“Okay. Down on your knees, Pops, until our gal Val gets back.” Guthrie slowly lowered himself to his knees, and at Ruger’s direction, laced his fingers together on top of his head. Ruger closed his strong white hand over Guthrie’s gnarled sun-​browned fingers and squeezed mildly, but even so the grinding of his fingers made Guthrie wince. Val saw the flicker of pain on her father’s face, as Ruger had intended. “Yes, indeed, it hurts,” said Ruger. “It’ll keep hurting until you get your ass back here with the wheelbarrow. C’mon, bitch, time is money.”


Val turned and ran for the utility shed. True to his word, Ruger kept the painful pressure up until Val came running back behind a bright red wheelbarrow that was spattered with mud. Her father’s face was pinched and his lips drawn thin and tight against his teeth.


Nodding with appreciation, Ruger released Guthrie’s hands and stepped back.


Guthrie rose, opening and closing his hands to restore blood flow. His fingers rang with pain.


“Pick up the door and let’s get rolling.” He had procured a flashlight from the house, and shone it on the backs of father and daughter as they walked along the path that ran beside the vast cornfield. The Guthries laid the door sideways across the wheelbarrow and Val hefted the handles while her father steadied the door. Ruger walked three paces behind them, gun in one hand, flashlight in the other.


As they retraced the route he’d taken since leaving Boyd, Ruger watched them with something approaching pleasure. He actually liked the old fart and his daughter. They were both tough and Ruger respected tough. He was on the fence as to whether he would kill them or not. Probably not, he mused. What would be the point? Identifying him to the cops wouldn’t exactly be a news flash.


Ruger did wonder how Val would be in the sack, though. Feisty. Probably very feisty, and if things weren’t so damned pressing he might have taken the time to get to know her. See if he could tame the filly—not that it would be easy, he thought. Val didn’t seem the type to get a case of the vapors. She’d fight him all the way, and he just didn’t have that kind of time.


Now the Stepford Wife on the other hand. Yeah, she was a sweet piece. Stacked in a country sort of way, and certainly pretty enough. He might just have the time to show that one a thing or two. Just a quickie, but it would set him up right and ease some of the tension that had been knotting his neck muscles all day. Ruger liked the idea and it made him smile. He didn’t believe that Connie was as completely inane or prissy as she appeared—Christ, who could be?—and he wondered what kind of fire lay beneath the surface. Maybe all she needed was a little incentive to make her show her true colors. Her stick-​up-​his-​ass husband probably didn’t have what it took to get much mileage out of her.


They walked down the lane between the tall walls of ripe corn, the beam of the flashlight keeping the Guthries in a globe of dancing yellow.


Ruger—you are my left hand!


The memory of those words and that voice came again and he missed a step and almost tripped. All the time he was in the house it had kept echoing in his head.


What the hell was it? It was driving him batty because he felt he ought to know that voice—that he did know it, but he just couldn’t put a name to it.


Yet the voice was compelling, insistent, and somehow…comforting.


Ruger—you are my left hand!


He took a deep breath and adjusted his grip on his pistol and focused his attention ahead. It didn’t take them very long to retrace the route Ruger had walked since leaving Boyd with his broken leg. Idly, he wondered how Boyd was doing, not that he cared a whit. If Boyd kicked it, then he’d just find someone else who could get him out of the country; there were enough travel agents in the circles he was used to gliding through. He had enough unmarked cash and enough saleable product to grease the wheels of such bureaucracy. With even moderate luck he’d be in Brazil before the weekend was out; or if things were too hot he could get into Canada for a while, hide out with a woman he knew in Montreal, and use her connections to pick up a new passport and visa and fly to Africa. Maybe pick up some mercenary work.


If Boyd was dead…then maybe he would linger here at the ol’ homestead for the night. Maybe do a comparison study of both of the gals, and then head north in the morning, blending into the tourist traffic and following the Poconos up into New York State.


Ruger—you are my left hand!


He grinned in the darkness with a wet shark’s smile, and reconsidered whether he would leave anyone here alive when he left.


2


The old 9mm Glock 17 felt light and comfortable in Jerry Head’s hand. He had a .32 Smith and Wesson strapped to his right ankle, just in case. Not as a throw-​down, but as a true backup piece. Twice in the line of duty Head had experienced handgun disasters. The first time his old S&W 439 had jammed, and the other time he’d lost his gun during a chase that required him to jump from a garage roof into a Dumpster. His sidearm had gotten buried in Hefty bags of old pizza, used Pampers, and empty cereal boxes. In both cases the little .32 had saved his ass. Though lacking the stopping power of the heftier 9mm, and carrying far fewer rounds, the little wheel gun had the grace of never jamming, and being there when otherwise he would have had to try and return fire armed only with harsh language. It was a comfortable weight on his ankle. He knew Toombes had a similar backup piece; he doubted Jimmy Castle did. The man may have been big city once upon a time, but why would he have needed a little guardian angel out here in Stickville?


Head moved as quietly as he could down the corridor created by the out-​of-​control car, but each footfall on the dried corn leaves crackled and crunched. There was no way to move in silence. Behind him and to either side he heard Toombes and Castle making the same noise, and he knew that they would be just as nervous about all the noise as he was. Couldn’t sneak up on a dead man making noise like that.


Behind him, Head could hear Rhoda checking in with Detective Sergeant Ferro, heard the squelch of the radio.


They didn’t have far to go before all three of them saw the gleam of moonlight and flashlight on metal and glass. It was a big, black four-​door sedan and it stood in a small clearing of smashed-​down cornstalks. The trunk lid was up and the right front of the car seemed to be pitched unnaturally low. Head turned to the others, and very quietly said, “We go in together. Toombes, you go right, Castle you go left, and I’ll go up the pipe. Remember, check and clear.”


They nodded and set themselves. Guns poised, fingers sliding into the trigger guards, they stepped into the clearing at the same time, moving quickly but with maximum caution. Castle came up on the driver’s side keeping the muzzle of his revolver focused so that it tracked the light.


“Police officers!” they all shouted. “Freeze!”


Castle shone his flash into the car. “Clear!”


“Clear!” Head called as he checked inside the open trunk and under the car.


He waited for Toombes.


She said nothing.


Rising from a shooter’s crouch, Head peered around the end of the car. Toombes was standing just inside the clearing, facing the passenger side of the car, which was still out of sight to both Head and Castle. Toombes stood stock-​still, her flashlight trained forward, but her service automatic was pointing limply and forgotten at the dirt by her feet.


“Toombes!” called Head. “Are you clear?”


Toombes didn’t even look at him.


“Toombes!”


She opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out.


Head motioned to Castle to circle around the front of the car, and together they converged fast on the passenger side.


Time seemed to freeze.


Officer Jerry Head stared down at the ground by the side of the car. He stared at the blood-​soaked ground. He stared at the blood-​splattered corpses of half a dozen crows that had been peppered with buckshot. He stared at the man that lay there.


At least, he thought it was a man.


Had been a man.


Once.


Not anymore, though. Now it was…unspeakable.


Head felt his brain go numb and somewhere off to the right of his sanity, he heard Jimmy Castle loudly throwing up.


3


Terry stood over Gus Bernhardt as he made the long string of calls to former part-​time officers, listening to the chief plead, cajole, entice, and even bully as he tried to pressgang the honest citizenry of the town into some kind of actual police force. In any other circumstance, the whole thing would be kind of funny. At that moment, however, nothing seemed even remotely amusing. Gus was sweating, and Terry could feel his own pores yielding their store of icy perspiration. He turned away and strolled across the office, focusing on Detective Ferro and his beefy sidekick, LaMastra. They were once again in a hushed, intense confabulation.


Terry didn’t join them, didn’t even linger; instead he moved restlessly around the room. Technically he was the senior official here, a mayor supposedly outranking out-​of-​town cops, but he felt like a kid who had accompanied an adult to the office. Everyone was busy with their own jobs, saying things he didn’t quite understand, doing things he could not help with, trying to accomplish things in which he could not actually participate. It was frustrating, but moreover, it was intimidating.


A phone rang on one of the desks as he passed it, and Terry glanced around to see if anyone was going to pick it up. No one so much as even turned to acknowledge this addition to the cacophony. Shrugging, Terry reached for the handset and picked it up.


“Pine Deep chief’s department,” he said in an official voice.


A voice said, “Terry?”


The connection was bad, making the voice sound distant and pale. It wasn’t a matter of static, for the line was clear, but there was a hollowness to the sound, as if the caller were at the far end of a long tunnel.


“Hello? Who is this, please?”


“Terry?” repeated the voice. “Is that you, Terry?”


It was a female voice, a little girl. Crisply, he said, “This is Mayor Terry Wolfe. Who is calling, please?”


“Terry…” the voice said, and for a moment the connection faded almost to nothingness.

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