Page 35

But Fiddlestick promised him that wasn't the case. And Fiddlestick never lied. Not ever.

Tinklebum had wanted to kill the Jackal Lantern, but he did not want to endanger the lives of his friends with the tolling of his bell-bottom. So he stayed behind. He sat and wept and watched them climb for nearly half an hour before he lost sight of them. Then he stood and began the long, dreadful, lonesome journey back to the burned out remains of his home in the Land of Bells and Whistles, where he imagined he would sit and weep for some time before he began to rebuild.

Every morning, he thought, he would rise and begin to toll for the dead. One clang of the bell for every loved one he had lost to the depravations of the Jackal Lantern.

An hour after dawn, he turned and looked back at the rising peak of Bald Mountain behind him. He imagined he could see Our Boy up there on the mountain, with the General and Brownie and the others.

"Kill him," Mr. Tinklebum whispered. "For me. For us all."

Once upon a time, Strangewood had been a happy home for him.

Now, it was hell.

At the same time that Tinklebum made his whispered plea, the Forest Rangers completed their climb, standing up to their full height on the lifeless plateau where the Jackal Lantern's fortress had been built up out of the mountaintop. The highest point in Strangewood. To one side, the Up-River reached its apex, and then tumbled off into the void to begin its journey once more. To the other, the flat and ugly face of old Jack's home.

Captain Broadbough of the Forest Rangers set Thomas down gently on the windswept peak.

"What are your orders, Our Boy?" asked the Captain.

Thomas glanced at the face in Broadbough's bark. "My father is the military man," he said. "All I want to know is how we get in."

Broadbough smiled. "No fear, Thomas," Broadbough said kindly. "We shall get you in."

Thomas looked at his father and saw the way the General's eyes were slitted and sticky with brown sugary webs.

"Once we're inside?" he asked.

The General was silent for a moment. He stared at the face of the fortress, studying it. At length, he turned his attention back to his son.

"There are only four of us. We stay together and we search the place from bottom to top. All we want is Nathan. Anyone gets in the way, we kill them," he said simply, then glanced at them one at a time. "Do any of you have a problem with that?"

"For Strangewood," Brownie said grimly.

"For Our Boy," Fiddlestick said, still in Redleaf's branches.

"For life," said the trees, all in a chorus.

Broadbough then bent, and several of his higher branches brought a gift down to Thomas.

"What is this?" Thomas asked, as the Captain of the Forest Rangers handed him a longbow and a quiver of arrows.

"All made from my own branches, long, long ago," Broadbough said. "They belonged to an archer of some renown. Now they are for you. You cannot be without a weapon."

"It's very kind. Really. But I've never shot a bow in my life," Thomas replied, staring at the thing quizzically.

Broadbough laughed, as did all the others.

"TJ, think," his father said. "Maybe you've lost control of this place. Maybe you were never really in control. But you did alter things sometimes, right?"

"It's your story, Our Boy," Brownie said, bowing deeply. "You may not be able to say how it will end, but surely you can write yourself a bowman."

Thomas stared at the feathers on the arrows in the quiver.

"I'll try," he said tentatively.

Which was when the massive lower doors of the fortress opened, and an enormous black mountain gorilla came shambling out and started toward them with a screeching charge.

Thomas removed an arrow from the quiver, nocked it on the bow, pulled back the string and let the shaft fly. It felt good to him. So natural. The others watched in awe as the red and green feathers whistled in the air.

The arrow missed the gorilla by several yards. Screaming its fury, the savage ape came on. The Peanut Butter General drew his sword. Thomas reached for another arrow.

Two more gorillas emerged from the fortress.

The battle had been joined.


After the shock Emily had received from seeing her stalker out the window of her office, she had simply shut down. Her entire body and her mind had felt numb, as if ice had begun to form within her. Ice only slightly warmed, slightly melted, by the shimmering aura of anger that surrounded it. She was tired of being afraid. Exhausted by the tragedy that her life had become and frustrated by this new addition to it.

The local police had come, of course. They'd done a sweep of the grounds and come up empty, and then one of them, an Officer Whitney, had had a conversation with Detective Sarbacker in Tarrytown, who'd asked that she meet with him to discuss some kind of protection program. She'd arranged to meet at the hospital, so that she could check on Nathan and Thomas, and Sarbacker had readily agreed.

When she'd calmed down slightly, and the police had taken their leave, Emily called Joe, just to touch base. She told him what had happened, and he offered to go by her place and get some things so that she could spend the night at his apartment. And that was that.

Lorena had corralled Dorian from marketing and Garth from the mail room, bother particularly large and imposing men, and the three of them had walked Emily to her car. There was no sign of her pursuer, but Emily was not comforted by his absence. He had been persistent enough so far. She knew that he would show himself again. And again.

Later, during her conversation with Sarbacker at the hospital, Emily couldn't even remember the drive from her office. It was as though she were on autopilot, her entire body just following along with the most basic of impulses. She went in to see Nathan first and kissed his forehead before going to check on Thomas. Nothing had changed.

When Sarbacker arrived, they sat down for coffee in the cafeteria. They must have been between shifts, she thought, because there were a great many people eating and drinking around them, and they had a hell of a time finding a table.

After she'd gone over the events of the day, the detective looked at her with warmth and sympathy. Then his expression became pained, and he ran his fingers through his hair with a sigh of obvious exasperation.

"I've seen this a million times," he said, "though mostly with angry exes and such. If that were the case, it would actually be easier to protect you."

"What are you saying, Walt?" she asked, remembering that he'd asked her to use his first name. She liked the familiarity. It made her feel more valuable to him and, consequently, somehow safer, which was ridiculous, she knew. But that didn't change the feeling.

"I'm sorry, Emily," Sarbacker said, leaning back in his chair and regarding her gravely. "But you have to know that nobody can guarantee your safety."

"Of course I do," Emily snapped. She rolled her eyes. "But, Jesus, what the hell am I supposed to do? This guy hasn't really done anything to me. Not yet. But he's there, all the time. He was in my house. He might be fixing a fucking sandwich in my kitchen right now. What the hell am I supposed to do?"

There were tears struggling to be born at the corners of her eyes, but Emily fought them desperately, nibbling on the inside of her mouth.

"You should leave," Sarbacker said seriously, leaning forward now and forcing her to meet his gaze. "Get away for a while. He'll lose interest in time."

Emily shook her head with a slight smile, then tossed her blonde hair back and regarded him with pained amusement. She could tell by his expression and the tone in his voice that he didn't for a moment believe she would leave town, not with Nathan and Thomas still comatose.

"I can't leave," she said, unnecessarily. "You know that."

Sarbacker sighed. "There isn't a hell of lot we can do for you, then," he informed her bluntly. "I'll try to up the frequency of the prowl car passes by your place. I'll give you my personal beeper number. It's always on. If you like, I can set you up with a self-defense instructor we recommend from time to time. He's local and he's good."

She stared into his kind, sad eyes. His hair seemed a bit more gray today, but she suspected it was just a trick of the horrible cafeteria lighting.

"That's all you can do?" she asked weakly.

The way he'd insisted upon meeting with her, Emily had somehow thought there was more to it, that the police would pay more attention to her plight now that someone else had seen the man who was stalking her. Lorena had provided a horrified description of the man, whose beard, she said, covered so much of his face that he "looked like a werewolf."

"That's it?" Emily prodded, when Sarbacker didn't respond immediately.

"It's a sad truth," Sarbacker confessed, with obvious regret, "but since we have no idea if this freak's got bad intentions or is just obsessed, no one is going to approve protective custody or observation."

"So he has to kill me for anyone to think they ought to protect me?" she'd asked.

Sarbacker didn't respond to that.

With the detective's departure, Emily had spent the rest of the afternoon in with Nathan, just sitting, sometimes reading to him from a book she'd brought from home that he liked to have read to him at Christmas time: The Polar Express, it was called. It wasn't anywhere near Christmas, but he didn't know that. Or at least, she didn't think he did. The only thing that mattered were the words, the soothing, sweet words, and the promise of hope.

Several times, she thought about going back down to see Thomas again, but she didn't. He was responsible for his own condition, and her boy needed her more. Nathan hadn't ever done anything to hurt anyone. Emily sat with him vigilantly, as though in some way she could do for her son what the police could not possibly do for her.

At six thirty-seven, her cell phone rang. She withdrew it from her purse and flipped it open.


"Hey. You're still at the hospital?"

"Hi, Joe. Yes, I was about to call you, actually."

"I've got your things. I'm not going anywhere else. I thought we'd have Chinese delivered, and then we'll hole up here until the end of the world."

There was humor in his voice, but it was forced. He wanted to lighten her mood, relieve some of the tension in the conversation, in her situation, but he failed miserably. Still, she gave him points for trying. He truly was a good man.

"Tell you what," she said. "Call the order into Beijing Gardens, and I'll pick it up on the way."

There was a pause on the line. At length, Joe asked, "Are you sure? It's going to be dark pretty soon and it's just as easy to have it delivered."

"No, I'll do it," she confirmed.

Emily felt as though she had been submerged in her fear the entire day, as though she were holding her breath under water, hiding from the light above. It would do her good, she thought, to see that light, at least for a moment, to join the real world for a handful of stolen minutes, time not spent in her car or the hospital or barricaded inside her boyfriend's bedroom. It was a tiny thing — picking up take-out Chinese food — but it would put her in contact with people.

"All right," Joe agreed. "I'll call it in. Sesame Chicken?"

"Kung Pao," Emily said. "I'm in the mood for something with a little spice. Maybe it'll wake me up a little. What if I stop and get us some beer, too?"

"Beer will put you to sleep," Joe said, genuinely pleased with her change in tone. "But if you want some, by all means. You're sure you don't want me to go out?"

"As long as I don't have to go to my house," she told him. "I think I'll be all right, at least for tonight."

They broke off the connection after that, and Emily still wore a small smile on her face. It wasn't over. She felt that quite keenly. Inside, she could not escape the fear that had grown exponentially in the past two days. But even if it took Herculean efforts, she was determined to be a real person again, just for a night.

It was nearly seven-thirty by the time she pulled into the parking lot at Beijing Gardens. Emily hadn't been in a rush, mainly because the restaurant was notorious for taking forever to prepare its take-out orders. Thus, when she went inside to discover that the food still wasn't ready, she wasn't really surprised, just a bit annoyed.

She sat, with her stomach grumbling, on a red faux-leather bench and tried desperately not to listen to the cracked and straining voices singing bad karaoke in the next room. The owners were fortunate that their restaurant had the best Chinese food in Westchester County.

By the time her food was ready, a particularly enthusiastic young woman had savaged what seemed to be Barbra Streisand's entire catalog of music. Outside, night was quickly falling.

Carrying the large, brown paper bag with both hands, she felt the heat emanating from the bottom. From the crack at the top between the two staples the hostess had put through the bag came the most delicious of smells. Just from the aroma, she thought Joe might have asked them to make her Kung Pao chicken extra spicy, and she smiled. And salivated.

Down the four cement steps and into the parking lot, she walked with the bag clutched in both hands, held against her chest as though she were trying to keep it from harm. The sky had darkened considerably, and with the trees lining it, the parking lot was darker still. Yet it wasn't full night; not quite yet.

From off to her left there came a pop and crackle, and Emily jumped, startled by the noise. Her heart fluttered about in her chest a moment as she glanced over to realize that the noise had come from the electrical transformer up on the telephone pole, as the streetlight at the edge of the lot flickered on.

She laughed gently to herself.

But it wasn't funny. Her anxiety, her fear, those were real, and well-founded. Time to get to Joe's and lock things up tight, she thought. Shifting the bag to her right arm, she reached the left down to dig into her purse, which was slung over her left shoulder. She fished around a bit and finally came up with her keys. With the press of a button, the car's alarm system chirped to let her know it was disarmed.