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Now he was laughing at the foolishness of the dead.


“We quite a pair, ain’t we, Mr. Man? A ghost who don’t know how to be a ghost, and a bloodsucker with no teeth who can’t bite what he wants to bite. Must really piss you off. After being the cock of the walk all them years ago it must really bite your ass to be just a shadow in the back of sick minds like Wingate and Ruger’s.” He chuckled. “And they’re a half-step shy of being too stupid to wipe they own asses…couldn’t even kill Val Guthrie. Hell, much as it pains me to say it…you, at least, were dangerous. Now you got no teeth, no claws, and no dick, and you gotta watch these clowns try and do your screwin’ for you. That just makes me laugh!”


The Bone Man was bent over laughing, slapping his knees, shaking with it as if he really had a body, his eyes shut and his head shaking back and forth as he howled. The birds in the trees cackled with him.


Far beneath the surface of the swamp, lost in an infinity of verminous earth and polluted rainwater, Ubel Griswold listened to the sound of the Bone Man’s mocking laughter. His rage was terrible.


Chapter 8


1


Eddie Oswald sat in the front seat of his patrol car and stared numbly through the windshield, listening to the absolute silence in his head. His bandaged hands lay like broken birds in his lap, his lower lip drooped slack and rubbery. The windows were rolled up, the radio turned off, the engine silent. He’d sat like that for twenty minutes.


When he first left the Crow’s Nest he was confused. He had been so sure that Mike Sweeney worked there at the store. Positive. Days ago God Himself had told him where he would find the child. What could be more certain? Yet every time he drove by the store all he saw through the window was Crow, and sometimes another boy, but the face was never clear. There was always something blocking his view. Sunlight, a smear on the glass, shadows. So, today, with the deafening silence of his Father’s disdain hammering at the inside of his head, Eddie had gone straight into the store, had confronted the boy, ready to do what was necessary, ready to complete his Holy Mission. The Sword of God had been drawn, ready to cut down the Beast.


Then something had happened. The lighting in the store must have been bad, or maybe it was that annoying wailing music that made it so hard to concentrate, but try as he might Eddie never seemed to be able to get a clear look at the kid. Even when he saw him somewhat better there was a veil of doubt. This couldn’t have been the Beast; this could not have been the false suit of skin the Beast had used into order to work his evil magic here in Pine Deep. This child, this boy in the store…there was no reek of evil about him; there was no crackle of demonic energy that Eddie believed must be present in the Beast. He’d felt it, even at a distance, out there on A-32 last night. The dark energies had burned his fingertips as he reached for the boy there on the road; it was like an ozone stink in the air as he chased him in his truck and on foot.


Not today, though. This boy—why couldn’t he see the kid’s face?—was just an ordinary child. He said he went to church. He was a good kid. Eddie sensed that, as surely as he sensed the evil power of the Beast last night on the road.


He needed clarity. He needed his Father’s voice speaking to him from within the infinite universe of his mind. He needed direction.


Eddie sat in his car as the minutes ticked past, and gradually his mind shut down, like someone clicking off lights by flicking one switch after another, dropping more and more of his awareness into soft, untroubled, uncomplicated shadows.


It was then, as an armada of clouds sailed across the sky and blotted out the sun, that something happened. It was then that his Father…spoke.


It was not in language. It was a single, guttural, howling scream of absolute rage that shrieked into his mind like the explosion of a thousand tons of TNT. Instant, immediate, impossibly loud—a hoarse cry of such unimaginable fury that every muscle in Eddie’s body locked into a spasm of agonized awareness. His sinews contracted, muscle fibers clenched, his nerve endings seemed to ignite with the sheer intensity of it as Eddie convulsed in pain so intense, so white-hot that it was even beyond his body’s ability to scream it out. Blood sprayed from his nose and ears and he vomited black ichor, bile, and blood all over the inside of his car.


His Father’s rage struck him down with all the wrath of a furious and disappointed God. Eddie’s eyes glazed over and he toppled sideways into blackness.


2


Ruger had gotten up to take another book down from Vic’s shelf when his body suddenly snapped straight as if he were coming to attention. His arms and legs twitched and jerked like a million volts of electricity were being channeled through him. A terrible scream ripped loose from his throat—dry and searing and then wet as blood spewed out of him. Tears of blood sprang into his eyes and rolled down over his cheeks, his eardrums nearly burst, his head felt like it was being smashed by an iron mallet. He could not speak, could not move, could do nothing in that moment but scream as pain beyond anything he had ever endured, beyond anything he had ever imagined, burned through every cell. He was not even aware that fifteen feet away Vic Wingate had collapsed onto the floor, howling with his own agony. The air was stained with foulness as Vic’s bladder and sphincter let loose; the fecund stink mixed with the sheared-copper smell of blood to create a perfume of shame.


For a handful of seconds the world was defined by pain.


Then it was gone. Not gradual, not ebbing like a tide or subsiding like the pain of a smashed finger. It was there, and then it was not there.


Ruger took one staggering step and then like a marionette with severed strings he crashed to the floor, bleeding and dazed. His head struck the edge of the armchair as he fell and his cheekbone cracked audibly; his body collapsed into a boneless heap mere yards from the stinking, wretched mess that was Vic Wingate.


They lay in a world where time had no meaning, no sense or order. It did not matter that one was alive and one was undead—they shared that moment like two birds shot with the same gun, and though they could not know it, all across the square miles of Pine Deep, in shadowy barns and locked cellars, in shallow graves and shuttered attics, in the trunks of cars and in empty corn silos, the legions of Ubel Griswold were all sharing the same experience. Every one of them, from the living to the blood drinkers to the mindless flesh eaters, they all writhed in the aftershock of the moment. As that moment passed and sense crept into blasted minds, even the smallest intelligence among them was aware of the meaning of that eloquent message. This was payment for the mistakes of last night. No further mistakes would be permitted.


The Man was pissed.


Chapter 9


1


Five customers came into the Crow’s Nest in the two hours Mike lay under the counter. Three of them peered around, saw that no one was there, and left. The fourth—his friend Brandon from school—called Crow’s name, got no reply, and left. The fifth was a kid from Mike’s homeroom who wanted to buy some comic books. After spending ten minutes in the store, browsing through Daredevil and Thor books while surreptitiously checking for staff or security cameras, he tucked thirty dollars’ worth of Marvel comics under his sweatshirt and sauntered out as if he owned the world. On the way out, just for the hell of it, he flipped over the sign on the door so that it now read CLOSED.


The store settled into silence. Mike was not crying anymore. The convulsions had put an end to that. He wasn’t twitching anymore, either. He lay there, cold and still, eyes open and dry from not blinking. His chest barely moved, his breathing very shallow and slow, his pulse slower.


When the change started, it happened very slowly, with no great hurry. It started with a hitch in his chest as he took a single sharp, deep breath, like a dead person who was suddenly reacting to the defibrillator paddles. His body didn’t arch or jump, just that single gasp, after which his breath became deeper, more regular. Then nothing for five minutes.


The next thing that happened was a blink. His dry lids scraped over the arid surface of his eyes once, then again. The second time was easier; there was more moisture. Then a third, a fourth as the eyes moistened. There was no sign of focus, no hint of intelligence or awareness. The blink, like the breath, was a process kicking in, a link in the organic chain of system reboots.


It was just over two hours from the time that Tow-Truck Eddie had walked out that Mike Sweeney came back. One moment his eyes were open and empty and the next, bridged by another blink, Mike was there behind those blue windows. Like water filling a submerged cup, life flooded instantly in and filled his body.


As he gradually became aware of his body, Mike began the process of thinking. He thought about who he was, and that took a while before he remembered. He thought about why his body hurt, and he came up blank on that one—but he was aware that he didn’t know, which was a step toward full consciousness. He thought about where he was, and very slowly he went from small picture—he was on a floor under the counter—to a more moderate view—he was in someplace that was not his home—to a larger view—he was in Crow’s store.


Crow. The name of the store came to him more quickly than the identity of its owner, though as he lay there, becoming increasingly more aware of something sticky on his face and throat, of the way his clothing was uncomfortably twisted, of the cramps in muscles, the face of Malcolm Crow gradually formed in his mind.


“Crow…” Mike said, his voice just a whisper. Saying the name fleshed out Crow’s complete personality in his mind, and that tumbled the last pieces into place. He was in Crow’s store, it was daytime. Crow wasn’t here…no one was here.


Why was he here?


Mike took a steadying breath and then slowly, carefully, he unclenched the knotted fist that was his curled body. Pain seemed to be a humming presence within it, constantly throbbing. He was on his side and he rolled over onto his elbows and knees. Beneath him the floor seemed to buckle and ripple in a nauseating way, but as consciousness blossomed he grew to understand that this was just the effects of—


Of what? He didn’t know, wasn’t sure he wanted to know.

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