Nocturnes | Chapter 6 of 35

Author: John Connolly | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 5110 Views | Add a Review

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ix

 

 

I

 

The rutted track was playing hell with Jerry Schneider’s shocks. He could feel every cleft and furrow ramming hard into the base of his spine and shooting up to the top of his skull, so that by the time the farmhouse came into view he already had the beginnings of a raging headache. Migraines were his affliction, and he hoped this wasn’t about to be the start of one of them. He had work to do, and those damn things left him near puking on his bed, just wishing to die.

Jerry didn’t much care for the detour to the Benson farm at the best of times. They were religious nutcases, the whole bunch of ’em: a family of seven, living pretty much apart from the rest of the world, keeping mostly to themselves except when they headed into town to buy supplies, or when Jerry made his twice-weekly call to pick up a load of free-range eggs and a selection of their homemade cheeses. Jerry thought the cheeses stank to high heaven, and he only ate his eggs scrambled and with enough salt to empty the Dead Sea, but the new wealthy who flocked to the state during both summer and winter swore by the taste of the Bensons’ cheese and eggs and were prepared to pay top dollar for them at Vern Smolley’s place. Vern was a smart one, Jerry would give him that: he’d spotted the gap in the market straight off and transformed the rear of his general store into a kind of gourmet’s paradise. Jerry sometimes had trouble even finding a space in which to park, Vern’s lot being filled to the brim with Lexuses, salesroom-polished Mercedes convertibles, and, in winter, the kind of snazzy 4WDs that only rich people drove, with a smattering of designer mud on them for that authentic country look.

The Bensons would have no truck with folks like that. Their old Ford was held together with string and faith, and their clothes were thrift store when they weren’t hand made by Ma Benson or one of the girls. In fact, Jerry sometimes wondered how they squared selling their food to the kind of people they regarded as being on a one-way express ride to hell. He wasn’t about to ask Bruce Benson himself, though. Jerry tried to avoid having much conversation at all with Bruce, since the old man used any kind of opening as an opportunity to peddle his own particular brand of God-hugging. For some reason, Bruce seemed to believe that Jerry Schneider could still be saved. Jerry didn’t share Bruce’s faith. He liked drinking, smoking, and screwing around, and last he heard, those pursuits didn’t much enter into the Bensons’ scheme for salvation. So twice each week Jerry would drive his truck up that migraine minefield of a track, pick up the eggs and cheese with the minimum of fuss or talk, then head back down the track at a slightly slower pace, since Vern would take breakages of more than 10 percent out of Jerry’s fee.

Jerry Schneider never felt as if he had quite settled back into life in Colorado, not since he’d come back from the East Coast to look after his mother. That was the curse of being an only child: there was no one to share the burden, nobody to take some of the strain. The old woman was becoming forgetful, and she had taken some bad falls, so Jerry did what he had to do and returned to his childhood home. Now it seemed like every week some new misfortune befell her: twisted ankles, bruised ribs, torn muscles. Those kinds of injuries would take some of the steam out of Jerry, and he was near thirty years younger than his mama. Inflict them on a woman of seventy-five, with osteoporosis in her legs and arthritis in her elbows, and it was a miracle that she was still standing.

Truth to tell, things had slackened back east since 9/11, and Jerry was working short hours before he made the decision to move home. If he hadn’t moved, then pretty soon he would have been working a second job in a bar to make ends meet, and he was just too beat to consider putting in seventy hour weeks simply to live. Anyway, he had no real attachments in the city. There was a girl, but they were coasting. He didn’t figure she’d be too cut up when he told her he was leaving, and he was right. In fact, she looked kind of relieved.

But returning here had reminded him of a lot of the reasons why he’d left to begin with. Ascension was a small town, dependent for its prosperity on outsiders, and it resented that dependence even while it concealed its true feelings with smiles and handshakes. And it wasn’t like Boulder, which Jerry liked because it was a little enclave of liberalism. Most of the time, folks in Boulder seemed just one step away from raising their own flag and declaring independence. People in Ascension, by contrast, were proud to live in a state with enough radioactive material under the ground to make it glow in the night. Jerry figured that, like the Great Wall of China, parts of Colorado could be seen from outer space, the Rockies gently luminescing in the darkness. He suspected that folks in Ascension would be proud to think that their state acted as a kind of radioactive beacon for God or aliens or L. Ron Hubbard. It was worse farther south in places like Colorado Springs, down by the USAF academy, but Ascension still remained a bastion of blind patriotism.

Jerry wondered too if people grew stranger as they got closer to Utah, like the Mormons were putting something into the water or the air. That might explain the Bensons and the other religious types like them who seemed to have gravitated toward the area. Maybe they just got lost on the way to Salt Lake City, or ran out of gas, or it could be they thought they were already in Utah, and that the state was just joshing with them by making them pay taxes to Colorado.

Jerry couldn’t figure the Bensons out, but he wished they’d devote a little of that time spent praying to fixing up the road to their farm. The track seemed tougher to negotiate this week, a consequence of the cold weather that had already begun to settle on the state. Pretty soon the first snows would come, and then Bruce Benson would have to plow the route to his house himself if he were planning to continue making money out of cheese and eggs. Vern’s other suppliers all made their own deliveries, but not Bruce Benson. He seemed to equate his hatred of sin with a hatred of the town of Ascension, and preferred to keep his contact with the population at large to the absolute minimum. His wife was the same way: Jerry Schneider couldn’t recall ever meeting a more hatchet-faced bitch, and he’d been around some. Still, Bruce must have plucked up the courage to fill her purse at least four times (although Jerry would lay even money he’d kept the lights off and the windows blacked out while he did it) because they had four kids: three girls and a boy. Then again, the kids were all good-looking, maybe with a little of Bruce to them but not so much that it would bother anyone, so maybe Bruce had seeded up someone better-looking than his wife. The old hag probably sent him off with her blessing, grateful not to have to do something she might enjoy.

The boy, Zeke, was the youngest. He had three sisters, the eldest of whom, Ronnie, was beautiful enough to make Jerry listen to Benson’s ravings for a time if she happened to be out in the yard doing chores. Sometimes the sun would catch her just right and Jerry would see the shape of her through her long skirt, her legs slightly apart like a pitched tent inviting him inside, and the rays gilding the muscles on her calves and thighs. Jerry suspected that Bruce knew what he was doing, but chose to ignore it in the hope that Jerry might see the light. Jerry was hoping to see something else entirely, and wondered if Ronnie might be prepared to show it if he got her alone and away from her daddy’s influence for a time. She occasionally smiled at him in a way that suggested she was suffering the frustrations that a good-looking young woman like her would surely feel, cut off as she was from any outlet for her appetites. The children were educated at home by their parents, and Jerry figured that the sexual component of that education could pretty much be summed up as “Don’t do it, and especially not with Jerry Schneider.” Educated at home, their ailments kind of treated at home—Jerry just hoped that nothing serious ever happened to any of the family, because the Bensons didn’t hold with doctors or medical intervention—and their lives revolving only around one another and a miserable, distant God; it would be some time before the networks got around to basing a comedy on the Benson family.

One of Bruce Benson’s brothers also lived with them. His name was Royston, and Jerry figured him for mildly retarded. He didn’t say much, and his head was always nodding like one of those little dogs that some people kept on the dashboard of their car, but he seemed fairly harmless. There was talk around town that he’d once tried to feel up Vern’s mother in the store a couple of years back, although Jerry had never worked up the courage to ask Vern—or his mother—if this was true. Maybe that was another reason why Bruce Benson never came down to the store. Nothing sours relations between folk like the dimwit brother of one party coming over all Italian on the upright Baptist mother of the second party.

Jerry passed through the main gates to the Benson farm, instinctively turning down the volume on the truck radio, since Bruce didn’t appreciate music much, and certainly not the stuff that was pouring out of Jerry’s speakers just now: Gloria Scott’s sultry vocals, backed up by the late, great Barry White’s production skills. Jerry liked the old Walrus’s touch. He might not have been quite as out there as Isaac, and he could legitimately be blamed for setting the tone for the limp, insipid stuff that passed for modern R & B, but there was something about those massed strings that made Jerry want to find some willing young thing and mess up the sheets with baby oil and cheap champagne. He wondered if Ronnie Benson had ever heard of Barry White. As far as Jerry knew, the Bensons didn’t even listen to the crazy preachers at the end of the dial, the ones who testified to the love of God yet seemed to hate just about everyone, or at least the kind of people that Jerry knew and liked. Introducing the Benson kids to Barry White would probably kill the old man stone dead, and drive the daughters into some kind of frenzy.

Discreetly, Jerry turned the volume back up a notch.

The Bensons always moved their chickens into a big barn as soon as winter came. In fact, Bruce had told Jerry last week that they’d be inside next time he came, but as he approached the chicken runs on the right, Jerry could see small bundles of white scattered upon the ground. They lay still. The wind ruffled their feathers some, so that they seemed to be trembling on the ground, but it was only a false impression of life.

The sight made Jerry stop short. Leaving the engine idling, he stepped from the truck and walked to the wire. Close by lay the body of one of the Bensons’ chickens. Jerry leaned in to touch it, pressing gently into its flesh with the tips of his fingers. Black fluid instantly oozed from its beak and its eyes, and Jerry withdrew his fingers hurriedly, rubbing them on the seam of his pants in an effort to cleanse them of any potential contagion.

All of the chickens were dead, but no animal had done this. There was no blood upon the feathers, and no damage that Jerry could see. In the far corner of the run, Jerry spotted the Bensons’ rooster strutting among his dead concubines, his red coxcomb clearly visible as he pecked at the ground, hunting for the last grains to stave off his hunger. Somehow he had survived the slaughter.

Jerry leaned in and turned off the engine of the truck. Everything here was wrong. There was desolation on the wind. He walked across the yard. The door to the Benson house was wide open, held that way by a triangle of wood at its base. He stood at the base of the steps leading up to the porch and called out Bruce Benson’s name.

“Hello?” he said. “Anybody home?”

There was no reply. The door led directly into the Bensons’ kitchen. There was food on the table, but even from outside Jerry could tell it was rotting.

I should just call the cops. I should call them now, then wait for them to come.

But Jerry knew that he couldn’t do that. Instead, he went back to his truck, tipped open the glove compartment, and took the cloth-wrapped Ruger from under the accumulation of maps, restaurant menus, and unpaid parking fines. The gun wouldn’t change anything, not now, but he felt better for having it in his hand.

The kitchen smelled bad. The dinner of chicken and biscuits looked as if it had been there for a couple of days. Jerry recalled the dead fowl in the run, and the black substance that had oozed from the mouth of the bird he’d touched. Christ, if the chickens had somehow become contaminated, and that contamination had spread to the family…His thoughts went to the eggs that he had been collecting and delivering to town for the past six months, and to the chicken that Benson had given to him as a Thanksgiving present less than a week before. Jerry almost threw up there and then, but he regained his composure. In all his life, he’d never heard of anyone dying from a poultry disease, except maybe that flu they had over in Asia, and what killed the Bensons’ chickens didn’t look like any flu Jerry had ever seen.

He checked the living room—no TV, just a couple of easy chairs, an overstuffed couch, and some religious pictures on the walls—and the downstairs bathroom. They were both empty. Standing at the bottom of the stairs, Jerry gave one more holler before making his way up to the bedrooms. The smell was stronger here. Jerry took his handkerchief from his pocket and jammed it against his nose and mouth. He already knew what to expect. He’d worked for a time in a slaughterhouse in Chicago when he was younger, one that wasn’t too fussy about the quality of its meat. Jerry had not eaten a hamburger since.

Bruce Benson and his wife were in the first bedroom, lying beneath a big white quilt. He was wearing his pajamas, and she was dressed in a blue cotton nightdress. There was black fluid on their clothing and on the bed, and more of it caked around the lower half of their faces. Bruce Benson’s eyes were half open, and his cheeks were streaked with black tears. From their expressions, Jerry figured they’d gone out hard. Even in death the pain remained fixed upon them, as though they were models carefully sculpted by a disturbed artist.

The three daughters were in the next bedroom. Although there were bunks in one corner, the girls had congregated on the big bed in the center of the room. Jerry guessed that this was Ronnie’s bed. She held her younger sisters cradled in her arms, one on each side. There was more black blood here, and Ronnie was no longer beautiful.

Jerry looked away.

The youngest child, Zeke, was in a little box room at the far end of the hallway. He had been covered up with a sheet. First to go, Jerry thought, when someone still had enough strength to shroud him after he died. But if there was strength to do that, why not call for help? The Bensons had a telephone, and even with their peculiar beliefs they must have realized that something was very wrong. Whole families didn’t die this way, not in Colorado, not anywhere civilized. This was like the plague.

Jerry turned to leave the boy’s room, and a hand touched his shoulder. He spun around, the gun raised, and let out a kind of tortured shriek. Later he would describe it as a woman’s scream, a sound such as he never thought he would make, but he wasn’t ashamed. Like he told the cops, anyone would have done the same, they’d seen what he’d seen.

Royston Benson stood before him: poor dumb Roy, who loved God because his brother told him that God was merciful, that God would look out for him if he prayed hard and lived a good life and didn’t go around feeling up other people’s mothers in grocery stores.

Except God hadn’t looked out for Roy Benson, didn’t matter how much he prayed or kept his hands to himself. His fingers were swollen and blackened, and his face was covered in dark tumors, red at the edges and dark at the center. One masked the entire left half of his face, closing the eye to a slit and disfiguring his lips so that they turned up at one side in the semblance of a grin. Jerry could make out what was left of his teeth, barely held in place by his rotting gums, and his distorted tongue flicking in the cavern of his mouth. Black fluid flowed like oil from his nostrils and his ears and the corners of his mouth, pooling on his chin before dripping onto the floor. He said something, but Jerry couldn’t understand what it was. All he knew was that Roy Benson was rotting away before him, and crying because he couldn’t understand why this was happening to him. He reached out for Jerry, but Jerry backed away. He didn’t want Roy touching him again, no matter what.

“Take it easy, Roy,” he said. “Be cool. I’m going to call for help. It’s going to be okay.”

But Roy shook his head, the movement causing snot and tears and black blood to spray Jerry’s face and shirt. Again, he tried to form words, but they wouldn’t come, and then he was jerking and spasming, like something was trying to burst out from inside of him. He fell to the floor, his head banging against the boards with enough force to dislodge his dead nephew’s toys from their shelves. His hands scraped at the wood, wrenching the nails from the tips of his fingers. Then, as Jerry watched, the tumors on his face began to spread, colonizing the last fragments of untainted skin, rushing to meet one another before their host died.

And as the last trace of white disappeared from his face, Roy Benson stopped struggling and lay still.

Jerry staggered away from the dead man. He stumbled to the door, found the bathroom, and vomited into the sink. He continued retching until only spittle and bad air came up, then looked at himself in the mirror, half expecting to see that terrible blackness erasing his own features, just as it had consumed Roy Benson.

But that was not what he saw. Instead, he turned and looked at the cigarette in the ashtray by the toilet. The ashtray was filled with butts, but this one was still smoking, the last tendril of nicotine dissipating as Jerry watched.

Nobody in this house smoked. Nobody smoked, or drank, or swore. Nobody did anything except work and pray and, over the last few days, rot away like old meat.

And he knew then why the Bensons had not called for help.

Someone was here, he realized.

Someone was here to watch them die.

 

II

 

Ten days later, and two thousand miles to the east, Lloyd Hopkins said the words that nobody wanted to say.

“We’re going to have to replace that plow.”

Hopkins was wearing his new uniform trousers, which seemed to him to be fitting a little more snugly than they should have. He was wearing new pants because one change of clothes was in the wash, while the second had been ripped to shreds during a recent search for a pair of hikers. The hikers were reported missing by Jed Wheaton, the owner of Easton’s sole motel, after they failed to return from a scoot around Broad Mountain two days earlier. As it turned out, the couple—from New York, wouldn’t you know it—were apparently overcome by lust for each other while on the trail, and had checked into a lodge under assumed names because they thought it would spice up the occasion. They didn’t bother to tell Jed Wheaton, so when they didn’t come back to their room that night he called the station house, and Chief Lopez rounded up the rescue team, which included Lloyd Hopkins, his only full-time patrol officer, to begin searching first thing next morning. They were still out on the mountain when the couple, their appetites under control again, turned up at the motel to settle their bill and collect the rest of their stuff. Under instructions from the chief, Jed had refused to let them leave until Lopez got back to town and gave them the kind of dressing-down that stopped just short of beating them to a pulp and hanging them from the town’s WELCOME sign as an example to others.

Now, Hopkins, Lopez, and Errol Crisp, Easton’s new mayor, were all standing in the garage of the municipal building, looking at the town’s sole, ancient snowplow.

“Maybe we could get someone to patch it up,” said Errol. “That worked before.”

Lopez snorted. “Yesterday, it bled oil like someone had just stabbed it with a spear. Today we can’t even get it started. If it was a horse, you’d shoot it.”

Errol gave one of his long sighs, the ones he used whenever the idea of spending money was raised. He was the first black mayor Easton had ever elected, and he was trying to step lightly in his first month on the job. The last thing he wanted was people complaining that he was spending money like a freed slave. At sixty, Errol was the oldest of the three men in the garage. Lopez, who didn’t look even the one-sixteenth Spanish that he claimed to be, was twelve years younger. Lloyd Hopkins, meanwhile, looked like a teenager. A chubby teenager, maybe, but a teenager nonetheless. Errol wasn’t even sure if the kid was legally allowed to drink.

“The council’s not going to like it,” said Errol.

“The council’s going to like it a whole lot less when its members can’t see the town for the snow,” said Lopez. “The council’s not going to like it when businesses start complaining that nobody can park on the street, or that folks are falling off the curb and breaking their legs because they can’t tell where the sidewalk ends and the road begins. For crying out loud, Errol, this thing doesn’t owe us anything. It’s older than Lloyd here.”

Lloyd shifted his thighs, trying to work some space between the fabric of his pants and his skin. When that didn’t work, he tried to discreetly extract the material from the crevices into which it had lodged itself.

“The hell is wrong with you, son?” asked Errol. He took a couple of steps back from the young policeman, just in case whatever was ailing him could jump.

“Sorry,” said Lloyd. “These trousers don’t fit right.”

“Why are you wearing them, they don’t fit right?”

Lopez answered. “He’s wearing them because he was too vain to admit that he’d put on a little weight since the last time he had to buy new pants. Thirty-four inches, my ass. I told you when you were ordering them that you ought to get measured up. Errol here will see thirty-four again before your waist does.”

Lloyd reddened but didn’t reply.

“Don’t worry,” said Lopez. “We’ll get you another pair. Put it down to experience.”

“You better put it down to ‘miscellaneous expenses,’ ” said Errol. “I don’t want people asking how come we buying pants like they’s a shortage on the way. Shit, son, I got a two-year-old grandson don’t need two pairs of pants in a month, and he’s growing like grass in summertime. Two years old, even he knows when a pair of pants ain’t going to fit him.”

Lopez grinned and let the mayor ride on Lloyd for a while. He knew what was going on, even if Lloyd didn’t. Errol would get himself worked up in a lather over a forty-dollar pair of blues so he could feel better about spending one hundred times that amount on a new plow. Once he’d finished, Lopez would walk with him back to his office and they’d work out the details of the purchase. There would be a new plow in the garage in a week. Lloyd might even have trousers that fitted him by then. Still, the young patrolman could be forgiven his little idiosyncrasies. He was honest, diligent, smarter than he looked, except when it came to his weight, and he didn’t claim overtime. Lopez would have a talk with him about his diet. Lloyd tended to listen to his superior on most things. Who knew, maybe those trousers could end up fitting him after all. It might take a while, but Lopez viewed Lloyd as a work in progress in any number of ways.

 

 

Easton was a typical New Hampshire town: not quite pretty, but not ugly either; a little too far away from the big winter playgrounds to enjoy much of a tourist trade from them, but close enough for the locals to hop in a car and spend a day on the slopes, if they chose. It had a couple of bars, a main street on which more than half of the businesses made a reasonable income year-round, and one motel, which was as much a hobby as a business for its owner. Its school had an adequate football team and a basketball team that most people preferred not to mention. It also had a sense of civic pride out of all proportion to its apparently modest aspect; a conscientious, if frugal, town council; a police department that consisted of just two full-time cops and a handful of part-timers; and a crime rate just slightly below the average for a town of its size. All told, the chief sometimes reflected, there were better places to live, but there were also far, far worse.

Frank Lopez, the chief’s father, worked as an accountant in Easton from 1955 until 1994, when he retired and moved to Santa Barbara with his wife. His son, Jim, had by that time been a policeman in Manchester for almost twenty years. In 2001, the chief’s job in Easton became vacant and Jim Lopez applied for it and got it. He had his quarter century under his belt, and while he didn’t want to leave law enforcement, he fancied a quieter life for himself. His marriage had broken up ten years previously, childless but also without bitterness, and Easton, his hometown, offered him familiarity, comfort, and a place in which to settle comfortably into middle age. The job didn’t tax him unduly, he was liked and respected, and he had met a woman whom he suspected he loved.

All told, Jim Lopez was happier than he had ever been.

 

 

The Easton Motel was quiet that week. After the fuss about the hikers, Jed Wheaton was kind of grateful not to have too many guests to worry about. Things would pick up again once the snows came, when Easton usually enjoyed a small trickle-down from the winter tourist trade. It would still be a bad year, but something might be salvaged from it.

Of the twelve rooms, only a couple were currently occupied. There were two young Japanese tourists in one, who giggled a lot and took too many photographs but kept their room so tidy that Maria, the maid, said she felt like she was making more of a mess than they were. They folded their towels, didn’t leave hairs in the shower or the sink, and even made their own beds.

“Wouldn’t it be great if everybody who stayed here was like them?” Maria asked Jed that morning, after she came back from checking the rooms.

“Yeah, wonderful,” he replied. “I could fire you and spend the money I saved on making my old age more comfortable.”

“Tcah!” Maria dismissed him with a flick of her wrist. “You’d miss me if I wasn’t here. You like having a pretty young girl around.”

Maria was Puerto Rican, big and ribald, and happily married to the town’s best mechanic. She might have been a pretty girl once, but now she looked like she’d just eaten one. Maria worked hard, was never late or bad-tempered, took care of the desk and the reservations, and generally had more to do with keeping the motel running from day to day than Jed did. In turn, he paid her well and didn’t complain when she used her knowledge of the inner workings of the vending machines to feed herself the occasional free candy bar.

As if to test her skills, and Jed’s tolerance, Maria walked over to the big red candy machine in the corner of the office, put her ear to its side, listening to it like a safecracker would to a safe, then gave it a sharp slap with the palm of her hand.

A Snickers bar fell from its perch into the tray.

“How do you do that?” asked Jed, not for the first time. “I try, but I just end up hurting my hand.”

Then, as if realizing that he was effectively condoning theft against himself, he continued: “And if you’re going to do that, at least don’t do it in front of me. It’s like robbing a bank and asking for a receipt.”

Maria sat down and unwrapped the candy bar.

“You want some?”

“No. Thank you. Why am I even saying ‘Thank you’? I paid for the damn thing.”

“What’d it cost you, a whole seventy-five cents?”

“It’s the principle.”

“Yah, yah, yah: the principle. Some principle, costs seventy-five cents. Even with what you pay me, I could buy me a lot of principles.”

“Yeah, well maybe you should consider investing in some, like not stealing, for one.”

“It’s not stealing, you see me doing it and you don’t say nothing. That’s giving, not stealing.”

Jed left her to it. He reviewed the guest register. They had nobody else checking in that day, then two confirmeds for Thursday and five for Friday. Combined with those who might follow the signs from the highway when they tired of driving, it didn’t look so bad for the rest of the week.

“Guy in twelve,” Maria said.

“What about him?”

Maria stood, walked to the door to check that there was nobody around, then leaned in toward Jed.

“I don’t like him.”

The guest in room 12 had arrived in darkness two nights before. Jed’s son, Phil, who was home for a couple of days from college and didn’t mind earning a few extra bucks on the desk, had checked him in.

“Why? He won’t let you steal his candy?”

Maria didn’t reply immediately. Usually, she was quick to make her feelings known. Jed put his pen down and looked serious.

“He do something to you?” he asked.

Maria shook her head.

“So what is it?”

“He’s got a bad feeling about him,” she said. “I tell you, I went to clean his room. The drapes were closed, but there was no sign on the door. I knocked, heard nothing, so I opened the door.”

“And?”

“He was just… sitting there, on the bed. It didn’t look slept in. He was just there, his hands on his knees, facing the door like he’d been waiting for me to come in. I said I was sorry and he said, no, it was all right, I could come in. I said, no, I’ll come back, but he insisted. He said he didn’t sleep so good at night, and that he might try to have a nap later in the morning, so he’d prefer if I cleaned the room now. But it didn’t look like there was nothing to clean, so I said to him, what do you want me to do? He told me he’d used some towels in the bathroom, that was all.

“So I got some clean towels and went to the bathroom. He was still sitting on the bed, but I could see him watching me. He was smiling, and I felt like there was something wrong.”

For the first time, Jed noticed that Maria had not eaten the candy bar. It remained, untouched, in her hand. She saw him looking at it, then carefully wrapped it and put it on the counter.

“I don’t want it now,” she said.

Jed thought that she was about to cry.

“That’s okay,” he said. “I’ll put it in the refrigerator. You can eat it whenever you want.”

He picked it up and placed it carefully on a shelf in the little unit behind the counter.

“Go on,” he said. “You were telling me about twelve.”

She nodded.

“I went into the bathroom, and all of the towels were on the floor. When I picked them up, I think there was blood on them.”

“Blood?”

“I think so, yes, but it was black, like oil.”

“Maybe it was oil.”

Jed wasn’t sure which was worse: blood or some jackass using his towels to mop up an oil leak from his car.

“Maybe. I don’t know. I got them in a bag in the laundry. I can show you.”

“Well, we’ll see. So that’s it: dirty towels?”

Maria raised her hand. She was not finished yet.

“I put on my gloves and picked up the towels. I was going to take them outside when I looked at the toilet. The seat was up. I always check anyway, just in case, you know, it needs to be cleaned. There was more black in there, like he’d puked it up from inside him, or worse. It was all over the bowl.

“I turned around, and he was standing beside me. I think I cried out, because he frightened me. I almost fell, but he reached out so that I didn’t slip. He told me he was sorry, that he should have warned me about the bathroom.

“ ‘I been ill,’ he said. ‘Real sick.’

“His breath smelled bad. ‘You need a doctor?’ I said.

“ ‘No, no doctor. No cure for what ails me, ma’am, but I feel like I’m on the mend. I just needed to get some stuff out of my system.’

“Then he let me go. I picked up the towels, replaced them with clean ones, and flushed the bowl. I was going to scrub it, but he told me I didn’t have to do that. When I left, he was just sitting on the bed, like he was when I arrived. I asked him did he want me to pull the drapes and he said, no, he was sensitive to the light. I closed the door and left him there.”

Jed thought for a time.

“So, he’s been sick,” he said at last. “Nothing to stop a sick man renting a room, I guess, though I figure we’d better be careful with those towels. You said you wore your gloves, right?”

“I always wear my gloves. The HIV, the AIDS, I’m always real careful.”

“Good,” said Jed. “That’s good.”

He nodded to himself.

“I’ll go down and check on him myself, once I’m done here, maybe convince him to let Doc Bradley take a look at him. Doesn’t sound to me like he’s on the mend, he leaves black blood in the bowl. Doesn’t sound like he’s getting better at all, if he’s doing that.”

He told Maria to head home early, spend some time with her grandchild. He would roust Phil if there was anything that needed to be done. Sure, Phil might whine some, but he was a good kid. Jed would miss him when he headed back to school at the end of the week. He wouldn’t be seeing him again until after Christmas, since Phil was spending the holidays with his mom in Seattle. Jed consoled himself with the thought that the boy would be back before New Year’s and, if the choice were his own, Phil would probably have preferred Easton to Seattle anyway. Most of his buddies would be back for the holiday season in the hopes of getting a little skiing in, and Phil was as good as any of them on the slopes.

In the meantime, he’d talk to the guy in 12 and try to figure out if there was anything that needed to be done. He might even send him on his way, since there would be nothing worse for business than a stranger dying in one of his rooms. Maria thanked him before she left. He could see that she was badly shaken, although he wasn’t certain why. Sure, finding bloodied towels and a bloodied bowl in a room occupied by a sick man wasn’t nice for anyone, but they’d had to mop up a lot worse in the past. Hell, there was a bachelor party that stopped off a couple of years back and left Jed thinking it might be easier just to burn down the motel and rebuild it instead of cleaning it.

Jed drew the register toward him and ran his finger down the page until he came to the name of the man in 12.

“Carson,” he read aloud. “Buddy Carson. Well, Buddy, looks like you may be checking out sooner than you think.”

In more ways than one, he thought.

 

 

Although the man who gave his name as Buddy Carson had arrived at the motel only two nights before, he had been drifting around Easton and its environs for more than a week, ever since he left Colorado. Two thousand miles, and he’d covered it in less than two days. Buddy didn’t need to sleep more than an hour or two at most, and didn’t eat much other than candy bars and sweet things. Sometimes he wondered about his eating habits, but it didn’t occupy him for long. Buddy had more important things to worry about, like easing his pain and feeding the appetite of the thing that dwelt within him.

On Monday, shortly after crossing the Vermont/New Hampshire state line, he came across Link Frazier changing the wheel on his truck and knew it was time to begin again.

Link was seventy, moved like he was fifty, and came on to young women like he was seventeen, but changing a tire was still a damn chore. Link used to own Reed’s bar in Easton, but back then it was called The Missing Link, on account of the fact that his wife used to joke that whenever there was hard work to be done, Lincoln Frazier was always unaccountably absent. When Myra died ten years ago, some of the spark had gone out of Link and he sold the bar to Eddy Reed, on condition that Eddy change the name of the bar to something else. The joke seemed less funny, now that Myra was gone.

Link’s knees weren’t what they once were, so he was kind of pleased when the red Dodge Charger pulled up in front of him and the driver got out. He was younger than Link, decades younger, and wore faded blue jeans and an antique black leather vest over his equally faded denim shirt. From beneath the frayed ends of his jeans peeked the pointed toes of a pair of snakeskin cowboy boots. His hair was black and long, slicked back against his head, with the parallel tracks of a wide-toothed comb visible among the strands. The hair was thin, though, and the white of his skull gleamed between the rows like rainwater shining on a rutted mud track.

The driver reached into his car and removed a battered straw cowboy hat from the passenger seat, then placed it carefully on his head. An oval of white material was stuck to the front of the hat. It looked as if it had been torn from a pair of coveralls, the kind worn by auto shop mechanics, and written on it was the word Buddy in red cursive script.

As the Dodge’s owner drew closer, Link got his first good look at the man’s face, slightly shadowed though it was by his hat. His cheeks were very gaunt, so that Link could see the tendons move as his jaws worked, chewing at something in the corner of his mouth. His lips were deep red, almost black, and his eyeballs bulged slightly in their sockets, as though he were slowly being choked by a pair of unseen hands. He was almost ugly, yet he carried himself with a kind of grace. There was a purposefulness about him, despite the laid-back air his clothing and manner seemed calculated to communicate.

“You having some trouble?” he asked.

His voice had a distinct Southern twang to it, although Link had the feeling he was exaggerating it a little, the way some men will do when they believe that a certain quality adds to their charm.

“Took a nail back a ways,” said Link.

“Flatter than a pancake, that’s for sure,” said the man.

He knelt down beside Link.

“Let me do that,” he said. “No offense. I know you can do it yourself. I know you could probably lift the whole damn truck without a jack, but just because you can do a thing doesn’t mean you should have to do it.”

Link decided to accept the compliment, excessive though it was, and the help that came with it. He rose, and watched as the man in the cowboy hat swiftly loosened the wheel nuts and hoisted the tire off. He was stronger than he looked, thought Link. The older man had been planning to beat on the tire iron with the heel of his boot to loosen the nuts, but this guy just flipped them free with barely a stretch of his back. Pretty soon the tire was changed with the minimum of fuss or conversation, which suited Link just fine. Link wasn’t much for polite conversation, least of all with strangers, didn’t matter how many tires they changed. When he owned The Missing Link, it was Myra who did the charming and Link who dealt with the beer and liquor people.

The cowboy stood, took a bright blue rag from his pocket, and wiped his hands clean.

“I appreciate your help,” said Link.

He stretched out his hand in thanks. “The name’s Link Frazier.”

The cowboy looked at Link’s outstretched palm the way a child molester might respond to an unexpected flash of young thigh in a playground. He finished cleaning his hands, put the rag back in his pocket, then shook Link’s hand in return. Link felt an unpleasant sensation, as if there were bugs crawling on his skin. He tried to hide it, but he felt sure that the cowboy had seen the change in his expression.

“Buddy Carson,” said the cowboy.

He had noticed Link’s response. Buddy was finely attuned to the rhythms of other people’s bodies. It made him good at what he did.

“It was my pleasure,” said Buddy, as the cells in Link’s body started to metastasize and his liver began to rot.

He tipped the fingers of his right hand to his hat, gave Link a little salute, and headed back to his car.

 

 

Later that day, Buddy picked up a waitress in a bar over by Danbury. She was fortyish and overweight. Nobody would have called her good-looking, but Buddy worked her pretty well and by the end of a night’s drinking he had convinced her that they were kindred spirits: two lonely but decent people who’d taken some knocks in life, but who had somehow managed to pull through. They went back to her place, a neat little two-bedroom duplex that smelled faintly of musty clothing, and Buddy rattled her bed and her bones. She told Buddy that it had been a long time, that it was just what she needed. She moaned beneath him, and he closed his eyes as he moved upon her.

It was easier when he could get inside people, when he could touch the interior of their mouths with his finger, maybe cut them slightly with a nail. Open wounds were good too, and even a kiss, if he could force the lips apart and get a bite in, but sex was best of all. With sex, it worked faster, so that he could stay and watch with little risk to himself.

The second time, the tone of her sounds changed. She asked him to stop. She said there was something wrong. Buddy didn’t stop. Once it started, it couldn’t be held back. That was the way of it. When he finished, she was already breathing more shallowly, and some of the flesh had receded from her face. Her fingers were like talons gripping the sheets, and her back arched with pain. She couldn’t speak.

There was some blood now. That was good. It was red, but soon it would turn to black.

Buddy sat back on the sheets and lit himself a cigarette.

 

 

It was slowly getting worse.

There was a time when once a week would have been enough to ease the pain, but no longer. Now, once daily permitted him to rest for a time, but only for a couple of blessed hours. If he managed to corrupt more than one, the hours without agony increased exponentially, but the risk was that folk would notice, so multiple victims were rarely an option for him.

That morning’s troubles were a sign that the thing inside him was becoming harder to control, and to sate. The black blood began to appear while he was making water. Pretty soon he was coughing it up, soaking the towels. He was only just recovering when the fat maid entered the room. He wondered if she would tell anyone about it, and felt certain that she would. He got a sense of her as he held her, his skin working against hers, the rottenness within him seeking purchase in the new host.

He would have to move on soon, but he was so weak.

There was another option, of course, but it represented an enormous gamble. He had been turning it over in his mind for some time, calculating the odds, assessing the risks. Now, with his own pain increasing and the presence of the black fluid in his urine, the prospect was growing more and more enticing. If one offered temporary ease, he reasoned, and two doubled the time he could sleep, what would happen if he took on more, many more? He thought about the family in Colorado: after them, the pain was gone for days, and even when it returned it was diminished considerably, so that taking the waitress had been more out of desire than out of necessity. What might happen if he corrupted a town, a city? Weeks, perhaps months of respite might ensue. Maybe he could even rid himself of it entirely. The possibility of an extended peace dangled invitingly within his grasp.

This was a small community. Under ordinary circumstances, it would be hard to reach out to enough people, but when he had taken a walk the day before he saw something that caused him to reconsider his options. He spent the rest of the day thinking about it, weighing the pros and cons and trying to work out how best it might be done.

That morning, with the black blood pooling in the bowl, he reached a decision. He would make a stand here, in Easton, then head north and find somewhere quiet to rest for the winter, maybe forever. His eyes were closing: touching the maid had clouded the pain enough to enable him to sleep. He put the chain on the motel room door, then stretched out on the bed and began to dream.

 

 

The cowboy’s name was not Buddy Carson.

The cowboy didn’t have a name, not now. There might have been one a long time ago, but if there was, then it had been lost to him for many years. His new life began on the day he awoke in the middle of the Nevada desert wearing ragged clothes and with tumors on his skin. He had no memory of any existence before that. His insides felt as though they were being slowly roasted, and when he squeezed his hands to his stomach to try to ease the pain, black blood shot from beneath his nails.

At last, he found the strength to rise. He made his way to the highway and thumbed a ride from a garage mechanic who was hauling a red Dodge Charger over to a dealer in Reno. The mechanic had spent months restoring the Dodge in his spare time and now figured that he was about to make a good profit by selling it.

The cowboy felt the growing pain in his insides ease the moment his hand accidentally brushed the mechanic’s hand. Most of the tumors were hidden beneath his clothes, but after he touched the mechanic he could see the one that peeped out from under the cuff of his shirtsleeve begin to fade. Within seconds, it was entirely gone.

The cowboy touched the driver again.

“Hey, the fuck are you doing, man?” said the mechanic. “Keep your hands away from me, you fucking faggot.”

He started to pull over. There were no other cars visible on the highway.

“Get out,” he said. “Get the fuck out of my—”

The cowboy grasped the mechanic’s right arm, then clasped his left hand around the man’s throat. He squeezed. A trickle of blood appeared in the mechanic’s nostril, then dripped down over his lips and chin. The force of the flow began to increase, and the color of the blood began to darken until it turned a deep black. As the cowboy watched, the skin around the mechanic’s eyes began to tighten. His skin grew waxy, and his cheekbones grew sharp in his face.

And for the first time, the cowboy had an image of something inside of himself, like a great black worm that had found purchase within him. It lay in his bowels, feeding off him, slowly turning his cells to black, simultaneously destroying all that was human about him while keeping him alive, pumping its unknown poisons into his system. If it had a consciousness, then it was beyond the cowboy’s capacity to understand. All he knew was that it had chosen him as its host, and if he did not do what it wanted, then it would destroy him.

The cowboy howled, and his fingers broke through the mechanic’s neck and into his flesh. He felt a pressure building in his arm, and then his fingers straightened convulsively as the poison erupted through the pores of his skin. The sockets of the mechanic’s eyes flooded with darkness. He stopped struggling, even as the cowboy’s own pain faded, and then was gone.

The cowboy buried the mechanic’s body in the desert. He kept his wallet, and when night fell he found the mechanic’s apartment and spent the night there. As he rested up, he thought of the image of the worm in his body. He didn’t know if it was really there or was simply his mind’s way of trying to explain to itself what was happening to him. He decided to talk to a doctor as soon as possible, although in his dreams that night the worm inside him spoke to him, its blind head splitting to reveal a barbed mouth, and it told him that no doctor could ever help him, and that his purpose in life was not to be cured, but to spread the Black Word.

Despite his dream, he visited a doctor’s office the next day. He told the old man who examined him of his pain, and of the dark blood that he had coughed up in the desert. The doctor listened to him, then opened a syringe and prepared to take a sample.

The agony as the needle entered was impossible for the cowboy to bear. As soon as it penetrated his skin, he felt the worm in his being convulse, as though the needle were entering through his stomach wall and puncturing his internal organs, scraping and tearing as it went. His screams brought the doctor’s receptionist, and he took them both, just as he had taken the mechanic.

But the pain did not go away that night, and he felt that he was being punished for his temerity in trying to cure himself.

The mechanic lived alone and received no calls that were not related to his business. The cowboy kept the Charger as a souvenir, as well as a pair of the mechanic’s overalls. When they began to fall apart, he held on to the mechanic’s name badge, which he attached to a straw hat he took from a drifter outside of Boise, Idaho. He already had the boots. They had been on his feet when he came to in the desert, and they felt as if he had been wearing them for years.

The mechanic’s name was Buddy, so that was what the cowboy decided to call himself. As for Carson, well, that was his private joke. He had found the word in a medical book for folks suffering from cancer, and Buddy figured that it pretty much summed up what he was, or what he had become. He was Buddy Carcinogenic, Buddy Carson for short.

By the time folks might come to understand the humor, they were already dying.

 

III

 

Lopez drove around the streets, letting folks see that he was on the job. Like most small towns, Easton was a peaceful place with little real crime beyond petty theft, the occasional bar fight, and the omnipresent shadow of domestic violence. Lopez dealt with all of it as best he could. In a way, he suited the town: there were probably better cops than him, he figured, but there couldn’t have been too many who tried as hard.

After a couple of hours, during which he did nothing more than hand out a speeding ticket to a salesman doing sixty in a forty-mile zone and warn off a couple of kids who were skate-boarding in the bank’s parking lot, he slipped into Steve DiVentura’s diner for coffee and a sandwich. He was about to take a seat at the counter when he saw Doc Bradley alone in a deuce by the window, so he asked Steve to send his order over.

“Mind if I join you?” he asked.

Greg Bradley looked as if he’d been jolted out of a reverie, although Lopez didn’t think it was one that he was particularly sorry to leave. Bradley was about Lopez’s age, but pure whitebread: tanned, blond hair, good teeth, and money to his name. Lopez guessed that he could have earned a whole lot more for his services someplace other than Easton, but his family was from the country and he had a genuine attachment to the area and its people. Lopez could understand that. He shared Bradley’s view.

He also suspected that Bradley was gay, although he had never broached the subject with him. He could see why the doctor might want to keep that quiet. Most people in Easton were pretty tolerant—after all, they had a black mayor and a police chief with a Hispanic name in a town that was 90 percent white—but patients were funny about their doctors, and there were some who would drive to Boston for a consultation before they would allow an openly gay man to touch them, and that went for women as well as men. So Greg Bradley remained single, and mostly the folks in Easton chose not to comment on the fact. It was the way things were done in small towns.

“Sure, take a seat.”

Bradley’s tuna on rye had barely been touched and his coffee looked cold.

“Glad I didn’t order the tuna,” said Lopez.

“Tuna’s fine,” said Bradley. “It’s me that’s not so good.”

A waitress brought Lopez his coffee and told him his sandwich was on the way. He thanked her.

“Anything I can do to help?” asked Lopez.

“Not unless you can work miracles. I guess you’ll find out soon enough, but you may as well hear it from me first. Link Frazier has cancer.”

Lopez leaned back in his seat. He genuinely didn’t know what to say. Link seemed to have been a fixture around the town for as long as he could remember. Lopez had even dated one of his daughters, many years before. Link had been good about the whole thing, not even holding it against Lopez that he’d dumped her one week before senior prom.

Well, not holding it against him for more than a couple of years, anyway.

“How bad?”

“He’s riddled with it, as bad as I’ve ever seen. He approached me a couple of days back, first time he ever came near me. He’d passed blood that morning, a lot of it. He might have hated the idea of seeing a doctor about anything, but he knew there was something seriously wrong. I sent him for tests that afternoon, and they called me later that night with the results. Hell, I don’t think they even had to wait for the biopsies. The X-ray was enough. Looks like the liver’s where it’s worst, but it’s spread to his spine and most of his other major organs. I spoke to his son this morning, and he gave me the all-clear to start telling people close to his father.”

“Jesus. How long has he got?”

Bradley shook his head. “Not long. The thing of it is, he swears he had no pain before a couple of days ago, and no symptoms until the blood appeared. It’s almost impossible to believe.”

“Link’s strong. He could lose an arm and he wouldn’t notice until he tried to wind his watch.”

“Nobody is that strong. Believe me, he should have been in agony for months.”

Lopez’s sandwich arrived, but, like Bradley, he no longer had much of an appetite.

“Where is he?”

“Manchester. I think they’ll keep him there until…well, until the end.”

The two men sat in silence, watching the life of the town pass by the window. People waved, and they waved back, but their smiles were automatic and without warmth.

“My father died of cancer,” said Bradley.

“I didn’t know that.”

“He smoked a lot. Drank some too. Ate red meat, fried food, didn’t believe he was eating a real dessert unless his arteries began cracking halfway through. If cancer hadn’t taken him, there were about a dozen other candidates lined up for the job.”

“I had a friend who died of cancer,” said Lopez. “Andy Stone. He was a detective with the state police. He didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, and ran fifty or sixty miles every week. They diagnosed him, and he was dead within a year.”

“What was it?”

“Pancreatic cancer.”

Bradley winced.

“Bad. It’s all bad, but some are worse than others.”

“I hear a lot of stories like that. Some of them are people that I knew, or friends of friends: people contracting that shit without any apparent cause, people who ate like they were supposed to, didn’t work in risky jobs, didn’t even seem to have much stress in life. Next thing, they’re just shadows. I don’t think I can go that way. I don’t know how good I am with pain, to tell the truth. I’ve never been shot, never broken a limb, never even been in the hospital since I had my tonsils taken out as a boy. I saw the way Andy went, and I don’t think I could take that kind of suffering.”

“Folks are strong,” said Bradley. “Like Link, I suppose. Our instinct is to fight, and to survive. It never ceases to amaze me, the reserves of strength that lie inside the most ordinary men and women. Even in the worst of suffering, there’s cause for hope, or admiration, anyway.”

Lopez pushed his sandwich away. “This is a conversation I didn’t need to have,” he said.

“Let’s hope it’s the last time. You should feel sorry for Stevie over there. He’s going to think his food sucks.”

Lopez glanced over his shoulder to where Steve DiVentura stood at the register, a pencil behind his ear as he totaled his customers’ checks.

“Maybe he’ll give us a discount if we complain.”

“Steve? If we complain he’ll charge us extra for his time.”

The subject of food brought Lopez’s mind back to Link Frazier, and the bar that he had once owned and that he still used to frequent, driving the new owner crazy by commenting on what he described as the “fancy” food that it now served.

“You talk to Eddy Reed yet?” he asked.

“No, you’re pretty much the first person I’ve told.”

“I’ll tell Eddy. If I see anyone I think should know, I’ll spare you the trouble of telling them too. I can give you a call later, maybe let you know how things have gone.”

Bradley looked grateful. “I guess it’s a job we share sometimes, giving people bad news about their friends and relatives.”

“I guess. The difference is, I usually don’t have to tell people that they’re dying.”

Bradley smiled blackly. “Yeah, I suppose most of yours already knew they were dead.”

“Is that what they call ‘laughing in the face of death?’ ”

“Whistling by the churchyard.”

“Whatever works.”

It was Bradley who stood first. “I’d better be getting back. It’s hard enough to get people to come to see a doctor in the first place. If I keep them waiting, they just go home and treat themselves with aspirin.”

Lopez wished him luck. It was terrible about Link Frazier, just terrible. Lopez sipped at his coffee. He’d read somewhere that too much coffee was carcinogenic. It seemed like so many things these days were. He wondered what had caused Link Frazier’s cancer, or if the connection was even that simple. Maybe Link had done nothing at all, except live his life as best he could. He supposed that there was only so much you could do to protect yourself from things you couldn’t see.

Lopez abandoned his coffee and instead bought an apple on the way out.

 

 

Greg Bradley walked back to his office, his head down and his mind filled with thoughts of Link Frazier. He wondered what might have happened had Link come to him earlier. The doctor tried to encourage the town’s senior citizens in particular to see him for routine checkups, even if they weren’t feeling ill, but the good folk of Easton weren’t great believers in spending money unnecessarily on doctors, or on much else. It was almost funny: dentists had more or less convinced the population at large that it was important to have their teeth looked at on a regular basis, but it was near impossible to persuade those same people that they should extend that care to the rest of their bodies.

There were already six patients waiting for him when he reached the office, a couple of them flicking listlessly through the stock of out-of-date magazines, others probably indulging in that age-old waiting room pastime of wondering just what was bothering their fellow sufferers and whether or not they should try to keep their distance from them. Lana, his receptionist, gave him a disapproving look as he walked by, discreetly tapping her wristwatch to let him know that he was already running late. He asked her to give him another five minutes, then closed the door to his office behind him and made a telephone call. Lopez, had he been there to witness it, would not have been surprised at the conversation that followed between the doctor and a man named Jason Coll who worked as a tax lawyer in Rochester, although others in the town might have been. The more open-minded among them might even have envied the fondness in Greg Bradley’s voice, and could not have failed to note the obvious consolation he derived from talking with the other man. When he at last hung up the phone, the doctor took a moment to consider, as he often did, if their relationship, and his practice, would survive if Jason moved to Easton. Perhaps it was more realistic to think about moving to Boston, but Greg didn’t want to leave the town. He belonged here, it was as simple as that. For the present, telephone calls and snatched weekends would have to suffice.

He tapped the intercom on his desk and told Lana to send in the first patient.

 

 

The rest of Lopez’s day was quiet, apart from a phone call from Errol wondering if the plow had to be brand-new or if they could settle for one with a reconditioned engine.

“False economy,” Lopez told him.

He wasn’t sure if it was false economy. He just liked the idea of a new snowplow, even if it would be someone else’s job to drive it. But on a practical level, he knew that winter took its toll on the older folks, and the last thing he needed was an ambulance stuck in drifts because a used plow had broken down.

Lopez touched base with Lloyd when he returned to the station house. Ellie Harrison, one of the part-time cops assigned to each shift, had just arrived and was doing paperwork at the desk in the back office. She gave him a wave. He left her to it.

Lloyd came around the counter and leaned in quietly to Lopez.

“You hear about Link Frazier?” he asked.

“Yeah. How did you know?”

“I heard it from my mom. She was with Doc Bradley this afternoon.”

Lloyd looked genuinely upset. He still lived with his mom and dad, occupying two rooms over the garage at the side of the house. He was dating Penny Clay, who worked at the drugstore and, as local gossip had it, was less than the silent type in the sack. Lopez wondered what Mr. and Mrs. Hopkins did when their son took Penny back to his place, assuming that they let him bring girls back. Could be that they were lucky enough to be going deaf, but if they weren’t already, then exposure to Penny Clay in the throes of ecstasy could well be the thing to do it. Penny was an unlikely partner for Lloyd. She was kind of full-on, and sometimes seemed to be missing a filter between her brain and her mouth, but she seemed to adore Lloyd, in her way, and Lopez hoped that she might instill a little more steel into the young man.

If Lopez had a criticism of Lloyd Hopkins, it was that he sometimes seemed just too sensitive for his own good, but it meant that he had a way about him that Lopez lacked. When Renee Bertucci was attacked by her ex-husband a year or so back, and arrived at the station house all black and blue with her blouse torn and that glazed look in her eyes that told you something real bad had happened back at her place, it was Lloyd who took care of her. True, Ellie was there for the tests and the swabs, but it was Lloyd upon whom Renee seemed to lean the most. He sat on a chair outside her room at the medical center for the rest of the night, until word came that Aldo Bertucci had been picked up by the Smokeys outside of Nashua, and then drove her to her mother’s the next day. In a situation as delicate as that, there weren’t many male cops who could be relied upon to do the right thing. Lloyd Hopkins didn’t even have to think about it. It just came naturally to him.

“I think I might drive down to see him if I get a chance,” said Lloyd.

“You give him my best.”

“I will. You heading home?”

“No, I’m meeting Elaine for dinner over at Reed’s. You need me for anything, the cell will be on.”

“Big night tomorrow,” said Lloyd. “You think it will go ahead once folks hear about Link?”

Reed’s was hosting its annual pre-Christmas fundraiser the following night. Each year, Eddy Reed handed over one night’s takings from Reed’s Bar and Grill to local charities. It was a tradition that he had inherited without complaint from Link Frazier. Pretty much everyone in town tried to make it along for part of the evening at least, and most added a couple of bucks extra to the cost of their meals and drinks to boost the pot.

“I don’t know, but suppose we assume it will unless we hear otherwise,” said Lopez. “Everyone is on duty. We don’t want anyone taking it into his head that this might be a good night to rip off the bar.”

Lloyd’s comment reminded Lopez that he had not yet spoken to Eddy Reed about Link. He also wondered how Link stood regarding medical insurance. He didn’t know how well off the old man was, and if the cost of proper care was going to be a problem, then maybe some, or all, of the proceeds from the charity night at Reed’s could be used for Link’s benefit. He made a mental note to ask Greg Bradley about it when next they spoke.

 

 

Lopez showered and changed, then left Lloyd and Ellie and drove the five blocks to Reed’s in his own Bronco. There were other bars in town, but Reed’s was the only one with food that went beyond burgers and fries. The bar was about a quarter full when Lopez arrived, most folks clearly electing to wait for the following night’s festivities before spending their money. Lopez ordered a beer and took a seat at the bar. Somebody had left a newspaper, so he flicked idly through it, exchanging small talk with the patrons and Eddy himself until Elaine appeared.

Elaine Olssen was the kind of magazine-quality Scandinavian blonde over whom Lopez used to weep tears of frustration when he was a teenager. She was easily the most beautiful woman he had ever dated: five eleven; her face always a little sallow, even in winter; her hair hanging just below shoulder length. Her eyes were a very pale blue, and her lips parted slightly in repose, creating a tiny diamond at the center of her mouth. He could see other men glance at her as she approached him, following her progress. Men always did. Most of the ones in Reed’s stopped as soon as they saw Lopez clocking them in the mirror above the bar.

Only one man did not seem troubled by the policeman’s presence. He continued to stare at Elaine as she took her seat, then turned casually away. He was drinking soda, the remains of a piece of apple pie on the table before him. His hair was slicked back on his skull, and he wore snakeskin cowboy boots and blue denims. A straw hat lay on the table beside the plate of apple pie. There was something written on the front, but Lopez couldn’t read what it said. He considered rousting the stranger, partly out of annoyance at the way his gaze had lingered on Elaine, but also because of the feeling of unease he got when the man briefly caught his eye.

“What’s wrong?” said Elaine, after they had kissed.

In the mirror, she followed the direction of Lopez’s gaze.

“Yeah, I saw him checking me out,” she said. “Creep.”

“He does it again, I may have words with him.”

Elaine touched her fingers to his lips. He kissed them lightly.

“Isn’t that abusing your position?”

“Only if I beat him up after.”

“Oh. I never realized the law was so subtle.”

She sat down beside him and shrugged off her coat. She was wearing a red polo neck that followed her curves in a way that made Lopez catch his breath. Almost instinctively, he shot a look at the man in the window booth. He seemed to be staring through the glass at the street beyond, but Lopez was pretty certain that Elaine was reflected in that same glass.

She ordered a white wine while they browsed the menus.

“How was your day?” he asked her.

Elaine was an assistant D.A. with responsibility for communications over at the New Hampshire A.G.’s office, which made her the first point of contact between the media and the attorney general. It meant that she appeared on TV whenever the A.G.’s office was handling a big case, or when something controversial occurred that needed to be defused. Elaine Olssen was an expert at dealing with potentially explosive situations. Even the tougher male reporters tended to go a little weak when she turned the full wattage of her smile upon them, while female reporters simply tried to stay out of her way in case she made them look bad.

“Pretty quiet for me. The rest of the office is looking to clear up as much stuff as possible before the holidays kick in. Nothing focuses the mind better than the prospect of putting someone in jail for Christmas. Gets you right in the spirit of the season. And you?”

He finished his beer and called for another.

“Same. Pretty dull. Errol whined about paying up for a new plow, Lloyd needs new trousers—”

“What are you, his father?”

“That boy just keeps growing and growing.”

His beer came. He picked at the label.

“And Link Frazier is real sick. Cancer. I’m sorry.”

Elaine closed her eyes. Her house was only a mile up the road from Link’s, and he’d been kind to her when she first moved to Easton three years before.

“Are you sure?” asked Elaine, once she had recovered herself. “I saw him just a few days ago. He didn’t look sick, and he wasn’t complaining about any pain.”

“I met Greg Bradley this afternoon. He said it was bad. He doesn’t think Link’s going to last too long.”

Lopez reached out for her and stroked her back. This was what Lloyd Hopkins was good at. Lopez knew that he just wasn’t in his league.

The news cast a shadow over the rest of the evening, but still they ate, and drank, and talked. Eddy now knew about Link, and he offered to approach the family about the state of Link’s insurance and the possibility of the townsfolk making a contribution to his care if it was needed. Lopez thanked him, then walked with Elaine out to the parking lot.

“You want to come back with me?” asked Elaine. “I’d like you to.”

“I’d like it too.”

She smiled and hugged him to her. Over her shoulder, he saw the man at the window watching them. He was licking his lips.

Lopez pulled back from her.

“Can you give me a minute?” he asked.

“Sure. Is there something wrong?”

He took his badge from his back pocket, his hand brushing the gun on his belt.

“If there isn’t, there soon will be,” he said.

 

 

Buddy Carson watched the big cop approach. He’d seen him in town, cruising around, giving the nod to just about everyone he encountered. Buddy had found out his name and his position. Lopez was a danger, and Buddy knew it. Over the years, Buddy had developed a predator’s instinct for spotting those equal to or above him on the food chain who might prove dangerous to him. Where possible, he avoided them. When there was no other option, he got rid of them. He’d never taken a cop, though. Cops were different. You killed one, and others came after you. There was a pecking order in the amount of heat a killing drew: young men, particularly ethnics, drew the least; women and children brought down much more; but killing a cop was like putting yourself in front of a flamethrower. Still, if Buddy was to achieve what he hoped to accomplish in Easton, then something would have to be done about this one.

The cop was heavily bundled up: only his hands and face were bare, and Buddy wasn’t sure that he would be able to find an excuse to touch him for long enough. If he pushed the cop too far he might end up in a cell, and Buddy didn’t like to think of what would happen if he were incarcerated. There was an additional risk factor involved in trying to corrupt him in the bar, when he wouldn’t have long enough to really get to work on him. Buddy had learned from experience that some people were more aware than others when they were touched by him. It was as though they actually felt themselves changing, as if they sensed the sudden distortion of themselves at the most basic of levels. They were the most dangerous, and Buddy’s practice was to destroy them utterly, to remain in contact with them until they were completely subdued. He was like a spider poisoning a wasp, pumping it with venom even as it tried to sting, because to back away before it was completely subdued would leave it vulnerable to a lethal counterattack.

Buddy had become adept at spotting the alert ones. The nature of their work meant that cops were particularly sensitive, and for that additional reason he tried to avoid even casual encounters with them whenever possible. Something about the way Lopez carried himself told Buddy that he was good at his job, which meant that Buddy had to be especially careful.

Other customers were watching as Lopez approached the end table. He flashed Buddy his badge.

“You got some ID?” he asked.

“Why, did I do something wrong, Officer?” said Buddy.

“Sir, just show me some ID, please.”

Buddy reached for his jacket. The cop’s hand was resting on the butt of his gun. The gun withdrew an inch from its holster, exposing the Glock’s dull frame.

“Slowly,” said Lopez.

“This is a tough town,” said Buddy, as he felt in his jacket pocket. “Got laws against minding your own business, laws against looking at a pretty woman. That’s what this is about, isn’t it? I looked at your woman, and you don’t like it. I’m sorry, but she’s a good-looking lady. I didn’t mean nothing by it.”

He found his wallet and removed his Nevada state driver’s license. It was the genuine article. The man who had acquired it for Buddy assured him that it would stand up to scrutiny, and he had told nothing less than the truth. It was worth every penny that Buddy had briefly paid for it before the man’s death made redundant his need for Buddy’s money. He handed it to the cop, and was almost tempted to brush his knuckles against the policeman’s hand. The barest of contacts would enable him to gauge the cop’s sensitivity, as well as delivering a little added dose of mortality, but the policeman was too quick for him.

“And what is your business, Mr. Carson?”

“I’m between jobs. I’m just traveling around, trying to take in some of this great country.”

“We don’t get many people coming all this way just to visit Easton. You know anybody here?”

“Not yet. If this is anything to go by, doesn’t look like I’ll be making too many friends here in the future.”

“I guess that depends,” said Lopez.

“On what?”

“On how friendly you really are.”

“I’m the real deal,” said Buddy. “I just want to reach out to people.”

Lopez told Buddy to stay where he was, then used his cell to call the station house. Ellie answered, and he asked her to do a check on Buddy Carson. He gave her the license number, then waited. He watched Buddy Carson sitting quietly in his booth. He wasn’t looking at Elaine any longer. Instead, he was just staring at the blank wall before him.

The check came back clean. Lopez was disappointed, but he still had his suspicions about the man in the booth.

“Where are you staying?” he asked Buddy when he returned.

Buddy was slightly disappointed that the cop didn’t hand him back his license. Instead, Lopez placed it flat on the table, picture side up, his finger holding down one corner.

“The Easton Motel,” said Buddy. “It’s real nice. I might extend my stay, it’s so nice.”

“Let me tell you something, Mr. Carson,” said Lopez. “There’s not a whole lot for a man to do in Easton at this time of year. I reckon that by tomorrow you should have exhausted all of the possibilities, and then it will be time for you to be on your way. You have a safe journey.”

He flicked the license back across the table.

“That sounds like I’m being run out of town,” said Buddy.

“No, you’ll be leaving under your own steam. But if you want me to help you along, that can be arranged. You have a good night.”

Buddy watched him leave. He had hoped that by goading the cop he might get the opportunity to touch him if he lost his temper and made a move, but the cop had kept his cool. In the end, it was probably for the best. Buddy was storing up his venom now, getting ready for the big play. Making a try for the cop might have dulled his edge, or alerted the policeman to the threat Buddy posed. Better to let him go now, and hope for another chance at him later. Buddy did not consider himself to be a vindictive man, but he would take pleasure in giving the cop a little something if the opportunity presented itself. He envisaged himself squatting on the cop’s chest, his fingers in his mouth and the cop’s tongue slowly turning black in his grip. Buddy allowed himself a small smile. Dealing with the spic cop would be a real pleasure.

As for the woman, well, in her case the pleasure would be doubled.

 

 

“So?”

Elaine was driving. Lopez would pick up his car when she dropped him back to town the following morning. Elaine owned a black Mercedes CLK430 convertible, and Lopez reckoned it was a good thing that she had a job with the A.G.’s office because Elaine Olssen had never met a speed limit that she liked. There were times, driving with her on the stretch of 95 between Montpelier and White River Junction, that Lopez doubted even their combined influence would be enough to keep her out of jail or from being recruited for some form of secret NASA rocket-testing program.

“So what?”

“You’ve hardly said a word since the bar. Did that guy do something to you?”

“He got under my skin, that’s all. I’ve never met a guy called Buddy that I liked. It’s one of those names that’s trying too hard. Men named ‘Buddy’ are right up there with guys who call you ‘pal’ or ‘friend.’ ”

“Are you going to give him the bum’s rush?”

“I already did. I told him I wanted him gone.”

“Rough justice. Bet every girl who gets eyed up by a creep in a bar wishes her boyfriend could just have him thrown out of town.”

Lopez wasn’t sure if she was being sarcastic or not. He glanced at her. She made sultry eyes at him.

“I like it,” she purred. “It’s kind of sexy.”

For the first time since his encounter with Buddy Carson, Lopez grinned back.

“Next time I’ll beat him up for you.”

“Ooooh,” she said. “I can hardly wait. ‘Hit him harder, Officer. Hit him harder….’ ”

 

IV

 

Buddy Carson left the bar and drove his Dodge back to the motel. He hadn’t planned on checking out the next day. He wanted a place to rest up before the night’s exertions, but Buddy had no doubt that the cop would check up on him, and he needed to avoid another confrontation until he was ready. Now that he had scouted out the bar, he was convinced that he could take a dozen people easily without arousing any suspicion at first, maybe more if they were all packed together tight. If his plan of action worked like he hoped, he would gain respite for weeks, maybe months. He liked the idea of moving on to New York, but it would be hard to find skin to touch casually in winter. With his pain alleviated for a time, he could afford to hibernate until spring. Maybe Florida, he thought, or California. San Francisco, with its hobos and tourists, appealed to him.

Buddy had been sick again in the men’s room of Reed’s bar. It was almost as if the black worm knew what he was planning and wanted to make sure that he didn’t back out by reminding him of its dominion over him. Buddy sometimes wondered what would happen if he tried to resist the impulse, if he took the pain and tried to see it out to the end. Would he die? In the beginning, on that second night after the deaths of the doctor and his receptionist, he had found a gun in the mechanic’s nightstand. He drank a couple of shots of bourbon to give him a little Dutch courage, then placed the gun in his mouth. He closed his eyes and thought about pulling the trigger, but in the end he did not. It wasn’t that he couldn’t pull the trigger if he actually wanted to. That was the thing of it: what he thought of as the black worm couldn’t make him do anything against his will. Sure, it could use pain to force him into a certain course of action, but it didn’t control him. He still had his own freedom of choice.

No, the reason why Buddy didn’t pull the trigger that night was at once simpler, and infinitely more complex, than mind control. Buddy didn’t pull the trigger because Buddy liked what he was doing. Passing on to others some small aspect of the disease that had colonized his own body gave him not only release, but pleasure. He enjoyed it. He relished the sense of power it gave him, the ability to decide who lived and who died. It was godlike.

Buddy still did not know for sure if the black worm really existed in the form that he had imagined, sleek and black in its plated carapace, vestigial eyes buried at either side of its pointed front end, its mouth little more than a ridged wound, or if it was merely his mind’s way of picturing the corrosion within himself, the foulness that had always been intrinsic to him. If the worm was truly present inside him, then it was evil, and some part of the pleasure that he felt was shared, or even generated, by that alien presence. But even if it did not exist, there was still evil within Buddy, evil beyond the worst atrocities he had witnessed on his TV screen, and Buddy knew it. He wondered sometimes if there were more like him, if there were others scattered around the country, even the world, passing on their contagion with a single touch, alleviating their own pain by gifting it to others. Buddy didn’t know, and he suspected that he never would. He still had no understanding of how he had come to be this way. It might have been the work of some outside agency, but equally it could just have been a consequence of Buddy’s own moral decay. Maybe, he thought, I’m the next step in human evolution: a being whose physical form has become a reflection of his moral state, a man whose soul has corrupted and rotted within him, poisoning and transforming his insides.

Whatever he was, Buddy was certain of one thing: he was stronger and more lethal than anyone in this shithole town, and pretty soon a lot of people were going to learn that lesson the hard way.

Buddy was still smiling when he pulled into the parking lot of the Easton Motel and saw someone leaving his motel room.

Buddy stopped smiling.

 

 

Jed Wheaton had asked Phil to check up on the guy in 12. Phil was about to take over the night shift, but he didn’t have his study books with him like he usually did. Phil wasn’t even carrying a paperback to read. There was a TV behind the desk, but Phil, like his father, usually only turned it on when he was desperate. Perhaps he was hoping to catch up on some sleep: there was a couch in the office, and after two A.M. a sign on the door told people to ring the bell in order to wake the night clerk. Phil certainly looked tired and distracted enough to want to curl up for the night.

“You okay, son?” Jed asked.

Phil reacted as if he’d just been woken from a trance.

“Huh? Yeah, I’m fine, just fine.”

Jed wasn’t sure that he believed him, but Phil tended to keep things to himself most of the time. If there was a problem, his son would get around to telling him when he felt like it.

Phil didn’t have much to add to what Jed already knew when he asked him about the night Buddy Carson checked in. Phil said that he had seemed okay. He’d even insisted on introducing himself, his hand outstretched as soon as his bag hit the floor.

Buddy, Buddy Carson. How you doing tonight?

His teeth were bad, and his breath smelled some, but that was about the sum total of Phil’s recollection.

Jed had called Greg Bradley that evening to discuss the health of his new guest, but Bradley, still troubled by Link Frazier’s diagnosis, was already on his way to talk with the oncology people at Manchester Medical. A recording on his machine advised anyone needing a doctor in a hurry to call the doctors over in Brewster, five miles west of Easton. Jed left a message, asking Greg to call him because he was worried about one of his guests, but there was nothing more that he could do for him. He wasn’t even sure that there was anything Greg Bradley could do. After all, it wasn’t as if he could force Carson to consult with him.

Still, when Phil arrived Jed told him to take a quick look-see at 12. Carson’s Dodge wasn’t in the lot, so Jed figured it was a chance to check the room and make sure that his guest hadn’t bled a gut over the bed.

“Just stick your head in, take a look at the bathroom, then come back to me,” he said.

Phil, after what seemed like a couple of seconds while his addled brain tried to make sense of his father’s simple request, grabbed the master key and headed out.

 

 

Phil had found the lump while showering that afternoon.

Like most men, he wasn’t as careful as he should be about checking his privates. Secretly, and also in common with most men, he had a “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude toward his own health. The last time he had consulted a doctor was two years before, when he broke his wrist snowboarding. Since then, Phil had suffered nothing worse than head colds and hangovers.

But this lump couldn’t be ignored. Hell, Phil could see it when he looked in the mirror, like someone had slipped a grape in there. It was tender, but not unduly painful, and Phil was certain that it hadn’t been there the night before. There was no way that he could have missed something like that. But it couldn’t be anything serious, right? I mean, these things took time. They didn’t just happen overnight. He’d give it a day. Maybe it was just one of those oddities, and by morning it would be gone. He couldn’t get rid of the image of it from his mind, though. Worse, he couldn’t shake off the sensation that he had, like there were worms beneath his skin, burrowing into flesh and marrow, transforming everything within to black.

Now, as he walked past the motel’s small, clean rooms, he felt the throbbing in his groin, and knew that he would have to talk to someone about it. He had almost told his father what was troubling him, but he was simultaneously concerned about worrying the old man, and mortified at the prospect of Jed Wheaton asking his son to show him his privates. He decided that once the night shift was done, he would head over to Doc Bradley’s first thing and get himself looked at.

Phil opened the door to 12. There was a smell in there, the kind he always associated with his grandma dying. She’d been in one of those old people’s wards where nobody was ever going to see home again, and the whole ward stank faintly of vomit and piss and mortality, all unsuccessfully masked by cleaning products and industrial-strength deodorant. There was the same smell in 12, except there was nothing strong enough to really hide it. Phil thought he could detect the residue of Maria’s spray, but she might just as well have hung one of those pine tree air deodorizers on a corpse for all the effect it was having.

The smell was worst in the bathroom, but at least it was clean. The towels were folded and unused. The shower was dry, and even the soaps remained wrapped. The toilet had been flushed, but there was some blood on the floor nearby.

Phil stepped back into the bedroom. There was a bag in one corner, an expensive-looking leather duffel, but it was locked. It was the only sign that the room was occupied. Everything else was just as Maria always left it for arriving guests, even down to the remote for the TV lying perfectly centered on the cover of the latest HBO schedule.

Phil killed the light, locked the door, and turned to find himself face-to-face with Buddy Carson.

“Can I ask what you’re doing?” said Carson.

In the moonlight, his face looked gaunt and cadaverous, and up close his breath smelled like a distilled version of the stink in his room. Instinctively, Phil backed away from the stench.

“Just checking to make sure you don’t need more towels. We do it for everyone,” Phil lied.

Buddy made a big play of looking at his watch.

“Kind of late to be doing that, isn’t it? You’ll wake folks up.”

“We got tied up with other stuff this evening, and you’re the only guest tonight. I knew you were out, because your car wasn’t in the lot. Seemed like the best chance I’d have without disturbing you.”

Buddy didn’t say anything in reply. He just eyeballed Phil, nodding slowly to let the kid know that what he was saying might sound like the most reasonable thing he’d ever heard, and yet he still didn’t believe a damn word of it.

“Well, I appreciate it,” he said at last. “You have a good night.”

Phil made as if to walk around him, but Buddy gripped his wrist and, once again, Phil had an image of black creatures moving under his skin.

“Hey, you feeling okay?” asked Buddy, and although there was concern in his voice the moonlight made his face appear to be leering. “You look kind of sick.”

“Tired,” said Phil, then winced as something stabbed into his groin. He looked down, half anticipating the sight of a needle sticking into his pants, but there was nothing.

“I got to go,” he said.

“Sure,” said Buddy. “You be careful now.”

He watched the kid stumble away. He’d make for the bathroom. That’s what Buddy would do if he was the kid. He’d go to the bathroom, unbutton his pants, and take a look at what was going on downstairs, because it surely felt now as if that thing were growing and spreading.

It was, of course, but not in any way that the kid would be able to see. Buddy figured the true pain would start in a couple of hours’ time, as the cancer really started to eat away at him, making steady progress toward the major organs and eroding his spine.

But in the bathroom, the lump would appear unchanged.

Just a lump, folks. Nothing to see here. Move along, move along.

Buddy closed the door and glanced around his room. His bag had not been touched. That was good. Buddy had things in there that he didn’t want other people looking at. Time was pressing. Buddy figured that the kid would go to the doctor the next day. By then, the bitch maid would probably have discovered the lump in her breast. On top of the old man, that would make three in less than two days, more if some of the other folks he’d touched that day proved weaker than suspected. A cluster like that would not go unremarked. Buddy had done some asking around that day. There wasn’t but one doctor in the town, and he ran his clinic out of a peachy little one-story house on the eastern outskirts of town. It made things easier for Buddy. He would have only one call to make.

He knelt down and used a small silver key to open the lock on his bag. Inside were a couple of changes of clothes, identical to those he was already wearing; a passport and a driver’s license in the name of Russ Cercan (another of Buddy’s little jokes); and a glass jelly jar. It was this that Buddy now reached for, holding it up to the light the way an entomologist might examine a particularly interesting bug.

Inside the jar was a black tumor. It had come from inside Buddy’s own body, coughed up that morning as the pain began to tell upon him. He had crawled to the bathroom but didn’t make it to the bowl. Instead, he lay retching on the tiles, coughing up blood and black matter, including the tumor now contained in the jar. It was a reminder of what dwelt within him, a gift from the disease to help him in the work to come.

Dead cells, thought Buddy. That’s all you are, just dead cells.

He tapped the glass gently with his fingernail.

And the tumor moved.

 

 

Across town, in Elaine Olssen’s untidy bedroom, Lopez sat at the window and looked out on the fields. Elaine’s place was right at the edge of Easton, where town met country. There was a stream close by, and distant mountains silvered by the moon. He heard an owl hooting. He wondered if it had already fed itself that night, or if it had not yet found its prey.

Lopez could not stop thinking about Buddy Carson. Earlier that evening, as he stood over him in Reed’s, he had been conscious of a ringing in his ears, a kind of high-pitched whine. Lopez knew what the sound was: it was his senses kicking up a gear, like they did when, distantly, he thought he heard his garden gate open and knew that someone was approaching his door, even if he could not hear the steps on the path, or when a person came too close behind him and he felt his personal space being encroached upon, even though he could not see the individual in question without turning around.

Faced with Buddy Carson, Lopez’s senses appeared to go on high alert. Even though he had no reason to think it, Lopez believed that Buddy Carson was trying to touch him in the bar, as though some game were being played between them, the rules of which were clear only to Carson. It was in the awkward way that he turned his hand in order to pass his license over, or in the way his fingers leaped forward to take it back when Lopez returned it, aiming at once at and beyond the license itself.

Lopez didn’t want to be touched by Buddy Carson. Something told him that to have any physical contact with the cowboy would be a very bad idea indeed. Knowing that Carson had left town would help, but it would not alleviate his concerns entirely. He was bad news for somebody, and moving him along would only transfer to another man the burden of eventually dealing with him.

There were times, when he was a trooper, that Lopez encountered individuals who brought nothing of worth to the world, who in fact seemed to enjoy making it worse for anyone who had the misfortune to cross their path. Lopez would often try to imagine what they had been like as children in an effort to modify his feelings of hatred for them. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it did not. When it didn’t, Lopez would find himself agreeing with those of his peers who felt that the best thing for everyone involved would be if those people were dead. They were like bacteria in a petri dish, spreading out and colonizing their surroundings, tainting everything they touched.

Lopez tried to picture Buddy Carson as a child, and found that he could not. Nothing came to him. Maybe it was tiredness, but in his head Carson seemed both old and young, both newly formed yet ancient, like old metal that had been smelted and reused again and again, becoming more and more corrupt in the process.

Lopez looked to the bed, where Elaine lay sleeping. She always slept the same way: curled up on her right side, with her right arm pressed against her breasts and her left hand close to her mouth. She rarely moved in the night, and uttered no sounds in her sleep.

He slipped back into the bed and made as if to reach for her. Instead, his hand remained hovering inches above her skin, unwilling to make contact. He drew it back to himself and moved away from her, finding his own space at the very edge of the mattress, where at last he drifted into sleep.

 

V

 

Buddy Carson checked out of the Easton Motel shortly after eleven the following morning. The pain was growing in his right side. He could take a small hit from someone, if it got too bad, but just a little in case he might be tempted to rest, for he usually felt sleepy after release, and there was work to be done. He would accept some discomfort now in return for more lasting relief later.

Jed was too distracted by his family problems to care much about being polite to his sole guest. Phil Wheaton was already sitting in the waiting room of Greg Bradley’s office, his face white and stretched taut with pain. He told his father that he wasn’t feeling so good, that he had pains in his lower body, but Jed didn’t need to be told that his son was sick. His physical appearance had changed drastically overnight. He seemed to have lost pounds in a matter of hours. Jed wanted to go see the doctor with him, but Phil said he would prefer to go alone, and that he’d give his father a call if there was a problem. Despite that, Jed was considering heading over to the doctor’s office anyway when Maria called to say that she wasn’t feeling great and that she’d be late. When Buddy Carson came in, Jed was already calling around his relief staff, trying to find someone who might be prepared to cover at short notice.

Buddy had paid up front for his stay. Now that he had decided to check out early, he wanted his money back. Jed didn’t argue. He just wanted Buddy gone so that he could set about seeing to his son’s needs.

“Bad morning?” asked Buddy.

“Not so good,” said Jed.

He reached out to count the cash and Buddy Carson tapped him softly on the back of the hand with a yellowed index finger.

“You need to take a deep breath, try to relax,” said Buddy solemnly. “You’ll make yourself sick. Believe me, I know.”

Jed remembered the description of the blackened, bloodied towels, and registered the way Buddy Carson’s teeth were streaked brown with nicotine, his gums a vivid purple. I’ll bet you know all about sickness, he thought. I’m glad that you’re leaving, but if I find out that you brought something into this town, if I discover that it was you that made my boy sick, I’ll hunt you down, you fuck. I’ll hunt you down and I’ll take a knife to you, and then you won’t have to worry about bloody towels, or your teeth falling out of your head, or your ragged fucking nails cracking and disintegrating, because I’ll tear you apart, I swear to God I will.

“Sure,” said Jed. “You have a good day, now.”

 

 

Lopez woke with Elaine. They made love quickly, then Elaine showered while he toasted some bagels. He listened to the news on the radio in the kitchen, then took his shower while Elaine dressed. She dropped him outside Reed’s, kissed him good-bye, and told him that she’d see him later that evening. He watched her drive away, waving to her as she turned the corner and left his view, then strolled over to talk to Eddy Reed, who was sweeping the steps outside the bar.

“Economy drive?” he asked. “I thought you had employees to clean steps while you counted your millions in a back room.”

“Two called in sick,” said Eddy. “Today of all days they have to get sick.”

“You’ll have no problem getting folks to help out if you’re in trouble.”

Eddie stopped sweeping and leaned on the handle of the brush.

“I guess you’re right.”

He sucked on his lip, as though trying to reach a decision with himself, then said to Lopez: “You got a minute to look at something?”

Lopez shrugged and followed him into the bar. Reed led him to the men’s room, then opened the door.

“Last one,” he said.

Lopez walked past the urinals. The door to the end stall was half closed. He pushed it open with the toe of his boot.

There was black fluid on the wall, and more liquid pooled on the floor. An inexpert attempt had been made to prevent it from spreading by dumping toilet paper on top of it. The paper was almost entirely soaked through.

“Found it when I was locking up. It was quiet last night, so I guess nobody used the stall after it happened. I was going to call Lloyd, but it was after two in the morning and I figured that maybe it wasn’t worth troubling him about.”

Lopez squatted down and took a closer look at the blood.

“Give me that brush for a second,” he said.

Reed handed over the brush, and Lopez used the handle to explore the accumulation of paper and fluid. At the center of the mass, he found pieces of black matter.

“What are they?” asked Reed.

“I don’t know. Looks like someone might have coughed them up.”

“Whoever it is, he’s real sick.”

Lopez stood, then washed the tip of the broom in the sink before handing it back to Reed.

“You remember who was in the bar last night after I left?”

Reed considered the question.

“Locals, mostly. I can name them. Two couples from out of town. Don’t think they were staying here. And the guy in the corner booth, the one you were talking to. Creepy sonofabitch. Kept brushing up against the wait staff.”

Lopez swore softly. “I think I know where to find him,” he said. “I want you to make a list of the people who were here, just in case. Put some Scotch tape over the door to this stall, maybe an OUT OF ORDER sign too. I’ll get Greg Bradley to stop by and take a look at it. And Ed, don’t tell anyone about this, okay?”

Ed looked at him as if he’d just been advised not to stir cocktails with his wiener.

“You mean you don’t want me to tell my brunch customers about what looks like black blood in the men’s room, which might make them think twice about ordering the beef? I don’t know, Chief, but if you insist…”

 

 

Lopez called by the Easton Motel. Jed was no longer behind the desk. A young girl, one of Pat Capoore’s kids, was looking after things while Jed was gone. A teen magazine was open in front of her, and she was sipping a can of soda through a straw.

“You know where he is?” he asked.

“His son, Phil, isn’t feeling so good. He told me he’d be over at Greg Bradley’s if there was a problem.”

Lopez asked for the motel’s registration cards. He flicked through them until he came to Buddy Carson’s.

“Did this man check out?”

“The motel’s empty. I guess he must have done.”

“Have you made up the room?”

“I don’t think it’s been done yet. I guess I’ll have to do it when Jed gets back.”

She made a barfing gesture by sticking her finger in her mouth, then gave Lopez the key to 12 before returning to her magazine.

“Hey,” she called, as he was about to leave. “Should I ask you for a warrant or something?”

“Why?” he asked. “You got something to hide?”

“Maybe,” she said, coquettishly. Her lips closed around the straw. She sucked deeply, never taking her eyes from him the whole time.

Lopez left her to it, wondering if maybe he shouldn’t have a talk with Pat Capoore about his little girl.

 

 

The room was neat and empty. The toilet roll was folded into a little triangle at the end, and none of the towels had been used. The bed had been slept on rather than in. Lopez could see the depression Buddy Carson’s body had made on the quilt. The quilt was yellow and green. Where it covered the pillows, Lopez saw a dark stain.

Black blood: not much, though. Lopez thought he could see traces of it in the toilet bowl too, although nothing like the men’s room at Reed’s. It looked like Buddy Carson wouldn’t be creeping people out for much longer. Lopez tried to find an ounce of sympathy for the man, but failed. He closed the door, returned the key, and headed home to change into his uniform.

 

 

Greg Bradley was having a bad morning. First, there was Maria Dominguez, with a lump in her breast the size of a walnut. He’d warned her again and again about screening, but she was a big, buxom woman in the fullest bloom of health. People like her believed that they just couldn’t get sick. He’d given her a referral for Manchester and made the appointment for her for that afternoon. She’d called her husband from the office and he had collected her. As soon as they were gone, Greg phoned Amy Weiss, the counselor he used, and told her the details. She assured him that she’d call the house and offer to accompany Maria to Manchester.

Now there was Phil Wheaton. He began to cry almost as soon as Greg examined him, big silent tears that rolled down his cheeks and exploded on his bare thighs.

Greg tried to keep his voice calm as he examined him.

“How long have you had this, Phil?” he asked.

“Just since yesterday.”

Greg looked up at him.

“Seriously, Phil. I need you to tell me the truth.”

“That is the truth. Honest, I wouldn’t lie about something like this. I mean, look at me.”

It flew in the face of all medical knowledge, but Greg was inclined to believe him. The expression on Phil Wheaton’s face was one of absolute fear and panic, and Greg had become expert at spotting the liars in his office. But this made no sense: he was looking at what he very much suspected was an advanced stage of testicular cancer. He tested him for discomfort and found pain centers as high as his abdomen.

“Okay, Phil, we need to get you looked at by a specialist. You got someone you can call?”

“My dad,” said Phil. “Can I call my dad?”

Greg told him to pull his pants up, then went out to ask his secretary to call Jed Wheaton, but the older man was already in the waiting room, staring at the bulletin board on the wall without taking any of it in. Greg walked over to him, touched his shoulder, and gestured toward the second consulting room at the opposite end of the hallway from where his son was dressing.

“Jed,” he said. “You want to come inside with me for a moment?”

 

 

Lopez relieved Lloyd and Ellie, then left Chris Barker, another part-time cop, in charge of the station house while he did his rounds. It would be a long day today, culminating in the event at Reed’s, which would require him to be present and in uniform for the occasion. He called Greg Bradley’s office, but Lana told him that the doctor was pretty much tied up for the morning, and asked him to call back later. Lopez decided that the blood in Reed’s could wait until the afternoon. Once Greg had taken a look at it, Reed could get the stall cleaned up before the crowds started to arrive.

Buddy Carson: the guy certainly managed to leave his mark on a place.

 

 

It was Lloyd who spotted the red Dodge Charger. He was halfway home, and thinking only about his bed, when he saw it parked under a bank of trees beside Easton’s old bowling alley, long since boarded up and slowly falling into disrepair.

Lopez sometimes commented that Lloyd had a mind like a sorting office: everything in its right place, the smallest of facts correctly filed away. A seemingly innocuous detail could set Lloyd off, leading him to flip diligently through the storehouse of his mind until he came up with the relevant case.

Among the heads-ups in the IN tray that morning was a bulletin concerning the deaths of a family in Colorado. While medical experts were still examining the bodies, state police—and, for reasons that weren’t made clear in the bulletin, the Feds and the health authorities—were anxious to talk to a man who might have visited the scene. Apparently, the owner of a neighboring ranch had noticed a red Dodge Charger entering the property a day before the bodies were discovered. He couldn’t make out the plate, but the driver was male, and the witness thought he might have been carrying a white hat in his hand.

Now here was a red Dodge Charger. It was a long way from Colorado, but there was no mistaking it. Standing beside the car was a thin man wearing a white cowboy hat and eating a candy bar. There was something stuck on the front of the hat, just above the brim. Lloyd didn’t know that this was Buddy Carson, the same man Lopez had asked Ellie to run a check on the night before, because Lopez hadn’t mentioned a car.

Lloyd pulled into the lot. He didn’t have a radio in his truck, but he did have a cell phone. He could call Lopez, he supposed, but he decided to see what the guy had to say for himself first of all. He pulled up about ten feet from the man in the hat and opened his door. Lloyd was still wearing his uniform, but the man didn’t appear troubled by the sight of him. Either he was very cool or he didn’t have a lot to hide. The trouble was that those who had the least to hide tended to worry the most when confronted by a cop in uniform. It was the quiet ones who needed to be watched.

“Morning,” said Lloyd. “Everything okay here?”

Buddy Carson finished the candy bar, rolled the wrapper into a ball, then placed it carefully in his shirt pocket, just behind his wallet. He was wearing black leather gloves.

“Everything’s just fine,” he said.

“You got some identification?”

“Sure,” said Buddy.

He took his wallet from his pocket, found his driver’s license, and handed it to Lloyd, but Lloyd jerked his hand away at the last moment and the license fell on the ground between them. He felt as though he had come too close to an electrical field, bristling and humming with dangerous energy, contained only by the thin leather of the man’s gloves.

“What the hell was that?” he asked.

Buddy Carson didn’t answer. Instead, his mouth opened wide, and a steady stream of black fluid struck Lloyd Hopkins in the face. He stumbled backward, his eyes burning. He tried to reach for his gun, but Buddy moved in on him, wrenching his arm away from the weapon and hitting him on the bridge of the nose with the heel of his right hand. Lloyd went down, and Buddy took his gun.

Buddy listened for a second, but could detect no cars coming. He considered shooting the cop, but was afraid that someone as yet unseen might hear, and he couldn’t risk dissipating his energies by taking him in the usual way. Instead, he slipped the gun into his belt, then raised his foot and brought the heel of his boot down hard on Lloyd’s head.

By the third strike, Lloyd Hopkins was dead.

 

 

Greg Bradley cleared his office by twelve thirty, then told Lana to go home. Fridays were always half days, but Lana was in even more of a hurry to leave than usual since she was due to help Eddy Reed with the preparations for the charity evening. Once she had left, turning the sign on the door to CLOSED on her way out, he sat down at his desk and put his head in his hands. It was as bad a morning as he could ever remember: Maria and her husband driving out of the lot, she with her head lowered, too stunned even to cry; Jed Wheaton trying to console his weeping son; and a call from Manchester to say that Link Frazier had passed away during the night. Three cancer cases in as many days, at least two of them massively advanced and two of them connected with the Easton Motel. He replayed the message Jed had left on his machine the night before. He had wanted to question him more closely about his sick guest, the one who had bled all over the towels, but Jed’s attention was now fixed entirely on his son. Anyway, the guy had checked out that morning. The towels were still there, Jed told him. Maria had placed them in a bag in the laundry room, just in case.

But this was cancer, and different forms of cancer. How could they be linked to one man?

There was something terribly wrong. He had to talk to Lopez. He was about to get his coat when he heard someone enter Reception and close the door. There was the sound of the lock being engaged. He walked out to the receptionist’s desk.

“Sorry,” he began. “I’m—”

Buddy Carson had wiped most of Lloyd Hopkins’s blood from his face, but it still streaked his nose and forehead. His lips were drawn back from his mouth, and Bradley could see what looked like oil caked at the corners.

Buddy’s right hand swept across from left to right, knocking Greg Bradley back into his office. The pointed toe of a cowboy boot struck the doctor in the left kidney, and then Buddy Carson was sitting on his chest, his knees pinning his quarry’s arms to the floor.

“I’m sorry, Doc,” he said, “but Buddy ain’t got time for your shit.”

He held a glass jar in his left hand. Using his thumb and forefinger, he unscrewed the lid. Something black inside the jar twisted in response to the action.

Buddy shifted his position, now using his shins on the doctor’s arms while his knees gripped his head. He leaned over, then pressed the open end of the jar against Bradley’s left ear.

Like a slug, the black tumor began to slide across the glass toward its host.

 

 

The day crawled by. Lopez got tied up with a domestic dispute, eventually hauling in the husband to give him time to cool off in a cell. There were couples in the town who seemed to spend most of their married lives first beating up on each other, then breaking up with each other, before finally getting back together in time to start the whole cycle once more. Charges were often threatened but rarely pressed, and Lopez had forced himself not to become clinically depressed by the number of women who stayed in, or returned to, abusive relationships despite every effort to help them. He knew it wasn’t that simple, and he had heard all the complex psychological arguments about the nature of such relationships, but that still didn’t stop him from wanting to take a length of rubber hose to some of the men and to shake some sense into the women.

The guy currently languishing in a cell had not come to his attention before. According to his wife, he had lost his job a couple of months earlier and begun drinking more than usual. Money was tight and bills were going unpaid. What began as an attempt to have a reasoned discussion had escalated into shouting and then, briefly, violence. A neighbor called the police, and now the husband was in a cell and Lopez had left another message on Amy Weiss’s phone asking her to try to schedule an appointment with the wife.

Lopez called Greg Bradley’s office, but got the machine. He tried the doctor’s cell, but got a “powered off” message. Finally, he made a call to Greg’s house and, when there was no reply, got Lana over at Reed’s and asked her if she knew where he was. She told him that she’d left him at the office, and filled him in some on the morning’s events without mentioning the names of those involved, but she couldn’t talk for long. Already there were people starting to arrive, and Lopez could hear Eddy Reed shouting in the background. Lopez let her go.

He checked his watch. Lloyd Hopkins was late. He’d promised to return early to help out with the parking at Reed’s. Again Lopez was forced to call both his cell and his home, but got no reply from either.

“Doesn’t anybody answer the damn phone anymore?” he asked nobody in particular. The only people within earshot were Barker and Ellie. They just exchanged looks and returned to their business with renewed vigor. Lopez asked Ellie to head over to Reed’s until Lloyd made an appearance, then left Barker at the station while he took a ride over to Greg Bradley’s office.

The door was unlocked.

He stepped inside and saw the papers on the floor, and the cracked glass in the office door where Greg’s body had struck it. He drew his gun and advanced toward the room. It was empty, but there was a dark stain on the carpet. He checked the other rooms and found them empty. He had just picked up his handset to call Barker back at the station when he heard a sound from the closet at the end of the hallway. Its doors were chained and locked.

Lopez ran to it. Someone was trying to speak, but the words were indistinct.

“Greg?”

The voice spoke again.

“I’ll have you out of there in a second,” he said.

He took his baton, twisted it against the chain, then pulled. The handle on the closet popped out of the wood, releasing the door. It shot open and what was left of Greg Bradley tumbled out onto the floor. His face was entirely black, and his eyes were hidden beneath his swollen flesh. Most of his hair had fallen out, and what remained were gray strands, stuck to the lesions that had opened in his scalp. Lopez turned away, feeling himself start to retch at the smell.

“Uh-ee,” said Bradley.

“I can’t—”

Bradley’s hand tried to grip at Lopez’s shirt, but it had no strength.

“Uh-ee,” repeated Bradley. “Uh-ee sick.”

His consciousness was failing, the black things eating away at him, consuming him by turning his own body against him. He could not remember his own name, or where he was. He was lost in the growing darkness, and he would never be found again. All that was left was pain, and the memory of the man who had brought it.

And then even that was gone.

Lopez eased Bradley’s body slowly to the floor.

Uh-ee.

Buddy.

 

 

At that moment, Buddy Carson was standing in the shadows at the back of Eddy Reed’s bar. The place was filling up nicely, with more cars arriving every minute. A small, lithe female cop was helping to direct the new arrivals into the parking lot. Buddy waited patiently. He knew his chance would come, and it did.

A fat woman in a Nissan, three of her howling brood crammed into the backseat, tried to buck the one-way system in the lot in order to grab a parking space close to the bar’s back door. Unfortunately, she reckoned without a big Explorer, which was next in line for the space and which pipped the Nissan. There was some shouting, which confirmed Buddy’s view that the neighborliness in this town was only skin-deep, before the Nissan backed away, glancing against someone’s Lexus and setting off the alarm. The couple who owned the Lexus had not yet made it to the bar, and the sound of the alarm brought them scurrying back. It also brought the cop, who had to skirt the Dumpsters behind which Buddy lay.

He grabbed her quickly and without fuss, then left her bleeding amidst the trash.

Five minutes later, he was heading for the bar.

 

 

The call about Lloyd Hopkins came just seconds after Lopez finished up with Barker. He had given the young part-timer a description of Buddy Carson and told him to alert the state police. He was trying to raise Ellie when Barker came back to him on the radio. He sounded on the verge on tears.

“Chief, it’s Lloyd,” he said. “A couple of kids think they’ve found his body behind the old Metzger’s Bowl. His car’s there too. They say he’s been beat on pretty bad. What do you want me to do?”

Jesus, not Lloyd. Lopez felt a wrenching in his gut.

“Who are the kids?”

“Ben Ryder and the Capoore girl.”

Pat Capoore’s daughter, the girl from the motel: she knew Lloyd Hopkins by sight.

“I’m heading out there,” he told Barker. “Get back on to the troopers again. Tell them we have one officer dead, and the suspect is Carson, Buddy Carson.”

Lopez didn’t know for sure that Carson was responsible for Lloyd Hopkins’s death, but he was the best suspect. Nobody local would ever even raise a voice to Lloyd Hopkins.

“And Chris,” he added, “you tell them to use extreme caution. Tell them not to even touch this guy. I think there’s something wrong with him. He may be contagious, you understand?”

He was about to hit the lights and speed to Metzger’s, but paused before activating the siren. First Link Frazier was diagnosed with cancer, then Greg Bradley’s receptionist had alerted him to two further possible cases. Now Greg was dead, his face a mess of tumors, and Lloyd Hopkins’s body was lying in the deserted lot of an abandoned bowling alley, beaten and maybe diseased. But cancer wasn’t contagious. It didn’t work that way.

He tried raising Ellie again, but with no success. Instead, he took out his cell and called Reed’s. Eddy picked up on the third ring.

“Reed’s. How can I help you?”

“Eddy, it’s Jim Lopez. Do me a favor. Look out into the lot, see if you can’t spot Ellie Winters.”

He could hear voices in the background, and laughter. Music was playing.

“Hang on, Chief,” said Reed.

The phone was put down, and in that instant Lopez made his decision. Minutes went by before the phone was picked up again, but by the time Eddy came back on the line Lopez was in sight of the bar.

“No, I don’t see her anywhere. Her car’s outside, but—”

Eddy Reed paused.

“Hold on, there’s something happening,” he said.

Then the music died, and Lopez heard somebody start to scream.

 

 

Buddy had been preparing himself all day, working on the poison within him until it was distilled to its purest essence. He could feel it responding to his thoughts, readying itself for what lay ahead. The fluid with which he had blinded Lloyd Hopkins was waste matter and nothing more. He had kept back the real stuff, so that when he touched the first woman over by the ladies’ room, the release of energy rocked him on his heels. He could almost see the black fluid seeping through his pores and entering the base of her skull. He felt light-headed, and giddy with power, even as the woman’s skin puckered and blackened before him. She spun toward him, her fingers reaching back to try to find the source of the pain, but Buddy was already moving. He touched a fat man on the hand, and a waitress on the shoulder blade. Her tray fell to the floor, the glasses upon it shattering.

Then a woman screamed. Buddy thought it might be the bitch at the toilets, but in fact it was one of her companions, responding to the sight of the creeping tumor colonizing her friend’s face. Buddy felt somebody reach for him, the man’s hand closing firmly on his shoulder. Without looking, Buddy slapped back at his face and felt the surge again as the transfer occurred. He was making for the far corner of the bar, where a familiar blond-haired woman was talking to a man in a gray suit. He had spotted the cop’s girlfriend as soon as he entered the bar. He liked the idea of taking her while the venom was still so strong in him. He stretched out his arms in a crucifixion pose, his fingers trailing behind him, brushing against skin, cloth, hair as he began moving like a dark messiah through the crowd, quickly losing count of those whom he touched.

For a moment, he found himself in a clear space. He drew a deep breath, his eyes briefly closing, and felt the worm un-coiling deep within his bowels. He released the breath and opened his eyes.

The bullet hit him in the right shoulder, spinning him into the bar. He saw the female cop in the side entrance hallway, cold air entering through the open door behind her. Her hair was matted with blood and rivulets of red ran down the side of her face. She was almost slumped against the doorjamb, weakened by her injuries and exhausted by the effort it had taken her to get to the bar. Buddy reached under his shirt for the gun he had taken from Lloyd Hopkins as Ellie tried to clear her vision for a second shot. There was no pain from the wound, but the arm of Buddy’s shirt was soaked in a black, viscous fluid. People were shouting and screaming, trying to put as much space between him and them as possible. Most of them were already on the ground, or seeking cover behind tables and flimsy chairs.

Buddy felt his body changing. It was as though he were being stretched to bursting by some unseen force. He looked at his hands and saw his pores widening, expanding in size until his skin appeared to be pocked with half-inch-wide holes. They spat black fluid, like miniature volcanoes erupting. He felt more of them appear on his face, and liquid pressure building behind his eyes, increasing the bulge in his sockets and distorting his eyesight. The great worm writhed in his belly, and he felt it shoot tendrils through his system, causing him to spasm in agony. His clothing started to tear as dark nodes pressed upward, bursting through the denim and twisting in the air like newborn eels in clear water.

Buddy’s hand found the gun and drew it from his belt. The muzzle of the cop’s pistol wavered, then fell as Ellie lost consciousness, her body sliding down the jamb. Buddy aimed, following her progress down. He saw her as a vague blue blur, almost lost amid the blackness encroaching upon his vision. He could kill her now, or use her to relieve some of the great force that threatened to overwhelm him. Buddy dropped the gun and advanced on the prone cop.

Something tore a hole in the center of his being. A black spray erupted from his chest, dousing the tables and the floor. Buddy was propelled forward, tripping over Ellie’s body as his hands scrabbled at the walls to prevent himself from falling. He opened his mouth to scream, aware of the massive shock that his system had endured. There was a great wound in his chest. He touched his fingers to it and thought that he saw at last the black worm, twisting and biting in the corrupted remains of his flesh. Its movements appeared frenzied and tormented, as though it sensed Buddy’s end was near and was now intent upon chewing its way out of its host’s system before it collapsed entirely.

He turned to see Lopez standing at the bar, the stock of the big shotgun firm against his shoulder. Buddy’s mouth was filled with fluid. It coursed down from the corners of his mouth as he spoke, turning his chin dark and losing itself in the hole in his chest. His vision left him, and he felt a great absence within as the link between the worm and himself was abruptly severed.

“No cure,” said Buddy.

He was smiling in his final agonies, his mouth a mass of yellow and black like the half-chewed remains of wasps.

“No cure for cancer.”

Buddy raised his gun blindly, and Lopez blew the top of his head off.

 

VI

 

By the time the state police arrived, Buddy Carson’s remains had turned to a dark, clotted mass on the floor of Reed’s bar, with only his clothes, his boots, and his white straw hat to indicate that this had once been the form of a man.

The snows came the next day, and piles of earth later marred the whiteness of the town cemetery as the bodies were buried. More would follow, as Buddy Carson’s victims succumbed to the disease with which he had infected them. Some died quickly, others dragged on for weeks. Nobody lasted longer than a month.

Reed’s bar closed. So did the Easton Motel, as Jed followed his son, Phil, into the ground. People left for new places and the town began to decay, as surely as if Buddy had found a way to taint its buildings and corrode its streets. It was the beginning of the end for Easton. Even Lopez left: he followed the trail of pain and death back to Colorado, and drank a beer with Jerry Schneider, who told him of what he had seen at the Benson farm. He traveled through Wyoming and Idaho, and ended up in Nebraska before the trail ran dry. He returned to New Hampshire and settled down with Elaine Olssen near Nashua, but he never forgot Buddy Carson.

He never forgot the cancer cowboy.

 

 

In a desert in western Nevada, a man dressed in cheap denim opens his eyes. He is lying on the sand, and though the sun beats down upon him, his skin has not burned. He cannot remember his name or how he came to be here. He knows only that he is in pain and he needs to reach out to someone.

The man rises to his feet, the lizard skin cowboy boots strangely familiar upon his feet, and heads for the highway.

 

Comments

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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