Authors: Gregory Lamberson
“If you like your horror fast and nasty, then take a ride with JOHNNY GRUESOME. GRUESOME is a loving and intelligent tribute to the classic splatter films that set the pace for modern horror. With sharp writing and an eye for detail.Lamberson masterfully brings a night mare to life. Bold and trashy in all the right ways, JOHNNY GRUESOME is a book (and a villain) you won’t soon forget.”
—Lee Thomas, author ofPARISH DAMNEDandTHE DUST of WONDERLAND
“JOHNNY GRUESOME is a rarity: bright and clever descriptions, an elusive sense of humor, and high-level pacing. I wish I had written it.”
—Herschell Gordon Lewis,The Godfather of Gore: Blood Feastand2,000 Maniacs
“Sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll are back, in the Death Mobile drivin’, leather jacket-clad corpse of JOHNNY GRUESOME, a man who lives up to his name in every sense of the word. The reader is advised to put some Alice Cooper on high volume, crack open a can of beer and dive right in. Be forewarned, however, this is one ride through the hell of high school and the wince-inducing gore of undead vengeance you may have to take more than once.In JOHNNY GRUESOME, horror has a new hero.”
—Kealan Patrick Burke, Bram Stoker Award-winning author ofCURRENCY OF SOULS, THE TURTLE BOY, and THE HIDES.
“JOHNNY GRUESOME has a frightening sense of detail that makes it all the more horrific–it’s a gruesome ride that you can’t stop reading.”
—Gunnar Hansen, “Leatherface” in the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre
“Any way you slice things, it just doesn’t get any more gruesome than this. Greg Lamberson’s JOHNNY GRUESOME is a rotting fetid romp of a novel that shows you a little of life post-mortem for your average teenage headbanger. A B-movie nightmare recreated with loving fan-boy zeal, I give it an “F” for fun, freaky and foul fucked-up funk.”
—Steve Vernon Author ofHARD ROADS
“Greg Lamberson’s JOHNNY GRUESOME is edgy, violent, supernaturally cool and the new undead king of quick-and-dirty horror.JOHNNY GRUESOME spins the zombie genre into a fresh and ballsy hardrock direction that just kills!”
—Jonathan Maberry, Bram Stoker Award-winning author ofGHOST ROAD BLUES and DEAD MAN’S SONG
“JOHNNY GRUESOME has the potential to becomean iconic horror characterin the mold of such genre heavyweights as Freddy Krueger and Jason Vorhees. With a cinematic eye (what else can you expect from the man who directed such films asSlime CityandUndying Love?), Gregory Lamberson gives us what could have been a great B-movie about revenge from beyond the grave, but which instead has been fleshed out and given richer life in the form of a novel. The result is a fun, compelling read with characters we care about.”
—L. L. Soares, RIGHT HOUSE ON THE LEFT
“Gregory Lamberson’s JOHNNY GRUESOME isn’t just your old run of the mill zombie tale. It’s a smokin’ hot, sexy, rockin’ zombie adventure!”
—Angeline Hawkes, Bram Stoker Award nominated author ofTHE COMMANDMENTS
“This homage to the splatter films of the 1980s … is a wild ride through the darker recesses of the reader’s imagination…. Recommended to anyone who loves their horror hard, fast, and fun.”
—Dave Simms, Hellnotes
“Horror fans who loved over-the-top novels and slasher films of the 1980s will see their youthful favorites released from an uneasy grave with JOHNNY GRUESOME. The killings are deliciously gory, the characters well developed and believable, and the pace is perfect.”
—Steven E. Wedel, Horror World
“Here’s one for the history books. A novel that not only combines the best of more than a half-dozen tropes in horror literature (ghosts, zombies, serial killers, unkillable slashers, revenge fantasy, etc.), but does it well….This is top-down one of the best, most gripping, and most gruesome horror novels I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. … I would recommend this novel to any horror fan, hands down…. There is no reason not to hold this book to your jaded, black, horror-soaked heart.”
—Shawn Rutledge, SkullRing
“Johnny is the kind of villain you find yourself rooting for; he’s cool, nasty, and a smart-ass, and not in the way-too-many-bad-puns kind of way…. Does JOHNNY GRUESOME deliver? Yes, yes it does.JOHNNY GRUESOME rocks. … So if you’re in the mood to put on your favorite Iron Maiden T-shirt and rock out to your favorite Metallica album in book form, then JOHNNY GRUESOME is just your book.”
—Wil Keiper, Horror YearBookDEDICATION:
In memory of my mother, Jeanne T. Keefe, who raised me in the realRed Hill and encouraged my love of monsters.
Published 2008 by Medallion Press, Inc.
The MEDALLION PRESS LOGOis a registered tradmark of Medallion Press, Inc.
If you purchased this book without a cover, you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as “unsold and destroyed” to the publisher, and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment from this “stripped book.”
Copyright © 2008 by Gregory LambersonCover Illustration by Dan Plumley and Adam MockBook design by James Tampa
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission of the publisher, except where permitted by law.
Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Typeset in Adobe Jenson ProPrinted in the United States of America
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
I created Johnny Gruesome in a screenplay I wrote twentythree years ago. During the evolution of that script into this novel, numerous people offered me invaluable assistance.
I wish to thank Ed Walloga, Robert Craig Sabin, and Joseph Fusco for their recommendations regarding the screenplay, which also applied to the novel.
Thanks also to Jeff Strand, Steve Wedel, Chris Hedges, Nick Cato, Richard Hipson, Lee Thomas, Jaime Le Chance, and L.L. Soares for their editorial comments and suggestions, and to Roy Robbins of Bad Moon Books for publishing the Limited Edition hardcover of this book.
The rock CDGruesomewas always intended to be a companion piece to this novel, yet the wonderful music and lyrics of Giasone and Marcy Italiano influenced me during the writing of the final draft. How many authors get to polish their work while listening to an original soundtrack for it?
Thank you to artist Dan Plumley for his ’80s tattoo-style cover for the book you now hold; he joins a roster of artists who have interpreted Johnny, including Eric Maché, Zach McCain, Kelly Forbes, and Martin Blanco.
Thank you to the folks at Medallion Press who made it their mission to bring “the headbanger from hell” to a wider readership: Helen A. Rosburg, Adam Mock, James Tampa, Christy Phillippe, Janet Bank, Horror Acquisitions Editor Ali Degray, and my primary contact, Kerry Estevez. You’re all gruesome in the best sense of the word!
Finally, with love, thanks to my wife, Tamar, for sharing my dream and providing me with brutally honest criticism during this endeavor. Patience and understanding are required during the nurturing of a novel, even one about an undead teenager who still digs rock ‘n’ roll.Table of Contents
Like one, that on a lonesome roadDoth walk in fear and dread;And having once turned round walks on,And turns no more his head;Because he knows a frightful fiendDoth close behind him tread.
—Samuel Taylor ColeridgeThe Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Some heads are gonna roll …
Eric Carter held on to the edge of the indoor swimming pool, teeth chattering as the water chilled his bones. His shriveled testicles clung to his inner thighs for warmth, like leeches hungry for blood. Shouts and laughter echoed around him, the shrill voices of boys indistinguishable from those of girls, the steady motion of the bodies in the water creating a rhythmic tide against his slender back.
Behind him the diving board sprang, its reverberation continuing through the deep splash that followed. He moved one hand over the other, his toes skimming the pool’s plaster bottom. Keeping his head above the water, he bobbed toward the pool’s midpoint like an astronaut on the surface of the moon. Shame burned his ears as underclassmen glided across the shallow end with the aid of kickboards. He had failed to swim the pool’s length at the start of the semester, and Coach Bell had assigned him to remedial lessons with the fourth graders, much to the delight of his fifth-grade classmates.
Shivering, he turned in a half circle and surveyed the deep end of the pool. Coach Bell had designated the last ten minutes of class free time, and a cluster of students lined up at the diving board, their hair dripping and bodies glistening. A girl in a salmon-colored bikini and a rubber swimming cap stood at the board’s edge, pinching her nose. As she jackknifed off the board, Eric glimpsed Coach Bell outside his glass-enclosed corner office, chatting with Miss Calloway, the girls’ phys-ed teacher.
With the swimming instructor preoccupied, Eric saw his opportunity. His chest swelled with determination. While some of his classmates swam laps on the opposite side of the pool, others played water polo in the deep end and splashed each other while treading water. As usual, nobody noticed him. His feet no longer touched bottom, and as he pulled himself around the aluminum ladder, he glanced up at the wooden bleachers.
Johnny Grissom sat alone in the top row, clad in his usual ensemble: faded blue jeans, a black concert T-shirt, and dingo boots. His dark hair hung down to his shoulders, glazed eyes radiating boredom. Eric hadn’t seen the boy in the water all semester. Johnny’s eyes settled on him, and he turned rigid. Eric had never suffered Johnny’s legendary wrath because he’d always been smart enough to avoid him. Now he felt as if he had a large target on his chest, a feeling that increased when Johnny’s thin lips formed a smirk. Looking away, Eric focused on the deep end. Reflections of the overhead lights danced on the surface as water polo players propelled themselves forward with rubber flippers.
Pressing the flats of his feet against the side of the pool, Eric imagined himself as Spider-Man, poised to leap from the top of a Manhattan skyscraper. Taking a deep breath, he launched himself forward, facedown. He sliced the water, cupping his hands and kicking his feet, chlorine burning his eyes. He turned his head, gulping air, and stroked the surface.
I’m doing it!
He couldn’t believe he had been so frightened by the prospect of swimming. What was the big deal? He never wanted to see a kickboard again. He paced himself, worried that his body would wear itself out before he reached his destination. As he turned his head to take a breath of oxygen, he saw the diving board ahead instead of the ladder. Somehow he had veered off to his right, away from the pool’s edge.
He tried to right his course, but water shot into his mouth and down his throat. Coughing, he realized he had stopped moving and his legs swung beneath him. His head dipped beneath the surface, his outstretched fingers grasping at air. Water pressed against him on all sides, distorting the sounds above. Gazing at the rectangular light fixtures in the ceiling with panicked eyes, he kicked with all of his strength. His head broke the surface, the murky sounds of oblivious laughter clearing as water rushed from his ears.
Reaching out in vain, trying to call for Coach Bell, he sank beneath the surface again, his heart hammering in his chest. He kicked his legs as if pedaling a bicycle and rose at a slower rate. This time, only his face broke the surface. Gasping, he flailed his arms, then sank again, lacking the strength to resurface.
He descended into the cold blue world, his movements strained. A dozen legs kicked above him, too far away to reach. The flippers moved in slow motion as his heart sped up. His ears threatened to pop and his body convulsed.Drowning…
The water before him exploded in a concussion of oxygen, white bubbles blowing out in all directions and rising to the surface. A dark shape within the eye of the explosion turned and swam toward him. Excited shouts from above penetrated the depths. One hand snatched his hair and another spun him around, an arm choking him from behind. He clutched the forearm beneath his jaw with both hands and felt himself being dragged toward the light. As he broke the surface again, his wet hair plastered his left eye. Coughing up water, he gasped as the sudden intake of air seared his lungs.
His rescuer tugged him to the deep end ladder, where Coach Bell reached under his arms and shouted something unintelligible. Eric hugged the ladder, his weakened arms feeling elastic. He raised his eyebrows at the sight of his savior. The boy was treading water beside him, fully dressed, his black T-shirt bloated with trapped air.
The zombie’s head exploded in a shower of skull fragments and tumorous brain matter. The headless corpse toppled to the sidewalk, where its legs continued to kick. A horde of hungry dead things lumbered up the street to take its place, empty office buildings standing like silent tombs. A woman screamed, and somewhere in the distance a siren wailed.
Eric squeezed the trigger, inflicting serious damage on a mailbox and a streetlight behind the advancing horde.
“Shoot in the middle of them,” Johnny said. “You’re bound to hit something!”
Leveling the gun, Eric fired at the center of the undead army and held the trigger down. Two of the creatures collapsed before the gun stopped firing. “I’m out of ammo!”
One of the foul-looking creatures stepped before them. Its hair had fallen out and one eyeball dangled from a gaping socket, home to squirming maggots. It opened its mouth wide and bit down with rotting teeth. Bright red blood filled the screen, and an anguished scream issued from the surround-sound speakers.
“You’re dead,” Johnny said. “Move over.”
Eric slid to the far side of the sofa, and Johnny sat in its center, opposite the TV. Gripping his plastic gun in both hands, he fired a continuous burst. Heads exploded, hearts ruptured, and intestines gushed across the sidewalk. The score in the upper left-hand corner of the screen climbed until none of the creatures remained standing.
“Wow,” Eric said.
Johnny blew imaginary smoke from the end of the gun’s barrel. “No one’s turning me into a Happy Meal.”
A shadow fell over them. Helen Grissom entered the living room with a serving tray in her outstretched arms. Dressed in casual slacks and a sweater, she set the tray on the coffee table and placed a mug of steaming hot chocolate before each boy.
“Would you like to stay for dinner, Eric?”
Eyeing the Oreos on the tray, Eric shook his head. “I don’t think my mom will let me.”
Helen’s warm smile failed to mask the exhaustion in her eyes. Even with makeup, her skin looked pale. “I bet she will if I call her.”
Eric’s face brightened. “Okay.”
Winking at him, she returned to the kitchen.
“Your mom’s cool.”
Johnny grinned. “I know.”
The game reset itself and corpses clawed their way out of graves.
Eric stood in the shadow of the silent house, toeing the cracked sidewalk, his back to Main Street. Cars passing over the wet asphalt sounded like hissing snakes. Clutching a fruit basket, he stared at the shaded windows. A barren apple tree and a tall hedge separated the yellow and brown house from the brick dwelling on its left, and a cherry orchard and grape vineyard sloped outward on its right.
Eric crossed the cement walkway and mounted the wooden porch steps. At the paneled door, he noticed the black metal mailbox bulging with unopened envelopes and magazines. He knocked on the door and waited. A moment later he heard footsteps, moving closer. The door opened, and a lumpy shape emerged from the shadowy interior. Charlie Grissom squinted at him through bloodshot eyes.
“Hi, Eric.” Charlie’s hair needed combing, and stubble speckled his thick chin.
Swallowing, Eric raised the fruit basket. “My mom got this for you and Johnny, Mr. Grissom.”
Grasping the basket, Charlie managed a painful smile. “That was nice of her,” he said in a monotone. “Tell her I said thanks.” He looked over his shoulder at the shadowy stairway. “Come on in.”
Eric entered the foyer. The TV in the dark living room cast a blue glow over the furniture. Charlie closed the door, cutting off the sunlight, and Eric’s nostrils flared at the scent of something sweet and sickening. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he spotted floral arrangements stacked along the hallway leading to the kitchen. The stems had wilted, and the petals showed signs of decay.
“I’m glad you came,” Charlie said. “Johnny needs someone to talk to.” Leaving Eric at the foot of the stairs, he retreated into the living room and collapsed into his leather easy chair. The glare of the TV glinted off a tall bottle with a black and white label.
Eric faced the steep stairway. Reaching for the banister, he climbed the wooden stairs. At the top, he gazed at the religious paraphernalia covering the walls: a plastic Christ nailed to a cross, a velvet portrait of Jesus weeping, and rosary beads. He looked through the open door of Charlie and Helen’s bedroom. The room looked untouched—preserved—and reminded him of the antique bedroom sets in the village museum. He knocked on Johnny’s door.
He knocked again. “Johnny? It’s me, Eric.”
The door creaked open, and Johnny stood silhouetted in the sunlit bedroom. Eric heard a sniffle, followed by a wet breath. He slid the backpack off his shoulders. “I brought your homework.”
Johnny turned away. “Screw that.” He flopped facedown on his bed, his back to Eric. Reflections from car windshields glided across the high ceiling.
Eric entered the room. Posters of Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, and Michael Myers slashed at the wallpaper. Monster models stood frozen on the shelf over the bed: the Creature from the Black Lagoon, King Kong, and one of the Mole People. He laid the textbooks on top of Johnny’s narrow dresser. “I’ll just leave them here.”
“I’m sorry I missed the funeral. My folks wouldn’t let me go.”
Into his pillow, Johnny said, “It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters anymore.”
Eric approached the bed, and a floorboard creaked beneath the worn carpet. “I wanted to be there.”
Johnny’s back contracted, and he rubbed his face against his right forearm, the bedsprings squeaking.
Eric didn’t know what to do. In the months he’d spent hanging out with Johnny, he’d never seen him cry.
“Why did she have to die?”
Eric turned to the door, wondering if he should call Charlie. “I don’t know.”
Sitting up, Johnny faced him, ignoring the tears that streamed down his reddened cheeks. “She loved God. Why didn’t He love her?”
Eric offered a helpless shrug.
“Everything’s different now.” Sniffling, Johnny wiped his nose on the back of his hand. “Why do good people have to die?”
Eric had no answer.Chapter 1
Emerging from the brick Tudor house, Eric pulled the front door shut behind him. Icicles hung from the sloped roof like daggers. He shuffled through two inches of powdery snow to the black car waiting in the driveway, cold air filling his lungs and stark white filling his vision and causing his brain to pulse. The two-door Cutlass Supreme idled, gas fumes spewing from its exhaust as an electric guitar screeched through its speakers with digital clarity. The car looked like it had journeyed to hell and back, with varying shades of black and gray with different textures overlapping each other like scorch marks. A giant skull leered from a concentrated inferno airbrushed on the hood.
The Death Mobile.
As Eric passed the front bumper, the car lurched forward, like a panther poised to strike, then settled back on its haunches. Pretending not to notice, he opened the passenger door just as the guitar solo climaxed over the CD player, an orgy of self-indulgent showmanship. He dropped into the seat, feeling cold vinyl through his jeans. Setting his gym bag across his knees, he heaved the door shut and buckled his seat belt. The interior reeked of gasoline, fast food, and stale cigarette smoke. It repelled the sunlight.
Beside him, long fingers jeweled in silver skull rings drummed the steering wheel like crawling spiders, keeping time with the torturous beat. A shiny mane of long black hair, parted on the left, turned to him. Thin lips pulled back into a wicked grin, dark eyes glinting.
“Good morning, Erica.”
Eric stared back. “How’s it going, Jenny?”
Laughing, Johnny backed the Death Mobile out of the driveway. He shifted the car into gear and stepped on the gas, causing them to rocket forward, snow and ice spraying out from beneath spinning rear wheels. Eric glimpsed his mother watching them from the living room picture window, stern disapproval on her tight face. Speeding down Maple Street, they passed elegant houses separated by narrow yards.
“Maybe you could slow down? People do know me around here.”
“Everyone knows everyone in this pissant town.” Johnny eased up on the gas. “There. Your reputation’s safe.”
Eric opened his bag, took out a spiral notebook, tore out a page. “Here’s your homework.”
Johnny aimed a sideways glance at the sloppy, handwritten page. “Damn, boy.”
“You want it to look believable, don’t you?”
“Depends. What am I getting?”
“I could have done better than that myself.”
“So do it yourself next time.”
“You think reverse psychology will work on me? I’ll take your shit grade. At least I’m passing.”
Eric said nothing. Johnny made a right onto Garden Street, where older houses stood farther apart and had deeper front yards.
“You’re getting grouchy,” Johnny said. “I think it’s sexual frustration. You need to get laid.”
“I don’tneedto do anything.”
“People are going to wonder about you.”
“Let them.” Eric glanced out the side window as they made another right-hand turn, this time onto Cherry Street, a gradual incline.
Johnny snapped his fingers. “Hey, maybe I should fix you up with Karen.”
“’Course I do. I popped her, didn’t I? You never forget the ones you pop, because they never forget you. But I think you two could help each other out. You need to get laid, and she needs a good laugh. She only moans when she’s with me.”
“I don’t blame her.”
Releasing the steering wheel, Johnny gave Eric’s bicep a playful punch. “Keep it up, Erica. You’ll still be a virgin when you go away to college. They have secret societies that sacrifice people like you.”
Johnny turned left onto Main Street, which dropped off before them like a waterfall, the town square coming into view a quarter mile below. The car plummeted down the steep hill like a roller coaster, and they sped downtown, passing the brick elementary school and a fenced football field. The village of Red Hill had been named after a minor yet bloody skirmish of the American Revolution that had been fought on that very hill.
Johnny jerked the steering wheel to his left, then his right. The Death Mobile zigzagged across the lanes, and Eric slammed his palms against the dashboard, which Johnny had covered with white fur. Behind them, a car horn blared. They roared over the Main Street bridge, laughing.
The Death Mobile cruised the town square, passing a white gazebo in the park on the left and single-story shops on the right. Four brick buildings surrounded the park: two churches, the municipal building, and the post office. Snowdrifts had buried the wooden benches surrounding the ornate fountain, and a bundled postal employee shoveled icy steps.
As they passed Saint Luke’s, Johnny rolled down his window and spat out it. “Fuck you, Father Webb!”
He did this every morning, perhaps the only ritual he followed. He refused to explain this behavior to Eric, who accepted it as mere eccentricity. Johnny had stopped attending church after his mother’s death seven years earlier.
Johnny gunned the engine and the commercial district receded behind them, Victorian houses rising from each side of the street.
“I got my first blow job in there,” he said as they passed the Green Forest Cemetery.
“So you keep telling me.”
“Maybe you should take Rhonda there. You two nerds could research each other.”
Eric looked away.
“‘Hi, Rhonda.’ ‘Bye, Rhonda.’ ‘What grade did you get on your composition, Rhonda?’ Why don’t youtalkto her already? We graduate in three and a half months.”
Eric ignored him.
“Damn it,” Johnny said with sudden gravitas as he glanced at the rearview mirror.
Eric looked over his shoulder. The Red Hill Police Department’s only SUV, a Pathfinder, had pulled behind them, its strobes flashing red and blue. “What did you do?”
“I didn’t do shit. Turn around and stop looking like we just knocked over a convenience store.” Johnny pulled over to the curb. On the sidewalk, underclassmen walking to school gawked at them.
Eric studied the side-view mirror. A tall police officer with a black mustache emerged from the Pathfinder and approached them, mirrored sunglasses masking his eyes, a revolver holstered on his hip. “Oh, great. It’s Matt Crane.” Eric hoped the man would not recognize him.
Johnny killed the music and rolled down his window. The sounds of cars splashing slush grew louder.
Leaning before the open window, Matt peered inside. Snowflakes landed on his mustache. “’Morning, boys.”
“How’s it going, Chief Crane?” Johnny forced a cheerful smile.
“It’s just ‘acting chief,’ Johnny. Chief Butler will be back on the job soon.”
“That’s good news.”
Matt leaned closer, his shades probing the dark interior. “How’s your father, Eric?”
Eric resisted the urge to swallow the saliva pooling in his mouth. “Fine, sir.”
“Glad to hear it.”
Johnny gestured at the speedometer. “I’m pretty sure I wasn’t speeding.”
The ends of Matt’s mustache curved upward. “Who said you were?”
“You must have had some reason for stopping me.”
Matt appraised Johnny. “You’re right, I did. You’re driving without your seat belt on, and the roads are slippery. Better buckle up.”
Johnny looked down, surprise registering on his face. “You saw that from across the street? Good looking out.” He pulled the shoulder strap across his chest and snapped its buckle.
“My wife has both of you for first-period English, doesn’t she?”
Johnny flashed sharp teeth at Matt. “How’d you know that?”
“Believe it or not, she’s mentioned it a time or two.”
Johnny winked at Eric. “You hear that?” Before Eric could respond, Johnny turned back to Matt. “Mrs. Crane is one of our favorite teachers.”
Matt set his gloved hands on the door, his expression impassive. “Then you’d best be on your way. I know she’d hate for you to be late on my account.” He patted the car. “Take it slow, okay?”
“Yes, sir.” Rolling up his window, Johnny cranked up the music.
“You’ve got a major set of balls,” Eric said.
The Death Mobile surged forward. “Fuck him. He only got where he is because Butler’s croaking. Seat belt, my ass. He just wanted to roust us. That cocksucker’s had a hard-on for me ever since I got my license.” He grinned. “I’d do his wife in a heartbeat, though.”
“I’m sure she’d appreciate that.”
Watching the Death Mobile recede into the gray morning, Matt shook his head as the sound of screeching guitars faded. As a teenager, he had listened to the likes of Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne, and Judas Priest. Those musicians seemed quaint compared to the speed metal Johnny favored. Returning to the Pathfinder, he wondered how Carol put up with these kids, which made him feel old. They didn’t have children of their own yet, a frequent topic of conversation. Maybe now that Carol had tenure at the high school and he had a promotion within his grasp …
He climbed into the front seat and started the engine. Carol wanted to start a family, but he wasn’t sure he was ready. With the long hours he worked, he valued what little free time he had. They led simple lives: dinner with his mother once a week, dinner with her parents once a week, and a night on the town, which usually consisted of dinner and a movie. He liked Westerns, as rare as they were, and action movies, as long as they weren’t too unbelievable. Carol preferred romantic comedies and high school dramas. He didn’t know why: if he had to spend his days cooped up with hormonally driven teenagers, the last way he’d want to relax would be watching fictional representations of them. Besides, nothing dramatic really happened to teenagers. At least not in a village as quiet as Red Hill.
Eric glanced out the left window as they passed Johnny’s house. The two-story Colonial home had seen better days: shingles had fallen off the roof and paint peeled from the siding. A blue cutout of a buffalo, the Buffalo Bills’ emblem, stood on the front lawn. Johnny stared straight ahead with no reaction. The houses on the right gave way to the school’s winding driveway, which divided the snow-blanketed schoolyard in two.
“Welcome to Alcatraz,” Johnny said.Chapter 2
Gary Belter slid from the front seat of his green Chevy pickup and slammed the door, its echo traveling across the Red Hill High School parking lot. He didn’t bother locking the door. Who would want to steal his piece of junk? Rust had claimed the rear, and the snow tires were bald. Surveying The Lot, he saw the usual cliques: jocks, preppies, goths, geeks, cheerleaders, and brains. He spat tobacco juice on the gray pavement.
Two juniors headed toward him, a fat boy with a greasy ponytail and a tall dude with frizzy hair that bounced like an Afro as he walked. Behind them, the wide, flat school building overlooked The Lot, an American flag on a tall pole flapping in the wind.
“What’s happening, men?” Gary had perfected his sales technique: play cool to the underclassmen, make them look up to you.
Fat Boy scanned The Lot, nice and discreet. “Twenty?”
Gary nodded. “Step over to my office.”
They moved around the truck’s cab, hidden from the school but in plain view of the eighteen-wheelers barreling down Route 20 a quarter mile away. Fat Boy pulled a wad of wrinkled bills from his coat pocket. He smoothed them out and forked them over. Gary counted the cash and pocketed it, then took out a plastic bag filled with marijuana.
“Here you go, citizens. No seeds, suits your needs. Tell your friends, see ya soon.”
The juniors thanked him and crossed The Lot, no doubt intending to sample their purchase before class. Circling the truck, Gary leaned against one fender. He watched cars fill the parking spaces with the precision of a dance routine in an old Hollywood musical. At the far curb, a yellow bus discharged its passengers. Most of the students filed toward the main building, but some joined the groups loitering around the parked cars.
A girl approached Gary, her long, feathered blond hair bouncing on her shoulders. She wore a denim vest covered with decorative patches over a pink leather motorcycle jacket, and her skintight jeans caused Gary’s pulse to quicken.
Karen Slatter sighed as she stepped onto the icy sidewalk. She hated taking the bus: all those underclassmen acting like wild animals. She was a senior, for Christ’s sake. Johnny picked up Eric every morning because Eric had helped him get his car into shape, and Eric lived on the other side of town, which left her out in the cold. But Johnny always drove her home, the ride that mattered.
Stepping off the curb, she scanned The Lot. No sign of Johnny yet, but she saw Gary’s truck parked at the far end. She crossed The Lot, the sharp toes of her knee-high brown leather boots kicking slush. She passed a red sports car surrounded by jocks in identical letterman’s jackets, blue with white leather sleeves, just like the Buffalo Bills wore. Beneath their knit caps, emblazoned with the Sabers’ logo, Todd Kumler, Derek Delos, and Cliff Wright even had matching crew cuts. Brawny boys with arrogant eyes and hard-set jaws. Wrestlers. She didn’t know how Eric tolerated them. They leered at her and made kissing sounds, and she swung her hips a little to show they didn’t intimidate her.
Next she passed some cheerleaders, who were even worse. They thumbed their noses at her, or gave her dirty looks and whispered behind her back.Stuck-up bitches. They were just jealous; Karen knew she was prettier than them and had a better body. She’d teach them a lesson someday.
Her tension evaporated as she reached Gary. His mediumlength brown hair didn’t suit her taste, and the fine whiskers that peppered his chin made him look younger rather than older. She liked his lips, but a broken upper tooth marred his smile. He wore grungy jeans, shit-kicker boots, and an army jacket over a flannel shirt—no flair. Reaching into her shoulder bag, she took out a hard pack of Marlboro Lights and popped a cigarette between her hot pink lips.
Gary produced a brass lighter and sparked it with his thumb. Leaning forward, Karen cupped her hands around the flame and drew on the cigarette until it lit. Inhaling, she felt a nicotine rush. As Gary pocketed the lighter, a familiar-sounding engine roared in the distance and Karen’s eyes lit up.
Todd Kumler turned at the sound of the car speeding down the driveway, sunlight glinting off its dirty windshield. The Death Mobile had a reputation as notorious as its owner, and the roar of its engine identified it as much as its appearance did. Frowning, Todd shook his head. Kids like Grissom should have been sent to a different school. Todd’s father owned a construction company and paid for half the books in the high school library. What did Grissom’s father do? Nothing. He was just a drunk. “That wreck’s a real eyesore.”
Derek Delos grunted beside him. “No shit.”
The Death Mobile circled The Lot, its wheels spraying slush at students who jumped back.
“It should be taken off the road,” Cliff Wright said, leaning against the waxed Mazda his father had bought for him as an early graduation present.
An edge crept into Todd’s voice. “He’s heading this way.”
The Death Mobile angled toward them without slowing. The demonic skull on its hood grew larger, taunting them.
“Son of a bitch,” Derek said.
The deadly looking vehicle turned at the last second, and Todd thought he saw Johnny laughing at them. The car sliced into a parking space two spots away and skidded to a stop, spattering the wrestlers’ shoes with gray slush.
Cliff checked his Mazda for stains. “That asshole!”
Todd glared at the Death Mobile.
In the side-view mirror, Eric saw Todd staring at them. “They don’t look very happy.”
Johnny switched off the ignition. “Who cares? Fucking jocks.” Color flashed before their eyes as Karen skipped around the front of the car. Gary followed her, not nearly as enthusiastic, hands stuffed in his pockets. Bending forward, Karen mashed her lips against Johnny’s window. When she stopped, a lipstick butterfly remained on the glass.
Johnny grinned. “Now I ask you, how can you pass that up?”
“Easy—I know where those lips have been.” Eric opened his door and got out of the car.
Johnny leaned across the seat. “You’ll never get laid with that attitude.”
Eric slammed the door in Johnny’s face. Johnny got out on the other side, and Karen threw her arms around his neck and kissed his mouth. Johnny wore the regalia of a heavy-metal warrior: a black leather motorcycle jacket over a black V-neck T-shirt, faded jeans pulled over steel-toed boots. Eric observed Gary, who stood at the front bumper, the wind blowing his choppy bangs. He seemed fascinated by the kiss.
When Johnny pulled away, Karen said, “Are we still on for tonight?”
“Absolutely. Eric’s coming, too.”
Before Eric could protest, Karen acknowledged him with a playful smile. “Allright.”
Gary snorted. “I thought you were too much of a pussy to party on a school night.”
Eric stared at Gary’s broken tooth. “When did you start thinking? If you’re not careful, you’ll give yourself a headache.”
Karen and Johnny laughed, and Gary’s face turned scarlet. Across The Lot, Eric spotted Rhonda Young heading toward the school. She stood only five feet tall, and her maroon coat reached her ankles. A pair of fuzzy earmuffs framed her long dark hair, and across her chest she held copies of theRed Hill High Observer, which she had edited,. Her wide glasses gave her an aura of sophistication, and she moved with grace.
“Let’s get inside so Eric won’t be late for homeroom,” Johnny said in a knowing voice.
“Hmmm?” Realizing he’d been caught staring at Rhonda, Eric blushed.
Laughing, Johnny slid an arm around Karen’s waist and guided her forward, with Eric and Gary falling into step beside them.
They stopped in their tracks. Recognizing the predatory scowl on Todd’s face, Eric noted he had set his gym bag on the roof of Cliff’s Mazda.
“What is it, Todd?”
Todd spread his hands wide apart. “What are you doing with these headbangers?”
Eric tensed up. “Mind your own business, will you?”
Todd stepped forward. “I’m squad captain. Watching out for the team is my business, and I don’t like seeing you with this trash. It’s bad for our image.”
Damn it, Eric thought. “Don’t worry about it, okay? I’m not even wearing a school jacket.”
“You think that makes a difference?”
Johnny let go of Karen’s waist and fisted his hands. “Who are you calling trash?”
Seeing he’d struck a nerve, Todd flexed his muscles. He had a fifteen-pound advantage over Johnny. “It talks!” Derek and Cliff chuckled. “I’m callingyoutrash, Gruesome. You, your slutty girlfriend, and your dope-dealing sidekick.”
Eric blew air from his cheeks. No avoiding trouble now.
Moving closer to Todd, Johnny spoke through clenched teeth. “The name is Grissom.”
Todd snorted. “That’s funny, you lookgruesometo me.” Derek and Cliff snickered.
Johnny stepped into the empty parking space separating them and spread his arms wide apart. “Okay—all three of you.”
Grinning like jackals, Derek and Cliff joined Todd, and the trio advanced on Johnny. Eric had seen Johnny fight more times than he could count, but the contests had always been one-on-one, and he realized he might have to join the fray this time.
The instant the jocks stopped moving, Johnny bolted forward, startling them. He shoved Derek and Cliff back and stood facing Todd. “You two Hitler Youths just get to watch.”
They started forward again, but Gary stepped before Derek, blocking his path. Seeing his role in the drama, Eric stepped before Cliff. Cliff may have been his teammate, but Johnny was his best friend. He didn’t think he could take Cliff, and he hoped he didn’t have to try, but he knew he could at least hold him back.
Johnny glowered at Todd, who glanced over his shoulder to see if he still had backup. Karen wet her lips with anticipation. When Todd turned back, a blur of motion that connected with his left eyebrow knocked the uncertain expression off his face. Derek and Cliff jumped out of the way as Todd flew between them and crashed into the Mazda.
Cliff slapped his forehead. “Watch the car!”
A cry of excitement spread through The Lot, one voice joining another until a chorus sang, “Fight!” Students ran to the Death Mobile and the Mazda from all directions, forming a flesh-and-blood arena around the two combatants.
Rising, Todd rubbed his brow. “You just made a big mistake, you long-haired freak.”
Johnny beckoned him forward. “Let me make another one.”
Todd lumbered forward, and he and Johnny circled each other like teenage gladiators. Looking at the cheering crowd, Eric shook his head. Just like the ancient Romans, they craved blood.
“Come on, Todd!”
“Kick his ass, man!”
“Show him what you’ve got, Johnny!”
Todd swung at Johnny, who ducked and retaliated with a counterpunch to Todd’s solar plexus. Todd doubled over, confidence draining from his face. Eric winced, imagining the boy’s pain. Todd lunged at Johnny with a primal scream, his fist connecting with Johnny’s left shoulder so hard that Johnny pirouetted on the ice. Clutching his wounded arm, Johnny stopped before Eric, his face hidden by his hair. Eric held his breath, dreading the pained expression he expected to see on Johnny’s face. Todd advanced on his nemesis, ice crunching beneath his feet.
Raising his head, Johnny winked at Eric and grinned. Then he spun around and drove his fist straight into Todd’s mouth, splitting his lower lip. Todd’s feet flew up from beneath him and he crashed on the ice. The crowd of students cried out their surprise and approval in unison. Todd managed to roll over and rise on wobbling knees. Blood streamed down his chin and onto his jacket. Johnny burrowed into him with a series of pistonlike kidney punches, plowing him across the ice. Unable to fight back, Todd wrapped his arms around Johnny as he would in a wrestling match.
With their arms entangled, Johnny and Todd struggled against each other. Then Johnny pivoted on one heel, slamming Todd against the Death Mobile with a loud bang that caused Cliff to flinch. Johnny laid into Todd, pummeling him, his leather jacket squeaking in the brittle air. The spectators roared, and Eric saw Gary scrutinizing the fight with narrowed eyes.
His face spotted with blood, Todd tried to block Johnny’s relentless assault. “I give!” Desperation rose in his voice. “Igive!”
Johnny continued his offensive, determined to penetrate the protective layer of Todd’s jacket. Karen flicked her smoldering cigarette butt at the mushy pavement, her eyes gleaming with satisfaction. Johnny raised his right fist to deliver the decisive blow, the silver rings on his fingers outlined in red.
This is turning into a bloodbath, Eric thought.
Turning, Eric saw Carol Crane, his first-period English teacher, push her way through the stilled crowd. She wore no coat, just a cardigan sweater over a blouse. The wind blew her curly brown hair, and her long skirt wrapped around her legs, leaving little to the imagination. Eric had never heard her shout before. Johnny’s fist trembled in the air as Carol stepped before him.
“I said, ‘Stop it.’”
With a disappointed look, Johnny lowered his fist and stepped back from the car, his chest rising and falling.
Rubbing her arms for warmth, Carol examined Todd. “Get to the nurse’s office right now.”
Avoiding his classmates, Todd jerked his gym bag off the top of Cliff’s Mazda and staggered in the direction of the school. Johnny stared hard at the battered boy, who passed him with lowered eyes.
Carol faced Johnny. “You come with me.” She scanned the faces of the spectators, and Eric looked at the ground. “The rest of you get to class.” Turning, she strode back to the school, following Todd.
Johnny shadowed her footsteps, his eyes descending from the small of her back to the shape of her ass. As students clapped his back in a congratulatory manner, an appreciative smile formed on his lips.Chapter 3
Seated in the principal’s office, Johnny stared at the dark green carpet as Carol stood describing the fight to Michael Milton. He had been here many times before. The squat man behind the wide desk sat with his back to a window that overlooked The Lot. Mr. Milton’s mustache curled over his upper lip and his thick glasses framed his craggy face, his dark hair slicked back from a widow’s peak. He wore a purple shirt beneath his suit jacket, and a narrow black tie with silver stripes.
Wannabe Mafia motherfucker, Johnny thought.
Mr. Milton’s growing frown accentuated the harsh acne scars on his cheeks. “Mrs. Crane says you assaulted Mr. Kumler on school property. True or false?”
Johnny sighed, a bored expression on his face. “So what if I did?”
Carol rolled her eyes. “I have to get to my class,” she said in an exasperated tone. She stepped toward the door, but Johnny opened his legs wide, blocking her path. His eyes rose from her crotch, a hint of a smile on his lips. He considered himself lucky to have such an attractive teacher. She stared back with icy eyes, her mouth tightening. Oh, yeah, she knew exactly what he was thinking. Sitting up, he allowed her to pass.
As the door closed behind her, his eyes met Mr. Milton’s gaze. The man did not look amused. The principal leaned back in his leather chair, folding his hands over his round belly.
“When are you going to learn that you can’t use my school as your personal stomping ground?”
Johnny met the principal’s gaze. “He started it.”
“I’m sure he did. It’s always the other guy, isn’t it? You never do anything wrong, do you? You’re an innocent man, just like Jean Valjean inLes Misérables.”
“Jean Valjean wasn’t innocent. He stole a loaf of bread and robbed a church.”
Mr. Milton’s eyes narrowed into reptilian slits. “Let me guess: you saw that in a movie.”
“Maybe if you ever actually read a book you wouldn’t be sitting here now.”
“I read books. Just not the kind you want me to read.”
“I’m not interested in your literary taste.”
Saying nothing, Johnny just stared at the corpulent man.
“I’ve got a news bulletin for you, mister: your reign of terror is over.”
Johnny snorted. “Yeah? Is there a new sheriff in town?”
Mr. Milton’s mouth drew back into a carnivorous grin. “Keep it up. You’re looking at one person who isn’t afraid of you.”
Good for you, Johnny thought.
“I’m suspending you for a week, wise guy. Starting right now.”
“What?That asshole was looking for trouble!”
“Come on, Grissom. We’ve both played this game long enough to know the rules. How many times have you sat in that chair? More than I can count, and I taught math for twelve years. I should think you’d be happy to take a break. You can stay home and smoke pot or whatever it is you do with your free time.”
Johnny clenched his jaw. “You told me that if I missed any more days I couldn’t graduate.”
Mr. Milton sat forward. “Oh, don’t worry. I won’t flunk you over this. That would be punishing myself, wouldn’t it? Because it would mean another year of putting up with your crap. But this is the last inning, sport. One more strike and you’ll be out on your ear. I’m talking expulsion. Got it?”
Johnny felt his anger boiling inside him. “Yeah, I got it.”
“Then get the hell out of my sight. I don’t want to see you for another week.”
Rising, Johnny stared at the principal with contempt. He wished he could just reach across that desk and dig his fingers into that fat neck and—
Mr. Milton lowered his eyes at the paperwork strewn across his desk, dismissing him. Johnny tried to slam the door on his way out, but the automatic closer denied him even that simple satisfaction.
Johnny steered the Death Mobile over the long driveway to the detached two-car garage behind his house. He wanted to kick Kumler’s ass all over again. Killing the engine, he got out and made his way through the snow to the front porch. Of course, his father hadn’t shoveled the driveway. He opened the door and stepped inside, stomping snow off his boots. The television flickered in the living room, and he heard his father stir. As he climbed the stairs, Charlie Grissom appeared beneath the living room arch, his clothes as unkempt as his hair.
“What are you doing back here?”
Johnny continued upstairs. “Don’t worry about it.”
Charlie crossed to the bottom of the stairs. “That’s not an answer. Why aren’t you at school?”
“None of your business.”
Charlie’s complexion darkened. “Answer me, goddamn it! I’m your father.”
Johnny looked over his shoulder with a dismissive expression. “That’s a laugh.”
Balling his hands into fists, Charlie stormed up the stairs, his body swaying with each step. “You little son of a bitch …”
Johnny whirled around. “You want to know why I’m home? I want to know why you don’t have a job!”
Charlie’s breath came in short bursts as he reached the top of the stairs. Johnny waited until the last second, then darted into his bedroom and slammed the door in his father’s face. Charlie twisted the knob, then pounded the wood.
“Come out and face me like a man! I can still kick your ass.”
Turning from the locked door, Johnny powered his CD player and a burst of speed metal blazed from the speakers while Charlie continued to yell on the other side of the door.
“You have to come out of there sometime …”
Johnny cranked the volume, drowning his father’s words. He flopped onto his bed and stared at the ceiling, where a jagged crack ran like a lightning bolt through peeling paint to the dusty light fixture.
Jesus, life sucked.
Sitting on the foam rubber wrestling mat, Todd stretched his legs, his bruised face and raw knuckles aching. He’d gone to the emergency room with his mother, but refused to miss practice despite the purple swelling over his left eye and the two stitches in his lower lip. The whole season depended on the outcome of their next match, and he didn’t plan to slack off just because Gruesome had bested him.
The wrestling team used the smaller auxiliary gymnasium because the basketball team rated the main gym. The odors of foam rubber, sweat, and Ben Gay stifled the air.
Todd felt someone nudge his sore ribs. Cliff, stretching beside him, nodded across the gym.
“Look who’s here.”
Twisting his trunk, Todd saw Eric standing in line behind a half-dozen other boys, waiting to weigh himself on the upright scale outside Coach Wrangler’s office. Like the other wrestlers, he wore an off-white practice uniform with headgear and knee pads.
“Son of a bitch.” Todd grinned at Cliff and Derek. “Come on.” He hopped up and his lieutenants followed him over to where Eric stood. A sophomore who noticed their approach stepped back with an alarmed expression on his face. Eric stared straight ahead, ignoring them.
“Just thewussI wanted to see,” Todd said. Derek and Cliff smiled without showing their teeth. “Too bad you’re all alone now. Where’s your pal, Gruesome?”
Eric sighed. “Why, do you want him to give you another beating?”
“Oh, shit,” Cliff said.
Todd poked Eric’s chest. “I could take him any day of the week. He just got lucky.”
“Give it a rest, will you? We’re not in junior high anymore. Haven’t you started enough trouble for one day?”
Todd pointed at the discolored tissue around his left eye. “You see this? I’m holding you responsible for it.”
Eric studied the black eye. “It looks like an improvement to me. Gives you some character.”
Derek shook his head in disbelief. The boys on line gaped at Todd and his future victim. Narrowing his good eye, Todd clenched his fists. Eric braced himself for the impending onslaught.
The door beside the scale opened and heads turned as Coach Wrangler emerged from his office. The slender man wore a black V-neck sweater with a polished whistle around his neck. Holding a clipboard in one hand, he glanced at Eric and Todd. The look in his eyes said he had seen confrontations like this many times. “Save it for the match, guys.”
Eric exhaled and Todd frowned.
Wrangler blew his whistle. “All right, everyone on the mat. Let’s go, partner up! We’ve got a lot of work to do if we’re going to beat Silver Wood next week, and we need that win to make it to finals.”
The boys in line dispersed, joining their teammates on the mat. Todd shoved Eric from behind. “I’ve got my partner right here.”
Gary parked his truck at the curb of Campus Row, a stretch of houses on Central Avenue owned by the college, because Terry didn’t like it when he used the driveway. The sidewalk had been shoveled, so Gary had no trouble reaching the porch. He rang the doorbell, and when no one answered he rapped on the storm door.
A moment later, Terry Louden opened the door. Supporting himself on crutches, he checked his driveway. He needed a shave and his eyes didn’t blink. “You’re late, bro.”
“Sorry. I had to take a girl home and I knew you wouldn’t want me to bring her here.”
“You got that right.” Terry turned and retreated, his right foot in a cast. Skiing accident, he had said. Gary entered the smoky house and closed the door, mellow music he didn’t recognize washing over him. He followed Terry into the living room, where a young woman with green eyes and black hair sat on the sofa, her shapely legs coiled beneath her. She wore a man’s button-down shirt and held a lit cigarette in one hand.
“This is Sheila,” Terry said.
“How’s it going?” Gary said. For a former high school jock who’d gone to seed, Terry was one lucky son of a bitch.
Sheila massaged her nose and sniffed. “Cool …”
“This is no one,” Terry said, indicating Gary.
“Even cooler.” She smiled at Gary, who smiled back, self-conscious about his broken tooth.
“Come on, man.” Terry hobbled into the dining room, where the curtains had been drawn. Newspapers covered the table and drug paraphernalia covered them. Leaning his crutches against the table, he sat and looked at Gary. “So what’s it gonna be?” He lit a Marlboro and blew smoke into the air.
Gary looked over the smorgasbord on the table, his heart beating faster. He took a wad of cash out of his pocket, counted out five twenty-dollar bills, and laid them on the table. “The usual.”
Terry counted the money and pocketed it. He pushed a handful of marijuana onto a newspaper, like a waiter clearing a table of bread crumbs in a fancy restaurant. “And for yourself?”
Gary set down three more twenty-dollar bills. “Poppers.”
Terry counted amphetamines with one finger like they were M&M’s and set them on a piece of shiny tinfoil. “Anything else?”
Gary zeroed in on a mound of white powder near a scale. “Yeah. It’s time for a new flavor.”
Terry tapped his cigarette in an ashtray and smiled. “All right. My man is thinking big. How much?”
Looking at the remaining bills in his hand, Gary laid them down.
Eric stood in the empty lobby, gazing through the floor-to-ceiling windows at the falling snow as he zipped his ski jacket. At 6:00 p.m., the sky had already blackened, and tall streetlights cast circles of light around The Lot, empty except for a half-dozen cars. The faculty had left for the day, and only the custodial staff remained. Down the corridor to his right, beyond the cafeteria, a floor waxing machine whirred. A metal gate blocked off the stairways on his left. Most of the athletes had left, either in their own cars or with their parents. His muscles ached from the severe workout Todd had given him, and he felt glad that Johnny had given the jock a beating to remember.
He pulled on his gloves and pushed the panic bar. The wind seized the door, knifing him as if he stood naked, and he fought it to shut the door. As he crossed the sidewalk, the wind blew him sideways. At this rate, it would take him ten minutes just to reach the end of the driveway. Pine trees flanking the schoolyard bowed.
Stepping off the curb and onto the icy pavement, he crossed The Lot. The bitter cold brought tears to his eyes, and as he wiped them away, he heard what sounded like a horse whinnying. Turning, he saw a pair of headlights ignite fifty yards away. He shielded his eyes, but the light intensified and the engine grew louder as the vehicle roared straight at him. He stood still for a moment, but when the car failed to slow down, he turned to run, his eyes bulging in their sockets.
His left foot slipped on the ice, and he slid like a surfer riding a wave, flapping his arms for balance. His feet flew out from under him and he landed on his ass, pain shooting through his left hip. Using his elbows to prop himself up, he saw the car bearing down on him. With no time to get up or roll out of the way, he laid flat on his back, praying the car would pass over him.Chapter 4
The car screeched to a halt, its bumper poised above Eric’s knees. Gasoline fumes enveloped him, and he heard a throbbing guitar sound. A door opened and closed, and boot heels traversed the ice. Snow sprinkled his face as he stared up. Then a head loomed over him, silhouetted in the headlights’ glow and blotting out the sky.
“What’s up, Erica?”
Exhaling, Eric settled his head on the ice. “You. Fucking. Asshole.”
Johnny reached down with one hand. “Is that any way to talk after I violated my suspension just to come get you?”
“You almost killed me!”
Johnny sipped from a can of Budweiser. “Almost doesn’t count, son. Let’s go for a spin.”
Eric grabbed Johnny’s hand and pulled himself up between the beams of light. He saw Karen in the front seat, drinking a Bud, Gary’s face hovering in the darkness behind her like a disembodied skull.
“What the fuck happened to your face?” Johnny said.
“Just practice.” Eric tried to sound casual.
“It was Todd, right? That motherfucker is so dead.”
Johnny shook his head. “No way. That’s the difference between you and me: you let bygones be bygones, but I never forget a transaction.”
“Whatever. I don’t forgive and forget.” Johnny walked around the car. “We’re gonna find that asshole and school his ass good.” Sliding behind the wheel, he slammed his door with such force that the car shook.
Eric opened the passenger door and smoke billowed out. He fanned it with one hand, and Karen leaned forward in her seat, smiling. Climbing into the back with Gary, a case of beer separating them, he coughed. The car reeked of marijuana.
“How’s it going, Gar?” Not that he cared.
Shaking his head, Gary looked out the window and sipped his beer.
Eric raised his voice over the music. “That good, huh?”
As Karen closed the door, Johnny looked over his shoulder and grinned at Eric. “Grab a beer and get in gear.”
Looking at the case, Eric counted six empty cans in addition to three that had been removed. “I see you’ve been busy.”
“Hey, it wasn’t all fun and games sitting here in the dark.”
“I bet.” Eric removed a beer. “So much for athletic training rules.” He popped the tab just as Johnny stepped on the gas, spilling beer on the front of his jacket. “My mother’s going to love that.”
Johnny steered the Death Mobile across The Lot, which shimmered like an ice-skating rink. He sped up and jerked the steering wheel, causing everyone to lurch to one side, laughing.
Faster now, circling The Lot. Cutting diagonally from corner to corner. He floored the gas pedal, and a bank of dirty snow grew closer. Karen squealed. Twisting the steering wheel in the opposite direction, Johnny stomped on the brake pedal. The car spun, the outside world blurring into kaleidoscopic colors.
Squeezing the open beer can between his thighs, Eric dug his fingers into the back of Karen’s seat while Gary whooped like a cowboy. The Death Mobile settled on its shock absorbers, laughter rising from its interior.
“Let’s tear this town apart!” Johnny said. He cranked the music and Karen cheered. They exited The Lot, speeding along the driveway, and Eric raised the beer to his lips.
They blew past the Morton Street entrance to the Green Forest Cemetery. Tall brick columns bookended spiked gates.
“Don’t tell me we’re going to the cemetery,” Eric shouted.
“Nah, it’s too dead in there.”
Leaning close to Johnny, Karen rubbed his crotch. “That isn’t what you said on New Year’s Eve.”
Headlights appeared in the distance, approaching them. Johnny flashed his brights, and the driver of the oncoming car blared his horn.
“Don’t you honk at me, motherfucker.” Johnny switched into the opposite lane.
Eric sat forward. “What are you doing?”
“Just hang on.”
“I hate it when you say that.”
Karen pressed her back against her seat and Gary gripped his armrest. The approaching red Honda Accord honked in protest.
“Come on, you chickenshit!” Johnny swallowed beer, discarded the empty can on the floor, and gripped the steering wheel in both hands.
Eyes widening, Eric fastened his seat belt. “Johnny—”
“Don’t fear the reaper!”
Eric pressed his back against his seat as the two cars neared each other, their impact inevitable. At the last second, the other driver changed lanes and the Accord sideswiped a snowbank.
Laughing, Johnny returned to the proper lane. While Karen and Gary laughed, Eric looked out the rear window at the driver, who was getting out to inspect the Accord for damage.
“Pop me another one of them bad boys,” Johnny said in a cheerful tone.
As Eric reached into the case for a beer, he saw Gary pop a pill into his mouth.
“You want one?” Gary said.
“No, thanks. I’ll just get a contact high from all this smoke.”
Gary shrugged. “Suit yourself.”
Eric passed the beer up front. Karen took it from him, popped the tab, and handed it to Johnny.
The speakers blasted screeching vocals:
Gotta run, gotta hide, gotta get high …
Gotta be free!
Gotta run, gotta ride, gotta go fly …
Gotta be meeeeeeeeeee!
The snowfall intensified as the Death Mobile roared over Willow Road, a narrow stretch of hard dirt leading out of town. They passed vacant pastures, dilapidated farmhouses, and moonlit silos. The dull silhouettes of pine trees separated the stark white surface from the black sky.
Johnny worked on another beer while Karen smoked a cigarette and Gary bounced his head to a Slipknot tune. Eric rocked in his seat, his vision blurred. He fumbled for a beer, knocking over empty cans. Locating the last one, he pulled its tab but failed to crack it open.
Johnny glanced at the rearview mirror. “How’s it going, Eric?”
Eric blinked. “Round and round …”
Looking at each other, Johnny and Karen burst into laughter.
“What’s so funny? I’m not drunk.”
They kept laughing until they heard Gary snort something up each nostril.
Johnny’s eyes turned cold. “Not in my car, Gary. I don’t need Chief Crane finding any of your shit on my floor the next time he pulls me over.”
“Okay,” Gary said in a distant voice, his body trembling.
“I can’t believe Milton fucking suspended me,” Johnny said, forgetting about Gary. “All because of Kumler and that bitch, Mrs. Crane. All three of them are on my list.”
Eric sighed. There was no reasoning with Johnny when he got this drunk and this angry. They passed a diamond-shaped yellow metal sign that said: BRIDGE MAY BE ICY.
“All right,” Johnny said, excitement rising in his voice. He crushed his empty can and threw it on the floor.
Sniffling, Gary wiped his nose on the back of his hand. Falling snow glowed bright white in the headlights.
Johnny clenched the steering wheel. “Hang on.”
Eric’s stomach lurched as the Death Mobile accelerated.
The speedometer reached forty-five.
Karen sat up straight. “Slow down, Johnny.”
“Who are you bossing around?”
The speedometer reached fifty.
Gary sat forward. “That’s fast enough, Johnny.”
Eric said, “Come on, Johnny …”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed into slits. “Fuck you, too.”
A streetlight illuminated the skeletal structure of a wooden bridge surrounded by snow-covered trees.
Karen said, “You’re going to get us killed!”
“Fuck all of you!”
The speedometer neared sixty-five.
In a blur of motion, Gary sprang from his seat, his left arm encircling Johnny’s throat.
“Gary!” Karen said.
Gagging, Johnny released the steering wheel to claw at Gary’s arm, but Gary locked his right hand around his left wrist. The car drifted to the right side of the road, toward thick trees. Karen turned in her seat and reached for the wheel, but her shoulder strap held her back. Unbuckling her seat belt with frantic fingers, she seized the wheel and corrected their trajectory.
Eric clamped a hand on Gary’s shoulder. “Cut it out!”
Gary released his grip on Johnny’s wrist and drove his right elbow straight back into Eric’s chest, slamming him against the backseat. Dropping his beer, Eric gasped for breath, the wind knocked out of him.
Lit from beneath by the dashboard lights, Johnny’s face turned scarlet. Reaching behind his head, he groped for Gary, who locked his hand on his wrist again, his body trembling as he clenched his teeth.
Karen shouted, “Stop it, you’re killing him!”
The Willow Creek Bridge grew larger, and Johnny wrested control of the wheel from Karen. Aiming the Death Mobile at the left railing, he floored the gas pedal.
“No!” Karen’s high-pitched scream rose above the music. She tried to retake the steering wheel, but Johnny’s grip proved too strong. He gave her a determined grin, his eyes blazing.
Her hands still on the wheel, she watched as they angled onto the bridge, the trees beyond the railing coming into focus. Her heart pounded in her chest.We’re all going to die!
She grabbed the emergency brake with both hands and jerked it with all her strength. A sudden change in their momentum sent her flying sideways into the dashboard, uncertain whether the jarring impact had resulted from the brakes locking or the car crashing through the railing.
Eric slammed against Karen’s seat, pain lancing his right shoulder. The Death Mobile stopped moving, and the streetlight on the bridge shone through the windshield. Gary had pitched forward, as well. Reaching along the door, he disengaged Johnny’s seat and leaned against it, pressing Johnny against the steering wheel and causing the horn to blare.
Eric shook his head, fighting to clear his mind. He heard Gary’s angry voice over the music, and turning his head, saw him continuing to choke Johnny, his face a mask of rage.
“Did you think you were going to kill us? What the fuck is wrong with you?” Reaching over Johnny, Gary switched off the ignition. “Goddamn it!” The car stopped vibrating and the music died. “Goddamnyou!”
Wincing, Eric pushed himself off Karen’s seat. Gary slid his right arm around Johnny’s throat, freeing his left hand to jerk the door handle. The door opened, triggering the dome light, and frigid air crept into the car.
Karen groaned, her features twisted in pain.
Eric saw Gary reach down to the floor with his left hand. Then he heard the chinking of metal. Gary pulled a heavy chain into view, which Eric recognized: Johnny kept it coiled on the floor in the backseat for winter emergencies. Gary threaded the chain around Johnny’s jacket collar, pulling leather taut against flesh.
Eric lunged at Gary, who stepped out of the car, dragging Johnny after him like a dog on a leash. Eric collapsed halfway over the seat and the pain in his shoulder doubled. He pulled the seat back and clambered over it, trying not to kick Karen. Gary spun Johnny around on the chain, using his weight against him, and smashed his head into the door, which slammed shut in Eric’s face. The dome light darkened.
With a dazed expression, Karen sat back, her hair disheveled. Seeing the struggle between Gary and Johnny, her eyes filled with disbelief, and she turned to Eric. “Do something!”
As Eric reached for the door handle, Johnny’s body thudded against the door again and the car shook. Johnny’s face flattened against the window, his eyes bulging and his tongue protruding. Karen’s scream sent a tremor down Eric’s spine. He pulled the handle, but Gary braced one leg against the door, keeping it shut. Eric reached for the car keys, intending to start the engine and back the car up.
Gary had taken the keys! Eric turned back to Johnny, expecting to see his friend’s eyes pleading for help. Instead, he saw an expression of such uncompromising rage that he froze. For an instant, staring into Johnny’s hate-filled irises, he thought he saw himself from Johnny’s point of view. Then he realized his reflection in the glass overlapped Johnny’s features. Still screaming, Karen pounded his back.
Johnny slammed an open hand against the window. Ignoring Karen, Eric pressed his open palm against the glass, spreading his fingers wide. Johnny clawed at the frost, drawing his clenched fingers through it. Then his eyes rolled up in their sockets and his body convulsed. His hand fell away, and he collapsed, disappearing from view.
The dome light came on again as Karen opened the passenger door. She got out and ran around the rear of the car, her screams trailing off, then growing louder. Eric clambered after her, cold air numbing his face. He joined her on the other side of the car, his mouth opening in mute horror.
Gary stood over Johnny, the chain hanging in his right hand. Johnny lay on his back, staring up at them with upturned eyes, his chest still. Gary’s breath came in ragged gasps, vapor streaming from his mouth and nostrils like cigarette smoke.
Karen sank to her knees. “Oh, God …”
Eric looked at Gary, who wiped his nose on the back of his left hand. Gazing at Johnny’s discolored features, he stepped forward, crouched, and felt for a pulse. Snowflakes landed in Johnny’s eyes, melted, and ran down his cheeks like tears. Eric looked up, panic in his eyes as he shook his head.
Karen’s sobs grew into a single wail.Chapter 5
No pain. No cold. No feeling.
Am I dead?
Gary swung the chain over his head, faster and faster, until it whistled over their heads. He released it, and they watched it soar into the darkness over the creek. A moment later, they heard the loud cracking followed by a small splash.
“You asshole.” Eric rose without realizing it. “You fucking asshole!” He charged at Gary and swung at him, but his fist missed its mark.
Gary wrapped an arm around him and pivoted on one heel, forcing Eric against the railing. As pain shot through Eric’s back, he recalled Johnny using a similar move on Todd that morning. Gary pressed his right forearm against Eric’s throat. Eric’s head hung over the railing, and his legs spread apart in the snow. He shoved Gary’s forearm with both hands.
“Cool it,” Gary said through clenched teeth, maintaining his choke hold.
Grunting, Eric continued to struggle.
“Cool it.”Gary applied more pressure, cutting off Eric’s oxygen.
He’s going to kill me, too!Eric relented and Gary removed his arm and stepped back. Massaging his throat, Eric gasped for air.He’s insane!Grabbing the railing with one hand, Eric turned and gazed at Willow Creek below. Snow covered the muddy embankment, and pine trees waved in the wind. The sound of water rushing beneath the ice rose to meet him. Bile climbed his throat, and he covered his mouth.
Gary jerked him around by his collar. “Don’t you dare get sick! We can’t leave any evidence behind—not even your barf.”
Eric stared at Gary, aghast. “What are you talking about?”
“We have to make this look like an accident.”
“We?” Eric struggled in Gary’s grasp. “No way. You did it.Youkilled him!”
Light splits the darkness.
I see again, but not with my eyes. The light intensifies, showering me. It’s no tunnel of light, though; more like warm sunshine on closed eyelids.
Silhouettes appear, moving toward me like dancers … or stampeding animals.
Guess I wasn’t such a bad dude after all.
“Yeah, I killed him,” Gary said. “But only because he was going to kill all of us.”
Eric’s mind raced, his thoughts in disarray. “No! He wasn’t serious … He wouldn’t have … It was you …”
“Bullshit. He steered straight for this railing. He was going to kill himself and take us with him. He was out of his freaking mind.”
“No.” Eric shoved Gary back. “He was just trying to scare us. You’re so wired you don’t know what’s real and what isn’t.” Gary turned to Karen. “You tell him.”
She wiped tears from her eyes. “He’s right, Eric. Look at the car.” Eric’s eyes darted to the Death Mobile. The front bumper filled the gap between the barriers, the front wheels less than two feet from the edge.
“If I hadn’t pulled the emergency brake, we’d all be dead now.”
The silhouettes embrace me, shadows of golden warmth.
Is this what it feels like to get high on heroin or trip on acid?
I hear thousands of voices at the same time, all of them urging me to join them.
One rises above the others and I feel—
A mother’s love.
Touching my soul, she guides me into the light.
For the first time in seven years, I feel safe.
“Karen saved our asses,” Gary said. “So did I.” He gestured at the railing. “If I hadn’t stopped Johnny, we’d be down there right now.”
Karen stood, her jeans wet from the knees down. “Johnny lost control, Eric. You heard him. He was pissed off at the whole world.”
Eric jabbed the air before Gary. “You didn’t have to kill him!”
“I didn’t mean to. But what do you think would have happened if I’d let him go? I had to protect myself, had to protect us.”
“Oh, Jesus …”
Gary stepped forward. “Why didn’t you stop me?”
Eric froze. “I tried—”
“Everything happened so fast …”
“You mean you were too scared to do anything.”
Eric faced Karen. The accusation in her eyes told him she agreed with Gary. With his thoughts tumbling like laundry in a dryer, he turned back. “Maybe you’re right. Everything got crazy. If it was self-defense, the cops will understand.”
“Are you nuts? They’ll hang me out to dry, and you two with me. How much beer did you drink? Karen had a few and smoked some weed. My system’s totally polluted. Think of the publicity. The newspapers will call us drug addicts and murderers and devil worshipers, like those poor kids in Memphis. You still hoping to go to college? Our lives will be ruined. Ourparents’lives will be ruined.”
“Johnny…”THEY KILLED ME!“Let it go…”I’M GOING TO KILL THEM!“Come with me.”KILL THEM ALL!“Forget your anger.”KILL THEM!“You’ll damn your soul…”KILL!“…for eternity …”Moving backward, the silhouettes retreat.
FUCK OFF, CHRISTIAN SOLDIERS!They disappear.And the white light turns deep red.
Eric ran one hand through his hair, his head throbbing. His parents. College. His whole future. “I need to think.”
Gary lowered his hands. “Take your time, okay? It’s not like we’re in an uncompromising position or anything. Anyone drives by and sees us, we’ll just act cool and hope they don’t notice Johnny lying tits up in the snow.”
Eric took in the tableau. His breathing slowed. Karen and Gary grew smaller, staring at him. He no longer felt cold.Shock?
“Where do you think you’re going?” Gary said.
Stopping in his tracks, Eric realized he had backed away from them.
He moved forward. “We can’t do this. We have to go to the police.”
Gary closed the distance between them. “Johnny’s dead and nothing can bring him back. What’s done is done. We can still have our lives, though.”
“There’s no way we’ll get away with it. We’re just high school students, not criminal masterminds.”
“Who do you think’s going to investigate this, the cast ofCSI?This isn’t TV, it’s Red Hill. Chief Crane’s just a small town cop who hands out speeding tickets. This situation doesn’t require Lex Luthor.”
“Either you’re crazy or you’re still high, or both. No matter what we do, there will still be some evidence, something we miss.”
“It’s snowing. Look at our tracks—they’re already filling in. There’s no blood, no sign of a struggle. Nobody will know what happened here but us.”
Eric looked at Karen, sniffling and rubbing tears from her eyes.
She locked her hands together to keep them from shaking. “Do what he says.”
Swallowing, Eric looked at Johnny, then faced Gary. He shivered. “What do we do first?”
The red light parts like curtains before a movie screen.
I see them on the bridge, staring at my corpse. I see every star and snowflake in the sky; I see a snail frozen on a tree limb; pinecones littering the woods; a doe and her fawn crossing a frozen brook.
Is this what it feels like to be God?
Diving straight at Gary, I penetrate flesh and blood and bone and find myself staring at Karen.
NO! I passed right through him!
So I pounce on her instead—with identical results.
Jingling the car keys, Gary stepped over Johnny’s body and opened the car door. The dome light cast harsh shadows over Johnny’s face. Gary sat behind the wheel, closed the door, and ignited the engine. He rolled down the window to see Johnny. Eric and Karen watched him back the Death Mobile off the bridge, twenty feet from the railing. Killing the engine, he got out and rejoined them.
“Help me get him into the car.”
Eric glanced from Johnny’s corpse to the Death Mobile and back again. Stepping forward, he stopped at Johnny’s feet while Gary moved to Johnny’s head. Crouching, they looked each other in the eye. Eric’s right hand hovered above Johnny’s left knee, then touched it with tentative fingers. He looked at Johnny’s face again, half-expecting his friend to flinch or awaken.
Eric raised Johnny’s knees and Gary lifted his torso upright. Johnny’s head pitched forward, his long hair hanging before his face.
“We should have taken him to the hospital,” Eric said. “We didn’t even try giving him mouth-to-mouth …”
Gary shook Johnny so his head rolled on his neck and his features became visible. “You want to blow into his mouth with his tongue sticking out like that? Go right ahead.”
A cold wind rose and Eric shook his head. “Then let’s get busy.”
They stood, struggling with Johnny’s body. Eric grimaced as they carried it across the bridge, with Karen following at a distance.
I’m nothing but unharnessed energy.
Have to focus my anger.
Go Linda Blair on his ass. Use his body to kill Gary and fuck Karen.
Penetrating his body …
I skirt his cerebral cortex and make myself at home in his brain. Synapses trigger and flare around me, and his emotions bombard: anger, fear, guilt.
I don’t care!
Seeing the world through his eyes, I want to strangle Gary.
I will his hands to grab Gary’s throat.
Nothing. Nada. Zip.
Not even a muscle spasm.
I can’t control his mind or his body.
SHIT! Possession must be “for demons only.”
Is this what I stuck around for?
To watch them go on with their lives while my body rots?
In an instant, I’m back in my own body.
It’s nothing but a shell now, but—
Home is where the heart is.
A flatulent sound split the silence, and Eric stared at Gary with disgust.
“It wasn’t me,” Gary said, looking at Johnny. “It was him. It’s just escaping gas.” He turned to Karen. “Get the door!”
Hurrying ahead of them, Karen opened the driver’s side door. Gary guided Johnny headfirst into the car, then he and Eric pushed the corpse across the seat until Johnny’s ass rested where it belonged. Gary ran around the car and opened the passenger door. Eric turned to Karen, hoping she would protest their actions, but she just passed a sleeve beneath her runny nose.
Gary hopped in beside Johnny with a determined look on his face, then grabbed the corpse by its shoulders and propped it upright. Johnny fell face-first into the steering wheel. Gary held him up with his left hand, then fastened the seat belt and shoulder strap and slid out of the car. He closed the door and Johnny slumped forward.
Joining Eric, Gary spotted something glinting in the pale light. Leaning across Johnny, he retrieved Eric’s unopened beer. He pulled the tab, triggering a soft explosion of foam. Eric flinched and wiped suds from his face. Gary took a single sip from the can, then poured beer over Johnny’s head, drenching his hair and leather jacket.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“Toast to the dead,” Gary said. “Sign of respect.” He tossed the can onto the passenger seat.
“If you say so. Now what?”
Gary slammed the door and the dome light went out. “We give our man here a burial at sea.”
I don’t care how long it takes: their asses are mine.Chapter 6
They walked back along Willow Road, with only an occasional streetlight for guidance, their feet kicking snow. Gary clenched his hands into fists as Karen sobbed. Sobered by the cold, Eric put one arm around her shoulders. It felt strange, comforting Johnny’s girl. She leaned against him, making him feel needed.
We’re never going to get away with this, he thought.
When they had gotten a quarter of a mile away from the bridge, headlights appeared in the distance.
“Get down!” Gary said.
They ran along a ditch, searching for a spot to hide, but snow had filled it. Leaping across it, Gary jogged to a nearby fence. Eric made the jump as well. Grabbing a wooden post for balance, Gary threw one leg over barbed wire and slid through the barrier.
Karen’s right leg disappeared into the ditch and she cried out. The headlights grew closer, the coughing sounds of an old engine louder. Eric grabbed her outstretched hands and pulled her out. They ran to the fence and Gary helped her climb between the wire strands.
“Hurry up!” Gary said.
Eric climbed through the same way he’d seen Gary do it, and the three of them huddled behind the post, their breathing labored. The truck turned left before reaching them and traveled a desolate dirt road with no streetlights. Within seconds, darkness and snowfall devoured it.
“Shit,” Gary said.
Karen covered her eyes with one hand. “That was close.”
Eric said nothing. What had he gotten himself into?
Murder,he thought.My best friend’s murder.
The light from passing cars splashed the dark windows of Johnny’s house.
“Nobody’s home,” Gary said.
“It’s nine thirty,” Eric said. “Charlie went downtown an hour ago.”
“Poor Charlie,” Karen said.
“Let’s go,” Gary said.
Emerging from the grape vineyard, the trio approached Gary’s truck, parked at the far end of the driveway. Gary climbed in and started the engine. Karen got in beside him; Eric slid beside her and closed the door. Gary allowed the truck to idle, its heater warming them.
“Let’s go over it one more time,” he said. “I don’t want any mistakes after we split up.”
Karen withdrew a Marlboro Light from the pack in her purse and stuck it between her lips. Her shaking hand could not strike a match. Gary held her wrist steady, allowing her to light the cigarette, and Eric unrolled his window a crack.
“Sorry,” Karen said, exhaling.
They ran through their story again.
“Remember,” Gary said. “We’re all in this together. If one of us sinks, we all drown.”
Eric and Karen nodded, and Gary shifted the truck into gear.
The truck prowled Main Street, deserted except for a few cars parked outside the bars. Listening to the steady sound of the windshield wipers, Eric gazed out the window at the gazebo in the town square and saw his reflection staring back. It took only nine minutes to reach his house, but it felt like forever. Passing the driveway, Gary pulled over to the side of the street, behind a dormant apple tree.
Eric studied his home, an uneasy feeling in his gut. His mother had left the outside light on for him. He pictured the Death Mobile idling in the driveway just that morning, when Johnny had picked him up.
“You waiting for an invitation?” Gary said. “You don’t need one.”
Karen looked at him, her lips trembling. “Take care of yourself, Eric.”
“You, too.” Eric got out and closed the door. Crossing the driveway, he heard the truck recede behind him. As he unlocked the front door, he scanned the neighborhood. Snow-covered rooftops reflected moonlight at the falling snow. He entered the foyer and closed the door as quietly as possible. His mother had also left on the upstairs hallway light. He hung his coat in the front closet, then crept upstairs. Tiptoeing to his room, he anticipated his mother’s voice even before he heard it.
His heart skipped a beat. “Yes?”
“Did you turn off the front light?”
He didn’t remember. “Yes.”
In his room, he peeled off his sweater, then went into the bathroom. A pale, haggard countenance stared back at him in the mirror over the sink, and he brushed his teeth so hard his gums bled. He spat a mixture of blood and toothpaste, then ran water over it.
Water, rushing …
He shut off the tap, cut the light, and returned to his room, where he undressed in darkness. The streetlight cast a silver rectangle onto the ceiling as he crawled beneath the covers and buried his face in his pillow. A car passed outside, and the Death Mobile drove through his mind.
His chest convulsed and he choked up; tears burned his eyes and mucus clogged his nose. He pounded his pillow, and the bed squeaked as he sobbed.
Karen felt queasy staring at the dark windows of her house as Gary pulled into the driveway. “My mother won’t be home until after midnight.”
“You want me to come in and wait with you?”
She blinked. Was Gary trying to hit on her after everything that had just happened? “No.”
“Are you sure? I don’t think you should be alone right now.”
He seemed sincere. “No, thanks. My mom would freak. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Okay. Call me if you need to talk.”
She opened the door and jumped out, cold air awakening her senses like smelling salts. She crossed to her front door, bathed in the headlights. The truck didn’t move and she felt Gary’s eyes on her backside. Taking out her keys, she unlocked the door and stepped inside. She flicked the switch to the entry hall light and flinched when the bulb blew out, her heart jumping. She closed the door anyway, leaning against it as she pulled off her gloves. The headlights pierced the curtains and slashed the darkness, angling across the ceiling. Her knees buckled and she slid down the door, sobbing again. She heard Gary drive off, the sound of his truck fading into the night.
Gary parked outside the double-wide trailer and saw the television flickering in the living room. His mother worked mornings as a cashier at Wal-Mart, so she’d already gone to bed. Her boyfriend, Barry, stayed up late every night, his ass parked on the sofa. Sighing, Gary pressed his forehead against the steering wheel. He reached into his pocket, took out his baggie of cocaine, and took a hit.
He got out of the truck and staggered through eight inches of snow, passing Barry’s Impala, which rated the driveway. Stepping onto the cinder block that served as a front step, he pulled the storm door’s handle and pushed the front door open nice and wide so the cold air reached Barry.
Barry jerked upright, the television highlighting his sleepy features in the darkened room. “Close the door, will ya?”
Gary pulled the storm door shut behind him. “Sorry, Barry. The wind pulled it out of my hand.” He closed the inside door, as well.
“You’re full of shit. Is it still snowing?”
“Yeah.” Gary hung his coat in the narrow closet.
“Why don’t you shovel the driveway so your mother can get out in the morning?”
“Why don’t you?”
“Because I get up late.” Barry’s unemployment insurance had run out, which is why he’d moved in with Gary’s mother in the first place.
“If I do it now, I’ll only have to do it again in the morning.”
Barry glued his eyes to the television screen. “You’ve got an answer for everything, don’t you?”
Asshole.Gary used the bathroom, then entered his tiny bedroom, where he stripped down to his underwear and climbed under the bedcovers. The polyester curtain over his only window failed to block the streetlight outside. Shivering, he rubbed his knees together. His mind raced and he had to remind himself that the night’s events had really occurred. He thought about Karen, alone in her mother’s big house, then pictured Sheila, Terry’s girlfriend, massaging her coke-loaded nose. Slipping his hand inside his underwear, he stroked himself.Chapter 7
The telephone rang in the darkness, waking Carol with a start. The bedside clock revealed a new day had just begun. Clicking on the lamp, she reached for the wireless phone, knowing the call had to be from the station. The Red Hill police officers called often since Matt had stepped into Walt Butler’s shoes, but this was the first time any had called so late. Beside her, Matt’s gentle snoring stopped. She didn’t mind answering the phone; he’d been working ten to twelve hours a day, and she wanted him to get some rest.
“Hi, Carol. Sorry to bother you so late.”
Carol frowned. Ben Yerkovich got off work at midnight. For him to call after his shift meant a real emergency. “That’s okay, Ben. Just a minute.” Matt slept with his back to her, and she shook his shoulder. “Matt? Honey, wake up.”
He rolled over, blinking.
“It’s Ben.” She held the phone out to him.
Squinting at the clock, he took the phone. “Yeah, Ben?”
Carol watched him rub the sleep from his eyes. The expression on his face turned grave.
Her stomach tightened. In a small town like Red Hill, the rare tragedy touched many lives.
“Tell Dan I’ll be right there.” He handed the phone back to her, and as she hung it up, he threw back the blankets and clambered out of bed.
“What is it?”
He pulled his uniform slacks over his long johns. “Some idiot drove off the Willow Creek Bridge.”
“My God, do they know who it is?”
He reached for his shirt. “Not yet. The car’s still in the water.” Stepping into the bathroom, he closed the door.
Carol pictured an automobile trapped beneath the frozen creek.
No survivors,she thought.
Matt’s stomach twisted into knots as he drove along Willow Road, peering through the Pathfinder’s windshield wipers. The road had been plowed, so he had little difficulty driving. He passed the sign for the bridge, and blinking lights came into view: yellow, red, and blue. He stopped short of the bridge, parking alongside two police cars and an ambulance. On the far side of the bridge, a large snowplow spat gasoline fumes, and Greg Haines sipped from a thermos in the front seat.
Coffee, or something stronger?Matt got out and Dan Heller approached him. A senior member of the force, Dan had the wide shoulders of a football player and the beer belly of a football fan. He’d made it clear more than once that he felt he was more qualified than Matt to fill in for Chief Butler.
“Seventeen years in this department, and I never knew anyone to drive off one of our bridges.” He pointed at the railing: the longitudinal barriers came to a sudden stop, their ends splintered, and resumed fifteen feet later. The gaping hole offered an unobstructed view of the woods on the other side of the creek.
“You want coffee?” Dan said. “We have some in the ambulance.”
Matt shook his head. “Just bring me up to speed.”
Dan led Matt to the gap. Two other police officers stretched a measuring tape from various points of the ruptured railing.
“The vehicle came from town. I bet he was doing at least fifty when it hit the bridge. Maybe the driver was drunk, maybe he fell asleep, maybe both.”
Matt peered over the bridge’s edge. The streetlight behind him and the work lights set up on the embankment below bathed the creek in unnatural light. A running generator filled the night with a chugging sound. The tail end of a car, as black as the water, jutted up from the shattered ice. The hole measured out twenty feet in diameter, and deep, jagged cracks extended ten feet beyond that in all directions. The dirty, foaming current slammed the vehicle, rocking it. The shale embankment on the far side sloped into brush and trees at a steep angle.
“Haines drove right past the railing in his plow. Says he almost didn’t notice it.”
“I bet,” Matt said, thinking of the thermos.
“That was at twenty-three hundred hours. His last pass was four hours earlier.”
8:00 p.m.“Any sign of survivors?”
Dan smiled as if to say, Of course not, you damn fool. Look at that drop! No one crawled out of there. “None that we’ve seen.”
A tow truck with a winch had backed through the woods as close as possible to the embankment. Two men in wet suits crossed the ice, emergency ropes tied to their waists and extending to the truck’s rear. They wore boots with cleats rather than fins, and each carried a cable with a sturdy hook on its end. A third man with a cigarette dangling from his lips stood in the truck’s bed, aiming a spotlight at the sunken vehicle. Two paramedics stood by clutching medical gear. The men on the ice reached the submerged car and hooked their cables under the rear bumper and wheel wells. They scuttled back over the creek, adjusting their balance as the cracked ice shifted beneath them. The men reached the embankment, and the driver of the truck spoke into his radio microphone.
“We’re good to go,” his voice squawked over Dan’s hand radio.
Dan looked at Matt, who nodded. “Go for it,” Dan said.
The man activated the winch, pulling the cables taut. The car groaned and pressed against the ice, which cracked and split, huge pieces breaking apart. The cables pulled the car level, the roof emerging from the dark water. The ice continued to crack, separating into slabs that rocked against each other. The windshield appeared, a spiderweb of white cracks in the glass. The slabs floated around the car, obscuring its hood.
“Cutlass Supreme,” Dan said. “Black …”
Matt searched his memory for the names of people who owned that particular make. The car’s rear wheels touched the embankment, and shale popped and cracked beneath its weight, torrents of water gushing out of the shattered side windows, splashing away the snow. The twisted hood emerged, emblazoned with a hellish skull that leered at the men on the bridge. For a moment, the hood reflected the overhead streetlight back at them, and the airbrushed artwork seemed to crackle with electricity.
“Ah, shit,” Dan said.
The cable dragged the remainder of the Death Mobile onto the embankment, and the spotlight flooded the interior, silhouetting a figure slumped against the steering wheel.
“Yeah,” Matt said, wondering how Carol would handle the news. Johnny Grissom had tested the limits of her patience, but she’d never disliked him. Hadn’t she just mentioned him at dinner? Something about a fight at school. If he and Carol were parents, how would they cope with such a tragedy?
Matt and Dan stepped over the aluminum guardrail at the far side of the bridge. They sank deep into the snow, careful not to lose their balance as they hopped over depressions in the decline. Beams of light shot through the trees, casting skeletal shadows on the frozen ground. They pushed branches aside with gloved hands, brittle thorns scratching their slacks. When they emerged in the clearing, the tow truck’s headlights blinded them. Deep, muddy tire tracks marked the truck’s path. They moved around the truck, which rocked forward and back, engine roaring as its spinning rear wheels sprayed mud. The truck jumped forward, towing the Death Mobile in front of Matt and Dan, and stopped.
Circling the car, Matt slipped in the mud and went down on one knee. As he pulled himself up, he glimpsed the paramedics hurrying up the embankment.
You’re too late, he thought. We all are.
Dan peered through the cracked driver’s side window, then thumbed the door handle, jerking the door open. Water cascaded out, soaking his slacks beneath the knees, and rushed down the slope. The dome light did not activate, and empty cans made hollow sounds as they knocked against each other. The water stopped pouring as Matt joined Dan, and they stared inside the vehicle together.
Johnny sat upright in the front seat, his hands locked on the steering wheel. His head had tipped back and turned to one side, his wet hair hanging straight down. One eye stared out from a halfclosed lid, white in the intense light. His soggy flesh had turned blue, and his jaw hung open, his black tongue protruding.
Dan removed a digital camera from his coat and squeezed off a series of shots, the flashes illuminating Johnny’s discolored corpse.
Matt parked on Main Street, four blocks from the police station on Central Avenue, after 1:00 a.m. Fresh snow covered the town square, the wind the only sound on the street. A neon beer sign blinked in the front window, and he shivered as he neared the front door, a Paul Anka tune wafting outside. Entering the warm saloon, he surveyed its occupants: a half-dozen men with gray hair, broad shoulders, and worn posture. Unlike the other bars in town, Tommy’s catered to the older segment of Red Hill’s population. A slower pace prevailed, and retired blue-collar workers could enjoy a few drinks away from their wives, maybe flirt with a middle-aged waitress who would flirt back, knowing nothing would happen.
Matt spotted the man he’d come to see sitting at a back table near the CD jukebox, sharing a pitcher of beer with Don Bulashka, who owned a dairy just outside town. Matt approached them, his attention on the heavyset man facing Don. Glancing in his direction, the man did a double take.
“Hey, Matt,” Don said. “Sit down and pour yourself a drink.”
Matt shook his head. “Thanks, I can’t. Will you excuse us for a minute, Don? I need to speak to Charlie alone.”
Charlie Grissom tried not to react, but Matt saw his body turn rigid.
“Sure,” Don said, rising. “I’ll just wait over here.” He refilled his mug and relocated to the bar.
“I think I will have a seat,” Matt said, sitting opposite Charlie.
Charlie stared at him, waiting. “What’s he done now?”
Matt hesitated.Your kid is dead. “Why don’t we step outside, Charlie? Or into the back—”
Charlie drummed thick fingers on the tabletop. “No, we can talk right here. What’s my boy done this time? You have to lock him up for something?”
“No, it’s nothing like that.”Your kid is dead.“There’s been an accident.”
Charlie’s face slackened. “What kind of accident?”
Matt saw no way to get Charlie into a more private setting. “Charlie, Johnny drove his car off the Willow Creek Bridge tonight. We’re not sure how long he was underwater, but there was nothing we could do to save him. I’m sorry.”
Charlie stopped blinking. He seemed to age before Matt’s eyes, like Christopher Lee at the end of an oldDraculafilm.
“Dead? My boy’s dead?”
Matt nodded. “I’m afraid so.”
Charlie ran one hand over his forehead, pushing pack a tuft of hair that refused to retreat with the rest of his hairline. He stared at his beer mug, his bloodshot eyes filling with tears. “No. Oh, no. Not him, too …”
Matt squeezed Charlie’s flabby left forearm. “Let’s get out of here, okay? I need you to come to the morgue with me and identify his body.”
Burying his face in both hands, Charlie wept. “Oh, God, not my son …” His chest heaved and his shoulders trembled.
Matt felt the eyes in the bar on them. He wanted to comfort Charlie, but what could he say? It didn’t help that in his mind he still saw Johnny sitting in the front seat of his Cutlass Supreme, his eyes upturned and his flesh waterlogged.
Your kid is dead.Chapter 8
Eric watched gray sunlight stretch across his bedroom walls. His mother’s alarm went off, and a moment later the shower in the master bedroom began to run. He turned on his radio and switched off its alarm. He hadn’t slept all night. His head throbbed and his blood felt like it had been replaced by alcohol. The local radio personalities discussed sports events, television shows, and local politics. They announced birthdays and contests, but made no mention of school closings or Johnny’s death. Perhaps it had all been a nightmare—
No. It really happened. Johnny’s dead and I was there.
Rubbing his swollen eyes, he pictured the parking lot and dark hallways at school. He wondered how he would survive the day. He wanted to stay home and hide from the world, but that would only delay the inevitable, and he had given his word to Gary and Karen.
His jaw tightened. Why had Johnny ever become Gary’s friend? Other kids liked to party and listen to the same music as Johnny, but Gary had wormed his way into Johnny’s confidence. Eric wanted to believe it took more than good weed to earn Johnny’s loyalty. He stood and the room swam around him. Pain shot through his skull and his stomach performed gymnastic feats. He saw the framed photograph of him with Johnny on the wall, taken at a wrestling match two years earlier. Bile rose in his throat and he hurried to the bathroom.
The smell of sausage and onions assaulted his senses as he entered the kitchen, causing him to taste beer all over again. His mother, Pat, had made an omelet for his father, who sat at the table reviewing his lesson plans. Glancing at the island of skin on the crown of his father’s head, Eric sat beside him. Robert Carter held tenure as a professor of American literature at Red Hill Community College. His expertise on Nathaniel Hawthorne had brought him acclaim in academic circles.
“Would you like an omelet, Eric?” Pat asked.
“Just toast, please.”
Robert looked up, one eyebrow arched. “What kind of breakfast is that?”
“I have to make weight, Dad.”
“Are you sure it isn’t something else?”
“It’s nothing else.”
“You look a little peaked around the gills.”
Pat inserted two slices of whole wheat bread into the toaster. “Eric’s assured me there’s no need for us to lecture him about drinking.”
“You don’t say? What a relief.”
Eric knew his father was just giving him an opportunity to set himself up, like a spider baiting a fly, so he remained quiet.
“You got in late last night, didn’t you?”
Games.“Not really. I was home by ten thirty.” He had an 11:00 p.m. curfew on school nights.
“What did you do?”
“Johnny drove me around and then brought me home.”
“I hope he didn’t let you drive.”
“No, and I didn’t ask to drive.” His learner’s permit prohibited him from driving after 9:00 p.m.
“Eric, this is probably a good time for a discussion your mother and I have wanted to have with you for some time now.”
Great.The toast popped out of the toaster and Eric flinched.
“Your grades are down this semester.”
“I have an eighty-nine average—”
“Down from a ninety-one.”
“—and I’m still on the honor roll.”
“That isn’t going to get you into a good college.”
Pat set a plate with the toast on it before Eric.
“It will get me into Red Hill Community.”
Robert traded looks with Pat. “We have higher hopes for you than that. And going away to college is a large part of growing up.”
Seeing no point in arguing, Eric stared at the toast. “I’ll do better.”
Pat sat on Eric’s other side. “It’s not that we don’t like Johnny—”
Yes, it is.
“It’s just that he’s very … provincial, and we don’t want him holding you back. We know you’re close now, but you’re from different backgrounds, and have different goals. Odds are, you’ll drift apart once you start college anyway.”
He wanted to blurt out,Johnny is dead!“You’re right.”
Pat spoke first. “We are?”
“I know you don’t like me hanging out on school nights, and I won’t do it anymore. I’ll only see Johnny on weekends from now on.”
“How will you get to school?”
“I’ll go with Dad.”
Robert smiled. “You see? I told you he’d see the big picture if we just explained things properly.” He returned his attention to his lesson plans.
Nibbling on his toast, Eric avoided his mother’s suspicious stare.
When they entered the attached garage, Robert tossed his car keys into the air. “Catch.”
The keys sailed past Eric’s bleary eyes and rattled on the floor. He retrieved them from the smooth cement and raised his eyebrows.
“Your own set,” Robert said, vapor swirling from his mouth. “You need the practice.”
“Thanks.” But Eric didn’t feel grateful; the aspirin he’d taken had failed to ease the throbbing in his head. His stomach constricted and expanded. He tossed his gym bag into the Lexus’s backseat, got into the front, and opened the garage door with the remote control on his new key chain. Hazy sunlight spilled inside, causing him to squint. He fastened his seat belt as his father got into the car beside him, then turned the ignition and allowed the engine to warm up. Robert switched on the radio, and Eric’s heart skipped a beat. National Public Radio came over the speakers and he relaxed.
No local news.
He followed the same route to school that Johnny used, and they listened to the radio without speaking. His spine iced up as they passed the municipal building; a police officer crossed the parking lot and got into a cruiser. They continued up Main Street, passing the cemetery and, a quarter of a mile later, the supermarket. Out of the corner of his left eye, Eric spied another police vehicle parked in the supermarket’s driveway.
Chief Crane,he thought, his knuckles whitening on the steering wheel. His eyes darted to the rearview mirror, but the SUV did not pull behind them.
“Eyes on the road,” Robert said.
They passed Johnny’s house and Eric swallowed hard. Dark windows faced them, the dilapidated porch drooping like a sullen mouth. Was Charlie awake?
He wanted to scream.
A yellow school bus pulled into the street ahead of them, and he followed it to the school grounds.
“You can go a little faster,” Robert said.
Eric realized he had slowed the car to a crawl and the bus had pulled far ahead. He sped up, following the half loop between The Lot and the main building, and noted the flag, rippling in the wind, at half-mast. Students swarmed The Lot, and he felt the blood draining from his face. For a moment, his vision blurred.
“I wonder what happened,” Robert said, staring at the flag.
“I don’t know.” Eric idled behind the bus as it discharged its passengers.
“Whatever it is, I’m sure the whole town will be gossiping about it by lunchtime.”
Eric nodded without blinking. “Yeah, I guess so.”
Robert got out and circled the Lexus. Eric didn’t want to leave the car, didn’t want to set foot inside the school.I’m alone now.
But he had no choice.
He got out, cold wind numbing his face and pumping oxygen into his tired brain at the same time, and heard laughter in the distance. He pulled his gym bag out of the backseat even though he had no intention of attending practice. But he had to keep up appearances for the time being.
“Have a good day,” Robert said.
“You, too.” Eric stepped onto the sidewalk as his father drove off. He followed the curved sidewalk to the main building, and through the glass lobby doors he saw shadowy figures shuffling in opposite directions. Mr. Milton stood outside his office, ashen faced and glancing at his watch.
Eric grasped the door handle, entered the lobby, and joined the tide of moving flesh. Mr. Milton didn’t look at him. Eric pulled off his knit hat and ran one hand through his short hair as he turned at an intersection of dark corridors on the far side of the cafeteria. A figure wearing a plaid flannel shirt over a concert T-shirt stood leaning against his locker, arms folded, waiting.
“How’d it go?” Gary said in a low tone as he stepped clear of the locker.
Eric scanned the students congregating in the hall. Nobody paid any attention to them. “Okay.” He dialed the combination on his locker door. “My parents were in bed when I got home.”
“Cool. They didn’t mention the accident on the news, so most people are still in the dark.”
Eric opened his locker, peeled off his coat, and hung it on a hook. “I don’t know how much longer I can keep this up.”
“Just stay cool, okay? The news will be out soon enough. We’ll answer a few questions and it will all be over. I’m going to go find Karen. See you in homeroom.”
Gary slipped into the crowd, and Eric pulled textbooks from the top shelf of his locker. An electronic bell chimed over the recessed ceiling speakers, and his body turned rigid.
Five-minute countdown.Chapter 9
Gary followed the corridor on the far side of the gym and the pool, away from the crowded locker area. He knew where to find Karen: sunlight shone through the glass door at the end of the isolated corridor, facing the rear school grounds. His combat boots squeaked on the floor, and the dull sunlight glared in his eyes. A silhouette came into view on the other side of the door, surrounded by a halo. He pushed the panic bar and the door swung open, its sudden movement startling Karen, who dropped her cigarette by accident.
“Oh!” she said, catching her breath.
“Relax.” Gary inspected her puffy eyelids. “How’re you holding up?”
She shivered. “Not too good.”
“You’ve got to suck it up until word gets out.”
He withdrew a thick joint from his shirt pocket. “Here, fire this up.”
Karen looked around, her eyes widening. “Are you crazy?”
Gary held the joint out to her. “Go on, take it. Who’s going to know?” He gestured at the field of undisturbed snow beyond the school.
She stared at the joint.
“It’ll calm you down.”
Karen took the joint and stuck it between her lips. Gary took out his lighter and ignited a small blue flame. Karen shielded the joint with one hand and puffed away, lighting it. She took a deep drag, held the marijuana smoke in her lungs, exhaled. Peace clouded her eyes, and she offered the joint to Gary.
“Uh-uh. I want to be clearheaded when the news breaks. You, too. Take another drag or two, then save the rest for later. Okay?”
She nodded. “Okay. Thanks.”
“No problem. I’m going to homeroom. Try not to be late.”
Nodding again, she took another hit.
Eric felt self-conscious as soon as he entered Carol Crane’s homeroom class. Todd Kumler sat on the far side of the aisle, flirting with Jackie Angelino in the row behind him. Cliff and Derek sat beside him, competing for the attention of Jackie’s best friend, Rene Algier. None of them paid any attention to Eric as he took his seat, but Carol seemed to take special notice of him, as if she had been waiting for him. He glimpsed concern in her eyes, and he looked down at his textbook, avoiding them.
She knows,he thought. Of course she did. Chief Crane must have told her right away. He stared at the words in the book, but they would not come into focus. Rhonda sat in the row ahead of him. Whispering voices enveloped him like fog. Gary sat down, Johnny’s empty desk separating them. He opened his notebook and doodled on it with a pen. A sequence of electronic notes descended from the ceiling speaker and the students’ voices trailed off.
“Thank you and good morning.” Mr. Milton’s voice sounded cold and distant over the PA system, and he spoke with a slower cadence than usual. “It is with great sadness that I must inform you of a terrible tragedy that’s befallen a fellow student.”
Backs arched around the room and eyes rose to the speaker. Eric felt Carol studying his reaction. He swallowed as Mr. Milton’s disembodied voice continued.
“John Grissom, a senior, died last night in an automobile accident.”
The students burst into a cacophony of gasps. As he looked at Johnny’s empty seat, Eric allowed himself to experience the shock he’d been suppressing.
“Oh, shit!” Gary said.
Rhonda turned and looked at them, her eyebrows raised above the rims of her glasses.
“John was a member of the wrestling squad his freshman and sophomore years,” Mr. Milton said, “and he will be sorely missed. A funeral service will be held early next week, and students with written permission will be excused from class to attend. Please join me for a minute of silence.”
Bowing his head, Eric felt tears in his eyes. Across the room, Todd said, “They should bury him in the smoking lounge so all his peers can pay their respects.”
Derek and Cliff giggled, and Carol shot an angry look in their direction. Before she could say anything, Eric leapt out of his chair.
“Shut the hell up!”
Heads turned in his direction, and Gary did a double take. Todd’s mouth fell open. Cliff and Derek gaped.
Carol rose to her feet. “Eric, please sit down.”
A tingling sensation spread through his brain.
Carol moved toward him. “Eric—?”
Her voice sounded hollow. Eric’s heart fluttered, and the room spun around him.
Losing my balance …
Turning back, he felt weightless as he reached for the back of his chair. He tottered to his right and his view flipped sideways. He saw Rhonda calling his name but he did not hear her voice. Then darkness closed in on him.Chapter 10
Voices, murky and distorted.
Underwater, Eric thought. Drowning, just like in fourth grade.
All a dream …
The voices grew clearer, and he thought he heard someone calling his name. Light fractured the darkness, and faces shifted in and out of focus.
Faces he knew.
Not dreaming …
He felt his head move from side to side, his mouth open. Carol loomed over him, Gary and Rhonda behind her. Other students peered down at him, their heads forming a ring. He blinked and their voices turned clear.
Carol said, “Eric—?”
He nodded, swallowing.Passed out.
“Can you sit up?”
Another nod, uncertain.
“Help him …”
Hands reached down and helped him sit up. His head pulsed and he pressed his left hand against his temple.
“Did you hurt yourself?”
He shook his head and mumbled something even he didn’t understand.
“Can you stand?”
“Help him up.”
The same hands helped him to his feet. The room swayed around him, and he swallowed again, his mouth dry, fighting to remain conscious.
“Gary, take him to the nurse’s office.”
He felt a hand on his left arm, pulling him away, and he stumbled toward the door.
“Back to your seats,” Carol said behind him.
In the carpeted hall, Eric lurched from side to side. His body tingled and he felt sluggish. He staggered over to a water fountain recessed in the wall.
“The nurse’s office is this way,” Gary said.
“I know, I need some water.” He hunched over the fountain and pressed the button, filling his mouth with cold water that tasted like chlorine. Turning his head, he splashed water on his face.
When he stood straight, Gary took him by the arm and guided him away from the fountain. “That was brilliant.”
Eric scrunched up his face. “What are you talking about?”
“Your fainting spell back there. I wish I’d thought of it.”
“That was real.”
“Then it was damn lucky. Right in front of Mrs. Crane! I thought I was good, but you were great. No one will doubt your sincerity.” Eric shook his head. “Whatever.”
“You got your wish. You’re going home.” Eric grunted.
Lying in bed, Eric stared at the ceiling. His mother had reacted to the news of Johnny’s death with some semblance of sympathy, but he detected relief in her voice. He’d come straight to his room, and now he wondered if Karen had fared any better. He hoped she wouldn’t crumble from the same pressure he felt. His eyelids grew heavy and at last he surrendered to exhaustion.
He had barely fallen asleep when the slamming of a car door awakened him. A moment later the doorbell rang. He held his breath, listening. Downstairs his mother opened the front door and greeted someone. A male voice responded. From the window, he saw an SUV with police markings parked in the driveway.
“Eric! Come downstairs, please.”
His muscles tensed. “I’ll be right there.” Descending the stairs on rubbery legs, he listened to the conversation below.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t like some coffee?” Pat said.
“No, thank you,” Matt said. “I need to get some sleep tonight.”
Eric entered the living room, and Matt rose from the chair beside the sofa, his hat in one hand.
“Hi, Chief Crane.”
“How are you feeling?”
“Better, I guess.” Did he appear as sick as he felt?
“Glad to hear it. I know you’ve had a terrible shock.” He gestured with his hat. “Why don’t you have a seat? I need to ask you a few questions.”
Eric sat beside his mother on the sofa. He prayed this wouldn’t take long.
Returning to the chair, Matt leaned forward with his forearms resting on his thighs. “First let me say how sorry I am about Johnny.”
He had never dealt with the death of someone close to him before. How was a person supposed to respond to condolences? “Thanks.”
“I know he drove you to school yesterday. Did you see him after that?”
Eric nodded. “He picked me up after wrestling practice.”
Matt took a pen and a small notebook from his breast pocket. “When was that?”
“Around six o’clock.”
Matt jotted down the information. “Did you go anywhere after that?”
“He drove us around town—”
Matt raised his eyebrows. “‘Us?’”
“Gary and Karen—Gary Belter and Karen Slatter. Karen’s—was—Johnny’s girl.”
Matt recorded the names. “They were in the car when Johnny picked you up?”
“And you just drove around town?”
“Uh-huh. You know, back road stuff. There isn’t a lot to do around here.”
“Don’t I know it. How long did you cruise?”
“An hour, maybe an hour and a half.”
“Did you drink any alcohol?”
Eric felt his mother’s gaze on him. “There was a case of beer in the car. I took one just so Johnny would leave me alone.”
“How about Gary and Karen?”
“They had some, too.”
Eric hesitated. “He had a lot. Half the case, I’d say.”
Matt stared at him, his expression unreadable. “How would you describe his behavior?”
Eric paused for dramatic effect. “Out of control.”
“He was angry that Mr. Milton suspended him for fighting Todd Kumler. Todd started the fight, and Johnny thought it was unfair he was the one who got punished.”
“Okay. So you’re driving around and Johnny’s drinking. What else?”
This is it.“I never saw him like that before. He was speeding, and he played chicken with this car out by the cemetery. It was pretty scary. We told him to calm down, but he wouldn’t listen. He kept shouting about Todd and Mr. Milton and—” He stopped, uncertainty in his eyes.
Matt raised his eyebrows. “Why was he mad at my wife?”
“She broke up his fight with Todd and took him to Mr. Milton’s office.”
Matt pursed his lips. “I see.”
“We told him to stop speeding or we were getting out. He accused us of ganging up on him and pulled over and kicked us out.”
“Where was this?”
“Out on Route 20, near Willow Road.”
“What time was that?”
“I’m not sure. Around eight, I guess. He left us in the middle of nowhere, so we walked back to town. We thought he’d cool off and come back for us, but he never did.”
“When did you get home?”
“A little after ten?” Eric looked at Pat, who nodded, a blank expression on her face.
Matt furrowed his eyebrows. “It took you two hours to get back?”
“We went to Johnny’s house first, because Gary left his truck there. Then we drove around looking for Johnny.”
Eric held Matt’s unwavering gaze. “We were worried about him.”
Matt closed his notebook and put it away. “Okay, Eric.” He stood. “Thanks for your time. You’ve been a big help. At least I understand Johnny’s state of mind.”
Pat walked Matt to the door, and through the picture window Eric watched him climb into his vehicle and drive away.
We just might get away with this.Chapter 11
The smell of ammonia burned Matt’s nostrils as he followed the Asian woman through swinging doors set in blue ceramic walls. Dressed in green surgical scrubs, with her hair pulled back beneath her cap, she walked with authority despite her short height. They crossed a wide corridor before entering the autopsy room, and Matt’s rubber-soled shoes squeaked on the sterile floor.
Dr. Ronald Beelock, the county’s assistant medical examiner, stood over a stainless-steel table in the dark room. Johnny’s naked corpse lay faceup on the table, his blue skin and purple veins glowing beneath an overhead work light. A clock on the wall showed 10:15, and a waltz Matt didn’t recognize came from a CD player as frigid air-conditioning descended in sheets from a ceiling vent.
“Good morning, Chief Crane,” Beelock said. “You’re very punctual.” Also dressed in scrubs, Beelock stood six feet tall. A thick nose separated beady brown eyes with heavy lids, and a lock of dark hair dangled from beneath his cap.
“That’s just ‘acting chief,’ Doc. I’m still pulling for Walt Butler’s return.”
“This is your first autopsy, isn’t it?”
Matt nodded, trying not to frown. The pathologist’s breath reeked of whiskey. “That’s right. Under the circumstances, I figured it was time I sat in on one of them.”
Beelock eyed the water dripping from the brim of Matt’s hat. “Don’t tell me it’s raining?”
“‘The angels are crying.’ That’s what my grandmother used to say.” Matt lowered his eyes to the cadaver on the table. A straight line across Johnny’s throat separated his dark red face from his blue body. His lips had turned black, and a white film covered his open eyes. Fine black hair crisscrossed his chest, and his abdominal muscles resembled a six-pack. His testicles were bloated, and the big toe of his right foot had been tagged with an identification number.
Matt had seen his share of dead bodies. They came with the territory: mangled corpses in car wrecks, heart attack victims, even a suicide-hanging. But something about Johnny’s death didn’t sit well with him, and he couldn’t put his finger on it. He removed a set of photographs from his coat pocket and held them out. “These are for you.”
Beelock nodded at a bare counter. “Would you mind spreading them out over there?”
Matt laid out a half-dozen photos of Johnny slumped over inside his car.
Beelock clucked his tongue. “What a waste. Susan and I already took X-rays and fingerprints, scraped under his fingernails, drew blood, and took pubic samples and anal swabs. But you haven’t missed the good stuff.”
“Glad to hear it.”
Beelock pointed at large plastic containers on the counter, each translucent and identified by a sticker. “We’re finished with the clothes, which can go back to the family. Speaking of clothes, Susan, please take Chief Crane’s hat and coat.”
“Certainly.” Susan took Matt’s garments into an adjacent room.
Beelock leaned over Johnny’s torso. “Would you like a stool?”
“I think I’ll stand.”
Beelock offered a faint smile. “We’ll see how long that lasts.” He pulled a cart closer, metal instruments gleaming on a tray. Susan returned, pulling on a pair of latex gloves that snapped tight around her wrists. Matt steeled his nerves, the antiseptic odors playing havoc with the digestion of his breakfast.
Beelock adjusted a microphone suspended from the ceiling and activated it. Leaning over Johnny’s body, he announced the day and date. “I’m Doctor Ronald Beelock, assistant medical examiner for the county of Chautauqua, in the state of New York. This is case 02-021, John Vincent Grissom. Assisting me is Susan Wong, and observing is Matthew Crane, acting chief of police for the village of Red Hill. The body is that of a well-developed, well-nourished, seventeen-year-old Caucasian male with black hair and brown eyes. It is seventy-two inches high and weighs one hundred and forty-six pounds. Rigor mortis is present in the extremities, and lividity has set in.”
He pulled Johnny’s lips back and inspected his mouth. “The victim’s teeth are generally in good shape, with three fillings.”
I’m not a horse, goddamn you!
Beelock circled the table, and Susan stepped out of his way. “There’s a mole on his left forearm, and scars on his right knee, upper lip, and right shoulder. There’s a tattoo of a bat on his right bicep. I see a bruise on his right breast and an abrasion on his jaw—”
“He was in a fight the morning before his death,” Matt said.
Beelock raised one hand for silence. “Vessels are occluded, and his face and neck are congested and dark red, indicating cyanosis.” He reached up and switched off the digital recorder. “That concludes the external portion of our examination.”
That wasn’t so bad,Matt thought. Then Susan sponged the body down and he swallowed.
Beelock crossed the room to a metal desk. He opened the drawer and took out a half-full bottle of Jim Beam and two glasses. “Can I interest you in a belt, Matthew?”
Matt shook his head. “Not while I’m on duty.”And not when I feel sick to my stomach.
Beelock poured a double shot of whiskey into one glass. “Very commendable, but I think I’ll have a splash by myself, if you don’t mind. I know it’s unprofessional, but it fights off the cold in here.”
“Do what you have to.” I’d probably drink, too, if I had to deal with dead bodies all day.
Beelock drained the glass in a single gulp, then returned the bottle to its hiding place. At the table, he switched the recorder back on and selected a scalpel from the instrument tray. Gleaming beneath the overhead light, it sliced into Johnny’s flesh.
What the fuck?
Beelock made a Y-shaped incision in Johnny’s chest, starting at each shoulder, meeting in the sternum, and continuing down to the pubis, cutting Johnny like a deer. He set the bloodied scalpel on the tray, then peeled back the folds of Johnny’s flesh like rubber, exposing his glistening red rib cage. For a moment, Matt regretted passing up Beelock’s offer of a drink.
Susan handed Beelock a pair of cutters that resembled pruning shears, and he positioned the blades over the lowest portion of the rib cage. Squeezing the long handles, he cut his way through Johnny’s ribs. The ensuing sounds reminded Matt of the crunching he made while eating breakfast cereal. Reaching the top ribs, Beelock started over at the bottom rib on the other side of the cage. Once finished, he returned the cutters to Susan. He leaned over Johnny and gripped opposite ends of the cage, then popped Johnny’s chest plate off like a manhole cover and set the bloody ribs down on a smaller autopsy table.
Johnny’s lungs and intestines sat fully exposed, pink and gray and surrounded by muscles and tissue. Susan photographed the organs from various angles, and Matt felt moisture on his forehead despite the frigid temperature.
Beelock removed Johnny’s lungs, heart, esophagus, and trachea. He weighed each organ on a hanging scale, and Susan set them aside in plastic containers for further dissection. Beelock described their condition while Susan used a syringe to withdraw fluids from the various cavities.
Matt stared at the wall clock: only 12:10. The second hand crawled around the face in slow motion. He could not decide which he wanted to do more: pass out or vomit.
Beelock stepped behind Johnny’s head. Selecting a fresh scalpel, he cut an intermastoid incision from behind Johnny’s left ear, along the top of his head to behind his right ear, then set the scalpel down. He parted the hair along the incision, seized the scalp in both hands, and yanked it down over Johnny’s face like an obscene mask, pink flesh out. Matt appreciated that the music on the CD player muted the squishy sounds of the scalp separating.
Susan handed Beelock a small electric bone saw, which hummed as he cut away the front quadrant of Johnny’s skull. He removed the skull fragment and set it down like a jigsaw-puzzle piece, exposing the soft pink brain. He took another clean scalpel and severed the arteries and connections that held the brain within the skull. He set the scalpel down, reached inside the skull with both hands, and removed Johnny’s quivering pink brain.
“Meet John Vincent Grissom.”
Matt felt the blood rushing from his head.
“This was a healthy young man,” Beelock said as he set the brain down on the scale. “Clean lungs, strong heart.” He picked up yet another scalpel. “Now, let’s get to the heart of the matter.” He made a vertical incision in Johnny’s throat, exposing his larynx, then picked up an instrument with a light on its end and prodded the damaged tissue inside Johnny’s neck. “The larynx has been crushed. There is a fracture of the hyoid bone and the thyroid cartilage.” He paused to set the instrument down. “It’s my opinion that John Grissom, a seventeen-year-old male, died as a result of severe and intensive injury to his neck, causing accidental asphyxiation.” He flicked off the microphone.
Matt leaned closer, gazing at the grisly mass where Johnny’s face should have been. “You’re sure this was an accident?”
Beelock peeled off his gloves and deposited them in a metal wastebasket. “Are you suggesting someone else was in that car when it went off the bridge?”
“No, but that bruise on his neck—”
“It’s true that most ligature strangulations are homicides, but that’s not the case here. Look at your own photos. You and I both know that toxicology is going to show this boy was drunk when he drove off that bridge. The steering wheel crushed his throat on impact, depriving him of oxygen. Plain and simple.”
Matt bobbed his head. “You’re the expert.”
Nice going, Barney Fife.
“Join me for that drink now?”
“No, I think what I need is fresh air.”
“Understandable. Susan, would you mind fetching the chief’s garments?”
Susan disappeared into the adjacent room. Staring at the corpse, Matt said, “So what happens next?”
Beelock motioned to the plastic containers on the counter. “We’ll perform some additional dissection, then put all the pieces back together. They couldn’t do it for Humpty Dumpty, but Susan and I can do it for young Mr. Grissom.” He indicated the jagged edge where the skull fragment had been removed. “This special jigsaw cut makes reassembly easier.”
“Like a puzzle,” Matt said.
You couldn’t solve a crossword puzzle!Chapter 12
Karen sat on the living room sofa, one leg folded beneath her, gazing at the television and flipping through the channels, searching for distraction. Rain spattered the windows, an unusual occurrence for winter.
She hated being alone.
Her mother had left work early the day before to comfort her, but Karen knew that couldn’t last. How would she survive without Johnny? Young women tended to either leave Red Hill after graduation or remain in town until their dying day. She and Johnny had discussed moving to LA, or to New York City, or to Florida. But they had discussed those trips in tones reserved for daydreams. Though Johnny had never said so, Karen had always believed they’d marry some day. The dream had died with Johnny, and she didn’t know how to pull herself together. She’d been “Johnny’s girl” for two years, and she didn’t know how to be with anyone else.
Tossing the remote control aside, she wandered into the kitchen and surveyed the leftover diner food in the refrigerator. She hadn’t been hungry for a day and a half. In the middle of the night, unable to sleep, she had smoked the remainder of the joint Gary had given her; even that had failed to revive her appetite. Thinking of the marijuana made her want to get high, not eat. She opened the cabinet where her mother kept her liquor and withdrew a blue bottle with an inch of cognac in it. She unscrewed the cap and sniffed the liquor, her nostrils flaring.
Good,she thought. She raised the bottle to her lips and took a single sip, believing her mother would never notice her theft. The cognac numbed her tongue and burned her throat, its heat traveling down to her belly.What the hell.Taking a second sip, she gasped. Then she held the opening of the bottle beneath the faucet of the sink and turned the water on and off. The bottle appeared as full as it had before her indulgence. She put it away and closed the cabinet.
The doorbell rang and she froze.
Who could that be?Not Chief Crane again, she hoped. He’d stopped by the previous evening, and she’d recited her story exactly as Gary had instructed. She thought he believed her, but maybe something had changed his mind. Darting into the bathroom, she gargled mouthwash. The doorbell rang again as she hurried into the living room and peeked around a curtain. Gary stood on the porch, hands stuffed in his pockets as usual. She let out a relieved sigh and opened the door, allowing cold air to snake around her. The rain had reduced the snow in the driveway to slush.
“I saw your mom’s car parked at the diner,” Gary said, “so I thought I’d stop by and see how you were getting along. Can I come in?”
“Sure.” She stepped back, allowing him to pass her, then closed the door.
Gary unlaced his boots, stepped out of them, and entered the living room. He sat on the sofa, close to the middle, so she had no choice but to sit beside him. “How are you holding up?”
“I’m glad it’s the weekend.” Friday had been unbearable for her. She had wept when Mr. Milton reported Johnny’s death, and had run to the girls’ bathroom to hide.
“I know what you mean. It takes the pressure off us. You want to get something to eat?”
Having no desire to show her face in public, she shook her head.
“You sure? We could do something else, just to take your mind off things.”
She shook her head again, holding back the emotions bursting to escape.
“I hear you. Let me know if you change your mind.”
He put one hand on her shoulder and she tensed up. He had used that hand to kill Johnny.
Not his fault, she thought.
Gary reached into his shirt pocket and took something from it. “I want you to have this.”
She looked at the metal foil packet, three inches long. “What is it?”
“Just take it.”
She did. Holding it in the palm of her left hand, she peeled back the edges of the foil, revealing small white rocks and sparkling powder. She’d never snorted cocaine, had never been interested in doing any drug stronger than weed. She looked at him with skepticism in her eyes.
“It’ll make you feel better,” Gary said. “Trust me.”
She folded the foil edges. She could not tell how much the packet contained without opening it, and she didn’t know how to measure the drug anyway. Did she want to try it? She wasn’t sure. Maybe it would make her feel better. “Thanks.”
“Don’t mention it.” He stood. “And call me if you need someone to talk to.”
She set the packet on the coffee table and it reflected light at her. “I will.”
As soon as Gary had driven off, she snatched the packet and ran upstairs to her bedroom. She set the foil on her bureau and peeled back its edges, revealing its contents. Holding the rocks in place with her thumb, she tapped the loose powder onto the wooden surface. Recalling drug usage she’d seen in movies, she slid the painted fingernail of her right pinkie into the coke and raised it to one nostril. She hesitated, debating whether or not she really wanted to go this far to try to forget what had happened. Then she snorted the powder.
A slow tingling sensation numbed her brain. She scooped more coke up her other nostril, and a dreamlike feeling spread through her. Sniffing, she touched the coke with one fingertip and examined it. She licked it and a pleasurable tingling followed the bitter taste. She gazed at the framed photograph on top of the bureau. Dark eyes stared back at her.
She switched on her CD player and heavy-metal music filled the room. Then she flicked off the light and lay down on her bed, losing herself in a jumble of confusing thoughts and sensations. She slid her hands between her legs and imagined Johnny on top of her.Chapter 13
The rain had frozen by dawn, encasing the village in ice. Tree limbs cracked, split, and crashed to the ground with thunderous fury and ice rained down.
Wearing street clothes beneath his police coat, Matt stepped through his front door with a bemused look on his face. “It’s a winter wonderland out there, all right. I bet hell froze over, too.”
Carol rubbed her arms. “Shut the door and keep hell at bay, please.” A thick robe covered her nightgown.
Matt closed the door and the flames in the fireplace shifted direction as the door latched. “The street looks dangerous. There’s going to be some bad accidents today.”
Carol knew what that meant. “Chief Crane to the rescue?”
“I’d better at least make a trip to the station and make sure everything’s running smoothly.”
“It’s your day off.”
“A policeman’s duty is never done, ma’am. Besides, I want to check in on Charlie.”
Raising her right hand, she rubbed the sash of her nightgown between two fingers. “You’re a good man, Chief. I’d hoped to spend some quality time with you this morning, if you catch my drift.”
He set his hat on the wooden rack. “Shoot, Miss Carol. Why didn’t you just say so?”
Harold Lawson wheeled the cart supporting Johnny’s naked corpse out of the refrigerated storage room in the funeral home and into the embalming room. His son, Willard, had delivered the body from the morgue earlier. Wearing a respirator over his protective outfit, Harold transferred the body onto the stainless-steel drainage table and pushed the cart out of his way. He covered Johnny’s genitals with a dark towel, then turned on his CD player and selected a disc:Barbra Streisand’s Greatest Hits.He and Kitty, his wife of twenty-eight years, had seen Babs perform in Las Vegas when they had been in town for a funeral directors’ convention. It had been a great show.
Oh, God, don’t make me listen to this shit!
With Barbara’s music filling the room, Harold washed Johnny’s body with a germicide-insecticide-olfactant. He swabbed the mouth and nose with the same solution, then plugged those orifices with cotton, to prevent leakage later on, and to protect the patient from insect infestation. He enjoyed being a mortician; his father, Lawrence, preferred the human aspect of funeral directing, interacting with the bereaved. But Harold preferred his dead patients to their living relatives. This John Grissom needed him, and the boy’s open eyes didn’t bother him. If he’d learned one thing in his years in the business, it was that death was a natural stage of life.
His son showed little interest in the family business. Willard acted as the handyman and groundskeeper and showed equal disdain for the living and the dead. He spent most of his free time smoking marijuana alone in a shed deep in the woods behind the Lawson Funeral Home. What a disappointment.
Humming along with Barbra, Harold massaged Johnny’s joints, working the rigor mortis out of them. Some people might have found this common procedure disturbing, but not Harold, who suspected most Red Hill residents found his profession a morbid necessity.
The ancient Egyptians invented the art of embalming: originally, they had buried their dead in the desert and the sand had kept them dry, preserving their bodies. But when they started constructing sarcophaguses and pyramids, moisture decomposed the bodies. The creative solution had been embalming and mummification. Modern embalming techniques concentrated on shortterm preservation.
Harold worked massage cream into Johnny’s face and hands to make the skin soft and pliable. Don Beelock, the assistant medical examiner, had done a fine job reassembling the body after the autopsy, but had been careless with the face, which he had only partially stretched over the skull before suturing it. This was typical of Beelock’s work, which resulted in Grissom’s face resembling a cheap dime-store mask. Setting his one hand on Johnny’s scalp and the other on the boy’s left cheek, he slid the entire face up.
Harold inserted two oval-shaped plastic eye caps beneath Johnny’s eyelids; the grippers kept the lids closed. He stuffed cotton down Johnny’s throat to absorb purging fluids, then reached for his least favorite tool: the injection gun. In the old days, morticians had sutured their patients’ mouths shut with a needle and catgut. Times had changed. He pulled Johnny’s lower lip down and pressed the tip of the gun against the lower gums. He squeezed the trigger—Ka-CHUNG!
—shooting a thick wire deep into the pink flesh. He repeated the procedure with Johnny’s upper gums, then twisted the two obtruding wires together, locking Johnny’s mouth shut. He discovered stubble on Johnny’s chin, so he applied shaving cream and used a straight-edge razor for a close shave. As the razor scraped Johnny’s neck, he raised his eyebrows at the sight of the bruise on his patient’s throat. Wiping away the remaining shaving cream, he held a class photo of Johnny next to his face. The boy had long hair in the photo, but Harold felt obligated to make him look cleancut. His hair had grown even longer and more unruly in the time since his death, so Harold snipped off a full inch all over Johnny’s head. He gave the boy a neat, layered look, and his chest swelled with pride when he admired his handiwork. Who would mind? Johnny’s brow seemed furrowed with displeasure, but Harold was able to massage his forehead into a relaxed state again.
After verifying that none of his officers had called in sick, Matt drove to Charlie Grissom’s house. His Pathfinder slid on the ice several times, and he pumped the brakes, righting the vehicle’s trajectory. Pulling into the driveway, he switched off the ignition and gazed at the dilapidated house’s brown and yellow siding, which needed replacing. A rusted basketball hoop without a net clung to the garage out back, and a rotting picnic table sat frozen on the side lawn. Tucking a file folder under one arm, he got out of the vehicle, popped the hatch, and removed a cardboard box. The side door to the house opened and Charlie peeked out, squinting in the gray light.
“Matt? I almost didn’t recognize you in your civvies.”
“I’ve got Johnny’s possessions, Charlie.”
“You’d best come in this way. Those porch steps are dangerous with all that ice.”
Matt nodded and half-slid across the ice to the side door. Inside, he closed the door behind him with one heel and followed Charlie up three steps covered with peeling linoleum. He set the box down on the cluttered kitchen table. The cool sunlight shining through the window over the sink highlighted dirty dishes in murky water. Dark splotches of spaghetti sauce had caramelized on the surface of the outdated stove.
Charlie opened the box and rummaged through Johnny’s clothing and a plastic bag containing his wallet, loose change, and breath mints. “Guess I’ll take this stuff upstairs to his room. My sister, Alicia, is coming in from Tampa next weekend. She can’t make the funeral, but she promised to pack up all of Johnny’s stuff and take it to Goodwill. I’m putting this dump on the market and getting the hell out of town. Maybe I’ll move to Florida like everyone else, get away from all this damned snow.”
“That sounds like a plan. How are you doing?”
Charlie shook his head. “I don’t know. I really don’t. A parent should never have to bury his child.”
Matt removed the folder from under his arm. “I have the results of Johnny’s autopsy. Preliminary toxicology shows his bloodalcohol content was .13, way over the legal limit, and he tested positive for marijuana.”
Charlie’s eyes teared. “Stupid kid. I guess I didn’t set much of an example for him.”
“Don’t beat yourself up. All kids do stupid things. It could have happened to anyone in this town.”
“But it didn’t.”
Offering a sympathetic smile, Matt clasped Charlie’s shoulder. “I’ve got to get going. My wife sends her regrets. You give us a shout if you need anything, okay? I mean that.”
“Thanks, I appreciate it.”
As he left, Matt thought he heard Charlie sobbing.
With his preparations completed, Harold performed the arterial embalming, which he regarded as the manual-labor portion of his job. Using a scalpel, he made an incision in Johnny’s neck. No blood appeared, because it had all settled in the bottom of the body. He inserted forceps and raised the carotid and its corresponding vein above the skin surface. Then he made an incision in the artery and inserted an injection needle into it. A clear tube connected the needle to a hose leading from the large metal vat of the embalming machine. He inserted a drain tube into the corresponding vein, then activated the embalming machine’s pump, which rattled and hummed. Pink fluid—formaldehyde mixed with water—shot through the hose and entered Johnny’s carotid.
Faced with increasing costs, Harold used a higher water-to-formaldehyde ratio than regulations dictated; it was the only way he could turn a profit. And in a case like this, when the bereaved could only afford the most minimal of arrangements, he used even more water. It was nothing personal, just business, simple economics. Charlie Grissom had ordered the most inexpensive casket that Harold offered, a particle board number spray painted with a single coat of fiber glass. It amazed Harold how basic cosmetic touches could enhance even the most rudimentary craftsmanship. This boy would look just fine for his viewing, probably even better than he had while he was still alive. But after that, when he was sealed in his casket … Well, no client had ever complained. Perhaps if Charlie had worked for a living, or had spent less money on alcohol, he would have been able to afford better services for his son now.
The fluid spread through Johnny’s arteries and veins, visible through his translucent, dead blue flesh. Harold watched the flesh take on a more natural hue.He looks better already, even if it is only temporary.He opened the drain tube and blood flowed out in a steady stream that ran into the gutters surrounding the table, then down a drain hole near Johnny’s feet. When the flow slowed, he closed the tube, waited for pressure to build in the body, and opened it again. The added pressure forced clots and blood out of the vascular system. Eight pints of fluid later, he switched off the machine and removed the needle and tube. He blotted the incisions with cotton, treated them with embalming powder, and sutured them. Then he sponged the body all over again.
A door closed upstairs and footsteps pounded the stairs. Harold only knew one person who descended those stairs with so little grace. A moment later Willard appeared in the doorway, over six feet tall and slack jawed, carrying a dry-cleaning bag over his shoulder.
“Hey, Pop. I got the suit.”
Grissom’s father, Charles, said his son required something appropriate for the funeral. “Take it upstairs before it picks up any of these odors.”
Willard turned to leave.
“What’s the weather like?”
“Roads are bad. The sun came out and some of the ice melted, so there’s water on top of the ice.”
Harold returned to his work as Willard’s heavy footsteps faded. Harold put on a Madonna CD and performed the cavity embalming. This required him to insert a trocar—a long hollow tube with a pointed end, attached to a tube that ran to a suction machine over the slop sink—two inches above Johnny’s umbilicus. He guided the trocar into the chest, then into the abdomen and pelvis, removing liquids, gasses, and semisolids that might cause putrefaction and decay. Once he’d finished this, he disconnected the trocar from the suction machine and used it to inject a preservative cavity fluid into Johnny’s internal organs. Finally, he removed the trocar, inserted a button into the puncture, and sutured it. By the time he had finished, Madonna had stopped vogue-ing.
He rolled the body to one side and packed the anus with cotton to prevent seepage. Then he washed the body and rinsed and disinfected his instruments. The corpse had to sit overnight to allow the embalming fluids to take full effect. Then he could dress it, apply special makeup to Johnny’s face—the artistic portion of his job—and have Willard help him move the body into the casket. Standing in the doorway leading to the stairs, he removed his respirator, surveyed the room, and flicked off the lights.
“Good night, Mr. Grissom.”
He closed the door, enshrouding Johnny’s corpse in darkness.
Just don’t call me John Boy.
Eric sat at his computer, attempting to research a paper for his history class. The furnace kicked in, and heat rose from the floor vent. His eyes shifted from the monitor to the curtain on the left. Reaching over, he pulled the curtain back and stared at the handprint on the glass. It caused him to remember the image of Johnny kneeling in the snow outside the Death Mobile, his hand pressed against the window. Before he could dwell on it, the phone rang and his mother called his name.
“Coming,” he said loud enough for her to hear.
Who would be calling him?
Gary.He didn’t want to take the call, but he had no choice. Rising from his desk, he left his room. In the hall, he heard water dripping in the bathroom sink. He took his time descending the stairs. In the kitchen, his mother stood holding the phone over her bosom, a faint smile on her lips and an excited gleam in her eyes. Eric had never seen that expression on her face before.
“It’s a girl,” she said in a whisper.
Karen,Eric thought as he took the phone. “Hello?”
“Hi, it’s Rhonda.”
“Oh, hi.” His heartbeat quickened as his mother went through the motions of preparing dinner behind him.
“How are you feeling?”
He knew she meant after his fainting spell, and the back of his neck grew hot. “Better, I guess.”
“I’m sorry about Johnny. I know how tight you two were.”
“Thanks.” Eric pinched the bridge of his nose, fighting back tears. “I can’t really discuss it right now.”
A pause. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you.”
He took a deep, quivering breath. “That’s okay. I’m glad you called.”
“I’ll see you in class on Monday, unless school is canceled because of this storm.”
He hung up the phone and attempted to escape.
“Who was that?” Pat said.
Pat cocked her head. “I think I know her mother.”
“You know everyone’s mother.” He ducked out of the kitchen before she could ask a follow-up question. A week earlier, he would have felt elated if Rhonda had called him; now he just felt dead inside.Chapter 14
Pat at pulled into the long driveway of the Lawson Funeral Home, on Central Avenue. Eric gazed out the passenger window at the pale green Colonial house, which stood at an angle on a slight hill, its shoveled walkway dividing the snow-blanketed front yard. He saw Willard Lawson, the tall young man whose family ran the place, carry a snow shovel into the wide garage behind the house. Sparse snowflakes descended from the gray sky.
“Are you okay?”
Eric nodded. “I’ll see you later.” He got out, and as his mother drove away, he moved up the walkway, his father’s charcoal gray coat protecting him from the forceful wind. Closing his right hand around the curved brass handle on the front door, he stepped inside.
The interior lobby had been decorated in soft reds and browns, giving him the impression of velvet even though he saw none. A stairway with a dark wood banister curved away from the pedestal where Lawrence Lawson, the funeral director, stood. Lawrence had dyed his hair black and combed it over the top of his balding head. He reminded Eric of John Carradine, a gaunt actor who had appeared in over one hundred old horror movies. Eric unbuttoned his coat and hung it on a wooden hanger in a closet with double sliding doors.
Lawrence gestured to a leather-bound book. “Would you care to sign the memorial book?” He offered a black pen to Eric, who accepted it and signed the book.
Much to Eric’s surprise, dozens of signatures preceded his. He set the pen down and Lawrence handed him a miniature envelope. Eric opened it: a memorial card, with Johnny’s name and dates of birth and death printed on the front, and the Twenty-Third Psalm inside.
A combination of scents greeted him as he entered the parlor: flowers, perfume, and room deodorant. He gaped at the three dozen people before him, most of them high school students who had never given a rat’s ass about Johnny.
Hypocrites,he thought. Some people would do anything to skip class for an afternoon. A few heads turned in his direction, but he ignored them. Canned organ music descended from ceiling speakers and double doors opened into the Slumber Room, identified by a gold plaque on the wall. Through the crowd, he glimpsed empty fold-out metal chairs facing a horizontal black shape. He averted his gaze from the coffin.
Mr. Milton and Mrs. Crane stood speaking before the parlor’s ornate fireplace. Two boys from Johnny’s auto mechanics class, Ron Miller and Tony Salemi, chatted in the middle of the room. Eric paced before the floral arrangements along one wall. Which one had his parents sent? He didn’t care.
Turning, Eric felt his skin prickle at the sight of Father Webb. With his short hair, square jaw, and broad shoulders, the priest resembled a cop or a soldier. Eric had felt intimidated by the man the few times he had attended Saint Luke’s with Johnny. It had never occurred to him Father Webb would conduct Johnny’s memorial service. He thought of Johnny rolling down his car window and spitting out it every morning as they passed the church. “Um, hi, Father Webb.”
“Are your parents here?”
“No. They couldn’t make it.” The sound of the man’s deep voice made him uncomfortable.
“It seems very few parents are in attendance.”
Eric said nothing. What does he want?
“You’re a Baptist, aren’t you?”
No, I’m an atheist,Eric thought. “We’re Methodists.”
“That’s right. How’s Reverend Belmer these days? I haven’t seen him since winter started. You know how the snow isolates us.”
“I haven’t seen him, either.”
The priest’s eyes narrowed a centimeter. “I see. Well, I’m sorry about Johnny.”
“It’s always sad when someone dies so young, especially if that person has gone astray.”
Eric felt trapped. He didn’t want a sermon, especially from Father Webb, so he kept quiet.
“Oh, well. I imagine the vandalism of the church will finally stop.”
Eric resisted the urge to swallow. “What do you mean?”
Father Webb scanned the faces of the mourners. “I think you know what I mean. Obscene graffiti scrawled on the church walls. Broken windows. Filthy voice mails. It’s been going on for years, ever since your friend abandoned Christ.”
Eric felt his voice tighten with anger. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Father Webb’s eyes burrowed into him. “Whenever I hear that damned car’s engine late at night, I know to expect trouble the next morning. And I’m never wrong.”
Eric was speechless. He had been with Johnny once when Johnny had scrawled graffiti on the church doors in a drunken rage, so he did not entirely discount Father Webb’s accusation. Seeing Charlie enter the parlor, he relaxed. Charlie’s suit jacket bulged around his waist, and he had applied a small Band-Aid near his chin. He bypassed Ron and Tony with a courteous nod, his forehead slick with perspiration.
“There’s Johnny’s father,” Eric said, turning his back on the priest. He met Charlie in the middle of the parlor before Father Webb could interrogate him further.
Charlie’s voice sounded strained. “Thanks for coming, Eric.”
Charlie appraised the room. “Quite a turnout. I never realized Johnny was so popular.”
Eric grasped for words. “I don’t know what to say.”
“That’s okay. Don’t say anything. A funeral is no place for honesty. Hey, thank your folks for the flowers, will you? That was real nice of them.”
“Sure.” He wished at least one of his parents had attended.
Charlie loosened his tie. “Christ, I need a drink.”
Noticing the older man’s shaking hands, Eric clasped Charlie’s shoulder. “Take it easy. You can go home in a little while.”
Charlie shook his head. “Home to what? An empty house? I don’t have anyone left, Eric. I was a rotten husband and a lousy father, and now I’m alone. I got what I deserved.”
Eric bit his lip.Say something, damn it.“Charlie, Johnny loved you. He may not have shown it much, because—well, because he was Johnny. But he understood how difficult things were for you, and he respected you for holding things together.”
“Thanks, Eric. I needed to hear that. You always were a good friend to Johnny. Who knows? He might have had this funeral a lot sooner if it hadn’t been for you.”
Eric’s mouth turned as dry as cotton. Carol and Mr. Milton joined them.Thank God.
“Hi, Mrs. Crane.” He ignored Mr. Milton, who regarded him with a disapproving stare. He had to admit the principal looked formidable dressed in black.
Carol held out her hand to Charlie. “Carol Crane, Mr. Grissom. I was Johnny’s English teacher.”
Charlie shook her hand. “Oh, right. Matt’s wife. We’ve spoken on the phone. Johnny liked you a lot.”
“I’m terribly sorry for your loss. Johnny was a unique boy.”
Mr. Milton stepped closer, extending the sausage-like fingers on his right hand. “Michael Milton. We’ve spoken on the phone, too—many times.”
Looking down at the principal’s hand, Charlie shook it without enthusiasm.
“I’m going to propose to the school board that we give Johnny a memorial plaque in the commons area outside the school lobby.”
“That would be nice,” Charlie said in a flat tone.
Eric looked away in disgust just as Gary entered and pocketed his psalm card without looking at it. “Excuse me. Charlie, I’ll talk to you later.”
Eric felt guilty leaving Charlie at Mr. Milton’s mercy, but he could no longer stand to be in his principal’s presence. Gary’s chocolate brown suit and scuffed shoes had seen better days.
“You check out the crate yet?” Gary said, nodding at the Slumber Room.
“No, and I’m not going to.”
“Don’t be a schmuck. You have to pay your respects. We don’t want to draw any attention to ourselves, do we?”
“No one’s going to notice if I don’t look inside the coffin.”
“Oh, no? Think again. And this time, take a good look atChief Craneover there.”
Turning, Eric saw that Matt had joined Carol, Charlie, and Mr. Milton. The police chief glanced in their direction, and Eric’s body stiffened.
Gary slid one arm around Eric’s shoulders, drawing him toward the Slumber Room. “That’s right. Nice and easy. Nothing to worry about. Hey, why do you think they call it the Slumber Room, anyway? It’s not like anyone in there ever wakes up.”
Eric stared straight ahead. The casket stood on a pedestal in the viewing room, its lid raised. He recognized the emotion swelling inside him: fear.
“You ever hear the one about the Jewish undertaker?” Gary said.
As they closed in on the casket, Eric saw nothing else. Their reflections grew larger on the coffin’s lacquered black surface. Johnny came into view, his arms folded over his chest. His hair had been shaped and styled, and his body appeared thinner in the black suit. The bruise on his throat had been covered with makeup, and his flesh had a waxy look. The expression on his face lacked any trace of personality, and his rosy cheeks and full lips seemed to belong to someone else.
“That doesn’t even look like him,” Eric said.
“You have to look presentable before they’ll throw you in the ground and cover you with dirt.”
“At least the coffin is black. He’d have liked that.”
“Yeah? The suit is black, too, and he’d have hated that.”
Eric studied Johnny’s features. “It almost looks like he’s smiling.”
A deep chuckling sound caused Eric to recoil and step back. He turned to find Lawrence standing with his arms folded behind his back. He had merely cleared his throat.
“Boys, I wonder if I might ask you for a favor?”
They exchanged glances.
“Sure,” Gary said.
“Are you attending the burial?”
“Yeah.” Suspicion edged Gary’s voice.
“I wonder if you’d serve as pallbearers.”
The hair on the back of Eric’s neck stood on end.Not a chance.
“Sure thing,” Gary said.
“Excellent. Those other two boys volunteered, as well.” He gestured at Ron and Tony. “With my son, Willard, only one vacancy needs to be filled.” He wandered off in search of a sixth pallbearer.
“Are you insane?” Eric said in a hushed tone.
“We were Johnny’s friends. Do it for him.”
Eric felt himself flushing with anger. “Whatever you say, Gary.”
Karen entered the parlor with her mother, Shelley Slatter, who had purchased the town diner after working there as a waitress for ten years. Karen’s black dress made her look older than usual, and Eric guessed it belonged to Shelley. She had pulled her hair back, downplaying her usual look. She made eye contact with Eric first, then Gary, and pressed her lips together in a straight line. She and Shelley joined Charlie, who looked pleased to see them. Karen embraced him, and when they separated, she had tears in her eyes.
Shelley said, “I’m so sorry, Charlie.”
“Thank you, Shelley.”
“I have to go to work, but I wanted to at least pay my respects.” She faced the Cranes. “Hi, Matt. Carol.”
“Shelley,” Matt said.
Shelley and Carol shook hands, and Mr. Milton introduced himself. Then Shelley and Karen made their way to the Slumber Room. Standing at Johnny’s casket, Karen’s body shook and her mother comforted her.
Opening the front door, Eric stared out at the falling snow. Large flurries sliced the air at a forty-five-degree angle, much as they had the night of Johnny’s murder. Karen and Gary stepped behind him and Karen touched his arm.
“Eric, I have to talk to Gary alone for a minute. Do you mind?”
He did mind. He didn’t like the idea of Karen and Gary discussing matters without him. “Whatever.”
“Wait here,” Gary said. “I’ll bring the truck around.” He stepped outside, flipping up the collar of his coat, and Karen walked beside him, her long black coat flapping in the wind.
A few minutes later, Gary’s truck rolled into view, and Eric climbed in beside Karen. She stared straight ahead, avoiding his gaze.
The funeral procession crept through town, led by Matt’s Pathfinder. The vehicles filed through the Green Forest Cemetery gates, and Eric spotted two workers loitering near a large toolshed, one of them smoking a cigarette. The procession navigated various loops. The bark of the barren trees flanking the road looked black against the snow.
By the time Matt and the hearse pulled over to the right side of the road, all of the streets surrounding the grounds had vanished behind hills. Willard got out of the hearse, wearing an elegant black coat over his suit. He opened the passenger door for Lawrence, who opened an umbrella and walked to the limousine. Lawrence opened the limo door for Charlie, and held the umbrella over Charlie’s head.
“What a goon that Willard is,” Gary said inside the truck. “And that geezer looks like he belongs in the back of that hearse, not the front.”
Eric jumped out of the truck’s cab and landed in snow up to his shins, most of it icy. Karen slid out the driver’s side, so he closed the passenger door and joined her and Gary at the front of the truck. Ron and Tony caught up with them, pensive expressions on their faces, and the four boys approached the hearse, leaving Karen behind. Willard opened the hearse’s hatch, revealing Johnny’s coffin.
“Is it just the five of us?” Ron said.
“Naw, you got to have six people,” Tony said. “It’s a rule or something.”
“Willard here could probably carry that box on his back,” Gary said. “Couldn’t you, Willard?”
Willard grinned, a dangerous look in his eyes, and Eric halfexpected drool to pour out of his mouth.
“That won’t be necessary,” Matt said behind them. “I’m your sixth man.”
Carol and Mr. Milton had joined Charlie and Lawrence. Father Webb stood in the road, a weary look on his face.
“Cool,” Gary said.
The coolest,Eric thought.
Gripping a metal handle, Willard pulled the casket out on a Formica tray with chrome rollers. The pallbearers filed alongside the casket, three on each side. Grabbing the long metal bars on the casket’s sides, they raised it off its tray, backed up, and maneuvered it toward Lawrence. Eric imagined how difficult carrying it would have been without Matt’s assistance.
Lawrence led the mourners along the road and a winding path layered with fresh snow. The path angled uphill, and midway up the incline Eric slipped and went down on one knee. The casket tipped toward him.
Eric’s eyes widened as Johnny’s body rolled against the side of the coffin. For a perilous moment, he feared the casket would crush him. Heart pounding, he stood, his face turning red as the other pallbearers and the people in the procession gaped at him.
“We’re good,” Matt said.
They continued uphill. The ground leveled off, then dipped again, and they came to a tent erected over a dozen metal folding chairs. The tent overlooked a fresh grave hidden by a lowering device. As the pallbearers circled the device, Eric saw it consisted of four telescopic legs, one on each corner of the grave, with four metal bars connecting them and a green drape hanging from the bars. A matching grass-colored mat stood out against the snow. As they lined up the casket with the edge bars, Eric peeked into the grave. Six feet below, a concrete vault liner awaited its occupant.
Once they’d lowered the casket onto the device, they joined the other mourners beneath the tent. Eric and Gary sat in the front row with Karen, on Charlie’s right side. Carol, Matt, and Mr. Milton sat on the other side, and Tony and Ron sat behind them. Willard stepped on a pedal, and the coffin descended into the earth. Father Webb stood near the tent’s open flap and opened his Bible. Eric ignored the priest’s lulling voice, his eyes locked on the black casket. Tears trickled down his cheeks, and mucus clogged his nostrils. He wondered how Johnny would have felt about the priest presiding over his burial.
FUCK YOU, FATHER WEBB!
Many Red Hill residents assumed Ross and Tommy Condon were brothers, not cousins, partly because they looked so similar—short, wavy black hair, reed thin physiques—and partly because one seldom made a public appearance without the other. To make things even more confusing, Ross’s mother had died of cancer and Tommy’s father had suffered a fatal heart attack, so people also mistook their surviving parents as husband and wife, and the families lived in houses on side-by-side lots on the outskirts of town. Ross’s father, Alec, had been the Green Forest Cemetery’s groundskeeper for twenty years, and had employed the young men as gravediggers since their final months of high school three years earlier.
Desperate to avoid following in his father’s footsteps, Ross attended night classes at Red Hill Community College, but Tommy lacked such ambition. He lived at home with his mother and only needed enough cash for beer and to maintain his Mustang. Grave digging suited him just fine. He especially enjoyed his occupation during the summer, when he sneaked afternoon naps behind a crypt at the cemetery’s northern tip, far from the building where Alec did most of his work.
The cousins watched the funeral procession drive through the gates. Although they’d been sipping beers for nearly two hours, they maintained respectful, somber expressions as the vehicles passed. After the vehicles pulled over to the side of the road and discharged their occupants, Ross and Tommy watched Willard Lawson pull the casket from the hearse. Then they disappeared into the large garage that housed the cemetery equipment and retrieved two tall cold ones from beneath a workbench. This time of year, they didn’t even bother to fill the chest with ice. They popped the tabs, touched cans, and passed the time getting numb. Outside the garage, an easterly wind drove the falling snow sideways.
“Shit,” Ross said. “We should just let the snow bury him.”
“Create a hell of a problem come spring,” Tommy said, grinning.
After finishing their beers, they pulled on their gloves and stepped out into the storm. Leaning into the howling wind, they circled the small hill leading to the fresh grave, careful not to disturb the mourners. The snow had driven all but the funeral director and four of the bereaved away: an overweight, middle-aged man; two teenage boys; and a pretty girl. The man and one of the boys stood silent at the grave’s edge. The other boy stood a few feet behind them with the girl, hands stuffed in his pockets. The flowers had blown over, and the canvas tent billowed in the wind. The first boy rested a hand on the man’s shoulder, and after a moment all four of them turned and walked away, their faces scrunched up and tilted toward the ground.
Ross and Tommy waited a few more minutes, giving the mourners time to get over the hill, then made their way to the grave and disassembled the tent. They folded the canvas and laid it in the snow beside the poles, then closed the chairs and piled them on top so the canvas would not blow away. They returned to the garage and climbed into the cab of the Grave Master II, the small, grassgreen dump truck containing the earth that had been removed from the grave earlier. Ross and Tommy had not opened the grave; that chore had fallen to Ricky Mallard, who owned a power shovel with a hydraulic claw-arm. Mallard and his sons opened all of the graves, and Ross and Tommy closed them.
Ross turned the ignition, and the truck rumbled out of the garage. Snow assailed the windshield, and he activated the wipers. “I can’t wait until I get my degree.”
“Yeah, what then?” Tommy stared out his window with a fixed grimace. “Maybe you’ll be an engineer in Buffalo instead of a grave digger in Red Hill. Same shit.”
Ross peered through the windshield. “Uh-uh. Fuck that. I’m going straight to Florida.”
Tommy laughed. “You think that’s an improvement?”
“I’ll be away from this snow, won’t I?”
“Sure, but you’ll have hurricanes instead. Humidity. Alligators. Mutant insects.”
“At least I’ll be away from all these bodies.”
“You ever been to Florida? It’s Senior Citizen Central down there. They’re all dead, only they just don’t know it.”
“As long as I don’t have to bury them, I don’t care.” Ross stopped at the grave. “What the fuck?”
Tommy followed his cousin’s gaze. Fifty yards away, a solitary figure mounted the hill, dressed in a black suit that rippled in the wind. “Looks like one of those kids.”
Ross squinted. “He’s not even wearing a coat, the crazy son of a bitch.”
The man lumbered up the hill with clenched fists and a purposeful stride.
Tommy beamed. “Maybe he’s a dissatisfied customer looking for a refund.”
“Fuck you. I hate it when you say things like that.”
“‘They’re coming to get you, Barbara.’” Tommy lovedNight of the Living Dead;he owned it on VHS and DVD.
“Cut it out, you asshole.” The snowfall reached blizzardlike intensity and swallowed the figure whole, as if it had never been there. Ross twisted the steering wheel, backed the truck up, and stopped. “Get out.”
Tommy stared at the whiteout beyond the windshield. “Huh?”
“I can’t see five feet behind me. If you don’t want me to back us right into that grave, get out and give me directions.”
Sighing, Tommy opened the door and jumped out of the cab. He walked around the truck, then backed up to the lowering device. “Okay,” he shouted.
Ross backed the truck up until he heard Tommy pounding on its side. He switched off the ignition, got out, and slammed the door shut. He joined Tommy at the grave. The casket had been lowered, but only halfway, to prevent the mourners from seeing the damage that could occur. Snow already covered its lid. Together, they gathered up the green mat, removed the drape around the metal framework of the lowering device, and laid them next to the canvas and chairs. Ross released the brake handle, and the casket descended the rest of the way. A sudden crash reverberated and rose with the wind as the casket slammed against its concrete liner.
“Damn,” Ross said. They took turns aligning the edges of the master lowering device with the concrete grave liner.
“You owe me ten bucks,” Tommy said.
Crouching, they grabbed opposite ends of the concrete lid, and raised it off the ground. They slid it over the edge of the grave, leaning it against the frozen earth like a door. Ross stepped over the frame, set one hand on the ground, and hopped into the grave. He landed beside the casket, which leaned at an angle inside the liner. Tommy hopped in after him, and they struggled to right the casket so it could descend into the liner. Groaning and red faced, they managed to tilt the casket. The concrete left deep white welts on the casket’s side, a common occurrence.
Ross grabbed the handle at his end of the casket, and Tommy unbuckled one of the two support belts. Ross released the handle, falling back against the hard dirt wall, and the head of the casket slammed into the base of the liner, pinning the belt. Tommy unbuckled the other end of the belt, allowing it to hang over the edge of the liner. Ross inched his way around the grave. He did not attempt to hold the raised end of the casket in place; once Tommy released the second belt, the force of weight would rip his arms from their sockets. Instead, he aligned the raised end with the liner’s edge. Tommy released the strap, and the remainder of the casket smashed into place with a loud boom. The accumulated snow shook, some of it pouring over the casket’s edges.
Breathing heavy, Tommy grinned. “That wasn’t … so bad …”
Ross wiped perspiration from his forehead on the back of his glove. Above them, the wind howled. “That’s because this was a kid, not one of those bloated beer bellies we usually bury.”
Tommy knocked on the scarred casket. A hollow sound bounced back at him. He regarded Ross with mock fright. “Doesn’t sound like anyone’s home.” Pause. “You want to find out?”
Ross stared at the snow-covered lid. He did not wish to make any discoveries.
“Come on, let’s open it up. Maybe the kid’s got some jewelry or something else that we can sell.”
Ross shook his head. “He hasn’t got anything on him. This box is the low-budget model.”
Tommy grinned. “Okay, so let’s just see what he looks like.”
Ross glanced at the sky, darkening beyond the blizzard. “I’d like to get out of here before five o’clock. My father doesn’t believe in overtime, remember?”
Tommy snorted. “Okay, man. Whatever you say.”
They grabbed the concrete lid, turned it sideways, and dropped it into place over the liner, entombing the casket. A fissure appeared near the middle of the slab.
“Damn it,” Ross said.
“It’s not like anyone’s going to notice.”
“Let’s get on with it.” He stood on the edge of the liner, placed his hands on the edge of the grave, and jumped up. On the surface, snow pelted his face. He reached down and helped Tommy up, snowfall obscuring what remained of the sunlight. They disassembled the lowering device and laid the pieces off to one side.
Ross clambered into the cab of the truck and pulled the release lever. As the bed of the truck rose, returning dirt to the ground from which it had been taken, he glanced into his side mirror, praying to himself that the dark figure would not return over the hill.
Hard to walk.
Like a puppeteer, operating my own body.
Can’t open my mouth.
Places to go, people to see.Chapter 16
Heavy footsteps, pounding. Labored breathing. A left turn, then a right.
Todd staggered through the locker room, his layers of sweaty clothing soaking wet. A JV wrestler snapped a towel at another’s exposed buttocks, and both boys stepped out of Todd’s way when they saw him. He peeled off his top sweatshirt and passed the empty showers, steam lingering in the air. He turned left into the team room, a smaller locker room reserved for varsity athletes. A black scale stood at the end of two narrow wooden benches, like an altar. Derek and Cliff had already showered and changed into their street clothes. Cliff stood before the mirror in the open bathroom on the left, combing his hair.
“Look who thinks he’s going home,” Derek said, closing his locker door and snapping shut its combination lock.
“I am going home,” Todd said, discarding the sweatshirt and pulling at his practice top.
“We’ll see,” Cliff said, turning from the mirror.
Todd crumpled onto a bench, pulled off his sneakers, and stripped down to his jockstrap. Using his sweatpants like a rag, he wiped sweat from his chest.
Derek stepped behind the scale and adjusted its counterweight. Todd limped over, exhaled, and stepped onto the scale. The counterweight struck the bottom of the scale.
“Shit,” Todd said.
“You’re five pounds over,” Derek said. “You can still run that off.”
Stepping off the scale and shaking his head, Todd spoke between tortured breaths. “No way. No more running today. I’m exhausted. I’ll just shoot some hoops and skip dinner.”
“And breakfast,” Derek said.
“And lunch,” Cliff said.
“Shit,” Todd said.
“That might help, too,” Derek said and Cliff laughed.
Standing at the free throw line in the gymnasium, Todd dribbled a basketball. The sound of the ball bouncing echoed through the gym. He raised the ball as high as his head, then slammed it down. Catching it in both hands, he repeated this until his palms stung. He focused on the basket, took aim, and launched the ball through the air. It struck the Plexiglas backboard and bounced away.
“Shit,” he said, chasing the ball. He caught up to it and dribbled it back to the free throw line.
A door swung open, and Darryl Bower leaned inside, dressed in his navy blue custodial uniform. “You gonna be much longer? I gotta mop in here.”
Fucking loser,Todd thought. Darryl had dropped out of high school his junior year, and now he worked the night shift there. “You know who I am?”
“You know who my father is?”
“Then go mop somewhere else. I’ll leave when I’m good and ready.”
Turning red, but holding his tongue, Darryl withdrew from the gym and closed the door.
Todd slammed the ball on the floor, alternating hands in a Vpattern, faster and faster. He aimed at the basket and shot again. This time, the ball struck the rim and rebounded.
“Damn it!” He ran after the ball, catching it only after it ricocheted off the far wall. He dribbled back to the free throw line. Wiping sweat from his forehead, he stared straight at the basket, concentrating. He brought the ball to his face, readying another shot.
One third of the ceiling lights turned black as he heard the sound of circuit breakers clicking off. As he raised his eyes to the ceiling and lowered the ball in his hands, another third of the lights went dark. What the hell did Darryl think he was doing?
He’s not going to—
The remaining lights went off, leaving him in darkness.
“Darryl! Turn the lights back on, you asshole!”
He received no response.
“You want to keep your job?”
Standing still, he allowed his eyes to adjust to the dense darkness. The only sound he heard was his own breathing. The exit lights over the doors glowed red, and he pinpointed two slivers of pale light at floor level. Dropping the ball, he stepped toward them, his footsteps echoing. His hands groped darkness until his fingertips brushed a wooden surface.
I’ll kill him,he thought as he grasped the metal panic bar with both hands and shoved it. The bar slammed into the doors, the sound of metal banging against wood echoing around him.
Locked, goddamn it!
“Darryl, you son of a bitch, stop screwing around!”
A thunderous rumbling filled the gym, and he turned, crouching in a defensive posture as the floor shook, his heart going into overdrive. He saw an immense shape pass between him and the far side of the gym, blocking out the exit signs above the doors there. The motorized partition slammed shut, halving the space.
The scoreboard near the ceiling lit up, its luminous digits casting just enough golden light for Todd to discern the general outline of the gym.
“This isn’t funny!”
The door within the partition swung open with a high-pitched squeak that caused him to shudder. A figure stood there, silhouetted by the red light on the other side of the gym. The figure stepped through and slammed the door. Footsteps echoed in the darkness: hard soles, not sneakers.
Todd leaned forward, squinting. The figure moved in and out of splotches of dingy light, its footsteps growing louder. He scooted to the free throw line and snatched up a ball.
“Darryl, I swear to God, my father will have your lousy job for this.”
The approaching figure didn’t break its measured stride. Todd discerned a white shirt collar divided by a tie. The remainder of the figure’s outfit blended into blackness. A suit? Was a teacher playing games with him? His mind raced. He couldn’t think of any teachers who wore suits. As the figure drew closer, Todd saw the red exit light highlighting long hair.
A headbanger. Should have known. That explained it: this headbanger had just come from Grissom’s funeral. But which one of those long-haired freaks had enough class to wear a suit? Carter had short hair.
The figure stopped ten feet away and stood as motionless as a statue. Todd felt his stomach clench. Something wasn’t right about this. “Who’s there?”
The figure didn’t answer.
Squinting, Todd saw splotches of mud caked on the suit. Studying the kid’s darkened features, he stepped closer for a better view.
Cold, hard eyes stared at him, and thin lips stretched into a tight grin that cracked waxy flesh.
Todd’s heart slammed against his chest, his eyes widening in disbelief. “Grissom …”
The grin on the thing resembling Johnny Grissom pulled back even wider, into a jagged gash.
Todd went weak in the knees. “YOU’RE DEAD, YOU SON OF A BITCH!” He hurled the ball at Johnny with all his strength.
Johnny caught the ball without flinching. The sound of rubber impacting dead flesh reverberated against the gym walls. Johnny looked at the ball, then at the basket. He took the shot. Todd watched the ball sail over his head, but he didn’t turn around to witness the completion of its journey. The ball swished through the net and bounced away.
“Oh, God,” Todd said in a high-pitched voice that sounded more like a pig’s squeal. “What do you want?”
Johnny, motionless, stared at Todd for what seemed like an eternity. Then Todd watched the corpse of his classmate reach into the side pocket of his suit jacket with his right hand. Agonizing seconds passed before Johnny withdrew a narrow object, six inches long, and aimed it at the floor. Todd’s bladder threatened to burst as Johnny thumbed a switch on the black handle. A blade sprang out, gleaming in the crimson light, and Todd knew he would never leave the gym alive.Chapter 17
Johnny came marching home at 7:00 p.m. The wind whipped his hair and pressed his suit against his frame, and he looked down at the snow-covered sidewalk whenever headlights from oncoming cars pinned him in their glare. He doubted anyone driving at night would recognize him or identify the dark spots on his white shirt as bloodstains. He lurched from side to side, like Frankenstein’s monster, still learning to control his body.
Less than a mile separated his house from the school. He didn’t feel the cold, or any temperature for that matter, and walking through six inches of snow did not tire him. Death had its advantages.
When he reached the orchard and vineyard beside his house, he veered off the sidewalk and walked on the other side of the barren trees. He saw no point in taking chances, and he intended to be cautious. The lights in his house guided him through the trees to the bushes along the driveway, where he waited.
Through a side window, he saw his father moving through the living room. Charlie had traded his suit for the comfort of street clothes. Johnny felt emotion rising within him. He regretted he had not been a better son, that he hadn’t been closer to his father.
Too late to worry about that now. If their relationship had been difficult before, it would be hell now. He buried his feelings, as he himself had almost been buried.Show no mercy. Remember why you came back.
He watched Charlie exit the house, hands stuffed in his coat pockets, and pass a sign that had joined the Buffalo Bills cutout on the front lawn. When his father had disappeared, Johnny emerged from the brush and crossed the driveway. He stared at the FOR SALE sign.
What?Johnny felt anger in his shell. His father had wasted no time trying to unload the old house.
He hadn’t been buried with a house key, so he climbed the lattice on the side of the porch to the first roof. He tipped from side to side, off-kilter, like Mecha-Kong on that Japanese tower inKing Kong Escapes.Confident the trees in the front yard hid him from the light traffic, he shuffled through the snow on the roof to his bedroom window, which he always left unlocked in case of just such an emergency.
The window slid open and the wind blew the curtains, and he climbed into darkness. Pulling the window down and drawing the shade closed, he pulled the string hanging from the middle of the ceiling and the light clicked on. His room had not been touched since his demise: his belongings remained out of place. A cardboard box had been placed in the middle of the bed and he recognized his M.C. jacket inside it. The cops had returned his stuff.
Loosening his tie, he jerked the noose over his head and discarded it on the unmade bed. He unbuttoned his top shirt button, then shed his suit jacket with a disgusted expression and kicked off his muddy shoes. Finally, he emptied his pockets, tossing a set of keys and a cell phone onto the bed. It had been simple enough to swipe the keys from Darryl Bower’s custodial cart and lock the gym doors. The cell phone had belonged to Todd. Too bad there was no charger for it. Still, he’d get some use out of it.
He opened his closet door, stood before the mirror nailed to it, and stared at his reflection. The world appeared black and white through his dead eyes, except for the vibrant crimson that covered his shirt. If his heart had still pumped blood, he would have blushed. For a moment, he didn’t even recognize himself: the wind had blown his hair, which remained neat looking. And short.
My fucking hair!
His rosy lips and cheeks made him resemble a clown or a department store mannequin. Gray flesh peeked out through the furrows Todd’s fingers had dug through the layer of mortician’s wax covering his face. Using both hands, he wiped away as much of the wax as possible without using soap and water. God only knew what that would do to his complexion!
Drawing his lips into a snarl, he gazed at the twisted barbed wire protruding from his dry gums. He gripped the wire between the thumb and forefinger on his right hand and untwisted the wires, then pulled each one out, his hand trembling with effort. Pink formaldehyde spurted at the mirror and ran down the glass like blood. Tilting his head back, he reached inside his mouth. His fingers tickled the back of his throat, but with no gag reflex, it was easy for him to withdraw the cotton Old Man Lawson had stuffed down there. He threw the cotton and wire into a wastebasket, then clawed at his neck, scratching off the mortician’s wax and exposing the purplish black bruise that encircled his neck.
He stripped nude, disgusted by the plastic underwear, a diaper, really, and gaped at his dead gray body; Lawson had only made up his head and hands. His body hair had grown longer. He rummaged through his dresser drawers, took out gym socks and briefs, and pulled them on. Next, he stepped into his favorite pair of black Levis, and pulled a wide belt with a leering, pewter skull buckle through the loops. Opening his closet door, he examined his assortment of black T-shirts, feeling pressure to assemble the perfect ensemble. He found one with a glowing green rib cage printed on it and he snatched it from its hanger and jerked it over his head. He removed his M.C. jacket from the box and pulled it on, then plucked his skull rings from a clear plastic bag and returned them to his long fingers. He sat on the edge of the bed and pulled on his boots. Standing before the full-length mirror he thought,Fuckin’ A.
He strode over to the plywood shelves he had built for his comic books, CDs, and DVDs. Action figures and model kits posed on the black shelves, their grotesque faces staring back at him. Freddy, Michael, Jason, Leatherface, and Chucky mingled with the classics: Frankenstein’s monster, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Phantom of the Opera, and the Zuni Warrior fetish doll. He had always loved monsters.
Twisting his lips into a grin, he spoke in a hoarse voice:
In her bedroom, Karen used a rolled-up dollar bill to snort two lines of coke, then dabbed at the excess powder with her fingers, which she rubbed against her gums. Her entire mouth turned numb. And right now, she liked feeling numb.
Gary had dropped her off at home after the funeral, and she had dashed upstairs to her bedroom with her new stash. An hour later, she lay on her bed, gazing at the ceiling, her mind clouded as Slipknot blasted from her CD player. She lit a cigarette, licked residue from her gums, and moaned.
Gary had done all right by her. He was right: she did feel better. Johnny had disapproved of anything harder than weed, but Gary knew how to party. And he’d re-upped her at the funeral. She massaged her nose.
She didn’t want to encourage him, but he offered her the support she needed. And he had promised to get her more stuff anytime she wanted it, free of charge. How could she pass that up?
The telephones throughout the house rang in synch, one in her mother’s bedroom, one in the living room, and another in the kitchen. She sat up, her eyes wide and unblinking. Maybe that was Gary now. She hoped not. She didn’t trust herself to be around him when she was high. She stood, wearing nothing but a long T-shirt, and crossed the hall to her mother’s room. Sniffing, she cleared her throat and lifted the phone from its cradle. “Hello?”
Silence on the other end.
“Who is this?”
She set the phone down, agitated that she had left her room for nothing, and turned to head back.
The phone rang again.
She stopped in the doorway and turned toward it, an unnerved expression on her face. Didn’t coke make you paranoid? She seized the instrument in midring. “Hello?”
“Listen, asshole, if you don’t stop this right now I’m calling the cops.”
Good, she thought, hanging up.That will show him—whoever he is.
Her hand had barely left the phone when it rang again, causing her to jump. She swallowed, her heartbeat gaining speed. The ringing filled her ears and pierced her brain. She snatched the phone and raised it to her mouth. “Hello?”
“Go to hell, you son of a bitch!”
She slammed the phone down, then picked it up, checking for a dial tone, and pressed star-sixty-nine. A moment later, she heard an automated message from an operator: she had reached a cell phone that had no voice mailbox activated. She hung up and made it as far as the hallway before the phone rang again. She faced it, her movements strained, and slid one hand over her heart.
She didn’t want to answer it, so she marched along the hall, the telephones downstairs ringing. She closed her bedroom door, picked up the rolled-up bill on her bureau, and snorted more coke.
The sky had darkened by the time the limousine dropped Charlie off at the house, where he had changed into his street clothes and put on his coat and hat. He had already decided not to visit Tommy’s Lounge that night; he needed to grieve in private. But he still needed to get shit faced. So he walked six long blocks to Darry’s Liquor Store, where he bought two bottles of vodka. He nodded to the cashier, whom he knew only by face, and walked home against the wind.
Inside the great empty house, he retrieved a glass from a kitchen cupboard, then sagged into his favorite living room chair. Removing both bottles from the brown paper bag, he set them on the end table. He opened one, filled his glass halfway, and took a deep gulp. The vodka burned his tongue and throat, and his body stopped shaking. He reached for the remote control and turned on the TV. A Sabers game came on and he saw they held a two-point lead over the Toronto Maple Leafs. He had no interest in watching anything; he just wanted some background noise. Christ, he needed to get rid of this house. He and Helen had purchased it after Johnny turned two, moving out of their apartment on Front Street.
Fifteen years ago.
Helen’s life insurance policy had paid off the remainder of the mortgage. Thank God she’d planned ahead. He suspected she’d known she was dying long before her diagnosis. His disability pay covered the taxes, barely, and put food on the table. And booze in his blood.
He could have provided his son with a better life. He could have gotten a job despite the intense pain in his lower back, where two discs had herniated in a fall from a scaffold, pain that had only increased with his waist size. He could have used what little cash he had for Johnny, instead of pouring it down his throat. So many wasted nights.
He stood, weaving as he reached for the framed photograph on the TV. Helen, alive, and Johnny, age twelve, stared back at him, smiling.
My wife and son.
Sagging back into his chair, he barely recognized himself in the photo: slim, with a full head of hair, grateful for the present and looking forward to the future. He choked back a sob, and a teardrop splashed the glass in the frame. He wiped both eyes with the back of one hand, guttural sounds issuing from his throat.
A sudden thump overhead made him raise his eyes to the ceiling, listening. The sound hadn’t come from the ceiling; it had come from the floor above the ceiling. With effort, he got to his feet.
A sonic boom shook the house to its foundation, reverberating through his bloated heart. He flung his arms up, dropping the photo, and didn’t hear the frame strike the floor as the deafening roar shook the structure. The explosive sound dropped in volume, forming recognizable sounds: Screams. Screeches. Guitars.
Whoever had just turned on the CD player failed to notice that Johnny left the volume cranked up. The floor continued to vibrate.
He stepped into the hallway, moving through darkness, and stared up the stairway. Yellow light outlined Johnny’s bedroom door. The music came from the other side of the door. He swallowed hard.
Had someone decided to break into Johnny’s room after reading about the funeral arrangements in theRed Hill Gazette?Johnny owned nothing of value. His sound system and electric guitar had been purchased used, and his car had been destroyed in the accident.
Charlie stared at the door.
I should call Matt,he told himself as he turned on the stairway light and slid his hand up the banister, the wood cold to his touch.
He raised his left foot and held it poised in the air before placing it on the first stair. Then he pulled on the banister, his right foot settling on the second stair. He squeezed the wood, knuckles whitening as he forced his body up the stairs, which groaned beneath his weight. Sweat formed on his brow. His fingers clawed the banister, his heart rate quickening. His eyes never shifted from the light around the door. The music grew louder as he neared the top of the stairs, and soon he no longer heard the stairs protesting his movement.
A shadow glided across the floor on the other side of Johnny’s door.
Trembling, Charlie crossed the upstairs hall and stopped at the door. Frozen with fear, he stared at the knob. Unable to move his arms, he stood there, his breathing labored. Sweat trickled down his face, and his underarms turned sticky. Smelling his own fear, he raised his right hand, moved it forward, and wavered.
Do it, goddamn it!
He closed his hand around the knob, then twisted it left and right.
The light inside the room went off, and the music came to an abrupt end. Charlie’s heart stuttered in his chest. The sudden silence terrified him more than the music had. Releasing the knob, he spun around and charged downstairs, his footsteps thundering. He didn’t run to the closet to fetch his coat, or bolt outside without it, or even call the police. Instead, he ran straight into the living room, threw himself into his chair, and seized the open vodka bottle by its neck. He raised the bottle to his lips and tilted his head back, chugging the vodka like water.
Eric awoke with a start, gasping for breath. He sat up, digging his fingers into the fabric beneath him. Images of the Death Mobile submerged at the bottom of the school swimming pool lingered in his mind. Only the streetlight shining through the curtains assured him he had awakened from the nightmare in his own bed. The wind howled outside, and he wished he didn’t occupy a corner bedroom. The digital clock on his bedside table flashed 1:17 a.m. at him. He lay back down, his chest rising and falling. Almost six more hours until he had to get up.
Plenty of time for more nightmares.
His eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, focusing on the dark light fixture in the ceiling. He threw his left arm over his eyes, shielding them, and tried to sleep. The funeral had provoked the nightmare, he reasoned, but what had inspired his subconscious to fabricate the image of his jaws fastened together with barbed wire? He’d never heard of such a thing. His heartbeat slowed and his breathing returned to normal.
A sound outside drew his attention to the window, followed by another.
He recalled the numerous occasions Johnny had climbed up the side of the house, crossed the roof, and knocked on his window, scaring him half to death.
No one could be out there now. Not in the winter, and not on a night like this.
He heard the sound again.
Pulling his arm away, he raised his head and stared at the window just as a silhouette glided away from it and disappeared.
He blinked twice. Had someone really just been standing on the roof outside his window? Throwing back the covers, he slid from bed and crept across the room. His hand inched toward one curtain, his fingers suspended in midair. He grasped the cloth in a tight fist and jerked it back, switching on the desk lamp in the same instant.
His eyes widened and his blood ran cold.
A face, pressed against the other side of the glass, stared back at him.
His entire body jerked as he jumped back, and his heart stopped beating even as he realized he faced his own reflection, the window solid black behind his spectral countenance. He switched off the lamp and the reflection vanished. In its place he saw five dripping tendrils extending from a palm print. He stood still, waiting for his heart to return to its normal speed, then wiped his right hand over the glass. The handprint remained etched in frost on the other side. He pressed his hand against the print, fingers spread apart, confirming it had been made by a hand with fingers longer than his own. He’d heard footsteps on the roof, glimpsed a shadow, and now this. Had someone tried to break into the house?
No, Red Hill’s crime rate was nonexistent.
Except for murder …
Was someone standing on the roof even now, with his back pressed against the side of the house? All he had to do was raise the window and stick his head outside to discover the answer. Instead, he checked the locks on the window and closed the curtains. He backed toward the bed, his eyes fixed on the window, and climbed into bed.
An hour passed before he fell asleep again, and when his alarm went off in the morning, he ran to the window and flung the curtains aside.
Creeping sunlight shone through the oily handprint.Chapter 19
As he made his way through the crowd of students funneling into the lobby, Coach John Wrangler felt it in his bones: this was the year. His boys were going to beat Silver Wood that night, and Red Hill High School would enjoy its first winning wrestling season. The needling from the school’s other coaches would finally cease.
Wrangler had a respectable, if unspectacular, team. For the first time in the eight years he’d been the coach, all twelve weight classes had been filled by experienced upperclassmen. Todd Kumler, Derek Delos, Cliff Wright, and Eric Carter had been on the team since their freshman year. If Johnny Grissom had remained on the team, almost half the varsity squad would have been comprised of seniors.
Poor bastard. No real surprise there. And no real loss, either. It didn’t take a psychic to see where that kid was headed as soon as he started high school. Todd had been worth a dozen Grissoms.
Wrangler spotted Eric Carter hunched over the water fountain outside the restrooms. Eric had improved a great deal since joining, but lately he’d become unreliable. Stopping at the fountain, Wrangler waited for the kid to stop drinking. When Eric stood, wiping his mouth on the back of one hand, his sleepy expression turned into a look of surprise.
“Ready for tonight, Eric?”
Eric nodded. “I’m ready, Coach.”
“We missed you at practice.”
“I know. I was a pallbearer at Johnny’s burial.”
Not even an apology.“I know you’re upset about your friend, but try to stay focused. This match is critical.”
“Good man. You’ve come a long way. This could be your year.”
Wrangler proceeded down the corridor. The crowd of students thinned as he passed the intersecting locker corridors. Approaching the gym doors, he saw two sophomore boys sitting on a bench between trophy cases, chatting with a well-developed freshman girl who stood before them, shifting her weight from one leg to the other. He tried to ignore the trophies: football, baseball, basketball, soccer, swimming, track. Everything but wrestling …
Reaching into his pants pocket, he took out his keys and unlocked one of the gym doors. As he pushed the door open, light from behind him slashed the darkness, his shadow bleeding across the floor. Sensing something in the space ahead of him, he searched for the emergency-exit lights across the gym. Had the circuit that provided power to the gym gone bad? Stepping inside, he threw on the light switches to the left of the doors. The overhead fluorescent tubes flickered to life and he froze where he stood, staring in disbelief at the horrible tableau before him.
At first, he thought he had stumbled onto a practical joke; then his brain tingled as blood rushed from his head in a torrent. Opening his mouth to scream, he felt his center of gravity form a lump his throat, then all at once the floor rushed up to meet him. He banged his head and felt cold wood against his cheek. His heart palpitated as he lost consciousness.
Turning left at the intersecting corridors, Eric saw Gary approaching him from the opposite direction. He wished their lockers were located in different areas of the building. Nodding to him, Gary stopped at his locker and spun its combination lock.
A distant flurry of motion caught Eric’s attention. Fifty yards ahead, in the central corridor, two boys leapt off a bench and raced to the gym. A single gym door stood propped open. As the boys crouched, he saw that a body lying on the floor held the door open. The boys pulled the unconscious figure’s arms, raising Coach Wrangler into a sitting position. A redheaded girl stepped behind them, looked into the gym, then unleashed a piercing scream that shattered the morning quiet. Recoiling at the same time, the boys released their grip on Coach Wrangler as they scrambled back in shock. The coach collapsed again, his head rolling from side to side.
Eric sprinted toward the gym. The girl continued to scream, and he heard other students pounding the tiled floor behind him. He skidded to a stop beside the underclassmen and gazed in horror at the source of Coach Wrangler’s distress.
Two gymnastic rings had been lowered from the gymnasium ceiling, between the nearest basketball backboard and its free throw line. A body clad in blue jeans and a Buffalo Sabers jersey hung upside down, one Nike-clad foot shoved through each ring. The rings pulled the boy’s legs wide apart, and his fingers dangled in a pool of blood spreading on the floor, crimson streaks crisscrossing his torso. Eric’s eyes widened and as he gaped at the grisly sight, more students jostled for position behind him.
“Oh, my God!” someone shouted, followed by another scream.
The body had no head.
Gary opened his locker door and stared into Todd’s lifeless eyes. The wrestler’s head had been impaled on a coat hook in the back of the locker, and blood dripped from the jagged flesh beneath his jaw, spattering disheveled papers stacked a foot deep at the bottom. Gary felt the McDonald’s sausages he’d had for breakfast inch up the back of his throat like slugs. He spun around, slamming the door shut with his back pressed against it.
Jesus fucking Christ!
His eyes darted from side to side, but no one else stood in the locker section to see him. Everyone had run off to see why that girl kept screaming.
What the hell?
Eric ran around the corner, wild eyed. “Someone’s body is hanging upside down in the gym!”
“It’s Todd,” Gary said in a low tone.
“How do you know?”
“Because his head is in my locker.”
“WHAT?” Eric stared at the locker behind Gary with mounting fear. “How did it get inthere?”
“Well, I sure as hell didn’t put it there!”
Eric shifted his gaze behind him, making certain they remained alone. “Who else knows your combination?”
Gary felt himself turning red. “What difference does that make? Anyone can break into these lockers. The only thing that matters right now is that we get rid of this—thing—before the cops get here.”
Eric stepped back as if he’d been slapped. His reaction seemed automatic. “‘We?’”
Gary detached himself from his locker. “That’s right. You’re up to your neck in this just as much as I am.”
“I had nothing to with this!”
Gary stepped closer to him. “Neither did I. But if the cops think I did, they just might look at Johnny’s ‘accident’ a little more closely than they have so far.”
Eric clenched his teeth. “I’m getting tired of helping you clean up your messes.”
Gary pointed at his locker. “Hey, I’m a victim here. As for the other thing, you’re not some innocent bystander—you’re an accessory.”
Accessory.Eric’s brain absorbed the word. “What are we supposed to do—carry Todd’s head out the front door?”
Biting his lower lip, Gary scanned the corridor. “Give me your gym bag.”
Eric recoiled. “No!”
Gary leaned closer. “Give me that fucking bag or I’ll take it from you.”
“That’s what you think.”
They stared at each other for a moment, neither boy blinking. Then Gary averted his eyes, which settled on a classroom door at the far end of the corridor behind him, beyond the cafeteria. Turning his back to Eric, Gary reopened his locker.
Eric gazed in horror at Todd’s features. Nothing could have prepared him for what he saw: the murdered boy’s eyes stared out of the confined space and his mouth hung open in a silent scream, his face spattered with blood and his hair a coagulated mess. His black eye had bloated up like the skin of a rotten apple, and his stitched lower lip was dry and cracked. In his mind, Eric reattached the head to the upside-down corpse in the gym, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
Gary ruffled through a pile of books and papers on the shelf above Todd’s head, his movements growing frantic.
“What are you doing?” Eric said.
“Looking for my switchblade. I left it in here yesterday and now it’s gone!”
“Is that it?” Eric pointed at the handle protruding from the jagged base of Todd’s neck. Covered in blood, it resembled the dangling cords and muscles.
Gary gaped at the sight of his knife, blood draining from his face. “Oh, shit. My knife. They used my knife!” Using a handful of homework papers and tests like a towel, he grabbed the handle, pulled the knife free of Todd’s stump, and wrapped it up. Turning to Eric, he nodded at the door at the far end of the hall. “Go to the shop and snag a roll of duct tape, then meet me in the team room.”
Eric narrowed his eyes.
“Just do it!” Gary slammed the locker shut and ran in that direction, but turned right at the corner and continued along the hall on the far side of the gym to the locker room.
Eric hurried down the shop room stairs, relieved to see no one else there. Weaving between lathes, jigsaw cutters, and table saws, he made his way to the cabinet where Mr. Peterson stored the duct tape. The cabinet door was locked.
He grabbed a long, flathead screwdriver from a counter and used it to pry the cabinet open. He discarded the screwdriver, snatched a roll of silver duct tape, and bolted up the stairs, praying Mr. Peterson would not walk through the door before he reached it. He ran out the door and down the corridor to the gym locker room. His sneakers slapped the floor as he ran between lockers to the elite team room.
Gary sat on a wooden bench, a basketball squeezed between his knees, his eyes trained on Eric, who skidded to a sudden stop. He held his switchblade, washed clean of Todd’s blood, and placed the blade’s tip against the basketball’s rubber nipple. Squeezing his knees tighter, he pulled the knife through the rubber. A blast of air hissed from the slice and the ball deflated. He rotated the ruptured ball, cutting it almost in half.
“What are you doing?” Eric said in an incredulous tone.
Back at his locker, Gary spun the combination lock and opened the door, using his back to block the locker’s contents from the students flocking to the scene of Todd’s murder. Positioning the bifurcated basketball beneath Todd’s head, he said, “Okay, stick it in.”
Eric stared at him. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
“Yeah, I always get funny when someone sticks a head in my locker. Stop screwing around and put it in!”
Eric shook his head. “No way.”
Giving Eric a hard look, Gary made an exaggerated sigh. “Then at least take this so I can do it.”
Eric took the ball and Gary’s place, which brought him face to face with Todd.
“I don’t have any gloves. Can I use yours?”
With his lips pressed together, Eric shook his head.
Grimacing, Gary set his bare hands on the head and pulled.
“What’s wrong?” Eric said.
Gary pulled harder, his face turning red. The head came free with a sickening rip and he staggered back. Eric gagged at the sight of the bloody chunk of scalp remaining on the coat hook. Gary stuffed the head inside the waiting ball, then plucked the chunk from the hook and threw it in with the head. Bending over, he gathered up the bloody papers at the locker’s bottom.
“Hurry up,” Eric said.
Gary took the duct tape and wrapped it around the ball once, sealing it. Then he cut it with his knife and closed his locker. The ball now resembled a mutant football more than it did a basketball.
“Let’s go.” Gary ran down the corridor, hugging the ball tight to his stomach.
Eric stood still.
As he followed Gary, Eric heard Mr. Milton’s panicked voice in the distance: “All of you—get to homeroom right now! Gym is canceled. Move it!”
Gary inserted the air pump needle into the basketball’s rubber nipple and switched the pump on. As the ball inflated, he wrapped more duct tape around it. When the ball looked ready to burst, he removed the needle and stopped the pump. He bounced the lopsided ball on the floor and it rebounded at the wrong angle.
“Good enough,” he said. “Think fast!” He feigned throwing the ball at Eric, who flinched with a look of disgust on his face.
They emerged through one of the building’s side exits. Beyond the wide field, blanketed in undisturbed snow, a semitruck barreled along Route 20 and disappeared behind a stretch of pine trees. Eric gazed through the baseball diamond’s backstop fence at the wooded area. Somewhere on the other side lay the turnoff for Willow Road.
They moved through deep snow. Few windows looked out over this portion of the schoolyard, and those that did were tinted.
“Whoever did this wanted to frame me,” Gary said. “That’s why they used my knife and my locker.”
“Who would want to do that?”
“I have no idea, man.”
“Maybe your locker was a random choice and they just found your knife.”
“No way. There was nothing random about this. They wanted to frame me or send me a message. Didn’t you ever seeThe Godfather?”Gary held Eric back with one hand. “You stay here.”
Eric looked down. Gary had stationed him at the concrete base of a metal grate. Snow had fallen between the metal bars and accumulated on the ground below. Gary descended the incline to the deep drainage ditch facing Route 20. Looking into the wide mouth of the drainpipe, he cocked his arm and threw the ball through the opening.
“Heads up!” he said.
Through the grate, Eric saw the ball roll beneath him in a lopsided fashion and vanish. Shuddering, he closed his eyes. A moment later, Gary stood beside him and the sound of an approaching siren rose on the wind.
“We just made it,” Gary said.Chapter 20
As Matt steered the Pathfinder into the high school parking lot, its siren wailing, Michael Milton’s frantic call lingered in his mind:
“There’s been a murder at the high school. A—aheadless bodyis hanging upside down in the gymnasium!”
Matt did not recall a homicide in the village of Red Hill, population eight thousand, during his lifetime. Red Hill enjoyed a reputation as a friendly little town with low crime statistics and a high quality of life. Still, the Victorian village had too many bars for his taste, and between the rowdy college students and the depressed blue-collar workers he had issued his share of DWIs and had broken up dozens of brawls. Some of the wealthier families complained about vandalism around the college, and Matt had developed a thick skin for dealing with people who believed they owned the community and its services because they paid heavier taxes.
He pulled over to the curb before the main building and switched off the engine, silencing the siren. As he exited the Pathfinder, he saw Dan Heller and Ricky Donner pull up behind him in their squad car; a third car raced down the driveway. He strode across the ice to the glass front doors, vapor trailing from his mouth. Entering the lobby, he experienced an uncomfortable feeling of déjà vu: it seemed so much smaller than it had when he was a student. Dan and Ricky entered behind him, and as the three policemen marched through the main corridor, officers Sean Hennessey and Peter Novak brought up the rear.
“Put your gloves on,” Matt said, and all five policemen exchanged their winter gloves for latex. Ahead, John Wrangler and Michael Milton stood waiting outside the gym. The corridor had been evacuated, and the two men stood like sentries. The wrestling coach had been Matt’s classmate years ago, and Matt noted the man’s pasty complexion.
“Good Lord,” Matt said as he stared inside the gym at the upside-down corpse. He’d never seen anything like this, and a moment later he heard uncomfortable shuffling behind him. “Has anyone touched that body?”
“No,” Michael said. “No one’s been inside at all.”
Matt could not take his eyes off the grisly sight. “Dan, start shooting. I want multiple shots from every angle, but stay out of that blood.”
“Right, Chief.” Removing his digital camera from its leather case, Dan entered the gym and photographed the crime scene.
“Ricky, get Doc Beelock on the horn. Tell him I need him here right now. If he argues, go out to the morgue and drag him here in handcuffs.”
Ricky nodded. “You got it, Matt.”
Michael Milton said, “What are we going to do?”
“We’re going to catch whoever did this,” Matt said. Studying the gym floor, he stroked the ends of his mustache. “No footprints. The perp stabbed the victim in the chest, then strung him up, decapitated him, and cleaned up after himself.”
“The lights were off when I got here,” Wrangler said. “Except for the scoreboard.”
Matt glanced at the scoreboard, which displayed HOME: 00, VISITORS: 01.Cute.“Are these doors locked overnight?”
Wrangler nodded. “The custodian locks them after he mops up.”
“What time do extracurricular activities end?”
“By five,” Michael said. “The students and coaches are gone by six.”
“I need a list of your custodial workers and maintenance staff, anyone who might have been in the building between 6:00 p.m. yesterday and 8:00 a.m. today.”
“You’ll have it,” Michael said with authority.
“We have to turn this place inside out and upside down. I’m sorry for the disruption, but there’s no other way. We have to find that head.”
“I’m canceling classes and sending everyone home.”
“No, don’t do that. Right now, these kids are safer here with us than anywhere else. But you should isolate them. We don’t want one of them finding what we’re looking for.”
“There are nine hundred students in this school,” Michael said in a stern voice. “Most of them carry cell phones. Word will spread fast. Some of their parents will panic.”
“Let the parents take their kids home if they insist, but only after they inform one of us.”
Michael nodded. “We’ll have our attendance cards in half an hour. That will help determine this boy’s identity.”
Carol stood in the cafeteria doorway, her back to the hallway lockers. Three hundred students had been crammed in here, another three hundred had been sequestered in the auxiliary gym, and the remaining three hundred sat in the assembly hall, with the faculty divided among the locations. The decibel volume of chatter rose far above an acceptable level, but she saw no point in addressing it. By now, every student in the building knew that one of their own had been slain.
Who could murder a teenager?
She shuddered, thoughts of Columbine and Virginia Tech creeping through her mind. Gazing past the throng of students, and through the floor-to-ceiling windows, she saw the news van for the local PBS station. Ed Holder, publisher of theRed Hill Gazette,leaned against his parked station wagon, an old-fashioned 35mm camera slung around his neck. So far, the police officers stationed out front had managed to prevent the media personnel from entering the school.
She heard her husband’s soft voice behind her. Turning her head, she saw him standing in the hall, out of the students’ sight. She took a discreet step backward. “What’s happening?”
“We haven’t found it yet,” Matt said. “I don’t think we’re going to, either. But we’re going to keep this school locked down until the end of the day.”
“Do you know who it is yet?”
Matt’s expression turned grim as he nodded. “Todd Kumler’s unaccounted for.”
“Todd—?” She recalled breaking up the fight between Todd and Johnny just the week before. Now both boys were dead, one in a reckless car accident, the other in a grisly homicide. “Oh, God.”
“There’s no ID on the body, but we found Todd’s gym bag in the locker room. His parents reported him missing this morning.”
“Do they know?”
He shook his head. “Not yet. I’ll tell them soon. I have to go now.”
Carol’s hand slid down to her chest. “You know who did it, don’t you?”
“Please be careful.”
“There’s nothing to worry about.” Holding her hand out of sight, he kissed it. “I’ll call you when I can.”
She watched him stride down the hall toward a side exit. Outside, Ed Holder cornered him, and a cameraman and TV newscaster rushed out the van’s sliding door.Chapter 21
Johnny lay in bed, tossing his switchblade into the air. He watched the illegal weapon flip end over end, just missing the ceiling, then waited while it plummeted to within inches of his face and snatched it before impact. He’d used Gary’s switchblade to kill Todd and hack off his head, but as soon as he’d come home he removed his own blade from its hiding place beneath his mattress.
Even though he now had the run of the house, he planned to remain in his room until sunset allowed him to prowl the streets unnoticed. He’d discovered his father’s body at dawn, when the man was usually in a deep, alcohol-induced slumber. Standing over Charlie’s corpse, he’d allowed himself to experience a few moments of grief. He had expected the old man to get trashed downtown, just like he did every night. How was he supposed to know Charlie would come home early for once? Before he got too choked up, he told himself that Charlie had been on this path for a long time, and it had just been a matter of time. Had his father experienced the golden light? He hoped so. Looking at the big-screen TV, he sighed. He couldn’t imagine watching the boob tube with his father’s corpse at his feet.
He heard the sirens later that morning, and from the safety of his window, had watched Red Hill’s finest racing along Main Street to the high school. Imagining the chaos that must have followed the discovery of Todd’s body, he smiled. What had Gary’s reaction been when he opened his locker?
He continued to flip the knife, pleased that he’d regained so much control over his atrophied muscles. A lot of willpower went a long way.
The switchblade had belonged to Uncle Nate, his mother’s brother. Johnny had discovered it in one day when he’d been nosing around Nate’s old army footlocker. Nate had moved away from Red Hill one year after Helen Grissom’s funeral, and must not have realized an item had disappeared from the footlocker. He’d never brought it up, either.
The blade spun higher into the air, grazing the ceiling, then dove straight at Johnny’s face. He snagged it at the last possible second, the sharp tip so close to his right eyeball that his vision turned fuzzy and out of focus.
He remembered showing the switchblade to Eric on one of their excursions to the cemetery. That had been right after Father Webb had—
Lost in memory, Johnny had reached for the switchblade too late and the blade pierced his right eye.
Johnny leapt from the bed and staggered to the full-length mirror on the closet door. The knife’s hilt protruded from his lower eyelid, wedged between his eye and its socket. Grateful that he had not sliced the orb, he eased the blade from his skull and formaldehyde trickled out like teardrops running down his face. The gash below his eye did not add to his glamour.
Shaking his head, he closed the blade and slid it into his back pocket. He would have to find other ways to amuse himself until sunset, when he could go out without fear of being recognized. Wandering over to his makeshift bookcase, he ran a dead finger across the spines of his DVDs. Scanning the titles, he almost wanted to skip his plan and spend however much time he had left watching movies and playing video games. He decided to avoid anything too sexy, seeing no point in making himself horny. His penis fit into his plans, and he didn’t want to risk it coming off in his hand if he played with himself.
I’m never going to get laid again!Anger filled his rotting shell. He resisted the urge to watch the Holy Trinity: George A. Romero’sNight of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead,andDay of the Dead.He loved the classics, and didn’t count the remakes orLand of the Deadamong them. But he had no desire to watch flicks about mindless, flesh-eating zombies. He settled on two revenge classics:DeathdreamandCreepshow.Opening the case forDeathdream,he removed the shiny disc and froze in midmotion. For an instant he glimpsed his discolored flesh on the disc’s reflective surface. Rotating his wrist, he exposed more of his horrific features. Then he grinned and fed the DVD into his player.
Matt pulled over to a snowbank flanking Canary Street, in one of Red Hill’s less attractive neighborhoods. The twostory houses lacked any sense of architectural grace; concrete steps, composite shingling, and unpaved driveways added to the blue-collar splendor. Matt waited for Dan and Ricky to pull up behind him before he exited his vehicle. They met in the middle of the street, and Matt gestured to a plain white house.
“Dan, go around to the back of the house. Ricky, I want you in the driveway. Both of you keep an eye on that side door. Be ready to kick it in if necessary.”
Matt watched his men take their positions, then peeled off his gloves and mounted the concrete steps. He heard nothing after pushing the doorbell, so he rapped on the metal door with his knuckles, then rested his hand on the handle of his holstered revolver. The Red Hill Police Department had no use for Glocks.
He heard shuffling behind the door, then the tumbling of locks. The door swung open, and a gray-haired woman with pronounced cheekbones opened the door. Matt could not tell if the rumpled garment she wore was a nightgown or an old dress.
“Mrs. Bower? I’m Chief Crane. Is your son home?”
Eileen Bower peered at Matt. “Walt Butler is the chief of police around here.”
“Walt is in the hospital, Mrs. Bower. I need to see Darryl.”
“He just fell asleep. He works nights …”
“Yes, ma’am, I know. But this is important. Please get him now.”
Reading Matt’s grave expression, Eileen nodded. “All right, I’ll get him. Wait here.”
She started to close the door, but Matt held it open as she receded into the shadows. He nodded to Ricky, who in turn nodded to Dan. Darryl emerged, sleepy eyed and shirtless, his long brown hair hanging past his slender shoulders. He rubbed his arms for warmth while Eileen lurked behind him.
“Yeah?” He stared at Matt with the glassy eyes of a stoner. His droopy mustache offset his delicate lips and smooth skin.
“Darryl, I need you to get dressed and come down to the station with me to answer some questions.”
Darryl’s expression turned quizzical. “About what?”
“Something happened at the high school early this morning. We need to find out what you know about it.”
Darryl’s eyes turned alert. “What happened? I don’t know anything.”
“Get your shirt, son.”
Shaking his head, Darryl obeyed Matt.
When Matt, Dan, and Ricky escorted Darryl into the police station, Bunny Robbins looked up from the counter, her orange hair in curls. She glared at Darryl as if he were the devil.
“Anything new from the school?” Matt said.
“They haven’t found anything yet,” Bunny said. “Hennessey and Novak are still looking, though. They want to bring in dogs.”
“After school.” Matt took off his coat. “Darryl, Officer Heller will escort you to the interview room. I’ll join you there in a minute.”
As Dan guided Darryl behind the counter and through a side door, Darryl said, “I didn’t do anything, man.”
Matt filled a paper cup at the watercooler.
“The mayor’s been calling every twenty minutes,” Bunny said.
“I’m sure he has.” Matt sipped the cold water.
“So have the Kumlers.” Bunny held up a stack of phone messages. “Most of these are from news stations in Buffalo and Erie.”
“Don’t tell anyone except the mayor that we have a suspect in custody. Tell the TV stations we’ll issue a statement in time for the evening news. I’ve already sent Ben over to the Kumlers’.” He tossed the empty cup into a wastebasket.
Matt entered the square interview room with a large manila envelope in one hand. Darryl sat smoking a cigarette at the table, with Dan standing in the corner. Matt sat at the opposite side of the table. A digital video camera on a tripod overlooked them.
“Darryl, how long have you been a janitor at the school?”
“Assistant custodial engineer,” Darryl said in a sarcastic tone. “Almost a year.”
“What time did you work yesterday?”
Darryl stared straight into Matt’s eyes. “Twelve to eight. That’s my shift. My uncle works from eight in the morning until four. We overlap for four hours, when the school is busiest.”
Darryl’s uncle had been the head custodian at Red Hill High for twenty years. “So you left the building at 8:00 p.m.?”
“Did you clean the main gym?”
Darryl hesitated. “Yeah, I always do.”
He’s lying,Matt thought, holding his gaze. “Do you remember locking the gym doors before you left for the day?”
Darryl fidgeted. “Not really.”
“Care to elaborate?”
Darryl sighed. “This kid was in the gym later than he was supposed to be, so I left it unlocked while I did the floors upstairs. When I came back down, the doors were locked. I figured my uncle took care of them, even though it was his night off. He always does things like that. Can’t stand it when I do things in a different order than he does.”
Matt made a note to call Frank Bower. “Who was this kid you mentioned?”
“His last name’s Kumler. He’s on the wrestling team, but he likes to shoot hoops after practice.”