Authors: Robin Wasserman
The Book of Blood and Shadow
Published by Atom
All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2013 by Robin Wasserman
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher.
The publisher is not responsible for websites (or their content) that are not owned by the publisher.
Little, Brown Book Group
100 Victoria Embankment
London, EC4Y 0DY
Table of Contents
For anyone who needs a little courage
This is your hour – when darkness reigns.
Oh, this is a state to be proud of! We are a people who can hold up our heads!
William Allen White
Later, after he’d trashed his bloody clothes, and stood under the cold shower long enough that the water circling the drain had gone from red to pink to clear, Daniel Ghent would wonder if some part of him had known what was to come – or should have. If there had been something false, something crafty, in Gathers’ crookedly welcoming smile, or some too-still quality in the air, like the pressure drop before a storm. He would wonder if there was some reason he had walked into the store on exactly that day, at precisely that time, if despite all previous indications to the contrary, he had been meant to be a hero and save the day. He would wonder whether, if he had seen it coming, he could have done something to stop it, or whether he would simply have backed out of the store and run away. But that was later.
That afternoon, that sticky, sweaty Tuesday in the dog days of summer, he’d seen nothing but heat waves shimmering from pockmarked concrete and a long walk home. He’d known only that it was hot, and that Gathers Drugs on the corner of Ashton and Main was the closest place to buy a Coke or maybe, because there was something about the sun and the sweat and the smell of scorched cement that made him feel like a kid again, one of the sodden ice cream sandwiches Mr. Gathers kept in a tank behind the register.
So he went inside.
The door chimed with his entrance and Gathers took the time to grin a hello before turning back to filling a prescription for Eugenia Wooden. The self-described spinster lived down the street from Daniel and spent half her life in the doctor’s office cheerfully complaining of coughs and wheezes and stomach pains and all manner of imagined infirmity until the doctor wrote her a scrip for something or other just to get her to leave. She was nice enough, at least now that Daniel was too old to trample her flower garden with his bicycle or break her windows with an errant baseball. She believed in the healing powers of chamomile tea, strict rules about wearing white after Labor Day, the Republican Party (“after they booted the criminals out” and “before the kooks took over”), civil rights (“within reason”), the wisdom of the Lord and the foolishness of His self-assigned deputies, and, on occasion, a stiff shot of whiskey.
She had approximately ten minutes left to live.
They all did: Sally, the waitress at D’Angelo’s who gave free breadsticks to anyone who knew enough to flirt with her. Kathleen Hanrahan, who had babysat for Daniel’s little brother until the night Daniel’s father stumbled home drunk enough to mistake her for his dead wife. Happy Jerry, a thirty-year-old who couldn’t read past a third-grade level but loved comic books and spent every afternoon browsing through the drugstore racks. All of them, dead in ten minutes, except Old Winston, who’d been kicked out of the bar next door and had slumped down by the ladies’ hosiery shelf rather than go home and face his wife. He survived for nearly half an hour – though if his desperate prayers to
Please, God, just let me die already
were any indication, he didn’t exactly welcome the delay.
They all – except a snoring Winston – greeted Daniel by name, exchanging the standard pleasantries about the weather (too hot), the day (too long), and the town (waning). There were no polite inquiries about his father; there was no need. Anyone interested in Daniel Ghent Sr.’s well-being could take a field trip down to the church square, where the Preacher, as he preferred to be called, had set up camp. He’d fester in the plaza for a few weeks, shoving his wrinkled End of Days pamphlets at passersby until the spirit – or the Jack Daniel’s – moved him to try somewhere new. Daniel, who’d overdosed on humiliation back in grade school, when the whistled chorus of “Son of a Preacher Man” followed him everywhere, was officially no longer bothered by his father’s extracurricular activities. But he still kept track of the wandering ministry – if only to ensure he stayed, at all times, on the opposite side of town.
“You bringing someone pretty to the church picnic this weekend?” Gathers asked. Daniel didn’t bother to wonder at the glaze in the old man’s eyes or the perfunctory note in his voice. Nor did he spot anything unusual about the way Gathers kept fiddling with something beneath the counter, sneaking quick, nervous glances at whatever lay below. “Supposed to be a fine, fine day.”
“Not going to the picnic,” Daniel mumbled. Daniel never went to the picnics. Or the ice cream socials or the potlucks or the bingo nights or the theme dances that featured Reverend Willet dressing up as a pirate or a biblical forefather or, on one memorable occasion, a feather-headed, war-painted Navajo brave.
A damp, meaty hand landed on his shoulder. Every muscle went on alert. His fingers, of their own accord, twitched and balled themselves into a ready fist.
But it was only Happy Jerry, smiling and defenseless and meaning no harm.
“For Milo,” Jerry said, shoving a sticky comic book into Daniel’s hand.
“Thanks, Jerry – he’ll love it.” Daniel flipped through the wrinkled pages, past caped heroes who never arrived too late and punches that never left a bruise. He couldn’t remember ever being young enough to believe in that kind of world; he didn’t want to imagine his little brother ever being old enough to stop.
He was thinking about Milo as he picked out the least squashed of the ice cream sandwiches and dropped a wad of crumpled bills on Gathers’ counter. About the things he’d overheard the kids screaming on the playground, the claims that Milo stank, that he was dirty and unwashed and probably diseased. He was thinking about the foot-thick layer of worn and reworn clothing that covered both their bedroom floors, and the broken washing machine and the empty refrigerator and the housekeeper, paid for by his father’s disability checks, who had quit two weeks before.
But that was well-worn mental territory, and, as if his life were the scene of an accident, replete with mangled bodies and gasoline fires, he forced himself to look away. By the time he stuffed his wallet back into his jeans, cracked open his Coke, and murmured agreement with Eugenia Wooden that, yes, it was an excellent thing that flu-shot distribution had begun so early this year, you could never be too careful, he was instead thinking about
Cassandra Porter, again, still, always, Cass Porter and those damn short skirts that tended to ride up on her long, tan legs when she bent to adjust her strappy sandals or with self-conscious whimsy pluck a dandelion for her hair. Cass Porter, who’d spent the first eight years of her life at his side – and barely looked at him in the nine years since. Any illusions he nurtured that they could pick up where they left off – if with a little less playing alien explorer in the backyard and a little more groping in the dark – were swiftly dispatched every time he set eyes on the real thing. There was only room in the family for one delusional Ghent, and his father had already laid claim to the role.
His father. There Daniel’s thoughts finally landed, just before Gathers, with a bland smile, drew the secret thing from beneath the counter and the secret thing revealed itself to be a shotgun. Whether his father was getting worse. Whether Daniel would care if his father left one morning and never came back. Whether somewhere, in the deep recesses of Daniel’s brain, rested a time bomb that would eventually explode and launch him into a dream world as bad as his father’s, or worse. Whether he could, for one more day and then one more day after that, stop himself from leaving his father and his house and his brother behind, in hopes that even the nowhere he had to go would be better than the somewhere he longed to escape.
The first blast screamed past his shoulder. Behind him, a wall of ketchup exploded and showered him with a gush of sugary red. He didn’t think. He dropped. Face down, arms sprawled, eyes closed. Playing possum. Playing dead. He tried not to move.
He tried not to hear the screams.
The heavy thud of bodies hitting the floor.
The scraping, scrabbling of useless limbs.
Screams and screams and screams.
Again, again, the thunder of the gun.
And then nothing.
After a long moment of silence, he opened his eyes, fully expecting to see Gathers standing over him with the gun the old man had bought years before to scare off tweakers on a Sudafed rampage.
But Gathers had a hole where his face used to be. Daniel didn’t want to touch the gun.
Sally was dead. Jerry was dead. Winston’s eyes were open but his body was more blood and exposed organs than skin. Eugenia Wooden was beyond prescriptions.
Daniel thought he must be dead, too – that he was one of those pathetic TV ghosts, clueless until someone shoved his corpse in his face. As he crawled across the linoleum, palms and knees tearing on a carpet of broken glass, he was nearly convinced that if he turned back, he would see himself, ventilated and still and already starting to rot.
It occurred to him that it might be best to stop thinking anything at all.
He gave up on checking the bodies, and lay down again, oblivious to the pool of blood, Gathers’ blood, beneath him. He closed his eyes.
Later, alone, locked in his room, ashamed and afraid, he would cry.
But there, in the corner drugstore that would soon be boarded up and skirted by children who whispered of vengeful ghosts, lying facedown in the mingled blood of a murderer and his victims, waiting for the cops to come, waiting to discover he was dead after all, Daniel did something he would never confess to anyone and would soon convince himself to forget.
He closed his eyes. He let go.
The girl standing in the doorway was altogether too happy, not to mention too pink. She looked like a crayon and smelled like stale corsage. Jule should never have opened the door. Hadn’t they warned her that often enough?
that was the mantra every Oleander child learned to recite. Except that at school, you were taught to flee the danger by seeking a uniform, a cop, a fireman – even a mailman would do in a pinch. At school, she’d dutifully colored in the pictures of Officer Friendly, but even at that age she’d known enough to throw them out on the way home, before her uncles could see. At home, uniforms were the danger. At home, strangers were everywhere, and their strangeness ran deep. It lived in their mouths of rotting teeth and the twitchy hands that carved mysterious trails through the air as if sculpting with invisible clay, and eyes that were all at once too bright and too empty. Jule knew better than to open the door.
But this girl, this crayon, could not possibly be a customer.
She chirped, “Hi there! I’m here to spread the Word!”
“The word is
and we already have enough of that. Thanks anyway.”
It felt good. But as soon as she slammed the trailer door in the girl’s now slightly less perky pink face, Jule realized her mistake. She recognized the girl from school, one of the interchangeable church girls who twitted in distress about all the sinners in their midst, the smokers and the swearers and – they loved nothing more than an excuse to be
by these – the sluts. Jule was beneath their notice. Or had been, until she’d let her frustration with the clogged toilet and the broken stove and her mother’s latest parasite erode her common sense. She’d opened the door. She’d opened her mouth. Now who knew what stories the girl would run home and tell her saintly friends about the Prevette compound, with its browning weeds and its heaps of junk and its triple-locked double-wides and the sad, ragged girl who lived among them.
“You got more beer?” The parasite’s voice filtered out of the closet space with the cardboard door that her mother called a bedroom. Most nights the couch was fine with Jule, but nights when the parasite stayed over, and the noises began, thumps and gasps and the occasional muffled scream, she preferred to spend sitting outside the trailer, chugging Red Bull and waiting for dawn.
It had been one of those nights. There’d been time for a lumpy catnap in the early hours of morning, curled up on the couch, half asleep and half alert for any stirring from the happy couple, but all too soon had come the knock at the door. Now
“You drank it all last night.” Her mother sounded annoyed, but not annoyed enough to do anything about it. In Jule’s experience, this level of irritation suggested another month or so before she rid herself of the parasite – or until he sucked her dry and left her with a black eye and a broken heart. She was a country-western song writ large and loud, and Jule had given up trying to save her.
” the parasite said, and then there was a pause and, from her mother, a disgusting giggle.
“Jule!” she shouted. “You out there?”
Jule said nothing.
“We need more beer!”
Jule said nothing.
“I hear you breathing,” the parasite called. “You want me to come out there and teach you to listen to your mother?”
“Be nice to Jule,” her mother said, which was almost good enough. But then she giggled again.
This time when Jule opened the door, she was smart enough to go through it.
Jule hated her name –
her mother liked to say. Juliet, the most beautiful name he’d ever heard, or so he told Jule’s mother while they lay naked and hungover in the flatbed of a friend’s pickup. Not beautiful for a daughter, per se, since the trucker had been halfway to California before an endless bout of puking proved itself to be morning sickness. The name was all-purpose, suitable for baby, pet Rottweiler, naked woman on a grease-stained tarp –
it’s just pretty,
he’d said, and then kissed Jule’s mother again, not wanting to waste his last night in town.