Balancing his beer can on his stomach, he lay back and watched the image change from Carmen Electra and her breasts running on the beach to Carmen Electra and her breasts taking a bath. As Ruffin saw it, she took one hell of a bath. Just as Carmen Electra and her breasts began playing billiards, someone knocked on the door. Ruffin muted the TV, set down the beer, and fished for his wallet as he opened the door. “Come on in. What are the damages?” He looked up from his wallet and his smile bled away.
The person standing just inside the doorway was not dressed in a pizza delivery uniform of any kind, and he held no steaming cardboard box. He was a tall, pale man with black hair that dipped down in a widow’s peak and a face like a stage magician’s. Paul Ruffin looked confused by what he saw, and the confusion tumbled quickly into unease and then fear. The person standing in the door was smiling. It was the wrong kind of smile for a relaxing kick-back kind of evening.
“Welcome to Pine Deep,” whispered Ruger as he pushed his way into the room.
On the TV Carmen Electra and her breasts were riding a horse, smiling at the camera without a trace of concern, even when the bright splash of arterial blood stitched red splatters all across her nipples.
BORN UNDER A BAD SIGN
I don’t mind them graveyards, and it ain’t ’cause I’m no kind of brave;
Said I don’t mind no graveyard, but I ain’t no man that is brave.
’Cause the ghosts of the past, they are harder to face than anything comes from a grave.
—A. L. Sirois and Kindred Spirit, “Ghost Road Blues”
You ain’t hearing nothing, don’t mean nothing’s going down,
You ain’t hearing nothing, don’t mean nothing’s going down
You ain’t hearing nothing…don’t mean the Devil done left town.
—Oren Morse, “Silent Night Blues”
Very early Tuesday morning Crow was seated in Val’s guest chair sorting through e-mails on Terry’s laptop, putting out fires for the Festival. Val was reading estate papers her lawyer had brought by, when there was a quick knock on her door and then a very tall woman breezed in. The woman was in her midsixties, with a straight back, a long face set with intelligent gray eyes, and lots of wavy red hair caught up in a sloppy bun. Her hair was threaded with silver, but her face and energy were youthful. She wore a lab coat with a name-plate that read: G. SOMERFIELD, MD—CHIEF OF OBSTETRIC MEDICINE.
“Hello, cupcake!” she said brightly, plucking Val’s chart from the foot of her bed.
“I think she means you,” Weinstock said, touching Val’s shoulder.
“Well, Saul, I certainly don’t refer to you as cupcake,” Somerfield murmured as she scanned the chart. “Not to your face anyway.” She peered over her granny glasses at Crow. “Let me guess…you’re the father?”
“Malcolm Crow,” he said, reaching over the laptop to offer his hand. Somerfield gave him a firm shake with a hand that was bigger than his.
“Gail Somerfield. Call me Gail.”
“So?” Val asked, and the decisive edge that had been in her voice just moments before had softened. She looked scared and Crow took her hand and kissed it.
“Well, if I was our esteemed chief of medicine here”—and she shot Weinstock a look—“I’d lead off with one of his famous ‘I’ve got good news and bad news’ openers, but since I’m not an overpaid bureaucrat who only thinks he’s a doctor…”
“She really loves and respects me,” Weinstock said. “Ask anyone.”
“Ask someone whose paycheck you don’t sign. Hush now, women are talking.” She leaned a hip against the bottom of the bed frame, laid the chart against her chest, and folded her arms over that. “The bottom line is this, Val…your baby is fine.”
Val closed her eye and let out a breath that had been cooking in her lungs since Somerfield walked in; Crow bent over and hugged her and whispered, “Thank God!” in her ear. Weinstock grinned at Somerfield, who gave him a quick wink.
“At some point,” Somerfield said, “I’ll bore with all of the technical details of the tests we’ve run and the results we’ve gotten, but in my judgment the recent trauma you’ve suffered has not adversely affected the developing fetus. You’re a strong woman, Val. Many women would not have come through this as well as you have, especially in light of the other issues. Of course I have to caution you to take it easy for the next few weeks. You have sustained other injuries and your body is dealing with those. You’re not going to have much of a reserve of strength for a while. You need lots of rest and lots of TLC.”
“She’ll get both,” Crow promised.
“See to it, or you’ll answer to me, little fellow.” Ignoring Crow’s crestfallen expression, she added, “I would advise you, however, that you do whatever you can do to avoid physical or emotional stress as much as possible. And, yes, I do know what’s going on and you certainly have my deepest sympathies, but at the risk of sounding harsh, your concerns are now with the living, with new life. By all means do what you have to do for your brother and sister-in-law, but then you need to focus only on getting healthy, staying healthy, and allowing your baby to develop with no further trauma. I can’t stress enough how important this is.” She paused. “Saul tells me that you and Mr. Crow here are recently engaged?”
“Just two weeks ago.”
“Then make that part of your focus. Baby, marriage, health, home. All the stuff you see in Ladies’ Home Journal.”
“I will,” Val said, but Crow thought he heard doubt in her voice.
Taking a risk, Crow said, “Doc…were you being serious earlier about the good news bad news thing? If so…what’s the bad news?”
In perfect deadpan, Somerfield said, “You’re short…your kid might be a runt as well. A sad truth, but there it is.”
“Ouch,” Crow winced.
Val burst out laughing.
Somerfield gave Val a quick hug, winked at Crow, and smiled at Weinstock as she left.
When the door closed, Weinstock beamed at Val. “Did I tell you she was the best?”
“I love her,” Val said.
“Everyone does,” Weinstock agreed. “She’s top of the line, too. She’s from Long Island originally, but did a long stint overseas with Doctors Without Borders and then came here to teach. She’s everything the rest of us quacks aspire to.”
Val wasn’t listening. “My baby is okay,” she said softly, laying her palms flat on her stomach. “That’s one thing those bastards didn’t take from me. Thank God.”
Crow kissed her on the forehead.
A few minutes later he said, “‘Little fellow’? I’m almost five-eight, damn it.”
Val and Weinstock cracked up.
“It’s not that funny,” Crow protested, but he might as well have been talking to himself.
Val was scheduled for more tests, so Crow headed out to run some errands. It was only four, but the day seemed in a hurry to end early. It depressed Crow. For about the zillionth day in a row it was mostly overcast and as the lights of Pine Deep came on they seemed distant and weak. The air was thick with humidity even though a frost was predicted; the wind felt raw and mean. Crow jammed his hands down into the pockets of his bomber jacket and hunched his shoulders to protect his ears as he walked to his car. Even the sounds of the tourist cars on Corn Hill and Main Street were muted, distorted as if more distant than they were. The tread of his sneakers made strange sucking sounds on the damp asphalt.
He unlocked his car, slid behind the wheel, and pulled the door shut, happy to be inside the familiar shell. Here were smells he knew—old vinyl, oil, the stale aroma of the pine tree deodorizer. Not pleasant smells, but familiar ones. He keyed the engine and as the car warmed up he pulled his cell phone out and punched in a number.
“Yo,” said a voice after the third ring.
“BK? It’s Crow.”
“Hey hey, man. I’ve been seeing you all over the news.
What the hell’s happening out there in the sticks?” BK was Bentley Kingsman, an old martial arts buddy of Crow’s. They had trained briefly under the same instructor back in the mid-1980s, and had crossed paths so often at tournaments that they’d become friends. Not that they’d ever faced each other on the mat—BK at six-four and built like a phone booth was roughly twice Crow’s size—but students of theirs had traded some kicks over the years. BK worked as a cooler, or head bouncer, at one of Philadelphia’s most popular strip bars.
“Yeah, things have been pretty crazy out here.” He gave BK the necessarily edited version of all that had happened.
“Damn, brother…that’s some rough shit. Give Val my best.”
“Will do. Look, BK, the reason I’m calling is that I’ve been asked to oversee our big Halloween Festival. You know the one.”
“Sure, the Hayride and all. It’s been in the papers, too.”
“Well, with everything that’s happened I’ve gotten a bit spooked, so I want to beef up security for Halloween, just to make sure everything’s cool.”
“Spooked…or you know something’s up?”
“Just spooked, but I could use some muscle for Mischief Night and Halloween. I’ve got twelve different venues to cover—the Hayride, three different movie marathons, a bunch of celebrity appearances, a parade, and a blues concert. Any chance you could help me out?”
“Volunteer or pay gig?”
“Definitely a pay gig, so I need top of the line.”
“I know some guys. Depends on what you need.”
Crow outlined his needs.
BK whistled. “That’s a lot of feet on the ground. I can probably get Jim Winterbottom and some of his JKD guys; maybe Rick Robinson—he has that big jujutsu school over in White Marsh. Dave Pantano and some of his Kenpo boys. Maybe a few off-duty cops, too, if you don’t mind paying them under the table. I assume you’re looking for guys who can keep it cool, right?”