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Flash Point

BEN JACOBS WAS on his way back to Skowhegan when he found the abandoned car. It was parked on a lonely stretch of secondary road between North Anson and Madison, skewed diagonally over the shoulder.

Kids again, was Jacobs’ first thought—more of the road gypsies who plagued the state every summer until they were driven south by the icy whip of the first nor’easter. Probably from the big encampment down near Norridgewock, he decided, and he put his foot back on the accelerator. He’d already had more than his fill of outer-staters this season, and it wasn’t even the end of August. Then he looked more closely at the car, and eased up on the gas again. It was too big, too new to belong to kids. He shifted down into second, feeling the crotchety old pickup shudder. It was an expensive car, right enough; he doubted that it came from within twenty miles of here. You didn’t use a big-city car on most of the roads in this neck of the woods, and you couldn’t stay on the highways forever. He squinted to see more detail. What kind of plates did it have? You’re doing it again, he thought, suddenly and sourly. He was a man as aflame with curiosity as a magpie, and—having been brought up strictly to mind his own business—he considered it a vice. Maybe the car was stolen. It’s possible, a’n’t it? he insisted, arguing with himself. It could have been used in a robbery and then ditched, like that car from the bank job over to Farmington. It happened all the time.

You don’t even fool yourself anymore, he thought, and then he grinned and gave in. He wrestled the old truck into the breakdown lane, jolted over a pothole, and coasted to a bumpy stop a few yards behind the car. He switched the engine off.

Silence swallowed him instantly.

Thick and dusty, the silence poured into the morning, filling the world as hot wax fills a mold. It drowned him completely, it possessed every inch and ounce of him. Almost, it spooked him.

Jacobs hesitated, shrugged, and then jumped down from the cab. Outside it was better—still quiet, but not preternaturally so. There was wind soughing through the spruce woods, a forlorn but welcome sound, one he had heard all his life. There was a wood thrush hammering at the morning, faint with distance but distinct. And a faraway buzzing drone overhead, like a giant sleepy bee or bluebottle, indicated that there was a Piper Cub up there somewhere, probably heading for the airport at Norridgewock. All this was familiar and reassuring. Getting nervy, is all, he told himself, long in the tooth and spooky.

Nevertheless, he walked very carefully toward the car, flat footed and slow, the way he used to walk on patrol in ’Nam, more years ago than he cared to recall. His fingers itched for something, and after a few feet he realized that he was wishing he’d brought his old deer rifle along. He grimaced irritably at that, but the wish pattered through his mind again and again, until he was close enough to see inside the parked vehicle.

The car was empty.

“Old fool,” he said sourly.

Snorting in derision at himself, he circled the car, peering in the windows. There were skid marks in the gravel of the breakdown lane, but they weren’t deep—the car hadn’t been going fast when it hit the shoulder; probably it had been already meandering out of control, with no foot on the accelerator. The hood and bumpers weren’t damaged; the car had rolled to a stop against the low embankment, rather than crashing into it. None of the tires were flat. In the woods taking a leak, Jacobs thought. Damn fool didn’t even leave his turn signals on. Or it could have been his battery, or a vapor lock or something, and he’d hiked on up the road looking for a gas station. “He still should have ma’ked it off someway,” Jacobs muttered. Tourists never knew enough to find their ass in a snowstorm. This one probably wasn’t even carrying any signal flags or flares.

The driver’s door was wide open, and next to it was a child’s plastic doll, lying facedown in the gravel. Jacobs could not explain the chill that hit him then, the horror that seized him and shook him until he was almost physically ill. Bristling, he stooped and thrust his head into the car. There was a burnt, bitter smell inside, like onions, like hot metal. A layer of gray ash covered the front seat and the floor, a couple of inches deep; a thin stream of it was trickling over the doorjamb to the ground and pooling around the plastic feet of the doll. Hesitantly he touched the ash—it was sticky and soapy to the touch. In spite of the sunlight that was slanting into the car and warming up the upholstery, the ash was cold, almost icy. The cloth ceiling directly over the front seat was lightly blackened with soot—he scraped some of it off with his thumbnail—but there was no other sign of fire. Scattered among the ashes on the front seat were piles of clothing. Jacobs could pick out a pair of men’s trousers, a sports coat, a bra, slacks, a bright child’s dress, all undamaged. More than one person. They’re all in the woods taking a leak, he thought inanely. Sta’k naked.

Sitting on the dashboard were a 35-mm. Nikon SI with a telephoto lens and a new Leicaflex. In the hip pocket of the trousers was a wallet, containing more than fifty dollars in cash, and a bunch of credit cards. He put the wallet back. Not even a tourist was going to be fool enough to walk off and leave this stuff sitting here, in an open car.

He straightened up, and felt the chill again, the deathly noonday cold. This time he was spooked. Without knowing why, he nudged the doll out of the puddle of ash with his foot, and then he shuddered. “Hello!” he shouted, at the top of his voice, and got back only a dull, flat echo from the woods. Where in hell had they gone?

All at once, he was exhausted. He’d been out before dawn, on a trip up to Kingfield and Carrabassett, and it was catching up with him. Maybe that was why he was so jumpy over nothing. Getting old, c’n’t take this kind of shit anymore. How long since you’ve had a vacation? He opened his mouth to shout again, but uneasily decided not to. He stood for a moment, thinking it out, and then walked back to his truck, hunch-shouldered and limping. The old load of shrapnel in his leg and hip was beginning to bother him again.

Jacobs drove a mile down the highway to a rest stop. He had been hoping he would find the people from the car here, waiting for a tow truck, but the rest area was deserted. He stuck his head into the wood-and-fieldstone latrine, and found that it was inhabited only by buzzing clouds of bluebottles and blackflies. He shrugged. So much for that. There was a pay phone on a pole next to the picnic tables, and he used it to call the sheriff’s office in Skowhegan. Unfortunately, Abner Jackman answered the phone, and it took Jacobs ten exasperating minutes to argue him into showing any interest. “Well, if they did,” Jacobs said grudgingly, “they did it without any clothes.” Gobblegobblebuzz, said the phone. “With a kid?” Jacobs demanded. Buzzgobblefttzbuzz, the phone said, giving in. “Ayah,” Jacobs said grudgingly, “I’ll stay theah until you show up.” And he hung up.

“Damned foolishness,” he muttered. This was going to cost him the morning.

County Sheriff Joe Riddick arrived an hour later. He was a stocky, slab-sided man, apparently cut all of a piece out of a block of granite—his shoulders seemed to be the same width as his hips, his square-skulled, square-jawed head thrust belligerently up from his monolithic body without any hint of a neck. He looked like an old snapping turtle: ugly, mud colored, powerful. His hair was snow-white, and his eyes were bloodshot and ill-tempered. He glared at Jacobs dangerously out of red-rimmed eyes with tiny pupils. He looked ready to snap.

“Good morning,” Jacobs said coldly.

“Morning,” Riddick grunted. “You want to fill me in on this?”

Jacobs did. Riddick listened impassively. When Jacobs finished, Riddick snorted and brushed a hand back over his close-cropped snowy hair. “Some damn fool skylark more’n likely,” he said, sourly, shaking his head a little. “O-kay, then,” he said, suddenly becoming officious and brisk. “If this turns out to be anything serious, we may need you as a witness. Understand? All right.” He looked at his watch. “All right. We’re waiting for the state boys. I don’t think you’re needed anymore.” Riddick’s face was hard and cold and dull—as if it had been molded in lead. He stared pointedly at Jacobs. His eyes were opaque as marbles. “Good day.”

Twenty minutes later Jacobs was passing a proud little sign, erected by the Skowhegan Chamber of Commerce, that said: HOME OF THE LARGEST SCULPTED WOODEN INDIAN IN THE WORLD! He grinned. Skowhegan had grown a great deal in the last decade, but somehow it was still a small town. It had resisted the modern tropism to skyscrape and had sprawled instead, spreading out along the banks of the Kennebec River in both directions. Jacobs parked in front of a dingy storefront on Water Street, in the heart of town. A sign in the window commanded: EAT; at night it glowed an imperative neon red. The sign belonged to an establishment that had started life as the Colonial Cafe, with a buffet and quaint rustic decor, and was finishing it, twenty years and three recessions later, as a greasy lunchroom with faded movie posters on the wall—owned and operated by Wilbur and Myna Phipps, a cheerful and indestructible couple in their late sixties. It was crowded and hot inside—the place had a large number of regulars, and most of them were in attendance for lunch. Jacobs spotted Will Sussmann at the counter, jammed in between an inverted glass bowl full of doughnuts and the protruding rear-end of the coffee percolator.

Sussmann—chief staff writer for the Skowhegan Inquirer, stringer and columnist for a big Bangor weekly—had saved him a seat by piling the adjacent stool with his hat, coat, and briefcase. Not that it was likely he’d had to struggle too hard for room. Even Jacobs, whose father had moved to Skowhegan from Bangor when Jacobs was three, was regarded with faint suspicion by the real oldtimers of the town. Sussmann, being originally an outer-stater and a “foreigner” to boot, was completely out of luck; he’d only lived here ten years, and that wasn’t enough even to begin to tip the balance in his favor.

Sussmann retrieved his paraphernalia; Jacobs sat down and began telling him about the car. Sussmann said it was weird. “We’ll never get anything out of Riddick,” he said. He began to attack a stack of hotcakes. “He’s hated my guts ever since I accused him of working over those gypsy kids last summer, putting one in the hospital. That would have cost him his job, except the higher echelons were being ‘foursquare behind their dedicated law enforcement officers’ that season. Still, it didn’t help his reputation with the town any.”

“We don’t tolerate that kind of thing in these pa’ts,” Jacobs said grimly. “Hell, Will, those kids are a royal pain in the ass, but—” But not in these pa’ts, he told himself, not that. There are decent limits. He was surprised at the depth and ferocity of his reaction. “This a’n’t Alabama,” he said.

“Might as well be, with Riddick. His idea of law enforcement’s to take everybody he doesn’t like down in the basement and beat the crap out of them.” Sussmann sighed. “Anyway, Riddick wouldn’t stop to piss on me if my hat was on fire, that’s for sure. Good thing I got other ways of finding stuff out.”

Jed Everett came in while Jacobs was ordering coffee. He was a thin, cadaverous man with a long nose; his hair was going rapidly to gray; put him next to short, round Sussmann and they would look like Mutt and Jeff. At forty-eight—Everett was a couple of years older than Jacobs, just as Sussmann was a couple of years younger—he was considered to be scandalously young for a small-town doctor, especially a GP. But old Dr. Barlow had died of a stroke three years back, leaving his younger partner in residency, and they were stuck with him.

One of the regulars had moved away from the trough, leaving an empty seat next to Jacobs, and Everett was talking before his buttocks had hit the upholstery. He was a jittery man, with lots of nervous energy, and he loved to fret and rant and gripe, but softly and goodnaturedly, with no real force behind it, as if he had a volume knob that had been turned down.

“What a morning!” Everett said. “Jesus H. Christ on a bicycle—’scuse me, Myna, I’ll take some coffee, please, black—I swear it’s psychosomatic. Honest to God, gentlemen, she’s a case for the medical journals, dreams the whole damn shitbundle up out of her head just for the fun of it, I swear before all my hopes of heaven, swop me blue if she doesn’t. Definitely psychosomatic.”

“He’s learned a new word,” Sussmann said.

“If you’d wasted all the time I have on this nonsense,” Everett said fiercely, “you’d be whistling a different tune out of the other side of your face, I can tell you, oh yes indeed. What kind of meat d’you have today, Myna? How about the chops—they good?—all right, and put some greens on the plate, please. Okay? Oh, and some homefrieds, now I think about it, please. If you have them.”

“What’s got your back up?” Jacobs asked mildly.

“You know old Mrs. Crawford?” Everett demanded. “Hm? Lives over to the Island, widow, has plenty of money? Three times now I’ve diagnosed her as having cancer, serious but still operable, and three times now I’ve sent her down to Augusta for exploratory surgery, and each time they got her down on the table and opened her up and couldn’t find a thing, not a goddamned thing, old bitch’s hale and hearty as a prize hog. Spontaneous remission. All psychosomatic, clear as mud. Three times, though. It’s shooting my reputation all to hell down there. Now she thinks she’s got an ulcer. I hope her kidney falls out, right in the street. Thank you, Myna. Can I have another cup of coffee?” He sipped his coffee, when it arrived, and looked a little more meditative. “Course, I think I’ve seen a good number of cases like that, I think, I said, ha’d to prove it when they’re terminal. Wouldn’t surprise me if a good many of the people who die of cancer—or a lot of other diseases, for that matter—were like that. No real physical cause, they just get tired of living, something dries up inside them, their systems stop trying to defend them, and one thing or another knocks them off. They become easy to touch off, like tinder. Most of them don’t change their minds in the middle, though, like that fat old sow.”

Wilbur Phipps, who had been leaning on the counter listening, ventured the opinion that modern medical science had never produced anything even half as good as the old-fashioned mustard plaster. Everett flared up instantly.

“You ever bejesus try one?” Phipps demanded.

“No, and I don’t bejesus intend to!” Everett said.

Jacobs turned toward Sussmann. “Wheah you been, this early in the day?” he asked. “A’n’t like you to haul yourself out before noon.”

“Up at the Factory. Over to West Mills.”

“What was up? Another hearing?”

“Yup. Didn’t stick—they aren’t going to be injuncted.”

“They never will be,” Jacobs said. “They got too much money, too many friends in Augusta. The Board’ll never touch them.”

“I don’t believe that,” Sussmann said. Jacobs grunted and sipped his coffee.

“As Christ’s my judge,” Everett was saying, in a towering rage, “I’ll never understand you people, not if I live to be two hundred, not if I get to be so old my ass falls off and I have to lug it around in a handcart. I swear to God. Some of you ain’ got a pot to piss in, so goddamned poor you can’t afford to buy a bottle of aspirins, let alone, let alone pay your doctor bills from the past half-million years, and yet you go out to some godforsaken hick town too small to turn a horse around in proper and see an unlicensed practitioner, a goddamn back-woods quack, an unmitigated phony, and pay through the nose so this witchdoctor can assault you with yarb potions and poultices, and stick leeches on your ass, for all I know—” Jacobs lost track of the conversation. He studied a bee that was bumbling along the putty-and-plaster edge of the storefront window, swimming through the thick and dusty sunlight, looking for a way out. He felt numb, distanced from reality. The people around him looked increasingly strange. He found that it took an effort of will to recognize them at all, even Sussmann, even Everett. It scared him. These were people Jacobs saw every day of his life. Some of them he didn’t actually like—not in the way that big-city folk thought of liking someone—but they were all his neighbors. They belonged here, they were a part of his existence, and that carried its own special intimacy. But today he was beginning to see them as an intolerant sophisticate from the city might see them: dull, provincial, sunk in an iron torpor that masqueraded as custom and routine. That was valid, in its way, but it was a grossly one-sided picture, ignoring a thousand virtues, compensations and kindnesses. But that was the way he was seeing them. As aliens. As strangers.

Distractedly, Jacobs noticed that Everett and Sussmann were making ready to leave. “No rest for the weary,” Everett was saying, and Jacobs found himself nodding unconsciously in agreement. Swamped by a sudden rush of loneliness, he invited both men home for dinner that night. They accepted, Everett with the qualification that he’d have to see what his wife had planned. Then they were gone, and Jacobs found himself alone at the counter.

He knew that he should have gone back to work also; he had some more jobs to pick up, and a delivery to make. But he felt very tired, too flaccid and heavy to move, as if some tiny burrowing animal had gnawed away his bones, as if he’d been hamstrung and hadn’t realized it. He told himself that it was because he was hungry; he was running himself down, as Carol had always said he someday would. So he dutifully ordered a bowl of chili.

The chili was murky, amorphous stuff, bland and lukewarm. Listlessly, he spooned it up.

No rest for the weary.

“You know what I was nuts about when I was a kid?” Jacobs suddenly observed to Wilbur Phipps. “Rafts. I was a’ways making rafts out of old planks and sheet tin and whatevah other junk I could scrounge up, begging old rope and nails to lash them together with. Then I’d break my ass dragging them down to the Kennebec. And you know what? They a’ways sunk. Every goddamned time.”

“Ayah?” Wilbur Phipps said.

Jacobs pushed the bowl of viscid chili away, and got up. Restlessly, he wandered over to where Dave Lucas, the game warden, was drinking beer and talking to a circle of men “. . . dogs will be the end of deer in these pa’ts, I swear to God. And I a’n’t talking about wild dogs neither, I’m talking about your ordinary domestic pets. A’n’t it so, every winter? Half-starved deer a’n’t got a chance in hell ’gainst somebody’s big pet hound, all fed-up and rested. The deer those dogs don’t kill outright, why they chase ’em to death, and then they don’t even eat ’em. Run ’em out of the forest covah into the open and they get pneumonia. Run ’em into the river and through thin ice and they get drowned. Remember last yeah, the deer that big hound drove out onto the ice? Broke both its front legs and I had to go out and shoot the poor bastid. Between those goddamn dogs and all the nighthunters we got around here lately, we a’n’t going to have any deer left in this county . . .” Jacobs moved away, past a table where Abner Jackman was pouring ketchup over a plateful of scrambled eggs, and arguing about Communism with Steve Girard, a volunteer fireman and Elk, and Allen Ewing, a postman, who had a son serving with the Marines in Bolivia. “. . . let ’em win theah,” Jackman was saying in a nasal voice, “and they’ll be swa’ming all over us eventu’ly, sure as shit. Ain’ no way to stop ’em then. And you’re better off blowing your brains out than living under the Reds, don’t ever think otherwise.” He screwed the ketchup top back onto the bottle, and glanced up in time to see Jacobs start to go by.

“Ben!” Jackman said, grabbing Jacobs by the elbow. “You can tell ’em.” He grinned vacuously at Jacobs—a lanky, loose-jointed, slack-faced man. “He can tell you, boys, what it’s like being in a country overrun with Communists, what they do to everybody. You were in ’Nam when you were a youngster, weren’t you?”


After a pause, Jackman said, “You ain’ got no call to take offense, Ben.” His voice became a whine. “I didn’t mean no ha’m. I didn’t mean nothing.”

“Forget it,” Jacobs said, and walked out.

Dave Lucas caught up with Jacobs just outside the door. He was a short, grizzled man with iron-gray hair, about seven years older than Jacobs. “You know, Ben,” Lucas said, “the thing of it is, Abner really doesn’t mean any ha’m.” Lucas smiled bleakly; his grandson had been killed last year, in the Retreat from La Paz. “It’s just that he a’n’t too bright, is all.”

“They don’t want him kicked ev’ry so often,” Jacobs said, “then they shouldn’t let him out of his kennel at all.” He grinned. “Dinner tonight? About eight?”

“Sounds fine,” Lucas said. “We’re going to catch a nighthunter, out near Oaks Pond, so I’ll probably be late.”

“We’ll keep it wa’m for you.”

“Just the comp’ny’ll be enough.”

Jacobs started his truck and pulled out into the afternoon traffic. He kept his hands locked tightly around the steering wheel. He was amazed and dismayed by the surge of murderous anger he had felt toward Jackman; the reaction to it made him queasy, and left the muscles knotted all across his back and shoulders. Dave was right, Abner couldn’t rightly be held responsible for the dumbass things he said—But if Jackman had said one more thing, if he’d done anything than to back down as quickly as he had, then Jacobs would have split his head open. He had been instantly ready to do it, his hands had curled into fists, his legs had bent slightly at the knees. He would have done it. And he would have enjoyed it. That was a frightening realization.

Y’ touchy today, he thought, inanely. His fingers were turning white on the wheel.

He drove home. Jacobs lived in a very old wood frame house above the north bank of the Kennebec, on the outskirts of town, with nothing but a clump of new apartment buildings for senior citizens to remind him of civilization. The house was empty—Carol was teaching fourth grade, and Chris had been farmed out to Mrs. Turner, the baby-sitter. Jacobs spent the next half hour wrestling a broken washing machine and a television set out of the pickup and into his basement workshop, and another fifteen minutes maneuvering a newly repaired stereo-radio console up out of the basement and into the truck. Jacobs was one of the last of the old-style Yankee tinkerers, although he called himself an appliance repairman, and also did some carpentry and general handywork when things got slow. He had little formal training, but he “kept up.” He wasn’t sure he could fix one of the new hologram sets, but then they wouldn’t be getting out here for another twenty years anyway. There were people within fifty miles who didn’t have indoor plumbing. People within a hundred miles who didn’t have electricity.

On the way to Norridgewock, two open jeeps packed dangerously full of gypsies came roaring up behind him. They started to pass, one on each side of his truck, their horns blaring insanely. The two jeeps ran abreast of Jacobs’ old pickup for a while, making no attempt to go by—the three vehicles together filled the road. The jeeps drifted in until they were almost touching the truck, and the gypsies began pounding the truck roof with their fists, shouting and laughing. Jacobs kept both hands on the wheel and grimly continued to drive at his original speed. Jeeps tipped easily when sideswiped by a heavier vehicle, if it came to that. And he had a tire-iron under the seat. But the gypsies tired of the game—they accelerated and passed Jacobs, most of them giving him the finger as they went by, and one throwing a poorly aimed bottle that bounced onto the shoulder. They were big, tough-looking kids with skin haircuts, dressed—incongruously—in flowered pastel luau shirts and expensive white bellbottoms.

The jeeps roared on up the road, still taking up both lanes. Jacobs watched them unblinkingly until they disappeared from sight. He was awash with rage, the same bitter, vicious hatred he had felt for Jackman. Riddick was right after all—the goddamned kids were a menace to everything that lived, they ought to be locked up. He wished suddenly that he had sideswiped them. He could imagine it all vividly: the sickening crunch of impact, the jeep overturning, bodies cartwheeling through the air, the jeep skidding upside down across the road and crashing into the embankment, maybe the gas tank exploding, a gout of flame, smoke, stink, screams—He ran through it over and over again, relishing it, until he realized abruptly what he was doing, what he was wishing, and he was almost physically ill.

All the excitement and fury drained out of him, leaving him shaken and sick. He’d always been a patient, peaceful man, perhaps too much so. He’d never been afraid to fight, but he’d always said that a man who couldn’t talk his way out of most trouble was a fool. This sudden daydream lust for blood bothered him to the bottom of his soul. He’d seen plenty of death in ’Nam, and it hadn’t affected him this way. It was the kids, he told himself. They drag everybody down to their own level. He kept seeing them inside his head all the way into Norridgewock—the thick, brutal faces, the hard reptile eyes, the contemptuously grinning mouths that seemed too full of teeth. The gypsy kids had changed over the years. The torrent of hippies and Jesus freaks had gradually run dry, the pluggers and the weeps had been all over the state for a few seasons, and then, slowly, they’d stopped coming too. The new crop of itinerant kids were—hard. Every year they became more brutal and dangerous. They didn’t seem to care if they lived or died, and they hated everything indiscriminately—including themselves.

In Norridgewock, he delivered the stereo console to its owner, then went across town to pick up a malfunctioning 75-hp Johnson outboard motor. From the motor’s owner, he heard that a town boy had beaten an elderly storekeeper to death that morning, when the storekeeper caught him shoplifting. The boy was in custody, and it was the scandal of the year for Norridgewock. Jacobs had noticed it before, but discounted it: the local kids were getting mean too, meaner every year. Maybe it was self-defense.

Driving back, Jacobs noticed one of the gypsy jeeps slewed up onto the road embankment. It was empty. He slowed, and stared at the jeep thoughtfully, but he did not stop.

A fire-rescue truck nearly ran him down as he entered Skowhegan. It came screaming out of nowhere and swerved onto Water Street, its blue blinker flashing, siren screeching in metallic rage, suddenly right on top of him. Jacobs wrenched his truck over to the curb, and it swept by like a demon, nearly scraping him. It left a frightened silence behind it, after it had vanished urgently from sight. Jacobs pulled back into traffic and continued driving. Just before the turnoff to his house, a dog ran out into the road. Jacobs had slowed down for the turn anyway, and he saw the dog in plenty of time to stop. He did not stop. At the last possible second, he yanked himself out of a waking dream, and swerved just enough to miss the dog. He had wanted to hit it; he’d liked the idea of running it down. There were too many dogs in the county anyway, he told himself, in a feeble attempt at justification. “Big, ugly hound,” he muttered, and was appalled by how alien his voice sounded—hard, bitterly hard, as if it were a rock speaking. Jacobs noticed that his hands were shaking.

Dinner that night was a fair success. Carol had turned out not to be particularly overjoyed that her husband had invited a horde of people over without bothering to consult her, but Jacobs placated her a little by volunteering to cook dinner. It turned out “sufficient,” as Everett put it. Everybody ate, and nobody died. Toward the end, Carol had to remind them to leave some for Dave Lucas, who had not arrived yet. The company did a lot to restore Jacobs’ nerves, and, feeling better, he wrestled with curiosity throughout the meal. Curiosity won, as it usually did with him: in the end, and against his better judgment.

As the guests began to trickle into the parlor, Jacobs took Sussmann aside and asked him if he’d learned anything new about the abandoned car.

Sussmann seemed uneasy and preoccupied. “Whatever it was happened to them seems to’ve happened again this afternoon. Maybe a couple of times. There was another abandoned car found about four o’clock, up near Athens. And there was one late yesterday night, out at Livermore Falls. And a tractor-trailer on Route Ninety-five this morning, between Waterville and Benton Station.”

“How’d you pry that out of Riddick?”

“Didn’t.” Sussmann smiled wanly. “Heard about that Athens one from the driver of the tow truck that hauled it back—that one bumped into a signpost, hard enough to break its radiator. Ben, Riddick can’t keep me in the dark. I’ve got more stringers than he has.”

“What d’you think it is?”

Sussmann’s expression fused over and became opaque. He shook his head.

In the parlor, Carol, Everett’s wife Amy—an ample, gray woman, rather like somebody’s archetypical aunt but possessed of a very canny mind—and Sussmann, the inveterate bachelor, occupied themselves by playing with Chris. Chris was two, very quick and bright, and very excited by all the company. He’d just learned how to blow kisses, and was now practicing enthusiastically with the adults. Everett, meanwhile, was prowling around examining the stereo equipment that filled one wall. “You install this yourself?” he asked, when Jacobs came up to hand him a beer.

“Not only installed it,” Jacobs said, “I built it all myself, from scratch. Tinkered up most of the junk in this house. Take the beah ’fore it gets hot.”

“Damn fine work,” Everett muttered, absently accepting the beer. “Better’n my own setup, I purely b’lieve, and that set me back a right sma’t piece of change. Jesus Christ, Ben—I didn’t know you could do quality work like that. What the hell you doing stagnating out here in the sticks, fixing people’s radios and washing machines, f’chrissake? Y’that good, you ought to be down in Boston, New York mebbe, making some real money.”

Jacobs shook his head. “Hate the cities, big cities like that. C’n’t stand to live in them at all.” He ran a hand through his hair. “I lived in New York for a while, seven-eight yeahs back, ’fore settling in Skowhegan again. It was terrible theah, even back then, and it’s worse now. People down theah dying on their feet, walking around dead without anybody to tell ’em to lie down and get buried decent.”

“We’re dying here too, Ben,” Everett said. “We’re just doing it slower, is all.”

Jacobs shrugged. “Mebbe so,” he said. “’Scuse me.” He walked back to the kitchen, began to scrape the dishes and stack them in the sink. His hands had started to tremble again.

When he returned to the parlor, after putting Chris to bed, he found that conversation had almost died. Everett and Sussmann were arguing halfheartedly about the Factory, each knowing that he’d never convince the other. It was a pointless discussion, and Jacobs did not join it. He poured himself a glass of beer and sat down. Amy hardly noticed him; her usually pleasant face was stern and angry. Carol found an opportunity to throw him a sympathetic wink while tossing her long hair back over her shoulder, but her face was flushed too, and her lips were thin. The evening had started off well, but it had soured somehow; everyone felt it. Jacobs began to clean his pipe, using a tiny knife to scrape the bowl. A siren went by outside, wailing eerily away into distance. An ambulance, it sounded like, or the fire-rescue truck again—more melancholy and mournful, less predatory than the siren of a police cruiser. “. . . brew viruses . . .” Everett was saying, and then Jacobs lost him, as if Everett were being pulled further and further away by some odd, local perversion of gravity, his voice thinning into inaudibility. Jacobs couldn’t hear him at all now. Which was strange, as the parlor was only a few yards wide. Another siren. There were a lot of them tonight; they sounded like the souls of the dead, looking for home in the darkness, unable to find light and life. Jacobs found himself thinking about the time he’d toured Vienna, during “recuperative leave” in Europe, after hospitalization in ’Nam. There was a tour of the catacombs under the Cathedral, and he’d taken it, limping painfully along on his crutch, the wet, porous stone of the tunnel roof closing down until it almost touched the top of his head. They came to a place where an opening had been cut through the hard, gray rock, enabling the tourists to come up one by one and look into the burial pit on the other side, while the guide lectured calmly in alternating English and German. When you stuck your head through the opening, you looked out at a solid wall of human bones. Skulls, arm and leg bones, rib cages, pelvises, all mixed in helter-skelter and packed solid, layer after uncountable layer of them. The wall of bones rose up sheer out of the darkness, passed through the fan of light cast by a naked bulb at eye-level, and continued to rise—it was impossible to see the top, no matter how you craned your neck and squinted. This wall had been built by the Black Death, a haphazard but grandiose architect. The Black Death had eaten these people up and spat out their remains, as casual and careless as a picnicker gnawing chicken bones. When the meal was over, the people who were still alive had dug a huge pit under the Cathedral and shoveled the victims in by the hundreds of thousands. Strangers in life, they mingled in death, cheek by jowl, belly to backbone, except that after a while there were no cheeks or jowls. The backbones remained: yellow, ancient and brittle. So did the skulls—upright, upside down, on their sides, all grinning blankly at the tourists.

The doorbell rang.

It was Dave Lucas. He looked like one of the skulls Jacobs had been thinking about—his face was gray and gaunt, the skin drawn tightly across his bones; it looked as if he’d been dusted with powdered lime. Shocked, Jacobs stepped aside. Lucas nodded to him shortly and walked by into the parlor without speaking. “. . . stuff about the Factory is news,” Sussmann was saying, doggedly, “and more interesting than anything else that happens up here. It sells papers—” He stopped talking abruptly when Lucas entered the room. All conversation stopped. Everyone gaped at the old game warden, horrified. Unsteadily Lucas let himself down into a stuffed chair, and gave them a thin attempt at a smile. “Can I have a beah?” he said. “Or a drink?”


“That’ll be fine,” Lucas said mechanically.

Jacobs went to get it for him. When he returned with the drink, Lucas was determinedly making small talk and flashing his new dead smile. It was obvious that he wasn’t going to say anything about what had happened to him. Lucas was an old-fashioned Yankee gentleman to the core, and Jacobs—who had a strong touch of that in his own upbringing—suspected why he was keeping silent. So did Amy. After the requisite few minutes of polite conversation, Amy asked if she could see the new paintings that Carol was working on. Carol exchanged a quick, comprehending glance with her, and nodded. Grim-faced, both women left the room—they knew that this was going to be bad. When the women were out of sight, Lucas said, “Can I have another drink, Ben?” and held out his empty glass. Jacobs refilled it wordlessly. Lucas had never been a drinking man.

“Give,” Jacobs said, handing Lucas his glass. “What happened?”

Lucas sipped his drink. He still looked ghastly, but a little color was seeping back into his face. “A’n’t felt this shaky since I was in the a’my, back in Korea,” he said. He shook his head heavily. “I swear to Christ, I don’t understand what’s got into people in these pa’ts. Used t’be decent folk out heah, Christian folk.” He set his drink aside, and braced himself up visibly. His face hardened. “Never mind that. Things change, I guess, c’n’t stop ’em no way.” He turned toward Jacobs. “Remember that nighthunter I was after. Well we got ’im, went out with Steve Girard, Rick Barlow, few other boys, and nabbed him real neat—city boy, no woods sense at all. Well, we were coming back around the end of the pond, down the lumber road, when we heard this big commotion coming from the Gibson place, shouts, a woman screaming her head off, like that. So we cut across the back of their field and went over to see what was going on. House was wide open, and what we walked into—” He stopped; little sickly beads of sweat had appeared all over his face. “You remember the McInerney case down in Boston four-five yeahs back? The one there was such a stink about? Well, it was like that. They had a whatchamacallit there, a coven—the Gibsons, the Sewells, the Bradshaws, about seven others, all local people, all hopped out of their minds, all dressed up in black robes, and—blood, painted all over their faces. God, I—No, never mind. They had a baby there, and a kind of an altar they’d dummied up, and a pentagram. Somebody’d killed the baby, slit its throat, and they’d hung it up to bleed like a hog. Into cups. When we got there, they’d just cut its heart out, and they were starting in on dismembering it. Hell—they were tearing it apart, never mind that ‘dismembering’ shit. They were so frenzied-blind they hardly noticed us come in. Mrs. Bradshaw hadn’t been able to take it, she’d cracked completely and was sitting in a corner screaming her lungs out, with Mr. Sewell trying to shut her up. They were the only two that even tried to run. The boys hung Gibson and Bradshaw and Sewell, and stomped Ed Patterson to death—I just couldn’t stop ’em. It was all I could do to keep ’em from killing the other ones. I shot Steve Girard in the arm, trying to stop ’em, but they took the gun away, and almost strung me up too. My God, Ben, I’ve known Steve Girard a’most ten yeahs. I’ve known Gibson and Sewell all my life.” He stared at them appealingly, blind with despair. “What’s happened to people up heah?”

No one said a word.

Not in these pa’ts, Jacobs mimicked himself bitterly. There are decent limits.

Jacobs found that he was holding the pipe-cleaning knife like a weapon. He’d cut his finger on it, and a drop of blood was oozing slowly along the blade. This kind of thing—the Satanism, the ritual murders, the sadism—was what had driven him away from the city. He’d thought it was different in the country, that people were better. But it wasn’t, and they weren’t. It was bottled up better out here, was all. But it had been coming for years, and they had blinded themselves to it and done nothing, and now it was too late. He could feel it in himself, something long repressed and denied, the reaction to years of frustration and ugliness and fear, to watching the world dying without hope. That part of him had listened to Lucas’ story with appreciation, almost with glee. It stirred strongly in him, a monster turning over in ancient mud, down inside, thousands of feet down, thousands of years down. He could see it spreading through the faces of the others in the room, a stain, a spider shadow of contamination. Its presence was suffocating: the chalky, musty smell of old brittle death, somehow leaking through from the burial pit in Vienna. Bone dust—he almost choked on it, it was so thick here in his pleasant parlor in the country.

And then the room was filled with sound and flashing, bloody light.

Jacobs floundered for a moment, unable to understand what was happening. He swam up from his chair, baffled, moving with dreamlike slowness. He stared in helpless confusion at the leaping red shadows. His head hurt.

“An ambulance!” Carol shouted, appearing in the parlor archway with Amy. “We saw it from the upstairs window—”

“It’s right out front,” Sussmann said.

They ran for the door. Jacobs followed them more slowly. Then the cold outside air slapped him, and he woke up a little. The ambulance was parked across the street, in front of the senior citizens’ complex. The corpsmen were hurrying up the stairs of one of the institutional, cinderblock buildings, carrying a stretcher. They disappeared inside. Amy slapped her bare arms to keep off the cold. “Heart attack, mebbe,” she said. Everett shrugged. Another siren slashed through the night, getting closer. While they watched, a police cruiser pulled up next to the ambulance, and Riddick got out. Riddick saw the group in front of Jacobs’ house, and stared at them with undisguised hatred, as if he would like to arrest them and hold them responsible for whatever had happened in the retirement village. Then he went inside too. He looked haggard as he turned to go, exhausted, hagridden by the suspicion that he’d finally been handed something he couldn’t settle with a session in the soundproofed back room at the sheriff’s office.

They waited. Jacobs slowly became aware that Sussmann was talking to him, but he couldn’t hear what he was saying. Sussmann’s mouth opened and closed. It wasn’t important anyway. He’d never noticed before how unpleasant Sussmann’s voice was, how rasping and shrill. Sussmann was ugly too, shockingly ugly. He boiled with contamination and decay—he was a sack of putrescence. He was an abomination.

Dave Lucas was standing off to one side, his hands in his pockets, shoulders slumped, his face blank. He watched the excitement next door without expression, without interest. Everett turned and said something that Jacobs could not hear. Like Sussmann’s, Everett’s lips moved without sound. He had moved closer to Amy. They glanced uneasily around. They were abominations too.

Jacobs stood with his arm around Carol; he didn’t remember putting it there—it was seeking company on its own. He felt her shiver, and clutched her more tightly in response, directed by some small, distanced, horrified part of himself that was still rational—he knew it would do no good. There was a thing in the air tonight that was impossible to warm yourself against. It hated warmth, it swallowed it and buried it in ice. It was a wedge, driving them apart, isolating them all. He curled his hand around the back of Carol’s neck. Something was pulsing through him in waves, building higher and stronger. He could feel Carol’s pulse beating under her skin, under his fingers, so very close to the surface.

Across the street, a group of old people had gathered around the ambulance. They shuffled in the cold, hawking and spitting, clutching overcoats and nightgowns more tightly around them. The corpsmen reappeared, edging carefully down the stairs with the stretcher. The sheet was pulled up all the way, but it looked curiously flat and caved-in—if there was a body under there, it must have collapsed, crumbled like dust or ash. The crowd of old people parted to let the stretcher crew pass, then re-formed again, flowing like a heavy, sluggish liquid. Their faces were like leather or horn: hard, dead, dry, worn smooth. And tired. Intolerably, burdensomely tired. Their eyes glittered in their shriveled faces as they watched the stretcher go by. They looked uneasy and afraid, and yet there was an anticipation in their faces, an impatience, almost an envy, as they looked on death. Silence blossomed from a tiny seed in each of them, a total, primordial silence, from the time before there were words. It grew, consumed them, and merged to form a greater silence that spread out through the night in widening ripples.

The ambulance left.

In the hush that followed, they could hear sirens begin to wail all over town.

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