We did, and he swept the light over Martin’s body, a landscape of garish ruin. “Goodness, that’s an odd-looking fish, isn’t it?” he said, entirely unfazed. “Must be a fresh one. He’s still moving!” The beam came to rest on Martin’s face. His eye rolled back and his lips moved soundlessly, just a reflex as the life Enoch had given him drained away.
“Who are you?” Bronwyn demanded.
“That depends on whom you ask,” the man replied, “and it isn’t nearly as important as the fact that I know who you are.” He pointed the flashlight at each of us and spoke as if quoting some secret dossier. “Emma Bloom, a spark, abandoned at a circus when her parents couldn’t sell her to one. Bronwyn Bruntley, berserker, taster of blood, didn’t know her own strength until the night she snapped her rotten stepfather’s neck. Enoch O’Connor, dead-riser, born to a family of undertakers who couldn’t understand why their clients kept walking away.” I saw each of them shrink away from him. Then he shone the light at me. “And Jacob. Such peculiar company you’re keeping these days.”
“How do you know my name?”
He cleared his throat, and when he spoke again his voice had changed radically. “Did you forget me so quick?” he said in a New England accent. “But then I’m just a poor old bus driver, guess you wouldn’t remember.”
It seemed impossible, but somehow this man was doing a dead-on impression of my middle school bus driver, Mr. Barron. A man so despised, so foul tempered, so robotically inflexible that on the last day of eighth grade we defaced his yearbook picture with staples and left it like an effigy behind his seat. I was just remembering what he used to say as I got off the bus every afternoon when the man before me sang it out:
“End of the line, Portman!”
“Mr. Barron?” I asked doubtfully, struggling see his face through the flashlight beam.
The man laughed and cleared his throat, his accent changing again. “Either him or the yard man,” he said in a deep Florida drawl. “Yon trees need a haircut. Give yah good price!” It was the pitch-perfect voice of the man who for years had maintained my family’s lawn and cleaned our pool.
“How are you doing that?” I said. “How do you know those people?”
“Because I am those people,” he said, his accent flat again. He laughed, relishing my baffled horror.
Something occurred to me. Had I ever seen Mr. Barron’s eyes? Not really. He was always wearing these giant, old-man sunglasses that wrapped around his face. The yard man wore sunglasses, too, and a wide-brimmed hat. Had I ever given either of them a hard look? How many other roles in my life had this chameleon played?
“What’s happening?” Emma said. “Who is this man?”
“Shut up!” he snapped. “You’ll get your turn.”
“You’ve been watching me,” I said. “You killed those sheep. You killed Martin.”
“Who, me?” he said innocently. “I didn’t kill anyone.”
“But you’re a wight, aren’t you?”
“That’s their word,” he said.
I couldn’t understand it. I hadn’t seen the yard man since my mother replaced him three years ago, and Mr. Barron had vanished from my life after eighth grade. Had they—he—really been following me?
“How’d you know where to find me?”
“Why, Jacob,” he said, his voice changing yet again, “you told me yourself. In confidence, of course.” It was a middle-American accent now, soft and educated. He tipped the flashlight up so that its glow spilled onto his face.
The beard I’d seen him wearing the other day was gone. Now there was no mistaking him.
“Dr. Golan,” I said, my voice a whisper swallowed by the drumming rain.
I thought back to our telephone conversation a few days ago. The noise in the background—he’d said he was at the airport. But he wasn’t picking up his sister. He was coming after me.
I backed against Martin’s trough, reeling, numbness spreading through me. “The neighbor,” I said. “The old man watering his lawn the night my grandfather died. That was you, too.”
“But your eyes,” I said.
“Contact lenses,” he replied. He popped one out with his thumb, revealing a blank orb. “Amazing what they can fabricate these days. And if I may anticipate a few more of your questions, yes, I am a licensed therapist—the minds of common people have long fascinated me—and no, despite the fact that our sessions were predicated on a lie, I don’t think they were a complete waste of time. In fact, I may be able to continue helping you—or, rather, we may be able to help each other.”
“Please, Jacob,” Emma said, “don’t listen to him.”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I trusted him once. I won’t make that mistake again.”
Golan continued as though he hadn’t heard me. “I can offer you safety, money. I can give you your life back, Jacob. All you have to do is work with us.”
“Malthus and me,” he said, turning to call over his shoulder. “Come and say hello, Malthus.”
A shadow appeared in the doorway behind him, and a moment later we were overcome by a noxious wave of stench. Bronwyn gagged and fell back a step, and I saw Emma’s fists clench, as if she were thinking about charging it. I touched her arm and mouthed, Wait.
“This is all I’m proposing,” Golan continued, trying to sound reasonable. “Help us find more people like you. In return, you’ll have nothing to fear from Malthus or his kind. You can live at home. In your free time you’ll come with me and see the world, and we’ll pay you handsomely. We’ll tell your parents you’re my research assistant.”
“If I agree,” I said, “what happens to my friends?”
He made a dismissive gesture with his gun. “They made their choice long ago. What’s important is that there’s a grand plan in motion, Jacob, and you’ll be part of it.”
Did I consider it? I suppose I must have, if only for a moment. Dr. Golan was offering me exactly what I’d been looking for: a third option. A future that was neither stay here forever nor leave and die. But one look at my friends, their faces etched with worry, banished any temptation.
“Well?” said Golan. “What’s your answer?”