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By then Newton was comfortably wealthy and living in a restored New Orleans antebellum mansion with his wife and their baby girl, whose name was Valerie. The house was set back into the lush countryside in St. Martinville, not too many miles from where Jonatha had grown up. The estate had a wall and a security gate and there was always a guard on patrol. Always.


On a spring morning five years after the burning of Pine Deep, a Lexus with Pennsylvania plates passed through the gates and drove the winding quarter-mile to the house. Newton and Jonatha saw the car coming and were there with smiles and hugs as the passengers got out. Then all had a lazy picnic under the pecan trees.


There were seven of them. Newton and Jonatha sat in cane chairs the servants had brought down for them, and little Valerie tottered around behind twins with black hair and blue eyes. The twins, a boy and a girl, were four-and-a-half years old, and their names were Henry and Faith. Their mother sprawled in a lounge chair and she was hugely pregnant. She wore a floral-pattern sundress and her long legs were tanned and pretty. Her husband sat on the deck of the redwood picnic table and kept his eye on the kids, who were throwing pieces of sandwich bread at the ducks. Butterflies flitted placidly among the bougainvillea and ground orchids, and the pecan trees cast them all in cool shade.


Malcolm Crow bit into a piece of boudin and washed it down with lemonade that had cherries and mint leaves in it.


He looked older than five years should have made him, but his mouth was still prone to smiling, and he called the extra creases in his face laugh lines. He wore an ancient Phillies cap and a sweatshirt with an R. Crumb picture of Blind Lemon Jefferson on the front.


Without glancing away from the running children, Newton said: “How is he?” Newton never needed to specify who he was.


“About the same,” Crow said after a few moments.


“Has he decided about college yet?”


“Nope.” A yellow jacket landed on Crow’s arm; he blew on it to chase it away.


“Did you tell him that Jonatha and I would pay his way?


Anywhere he wanted to go?”


“Uh-huh.” Crow munched a cookie. “He’s just not sure he wants to go.”


“I don’t think he will go,” said Val. “He just isn’t interested.”


Jonatha shook her head. “College would be good for him.


He’s smart enough.”


“That has nothing to do with it.”


“But it would give him a chance to meet other people, to get away from that place.”


Val took a sip of her lemonade. “I don’t think he wants to get away.”


“That’s insane, though!” said Jonatha. “After all he’s been through, why would he want to stay?”


Val and Crow exchanged a brief glance, but said nothing.


“Hey,” said Newton, changing the conversational tack,


“have you guys given any more thought to moving down here?”


“Uh-huh,” said Val.


“And . . . ?”


“Gets awful hot here during the summers,” Crow said.


“Makes it hard for Shamu here to get around.” He winked at his wife, who mouthed the words “You will pay for that.”


“Which means what?” asked Jonatha “You’re not going to come live with us? Why not stay at least until the baby’s born? We do actually have air conditioning, you know.”


Val reached over and took Jonatha’s hand. “Thanks, sweetie, but the time’s not right. He won’t leave, and we won’t leave without him.”


As Newton turned to say something, Crow held up his hand, “Now, now, don’t go off on a lecture tour on us, dude.


You guys have been terrific to us, and more than generous.


With the insurance money from the store and the cash you guys send us—which you don’t have to do, but which I will keep taking anyway, you filthy rich bourgeois snobs—we have the new house just about finished.”


“The farm’s coming along, too. I made an offer on a couple of hundred acres of what used to be the Carby place. If it goes through next year we’ll become the second largest garlic farmer in the state.”


“You guys are nuts,” Newton observed. He wore shorts and boat shoes and there was an old dime on a string around his ankle. “I wouldn’t live there for all the—”


Val shook her head. “Our life is in Pine Deep.”


“Still?” Jonatha asked, cocking her head to one side.


“After everything?”


Val reached over and took Crow’s hand. “Yes,” she said.


“Especially after everything. It’s different for you two, it always was. Pine Deep wasn’t your home. It was our home, and it still is. We fought for it, and we won’t walk away now.”


“Or hobble away,” added Crow, tapping the cane that lay beside him. After that hellish night he’d spent eighteen months in a wheelchair, another year on crutches, but was now able to get around with only a cane to help him up stairs and slopes. The doctors said he would always have a bit of a limp. A souvenir, one of them had said, and after the look Crow gave him he hadn’t repeated the joke.


“Has there been any sign of . . .” Newton gestured vaguely.


“No,” Crow said quietly. “I think the fire, the birds . . .and Mike . . . whatever Mike brought to that fight seemed to turn the tide. I’ve, um . . . even been down there a few times.


Now that I know a back way I can drive in. Beats climbing that friggin’ hill.”


Newton paled. “You went back?”


“I had to see. Once I was up and around I had to feel the place, you know? I brought in the heavy equipment and we tore his house down.” He laughed. “I even sowed the ground with salt. The swamp, too. But I don’t think it was necessary.


The place felt—I dunno . . . diminished.”


“Still doesn’t feel right, though,” Val said. “I’ve been there, too. Once, to lay flowers in memory of Terry, Vince, and Frank. I won’t go back again. But to answer your earlier question . . . yes, we’ll stay there. We earned that right.”


Crow reached over and took her hand, then gently kissed the hard ridge of her knuckles.


Jonatha lapsed into silence, but Newton said, “And you’ll keep Mike with you?”


“For as long as he wants to stay,” Crow said.


“Is there any sign of skeletal degeneration? Anything like that?”


Crow and Val shared a look. She said, “He doesn’t like to go for his tests. So far he looks strong . . . really strong, but I know that sometimes he’s in pain.”


“What kind of pain?” Jonatha asked.


“He doesn’t talk about it,” Crow said. “Whatever it is, he just eats it, just deals.”


Val looked at the sunlight through the leaves. “After the adoption went through we talked about moving away—we thought he’d want to—but he wants to stay even more than we do. He has a good job with Pinelands Reconstruction. He likes building; he likes making things whole again. He’s helping to rebuild the town. It’ll take years, you know, but you’d be amazed how many people want to move in and raise families there. It’s weird, but the place has really come alive. Property is selling for ridiculous amounts of money.”


“It’ll be a different town, though,” said Crow. “New faces, new families.”


“But it’s always going to be the ‘Most Haunted Town in America,’ ” reflected Newton.


A shadow passed over Crow’s face and he looked away at the geese and ducks and the bright sunlight glinting off the gently rippling water. It was only after he heard his children laughing as they chased a butterfly that the shadow gradually passed and for a moment he thought he heard the faintest echo of sweet, sad blues drifting on the breeze.


“Yeah,” he said very softly. “It’ll always be that.”


4


It was just breaking dawn when he emerged from the forest near the farmhouse. He trudged along, his feet heavy with exhaustion, his face haggard. There was a small cut above his left eye that still bled sluggishly and the shoulder of his black pullover was torn.


He crossed the fields where Val would soon be planting corn, turned onto the winding road, and plodded slowly toward the house. He was tired, but he wasn’t in a hurry. There was no more need for haste, the sun was already up, the night’s work was done.


On the back porch he stamped clumps of dried mud from his boots and slowly climbed the steps that led to his own back entrance to the house. Val and Crow understood his need for privacy, for a private entrance. At the door he stopped and leaned forward to sniff the strand of garlic bulbs. They were stale, the aroma faint. He tossed them over the railing into the yard. He’d replace them this afternoon.


There was always enough garlic around; Val saw to that.


Inside he unbuckled his army-surplus web belt and tossed it and the holstered Beretta onto the bed. He shrugged out of the shoulder sling that held his sword, a three-year-old Paul Chen original. The blade would have to be cleaned, but that could wait, too. Right now he was just too tired. He stripped off all his clothes, stuffed them into a hamper, and then stretched his aching muscles, ignoring the popping sounds from his joints. Mike was a big man, tall and muscular. The growth spurt that had started when he was sixteen had rocketed him up to six-three, and he suspected he might make it to six-four. Long hours with weights and punching bags, with Nordic-Trak and bicycles, had sculpted his physique into lean hardness. The last five years’ worth of boxing, wrestling, and jujutsu had given him quickness and balance and an economy of movement that made some people wonder if he was a dancer.


He padded into the bathroom and removed his contact lenses. They were tinted to make his eyes look blue—an ordinary blue. Without the lenses he avoided looking into the mirror whenever possible. He drank four glasses of tap water, turned on the shower, adjusted the temperature mix, and came back into his bedroom. He put an old Robert Johnson CD on the changer and turned the volume all the way up.

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