“Take me if you want,” he pleaded, “but not Val. Not her, too. Not our baby. Do whatever you want to me, but save my family.” When he added, “Please!” it sounded like the word had been pulled out of his mouth with pliers.


2


Jim Polk was in charge of the police detail at the hospital. He was Sheriff Gus Bernhardt’s right-hand man, the department’s only sergeant, and getting what he wanted was easy. Gus was an idiot and even Gus knew it, just as Gus knew that if it wasn’t for Polk’s efficiency, energy, and attention to detail the whole department would be a total wreck. So, what Polk wanted, Polk got.


Even Brad Maynard, head of hospital security, deferred to Polk, especially in light of the hospital’s appalling track record lately. First Ruger had broken into the hospital and disabled both main and backup generators so he could try and kill Crow and Val; then the very next day Boyd broke in and stole Ruger’s body from the morgue. It was an open secret that Maynard was going to have to face the hospital’s board and no one was putting hot money on his chances for keeping his job.


All of this was Polk’s doing. Ordered by Vic, of course, but planned and executed by Polk. I should just request a revolving door for the morgue, he thought as he poured ten sugar packets into the cup of cafeteria coffee he’d sent one of the hospital guards to fetch for him.


It was coming on 4:00 A.M. when his cell phone vibrated in his pocket. Polk didn’t even have to look at it to know who it was. He jerked his chin for the hospital guard to come over. “Duke, I’m gonna go catch a smoke. You stay here. Remember—no one talks to Val Guthrie unless I personally say it’s okay. No exceptions.”


“What about Crow?”


Polk gave him a Clint Eastwood squint. The one Clint uses when he’s trying to figure out how to explain to some total idiot the difference between shit and Shinola. Vic had given him that same look too damn many times. “Just do what you’re told, okay?”


Polk turned on his heel the way he’d seen Clint, and Vic, do and strolled out of the ER and into the fire tower. He jogged up a flight and then down a flight to make sure no one else was around and then pulled out his cell and hit speed-dial. Vic answered on the first ring. “What the hell took you so long?”


“I was with people.”


“Gimme a status report on Mayor Wolfe. He going to make it?”


The town’s mayor, Terry Wolfe, had attempted suicide by hurling himself out of his second-floor window. The drop was not far enough to kill him, but almost.


“He’s a mess. Forty broken bones, couple of ’em compound. Shattered skull. Brain’s probably chopped liver. He’s in a coma right now. Guess we’re going to need a new mayor.”


“So he’s definitely out of the picture for the moment.”


“What about Val Guthrie? What shape did Boyd leave her in?”


“Might go blind in one eye. They just ran a bunch of tests, but right now they got an OB-GYN in with her. Turns out she’s pregnant and they’re checking to see if she’s going to lose the baby.”


Vic grunted. “Bun in the oven, huh? Let me think on that some, maybe it’s something we can use. Call me if you need anything else.”


“Sure, but what—?”


Vic hung up on him.


3


Feeling wretched about Connie and desperately alone, Crow headed down to the ER in hopes of getting a glimpse of Val or Weinstock, but instead he ran into Sarah Wolfe, the mayor’s wife, who sat alone on a hard plastic hallway chair, looking small and lost, her lap scattered with crumpled tissues.


“Hey, sweetie…how are you? Or is that dumbest question ever asked?” He screwed on a genial smile and it fit so badly that it hurt his cheeks. She opened her mouth to say something, but her first word turned into a sob and her face crumpled. Crow bent to her, drew her into his arms, guided her around a corner and into an empty triage room.


“Have they told you how he is yet?” he asked when her sobs slowed.


“I talked to Saul just a few minutes ago. He’s been running in and out of surgeries. He said that Terry’s lucky to be alive. Lucky”—Sarah gave a wretched nod—“that’s a funny word to use.”


“Yeah. Really cheers you up, doesn’t it?” He shook his head. “Sarah, honey…what set Terry off? I talked to him the day before and sure he was stressed, but he didn’t seem this far gone. What triggered it?”


Terry’s nightmares and paranoia had gotten much worse over the last few weeks, and lately he’d been claiming that he saw his dead sister Mandy everywhere he went. “He finally confessed to me that Mandy was trying to convince him to commit suicide. I know it sounds ridiculous,” Sarah said, forcing a ghastly smile, “but I believe he really saw Mandy. He believed she was actually there. He would turn to face her, to look at a spot in the room as if she was standing right there. You’ll think I’m crazy, too, but I swear there were times I could feel her myself. Nuts, huh?”


Crow made a noncommittal sound and tried not to let the horror show on his face.


“There was one moment, Crow, where I swear to God I thought Terry was going to attack me. He started stalking me across the bedroom floor. It was so…weird; it was like he stopped being Terry and became some kind of, oh—I don’t know—some kind of animal. He moved like an animal, you know? He told me about the conversation you two had about his dreams, where you said that he was probably dreaming of becoming an animal—a wolf—because of our last name. I mean, let’s face it, you’ve been calling him ‘Wolfman’ since you two were little kids. So…maybe that’s what happened. Maybe his psychosis, his damage, whatever it is…maybe it just took that path. Maybe for a few minutes up there in our room he thought he was a wolf. Or something like that. Is this making any sense? Am I just rambling?”


“Sarah, honey, I think it’s those pills he’s been popping,” Crow lied. “When this is all sorted out I think we’re going to find that he was probably taking too much of the wrong prescription and it just threw him out of whack. That…plus everything that’s been happening in town, the blight, the whole Ruger thing. Terry holds this town together.”


“Maybe,” she said doubtfully, “but that still doesn’t explain what started him down that road. He’s only been on meds for the last four or five months. The dreams started almost a year ago.”


“I know…but we’re going to have to let the docs figure that out. Right now we have to just focus our minds on the thought that he’s going to pull through, that he’ll be okay.”


“God…do you think so? I mean…really?”


“Sure,” he said, pushing the lie in her path. “Everything’s going to be fine. Terry will pull through and he’ll be kicking my ass on the back nine by spring. Val, too. We’re all going to be fine. It’s all over now…from here on, everything gets better.”


4


Tow-Truck Eddie knelt there in a pool of his own blood, his naked torso streaked with sweat, his face burned dark with red rage, his hands pressed together in prayer. His knuckles were raw hamburger, chopped and lacerated, with flaps of skin hanging open. Blood ran in slow lines down his forearms and dripped from his abraded elbows.


Around him his living room demonstrated his fury. The couch was overturned, its wooden bones shattered, each pillow bitten open and ripped apart. One metal foot of the heavy recliner was buried inches deep into the drywall by the dining room door, still canted at the awkward angle into which it had settled after Eddie picked it up and hurled it half the length of the room. The coffee table was a mass of mahogany splinters scattered in a fan pattern around the shaft of the floor lamp Eddie had used to smash it.


“I’m sorry!” he said, and it was maybe the hundredth time he’d said it. It was all he had said since he’d come home late last night ashamed, furious, and defeated.


Hours earlier he’d had to call his boss, Shanahan, to tell him that he had driven the company’s best wrecker off the road into a ditch near Shandy’s Curve out on Route A-32.


Shanahan was furious. “Are you friggin’ kidding me here, Eddie?”


“No sir,” Eddie whispered back, his shame so huge that it was like a pounding surf smashing down on him.


There was a long pause on the line. “You hurt?” Shanahan asked, his concern grudging.


“Nothing to worry about.” In fact his knee was badly bruised, the muscles in his neck were sore, and he had a slowly pounding headache that suggested whiplash. But he would never say it, couldn’t bear to hear sympathy. The under-tone of disapproval and disappointment was bad enough. “I need another truck to pull me out.”


“How bad’s the wrecker?”


“Not too bad. I’ll fix what I can and you can dock the rest out of my pay.”


“I’m insured. But—damn it, Eddie, how’d the hell you put the thing into a ditch?” Before Eddie could invent an excuse, Shanahan said, “Give me half an hour and I’ll come fetch you.”


Eddie sat on the side of the ditch waiting, murderous with humiliation as Shanahan pulled the wrecker out. But that was not the real source of Eddie’s shame—it was the sure knowledge that he had betrayed the trust his Father had shown him. For weeks now Eddie had been hearing the voice of God whispering to him in his head, telling him wonderful things, revealing to him that Eddie was the Messiah come again and, even more wonderfully, that Eddie was the Sword of God! It confirmed what Eddie had always suspected, but hearing the Voice of God speaking to him…to him…was beyond glorious.


God told him that the New Age was coming, that a New Covenant was about to be made between mankind and the Divine All, but that the Beast—the Antichrist in human disguise—had manifested on Earth to try and thwart God’s holy plan. Eddie’s mission had been to seek out this monster and strike him down to the furtherance of His glory. But the mission was far more difficult than Eddie had thought because the Beast wore a costume of flesh and bone that looked like a boy, and he rode around town on an ordinary bicycle. Such a clever disguise, but Tow-Truck Eddie had ultimately seen through it and had hunted the roads for him for two weeks. Last night he had received a whisper from God Himself, telling him to wait for the Beast out there on the road. He’d known the time, the place, the moment. It should all have gone smoothly; but nothing had gone right and Eddie, through his mortal weakness, had let the Beast defeat him with ridiculous ease, tricking him into that ditch.

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