatdark. Her breasts were mounds, not slabs. But even in the dim light he could see the contours of her ribs. Below the rib cage she seemed shrunken in. Her hipbones jutted.

“Honey?”

Her hand felt leathery around his small, soft penis.

It'shand.

He pictured himself knocking it away.

But he knew that this was Jean. She hadn’t turned into the corpse. He wasn’t hallucinating, either. This was just Jean, and his damned imagination was simply messing with him.

Not going to let it win, he promised himself.

He scooted backward on the mattress. Her hand went away from him. He kissed her belly. Warm, soft, slick with sweat. Not dry and leathery.

Stop comparing!

But when his face rubbed Jean’s moist curls, he remembered the thing’s blond thicket of pubic hair. A shudder passed through him.

Jean thrust fingers into his hair.

He went lower. She writhed and moaned, thrusting herself against him, clenching his hair, and he lost all thought of the corpse.

Soon she was whimpering.

But not from any nightmare, Larry thought as she tugged his hair and he scurried up the mattress. He clamped his wet mouth to hers. He ran the hard length of his penis into her heat. She seemed to suck him in as if she were hungry to be filled.

“I should have... nightmares more often,” she told him later.

“Yeah.”

She was panting beneath him, lightly stroking his back. Then she turned her face away, worked her lips strangely, and raised a hand to her mouth. With her thumb and index finger, she pinched something and pulled it out.

“What’s that?”

“A hair.”

“Where’d that come from?”

“Your mouth,” she said, shaking under him as she chuckled. She rubbed her hand on the sheet, then wrapped her arms around Larry and gave him a powerful squeeze. It was as if the hug used up the last of her strength. After a moment she released him and sprawled out limp. Then he eased away, sliding out of her.

He pulled the sheet and blanket up and scooted closer to her. He rested a hand on the warm curve of her thigh. Under his fingertips was a smear of stickiness. “Ooo, yuck,” he said.

She laughed softly. “Don’t complain, buster. I’vegot the wet spot.”

“Want to trade places?”

“It’s my wifely duty to sleep on the wet spot.” Her hand covered his, caressed it, fooled with his fingers.

In the silence he began to worry that Jean might ask about his problem. He doubted that she would, though. Their sex life was something they rarely discussed. Besides, he’d made a rather spectacular recovery.

“Well,” he said, “I’d better go to sleep or I won’t be worth a damn tomorrow.”

“You’ll have to write like a dog to pay for Lane’s new wardrobe.”

“Bought out the store,” he muttered, rolling away from Jean and curling up on his side.

She laughed, then surprised Larry by snuggling against him. Normally they slept at opposite sides of the bed.

But it felt good. Her breath warm on the nape of his neck. Her breasts and belly pressing his back. Her lap against his rump. The soft tickle of her pubic hair. Her thighs smooth against the backs of his legs. An arm came down over his side and fingers curled tenderly around his penis.

“You still horny?” he asked.

She kissed his back. “Wiseguy. I just want to be close to you.”

“Well, I guess that’s all right.”

“Thanks.”

“Are you okay?”

“I don’t know,” she whispered. “I guess so. How about you?”

“I wish we hadn’t gone there today.”

“Me, too. I’ve never seen anything so horrible.” She pressed herself more tightly against him. “On the other hand, you’re always looking for material.”

“I could do without thatsort of material.”

“The real thing’s too much for you, huh?” she teased.

“Darn right it is.”

“Your fans would be appalled, you know, if they ever found out how squeamish you really are. Nasty Lawrence Dunbar, master of gore, pussy.”

“Pussy, huh? You’ve been around Pete too much.” She laughed again. “Go to sleep, tough guy.”

Going for It

Seven

“Happy trails to you,” Dad said, and swatted her butt as she stepped out the door.

She smirked back at him.

“Say hi to Roy and Dale,” he added.

“You should look so good,” Lane said, then turned away and hurried toward the car. The red Mustang gleamed in the early morning sunlight. She stepped around to the driver’s side, feeling fresh and eager in her new clothes: the mottled pink and blue T-shirt; the tie-dyed blue denim jumper with its white lace trim and pink flowerbud decorations on the bib, straps, and hem; and the white, fringed boots.

Dad was always poking fun at her clothes. She supposed this outfit didmake her look like a cowgirl.

One hot, radical cowgirl, she thought, and grinned as she climbed into the car.

At least he hadn’t made any remarks about the length of the skirt. Sitting down, she could feel the seat upholstery high on the backs of her legs. As she waited for the engine to warm up, she leaned close to the steering wheel and looked down. The skirt was short, all right. Any shorter might be embarrassing.

This was just right.

Sexy, but not outrageous.

She especially liked the lace around the hem of the skirt, the way its long points lay like frilly spearheads against her thighs.

I’m going to drive Jim nuts when he sees me in this.

As if he needs any help along those lines.

Laughing softly, trembling just a little with the anticipation of being at school on such a fine day in such a grand outfit, Lane backed out of the driveway. She turned the car radio to “86.2 A.M., all the best in Country twenty-four hours a day!” Randy Travis was on. She turned the volume high and poked her elbow into the warm stream of air rushing past her window.

God, she felt great.

Seemed almost criminal to feel this great.

She leaned her shoulder against the door, tipped her head and felt the wind caress her face, tug at her hair.

To think that she’d put up such a fuss about leaving Los Angeles. She must’ve been crazy, wanting to stay in that lousy apartment in a city full of filthy air and creeps. But she’d grown up there. She was used to it. She’d known she would miss her friends and the beaches and Disneyland. This was so much better, though. She’d made new friends, she loved the river, and the clean, open spaces gave her a constant sense of freedom that made each day seem rich with promise.

Best of all, she supposed, was the release from fear. In L.A. you had to be so careful. The place was crawling with rapists and killers. Not a day went by when the TV news didn’t broadcast stories of such horror and brutality that you dreaded stepping outside. Kids missing. Their bodies usually found days later, nude and mutilated and sexually abused. Not only kids, either. The same thing happened to teenagers, and even adults. If you weren’t kidnapped and tortured, you might be gunned down at a restaurant or movie theater or shopping mall. And hiding at home was no guarantee of safety, either. There were plenty of nuts who simply drove around town, shooting into the windows of houses and apartment buildings.

Nowhere was safe.

Lane’s joy slipped away as she suddenly remembered the chopping crashes of gunfire in the night. They had been home in their ground-level apartment in Los Angeles, sitting close together on the sofa, watching Dallason TV Lane had a tub of popcorn on her lap. Mom sat on one side, Dad on the other. All three were reaching in, hands sometimes colliding. The first blast made her jump so hard that the tub flew up, flinging popcorn everywhere. Then the night exploded as if someone on the street had opened up with a machine gun. Mom had screamed. Dad had shouted “Get down!” but didn’t give Lane even an instant to respond before he grabbed the back of her neck and nearly broke her in half as he rammed her forward. The edge of the coffee table skinned the top of her head. She wept and held her head and shuddered as the roar pounded her ears. Then all she heard was a ringing. The gunfire had stopped. Dad still clutched her neck. “Jean?” he’d asked in a high, strange voice. Mom didn’t answer. “Jean!” True panic. Then Mom had said, “Is it over?”

They stayed on the floor.

Then came sirens and the loud whap-whap-whap of a police helicopter low overhead. The front draperies were bright with flashes of red and blue. Dad had crawled to the window and looked out. “Holy Jesus,” he said, “there must be twenty cop cars out there.”

It turned out that the shots had been fired at a family in a duplex across the street. Both parents, and three children, had been killed by automatic fire from an Uzi. Only an infant had survived the shooting.

Lane hadn’t known the family. That was another thing about L.A. — even most of your neighbors were strangers. But the fact that they’d been gunned down, right across the street, was shocking.

Just too damn close.

Dad had reminded them about a family gunned down by mistake a few years earlier. It was a drug hit. The killers had gone to the wrong house, the one next door to the residence of their intended victims.

“We’re getting out of here,” Dad had said, even while the street outside was still jammed with police cars.

Two weeks later they were on the way to Mulehead Bend.

They knew the town from having vacationed there just a month before the shooting. They’d spent a night in a motel, followed by a week in a houseboat on the river. They’d all enjoyed the area, it was fresh in their minds, and it seemed like a good place to find sanctuary from the mad, crowded hunting grounds of Los Angeles.

Sometimes the wind and heat were enough to drive you crazy. You had to watch out for scorpions and black widow spiders and several varieties of poisonous snakes. But the chances of catching a bullet in the head or getting abducted by a pervert were mighty slim.

Lane looked upon L.A. as a prison from which she and her family had escaped. The freedom was glorious.

She swung her car onto the dust and gravel in front of Betty’s place and beeped the horn once. Betty lived in a mobile home, as did the majority of Mulehead Bend’s population. It was firmly planted on a foundation. A porch and an extra room had been added on. It looked pretty much like a normal house from the outside, though the interior always seemed narrow and cramped when Lane visited.

Betty trudged down the porch stair as if laboring under the burden of her weight — which was considerable. She managed to raise her head and nod a greeting.

Leaning across the passenger seat, Lane opened the door for her. Betty swung her book bag into the backseat. The fabric of her tan shirt was already dark under the armpits. The car rocked slightly as she climbed in. She shut the door so hard that Lane winced.

“Well, look at you,” Betty said, her voice as slow and somber as always. “What’d you do, mug Dolly Parton?”

“Who’d youmug, Indiana Jones?”

“Yucka yucka,” she muttered.

Lane steered onto the road. “We picking up Henry?”

“Only if you want to.”

“Well, is he expecting us?”

“I suppose.”

“You two aren’t fighting again, are you?”

“Just the usual grief about my culinary preferences. I told him he’s no prize himself, and if he thinks he can do better, he should go ahead and try, and good riddance.”

“True love,” Lane said.

She swung around a bend and accelerated up the road to Henry’s house. He was out in front, sitting on a small, white-painted boulder next to the driveway, reading a paperback. When he saw them coming, he slipped the book into his leather briefcase. He stood up, ran a hand over the top of his crew cut, and stuck out his thumb as if hoping to hitch a ride with strangers.

“What a dork,” Betty muttered.

“Oh, he’s cute,” Lane said.

“He’s a nerd.”

That was a fact, Lane supposed. In his running shoes, old blue jeans, plaid shirt, and sunglasses, he could almost pass for a regular guy. But the briefcase gave him away. So did the rather dopey, cheerful look on his lean face. And the way his head preceded the rest of his body made him look, to Lane, like an adventurous turtle.

He was a nerd, no doubt about it. But Lane liked him.

“Good morning, sports fans!”

“Yo!” Lane greeted him.

Betty climbed out, shoved the seat back forward, and ducked into the backseat. Henry got in after her. Hanging over the seat, he managed to pull the door shut. Then his head swiveled toward Lane. “Foxy outfit there, lady.”

“Thanks.”

“ ‘She had a body like a mountain road,’ ” he said. “ ‘Full of curves and places you’d like to stop for a picnic’ ”

“Mike Hammer?” Lane asked.

“Mack Donovan, Dead Low Tide.” He dropped backward, or was yanked by Betty.

“You never talk to me that way,” the girl grumbled.

He whispered something that Lane couldn’t hear over Ronnie Milsap. She turned the radio down, and heard a giggly squeal from Betty. Making a U-turn, she headed down the hill.

“So, you have a big weekend?” Henry asked after a while.

“Okay,” Lane said. “Nothing special. I went shopping yesterday.”

“No dream date with Jim Dandy, King of the Studs?”

“He had to go out of town with his parents.”

Toobad. And I bet he didn’t even have the courtesy to leave you his biceps.”

“Nope, I had to go without.”

“Rotten luck. Should’ve come to the drive-in with us. Saw a couple of dynamite films. Trashedand Attack of the S.S. Zombie Queens.”

“Sorry I missed them.”

“Sorry Isaw them,” Betty said.

“Well, you didn’t see much of them, that’s for sure. Between your forays to the snack bar and the John...”

“Hush up.”

“We think she got a bad hot dog,” he explained.

“Henry!” she whined.

“On the other hand, could’ve been a bad burrito or cheeseburger.”

“Lane doesn’t want to hear all the gruesome details.”

“What’s going on with your dad?” Henry asked, leaning forward and folding his arms over the seat back. “Have they started filming The Beast?”

“Not yet. They just renewed the option, though.”

“Terrific. Man, I can’t wait to see that one. I’ve got rubber bands holding that book together. Read it five, six times. It’s a classic.”

“I would’ve liked it better,” Lane said, “if it hadn’t been written by my father.”

“Ah, he’s cool.”

“And apparently somewhat demented,” Lane added.

Henry laughed.

At the bottom of the hill Lane turned onto Shoreline Drive. Most of the shops along the road weren’t open yet, and the traffic was light. The station wagon ahead of her was filled with children on their way to the elementary school, which was across the road from Buford High at the south end of town. Quite a few older kids were on the sidewalks, hiking in that direction.

Henry, still resting on the seat back, swung his arm toward the passenger window. “Isn’t that Jessica?”

Lane spotted the girl on the sidewalk ahead. Jessica, all right. Even from behind there was no mistaking her. The spiked hair, dyed bright orange, was enough to give her away.

Her left arm was in a cast.

“Wonder what happened,” Lane muttered. “Anyone mind if I offer her a lift?”

“Yeah, do it,” Henry said.

“Terrific,” Betty muttered.

Lane swung the car to the curb, not far behind the swaggering girl, and leaned across the passenger seat. “How about a ride?” she called.

Jessica turned around.

Lane winced at the sight of her.

“God,” Henry muttered.

Jessica was generally considered the foxiest gal in the junior class, maybe in the entire high school.

Not so foxy now, Lane thought.

From the looks of her now, she might’ve gone ten rounds over the weekend with the heavyweight champ.

The left side of her face was swollen and purple. Her cracked lips bulged like sausages. She had a flesh-colored bandage on her chin, another over her left eyebrow. Lane guessed that the pink-framed sunglasses concealed shiners. The girl usually wore huge, dangling rings in her pierced ears. Today the lobes of both ears were bandaged. The low neckline of her tank top revealed bruises on her chest. Others showed around her shoulder straps. Even her thighs were smudged with purple bruises below the frayed edges of her cutoff jeans.

“How about it?” Lane called to her.

She shrugged, and Lane heard a quiet intake of breath from Henry — likely at the way the gesture made Jessica’s breast move under the tight, thin fabric of her top. Only one showed. The other was discretely hidden under the cloth sling that supported her broken arm. The visible one jiggled as she stepped toward the car.

Maybe she got herself gang-banged.

Nice, Lane. Real nice.

Would’ve been her own damn fault.

Cut it out.

Leaning across the passenger seat, she unlatched the door and swung it open.

“Thanks,” Jessica said.

Henry dropped away from the seat back — no doubt with Betty’s help — and lost his chance to watch the girl climb in. Too bad, Lane thought. He would’ve enjoyed seeing Jessica’s leg come out through the slit side of her jeans. The bruises might’ve dampened his enthusiasm, but not by much.

She pulled the door shut. Lane checked the side mirror, waited for a Volkswagen to pass, then swung out.

“Are you sure you want to be going to school?” she asked.

“Shit. Would you, ib you looked like this?”

“I guess I’d probably call in sick.”

“Yeah,” Jessica replied through her split and swollen lips. “Well, better than habbing by old lady in by face all day. She’s such a bain.”

Lane rubbed her lips together, licked them. Listening to Jessica was almost enough to make them ache.

From the backseat came Betty’s voice. “So, you going to let us in on it, or do we have to guess?”

Scowling, Jessica peered over her shoulder.

“It’s none of our business,” Lane said.

“Yeah. Well, I got trashed.”

“Who did it to you?” Henry asked.

“Who the buck knows? A couple guys. Real asswibes. Beat the shit outa be and stole by burse.”

“Where’d it happen?”

“Ober backa the Quick Stob.”

“Behind the Quick Stop?” Betty asked. “What were you doing there?”

“They dragged be there. Saturday night. I went in bor cigarettes, and they got be when I cabe out.”

“Bad news,” Henry muttered.

“Yeah, I’ll say.” With one hand she opened a canvas satchel and took out a pack of Camels. She shook it, raised the pack to her mouth, and caught a cigarette between her fat, scabby lips. She lit it with a Bic, inhaled deeply, and sighed.

“Did they catch the guys who did it?” Lane asked.

Jessica shook her head.

“I didn’t think stuff like that happened around here.”

“It habbens, all right.”

Lane pulled into the student parking lot, found an empty space, and shut off the car.

“Thanks a lot bor the ride,” Jessica said.

“Glad to help. I’m awfully sorry you got messed up.”

“Be too. So long.” She climbed out and headed away.

“Wouldn’t you just die to know what reallyhappened?” Betty said.

“You think she lied?” Lane asked.

“Let’s put it this way. Yes.”

Henry shoved the seat back forward. “Why would she lie about a thing like that?”

“Why wouldn’t she?”

Eight

Larry drank coffee and read a new Shaun Hutson paperback for an hour after Lane went off to school. Then he set the book aside, said, “I’d better get to it,” and rose from his recliner.

“Have fun,” Jean told him, glancing up from the newspaper as he strode past her.

He shut his office door and sat down in front of the word processor.

He had already decided not to work on Night Strangertoday. The book was going well. Two more weeks should take care of it.

Then what?

Ah, he thought, there’s the rub.

Normally, by the time he was this close to finishing a novel, the next was pretty well set in his mind. He would already have pages of notes in which he had explored the plot and characters, and have several of the major scenes worked out.

Not this time.

Gotta get cooking, he told himself.

When the day came to write “The End” on Night Stranger, he wanted to slip a fresh floppy disk into his computer and begin Chapter One. Of whatever.

Two weeks to go.

That should be plenty of time.

You’ll come up with something.

You’d better.

Eighty, ninety pages to go. Then he would find himself facing an empty disk, a void, a taunting blank that would push him to the edge of despair.

It had happened a few times before. He dreaded going through a period like that again.

I won’t, he told himself.

He formatted a new disk and brought up its directory; 321,536 bytes to play with.

Let’s just use up a couple thousand today, he thought.

A page or two, that’s all it’ll take. Maybe.

He punched the Enter key and the screen went blank. A few seconds later he had eliminated the right margin justification, which would’ve left odd spaces between the words, spaces that drove him nuts when he tried to read the hard copy. He punched a few more keys. “Novel Notes — Monday, October 3,” appeared in amber light at the upper left-hand corner of the screen.

Then he sat there.

He stared at the keyboard. Several of the keys were grimy. The filthy ones were those he used least often: the numbers, the space bar except for a clean area in the shape of his right thumb, some keys at the far sides that could apparently be used to give commands for a variety of mysterious functions. He didn’t know what the hell half of them did. Sometimes he hit one by mistake. The consequences could be alarming.

He spent a while cleaning the keyboard, scratching paths through the gray smudges with a fingernail.

Stop screwing around, he told himself.

He scraped Saturday’s ashes out of a pipe, filled it with fresh tobacco and lit it. The matchbook came from the Sir Francis Drake on Union Square. They’d had lunch there during a vacation along the California coast two summers ago. The vacation he thought of as the “wharf tour.”

He set the matchbook down, puffed on his pipe, and stared at the screen.

“Novel Notes — Monday, October 3.”

Okay.

His fingertips tapped at the keys.

“Come up with something hot. Original and big. Try for at least 500 pages, more if possible.”

Right. That accomplished a lot.

He typed in, “How about a vampire book? Ha ha ha. Forget it. Vampires are done to death.

“Need something original. Some kind of a NEW threat.”

Good luck, he thought.

How about a sequel? he wondered.

“Maybe a sequel. The Beast II, or something. Worth considering, if you can’t turn up anything better.”

Come on, something new.

Or a new variation on an old theme.

“Nobody but Brandner’s done anything decent with werewolves. Come up with a fresh werewolf gimmick? Forget it. That TV show’s got the whole thing covered. But that’s not a book.”

Larry scowled at the screen.

“Forget werewolves.

“What else is there?”

His pipe slurped. He twisted the stem off, blew a fine spray into the wastebasket beside his chair, put the pipe back together and lighted it again.

A few minutes later, he had a list:

werewolves

ghosts (boring)

zombies

aliens

misc. beasts

demonic possession (shit)

homicidal maniac (done to death)

curses

wishes granted (“Monkey’s Paw”)

possessed machinery (King’s realm)

crazed animals (see above, and BIRDS)

haunted house (possibilities)

“How ABOUT a haunted house book?” he wrote.

He’d always wanted to do one, and always reached the same stumbling block. By and large, he didn’t consider ghosts sufficiently scary. Something else had to be in the house. But what?

That question took him back to the list.

He stared at it for a long time.

“Something horrible inside the house,” he wrote. “But what?”

How about a vampire under the staircase?

Right. Just thinking about it made his insides crawl.

He was on his knees beside the coffin again, staring at the withered corpse. Feeling fear and disgust.

He wanted to forget he ever saw the thing, not spend the next few months dwelling on it.

Wouldmake a good story, though.

“A blond corpse under the hotel stairs,” he wrote. “A stake in its chest. Found by some people exploring a ghost town. Could tell it just the way it happened. Fun and games.”

He wrinkled his nose.

“But they don’t run off, scared shitless, like we did. Maybe some of them do. But one is fascinated. Is this a vampire, or isn’t it? A character like Pete, but a little crazier. He hasto know. So he pulls the stake. Right in front of his eyes, the thing comes back to life. Changes from a hideous brown cadaver (use Barbara’s line about looking like salami?) into a gorgeous young woman. A gorgeous, naked young woman. Pete character is enthralled. And turned on. He wants her. But she has a different idea, and bites his neck.

“They don’t come out, and don’t come out. The others get worried, go back into the hotel to see what’s keeping the guy. Nobody under the stairs. The coffin is empty.

“Little problem, bud. Vampires don’t screw around in the daytime. So how come our merry band is exploring a ghost town after dark?

“Easy. They’re driving through town, on the way home from an outing in the desert, and the van breaks down. Flat tire, or something.”

Ah, he thought, the old car-breaking-down-in-just-the-worst-possible-place gag.

It could work, though.

And it had a nice bonus: that wasn’t the way things happened yesterday.

“Make it different enough from the truth,” he typed, “and maybe you can handle it.

“How about taking One Big Step, and changing what’s under the stairs? Not a dead gal with a stake in her chest, but a... a what? (A crate with a monster in it? Been done.) Could be anything. The body of a creature from outer space? A troll? Have open spaces between the stairs, and it reaches through and drags people in by the feet. Gobbles ‘em up. He he he.

“Chicken.

“What’s wrong with the way it really was?

“Yuck. Horror’s supposed to be fun.

“But there’s a real story there. Who is she? Who put the stake in her chest? Was the lock (brand new) put on the hotel doors by the same person who hid her under the stairs? Best of all, what happens if you pull the stake?

“Lies there. Dead meat.

“But what if life flows into her? Her dry, crusty skin becomes smooth and youthful. Her flat breasts swell into gorgeous mounds. Her sunken face fills out. She is beautifiil beyond your wildest imagination. She is breathtaking. (And bloodtaking.)

“She doesn’t bite your neck, after all.

“That’s because she’s grateful to you for freeing her to live again. Feels so indebted that she’ll do anything for you. You’re her master, and she will do your bidding. In effect, you have this gorgeous thing as your slave.

“Real possibilities.”

Nine

Lane shoved her books onto the locker shelf, took out her lunch bag and shut the metal door. As she gave the combination lock a twirl, an arm slipped around her stomach, a mouth pressed the side of her neck. She cringed as chills scurried up her skin.

“Stop it,” she said, whirling around.

“Couldn’t help myself,” Jim said.

Lane looked past him. The hallway was crowded. Kids were wandering by, talking and laughing. Those who weren’t with friends all seemed to be in a great hurry. Lockers slammed. Teachers stood near their classroom doorways, on the lookout for trouble. Nobody seemed to be paying any attention to Lane and Jim.

“Did you miss me?” Jim asked.

“I survived.”

“Uh-oh. Am I in trouble?”

“I don’t much care to be grabbed in public. How many times do I have to tell you that?”

“Oooh, touchy. Are we on the rag?”

Lane felt heat rush to her face. “Real nice,” she muttered. “Who died and made you king of the jerks?”

He smiled, but there was no humor in his eyes. “I was just kidding. Can’t you take a joke?”

“Obviously not.”

He dropped the smile. “I don’t need this.”

“Good. Adios.”

Scowling, he muttered something Lane couldn’t hear, turned away and joined the flow of the hallway crowd. He walked about twenty feet, then glanced over his shoulder as if he expected Lane to come rushing after him.

She gave him a glare.

He smirked as if to say, “Your loss, bitch,” then continued down the hall.

Creep, she thought.

On the rag. What a shitty thing to say.

She leaned back against her locker and took a deep breath, trying to calm herself. She felt hot with embarrassment and anger. Her heart thudded. She was trembling.

Who needs him, anyhow? she told herself.

I waspretty rough on him, she thought as she started down the hallway. It wasn’t as if he did anything all that awful. Just kissed my neck, really. No big crime. But he shouldn’t have done it right in front of everyone. He knows how I feel about that kind of thing.

Even if I did give him a hard time, it was no reason to make a crude remark like that.

She hadmissed him. All weekend she’d looked forward to seeing him again.

She suddenly felt cheated and sad. Her new outfit made it worse. Like getting all dressed up for a party and being left at home.

Why did he have to act like that?

He can be such a jerk sometimes.

Whenever he didn’t get his way, Lane got to see his snotty side. Afterward, though, he was usually quick to apologize, and he could be so sweet that she found it difficult to hold onto her anger.

She supposed the same thing would happen this time.

One of these days, she told herself, he’ll go too far and that’ll be the end of it.

Maybe he just did.

But the thought of breaking up with Jim made her feel empty and alone. He was the only real boyfriend she’d had since starting at Buford High — ever, for that matter. They’d shared so much. He might act like a creep sometimes, but nobody’s perfect.

You’re just too chicken to dump him, she thought.

In no time at all everyone in school would know they had split up. When that happened, she would be fair game. She’d either have to become a hermit or risk going out with virtual strangers — and some of them were bound to be creeps.

At least you know you can handle Jim.

True love, she thought. I must be out of my gourd. You don’t keep going with a guy forever just because he’s okay and you’re afraid you might do worse.

When he tries to make up this time, I should just tell him to drop dead.

On the rag. A, I’m not. B, screw him anyway.

In the cafeteria she spotted Jim at one of the long lunch tables, surrounded by his jock friends. Betty and Henry were at a corner table, sitting across from each other at its far end, several empty chairs between them and the rowdy clique of girls occupying the other end.

After buying a Pepsi at the “drinks only” window, she went to join them. “Mind if I sit here?” she asked.

“Okay with me,” Henry said. “Just don’t embarrass us by sticking a straw up your nostril.”

“The hell with that. How’ll I drink my pop?”

“Take a load off,” Betty said.

She pulled out the metal folding chair and sat down beside Henry.

“So how come you’re not eating with Jim Dandy?” he asked. “Did your taste buds finally rebel at the prospect?”

“Something like that. We had a little problem.”

Betty, about to take a bite, frowned and set her sandwich down. “Are you all right?”

Lane realized she suddenly had a lump in her throat. She didn’t trust herself to speak, so she nodded.

“The dirt bag,” Betty said.

“Want me to kick his butt?” Henry asked.

“You’d need the Seventh Cavalry,” Betty told him. “And they already bought it at the Little Big Horn.”

“Very funny.”

“I don’t know why you put up with him,” she said. Her cheeks wobbled as she shook her head. “Good Lord, girl, you know darn well you could have any guy in the school. Except for Henry, of course. I’d be forced to kill him if he made a play for you.”

“You ladies could shareme,” he suggested.

“But I mean it, though. Seriously. Jim’s always giving you grief about one thing or another. Why do you stand for it?”

“I don’t know.”

“Because he’s so cute,” Henry said.

“Stick it in your ear. This is serious.”

“Maybe I will dump him,” Lane said. “It’s just getting worse all the time.”

Grinning, Henry leaned sideways and slipped an arm around her back. “Saturday night. You and me. We’ll make beautiful music together.”

Lane saw a quick look of alarm on Betty’s face. Then the girl narrowed her eyes and said, “Prepare to meet your maker, Henrietta.”

“Sorry,” Lane told him. “I’d hold myself responsible for your demise. I can’t have that on my conscience.”

“I’d die happy.”

Betty’s face went red. She pressed her lips together.

“That’s enough, Henry,” Lane said.

He tried to hang on to his silly grin but it fell off. He pulled his arm in. “Just kidding,” he said.

Just kidding. That’s what Jim had said. What was it, the standard excuse when a guy makes an ass of himself?

Lane opened her bag and took out the sandwich. It was wrapped in cellophane. She saw egg salad bulging out between the bread.

“Just trying to make you jealous, sweet stuff,” he said to Betty.

“You’d stand as much chance with Lane as an ice cube in a hot skillet.”

Tears suddenly burned Lane’s eyes. She slapped her sandwich down hard on the table. “I’m sorry!” she blurted. “Goddamn it! Don’t do this! You’re my friends!”

They both gaped at her.

“I’m sorry. Okay?”

“Gee,” Henry said.

“It’s all right,” Betty murmured. “You okay?”

Lane shook her head.

“I know just the thing to make you feel better.”

“What?” Lane asked.

“Let me eat that sandwich for you.”

She gasped out a laugh. “Not a chance.”

“Grab it off her, Hen, and I’ll forgive you.”

He reached for it. Lane caught his wrist and pinned it to the table. “Try it again,” she warned, “and you’ll be picking your nose left-handed.”

“He’s such a klutz, he’d put out his eye.”

Lane let go. When she finished unwrapping her sandwich, she tore it down the middle and offered half to Betty. The girl leered at it but shook her head. “Go on,” Lane told her. “I don’t have much of an appetite, anyway.”

“If you’re sure...” She took it.

They ate their lunches and chatted, and everything seemed normal again. But Lane knew that damage had been done. Obviously, Betty had seen through Henry’s joking around — realized he would dump her in an eyeblink if he thought he stood a chance with Lane.

Break up with Jim, and sooner or later Henry probably willask you out. Then you’ll be minus your two best friends.

Jessica’s assigned seat in Mr. Kramer’s sixth-period English class was at the front of the room, just to the left of Lane’s desk. Today Riley Benson swaggered down the aisle and sat there. He slumped against the backrest, stretched out his legs and crossed his motorcycle boots. He looked at Lane. His face, with half-shut, sullen eyes, never failed to remind her of television news photos that showed men who put bullets into people for the fun of it.

Twisting around, she saw Jessica in Riley’s usual seat at the rear corner.

“We traded,” he said. “You got a problem?”

“None of my business.”

She turned to the front. The final bell hadn’t clamored yet, and Mr. Kramer rarely entered the classroom before the bell. She hoped he would show up soon. Riley had a reputation for starting trouble, and she was pretty sure that she’d already been chosen as today’s target.

Thanks a heap, Jessica.

The trade had to be Jessica’s idea. Lane could understand that. Battered the way she was, the girl probably wanted to be as inconspicuous as possible.

It crossed her mind that Riley might be the guy who’d beaten up Jessica. She knew they’d been going together, and he sure seemed capable of such things. Maybe Jessica gave him some lip. She could’ve made up the mugging story.

Lane looked over at him. His fingers were rapping out a rhythm on the edge of the desk. He had dirty knuckles, but they weren’t bruised or scraped. He might’ve been wearing gloves, though. Or done the damage with a blunt instrument of some kind.

“You got a problem?” he asked.

“No. Uh-uh.” She turned her eyes to the front.

“Bitch.”

This is really my day.

She stared at Mr. Kramer’s empty desk. Her back felt rigid. Her heart was thumping hard and her face was hot.

Come on, teacher. Where are you?

“Fuckin‘ twat.”

Her head snapped toward him. “Blow it out your ass, Benson.”

The bell blared and she flinched.

Riley’s lip curled up. “See ya after class. Count on it.”

“Oh, I’m so scared. I’m trembling.”

“Ya oughta be.”

In fact, she was. Now I’ve done it, she thought. Why didn’t I keep my mouth shut?

It was little consolation when Mr. Kramer entered the room.

If only he’d shown up a couple of minutes ago.

Roll book in hand, he settled down against the front edge of his desk and fixed his eyes on Riley. “I believe you’re in the wrong seat, Mr. Benson.”

“You got a problem with that?”

“As a matter of fact, yes, I do.”

Lane felt a grin spreading across her face.

Give it to him, Kramer.

“Please return to your assigned seat. Now.”

From the back of the room came Jessica’s voice. “I asked Riley to trade with be,” she said.

“Neverthe...” For an instant, he looked surprised. Then concern furrowed his brow. “My God, what happened to you?”

“I got wracked ub. Okay? Can I just stay here?”

“Did somebody do that to you?”

“No, I fell down the stairs.”

Maybe she had a different story for everyone.

“I’m very sorry to hear that, Jessica. But I’m afraid I’ll have to insist that you both resume your proper seats.”

Riley mumbled something, gathered his books, and headed for the back of the classroom.

Good show! Lane thought.

No wonder Kramer was one of the most popular teachers at Buford High. Not only young, handsome, and clever, but he had the guts to keep discipline. Plenty of other teachers would’ve backed off and let Riley stay.

Lane suddenly remembered Riley’s threat. She felt herself go hot and shaky again.

Jessica slid into her seat. She sat up straight, facing Kramer. “Thanks a lot, teach,” she muttered.

“You’re not outside, now. Take off those sunglasses.”

That’s going a little too far, Lane thought.

Jessica dropped her sunglasses onto the desktop. Lane could only see her right eye. It was swollen nearly shut. Her upper lid, shiny and purple, bulged as if someone had jammed half a golf ball underneath it.

Kramer pursed his lips. He shook his head. “You may put the glasses back on,” he said.

“Thanks a heab.”

“Okay, we’ve wasted enough time. Take out your texts and turn to page fifty-eight.”

Lane watched the clock. This was the last class of the day. It had forty-five minutes to go.

He won’t try anything, she told herself. He wouldn’t dare.

I’ll be okay if I can just get to my car.

Thirty minutes to go.

Ten.

In spite of the air-conditioning, Lane was bathed with sweat. Her T-shirt felt sodden against her armpits. Cool dribbles trickled down between her breasts. Her panties were glued to her rump.

With one minute to go she piled her books on top of her binder, ready to bolt for the door.

The bell rang.

She pressed the books to her chest, slid out of the seat and stood up.

Kramer met her eyes. “Miss Dunbar, I’d like to speak with you for a minute.”

No!

“Yes sir,” she said.

She sank back onto her seat and put the books down.

Why was he doing this to her? Was he annoyed because she’d seemed in such a rush to get out?

I’m doomed, she thought.

Mr. Kramer stepped behind his desk and stuffed books into his briefcase. The kids hurried out. The room had doors at the front and rear. Riley didn’t leave by the front. He’d probably used the other door, but Lane forced herself not to look.

Maybe he forgot about me.

Fat chance.

Mr. Kramer came around his desk and sat on its edge, facing her. He held some typed sheets in his hand.

He wants to discuss one of my themes?

But Lane could see that it wasn’t hers. It looked like erasable paper. The stuff always felt sticky, and the ink had a tendency to smear if you rubbed it, but she’d used it anyway until her father had told her to “throw away that junk and use some decent bond.” He’d gone on to say that only amateurs fooled with erasable paper, and editors hated it with a passion.

“That isn’t mine,” she said.

Mr. Kramer smiled. “I’m aware of that. What I have here is a book report that I found very interesting. It was written by Henry Peidmont. Is he a friend of yours?”

“Yes.”

Henry, she knew, had Kramer for second period.

“He’s quite a good student, but he does have a peculiar taste in literature. He seems to relish the macabre.”

“Yeah, I’ve noticed.”

Kramer fluttered the pages a bit. “This particular report deals with a book called Night Watcher, by Lawrence Dunbar.” He tipped his head sideways and smiled at Lane.

So that’s it, she thought.

I’m not in trouble, after all.

Just in trouble with Riley.

“He’s my dad,” she admitted, feeling a mix of pride and embarrassment.

“Henry mentions that in his report.”

Thanks, Hen.

“We don’t have many real authors living here in Mulehead Bend. In fact, your father is the only one I’m aware of. Do you suppose he might be willing to come in sometime and talk to the class?”

“He might. He’s kind of busy, but...”

“I’m sure he is. We wouldn’t want to impose on him, but I think that the class might enjoy hearing what he has to say. I’ve never read any of his books myself. They’re not exactly my cup of tea.”

“A lot of people feel that way,” Lane said.

“I’ve seen his books on the stands, though. And I’ve seen any number of students with them.”

“They need more parental supervision.”

Kramer laughed softly.

He may be a teacher, Lane thought, but he’s sure a neat guy.

“I understand that the novels are pretty nasty.”

“You were misinformed. They’re extremelynasty. I’m under strict orders not to read any until I’m thirty-five.”

“I’ll bet you’ve disobeyed, though, haven’t you?”

Lane grinned. “I’ve read ‘em all.”

“Under the bedcovers, I presume.”

“Some of the time.”

“Well, I’d really appreciate it if you would talk to him. If he could find the time to come in, I think the kids would get quite a charge out of it. He might want to tell them about how he became a writer, why he chose to specialize in ‘extremely nasty’ novels, that kind of thing.”

“I’ll check with him about it.”

“Fine. I won’t keep you any longer now. But let me know, okay?”

“Sure.” She picked up her books. As she scooted off the seat, she saw him glance at her legs and look away quickly.

At least somebody appreciates the dress, she thought.

Too bad he has to be a teacher.

Heading toward the door, she was hit again by the knowledge that Riley might be waiting for her.

What if I ask Mr. Kramer to walk me out to the parking lot?

No way, she told herself. He might get the wrong idea. Unless I explain about Riley. And that might get Riley in hot water, and then I’d reallybe in trouble.

“See you tomorrow,” she called over her shoulder.

“Have a nice evening, Lane.”

She stepped into the hallway. Leaning against the lockers on the other side was Jim. He lifted a hand in greeting.

“I wouldn’t blame you if you told me to get lost,” he said, coming toward her. “I don’t know what got into me this morning, I’m really sorry.”

“You should be.”

“You can wash my mouth out with soap, if that’d help any.”

“That’s an idea.” She took hold of his hand. “Next time, I just might.”

“Am I forgiven, then?”

“I guess so. This time.”

Together they walked down the hall.

So much for dumping him, she thought. Guess I wasn’t ready for it, after all.

Though she was a little disappointed in herself, she mostly felt relieved.

“I was afraid I’d really blown it,” Jim said. “All day I kept thinking about it, and how much I’d miss you. I really love you, Lane. I don’t know what I would’ve done if... well, anyway. We’re okay again, right?”

“Yeah. We’re okay.”

He squeezed her hand.

In the parking lot Lane spotted Riley Benson sitting on the hood of her Mustang. They were still some distance away, and Jim hadn’t noticed him yet.

But Riley saw them, scurried down and swaggered off.

Ten

She was water skiing on the river at night. She didn’t want to be there. She was frightened.

She wanted to stop but didn’t dare. The thing in the water would get her before the boat had time to swing around and pick her up.

She didn’t know what it was in the water. But something. Something awful.

The boat sped faster and faster, as if it wanted to help her escape. She skimmed over the smooth black surface, clinging to the handle of the tow line, whimpering with terror.

Somehow, she knew that the boat wasn’t quick enough. The thing in the water was gaining on her.

If they were closer to shore! If the boat took her near enough to a dock, she might let go of the line and her speed might take her gliding to safety.

But she couldn’t see the shore.

On both sides there was only darkness.

That’s impossible, she thought. The river’s no more than a quarter mile wide.

Where are we?

Sick with dread, she thought, We’re not on the Colorado anymore.

Clutching the wooden handle with her right hand, she raised her left and waved for the boat to head ashore.

Wherever that might be.

It kept its straight course.

Look at me! her mind shrieked. Damn it, pay attention!

She suddenly realized that she didn’t know who was steering the boat.

Then she saw that it was drawing away from her.

As if the tow line were stretching.

Slowly, the running lights faded with distance, until they vanished entirely. Even the sound of the outboards died away.

There was silence except for the hiss of her skis.

The tow rope led into darkness.

She was alone.

Except for the thing under the river.

Oh God, what am I going to...

Cold hands grabbed her ankles, tugged her straight down. She was still on her skis, still speeding at the end of the tow line, but under the surface. The water pushed at her. It filled her open mouth, muffling her scream as the hands scurried up her legs.

She felt the thing’s icy flesh against her back. It was standing on the skies behind her, riding them, reaching around her front, grabbing her hands, trying to rip them from the wooden bar. She held on with all her might.

If I let go, he‘II have me!

He snapped her left arm. Broke it off at the elbow. Her hand still clutched the bar for a moment, trailing its severed forearm. Then the rushing current took them away.

A hand clamped over her mouth. It pinched her nostrils shut.

She fought to suck in air.

Somehow, she’d been able to breathe in spite of the water gushing down her throat, but the hand was different. It was solid. Her lungs burned.

She grabbed the hand and woke up and the hand was still there, mashing her bruised mouth, pinching her nostrils shut.

“Don’t make a sound, Jessica.”

Frantic for a breath, she nodded. The hand lifted. She sucked air into her starved lungs.

“Had a little nightmare?” he whispered.

He was on the bed, sitting on her, leaning forward and holding her by the shoulders. Jessica was no longer covered by her sheet. In the glow of moonlight from the windows, she saw that Kramer was shirtless. From the hot feel of his skin where he sat on her, she knew that he’d removed all his clothes before climbing onto her. He had slipped her nightshirt up, too. Her left forearm rested against her chest, its cast heavy and cool.

“You bastard.”

“Shhh. If you wake up your parents, I’ll have to kill them. And you. I’ll have to kill everyone. You wouldn’t want that to happen, would you?”

“No,” she whispered.

“I didn’t imagine you would.”

“What do you want?” she asked. The stupid question of the year. What he wanted was obvious. But she’d thought it was over.

Saturday night she’d told him it was over, told him that he could find another girl, threatened to get him fired if he didn’t stop. That had been the stupid threat of the year. But after finishing his little “lesson,” he’d said, “I’m sick of you anyway, you disgusting slut.”

“I’ve been thinking,” he whispered. “I’ve been worrying.”

“I’b not going to tell.”

“How do I know that?”

“Don’t hurt be. Blease.”

“I didn’t come here to hurt you, Jessica. I’m here for only one reason. Well, maybe two.” He laughed softly. She squirmed as a hand slid down from her shoulder and squeezed her breast. “I’m here to teach you a lesson. A lesson about safety. For you, there is no safety. Do you understand?“

She nodded.

“If you should ever happen to tell someone about me, I’ll come into your home just as I did tonight. There will be one difference. I’ll have a straight razor in my hand. I’ll begin by slashing the throats of your parents while they sleep. And then I’ll come to you.” A fingernail circled her nipple. “I’ll cut you very badly. Everywhere. It may take all night. And just before dawn I’ll open your throat from ear to ear. Do you understand?”

“Yes.”

“Very good.” The pale blur of his face drifted down. He kissed her sore lips. “Very good,” he whispered again.

Eleven

Except for the struggle on Monday morning to come up with a new story, Larry had spent the entire week on Night Stranger. That book was coming along fine. But what about the next?

He didn’t feel like wracking his mind for a new idea. So much easier to stick with the familiar territory of Night Stranger. He knew where that book was going, and enjoyed the excitement of guiding it there.

This was Friday.

He couldn’t keep avoiding the problem forever.

Think how much better you’ll feel, he told himself, once you’ve come up with a great plan for the next book.

A great plan that does not include a stiff under the stairs with a stake in its heart.

He found the disk from Monday, put it into his word processor and tapped out commands until “Novel Notes — Monday, October 3” appeared at the comer of the screen. As he cleaned a pipe and loaded it with fresh tobacco, he skimmed the amber lines. About three pages worth of material. And nothing.

A lot of crap about their vampire.

“In effect,” he read, “you have this gorgeous thing as your slave.

“Real possibilities.”

Sure.

Better luck today.

Larry lit his pipe. Below “Real possibilities” he typed, “Notes — Friday, October 7.

“How about a tribe of desert scavengers?” he wrote, recalling the idea he’d toyed around with shortly before the van reached Sagebrush Flat. “They arrange ‘accidents’ on the back roads, then fall upon the unlucky travelers.

“Too much like The Hills Have Eyes. Besides, I already did something along those lines in Savage Timber.”

Larry scowled at the screen. He wished he hadn’t reminded himself of Savage Timber. That damn novel, his second, had nearly destroyed his career. A major release, and all it did was sit in the stores, thanks to that damn green foil artsy-fart cover.

Don’t think about it, he told himself.

Come on, a new idea.

“How about a guy who finds the remains of an old jukebox? He restores it to working order, and...”

And what?

“It doesn’t have any records in it. He puts in his own. But it doesn’t play the new ones. All it will play are the oldies-but-goodies that used to be in it. Back before it was shot to pieces by... Hey, maybe it wants revenge on the vandals who used it for target practice.

“Great. A pissed-off jukebox. What does it do, scoot around and electrocute people?

“Could be like a time machine. The guy gets it working, and it shoves him into the past. So he finds himself stranded in Holman’s — or a dive of some kind — back in the mid-sixties.

“Has possibilities.

“Maybe the box wants him there to have a showdown with the jerks who plugged it. A motorcycle gang, or something. A real nasty bunch.

“The poor guy doesn’t know what’s in store for him. But he’s plenty upset. It’s Twilight Zone time. One minute he’s with his wife and kids, has a nice house and a good job. Suddenly, bam, he finds himself in a diner in a dying town twenty-five years in the past. Freaks him out. All he wants to do is get home.

“Until he finds himself falling for a beautiful young waitress. At that point he begins to appreciate his situation.

“Things start to get ugly when a gang of biker thugs thunders into town.

“Suppose the real reason the jukebox took him there was to save the waitress? Neat. The jukebox likesher. Sometimes, alone at night after the diner closes, she has it play her favorite tunes, and she dances alone in the dark.

“The way things went down, first time around, the bikers raped and murdered her. The jukebox has brought our hero back to the diner to alter the course of history — to save her.

“Which, of course, he does.

“Mission accomplished, the box let’s him go home again. But he misses the beautiful waitress. (Okay, he didn’t have a wonderful wife and kids. He was divorced, or something.) He goes looking for the gal. Finds her.

“She’s his mother. He’s his own father. He got her pregnant during their brief time together back in ‘65, and he was the baby she had.

“He’d have to be about thirty years old in the present. She could be about twenty-five when he met her in the diner.

“She had to give up the baby (our hero) for some reason. He was adopted, and always curious about the identity of his parents.

“If she is his mother, we could give him back his wife and kids.

“Neater if he finds the waitress in the present and they resume as lovers. But how would that work with their ages? Say he’s thirty in the present. How could the gal be anywhere near his age when he finds her again? If she’s thirty now, she would’ve been five when he saved her from the bikers.

“What if the waitress he fell in love with was her mother? That would make the daughter just his age in the present. And she is the spitting image of her mother, the gal he loved.

“Not bad. Might work.”

Larry’s pipe had gone out. He could tell by the easy draw that nothing remained in the bowl but ash. He set the pipe into its holder and returned his fingers to the keyboard.

“Our main guy resurrects the jukebox. It seems evil at first, but turns out to be a force for good. And a matchmaker. He falls for the waitress, who happens to have a really cute little girl at the time. Plenty of thrills and spills and nasty crap with the bikers (make them total degenerates, monsters). By facing them down (he’s scared, but comes through, proving to himself that he’s a man), he ends up saving the kid who will later become his true love.

“Why not?”

Larry grinned at the screen.

All right! You’ve got it. Spend the next couple of days working out the details, and...

The next couple of days.

He muttered a curse.

The weekend was shot. As soon as Lane got home from school today, they would be hitting the road for Los Angeles to visit with Jean’s folks.

Just what he wanted to do.

Especially now, with the new idea sizzling in his mind.

Can’t get out of it, though. You’ll just have to put the idea on hold till Monday.

It would give him something to think about while he drove. He might be able to work out a few of the main scenes, maybe even come up with some nifty new angles. But he knew very well that daydreaming about the story while he steered down the freeway would accomplish very little compared to working at the word processor. The act of typing out his thoughts seemed to give them a focus that wasn’t there when he simply let his mind wander. Daydreams seemed to meander and drift. But sentences were solid, and one led to another.

Not this weekend, they won’t.

This weekend’s down the toilet.

Well, he tried to console himself, Jean’s folks are okay. And it is their anniversary. I’ll probably end up having a good time, even though I’d rather be...

He heard the door bell ring.

Jean would take care of it.

He wondered whether he should get back to Night Strangeror spend the rest of the day fleshing out his jukebox story.

Call it The Box, he suddenly thought.

And grinned.

“THE BOX,” he typed. “Great title. Has a mysterious ring to it. And Box not only refers to the jukebox that sends him back in time, but also the ‘box’ or trap he finds himself stuck in. He’s boxed in by circumstances. No apparent way out. Also, the sex thing. Have one of the bikers refer to the main gal as a box. ‘Foxy box.’ And maybe the main guy is a former boxer — killed an opponent in the ring, and swore off fighting? No, that’d be pushing it. Trite, too. But maybe there are some other ‘box’ angles. Fool around with it.”

He heard Jean’s footsteps approaching. She might come in and look over his shoulder, so he scrolled down until “foxy box” climbed out of sight at the top of the screen.

She rapped on the office door and pushed it open. In her hand was an Overnight Mail bag that looked large enough to hold a manuscript. “This just came for you,” she said. “It’s from Chandler House.”

His publisher.

Jean watched while he tore open the bag. Inside, he found a fat manuscript held together by rubber bands. And a typewritten note from his editor, Susan Anderson:

Larry

Here is the copyedited manuscript of MADHOUSE. The corrections are light, so I’m sure you’ll be pleased.

We would like you to make whatever changes you consider appropriate, and return it to us if possible by October 13.

Best,

Susan

Larry grimaced.

“What?” Jean asked.

“It’s Madhouse. The copyedited version. I’m supposed to send it back by the thirteenth.” He glanced at his calendar. “Christ, that’s next Thursday.”

“They didn’t give you much time.”

“That’s for sure,” he muttered. “They’ve had it for about a year and a half, and now I get... six days.”

“Have fun,” Jean said. She left the room, closing the door again to keep his pipe smoke from contaminating the rest of the house.

Larry pushed his chair back, crossed a leg, rested the thick manuscript on his thigh and rolled the rubber bands off. He tossed Susan’s note and the title page onto the cluttered TV tray beside his chair.

Then he groaned.

For “light” corrections, page one seemed to have an awful lot of changes.

Halfway down the page his paragraph used to read, “She tugged at the door. Locked. God, no! She whirled around and choked out a whimper. He was already off the autopsy table, staggering toward her, his head bobbing and swaying on its broken neck. In his hand was the scalpel.”

Larry struggled to decipher the changes. Words had been crossed out, others added. The paragraph was a map of lines and arrows. At last he figured it out.

“Tugging at the door, she found it to be locked. No! Snapping her head around, she whimpered in despair, for she saw that the corpse was staggering toward her with a scalpel in his hand. His head was swinging from side to side atop its snapped neck.”

“Jesus H. Christ on a crutch,” Larry muttered.

He found Jean in their bedroom, gathering clothes from an open drawer of her bureau and taking them to her suitcase. Both suitcases lay open on the bed.

He sat down at the end of the mattress. “We’ve got a problem.”

“The manuscript?”

“I just looked through the whole thing. It’s been wrecked.”

“Not again.”

“Yeah.” Madhousewas his twelfth novel, and the third to be demolished by a copyeditor.

“What’re you going to do?” Jean asked.

“I have to fix it. I don’t have any choice.” He scowled at the carpet. “Maybe I could get them to take my name off and publish it under the name of the copyeditor.”

“It’s that bad?”

“And then some.”

“Why do they let it happen?”

“God, I don’t know. It’s the luck of the draw, I guess. This time, they happened to send my book to some idiot who thinks she’s a writer.”

“Or he,” Jean said, standing up for her gender.

“Or it.”

“Couldn’t you just write a letter to Susan, or something, and explain the situation? Maybe they could send a fresh copy to someone else.”

He shook his head. “I don’t think she’d appreciate that. It’d be like calling them jerks for sending it to some illiterate butcher. Besides, they already paid to have it done. And they’re on a tight time schedule by now, or they wouldn’t want the damn thing back in six days.”

“Maybe you should phone Susan.”

“The last thing I need is to get a reputation as a troublemaker.”

“So you’re just going to take it lying down?”

“I’m going to take it sitting on my butt with a red pen in one hand and a copy of my British edition in the other. If the people in London didn’t fix it, it didn’t need fixing.” He hung his head and sighed.

Jean stepped in front of him. She rubbed his shoulders. “I’m sorry, honey.”

“Fortunes of war. The thing is... it’ll have to be mailed Wednesday for next-day delivery. If I go to your folks’ place, that only gives me about three days to go through the whole damn thing and try to... save it.”

“You could take it along.”

“I wouldn’t be fit to live with, anyway. Maybe you and Lane should just go ahead without me.” As he spoke the words, he realized that he didn’t want to be left behind. Not for this. But he couldn’t go. “If I spend the whole weekend working on it, maybe I’ll be feeling human again by the time you get back.”

“I suppose we could call it off,” she said, stroking his hair. “Go up next weekend instead.”

“No, don’t do that. It’s their anniversary. Besides, you’ve been looking forward to it. No need for all of us to suffer because of this crap.”

“If you’re sure,” she muttered.

“I don’t see any choice.”

Larry went back to his office. His throat felt tight.

You didn’t want to go in the first place, he reminded himself.

But that was before he found out he would have to be laboring over Madhouse.

He stared at his computer screen.

“Maybe there are some other ‘box’ angles. Fool around with it.”

Right. Sure thing. Maybe sometime next week.

No more working out the details for The Box. No more plunging toward the conclusion of Night Stranger.

The next few days belonged to Madhouse, a book that he’d finished eighteen months ago. A book that had already been published in England — and about all they had changed over there was “windshield” to “windscreen” and added u’s to words like color.

“So who said life is fair?” he muttered, and shut his computer off.

Twelve

“I have a special announcement to make,” Mr. Kramer said with two minutes remaining before the bell. “As I’ve mentioned before, the drama department at the city college is putting on Hamletnext week. I’m sure the production will be well worth seeing for all of you, and I urge every one of you to attend if you can. Now, here’s the thing. I’ve obtained four free tickets to the Saturday night performance. Only four of you will be able to participate, but for those lucky students, I’ll provide tickets and transportation.” He smiled. “That way, you won’t have to bug your parents to borrow a car.” A few of the kids laughed. “If any of you would like to take advantage of the opportunity, just stay in your seats after the bell rings.”

Lane gnawed her lower lip. Should she stay? Jim might ask her out for that night.

We can always go out Friday night instead, she told herself.

It wouldbe neat to see the play, especially with Mr. Kramer. Couldn’t hurt, either, in the Brownie points department.

The bell rang. Lane remained in her seat.

As Jessica stepped by, she glanced at Lane and shook her head.

Probably thinks I’m an idiot, wanting to give up a Saturday night to see Shakespeare.

Maybe I am. If it turns out that Jim’s busy Friday night, I’m going to kick myself. He was gone last weekend, I’ll be gone this weekend. That’ll make three weeks in a row if I go to the play and he can’t make it on Friday.

ThisSaturday night was when she’d wanted to go out with him. All week he’d been especially nice. Trying to make up, Lane supposed, for being such a creep Monday morning.

She turned on her seat. Five other kids had remained in the room.

There’re six of us, and he can only take four. If I’m not picked, that’ll solve the problem right there.

“I see I’ve got more Shakespeare fans than tickets,” Mr. Kramer said. “That’s certainly gratifying, but it does present a little difficulty. We want to be fair about this.” He dug a hand into a pocket of his slacks and pulled out a quarter. “I’ll flip a coin. The first two of you to lose will have to bow out. Does that sound okay to everyone?”

Nobody objected.

“Okay, Lane, you first. Call it in the air.” He rested the coin on his thumbnail and flicked it high.

“Heads,” Lane said.

It landed in the palm of his right hand. He slapped it onto the back of his left, kept it covered and smiled at her. “Want to change your mind?”

“Nope. I’ll stick with heads.”

He looked. “Heads it is,” he said, tipping his hand and letting the coin drop into the other.

He didn’t let anyone see it, Lane realized.

What the heck, they’re his tickets.

“Okay, George, your turn.”

George won. So did Aaron and Sandra.

Jerry and Heidi, the losers, called the coin again to determine who would be first choice as an alternate in case one of the chosen was unable to attend. Heidi won.

“Okay,” Mr. Kramer said, “I’ll fill you in on the details later. In the meantime, have a good weekend. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t.”

That comment brought a few chuckles.

Lane gathered her books and stood up. “I’m glad you’re one of the lucky four,” he said. “Maybe I’ll get a chance to meet your father when I pick you up for the play.”

“I’m sure he’ll be glad to meet you.”

“I’ll have to pick up one of his books and get an autograph.”

“That’ll make his day.”

“And maybe we can firm up the date he’ll be coming in.”

“Yeah. He said any time after the first.”

“Well, maybe we can make it more definite.”

Lane nodded. “Have a nice weekend, Mr. Kramer.”

“You, too. Try to stay out of trouble.” He winked.

“What would be the fun of that?” she said, blushing.

As he laughed, Lane waved good-bye and left the room.

The hallway was crowded with kids, noisy with slamming lockers, shouts, and laughter. She leaned against a wall and waited for Jim. A few minutes later he came along.

“I have to drop some stuff off at my locker,” Lane said. They started up the hall together.

“When are you leaving for Los Angeles?” he asked.

“As soon as I get home.”

“What a drag.”

“There’s always next weekend. Next Friday, anyway. I have to go to a play Saturday night with Mr. Kramer.”

“Yeah?” He glanced at her, lifting an eyebrow. “Isn’t he a little old for you?”

“Get real. It’s a school function. He’s taking four of us from his sixth-period class.”

“Great.”

“Oh now, don’t start pouting. I’ve got nothing on Friday night.”

“Nothing on, huh? I’d like to see that.”

“I just bet you would.” She felt a hand slide over the seat of her skirt. “Quit it.”

“Sorry. Just trying to refresh my memory. It’s been two whole weeks, you know, and now it’ll be another.”

“I’m not overjoyed about it myself. Nothing I can do, though.” She arrived at her locker and started spinning the combination dial.

“Maybe you could pretend to be sick,” he suggested. “What if you did that, and they let you stay home by yourself? I could come over to your house tomorrow night and...”

“Dream on, MacDuff.”

She opened the locker and switched books, taking out those she would need for homework. Then she shut the metal door. “Even if I did stay home, boys aren’t allowed in the house when my parents are gone.”

“Who would ever know?”

“I would. Anyway, you might as well forget it. Ain’t gonna happen.” They started down the hallway. “If you promise to behave,” Lane said, “I’ll give you a ride home.”

“What about your goofball friends, Fat and Ugly.”

Lane frowned at him. “I don’t know who you mean.”

“You know, all right. Betty and Henry.”

“Why don’t you refer to them that way, okay? They are my friends.”

“God knows why.”

“Are you trying to start something?”

“No, no. Just kidding. They’re wonderful people, the salt of the earth.”

“You could stand to be a little more like Henry.”

“Uh, duh.” He put a dopey smile on his face and started bobbing his head.

“Very funny,” she said, but couldn’t hold back a smile. “Stop it. That’s not nice.”

“Duh, okay.”

“Anyway, Betty’s mom was picking them up after school and talcing them to violin lessons.”

“So it’ll just be you and me, huh?”

“If you can fit your big head into the car.”

“I can try.”

At the end of the hallway Jim held the door open for her. She stepped out and looked toward the student parking lot. She spotted her red Mustang.

No sign of Riley Benson.

After Monday, she’d expected each afternoon to find him perched on the hood. So far he hadn’t tried it again. Though they crossed paths several times a day, he’d done no more than give her tough-guy looks.

He must’ve given up on his big plan for revenge, she decided.

Maybe Jessica had talked him out of it.

Pays to be nice to people, she thought. Especially if they’re buddy-buddy with someone who wants to wipe up the floor with you.

When Lane opened the car door, hot air poured out. They cranked down all the windows. She took a beach towel from the trunk and spread it over the driver’s seat so she wouldn’t burn her legs on the upholstery.

“You don’t have one for me?” Jim asked.

“You’re not wearing a skirt.”

“You sure are,” he said, and bent forward as if trying for a glimpse of her panties when she climbed in. “Pink,” he announced.

“Wrong.”

She started the engine. She twisted around to look out the rear window as she backed out of the space. She could feel her blouse pull tight against her breasts. Jim, of course, was staring at them.

“If they match your bra, they’re white,” he said.

“Don’t you ever think about anything but sex?” she asked, grinning at him.

“Sure. Instead sometimes I think about sex.”

She shook her head, faced forward again and steered for the parking lot exit.

“Must be hot, wearing a bra all the time.”

“What makes you think I wear one allthe time?”

“Every time I’ve seen you.”

“Are you sure?”

“Are you kidding? I can tell a mile away if a babe’s got one on.”

“That’s impressive... How long is your car going to be out of commission?” Lane asked, hoping to change the subject.

“I’ll have it off the blocks tomorrow. I wanted it ready so we could go out tomorrow night.”

“Sorry about that.”

“Maybe I’ll give Candi a call.”

“I know, just kidding.”

Jim said nothing. Lane got a tight, sickish feeling deep inside. She kept her eyes on the road.

“You wouldn’t mind, would you?”

“Be my guest.”

She knew that Jim was teasing. He had no intention of taking out Candi. He’d dumped Candi in order to start going out with her. The threat of taking up with Candi again was nothing more than a form of punishment.

“You know what they say about a bird in the hand,” Jim said.

“A good way to get a dirty hand.”

“Also, she’s a lot more cooperative than some people I might mention.”

“And probably has the diseases to prove it.”

“Oooh. Mean.”

“But feel free to take her out. It’s your life.”

He reached over and put a hand on Lane’s leg. “You know I wouldn’t do that.”

“I only know what you tell me.”

“I miss you, that’s all.”

“I miss you, too. But there’s nothing I can do about this weekend.”

“Yeah, I know.” He squeezed her knee, and his hand moved slowly up her bare leg to the hem of her skirt. He caressed her thigh. It felt good.

“Just don’t go throwing Candi at me every time you get upset.”

“Jealous?”

“Suppose I was always threatening to dump you for Cliff Ryker?”

“That shithead?”

“You think you’d enjoy it?”

“You wouldn’t. Not if you went ahead with it.”

“He’s cute.”

“Not as cute as me.” Jim’s hand crept under her skirt. She pushed it away. “He’s no gentleman, either.”

“And you are?”

“I’m not like Cliff. He isn’t the kind of guy who takes no for an answer. First time out with him, and he’d bang you till you couldn’t see straight. If that’s what you want, I’ll be glad to take care of it for you.”

“You go out with Candi, and you’ll never get the chance.”

“Hrnmmm. I like the sound of that. You mean, if I don’t, I do?”

“Where there’s life, there’s hope.”

She pulled the Mustang over to the curb in front of Jim’s house. Checking the windows and rearview mirror, she saw nobody nearby. She turned to Jim. She slipped a hand around the back of his neck. “No funny stuff,” she said. “Just a quick kiss.”

“How about coming in for a Pepsi, or something?”

She shook her head. “I have to get home. My folks are waiting.”

“Ten minutes? That won’t throw off your trip by much. Tell them you had to stay after class.”

I didhave to stay after class, she thought. It wouldn’t be a lie.

“Is your mother home?”

Jim answered by swinging a thumb over his shoulder, pointing out the Mazda in the driveway.

“Okay,” Lane said. “Ten minutes. No longer, though.”

She took her hand away from his neck and climbed out. Jim stayed in the lead as she walked up the flagstones to the front stoop. He unlocked the door and held it open for her.

The air was cool.

The house was silent except for the hum of the air-conditioning system.

Jim didn’t call out to announce that he was home.

“Are you sure she’s here?” Lane asked.

“Might be sleeping. Or taking a bath. Who knows?”

They entered the kitchen. Lane leaned against a counter while Jim took a couple of cans from the refrigerator. The air smelled fresh. It was almost too cold on her skin. It chilled the damp back of her blouse.

Jim found glasses, dropped ice cubes into them, and filled them with soda.

A glass in each hand, he stepped in front of Lane. She reached for her drink. Instead of giving it to her, he stretched both arms past her sides and set the glasses on the counter. His arms closed around her, pulled her gently forward until their bodies met.

“What if your mother walks in?” Lane whispered close to his mouth.

“I don’t think she will.” He tugged the tail of her blouse out of her skirt and slid his hands underneath.

Lane let herself sink against him. She kissed him.

Shouldn’t be doing this, she thought.

But she’d intended to kiss him good-bye, anyway. And his hands felt good roaming the bare skin of her back. And she liked the feel of his chest tight against her breasts. She could feel his breathing and his heartbeat.

He started to fumble with the catches of her bra.

She pulled her mouth away. “Oh no you don’t.”

“It’s all right.”

“No, it isn’t.”

He unfastened the bra anyway. She felt it go loose.

She grabbed Jim’s arms and pushed them down to his sides. “I said no, and I meant it.”

“Come on, what’s the harm?”

“For one thing, your mother.”

“She might be in town at the beauty parlor,” he said, smiling as if he expected Lane to appreciate the news.

“The car...”

“She usually goes with Mary from next door. Right about three on Fridays.”

“You knewshe wasn’t here?”

Still smiling, Jim shrugged.

“You lied to me.”

“Just a little fib.”

“Terrific,” she muttered, reaching up under the back of her blouse to fasten the bra.

“Come on, don’t do that.” He lifted his hands to her breasts.

“Cut it out.”

“Come on, you like it.”

“I told you...” She got one of the hooks fastened. He was squeezing, rubbing. She didlike it. “Damn it, Jim.” Not bothering with the other hook, she swung her hands around and pushed him away. “I have to leave.”

“No you don’t. Hey, come on.”

“This is what I get for trusting you, huh?”

“Look, I’m sorry I lied about Mom being here. Okay?” He looked into her eyes and gently held her shoulders. “I just figured you wouldn’t come in, and... we haven’t been together for weeks. I get crazy wanting to be with you. Sometimes, all I can think about is kissing you and how it feels to hold you. Especially after last time.”

“That was nice,” Lane said, remembering.

She had been under orders to be home by eleven, so they’d skipped the second feature at the movies and parked in the desert outside town. She’d refused Jim’s suggestion to get into the backseat. Staying in the front, they twisted themselves awkwardly to embrace and kiss. But it was wonderful. She felt daring and romantic and sexy in the moonlit car. Her blouse came off early. She managed to keep her bra on, though. In spite of Jim’s begging and his attempts to remove it. In spite of her own desire to rid herself of the garment and feel his touch without a stiff layer of cloth in the way. Finally she’d told him, “It’s almost time to leave.” He didn’t protest, simply nodded and murmured, “I guess so.” Reaching behind her back, Lane unhooked her bra. She took it off. His mouth fell open and he stared for a long time before touching. When he did touch her breasts, his hands were trembling.

Softened by the memories of that night, she stepped forward and put her arms around Jim. She kissed him gently on the mouth. “Apology accepted,” she whispered. “But I really do have to leave now.”

His hands slid down her back and caressed her rump. “What about your Pepsi?”

“Time’s all up. You can walk me to the car, though.”

He squeezed her against him and kissed her hard, then stepped away. “Guess I’ll just have to wait for next Friday, huh?”

“It’ll get here.”

“Not soon enough.”

“I’ll miss you,” she said.

“I’ll miss you more.”

“No you won’t.”

“Yes I will.”

“Wanta fight about it?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Let’s wrestle.”

“Oh, you’d like that.”

“So would you.”

“Maybe.”

Holding hands, they walked to the door.

Thirteen

Larry stood at the end of the driveway, waving good-bye to Jean and Lane as the car headed off down the road. It seemed strange, being left behind.

He knew he would miss them. Hell, he alreadymissed them.

On the other hand, he rather liked the prospect of being on his own for the weekend. He could do whatever he pleased, and not have to answer to anyone.

Freedom.

He felt like a kid being left home without parents or baby-sitter.

The car vanished around the corner. Larry turned toward the house, then raised a hand in greeting as Barbara trotted down the steps next door. A handbag swung at her hip. Larry supposed she was leaving on an errand.

“So, they took off without you.”

“Sure did.”

“Jean told me about that manuscript.” She stopped beside her car in the driveway. “Sounds like the pits to me.”

“Gives me a good excuse to stay behind,” he said, smiling.

“If you’re not too busy, why don’t you come over for dinner? We’ll throw some steaks on the barbecue.”

“Sounds great.”

“Good. Drop in around five, then, all right?”

“I’ll be there.”

She climbed into her car, and Larry headed for the house.

Things are perking up already, he thought.

In his office he glanced at the savaged manuscript and realized he was in no mood to struggle with it. He’d already fought his way through more than a hundred pages today, scratching out the copyeditor’s misguided corrections and replacing them with scribbles to match the printed lines as they’d originally been written. That was plenty for one day’s work.

He settled down in the living room with a beer and the Shaun Hutson novel he’d started reading that morning. Though his eyes traveled over the words, his mind kept slipping out of the story. He found himself imagining what Jean’s folks might say when they realized he’d stayed home, wondering what he should wear over to Pete and Barbara’s, thinking about how much he would like to spend all day tomorrow working on ideas for The Box.

Then he was speculating about the jukebox in the ditch. He wondered how much it weighed. Could two men lift it? In his book they would have to carry it to the van. Would that be possible?

Have the women lend a hand with it. My main guy isn’t married. Might have a girlfriend with him, though.

Still occupied with his thoughts, Larry set the book aside. He drained the last of his beer, wandered into the bedroom and took off his clothes.

Have one of the gals fall while they’re lugging the jukebox up the slope. Good. Foreshadowing that the box is going to cause trouble.

In the bathroom he turned on the shower and stepped under its beating spray.

She tumbles down the embankment, he thought as he began to soap himself. Gets banged up pretty much like Barbara did in the hotel.

He remembered the way Barbara had looked, standing in the doorway afterward. How her legs and belly were scraped. How her blouse hung open.

The images stirred a pleasant heat in his groin.

Which turned cold when he suddenly saw himself kneeling under the staircase, gazing at the shriveled corpse.

God, he wished he’d never seen that thing!

It always seemed to be with him. Waiting. Like some kind of spook lurking in a dark closet of his mind, every now and then throwing open the door to give him another look.

So damn grisly and repulsive.

But fascinating, too.

As Larry washed his hair, his mind ran through the familiar questions. Who was she? Who drove the stake into her chest? Was her presence under the stairway known to the person who put the brand new lock on the hotel doors? Could she really be a vampire? What might happen if someone pulled out the stake?

He had no answers.

He told himself, as always, that he didn’t wantto know the answers. He only wanted to forget about the thing.

Which wasn’t about to happen.

Maybe we should’ve reported it, he thought. He’d been against that at the time. Now, however, he saw how it might’ve been for the best. A call to cops would’ve relieved them of responsibility. Like passing the baton.

We did our part, now it’s your turn.

Part of the problem, he realized, was carrying the burden of knowledge.

We’re the only ones who know it’s there.

But we didn’t do anything about it.

So the damn corpse is more than just a grisly memory, it’s unfinished business.

According to the shrinks, that’s what messes up your head more than anything — unfinished business.

Maybe we need to deal with it, Larry told himself. Take some kind of action to get the thing out of our systems.

* * *

“Let’s drive out and get it,” Pete said.

Larry felt as if his breath had been knocked out. “You’re kidding,” he said.

“You’re out of your gourd,” Barbara said.

“Hey, if he’s going to write a book about that jukebox, he ought to haveit. Or better yet, Iought to have it. Larry can keep track of my progress repairing the thing so he gets the details right. You know? There’s nothing like firsthand experience to give a book...”

“Verisimilitude,” Larry put in.

“Yeah, that’s it.”

“I don’t know,” Larry said.

He took a sip of his vodka tonic and shook his head. He wished he hadn’t mentioned The Box. Normally, he didn’t discuss story ideas with anyone. But Pete and Barbara were part of this one. They’d discovered the jukebox. Pete’s desire to take it home had really been the inspiration. So the story had rolled out.

Should’ve kept my mouth shut.

The last thing I want to do is go driving out to Sagebrush Flat.

Pete got up from his lawn chair and checked the barbecue. The flames had died away, but Larry could tell from where he sat that the briquettes were burning. The air over the grill shimmered with heat waves. “Be another ten, fifteen minutes,” Pete said. He turned to Barbara, arched a dark eyebrow. “Don’t you need to go inside and do something?”

“Trying to get rid of me?”

“Just trying to be helpful. We’re going to have those sauteed mushrooms, we’ll want them withour steaks.”

“They only take a few minutes,” she said. “I’ll do them up when you put the meat on.”

Good, Larry thought. He wasn’t eager for her to leave. Not only was she the best defense against Pete’s crazy urge to fetch the jukebox, but it felt good to look at her.

She sat on a lounge in front of him, bare legs stretched out on its cushion. Her long, slim legs looked wonderful in spite of the scabbed areas. She wore red shorts and a plain white T-shirt. The shorts were very short. The T-shirt lay softly against her flat belly and the rises of her breasts. Its fabric was thin enough to show a faint pink hue of the skin underneath, the dark crust of the scabs above Barbara’s waist, the white of her bra.

He watched the way her muscles moved as she sat up straight to take a drink of her cocktail and settled back again and rested the glass on the moist disk it had left just below the hip of her shorts.

“You don’t want to go back there, do you?” she asked Larry.

“Not a whole lot.”

“I didn’t think so.”

“It’s probably too heavy for the two of us to carry, anyway,” he told Pete.

“Barbara will come along and lend a hand. Won’t you, hon?”

“Not on your life.”

“She’s just scared of the vampire.”

“You know it. Besides, we don’t need that piece of junk cluttering up the garage.”

“It’d be great for Larry’s book. He can come over and check it out whenever he needs some inspiration.” Looking at Larry, he added, “And we can take pictures of it. You know? A photo of the actual jukebox, all shot up the way it is, that’ll be terrific on your cover.”

“That would be pretty neat,” he admitted.

“Jeez, don’t encourage him.”

Larry smiled at her. “I have no intention of going back to that place.”

“You’re scared of the vampire, too, huh?” Pete said. “Hey, it can’t hurt you. Not as long as it’s got that stake in its heart.”

“I’m not worried about any ‘vampire,’ ” Larry told him. “I don’t think it isa vampire. But stiffs give me the creeps.”

“That’s a good one, coming from you.”

“I’m scared of my own shadow, man. That’s what makes me good at writing those books. And I tell you, Sagebrush Flat is a lot scarier to me than my shadow. My shadow pales by comparison.”

Barbara chuckled at his pun.

“Even if there wereno corpse under the stairway, I’d still want to stay away from that town. Just the fact that it’s deserted is enough to spook me. There’s something basically frightening about a place where people are supposed to be but aren’t. An abandoned town, an office building at night...”

“That’s really true, you know,” Barbara said. “Like a hotel really late at night when everyone’s asleep.”

“Or a school,” Larry added. “Or a church.”

“Yeah.” Her eyes widened. “Church’s are reallyspooky when nobody’s there. I used to go for choir practice when I was in high school. We’d meet on Wednesday nights at eight.” She leaned forward and gazed at Larry. “One night... God, I’m getting goose bumps just thinking about it.” Hunching up her shoulders, she squeezed her arms tight against her sides. “One night, practice had been called off and I didn’t know about it. I think we’d been out of town. Anyway, the choir director was sick, and everybody knew it but me. So my dad dropped me off in the parking lot and I went in.”

“You taking notes, Lar? Maybe you can use this.”

“Sounds promising so far.” He could feel himself shivering slightly as if Barbara’s fear were contagious.

“There was a light on in the narthex. But the stairway to the choir loft was dark. I went up there, anyway. I figured I was just the first to arrive. The choir loft was dark, too.”

“Why didn’t you turn on some lights?” Pete asked.

“I don’t know. I guess I thought I shouldn’t mess with anything like light switches. But also, I was afraid somebody might... turning on lights, you know, that’d be like giving away that I was there.” Her mouth stretched, baring her teeth.

“That’s the thing,” Larry said. “When a place seems deserted, you’re afraid you aren’t reallyalone.”

“That’s it. Exactly. Because you can’t see what’s out there. God, I started thinking someone was roaming around, sneaking up on me. I even thought I heard someone creeping up the stairs.” Her right hand still held the glass on her lap. Her other hand crossed over to that arm and rubbed it as if she wanted to smooth away the goose bumps. Larry saw that her thighs were pebbled. Though she wore a bra, it was apparently of a light, stretchy fabric. Her nipples made small points against her T-shirt.

I’ll have to remember that, Larry thought. A woman has gooseflesh, the nipples get erect.

Fear makes them hard.

Or is she turned on?

Turned on by the fear?

Barbara kept frowning, rubbing her arm. She seemed lost in her memory of that night.

“So what happened?” Pete asked.

She shook her head. “Nothing.”

“Oh, that’s a great story.”

“I waited around for about fifteen minutes. I was almost too scared to move. I kept staring down at the nave and pulpit and everything, and thought someone was down there in the dark. You know, awareof me. Watching me.”

“Coming for you,” Pete added.

“Damn right.”

“ ‘They’re comingfor you,’ ” he said, mimicking the voice of the jerky brother in the graveyard scene of The Night of the Living Dead. “They’re comingfor...”

“Knock it off, would you?”

“Nobody ever showed up?” Larry asked.

She shook her head. “I finally beat it. I was never so glad to get out of a place in my life.”

“Not even the hole in the landing of the Sagebrush Flat Hotel?” Pete asked.

“That was different. I was in pain. That’s not the same as being scared half to death.”

“So you finally just bolted out of the church?” Larry asked.

“Sure did. I didn’t even stop to use the phone and call home. I waited in the parking lot, and Dad finally came along at the usual time to pick me up.”

“That’s it, huh?” Pete asked.

“It was enough. I quit the choir after that. Nothing was ever going to get me back into the church after dark.”

“Pretty drastic, considering that nothing happened.”

“It wasn’t exactly as if nothing happened,” Larry pointed out.

“That’s right. All these years have passed, and it still gives me the creeps if I think about it.”

“Still isn’t much of a story,” Pete said.

“A good setup for one,” Larry told him.

“Think you might use it?” Pete asked.

“I can just see it,” Barbara said, smiling. “You’d probably have a homicidal maniac chasing me through the pews.”

“Something like that. Maybe Jesus gets down off the cross and stalks the gal through the church.”

“Oh, sick.”

Pete laughed. “Hey, goes after her with a nail in each hand.”

“You guys.”

“That’s good,” Larry said. “Next morning, the preacher shows up and she’sthe one on the cross.”

“God’s gonna get you for that,” Barbara warned.

“More than likely.”

“I’d better put the steaks on,” Pete said. “Feed him quick before a lightning bolt comes down and knocks him out of his shoes.”

After dinner, Pete presented his surprise — a plastic bag containing three videotapes. “Thought we’d have a movie marathon, unless you’re in a big hurry to get home.”

With three vodka tonics under his belt, and the two beers he’d had with dinner, Larry knew he was in no condition to write, make corrections on his copyedited manuscript, or even read the Hutson novel.

Nor was he eager to be alone in his empty house.

“Sounds good to me,” he said. “Let’s see what you’ve got.” He inspected the tapes through their clear plastic boxes: Cameron’s Closet, Blood Frenzy, and Floater.

“Barb phoned me at the shop,” Pete explained. “So I picked these up on the way home.” He looked quite pleased with himself.

“Oh, this’ll be neat,” Larry said.

“These should put you in a great mood,” Barbara said, “for when it’s time to go home.”

“They freak you out, you can spend the night here.”

“I imagine I’ll be all right.”

They started with Blood Frenzy. Pete watched from a recliner beside the sofa. Larry sat at one end of the sofa, Barbara at the other. After a while she tossed a cushion onto the coffee table and propped her feet up.

When the movie ended, Pete made popcorn. Barbara disappeared for a few minutes. She came back wearing a knee-length blue robe. She filled glasses with Pepsi for everyone. Pete separated the popcorn into three bowls.

Before returning to her place on the sofa, Barbara turned off all the lights.

They munched popcorn, drank their sodas, and watched Cameron’s Closetin a room that was dark except for the glow from the television screen.

Every now and then Larry glanced at Barbara. She was slumped against the back of the sofa, popcorn bowl on her lap, her legs stretched out, feet resting on the cushion she had earlier placed on the coffee table. When she twisted sideways to set her empty bowl on the lamp table, the robe slipped off her left leg. She wore a pink, diaphanous nightgown. It was shorter than the robe. It didn’t reach down much farther than her hip. With a quiet moan of annoyance, she flung the fallen section of the robe back on top of her thigh.

This is sure better than being home, Larry thought.

A few minutes later she took the cushion out from under her feet. She tilted it against the armrest, swiveled herself around and swung her legs onto the sofa. She lay down on her side, head propped on the cushion. “Let me know if I kick you,” she said.

“Maybe I should get out of your way.”

“No, that’s fine.”

Pete looked over. “Oh, here we go. For godsake, Barb, sit up. You won’t last five minutes.”

“I’m wide awake.”

“You won’t be. I’m warning you, I’m not gonna rewind. You drift off, it’s your hard luck.”

“I’m not going to drift off.”

“Famous last words,” Pete said. “Lar, you catch her dropping off, pinch her.”

“Don’t you dare.” She tucked the robe in between the backs of her legs as if to prevent Larry from reaching up inside it for the pinch.

It was the sort of thing that Jean might do.

The casual warning and precaution hinted at an intimacy that was both comforting and exciting.

Larry used the remote to rewind the few seconds of the movie that he’d missed while complaining to Barbara.

She lasted more than five minutes. But not more than ten. Larry realized she was asleep when her legs straightened and one of her bare feet pushed against the side of his thigh. Her touch made warmth flow through him.

He waited for a while, enjoying the sensation. But it made him feel guilty. “Pete,” he finally said. “She’s zonked.”

“Barrr-bra.”

She flinched, lifted her face off the cushion. “No, I’m fine.”

“You dosed off.”

“No, I didn’t. I’m fine.” Her head settled down again. Her eyes drifted shut.

“Forget it,” Pete said. “She can watch it in the morning if she wants to.”

“I’m watching,” she mumbled.

Larry tried to watch the movie. Her right foot made it difficult. So did the way the top of her robe hung open, revealing most of her right breast through the flimsy pink nightgown. The show on the TV screen was good, but the stolen glimpses were better. Sometimes the foot rubbed him.

Near the end of the movie she stretched out her left leg. Its foot pushed across the top of his thigh and rested on his lap. The pressure there made him squirm. He wrapped his hand around Barbara’s ankle and guided her foot down beside the other.

“Huh?” she moaned. “Sorry. Kicking you?”

“It’s all right,” he said.

Pete looked around, frowning. “Christ, Barb, you’re screwing up the movie. Why don’t you just go to bed.”

“Yeah, maybe I better.”

Shit, Larry thought.

She pushed herself up and staggered to her feet. “Night, guys. Sorry I pooped out on you, Larry.”

“No problem. Thanks for the dinner and everything.”

“Glad you could make it. See ya.” She made her way around the coffee table. Larry could see through her robe when she stepped in front of him. Her breasts swayed a little as she bent over and kissed Pete good night.

Then she was gone.

The room seemed empty without her.

During the final moments of Cameron’s ClosetLarry heard a toilet flush.

Pete removed the tape from the VCR. He grinned over his shoulder. “Free at last, free at last,” he said. “Thank God Almighty, free at last.”

“If you want to turn in...”

“Are you kidding?” He pushed the tape of Floaterinto the machine and started it playing. “Back in a second.” He hurried away.

He came back while the screen still showed its warning against unauthorized use of the videotape. He had a bottle of Irish whiskey in one hand and two glasses in the other. He sat next to Larry on the sofa. He filled the two glasses. “Party time,” he said.

“I’m gonna be wasted tomorrow.”

“The cats are away. Gotta live it up.”

They watched the movie until their glasses were empty. Pete refilled them both, then pressed the Stop button on his remote. The horror film was replaced by a black and white John Wayne movie. Larry recognized it immediately as The Sands of Iwo Jima.

“Why’d you turn it off?” he asked.

A grin stretched the corners of Pete’s mouth.

Fourteen

“How about a little excursion?” Pete said.

“What do you mean?”

“Sagebrush Flat.”

“You’re kidding,” Larry said.

“Who’s gonna stop us?”

“I don’t want to go out there.”

Pete clapped a hand down on Larry’s knee. His eyes gleamed with mischief, but he wasn’t smiling. He looked like a kid, a kid with a mustache and some gray in his hair and with big plans to pull off a caper. “We take the van. We drive out there, pick up the jukebox, and we’ll be back in two, three hours. Barb’s zonked. She’ll never know.”

“She’ll know when she finds the thing in your garage.”

“Okay, so we’ll leave it over at your place. What do you say, Lar?”

“I think it’s crazy.”

“Hey, man, an adventure. It’ll be great. You can use it in your book. You know, tell all about how the two guys sneak off in the middle of the night to bring the thing back. You can write it the way it happens, you know? Won’t have to tax the ol‘ imagination.”

“It’s crazy.”

“Don’t you want the box?”

“Not that badly.”

“What about a photo for the cover of your book?”

“Well, that’d be neat, but...”

“So we’ll take my camera. Maybe we won’t bring the thing back, you know? Maybe we can’t even lift it. But at least we’ll have some pictures.”

“We could do that during the day.”

“You know the kind of heat I’d get from Barbara. She’d give me all kinds of shit. How about it?”

“You really want to go now?” The digital clock on the VCR showed 12:05.

“No time like the present. A midnight mission.”

The idea frightened Larry. It also excited him. He felt a vibration that seemed to hum through his nerves.

When was the last time, he wondered, that you did something really daring?

If you chicken out, you’ll regret it. And Pete’ll think you’re a pussy.

A real adventure.

“Just like Tom and Huck,” he said.

“Huh?”

“Tom Sawyer climbed out his window in the middle of the night and went with Huck to a graveyard to cure their warts. I always wished I could do something like that.”

“You got warts, man?”

“Let’s go for it.”

Grinning, Pete refilled the glasses. “Fun and games,” he toasted. They clinked their glasses and drank.

Pete took his glass with him. He turned on a lamp at the end of the sofa. Then he removed the tape from the VCR, flicked off the television and left the room. Larry sipped whiskey while he waited. It warmed him but didn’t ease the thrumming vibrations.

When Pete returned he wore a gunbelt. His .357 hung in the holster against his right leg. Dangling by a strap around his neck was a camera with a flash attachment. “I checked the bedroom,” he said in a low voice. “Barb’s out like a light.”

Pete set his empty glass down. He capped the whiskey bottle and handed it to Larry. “You be the keeper of the hooch.”

“We shouldn’t take it with us.”

“Fuck that. Who’s gonna know?”

“If we get stopped...”

“We won’t. Calm down, you’ll live longer.”

They went to the door. Pete turned off the lamp.

They stepped outside. Standing under the porch light, Pete locked the front door with his key.

Larry, shivering, hugged his chest as he hurried toward the van at the curb. A chilly wind pushed at him. He thought about stopping by his house for a jacket. But Pete wasn’t bundled up. Pete still wore his short-sleeved knit shirt and blue jeans.

If he can take it, I can, Larry told himself.

Besides, it’ll be all right once we’re in the van.

The van felt warm. It must’ve been like an oven before the sun went down, and it still retained a lot of heat. Larry settled into the passenger seat and sighed.

“Pass it over.”

He handed the bottle to Pete, who took a swig and gave it back. Larry took a drink. “Are you all right to drive?” he asked.

“You kidding? I don’t hardly even have a good buzz on.”

I do, Larry thought. I’m buzzing, all right. But it isn’t the booze. Just good old-fashioned excitement. And maybe fear.

Pete started the van. He kept the headlights off for a while. After turning the first corner, he put them on. They drilled into the night. “Hey, this is something, you know that?”

“You think you can find the town?”

“No sweat.”

“We stay away from the hotel, though, right?”

“If you say so.” Pete drove in silence for several minutes. They were on Riverfront Drive before he looked at Larry and said, “You know what I don’t understand? How come you want to write about the jukebox instead of the vampire?”

“Vampire books are a dime a dozen.”

“Not true ones. Don’t get me wrong, I think your jukebox story sounds pretty neat. But I’d think the true story of how you found a vampire in a ghost town would be... different, you know?”

“Different, all right.”

“Remember that movie, The Amityville Horror? That was supposed to be a true story.”

“It was supposed to be,” Larry said. “But I’ve heard the whole thing was made up.”

“Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. The thing, is, they claimedit was true. And that’s what made it. Would’ve been just another haunted house movie except for that. You’re supposed to think it actually happened, right?”

“Right.”

“It was based on a book, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah. And the book was pushed as nonfiction.”

“Did the book sell okay?”

“Are you kidding? It sold a ton.”

“So what’s to keep you from writing up this vampire thing as nonfiction? Have a big best-seller, they make a movie out of it, presto! You’re rich and famous.”

“Shit.”

“What do you mean, shit? You got something against money?”

“I’m doing okay.”

“Sure, you’re doing okay. But how many best-sellers have you had?”

“You can do just fine without ever having a book on the best-seller lists. Those guys on the lists, they’re making millions.”

Pete whistled softly. “That much?”

“Sure. Some of those guys get a million up front. Or more. That’s before paperback rights, foreign rights, movie sales.”

“Christ, and you’re not interested?”

“I didn’t say I’m not interested. I just don’t want to mess with any vampire.”

“Hey, let’s not kid ourselves here. The thing’s not a vampire. It’s just some broad with a stake in her chest. But we don’t knowthat. Not for sure. Neither will your readers. That’s what keeps the story going. Wait till the very end, then you pull the stake. That’s like the final chapter, you know? You pull the stake and see what happens.”

“I don’t know.”

They left the lights of Mulehead Bend behind. Pete turned off the main road and headed west into the desert. There were no more streetlamps. The headlights pushed paths of brightness up the lane in front of them. The moon cast a pale glow over the bleak landscape of boulders, scrub bushes, cacti, and the jagged mountains in the distance. It looked cold and forlorn out there. Larry suddenly wanted to turn back.

It was bad enough, driving through this bleak terrain on the way to a jukebox.

But that obviously wasn’t what Pete had in mind.

“What are we reallydoing?” Larry asked.

“Just what we planned. Bring the jukebox back. Or just take some pictures, if we can’t carry it.”

“Then what’s this vampire business?”

“Just a thought. Hey, you don’t like the idea, fine. I’m not trying to push you into something. But Jesus, why on earth would you want to pass up a chance to make a million bucks?”

“The thing scares me.”

“That’s the point.” He reached over, took the bottle from Larry, drank from it and handed it back. “The point is, you’re in the business of scaring people. Right?”

“Scaring them with fiction. Not the real thing. They want real scares, they can watch the TV news.”

“This wouldn’t be all that different from your novels. Hey, we are talking about vampires, not homicides or nuclear war. The only difference is, this would be a true story. And it’d fit right in with your image, you know? This is the sort of thing that’d make publicity people drool. Get this, ‘Renowned horror writer discovers vampire on weekend outing.’ It’s a natural. They’d put you on the tube, man. And here’s the best part, you could take her with you.”

“Oh, wonderful.”

“Just let ‘em tryto say you made the whole thing up.”

“Great. You’ve got me carting a corpse around on the talk-show circuit.”

“We’re talking about a million bucks, Lar. I’d sure do it.”

“Be my guest.”

“I can’t write for shit. And you’ve got...” His head snapped around. “I’ve gotit! I’ll be the main guy. You can be the guy who takes it all down.”

“Your Watson, your Boswell.”

“Yeah, whatever. God, I wish we had a recorder. We oughta have all this on tape for the book.”

“You’re really serious.”

“Damn straight. Can you remember all this? Hell, we should’ve laid off the booze.”

“Right.” Larry took another swallow of it.

“I see this as a major book and movie. It’s a natural.”

“It does have potential,” Larry admitted.

“Potential? It’ll be a blockbuster.”

“It’d need a story, though.”

“Hey, man, we’re living the story right now. You start it off with last Sunday when we found the thing. You write it just the way it happened. That’s a few chapters worth, right there. Then you’ve got tonight. And how we go off to get the jukebox, but I talk you into getting the vampire instead.”

“That’s maybe fifty pages,” Larry said. “Then what?”

“You just tell it like it happens. Describe us going into the hotel, taking out the corpse, putting it in the van and taking it home.”

“To whose house?”

“Have you got any good hiding places?”

“Nowhere that Jean wouldn’t find it. Besides, I don’t like keeping secrets from her.”

“How do you think she’d react?”

“To having a corpse in the house?”

“In the garage, say.”

“I don’t think she’d be delighted by the idea.”

“Barb would just shit.”

“So much for the blockbuster,” Larry said.

Pete went silent.

Thank God, Larry thought. Good thing we’re both married. That ought to nip the idea right in the bud.

He felt enormous relief. He took a drink of whiskey and sighed.

“I’ve got it!” Pete blurted. “That’s part of the story! We need stuff to happen after we get the thing, right? You can put all the stuff in there about Jean and Barbara giving us grief about the thing. But we talk them into letting us keep it.”

“Now you’re talking fiction.”

“We just explain to them, you know? It’s not like we’ll be keeping the thing forever. Just a couple of months, maybe, while you’re working on the book. With a big jackpot at the end. I think the gals might go for it.”

“Where’s the big jackpot for Barbara?”

“I’m getting a cut, right?”

“Yeah, I may cut your throat. Then I can do a book on that while I’m in prison.”

“What do you say, twenty percent? My idea, after all. You wouldn’t do it at all if it weren’t for me.”

“True enough. Not that I’m planning to do it at all, regardless. The whole thing’s crazy.”

“That’s what makes it so great. It’s crazy. It’s wild! You think Stephen King would pass up a chance like this? Hell, he’d probably do it for the fun of it.”

“Why don’t you give hima try? I’ve got his address.”

“ ‘Cause you’re my pal. I don’t want to take this away from you. This is your big chance.”

“Thanks.”

“So, what do you say? Are you in?”

If you tell him no, Larry thought, he’ll never forgive you. He’s probably already calculated twenty percent of a million bucks. It’d be like robbing him. No more outings with him and Barbara, no more drinks and dinner with them. The end of all that.

He thought about the fun they’d had during the past year.

He thought about Barbara stretched out on the sofa, and the way she had tucked the back of her robe between her legs.

Wouldn’t necessarily end the friendship, he told himself. But it would sure put a strain on it.

And Pete was right about the book. It could be big. It could be another Amityville Horror.

Doing it would mean spending a lot more time with Pete, too. With Pete and Barbara.

It would also mean bringing the corpse into your life.

Probably not so bad, once you got used to it.

“I think we’ll have real trouble with the wives,” he said.

“Nothing we can’t handle. What do you say, man?”

“I guess we could rent a room for it, or something, if they won’t let us keep it around.”

“Sure. We’ll figure something out. Are you in?”

“Maybe.”

“Ah-ha!”

“Let’s just play it by ear, okay? We’ll have a look at the thing. But I still want to do the jukebox book, so let’s take care of that first, and see how it goes.”

“Oh, man. Hey, this is the start of something big.”

“We ought to have our heads examined.”

Fifteen

When the reaching headlights found Babe’s Garage at the east end of Sagebrush Flat, Pete killed the beams and eased off the gas pedal.

They entered the town, moving slowly.

Larry studied the moonlit street ahead of them. He felt trapped by their crazy plan, but he held on to a hope that something might intercede to stop it. They needed privacy. If a car were here... if light came from a doorway or window...

But the street looked abandoned. The buildings were dark.

The van rolled to a halt in front of the Sagebrush Flat Hotel. Leaning forward, Pete peered past Larry.

They both stared toward the doors. But the hotel blocked the moonlight, throwing a black shroud of shadow all the way to the sidewalk. The blackness looked solid.

Unable to see the doors, Larry imagined them standing wide open, imagined he was gazing deep into the lobby, pictured the cadaver on her withered feet beside the staircase, staring out at them.

His skin crawled. His scrotum shriveled, tingling as if spiders were scurrying on it.

“Drive on ahead,” he whispered.

“Right. The box.”

The van moved forward.

He lifted a hand to his chest and fingered a nipple through the fabric of his shirt. It felt like a pebble.

True of guys, too, he thought. You get goose bumps, your nipples get hard.

He remembered the way Barbara had looked as she told her story about the dark church. Focusing his mind on that, he lost the image of the corpse. But he felt guilty about using Barbara that way, so he thought about Jean. Jean on Sunday night after her nightmare. Slipping out of her gown, climbing onto him. But then he was kneeling above her and her slim body looked cadaverous in the shadows, and he was suddenly in the hotel on his knees beside the coffin, staring at the corpse. Dried brown skin, ghastly grin, flat breasts, pubic hair shining like gold in the flashlight’s beam.

He shook his head to dislodge the images, and let out a shaky breath. “I don’t know if I can hack this,” he muttered.

“Never fear, Peter’s here.”

Pete drove past Holman’s, made a U-turn and parked in front of the gasoline pumps. He shut off the engine.

They each took a drink of whiskey.

“Let’s take it with us,” Pete said.

“Let’s not. I want my hands free.” Larry capped the bottle and set it on the floor.

They climbed out. Leaning against the chilly wind, Larry trudged to the rear of the van. Pete met him there. He had his flashlight but left it dark. Side by side they walked past the corner of Holman’s. The desert ahead of them looked gray, as if its rock-littered surface, boulders, and bushes were painted with dirty cream.

They were almost to the rear corner of Holman’s when a vague shape darted in front of them. Larry flinched. Pete, gasping, crouched and snatched out his gun. The wind-tossed tumbleweed bounded on by.

“Shit,” Pete muttered, holstering his weapon.

“Good going, Quickdraw.”

I’m not the only one nervous around here, he thought. It pleased him to know that Pete was also feeling jumpy.

“Maybe you should turn on the flashlight,” he suggested.

“It’d give us away.”

“To whom?”

“You never know, man. You never know.”

They left Holman’s behind and headed out into the desert, angling toward the far-off smoke tree that marked the edge of the stream bed. Another tumbleweed crossed their path, but Pete saw this one coming and didn’t draw down on it.

Larry studied the landscape ahead. He wished it didn’t have so many clumps of rock and brush. Hiding places. Each time he approached one, he tightened with fear. Each time he passed one, he quickly looked behind it, half expecting to find someone crouched and ready to pounce.

Nobody’s here except us, he kept telling himself.

But he couldn’t convince himself.

At last they reached the rim of the embankment. Larry turned around. He scanned the area they had just finished crossing.

Pete did the same.

Then they faced forward. The area below them lay in shadow. Pete turned on his flashlight. He played its beam over the slope and started down. Larry stayed close to his side. A few times they stopped while Pete waved his light across the bottom of the gully as if to assure himself that no surprises were waiting down there. The stream bed didn’t look familiar to Larry. He was sure it hadn’t changed since Sunday, but it seemed very different in the darkness. He couldn’t even tell for certain which was the rock that Barbara had been sitting on.

We might not be here now, he thought, if she hadn’t wandered away from Holman’s looking for a place to relieve herself. We wouldn’t have found the jukebox. Maybe the corpse, but I never would’ve started out tonight except for the jukebox.

He realized that he had to urinate, himself.

When they reached the bottom of the embankment, he said, “Hang on a minute. I’ve gotta take a leak.”

“Don’t get any on you,” Pete said. “Want the light?”

“Yeah, thanks.” He took the flashlight. Pete waited while he wandered to the left, stepping around blocks of stone. He clamped the light under his arm to free his hands. With his back to Pete, he opened his pants. The wind felt good against his penis. He aimed his stream straight out. The wind flapped it sideways, but not back at him.

When he was done, he zipped up his pants and started to turn around. The pale beam of the flashlight passed across a circle of black surrounded by rocks. “Hey, Pete. Come here.”

“I don’t want to get my feet wet.”

“Come here.” He took the flashlight out from under his arm while Pete came up beside him. He pointed it at the circle. “Look at that.”

“A campfire.”

“Was that here before?”

“I don’t know. Might’ve been, but I didn’t see it.”

They walked toward it. The center of the fire circle was black with ashes and the charred remains of wood.

And bones. Larry saw half a dozen bones, intact among the dead cinders — gray and knobbed at each end.

“Holy shit,” Pete muttered.

“Rabbit, you think?”

Pete squatted. He picked up a bone that was nearly a foot in length. “This sucker didn’t come from any rabbit,” he said. “A coyote, maybe.”

“Who the hell would eat a coyote?”

“The fuckin‘ Madman of the Desert, that’s who.” Pete tossed the bone down. “This’ll go good in our book.”

“Great,” Larry muttered.

Pete pressed a hand against one of the sooty rocks. “Still warm.”

“Don’t give me that.”

“It is.”

Crouching, Larry touched one of the rocks for himself. It was cold. “Asshole.”

Pete laughed. “Had you going there, huh?”

“Prick.”

“Get out of the way. I’m gonna take some pictures.”

He backed off but kept the light on the fire circle while Pete removed the lens cap, switched on the camera and its flash attachment.

“What if the guy who did this is still around here?”

“No sweat. He’s already eaten.”

“A guy who eats coyotes isn’t someone I want to meet.”

“He’s probably long gone.” Pete raised the camera to his eye, bent over the remains of the fire for a close-up, and took a shot. The flash strobed, hitting the area with a quick blast of white.

He stepped backward. One stride. Two. Then another flash split the darkness.

In that blink of white Larry saw something beyond the fire circle. He found it with the beam of his flashlight. “Oh, my God,” he muttered.

Three rocks were stacked up. At the top rested the head of a coyote, its gray fur matted with blood, a bone held crosswise between its teeth. It had bloody holes where its eyes should’ve been.

Pete lowered his camera and stared. “Wow,” he muttered.

“Maybe we ought to get out of here.”

Pete flapped a hand at him and stepped closer to the thing. He raised the camera. He took a shot. In the stark flick of light Larry saw intothe empty sockets. He started gagging as Pete stepped right up in front of it, crouched, and snapped another picture.

He turned aside and vomited. When he finished, he backed away from the mess. He took out his handkerchief, blew his nose and wiped his lips. He blinked tears from his eyes. He rubbed them with the back of a hand.

“You all right?” Pete asked, coming up behind him.

“Christ,” he muttered.

“Feeling a little queasy myself. Bad scene. Guy that did that must be a fuckin‘ lunatic. You see the way he poked out its eyes? Wonder if he did that beforehe ate.”

Larry shook his head. “Let’s do the jukebox and get out of here.”

“Give me the light. I want to check around, see what else we can find.”

“Are you nuts?” He kept the flashlight and started walking through the gully toward the place where they’d found the jukebox.

“Ah,” Pete said. “What the hell. Don’t want to lose mysupper. Wouldn’t taste half as good on the way out.” His head swung around.

A shiver rushed up Larry’s back. “What is it?”

“Nothing, I guess.”

“Did you hear something?”

“Probably just the wind. Unless it’s our crazy fuckin‘ coyote muncher sneaking up on us.”

“Cut it out.”

“Wonder if he talked to the thing while he ate. You know? Like put the head up there for a dinner companion. Had a little chat with it. Talked to the head while he ate the body.”

It was an image, Larry realized, that had passed through his own mind while he was vomiting.

“Wonder if he ate the eyes.”

Larry hadn’tthought of that. “He probably just didn’t like the thing staring at him.”

“Maybe. Guess we’ll never know. Unless we get a chance to ask him.” Pete chuckled.

“Give me a break.”

Larry stepped around a large rock. He pointed the light at it. “Is that where Barbara was sitting?”

“I think so.”

He swept the beam forward until it found a thick clump of bushes on the right. He glimpsed chrome and dirty red plastic through the foliage. “There.”

They hurried the final distance.

Larry stared down at the machine resting smashed and bullet-riddled in the bushes. He imagined a photograph of it on the cover of his book. The Boxby Lawrence Dunbar.

That’s the book I’m going to write, he told himself. Not some damn thing about a vampire.

“See if we can lift it?” Pete asked, squatting down.

He saw them struggling to carry it up the steep embankment. He saw himself stumble, fall, roll down the slope. The box tumbled and crashed down on top of him. Pete lifted it off. We’d better not try to move you, Lar. I’ll go get help. Pete left the revolver with him and hurried away. He lay there, alone and half paralyzed. Soon he heard someone creeping toward him. A ragged hermit dripping coyote blood, a knife in his hand. What makes me think there’s only one of them? he wondered.

“What do you think?” Pete asked.

“Let’s not try it.”

“Yeah, maybe you’re right. God knows what’s under the thing. Or inside it, for that matter. Don’t want to go upsetting a rattler. Or a nest of scorpions, or something.”

“That’s what I like about you,” Larry said. “Adventurous, but not foolish.”

“My mama didn’t raise no morons.” Pete got to his feet. He backed away from the box and lifted the camera.

Larry stepped aside. He faced the length of the gully and probed its darkness with the flashlight. The campfire and the grisly remains of the coyote were well beyond the range of the pale beam. He swept the light from side to side. None of the rocks or bushes in sight seemed large enough to conceal a person.

“You spot Ragu the Desert Rat,” Pete said, “give us a yell.”

“I won’t yell, I’ll scream.”

Pete laughed.

Larry kept watch, his back to Pete. In his peripheral vision, he noticed four blinks of light.

“Why don’t you get into the picture?” Pete suggested. “We’ll get a couple of you with the famous jukebox.”

Though reluctant to abandon his guard duty, he stepped backward until he came to the box. He crouched beside it. A red light on the flash attachment beamed a ray at his face.

“Say ‘cheese.’ ”

“Come on, get it over with.”

“Say ‘head cheese.’ ”

“Screw you.”

White light hit his eyes. Pete took another photo, then stepped closer and fired two more. “That oughta do it.”

“Sure did my night vision.” He stood up, shutting his eyes and rubbing them. Bright sparks and balls fluttered under his lids.

“We done down here?” Pete asked.

“I sure hope so.”

“Want to go back and pick up a souvenir? Take it home with us, put it in the freezer?”

“Yeah. Why don’t you do that.”

“Hah! You think I’m out of my tree?”

“You want to take the corpse back,” Larry said, stepping past the bushes and starting to climb the slope. “What’s the big difference?”

“The corpse isn’t all bloody and gross.”

“It looked pretty gross to me.”

“Well, the coyote head ain’t worth a million bucks. For a million smackaroonies, I’d pick the thing up in my bare hands and walkhome with it.”

“Would you eat it?” Larry asked, starting to feel almost cheerful as he approached the top of the embankment.

“Who’d give me a million bucks to eat it?”

“It’s hypothetical.”

“Would I get to cook it up first?”

“Nope, gotta chow it down raw.”

“You’re sick, man.”

“Me?”

They reached the top and the wind pushed against Larry. It seemed to be blowing much harder up here than in the gully. But he was glad to be out. He felt as if he had been an intruder in the lair of the coyote eater. Ragu the Desert Rat. He hurried forward, wanting to put as much distance as possible between himself and the madman’s domain.

Now and then he glanced back. So did Pete, but not as often.

At last they reached the van. Larry flung himself onto the passenger seat, slammed the door shut and locked it. The warmth felt wonderful. And it was good to be out of the wind. The skin of his face and arms felt tingly from the buffeting. He opened the whiskey bottle and took a couple of sips while Pete climbed in behind the steering wheel.

He offered the bottle to Pete.

Pete shook his head. He flicked a switch and light filled the van. With a nervous glance at Larry, he slipped between the seats.

Larry watched him move in a crouch toward the rear of the van — head darting from side to side, fingers wrapped around the handle of his holstered magnum.

Christ, he’s afraid someone might’ve gotten in.

Pete searched the length of the van and turned around. “It’s cool,” he said, coming back.

In his seat again, he shut off the interior lights. He started the engine. He reached out, and Larry put the bottle in his hand. He drank, then gave it back. “Now, are we ready for the real fun?”

“I think I’ve had enough fun for one night.”

“You aren’t going yellow on me, are you?”

“What’ll we do with the corpse if we dotake it home?”

“You write a book about it.”

“About what? Having a pseudovampire as a house guest?”

“Exactly.”

“It’ll just lie there. That’s if the women don’t make us get rid of it.”

“You’re right. We’ll have to do something with it. Maybe we can find out who she is.”

“How would we do that?”

“First things first, Lar. Let’s take her home, then figure out what’s next.”

“Why don’t we nottake her home till we figure that out.”

“Hey, we’re already here. When’ll we get another chance like this? Come on, man, we agreed. Don’t bail out on me now.”

“I’m not bailing out. I just don’t see what we’ll accomplish. Our book has to be a lot more than a couple of goofs taking a stiff home and freaking out their wives. Even a true story needs action along the way, drama, a climax. Especially a climax. We’ve got nothing.”

“Well, eventually we pull the stake.”

“And the damn thing stilljust lies there.”

“Maybe, maybe not.”

“Oh, come on. You said yourself she’s not a vampire.”

“We don’t know that for sure. Obviously, someonethinks she is.”

“Okay. Suppose we pull the stake and she isa vampire?”

“That’d be something, huh? Then we’ve got a best-seller for sure.”

“If she doesn’t bite our necks.”

“We’ll take precautions when the time comes. You know, have plenty of crucifixes and garlic handy. Maybe buy some handcuffs or tie her up.”

“So what happens if we pull the stake and nothing happens? Which is the way it’s bound to go down. Then what?”

Pete started the van moving forward.

“A big dud, that’s what,” Larry told him.

Pete eased the van onto the road. It rolled slowly toward the Sagebrush Flat Hotel.

“Let’s just go home and forget about it.”

“You said we should play it by ear.”

“My ear tells me to forget it.”

“I’ve got a better idea.” Pete’s head turned toward Larry. In the hazy moonlight his teeth seem to glow as he smiled. “You say we’ve got a dud if we pull the stake and she just lies there. Well, let’s find out tonight if she’s a vampire.” He eased the van to the other side of the street and stopped in front of the hotel. “Let’s go in there and pull the stake.”

Enounters

Sixteen

Larry stood in front of the van, shivering, and aimed his flashlight at the doors of the hotel. They were shut. The padlock hung from the hasp, but nobody had repaired Pete’s damage. The staple was still ripped from the right-hand door.

Pete came up beside him. He held the tire iron.

“You won’t need that to break in,” Larry whispered.

Nodding, Pete slipped the rod under his belt. He glanced up and down the street. Then he raised the camera and snapped a shot of the doors.

As he stepped onto the sidewalk, Larry clutched his shoulder. “Wait a minute.”

“I’m going in there. If you’re scared...”

“Aren’t you?”

“Hey, sure. But I’m not gonna let that stop me. You can wait out here if you want.”

Larry let his hand drop. He followed Pete across the sidewalk. The muscles of his legs felt soft and shaky. His bowels ached. His heart thudded and he panted, trying to get enough air into his tight lungs.

Who’s going to write Pete’s book, he thought, if I have a heart attack and keel over dead?

Pete opened the door. Larry shined his light into the lobby. Its beam trembled on the stairs to the left, jerked past the banister and downward, sweeping over the empty space to the right.

They stepped inside. Pete shut the door.

I’m in, Larry thought. Good Christ.

The wind was gone. He heard it, but it no longer blew against him. The hotel was warm. Not as warm as the van, though. He couldn’t stop shivering. His skin felt tight. He knew he was goose bumps from head to toe. An icy hand seemed to be squeezing his genitals.

He swung the flashlight back and forth. Over the sandy, hardwood floor. Across the registration counter. Along the walls. Turning slowly, he lit the boarded windows at the front. The closed doors.

The click and blink of the camera made him flinch. Its automatic film advance buzzed.

“Wanta get the general layout,” Pete whispered. He took several more photos, turning in a full circle to capture every foot of the lobby’s empty interior.

While he reloaded, Larry squatted down to ease a cramped feeling in his bowels.

“You okay?” Pete whispered.

“Hardly.”

“Crap your pants, you’ll have to walk home.”

“Ha ha.”

“I’m going up and get a couple of the landing.”

Larry stood but didn’t go with him. He aimed the light at the stairs. Pete climbed them, holding the camera in both hands. And stopped abruptly.

“Very interesting. Have a look.”

Grimacing, Larry forced his wobbly legs to carry him to the stairway. He made his way upward until he reached Pete’s side.

Four dirty, weathered planks lay across the landing. They covered the hole left by Barbara when the boards gave out beneath her.

“You know what this means,” Pete said.

“Let’s get out of here.”

“God, I hope he didn’t take our vampire.”

God, I hope he did, Larry thought.

Hope he doesn’t show up.

What if he’s the coyote eater?

Larry shined his light up the stairs. It reached into the second-floor corridor, threw a faint glow high on the wall. He stared, half expecting a wildman to shamble into the beam.

Pete’s got a gun, he reminded himself.

But the scare will probably kill me.

He wished he could make himself look away from the upstairs corridor. But he didn’t dare take his eyes off it.

Pete drew the revolver. “Hang onto this for a minute.”

Larry switched the flashlight to his left hand and took the gun in his right. He aimed both toward the top of the stairs.

The solid, heavy feel of the .357 was comforting.

Very comforting.

Almost like putting on a coat, the way it soothed his chills and calmed him. But better.

No wonder Pete’s been so cool about most of this. He’s had the pig-iron on his hip.

Pete snapped a photo of the landing. Then, letting the camera dangle by its strap, he crouched and lifted one of the boards. He propped it upright against the wall. When all four planks had been removed, he took two shots of the gaping hole.

No longer worried much about an intruder, Larry lowered his gaze to the break in the landing. He saw the splintered edges of wood that had gouged and scraped Barbara. He remembered the feel of her body when he’d wrapped his arms around her. The soft warmth of her breasts against his forearm. The way she’d looked later, standing in the sunlit doorway with her blouse open.

His mind came back to the present as Pete began setting the boards back into place. He realized he was no longer shivering at all. He wondered if it was having the gun or thinking about Barbara that had taken away the shakes. Probably both, he thought.

“Okay,” Pete said, getting to his feet. He held out his hand for the weapon.

“Let me keep it,” Larry said.

Pete was silent for a moment. Then he shrugged and said, “Sure, why not?”

They turned around and started down the stairs.

“We’re gonna have a lot of good shots of this place. Did that Amityvillebook have photos?”

“Nope.”

“Great. We’ll be going it one better.”

They reached the bottom of the stairway and stepped around the newel post, shoes crunching on the sandy floor.

The panel alongside the staircase was shut, just as they had left it. The body of Christ on the crucifix gleamed golden.

Pete took a few strides backward and snapped a photograph to show the staircase enclosure.

Stepping up to it, he ran his hands along a seam in the paneling. He tried to dig his fingers in, then gave up and took out the tire iron. He pushed its wedge into the crack. Slowly, as if trying not to make a sound, he pressed the bar.

“Open, sesame,” he whispered.

With a soft groan and squeak of nails, the slab of wood moved outward half an inch.

Pete slipped the fingers of his left hand into the gap. He shoved the bar under his belt. Using both hands, he eased the panel toward him. Nails squawked. The gap widened.

At last the panel came off completely. It was about four feet across. Pete stretched out his arms and grabbed both edges. He looked like a life-size imitation of the body on the cross as he lifted the panel and carried it aside — the crucifix almost touching his cheek. He propped the slab against the staircase, rubbed his hands on the front of his pants, then moved backward and took a shot of the opening.

Larry waited until Pete was beside him. Together they stepped under the staircase.

Let the thing be gone, he thought as he swung the flashlight to the left.

It lit the foot of the coffin. Raising the beam slightly, he saw the old brown blanket covering the body. The blanket was propped up like a small tent over the stake. Beyond the upthrust area of blanket was the corpse’s dark face.

Pete nudged him with an elbow.

“What?” Larry whispered.

“Nobody absconded with it.”

“Too bad.”

“I’ll get a shot from here,” Pete said.

A small patch of red light from the camera’s flash attachment appeared on the blanket. It floated upward to the underside of a stair just above the corpse’s head, then found the face. Over the pounding of his heartbeat Larry heard the camera make brief, whiny buzzing sounds as its autofocus made adjustments. The red light trembled on the tawny forehead, touched a sunken eyelid, roamed down a hollow cheek and settled on the upper row of teeth.

Larry shut his eyes in time to miss the sudden shock of brightness. He saw it through his lids. Then another.

“Come on,” Pete whispered.

He opened his eyes. He followed Pete. Though he kept the coffin lighted, he avoided looking at it.

Crouching, Pete reached the end of the coffin and grabbed its edge. He gave it a yank. The coffin moved toward him, scraping on the floor. Larry stepped out of the way, and Pete dragged it past him.

Dragged it out from under the staircase and into the lobby. Larry followed it out.

“What are you doing?” he blurted in a loud whisper.

“Don’t like it under there,” Pete said.

“Christ.”

Larry, himself, was glad to be free of the enclosure. But this was going too far. Way, way too far. The thing didn’t belong out here. It belonged under the stairs, for godsake, not in the lobby.

“We’ve gotta put it back.”

Instead of responding, Pete took a photo.

The white of the flash hit the sandy floor, the coffin, the feet and face of the corpse, its blond hair, the blanket.

The blanket.

Larry’s chest tightened. “Pete.”

“Stop whining, would you?”

“The blanket.”

“What about it?”

“We didn’t leave it that way.”

“Hey, you’re right.”

Sunday, Pete had flung the blanket carelessly onto the corpse, leaving it heaped on the chest and belly. Barbara had pulled a corner down to cover the groin. Now the blanket was spread out smoothly, shrouding the body from shoulders to ankles.

“Must’ve been the same guy who did the landing,” Pete said. He sounded pretty calm about it. Even without the gun.

“That means he knows we found the body.”

“He doesn’t know wefound the body. Just that someone did.”

“I don’t like this.”

“He’s not here, is he?”

“He might be.” Larry pointed his light toward the top of the stairway. He saw no one.

“He shows up, we can ask him about this.”

“Right. Sure. What if he doesn’t like the idea of a couple guys messing with his vampire?”

“You got any idea what a .357 does to a person? Just wing him, he’ll think he got hit by a Mack truck. So don’t shoot unless you have to.”

“God,” Larry muttered.

“Keep me covered while I get some skin shots.” Pete bent down and tossed the blanket off the corpse.

Larry’s eyes and flashlight went straight to the stake protruding from the center of its chest.

Pete wandered around the coffin, snapping half a dozen pictures. Then he faced Larry and lowered the camera against his belly. “Okay, pal. Time to see if she’s for real.”

Cold streaked up his spine.

“Don’t.”

Pete grinned, raised his eyebrows. “You said we don’t want her if she’s a dud.”

“For Christsake, it’s night.”

Pete stepped toward him. He lifted the camera strap over his head. “Maybe you should record this for posterity.” He slipped the strap over Larry’s head. The weight of the camera pulled against the back of his neck.

Pete stepped to the far side of the coffin and sank to his knees. He wrapped a hand around the end of the stake.

“Don’t. I mean it.”

“Don’t be a pussy, man.”

Larry aimed the revolver at him.

Pete’s smile fell away. “Jesus Christ.”

“Take your hand off it.”

The hand jumped off the stake as if burnt. “It’s off, it’s off. Jesus!”

Larry lowered the gun.

He shook his head. He couldn’t believe he’d actually threatened his friend with the magnum. He felt sick. “I’m sorry. God, I’m sorry, Pete.”

“Jesus, man.”

“I’m sorry. Look, we’ll take it with us. We’ll take it home. We’ll do the book. Okay? And you can take the stake out, but not till the right time. We’ll do it in daylight. We’ll cuff her first, or something, like you said. We’ll do it right, so nobody gets hurt. Okay?”

Pete nodded and got to his feet. He stepped around the coffin.

Larry met him beside it. “Here, you’d better take this thing.”

Pete took the revolver from him. “I oughta stick it in your face and see how you like it,” he said. “Goddamn, man, you know?”

“Go ahead. I deserve it.”

“Nan.” He holstered the weapon. He clasped Larry’s upper arm and looked him in the eyes. “We’re partners, man. We’re gonna be richpartners.”

“I shouldn’t have pulled down on you, Pete. I don’t know what... I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.”

“No sweat.”

They shook hands. Larry felt his throat go tight. He knew he was close to tears.

“Okay, compadre,” Pete said. “Let’s haul this bitch out of here and head for home.”

Seventeen

“Don’t do it! I’m warning you!”

“Ah, don’t be a pussy.” Pete started to pull the stake from the chest of the corpse. It slid slowly upward.

Larry fired. The slug punched Pete’s forehead. A spray of blood and brains flew up behind him. As he tumbled backward, Larry saw that he still clutched the stake. It came all the way out.

No!” Larry shrieked.

Hurling the revolver aside, he ran toward the coffin, toward Pete sprawled on the lobby floor, toward the pointed shaft clenched in his dead hand.

You bastard! he thought. You bastard, how could you do this to me!

Gotta get the stake! Gotta shove it back in! Fast! Before it’s too late.

But he couldn’t run fast enough. The sand sucked at his feet. Moments ago, it had just been a thin layer. Now the sand was thick, heaped like dunes on a beach. Had somebody left the door open? He looked back. The door was open, all right.

A man stood there, ankle deep in the sand, the wind at his back flapping his dark, hooded robe. A robe like a monk. The hood concealed his face. In his upraised right hand he held a crucifix. “You’re screwed now,” the stranger called. “Up shit creek without a paddle.”

Terrified, Larry turned his eyes away from the stranger and tried to run faster over the soft, shifting sand.

I’ll never make it in time, he thought.

He was still far from the corpse. It still looked like a dried-up mummy. But he could hear it breathing.

Maybe that guy will lend me his crucifix.

He glanced back. The hood fell away. The stranger had the eyeless, bloody head of a coyote. The crucifix, now clamped in its maw, crunched as the thing chewed.

When he looked forward again, he gasped.

The coffin was empty.

But then he saw that Pete was sitting up. He suddenly felt so overwhelmed with relief that he nearly wept. I didn’t kill him, after all! Thank God! Thank— He felt himself shrivel inside.

Pete wasn’t sitting up because he was alive. He was being held by the brown hag on the floor behind him. Its withered legs were crossed around his waist. Its arms hugged his chest. Its mouth sucked and chewed on the exit wound at the back of his head.

Larry yelled and woke up.

He was alone in bed. The room was dark. Rolling onto his side, he checked the alarm clock: 4:50. He groaned as he realized this was Saturday morning and he’d been in bed less than an hour.

He remembered what they had done.

God, if only the whole thing had been a nightmare. What if I only dreamedthat we went out there.

He knew it was too much to hope for.

They’d done it, all right.

At least I didn’t shoot Pete, he thought. Thank God thatwas just in the nightmare.

He climbed out of bed. Naked, sweaty, and shaking, he stepped to the window. The moon hung low over the roof of the garage.

He didn’t want to think about what was inside the garage.

We’ve gotta call this off, he told himself.

We’ve gotta take it back, put it back under the staircase.

He wondered if he could do it by himself.

No. Alone, he wouldn’t be able to face the thing, much less drive it out to Sagebrush Flat and drag it into that damn hotel.

He returned to the bed, sat down on the edge of the mattress, slumped forward and rubbed his face. He felt wasted. He needed sleep. A lot of sleep. But he knew the kind of dream that waited for him.

Never should’ve done it, he thought. Never should’ve.

He wandered into the bathroom, turned on the shower and stepped under the hot spray. The water felt wonderful splashing against his chilled body. It soothed his shivers, eased the tightness of his muscles. But it didn’t help the fog in his head. His mind seemed numb.

Won’t be able to write today, he thought. Not unless I get some sleep.

Work on correcting the manuscript?

That’s why you didn’t go with Jean and Lane.

God, he wished he had gone with them. None of this would’ve happened.

He saw himself in the hotel again, aiming the revolver at Pete.

Hell, I wouldn’t have shot him.

But even to aim at him...

That was the worst part. That was even worse than the damn corpse in his garage.

Just have to live with it, he told himself. It happened, you can’t make it go away.

The thing is to do the book for him. Even if it doesn’t hit the big-time like he hopes, it ought to sell. Give him a chunk, he’ll be happy. He’ll figure it was worth having a gun pointed at him. Then maybe I can stop feeling guilty.

So write the book.

Larry shut off the shower, stepped out of the tub and dried himself. He made his way sluggishly into the bedroom. He took a sweatsuit and socks from his dresser, dropped onto the bed and struggled into the soft shirt and pants.

Write the book, he thought. But not today. Too wasted.

In the kitchen he made a pot of coffee. He carried his mug into the living room, settled down in his recliner and started to read. His eyes moved over the lines of the paperback. But the words seemed disconnected, meaningless.

One hour of sleep, he thought. What do you expect?

He closed the book. He gazed into space while he sipped his coffee.

Can’t just sit here like a zombie.

Work on Madhouse, he thought. Should be capable of that, just going through and changing it back to the way it was in the first place.

He pushed himself off the chair, picked up his empty mug and headed for the kitchen.

Damn copyeditor. Hadn’t been for her, I’d be in L.A. right now. Wouldn’t have gone out to that damn town. None of this shit would’ve happened.

He filled his mug with coffee, carried it into his work room and gazed at the manuscript. He sighed. The chore seemed too great.

Maybe make some notes for The Boxfirst. Work something in about the guys going out to bring it home, stumbling across the campfire... the coyote eater... what if he’s a guy who’s connected to the past somehow? Could be a character in the sixties section. One of the bikers? He’s stuck around for some reason, mad as a hatter, living off the land.

Maybe a dumb idea, he thought. Who’s in any shape to judge? Might as well put it down, though. Decide later whether it’s worth pursuing.

He turned on the word processor and brought up the notes he’d made yesterday. He scrolled down to the last entry. “But maybe there are some other ‘box’ angles. Fool around with it.”

A coffin is a box. There’s an angle for you.

He typed, “Notes — Saturday, October 8.”

Spaced down, tapped out, “Guys go to fetch jukebox. In ditch nearby, they find campfire and disgusting remains of a coyote someone had eaten for dinner. Who? A crazy hermit who was the main badass biker in the sixties section. He’s still around after all those years.”

Who reallyate the coyote? he wondered. What if it’s the same guy who fixed the hotel landing and straightened the blanket on the stiff?

What if he was watching us?

What if he followed us?

Larry downspaced a couple of times.

“Somebody,” he wrote, “hammered a pointed shaft of wood through the heart of a woman. He left her inside a lidless coffin, and hid her corpse beneath the stairway of an abandoned hotel in the town of Sagebrush Flat.

“We found it there.

“My name is Lawrence Dunbar. I am a writer of horror fiction. This book is not fiction. You may judge for yourself whether it is horror.

“This is what happened.

“On Sunday, October 2, we left our home in Mulehead Bend for a day trip to visit an old west town in the desert to the west. The morning was clear and warm as we started off. Pete drove his van. I rode shotgun. Our wives poured coffee from a thermos bottle, passed the plastic cups to us, and gave us first dibs at the assortment of doughnuts I’d bought earlier that morning.”

Not bad for a space cadet, he thought.

And kept writing.

It flowed. He finished his coffee. He fired up his pipe. The words came so easily. As if a voice were speaking in his head and he merely had to copy the dictation.

He introduced Jean and Pete and Barbara. He described the beauty and desolation of the desert they drove through on the way to Silver Junction. He told about the old west town: the quaint shops they’d visited, the characters in cowboy garb, the gunfight staged on Main Street, their sandwiches and beer in the saloon. Finally they were ready to leave the picturesque town. They climbed into the van. Pete said, “How about a little detour on the way home?”

Larry returned to the start. He numbered the pages, then shook his head in astonishment. He’d written fifteen. He couldn’t believe it. He looked at the wall clock. Eight-thirty. He’d been working for nearly three hours. That’s about five pages per hour, he realized. Usually, he averaged two.

I should always write when I’m zoned, he thought.

Maybe it’s garbage.

He read the chapter. Sure didn’t seemlike garbage. It seemed as good as anything he’d ever done. Maybe better. He felt as if he had transformed the somewhat mundane visit to Silver Junction into a sharp, colorful portrait, rich with incident, fast-paced.

The characters lived. Perhaps too well, in the case of Barbara. Her presence dominated the chapter.

That’s as it should be, he told himself. Barbara is certainly a major figure in this tale.

But he worried that his infatuation with her might be too apparent. Alter all, Jean would eventually read the book. So would Barbara. Even Pete, the nonreader, was certain to plow through this one.

Can’t let them get the wrong idea.

Better be careful, he warned himself. Watch out when you revise. Take out anything too suggestive.

Though eager to continue, Larry felt hot. He pulled off his sweatshirt and stretched, sighing with pleasure as his muscles drew taut and a warm breeze caressed his skin. He stood up, stretched some more, then went into the bathroom. He rolled deodorant onto his armpits. He urinated. Then he entered the bedroom and tossed his sweat clothes onto a chair. He put on shorts and a T-shirt. The loose, lightweight garments let the air in. Feeling a lot better, he headed for the kitchen.

He found a hardboiled egg in the refrigerator. He peeled off its shell and started to eat it over the wastebasket. It was dry in his mouth. He knew it would taste much better sprinkled with salt. But he couldn’t be bothered. He stood at the wastebasket until the egg was gone. Then he refilled his coffee mug and returned to the office.

The second chapter went nearly as well as the first. But he was more cautious with it. He censored the voice in his head, refusing to tap out several, descriptions it provided of Barbara’s appearance. When he came to the part about the ruin of the old stone house they’d passed shortly before arriving at Sagebrush Flat, he stopped himself. He lit a fresh pipe and stared at the screen. Should he omit Pete and Barbara’s dialogue about screwing in that place?

This is supposed to be a true story. They didsay those things.

It’s already strayed from the truth, he realized. I’ve certainly tampered with my own side of it.

Hell, the conversation happened. Tell it like it was. Besides, it’ll say a lot about their relationship, help to flesh them out, make them seem more real.

“ ‘We spent too much time screwing around in there.’

“ ‘Watch it, mister.’

“From the tone of Barbara’s voice, I realized that Pete hadn’t been speaking figuratively. I imagined what it must have been like, picturing myself with Jean inside the tumble down walls of the ruin. Hard on the knees, probably. But exciting. I found myself wishing we were there now, rather than riding with Pete and Barbara toward the remains of a dead town.”

Larry grinned at the screen.

Nicely done.

He kept on writing. It went smoothly until the time came for Barbara to answer nature’s call. Should he put that in? Without it, how would he get her over to the stream bed behind Holman’s?

Tell it like it was, he decided.

And he did: Barbara wandering away, Pete going in search of her, the waiting, the worry, he and Jean finally going to look for them. All four were down in the gully studying the jukebox when the door bell rang.

Larry looked at the clock. Ten to eleven. He groaned as he got to his feet. He made his way through the house on legs that felt nearly too weak to support him. He blinked sweat out of his eyes and opened the front door.

Pete, in a knit shirt and jeans, looked well rested, alert, cool, chipper. “You taken up exercise?” he asked as he stepped inside.

“I’ve been writing.”

“Didn’t know writing was such hard work. You ought a turn the air on, man, it’s hotter than hell in here.”

“Yeah,” Larry muttered. He peeled the seat of his shorts away from his rear. “Want some coffee or something?”

Pete shook his head. “Already had my morning dose.”

“You look so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, it makes me want to barf.”

He laughed. “You look like death warmed over. How about cleaning up and coming with us? Barb and I are going across the river and checking out the casino action. You’re welcome to come along.”

Larry felt the fuzz coming back into his head. “You’ve gotta be kidding. I’d probably collapse.” He rubbed his face, yawned.

“Stay out too late last night?”

“Ha ha. I got about an hour of sleep.”

“Should’ve slept in like I did. I feel like a million bucks.”

“Speaking of which... I started on the book.”

Thebook?”

“Yeah.”

“Fantastic! Man, you didn’t waste any time.”

“Maybe I just want to get it over with.”

“You’re actually writingit?”

He nodded. His head felt heavy. “Almost done with the third chapter. It’s... I’m on a roll, I guess. It’s really moving.”

“Well, God, don’t let me stop you. Forget I mentioned the casinos. I’ll tell Barb I couldn’t drag you away.”

“You didn’t tell her about... the thing?”

Pete looked as if he thought Larry had lost his mind.

“She’s gonna find out sooner or later.”

“The later the better. How much can you write before Jean and Lane get back?”

“I don’t know.”

“You’ve got the rest of today and tomorrow. And the coffin’s pretty well hidden. Might be a week or so before anyone catches on. Hell, by then, who knows? You might be so far along in the book that it won’t even matter.”

“I don’t know,” Larry said again.

“How many pages you got?”

He shrugged. “Around thirty, I think.”

Pete’s face lit up. “All right! Thirty! That’s incredible. You did all that this morning? No wonder you look like shit.”

“Thanks.”

“Hey, I’m getting out of here. Go back and pound out some more pages. This is terrific.” He stepped out the door and faced Larry again. “If you feel up for drinks and dinner, stop by around five.”

“Okay. Thanks. I don’t know, though.”

When Pete was gone, Larry staggered into the bedroom. He peeled off his wet clothes and flopped on the mattress.

Just a quick nap, he thought.

He woke up, gasping for air and drenched with sweat. The clock on the nightstand showed 2:15.

Eighteen

Larry toweled himself dry and stepped into his shorts. They were still damp, but they felt cool. In the kitchen he poured himself a glass of iced tea. He put salami and cheese on a few crackers and took them along with his drink to the work room.

Just stick with it for a couple of hours, he thought. Then have a nice, cool shower, get dressed, and head on over to Pete and Barbara’s.

It would be wonderful. Sit out in back with them like yesterday, have a few cocktails...

He read the last few sentences on the screen, and added a new one. Then another. Then it was flowing again, the words in his mind rushing ahead of his typing fingers.

He was in the story. He was living it.

The iced tea and crackers disappeared. He smoked his pipe. He had another glass of tea. After that was gone, he couldn’t force himself away from the story to get another. He wrote and wrote. He rubbed the sweat off his face with slick forearms. Drops dribbled down his chest and sides, tickling until they stopped at the waist band of his shorts. Later, a breeze cooled his wet skin. Dried him. His mouth was parched. He told himself he would quit soon and go over to Pete and Barbara’s and drink up a storm. After this page. Or after the next.

Suddenly he noticed that his room was dark except for the amber glow of the words on the computer screen. Dark and cold. A chill night breeze blew through the open window. He realized that he was sitting rigid, shivering, teeth clenched as the breeze scurried over his bare skin.

Feeling disoriented, he squinted up at the dim face of the clock.

Ten after seven.

Impossible. What had happened to the time? He knew he’d been deeply involved in the story, but he could hardly believe he’d been so immersed that he’d allowed himself to miss the cocktails and dinner.

He hadn’t even been aware for the past hour that he’d been writing in the dark, nearly naked and freezing.

He read the final sentence.

“It was with a strange mixture of sadness and expectation that I watched the car vanish around the corner, carrying my wife and daughter away from me for the weekend.”

He muttered, “Good God.”

He scrolled upward to the start of the chapter. It was labeled Chapter Six. No page number. How many pages hadhe written today? Seventy? Eighty?

His normal output was seven to ten pages.

The most he’d everdone before in a single day was thirty. That was on a piece-of-garbage romance novel a few years ago when money was short and his agent had lined up a lousy deal for two romances at a thousand bucks a whack.

This was more than twice his record.

And I’m not done yet, he thought.

Holy smoke.

He folded his arms across his chest for warmth and shook his head.

Well, he thought, this is a true story. I’m just more or less reporting what happened.

It was astonishing, anyway.

If he’d gone over to Pete and Barbara’s... He realized he ought to give them a call and apologize. He left his work room and wandered through the house, turning on a few lights. In the bedroom he got rid of the shorts and put on his sweatsuit and socks. As if his skin resented the loss of cold, it tingled and itched. Larry rubbed himself through the soft fabric while he walked to the kitchen.

Tacked to a bulletin board beside the wall phone was a card on which Jean had written emergency numbers along with those of repair people and friends. Larry found the number for Pete and Barbara.

Do I really want to call them? he wondered. It had been an open invitation, not the kind of thing that required much of an apology. No big deal that I didn’t show up.

They’re sure to ask me over.

I’ll probably go. And that’ll be the end of today’s writing.

For godsake, I’ve written enough for one day. Enough for a week.

But if I stick with it, I can bring the story all the way up to the present. And be done with it. Nothing more to tell, once I get to where we hid the coffin in the garage. Tomorrow I’ll be able to finish the corrections on Madhouse, get it into the mail on Monday, and spend next week finishing Night Stranger. Then start on The Box.

Only if I don’t go over to Pete and Barbara’s tonight.

He wondered if Barbara was in her nightgown. And he realized that he didn’t much care.

He stepped away from the telephone and opened the refrigerator’s freezer compartment. His eyes roamed its contents. A lot to choose from. The lasagna would be easy. Just throw it in the microwave for a few minutes.

Too much trouble.

He shut the freezer door and checked the refrigerator. There he found a pack of hot dogs. He opened it, slid out a wet frank, and poked it into his mouth. Holding it there like a pink cigar, he put away the package. He took out a bottle of Michelob beer, twisted off its cap and returned to his work room.

He wrote. The hot dog and beer distracted him for a few minutes, but when they were gone he sank deeply into the story. He was there, over at Pete and Barbara’s, first on their patio and then in their house, telling it all just as it had happened. Almost. Censoring, as if by reflex, every mention of Barbara’s appearance and his own reactions to her. Then he was in the van with Pete. Then in the gully behind Holman’s.

As he tapped out, “ ‘I’ve got to take a leak,’ ” he realized that he did need to do exactly that. He went to the bathroom. As he urinated he thought about what would come next in the story.

Finding the campfire of the coyote eater.

Shivers crawled up his back.

He flushed the toilet, walked to his work room and stared through the doorway at his waiting chair.

I’m not sure I want to write about that tonight, he thought. Not about the coyote eater, not about what happened in the hotel.

He turned away from the work room. He wandered into the kitchen and looked at the clock. A quarter past ten.

That’s no time of night to be writing scary shit, he told himself.

I’m so close to the finish, though.

Hang in there for a couple more hours, you’ll be done with it.

Right, hang in there.

With a little help.

He dropped a few ice cubes into a glass, filled the glass with vodka, and added a touch of Rose’s Lime Juice. He took a sip. Sighed with pleasure. Drank some more. Then carried the glass to his room, slumped against the back of the chair and gazed at the screen.

Once this stuff hits the system, you won’t be able to write.

Hell, this isn’t writing. This is typing.

The beer had been enough to turn his typing a trifle sloppy. This should really mess it up.

Who cares? he asked himself. Just fix it when you revise. Or don’t. Give the copy editor something constructive to do for a change. If she has to correct real errors, maybe she won’t mess with the good stuff.

He took a few more swallows, then set the glass down and faced the dead campfire, the bones, the severed eyeless head of the coyote.

He was glad to have the vodka in him. Though the words flowed, he felt slightly disconnected, more an observer than a participant. He described the Larry character’s fear and revulsion, but hardly felt them at all.

Then they were out of the ditch. Then in the van. Then about to enter the dark lobby of the hotel.

His glass was empty. He took it into the kitchen. This time he didn’t bother adding lime juice to the vodka. He felt very fine as he sauntered back to his computer. He took a drink. He filled a pipe and lit it. He looked at the last sentence on the screen.

“Side bu side, we stoppped across teh threshold and entered the black mouth og the hotel.”

Grinning, he shook his head.

“Take care of that later,” he muttered.

He puffed his pipe, checked the keyboard to make sure his fingers were positioned correctly, and continued.

He wrote, and sipped vodka and smoked his pipe.

Somehow, a while later, the stem flipped over between his teeth and the briar bowl turned upside down, dumping ashes down the front of his sweatshirt and onto his lap. Luckily, no embers fell out. Larry brushed the gray dust off his clothes, put the pipe aside, and took another drink.

When he looked at the screen, he saw double.

“Oh, am I fucked up,” he muttered.

With a little effort, however, he was able to line up his eyes and read the amber print.

“ ‘Take you’re hand off of that steak!’ ”

“Pete let go teh thing real fast. ‘If’s off! Christ! Don-t shootl’ ”

Larry muttered, “Oh, shit.”

Concentrating hard, knowing he could lose a lot if he messed up, he fingered the save key and followed his usual procedure for exiting the computer. He put the disks away, then turned off the machine.

“Better hit the ol‘ sacko,” he mumbled.

* * *

Larry woke up, but couldn’t bring himself to open his eyes. He felt as if the back of his head had been split open with an axe. His dry tongue was glued to the roof of his mouth. He was shuddering with cold, and his bed felt like concrete. As he struggled to free his tongue, he reached down. He found the blanket near his waist and pulled it up. That helped a little, but not much. The real coldness was under him.

I am on concrete!

Larry forced his eyes open.

Though the light was faint, he knew that day had come and he knew where he was.

In his garage.

His heart suddenly pounded hot spikes of pain up the back of his neck and into his head.

He was curled on his side, the coffin near enough to touch.

Oh, Jesus H. Christ!

Turning his face away from the coffin, he bolted up. The pain in his head brought tears to his eyes. As he staggered backward, his bare foot landed in a mat of vomit. It flew out from under him. His bare rump smacked the garage floor.

Sitting there, he clutched his head with both hands and blinked his eyes clear.

He saw that he was naked.

He saw that the blanket heaped on the floor near the coffin, the one he had used to cover himself, was the same old brown blanket that had shrouded the corpse.

It was on me! Touching me!

A whiny noise started coming from him. He slapped a hand across his mouth and gazed down at himself. Nothing on his skin.

What’d you expect? he thought. Cooties?

“Oh Jesus,” he said, his voice coming out high and girlish.

He moved his left foot out of the glop and stood up.

The withered cadaver was still inside the coffin, the stake still in its chest. Thank God.

At least he hadn’t pulled the stake.

What hadhe done? What was he doing here?

He didn’t know. But he knew that he had to get out. He had to shower, and fast, to rid himself of the horrible crawly feeling left by the blanket.

His left foot was caked with vomit. Not wanting to spread the mess, he hopped through the cluttered garage until he reached the side door. It was open. The sunlight made his eyes ache. Squinting, he held onto the door frame. From the coolness of the air he guessed it was still early morning. Maybe seven o’clock.

What day? He struggled to concentrate. Saturday night was when he got himself bombed. So this was Sunday.

It sure better be, he thought.

Jean and Lane shouldn’t be home till tonight.

What if they came home early?

What if this is Monday?

Shit, he thought. You’ve got enough problems without inventing more. If they were home, they would’ve found me.

Naked in the garage with a goddamn corpse.

That would’ve been... don’t think about it. Didn’t happen.

The yard was fenced, so at least he had some privacy.

He hopped across the walkway. When he reached the lawn, he wiped his foot on the dewy grass. There was still vomit between his toes. He went over to the garden hose, turned it on and sprayed his foot clean.

Then he hurried down the driveway and entered his kitchen through the sliding glass door. The house was silent except for the soft hum of the refrigerator.

His damp feet left bits of grass on the floor as he made his way to the bathroom. He would have to clean that up later.

He would have to clean up a lot.

Later.

The blanket. It was on me.

But it has two sides, he told himself. Fifty-fifty chance the side that touched the corpse was up...

Fifty-fifty it wasn’t.

If I took the blanket off her...

Did I touch her?

Horrified by the thought, he gazed at his trembling hands.

I wouldn’t have.

How do you know?

Oh God! I could’ve done anything!

He lurched into the bathroom, threw the door shut and staggered to the tub. Falling to his knees, he reached out and turned the faucet handles. Water gushed from the spout. He held his hands under it.

All the perfumes of Arabia...

“I didn’t touch her,” he said.

It’s bad enough I used the blanket.

He turned the knob to activate the shower, then climbed into the tub and slid the glass door shut. The hot water pounded against the top of his head. It ran down his body, soothing the chill, easing some of the tightness out of his muscles. When he stopped trembling, he lathered himself with soap. He rinsed the suds off, then soaped his body and rinsed again before shampooing his hair.

By the time he stepped out, he felt a lot better.

If only he could remember what happened!

Maybe just as well that you don’t, he thought.

After drying, he took Alka-Seltzer. Then he washed down two aspirin for good measure.

He left the steamy bathroom. In his bedroom he found his sweat clothes heaped on the floor. His side of the bed had been turned down, the pillow dented, the bottom sheet mussed.

So you didgo to bed last night, he told himself. But you got up again, and went out to the garage. Must’ve decided to take a look at the corpse, God knows why.

Must’ve had a reason.

Maybe she willedyou to do it.

“Terrific,” he muttered.

He sat on the edge of the bed and rubbed his face.

Never should’ve had that vodka.

Keeping his back to the coffin, Larry used paper towels to clean his vomit off the garage floor. He put them in a plastic garbage bag, then dropped the bag into the bottom of his trash barrel and covered it with a heap of debris from the grass catcher of his lawn mower. Satisfied that Jean would never find the evidence, he returned to the garage. He filled a bucket and scoured the area with a wet sponge. Afterward, he cleaned the bucket and sponge carefully.

All that remained, now, was a patch of wetness on the concrete. The heat of the day would soon take care of that.

He slid the bay door open to let in fresh air and sunlight.

From here the garage looked perfectly normal. The damp area, the blanket and coffin, were safely out of sight behind standing shelves and stacks of boxes.

He shook his head. Whatever his condition last night, he’d been aware enough to negotiate a virtual obstacle course in order to reach the corner where the coffin was hidden. In the dark, apparently.

What do you write about this? he wondered.

You don’t.

I’ve got to. It’s part of the story.

And you need to fill up more pages if you’re going to make a book out of this thing.

Just leave out the business about being naked, he thought. Write it like it happened, but keep your clothes on. Otherwise, people might start thinking you...

I didn’t, he told himself. No way.

What were you doing in there?

Suddenly he realized that he needed to take a close look at the corpse.

Besides, I’ve got to cover it up again.

He entered the garage. His heart started thudding, stirring the remnants of his headache.

He made his way among the shelves and trunks and boxes, and soon he reached the dim corner where the coffin rested. The wet spot on the concrete was nearly gone. He stepped over the blanket and stared down into the coffin.

The body looked ghastly, as usual: shrunken and bony, its skin dried out and brown, its breasts flat, its mouth open and lips twisted in an awful, toothy grin.

The body didn’t look as if it had been disturbed. It lay flat on the bottom of the coffin, the stake jutting upright in the same position as usual, one withered hand on its hip.

Larry frowned.

The left arm, on the far side of the corpse, was bent at the elbow. The hand rested, palm down, against the hip bone. Its fingertips lay among dull blond curls of pubic hair.

Before (Larry was almost certain), both hands had been out of sight in the dark, narrow gap between the body and the sides of the coffin.

He was sure that he would’ve noticed if a hand had been in plain view.

Especially since this one wore a ring.

He bent down for a closer look.

A school ring? Surrounding the garnet stone was a tarnished silver border that appeared to be engraved.

“Holy Toledo,” he muttered.

This could give a clue to the corpse’s identity!

But how did the hand find its way onto the hip? Obviously, she hadn’t placed it there.

I must’ve done it last night, he thought.

I did touch the damn thing.

Larry heard himself groan.

Disgust mixing with his excitement, he hurried to the section of the garage where he kept the yard tools. Maybe he had touched the corpse last night, but he sure didn’t intend to do it again. He found some old gardening gloves and put them on as he hurried back to the coffin.

On his knees, he reached over the body. With his left hand he gently held the bony wrist. With the thumb and forefinger of his right hand he slipped the ring off.

Pete, he realized, was bound to visit the corpse sooner or later, and was sure to notice the new position of the hand. It had to be put back down where it belonged.

Wrinkling his nose, Larry tightened his grip on the wrist and gave it a slight push. It resisted him. He pushed a little harder, forcing it. This time the hand moved. Larry cringed at the quiet crackling sounds that came from the arm. Sounds like dry leaves being crumbled. His eyes darted to the cadaver’s face. It looked as if it were grimacing, teeth bared in pain.

“Christ,” he whispered.

Has to be done, he told himself.

Letting go, he switched the ring to his left hand and clutched the corpse’s wrist with his right. He shoved down hard, jamming the arm toward the floor of the coffin. The shoulder lifted. The head began to rise. He yelled. Then came gristly snapping sounds, a pop. The arm went limp in his grip and the body sank back into position. He tucked the arm against its side, then lurched away.

He dashed through the garage, dodging his way through the maze of clutter, and didn’t stop running until he reached the safety of the house.

He shoved the sliding door shut. He locked it.

He pressed his face to the glass and stared at the open garage.

Acting like an idiot, he thought.

But God!

After catching his breath, he opened his trembling hand. He lifted the ring close to his face.

Engraved in the silver that surrounded the garnet were the words “Buford High School,” and the date “1968.”

He looked into the middle of the loop.

Inside the band was a name.

“Bonnie Saxon.”

Nineteen

“I gazed at the ring, dumbfounded. The hideous corpse in my garage now had a name. Bonnie. A pleasant, rather cheerful name.

“Perhaps she is a vampire. Somebody thought so, killed her with a stake and used a crucifix to seal her makeshift tomb. But a vampire by the name of Bonnie?

“She seems, to me, less frightening than before.

“The gruesome, mummified thing in the coffin may indeed be a demonic beast that would drink my blood if unleashed from death. But it was a girl once. A ‘Bonnie’ lass.

“She attended the same high school as my daughter, Lane. She walked the same halls, perhaps sat in the same classrooms, may even have had some of the very same teachers as Lane. She was a girl who ate lunch in the school cafeteria, who probably struggled against dozing off during her afternoon classes, who worried about pop quizzes and homework and zits.

“A teenager. Who studied schoolwork. Who watched television. Who listened to the latest music with the volume blaring. Who went to movies, to the school’s football games and sock hops and the prom. Who had boyfriends.

“The vile thing in my garage was once a teenaged girl named Bonnie...”

The door bell chimed. Larry flinched. He scrolled up to remove his words from the computer screen, then hid the class ring under the matchbooks and scraps of note paper scattered on his desktop. He hurried into the living room.

He half expected the person at the front door to be Pete.

He was right.

“Hey, bud!” After a glance toward his house, Pete gave Larry a sly look. “Barb’s off grocery shopping. Thought I’d drop by and see how our best-seller’s coming along.”

“Not too bad.”

He entered, and Larry shut the door.

“I guess you really whaled on the thing yesterday,” he said.

“Yeah, it went pretty well. Sorry I didn’t make it over for supper. Time just got away from me and...”

“No sweat. So how many pages you finish?”

“I don’t know. Quite a bunch.”

“Terrific. Gonna let me read ‘em?” he asked, flopping onto a chair.

Larry hoped his alarm didn’t show.

“They aren’t printed up yet,” he said.

“Well, go do it. Don’t let me stop you.”

“It’d take hours,” Larry said. He sat on the sofa, rested his elbows on his knees and shook his head at Pete. “Besides, I’ll have to make a lot of corrections. It’s pretty much of a mess right now.”

“So when’ll I get to read it?”

“How about when it’s all done?” Larry suggested, trying to smile.

“Hey, come on.”

“No, really. I think it’d be best if you don’t read any of the thing while I’m still working on it. It’d make me too self-conscious.”

“Oh, bull.”

“I mean it.”

“What about my input? Maybe you forgot some stuff.”

“I’ll give you a copy when it’s finished. If there’s anything you want added or changed, I can revise it then. Okay?”

“That’s kind of late in the ball game,” he said, frowning slightly.

“You want me to write the thing, don’t you?”

“Yeah, sure. But...”

“I can’t do it if I have to pass every chapter along to you for inspection as I go along. I’ll quit right now...”

“Jeez, don’t get in a huff. Do it your way. I’m just curious, is all.”

“Well, that’s all right,” Larry said, relieved that he had backed off. “I didn’t mean to get testy about it.”

“What’s a testi between friends,” Pete said, and smiled. “Anyway, it’s going pretty good?”

“I think so.”

“What’s next on the agenda?”

“Well, I need to do those revisions.”

“I guess we’ve gotta start thinking about how we break the news to the women,” Pete said. “Jean’ll be home tonight, won’t she?”

“Yeah. Tonight.”

“Should we just walk her and Barb out to the garage and show them? Or work up to it more gradually?”

“ ‘Guess what we brought home Saturday night?’ ”

“Something like that.”

“Suppose we just keep the whole thing secret?”

“Are you kidding?”

Larry shook his head. “They won’t let us keep a body around. No way. I don’t care what we tell them, they’ll make us get rid of it.”

“They’ve gotto find out sooner or later.”

“Let’s wait. We can tell them about it when everything’s set to pull the stake. By then the book’ll be almost done.”

“Yeah. ‘Course, they might give us shit about pulling the stake.”

“Good point.”

“No pun intended,” Pete said.

Larry frowned for a moment, thinking. “Okay. Let’s pull the stake and thentell them what we’ve done. After the fact. By that time it’ll be too late for the gals to screw things up for us.”

Pete grinned. “Man, will they be pissed!”

“That’s for sure. The book’s bound to find a publisher, though. Best-seller or not, I’m sure we’ll be seeing a pretty good chunk of money from it. That should get us out of the doghouse.”

“Maybe they don’t have to find out about it,” Pete said, “until you make the sale.”

“If we work it right. What we have to do is hide the thing better. Right now, anybody wandering into the garage might stumble onto it.”

“We useour garage.”

“I know, I know,” Larry said. He was well aware that Pete and Barbara often parked their cars in it, while he and Jean only used their garage for storage.

“There’s a crawl space under our house,” Pete said. “I suppose we could shove the casket under there. If we do it quick before Barb gets back from the store. We’d have to lift it over the fence. Wouldn’t wanta be seen lugging it around the front.”

“Not necessary,” Larry said. “I know just the place to stash the thing.”

Should’ve put it there in the first place, he thought. Maybe I wouldn’t have ended up spending the night with it.

“Where?” Pete asked.

“Come on. We’ll take care of it right now.”

They went out the kitchen door and walked up the driveway to the garage. Its bay door was still open. As they entered the shade, Larry hoped that the wet spot on the floor had dried.

Must’ve, he told himself.

A few yards beyond the door was a square wooden platform half a foot high. Larry stepped onto it, reached up and caught hold of a dangling rope. He pulled the rope’s knotted end. A plywood ceiling panel swung down on hinges.

“All right,” Pete said. “A trapdoor.”

Fixed to its top was a ladder folded into three sections. Larry lowered the ladder until the shoes of its side rails rested firmly against the platform.

“Gonna be a bitch getting our stiff up there,” Pete said.

He was right. Though the ladder stood at an angle like a flight of stairs, it was much steeper than a stairway.

“It’s the perfect place,” Larry told him. “Nobody’s going to find her.”

He stepped aside. Pete climbed to the top and looked around. “Yeah,” he said. “Great if we can manage it.” He started down. “How come you don’t use it for storage?”

“Never got around to it.”

“Pretty neat up there. Floorboards and everything. Hotter than shit, though.” He grinned. “Guess our friendly local vampire won’t mind, huh?”

“Probably not.”

They stepped off the platform. Larry led the way toward the far corner of the garage.

“Almost need a map to find the thing,” Pete said.

I can find it in the dark.

“We’re almost there.”

Larry slipped through the passage between stacks of boxes and entered the small open area near the corner.

The concrete had dried.

The blanket lay heaped on the floor beside the coffin.

No!

He’d raced from the garage, near panic after dealing with the arm, and had totally forgotten to cover the body.

Now it was too late.

Pete appeared at his side, stepped forward and picked up the blanket.

Larry felt as if his skin were on fire.

“Been checking her out, huh?”

Deny it?

Pretend you don’t know how the blanket got on the floor?

Pete’s no idiot. He’d spot that lie in an instant.

“Yeah,” Larry said, trying to sound lecherous. “Just had to. She’s such a doll I just couldn’t help myself.”

“Can’t blame you. What a mug. What a bod.”

“Gives a new definition to feminine pulchritude.”

“Gives a new definition to ugly,” Pete said.

“Seriously, though, I didhave to take a look at her yesterday. Research. Came time to describe her for the book, and I wanted to get it right.”

“Right, sure.” It was apparent from his tone that Pete believed the story. He shook open the blanket and spread it over the corpse, covering Bonnie from her shoulders to her ankles. Then he bent down again and pulled it up to hide her face. “That’s better,” he muttered.

“Why don’t I take the front?” he suggested.

They lifted the coffin and carried it back through the garage.

“I’ll go first,” Pete said. “Should work better that way, since you’re taller. Try to keep your end high.”

He started up the ladder backward, moving slowly. As the box tipped upward, Bonnie slid toward Larry until the casket stopped her feet. The blanket dropped away from her face.

Larry raised his end of the box. Bracing it against his chest, he stepped closer to the ladder. The front kept rising. The blanket slipped down. The stake caught it, and the blanket hung from the wooden shaft like a cape tossed over a wall hook.

When Larry reached the base of the ladder, he realized he wouldn’t be able to climb with the coffin pressing against his chest. “Wait,” he called.

Pete stopped.

Larry lowered it to his waist.

“Okay.”

Pete resumed climbing.

Larry mounted the ladder’s first rang. Bonnie stood almost vertical inside the coffin.

“Oh, boy,” Larry muttered.

“You okay?”

“So far.”

“I’m just about there.”

Larry shoved the casket upward with his knee, planted the toe of his shoe on the next rung and tried to rise. His foot slipped. As it dropped to the rang below, he lost his grip. The bottom edge of the casket pounded the ladder.

“Shit!” Pete yelled.

Larry grabbed the box’s sides.

Something moved above him. He looked up.

He shouted, “No!”

Bonnie, standing rigid, teetered forward and plunged straight down at him.

It seemed to happen very slowly. The blanket fell from the stake and drifted toward her feet. Her dull blond hair flowed behind her head. Her right arm stayed tight against her side, but her left arm swayed down from the elbow as if reaching for him. Her mouth seemed to be stretched into a delighted grin.

He heard himself squeal.

He heard Pete shout, “Watch out!”

Hurling himself off the ladder, he staggered away and flung up his hands. He caught Bonnie by the sides, just under her armpits, and tried to shove her away. But her weight drove him backward. He stumbled off the edge of the platform.

He seemed to fall for a long time.

His back slammed the concrete floor.

His hands lost their grip, and the body crashed onto him, the blunt end of the stake ramming his chest. He twisted his head aside. Dry teeth struck his cheek. Hair floated down, tickling his face like spider webs.

Larry bucked, throwing her off, rolled away and scurried to his feet. He stared at her. He gasped for breath. He felt as if a horde of ants were crawling on his skin, but he looked down at himself. Except for a snag and a smudge of dirt on the chest of his T-shirt, he saw no evidence of the encounter.

“Are you all right?” Pete asked.

Larry moaned. “I’ve been better.”

“Right with you,” Pete said, and dragged the empty casket up through the opening. Larry heard it scoot along the attic floorboards. Then Pete rushed down the ladder. “Guess maybe we should’ve tied her in.”

“Yeah.” Larry wanted to rub his crawly skin, but not with hands that had touched the body. “I’ve gotta shower,” he said.

“Don’t blame you. Gross-out. Let’s take her up, though, huh?” Pete crouched over Bonnie’s head and slipped his hands beneath her shoulders. “Take the legs, buddy.”

Larry shook his head. “I... uh...”

“Come on, don’t be a pussy.”

He looked at his hands. “Don’t wanta touch...”

“For God’s sake, Lar! She was all overyou. Come on, grab hold. We can’t just leave her here.”

Pete lifted. The rigid body didn’t bend. Bonnie slanted down, straight as a plank, from her head at Pete’s waist to her heels against the garage floor. “Guess I can just drag her,” he said. “Save you from messing your hands. You can bring the blanket, can’t you?”

“Yeah.” Relieved, Larry crouched and picked up the blanket.

He watched Pete turn the corpse around and walk backward. Bonnie’s heels sounded like newspapers sliding along the concrete.

Pete backed onto the platform. When he stepped onto the first rung of the ladder, Bonnie’s feet rose off the floor. Her Achilles’ tendons scraped the edge of the platform.

And left flakes of brown skin behind.

Larry winced.

He didn’t want to touch her. But it pained him to see her getting hurt.

She’s notgetting hurt, he told himself.

The backs of her feet pounded the ladder rungs as Pete climbed higher.

Larry rushed forward. He tucked the blanket under his right arm, grabbed Bonnie’s ankles and raised them. Holding both feet against his left side, he started up the ladder.

“Good man,” Pete said.

Larry climbed carefully. He kept his eyes away from the corpse. At the top the heat was stifling.

They lowered Bonnie into the coffin. He spread the blanket over her, then hurried down. Pete came after him. They folded the ladder. A yank on the rope sent the trapdoor swinging upward on its springed hinges. It slammed shut.

As they headed for the house, Larry realized that he felt guilty about leaving Bonnie in such a dark, hot place.

Don’t be ridiculous, he thought. She’s dead. She doesn’t feel a thing.

“When do you think we oughta pull the stake?” Pete asked when they reached the living room.

“The sooner the better, I guess. I’ll want to do some research on Sagebrush Flat, though.”

“Right, good idea. Maybe they had some vampire troubles. Maybe that’s how come the place was abandoned.”

“We’ll see. Anyway, I need to fill up more pages somehow.”

“Right. And I need to pick up a video camera before the big event. I want to tape the whole thing, you know? It’ll be great.”

“Yeah.” Larry opened the front door for him.

“See you later, bud. Going good, huh?”

“Well, at least we don’t have to worry about the women catching on.”

Grinning, Pete slapped his arm. “See you later. Don’t let your meat loaf.”

When Pete was gone, Larry hurried to the bathroom. He threw his clothes into the hamper and rushed to the tub.

As he stood under the hot spray of the shower, he wondered why he hadn’t mentioned finding the ring. He shouldvetold Pete about it, told him that the body was a girl named Bonnie Saxon who was graduated from Buford High in 1968.

How come I didn’t? he asked himself.

Pete’ll find out sooner or later. He’ll realize I kept it from him.

So what?

Twenty

“Good morning, ma’am.”

Lane swung her locker shut and turned around. “Well, hi, stranger.”

Jim’s hands were pushed into the front pockets of his jeans. Smiling, he drew them out for her to see, and slipped them in again. “Keeping ‘em to myself,” he said.

“Good for you. You’re learning.”

“Did you have a nice trip?”

“It was okay. I missed you. How was Candi?”

“Oh, she was grateful. She’d like you to go away more often.”

Lane tried to hold onto her smile, but she felt it being tugged down. Her arms tightened around the binder and school books clutched to her chest.

“I was kidding.”

“I know.”

Youbrought her up.”

“I know. Dumb, huh?”

“I wouldn’t go out with Candi. Or anyone else. Not as long as I’ve got you.”

Lane’s smile came back. She lifted an eyebrow. “Think you’ve gotme, do you?”

“Hell, you know what I mean.”

“Yeah. Give me one of those hands.” She moved to his side, dropped one arm away from her load of books and squeezed his hand when he offered it. “Want to walk me to the library?” she asked.

“The library?”

“I’ve got an errand.”

“It’s only ten minutes before the first bell.”

“Shouldn’t take very long.”

Holding hands, they made their way through the crowded hall.

“Is it still on for Friday night?” she asked.

“Sure. I hope so. Rather go out Saturday, but...”

“Hamlet.”

“I know. What a drag.”

Outside, they cut across the quad. Jim opened the library door for her. “Guess I’ll make myself scarce,” he said. “Ol‘ lady Swanson and me don’t exactly hit it off. See you at lunch?”

“Fine. See you.” Lane gave his hand another squeeze, then let go and entered the library. She headed straight for the circulation desk. There, Miss Swanson was busy checking out books to several students.

“Ol' lady Swanson” was probably no older than forty, an attractive woman with very short red hair and a freckled face. But Lane knew what Jim meant. Though the woman was hardly ancient, her rigid posture and high, thin eyebrows suggested a severity that made her seem older than her years.

She’d always been nice to Lane, but she seemed to enjoy visiting grief upon students who acted up. Kids usually referred to her as “the bitch.” She was also known as “the dyke” and “the shithead.” Henry, perhaps the most literate of her detractors, preferred to call her “the Scarlet Pimple.”

After the last student wandered off, Lane stepped up to the desk.

“Good morning, Miss Swanson.”

“Lane? How are you?”

“Fine. I was wondering if you could help me. Are old yearbooks kept around somewhere?”

“Indeed they are. We’re missing certain years, of course. Books flyout of here if I’m not constantly on the alert. The students are a pack of thieves. And several of the teachers are just as bad, if I do say so myself.” Her left eyebrow climbed her forehead. “What year would you be interested in?”

“Nineteen sixty-eight.”

“That’s long before I took over. Matters were an absolute shambles back then. I’ll take a look, but don’t be at all surprised if ‘sixty-eight is among the missing.”

Lane smiled politely and said, “Thank you.”

Miss Swanson entered the office behind the circulation desk and stepped out of sight.

Lane leaned forward. She propped her elbows on the desk and crossed her feet. She waited.

“And how are you this fine morning?”

Before she could turn around, Mr. Kramer appeared beside her. “Oh, hi!” she blurted, and felt the warmth of a blush.

“All rested up and rarin‘ to hit the books?”

“Sure. I managed to reread Hamletover the weekend,” she said, hoping he would be pleased by the news.

“Wonderful.”

He smelled wonderful. After-shave lotion? His cheeks looked smooth. They had a faint bluish hue where his beard would be if he grew one. She wondered if he ever had trouble shaving the deep cleft in his chin.

She met his eyes for a moment. They were soblue. She looked away and said, “It’s really amazing. I get more out of the play each time I read it.”

“Well, old Billy Shakespeare was no slouch.”

She laughed, then faced forward as Miss Swanson returned to the desk. The librarian held the tall, thin volume of a yearbook. Seeing Mr. Kramer, she smiled and color came to her face. She suddenly looked softer, more feminine, younger.

“Good morning, Shirley.”

“Mr. Kramer. May I help you with something?”

He shook his head. “Just visiting with one of my ace students, here.”

Miss Swanson nodded, and turned her smile to Lane. “You’re in luck, young lady.”

“Terrific. How long can I check it out for?”

“I’m afraid you won’t be ableto check it out. Rules of the house. You may peruse it to your heart’s content, but it remains in the library.”

Lane wrinkled her nose. “Not even overnight?”

“I’m afraid not.” She glanced at Mr. Kramer as if seeking approval. “If we allow the yearbooks to leave the library, we soon won’t have any at all. You understand.”

“Yeah.” Lane shrugged. “Well...”

“Now please, those are the rules.”

“This is my fault,” Mr. Kramer said. “I asked Lane to pick the book up for me.”

“Oh?”

He reached out and slipped it from Miss Swanson’s hands. He nodded. “Yes, this is it. ‘Sixty-eight. Is there a problem with mechecking it out?”

“Why, no. Of course not. Let me write up a card.” She slid open a drawer, took out a blank card, and jotted down, “Buford Memories, 1968.”

“I really appreciate it,” Mr. Kramer said as he signed the card.

Miss Swanson blushed even more. “Quite all right. Will you be able to return it tomorrow?”

He glanced at Lane. She nodded. “I should be done with it by then.” Lifting the book, he said, “Thanks again, Shirley.” He tucked the book under his arm, gestured for Lane to follow him, and walked out to the quad. “Here you go.” Handing it to her, he gave his face a silly, terrified expression. “For heaven’s sake, don’t lose it.”

Lane laughed. “I’ll be careful.”

They walked together. “How come you’re interested in a yearbook that old?” he asked.

“Oh, it’s for Dad. He’s planning a novel that has stuff happening in ‘sixty-eight. He wants to check out the hair styles, clothes, that kind of thing. Thanks an awful lot for handling Miss Swanson.”

“That’s what friends are for.”

Lane felt a pleasant glow spread through her. “I wish there was something I could do for you.”

“Well, if you mean that, I can always, use an able hand to help me correct papers.”

“Great. When?”

“Can you spare half an hour after school? I still have those spelling tests from Friday that need to be marked.”

“Sure.” The bell rang.

“Uh-oh. We’d better get to first period. See you later.”

Nodding, Lane watched him hurry away. She took a trembling breath, then forced her weak legs to carry her forward.

* * *

She set her lunch bag and drink down on the table beside Jim, then peered across the cafeteria. Henry and Betty weren’t at their usual table. Someone else must’ve beaten them to it. But she spotted her friends at the other side of the crowded room. “Back in a minute,” she told Jim.

“Forget something?”

“I have to see Henry and Betty.”

Jim rolled his eyes upward, suffering.

Lane patted his shoulder, then hurried away.

She found them sitting across from each other, Betty ripping open a bag of taco chips with her teeth while Henry lifted a brown paper sack out of his briefcase.

“Hiya, guys,” she said.

Henry twisted around and grinned up at her. “Salutations, my darling.”

“Eat road apples,” Betty told him.

“I have to stay after school today,” Lane said. “I guess you’ll need to get home under your own power.”

“No prob-lem,” Henry said.

“Detention?” Betty asked.

“Ha! Me? Don’t you wish.”

“So what gives?”

“I’m staying late to help Kramer grade papers.”

Betty pounded a chubby hand against her chest. “Be still, my heart. How’d you wangle that?”

“Just lucky, I guess.”

“He’s not Tom Cruise, you know,” Henry pointed out.

“You wouldn’t know a hunk if one fell on you,” Betty said.

“They fall on me every time I go to RE. It’s among their favorite sports.”

“Anyway, I’d better get back to Jim. I just wanted to let you know.”

Betty leered, advised, “Keep your shorts on,” and jammed a taco chip into her mouth.

“Degenerate,” Lane said.

The girl nodded eagerly as she chewed.

Lane made her way back to Jim’s table and sat down beside him. “See? Back already.”

“Have a nice chat with Tweedle Dee and Dumb-dumb?”

“If you aren’t going to be nice, I’ll scram.”

“Okay, okay. Just kidding. So what gives?”

“Aren’t you the curious one?”

Shrugging, Jim turned away and took a bite out of his apple. For lunch each day he ate two apples and a chocolate bar, and washed them down with Pepsi. He was on his second apple. Only a core remained of the first. It was turning brown. Glad that she had realfood, Lane un-wrapped her salami-and-cheese sandwich. She bit into it and sighed.

Jim glanced at her. “You’re eating poison, you know. All them preservatives.”

“I’m counting on them preserving me.”

“Ha ha.”

“Cheer up.”

“So what’s the big deal with Hen-house and Betty Boob?”

“I’m staying after, that’s all. I had to let them know.”

“How come you’re staying after?”

“I’m helping Kramer mark tests.”

Jim wrinkled his face, baring his upper teeth. They were caulked with white mush from his apples. “Judas priest. Grades slipping, or something? Isn’t enough, you giving up Saturday night for that bozo? Now you’re doing slave labor? Shit! All of a sudden you’re sure into some major league brown-nosing.”

“If you don’t know what you’re talking about,” Lane said calmly, “you ought to keep your mouth shut. Besides, it’s disgusting me.”

He opened his mouth wide and shook his head at her.

“Real cute. God, you can be so juvenile sometimes. To think I’ve actually kissed you.”

“And will again, no doubt.” He closed his mouth and commenced chewing with a blissful smile on his face.

Why do I even bother with him? Lane wondered. She took another bite of her sandwich, looked at the cafeteria clock and wished sixth period would hurry up and come.

* * *

In her fifth-period physiology class, Lane had to scribble notes furiously to keep up with the lecture. The time sped by. When the bell rang, it took her by surprise.

She hurried into the hall and ducked into the smoky rest room. There, she leaned close to a mirror and checked her teeth for remnants of her lunch. They looked fine. She brushed her hair, then opened her denim skirt and tucked in her blouse so that it slanted down, smooth and taut, from her breasts to her waist. The straps and lacy pattern of her bra cups showed faintly through the blouse’s white fabric. She fastened her skirt, turned around once to make sure of every angle, then left the rest room and headed for class.

You’d think you were going out with him, she thought, feeling a little foolish. He’s just a teacher. He’s not interested in a kid.

So? It doesn’t hurt to look nice.

Lane entered the classroom by its front door. Mr. Kramer wasn’t there yet. She sat at her front-row desk, put away the books she wouldn’t be needing, and waited.

Just before the bell rang, Riley Benson and Jessica came in. Jessica’s left arm was still in a cast, but her right arm was around Benson. She glanced at Lane as she sauntered by. Her face looked better: though she still wore bandages on her chin and left eyebrow, the swelling had gone down; her lips no longer bulged; her bruises had faded to a sickly greenish yellow; some of her scabs had come off, leaving patches of shiny pink flesh.

She stepped to the other side of her desk. Benson rubbed her rear end, then ambled down the aisle. Jessica sat down.

“How are you doing?” Lane asked.

The girl sneered at her. “What do you think?”

“Just asking. Sorry.”

“Blow it out your ass,” she said, and turned away.

Whoops, Lane thought. Obviously, Benson had told her about the quarrel. Why’d she wait a whole week to sound off about it?

Bitch, she thought. Never should’ve bothered trying to be nice to her.

“Keep outa my way and keep your fuckin‘ nose outa my business,” Jessica suddenly added, “or I’ll let Riley go ahead and ream you out.”

“Okay. Jeez!”

Lane slumped in her seat and stared straight ahead.

She imagined herself telling Jessica to take a flying leap, but realized she’d better keep quiet. It wouldn’t take much, she thought, to set the girl off. Jessica, alone, could probably take her apart. Not to mention what her scumbag boyfriend might do.

Mr. Kramer entered the room.

Lane sat up fast, pulling in her legs and swinging her knees together. She straightened her back. She folded her hands on the desktop.

Kramer took off his sport coat. He draped it over the back of his chair and began rolling up his shirt-sleeves as he stepped to his usual position at the front of the table. His forearms were tanned under thick, black hair. He sat on the edge of the table.

Lane smiled when he met her eyes.

He acted as if he didn’t see it, picked up his roll book and gave the classroom a quick scan. “Mr. Billings is apparently having himself another holiday,” he said, and marked the student absent.

“Okay. This week’s spelling words. Who’ll volunteer to write them on the board?”

Lane raised her hand. He chose Heidi.

No big deal, Lane told herself. But she couldn’t help feeling a small letdown. First, he hadn’t returned her smile. Now he’d called on someone else to go to the board. Was he ignoring her?

Don’t be ridiculous, she thought. I’m not the only kid in the room.

But as the class went on, Kramer continued to ignore her. He rarely gave her a glance. He called on other students to read from the poetry book, to answer questions about rhythm and meter, to offer interpretations.

Lane’s uneasiness grew.

Is he mad at me, or something? What did I do? Maybe he thinks I took advantage of him at the library. But hell, I didn’t askhim to check out the book. That was his idea.

She began wondering whether he still wanted her to stay after class.

Go on, get out of here.

He wouldn’t say that.

Lane imagined herself sitting alone in the room, humiliated. “But you asked me to stay and help you.”

“I don’t care. Leave me alone.”

Maybe I should go ahead and leave when the bell rings, she thought. But I saidI’d stay. I can’t just walk out. He’d think I’m nuts.

“Lane?”

Startled, she looked up at Kramer.

“Would you like to read the next stanza?”

“Uh...” She felt herself shriveling inside. “I’m afraid I’ve lost the place.”

A few sniggers came from the back of the room.

Kramer shook his head slightly. He looked amused. “You shouldtry to follow along in the book.”

“Yes sir.” She lowered her eyes to the page.

“Aaron, will you read the next stanza?”

Aaron began to read. Lane hunched over her book, shielded her eyes with one hand and studied the page.

Where the hell are we?

Shit!

She couldn’t find the stanza.

Dipstick, you wantedhim to call on you. And he did. He sure did.

Why don’t I just die now, and make it easy on myself?

Aaron finished.

A hand appeared beneath Lane’s face. Kramer’s hand. It turned the page for her, pointed to a middle stanza, and went away.

“Thanks,” she muttered.

Everyone else in the classroom seemed to find this quite amusing.

Lane kept her head down.

“Would you care to favor us with a rendition?” Kramer asked.

She nodded against her sheltering hand and began to read aloud.

She was halfway through the stanza when the bell rang.

“That’ll be fine,” Kramer said. Raising his voice, he announced, “Don’t forget your spelling sentences for tomorrow. In ink, please. Class dismissed.”

Lane shut her book and stared at it. Kids walked past her. Someone rubbed the top of her head. She looked up. Benson grinned down at her. “You gotta pay attention, babe.”

She sneered at him.

He sauntered out with Jessica, a hand on her rump.

Soon the room was empty except for Lane and Kramer.

Lane forced her head up. Kramer stood behind his table, busy stuffing books and folders into his briefcase. He seemed unaware of her presence.

I should’ve left with the rest of them, she thought. God, how did I get into this?

Dad and his yearbook. Thanks a bunch, Dad.

She wondered if she should say something.

“Do you have a red pen?” Kramer asked, and finally looked at her.

The tension spilled out of her. “Uh... no. I don’t think so.”

“No problem. Let me get you one.” He stepped over to his desk and opened the top drawer. He found a pen, shut the drawer, and searched through a stack of folders on the corner of his desk. “Here we go. I’ll give you first period. How does that sound?”

“Fine.”

He came toward her. “If you get done with these and want some more, I’ve got plenty. Don’t want to keep you all afternoon, though.”

Lane nodded.

I don’t believe this, she thought. He’s acting as if nothing happened.

What do you want, a lecture?

She cleared her desk. Kramer set the folder and pen in front of her. “It’s five points a word,” he said. “But I guess you know that.”

“Yeah.”

“Any questions, just ask.”

“All right.”

He turned away.

“Mr. Kramer?”

He turned to her again, a pleasant smile spreading across his face.

“I’m sorry about losing my place.”

“Daydreaming?”

“I guess so.”

“Well, no harm in that. I hope you weren’t too embarrassed.”

“I was pretty embarrassed.”

“You’re the best student in the class, Lane. Don’t let one little lapse of attention throw you. Happens to everyone.”

“Okay. Thanks.”

“Of course, I had to give you an F for the day.”

“Oh.”

Laughing softly, he squeezed Lane’s shoulder. “That was supposed to be a joke.”

“Oh.”

His hand stayed there. Lane felt as if its warmth were spreading down through her. He rubbed her shoulder gently, then let go.

“I really appreciate your staying after to help like this. It takes some of the pressure off.”

“Glad to help.” She could still feel where his hand had been.

“Teaching ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. Sometimes, I feel like I’m being consumed by paperwork. All I seem to have time for is grading papers, preparing lessons.” He shook his head. “A real drag.”

“If you’d like me to, I’ll stay more often and help you out.”

Her heart thudded. She couldn’t believe she’d said that.

He’ll think I’ve got the hots for him.

Kramer’s head tilted slightly to one side. He pressed his lips together and raised his eyebrows. “Well, I sure appreciate the offer. You must have better things to do with your time, though.”

“I wouldn’t mind. Really.”

“It’s up to you. I’d certainly be glad to have the help.” Smiling, he knuckled the folder on her desk. “Now, get cracking. Talk’s cheap, and time’s a-wasting.”

Lane laughed. “You’re a real slave driver.”

“Start correcting those papers, or I’ll give you a taste of the lash.”

“Yes sir.”

He turned and headed for his desk. Lane’s eyes stayed on him.

His sport shirt tapered down from his broad shoulders to his slim waist. The tail, just a bit untucked, puffed out over his belt. His wallet made a bulge over his left buttock. There seemed to be nothing in his right rear pocket. That side of his slacks was smooth against his rump, and Lane watched the way it moved as he walked.

Twenty-one

Jean, peeling potatoes at the sink, looked around at Larry as he entered the kitchen. “Quitting a little early, aren’t you?” she asked.

He glanced at the clock. Almost four. He usually worked until four-thirty.

“I finished the damn corrections,” he said. He took a beer from the refrigerator. “Too late to get started on anything else.” He twisted the cap off the bottle. “Where’s Lane?”

“Not home yet.”

“I know that. Did she have some kind of plans for after school?”

“Not that she mentioned. Maybe she stopped over at Betty’s, or something.”

“Yeah.” He poured the beer into a stein, sucked off the head of white froth, and emptied the bottle. “What’re you going to do with the potatoes?”

“French fries.”

“All right!” He dropped the bottle into the trash. It landed with a thunk.

He carried his beer into the living room, sank into his easy chair and started thumbing through the new issue of Mystery Scenethat had arrived in the day’s mail. Jean had probably already looked it over. She would’ve told him if she’d found any mention of him. So he went straight to Brian Garfield’s “Letter from Hollywood.”

He tried to read it.

But the day was mild. The air conditioner was off, the windows open. Each time Larry heard a car on the street, his eyes shifted to the window.

Where is she?

Patience, he told himself.

They might not even havethe ‘68 yearbook.

They’ve got to.

He wished he’d asked Lane to phone him from school. Then he wouldn’t have spent the whole day worrying. But he didn’t want her to think it was any big deal.

“Try for the ‘sixty-eight,” he’d told her. “That’s the year I’ll be working on. If they don’t have it, though, ’sixty-seven or ‘sixty-six will be okay. Even ’sixty-five. In fact, if you could get the annuals for each of those years...”

“You’ve got to be joking,” Lane had said. “I’ll be lucky if Swanson let’s me check out anyof them, much less four.”

“Just go for ‘sixty-eight, then, okay?”

He heard another approaching car. He knew the Mustang’s sound — a low grumble — and this wasn’t it. He looked out the window anyway. A station wagon swept by.

He drank some beer, finished the Garfield piece, and looked for Warren Murphy’s “Curmudgeon’s Corner.” This issue didn’t seem to have one.

He muttered, “Shit.”

Probably a story behind its absence. Have to ask Ed next time we talk.

At least de Lint’s horror reviews weren’t missing. Larry scanned the columns. Half the books were by writers he couldn’t stand. But he spotted reviews of new books by Daniel Ransom, Joe Lansdale, and Chet Williamson. He’d already read the three books under discussion. Good. That way, the reviews couldn’t spoil anything for him.

He took a drink of beer.

Started to read.

Heard the Mustang.

About time!

The shiny red car appeared on the street, slowed down, swung into the driveway and vanished from sight. The engine went silent. A door thumped shut. When he heard Lane’s boots scraping on the walkway, he tossed the magazine aside and hurried to the door.

“Hi ho,” he said, opening the door. Lane had her keys in one hand. Her other hand was empty. “How was your day?”

“Terrific.”

Must’ve been, Larry thought. She looked even more chipper than usual.

He stepped out of her way and shut the door. Lane slung her book bag off her shoulders. Trying to keep his voice calm, Larry said, “So, did you have any luck with the yearbook?”

“Swanson didn’t want to check it out to me. You really lucked out, though. Mr. Kramer was there, and she let him have it.”

“But you’ve got it?”

“But of course.” She dropped her denim bag on the sofa, unstrapped its top and slipped out a tall, thin volume. “It has to be returned tomorrow morning.”

“No problem.” Larry reached for it.

Lane clutched it to her chest and shook her head. “You owe me.”

“What do you want?”

“Well, that’s open to negotiation. I’ve had to make considerable sacrifices on your behalf. In particular, I’m obliged to help Mr. Kramer grade papers after school every day this week to pay him back for the favor.”

“You’re kidding.”

“I wouldn’t kid you.”

“He shouldn’t make you do that.”

“Well, I kind of made the offer, and he didn’t refuse.”

“Ah. Well, that’s different.”

“It’s still because of this,” she said and, grinning, rapped her knuckles against the back of the yearbook.

“Okay. What do you want?”

Her eyes rolled upward. “Let me think. My services don’t come cheap, you understand.”

“They never have.”

“Daaad!”

“Laaane.”

“You make me sound absolutely mercenary.”

“But you’re not.”

“Of course not. However, I just happened to notice an absolutely radical pair of denim boots a while back.”

“And you didn’t buy them?”

“I didn’t think I should. I’d already made a few purchases that day.”

“If you’re talking about the day your mother and I went on our last outing with Pete and Barbara, I remember it well.”

“I reallywanted those boots. But I held back. For your sake.”

“I’m touched. Truly.”

“So, can I have them?”

“Sure, why not?”

“Oh, Dad, you’re great!” She thrust the book at him. As Larry took it, she threw herself against him and gave him a quick kiss. Then she hurried toward the kitchen.

Larry retrieved his beer.

He heard Lane call out, “Yo! Mom! What’ve we got to eat around here? I’m dying.”

Larry shut the door to his office. He placed his beer on the coaster beside his word processor. He leaned back in his chair and rested the bottom of the book against his stomach. The blue cover was embossed with gold lettering that read, BUFORD MEMORIES ‘68.

This is it, he thought. My God, this is it.

His heart was racing. His stomach felt tight and shaky.

He opened the book. A quick riffle revealed glossy pages of black and white photographs. At the back was an index. The final page of the index listed students with S names. Larry slid his eyes down the column:

Sakai, Joan

Samilson, Pamela

Sanders, Timothy

Satmary, Maureen

Schaefer, Ronald

No Saxon, Bonnie.

Come on! Larry thought. She hasto be in here.

Despairing, he flipped pages toward the front of the index. And spotted a subheading: FRESHMEN.

“Thank God,” he muttered.

In 1968, Bonnie was a senior, not a freshman.

He thumbed the pages over, passing the lists of sophomores and juniors. Just above the heading JUNIORS was the name Zimmerman, Rhonda. Tail end of the senior class. He lifted his eyes to the left-hand corner. A senior named Simpson, Kenneth.

Simpson. An S!

Larry clamped his lower lip between his teeth. He turned the page and worked his way up from the bottom:

Simmons, Dan

Seigel, Susan

Sefridge, John

Sclar, Toni

Schultz, Fred

Just another name in the index. Saxon, Bonnie. Not printed in red. Not in bold lettering or italics. But it seemed to explode off the page and slam through Larry’s head.

To the right of her name were page numbers. Six of them.

Six pages with photos of Bonnie Saxon.

God almighty!

Larry scanned the column. Plenty of the names were followed by a single page number, several by two or three. Few had more than three.

Bonnie had six.

She must’ve been busy, Larry thought. And popular.

Popular girls are almost always pretty.

The first page number after her name was 34. Larry slipped a matchbook into the index to mark his place, turned to the front of the annual and thumbed through its pages until he found page 34. Blocks of small, individual photos showing members of the senior class. Boys in sport coats and neckties. Girls in dark pullover sweaters, each wearing a necklace.

The first name in the upper left-hand corner was Bonnie Saxon.

Larry shifted his eyes to the photo.

He moaned.

She was lovely. Radiant, adorable. Her gleaming blond hair swept softly across her brow, flowed down to her shoulders. Her eyes seemed to be directed at something wonderful just beyond the camera. They looked eager, cheerful. She had a small, cute nose. Her high cheeks curved smoothly above the corners of her mouth, as if lifted and shaped by her smile.

This was Bonnie.

She looked quite a bit like Lane.

She looked very little like the corpse in the attic of his garage, but her hair and teeth and the general shape of her face convinced him that he had made no mistake: the body was Bonnie Saxon. No doubt about it.

The hideous cadaver had once been the girl in this photo — beautiful, glowing with youth.

Larry gazed at the picture.

Bonnie.

He felt very strange: excited by his find, enthralled by her beauty, depressed. When the photo was taken, she must’ve thought a whole, wonderful life waited in her future. But she had only months, and then someone ended it all by pounding a stake through her chest.

This was no vampire.

This was a sweet, innocent kid.

Probably a real heartbreaker. Every guy in school must’ve longed for her.

Had one of them killed her? A jealous boyfriend? She’d broken his heart, so he drove a stake through hers? Possible, Larry thought. But the stake in her chest and the crucifix on the staircase wall sure made it seem that somebody believed she was a vampire.

Larry gazed a little longer at the photo, then checked the index and turned to page 124. There, he found group pictures of the Public Relations Committee, the Program Committee, and the Art Club. He didn’t bother studying the lists of names. He wanted to search for Bonnie, to pick her out, to enjoy the surprise of recognition.

The Public Relations Committee photo was overexposed. Most of the faces were little more than pale blurs, their features washed out and faint. Bonnie didn’t seem to be in this group, but Larry glanced at the names to make sure.

Then he went on to the Program Committee photo. He half expected to find her here. Though he wasn’t sure about the functions of the Program Committee, Bonnie looked like the sort of girl you might find in charge of decorating the gym for a dance. He studied the face of each girl in the picture. No Bonnie.

He found her with the Art Club.

In the front row, second from the left, between a couple of gals who looked fat and dumpy.

Bonnie looked grand. She stood straight, arms at her sides, head up, smiling at the camera. This wasn’t a close-up like the senior photo, but it made up for that by showing her from head to foot. She wore a short-sleeved white blouse, a straight skirt that hung to the tops of her knees, white socks and white sneakers.

Larry lifted the book, watching her grow as the page neared his eyes. He studied her face. In spite of the distance from which the photo had been taken, it had very good definition. All her features were clear. The collar of her blouse was open. He looked at her neck and saw the hollow of her throat, the faint curves of her collar bones. Lower, the rise of her breasts was no more than a hint. Larry followed her arms down to her hands. Her hands were open, fingers curled slightly inward against the fabric of her skirt. His gaze lingered on the slender curves of her bare legs.

One of her white socks was slightly lower than the other. If she’d known that, she probably would’ve fixed it. Larry could almost see her bending over and pulling up the sock. The image gave him a little ache, as if he’d missed something important by not being there.

He lowered the book and read a short description of the Art Club’s activities. Bonnie, he learned, had been the secretary.

Must’ve been smart. You don’t appoint someone secretary unless she’s intelligent and responsible.

Probably a straight-A student, he thought. One of those kids who has everything going for her — looks, a terrific personality, brains.

He checked the index again, and discovered that the next photo was on page 126. He turned back to the Art Club, flipped the next page, and immediately recognized Bonnie in the top photo. She’d been in the school’s Legislative Assembly, whatever that was. A quick scan of the small print informed him that the group was responsible for “passing school laws and putting them into action.”

Bonnie was seated on risers, feet on the floor, legs together, hands cupping her knees. She was dressed just the same as in the Art Club picture. In this one, her socks were even. Larry smiled. She had a bemused look on her face. Her bangs hung a little crooked, showing a vee of uncovered brow.

Larry brought the book closer to his face. Her head was turned slightly. Her hair was swept back behind one pale ear. She seemed to be leaning forward. Her blouse looked snug against her belly, and her breasts cast a vague, horizontal shadow across the white fabric.

He was about to turn to the index when he spotted Bonnie on the opposite page. She was in the top photo, front row, third from the right. A member of the Social Activities Committee.

“Ah-ha!” Larry whispered.

So she decorated the gym for dances, after all.

“I knew it.”

In this photo she wore a crew-neck sweater with a large B on its chest.

A cheerleader?

Figures, he thought. I should’ve guessed.

Bonnie looked different, somehow. Larry stared at the picture. She had been caught without her smile. The glimmer was gone from her eyes, and her lips were pressed together in a soft, straight line.

Something was obviously troubling her.

Maybe she was feeling sick, that day. Maybe she’d messed up a test. Maybe her boyfriend had dumped her.

Something had happened. Something, at least for a moment, had robbed her of happiness.

It didn’t seem fair. Bonnie’s life should’ve been perfect — there’d been so little of it left.

Larry felt a tightness in his throat.

He turned quickly to the index, then searched out page 133.

Bonnie stood in line with six other girls. “Songleaders,” not cheerleaders. They all wore light-colored sweaters with the huge B in front, and dark, pleated skirts. They stood with pompoms raised in their left hands, right hands on hips, right legs thrown high.

Bonnie looked as if she were having the time of her life. Her head was tossed back. The shutter had caught her laughing. She’d kicked up her leg higher than any of the other girls. Not straight toward the camera, but a little to the side. The toe of her white sneaker seemed about to collide with her left armpit. Her skirt hung down from the upraised leg. She wore no socks. Larry gazed at her slim ankle, the curve of her calf, and the sleek underside of her thigh. He saw a crescent of underwear not quite as dark as the skirt, rounded with the slope of her buttock.

He fought an urge to bring the book closer to his eyes.

He looked away from the picture. He picked up his stein and took a sip of beer.

Glanced again.

It’s not actually her panties, he told himself. It’s part of the outfit.

But still...

He turned his attention to the second picture on the page. Same girls. Same costumes. In this one they were all facing the camera and leaping, pompoms thrust overhead with both hands, backs arched, legs kicked up behind them. Bonnie’s sweater had lifted slightly. It didn’t quite meet the top of her skirt. A narrow band of bare skin showed. Larry glimpsed her flat belly, the small dot of her navel.

He shook his head. He took another sip of beer, but had a hard time swallowing. He turned to the index.

Only one more page number after Bonnie’s name. He turned to 147.

And sucked in a quick breath.

A three-by-five close-up of Bonnie filled more than half the page.

“Jesus,” he whispered.

He glanced at the caption. “Bonnie Saxon, 1968 Spirit Queen.” On the same page were small photos of four other girls — princesses. Her court.

He postponed studying her picture. It was the last. He wanted to savor the anticipation.

On the opposite page was a photo of a tackled football player smashing to the ground. The heading beneath it read, SPIRIT WEEK HIGHLIGHTS FALL SEASON. Larry scanned a description of the festivities, which were apparently marred by Buford’s loss of the game. Then he came to the part he’d hoped for. “Sherry Cain, Sandy O’Connor, Julie Clark, Betsy Johnson, and Bonnie Saxon were presented as homecoming princesses at halftime. Bonnie Saxon was crowned queen at the Homecoming Dance that night. In spite of the defeat of the varsity, tremendous spirit was shown.” Nothing more about Bonnie.

Fantastic, Larry thought.

Homecoming queen.

“Good going, Bon,” he muttered.

Then he turned his attention to the photo.

And flinched as someone knocked on his door. “Time to eat,” Lane called.

“Okay. I’ll be right there.”

Larry glanced at the Spirit Queen, then shut the book.

* * *

He lay motionless in bed that night, staring at the ceiling. When the sounds of Jean’s breathing convinced him that she was asleep, he crept out of bed. The air was chilly. He shivered with the cold and nervous excitement. At the closet he pulled his robe off a hook. He put it on as he stepped into the hallway. The soft velour felt warm on his bare skin.

In the living room he found Lane’s book bag propped against the wall beside the front door. He opened it, searched inside with one hand until he felt the annual, and slipped the book out.

He carried it to his office. He shut the door, flicked on the light, and eased himself down onto his chair.

In spite of the warm robe, he was shaking. His heart felt like a pounding fist.

I must be crazy, he thought. What if Jean wakes up? Or Lane? What if one of them catches me at this?

They won’t. Calm down.

With the book on his lap, he turned to the Spirit Queen.

God, so gorgeous.

She wore a dark top that left her shoulders bare.

He could look at her later.

He took an X-Acto Knife from his desk drawer, pressed the open book flat against his thighs, and drew the razor-sharp blade down the annual’s gutter, neatly slicing off the page where it joined the spine.

He cut out every page that showed a photograph of Bonnie.

When he was done, he hid them in his file cabinet, sliding them into one of over fifty folders that contained copies of short stories he’d written over the years.

His pictures would be safe there, from Jean and Lane.

He sat down again and riffled through the yearbook. A few pages were loose. He touched their edges with glue and carefully inserted them.

He shut the book and peered at its top. Along the spine tiny gaps were visible where the pages had been removed. But only an extremely close inspection would reveal the damage. And if someone did notice, who was to say when the desecration had been performed? Maybe years ago.

Larry shut off the light and left his office. He returned the annual to Lane’s book bag, fastened the straps, and went to his bedroom.

From the doorway he could hear Jean’s long, slow breaths.

He hung up his robe. He crept to the bed and slipped cautiously between the sheets. He sighed. He thought about the pictures.

They were his now. His to keep.

He remembered the way Bonnie looked in each of them. But his mind kept returning to the songleader shots.

Then she was alone on the football field. She thrust her pompoms at the sky and twirled, her long golden hair floating, her skirt billowing around her and rising higher and higher.

Twenty-two

Larry woke up in the morning and remembered cutting the pages from the book. He was suddenly certain that the librarian would notice the damage. Lane would catch hell. It would be his fault.

He realized that he’d done a lot of things lately that left him feeling guilty: threatening Pete with the gun; bringing Bonnie home and keeping her presence a secret; wandering out to the garage, apparently in a drunken stupor, and not even knowing what he did out there; and now, defacing the library book, maybe getting Lane into trouble.

Before finding Bonnie out there in that ghost town, he’d never done much to be ashamed of. About the worst, he thought, was having a few lustful thoughts about other women. That seemed pretty harmless.

But all this.

What the hell’s happening to me?

Too hot, he flipped onto his back and tossed the blanket aside. Jean was already up. Good. He didn’t want any company just now. Especially not Jean’s. She might sense that he was upset and start asking questions.

Oh, nothing’s wrong. I’ve got a corpse hidden in the garage. And you know that library book? Well, it had these terrific photos of the dead gal...

I had to have those pictures, he told himself. Nobody was about to let me keep the book. Photocopies wouldn’t have been any good: they’re fine for printed stuff, but the pictures would’ve looked awful.

I bet nobody’s even opened that book for the past twenty years.

Nobody’ll notice the pages are gone.

You hope.

So if they give Lane shit, I’ll pay for the book.

Lot of good that’ll do. She’s never been in trouble. It’d kill her.

Nobody will notice a damn thing. She’ll return the book, and that’ll be it.

No point in worrying, anyway. The damage is done. You can’t put the pages back in, even if you wanted to.

They’re mine now.

He closed his eyes and let his mind dwell on the photographs. The memories of them soothed him. He filled his lungs with the mild, morning air. He stretched, savoring the solid feel of his flexing muscles, the softness of the sheet against his skin, the images of Bonnie.

He stayed in bed until he heard the soft grumble of the Mustang’s engine.

He spent the day on Night Stranger, closing in on its finish. The writing was hard. His mind kept wandering. It slipped away from the story and tortured him with miserable thoughts about Lane being confronted by an outraged librarian. It tantalized him with thoughts of Bonnie.

Frequently he looked away from the computer screen and stared at his filing cabinet. The drawer where he’d hidden the yearbook pages was within reach. He longed to pore over them. But Jean was in the house. What if she came into his office while he had the pictures out?

Shortly after two o’clock Jean knocked on his door and opened it. “I thought I’d run over to Safeway. Anything you want me to pick up while I’m there?”

“Not that I can think of,” he said. “Have fun.”

“See you later.”

She closed the door.

Larry stared at the computer screen. He heard the faint thump of the front door shutting. He rubbed his moist hands on the sides of his shorts.

He waited for a while, then rolled his chair back, left the office, and reached the living room in time to see Jean’s car pass the windows.

Gone. She’s gone!

He glanced at his wristwatch. A quarter past two. Give Jean ten minutes to reach the store, at least ten inside, and another ten to get home.

He had at least half an hour.

Stomach trembling, he hurried to his office, shut the door and pulled out the steel drawer of the file cabinet. He’d slipped the pages into the folder for his short story “The Snatch.” He took out the entire folder, left the drawer agape, dropped onto his chair, flicked open the cover, and Bonnie smiled up at him.

The Spirit Queen photo.

“God,” he whispered.

Bonnie seemed even more beautiful than he remembered. Lovely, fresh, innocent.

No wonder she was voted queen.

He gazed at her flowing blond hair. It swept softly down her forehead, slightly longer on the right, so that it brushed the curve of her eyebrow. It didn’t quite touch her left eyebrow. The sides of her head were draped by shining tresses. Her eyes sparkled. Larry supposed that their gleam was a reflection of the camera’s flash. Her lips were together, and curled upward just a bit at the corners with the mere hint of a smile. She looked serious, but pleased and proud.

Her jaw cast a shadow that slanted across her neck and puddled in the hollow above her right collarbone. Her shoulders sloped down gently, bare to the borders of the photo. The top she wore looked black. Only its upper edge showed. It eased downward to a point in the center of her chest. Not quite low enough to show any cleavage.

Larry placed an open hand across the bottom of the picture.

With the garment covered, she might have been naked.

He gazed at her face, at the smooth, pale flesh of her chest. Faint shadows revealed the hollow of her throat, the curves of her collar bones.

If the picture extended downward, his hand would be resting across her breasts. He imagined firm mounds with skin like warm velvet, nipples erect and pressing into his palm. He moved his thumb downward. It would reach to the golden curls between her thighs.

Suddenly shocked at himself, Larry jerked his hand away from the picture. He slapped the folder shut.

God!

What’s wrong with me?

Face burning, he lurched out of his chair. He stuffed the folder back into the cabinet and shoved the drawer shut.

He returned to his chair. He stared at the computer screen. The sentences there seemed empty, meaningless. No point in trying to write more of this novel. Not today.

He signed off and replaced the disk with the one labeled “Vamp.”

“Vampire,” he muttered. “No way. Not Bonnie.”

He brought up the directory, then the last chapter he’d written on Saturday night.

A lot of catching up to do.

He exited that chapter.

He gazed at the blank screen.

Good luck, he thought. How in hell do I write about ending up in the garage with her? Say I was wearing pajamas, for starters.

Any way you slice it, you’re going to look like you’re losing your grip. Like you’re obsessed, or something.

And what about the annual? Tell the world you cut a library book to pieces? Figure out some kind of lie, maybe.

No matter what you write, Lane will know the truth. She’ll read the damn book.

The photos haveto go in it.

Shit.

Cross that bridge when you come to it.

And be reallycareful when you write about seeing the pictures. Understate it. For godsake, don’t let it look like the things turned you on. The girl’s dead.

She wasn’t dead when the pictures were taken.

She was so alive then. So glorious.

And now...

In his mind Larry saw the way she looked now. Hideous. A withered mummy with a stake in her heart.

That wasn’t done by any jealous boyfriend. Some bastard actually thought she was a vampire.

Murdered her.

Hid her body under the hotel stairs and hung a crucifix on the wall for good measure.

And padlocked the front doors?

That was a brand new padlock, Larry reminded himself. And someone had placed boards across the broken landing.

Bonnie’s killer?

Someone was certainly watching over the hotel. The coyote eater? Had he been hanging around Sagebrush Flat for more than twenty years — a mad sentry guarding the tomb of his slain vampire?

Still there.

By now, he knows she’s gone.

I’ve got her, you bastard.

How could you do that to her? How could you take my Bonnie and drive a stake through her heart?

Larry stared at the computer screen.

His fingers went to the keyboard.

They jabbed the keys, and amber words appeared.

SOMEBODY OUGHT TO RIP YOUR HEART OUT, YOU MOTHERFUCKER.

Somewhere in the house a door bumped shut. Larry quickly backspaced, erasing the words.

Larry managed to write four pages after Jean’s return from the store, and was busy describing his clean-up of the garage when footsteps approached his office. He scrolled up quickly to clear the screen. A knock on the door. The door opened.

Lane stepped in.

His stomach shriveled, but he managed a smile.

“Hi ho,” he said. “I thought you were staying late.”

“So did I.” She shrugged. “Mr. Kramer had a parent conference, so I came on home.”

One hand was hidden behind her back.

Probably holding a gun, Larry thought.

But she didn’t seem upset.

“What’ve you got there?” he asked.

Her hand came forward. It held a chocolate chip cookie. “Fresh from the oven,” she said. “Want it?”

“Sure.”

He reached for the cookie. His hand was shaking. Lane noticed. “Are you feeling okay?”

“Hard day at the office,” he said, and took the cookie. “How was your day?”

“Okay, I guess.”

“You returned the yearbook?”

She frowned. “You said you were done with it.”

“Yeah. I am. Thanks a lot for the help. I owe you.”

Smiling, she said, “Right, you owe me. One pair of boots.”

“I don’t have to pick them out for you, do I?”

“Just lend me your credit card. I’ll take care of the dirty work.”

Larry laughed softly. “My wallet’s in the bedroom. Help yourself.”

When she left, Larry ate the cookie. It was soft, still warm from the oven. But his mouth was dry, and he had a hard time swallowing.

Twenty-three

When the public library opened its doors at nine o’clock Wednesday morning, Larry was waiting. He felt nervous, approaching the librarian. She was a young, attractive woman with a cheery smile. But he half expected to be shunned, thrown out on his ear.

She’s not psychic, he told himself. She has no idea I cut up the high school’s annual.

“I’m doing research on 1968,” he explained. “Would you have copies of the Mulehead Evening Standardgoing back that far?”

Minutes later she produced a box of microfiche. She showed Larry to the reader-printer.

Yes, he knew how to use it.

The librarian told him there was a charge of ten cents per page for hard copies, and he could pay at the desk before leaving. Her name was Alice. She would be around and more than glad to help if he needed any assistance.

He thanked her.

She left.

Larry began his search at the June 1, 1968 edition of the newspaper. High school graduation had probably taken place around the middle of the month. Because of the ring, he assumed Bonnie had graduated. But he might be wrong.

The paper from Saturday, June 22, settled the question. Graduation ceremonies had occurred the previous night, and the list of eighty-nine matriculating seniors included Bonnie’s name. Photographs of the festivities showed the school principal, the head of the Board of Education, and two students who had given speeches. No Bonnie.

But he had found what he needed: evidence that she was alive and well as of June 21.

He pushed a button at the base of the machine. Seconds later a copy of the page slid out.

He went on.

He watched for Bonnie’s name. He watched for stories about murders and disappearances. But he kept his mind open, hoping to notice any story that might have a bearing, no matter how remote, on Bonnie’s fate.

The story he found in the July 16 edition wasn’t remote. Larry saw the headline and gasped. His heart thudded as he devoured the paragraphs.

TWO SLAIN IN SAGEBRUSH FLAT

Elizabeth Radley, 32, and her daughter Martha, 16, were brutally murdered last night in their rooms at the Sagebrush Flat Hotel. Their bodies were discovered by Uriah Radley, the husband and father of the victims.

According to a county sheriff’s spokesman, Uriah had yesterday driven into Mulehead Bend for supplies. During the course of his return in the evening, his truck broke down fifteen miles outside Sagebrush Flat. He traveled the remaining distance afoot, and arrived at the hotel at approximately midnight to find his wife and daughter murdered.

The nude bodies were discovered in their beds, both apparently having sustained multiple wounds of a fatal nature. The nature of the murder weapon, or weapons, has not been disclosed. Nor has it been revealed, as yet, whether the deceased were victims of sexual assault.

Uriah Radley was questioned by authorities, but is not being held in connection with the murders. No suspects are in custody at this time.

Larry read the article again. Incredible. Two murders at the same hotel where they’d found Bonnie. There’s gotto be a connection, he thought. He copied the story. In the next day’s Standardwas a follow-up.

SAGEBRUSH HOTEL MURDERS

Authorities remain baffled by the brutal double homicide which occurred sometime before midnight this past Monday in Sagebrush Flat. Autopsies of the victims, Elizabeth Radley and her daughter Martha, revealed that both died from exsanguination, or blood loss, as a result of multiple wounds.

Authorities have few leads, and no suspects at this time.

According to County Sheriff Herman Black, “We’re of the opinion that they were victims of opportunity. That is to say, they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sagebrush Flat was no place to be living. I’d warned the Radleys on several occasions about the dangers of staying there, now that the town’s as good as dead. For the past couple of years, we’ve had lots of troubles with undesirables vandalizing the place and generally raising Cain.”

The sheriff went on to point out that biker gangs had frequently used the town as a site for wild parties. During the past twelve months, no fewer than three rapes and half a dozen beatings had been reported as occurring in the town’s abandoned buildings, either at the hands of bikers or other transient types.

“It would be my guess,” said Sheriff Black, “that Elizabeth and Martha Radley ran afoul of some bikers. That’s a rough lot, and two women alone wouldn’t stand much chance.”

Uriah Radley, along with his wife and daughter, had continued to reside in Sagebrush Flat during the town’s decline and eventual abandonment following the closure of the Deadwood Silver Mine in 1961. In the resulting economic chaos, businesses shut their doors and the citizens migrated to greener pastures, many of them settling in our own Mulehead Bend.

By early 1966, only Holman’s general store and Uriah Radley’s hotel remained in operation. Later in that year, the fate of the town was sealed when Jack Holman died as the result of an apparent suicide. In an ironic twist of fate, his body was found hanging by a rope in his general store by Martha Radley, then 14 years of age, who was murdered along with her mother on Monday night.

Though Holman’s went out of business following the demise of its proprietor, the Radley family continued to reside in the Sagebrush Flat Hotel. The hotel ceased operations last year, but the Radleys remained. Uriah made weekly visits to our town for supplies, and he is known to be well liked.

Elizabeth and Martha were active members of our own First Presbyterian Church.

Martha attended Buford High School, where she completed her sophomore year this past June. She was a member of the school band and the Art Club.

Services will be held Sunday at First Presbyterian.

Larry copied the story.

He felt as if he’d discovered a treasure. The town had a grim history: suicide at Holman’s, a pair of grisly murders at the hotel, “rough” types using the abandoned buildings for their fun and games. Great material.

To top it off, Martha had been in the Art Club. Like Bonnie. They must’ve known each other.

They’d been in the same club. And Martha had lived, and finally died, in the very hotel where Bonnie’s body had been hidden.

That made two connections.

Larry knew he was on to something.

He suddenly realized he had a picture of her. Probably. If Martha wasn’t absent on the day the Art Club’s photograph was taken, she would be standing in the group with Bonnie.

Fantastic luck, he thought.

Hell, it’s more than luck. It’s no coincidence. Somehow, all this is related: the hotel, Martha’s death, both girls in the same club, Bonnie’s death. All linked.

He kept on searching.

Monday, July 22.

SERVICES HELD FOR SLAIN MOTHER AND DAUGHTER

Funeral services were held Sunday at the First Presbyterian Church for Elizabeth Radley and her daughter Martha, who were murdered last Monday night at the Sagebrush Flat Hotel.

The ceremony was attended by numerous friends and by the husband and father of the deceased, Uriah Radley, who accepted the ashes of his wife and daughter following the service.

That was all.

Larry made a copy.

He wondered if Bonnie had attended the funeral.

He thought about the ashes. The two women had been cremated. Not unusual, but interesting. Larry knew plenty of vampire lore. The wide belief was that a vampire’s victims would become vampires themselves. Burning their bodies would prevent the women from coming back. Was thatthe reason Uriah had his wife and daughter cremated? Did he have some reason to think they’d been killed by a vampire?

The paper had been vague about the nature of the wounds and murder weapons. More than likely, the cops kept that information to themselves. A common practice. You don’t tell the press everything.

Suppose the wounds were bites, the weapons teeth?

The women had died of blood loss.

Uriah, discovering the bodies, certainly saw the wounds. And maybe he noticed that there wasn’t much blood on the beds. He might conclude that they’d been murdered by a vampire.

Right, Larry thought. If he’s crazy.

But what if he didbelieve a vampire’d killed them? What if, for some reason, he thought the vampire was Bonnie? And he went after her. And he pounded the stake through her heart. And he hid her under the stairs of hishotel. And he’s still out there, after all these years, living in the hotel and standing watch over the remains of the vampire who murdered his loved ones.

It works, Larry thought. My Christ, it works.

Which doesn’t make it true, he told himself.

Flights of fancy were his way of life. He’d built his whole career on daydreams, constructing them into a semblance of reality. You make up an unlikely situation, you make up characters and motives and causal links, and pretty soon the situation takes on a certain kind of sense.

Real life, he knew, didn’t work like a book. People acted out of character. Motives were often murky. Chance and coincidence could make a shambles of looking for a neat chain of causes.

Maybe bikers killed Elizabeth and Martha, just as the sheriff speculated. Or maybe a serial killer, passing through. Or maybe Uriah himself.

Whoever killed them, vampires might’ve been the furthest thing from Uriah’s mind when he requested the cremations.

It might be pure coincidence that someone had selected Uriah’s hotel as the hiding place for Bonnie’s corpse.

On the other hand...

Everything fit together so neatly if Uriah blamed Bonnie for the killings and put her out of commission.

Pounded a stake through Bonnie’s chest.

The crazy bastard.

How could anyone think that Bonnie was a vampire?

Idid, he reminded himself. Just a little bit, maybe. At the start.

But he knew better, now. She was a beautiful, innocent girl, murdered by some deluded human garbage who obviously believed in the most outlandish superstitious nonsense.

Very likely Uriah Radley.

* * *

After eating a hamburger at a cafe down the block, Larry returned to the library. He smiled a greeting to Alice, took the box of microfiche off the circulation desk and returned to the machine.

He resumed his search where he’d left off, at July 24, 1968.

In the July 27 edition he found this:

LOCAL GIRL DISAPPEARS

Foul play is suspected in the disappearance of 18-year-old Sandra Dunlap, daughter of Windy and William Dunlap. The young woman was discovered to be missing from the bedroom of her parents’ Crestview Avenue home early this morning.

According to authorities, the front door of the house showed evidence of forced entry, and traces of blood were found on the bedsheets of the missing girl.

Sandra, a recent graduate of Buford High School, was last seen Friday night when she attended a movie with her boyfriend, John Kessler, and two other friends from high school, Biff Tate and Bonnie Saxon. The three youths, interviewed early today by police officials, all indicated that Sandra was dropped off at home shortly before midnight and that she was seen to enter the house without mishap.

Windy and William Dunlap stated they were asleep at the time of their daughter’s return from the double-date.

The disappearance is believed to have occurred between midnight Friday and sunrise today.

Anyone who may have noticed unusual activity in the area near the Dunlap residence during that period, or who has any knowledge about the present whereabouts of Sandra Dunlap, is urged to contact the Mulehead Bend Police Department immediately.

The story was accompanied by a small, grainy photograph of the girl. It showed the head and shoulders of a pretty, smiling brunette. She wore a dark sweater. Larry guessed that this was her “senior picture,” the same one that probably appeared in the school yearbook.

If he still had the annual...

Forget it, he told himself. You got away with cutting out Bonnie’s pictures. It’s pressing your luck to try the same thing with Sandra. Pressing Lane’s luck.

No way.

He went back to the part of the story about Bonnie. She and her friends were actually the last people to see Sandra.

Incredible.

Okay, he thought, maybe not “incredible.” It’s a small town, only eighty-nine kids in the graduating class. Bonnie was “Spirit Queen,” without question one of the most popular girls in her class. It would be strange if she didn’tknow every other kid her age. She was probably close friends with several of them.

Sandra must’ve been one of her very best friends, though. You don’t go double-dating with just anyone.

What about this Biff Tate? Bonnie’s boyfriend, obviously. Stupid name. He was probably a football star, or something.

Bonnie was probably making it with the guy.

A goddamn jock. Larry could just hear him bragging in the locker room. “Sure, I slipped it to her. Had her begging for more.”

Come off it, he told himself. It’s stupid to be worrying about her boyfriend. Kids Bonnie knew were getting nailed. Two down in less than two weeks.

Had to be tough on her.

Yeah, and I bet good ol‘ Biff was more than eager to comfort her in her grief.

Larry muttered, “Shit,” then glanced at Alice across the room. Her back was turned as she shelved books. She didn’t react, so he assumed that she hadn’t heard him.

He copied the story about Sandra Dunlap and returned to his search of the newspapers.

A brief piece in the July 31 edition indicated that the girl was still among the missing, that her parents feared the worst, that the police were again asking witnesses to come forward with information.

On August 10, 1968, Linda Latham vanished.

The photo showed a cheerful, blond girl with freckles and a cute, uptilted nose. This didn’t look like a school picture. She wore a T-shirt, and a ball cap with its bill turned sideways. Larry gazed at the girl’s young, innocent face. It saddened him, stifled the excitement he felt about discovering another victim.

TOWN STUNNED BY KIDNAPPING

Linda Latham, 17-year-old daughter of Lynn and Ronald Latham, was apparently abducted late Friday night while walking home from the house of a friend, Kerry Goodrich.

At approximately midnight, Linda’s parents grew concerned about her absence and telephoned the Goodrich residence, only to learn that their daughter had left more than an hour earlier. The walk, a distance of four blocks, should have taken the girl no longer than ten minutes.

Alarmed, her parents searched the area between the two homes. Finding Linda’s handbag near the curb approximately a block from the Goodrich house, they promptly called the police.

Though the area was canvassed by authorities, no information about the apparent kidnapping was obtained.

Linda Latham is the second teenage girl to disappear under suspicious circumstances in recent weeks. On July 26, Sandra Dunlap vanished from her home on Crestview Avenue, and her fate remains unknown to date.

Police point out that there is little similarity in the circumstances of the two disappearances. “The M.O.‘s are completely different,” according to police spokesman Captain Al Taylor. “It would be premature, at this point, to speculate that both crimes were the work of the same perpetrator. In spite of that, we do need to recognize that two teenagers have been abducted over a short period of time. There certainly iscause for concern. I would advise parents to keep a close watch on the activities of their adolescent children, particularly females. The youths, themselves, should exercise extreme caution until the perpetrator or perpetrators have been apprehended.”

Captain Taylor went on to suggest that teenage girls refrain from going out alone, that they carry whistles in case of an emergency, and that they report any encounters of a suspicious nature.

Authorities are conducting an all-out search for the two missing girls. Anyone with information about either disappearance is requested to contact the police immediately.

Nothing about Martha Radley, Larry realized. Didn’t the police see a connection there? Obviously not, or they’d be even more concerned.

One murder, two disappearances. That’s three down.

Larry removed the bottom page from his small stack of copies — the list of 1968 graduates from Buford High School. He found the names Dunlap, Sandra and Latham, Linda. The Radley girl wasn’t there, of course: she was only sixteen.

But she’d been in the Art Club, and Sandra and Linda had both been Bonnie’s classmates.

Bonnie knew all three.

God, she must’ve been devastated. And scared.

Something like that happens, and you’ve got to start wondering who will be next.

Maybe you.

He copied the story.

He continued searching. He copied three follow-up stories, none of which provided any new information. The girls were still gone. The police had no suspects.

Bonnie was next.

He found her picture and story on the front page of the Mulehead Evening Standard’sAugust 14 edition.

He stared at the screen with a horrible feeling of loss.

What did you expect? he told himself. You knew she was dead, you’ve got her body. This shouldn’t come as any great blow.

But it was as if part of his mind had held on to a wild hope that Bonnie’s story would have a happy ending, after all. Somehow.

The newspaper crushed that hope.

He moaned as he stared at the photo. He knew it well. It was her senior picture. He had it in his filing cabinet.

Reluctantly, he read the story.

BONNIE SAXON VANISHES

Bonnie Saxon, voted Buford High School’s “Spirit Queen” during the fall, 1967 homecoming festivities, disappeared during the night from the Usher Avenue home where she lived with her mother, Christine.

The 18-year-old girl was last seen by her mother when she returned home following a date Friday night with her boyfriend, Biff Tate. The next morning, Bonnie was gone. Her bedroom window was found to be broken, and blood was noted on her sheets.

This marks the third disappearance, since late July, of local teenage girls. On July 26, Sandra Dunlap, 18, vanished from her home. Like Bonnie, Sandra was apparently taken during the night from her bedroom. In both cases, there was evidence of forced entry, and blood was found on the bedsheets. The second disappearance occurred on August 10, when Linda Latham, 18, was the victim of an apparent kidnapping while she walked home after visiting a friend.

According to Police Chief Jud Ring, “It looks now as if we have a definite pattern, especially between the Dunlap and Saxon cases. It’s reasonable to conclude that all three girls were abducted by the same perpetrator. This is a very nasty situation. We still hope that the girls will be found alive, of course. But we just don’t know what has become of them. What we do know is this: there is every reason to believe that such crimes will continue if we fail to apprehend the person responsible for these outrages.

“Our department,” he went on, “is conducting a full-scale investigation of the matter. No avenue is being overlooked. I have every confidence that we’ll soon have the perpetrator in custody. Until then, however, it’s imperative that all our female citizens exercise the utmost caution in their daily affairs.”

Bonnie Saxon is a graduate of the Buford High School Class of 1968. In addition to being voted “Spirit Queen,” Bonnie was on the honor roll and was active in numerous school activities. She and her mother are members of the First Presbyterian Church, where Bonnie sang in the Youth Choir. This energetic and beautiful young woman is a familiar figure to a great many citizens of our town, and it is hoped that her widely recognized appearance may prove useful in locating her.

Anyone with information about the abduction or present whereabouts of Bonnie Saxon, Linda Latham, or Sandra Dunlap is urged to contact the authorities at once.

She was gone.

Dead.

Whoever wrote the story didn’t know it, but somebody had pounded a stake through her chest. Killed her.

Larry knew he should go on, but he didn’t have the heart.

He checked his wristwatch. Three o’clock. It was early to quit. If he stopped now, he would need to come back tomorrow.

He didn’t care.

He made a copy of the story and shut off the machine.

Twenty-four

When the bell rang, the students began to file out of the classroom. Lane slowly gathered her books from the rack under her seat so it wouldn’t be obvious to the others that she was remaining.

No point letting the whole world know she was staying to help. Some of the kids would think she was brown-nosing. Not that I care what they think, she told herself. Still, it seemed wise to keep a low profile.

Jessica stopped in the doorway and looked back at her.

Lane slid her stacked books toward her chest as if preparing to stand.

“You’re leaving?” Mr. Kramer asked.

“No, uh-uh. Not if you have something for me.”

Nodding, he smiled. “I have a job, if you don’t mind a little manual labor.”

“No, that’d be fine.” She glanced toward the door. Jessica, frowning, turned and walked away.

“Come on up here,” Kramer said. He reached into his briefcase but kept his eyes on Lane as she approached.

She hoped she looked all right. Jim had certainly thought so. During the lunch period, he’d snuck his hand under the loose bottom of her blouse several times before she finally lost her temper. “If you don’t like it,” he’d said, “you shouldn’t wear that kind of thing.”

The white pullover blouse had a cowl neck, short sleeves, and a hem that reached just to her waist. It wasn’t meant to be tucked in. Neither, however, was it meant as an open invitation for Jim to explore the bare areas just out of sight above her belt.

That morning, when Lane chose to wear the blouse and her short denim skirt, she hadn’t been thinking about Jim’s reaction. Her mind had been on Mr. Kramer. She’d wanted to look good for him. And maybe just a little sexy.

If Kramer appreciated her outfit, he gave no sign.

He turned his attention to his briefcase as she stepped around the back of the table. He pulled out a file folder, turned toward her and opened it. Inside was a stack of eight-by-ten pictures.

“Whitman?” she asked, peering at the upside-down face of the top portrait.

“Very good.”

“I used to play ‘Authors’ a lot when I was a kid.”

“How would you like to hang these up? Give the kids something worthwhile to gaze at while they’re daydreaming.”

“Great,” Lane said. “Where do you want them?”

He pointed out a strip of corkboard high on the front wall between the chalkboard and the ceiling. “Think you can manage that? You’d have to stand on the stool, I’m afraid.”

“No problem,” Lane said.

“Fine. Just fine. I’d give you papers to correct, but all I’ve got are essays. I really have to do those myself.”

“Oh, this’ll be okay.”

He took a clear plastic box of thumbtacks from his desk drawer and gave it to her along with the folder of pictures.

“Any special order you want them in?” Lane asked.

“Doesn’t matter.” He brought the stool from the corner of the room.

It was as high as Lane’s waist, with metal legs and a disk of wood for a seat. Each room seemed to have just such a stool. Teachers often perched on them, but Mr. Kramer never used his, preferring to sit on the front table when he addressed the class.

He carried it to the far end of the chalkboard. “Maybe I’d better hold something.”

Lane handed the pictures and tacks to him. He stood beside her, watching, frowning slightly.

“Don’t worry, I’m not planning to fall.”

“I’m sure you know what Burns said about the best-laid plans and schemes.”

“Promise you’ll catch me if they ‘gang a-gley’?”

“I’ll give it my best.”

She stepped onto a rung, planted her other knee on the seat, and braced herself against the chalkboard as she got to her feet.

“You okay up there?”

“Yeah, I think so.” She looked down at him and managed to smile. Her position didfeel precarious. There was little room for her feet and nothing to hold onto. But the corkboard was just in front of her face, so she wouldn’t have to stretch for it.

“Try one, see how it goes.” He passed the Whitman picture to her. Lane took it in her left hand. She reached her right arm across the front of her body, and Mr. Kramer dropped two tacks into her palm.

She raised the picture and pressed it flat against the corkboard. Holding it in place with one hand, she shoved a tack into its upper right corner.

And knew what her blouse was doing. She knew that she’d made a mistake when she selected it. But she’d thought she would be correcting papers, not climbing onto a stool and leaning forward with both arms extended and Mr. Kramer below her.

The hem was brushing the skin of her back at least an inch above the top of her skirt. Lane couldn’t see the front. She didn’t have to. She could well imagine the way it must be hanging away from her body. If Mr. Kramer happened to be looking in the right direction, he could probably see all the way up to her bra.

The knowledge gave her a hot, crawly feeling.

She pushed the other tack into place, lowered her arms and looked down at the teacher.

He nodded. “So far, so good,” he said, smiling. He gave her a photograph of Mark Twain.

“I can probably manage,” Lane said, “if you want to go ahead and correct the papers. Just give me the box of tacks and set the pictures on the chalk tray.”

“Sure you don’t want me here as a spotter?”

“I think I’ll be okay.”

He handed the tacks to Lane, then removed the short stack of pictures from the folder and propped them up on the chalk tray. He didn’t leave.

The hell with it, Lane thought. No big deal.

She went ahead and lifted Mark Twain up to the cork-board.

“Get him right there next to Walt. Maybe overlap the edges a little. You could use the same tack for both.”

He isn’t paying attention to me, anyway, she told herself.

Yeah? Don’t bet on it.

If he’s like most guys, he’s probably staring straight up my blouse. Or crouching for a peek at my panties.

She tucked the plastic box under her chin to free her right hand, and pried out the tack at the corner of the Whitman picture.

By now, she thought, Jim would have a hand sliding up my leg.

Mr. Kramer’s not Jim, thank God.

Besides, I’m a student. He wouldn’t dare touch me, even if he wanted to.

She overlapped the edges of the pictures and pushed in the tack. It held Mark Twain in place while she took the box from under her chin, crouched down, and lifted a portrait of Charles Dickens off the chalk tray. As she straightened up, she looked around at Mr. Kramer. He nodded with approval.

“Looks as if everything’s under control,” he said.

“Yeah.”

“Just give a whistle if you need me,” he told her, and headed for his desk.

He sat down. He bent over a stack of papers and picked up a red pen.

Thank goodness, Lane thought.

She felt strange, though — not just relieved that he no longer stood below her, but a little disappointed, a little abandoned.

Guess he wasn’t all that impressed, she thought.

She rammed a tack through the corners of Dickens and Twain.

I didn’t wanthim looking up my clothes!

Maybe he didn’t even take advantage of the opportunity.

She climbed down from the stool, adjusted its position, and saw Mr. Kramer turn to watch her mount it. “Careful,” he said. She smiled and nodded.

And a terrible thought struck her.

What if he thinks I dressed like this to turn him on?

Fire spread over Lane’s skin.

He must think I’m a slut.

As she tacked up a picture of Tennyson, beads of sweat slid down her sides.

I did want to look nice for him, she told herself. But I had no idea...

She wished to God she had worn jeans and a long-tailed blouse. A blouse she could have tucked in tight.

I would’ve, she thought. So help me, I would’ve if I’d had any idea...

I’m not a slut.

What if he thinks I did it for grades?

A lot of kids were known to flirt with their teachers in hopes of getting higher marks. Some probably even offered sex. Though Lane didn’t know of anyone who’d done that, she supposed it sometimes happened.

I’m already getting an A from him, Lane told herself. He can’t think I dressed like this for a better grade.

For that matter, why should he even suspect I wore this stuff for him? He probably just thinks I’m just trying to look good for a boyfriend.

Lane began to feel better as the sickening heat of embarrassment subsided.

Sure, she thought. He can’t suspect I dressed for him. He’s no mind reader.

She continued to put the pictures up, balancing on the stool, bending over for new ones, reaching out, tacking them to the corkboard, frequently climbing down and moving the stool closer to Mr. Kramer’s desk.

Often, she glanced at him. Usually, he was busy reading the essays. A few times, however, she found him looking over his shoulder at her. When that happened, he never tried to turn away and pretend he wasn’t watching. He never acted guilty. He usually just smiled or nodded, and made a comment: “You’re doing a good job,” or “Glad it’s you and not me up there,” or “Don’t push yourself if you start getting tired.”

Lane finally began to suspect that he didn’t care about the way she was dressed.

I might as well be wearing coveralls, she thought.

She wondered if he might be gay.

Give it a break, she told herself. What do you want? He’s a teacher.

She stepped down to the floor once again and moved the stool a couple of feet nearer to his desk. Swiveling his chair around, he scanned the high row of pictures. “Terrific,” he said. “They add a nice touch to the room, don’t you think?”

“Be nicer if they weren’t all deadguys.”

“Well, unfortunately, the literary community doesn’t hold much stock in living writers. You can’t be a ‘major author’ till you’re dead.”

Lane thought he was wrong about that. Though she felt reluctant to question his views, he usually seemed to enjoy discussions with his students. Besides, if she stopped talking, he would return to the essays.

“Dad says that’s a myth,” she told him, and climbed onto the stool. She lifted a picture of Hemingway from the chalk tray and raised it to the corkboard. “Most of these guys were enormously successful and famous in their own time.” She punched a tack through its corner. “Only a few weren’t recognized till after they died. Like Poe, for instance.”

Bending down for a picture of Steinbeck, she looked over her shoulder. Mr. Kramer was smiling, nodding his head.

“And Poe was allscrewed up,” she added.

Mr. Kramer laughed. “I suppose he had to be, to write the way he did.”

“I don’t know.” She straightened up and pressed the picture into place. “Dad writes worse stuff than Poe, and he seems fairly normal. I’ve met scads of horror writers — going to conventions and stuff.” She pressed in the tack, then turned carefully atop the stool to look down at Mr. Kramer. “Some are even really good friends of Dad’s, guys I’ve known forever. Almost none of them are weird. In fact, they seem more normal and well-adjusted than most people I’ve known.”

“That’s hard to believe.”

“I know. You’d think they’d be raving lunatics, wouldn’t you?”

“Or at least slightly weird.”

“You know what isweird? Nearly all of them I know have this incredible sense of humor. They’re always cracking me up.”

“Strange. Maybe their humor is a reflection of their somewhat off-kilter world view.”

“More than likely.” Lane climbed down from the stool, moved it closer to Mr. Kramer, and mounted it again. As she rose, she lifted a picture of Faulkner from the chalk tray. She pressed it against the corkboard and tacked it into place. Hearing a squeak, she glanced back. Mr. Kramer had turned his swivel chair around. He was looking up at her.

He didn’t say anything.

Lane crouched for another picture. As she raised it, she said, “You know how we were talking about dead writers and fame?”

“The myth.”

“Right. Well, you want to know something odd? The reverse is actually true. At least nowadays.” She tacked the picture of Frost to the cork. “When a writer kicks the bucket, he’s screwed.”

She heard her teacher laugh. Turning around, she smiled down at him. “Publishers want to builda writer. Once he’s dead, they don’t want to touch him.”

More laughter.

“It’s true. Unless he’s a real biggy. With most guys, they just lose interest. I know about an agent, and one of his best writers died, and he kept it a secret. She was a big writer of romances, you know? He stood to lose a fortune. So what he did, he actually got some hack to start writing imitations, and he sold them using the dead writer’s name. Do you believe it?”

“Gives a new meaning to ‘literary immortality.’ ”

“Yeah, I’ll say.”

Lane turned away and took a picture of Sandburg off the tray. Rising, she realized she should have moved the stool. Frost was already some distance to her left. Sandburg would mean a stretch. She supposed she could manage it, though.

Easing herself forward, she braced her right forearm against the chalkboard. She leaned to the left. She reached way out with the picture of Sandburg and pressed it to the wall and the stool flipped.

Lane heard herself gasp, “Oh shit!”

Part of her mind seemed to disconnect, to step back and observe this ridiculous and embarrassing event. She saw herself dropping sideways, arms waving in the air beyond her head, her right leg high as if the overturning stool had thrown it toward the ceiling. Her skirt was up around her hips. Her blouse was halfway up her chest.

Wunnerful wunnerful.

She heard a crash, but it wasn’t her. Not yet. Maybe Kramer’s chair slamming against his desk.

He coming to the rescue? she wondered. Or just trying to get out of the way.

Coming to the rescue, she realized as one of his hands jammed under her armpit and another clapped the bare skin of her upraised leg, high against her inner thigh. She felt the hands thrust upward. Then she slammed the floor, grunting at the impact.

The hands went away.

“My God, are you okay?”

Nodding, gasping, Lane rolled onto her back. Mr. Kramer was kneeling over her. His face was red, his eyes wide, his lips twisted in a grimace.

“Guess I’ll live,” she muttered. She started to sit up.

“Don’t.” He gently pushed her shoulder. She eased back down. “Don’t try to get up. Just rest a minute.” He kneaded her shoulder. “That was a nasty fall.”

“Thanks for catching me.”

“Well, I tried. It happened so fast.”

“You broke my fall some.”

“Not much.”

“I feel like such a dork.”

“These things happen.” His other hand patted her belly. “I just hope you’re all right. You really gave me a scare.” His hand settled there, big and warm against her bare skin just above her belt. “Where do you hurt?” he asked.

“My side, I guess.”

He leaned farther over her. His hand slid across her belly to her hip. “Here?”

She nodded. “And my ribs.”

“Hope nothing’s broken.”

“I don’t think so.”

Lane closed her eyes. Gently, Mr. Kramer rubbed her hip bone and the side of her rump. His other hand brushed her blouse upward. “Pretty red,” he murmured. “You’ll probably have a whale of a bruise.”

“Moby bruise,” she said, then sighed as he began to massage the side of her ribcage.

“Tender?” he asked.

“Yeah. A little.”

His hand roamed higher, fingers kneading, soothing the soreness.

“Any sharp pain?” he asked.

“No.” She moaned when his wrist brushed against the underside of her breast.

“It hurts here?” he asked, pressing her ribs. The wrist moved slightly, rubbing her.

“Just kind of an ache,” she murmured.

He massaged her side, his wrist staying against her breast, caressing Lane through the thin fabric of her bra.

Doesn’t he realize it’s there? she wondered.

She hoped not.

If he realized, he would stop.

His other hand eased lower. Lane’s skirt was no longer in its way. She felt him stroking and squeezing the side of her leg, high up.

“Better?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

He continued to rub her.

Doesn’t he know what he’s doing to me? she wondered.

Lightly, he patted her leg. “Okay,” he said. “Why don’t we get you to your feet now?”

Lane considered telling him she wasn’t ready. Any more of this, though, and it might become all too obvious that his touch was doing more than just soothing her injuries.

He took a firm hold on her upper arm, placed his other hand at the base of her neck, and helped her sit up.

Her blouse unrumpled and drifted toward her waist. Her skirt was as high as she had suspected. She glimpsed glossy blue between her legs, and dropped a hand to conceal it.

A little late for modesty, she thought.

Mr. Kramer held onto her arm until she was standing.

“Thanks,” she murmured.

When he let go, she looked down and straightened her skirt.

“Are you all right?”

“Yeah. I think so.” She raised her eyes. “At least I was wearing clean undies,” she added, and smirked, and couldn’t believe she’d said that.

“Always should,” Mr. Kramer said, a smile spreading across his face. “You never know when you might be in an accident.”

“As Mother says.”

“As all mothers say.”

“Shit,” she muttered, and lowered her head.

He put his hands on her shoulders, rubbed them. “I’m just glad you’re all right. I feel responsible, you know.”

“I’m such a klutz.”

“You’re a terrific young lady. Don’t ever think otherwise.”

Lane looked into his eyes. They were clear blue, gentle, knowing. “Thanks.”

“I mean it. Now, you’d better run along.”

“But I haven’t finished putting up the...”

“I’ll take care of the rest. If I were you, I’d take a long, hot bath. Really soak. That’ll help the soreness.”

“I will.”

* * *

Lane waited until after dinner that night, then went into the bathroom. She still wore her school clothes. She lay down on the floor. There, she hitched up her skirt and blouse so they were just as they’d been after the fall. She arranged her legs to match her earlier position: left leg straight and flat against the carpet; right leg raised a little, bent at the knee, angled outward. Bracing herself up with her elbows, she stared down at herself.

This is how I looked to Mr. Kramer.

Holy cow.

Then she noticed that her right leg had a faint purple hue. The imprint of Mr. Kramer’s hand? That must be where he grabbed me to break my fall, she realized. It was just below her groin.

“Man,” she whispered.

She thought she could still feel his hand there, as if it had left a ghost of itself.

If Jim had grabbed me there...

Forget Jim, she told herself.

She got to her feet, stepped in front of the mirror and again lifted her skirt. Her panties were tight and clinging, the blue fabric nearly transparent.

She grimaced at her reflection. Her face was very red.

“He sure got an eyeful,” she whispered.

But he never got funny. He acted like a perfect gentleman. That’s the difference between a mature, sensitive man like Mr. Kramer and a horny teenager like Jim.

Lane stoppered the tub and ran water for her bath. While the tub filled, she took off her clothes. She returned to the mirror. There were bruises over the jut of her left hipbone and low along the side of her rib cage.

She stared at her left breast. Leaning backward, she studied its underside where Mr. Kramer’s wrist had rubbed it through the bra. The skin looked smooth and white.

What did you expect? she asked herself.

But it didn’t seem right for there to be no visible evidence of his touch.

Shaking her head, Lane turned to the tub. She crouched and shut off the faucet. Then she climbed over the side.

She settled down into the hot water. She sprawled beneath it, squirming under the fluid caress, and once again arranged her body to match its position on the classroom floor. She closed her eyes.

She remembered the feel of Mr. Kramer’s touch. In her mind the teacher stopped massaging her ribs. His hand closed gently over her breast and he sank down onto her and covered her mouth with his. She wrapped her arms around him. She squeezed him hard and sank into the moist heat of his kiss.

Twenty-five

Jessica woke up. Keeping one eye shut, she squinted at her bedside lamp. Then at her alarm clock. Almost three. In the morning?

What is this? she wondered. What’s the lamp doing on? She rolled onto her back and sat up.

Kramer, naked, stood with his back to the closed door of her bedroom. His left hand rested against the switch plate. His right hand, down at his side, held a straight razor.

Jessica felt as if her heart had been stomped.

“Aren’t you glad to see me?” Kramer asked. He spoke in a normal voice, not a whisper. It was very loud in the stillness.

Jessica struggled for a breath, then whispered, “My folks’ll hear you.”

“Think so?” he said, speaking even louder than before.

Maybe not, she told herself. Her door was shut. Her parents’ room was at the other end of the hallway, and they were sound sleepers.

Kramer let his hand fall away from the light switch. He stepped slowly toward the end of the bed.

Jessica gazed at the razor swinging near his side.

Why did he have that?

He’d warned her that he might come back with a razor.

She panted. She couldn’t seem to get enough air into her lungs. “I didn’t tell,” she said. “I didn’t... tell on you. What do you want?”

He said nothing. A corner of his mouth curled up. He stopped at the foot of the bed. Eyes on Jessica, he reached down with his left hand and dragged the covers toward him.

She didn’t move.

The blanket and top sheet slid off her lap, down her legs, and dropped off the end of the mattress. Her short nightgown, rucked up and twisted while she slept, left her bare below the waist.

“Nice,” Kramer said. “Now, lie back and relax.”

She shook her head. She lifted her left arm and rested its cast against her thigh, her hand blocking the teacher’s view.

“That’s no way to behave. You’ll get low marks for cooperation.” He lifted the razor close to his face and shook it in a scolding gesture.

Jessica moved her arm aside. She lay down.

The mattress shook as Kramer crawled onto it. He knelt between her legs. He lifted her nightgown and slit it up the middle until it parted between her breasts. With the end of the blade, he flicked the fabric aside.

“Don’t cut me,” she whispered. “Please.”

“I’m not happy with you, Jessica.”

“I didn’t tell.”

“I know.”

She whimpered as cold steel slid down her belly. Raising her head, she saw that it was the blunt side of the blade.

“But you might,” Kramer said.

“I won’t. Never.”

“I saw how you looked at Lane this afternoon. You were thinking about it, weren’t you?”

“No.”

“Thinking about warning her.”

“No. I wouldn’t. Why should I care what you do to her? I don’t even like the bitch.”

He flipped the blade and cut her. A quick, curling slash. It didn’t hurt much, but she flinched rigid and sucked in her belly. A red S appeared above her navel. Its curving line thickened. Dribbles spread out from it like tendrils. They blurred as tears filled Jessica’s eyes. Her sobbing made them shimmer and wiggle.

“Please!” she gasped.

“Shouldn’t have called Lane a bitch.”

“I’m sorry!”

Kramer hunched down. Braced on his elbows, rump high, he lapped up the spreading blood. With the tip of his tongue he probed the shallow cut. Jessica shuddered as his tongue spread the raw edges.

She crashed her cast against the side of his head, crying out as pain lanced up her arm.

The blow knocked his head sideways.

Twisting, she rammed a knee into his hip.

He toppled, and the edge of the bed wasn’t there to catch him. He dropped out of sight, slammed the floor.

Jessica rolled, grabbed the side of the mattress and looked down at him. He was flat on his back, an upraised knee resting against the box springs, his other leg straight out, one arm against his side, the other flung out limp against the carpet, its hand open, the razor a few inches beyond his fingertips. His jaw drooped. His open eyes were rolled upward as if gazing at something beneath his upper lids.

He’s out, she thought.

She knew out when she saw it; she’d seen enough boxing matches with Riley.

Gasping for air, trembling and nauseous, she swung her legs down. She rose from the bed and stepped over him. With one foot she pinned his right wrist to the carpet. She crouched and picked up the razor. Once she had it, she ground her heel against his wrist.

He groaned.

Coming to! Jessica’s heart lurched. Her stomach seemed to shrink and go cold.

She stepped off his wrist, turned around and looked down at him. His eyes were squeezed shut, his teeth bared.

She had to do something fast!

She took a deep breath, about to cry out “Dad!” But she stopped herself.

Kramer would talk. If he lived, he’d talk. Everyone would find out she’d been sleeping with him. Everyone. Her folks, all the kids at school, Riley.

Can’t let him talk.

A chill swept up Jessica’s body. Her skin prickled with goose bumps.

Nobody’ll blame me. It’s self-defense. He broke into the house and attacked me.

She looked down at her wound. Blood still spilled from the S-shaped slice. The skin below it was slicked with shiny red. Her pubic hair was matted and drops trickled down her thighs.

That’s my proof, she thought. He cut me. He came to rape and murder me. I had to defend myself.

Kramer opened his eyes.

Jessica rushed to his side and rammed her foot down, driving her heel into his belly. Breath whooshed out of him. His eyes bugged. He half sat up. She dropped onto him, knees landing on his chest and stomach. As his back struck the floor, she swept the razor down at his throat.

His left arm shot up faster than she could imagine. It met her descending forearm just above the wrist. Pain streaked to her shoulder. The razor flew from her tingling fingers.

Kramer’s other hand punched her in the spine. As she jerked rigid, he grabbed her hair. He yanked it and bu