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“All right, all right. Son of a bitch.” He rubbed his eyes. “Put McVey on.”


There was a rustle and then McVey spoke. “Hey, boss, sorry for the screwup.” Unlike Golub, who could pass, McVey was a different species of vampire and his teeth had already grown so huge that his voice was muffled by trying to talk around them. Worse than Ruger.


“Where are those assholes now?”


“Dave and I quieted them down, got them sitting in the woods just off the road. We had to cuff them together around a tree.”


“How bad’s the mess?”


“Bad enough, but Dave and I both brought cleanup stuff in our car, like you told us to.”


“I don’t like hearing that you let this get out of hand.” Silence on the other end of the phone. “You understand me?”


“Sure,” McVey said, his voice thick. “But…those Dead Heads are pretty hard to handle. Won’t listen, and sometimes they just go off, y’know? They don’t even drink, not the right way—all they want to do is eat. I’m not even sure they can think, let along take orders—”


“You think you just called 1-800-IGiveAShit? Just clean it up and make damn sure you don’t put a foot wrong again. I don’t want to have to tell you a second time.”


“Yes, sir,” McVey said. The “sir” was a suck-up gambit, but Vic liked it.


“One more thing. Get some body bags and pop a cap in two useless meatheads. Headshots only, and use sound-suppressors. Then bury ’em somewhere quiet. Spread the word about it, too. You step outside of the Plan, you die. Even Dead Heads should be able to process that.” He hung up.


“Shit!” he growled and very nearly hurled his cell phone against the wall.


Chapter 17


1


Val was discharged the next morning and Crow took her home. His home, not hers.


The nurses wheeled her to the front door and she rode in a brooding silence, the cane lying across her thighs, her face stony and set. Crow walked beside her, holding one hand, and as the automatic doors opened before them he jerked them all to a halt. The parking lot was packed with reporters who surged forward to stick microphones in Val’s face as cameramen jostled each other for the best shot. Crow was only marginally relieved to see that Newton was not among them. There were cops there, too, but none of them were engaged in any visible crowd control. Scanning the crowd, Crow saw Polk leaning against a patrol car, legs crossed at the ankles, arms folded across his chest, a shit-eating grin on his face. When Crow shot him a look of pure loathing, Polk responded by giving him a nasty wink.


Prick, Crow thought, and filed that away for future consideration.


As the questions thundered around them, overlapping into a rumbling blur of meaningless words, Crow turned and bent to Val and whispered, “Don’t say anything. Let’s just push through.”


The glasses hid her eyes but there was as much hurt in the set of her jaw as there was offense and anger. Crow helped her out of the wheelchair and put one strong arm around her and used the other to push his way through the crowd. Both of them staring stolidly ahead, they headed toward Crow’s car, Missy. Every reporter tried to be the one to break Val’s silence, and over and over again one would shout a provocative question like, “How do you feel about your brother being killed?” or “Are you devastated now that you’ve lost your whole family?” All designed to gouge a comment out of her, but she bit down on her rage and clutched Crow’s supporting arm like a vise and they eventually got to Crow’s car. Even then, even when they were inside and buckled up, with the car in gear and rolling slowly, the reporters knocked on the glass, even tried the door handles, shouting as loud as they could to be heard and to get through to her. Most people crack; most people get mad and shout, or dissolve into tears, all of which makes for great vidcaps; but Val was Val—she wore her grief like armor and carried her rage like a shield, and she endured it.


More than a dozen film crews followed her out of the parking lot, the news teams scrambling like fighter pilots during an air raid, screeching into turns and pursuing them as Polk and his cronies just watched. Crow didn’t try to lose them, didn’t race down the streets. That would be theater, too, and he didn’t want to give them anything. Beside him Val was a statue, looking neither left nor right, just staring out of the window as the blocks rolled past and the circus followed.


When he pulled up to the Crow’s Nest, the news crews double-parked and hustled out to make another run at a sound bite. Again Crow had to shove past them, and again neither he nor Val said a word or even made eye contact with them. They wrestled their way to the front door of the store; Crow unlocked it and ushered Val inside. When some reporters tried to barge in with them, Crow closed the door on them. Slowly, but with force, pushing them back inch by reluctant inch, then turning the locks. Without a pause he and Val went straight through the store, past the counter, through the rear door that opened into Crow’s apartment. He closed and locked that, too.


“The phone,” she said. They were the first words she’d spoken since the hospital. Crow went over to the phone and switched the ringer off. He drew the blinds on the back windows, made sure the back door was locked, and when he turned around Val was gone. He went quickly into the bedroom and found her sitting on the edge of the bed.


It was only then that she started to cry, and she cried for a long time.


2


“Where are you, Sport?”


Ruger took a cold cigarette from between even colder lips. “I’m at Carby’s place.”


“Okay. Might as well stay there today,” Vic said. “It’s almost dawn. You don’t want to get caught by daylight.”


“Nope,” Ruger said. Vic knew that sunlight was not fatal to Ruger as it was to some species of vampires; all it did was hurt him. But Ruger was still supposed to be dead and his face had been on every newspaper, magazine, and Internet news feed for weeks now. Staying in the shadows meant staying off the radar. “I’ll keep out of sight, don’t worry.”


“You know about that cluster-fuck out on A-32?”


“Yeah. Friggin’ Dead Heads.”


“We can’t have more of that, Sport. Not now. You could do us both a favor and lock all those assholes up until the Wave.”


“I’ll see to it,” Ruger said, his voice a whisper.


“Make sure you do. Right now I gotta get going. Mike didn’t come home last night and I need to look into it. If we’re lucky, Tow-Truck Eddie got him.”


“You think so?”


“I should be so lucky…but something sure as hell happened and I need to know what. I’ll be in touch.”


Ruger flipped his phone shut and tapped it thoughtfully against his chin for a moment, still smiling. Dawn was coming, but it was still dark, so he settled into the shadows to wait. The song “Time Is on My Side” occurred to him and he killed some time letting it play in his head. Corny, sure, but fun corny—and this was going to be fun. His smile never faded as the minutes of night dropped like cigarette ash on the ground around him.


At five-twenty in the morning the door across from him opened and Vic stepped out, dressed in a jeans and a big Eagles windbreaker. Ruger didn’t move, confident of the shadows around him. He watched Vic lock his back door, check the street, then climb into his pickup and drive up the alley. Vic’s eyes were human eyes—weak and stupid. Ruger kept smiling as Vic’s careful stare rolled right over him without a flicker.


The truck passed within a few yards of where Ruger stood, arms folded, leaning on one shoulder deep in the mouth of a neighbor’s side yard. Ruger grinned as the pickup turned the corner.


“Asshole,” he whispered in a voice like a dead Clint Eastwood, and crossed the street. He had no key, but the lock was nothing to him. He put a palm flat on the wood next to the door handle and gave a single short shove. Wood splintered and the dead bolt worked like a lever to tear the entire strike plate out of the frame.


“Oops,” he said, grinning like a kid. He pushed the door shut behind him and tilted a chair under the handle to keep it shut. Have to keep up appearances.


The cellar was dark and silent, but Ruger could hear sounds in the house. He knew that if Vic was up and out, then Lois had to be up. Vic didn’t cook his own breakfast or make his own coffee. He stood at the foot of the stairs and listened to the scuff of her feet on the kitchen floor. Bare feet, no slippers. He liked that. There was a clank of a pan—Ruger caught the whiff of eggs—and then the clink of a bottle. Definitely a gin bottle; he could smell the sharp juniper aroma as she poured. Lois was starting early today.


“Goodie,” he said. And it was. Drunk would work.


He climbed the stairs. It was high time he showed Vic who really was the big dog. More to the point, it was time he showed that sneering prick who was really the Man’s favored son. The door to the kitchen was also locked and it mattered just as little. Ruger wrapped his long white fingers around the doorknob and with no effort at all pulled the whole lock set right through the hole, splintering the wood and snapping wood screws with gunshot sounds. Beyond the door Lois Wingate screamed in shock.


As he pushed through into the kitchen Ruger’s smile grew into a hungry grin. He liked the sound of that scream, his mouth watering with the knowledge that it would be the first of many.


3


They slept through the night, but as dawn approached Val woke up. She lay for a long time staring upward into the empty shadows above Crow’s bed, feeling the weight and solidity of his arm and aware that his need to protect her meant so little in the scheme of things. To her heart, sure, it was wonderful, but to her mind—a machine grinding on its own gears—nothing was strong enough to protect her. Not against her own thoughts. There was nothing that Crow could do—nothing anyone could do—to protect her from the truth of her loss. The town was polluted; there was blight on almost all the crops. Except hers, but the Guthrie farm had suffered its share of pestilence. At that moment, if she could have accomplished it she would have razed all of the crops and every building including her own house to the ground and sown the ground with salt. Not for fear of the crop diseases, but in fear of that other plague. The plague that had made Boyd what he was, which was perhaps the same plague that had drawn Boyd and Ruger to Pine Deep in the first place.

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