Page 26


They drove on, climbing up to the tops of the long hills and then dropping down the other sides, plunging into darkness, chasing the spill of the Jeep’s headlights. At the top of a particularly steep hill, just as the Jeep pitched toward the drop, Deb said, “Look, there’s a cop car.”


“Finally!”


They descended the hill toward a police cruiser parked on the shoulder, the light bar lit but not flashing—the way a lot of small-town cops did when writing reports or just making their presence known. As the Jeep coasted toward the cruiser, they could see the officer in silhouette, bent down over something, apparently writing on a pad. Josh tooted the horn, a single short beep, as he slowed to a stop. The cop didn’t look up.


“Gimme the map,” Josh said, “and wait here. I’ll see what he says.” He jerked open the door, stepped out into the cold air, hunched in to the wind and jog-walked over to the cruiser. “Hello? Uh…excuse me? Officer?”


The cop still sat with his head bent over a writing tablet. From the angle at which he sat, and with the masking presence of the man’s uniform hat, Josh could not see the cop’s features.


“Officer…?”


There was no movement, and Josh began to wonder if the cop was sound asleep. Tentatively he reached out and tapped the closed window. Nothing.


He tried again, and again called, “Officer? I need to get some directions.”


The officer’s head moved slightly. Josh rapped on the glass again. Like most people he was afraid of cops, not because he had done anything at all illegal, but just because he was Joe Public and cops were cops. His action, just simply wanting to know directions to a gas station, was deferential, even apologetic. Even the way he tapped on the glass implied apology for disturbing the officer.


“Please, can you tell me where I can find a gas station?”


The cop’s head came up, but he was facing away from Josh, appearing to stare out the window into darkness. The officer slowly held up a hand, one finger extended in a mild command for Josh to wait. The officer set down his notebook and, though still looking in the other direction, jerked the door handle open.


Josh stepped back from the door and watched the cop get out. He was frowning. The cop was getting out of the car in a very strange fashion. He would not turn his face toward Josh, so in a way he actually bent forward and backed out of the car. His motions were jerky, peculiar, as if he was unused to moving his own body. As his head cleared the door frame, the hat caught on the edge and was swept from his head as he straightened. The hat fluttered into the car and the cop made no move to retrieve it. The officer’s hair was tangled and unkempt, and there appeared to be something dark and moist clotted into the tangle at the back of his head. The red and blue dome lights made nonsense of colors, but Josh had the thought that it could be blood glistening on the back of the cop’s head.


Josh’s frown deepened, and he was caught between the sudden rush of ordinary concern and a fearful uncertainty that rooted him to the spot. Then it came to him. The cop must have been in some kind of accident. Maybe he banged his head and that’s why he was so unresponsive and groggy. Josh could see no damage to the car, but maybe the whole other side of the car was punched in.


“Officer…are you all right?”


The cop lost balance for a moment and had to reach out and grab the door frame to keep from falling. Josh automatically reached out with both hands to support him, catching him by the elbow and under the armpit.


“Jesus! You’re hurt. What happened?”


The cop steadied himself, and even lifted one hand to wave Josh back.


“Officer? Hey…you okay?”


“I’ll…” the cop began. His voice was thick and distorted. “I’ll…be…”


“Are you hurt?”


“I’ll…be…fine. Just…give me a moment.” He barely whispered the words.


Josh looked over his shoulder to where Deb was peering at him through the windshield. She made a questioning gesture and he shrugged, shaking his head.


“Um,” Josh said uncertainly, “look…if you’re hurt maybe I can help.” He bent close, saw something dark and glistening on the cop’s face. “Jeez, you’re bleeding!”


Josh put his hand on the officer’s shoulder and gently pulled, trying to turn the man, wanting to see how badly the officer was injured. His first-aid knowledge was on a purely “get a Band-Aid” or “put ice on it” level. But what if this guy had a concussion? What if he was really hurt? The patrol car didn’t look damaged, but maybe he hit something, a deer perhaps, and then cracked his head on the steering wheel. It seemed like the only likely answer. Josh didn’t know if he would be able to work a police microphone to ask for help. He pulled on the cop’s shoulder, and then hesitated. The officer was trembling, his big body shaking spasmodically. Was he…crying?


Jesus , he thought, the poor guy .


He pulled on the shoulder as gently as he could, but still firmly enough to turn the cop. The man resisted with surprising strength. “Let me help,” Josh said softly. “C’mon, let me see…”


“You…want to see?” the officer said, and Josh felt a chill race up and down his spine. As the cop had spoken, it had become clear he wasn’t crying at all.


He was laughing.


Josh’s hand faltered and he opened his mouth to say something; he was confused, trying to understand. The cop turned then. Not with Josh’s assistance, but with his own effort. It was fast—so fast that all Josh saw was a blur of gray cotton, a brief glint of headlights on a gold wristwatch, the hot red flash of a high school ring, and then Josh felt the officer’s white hand clamp around his throat. The pressure was instant and enormous, and Josh felt himself rising to his toes, then beyond all sanity he felt the ground dropping away under his shoes. Even as it was happening the part of his mind that required logic was saying, That can’t be right. His feet kicked in empty space, and yet the cop still held him, still maintained that crushing grip on his throat. Josh tried to scream. The glare from the Jeep’s driving lights splashed against the cop’s face, showing his features at last and with stark clarity illuminating horror.


The officer’s eyes were a furious red set in dark pits of bruised flesh. His mouth was a gaping, laughing impossibility of wicked white teeth. His throat was a ragged ruin caked with blood.


Darkness swarmed around Josh; his senses became confused. He thought he saw two more figures rush out of the darkness beneath the trees that lined the side of the road. His mind was closing down and all that he could be sure of was a vagueness of white faces and empty eyes, and beneath the roaring in his ears he thought he heard a desperate, hungry moaning. These shapes did not come to rescue him, nor did they come to hurt him—they moved away from the police cruiser, toward the Jeep. Dimly, distantly he heard Deb yelling his name, and then she began screaming in long inarticulate wails. She jammed her hands against the horn and the blare rose like a banshee.


Josh tried to call her name, tried to reach for her, but he could feel his own strength fading away. He saw the figures tear open the car doors, saw the shapes come at Deb from both sides. They grabbed her arms and for a moment Josh’s darkening brain thought that the attackers were playing a kids’ game. Tug-of-war. And then Deb’s scream rose to a supersonic shriek as the monsters tore her apart. Her blood splashed against the inside of the windshield and painted it an opaque red-black. Deb’s screams gurgled to a wet nothing and all Josh could hear was a sound like lions tearing apart a zebra with their teeth.


The hand holding him gave a tighter squeeze and Josh saw, with fading vision and awareness, the name tag on the cop’s uniform: D. MCVEY. It meant nothing to him except that it was the last thing he ever saw before the pain in his throat blossomed into a dripping darkness tinged with scarlet.


2


Vic’s cell phone rang and he picked it up from where it lay on a table, saw that the screen display said POLK, and flipped it open. “Yeah?”


“Back door.”


Without comment Vic flipped the phone shut and went to open the door, pausing only long enough to peer through the spy hole to confirm that it was Polk, and that he was alone.


“Hope this ain’t a social call, Jimmy.”


Licking his lips nervously, Polk held up a finger and then retreated to his parked car, which was angled in toward the garage door, and removed a large cardboard box from the trunk. Vic noted that Polk had used enough common sense to remove the bulb from the trunk light, and decided that was worth some Brownie points. Polk handed the box to Vic and in a hushed voice said, “Detonators, rolls of fuse wire, and some timers. Everything you asked for, plus I got a couple extra of each.”


Nodding in appreciation, Vic turned and set the box inside the door. He did not invite Polk in. Turning back, he said, “And the dynamite?”


“I’ll have it next week, but I don’t want to bring it here. I can meet you somewhere out of town, if that’s okay.”


“Yeah, that’s good. Keep your cell handy and once you get it, give me a call. I’ll tell you where and when to meet.”


“Okay.”


Polk’s face was shining with sweat despite the chill, and he kept licking his lips in a way that reminded Vic of a nervous Chihuahua. If he’d had a dog biscuit he would have bet he could have made Polk sit up and beg.


“Kenny said he needed seventy-five percent up front before he turns over the stuff, though, and the rest on delivery.”


“Fair enough,” Vic said. “Wait here.” He left Polk standing outside in the cold darkness while he went back into his den and to a wall safe that was behind a framed photo of Heinrich Himmler, punched in a code, and when the door popped open he took out several stacks of bills that had been bundled into five-thousand-dollar bricks and secured with green rubber bands. He counted out two hundred thousand and dumped the bills into a zippered vinyl bag that read STRIKE IT BIG AT PINELANDS LANES. As an afterthought he took more bricks of bundled twenties and carried them and the bag back outside. Handing off the bag, he said, “This is for your cousin Kenny. And this,” he added, holding out the ten grand, “is for you.”

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