Authors: Anne Frasier
Other Books by Anne Frasier
Before I WakeTable of Contents Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21 Chapter 22 Chapter 23 Chapter 24 Chapter 25 Chapter 26 Chapter 27 Chapter 28 Chapter 29 Chapter 30 Chapter 31 Chapter 32 Chapter 33 Chapter 34 Chapter 35 Chapter 36 Chapter 37 Chapter 38 Chapter 39 Chapter 40 Chapter 41 Chapter 42 Chapter 43 Chapter 44 Chapter 45 Chapter 46 Chapter 47
for MarthaFrom the Author
On a road trip from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I stopped for breakfast in a Black River Falls cafe and happened upon a conversation between two men about the Wisconsin town of Tuonela, where they claimed a vampire once roamed the streets.
I introduced myself and asked if they'd mind telling me more. They fell silent, looked at each other, then grudgingly continued. The story they told was so outrageous I decided they must be having fun at my expense. They'd probably meant for me to overhear their conversation; I was their entertainment for the day. Tuonela didn't exist, and we all know vampires don't exist.
In the car, I pulled out an atlas and was surprised to find a town called Tuonela on the map. If you were to draw a triangle by connecting Wausau to La Crosse to Portage, Tuonela would be somewhere in the center on the Wisconsin River. That area of Wisconsin was settled by Finns, and if you're up on your Finnish mythology and theKalevala,you'll know thatTuonelameans "land of the dead" in Finnish.
That left me to ponder about the men and our conversation, and about the vampire they'd referred to as the Pale Immortal. Had they been telling the truth after all? Was I now included in a secret only a handful of people knew? I have no answers to these questions. All I know is that day in the Black River Falls cafe the men told me the town often vanishes, and many don't believe it even exists. In case you think I'm making this up, dig out a map of Wisconsin and try to find Tuonela. Ninety percent of the time it won't be there.
Plenty have got there
few have come from there
from Tuonela's dwellings, from
The Dead Land's ageless abodes.
—The Kalevala,Elias Lonnrot
Or liker still to one who should take leave
Of pale immortal death . .
—John KeatsChapter 1
The car moved through the night, the two occupants staring silently out the windshield as the road unfolded before them.
They'd been traveling for over twenty-four hours, with only a few stops for gas and a bathroom. Food amounted to what packaged snacks could be grabbed while waiting in line to pay.
What had begun as desert and interstate had given way to narrow two-lanes that twisted through rural Midwest woodland and pasture unveiled in the yellow headlight beams. The landscape looked foreign.
At least to Graham Yates, who was used to millions of stars and a sky that stretched from horizon to horizon. His eyes couldn't get used to hills that blocked the sky, a curved road that hid what was ahead, and fog that clung to low areas.
The passenger window was open a crack, and the smell that came in reminded him of the tropical forest he'd once visited at a science museum. Or the compost bin at one of the schools he'd gone to. Like rotting plants and wet dirt.
How much longer?
Were they almost there?
He wanted to ask, but she wouldn't answer anyway She hadn't said anything to him since they'd left Arizona. That was okay. Silence was better than yelling.
A second after she turned off the wipers, the windshield became covered with mist that he'd finally figured out was dew. She couldn't get rid of it. So weird It just kept reappearing.
Graham had a plan He'd had a lot of time to think—once he'd come down from a fairly major high. When they got there, he would run away.
What kind of plan is that? That's no plan.
Knocking her out and stealing the car—that was a plan. But he wasn't a violent person Even after all she'd done to him, he couldn't hit her. And knowing her, being hit would just send her into a rage. She'd come at him spitting and hissing, adding a new element to an already bad situation.
Never make the situation worse than it already is....
He wasn't afraid, he told himself, heart pounding. He wasn't afraid of anything. Not even death, which he'd been thinking about a lot lately, even before she'd dragged him into the car. What kid a few days away from his sixteenth birthday didn't think about death?
The thought of dying was one of the only things that gave him comfort. It meant there was a way out. And as long as you knew death was waiting, you knew this could end.
At four fifteen a.m., they arrived in the town of Tuonela, Wisconsin.
Their car was the only one on the street. House shades and curtains were pulled tight. Everyone was asleep, unaware of the drama just outside their doors.
And still. Almost as if nobody really lived there.
Tuonela was a place Graham had been threatened with ever since he could remember.
If you aren't good, I'll send you to Tuonela. You don't want to go to Tuonela, do you?
The threat was always delivered in a tone that implied the worst. Tuonela was a bad place. Tuonela was a horrible place. Tuonela was the troll under the bridge.
Last year Graham had seen a car wreck. A really bad car wreck. The man inside had been impaled by the steering column. Graham hadn't been able to stop staring. Just before he died, the guy had opened his eyes and looked directly at Graham.
That's how Tuonela had always seemed. Like looking at something terrifying. But now that they were here, the place didn't live up to the image of horror in Graham's head.Thisis Tuonela? he wanted to ask.
It was what some old lady might call quaint. Old-fashioned, maybe. It reminded Graham of a toy train village he'd played with as a little kid. Not his village, but a neighbor's. Some kooky guy who wore an engineer cap and had his basement set up with all sorts of train stuff.
They pulled to a stop in front of a dark house with a straight sidewalk that led to a porch and front door. Two faint streetlights gave off a blue haze. He could barely make out tree branches spread above the roof, and what looked like black, misshapen bushes littering a yard surrounded by a short fence.
He wouldn't give her the satisfaction of tears. He wouldn't even look at her, because that's what she wanted. She wanted him to cry and beg and tell her he'd be good. That he was sorry.
They'd played this game before, and he was done playing.
He grabbed the handles of his giant backpack, opened the passenger door, and tumbled out, slamming the door behind him. From somewhere a dog barked. It was a hollow, distant cry, given with only half a heart and coming from another world.
Before she could come after him, he walked down the sidewalk in the direction of the house.
Behind him the car was thrown into gear, the gas pedal tromped to the floor.
He could feel her anger radiating from the confinement of the car. She was pissed that he hadn't begged.
He couldn't stop himself.
A slow turn of the head; then he was watching the ancient Oldsmobile chug away from the curb, watching it lumber down the street. Red brake lights appeared as the car squealed around the corner and disappeared from view.
Graham listened until the sound faded.
Would she come back?
She always came back.
He looked at the house again.
Now that he was closer, now that his eyes had adjusted, he could see that it sat low and kind of spread out. He didn't know shit about houses, but this was nothing like the houses in Arizona. This one was rough stucco and dark wood beams, two small windows up above in what looked like an attic.
Run! Run away! What happened to your plan? Remember your plan?
Where would he go? He didn't have any money. He was hungry. He'd hardly slept in forty-eight hours. He was cold.
It was his fault. He'd broken the rules. He'd stayed out all night drinking and smoking pot. He deserved to be punished.
Not like this.He was finally old enough to understand that no kid deserved this.
All his life he'd been accused of exaggeration, even lying. But he always told it like he saw it. If that was lying, then he was a liar.
He approached the house. He walked up the bowed wooden steps, his footfalls echoing. The air was thick, like breathing water. He was aware of the smells again: damp earth and green plants.
He raised his hand, then paused, his finger an inch from the button, his heart pounding in his chest and head. Hell had doors. He knew that. And if you left one hell, what was to stop you from stepping into another?
What else could he do? He was a thousand miles from anybody who might help him.
His brain wasn't working. He couldn't think. Couldn't decide what to do. He was past the point of tears and drama. All he wanted was a bed.
Get some sleep. Get some food. See what happens here first. See if it's as bad as she always said it would be; then decide.
An image of the car wreck popped into his head again. There had been terror in the man's eyes. The guy had seen the other side.
Graham rang the bell. When nobody answered, he knocked. Softly at first, then harder. Two minutes later he walked to a window, cupped his hands to the glass, and tried to see inside.Chapter 2
The narrow redbrick streets were shiny with dew as Evan Stroud made his way home, hands clenched deep in the pockets of his coat, collar flipped up to deflect the damp wind. Above him the sky was black, without a single star or sliver of moon.
He was used to taking long strolls in the middle of the night. Night was the only time he came close to feeling normal.
He checked his watch and was surprised to find that morning would be arriving soon. This had happened before, his inability to account for a large block of time. Were the occurrences getting more frequent?
Evan continued his climb up the steep sidewalk out of the river valley.
The town of Tuonela was perched on a hillside, the tall Victorian homes clinging to rocks and outcroppings as if afraid to commit to a deeper foundation.
He'd been reluctant to leave his house ever since the break-in, but in the end he'd refused to give up these few hours of freedom just because someone was morbidly curious about him.
Sometimes he thought he should move from Tuonela. But where would he go? Here everybody was used to him. He didn't have to explain anything, and for the most part people accepted him. He might be a freak, but he wastheirfreak.
At first he hadn't noticed anything missing after the burglary. Then, little by little, he realized some odd items were not simply misplaced, butgone.He couldn't locate his hairbrush. His favorite black T-shirt was nowhere to be found. The coffee mug he used every day? Gone too.
They were stealing pieces ofhim.The intruder or intruders hadn't been caught, and no suspicious fingerprints had been found.
He'd lived in Tuonela his whole life, but suddenly everyone seemed to have the same idea:Let's stalkEvan Stroud.
The publication of his books usually brought about a small flurry of interest that quickly whimpered and died. But the last one, a collection of history, tales, and speculation about Old Tuonela, seemed to have stirred up an extra helping of crazies.
Some people actually knocked on his door asking to come in and visit. Or would he sign their book? Could they take a photo with him? But others snooped, and some even took digital images that they later posted online with ridiculous captions like,Stroud shopping in a dark grocery store. Stroud in his backyard at three a.m.!
The backyard shot had been a blur, with some unrecognizable person stepping forward and looking behind him with the famous Bigfoot stride and pose. Evan supposed it could have been him, but it was impossible to tell, so why bother? Just some blob taking a stroll. But the very ambiguity seemed to give it credibility.
The photos were bad enough, until some of his uninvited guests, like the ones from the other night, broke in. They wanted proof that he was what some said he was. A vampire.
Evan rounded the turn that would take him to his front door. The soles of his shoes rang hollowly. With his house in sight he stepped from the sidewalk to the grassy area near the curb. What a concept: having to sneak up on your own damn house. But often thieves returned. He wanted to catch them in the act.
He heard a sound. Someone was on the porch, bent at the waist, tampering with a window.
Evan unbuttoned his long coat and reached inside, his fingers coming in contact with the butt of the handgun he'd taken to carrying since the break-in. At first he'd thought the weapon was an overre-action, but now he was glad he had it.
The lights on his street were different from the lights on the other streets in Tuonela. These lights were incandescent blue, and didn't contain harmful UV rays. In the glow of those blue lights Evan saw a kid, a teenager with gold, wildly curly hair straightening away from the window, turning to look at Evan with dismay.
The kid put up his hand as if to deflect a blow. Or a bullet.
Evan remembered the gun and sighed. He returned the Smith & Wesson to the shoulder holster, but didn't close the snap.
A vampire wannabe.
"Are you back for more?" Evan demanded.
This was a violation of his sanctuary, the only place he felt safe. But what could he do? Put up a twelve-foot razor-wire fence? He felt alienated enough from the world as it was. "Are you the idiot who broke in here the other night? Did you forget something?"
The kid didn't answer Or maybe Evan didn't give him a chance Later, when Evan replayed the incident in his head, he would wonder.
"Not very good at this, are you?" Evan demanded. "You should have come during the day When I was asleep in my coffin Don't you know anything about vampires?"
The kid pivoted, ducked, and leaped off the porch. Three strides took him through a stand of shrubs and beyond the scope of the streetlights.
Evan wasn't letting him off that easy He switched from visual to audio, listening to the kid crashing through shrubbery and underbrush, following the sound of movement through the darkness.
Evan had the advantage; he knew the terrain And he could see pretty damn well at night, proof that people could adapt and make up for other physical limitations. He would at least have the satisfaction of scaring the hell out of the asshole.
Evan catapulted himself over the low fence, coat-tails flying. He paused for a direction check. From the right came the sound of someone moving through dead leaves in the wooded area to the east of his house. Evan sprinted after him.
It had been raining off and on for days. The ground was soggy, and tried to suck the boots off his feet. In the distance he heard a splash.
Evan could just make out the kid struggling from the stream He slipped and slid, finally dashing up an embankment to disappear from view. A second later Evan heard him let out a cry of alarm, followed by the sound of a body falling and tumbling, accented by snapping twigs and rustling brush.
Evan waded through the water, then climbed the steep terrain.
The kid was shoving himself to his feet. Before he could get fully upright, Evan quickly covered the short distance and tackled him. Breathing hard, Evan pressed the kid to the ground, a knee to his back, one of the kid's hands twisted between his shoulder blades.
"I could kill you right now," Evan said. "Is that what you want? I could drain every drop of blood from you."And grind your bones to make my bread
Evan pressed harder. "Are you a member of the Pale Immortals? Did they send you? Is this some kind of initiation?"
The Pale Immortals were a gang of kids whose name paid homage to a previous resident named Richard Manchester, aka the Pale Immortal, who'd terrorized the town and slaughtered its residents. Some claimed Manchester had killed as many as a hundred victims, drinking and bathing in their blood. In the panic of the time, in the mass exodus from what was now called Old Tuonela, records had been lost, so no one really knew the death tally.
"What're you talking about, you weird-ass?"
The kid was shaking with fear. But he'd called him a weird-ass. Had to give him credit for guts. Or stupidity.
Evan relaxed his grip.
Was that a sob? Was the kidcrying?
He released the boy's wrist and removed his knee from his spine. "Come on. You're okay."
The teenager looked up, his face splattered with mud, his eyes haunted while he tried his best to sound defiant. Even though the boy had run like hell and put up a strong fight, he looked fragile.
Now Evan felt bad. As if he was the one who'd done something wrong.
Here the kid had been prowling around his house, getting ready to break in—probably for the second time—and Evan was the one who suddenly felt like shit.
"Come back to the house. We'll find you some dry clothes and get this sorted out. Call your parents. Have them come and get you." If the boy didn't cause any more trouble, Evan wouldn't contact the cops.
In one swift motion the kid lunged and pushed Evan backward, then just as quickly jumped away.
It took Evan a second to realize the boy had his gun. And that he was raising it.
To his own temple.
Evan saw the bleak determination in the kid's eyes; he had every intention of pulling the trigger.
Tick, tick, tick.
Evan may have shouted; he wasn't sure. He kicked, hooking his foot around the kid's ankle. The teenager was flung backward and crumpled to the ground at the same moment the gun discharged. The echo of the gunshot ricocheted from hillside to hillside.
Evan dropped to his knees. He checked the boy for signs of an entrance wound, but couldn't find any. Had the bullet missed? Had he hit his head? Or passed out?
Evan pressed two fingers to the boy's neck. Even though his face was as pale as a corpse, his pulse was steady. The scene replayed in Evan's mind as he tried to grasp what had just happened.
The boy stirred. His eyes opened, and Evan let out a relieved breath. "Jesus Christ, kid. What the hell?"
The teenager didn't seem surprised to find that he wasn't dead. Live, die—it was all the same to him; that was obvious. "Are you Evan Stroud?" he finally asked.
"I have a message for you."
If it was anything like the one he'd just tried to give him, Evan didn't want it.
"Are you going to pretend you've never heard of me?"
Choose your words with care.
Evan had no idea who he was, but he didn't want to set him off again. The kid was staring at him with a directness Evan couldn't recall seeing in many adults. He also noticed that the night was fading.
The kid spoke again. "Your son," he spit out, as if the words left a rotten taste in his mouth. "I'm your son."
Evan fell back on his heels.
Punctuating that announcement, sirens began to wail from somewhere in the distance. As Evan listened they drew closer, then trailed off, heading toward downtown Tuonela, from the direction Evan had recently come.Chapter 3
The siren shut off with one final squawk.
Damp wind blew down the collar of coroner Rachel Burton's jacket as she stood on the edge of the Tuonela town square. Hands in her pockets, she regarded the nude body of a female victim lying in a shallow ditch parallel to the road, a few feet from the base of a maple tree. If memory served Rachel correctly, it was one of those varieties of maples that turned a glorious shade of electric red in the fall. Right now it was leafing out, even though it was only early April. But enough of that. Enough of trying to distract herself from the horror in front of her.
The victim had been tossed like so much garbage. The scene reminded Rachel that no matter how the people of Tuonela tried, they couldn't ignore their history any more than London could ignore Jack the Ripper.
The headlights of two squad cars were aimed at the body, along with the beams of three flashlights. No one spoke. The only sound was the steadyclang, clang, clangof a metal toggle against a flagpole in the center of the square. Nobody seemed to know what to do. Rachel sensed they were all waiting for her. She'd seen a lot of death, so it was only natural that they'd look to her for guidance.
"Who found the body?" she asked.
"We were on patrol," said a young male officer. "We circled the square twice before I saw it."
"Let me borrow your flashlight."
He passed it to her. She took a few steps closer, aware of the cold dew seeping through her sneakers. The victim's throat had been sliced. She directed the flashlight beam to the ground around the body.
No sign of blood.
Dying was often the only way people left Tuonela. Rachel had noticed that about the same time she'd started grade school. But Rachel had made it a point to get out. When she was little and people asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, she always said a doctor or teacher or nurse. "But not here. I want to be somewhere else. Somewhere far away." The adult asking the question would look baffled and chalk it up to weird things kids said. But Rachel had been serious. You had to fight the desire to stay. That had always been her goal: Get the hell out of Tuonela.
She'd made it as far as Los Angeles. Which was almost as far as a person could go without a boat.
Just keep going until the land stops.
She thought she'd gotten away; she really did. But then her mother became ill, and Rachel took a leave of absence from her job as coroner to come home and help her father. When her mother died, she was offered the combined position of county coroner and medical examiner. It was unusual but not unheard-of for one person to have both jobs. Especially in a place with few deaths and no murders. Even though she was only thirty-two, even though she'd been one of the best coroners in L.A. County, she'd decided to stay in her hometown.
Truth be told, she'd been getting tired of the relentless crime in L.A. But L.A. wanted her back. And in L.A., she could distance herself. This .. . this atrocity in front of her was almost like discovering you had a serial killer in the family.
Every few weeks she got a call from her old boss, telling her how things had fallen apart since she'd left, and asking what it would take to convince her to return. She knew she should go. Even her father seemed to understand that.
"Don't stay here for me," he'd told her more than once.
But it wasn't just her father keeping her here; the town had finally gotten to her. Her excuse to remain in Tuonela was that it was nice living in a town where the only deaths she saw were due to car accidents, hunting accidents, and natural causes.
Here was a violent murder in the heart of one of the most bucolic settings on earth.
"Could someone get my kit from the van?" she asked.
After putting on a Tyvek suit and slippers, she photographed the body and the surrounding area.
Her father, Police Chief Seymour Burton, came up beside her. He smelled like the cigarettes he pretended to no longer smoke. "The killing didn't take place here," he said.
She felt reassured by his quiet presence. Very few people could carry off being cool, but Seymour managed easily. He was James Dean if James Dean had lived to be seventy.
"No," Rachel agreed. "The body was dumped."
"And I'm guessing by an amateur. A first kill."
"But why dump a body in the middle of town?" she asked. "Almost seems the killer wanted her to be found."
"Or panicked," Seymour said.
"Local?" Rachel mused aloud. "Or someone passing through?"
A nearby officer was listening. "Gotta be somebody passing through," he said with conviction.
Seymour eyed the officer in that slow way of his. "Why's that?" he asked, even though it was obvious he already knew the answer.
"Nobody here would do such a thing."
Seymour looked from the officer to the body. For a moment he didn't speak. "Don't ever think it couldn't be a friend or neighbor. Most homicides are committed by people who know the victim. Our job is to find out who may have wanted to kill her. We'll start with relatives and friends and go from there." His voice was smooth and placating, not in the least condescending. The officer nodded and ducked his head.
"Let's finish up and get the victim out of here," Rachel said. It bothered her that the young woman was lying there nude for all to see. That kind of bla- tant exposure was different in a small town, where there was little anonymity. In L.A. she wouldn't have felt the need to hurry and cover the body.
"Anybody recognize her?" Seymour asked.
"I... I think she goes—I mean,wentto school with my son," an officer said. "Mason and Enid Ger-ber's kid."
There was a murmur of agreement.
They put up numbered crime scene cards.
The grass hadn't been packed down. There were no tire marks.
Two officers spread a plastic sheet on the ground next to the victim. On top of the sheet they placed a body bag. Rachel had wrestled with a lot of dead bodies, and they weren't known for their cooperation. Once the victim was in place, Rachel zipped the bag and attached an evidence seal.
Dan, Rachel's assistant and the closest Tuonela had to a crime scene investigator, began vacuuming the grass in hopes of finding some small piece of something.
From her kit Rachel pulled out a tool shaped like a small shovel. She crouched above the area where the body had been lying. Using the tool, she scraped and dug, depositing clumps of grass and dirt into an evidence bag.
"What are you looking for?" Dan asked.
Rachel was aware of her audience: patrol officers standing in a semicircle, watching, waiting.
"Ground's too wet to tell."
"I can take care of that." He poked around in the evidence kit to lift out a plastic spray bottle of lumi-nol, normally used indoors to expose trace amounts of blood. Dan had probably been waiting months for a chance to use it.
He sprayed the area in question, then produced a small, battery-operated black light. Nothing. He sprayed again, then tested with the light.
He looked up at Rachel, silently communicating his dark thoughts, sharp black bangs slanting across his forehead.
Dan was a native. Except for a couple of years interning at a forensic lab in Madison, he'd lived in Tuonela his entire life. Although hardly more than a kid, he understood the significance of the missing blood when you lived in a town that meant land of the dead, a town where the Pale Immortal had once walked.
Behind her, Rachel heard the metallic snap of a lighter and turned to see her dad taking a deep drag from a cigarette, his eyes unfocused and troubled. Was he thinking what she was thinking?
This, on top of a recent theft of blood from the hospital, wasn't proof of anything, she told herself. And not the time to verbalize her own concerns. "I'll know more once I've examined the body," Rachel said.
Normally she would have gone to her apartment and cleaned up a bit. Had some coffee and probably some breakfast, most likely at Peaches, because she hated to cook.
But she wasn't going to expose herself to the public with this horrific homicide having just taken place. People would stare. They would ask questions. They would be afraid. And she had no way to alleviate their fears.
She went directly to the morgue. It was the best place to hide.Chapter 4
It was every guy's nightmare.
A kid showing up at your door, calling you Dad. Worse, a mentally unstable kid who'd just tried to kill himself with your own gun. Right in front of you.
The kid—Graham—was sitting at Evan's kitchen table, eating as if he hadn't had a meal in a week. Evan figured the least he could do was feed him.
Graham had changed into dry clothes He'd washed his hands, but his face and curly hair still bore traces of mud.
In the adjoining living room, beyond the bookcase divider, thick black curtains were pulled tight, the room illuminated with low-wattage incandescent bulbs. Evan was used to the murkiness; Graham didn't seem to notice.
It was strange as hell to have somebody sitting at his kitchen table, invading his space and filling the room with an alien presence, but certainly much more peculiar to have a teenager claiming to be his son.
"Your mother ..." Evan began, fishing for infor- mation, yet not wanting to set the boy off Evan needed details if he was going to be accused of being somebody's dad.
Graham looked up from his bowl of cereal. He wiped milk from his mouth with the back of his hand. "Lydia. Everybody calls her Lydia."
That's what Evan had thought He pushed the box of cereal closer, but Graham shook his head. "You say she dropped you off, then left?" Evan asked.
"Yeah She always threatens me with you. Like, 'If you don't straighten up, you're going to live with your father.' We've driven partway here before."
To think that this poor kid had been carrying around some mental image of his father, yet there wasn't a man out there thinking about Graham. "What was different this time?" Evan asked.
"I didn't beg to go home."
"Where is home?"
"That's a long drive."
"Thirty hours straight."
Years ago the same road had brought Lydia Yates to Tuonela and then taken her away. She'd been one of those girls who'd slept with half the boys in high school. She and her mother had breezed into town one day during Evan's senior year. All the guys had been infatuated with Lydia. She'd been beautiful, and they hadn't yet learned how to be discerning and pick up on clues that would have told them to give her a wide berth. Lydia's mother got a job tending bar at one of the local dives. Lydia used to run her own little operation, tempting classmates with free liquor and sex. She'd most likely had a serious mental problem. Back then they just figured she liked to do it. A lot.
It had been a temptation boys couldn't resist. They knew it was wrong, but told themselves it was just this one time ....
Lydia mesmerized them all. She had been exotic and exciting, and Tuonela rarely saw anything exotic and exciting.
When she ended up pregnant, she'd pointed a finger at Evan.
At that time his parents had been comfortable but not wealthy. His father was a cop, his mother a substitute teacher. That was when Evan's illness was diagnosed and before medical bills began draining them of their savings. They'd suggested a paternity test, but Lydia had refused.
Then one day Lydia and her mother were gone. Just packed up and left, which led many, Evan included, to speculate that the pregnancy had been a fabrication. Evan didn't give her much thought after that, because by that time his illness had taken hold. Their coming together, his loss of virginity to someone who'd meant nothing to him, had left him feeling sick and ashamed. He was just glad she was gone.
Now that he thought about it, Lydia marked the beginning of the end of Evan's childhood and life as he'd known it. Strangely, he'd forgotten her existence until now.
So she'd stuck to her story about Evan being the father. At least she'd recognized the need to come up with an explanation for the kid's sake. She couldn't very well tell him she'd slept with half the town and hadn't a clue who the father was.
A kid's life shouldn't be so messed up.
Evan had no idea how to approach the father issue. Graham had just tried to kill himself. Better not to say anything for now. He knew nothing about talking to kids anyway, especially suicidal ones.
Graham's spoon hit the floor with a clatter. It took a few seconds for Evan to realize he was asleep, chin on his chest.
"Come on." Evan grabbed the boy by the arm.
He led Graham through the living room, around a maze of books, down a hall to a small bedroom Evan used mostly for storage and overflow.
He'd grown up in this house. The bedroom had been his at one time. After Evan's mother died and his father retired early and moved to Florida, Evan bought the place. It needed a lot of work, and at one time he'd thought he would take on the restoration, but that idea had lost steam and pretty soon was forgotten like lots of other thoughts.
The twin bed in the corner was stacked with leather-bound antiquarian books and boxes of manuscripts, notes and research from past projects or future projects. The room smelled stuffy and dusty, like old leather and moldy, yellowing paper.
Imagining the room through Graham's eyes served to underscore for Evan the reclusiveness of his own existence. He wasn't yet thirty-five, but the room looked like it belonged to some old fart who spent his days shifting piles of history around while wondering where the time had gone.
Once Evan cleared the bed, Graham tumbled forward onto the mattress, grabbed a pillow, and hugged it to himself. A second later he was out. Evan dug a comforter from the closet, straightened Graham's legs, covered him, and left the room.
Back in the kitchen, Evan prepared a cup of tea and sat down at the table.
Was Lydia at it again? Was this another attempt to extort money? Had she read a recent article about him? Did she know he was fairly successful?
Evan picked up the phone and called the police to see if Graham had been reported missing. He could be a runaway, for all Evan really knew.
"We'll have to look into it," said the male officer on the other end of the line. That was followed by a click of computer keys. "Nothing jumping out at me No Amber Alert or national announcement. In the meantime, I'll connect you to Social Services At the very least, we have an unattended juvenile on our hands."
Evan was connected.
"All we can do is lock him up until we get this figured out," a woman told him.
"Jail? That seems unnecessary. Can't you find someone to take him in temporarily?"
"Nobody wants to take in a boy that age, Mr. Stroud. No telling where he's been or what he's done. Would you be able to put him up until we find his mother?"
"Out of the question."
"Then we'll dispatch an officer to take him off your hands."
"Someone should be there within the hour."
"Please make sure he's awake and ready."
"Can't you wait until he wakes up on his own? The kid's exhausted."
There was a long pause. Then, "Certainly, Mr. Stroud."
She seemed too agreeable.
Evan worried that Graham might try some other method of killing himself, so he kept looking in on him, hovering nervously in the bedroom doorway. Making sure he was breathing.
He looks nothing like me.
No, he looked like Lydia. That's who he looked like.
Evan thought about what it must have been like having Lydia for a mother. What a head fuck.
He stared at Graham again, searching for but seeing no family resemblance.
He wasn't his kid. He couldn't be his kid, Evan told himself.Chapter 5
Using a pair of medical scissors, Rachel Burton snipped open the evidence seal she'd attached to the body bag while in the town square.
Tuonela's previous autopsy suite had been located in the hospital basement. When a family-owned mortuary closed, the town council purchased the current property in hopes of tempting a medical examiner to become a permanent part of the community. At the time Rachel was offered the position, the only requirement she'd insisted upon was a decent air-exchange system. But decent didn't translate to quiet.
She pulled down the clear visor.
Another part of the package had been a place to live. The mortuary was a sprawling Victorian with scalloped gingerbread siding, turrets, and copper fascia that had turned green. Rachel had the third floor. She liked being up high. She liked being able to look out over the town, especially at night when the lights were on. Another plus was having the entire building to herself except for occasional help and the bodies that came to visit.
She began the visual description, dictating into a microphone. "Rope burns on the ankles. Cuts on the wrists and jugular."
The young girl had already been identified by her hysterical parents as sixteen-year-old Chelsea Gerber.
So sad. So incredibly sad ..
After the visual, verbal description, and observations came the external exam.
When Rachel was in medical school, she'd quickly realized that her reaction to dead bodies was different from those of her fellow students. Some classmates were repulsed. Many commented on how it seemed that once death came to visit, it left behind an empty vessel. Like an old shoe someone had once worn.
It wasn't that way for Rachel ...
She found some straight dark hairs, complete with hair follicles, stuck to the body. Gerber was blond. She collected tissue scrapings and took photographs, numbering and labeling as she went.
The nails and cuticles were lined with blood. Rachel dropped cuttings into a small collection bag. She put the clippers on the metal tray near her elbow and held the young girl's hand.
Hands always got to her. Children's hands. A young man's hands. An old man's hands. Didn't matter. Hands were personal.
This hand held hers with unnerving urgency.
Even in death, Chelsea seemed to be clinging to life.
A half hour into the internal exam, Rachel had confirmation of what she'd suspected in the square. Every artery, every vein was lying as flat and white as a tapeworm. Chelsea had been strung up by her ankles and drained of blood like some slaughtered lamb.
Rachel let out a heavy sigh and sat down on a stool, trying to make sense of her discovery.
It was a chillingly familiar MO. An old case had involved exsanguination and a craving for blood. A very old case. A hundred years ago, in the ghost town that was now called Old Tuonela, a killer known as the Pale Immortal had walked the streets. When darkness fell, children were rushed inside. Doors and windows were locked up tight. Some claimed that the Pale Immortal had bathed in blood, and that blood had flooded the streets until the ground became saturated.
Even after the Pale Immortal's reign of terror ended, people were afraid. His death had come too late. A miasma of fear had grown over everybody. Many claimed the ground was cursed, and so a mass exodus had taken place. Every single person relocated to a new development five miles from the old one. A better location, they claimed. And prettier, on a bluff overlooking the river. Why had anyone settled at the old place, in such a dark valley? It didn't make sense.
Let's pretend Old Tuonela doesn't exist. Let's pretend we always lived here, in the new place.
Even though a hundred years had passed, many locals still liked to pretend Old Tuonela wasn't just beyond the outskirts of town where the softly rolling hills ended abruptly, the valleys became dark and deep, and the roads turned back on themselves. But for Rachel, Old Tuonela was a presence that couldn't be ignored. You could feel it, feel the connection between old and new, like an umbilical cord that hadn't been severed.
Years ago, a developer from Chicago bought the ground of Old Tuonela with plans to turn it into a resort. A place where the wealthy could escape Chicago for the weekend. Where they could shop and eat and sleep in quaint inns. When he couldn't get financial backing, he put up a for SALE sign and left, moving on to a new project. The for sale sign was still there. The only habitable house was being restored by the owner's son, who'd recently been through a tough time and needed a place to heal and pull himself back together.
And the current Tuonela? New people came but rarely stayed.
At first they were drawn by the charm of the cobblestone alleys and brick streets, by the church spires and dark thickets of trees. But a town that appeared quaint from the outside quickly turned threatening, with undertones that made strangers uneasy and paranoid. A darkness lingered here. A darkness that spoke to Rachel, that spoke to the people who belonged.
Over the years there had been campaigns to infuse Tuonela with new energy and life. A fall harvest tour. A May Day parade. Shopwindow displays through those dark days of December. Efforts always failed. And now there was a movement under way to rename Tuonela—because what had begun as a tribute to Finnish mythology had turned into a tribute to a murdering madman. But a name change wouldn't help.
There was an unspoken feeling that celebration was wrong. That too much noise might wake up something that should remain asleep.
Superstitious nonsense, Rachel told herself as she got to her feet and turned to get the camera. She was a rational person. Rational people didn't think such thoughts. But maybe rationality or superstition didn't matter in this case.
Imitation was the sincerest form of flattery.
What had triggered the renewed interest in the Pale Immortal? The release of Evan Stroud's most recent book?
There seemed to be two camps in town: those who were proud to have a local author writing about their history, and those who thought he should keep his mouth shut. That he was exploiting a tragic past.
From behind her came a sound that registered in another area of her brain, separate from the noise of the exhaust fan. Like air escaping. Like an indrawn breath.
Rachel swung around to see the dead girl's head turn slowly in her direction, her eyes wide open and staring. The hand Rachel had been holding earlier reached for her in an imploring gesture. Rachel let out a gasp. She took a panicked step back. The face changed, became that of another woman, one Rachel remembered from childhood.
Rachel's arm jerked and struck the tray, knocking the stainless-steel autopsy tools to the floor.
And then the vision was over, as if it had never happened.
Chelsea Gerber's eyes were closed, her chin directed toward the ceiling, her neck positioned on the autopsy block just as Rachel had left her.
Rachel ran blindly across the room and through the heavy swinging doors. Outside in the hallway she collapsed with her back to the wall, her chest rising and falling, her heart slamming.
In that instant she was reminded of why she'd become a coroner.
To face her fear.
The only way to defeat it is to meet it.
As a young child she'd seen people who weren't really there.
Her parents hadn't been overly concerned about her playmates until they realized these weren't your garden-variety imaginary buddies. Rachel was actually hanging out with dead people. The recently deceased of Tuonela.
Once Rachel moved away she was no longer visited by the dead. And as time passed, she came to rationalize her visions as delusions caused by some forgotten childhood trauma. She must have seen photo obituaries in the newspaper. She must have read the names or heard her parents mention them. All easily explained once you really thought about it.
Yet the girl in the room behind her was dead. Very dead. There could be no doubt about that. Which meant it was happening again.
♥ Scanned by Coral ♥Chapter 6
Graham woke up confused and disoriented. It was dark, and his heart was thudding the way it did whenever he had a falling dream.
He thought backward, and a wave of bleak despair washed over him as his memory returned. He shot from the bed and felt around in the dark until he found a switch that he flipped on, illuminating the small space with dim light.
He was in some kind of storage room, maybe an office, cluttered with shelved books that overflowed in piles on the floor. The windows were covered in black fabric that looked like it had actually been glued to the glass. His mouth tasted rotten, and he could smell himself. He hadn't taken a shower in a long time, and he'd been doing some serious sweating lately. .. .
He opened the door and looked down the hall, spotting a bathroom.
He'd become an opportunist by necessity. He knew most things were fleeting, and you had to take what you could get when you could get it.
He grabbed wrinkled but clean clothes from his pack, moved silently down the hall, slipped into the bathroom, locked the door, and quickly stripped.
Don't think,he told himself once he was in the shower. This wasn't the time to think. He had to stay strong, stay tough.
He scrubbed himself and washed his hair. The warm water felt great, comforting. Dried off and dressed in wrinkled jeans and black long-sleeved T-shirt, he opened the bathroom door, a cloud of steam billowing out.
Evan Stroud was waiting for him in the living room, standing near the front door, a coffee mug in his hand.
He's so pale.
Like the vampire he'd claimed to be last night?
You should have come during the day. When I was asleep in my coffin. Don't you know anything about vampires?
He'd just been trying to scare him. Graham knew Stroud had a disease called porphyria, an allergy to the sun. He'd seen stuff about the illness on TV. A couple of little girls who could go outside to play only at night.
Graham hadn't thought about how white a person's skin would get if he never went outside. If he never even walked from the house to a car when the sun was shining.
"I never meant to fall asleep," Graham said, still feeling groggy. The dim light didn't help any.
"I called Social Services," Stroud said. "Someone will be here to pick you up soon."
"And then what?"
"They'll send you back to your mom, or find another place for you to live."
Graham nodded fatalistically. He wasn't surprised.
When he was little he used to daydream about meeting his dad face-to-face. In those daydreams his dad shed a few tears of joy in honor of the touching reunion.
"I'm not going back to her," Graham said. "I'll be sixteen soon. I'll become emancipated. Kids do that." He didn't know how, but he'd read about it. You had to find a lawyer, and you had to get some papers signed. "Why are you looking at me like that?"
"They don't emancipate kids who are a danger to themselves."
"Are you talking about the gun?" He waved his hand as if to diminish the act. He'd forgotten about that little episode.
Just think. If the gun hadn't been knocked away, we wouldn't be having this conversation.
This was pissing him off: Evan Stroud standing there, pretending he wasn't his father, yet at the same time preaching to him and bossing him around.
The phone rang. Stroud answered it, talking in quiet tones. When he hung up, he turned to Graham. "Get your things together. Someone will be here in a half hour."
Graham pivoted and strode to the bedroom, where his backpack was lying on the floor.
Stroud had washed and dried his muddy clothes. For some reason that gesture made Graham's throat tighten and his eyes burn. He grabbed the folded clothes and crammed them in his backpack. He zipped the pack and slipped his arms through the padded straps.
It wasn't a regular pack. It had been made for traveling, and he'd shoved a lot of stuff inside when he'd left Arizona. He was able to carry almost his entire life on his back. The only thing he regretted leaving behind was his vinyl collection.
What would she do with that? Throw it away? Take it to Goodwill?
"Thanks for all your help," he told Stroud once he was back in the living room. Would Stroud catch the sarcasm?
"I'm not your father."
"Right. She said you'd say that. But that's okay, you know. I don't care. We're strangers. You don't mean anything to me, and blood doesn't matter. I mean, being related doesn't mean shit. In fact, it gives somebody permission to treat you any way they want. That's all. I didn't want to come here. I didn't want to meet you. She made me."
"Do you always do what you're told?"
With that, Graham opened the door and stepped outside. After the darkness of the house the brilliance of the sun was blinding. He blinked rapidly, then leaped off the porch.
He heard footsteps behind him, and looked over his shoulder in time to see Stroud coming after him.
Graham had figured he'd stop at the door.
But he was coming. Just like any other guy. Just like somebody who wasn't allergic to the sun.
Graham turned and ran. A quick pause at the gate; then he was fumbling for the latch.
Lift. Pull. Run.
Graham could run like hell, but his pack was heavy. Maybe forty pounds.
Graham turned in time to see Stroud drop to his knees, cupping both hands to his forehead. Graham stopped. He watched for a moment, then let his pack crash to the ground.
Stroud kept curling up, until his head was to his knees.
Like Superman exposed to kryptonite.
Or a vampire.
Graham hesitated, then ran back through the gate, slipping his hands under Stroud's arms. He dragged him toward the house. "Come on!"
Stroud managed to get his feet under him. With Graham supporting him, they staggered up the steps and over the threshold. Stroud dropped to the floor and Graham slammed the door, shutting out the light.
Heart pounding, Graham stared in horror at the man writhing at his feet. "Are you gonna be okay?"
Was he dying? Right in front of him?
Graham took one step closer. Then another.
Stroud's hand lashed out and locked around his ankle, fingers digging into his flesh, his arm all taut muscles and veins.
Like a clawed hand from a grave . ..
Icould kill you right now. I could drain every drop of blood from you.
Graham tore away from him and ran—out the door, down the sidewalk, through the gate.
Grabbed his pack and hauled ass.
He headed for the cover of nearby trees and the wooded area he already had a relationship with, ducking under branches that snagged his T-shirt and caught on his backpack. Five minutes into his escape, he paused briefly to listen.
His pounding heart and harsh breathing drowned out everything else. Chest rising and falling, his breath creating a cloud in the thick air, he finally picked up on the sound of birds. From somewhere far away, water trickled. Then came the faint hum of traffic. Not heavy traffic, but an occasional vehicle.
He braced his legs and gave the backpack a heave and an adjustment; then he began running again: over a hill, then down a steep incline, his boots slipping, heels leaving deep parallel gouges in the muddy bank as he skidded to a stop at the bottom to land three feet from a two-lane road that twisted into hillsides topped with trees that were just getting leaves.
He risked a glance over his shoulder, half expecting to see Stroud floating toward him through the trees, blood dripping from fangs.
A small blue truck appeared around the corner, heading downhill.
Graham pivoted to face the oncoming vehicle. Continuing to walk backward, he stuck out his thumb.
The vehicle showed no sign of slowing, so he threw a little more into his performance. Pouring on the charm, he bent one knee while giving an exaggerated thumb gesture and a good-ol'-boy smile.
The truck flew past, a girl at the wheel.
Red brake lights followed by white reverse lights. Then the little Chevy S-10 hummed backward in a squiggly line.
"Hop in back!" the girl shouted through the sliding rear window.
It was starting to get dark, and from his angle he couldn't get a good look at her. All he could tell was that she had short blond hair and was about his age.
What the hell was she doing? A girl alone, picking up a hitchhiker on the road? Hadn't she ever heard of stranger danger?
He slipped the pack from his shoulders, tossed it into the bed of the truck, and followed. At least she had enough sense not to invite him into the cab.
She tromped down on the gas pedal, tires spinning on gravel as she shot back onto the road. She tossed more words at him through the window and over her shoulder. "Where you going?"
He scooted closer to the opening. "Where do people hang out in this town?" He was so hungry.
"The mall." When he didn't respond, she added, "Or a cafe called Peaches."
"That sounds good."
They picked up speed; he had to shout to be heard above the sound of the wind. "Just drop me off as near as you're going." Maybe he could panhandle for cash, or Dumpster dive for food if he had to. "I feel like I'm in confession."
"What?" She shot him a glance.
"Confession!" he shouted, pointing to the sliding window. She was probably Catholic. He'd probably just offended her.
She laughed, focusing once more on the road. "Well, then—confess!"
If she really knew about him, would she be repulsed? Scared? Feel sorry for him? He could be wrong about her, because people surprised you. She could have as much darkness in her life as he did. Because you couldn't always tell by looking at somebody.
Acting as though he hadn't heard her, he dug into the top section of his pack, pulled out his sweatshirt, put it on, and leaned back, arms crossed.
The tension left his body for the first time in days. He was free. At least for now.
In a short space of time the sun had disappeared completely, and darkness had fallen like a curtain. Strands of his hair whipped about, stinging his face, and he was riding in some girl's truck. Some girl he didn't know, heading to someplace called Peaches.
He tipped back his head and looked up at the stars that were forming above him in the black sky. His heart swelled, and at that moment he was glad the bullet hadn't hit him.
This was what it was about. These moments that crept up on you out of nowhere and whispered mys- terious, unformed promises that made you want to live for something you didn't even know existed.
He was so caught up in the drama of his own thoughts that he didn't come back to land until the truck stopped. Dazed, he looked around and realized they were in town, parallel-parked at a meter.
He gave himself a mental shake, got to his feet, and vaulted from the truck. A door slammed, and the girl came around the tailgate to stand beside him.
He dragged the pack across the bed and hefted it over the side, resting it on the top of one foot. "Thanks for the ride."
She was average height, dressed in black ankle boots and black tights, a black skirt, and a black sweater with tiny white buttons down the front and some kind of pink flowery thing on one shoulder. The flower and her lips provided the only color he could find.
He inhaled something sweet, and dragged his gaze away.
Three feet behind her was a tree, its bare branches laced with tiny white lights. Beyond that was a movie theater with a curved art deco sign, theHandRburned out. He suddenly got the same feeling he'd had seconds earlier when he was looking at the stars.
This is a taste of real life,he thought.This is what real life feels like.
"I'm going to Peaches, too."
Yeah.Maybe he nodded slightly. He wasn't sure.
"They have these great mochas."
Ten minutes ago he'd been starving. Now food seemed trite and irrelevant.
She took a few steps away, then paused to look at him over her shoulder. "Coming?"
He picked up his pack and followed her into a huge two-story house that had been converted into a cafe. Before they reached the door he could smell coffee.
She ordered a large cafe mocha with almond syrup and whipped cream, then looked at him in expectation.
"I'll just have a glass of water."
She eyed him a moment, then turned back to the kid behind the counter and ordered a packaged sandwich from the glass case. While she waited for her order, Graham took his water to an empty table in a dark corner. Peaches had lots of dark corners.
The floors were wooden and scraped down past the stain and varnish, and the ceiling above Graham's head creaked as people moved about in rooms upstairs.
He leaned his pack in the corner and sat down on a yellow wooden chair that wiggled loosely. A CD was playing on the cafe's sound system. Some old Wilco song he couldn't quite place but that was intensely familiar. The music made him feel homesick. Graham wanted to go home, back to Arizona, where he had friends. But that was a bad idea.Shewas there.
It would be best to go someplace where nobody knew him. Not a cold place, since he might have to sleep outside. He should head south. Maybe into the Carolinas. Maybe Georgia even. The ocean. Yeah. He'd never seen the ocean.
The girl plopped down beside him with a tray. The sandwich had been cut in two. She gave him half of it on a small plate. "I can't eat the whole thing," she explained.
He didn't even check to see what it was. He just picked it up and took a bite. Then another.
She dabbled a wooden stirrer in her drink, and scooped up some whipped topping. "My name's Isobel."
"I'm Graham." He glanced around for a napkin, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "You should be more careful," he told her. "You shouldn't pick up strangers."
"I don't. I mean, I've never picked anybody up before."
"You looked like you needed help. Like you were in trouble." Pause. "And that little dance you did closed the deal."
"Yep." Finished with his half of the sandwich, he leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms over his chest. "Just call me Mr. Funny Man."
With both hands she lifted the giant coffee cup to her face. "So, what's your deal? You just move here?"
"Just passing through." How lame. He was spouting dialogue from some old movie.
She asked him the normal questions, like where he was going and where he'd come from. He replied with lies and evasions, which made him feel guilty. He probably didn't need to lie. Nobody was looking for him. Certainly not his mother. Evan Stroud? He wouldn't be trying to find him. And Social Services was always glad when someone was no longer a problem.
The door opened and a guy in a brown sweater and dark jeans stepped inside.
"Uh-oh." Isobel checked her watch. "That's Mr. Alba, my drama teacher," she said in a voice that indicated she'd been caught. "He's normally pretty cool, but he's getting a little bent because the play is in two weeks and nobody's learned their lines."
Graham had had teachers like him. The ones who were young and cool and wanted the kids to like them.
Alba cast a glance around the room. "Isobel," he said as soon as he caught sight of her. "I thought that was your truck outside. You're late. Play practice has already started." After delivering that announcement, he turned to leave, almost running into a tall, thin guy of about twenty-five who was stepping inside. There was a flash of recognition between the men, followed by hello.
"I gotta go." Isobel gathered up her things.
Just a girl. A normal girl with a normal life. Graham pivoted in his chair, dug in a side pocket of his pack, pulled out a CD, and handed it to her. "Here."
She didn't move.
"Take it," he insisted. "For giving me a ride. For the food."
She smiled and took it. "Take care of yourself," she said, without looking at the CD.
She probably didn't like music. She probably wouldn't listen to it. "Thanks."
Then she was gone.
He stared at the door for a long time. Then he looked down and realized she'd pushed her uneaten sandwich and large cafe mocha with almond syrup and whipped cream in front of him.
He ate the rest of the sandwich and drank the cafe mocha. It was so sweet it made his mouth sticky and his head thick and fuzzy. The tall, thin guy had taken a seat in the back. Graham stayed in the dark corner, watching people come and go, trying not to think of the girl, Isobel. Wondering if she'd like the CD he'd given her. Wondering if she'd ever even listen to it. Or ever think about him again.
A group of hard kids came in, dressed mostly in black. A little punk, a little Goth, with heavy, unlaced boots that made a lot of noise when they walked. They had sloppy tattoos, along with weeks of dirt ground into the lines in their skin.
Graham could smell them. It was the kind of sour BO that made your eyes water. They reminded him of some of the faux homeless he knew in Arizona. Kids who came from rich families and liked to play at poverty. Usually you'd find one or two real homeless kids in the mix.
One of them ordered a sandwich and several glasses of water while another raided the tip jar, pocketing several bills. They paid with the stolen money, left a stolen tip; then the entire group went pounding up the wooden steps to whatever was up there.
A few minutes later Graham followed and found them lounging on old couches and chairs, smoking cigarettes and playing checkers.
"Is there a blood bank around here?" Graham asked. "I need to make some quick cash." You usually had to be seventeen, but most places didn't care. They were just glad to get the blood.
The kids looked from one to another, then burst out laughing.
What the hell was wrong with them?
"Not permanent," one of the kids finally said. "Once a week they set up in the VFW hall." He pulled at the scraggly soul patch on his chin, then pointed at Graham. "But, hey, I know a place where you can make some quick bucks. Easier than givin' blood, and it pays better. All you have to do is stand there and let some perv take pictures of you."
The tall, thin guy came up the stairs. His hair was straight and slanted across his forehead. One of the hard kids called him Dan.
"You know cops found a body in the square?" Dan asked. "You hear about that?"
There was a lot of head nodding. A lot of, "Yeah, bummer." "That's sick." "That's too bad."
"Chelsea Gerber," Dan continued in a way that seemed to be more than just passing information.
"Who would dump a body in the middle of the square?" someone asked.
"The cops are thinking somebody really stupid," Dan said. "I think so too."
"Or maybe really smart," Soul Patch said. He pointed at Dan. "You ever think about that?"
"They find any clues?" asked one of the other kids, a tall blond with flame tattoos on his forearms.
Dan glanced at Graham. "You know I can't talk about the crime scene. But they seem pretty sure it's somebody who lives in Tuonela."
"When'd it happen?" Graham heard himself asking.
"Really early this morning. Before daylight."
This morning. Stroud had appeared out of the darkness this morning. "Do you have a lot of murders in Tuonela?" Graham asked.
"A long time ago we used to." Dan finally made direct eye contact with him. "But until recently no-body'd been murdered here in a hundred years."
The van's headlights barely penetrated the heavy woodland as Rachel Burton drove up the twisted road that led to the south side of town. The labored climb always reminded her of a recurring dream, one in which she drove straight up a sharp hill, only to plummet down the other side once she reached the precipice. Even though the dream was cartoony and unrealistic, it never failed to scare the hell out of her. She'd always considered it a metaphor for life's struggles, but she was sure Freud would have had a different interpretation.
The town of Tuonela was divided by deep ravines, shallow creeks, and steep hills. There was often no easy way to get from point A to point B. When glaciers had crept across North America, dipping down into Wisconsin to smooth away the jagged peaks and sharp edges, they'd only skimmed areas of Juneau County.
Rachel hadn't experienced any more visitations, although last night she'd jumped at her own reflection in the window glass, but every time she turned around she braced herself for the unwanted. It never came. Now, almost twenty-four hours later, she was beginning to wonder if she'd imagined it. Deep down, she knew better.
It was just past seven o'clock and already dark. She would be glad when the time changed. She'd never cared for standard time.
The van struggled skyward, the headlight beams shooting at the stars before the vehicle crested the hill to level ground. Here the roads were flat and fanned out to follow deep hollows that led to rows of bungalows built in the twenties.
Rachel hadn't been to this area of town for a while, and she found herself confused by changes like new fences and landscaping, by trees that had grown and trees that were gone. Other things were the same, yet not the same. Kind of like a puzzle put together in a slightly different configuration.
She turned down Benefit Street.
Unlike the other well-lit areas of South Hill, Benefit Street was illuminated with softer bulbs that gave off a bluish hue. She pulled to a stop in front of a dark house, cut the engine, and got out. The ornate metal gate still creaked when she opened it. For a brief moment she half expected to hear a dog bark. But no, Finn was dead and gone.
She was on a quest—a quest for the grave of the Pale Immortal.
Up the walk, up the wooden steps.
Had the doorbell ever been fixed?
In the dark she ran her hand across the molding that surrounded the door, feeling for a button. Just as she found it, words came out of the darkness from the corner of the porch, causing her to jump.
Recognizing the voice even after so many years, she swung around, heart pounding, barely able to make out the undefined shape of Evan Stroud. She heard a creak and realized he was sitting in the porch swing that hung from the ceiling by chains. How many times had she sat there herself?
Aname he'd given her, a name that had come from one of her more volatile childhood phases of unattractive stomping and sullenness.
Their fathers had been cops together, and their mothers had shared after-school child care. There had been a period when they seemed to be together more often than apart. Evan was two years older, and had spent most of the time teasing Rachel, treating her like an annoying kid sister. She'd spent most of it trying to hide a schoolgirl crush. Young love. Crushes were foolish, and yet so devastatingly powerful. There had been a time when she would have died for him.
Then Lydia Yates came along.
Rachel would never know if Lydia's appearance changed the course of both their lives. What would have happened if she hadn't shown up in Tuonela? Would Rachel and Evan have parted anyway? Or would their relationship have blossomed into more? To her young mind, Evan had betrayed her with Lydia. Broken her heart.
The air was damp and cold. A shiver went through her.
"Want to come inside? Have something warm to drink? Some tea?" he asked.
Had he lived in darkness for so long that he could see in it? Had his eyesight compensated?
They went inside.
She shut the door behind her and followed him across the living room to the kitchen, sitting down at the round table as if she'd done it every day for the past seventeen years. In the center of the table was a copy of theTuonela Pressand the front-page color photo of her standing near the coroner's van. The depth of field was amazing. Behind her, just as clear as anything in the foreground, she could see a body wrapped in heavy black plastic being slid into the back of the van.
Evan filled a teapot with water and placed it on the gas stove. He was dressed in jeans and a wrinkled, untucked shirt, the sleeves rolled a couple of turns. The shirt was white with fine gray lines running through it.
It looked as if he cut his own hair, maybe holding up clumps and slashing away with a razor until there was nothing left but a point.
He probably can't go to a barber,she realized with shock. Such a simple thing, but he couldn't do it. So he chopped at his own hair in front of the bathroom mirror.
The kitchen was cast in low light. She couldn't see him clearly, but she detected a weakness in the way he held his body, the way he leaned against the stove with his shoulders slightly hunched. Were those dark circles under his eyes? Or shadows caused by poor lighting?
"I'm sorry about your mom."
She nodded. "I got your card."
"I would have come to the funeral... ." His words trailed off.
She'd seen his name in the visitation book and knew he'd come to the funeral home in the evening. Her mother had never cared much for Evan after the Yates fiasco. Maybe she'd felt betrayed too.
"How's your dad?" she asked.
Evan's dad had had a breakdown and retired early, while Rachel's father went on to become chief of police.
"Loves it in Florida," Evan said. "Golfs every day. Keeps trying to get me to move down there, but I tell him it's too sunny."
"I can see where that would be a problem."
"I like your short hair," he told her.
She touched some strands that barely covered her ears. It was shorter than his hair, but close to the same shade.
"Darker than I remembered," he added.
He placed a mug in front of her and a canister of tea bags. His hand trembled. He saw that she saw, and curled his hand into a fist, then eased himself into the seat opposite her.
"Are you okay?"
"I'm fine." Elbows on the table, he rubbed his forehead, then let out a harsh laugh. "Just a little under the weather. It's my own damn fault. My own stupidity. It'll pass."
Since he was obviously uncomfortable, she steered the conversation away from his health. "I'm surprised your dad left." He was one of the rare few to leave Tuonela.
"He's not sentimental. And I think he needed to get away."
"It's not sentimentality that keeps people here."
"Why are you here?" she asked.
"It's easier to be here. Why did you come back?"
She thought about the life she'd had beyond Wisconsin. She thought about returning home, thought about how her heart had begun to pound when she got within sight of Tuonela. The way it smelled, the haze that enveloped the landscape—it crept into your bones.
"This feels real," she said softly, surprised that she would reveal so much. "I like the sense of belonging. Of familiarity." Or at least, she had until last night.
He must have seen the hesitation in her face. "But you don't want to be here ..." he suggested with a question in his voice. "You wish things were different."
She broke eye contact to draw her finger around a pattern on the tablecloth. "Yes," she whispered. She'd always been able to talk to him. How had she forgotten? Not forgotten, but deliberately locked away. It seemed so foolish now. Childish.
But she'dbeena child. They'd both been children.
She'd never told him about the dead she saw. Nobody but her parents had known about them.
The teapot whistled.
"I'll get it." She rose to her feet. "Stay where you are." She almost touched his shoulder in a reassuring gesture, then stopped herself just before making contact. She crossed to the stove, shut off the flame, and filled their mugs. "Milk? Cream?"
He shook his head, and she sat back down.
He removed a tea bag from the container and unwrapped it. "I have tea sent from England. The new shipment hasn't arrived, and I'm running low, so not much of a selection."
Ordering tea from another country was his way of bringing a little bit of the world to him. She understood that. "What about this?" She picked up an ornate silver tin from the center of the table.
"That's loose tea I found in the back of the cupboard. Something my dad left. I tried it a few times, but it's pretty bad."
She pulled off the lid. It was one of those weird, exotic teas with flowers and herbs and maybe even pieces of dried mushrooms. She took a sniff and recoiled. It didn't smell horrid, just surprising. Earthy and musty. She replaced the lid and handed the container to him. "That isn't something I'd want to drink, but then, I don't know anything about tea."
He stared at the canister. "I was going to throw it away, but I might have to resort to drinking it if I run out."
"Don't get rid of the tin," she said. "The tin is beautiful."
He put it down, then leaned back in his chair. "What are you doing here, Rachel?" His shift made the angle of the light change, accentuating the indentations in his cheeks.
He was sick. He was living some Russian tragedy.
She felt an ache deep inside, and she thought of the seventeen years that had passed since she'd last seen him. Such a long time ...
She was glad she'd come. She would come back again, even though he couldn't possibly help them with the murder case.
"Stop it," he said.
"Stop feeling sorry for me."
Sympathy was replaced by irritation. "This is who I am. When I see someone who is pathetic, I feel sorry for him." Heat raced up her face. She couldn't believe she'd just said that. It was so easy to revert back to bratty, nasty childhood habits.
"I'd better go." She got to her feet, the chair scraping the floor.
"Oh, come on. Don't leave." He grabbed her arm. She could feel every one of his fingertips. "You just got here." He looked up at her, the pale column of his throat exposed. "Stay and entertain me. Drink your tea. Your English tea." He smiled in the most beguiling way.
He let go of her arm.
Should she mention the reason for her visit? But her silence would be sheltering him, treating him as if he were different.
"I see you've been reading about the murder." She sat back down.
His house was so quiet. You could hear the clock ticking. She remembered coming here when she was young, running in, dropping books on the couch, and racing to the refrigerator. Evan's mother would sometimes be baking cookies. His dad would come up out of the basement smelling like hot metal and gun cleaner.
"I've been kinda busy today, but I read a little about it," Evan said.
"We've contacted the Wisconsin Division of Criminal Investigation. They requested a copy of the case file. Also the state police will probably send someone down to ask questions and basically get in the way of any investigating we're able to pull together on our own."
He let out a snort that said he understood her problem.
It was an old story: People who didn't live in Tuonela weren't interested. If anyone did come, they would be nothing more than a pain in the ass.
Rachel's dad was interviewing Tuonela residents, focusing closely on the group calling themselves the Pale Immortals.
Vampire clubs were common in L.A. Most of the people involved were a bit on the geeky side and into harmless role-playing, although some actually drank blood. Tuonela's Pale Immortals were just a bunch of kids, but Seymour was keeping them on his list.
"I thought you might be interested in helping," Rachel said.
Evan frowned, puzzled. "I'm no detective. I can't even leave the house during the day. What's this about?"
"There's more to it than your average homicide. Something that wasn't in the papers." She paused for effect. "The body was drained of blood."
That got his attention. "The Pale Immortal?"
"Same MO. With your background in folklore and knowledge of the Pale Immortal, I thought you might be able to help us."
"You think he's returned?" He smiled. "Risen from the grave?"
"Of course not." She made a face that said his words were ridiculous. At the same time she tried to push aside the fears she'd had last night in the morgue. "Someone might be imitating him So we need all the information we can get."
He held out both hands so she could see how badly he trembled. "I'm weak as a kitten That happens when I'm exposed to sunlight."
"We just need information With the research you've done ... Maybe with enough information we can predict the killer's next move, if he has a next move."
"I'll do what I can." He picked up a pen and began to doodle on the edge of the newspaper.
"In your research, did you come upon any clues to the whereabouts of the Pale Immortal's grave?" She leaned forward, elbows on the table. "Some peo- ple say the body was burned. Others believe it's buried in Old Tuonela."
"Why are you looking for the grave?"
"We figure anybody so obsessed with the Pale Immortal would also be obsessed with finding his grave." Not many clues had been left at the crime scene. Her hope was that they might find clues at the grave of the Pale Immortal. Offerings. Trinkets. Flowers. What did vampire worshipers leave for vampires?
Evan clicked the pen. "Some people think a dummy grave was created in Old Tuonela, and that the real grave is in the corner of a farm field."
That made sense. Years ago dummy graves were commonly used for criminals. Otherwise, families of the victims would dig up the corpse, tear it to shreds, and burn it in order to keep the soul from finding peace.
Evan tossed down the pen. "But my research has led me to believe it's in Old Tuonela. Do you know Jacob Johannsen? He died a few years ago, but he claimed his father dug the grave for the Pale Immortal. And when they were done an oak tree was planted over it."
"Why a tree?"
"To keep the Pale Immortal from rising up."
"I've never heard that."
"Jacob seemed pretty sure it was in Old Tuonela. In the graveyard next to the church, but you know how these stories are. Most of the history I've gathered on Old Tuonela isn't history at all, but tall tales and fabrications."
"Still, it should be looked into."
"Don't go out there by yourself."
By herself? After last night she didn't want to go out there period.
The dark basement with cement-block walls smelled faintly of a sewer and a lot of mold.
This would be over soon.
The camera flashed again, blinding him.
Graham hadn't gotten a good look at the guy—he was pretty sure that was intentional. The man with a digital camera had answered his knock on the unlit basement door wearing some kind of fishing cap pulled down to meet the top of silver aviator glasses with blue lenses.
Kind of the fishing-hat bandit meets the Una-bomber. Pervs were never cool. Pervs never had any sense of style. Not that Graham had known a lot of them, but he watched the news.
The perv had motioned for Graham to follow him down the wooden stairs into a dark hole. Graham had known it was stupid, but he went with only a second of hesitation.
And now Graham stood naked in front of a tripod and camera while the guy snapped away. It should have been awful. It should have been degrading. But it was so weird and stupid that Graham had to stifle the laughter that bubbled in his throat.
Graham complied.I aim to please.
Had Isobel listened to the CD he'd given her? If so, had she liked the Sonic Youth song, "Diamond Sea"? It was a little darker than most of the music he listened to. He tended to lean toward songs that were light and upbeat, passing over music that made him sad and put him in a dark mood. A young heart could take only so much.
He turned again.
Had she liked the line about the kids dressed in dreams? He loved that.Lovedit.
The man stepped away from the camera. "I can't pay you the full hundred dollars."
"What difference do a few scars make?"
"I don't want to see them. They make me uncomfortable. I'm not into any of that sadomasochism shit."
"You said a hundred bucks."
"You said there was nothing wrong with you."
"There isn't. Come on, man. I need the money."
"Okay. Listen. There's one way you can make it up."
"Ever do it with a man before? I'll wear a rubber. I'll make it quick."
It was another one of those this-can't-be-happening moments. Graham had been having a lot of them lately.
Everybody had a line they wouldn't cross. Graham had just reached his. But the scary thing was that he'd actually thought about it for a quarter of a second.
Graham quickly pulled on his jeans. Forget underwear. Sockless feet shoved into unlaced boots. He grabbed the rest of his stuff. "Fuck you."
He ran, leaving with no money.Chapter 8
Rachel tucked the hardback copy ofTerror Twilightunder her arm, pressed the metal security bar, and stepped out of the public library. Like most buildings in Tuonela, the library had been built on a steep hill. Across the street was St. Paul's Church. The steeple appeared to be falling over as the sky pressed down upon it.
Rachel could smell earth and new grass, a scent she associated exclusively with Tuonela, even though she was fairly certain grass grew other places. It was unusually warm for early April, so warm she'd left her coat at home, the sun's rays penetrating the back of her black short-sleeved top.
On the way to the van, she stopped near a tall, moss-covered stone wall, pulled out her cell phone, and keyed in Evan Stroud's number. "I just picked up your new book at the library," she said when he answered.
"You should have told me you wanted one when you were here last night."
"Return it. I'll give you a copy."
"I don't like library books. They've been imprinted with the previous readers. And they smell. Not like paper, but like people. I want my books to be clean."
"I'm sure Mrs. Douglass would love to hear you talking that way about her library books. If I remember correctly, you and I spent a lot of hours at the library. I don't recall you having a dirty book problem then."
"It's a more recent development."
Ah.If he could see better, his sense of smell was probably also more acute.
A teenager came rushing around the corner. He was tall, with curly golden hair, wearing jeans and a long-sleeved black T-shirt. He almost ran into her.
"Sorry," he mumbled, putting up a hand as if to steady her. He made eye contact, then quickly glanced away.
It looked as if he'd been crying.
Rachel watched the boy as he strode down the hill, his movements heavy from a large canvas pack he carried on his back.
"Rachel?" came Evan's voice from the cell phone.
"I gotta go. Talk to you later." She disconnected and hurried down the hill after the kid. "Hey!"
Half a block away, he stopped and turned.
She continued to walk toward him, but more slowly now, because she didn't want her movements to come across as threatening. "Are you okay?"
His mouth opened in alarm. He gave a little launching hop, spun around, and took off, running like hell. At the intersection of Church and Jefferson the light was green, and traffic was coming from both directions. He slowed and took a right, skidding around the corner.
Rachel hurried down the hill, but when she reached the intersection there was no sign of the boy.
Her cell phone rang. She expected Stroud, but it was her dad.
"I made arrangements to meet Phillip Alba at his home near Old Tuonela late this afternoon so I could have a look around the place," he said. "But I've had something come up and I haven't been able to get in touch with him. Would you have time to run out there? Just have a look around. Take Dan with you."
Weakness flooded her arms and legs. Old Tuonela was the last place she wanted to go.
"Rachel? You still there?"
She pulled in a deep breath. "I'm here."
"I lost you for a minute. Did you hear what I said about Alba? He has play practice tonight, so he's making a special trip to meet with me."
"Yeah, I heard. I can do that."
Sure, she could. Going to OT was exactly what she needed to do. A chance to prove that what had happened with Chelsea Gerber's body had been nothing more than an illusion caused by poor lighting, or low blood sugar, or fumes....
She told him good-bye and disconnected. She pulled up her phone book, found Dan's number, and pushed the call button. She got his voice mail and left a message, telling him to call if he wanted to ride to OT with her.
Two hours later, when she hadn't heard back from him, she headed to Old Tuonela by herself. It was probably better this way. If she freaked out, there would be less explaining to do.
Her parents didn't know it, but Rachel had sometimes ridden her bike the five miles to Old Tuonela. A foolish thing for a young girl to do.
She turned off a narrow, unmarked asphalt road to an even narrower gravel drive. Getting there wasn't easy. You had to know the way. If you didn't know Old Tuonela was back there hidden in the hills, you'd never see it. Which was perhaps why the original settlers had chosen that spot.
When she reached a rusty for sale sign, she turned left and headed up a steep rutted lane leading deeper into heavy woodland.
You could feel it before you got there: the change in the air. It became heavy and seemed filled with static electricity. Maybe that was one of the things that had drawn her as a kid.
She drove over a shallow, rocky stream and finally came to a stop in an open, treeless area. In the distance, a dark two-story house stood outside the boundaries of Old Tuonela. This time she was prepared for the fear that overcame her. It didn't surprise her or make her weak, but it fluttered insistently in her belly.
A conditioned reaction, that's what it was. A childhood fear and fascination revisited.
This was where her dad had said to meet Alba. She checked her watch. She was ten minutes late. Had he been here already, gotten tired of waiting, and left? But she hadn't met another vehicle. And there was only one way in.
Rachel got out of the van.
She'd parked downhill from the house, which made the building tower over her. No one knew for sure, but some said the two-story house, made of dark stone chiseled from a quarry that no longer existed, had been built by Richard Manchester, the Pale Immortal. It stood in a cleared area on top of a small knoll. There were a few ragged shrubs near the house, but not a single tree.
Sometimes Rachel agreed with the people who thought Old Tuonela's rotting buildings should be demolished and burned, all trace of its existence wiped out. But others felt the town should remain undisturbed, that something bad might be released unless the place was left alone.
An old fear crept into Rachel's head. What if the ground itself was cursed and imprinted by the evil done there a hundred years ago? What if their ancestors had been right to walk away and not look back?
Phillip Alba's parents were from Chicago. As outsiders, none of them had believed the superstitions that surround Old Tuonela. They bought the OT property and began restoring the main house. When they couldn't stir up interest in their plans to turn OT into a tourist village, they packed up and moved on. Rachel had never met Phillip Alba, but he was the talk of Tuonela.
As a graduate student he'd been involved in a horrendous bus accident. He'd been the only survivor. His girlfriend had died. His best friend had died. A tragic story. His parents told him he could recover in Old Tuonela, finish the restoration, and keep an eye on things in case any buyers showed up.
His parents were idiots. Who would send someone to such a place of a horrors to get over a tragedy?
Damn.There she went again. Believing all the hype and superstition.
Go see for yourself that nothing's there.
Old Tuonela was a scary campfire story, a flashlight under the chin.
Off in the distance, treeless grassland met dark woodland. The woodland was surrounded by a fairly new fence. Rachel climbed the locked gate, her feet landing solidly on the other side.
She looked back toward the van. Still there. She hadn't passed through some invisible barrier, she noted wryly. She began walking in the direction of Old Tuonela, staying between the ruts left by horse-drawn wagons and buggies.
She'd been twelve or thirteen when she'd ridden her bike here. She would lean it against the fence, then slip between the loose strands of barbed wire that had surrounded the place then. One time she'd scratched her back. When her mother asked how it had happened, she'd lied. She'd rarely lied to her mother, but it had been a compulsion, just like riding her bike to Old Tuonela had been a compulsion. Girls on the cusp of puberty did weird things, had strange ideas.
Old Tuonela's pain and loss and tragedy had spoken to her, and she had responded.
The lane opened up.
Suddenly there was the town, or what was left of it. The buildings looked as if they were growing out of the ground. They had sunk over the years, slanted, decaying, shrouded in vegetation. Except for the flour mill at the opposite end of the street, most of the structures were being devoured by moss and creeper vines, the wood beams rotten and mushy. Roofs had caved in, and what was outside had come inside.
Rachel spotted the church with its crumbling bell tower. The stone wall surrounding the adjoining graveyard was only a couple of feet high, and she climbed over easily.
Hidden in the grove of hickory and cottonwoods was a tree that could have been an oak. She knew an oak leaf when she saw one, but this tree hadn't begun to leaf. Dead? Dying? It appeared to be blighted, the trunk dark with sap and crawling with ants.
If there were graves in the graveyard, she saw no evidence of them, no traditional markers. She supposed flat rocks covered by tangled grass and weeds could be lurking underneath. Wooden markers would have disintegrated long ago.
Nothing appeared disturbed. There were no signs that anyone had visited recently. She paid particular attention to the areas around the base of the tree in question. Just grass and weeds. Just earth and stones.
She pulled out her cell phone. Two bars ... three bars ....
She punched in Evan's number, hoping to ask him for suggestions. It rang twice, then went dead. She checked the signal. Nothing. She redialed but it didn't connect, so she dropped the phone back in her pocket.
She heard the drone of bees and the twitter of birds, the faraway trickle of water.
Old Tuonela made the hair on your arms move It was a place where an incredibly evil man had butchered children and drunk their blood.
But sometimes, like today, the town didn't seem so bad It could almost appear peaceful.
Darkness was falling.
She clicked the green light on her watch dial. She'd been there over an hour.
A faint sound came from inside the crumbling stone church. Almost like a voice. Or a whisper.
Rachel froze. Her scalp tingled The air around her suddenly seemed thick and close and smothering.
Instead she moved slowly toward the church. Weeds brushed the legs of her jeans, and the soles of her sneakers made ashh-shh-shhsound against the flagstones.
She shoved her shoulder against the church door, managing to get it partly open.
The interior was black, with vague outlines that looked like pews. A rectangular room with plaster walls and a woodstove.
What was that across the room?
She was lying in something made of metal. A zinc tub.
Victoria had long, beautiful hair. Victoria was of another age.
Slowly the woman stood.
Rachel heard water splashing. But it wasn't water Somehow she knew it wasn't water. Victoria reached for Rachel with one hand—just as Victoria had reached for her in the morgue, in a sorrowful, imploring, helpless gesture.
She wanted Rachel to come inside the church.
This was why she should have stayed in California. The dead didn't appear to her in California.
Victoria was still calling.
Don't do it.
Don't go in there
Turn and leave. Act like you don't see her.
Now that she was in motion, now that her body had finally responded, she ran like hell. Her feet flew over the ground, and somehow she didn't trip. Branches slashed her arms and face, but she didn't care.
She wasn't in great condition, and her lungs quickly became raw, her breathing loud. Still she hurtled herself forward into the darkness.
A shape appeared directly in front of her.
She veered to the right. Hands grabbed her.
A male voice.
Hands holding her arms.
"Hey, hey, hey! What's going on? Why are you running? I'm sorry I scared you. You just came plowing into me."
It took her a moment to realize this was a real person.
"Are you Rachel?" he asked. "I'm Phillip. Sorry I'm late. I got hung up at school."
The presence of another person had an immediate calming effect on her.
He put an arm around her shoulders, guiding her, and they began to walk from the woods toward the gate, which she could see was ajar. "Old Tuonela was built on a fault line," Phillip said, in what seemed a poor attempt to distract her. "Did you know that? Did you know that we could have a bigger earthquake here than anything San Francisco has ever seen?"
"I try not to think about it."
They had reached her van.
"You scratched your face." He wiped a thumb across her cheek, then showed her the blood. His car was next to hers, running, parking lights on.
He was one of those intense artist types. Probably raised by a nanny in a suburb of Chicago. Not that Rachel held it against him, but she suspected that kind of upbringing created another form of alienation.
She could easily imagine him as a college student, writing obscure poetry and attending open-mike night. He would have worn a black turtleneck and horn-rimmed glasses. Very serious. Very mysterious.
His hair was shaggy and longish, which added to the Dylan Thomas quality. People in Tuonela spoke highly of Phillip Alba. They thought he was doing a great job with the children and the plays.
"Did you see something in there?" he asked.
He watched her closely. "I don't know. Why were you running?"
"I just got spooked, that's all."
"What were you looking for?"
"A grave." Bit by bit she pulled herself together.
"What kind of grave?"
"The grave of the Pale Immortal. Have you heard any rumors? About it being somewhere in OT?"
He shook his head. "Nothing other than the possibility. But I was also told he was buried somewhere else."
"I've heard that too. Probably right. If you see any signs of anybody snooping around, call Chief Burton."
"Will do. But I get the idea you were looking for something specific. Were you?"
Normally she wouldn't have been so free with information. But she was still shaken, and she felt that they now had a bond. He'd rescued her. "Some people think he was buried under an oak tree in the church graveyard."
"The tree was planted over his grave. To hold him down. To keep him from rising."
"Oh." Phillip nodded and smiled. The kind of smile outsiders smiled, because she was talking silly stuff. Outsiders didn't believe the Tuonela myths. Hell,shedidn't believe the myths.
"Did you find it?" he asked. "The grave?" He was joking with her.
"No. I think I found an oak tree, but no grave."
"Would you like to come inside a minute?" He jabbed a thumb toward the house.
She was about to say yes when a pair of headlights appeared in the lane. Rachel recognized Dan's car. He pulled to a stop, cut the engine, and jumped out.
"Hey." He looked from Rachel to Alba, then back to Rachel. "Sorry. I just got your message."
"Why didn't you call me?" she asked. "You could have saved yourself a trip."
Dan ran a hand through his hair, elbow high, one hand at his waist. "I don't know."
"I'm just getting ready to leave. I'm sorry you drove up here for nothing."
At that moment another set of headlights appeared, the twin beams vanishing and reappearing, bobbing with the rough terrain.
"Jeez," Alba said under his breath. Apparently he wasn't used to so much company.
As Rachel watched, the vehicle topped the last rise and pulled up behind her van. The door opened and Evan Stroud stepped out. He wore a dark, unbuttoned coat. "I saw you tried to call me. I had the feeling you might be out here." He hovered near the car, then slowly moved in her direction, as if he were unwilling to step far from his vehicle. "Is everything okay?" He glanced toward the woods and the heart of Old Tuonela, then quickly back. "Is that blood?" He pointed to Rachel's face.
She put a hand to her cheek. "I ran into a branch."
Now that Evan was there, Alba didn't seem nearly as interesting. She felt bad about that. Even the woman in the zinc tub had taken a backseat. Her visions were like that. Once they were gone, they never seemed real, like something she'd watched on TV when she was almost asleep. She didn't know what caused them, but they came from her. They couldn't be real. How could she—a coroner, a medical examiner—believe otherwise?
Evan's cell phone rang, but he ignored it. Her cell phone rang and she noted she had a strong signal this time. It was her dad. "If you see Evan," Seymour said, "tell him we have the kid."
"The kid claiming to be his son."
That was the last thing she'd expected to hear. "I'll let him know." She disconnected. "I really have to get going," she told Alba.
His son. Evan's son. What was that all about?
Rachel remembered the boy she'd seen that morning outside the library. He'd been crying, and he'd looked different. You could usually tell when somebody wasn't from Tuonela. There was nothing to put your finger on; it was primal, the way animals from the same litter knew one another and could sniff out strangers.
"Are you Evan Stroud?" Alba asked.
Rachel had assumed they knew each other. She found it strange that they'd never met, considering Evan had written a book about Old Tuonela. Alba extended his hand and introduced himself.
"That was my dad on the phone," Rachel said. "He wanted me to tell you they have your son at the police station."
That produced a long silence.
"You mean the kidclaimingto be my son," Evan finally said. "Big difference." But he moved toward his car as if the kid meant more to him than he was willing to admit.
They all slid into their vehicles. In a caravan, they headed in the direction of Tuonela, away from the land of the dead.Chapter 9
The jail cell was tiny, with a toilet and sink right there in the open so anybody could watch. That was probably so you didn't try to hang yourself in secret.
The cell actually had a window—probably because the entire building was old. The barred window was so high that Graham couldn't see out, even though he'd jumped several times. The cement-block walls were full of writing. How did people write stuff? You had to have a pen to write. Nobody let Graham have anything. No wonder that guy—de Sade—wrote stuff with his own poop. It was all he had.
Graham had been there only three hours, but he was about to lose it.
He hadn't done anything. He'd been hanging out in the square, but it was more of a park. What was illegal about that? A public park.
The cop who'd pulled up said it wasn't allowed, then asked for ID. Loitering and unattended juvenile was what they got him on. How lame was that?
One of the cops who'd been in on the arrest appeared outside the barred cell. He was young and kind of shy. "Need anything?" he asked. "Water? Something to eat?"
Graham shook his head. They weren't supposed to be nice to him. He didn't want them to be nice. Were they up to something? "What day is it?"
"No, I mean the date. What's the date?"
Graham's birthday was tomorrow.
The young cop left, then reappeared a half hour later. He unlocked the cell door and held it open. "Chief Burton wants to see you in his office."
Was this a good sign or a bad sign?
Chief Burton was old and thin, and reminded Graham of somebody's grandfather. He wore a gray suit that matched his gray hair. The thin fabric hung from his sharp shoulders. He reeked of cigarette smoke and fried food. In an office with wood-paneled walls and no windows, he motioned for Graham to take a seat on the opposite side of his desk. He smiled, and Graham relaxed. A little.
"So ..." Grandpa pulled out a metal lighter, lit a cigarette, shut the lighter with a loud snap, then leaned back in his chair. "I hear you've been in a little trouble."
"I didn't know there was anything wrong with hanging out in a park."
"There are several things wrong with that. You were sleeping. We don't allow sleeping and loitering in the park."
"How do you not loiter in a park?" Should he have been selling hot dogs or something? "Can't somebody take a snooze in the park?"
"Let me put it this way. You can take a nap—but you can't settle in for the night. Doesn't matter." He waved his words away. "You're underage. Fifteen-year-olds can't live alone."
"I'm sixteen." Almost.
"Sixteen-year-olds can't live alone either. That . makes you an unattended juvenile. Another concern: Someone was murdered in that park, not far from where you were sleeping, just two days ago. And since perpetrators often return to the scene of the crime, you chose a particularly bad place to set up camp."
He paused to take several deep puffs from his cigarette, then tucked it into a large glass ashtray. "If I had a grandson your age, I wouldn't want him in the park. We're lookin' out for you, Graham."
"Ummm. Okay." The room was small, and Graham's eyes were burning from the cigarette smoke.
The chief stubbed out his butt, then started hacking away.
Why don't you just quit smoking?Graham wanted to say.You're telling me I'm stupid for sleeping in the park when you're killing yourself?
When the guy finally stopped coughing, he acted as if nothing had happened. "Unless youarethe perpetrator." He leaned back in his chair. "You hit town the same night the murder took place."
"What?" Graham's heart began to pound. "What does that have to do with anything?"
"Maybe nothing." Burton shrugged.
"You think Ikilled somebody?"That was insane! He'd thought his life couldn't get any more screwed up, but apparently he was wrong.
"Personally, I don't think you killed anybody, but that's not to say you aren't a suspect. Your badly timed arrival makes you suspicious."
"But I was at Evan Stroud's. Ask him."
"We did. He told us the approximate time you showed up on his porch. Hours after the murder took place. Where were you before you went to Stroud's? Do you have an alibi?"
"I was in a car. We were driving to Tuonela. Me and my mom."
"Unfortunately we can't find her. We have no proof of what you're telling me."
Did that mean he was going back to jail? He couldn't do that. Maybe this guy was just messing with him. Trying to scare him into confessing, if he had anything to confess.
"Here's what I'd like you to do," Burton said. "Since we can't find your mother, we've made temporary living arrangements for you until we can locate her."
Social Services. But not jail.
"During that time, which hopefully won't be long, you have to go to school. We can't have you piddling around all day, doing nothing."
"Good." Burton smiled.
They both got to their feet.
The old guy put an arm around his shoulders, giving him an encouraging pat. "No matter how bad things seem, they always work out."
Someone had left Graham's pack in the hallway. He picked it up, and the chief walked him to the door. Outside, a car was parked at the bottom of the wide marble steps. Next to the vehicle, dressed in a long coat topped off with dark glasses, even though it was night, stood Evan Stroud.
Graham's stomach did a flip-flop.
"Go on." The old guy gave him a gentle shove.
There was nowhere to run. He was at the police station, for dog shit's sake. If he took off, they'd have him in a second. They'd put him back in jail, where he'd soon be writing his name in stinky letters.
Like a robot, he moved jerkily down the steps toward Stroud.
"Here's the deal," Stroud said once they were in the car driving away. "You can stay at my place while we get things figured out. I'll take DNA samples and send them to a lab so you can see that I'm not your father. So you can have some closure."
"You don't have to do this." Graham didn't want to stay where he wasn't wanted. He had pride.
"It's all right. I want to help, but I can't monitor you. I can't follow you around and make sure you're going where you should be going. Tuonela is small, and everybody knows everybody's business. If you ditch school, I'll find out."
Graham didn't know if it really was okay. He was exhausted. The only sleep he'd gotten was the one night/day he'd spent at Stroud's. And the deal about the DNA, maybe that was a good thing. Maybe Stroud would believe him once and for all. Maybe the guy would step forward and take some responsibility.Chapter 10
Graham sat at the table studying Stroud. When he turned around, Graham quickly looked down, watching as the guy slid two fried eggs from the spatula to the plate in front of him. Next came toast and orange juice.
Stroud took a seat. "Gotta have a good breakfast before you go to school."
Would a vampire say something about a good breakfast? Would a vampire even/z'x breakfast?
Graham picked up his fork. Keeping his chin low, he glanced through the hair that curled across his forehead. Stroud looked pretty normal except for being so pale.
Graham took a bite. Then another. And suddenly he was embarrassed by his own stupid thoughts.
The old guy from the police station picked him up.
They hadn't even given him a chance to get some decent sleep. Stroud had driven him to his place, where Graham got what seemed like five minutes before Stroud was standing over his bed, waking him, telling him the chief would be there soon to take him to school.
Maybe it was some kind of strategy to break him down with sleep deprivation.
Move along, son. Just move along Nothing to think about here.
The car was old and big and kind of floated over the streets, the chief leaning back in his seat and steering with one finger. The ashtray was overflowing with butts. He must have put out a cigarette before Graham got in, because it was still hazy inside.
It took maybe five minutes to get to school. It was close enough that Graham could have walked, but they wanted to keep an eye on him. They wanted to make sure he didn't take a detour to Arizona along the way.
The boat of a car docked at the curb. A wide sidewalk led past a flagpole, up a set of steps to double doors.
Graham's stomach lurched.
He was sick of being the new kid. His mother never stayed in one place for more than a year at a time. He didn't even know how it felt not to be new, not to always be on the outside, not to be defined by being from somewhere else.
The building was brick. Sprawling, with a flat roof. Classes must have already started, because nobody was around.
The chief hacked away, holding a fist to his mouth. When he was done, he said, "They're expecting you." He talked fast and breathlessly, as if wanting to get the words out before his next coughing spell. Graham's mother smoked, so he knew all about the morning coughing fits smokers had. "I talked to Principal Bonner this morning and explained the situation. She said she'd have everything ready when we got here. Want me to come in with you? I can."
"No." Graham opened the door and slid across the seat. "I can handle it."
"I've made arrangements for my daughter to pick you up. Right here, at exactly three fifteen. She'll be driving a white van You'll be here, won't you, Graham?"
Ordinarily he would have said yes while silently saying no. But he liked this old guy. Why'd he have to be so nice?
"Yeah. I'll be here."
"Good." The old guy smiled and gave him a wave. "Take a right once you step inside."
He didn't pull away Instead he waited for Graham to walk up the sidewalk, past the flag, and through the double doors.
The school smelled of books and bodies and whatever they used to clean the floors; it made Graham's stomach drop again.
The old guy had been right: They were waiting for him in the office. A secretary greeted him with a tight, phony smile that meant she'd been there too many years and now hated every kid ever born, but was trying to hide it because deep down she knew it was wrong to hate so indiscriminately.
She gave him his schedule. She gave him a map. She gave him his locker combination and lunch tickets.
"Who paid for this?" Graham asked.
'Bout fucking time.
"Your first class is English, with Mr. Richards. Room 102. Down the hall and take a left."
Graham took the printed schedule and looked at it. What was he doing here? "Thanks."
"On second thought, I'd better come with you." She left the safety of the counter, and side by side they walked down the hallway.
Strips of kraft paper had been taped to the walls and were covered with handwriting from colored Magic Markers. It wasn't until they passed a locker with a cluster of flowers and stuffed animals on the floor that he realized the display was a tribute to the dead girl.
They stopped in front of room 102. It was probably a good thing the secretary had come along. At this point he would have taken off.
She reached around him and opened the door. "Go on."
He stepped inside the doorway and halted. She followed. "I have a new student for you, Mr. Richards."
A million eyes turned to stare.
The teacher was in the front of the room, one leg dangling over the corner of his desk. "Take any empty seat."
Everything was a blur of embarrassment and self-consciousness. Graham hated being the new kid. Fuckinghatedit.
Frantic, he spotted an empty seat and shot straight for it, quickly sitting down. The kid in front of him gave him a half smile and slid back around. A sound of mass movement—and the class was once again facing forward.
Graham sat there and waited for his heart to quit pounding.
It took a long time.
He had no idea what the teacher was talking about. He didn't care, but vaguely came to attention when the man showed up beside him. Just as suddenly a book appeared on his desk.
Why did schoolbooks always smell like puke? Could anybody explain that? Was it because someone had puked in them? Or was it the ink? The paper? Or did he just associate it with puke? He'd never been able to figure that out, and anytime he ever mentioned it, nobody seemed to have the answer.
Something soft hit him in the back of the head, and a crumpled piece of paper landed on the floor. He ignored it. Another one hit him. He slid around in his seat, ready to throw somebody the finger, when he spotted Isobel sitting in the back of the class. She gave him a little wave, pointed to him, pointed to the floor, then lifted both hands, palms up, in the pantomime question of,What the hell areyou doing here?
But she was smiling. Looking kind of happy and surprised at the same time.
He smiled back and shrugged his shoulders.Beatsme. Just fell out of the sky
Someone cleared his throat—a sound meant to get Graham's attention. It took him a second to realize the teacher, Mr. Richards, was politely trying to get him to turn back around and listen.
Didn't want to chew out the new kid.
Graham faced front, but spent the rest of class intensely aware of Isobel sitting several seats behind him.
She was waiting for him in the hall after the bell rang. "What are you doing here?" She was dressed in another black skirt, pink tights, and a pink sweater. Her hair had a couple of yellow plastic bar-rettes in it that almost went with the messenger bag over her shoulder.
Standing next to her, he remembered he was wearing the clothes he'd slept in last night. He hadn't taken a shower; he wasn't even sure when he'd last brushed his teeth.
That self-awareness was like a rug being pulled out from under him. It was hard enough talking to a cute girl when you didn't stink.
He looked down at the floor. "It would take a long time to explain." His words sounded curt and impatient, as if she bored him and he wanted to get away. He hadn't meant to sound like that.
"Oh." Her smile faded and she took a step back. From her expression it was obvious she was trying to figure out what had just happened. "Okay."
He turned to see the hard kids from Peaches lumbering toward him. Travis, the one with the soul patch, who'd told him about the pervert, held out his hand. Graham reached to shake and Travis smacked his palm. Graham hated that shit. "What are you doin' here, man?" Travis asked.
"Decided to stick around for a while."
"Cool. You should come with us after school."
"Then later. Tonight."
"Ah ..." Graham looked over his shoulder. Iso-bel was gone. He spotted her in the distance, her blond hair standing out in the mob of kids moving down the hall, away from him. "I don't have any money." It was true, and better than having to admit he couldn't leave the house.
"You don't need money," Travis said. "We cruise looking for shit to do, or we just hang out at Peaches."
Today was Graham's birthday. A guy should be able to do what he wanted to on his birthday.
Rachel pulled her van to the curb across from Tuonela High School and cut the engine. It wasn't the same high school she and Evan had attended. This was the "new" school, having been built ten years ago.
Kids poured through the double doors, and she kept her eyes open for someone with curly blond hair. Tall. Kinda lanky, her dad had said. And kind of a smart-ass.
Pretty soon she spotted a kid with wildly curly hair striding toward the van. He looked a little lost as he eyed her vehicle. With a jolt of recognition, she realized hewasthe boy she'd seen downtown near the library.
She waved through the windshield.
He crossed in front of the van to climb in the passenger door. "He said a white van. He failed to mention that it would say 'County Medical Examiner' on the side."
She pulled away from the curb. "My dad likes to keep people guessing."
The smart-ass was nervous, long, thin fingers tapping against a spiral notebook. But he was trying to appear calm, cool, bored.
She gave him a quick glance. Her dad was right: He didn't look like Evan. Nothing that stood out, anyway. He was almost pretty, with that head of hair, clear skin, nice cheekbones. Like an angel. But then, Lydia had been so beautiful people had stopped to stare at her on the street.
"Are you the medical examiner?" Graham asked. "Or do you just work for him?"
Not only was she female, but she'd never dressed the part of medical examiner, preferring jeans and T-shirts. "I'm him."
"So, you do autopsies?"
What about his voice? Was it anything like Evan's? Graham's voice was deep and young, with a little bit of a drawl and a slow delivery that were indicative of the South. But he didn't have what she'd call a Southern accent.
"I'm the coronerandthe medical examiner," she told him.
He nodded. "That's cool."
Kids were into blood and guts now. Not like when she was in high school, when girls fainted over dissected frogs. She'd always suspected the fainting was an act, put on for the sake of the boys, who loved it.
Graham looked over his shoulder. "And you carry the bodies around in here?"
"It's notnearlyas glamorous as it seems."
What would Evan do if Graham ended up being his child? What then? When he'd denied his existence his entire life? "How was school?"
It didn't escape her that she'd been dropped into the version of the life she'd daydreamed of having with Evan years ago—sans the death mobile and vampire lifestyle.
"It's a school." He shrugged. "They're all the same."
"Do you need anything before we head to Evan's?"
He thought a moment. "I'm kinda hungry."
She hadn't been talking about food; she'd been talking about school supplies. "How about stopping at a cafe?" She could use a cup of coffee. It occurred to her that he was stalling, that maybe he wasn't looking forward to seeing Evan.
She braked for a red light and took the opportunity to inspect her passenger again. He might have been beautiful, but he also looked delicate, as if he needed a week of good meals and decent sleep. His eyes beneath the curls had dark circles under them.
How did it feel to be thrown away? Passed off to a stranger? And what if Evan wasn't his father? That might be the bigger question here. What would happen to this child?
She spotted a poster on a nearby wooden electrical pole. A missing poster with a photo of a young woman. Rachel made a right turn and pulled to the curb to get a closer look.
Karen Franklin. Twenty-six years old. Rachel vaguely remembered hearing about the girl's disappearance on the news. Last seen at a bar in a town about a hundred miles north of Tuonela She'd been missing for three weeks.
Any similarity between this missing-persons case and Chelsea Gerber's murder? Not really, other than the fact that both victims were female. Still, she'd run it past her dad. He was waiting on lab results, and seemed to be putting too much faith in DNA. Understandable. He wasn't used to dealing with homicides, and she hated to tell him that DNA evidence wasn't all it was portrayed to be on television. Some people, even law professionals, were under the impression that DNA could solve anything.
And if DNA was found in the samples from the Gerber case? Then what? Collect DNA from every person in town? It had been done before in smaller communities. You couldn't force people to participate, but peer pressure was a big factor in a place like Tuonela.
Her dad needed to look into this. Make sure his suspects hadn't been in Summit Lake, Wisconsin, on the date the woman vanished.
Evan slipped on a pair of dark glasses. With one finger he parted the heavy living room drapes a crack. They should have been here by now. School had let out twenty minutes ago.
He dropped the curtain and regarded the portable phone in his hand. Should he call Rachel? See if everything was okay?
Wait a little longer. Maybe Graham had to talk to a teacher or the principal. Maybe there was a traffic jam at the school.
The portable phone rang. He jumped and answered it.
"We stopped to get something to eat," Rachel said. "We'll be there in fifteen minutes."
Evan crossed the room to the kitchen table and picked up the DNA paternity test kits Rachel's father had dropped off earlier. "I've got plans for him once he gets back."
He heard a lot of background noise. Music. People talking. The sound of dishes. He imagined them sitting at a table in some sunny window.
"Fifteen minutes," she repeated before hanging up.
They made it with time to spare. Evan was impressed.
Graham came bursting in, smelling like coffee and chocolate and onions. When you lived in isolation, your nose became sensitive to such things in much the same way cigarette smoke became obvious once bans were put in place. Olfactories sorted out the unfamiliar and ignored the rest.
Graham closed the door and tossed a stack of books on an overstuffed chair. That was followed by the sound of Rachel's van pulling away. Evan experienced a brief moment of disappointment. He'd hoped she'd come in. But he and Graham had things to do.
"Chief Burton dropped off the DNA test kits," Evan said.
"How long does it take to get the results?"
"Five to ten days."
Okay. Evan knew this was going to be weird. He'd been mentally preparing for it all day. But now that the time had come, it was even weirder than he'd expected. And awkward as hell.
But this was the best way. He couldn't come right out and tell Graham that yes, he'd had sex with his mother. Once. And they'd used a rubber. At least twenty other guys in town had also had sex with her. He seriously doubted they'd all used condoms.
She'd been a nymphomaniac.
You didn't tell a kid that either.
The results were going to be tough. Apparently Graham had thought of Evan as his father his entire life. Now what little order that false knowledge had brought him was going to be destroyed. But at least he would know the truth.
"Start by rinsing your mouth," Evan said. "You don't want any food particles in the sample. Then you have to rub the swab between the gum and cheek, fairly roughly, but it shouldn't hurt Back and forth. I'll set the timer for twenty seconds."
Graham rinsed and spit in the sink. Evan handed the packet to Graham, and picked up the other one for himself. Simultaneously they tore open the packets and pulled out the swabs.
With his free hand Evan set the stove timer.
Standing facing each other, the two men stuck the swabs in their mouths and began rubbing vigorously back and forth.
Twenty seconds was a long time when you were doing something like taking a DNA sample Evan had the urge to turn away, give himself some privacy, but he needed to watch and make sure Graham took the sample correctly.
The bell finally rang.
They both removed the swab.
"Wave it in the air." Evan demonstrated. "Let it dry a little."
They stuck the swabs in the individually supplied packets, sealing the ends.
They did a second test. Evan had come up with the idea of a backup test in case Graham didn't believe the results Two negatives couldn't be disputed. He would send the kid off with no doubts.
After finishing the second packet, they attached the labels. Everything was boxed and ready to mail. "FedEx will pick it up in the morning," Evan said.
"I'd like to go somewhere tonight," Graham announced. "Do something."
"You mean, like, to a movie?" Evan asked, surprised but intrigued by the idea. "We could do that." He could slip past what ultraviolet lighting they might have in the lobby. God, he hadn't been to a movie in years.
"No, I mean by myself. Well, not exactly. I want to meet with a study group. Downtown at Peaches."
Evan thought about the gun incident. He couldn't quit thinking about the gun incident. The image of Graham pressing the weapon to his temple, his eyes squeezed tightly shut, would probably remain eternally etched in Evan's brain.
"We haven't been monitoring you closely all day just to turn you loose tonight. I'm responsible for you right now. How do I know you won't run away again?"
"I took off before because you called Social Services. And today . .. well, who wants to go to school? This is different. And why would I leave now? Don't you think I want to stick around to see your face when you get those back?" He motioned to the packages on the table.
Good point. "If you wait until after dark, I can give you a ride."Chapter 11
Travis jabbed the shovel in the soft mound of dirt and looked at the sky. "It's getting dark. It gets dark here so fast. How does that happen? It's like it sneaks up on you."
Craig Johnson stood there watching like he was the goddamn king or something. "I don't care how it happens; I just want to finish and get the hell out of this place."
They were in the Old Tuonela graveyard, digging under a rotten oak tree.
"Maybe if you'd help dig it wouldn't take so long."
"Hey, I only had one shovel. How can we both dig with one shovel? And I did most of the digging when we dug him up. The ground was a lot harder then. My hands bled. You're just repotting him."
Travis wanted to point out that they'd dug him up in broad daylight too. None of this spooky nighttime shit. "Why don't we dump him somewhere?" He took a shovelful of dirt and tossed it angrily aside. "Why do we need to do this?"
"He wants him put back where we got him. Come on. Hurry up. Have you hit the coffin yet?"
"It's too dark to see. Get a flashlight."
"I don't have one."
Travis tossed down the shovel. "Fuck this shit."
"He wants him buried tonight."
"You do it then I'm not your bitch. Or his. Why can't he do it?"
"You think he's going to get his hands dirty? Come on. Why don't you just admit you're freaked about being out here after dark?"
"And you aren't?"
"You're supposed to be a Pale Immortal. How can you be scared? Of this place? You should feel at home here. I don't think you're serious about this. I think it's just a game to you."
Travis had liked it better when it was just them. Just their gang. "If I wasn't serious, I wouldn't be standing here in the middle of fucking Old Tuonela digging around in a damn graveyard."
Brandon, who'd been leaning against the open trunk of the car drinking vodka from a bottle and keeping tabs on the body, suddenly became alert. "What's that? You see that? Those lights?"
"Lights?" Travis straightened. "You're drunk. You better hope to hell you saved some of that for me. I bought it."
"In the air. Over that ravine. See them? Two of them Green. Don't you see 'em?"
"Yeah." Johnson took a few steps toward the car. "Floating around."
"Coming this way?" Brandon's voice sounded like a girl's. Travis would laugh his ass off about that later.
"Are they coming this way? Shit! Ghost lights. That's what they are. My uncle told me about 'em. He saw some around here once. Ghost lights."
Travis tossed the shovel in the trunk with the corpse. Brandon slammed down the lid. They piled into the car. Johnson fired up the engine and threw the vehicle in reverse. They shot backward, bouncing over rough ground to finally fly through the open gate.
"Stop!" Travis shouted. "We have to lock up."
The car pitched to a sharp halt. Travis jumped out, closed and locked the gate, dove back into the car.
Were the lights coming? He pounded the dash. "Go! Go!"
They hauled ass, tires spinning.
"We still have the body," Brandon said, out of breath. "He wanted him reburied tonight."
"We'll do it tomorrow." Travis looked over his shoulder. "We'll come back tomorrow and do it in the daylight. Nobody'll ever know."
Graham took a shower and put on clean clothes. He brushed his teeth. In his makeshift room he lay down on the bed thinking to just close his eyes for a few minutes ...
When he woke up it was dark.
He fumbled around, turned on a light, and was relieved when the clock read a little after seven p.m. Stroud was sitting on the couch in the living room with his laptop.
Graham knew he was a writer. He'd even looked up some of his books at the library. Graham wasn't much of a reader. The required reading ofLord of the FliesandBeowulf hadpretty much done him in. Then again, maybe Stroud wasn't writing. Maybe he was a message board junkie. Or an eBay junkie. Placing bids on a Jesus pierogi. Or a nun bun.
Stroud gave him a ride downtown. "Do you have any money?" he asked, parking at the curb near Peaches.
Graham shook his head.
Stroud produced a ten-dollar bill and handed it to him.
"Thanks." What was he thanking him for? The guy had gotten off easy. He'd never paid a cent during sixteen years. "I can get a ride back."
Stroud reached into the pocket of his long wool coat and pulled out a cell phone. "Take this and call me if you need a ride. And remember, curfew on weeknights is ten thirty. And it's enforced."
Graham grabbed the phone and almost thanked him again before he caught himself. "I'll watch the clock."
Inside Peaches, the music was loud and pulsing. Portishead. He hadn't heard Portishead in a long time.
He quickly scanned the room, looking for a girl with blond hair. No sign of Isobel. He ordered hot tea. "And one of those things." He pointed through the glass case at some kind of cake. It could be his birthday cake.
"Apple Betty?" the girl behind the counter asked.
Betty?He looked a little harder. "Do you have anything with frosting?"
She craned her neck, then popped back up. "A cookie."
"Give me that Betty thing, I guess."
After paying, he took his order upstairs. That's where he found the hard kids, hanging out in the same place as before.
"Hey, how'd things go with the perv?" Travis asked, coming over to see what Graham had on his plate. His fingernails were painted black, and he was wearing eyeliner. His black hair fell in chunks around a face that was not really fat, but kinda puffy. More like a kid's face than a teenager's.
Travis had been filthy before, but now he had actual soil on his shirt and pants.
Travis broke off a piece of the cake and shoved it in his mouth. The two other guys behind him weren't paying any attention. One of them was asleep; the tall, skinny guy with short bleached hair had his back to them and was talking on a cell phone. His jeans were heavy with dirt.
"Not very well," Graham said. "He wanted to screw me."
A spray of cake shot out of Travis's mouth, followed by coughing and choking.
"Did you know about that?" Graham asked with accusation. "Did you know that was part of the deal?"
"Hey, man." Travis held up his hands. "I didn't know he was into that stuff. Swear to God. Well, I figured he was, but never heard about it being part of his little hobby. I've known a few guys who've gone there. None of them ever said anything about it." He put a fist to his mouth, his shoulders shaking. He was laughing now. He smelled like alcohol.
"Thanks." Graham walked over to a chair and plopped down.
Travis followed. "Dude, I'm sorry. I didn't know."
Graham picked up the heavy fork.
"Did you do it?" Travis asked His eyes were bloodshot, and Graham realized he was drunk. "Did you let him fuck you?"
"Hell, no. I left without getting paid."
"Bummer. That's a real bummer. You should do something about that."
"Like what? Go to the cops?"
Travis laughed again, elbows bent, wrists slack. "Can you imagine? Going to the cops and saying, 'Hey, some old fart stiffed me out of my pay for nude shots.'"
Like he wasn't in enough trouble already.
"We should go over to his place and threaten him," Travis said. "Maybe rough him up a little."
"I don't do that kind of thing."
"He owes you money. When you go underground like that, you have to live by a different set of rules. The things out here don't apply."
"My own rules still apply. I don't beat up old farts, even if they're pervs."
"That's the best place to start," Travis insisted. "Who better to beat the shit out of?"
Why had he come here? To Peaches?
It hadn't been to see Travis and his buddies. Graham had been fooling himself with that excuse. He'd really come hoping to run into Isobel Hoping to make up for the disaster in the hallway. Maybe even tell her it was his birthday ...
"Here." He shoved the plate of apple crapple into Travis's hand, put his tea on a nearby table, and left.
His boots pounded on the wooden stairs; then he burst out the front door Nobody around. A couple of cars rolled down the street.
With his hands jammed into the pockets of his black sweatshirt, he walked, head down.
Happy fucking birthday to me.
He wasn't proud of his self-pity, but sometimes it felt good to feel sorry for yourself He walked with long strides, not looking up, finally finding himself in the square where he'd been arrested the other night.
He ran for the cover of a huge evergreen tree with branches that swept to the ground Once inside their shadows, he paused in the darkness and caught his breath As he stood there, something beyond the tree caught his eye. A flicker of light.
He parted the branches.
Far away was a cluster of small, shifting lights. Curious, he slipped from his cover and slowly approached the lights until he was near enough to recognize them as candles. Maybe fifty of them, some in glass, some just wedged in the dirt, the flames flickering wildly.
Behind the candles were stuffed animals and bouquets of dead flowers. A necklace. A letter jacket. In the center of it all was a photo of a pretty blond girl.
His heart did a swan dive.
It was the girl who'd been murdered. Then he realized this was probably the spot where her body had been found, and his heart took another dive. He'd heard kids talking about it at school, about how her body had been completely drained of blood.
Some even said Stroud had done it.
He stared at the picture. It was an eight-by-ten glossy. The kind kids had taken for graduation. She stared back at him, all perfect, with white teeth. She was the kind of girl who was prom queen, who dated the star football player. Lame shit, as far as he was concerned. But she didn't deserve to die.
Several candles had blown out. Someone had left a book of matches on the ground. He dropped to one knee, grabbed the matchbook, struck a match, and lit the candles.
Were you supposed to say a prayer?
He'd been to church a few times with friends, but he didn't know much about religion or praying.
Good luck?That was all he could come up with? Kinda late for luck.Have a nice trip. Sorry you're dead.
Where did people go when they died?
He stared at the photo of the girl for so long that it suddenly seemed to change slightly. It almost seemed that her eyes were really looking at him, seeing him. And the smile... The smile was so personal and real, directed at him. He caught himself responding with a smile of his own.
He jumped to his feet. He tossed the matchbook to the ground, turned, and walked away. Was he losing his mind? Did a person losing his mind know it? Maybe not. Probably not. So thinking about it meant you weren't crazy.
A car approached from behind, the sound barely penetrating his consciousness. Then he gradually became aware of a vehicle intentionally keeping pace with him, hanging back slightly.
He'd been warned about walking around at night. Whoever killed that girl hadn't been caught. His leg muscles tightened as he prepared to launch himself into a mad run.
Graham swung around to see Travis hanging out the passenger window of a small green car. "Come on. Cops'll kick your ass if they find you out past curfew. Get in. We'll give you a ride."
Graham jumped in the backseat.
Someone was sitting in the dark corner opposite Graham. He didn't say anything, and Graham figured he was high or asleep.
"We have a few minutes," the driver—the tall kid with the bleached hair—said.
What was his name? Had Travis called him Johnson?
They headed away from downtown. Several blocks and stop signs later they turned into a park that sat high on the bluff overlooking the river.
"Swing around where that stone wall is," Travis said.
The driver, who may or may not have been Johnson, stomped down on the gas, and they flew around the corner, skidding to a stop near a wall. The two bailed out. Graham stayed where he was.
Travis and the driver opened the back door, pulled the guy out of the backseat, and dragged him in front of the headlights.
Graham let out a gasp.
The thing they were wresting didn't look human It was some kind of mummified mess dressed in an old-fashioned suit. Travis and his friend were laughing their asses off. They were drunk or high or both.
Where had they gotten it? Was it real? Or was it some Halloween decoration? Yeah, that's probably what it was. Had to be.
"Look." The tall, skinny guy started humping the body like a dog would hump someone's leg. "Humpin' the mummy," the tall kid said. "Humpin' the mummy."
They both crumpled into a fit of giggles Inside the car, Graham let out his own burst of laughter.
A minute later, laughing so hard they could hardly walk or talk, Travis and the tall kid dragged the body to the wall. With one on each end, they began swinging it, each swing getting wider as they prepared to toss it.
"Wait," the tall kid said, breathless with laughter. "I have an idea. Put him on the wall. Yeah. Like that. Now turn him on his side. Yeah." Giggling, they worked until they had him positioned just right, then stepped back to admire their handiwork.
"Oh, my God," they wheezed in unison, hands to their mouths.
Car lights appeared behind them. "Oh, shit!" They ran for the car, dove in, and pulled away. "Get the hell out of here!" Travis said, laughter bubbling behind his words.
The cell phone rang; Graham almost jumped out of his skin.
"It's ten thirty," Stroud said when Graham answered. "Are you still at the coffee shop? I'll come and pick you up."
"That's okay." Graham spoke rapidly. "I've got a ride. I'll be right there." He disconnected and leaned back in the seat, his heart beating fast.
Five minutes later they were pulling up in front of Stroud's house.
Graham had had enough of Travis and his pals for one night. Maybe for more than one night He got out, slammed the door, and they peeled away.
Inside the house, Graham found Stroud sprawled on the couch, hands behind his head, wearing tinted glasses while he watched TV. Near the door was a pair of muddy leather boots—evidence that he'd been out.
Stroud paused the picture and tossed down the remote. "Have a good time?"
That called up an immediate mental image of the dead corpse Travis and his buddy had been dragging around like some toy. His mind moved backward, to the town square and the candles and the picture of the murdered girl, to Peaches and no Isobel. "Yeah. No. It was okay." He dropped into a big stuffed chair across from the couch, and his gaze automatically went to the TV screen. He wished he hadn't gone out at all. "What are you watching?"
"A documentary. But we can watch something else. Look in the cupboard over there. I don't haveLord of the RingsorHarry Potter,though. NoBatmanor anything like that."
What the hell did he have then? Graham wasn't really interested in a movie, but now he was curious to see what Stroud spent his time watching. And it kinda pissed him off that Stroud would immediately think he wouldn't want to watch something that was real. Okay, he had to admit a lot of that shit was boring, but some of it was pretty good.
He went to the cupboard and opened the set of double doors. Shelves full of DVDs. Some old movies likeHarold and Maude. Midnight Cowboy. TheGodfather.But most of them were documentaries andNational Geographictravel-type things. Ireland. Scotland. Germany. France. Cities in the States like New Orleans and New York.
And then it hit him. Stroud couldn't go to any of those places. He wouldnevergo to any of those places.
Graham had never really thought of the restrictions Stroud's disease placed on him. He just imagined Stroud roaming around at night. Staying out of the sun. Slathering on sunblock and wearing long-sleeved shirts. But this was it. This was his world. Where it started and where it ended, with not a lot in between. He traveled in his head. He sat on the couch in his living room while the world came to him.
Graham felt kinda sick. He wasn't sure why. Maybe because he'd been clinging to hatred of his father for so long. He'd imagined him having this great life without the responsibility of a kid. But his life was just as fucked up as Graham's. Maybe more.
At least most people could fool themselves into thinking something good was coming around the corner. Stroud couldn't do that. This was it. This house. The couch. The television. His Internet connection. Graham was standing in the center of Stroud's world.
Graham shut the cupboard. "What're you watching?"
"A documentary made for British television. It follows the lives of a group of people, reconnecting with them every seven years."
"I think I heard about that."
"This is 7Plus Seven,the second in the series, but I can start it over if you want to see it."
"Nah, that's okay. I'll watch from here." He grabbed a pillow from the chair and stretched out in the middle of the area rug.
"I'd like to see the first one again anyway." Stroud ejected the DVD, popped in another, and sat back down on the couch. "It's kind of sad." After issuing that warning, he pointed the remote at the player and started the DVD.
Graham curled the pillow under his chin. "Like real life."
A half hour ago he wouldn't have guessed the night would end like this, with the two of them watching TV together. And that it would feel so un-weird. That it would feel normal and right. Not the boring kind of normal and right: the good kind.Chapter 12
The ringing phone woke her. Rachel checked the readout on her portable handset. Her dad, calling from his cell phone. She gave him a groggy hello.
"A corpse has been found in the park," he told her.
Pressing a hand into the mattress, she scooted up in bed. "Female? Same MO?"
"Well... not exactly sure about either of those things, but from the way the body is dressed, you'd assume it's a man."
Only once had she seen a body so mutilated that they had to wait until the autopsy to determine the sex. "That bad?"
"Come and see for yourself. I told the officers on patrol not to touch anything until you get there. We're at City Park. Lover's Leap."
It was still dark when Rachel pulled to the edge of the steep brick lane with a hairpin curve and a stone wall at the bottom. But morning wasn't far off, which meant they would soon have adequate light. No need to bring in any generators.
She spotted her father's ancient green Cadillac—a gas-guzzling monstrosity, but he wouldn't part with it. Two white patrol cars were angled, their high beams meeting to best illuminate the body on the wall. She cut the van's engine and grabbed her evidence-collection kit.
Outside the van, her ears picked up the murmur of low conversation from a group of huddled officers. The air was damp, the bricks under her soles wet with morning dew. As she approached she smelled coffee. Someone had brought a thermos and was filling a mug. She spotted her dad in his gray fedora. He was off by himself, his back to the crowd, talking on his cell phone. She caught his eye; he gave her a quick wave and smile, then went back to his conversation.
One of the police officers spotted her. "Morning, Dr. Burton." They shuffled backward and parted, giving her a good view of the victim. Everybody was watching her, waiting for a reaction.
What the... ?
Someone stuck a flashlight in her hand. Without taking her eyes from the display, she moved forward.
The body had been carefully arranged. It was lying on its side, head resting against a palm, elbow down. The legs were crossed in what was meant to be a casual pose. Or possibly sexy. It was wearing a cap advertising one of the local gas stations. A few straggly clumps of hair. Dressed in a dark suit.
Now she understood why her dad had told her the sex and MO couldn't be determined. The victim appeared to be a partially mummified corpse.
The clothing was very old. Shredded and rotten and crumbling.
"Is it real?" the cop with the thermos asked. "They can make things that look real. When I first saw it, I thought it was something someone maybe bought online. Don't think any stores around here would sell that kind of thing."
"Come on," another officer said. "You mean you haven't seen the mummies they sell at Grant's Gas and Go?"
Everybody got a chuckle out of that.
The mood was light, a little electric. Certainly none of the somberness that had accompanied the Chelsea Gerber murder. This was probably a sick prank. A prank that was also a felony.
Rachel bent at the waist so her face was a foot from the corpse. "I'm pretty sure it's real. Or rather, pretty sure it was a living, breathing person at one time."
She straightened. "Let's treat this like any other crime."
The scene had already been somewhat compromised, since the area hadn't been effectively cordoned off, and care hadn't been taken in keeping police from walking over possible clues.
Her dismay must have shown on her face; suddenly one of the young policemen nudged his fellow officer, then pulled him back. Everyone else did the same.
Until the other night they'd never had to put into practice the lessons they'd been taught. And now, in all the excitement, they'd forgotten it all.
"I've had extra patrol on duty," Rachel's father said, coming up behind her.
"Anybody see anything suspicious?"
"Been pretty quiet. Nothing that stood out." He struggled to control a cough, reached inside his jacket, pulled out a nonfilter cigarette, and lit it. She managed to keep her mouth shut. Normally he didn't smoke in front of her, but he probably figured she'd find a fit of coughing even more disturbing.
She took a large number of digital photos, then almost as many more with her thirty-five-millimeter camera.
Dan showed up, skidding to a stop beside her. "Got here as fast as I could," he said breathlessly. He wore jeans, tennis shoes, and a brown jacket.
She gave him a couple of minutes to meet their new friend; then he was off to the van to return with a white sheet and plastic body bag. He spread the sheet on the ground, butting it up against the stone wall. They both snapped on latex gloves.
"I'll get the head," Rachel said.
She put her hands under the shoulders. Dan grabbed the ankles. They lifted.
She looked up to see Dan holding a shoe in his hand. It took her a moment to realize that the shoe had a mummified foot in it, with a jagged piece of brown bone sticking out.
They placed the body on the sheet. Dan made a feeble attempt to reattach the foot; the shoe and bone fell over. He tried again. Same thing, so he gave up.
Behind them someone let out a loud snort. That was all it took for everyone to burst into laughter.
Glancing up at Rachel, Dan finally placed the shoe and foot next to the body. "Sorry," he muttered.
They wrapped the body in the sheet so there would be no chance of losing anything between the crime scene and lab. The body was then placed inside the plastic body bag, zipped, and sealed with a chain-of-custody tag.
Rachel wanted to get out of there before the local paper got wind of the discovery. TheTuonela Pressdealt mainly with church bazaars, high school sports, and the occasional spotting of a riverboat passing through town on the Wisconsin River, but editor Bonnie Stark had been hoping for a big-break story for the last twenty years. With Chelsea's death she'd gotten it, and this discovery would further excite her.
Rachel and Dan placed the cadaver on a gurney, then slid the collapsed gurney into the back of the van and slammed shut the double doors.
"Stay here and finish collecting the evidence," she told Dan.
"How're you gonna get him out?"
"I'll manage by myself or find somebody to help."
At the coroner's office, Rachel dragged the gurney from the back of the van, locking the legs in place. If the body hadn't been so dehydrated, she wouldn't have been able to manage by herself, but it didn't weigh much more than a small child.
She wheeled the gurney through the street-level doors, down a dark hallway to the elevator. In the basement she went directly to the autopsy suite, where she suited up and began the exam.
After unzipping the body bag, she parked the gurney beside the exam table, locked the wheels, then used the edges of the sheet to drag the body onto the stainless-steel table.
She opened the sheet with care, then got out her digital camera and began taking full shots and close-ups, focusing on the details of the clothing. Vintage, maybe early twentieth century.
The body had been dressed in a topcoat. Under that were a waistcoat and a white cotton shirt tucked into black wool trousers. Over the shirt, a pair of suspenders and a white silk scarf with a small design or insignia on it.
She took a Q-tip and wiped the surface of the shoe Dan had dropped. Patent leather. Didn't see that much anymore.
The pockets were empty.
She cut the pants away and unbuttoned the wool waistcoat.
White cotton tank top and briefs that stopped at the knee.
She cut through the underwear; the fabric crumbled under the scissors.
The body belonged to a male.
The clothing would have to be sent to a specialist to prove authenticity, but Rachel was ninety percent sure she was looking at the real thing.
She cut the cotton undershirt, then carefully pulled aside the two sections of cloth.
The chest cavity had been opened at one time, either from an injury or an autopsy.
She brought the swing-arm light closer and picked up a magnifying glass. Leaning over the leathery corpse, she examined what had once been an outer layer of skin.
The edges were ragged, like torn paper. Some of the damage appeared to be fairly recent, the inner layer of skin lighter than the outer. But there was also evidence of old damage—areas of torn flesh and a broken rib cage from some long-ago trauma.
And the cavity where the heart should have been? Hollow.Chapter 13
Rachel rang the doorbell, waited a few beats, then knocked. She heard something fall, then footsteps. The door flew open and Evan's voice came out of the darkness.
"Come on in."
She stepped inside and closed the door behind her. It was like entering a movie theater. She couldn't see a thing, and had to wait for her eyes to adjust.
A lamp clicked on, then another. Evan straightened, rubbing his head. He wore a white T-shirt and a pair of striped cotton pajama bottoms slung low on his hips. On his feet were black socks.
"I woke you."
He probably slept during the day. Her father had taken Graham to school, and she'd thought it would be a good time to talk to Evan.
"That's okay." His voice was sleep-slurred, and he seemed disoriented as he stood eyeing the rumpled couch where he must have been lying before she rang the bell. He bent and picked up a book from the floor, placing it on the end table. "I need caffeine."
Evan was already on his way to the adjoining kitchen. Without looking back, he pointed toward an overstuffed chair.Have a seat.
She ignored his direction and followed him to the kitchen, putting her leather briefcase on a chair.
He filled a teakettle with water, and she went to the shelf where she'd seen Evan retrieve the coffee cups last time she'd been there. She grabbed two mugs and placed them on the table, then searched for tea in the cupboard next to the refrigerator. She found the ornate silver tin, opened it, and gave it a shake. "I see you haven't dumped this out yet."
Evan took the tin from her and replaced the lid. "Emergency rations." He put the container back in the cupboard and produced two tea bags from a small red box. "Haven't gotten my shipment from England yet."
"You know, I'll bet they have tea at the grocery store in Tuonela."
He smiled, unruffled by her teasing. "I'm not a tea snob." He paused to reconsider his words. "Well, maybe I am."
"There are worse things."
The kettle whistled. He turned off the flame, poured the steaming water, and sat down across from her.
"I came here to let you know another body was found, this time at City Park."
He looked up sharply. "Jesus."
While waiting for the tea to steep, she unzipped her leather briefcase and pulled out a digital print she'd made before leaving the office. "This body."
She passed the eight-by-ten to him. The photo was one she'd taken before the autopsy, when the corpse was still dressed.
Evan studied the image. "At least we know he wasn't knocked off last night while out for his evening stroll."
"The heart was missing," she told him. "Normally I wouldn't think a missing heart so strange. Organs aren't always buried with the body, especially in cases of homicide or suspicious death."
"But. . ." He urged her to continue.
"The body is old. How old, I don't know. And while most of the damage to the chest cavity occurred years ago, some appeared fairly new."
Lost in thought, Evan got up from the table. He started to walk away, then seemed to remember his manners. "Back in a second." She heard him banging around in a room on the other side of the wall. Returning, he opened a manila folder, took out three yellowed newspaper clippings, and spread them on the table in front of her.
The articles described separate cases dealing with people who had dug up corpses they claimed were vampires in order to make and drink a protective broth made from the heart.
"Kinda like an inoculation, I guess." Rachel passed the newspaper back.
"It makes no difference if you believe the Bram Stoker version of Dracula," Evan said. "Vlad the Im-paler existed. Countess Elizabeth Bathory existed. They drank blood. They bathed in it. Some people believe in vampires. And one way to keep yourself safe from a vampire is to drink a broth made from his heart."
"But where is the vampire?Whois the vampire? Who are they protecting themselves against? You? The Pale Immortals? Whoever killed Chelsea Gerber?"
"Hey, I'm just tossing out ideas here. I guess I'd rather be considered a vampire than your run-of-the-mill crazy." He slipped the clippings back into the folder. "Here's another thought. The heart of a vampire is sometimes removed and eaten in order to gain power."
"You mean by another vampire?"
"Or someone who fancies himself a vampire. I read about it in a book published in Romania in the eighteen hundreds. Some people also believe it will bring about immortality, or at least superhuman strength." He picked up the eight-by-ten Rachel had handed him earlier. "Do you have any more photos? Any close-ups?"
"I always take too many shots, but too many is better than too few." She dug into her case again, pulled out her folder, and passed it to him.
He let the folder fall open on the table and quickly glanced through the photos.
"What are you looking for?"
"This." He lifted out a five-by-seven and turned it around. A close-up of the white silk scarf. "See the insignia?"
He was talking about an embroidered design sewn with black and red thread on the edge of the fabric. "I thought that might be important. It almost looks like some kind of crest."
"Exactly." He seemed excited.
"Do you know what it is or who it might belong to?"
"No, but I'm fairly certain I've seen it before."
He shoved his chair back and got to his feet. "C'mon." He stuck the photos back in the folder, closed it, and tucked it under his arm. She double-checked to make sure she had her cell phone and pager, then followed him down the hallway to a large door stained a shade of deep brown. The varnish was thick and cracked, the doorknob glass.
An antique photo on the wall stopped her dead.
A woman lying in a zinc tub, one arm draped over the edge, her fingers trailing to the floor. She had long dark hair, some clipped on top of her head, some flowing and rippling around her shoulders. Behind her were two large narrow windows. Except for the tub and woman, the room was empty.
Rachel put a hand to her throat. "Where did you get this?"
"From an estate sale."
"An estate sale around here?"
"Lyndale's. Judge Lyndale was quite a collector. I'm not sure where the photo came from originally, or who the woman is. Nobody seemed to know its history, but I would guess it was taken somewhere in Juneau County in the early eighteen hundreds. Most of the judge's stuff was from the immediate area. Have you seen it before?"
"I don't think so," she answered vaguely, strug- gling to pull herself together. She was used to telling white lies.
"Maybe she's a relative of yours," Evan suggested.
He shoved the door open with his shoulder. "It's just a woman taking a bath. Probably considered pretty racy for its time." He moved aside, and Rachel slipped past him, glad to leave the photo behind.
The space was one huge library in need of a librarian. It was part of the original house, with the same heavy woodwork and built-ins. The walls were painted a dark green that contrasted with orange sconces. An ornate cut-glass light hung from the center of the room. There were no windows.
"I didn't even know this room existed," she said. "I remember the door, but I always thought it was a closet." It was weird how you got certain things in your head when you were a kid, and it was hard to make your brain accept reality when you'd lived with a false notion for so long.
"My dad always hung out in here," Evan said. "He was interested in Old Tuonela before I was. He used to lock himself up for hours, going through articles and photos. It didn't look like this back then. I've accumulated so much ...stuff."He cast a glance around the room, then shook his head as if overwhelmed.
That must have been the time when people said his dad had gone a little bonkers from dealing with Evan's illness. Rachel was glad he was okay now. "Have you ever thought about having someone come in to organize everything for you?"
"All the time, but I don't want to have to deal with somebody being in my house, and I'm also afraid I would never find anything again."
She could understand both of those concerns. She liked privacy, and didn't want somebody constantly around.
He plunged into the clutter. "I'm looking for a box of old newspaper articles, photos, and silver emulsion glass-plate negatives that were published by theCounty Quillin the eighteen hundreds. I bought the stuff when theQuillclosed down and they auctioned everything. Someday I hope to get them cataloged with matching prints and negatives."
She cast a dismayed glance around the room at the stacks of books and magazines and newspapers. Most of the floor was covered, with only twisting paths leading through the dusty, leaning towers of chaos.
"Do you have any idea what the box looks like?"
He tossed the folder on top of a stack and surveyed the place. "I think it was gray. Or brown. About this size." He made a shape with his hands.
Fifteen by twelve?
Eight inches? "Okay." She moved forward, taking a long step to maneuver around several piles of newspapers. "One time in L.A. I was sent to a house where an elderly woman had died." She stopped and considered her path options in much the way of a mountain climber. "She was a hoarder, and had ac- cumulated so much trash over the course of her life that we had to crawl over it with only about three feet between the top of the garbage and the ceiling."
"I'm not a hoarder. I'm acollector.This isn't trash; it's history."
"I'm just sayin'."
"That I'd better watch out?"
"Something like that."
"Hey, this could be it." Using both hands he pulled out a box. He would have made a lousy Jenga player. The stack collapsed, but he didn't seem to notice. He blew off the dust, wiped the box top with his arm, and set the lid aside. "Here we go." He glanced up, smiling. "Walked right to it. If somebody came here and organized this place, I would never have found it."
Sadly, he was probably right.
He found what he was looking for: a photograph of a man from the turn of the century, black-and-white, the edges curled. He handed it to her. "Look at the scarf."
The image was small, but it was the same embroidery as on the dried-up corpse's scarf.
"On the sale brochure, this was listed as a photo of the Pale Immortal," he said.
"How can you be sure it's him?"
"I can't. Not completely." He began searching the room again, this time heading straight for shelves that went from floor to ceiling, quickly pulling out a thick book. Bracing it against a stack on the floor, he lifted the leather-bound tome, finally settling on a page. "Manchester."
Rachel made her way to his side.
"It's the Manchester family crest," he said when she was near enough to see the black and red image.
It was identical to the design on the shriveled corpse's scarf.
They'd found the Pale Immortal. Only someone else had found him first.Chapter 14
Graham stepped out of the school counselor's office.
What a waste of an hour. She'd spent a lot of time asking him if there was anything he wanted to talk about. When he kept saying no, she started on more direct questions, like how he felt about death and dying. And finally, "Do you still have thoughts about killing yourself?"
Who didn't? Who the hell didn't? Of course he said no.
"Are you a danger to yourself?" she probed.
He'd answered no to that question too, and he supposed it was the truth. Because right now he was in a holding pattern, waiting to see what would happen. You didn't think about killing yourself when you were waiting for your life to start. When you were thinking it might actually happen.
But don't hope,he warned himself. Hoping got you into trouble. You had to be prepared for the worst, then if the worst came it wasn't so bad. And if the worst didn't come, it was even better. It was like Christmas.
This is temporary. It will be gone soon, so don't start thinking this is your new life.
He went to his locker, dumped his books, and was heading for the cafeteria when he spotted Iso-bel through the huge windows that were really a glass wall around a courtyard. Kind of like the outdoor area in a prison, except this one had trees and landscaping. Isobel sat on a bench, head bent, concentrating on something in her hands. A few other kids were milling around not far away, talking and laughing.
Graham slipped through a heavy door, stopping a few feet from Isobel, hands in the front pockets of his jeans.
Click, click, click.
"Are you crocheting?" He used to know somebody who crocheted.
She glanced up, squinting against the sun. When she saw it was him, she immediately looked back down. "Knitting." She looped a piece of lime green yarn around a pink metal needle, then slid the top needle free.
Click, click, click.
The sound was hypnotic.
"The counselor's lame, isn't she?" Isobel said.
He plopped down on brown grass that was just beginning to show signs of turning green. He could smell the ground, and the sun felt good on his back. "You've been to her?"
"Twice. That was enough for me." She shrugged. "It was like Psych 101. Everybody falls into either this slot or that one."
He wanted to tell her he was sorry about the other day and the weird way he'd acted, but how did you bring up something like that? "Why were you seeing her?"
"My mom and stepdad are musicians. They travel all the time, so I get dumped on relatives and friends. Right now they're in Prague. Anyway, when I started school here last fall, they thought I should see a counselor to help me adjust."
"So who are you staying with now?"
"My cousin. She was away at college, but got mono and broke up with a boyfriend she'd had for four years, so she's living at our place, on the outskirts of town. They thought we'd be company for each other. Right. She doesn't leave the house. She just stays in bed all day, watching television, sleeping, or talking on the phone."
Here he'd thought Isobel probably had an apple-pie normal life.
"Are they in a band? Your folks?"
"Orchestra. It's kinda famous, ya know. It's called the Overland Symphony Orchestra."
He'd never heard of them, but he didn't know anything about that kind of music. He wanted to ask if she'd listened to the CD he'd given her, but didn't want to put her on the spot. And didn't want to know if she hadn't. Or if she'd hated it.
She resumed her knitting.
"What are you making?"
He nodded. "Cool."
"Sometimes I make stocking caps, but I usually make scarves."
He watched for a little longer. He liked the sound and the movement and the color. "Could you—" He stopped.
"What?" She paused and looked up.
He squirmed inside, and wished he'd never started the question. But now he plunged forward. "Could you maybe teach me how to knit?"
"You're kidding, right?"
"So you can start a knitting club with Travis and that bunch?" she asked with a snort of sarcasm.
"I'm done with those guys. No, I just think knitting seems kinda cool. I'd like to try it."
Gripping the needles, she dropped both hands in her lap. Today she was wearing a black-and-white skirt and a black sweater with black knee boots. "Get some yarn and needles," she told him, "and I'll teach you. But don't buy little needles. You want something that will go fast to begin with; otherwise you'll get sick of it."
He smiled, leaned back on his elbows, and closed his eyes. Here was another of those moments. Those good moments. . . .
The bell rang and he realized he'd missed lunch.
His next class was biology. It went pretty fast, even though his stomach was growling and he was thirsty. After that was American history, another class he had with Isobel.
He sat a few desks behind her and to the right. Ten minutes into class the instructor set up the projector and turned out the lights so they could watch a film. Something about the Civil War.
The film was boring as hell. Graham had always suspected teachers showed those things so they could go into their little back offices and tinker around. Maybe play video games or pay bills.
The boredom was interrupted by the loudspeaker announcing an immediate assembly. The students were herded down the hall to the gym, where Principal Bonner stood at a microphone. She was a small woman who obviously liked red clothes and big gold jewelry. She hardly ever smiled, because being a principal was serious shit. And being a small woman who was also a principal was even more serious shit.
Graham and Isobel climbed to the top of the bleachers. From that vantage point, Graham spotted Chief Burton and Phillip Alba near the double doors.
"I know you've all had to deal with the loss of classmate Chelsea Gerber," the principal said. "So it comes with great regret that I must bring you more disquieting news." She drew in a breath. "Another serious crime has been committed in Tuonela. Early this morning a body was found in the park."
People looked at one another, fear in their faces. Some girls began to cry.
Bonner held up a hand for silence. "Fortunately we didn't lose one of our own, but I'll let Chief Burton give you the details."
Burton crossed the gym and took the microphone. "The body found in City Park was most likely an incident of grave robbery."
That brought another gasp. Isobel looked at Graham, her eyes big. He glanced down at his shoes, then scanned the gym, spotting the Pale Immortals sitting in a row on the bottom bleachers, quiet and well behaved. Not far away, their backs to the wall, stood a group of teachers, their faces solemn.
"We think this latest case was perpetrated by someone with a sick sense of humor," Burton said. "Probably a prank—a cruel one, coming on the heels of the recent tragedy and heinous crime. We also feel it was done by kids. Maybe somebody at this very school. And kids like to brag. We want you to keep your eyes and ears open. If you hear anything suspicious, report it to Principal Bonner, to a teacher, to your parents, to the police."
He let his gaze pan the crowd from the top of the bleachers to the bottom. "We're here for you. We want you to be safe. We don't want anyone else hurt. Toward that end, we've put together phone numbers and safety guidelines for you to follow when you aren't at school. These will be passed out at the door as you leave the gym."
Some of the students glanced over their shoulders at Graham.
"What are they looking at me for?" he whispered to Isobel.
She leaned closer. "Because of your dad."
They thought Stroud had done it?Oh, wow.
But if Graham didn't know any better, he'd probably be thinking the same thing.Chapter 15
Evan opened his laptop and clicked on the e-mail icon, his eyes quickly scanning the screen for important messages.
One was from the DNA lab.
His stomach dropped.
That was fast.
With labs springing up all over the country, it didn't take long to get results back, especially if the DNA wasn't related to a crime. Still, he was surprised to see the e-mail show up only seventy-two hours after he'd overnighted the samples.
His heart was hammering. He knew what the results would be. Now Graham would have proof. What would that do to him? To finally know that Evan wasn't his father?
He would be home from school in another hour. Should Evan tell him right away, or should he wait for the hard copy to arrive in the mail? That might be better, but Evan didn't like the idea of keeping the results a secret even for a few days. Graham had had enough secrets kept from him.
Evan took another deep breath—and opened the e-mail.
Test results: Match.
Evan read it again.
There had to be a mistake.
He grabbed the portable phone and dialed the lab's number. It took five minutes to get through to a real person, but it seemed like hours. Evan explained the situation, giving the woman on the other end his test number. "There has to be a mistake," he told her. "The samples had to have gotten mixed up."
"We test everything two times," she said patiently. She probably got a lot of calls like this. Irate fathers who were trying to get out of a paternity suit.
"Our test results are ninety-nine-point-eight percent accurate."
"Then I've somehow fallen into that two-tenths of one percent."
He suddenly remembered the second set of samples. In all of the confusion, he'd forgotten about it.Whew.At the time he'd thought he was being overly precautious. "You should have received another set of samples," he told the woman on the phone. "The processing number would have been one off."
"Hmm. I'll have to check on that and get back to you."
His laptop announced a new message.
From the Wisconsin DNA lab. He opened it. One word jumped out at him.
He stared at the screen.
How could that be?How the fucking hell... ?
Staring at the wall, he lifted the receiver to his ear. "Thanks. I found what I was looking for." He disconnected.
In a daze he put the computer aside and got to his feet. His legs felt weak. Two seconds later he dropped back down on the couch.
How had this happened? Logically he knew girls could get pregnant even when a guy used protection. But when he wasn't the only guy, and it had been only once ...
Lydia couldn't have really known he was the father. Her choosing the right guy must have been a coincidence. She'd just picked someone. He'd been a sperm donor. An accidental sperm donor, because he doubted she'd planned to get pregnant.
In his mind he saw Graham putting the pistol to his head, closing his eyes, and pulling the trigger. It was an image that had haunted Evan, but now it took on a whole new meaning.
How responsible was he for the despair that dwelled in Graham's young heart? But Evan himself had been a kid. Shortly before Lydia and her mother left town, he'd gotten sick. He'd put Lydia and what most people decided was a fraudulent pregnancy from his mind, not giving them another thought until Graham showed up at his door.
Evan couldn't absorb it. He simply couldn't absorb it.
Or make sense of it.
He had to move. He had to walk. Run. Get out of the house. He was suffocating.
He opened the front door; bright sunlight poured in. He slammed the door shut and pressed the fingers of both hands to his eyelids.
Over time he'd found ways to deal with his condition. He'd always been able to talk himself out of the panic that sometimes washed over him.
He paced back and forth, then strode to the library and searched through a large built-in bookcase until he finally found what he was looking for: bourbon.
He pulled off the stopper and sniffed the liquid, then took a swallow from the cut-glass decanter. Warmth slid down his throat to settle in his belly. He waited while that same warmth seeped into his bloodstream. He raised the container once more, paused, then slowly lowered it and put the stopper back in place. Bad idea. Graham would be home soon. He had to think about Graham and what he was going to say to him. What he said could resonate for years. For a lifetime. He had to get the words right.
Beyond the turmoil in his head he heard the front door slam. He returned the bourbon to the cupboard and left the library to find Graham standing in the middle of the living room.
He was staring at the laptop screen.
Finally he looked up. "It says 'match.'" He swallowed. "That means you're my father, right? Isn't that what it means?"
So much for easing him in gently. "Yeah."
"You really didn't know, did you?"
The length of half a room separated them, but Graham was picking up on Evan's bafflement.
"I thought you were trying to ditch responsibility, but you didn't even know."
Evan saw that Graham couldn't figure out how something like that could happen. Evan couldn't figure it out either. He was going to have to go from not having a son to talking to his son about sex. It was a big jump.
"Don't you know how babies are made?" Graham tossed his books on the couch. "I can explain it to you if you need some details."
Why, the kid was enjoying this! He was enjoying watching Evan squirm.
"Should we start with the male and female anatomy?"
"I can't go into this very deeply," Evan said. You didn't tell a kid his mother was a slut and had slept with half the guys in town.
"That's okay," Graham said. "I know what she was like when I was growing up. I can guess what she was like before I was born."
A perceptive kid. It made things easier.
Evan stared at Graham, remembering how he'd taken note of his light, curly hair and angular face.He can't be my son,he'd thought that first day. And now,He is my son.
Suddenly overcome with some emotion he'd never before experienced, Evan strode across the room, wrapped his arms around Graham, and hugged him.
Graham shoved him away and took three steps back. "What are you doing? Why are you hugging me? That's so hypocritical."
"How does hugging you make me a hypocrite?"
"You wouldn't have hugged me yesterday. When you didn't think I was your kid."
"That doesn't make me a hypocrite. I don't go around hugging people. If you brought over a friend, I wouldn't walk up and hug him."
Graham laughed sarcastically. "No, I guess not. And even if you'd known you were having a kid, would you have done anything differently? Really?"
Evan didn't know. "I wasn't much older than you are now. Think about that."
That got Graham's attention. He looked a little startled.
"This isn't going to be easy, but we'll get through it. We'll figure it out."
"So . .. what now?"
"I think you should continue to see the school counselor. Maybe twice a week if possible. At least for a while. I'll call and see what we can arrange. Maybe once a week we can both meet with her."
"No, I mean, whatnow?Am I staying?"
"No matter what happens, you'll always have a home here."
"No matter what happens? What will happen?"
"We have to find your mother. Legally she still has custody."
"But I'm sixteen."
"That doesn't matter." Evan paused. "Sixteen? I thought you were fifteen."
"I turned sixteen."
"The ninth. The day after you sprang me outta jail."
Something else to feel guilty about. ..
After Graham was asleep, Evan went to the kitchen cupboard and pulled out the red box. Empty. What difference did tea from England make at a time like this? He had a son. A son he hadn't been aware of until recently.
Sick, confused and distracted, Evan prepared a cup of tea from the antique tin.
How could he have had a son all these years and never known it? How could he fix it? What did the future hold for Graham? And Lydia—where in the hell was Lydia?
He drank the tea.
When he was finished, he broke out in a sweat, his heart beating oddly in his chest. Had the shock been too much? Was he having a heart attack?
The room began to spin. He reached for the edge of the table, missed, and tumbled to the floor.
Consciousness slowly returned, and Evan found himself staring up at the ceiling, hyperaware of his body. He could feel blood pumping through his veins.
He rolled to his knees and staggered to his feet. Upright, he shrugged into his coat and left the house, plunging into the darkness of the streets, pulling the night air deep into his lungs.
One hundred years. Seventeen years. Death. Birth.
He came upon a frat house that vibrated with music and light and loud voices. A girl drunkenly lunged out the front door.
"Kristin!" another girl shouted after her from inside.
Kristin waved her away with a floppy hand, stumbled and weaved ten feet, then fell forward on the ground. She spotted Evan in the shadows and started to smile, then stopped. "Hey. You're that guy." She pointed. "The vampire."
Alcohol and drugs took over, and she passed out.
Evan's ears picked up sounds. Voices and shuffling feet.
Coming toward him on the sidewalk was a group of kids—teenage males dressed in black clothes, their boots unlaced and dragging over the cement. As they drew closer there was a moment of mutual recognition. The Pale Immortals.Chapter 16
Pain jerked Kristin March into unconsciousness, and she screamed.
"Shut her up! Shut her up!"
She sucked in air to scream again. Something was jammed in her mouth. Fabric. Rotten, stinking fabric.
"Screaming's not cool," said another voice.
"Nobody can hear her here."
The sharp pain in her wrist that woke her up now gave way to warmth.
Drip, drip, drip.
"Don't miss any."
Her head felt swollen; her arms were heavy, deadweights. She tried to raise a hand to her face, but couldn't. Her fingers felt thick and fat as sausages.
Moving. Things were moving. Sick. She felt sick. But the fabric ... stuffed in her mouth. What would happen if she vomited?
She opened her eyes.
Flickering lights.Candles.Dark shapes of people.
She blinked. And blinked again. Things were messed up. Things weren't right. Everything was upside down.
Someone touched her. That started the swaying motion again.Shewas upside down. That's why her head and arms felt so heavy.
The last thing she remembered was being at a party. She'd done a keg stand. She was the queen of keg stands. Wasted. Staggered outside for some fresh air. She remembered seeing that guy. That vampire freak, Evan Stroud .. .
Getting sleepy. Couldn't keep her eyes open.
"Don't let her bleed out," one of the voices said. "We want to keep her alive, at least for a while."
Keep her alive. At least for a while.
Above her something creaked and groaned.
More from the disembodied voices: "How much do you have?"
Who was that? Somebody she knew?
"The bowl is almost full. Eight, ten ounces anyway."
"That's enough for now."
Fingers on her arm. Something wrapped around her wrist. Then they moved away.
Must be a dream... had to be a dream ... bad weed. She'd always heard bad weed could make you see crazy shit.... Bad weed laced with something. Poison or something. Or a roofie. Maybe somebody slipped her a roofie....
Open your eyes, Kristin.
Was that her voice? Didn't sound like her voice.
Open your eyes.
She forced her eyes open. She was so fucked up, so tired, and everything was upside down and dark. But she could see them. Standing in a cluster, drinking from a bowl.
Drugs and alcohol made you stupid. That's what her mama was always saying. Kristin finally believed it. Because it wasn't until that second that she put it all together. That she realized the buncha funky-assed white boys were drinking her blood. And wiping it on their faces and bare chests. The Pale Immortals, that's who they were.
Someone else showed up, but he was behind her, out of her field of vision. She could tell by his voice that he was an adult and the boss. He was angry about something. He lifted her arm, her wrist, and began sucking....
Wake up, girl.
Kristin slowly came around.
Creak, creak, creak.
She opened her eyes.
She listened, but all she heard was the creaking overhead.
They were gone.
With a burst of adrenaline, pissed and scared, she bucked and twisted.
Something cracked and gave. A second later she hit the floor, smacking her head, landing hard, the wind knocked out of her.
She recovered quickly and didn't waste any time. The sound of the breaking beam would bring on the crazies, if any crazies were close. She tugged the fabric from her mouth—a sock—and untied the rope from her ankles. She didn't wait for shit. She just ran. And she could run like hell.
Seymour Burton pulled into the hospital parking lot, cut the engine, and entered the building through the main doors. He'd gotten a call about a girl named Kristin March found wandering barefoot and half naked along the old highway outside Tuonela in the predawn hours by a farmer up early to check on his calving heifers. Seymour had already looked the girl up and found she'd been arrested a couple of times for underage drinking. Not a big offense, as far as Seymour was concerned, but drinking often led to other things kids that age weren't mature enough to handle.
Seymour met with the victim's doctor first. Best to have pertinent details going in.
"She's had a concussion," Dr. Ruth Ellison said when Seymour caught up with her in the doctors' lounge. The only people in the room, they sat across from each other, Dr. Ellison taking the chance to eat a bagel and drink some coffee. Behind Seymour, the soda machine kicked on.
"She can't remember much of anything between doing a keg stand and the farmer pulling up beside her in his truck and asking if she needed a ride. Upon arrival in the ER, she had a blood-alcohol level of point-oh-five. Says she was drinking before ten o'clock last night, so she was probably well over the limit at one time. The concussion alone could explain the loss of memory. A concussion along with drinking? Double whammy."
"Think she was slipped something?"
"You mean a date-rape drug? Very possibly. We're running more tests."
"The person who called me said her feet were a mess."
"Judging by their condition, I'd say she walked miles."
So she could have been anywhere. "And her wrist?"
"Ten stitches. One thing you should know about Kristin is that she's tried to kill herself a few times. Been under psychiatric care off and on. Antidepres-sants right now." Dr. Ellison sighed and looked at her coffee. "Kids have a lot to deal with these days."
"Any sign of rape?"
"No bruising, but we ran a rape kit on her anyway."
Seymour nodded. "So what's your medical opinion?"
"How does that explain showing up in the middle of nowhere?"
"She could have easily walked that far from the party. She was found three miles from Tuonela."
"Antidepressants have been linked to suicide in teens. Mix that with alcohol..."
With no evidence of rape, it made sense. And yet, another girl the same age as Kristin had been murdered and drained of blood ....
Seymour thanked the doctor, then went to meet Kristin. Her parents hovered anxiously nearby, looking sick, glancing at each other, brows furrowed.
Kristin was holding court, sitting up in bed, pillows behind her. Seymour got the idea she was enjoying the attention.
Now that they were face-to-face, Seymour remembered seeing her picture in the paper. She was a pretty girl with strong features. "You're the track star," he said. "What do you run?"
Kristin smiled and relaxed. "Fifty and one-hundred-yard dash."
She shook her head. "Could never get the hang of passing the baton."
"I used to run distance," Seymour said. "And high jump."
She looked surprised.
"Believe it or not, they had a high jump when I was in school."
They all laughed, at ease now.
Seymour worked his way around to Kristin's ordeal. "Do you remember anything?"
"Just being at the party ... I remember going outside. I got sick." She shot her parents a guilty glance. "I think there was a guy there. Yeah, there was. But I can't remember who."
"A guy? Someone your age?"
"An adult." She struggled to recall the incident. "I almost think he was around later ... somewhere ...." She gave up. "Sorry."
"That's okay. Mind if I see your injuries?"
She held out her wrist. It was bandaged. "Ten stitches." Near the white bandages were a couple of bruises. Small. Round. About the size of someone's fingertips.
"Did you have these before?" Seymour asked.
She shook her head.
"What about your feet?"
Gingerly she slipped her feet from under the sheets. They were swathed in bandages. But it wasn't her feet that drew Seymour's attention. It was the rope burns on her ankles. He'd seen those rope burns before. On the body of Chelsea Gerber.Chapter 17
Graham stared at his knitting needles with the intensity of a mind reader. Isobel had taught him to cast on, and now he was doing the real thing. He'd produced an inch of knit red yarn so far—soon to be a scarf. The small scrap had some holes in it, but Isobel had assured him that was normal for a first-timer.
"Do you think Ouija boards are real?" Isobel asked, not looking up from her knitting.
Graham couldn't knit and talk at the same time. He paused, needles in his hands. "I think it's a subconscious thing."
"But one time I used a Ouija board and asked it a bunch of things the person with me didn't know."
"I wasn't doing it!"
"You didn't think you were. That's how the subconscious works."
They were sitting in the school's enclosed outdoor area, which had turned into their noon spot. Isobel sat on the cement bench; Graham was on the ground, legs crossed, shoulders hunched over his knitting. Even though it was almost seventy degrees, he was wearing a blue-and-gray-striped stocking cap Isobel had made and given to him.
He planned to have nothing more to do with the Pale Immortals. What they'd done was wrong, but they hadn't killed anybody, and he wasn't going to turn them in. He just wasn't going to hang out with them.
Life was good. It had been only four days since Stroud had gotten word of the DNA match, but already Graham wasn't looking over his shoulder as often. He wasn't constantly thinking some trickster was going to pull the rug out from under him.
He walked to school by himself, just like anybody else. He walked home, sometimes hanging around and talking to Isobel for ten or fifteen minutes after the last bell.
Except for his two visits with the counselor and one with Social Services, his week had been perfect. The counselor had to dredge up old shit Graham didn't want to talk about, like his life before coming here, and his relationship with his mother. The social worker had been more interested in the Evan part of his life. She'd wondered if Evan's disease and inability to leave the house would eventually make Graham feel resentful. She asked about his unusual lifestyle. She wanted to know if Evan slept during the day and was awake at night.
"It's the only way he can go outside," Graham had said with a shrug.
"Won't that become a problem for you? How can he take care of you if he's always asleep when you're awake?"
"I can take care of myself." Didn't she get it? Didn't she know his life was more normal now than it had ever been? Even if his biological father was considered a freak by half the town?
They both looked up to see Phillip Alba looming over them, hands in the pockets of his brown corduroy pants. He was dressed in a black sweater, his hair wavy and dark.
"Don't forget play practice tonight," he said.
Two days ago Isobel had talked Graham into coming to play practice with her. Just to hang out, she'd said. But it ended up that they'd needed help with the set construction, so he found himself agreeing to lend a hand. Now he was part of the play crew.
"I won't." Isobel had stopped knitting to stare up at Alba with open admiration. It was obvious she had a crush on the guy, and Graham wondered if the sick feeling in his belly was jealousy.
"Just making sure." Alba flashed her a smile. He pulled his hand from his pocket, pointed, and addressed Graham. "Nice to have you with us." Then he left.
"Some people think the Ouija board is the tool of the devil," Isobel said, back to her knitting. The scarf she was making was purple.
Distracted, Graham watched Alba as he made his way through the enclosed courtyard. "I'm not sure I believe in the devil."
"You don't think people are evil?"
Oh, heknewpeople were evil. No question about that. "I just don't think there's some red guy with a tail and horns running around."
Her needles stopped clicking. She looked up at him and laughed.
"So what do you think Tuonela's new name should be?" Isobel asked.
"You know it will be something nonthreatening."
"I like Shadow Falls."
"They'll never name it Shadow Falls. Too dark. Too spooky. The whole thing is stupid. You can't change something by changing the name."
The bell rang and they gathered everything up. "Stitch and bitch is over," Isobel announced with a laugh. She always said that, and she always laughed. He hadn't understood why it was so funny until she explained that knitting was something old ladies usually did.
"See you in American history." Graham jumped to his feet.
The rest of the day went quickly. When school let out Graham walked home, planning to head to the theater that evening for play practice.
The sun was low in the sky, and the day had cooled off so that the air was actually cold, and Graham was glad for the stocking cap. His mind drifted, and he had a slight smile on his face as he thought about Isobel.
Behind him a vehicle took the corner and headed in his direction. When it was almost even with him, it slowed, keeping pace. He looked, half expecting to see Rachel Burton, or maybe even Travis and his buddies.
It was a car he recognized, with his mother behind the wheel.
He froze; then his brain kicked in.
His leg muscles tensed. He pivoted and ran.
Sprinting through a yard. Slipping between houses, skidding down a hill.
He knew she was coming. No matter how fast he ran.
As he moved he dug into the front pocket of his jeans, his fingers coming in contact with the house key. His lungs were raw as he vaulted over the iron fence around his dad's yard. He sprinted up the sidewalk, taking the porch steps three at a time.
At the door his hand shook as he struggled to get the key in the hole. He finally made it, turned the key, and fell inside the living room, slamming and locking the door behind him.
A minute later the front door shuddered with ferocious, angry pounding. "Open up!" came his mother's voice. "I know you're in there!"
Evan, who had been sleeping, flew out of his bedroom. "What the... ?"
"It's my mother!"
Terror. She would make him leave. She would make him go back with her.
Evan moved toward the door.
"No! Don't open it! You can't open it!"
Evan opened the door and stepped back to avoid the sunlight.
Graham ran to the bedroom.
While Evan was trying to figure out what the hell was going on, Lydia charged into the living room, blinking at the darkness.
"Shut the door," Evan said.
She backtracked and slammed it. "Where's Graham?"
"I think you and I need to talk."
"I came to get Graham. I have no interest in talking to you."
She'd aged at least twenty-five years since he'd last seen her. She smelled like stale cigarette smoke. Her hair was shoulder-length, a curly medium brown with quite a bit of gray.
He had to keep reminding himself that this was the girl he'd known in high school, even though she looked nothing like the slim, beautiful, sexy Lydia.
"Let's talk about this."
"Talk about it?" She let out a harsh laugh. "Like you wanted to talk about it years ago? You have no right to discuss anything about Graham. Have you supported him in any way these past sixteen years? Have you even acknowledged his existence? No. He is my son, and only my son."
Something crashed in the other room.
Lydia turned to the sound, then marched to Graham's bedroom and forced open the door. "Get your things. We're leaving. Now!"
Graham was lying on the bed, clutching a pillow, one knee drawn up to his chest, his eyes huge and glassy.
One thing was apparent: He was terrified of his own mother.
And with a realization that practically brought Evan to his knees, he knew Lydia was right: He had no legal hold over his son.
"We are going."
Graham could no longer defy a direct command. He scrambled from the bed and began to blindly gather his belongings, stuffing them into his large backpack.
"That's enough," Lydia said. "Let's get out of here. Rightnow."
Lydia led the way, both of them walking down the hallway. Graham didn't look at Evan.
She opened the door.
Evan moved fast. In a few strides he caught up with her and slammed the door closed before she could exit.
She did a double take, then struggled unsuccessfully to make her face expressionless. "What are you doing?" Unable to hide her fear, she lifted a hand to her throat.
"Graham isn't leaving here," Evan said, his voice quiet and low and threatening.Chapter 18
Police chief Seymour Burton pulled the search warrant from his jacket and knocked on the front door of the one-story ranch-style home with yellow aluminum siding and white trim. When no one answered after a repeated series of knocks, Seymour stepped back and let his boys smash the lock on the hollow wooden door.
"Somebody go around the back. Make sure he doesn't try to get out that way."
Even though there was surely a special place in hell for child molesters and child pornographers, Seymour wanted to make sure Ed Wilson II would be able to visit a special place in prison first. They'd been watching him for months and had finally gathered enough evidence for a search warrant.
Seymour pulled out his Smith & Wesson, pushed open the door, and slipped inside. It smelled like cat shit, grease, and body odor. Like some old guy who hadn't bathed in a year and never did his laundry. Guess he had more important things to do.
The plastic shades were pulled down tight, and even though it was still light outside, the house was dark. Seymour shouted into the darkness, announcing their purpose.
Nobody answered. The house was silent.
Seymour nodded for the young cop named Aber-nathy to go past him. It didn't take long to determine that no one was upstairs. A quick scan of the basement revealed the same thing.
Abernathy opened a door that led outside.
"Nobody here," the other cop said, joining them in the basement.
Seymour silently cursed his decision to make a daylight raid. But they'd been tracking Wilson's habits, and it had seemed the best time to catch him at home.
In one corner of the basement was a bondage setup, with chains and black leather cuffs hanging from the ceiling. Nearby was a desk with a computer.
"Pack up the computer," Seymour said.
He snapped on a pair of latex gloves and opened a drawer. It was stuffed with photos: some five-by-sevens, but mainly eight-by-tens. All in color. Hundreds. Seymour went through them. All young nude boys.
He shuffled through the photos, looking for any faces that might be familiar. He found one.
His cell phone rang.
It was Evan Stroud. He sounded a little wound up.
"Graham's mother is here," Evan said. "At my house. She wants to take Graham back to Arizona. Is there any way I can keep him in Tuonela? Somebody I can contact? Somebody who can help?"
Seymour stared at the photo in his hand, a full-frontal nude of Graham Yates. "Don't let him leave your house. I'll be there in less than an hour. I think there's a way we can keep him around for at least a few more days."
Seymour remained at the yellow house long enough to make sure evidence was being gathered correctly. Then he headed for Evan's, lighting a cigarette as soon as he got in the car. Once he was parked outside Evan's house, he finished his smoke, crushed out the butt in the ashtray, and grabbed the manila folder off the seat.
He was never sure why he'd become a cop. He hadn't been into authority. And he wasn't an excitement junkie. And he certainly didn't like giving people bad news or making them uncomfortable.
He took a deep breath and walked up the wooden steps to the front door. Evan must have heard him arrive. Before he could knock, the door opened.
The sun was down past the horizon, but the sky was still light. Seymour stepped inside and closed the door behind him.
The air was electric, saturated with tension and anger and fear. His own home life with his wife and daughter had been calm. There had never been much drama.
Seymour had always liked Evan. Now, seeing him with a new kind of desperation in his eyes, Seymour felt sorry for him.
He turned to the other person in the room. "You must be Lydia Yates." Seymour held out his hand, and the woman reluctantly took it.
He remembered her. In trouble a lot. One of those girls who was always in heat, his mother would have said. Seymour had been a patrol officer then, and he'd caught her having sex on more than one occasion. At that time she'd seemed to have cast a spell over most of the boys her age. Looking at her now, he doubted she'd cast any spells in a long time.
"I don't know what this is about." Lydia dropped his hand and got back to her problem. "I came here to get my son. And now this asshole refuses to let me leave with him."
"I'd like to talk to Graham in private," Seymour told the two adults.
Evan motioned toward the hallway. "He's in the bedroom on the left."
Seymour walked down the hall. The door was ajar. He pushed it open, then closed it tightly behind him.
Graham sat on the edge of the bed, both feet on the floor, his fists between his knees. He gave Seymour a slight nod, then looked back down.
He wasn't crying right now, but he had been.
Seymour pulled a straight chair from a nearby desk, turning it around so he faced Graham. "I hear your mom is here to take you back with her."
"Do you want to go?"
Graham shook his head.
"That's what I thought."
Graham looked up. A minute ago his eyes had been flat and dead. Now they held a spark of hope that didn't make Seymour's job any easier.
"Can I stay?" His voice was thick.
"I have a way for us to delay things. Long enough to get a judge in here to look at your case. Find a way for you to stay here at least part of the time."
"He's my dad. The DNA tests came back, and he's really my dad. That should help, shouldn't it?"
"I would think so."
But kids usually went to the mothers. That's just the way it was. And it wasn't as if Evan had had anything to do with Graham up to this point. Plus, with Evan's illness ... the situation didn't look good.
Seymour opened the folder. "We just raided a house on Fifth Avenue, where I found this." He pulled out an eight-by-ten color photo.
Blood drained from Graham's face and he turned a pasty white. He broke out in a sheen of sweat, and his eyes began to roll.
Seymour jumped to his feet. "Put your head down."
The kid wasn't hearing anything; Seymour pressed Graham's head down until his body quit shaking and his breathing became a little more normal. Then Graham slowly sat up and wiped his face with the hem of his long-sleeved T-shirt.
"Do you want to tell me how this happened?" Seymour asked quietly, returning to his seat.
"I was broke. I was hungry. I ran into some kids who said a guy would pay me a hundred bucks for some photos."
"Who were the kids who told you this?" Seymour pulled a small notebook from the breast pocket of his shirt and flipped through the pages until he came to a blank one.
"I don't know who they were. Just some kids."
"What did they look like?"
"I dunno. Guys. About my age. It was dark. I only saw them a little while. I don't remember."
Seymour didn't believe him, but he would let it go for now.
He'd spent a lot of time—years, actually—wondering why so many of today's kids were so messed up. Being a cop, he'd run into a lot of them who had no moral compass. Young sociopaths. But the percentage of young sociopaths had taken a huge leap over the past twenty years.
It was bad, really bad. And he was afraid there was no fixing it, because you couldn't go back. Right now it was cool to be shallow and ironic and heartless. But Graham wasn't like that. Somehow he'd managed to cling to some good part of himself.
"So you went to this guy's house, and he took pictures of you," Seymour said. "Did anything else happen?"
"What do you mean?"
Young girls never liked to admit to being raped, but boys were worse. They rarely offered the information without being coaxed. "Were you sexually molested?" Seymour asked.
"Graham?" Seymour prodded, keeping his voice low and matter-of-fact.
Graham looked up. "I wasn't. I swear. Oh, he wanted to. He told me he wouldn't pay unless I had sex with him. So I left. Without any money."
Seymour believed him.
"So now what?" Graham asked.
"We need to go down to the police station and file a report. Then we'll have to take your deposition."
That was the part of the process Seymour hoped to drag out so Graham would be forced to stay in town. "Sometimes it can take a little while to get that all set up. Have to find a stenographer and such."
Mary Pelton lived in town, and she was always eager for more work, but Seymour would just forget to call her for a day or two.
"Do you need to put me in jail? 'Cause if you do, I'm cool with that. I don't mind."
The kid would rather go to jail than be sent home with his mother. Seymour closed his small notebook and slid it back into his pocket. "You won't need to go to jail, but we'll have to get the judge's permission for you to remain here until the deposition."
"Right now we have to tell the two people out there what's going on, and why you can't leave town."
Graham went pale again. He swallowed. "Do they have to see the picture? I don't want them to see it."
Seymour got to his feet and slipped the photo back in the folder. "We should be able to avoid that."
The news wasn't taken well. Lydia screamed and said that kind of sick activity was exactly why she needed to get her son out of town immediately. Evan went whiter than his normal shade of pale. And even though Evan had hardly known Graham at the time of the photo shoot, Seymour could see he was feeling in some way responsible.
"Kids make choices," Seymour said. "Not always good ones. This was bad, but not nearly as bad as it could have been. And now, with Graham's help, we'll hopefully be able to lock this guy up for a long time."
"What are we supposed to do while we're waiting?" Lydia demanded. "I can't afford a motel."
"They can put you up downtown in the YWCA," Seymour said. "Tell 'em I sent you. Graham will have to stay here. Women only at the W."
She could see she wasn't going to win.
Seymour didn't like the thought of her hanging around town causing trouble, but there wasn't much they could do about that.Chapter 19
For two days, Chief Seymour Burton used delay tactics until he couldn't use them anymore. Even though they'd been able to track down several other kids who'd been photographed by Wilson, they needed to get Graham's deposition.
Wilson himself was in jail after an anonymous tip led police to the river shanty where he was hiding.
Once the deposition was taken, the only thing left was for Graham's case to be reviewed. A Wisconsin judge couldn't officiate, since Graham and his mother were residents of Arizona, but Seymour was using the excuse that someone local had to decide whether or not the mother was responsible enough to take her son back with her to Arizona.
In the meantime, Lydia was staying at the YWCA and Graham was continuing to go to school, once again with an escort to and from, since it was highly likely his mother would simply pick him up and drive off.
Which was going to happen anyway, Seymour was afraid. They had no reason to keep him out of her custody. Once he was back in Arizona, Graham could seek out a lawyer and try for emancipation.
And Lydia wasn't lounging around, taking a vacation. She'd contacted the local paper, and they'd already run a story on her, making Evan Stroud and the Tuonela Police Department look evil. She was in communication with the state attorney and Arizona and Wisconsin child welfare offices, as well as the judge who would be reviewing her case. Seymour was afraid his delaying tactics had been exercises in futility, and given poor Graham hope where there wasn't any.
And Kristin March? No new evidence. No return of the girl's memory.
Seymour's phone rang.
It was the DNA lab from Madison.
"Got some interesting information for you," Kent, the lab technician on the other end, said. Kent was a friend of Seymour's, and worked at both the state forensic lab and private DNA lab.
Seymour sat up straighter, tucked his cigarette into the ashtray on his desk, and pulled a pad and pen close.
"You know how you asked me to keep an eye on those DNA samples?" Kent asked. "The ones sent to the lab for the paternity test? Listen to this. They matched the forensic samples collected at the Chelsea Gerber crime scene."
Seymour's heart did a little gallop. "Are you sure?"
"Yep. I'll send you a fax in just a minute."
Seymour thanked him and hung up. Jesus. He'd only asked Kent to keep an eye on them so that they could unequivocally rule out Evan Stroud as a suspect.
Rachel's cell phone rang.
"We got a DNA match on the Gerber girl," her dad said when she answered.
His voice sounded odd. Strained. "Are you okay?"
He let out a deep sigh. "One of the specimens you sent in matched a DNA sample belonging to Evan Stroud."
She shut off the kitchen faucet and dropped into a nearby chair. She suddenly felt weak, and thought she might pass out. "There has to be some kind of mistake."
"I gave Evan two test kits. They both matched. I'm trying to track down the judge right now so I can get an arrest warrant. Heard he was out fishing, so it could take a while...."
Arrest?Of course they would arrest Evan.
Where would they keep him? How would they get him to the jail? In the daylight? And beyond that. . . ?
A trial. Prison. He couldn't live through it.
"I'm sorry," Seymour said. "I know he's your friend. I know how hard this must be for you to hear."
Rachel didn't even know what she said, or if her reply made sense. As soon as they disconnected, she grabbed her keys and hurried downstairs to her van.
Ten minutes later she was pounding on the front door of Evan's house. When he answered, she stepped inside, slammed the door, and locked it. "We have to get you out of here."
"Hmm?" He was sleep-rumpled and groggy.
"The DNA samples you sent in for the paternity test? Matched samples collected from the Chelsea Gerber crime scene."
That woke him up. "Impossible."
"That's what I said, but that won't stop them from coming to arrest you."
"I have no reason to run." He looked baffled. "I haven't done anything."
"Think about it, Evan."
If he'd been anyone else—if he'd been someone in normal health—it would have been different. "They'll cart you away—in broad daylight. They'll put you in a cell with bright fluorescent light. Maybe even natural light. You won't live long enough to prove you're innocent. And it's not as if you're the most popular guy in town."
He stared at her for a long moment while her words sank in.
"You know how the legal system works," she went on. "You know how suspects are treated. Especially suspects who look damn guilty of murdering a young girl."
"Why do you think I'm innocent?" he asked. "I mean, if they have a DNA match.... That's considered irrefutable by some."
"DNA isn't the answer to every case. It's not the Holy Grail, even though it's been treated as such for the past several years." She was a coroner, an ME. She worked with facts, so she could hardly add that her gut was telling her he was no murderer. Or was it her heart?
They had to hurry. They could chitchat later. "I'll pull the van around to the side door and pick you up," she said.
"Where will we go?" She could see that the idea of leaving his comfort zone was sending him into a panic. "This won't work. I have no place to hide. And what about Graham?"
"We'll deal with Graham later. Right now we have to get you out of here. I'll take you someplace they hopefully won't think of looking."
Her van wasn't exactly a vehicle of stealth, but at least it had been parked on the street in front of Evan's house quite a bit lately There should be nothing unusual about today's visit.
The driveway sloped into a hollow, then leveled out to meet a low sidewalk that ran around to the back of the house. Evan owned the adjoining lots, which were woodland, and the layout created a secluded buffer zone; no one could see them from the road or from any nearby homes.
She drove up on the sidewalk, pulled the emergency brake, jumped out, and opened the van's heavy back doors. It was an industrial vehicle; the only windows were in front. The two seats were separated by a mandatory metal cage meant to keep cargo from flying into the passenger area.
She climbed in the back, snapped open a plastic body bag, and spread it out on the gurney, unfastening the zipper from top to bottom. Once everything was prepared, she returned to the house to get Evan. At the last minute he grabbed the antique tea tin and shoved it in his coat pocket.
He was bringingtea?
With a dark blanket draped over his head, he shot from the house and leaped into the back of the van. Rachel followed, shutting the door behind them.
"Lie down on the gurney."
Crouching, he pivoted in the small space, the blanket brushing the knees of his jeans.
"Here." She grabbed his arm and urged him down. Light poured in from the front; they had to hurry.
Grasping her plan, he quickly settled himself on the gurney. She zipped the heavy bag, leaving a gap of an inch near the top for air. "All tucked in."
"Snug as a bug." His words were light, but she could hear the underlying panic.
She slipped out the back, secured the van door, and locked the house. Once in the driver's seat she disengaged the emergency brake, threw the van in gear, and made a three-point turn. Then it was up the hill to the street, take a right, and haul ass to her place.
On the way there, she had a few minutes to think about what she was doing.
Aiding and abetting a murder suspect.
She hit three red lights and saw three people she knew. They all waved; she waved back. In order to avoid more people, stop signs, and traffic, she cut down the alley and followed it for five blocks, then pulled into the driveway and parking area of the morgue.
The sun was shining brightly, and there wasn't an inch of shade. She turned off the ignition and hurried to the back of the van.
Inside the darkness of the body bag Evan heard the van's doors open. He felt the gurney being dragged forward. Wheels snapped and locked into place. Sunlight pounded down from above, heating the plastic. He blinked; a beam found its way through the small airhole and pierced his retina.
He moaned and squeezed his eyes shut. The world swirled and slanted, the wheels beneath him turning.
In the blackness, sound and movement were his only grounding.
They paused. A door opened; then they were moving forward again, away from the heat of the sun into the shelter of a building.
The wheels rolled smoothly and silently over carpet; speed was impossible to gauge.
He chanced a look. Twin fluorescent bulbs burned into his brain. He quickly closed his eyes.
The gurney stopped. "Evan?"
He ran a tongue over his lips, and was preparing to answer when he heard ading,followed by what sounded like an elevator door opening.
Someone screamed. "You scared the hell out of me!" came a woman's voice that didn't belong to Rachel.
"Sorry," Rachel said. "I forgot you were cleaning today."
"I didn't know you were in the building."
"Gotta get this one to the cooler. He's rotting as we speak."
Rachel didn't answer; Evan presumed she nodded.
"Let me know if you want me to clean up the suite when you're done."
He was rolled forward; then a door rattled shut and the elevator began to move.
"That was Patricia," Rachel whispered, her voice close. "She cleans once a week. Guess we could have really scared the crap out of her if you'd moved."
He wanted to smile, but pain ripped through his spinning head.
"I'm taking you to the basement."
The elevator shuddered to a stop. They moved forward. Wheels clacked over cement, then tile, through swinging doors to come to what he hoped was the final destination.
Rachel unzipped the bag two feet, pulling back the sides to expose his face. Evan didn't like people seeing him when he was in the middle of an attack, and here she was, staring.
She sounded scared. She probably thought he was dead. He could look like a corpse at times like these. That was the trick: to remain as still as possible.
Don't move. Don't breathe.
Then maybe the nausea wouldn't be as bad, and maybe the weakness wouldn't last as long.
He struggled to open his eyes. Just to let her know he was still kicking. His eyelids fluttered, but he couldn't focus.
He heard her exhale in relief.
Parallel fluorescent tubes flickered. He groaned, squeezed his eyes closed, and felt himself go a shade paler.
She unzipped the body bag the rest of the way.
Evan didn't move.
She leaned over him. So quiet. Then he suddenly felt something brush against his jaw.
"Why are you doing this?" His voice was a croak. "You could be arrested. You could go to prison."
She touched him again. "I'm helping a friend."
"As soon as it's dark, I'm out of here." He could do it. He could recharge as long as he didn't move.
"I'm sorry. I tried to keep the sun from hitting you."
Don't cry. I'm not dying. I'm not dead.
"You look dead." He felt her touch the back of his hand. He felt her fingers slide under his. "Your skin is like ice."
"I'll... be o-kay."
"What can I do?"
Just leave. Just leave me alone.
He felt her recoil and immediately regretted his choice of words. And what was that? In her eyes?
Fear and self-doubt.Chapter 20
When no one answered the door, Seymour gave the signal for the accompanying officers to break into Evan Stroud's home.
Inside they quickly searched the rooms, guns drawn, but the house was empty. The time between the call from the DNA lab and the warrant had been a little under three hours.
"I didn't think he could go out during the day," one of the officers said. He was young and blond and so healthy he gave off a glow. A nice kid, Seymour had always thought.
"Check the garage," Seymour said. One of the officers disappeared.
"Are you sure he isn't sleeping in a coffin in the basement?" another officer asked with a laugh.
They may have been joking around, but Seymour could tell they were spooked.
It wasn't much past noon, but the house was dark as a tomb. Upton, the young blond officer, went around turning on lights but it didn't help much. The bulbs were weak.
The officer who'd disappeared returned. "Car's in the garage," he said breathlessly. "Maybe he has a secret compartment." He started going around the room, knocking on walls. "You know, like in the wall or something. Or a space under the floor somewhere."