Authors: Robert Liparulo
Tags: #ebook, #book, #Mystery, #Thriller
Mistake, saying that. Not only had Phil kept the fat; he'd started shaving only every third day and changed his gait to a shuffle and his watercooler chat to barely audible mumblings that compared his boss to Brutus (as in
), Benedict Arnold, and, inexplicably, Rosanne Barr. At one of their monthly poker nights, he had given the guys a demonstration. Terry and David had laughed, but Hutch hadn't thought it was so funny. He suspected his friend was suffering from depression, but he didn't know what to do about it.
“Well, if you're trying to get fired,” Hutch had told him, “that'll do it.”
done it, much to Phil's surprise, which in turn had puzzled Hutch. That was four months ago, and Phil was still jobless. In the insult-to-injury department, Phil's weight gain and job stress had sent his blood pressure shooting out of control and gave him what his doctor called “borderline type II diabetes.”
Then there was Terry: Realtor, businessman, playboy. His trouble had begun with a slump in the housing market and had grown worse when a former sales assistant and girlfriend started her own company with the specific intent to take as much business from Terry as she could. Confident of his position on the food chain, he had been slow to respond. Dwindling sales and high overhead had driven his company to bankruptcy. Three months later denial coupled with a highflying lifestyle had pushed him back into court, except this time one door down, in the personal bankruptcy division. He now worked as a sales associate for his ex-girlfriend.
Of the four friends, only David seemed to have avoided a crisis during the previous year. Hutch prayed his friend's good fortune would continue, but he had the impression David would get by all right even if it didn't stay smooth for him. Blessed with movie-star good looks, he had never played the handsome stud. He was in fact the humblest man Hutch had ever known. David had married his high school sweetheart and had gone to work for her dad, managing a Furniture Brigade store. Once he had appeared in his own store's television commercial, pointing out the great bargains there. Sales spiked the following weekend. When someone had suggested it was David, not the bargains, that drew the customers, David stopped appearing before the cameras. Now he and Beth had a son and a daughter, and his life was simply hunky-dory, if notâas Hutch, Phil, and Terry saidâ“Fantastic with a capital
Every fall for the past seven, the four friends had packed up Terry's ratty van and headed to Canada for a weeklong fishing excursion. Usually they'd hit La Ronge and canoe into the finger lakes north and east of that vast water parkâlargely Nun, Keg, and Otter Lakes. By summer, Hutch had known it would take a better getaway to decompress from their recent trials. And ten days in the wilds between Lake Athabasca and the Northwest Territories sounded about right.
It was in extreme northern Saskatchewan, which remained much as it was one hundred, two hundred years ago; where the weather was unpredictableâsomething about that appealed to Hutch's moodâbut rarely fatal; and where barren-ground caribou from the Beverly and Qamanirjuaq herds still roamed that time of year. Hutch was the only hunter of the four. He had always wanted to bow hunt for caribou. They were fast, mobile animals, with senses keener than those of deerâa challenging trophy to take. He felt his skills were up to the task, and a victory here would mean more than bagging a deer or elk, which he had done since he was fourteen.
He had convinced the others that ten days sans
would do them a world of good. Perhaps it would not offset the year's setbacksâno way, nohowâbut he was sure it would prove to be a much-needed respite. Upon their return, their troubles would probably not appear less awful, but he hoped their confidence in being able to handle them would have improved. Each of the men had been able to adjust his vacation dates. Almost giddy over it, Hutch had made arrangements to arrive in No Man's Landâa term Terry had used and the others had adoptedâon October 15: today. Archery season would begin tomorrow.
Phil slapped him on his elbow again, jarring him out of a daydream. He believed he may even have fallen asleep for a few seconds; he had done the bulk of the driving, and it was catching up with him.
“We're almost there, right? No Man's Land?” The blue sky and clouds shimmered in Phil's glasses, as though on tiny television screens.
Hutch brought the map around.
“I'd say another half hour or so.”
Phil's smile pushed wider. He elbowed Terry. “Half an hour,” he informed him.
Terry passed the word to David.
Hutch took in their smiles. Good to see, good to see. He faced forward in his seat again, and through the copter's footwell windows, watched the trees and hills and ropes of blue water whipping past. Suddenly the landscape turned black. The trees became scant, limbless poles rising from dark, barren fields. He rapped the pilot on the arm. “What's that?”
“Fire. Last year. Five thousand acres burned.We were tasting the ashes all the way down to Points North. They evacuated a handful of townsâFond-du-Lac, Fiddler Falls, Black Lakeâbut a rain came and saved them.” He smiled. “Don't worry. I'm taking you away from it, eh.”
Hutch leaned over a knapsack, pulled out a lukewarm can of Monster energy drink, and downed half of it in one long swig. Phil tapped his shoulder. He turned to see Terry drinking from his thumb, then gesturing to the three backseat comrades. Hutch handed a Monster to each of them, making sure Phil got the low-carb version. Tops popped, they touched cans in a silent cheer and drank.
Hutch realized he was smiling again. He nodded and thought,
We're not going to want to leave, not to go back to our pitiful, stinking lives.
Someone's going to suggest staying longer.
He wondered who would be the first to bring it up, but he knew. He was ready to say it now.
Tom Fuller sprang forward,
his hands darting out to grab the pistol and turn it away, then wrench it out of Declan's grip.
Declan deftly sidestepped out of Tom's path. He swung the gun hard into the back of Tom's head as he sailed past.
Tom crashed heavily to the road, cracking his chin, but his mind was focused only on the raging pain that had erupted in his skull. Declan came to mind, and the gun. He rolled, expecting to hear the crack of gunpowder, almost indistinguishable from the crack of the slug breaking the sound barrier: the last sounds he would hear.
Declan squatted ten feet away. He rested his forearms on his knees, letting the pistol dangle in his hand between them.
Propped on one elbow,Tom now noticed that the man's gray jeans had patches of elasticized fabric sewn into the sides, crotch, and cuffs.
Declan was prepared to move quickly. Tom reached around to the back of his head, grimaced in pain. His fingers came back bloody.
“Your eyes telegraphed your intention to go for the gun,” Declan said.“Maybe even before you were conscious of it yourself.Then your shoulders and hips.”
“Why are you doing this?”
Declan rolled his eyes. Clearly, it wasn't the question he'd expected. He answered as if it had been. “Fifteen months at the Shaolin Temple Tagou School under the personal tutelage of Grandmaster Liu.” He nodded, pleased with himself. “That's where this one comes from.” He fingered one of the braided bracelets on his left arm, above the watch. He saw Tom squinting at the collection. His finger rose to a red bracelet. He said, “Kabbalah.” He touched a white one. “Satin cord . . . Hamsa.This one's
from Africa.” He brushed the tips of his fingers over the rest of them as if playing a stringed instrument. “Each one wards off evil.”
“It's everywhere,” Declan said, scanning the skies. “Every culture has its idea of what fends it off.” He crossed himself. “There's a lot going on the eye can't see. If something invisible can hurt you, who am I to say wearing a strand of material, kissed by a shaman, blessed by a priest, doesn't have power?” He stroked the bracelets again. His hand rose to the black-jeweled necklace. “Black diamonds. From outer space. They impart wisdom.” He touched the string of molars. “Basalt lightning teeth from the island of Siquijor.These things magically appear at the base of trees that have been struck by lightning.”
“What . . .”Tom was dumbfounded. Declan was a walking contradiction, a boogeyman afraid of the dark. “What do they do?”
they do? Heal, strengthen, keep demons at bay.” He held up his arms, turning them slowly. “I can't say for sure all of these work. I mean, come on.” He shrugged. “But it can't hurt to cover your bases, right?”
All Tom could do was stare.
Declan stared back, until his eyes shot up to take in something behind Tom.
Tom craned to see. Sylvia Blackstock stood on the sidewalk, having rounded the corner five or six steps earlier.Two girls, one in Dillon's grade, the other slightly younger, trembled at her side. Their mouths hung open.
“Tom . . . ?” Sylvia said finally.
“Run!” he yelled.
Sylvia gripped a shoulder of each girl and took a step back.
Casually, Declan raised the pistol. “Don't,” he said flatly. Then: “Kyrill!”
A distant “What?” came back.
“Got some ladies for you!”
So this is the way it's going to happen,
As the townies reveal themselves, Declan and his gang are going to scoop them up.
He wondered if Declan knew how suddenly his harvest would grow over the next fifteen minutes, as Fiddler Falls children made their way to school. Forty-odd students plus maybe a half-dozen parents. Fifty. With the ones already in the community center, a quarter of the population would be captured before eight in the morning.
He prayed that Laura and Dillon would follow his instructions to remain in the house until they heard from him. He believed they would do that . . . at least for a while. If he never returned, would Laura venture out to find him?
he thought with weight growing heavier on his chest,
.With guns blazing, if he knew anything about his wife.
A loud whooshing noise startled him. Julian and the girlâ Cortlandâwere aiming household extinguishers at the burning wreckage of Roland's car and corpse, releasing great plumes of mist. After a minute, the car and the teens were hidden by a cloud. After another minute they reappeared, sans flames.
The Kyrill kid had already hustled Sylvia and her daughters to the community center when three boys appeared on the street, closer to the school. They had no reason to pass this way, but when they saw the smoldering car, one of them said, “Whoa!” and sprinted toward it. His buddies followed. They stopped twenty feet from Tom and stared down at him.
“Hey, Mr. Fuller, what happened?”
Tom glanced at Declan. “Little accident, Adrian,” he said.
Another boy pinched his nose. “What's that smell?”
Tom said, “Look, you boys do what this man says and everything will be all right.You hear? Don't do anything except what you're told.”
“Mr. Fuller, where'sâ”
“Adrian! Do only what this gentleman or his friends ask you to. Do you hear me?”
The boys nodded.
“Julie!” Declan called.
The boy was inspecting the front grille of the trashed Subaru and did not respond.
Declan shook his head. “Julian!”
Now he looked.
“Go relieve Bad at the community center. Send him and Kyrill back here.Take these three with you.”To the boys, he gestured toward Julian. Reluctantly, Adrian and his friends shuffled past Tom.
“It'll be okay, guys.” After they had disappeared into the building, Tom said, “So what now?”
“We're not done collecting,” Declan said. He rose and extended each leg out to the side in turn, stretching it, and rotated each foot at the ankle. He pushed his hands into his lower back and bent backward, groaning. “And just think how many lives you're saving.”
“You're their protector, right? The guy with the gun.The man with the plan. And here you are, bruised and broken. In the dirt. Who's gonna say they can do better? Who's gonna try to fill your shoes?”
At first Tom had thought Declan's cockiness stemmed from stupidity, as most cockiness did.Tom had found that arrogance belied poor self-esteem, and people with poor self-esteem often rashly defended against any perceived risk of getting knocked down a peg, because they were already so low. Rash behavior meant stupid behavior.
But he didn't think Declan was stupid. Far from it. On Tom's mental Cartesian graph of personality types, the intersection of high intelligence and grossly immoral behaviorâoh, say, murder and kidnappingâwas marked with a single word:
. And evil people were a lot harder to outfox, outmaneuver, and outguess than people who were simply ignorant. He was going to have to do a lot better than simply lunging for a gun, which he admitted was both stupid and rash.
“What are you going to do with these people?” he asked.
Declan smiled. “Have a little fun.”
“Like you did with Roland?”
Declan looked perplexed, then he got it. “The car?” He thought about it. “Yeah, something like that.” He scanned the street in one direction, then the other. “I feel like I'm waiting for the doorbell to ring on Halloween. Where is everybody?”
Bad and Kyrill were cutting across the grass in front of the community center, which was set farther back from the street than the stores and businesses on each side of it. Both held handguns.
“What's your goal here?”Tom asked. “What are you trying toâ”
Declan raised a hand to stop him. “Shh, shh, shh.”
Tom followed his gaze. A group of eight or nine kids and parents had come onto Provincial and were slowly approaching, murmuring among themselves. He had yelled for Sylvia Blackstock and her daughters to run because they were close to the corner and he'd thought they could make it and hide. He had not factored in their confusion, which slowed their reaction time. Of course, with their constable lying bloody in the road, near a crushed and smoldering car, any townie who stumbled onto the scene would spend precious seconds puzzling over the sight, if they didn't outright do what Adrian and his friends had done and run straight for Tom. If they eventually determined the situation warranted a quick retreat, Tom had no doubt any one of these visiting fiends would shoot them in the back.