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Authors: Stephen King

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BOOK: Firestarter
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“I've changed my mind,” Andy said. “Take us to Albany, please.”

“Where?”
The driver stared at him in the rearview mirror. “Man, I can't take a fare to Albany, you out of your mind?”

Andy pulled his wallet, which contained a single dollar bill. He thanked God that this was not one of those cabs with a bulletproof partition and no way to contact the driver except through a money slot. Open contact always made it easier to push. He had been unable to figure out if that was a psychological thing or not, and right now it was immaterial.

“I'm going to give you a five-hundred-dollar bill,” Andy said quietly, “to take me and my daughter to Albany. Okay?”

“Jeee-
sus
, mister—”

Andy stuck the bill into the cabby's hand, and as the cabby looked down at it, Andy pushed … and pushed hard. For a terrible second he was afraid it wasn't going to work, that there was simply nothing left, that he had scraped the bottom of the barrel when he had made the driver see the nonexistent black man in the checkered cab.

Then the feeling came—as always accompanied by that steel dagger of pain. At the same moment, his stomach seemed to take on weight and his bowels locked in sick, gripping agony. He put an unsteady hand to his face and wondered if he was going to throw up … or die. For that one moment he
wanted
to die, as he always did when he overused it—
use it, don't abuse it,
the sign-off slogan of some long-ago disc jockey echoing sickly in his mind—whatever “it” was. If at that very moment someone had slipped a gun into his hand—

Then he looked sideways at Charlie, Charlie sleeping, Charlie trusting him to get them out of this mess as he had all the others, Charlie confident he would be there when she woke up. Yes, all the messes, except it was all the same mess, the same fucking mess, and all they were doing was running again. Black despair pressed behind his eyes.

The feeling passed … but not the headache. The headache would get worse and worse until it was a smashing weight, sending red pain through his head and neck with every pulsebeat. Bright lights would make his eyes water helplessly and send darts of agony into the flesh just behind his eyes. His sinuses would close and he would have to breathe through his mouth. Drill bits in his temples. Small noises magnified, ordinary noises as loud as jackhammers, loud noises insupportable. The headache would worsen until it felt as if his head were being crushed inside an inquisitor's lovecap. Then it would even off at that level for six hours, or
eight, or maybe ten. This time he didn't know. He had never pushed it so far when he was so close to drained. For whatever length of time he was in the grip of the headache, he would be next to helpless. Charlie would have to take care of him. God knew she had done it before … but they had been lucky. How many times could you be lucky?

“Gee, mister, I don't know—”

Which meant he thought it was law trouble.

“The deal only goes as long as you don't mention it to my little girl,” Andy said. “The last two weeks she's been with me. Has to be back with her mother tomorrow morning.”

“Visitation rights,” the cabby said. “I know all about it.”

“You see, I was supposed to fly her up.”

“To Albany? Probably Ozark, am I right?”

“Right. Now, the thing is, I'm scared to death of flying. I know how crazy that sounds, but it's true. Usually I drive her back up, but this time my ex-wife started in on me, and … I don't know.” In truth, Andy didn't. He had made up the story on the spur of the moment and now it seemed to be headed straight down a blind alley. Most of it was pure exhaustion.

“So I drop you at the old Albany airport, and as far as Moms knows, you flew, right?”

“Sure.” His head was thudding.

“Also, so far as Moms knows, you're no plucka-plucka-plucka, am I four oh?”

“Yes.” Plucka-plucka-plucka? What was that supposed to mean? The pain was getting bad.

“Five hundred bucks to skip a plane ride,” the driver mused.

“It's worth it to me,” Andy said, and gave one last little shove. In a very quiet voice, speaking almost into the cabby's ear, he added, “And it ought to be worth it to you.”

“Listen,” the driver said in a dreamy voice. “I ain't turning down no five hundred dollars. Don't tell me, I'll tell you.”

“Okay,” Andy said, and settled back. The cab driver was satisfied. He wasn't wondering about Andy's half-baked story. He wasn't wondering what a seven-year-old girl was doing visiting her father for two weeks in October with school in. He wasn't wondering about the fact that neither of them had so much as an overnight bag. He wasn't worried about anything. He had been pushed.

Now Andy would go ahead and pay the price.

He put a hand on Charlie's leg. She was fast asleep. They
had been on the go all afternoon—ever since Andy got to her school and pulled her out of her second-grade class with some half-remembered excuse … grandmother's very ill … called home … sorry to have to take her in the middle of the day. And beneath all that a great, swelling relief. How he had dreaded looking into Mrs. Mishkin's room and seeing Charlie's seat empty, her books stacked neatly inside her desk:
No, Mr. McGee … she went with your friends about two hours ago … they had a note from you … wasn't that all right?
Memories of Vicky coming back, the sudden terror of the empty house that day. His crazy chase after Charlie. Because they had had her once before, oh yes.

But Charlie had been there. How close had it been? Had he beaten them by half an hour? Fifteen minutes? Less? He didn't like to think about it. He had got them a late lunch at Nathan's and they had spent the rest of the afternoon just
going
—Andy could admit to himself now that he had been in a state of blind panic—riding subways, buses, but mostly just walking. And now she was worn out.

He spared her a long, loving look. Her hair was shoulder length, prefect blond, and in her sleep she had a calm beauty. She looked so much like Vicky that it hurt. He closed his own eyes.

In the front seat, the cab driver looked wonderingly at the five-hundred-dollar bill the guy had handed him. He tucked it away in the special belt pocket where he kept all of his tips. He didn't think it was strange that this fellow in the back had been walking around New York with a little girl and a five-hundred-dollar bill in his pocket. He didn't wonder how he was going to square this with his dispatcher. All he thought of was how excited his girlfriend, Glyn, was going to be. Glynis kept telling him that driving a taxi was a dismal, unexciting job. Well, wait until she saw his dismal, unexciting five-hundred-dollar bill.

In the back seat, Andy sat with his head back and his eyes closed. The headache was coming, coming, as inexorable as a riderless black horse in a funeral cortege. He could hear the hoofbeats of that horse in his temples:
thud … thud … thud
.

On the run. He and Charlie. He was thirty-four years old and until last year he had been an instructor of English at Harrison State College in Ohio. Harrison was a sleepy little college town. Good old Harrison, the very heart of mid-America. Good old Andrew McGee, fine, upstanding young
man. Remember the riddle? Why is a farmer the pillar of his community? Because he's always outstanding in his field.

Thud, thud, thud,
riderless black horse with red eyes coming down the halls of his mind, ironshod hooves digging up soft gray clods of brain tissue, leaving hoofprints to fill up with mystic crescents of blood.

The cabby had been a pushover. Sure. An outstanding cab driver.

He dozed and saw Charlie's face. And Charlie's face became Vicky's face.

Andy McGee and his wife, pretty Vicky. They had pulled her fingernails out, one by one. They had pulled out four of them and then she had talked. That, at least, was his deduction. Thumb, index, second, ring. Then: Stop. I'll talk. I'll tell you anything you want to know. Just stop the hurting. Please. So she had told. And then … perhaps it had been an accident … then his wife had died. Well, some things are bigger than both of us, and other things are bigger than all of us.

Things like the Shop, for instance.

Thud, thud, thud,
riderless black horse coming on, coming on, and coming on: behold, a black horse.

Andy slept.

And remembered.

2

The man in charge of the experiment was Dr. Wanless. He was fat and balding and had at least one rather bizarre habit.

“We're going to give each of you twelve young ladies and gentlemen an injection,” he said, shredding a cigarette into the ashtray in front of him. His small pink fingers plucked at the thin cigarette paper, spilling out neat little cones of golden-brown tobacco. “Six of these injections will be water. Six of them will be water mixed with a tiny amount of a chemical compound which we call Lot Six. The exact nature of this compound is classified, but it is essentially an hypnotic and mild hallucinogenic. Thus you understand that the compound will be administered by the double-blind method … which is to say, neither you nor we will know who has gotten a clear dose and who has not until later. The dozen of you will be under close supervision for forty-eight hours following the injection. Questions?”

There were several, most having to do with the exact composition of Lot Six—that word
classified
was like putting bloodhounds on a convict's trail. Wanless slipped these questions quite adroitly. No one had asked the question twenty-two-year-old Andy McGee was most interested in. He considered raising his hand in the hiatus that fell upon the nearly deserted lecture hall in Harrison's combined Psychology/Sociology building and asking, Say, why are you ripping up perfectly good cigarettes like that? Better not to. Better to let the imagination run on a free rein while this boredom went on. He was trying to give up smoking. The oral retentive smokes them; the anal retentive shreds them. (This brought a slight grin to Andy's lips, which he covered with a hand.) Wanless's brother had died of lung cancer and the doctor was symbolically venting his aggressions on the cigarette industry. Or maybe it was just one of those flamboyant tics that college professors felt compelled to flaunt rather than suppress. Andy had one English teacher his sophomore year at Harrison (the man was now mercifully retired) who sniffed his tie constantly while lecturing on William Dean Howells and the rise of realism.

“If there are no more questions, I'll ask you to fill out these forms and will expect to see you promptly at nine next Tuesday.”

Two grad assistants passed out photocopies with twenty-five ridiculous questions to answer yes or no.
Have you ever undergone psychiatric counseling?—#8. Do you believe you have ever had an authentic psychic experience?—#14. Have you ever used hallucinogenic drugs?—#18.
After a slight pause, Andy checked “no” to that one, thinking,
In this brave year 1969 who
hasn't
used them?

He had been put on to this by Quincey Tremont, the fellow he had roomed with in college. Quincey knew that Andy's financial situation wasn't so hot. It was May of Andy's senior year; he was graduating fortieth in a class of five hundred and six, third in the English program. But that didn't buy no potatoes, as he had told Quincey, who was a psych major. Andy had a GA lined up for himself starting in the fall semester, along with a scholarship-loan package that would be just about enough to buy groceries and keep him in the Harrison grad program. But all of that was fall, and in the meantime there was the summer hiatus. The best he had been able to line up so far was a responsible, challenging position as an Arco gas jockey on the night shift.

“How would you feel about a quick two hundred?” Quincey had asked.

Andy brushed long, dark hair away from his green eyes and grinned. “Which men's room do I set up my concession in?”

“No, it's a psych experiment,” Quincey said. “Being run by the Mad Doctor, though. Be warned.”

“Who he?”

“Him Wanless, Tonto. Heap big medicine man in-um Psych Department.”

“Why do they call him the Mad Doctor?”

“Well,” Quincey said, “he's a rat man and a Skinner man both. A behaviorist. The behaviorists are not exactly being overwhelmed with love these days.”

“Oh,” Andy said, mystified.

“Also, he wears very thick little rimless glasses, which makes him look quite a bit like the guy that shrank the people in
Dr. Cyclops.
You ever see that show?”

Andy, who was a late-show addict, had seen it, and felt on safer ground. But he wasn't sure he wanted to participate in any experiments run by a prof who was classified as a.) a rat man and b.) a Mad Doctor.

“They're not trying to shrink people, are they?” he asked.

Quincey had laughed heartily. “No, that's strictly for the special-effects people who work on the B horror pictures,” he said. “The Psych Department has been testing a series of low-grade hallucinogens. They're working with the U.S. Intelligence Service.”

“CIA?” Andy asked.

“Not CIA, DIA, or NSA,” Quincey said. “Lower profile than any of them. Have you ever heard of an outfit called the Shop?”

“Maybe in a Sunday supplement or something. I'm not sure.”

Quincey lit his pipe. “These things work in about the same way all across the board,” he said. “Psychology, chemistry, physics, biology … even the sociology boys get some of the folding green. Certain programs are subsidized by the government. Anything from the mating ritual of the tsetse fly to the possible disposal of used plutonium slugs. An outfit like the Shop has to spend all of its yearly budget to justify a like amount the following year.”

“That shit troubles me mightily,” Andy said.

“It troubles almost any thinking person,” Quincey said with
a calm, untroubled smile. “But the train just keeps rolling. What does our intelligence branch want with low-grade hallucinogens? Who knows? Not me. Not you. Probably they don't, either. But the reports look good in closed committees come budget-renewal time. They have their pets in every department. At Harrison, Wanless is their pet in the Psych Department.”

BOOK: Firestarter
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