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DEAD MAN'S SONG
By Jonathan Maberry
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Jonathan Maberry
All right reserved.
The morphine should have kept him out for hours, down there in the darkness where there was no pain, no terror. After the doctors had stitched up his mouth and lip and the nurses had inserted replacement IV needles in his hand and shot the narcotics into his blood, Malcolm Crow should have just gone into that dark nowhere where there are no memories, no dreams. But that didn't happen.
He only slept for a few hours while Officer Jerry Head-on loan from the Philly PD and part of the combined task force that had been formed to hunt down Kenneth Boyd, Tony Macchio, and Karl Ruger-sat in a plastic visitor chair and watched.
In his dreams Crow walked through the cornfields of the Guthrie farm, looking for Val, searching for her everywhere but finding nothing. As he hunted through the dreamscape he could hear a whispering echo of music buried beneath the hiss and rustle of the moving cornstalks-faint, but definitely there. He knew it was blues because it was always blues in his dreams; he knew that if he could get closer to it, if he could find its source, then he would be able to tell the name of the song. Somehow that mattered, though he did not know why. The dreamer never questions the logic of the dream.
Crow pushed through the corn, wincing now and then as the sharp blades of the leaves nicked his faceand palms. He was barefoot; his hospital gown flapped open and the cold stung his ass. The ground was hard, his feet were blistered and bleeding, but he did not stop, did not even look down. The breeze stilled and for just a second he could hear the song more clearly. Damn, he did know it, but he just couldn't pull the name out of his head. Something about a road. Something about a prison. What the hell was it?
He turned, orienting himself, and looked back the way he'd come. Behind him the corn was smashed down and broken aside as if his passage through the field had been like a bulldozer's. He could see the trail leading in a twisted line going back so far that it vanished into the distance. The music was stronger now and he moved off to his right, humming as he went. It was in his head, in his mouth, and then he knew it. It was an old prison blues song, something someone had taught him long ago, back when he was a kid; and this time it came to him: "Ghost Road Blues." A song from down South, something to do with prisoners suffering in Louisiana's Angola prison and praying for release-even if it was the Angel of Death who unlocked their chains.
Crow stopped and listened to it, one ear hearing the song drifting along the breeze and the other listening to the song play inside his head from a long time ago. That had been on a warm early autumn afternoon on Val Guthrie's porch, with Val sitting on the swing next to Terry and Terry's little sister, Mandy. Crow's brother Billy-good ol' Boppin' Bill-had a haunch propped on the whitewashed rail, tossing a baseball up into the air and catching it in his outfielder's glove. Val's dad was there-old Henry-and Henry's wife, Bess. There were others, too-farm folks and field hands, brothers and cousins of the Guthrie clan, all of them smiling, clapping hands or snapping fingers, tapping their toes as the man with the guitar played his songs. Crow could see the guitarist so clearly: a stick-thin guy with a nappy Afro and dark eyes that sparkled with equal measures sadness and humor. Dark skin and loose clothes, skinny legs crossed with one work-booted foot jiggling in the air along with his music. A dime with a hole in it hung from a string tied around his brown ankle. Scars on his hands and face, shadows in his eyes, laugh lines around his mouth. Crow remembered the nickname he, Val, and Terry had given him because he was so skinny: the Bone Man.
On some level Crow knew that he was dreaming all of this, just as he was aware that he had dreamed of the Bone Man many times. Standing motionless now, adrift in sea of waving corn, Crow closed his eyes and listened to the gentle voice of the singer. The song was a lament for the prisoners in the infamous Red Hat House at Angola Prison in Louisiana who were imprisoned more for their skin color than for any real crime; they were beaten and humiliated by the guards, tortured, degraded-yet enduring. Then at the end of their days in that hellish place they stood tall and proud as they strolled that last mile to where Ol' Sparky waited-knowing the other prisoners loved them for it and the guards hated that they could never truly break their spirits.
The song ended and the last mournful notes were sewn like silver threads through the freshening breeze, leaving Crow feeling lost and abandoned out there in the field. He opened his eyes and looked around. It was darker now, the sun hidden behind storm clouds as long fingers of cold shadow reached from the mountains in the north across the fields toward him. He clutched the inadequate hospital johnnie around himself, trying to conserve its meager warmth.
"Are you there?" he said aloud, and he wasn't sure if he was calling for Val or for the Bone Man. As if in answer the corn behind him rustled and Crow spun toward it, his heart suddenly hammering. The Bone Man pushed aside the dry stalks like a performer parting the curtains to come onstage. He had his old guitar slung across his back, the slender neck hanging down behind his right hip. His skin was no longer dark brown but had faded to an ashy gray, and his eyes had a milky film over them, making him look dead.
"I heard you playing ..." Crow said, his voice as dry as the Bone Man's eyes. The Bone Man opened his mouth and said something, but there was no sound at all, not even a whisper. He smiled ruefully and gave Crow an expectant look, obviously waiting for an answer. "I ... can't understand you," Crow said. "I mean ... I can't hear you."
The Bone Man licked dry lips with a gray tongue and tried again. Still no sound at all, but Crow could at least read the man's lips well enough to make out two words. Little Scarecrow. He understood that. Little Scarecrow was what he had once been called, years ago-a nickname given him by a man he'd given a nickname to in turn. Tit for tat. The Bone Man and Little Scarecrow. What he was called when he was nine.
Thunder rumbled far away to the northeast, and they both turned to look. There was a flash of lightning beyond the fields, over past the lover's lane by the drop-off that led down to Dark Hollow. Crow saw the Bone Man nod, apparently to himself, and when the gray man turned his milky eyes were filled with a fear so sharp that it bordered on panic.
"I knew someone who lived down there once," said Crow, and he was amazed to hear that his own voice had changed. It was the voice of a child. Maybe nine or ten. "There was a bad man who lived down there a long time ago."
Narrowing his eyes, the Bone Man peered at him. Apparently he, too, heard the change in Crow's voice. Little Scarecrow's voice.
"He killed my brother, you know. He killed Billy and ate him all up."
Now even Crow's body had changed. He was nine years old, wearing pajamas and holding a tattered stuffed monkey. The Bone Man towered over him and little Crow-Little Scarecrow-looked up at him. "He ate Billy all up. He did it to my best friend's sister, too. He made her all dead and ate her up. He does that, he ... eats people all up."
A tear broke from the dust-dry eye of the Bone Man and cut a path down his cheek.
"The bad man wanted to eat me all up, too ... and he was gonna, but you stopped him! You came and stopped him and he went running off." Little Scarecrow shuffled his feet and hugged his monkey tight to his chest. "Val's dad said that you killed that man. Did you? Did you kill the bad man?"
The Bone Man opened his mouth, tried to say something, but the thunder boomed overhead and both he and the boy jumped. Red lightning veined the clouds, souring the breeze with the stink of ozone. The storm was centered over the drop-off to Dark Hollow, but it was coming their way fast with thunder like an artillery barrage. Without thinking he reached out and took the Bone Man's hand. It was dry and cold, but it was firm, and after staring down at the boy in apparent shock for a long minute, the gray man returned a reassuring squeeze. Little Scarecrow looked up at him-and deep within the morphine dreams the adult Crow felt the surreal quality of the moment as he saw a dead man through his own youthful eyes. It was like watching a movie and being a part of it at the same time.
Officer Jerry Head looked up from his copy of Maxim as Crow shifted uneasily, twisting the sheets around his legs. "Bad dreams," he murmured, then grunted. "No surprise there." He went back to the article he was reading. Outside the window, in a totally cloudless sky, there was a flicker of distant lightning that Head did not consciously notice, but as he read his right hand drifted down and he absently began running his thumbnail over the rubber ridges of his holstered pistol's grip.
In the cornfield, Little Scarecrow and the Bone Man stood hand in hand, watching the storm; it was a big, angry thing-flecked with red and hot yellow and sizzling white, lumped with purple and black. A cold wind came hard out of the northeast, heavy with moisture and smelling of decay. Above them a cloud of black night birds flapped and cawed their way toward the southwest, racing to outrun the storm, but the lightning licked out and incinerated three of the birds. They fell, smoking and shapeless, into the corn.
Tugging the Bone Man's hand, Little Scarecrow looked up at him, puzzled and frightened. "I thought you killed the bad man. That's what Val's dad said ... that you killed the bad man."
There was a final terrible explosion of thunder and a burst of lightning so bright that it stabbed into Little Scarecrow's eyes like spikes and he spun away, clamping his hands over his face-
-and woke up with a cry of real pain and genuine terror.
"Griswold!" he screamed as he woke and then there was a big dark shape looming over him and hands on his shoulders. Crow was blind with sleep and morphine and he tried to see, tried to fight, but the hands were too strong.
"Whoa, man," said the voice of the man standing over him. "You're gonna pop your stitches you keep that shit up."
Abruptly Crow stopped fighting, blinking his eyes clear to see the big cop standing there. Broad-shouldered with a shaved head and an easy grin. It took Crow a second to fish his name out of the dark. "Jerry ...?"
"Yeah, man, it's just me." Head smiled at him, but there was concern in his eyes. "You were having one hell of a nightmare there."
"Christ," Crow muttered, "you don't know the half of it."
Head helped Crow settle himself and he arranged the sheets and plumped his pillow as tidily as any nurse, gave him a sip of water through a straw, and settled back in his chair, scooping his magazine from off the floor where it had fallen.
Crow rubbed his eyes. "What time is it?"
"Almost six. Sun'll be up in a bit. You weren't out more than a few hours, though. You want me to get the nurse to bring you something, help you sleep?"
"God, I don't think I ever want to go to sleep again." With the tip of his tongue he probed the stitches inside his mouth, wincing. He sighed and settled back against the pillow but there was no getting comfortable. Everything hurt. Even his hair felt like the ends of brittle pieces of straw stuck into his scalp. "You on shift all night?"
"One of the local blues is supposed to relieve me at six-thirty." He hesitated. "I can stick around if you want, though-"
Crow waved it off. "Thanks, man, but it's cool. Tell me, though, did, um, anything else happen last night? I mean, after ..."
Last night had been the second chapter in a nightmare that had begun two days before, on September 30. The whole thing had started when a trio of Philadelphia mobsters had forced a drug deal to go sour so they could make off with both the money and the cocaine, and had left behind a warehouse littered with dead men-their own cronies, a posse of Jamaicans, and at least one cop. Karl Ruger led the crew, and if there was ever a sicker, more violent, more vicious son of a bitch on planet Earth, then Crow had never heard of him. Ruger had been the directing force behind the buy, and he had made it go south because he needed enough money to flee the country-not just to elude the police manhunt, but to escape the wrath of Little Nicky Menditto, the crime boss of Ruger's own outfit. Rumor had it that Menditto had learned that Ruger was the man hunted nationwide as the Cape May Killer-a psychopath who had slaughtered a group of senior citizens at the lighthouse on the Jersey Shore. Little Nicky's grandparents had been on that tour.
The slaughter had been a bizarre by-product of a mob war in Philly, but Ruger had gone way past his instructions of "doing something to hurt Little Nicky." Ruger had committed atrocities that were being written about in books and made into movies. Ruger was the kind of real-world killer than made Ted Bundy look like a genial neighbor. His identity had remained hidden for years, but then the whisper stream had started and Ruger knew that he had to run or die. The mob was never known for understanding or forgiveness.
How or why Ruger's crew had crashed their car was something neither Crow nor the interjurisdictional police task force had been able to determine, and the ensuing manhunt was massive. Unfortunately their car had crashed on a remote edge of the Guthrie family farm. Every time Crow thought about how Ruger invaded the Guthrie house, brutalized the family, and nearly killed Val-his Val!-Crow felt his guts turn to ice.
It burned Crow that he hadn't been there in time to stop Ruger before he moved like a killer storm through the lives of Val and her family. Crow's best friend, Terry Wolfe, mayor of Pine Deep and owner of the country's largest Haunted Hayride, had begged Crow to drive out to the attraction and shut it down, fearing what would happen if Ruger and his men showed up there. Crow had wasted way too much time getting that job done, and not really taking the job all that seriously. Mobsters and police manhunts just didn't seem real in Pine Deep, and violence on that scale was something safely buried in the town's past, not its present. Not now.
So, while Crow was tooling around, taking his time, Karl Ruger was beating the hell out of Val, her father Henry, her brother Mark, and Mark's wife, Connie. Ruger tied everyone up except for Val and Henry and forced them at gunpoint to go out into the fields to help him fetch one of his injured men, Kenneth Boyd. By the time they got back to where Ruger had left Boyd, there was no trace of him, the cash, or the drugs. Boyd had split and taken Ruger's lifeline with him. Ruger went totally off his rocker at that point, and, as Val later told Crow, Henry had seen just one chance to save his family. He shoved Val away from him, urging her to run while he ran the other way to draw Ruger away from the house. Ruger, snapping out of rage and into cold efficiency, simply shot Henry in the back as he ran and left him to die out in the rainy darkness. It was so callous that Crow felt bile in his throat.
Ruger headed back to the farmhouse, but Val wasn't there. So he vented his anger on Mark-beating him, knocking his teeth out, totally humiliating him-and then forcing him to lie there on the floor and watch as he set about raping Connie. If Val had been even two minutes later it would have been too late for Connie, but Ruger was just starting to tear at her clothes when Val snuck in and tackled him, then immediately fled, taking a cue from her father's sacrifice by tricking Ruger into chasing her. She had hoped to outrun him, to lose him in the darkness of her farm and then circle back to the house and get one of her father's guns, but Ruger was as fast as he was sly and he caught her before she had taken a hundred paces. He was strangling her, trying to crush her throat to satisfy his dark need to hurt, to destroy, when Crow finally arrived. Too late to save Henry, almost too late to save the others.
Excerpted from DEAD MAN'S SONG by Jonathan Maberry Copyright © 2007 by Jonathan Maberry. Excerpted by permission.
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