Ruger, of course, had. His cold eyes missed very little. He saw Boyd’s tears just as clearly as he saw the blood and the life seeping out of Tony’s gut. He upped the wattage on his smile and chuckled low in his throat, too low to be heard over the roar of the engine.


Three minutes later, Tony crashed the car.


Chapter 3


1


“This place is a slaughterhouse.”


Detective Sergeant Frank Ferro nodded but said nothing. He and Detective Vince LaMastra stood shoulder to shoulder in the doorway of the warehouse. Ferro was tall, his younger partner much taller, and their shadows stretched far across the bloody floor. There were corpses and spent shell casings everywhere. The stink of cordite hung like a pall in the close air of the warehouse, but beneath the gunpowder reek they could smell the blood, like freshly sheared copper.


Ferro tapped the shoulder of a uniformed officer who was busily sketching the scene in his notebook. “Al, who’s been called?”


The officer looked up. “Hey, Sarge. Some mess, huh?”


“Yeah. OK Corral. Who’s been called?” he asked again.


“M.E.’s on his way, and the photographer’s already around back taking some shots. A BOLO’s been sent out already for Ruger’s car.”


“You’re sure it was Ruger?” LaMastra asked, brightening.


“Yeah, the surveillance team got a positive on him and was about to make the call to you guys when this shit storm went down.”


“Where are they?”


“Northeastern Hospital. Ruger must have sniffed them ’cause he fired a clip into the van when he and the others took off.”


“Jim and Nelly hurt bad?”


Al snorted. “They’re lucky as shit. Cuts from glass and debris, but they hit the deck on the first shot and all the other rounds just tore up the can. Missed them completely.”


“What about Johnston?”


The officer shook his head. “He’s around back.”


Ferro’s lugubrious brown face tightened and he flicked a quick glance at LaMastra. A muscle was bunching and flexing in the younger man’s clamped jaw.


Al led them around back to where Johnston lay in a limp sprawl, arms flung out and legs wide in a red pool. The photographer moved around him and LaMastra as if they weren’t there, taking shot after shot.


“You almost done?” Ferro asked, and the photographer took another shot before answering.


“Yeah,” he said as let his camera hang from its strap. “I’m to do the inside now.”


Alone, Ferro and LaMastra looked down at the corpse.


“Jesus H. Christ,” LaMastra breathed.


They said nothing for a couple of minutes, letting time pass, sorting things out, keeping their cop faces intact despite what was going on behind their eyes.


“Ruger,” LaMastra said, needlessly.


“Yeah.”


“Bastard.”


“Yeah.”


“Now he’s killed a cop.”


“Yeah,” Ferro said in a dead voice.


LaMastra’s jaw muscles kept clenching.


A moment later a uniformed officer came sprinting around the corner of the warehouse. “Sarge!”


Ferro and LaMastra turned. “What is it?”


“It’s Ruger…he’s been spotted!”


2


Vic Wingate fell asleep in his Barcalounger in front of the TV, his feet up and ankles crossed, one hand closed limply around a long-​necked bottle of beer that had gone tepid, the other lying palm down on his crotch. He wore a pair of faded blue boxers and a Pine Deep Softball T-​shirt. He’d never played softball in his life; the shirt was a leftover from Lois’s first husband, Big John Sweeney.


Vic slept and dreamed and his faced was bathed with a greasy sheen of cool sweat. Behind his eyelids his eyes jumped and twitched and every once in a while his hand closed around his balls….


Vic stood in the forest, deep in the shadows in the bowels of Dark Hollow, the toes of his work boots sinking into the muddy fringe at the edge of the swamp as he leaned forward and whispered.


“It’s almost ready,” he hissed. “Everything’s just about in place.” There was silence except for the incessant drone of the mosquitoes and the hoot of a scraggly old owl in the branches of a blighted sycamore.


Vic knelt, almost losing his balance, and for a moment he windmilled his arms as he fought for balance. Much as he loved that which lay beneath the mud and muck, he did not want to touch it. It was not time for that kind of embrace.


“I’ve done everything you wanted,” Vic said as he crept farther back up the bank and onto firmer ground. He licked his lips and then smiled. “Everything…and a few more things. Stuff I thought up.”


A crow cawed loudly and flapped down through the branches and landed on the far side of the swamp. It cocked its head and fixed him with an eye that was as black and expressionless as a bead of polished onyx.


Vic stared at it for a moment and then dropped his eyes to the leaf-​strewn surface of the swamp. He reached out a hand and just glided his fingers along the surface debris. “The world’s changed a lot,” he said. “There’s stuff I had to do that we hadn’t thought of before.”


The bird rustled its feathers and he looked hard at it, squinting in the gloom.


“A lot of things have changed.”


The bird stared back.


Vic looked back down at the mud. “I’ve taken care of everything.” He paused and a slow, cold smile wriggled onto his thin lips. “Everything.”


In his sleep, Vic shifted, a faint smile on his mouth. Beneath his hand he grew hard.


3


Ruger saw it happen just in time to save his own life. That he saved the others, too, was inconsequential to him. He saw it because he was waiting for it, because he wanted it to happen. He needed it to happen, knew it would happen. He’d know that ever since he’d seen the name of the town and heard the voice speaking in his head. He didn’t know exactly what would happen, in fact could never have predicted the exact event that caused the wreck, but he knew the wreck—or something like it—was inevitable.


For weeks now he had felt that Death was dogging his heels and that sooner or later it was going to jump him. That, or maybe he’d find some way to turn it around and spit in Death’s eye. He found himself taking outrageous risks lately, risks like letting a dying man drive his getaway car. Instead of dreading the nearness of death, Ruger had started to groove on it, getting an almost erotic high from the nearness to total blackness. It jazzed him higher than a spike in the vein, and he’d been running on that high for days now, first planning the drug scam with the Jamaican posse, then forcing the deal to go sour by mouthing off to the chief of the Jamaican crew, then the shoot-​out at the warehouse, and now this doomed flight.


It had all been good, all been a wild high. He knew that it would somehow end in a fireball of some kind, and he was perched on the edge of his perception, waiting to take control of it, to force the events to bend to his will, as so many other events in his life had been twisted to his will. There was no rush like it. When Tony lost it, it would be up to Ruger to take Lady Death by the tits and give her a tweak. That’s how he saw it. Give Lady Death’s tits a good tweak. No, he thought in the split second before the car went out of control. Not fuck me, you cold bitch—fuck you.


If he lived through the wreck, it was because his will was strong enough, and that, he knew, would mean that he’d been right all along about something a Gypsy lady had told him: that he was “special,” that he was protected from ordinary death. Maybe even immortal, a concept he did not consider either outlandish or absurd. If he died…well then, he’d just go rushing into that great big blackness with a hard-​on and a curse on his laughing lips and see if the darkness could hold him.


This is how the wreck happened. The black car rounded a bend in the road, leaving the canal behind, and zoomed onto a long stretch of straight highway that clove through seemingly endless cornfields. The ranks of dry corn stood at attention on either side of the car as it whisked along the blacktop, and the car’s slipstream made them sway and whisper. Tony’s hands gripped the wheel so tightly that his knuckles were bone white in the places where they weren’t stained with blood. He kept trying to grip harder just to be able to feel something, but the hands at the ends of his wrists were merely dead lumps abruptly ending in coldness. He could not feel any of his fingers or even his palms. He kept looking at the wheel just to make sure he was actually holding it.


They approached a crossroads where a farm road cut the highway and Tony was looking at his hands when the man walked out of the right-​hand cornfield and stopped in the middle of the road. Tony looked up just in time to see the man stop dead in the spray of the headlights. Maybe it was a trick of the light, or maybe it was his own failing vision, but Tony thought the man—a tall, pale man with blond hair and heavy features—seemed only as substantial as mist, that the burning light of the headlights cut right through him and that he cast no shadow on the ground.


The man grinned nastily at the onrushing car. His skin was white as snow. Not merely pale, not even the white pink of an albino, but as white as the cocaine in the trunk, as white as Tony’s knuckles, as white as Ruger’s teeth when he smiled. The white man stood there, his blond hair fluttering in the storm breeze, his lips curled into a grin as evil and hungry as Ruger’s own.


Tony screamed, and then Ruger swiveled around from looking at the driver and saw the man loom in the headlights and just for a moment he felt a flash of recognition punch through his brain like a bullet.


“Ruger,” he thought he heard the man say in a heavily accented voice, but it was impossible at that distance and at that speed to have heard anything. “Ruger, you are my left hand.”


Time instantly slowed down.


The car seemed to almost freeze around him and Tony and Boyd were like mannequins, their mouths opened in comical parodies of screams. Only the man in the road seemed to exist in real time. He raised a hand and beckoned to Ruger.

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