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Once again his best friend had betrayed him.
Sixteen-year-old Daniel Cooper sat sulking, hunched against the winter night, atop a wooden barrel behind Gregg's casket shop. A shaft of moonlight sliced the blind alley into two halves. Daniel sat in the dark half, in a dark mood.
He wanted only two things in life: to play his music, and to be left alone. Was that asking too much? Yet every time he played, someone showed up, drawn to the music like flies to honey.
"Why can't they just leave me alone?"
He stared at Judas, his black recorder. He used to call the woodwind Faithful Friend because it understood him. It never judged. And it always reflected his mood. Lately, however, he'd renamed it Judas for obvious reasons.
Even so, it was a sweet betrayal. If a soul could sing, Daniel's soul would be mistaken for a recorder a lone, haunting voice that did not belong to this world. Most people he knew preferred a lively fiddle or a foot-stomping banjo. Not Daniel. When he played the recorder, his very being vibrated with matching pitch.
Clutched in his hand, the instrument was silent now. So was the street, which wasn't surprising at this late hour.
"Dare we try again, old friend?"
He lifted the mouthpiece to his lips.
Closed his eyes.
The alley came alive with music. A mournful tune that wafted from wall to wall to wall, surrounding him, penetrating him. Daniel's soul sighed with pleasure.
He'd played less than a minute when a discordant animal noise slashed the melody. Frowning, Daniel lowered the recorder and listened.
The night lay under silent stars.
Daniel was certain he'd heard something. Possibly a complaining cat. He cocked an ear in the direction of the street. Whatever it was, it was gone.
Once again the recorder touched his lower lip, but before it uttered a note, the noise repeated itself.
A painful moan. A wounded cry.
There was a scuffle on the cobblestones, then another moan.
Daniel's heart seized. This time it didn't sound like an animal.
Just then a man stumbled into the mouth of the alley and collapsed. He whimpered. Tried to get up. Collapsed again.
Startled, Daniel's first impulse was to flee. But brick walls on three sides blocked his escape.
The man in the alley lay facedown, his breathing ragged and labored. He obviously needed help, though Daniel was at a loss as to what to do.
Setting the recorder aside, he slid off the barrel.
Two cautious steps and he pulled back, stopped short by an unseen, high-pitched voice. Like a child playing a game. Only it wasn't a child. And if this was a game, Daniel didn't want to play.
"Come out, come out! Where are you?"
The man on the ground heard the voice. It stirred him to life. Whimpering, the man's hands clutched at the icy cobblestones. He dragged himself deeper into the alley.
"Come out, come out!" sang the voice.
Daniel reversed his direction and dove behind a stack of barrels. Then, scrambling to the balls of his feet, he crouched, ready to explode out of the alley like a ball shot from a cannon.
It was at that moment that Daniel realized he'd left his recorder sitting in plain sight atop the barrel. He rose up to reach it, then stopped.
At the mouth of the alley, the voice had taken shape. A silhouette stood against the streaking moonlight.
Knee-length travel coat.
And in the man's right hand a knife large enough to gut a bear.
"Asa, he's gone."
Camilla Rush stood, one hand worrying the other, in the doorway of the study.
"Did you look in the "
"I think I scared him off." Her voice quivered as she spoke. Her eyes, normally a portrait of compassion, revealed a tender soul that was as attractive to Asa Rush now as it had been two decades ago, when he first fell in love with her.
"When I went to slop the hogs," she continued, "I thought I heard somebody behind the barn. I stopped and listened. Then I heard music. Oh Asa, he has such talent."
Asa slammed shut his book. Chair legs scraped against the floor. He reached for his coat and hat and cane. "A man can't support a family playing a pipe. Where did you see him last?"
"Running into the forest. When he finished his song, I clapped. Then, when I went to tell him how beautiful it was, all I saw was his back disappearing into the woods." She stepped aside.
Asa's cane struck the floor with force as he strode past her. "Don't wait up."
"Go easy on him, Asa. It's been hard on him."
"It's been almost a year. Long enough for him to know we have rules in this house. Long enough to know I expect him to obey them."
"There you are!"
The silhouette at the mouth of the alley held his arms wide. The voice was playful, but the blade in his hand deadly serious.
From his hiding place in the back of the alley, Daniel could hear the hunted man but not see him.
"No...no...please, no," the man pleaded. "I haven't told anyone, I swear."
The hunter threw the man's words back at him in a singsong voice. "I won't tell...I won't tell...Please don't hurt me!" Then the hunter's tone changed. Hard. Menacing. "You know, I believe you. Honestly, I do. But do you know why? I'll tell you. I believe you because it's hard for a man to tell anyone anything when he has no tongue. Harder still when he has no heartbeat."
The hunted man's whimpers turned to grunts. From the scratching and the way the barrels shook, Daniel feared the man was trying to claw his way up them. The stack shuddered and threatened to topple. Daniel braced them from his side.
There was a scuffle. Then a scream bounced off the same walls that, moments earlier, had provided sweet acoustics for his recorder.
The stack of barrels gave an earthquake rattle. Daniel looked up just as one of the barrels tipped over the edge toward him. He ducked. It hit him on the back with force, flattening him. He winced and bit back a yelp of pain as his head slammed against the cobblestones, the side of his face resting in a slushy patch of melting snow.
When he opened his eyes, to his horror, his head stuck out from behind the last barrel. He could see the length of the alley...and be seen...if he didn't scoot back.
At that instant, a mirror image of his fall occurred on the other side of the barrel. The hunted man's head hit the ground, his face toward Daniel. He was dirty, bloodied, eyes scrunched in pain. Then he opened them.
Both men's faces lit with recognition.
"Braxton!" Daniel mouthed.
He knew it was a mistake the moment he formed the name, because his bloodied mirror image began to say his name in reply. "Da "
Braxton never got a chance to finish. A hand grabbed him by the hair and lifted his head. A flash of silver crossed his neck.
Braxton's head hit the ground a second time. This time, however, nothing reflected in his eyes. The light in them had gone out.
Daniel began to shiver with fear. He bit back a whimper. If the killer heard him...or if Daniel moved, so would the barrel on top of him. And, for all he knew, he could set off an avalanche of barrels.
All he could do was lie still.
And stare into the lifeless eyes of Emil Braxton.
Daniel's heart jumped at the sound of whistling. But whistling was good, wasn't it? If the killer had spotted him, he wouldn't be whistling, would he? He'd be killing. Whistling was good.
Then it stopped.
Braxton's head moved away from Daniel. Was dragged away.
The back of the killer came into view. He pulled Braxton by one arm, then dropped it. Braxton's lifeless arm hit the ground with a fleshy thud.
The killer straddled the body. He searched Braxton's pockets. Then, when he grabbed Braxton's shirt to roll him over, the killer's head crossed into the moonlight. His hair fell to one side, revealing a tattoo of a coiled snake on the back of his neck.
From the street came the clatter of an approaching carriage. The killer crouched. His knife, looking eager for more blood, poised for action.
The carriage stopped at the end of the alley.
"There you are," said a voice that was familiar to Daniel.
The killer relaxed.
A portly man in a carriage climbed down and entered the alley on foot. "Did you find " A cry of revulsion cut short his sentence. "Why didn't you warn me? You know I can't stand the sight of "
Retching echoed in the alley.
Daniel watched as the man slipped on an icy patch, catching himself on the side of his carriage. Steadying himself with a hand on the wheel, he took several minutes to recover.
Meanwhile, the killer finished his business with Braxton. Heaving the dead man onto his shoulder, he strolled toward the carriage as casually as a sailor carrying a bag aboard ship.
"The deed is done, payment is due," said the killer.
Averting his eyes and steadying himself all the way around the carriage, the man climbed into the seat. "Just get rid of that thing. Come to the store tomorrow. I'll have your money."
With his free hand, the killer touched his hat to signal farewell.
The man in the carriage took several deep breaths.
Then Cyrus Gregg Daniel's employer and his uncle Asa's best friend grabbed the reins and drove away in the carriage.
Fury © 2006 by Bright Media Foundation and Jack Cavanaugh