xxxxTony dropped the empty cooler bottle and stepped back. The heat was already intense; he could feel it stretching his skin. If not for the goddam newspapers, I might've

But it was too late for might'ves. He turned and saw Pete standing in the doorway from the back hall with another bottle of Poland Spring in his arms. Most of his charred shirtsleeve had dropped away. The skin beneath was bright red.

'Too late! 'Tony shouted. He gave Julia's desk, which was now a pillar of fire shooting all the way to the ceiling, a wide berth, raising one arm to shield his face from the heat. 'Too late, out the back!'

Pete Freeman needed no further urging. He heaved the bottle at the growing fire and ran. 23

Carrie Carver rarely had anything to do with Mill Gas & Grocery; although the little convenience store had made her and her husband a pretty good living over the years, she saw herself as Above All That. But when Johnny suggested they might go down in the van and take the remaining canned goods up to the house — 'for safekeeping' was the delicate way he put it — she had agreed at once. And although she was ordinarily not much of a worker (watching Judge Judy was more her speed), she had volunteered to help. She hadn't been at Food City, but when she'd gone down later to inspect the damage with her friend Leah Anderson, the shattered windows and the blood still on the pavement had frightened her badly. Those things had frightened her for the future.

Johnny lugged out the cartons of soups, stews, beans, and sauces; Carrie stowed them in the bed of their Dodge Ram. They were about halfway through the job when fire bloomed downstreet. They both heard the amplified voice. Carrie thought she saw two or three figures running down the alley beside Burpee's, but wasn't sure. Later on she would be sure, and would up the number of shadowy figures to at least four. Probably five.

'What does it mean?' she asked. 'Honey, what does it mean?'

"That the goddam murdering bastard isn't on his own,' Johnny said. 'It means he's got a gang.'

Carrie's hand was on his arm, and now she dug in with her nails. Johnny freed his arm and ran for the police station, yelling fire at the top of his lungs. Instead of following, Carrie Carver continued loading the truck. She was more frightened of the future than ever.




In addition to Roger Killian and the Bowie brothers, there were ten new officers from what was now the Chester's Mill Hometown Security Force sitting on the bleachers of the middle-school gymnasium, and Big Jim had only gotten started on his speech about what a responsibility they had when the fire whistle went off. The boy's early, he thought. / can't trust him to save my soul. Never could, but now he's that much worse.

'Well, boys,' he said, directing his attention particularly to young Mickey Wardlaw - God, what a bruiser! 'I had a lot more to say, but it seems we've got ourselves a little more excitement. Fern Bowie, do you happen to know if we have any Indian pumps in the FD


Fern said he'd had a peek into the firebarn earlier that evening, just to see what sort of equipment there might be, and there were almost a dozen Indian pumps. All full of water, too, which was convenient.

Big Jim, thinking that sarcasm should be reserved for those bright enough to understand what it was, said it was the good Lord looking out for them. He also said that if it was more than a false alarm, he would take charge with Stewart Bowie as his second-in-command. Tliere, you noseyparker witch, he thought as the new officers, looking bright-eyed and eager, rose from the bleachers. Let's see how you like getting in my business now. 25

'Where you going?' Carter asked. He had driven his car - with the lights off-down to where West Street T'd into Route 117. The building that stood here was a Texaco station that had closed up in 2007. It was close to town but offered good cover, which made it convenient. Back the way they had come, the fire whistle was honking six licks to a dozen and the first light of the fire, more pink than orange, was rising in the sky.

'Huh?' Junior was looking at the strengthening glow. It made

him feel horny. It made him wish he still had a girlfriend.

'I asked where you're going. Your dad said to alibi up.'

'I left unit Two behind the post office,' Junior said, taking his eyes reluctantly away from the fire. 'Men Freddy Denton's together. And he'll say we were together. All night. I can cut across from here. xxxx508yyyy

Might go back by West Street. Get a look at how it's catchin on.' He uttered a high-pitched giggle, almost a girl's giggle, that caused Carter to look at him strangely.

'Don't look too long. Arsonists are always gettin caught by goin back to look at their fires. I saw that on America's Most Wanted!

'Nobody's wearing the Golden Sombrero for this motherfucker except Baaarbie,' Junior said. 'What about you? Where you going?'

'Home. Ma'll say I was there all night. I'll get her to change the bandage on my shoulder

— fuckin dogbite hurts like a bastard. Take some aspirin. Then come on down, help fight the fire.'

'They've got heavier dope than aspirin at the Health Center and the hospital. Also the drugstore. We ought to look into that shit.'

'No doubt,' Carter said.

'Or ... do you tweek? I think I can get some of that.'

'Meth? Never mess with it. But I wouldn't mind some Oxy.' Oxy!' Junior exclaimed. Why had he never thought of that? It would probably fix his headaches a lot better than Zomig or Imitrix. 'Yeah, bro! You talk about it!'

He raised his fist. Carter bumped it, but he had no intention of getting high with Junior. Junior was weird now. 'Better get goin, Junes.'

'I'm taillights.' Junior opened the door and walked away, still limping a little. Carter was surprised at how relieved he was when Junior was gone. 26

Barbie woke to the sound of the fire whistle and saw Melvin Searles standing outside his cell. The boy's fly was unzipped and he was holding his considerable cock in his hand. When he saw he had Barbie's attention, he began to piss. His goal was clearly to reach the bunk. He couldn't quite make it and settled for a splattery letter S on the concrete instead.

'Go on, Barbie, drink up,' he said. 'You gotta be thirsty. It's a little; salty, but what the fuck.'

'What's burning?'

'As if you didn't know,' Mel said, smiling. He was still pale — he must have lost a fair amount of blood — but the bandage around his head was crisp and unstained.

'Pretend I don't.'

'Your pals burned down the newspaper,' Mel said, and now his


smile showed his teeth. Barbie realized the kid was furious. Frightened, too. 'Trying to scare us into letting you out. But we . . . don't . . . scare!

'Why would I burn down the newspaper? Why not the Town Hall? And who are these pals of mine supposed to be?'

Mel was tucking his cock back into his pants. 'You won't be thirsty tomorrow, Barbie. Don't worry about that. We've got a whole bucket of water with your name on it, and a sponge to go with it.'

Barbie was silent.

'You seen that waterboarding shit in I-rack?' Mel nodded as if he knew Barbie had. 'Now you'll get to experience it first hand.' He pointed a finger through the bars. 'We're gonna find out who your confederates are, fuckwad. And we're gonna find out what you did to lock this town up in the first place. That waterboarding shit? Nobody stands up to that.'

He started away, then turned back.

'Not fresh water, either. Salt. First thing. You think about it.'

Mel left, clumping up the basement hallway with his bandaged head lowered. Barbie sat on the bunk, looked at the drying snake of Mel's urine on the floor, and listened to the fire whistle. He thought of the girl in the pickemup. The blondie who almost gave him a ride and then changed her mind. He closed his eyes.





Rusty was standing in the turnaround in front of the hospital, watching the flames rise from somewhere on Main Street, when the cell phone clipped to his belt played its little song. Twitch and Gina were with him, Gina holding Twitch's arm as if for protection. Ginny Tomlinson and Harriet Bigelow were both sleeping in the staff lounge. The old fellow who had volunteered, Thurston Marshall, was making medication rounds. He had turned out to be surprisingly good. The lights and the equipment were back on and, for the time being, things were on an even keel. Until the firewhistle went off, Rusty had actually dared to feel good.

He saw LINDA on the screen and said,'Hon? Everything okay?'

'Here, yes. Kids are asleep.'

'Do you know what's bur—'

'The newspaper office. Be quiet and listen, because I'm turning my phone off in about a minute and a half so nobody can call me in to help fight the fire. Jackie's here. She'll watch the kids.You need to meet me at the funeral home. Stacey Moggin will be there, too. She came by earlier. She's with us.'

The name, while familiar, did not immediately call up a face in Rusty s mind. And what resonated was She's with us. There really were starting to be sides, starting to be with us and with them.


'Meet me there. Ten minutes. It's safe as long as they're fighting the fire, because the Bowie brothers are on the crew. Stacey says so.'

'How did they get a crew together so f—'

T don't know and don't care. Can you come?'


'Good. Don't use the parking lot on the side. Go around back to the smaller one.' Then the voice was gone.

'What's on fire?' Gina asked. 'Do you know?'

'No,' Rusty said. 'Because nobody called.' He looked at them both, and hard. Gina didn't follow, but Twitch did. 'Nobody at all.'

'I just took off, probably on a call, but you don't know where. I didn't say. Right?'

Gina still looked puzzled, but nodded. Because now these people were her people; she did not question the fact. Why would she? She



xxxxwas only seventeen. Us and them, Rusty thought. Bad medicine, usually. Especially for seventeen-year-olds. 'Probably on a call,' she said.'We don't know where.'

'Nope,' Twitch agreed. 'You grasshoppah, we lowly ants.'

'Don't make a big deal of it, either of you,' Rusty said. But it was a big deal, he knew that already. It was trouble. Gina wasn't the only kid in the picture; he and Linda had a pair, now fast asleep and with no knowledge that Mom and Dad might be sailing into a storm much too big for their little boat.

And still.

'I'll be back,1 Rusty said, and hoped that wasn't just wishful thinking. 2

Sammy Bushey drove the Evanses' Malibu down Catherine Russell Drive not long after Rusty headed for the Bowie Funeral Parlor; they passed each other going in opposite directions on Town Common Hill.

Twitch and Gina had gone back inside and the turnaround in front of the hospital's main doors was deserted, but she didn't stop there; having a gun on the seat beside you made you wary. (Phil would have said paranoid.) She drove around back instead, and parked in the employees' lot. She grabbed the .45, pushed it into the waistband of her jeans, and bloused her tee-shirt over it. She walked across the lot and stopped at the laundry room door, reading the sign that said SMOKING HERE WILL BE BANNED AS OF JANUARY 1ST. She looked at the doorknob, and knew that if k didn't turn, she'd give this up. It would be a sign from God. If, on the other hand, the door was unlocked—

If was. She slipped in, a pale and limping ghost.

Thurston Marshall was tired - exhausted, more like it — but happier than he had been in years. It was undoubtedly perverse; he was a tenured professor, a published poet, the editor of a prestigious literary magazine. He had a gorgeous young woman to share his bed, one who was smart and thought he was wonderful. That giving pills, slapping on salve, and emptying bedpans (not to mention wiping up the Bushey kid's beshkted bottom an hour ago) would make him happier than those things almost had to be perverse, and yet there it xxxxyyyy


xxxxwas.The hospital corridors with their smells of disinfectant and floor-polish connected him with his youth. The memories had been very clear tonight, from the pervasive aroma of patchouli oil in David Perna's apartment to the paisley headband Thurse had worn to the candlelight memorial service for Bobby Kennedy. He went his rounds humming 'Big Leg Woman' very softly under his breath.

He peeped in the lounge and saw the nurse with the busted schnozz and the pretty little nurse's aide - Harriet, her name was -asleep on the cots that had been dragged in there. The couch was vacant, and soon he'd either catch a few hours' racktime on it or go back to the house on Highland Avenue that was now home. Probably back there.

Strange developments.

Strange world.

First, though, one more check of what he was already thinking of as his patients. It wouldn't take long in this postage stamp of a hospital. Most of the rooms were empty, anyway. Bill Allnut, who'd been forced to stay awake until nine because of the injury he'd suffered in the Food City melee, was now fast asleep and snoring, turned on his side to take the pressure off the long laceration at the back of his head.

Wanda Crumley was two doors down. The heart monitor was beeping and her BP was a little better, but she was on five liters of oxygen and Thurse feared she was a lost cause. Too much weight; too many cigarettes. Her husband and youngest daughter were sitting with her. Thurse gave Wendell Crumley a V-for-victory (which had been the peace sign in his salad days), and Wendell, smiling gamely, gave it back.

Tansy Freeman, the appendectomy, was reading a magazine. 'What's the fire whistle blowing for?' she asked him.

'Don't know, hon. How's your pain?'

'A three,' she said matter-of-factly. 'Maybe a two. Can I still go home tomorrow?'

'It's up to Dr Rusty, but my crystal ball says yes.' And the way her face lit up at that made him feel, for no reason he could understand, like crying.

'That baby's mom is back,' Tansy said. 'I saw her go by'

'Good,' Thurse said. Although the baby hadn't been much of a problem. He had cried once or twice, but mostly he slept, ate, or lay in his crib, staring apathetically up at the ceiling. His name was Walter (Thurse had no idea the Little preceding it on the door card was an actual name), but Thurston Marshall thought of him as The Thorazine Kid. xxxx516yyyy

Now he opened the door of room 23, the one with the yellow BABY ON BOARD sign attached to it with a plastic sucker, and saw that the young woman - a rape victim, Gina had whispered to him - was sitting in the chair beside the bed. She had the baby in her lap and was feeding him a bottle.

'Are you all right -' Thurse glanced at the other name on the doorcaird.'— Ms Bushey?'

He pronounced it Bouchez, but Sammy didn't bother to correct him, or to tell him that in grade school the boys had called her Bushey the Tushie. 'Yes, Doctor,' she said. Nor did Thurse bother to correct her misapprehension. That undefined joy - the kind that comes with tears hidden in it - swelled a little more. When he thought of how close he'd come to not volunteering ... if Caro hadn't encouraged him ... he would have missed this.

'Dr Rusty will be glad you're back. And so is Walter. Do you need any pain medication?'

'No.' This was true. Her privates still ached and throbbed, but that was far away. She felt as if she were floating above herself, tethered to earth by the thinnest of strings.

'Good. That means you're getting better.'

'Yes,' Sammy said. 'Soon I'll be well.'

'When you've finished feeding him, climb on into bed, why don't you? Dr Rusty will be in to check on you in the morning.'

'All right.'

'Good night, Ms Bouchez.'

'Good night, Doctor.'

Thurse closed the door softly and continued down the hall. At the end of the corridor was the Roux girl's room. One peek in there and then he'd call it a night. She was glassy but awake. The young man who'd been visiting her was not. He sat in the corner, snoozing in the room's only chair with a sports magazine on his lap and his long legs sprawled out in front of him.

Georgia beckoned Thurse, and when he bent over her, she whispered something. Because of the low voice and her broken, mostly toothless mouth, he only got a word or two. He leaned closer.

'Doh wake im.' To Thurse, she sounded like Homer Simpson. 'He'th the oney one who cay to visih me.'

Thurse nodded. Visiting hours were long over, of course, and given his blue shirt and his sidearm, the young man would probably be gigged for not responding to the fire whistle, but still - what



xxxxharm? One firefighter more or less probably wouldn't make any difference, and if the guy was too far under for the sound of the whistle to wake him, he probably wouldn't be much help, anyway. Thurse put a finger to his lips and blew the young woman a shhh to show they were conspirators. She tried to smile, then winced.

Thurston didn't offer her pain medication in spite of that; according to the chart at the end of the bed, she was maxed until two a.m. Instead he just went out, closed the door softly behind him, and walked back down the sleeping hallway. He didn't notice that the door to the BABY ON BOARD room was once more ajar.

The couch in the lounge called to him seductively as he went by, but Thurston had decided to go back to Highland Avenue after all.

And check the kids.


Sammy sat by the bed with Little Walter in her lap until the new doctor went by. Then she kissed her son on both cheeks and the mouth. 'You be a good baby,' she said. 'Mama is going to see you in heaven, if they let her in. I think they will. She's done her time in hell.'

She laid him in his crib, then opened the drawer of the bedtable. She had put the gun inside so Little Walter wouldn't feel it poking into him while she held him and fed him for the last time. Now she took it out.


Lower Main Street was blocked off by nose-to-nose police cars with their jackpot lights flashing. A crowd, silent and unexcited — almost sullen - stood behind them, watching. Horace the Corgi was ordinarily a quiet dog, limiting his vocal repertoire to a volley of welcome-home barks or the occasional yap to remind Julia he was still present and accounted for. But when she pulled over to the curb by Maison des Fleurs, he let out a low howl from the backseat. Julia reached back blindly to stroke his head.Taking comfort as much as giving it.

'Julia, my God,' Rose said.

They got out. Julia's original intention was to leave Horace behind, but when he uttered another of those small, bereft howls -as if he knew, as if he really knew — she fished under the passenger seat for his leash, opened the rear door for him to jump out, and xxxx518

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