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Chapter One

Lying sprawled on a wooden bench in a gazebo, Daryl Bendis woke to the sound of barking dogs and sprinklers. He blinked as bars of sunlight scorched his cornea through the ornamental roof. Groaning, he tried to sit up. When his head began to split open, he surrendered to the hangover, lay back on the bench, and closed his eyes against the supernova that had so rudely interrupted his sleep.

Why do tongues feel like roadkill after a good kick-ass party like last night?

Party. Yeah, he knew he'd been at a party. Somewhere. It took a few moments to orient himself, search his memory for clues to his whereabouts. He wasn't at home because they didn't have a gazebo, and anyway, he recalled telling Mum and Dad he was going to be spending the night at a friend's house. "To study trig." Such explanations generally granted him at least twenty-four hours of uninterrupted party time, and maybe a few hours more to sober up with, if he was lucky.

But which friend? Despite a strong desire to remain prone for a long, long time, he sat up. His head pounded with the worst headache of his life. When he was eleven, he'd microwaved a whole egg, just to see what it would look like when the shell finally exploded. This image appeared vividly in his mind now, as his throbbing head threatened to recreate the scene. He wanted to lie there at least another hour, while some of the drugs and booze filtered out of his body. One hour. That's all it would take, he knew from experience, before he was up and somewhat coherent, ready to do it all over again.

Once he sat up, he made a disturbing discovery. He was sitting in someone's backyard, near a kidney-bean swimming pool, with the beginnings of a sunburn glowing pinkly on his chest, wearing nothing but a pair of red Lee Wright briefs.

His clothes were nowhere to be seen on the finely manicured lawn. Instead, he found a trail of about four empty wine coolers, leading from his present location to the back door of a three-story mansion. A rhythmic heartbeat pounded away somewhere, mixed with the low electric whine of the pool pump.

Time to get into the house. Time to figure out where I am. Time to get out of this sun, he thought foggily. With every footstep, blood vessels threatened to rupture in his forehead. He hoped it wasn't too late in the day. And he hoped the day was either Saturday or Sunday. If today was a school day, he'd be up shit creek without a paddle, canoe or a life vest.

As he opened a set of French doors, a wall of new sound knocked him over. "Let the Good Times Roll" by Sheep on Drugs threatened to complete the microwaved-egg number on his head. Bone-jarring bass thundered through Earthquake woofers, plucking at his intestines with salad tongs. This was the heartbeat he'd heard earlier, muted by the mansion's architecture. Darkness, blessed darkness, as he closed the French doors behind him.

The music jogged his memory. Steve threw the party. This is Steve's house. Steve's parents are in Cancun, slumming.

Then, This was my birthday party. I'm eighteen.

I'm hung over.

Daryl burped.

Where the hell's Steve?

The phone rang. An irritating, wimpy, chirping sound. His eyes adjusted to the gloom, took in a high-tech kitchen with three hundred copper pots and pans hanging from a ceiling rack, a bank of microwave ovens, an intercom system, halogen track lighting dimmed to almost nothing. It reminded him of a biology lab: clean, sterile, and smelling of antiseptic. The music originated from the living room, a short hike down a marble hall. Thick black drapes concealed windows and French doors. Steve's parents must like it dark, too.

He padded across cold tile, chilled by air-conditioning turned down way too low. Then collided with a waist-high pyramid of empty and half empty beer cans, a carefully constructed work of art taking up a three-by-three-foot square of floor. The sudden and unexpected noise of tumbling aluminum and sloshing, stale Budweiser reminded him his bladder was about to burst.

"Hhmmmmph," he said, with little emotion. And suddenly he didn't want to answer the phone. Why should I? It's not my phone. It's Steve's phone. But it's probably not for Steve, it's for his parents, and they're not even here. Probably some bitchy neighbor bitching about the noise last night. Hell, what about right now? Though he didn't recall much of the evening, he assumed they had made enough noise to wake the dead. The condition of his central nervous system suggested as much. Do they have a housekeeper? The prospect made him uncomfortable, as he stood in the middle of the kitchen in his skivvies. If they had a maid, how could we have a party? They must have sent her away or something.

I gotta take a leak.

The phone continued to ring. If Steve was anywhere in the house, he was either unwilling to answer the phone, or unable to. He suspected the host was upstairs in his king-sized waterbed, with the girl or girls of his choice, passed out in never-never land.

In spite of the pressure in his groin, he felt strongly compelled to pick up the remote handset.

"Hello," he said tentatively, and began wandering through the house, looking for a rest room.

"This is Adam," said a voice on the other end. "Is Steve around?"

"Don't know. He's . . . I just got up."

A long pause. "Daryl, is that you? Are you okay?" Adam said, clearly concerned.

"Yeah, I'm fine. Just looking for the bathroom. I'm in the kitchen. Was."

"Find the utility room. There's a half-bath back there." Adam continued, as Daryl started that direction, "Is anyone around?"

"Nope. Haven't been in the living room yet. Music's still going. I fell asleep in the backyard."

"Music's still going because it's on a CD carousel. Random. Steve put it on last night before I left."

Daryl paid little attention to his friend. His bladder had reached critical mass. Little else registered until he found the bathroom and started relieving himself.

"That's gross," Adam said. Daryl sighed with relief. He noticed a bulge, right below his stomach, that had extended further than normal. Someone once told him that was his liver.

"What time is it anyway?" Daryl asked.

"One o'clock," Adam replied. "And you're just getting up?"

Now he wished he hadn't picked up the phone. This was not the kind of lecture he was in the mood for. Jesus, I don't need parents. All I gotta do is call Adam. He'll do all the bitching for them.

"You drank," Daryl whined.

"I had one. Then I left. You know that. I might as well have had a Sprite."

Which was one aspect about his friend he never understood. What is the point of just having one? He didn't like the way the conversation was going, the inevitable debate, which usually took place the day after a party. And since he couldn't recall much that would support his argument, he decided to end the discussion.

"Do you need to talk to Steve?" Daryl asked impatiently.

"No. I just . . . I dunno, I just had a bad feeling something happened over there. Guess you're all right."

He's just playing head games with me, like he usually does when I'm like this. Adam can be a real jerk sometimes. It wasn't always like this, though. He tried to remember when things began to change with them, counted back a dozen months, to their sophomore year in high school. Daryl once thought it was pretty neat that Adam's mother was a cop. When he started partying, though, and buying pot by the ounce, coke by the paper, and crack by the bottle, he didn't think her profession was very neat anymore.

In the next room, Sheep surrendered to KMFDM. In the brief transitional silence, Adam ended the conversation.

"Call me later, if you feel like it. I gotta go. Late for work," Adam said. "And oh, yeah. Happy birthday," he added, and hung up.

Daryl stared at the receiver, the dial tone somehow reaching his ears through the blast of Virus, an older KMFDM album from 1989. He hated this album, in general hated any music from the previous decade or earlier, no matter what it was. Had to be 1990 or later. And here it was 1994. What are we doing listening to this old shit anyway?

"Time to get out of here," he muttered to the phone. He shivered as goose bumps pimpled his flesh.

He returned the phone to its cradle and started down the hallway, toward the music, grabbing a cooler out of the fridge on the way. It was so loud he felt like he was walking through a lake of sound.

Then he remembered.

Jesus Christ, what a pipehead. We got out of school a week ago. It's summer vacation!

The revelation added bounce to his step. The music didn't sound so bad anymore, and when he entered the living room he walked over a body to turn up the music. The room was a wreck, but then it always was after one of Steve's parties. The kid he stepped over was a freshman, just turned fifteen, who was the younger brother of Gina, one of the girls Steve used to boff. Steve and Gina had an argument the night before, something about Steve wanting to chase every girl in school but her, but he let Colm come over anyway, because he was silly and stupid when he got high and made everyone laugh.

Steve was passed out on the huge black leather pit group, a monstrous chunk of furniture that swallowed up the entire corner of the room. Two girls, partially clothed, lay more or less astride him, zonked out as well. Daryl didn't remember their names, but vaguely recalled one of them flirting with him at the party. One was in a black leather skirt, no top, and had smeared white-and-black Gothic makeup all over Steve's tank top. The other wore some kind of Spandex jumpsuit that might as well have been sprayed on. Steve was nineteen, but the two girls couldn't have been over thirteen.

Jail bait. The expression carried a stronger meaning for him today. Not just for Steve, but for me too now.

Wine and beer had stained the charcoal carpet, easily fixed since Steve had already made arrangements for the carpet cleaner to be in the next day . . . or was it today? It didn't matter anymore. It was summer vacation. Reality be damned.

He knew there were others at the party, and chances were they were in different places throughout the house, under beds, in beds, probably screwing this very moment. Suddenly he was glad he was the first one up—is it really one in the afternoon?—because now all he wanted was out. Being in the company of people, any people, held little interest. He twisted the cooler open and drank, wincing at the tartness; this one was more wine than the rest. Stronger. His stomach lurched, but he knew that if he could get a few gulps down he would be okay.

He found what appeared to be his socks next to the couch near Steve's head. A good start. It still didn't explain why he was half naked. That would be a real bitch if I got laid last night and couldn't remember it. It wouldn't be the first time that had happened.

His skin stuck to the leather couch, reminding him he had other articles of clothing to find before he could go anywhere.

A search of the house was beginning to look necessary, though he didn't really want to face any of the people who'd graced his party the night before, mostly because he didn't remember most of what he'd said or done. Whatever it was, it was probably embarrassing. Waking up mostly naked wasn't a good sign.

His eyes strayed to the contents of the big glass coffee table. Amid the debris of beer cans he saw Steve's glass pipe, a lighter, and several loose rocks of crack cocaine. His mouth watered. He reached for the rig but stopped halfway, remembering his semi-nudity. If he fired up the pipe now, he would have a harder time finding his clothes. Better to wait until he had at least found his pants.

He glanced out the big bay window that looked over the driveway and saw his red '94 Corvette blocked by a Camaro, a prissy little BMW, and a black Ford Mustang. Four other cars were parked down the drive, between the house and the security gate. What's more, he saw a black crease in one fender of his 'Vette. His blood started to boil.

"Shit," he said. Not only was he unable to hop in his car and drive away, his car was damaged. By some jerk driving a Ford. He couldn't remember whose car it was, but dammit, he would find out before he left.

Pissed, Daryl stalked back into the living room, where his companions remained, unmoving, and started powering off black boxes in the entertainment center until the music ceased.

"Steve, dammit, wake up," Daryl shouted. "Some asshole driving a Mustang dinged my 'Vette. Who is he? Where is he?"

Livid with rage, his hangover, which had started to subside with the cooler, bloomed in his cranium once again. He stood in the middle of the living room, glaring down at his sleeping friends. They didn't move.

Daryl smirked as he considered devious ways to wake them, all of them involving ice water. His ears rang in the sudden absence of noise. And still, they didn't move.

"Okay, Steve. It's time to get up. Time to call the carpet cleaner guy."

Nothing. Daryl frowned. They must have just crashed. Jeez, how late were they up, anyway?

He went over to nudge Steve, and froze when he touched his arm. Not only was it white, it was ice-cold. Limply, it fell to the floor. Daryl reached for his wrist, started feeling for a pulse, though he wasn't sure exactly where it would be. When he couldn't find a rhythm there, he felt Steve's chest, recoiling at the coldness there. No beat, no nothing. Daryl was running out of things to check.

Maybe the girls . . .

He touched their shoulders.

Maybe not . . . 

Daryl stepped back and regarded the scene numbly, never before feeling as devoid of emotion as he did then. I am nothing, I feel nothing. Nothing happened. Nothing will happen to me. . . .

He left the living room, first checking Colm, who was lying facedown in the carpet, and wondered why this didn't seem strange at first. Colm felt as cold and lifeless as the others; when Daryl turned him over, his eyes were still open. One pupil had withdrawn to the size of a dust speck. The other was wide open, blocking the iris completely.

There have to be others in the house. They can't all be dead.

There. He said it. Dead.

"Anybody up there?" he called up a long staircase. No one answered.

Daryl found himself at the top of the stairs, not remembering how he had gotten up there. The last bedroom upstairs belonged to Steve, but Daryl knew Steve wouldn't be in there.

A wall of bright light blinded him as he opened the door. The fluorescent desk lamp, turned upward, stared at him with its long, luminous eye. On the desk, which had a visible layer of dust on it, sat a pile of schoolbooks. Steve's. There's the trig book we were supposed to be looking at last night.

The phone trilled, this time a different, more annoying sound. The plastic receiver looked like it came out of a Cracker Jack box. Daryl sat on the edge of a waterbed and reached for the cheap phone.

"Yeah?" he said, making no effort to conceal his annoyance.

"Daryl?" Adam again. Over the phone loud music thumped away, something electronic. Adam had to shout to be heard.

"Christ, what time is it?"

A long pause. "Look, some of the guys who were over there last night are getting a little worried." Another pause. "You been there all morning?"

"Well, yeah," he said. "Some shithead blocked me in."

Then he remembered the horrible nightmare, in which he found those dead bodies. Including Steve's. But it was only a nightmare, he reminded himself as the blood drained from his face.

"Well, I thought I'd check," Adam continued. His happy, lighthearted tone was getting on Daryl's nerves. "I'm at the Yaz. You sure you're okay?"

"Yep. Listen, I gotta go. Say hi to your mom for me," he said, then hung up.

I gotta find Steve, he thought.

He went downstairs to the living room, where he saw Steve, two girls, and a boy named Colm lying dead.

Daryl sat on the floor, staring down at his feet, thinking, thinking. "Jesus Christ," he said to his dead friends. "How the hell did this happen?"

He tried to remember the events of the previous night, his memories muddied with time and drugs. Grief lay somewhere deep in his throat, held back by the immediate need to cover his ass. He saw the drugs lying on the glass coffee table, which in itself was strange only because this was after the party, when everything should have been used up.

Wait a minute, wasn't there a weird group that crashed the party? He remembered the strange punkers in leathers and chains who rode up on Harleys and crashed the party uninvited. He still didn't know how they got past the gate, which could only be opened from the house. This was one of the reasons Daryl wanted the party here, because he knew cops couldn't break the gate down without a warrant, and video cameras would let them know who was knocking at their door long before that happened.

Steve tried to throw them out, but when they offered more drugs, he let them stay. About fifty people had arrived by then, and the newcomers began handing out vials of crack, for free, from a silk bag covered with hobbit runes and occult symbols and shit. The vials had black stoppers; other dealers used different-colored stoppers to label their product, but black was not one of the common ones. He remembered reaching for the bag, but had stumbled and fallen flat on his face. He had been so embarrassed from everyone laughing at him that he'd grabbed a six-pack of coolers and went outside to the gazebo. The idea was to return to the party after drinking the coolers. Instead, he had passed out.

Gotta call the cops. Gotta clean this place up first.

He grabbed a plastic bag and began cleaning, starting with the rocks and pipe on the coffee table. He searched everyone's pockets for more contraband, found an ounce of weed on Steve, pills of unknown type on the girls, and Tylenol 3's on Colm. He took three of the Tylenols for his headache, washing them down with warm cooler. Everything except alcohol went into the bag. He avoided looking into their faces, feeling like he was defiling them in some way.

In Steve's room he found more rocks and a backup pipe, but since it had apparently never been used he left it in the desk.

Sometime during the search of Steve's room, he remarked to himself that he should be feeling something, anything, right now. Those people are dead. I even knew some of them. He wasn't afraid of being arrested, but that was only because he was getting rid of any evidence that could be used against him. He felt no grief or even sadness over the loss of his friends. The codeine had kicked in, perhaps explaining some of this. He did feel a vague excitement, a thrill at outsmarting the police, but this was distant, clouded by the murk of a melting hangover.

In the bathroom he began disposing of the evidence in the toilet. Rocks and powdered coke went in first, followed by the glass pipe, which he smashed on the toilet sides. Then the grass and the pills, everything in descending order of legal liability.

About a grand in dope. Down the drain, he noted sadly as the swirling water sucked everything down. After everything had gone in, he flushed five more times, waiting for the tank to fill fully before flushing again, a technique he'd overheard his father discussing with a client.

Satisfied he'd completely covered his tracks, he went into Steve's room and reluctantly dialed 911.


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